Re: Biological = trivial?

Adrian Tanner (atanner@MORGAN.UCS.MUN.CA)
Wed, 31 Jul 1996 16:34:46 -0230

At 04:58 PM 7/26/96 -0700, Dwight W. Read wrote:
[After commenting on parts of a post of mine about the importance of
widespread-but-less-than-universal cultural phenomena, comments with which I
am in full agreement, so I will not bore you with the details.]

Read continues:
>I don't think it all that useful to focus on so-called universals in that
>while they make "signal" the need to introduce the preceeding level into the
>arguement (i.e., the capacity of the brain to do language like behavior is
>genetic in its origin), once that is established the hard work still
>remains. It seems to me that the reference to universals is actually a code
>word for avoiding direct involvement with what is involved, namely how the
>brain operates. If language is universal, it is because we share, at the
>level of the species, brains that constructed in a largely similar manner.
>The latter implies that there will be a whole series of "universals" when we
>push the surface phenomena down to the level of the functioning of the
>brain. Indeed, the presumption generally made is (a) cultural is a
>consequence of how our brain operates, and (b) we share similar brains
>across our species.
>However, by pushing cultural phenomena to this level, we also run the danger
>of losing sight of the fact that there is little predictive power to be
>realized by so doing. For example, 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. (To repeat a
>question I posed about a year ago: Could an android such as Data of
>Startrek exist without the properties we associate with humanness? To what
>extent are we dealing with an interacting package that, like Gordian's knot
>cannot be disentanbled, or are we modular with parts that can exist in

There are a couple of problems which I see in the above. First, in trying to
understand particular cultural practices by analysing the reasoning which
humans employ in either originating and maintaining these practices
(including those that come within the general category of 'religion'), I
have learned to be highly skeptical of explanations arrived at on the basis
of deductive logic. This is the kind of logic that essentially says, "The
Bongobongo live under this particular set of circumstances, and behave in
these certain ways; knowing this, I can deduce why the Bongobongo think the
way they do, and why they behave the way they do, based on my understanding
of this thinking." 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.

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. The
alternative approach to this kind of analytic problem relies on inductive
logic. This logic starts by looking at as wide a range of relevant facts as
possible, and then tries to narrow them down systematically to arrive by
induction at an explanation which will account for as many of these facts as
possible. Deductive logic is unreliable here because, while the number of
logical principles involved in the kind of thought that underlies cultural
practices are not unlimited, they are so numerous, and the means by which
conclusions are arrived at take so many twists and turns in logic, that we
cannot, in principle, be discovered by deductive reasoning what their actual
logic is. 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. (Perhaps I am too impatient; after all, this kind of
analogy between language and culture has only been around for a bit more
than thirty years.) We can only arrive at an understanding of the logic of
any particular case by close empirical investigation, and only after that
understand the more general cross-cultural phenomena in question by looking
at as wide as possible a range of these well-understood cases, using
inductive logic to confirm more general-level theories and explanations.

My second observation would be to question whether, as Read appears to
assume, it is the case that, at the core of every 'religion' there is the
intellectual effort to account for 'origins'. I am willing to be proved
wrong, but following my own presciption as outlined above, if we look at all
the well-documented cases of what apprear to be, superficially, at least,
'religion', either this focus on 'origins' is simply not present, or we have
to conclude that 'religion' (restricted to only those cases where 'orgins'
is actually the main intellectual focus) is even less universal than even I
would be prepared to admit.

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.

Now admittedly we may want to suggest, in order to hold a consistent
cross-cultural conception of 'religion', that Cree belief in these spirits
has become changed over time, that these spiritual beliefs, instead of being
directed at addressing the problem of origins, are now a way of allowing the
Cree to engage in various forms of divination. In terms of a cross-cultural
conception of religion, divination may simply be seen as a marginal or
secondary aspect of the 'real' core of religion, which we assert to be the
matter of accounting for 'origins'. 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.

But Read's deductive logic sets up an essentially unprovable hypothesis
(that humanity *must have* at one time in the past been concerned enough
about the problem of 'origins' to have invented religion). 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'.

Adrian Tanner
Memorial University of Newfoundland