At some point in the distant past, the first ancestor of ours conceived
of the abstract idea of the entire world as a thing. Thus
encapsulated and made portable through the tool of language, it became
possible for humans to wonder and discuss the possibility that this
entire world thing had itself had an origin and might have an
end, as nearly everything within it did.
These very early humans did not have much technology and their
speculations reflected this fact. They had fire and stone tools and
possibly the ability to tan skins into leather. Everything in their
experience either came from a living thing (which in turn came from
another living thing) or came from the rock of the Earth itself,
not modified much to make it useful. This made it very natural to
think of the world as having been born and having a life expectancy;
the creatrix would of course be a female who would need a consort to
impregnate her. This ultimate being would itself go through the stages
of female life, roughly divided into youth, motherhood, and old age.
This tripartite Goddess is the oldest known concrete human religious
figure, and she reigned supreme in human consciousness for tens of
thousands of years.
Between ten and six thousand years ago humans invented farming. This
led to a lot of other developments. There were technologies for
improved livestock handling; there were new forms of livestock bred
for docility and productivity; there was a lot of wealth to be
protected from increasingly organized raids, which led to the first
human arms races. It was increasingly impossible for a single individual
to know all or most of what was necessary for humans to survive; human
occupations began to branch out like Darwin's finches, so that instead
of being a man (hunter) or woman (gatherer) one might be a seamstress,
planter, warrior, accountant, metalworker, carpenter, or potter. And
as these divisions became prominent in the popular consciousness, they
caused the religious paradigm to shift.
The Goddess was no longer central, though she was still there; now
instead of giving birth to the world, though, she had given birth to
a host of lesser entities, still divine, who fulfilled necessary but
partial functions with regard to running the world. Many of these
gods were male and these gradually became ascendant in the pantheons
of polytheistic religions, as male humans were becoming ascendant in the
new world of technology and war. (The Greeks and Romans gave lip
service to the mother goddess in the form of the Fates, their echo
of the tripartite virgin/mother/crone goddess. But even though the
Fates determined the fates of gods, they were considered distant and
unknowable instead of close and immanent, and were not objects of
worship in the same sense as the more familiar gods.)
As human technology became even more complex, it increasingly revealed
an ability to transform raw materials from one form to another.
Most metals simply do not exist in nature, and neither does fired
pottery. The skill of the craftsman was as important, if not more
important, than the quality of the raw materials. These observations
were to lead to the second paradigm shift.
Beginning around 4,000 years ago the ancient Hebrews conceived of
a covenant between themselves and their particular god, originally
conceived as one among many though their covenant required them to
refrain from worshipping any others. Eventually their concentration
on the single god caused them to ditch the mother goddess
and all the other gods completely, and they formed the idea that
the universe had been made
rather than born through the action of their male craftsman-god.
This had widespread implications. Unlike a mother, who until very
recently didn't even know the sex of her child until after birth,
a craftsman went into the creative process with a definite idea of
what he was trying to produce. The universe, with its complexity
and intricacy and deep mysteries implied a very knowledgeable and
powerful creator. One would not expect a mother-goddess who birthed
the universe to be omniscient or omnipotent -- what human mother can
claim such traits? -- but any fool knew that an unskilled potter
will produce a crooked pot. This idea took on a lot of baggage on
its way to ascendancy but it fit the evolving technological metaphor
so well that its adoption, in some form or another, was inevitable
once it had been given form.
Human technology did not change much, at least in fundamental ways,
for more than a thousand years after the craftsman-god paradigm had
established itself. Then, about 500 years ago, in a movement that was
ironically begun by Christian monks who wanted better timepieces,
humans began building clockwork automata of increasingly intricate
complexity. The striking thing about these early robots, to medieval
observers, is that they would perform the most wonderful and complex
maneuvers without any human being doing anything after the mechanism
was set up.
It's hard to realize from our modern vantage point what a shock this
was. The medieval view of religion was informed by carpentry and
pottery, and buildings and pots don't do anything unless a
human pushes them around. It was thought that literally nothing would
move in the world without God's finger to push it around; God would
have to know "every sparrow that falls" because no sparrow could fly
or even breathe without God to put that spark in, continuously.
Remember, this was an intensely religious world by modern standards
where people went to church 4 or 5 times a day and otherwise intelligent
men thought that the edict of even an obviously corrupt Pope could
doom them to eternal Hell. But if humans could build things
that functioned without constant intervention, then couldn't God
(who was after all omniscient and omnipotent) do the same thing?
