(Well, we got hit with more Snow here in the Central O-H-I-O, about 5-7inches or 12-18cm. The whole thing started Monday with Sleet that lasted for hours (!) and put down over an inch of ice pellet accumulation! Temperature was about 20 F or -7C. All the schools were closed, a lot of people not going to work. Got hit with more snow Wednesday night and some schools closed Thursday. I now have 3 school days off and my wife 6 from snow and ice this year. We have received twice the snow as last year! Snow still thick on the ground. GOOD DAY TO STAY HOME AND BONE UP ON SOME METAPHYSICS. That always warms my heart!)
(Please refer to part 1 on Design in living things, [https://wordpress.com/post/naturereligionconnection.org/7198] and part 2 for designs as Cyclesin the non-living world. Here, we encounter some aspects of Design in the world of Persons. This whole series of posts is now striking me as almost poetic, and that is a good thing because we are working at the Level of Intuition!)
Our Thinking About Design and Our Participation in It
A segue from the world of Physic’s Things to Thoughtful Things, fromChemicals toMind is what we need, says Dan Dennett, America’s most noted philosopher. Many people think we already surely have that explanation. It was written up and explained in one of those books, or the opening chapter of some text book, that you were supposed to have read as a sophomore in college. But we do not have that book, so Dennett has tried to write it, and here at NatieRel, we have tried to present it in popularized form.
But it has not been easy, for either of us. Dennett has run into powerful opposing intuitions in the minds of others and a genuine cultural thicket, he says; and I just have trouble telling sh!# from shine-ola, sometimes.
So, how do we get, “Something so Different from Some Other Kind of Very Different Thing?”, which is a return to our initial theme in this post series. This is the point of Dennett’s 2017 book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back; The Evolution of Minds.It is an appreciation of “Design” as the link between these generally misinterpreted poles of Objectivity (the world as made up of the items of physics and chemistry) and Subjectivity (the reality of thought, emotion and mind). How does Mind come from Matter? Or is “Mind” just a figment of Brain, that mushy grey matter between our ears composed of approximately 100 billion neurons!
The first thing we must realize is The world and the universe always display Design. The highly regulated and precisely predictable world as known by physicsis qualitatively stripped down; all that exists are a few characteristics in precise mathematical relation. That is a very tightly designed and constricted universe. But, the world of persons is much richer in qualities with a greater variety of objects and abilities and not capable of the high precision of prediction, but still very predictable and designed.
(Not as predictable as the world of physics, but still highly predictable: OUR SOCIAL WORLD. We eat. We seek shelter [Frank Lloyd Wright house in Rochester, NY]. We vote regularly in much of the world. We play games; throwing the curve ball.. How many very regular things do you have in your life?)
(The Tower of Silence:DEATH,NOW THERE IS A REGULARITY, A DESIGN PIECE, WE ARE FAMILIAR WITH! Death, we all have been giving a bit of thought to that lately! Death made a significant impression on humans starting way back! Here is an unusualritual of burial, that I just discovered: The Zoroastrian Religious Tradition of “The Tower of Silence.“Ritual was an early step in the development of “Mind”.
(This Persian practice, examples of which recorded in Iran and India, involved the construction of stone circular structures with outer walls as high as 25 ft. and diameters some nearly 100 ft. In the middle of this “Tower of Silence” was a pit [an ossuary] were the bones of the dead eventually were deposited. But before that, the bodies of the dead were placed in small exposed cubicles; on the outer rims the men, women on the next closest and children on the inner-most circular cubicles, all with feet facing inward. Left there for as much as a year, the corpses were exposed to the sun and rain, but mostly to the carnivorous birds. Vultures lined the rim of the dakhma, “the Tower”, and cleaned the corpses of flesh. At that point, the remains either washed into the center ossuary or were assisted manually in that placement. Lime was added to the pit to assist the decomposition and assure the return of the departed back into the cycle of elements. Note the vultures in the drawings above. A Strange Design, but true!)
The Cycles and Designs in the universe and in the living world are of great interest to us.They presage our own individual reality as humans with Minds.
First, we have experience as designersof things of use and beauty. We humans became the first Intelligent Designers, because Natural Selection designs but without foresight, and beavers and such design by instinct. Instilled in us, as social and communicating creatures, we start to construct, fabricate, gather, and organize—like many of the Cycles of the inanimate world. We start to make patterns of our own and with premeditation, or at least significantly our own, but also patterns modified from our “given environment”. Communities organize hunting parties and select mates; bury their dead and welcome the newborn; these are Regularities about which we create Myths and Rituals.
These human activities are regular and objective patterns, but not wholly independent of us, argues Dennett. In myth and ritual these patterns start to ‘come to mind’, we can say. These Human Designs are congruous with the patterns that precede them, and surround them, in the Living World and also in the lifeless and stripped down Universe that we understand in our most objective ways.
