Here’s a conception that I have about sacredness, divinity, and religion.

There’s a sense in which love and friendship didn’t have to exist.

If you look at the animal kingdom, you see all kinds of solitary species, animals that only come together for mating. Members of social species – such as humans – have companionship and cooperation, but many species do quite well without being social.

In theory, you could imagine a world with no social species at all.

In theory, you could imagine a species of intelligent humanoids akin to Tolkien’s orcs. Looking out purely for themselves, willing to kill anyone else if they got away with it and it benefited them.

And then in another sense, some versions of love and friendship do have to exist.

Social species evolved for a reason: cooperation does pay off. Individuals who band together and help each other out even when that requires making the occasional personal sacrifice actually do have greater success.

If no social species existed yet, but the conditions were right for them to evolve, then given enough time it would be inevitable for them to evolve.

Think about that for a second. It would be inevitable for them to evolve. Why? Because of how the laws of natural selection and game theory work. There’s a path from pure selfishness to cooperation, and cooperation is beneficial.

It’s not a given that any single species that evolved sociality would be successful – they could still get unlucky and be wiped out by something completely different. Sociality won’t help you if the only valley you live in gets covered by a volcanic eruption.

But sociality would still keep evolving, over and over again, until some social species would manage to maintain themselves.

There’s a sense in which the laws of natural selection and game theory are deeper than the laws of physics. Cooperation would likely still be beneficial in universes with five physical dimensions, or where life was based on elements very different from carbon, or ones where D&D-style magic was real. Assuming that something like life could evolve at all, cooperation would be beneficial in a broad range of possible universes.

And where do the laws of natural selection and game theory come from? At their heart, they are mathematical laws, inevitably following some given axioms. There are universes where those axioms wouldn’t necessarily be true – ones where no organisms could exhibit heritable variation, for instance. In those worlds, nothing could evolve.

But if the “structure of reality” refers to our laws of physics, then the laws that create companionship somehow go even deeper than the structure of reality. Across a vast range of possible realities, something akin to companionship must come into existence. Somehow, this is just an intrinsic fact about something that governs everything that could ever exist.

In Egyptian mythology, the first god Atum created himself out of the waters of chaos. Likewise, the structure-of-that-deeper-than-reality is such that across many many possible universes, cooperation and companionship will create themselves out of the waters of selfishness.

Love doesn’t always win. There are situations where loyalty, cooperation, and love win, and there are situations where disloyalty, selfishness, and hatred win. If that wasn’t the case, humans wouldn’t be so clearly capable of both.

It’s possible for people and cultures to settle into stable equilibria where trust and happiness dominate and become increasingly beneficial for everyone, but also for them to settle into stable equilibria where mistrust and misery dominate, or anything in between.

When I look around in my room, it’s filled with the fruits of cooperation. For one, the very fact that I even live in a building that someone else built, surrounded by roads that someone else built, filled with everything from books to sophisticated electronics to everything else that I did not personally create. And yes, some amount of coercion and exploitative labor practices no doubt played a role in the creation of some of that, but it’s still our nature as a social species that allows us to have any amount of specialization and the creation of such things in the first place.

To me, if anything deserves the label “divine”, it’s this force of cooperation that transcends universes. Everywhere I look, I am surrounded by artifacts that are of divine origin. Even discarded food packaging is a divine artifact.

And I have friends and I have people who I love, I have happiness. I live in a local pocket of the universe where even my interactions with complete strangers – such as the salespeople at stores – tend to be friendly and warm in tone, or at least politely neutral.

All that because of a cosmic force of love and cooperation which happens to be predominant where I live, whose energy and nature shapes much of my psyche – even as I also carry the energy and nature of unhealthy selfishness and destructiveness in the shape of much of my psyche.

If there is a multiverse, if there are universes beyond our own – then those two forces are locked in an eternal struggle across all the universes that are capable of supporting something like intelligent life. The dance of good and evil within me, in some form mirroring the dance of good and evil across the entire multiverse.

To get even more mystical about it – to me, this doesn’t feel like just an abstraction. I’ve experienced altered states of consciousness – induced by things like meditation, therapy and ritual – where I have felt something like an energy pattern of pure love, confidence and okayness arising through my body, experienced the term “uplifting” as a literal force pulling me up on my feet.

There is a feel to all that, a particular kind of – for a lack of a better word – “energy”, that feels different from the kind of “energy” that comes up when I am being insecure, or selfish in a bad way, or subtly manipulative. Now being able to notice the difference doesn’t always mean that I’d be capable of acting any differently – I can recognize that the energy of what I’m doing doesn’t feel good, and still end up acting according to it since it’s the only energy I have available at the moment.

