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Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days 
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Post Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days


Talk about Chapter 5 in this thread. ::121




Tue Jun 27, 2006 12:49 am
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
Notes...
1. Too many agents: competition for rehearsal space
I'm not to sure about the state of some of the sources Dennett has drawn from for his discussion in this section. So far as I know, animistic theories of the development of religion fell out of favor ages ago. Another dubious instance is the quote on pp. 117-118: "Every now and then rain dances were rewarded by rain." So far as I know, rain dances were always rewarded with rain for the simple reason that the participants in the dances didn't stop -- sometimes going on, in shifts, for weeks at a time -- until it rained. That right there should be a red flag. It suggests that rain dances are something other than a method for effecting nature. It's far more likely that there's a social function at root in rain dances, and it's only the assumption that the participants are childishly naive that prevented the animistic theorists from considering the possibility that the participants were aware of the social function. In part, that fallacy may arise from having taken avowed motives at face value: the natives say they're attempting to make rain, so that must be what they're really doing. But that isn't necessarily so, and if we don't assume that the people around us are always completely upfront about their intentions, why should we assume the same of "primitives". Evans-Wentz has suggested that a lot of the mistaken theories of "primitive religion" (what Dennett calls "folk religion") derive from a kind of specious reasoning of the variety he terms "if I were a horse". "If I were a horse" works by looking at a sort of behavior that you yourself would presumably never do, isolating a particular (or apparent) differences between yourself and the person who does engage in that behavior, and then speculating as to what your motive would be if you were on the opposite side of the line. Sadly, Dennett seems to have implicitly taken that stance here, and is content to assume with the (much critiqued) anthropologists of the past that non-industrialized peoples habitually reason with the sort of fairy tale logic that we abandon early in our childhood. It's notable that Dennett makes a direct comparison between "our ancestors" and B.F. Skinner's pigeons. In doing so, he implies our (or at least his own) intellectual or cultural superiority. What evidence validates that assumption? If the answer is religion then Dennett has begged the question.

On p. 120 there appears to be a kind of naturalistic fallacy: "Clouds certainly don't look like agents with beliefs and desires, so it is no doubt natural to suppose that they are indeed inert and passive things being manipulated by hidden agents that do look like agents: rain gods and cloud gods and the like -- if only we could see them." Why would he suppose that its "natural" for a human, even one not benefitting from later cultural development, to make that sort of profound cognitive leap? What I'm suggesting here is that Dennett has glossed over some very important steps and some very important questions about the form belief has taken by invoking certain assumptions about primitive thought, assumptions that should not be allowed to pass without some consideration.

And really, the whole section is premised on the fallacy which reduces supernaturalism to a form of explanation. That formula is by no means proven, and anthropologists in recent decades have rejected the idea in favor of theories that more fully accord with the evidence of actual cultural studies.

Getting back to the functional side of Dennett's project, he provides an account on p. 120 of how an idea becomes "self-replicating". We may ask several questions of that account: a) Does rehearsal alone increase the probability that an idea will spontaneously recur in a person's thoughts or is more required? And at the same time, we may ask whether or not it's likely that an idea will actually get rehearsed without already making some sort of significant impact on the rehearser. It looks to me like mindless repitition is Dennett's way around considering the role that interpretation and meaning play in the adoption of an idea (see the thread on Appendix A). b) Is it enough to "review" and idea "idly" or must it be incorporated into a congnitive endeavor that rewards the use of the idea? Even if that isn't a requirement, is it likely that ideas would have routinely proliferated by idle review rather than successful exercise of some sort? And c), in either case, does this form of proliferation justify Dennett's use of the term "self-replicative power"? A great deal hinges on this, I think, since the purported "self-replicative power" of an idea is important to the genetic analogy being made here.

2. Gods as interested parties
Pp. 126-127 revive in modified form Freud's maxim that the gods are ancestors, specifically the Father, projected on the clouds. Dennett asks, "Why, though, do we humans so consistently focus our fantasies on our ancestors?" The best answer I can think of is, prove that we do. It may very well be that Dennett has taken a few apt examples and used them as the basis for a generalization that doesn't really hold true across the board. It doesn't help that he's repackaging the bias of a man who compared all folk religion to the symptoms of neurotics.

