Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science

Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science

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Michael Horace Barnes, Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science (Oxford University Press, 2000).

        Stages of Thought is a historical analysis of major stages of religious thought and science in cultures around the world, and then of the special developments in the West since the sixteenth century that led to modern science. Over thousands of years the major world cultures built upon our natural human language skills, to add first literacy, then formalized logic, and now a highly critical self-awareness.  The long histories of both science and religious thought illustrate this process of development and show us how we have come to think as we do.  We need to understand these histories to recognize where cultures think alike and where not, so that we can deal with our differences constructively. This is especially so as religious thought continues to drive major turmoil and tensions.

        This historical analysis provides the background for two final chapters. One describes the general method of science and the reasons to trust its universal effectiveness in its limited realm of testing truth-claims.  The other describes ways in which religious thought has in fact found it necessary, and perhaps beneficial, to adjust itself to the development of modern science, in spite of various attempts to exempt religion from the influence and standards of science.

        In the struggle to remain free from domination by scientific rationality, religious thinkers have stressed the differences between religion and science.  But the history of  religious thought and science shows that they have shared in the same sequence of thought styles, at least in several great world cultures, East and West.  One implication of this history is that scientific rationality is not a peculiarly Western mode of thought.  Another is that religious thought became more sophisticated and less primitive precisely by sharing in the stages of thought that have led also to modern  science.  We are the inheritors of this long developmental history of modes of thought.  By studying this history, we can better make sense of ourselves, including both our science and our religious thought and their ongoing relation to each other.

  1.   Culture & Cognition [An overview of the book]
  2.   Addressing the Critics
  3.   Cognitive Styles in Primitive Cultures
  4.   Archaic Thought, Preliterate and Literate
  5.   The Axial Age and the Classical Style of Thought
  6.   Philosophy, Religion, and Science in Western Antiquity
  7.   The Decline and Recovery of Classical Rationality in the West
  8.   Early Modern Models of Reality in Science and Religion
  9.   The Method of Modern Empirical Science
10.   Religious Responses to Modern Science


        The claim in Stages of Thought that several cultures have gone through a highly similar sequence of stages of modes of thought is
controversial. Many theories of the evolution of culture have  a deservedly bad reputation because they implied that the people of some cultures are naturally or innately inferior to those of others. The same theories often used modern European moral and religious standards rather uncritically, and failed to appreciate that seemingly exotic practices might function very well in their own context.  As antidotes to these failings, anthropologists and then others also in academia, argued vigorously that cultures determine the ideas and values of people so thoroughly that the ideas of the people of one culture cannot successfully be compared with those of another culture. Anthropologists argued that developmental theories of culture are particularly offensive because such theories imply a ranking of cultures along a line of lesser or greater development. Out of an admirable sympathy for all peoples, including those of illiterate hunter-gathering societies, postmodern and anti-colonialist thought now refuses to attend to developmental stages in various cultural histories, lest that implies that some cultures are less developed than others.

        The motives behind this refusal are good; the conclusions are not. There is a clear developmental pattern in cultural histories. The evidence supports a suspicion voiced long ago by Piaget that cultural processes may echo some aspects of individual cognitive development. Knowledge of this pattern of development can provide useful guidance for interactions among different peoples.  It may, of course, sound implausible that cultural development can follow the same pattern as individual development.  But as the second posting in this series of three will explain, it should not be surprising that easier modes of thought normally precede more difficult modes of thought, whether in individuals or entire cultures.

        Stages of Thought may also be controversial in that its historical analysis undercuts theories about the social construction of science. The “strong” social construction theories, as they are called, say that every society constructs its own picture of reality, as well as its own criteria for judging what is real or not.  Truth therefore varies from culture to culture, and there is no universally valid objective set of criteria to judge which culture is right or not. Stages of Thought presents a historical case that shows similar methods of thought appearing across major cultures East and West, including similar concern for rational analysis, as though we human beings do indeed have some universally relevant criteria for truth.

