Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Evolution of Religion, Part 5- The Neurological Perspective

Today’s Post

In the last few weeks, we have followed Jonathan Sacks’ insights on the emergence of Greek thinking from Mid-East thinking via an evolution in the way written ideas were expressed, particularly in the evolution of the alphabet.  The alphabet, in its evolution from a right-to-left orientation to one oriented in left-to-right form opened a new mode of human thinking.  Further, the Greek introduction of verbs into their language rendered the text less ambiguous and more suited for expressing empirical thought.

Last week we followed Sacks into his insight of how these two changes influenced Greek thinking in ways that resulted in their radically new ideas of philosophy and science.

Today we will take a brief look at the way the human brain is understood to function to expand Sacks’ insights of the two distinct cognitive styles which emerged in the period in which the near- East language evolved from the Sinaitic  to that of the Greek.

The Two Brain Hemispheres

Over the past hundred and fifty years, since Pierre Paul Broca discovered that the language-processing skills were located in the left hemisphere of the brain, neuroscientists have explored the marked difference between the way information is processed in the two hemispheres.  Sacks lists a few of these:

   Left Brained Functions

    • Thinking linearly, analytically, atomistically and mechanically
    • Breaking things into component parts, and treating them sequentially
    • Focusing on details
    • Emphasizing objective observation
    • Dealing with information empirically and objectively

   Right Brain Functions

    • Thinking integratively and holistically
    • Considering things in a context of the higher organization in which the thing is a part
    • Focusing on the ‘big picture’
    • Emphasizing empathy, meaning and emotion
    • Treating information intuitively, instinctively, with ambiguity and metaphor

Sacks relates the two modes of human understanding, typified by the actions of the two hemispheres of the brain, to the manipulation of the alphabet:

“A language with vowels, where the words can be understood (unambiguously) one by one, can be processed by the linear, sequential left brain.  We read these languages from left to right, moving our head to the right, thus engaging the left brain.”

Languages without vowels (where words are more ambiguous) make demands on the context-understanding, integrative functions of the right brain, so we read them from right to left, moving our head leftwards and engaging the right brain”

So, the two hemispheres are thought to function in different ways.

  • One is the ability to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact.
  • The other is the ability to join things together so that they make sense as a whole. Sacks sees this ability as the one necessary to join people together so that they form relationships.

Sacks warns of over-emphasizing the distinctions.  He suggests ‘right’ and ‘left’ not be thought of as ‘precise neuroscientific descriptions’ of brain activity, but rather as ‘metaphors for different modes of the brain’s engagement with the world.’  He also sees a balance between the two types of activity as necessary for us tto be able to ‘think with our whole brain’.

From ‘Right’ to ‘Left’ Brained Thinking

The ideas of most of the thinkers of the Axial Age (September 17 – The Evolution of Religion, Part 2- The ‘Axial Age’), in general, represented ‘right brain’ thinking.  They took a less empirical approach to thinking about the universe and the place of the human person in it, and more about an intuition of how these relationships must take place for “enhancement of their humanity”.  The great body of thinking which began to lean in the direction of the ‘left brain’ was, as Sacks sees, that which emerged in Greece in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries, BCE.

Therefore, Third century Greek and Hebrew were not just different languages with different alphabets.  At the thinking level, they represented orthogonal civilizations, unlike in their most basic understanding of reality.  Greek philosophy and science- the Greece of Tales and Democritus, Plato and Aristotle- was a predominantly left-brain culture; the Israel of the prophets a right-brain one.  At precisely the time Greek came to be written left-to-right and Athens evolved to a literate from an oral culture, it became the birthplace of science and philosophy, the two supremely left-brain, conceptual and analytical ways of thinking.

Greece, at the time the alphabet was changing from right-left to left-right, was becoming the world’s first, and to Sacks, its greatest, left-brain civilization.  It was not only left-brained.  As Sacks sees it, “There was greatness, too, in the more right-brain fields of art, architecture and drama”.  But, as we shall see in the next post, the later attempt to reconnect this great mode of thinking with its right-handed predecessor was to have significant impact on the evolution of Western thought.

The Next Post

Having seen the evolution of language which led to the two great cognitive processes found in Greece and Jerusalem, as a rise in the skill of applying left-brained thinking to the seeking of answers to the mystery of life, we can now take a look at their confluence in a third great expression of belief, that of Christianity.

