The Mind – Meditative Tradition Perspectives

A. Meditation as a Means to Knowledge

It is common for western experimental psychologists to equate any use of the mind for self investigation with introspection, a mode of inquiry to which we are understandably allergic. Introspectionism as a school of psychology, made popular by the nineteenth-century psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, failed definitively to provide a basis for experimental psychology. The reader has probably discovered the problem with what we call introspection for him or herself many times. When one simply tries to introspect, to look inward, about a problem for example, the chances are that one finds one’s thoughts going round and round, and the best one can hope for is to think some additional, hopefully satisfying, thought about one’s thoughts. Without a proper method we are caught in our conceptual systems. It is precisely to cut through such introspection that various meditative techniques were discovered.

A second misleading picture of meditation held by westerners involves dissociation of mind and body: trance, hypnotism, ‘mystical’ experiences, and altered states of consciousness. While such states must be included in any psychology of the whole of human capacity, they are no more central to what the meditative traditions have to tell us about knowing than any other human state or activity.

Perhaps the simplest contrast to both introspection and dissociation is the meditative methods called mindfulness. Mindfulness is a term used in some of the Buddhist traditions, particularly Theravada, some Zen, and by some Tibetan teachers. Mindfulness is described as experiencing what mind and body are doing as they are doing it, being present with one’s mind, body, and energy in their ordinary states of occurrence. A related concept from the more bodily oriented practices, such as the martial arts, is integration in which body, energy, mind, intention, awareness, and action come to form one nonfragmented, integrated whole. Whatever the terminology or school of meditation, in my observations, meditative techniques of concentration, calming, alert observation, and integration render people more viable instruments of self-observation. What then is the portrait of the human that emerges from the meditative traditions? I will trace the evolution of this portrait and what it has to tell us about modes of knowing though several stages of development.
 
 

B. Discoveries of the Beginning Mediator

Attention. Beginning meditators are usually shocked. Their first and immediate discovery is often about the nature of attention. Mental contents change rapidly and continuously: thoughts, sensations, feelings, worries, daydreams, inner conversations, sleepiness, fantasies, plans, memories, theories, emotions, self-instructions about the techniques, judgements about thoughts and feelings, judgements about judgements. All meditators who sit still and use a mental technique, regardless of their tradition, purpose, or technique report these kinds of experiences. This is a point easily discoverable also by the nonmeditating reader; simply notice what the mind is doing as one tries to keep attention on some simple mental, or even physical, task.

Even more pointed than noticing the constant shifting of attention is the discovery that attention is, for the most part, indirect. That is, the mind is not sharply present with its experiences as they are happening but rather drifts about not noticing that it has left its assigned object or task until the meditator or task oriented person ‘comes back’ with a ‘jerk’ to the present. Then the meditator realizes, not only that he had been ‘away’, but that while he was wandering, he was not really aware of what he was thinking or feeling; he now only remembers what had been going on in his mind through a haze of summarizing concepts and judgements. This is not merely the case for unpleasant experiences from which one might expect a person to want to dissociate. Even the simplest or most pleasurable of daily activities eating, walking, talking with a friend tend to pass rapidly in a blur of commentary as one hastens to the next mental occupation. (just notice what your mind does at the next meal).

In the cognitive science portrait of the mind, knowing was indirect. Now we see one experiential basis for modelling it in this way. However, meditators (or anyone else) can only discover the indirectness of attention by contrast, that is, by experiencing moments of being present which are less indirect than the moments of wandering. Thus an alternative experience, one of directness, has its birth at the same time as the experiental discovery of indirectness.

The self. When meditators begin to notice themselves, even if they are being explicitly taught about nonself in the Buddhist tradition, what they tend to report is amazement at the power and ubiquitousness of their self-concern. Thoughts, memories, plans, goals, hopes, fears, judgements, etc., all are about oneself or others important to oneself. The constantly shifting emotive tone of experience centres on judgements of whether events are good, bad, or irrelevant to oneself.

And who or what is this self? Leaving theories aside, let us contemplate a given moment of experience. We ordinarily take experience to be composed of at least two aspects: subject and object, perceiver and thing perceived. And, as the discovery of self-referencing has shown, the object of perception is normally seen as either desirable or threatening or boring to the perceiver who then has impulses to get the desirable and avoid or destroy the undesirable. This is a relatively simple point (William James, for example, noticed it), which can be readily verified by the reader: just look at something, say the wall in front of you. Isn’t there some sense of a looker, perhaps located in the head behind the eyes, looking at an object spatially located outside yourself? Now try looking at an emotionally relevant object such as your relationship, favorite food, enemy, or an irritating appliance.

Thus in the ordinary experience of the self, we see the basis for the separated knower and wanter of cognitive science models. However, any meditator who gets close enough to experience to begin seeing this knower and wanter in action also begins to feel a kind of vertigo of the knower and curiosity about the wanter. Who is it who is seeing that see-er who is looking at the wall – a second see-er? Beginning mindfulness meditators may try to become such a second looker, a stance which is quite awkward. But if I am not such a second separate and temporally continuous knower, then who is it about whose fate I am so emotionally concerned? What is knowing and wanting? Again, as with attention, the very discovery in experience of the cognitive sciences’ separated knower and wanter brings with it a sense of the limitations of this approach to understanding.

The body and emotions. Experience of the body and experience of emotions are aspects of the knowing and feeling self so pointedly confusing to beginning meditators that these areas deserve special comment. Is my body a part of myself as subject or is it an other, a separated object of experience? Where is the mind when I am ‘spaced out’ and not ‘in’ the body? Isn’t it odd that I can feel alienated from something as much part of me as my own body? What do all of the mind/body issues of philosophy actually mean experientially?

Even more puzzling is the relation of a person to his or her emotions. At the same time that people identify themselves with an emotion they may also be seeing that emotion as an other, as something outside of themselves of whose ‘attack’ they can be afraid. Both the body and emotions are boundary areas where the model of the separated knower and wanter is still in operation but is strained. Such issues become matters of living contemplation for meditators, especially Buddhist meditators whose tradition may point them toward these conundrums.

Goal-directedness and action. The mind becomes acutely uncomfortable without goals, without something toward which the cognitive and emotional system is aiming. That is why satisfied desires no longer please, and new desires constantly spring up. Meditators discover this as, sooner or later, their peace-providing meditation technique becomes irritating or boring and the mind reaches out, over and over again, for something else, some goal, something to do.

This constant activity of mind appears directly related to action. In fact, some Theravada Buddhist mindfulness techniques direct the meditator to slow all actions to a crawl and carefully observe the impulses and intentions preceding the smallest movement. Thus observed, action in general begins to show up as a complex matter engendered by self-referring goals, intentions, plans, evaluations, reasoning, strategies, doubts, and efforts. Is this not the very picture of the cognitive scientist’s models of action? ‘Yet is all this required for actions?’ the meditator may begin to wonder? Does the popping up of a thought in the mind require preceding plans and efforts to think that thought? Does one get out of bed in the morning by means of thinking about it? Thus, as with the knower and the wanter, the beginning meditator both discovers and comes to question the cognitive scientist’s rule-based view of action.

Interpersonal relationships. Self-referentiality applies to interpersonal relationships. Other people, like any other object of the external world, are the objects of desires, aversions and indifference depending on whether they are seen as good, bad, or irrelevant to the self’s goals. How saddening it is for decent meditators who had thought themselves as altruistic as anyone else to begin to notice the subtle and devious ways in which self-referentiality may manifest. For a mind in its egocentric mode there is no way out of this cocoon of self-reference.

This then is the portrait of the alienated information processor assumed by the cognitive sciences, decried by the humanities, and discovered in experience by the beginning meditator. It is where we first meet Shalipa, cowering in his hut wishing to sleep the sleep of ignorance, eat the food of greed, and terrified of the threatening wolves. It is the mode of knowing, feeling, and acting called samsara in Buddhist terminology, the wheel of existence to which sentient beings are bound by their habits unless they do something to break those habits. Other meditative traditions bear similar descriptions. Most Hindu schools speak of gross or lower levels of consciousness which replicate this picture. The beginning Taoist meditator discovers his Monkey who lives ‘alone in the branches of his small tree world … his environment a blur of the frantic activity created by unchecked desire.’ And western religions speak of sin or distance from God.

As indicated previously, what all this suggests is that the cognitivist model of modern psychology actually has its roots in our basic folk psychology, a psychology which is not a product of the modern (or postmodern) world, nor of contemporary philosophy, nor of social changes, nor of particular customs or cultural values. Does that mean that humans are in a hopeless situation with respect to these matters? To be sure, the cognitivist and folk psychological models stop here with the isolated information processor. However, the meditative traditions do not stop here. What is to come is the portrait of the full human being which is uncovered by pursuing the further discoveries of meditation. Our beginning meditator may have discovered the alienated samsaric information processor experientially, but (s)he did so in a context in which that disconnected and needy self did not make complete experiential sense. Indeed, each time the meditator finds himself as the dualistic information processor, (s)he does so against a background of intuition that there might be an entirely different way of knowing and being. Must not we suppose something like this to have happened to Shalipa if we are to make sense of his perseverance and eventual realizations? Let us look at these further developments in the meditative traditions.
 
 

C. Further Meditative Discoveries: The Process View

Attention can be trained. The ceaseless ungrounded activity of the mind can be pacified and the mind can be taught to hold an object of attention. All meditation traditions acknowledge and sometimes use this. Almost any object of attention can be used: a sight, a mental image, the breath, a mantra, sensations, the body in motion, space. The technique is usually to return again and again to the object of meditation. The mind can be taught not only to cease wandering away from its object, at least temporarily, but also to remain alert while holding it. But then attention has to be further trained, or perhaps untrained, to let go. Holding a particular mental content is not the goal of any meditative tradition, and some traditions teach letting go in other ways. The goal is to develop (discover, click into) a different mode of knowing and being which is available to humans. The attentional aspect of this mode is that the mind appears to have the natural ability to be present with the flux of experience, the knowing and the not knowing aspects of experience, in a relaxed and natural way. From the vantage point of this kind of attention, the self and the other aspects of experience which we have discussed, begin to take on a rather different appearance.

The self is unreflectively assumed to be a thing which abides through time, is independent of other things, and needs to be nurtured and protected by the person who has it. As meditators become more in touch with the reality of their experience, a view of the world in terms of unitary things and events tends to shift to an experience of ongoing processes. For example, experiences that were once assumed unitary wholes (e.g. ‘I was angry all morning’ or ‘I spent the whole night afraid of the howling of the wolves’) are seen to be a sequence of particular, ever-changing sensations and concepts. Traits once seen as part of an independent self are noticed to arise interdependently with circumstances, and those circumstances to arise interdependently with increasingly more extensive arenas of world events.

Such shifts in view are very useful but are not quite the essence of the shift into a new mode of knowing. Who is it that is perceiving these interdependent processes? As previously stated, we ordinarily take experience to be composed of at least two aspects: subject and object, knower and known, perceiver and thing perceived. Initial forms of meditation instruction and of meditation may sound as though they are intended to exaggerate the sense of a constant perceiver, a homunculus who watches and comments on the passing flux of experience. Buddhist instructions often stress watchfulness, and some forms of Hinduism teach a witness consciousness. In order to counteract self-identification with passing experiences or with the personality, meditators might be taught to say to themselves: ‘I am not my thoughts,’ ‘I am not my emotions,’ etc. But this sense of an exaggerated separate perceiver is limited, temporary, and somewhat artificial. Eventually meditators come to see, suspect, or at least have a glimmering that the subject or perceiver is only the subject side of a momentary experience, an aspect of the perception or thought itself.,

This is an extremely important point in the meditation process. None of the traditions teach that meditation is a means of separating oneself from one’s experience — a contradiction in terms at best. Each tradition, at some point, directs the meditator to be in experience but with the broader sense of knowing engendered by the training and then relaxation of attention. A panoply of techniques exist in all the traditions for challenging or pacifying the sense of separateness and for an intelligent destruction of the artificial sense of an observer. The meditator may be told to be the object of meditation (the image, breath, howling of wolves, etc.), or perhaps to try hard to ‘catch’ the watcher, or perhaps to relax and trust completely, or perhaps to perform daily work tasks very very rapidly — the possibilities are limitless. This is a point where, when such teachings are explicit, meditators are likely to feel pushed. An analytic approach to no self can be interesting, but the precise experiencing of the lack of a separate observer is something from which the mind recoils like putting a finger on a hot stove. With perseverance, however, new possibilities for knowing, feeling, and relating can open from this way of experiencing.

