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November 04, 2004

Universal Human Culture

Here I sit, for I can not sleep. I really don't have the time to blog, but here I sit, what else can I do? I've been thinking about blogging about this topic for a few days, but time I had not, but now I will make it. But first, I want to say that Houston has been like Sausalito the past few days. No more stench of pig sphincter.

A few days ago I posted Means & ends and the net of logic & evidence (or disgorged, depending on how you look at it). In the comments, jinderella stated the following:


...I correlated highly with hard sciences, so math and sociobiology (for example) seem simple and straightforward to me. But I cannot package recievable explanations for someone who is a high correlate in the creative arts, they don't understand what I'm saying.

Communication is hard, isn't it? People are different. But we knew that didn't we?

So I'm going go move to a tanget-that-isn't-a-tangent. Consider the Yankees and the Red Sox. Sometimes they have communication issues. Historically, the two are bitter rivals. This past year there has been some comment on the aesthetic of the two teams, their "team cultures" so to speak. The Red Sox and Yankees relate to each other as groups.

But shift the group to each team. Consider the positions. Are the concerns and qualms of the shortstop the same as the concerns and qualms of the left fielder? These two positions probably have less in common than the short stop and the second basemen, for example. In other words, there is a considerable amount of intrateam variation. Now, imagine that the shortstops from the Red Sox and Yankees were forced into a room to chat. Compare this to an earlier bull session between the Red Sox shortstop and the left fielder. One can imagine the differences between the two conversations, though the shortstops are on rival teams, they can "talk shop" with ease, as they share similar lexicons. In many ways the shortstops resemble each other more than they do their fellow teammates. The same goes for the other positions.

Does this matter to the fans? Hell no. They root for the teams, or as Jerry Seinfeld would put it, the jerseys, seeing as how a trade or other move by a player between teams results in the reassignment of loyalties and hatreds with ease. In the grand scale of their emotional attachments and furies, the deep similarities between fielding positions are not salient.

Why this bizarre tangent? Simple, jinderella's statement was a rather prosaic formulation of the reality that quite often members of the same culture have a hard time communicating as they do not share lexicons. Social constructionists have explored this, particularly in the manifestation of class, but ultimately, as usual, they take it way too far (low class and upper class English is still English). Nevertheless, there is a considerable vertical variation in the lexicon and general worldview within any culture. This vertical variation can be mapped on to the bell curve of IQ, or the distribution of income or perhaps even inherited class rank. Within any society of nontrivial complexity there is stratification and specialization. Intragroup variation is inevitable.

There is also intergroup variation, the cross-cultural differences that are the bread & butter of many cultural anthropologists. Sometimes societies are monotheistic, some are pantheistic, some are polygamous, some of them monogamous, some are warlike, some are peaceful, and so forth. Varied typologies sketch out the horizontal variation and structure that characterizes the aggregate of human cultures. Communication between cultures can be quite difficult, and the barrier of language results in bizarre transformations.

The unintelligibility of intercultural communication is a truism that often crops up among a certain sect of humanists who seem to be have an infinite faith in the ability of the human mind to concoct diverse cultural conformations. Ironically, the opacity of alien cultures does not seem to hinder their ability to make sense of them and catalog them in their typologies. This sort of thinking, the tendency to construct high walls between intercultural lexicons results in the sort of assertion as below:


Lastly: By saying that Indian and Chinese civilisations also produced "secularists" and "atheists" is to stifle what they had to say about themselves, under our own ideas of what these words mean. We might give them such labels, but this is different from saying that they were such and such. But then, it is said, that each epoch re-writes history to make sense of its own world.

This, from Thebit of Muslim Under Progress. I understand what he is trying to get at, but I would assert that:

  • India and China both have concepts of god, ergo, theism, and ergo, atheism.
  • India and China both have concepts of religion, and anti-religion, as well as secularism.

I understand that the precise definitions are not exact and have varied implications dependent on context, but they are not so different in each context as to be different definitions, rather, they bear a close familial resemblence and reflect a common human understanding of the universe.

OK, for a real life example.

It is sometimes asserted that the Chinese culture "lost" the concept of the personal god sometimes around 1200 BCE. You see, this is the time when the Shang dynasty, whose totemic deity was the somewhat anthropomorphic god Shang Di, was replaced by the Zhou, who revered Tien, "Heaven," which is generally conceived of as an impersonal Ground of Being (don't ask me what the hell the last is). The three greatest Confucian sages, Confucius, Mencius and Hsun-Tzu could be interpreted as agnostics, while Hsun-Tzu had a somewhat James Randiesque streak in his debunkings of supernatural powers and phenomena. Contrast this secular outlook with that of the West, where a powerful omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent personal God who displays a nontrivial level of anthropomorphic traits (he became a human at one point) has sat upon the high seat of power since about 300 CE.

Do I believe this? Did I ever believe this? Well, I don't believe it, and I wished it was true at some point. As a rationalist biased skeptic I wanted there to be a non-god-soaked anti-supernatural culture. I thought Confucian China might fit the bill. I should have read the oracle bone writing on the wall.

