I'm afraid that this cannot be understood without explanation, but it is extremely important. An engineer might say "do not let perfect be the enemy of good enough". Biology and evolution has operated that way as well. "Perfect" is an odd word and concept. There are basically two ways that the human mind can interpret "perfect". It can be real like a flawless work of art. It can also be imaginary like Plato's concept of Perfect Forms. The trouble is that for a human to think of anything like Plato's concept of "perfect" is very like a computer multiplying by infinity. It doesn't work. Some computers can pull out of it, some cannot let go of the problem. For humans it is the same. Some can pull out of it but for some it becomes an endless loop and it warps the rest of their view of reality. Plato's teachings became a basic part of Western thought, philosophy and religion. The concept of "perfect forms" contaminated philosophy until Hagel pointed out that the atomic theory showed that different people's perceptions of reality were the same. While this issue is discussed elsewhere in this story, this essay is mostly about how Plato's concept of "perfect" created an unusual view in religion that effects us to this day. In terms of a strategy of survival, it is probably a bad idea in the future. It really does need to be understood.
* * *
I think I'm like a lot of people these days... or at least in my days. I was raised in a religious household but it never took really well. I mean it sounds great that there is this perfect, magical omnipotent being that cares about me, but looking at the world it seemed unlikely. That was long ago, but recently when reviewing some subjects in philosophy I came up with what I think is an interesting explanation of the MCGC as I call it. That is the Medieval Catholic God Concept or more conveniently the MCGC which is an extremely well known meme that means "God" in the West. In my studies, this is a pretty unique God among the many many Gods of history. This is the One God of the Hebrews, Yahweh, which is a bit unusual. Gods usually got along some so that their people could get along, but from our point of view, this God was different for another reason. This is the All God, all powerful, all knowing, all just, all forgiving, everywhere... you know the meme, and perfect. Even as a child I thought there was something odd about that God. How did we get to that idea? I think it is interesting and perhaps important to know. I think it takes a few parts to explain. I'm told that this story makes sense. See what you think.
Gods of The Gaps
Gods of Authority
Individual Gods and Pantheons
Yahweh, Jesus and the MCGC
I've read so much from history and so much of it is about Gods. Through most of history, people did not think of Gods the way we tend to now. You have to wonder how we got our current concepts of Gods?
First, ask who are your heroes. It used to be that people often had heroes. It's not so common now, partly because most heroes started out as individual warriors and that's not as important these days except in cinema. We do have some moral heroes like Buddha, Jesus, and Abraham Lincoln. Science is more of a group effort usually so it doesn't have many individual heroes though there are a few like Isaac Newton, Madame Curie and Albert Einstein that seem in a league of their own. Examining individual scientists closely though can show some simply amazing people. There are a few techno heroes like Nicola Tesla, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs illustrates a problem of modern heroes. They have flaws that are well documented. Potential heroes are clearly human and they often get torn down. It used to be that the flaws got forgotten or were coded into morality stories. Still, heroes have a lot of benefits. I like the Stoic view of them. Heroes give a standard of behavior to aspire to and emulate. They are the best of us and can provide inspiration. Another benefit the Stoics reveal is that if we consider "what would our hero think of what I am doing now", it gives us an objective view of ourselves. The Catholics would probably call this a "conscience". This objective view is valuable in a number of ways. Heroes can be very good for a person.
The second bit of philosophy needed to explain how we got here comes from metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that is about first causes, the nature of reality and the nature of existence. Stay with me for a little bit here. Pretty early in the development of Western Philosophy Plato wanted to know the connection between our thoughts and reality. Are different people having the same thoughts about (the same) reality? What if you mistake something for something else or the truth about something for something else? It seemed that Truth needed to be mind-independent. Memories change, so that's not a very solid basis for truth. Communication is imperfect. It gets more problematic when you talk about something subtle like justice. So Plato said the there were Perfect Forms that were universal Truths. He said that these Forms are printed on the soul. This is the Doctrine of "a priori knowledge", knowledge that we have before learning. There were a lot of arguments about this and some said that the perfect Forms only existed in the heavens, because though they changed, they always repeated. Many followed this idea but it seems to have become that these Perfect Forms were ideas in the mind of God. God illuminates our mind, but that leaves us with a partial, imperfect image of the world. Every few hundred years they would change this story as some new argument seemed to contradict what went before. Really, it was just an ongoing search for perfection, something that can be very dangerous. Then in the 19th century, Hagel and others were able to make the convincing argument that reality was mind-independent and said the world is what it appears to be. They simply pointed out that atomic theory objectively described all objects as being composed of matter and so was completely independent of the mind or Forms or anything else. So our perceptions of everything material were shared and the same. That blew out a lot of ideas about philosophy argued over since Plato's postulated Forms but by then it was a little late and the whole topic was more esoteric than dark matter. Science was ascendant and philosophy was being pushed aside. It should be added that to make it even worse, there was a huge helping of ego and arrogance involved in most of the study of this during perhaps 2000 years. Only the "initiated" could understand these deeper matters of existence, "an understanding that most men couldn't possibly attain". That's an attitude that will go over well century after century.