The body. In western psychology, physiology, medicine, theology, and common sense, body and mind are generally considered separate things. The body is seen as undebatably material and solid while the mind is a something else, a something whose nature and relationship to the body has long been the subject of much speculative debate. There are several ways in which meditative experiences challenge our notions of the body and of the body/mind experience.

1. The body can be experienced as patterns of energy and space rather than solely as solid matter. To get a sense of this vision the reader might try the following contemplation: imagine your body as a giant and your mind as a tiny traveler inside the body. Progressively increase the size of the body so that the traveler is exploring at increasingly micro levels of structure; then turn the contemplation onto the traveller who is doing the exploring.

2. Body and mind can be experienced in a meaningful way as actually not separate. In that case, the body is described as a part of knowing, as self-knowing, rather than as an inert thing that can be known only from the outside.

3. Bodily energy is experienced as moving in certain channels (as in acupuncture meridians in Chinese medicine). These are experientially quite real, and manipulating them has notable effects (as you may have experienced if you have ever undergone an acupuncture treatment). These channels do not correspond to western neurological maps. When observer and observed are experienced as not separate, the energy flows can be self manipulated without medical assistance.

4. There are certain energy centres within the body (the chakras) which have particular characteristics. Most of the meditative traditions acknowledge the existence of these, but by no means all techniques or all meditators work with them. For those who do, the centres can be of central importance. When perceived or approached with our usual restricted, dualistic mode of knowing, the centres themselves appear constricted or closed, and each centre appears to form the nexus of its own type of neurotic energy. When approached with a non-dualistic openness, each centre can be experienced as the seat of its corresponding broader knowing or wisdom. For example, the head centre, normally the basis of intellectualization and criticism, is said to open to a pure mirror-like seeing, and the heart centre, in which feelings of sadness and grief are often experienced, is said to give rise to the experiences of inclusive, accepting, timeless space and of connectedness to the world.

Emotions. As was previously pointed out, for a mind in its egocentric mode of knowing, emotions are the monitoring of duality, of how the subject is doing in relation to its objects, to its desires and goals, to others, to its world. The slightest threat to the self’s territory (a cut finger, a disobedient child) arouses fear or anger. The slightest hope of self enhancement (money, praise, pleasure) arouses excitement, desire or greed. The first hint that a situation may be irrelevant to the self (waiting in line, meditating) produces boredom. In Buddhism, these three motivational factors, aggression, passion, and ignorance, are what keep samsara operating. They are said to be what keep humans, such as Shalipa, bound to the habitual mode of knowing and feeling.

But in many of the meditative schools, emotions, like other phenomena, are Janus faced. When they are experienced in a non-dualistic, open mode of knowing, they can be seen, it is said, not as problems but as the basic energies of the universe. Some meditative traditions talk of coming to see, tuning into, riding on, being with, or becoming one with the energy level of the emotion and thereby achieving wisdom. Taoism talks of seeing the energy of the different emotions as the very elements out of which nature is composed (how could it be otherwise?) and thereby achieving harmony. For example, anger might be recognized as the element fire which can be used appropriately. In Tibetan Buddhism, basic emotions, when seen in their totality, are the very stuff of the basic wisdoms. For example, the energy of pride is (transmutable into) the wisdom of equanimity. In short, emotions can function as egocentric obstacles or as potent catalysts for wisdom.

Goal directedness and action. The constant discontent of habitual desires and goal orientation obscures the broader, more open sense of knowing of which we have been speaking. Meditation techniques abound to relax, outwit, stun, or perhaps utilize the energy of desire and goal directness of the apparently separated knower and wanter. We ordinarily think of freedom as being able to do, what we want to do following our desires and goals. But meditators begin to see that their goals and sense of choice are determined by habits, conditioning, and circumstances and are anything but free. With great delight people report an occasional experience of what feels like real freedom – precisely when they have done what they describe as letting go of desires, goal directedness and choice.

But without desires and goals, how can there by action? Would one lie in bed unable to get up, even for growing physical necessities? Would one randomly and affectlessly murder respectable people? These are our fantasies about freedom. What meditators, artists (and many ordinary people) say is that it is precisely when they are, even very briefly, without the usual sense of goal directedness that they can act spontaneously in ways appropriate to the situation at hand. For example, it is well documented that people who act heroically in times of emergency (plunge into icy water to save a drowning child and so on) often report that they did not think, decide, or choose but simply did it. Furthermore, such actions may involve skills which the rescuer says he did not know he possessed. Action is not necessarily what we assume it is.

Interpersonal relations. From the point of view of the limited, dualistic, samsaric information processor; relating with other people is a dismal business, which, just like relations with the rest of nature, can only consist (with varying degrees of refinement) of separation, ignorance, aggression, and greed. Meditators say that meditation affects their view of interpersonal relationships. Glimpses of a state in which there is neither separation of the knower nor desire for future goals also reveals the possibility of an open and receptive relationship to people beyond the manipulative streetfighter mentality. I have never spoken with a meditator who was pleased with his progress (an important caveat) who did not mention something about feeling more at ease, more understanding, or more kindness towards other people. Many, including the dissatisfied, have experienced glimpses described as non-separateness, open-heartedness, or compassion. A few individuals appear to undergo a marked change in their orientation to people.
 
 

D. A New Mode of Knowing and Being

Some meditators in all traditions find or glimpse a truly new mode of knowing and being. They variously attribute their ability to do this to factors such as perseverance, relaxation, or special attunement to realized teachers (or deities). The glimpse is generally described, not as a new experience, but as a finding, or tapping into, a mode of knowing and being which was there all along within ordinary experience but which they had hitherto ignored. These glimpses, they often say, are what keep them going. Various characteristics (or noncharacteristics) are ascribed to this mode of knowing and being:

1. It is not a subject/object form of knowing, not located in a knowing subject who knows objects. There is just the knowing; experiences are ‘self known.’

2. There is no desire in it, no reaching beyond the experience itself. It is contented, relaxed, adequate, doesn’t care about the concerns of passion and aggression.

3. It has a spacelike or spacious aspect. This experience can be evoked by experiences of ordinary space. (Perhaps that is why humans are so enamored of views and sweeping vistas.)

4. It is nontemporal, not located in time, not localizable in the past, future, or even present, timeless. (For this nontemporality, some traditions use the word permanent.)

5. It has no limits or boundaries. It is not a limited capacity system; capacity is not a relevant descriptive dimension.

6. It is not graspable, describable, conceptualizable, formulatable or modelable; it is a nonconceptual knowing. It is said to be beyond words, beyond concepts, and not an object of the conceptual mind. It is violated somewhat by any description of it including all that is said here.

(It should be noted that the Buddhist term emptiness can be, and has been, used with respect to any or all of these first six aspects.)

7. It accommodates/includes/accepts everything, all content, unconditionally.

8. It is of supreme value, worth everything. When meditators speak of their actual experience, this is the most important aspect, the sine qua non, the reason why anyone would want to bother with boring meditations, arcane retreats, humbling mindfulness, frustrating spiritual groups, or cantankerous gurus in the first place. Our culture and our psychology separate the knowing dimension from the value/emotive dimension as I have been doing hitherto in this chapter. But the experience here is that at the very basis of experience, the two are not separate.

9. Knowledge of the ordinary subject/object, space/time limited world can be from this broader, unlimited, accommodating, unconditionally valued perspective. The more limited known world is seen as not separate from the broader view. This can be expressed as a new epistemological vision of the origin of experience – that relative experience is born afresh each instant out of the ground of this nonconceptual, primordial knowing. Or it can be expressed as an ontological statement – that nothing is ever born or separated from that ground when viewed from the perspective of the broader experience of totality. But perhaps foremost it is a very personal, transformative, deeply therapeutic vision of the inherent value of the world and of experience.

10. When actions ‘come from’ this mode of knowing and being, they happen with felt spontaneity, and turn out to be situationally appropriate, of benefit to others, and sometimes shockingly skillful. This is perhaps the state which is called nonaction.
 
 

E. Integration and Wholeness

In the final vision, all of the aspects of experience which we have treated as separate are seen to form an integrated whole. Cognition is not separate from emotion. Mind and body are not separate. The perceiver is not separate from the perception. Action is not separate from knowing in its broadest sense. Time is not separate from the timeless, desires, from the desireless, nor emotions from the sense of unconditional accommodation. The self is not separate from the rest of the world, from others, or from inherent value. Fundamental value is not separate from knowing, from emotion, from anything. And this very vision of integration is not separate from the fragmented world which does not see but does need it.

The Mind – A Portrait

Over the next few weeks, we will look at aspects of The Mind and Cognitive Sciences. These include aspects such as how these sciences have developed and advanced; usefulness or otherwise of meditation; consciousness; neuroscience; linguistics; theories of metaphor; specialisations in cognitive systems, etc. All the works are from journals, websites, and books related to cognitive sciences.

What is a human being? What is the human mind? When we hear such questions, what do we think? What images come to mind? Cultures, religions, and the various sciences offer differing portraits of the human being; these are crucially important to the ways in which we may then seek to study, help, instruct, regulate (or perhaps enjoy) those humans. What portrait of the human do we have that leads the scientist to feel that experience is not a proper approach to the study of minds, that the mind must be treated as though it is an external object to be examined objectively according to the canons of natural science? What portrait of the human do we have that led to modernism and to it’s present breakdown as described elsewhere in this volume? The information processing view of the mind held by present experimental psychology (and the cognitive sciences as a whole) may be our most concise formulation, a pinpointing, of the principles underlying such a portrait.

From the Tibetan Buddhist tradition comes the following story:

    Shalipa was a low-caste woodcutter who lived near the charnel ground of Bighapur. Packs of wolves came by night to eat the corpses (in a charnel ground, corpses are simply deposited on the ground to decay or be eaten by wild animals). The wolves howled all night long, and Shalipa became more and more afraid of them until he could neither eat by day nor sleep by night for fear of the howling of wolves. One evening a wandering yogin stopped by his cottage asking for food. Shalipa gave him food and drink, and, well pleased, the yogin repaid him with a discourse on the virtues of fearing samsara (conditioned existence) and practicing the dharma. Shalipa thanked him but said, ‘Everyone fears samsara. But I have a specific fear. Wolves come to the charnel ground and howl all night, and I am so afraid of them that I can neither eat nor sleep nor practice the dharma. Please can’t you give me a spell so that I can stop the howling of the wolves?’ The yogin laughed and said, ‘Foolish man. What good will it do you to eat the food of greed when you do not know what food is? What good will it do you to sleep the corpse-like sleep of ignorance when you do not know what rest is? What good will it do you to destroy the howling of the wolves with the spells or anger when you do not know what hearing or any other sense is? If you will follow my instructions, I will teach you to destroy all fear.’ Shalipa accepted the yogin as his teacher, gave him all that he had, and begged him for instruction. After giving him initiation, the yogin told him to move into the charnel ground with the wolves and to mediate ceaselessly upon all sound as identical to the howling of wolves. Shalipa obeyed him. Gradually he came to understand the nature of all sound and of all reality. He meditated for nine years, overcame all obscurations of his mind and body, lost all fear, and attained great realization. Thereafter, he wore a wolf skin around his shoulders and was know as Shalipa (the wolf yogin). He taught his disciples many different practices about the nature of appearances and reality. He taught the unity of appearance, emptiness, wisdom, and skillful means. Finally, in that very body, he went to the realm of the Heroes.

