Scientific Metaphysics & Uncertainty

There is, among a certain group of scientists, a shrill certitude about science which leads to overconfident proclamations on matters of philosophy (and by extension, religion). It is therefore refreshing to be reminded that many scientists have a different and more humble view. In this Scientific American interview with physicist George F.R. Ellis, he discusses Lawrence Krauss’ belief that physics has explained “why there is something rather than nothing.” Krauss’ metaphysical claim is, of course, much loved by New Atheists who believe that science has explained pretty much everything. Ellis, a giant in his field who co-authored The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (1973) with Stephen Hawking, disagrees:

Krauss is presenting untested speculative theories of how things came into existence out of a pre-existing complex of entities, including variational principles, quantum field theory, specific symmetry groups, a bubbling vacuum, all the components of the standard model of particle physics, and so on. He does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did.  And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t.

Thus what he is presenting is not tested science. It’s a philosophical speculation, which he apparently believes is so compelling he does not have to give any specification of evidence that would confirm it is true. Well, you can’t get any evidence about what existed before space and time came into being.  Above all he believes that these mathematically based speculations solve thousand year old philosophical conundrums, without seriously engaging those philosophical issues. The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy. As pointed out so well by Eddington in his Gifford lectures, they are partial and incomplete representations of physical, biological, psychological, and social reality.

And above all Krauss does not address why the laws of physics exist, why they have the form they have, or in what kind of manifestation they existed before the universe existed  (which he must believe if he believes they brought the universe into existence). Who or what dreamt up symmetry principles, Lagrangians, specific symmetry groups, gauge theories, and so on? He does not begin to answer these questions.

It’s very ironic when he says philosophy is bunk and then himself engages in this kind of attempt at philosophy. It seems that science education should include some basic modules on Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, and the other great philosophers, as well as writings of more recent philosophers such as Tim Maudlin and David Albert.

There are many unknowns and some things that may never be known. While some find this intolerable and feel a need to fill gaps with metaphysical assertions (which come in scientific and religious or mystical forms), I prefer the Lakota or wakan way, which strikes me as being methodologically scientific. By this understanding, some things will always be mysterious, paradoxical, inexplicable, and ambiguous. This should not bother us. Living with uncertainty is, in my estimation, far more invigorating than living with certitude.

At its best or in ideal methodological form, science is also about mystery, paradox, and uncertainty. This sense of science is beautifully expressed by physicist Carlo Rovelli in a recent piece for the New Republic:

Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism.

The very expression “scientifically proven” is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality, there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far; it’s mostly correct. But, at the same time, it’s not taken as certain, and any element of it is a priori open for revision.

Hear, hear! Rovelli also has some interesting things to say about “naive” scientists who think that philosophy is superfluous. These scientists of course have a head full of philosophy, much of it metaphysical, but they don’t recognize it as such. Unexamined assumptions often work this way, and in other contexts we call this lack of awareness what it is: ignorance.


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Language, Lying & Ritual

While scanning the front page of the New York Times today, my attention was arrested by this startling sub-titular claim: “Hinduism’s profusion of gods and sacred texts lacks a single theological structure, but they sustain a long tradition of tolerance.” My first thought, informed by the long and violent history of Hindu-Muslim conflict on the sub-continent, was that this byline announced one of those idealist or aspirational pieces regularly penned by progressive ecumenicals who tell us that their faith tradition, “properly” interpreted and understood, is really about love and tolerance. My second fleeting thought was that the byline referred to the tolerance that Hindus have for one another, but then I recalled this is the tradition which odiously endorses and sustains the caste system and treats “untouchable” Dalits as ritually impure sub-humans.

My concluding thought, after reading the article (which is the ninth installment of The Stone’s interview series on the philosophy of religion), is that the byline is an editorial error or wishful thinking. I could not find, in Gary Gutting’s interview with Professor Jonardon Ganeri, the statement or claim that Hindu traditions promote tolerance. Any such statement or claim would have been seriously at odds with the facts.

Gutting begins the interview with his usual question, which we can appreciate for the contrastive light it sheds on provincial issues that often obsess Christians:

Gutting: How might looking at Hinduism alter philosophical approaches to religion that take Christianity as their primary example?