There are a few points to be taken from this, one of them subtle and extremely important. I guess the questions were logical to ask at the time, but the study of science pretty much swept this issue away... after a couple of thousand years. In that time, they argued about it a lot and changed their minds a number of times, like every few hundred years. That is why people roll their eyes when they hear the word "philosophy". They were sure of these important truths that were actually just assumptions that periodically got overturned. History is rarely kind to Natural Laws. Most of these "truths" depended on the existence of a God that was unknowable anyway. The discussion of metaphysics does though have political ramifications because of its claim to be Truth and its connection to morality. The rest of the branches of philosophy seem very interesting, reasonable and often valuable. The fascination with metaphysics seems a horrible distraction and served to give the rest of very practical philosophy a bad name. Keep in mind, there is an understanding that most men couldn't possibly attain. That's an obnoxious attitude but at times it conferred an authority that was needed in the societies of a young humanity. Seriously, they are still fighting over this stuff today without any proof other than what seems logical to them. There is one more problem though and that relates to how the human mind works. The human mind is one great thinking machine but when it hits the word "perfect" it is like a computer trying to multiply by infinity. Some people can break out of the loop. Some people aren't equipped to do so and they get stuck on the idea, whatever it is they were looking for perfection about. Arguably this represents a dangerous meme and some people are very vulnerable to it.
Now we move on to what seems a curious offshoot of this in religion. It looks like there were a few kinds of Gods to start with. All cultures have creation stories. Neil deGrasse Tyson called these kinds of Gods "the Gods of the Gaps". They filled in for missing explanations. This is more important than it might look. The human mind has an integrated model of the world the person exists in. It allows a useful organization of understanding. Major logical gaps in the mental model are a problem. Gods fill in those missing explanations quite well. There were limitless local spirits and magical creatures to fill in local needs including evil ones to provide cautionary tales. If you don't understand something, fill it in with magic. With the concept of a Creator in place, it was probably a short jump to Individual Gods. Warriors, tribal leaders and moral leaders could be elevated to Godhood upon death or after their story had grown enough. This is what happened to Heroes. Emperors and kings of nations were regularly elevated to Gods after their death and sometimes before that for a variety of reasons. Ancestor worship was logical. None of these needed to be perfect to be Gods. Later on, this was good and bad in ways for the Christian Church because people naturally want to "worship" other humans including Mary but the Church wanted only worship of God. Actually, worshiping individual "Gods" and "Saints" was probably a very good thing as the offered a behavioral example to aspire to as the Stoics mentioned. Moral inspiration is always a good thing. This is just a very natural behavior.
Another thing you would expect would be "Gods of Fairness". Humans and other animals have a sense of fairness. In a study, a monkey in a cage was given a "cookie" for completing a task. Then the experiment was done again with two monkeys in cages. The first monkey was again rewarded with a cookie but the second monkey was given a grape. The first monkey had a tizzy and threw down the cookie. Fairness is a pretty universal concept. There is a lot of unfairness in the human world and human desire for fairness is often satisfied by Gods that balance accounts in some way, usually after death.
The next kind of God would be the God of Authority. This became important during the Bronze Age when City-States first formed and social authority was needed. Gods provided it to the leadership of the city. This would have also applied to tribal nations and was probably adopted from city cultures. It's hard to say where the practice originated, but it served the same purpose in any complicated society. It is amazing how bronze facilitated the creation of civilizations and economies. Unfortunately, it's not really well understood.
So at this point, you have two types of Gods, individual Gods that naturally came from human heroes and Gods of authority. Really there was a third state of Gods that were members of pantheons like the Greek or Roman Gods. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, these were individual Gods of different peoples that became families as the peoples merged. It is known that the Oracle of Delphi did this. Groups in conflict would come to Delphi and sometimes the Oracle would tell them that actually their Gods were related so the people were related too, so make peace and work it out. That last point is not really important to this story though.