Second, we have experience as Designers of ourselves.We are “self-made selves” (Dennett). Again, not completely independent, not god-like in our creativity, but incrementally we take what has been given to us objectively and attempt to modify it, mold it. In our own lifeand also in the history of humanity, at first this subjective ability, this self-design, took place dimly and with little self-awareness. Now, many of us have highly developed senses of Choice, Responsibility and Design. We hold the status of a full-fledged “Person” and seek to create not only our own lives but also a family, community, kingdom, nation and even a more Ideal World. “What is it like to be a person?”, we ask. “What should I do that is acceptable? What should we do?” Persons design many things, including themselves, and they ‘Take Response-Ability’ for that. We are willing to answer for it!
(Interestingly, the story of Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama comes to mind. Harrer was s brash young German mountain climber and adventurer at about the start of WWII. The Dalai Lama was a teenager and ‘still in training’, one might say, as the spiritual and political leader of the modest and gentile Tibetan Buddhist mountain civilization. You are probably familiar with the story from the movie, Seven Years in Tibet , starring Brad Pit; an able telling, I believe. I own Harrer’s book of the same title, but never read it. A remarkable story of the meeting of two very diverse civilizations embodied in the growing personal relationship of these young men. Both shared and learned much, though its end was tragic for the Tibetans.)
When we create our own life and the life of the community around us, we do not do so in just any old way. We must Modify and Build Up the Designs Objectively Present to us and in us.
The cycles of the prebiotic world prepared the way for the “design leap” to Living Things, and living things to Thinking Things, which are a subset of the living. Dennett calls these “moves” or “explorations” in “Design Space”. They are based in the basic Information provided in, and modification of, the genetic code, and in the phenomenal or phenotypic world which is the genetic information’s family of manifestations.
Persons are a development in this context of design as evolved on our planet. Persons are a design with a Reflective Sense of Itselfand of all the designs that reverberate outward, and inward, between us and the rest of the universe. Our life, the life in the Living world, the Designs and Cycles in the inanimate world, are–as if– the rolling and concentric waves created by a pebble thrown into a pond.
In Part IV, I will attempt to display Our Larger Unity as persons stretching out into the universe around us. That is, of course, a return to the the themes of Part I and II, but now with the goal of placing our Human Ideas and Actions in that Largest Context of Mother Nature’s Grandest Design.Wish me luck, and thanks for reading, “The NatureReligionConnection”.
(Understanding our place in the Largest Scheme of Things is a difficult task. I have been trying to get a handle on it for a number of decades now. This is about as far as I have gotten and I’m glad to share it with you. [Is Singha still the best beer in Thailand?] Part II of IV in this Post Series.)
If we look at things from the Perspective of Design, we will have the best chance of understanding as much of “it” as we can. Philosophy is “seeing how things, in the broadest sense of things, hang together, in the broadest sense of hang together” said (more of less) by philosopher Wilfred Sellars. What I am calling, The Perspective of Design, is (I hope, roughly) what another good philosopher, Dan Dennett, calls “The Intentional Stance”. The significance of “Design” is hard for us to deny, and it can hold together, in a sensible way, two things that really bite us in the intellectual butt: shear Objectivityand shear Subjectivity. Those twain shall not soon reunite, for most ways of thinking!
(Design: a well organized “hanging together” is not hard to see in The Human Anatomy, [above] the muscular system and the nerves of the head. Hey, its All for One and One for All, here! The Parts and the Whole come together amazingly well, as do they in all the living things of the world! Who says Complex Units aren’t real? Only confusedly hardcore Materialistic Reductionists do! Thanks to britanica.com for diagrams. )
Design in the world of living things is easy to believe and obvious to see, we have argued in Part I. Individual Living Things are most clearly understood against their participation in a larger, orderly background: A Design! We are very familiar with this view: The Tree of Life is a massive comparative structure. We think of plants in contrast to animals, fish by comparison to birds, and dogs vs. cats.
Design in the Non-Living World
But Design is not only present in the biological world, it is also suggested to us in theCycles of the prebiotic world. There are cycles “at many spacio-temporal scales”, says Dennett. Some are as obvious asnight and day, andthe cycle of the seasons; many are not so obvious “including thousands of chemical cycles.”
(The Krebs Cycle or the Citric Acid Cycle is a series of reactions that occur in all oxygen-using organisms to break down food into usable energy [ATP]. One of the chemicals produced at the end of this cycle, a kind of citric acid, is just the very chemical needed to restart the process onto another round of food digestion. This process, apparently, can occur outside of living organisms and was possibly incorporated by them deep in our evolutionarily history.)
(CYCLES deep in the earth and above it. Convection Currents inside the Earth’s Mantle drive the Gradual Distribution of the Continents around the planet. The hottest Air at different points around the globe rises, and moves north or south away from the Equator, while cooler air flows in below. This forms regularConvection Cycles in the atmosphere and a regular global wind pattern.)
The significance of these prebiotic cycles is that they helped organize and refine our world, and still do today. They distribute, sort, and accumulate materials. They establish regularities that from some points of view can be depended upon. The seasons of the year, climactic zones. tides and tidal pools, mountain ranges and river deltas are all such regularities or their result. Our Life is Full of Regularities!
(The Waves and Tides of the oceans, seas and lakes unrelentingly sort and distribute their coastal materials. Like a sieve and a grinder, or a series of these, the beach materials are constantly worked upon in an orderly process and result. Thanks to miracosta.edu and pennstate.edu for these photos and and illustration.)