        A special contribution of Stages of Thought, I hope, is to insert an important perspective on culture into the arguments about the effects of our genes on our behavior.  I find evolutionary psychology generally plausible in many of its claims.   It is not just culture but the interaction between social-cultural experience and many specific innate tendencies that produce human behavior. Many of the evolutionary psychology analyses of human behavior are nonetheless rather thin at some points precisely because they omit the enormous effect of long-term cultural developments.  Two of the biggest are literacy and formalized logic.  These are not “natural” to us humans, but they have affected us profoundly. 

        Another is the set of moral prescriptions found in various cultures to rise above kin favoritism and strive for a universalist benevolence.  It may well be, as evolutionary psychologists have claimed, that this benevolence draws upon some innate capacities for compassion towards others who are weaker than us.  But a religious morality, for example, that urges people to have compassion equally on the stranger and the foreigner is probably operating contrary to our innate tendency to favor those whom we see as “our own kind.”  An adequate account of human behavior must include such major and long-term cultural influences.  Stages of Thought explores some of these influences.

EXCERPTS, pp. 3-7, FROM THE INTRODUCTION, footnotes omitted [with permission of Oxford University Press].

        Because I work in the field of religion and science, I have long been concerned with the truth-claims made by both religions and the sciences, as well as with the methods for judging whether those truth-claims are true. In this context, over twenty years ago, I was re-reading some material by Piaget on cognitive development.  At about the same time I first read Robert Bellah’s essay “Religious
Evolution.”   Though Bellah focused mostly on the content of religious beliefs, he also noted differences in the methods or modes of thought in the different stages of religious development. Bellah’s descriptions of the sequence of modes of thought in religion, and in the cultures in which these religions flourished, matched fairly well with Piaget’s categories of individual cognitive development. Rather naive at that point about the history of arguments in anthropology concerning cultural evolution, I started hunting down sources that might tell me more about  this match-up.

        There was relatively little available. I discovered Piaget himself had occasionally ventured to compare individual and cultural development, but backed off from the topic.  A few studies in anthropology offered some supportive evidence, but mostly indirectly. Talcott Parson’s The Evolution of Societies, described a developmental pattern in cultural change, that in turn was used by Niklas Luhmann in Germany.  As Parson and Bellah had once taught a course together on this, it was not surprising that their outlines were highly similar.  Peacocke and Kirsch, in The Human Direction, supported the Parsons and Bellah theory, and provided further illustrations.   But in general, Piagetian interpretations of cultural evolution were scarce.

        I kept running across theories of cultural development that were at least consistent with a Piagetian interpretation of history.   In the 1930’s the Soviet anthropologist Alexander Luria had proposed that individual cognitive development might have its parallel in cultural development.  Luria’s student, Lev Vygotsky agreed, emphasizing the importance of cultural invention to provide new cognitive tools.   Luria and Vygotsky suggest that the logical and analytical thinking taught in formal schooling may not be a “natural” stage in individual development, as Piaget thought.  We humans may all share in a capacity to learn this cognitive style.  But the many years of training required to become skillful in it implies it is not something to which we are naturally inclined, as we are, for example, to learn to speak a language. Nonetheless, Vygotsky’s description of the sequence of  cognitive skills matches well enough with Piagetian descriptions of individual cognitive stages.

[The Introduction continues citing others who have discovered a Piagetian style series of stages of cultural development.  They include the literary analysis of Haydn White in his Tropics of Discourse, a theological history given by Bernard Lonergan in his Method in Theology, the cultural history by Richard H. Schlagel in his From Myth to Modern Mind, and a comparison of educational stages to cultural stages by Kieran Egan in The Educated Mind. Endnotes refer to yet others such as Ernest Gellner.]

        Most of these studies have a European  focus, raising the suspicion that the Piagetian developmental pattern is entirely a product of Western European culture.  But the Siberian tribes people with whom Luria and Vygotsky worked had a culture with clearly non-European roots.  Moreover, I was already finding evidence of a Piagetian pattern in non-Western cultures. [The chapters of Stages of Thought provide extensive references on this.]