This third paradigm shift more or less directly created the Renaissance.
Clearly this disconnected watchmaker-god could not be too concerned
with the activities of individual humans (much less sparrows). The
danger of the idea was well understood by the Christian church; several
countries actually passed laws banning the construction of clockwork
automata. But by placing God at a distance and suggesting that His
work could take care of itself to a certain degree, the new paradigm
was directly responsible for acts of innovation and rebellion which
would have been unthinkable as late as the 14th century. Even the
intensely religious Kepler and Newton could not help but think of
the universe in clockwork terms -- let alone radicals like Galileo,
da Vinci, or the men who started the American and French revolutions.
The watchmaker god is still with us, even though many of us profess
atheism and replace him with the blind hands of the market or evolution.
The assumption is still there that the world is a definite mechanism,
which works in a clear orderly way so that one can know what it will
do in the future if one understands the gears and levers sufficiently
well. Educated people no longer believe that a conscious deliberate
god built the gears and levers with intent, but they have only replaced
consciousness with a blandly invoked "billions of years." Their error
informs many important errors in seemingly unrelated fields.
To give one of many, many examples, in the argument over deviant
human behavior there are basically two sides both of which are
wrong. One side believes
that "problems" like homosexuality, and sociopathy are genetically
determined and can therefore be "solved" through eugenics. The
other side believes these "problems" are the result of what might
be called educational errors which can be "solved" through
psychotherapy or by keeping the fags and the pervs away from our
The trigger for the fourth paradigm shift will be chaos theory. It's
only been in existence since the early 1980's, and even though it
explains everything it hasn't penetrated the public consicousness
In my example, it's obvious that humans are chaotic in the precise
mathematical definition. These "problems" result because we imprint
on inappropriate patterns at critical trigger points in our
development. These trigger points in turn are the real tool
evolution uses to make sure we mate with members of our own species --
and like most things done by evolution, they don't have to work right
all the time, just often enough to keep the species going. So we
can't "solve" the "problem" through eugenics, because it's not heritable.
(Anyone conversant with information theory and the size of the genetic
code could have figured that out, but chaos theory explains how this
inadequate code results in such fabulously complicated beings as
ourselves.) We can't "solve" the "problem" through psychotherapy
because the imprints are permanent once formed. And we can't "solve"
it by micro-managing our kids' development because one never can tell
what stray random thought or impression at a critical moment will
stick with one for a lifetime. One might as well
try to tweak one whorl of the Mandelbrot Fractal by making a small
change in the algorithm that generates it.
To me, all this is obvious. Yet it's highly unpopular, especially since
it suggests that an emotionally loaded "problem" can't be "solved"
at all. But there were a lot of emotionally loaded problems within
Christianity which simply evaporated once the watchmaker-god was
introduced, the most significant of which was the so-called
Problem of Evil. (e.g. if God is omniscient and omnipotent and
omnibenevolent, why do bad things happen?) Ever since the days of
Jeshua ben Miriam himself some folks have answered the Problem of Evil
by making the obvious connection -- God himself is either crazy or evil.
The most persistent form of this heresy was Gnosticism, and some of
the most evil and horrific excesses of the Christian church have been
directed toward Gnostics. Yet, since the introduction of clockwork
automata, there hasn't been a single major recurrence of Gnosticism.
It isn't necessary. Evil exists because God is distant, and not
paying close attention. Even the most fervent fundamentalists of our
day don't realize how far they are from the Christians of the first
millennium in their casual dismissal of this paradox. They are as much
creatures of the third paradigm shift as we are, though they aren't
as well equipped to realize it.
One might wonder what the chaos-theory equivalent of the village
clock might be. After all, most people don't bother to download
Fractint and play with chaos. But we have already put chaotic
systems into a lot of homes, in the form of computers. Early computers
weren't chaotic, but modern ones are; no one understands them completely
and even though they were entirely built by humans they are prone to
behave in unpredictable and unfixable ways. This will only become
more obvious as computers become more powerful and their internal
functioning becomes more distant and arcane.
I think most hackers have already formed a vision of the fourth
paradigm shift, one in which god (if such a being does exist) did
not so much create the universe as discover it, perhaps
by trying different values for the fundamental physical constants.
He might now be munching the divine equivalent of Doritos and calling
up his divine buddies to tell them what parameters result in some
really cool output. When that vision becomes universal it will
change every human institution in ways that are most difficult
to predict. Perhaps that itself is the final irony, that the
acceptance of chaos will itself have chaotic effects on our society.