If ever there was an ancient portrait of the alienated modern (or postmodern) man, it is Shalipa as we first see him. He has societal problems, being poor, low caste and powerless; environmental problems, being forced to live beside a charnel ground in which wolves roam and howl; medical problems since he can neither eat nor sleep properly; psychological problems, a rampantly spreading wolf phobia; and spiritual problems, for he says he is too upset to practice the dharma. We can readily understand and empathize with him when we first meet him, shivering in his hut and complaining to his visitor.

But then the story shifts, becoming less readily available to the modern sensibility. Shalipa’s mentor does not advise him to move away, to sue the owners of the charnel ground, to delve into the meaning of wolf howls in his personal history, or to endure his fate as a means of religious salvation. Rather he is instructed to use his own experience in meditation to undergo a radical transformation in how he senses, knows, and feels. He emerges with freedom from his problems and the power to act on and for others. What is this transformation in knowing, feeling, acting, and relating and how it is achieved? What might this story have to tell us about how we view the world in our present psychology and how it may be alternatively viewed through the eyes of the meditative traditions?

In this chapter, I will first delineate our present understanding or portrait of a human as it appears in the cognitive sciences and in folk psychology, arguing that this portrait precisely fits Shalipa’s initial status and condition. Second, I will attempt to show that this portrait is not a modern anomaly but matches the description of samsara in ancient Buddhism (and other meditative traditions) and that it has a universal experiential basis which is discovered by self observing beginning meditators. (The material on mediators is based on observations, participations, conversations, and interviews with meditators from various groups.) Finally, I will seek to show how continued experiential examination in the meditative traditions reveals an alternative mode of knowing, feeling, acting, and being which offers a radically different human portrait. Might this latter mode of knowing provide a possible basis for a future (post post modern perhaps) science of psychology?

Let us begin, therefore, with the model of the mind provided by the modern cognitive sciences. The mind is seen as an information processing system. Outside of the mind is an objective world, such as is studied by physics. Information from that world enters the mind through the sense organs where it proceeds through various stages of short term memory and is finally stored in long term memory.  In this process the information is transformed into cognitive representations (re-representations) of the external world and of one’s self in that world. One also develops causal theories about the world and one’s self and habits of actions based on these. Information from the representations and theories in long term storage also go back to the sense organs so that one knows how to interpret and appraise (in accordance with one’s expectations and goals) incoming stimuli, and it goes out along the motor pathways so that one can act.

Now let’s look at the implications of this portrait of the mind for the issues raised by any story. For the sake of organization we can divide these implications into the three classical divisions of knowing (cognition), feeling (conation), and action, and add to it a fourth category, implications for relationships with other people.

In terms of knowing, the information processor is inside of the information processing system and is separate from its objects. This separated knower constructs its cognitive representations out of bits of information that come its way, and it sees everything in terms of these representations. As to the feeling, appetitive, wanting part of the person: just as objects of knowledge are outside of the system, so are objects of desire, while the independent, separated wanter of objects is inside of the system. Perhaps the most clear cut rendition of this separated wanter appears in classical utility theory in economics. Inside the information processing system is a rational wanter who computes the utilities and probabilities possessed by external objects of desire and then acts rationally on the world to try to obtain these objects … and then more objects and more objects. And what is action in the cognitive science mode of thinking? It is based on rules. How can someone catch a baseball? We can work out a rather elaborate set of rules of motion based on vectors and trajectories from physics and then attempt to program a robot to catch a baseball based on those rules. How can a person make a moral decision? Now we need an explicit set of moral rules and a program for weighting and combining them to make moral judgements.

Finally how does the information processor so described relate to other people? In a certain sense, (s)he never does. Isolated inside the information processing system, all (s)he ever sees or knows or wants or can act from is his/her cognitive representations which are related only indirectly (perhaps in the long run only by evolution) to anything or anyone in the autonomous outside world. Popular psychiatry says we have intimacy problems with other people. Of course! From this point of view, I do not actually see this hand which is in front of my eyes or feel this table I am touching, so we have intimacy problems with everything sensations, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, actions, much less with anything as global and awesome as another person.

This model of the human mind is not confined to the single discipline of academic psychology. A major theme of modern philosophy since Brentano and then Husserl has been how it is possible for mental states to be always about something other than and separate from themselves (see, for example, Dreyfus), an issue misleadingly called the problem of intentionality. In linguistics, it has generally been assumed since antiquity that language can only get its meaning by means of reference to independent objects and states of the world.  Psychoanalysis, one might think, is sufficiently intimate and internal to be an exception to the model, but if we actually look at Freud, his system is a perfect portrait of cognitivism.  The mind is made of mental representations which are about something external, even in the unconscious. Objects of desire are always outside: the id wants to grab them right away; the superego generates rules that say no; and the best that the beleaguered ego can do is make some compromises, while the person remains ever unsatisfied. On the more societal level, the popular social exchange theory in sociology, anthropology, social psychology, and economics views the psychological motives behind social interaction as the attempt of each individual to bring as many good things as possible within his/her boundaries while paying out as little as possible of his/her scarce resources. It isn’t just professionals who think in these ways; as surveys how, the (wo)man in the street largely agrees.

Such an alienated portrait of the human has not gone unnoticed by thinkers in our culture, and it is popular to attribute it to some aspect or fault in modern civilization. In fact you may be saying to yourself right now, ‘Ah-hah! That’s Cartesianism! That’s our modern western dualistic portrait of the mind, and that should be contrasted with all the rest of the world which doesn’t see things that way.’ Or you might think that such a model is the product of post-industrial-revolution alienation which is now spreading around the world but that it does not apply to peoples in pre-industrial or ancient times. Or that it is the result of secularization, patriarchy, or any number of particular causes without which it did not or would not operate.

But what about Shalipa as we originally meet him? Here is a pre-Cartesian, pre-industrial revolution, pre-secularization, nonwestern man as alienated from his world and his feelings as ever you might wish. We have no trouble at all understanding and identifying with his state of mind as he sits huddled in his hut, terrified of the howling wolves; our difficulties or questions have to do with what happens to him after that when his understanding and experience start to change.

I wish to argue that the dualistic and alienated understanding of a human being which prevails today in the social and cognitive sciences is not a historical or social accident; rather, it is a representation of a deep and universal aspect of folk psychology, an aspect which in Indian religious traditions is called samsara. Samsara is where humans will, it is said, discover themselves to be as, though training in meditation, they become mindful, instead of mindless, of their mental processes and actions in everyday life.

So let us turn now to the issue of meditation, of experience, and of experimental method. Western scientific psychology explicitly seeks to study mind from the outside as though it were an object of the natural sciences. The meditative traditions provide an alternative route, methodologies for learning about the mind/consciousness/living being from the inside, paths for gaining knowledge about the living being as that being itself.

Anthropology – Conclusions

As a diverse, multifunctional cultural universal, religion is unavoidably a phenomenon of surpassing anthropological interest. What the anthropology of religion has long ignored, however, is the fact that religion and anthropology are competitors in the attempt to fulfill many of the same functions. Much of the domain of inquiry that anthropology has recently claimed for itself is one that religion has long considered its own, including the fundamental questions of human origins, human nature, and human destiny. Elman Service (1985:319) makes this point very tellingly in A Century of Controversy:

People, in the union of society, already know the answers to all of the questions they consider basic…Unlike the natural sciences, which at first were called on simply to fill the dark void of ignorance with increasingly sure, or testable, knowledge (and which were likely to be the ones asking the question), the behavioral sciences faced questions that had already been asked and answered by the culture itself.

The conflict between religion and anthropology comes about because the answers that the two offer to the “basic questions” concerning humanity are in most cases fundamentally opposed. Religious and scientific perspectives on such questions are rarely complementary, as it is popularly supposed. More often, religious and scientific perspectives are mutually contradictory and ultimately incompatible. Anthropological science reveals, in addition, that the contradictory answers offered by religion are clearly, demonstrably, and unequivocally wrong. When it comes to the questions of human origins and human nature, for example, it is evident that the world’s religions are mistaken. Consider the Judeo-Christian tradition as a single instance: the human species is not less than 10,000 years old, the present geographical distribution of human populations is not attributable to survivor dispersion following a universal flood, the origins of Homo sapiens are not distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom, the linguistic diversity of the human species is not the result of an historic event in southwest Asia 4,000 years ago, illness is not caused by the Devil, and women are not intellectually inferior to men.

In my view, the goal of anthropology should be to give us the right answers to the questions that human beings have always asked. The exceptional value of our discipline does not lie in our subject matter, which is neither unique nor original. Instead, it is the anthropological approach (specifically, the scientific perspective) which makes our discipline worthwhile. No rational person can doubt the unequaled value of scientific investigation. “Since the eighteenth century,” as Bernard (1988:25) aptly observes, “every phenomenon, including human thought and behavior, to which the scientific method has been systematically applied over a sustained period of time, by a large number of researchers, has yielded its secrets, and the knowledge has been turned into more effective human control of events.”

The unfortunate truth is, however, that the scientific study of human thought and behavior has lagged behind the scientific study of the natural world, in part because social scientists, out of deference to the emotional sensitivities of their fellow humans, have been especially reticent about applying the scientific method to the entire range of anthropological phenomena. The study of religion is only the most obvious instance of that reticence. If we would like to achieve something comparable to the success that our colleagues in physics, chemistry, and biology have achieved, we will have to be equally consistent in our application of the scientific method.

To summarize briefly, we know that no religious belief is true, because we know that all religious beliefs are either nonfalsifiable or falsified. In the interests of scientific integrity, we have an obligation to declare that knowledge. Doing so, of course, would not preclude other anthropological analyses of religion, and I would not want to be understood as having suggested that we should abandon the study of the social, psychological, ecological, symbolic, aesthetic, and ethical functions and dimensions of religion. It is precisely those areas where the anthropology of religion has made and continues to make its greatest contributions. Nevertheless, the scientific study of religion will never be fully legitimate until scientists recognize and proclaim the reality of religion.

 

Notes

1 There have been exceptions, of course. Murdock (1980:54), for example, makes this unambiguous observation: “There are no such things as souls, or demons, and such mental constructs as Jehovah are as fictitious as those of Superman or Santa Claus.” Similarly, Schneider (1965:85) offers this forthright declaration: “There is no supernatural. Ghosts do not exist.” But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

2 Scientific objectivity is, admittedly, founded upon a pair of ultimately unprovable assumptions: first, the assumption that “reality is ‘out there’ to be discovered,” as Bernard (1988:12) says (or that “there are things outside of the observer which no amount of merely logical manipulation can create or destroy,” as Harris [1964:169] puts it), and second, the assumption that reality is amenable to human inquiry (or that reliable knowledge is attainable, in other words). However, while it may not be possible to conclusively prove the truth of either assumption, neither is it possible to reasonably doubt the validity of either. Both assumptions are decisively validated by the overwhelming weight of human experience. Our lives are not mere illusions, and we have succeeded in understanding and predicting much of the world. To deny the first assumption is to engage in the worst sort of solipsism; “it is quite true that facts do not speak for themselves,” as Spaulding (1988:264) astutely observes, “but a conclusion that therefore there are no facts is a crashing non sequitur.” To deny the second assumption is to claim to know that no knowledge is possible, and that, obviously, is self-contradictory.

