On the unexpected appeal of Homestuck’s Gnosticism to an atheist

Or, the philosophical implications of Gnosticism, and what I did to them when I found them

On the unexpected appeal of Homestuck’s Gnosticism to an atheist

Or, the philosophical implications of Gnosticism, and what I did to them when I found them

When I choose whether to interact with a piece of media, my highest priorities are theme and character, in that order. And for works with supernatural or theological elements… well, technically it’s optional, but I strongly prefer that the themes carry over well to the mundane world. Not every work meets these requirements, but that’s fine — those works just aren’t for me.

At the moment, I have exactly three works that I currently obsess over:

  • The Mass Effect trilogy
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica
  • Homestuck

Mass Effect is obvious enough: it has strongly developed characters and it’s built on mundane but powerful themes like “togetherness and teamwork can save the day”, “can we work through our past disagreements and trust each other again?”, and “how do groups with very different priorities find common ground?”.

And Madoka Magica, which is basically “Magical Girls As Metaphor For Depression: The Anime”, is chock full of strong characters and themes. And those themes, while existing in a supernatural mahou shoujo series, are ultimately ones that apply easily to a mundane world: “sometimes the world is cruel and it falls on you to change it”, “think carefully about the goals you set for yourself, because if you fail to understand what you actually want then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment”, and (most importantly) “oh my god don’t wait until you hit rock bottom to get a therapist”.

Presented: Homestuck.

Homestuck… well, it’s hard to explain Homestuck, but basically it’s a story about some kids playing a videogame and it’s a Gnostic creation myth. It’s quite long, so it has too many themes to list here, but the most important theme appears to be “everything that ever happens to every version of you is an important part of your ultimate self… like a superceding bodyless and timeless persona that crosses the boundaries of paradox space and unlike god tiers or bubble ghosts or whatever, it really IS immortal” (to quote the character Davepetasprite²). It’s a pretty sentiment, but that’s… not a theme that applies to the mundane and material world that we live in. Right?

Well, let’s consider the real world. It’s governed by quantum mechanics, and the equations of quantum mechanics capture all possible events, describe how those events interact with each other, and then output a “probability amplitude” for each. According to what I consider the most reasonable interpretation, the Everett “Many Worlds” interpretation, every quantum possibility that could happen does happen: if a particle could go left or right with equal likelihood, then there are an equal number of worlds where the particle went left vs where it went right. And each of those worlds also contains a copy of you.

If you think about this too hard, you might manage to confuse yourself into thinking that this presents a major moral quandary: if everything that could happen does happen, then what’s the point of choosing moral actions? But really, while the particle could go left or right, it doesn’t follow that you could just as easily go good or evil. Your actions aren’t usually determined by single particles; they’re determined by averages of lots of particles, and those averages are fairly stable across all those possible worlds. A decision that you’re truly on the edge about might get tipped over by a stray particle, but a decision that you’re certain about is going to repeat itself across all possible worlds. How certain you are determines how many copies of you did the right thing. So we’re back to the same problem that we faced before considering quantum mechanics: namely, “how do I decide what ‘the right thing to do’ is?”.

Ultimately, “the right thing to do” comes down to what we want. I don’t mean that in the selfish sense — not “what we want for ourselves”. When you think about it from a purely materialist standpoint, our actions are carving out the channels through which reality will flow around us. The question that each of us faces is, what shape should that reality take? Suppose the choice is between these two extremes:

  • The world is full of pain and suffering, but I am at the top of the trash heap: a medieval noble living in a cold, drafty castle with no plumbing and no electricity
  • I am just an average person, but everyone lives in contentment and peace: each of us working on our passion projects to seek our personal fulfillment, while non-sentient robot servants grow our food, make our clothes, build our shelters, and free human beings from all menial labor

I would fight hard to make the second example happen rather than the first, and I’m quite sure that most other people would as well. It’s not enough to consider “what do I want for myself?”; one must also consider “what sort of world do I wish my future self(ves) to live in?” and “how do my actions influence which world(s) come true?”. For the majority who would choose the second example over the first, there is no distinction of “selfish” vs “selfless”; there is only “long-term fulfillment” vs “short-term fulfillment”.

But this is all tangential, isn’t it? Where does Gnosticism fit in?

First, I should probably describe what Gnosticism is.

(A warning: this description of Gnosticism is far from definitive. I’m going to deliberately emphasize the comparison and contrast with mainstream Christianity.)

In the beginning, there was the Monad. Although It was in some ways god-like, to call the Monad a god is to misunderstand Its nature. The Monad, while sentient, was not a being so much as it was a place, a realm of Light (Ideas), and It sought to fulfill Its design by filling Itself with smaller iterations of Itself, called the Aeons. Each pair of Aeons was composed of two opposite Ideas. These Ideas did not conflict with each other; they complemented each other, with each Aeon pair representing one way to divide the realm of Light into parts… perhaps so that the Monad could refer to Its own parts by name.