        I continued to read anthropological literature in particular, as well as historical studies of moments of shift in thought styles in several cultures, including China and India, and prepared a more substantial paper for a Midwestern conference.  At a “history of religions” section, I briefly described aspects of the pattern as I then saw it, describing overall cultural evolution, but with an emphasis on changes in cognitive skills or habits.  Human beings are first of all language-using hominids. From our earliest life as homo sapiens, we have used language to name and interpret and govern our life. Eventually,  the neolithic agricultural revolution made it possible for thousands of people to live together in more complex societies.  Beliefs about powerful gods appeared, as the society of the numinous mirrored the human society in which a few people of great power lorded it over many others.

        Then in Sumer in the fourth millennium B.C.E. literacy was invented. Other cultures inherited and improved upon Sumerian writing or invented their own.  Literacy changes the human world by enabling people to encode and preserve ideas, to transmit them to far-away strangers, to leave them to later generations, to accumulate thoughts for comparison.   This early era of polytheism and city life has been labeled “archaic” culture, to distinguish it from the axial age that followed it in several cultures.

        In the sixth century B.C.E., give or take a couple hundred years, several major cultures took another step into reflectively systematic logic.  In the classical eras of China, India, and Greece, a literate elite began to explicitly test the logical relations among their ideas, seeking an overall coherence.  Intellectuals in these societies argued over the difference between the “real truth” as opposed to mere opinion or tradition.  With this came also the idea of a single universal Whole, in the form of the cosmos, the Tao, Brahman, God, or other ultimate single principles.   This is the period of history Karl Jaspers called the “axial age,” because the shift in cognitive styles among the educated was great enough to suggest turning on an axis to a new direction.  It can also be called the classic era of China, India, and Greece.

        Almost as soon as the desire for universal and reliable logical knowledge appeared, so also did forms of skepticism.  Skeptics in China, India, and Greece all pointed to the fallible character of human knowing. It was not until recent centuries, however, that European thinkers stumbled across a set of methods for applying some of this skepticism and getting reliable knowledge out of it.  The classical search for logical and certain truth was modified by the semi-skeptical methods of modern science, which demands that every plausible theory be subjected to on-going and publicly shared testing and application, to see how well it really works in practice.

        This outline seemed to me to be rather unexceptional.  The history of religious thought in particular was clearly a history of development of the content of beliefs, their mode of expression, and the style of thought, from primitive uncritical stories about spirits and magic, to a more complex set of mythological narratives about great gods, to a later more abstract belief in a single universal and unifying Ultimate, and perhaps then to a modern self-consciousness about all such beliefs as human interpretations.  Other pieces of the picture had long been appearing in various scholarly sources, many of which are reviewed and analyzed in Stages of Thought.

        By this time the faces of those I was addressing at the Midwestern meeting were strangely still, even stony.   I continued.  There is a rough parallel, I claimed, between the Piagetian stages and the pattern of cultural development.  According to Piaget, we begin as children by categorizing and lumping ideas together in small stories or narratives.  In this “pre-operational” stage we are inclined to treat as true any ideas that capture our imagination, even what we later call fantasies.  As we get older we take more care to distinguish between stories about Santa Claus and information we learn in school about Thailand or other strange places, to establish which is merely a story and which is true.  We learn to organize our knowledge better.  This is the “concrete operational” stage. Then by the age of twelve we begin to develop competence in formal logical analysis, leading to the great challenge of high school algebra and geometry.  Many adolescents experience this early “formal operational” style of thought as a source of dogmatic certitudes based on logical argument.   But as we get older and more experienced, we develop a somewhat skeptical caution about truth-claims, no matter how intelligent the argument. This is a latermode of formal operational thought.

        Thus language, literacy, logic, and a degree of reflexive skepticism emerge roughly in that order in the life of individuals and cultures.  This summary is inexact and incomplete.  Not all individuals follow the same path of development, and cultures ride bumpy roads as they move along.  It takes several chapters to describe the parallels in cultural and individual development more accurately.  But this is approximately the outline I presented to the Midwest meeting.

