November 6, 2010
The tragedy of cognition
This section of my chapter, “The Rise of Mythic Consciousness,” from my book Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, looks at the theory that fear of death was responsible for the original rise of religion.
The tragedy of cognition
We’ve already had plenty of reasons to be impressed by the power of the pfc’s capabilities, even by this early stage in human history. The unique connectivity of the pfc was responsible for our developing theory of mind, thus seeing others as independent agents; for creating hierarchies of thoughts, leading to complex tools and the recursion of language; and for crossing the metaphoric threshold that permitted us to think and communicate abstract thoughts, possibly leading to us becoming the only hominid species still around today. But all these powers came at a terrible cost, something that one researcher has aptly described as the “tragedy of cognition.”
Once you understand that those around you are thinking and feeling people just like you, a disturbing crescendo of connections will happen in your mind when one of those people dies. It’s very clear to you that the mind and life force that previously animated that dead person have vanished. And if that’s what happens to those around you, then by applying your pfc-mediated power to project future scenarios, you soon realize that this will eventually be your own fate. Coursing along the pfc’s connections to the emotional centers of our brain, this realization quickly merges with the powerful evolutionary drive to live and becomes a terrible, profound dread at the inevitable future reality of our own death. Terrence Deacon expresses well the inextricable linkage between our symbolic powers and the dread of death:
Knowledge of death, of the inconceivable possibility that the experiences of life will end, is a datum that only symbolic representation can impart. Other species may experience loss, and the pain of separation, and the difficulty of abandoning a dead companion; yet without the ability to represent this abstract counterfactual (at least for the moment) relationship, there can be no emotional connection to one’s own future death.
It seems reasonable to assume that there’s some connection between the emergence of that dread of death and the earliest signs of our ancestors burying their dead. The first deliberate burials yet discovered date back to about ninety-five thousand years ago, before even the cross-hatched ochre from Blombos Cave, and there’s clear evidence that the Neanderthals also buried their dead. So this tragedy of cognition seems to date back to a relatively early phase in the rise of our symbolic powers which has been searingly described by one archaeologist as “the birth of metaphysical anguish.”
Not surprisingly, there has been a long tradition implicating this fear of death in the emergence of religious thought. For example, the famed 20th century anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, theorized that “strong personal attachments and the fact of death, which of all human events is the most upsetting and disorganizing to man’s calculations, are perhaps the main sources of religious belief.” For Malinowski, religion is the “affirmation that death is not real, that man has a soul and that this is immortal, [and] arises out of a deep need to deny personal destruction.” Following his theme, a school of thought has since arisen called “terror management theory,” which posits that “spiritual beliefs serve the function of helping humans deny the finality of death.” In this theory, just as an infant gains comfort and security from the authority of her parents, so as she grows up and becomes aware of death, she is comforted by the notion of deities who are frequently seen as patriarchal or matriarchal figures.
This all makes sense, as far as it goes. However, it seems noteworthy that the fear of death extended all the way back to Neanderthals and other pre-humans, so it doesn’t seem like quite enough to account for all the complexity of religious thought. Was there perhaps something in the cognitive breakthrough that caused the Upper Paleolithic revolution that was also responsible for the emergence of religious thought as we now know it? Several cognitive anthropologists have recently proposed that this is, indeed, the case.
 Atran, S. (2002). In Gods We Trust, New York: Oxford University Press, 66-67.
 Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, New York: Norton, 436-7.
 Culotta, E. (2009). “On the Origin of Religion.” Science, 326(6 November 2009), 784-787, quoting Henry de Lumley; Sjöblom, T. (2007). “Spandrels, Gazelles and Flying Buttresses: Religion as Adaptation or as a By-Product.” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 7(3-4), 293-312.