Re: Biological = trivial?

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Sat, 10 Aug 1996 14:23:26 -0230

At 08:04 PM 8/8/96 -0700, Dwight W. Read wrote:

[Replying to my observations on writing 'generative' computer programs of
kin terminology, myths and religious beliefs.]

>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).
I have to appologise for conflating two processes: the modeling of
generative rules of aspects of culture (by anlaogy with generative rules of
language), and the process of discovery of the logic underlying these rules.
After all, in neither case can we simply assume our informants can tell us
what that logic is, can we? In the case of a universal (or as I would prefer
to say, transcultural) 'grammar', no such informats exist. It seems to me
that in the hey day of both generative liguistics and componential analysis
of kinship what went on was that general models were proposed, and these
were made increasing more precise and more elegant by later modifications.
However, I accept the point.

[After some comments of mine on the problem of defining religion]

>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

I am trying to see whether I can come up with a consistent anthropological
conception of religion (as I understand you to be doing with you notion of a
human concern with origins). I am trying to avoid ethnocentrically assuming
that the European forms of 'religion' must embody the 'essence' of religion
everywhere. At the same time I do not want to abandon totally the common
anthropological cross-cultural useage of the term 'religion', although I am
prepared to abandon part of what has been called religion in order to arrive
at a consistent concept.

I begin by asking what do the various cultural forms of belief and behaviour
that are generally labelled 'religion' by anthropologists have in common.
Since I am not going to assume in advance that they all must have something
in common, I begin looking for what seems to be most widespread. As we all
know, one of the common definitional items has to do with belief in
supernatural or 'spiritual' entities. Both these terms give problems when
looked at from a cross-cultural perspective which is sensitive to the
specific context of particular beliefs. The significance of the fact that
religious entities are called 'spirtual' or 'supernatural' (or however it is
expressed) is to be understood in relation to other explanity principles or
forces in the same culture. I am suggesting what they may have in common is
that they (as believed-in entities with some kind of explanitory force)
always seem to be 'hidden' or 'obscure', in relation to other, more
'ordinary' explanitory principles common used and acted upon by people of
the culture in question.

Now I understand there are those who make the argument that things believed
to be real are real in their social effects, and that we thus cannot
differentiate between empirical and non-empirical entities. But whether this
is so should itself be an empirical question. What test can we apply to say
'this is religion' and 'this is not religion'? I am saying that one test
might be where beliefs or actions involve non-emprical or hidden entities.
Now it is difficult to make an objective test about belief, but where
someone performs an act which they say involves a non-empirical entity in
order for the purported effect of the act to occur, can this be said to
constitute evidence of 'religion'? Similarly, if an event is exlained as due
to the intervention of a non-empirical entity, is this evidence of
'religion'? All this asumes that a distiction can be made between 'religion'
and 'ordinary' action, where there is in the latter case a self-evident
relation between the action and its purported outcome.

None of this, I repeat, is simple assumption. It is a proposition, tested in
a few specific cases, which I suggest can made testable elsewhere. If it can
be shown that no such distiction can be meaningfully identified elsewhere,
fine, since I have not assumed it to be so. The negative result, if on a
wide enough basis, either suggests religion itself is not widespread, of my
definitional proposal is useless and that we need some other testable
criterion to detect the presence of the phenomenon.

>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.

I am saying (optimistically) that I think you can distinguish between a
'common sense' or 'ordinary' reason given for the ocurance of an event, and
an 'other-than-ordinary' (although still culturally accepted) reason. For
example, answering the question "why is it raining?" the answer "it always
rains when the wind is in this diection at this time of the year [etc etc]"
is different in type from " because I neglected a taboo". Both can be said
to be addressing "what is the meaning of ...?", but each supplies not just a
different meaning to the event, but as different *kind* of meaning. While
the first is in some sense 'self-evident', that is, the outcome follows from
obserable premises in regular ways, thus in principle understandable to
anyone, the other assumes non-observable conditions, and requires obscure
knowledge not accessible to all. But even if I am wrong about what actually
constitutes giving an 'other-than-ordinary' meaning to an event, as long as
you and I agree that we can speak meaningfully and cross-culturally of an
"ordinary ends-means" account and an ends-means account that is
"other-than-ordinary", then we understand each other.

>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.

Sorry, I was commenting here (as I have previously done in my discussions
about the centrality or otherwise to religion of the problem of 'origins')
on what you wrote on July 26:

>I would disagree with Tanner about religion and genetics in the following
>sense. I would suggest that religion (and by religion I only mean some
>general notion of some kind of creative power or force extrinsic to us and
>ordinary phenomena) arises out of a problem that arises with a brain that
>is capable of consciousness (which itself must be genetic in origin if you
>assume that we are totally "natural phenomena"). Such a brain is capable
>of asking questions about origins, and if that same brain also insists upon
>an answer, then the invention of a "creative power" almost becomes (if not
>becomes) a necessity.

While I accept that this passage does not constitute a full 'definition', I
have been assuming that your notion of religion *minimally* requires that
there be a belief in a "creative power or force". And I am saying that, for
my taste, at least, this seems to be placing rather narrow limits on what we
should be willing to include as religion. However, I do like part of your
idea - that is, of religion as generally involving "power[s] or force[s]
extrinsic to us and ordinary phenomena" - I just do not wish to limit these
forces or powers to the 'creative' ones, however. But does this reference to
forces or powers (whether creative or otherwise) exclude authodox Bhuddism
from the concept of religion? If there are any Bhuddism experts out there,
am I right in my impression that authodox Bhuddism has difficulties with any
notion of powers or forces extrinsic to us and to ordinary phenomena? The
last time I read about authodox Bhuddist thought, it sounded to me exactly
like Oxford 'ordinary language' philosophy.

Adrian Tanner
Memorial University of Newfoundland