I had a good, long lunch with a friend in town today, and we got to talking about how one knows what is true, and what isn’t. It started out with a conversation about journalism. I told him I had become postmodern on the question of journalistic objectivity, treating news sources far less authoritatively than I once did, not out of any garden-variety right-wing notion of media bias, but simply because I’ve seen from the inside how confirmation bias works to set a news agenda. We went on in that vein, and my friend said that as he gets older (we’re both middle aged), he finds he’s becoming the sort of person who looks less to discover what’s true, and more to discover what works. It’s not that he believes truth is “whatever works,” but that truth is so difficult to discern that one simply has to take a lot of things for granted if one is going to get out of bed in the morning, make coffee, and get the kids out the door to school. I understand this very well.
I told him about the linguist Daniel Everett’s memoir “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes,” about his years living with an Amazon tribe, and what he learned about the nature of truth and perception. I tried to find my old Beliefnet post on that topic, but Beliefnet is virtually impossible to search now. After considerable effort, I located the post via The Wayback Machine. I’m posting it in its entirety below, hoping that a new set of readers will find it worth considering and talking about.
Last night I read a fascinating book, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes,” an account of living in the Amazon jungle written by a linguist, Dan Everett, who initially went into the jungle as a missionary, but who came out an atheist. Everett’s website is here; you can order the book through it, if you like, and read interviews with him.
Everett spent decades living with the Piraha tribe, learning their extremely difficult language so he could translate the Bible for them, and lead them to the Christian faith. How he lost his own Christian faith in the process is a story that he tells in the book all too briefly; this is primarily a book about language. Still, I find myself this morning taken by a concept that recurs in the book: the subjectivity of knowledge, or, to phrase it another way, the cultural contingency of epistemology. Which is simply a fancypants way of saying not simply that the truths we know are culturally conditioned, but our way of knowing truth is also.
Everett begins his book with a startling anecdote. One morning, he and his family were awakened in their riverbank hut by the sound of the tribe rushing down to the river to see something amazing: a theophany. The excited Piraha were pointing to a beach on the opposite side of the river, where they saw “Xigagai, the spirit” appearing, and threatening the men with death if they went into the jungle. Everett writes:
Even I could tell that there was nothing on that white, sandy beach no more than one hundred yards away. And yet as certain as I was about this, the Pirahas were equally certain that there was something there. Maybe there had been something there that I missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagai, was still there.His young daughter came out to have a look, and like her father, saw nothing. Everett continues:
What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahas culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another’s views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahas, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.
For epistemological reasons, this made presenting the Gospel to the Pirahas, impossible — which raises theological questions having to do with truth and responsibility. But it also raises questions about what truths our secular rationalist worldview cannot see, because we are not equipped to see what’s really there. Read on if you’re interested in learning more about what Everett observed, and in this topic.
Everett discovered that the Piraha are incapable of believing the Gospel, because of the way they are culturally conditioned towards the truth. They do not believe anything told to them unless the person relating the information was an actual eyewitness to the event. As it is impossible for anyone today to have witnessed the events recorded in the Gospels, they simply cannot believe in Jesus. Similarly, though, a trader could come up the river and tell them that man had walked on the moon, and unless they could be confident that the trader had personally witnessed the event, the Piraha wouldn’t believe him.
This is plainly absurd, and the Piraha have closed themselves off to a vast amount of truth. But I couldn’t help thinking about how secular materialists have closed themselves off in a similar way by disbelieving, as a matter of principle, in the truth of anything that cannot be scientifically verified, or explained through known materialist causes.
Similarly, though, I have to admit that my own ability to believe in the Gospel story depends heavily on cultural factors, to an extent that should probably make me uncomfortable. Though there was a time in my life in which I wasn’t sure I believed, the God I was agnostic about was the God of the Bible, not the god of the Koran, or any other god. If God existed, He was the God of the Bible, in other words. But why should this be so, except for the fact that I was born and raised in a Christian culture? That subjectivity puts my faith on shakier epistemological grounds, of course, but it by no means invalidates it. What if the story of what happened to a minor Middle Eastern tribe thousands of years ago, and later, what occurred among them in first-century Palestine, was not only objectively true, but that the essential truths of that narrative had been reliably preserved in a book, and in tradition, such that it was passed down to me, so far away in time and place? In other words, what if Tolkien was correct that Christianity is a myth that’s true? As Joseph Pearce has written:
Tolkien preserved his mother’s legacy and kept the faith, not only in his life but also in his work. In particular, and crucially, Tolkien’s encounter with the depths of Christian mysticism and his understanding of the truths of orthodox theology enabled him to unravel the philosophy of myth that inspired not only the “magic” of his books but also the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity.
Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”
“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic “progress” leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.
“In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology,” wrote Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, “Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion.” It is also the creed at the heart of all his other work. His short novel, Tree and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true myth, and his poem, “Mythopoeia,” is an exposition in verse of the same concept.
Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their “mythopoeia” to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.
