Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Development of Consciousness & the Origins of Religion

Once homo sapiens had evolved biologically, I believe modern humans acquired full consciousness perhaps 50,000 years ago. This is when there was an explosion of new more powerful tools, and an increased understanding of how to make tools.

Definition (Google):
The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.
The English word "conscious" originally derived from the Latin conscius (con- "together" and scio "to know"), but the Latin word did not have the same meaning as our word -- it meant "knowing with", in other words "having joint or common knowledge with another". There were, however, many occurrences in Latin writings of the phrase conscius sibi, which translates literally as "knowing with oneself", or in other words "sharing knowledge with oneself about something". This phrase had the figurative meaning of "knowing that one knows", as the modern English word "conscious" does.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consciousness

In addition to making more powerful and effective hunting tools, humans now made certain tools that were specifically designed to assist in the making of these hunting tools, or to put it another way they made tools to make the tools. In a sense, they had stepped back and carefully considered the needs of the hunt. Then they crafted tools that would help them make these more sophisticated tools. And this, I believe, was a critical step; I call it meta-thinking because this meant their consciousness had now risen to a new level, a meta-level. (Meta is defined as: denoting something of a higher or second-order kind. Google dictionary)

LEFT: "About 45,000 years ago Cro Magnon developed blades and spear-throwers with a considerably greater range, velocity and penetration. Hunters could now kill large animals from a longer, much safer, distance."RIGHT: "Over this period our ancestors invented burins to help make tools from antlers, such as bone spears and harpoons that were often beautifully engraved and carved."Burin: a type of stone tool used for carving or engraving on wood or bone."  (commons.wikimedia.org)  

Beginning around the same time, there was also an explosion of sculptures and symbols.

"Löwenmensch - a lion-headed figurine found in Germany and dating to the Upper Paleolithic, about 40,000 BCE"  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_man_of_the_Hohlenstein_Stadel

"The Venus of Brassempouy...is a fragmentary ivory figurine from the Upper Paleolithic. It was discovered in a cave at Brassempouy, France in 1892. About 25,000 years old, it is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_of_Brassempouy

My guess is that consciousness was both something that developed in each individual and also in the tribe as a whole. This relates to the Latin meaning of consciousness as "having joint or common knowledge with another." It came about as a result of shared gestures, signs/symbols, song/ music/dance and language plus concepts and abstractions along with a sophisticated shared sense of time. This sense of time meant they understood the concept of 'when', i.e., when in the past,  when in the present and when in the future along with the ability to imagine 'what if?' which allowed them to plan. As I have written, I believe the key difference between humans and other animals is the ability to understand time in terms of 'when' and this ability is a central part of human consciousness.

Because consciousness created a meta-world, a virtual world within the mind of each member of the tribe -- but a world that was also shared as a common ground -- it took perhaps a hundred thousand years or more to build this man-made internal landscape and to learn how to navigate through it and to share common thoughts.

Exactly how this happened or developed is lost to us in prehistory. But the sudden birth of consciousness in the blind/deaf Helen Keller might give us some hints about the process the human race went through to develop its conscious thinking and that a sense of time was critical. In the following passage written by Helen, she describes her sudden breakthrough into consciousness.
My inner life, then, [ED: before consciousness] was...without past, present, or futureSince I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another.When I learned the meaning of "I" and "me" and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.  Helen Keller, The World I Live In, 1908
See my blog: Time & Consciousness

The development of consciousness gave humans a power that allowed them to imagine the future and the past, to plan, to coordinate, to 'time travel' in their mind's virtual time. We now had a virtual tool that made us the most powerful beings on the Earth.

See my blog: Virtual Human Meta-Time

I have been writing about the human experience of time now for three years in my blog: deconstructingtime.blogspot.com -- I believe the human ability to measure time, determine 'when' in time and to plan is the reason humans became the dominant species on the Earth. See my blog: Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time

And while we cannot know the process that humans went through to obtain consciousness, nevertheless, we do know for certain that consciousness did develop and that once it had a foothold, it  there was no turning back.

See my blog: The Human Revolution: Symbolic Culture

"Man is distinguished above all animals by his self-consciousness, by which he is a 'rational animal'."   
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

But the cost was also quite high. Before consciousness humans had been part of nature, now they were aware they were removed and separated from nature.