Ganeri: Taking Christianity as the exemplar of religion skews philosophical discussion towards attempts to solve, resolve or dissolve difficult philosophical puzzles inherent in monotheism: problems about God’s powers, goodness and knowledge; attempts to provide rational arguments for God’s existence; the problem of evil; and so on. Hindu philosophers have traditionally been far more interested in a quite different array of problems, especially questions about the nature of religious knowledge and religious language, initially arising from their concerns with the Veda as a sacred eternal text and as a source of ritual and moral law.

The remainder of the interview serves as a basic introduction to Hindu traditions. There was, however, one statement by Ganeri I found particularly interesting:

[Some Hindus] see the text of the Veda as itself divine. Its language, on this view, has a structure that is prior to and isomorphic with the structure of the world and its grammar is complete (although parts may have been lost over the centuries). The divinity of the text inverts the order of priority between text and author: Now, at best, assignment of authorship is a cataloging device not the identification of origin. Recitation of the text is itself a religious act.

This concept uncannily resembles claims made by Roy Rappaport in his seminal book, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999). In simplified form, Rappaport’s argument is as follows:

  1. Language is the fundamental evolutionary adaptation which makes us “human” and separates us from our hominin ancestors.
  2. For all its myriad and obvious benefits, language creates two critical problems: (a) the ability to lie, and (b) conceptual alternatives.
  3. Lying poses a serious and potentially fatal threat to trust.
  4. Conceptual alternatives logically entail choice and choosing between them creates conflict.
  5. In tandem, these problems disrupt, destabilize, and/or destroy social order.
  6. Once language had evolved, humans had to address, ameliorate and overcome these twin threats. Social order would otherwise be impossible.
  7. Humans preserve social order, and address these twin threats, through ritual:

I will argue that the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers [i.e., "ritual"] logically entails the establishment of convention, the scaling of social contract, the construction of integrated conventional orders, the investment of what it encodes with morality, the construction of time and eternity, the representation of a paradigm of creation, the generation of the concept of the sacred, the sanctification of the social order, the generation of theories of the occult [i.e., the hidden or invisible], the evocation of numinous experience, the awareness of the divine, the grasp of the holy, and the construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic. (Ritual and Religion at 27).

These are some bold claims and I’m not sure I buy all of them, but they make a good deal of sense. Nietzsche had some similar ideas, which he hinted at in Genealogy of Morals (II:1): “To breed an animal with the right to make promises — is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set for itself in the case of man?” Right or wrong, Rappaport’s book is without doubt a work of provocative genius. If I’m not mistaken, all the work being done on “ritual” and “costly signaling theory” in evolutionary religious studies is indebted, in whole or large part, to Rappaport.

All this aside, Rappaport surely would have appreciated the Vedic idea that ritual recitation of the text — an oral performance of invariant sequences — is a religious idea. In fact, he comes close to saying something like this: “It is a major thesis of this book that it is in the nature of religion to fabricate the Word, the True Word upon which the truths of symbols and the conventions they establish stand. As I suggested at the beginning of this chapter, I take the foundry within which the Word is forged to be ritual” (21).


Unintentional Creationist Irony

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Thick Books & Atheist TV

As I prepare for a long weekend excursion where I won’t physically go anywhere but will mentally go everywhere, this assessment of my travel companions strikes me as fundamentally correct:

[Books] are the only medium for thick descriptions of the world that human beings possess. By “thick” description, I mean an extended, detailed, evidence-based, written interpretation of a subject. If you want to write a feature, or blog, or wikipedia entry, be it about the origins of the first world war; the authoritarian turn in Russia; or the causes and effects of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end you will have to refer to a book. Or at least refer to other people who have referred to books. Even the best magazine pieces and TV documentaries – and the best of these are very good indeed  –  are only puddle-deep compared with the thick descriptions laid out in books. They are “thin” descriptions and the creators and authors of them will have referred extensively to books to produce their work. Books are a different class of object, profoundly unlike magazines, newspapers, blogs, games or social media sites. The world they evoke is richer, more dense and, literally, more meaningful.

This probably explains why I don’t do TV, dumb-phones, texts, social media, tablets, apps, news, streaming, and all that connected-cacophonous tech jazz. These so pale in comparison to deep immersion in thick books that I’ve come to see all of them as irritants and annoyances.

