Spirit and Character
Author: Rhys Chisnall
There is a growing belief in modern paganism in literal spirits. A casual look through of Pagan magazines such as Pagan Dawn or looking at pagan websites such as that of the Association of Polytheistic Traditions reveals that more and more pagans believe that spirits are literal entities in their own right. However to someone blessed with a modern mind and an admittedly incomplete understanding of the universe as revealed through evidence and scientific method it is impossible to believe in invisible entities (with agency) made of a different kind of stuff floating around us or existing on some other kind of literal plane of existence. Surely such a thing would then be a fact, an objective thing that would be subject to evidence and proof empirical rather than a matter of interpretation. If there were such a thing as literal spirits then it would be possible to prove their existence through evidence.
I hope to show that even though I believe there is no such thing as literal spirit (or spirits) it is still possible to relate to and have a relationship with it (or them) and that such a relationship is a natural outcome of having the kind of minds we have evolved with. This essay also argues that if we don’t take the existence of such beings literally, then what we mean by spirits is the same thing as characters. However of course, as always, it is up to the individual reader to make up their own minds on the literal existence of spirits but this essay serves to provide us non believers with a use for the concept of spirit, which is inferred rather than stated.
To avoid equivocation by spirit I mean the idea of an immaterial entity with agency that are seen as once being human such as the ancestors of traditional people or ghost, or those things thought never to have been human such as God, Gods, angels and demons. I am also using the term to describe the subjective experience of a particular place or time, such as the spirit of Christmas of the spirit of a place. I am also extending the term spirit to describe the animistic experience of spirits as the characters of tree and plants. People often describe their experiences of spirituality in the relationship that they have with such spiritual beings. For example they may talk about their relationship with God, their ancestors or the spirit of the land around them. It is what these people are having these spiritual relationships with which interests us.
There is no doubt that people have genuine experiences of spirits and it seems to me a little bit intellectually dishonest to dismiss them as just delusion or wishful thinking. I have spoken to people at pagan conventions who have the genuine belief that they have a personal relationship with some god or other that they often see as powerful spirit. Like George W Bush being told by the Christian God to invade Iraq, they too feel they get messages from their gods. While it should be noted that they never seem to get useful strategic information like this week’s lottery numbers or where the nearest Anglo Saxon treasure hoard is buried, they do claim to get instruction on behaviour and action. They feel that they are in a genuine two-way relationship with the deity. Therefore there need to be adequate explanations for these genuine experiences.
Anthropologists and cognitive and evolutionary psychologists suggest that the explanation has to do with our evolutionary heritage and the way our cognitive systems work. The French psychologist and anthropologist, Pascal Boyer, agrees that for many people the existence of spirits is a non controversial and unquestioned part of everyday life just as the existence of cars, plates and spoon are for us. He argues that this is due to complex reasons associated with the marvellous way that the human mind processes strategic social information, none of which is a clincher in itself but they all add up to create the kind of mind that forms relationships with what people perceive as spirits. Like most cognitive systems in the mind this occurs below the level of conscious awareness. We are unaware of the doings of most of the machinery of our minds.
Boyer argues that people have an overdeveloped sense of agency inference. By this I mean that we sometimes see or infer purpose in things where there is none. Think about it like this; imagine that you are in the forests of Africa deep in Paleolithic times. You are busy gathering your fruits when out of the corner of your eye you notice a branch move in the trees above. Evolution has programmed us in such a way that we are likely to infer the presence of some predator, a leopard perhaps, and infer that its purpose is to eat us for its supper. This is because those individuals who did infer a predator took evasive action and went on to survive and have more children who also had these predator inference capabilities thus avoiding getting eaten themselves.
In evolutionary terms, the cost of running away when we infer a predator where there is none is much lower than not inferring and not running away where there was one ready to pounce. In other words it is better to run from nine tigers that are not there, than not run from one tiger that is. The upshot of this is that evolution has given us an overdeveloped tendency to infer agency, a purpose, even when there is none. Perhaps this accounts for some of the people who claim to be psychics claiming they can sense a presence in dark spooky places.
We have evolved as a social species. Our individual survival depends on representing the minds of other people in our own minds; what the anthropologist and philosopher Dan Sperber calls meta-representation. As with theory of mind we are able to have some idea of what is going on in other people’s minds and infer from it their beliefs, emotions, intentions and motivations. If you think about it, theory of mind is a huge advantage, if we never had it, as the evolutionary psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen suggests, we would not be able to lie or cheat, or detect liars and cheaters, we would not be able to co-operate or predict other people’s actions, nor empathise, nor teach people as we would have no idea of what they already knew. In other words, we can hold an idea of another person’s mind, beliefs, emotions etc. within our own mind and from this we make inferences about them. Though I should add that this does not mean that the representation we have of another person’s mind need be correct.
We are even able to do this with the mind of people who are not really there, like distant cousins, dead ancestors or spirits, and infer what we think they are likely to believe, remember, perceive, communicate or approve of. We reason that despite being invisible spirits can act, think and believe as humans do, with purposes, interests and specialist knowledge. We hold a representation of the mind of the spirit within our own minds and from this, we infer the entities motivations, intentions, personality, behaviours, etc. From these inferences people can form relationships with them despite them not being real. It is even possible to have relationship with spirits without believing that they literally exist, which explains some of the experiences of modern mystics.
My argument is based on the idea that spirit is the same thing as character. For example Boyer suggests that we don’t need to be to be told much about a spirit’s character before we can infer things about it. If we are told simply that dearly departed Aunt Agatha was a miserable old battle-axe, we can imply all sorts of things about her character. We would be able to infer that she is bad tempered, that she has a dogmatic puritanical view of morality, that she would be a busy body, somewhat scary, liked writing letters of complaint etc., etc. It would not be hard to infer what her opinions and beliefs are. From this scant information we would be able to infer what dear Aunt Agatha would think of our actions and opinions and I dare say that she would not approve.