Speaking of bias, Dennett notes on p. 127 that "biologists are often accused of gene centrism", agreeing to the extent that "the process of natural selection itself doesn't require that all that valuable information move 'through the gene line'." I've added the italics there to point out an irony that Dennett himself may not have noted, mainly that he's only shifted the emphasis from genes to information. His meme argument is, ultimately, information centrist.

3. Getting the gods to speak to us
A potential problem running thoughout the chapter, and more fully articulated here, is the assumption that the earliest religions shared a notion of gods that was roughly congruous to ours. Dennett's assumption that all religions must deal with anthropomorphic gods removes from the field all alternatives without providing for the possibility that the actual origin of religions may stand among those alternatives. His definition may be working against him here, even if we accept its validity in the context of modern religions. We can't be certain that the idea of the anthropomorphic god is contemporaneous with the birth of religion -- Dennett is only certain because he's only interested in dealing with religions that center around anthropomorphic gods, and summarily excludes everything else from the category of religion. So, realistically speaking, is this really a critique of religion, or is it a critique of the idea of God?

I'm not convinced by Dennett's quotation (p. 133) from Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness..." to the effect that "in earlier times, there was no way of even suspecting that some event was utterly random; everything was presumed to mean something, if only we knew what." Dennett seems to take it on authority, but I don't see any way of demonstrating that premise.

As for the last section, 4. Shamans as hypnotists, I don't know that I can assess the claims there without going back and reading the bulk of sources that Dennett has cited. The best I can do for the moment is suppose, without any real evidence to that effect, that Dennett's sources aren't faulty, and that Dennett isn't misusing them somehow. So much the better for his argument, I suppose.




Mon Jul 17, 2006 6:54 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
There were a lot of interesting ideas in the chapter. I'm not sure about the validity his arguments, since they're all so speculative, but he provided plenty to think about.

Dennett's Too many agents hypothesis seemed plausible, when you consider how often people anthropomorphize various technological artifacts like cars and computers. A primitive society could readily imagine supernatural human-like agents behind the unpredictable world they experienced.

Once people believed that active agents were influencing the world, they'd start wondering what those agents cared about and how to influence their behavior. You can't prove any of that speculation, but it's a reasonable starting point for religion.

The Shamans as hypnotists section was less convincing, since its argument seemed kind of circular. While an individual who believed in the common religion might feel greater impact from a placebo effect, that doesn't explain what created the overall religious system in the first place.

Finally, the Memory-engineering devices discussion took a good stab at explaining rituals, a major component of how religion is practiced. I bought Dennett's idea that group rituals would help perpetuate the religious meme across generations.




Sat Aug 12, 2006 2:45 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
JulianTheApostate: Dennett's Too many agents hypothesis seemed plausible, when you consider how often people anthropomorphize various technological artifacts like cars and computers. A primitive society could readily imagine supernatural human-like agents behind the unpredictable world they experienced.

I just don't see much reason to suppose that "primitive" cultures would be more apt to assume agency on the part of a poorly understood thing. It isn't a fluid transition from recognizing that we half-jokingly anthropomorphize our cars to assuming that previous generations -- no matter how far removed -- earnestly attributed agency to the clouds. There's at least one structural or cultural step missing in there. It makes for a neat simplification of religious history to gloss over that step, but without some sort of clear evidence that primitive humans were more apt to buy into anthropomorphism as a genuine explanation of phenomenon, we run the risk of romanticizing that step of cultural development without shedding much light on what might actually have happened.

You can't prove any of that speculation, but it's a reasonable starting point for religion.

Reasonable in what sense? I think it's just another easy generalization, premised on the assumption that "primitive" peoples were intellectually inferior. If we take that speculation as the starting point for understanding religion, we might easily build a rather ornate explanation for the whole development of religion, only to realize later on that our premise is pretty shaky. In all actuality, we need not bother -- the antrhopologists and sociologist of the early 20th century already went through all of that on our behalf. This sort of speculation doesn't strike me as at all constructive of a genuine history of religion, and unless Dennett's line of reasoning can find some stronger form of evidential support, it stands a good chance of leading us down altogether the wrong path.