3 It is a mistake that I myself have made. In the first edition of my textbook on anthropological theory (Lett 1987:26), I suggested that science could be defined as “a systematic method of inquiry based upon empirical observation that seeks to provide coherent, reliable, and testable explanations of empirical phenomena and that rejects all accounts, descriptions, and analyses that are either not falsifiable or that have been decisively falsified.” Of course, I was following some well-established anthropological precedents. Pelto and Pelto (1978:22), for example, define science as “the structure and the processes of discovery and verification of systematic and reliable knowledge about any relatively enduring aspect of the universe, carried out by means of empirical observations, and the development of concepts and propositions for interrelating and explaining such observations.” Harris (1979:27) maintains that science “seeks to restrict fields of inquiry to events, entities, and relationships that are knowable by means of explicit, logico-empirical, inductive-deductive, quantifiable public procedures or ‘operations’ subject to replication by independent observers.” I now recognize, however, that objectivity is the defining quality of science, and that science is empirical as a consequence of objectivity, not as a condition of objectivity.

4 The fact that scientific knowledge is not absolutely certain knowledge in no way diminishes the unique value and demonstrable superiority of the scientific approach. As Watson (1991:276) notes, “public, objective knowledge of the world including human beings is not certain, but neither is it merely one interpretation out of many, each of which is no better than any other.” When it comes to the acquisition of factual knowledge, the scientific method has a record of success that far outshines any other epistemological approach. The reliability, predictability, generalizability, and usefulness of scientific knowledge are simply unparalleled; the vindication of the scientific method on pragmatic grounds is decisive.

5 The term “paranormal” was first popularized by parapsychologists, but is likely to be most familiar to anthropologists through the efforts of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. CSICOP, which was founded in 1976 by the philosopher Paul Kurtz, is a national organization of philosophers, natural scientists, social scientists, physicians, engineers, attorneys, journalists, magicians, and other skeptical people committed to the rational analysis of paranormal claims. The organization includes a number of anthropologists among its Fellows and contributors to its quarterly journal, The Skeptical Inquirer.

6 Joseph K. Long’s (1977) edited volume Extrasensory Ecology: Parapsychology and Anthropology is perhaps the most regrettable example of the irrational approach to the paranormal within cultural anthropology. The collection can be described, somewhat charitably, as one of the saddest and silliest books ever published under an anthropological aegis. Long’s gullibility and flagrant disregard for rational principles of evidential reasoning are egregious. He baldly states, for example, that “ghosts, astral projections, and poltergeists are real” (1977:viii), he describes levitation as “probable” (1977:384-385), he claims that at least some so-called “psychic surgeons” (who are really sleight-of-hand artists) have successfully performed barehanded operations on human patients that involve “deep and random cutting, extraction of parts, and immediate healing of the wound leaving virtually no scar” (1977:375), and he endorses the transparently fraudulent “psychokinetic” stunts of the Israeli showman Uri Geller as genuine (1977:248).
 

Reproduced from Professor James Lett’s Faculty WebPage

The Nature of Religion

In Religion in Human Life, Edward Norbeck (1974:6) observes that “religion is characteristically seen by anthropologists as a distinctive symbolic expression of human life that interprets man himself and his universe, providing motives for human action, and also a group of associated acts which have survival value for the human species.” Various formulations could be subsumed under that general description, such as Lessa and Vogt’s (1972:1) notion that “religion may be described as a system of beliefs and practices directed toward the ‘ultimate concern’ of a society,” or Geertz’s (1973:90) concept of religion as “a system of symbols” that integrates a culture’s world view and ethos. Those definitions, however, could logically embrace existentialism, communism, secular humanism, or other philosophies which most anthropologists would be reluctant to call religion. How then is religion distinguished from comparable sets of beliefs and behaviors that fulfill similar functions?

As Norbeck (1974:6) explains, “the distinguishing trait commonly used is supernaturalism, ideas and acts centered on views of supernatural power.” The concept of the supernatural has been firmly tied to the anthropological definition of religion since the origins of the discipline. Edward Tylor (1958:8), for example, argued that “it seems best…to claim, as a minimum definition of Religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings.” Frazer (1963:58) maintained that “religion involves, first, a belief in superhuman beings who rule the world, and, second, an attempt to win their favour.” Malinowski (1954:17) observed that sacred “acts and observances are always associated with beliefs in supernatural forces, especially those of magic, or with ideas about beings, spirits, ghosts, dead ancestors, or gods.” The concept of the supernatural continues to dominate anthropological conceptions of religion today. Marvin Harris (1989:399), for example, declares that “the basis of all that is distinctly religious in human thought is animism, the belief that humans share the world with a population of extraordinary, extracorporeal, and mostly invisible beings.”

There is a fundamental problem with the term “supernatural,” however: it is so varyingly conceived in the different cultures of the world that it lacks a common, unambiguous definition. The Yanomamo, Roman Catholic, !Kung San, and Buddhist conceptions of the “supernatural” realm, for example, are widely divergent and even contradictory in some aspects. The problem is that the term “supernatural” is an emic concept, meaning that it is defined in terms of the categories and concepts regarded as meaningful and appropriate by the members of particular cultures; it is not an etic concept, one defined in terms of the categories and concepts regarded as meaningful and appropriate by the community of scientific observers (Lett 1990). As an emic concept, the term “supernatural” has as many definitions as there are cultures; as an etic concept, it has no recognized, agreed-upon definition.

Nor could any such objective, scientific definition be offered for the term “supernatural,” for the simple reason that the word is propositionally meaningless. The term “supernatural” is purportedly used to designate a reality that somehow transcends the natural universe of empirical reality, but what does it mean to “transcend empirical reality?” If such a thing as “nonempirical reality” exists, how could we, as empirical beings, even know about it? (Revelation and intuition, after all, are demonstrably unreliable–witness the mutually exclusive claims to knowledge made by different people on revelatory grounds.) If such a thing as “nonempirical reality” exists, by what mechanism is it connected to empirical reality? (How, in other words, do supernatural beings and forces have an impact on the natural world?) Further, if such a thing as “nonempirical reality” exists, why is there not a single shred of objective evidence to indicate its existence? As the physicist Victor Stenger (1990:33) points out, there is no rational reason whatsoever to even hypothesize the existence of the “supernatural:”

At this writing, neither the data gathered by our external senses, the instruments we have built to enhance those senses, nor our innermost thoughts require that we introduce a nonmaterial component to the universe. No human experience, measurement, or observation forces us to adopt fundamental hypotheses or explanatory principles beyond those of the Standard Model of physics and the chance processes of evolution.

The term “supernatural” thus purports to describe a reality that we could not know or recognize, one that could not have any impact on the reality we do know and recognize, and one for which we have no evidence whatsoever; it is, in short, unintelligible. The philosopher William Gray (1991:39) eschews the term “supernatural” and suggests instead that religious statements can be described as “metaphysical,” by which he means statements that refer to facts that could not possibly be observed. But what would an “unobservable fact” be? To substitute “metaphysical” for “supernatural” is simply to play a semantic game. Terms such as “supernatural,” “metaphysical,” and “nonempirical reality” are, in fact, oxymorons. It would make just as much sense to talk about the “unreal real.”

Connotatively, the term “supernatural” presents additional problems: it is not sufficiently comprehensive to embrace beliefs and behaviors that are virtually identical in form and function to so-called “religious” beliefs and behaviors, but which would not commonly be called “supernatural.” Gods, demons, angels, and souls, for example, could easily be called “supernatural,” and so too, perhaps, could incubi, succubi, ghosts, goblins, fairies, sprites, trolls, and leprechauns. But what about witches, clairvoyants, telepathists, psychokinetics, extraterrestrials, psychic surgeons, vampires, werewolves, spirit channelers, fire-walkers, astrologers, the Loch Ness Monster, and Sasquatch? Would those too be called “supernatural?” Would anthropologists call beliefs in such beings and forces “religious?”

At least one recent anthropological text on religion recognizes this problem. In Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion, Lehmann and Myers (1989:3) argue that it is time for anthropologists to abandon the restrictive connotations of the term “supernatural:”
Expanding the definition of religion beyond spiritual and superhuman beings to include the extraordinary, the mysterious, and unexplainable allows a more comprehensive view of religious behaviors among the peoples of the world and permits the anthropological investigation of phenomena such as magic, sorcery, curses, and other practices that hold meaning for both pre-literate and literate societies.

Lehmann and Myers fail, however, to suggest an alternative term to replace the word “supernatural.” Fortunately, there is an obvious alternative available, one that is winning increasing acceptance both inside and outside anthropology, namely the word “paranormal.” (Note 5) The term refers ostensibly to phenomena that lie beyond the normal range of human perception and experience, although in practice it does not denote simply anomalous phenomena. Instead, it describes putative phenomena whose existence would in fact violate the rules of reality revealed by science and common sense. From an etic point of view, therefore, the notion of the “paranormal,” like the notion of the “supernatural,” is propositionally meaningless. Unlike the term “supernatural,” however, the term “paranormal” is not restrictive in its connotations, and that is its principal advantage. “Paranormal” is a useful umbrella label for the complete set of emic beliefs concerning the unreal real. The term embraces the entire range of transcendental beliefs, covering at once everything that would otherwise be called magical, religious, supernatural, metaphysical, occult, or parapsychological.

Therein lies the real common denominator in all paranormal beliefs: not that they are all “supernatural,” but that they are all irrational, by which I mean that every single paranormal belief in the world, whether labeled “religious,” “magical,” “spiritual,” “metaphysical,” “occult,” or “parapsychological,” is either nonfalsifiable or has been falsified. (The vast majority of all paranormal propositions–such as the Judeo-Christian proposition that “God” exists–are nonfalsifiable and hence propositionally meaningless; a smaller percentage–such as the Judeo-Christian proposition that a universal flood covered the earth sometime within the past 10,000 years–are falsifiable but have invariably been falsified by objective evidence.)

The simple fact of the matter is that every religious belief in every culture in the world is demonstrably untrue. Regardless of whether the religious practices are organized communally or ecclesiastically, regardless of whether they are mediated by shamans or priests, regardless of whether the intent is manipulative or supplicative, the one constant that runs through all religious practices all over the world is that all such practices are founded upon nonfalsifiable or falsified beliefs concerning the paranormal.

Irrationality is thus the defining element in religion. Religion and science are not at odds because religion wants to be “supernatural” while science wants to be “empirical;” instead, religion and science are at odds because religion wants to be irrational (relying ultimately upon beliefs that are either nonfalsifiable or falsified), while science wants to be rational (relying exclusively upon beliefs that are both falsifiable and unfalsified).

I am aware that many anthropologists are likely to react negatively to the pejorative connotations of the word “irrational.” The term, however, is simply descriptive and therefore entirely appropriate. It is unarguably irrational to maintain a belief in an allegedly propositional claim when that claim is either propositionally meaningless or has been decisively repudiated by objective evidence. Whether it is laudable or forgivable to do so is another question: it is not, of course, a factual question, but neither is it a question that scientists can entirely avoid.

 

The Nature of Science

 

In the most fundamental sense, science can be defined as a systematic and self-correcting method for acquiring reliable factual knowledge. “It is the desire for explanations which are at once systematic and controllable by factual evidence that generates science,” the philosopher Ernest Nagel (1961:4) observes, “and it is the organization and classification of knowledge on the basis of explanatory principles that is the distinctive goal of the sciences.” The rules of the scientific method (which include testability, observer-independence, replicability, and logical consistency) do not restrict science to the pursuit of empirical knowledge, however. Instead, they restrict science to the pursuit of propositional knowledge.

A proposition is an assertion of fact, a statement which makes a claim that is either true or false depending on the evidence. The scientific method is simply a set of procedures for evaluating the evidence offered in support of any proposition. No proposition is ever rejected by science on an a priori basis (unless the proposition is self-contradictory); science is predicated upon the assumption that any factual assertion could be true. Nor does science demand that the evidence offered in support of any claim be empirical; science demands only that the evidence be objective.

