(I’ve been searching for a simple statement that gets to the point of this blog site; maybe this is it. Most of you will think it far fetched, yet there is a Logic to it and it stretches way back into Philosophic Tradition. Complete with Garden Photos and a Poem at the end. A revision of the earlier post of the same title—but up-graded! Try it on for size, Please!)
In the spring and summer, each morning I take my cup of coffee and walk about our backyard garden. I carefully inspect its progress from the previous day: new shoots have appeared, old flowers fading, a weed to be pulled, new blooms opening and admired. Various birds fly by and others are calling. I stop and consider the weather, very pleasing, but other times not. Too cool, or too wet, we are often in need of a few sunny days. In either case, my plants soldier-on and I consider what I should do to improve this beautiful place, our garden, Our Backyard Sanctuary.
It is not a “strictly physical” place, not simply particles and chemical reactions and the qualities that those kinds of things directly exhibit. This garden of my wife’s and mine is a human artifact, a place ofbeauty with carefully selected plants, well considered placements, precisely cut borders and gently curved walkways. It is a chosen mixture of both sun and shade, privacy and open sky; a fairly complete composition,though always shifting.
It is a place of life.Plants exhibit the most marvelous design.Crocus poke up their heads in spring first, with their delicate little flowers. Then come the Daffodil with their yellow trumpeting flower, and then Tulip with its gracious cup, marked interior, and array of color. In the shade, the Ostrich Ferns are unraveling their fronds, rolling them open to the light. The JapanesePainted Ferns exhibit on each leaf detailed shades of green slowly verging onto blacks. In front of our long row of Hosta, my wife plants her border of Impatiens, an annual that flowers through the summer and produces best in shade. The Empress Wu Hosta is our crowning jewel. Sitting back beneath our cottonless (male) Cottonwood tree, the Empress crowns at over three feet into the air and spreads more than eight feet in diameter. She is a tremendous mound of foliage with each highly ridged bright green leaf running 18 to 20 inches long and a foot wide. All her bio-mass bursting forth each spring from below the ground and fully in place by mid June. By August, she has finished with her rather insignificant flowering (to the gardener) and by fall is ready to be cut back to do it all over the next year.
(The Tidy Packages: Daffodil, perennial Poppy, Columbine [Aquilegia] and Columbine, and finally Hosta. All photos by GWW from The Sanctuary)
Each plant is a tidy package. It circles about itself in its own little cycle. The perennials above — the crocus, daffodils, tulips, ferns and hosta — all have a prolonged cycle lasting many years, but go through a distinct annual cycle, also. The annual above — the Impatiens — completes its life cycle in a single season, but ends that cycle with a group of seeds, which are the Reproductionof “its form“— its tidy package — into the future. It is as if part of it — its Information — never dies!
Basically, fundamentally, essentially, a plant and its environment are a cooperative, self-enhancing effort. It is not that they — the plant and its environment — always “get it together” or always “keep it together”; they do not. There are “bad” seasons and difficult “spells”; but “at their core”, The Good MUST Out Weigh The Bad. That much is inherent in the idea of Natural Design.
Designs are real in nature; every design, if it exists, is Good at something, is Functional, isbetterthan a vast number of alternatives, but maybe not quite as good as some Possibilitiesthat we can vaguely imagine. This is the core of The Nature Religion Connection: If a lack of coordination and cooperation (Dis-Function, Chaos) were the predominant “tone” of the world, then complex entities like “plants” would not exist, nor would we! “The Living World” is fundamentally Good, at least from the point of view of Mother Nature.
And what of our own? So, let us Reflect. From our point of view, this world can be Like Our Backyard Sanctuary, if held in proper Respect. If nurtured. If understood. If thoughtfully criticized and accepted. If loved—-a reflection of us, and us of it.
