Bjork managed to discover a myth I don’t know, or at least, one I can’t readily identify.

The second verse could be several myths, but I’m going with Taaroa on this one. The third is clearly Aborigine, and the fourth you should know already. But what’s the first one, with the sea and the singing silver foxes? It’s either going to be something I’ve never heard of before, or something that makes me go, oh yeah, duh, I totally should have gotten that one.


What’s so special about religion?

Magic, Love, and Material Agency

I was in a discussion with an atheist on facebook today, and after commenting, was thinking about the whole situation, and a thought occurred to me that I’d like to explore.

First of all, it’s interesting that I was asked if I believed in gods to give my life a sense of comfort and meaning, when this person has no idea what my conception of the gods and their agency in the world might be. Just for the record, here’s a shot at tackling it, yes they’re long reads, sorry. They’re interesting and worth it, otherwise I wouldn’t be linking to them. First, read about The Ecology of Magic, then you can read a poem about the khomus to find out something of how I feel magic and the gods can work in the world.

What I find particularly interesting are arguments against magic, the intervention of gods in the world, Etc. Most of them boil down to two or three material causes. Hallucinations are popular, both mass and individual, which is peculiar because hallucinations, mass hallucinations in particular, don’t really seem to get invoked to explain any other phenomenon. I’ve never heard atheists claim they’re subject to hallucinations, or that humans in general are.

However, I’m not really here to tackle hallucinations, as such, so let’s move on. Suppose we have a claim, we’ll take healing, since it seems fairly popular. Suppose somebody claims they prayed and their god healed them, or they went to see a shaman and the shaman healed them, and so on. What often gets invoked is the placebo effect. Disregarding for the moment that it might not exist at all, which makes it irrelevant as an explanation, the basic idea is that your own mind healed you. It’s all material, you see, so the agency must be material, your own brain. Similarly with hallucinations and the like, we have a material cause, some sort of mistake or chemical reaction in the brain. So the response to, “I was healed by the shaman”, or even “I talked with a god”, is to assume some sort of material cause, it was the placebo effect, hallucination, your subconscious, Etc.

Suppose You said to me “I love my boyfriend”. I then replied, “no you don’t”. Your reaction would most likely be to ask me what I mean. Upon hearing the question, I launch into a lecture about how “love” is impossible and doesn’t exist, it is simply some particular state in the brain, and you could just as well love somebody else, other than your boyfriend. I elaborated further and insisted you were entirely mistaken, that “love” did not exist, it was simply a state of your brain. What do you suppose your reaction would be?

If I were to guess, your reaction to being greeted by a lecture on brain states would be something like, “so what”? Sure, it’s brain states and all, but that doesn’t deny the feelings you have for your boyfriend. But if we accept the sorts of arguments against magic and gods I mentioned earlier, then we’re forced to conclude that “love” doesn’t exist, and you can’t “love” anybody. Why? Because just as “talking with a god” is some sort of brain state I have, “love” is some sort of brain state you have. If brain states are “just” brain states, then that applies to all of them, equally.

My point here isn’t to make anybody say, oh magic is real then, or oh I can talk to gods/spirits, or whatever. What I’m suggesting however is that just because you can find a material cause, i.e. some particular brain state, that in no way reduces the potential significance of the experience in question. ALL experiences are brain states, if you’re a materialist. What I’m suggesting is that the argument against having experiences X Y and Z also applies to experiences A B and C, love in the example but it could be anything really.

So if we pursue this argument to its logical extreme, how do I KNOW anything? I just drank water, but maybe it was beer. Sure it didn’t taste like beer and I’m not drunk, but maybe my brain’s just hallucinating all of those things. Maybe I dislike beer so much that my brain tricks me into thinking I’m drinking water to protect me. It’s an argument that basically says, you can never trust your own experiences. Now clearly there are cases where this is so, various forms of mental illness, actual hallucinations, and so forth.

I am in no way suggesting that every thought or experience we have is absolutely 100% correct and to be trusted. What I am suggesting is that the vast majority of our experiences can be trusted, and I thus see no justification for doubting my own experiences without good reason. But accepting these arguments on hallucinations, the subconscious, Etc. would mean just that for me.

But there’s also another point. It puzzles me as to just what the people making these arguments suppose gods ought to do, precisely? We live, to quote the wondrous sage Madonna, in a material world. How else are the gods supposed to act, assuming for the sake of argument that they’re acting, save through said material world? Just as my love for my fiance is embodied in me, in my mind and spirit and body and feelings and so forth, how should say, conversation with a god, not be embodied in me just so? How else is it to manifest, save in brain states and the like? In other words, why would you assume the gods would work through some other thing than material agency? You do, why shouldn’t they?

If you’ve read “The Ecology of Magic”, then you’ve read the story about the ants. That makes tons of sense to me. People want to point at that and go, ah ha, see, they’re mistaken, it’s ants, idiots! I agree with the author, why can’t it be just so? Yes it’s the ants, that’s the point, idiots! Which brings us back to the khomus. When I say instruments have spirits, I’m not talking about some weird mysterious thing, at least not from my perspective. Let me give an example, involving a khomus, appropriately enough.

