Thursday, May 7, 2009

Life part II. Is religion a relic of our pre human past.

First I would like to make a few statements regarding my scientific qualifications. I have none. I am not ignorant of scientific theory and methodology. I would rightly claim that I am better educated than the average High School graduate on the subjects of physics, math, and biology. I may even be comparable to many undergraduate students but I am no expert nor am I trying to be. A friend that I correspond with who is an expert in biology, commented briefly on my last post in this series. She said essentially that while she enjoyed my intellectual exercise, my science was fanciful. Fanciful was her term and it is a wonderful choice. She could have said woefully ignorant and been just as accurate. However as is the case with most educated atheists she is a generous soul, and used the more flattering terminology.

I don't proclaim my ignorance in a self depreciating manner, far from it. I exult in my ignorance while at the same time trying to overcome it. On this blog I am not trying to be a scientist, I am contemplating life and sometimes using science as the focus of my contemplation. Science is peripheral, I could just as easily be contemplating the social dynamics of a Smurf village. As I am admittedly not a scientist and am in no way trying to establish any scientific premise or theory I have freed myself to indulge in conjecture. Essentially I am indulging in the same arrogant conceit that practitioners of religion engage in. However I wish to stress that I do this only for my own pleasure (and presumably that of my readers) in the pure joy of speculation. I assure you that if you tell me that I am talking out my ass I will not behead your family or threaten you with eternal damnation.

Now on to the topic of this post. Recently I was faced with the assertion that the existence of similar flood myths, among various cultures was not as I claimed proof that the Christian flood story was a myth. Rather the presence of these myths proved that there must have been a worldwide flood. I have heard very similar arguments before but was still somewhat taken aback by it. What a crude way of looking at history and humanity I thought.

In response I posited a counter claim, I said that rather than assuming all of the many scientific improbabilities associated with the occurrence of a worldwide deluge, we could instead attribute this to human nature. I claimed that since our species is presumed to have originated in a limited geographical area, commonalities among myths could be traced back to that beginning. For example let us assume that at some point an early wise man anticipated a flood. He knew that when clouds looked a certain way the rainy season was coming, he remembered past rainy seasons when flooding had been an issue, and he saw a pattern that led him to believe that this season there would be a flood. He tried to explain this, even going so far as to claim that the Gods had warned him of the flood. Perhaps he even believed it was the Gods who revealed this to him. He had a brilliant idea, he built a large raft which could carry his family, possessions and some of his livestock. When the flood came he loaded this raft and managed to save enough that in the aftermath of the flood he was much better off than his neighbors.

Over the generations of oral tradition this tale was told as a warning against not being prepared for the possibility of flood. As folklore often does the tale grew with the retelling and this wise man became a heroic figure of myth, like Paul Bunyan or John Henry. Many generations later the flood was magnified in to one that covered all the known world, and the people were only saved because the wise man loaded his giant ark with everything needed to rebuild civilization. The flood, as such natural disasters often were was attributed to divine wrath and the wise man who was spared was called favored by the Gods.

As the population of mankind grew and spread throughout the world this tale traveled with them. In some places it was lost but in others it carried on. The names and details adapted to the customs and religious beliefs of the various tribes but the narrative remained pure.

I enjoy this example and consider it true, but what if I have not gone back far enough. What if this and other religious narratives predates humanity all together. What if it comes from the culture of our most recent pre-human ancestor. Religion could itself be a vestigal instinct. A type of thinking that humans can use but which is secondary to logic. This would explain much. For example all human progress has been made by moving away from magic not towards it. Despite the instinct to say God did it, our primary response is to seek out what really did it. Our ancient ancestors believed that plagues were curses from the Gods or the acts of evil spirits. Now we know of germs and disregard such superstition even though it is foundational to the religions still practiced. A particularly devout Christian may well disregard the effectiveness or necessity of using antibiotics to treat infection, but only the most fanatical deny that bacteria cause the infection. They may claim that God causes bacteria to infect people but they acknowledge that it is the bacteria not a demon that is causing the harm.

Human knowledge and understanding has exploded thanks to logic and more recently scientific method. This explosion has been in some sense exponential because discovery feeds other discoveries. Human knowledge has multiplied many thousandfold in just a few hundred years. Why did not our pre-human ancestors experience such exponential growth. Presumably they possessed intelligence and surely considering the time span involved in speciation lived as long or longer than humanity has yet they never made it past simple tools.

What if logical thought is a capability that their brains had not yet evolved. Say they could make casual connections like if a pointy stick goes in to a pile of dirt and a tigers teeth goes in to an antelope perhaps a pointy stick can go in to an antelope. Some of these casual connections, like the stick could be true others could be false. For example a tribesman steals from the chief and that tribesman gets sick, perhaps stealing from the chief makes people sick or maybe the chief has the power to make people sick. Lacking the ability to make causal connections they could only learn through trial and error and could never develop a system of knowledge. It is from these pre-human ancestors that the original myths come from.

Humans having the capacity to make causal connections have ever since been unraveling the mysteries that these myths propose to explain. The myths remain because they still resonate with the part of our brain that enjoys casual connections but they are subordinate to the part that cares about causality. So myth is only accepted as an explanation for the things that science and logic have not yet explained. Thus the ever diminishing God of the Gaps.


Kerri Love said...

I figured I'd comment so you know I read your post :) I like to think of our ancient ancestors as children. You could tell them anything and they would be satisfied. As we grow up we start to look at things and think "that can't be right" and so we went off to find out what was really happening and we developed tools to help us and those tools keep getting better and better... best example: the Hubble telescope :)

Ryk said...


Thanks for reading and commenting, I like to imagine a massive throng of people lurking and reading, but knowing someone does for sure is great

Anyone else who would like to make this poor old egomaniac happy, can leave a comment as well.

sarah lee said...

The wise are instructed by reason, average minds by experience, the stupid by necessity and the brute by insticnt. See the link below for more info.