The irony of this assessment is that the author, Toby Mundy, is writing about tech-futurist predictions that books are doomed and Amazon is trying to kill the book business. As I read this, I was looking at a large stack of (mostly used) books that would have been hard or impossible to find and overly expensive to buy before Amazon. The book world has never been better for Luddites.

The television world, for its part, has long been doomed. I’m not sure if things are going to get better or worse with the new “Atheist TV” channel reported in the New York Times. The impetus for the new channel is reasonable disgust over what passes for “science” and “history” on channels ostensibly devoted to these subjects:

“The TV networks kowtow to the liars who make money off of misinformation,” the president of American Atheists said, singling out for special contempt outlets that mix silly supernatural gunk with more serious science and nature shows. “The Discovery Channel treats ghosts like they’re real,” he said, adding later, “Bigfoot, psychics, aliens, ghosts, spirits, gods, devils — all bunk, all pushed by the so-called truthful and scientific stations in an effort to placate the waning religion segment at the expense of the growing segment of atheists who should be, but are not, their target audience.”

It would indeed be nice to have a channel that airs actual science, history,  anthropology, psychology, etc., and which interrogates “religion” through the lenses of evolution and cognitive science. But I seriously doubt, based on the following description, that we will get anything along these lines: “At first, Atheist TV will be limited, offering interviews with leading atheists, film from atheist conventions and other content from the Richard Dawkins Foundation and like-minded organizations.” How dreadful. It sounds like the New Atheist equivalent of digital chloroform and just another reason not to watch TV. Books will have to do.


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Invisible Disenchantments

As an historical and methodological matter, science owes a great deal to supernaturalism. This indebtedness, or what we might call a close structural relationship, becomes evident when we consider the history of the invisible. Postulating the existence of invisible entities or forces that influence or govern causation is not just for spiritualists: it also makes for good science. There are of course some fundamental differences in what is postulated and the requirement of testing, but it’s not hard to see how science and the supernatural work similarly in terms of “invisible” theory. Emile Durkheim was perhaps the first to make this point, which was developed brilliantly by Robin Horton.

I was reminded of all this while recently reading an essay by Sam Gill, Professor of Religious Studies (with a focus on Native Americans) at CU-Boulder. This excerpt was particularly arresting:

One approach used to initiate children into their religious lives was to disenchant them out of their child’s point of view. Children were encouraged to accept a naive realism, to hold the view that the world was at it appeared to them. Among the Hopi of the southwestern United States, such an approach is still used. The children are encouraged to view the masked spirit beings, kachinas, as the spirits themselves. The children never see the personators without masks, or masks that are not being worn. It is integral to the initiation that process that the children witness for the first time the masked figures costumed but without their masks. Recognizing the kachinas as their male relatives, they are sorely disenchanted. Many cry and feel that they can never again trust adults.

The long-term effect of this approach to the initiation of the religious life is striking. To truly appreciate the spiritual world, to see the fuller dimensions of reality, they learn that the world is more than it appears to be. The Hopi and other American tribal cultures use a technique of creating a naive view only to destroy it, utilizing the power of disenchantment that accompanies the loss of naïveté to initiate deeper inquiry and insight. 

This is fascinating. Disenchantment, in the Weberian sense, is usually associated with increasing secularization and advancing scientism. By this process (which has not unfolded in the way sociologists had earlier predicted), the cosmos comes to be seen as inert and mechanical. Ironically, this “seeing” depends on our ability to measure and manipulate the invisible. In the Hopi or Amerindian case, the disenchanting procedure is simply reversed. In the former case, the destruction of naive realism is in the service of science; in the latter case, it’s in the service of supernaturalism.

Gill’s essay, “Religious Forms and Themes,” appears in a collection titled America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus (1991, ed. Alvin Josephy). Those who have read Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus will probably enjoy this collection of essays by experts in their respective fields. While Mann’s book has better narrative coherence and flow, the Josephy volume is intellectually beefier and geographically more extensive. The latter also contains a chapter on Amerindian languages in which the author (anthropologist and linguist Joel Sherzer at UT-Austin) discusses the intensely metaphorical nature of those languages. Sherzer’s claims are sure to incense my dear friend and metaphor-meister Dominik.


