There ain’t no Devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk

February 14, 2010 § 3 Comments

The human mind is amazing. It’s ability for complexity and abstraction of thought, for problem solving and creativity, has not been matched by the brain of any other creature humans have encountered. From the incredible amount of information presented to us daily, from the millions of colours, smells, sounds and sensations we encounter, our minds can make sense of all this, put it into some sort of perspective, manipulate it, evaluate and order it. We have the ability to remember important moments, and the ability to forget the junk we encounter. We can use information given to us, abstract it into a new way of thinking, and re-present this information in new ways.

Take for example, the mind of an artist, who sees the world physically much as you or I do. His or her mind is able to not only to perceive the world, but also to then represent this on paper in a way that you and I can then recognise as coming from the original. The artist can also deliberately abstract something, using a different method or approach, to make representations which draw upon the brain in new ways.

Pablo Picasso, between 1907 and the 1950’s, made incredible abstractions of the world around us, with the premise that objects could be seen from more than one angle, that all objects have a three-dimensionality, and was trying to represent this in a 2 dimensional space. The results are stunning, and in most cases, our brains can decode Picasso’s work, and recognise the objects within the paintings as a skull, leeks, a pitcher, a person, a bull or whatever.

Think about the processes involved in this: the artist sees, evaluates, re-evaluates, and recreates the outcome; the viewer sees the artwork, evaluates, and deciphers the meaning. Each step along the way involves a massive amount of brain power, and a huge series of underpinnings and foundations of learning, linking one to the next, making leaps from seemingly unrelated topics, consolidating these thoughts and coming to a conclusion, all with in seconds. Astounding.

Pablo Picasso Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher (Nature morte avec crâne, poireaux et pichet) 14 March 1945

Pablo Picasso "Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher (Nature morte avec crâne, poireaux et pichet)" 14 March 1945

We use our brains to decipher the world around us, and we also keep with us the information that will be useful down the track. If we had to reevaluate everything from scratch ever time we encounter it, we would do nothing else than be rediscovering. We build our knowledge of the world based on our actions of the past, what we’ve learnt and been taught by others, namely those who have learnt these thing before us. We do this so that every person doesn’t have to re-learn every situation from a blank canvas. This advantage that we have allows humanity to move from generation to generation, and build upon the collective knowledge of our ancestors. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, and those giants were mere men. We are the giants of the future.

Historically, before the advent of written language, humans had no way of recording our learnings but by word of mouth. Word of mouth was great because it was engaging, and gave people something to do while sitting around fires at the end of the day, after meals. It was a way to teach the histories of people and culture, to pass on rules, and by using parables, metaphors and stories, help others make decisions about their own lives. The problem with word of mouth is that it can so easily get muddled up, with metaphors and stories quickly becoming truths and not examples. Anyone who has played the children’s game “Chinese Whispers” can attest to this.

When we as humans come across something we don’t understand, we do one of 2 things: we try to understand by using lessons from the past; or we ignore it. (Of course this will depend upon the nature of the new thing, if it were a tiger and we were to ignore, we would surely perish.) But imagine this scenario:

Two men are out hunting at dusk, as this is the best time to catch antelope. They hear a rustle in the bushes to their right. Having heard this in the past as just being the wind, they chose to ignore it, and continue to hunt. Suddenly a great lion leaps from the rustling grass and takes one of the hunters as is prey. The other hunter, having never seen a lion, surprised and terrified runs back to the tribe empty-handed. He relates the story of the dusk and the rustle in the bushes and the great lion that attacked and took the other hunter to the other tribe members. He’s in a state of shock, and relates the story badly, forgetting some details, and distorting or exaggerating others. The tribe members try to reason as to what the lion is, but having no prior knowledge of the animal in question, they name it “the big yellow spirit that rustles in the grass like the wind”. The next time the tribe’s hunters go out at dusk and hear a rustle in the bushes, they fear it. The story gets passed down from person to person. There are more stories, of finding dead antelopes ripped apart by watering holes, of a man who heard the rustle in the bushes and ran for his life, feeling the breath of “big yellow spirit” on the back of his neck as he ran, of children being visited by “the big yellow spirit” in their sleep.