And while the power of consciousness, shared symbols and culture allowed a rapid development of shared knowledge and added skills that could be passed down from generation to generation, it also opened the door to imaginings that were too painful to withstand. Because with the ability to imagine the future, humans now had a concept of death. This meant that they could be certain they would die and also their family would die -- and that early death was an ever present threat.
Unlike animals, humans understand the inevitability of their own death and in fact can imagine a world in which we are no longer alive. To Death & Back, PBS  http://www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/episodes/death/

We know that in human history there was a distinct change about 100,000 years ago when humans began to be buried in a ceremonial fashion. Burial practices are particularly important to our modern understanding of the past because when people were buried with pottery, jewelry and other artifacts it signaled an awareness of death and that a collective consciousness had reached a high level of sophistication.
The first undisputed deliberate human burial is:"About 100,000 years ago at Qafzeh, Israel, the remains of as many as 15 individuals were found in a cave, along with 71 pieces of red ocher and ocher-stained stone tools. The ocher was found near the bones, suggesting it was used in a ritual."  NOTE: Red ocher comes from iron embedded in stone and is part of the lore and skills of old stone age cultures.  http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/qafzeh-oldest-intentional-burial


The focus of this article is not so much about consciousness but rather its consequences, as the price for acquiring consciousness was quite high. I believe the roots of religion are directly attributable to the emergence of consciousness -- as consciousness created a separation from nature and also an awareness of death.

People in just about every culture, both in the past and in the present, have held a set of religious beliefs. Anthropologists include religious beliefs as one of the common traits of all cultures and civilizations. So it would seem that religion, from the earliest times to the present, is a fundamental need of human beings. For more about this see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_universal

Perhaps the best evidence for the connection between consciousness and religion comes from the story of Adam and Eve. This story is found in Genesis, a book of the Torah, the first of the first five books of the twenty-four books of the Tanakh, the canon of the Hebrew Bible (the first book of the Old Testament for Christians) -- which is considered a sacred text by Christians, Jews and Muslims, i.e., more than half the people on this Earth.
NOTE: When the 'tree of knowledge' is mentioned, the word 'knowledge' in Hebrew can also mean awareness. This also ties in with the notion of consciousness, since consciousness from the Latin means 'with knowledge' and after all what is knowledge but awareness. With this interpretation, then, eating the fruit from the 'tree of awareness' caused a separation from the original state of oneness with nature -- and created an awareness of death. For more about this please see: http://www.creationtips.com/tree_of_knowledge.html   ALSO NOTE: "The phrase in Hebrew ... translatable as 'good and evil', may be an example of the type of figure of speech known as merism. This literary device pairs opposite terms together, in order to create a general meaning; so that the phrase "good and evil" would simply imply "everything"."http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_the_knowledge_of_good_and_evil

Genesis 2
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;
but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” [ED : My emphasis]
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Genesis 3
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”
So the Lord God sent him away from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

In another ancient passage from sacred texts, Enoch, the great-grandfather of Noah, writes of his perception of the tree of knowledge.
NOTE: Although the Books of Enoch have been verified as being quite old, they are generally considered part of the Apocrypha. The text quoted here is from the Book of Watchers -- dated to about 300 BCE -- and considered part of the holy cannon by some Jews and Christians, but not by most others although "most Christian denominations and traditions may accept the Books of Enoch as having some historical or theological interest or significance..." For more about this see:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Enoch 
From the Books of Enoch: And I came to the Garden of Righteousness, and from afar off trees more numerous than these trees and great -- two trees there, very great, beautiful, and glorious, and magnificent, and the tree of knowledge, whose holy fruit they eat and know great wisdom.
That tree is in height like the fir, and its leaves are like (those of) the Carob tree: and its fruit is like the clusters of the vine, very beautiful: and the fragrance of the tree penetrates afar. Then I said: ' How  beautiful is the tree, and how attractive is its look!' Then Raphael the holy angel, who was with me, answered me and said: 'This is the tree of wisdom, of which thy father old (in years) and thy aged mother, who were before thee, have eaten, and they learnt wisdom and their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked and they were driven out of the garden.'  Enoch's Journeys through the Earth and Sheol, Chapter XXXII, http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/boe/boe035.htm
In this text, it is clear that eating the fruit from the inviting, beautiful, fragrant tree of knowledge would give a person great wisdom -- but at a terrible cost.

