Re: thoughts on origin of religions

From: Jacques Du Pasquier (
Date: Wed Feb 27 2002 - 03:58:16 MST

Anders Sandberg wrote (26.2.2002/20:57) :
> 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.

I agree with most of what you say, including some doubts you raise.

Just one note: I saw some determinism in the history of knowledge (and
in that particular part of knowledge which concerns the "big picture",
aka world view); not in history in general. This is an important

It is often said that the idea of necessary progress has been
destroyed in the 20th century, with the holocaust, etc. Actually, I
think we don't need the 20th century to understand that there is no
such necessary general, social progress (to not mention "moral
progress"). Individuals have been in opposition until now (as designed
by evolution), and so wars are doing fine, thank you.

But knowledge is different, because once it's recognized (and even
more so, if it's put to use in technology) you usually don't loose it.
I know it did happen (there is an interesting bit in Kaczynski's essay
about that), but usually it doesn't, it accumulates and gets better.

If you assume there is some "truth", or at least some "more true than"
relationship, and that it is sought, and that it is somewhat
recognized when found, and retained instead of forgotten -- then you
get some "determinism".

If you switch from knowledge to technology (as you did), then there is
a double aspect.

On one hand, it is pretty much one single linear road provided you
have some communication between societies, because when one useful
invention is made somewhere, then it is adopted elsewhere. You spoke
about the wheel; it may not have been inventend somewhere for a long
time; but I am confident that, even there, it is now used.

On the other hand, there is no "technological perfection" (like there
is truth in the knowledge domain), which means that there is probably
less determinism in technology than there is in knowledge. You say,
refering to the history of technology:

> 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.

Just like you, I find pondering the necessity of technological
development quite interesting.

I remember asking myself as a child things like: did we really HAD to
invent the toothbrush? And the obvious answer is no. We could have
inventend something else for the same usage. And in fact, from time to
time, one invention displaces another in some usage niche.

So no (or little) determinism here. You have the linearity of
accumulation, and with inter-societal communication, you have only one
big technological road, but no determinism.

But, in contrast, I see some determinism in knowledge development for
reasons said above. I read somewhere that some tribe, when last
checked, had not yet figured out the connection between sex and
babies. It sounded unplausible, but anyway: the connection wasn't
obvious all the time. It had to be realized. And it was realized,
independently, in many places (showing it followed "determinism"), and
never forgotten afterwards.


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