Sunday, May 22, 2011

Robert Graves, King Jesus - A Novel (1946)

What Damasio (see April 8, 2011 post), Hume (see February 27, 2011 post) and Searle (see January 21, 2011 post) do not directly address is how humans come to believe in the existence of things that have no known physical presence, untestable, or are contrary to all human experience, and declare, just as they declare they are looking at tree in their neighbor's yard and know there is a tree in their neighbor's yard, that these unseen objects are just as real as the tree that they do see. On this subject, we can count subjects such as spirits, ghosts, gods, "miracles," and other things extrasensory. Are these ideas or "visions" entirely a product of culture (nurture)? Or has the brain evolved in some way that makes us likely to adopt beliefs about things that have no physical presence, contrary to all experience, or are simply not capable of scientific demonstration? What is the biological value behind such beliefs that allows us to explain this "natural" phenomenon in terms of evolutionary survival? Is the brain wired for self-deception just as it is wired for consciousness of what is physically present? And is this type of self-deception related in some way to our ability to engage in fictional storytelling?

Notwithstanding modern humanity's grand accumulation of the certain, objective factual knowledge that we possess today but did not possess in previous generations, humans have constructed a social reality that is still not disconnected from its evolutionary origins in the human brain thousands and thousands of years ago -- from a time long before we even thought about being "skeptical" about what and how we knew about our environment and ourselves. That social reality includes stories --- works of fiction derived from imagination and untestable speculation --- just as it includes stories of actual human experience. And now cultural institutions have been developed that reinforce the fictional stories and untestable speculation and treats them just as seriously as actual human experience that is testable. There are researchers who have been investigating this subject and explanations are beginning to be developed: Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran, for example. In terms of how the mind comes to accept these acts of self-deception about unseen spirits, gods and other things extrasensory, Hume is a starting point when he explains the role of inferences in creating beliefs. But on top of that we need an understanding of how humans come to collectively accept beliefs about unseen things, and here Searle's discussion of social ontology can be informative. Whatever nature --- the wiring of our neural network --- brings to understanding this question, nurture has a contribution to make as well: the cultural construction of social institutions --- such as political institutions and religious institutions (which are frequently one and the same or joined at the hip) as Robert Wright discussed in the Evolution of God (see May 12, 2010 post) -- that owe their institutional existence to the belief in things that have no known physical presence or events that are contrary to all known experience, reinforce these beliefs in personal and collective memory.

We are in the realm of what Damasio described as higher extended consciousness, without which human imagination and creativity would not be possible. Extended consciousness, where "self comes to mind," contemplates an autobiographical self that can recall information, profit from past experience by planning future conduct, presumably in a way that enhances survival. This requires what we routinely refer to as imagination. Yet we do not deploy imagination in a singular manner. As we try to understand causality in the world of "certain, objective facts," our imagination yields beliefs and hypotheses, including means of testing those hypotheses, to ascertain whether those hypotheses are true or not. We test hypotheses and what is a matter of speculation, theory, or surmise becomes a matter of fact or not (which may or may not require further testing) based on the outcome of the experiment. The recent announcement that Gravity Probe-B's experiments confirmed two aspects of Einstein's general theory of relativity, the geodetic effect and frame dragging, is an example of this process. Our imagination is not singularly devoted to understanding fact, however. It is sometimes devoted to fantasy, dreaming, fiction, storytelling --- stories invented out of whole cloth, with some or no basis in reality, yet not without some explanatory value for human history, the human condition, and human relations, or for delivering a message with meaning. And sometimes imagination is devoted to rewriting human history, telling a story differently than the manner that contemporary biographers or even autobiography may have told the story.

The story of Joshua the Nazarene (nee Yeshua, latinized Jesus) is one of those amazing stories combining fact and fiction, told differently by different people at different times across human history that captures our attention. That there was a man named Yeshua in Roman Judaea, who preached the coming Kingdom of God and enjoyed a group of followers who referred to him as their teacher, I have no doubt. Whether the existence of the Gospels is enough to document that as objective fact, we need not decide, because we have the brief reference of Josephus reporting that he existed. But then there is the stuff of myth: that he was conceived in an act of procreation between his mortal, human mother and a non-mortal God (Yahweh) and that following his death, after crucifixion on a cross, he was briefly resurrected back to life and physically manifested himself to his followers, spoke with them, and then disappeared to another world we call heaven. Greek mythology includes several stories of gods who were conceived by the union of mortal women and fantasy gods, the story of Dionysus being the most prominent. As I have noted in a previous post (see March 28, 2010 post), in Genesis 6:4 gods are reported to have come down from heaven and impregnated human women who bore their children. The "miracle" of Yeshua's birth, merely repeats this type of storytelling. Similarly, resurrection myths have elsewhere appeared in religious storytelling --- Adonis in Greek mythology and Osiris in Egyptian mythology --- and the biblical resurrection of Yeshua merely repeats this type of storytelling.