While an individual who believed in the common religion might feel greater impact from a placebo effect, that doesn't explain what created the overall religious system in the first place.

Agreed: that's a problem I also found with Dennett's reasoning in that section.

I bought Dennett's idea that group rituals would help perpetuate the religious meme across generations.

I thought the whole belief through repetition explanation was a little simplistic and unconvincing. But on the whole, I can't buy the explanation that depend on meme perpetuation until I see a better justification for the efficacy of the meme model as a way of explaining cultural phenomenon.




Mon Aug 14, 2006 4:40 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
People, whether primitive or modern, generally believe that there's a cause behind the world around them and their personal experiences. And that cause is often some variation of a human-like agent, because it's difficult to imagine an alternative. The scientific atheistic worldview is, from a historical perspective, a recent development, and obviously many people still don't accept it.

Neither Dennett or I are claiming that primitive people were intellectually inferior, though they clearly lacked the book-knowledge that we possess. An intelligent person in a primitive society could readily suspect human-like agency taking place behind the scenes, just as many intelligent people today believe in God.

Dennett's whole approach is predicated on the perspective of memes and evolutionary psychology. If you don't accept that premise (and many people who believe in evolution don't), you won't buy his reasoning.




Tue Aug 15, 2006 12:35 am
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
JulianTheApostate: People, whether primitive or modern, generally believe that there's a cause behind the world around them and their personal experiences.

That has nothing to do with the difference between scientific and supernatural explanation, though. Nor does it provide any sort of explanation for why primitive people would assume that the cause behind any given phenomenon was some sort of conscious agent. Primitive humans were surrounded by just as many simple cause effect relationships, and were bound to see that many things happened simply by virtue of simple effects. So a very central question -- and one that Dennett hasn't answered in a very satisfactory way -- is that of why they would assume that a hitherto unexplained phenomenon would be more explicable as the work of a conscious agent than as a natural event.

An intelligent person in a primitive society could readily suspect human-like agency taking place behind the scenes, just as many intelligent people today believe in God.

I think Dennett underestimates the sheer novelty of the idea of a supernatual agent. You hinted at it when you expressed doubt about his top-down explanation of subjects accepting the supernatural claims of their rulers. How do you convince a population of an idea that is so foreign. Comparison to the modern situation is insufficient in a number of ways, but particularly in that so much in our culture paves the way for grasping the concept of deity, even suggests it. So it might stand to reason that a person in the modern situation would brush up against enough suggestions and intimations that they could formulate and conceive the idea of a supernatural agent behind all phenomenon, even if that isn't an explicit part of their upbringing. We're all initiated in religious modes of thought, even if only by osmosis and inference. But for a primitive person, living in a culture lacking that battery of ideas, the advent of that idea seems unlikely at best.

The meme model that Dennett suggests may actually be somewhat useful in tracing the proliferation of that idea from its advent to its current profusion -- provided that we can arrive at some idea as to what form the initial idea took -- but it doesn't do much to explain the advent itself.

Dennett's whole approach is predicated on the perspective of memes and evolutionary psychology.

Yup. And as far as I can tell from what he's written here, his decision to predicate the idea on that approach was predicated on the assumption that it led to interesting results, saying nothing about the truth value of those results. In fact, I'd say there's a disparity between the exhortations of the first section -- proclaiming the need for a hard look at the facts and an earnest search for the truth -- and the very conjectural and mostly untestable propositions of later chapters.




Thu Aug 17, 2006 1:05 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
I don't see religious ideas as such a "novelty". As the human mind evolved and people became more self-conscience, people tried to come up with a coherent narrative that explained the mysteries, randomness, and suffering of their lives. Due to the limits of the human imagination, they assumed that there were other agents, similar to themselves but not seen, controlling things. Based on my knowledge of human psychology, that seems plausible.

From an evolutionary perspective, it doesn't make sense to ask for the fundamental cause of something. Instead, elaborate structures can arise from random fluctuations and survival of the fittest. If evolution can gives rise to an eye, why can't it give rise to religion?

