February 22, 2010

Stages in the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex: an overview

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Language and Myth, Monotheism, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , , , , , at 6:26 pm by Jeremy

[Click here to open pdf file: “Stages in the Tyranny of the Pfc” and view the table that accompanies this post.]

In this blog, I propose that the prefrontal cortex has created an imbalance within our human consciousness, gaining power over other aspects of our cognition.  I’ve called this situation a “tyranny.”  That’s a pretty dramatic word, and I’ve offered a detailed review of why I think it’s appropriate.

In this post, I’m going to trace a high-level overview of the historical stages I see in the pfc’s rise to power.  It will be much easier to follow this post if you click here to open a pdf file in another window, containing a table that summarizes what I’m describing.  If you can keep both windows open, you can follow what I’m describing more easily.

For each stage of the pfc’s rise to power, I’ll briefly describe the main human accomplishments and primary new values arising from that stage.  Also, I’ll touch on the changing view of the natural world.   Whenever you want to drill a little deeper, click on the section’s title (or the links in the pdf file) to get you to a blog post that describes the pfc-stage in some more detail.  I’ll be continually adding more detail on this blog, so keep posted.

Pfc1: Stirrings of Power

Stirrings of symbolic expression: female figurine from over 30,000 years ago

The pfc’s stirrings of power began with the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, around 200,000 years ago.  These ancestors of ours were all hunter-gatherers.  Basic tools and fire had already been mastered by previous Homo species (such as Homo erectus).  But Homo sapiens began a symbolic revolution which erupted around 30,000 years ago in Europe, comprising symbolic communication in the forms of art, myth, and fully developed language.[1] The prevailing metaphor of Nature was probably something like a “generous parent.”  Uniquely human values began developing, such as “parochial altruism” (defend your own tribe but fight others), “reciprocal generosity” and fairness.[2]

Pfc2: Ascendancy to Power

Specialization of skills: writing tablet from Mesopotamia, c. 3000 BCE

Roughly ten thousand years ago, in the Near East, some foragers stumbled on a new way of getting sustenance from the natural world and occasionally began to settle in one place.  Animals and plants began to be domesticated, evolving into forms that were more advantageous for humans and relied on human management for their survival.  Notions of property and land ownership arose.  Hierarchies and inequalities developed within a society, along with specialization of skills (including writing).  Massive organized projects, such as irrigation, began to take place.  Cities and empires soon followed.

New sets of values arose with these sweeping changes in human behavior.  Property ownership and hierarchies elevated the social values of wealth and power.  Patriarchy became a driving force, leading to increased gender inequality and the commoditization of women.  People’s identity began expanding beyond kin and tribe, to incorporate national identity.

The natural world was increasingly seen through the metaphor of an ancestor/divinity that needed to be worshipped and propitiated.  Nature could cause devastation as well as benefits to society.  Human activity was seen as integral to maintaining the order of the natural world.

Pfc3: The Coup

Saint Paul: Early Christianity merged Platonic and Judaic themes

In the Eastern Mediterranean, about 2,500 years ago, a unique notion first appeared: the idea of a completely abstract and eternal dimension in the universe and in each human psyche, which was utterly separate from the material world of normal experience.  Humans had always posited other-worldly spirits and gods with different physical dynamics than the mundane world.  But these spirits were conceived along a continuum of materiality.  Now, for the first time, the idea of a universal, eternal God with infinite powers arose, along with the parallel idea of an immaterial human soul existing utterly apart from the body.

Christianity merged the Platonic ideal of a soul with the Judaic notion of an infinite God to create the first coherent dualistic cosmology.  Islam absorbed both of these ideas into its doctrines.  Together, Christianity and Islam conquered large portions of the world and brought their dualism along with their military power.

For the first time, people identified themselves with universal values (such as salvation of the soul), which were seen as applying even to other groups who had no notion of these values.  Increasingly, mankind was viewed as separate from the natural world.  Following Genesis, Man was seen as having a God-given dominion over the rest of creation.

Pfc4: The Tyranny

Descartes: the natural world was increasingly seen as a soulless machine

In the 17th century, a Scientific Revolution erupted in Europe, leading to a closely linked Industrial Revolution, beginning a cycle of exponentially increasing technological change that continues to the present day.  Although the seeds of scientific thinking could be traced back to the 12th century (and even to ancient Greece), a radically different view of mankind’s relationship to the natural world caused a uniquely powerful positive feedback cycle in social and technological change.

