We often think that our ancestors held many beliefs that we have since abandoned. For example, gods, spirits, magic and the like are not part of most people’s modern worldview. But with more and more evidence, I don’t think it’s right to say that our ancestors believed in these things. In the same way, I don’t think it’s quite right to say that I believe in this cup. Hardly anyone would ask me if I believe in this cup. The cup is part of my and now your experience – it’s not a matter of belief.
It seems spirits or rather spirit was part of our ancestors’ immediate experience. And yes we do have evidence for this.
Our confusion about our ancestors is based on the common but false assumption that we perceive the world as it is. This way of thinking is called naive realism, because it is well, naive. Most people are naive realists either knowingly or unknowingly, and therefore ignorant of the basic fact that we don’t just receive the reality with our senses. We create it.
We are actively involved in constructing our perceived reality. Our color perception is a wonderful example of this. One could expect that the colours we see in the world are properties of the world. But in reality science now knows that the colours you experience depend on your language.
For example my mother language Finnish didn’t have the word for blue until recently. There are still many remnants of this in the Finnish language. For example blueberry is blackberry in Finnish. And it really seems my Finnish ancestors couldn’t have told the difference between black and blue.Same story in India. The blue god called Krishna has always been presented as blue even though Krishna means black. And it’s not just a word game. It really seems that they also didn’t perceive the difference between these colours.
A Greek poet Homer from 8th century BC described the colors with rich and precise language. According to him the sea was red. The sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze.
Welcome to the psychedelic world of Ancient Greece!
This is of course an exaggeration but the principle is true. The idea that language influences reality is called the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” after its originators Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which Sapir-Whorf applies. Nevertheless it gives us the first clues about the world of our ancestors. They lived in the same world as we do, but they experienced it differently.
British philosopher Owen Barfield was one of the first ones to have clear understanding of this. In many ways he was a remarkable person. His contemporaries insist that you changed forever if you had a privilege of meeting him. He was considered the first and last Inkling. The Inklings were of course a literary discussion group in Oxford associated with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Lewis, for example was a sworn atheist before meeting Barfield. We know very well how that thing turned out.
Barfield’s work especially in the book ‘Saving the Appearances’ gives us wonderful insight into how our ancestors’ mind operated.
Basically until this time, naive realism had wreaked havoc on academic thought. They took it for granted that our ancestors perceived the same world as we do but they just didn’t get it. They though the primitive human just made very poor conclusions about what he saw. And because, it was thought, they lacked the ability to explain their experience, they had to introduce supernatural forces into the world to explain the phenomena to their satisfaction.
Mr. Barfield disagreed. He wrote:
”Anthropology began by assuming as a matter of course that primitive peoples perceive the same phenomena as we do and on that assumption investigated their beliefs about these phenomena. Now however some anthropologists have begun to point out that the difference between the primitive outlook and ours begins at an earlier stage
The most striking difference between primitive figuration and ours is, that the primitive involves ‘participation’, that is, an awareness which we no longer have, of an extra-sensory link between the percipient and the representations. This involves, not only that we think differently, but that the phenomena themselves are different.”
As a modern person you most likely perceive the world as a phenomenon outside yourself. You probably find this to be the most obvious thing ever. Most have never even heard that there are other options.
So what does Barfield mean when he’s talking about the extra-sensory link between percipient and the representations? Let’s try to use the language of modern philosophy.
The mainstream view right now is that our self is being produced inside our heads and that our self is perceiving a world outside itself.
Believe it or not, most of our distant ancestors would find this way of thinking strange.
But today most people take it for granted that consciousness is produced by our brains. However, the scientific debate on the subject has started to turn in the other direction in recent years. The explanatary gap from brain processes to experience known has the Hard Problem of Conciousness and the epistemological fact that consciousness is the only real known, are serious problems for this hypothesis. We’ll dip into that philosophical debate at a later time. For now we can just accept that what goes on inside our brains definitely correlates with experience – that just doesn’t necessarily mean the brain produces consciousness.
“Correlation does not imply causation” was the first thing they taught me in the philosophy of science class.
In any case our ancestors would have real hard time trying to grasp the view that they are observing a world outside themselves from inside their heads. In similar fashion we have hard time understanding the extra-sensory link between the self and the world Owen Barfield was talking about.
After lecturing on this subject for a decade, I have noticed that the easiest way for a modern person to understand this, is the dream analogy.
We don’t stop often enough to appreciate the magical thing that happens to us every night. Yes we dream, but there is something remarkable about dreams. In dream we ourselves can become that which experiences and the experience itself. In sense you are able to divide yourself. You are the being that experiences the dream. But you are also the dream, the experience.
In Barfiel’s language, when you are dreaming there is an extra-sensory link between you and the dream – they both are you. Our ancestors cleary differentiated waking state from dreaming. Nonetheless for them this extra-sensory link was true as much in waking life as in sleep. We on the other hand accept this only to be true about our sleep. That of course again is because we consider our brain to be the only source of consciousness.
This explains why our ancestors saw life in such a fundamentally different way.
French scholar Lucien Lévy-Bruhl put it nicely: ”They saw with eyes like ours, but they did not perceive with the same minds.”
Our ancestors participated in the world. For them it was obvious, that just like we don’t just receive the colours from the world but our language paints them. We don’t just inhabit the world outside us, we participate in the process that creates our reality. Our reality is so personal that it is useful to call it an operating system. Some of you are watching this video on Android, some on Windows some on iOS, we have differing operating systems for internet. We also have different operating systems for the reality.
You never see the world as it is like the naive realists thought. You always see, hear and feel your operating system. Basically your sense information is the operating system.
This operating system is somewhat flexible. As a matter of fact, our ancestors came up with countless ways to influence it.
But although we can influence the functioning of our operating system, we cannot do so consciously. Compare it to your digestion. You can’t consciously change how your digestion operates. But you can still learn indirect ways to optimise it.
Our ancestors realised that If we want to optimise our operating system, we have to tap into the very process that is responsible for creating our reality. They excelled in this area. Countless ancient cultures perfected their methods, which is why I refer to their methods as Ancient Science.
Well, so far we have learned that there are two main variants of our operating system. These were well known to the Indian tradition. Ancient Indians called them the upward-looking and outward-looking experiences.
Sir John Woodroffe, in my opinion the most wonderful western orientalist of the 20th century explained this clearly:
“The basis of knowing, whether in super-sense or sense-knowledge, is actual experience. Experience is of two kinds: the whole or full experience; and incomplete experience.. In the first experience, Consciousness is said to be ‘upward-looking’ (Unmukhi) — that is, ‘not looking to another’. In the second experience it is ‘outward-looking’ (Bahirmukhi).”
So our operating system can be upward-looking, which means your reality appears whole. Why upwards? The oldest symbol for wholeness or infinity is sky. Sky is up.
For the outward-looking operating system the world appears to be outside the self. Therefore it is outward-looking.
Ancient Indians developed a life culture in which they reprogrammed this fundamental connection into their operating system. Connection or union in their This connection was called yoga. Yoga simply means connection or union.
Cultures around the world knew that we have the power to influence the foundation of our experience. The connection we experience with everything and the meaningfulness of our life. And I really mean experience – not an intellectual connection.
Religar is a latin word with the same meaning, which gives us the modern word religion.
There are plenty of names given to these practices that preserve the connection or reconnect. We call them religion, tradition, mysticism, mythology and others.
I think we have misunderstood these practices for centuries. On my next video I would love to go even deeper into the religions. Can they really change our operating system for better? Or perhaps worse?