Category Archives: The Origin Claim

A Historical Narrative

Once a long time ago, about 200,000 years in the past, there was a small group of early humans. Consisting of a dozen or two dozen individuals, they were hunter-gatherers. They had the use of fire, stone weapons, early forms of burials and rudimentary jewelry.

This community was hierarchical: there was an alpha-male who was the CPU (central processing unit) of the group, and he was seen as a God who was able to engage with the Gods of nature. Others in the group listened to him not just out of fear, but because they related to him as their own best self. They listened to him the way we listen now to our inspiration.

The community was also sectarian: there was a sharp sense of who belonged to the group and who didn’t. There was a strong sense of us versus them. You belonged to the group if you were a part of the energy of the internal hierarchy. If you were outside the group and seemed innocuous, you were tolerated. Otherwise, you were torn down and killed.

The community was also symbolic: the hierarchy and sectarianness were sustained through tattoos, masks, rudimentary art and song, initiation and burial rituals. The symbols guided the people’s activity, the way a hose guides water or a ladder guides movement. Without the need for explicit thought or blame, but as just the things to be done. If you resisted or failed to catch on (which were the same), you were killed. The group didn’t have enough resources to handle dissent.

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The Fact-Commitment Dichotomy

As is well known, modern science became possible when scientists tried to understand the physical world independent of intentional categories. It was an intellectual breakthrough to be able to look upon the moon and the stars, or the falling apple without imposing on them the categories by which human beings make sense of each other’s actions. The intentional description of the apple’s trajectory provided a false sense of understanding, as if one had a universal understanding of the world when the mode of intentional explanation was applied to everything.

Imagine you are the Pope in the early 17th century, and you see yourself as God’s voice on earth. Everything you look upon seems to you tied in with the institution of the Catholic Church. Why does the Pope care whether the earth is the center of the universe? It isn’t because the Pope just cares for astronomy. It’s because the Pope was unable to separate astronomy from politics. He sensed dissension all around him, various forces vying to subvert the influence of the Church. The Pope interpreted astronomy itself through the lens of such institutional struggles. The Earth had to be the center of the universe because, here on Earth, the Catholic church had to be the center of human society.

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The Function of Origin Claims

I have suggested (here and here) that what started with the pre-Socratics was not fundamentally different in kind from either the Homeric or the Abrahamic traditions. All three traditions valued reflective distance, and there was individual reflective distance in both the Abrahamic and Socratic traditions. True, the way the individual reflective distance was realized in the two traditions was different, but we can only understand this in light of what they have in common.

If there is this similarity between the three traditions, why does the origin claim (that questioning tradition began with the pre-Socratics) seem so intuitive? Why does the origin claim have such a grip on the philosophical landscape in the West?

It is for the same reason the Biblical origin story has such a grip in churches. On a given Sunday, a pastor says as part of his sermon that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. This is how the world began! What is the structural function of this assertion in the organization of the church? This is not a question of the pastor’s intentions. He intends to simply state a fact, and perhaps to impress the majesty of the fact on his audience. The function of the assertion might be hidden to the pastor himself, as well as to the congregation. To see the function, one has to be able to step back from the assertion and contemplate that it might be false.

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Abraham and Socrates

In the previous post I suggested the change between the Homeric and Socratic Greeks was not a change from no reflective distance to reflective distance, but from, what I called, communal reflective distance to individual reflective distance. If we focus only on the Greeks, we are liable to see this change as going from religion to philosophy. But this isn’t right, for a similar change is central to what we in the modern world think of quintessentially as religions: Zorastrianism, Judiasm, Hinduism, and so on.

Consider Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Issac in the Old Testament. From our current perspective what jumps out is the fact that Abraham was willing to do such an “immoral” action out of his belief in God. An atheist might claim this is what following God looks like, and so is a prime example of the irrationality of faith.

To Abraham’s contemporaries, it would have looked very different. They could have understand the idea of sacrificing humans, and perhaps even sacrificing one’s own child., though maybe not in community Abraham belonged to. But what they would not have understood is what Abraham was doing as following God, or Gods. This would have been their sticking point. As Abraham’s contemporaries saw it, a religious act was not something you do away from your community, alone, on your own on top of a mountain. For them, following God was something essentially communal, which was experienced in the midst of others as a shared experience, in their accepted social roles.

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The Homeric Greeks

According to the origin claim, universal philosophy began with the ancient Greeks. Before then, in ancient Greece and around the world, there was only religion and a communal mind-set ruled the days. But this changed with the dawn of Western philosophy, and Socrates was one of the first people to truly think for himself. This beginning of “thinking for oneself” is what renders Western philosophy universal, since it is not, unlike other philosophical traditions, based on the acceptance of tradition. With Socrates everything was open to being questioned.

The origin claim makes it seem as if while all was dark before, suddenly there was light; as if while until the 6th century BC everyone was walking around in a daze of conformity, thereafter a new, hitherto unknown capacity for challenging tradition dawned on humanity. We can put the point in terms of reflective distance, the ability to step back from one’s impulses and reflect on what one should do. The origin claim states that the ability of reflective distance was first exercised by the pre-Socratics.

But can there be any human society without reflective distance? Even if we focus just on ancient Greece, could it really be true that before the pre-Socratics there was only a blind adherence to tradition?

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