This would be reinforced further if you actually knew her, bringing memory of her character into the equation making inferences more accurate to how she was perceived. Just because she is dead it does not mean that her character is not represented in your mind and it can still influence your actions. For example, you may be about to head off to the pub for a quick pint, but then remember that dear Aunt Agatha disapproves of all alcohol with the exception of large sherry at Christmas. You may think again about that pint or you may go anyway to spite the old dragon. We represent her as still having a character.
This is reflected in societies that practise ancestor worship. Boyer again claims when a person dies their opinions and character are only remembered and acted upon while that person remains within the living memory of the survivors. After the last survivors who remembered them have passed into ancestor-hood themselves, that original person becomes part of the generic dead; they become one of the faceless ancestors and believed to act in a general ‘ancestorish’ way. It can be the same for Gods; we can take what the American philosopher Daniel Dennett calls an intentional stance about them. If you are told that Odin is the king of the Gods it is easy to make inferences about his character and what he approves and disapproves of and the cultural forces in which the god is situated in turn influence these.
For example knowing the Odin came from a Nordic Viking society means that we can imply all sorts of things about his character. We may see him as a warrior ready to fight, as a wise but not always trustworthy king, a political and somewhat Machiavellian intriguer. The Vikings themselves would have made inferences about him based on their cultural schemas and the experiences of their own lives. Living in harsh environments where death and hardship are common tends to produce harsh and pragmatic gods. This is perhaps why Californian New Age spirituality and myth has little to say about the ‘inevitabilities’ of life
There is a two way process between these personal experiences of spirits and the mythology that informs their characters. Mythologies are archetypal stories whose function according to the mythologist Joseph Campbell is to inspire a sense of the wonder at the mystical, to explain the shape of the universe, justify social systems and teach people about life. Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, authors of several popular books on science, have suggested that Human beings are the story telling ape, a view shared by social-constructionists and discursive psychologists. We tend to see the world in terms of stories and we make up stories all the time about the world, other people and ourselves.
If you are talking about your boss you will tell it as a story, when you think about your last holiday, any event that occurred will be seen in the context of the story of you holiday. When we think about the origins of the universe we communicate this in the story of the big bang, when children tell their parents what they did at school, this will be told as a story. Stories are fundamental to how we see the world and mythology are in essence stories. They are stories about the way the world is and explanations for natural events, they support the status quo of society and they teach us how to live a fulfilling human life and how to face up to adversity.
Like all good stories, myths require characters and these are often in the form of gods and spirits. They fulfill archetypal roles within the narrative. Archetypes are originating patterns found according to the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung within the collective unconscious. This is the unconscious part of every person that contains universal themes common to us all. For example we all have the experience of mother and father, although how we view these concepts will be different to us all. It is these archetypes that underpin the characters within stories, including mythology. You can go anywhere in the world, to the remotest un-contacted tribe in the Amazon basin and they will still have the concept of mother and father, wise man, hero etc.
The movie producer Chris Vogler in his book, The Writers journey: Mythic Structures for Writers suggest that archetypal characters perform certain narrative functions within myths and stories. For example stories and myths contain heroes, villains, tricksters, henchman, allies, mentors, love interests (what Jung would call the anima/animus- the contra sexual archetype) etc. These functions are performed in the sacred stories of mythology by god, spirits, monsters and heroes and while their characters inform these stories their characters are also informed by the stories and the roles they play; a two way process.
This interplay between personal experience (through inference) and myth builds up the representation of the god or spirit in the mind. We can form a relationship with an entity that does not literally exist; it is metaphorical yet we can represent its character. Within especially religious or spiritual people this can be enhanced through altered states of consciousness. In such cases internal speech, which is generated in Brocca’s and Wernicke’s area within the brain, can be mistaken for the voice of the Gods while within deep prayer, meditation or the speaking of speaking in tongues. Something similar occurs when people are under the possession of Loa’s in Voodoo.
Therefore despite there being no literal spirits or gods inferences made about them are perfectly natural functions of the type of mind that we have. This also implies as we have seen that they can have a definite influence on our behaviour. As such it makes them a social force to be reckoned with.
So when we are talking about spirit we are talking about the same thing as character. In a sense Odin is a character, the various Loas of Voodoo are characters, Satan is a character as is Jesus and good old dearly departed Aunt Agatha. All of these through Sperber’s meta-representation can be represented in our minds and we can make inferences about them.
Therefore it seems to me that spirits are the same things as character, when we talk of spirits we are talking about characters and these can be represented in the human mind. From a personal perspective it is difficult for me based on the evidence of modern science and philosophy to accept the literal existence of spirits. However, science and philosophy do offer explanations into why people do believe in and experience spirits.
This article has shown that spirits are inferred characters with whom people enter into relationships. In other words when we talk of spirits we mean the same thing as character. These relationships have profound influences on people’s lives as people infer how to behave from what they believe are the wishes of the spirits (behave against or in accordance with) based on the cognitive processes of how their minds work. The relationships can be deepened and made even more real by the belief structures of people, their mythologies and their schemas that they use to interpret the experiences in their lives as the results of the activities of spirits. This in turn makes spirits a force to be reckoned with.
We have the kind of mind that believes in spirits and makes spirits a fundamental part of many people’s lives, but when looking at the evidence it is up to you decide whether they have literal reality or not. For those who have had experience of spirits, it is not about dismissing those genuine and precious experiences; rather it is about offering an alternative explanation.