Thursday, September 2, 2010

Logic: Reason and Wisdom in Tribal Culture

Rational Mastery by Man of his Surroundings by Malinowski

Malinowski did work among the tribes of Papua New Guinea as an anthropologist. Unfortunately, he uses the word “savages” throughout the article, but he concludes that they are rational and logical.

He asks: Is tribal life rational or irrational? Does magic saturate the lives of “primitives” and “savages” such that they are illogical? He observes two things.

First, all cultures, including the basic cultures of New Guinea tribes, have words for whole and part (being/existence and substance/attribute/quality), cause and effect, and if and then. These are the terms and concepts of ancient Greek Logic (Aristotle) and modern European Logic (Wittgenstein). This suggests that logic and reason are basic to the human mind, language and culture.

Second, there is a basic difference between the everyday, safe and known practices and the special, dangerous and unknown practices of the tribes people. This can be described as the difference between the practical and the theoretical. Malinowski uses the example of shallow and deep sea fishing. When fishing in shallow seas, no theory, ritual or magic is required, but when fishing in deep water the tribe gets theoretical and brings in a system of thought involving rituals and “magic” to influence their outcomes. When one is building a fishhook, one does not call on the gods or spirits. When one is asking for fertile crops for the year, one calls on gods and spirits with ritualized activity. In a similar way, one does not need philosophy, logic or science when one is opening a door. However, if one is designing a door no one has invented before, one needs to bring theoretical systems for understanding the unknown. “Science” literally means “seeing” in Latin (Sciencia), a culture of thought and theory that looks into the unknown from the base of the practical. Likewise, “Logic” literally means “speaking” in ancient Greek (Logia), as Logic was the art of debate, speaking and arguing well about the unknown.

If you ask what would happen if one did not use the theory and rituals, no one could tell you because they have never tried it. However, if you suggested that ritual and magic alone will grow crops without farming and practical work the tribes people would laugh at you. Thus, the theoretical is an extension of the practical into the unknown and the two are always building on each other. Tribes people do not believe in magic such that rationality is excluded. Rather, theoretical systems like magic and science are extensions of rationality and logic into the realms of the unknown that concern this life on earth.

Also, tribes people do not all share the same views and beliefs within the cultural system, but rather humans display individual as well as collective thought. Most think that we are the individualistic and earlier civilizations did not question their systems. This is true to a degree due to technology and new complexes of culture, but tribes people disagree with one another within a cultural system. The example: one person thinks their failure means they are cursed by an evil spirit, while their neighbor argues with them and says they are just stupid and clumsy. Thus, a theoretical system allows for debate and progressive understandings, including early “magical” systems and later “scientific” systems.

If all this is true and humans have always been logical and rational, why is science so successful and powerful? What makes science different from earlier systems? In early and ancient cultures, religion, physics and psychology were all one theoretical system (often referred to today as cosmology). Particularly as Islamic and European civilizations rose, technology and education meant many specialized equipment and areas of study. While the theoretical systems have always observed the natural world and this life we live, observation was increasingly supplemented and supported by experimentation. Today, we have many cultures of experimentation that are powerful at expanding and overturning our views. However, as already noted, humans have always been experimenting, changing and evolving.

Baseball Superstition

The author says he is taking Malinowski’s distinction of shallow fishing and deep sea fishing and applying it to superstitions of modern day baseball players. Baseball players are modern day human beings who are raised in a “scientific” culture, but they show the same differences in behavior as the tribes people when it comes to theorizing and the unknown.

In baseball, there is a great difference between fielding and hitting/pitching. Fielding is successful 9 times out of 10, and so it is not dangerous or risky. Hitting and pitching, however, are quite risky. There is far less chance of success, and success does not guarantee winning the game overall. What do we observe? Baseball players come up with superstitious practices that follow basic cause-effect reasoning regarding their pre-game behaviors and their performance in hitting and pitching but not in fielding. A pitcher or slugger will, for instance, eat two chili dogs the night before every big game to pitch or hit well, but fielders do not. While we may not consider these superstitions “scientific”, we can see that theory grows in the gap of the unknown and it follows the basic mechanisms of logic (hypothetical reasoning of cause to effect). Again, it seems that reason and logic are basic to human culture and language, and they extend from the observable and practical into the unknown and theoretical.