So why not a version of the life of Yeshua that is a little more grounded? Robert Graves, novelist and poet who spent a lifetime researching classical mythology, has undertaken a partial stab in that direction in King Jesus, motivated in part by the question --- why did the Romans refer to Yeshua as "King of the Jews?" Graves rejects the mystical/miracle virgin birth doctrine and devises his own story of a natural birth that pairs Yeshua's mother, Mary, in a love match with the son of King Herod, Antipater II, who is put to death by his father just before the birth of his son, Yeshua. Since Antipater II is the heir apparent to the throne of Herod, Yeshua is in line to become king of Judaea. The "true" story of the natural birth of Yeshua, according to Graves' novel, was actually known to Herod's High Priest, Simon of Boethus. After the execution of Antipater II, Mary is then married off to Joseph of Emmaeus, who then moves his family to Egypt. Graves describes Yeshua the child as "possessed of natural prophetic insight," and he proves difficult to teach. He is then taught by one Simeon, who is in reality, the former High Priest, Simon, and aware of Yeshua's royal lineage. Graves follows the chronological storyline of the gospels' Yeshua, but adapts it for his own mythological storytelling. Yeshua is formally married to his cousin Mary (referred to as Mary the Hairdresser), although their marriage is not sexually consummated, much to Mary's frustration. With Mother Mary, Mary the Hairdresser, and Mary Magdalene, Graves weaves his theory of the Triple Goddess into the story of Yeshua. a theory that he explained in another book, The White Goddess. In this telling, the death of Yeshua is a sacrifice made on behalf of the tribe to its "Goddess Mother."

This is storytelling, as are the myths of Osiris, Dionysus, and Adonis. And storytelling often embraces history and autobiography and embellishes it. The Christian gospels are no different, and who is to say that there is not but just one grain of true historical fact in King Jesus that is not found the gospels?

How does human imagination and creative storytelling arise? Hume routinely refers to imagination and belief. Clearly, imagination is not possible without an autobiographical self. As Michael Gazzaniga noted in Human (see September 27, 2009 post), "Imagination allows you to go beyond the data you have in hand . . . Imagination is what helps us reappraise a situation. . . Imagination also allows us to time travel. We can go into the future and back to the past. . . Imagination is a deliberate process. It takes simulation beyond the automatic in some circumstances and uses a conscious component. It allows us to plan how we will act in the future and anticipate how others will act. . . Imagination allows us to simulate our past emotions and learn from those experiences, and project how others may feel or act in the same situation. This ability is critical for social learning. When we do this, however, we are using another one of our many abilities that we take for granted ---- the ability to distinguish the difference between others and ourselves." In this statement, Gazzaniga implicitly recognizes Damasio's core self (me and them) and autobiographical self (I). The capacity to imagine has evolved as a survival skill and a social skill to distinguish the "physical me" from the "psychological me," and includes our ability to take the perspective of another. Storytelling is important to the "psychological me," and successful storytelling requires being able to take the perspective of another. A specific area of the brain --- the junction of the inferior parietal cortex with the posterior temporal cortex known as the temporoparietal junction --- has been identified as the area that plays a part in perspective taking, including a third-person perspective of oneself and perspective of others. Yet, there is an additional capability that is critical storytelling" language.

But storytelling involves fictionalizing experience. According to Gazzaniga, "The core ability that enables us to use all this fictional information is the decoupling device separating pretense from reality in our brains, which [Alan] Leslie proposed. This device appears to be uniquely human." Humans, Gazzaniga and others conclude, are unique in their ability to is use contingently true information. Our brains not only store information that is factually true, but also information that may or may not be true. In this context, the arts (fiction and aesthetic judgments) are an adaptation, a useful form of learning, that help us categorize and react better in different situations. Religion and religious storytelling are such an adaptation.

A final comment from the late Francis Crick is in order. In his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, Crick tries to explain why religious belief seems to survive from generation to generation. "General ideas," he writes, "especially moral ones, impressed on us at an early age often become deeply imbedded in our brains. It can be difficult to change them. . .One factor is our very basic need for overall explanations of the world and of ourselves. The various religions provide such explanations and in terms the average person finds easy to relate to. . . Our brains largely developed during the period . . . there was strong selective pressure for cooperation within small groups of people. . .Under such circumstances, a set of shared beliefs strengthens the bond between tribal members. It is more likely that the need for them [shared beliefs] was built into our brains by evolution. Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truths but only to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendants. *** From this point of view, there is no need for these shared beliefs to be completely correct, provided people can believe in them. The single most important characteristic human ability is that we can handle a complex language fluently. We can use words to denote not only objects and events in the outside world but also more abstract concepts. This ability leads to another strikingly human characteristic, one that is seldom mentioned: our almost limitless capacity for human deception. The very nature of our brains-- evolved to guess the most plausible interpretation of the limited evidence available --- makes it almost inevitable that, without the discipline of scientific research, we shall often jump to the wrong conclusions, especially about rather abstract matters."

There is a lot to mull over in Crick's passage, and I think there is more to the story. And some of this will be discussed in connection with the next of couple of books off the bookshelf.

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