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EP & Paternity Paranoia

Among the many problems that ail evolutionary psychology or EP, one of the most glaring is the field’s ignorance of hunter-gatherer ethnography. When evolutionary psychologists have finished testing their thoroughly modern and deeply acculturated subjects, they usually claim to have identified some deep-seated or hard-wired psychological propensity. With the supposedly universal trait in hand, evolutionary psychologists then explain how it would have made sense, and thus adaptively evolved, in “ancestral environments.”

Aside from the ex post facto or just-so storytelling that usually follows, few (if any) evolutionary psychologists have intensive knowledge of hunter-gatherers. Consequently, evolutionary psychologists freely speculate about ancestral environments. While hunter-gatherers are imperfect proxies for the evolutionary past (and certainly are not static exemplars of that past), they at least provide us with constraining data.

When evolutionary psychologists ask themselves how some emotional trait or psychological propensity might have worked in ancestral environments, their first methodological step should be to evaluate or test the trait using the hunter-gatherer ethnohistoric record. The next step should be to evaluate or test the trait using primate studies, and the third should be testing with the hominin archaeological record. Because most evolutionary psychologists skip all three steps (or are largely ignorant of these three constraining datasets), they tell speculative just-stories about “ancestral environments.”

If an allegedly universal trait or propensity (1) is not found or is not significant among hunter-gatherers, (2) is not found or is not significant among non-human primates, and (3) is not evidenced by hominin archaeology, the trait-propensity probably did not evolve as an adaptation in ancestral environments. Moreover, if we can archaeologically or historically identify places and times where the trait-propensity appears and subsequently develops, the trait-propensity probably is cultural or learned.

Eschewing this methodology, evolutionary psychologists often mistakenly identify fairly recent cultural-historical developments as “evolutionary” and “ancestral.” A classic example of this mistake is the supposed “evolutionary-biological” problem of cuckoldry. As evolutionary psychologists spin this particular story, the worst possible genetic-fitness outcome for a man is to be cuckolded and then unknowingly raise another man’s child. The horror, they (and the math) say!

But as everyone familiar with hunter-gatherer ethnography knows, paternity assurance is a non-issue in such societies. Biological fatherhood, while often known and acknowledged, is in most cases not of paramount or even primary importance. It is often the case that the mother’s brother will be the most important male relationship in a child’s life and this biological “uncle” will be called “father.” In other cases, a child may have many “fathers” consisting of “uncles” and “grandfathers.” These uncles and grandfathers may be biological, fictive, or both, and they are often the most important adult male figures in a child’s life. In still other cases, children freely circulate among group members and may be adopted by non-related adults who are then called “mother” and “father.”

There are additional variations on these themes, but the message we get from them is consistent and clear: biological paternity is not a matter of major or overriding concern. This is because “father” relationships are structured so differently in these societies. As I explained in “One Flew Over the Cuckold’s Nest,” biological fatherhood and paternity assurance became important concepts, indeed overriding concerns, only in those societies that settled down to produce food. For these societies, the phase change known as the Neolithic transition was accompanied by shifts from communal to private property, and in conjunction with private property, shifts toward patriarchy and primogeniture.

These are the historical circumstances and cultural conditions in which biological fatherhood and paternity assurance become great anxiety inducers. These concerns did not evolve in prehistoric or “ancestral” environments for “adaptive” or biological reasons. Paternity paranoia is a product of particular times and places. It is not a universal trait or genetic imperative.

With these things in mind, we can evaluate a recent Atlantic article touting a new study that “looks at the evolutionary psychology behind ideas of sexual morality.” As is often the case with EP studies, what sounds promising quickly devolves into yet another ancestral story:

We’ve evolved to consider sex, the researchers argue, as a game of finite resources. For our ancestors, multiple sexual partners meant things could get knotty when it came to proving whose kids were whose. For women who depended on men for their livelihoods (and the livelihoods of their offspring), that uncertainty meant losing out on the support of their male partners. Bad news. For men, it meant investing in the well-being of children they hadn’t necessarily fathered. Also bad news.

The connection between sexual behavior and morality, then, may have come about as a way of keeping a gender-based social order intact. “Through moralizing,” the researchers wrote, “individuals can promote behavior which serves their own personal and coalitional interests.” Back in the day, judgment was a form of defense.

