God, language and the structure of society: The strageness of being human meets rethinking liberalism

by John MacBeath Watkins

My friend Brad, who blogs as usedbuyer 2.0,  has encouraged me to take my series of posts on the strangeness of being human to the vexed question of religion, so here goes.

Jan van Eyck's Last Judgment

As we've discussed in this post, I have a theory of spirituality based on language. When people invented language, they created an existence for things that is separate from those things. Everything had a real existence and a symbolic existence.

But the strange world of symbols the human mind lives in (and, in part, is made up of) was only about as visible to people as air is to us or water is to fish, because it is the sea our minds swim in, so we did not interpret the strange, non-physical existence of things as a linguistic phenomenon. We instead thought of that in terms of spirits.

This does not mean that spirits and gods and soul do not exist. It means whether or not they exist as supernatural phenomena, they exist in the social construction of reality. It is that complex, symbolic world that makes humanity so strange compared to other animals.

When we think of the soul, for example, we think of the continuation of our consciousness separate from out bodies. But what is human consciousness?

In large part, we are made up of each other -- our minds (or consciousness, or soul) are shaped by the interactions we have with others. From the base state of the animal we are, with certain capabilities, we become human through a process of aculturation. Every person we interact with shapes us, sometimes because we accept their views or their behavior, sometimes because we reject them, thereby setting the boundaries of our selves. And that part of ourselves that has become a part of others lives on after us, a ghost in the very structure of human consciousness.

The complexity of our culture depends on how many minds are in communication, and what knowledge they carry, communicate, and play with. Researchers Adam Powell1,3, Stephen Shennan2,3, and Mark G. Thomas1,3,  in a paper titled Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior, argue that upper paleolithic behavior -- the jewelry, art, and complex tools that indicate complex symbolic thought -- appeared more than once in human history, but disappeared when something caused the population to crash. This could be a drought, a famine, or a plague. Not only did the number of people in a society matter, so did the trade and communication with other people.

We can imagine that in a small group, the knowledge available has to be as much as parents can communicate to their children. Upper paleolithic culture needed more minds to hold it, more knowledge than the single family unit (or even a small hunting group) could contain in its few heads. Part of that  knowledge would be about how to more fully exploit the food sources in the environment, allowing it to support a more dense populations and thereby making more minds available to hold the knowledge of the culture.

With the increasing complexity of society came the problem of coordination. Wild  minds were as much a danger to social cohesion as rogue males. We still had our evolved sense of wanting to belong to a family and a pack, but the symbolic world gave our persons an existence that was not entirely organic, and that needed to be integrated into a cohesive whole as much as our naked-ape organic persons did.

The instrument of this is what we call religion. It organized our minds as part of a people, usually with a creation myth explaining why our group was special. We called upon this ethereal world of spirit/symbol to explain the unexplainable. We called upon it to coordinate society. If Julian Janes is right, we formed a sort of societal hallucination that contained the way to live together and prosper.

Janes held that prior to about 1,200 BC, human minds were not self-conscious. In fact, since he defined consciousness in terms of the metaphorical space inside our heads that we regard as ourselves, he claimed that humanity was not truly conscious prior to that, sharing a sort of dream world where the gods spoke to us and told us what to do. The command and the action were such, he said, that "volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey."[1]

The remnant of this system still crops up, according to Janes, in schizophrenia.

The myths did not die out when our minds became self conscious (which Janes theorizes we did because the world was changing too fast for the social hallucination to correctly instruct us.) It is still a part of us, still motivates us, but it is now mediated by self-consciousness.

But of course, religion and myth was not the only possible use of the world of symbols we had invented. Symbols could also be mated to our problem-solving ability directly, to solve problems for ourselves through an internal dialogue we call reason.

Our problem-solving ability, existed before this, and we solved problems with symbolic thought. But I do not need to talk myself through most of the problem solving I do, like setting a crate were I can stand on it to reach something. It helps to do that when I'm thinking about my own life, or solving a higher-level problem. And reasoning can solve complex problems quickly.

But the advent of agile, self-conscious minds led to a tendency to question the myths central to social cohesion. Socrates was executed for causing the youth to question the religion of their society.