The story is passed from tribe to tribe over generations, each tribe adapting the story to suit the environment the live in, adding and removing parts of the story that don’t relate to their situation. “The Big Yellow Spirit” is also told of having spoken to a man from a tribe far, far away, telling him stories of how the world was formed. Others tell stories of being whisked up into the air by “The Big Yellow Spirit”, only this time he came as a large eagle. Eventually, anywhere you travel to you can hear stories of people hearing the rustle in the grass or bushes, and knowing that “The Big Yellow Spirit” was watching them.

This is very overly simplified, but what I hope it does is illustrate and example of how a naturally occurring event such as a lion attack could, over time, be distorted into folklore, especially when passed by word of mouth. These stories still served their intended purpose, and were coloured by tales of great journeys and battles, both to make them interesting, and to fill in gaps where information might be a bit thin. But along the way, stories have a way of gathering information, and unintended meaning that was not there in the original telling.

In age, where EVERYTHING is recorded, and by multiple sources, information is much more scrutinised. This means that we can quickly sort fact from fiction, especially when we look at things of a supernatural nature. With so many worldwide trying to discover the mechanisms and workings of the world around us, my hope is that one day all things will be better understood, that the mind and spirit can be explained in a way that doesn’t involve the fanciful and mythological. Some say that an understanding of all things will take the magic away from life, that “without the unknown, what is there left to live for?”

I answer this. “Just because we know that chemical makeup of water as H2O, does it take away the magic from swimming?”

Carl Sagan, again, has had thoughts about this.

“Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?”

Carl Sagan, Interview with Charlie Rose, 1996

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§ 3 Responses to There ain’t no Devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk

  • pinkocommiebastard says:

    Great post. One of then reasons I am not strictly an anti-theist is because I believe theism is an example of the power of the human imagination to deal with the mysteries of it’s own existence in the absence of knowledge. Right now in the evolution of humanity, however, we are gaining more and more knowledge about existence and the mysteries are far less expansive. The fact that we know so much more than we every have make the mysteries that are left less frightening as well, but only to those who have the kind of mind that can accept that knowledge as true. When a myth has been used as a source of security against the unknown for thousands of years, it’s power is entirely logical and understandable. The problem is, no matter how much the reliance on a myth makes sense, it doesn’t make the myth itself real.

  • Nice post. I happen to think Sagan’s was a poor argument but I still love his work.

    Your point about understanding things taking the magic away from life is an understandable fear, one that i’ve had myself. I remember my English teacher encouraging me to study Tolkien in the same way we did Shakespeare and me thinking that would ruin the pleasure.

    I don’t necessarily think it’s so. I’m trying to think of things we understand and are still ‘magical’. I’m thinking of the structure of the solar system, planets etc. They are perhaps less mysterious than when we didn’t know much, but I think are still beautiful and magnificent.

  • godlizard says:

    Awesome post 🙂 the human mind’s ability to process abstract images and concepts is indeed amazing.

    However I think you missed one bit — when we run into something we don’t understand, we a) attempt to figure it out, b) ignore it, or c) make something up. Not every mythology came out of observations of the natural world with whimsical, uninformed explanations, some of that stuff was just ad-libbed. For instance, whenever the biblical deity “spoke through” someone and said something like “Oh look! There’s a nice place, you should go attack the people who live there, take their land, and have your way with their women,” it was basically just a power-hungry psychopath who had discovered it was easier to get his way when he attributed his bad ideas to the Almighty.

    Sorry if I sound a little bitter, I’ve just been refreshing my memory on biblical hatred, and wow, it is just awful to contemplate the kind of mindset that led to all that.

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