The Evolution of Religion, Part 4- Greek Thinking

Today’s Post

In the last post, we followed Jonathan Sacks in his mapping of the alphabet from the near-East cultures (Hebrew, Canaanite and Phoenician).  He traces the shift of their use of the alphabet and their modes of thinking to that which emerged in Greece about 500 BCE.

Today we will continue to follow Sacks into the new modes of thought which emerged in Greece as a result of this evolution.

The Rise of Greek Thinking…

Sacks sees the change in perspective which arose from the shift in order of the alphabet as giving rise to the unique thinking that appeared in Greece during this same time frame.  He observes that Greeks were the first to think systematically and objectively about nature, matter, substance, the ‘element and principle of things’, and the relationship between what changes and what stays the same.  He enumerates examples of the beginnings of western thought:

    • Thales in the sixth century BCE, who, in seeing water as the fundamental element, gave birth to the scientific way of thinking
    • Anaximander, Thales’ pupil, who understood all things as deriving from, and ultimately returning to, ‘the boundless’
    • Heraclitus, whose understanding of the constant state of flux in nature contradicted the conventional belief that nature was ‘fixed’
    • Pythagoras, who was the first to see the universe as reflecting mathematical harmony
    • Parmenides, whose vision of reality as eternal led to the belief that the changes that we sense are unreal and superficial
    • Democritus, who first understood that everything is composed of elementary particles that he called atoms

This same era (4th and 5th centuries BCE) also saw the birth of philosophy, with the ‘great triumvirate’ of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  Plato in particular left his mark for future thinkers in his preference for the universal over the particular, the timeless over the time-bound, the abstract over the concrete, and the impersonal over the personal.  As we shall see in a later post, these perspectives were to hold great weight in the evolution of religious thinking.

As Saks sees it:

“It is impossible to overstate the significance of all this for the development of Western civilization.  We owe virtually all our abstract concepts to the Greeks.”

… From the Hebrew

Such basic Greek concepts have no counterpart in the Jewish thinking as represented in the Hebrew bible, which preceded this shift.  As the bible was written in the Hebrew manner of right-to-left, without vowels,  it represented a completely different mode of thinking from the Greeks.  Sacks lists some examples:

  • The Hebrew creation narrative contains no theoretical discussion of the basic elements of the universe.
  • There is not just one account of creation at the beginning of Genesis, but two, side by side; one from the point of view of the cosmos, the other from a human perspective. This is seen as an example of how Hebrew thinking as found in the Bible does not operate on the principles of Aristotelian logic with its ‘either/or’ and ‘true/false dichotomies. It sees the development of multiple, ‘open-ended’ perspectives as essential to understanding the human condition.
  • As a result of the shift, the more inclusive Hebrew ‘either/and’ set of possible choices is replaced by the Greek ‘either/or’ hard choice. Inclusion is replaced by exclusion.
  • The story of the birth of the Israel monarchy contains no discussion (such as found in Plato and Aristotle) of the relative merits of monarchy as opposed to aristocracy or democracy. This story is more a series of portraits of the people involved (Solomon, Saul, David) than an analysis of their actions with conclusions to be drawn.

Sacks points out that when the Hebrew bible wants to explain something, it tells a story.  Entire subjects are dealt with from multiple perspectives, at a level of subtlety and ambiguity closer to great literature than either philosophy or political science.  Hard stands are seldom taken, as can be seen in the story of Job in which several perspectives are offered as to the existence, nature and source of evil, but none are proposed as ‘correct’.

The biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, in his book, God’s Problem, sees this ambiguity as a failure of Jewish scripture, and cites it as a factor in his own ‘loss of faith’.  In doing so, Ehrman reflects the Greek either/or influence in Western thinking, while Sacks sees merely the Jewish either/and approach to addressing a difficult subject.  On the whole, the Jewish bible offers more ‘either/and’ conclusions than ‘either/or’ ones.

Saks points out that Greece and ancient Israel were the first two cultures to make the break with myth, but that they did so in different ways: The Greeks by philosophy and reason and the Jews by monotheism and revelation.  As we shall see, these two different approaches were eventually to ‘remerge’ with significant consequences for Western thought.