Each pair of Aeons, one male and one female, would spring forth from the previous “emanation”, stretch out to fill the realm of Light, and then meet again so that they could conceive (of) the next pair of Ideas. The Monad’s goal was to continue this pattern infinitely, filling the realm of Light completely with the totality of all possible Ideas. However, during one iteration of the pattern, an Aeon named Sophia (“wisdom”) got a little antsy waiting for her male counterpart and decided to begin the next emanation without him.

The result was a tragedy: the physical world.

Sophia, to her credit, immediately recognized her mistake, and she sealed away this aberration while she sought the aid of her counterpart so that, together, they could fix it. Within the physical world, a being awoke. It looked around at its existence, at the realm of Darkness into which it had been born. It knew nothing of the Monad, or of the Light, but as the corrupted offspring of an Aeon it nonetheless had a strong urge to create.

It saw nothing but itself, and declared itself God.

It spoke: “Let there be light.”

Sophia later returned with her male counterpart. By then, the being (the “Demiurge”, meaning “Craftsman”) had created ranks and orders of terrifying beings — the angels — in unwitting mockery of the Aeons and the Light which it instinctively reached for but could not perceive. It was preparing to create a new type of creature, humanity, and Sophia hatched a plan: she would divide herself, granting her Light to each of the humans that the Demiurge was about to create. Once granted that spark of Light, the beings would be able to perceive the Aeons and the Ideas they embodied. Sophia’s male counterpart, Christ, would then sacrifice himself and resurrect, showing the humans how to achieve gnosis (knowledge) and leave the physical world upon death, returning their souls to the realm of Light. Once there, they could reconstitute Sophia and eventually redeem the Demiurge and his creations, allowing the physical world to dissolve away and the damage from Sophia’s mistake to be undone.

(The details of which Aeons existed before Sophia, who Sophia’s partner was, and what exactly Sophia did to save the humans varied a lot from sect to sect. This isn’t the Cliff’s Notes version of Gnosticism; this is a sketch meant to evoke what the various Gnostic belief systems were shaped like.)

As you can see, Gnosticism is a branch of Christianity. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s very distinct from modern Christianity: the Gnostic Christ isn’t a literal physical person, but the Platonic form of Man itself — the death and resurrection existing in the realm of Ideas rather than the realm of flesh — and it demotes the “jealous God” of the Old Testament from an all-knowing stern father figure to a being of ignorance and tragedy. But, the basics are there. A sinful world redeemed by the sacrifice and resurrection of a being called the Christ? Yeah, it’s Christianity all right.

Indeed, some modern scholars believe it’s the original form of Christianity, perhaps dating back to a century or more before the putative birth of Christ. More so than modern flavors of Christianity, it wears its influences on its sleeve: Platonic realism, Greek mystery cults, Roman-era Jewish mysticism (Gnostic practices are reminiscent of the Essenes in particular), and perhaps a dash of Zoroastrianism in the “Light vs Darkness” motif. You know: Mediterranean/Middle-East culture gumbo.

So why the heck do I, an atheist, find anything about this system appealing?

Well, in the Gnostic framework, “know thyself” is the most important task you can have. That’s deeply appealing to someone as introspective and navel-gazing as I am. By achieving a deeper understanding of yourself, you achieve a deeper understanding of the Light, and you leave behind the half-truths and misinformation that were forced on you by the Demiurge and his realm of darkness. That is, the culture you grew up in is full of lies, lies that cause pain and suffering in yourself and others, and you should question everything you were taught so that you can alleviate that suffering. Gnosticism is the ultimate in “woke” religions.

But it’s deeper than that.

Let’s divert away from religion and talk about math for a minute. Ideally, I would just point you at “Thinking about Gödel and Turing” by Gregory Chaitin, but that’s probably not going to fly. The TL;DR is:

