Re: Biological = trivial?

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Thu, 8 Aug 1996 20:04:34 -0700

Tanner replies:
>Some years ago, a scholar of my acquaintence told me he had written a
>computer program which could 'generate' myths. ... One
>difference appears to be that, while his program is limited to the
>(arbitrary?) rules of a single culture, yours would appear to be designed to
>work with any kin terminology system.
>Do you believe that, in principle, a program of this type could also
>generate all the potentially 'acceptable' (i.e. 'gramatical') surface forms
>of other kinds of cultural institutions, but no 'unaccaptable'
>('ungramatical') ones? Could there, for instance, be a program which tells
>us what is a 'gramatical' and what an 'ungramatical' religious belief, or
>distinguish a 'gramatical' ritual from an 'ungramatical' one?

A generative program can be written only if there is already comprehension
of the phenomena in question. The kinship program provides an account of
the logic of the structure--it can be used to generate a "potential"
terminology based on minor changes in the logic (e.g., what would our
terminology be like if we distinguished between Spouse of Sibling and
Sibling of Spouse at the level of kin terms). I would be hesitant to use it
to "generate" a terminology. While a given terminology may have its own
logic, the logic of that logic (as it were) is not so easily discerned. On
the other hand, the analysis would identify a purported terminology as not
being "grammatical"; i.e., failing to have a structure based on an internal
logic. Could one construct a similar program for religious belief? Only if
one first understood the logic underlying the construction of religious
beliefs--and it is not evident that there is such a logic (or at least, the
logic is at a "deep level" and not very informative of what is happening at
a surface level).

Tanner continues:

> You then make changes to the 'rules' in the
>program and run it again, and so on until you are able to generate forms
>which can be shown, empirically, to exist. The flaw in this would seem to be
>this: supposing a suface form is generated for which there is no emprical
>example; this could either mean the underlying rules are wrong, or merely
>that this is a potentially accpetable cultural institution, but one which
>nobody has got around to actually instituting as yet.
I take it that the flaws is the purported inability to distinguish between a
false logic that happens to be consistent with all known examples, versus a
correct logic since both could arrive at a "not yet observed instance" that,
in the former case has not been observed because it is not valid and in the
latter case because it just hasn't been tried out yet. This occurs with any
theory--theories are "accepted" when they are consistent with the currently
known range of observations. (By the way, Tanner's comment is very
reminiscent of question Sahlins posed back in the mid 60's when he was a
visiting prof. at the Institute des Hautes Etudes in Paris.) A distinction
can be made between a theory that needed very few "corrections" versus one
that has required as many corrections as there are observations--the former
would be seen by most as having more "validity". For example, there is no
logical reason why one cannot have a theory of planetary motion based upon
epicycles--one just adds more epicycles every time there is a disconfirming
observation. However, such a theory has low "believability" by virtue of
the fact that while it is being constructed it does not predict new

Tanner continues:

>I do not happen to agree with Cohn, although I accept that he raises a
>serious difficulty that must be addressed. I see two common, widespread by
>not, in principle, universal, general characteristics which are shared by
>some cultural forms. One of these two happens to be linked to Read's idea of
>a concern with origins. But origins, in my view, is only one of many
>questions people often have, but which are, in principle, unanswerable. It
>probably depends on factors internal to a particular culture which
>particular unanswerable questions they happen to find compelling, and in the
>pursuit of which they are prepared to spend, without any realistic hope of
>an economic return, their precious resources on, to advance their efforts in
>trying to do the impossible.
I think Tanner is assuming that in some sense religion (however defined)
should be measured from an instrumental viewpoint. (Or I may be misreading
the comment about "trying to do the impossible".) To reiterate my original
statement: Is the mind constituted in such a way that it gets caught up in
having to "construct" origins, hence is "forced" to postulate the
"extraordinary" as a way to resolve the inherent problem of "infinite
recess"? While asking for origins may lead to unanswerable questions,
unanswerable questions, in general, need not lead to a concern for "the

Tanner continues:

>What I suggest can be shown inductively is that there are in many cultures
>widespread beliefs which have in common the idea that, in order to adress
>the problem of answering whatever unanswerable questions a group happens to
>find interesting, they find it necessary to postulate that there exists,
>beyond ordinary, everyday reality, in which ordinary ends-means kinds of
>actions occur, a hidden level of significance, one separate from surface
>appearences. In general, these beliefs are constructed by analogy; that is,
>the logic of these beliefs is that of analogical thought.
Once anyone asks the question, What is the meaning of _______?, the answer
must invoke something outside of "ordinary ends-means" since "meaning" is a
concept that has no existence outside of the mind; that is, merely by asking
the question in this manner it posits an "extraordinary" answer as it cannot
be answered by reference to ordinary, external reality since external
reality has no "meaning." Given that What is the meaning of ________? seems
to have a widespread concern, I would agree that we will find convergence
across different groups on answers that posit something outside of "ordinary
ends-means" when such a question is posed.

Tanner continues:
>While I accept that many societies which profess themselves Bhuddist,
>because they stray from authodox behaviour, can be included as having
>'religion', but I am not sure authodox Bhuddism, or the monastic societies
>which follow these beliefs, actually fits either your or my definition of a
A brief clarification: I was not providing a "definition of a religion"--I
am not sure what such a definition would look like.

D. Read