To Reproduceis a distinctly living feature. To Metabolize is to be so open to ‘your’ environment; large parts of it are essential to ‘your’ continuation. As if in a Religious Gesture,You stretch forth into them, but not into some others; those seem completely irrelevant. Light, water, carbon dioxide and soil with minerals, all are open to the plant in a cooperative and informative way: They are essential parts of it; they are components of the plant’s Design. They AreIt! Its FORMATION extending out-ward. It is, what we call, the In-Formation of the Universe!
And To Growis to be alive, and that takes Time. A flowering plant only eventually flowers. An animal only eventually becomes sexually mature, and a human only eventually becomes emotionally and intellectually responsible. Life pulls together diversity into the unity of its form, and Time is essential to life:It does not exist in an instant.To Be Sensitiveis the means by which living things distinguish this In-Formation from the noise; it’s Self from Others. Life is these unique qualities.
(Crocus in the Snow and in the Sun. Photos by GWW)
A star, a volcano, a galaxy, an atom, our solar system, the various chemical elements do none of these: No reproduction, no metabolism, no growth, no sensitivity. A star may swell and then collapse, as it runs out of (‘eats’) its fuel and ‘dies’. A volcano can grow larger and even blow or become dormant. An atom may bond. Our solar system certainly cycles. But none of these have all the characteristics of life, nor in as regular or systematic a way as do a living kind, and especially a person.
THE BACKYARD SANCTUARYNo god is needed; My wife and I will do.
We split and weed, and plant seed.
We trim and choose, and rule our tiny spot,
but not --- like one such other.
Mother Nature framed this scene,
and with her choices will be Queen.
But at least, I see my debt
and live to fill her offer.It is a special place, our world;
The world of life and persons.
It is our Response and Ability,
to keep it such and More.
And pass it to our future kind,
for ashes soon we be.
For after all, we are but 'food'
in this Great Chain of Being.
Of what shall come hereafter,
we made a contribution,
All photos by GWW from the garden of Sheri and Greg. Zinnia, an annual to the right and middle–with yellow swallow tail.
A little controversy has been stirred up by a N.Y. Times columnistthat I have long followed — David Brooks. I tend to like this guy; he is Big Hearted in spite of being a Conservative, of sorts. He is all about ‘restoring relationship’ and ‘mending the social fabric,’ my paraphrases of his positions. He tends to think that in the past (somewhere and some time) ‘we connected’ with each other and ‘nature’ better than we do now. We have “broken communities”, now; he has written.
That’s cool and suggestive; and he tends to take a psychological approach to such matters, where I a philosophical approach. He ends his recent and controversial article by writing, “On the other side of justice, we reach the beloved community and multiethnic family of humankind. This vision has a destination, and thus walks not in bitterness but in hope.”
But in this recent article (link above), he falls back on his religious belief, obviously. I knew he was Christian, that was evident at points in his columns. But it seemed a more generous and newer sort of spiritual nature, as if you could see him really getting into “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” Its a Left Wing Christianity, if you will, and this article was motivated by his interview with Esau McCaulley, a Professor of The New Testament (?) at Wheaton College and a member of The Times editorial staff (pictured above).
The article is pretty sappy with very religious language such as, “There is a relentless effort to rebuild relationship because God is relentless in pursuit of us“(my emphasis). But it made several interesting points, I believe; and this in contrast to much of the ire it aroused. In The Times (online), it received nearly 900 comments along with reactions from other media sources such as Professor J. Coyne (biology!) on his blog site.
Coyne called it another case of “religion coddling” by The Times, and as one of America’s most outspoken atheists, he had little to say for it except, of course, he too wants social justice. Other comments equally derided its religious stance as vacuous. A commentator from Shaker Heights, Ohio (up north by Cleveland), one Alexander Kelly, pounded home the frequently heard contention that the universe is without meaning; “no grand plan” exists for it. “It is absurd.” It contains “no teleology” and that is, in fact, liberating because it allows us each “to make our own meanings” for it! (Now that is a jumble of confusions as profound as any religious view, as I soon will soon demonstrate.)
