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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Long form day: Part I

Today might be the day, the day I actually get around to talking about what I'm on about. I should preface this by suggesting that this might be a book review. I'm currently reading: Robert Neelly Bellah's "Religion in Human Evolution: From the Palaeolithic to the Axial Age."  I believe this was a recommendation from http://marginalrevolution.com/ - an economics blog I highly recommend.

Something to notice about this title, while "Religion" is a sort of hang-your-hat-on-hook, the key features of the title are "evolution" and the timeframe - from half-a-million years ago to about 200BCE. So, we're not mostly talking about mono-theism. Mostly Bellah isn't talking about anything most people would recognise as their religion. Mostly he's talking about the evolution of social structures as they diverged from "animal" and went towards what we consider to be "civil society".

A few key points seem to be central to Bellah's message:

 1. Play is very very important.

 2. Ritual comes from play, and serves to stitch groups-larger-than-a-family together

 3. Ritual in pre-linguistic society hinges on rhythm (i.e. music) as the core of "shared experience" or unity.

 4. The locus of "power" drifts through time from locations (ubiety/plurality) to ubiquity (omnipotent/monolithic).

The key points I've drawn from the first half of Bellah's book (not done yet), which I'm interested in drawing out:

1. The point at which "other" is defined creates a cognitive space (which is essentially infinite in scope).

2. Pre-linguistic/pre-written cultures are very sensitive to group size. Larger group sizes are selected for when language enters.

3. The predominance of patriarchy rooted in both mortality and "lineage" problems.

 Bellah begins this epic adventure with children. He uses early childhood development to map a possible evolutionary echo of human development. It's not perfect, but for my purposes the historical accuracy question is irrelevant. You see, every time a child is born the child's consciousness moves from an embryonic non-interactive, non-introspective, manifold which channels sensory input towards something much more structured. That structure almost always eventuates in a meta-layer of shared experience that we all call "normal reality". But it's quite clear that this normal reality is a complex constructed illusion ( see Tor Noretranders' "The User Illusion" or the O'Reilly manual "Mind Hacks", or the 2.6lb "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World" Iain McGilchrist).

What strikes me is that possibly hundreds of thousands of years prior to those books, people at some level noticed the illusory nature their perception was taking on. And they then leveraged that "space" open, and used it to maintain a structure which transcends "now", "self", "family", even transcends what we'd consider "normal reality". The image I find helpful is of two faces or masks looking at each other. The one face is the "self", the other face is the "self awareness". Now, between those two masks there must be some space, something which separates.

Recent neuroscience has actually located the seat of this mirror in what have been called "mirror neurons". These are neurons have been shown to fire in an echo of some "other's" perceived experience. For example, if I watch someone burn their hands, mirror neurons will fire in sympathy with a "burn" to the hands. My face will likely take on a similar contortion to that of the actual burn victim. And looking at cold people will make me feel cold. Looking at happy people will make me feel happy. This is the stock atheist answer to the "moral code" question.

So, in mirror neurons we have a seat for simple morals and ethics. But without the neuroscience, without any rational explanation, this very special capability (maybe not a uniquely human capability, but certainly uniquely amplified in humans - to share an experience, to share rhythm ), has been somehow expanded by people to a remarkable degree, infinite omniscience.

My simple observation is that once we "noticed" there was a space between ourselves and our awareness of ourselves, we've allowed that space to expand. And as that space expanded, so did the concept for the entity which inhabits that space. This is the feeling of the abyss, the feeling of an infinite, all-knowing, the unity. 

Observation number 2 is well related to observation 3. So keep that in mind. Observation 2 is that Pre-linguistic/pre-written cultures are very sensitive to group size. And larger group sizes are selected for when language enters.

When I say "sensitive" I'm talking about the ability to sustain both a population and a level of technology. I believe Jared Diamond covers this ground in Collapse (haven't read it yet). The example is usually the Tasmanian Aborigine. At some point in the past a population moves south from mainland Australia to Tasmania via a land-bridge. The bridge goes away, partitioning off that population from the mainland. Over the course of several hundred years the Tasmanian family groups lose technology, lose the ability to make certain tools, etc. and eventually end up living at a much lower technological level than their forbearers.

The process at play here is the idea of specialisation. In order to reliably transmit learned skills to offspring, because of all sorts of mortality issues, the group must be larger than a single "family". I'm not here concerned with how or why a group falls below a certain threshold. I just want to establish that the closer a group persists near that threshold, the higher the probability that they will fail. So bigger groups are selected for.

Point three is a semi-trivial argument for the persistence and prevalence of patrilineal societies which is related to the mechanism for "selection" of larger groups. If we accept that larger groups were selected for, we also have to accept an upward bound. For this we go to Dunbar's number. Dunbar said that the human brain could only handle about 150 active social members. And to some extent this 150 number does show up fairly reliably through tribal history, etc. It's not a hard number, but it gives us a bounded area - somewhere around 150, not 14 and not 60,000.