“Think of cycles as ‘do-loops’ in algorithms, actions that return to a starting point “after ‘accomplishing’ something”, contends Dennett. An algorithm is a set of rules to follow to accomplish a particular task. These steps are sometimes repeated, over and over, and that is crucial. They are recursive and they continue to build on themselves. The end result is that our world became increasingly refined! They “gradually changed conditions in the world and thus raised the probability That Something New would occur” (Dennett, my added emphasis).
Some of our very ordinary procedures are Algorithmic and Recursive processes for problem-solving.
Strange that these elementary school methods should embody basic physical and meta-physical realities!
Or is it? Dennett contends that Nature does contain Reasons, Rationales, Rules. (In other words, it is misguided thinking to believe that “the world”, the “Objective World”, is without meaning.) He calls them “free-floating rationales” because not until they embodied themselves in our lives and then finally were Represented in our Thinking, (only at that point) were they Explicit In The World, and not just Implicit, as if only “behind the scenes”, not apparent to the eye or to the understanding.
(The Planets have been orbiting for about 4.5 billion years. This Solar System functions like a gigantic machine, lawfully but for no purpose. In about 1642, the Englishman Isaac Newton realized its operating principles, with the help of some of his contemporaries and predecessors. Still regarded as one of the greatest achievements in modern history, he wrote his theory, in Latin, in the book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687. The principles behind that ancient system where now known outright and not simply hidden in that design’s operation. [Famous painting of Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1689. That is one nice head of hair on that guy!})
Cycles as Regularities that are Sorting, Accumulating, Distributing, Dividing, Preserving. “Do-Loops” are all around us and in us, working and working.
(The Water Cycle [top left] preserves, distributes and makes water accessible to use in various forms/designs as vapor, liquid, and ice. The process of Cell Division and Multiplication renews cellular life and multiplies its presence. [Bottom Left] The network of national highways distributes products and persons, while connecting the country into an accessible physical unit. In Part III we will discover that Persons are “Do-Loops”, who should ideally Return to Their Own Life in Self Reflection and ask: “What am I to Accomplish?” Who am I?” “What is my Story?”)
(In Part I of this post series we argued it was accurate to understand Designs as present and working in The World of Living Things, and this is design Without a Conscious Designer, design by Natural Selection. In Part II we found our prebiotic world full of Cycles that we can understand as creating the necessary background for living things and then eventually for our-selves as Social, Emotional, and Thoughtful Persons. In Part III we will explore “Our Thinking About Design and Our Participation in It.” SOON TO HIT THE PRESSES!!!)
(Let’s get to some Metaphysical Speculation! But like Mary Poppins sang, “Just a Spoonful of Sugar will help the medicine go down”, so I have sweetened this load with some savory sidelights and poignant pictures. I think you will find it a pleasant exercise for the imagination and a deep dive into what is worthy of belief!)
“God and Evolution: Can You Get Something from Nothing?” was the title of one of the first posts written for the naturereligionconnection. “Enhance the Design”is how“toget more from less,” was the answer given. (https://wordpress.com/post/naturereligionconnection.org/52) But, of course, there is more to be asked and more to be said than that.
(Kekule [pronounced Ke-koo-lay) discovered a large group of Carbon Based Structures that are still called Kekule Structures. Each feature a basic set of carbon atoms, as in Benzene, above. They Function importantly in all living things and his work was prominent in the origins of organic chemistry. [Right] The Ouroboros as drawn in an alchemical text from 1478. There are several accepted pronunciations of this name; some featuring an “aw” at the start, others “or” and differences with the end too!)
(Drawing of The Ouroboros from a 3rd century Egyptian text by Cleopatra the Alchemist. Inscribed in the middle are the words “hen to pan” meaning “All is One”)
Of course, if you really have absolutely nothing, then it seems clear, seems reasonable, that that is all you will ever have, nothing. So the Design Position, being argued for here, cannot start with nothing, and not even just a total mess. “Not utter chaos”, not “a random confetti of atoms in motion” is adequate, writes our favorite philosopher, Dan Dennett.*
The Design Position is based on the intuition that as far ‘down’ as you go, you will always find more designs, more Structures, into which to take things to pieces. Designs in designs; structures made of smaller and quicker structures; processes in processes. All the way down, for how would you know when to stop, or stop trying to analyze ‘a thing’ further? Maybe there would just be no more point to it; if you already Knew (could predict) Everything That Was Going To Happen Next!
The Living World
Design is especially apparent in The Living World. Dennett argues that we should embrace this: design is real and it is Design without any god-like designer. Evolution by Natural Selection is the largest part of the answer to this.
(DESIGN IS UBIQUTIOUS IN THE WORLD OF LIFE! A Bowerbird’s bower is designed to attract the female mate: It does look enticing! Can you believe that this bird collects and organizes and builds this well? But also, the cycle of a Frog’s Life [or of any living thing]; and the structure of the Human Eye [or any complex organ]: These are “designs without a designer”. No conscious plan exists for these designs in which these creations are composed or participate, contends Dennett.)
