Janus: Myth & Science

Our modernist disciplinary taxonomies are such that we rarely care to admit that myth and science are related, or that they have anything in common. Boundaries must be maintained and impurities removed, regardless of what history might show and tell us. One such history, that of the invisible, is a step in the right direction, as is this piece on the amorphous or osmotic boundaries between “drugs” and “medicine.” The author, Benjamin Breen, begins on a conflationary note:

When I began my graduate studies in history, I decided to focus on the period when magic and alchemy morphed into modern science. I was especially fascinated by John Dee, the wizardly court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. Although Dee believed he could speak to angels, he was also one of the leading mathematicians and geographers of his era. Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton followed in Dee’s footsteps, conducting empirical investigations of nature alongside studies of Biblical prophecy and alchemical secrets. John Maynard Keynes had it right when he observed in 1946 that Newton was not the first scientist – he was the last of the magicians. Newton’s generation especially loved to search for ‘occult virtues’ – hidden phenomena latent in nature – and they found them in psychoactive drugs, along with a mystery that is still with us today.

While we may characterize Newton as the last magician or first scientist, he seems not far removed from modern theoretical physicists. All are fellow cosmological travelers, searching for hidden phenomena in nature. The unsettling link between science and magic is of course an old theme, one that Robin Horton brilliantly sketched in “African Traditional Thought and Western Science” (1967). Just last night I was reading Paul Feyerabend’s classic Against Method (1975), in which he discusses Horton’s argument:

To show the surprising similarities of myth and science, I shall briefly discuss an interesting paper by Robin Horton, entitled “African Traditional Thought and Western Science.” Horton examines African mythology and discovers the following features: the quest for theory is a quest for unity underlying apparent complexity. The theory places things in a causal context that is wider than the causal context provided by common sense: both science and myth cap common sense with a theoretical superstructure. There are theories of different degrees of abstraction and they are used in accordance with the different requirements of explanation that arise. Theory construction consists in breaking up objects of common sense and in reuniting the elements in a different way. Theoretical models start from analogy but they gradually move away from the pattern on which the analogy was based. And so on.

These features, which emerge from case studies no less careful and detailed than those of Lakatos, refute the assumption that science and myth obey different principles of formation (Cassirer), that myth proceeds without reflection (Dardel), or speculation (Frankfort, occasionally). Nor can we accept the idea, found in Malinowski but also in classical scholars such as Harrison and Cornford, that myth has an essentially pragmatic function or is based on ritual. Myth is much closer to science than one would expect from a philosophical discussion. It is closer to science than even Horton himself is prepared to admit.

Feyerabend goes on to argue, less persuasively, that science displays all the attributes which Horton suggests do in fact separate it from myth. While this may or may not be true (it is certainly true of New Atheists, whose mythic version of “science” dialectically opposes theist myths), the structural and functional point remains: science and myth are related. They share a common historical-cognitive ancestor whose name is Janus.


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Soul Imprisonment

As the American empire advanced toward and eventually swept over the Great Plains during the mid to late 1800s, attempts were made to persuade the Plains Indians that the American or “civilized” way of life was superior to their own. The thinking was that if Plains Indians could be shown the material benefits and myriad delights of modern society, this would inspire them to settle down, become farmers, produce surpluses, spend money, and acquire property. To this end, tribal chiefs and leading men were often taken on grand tours of the east, with visits to St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC usually on the itinerary. Few expenses were spared on these tours, with fine dining, premier lodging, and monumental sightseeing at every stop.

These tours made quite an impression on the chiefs. The impression, however, was precisely the opposite of that intended. Though the chiefs were duly impressed with industrial society and its material manifestations, they were horrified by the density, stench, clamor, artificiality, and nervousness of the cities. But nothing horrified them more than the method by which citizens were punished for crimes. For Plains Indians, the most bizarre and barbaric aspect of civilized society was the prison. Confining people to cages was, in their estimation, simply unfathomable. An immobile and isolated person was, in an existential and ontological sense, no longer human.