Finally, Dennett probably believed in evolutionary psychology long before he attempted to apply it to religion. That's the foundation for his reasoning, just as Christian theologians start with the assumption of a Christian god. If you disagree with someone's intellectual starting point, it's hard to see past that, as I notice when I read Medieval philosophy that's fixated on various Biblical nonsense.




Thu Aug 17, 2006 11:12 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
JulianTheApostate: I don't see religious ideas as such a "novelty". As the human mind evolved and people became more self-conscience, people tried to come up with a coherent narrative that explained the mysteries, randomness, and suffering of their lives.

If that's an apt summation of what happened, even that in itself is a novelty. What evidence do we have that any other animal creates narratives that explain their own existence, the existence of the universe, or the presence of suffering? If you place it in the fuller biological context, it's as astonishing that we ask questions that presumably prompt religious speculation as it is that we've devised the answers we have.

But my reading on religious development leads me to believe that some of the questions we take as fundamental to religion are rather late developments in religious tradition.

Due to the limits of the human imagination, they assumed that there were other agents, similar to themselves but not seen, controlling things. Based on my knowledge of human psychology, that seems plausible.

It's plausible, perhaps, but it doesn't explain all that much. Even assuming certain limitations placed on human imagination, why settle on the conclusion that human-like agents are responsible for phenomenon? Why not some other similarly simple explanation? More to the point, why settle on an explanation that brings up so many obvious complications, that demands a particular kind of relationship?

But more to the point, Dennett is neglecting a great deal of anthropological and sociological work which suggests that aetiology was not the principle and initial purpose of religious conceptions -- in other words, that people didn't devise religion in order to explain phenomenon for which they lacked a proper science.

If evolution can gives rise to an eye, why can't it give rise to religion?

It can, and I personally have no problem with that explanation as the instrumental cause of religion. The problem that arises -- and the problem that Dennett initially alluded to, without stating that it was, in fact, the subject of his book -- is that of why religion, regardless of its instrumental cause, is or should be retained by rational creatures. And this is both a contemporary problem (which is how I suspect Dennett will present it at the end of the book) as well as a historical question -- in other words, presuming that there were rational humans in the past as well, how do we account for the persistence of religion. Genetic evolution could feasibly answer that question, provided that we find a genetic basis for religious conformity, but at present it doesn't give much of a handle on the instrumental cause of the persistence of religion among rational beings. Theologians have explained it by recourse to a number of explanations, ranging from the assertion that religious belief is ultimately rational, to the apposite claim that humans are intrinsically and at least partially arational, and are better off for being so. Dennett's taken up the meme model as a way of bypassing the question altogether. We don't have to think about why any particular rational being would buy into religion, he implies, because we can explain its survival and difussion statistically.

Finally, Dennett probably believed in evolutionary psychology long before he attempted to apply it to religion.

No doubt. I'm not arguing that he has adopted this argument in order to justify a prior belief. My understanding of it is that it's mostly just the confluence of two trains of thought. Dawkins, on the other hand, seems to have devised the meme model in part to bring religion and theism into the perview of evolutionary explanations, and that's a bias that I think it's important to consider any time someone attempts to build a criticism of religion on memetic grounds.

If you disagree with someone's intellectual starting point, it's hard to see past that, as I notice when I read Medieval philosophy that's fixated on various Biblical nonsense.

It's true. But I am willing to listen to Dennett's reasons for settling on that intellectual starting point. So far, I'm simple not impressed. In the body of the book itself, his reason is that it allows him to construct an interesting and elaborate explanation of religion, without any reference to whether or not that model is true. In Appendix A he gives a more elaborate explanation of his understanding of the meme and its importance as an explanatory tool. I have my problems with that explanation as well, not to mention Dawkins' original presentation of the idea, and I've lodged both of those ideas in another thread. My point here is that I've considered their grounds, as they've presented them -- in fact, I had never considered or studied the meme model until I read it in Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", where the idea was coined -- and I still find them unconvincing.