So, where did it go from there? The Hebrew God Yahweh apparently originated in a family of Gods but became the one God of the Jews. In ways, he was a typical God of Authority and well suited to the pastoralist Semites. In a way, Yahweh was a war God and very Patriarchal, but before war was very well developed. Pastoralists are used to raiding each other's flocks which gave them some talent for war. They had enough talent for war that they conquered the Sumerian Civilization and introduced a military ruling class to a society that had basically been run by a priestly class. It worked well and they flourished until a new group of (horse) herders came along, the Indo-Europeans known as the Dorians, Greeks, Romans and perhaps Etruscans. The newcomers beat the existing Semitic ruling caste badly and replaced them as the ruling class. This probably was relevant in terms of a great natural selection event on a people and influenced what the Jews became. Many of them became urbanites in the civilization that conquered them. At a point, one of their prophets became a great moral leader teaching a message of love. The establishment didn't like him, but after his death, he became an Individual God based on his moral authority and perhaps on the compelling story of his death. The harsh, murderous Iron Age society of the Roman world was ready for some social evolution. The moral lessons of Jesus were compelling as their inspiration and guide. In a lot of ways Jesus could have turned out like Buddha, a spiritual leader known as a man but elevated to being a God or an avatar of God, but a couple of other factors came into the story. Jesus was adopted by a very warlike culture that placed him in the context of what should have been a co-God with Yahweh, the God of Authority of the Jewish tradition. Instead though, they were held as one Trinity with the "Holy Ghost", because the Jews clearly only had one God. It wasn't easy, but they repeated it a lot and it was so. It worked out and persists to this day though while there is one God, he has more than one nature and there are two very different laws - The Old and New Testament. The first God Yahweh of the Old Testament was good for an Iron Age tribal herding culture and the second God, Jesus of the New Testament was, suitable for a population in a civilization of many tribes.
Then another factor was added that makes the Christian God so very unique and odd. The clerical establishment added Greek Philosophy to the mix. It wasn't just the wisdom of Aristotle though. Being fascinated with Gods and First Causes, they spent a lot of time on Plato and his search for perfection as well. The idea that there were Perfect Forms and that the world was an imperfect reflection of these perfect Forms fit in well and influenced the theology. The perfection they sought was to be found in only in Heaven and God's creations. Yes, the human mind is a pattern recognition device but it will also make patterns where they are not. For some people, this ideal of perfection was an infinite loop their minds got stuck on. So basically, with time, resources, inspiration and some weird Western philosophy, the Medieval Catholic God Concept was developed ... and developed until they figured could calculate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Free will got argued endlessly because it was necessary in a perfect system while in biology it is just questions of nature and nurture with free will being a null topic. We ended up with a Patriarchal God of Authority represented by a very different Individual Moral God, explained by a bunch of philosophers with weird metaphysical ideas about perfection. And that is how they got the description of the Western God we know of today. Problematically, this could easily conflict with a philosophy derived from Darwin's work that suggests that survival instead of perfection is the point of life.
Please keep in mind when considering this. From every strength comes weaknesses and from every weakness comes strengths. This was a powerful idea and it led to great weaknesses and strengths. Engineers warn about not letting perfect be the enemy of good and biology follows that principle. I say that I try to do things perfectly and expect to end up with an acceptable level of mistakes. That is a very Earthly concept of perfection. If the search for images of perfection grabs your mind though, it can lead to a kind of insanity as it distorts your concept of reality. Reality is not perfect and ideal perfection will never be found there. You may find some vision of it like a perfect god or machine, but it is leading you away from reality. Still, consider what a person trying to achieve perfection might be capable of accomplishing. I think that has been a great strength of the West as well as weakness. Is seeking ideal perfection going to be a good strategy in the next ecology? Maybe, but certainly not now. We need to be pragmatically working to achieve survival by adapting to the new Ecology of Civilization. We need good enough, not perfect. Maybe after we have become well adapted to the next ecology some new concept of perfection will be found, but I doubt it and I suspect pursuing it would be a dangerous distraction from reality. I do think something new and amazing will come to be understood, but that is just a suspicion and it is not about perfection that we understand.
... A little bit of an addendum. For as odd as that description of the MCGC is, I don't consider it unlikely that some pretty amazing Gods exist. Take the Singularity. That is a God that would be created by a technological species like humans and that then takes over its own development. There are lots of people that will tell you it's going to happen this century. If so, then there are likely to be lots of them and they sure get described to me like a God. There are concepts of super-intelligence that seem similar. Then there is a somewhat popular proposition that we exist in a simulation. Well, that pretty much presupposes a Creator and has some distinct similarities to the Christian story. The real question then becomes the old question - what is the relationship between God and humans? Is it very personal as some have said or like the Deists say that God doesn't pay much attention to humans or our affairs? We have no idea. I will say this. A friend asked me to prove that God doesn't exist. He's a pretty militant atheist. It seemed a waste of time as I only study humans but he kept pestering me, so I thought I'd look into it. You cannot prove a negative so I figured I would try to prove God exists. It is a well-plowed field so I didn't expect to find anything new. I was surprised. Not only would it be easy for Gods to exist, but it seemed likely. It's sort of like the Singularity but a result of life's evolution rather than machine evolution. I can see a very logical path that we are already on. Maybe they are waiting to talk to us when we are capable of it. Maybe that is a good reason to struggle to reach the future and survive to the next human ecology. If you care to read the consideration of it, it's described in the Aspirations Chapter of my book Transition To A New Human Ecology.