As a set of guidelines for the acquisition of knowledge, scientific objectivity implies two things: first, that the truth or falsity of a given factual claim is independent of the claimant’s hopes, fears, desires, or goals; and second, that no two conflicting accounts of a given phenomenon can both be correct (Cunningham 1973:4). Critics of the scientific method commonly protest that objectivity in the first sense is unrealistic, because no individual scientist can ever be completely unbiased, and that objectivity in the second sense is unrealizable, because absolute certainty is unattainable. Both of those subordinate premises are correct (it is true that no individual can ever be completely unbiased, and it is true that absolute certainty about evidential questions can never be achieved) but neither of these points is relevant to the claim that science is objective, as Charles Frankel (1955:138-139) explains:

There are two principal reasons why scientific ideas are objective, and neither has anything to do with the personal merits or social status of individual scientists. The first is that these ideas are the result of a cooperative process in which the individual has to submit his results to the test of public observations which others can perform. The second is that these ideas are the result of a process in which no ideas or assumptions are regarded as sacrosanct, and all inherited ideas are subject to the continuing correction of experience.

To be objective, then, in the scientific sense of the term, a statement must fulfill two criteria: first, it must be publicly verifiable, and second, it must be testable. In the words of the philosopher Carl Hempel (1965:534), an “objective” statement is one that is “capable of test by reference to publicly ascertainable evidence.” The scientific claim to objectivity is thus not a dogmatically positivistic claim to absolute certainty (See Note 2). Scientific objectivity does not deny that perception is a process of active interpretation rather than passive reception, nor does it deny that the acquisition of reliable knowledge is a highly problematic undertaking. Instead, scientific objectivity merely denies that all claims to knowledge are equally valid, and it provides a set of standards by which to evaluate competing claims. To assert that science is objective, as Siegel (1987:161) does, is to assert simply that all claims to knowledge should be “assessed in accordance with presently accepted criteria (e.g. of evidential warrant, explanatory power, perceptual reliability, etc.), which can in turn be critically assessed.”

As a technique for acquiring reliable propositional knowledge, science necessarily demands objective evidence, which is to say evidence that is both publicly verifiable and testable. Evidence that was not publicly verifiable would not be reliable, and evidence that was not testable would not be propositional (since a proposition is, by definition, a statement that can be tested against the evidence). Objectivity, however, is all that science demands. As long as a propositional claim is both publicly verifiable and testable, it is scientific. There is nothing in the essential defining features of science which says that propositional claims must necessarily be empirical.

In practice, it is true, science has so far been restricted exclusively to empirical data and empirical data-collection procedures, but that restriction is neither prejudicial nor arbitrary. Instead, it is a result of the fact that the empirical approach is the only approach to propositional knowledge that has ever passed the test of public verifiability. If publicly verifiable evidence of non-empirical reality were presented, the recognition of such reality would be incorporated into the scientific world view. If non-empirical data collection procedures (e.g., faith, revelation, intuition) were publicly verifiable, they would be incorporated into the scientific method (Lett 1987:18-22). It is not the fact that science is empirical that makes science objective; instead, it is the fact that science is objective that makes science empirical.

Thus it is a mistake (although a common one – see note 3) to define science in terms of empiricism, as Bernard (1988:12) does when he says that the scientific method is based on the assumption that “material explanations for observable phenomena are always sufficient, and that meta-physical explanations are never needed.” Science, however, does not assume that material explanations are always sufficient; instead, science concludes, as an inductive generalization, that material explanations are always sufficient. (Further, under the epistemological principles of science, that conclusion would be subject to revision in the light of new evidence.) Bernard (1988:11-12) offers a better definition of science when he quotes Lastrucci (1963:6) to the effect that science is “an objective, logical, and systematic method of analysis of phenomena, devised to permit the accumulation of reliable knowledge.” The term “empirical” is appropriately missing from that definition.

“Scientific knowledge,” then, means “objective knowledge,” which means propositional knowledge that is both publicly verifiable and testable. In order to ensure the public verifiability of propositional claims, science relies upon the provisionally necessary rule of empiricism (while recognizing that empiricism is only a convenient means to an end–namely intersubjectivity–and leaving open the possibility that some as-yet-unidentified non-empirical approach might satisfy the criterion of public verifiability). In order to ensure the testability of propositional claims, science relies upon the logically necessary rule of falsifiability, Karl Popper’s (1959) indisputable sine qua non of the scientific approach to knowledge.
According to the rule of falsifiability, a claim or statement is to be considered propositional if and only if it is possible to conceive of evidence that would prove the claim false. The rule of falsifiability is simply a means of distinguishing propositional claims from non-propositional ones. If the claim were to fail the test of falsifiability (if it were not possible, in other words, to even imagine falsifying evidence) then all possible evidence would be irrelevant, and the claim would be propositionally meaningless (it might, of course, be emotively meaningful, but it would be entirely devoid of any factual content whatsoever). If the claim were to pass the test of falsifiability, on the other hand (if it were possible to conceive of data that would disprove the assertion) then the evidence would be relevant, the claim would be propositionally meaningful, and the truth or falsity of the proposition could be tested against the evidence (in which case, of course, science would demand that the evidence be publicly verifiable).

The rule of falsifiability is the single most important rule of science. It is the one standard that guarantees that all genuine scientific statements are propositional (rather than emotive or tautological or nonsensical), and it is the salient feature that sharply distinguishes science from other ways of knowing. It is, further, the one standard by which all scientific explanations are judged, as Cohen (1970:32) correctly observes: “Whether or not the theory is scientific depends ultimately on whether the ideas involved in the theory can be submitted to a test of their validity.”

Thus science is a technique for acquiring propositional knowledge that relies exclusively upon the publicly verifiable investigation of falsifiable claims, whatever those claims might be. In the insightful words of Richard Watson (1991:276), “science in the most general sense is an attempt to learn as much as possible about the world in as many ways as possible with the sole restriction that what is claimed as knowledge be both testable and attainable by everyone” (emphasis added). There is then no reason not to apply science to nonempirical claims. If the claim were a factual one, then it would be falsifiable, whatever the nature of its supporting evidence, and it would be the claimant’s responsibility to identify reliable (i.e., publicly verifiable) evidence that would falsify the claim. As Lakatos (1970:92) insists, “intellectual honesty consists…in specifying precisely the conditions under which one is willing to give up one’s position.”

Those who see empiricism as the defining element of science fail to recognize that the scientific method is a combination of both deduction and induction. Science, in other words, relies upon both logic and experience, both reason and observation, in the pursuit of knowledge. It would in fact be prejudicial to call science empirical; science demands only that the evidence collected through observation and experience be objective (i.e., publicly verifiable and testable), and it is at least logically possible that nonempirical evidence could be objective.

In sum, the essence of science lies in the exclusive commitment to rational beliefs, by which I mean beliefs that are both falsifiable and unfalsified. If a belief satisfies both criteria (if it is, in the first place, propositional, and it has, in the second place, survived unrelenting attempts at falsification in the light of publicly verifiable evidence), then it deserves to be called scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is thus provisional knowledge (it is always logically possible that evidence could be uncovered tomorrow that would falsify a previously unfalsified claim), but the scientific approach to propositional knowledge is nevertheless the only rational approach. (Note 4) It would obviously be irrational to give factual credence to a purportedly propositional claim that was either nonfalsifiable (i.e., propositionally meaningless) or falsified (i.e., evidentially wrong). That brings us to religion.

Science, Religion, and Anthropology

The anthropological literature on religion is diverse and voluminous, but there is one common perspective that pervades virtually that entire body of work, and that is the conviction that the epistemological principles of the scientific method cannot and/or should not be applied to the content of religious beliefs, on the grounds that nonempirical phenomena are necessarily beyond the purview of empirical science. Evans-Pritchard offers a familiar formulation of the position in Theories of Primitive Religion:

He [the anthropologist] is not concerned, qua anthropologist, with the truth or falsity of religious thought. As I understand the matter there is no possibility of his knowing whether the spiritual beings of primitive religions or of any others have any existence or not, and since that is the case he cannot take the question into consideration (Evans-Pritchard 1965:17).

Whatever personal convictions anthropologists may hold as individuals, the overwhelming majority have agreed with Evans-Pritchard that, as anthropologists, they either cannot or should not investigate the truth or falsity of religious beliefs. In virtually every major anthropological work on religion, and in most if not all introductory textbooks in cultural anthropology, the question of the truth or falsity of religious beliefs is evaded, ignored, or de-emphasized in favor of questions concerning the social, psychological, ecological, symbolic, aesthetic, and/or ethical functions and dimensions of religion. (see note 1)

Thus, for example, Anthony Wallace, who affirms that religion “is based on supernaturalistic beliefs about the nature of the world which are not only inconsistent with scientific knowledge but also difficult to relate even to naive human experience” (Wallace 1966:vi), nevertheless chooses to “ignore the extremes of fundamentalist piety and anticlerical iconoclasm” and to regard religion as “neither a path of truth nor a thicket of superstition, but simply [as] a kind of human behavior…which can be classified as belief and ritual concerned with supernatural beings, powers, and forces” (Wallace 1966:5). Similarly, Edward Norbeck, who recognizes that “religious beliefs and acts are created by man on the basis of his life” (Norbeck 1974:7), nevertheless explicitly restricts the anthropological study of religious beliefs to “interpretations of their role in human life and of the factors that have molded the customs into their particular forms” (Norbeck 1974:3). Clifford Geertz (1973:89), who defines religion as a system of “sacred symbols” which functions “to synthesize a people’s ethos…and their world view,” is completely unconcerned with the question of whether any particular religiously-supported world view is true or false. And Marvin Harris, who has long been one of anthropology’s most persistent critics of irrational modes of thought, nevertheless declares that he “can readily subscribe to the popular belief that science and religion need not conflict,” since science, he argues, “does not dispute the doctrines of revealed religions as long as they are not used to cast doubt on the authenticity of the knowledge science itself has achieved” (Harris 1979:6).

In short, a common element of the anthropological perspective on religion can be summarized in a simple syllogism:

1. The essential defining feature of science is empiricism (i.e., the belief that the only reality which exists is the reality amenable to the five senses, implying that reliable knowledge of that reality can be obtained only through the five senses).

2. The essential defining feature of religion is supernaturalism (i.e., the belief that there is a reality which lies beyond or somehow transcends the reality amenable to the five senses, implying that reliable knowledge of that reality can be obtained by means other than the five senses).

3. Therefore, science cannot be used to determine whether religious beliefs are true or false, since empirical epistemological procedures cannot be applied to supernatural phenomena.

Despite its virtual ubiquity in anthropology, that argument is unsound, for the simple reason that both of its premises are false. The essential defining feature of science is not empiricism, and the essential defining feature of religion is not supernaturalism. The conclusion that religion is or should be immune from scientific scrutiny is thus wholly unwarranted; moreover, that conclusion is also ethically objectionable. Considerations of disciplinary integrity, public welfare, and human dignity demand that religious claims be subjected to anthropological evaluation.

My position, then, is that anthropological science can and should be applied to the content of religious beliefs. My goal here is to establish three points: first, that rationality rather than empiricism is the key element of science; second, that irrationality rather than supernaturalism is the key element of religion; and third, that anthropologists have an intellectual and ethical obligation to investigate the truth or falsity of religious beliefs. The first point concerns the nature of science; the second involves the nature of religion; and the third, obviously, is a question of value.

 

Thought and technology

The cultural historian Lewis Mumford once remarked that the most authoritarian, efficient and socially repressive invention man had ever created was neither the steam engine nor the cannon, but the clock. What he had in mind were the social dimensions of the clock: It synchronises, standardises and integrates people wherever clocks exist and are respected. Right or wrong, Mumford’s observation indicates the potential of technology in shaping and directing human thought and action, given the right social and cultural context. (Clocks may, naturally, be regarded as fancy jewellery in societies where there is no perceived need for synchronisation.)

