Consider the narrative of human history that shapes your understanding of how our current, technologically advanced society came to be. We have all learned that mankind began in a primitive state, separating ourselves from our ape-like ancestors as our craniums grew in size. After countless years of hunting and gathering, subsisting from nature much like other animals do, eventually we learned how to grow crops and domesticate certain animals, and thus were able to establish more permanent dwelling places. As our agricultural practices became more efficient, our economic activities expanded beyond growing food and building shelter, and craftsmen emerged molding the raw materials of nature into useful tools and products, and with the craftsmen came merchants who found markets for these products while returning with desirable goods from distant lands. A mostly agrarian economy endured for thousands of years, and serfdom was replaced by slavery, until the scientific revolution spawned the industrial revolution, rendering slave labor unnecessary and transforming the economy from an agricultural base to a manufacturing one. And so on…
Paralleling this tale of economic progress is a story of cultural progress toward greater enlightenment. As our economy developed and technology advanced, we began to develop more sophisticated systems of religious doctrines and rituals; superstitious, pagan polytheism was replaced by a more rational monotheism that unified diverse culture; mythological explanations gave way to philosophical and then scientific explanations; and cave drawings became the Mona Lisa and St. Peter’s Basilica. In other words, as the economy became more technologically sophisticated, mankind also became more culturally sophisticated.
One of the many benefits of studying philosophy is that it gives you the conceptual tools to reconsider and evaluate beliefs that one may take for granted. My Theory of Knowledge course exposes students to and equips them to deal reflectively and critically with controversies surrounding the nature, creation, production, and dissemination of knowledge. In our lesson on Karl Marx, the knowledge issue I posed to them was “Which is more fundamental – material knowledge or cultural knowledge?” Marx’s answer was clear: the material (or economic) provides the basis of society while culture (which includes art, religion, philosophy, politics) is the superstructure. While he described how the two influence each other dialectically, he believed that material/economic progress is the driver of cultural progress.
As I was exploring Marxist philosophy with my students, it occurred to me, in a flash of insight (which is another great benefit to teaching this class – I acquire spontaneous fresh understandings frequently), how Marxist our default view of history, described above, really is (I joked with my students how ironic this is considering how ‘Marxist’ is a dirty word in our culture, especially in politics!). Our cultural default view of history is one of material/technological progress enabling and liberating cultural progress.
This thought brought to mind a National Geographic article (“Birth of Religion” June 2011) I read about a potentially paradigm-shifting archeological find in central Turkey. The site, called Gobeki Tepe, is the oldest known example of ‘monumental architecture,’ which means any building more sturdy and complicated than a hut. Central to the site is a mammoth temple complex consisting of large pillars. Consider this first-hand account of the initial excavation:
Inches below the surface the team struck an elaborately fashioned stone. Then another, and another—a ring of standing pillars. As the months and years went by, Schmidt’s team, a shifting crew of German and Turkish graduate students and 50 or more local villagers, found a second circle of stones, then a third, and then more. Geomagnetic surveys in 2003 revealed at least 20 rings piled together, higgledy-piggledy, under the earth. The pillars were big—the tallest are 18 feet in height and weigh 16 tons. Swarming over their surfaces was a menagerie of animal bas-reliefs, each in a different style, some roughly rendered, a few as refined and symbolic as Byzantine art.
This site is significant simply because no one in the archeological community believed that primitive societies were capable of the kind of sophisticated religious practices that would have occurred in such a place. This temple was not at the center of some large agricultural settlement, but was built by “foragers.” Klaus Schmidt, the lead archeologist on the excavation, writes, “Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structures, we thought, because they must move around to follow the resources. They can’t maintain a separate class of priests and craft workers, because they can’t carry around all the extra supplies to feed them. Then here is Göbekli Tepe, and they obviously did that.”
That’s why this is a potentially paradigm-overturning find. For it suggests cultural sophistication characterized humans who were technologically, materially “primitive.” Thus, the subtitle of the article reads, “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.” Contra Karl Marx, this discovery implies that cultural knowledge is what drives progress in material knowledge.
This situation illustrates how profoundly our worldview shapes our understanding of history. If, like Marx, one views humans as fundamentally material beings, advanced animals evolved from simpler species, then the notion of cultural progress being dependent on technological advancement and improvements in our material condition makes sense. On the other hand, if one views human as fundamentally spiritual beings, made from the beginning in the image of God for the purpose of worship, and thus a different kind of creature altogether, one would expect to see cultural sophistication, especially in religion, from the dawn of human history. Like I told my students, if the biblical narrative of history is true, the first human beings were probably the most intelligent and competent of all, and that we have, while developing technologically, generally regressed since then.