My post will take a middle ground. No remotely literal interpretation of the Divinity of Jesus, or anyone or anything else, is acceptable in this day and age. Yet, religion and spirituality of many forms still exist and have done so since the beginning of The Evolution of Human Culture. Religion is not simply stupidity and fraud. To make sense of our world in a way that has the greatest benefit now and in the future, Religion should be understood as a “Natural Phenomena” (see Dan Dennett’s, Breaking The Spell). Religion arose naturally and functioned in some ways to our benefit.
Religion, in the guise of “folk religion”, was a harbor for ritual and story-telling.; an accomplice in the formation of the original self-conscious human groups and in the basic discovery (or invention) of language and custom. I will go no further in telling this general story here, but will return shortly to some of the ideas I found interesting in Brooks.
Hey, It’s All Meaningless
But first allow me to return to some of the criticisms of religion and specifically that old bugbear “the universe is meaningless!” Of course, when people say this, they do not literally mean it. In their lives, and here on Earth, they find many things highly meaningful! Our above commentator cried, “all is absurd”, “there is no teleology”; yet, his very comments had meaning and the very statement he wrote had a purpose to serve and a goal to achieve: a Teleology. I assume he felt his statement was also successful in that, and therefore we can add, I believe, thatValue exists along with Meaning in this not so absurd universe, after all.
What people mean when they say “there is no meaning”, is they have an Abstract Picture of Things in their Mind: long ago No Thing In The Universe found its situation meaningful. Well, of course, we would agree, and our commentator describes this situation long ago as ‘just billions of subatomic particles’ smashing and melding around into each other.
My point is twofold. First, this very Picture of Things is itself meaningful but for something that is, as if, sitting outside it, and viewing it from afar. Maybe nothing inside the picture experiences meaning (not those atoms, for sure), but we do and our commentator does. He finds this picture very significant, very meaningful, but from afar. As if he were God, looking down on It All, and All of it At Once. Or as if he were the Ideal Super Physicist,him or herself with total physical knowledge of All and of All At Once. So, for even this perspective, Meaning does exists, just not for any Real Thing In The Picture, only for some idealized thing and from outside that picture of everything as nothing but atoms and chemistry. This Picture of Things does Not succeed in getting rid of meaning. Meaning is real, but this Picture just puts it in a very awkward position.
Second, our commentator does not believe that Real Things can eventually develop, or occur only sometimes and only in some places. To be Real is to be Universally Present in All Places and at All Times, he believes! I do not know who made this rule (actually it was some faction in ancient Greek philosophy), but many believers in the Oppressive Significance of physics and chemistry take it as Gospel today. So, The Universe is absurd on these grounds, they believe; because meaning was not in it at the start, or in it everywhere. This is not a very useful, beneficial or coherent picture of ourselves and our situation especially to carry into the future. New Things can happen, including Meaning and Life and Language and other more complex realities. And New Things will continue to happen, maybe even some really good ones.
“Sin” is something Wrong that is more than just “a Problem”
Brooks and McCaulley advocate the use of the idea of “sin” to understand and heal some of our most profound social and personal ills. Many commentators were repulsed by this suggestion, but here is the sense I make of it. Killing someone in a fit of anger because of an act committed by them that offended you, is not a good thing. But it is not at the same ‘level’ as the almost arbitrary acts of mass murder that we now frequently face. Telling a lie occasionally is not a great thing to do, but lying all the time and doing so as The President of the U.S. and thus contributing to a massive and growing divide and distrust within the nation, is at a new level of malfeasance. And it is not simply a matter of size, number or frequency of these wrongs.
It is about gravity. There are some acts that shake, or strike at, the foundations of our human solidarity. They endanger the togetherness that functions to make us persons and componentsin larger-scale, language-using, highly interconnected society. These are “sins” because this fundamental violation strikes at the roots of our way of life. If these acts became more prevalent culture would crumble and we, we all, would return to nature as only animals (not the Culture possessing animals we are now.) That would be a loss of level, a decline in complexity.
