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Δ²understanding ÷ (Δcognition · Δtime) ≡ Subjective Views of Objective Truths (An Analytic Speculation)
In Walter J. Ong's Orality and Literacy, Ong argues that writing is necessary in order for humans to reach their full potential (Ong 14, 171). He states that the introduction of writing to a previously illiterate culture results in a fundamental change in that culture's thought process, on an individual level (Ong 77). The change from an audio-based oral mindset to a vision-based writing mindset, Ong argues, allows the mind to break down bigger concepts into smaller parts and ideas, and to analyze their relationships to each other in an altogether new way (Ong 39, 32). Ong's book certainly appears to give evidence that writing has fundamentally changed the human thought process, but further scrutiny reveals that this evidence only demonstrates that there is a change in the thought process around the same time that a culture becomes literate; it does not demonstrate a cause and effect relationship. In reality, it is impossible to prove that there is a cause and effect relationship between the introduction of writing to a culture and changes in thought processes. There is no way to do a controlled experiment where the only manipulated variable is literacy, and the responding variable is "changes in thought processes". Likewise, it is impossible to do a statistical survey of cultures throughout history and construct a linear regression model to test the claim that the population correlation coefficient of "literacy" and "abstract analysis levels" is not zero; at the 5% level of significance there is simply not enough data to demonstrate a statistical correlation. Stripped of these tools of analysis that suit our literate minds so well, we are left without any way to scientifically prove any particular stance on this issue. We are left to speculation. Our only options are to give all up hope of understanding the issue at hand, or to search for truths without the use of "hard" analysis. Perhaps truth can exist outside of the realm of science, and it can hold significance without us fully comprehending the meaning. Perhaps Walter J. Ong was not quite correct about the role that literacy has played on the mental stage; perhaps literacy is simply one effect of a much larger and global change in human cognition – not the cause of it. If human cognition is changing with time, it follows that our understanding of the world is also changing, and that we may be losing common ground with the past that is essential to retaining its wisdom. Although speculation is our only available tool in this case, we are forced to speculate through the use of literate minds. As such, the best way to examine an issue is to break it down into smaller questions, and hope that through many small steps of analytic thought we can climb the proverbial mountain of truth.
The first question that presents itself to us is whether literate cultures actually do think differently than members of "primary orality" cultures. This question refers back to the hypothetical linear regression model. Besides the fact that constructing such a model that spans all of the cultures throughout history would be rather impractical, a linear regression would require the use of quantifiable numbers. We have come up with a method of quantifying literacy rates (for present-day countries), and we may have inadvertently discovered a way to quantify the type of process by which a person thinks. IQ tests are standardized tests designed to measure a person's "intelligence quotient", and Dr. C. George Boeree of Shippensburg University defines intelligence as a person's capacity to (1) acquire knowledge, (2) apply knowledge, and (3) engage in abstract reasoning. Interestingly enough, David F. Marks of City University has done a formal statistical analysis comparing IQ tests to literacy rates in 81 countries, and he did indeed find that the two numbers were statistically correlated. Unfortunately, he made the same cause-and-effect assumption that Ong did; the title of his report is IQ variations across time and race are explained by literacy differences. He did not stop to consider the possibility that both variables studied were being driven by a third variable, rather than the one by the other. Correlation is not causation. That being said, Marks's study does not quite align itself to Ong's thesis; all but three of the countries Marks is dealing with have literacy rates above 40%, and the majority have literacy rates above 80%. According to Ong, all of these nations would be of "secondary orality", making the findings irrelevant (Ong 11). The connection between Marks's study and Ong's thesis also assumes that an IQ test reflects the changes in thought described by Ong. Needless to say, it's a bit of a stretch. As mentioned previously, hard analysis has reached its limit pertaining to this issue. For the sake of speculation, which transcends analysis, we will assume that Ong is correct in regard to this first question – that members of literate cultures do indeed have different thought processes than members of "primary orality" cultures.
If today's cultures are more analytic than those of antiquity, there are certainly implications regarding our understanding of the world. It would be reasonable to guess that we as humans can understand the world and ourselves better now than we could at any other point in history. Ong claims that literacy is "absolutely necessary" for the development and understanding of science, history, philosophy, literature, art, and language (Ong 15). But one could almost define these formal studies in terms of literacy. Have we really grasped a deeper level of understanding in any of these areas, or have we simply formalized our methods and processes, and used them to break down broad ideas into smaller parts and pieces? A twenty-eight year old physicist who has spent twenty four years of his life being educated may have an extremely advanced understanding of the laws of mathematics that govern sub-atomic particles, and he may be able to use his knowledge of quantum nonlocality to predict phenomena that occur when two photons become phase-entangled, but does he ever wonder if he's lost track of the big picture? Maybe today's culture doesn't realize that while it is meticulously studying the world through a high-intensity microscope, the entirety of the universe is all around us, going unnoticed. Is it possible that we actually had a more profound understanding of life, the cosmos, and existence itself, before we decided to "study" them? Perhaps our understanding of the world today is simply different than it was three thousand years go.
We must ask ourselves what caused this difference – if it really was the advent of writing, in and of itself, that spurred our minds into a new cognitive state of being. Couldn't it just as easily have been the introduction of mathematics, or the rise of the education system? Both of these instill in us an entirely unnatural and analytical way of thinking. An even more logical hypothesis might be that all of the socioeconomic innovations within a culture that typically coincide with a shift from primary orality to literacy do not cause any change in cognitive function, but are all the result of an inherent and natural progression of cognition. The cause of this progression may simply be the act of thinking, with each human mind acting as a single node in a cultural neural network. A person's openness to external ideas is the salubrity of his dendrites, and his connections with other people and information are his synapses. Anyone who has worked with artificial neural networks knows that, given only time and a relatively static stimulus, a network will morph its overall behavior in a predictable manner through miniscule, random changes in each individual neuron's function, or in this case an individual person's thinking. It may be that as a culture becomes more literate, its synapses multiply, thereby expediting the cognition progression. In this sense, writing and literacy would have historically acted as a catalyst for change to a more analytic thought process – more so than mathematics or education. This statement may seem to give Ong some ground, but catalyzing a reaction is much different than causing a reaction. On the other hand, any chemist will tell you that many high-activation-level reagent pairs will not produce a reaction until a catalyst is present. It is possible that a given culture needs to reach a "synaptical threshold" before its cognition processes will progress, and the tool that can generate those synapses most readily is literacy.
In a chemical process called autocatalysis, a reaction produces its own catalysts; ergo, the speed of the reaction increases exponentially with time. The concept of autocatalysis gives us yet another way to think of literacy's role in human cognition. Thinking of literacy as a catalyst for the progression of a culture's cognition processes, it is easy to see that the "reaction" caused by literacy has lead cultures to produce even more catalysts, including radio, television, the telephone, and the internet. Likewise, literacy was produced as the result of a chain reaction, following poems, plays, debates, etc. Each catalyst would have assisted in a different stage of the cognitive progression. Of course, our primary concern is the transition to analytic thought, and its relation to literacy. But where can we look to find evidence of this transition, if the changes came hand in hand with literacy? It goes without saying that the pre-literate mindset can't be found in the writing style of any written works; however, Ong suggests that ancient texts such as The Old Testament or Homer's The Odyssey which originated as oral works may contain a "residue" of an oral culture's way of thinking (Ong 170, 23). Unfortunately, Ong does not specify what constitutes this residuality. As they are the closest thing we have today to a record of oral works, we will assume that these two texts give a good representation of an oral culture.
One conspicuous difference between today's culture and the cultures portrayed in The Old Testament and The Odyssey lies in each culture's sense of justice. There is a stark contrast between today's court systems and the laws of talion that governed the ancient Greeks and Israelites. The quintessential example of Lex Talionis is the set of laws that God dictated to Moses on Mt. Sinai. These laws specify formulaic penalties for specific crimes, such as, "Whoever strikes a man a mortal blow must be put to death" (Exodus 21:12). The same sense of retaliatory justice can be found in The Odyssey; when Odysseus finally returns to his home, he brutally slaughters all of the suitors that have been courting his wife, using up all of his resources, and plotting his son's death (Homer 22:414, Fagles translation). The cultural justice of Odysseus's actions is confirmed by Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. In ancient Greek culture, a person's sense of justice seems to be an almost innate quality. The use of formulaic punishments is very characteristic of pre-literate cultures, which oftentimes use conventional wisdom in the form of proverbs to determine a criminal's sentence (Ong 35). As a culture becomes literate, the purpose of a criminal's sentence seems to shift from one of retribution to one of rehabilitation; today's justice system seems almost entirely void of the eye-for-an-eye mentality. Instead, a criminal's actions are carefully analyzed, taking different factors into account such as intent, level of involvement, and passion. Clearly, the progression of our cognition processes can cause drastic real-world changes. A person today who is presented with one of these primary orality cultures will most likely be appalled by its sense of justice, and may reject the entire culture in disgust.
This brings us to an interesting point: people are afraid of differences, and ignore truth when it is coupled with these differences. Take the book of Genesis. Originally a product of oral tradition, the book of Genesis presents its readers with two stories of creation, as well as a story in which God destroys almost all of mankind, and other stories of rape, incest, and murder. Oftentimes, a modern-day reader will look at these stories as if they were written by today's standards. As the reader mentally dismantles a story, he evaluates it in small parts, until he finds one that he objects to. Usually, the objection is caused by a difference in culture. For example, when God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:25), a modern-day reader will evaluate this action based on his modern idea of justice. The reader's reaction, unfortunately, may be to reject the entire book of Genesis, without even considering the broader message that the particular story was trying to get across. Like the physicist who studies positrons, leptons, and gluons, but has no appreciation of the world as a whole, the analytic reader looks at Genesis and sees its components, but the overall meaning and truth eludes him. The same can be said about any work that originated as oral tradition.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus spends seven years of his journey home trapped on an island with the nymph Calypso. Though he sleeps with the goddess every night, he spends every day crying for his wife and home (Homer 5:170). A modern-day reader breaks the story into pieces, and sees disloyalty, hypocrisy, and patheticness. From analysis of these parts, the reader constructs a negative view of the entire story, and categorizes it accordingly. Our minds don't quite work the same way as the ancient Greek's; our tendency is to view a story scientifically, rather than holistically. Taken as a whole, all the parts of Odysseus's encounter with Calypso show that through all of the negative aspects of human behavior, the better aspects prevail. When Odysseus is finally given a chance to return home, he tells Calypso that he can bear any number of tribulations, if he can only return to hearth and home (Homer 5:242).
In Genesis, God orders Abraham to offer his son Isaac up as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:2). Abraham and his wife Sarah had been waiting for a child their entire lives, and Isaac was the child that had been promised to them by God. If the reader is constructing a belief-response to this story as if it was a thesis paper, he might draw conclusions based on a summation of the parts. He would see that God was heartless, in ordering Abraham to kill his only son, as well as dishonest, in that He is taking back the child that He promised Abraham. The fact that God stops Abraham from sacrificing his son at the last minute only goes to show that He is a capricious God. Taking the story point by point, a present-day reader may not draw the best conclusions. To its intended audience, however, the story portrays a radically new type of god – one who keeps His promises and is compassionate towards His people. When we fail to take these stories in context, our understanding is limited by our thought processes.
If our cognitive progression is undermining our ability to understand antiquated messages, clearly there are serious implications for our future. The Odyssey and The Old Testament seek to reveal plenary truths about humanity to us, yet we deconstruct them into meaningless parts, and all too often the truths go unnoticed. Have we begun to lose wisdom? Has humanity's bucket of aggregate knowledge sprung a leak? If our cognition processes truly are progressing exponentially, does this mean that the leak is becoming larger at an increasing rate? The idea of a morphing cognition brings the theory of cyclic history into an entirely new light. Ong says that the written text provides a new way to store knowledge, thereby freeing the mind for more original, more abstract thought (Ong 24). Today we can store knowledge not only in writing, but in magnetic tape, in the microscopic patterns of reflective and refractive surfaces that constitute a CD or DVD, and in countless other ways that go far beyond stored text. We are not required to have knowledge of direction or location, due to GPS devices and mapping websites. We are not required to have knowledge of mathematics, due to calculators and advanced computer software. One might argue that a basic understanding of our world will always be necessary for us to progress, but we are not even required to have knowledge of basic technology in order to produce advanced technology; computers now store models of every device produced, and the entire manufacturing process is automated. Technology begets technology. Jonathan Rosenberg, Google's senior vice president, said, "Our mission, as you might have heard, is to organize the world's information." Companies such as Google have set out not only to systematically organize all of the information known to mankind, but to make it available to everyone at the click of a button. What would it mean for our minds to be completely free from the task of storing knowledge, and entirely open to original, abstract thought? It would mean that we would be severed from reality. One need not look far to believe that this could be happening. Children these days often spend their time in virtual reality worlds on the internet, and adults spend their time working at jobs that have no obvious connection to the world depicted in The Odyssey.
So this is where we stand. Through a natural progression of human cognition, we have transitioned to an analytic, abstract thought process. This progression has been catalyzed by literacy and other technologies that encourage human connectivity. As a result, our cultures have moved away from holistic world views in favor of the view of the world offered to us through a microscope, giving us a very different understanding of existence. Because we have been inundated by the scientific paradigm for truth, we have tended to devalue the experience-centered claims offered to us through the work of ancient cultures, as in The Odyssey and The Old Testament (Moore #2). Due to differences in our basic cognition processes, we evaluate these stories differently than their original audiences did, and oftentimes fail to grasp the meaning. Our response may be to reject the entire story, as well as the culture that produced it. If our processes of cognition continue to progress in this manner, we may eventually lose touch with the reality of the past altogether.