Life, starting out as things as simple as the barest self-replicators like bacteria and viruses, Doubled Back On Itself many, many times. It varied and did so Gradually, and the variations themselves Gradually Varied, and the result was a living environment that was like a Finely Grated Sieve or a Finely Knit Net. It was a Natural Living Background that, in effect, said to each new round of Replicants: “Can you fit in?” “Can you find your place?” “If not, you are Rejected; you are not Selected by Nature!” That is what we call Evolution by Natural Selection, and it is designing new organisms without a conscious plan, without a conscious Designer!
Design allows not just breaking down into smaller units — analysis; it is also building up– synthesis. Many trees make a forest that can then establish a set of patterns and rhythms of its own: a Design at a larger scale. Some well respected biologists and researchers have sought to understand the Earth and its biosphere as a single incipient organism, as if it was life itself first forming, because clearly it had no parent.
A Human Society is such a larger unit, and it has in some senses a reality and significance that transcends its individual members. It is vital that children learn their society’s language, that they behave in many ways that are congruent to their traditions. “Socialization precedes individualization”is a standard tenet for the design position. A member of society needs the ability to respond appropriately in many situations; aresponse their society sees as “fit”. That is what we call “Response-ability”, and we consider such members as full blown “persons”. If a member does not wish to “respond appropriately”, they need good reasons and put forth the effort to explainthemor they will cease being a responsible member.
(Examples of Society Transcending Its Individuals: the Family, the Classroom and Education, the Law and Courts, the Nation and its leaders and citizens. Thanks to these particular sites for these photos. It was hard to find images of family without handsome actors all smiling, or classrooms scenes that looked real. Left, from CDC on Parenting; second left, from the ELA (English as Second Language) web site; third, from Time magazine; far right, Joe and his promise to try to pull this nation back closer together.All is not always Harmony in our larger, and even smaller, Units of Design!)
But even ‘below’ the living world in the prebiotic universe, The Design Position must find suggestions of patterns; Designs or their precursors. Complex design must itself “bubble-up” from less complex and simpler units of process. PART II will explore that world, our world in that simpler Form. COMING SOON, “CYCLES AND DESIGNS’ PART II”
*all quotes in this post from Dennett’s 2017 book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back
Some of you undoubtedly find the idea of Eating a Boar’s Head quite boorish. Sorry to return to such a gruesome topic (see post below), but I woke this morning wondering why cut off the earsand boil them separatelyonly to reattach them later? (Gee, does my Mind wander!)
Well, upon a few moments of Reflection (and this site is Big on The Ontological Significance of Self-Reflection) , I realized the obvious answer. If you stuff your pig’s head with sausage and such, and then sew it up in a bag and boil it forNine Hours, those poor little ears are going to take a beating! Why, they would seriously diminish, even disintegrate, I would imagine. And then what would you have? A boring boar, one without its perky ears, more bovine than boar, a pig significantly lacking in swine-like character! That would not then be the kind of beast to march into your feast accompanied by a trumpet fanfare!
So, yes, detach the ears; boil them separately and gently, and lovingly reattach later with skewers. By all means!
On the Issue of Odin as Santa
On that issue, one further piece of information, also. During Jolnir’s Yuletide nightly rides, his “Wild Hunts”, he was said to have ridden an eight-legged horse, named Sleipnir, in Old Norse meaning “slippy” or “the slipper”. In several Sagas, dating back to the thirteenth century or before, Odin rides Slippy into and out of “Hel”. I guess we could say, he gave it the slip. Hel is the name of place, and the creature that resides over the place, where the dead reside. It is related to the Old and Modern English word “Hell”. It was written that three cocks would crow from Hel and this would initiate the events of Ragnarok, a great battle and end of the world in which Odin and other gods would die and the earth be submerged in water! Well, in Norse Mythology at least.
But I digress! The point about the eight-legged horse is that some contend it was Clement Moore, in his The Night Before Christmas, that replaced old many-legged Slippy with a team of reindeer.
Looking for All the Connections, here at the naturereligionconnection.org.
MERRY XMAS and a HAPPY and Covid-Free NEW YEAR! No more Trump also!!!
(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!
(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!
(Ritual has made an essential contribution to human solidarity. In Dan Dennett’s Breaking The Spell: Religionas a NaturalPhenomena, the early workings of Ritual are described as part of the origin of Culture, itself. There is a big difference between biological evolution and cultural change. These early rituals, were they “religious”? They were many things at once —language creation, creation of group identities, myth-making, creation and clarification of social roles, and the beginning of abstract thought — all included in what Dennett broadly calls, “folk” religion. But does religion still have a useful role to play?)
(This post is an improved version of its forbearer; it has evolved. There are now five posts on Religion based on Dennett’s book, the first is “Believing in Believing in God” —see “Religion” section in Menu. Page references in this post are occasionally add to enable further inquiry.)
In the wilds of East Africa, Vervet monkeys have been observed to have as many as a dozen very specific calls, each with its referent, and each consistently responded to. But how did we get from a handful of conditioned communicative calls to the use of thousands of words built up into phrases, sentences, and scientific theories? It is like the old joke about “How to get to Symphony Hall?”, the answer, “Practice, son, practice!”
