2011-03-18

Don't sleep, there are snakes

If someone asserts something like, "X happens every time I apply Y", or, "All elements in the C set are smaller than D", the rules of reason allow for falsifying the claim by just one single exception.
Sentences like, "Man is greedy", "Humans are selfish", "We cannot change our ways", fall under the same rule. The absoluteness with which those allegations are made cannot prove valid in the face of so many cases in which culture or personal decisions have expressed in totally different behaviour.

Discussing civilization and its effects and implications on an individual's perception of reality, I use to refer to the lifestyle of indigenous peoples like the Mbuti Pygmees of Congo, and low-tech cultures like the Ladakh Tibetans. My intention in pointing at these tribes and cultures was neither in order to show 'perfectness', or to suggest you to copy their ways; nor would I say that "all primitive cultures are non-violent and have no problems", as some conversational partners accused me of.
I compared certain older lifestyles with the currently world-dominating technological money-driven civilization to prove that many forms of thought, speech, and behaviour which most civilized people prefer to see as human nature (or as an irreversibly 'advanced' state of development, or as something 'without alternatives') are in fact a matter of circumstances, culture, and conscious decision. Which means behaviour can be changed as soon as individuals become aware of its roots, modes of operation, and effects on their lives. There are examples in abundance, of people who broke 'the rules' of the so-called greedy, selfish human nature, and who showed that there are alternatives to what most people regard as normal, inevitable, inescable, unavoidable, and necessary.

Very few forms of behaviour and values are based on human nature. Human nature could be regarded as a range of abilities we might exert depending on the situation and our value system rather than a strict rule. No such thing as a rule there. Every move of the mind, every single need can be overridden by willpower. Aside from looking into the examples I have given in the past I invite you to find further exceptions to anything you regard as self-evident, natural, understood, or normal. It's fun, and you'll be surprised, I promise.

Daniel Everett's book "Don't sleep, there are snakes: Life and language in the Amazonian jungle" is such an eye-opener. Everett, a former US missionary, travelled to Brazil in order to study the Pirahã language. The Pirahã are a people living along the Maici River, a tributary to the Amazon system. Their culture and language are unique in so far as they have no words for worries, colours, numbers, and time references. No such concepts do exist, nor do the Pirahã seem to be able to 'get' it. This is due to a mindset which Everett calls immediacy, meaning that a Pirahã speaker only refers to things he has experienced himself, or someone alive told him she did. Probable future events therefore can't be told, while dreams count as experience and are considered as very real; so if a Pirahã says he had a conversation with a spirit, he actually means it. Pirahã can joke and lie, but tell no fictionary tales. The language is shaped in a way that allows exactly that what they enact as a culture.

What we can learn from this is, that language, culture, and reality are closely intertwined. They influence each other, depend on each other, and can be seen as expression of one another.

Questioning the Western idea of just one indivisible objective reality "out there", Everett quotes Edward Sapir's "The status of linguistics as a science" (1929):
"Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection [...] No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached."

Figure out the implications for the validity of scientific discoveries, and particularly for unifying theories, and deterministic points of view.

Another thing we take for granted, yet have no reason to do so is 'the rising curve'.
Most people do agree that man is curious by nature. We derive our concept of ascension from there. This is our motivation for research, discovery, and management of the physical world around us. Things have to improve and get bigger and better over time, especially the realm of me and mine. Is that innate to man?
Though the Pirahã are curious, too (they are interested in the outside world and their ways), the concept of the ascent of humanity is outlandish to them; they may use imported tools like boats or steel knives, but they refuse to manufacture them on their own i.e. implement new technologies into their cultural setting, even when they know how to do it; doesn't keep them from getting along phantastically. Similarly they use next to no loan words when speaking. And in relation to the physical world, they think in terms of access and lax possession rather than ownership.

There are many more ways how the Pirahã differ from civilization as we know it, but instead of me telling you how to interpret Daniel Everett's description of a remote traditional culture, why don't you have a look inside this gorgeous book yourself?
Remember - this is neither about glorification nor about copying. It is about freedom, promoted by the falsification of the concept of coercion. There is no human nature forcing us to behave in a certain way, there is no determination. If we feel restraint and follow its order, it is just the story we live by. That's what modern sociology and anthropology can teach us. Nothing more, nothing less.

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