Once we establish the minimal (45) and maximal (150) group size, a little bit of network analysis may turn up some seeds for patriarchy. Please also take into account both, a high female mortality rate due to having children, and a high infant mortality rate. What jumps out here is that men - post-pubescent males are just as valuable as keepers of knowledge/story/law as they are sowers of seed. But women are a liability as keepers of knowledge because of their biological (li)ability to have children (and the mortality that comes along with that). It's key to remember here that a tribe of 40 women and 2 men could double in size in one year. The opposite tribe would be in spot of bother.

Another bit of network analysis comes along later in history, with the idea of agriculture and "property". Bellah goes into some depth considering early Hawai'ian hierarchy and the idea of "King" and "lineage". See the text for more detail than I'm willing to go into here, but in short - Hawai'ian commoners were prohibited from knowing/keeping a lineage. Only the King was allowed to maintain a lineage. The effect of this was that only a King could "inherit". The commoners were not allowed to pass-down, to own.

This idea of "lineage" and inheritance is less important post written language. We can keep records in detail and historical depth.

But consider a pre-written language culture with land ownership. The key attribute of ownership becomes lineage. Your name is your title to place. Now consider this same culture in which a man can have many wives (for biological reasons I covered earlier, it's debatable that this is selected for). All of a sudden "first born son" starts to make some sense. There is only one "man" in this scenario, and only one "son", both of whom could be expected to live longer than many of the wives. The complexity of the many women is effectively eliminated via patriarchy.

Something fairly interesting emerges (see Mad Men) as the underpinnings of patriarchy fall away. There's very little excuse (if any) left for patriarchy, but there are hordes of sub-systems which assume it. And they are evolved systems, so there's no conscious way to "replace" them. This results in a lot of the growing pains we've seen from the early 60's to present.

Similarly, the trajectory of neuroscience suggests a hollowing-out of space between the two masks. Maybe hollowing-out is not the correct analogy, but it seems to me that the idea of "super-natural" no longer has any real relevance. The idea of not-yet-discovered-as-natural seems a lot more likely.

Bellah makes a point of following the transit of poly-animism towards poly-theism towards mono-theism. This movement (I don't want to use the word "progression" because I don't see all of this as progress - it's more like wandering) suggests more movement. What might that look like? The interesting thing about a post-modern religious construct is that if it is to be "believed", it's always in contrast to non-belief. Bellah does a good job of re-constructing the cognitive substrate of a time when non-belief was not really possible. It's a fundamentally different state than what we find ourselves in now. Today it's as if we understand that not only is there space between the masks, but there are a great number of different ways to consider that space (and to some extent that this very novelty is exploitable - i.e. art).

Language, in many ways, more than science, has replaced religion. Specifically English, but the individual language is becoming less important as machine translation improves. So an artist in any region of the world with any world-view can create, and then that art can be consumed in an assumed shared-context. The art itself communicates the world-view, but the shared-language allows for a more located exchange. Pop and modern art, along with a shared language have the ability to "replace" much of evolutionary purpose of religion (shared orientation in the service of group). However, apart from the limited effort required to consume the art and the shared language, there's a level of commitment lacking here, faith.

Faith is a dirty word in some circles. But in those circles it's difficult to find the replacement. The current construct of faith is only required after "the fall". In the pre-historic religions, the tribal ways are just received (much in the same way the law is considered as given in modern civil society). Only the idea of an "other" way requires faith. This faith is used to signal group allegiance and provide a certain amount of security that transcends individual social contracts.

Bellah also makes a point that it's important that "morbidity" is avoided. This is couched in some other theories, but the main idea is that the same "self awareness" which gives rise to an exploitable space of creativity and knowledge, also gives rise to the knowledge that we will die. So, we are motivated primarily by the drive to continue living (i.e. fear of death, existential anxiety). That you and me don't tend to dwell on this idea terribly often is a product of a successful culture. I think if you ran the numbers you'd find that people who are more worried about death, die sooner.

So the space between objective reality, our sensory reception of that reality, and the reality we construct in our conscious/social mind is filled in with stories, narratives. Some of the stories are evolved over tens of thousands of years (archetypes), some of them are constructed consciously (as assuming a faith in adult life). But for the most part, these stories are engaged with in an honest and "faithful" way. And just to be a little more fine-grained about this, many of these stories I'm talking about are pre-language. These are the just-so stories we construct as aggregates of reflex actions (how to walk, why to walk, why to run, etc.)

So even post-fall, post-modern we engage naively or semi-non-self-consciously in a huge body of fictions. If you travel a lot, and get "culture shock", at least a component of that is the distance of the local group of stories from your own. I've had some very mild culture shock going from Australia to the US. But going from US to Japan, I've had some fairly dramatic culture shock. I'm suggesting that a good bit of these shocks are due to the necessity to re-assess the level "truth" in stories you didn't even know you were telling yourself. A very big difference between pre-modern (Newton) and now is that "religion" is now outside the set of stories which are assumed, the stories which we don't know we're telling. Now, we know. This puts a great deal of emphasis on "faith" and fellowship as external signals(see the early 2000's drive towards "authentic").

If there is a next instalment, I'll tackle my final points (Plato - forms), and natural language (programming).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow. so much there....that was such a great read! i love the idea of the masks..it does help put some solidity in that very abstract concept.
in so many ways your essay helps to sum up how we attempt to navigate in a very unpredictable, somewhat faithless modern world...
can't wait to re-read