Nature was increasingly seen as a soulless, material resource available for humanity’s consumption.  The natural world and the human being were both seen through the prism of a “machine” metaphor.

Multiple new values arose, that were seen to be universally applicable, derived from newly developed intellectual constructs, such as: liberty, reason, democracy, fascism, communism, capitalism.  These values all shared the underlying assumption that natural resources were freely available for human consumption, and differed in their proposed division of power and resources within human society.

[1] The precise timing of these developments continues to be fiercely debated.  The biggest open issue of all is the timing of language (anywhere from one million to one hundred thousand years ago), and whether a proto-language existed for a long time before modern language developed.

[2] Some of these values have been seen in modern chimpanzees and bonobos, but they are far more developed in humans.

February 4, 2010

Monotheism By Numbers?

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged , , , , , , , at 7:15 pm by Jeremy

Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia

By Jean Bottéro

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001

Elsewhere on this blog, I argue that dualism and monotheism have caused a profound change in our collective consciousness over the past two thousand years.  Underlying the monotheistic/dualistic thought pattern is the notion that two different dimensions exist: a worldly dimension of the body, and an eternal dimension of the soul.  If my argument is correct, then prior to the advent of Platonic dualism and Judeo-Christian monotheism, people around the world must have viewed their cosmos with blurrier distinctions, not conceiving of two utterly different dimensions.

Jean Bottéro’s Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia is an authoritative but accessible assessment of one of the major worldviews that existed before the advent of dualism and monotheism.  Bottéro is “one of the world’s foremost experts on Assyriology,” having studied it for over fifty years and the book certainly delivers on its title, reviewing Mesopotamian religion from the perspectives of religious sentiments, conceptual representations, and behaviors.

So, does Bottéro’s review support my position?  I think it does, especially when you compare some of the themes he describes in Mesopotamia to the contemporary religious worldview in Ancient Egypt.  Although these two civilizations come from very different traditions, it’s fascinating to see how some of the underlying structural aspects of their worldviews are at the same time so similar to each other, and so fundamentally different from the later monotheism of Christianity.

One of the intriguing dynamics shared by both Mesopotamia and Egypt was the tendency to pray to a particular god as if he or she were the only god, or at least the only god that mattered.  This is known either as “monolatry” (from the Greek “single worship”) or “henotheism” (from the Greek “one god”).  Bottéro describes it as “a profound tendency… to encapsulate all sacred potential into the particular divine personality whom [the Mesopotamians] were addressing at a given moment.” He gives a few examples:

Anu was ‘the prince of the gods,’ but so was Sîn.  The ‘Word’ of each god was ‘preponderant’ and ‘was to be taken above those of the other gods,’ who were subjected to it, ‘trembling.’  Each god was ‘the ruler of Heaven and Earth,’ ‘sublime throughout the universe,’ supreme and ‘unequaled’.

Over in Egypt, they were doing just the same thing.  Egyptian scholar Erik Hornung describes how, “in the act of worship, whether it be in prayer, hymn of praise, or ethical attachment and obligation, the Egyptians single out one god, who for them at that moment signifies everything.”[1]

At first sight, this seems like a form of proto-monotheism, but Bottéro takes pains to deny that, asserting that “contrary to what has sometimes been believed… a true monotheism could scarcely be born out of this religion, which assuredly never ceased to intelligently rationalize and organize its polytheism, and which, in truth… never departed from it.”

One of the crucial ways in which Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies – indeed the cosmologies of every historic polytheistic culture worldwide – differed from monotheism was their acceptance of the gods of other cultures.  This goes beyond the notion of religious tolerance.  It was inconceivable to either the Mesopotamians or Egyptians to question the existence of another region’s gods.  Gods presided over specific areas, so it was quite consistent with polytheistic beliefs to worship your own gods even while your neighbors – and perhaps your enemies – were worshiping theirs.  Bottéro gives a helpful analogy, comparing this view to how we might think of political offices in the modern world:

The foreign pantheons were tacitly considered as what they were: the product of different cultures, with their members playing a role analogous to that played by the indigenous gods of Mesopotamia.  It was as if, on the supernatural level, they had recognized the existence of a certain number of divine functions, of which the titularies bore, depending on the lands and the cultures, different names and personalities – a bit like political offices, which were pretty much the same everywhere; only their names were different, as were those of the individuals who held the offices.

