Beliefnet
Rod Dreher

I’m on a Wade Davis kick this week, so I do apologize for the repetition in this week’s blogging of these themes of religion, truth, and culture. But I find this stuff engaging at the moment, and appreciate your comments as I try to think through it.
Let me commend to your attention the book I’m reading now: Davis’s “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.” It’s the short book-length version of his five CBC Massey Lectures. He takes the reader on a tour of several indigenous cultures he’s studied, showing why people once dismissed by educated Westerners as hopelessly primitive in fact possess, or possessed, extremely sophisticated knowledge — knowledge that remained hidden from us because we didn’t care to look for it, or weren’t able to see beyond our cultural blinders. This material leaves me with far more questions than answers, and it’s so rich it’s hard to know where to start.
So let’s start with this quote:

[A]nthropologists have periodically been accused of embracing an extreme relativism, as if every human behaviour must be accepted simply because it exists. In truth, no serious anthropologist advocates the elimination of judgment. Anthropology merely calls for its suspension, so that the judgments we are ethically obliged to make as human beings may be informed ones.

I like that clarification. It would be morally insane to declare that whatever this or that tribe — whether in the Amazon rain forest, on the Arabian peninsula, in the canyons of Manhattan, etc. — is beyond our judgment. What Davis suggests here is simply holding judgment in abeyance long enough to sift through the beliefs and practices of an alien culture for the purposes of understanding. Reading Hank Steuver’s “Tinsel,” about the holiday-related habits of some local tribesmen in the Dallas suburbs, I realized that I could never write such a book (alas for me), because unlike Steuver, I couldn’t hold judgment in abeyance long enough to understand why the people he portrays live as they do. To understand their worldview from the inside, I mean. One might ultimately condemn it, or aspects of it, but one should at least try to understand why things are as they are before issuing judgment. This is a lesson I’m probably doomed to relearn over and over. You too, maybe.
Anyway, in his chapter about the culture of Polynesia, Davis writes at length of the incredibly rich and detailed knowledge the natives had about how to navigate on the seas. You can hardly believe what they discerned about seafaring; in its complexity and symphonic genius, it’s almost miraculous. But the Westerners who encountered them simply couldn’t grasp that people so primitive to our eyes could be bearers of such detailed knowledge — knowledge which greatly exceeded what we ourselves possessed. So we looked down on them as savages — a view that conveniently justified exploiting them. One lesson of our experience with Polynesian navigators, says Davis, is of

the need always to be skeptical about academic orthodoxy. Knowledge is rarely completely divorced from power, and interpretation is too often an expression of convenience.

A lot of this too comes from the Whig theory of history: the idea that history is marching forward toward enlightenment, the vanguard of which is British liberal democracy. The sophistication of these alien cultures were judged relative to the normative standards of Europe. Which is understandable, in a sense, but also blinding.
In comparing the Polynesian and Amazonian cultures Davis talks about in his second and third chapters, it becomes clear that you cannot divorce the deep and profound knowledge of the natural world that these cultures have mined from their religious beliefs and practices, which led them down certain paths. Part of this is that their metaphysics taught them to look in places and at things others ignore; part of it is that religion served the role of keeping the tribe together and thriving, and moving forward into that realm of knowledge. I’m not sure where Davis is going with this, but I’m wondering to what extent the mining of certain areas of wisdom depends on religious belief. That is, to what extent can religious belief, even if it has no factual basis, open up a doorway of perception of reality that would have otherwise been closed?
Remember this post from the old Crunchy Con site, in which I discussed the book linguist Dan Everett wrote about his long experiences living with an Amazonian tribe, the Piraha? He came there as a Christian missionary, but eventually lost his faith. He discussed how this extremely primitive tribe’s epistemology kept them from acquiring most kinds of complex knowledge about the world (as a rule, they wouldn’t accept anything as true unless the person telling them had witnessed it himself, or got it from someone who had actually seen it; you can easily see why none of them converted to Christianity). But Everett wonders if their way of seeing the world (what Richard Weaver would call their “metaphysical dream”) opened them up to perceiving levels of reality that eluded him. His book opens with an anecdote in which the tribe ran frantically down to the riverbank one day, screaming that they were seeing an evil jungle spirit dancing on a beach opposite. Neither Everett nor his daughter could see a thing — which flummoxed the Pirahas, who could plainly see something there.

What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Piraha’s culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.
As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another’s views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahas, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.

What did the Pirahas see? Was it a mass hallucination? Was it a jungle spirit? Was it some other kind of phenomenon that they had learned to call a jungle spirit? Was something there, but the Westerners didn’t have the sensitivity to see it? It’s telling that Everett, a Western scientist who does not believe in the realm of the spirit, is to this day unsure of the meaning of that event.
Is it possible that there are scientific ramifications to Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophical assertion that “truth is subjectivity”? What S.K. meant by that is that the kinds of truths for which humans live or die require inward appropriation of facts; they cannot be proven by syllogism or science, but can only be realized by a passionate subjective commitment by an existing individual. Similarly, to read Davis is to wonder if the accurate and complete observation of the natural world may depend on one’s subjective relation to it. Are there truths about its properties that only reveal themselves to humans who have a prior commitment to a particular framework of knowledge — and which, of course, remain hidden to those who don’t have eyes to see, so to speak? Isn’t it possible that the Western rationalist scientist may not be able to see things that an Amazonian shaman can see, and for reasons we don’t fully understand?). Does religious belief, or its lack, condition our perception so deeply that it can in some cases affect our empirical observation of the world?
Heterodoxy, I know.

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