Ritual as Research and Development
Ritual was the bridge from biology to culture. That is a bold statement, but nothing living ever completely escapes biology, and why would we want it to? To seek nourishment, to avoid harm, to feel, to want, to enjoy, to nurture, surely is what life is about. But, a limitation is imposed upon us by “the biological point of view”; it is a limitation of goal and purpose. For biology, the goal is to successfully reproduce. Through the use of ritual, early humans — and maybe even proto-humans — began to imagine more possibilities for life!
The classic depiction of H. sapiens Cro-Magnon. Evidence clearly suggests these early humans were the first to have more complex language, a variety of tools and art, some 40,000 years ago. Painting from Lascaux Cave in France.
Early language-formation and ritual are probably closely tied. The basic phonemes of language were discovered in ritualistic events, I believe, but this a little beyond Dennett’s direct contention. And, with language in development, benefits started to accrue. “Language gave us the power to remind ourselves of things not currently present to our senses, to dwell on topics that would otherwise be elusive, and this brought into focus a virtual world of imagination”, writes Dennett. And, for our ancestors, Ritual was a “persistent —even obsessive— rehearsal and elaboration of some of their habits of thought.”(p.114). I contend that many of the basic skills of language where worked out in ritualistic events.
Oral language must be relatively easy to remember. Some few ‘words’ may have started as separate ‘calls’ but in the end, words cannot be unrelated and totally dissimilar to each other. There must be a system to words, it seems, in which a small group of standardized sounds (phonemes) are used repeatedly and built into various combinations. Standardized parts, these sounds, eventually form root words and even suffixes and prefixes. It took much time and practice to pound out language as aDigital System, contends Dan Dennett (p.149), almost 40,000 years of practice. Much of that work took place in communal ritual.
These early efforts in the development of language continue today with its ongoing growth, decay, and even extinction. Some speculate that one day every person on our planet will speak the same language. Yet now, Ritual has expanded far beyond any tie to Religion. Ritual exists in music, politics, science, education and various social ceremonies from birth to death to baseball.
What is one of the most shocking aspects of Digitization is its tolerance. For example, no one makes the “buh” sound of “B” exactly the same as other English speakers, nor even exactly the same from one time to the next, yet almost all attempts ‘count as’ and are heard as, “B”. Dennett points out that bows, genuflections, and kowtows are never exactly ‘the same’ either, yet there is a general and expected range ‘that counts’ and there are even flourishes or new modifications that catch on and become fads and sometimes the new model of acceptability.
Words, genuflections, and various other forms of ritual are what Dennett calls “Memes.” Memes are the stuff Mind is made of: Shared Behavioral Habits — our words, our clothing styles, our music, our cuisine and our industry. Mind is, like digitization above, a tolerant range of acceptability, a way ‘to take’ the physical world, but also a setting of limits. And The Minds we know of, and participate in — even going back into their origin in animals and plants — are all limited to a Particular Point of View, we can say. That which is outside that point of view, that range of sensitivity and awareness, we can now call “noise” or vagueness or even “cognitive dissonance” when it is most severe.
Social Custom, as “language”, “religion”, “art” and “industry”, is all a limited perspective for “us”, our group, or some particular group. We are lucky to have them, but surely our Cro-Mag ancestors never made the specific distinctions we are used to. “Religion”, “language”, “art”, “mate selection”, “social order”, and “industry” were common to them, but each activity was involved with the other and all were probably one, to them. It is in that sense that “Folk Religion” was a single and vague activity, but one fraught with varied and highly emotive implications.
Ritual as Memory Device
How did ‘we’ remember these new found social habits? After all, no one was taking notes! Communication, itself, was being discovered. Incredibly, Dennett explains the functioning of ritual as similar to the “copying fidelity” of computers (146). It is the “majority rules strategy” that mathematician John von Neumann applied to engineering, but which had long been known and utilized previously. It is called “multiplexing”, Dennett says. For example, before the days of radios, navigators at sea on long voyages would always use three chronometers (time pieces that are highly accurate in spite of motion, temperature and other variables). If only one was used, how would you know it was accurate? If two, how to know which was accurate if they started to diverge? Three allows the majority to rule if divergence occurs. It is highly unlikely that two devises would both go wrong and wrong in the same way at the same time.
In ritual, people acting in unison work in the same way. No one needs to know the entire chant or dance or prayer, but the majority of participants at any one point will know, and any minority divergence will quickly correct back to the majority. (This was the rule I always used in my church-going years! Is it time to stand now or kneel? Just follow the congregation.) “It is no accident that religions all have occasions on which adherents come together to act in public unison in rituals…Any religion without such occasions would already be extinct” (Dennett, 147).
Language, itself, was probably discovered in rudimentary form and then expanded, refined, memorized and passed on in this manner. Customs and what we would call “practical activities” were also re-enacted and rehearsed in ritual. The hunt, mate-selection, social organization, healing, birth and burial were all taken up symbolically in ritual. Oral Traditions were developed and “tales” of origins and ancestors were established. Dennett quotes researcher Scott Atran, “Humans, it appears, are the only animals that spontaneously engage in creative, rhythmic bodily coordination to enhance possibilities for cooperation” (141).
