Naturalism in prehistory?

France - Montignac - Lascaux II (4), by Mauro Moroni

Were our earliest ancestors naturalistic?

– by B. T. Newberg

Were our earliest human ancestors naturalistic?  Some might assume so, reasoning that before the first gods were invented, people must have been naturalistic. But was that really the case?

The column Naturalistic Traditions, hosted by Patheos, is investigating the history of naturalism in an ongoing extended series.  After an introduction and examination of naturalism in modern cosmology and evolution, it has investigated early hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists.  This post summarizes the findings thus far on prehistory.

Misconceptions of naturalism

There are two key misconceptions that tend to foul up investigations into early naturalism:

  • Nature religion does not equal naturalism
  • Doubt does not equal naturalism

First, many people assume that if our ancestors revered nature, they were naturalists by default.  Unfortunately, that’s incorrect.  Naturalism, as we shall see shortly, is a worldview with a particular conception of nature that may or may not overlap with that of various nature religions.

Second, many believe that a lack of belief in gods, spirits, and magic amounts to naturalism.  This is fallacious as well.  One can lack belief in such things without adopting any particular worldview and conception of nature.

With those two misconceptions out of the way, let’s look more closely at naturalism itself.

So what is naturalism, really?

There are many definitions of naturalism.  For the purposes of this post, we can quote Littré’s 1875 Dictionnaire de la langue française, which defined naturalism as:

“the system of those who find all primary causes in nature” (Furst and Skrine, 1971).

This definition, like almost all I’ve ever encountered, hinges on the definition of nature.  It strikes a contrast with the supernatural, a Western concept that didn’t emerge till the Medieval period (Saler, 1977).  Thus, it would be anachronistic to apply it to earlier ages without significant qualification.  We must characterize the modern concept of nature, and see if prehistoric peoples did, in fact, attribute all primary causes to it.

Although today’s conceptions of nature are by no means uniform, the view emerging from contemporary science generally overlaps with that of naturalism.  This view characterizes nature as operating according to impersonal physical laws (for a detailed discussion of what this means, go here and here).

So, the question is, did prehistoric peoples find all primary causes in an impersonal, physical, and law-like nature?

Early hunter-gatherers

Much can be said of early doubt and nature reverence.  There is good reason to believe that even our earliest ancestors included those who doubted majority interpretations (Hayden, 2003) or were disinterested in magic and ritual (Douglas, 1970).  Ritualized behavior may have emerged prior to any particular explanation of it related to divinity or magic, perhaps as early as the age of our great ape ancestors (Goodall, 1975).  Hunter-gatherer religions may have been more experiential than theological (Basso, 1985), and included cosmologies depicting a single nature with nothing standing outside it (Leeming, 2009).  As we’ve seen, however, these things do not equal naturalism.  We cannot infer with confidence the presence of such a particular worldview.

What we can say with relative confidence is that early Homo sapiens shared much the same cognitive capacities as we do today.  Recent research in cognitive science is revealing our mind’s de fault modes of perceptions to be largely anthropomorphic (Guthrie, 1993) and dualistic (Bering, 2006).  In other words, our brains tend to perceive the world as personal, not impersonal, and physical-spiritual, not just physical.  Moreover, there is no good reason to take a law-like perception of nature for granted, as many historical cultures across the globe have seen the natural order as malleable and open to magical manipulation.  Thus, an early nature-concept of impersonal physical laws, though not impossible, seems unlikely.

In short, there may never have been a time before the first gods.  We should look not for the invention of deity, but for that of naturalism.

For a more detailed discussion of these issues, go here.

Early agriculturalists

If early hunter-gatherers were not likely naturalists, what about early agriculturalists?  Neolithic changes in subsistence and living arrangements transformed these cultures dramatically.  Was naturalism one of those changes?

Most of the arguments against hunter-gatherer naturalism apply to agriculturalists as well.  Although agricultural religions largely focused on the forces of nature on which crops depended, this does not indicate a naturalistic worldview.  Even if the theories of a matrifocal, Goddess-worshipping Neolithic were true  (see Eller, 2000, and Nelson, 2004, for thorough critiques), it would not imply an impersonal, physical, and law-like concept of nature.

