We Are All Still Animists

[Children do not] have to be taught to attribute people’s behavior to the mental states they’re in. Children tend, quite naturally, to anthropomorphize whatever moves. What they have to learn is which things don’t have minds, not which things do.”
–Jerry Fodor (“It’s the Thought That Counts,” London Review of Books, November 28, 1996.)

Iconoclastic statements have always appealed to me, particularly because they cause me to look at the iconic statements they are set against in a new and critical light. Sometimes the iconic statements survive the scrutiny; oftentimes they don’t. In this case the iconic statement, that children learn that other people have minds of their own (theory of mind) over time, seems commonsensical until it is re-read in light of Fodor’s statement. Then it appears less evidently true.

Look at the first part of Fodor’s statement, that children “quite naturally . . . anthropomorphize whatever moves.” To anthropomorphize is to attribute human characteristics, in particular a mind with such things as motives, desires, feelings, etc., to nonhuman things. But, in my experience, not just to things that move (pets, for example), but also to things that don’t move: Dolls and figurines don’t move, though they look like they could, but small children also attribute feelings to objects that, to an adult, clearly are inanimate, such as blankies and other favored possessions; hence their sense of tragedy when the blankie disappears into the laundry hamper, or the favorite rubber ball deflates.

This tendency, however, does not come to an abrupt end when children learn that such objects are not “alive” but lingers in suppressed form though much of childhood and even on into adulthood. Hence the tendency to, for example, name one’s car, or to kick it when it breaks down (“Stupid car!” one might angrily shout, even though we really know that an inanimate manmade object can’t be either smart or stupid). We might also consider the “relationship” that hoarders have with their hoards and other obsessions that we refer to as sentimental attachments. Objects once owned by deceased loved ones are often felt to maintain the presence of the deceased in our lives, various objects are felt to be lucky, and so forth. These are all attenuated forms of anthropomorphizing because we think of them as almost being alive and having feelings. Adult anthropomorphizing can be quite sophisticated. Who hasn’t at one time or another had the profound experience of having communed with nature and perhaps even receiving answers from it—even though “nature” is an abstraction, not a thing, and certainly not a sentient being.

The second part of Fodor’s statement is even more intriguing: “What they have to learn is which things don’t have minds, not which things do.” One wonders, how do they learn that, and from whom? I guess from older children (who might ridicule the kid who still thinks his action figures come to life at night) and adults (who can be rather rudely insensitive to a child’s naïve beliefs—the kid has to be told at some point that Santa Claus is really Mommy and Daddy, or that the tree outside his window is just blowing in the wind and not trying to grab him). At any rate, at some point most of us do realize that not everything is alive and emoting. Some things are just stuff.

But note that its takes learning to realize that. It is not the natural state of the human mind to be so, well, materialist. The default natural position, as Fodor notes, is to anthropomorphize. It is unfashionable these days to think of primitive man as childlike, but I’m going to hazard being unfashionable to make a point not about individual cognitive or intellectual development, but about human development in general. I’m going to propose a mental experiment as a means of narrating a scenario of how human beings may have “progressed” from an original form of thought to the modern mode, how in fact humans in general learned that not all things have minds.

To do this we will have to imagine what it was like for the first humans with sufficient intelligence and consciousness to notice their own existence, by which I mean an awareness that they were something distinct within a very big world with lots of things happening in it, things which needed explaining. Imagine that you are one of these beings (it doesn’t matter if they were already H. sapiens or some predecessor), gradually, as it were, waking up from the purely animal state of taking the world for granted. Let us take a particular phenomenon, say a rainstorm after a long dry period. Like any animal, you know the signs of impending rain; even before the clouds roll in and the wind picks up, you can smell the rain, and like other animals you feel excited by the prospect.

But unlike the other animals, you have a thought: What makes it rain? (It is unlikely that you could articulate the thought in this way, such an articulation being the product of generations of linguistic and philosophical traditions, which you of course don’t have, but the inkling of the thought is there.) What do you have to go on? Well, nothing. You do not have elders to tell you why it rains; you have no tradition to which you can refer. You have no set of concepts or theories readymade to explain such things. You must generate an answer from what you do have.