The further value of this concept of “sin” (or of something similar; the young Karl Marx wrote of “Alienation” from our “true being”) is that in response to sin, “forgiveness” is most appropriate and effective, says Christianity according to McCaulley and Brooks. Recriminations, retribution and punishment are not what is ultimately sought, but Healing, Re-unification, and Conversion are. The sinner will accept their error and return ‘to the fold’ , so to speak.
Interestingly, in contemporary philosophy there are some similar contentions based on the analysis of modern Moral Language and in Ethics. Here, the point of punishment and recrimination is not merely retribution but the reformation of the perpetrator and their recognition of their former waywardness. As if a person in a state of hysteria is then slapped in the face, regains their composure, and then says “Thanks, I needed that.”
(Lot and his wife fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, painting by John Martin 1852 [left]. A different “Don’t Look Back!” command [right], but this time given by Hades to Orpheus: ‘If you look back, Eurydice will be condemned to the underworld forever.’ Well, Orpheis did look back but Hades still let Eurydice out every spring and summer. I guess Hades is a softer touch than Yahweh, as far as gods go. Painting by Edward Poynter, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1862.)
Brooks and McCaulley contend that the Life of Jesus is exemplar of this forgiveness, modesty, love. After all, remember that McCaulley is professor of The New Testament, not the Old(where sin is dealt with very harshly by Yahweh). This is “the ethic of self-emptying love—neither revile the reviler nor allow him to stay in his sin,” Brooks writes laying it on very thick. Forgiveness and conversion avoid social justice becoming “as if group-versus-group power struggles are an eternal fact of human existence… (and) we all have to armor up for an endless war.”
But It Is Not God’s Love!
I do like that. Let us avoid a war of group against group fighting for priveleges and for the scraps of production, especially if that is to occur in the name of “Social Justice”. I, also, agree there is something ‘deep’ that tends to hold persons to persons; that is an obligation or a need not easily denied; that is a kind of ‘hidden connection’ yet maybe right before our eyes. But, that Reality is more a sociological, psychological and philosophical Truth, than a theological one. And to miss it, or violate it, is more than just your average mistake, more than to simply mess up: It is kind of “sinful”. It is a real basic violation of yourself and others.
Two of the earliest depictions of Jesus in existence.
(Known as “Bust of Jesus”, left, a mural on the wall of the catacomb Commodilla in Rome, painted in the late 300s. Right, painted on a wooden board around 600 C.E., “Christ Pantocrator”. Pantocrator is Greek, meaning “He who has authority over everything.” This painting is preserved in a monetary in Egypt, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Both show Jesus with a beard, and this portrayal is thought to be a successor of the earliest versions that portrayed Jesus younger, beardless and with short tunic –more in the Roman style, and somewhat like an Orpheus figure as pictured earlier in post– for which there are few examples.)
(The work goes on here at The Connection. We are definitely trying to ‘frame some fearful symmetry’ with the completion of this Chapter. It kind of reads like a poem. The goal is to Accept the Concept of “A Person” and analyze the Kind of World it must have arisen in, and still have, to Exist! Think about it, A Person is not only a strange kind of object, but also a strange kind of animal and even a particular kind of Human Being. What is a “full-blown” Person? It is a peculiar kind of Design!)
(The Tree of Life has been variously depicted. But in most cases they embody a flourish of Continuous Design With Variation. Our newest understanding of it must encompass Human Cultural Products, as easily as it encompasses the nests of birds. [Left] Artistic conception of The Tree from the Palace of Shaki Khans, 17th century, Azerbaijan. [middle] Turn of the 20th century, famous biologist and naturalist E. Haeckel’sconfusedly “Man” centered Tree. [Right)More accurate modern biological understanding. We must think that Humans make culture in similar ways that birds make nests.)
In this post series, we have climbed from the (not so simple) Self-Preservation of the Design of a single-celled creature in the creature’s survival and reproduction, to the prolific musical design production of J.S.Bach. The protozoan preserved its design very efficiently but it was “competent without comprehending what it did” (D.D.) Bach, by contrast, was the epitome of Self-Conscious, Premeditated, Intelligent Preservation and Creation of Designs.