With this analogy, we can see how denying the existence of another region’s gods would be as nonsensical as Hillary Clinton traveling to China and denying that they have a Communist party.  Again, the Egyptians shared the same mindset.  Egyptian scholar Jan Assmann tells us how:

The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship.  The distinction I am speaking of [monotheistic true/false] simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.[2]

Perhaps the most subtle yet profound disconnect between early polytheistic worldviews and monotheism was their lack of sharp distinctions between the realms of human and divine.  Gilgamesh was a mortal, an ancient king of Mesopotamia, and yet his parents, Lugalbanda and Ninsuna, were semi-divine.  The Epic of Gilgamesh tells us that “two-thirds of him is god; one-third of him is human,” leading Bottéro to conclude that “the notion of ‘divinity’ was somewhat ‘elastic.’”  Once again, over in Egypt, Assmann tells us, we see an “interpenetration of the cosmic, the sociopolitical, and the individual,” such that “the Egyptians did not view their gods and goddesses as beyond nature, but rather in nature and thus as nature.”

If monotheism represents such a vast disconnect from previous polytheistic thought, it’s reasonable to ask what were the underlying factors that led to this great shift.  My proposal is that certain functions mediated by the human prefrontal cortex – the capacity for abstraction and symbolization – gained increased prominence in our collective consciousness until they became values in themselves: the pure abstraction of an eternal, infinite God.  Interestingly, Bottéro identifies the seeds of this transformation in Mesopotamian culture: not in their polytheism, but rather in their attribution of divine value to their number system.

Bottéro notes how the number 60, the “supreme round number” (the Babylonians used the decimo-sexagesimal system), was attributed to Anu, “the supreme chief of the divine dynasty”, and 30 to Sîn, the moon god.  He explains how they were evaluating the divine nature of the gods by “assigning them the most immaterial and abstract concepts, the least ‘tangible’ they had available – numbers – as if they knew that to speak righteously of the gods it was necessary, insofar as was possible, to go beyond the material and carnal reality of humans.”

This “attempt to stress both the transcendence and the mystery of the supernatural world” might possibly be seen as a precursor to the Pythagorean assignment of transcendent meaning to numbers, which became a foundation for Plato’s dualistic worldview.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

[1] Hornung, E. (1971/1996). Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, J. Baines, translator, New York: Cornell University Press.

[2] Assmann, J. (1984/2001). The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, D. Lorton, translator, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

January 4, 2010

The Bible Unearthed

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged at 7:30 pm by Jeremy

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts,

By Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman

New York: Touchstone, 2002

Despite (or perhaps because of) the tremendous power and influence of the Bible in shaping our Western cultural tradition, it’s only been in recent decades that archeologists have made much progress in answering basic questions about it: Who wrote it? When did they write it?  How much of it is true?  The Bible Unearthed by Finkelstein and Silberman does a powerful and effective job in putting together recent findings to create a satisfyingly credible narrative.

The book’s main theme is that “much of the biblical narrative is a product of the hopes, fears, and ambitions of the kingdom of Judah, culminating in the reign of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BCE.”  We see how the events described in the Bible close to that time are borne out to a large extent by archeological findings, but as you go further back into the past, there’s not much to validate the literal veracity of the biblical stories.    As the authors put it:

Much of what is commonly taken for granted as accurate history – the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and even the saga of the glorious united monarchy of David and Solomon – are, rather, the creative expressions of a powerful religious reform movement that flourished in the kingdom of Judah in the Late Iron Age.

A theme I believe is important in the rise of monotheistic religion is the natural linkage to monotheism of both authoritarianism and intolerance.  In Finkelstein and Silberman’s narrative, this linkage becomes very clear.  They see the adoption of monotheism by the kingdom of Judah as being driven in large part by the need for a centralized and unified political authority.  Prior to this time, Judah was like any other place in the ancient world, where “religious ideas were diverse and dispersed,” with countless fertility and ancestor cults in the countryside” and “the widespread mixing of the worship of YHWH with that of other gods.”  However, after the fall of Samaria, the centralized authority in Jerusalem had a “new political and territorial agenda: the unification of all Israel.”

Unfortunately, this “extraordinary outpouring of retrospective theology” introduced the same monotheistic intolerance that our modern world continues to suffer from.  As Finkelstein & Silberman describe it, “in order to effect a thorough cleansing of the cult of YHWH, Josiah launched the most intense puritan reform in the history of Judah.”  They quote from 2 Kings to show how zealously Josiah established his new centralized dogma — and sadly this is one of the more believable parts of the Bible because of the proximity of the events to the time of writing:

The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah… to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel. 5He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained… He brought out the image of* Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people… He slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.

With a beginning like this, is it any wonder that Jerusalem is still one of the centers of global intolerance and hatred?