Let us take a closer look at the clock. It is sometimes said that clocks were initially introduced in Europe as an aid for medieval monks who found it difficult to keep prayer times when they worked in the fields. This version of clock history is half-way between a certain degree of credibility and invention. Different kinds of timepieces had existed well before medieval monasteries, and the abbey clocks did not just regulate prayer times, but also working hours – not unlike contemporary clocks, in other words. However, it is easy to see that the clocks quickly had interesting, unintended side-effects when they became common in European towns. They were instrumental in making punctuality a virtue. They encouraged efficiency since activities now could be planned and synchronised in ways formerly unthinkable. Eventually, the clocks became indispensable for town-dwellers; they needed to ‘keep time’ to get to the concert house or theatre in time, to keep appointments and, increasingly, in working life. Something which has in recent years received wide attention thanks to Dava Sobel’s bestselling book Longitude, is the fact that the accurate partitioning of the globe according to longitude was made possible only after the invention of a mechanical clock with minimal error margins. Combined with the Western calendar, the clock served to dissect time into abstract entities and to establish a linear perception of time. This refers to a kind of time which can be conceptualised as a line where any segment of the same kind (a year, a month, an hour etc.) is identical to any other segment, no matter when it unfolds. Clock and calendar time may be called abstract time since they contrast with the concrete time dominating most societies which are not subjected to clocks and calendars. In a temporal regime based on concrete time, time is measured as a combination of experienced, personal time, external events and societal rhythms such as day/night, harvest times and so on. A time segment such as an hour may accordingly vary in length.

Clock time is an externalised kind of time; it exists independently of events taking place in it, about in the same way as the thermometer measures temperature irrespective of the subjective experience of heat or coldness, and quantified distance measures distance without taking subjective experience of distance into account. A kilometer is a kilometer (and about 0.62 mile) anywhere, any time. Even if everybody knows that five minutes may be both a mere instant and a lenghty period (say, in the dentist’s office), and that twenty degrees Celsius may be warm if one enters the house on a winter day, but cold if one sits naked in a chair after taking a shower, it is generally accepted in our kind of society that the quantitative measurements of such phenomena are ‘truer’ than the subjective experience. Such standardising ideas are alien to traditional societies, and are part and parcel of modernity, which is also built around institutions such as social planning, beliefs in progress, population statistics and a zealous drive to control nature. Typically time, which in traditional societies may not be something one possesses but rather something one lives in, is a scarce resource in contemporary, modern societies. It has been reified to such a degree that a historical preoccupation of the labour movement has been the struggle for shorter working hours, and in the late 1990s, social movements appeared which promote both ‘slow cities’, ‘slow food’ and, simply, ‘slow time’.

The technological change which has been most intensively studied with a view to its relation to thought, is nonetheless the introduction of writing. Lévi-Strauss hardly mentions it explicitly, but an underlying idea in his contrast between the bricoleur and the ingenieur is quite clearly that of writing versus non-writing. Later, Jack Goody has, especially in his The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977), argued that if one wants to come to grips with the kind of cognitive contrast Lévi-Strauss talks about, one must study transitions to literacy and differences between literate and non-literate societies. Among other things, Goody claims that scientific analysis and systematic, critical thought are impossible without writing. His theory about the transition to literacy as a gigantic watershed in cultural history is contested, and Goody has modified it several times himself. What everybody seems to agree about is that writing is indispensable for the cumulative growth of knowledge, and that it makes it possible to separate the utterance from the context of uttering.

It may be said that some of the criticisms of Goody have been exaggerated. Although there are many exceptions and many interesting ‘intermediate forms’ (societies with limited literacy in one way or another), and although local realities vary much more than a general theory is able to predict, writing does by and large make a considerable difference regarding thought styles. The Greek miracle, that is the transition from mythical to philosophical thinking in the eastern part of the Mediterranean (incidentally paralleled by similar developments in India and China), must have been linked with the development of alphabetic writing, although it was hardly the sole cause. Although the ancient philosophers were deeply interested in rhetoric, that is oral eloquence, they criticised each other’s writings and revealed logical faults in each other’s arguments, often with a time lag of a generation or more. Writing does not necessarily make people more ‘intelligent’ (a difficult concept): it is a crutch for thought which makes the continuous exercise of memory unnecessary; it externalises thoughts, and thus makes it easier to place them outside the brain. When one writes, moreover, one is likely to think along other patterns than when communicating orally, a tendency explored by the philosopher Jacques Derrida and many others. Although there are many similarities between written history based on archives and myths, there are also differences to do with falsifiability, dating and imposition of causal sequences.

Literacy is often accompanied by numeracy. The Phoenicians, this famous people of maritime merchants from the Ancient world, were famous book-keepers. The implications of accurate book-keeping for trade, business and forms of reciprocity in general, should not be underestimated. Technology has both social and cognitive implications here as well, even if it is – naturally – necessary to explore local conditions and variations to get a full picture. Modern computers enable us to make calculations of dizzying complexity at astonishing speed: Some of the readers may think they have a reasonable notion of a billion (1,000,000,000); but consider the fact that each well-nourished, fairly healthy life lasts on average for 2.2 billion seconds altogether!

At the same time, calculators and computers may well make us incapable of carrying out even simple calculations without their aid. The calculator has doubtless affected the ability of schoolchildren to learn double digit multiplication by rote, and digitalised pricing means that cashiers in supermarkets no longer know the prices of all the items in the shop by heart. Thermometers, books, calculators and similar devices create abstract standards and lead to both externalisation and standardisation of certain forms of knowledge.

Now, in practice there is no question of an either-or. It is often said that humans are incapable of counting further than four without the aid of devices such as written numbers, pebbles or the like. However, we are familiar with a great number of traditional peoples, for example in Melanesia, who can count quite accurately and quite far by counting not only their toes and fingers, but other bodily parts as well. Some might get to seventy and further without using a single aid external to the body. There is, in a word, no sharp distinction between the peoples who have only their own memory at their disposal and those who are able to externalise their thoughts on paper; there are many kinds of mnemotechnical aids, and although letters and numbers may be the most consequential ones, they are not the only ones.

This brings me to a related but much less theorised field, namely music. The enormous complexity characterising Beethoven’s and Mahler’s symphonies would have been impossible, had the composers not lived in a society which for centuries had developed an accurate system of writing music, that is notation. Harmony is much rarer in societies without notes than in societies with them. And if one is able to read music, one can play music never heard. The parallel to writing and numbers is obvious: The statement is externalised and frozen, separated from the person who originated it. It can be appreciated in an unchanged manner (externally – interpretations always change) anywhere and any time.

Let me finally mention a phenomenon which will be discussed from a different point of view in the next chapter: Nationalism would have been impossible without writing. In one of the most widely quoted books about the growth of national identities, Benedict Anderson (1983) shows that printing was a crucial condition for the emergence of nationalist thought and national identification. Before the advent of printing, books were expensive and rarely seen in private homes. In Europe, besides, most books were written in Latin. When books gradually became cheaper in the second half of the 15th century, new markets for books which were aimed at new audiences, quickly materialised: Travel writing became popular, likewise novels, essays and popular science. Since profits were important to the printers (who often were also publishers), the books were increasingly published in vernacular languages. Thereby the national languages were standardised, and people living in Hamburg could read, verbatim, the same texts as people in Munich. The broad standardisation of culture represented in nationalism would not have been possible without a modern mass medium such as the printed book (and, later, the newspaper). Thus it may be said that writing has not only influenced thought about the world, but also thought about who we are. It has made it technologically possible to imagine that one belongs to the same people as millions of other persons whom one will never meet.

Further reading

Douglas, Mary (1966) Purity and Danger…. London
Goody, Jack (1977) The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1977.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1966 [1962]) The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Savage Mind

…continued from yesterday

The other indispensable book about classification and society is Lévi-Strauss’s masterpiece La pensée sauvage (1962, The Savage Mind, 1966). Like Douglas, Lévi-Strauss is inspired by Durkheim and Mauss, but he also wishes to disprove Lévy-Bruhl’s ideas about ‘pre-logical thought’ once and for all. However, already in the first chapter, it becomes apparent that Lévi-Strauss is closer to his predecessor than one might have expected.

The main topic of The Savage Mind is totemism. This enigmatic phenomenon has been the subject of much anthropological theory and speculation for more than a hundred years. Totemism may be defined as a form of classification whereby individuals or groups (which may be clans) have a special, often mythically based relationship to certain aspects of nature – usually animals or plants, but it could also be, for example, mountain formations or events like thunderstorms. Groups or persons have certain commitments towards their totem; it may be forbidden to eat it, the totem may give protection, in many cases the groups are named after their totem, and sometimes they identify with it (members of the eagle clan are brave and have a lofty character). In traditional societies, totemism is especially widespread in the Americas, in Oceania and Africa. A great number of competing interpretations of totemism had been proposed before Lévi-Strauss: The Scottish lawyer MacLennan, the first to develop a theory of totemism (in 1869), saw it simply as a form of primitive religion, but it later became more common to see it in a more utilitarian light: Totemic animals and plants were respected because they were economically useful. This was Malinowski’s view.

Departing radically from such views, Lévi-Strauss developed a theory of totemism seeing it as a form of classification encompassing both natural and social dimensions, thereby defining it as part of the knowledge system of a society, and as far from being a functional result of some economic adaptation. Lévi-Strauss claims indebtedness to Radcliffe-Brown, but in fact, his theory was entirely original. Totemic animals are respected not because they are good to eat, but because they are good to think (bons à penser). The natural series of totems at the disposal of a tribe is related to the social series of clans or other internal groupings in such a way that the relationships between the totems correspond metaphorically to the relationships between the social groups. Totemism thereby bridges the gap between nature and culture, deepening the knowledge about both in the process.

‘The savage mind’, or undomesticated thinking (which might have been a better English title), is thus not there in order to be useful or functional (or even aesthetically pleasing), but in order to be thought. In the chapter ‘The science of the concrete’, which introduces the topic of the book, this is made clear. Here, Lévi-Strauss develops his famous distinction between le bricoleur and l’ingenieur, between bricolage (associational, nonlinear thought) and ‘engineering’ (logical thinking) as two styles of thought which he links with traditional and modern societies, respectively. Unlike what many had argued before, including Lévy-Bruhl, there was no qualitative difference between ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ thought. The difference consisted in the raw material they had at their disposal. While the modern ‘engineer’ builds abstractions upon abstractions (writing, numbers, geometrical drawings), the traditional ‘bricoleur’ creates abstractions with the aid of physical objects he is able to observe directly (animals, plants, rocks, rivers…). Whereas the modern person has become dependent on writing as a ‘crutch for thought’, his opposite number in a traditional society uses whatever is at hand for cognitive assistance. The French word bricoleur can be translated as a jack-of-all-trades, an imaginative improviser who creates new objects by combining old ones which happen to be close at hand.

In order to illustrate the contrast between the two thought styles, Lévi-Strauss speaks of music and poetry as modern cultural phenomena where ‘the undomesticated’ property of the mind can still be glimpsed.

Although the book is introduced with an apparently sharp contrast between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and although cultural difference is discussed in every subsequent chapter, the aim of The Savage Mind is to show that humans think alike everywhere, even if their thoughts are expressed differently. Science, which, unlike ‘the science of the concrete’, distinguishes sharply between the perceptible (le sensible) and that which can be understood in abstract terms (l’intelligible), thus becomes a special case of something much more general, namely undomesticated thought. But it then also becomes clear that the distance between Lévi-Strauss and Lévy-Bruhl is much less than usually assumed. Like his famous successor, Lévy-Bruhl also sees pre-logical thought as the most fundamental style of thought, and logical thought as an embellishment or a special case.