The key to this story is what precisely is meant by “our ancestors” and “back in the day.” If these researchers are referring to sedentary, food-producing ancestors who developed notions of property, patriarchy, and primogeniture, then this story makes sense. It was in these societies that gender-based hierarchies were created, female dependence was encouraged, and in which individual — rather than group — interests came to the fore. But this makes it a provincial cultural and historical story, not a universal evolutionary and biological one.

If, however, these researchers are talking about our hunting and gathering ancestors, then this story is surely wrong. These ancestors probably had multiple sexual partners, did not worry about paternity, and did not moralize these issues.

What the study in question actually shows is that in modern or post-Neolithic societies, female dependence on males correlates strongly with moral judgments (and religious strictures) against adultery and promiscuity. While historians and anthropologists have known this for quite a long time, it’s always nice to have psychologists experimentally and statistically confirm what we already knew.


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Happy Chemehuevi Trails

Some years ago I acquired a folio or large-sized Edward S. Curtis photogravure titled “A Home in the Mesquite — Chemehuevi” (1924). Here’s the image:

Chemehuevi-HomeAlthough this has been on my wall for well over a decade, I have never given it much thought. While I have had some design and art oriented friends say how much they like this gravure, it’s never been one of my favorites. My preference, driven initially by aesthetics and later by study, has always been for the iconic Plains Indians images. This preference has morphed into a minor passion, as I am regularly impelled into the remote and rural Plains for long road, camping, and hiking trips. On a recent trip through the Republican and Solomon River Valleys of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas, I camped for a few days in the remarkable Village of Brownville, Nebraska. There I discovered the Chemehuevi.

This surely sounds strange, given that Brownville sits in the verdant Missouri River Valley of southeastern Nebraska. It’s a long way – roughly 1,100 miles as crows fly – from the Mojave Desert homeland of the Chemehuevi. Distance aside, the two landscapes could not be more different. Nebraska’s eastern edge is an ecotone or transitional zone where hardwood forests and prairies give way to the Great Plains proper. The Missouri River, running north-south along this edge, bisects a borderland consisting of a miles wide flood plain, loamy alluvial bottomlands, densely wooded valley bluffs, and tall grass prairie uplands. Moving west out of the valley, the trees thin and the land begins a slow majestic roll into the vast grasslands and endless vistas of the central Great Plains. Up until 150 years ago, these grasslands supported the largest concentration of large mammals (i.e., bison, elk, and antelope) on earth, surpassing even the great ungulate herds of Africa. It’s stunningly beautiful and rich country that has attracted Native Americans for at least 12,000 years, having been occupied most recently by the Omaha, Oto, Ponca, Ioway, Kansa, and Pawnee tribes.

All of which is to say that this lush ecotone is not just a thousand crow miles from the Mojave Desert: these are world’s apart. The Mojave, while beautiful in its way, is stark and even forbidding. It’s not a land, or landscape, which says bounty or signals home. Yet the Chemehuevis and their southern Paiute brethren chose it for home and have made it their home for thousands of years.

At this point, you may be wondering how I discovered the Chemehuevi in Brownville. Those who ever visited Omaha’s Old Market may recall, fondly I would guess, The Antiquarium Bookstore and its wonderfully polymathic owner, Tom Rudloff. After visiting the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore back in the 1960s, Tom decided that Omaha needed what Paris had. Over many years, Tom turned The Antiquarium into something every bit as good and in some ways better. The Antiquarium was an Omaha institution, its gathering place for artists, oddballs, intellectuals, writers, and nomads. In 2007, Tom broke Omaha’s heart by picking up and moving the whole thing (including over 100,000 books) to Brownville, where he had just purchased an old school to house the books and art. It’s a charming red brick WPA-style structure from the 1930s that sits in the middle of an artisan’s community. In other words, it’s perfect. This explains why I was camping in Brownville, at The Antiquarium, for several days.

One night, while having wine and picking Tom’s brain about Native American ethnography, he asked me what I knew about the Chemehuevi. Nothing, I had to confess, other than the fact I had a Curtis gravure of a Chemehuevi home hanging on my wall. He then told me about Carobeth Laird and her books, which he considered to be masterpieces. Coming from Tom, this is no small praise. Laird’s story, a hint of which appears in this 1983 obit from the New York Times, is remarkable. But her books, which Tom happened to have hidden away in his Rare Book Room, are even more remarkable. They now sit on my shelf, having been read in short order upon my return.