        The reaction this time was anything but mild.  It was my first clear experience with postmodern political correctness.  One of the listeners offered this succinct criticism: “For shame, Michael.” Other listeners gave more precise objections: Any theory of cultural development nominates some types of culture for the role of the less developed and other for the more developed.  If cultural development is supposed to parallel individual development, then the cultures called less developed are being compared to children.  This is a dangerous continuation of  colonialist attitudes that have caused much suffering. Moreover, a theory of cultural development based on Piaget uses the standards of Western science to judge cognitive development.  A theory that has arisen in one’s own culture, Piaget’s in this case, is given the privilege of judging the other cultures. This is another instance of “Western hegemonic discourse.”

        The objections are worth taking quite seriously.  There is a lot of evidence that cultures do develop certain thought styles or cognitive methods in an identifiable, albeit sometimes uneven, sequence.  Yet, are there sufficient grounds for developing another theory of cultural development, no matter how much evidence, when this runs the risk of arrogant and harmful error?  We human beings obviously differ from each other in important ways. Instead of seeking some overarching framework of human development, perhaps constructed out of North Atlantic prejudices, should we not focus instead on learning to respect the other as other?

        A major reason to learn to accept and respect the other, however, is that beneath all our differences, we also share a common humanness.  We should be concerned to discover all that might allow us to understand each other better, including any patterns of development that may influence both individuals and cultures.  Out of this we may find a few more things that bind us together in our common humanness, or understand better the sources of our differences and disputes.  There is very much still to be learned about us humans.  If the picture of cognitive styles to be drawn here is at all accurate, we should address it, not avoid it.  Until we humans stop causing one another great pain, we need to keep learning about ourselves, including patterns in how we think.

[Here ends the excerpt from the Introduction]

The Plausibility of a Parallel Between Individual and Cultural Development

A.  Easier modes of thought precede harder ones (taken from pp. 8-10, with permission of Oxford University Press).

        A major objection to the idea of a parallel between cultural and individual development is its apparent improbability.  Piaget described stages of cognitive (and moral) development from infancy to adulthood.  His theory of development is concerned mainly with children.  But every culture is dominated by adults, not children. These adults have already had their own full history of cognitive development.   Adult humans everywhere share in the same basic human genetic inheritance, including the same innate intelligence. Perhaps, as Jared Diamond argues, some indigenous people even have higher than normal intelligence.  The highland natives of New Guinea have often suffered from malnutrition which  might well hurt brain development.  But, as Diamond says, this kind of harm occurs to brains, not to genes.  Such harsh periods might also be the time when natural conditions “select” the brightest to survive, producing greater innate intelligence.  Certainly, as Diamond notes, the children of New Guinea grow up today to pilot great commercial aircraft and use computers well.

        Diamond may or may not be correct about the innate intellectual superiority of natives of New Guinea.  But the general point remains: Strong innate human intelligence is everywhere evident in the world. It therefore seems difficult to make sense of a claim that differences in cognitive style among cultures are parallel to differences in individual cognitive development, from childhood onward.  It is easy to suspect that such parallels appear only to a Western mind biased in favor of habits of thought familiar in the Western industrialized nations.  It also evokes outdated nineteenth century theories that justified oppressive colonialism. It echoes wild Hegelian speculation about laws of history.  It would help alleviate suspicion of bias if it were at least initially plausible that something so odd could occur as a parallel between individual cognitive development and the sequence of cognitive styles in culture.

        In fact there is a fairly simple explanation of how this parallel could occur, an explanation that does not require any deep laws to historical development, an explanation that does not claim that the people of any one culture are more intelligent than those of another.  This explanation has two main components.   The first is that an easier style or method of thought is mastered more quickly and thoroughly than difficult ones.  As a general rule, the cognitive tasks a young child can master are simpler than those that an adolescent can master, which in turn are simpler than those only a young adult can master.   Grade school, high school, and college teachers experience this repeatedly.  The same sequence of tasks seems to appear in the history of a culture’s development. Cultures first learn the easier skills; the harder ones take longer to master.