Ultimately, it's not a matter of "seeing past" any disagreement I might have with their "intellectual starting point". Dennett and Dawkins are constructing logical arguments; their conclusions must follow from their premises, and therefore depend on those premises for their logical validity. I find their premises to be dubious, and therefore am logically bound to distrust their conclusions.




Fri Aug 18, 2006 2:09 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
In my mind, the question "How did religion arise?" is closely related to the question "Why are so many people religious today?". Regarding the latter question, many people absorb the religion of their families and society. However, another factor is at play: religion satisfies some sort of psychological need. Otherwise, it wouldn't have become so widespread.

Many people aren't satisfied with the "Shit happens, and then you die" view of an atheist. They want a deeper meaning, and emotional meaning is generally tied with a sentient being, not a simple mechanical explanation.

It's true that Dennett has not, thus far in the book, classified religion as rational or irrational, or for that matter as a positive or negative influence. As a philosopher, he's not forming judgements of that sort. Instead, he's exploring how religion may have contributed to human fitness and how primitive societies may have devised and accepted religion. His speculations are at least as plausible as any others I've seen about the origins of religion.




Sat Aug 19, 2006 1:58 am
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
JulianTheApostate: However, another factor is at play: religion satisfies some sort of psychological need. Otherwise, it wouldn't have become so widespread.

I'd tend to agree. That said, it's easy to assume, based on casual observation or even direct questioning, what psychological needs are being satisfied. And for a genuine understanding of religion and its place in culture, it's important that we avoid drawing facile conclusions on that count.

Incidentally, I think Dennett's appeal to the meme model serves as an obstruction to -- or at least a distraction from -- attempting to understand what psychological imperative is being satisfied by religion. Reductionary means are enough to provide for that aspect in the meme explanation; Dennett goes so far as to make the process the result of semi-conscious repetition and nothing more. The question of why religion produces some measure of satisfaction in so many people drops from view.

They want a deeper meaning, and emotional meaning is generally tied with a sentient being, not a simple mechanical explanation.

I'm not convinced that this accounts for the origin of religion, though it may account for individual cases of affirmation. And without evidence, I don't see why anyone should be convinced of it. We, as a forum, insist on evidence for so much else -- and especially when we're talking about religious claims -- it would be odd to exempt this conjecture from the same demand.

It's true that Dennett has not, thus far in the book, classified religion as rational or irrational, or for that matter as a positive or negative influence. As a philosopher, he's not forming judgements of that sort.

You don't think that's what he's leading up to?

And I'm a little mystified that Dennett has been so insistent on labelling himself as a philosopher. Very little of what he's written about in the book so far has much to do with philosophy, either in subject matter or method. I suppose he recognizes that it would be disingenous to present himself as an evolutionary biologist, but by making so much of his official status as philosopher, he's obscured the fact that this book isn't really (yet) a philosophical argument.

His speculations are at least as plausible as any others I've seen about the origins of religion.

Except that a lot of his speculations have already been conjectured, tested, and dismissed by competant and qualified researchers. Dennett has either downplayed or is blind to the amount of scientific work that has been applied to the questions he's asked. It's ironic, really, because he's made a mandate of applying scientifically testable hypotheses to the history of religion, and here he is tripping up a well-worn path that he says doesn't exist.




Sat Aug 19, 2006 2:43 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
Anyway, I think I'll back off on this topic until a new point of view is presented. I've made my case, and I've attempted to explain the reasons behind it. Beyond that, I can't do much more.




Sat Aug 19, 2006 4:31 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
Saint Gasoline: Because they are not concerned with testing it.

Why would you assume that they're not concerned with testing it? Again, this isn't a case like that of prayer, where the religious believer's investment is minimal, and the potential return unlimited. The Native Americans are investing resources sufficient to bury them if they don't get sufficient return, so it would seem to me that it would be in their best interests to have some concern with whether or not their ritual actual does what it says it does. Even if there always is a return, if that return is guaranteed, then it's in their best interests to test the correlation simply because freeing up those resources will subject them to fewer problems.

Just as the rain dance began to develop a self-fulfilling structure to protect its claims from refutation...