Laird’s most famous book, or the book that made her famous, is Encounter with an Angry God: Recollections of My Life with John Peabody Harrington (1975). Harrington, for those who don’t know, was an anthropological savant and linguist who spent 40 years of his life obsessively gathering ethnographic data on several little-known and fast-disappearing Native American societies in and around southern California. His salvage work was so prodigious that it weighs in the tons and now occupies 700 hundred feet of shelf space at the Smithsonian. Much of it still awaits the army of PhD students needed to digest and present the materials in organized monographs. Harrington was, in a curious and brilliant way, like Edward Curtis: he devoted his entire life to an enormous and quixotic project. Those who engage in these kinds of epic quests usually suffer, as do those around them. Laird lyrically and sympathetically captures all this in Encounter with an Angry God.

While Angry God is justly famous, in my estimation it pales in comparison to Laird’s simply-titled ethnography, The Chemehuevis (1976). This is indeed, as Tom said it was, a masterpiece. Its most remarkable feature is one I hardly expected but might have guessed: the Chemehuevis, having lived in the Mojave for perhaps thousands of years, developed a worldview that has much in common with Australian Aborigines, especially those (such as the Arunta) living in the central desert. In both settings, landscapes are all-important and song-trails are used not just for navigation but also for successful adaptation to these harsh and unforgiving environments. For both the Chemehuevi and the Arunta, lands, songs, trails, dreams, water, plants, and animals are all woven together, ritually and mythically, into worldviews that make sense and enable life.

Having said all this, I can now say that the Curtis gravure of the Chemehuevi home hanging on my wall is now among my favorites. I will have more to say about Laird and the Chemehuevis in the future, but I wanted to share this straightaway so that those interested can start reading.

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Random Superstitions

Sometimes, when making decisions, it’s better not to decide. Or, when faced with a choice, to choose on the basis of chance. When the set of possible outcomes for any given decision and consequent action is normally distributed (represented graphically with a bell curve), then the best decision may be random. But given our penchant for “rational” decision-making, making truly random decisions is exceedingly difficult. When we need to make a random decision, we can of course toss dice or flip coins, but this strikes some as too primitive. For modern sophisticates of chance, “true” random number generators are the answer.

These statistical considerations may, in turn, explain all manner of decision-making (such as augury and divination) that is classed, and thus denigrated, as “superstition.” While I had never before considered the issue this way, after reading this Aeon essay by Michael Schulson, I’m persuaded there is something to it. When faced with uncertainty and wide range of possible outcomes, our past experiences tend to probabilistically guide our decisions. But because our past past experience is so limited, we usually overestimate the extent to which those experiences are relevant. This is of course the problem with small samples. One way to overcome these biases, which can lead to bad decisions, is to choose randomly. As Schulson explains, it seems that some societies may have figured this out:

Over the millennia, cultures have expended a great deal of time, energy and ingenuity in order to introduce some element of chance into decision-making. Naskapi hunters in the Canadian province of Labrador would roast the scapula of a caribou in order to determine the direction of their next hunt, reading the cracks that formed on the surface of the bone like a map. In China, people have long sought guidance in the passages of the I Ching, using the intricate manipulation of 49 yarrow stalks to determine which section of the book they ought to consult. The Azande of central Africa, when faced with a difficult choice, would force a powdery poison down a chicken’s throat, finding the answer to their question in whether or not the chicken survived – a hard-to-predict, if not quite random, outcome. (“I found this as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of,” wrote the British anthropologist E E Evans-Pritchard, who adopted some local customs during his time with the Azande in the 1920s).

His mention of Naskapi hunters is apropos, given that I just started reading Frank Speck’s classic, Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (1935). I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to get round to this important book, but it is essential reading for anyone interested in animist worldviews.

And speaking of hunting, some may have heard about the recent PNAS study which shows that Native Americans in Sonora, Mexico were hunting gomphotheres 13,390 years ago. For those who (like me) did not know what a gomphothere was, here’s an artistic reconstruction of the four-tusked beast:

GomphothereWhile these creatures were no doubt impressive, I was equally impressed by the quartz-crystal Clovis point that was found in archaeological association with the beast. This may be the prettiest point I’ve ever seen, and I have little doubt that the clear quartz carried a significant symbolic or “superstitious” load in the ancient hunt:


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