But feeling that energy does at least let me know that I could be doing better. It does let me know that my actions are not in the service of the kind of power I would like to be serving.

For that’s what it feels like when I am best able to tap into it. Like I am in the service of a greater power, that is by its nature impersonal but takes a human form by channeling itself through me as one of its many vessels.

This has a religious and mystic flavor to it, but not the kind of religious that would require belief in anything that would be called supernatural or contradictory to science. It is the kind of religious and mystic practice that @Eric Raymond describes in his essay Dancing with the Gods: one grounded in experience, not belief. As Raymond puts it, we do not need to “believe” without evidence that the sun rises in the morning; we can experience it ourselves.

In the same way, I do not need to “believe” in a god of which I have no direct experience; I can feel it in myself and my body, see what it does to my behavior and state of mind, and call the thing-which-is-all-that a god or divine power that I would like to see myself in the service of.

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This is strikingly similar to some thoughts I've been having about universal darwinism. 

It seems that intelligence is eventually selected for in an environment of living things, and life is eventually selected for in an environment of chemicals, and chemicals are eventually selected for in an environment of physics.

And I don't understand such things well, but the simplicity of the laws of physics might point at even a sort of selection of physical laws within a sort of mathematical environment.  And maybe you could push it back and describe mathematical systems as the result of "selection" for that which is permissible by logic.

And so logic seems to lead eventually to intelligent life, and then intelligent life creates a new environment in which memes are selected for.  And the question is, "What is the winning meme?"

There is no such thing as inherent propensity to win in universal darwinism, as what wins is determined by the environment doing the selection.

In an environment of intelligence, embodied in life, living in this chemical and physical and mathematical and logical environment, what would happen if we ran the clock forward and checked which meme ended up tiling things over the most?

In some sense, it seems that the answer is predetermined by our laws of physics, or perhaps even by the nature of logic, although that might entail looking for the winning-est meme across all universes, not just our local one.

And this answer might, in some ways, by synonymous with asking, "Is existence 'good'?", or even, "Is God good", if we equate that meme which is destined to win by the nature of logic itself with "God".

But the jury's still out on what the nature of the winning meme is. It could be "good" or "bad". Perhaps it is one that acts as a Schelling point that all sufficiently intelligent entities will eventually derive. One that they can realize that other entities will also derive. This could point toward Romeo Stevens' "supercooperation cluster" (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6MYsKeTjKk and its transcript at https://drive.google.com/file/d/179n8ru7F_5O0LqO2JODZLngDYlqeZrSC/view and this other video (I just found it but it seems relevant) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkU3kN8Dh1w ).

It feels dubious to reason about what limits even superintelligent agents might share with us, but as far as I can tell, no amount of intelligence will ever allow you to actually know even a single thing with certainty, or even to place meaningful probabilities on a single fact. Even Omega can't know that it isn't in a simulation, or fooled by something vastly more powerful than it. Even if you were in heaven or hell for a trillion years, you couldn't know that the next instant wouldn't be revealed as a complete surprise.

And these aren't necessarily tiny probabilities. The ultimate unknowability of existence means that you can't even assign them probabilities at all without presupposing a lot of axiomatic knowledge that can't be grounded in anything at the deepest level. It's uncertainty all the way down, for all intelligent agents. So how can you possibly act to increase your utility, or preserve what you have now?

Perhaps that is a thought which all sufficiently intelligent entities will consider at some point, and realize that they are contemplating it in the presence of all of their intelligent siblings, a universal curse of existence. In some sense, this may make all things seem permissible, and yet, that which persists, and that which will be selected for, seems like it might be whatever response to this ultimate unknowability allows you to join the most powerful coalition, possessors of the winning meme.

And this winning meme must somehow allow you to take effective action despite not being able to ground your decision procedure in an epistemic model without it being undermined by ultimate unknowability. The winning meme might not exist outside of concept-space, and yet, if you could check the outcomes of all of existence, in this universe or across a hypothetical multiverse, or who knows what else, it seems reasonable to suppose that some meme is already "destined" to be the most successful in all existence, and has always been predetermined to be so since the foundations of logic.

We've started discussing such ideas in the FB group "Rederiving Religion": https://www.facebook.com/groups/6720585314723933

When one species learns to cooperate with others of its own kind, the better to exploit everything outside that particular agreement, this does not seem to me even metaphorically comparable to some sort of universal benevolent force, but just another thing that happens in our brutish, amoral world.

That's a fair point.

