(In the previous Religion post, “Believing in Believing in God“, the modern dilemma of religious belief was presented. “Gods” don’t easily fit in our modern world. In response ,“god” has become some very vague idea, believed in but on which little depends; or “god” becomes highly specific —the Jesus of the Bible, or the teachings of the Koran— and a highly charged belief because now in tension and conflict with science, sexual equality and so many other modern social trends. In the following post, the origins of religion will be considered as “naturally” arising and closely connected to the the origin of Culture, itself!)
(A “Venus” figurine, dating back 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, from Germany. Cro-Magnon humans were fascinated by pregnant women and childbirth! Shucks, I wonder why? Even with all our science and medicine, it is still Utterly Amazing and Attractive!)
Is There A Kind Of Religion That Is “Natural” To Humans, or at least natural in the history of humans? That is a strange idea, but one championed by theorist Dan Dennett. Dennett is One Of Our Most Outspoken Atheists, yet in his scientific theory of religion, he gives “Good Reasons” for the occurrence of religion, and maybe even its continued existence—-in at least some form!
“Good Reasons” are akin to a theoretical term of his; more precisely they are “free-floating rationale”, by which he means The Purpose that a functioning object serves. The object’s purpose is real and yet not so real at the same time! The purpose of a thing is expressed by the organization of its parts and it is Not one of those parts itself. It is “free-floating” in that sense; it is like ‘the focal point’ of the parts, as if they were ‘gazing upward at the larger system they are a part of, seeking to understand their role and the meaning of it all.’ Gee, sounds kind of Religious already!
Dennett contends that religion served a purpose, or at least evolved for good reasons. In Breaking The Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomena, it is refreshing to find the typical dismissive ‘explanations’ of religion dismissed as too simplistic. If one contends religion is just a bad explanation for things that some people can’t explain in better ways (103), “then get to work and find some real answers,” we might say. Or religion is just an attempt to make us feel better; “Too bad, life is tough and it ends; so suck it up and stop making up silly stories,” the realists say. Or, religion helped and still helps people work and live together; it promotes cooperation. The famous French sociologist, Emile Durkheim with his functionalist theories, contended this was religion’s social purpose. In response, it is easy to point out all the times that differing religions have fought, hated each other, and expressed their differences in conflict and not cooperation.
So, religion is based not in our ignorance and is not primarily inaccurate explanation, and religion is not just a salve for our disappointment and fears. These are not good scientific explanations of religion according to Dennett. These are not good Evolutionary Explanations of a phenomena so prevalent, so complexly organized and so “expensive.” Anything that lasts that long and becomes so prominent in the population and consumes so much time and effort must have some benefit for survival for someone or something. There maybe some truth to these dismissive explanations but they don’t cut deep enough. Religion as promoting human cooperation does a little better, we shall see.
Dennett’s theory is that the religious impulse is based in a powerful and helpful human instinct (112). In that sense, this instinct is accurate and efficient, even though it has been misapplied often. It is the instinct to regard the complex events around us as instigated by human-like agents; agents or actors somewhat like ourselves and motivated by reasons — in their heads — somewhat like ours. We “see” other persons in this way, of course; and also animals, but even plants to some extent. When we get to the cosmos at large and ‘the storms at sea,’ for example, then “we” were and are mistaken to regard them personally. But Religion, in this earliest form, is “Folk Religion,” says Dennett, and it is this projection of agency, of the acts of agents, out into the world.
Folk Religion is not the highly organized and institutionalized religion of today. It lacked “stewards” or at least the same degree of “professionalization” and hierarchy that we see often. Though it had its priests, “shaman”, it had no Bishops or Popes or leaders of rabbinical schools, or Imams. It had no highly standardized creed.
Dennett makes an initial characterization of it as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents (God or gods) whose approval is to be sought” (9). Curiously, this is connected by Dennett to the evolution of a very real, but equally mysterious ‘thing’, The Human Mind. This primitive form of religion, folk religion, was part of the development of our uniquely human way of being with other humans as highly social, communicating, technology-driven, cultural animals. The Mind is our way of being together and “religion” played a role in that development. These early humans saw “persons” everywhere; agents with motives that you could possibly negotiate with!
The Value of Ritual
Much of what we do, that is unique to us as humans, is based in Language. Folk Religion is as old as language and even some of the proto-languages that undoubtedly preceded it until language itself was well enough structured and established to stand alone. Folk religion and its Ritual may have been like a scaffolding that supported these early developments.
