Thursday, February 21, 2008

Chapter 6: On the Evolution of Cultural Universals: I. A Bad Story

Adam came downstairs, dressed in his suit, briefcase in hand. Bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, and grits made a blend of aromas that pulled him into the kitchen. His wife, Lily, placed the last glass on the table as Adam walked in. Both worked full time, and today was Lily’s turn to make breakfast,. She smiled at Adam as he came in and sat at his place at the table. The conversation they’d had the previous night was still on his mind.

“I don’t know why you’re smiling. I haven’t changed my mind,” Adam said.

Lily frowned.

“Do you want me to quit my job? Do you just want a housewife?” Lily asked.

“Why does having kids mean you’ll have to quit your job and become a housewife? Lots of women have kids and careers,” Adam said.

“Not my sister,” Lily said. She poured them both milk.

“That’s your sister’s choice,” Adam said.

Lily put the milk in the refrigerator and grabbed the plate of bacon and the bowl of grits and placed them on the table. Without a word, she grabbed the bowl of scrambled eggs and the plate of buttered toast and placed them in front of Adam.

The two ate in silence. Adam thought of his assistant at work, a tall blonde who was always eating fruit. She had been talking recently of how much she wanted to get married and have children. Eva was a good woman.

Adam shook his head and took a bite of bacon. He shouldn’t think things like that. Thoughts like that could get a man in trouble.

After they finished eating, Adam helped Lily clear the table and fill the dishwasher. Each kissed the other goodbye, finished getting together what they needed for work, got into their separate cars, and headed in opposite directions to their jobs. Adam continued thinking of the situation with Lily. Why didn’t she want children? What was the real reason? He didn’t buy for a minute her excuse. Now Eva . . . No. No. He mustn’t think that.

Adam shook his head to dispel this last thought, and failed to notice the red light. As he ran it, a semi truck hit his driver’s side, killing Adam instantly.

* * * * *

The above is a bad story because it leaves the reader unfulfilled. We are supposed to learn more about this developing conflict, not be left with such a stupid ending. But for the vast majority of us, our lives end exactly this way: stupidly. If it is not death by an accident, it is by cancer, heart attack, or any of a number of ways that deprive our deaths of meaning. Few of us get glorious ends, culminating our lives in any sort of meaningful ways. Faced with the practical certainty of meeting such a stupid end, we have all, every culture, set out like Don Quixote, determined to come up with a better end to the story, whether that end be heaven, a longer life granted by God/the gods to give you more time to create a better end for yourself, an afterlife state of bliss, elimination of suffering (in nirvana, for example), or earthly utopias.

Thus is born various teleologies, eschatologies and soul concepts. The way we get to them is through and because of language. We have, through and because of language, narrated our own lives beyond the present, through various futures, to our own certain deaths, and discovered that we inevitably end up with terrible, meaningless, stupid endings. So we narrate the story beyond our lives, to afterlives, including material afterlives (Communist utopias, for example). Or we fashion our own glorious endings (in suicide bombings, etc.). Every time we work for the future, for our children, for a future society we will never see, it is from the same eschatalogical drive that creates and created the world’s religions. Because we have recursive narrative (grammatical) language, we have created the need for religion, to make the future meaningful. So we can see, then, that for religion, in the beginning (arche) was the word (logos). Without it, one cannot get religion at all. Thus, Nietzsche’s statement that “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar . . . “ (Twilight of the Idols, 5) is quite profound in its insight.

All of the human cultural universals that constitute the various elements of our religions have this same origin in (recursive, grammatical) language leading to an extended sense of time: divination, funeral rites, luck superstitions, magic, propitiation of supernatural beings, religious ritual, soul concepts, and eschatologies. Our extended sense of time allows us to project into an increasingly uncertain future. It makes good evolutionary sense to have a fear of what is unknown – since what is unknown could be a predator. Our extended sense of time creates an increasingly unknown and unknowable future, meaning our fear of the known “out there” in a spatial sense gets applied to time, as it becomes increasingly unknown. At the same time we, as all the great apes (and perhaps all animals), have a sense of causality: in the past A resulted in B several times; therefore, A causes B. And it is important in an evolutionary sense for a species, such as chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans, which develop much of their understanding of the world through learning, to have evolved a sense of causality – if you do not figure out that the leopard or something like that leopard is the cause of the death of a fellow troop member, then you will probably end up becoming leopard (lion, etc.) food yourself. But our extended notion of time makes us realize predictability breaks down over time. Faced with the contradiction of belief in causality and long-term unpredictability, we developed divination. Divination is the attempt to make the unknowns of the future “known” through applying causality to the far future, beyond when reasonable predictions can be made. Luck superstitions would be the attempt to explain in a causal way why good things happen to some people, but not to others – it is a variation on the sense of justice (also felt by chimpanzees), applied to that part of the world not within our control. It is in a sense related to the idea of magic, which is how we attempt to make sense of the unknown and unfamiliar in the absence of causal explanations. All of these are possible only with language. They require being put into words and being discussed. The discussions about “that strange thing that just happened” lead to causal explanations because we need causal explanations, even if the cause is magic (which makes more sense to most people than there being no cause, or no cause that can be discovered – and what is technology to one is magic to another), of which miracles for this discussion are a part. Miracles in this sense are magic performed by supernatural beings, by those supernatural beings, or through people chosen by those supernatural beings.