The Next Post

The next post will take another approach to the evolution of religion, and that is from the perspective of neurology: how the Hebrew-Greek transition can be seen from the neurological understanding of the bicameral brain, how the brain works in the ‘left’ and ‘right’ hemispheres, and how this affects the evolution of religion.

The Evolution of Religion, Part 3- The Near-East to Greek Thinking Shift

 Today’s Post

Last week we saw how the Axial Age ushered in a new, much more personal approach to understanding the human person and his place in the scheme of things.  The goal of religion had begun to move from propitiation of the gods and influence over nature.  It also had begun to move from a means of insuring stability in society to understanding the person, his potential for growth and his relationships with other persons.

As Karen Armstrong observes, there were many streams of thinking which developed during this brief period of time, concluding that,

 “The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked”.

Two of these streams would weave their ways into a common expression which would prove to be a major influence on the human perception of self, the understanding of human relationships and a rebound in the evolution of society.  Today’s post will begin a brief look at this weaving.

The Contribution of the Alphabet

Jonathon Sacks, in his book, The Great Partnership, Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning, sees the path of this weaving as well mapped by the development of the alphabet.

He sees the emergence of Greek thinking as rooted in the evolution from the historic near-Eastern cultures (Hebrew, Canaanite and Phoenician) to the thinking which emerged in Greece between the seventh and fifth centuries BCE.  He credits the major factor in this evolution as the birth and evolution of the alphabet which occurred during this same brief period.

Writing was invented originally in Mesopotamia more than 5000 years ago.  As Sacks sees it,

“The birth of writing was the birth of civilization, because it enabled the growth of knowledge to become cumulative.  Writing enables more information to be handed on from one generation to the next than can be encompassed in a single memory.”

Writing seems to have been invented independently seven times: Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Indus Valley script, the Minoan script known as ‘linear B’, Chinese ideograms and Mayan/Aztecan pictograms.  Writing first appeared in the form of pictograms, simple drawings of what the symbols represented. They evolved into ideograms, which were more abstract, then as syllables as people began to realize that words were not just names for things but also sounds.  The sheer number of symbols in these early forms prevented their wide spread, however, with 900 in cuneiform and 700 in hieroglyphics, for example, and restricted their use to the elite.

In the near-Eastern cultures (Hebrew, Canaanite and Phoenician), about 1800 BCE, the ideographic representation of ideas began to be replaced by the ‘alphabet’, in which the symbol set was reduced to a small enough number to be able to be understood by anyone.

The alphabet seems to have been invented only once.  The first alphabet seems to be the ‘proto-Sinaitic’ more than a thousand years BCE, and was used by the Hebrews, Canaanities and Phoenicians.  It was imported by the Phoenicians to the Greeks about 900 BCE, and became the basis for the Hebrew alphabet.

The Greek Alphabetic Evolution

The first four letters of the Greek alphabet are alpha, beta, gamma and delta, showing its evolution from the Hebrew aleph, bet, gimmel and dalet.  In the move to Greek, over time the Greek alphabet acquired vowels (not found in Hebrew), and evolved in its order of words:

  • from the Hebrew order of writing from right-to-left
  • through an intermediate order of right-to-left-and-back-again
  • finally to left-to-right.

By the fifth century BCE it seems to have completed this evolution.

The inclusion of vowels was an important addition, in that it reflected a change in the way that the language was interpreted:

  • Languages without vowels (right-to-left, as in Hebrew) require a greater understanding of the context of each word, and through this ambiguity offer the possibility of many meanings to the written statement.
  • Those with vowels (left-to-right, as in Greek, Latin and English) are less ambiguous, and contain their own meaning.

Therefore, as Sacks points out, the significance of this evolution doesn’t lie in the simple physical act of the two different methods, but in the two different mental activities which are paramount in the two types of languages:

  • serial mental processing in the vowelled languages
  • holistic understanding in the vowell-less languages.

Saks places great importance on this shifted manner of thinking which resulted from the migration of the order of writing and the inclusion of vowels.  He cites the belief of Walter Ong, that “Writing restructures consciousness”, indicating that this shift of writing order either resulted from or precipitated the way that humans made sense of themselves and their environment.  This shift was to open new vistas for thinking, as we shall see.

The Next Post

As we shall see in a later post, this difference in approach to thinking is the result of the activities of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, but in the next post we will take a look at the unprecedented thinking that arose in the Greek culture as a result of this shift.