Today we know that songs, prayers, speeches and many kinds of writing utilize rhythm and often rhyme, and this, too, was a discovery or invention long in the making and likely originating in forms of Ritual Events. Rhythm and rhyme are also memory aides and attention devises and like language had no individual inventor.
Rhythm and rhyme are memory aides, for example: Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. First printed In The New England Primer. This primer was first published in about 1690 and was designed for use in the colonies. It replaced The Bible as the foundation of American education before 1800. Who has not heard it; who has not remembered it? The ritual of prayer, combined with rhythm and rhyme.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I ‘wake’,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Ritual from around the world and through time. Ritual is the Communal search for, and establishment of, Shared Behavioral Habits. These Shared Habits of attention, concern and coordinated behavior, build upon our biological needs and abilities to establish what we commonly consider today as “Human Mind”.
Remember, Mind is distinct from Brain! No Brain which is free of Acculturation wants to play Baseball!
Highlighting the Things We Do Together! Why? Because We are, at heart, Together!
(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. One contends religion is just a bad explanation for things that some people can’t explain in better ways (103). “So get to work and find some real answers,” we might say. Two, 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. Three, 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”, various humans now and in the past, 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!!!!!!
Do you “Believe in God?” Well, of course you do. It is almost impolite to say otherwise. But I mean, Do you “believe that God really exists?”, or better, answer yes/no to “Does God exist?” Does this second form of the question change anything?
Recently I decided to reread Dan Dennett’s, Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett is a philosopher and “Theorist extordinaire.” In many different topic areas, he does not simple review the literature and speculate, he puts forth research proposals. That is what he is doing here for religion and he uses the phrase quoted in this title. He is laying out a wide-ranging theory of religion that he hopes will be empirically investigated. It involves aspects of cognitive psychology, sociology, linguistic behavior, archeology, anthropology and even economic history. On my first reading (2007 or so), I did not adequately appreciate that this book is Applied Philosophy!
Dennett contends there is an important distinction in the above two questions. The first mostly speaks to Your Beliefs, Your State of Mind. Yes, many of us do have a Belief in a god or even gods. But when you are asked, “Does God exist?”, this sharpens the issue a bit. It suggests “Where does God exist?” or “How does God exist?” or “What is God,” and “Can you point him out?” It suggests that maybe we are wrong to think in terms of “Him” and not Her or It.
Orthodox Jews do not even speak a name for ‘god’, or write one; that would be too concrete, too much making “GD” like an ordinary thing. Muslims do not picture Allah, or even Mohammed; best to leave visual imagery of God to the beautiful arabesques that adorn their mosques. In fact, Dennett points out that today in many religions it is standard doctrine not to ask for, or expect, a lot of good specific answers on the character, nature, location and qualities of god or gods. Whenever very specific and invasive queries come up, the doctrine of mystery is invoked. God is infinite and incomprehensible, and therefore, by definition, ‘hard to pin down.’
The earlier human gods were much more specific and concrete in their looks and actions, than our current ones. They lived in specific places like atop Mt. Olympus or like the Norse god, Odin, in an enormous and majestic ceremonial hall called Valhalla. They looked like real things or combinations of things, a human body with a falcon head, for example. Even the god of the Old Testament became angry, jealous, and intervened in human affairs often and obviously, turning people into pillars of salt or strolling in the Garden of Eden. Consider the seven plagues cast upon Egypt forcing Pharaoh to “let my people go!”, all very concrete and accredited behaviors and events.
But with the triumph of Monotheism and more modern times, gods have become more abstract, more withdrawn from the world, and with this has come the problem of How, Where and even Whymust God actually exist?
Belief in Belief
For some ‘believers’, any specific affiliation with a designated religion has been dropped, and a stripped-down sense of “Spirituality” is all that remains. For them, god need not even be “God” but now just a satisfying sense of “a higher power”with virtually no clarification or specificity.
For other ‘believers,’ it is now most important that they, and you and I, just Believe In Believing In God irrespective of whether he, she or it actually exists. It is more a social thing, than a real out-there-in-reality-somewhere kind of thing. It’s part of being good in company. You say, “Yes, I’m Catholic or Episcopalian…” and you wake up every Sunday morning and go to church. You see some acquaintances there and chat. When in distress you say a quiet prayer or two. You try to insure that your children believe the same as you. And that’s about the whole religion thing, for you.
In Dennett’s book, the above is described by some theorists as “a low investment”, “less intense” religious experience. The question of God’s actual existence tends to not come up. This mild form of belief is itself enough, and great doubt is generally not an issue. Other religions may exist and other people may believe differently but that is not an affront to you and your low intensity belief.
Going “High Investment”
But there is another way to deal with the modern problem of the actual existence of your god and you belief in him, her or it. That is to go “high intensity” and “high investment.” If you invest all your savings in one particular stock, that stock — whether it eventually succeeds or fails — is very valuable to you. Participation in a cult or sect is much the same. High investment in time, energy, commitment and even money makes your belief in that group very valuable to you. Any wavering in that belief is a crisis,; it puts in jeopardy all the previous effort.
