On Speaking of the Immaterial

In his NYT bestselling Sapiens, Yuval Harari posits that humans (homo sapiens in particular) differentiated themselves from other types of the genus homo many thousands of years ago because of a ‘cognitive revolution.’ Specifically, this cognitive revolution exposed itself in the novel use of language.

Other species have (or had) language, even the ones outside of homo. Apes, for example, have specific calls that indicate certain types of predators. Bees and other insects use a type of “language” — not one that we would recognize — that indicate optimum places for finding nourishment. The difference in language use for homo sapiens, however, is how we use(d) our language. Language types in all other species only deal in the concrete, the immediate, the present. Material reality is the only reality in the languages of non-sapiens.

So what does Harari say we used our language for, exactly? Somehow, the cognitive revolution (which he says occurred sometime around 70,000 years ago — a blip on the radar by cosmological standards) led to the ability for sapiens (read: humans as we currently understand them) to speak of the immaterial. It gave us the ability to create common myths, to speak of that which does not ‘exist,’ to create fictions (Harari’s words). These common myths, these signs and sounds wrapped around that which is unknown to us on a material level allowed us to master the world. We formed small groups, tribes, villages, cities, all centered on common thoughts and ideas. We made agreements about what the world was really like, the nature of reality, what set of ideas or gods or spirits deserved our loyalty. These common groups of thought helped facilitate the formation of bonds that transcended the individual survival mechanisms inherent to biological humanity.

Basically, it’s in our very DNA to be — not only linguistic — but immaterially linguistic creatures. We speak of the physical world, but we have the ability and the impetus to speak of more than that.

Now, if I can take Harari’s idea a step further: if we take this to be true, what does this immaterially linguistic capacity reveal about modern thought on knowledge and religious affection?

The Enlightenment project (oversimplification, I know) was inherently about knowledge. In particular – what is knowledge, and how do we have confidence that our knowledge is justified? The debate essentially turned on whether we know things innately and through reason (rationalism), or whether our knowledge originates in experience and observance of the physical world (empiricism). Both positions present major philosophical problems that Immanuel Kant attempted to solve in the mid-1700s. His solution to these problems, unbeknownst to most of the modern world, still presently serves as the foundation for much of our modern epistemological assumptions about what we can know (knowledge theory isn’t exactly interesting to many people, but the reality is that much of what we take for granted in the modern world – science, medicine, technology, etc. – is only possible because we have what seems to be a coherent understanding of what “knowledge” is).

All of these questions about knowledge from the 17th-19th centuries further created conflicts for religious thought that we continue to grapple with today. One of Kant’s ideas, for example, is that “knowledge” proper can only be gained through the interplay between categories which are internal to us (specifically, the ideas of space and time) and our sense experience of the physical world external to us. If that’s the case, any experience we try to name outside of the sphere of external, material reality doesn’t properly fit in the (modern) category of knowledge.

If the Enlightenment epistemological project attempted to get a handle of the limits of human reason to determine knowledge, its final position in Kant was the category of knowledge only applies to that which humans interact with and experience on the level of material reality. Knowledge, based on empirical data, was made king during the Enlightenment! Yet this undermines the very thing that makes us human — that immaterial linguistic capacity. If modernity and Enlightenment thinking have the final say, and humans can only justifiably speak of material reality, we lose something fundamental to the essence of humanity.

Humanity, Friedrich Schleiermacher said, universally experiences something he called gefühl. This can be translated many ways, but by this he meant an internal intuition that humans are utterly dependent on the infinite, on ultimate reality. Gefühl, for Schleiermacher, was the fundamental basis for religious affection, and it is experienced by everyone on some level. He wrote about this because, while he agreed with Kant that justified knowledge can only be based on external, material data, this did not account for something more fundamental at the base of what it means to be human. Right or wrong about the evolutionary assumptions he makes, Harari seems to affirm something of what Schleiermacher wrote about religious affection in humanity. That which makes humans unique and inherently different from the rest of creation – the ability to speak of the immaterial – is that which pushes humans to grasp outside of material reality, even in a post-Enlightenment era.

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