(Progress in the preservation and creation of Design. Image two from WildImages.org; image three from UShistory.org: Thank you)
Following the arguments of philosopher Dan Dennett*, we contended that Designs are a form of Representation. They are both –at the same time– Concrete and very Material and also Abstract and very Ideal. Abstract, by having at their “core” some rules or laws or principles of their composure. Concrete, by being “given” to us with a hard, resistive and almost inscrutable “outward covering”. As such, it is a single thing, it is “An Object” to us; for example “an arm chair,” “my wife,” “Columbus Ohio.” We have come to know that these things possess, as if, a soft under-belly, an organization with parts. The chair has a wooden frame beneath its stuffing and cloth; my wife has a complex physiology not to mention her very complex psychology! The parts and rules representthe whole (the given thing) and the whole represents the designed parts (its ‘inner’ workings).
It is in “Mind” that all this Representation and understanding of Representation occurs. In part IV, we argued that Mind is ultimately A Human Culture establishing itself and creating its members that “work together” in very obvious but also subtle ways. “It” sees and reacts to “The World”, with much uniformity. “A Culture”, in that sense, is like a Single Organism! It is a mind; or at least, it is single minded.
We think of many things in this world as mind-like or mind-full. Especially, Persons —Persons should be Mindful; they should regard other Persons according to principle and rule, that is what we think morally. From the simplest Designs we see, such as trees or hurricanes, or the cycle of seasons, we intuit them as having rules —that “soft under-belly”. We intuit rules and order also for much more complex things, like ourselves and our adversaries —which may include even The Tyger that seeks to devour us. These are our intuitions, and they“bubble up” to us in Mind through the Cycles and Designs of Our World as Representations for our consideration, or so we have traditionally contended!
The Tyger, by Bill Blake
Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night; What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
These are not strange ways to think! Several prominent theorists, including Dennett, have argued that our most common world viewcontains these ideas, or one’s similar. This is “the Manifest Image” we have of ourselves. It is in this commonly used vocabulary (reallyWithout Exception used vocabulary), that we think of and regard ourselves as Persons, as Responsible for the things we do and make, and that animals are person-like, and there may even be a God (or gods), a kind of Super Person (or Persons) that is at the core of all this, as its point, maker, or inner meaning. This–roughly– has been a Universal Belief!
Back to Our Story
So J.S. Bach, himself, may have been a pawn in a larger game. We gave him much credit for his efforts —his studies, his output, his energy, his persistence. He was a very conscious, premeditated designer of music (see Post 5 in series). He worked hard and with deliberation, but his fate was beyond him, we will now contend.
He was born into a highly musical family with his father and several uncles all professional musicians. His own offspring undoubtedly benefitted from the transmission of supportive genes, as evident in the four that reached adulthood became noted musicians. But it was not only a transmission of genes, The Bach Family was a ‘hot house’ environment for musical productivity. It was an environment imbued with music appreciation and concentration, that really included not only the family but also patrons and organizations (the Lutheran Church) that fostered this creativity in Design.
Design With No Designer
Natural Selective Forces act even within human society! Bach and his music were Naturally Selected as worthy of “differential reproduction”, to use Darwin’s famous phrase. Our cultural sense of Quality in Designs was, and is, open to Blind Design Forces. Yes, says Dennett, and we here at The Connection concur. All Design arises from its environment and then awaits the acknowledgement or rejection of that environment. Was Bach really good, was Chuck Berry?
(WHO SAW ANY OF THESE COMING or WHERE THEY WERE GOING, or the same for any historical development? No one planned it all, no one knew the events precisely or even vaguely, no one knew if it would succeed, no one knew where it would lead:Chuck Berry in the late 1950s; teen-age girls swoon as The Beatles visit New York in 1964; Hippies in the year 1968; Women’s Liberation in 1970. All these were chosen to be of some greatness and significance but by an ‘unofficial vote’ with an indeterminate group of ‘voters’ and an outcome that was open. Hey, it just happened. It just seemed to be the thing to do!)