In fact, early peoples need not have had any generalized concept of nature at all.  Small-scale peoples tend to be more concerned with particular situations than general principles (Boyer, 2001; Evans- Pritchard, 1976; Keesing, 1982).  Reverence for particular aspects of nature such as rain and soil does not require reverence for nature generally, just as veneration of goddesses does not usually correlate with enhanced status for women overall (Eller, 2000; Campbell, 1982; Tentori, 1982; Whyte, 1978).

Thus, early agriculturalists were probably not naturalistic.  However, it is possible that these peoples may have initiated a change crucial to the emergence of naturalism.

Whitehouse and Hodder (2010) believe there is evidence at Çatalhöyük for a shift from an imagistic mode of ritual, characterized by rare but intense experiences interpreted in various ways by the individual, to a more doctrinal mode, characterized by frequent low-arousal rituals with a shared interpretation.  While the two modes are always mixed, some degree of the latter mode is a prerequisite for any shared worldview, including naturalism.  Personally, I do not find the particular case of Çatalhöyük compelling, but it remains possible that the new living arrangements of agriculture may have precipitated more widely-shared worldviews.

For a more detailed discussion of these issues, go here.

Next on the agenda: Archaic civilizations

The next territory the Naturalistic Traditions series will cover is that of early urban peoples, using archaic Egypt and Mesopotamia as examples.  For these peoples, changes in social organization, living conditions, and tools for extended reflection (such as writing) had vast effects on their worldviews.  Did any of them become naturalistic?  If not, did they lay the foundations for a naturalism to come not much later in the first millennium BCE?

A call for responsibility

It is always tempting to believe one’s own view is the most ancient, original, or authentic.  The assumption that the first humans must have been naturalistic may be appealing to some of us.

However, as naturalists beholden to evidence, we have a responsibility to strive toward accuracy.  I hope this summary, and the more detailed series it encapsulates, sheds some light on the facts about our earliest ancestors.

Keep an eye on this monthly series to discover more of the truth about naturalism in the ancient world.

References

Basso, E. B.  (1985).  A Musical View of the Universe: Kalapalo Myth and Ritual Performances.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bering, J.  (2006).  “The Folk Psychology of Souls.”  Behavioral and Brain Sciences (29), pp. 453–498.

Boyer, P.  (2001).  Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.  New York: Basic Books.

Campbell, E.  (1982).  “The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Female Self-image.”  In: Preston, J. J., ed., Mother Worship, Chapel Hill: North Carolina University.

Douglas, M.  (1970).  Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology.  London: Barrie & Rockliff.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E.  (1976).  Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Furst, L. and Skrine, P.  (1971).  Naturalism.  London: Methuen.

Goodall, J.  (1975).  “The Chimpanzee.”  In The Quest for Man, Goodall, V., ed., New York: Praeger.

Guthrie, S.  (1993).  Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hayden, B.  (2003).  Shamans, Sorcerors, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion.  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.

Hodder, I., ed.  (2010).  Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Keesing, R.  (1982).  Kwaio Religion: The Living and the Dead in a Solomon Island Society.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Leeming, D.  (2009).  The Oxford Companion to World Mythology.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, S. M.  (2004).  Gender in archaeology: analyzing power and prestige.  AltaMira Press.

Saler, B.  (1977).  “The Supernatural as a Western Category.”  Ethos, 5( 1), pp. 31-53.

Tentori, T.  (1982).  “An Italian Religious Feast.”  In: Preston, J. J., ed., Mother Worship, Chapel Hill: North Carolina University.

Whitehouse, H. and Hodder, I.  (2010).  “Modes of Religiosity at Çatalhöyük.”  In: Religion in the Emergence of Civilization, by Hodder, I., ed., New York: Cambridge.

Whyte, M. K.  (1978).  The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Recent Work

Am I a Secular Pagan?  by Heather Van de Sande

Conscious or unconscious: Which is the real you?  by B. T. Newberg

The view from above: A Stoic meditation, by Donald Robertson

Next Sunday

Thomas Schenk

The mind is made of matter – but what does this really mean?

Matter thinking over mind,  by Thomas Schenk

Appearing Sunday, July 7th, 2013

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10 Comments on “Naturalism in prehistory?

  1. Asking if ancient peoples subscribed to the tenets of naturalism is like asking if ancient people believed in Christianity. I think the answer is pretty obvious.

