Re: Biological = trivial?

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Fri, 2 Aug 1996 18:21:13 -0230

At 01:20 PM 8/1/96 -0700, Dwight W. Read wrote:
>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?

And what I was trying to communicate was that, in order for your question to
be meaningful and answerable, the way it is phrased, requires that the
answer is arrived at solely through the use of deductive logic; that is,
either we conclude (deductively) that it must be necessary for such a brain
to construct origins, or (using some other deductive argument) it is not
>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.

Some years ago, a scholar of my acquaintence told me he had written a
computer program which could 'generate' myths. I believe he was able to
maniplate the program to cause it to generate myths that members of the
culture in question will, he predicted, find 'acceptable' (although they
would never have heard them before), as well those he predicted they would
find 'unacceptable'. This, like your own program, if they perform as
advertised, would constitute a significant theoretical advance. 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? Even if such a
program existed, I am not sure it would provide a way around the problem I
see in the use of deductive logic. While each time you run the program you
are, in effect, using deductive logic (that is, to set the underlying
'rules'). But each run is experimental, and the results can then be checked
against empirical reality. 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.

>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).

I guess it gets down to a matter of religious 'economics', that is, can we
make our definition of religion so big as to include all the elements,
marginal or otherwise, that we might want to see as included by the term?
There are many potential features which we might want to include in
religion: 1. explains the origin of the cosmos, of the world, of humanity,
of a cultural group, of each sub-group, etc. 2. explains what will happen
after death. 3. explains the significance of life. 4. postulates the
existence of non-empirical entities. 5. provides a moral code. 6. provides
forms of action in which the relation between ends and means is not
self-evident. This list could continue.

Werner Cohn has argued that there is no common set a characteristics of
'religion' that are actually shared by the various cultural behaviours and
beliefs which are commonly included under the label of 'religion'. He
concludes that the only meaningful definition of 'religion' is one which
refers to the various institutional forms within the Christian tradition. In
fact, it is only in this historic tradition that 'religion' assumes the form
of specific social institutions within the various societies where it is
found. The others not only have no specifically institutional existence, but
also have so little else in common, either with instutionally-based
'religion', or with each other, that to call them all 'religion' is to
simply assume, despite all evidence to the contary, that all these diverse
cultural forms *must* have something in common.

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.

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.

The second key widespread feature in my suggestion regarding what might be a
useful cross-cultural but not, in principle, universal, conception of
religion is that, in addition to involving beliefs referring to a hidden
reality, the group uses formulaic behaviour as a way of engaging in actions
with respect to manipulating this supposed hidden reality. A very general
charactersitic of these action formulas are that they are also arrived at on
the basis of analogical thought. We often call this form of action 'ritual';
mediation takes place with the purported hidden reality, and manipulation of
this hidden level of determinism is said to occur. Unfortunately, the term
'ritual' is often used in an ambiguous way, so that I do not think that
everything normally included as ritual is actually used to engage in action
with the hidden level of reality, in the sense I am using these terms.

>> 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.

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

>D. Read

Adrian Tanner
Memorial University of Newfoundland