 

Thought and Anthropology

Thought

In a previous post, it was mentioned that anthropology is concerned with that which takes place between people, not with their innermost feelings and thoughts. How can it then be that this chapter is going to be about… thought? The answer is not simple. It may justly be said that thought has an important social aspect; in different societies, the inhabitants think differently because of differences in the circumstances of learning, different experiences etc. At the same time, thought has an undeniable private and personal dimension, which cannot be studied directly with the methods available to anthropologists.Fortunately, thoughts are usually expressed in social life, for example when people say what they think or express it through their acts, in rituals and other public performances. Therefore, thought can be explored, if often obliquely, through the field methods available to anthropology – participant observation, questions and answers, and common curiosity.

The rationality debate

Studies of thought and modes of reasoning have been central in the history of anthropology from the nineteenth century to the present day. The most famous (and possibly most voluminous) anthropological work from the years before the fieldwork revolution was James Frazer’s twelve-volume The Golden Bough (1890/1912), a comparative work about myth, religion and cosmologies among virtually all the peoples the author had heard about. Frazer shared the evolutionist views of his contemporaries and had little faith in the ability of ‘savages’ to think logically and rationally. A younger contemporary of Frazer, the philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, was less impressive in his use of empirical materials, but as a compensation, he was more analytically lucid than Frazer. Lévy-Bruhl described traditional peoples as representatives of what he spoke of, in an unfortunate turn of phrase, as a ‘pre-logical mode of thought’. However, Lévy-Bruhl emphasised that the term ‘pre-logical’ did not necessarily refer to a developmental or evolutionary line of progress, but rather that the unhampered, metaphorical and symbol-laden way of thinking he associated with traditional peoples was more fundamental, and logically prior to, logical thought. Contemporary moderns may have retained their ability to think in a ‘pre-logical’ way, but a logical rationality has been superimposed on it, as it were. Lévy-Bruhl was criticised sharply by several of his contemporaries, who pointed out that the empirical foundation for his lofty generalisations was weak to say the least. However, it would nonetheless be Lévy-Bruhl’s books from the years around the First World War that set the stage for one of the most exciting theoretical debates in anthropology, where contributors from several academic fields have discussed (and still do) to what degree there are fundamental differences in thought styles between peoples, and conversely, to what extent it may be said that a common human rationality exists.

One of the first to criticise Lévy-Bruhl on an empirical basis was Evans-Pritchard. In the 1930s, he had several lengthy periods of fieldwork in the Sudan. His Nuer research has already been mentioned, but his 1937 book about the Azande is no less important – some would argue that it is much more important – than The Nuer. Whereas Evans-Pritchard’s first Nuer monograph dealt with politics, ecology and kinship, Witchcraft, Magic and Oracles Among the Azande is a book about the system of knowledge and belief in a traditional people, and as such, it was one of the first of its kind. One would in fact have to wait for Kluckhohn’s Navaho Witchcraft (1944) for another study of comparable depth.

The Azande live right in the middle of the African continent, only a few hundred kilometres south of the Nuer; but in terms of culture and social organisation, they are very different from the nomadic peoples to the north. They are sedentary crop growers, politically relatively centralised with aristocratic clans and princes. At the time of Evans-Pritchard’s research, they had been incorporated into the British empire, and the power of the traditional rulers had been reduced considerably.

The Zande belief in withchraft, and their use of various remedies to control it, are in the foreground of Evans-Pritchard’s book. Witchcraft, as it is defined in anthropology, is distinguished from magic in that it is an invisible force. Accordingly, it is difficult to decide who is responsible when someone is struck by witchcraft. Magic is, on the contrary, the result of rites and technologies which are known, and one may consult recognised magicians for assistance with one’s problems. In societies where witchcraft is assumed to exist, it is thus necessary to develop methods to expose the witches. When a Zande experiences a ‘mishap’ (Evans-Pritchard’s term), he is likely to blame witchcraft for it, and he may begin to suspect people he believes has a reason to want to harm him. (It stands to reason that like other peoples who are concerned with witchcraft, the Azande may be said to fit Benedict’s ‘paranoid’ cultural type fairly well.)

If a Zande walks on the forest path, stumbles and hurts himself, only to discover that the wound won’t heal, he blames witchcraft. If one objects that occasional stumbling is normal, he might respond that yes, it is normal, but I walk this path every day and have never stumbled before, and besides, wounds normally begin to heal after a few days. When a group of Azande sit under an elevated granary on poles (to protect the cereals against wild animals), which suddenly collapses and hurts them badly, the immediate cause is that termites have slowly perforated the poles until they were no longer capable of keeping the granary stable. But the Azande will say that it was extremely unlikely that they should sit beneath their granary just as it fell, and thus witchcraft had to be involved somehow. Deaths among Azande are always caused by witchcraft, Evans-Pritchard reports; disease is usually caused by it.

The Azande have at their disposal a range of techniques enabling them to explore whether or not a suspect is actually a witch. (The term witch is, in anthropological usage, gender neutral.) Most commonly, they consult so-called oracles, that is spiritual beings who talk to them through mediums. One popular medium is a kind of sounding board, and there are others, but the most expensive and famous is the poison oracle. To make it communicate, one needs a strong plant-derived poison and a chicken. The chicken is fed the poison, and the oracle is asked whether a certain person is a witch or not. If the chicken dies, the answer is yes; if it survives, the accused is innocent.

In the old days, Evans-Pritchard says, witches were regularly executed. Under the ‘indirect rule’ of the British, implemented from the early 20th century, the princely power was reduced, and judicial power was transferred to the colonial courts of law. Therefore, Evans-Pritchard himself never witnessed executions of witches. In his time, many in fact believed that the very witchcraft institution would gradually disappear thanks to ‘progress’.

The oracles were not infallible. When a witch was dead, one would cut their belly open to establish whether it contained a certain ‘witchcraft substance’, described as a dark lump of flesh. If a witch had been convicted and killed, and no such substance could subsequently be found, the relatives of the dead person could demand compensation.

Evans-Pritchard describes the witchcraft institution in a sober and morally neutral way, skilfully showing how the Azande think and act rationally and logically, given their cultural context. If one were to ask an educated Zande if it might not be the case that bacteria, not witchcraft, made him ill, he might respond that yes, of course, but this so-called explanation said nothing about the reason for his illness right now: the bacteria were around continuously, so why wasn’t his neighbour ill, and why didn’t the illness occur last year? The logic is, as we see, impeccable. Unlike medical science, the witchcraft institution offers answers to the pressing questions ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why now?’.

The book on witchcraft is a remarkable read, and it has rightly been praised as one of the few books that set an agenda for research and discussion which lasted more than half a century after its publication. The book offers rare, deep insights into the knowledge system of a traditional people, and shows how it is coherent, gives meaning to the world, and explains unusual events. Had Evans-Pritchard been ideologically bolder, he might have compared the institution of witchcraft with religions such as Christianity.

The book also shows how the witchcraft institution is functional in the sense that is socially integrative. Usually, the people accused of witchcraft belong to politically weak lineages (nobody would dream of accusing a prince), and he points out that the institution functions as a security valve by channeling discontent and frustrations away from the social order (which would have been exceedingly difficult to change anyway) towards individuals who become scapegoats. Much of the later literature on witchcraft in Africa, especially that published in the 1950s, is purely structural-functionalist, and strongly emphasises that those who are accused of witchcraft are often women, who, in virilocal societies are outsiders without strong political support locally. Evans-Pritchard offers a richer picture, supplementing the functional analysis with a vivid description of local life-worlds.

Unfortunately, many of those who have never read the book itself have heard about it through secondary sources, and therefore believe that it is a condescending, functionalistic description of a primitive people that believes in phenomena that do not exist. A main culprit in creating this distorted view of the book is the philosopher Peter Winch. In 1958, he published the very challenging book The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy, where Evans-Pritchard appears as one of his main opponents. Winch refers to a number of intermittent remarks in the Azande book, where the anthropologist expresses the view that witches obviously do not exist. In an appendix to the book, Evans-Pritchard distinguishes between three kinds of knowledge: Mystical knowledge based on the belief in invisible and unverifiable forces; commonsensical knowledge based on everyday experience; and scientific knowledge based on the tenets of logic and the experimental method. The middle, quantitatively largest category is common to Azande and Englishmen; the latter exists only in modern societies, whereas the first category is typical of societies where one believes in witchcraft.

Winch argues that the two systems of knowledge – the English one and that of the Azande – cannot be ranked in this way; they can in fact not be ranked at all. All knowledge is socially produced, he continues; and mentions the widespread ‘superstitious’ belief in meteorology as a modern equivalent to Zande witchcraft beliefs. In other words, Winch regards scientific knowledge as a kind of culturally produced knowledge on a par with other forms of knowledge.

The criticism of Evans-Pritchard is not based on fabricated evidence, but as I have shown, it does not do justice to his pioneering, and largely non-judgemental exposition of a non-Western knowledge system.

Be this as it may, Winch’s book gave the impetus to a broad debate about rationality and relativism. It would give the initial inspiration for several books, dissertations and conferences in the 1960s and later. Both anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers contributed.

The criticism against Evans-Pritchard contains several independent questions, at least three. The first and second concern methodological possibilites and limitations. The third concerns the nature of knowledge and is anthropological in a philosophical sense.

Firstly: Is it possible to translate from one system of knowledge to another without distorting it by introducing concepts initially alien to that ‘other’ world of representations?

Secondly: Does a context-independent or neutral language exist to describe systems of knowledge?

Thirdly: Do all humans reason in fundamentally the same way?

There are, perhaps, no final answers to any of these questions, and yet (or perhaps therefore) they remain important. We should keep in mind here that Evans-Pritchard himself criticised Lévy-Bruhl’s dichotomy between logical and pre-logical thought, and emphasised time and again that the Azande were just as rational as Westerners, but that they reasoned logically and rationally from premises which were, at the end of the day, erroneous when it came to witchcraft. Winch’s question was whether general, unquestionable criteria exist to evaluate the premises or axioms, and he replies that this is not the case – since the axioms themselves are socially created and therefore not true in an absolute, ahistorical sense.

It should be noted here that a research area which has grown rapidly since the 1980s is the so-called STS field, that is the sociological study of technology and science. In this research, Western science and technology are studied as cultural products, and most of its practitioners adhere to the so-called symmetry principle, which entails that the same terminology and the same methods of analysis should be used for failures as for successes; in other words, that what we are doing is looking at science as a social fact, not as truth or falsity. Similarly, most anthropologists would argue that our task consists in making sense of ‘the others’, not judging whether they are right or wrong.

Classification and pollution

Unfortunately, it is necessary to leave the fascinating controversies about rationality and the rich anthropological research tradition dealing with witchcraft here. Another, no less interesting, way of approaching other knowledges and thought systems, points the searchlight towards classification. All peoples are aware that different things and persons exist in the world, but they subdivide them in different, locally defined ways.

Already in 1903, Durkheim and Mauss published a book about primitive classification, which was to a great extent based on ethnography from Australia. They there argued that there existed a connection between the classification of natural phenomena and the social order. This connection has been explored by later generations of scholars, but historically, there has been a difference here between European social anthropology and North American cultural anthropology. The latter tradition is generally less sociologically oriented than the former, and often explores symbolic systems as autonomous entities, without connecting them systematically to social conditions. Geertz once wrote that whereas society was integrated in a ‘causal-functional way’, culture was integrated in a ‘logico-meaningful way’, and could thus be studied independently of the social. In social anthropology (and, in all fairness, to many American anthropologists), such a delineation is unsatisfactory, since a main preoccupation in this tradition consists in understanding symbolic worlds through their relation to social organisation. Power, politics and technology inevitably interact with knowledge production in a society.

Of the many books about classification and society that have been published since Durkheim and Mauss, two have been especially influential. Researchers and students continue to return to them, and although both were initially published in the 1960s, they do not appear dated even today.