Shotgun Cult

In the third article, we can see a new growth of theoretical culture that has practical purposes in the Shotgun cult of a tribes people given one shotgun shell at a time to hunt wild boar (guess why the Europeans give them one shell at a time). If a hunter misses a shot, the whole community comes together and they try to figure out where the social issue is in the community that caused the hunter to miss the boar. This brings the community together to solve its problems (created by individual differences of views and opinions) and it is impossible to say this has no positive effect on the hunter whatsoever. Again, we see that the practical is extended by the theoretical for figuring out the unknown as a culture.

Final Question:

Is following a cultural system more rational or logical than questioning or changing it? Both are in fact reasonable and logical. Belief and doubt, positivism and skepticism, are in constant tension in all societies. If human beings are always rational and logical because this is the way that thinking works naturally, then humans are rational and logical when they conform to their systems and when they question their systems.

The great Dada art movement’s manifesto writer Tzara said that we must have the courage to stand for and against thought. If one loves ancient culture but hates modern culture or loves modern culture and hates ancient culture, one is standing for and against human thinking and logic in either case.

Logic, Wisdom and Riddling Tales

What is wisdom? Believing and doubting are basic to the human mind. The human mind, like logicians in India (Kanada and Gotama) and Greece (Aristotle) we will be covering in the next few weeks, seeks basic constant truths (or atomic truths) about its world in order to know things that are certain and constant (like “Fire is always hot” or “Water is always wet”). However, the human mind can both believe and doubt its truths. Wisdom is the ability to see beyond knowledge, to know when to question truths that are often true but not always true. Hegel tells us that we start with categorical truths (“Fire is simply hot so it is not cold at all”) and grow in wisdom to understand the relativity and context of our truths (“Fire is quite hot for the human being, but fire is cold relative to a star”).
Consider the story of the man who goes to his rabbi and complains that his house is too noisy. The rabbi is wise, and tells the man to bring his livestock into his house. After the man is at his wits end, the rabbi tells him to remove the livestock, and the man is pleased with how quiet his house has become. The house is just as noisy as it was before, but the rabbi has shown the man how relatively quiet his house is compared to a barnyard.

In myths and riddles from around the world (many often traded between many cultures) we see an appreciation of wisdom and questioning knowledge, assumptions and intuitive understandings. While positivistic thinking seeks constant and necessary truths, skeptical thinking seeks to overturn and find counter examples. We will see this in the skeptical thinkers of India (Jainism and Buddhism), Greece (Heraclitus and Pyrrho) and China (Zhuan Zi and Gong Zi).

Questioning truths is not simply for mysticism or skeptical philosophy. Wisdom and skepticism have real and practical value in science and technology. Consider that a refrigerator cools by heating. The back of a refrigerator heats up, and this draws the heat from the inside of the refrigerator. If you believe that heat does not cool, you would not be able to invent the refrigerator. Consider that the Wright Brothers wrote to the US Army and told them of their glider, but it took the Army three years and the accounts of others to believe it because it was understood that humans could not fly like birds (and the US now has air superiority in the world).
In early human tales, there are often trickster characters who steal, cheat, lie and deceive, and through this bring about the necessary sustenance of life. Crow and Coyote are examples from Native American tales. Lot’s daughters are examples from the Torah or Old Testament of the Bible: by committing incest with their father they keep the Israelites’ line and covenant alive, though the covenant explicitly prohibits incest as a crime.

In the readings from Riddling Tales from Around the World, we have several stories that show us the human and global appreciation of wisdom and seeing the relative rather than the categorical.