So, Who chose Bach’s greatness, and how? J.S.Bach was not phenomenally successful in his lifetime, especially as a composer. He was mostly noted as an organist and it was not until some 50 years after his death that his written compositions began to be more deeply appreciated by musicians and critics, and began to be Replicated at a faster rate. Today, they are Reproduced at a massive rate yearly and Dominant in our musical environment. Yet no musician, in the era of Bach or soon after, Chose Bach’s Fame. Each made an individual choice that had ramifications far beyond that individual act.
Dennett sites Herman Melville and his Moby Dick as another example of greatness that laid dormant for years until the commemoration of that authors 100th birthday led to Moby’s revival and soon immortality. On the other hand, Johannes Brahms was “wildly popular” in his own time.
Now these musical and artistic tastes —and the same for political ideas— are, of course, not genes. It normally takes extensive amounts of time for the Gradual Modification of Genes to work biologically and become effective in their entire population. But not so for “Memes”, a term adopted by Dennett from his friend and noted biological theorist Richard Dawkins.
Memes are the Basic Group-Held Signs and Organizational Structures(habits) that form “Mind” and Culture. They are shared Meanings and Methods, and in this way form a New Level of Human Interaction and Existence. And, they can ‘catch on’ widely, quickly, and without even clear meaning and motivation (in some cases).
(MEMES: from the very simple to the very complex. “STOP” signs around the world, this one in Cambodia; a meme with a simple meaning. What does the Mona Lisa conger up? Hard to say what associations are connected to it, yet it is widely recognized and acknowledged at a glance. A very complex and varied set of associations is tied to the Christian Cross. Good old “Mickey” is recognized all over the globe. Not all memes are approved of, but still deeply significant–the swastika.The atom, a science meme with many connections. But, memes do not need to be visually represented. The first few notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony–Da, da, da, Da — is one of Dennett’s favorite examples of an audio meme.)
Another very interesting example is the “Rationality” meme. No one really knows what rationality is,yet many of us invoke it all the time and even organize large portions of our lives around it! Is Rationality a certain set of neurons firing in the brain; the same set for everyone? Is Rationality a certain set of behaviors? Which behaviors could we agree upon, and then what would their definition be? Being “Reasonable”, we might say, but what is that? Here in this very series, I have argued that Reasonable is no more than“a Person’s” response-ability to give the reasons for their behavior and to care about other person’s reactions to those reasons. Or, is “Rationality” caring about “Good Evidence” for your reasons and beliefs. But what is the “good evidence”? So, we do not understand Rationality very well at all, yet it is Central to Our Way of Living especially in Our Modern Age!We hold this Meme of Rationality, and many of us hold it dearly!
Bubbling Up From Below
Let us say, then, that Memes are a way to Access, Interpret, and Share the neural activities in the brain of each of us and even the other physical forces that stretch far beyond us. These physical forces form our lives in a basic way at our widest range. Culture and its memes form a kind “down-loaded app” or a “user-interface” that is the context for us, as persons, to be in relation to our physical universe, contends Dennett. IT IS THE WAY NATURE IS TALKING TO US! Our ideas, emotions, and reasons “bubble up from below” as Representations of of ourselves and our world. Then, they are tested in the field of Memes already present in us and our culture. Or at least, this is what we can believe, ideally. It is an account of how Persons fit into the Universe.
Mother Nature’s Seal of Approval?
This is The Image We Hold of Ourselves, or at least in broadest outline. It has been cleaned up and developed in some ways (“reconstructed”) by Dennett, other theorists, even myself. At best, this is only my interpretation of these other interpretations. But “in broad outline” it contains the basic elements of “Persons” and their relations to “Things”, “Minds” in relation to “Matter”.