And what you have is your experience of others of your own kind. You know that when the alpha male of your band bites you, it is because you have made him angry (though of course, again, you probably don’t yet have any words for that), and you know that when another individual of your band shares her meat with you, she is pleased with you or wants to mate with you. You and your fellows are also adept at reading the signs of various animals—you can predict what they are going to do by their current actions, you can know what they want (the lion’s crouch means he wants to kill and eat you) or what they feel (the antelope’s withdrawal means he fears you, etc.) You therefore already have at hand a kind of rudimentary theory of mind: actions are caused by the mental states of actors. But you do not have any theory to explain other occurrences, such as why it rains.

We know today that rain comes as the result of fairly well-understood shifts in high and low pressure areas, storm fronts, and so forth, so generally we do not ascribe the coming of rain to a mind. But, as the first man or first woman or even, perhaps, first boy or girl, you don’t have that modern scientific advantage. You have only your rudimentary theory of mind, so you anthropomorphize, i.e., you project onto the weather a state of mind (or states of mind, for as time goes on you or your descendents elaborate your initial insight). You might, however you can (depending on what linguistic tools you have available), say something like this: “The rain has decided to come back.” You have explained why it is about to rain after a long period without rain, in a way that probably is quite satisfying to you and your comrades, at least for now.

Because the next question (maybe you ask it, maybe a cousin asks it, maybe it must wait for your grandson to ask it) will be: “Why has the rain decided to come back?” And then, “Why did it go away in the first place?” Perhaps by analogy with human comings and goings, you posit an answer: “It left because it was angry with us, and it came back because it has forgiven us.” But then, “What did we do to make it angry? What did we do to make it come back? If we do that again, can we always make it come back?” And so on. The possible elaborations that can grow from these few edenic assumptions are infinite, and I would argue in fact were. The traditions these gave rise to are today called animism, the belief that all natural phenomena are animated by a soul or spirit, just as men and women are, and therefore act for the same kinds of reasons as humans do.

If my little scenario is correct, then animism is the natural, default mode of thought for all human beings, and large bodies of evidence seem to support that view, from the Cro-Magnon caves of Europe to the myths of Greece and pre-Columbian America, from African fetishes to Siberian shamanism and the folktales of any culture you can think of. All the great organized religions have animism as their root system, regardless of how sophisticated their theological and liturgical superstructures. Even the great systems of secular philosophy descend from animism, and in fact I would argue depend on an animistic turn of mind. Take Plato, who posited that the objects of the material world that we occupy were imperfect embodiments of Ideal forms—all the tables of the world, regardless of what they were made of (wood, stone, etc.) and design, are perishable manifestations of the Ideal table, which is immaterial and permanent, the true Table. I would argue that this is a very refined form of animism because it holds that there is an immaterial, spiritual realm or dimension behind and creative of the material world, a world soul, as some of his descendents have termed it.

Christianity too is rooted in animism. The phenomena of this world are signs and portents of God, of his love, of his anger (floods, comets, tornadoes, etc.), of his mighty creative power. Nothing exists without God, the spirit behind everything, the Prime Mover, etc. Certain forms of Christianity have been especially friendly towards its animist predecessors, incorporating various pagan spirits of this oak grove or that spring, into its pseudo-pantheon of saints. Even modern philosophical systems require at least a vestigial animism to get their gears and belts moving. Hegel is a good example, especially since his philosophy of history (rightfully or wrongfully interpreted) has had, and continues to have, enormous influence, even on those who have never read him or heard of him. Any time an American politician invokes the inevitability of some historical moment, towards universal democracy or, even, the “end of history,” he or she is being Hegelian (although perhaps more in the sense of a comic book than a dissertation). But Hegel and others illustrate the difficulty that modern secular heirs to the Christian tradition (i.e., the “West”) have in breaking free of the fundamental assumption of animism, i.e., that there is a spiritual or immaterial force behind physical phenomena that explains all.

Teleology, which is the notion that history has a goal towards which it is inexorably moving, is basic to Christian eschatology (the “end times”). It is also basic to most secular philosophies that grow out of the Christian tradition (i.e., the West), such as Marxism. We Americans are not immune to it, as our political rhetoric relentlessly reveals, from Jefferson through Wilson to Obama and our current crop of contenders for the vacancy soon to open in the White House. The inevitable march of progress, or democracy, or globalization, or justice, or whatever it might be. All teleological. Perhaps that is why no politician can get elected to high office if he does not proclaim his or her belief in God. It also explains American exceptionalism, which has always contained the assumption (stated or implied) that America is doing God’s work on earth.