So in groups like these, belief maintenance is a huge endeavor. A favorite device is “us against them.” “Circle the wagons’, we are under siege; they are all out to get us” is the mentality. Christian Fundamentalists and Evangelicals use this tactic. In an upcoming post I will discuss a sermon delivered by the pastor of a fast rising Columbus area “mega-church.” “As people who follow Jesus…who follow the biblical view of life…(Mathew tells us) ‘You will be hated not just by someone, but by everyone’,” Pastor Chad Fisher tells his congregation.
Fundamentalist Muslims have made great use of the claim that “western powers” seek to destroy Islam. Considering the history of imperialism there is some truth to it, though Islam’s very conservative doctrinal and sociological structure has also led to much tension with a modernized world.
Finally, one of the other strategies to overcome the modern loss of specificity and intensity in religious experience is the return to (or maintenance of) a very specific religious symbol. To conservative Christians The Bible and its Jesus are literally, and in all its detail, taken as true and existent. Other forms of Christianity with varied beliefs are then simply wrong, mistaken, as are non-Christian religions to an even greater extent. Islam, too, uses the teachings of Mohammed and the Koran in this manor.
This is “a higher intensity” and “higher investment” religion. Not only have these believers placed themselves in opposition to other religions but also to other cultural forces and institutions that they see as a threat. Conservative Muslims contend much in Western Culture is evil and a threat to their way of life. Conservative Christians have objected to the aspects of science they see in conflict with the Bible: geology, evolutionary biology and even cosmological astronomy. Liberal Government has been one of their foes because of its support for tolerance of diversity in sexual orientation, support for some aspects of women’s rights, and the insistence on a stricter division between church and state on various issues.
Much the same can be said for more radical forms of Islam. In each case, the “value” of these religious experiences is high. Much time, energy, social status and even money is, and can be, invested in the maintenance of these tension-filled beliefs for you and your fellow congregants. These are some of the ways that vivid and strong belief is created. When other cultural forces are then also challenged, the ground is cleared for not only strong belief but the assertion of the existence of that god.
It is Intense, but Is it ‘True’?
What is curious about this analysis of religion is the question of its “Truth” is forestalled. When Religion is treated as a Natural Phenomenon, the mechanisms for its appearance and maintenance will be sought and it becomes less clear how an evaluation of its truth will occur and what it will be. It is natural. Religion starts to serve more of a function for people and for their society. The question may start to shift from its “truth” to how well religion does at its job. Is its job to “find” a “God” that exists independently of us? Is its job to create and maintain some different relationship between people that includes the universe beyond them?
My Wonderful and Long Gone Grandmother
Somewhere around the year of 1975, I came from college and dropped in on my family who were visiting my mother’s mother and her side of the family in Pittsburg Pennsylvania. I was decked out with my long hair pulled into a pony tale, wearing worn jeans with a fringe added at the bottom, and maybe even a tie-dyed tee shirt (if not I might as well have been, for that was the whole point, l guess). In those days I was determined to speak honestly and clearly to all people about my opinions, sometimes whether I was asked or not.
My mom’s mom, Grandma Surenda, was the matriarch of the family. Her husband had died many years earlier when I was only 5 or so. He was an administrator with The U.S. Steel Corp., the largest steel company in the largest steel producing city in the world. He left them fairly well off.
She owned a large brown brick, perfectly rectangular, three story home, on a corner lot where two hills met. One formed a long flat stretch that was Middletown Rd while the other hill pushed on higher just beyond the intersection that ended with Grandma’s house. Four roads came together there, three of them were inclined—two down, one up. Pittsburg is a city of hills. I remember laying in bed in that house as a child, listening to the city busses and large dump trucks roaring their engines, working to climb those hills. Trucks were always hauling something around Pittsburg, in those days.
In that house lived five adults for much of my childhood. Uncle Richard was a short round man who never married and worked at a large factory making industrial equipment. Aunt Thelma was my mother’s sister and lived in the large attic bedroom with her husband Bill. They owned three small dry cleaning shops that Uncle Bill operated, while Aunt Thelma did the books by day for a textile wholesaler and by night for the cleaning shops. They often had piles and piles of coins laying about that we would help them count. They never had children of their own, but when we visited they would adopt the whole crew of their nieces and nephews and take us nightly for ice cream, snow cones and to the amusement park with all the kids riding in the back of the dry cleaning delivery truck.
Of course, Grandma Surenda lived there but so did her mother, Great Grandmother Spirko! In her late 80’s and then early 90’s, she was actually the first on the matrilineal side to come to the US from Slovakia. I later learned that she told a story of how the Hungarian army arrived in Slovakia (in the mid 1800’s, I believe) and forced many changes including speaking and writing in Magyar only, not Slovak. Eventually she left as a teenager for America, as did many other Slovaks. When I was seven or eight, I remember her always sitting in her arm chair by the the large expanse of windows in the dining room taking in the sun. She was always dressed in a long almost ankle-length black dress, black stockings, white blouse, and black sweater mostly buttoned. It was the manner of dress for women in the old country. As I search my memory, I don’t remember her ever talking to me, simply sitting.
