Re: Biological = trivial?

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Thu, 1 Aug 1996 13:20:31 -0700

Tanner replies:

>Put even more crudely, the argument runs "If I were a
>Bongobongo, living under those circumstances, this is what I would think,
>and consequently this is what I would do." Thus Read makes the argument
>that, given a group of humans with reasoning, the question of origins must
>have occured to them, and that, by the application of deductive logic, we
>can know that it was necessary for them to arrive at the belief in a
>'creative power' to account for these origins.
Sorry, but I was not suggesting deductive logic as the source of concern
with origins. What I said was slightly different and I was really posing a
quesiton without (I believe) a clear answer: Is the brain constituted in
such a way that when we are dealing with what we loosely call
"consciousness", and the seeming propensity of the brain/mind to construct
internal (to the brain) representations and even models of the external
world, do those internal representations depend upon an "origin" and if so,
does this imply almost a necessity on the part of the brain to construct
origins when there are no evident origins?

Tanner continues:

>However, from even the few cases of the beliefs and practices of cultural
>groups with which I am intimately familiar, I would say that it is
>impossible to deduce in advance what may be the logic underlying any
>particular complex of cultural belief and associated practices.

This is certainly the case given our still limited understanding of
"cultural belief."

Tanner continues:

>Nor have I seen any evidence that, by analogy with lingustics,
>anyone has been able to actual identify "deep structures" of culture, or
>produce tranformational rules to generate and account for actual 'surface'
>cultural practives.

I will soon be releasing a computer program that enables the kind of
modeling of kinship terminology structures that makes apparent what is "deep
structure", what is "surface structure" (within the domain of terminology
structures) and helps to identify precisely the kind of rules that are
evidently used to relate conceptual/cultural structures to practise.

Tanner continues:

>For example, among the northern Cree hunters, while there do exist a few
>legends which related to 'origins', these are quite marginal to the core of
>their religious beliefs and practices. Most 'religious' ideas and practices
>about spiritual entities, by contrast, deal with the problem of providing a
>detailed account of the animals and the other forces of nature in the Cree
>world, and of supplying techniques by which such knowledge about this spirit
>world can be used to interpret and predict human encounts with animals,
>particularly during hunting. It is my impression that this relative
>disinterest in origins is by no means unusual.

Marginal/disinterest and absent are not the same. I would be surprised if
they do not also have a set of beliefs that deal with origins; e.g. the
Netsilik eskimo are also quite concerned about how to interact with the
spririt world as part of dealing with their encounters with animals in
hunting, but they also have beautiful stories about the origins of those
spirits (such as nuliajuk, the goddess of the seals).

> After all, Read's claim about the
>intellectual problem of accounting for 'origins' was presented as an
>explanation of how religion *began*, and did not address the question of the
>logic of beliefs according to which the specific practices religion are now
>carried on. He might argue that his hypothesised core concern over 'origins'
>later became diversified, as cultural groupings themselves became diversified.

Undoubtedly there is diversification, but that is a separate matter.

Tanner continues:

> Moreover, for
>Read to maintain, as I understand him to do, that because of this common
>human concern over 'origins', religion must be universal, does he not have
>to be able to show in some way that this concern remains at least an
>essential part of all religions? This is something I would like to see
>demonstrated empirically before I would include it as central to my own
>anthropological conception of 'religion'.

Tanner is quite correct in concluding that if "religious thinking" arises,
in some manner, out of the nature of the brain/mind as constituted in our
species, then we should find that "religious thinking" universally provides
a "solution" to the problem of "origins," (or the exceptions should have
evident reasons as to why they are exceptions). If any one has evidence to
the contrary, I'd be delighted to be so informed.

D. Read