Time Line of Cultural Milestones
Proto-Language and Language itself: 40,000+ years ago
Folk Religion: origin 40,000 to 25,000 years ago
Agriculture: 10,000 years ago
Metalworking: 8,000 years ago
Written Language: 5,000 years ago
Evolutionary Biological Advances are based in our genetic code. Evolutionary Cultural Advances are based in our linguistic codes. Biological advance starts in mutations of the DNA code and if accompanied by successful bodily or behavioral expressions, they are selected. They then are not easily lost, that is the very definition of success; they are passed down to further generations genetically.
But what of early Cultural Advances? They were not recorded in our DNA nor in any written language, because written language was itself a rather late developing cultural advance. How did Cultural Advances persist? How were they passed on to future generations when even oral language was still in formation? Ritualis the answer: group based, oral, rhythmic, bodily movement-based, repetitive, highly emotive, expressive events.
(Rituals, from top left to right. Hindus of India speaking to the ancestors in an effort to attain health and healing through the management of intergenerational karmas. Shia Muslim mourning the death of their prophet at the annual Ashura commemoration in Iraq. Courtship ritual of the Wodaabe people of Niger. Occur once a year, men dress and make themselves up and are judged by available females. Bottom, speaking in tongues in the U.S.A.)
(In the following post in this series on Dan Dennett’s scientific theory of religion as a natural object, the contribution of Religious Ritual to the formation of Culture will be presented.)
Stay Safe! The Virus is On The Roll here in Ohio! ALSO, “NO” TO DONALD TRUMP!!! Throw the Bum Out!!!!!!
(This is a speculative post. NO MORE THINKING ABOUT VIRUSES AND TRUMP! This Post considers the potential connection between the Hindu Mantras and the formation of the basic sounds [the phonemes] of the Indo-European Languages. These are controversial topics and I am just discovering some of the issues involved. Language, and linguistically-based society, are at the core of theories of The Mind as something profoundly different than the scientific hardware of the Brain. A new level of complexity emerges here, and needs its own vocabulary for adequate description and explanation. Roughly, the brain is like the hardware of a computer; the Mind is the software downloaded to it. This post speculates on the transition to language-based, and culture- based, living. The Hindu mantras are a celebration of linguistic sounds, as much as any ideas of gods.)
(Figurines from the Ancient Indus Valley Civilization from about 2500 BCE, Bronze Age. Scholars of religion believe that it was in this valley and at about this time that the earliest Vedas of Hindu religion became evident, though there is no single composer of them or founderof Hinduism as have many other religions.
The Hindu Religion is generally considered to be the oldest of all religions. Islam is one of the youngest of the major religions, with its origin in the life of Mohammed. At about the age of 40 and in the year 610 CE, it is believed by Muslims that Mohammed was fasting and praying in a cave near Mecca, in today’s Saudi Arabia, when he was visited by the Angel Gabriel and came to have the first words of the Qur’an tumble from his mouth.
Yet, major religious change has occurred far more recently. In the early 1500s, various protests against orthodox Catholicism led to a new “wing” of Christianity called Protestantism. Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Today, new forms of Protestantism emerge every day, and the number of its adherents may be as high as 1 billion.
There are an estimated 1.25 billion Hindus, but elements of Hindu practice such as Yoga and Meditation are more widespread. In fact, Hindu is Not primarily a religious doctrine, not an “ortho-doxy” (right doctrine), but an “ortho-praxi” (right practice); it is in that sense that I have been inspired to discuss it now at The Nature Religion Connection. HINDUISM IS BASICALLY RITUALISTIC: Right sounds/words, right movements, designated ceremonies and celebrations, but a variety of loosely associated and variously emphasized “beliefs” and “interpretations”.
In previous posts, Folk Religion, The Strange Idea of..., and Folk Religion: Ritual as Memory Device and as Communal R & D, the role of Ritual in religions was discussed especially in ancient religion. Contemporary scholars of religion emphasize the essential role of religious-like rituals in the origination of language, social structure, personal identity, art and human group cooperation in general. These early humans had ideas, but more so these ideas were very vague and incipient; it was the actions, chants, movements, symbolic objects and ceremonies that were concrete and specific to them. Out of this generalized stew, we have today sorted out its more specific departments, ideas and focuses: religion, science, art, morality, politics…
Symbolic Objects from various Ancient Civilizations:
The focus of this post will be on Language. Philosopher Dan Dennett has contended that the origins of language go as far back as the origin of early forms of Religion and Ritual(some 35 to 40 thousand years ago)that he, and other investigators, have called “Folk Religion.” Folk religion lacks official doctrines and priestly hierarchies, but is large on ritual. After all, language is still rudimentary and in development, so there are no “doctrines.” It has been suggested in the posts mentioned previously that what was “taken” by these early humans as “religion” was also language development and many other activities too: art, social role development, and the beginnings of abstract thought.