My interpretation is that eating the fruit of 'knowledge and awareness' had turned Adam and Eve's original innocent oneness with nature into a self-consciousness separation from nature -- being naked (what is more natural?) was now something they were ashamed of and gaining knowledge meant that they now knew they were mortal.
The object of the myth evidently was to explain the origin of death,C. Staniland Wake, Influence Of The Phallic Idea In The Religions Of Antiquity, 1870. 
These simple allegories [ED: the fall of man in Genesis] ... are condensed explanations, stripped of minor details, of the great underlying laws of existence.Charles Fillmore, Mysteries of Genesis, 1936.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/nth/unity/mog/mog05.htm
Thus man eats "of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." In these few words is summed up the fall of man from an Edenic state...to a consciousness of matter and the desperate struggle of personality for existence.Charles Fillmore, Mysteries of John, 1946.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/nth/unity/moj/moj05.htm
This story with many variations appears in a number of other cultures as detailed in the following chapter:
Heathen Fables Illustrative Of The Fall Of Man in the book: The Worship of the Serpent by John Bathurst Deane, 1833.  
In most hunter-gatherer cultures:"There are invariably two temporal orders of existence, with an Early mythical or 'dreamtime' preceding the present. In the former, nature and culture are not yet fully separated. Out of this existence...crystallizes the distinction between humans and animals, even mortality itself, and virtually everything of cultural significance."  Introduction: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERS
The above quotes point to the two principle themes in religion: the fear of death and a separation from nature and the cosmos. Religion offers a solution by providing a connection to nature, by helping humans find their “place in the universe” as Carl Jung once said, along with a promise of an afterlife and/or an understanding of death.


Based on what we know about contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, early religious beliefs in the Paleolithic or Mesolithic eras were nothing like modern day organized religion. It was not until Neolithic times that formal observances with priests, buildings and rituals would appear.

It seems safe to assume, from the study of modern hunters and gatherers, that religion originally took the form of shamanism. Virtually every modern hunter-gatherer people today, for example, engage in shamanism or did in the recent past. 
(The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERSIntroduction)

This early division, this first separation from nature, required that within the tribe's symbolic culture there had to be a way to connect, to understand, to communicate, to relate to the world of nature. And from this basic need, I believe religion, or what I prefer to call 'spiritual beliefs' at this state, was born. Because of the certainty of death and the desire to be in touch with nature, early humans needed to find a way maintain a relationship with the natural world that they believed was made of spirits. These beliefs meant that there was a "hovering closeness of the world of myth to the actual world" (Robert Bellah, quoted in the The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERSIntroduction).

In this early stage, shaman, who were part-time religious practitioners, were able to travel the gap between humans and nature and communicate with spirits and with the dead due to their ability to alter their consciousness. Shamanism was widespread and common among hunter-gatherers. They were not so much priests but people with special powers who could help people in the tribe -- especially those with concerns relating to spiritual matters. While shaman were revered, their cultures were generally egalitarian (contemporary ones are according to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERS) and they did not have the same authority that priests would have in later forms of religion.

Definition: Shamanism:  Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS [ED: my emphasis] in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism

Shamanism is another major practice common to the great majority of hunting and gathering peoples. The word originates in eastern Siberia, from the Evenki/Tungus word saman meaning "one who is excited or raised."  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of HUNTERS AND GATHERERS, Introduction

I find it telling that a key element of shamanism at this beginning stage of religious belief is an 'altered state of consciousness', since I believe that the emergence of normal human consciousness is what caused the need for religious practices. An altered state of consciousness would bridge the gap and allow the shaman to have a relationship with the spirit world. The shaman could then try to heal, if you will, the rift with nature that normal consciousness had created.

A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds.---Shamans act as mediators in their culture. The shaman communicates with the spirits on behalf of the community, including the spirits of the deceased. The shaman communicates with both living and dead to alleviate unrest, unsettled issues, and to deliver gifts to the spirits.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism

The Sámi’s believed “that the living and the departed were regarded as two halves of the same family.” ...their belief was not just a religion, but a living dialog with their ancestors  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sami_shamanism

Primitive religions are on the whole oriented to a single cosmos...The distance between man and mythical being, which was at best slight, disappears altogether in the moment of ritual when 'everywhen' [ED: a term coined by anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner] becomes now. All present are involved in the ritual action itself and have become one with the myth.Primitive religious action is characterized...by identification, participation, acting out. Just as the primitive symbol system is myth par excellence, so primitive religious action is ritual par excellence. In the ritual the participants become identified with the mythical beings they represent.In primitive ritual the individual is put in harmony with the natural divine cosmos.Robert N. Bellah, Religious Evolution

Of course, it is hard to determine when the emergence of consciousness caused the break with nature that was irredeemable. The most likely scenario is that as consciousness slowly developed, hunter-gatherers were able to keep and continue a sense of oneness with nature. Their survival depended on their ability to read the flow, the signs of nature -- when fish ran, animals migrated, plants bloomed, and when certain stars such as the Pleiades appeared. Hunter-gatherers lived off the land as they found it; they lived spontaneously. They lived in harmony with nature.

Tim Ingold stated: "Hunter-gatherers do not, as a rule, approach their environment as an external world of nature that has to be 'grasped' intellectually ... indeed the separation of mind and nature has no place in their thought and practice." Willerslev extends the argument by noting...that the animist self identifies with the world, "feeling at once within and apart from it so that the two glide ceaselessly in and out of each other in a sealed circuit."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animatism

Adam tilling the ground after his expulsion from Eden, from The Story of Adam and Eve by Boucicaut Master circa 1400.

