For the past few months, I’ve been reading about color perception, cognition, and terminology. I finally got around to finishing a post on it. The topic is a lot more complex and confusing than what one might expect. The specific inspiration was the color blue, a word that apparently doesn’t signify a universal human experience. There is no condition of blueness objectively existing in the external world. It’s easy to forget that a distinction always exists between perception and reality or rather between one perception of reality and another.
How do you prove something is real when it feels real in your experience? For example, how would you attempt to prove your consciousness, interior experience, and individuality? What does it mean for your sense of self to be real? You can’t even verify your experience of blue matches that of anyone else, much less show that blueness is a salient hue for all people. All you have is the experience itself. Your experience can motivate, influence, and shape what and how you communicate or try to communicate, but you can’t communicate the experience itself. This inability is a stumbling block of all human interactions. The gap between cultures can be even more vast.
This is why language is so important to us. Language doesn’t only serve the purpose of communication but more importantly the purpose of creating a shared worldview. This is the deeply ingrained human impulse to bond with others, no matter how imperfect this is achieved in practice. When we have a shared language, we can forget about the philosophical dilemmas of experience and to what degree it is shared. We’d rather not have to constantly worry about such perplexing and disturbing issues.
These contemplations were stirred up by one book in particular, Daniel L. Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. In my post on color, I brought up some of his observations about the Piraha (read pp. 136-141 from that book and have your mind blown). Their experience is far beyond what most people experience in the modern West. They rely on immediacy of experience. If they don’t experience or someone they know doesn’t experience something, it has little relevance to their lives and no truth value in their minds. Yet what they consider to be immediate experience can seem bizarre for us outsiders.
Piraha spirituality isn’t otherworldly. Spirits exist, just as humans exist. In fact, there is no certain distinction. When someone is possessed by a spirit, they are that spirit and the Piraha treat them as such. The person who is possessed is simply not there. The spirit is real because they experience the spirit with their physical senses. Sometimes in coming into contact with a spirit, a Piraha individual will lose their old identity and gain a new one, the change being permanent and another name to go along with it. The previous person is no longer there and I suppose never comes back. They aren’t pretending to change personalities. That is their direct experience of reality. Talk about the power of language. A spirit gives someone a new name and they become a different person. The name has power, represents an entire way of being, a personality unto itself. The person becomes what they are named. This is why the Piraha don’t automatically assume someone is the same person the next time they meet them, for they live in a fluid world where change is to be expected.
A modern Westerner sees the Piraha individual. To their mind, it’s the same person. They can see he or she is physically the same person. But another Piraha tribal member doesn’t see the same person. For example, when possessed, the person is apparently not conscious of the experience and won’t remember it later. During possession, they will be in an entirely dissociated state of mind, literally being someone else with different behaviors and a different voice. The Piraha audience watching the possession also won’t remember anything other than a spirit having visited. It isn’t a possession to them. The spirit literally was there. That is their perceived reality, what they know in their direct experience.
What the Piraha consider crazy and absurd is the Western faith in a monotheistic tradition not based on direct experience. If you never met Jesus, they can’t comprehend why you’d believe in him. The very notion of ‘faith’ makes absolutely no sense to them, as it seems like an act of believing what you know not to be real in your own experience. They are sincere Doubting Thomases. Jesus isn’t real, until he physically walks into their village to be seen with their own eyes, touched with their own hands, and heard with their own ears. To them, spirituality is as real as the physical world around them and is proven by the same means, through direct experience or else the direct experience of someone who is personally trusted to speak honestly.
Calling the Piraha experience of spirits a mass hallucination is to miss the point. To the degree that is true, we are all mass hallucinating all the time. It’s just one culture’s mass hallucinations differ from that of another. We modern Westerners, however, so desperately want to believe there can only be one objective reality to rule them all. The problem is we humans aren’t objective beings. Our perceived reality is unavoidably subjective. We can’t see our own cultural biases because they are the only reality we know.