(Depictions of Civilization in the late Paleolithic Period with the dawn of Agriculture and then in the Neolithic period, with the discovery of metallurgy.)
Proto-Indo-European (PIE) Language
The ancient common ancestor of Greek, Sanskrit, Iranian (Persian), Germanic (includes English), Anatolian (Turkish and Mesopotamian) and Romance languages is the Proto-Indo-European language. Our understanding of PIE is a reconstruction derived from the common elements of the 140 languages (includes the above) that form the Indo-European Family of Languages. This reconstruction is also based on recognized shifts in pronunciation, as in the shift within the Germanic languages from the German “d” as in “ding” and “danke” to the English “th” as in “thing” and “thanks”.
PIE is believed to have been spoken as far back as 5,000 BCE(7,000 years ago) in the Late Neolithic Era and may have continued to about 2,500 BCE, the Early Bronze Age. Ancient Greek and Sanskrit are considered to be two of its most ancient daughter languages. Below are some of the tell-tale similarities in vocabulary.
PIE is hypothesized to have had a complex structure with “regular vowel variations” as in sing, sang, sung and their noun, song, and pronoun declensions such as “I”, “me”, “mine”. It did lack the definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a”) and did place the verb at the end of the sentence or clause. It is hypothesized to have invented/discovered all the basic Phonemes of our language group. It seems that the Consonant sounds may have been the ‘easiest’ and earliest to have been agreed upon, with the Vowel sounds only developing — becoming more systematic — more slowly.
The Hindu Mantras as a Discovery and Appreciation of the Phonemes of this Human Language Cooperation
The basic Sounds of human-language cooperation in the Indo-European language tradition may not have originated in the Indus River Valley of Pakistan/India. Maybe the basic Mantras of Hinduism are an early appreciation and affirmation of the place these sounds play in our lives. Chanted sound vibrations, recognized as a huge progressive development, are at the core of Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion. Today, we might recognize this birth of language as the shift from simply biological life to cultural-biological life.
Dennett argues forcefully that Language-Based Communication is based in layers of Mutually Recognized and Agreed Upon Intentions. Like when telling a joke, the teller must be understood by the recipient as “joking”, the recipient must “get” the situation as a “joke” to “get” the joke. Often when a joke does not succeed, the recipient pauses and then realizes the intent of the joker, “Oh, you’re joking”, they realize and say, “now I get it!”
Theorists of communication often contend that “the order of intentionality” must go three and four layers deep: the speaker must understand and agree on the context for the speech act with the hearer: to greet, to inform, to request, to convince… Both must recognize that each is aware of the agreed upon expectations and that the speech act must comply with, and — then– be interpreted in that light. As a Teacher, one becomes keenly aware of the mutual expectations of the setting in terms of trust in the method and goal of the interaction shared by teacher and student. The relationship between Salesperson and Customer, also, has mutual expectations, but is far different than Teaching in terms of trust, goal, and appropriate methods of interaction.
Before more complex speech interactions can occur, the most basic one of working out the sounds to be used and the standards of acceptability for the range of vocalization that will “count”, must be established and agreed upon. This is Language as a Digital System, says Dennett, and this is a huge clue to the mechanism of its operation! Maybe the most basic chant of all, “Om”, is most illustrative of this point.
“Om”: The Primal Chant
It is like a phonics lesson. The first thing you read about the “Om”chant is that it is pronounced A-U-M; three separate but related sounds and mouth/throat/tongue placements. The “A” is “ahhh”, mouth round and open wider (please try it), as if ‘accepting the whole of reality,’ we are told. The “ahhh” rolls out from the back of your throat. The “U” is “oooh”, with your mouth closing more, lips pursing but still round. The sound still from the back of your throat, but now more focused and specifically directed. The “M” is the “mmm” sound, with the same “ahhh” and “oooh” sound coming from the back of your throat, but now with your mouth closing and your tongue moving to the top of your palate. With your tongue in this position the vibrations are now palpable and strong. Please try this.
Hindus believe the universe is basically vibration and the “Om” is its first sound. In the “Om”, we have three phonemes, basic Indo-European language sounds; but this is an over simplification because vowel sounds are much more complicated and controversial among linguists than consonant sounds. Some scholars speculate that the initial Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) operated with only two, or even one, of our vowel sounds! Actually, a fourth sound is insisted upon by the Hindu gurus, the modern embodiment ofthis Oral Tradition; they teach that the eventual Silence after the “mmm” is to be appreciated as important as any other element! Sound ends, and reality goes on beyond our perception of it.