Culture and Personhood —and this “Manifest Image” of things — has been in rapid development for well over 10,000 years and with its birth –as incipient Culture– as far back as 40,000 years ago. That is not enough time to signal Nature’s Official Approval, her Genetic Selection; yet the human species has ‘Prospered’ dramatically in that time. This “Image” of ourselves has become “populated with more and more affordances, more and more opportunities to track, more and more things to do things with, more and more things –words–to use as tools…”, says Dennett. It has served many uses, including the opportunity to consider and reconsider our own Reasons —to Reflect on ourselves.
(In Reflection, we take ourselves to be An Object in the world capable of Manipulation and Re-Design. We consider and re-consider our own Reasons. Norman Rockwell, Girl at Mirror , Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror , John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus .)
From the vantage point of Design, we can at least say that so far,we have received Nature’s Evolutionary Endorsement. Our way of “seeing things” has worked! Our Proliferation is a sign of Nature’s Approval,and here, In These Blogs, we have tried to give it an intellectual defense.
But will it continue to work? Our manifest image is an awkward combination of physics, chemistry, biology, neurology, morality, economics, politics and poetry (among others). How it all fits together has been briefly suggested, but as we continue to shuffle these cultural cards, how they will play out in the future is still to be determined by processes that involve humans and human choices, but only indirectly. WHAT WE CAN MAKE OF “IT” (this World) IS STILL UP FOR GRABS!
(HURDLES TO BE LEAPED: Dictators, Industry and Pollution, Economic Imbalance, Religious and Sexual Discrimination, Dogmatism, War)
*These are, of course, my interpretations of Dennett’s position, along with other such philosopher’s of a similar vein. Richard Rorty, John Dewey, A.N.Whitehead are among that group. Dennett’s 2017 From Bacteria to Bach and Back is the work most specifically referred to in this post.
(Hurdle to be Transcended: THE OLD WAYS OF THINKING THAT DIVIDE THE WORLD and CULTURE INTO IRRECONCILABLE PIECES! “Newton“, by the poet, artist and printer, William Blake (1805). “Newton is shown sitting naked and crouched on a rocky outcropping covered with algae, apparently at the bottom of the sea. His attention is focused upon diagrams he draws with a compass upon a scroll.” (Wikipedia))
The Tyger (final two stanza’s) , more Bill Blake!
When the stars threw down their spears And water’d heaven with their tears: Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright, In the forests of the night: What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
STAY CONNECTED at the NATURERELIGIONCONNECTION.ORG
(Well, we got hit with more Snow here in the Central O-H-I-O, about 5-7inches or 12-18cm. GOOD DAY TO STAY HOME AND BONE UP ON SOME METAPHYSICS. That always warms my heart!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!)
Designs All Around US
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 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 Different from Some Other Kind of Very Different Thing?” This 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! We all have been giving a bit of thought to death 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.
Our Thinking About Design and Our Participation in It
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, to gather, and to 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. They are a further extension of the material world but now with an important new layer of “Meaning.” Everyday early humans hunted, gathered, chose mates, gave birth. Day passed into night and fires were made, tools repaired, and the seasons changed. Human Rituals were established and myths created. A line drawn between “natural” events and “cultural” events is a mistake.
In myth and ritual these patterns of “the world” 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. Yet, now we start to have a conscious recognition of Patterns. As Dennett says, the “free-floating rationales” of nature, now became explicit in human culture, in a ‘thing’ calledhuman Mind.
(Persons gained a Conscious Appreciation for Pattern. Traditional Wedding outfits from around the world: Yoruba people of Nigeria,Mongolian and Andean [Peru] wedding dresses, a traditional attire for Norway.)
Secondly, Design is experienced by us as Designers of ourselves.We are “self-made selves” (Dennett). Again, not completely, 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. Humans go far to create their own societies that then creates more persons in their light. “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, to give our reasons, to be Reasonable and explain.
(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, learned and explained much, though the 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 Presented 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 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”.
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.)
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