    The concept of naturalism you are using is very specific and kind of dogmatic. Naturalism here is the acceptance of a particular set of metaphysical propositions, namely that nature is physical (only) without any sort of agency, purpose or awareness (except MAYBE a few animals) and deterministic that is controlled by fixed, predictable (even if this is only a probability) patterns or natural “laws”. As you mentioned, one can be an atheist (not believing in gods, spirits and magic) and not be a naturalist, such as Thomas Nagel (see Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False), or likewise one can be an empiricist and not be a naturalist, such as Rupert Sheldrake. (Thomas Negal and Rupert Sheldrake have been getting a lot of heat from atheists lately for challenging materialistic doctrines.) I dare say one can even be a religious naturalist and not be this sort of naturalist.

    B.T. you give the impression in your “call for responsibility” that attributing philosophical naturalism to prehistoric people is a wide spread problem. Is this really the case? I think ancient peoples revered nature (in its parts if not in the whole), but I don’t think they were materialistic reductionist that would be absurd.

    • >Asking if ancient peoples subscribed to the tenets of naturalism is like asking if ancient people believed in Christianity. I think the answer is pretty obvious.

      Yep, it is. Well, it’s obvious if you understand what we mean by naturalism, anyway. Many people don’t. Also, many people take it as “obvious” that naturalism was nowhere to be found before the Enlightenment, but I think as early as ancient Greece there were some philosophers entering that territory.

      >The concept of naturalism you are using is very specific and kind of dogmatic. Naturalism here is the acceptance of a particular set of metaphysical propositions, namely that nature is physical (only) without any sort of agency, purpose or awareness (except MAYBE a few animals) and deterministic that is controlled by fixed, predictable (even if this is only a probability) patterns or natural “laws”.

      My overall point here is that naturalism depends on a specific concept of nature, not just any kind of nature. If I’ve overstated it, it’s because I’m erring on the side of caution.

      >B.T. you give the impression in your “call for responsibility” that attributing philosophical naturalism to prehistoric people is a wide spread problem. Is this really the case?

      Widespread? Maybe not. But common at least. I’ve encountered many who misunderstand what naturalism is and think ancient peoples either a) all naturalists by default, or b) couldn’t even possibly be naturalists. The point that I’m building up to in this series is that naturalism began earlier than many believe (in ancient Greece, and possibly also in a few other cultures). Before I make that point, I’m establishing that people before that probably were not naturalists.

      >I think ancient peoples revered nature (in its parts if not in the whole), but I don’t think they were materialistic reductionist that would be absurd.

      Well, then perhaps you are ahead of the game. But there are people who don’t consider the idea so absurd. For those people, I’m weighing the evidence for and against.

      And just for the record, I don’t think a concept of nature characterized by impersonal physical laws is quite as extreme as you characterize, or as restricted as you may think (as I said, I think as early as ancient Greece some philosophers had that concept).

  2. The question of when, where and how naturalism developed in history is very interesting and important. Personally I am impressed by the arguments of Eric Havelock and Walter Ong, who believe it is the development of alphabetic literacy in ancient Hellas that allows and even promotes the kind of analytic thinking required for science and philosophical naturalism. I hope in your series you will keep in mind that while religious naturalism is certainly connected to philosophical naturalism the two are not the same. While philosophical naturalism has its main origin in ancient Hellas, I think religious naturalism is something new to our times.

    I think the definition of naturalism you use here, while being accurate and succinct, is too narrow for religious naturalism. It is a kind of faith statement. It is not something proven empirically, but rather it is the working assumptions on which science is based. I feel that religious naturalism is something between materialistic naturalism and immaterialistic supernaturalism. I feel that materialistic naturalism ultimately devalues nature and that by itself, without a new and radical reinterpretation, it will not support religion, will not support the long term flourishing of life, human and otherwise.

    • I will check out Havelock and Ong. Wasn’t alphabetic literacy developed outside of Hellas, though, by the Phoenicians?

      It sounds like by “materialistic naturalism” you might be referring to physicalism, which is considerably more radical than most mean by naturalism… is that right?

      “Philosophical naturalism”: By this, are you referring to what is also called metaphysical naturalism, or onotological naturalism, i.e. the view that only those objects discoverable in principle by science are real?

      What definition of naturalism would you use?

      • >I will check out Havelock and Ong. Wasn’t alphabetic literacy developed outside of Hellas, though, by the Phoenicians?