  • Once upon a time, a bunch of mathematicians (most notably David Hilbert) decided: “Hey, some of this math stuff we were doing in the 19th century turned out to be bogus. We fixed that, we think, but let’s prove with absolute certainty that our new mathematical system is flawless.”
  • By “flawless”, Hilbert et al meant: let’s prove that our new system of mathematical rules will never prove any false things (it is consistent), and that we can use it to eventually prove all true things (it is complete).
  • Some joker named Kurt Gödel upends Russell’s plan when he proves a theorem: “any system† of mathematical rules is incomplete, inconsistent, or both”. (†Specifically: any system complex enough that you can do arithmetic in it.)
  • Hilbert thinks to himself: “Well, it sucks that our system can’t be complete, but the important thing we wanted to prove is that it’s consistent. At least we can still go out there and try proving that.”
  • Gödel goes one further and proves a second theorem: “any system that proves its own consistency is inconsistent”.
  • Hilbert extends his middle fingers and fucks off, stage right.
  • Two guys named Alonzo Church and Alan Turing invent two very different models of what a “computer program” is, prove that their models are actually equivalent, and prove that there are computer programs in their model for which it’s impossible to decide if the programs finish or run forever (the “halting problem”). They also suggest, with good reason, that their model captures the very concept of ‘computer program’.
  • Meanwhile, a guy named Claude Shannon proves some neat facts about what “signals” are, mathematically. The equation he comes up with turns out to be the same equation as thermodynamic entropy. Mathematicians and physicists are still bickering over what that means.
  • There are still some lingering questions, though. Shannon proved facts about signals, but how do we measure the actual information content in those signals? “Attack at dawn” and “blah blah blah” cost the same to transmit (14 characters), but it’s clear that the first carries more information than the second.
  • Two mathematicians, Andrey Kolmogorov and Gregory Chaitin (o hai!), come up with definitions that turn out to be equivalent. Short version: the amount of information in a message is equal to the length of the shortest possible computer program that prints that message.
  • Ah, but wait! How do we find the shortest possible computer program for a message? The halting problem gets in the way! We can’t just check “all computer programs shorter than X” because, if a program is taking a long time to run, we can’t tell if the program is going to run forever or just take a really long time. (And programs that take a really long time still count if they happen to be the shortest!)
  • Chaitin says to himself: “Hmm, that halting problem sure is annoying. Let’s think about it some more.”
  • Imagine if we had a real number — let’s call it Ω — that represented “the probability that a random computer program will finish with an answer, i.e. halt”. (Important side note: “random computer program” is biased toward the shortest programs! A program of length X+1 is half as likely as a program of length X, length X+2 is one quarter as likely, and so on.)
  • If Ω were given to us, we could take all programs shorter than X, advance them one step, count how many halted, then repeat until the proportion of halting to non-halting programs equals the first few digits of Ω. We could solve the halting problem!
  • Which is a downer, because it means Ω is, like, double impossible for us to find. Not only is generating it impossible, but it would let us solve other impossible problems if we had it.
  • Huh. But for very short programs, we can solve the halting problem. Basically, for tiny programs, we can come up with a number (the Busy Beaver number) that says “this is the maximum number of steps that a program of length X can take without going into an infinite loop”. If we take “all programs of length X or shorter” and run them for BB(X) steps, then any programs that haven’t halted by then are infinite loopers.
  • And because our definition of “random computer program” was biased toward short programs, we can now prove the first few digits of Ω! (!!!)
  • Well, that’s fascinating. Not terribly useful in the real world. But fascinating.
  • Huh. How many digits of Ω can we prove?
  • Well, Chaitin did the math. The number of digits of Ω you can prove is… directly proportional to the information content in the rules that you based your mathematical system on! (!!!!!!)
  • (!!!)
  • So you’re saying… that… we should just make up new rules, so long as they’re consistent, and we’ll be able to prove more digits of Ω?
  • Oh, no. No, no, no. The digits of Ω that you come up with will depend on which rules you add. That won’t do at all.
  • So you’re saying… that… we have to study the world we live in, trying to learn the true things about it, and then when we encounter a new thing that appears to be true but we can’t prove it, then we should… uh… try adding it as a new assumption and see what happens?
  • Yeah, basically?
  • And through this process of adding new rules, we increase our ability to prove true things about the world, including the digits of Ω (i.e. our power to solve “impossible” problems for more and more specific cases).

If you followed that, then you can probably see the Gnostic parallels now: we have an initial set of truths (“Light”) that allows us to expand our knowledge through contemplation, gradually allowing us to escape the confines that limit us to ignorance.

The big difference is, where Gnosticism posits that the Light and the material world are fundamentally separate, our mathematical truths are deeply interwoven with the material world — to the extent that, if the material world were different, we would have made different starting assumptions, created different mathematical rules, and we would have believed that different things were “true”.

Call it “mathematical relativism” if you like.

Honestly, I don’t know where I was going with this. Let’s rein this in.

To make moral choices, we must understand the world we currently exist in, the world we wish to exist in, and how to get from A to B. To understand the world, we must understand the rules that govern it. And to understand the rules, we must observe how they work, contemplate them, and use them to probe the limits of our knowledge. And as the self is part of the world — a part of the world that we care very much about — it follows that contemplation of self is an important part of this process.

Perfection through contemplation of Ideas. Gnosticism got there by a different path, but it’s pretty cool that it got the right answer anyway.