There’s a technique you can do with your tongue, that’s basically akin to rolling your R’s in Spanish. Now I had tried this with other instruments, and had failed utterly. But one day I got a new khomus, and poof!, it just popped out. Why? That’s the spirit of the khomus. Once it showed me how to do that thing, I can do it whenever, though it works better with some instruments than others. Some flutes only want to go to the start of the third octave, some only go a little above the second. Why? That’s their spirit, that’s what they want to do. You had better learn to work with them.

I find that certain instruments want to play certain things, some want to play happy, some want to play sad, some want to play meditative. Why? That’s their spirit. Maybe somebody else will do a different thing with them. What of that? Would you say my friend doesn’t exist because he and I talk music, while with his other friend he talks baseball? I should surely hope not. So why would you then say that because one flute plays sad for me but happy for somebody else, it has no spirit as I said it did?

I could write a lot more, I haven’t even tackled everybody’s favorite write off, coincidence. But I think this is enough to chew on for now. It gives a rough outline of my animistic conception, if you think of instruments in particular, and it shows my objection to reductionistic materialist arguments, e.g. everything reduces to brain states. If that’s so, then we come back to the question that is the title of this post.

What’s so special about religion? Why does it get this materialist reductionistic treatment, but love, art, politics, Etc. are all exempt? Because they all fall prey to it, eventually. In fact if you push it far enough, so does everything really. If the argument is that I think it’s gods, and not my subconscious/hallucinations because I believe gods exist, then that argument can be turned right back around, how do you know you’re not hallucinating these occurrences out of existence in your own life, and/or claiming they’re just brain things, to maintain the rationalistic order in which you so fervently believe?

Again, my point here is not to convince anybody that religion in general, or any religion in particular, is true, nor am I trying to convince you of the efficacy of magic, and so on. I’m just asking you to think about the arguments made against such things. Because as I’ve said, I think they apply to a lot of things humans do, and demolishing all of them would make it a pretty bleak world.

Not modern: pregnancy out of wedlock, runaway dads!

I don’t know why, but some people think we’re plagued with some kind of weird modern problem when it comes to pregnancy out of wedlock, and fathers running off when they get somebody pregnant. I have no idea why.

At that time the maiden was advised by her own mother, Ninlil was advised by Nun-bar-še-gunu: “The river is holy, woman! The river is holy — don’t bathe
in it! Ninlil, don’t walk along the bank of the Id-nunbir-tum! His eye is bright, the lord’s eye is bright, he will look at you! The Great Mountain, Father
Enlil — his eye is bright, he will look at you! The shepherd who decides all destinies — his eye is bright, he will look at you! Straight away he will
want to have intercourse, he will want to kiss! He will be happy to pour lusty semen into the womb, and then he will leave you to it!”

ETCSL Trans. 1.2.1, “Enlil and Ninlil”

This is part of a mythological poem from Sumer, tied for the earliest appearance of writing in the world, the composition in question is 4000-5000 years old. So even as far back in the day as we have records, mothers are advising their daughters to watch out for that man, well, a god in this case.

To briefly summarize, Enlil is the main Sumerian deity. Ninlil’s mother advises her, as quoted previously, she ignores the advice, and Enlil does indeed have sex with her, the way this is accomplished isn’t exactly clear, but his servant somehow arranges it. To be fair to Enlil, he didn’t leave of his own volition, he was arrested and banished from the city. Ninlil follows, and Enlil transforms himself into, or perhaps impersonates, three other personages, who each have sex with Ninlil. That resulted in the birth of three deities, generally connected with the underworld, apparently this was necessary to allow the initial intercourse to produce the moon god.

What’s particularly interesting is that we’re dealing with not just a myth of the ancient world, but something from the dawn of human literature. But why should that matter? It’s an interesting curiosity, perhaps of academic interest, but surely not much more. Well, to be perfectly honest, I am largely presenting this series of posts for the curiosity of it all, but I do think there’s a larger point, and that’s why I started with this topic.

You’ll recall that I said at the beginning that some people see “teen pregnancy” as a uniquely modern problem, “that didn’t happen in OUR DAY”. Clearly it did. This should be fairly obvious without obscure ancient citations, but again, we’re not just dealing with any old thing, pun intended, but with something from the beginnings of literature. Not only was it happening, but somebody thought it was significant enough to write about it. So remember that while you’re reading about the sex and stuff that’ll be coming up. Times probably weren’t like you think they were.

Not modern: introduction!

For a good while now, I’ve been meaning to write a series of posts on things you think are modern, but totally aren’t at all. I know, you think that sounds boring, but that’s because you haven’t heard how I’m going to prove they’re not modern yet. I will do this by delving deep into the depths of the past! So let’s get started, shall we?