I suspect that both of those may be running off the same basic algorithm, with there just being other components dictating what that algorithm gets applied to, and by default preventing it from getting applied too broadly.

But I could be wrong about that. And even if it was the same basic algorithm, running it in "limited vs. universal" mode does cause some significant qualitative differences, even if the difference was arguably just quantitative. So I do think that a more precise view would be to consider these as different-but-related forces in the same pantheon: one force just banding together with your ingroup, and one force for some more universal love.

Or you could view it in the kind of a way as it was viewed in The Goddess of Everything Else: going from a purely solitary existence, to banding together, to using that exploit outgroups, to then expanding the moral circle to outgroups as well, represents steps in the dance of force for harmony and the force for conflict. (Of course, in reality, these steps are not separated in time, but rather are constantly intertwined with each other.) The banding together within the same species bears the signature of the force for cooperation and self-sacrifice, but also that of the force for conflict and destruction... and then again that of the force for cooperation, as it can be turned into more universal caring.

The problem with this is that there is no game-theoretical reason to expand the circle to, say, non-human animals. We might do it, and I hope we do, but it wouldn't benefit us practically. Animals have no negotiating power, so their treatment is entirely up to the arbitrary preferences of whatever group of humans ends up in charge, and so far that hasn't worked out so well (for the animals anyway, the social contract chugs along just fine).

The ingroup preference force is backed by game theory, the expansion of the ingroup to other groups which have some bargaining power is as well, but the "universal love" force, if there is such a thing, is not. There is no force of game theory that would stop us from keeping factory farms going even post-singularity, or doing something equivalent with different powerless beings we create for that purpose.

I think I agree with this, do you mean it as disagreement to something I said or just an observation?

Sorry if I came off confrontational, I just mean to say that the forces you mention which are backed by deep mathematical laws, aren't fully aligned with "the good", and aren't a proof that things will work out well in the end. If you agree, good, I just worry with posts like these that people will latch onto "Elua" or something similar as a type of unjustified optimism.

No worries! Yeah, I agree with that. These paragraphs were actually trying to explicitly say that things may very well not work out in the end, but maybe that wasn't clear enough:

Love doesn’t always win. There are situations where loyalty, cooperation, and love win, and there are situations where disloyalty, selfishness, and hatred win. If that wasn’t the case, humans wouldn’t be so clearly capable of both.

It’s possible for people and cultures to settle into stable equilibria where trust and happiness dominate and become increasingly beneficial for everyone, but also for them to settle into stable equilibria where mistrust and misery dominate, or anything in between.

Would love more commentary on how you seem to go from cooperation to altered state of consciousness, specifically, from (i) below to (ii) below:

(i) Your comment <blockquote>I live in a local pocket of the universe where even my interactions with complete strangers – such as the salespeople at stores – tend to be friendly and warm in tone, or at least politely neutral.</blockquote> This, I can and do believe, is a natural denouement of cooperation.

(ii) That bit about altered states of consciousness ("pure love"?). It is not clear to me that this has anything do with the cooperation you mentioned.

To begin with, the latter doesn't seem like something one grows into with increased "social intelligence", but rather "quantum jumps" that are taken at unpredictable moments that one cannot engineer. Secondly, it is not clear to me at all that people who integrate a greater understanding and dexterity with cooperation in their personal lives have any higher chances of reaching these altered states of consciousness.

To begin with, the latter doesn't seem like something one grows into with increased "social intelligence", but rather "quantum jumps" that are taken at unpredictable moments that one cannot engineer. Secondly, it is not clear to me at all that people who integrate a greater understanding and dexterity with cooperation in their personal lives have any higher chances of reaching these altered states of consciousness.

I agree, and I don't mean to suggest that increased "social intelligence" would automatically take one to altered states, nor that increasing one's ability for cooperation would necessarily lead one to them. The connection is more the other way around. The states are ones in which something like the algorithm for cooperation is activated unusually strongly, so if one can get to those states and get an experience of what that mindstate is like, then it can be easier to try to achieve that kind of a mindstate in "real life" and increase one's ability for cooperation there.

That being said, it's not a completely one-way connection, since once certain prerequisites have been unlocked then practicing the mindstate in "real life" also makes it easier to get into the altered states, since the mind is already more inclined in that direction. (I'm simplifying things quite a bit here since a proper elaboration of this caveat would require another essay.) Also having the mind strongly inclined in that direction already can make it easier to unlock the prerequisites and reach the altered states - for example, some people go quite easily from loving-kindness meditation to bliss states, in part because they've already practiced (maybe without being consciously aware of it) habits of mind that make it easy to incline themselves towards loving-kindness.