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Monday, December 12, 2016

Language and the social contract: Word, spirit, and reason

by John MacBeath Watkins

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, argued that the basis for the social contract is that in a state of nature, we see a war of each against all, so we must form a social contract to have a leader in charge of enforcing order, or we will die a violent death. I believe that was more a description of the breakdown of order during the 30 Years War, just ending when Leviathan was published. John Locke, for reasons we explored in the chapter on him and his radical activities, argued that we form a society to protect property, which includes our own lives.

Both wrote in the 1600s. I believe it may be time to update the notion of the state of nature. First of all, the Hobbesian notion that we formed society to avoid violent death would apply to any animal capable of fear, and I think human society is fundamentally different from most or all other animal societies.

Second, property is a term Locke never really defined. It cannot be objects, which exist whether they are owned or not. Property is the rules and customs regulating the human use of objects. It is, if you like, what objects mean to people. It is a province in the realm of meaning, and meaning is what makes human societies different.

The Hobbesian notion that we form a society to free ourselves from the threat of violent death explains why we have been ruled so long by force. It does not explain why we have been ruled so long by faith and custom, as well. The answer to that lies in the symbolic side of human society. What makes human society a civilization or a culture is this symbolic world, a sort of virtual realm consisting of meanings, which is invisible to animals other than humans. Human culture is one of the strangest things on the planet, and religion is one of the strangest and most powerful things in that ethereal, symbolic world.

Reason is not the basis of religion. In fact, it is not the basis for civilization. People learn to live together by living together, and codify what they have learned into institutions, culture, and stories. The most important of those stories, such as the origin story that binds the community together and the story of what happens to the wicked in the afterlife, are in the keeping of one of the most powerful institutions, religion.

But where did religion come from, and why do virtually all human societies have one?

Humans, relative to other animals, have giant brains. The brain is an expensive organ, consuming about 25% of your body's energy when it is in a resting state, but it pays dividends. One result is our ability to solve problems, such as how to get a piece of fruit down from a tree without breaking our necks. Another is our use of language, and symbolic thought.

We see signs of tool use as much as three million years ago. That is a sign of instrumental thought, problem solving. Symbolic thought is much more recent, appearing and disappearing a few times before it finally “took” permanently (we hope) about 35,000-40,000 years ago.

Language must first have been used instrumentally, to warn of danger, coordinate defense, communicate what plants are edible and how to prepare them, and talk one's lover's mate out of killing you.

But we see the revolution of symbolic thought in the creation of jewelry, and tools that are beautiful as well as functional. We see these as signs that our ancestors thought these things were not just useful, they had meaning.

We are creatures who make meaning; it is the essence of being human, and allows us to have larger civilizations that would otherwise be possible.

Most animals only coordinate with others of their species who are relatively closely related to them. Humans are different, in part because of their dual nature. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, living creatures can be seen as things that exist to perpetuate their genes. These are chemical strings of information that define what the creature is.

But we have other strings of information, symbolic ones that define who we are as much as our genes do. Dawkins invented the word memes to describe them. They are a major part of what our minds are made of, the brain's software that has evolved to allow us to function in society. They give us, for example, ideas about honor and decency that prevent us from acting badly and selfishly.

Our minds are made up of the memes we have been in contact with. You might say, what we accept into ourselves defines who we are, and what we reject defines the boundaries of the soul. But in the end, a large part of what we are made up of is each other, everyone we've known, spoken to, read, or watched as they went about their lives around us. In fact, so much of what we are is in our memes, we can transmit much of what we are to those with whom we share few genes. We certainly feel closer to our friends than to our second cousins, and feel they share more of who we are.

But how does the symbolic link up with the spiritual?

Consider what a wonder language is. You have a tree, you know its smell, recognize its shape, perhaps eat its fruit or nuts. The tree is a solid thing, growing in one place and firm in its reality.

But then, you have a word for the tree. In fact, you have a word for trees. It is as if the tree, and all trees, have grown a new dimension. The tree now has an existence in the physical world and another existence in the new, symbolic world.

How are we to interpret this?

One way would be to regard that second existence as spirit. The tree now has a spirit, perhaps we could speak of it as a wood nymph, the brook has not just the sound of moving water but the babbling of the water sprites.

This is a mythopoetic understanding of the world. We understood this new dimension in the world by calling it spirit, and inhabiting the world with a new sort of creature that existed only in the realm of magic.

In our materialistic age, we tend to think of the world and society in materialistic and instrumental terms. But this would not necessarily be the dominant mode of understanding for all of history. In a slowly changing world, we could construct a society of customs and myths that caused people to act in ways that made the crops grow and the social order to remain stable. This would be a world Edmund Burke could admire, in which the customs and myths society imbued its members with were the cumulative wisdom of the society.

There is a branch of philosophy called pragmatism, which says ideas have an evolutionary life, in which the fittest ideas survive. For millennia, this could work slowly, and the ideas only had to work, they did not need to be literally true. Humanity could live by its myths.

When the world changed quickly, as in the late bronze age collapse of about 1200 BCE, this system did not work well enough. The new technology of iron meant the old powers fell. In the following dark age, many cities were leveled, never to be built again on those sites. Populations fell, civilizations failed.

It took around 800 years for civilization to recover. And from that dark age came a flowering of reason we now think of as the Greek golden age. Instrumental logic, combined with language, became philosophy. It was a precursor to the age of reason.

We entered a new dark age when Rome fell, and society relied more on religion and custom for centuries. Then came the Enlightenment, and we began to try to reason our way to the good society again.

So here we are, with reason and faith often at odds. The world is changing too rapidly for mythopoetic systems that have evolved over the ages to adapt quickly enough, but there is great resistance to leaving them behind, and for good reasons. The Enlightenment, after all, produced philosophies that led to the Terror, the Stalinist purges, the killing fields. There is enough wisdom in myth to make it still useful. Its claims to truthfulness are usually not testable, and beside the point in any case.

But reason and faith are not the only things at odds. Both can be used to justify either authoritarian or democratic regimes. The violent regimes justified in the name of “science,” such as the fascist and communist governments, have been pretty thoroughly discredited at this point. But we are now seeing violent reactions against liberalism from people motivated by religion and tradition. We are used to thinking of democracy as a better form of government to live under, but there are plenty of people fighting for or living under authoritarian regimes. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not valued in these societies, and a surprising number of people seem to be just fine with that.

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