In reading Everett’s description of the Piraha, I couldn’t help thinking about Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. Jaynes wasn’t primarily focused on hunter-gatherers such as the Piraha. Even so, one could see the Piraha culture as having elements of bicameralism, whether or not they ever were fully bicameral. They don’t hallucinate hearing voices from spirits. They literally hear them. How such voices are spoken is apparently not the issue. What matters is that they are spoken and heard. And those spirit voices will sometimes tell the Piraha important information that will influence, if not determine, their behaviors and actions. These spirit visitations are obviously treated seriously and play a central role in the functioning of their society.
What is strangest of all is that the Piraha are not fundamentally different than you or I. They point to one of the near infinite possibilities that exist within our shared human nature. If a baby from Western society was raised by the Piraha, we have no reason to assume that he or she wouldn’t grow up to be like any other Piraha. It was only a few centuries ago when it also was common for Europeans to have regular contact with spirits. The distance between the modern mind and what came before is shorter than it first appears, for what came before still exists within us, as what we will become is a seed already planted.*
I don’t want this point to be missed. What is being discussed here isn’t ultimately about colors or spirits. This is a way of holding up a mirror to ourselves. What we see reflected back isn’t what we expected, isn’t how we appeared in our own imaginings. What if we aren’t what we thought we were? What if we turn out to be a much more amazing kind of creature, one that holds a multitude within?
(*Actually, that isn’t stated quite correctly. It isn’t what came before. The Piraha are still here, as are many other societies far different from the modern West. It’s not just that we carry the past within us. That is as true for the Piraha, considering they too carry a past within them, most of it being a past of human evolution shared with the rest of humanty. Modern individuality has only existed in a blip of time, a few hundred years in the hundreds of thousands of years of hominid existence. The supposed bicameral mind lasted for thousands of years longer than the entire post-bicameral age. What are the chances that our present experience of individuality will last as long? Highly unlikely.)
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Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes:
Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
by Daniel L Everett
Pirahãs occasionally talked about me, when I emerged from the river in the evenings after my bath. I heard them ask one another, “Is this the same one who entered the river or is it kapioxiai?”
When I heard them discuss what was the same and what was different about me after I emerged from the river, I was reminded of Heraclitus, who was concerned about the nature of identities through time. Heraclitus posed the question of whether one could step twice into the same river. The water that we stepped into the first time is no longer there. The banks have been altered by the flow so that they are not exactly the same. So apparently we step into a different river. But that is not a satisfying conclusion. Surely it is the same river. So what does it mean to say that something or someone is the same this instant as they were a minute ago? What does it mean to say that I am the same person I was when I was a toddler? None of my cells are the same. Few if any of my thoughts are. To the Pirahãs, people are not the same in each phase of their lives. When you get a new name from a spirit, something anyone can do anytime they see a spirit, you are not exactly the same person as you were before.
Once when I arrived in Posto Novo, I went up to Kóhoibiíihíai and asked him to work with me, as he always did. No answer. So I asked again, “Ko Kóhoi, kapiigakagakaísogoxoihí?” (Hey Kóhoi, do you want to mark paper with me?) Still no answer. So I asked him why he wasn’t talking to me. He responded, “Were you talking to me? My name is Tiáapahai. There is no Kóhoi here. Once I was called Kóhoi, but he is gone now and Tiáapahai is here.”
So, unsurprisingly, they wondered if I had become a different person. But in my case their concern was greater. Because if, in spite of evidence to the contrary, I turned out not to be a xíbiisi, I might really be a different entity altogether and, therefore, a threat to them. I assured them that I was still Dan. I was not kapioxiai.
On many rainless nights, a high falsetto voice can be heard from the jungle near a Pirahã village. This falsetto sounds spiritlike to me. Indeed, it is taken by all the Pirahãs in the village to be a kaoáíbógí, or fast mouth. The voice gives the villagers suggestions and advice, as on how to spend the next day, or on possible night dangers (jaguars, other spirits, attacks by other Indians). This kaoáíbógí also likes sex, and he frequently talks about his desire to copulate with village women, with considerable detail provided.
One night I wanted to see the kaoáíbógí myself. I walked through the brush about a hundred feet to the source of that night’s voice. The man talking in the falsetto was Xagábi, a Pirahã from the village of Pequial and someone known to be very interested in spirits. “Mind if I record you?” I asked, not knowing how he might react, but having a good idea that he would not mind.
“Sure, go ahead,” he answered immediately in his normal voice. I recorded about ten minutes of his kaoáíbógí speech and then returned to my house.
The next day, I went to Xagábi’s place and asked, “Say, Xagábi, why were you talking like a kaoáíbógí last night?”
He acted surprised. “Was there a kaoáíbógí last night? I didn’t hear one. But, then, I wasn’t here.”
After some delay, which I could not help but ascribe to the spirits’ sense of theatrical timing, Peter and I simultaneously heard a falsetto voice and saw a man dressed as a woman emerge from the jungle. It was Xisaóoxoi dressed as a recently deceased Pirahã woman. He was using a falsetto to indicate that it was the woman talking. He had a cloth on his head to represent the long hair of a woman, hanging back like a Pirahã woman’s long tresses. “She” was wearing a dress.
Xisaóoxoi’s character talked about how cold and dark it was under the ground where she was buried. She talked about what it felt like to die and about how there were other spirits under the ground. The spirit Xisaóoxoi was “channeling” spoke in a rhythm different from normal Pirahã speech, dividing syllables into groups of two (binary feet) instead of the groups of three (ternary feet) used in everyday talking. I was just thinking how interesting this would be in my eventual analysis of rhythm in Pirahã, when the “woman” rose and left.
Within a few minutes Peter and I heard Xisaóoxoi again, but this time speaking in a low, gruff voice. Those in the “audience” started laughing. A well-known comical spirit was about to appear. Suddenly, out of the jungle, Xisaóoxoi emerged, naked, and pounding the ground with a heavy section of the trunk of a small tree. As he pounded, he talked about how he would hurt people who got in his way, how he was not afraid, and other testosterone-inspired bits of braggadocio.
I had discovered, with Peter, a form of Pirahã theater! But this was of course only my classification of what I was seeing. This was not how the Pirahãs would have described it at all, regardless of the fact that it might have had exactly this function for them. To them they were seeing spirits. They never once addressed Xisaóoxoi by his name, but only by the names of the spirits.
What we had seen was not the same as shamanism, because there was no one man among the Pirahãs who could speak for or to the spirits. Some men did this more frequently than others, but any Pirahã man could, and over the years I was with them most did, speak as a spirit in this way.
The next morning when Peter and I tried to tell Xisaóoxoi how much we enjoyed seeing the spirits, he, like Xagábi, refused to acknowledge knowing anything about it, saying he wasn’t there.
This led me to investigate Pirahã beliefs more aggressively. Did the Pirahãs, including Xisaóoxoi, interpret what we had just seen as fiction or as fact, as real spirits or as theater? Everyone, including Pirahãs who listened to the tape later, Pirahãs from other villages, stated categorically that this was a spirit. And as Peter and I were watching the “spirit show,” I was given a running commentary by a young man sitting next to me, who assured me that this was a spirit, not Xisaóoxoi. Moreover, based on previous episodes in which the Pirahãs doubted that I was the same person and their expressed belief that other white people were spirits, changing forms at will, the only conclusion I could come to was that for the Pirahãs these were encounters with spirits— similar to Western culture’s seances and mediums.
Pirahãs see spirits in their mind, literally. They talk to spirits, literally. Whatever anyone else might think of these claims, all Pirahãs will say that they experience spirits. For this reason, Pirahã spirits exemplify the immediacy of experience principle. And the myths of any other culture must also obey this constraint or there is no appropriate way to talk about them in the Pirahã language.
One might legitimately ask whether something that is not true to Western minds can be experienced. There is reason to believe that it can. When the Pirahãs claim to experience a spirit they have experienced something, and they label this something a spirit. They attribute properties to this experience, as well as the label spirit. Are all the properties, such as existence and lack of blood, correct? I am sure that they are not. But I am equally sure that we attribute properties to many experiences in our daily lives that are incorrect.
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