And Plato, that intellectual Quisling, eventually settled on agreeing with Socrates' opponents. In The Laws, he talks about a perfect society based on certain truths. If someone questioned those truths, he would come before the nocturnal council, which met at night, away from prying eyes. They tried to persuade the miscreant to recant, and if they failed to, instructed him to keep quite about his doubts. If he would not, he was killed. It was practically as if he had thought through  the actions of Socrates and decided it was right that he was killed.

Leo Strauss, the intellectual father of the American neoconservative movement, agreed with Plato. He thought that the leaders of American society needed to foster the national myth, essentially the myth of American exceptionalism, even if they did not themselves believe it. And though parts of The Laws read like a preamble to the inquisition and even in The Republic Plato spoke of banning those forms of music he thought inimical to civic virtue, Strauss though Plato was the advocate for freedom and Thomas Hobbes was authoritarian, which makes me question how perceptive he could have been. More on Hobbes in a moment.

Plato was dedicated to the notion that objects have an existence outside themselves. His parable of the cave elevates the symbolic existence of objects to a perfection and permanence of existence that no real object has. The myth has people sitting in a cave, looking at a shadow play, and thinking that the shadows are the real objects. In this story, the real world is the shadow and the thing casting the shadow was the ideal form, making the idea more real than the object.

This was a translation of the spirituality of symbols into the world of reason. Just as religion had elevated symbolic/spiritual existence above real existence, Plato did so, but called those spirits ideal forms. Not surprisingly, this held a certain attraction to religious orders, and Thomas Aquinas made Plato the basis for his views on intolerance to religions other than the state-sanctioned one (on most subjects, he valued Aristotle more.)

Reason and religion, the material and the spiritual, have continued to have a difficult relationship. Just as the first flowering of religion in European history resulted in the Greek explosion of knowledge and the youth questioning the gods, the Enlightenment brought forth the questioning of religion, both by reformers and by people who did not believe in the supernatural.

Leaders of churches reacted to this, sometimes violently. The reformers of the middle ages sparked the Inquisition, as a less wasteful method of dealing with heresy than the Albigensian Crusade, in which soldiers asked the papal representative, who had ordered him to put the heretics to the sword, how he would know who they were.

“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius - Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His,” was the reply.

The church tried to deal with the questioning of its authority with reason and law after this. The Jesuit order was trained in logical debate to debunk theological attacks. Inquisitors operated within a framework of law, under the principle that the body must sometimes be broken for the soul to be saved.

But the questioning continued. The Goliards, rebel priests, wrote satirical songs and poems featuring the corrupt Father Golias, but the church prevented them from performing mass so that they could not get a living, and labeled them "bohemians" in an effort to identify them with the gypsies that were generally considered lawless and rootless (and were thought to have come from the kingdom of Bohemia.) To this day, rebel poets are called "bohemian."

As Europe emerged from the middle ages, the questioning intensified, becoming the Reformation. Because kings relied for their authority on divine right, wars were fought over what sort of believer should rule which country. The 30 Years War depopulated Germany as much as the Black Plague had. Those wanting to understand religion, and reason about how they should believe, wanted to be able to read the Bible, which meant either learning Latin or getting a translation. The Church correctly perceived that it would lose much of its authority to interpret the Bible if common people could read it, so made it illegal to possess a translation into the local language.

Fox's Book of Christian Martyrs recounts the trials of people who gathered in secret places to read the Bible to one another risked the death penalty for doing so. They came to be called lollards, from a Dutch word for "mutterer." It was not wise to raise your voice while reading a forbidden text to your fellow rebels.

Thomas More is remembered as a martyr to conscience. It is less often remembered that he had protestants tortured and burned at the stake for their beliefs, or that the principle he died for was that the church should be able to govern the actions of kings.

But reason, and the disenchantment of the world that went with it, was on the march. As kings fought battles over who had the divine right to rule, people rose up against rulers they regarded as apostates,

Thomas Hobbes, tutor to Charles II (who was not a Tudor) and one of the leading intellects of his day, saw the problem clearly and knew that for his pupil to reign after the regicide that killed his father, a new form of legitimacy was needed. The English Civil War, like the 30-years war, was in large part happening because the nation's religious identity had fractured, making any king an apostate to one or another large constituency. Hobbes wrote about physics, among other things, and was enough of a materialist to argue that though god exists, he must be a material being. This nearly got him the death penalty.