Preferring suicidal death over continued imprisonment, the Kiowa chief Satanta famously launched himself headfirst from an upper floor jail window at Huntsville, Texas in 1878. It is no small irony that Huntsville today is ground zero for one of the largest prison-industrial complexes in the world. Between 1875 and 1878, seventy-two Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho were held as prisoners of war at Fort Marion in Florida. Despite intensive efforts to educate and indoctrinate them into American ways, this punishment or “rehabilitation” served only to convince them that their primitive culture was utterly superior to civilized society. Their amazing story is told in Brad Lookingbill’s War Dance at Fort Marion: Plains Indian War Prisoners (2007).

Most of us don’t think too much about the price paid for civilized progress, primarily because if America’s 3 million (most in the world) prisoners are out of sight, they are out of mind. The 100,000 most out of sight in solitary confinement (another dubious world record) are also the ones most out of their minds, as this powerful Aeon piece by Lisa Guenther reminds us. Her treatment of this subject really resonated, and reminded me of the Plains Indians, because she approaches it from a phenomenological perspective. As some may know, phenomenological approaches have also been used, with great effect, to reveal the philosophical richness and experiential complexity of animist worldviews. Plains Indians were, of course, carriers of these views.

It should go without saying that solitary confinement is a recipe for human disaster and definitively insane, but it apparently needs to be said. Guenther’s saying of it is an ironic inversion of the vacuous American slogan “freedom isn’t free.” The sordid details aside, I particularly enjoyed her precis of phenomenology:

[Solitary confinement] raises philosophical questions about the relation between sense perception, sociality, and a meaningful life. Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?

My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. As the German philosopher Edmund Husserl put it at the turn of the 20th century, consciousness is consciousness of something; the mind is not a thing but a relation. Meaning is not ‘located’ in the brain like a message in a mailbox; rather, it emerges through an ever-changing relation between the act of thinking and the objects of thought.

Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, expanded this notion of relationality into an account of existence as Being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, it is not enough to reflect on the structures of consciousness in a theoretical way. We need to grasp how the meaning of our lived experience arises through a practical engagement with the world, in projects such as hammering a nail or baking a loaf of bread. For Heidegger, as for Husserl, we do not exist as isolated individuals whose basic properties and capacities remain the same in every situation. We are not in the world ‘as the water is “in” the glass or as the garment is “in” the cupboard’, he wrote in Being and Time (1927). Rather, we exist as Being-in-the-world, in a complex interrelation with the situation into which we have been thrown. The work of phenomenology is to make this web of relations visible, so that we can appreciate the complexity of even the most simple, everyday experiences.

Solitary confinement presents a challenge to my practice of phenomenology, both because I have not had this experience myself, and also because the testimony of survivors suggests that the experience of prolonged isolation is also an unraveling of experience: a deterioration of the senses, a becoming-invisible, an annihilation. If the task of phenomenology is to show how we make sense of the world through lived experience, then what should a phenomenologist make of prisoners’ accounts of a living death that no longer makes sense?

Guenther goes on to explain, in long and painful detail, how solitary confinement deprives people of the embodied, relational, and social experiences that enable our humanity and ability to make sense. Because these same qualities are foundational to animist worldviews, we can perhaps better understand why Plains Indians considered imprisonment to be an annihilation or degradation so severe that death was often preferable. Guenther’s story should be required reading for all who believe we have progressed from savagery to civilization.


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War & Progress

Cultural evolutionists are fervent believers in “progress.” There are many hidden assumptions packed into their idea of progress, but the primary ones are that “bigger” and “richer” is always better. These assumptions, usually hidden, are made explicit in this astounding piece on war, and its corollary benefits, just published in The Atlantic. There is so much wrong with the article that it is hard to know where to begin, so let’s consider the main points:

Contrary to what the song says, war has been good for something: over the long run, it has made humanity safer and richer. There are four parts to the case I will make. The first is that by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently. My second claim is that while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found. My third conclusion is that as well as making people safer, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer.

When we put these three claims together, only one conclusion is possible. War has produced bigger societies, ruled by stronger governments, which have imposed peace and created the preconditions for prosperity. Ten thousand years ago, there were only about 6 million people on earth. On average they lived about 30 years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day. Now there are more than a thousand times as many of us (7 billion, in fact), living more than twice as long (the global average is 67 years), and earning more than a dozen times as much (today the global average is $25 per day).

