How Like a God!

In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote 

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,

how infinite in faculties, in form and moving,

how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god!

John Stuart Mill said something similar in a passage I quoted a bit ago in my post in honor of Nelson Mandela, “Individuality: Noble and Beautiful; Crushing Individuality: Despotism”

It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. (Chapter III, paragraph 9)

Mormonism goes further, making the idea that (with the help of those who are already gods) those of us who are now human can become gods one of its central doctrines. As the Mormon Prophet Lorenzo Snow said:

As man now is, God once was; as God is now man may be.

Any attempt to downplay the importance of this doctrine within Mormonism badly misrepresents Mormonism. As the Wikipedia article on “Divinization” indicates, this idea has many other precedents within Christianity, though Mormonism takes it further than most.

As a teleotheist, I take seriously the possibility that there is no god yet–a possibility Noah Smith discusses memorably in his guest religion post “God and SuperGod.Transhumanism hopes to transform individuals in a godlike direction. But there is another possibility for the birth of gods. What if something emerges from the interaction of individuals that is as much greater than individual humans (or transhumans) as the brain is greater than an individual neuron? We already have some inkling of this. Despite all of its imperfections, in my book the invisible hand of the market has already risen to a status at least equal to a real-world version of one of the gods of ancient Greece–if not a Zeus, at least a Hermes. Scientific disciplines, which are organized on a very different plan than the market, are also at least the equal of a real-world version of the gods of Ancient Greece. And Vladimir Lenin created some dark gods with his political technologies.  

We can do better in constructing institutions than we have in the past. As one key principle, let me claim that the best general warranty that institutions will be good rather than bad is if the people from which those institutions are built are each fully developed in their individuality, with the kind of freedom that John Stuart Mill writes of in On Liberty. When combined with wise rules for interaction, freedom and individuality not only make groups greater than the sum of the parts, but also make each of the parts greater–whether those parts are human or transhuman:

In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them. (Chapter III, paragraph 9)

But I am not talking about an individualistic vision at all. Many of us want to be part of something greater than ourselves that involves tipping our hats toward others in various ways rather than being narrowly self-interested.

The trick is to devise rules of interaction that help create a coherent whole while preserving freedom and individuality. Social media entrepreneurs routinely face this design challenge–how to foster free creative individuality while encouraging people to interact in positive ways.

At a structurally higher level, those of us making up the economics blogosphere or other blogospheric domains should be attentive to the rules for interaction that we champion, with an eye toward giving each individual who participates a good chance to flourish–and making the whole a thing of wonder. If someday, someone should exclaim when contemplating our blogosphere domain "How Like a God!”, it will be a good sign that we are on a fruitful track.