These universals arise because they are how we can explain the unexplainable to each other, and they served us so well, they became instincts. This is why so many people have problems with scientific, naturalistic explanations. Science shows us everything has a naturalistic explanation – magic is not needed. But we need magic as an explanation. It is part of our need to have faith in something beyond ourselves, beyond our understanding. This is the source of faith healing, and it is also why faith healing in a sense works. Having a hopeful outlook helps us heal more quickly. If you have two people in the same health who receive the same surgical procedure, but one believes it will work while the other does not, the one who believes in the procedure will recover faster and more completely than the one who does not. At the same time, you can give placebos to people who think they are receiving real medicine, and some will react to the placebo as if it were real medicine. This explains both why there is some success rate among witch doctors and other faith healers, and why modern medicine is not always the best it could be. While we should not give up on the real advancements made in medicine, medicine could be served by combining it with some form of faith healing – modern medicine would supply biological benefits, while faith healing would supply psychological benefits. This would give us a more fully human medicine, by reuniting physical health with the holy. Modern medicine all too often feels dehumanizing to the patients. To the extent it deals with body parts without acknowledging those parts belong to a human being whose needs extend to a very powerful, creative, body-influencing psychological element, including deep instincts that sometimes – as in the case of magic, faith healing, luck superstitions, and divination – do not stand up in the face of contemporary scientific knowledge, it is dehumanizing. And until we either gain full faith in science (a danger too, in that it can suppress scientific innovation, as people have faith in the current or traditional scientific findings, as people did and still do with Newton’s physics – Laplace’s calculator is scientific divination), or evolve beyond the need for faith (as Nietzsche wishes we could do) so we can accept facts as facts (and not as truth) in naturalistic explanations, there will continue to be rebellion against purely naturalistic explanations for and approaches to everything. People prefer Laplace’s calculator over chaos and complex systems theory, as the former says the world is eminently knowable and the future calculable, if we could only have enough information, while the latter says the world is inherently incalculable, even if we had all the information in the world. Wolfram, in his recent work A New Kind of Science, attempts to bring a form of Laplace’s calculator back into complex systems theory, making it deterministic – showing how strong the drive is for divination.

Part of being human is believing in the supernatural. Even when we try to “get rid” of religion, all we do is replace one religion with another. Take Marxism. Its eschatology is the inevitable Communist anarchic utopia at the end of history. Its divination (divined by the prophet Marx) is the Marxist theory of history – the immanent (historically determined) triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeois. In this sense, luck will ultimately be with the proletariat, as it was with the bourgeois against the aristocracy. Anyone familiar with Lysenko’s biological theories knows the Soviet Communists at least (and, I would argue, anyone who believes reality is completely socially constructed to the extent that we can do things like grow wheat in the tundra) believed in magic. The proletariat had a deep, fundamental identity clearly separable from the bourgeois’ that is readily identifiable as different kinds of collective “souls.” Lenin and Stalin (at least while Stalin was alive) and other Communist heroes were treated as if they were supernatural (one could go so far as to say that in a sense all our heroes are “supernatural” in that they go beyond what the average human does in their thoughts and actions – thus our need for heroes). The universal belief in supernatural beings comes from the combination of eschatology from our extended sense of time, and the application of status differentiation into this realm (meaning beings have to exist in this realm for status to apply there), as well as relating this realm to kin groups (until Judaism, (the) God(s) in the Middle East were local, meaning they were coupled to property rights in a loose sense; until Christianity, God(s) were associated with kin groups, and were related – often literally – to those who worshiped them, all of which suggests we have been developing an extended sense of who belongs to our tribe for millennia). Religious ritual comes out of the combination of chimpanzee meat-eating rituals, where head male chimpanzees distribute meat the troop caught in such a way as to provide unity in the troop through fair distribution of the meat, as well as emphasizing the troop hierarchy, with the collection of behaviors that gave rise to religion in general – which suggests why religious rituals so often involve ritualized eating and drinking, including sacrificing food and drink.

This mixing of instincts makes sense if our brains generalized as they evolved, making specialized regions (for recognizing kin, for status differentiation, for narrative, and for communication) overlap or otherwise become connected in places – allowing for the retention of instincts while others developed from the overlaps and connections. The hierarchically nested brain evolved hierarchically nested instincts, so that “each integrative level subsumes the functions and structures of the one or ones beneath it, and each adds to the potentialities of its predecessors certain new degrees of freedom” (Fraser, TOC 10). Instincts follow the same pattern as I (and Fraser, Argyros, F. Turner, et al) have suggested the rest of the universe follows: an agonal relationship among parts that gives rise to new integrative levels that are scalarly self-similar. The new instincts are similar to the ones they develop out of, but at the same time, those new instincts give us new emergent properties, giving us more freedom. In this theory of the development of more instincts in humans, we see a parallel with chaos theory, which shows how a universal gives rise to a plurality with a family resemblance, with these cultural universals giving rise to endless variations of those universals. The fact that the extended sense of time created by the recursive narrative structure of language leads to divination, eschatology, funeral rites, luck superstitions, magic, the propitiation of supernatural beings, religious rituals (how we give meaning to religion), and soul concepts explains why these became combined into the various religions of the world, past and present. So when Turner says humans and animals both ritualize “mating, aggression, territory, home-building, bonding, ranking, sexual maturity, birth” while only humans ritualize “time and death” (NC, 9), we can see he is in effect saying that only humans have religious ritual.

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