War, then, has been good for something—so good, in fact, that my fourth argument is that war is now putting itself out of business. For millennia, war has created peace, and destruction has created wealth, but in our own age humanity has gotten so good at fighting—our weapons so destructive, our organizations so efficient—that war is beginning to make further war of this kind impossible.

This is just surreal. The whole argument rests on the assumption, never proven and much in dispute, that violence and warfare have diminished since the Neolithic transition. This is, for the most part, progressivist and Panglossian bullshit coming from people like Steven Pinker. In “Pinker’s List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality” (2013) (pdf), anthropologist Brian Ferguson meticulously demonstrates this fact. The argument also rests on the assumption, never proven and much in dispute, that preagricultural or “Stone Age” peoples lived Hobbesian lives, “solitary, poore, nastie, brutish, and shorte.” There is considerable evidence to the contrary.

But the most problematic assumption in this piece is that bigger and more is always better. This author naively (or neoliberally) assumes that every person added to the world results in an added-person prosperity increase of $25 per day. It should go without saying that this global income average, multiplied by population, tells us nothing about the total quantum of human health and well-being among the earth’s more than 7 billion current inhabitants.

Although hunter-gatherers may not have earned $25 per day while living in densely packed and polluted urban areas (as most moderns do), a great deal of anthropological evidence suggests they led long, healthy, and satisfying lives. I have no idea how the author can conclude that hunter-gatherers eked out a living on less than $2 per day. Dollarized income figures are meaningless in Stone Age settings and cannot tell us anything about the happiness of humans in those societies. These kinds of comparisons reek of positivist ideology.

Even if it were true that violent deaths due to warfare have decreased as a percentage of total population size, this alleged decrease is hardly comforting. If we assume (as this author does) that bigger populations are always better, this must also mean that each human life is an addition and every loss is a subtraction. In this context, absolute numbers are just as meaningful as percentages. Looked at this way, nearly 200 million war-related deaths over the past century should not be counted as “progress” simply because this was a relatively small percentage of the world’s total population.

But hey, let’s celebrate bigger populations, bigger societies, bigger governments, bigger incomes, and bigger wars. To this list, many cultural evolutionists would also add, and celebrate, bigger gods.

In his conclusion, our author (a Stanford professor who just happens to be hawking a new book titled War: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots) predicts — contrary to all the historical evidence — that while wars have been good for us, they are now a thing of the past:

And yet, long-term history also gives us cause for optimism. We have not managed to wish war out of existence, but that is because it cannot be done. We have, however, been extremely good at responding to changing incentives in the game of death. For most of our time on earth, we have been aggressive, violent animals, because aggression and violence have paid off. But in the 10,000 years since we invented productive war, we have evolved culturally to become less violent—because that pays off even better.

This kind of adaptive cultural evolutionary talk is an expression of progressive faith. It is certainly not science. All this reminds me of a supremely ironic passage from Primitive Mentality (1923:331), in which Lucien Levy-Bruhl discusses Stone Age warfare:

As a rule, the attack is a surprise and it takes place at dawn. That is the ordinary method of fighting among uncivilized races; there are very few exceptions to it. A set battle is unknown to primitives, and the idea of it would seem absurd to them.

While living among the savages of New Guinea, Reverend Macfarlane recalled one of the chiefs questioning him about the civilized mode of warfare, and the chief’s look of amazement when “I described the rows of men placed opposite each other and firing at one another with guns.” The chief eagerly inquired whether the men on each side were within range of the guns, and when I replied in the affirmative he exclaimed: “Then you are great fools.”

He then asked where the civilized chief or head-man stood during these battles. “Oh,” said I, “he remains at home and sends his men to fight.” Upon hearing this, there was a great burst of laughter from the chief and his men.

May the Stone Age savages have the last sanguinary laugh.



