Re: thoughts on origin of religions

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Tue Feb 26 2002 - 12:57:18 MST

On Sat, Feb 23, 2002 at 02:11:54PM +0100, Jacques Du Pasquier wrote:
> I would personally think your first intuition was right. If you take a
> larger view, seeing the monotheism as a product of writing makes
> sense. While writing was invented "around 4100-3800 BCE" (Anders), one
> may hypothesize that pre-monotheist creeds have existed for tens of
> tousands years or more before. (see below for some supporting arguments)
> So OK, writing didn't instantly produce monotheism, but maybe it
> started/boosted a cultural process which in turn begat monotheism (and
> Plato), which begat atheism (and materialism) -- which will beget the
> Singularity (maybe!).
> I see it as a fairly linear world view development (no offence
> intended to religious people), in which writing is just instrumental.
> (Not "linear" as opposed to exponentional of course.)

What evidence is there for this kind of development? There are certainly
a lot of cultural processes that are going on, how can we chack if the
processes we have experienced have been necessary (or likely) results of
preconditions such as writing, or just how it happened?

I do not quite agree that writing would lead to monotheism - just look
at China, where writing has been very prevalent but no major monotheist
religions have originated. I'm also unaware of any evidence for ancient
pre-monotheisms, unless one assumes the seed to be the remote high gods
in many nature religions.

The issue isn't really religion here (although that is interesting), but
rather the determinism of history. Will the invention of the computer
inevitabily lead to the Internet and global freedom of information? Will
the introduction of writing lead to monotheisms? Will the introduction
of agriculture lead to the singularity? These are very relevant issues
to consider.

> Plato's ideas (whether he invented them or rather crystalized them)
> for example were a great support for the development of Christianity.
> Can you imagine Plato without writing? In fact can you imagine
> philosophizing (for best and worse) without writing?

Actually, I think there were plenty of philosophers that never did
write. Compare to the various gnostic teachers that emerged later. But
writing empowers philosophers tremendously, both in spreading and
receiving ideas. But you could have a Christianity without Plato; a lot
of early Christianity doesn't seem to have been highly literate.

> But forget Plato. A certain level of abstraction, and of persistence
> of thinking inside abstract domains, requires writing. And I think
> such practical capacity of abstraction may well naturally shape
> surnatural beliefs into monotheism, while the absence of such capacity
> brings you back to the real world and its diversity, etc.

Interesting idea, but China and Japan doesn't seem to support it at all.

> Another, negative argument I can think of is that writing boosts
> knowledge of the natural world, and that this knowledge in turn favors
> believing in one unknowable God (like in islam, which is in fact, as
> you may note, the most recent), rather than seeing godlets and magic
> all over the place.

Does it? I would not say the Mayans and Atztecs to be uninterested in
the natural world, but they didn't seem to be exploring it to the extent
found in Eurasia (outside certain areas such as astronomy, where they
were excellent). In fact, for most of the history of writing exploration
of the natural world has been very limited. I would rather say exploring
the natural world is more linked with a mindset that says it is a
worthwhile subject that can be understood, and that is a far more
cultural aspect than the existence of writing.

> > >I would really like to know what happend 500-400 BCE - look at the number
> > >of extremely influential philosophers suddenly popping up worldwide; the
> > >important greek ones in the West, Sun Tzu, Confucius, Buddha etc. Why so
> > >many at this time?
> Maybe just because of some maturation stage consequent to the start of
> writing?

Why in such a short time? Remember that the societies they lived in had
had writing for very different times and used very different writing
> Exploring the logical space of world view is like that, too. When you
> get to a certain point, you are bound to ask the questions Plato
> asked, etc., just like a child at a certain point of his development
> (but not before) asks where children come from.
> So it may be that Plato, though an "extremely influential" (Anders)
> thinker, is not quite as influential as one may think, but more like
> the web protocol. (Are you sure? -- Yes. -- All right.) What I mean
> is, thinking that HTTP+HTML invention was something extremely
> influential that begat all the web activity we see now is probably an
> error. The web is more of an invention that had to happen at that time
> so that the development rate of the Internet could be maintained.
> There is an internal logic in this development, an unfolding of
> possibilities that are good, and begets the necessary "inventions" to
> support it. (Think about Moore's law, too.)
> The logical space of worldview is not linear, but it has lots of
> dead-ends and places you simply cannot go rationnally (some lunatic
> may go there, but his thoughts will get lost). And it has one region
> which corresponds to the truth, or at least it has a truth gradient,
> so that we are probably somehow attracted to this place, and given the
> paths available, you don't have so many choices. So it ends up being
> quite a linear path that unfolds with time. As you know, even
> Dalai-Lama believes in the possibility of upload. :-)

I think I understand your view, and to some extent it is of course true:
you cannot come up with universal laws of gravity unless you have other
examples of universal laws, mathematics and likely astronomy to provide
some objects of study. Hence they will occur subsequent to each other.

But I'm not so convinced about the necessity in this process. Sometimes
cultures do not take "obvious" steps for a long time (like the wheel and
the mesoamericans) because the environment does not promote them.
Sometimes culture intervenes, like the long period of stasis imposed by
the Ming in China, and sometimes economics (slavery inhibiting
mechanisation in antiquity). These are all examples of cul de sacs. But
culture can also promote exploration of certain issues with great energy
(like astronomy has been strongly promoted in astrology-prone societies)
or lead to serependitious innovations (the discovery of lenses - leading
to telescopes, microscopes and optics - could have been done in
antiquity or china). The idea of linear progress inherent in
Christianity is sometimes said to have fuelled the expansion of the
west, and that is true. But what about the Orthodox church in the east,
and the Islamic world with its similarly linear view? Small differences
in interpretation - in several cases due to individuals and their power
games - caused them to behave far differently and give other priorities
to their cultures.

The big question is: how deterministic is history? We can be certain it
is not entirely deterministic - the tyfoon saving Japan from Chinese
invasion was in the end due to sensitive dependency on initial
conditions. We can also be certain it is not entirely random - as Jared
Diamond pointed out in _Guns, Germs and Steel_ there are noticeable
patterns in how different civilizations have evolved over huge amounts
of time and great geographical separation. Is there any way we can
decribe the exact amount of determinism? It is not so much a
quantitative issue as a qualitative one.

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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