Now, you would think that scientists would be immune from this mode of thought. After all, they are materialists, seeking to explain the world not in terms of spirits or gods or miracles and what not, but in purely material, reductive, even sometimes mechanical terms. But I am not convinced that scientists are immune to animist thinking. For one thing, they are making sense of the world in terms of human sense, and I find it hard to believe that the human brain, marvelous as it seems to its possessors, is really, as the product of the same process of evolution as all other living things, capable of understanding anything in other than human terms, and when I see respected scientists indulging in fantasies of such things as multiple universes,

I can’t help but think there is a strong element of wish and dream in such “theories.”
But more importantly, the rhetoric of science betrays the vestiges of animistic thinking. This shows up in the way both scientists and informed laymen narrate the “story” of evolution, particularly of human evolution (as acknowledged recently by Ian Tattersall in his book The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack), as a story of not only increasing complexity and diversity, but of increasingly perfected beings. It’s a way of emphasizing the importance and grandeur of Homo sapiens, us big-brained conquerors of the world, the lords of the anthropocene era (how nice to have a whole era named after ourselves, even if it’s a name of our own devising). Said scientists and informed laymen will protest that the teleological verbiage of the standard tale is metaphorical and not to be taken literally, an efficient way to tell the story of evolution comprehensible to the average man or woman or child on the street. Which avoids the issue of why scientists would indulge in poetry, and also raises the question of just how much condescension lies behind this self-defense.

But I don’t believe the excuses. They sound like rationalizations, a post hoc dodge, a refusal to look in the mirror and admit that they really do, in their heart of hearts, believe that human beings are special, exceptional creatures lifted above all others—and therefore, in a political sense, entitled to make use of “resources” as we see fit, and/or gifted with sufficient intelligence to solve all problems, including the worst of our own—with “new technologies.” I don’t believe them because they are not only all too consistent in presenting natural selection, for one example, in anthropomorphic terms, rather than just as a convenient label for something that consistently happens, but worse, getting quite riled at the suggestion that evolution, and the biological world in general, is not nearly that logical, that it is not teleological (they would never use that word or admit to believing it, but the patterns of their prose make it quite clear that they do believe that evolution is a teleological process).

If evolution consistently works in the way they say it does, if it “selects,” if it perfectly adapts the organism to its environment, if it “hones” a species, if organs are “designed” to fulfill a specific function, if the reason dinosaurs had feathers was to insulate them from the weather or attract mates, if mutations are “copying errors” rather than just what happens, then they are more than implying that there is something behind evolution moving it forward—they may not overtly worship it, but they do stand in pious awe of it. They are, in short, still fundamentally animists, for it is the animist’s basic premise that the world makes sense in humanly sensible terms.

I do not believe that this is just poetry, just metaphor. Metaphor is what the human mind does, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have demonstrated so well, not only in their book Metaphors We Live By but in Philosophy in the Flesh, and as have such predecessors as Charles Fox in his 1932 book The Mind and Its Body. What these authors and others have emphasized is the factness of humans’ existence as bodies, bodies in particular place with particular features and organs and particular brains—not spirits encased in flesh. We are flesh, matter, with what one author calls its blissful limits as well as its potentials.

Perhaps if we had a cousin species, say surviving Neanderthals, with whom we could compare notes, or an altogether different species with which we could communicate sufficiently to understand a totally different mode of thought, we would be less subject to animist projection, but we find ourselves alone. No other creature comes close to being like humans (please don’t raise your hands and say “chimps” or “dolphins,” with neither of which we could discuss this matter), so we have had to go it alone on our intellectual adventure these last few hundred thousands of years or so. But we should at least be more humble about it.


  • Wild Spirit Louisiana  On June 27, 2015 at 9:43 AM

    The animist mind is powered by trying to understand why things happen which gives way to the how of scientific mind…seems like a logical progression that the mind uses to comprehend the experience of consciousness and presence in this reality. I like the idea of remaining humble when it come to trying to understand all that is…bodies and organs are indeed matter …not all minds or bodies are created equal …that does give us something to learn. As for spirit and multiple universes, the products of speculation by certain types of minds…well, there were times that speculation about the sub atomic nature of reality may have seemed animistic and perhaps it was but that had its “purpose.” I would speculate that even Neanderthals (whose genes are still with us) and any “aliens” would not have much to tell us about modes of thought that we need to experience ourselves and eventually will if we keep an open mind to all possibilities.

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