Thursday, March 24, 2011

David Lewis-Williams & David Pearce—Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, & the Realm of the Gods

When Czech president Vaclav Havel spoke to Congress in 1990, his line about how “consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim,” garnered him great applause from the assembled senators, though I expect almost no comprehension since probably no more than a handful of them have the slightest grasp on the argument that rages from Hegel through Marx and onward about the true nature of the engine driving history.

I thought of this “which-comes-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg” debate again while reading Inside the Neolithic Mind. On the one hand, the authors seem to be clear materialists: they quote from Marx at several points (though they’re just as clearly not slavish Marxists), and they base all their assumptions in the limited material record that comes to us from the Neolithic, appended by anthropological and neurological studies from the present.

On the other hand, they stand the usual anthropological understanding of the Neolithic on its head. Most archeologists (I gather from their book) posit that humans built the enormous Neolithic monuments of Europe (Stonehenge, Newgrange, and others) only after they had already developed agriculture and begun settling down. Lewis-Williams and Pearce argue the opposite—that humans built these ritualistic holy sites first, and only as a result of that began to develop settlements and agriculture around them.

This would seem to be along the lines of Havel’s claim that our spiritual lives precede and dictate our material existences, except that Lewis-Williams and Pearce’s claim isn’t a spiritual one, but rather a material one. Humans constructed mound graves and stone circles out of an attempt to recreate and codify a neurological experience—the experience of the mind in altered consciousness. Whether through madness, fasting, sensory deprivation, drugs, or other extreme states, our brains tend toward hallucinations, and these bear a striking similarity across chronological and geographical distances. With a similar universality, we tend to grant these experiences a religious aura.

In short, we’re physically hard-wired for spiritual experience, almost as if we had a Religion-Acquisition Device that paralleled Chomsky’s Language-Acquisition Device. Or, to put in another way, we're chickens who imagine that we're the egg.

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