        The second is that, as both Lev Vygotsky and Kieran Egan have argued, at least some of the more difficult thought that humans engage in does not come naturally, as we say, but requires a cultural context which has first created or adopted new and more difficult cognitive techniques, and which then schools and rewards people for learning to use this more difficult kind of thought.  For about the first twenty five thousand years of human history many of the cognitive tools we now take for granted did not exist. The more difficult cognitive tools often required the prior creation of special cognitive technology, like writing or formal logic, and then also required the creation of social institutions such as years of formal schooling or tutoring, to train some people to become adept in the use of this cognitive technology.

      Through our own long years of formal schooling we have become used to many difficult cognitive tools.  Because we no longer recognize the subtlety or sophistication of methods to which we have become accustomed, we are tempted to think, mistakenly, that the people of any culture could readily use those methods if they wanted, without long periods of careful training.  Then we conclude that to announce the absence of certain methods in a culture is to somehow insult the people of that culture, as though they had to be of limited intelligence not to do what we take for granted. To repeat once again: it is not a lack of intelligence that limits primitive or other people in their cognitive methods; it is instead the particular history of this or that group which made it unnecessary to develop and learn those methods.

          If the context of the culture does not place certain pressures on it, the culture may never find a need to develop or adopt certain skills in the first place.  A primitive community will find little need to invent or learn ‘long’ division, for example.  In China it took centuries to develop the classics to which Confucius appealed, and more centuries to develop traditions of analyzing those classics. In India centuries of orally transmitted ritual songs  preceded the written Vedas and then the major Upanishads and their philosophical reflections.  In Egypt centuries of use built up a body of geometric practices, which Greek thinkers then formalized into a system.

          Confucian classics and Vedic commentaries and formal geometry represent progress if one values such things.  Whether those values are valid is not easy to address briefly.  It may well be that the stages of development, from pre-classical to classical, from pre-algebraic to algebraic, from anything to anything else, are regressive rather than progressive, according to a person who places high value on relative simplicity and closeness to nature.  But the pattern of development may well be there, whether any of us find it valuable or not.  The historical chapters, three to eight, will attempt to establish what in fact has occurred in the development of several cultures.  I value those developments, as it happens.  But if I am wrong on the value of what has occurred, I still may be correct on what in fact has occurred.  That can be judged at least partly on the basis of the information and argument in this book.

B.  Thought stages are cumulative, and vary from person to person in a culture (from pp. 30-33).

          The idea of cultural development would seem to imply that people of a given culture tend to think alike.  Primitive people think like primitives; modern people think like moderns.  But in fact within our own culture different people use different styles of thought, and a given person may use more than one.  Even in contemporary industrial societies a person may live a life guided mostly by the kind of thought that characterized early primitive culture and archaic civilization.  It is commonsense knowledge, derived from everyday experience and from tradition (what everybody knows). It is the “bookkeeping” style of thought–collections of ideas assembled and used without explicit concern to test for overall logical coherence among them all or to be critically aware of the conditional nature of the evidence and the interpretation they represent.  On a day to day basis we are all mostly pre-theoretical and pre-critical, relying primarily on tradition and common sense observations with a little ad hoc logic applied as needed.

          Even fantasy-loving pre-operational style of thought is common enough today.   Wild beliefs in a disconnected jumble of ideas are evident in supermarket tabloids like the Weekly World News, with its tales of UFO aliens and Tibetan secrets for raising the dead to life. The New Age movement promotes many odd beliefs, in ESP, plant consciousness, or mood-altering crystals,  odd enough for psychologists to refer to them as magical thinking. Whether “magical” is the best label or not, there is a tendency here to believe things that appeal to the imagination regardless of lack of any rational support.

          Those modern Americans whose thought is most “magical” perform on psychological tests as just barely formal operational, passing tests for the kind of early formal operational thought used by fourteen year olds, but failing more difficult tests.  These adults may have very good memories for recounting information from many sources, but show little critical ability to distinguish between a reliable source and an unreliable one. