Humans know about what surrounds them by virtue of their sensory perception. It is impossible otherwise to know about the world outside our head. It is necessary but is it sufficient? No. To develop our full intellect we need to develop our cognitive skills and, crucially, learn a language. Luckily, humans are a social species and language together with the physical adaptations necessary to speak, hear and understand develops in childhood seemingly without much effort, just by being immersed in the family group.
Humans, if we start with early modern humans, have been around for approximately 300,000 years but humans only begin to distinguish themselves when social living in extended family groups develops into behavioural modernity This is perhaps still somewhat controversial but, beginning around 50,000 years ago, the archaeological evidence seems to show a spread of development of skills in hunting and fishing tools but also the beginning of art, body decoration, burial of the dead.
The dawn of civilization begins with the development of agriculture. Given a fertile valley, suitable crops, a bit of foresight and investment in storage and defence, humans were able to settle into larger and larger communities. But larger groups need to agree, organise, resolve disputes, have common goals. Dispute settling and record keeping become necessary and writing is a useful tool to supplement memory. Cultural evolution in the last 10,000 years has left biological evolution in the dust.
Today, our collective memory, the stored information that individual humans have discovered, invented, developed, is now recorded and digital form and readily accessible to others. The internet is a vicarious way of knowing that would seem limitless.
But I’m talking of physical development, physical discoveries, physical inventions. Humans don’t just experience and share their knowledge of reality. Humans have imagination. Human civilizations seem to need non-physical explanations, a religious raison d’être. Ara Norenzayan’s book Big Gods proposes an explanation for why a religious organisation, a priesthood, is a given for a civilization to thrive.
So what is the value of religious knowledge? I ask as a deaf man unable to hear the beauty of the music. Are there other ways of knowing, other than experimenting, learning, being told, imitating.
Can internal reflection, meditation, revelation provide us with other or additional information and broaden our knowledge?