So Hobbes looked to the material world, and borrowed the logic of the marketplace: You need a king because he does an important job for you. He enforces the rule of law that makes your continued life and any fruits of civilization you might wish to enjoy possible. In finding a new source of legitimacy for sovereigns, Hobbes hoped to give it to his pupil, Charles II, as an absolute monarch, though the logic of his theory did not actually lead in this direction. If you should accept the sovereign because you need the service he or she provides, what if the sovereign sucks at the job? Shouldn't such a sovereign be replaced at the discretion of the governed?

It was a major turning point in civilization when the ruler was judged by usefulness rather than divine right.Church and state had to be separated because no church could define a civilization as they once had.

But if the pattern of civilization defined by religion (and, in Julian Janes' view, forming a sort of hive mind for a civilization) was no longer possible as more people came to think for themselves, why should religion continue to exist?

Well, ideas have a sort of evolutionary life. Those that lead to death and destruction tend to die out, those that lead to prosperity and fecundity tend to prosper. Presumably, the sort of civilization as mass hallucination that Janes describes would evolve over a long period of time and produce a stable living situation. And while religion might no longer provide the best guide to who should reign as sovereign, it might provide moral guidance, a social framework in which to meet and mate, and a support network for the individual.

For such an idea or institution to survive, it need not be true in a literal sense, though it might be. It would need to serve its believers well, so that they could pass on the belief. It might serve human nature well, giving a comforting sense of certainty in answer to otherwise unanswerable questions. Which brings us to the question of truth and belief.

"Truth" is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. Aesop's Fables contain truth, even though we know they are not literally true, because they say things we intuitively feel increase our understanding of how the world works. The parable of the sower is in the Bible, but we do not insist that it is literally true. It is true in a mythic, poetic sense, in that it communicates a larger truth through fiction. And different sects disagree about which parts of the Bible are this sort of truth and which parts are literal truth.

But if we use the word "truth" to describe that which we believe without question, how do we decide what to believe? This is not as simple as making a choice from the available options. Truth is not like possession, and we don't gain it by going shopping. Belief is an emotional commitment akin to love, which I may have mentioned in another post, is why when we speak of truth, we often speak of beauty. And once we fall in belief with a truth, we'll stand up for it as if it were our own beloved, even if it causes no end of trouble.

I may wish to believe, but if the evidence is against the thing I wish to believe, truth will seep beneath every door I close on it.

If we are in love with logic, we might view someone asking favors of his or her "invisible sky buddy" with contempt. If we are in love with orderly traditions and eternal justice, we may comfort ourselves with the knowledge that that contemptuous bastard who referred to god that way will burn in the pits of hell while we watch from a salubrious heaven (this was once a popular theme in Christian art, and was called the agonistic fancy.)

There are truths that stalk us like wild jungle beasts however we might try to shake them, beliefs as attractive as a puppy's eyes or as comfortable as the bed you share with a lover. Belief seduces us, ambushes us, creeps up on us shyly trying to attract our attention. And every attempt to tell us how to find the right beliefs falls short. The logical positivists tried to invent a completely logical way of knowing the truth (at least mathematical truth) but Kurt Gödel showed in 1931 that it is impossible to have a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics, demonstrating that even in the most logical of human pursuits, belief cannot be founded solely on logic.

And while we may easily do reality testing with the physical world (did I remember to turn the oven off? I'd better check) reality testing in the ethereal world of symbolic thought is not so easy. This is why churches like to claim there is proof in the physical world, whether it is the miracles of the Catholic Church or the argument that William Paley made about the irreducible complexity of life, churches have recognized that in providing tangible proofs, they are fighting for their very existence. Fantasy writer Terry Pratchett wrote a book titled Small Gods, in which gods depend for their power and even their very existence on the belief of their followers. The book is an allegory for the power and existence of churches.

The question about what the place of religion in society is to be will depend on this. I suppose, from a pragmatic point of view, it will have an important place as long as it serves important functions. But in an increasingly unchurched society, we must wonder, how true will religion be tomorrow? After all, we don't believe things because it is convenient to do so, or if we do, we are often disabused of our belief. But if believers are in a position to pass their beliefs on, those beliefs that help those who hold them will pass them on.

Perhaps that will be God's Work, or perhaps it will be the survivors of a seething meme pool. Believe what you like.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self

More on rethinking liberalism here:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy


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