In Defense of Absurd Cosmologies
June 22, 2010
Animism- the idea that every entity, even inanimate ones such as stones and buildings, has a soul (or to use less weighted language, a mind) – is about as unfashionable is at gets. It is hardly ever brought into discussion outside of new age circles, and when it is, it is usually referenced as a humorous reductio ad absurdum to some other idea. Indeed, the very word “inanimate” seems to function within our language as a built-in rejection of animism.
It has been traditional to attribute animism to the supposed infantile tendency to view all entities/phenomena as possessing minds comparable to one’s own, a tendency that is gradually outgrown as one’s perceptual faculties mature. What arises from this view is a sort of theological hierarchy, with each successive stage corresponding to ever higher levels of cognitive development: animism -> polytheism-> monotheism-> atheism (this last step may be skipped depending on which state you live in). Modern-day anthropology has mostly shed this narrative, but it lingers in the background of popular understandings of cultural development.
The biological analogue to this model is the now-discredited idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny- basically, that the historical development of forms mirrors the development of individual beings. So, in its maturation, the human body passes through phases mirroring the evolution of the human species. The only real defense of this model lies in the fact that human embryos possess gills and a tail- never mind that human children never pass through phases wherein they resemble lizards or lemurs. Regardless, there is a sort of superficial elegance to this model, and it was very much in vogue about a hundred years ago.
Applied to the development of cultural forms, this idea dives into even more dangerous waters. We are, after all, not just talking about a sequence of extinct ideas that ultimately gave rise to our current models. Animism, polytheism, monotheism, and atheism (as well as any number of less easily-categorized models) all persist to this day. To prefer any one of these as the inevitable evolutionary endpoint depends upon a fairly obvious ethnocentric assumption. It goes without saying that one’s own culture would possess the most advanced understanding, and other cultures would be viewed as more or less primitive (“infantile”) in proportion to their similarity thereto.
I mention all of this here because what is at issue is ultimately an aesthetic conflict. There is of course absolutely no rational or empirical defense for animism, and as a model it has no explanatory or predictive power. It is not so much a means of understanding the world as encountering it. Just as we would perceive other humans differently if we believed them to be mindless automatons, so do animism and related models offer the potential for a radically divergent experience of the world at large. This alone makes them worth engaging with on their own terms, and not to be rejected solely on the basis of their presumed absurdity.