“Om” is used as the introduction to many other Mantras and to the initiation and conclusion of many Yoga and meditational exercises.
Other Simple Mantra Chants
“Om Namo Narayanaya” is considered one of the most sacred of all Mantras; some consider it the most “powerful”. It is contended to penetrate to the basic unity of consciousness underlying all reality. Literally, it means “I bow to and honor Lord Narayana”. Lord Narayana is also known as Vishnu, the protection and preservation of all that exists. This chant is also specifically known for its sounds in the original Sanskrit and is, thus, in keeping with the theme of this post: The Basic Connection of Ritual/Religion to The Origins of Language. This mantra is called “the eight-lettered invocation”.
“Om Neti Neti”: A very short chant.
The Controversy of The Source of PIE
Hindu Doctrine regards their religion as having No Origin. To them it is eternal and the sounds of its mantras, that they so cherish, are The natural sounds of the universe, and in no way particular to them or their Language Family. But they are. Hindu Nationalists are today the only ‘scholars’ proposing that The Original Source of the Proto-Indo-European Language (PIE) arose in the Indus Valley and its early Aryan civilization. This position gains some credibility from the antiquity of Sanskrit; it is one of PIE’s earliest “daughters”.
The accepted theory of scholars around the world is The Out of The Russian Steppes Theory or The Kurgan hypothesis. The hugely influential geographer, Jared Diamond, explains that one of the leading clues to a language’s origins are words that it now contains that are obviously from a different source (see his The Third Chimpanzee, chapter 15). In American English, we now have words such as “Mississippi”, “Ohio” (which means “good river [or waters]” in the local indigenous language) and “Dakota”. These words indicate that English overtook a pre-established language.
How could a language originating from a culture north of the Black and Caspian Seas in the eastern and middle parts of Europe have such wide-ranging historical impact? We see no great pyramids there; we see no monumental aqueducts or coliseums in that region! We do find what we have called “Kurgans’, burial mounds traditional to this region stretching our in various directions.
The Horse and the Wheeled Cart
The language of these, the First Indo-Europeans, overran indigenous languages. How? The Horse and Wheeled Charts! These pastoral peoples were the first to domesticate the horse and use them for “Horse Power”! They prospered, and rolled out of Eastern Europe into the east toward India and then to the west. This advantage of the Domesticated Horse and the Wheeled Cart used in both battle and mundane transportation caused an expansion of these Mongolian peoples — Huns, Vandals, Visigoths — that lasted 5,000 years. They overran indigenous languages and replaced them to a telling degree.
(The Mongolian Horse Backed warrior and herder, top right. Burial “Kurgan Mounds“, left and left middle. The envisioned pastoral and herding camp of these Mongolian People, the first Indo-Europeans!)
So, what where these indigenous languages that were overrun? Diamond proposes that it was a situation analogous to recent New Guinea, that isolated Pacific island. This is one of Diamond’s original bases of study, and for which there have been recorded “nearly one thousand mutually unintelligible languages — including dozens with no known relation to each other or to any other language in the world”! It seems that people around the world evolved many different languages but few survived! In our case, a language group that consists of 140 languages, out out of the 5,000 languages that currently survive, is now spoken by half of the world’s population! This is a testament to Horse Power, at least initially.
One More Celebration of Sound and Dance
Krishna Das Music! You gotta give it 5 to 10 minutes; they really start to heat it up! A Celebration of Sound, Dance and Unity.
About two decades ago, when my eldest daughter was in High School, she wanted me to go with her to the local Krishna House, after her encounter with them at a festival in the campus area. I was eager to go; I had never been. We went some Saturday in the summer, late in the morning, as I recall. About 20 of us had gathered that day at the house, along with its eight or so residents. After some cordial greetings, the celebration slowly started in the living and dining rooms of the old brick house. We had been offered simple instruments; I chose a tambourine. Several of the residents were more elaborately equipped, one a hand-organ as shown in this video.
It started slowly and quietly, but soon picked up intensity. The temperature in the house was soon in the mid-eighties, no air con, and I started to pound the tambourine and sway to the chant as did my daughter. I do not remember the particulars of the chant that day but after about an hour, it slowed and then solemnly stopped. We were exhausted and I was wet with sweat. We clapped and smiled and all adjourned to the back patio where we were served a tasty and simple vegetarian meal. It was a lasting memory and a worthy experience, to which this post is testimony.