Such a revelation changed Lewis’ whole conception of Christianity, precipitating his conversion.
Anyway, reflecting on how unlikely it is that I would have had the great mercies shown to me to have been raised in a cultural milieu that made me more open to the truth of the Christian faith than had I been raised in a different place, I find my response to be first one of gratitude for what I have been given, and secondly one of praying for God’s mercy on those who weren’t as blessed as I have been in this way. I would hope that people from other religious traditions would have the same view of me, in my ignorance. That’s not to say truth is entirely subjective and relative. Either Jesus was who he said he was, or not — and the truth or falsity of that has profound consequences. Still, the presumption of humility and mercy is wise, I think.
Everett also discusses the practical differences between what he had eyes to see, versus what his Piraha friends could see. He says that often the Pirahas saved him from danger because their eyes could see a threat in the jungle — the pinprick-red eyes of a caiman on a jungle trail at night — that his Western eyes could not perceive. The threat was there, but he could not perceive it because he had not been raised in a culture that valued seeing those things. On the other hand, on the occasion when he would take some Piraha to the city, they were utterly lost and defeated by things (e.g., traffic patterns) Everett could clearly see, and judge, because he’d been acculturated in a particular way.
These accounts should make all of us, whatever we believe, pause in a moment of epistemic humility. We believe ourselves to be more at liberty than our ancestors because we are not bound by the traditions of the past. In some ways, this is plainly true. Yesterday I met a man who moved back to Dallas from Bosnia, where he’d been working for some years. He talked about how defeating it can be to try to parse through the ethnic hatreds there, and what a terrible deadweight history is on the people of the region. “They’re still fighting over events that happened seven centuries ago,” he said. That’s an important truth about the tragedy of tradition that would-be traditionalists like me ought to be humbled by. And yet, how pompous and irrational it is for we moderns to believe that the past has nothing to teach us, and that we have the right to stand in absolute judgment of the past — as opposed to the past standing in a position to judge us. How do we know that our ancestors didn’t see certain important truths more clearly than we?
A related side note: the man with whom I spoke yesterday, the guy who just got back from Bosnia, had spent much of his childhood in Mexico, the son of missionaries. We briefly talked about differences between the Mexican and American ways of seeing the world. He said that Americans often see Mexicans as “lazy,” but that is far from the truth. In fact, this man said, “Mexicans are generally the hardest working people I’ve ever seen.” The misperception comes in large part from differences between the American and Mexican ways of experiencing time. Americans, he said, are monochronous; Mexicans are polychronous; the difference is explained here. The Mexican scholar Jorge Castaneda explored it in more depth in this 1995 Atlantic Monthly essay. Excerpt:
Everything is slow in Mexico, but not because Mexicans cannot do things quickly. Everything is slow because the passage of time is not very noticeable. Time is flat: too frequently nothing changes with time, and the sense of its going by — the reason for putting a premium on it — is absent. Much of Mexico lacks seasons except when it rains and when it doesn’t, and in the countryside the dry season is basically devoted to waiting for rain; for this and more-complex reasons as well, time in Mexico is not what it is in the United States. Time divides our two countries as much as any other single factor.One of the most obvious implications of this difference — which actually pertains to much of Latin America, particularly those nations with a strong pre-Columbian heritage — is that immediate responses, rapid cause-and-effect sequences, are rare. Time lags, delayed reactions, an often incomprehensible patience, tend to be much more common. Quick causes are not always matched by equally quick effects. On many occasions the effect is simply slow in coming: it will happen, in time.
One more thing: stories I’ve heard from missionaries to Africa and India, who tell hair-raising stories about the power of the demonic there — things they’ve actually witnessed — make me wonder about the limits of our Western perception. I’ve written in this space many times about paranormal things I’ve experienced, both divine and demonic, the reality of which I could no more deny than I could deny the reality of the roof over my head as I type this. And yet, if it’s true that evil spirits roam about the world seeking the ruin of men, and we can know this not only from the testimony of holy scripture, but also from eyewitness accounts, especially in cultures where polytheism and animism remain strong, then why don’t we see more of that happening in the West? The answer my late exorcist friend Father Termini would have given was that it was happening here, but we are conditioned to deny it to ourselves. Indeed, he was a very busy man, though he didn’t advertise his work (“By the time people find me,” he said to me once, “they don’t need convincing that this stuff is real.”). But it is also undeniably true that people who are culturally conditioned to believe that evil spirits are omnipresent are also culturally conditioned to see them even when they aren’t there.
So: did the Piraha gathered on the riverbank that day suffer from mass hallucination, because theycouldn’t have been seeing a manifestation of an evil spirit, as evil spirits don’t exist? Or is it possible that there really was a manifestation of an evil spirit that day, and the eyes of the Westerners could not see what was really there, because they were cognitively unable to perceive a level of reality that was open to the Piraha? My guess would be: mass hallucination. But I’m not entirely confident of that judgment. Everett became an atheist through his work with the Piraha; he did not become a believer in jungle spirits. We all see through a glass darkly.