Finkelstein & Silberman go to great pains, however, to try to offer a balanced perspective on the moral implications of their findings.  Clearly, they don’t want the scientific rigor of their analysis to be colored by the emotions from all sides of the religious debate.  They point out that the book of Deuteronomy, written for the most part by Josiah’s reformers, “contains ethical laws and provisions for social welfare that have no parallel anywhere else in the Bible” and calls for “the protection of the individual, for the defense of what we would call today human rights and human dignity.”

On the other hand, we see similar drives for social equity in other groundbreaking traditions of the time, such as Solon’s reforms in Athens, and the old Akkadian notions of andurarum (“freedom”) and misharum (“equity”) which appear as loan words in the Old Testament and may have been the source of Josiah’s ethics.[1] Somehow, though, the Greeks and the Mesopotamians managed to get their ideas across without resort to the intolerance of monotheism.

It would be nice to think that detailed, rigorous studies such as this book could have an impact on the fundamentalist tides surging through our modern world.  It may not stop any raging preacher calling on his flock to fulfill “God’s commandments,” but at least it offers an accessible and authentic account of the source of the Old Testament for those who take the effort to try to sort things out for themselves.

[1] For a full discussion of these Akkadian concepts, see Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. (2000). “The Near Eastern ‘Breakout’ and the Mesopotamian Social Contract”, in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky, (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, pp. 13-24.

October 29, 2009

Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged , at 6:01 pm by Jeremy

Hornung - Conceptions of GodConceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many

By Erik Hornung

New York: Cornell University Press


Erik Hornung is one of the great modern Egyptologists, and this book is probably his most important.  However, it’s a fairly dense read, and I would recommend Jan Assmann’s The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, (written around the same time in the early 1980’s), as a more accessible in-depth view into ancient Egyptian thought.

Still, Hornung is clearly expert in his knowledge and applies it with a subtle mind.  His primary purpose seems to be to argue against previous generations of Egyptologists who thought they saw a monotheistic cognitive framework in ancient Egyptian thought.  Hornung’s argument is that, in fact, Egyptian cosmological thinking was polytheistic in its very essence.  He believes that it’s easy to misinterpret many Egyptian invocations to gods that, in effect, flatter the god in question by asserting that he’s “the only one.”  It’s a little like someone saying to his/her lover “To me, you’re everything.”  That’s not a statement you’re meant to take literally, but it can still be true on a different level.

Hornung, however, goes well beyond that particular point.  He describes Egyptian thought as pre-logical, a mode of cognition where if something is a, that doesn’t mean that it’s not also b.  This, he argues, is a mode of thought that’s virtually unattainable for Western minds brought up on Aristotelian logic.  If we could get there, he claims,

we shall be able to comprehend the one and the many as complementary propositions, whose truth values within a many-valued logic are not mutually exclusive, but contribute together to the whole truth: god is a unity in worship and revelation, and multiple in nature and manifestation.

That is, a god can be the only one in the cosmos, and at the same time be one of many.  Consequently, Hornung sees monotheism, not as a stage along a continuum from polytheism, but as a “transformation”, accompanying the cognitive revolution to Aristotelian-style logic, a world of binary opposites, where the answer can be “yes” or “no” but not “yes and no.”

Although Assmann states that he disagrees with Hornung’s view of Egyptian polytheistic thought, I see their views as largely compatible.  They both discuss the Akhenaten revolution – the short-lived imposition of true monotheistic worship on Egypt – as a hiatus utterly incompatible with the Egyptian worldview.  But more than that, I think Hornung’s view of monotheism as a “conceptual transformation” fits in with Assmann’s view of the transition in Egypt’s history towards a kind of “cognitive dissonance”, with a “pantheistic theology of transcendence” which set the stage for later monotheistic thought.  Under Assmann’s model, we’re still looking at a complete transformation between polytheism and monotheism  – Assmann, in my view, goes further than Hornung by describing the transformative phase of post-Amarna Egyptian cosmology.

The most valuable take-away I get from Hornung is his emphasis on seeing the shift from polytheism to monotheism as a transformative stage in human consciousness.  As he says, “Both of these worlds are consistent within their own terms of reference, but neither transcends historical space or can claim absolute validity.”  I think this is an important frame of reference, which I elsewhere categorize by stages of the pfc’s advance in its power over human consciousness.  In my categorization, there’s another shift from monotheism to scientific method, which has taken place over the past few hundred years.  And most importantly, I think our world is ready for the next stage in the development of our global consciousness.  But, that’s all material for another post…


October 22, 2009

The Pfc’s Coup: Monotheism

Posted in Monotheism tagged , at 11:52 pm by Jeremy

In my last post, The Rise of Dualism, I described how Plato and his Neoplatonic followers embedded the notion of body/soul dualism deep in the bedrock of Western thought.