Some philosophers and scientists are often mistaken. There are Truths available to us through our Social Interactions that are as Real as the universe presented to us by physics and chemistry. Human Cooperation through Sound and Language and Music and Dance is as real as anything, and in need of our explicit affirmation. That is our insistence on an Ethical Society. Persons work together. Positive human cooperation is the basis of all human interaction at its unique level. For example, Trump and his lies are harmfully parasitic upon our foundation of honest human interactions, which are the overwhelming majority. Science and philosophy—and ethics—are built upon honest linguistic interaction. Hey! Music and Art are the “egg” added to the batter that allowed Culture to Rise!
(Buckle up your wading pants, it gets a little deep at the end! A fun post, until I tried to write the end. I’m not too sure what it comes to, but I will leave that for you to help sort out! Thanks.)
In the previous post, How Weird is Divination?, we found that divinatioon is very weird but it actually may have done some good as a stage in our history of development as Decision-Makers.
Divination was at its peak in Western Culture at the onset of life in cities and in empires. This was enabled by the development of agriculture and metallurgy. No longer was the familiar support of intimate and local customs and kinship relations available to guide one’s behavior. Divination rose as a socially accepted method of making tough decisions. It involved a statement of the issue, and then a determined point of resolution. Its social acceptance functioned somewhat as a referee in a ball game by being given the authority “to make a call” that would be accepted by all sides, resolve an unclear situation and allow life to move on. That is an important social function!
Divination May Work Even Better Than That
But how often was The Divined Answer a good one? Granted, it helped clarify and resolve a situation, but was it good advise? In that initial post, I simply declared that, often, the Divined Decision “was about as good as any that could be made”, considering that there was limited information available, and the decision may have been a “toss up” to begin with.
But I have now come across additional information, from a new book I’m reading by Harvard biologist Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success (2016).
Consider the situation of the Naskapi foragers of Labrador, Canada. They hunt caribou, but caribou are evasive. Caribou do not frequent the same spots, there are many places to graze and these animals are, too often, unpredictable. They avoid spots where they have encountered hunters in the past. They do not congregate regularly at a specific watering site and such. So commonsense and “reasonable approaches“, like going to where success was had in the past, do not work.
(Traditional Naskapi territory is shown in yellow. They are closely related to the Cree people to their south and west. They largely escaped contact with Europeans until the early to mid 1800s.)
The Naskapi have devised a peculiar ‘solution’ to find them. They have a Divination Ritual that starts with an old shoulder blade of a caribou. It is heated on the coals of a fire until it develops cracks and scorched spots. It is “then read as a kind of map” by the hunters sending them in a specific direction and guiding them to hunting areas ‘designated’ by the bone, explains Henrich.
Surely this is foolishness, but Henrich hypothesizes that it is not. It is a custom with a long past, and if this ritual was not working why do these people keep doing it? And, if that foolish, how would the Naskapi continue to survive?
Henrich argues that A Randomizing Strategy for the Naskapi is the most reasonable approach to finding caribou. The cracks and scorched spots are randomly formed in the bone and certainly in relation to the location of caribou: There is no connection between the two events. But, the ritual is a Choice by Chance Method of Decision and thus reasonable and effective. More effective than many other more ‘obvious’ approaches, like having a favorite hunting spot, or going where another hunting party just saw caribou.
After all, Naskapi did not have helicopters to find caribou, or remote detection devices. Maintaining their overall life style, involves none of those modern technologies, but their culture has provided them with a decision technique in hunting that is compatible with who they are, and reasonably effective. Just as the caribou graze in random locations, so do the Naskapi hunters hunt in random locations!
(The value of Random Behavior is not unusual in nature. The Fruit Fly (left) uses this method to search for food. It flies in some direction, then randomly stops, turns sharply in different directions —trying to detect an enticing odor— with none detected, it then shoots off on a new (seemingly random) straight path only at some point to stop again, randomly, and sniff about that area. Also, Butterflies fly erratic (random) flight paths, that is their norm, not more efficient straight paths, apparently to make themselves a harder target while in flight for predators. Of course, neither of these creatures behave this way consciously; it is ‘just’ in their evolved good design!)
This is a cool suggestion, and it really goes further. It suggests that the millions of years of Natural Selection and then the thousands of years of Cultural Selection between caribou and various predators (including the Naskapi) has stumbled upon randomizing solutions that worked. The Naskapi do not understand why this Divination ‘works’,it was simply “custom” to them, but we now have an opportunity to do so. It involves the use of Game Theory in mathematics to understand the relationship. Mother Nature stumbled upon the solution, but in modern times the environment has dramatically changed for both Naskapi and Caribou, and each are in serious decline. It was “a wise Custom”, says Henrich. While it lasted.
Making Cassava(I love Tapioca!)
A second example of the value of Custom involves cassava, more widely known as manioc (“man-ee-ok”). This is one of the most widely used staple crops in the world, behind corn and rice. It is especially dependable in drought prone areas but also areas suffering from poor top soil, as in rainforests. The tuber (similar to a potato) is made into flour, eaten boiled, made into noodles; its liquid is used as a starch and glue; it is even fermented into various alcoholic beverages. It comes in two forms, known as “bitter” and “sweet”, the ‘sweet’ is only less bitter, according to various sites. I am only familiar with it as tapioca(and I do like tapioca, but how often have I had it in recent decades?). The “bitter” manioc is especially hearty in the event of drought and poor soil, an important advantage to it and its growers and consumers.
Manioc was first domesticated and widely used in South America thousands of years ago, and especially in the Amazonian area. In these regions a Strict Social Custom arose concerning its use and preparation. It is a multistep, labor-intensive, multiday, procedure. Henrich is both a biologist and an ethnologist — who has done field work in the Amazon — he tells us that the tubers are pealed, soaked, often grated, and then washed again “in order to separate the fibers, starch, and liquid.” The fibers and starch are then let to sit for two additional days. At that point they can be baked, boiled or cooked into various dishes. Asked why such a prolonged and difficult method of preparation, these indigenous South Americans will only say, (like the Naskapi) “It is our custom.”
And the issue with manioc is that it is full of CYANIDE! Especially the “bitter” form, but the “sweet” has plenty too. The general result of eating inadequately processed manioc is a gradual increase of cyanide in your system. This food can taste fine, but will eventually lead to neurological problems, thyroid issues, birth defects and paralysis in the legs, but more immediately to an increase in stomach issues, diarrhea, and fatigue.
Henrich sites testing that has shown that the traditional processing and cooking methods reduce the cyanide content to safer levels, well below 10% in most food uses. The cyanide in the plant provides protection for it from various insects and plant diseases; it is part of what makes manioc a hearty species. (Maybe it can ward off the Corona virus too; I’ll let you know.)
History has provided a generally unfortunate test case for the value of this Cultural Tradition of preparation. In the 17th century the Portuguese began exporting manioc from Brazil to West Africa, but they did not bring along the customs of its preparation. The product did catch on (It was a meme. GWW) but hundreds of years later, chronic cyanide poisoning is still a problem in this area of the world. Some people developed preparation traditions of their own that are helpful; they reduce the bitterness and then, also, the cyanide, but educational programs are still necessary.
So,here is another “strange” custom, and one in no way fully understood by its practitioners;“and a wise custom it is” concludes Henrich.
Some Brief Thoughts on Rationality
Repeatedly throughout this section of the book —Chapter 7: “On The Origin Of Faith“– Henrich tries to make the point that a modern, Western person, would be trying to find a more “direct” route; looking for behaviors that do not involve ‘inefficient’, ‘extra’, and ‘unexplained’ steps, a more “reasonable” approach, we would say, to the goal. Why heat a bone and follow it? Why peal and soak, grate and let sit, and wash again, before cooking manioc?And the traditional practitioner could offer no explicit explanation for why they did what they did.It is just the way they were taught; the way it has always been done, and they have” faith” in their tradition.
Henrich contends that the relations between these customary rituals and their outcomes — caribou found and cyanide depleted — are “causally opaque” to us and even to their traditional practitioners. To more modern and western ways of thinking, these practices look downright Foolish, at least initially.So, it was the “wisdom” of Natural Selection that ultimately proved to be effective! Natural and Cultural Selection sorted through a massive number of attempts, over thousands of years, and came upon these most appropriate practices and coordinations. Mother Nature is smarter than you or I, we may reasonably conclude, as does Henrich! Our Rationality and Problem-Solving are more limited than hers.
“A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing” says the old aphorism, and Philosopher Dan Dennett also suggests in his book on religion, that it has often been “safer to substitute a potent myth for incomplete knowledge.” Some traditions are true for us by their capacity to promote our adaptation.
Mother Nature is Smarterthan We Are
This truth is still effective today. Do we currently have Customs that are “causally opaque” to us? Do we have Customs that are effective, but that we do not fully understand? Yes.
We have been learning that Religion, at least in some of its forms, was vital in the origination of our Cultural way of living together(see post: “Folk Religion”, The Strange Idea of..). We have The Customof Ethical Behavior.This includes Individual Responsibility, Moral and Legal Standards, Manners, Altruistic Behavior and even Decision-Making, itself; about all of these we have greatly varying ideas concerning their reality and composition (see post: PLAIN TALK: If Mind is not The Brain, then What the Heck is It?).