        Yes the Phoenicians invented the alphabet, but the Greeks added the vowels. What I should have said was that the development of the full phonetic alphabet with vowels by the Greeks led to the analytic thinking associated with science and naturalism.

        Let us not forget that in the ancient world texts contain no spaces between words or punctuation (that was still several centuries in the future), and until the Greek invention no vowels (as is still the case in Hebrew). This would certainly make reading a long unfamiliar text difficult to say the least. According to David Carr in “Writing on the Tablet of the Heart”, mostly students in the ancient world would be taught unfamiliar texts by someone who already knew them, who would teach them the appropriate vowels and pauses, and students were often expected to memorize these texts (to really learn them). Early literacy was more of a support to oral customs rather than a replacement for them. Adding vowels is such a small thing, but it really seems to have made a huge difference.

        Regarding Ong and Havelock, I recommend Ong’s book “Orality and Literacy”, which gives a pretty comprehensive survey of the topic. Havelock’s book “The Muse Learns to Write” is also very good, but more limited in its scope.

        >It sounds like by “materialistic naturalism” you might be referring to physicalism, which is considerably more radical than most mean by naturalism… is that right? “Philosophical naturalism”: By this, are you referring to what is also called metaphysical naturalism, or onotological naturalism, i.e. the view that only those objects discoverable in principle by science are real? What definition of naturalism would you use?

        Yikes! I have to say I really don’t understand the difference between all these types of naturalisms. No doubt I am conflating things that don’t belong together. I usually explain my version of religious naturalism as being grounded in the ordinary, observable, knowable world, as oppose to a hidden world of spirits and gods. That is not really a definition of naturalism I know. I’d rather naturalism be defined more agnostically, then as an affirmative statement of knowledge of the inner nature of Nature. The “impersonal, physical, law-like” language is very “clock-work Universe” and I’m not convinced that is the kind of Universe we live in.

    • >I feel that religious naturalism is something between materialistic naturalism and immaterialistic supernaturalism. I feel that materialistic naturalism ultimately devalues nature and that by itself, without a new and radical reinterpretation, it will not support religion, will not support the long term flourishing of life, human and otherwise.

      M. Jay, would you help me understand the view that materialistic naturalism ultimately devalues nature? Many people say that, and I’ve never understood it. It seems backwards to me. It seems like in order for physical nature to be devalued by the exclusion of something else, one must assume that physical nature is not already wholly and sufficiently valued. So, to me, materialistic naturalism, which locates all value in physical nature, grants it the most value, whereas other views must by de fault devalue nature in order to perceive a lack when that “something more” is excluded.

      Am I misunderstanding something in this view?

      • By materialistic naturalism, I am really talking about mechanistic reductionism or really machinism – the view that the world and ourselves are ultimately like machines.

        Descartes was a dualistic mechanist. He thought all of Nature was like a machine, with the exception of the human because only humans were truly conscious having a God-given soul. Descartes may have been a brilliant philosopher but he was a bit of a monster as a human. He dissected living animals with no sensitivity at all to their suffering, because to him their cries were nothing more than the clanking of a broken machine. It seems to me that modern materialism has gotten rid of God, but has retained God’s machine.

        It seems to me that you are thinking of materialistic naturalism and supernaturalism in very abstract philosophical terms, while most people like me who express negative opinions about materialistic naturalism/mechanistic reductionism are coming from a more associative framework built from various cultural references.

        My own negative reaction was somewhat primed because I had just finished Rupert Sheldrake’s book “Science Set Free”, which I picked up after listening to an interview with him on TTBOOk (http://ttbook.org/book/scientific-revolutions – the whole show is really great). Sheldrake’s TEDx talk was also removed from the TED website by the anonymous TED science board for being highly inaccurate, but really because scientists can be just as dogmatically closed minded as religious folks when their core beliefs are challenged (see http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/14/open-for-discussion-graham-hancock-and-rupert-sheldrake/). Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has also been raked over the coals for questioning materialistic dogma in his book Mind and Cosmos.

  3. M. Jay wrote:
    >Yikes! I have to say I really don’t understand the difference between all these types of naturalisms. No doubt I am conflating things that don’t belong together.

    Okay, no prob! Anyway thanks for sharing.

  4. Pingback: Why is the ancient history of naturalism important to our future? | Humanistic Paganism

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