It seems likely that the break with nature came as farming and sedentary Neolithic thinking encroached on the earlier nomadic way of life. The Neolithic point of view required planning, control and a new sense of time which separated it from the earlier hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The arrival of the new stone age, the Neolithic, was the single most momentous shift in all of our history. It was the moment we stopped being hunter-gatherers roaming from place to place and became farmers tied to the land and to the seasons. Everything we consider part of the modern world...all of that has its roots in the Neolithic.It was also to profoundly alter our sense of ourselves as human beings, as part of the natural world...It would change the land, the things we ate. It would change our relationship with time.  Neil Oliver, Archaeologist, A History of Ancient Britain, BBC Two

Rather than being part of the environment, Neolithic people made their own environment on their farms. The areas beyond the fields and houses of the Neolithic villages began to be seen as wild and untamed. This division created "a wound of awareness" or the "pain of consciousness" [my phrases], a break with their earlier sense of belonging in which they were a part of nature -- which was perhaps a romanticized memory of a former Garden of Eden.

A new kind of religion in Neolithic cultures provided a way for that wound to heal -- but like a broken leg or arm, the point where the break occurred would mend, yet it would always be scarred.

It is sometimes said that animist worldviews are unitary, totalized, and seamless...Animist worldviews neither recognize nor use a series of dichotomies that we tend to take for granted and which are prevalent, if not dominant, in modernist worldviews. These dichotomies include (but are not limited to):Nature/SupernaturePhysical/MetaphysicalMatter/SpiritMaterial/Ethereal....It is my contention that these conceptual dualisms arose in conjunction with and as a consequence of the Neolithic transition. [ED: My emphasis] The process, I surmise, began with the newly built environment featuring the settlement and house. From this materiality flows ideas about inner/outer and private/public. In these seemingly innocent dualisms we find conceptual seeds that will eventually sprout into ideas about property, ownership, wealth, and distinction.  UNITARY ANIMIST WORLDVIEWS  http://genealogyreligion.net/unitary-animist-worldviews

During this [Neolithic] period it does seem that for the first time we began to think of ourselves as separate from the natural world which is sometimes in opposition to us and which we need to control. From now on it becomes important to appease the spirits......an enormous communal effort was required to impress these invisible beings, an effort that shaped the beginnings of organized religion, and created the first divine beings or gods. Now magic and ritual are shared among thousands to invoke “Cosmic Maintenance.” The collaboration from the unknown worlds to ensure and improve survival in the known world becomes the new way to understand and think about solutions to problems of survival  http://www.humanjourney.us/NeolithicEra.html

In this stage of human culture, in this Neolithic age of sedentary farming, it appears that over time the powers of nature became personified as gods and spirits. It also seems likely that an upper caste of divine priests developed. These officials with high authority were a reflection of the more complex farming culture, new stone age technology and increasing specialization as well as the fact that now much larger communities shared the religion.

BTW I find it interesting that quite learned Biblical scholars, such as Isaac Newton, James Ussher, Johannes Kepler in the 17th century, made an effort to determine the age of the Earth based on the Bible. They made careful calculations using the information in Genesis and came to the conclusion that according to the Old Testament the world was created about 4000 BCE or around the start of the Neolithic Era -- just when many scholars believe religion as we now know it, such as Judaism, began.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ussher_chronology

With the arrival of city-states and empires, the gods became more stratified and hierarchical, reflecting the structure of the civilizations -- such as the religions and gods of Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

This Greek pottery depicts a dead hero being carried by the Greek god of Death, Thanatos, while being helped by Hypnos (Sleep) as Hermes looks on.

During the last 400 years with the emergence of science and technology, the inner world of humans has grown, civilization has expanded and our store of conscious scientific knowledge greatly increased. As a result the outer world of nature -- we even speak of it as 'outside' -- has become even more remote. People, in a sense, now live inside their virtual man-made worlds and often see the forces of nature as things to be subdued or controlled.

Yet from the beginning, there has always been a deep felt need to belong, to be a part of something larger, to feel a oneness with the cosmos, to find a “place in the universe” as Carl Jung said. Religion through its symbols and rituals satisfies that need -- and by connecting people to a spiritual divine world that is timeless and boundless, religion is comforting and for most people, essential.

In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying...
This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross...
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
TS Eliot, Ash Wednesday 

     Diagram of the conscious mind by Robert Fludd, died 1637.

Please Note: All pictures are from commons.wikimedia.org