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Devils and Douthats

Have you ever had a devil or visitor in your room or bed while dreaming? If this sounds weird, it is. I have a neighbor, whom I really like and is normal in most ways, who seriously tells me that he is often visited at night, at the house next door, by aliens. The grey ones. On a few occasions I’ve tried staying up all night to watch for them, but alas I have yet to see them near his bedroom window or hovering overhead in a ship or beam of light. This could be because I tend to nod off during these Mulder-like vigils. But it could also be because my neighbor experiences sleep paralysis and dreams of greys. While he finds these experiences pleasant and describes the encounters in lascivious ways, dream paralysis can also manifest in dreadful ways. Carla MacKinnon has artfully captured this sense in her mesmerizing short film, “Devil in the Room.”

While watching, I was reminded of the fact that these experiences, much like near-death experiences and spirit encounters, are culturally patterned and specific to time and place. Those who have them, in other words, always tend to experience them in ways that accord with dominant or widely available cultural materials. While those living in Christian-dominant cultures will often experience these things in Christian kinds of ways, those who have not been exposed to Christianity and are not enmeshed in Christian cultures have quite different experiences. With this in mind, we know that hunter-gatherers never had near-death experiences that took them to Christian heaven and they were never visited by grey aliens while sleeping. There are many ethnographic reports, however, of them journeying to ancestral hunting grounds and being visited by animal spirits.

Given these and many similar facts, one might think that these sorts of things are all in the head (and locally available cultural materials). But not Russ Douthat, erstwhile believer in the ineffable-indescribable numinous Catholic god. Douthat is predictably peeved by Barbara Ehrenreich’s mature plea for a science that investigates what are often called “mystical” experiences:

If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation. We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

This is precisely the kind of expansive and humble view of science that moves knowledge forward. It is also the kind of expansive and humble view of science that New Atheists almost completely lack. They seem especially deluded when it comes to what is known, or rather not known, about the brain, mind, and consciousness. Cognitive science is in its infancy.

Douthat, of course, construes this as warrant for the supernatural truth of mystical or religious experiences. Like so many other believers, he claims that if one just tries hard enough and practices long enough, this reality will become manifest. To this, I can only say it surely will: if you try and practice anything long and hard enough, you will eventually have experiences and thoughts that are “real.” With enough practice and desire, we can make ourselves believe just about anything.



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Red “Religion”

While I don’t think that Vine Deloria’s God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (1973) does an especially good job of describing animist worldviews, Deloria clearly understood that these worldviews cannot be crammed into western conceptual categories or analytical frameworks:

There are serious questions whether Indian tribes actually had any conception of religion or a deity at all. Wherever we find Indians and whenever we inquire about about their idea of God, they tell us that beneath the surface of the physical universe is a mysterious spiritual power which cannot be described in human [i.e., anthropomorphic] terms and must remain always the “Great Mystery.” (151)

Although several generations of scholars have sought to devise a comprehensive theory of religions that would explain how [tribal religions and world religions] are similar to each other, I can find no satisfactory explanation of what elements they have in common (emphasis added). Perhaps the most popular explanation is the device whereby cultural evolutionists see tribal religions as primitive efforts to come to grips with their experiences in nature and later world religions as sublime expressions of religious knowledge.

Academic orthodoxy in religious studies regards the statements of world religions as a higher evolved expression of religion primarily because the concepts are [supposedly] more rational. Tribal religions, with their emotional and ceremonial emphasis, are placed at the bottom of the cultural evolutionary scale because they practice [i.e., are action oriented] rather than preach [i.e., are idea oriented]. Unfortunately, the evolutionary framework [dominates comparative religious studies] and it is very difficult to get anyone to break out of this context and look seriously at the data. (154)

The interpretation of religion has always been regarded as the exclusive property of Westerners, and the explanatory categories used in studying religious phenomena have been derived from the doctrines of the Christian religion. (288) [Tribal religion cannot] be understood in Western categories (290).

If we take the data seriously, as Deloria demands, we would question his use of the term “religion” to describe these worldviews. Ironically, it appears he has internalized the very category or construct that he rightly rejects.