Why do we make Art? To some, art is just emotional; it cuts no deeper than that. Visual art, poetry, music, dance: These Customary Practices have been briefly explored —here at The Connection— for their role in the origin of Language and even Mate-Selection (see post: A Paleolithic Sex Symbol). It has been one of our oft-stated positions, that Art is a search for truth, not in same sense as science, but truth nonetheless.
But, we have had many customs that it is quiet wise to have gotten rid of, or at least tried: slavery, racial and ethnic discrimination, religious persecution, sexism. Tradition has been no guarantee for acceptability and probity.
And, why do we Reasonably Discourse?What kind of Custom is that? Is there a place for Rationality in a world primarily composed of subatomic particles, chemical reactions, and neural networks? Will scientists one day discover that their own rational search for Truth leads them to believe that the customary practice of “rationality” is itself just so much “reading of burnt and cracked bones”, a “smoke screen” that hid the real neurological mechanisms in the brain?
As we take apart and scrutinize our traditions, we need to recognize that Nature’s Selections have been at play in the institution and maintenance of these traditions. SO, with some traditions, we may say Our world may be put together Far Better than is often thought.OR, for some others, The Persons of the past —through their Traditions— have often actedwithout Complete Knowledge and Responsibility for all that they did or all that became of it.
In our troubled world, these thoughts may be of modest consolation: Our world is often surprisingly well put together, but also People act based from what they have been given —Traditions. Apparently, it is up to us to sift through it and move forward.
As the poet wrote:
Come gather 'round, people Wherever you roam.
And admit that the watersAround you have grown ...For the times they are a-changin'
InThe Words of the Poet: Bob Dylan
Come gather 'round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
And you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin'
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'
Thank You for your attention; I hope this was worthy of Your Precious Time.
(Let’s continue the trend, No More thinking about Viruses or Trump, for the moment! Let’s think about the “reading” of sheep intestine instead, and how weird is that?Well, maybe not quite as weird as you may think! More on “Folk Religion” and its role in the origins of Human Mind!)
To try to foretell the future through the examination of the entrails of a sacrificed animal — called “haruspicy” — That is the Height of Foolishness! Or, how about “nephomancy”; the ‘reading’ of the shapes and colors of clouds in an effort to make an important decision? “Ceroscopy” is the reading of the meaning of wax dripped into water through the significance of the shapes it takes. Surely these are the epitome of Superstition and a royal waste of time and energy.
Divination is “the practice of determining the hidden significance or cause of events” or “the effort to gain information of a mundane sort by means conceived of as transcending the mundane”, says Britannica. It does not necessarily involve any reference to a god or gods, or even a ‘divine will’, as evident in the still somewhat common use of a Ouija board.
Yet, in the history of the human speciesall human groups have displayed evidence of The Practice of Divination in their religious and ritualistic behaviors. Astrology (the use of the stars and planets), tasseography (the reading of tea leaves), sortilege (the tossing of bones or the dealing of cards) are all used as means to decipher the meaning inherent in our worldand lives, or at least so it is believed.
In Numerology, numbers are held to have significance beyond their immediate usefulness in counting or record keeping; they have what we, moderns, would call symbolic value pertinent to matters of cosmic meaning. A Mind as acute as Pythagoras’ set out a numerical system far flung but pertinent to human decision, he believed. Each letter (or group of letters) of the alphabet were assigned a numerical value that was then added up and “reduced” to “knowledge” of a person’s disposition and fortunes according to the spelling of their name and the date of their birth.
Let us use (roughly) this system to gain clues into the character of Pythagoras, himself.
P Y T H A G O R A S
7+7+2+8+1+7+6+9+1+1 = 49 "reduces to" 4+9= 13 "reduces to" 1+3 = 4
This number, "4", is called the "life path number" or his "expression number"
It indicates Positive Personality Traits: Constructive, Systematic, Industrious and
Negative Personality Traits: Lacks Imagination, Argumentative, Extremely Serious
So, this looks all well and good, and very silly. I did say this is only a rough application of what we are assured is a “complicated process” that should involve only “trained and experienced Numerologists”, we are told on several sites. But you gotta take issue with the idea that Pythagoras “lacked Imagination”, maybe that is my “lack of training”. After all, Pythagoras was no slouch with numbers, discoveringhis famous Geometric Theorem. If Pythagoras would have come out a “5″, he would have been Curious, Adaptable and Social, but then, negatively, Unreliable, Directionless and Unable to Commit.