My Grandmother Surenda, eventually—later in her life after Grandma Spirko died, went to Catholic Church every morning for mass. In fact, she was the first there and was in charge of opening the doors even before the priest walked over from the rectory. To do this, she walked. She was in her seventies and walked about a quarter of a mile straight down the first level of the two hills that met at her house and straight back up when mass was over. The church sat at the bottom of that hill.
Grandma was a short lady but tough and very determined. She was generous, always helping her extended family financially in any time of need. I always remember her either cooking or doing laundry, though she did have her soap operas she followed and she loved local Big Time Wrestling. She would yell at the television as Handsome Johnny Barron (“a bad guy”) would pull an object from his trunks and poke it into Bo Bo Brazil’s eye (“a good guy”). Handsome Johnny would never get caught by the referee, and he always wore a net over his slicked-back silver hair when not in the rink. Grandma, by contrast, always wore a house dress with stockings and those prototypical old lady shoes that tied and yet had a short thick two inch (?) heal. That road down to the church and back had no sidewalk. It was two lanes with a narrow gravel berm on each side. She walked it five days a week in those shoes, on Sunday Uncle Richard drove her and often slept in the car while she attended.
Thelma and Bill, and most of the family, were very religious, also. When Christmas time approached out came a large Manger Setting that was placed in the yard at its most prominent corner. As a child we would frequently visit, making the five hour drive from Ohio, and I will always remember arriving in Grandma’s neighborhood from the very top of the second hill. Night had fallen as we drove, so as we drove down the hill suddenly Grandma’s house and its glistening manger scene would come into view. It sent a shiver through us all.
That setting was large. The stable itself was six feet tall (2m) and over ten feet (3-4m) long and made of wood. Some of the paper mache figures stood as tall as four feet (150 cm). There were several sheep and a shepherd boy, and an angel or two. There were The Three Magi, one kneeling, who supposedly “followed the star of Bethlehem” to join the birth, along with a camel a meter tall. Joseph, the ‘father’ of Jesus (scare quoted for several reasons), stood in the middle, and Mary, the virgin mother knelt. In the very middle, of course, was The Manger, the feeding trough that served supposedly as His bed; it was actually filled with straw and in it The Baby Jesus — The Son of God, God Become Man — depicted very much as the figurine at the head of this story. Straw was strewn across the ground and the scene was lit by three or four ground-mounted spot lights and a “star” lit at the apex of the stable. It was quite a crowd and quite a scene.
I believe that when my Grandmother thought of God and Jesus, it was in that form, as a baby, an infant. In her dinning room corner, year round, was also a plaster statue of the infant Jesus, standing and looking very knowing and mature for a two-year old. They dressed it in finely made garments and changed them several times a year. The child had a real diamond ring on a finger extended skyward. To my Grandmother, that was a very real God and one she believed in with all her might.
That was the house, the family and the situation I walked into those many years ago as a young man. One of our great family traditions was to gather many, many, family members around a very large dining room table for huge dinners. The centerpiece was often homemade chicken soup loaded with chicken, carrots, celery and onions. Served on the side, and indispensable, were homemade chicken liver dumplings. All the kids followed Uncle Bill’s lead and added ketchup to sweeten the soup. Almost twenty relatives could be in attendance on a Saturday night dinner such as that.
But it was Not on one of those huge evenings back in 1975, but a smaller lunch, that the topic came up and I broke the news. “I no longer believe in god,” I said. Maybe it was my mother that quickly tried to intervene and soften the blow and qualify my statement. I do not remember many of the specifics, but somehow I was led to say it. There was a pause, then Grandma burst into tears and rushed from the room. She hurried down the stairs, crying, into the basement from which arose a wail that was heard by all. “My heart is breaking,” she cried out. I looked at everyone, everyone looked at me. I slowly walked down into that basement intent on trying to console that dear old lady.
I do not remember what I actually said, nor much of the outcome. I believe I told her things would be OK, that I was a good person and that was what was most important. I may have tried to diminish the certainty of my disbelief; I just wanted that beautiful old lady to stop crying. She eventually did, and I hugged her. The topic was not brought up again. The family visit went on, though somewhat awkwardly.
“High Intensity Belief”
As I thought about this story and began writing it, I discovered a surprising fact. I had always thought that this adamant belief in Jesus as an infant was personal and idiosyncratic to my Grandmother. It was not. The Slovaks and the Czechs have a Catholic tradition going back to the 17th century based upon what they call The Infant Jesus of Prague. It is a 19-inch (48cm) wooden statue with wax coating and a silver-coated base. It is currently housed at The Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague.
The statue has received various Papal sanctions establishing its sacred status and is particularly venerated at Christmas and on the first Sunday of May when it is carried through the streets. Numerous miraculous events are attributed to it, including the rescue of Prague from the invading Swedish army in 1639.
Little did I know what I was getting into in 1975! I was attempting to diminish a high intensity, highly invested, very specific, long held religious experience and tradition. It was far different than the mild “belief in belief” or the vague but comforting affiliation to “a higher power.”