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Procrustes and “Religion”

While researching Robin Horton’s thesis that traditional religious thought is structurally and functionally similar to modern scientific thought, I came across one of those tête-à-têtes that sometimes gives academics a bad name. This sidebar revolves around The Southeastern Indians, published in 1976 by anthropologist and historian Charles Hudson. As was so often the case when post-modernism was all the academic rage, in 1996 Hudson’s rather straightforward reference work was subjected to critical scrutiny by one of the cognoscenti. Some years later, Hudson became aware of this treatment and responded to the criticisms. In the course of doing so, Hudson recalled his state of mind while writing Southeastern Indians more than twenty years earlier:

[The critic of my book] missed or ignored the strongest influence on my thinking in the early 1970s, namely Robin Horton’s two-part paper on African traditional thought and Western science. Central to Horton’s schema is a presumably universal distinction between common sense and “theory.” According to Horton’s “intellectualist” approach, when people can render their experience intelligible through the common sense of their culture, they will do so. But when the events in life defy explanation in commonsense terms, then people resort to a higher level of explanation that postulates the existence of causal agencies that are commonly called spiritual, but may properly be called theoretical because of their abstractness. One attractive aspect of Horton’s approach is that it did not require me to identify any particular piece of Cherokee belief as magic, religion, or science, as was usual at the time in which I wrote. Instead, I could speak of Cherokee conceptions as a belief system or “native folk theory.”

While I don’t think this accurately characterizes Horton’s distinction between primary theory (the mostly visible world of commonsense) and secondary theory (the mostly invisible world of explanation), it nicely illustrates the way in which Horton’s thesis cuts through modernist classifications that are ill-fitted to the past and other peoples. This is an attractive feature of Horton’s work, and it is one that I use when treating “animist worldviews.” These worldviews cannot be made to lie down on procrustean beds or modernist categories like “religion.”


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Holy Tax Redeemer

Perhaps thrice a year, when I am feeling particularly perverse, I tune into Fox and Bill O’Reilly to see how long I can tolerate the bizarre combination of arrogance, venom, paranoia, and rage which characterize Fox in general and O’Reilly in particular. These experiments usually last for only a few minutes. After being slimed by streams of fearful non sequiturs, I frantically turn the channel and ask myself unsettling questions about the people who watch this stuff. There’s an illness about the land.

Other than my thrice yearly contact with this contagion, I do my best to avoid unnecessary exposure. But sometimes even the best avoidance plans go awry. This happened the other day while I was perusing the Los Angeles Review of Books. There, I learned that O’Reilly the author has taken on yet another subject near and dear to his heart: Jesus. In Anthony Le Donne’s exasperated yet patient review of Killing Jesus: A History, we learn that Jesus’ death and redeeming power has been widely misunderstood:

How do we explain Jesus’s death? The answer according to Bill O’Reilly is simple: big-government Jews and Roman taxes. O’Reilly and Martin Dugard title their book Killing Jesus: A History. But there are more references to taxation in this book than there are to crucifixion. Indeed, the authors seem so preoccupied with taxes that the symbolic importance of the cross — a form of execution reserved for political sedition — is neglected. According to O’Reilly, Jesus’s story is a “lethal struggle between good and evil.” From this simplistic perspective — the whole book more a Tea Party fantasy than a “fact-based” history — the “evil” powers are represented by puppet politicians in Judea who enable the Roman tax chokehold on working people.

The authors clumsily attempt to harmonize the four canonical Gospels while inserting psychological profiles of politicians who “tax the Jews blind.” The working class is “levied with tax after tax after tax.” Jesus is a simple carpenter who has memorized Scripture and “pays his taxes.” Peter is tired after a long day of work. “He needs a drink of water and a meal. He needs a soft bed. But most of all, he needs to pay his taxes.” Dugard and O’Reilly would have us believe that Peter’s concerns about taxation outweigh his needs for basic nourishment! Mary Magdalene is driven into prostitution due to poverty in this government-dominated society. The authors acknowledge that this detail about Mary as a prostitute is not supported by any source material, but they appeal to long held assumptions in order to propel the cliché. More importantly, they tell us that “prostitution is legal and even taxed.”

The climate that leads to Jesus’s rise and eventual death is clear:

“Whether or not they believe Jesus is the Christ, Jews everywhere long for the coming of a messiah. When that moment arrives, Rome will be defeated and their lives will be free of taxation and want.”

Good Lord. I’m wondering whether it would be best to get my copy of Killing Jesus from Amazon, which doesn’t collect sales tax, or Wal-Mart which does. Either way, I’ll be damned.


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