The short of it is that I think that the god concept in China and Europe for the past 2,000 years hasn't been that different, no matter what the historians would say. I think Guanyin, the Bodhisattva who is considered the Goddess of Mercy, is cognate with the Christian God. Now, this sounds like a ludicrous comparison, Bodhisattvas are not Creator Gods, and in some ways they are demi-gods who are more trapped by the will of fate than humans. Quite often they resemble superheroes more than gods. In contrast, the Christian God is an awesome being, beyond comprehension, who holds all of Creation, out of time, in his divine mind. Words simply do not capture the definition of this being.

But this is where we need to bring it down from the clouds. If you observe a Christian at prayer, you notice that they often utter words out loud. Why? God is all knowing, sounds are not necessary. In fact, the concentration is not necessary, as God knows your wants. People often speak of a "personal relationship" with a being who should be out of time, not subject to anything, outside of the bounds of this universe. Though Muslims and Reformed Christians come from traditions where predestination is the normative opinion, they still seem to engage in intercessory prayer. Why? God has foreordained all, for he knows all, controls all.

What's going on here? I know that theologians will have clever ways out of all the weirdness that occurs when you inspect the definition of God, and how people interact with Him, but I think the simplest solution to the problem is that the vast majority of believers interact with the Christian God as if He was a supernatural agent who was constrained by time, though with powers vast and expansive, but one not that different from Guanyin. In other words, the typical European peasant and Chinese peasant would probably exhibit similar brain states if anyone decided to give them an MRI when they were communing with their god. They might wear different uniforms, but they react to the ball in the same way, and slot into the same functional role on their team.

On the other hand, elite practioners of religions spin all sorts of weird fantastical tales about their gods, and construct elaborate and inscrutable theological justifications for their practices. Though echoing the general form of propositional logic, much of theology jumps from peculiar tenditious inference and proposition to peculiar tenditious inference and proposition. Because the implications are so varied and so unclear, different individuals come to different conclusions. Different cultures reach different consenses. Guided into the black land of quasi-propositional logic theologies made out of thin air, not truly understood by 90% of the population, and only quasi-understood by the elite themselves, have stolen the spotlight and dictated the character of the culture on a superficial level. Historians read texts, and texts are written by the peculiar 10%. Because the lexicons are so unmoored from intuition and human universals they chart off into wildly different directions and mapping them upon each other requires a great deal of ecumenical work and doctorates in theology who must spend their life in exegis to prove how 1 does truly equal 3.

In contrast, the 90% of society that is below the elite, the core or heart of a society, tends to have deep seated beliefs which they can not articulate in egghead terminology because they can not master it. This results in an assent to the general propositions espoused by the religious elite. For example, here is a fragment of the Athanasian Creed:


But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. For such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, the Holy Ghost uncreate; the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet, there are not three eternals, but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated, nor three incomprehensibles; but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet there are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet there are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise, the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, and the Holy Ghost is Lord.

This is what good 4th century Greek educations can get you! Derrida would be proud.

Now, these creeds and general formulae are important. They are the jerseys which fans root for. Group emotional attachments are formed through them, so in 4th century Constantinople your baker might become angry at you if you assented to an Arian heresy, while in 13th century China the Taoists and Buddhists held debates about the validity of their vague and squishy religions in front of the Great Khan who no doubt had as much understanding of the goings on as the participants themselves on any concrete level (Kubilai Khan ordered that the Taoists pay the Buddhists for slanders against them).

So, here is what I'm saying:
1) The vast majority of humanity shares common cultural "motifs," and this isin't a coincidence, because their lives often run based on the synergistic cooperation of various hard-wired mental modules in combination with their life experiences. Certain constraints and biases push them toward unarticulated beliefs and commitments.

2) Layered on top of the great normal mass of humanity lay the bizarre "talented tenth" who spin strange theories that are produced out of their minds when they try to divide an integer by zero (that is, try to graft propositional logic on to their intuitional hunches and feelings).

3) These baroque and often maladaptive constructs become "jerseys" which serve to circumscribe cultures and delineate in & outgroups.

4) Most of the "talented tenth" don't really understand what they are talking about when they babble about the nature of their deity or the logic behind their particular conception of reincarnation. They might feel what they are trying to talk about, but the Ground of Being, the Transcendent, eludes the boxing in of precise lexicons.

5) Though the terms in the lexicons of most humans are different because of language, and the extra nonsense baggage inserted in by theologians and philosophers, ultimate intelligibility is not truly that difficult because they are talking about the same thing.

6) On the other hand, genuine understanding between elite religious practioners can be difficult since the lexicons of both are so much hand-waving and you really can't educate someone else if you don't really know what you are talking about in a coherent fashion.

Final analogy (which I've used before): imagine individuals in our species as distributed in a great sphere. If you give them the word "god" most people would have an "idea" somewhere around the middle of the sphere, that is, an MRI would show the same general image, they would react in the same way to prayer or ritual, etc. But, there would be many people distributed on the surface, and the wide spatial differences on this surface level is indicative of the lexical difficulties in translation and communication among the elite.

Anyway, just because the jersey is important doesn't mean that a bunch of shortshops are playing against left fielders.

Posted by razib at 11:55 PM