Account for that process. How would a ritual of this sort develop a self-fulfilling structure? Presumably, during the stages prior to the development of that structure, the ritual would fail quite regularly. So with so much disconfirmation in the early stages, how would the ritual survive long enough to develop a structure that protects against disconfirmation? Or, to put a finer point on it, if the culture could maintain the ritual through the early stages, when so much went towards disconfirming it, why would it concern itself with shielding it from such disconfirmation?

(Little hint here: if the purpose of the ritual were not really to produce rain, then we'd no longer have to account for that stage when disconfirmation were a recurring problem.)

The fact that ekstasis is produced doesn't mean that this is the reason they perform the dance--rather, this is yet another "structure" that allowed the rain dance to persist as a method for producing rain. The self-fulfilling structure prevented it from being discarded by disconfirmation, and the ekstasis prevented it from being discarded by boredom or overwork.

I still don't think you understand the basic form of ekstasis. You don't go through ekstasis and then go back to whatever you were doing. Ekstasis is a form of total mental collapse and loss of personal identity from exhaustive fatigue. It's typically followed by a period of unconsciousness, and usually requires a period of recouperation. So it's entirely unlikely that ekstasis "prevented boredom or overwork" -- it is, itself, the product of overwork -- and there's almost no chance that the dancers went through ekstasis and then continued the dance afterwards. I don't see that ekstasis has any functional place in the dance save as its culmination and climax, and if we're to take seriously the contention that rain dances continue unabated until the actual advent of rain, then it follows that the two phenomenon occur more or less at the same time.

it is easy for us to say that it is obvious that the dance does not produce rain, but it is not so obvious to someone who has not taken a science class or learned about evaporation and so on.

The primitive society will not know the scientific models which explain rainfall, but that does not warrant the conclusion that they're ignorant as to the status of rain as a natural phenomenon. That's another mistake that was made frequently during the early period of antrhopology, and which was corrected as later anthropologists insisted on the application of a more rigorous scientific method to the field. As I pointed out in another thread, the primitive societies which build their religions around the symbols from their mode of life often have an extremely sophisticated understanding of the workings of the natural world -- they have to in order to survive. The mythological use of those symbols is usually a secondary layer that works in concert or in addition to their technical layer, not in place of. So it's just as likely that the Native Americans in question recognized rainfall as part of the cycle of seasons -- and why shouldn't they, since they recognized the role of seasons in other parts of their social mode?

they don't notice that the structure makes it impossible to "test" the truth of their claim for the simple reason that the ritual is not SUPPOSED to provide a test.

I think that they would notice. It doesn't take an industrialized mind to recognize that you can do any action until a desired result occurs, and nothing that we know about the pre-industrial mind would lead us to suspect that it would mistake that until as a cause. As of yet, I can see no way to explain how a self-fulfilling rain dance would develop and persist, save to assume that they cannot or simply don't want to question the ritual. Even if we assume that, we're faced with very serious and disconcerting questions as to why they cannot or don't want to. If they cannot, then we have to recognize them as developmentally different, and that raises all sorts of worrisome problems. If they simply don't want to, then why? What about that particular ritual makes them willing to expend so many material and personal resources without question.

An obvious answer to that last question, given our present discussion, is that the ekstasis makes them want to preserve the ritual. And once you've assumed that, you no longer need to insist on their unwillingness to question. They can still question the correlation between rain and dancing so long as the questioning does not interrupt the production of ekstasis.

So why would people waste their time praying when doing nothing would lead to the same outcomes? Because prayer also produces pleasant sensations...

Not also produces pleasant sensations. As I've tried to explain before, true ekstasis is not simple an intense feeling of pleasure. It can just as often be a horrific experience, and that's part of the experience that is preserved in ekstatic religions.

But I will agree that prayer as a ritual is reinforced by pleasant sensations. And those pleasant sensations are in direct relation to the underlying claim of prayer: that it allows the believer direct contact with God.