Mary Douglas studied under Evans-Pritchard, and carried out fieldwork among the Lele in Kasai (southern Congo, then Belgian Congo) in the 1950s. She published a monograph about the Lele, but she is far better known for her later theoretical contributions. Especially Purity and Danger (1966) has exerted an almost unparalleled influence on anthropological research dealing with thought and social life.

In this book, Douglas combines influences from her native British structural functionalism and French structuralism, which she became familiar with early on, partly due to her fieldwork in a part of Africa where most of the researchers were French. The main argument is inspired by Durkheim and Mauss, and states that classification of nature and the body reflects society’s ideology about itself. However, her main interest consists in accounting for pollution, classificatory impurities and their results, and one of the central chapters of the book is devoted to a discussion of food prohibitions in the Old Testament. Animals which do not ‘fit in’ are deemed unfit for human consumption, and include, among others, maritime animals without fins and, famously, the pig. The pig has cloven hoofs but does not chew the cud, and there is no category available for this kind of animal. This is what makes it polluting.

Douglas’ theory is as far removed as conceivable from Marvin Harris’ interpretation of sacred cows, and indeed, Harris has argued that the impurity of the pig in West Asia is caused by objective factors, notably the disase-inducing germs which can be present in badly cooked pork. Douglas’ views on this kind of explanation are of the same kind as Lévi-Strauss’ views on Malinowski. According to Lévi-Strauss, the practically oriented Malinowski saw culture as nothing more than ‘a gigantic metaphor for the digestive system’.

The connection between the order of society and the order of classificatory systems is crucial to Douglas’ theory. Among other things, she refers to holy men and women in Hinduism and Christianity, who invert dominant perceptions of pure and impure in order to highlight the otherworldly character of their lives. She mentions a Christian saint who is said to have drunk pus from an infected wound since personal cleanliness is incompatible with the status of the holy woman; and Indian sadhus are famous for their transgressive practices, such as drinking from human skulls, eating rotten food, sleeping on spiked mats and so on.

Phenomena that do not fit in, anomalies, must be taken care of ideologically lest they pollute the entire classificatory system. If this is not done efficiently, they threaten the order of society. There has to be order in nature, just as there is order in society. Douglas’ most famous anomaly is taken from her Lele ethnography, namely the African pangolin. This original forest animal is a mammal, but it has scales like a fish and gives birth to only one or two offspring, just like a human. The Lele have circumscribed the pangolin with a great number of rules and prohibitions to keep it under control; it can be eaten, but only under very special circumstances, and one is usually well advised to avoid close contact with it.

A subgroup of anomalies are the phenomena known as matter out of place, that is objects, actions or ideas which appear in the ‘wrong’ context. The typical example is a human hair, usually far from unaesthetic when it grows out of a head, but repulsive if it floats in a bowl of soup.

Douglas does not write about humour, but one must be allowed to point out that virtually everything that is funny belongs to the same category as the hair floating in the soup: jokes nearly always derive their punchline from wrong contextualisation. Perhaps that is why Geertz once wrote that understanding a different culture is like understanding a joke. When one is able to laugh at the natives’ jokes, one has internalised local norms about correct and wrong contextualisation. This indicates that one has understood a great deal.

Douglas has been criticised for placing too much emphasis on integration in her analyses. Just as Geertz’ concept of culture seems to presuppose that all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of culture fall perfectly into place, Douglas assumes that both society and knowledge systems are ordered and fit together.

On the other hand, one should not rule out the possibility that she may be right. Classificatory systems change – there are many secularised Jews and Muslims who eat pork – and there is clearly a greater variation and more direct contestation, especially in complex societies, than Douglas is prepared to admit. But this very variation also seems to confirm the validity of Douglas’ model. When university educated North European Marxist-Leninists took manual jobs in the 1970s, loyal to the principle of self-proletarianisation, they turned dominant classifications on their head in their attempt to change the very ideological foundations of society. In a racially segregated kind of society as the American South, few actions are more radical, both politically and in terms of classification, than to marry across the colour line. Both these examples show that conscious transgressions serve to confirm the essential validity of the dominant mode of classification.

Douglas’ ideas about matter out of place, anomalies, pollution and the analogies between the body, nature and society, have been exceptionally productive. The next chapter will briefly indicate how some of these ideas may be transposed to studies of multiethnic societies, just to illustrate their fruitfulness.

 

 

 

The uniqueness of anthropology

…continued from yesterday
Antropology is an intellectually challenging, theoretically ambitious subject which tries to achieve an understanding of culture, society and humanity through detailed studies of local life, supplemented by comparison. Many are attracted to it for personal reasons: they may have grown up in a culturally foreign environment, or they are simply fascinated by faraway places, or they are engaged in minority rights issues – immigrants, indigenous groups or other minorities, as the case might be – or they might even have fallen in love with a Mexican village or an African man. But as a profession and as a science, anthropology has grander ambitions than offering keys to individual self-understanding, or bringing travel stories or political tracts to the people. At the deepest level, anthropology raises philosophical questions which it tries to respond to by exploring human lives under different conditions. At a slightly less lofty level, it may be said that the task of anthropology is to create astonishment, to show that the world is both richer and more complex than it is usually assumed to be.

To simplify somewhat, one may say that anthropology primarily offers two kinds of insight: First, the discipline produces knowledge about the actual cultural variation in the world; studies may deal with, say, the role of caste and wealth in Indian village life, technology among highland people in New Guinea, religion in Southern Africa, food habits in Northern Norway, the political importance of kinship in the Middle East, or notions about gender in the Amazon basin. Although most anthropologists are specialists on one or two regions, it is necessary to be knowledgeable about global cultural variation in order to be able to say anything interesting about one’s region, topic or people.

Secondly, anthropology offers methods and theoretical perspectives enabling the practitioner to explore, compare and understand these varied expressions of the human condition. In other words, the subject offers both things to think about and things to think with.

But anthropology is not just a toolbox; it is also a craft which teaches the novice how to obtain a certain kind of knowledge and what this knowledge might say something about. And just as a carpenter can specialise in either furniture or buildings, and one journalist may cover fluctuations in the stockmarket while another deals with royal scandals, the craft of anthropology can be used for a lot of different things. Like carpenters or journalists, all anthropologists share a set of professional skills.

Some newcomers to the subject are flabbergasted at its theoretical character, and some see it as deeply ironic that a subject which claims to make sense of the life-worlds of ordinary people can be so difficult to read. Now, it must be interjected that many anthropological texts are beautifully written, but it is also true that many of them are tough and convoluted. Anthropology insists on being analytical and theoretical, and as a consequence, it can often feel both inaccessible and aven alienating. (Since its contents are so important and – arguably – fascinating, this only indicates that there is a great need for good popularisations of anthropology.)
Anthropology is not alone in studying society and culture academically. Sociology descibes and accounts for social life, especially in modern societies, in great breadth and depth. Political science deals with politics at all levels, from the municipal to the global. Psychology studies the mental life of humans by means of scientific and interpretive methods, and human geography looks at economic and social processes in a transnational perspective. Finally, there is the recent subject, controversial but popular among students and the public, of cultural studies, which can be described as an amalgamation of cultural sociology, history of ideas, literary studies and anthropology. (Evil tongues describe it as ‘anthropology without the pain’, that is without field research and meticulous analysis.) In other words, there is a considerable overlap between the social sciences, and it may well be argued that the disciplinary boundaries are to some extent artificial. The social sciences represent some of the same interests and try to respond to some of the same questions, although there are also differences.

Moreover, anthropology also has much in common with humanities such as literary studies and history; philosophy has always provided intellectual input for anthropology, and there is a productive, passionately debated frontier area towards biology.

A generation or so ago, anthropology still concentrated almost exclusively on detailed studies of local life in traditional societies, and ethnographic fieldwork was its main – in some cases its sole – method. The situation is more complex now, because anthropologists now study all kinds of societies and also because the methodological repertoire has become more varied. This book consists in its entirety in a long answer to the question ‘What is anthropology?’, but for now, we might say that it is the comparative study of culture and society, with a focus on local life. Put differently, anthropology distinguishes itself from other lines of enquiry by insisting that social reality is first and foremost created through relationships between persons and the groups they belong to. A currently fashionable concept such as globalisation, for example, has no meaning to an anthropologist unless it can be studied through actual persons, their relationship to each other and to a larger surrounding world. When this level of the ‘nitty-gritty’ is established, it is possible to explore the linkages between the locally lived world and large-scale phenomena (such as global capitalism or the state). But it is only when an anthropologist has spent enough time crawling on all fours, as it were, studying the world through a magnifying-glass, that she is ready to enter the helicopter in order to obtain an overview.

Anthropology means, translated literally from ancient Greek, the study of humanity. As already indicated, anthropologists do not have a monopoly here. Besides, there are other anthropologies than the one described in this book. Philosophical anthropology raises fundamental questions concerning the human condition. Physical anthropology is the study of human pre-history and evolution. (For some time, physical anthropology also included the study of ‘races’. They are no longer scientifically interesting since genetics has disproven their existence, but in social and cultural anthropology, race may still be interesting as a social construction, because it remains important in many ideologies that people live by.) Moreover, a distinction, admittedly a fuzzy one, is sometimes drawn between cultural and social anthropology. Cultural anthropology is the term used in the USA (and some other countries), while social anthropology traces its origins to Britain and, to some extent, France. Historically, there have been certain differences between these traditions – social anthropology has its foundation in sociological theory, while cultural anthropology is more broadly based – but the distinction has become sufficiently blurred not to be bothered with here. In the following, the distinction between social and cultural anthropology will only be used when it is necessary to highlight the specificity of North American or European anthropology.

As a university discipline, anthropology is not a very old subject – it has been taught for about a hundred years – but it has raised questions which have been formulated in different guises since antiquity: Are the differences between peoples inborn or learnt? Why are there so many languages, and how different are they really? Do all religions have something in common? Which forms of governance exist, and how do they work? Is it possible to rank societies on a ladder according to their level of development? What is it that all humans have in common? And – perhaps most importantly: What kind of creatures are humans; aggressive animals, social animals, religious animals or are they, perhaps, the only self-defining animals on the planet?

Every thinking person has an opinion on these matters. Some of them can hardly be answered once and for all, but they can at least be asked in an accurate and informed way. It is the goal of anthropology to establish as detailed knowledge as possible about varied forms of human life, and to develop a conceptual apparatus making it possible to compare them. This in turn enables us to understand both differences and similarities between the many different ways of being human. In spite of the enormous variations anthropologists document, the very existence of the discipline proves beyond doubt that it is possible to communicate fruitfully and intelligibly between them. Had it been impossible to understand culturally remote peoples, anthropology as such would have been impossible. And nobody who practises anthropology believes that this is impossible (although few believe that it is possible to understand everything). On the contrary, different societies are made to shed light on each other through comparison.

The great enigma of anthropology can be phrased like this: All over the world, humans are born with the same cognitive and physical apparatus, and yet they grow into distinctly different persons and groups, with different societal types, beliefs, technologies, languages and notions about the good life. Differences in innate endowments vary within each group and not between them, so that musicality, intelligence, intuition and other qualities which vary from person to person, are quite evenly distributed globally. It is not the case that Africans are ‘born with rhythm’, or that Northeners are ‘innately cold and introverted’. To the extent that such differences exist, they are not inborn. On the other hand, it is true that particular social milieux stimulate inborn potentials for rhythmicity, while others encourage the ability to think abstractly. Mozart, a man filled to the brim with musical talent, would hardly have become the world’s greatest composer if he, that is a person with the same genetic code as Mozart, had been born in Greenland. Perhaps he would only have become a bad hunter (because of his famous impatience).

Put differently, and paraphrasing the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, all humans are born with the potential to live thousands of different lives, yet we end up having lived only one. One of the central tasks of anthropology consists in giving accounts of some of the other lives we could have led.