From Plato’s time, our Western tradition of thought has consequently been structured by a cascade of dualities: mind/body; soul/body; eternal life in heaven/temporary life on earth; reason/emotion; man/nature.  These dualities are fundamental to the way we think.

But it was when Christianity arose, merging the Hebrew idea of an omnipotent God with Plato’s idea of the abstract Good, that the pfc was able to take virtually total control of human consciousness.  In the first few centuries of our common era, as Christianity pervaded Western thought, the dualism first conceived by Plato became the only acceptable view of existence.

Mosaic of Saint Paul (Vatican)

Mosaic of Saint Paul (from the Vatican)

Our bodies became vessels of evil.  In the words of St. Paul, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”[1] Or as the Book of John says: “he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”[2] And the hatred of the material world, combined with a love for eternal salvation, continued unremittingly down the generations.  The Cloud of Unknowing, a highly regarded spiritual text of the 14th century, describes the body as a “foul stinking lump”:

For as oft as [the soul] would have a true knowing and a feeling of his God in purity of spirit… he findeth evermore his knowing and his feeling as it were occupied and filled with a foul stinking lump of himself, the which must always be hated and despised and forsaken, if he shall be God’s perfect disciple.[3]

Hundreds of years later, New England clergyman, Cotton Mather was urinating against a wall and was disgusted by the sight of a dog relieving himself too.  He came up with a unique response:

Thought I; ‘What mean and vile things are the children of men… How much do our natural necessities debase us, and place us… on the same level with the very dogs.’

My thought proceeded.  ‘Yet I will be a more noble creature; and at the very time when my natural necessities debase me into the condition of the beast, my spirit shall (I say at that very time!) rise and soar’…

Accordingly, I resolved that it should be my ordinary practice, whenever I step to answer one or the other necessity of nature to make it an opportunity of shaping in my mind some holy, noble, divine thought…”[4]

The examples are endless.  For over a thousand years, people of European descent thought of themselves as a “strange hybrid monster”[5] composed of two disconnected parts, a soul and a body, fighting against each other.

Rene Descartes, 1596-1650

Rene Descartes, 1596-1650

This culminated in the seventeenth century, when the philosopher René Descartes who, after Plato, has probably had a greater impact than any other philosopher on modern Western thought, transformed this dualism into a form that would work for the modern world, with his famous conception of “cogito ergo sum” – “I think therefore I am”.  Only our thought was truly reliable.  Our sensations couldn’t be trusted.  In Descartes’ own words “there is nothing included in the concept of body that belongs to the mind; and nothing in that of the mind that belongs to the body.”[6] The body was just a machine that wore out, a temporary abode for the immortal soul.

God granting dominion over Nature to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

God granting dominion over Nature to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

And if the body were just a machine, then it followed that animals were nothing other than machines, because they didn’t have human souls within them.  In fact, all of Nature was just a machine.  A machine that’s there for the purposes of mankind, since didn’t God say in Genesis that Man shall “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth”?[7]

This is what I mean by the pfc’s coup.  First, Plato established the idea of  the pfc’s conceptualization function as a separate dimension existing in its own image: an eternal world of abstraction.  Next, the rise of Christianity gave a name to that abstraction – God – and assigned it infinite, universal power.  Finally, the pfc (although of course it wasn’t known by that name) was  identified as the only part of each human being that could connect with that infinite power – the abstracting mind, the immortal soul.

And now that this dualism was firmly established, everything else was fair game.  Nature was there to be used for our purposes.  Other peoples needed to be conquered in order to save their infinite souls that they didn’t even know they had.

In my next post, I’ll look at how the the rise of science permitted the pfc to expand its power even further – establishing a true tyranny over our consciousness.

[1] I Corinthians 15:50

[2] Book of John, 12:25

[3] Quoted in Huxley, A. (1945/2004). The Perennial Philosophy, New York: HarperCollins, p. 37

[4] Quoted in Orians, G. H. (2008). “Nature & human nature.” Dædalus(Spring 2008), 39-48.  (p. 40)

[5] Lovejoy, A.O., ([1936] 1964). The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[6] Quoted by Capra, F., (1982/1988). The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture. New York: Bantam Books.

[7] Genesis, 1:26