Archive for September, 2009


At the same time as the partnership of science and democracy was being put together and then coming to dominate Western culture in the 1930’s and 40’s, a new vision based on inner experience was gradually emerging at the artistic and philosophical fringes of society.

For the previous two centuries, the workings of the human mind had been defined primarily in terms of reason. Reason was considered the highest mental function, the dividing line between human and animal, civilized and savage.

A partnership between reason and science had dominated Western society from roughly 1865 to 1915, in much the same way that the partnership of science and democracy would dominate the mid-20th century. The alliance of those two visions underlay the Victorians’ utopian faith in progress and provided them with a justification for their conquest and colonization of “backwards” nations.

As the 19th century ended, however, there were growing doubts that either the universe or human beings were truly rational — doubts that appeared to be fully confirmed by the horrors of World War I. By the early 1920’s, reason, progress, and civilization itself were widely regarded as sentimental illusions concealing a far bleaker underlying reality.

The twenty years or so between the failure of the reason-and-science partnership around 1915 and the construction of the science-and-democracy partnership starting about 1934 were a strange, wild time. It was a moment of bitter disenchantment and decadence, but also an era of extreme openness to heretical new ideas.

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A story that went up yesterday at Science Daily caught my eye because it relates to the next post I’ll be putting up — but it’s also pretty cool in itself.

It seems that according to a new study, exposure to things that don’t make sense actually enhances overall cognitive functioning, because it kicks the brain into working harder to find structure and meaning.

According to researcher Travis Proulx, “The idea is that when you’re exposed to a meaning threat –– something that fundamentally does not make sense –– your brain is going to respond by looking for some other kind of structure within your environment. And, it turns out, that structure can be completely unrelated to the meaning threat.”

Proulx and another researcher had one group of subjects read a slightly condensed version of a Kafka story which presented a nonsensical and nightmarish series of events, while another group read a version which had been heavily edited so that it made more sense.

Both groups were then given a test that involved finding hidden patterns in letter-strings — and the group which had read the surreal version was able to identify more patterns and with a higher level of accuracy.

In a second study, people who had been made aware of contradictions in their own behavior also did better on the test. “You get the same pattern of effects whether you’re reading Kafka or experiencing a breakdown in your sense of identity,” Proulx explained

I’m going to have to think about this one a bit more before I comment on it, but I expect I’ll be referring back to it fairly often. It seems to explain an awful lot about human behavior — from the most impressive feats of creative innovation to run-of-the-mill batshit crazy.


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

In the first of this series of posts, I began a discussion of how human history has been shaped by a series of differing visions of the fundamental nature of existence.

These visions are of three distinct types, depending on whether they are based on insights drawn from the observation of nature, from the prevailing social structure, or from inner experience. As the extent of human knowledge in all three areas increases, new visions are formulated that provide an ever-broader perspective — but the same three types recur over and over again.

Throughout the course of history, one vision of each of the three types has been present in every culture. Except during relatively brief periods of transition, however, just two visions actively influence the day-to-day functioning of the society, while the one which is undergoing reformulation develops in relative obscurity on the sidelines.

The two dominant visions gradually establish a tightly integrated partnership, which provides the culture with a set of universally accepted consensus beliefs that help maintain its integrity, coherence, and sense of purpose.

From the 1930’s to the 1960’s, for example, the consensus beliefs of the United States grew out of a partnership of two visions that were most commonly known at the time as “science” and “democracy.”

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A few months back, I suggested here that fairy tales are far more ancient than generally acknowledged, and that rather than being just a few hundred years old they may date from around 3500-2500 BC.

So it’s nice to see that a new anthropological study has come to much the same conclusion. According to a story published today in the Telegraph:

Dr Jamie Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, studied 35 versions of Little Red Riding Hood from around the world. …

Contrary to the view that the tale originated in France shortly before Charles Perrault produced the first written version in the 17th century, Dr Tehrani found that the varients shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years.

He said: “Over time these folk tales have been subtly changed and have evolved just like an biological organism. Because many of them were not written down until much later, they have been misremembered or reinvented through hundreds of generations. …

“The oldest tale we found was an Aesopic fable that dated from about the sixth century BC, so the last common ancestor of all these tales certainly predated this. We are looking at a very ancient tale that evolved over time.” …

The original ancestor is thought to be similar to another tale, The Wolf and the Kids, in which a wolf pretends to be a nanny goat to gain entry to a house full of young goats.

Stories in Africa are closely related to this original tale, whilst stories from Japan, Korea, China and Burma form a sister group. Tales told in Iran and Nigeria were the closest relations of the modern European version.

I would definitely like to see a detailed account of this study, and I hope that the method will be applied to other folktales, as well, since it has the potential for illuminating many obscure channels of cultural transition.

The idea of a close link between Iran and Europe, for example, is particularly interesting, since I’ve seen it suggested elsewhere that the Grail legend may be of Iranian origin and derive from what Omar Khayyam referred to (in Edward FitzGerald’s translation) as “Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup.”

For now, however, it’s simply nice to have confirmation that fairy tales — and the worldview they embody — really do have very deep roots.

Iram indeed is gone with all its Rose,
And Jamshyd’s Sev’n-ring’d Cup where no one knows;
But still the Vine her ancient Ruby yields,
And still a Garden by the Water blows.


A listing of all my posts on the roots of civilization can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

Over the past month or so, I’ve started sketching out the rudiments of three different ancient visions of the underlying nature of reality — the scientifically-based transformative vision, the socially-based kinship vision, and the inner experience-based spirit vision.

In various combinations and interpretations, these three visions guided and defined all prehistoric cultures. Even today they underlie the worldviews of the few remaining groups that still preserve an archaic hunter-gatherer or tropical gardener lifestyle.

However, for most of the world — that is, all the parts which undertook the transition to farming, urbanism, and finally civilization — the three archaic visions eventually proved inadequate to deal with changing conditions. They failed one after the other and were replaced by others that took better account of new scientific knowledge, new possibilities of social organization, and new understandings of inner experience.

As time went by, those later visions failed as well and were replaced by still newer ones. This process of successive replacements of visions as they fall out of touch with current realities has continued uninterrupted — and at an increasingly accelerated pace — ever since.

I have been observing, classifying, and attempting to understand this progression of visions for over thirty years. There are still many things about it that I cannot explain, but there are certain basic points that I recognized very early and have never had reason to doubt.

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