But Mockery is Not Enough!
Was Divination just foolishness? A cultural practice –“a Meme” — with this kind of prevalence and expenditure of effort probably served some useful function to have evolved and lasted. We have been learning that “Folk Religion”, itself, had a positive role in the development of human culture in its early stages. What could the positive function be for Divination?
A positive function, surely this is a stretch! Maybe divination was a Harmfully Parasitic or Toxic Memefrom the start. A “cultural recipe”, “an attractive notion”, “an infectious symbol” used by con men (“Shaman”) to gain power and profit by bamboozling the ignorant populace. In religion, itself, there is a strong strain of flimflam. From Jim and Tammy Bakker to the power grabbing and multiple Popes of the Catholic Church during the The Western Schism (1380 to 1420 CE), personal profit and power through religious affectation has occurred regularly.
But, a Toxic Meme can also be a Cultural Formula that exploits some of “our least desirable tendencies and weaknesses” without consciously duplicitous perpetrators and exploiters. The diviner can be as taken in as his or her audience, contends Dan Dennett who has championed the idea — “meme” — after its introduction by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. Some good examples of toxic memes today, may be an unquestioned interpretation and affirmation of the infallibility of various texts and then the perpetration of acts that are widely considered antisocial such as blowing up abortion clinics, the use of suicide vests and beheadings.
The Proposed Value of Divination
Divination, in its earlier uses, did have a positive social and individual value, argues Dennett and some other researchers. With the further development of language and agriculture, larger cities and empires began to develop. This was very different from life in a hunting and gathering group, or even a small agricultural settlement; Different in terms of Individual and Social Self-Control. How were Decisions and Judgements to be made in these larger contexts well beyond the intimate customs and associations of family and kin? Daily life among far flung strangers was new and greatly challenging. The old customs of behavior and decision-making of one’s clan and region were now challenged by competition and, possibly, confusion.
Divination stepped up to assume an even larger role in guiding and justifyingbehavior. Julian Jaynes is an early and influential contributor to these theories of human cultural development. He argues the following: there was “A Change of Mind in Mesopotamia”.
First, and very hard for us to imagine, Ancient Peoples Did Not Think of Anything as Accidental! The idea of random events and coincidences is a fairly modern idea. To the ancients, all occurrences were purposeful and the bearer of meaning to them or the world at large. There were no accidents or just simple “luck”. All “foretold” of deeper significances and wider ramifications, potentially. Divination is the direct outgrowth of this.
Second, Divination was (and still is) a decision-making devise, and in fact, a helpful one in some ways. In our lives even today, we recognize many instances where the information to decide a matter is insufficient to make a clear choice. We say, “It’s a toss-up” or even, “It’s beyond me what to do!” Help is needed in making many decisions.
Both of those phrases are often accurate. We still use a coin toss, literally, to decide some matters, and just figuratively, at other times, to provide perspective on decision-making. These decision devises — divination and coin-tossing — sharpen our thinking about a “strategic situation” and bring it to a climax, a decision-point. “This is my situation, and now a decision will be made”, we seem to be saying. They further acknowledge that some outcomes are beyond our control and beyond our foresight. The decision must simply be made and in a manner that is accepted by all.
These last points are important developments in the history of human thinking about “decision”. “Good” decisions are often hard to make, and often “beyond us”, but still must be made. Our information is only partial, and the outcome of the event is not in our control. We do the best we can, and in ancient times Divination is what they stumbled upon. Surely, it ‘worked’ as often as it did not. Socially accepted decisions are important to us, for both the decision-maker and any of those who suffered its consequences. They could say, ‘Hey, The Oracle was consulted, what more could be done?’ That is a somewhat familiar phrase, wide ranging variations of it are often heard today in the aftermath of DECISION!
Today, we have shrunken the range of “meaning.”Meanings and Motives no longer have a place as a Cause for many kinds of events. “Accidents” and “Chance” are now recognized; some things occur With No Motivation behind themand No Significance further than The Obvious to those directly involved. The coloration and shape of a dead animal’s intestine are now no more significant than to determining what it ate the day before or the reason it died today.
Yet, Divination did have an historic benefit; it was an evolutionary stage in the practice of Human Decision-Making and an element in an early attempt at Understanding The Cosmos. That we now think of divination as hooey, does not mean that it always or simply was.
Does Religion suffer the same fate as divination? Is it a practice that once made sense and functioned in some positive ways, but now is worthless and expendable? This theme will continue to be explored in the next post on The Very Human Habit of ‘Seeing’ Motives and Meanings as Supernatural Actors: How GODSGOT IN OUR WORLD!