But we're never really going to agree on prayer, because you continuously fall back on the view that prayer is a form of confirmation by comparison. I say it isn't that at root -- it's a form of contact with God. Christian prayers can just as often contain no requests at all, only praise and thanks. In which case, the prayer offers no grounds for confirmation and disconfirmation. Prayer, ultimately, isn't a terribly good analogy to the rain dance ritual because they differ in so many respects.

This structure just makes it seem as if prayer works.

And I say that prayer rarely ever functions on a self-fulfilling structure -- even given the instances where the person does receive some benefit they requested in the prayer, there are a disproportionate number of examples where the prayer offers no basis for confirmation or disconfirmation, as with non-request oriented prayer or delayed benefit requests ("Now I lay me down to sleep...") which cannot be confirmed in this life. And what's notable about these instances is that belief persists despite the lack of confirmation. Shermer would argue that the strength of confirmation bias outweighs the instances of disconfirmation or uncertainty, but I'd say that it's equally explicable by assuming that confirmation plays almost no role in the persistence of that particular ritual -- it's requires so little investment, and is so well intergrated into their whole religious belief, that they need not question it at all, unless someone else imposes a Test situation on them.

I could argue that the fact that they will believe they have spoken to God regardless of the outcome after the prayer is evidence that they do not trust its efficacy and thus the prayer serves some other function, perhaps stress relief.

It's all about the claims. Very few Christians provide a testable situation with prayer. The claims they make for prayer is not that it will result in something tangible, but that is allows them to communicate with God. The Native Americans, on the other hand, are claiming a causal relationship with tangible effects in the world. There is literally no test for the efficacy of prayer unless you change the traditional claim into something it is not. There's a pretty easy test for the rain dance, and it's one that's likely to occur even if the practictioners don't deliberately make a test of it.

Clearly, such a thesis is silly when applied to prayer...

It's silly because the examples are not analagous.




Tue Sep 19, 2006 1:53 pm
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Post Reaching understanding
I think an important element regarding the Rain Dance is how it fits into the whole framework of dancer/dance/audience/nature/spirit.

Is the primary audience the "great spirit" who directs the rains or the community from which the dancer arises?

Is the primary purpose to conduce individual ekstasis within the dancer, or to bring dancer/community/nature/spirit into closer communion?

I don't know how to answer these questions without spending a quality amount of time within these communities...again, I think the anthropologist needs to "go native" in these cases and immerse themselves into the framework in order to make sense of the different elements, as well as their purpose and meanings.

Thus, discussion about "claims" requires an investment in personal experience: an immersion process. I think the same can be said for external observations regarding structures that either confirm or reject the purpose and meaning of a ritual.

I'm not certain that the scientific method precludes this sort of immersion process...but I think it patently obvious that any attempt to understand what these Rain Dances or Prayers mean to those engaging them, requires walking a few miles in their moccassins.

Now, Mad has made concerted efforts to show how the scientific method precludes the immersion method I propose. But if we want to understand just what it is we are talking about when we discuss Prayer and Raind Dances...aren't we forced to explore steps beyond the scientific method? Thus, understanding these issues requires something more.

What is the something more?






Tue Sep 19, 2006 2:42 pm
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Post Re: Reaching understanding
Dissident Heart: I don't know how to answer these questions without spending a quality amount of time within these communities...again, I think the anthropologist needs to "go native" in these cases and immerse themselves into the framework in order to make sense of the different elements, as well as their purpose and meanings.

Actually, I think that probably is the best way to answer these particular questions, for the simple fact that the natives are likely to be more forthwright, intentionally or not, if they can feel that they are not acting before an audience of strangers.

If that's all you've been suggesting all along, DH, it's a pretty uncontroversial point in the anthropological field, and I'd tend rather to agree with it. The best way to reduce distortions is to minimize the presence of abnormal factors, and a group of men in white lab coats with clipboards and calipers is normal to very few situations.

What I've been rejecting all along is the idea -- which I may very well have wrongly inferred -- that explicitly religious experience could be integrated into scientific method as though it were a part of scientific method. For example, that the experience of ekstasis could be treated by scientific method as it is treated by the worshipper. I don't think that's possible, as the religious experience is necessarily qualitative (even if it only interprets quantity as quality), while scientific method depends on our ability to describe all qualities as quantities. It brings us back to the question of what it can possibly mean, in scientific terms, to say that a given object is sacred. To insist that such claims be translated in terms amenable to scientific assessment is, more often than not, to distort them.

I'm not certain that the scientific method precludes this sort of immersion process...but I think it patently obvious that any attempt to understand what these Rain Dances or Prayers mean to those engaging them, requires walking a few miles in their moccassins.

I think that probably is the best way to understand what is implied by the claims. To that end, I think such experience is admissable to scientific method, though probably only for the purposes of determining the questions to be asked. I think far less likely that such immersive experiences will lend much to any exclusively scientific attempt to answer those questions. I'm open to suggestions as how to mediate that disjunction, but I don't, as yet, see any forthcoming.

What is the something more?

That's a question we can both ask, since part of my contention all along is that science on its own is incapable of assessing some of the claims most central to religion.




Tue Sep 19, 2006 11:19 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion, the Early Days
Mad, I have to disagree with you that the situation between modern prayer and rain dances is not analogous. If you think your critique of rain dancing applies, then it should also apply to most people's conception of prayer.

Quote:
The claims they make for prayer is not that it will result in something tangible, but that is allows them to communicate with God. The Native Americans, on the other hand, are claiming a causal relationship with tangible effects in the world.


Now, let's do a little semantic cleansing first. You keep wanting to use your definition of prayer. That's all fine and dandy. But I'm not talking about that kind of prayer. When I speak of prayer, I am referring to the type of prayer that many modern people practice, wherein they ask God for a certain outcome, be it the curing of a disease or the end of a certain ill-effect. To deny tha people make prayers that claim a CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP with tangible effects in the world is just silly. People make prayers all the time concerned with producing causal changes in the world around them. You have to acknowledge that this type of prayer is indeed commonly practiced. With that in mind, then, let's just assume that I am addressing THIS type of prayer, and not the type that you are trying to bring up.

So what are some features of this type of prayer? Well, for one, there appears to be no reason to suspect that it actually cures diseases or ends the problems that motivated it. There seems to be no connection between whispering sweet nothings and biological diseases, which are the results of bacteria, viruses, and so on. Not only that, but the prayer is not a "test" situaion. Should the disease wreak havok on someone, killing them, this is not taken to be disproof of prayer, because it can be rationalized in a number of ways, such as by saying it wasn't God's will, or that the person praying didn't "believe" it would really happen.

Why, then, doesn't this lead you to doubt the avowals of people who practice this form of prayer? They say that they pray in order to heal the sick or end terrible problems, yet the prayer has a self-fulfilling structure and it seems obvious that there is no connection between the two. Why don't you argue that this should lead you to think the people who practice this form of prayer are only avowing this falsely?

The reason you don't argue in this manner is because you know that these people are not falsely avowing that prayer works. They really believe it, even though there is no reason to believe it has any effects.

This situation is exactly analogous to the rain dance--both claim that there is a causal connection between the act and the desired consequences. Both have self-fulfilling structures that protect them from refutation. Both seem to have little or nothing to do with the consequences when examined from an outside perspective. Both have elaborate mythologies that back-up the claims of their avowals. And so on. If you want to argue that the avowals of natives are false, then you have to be prepared to argue that the avowals of people who believe in this type of prayer is false, and I think you'll find that your inferences are largely flawed.

Quote:
The primitive society will not know the scientific models which explain rainfall, but that does not warrant the conclusion that they're ignorant as to the status of rain as a natural phenomenon.


Of course this does not warrant that conclusion. What warrants that conclusion is the fact that they explicitly SAY that they believe that their rain dance can produce rain, and that they possess an elaborate mythology that says this as well. I am not saying these people are primitive and stupid--I see the same sort of flawed reasoning from modern cultures with an emphasis on causal prayer, so naturally this is not just a case of me labelling the primitive culture a inferior and silly.

Again, your "evidence" is not nearly strong enough to make us doubt that these people really believe that the rain dance producs rain. I honestly don't see how you could maintain this.




Wed Sep 20, 2006 1:19 pm
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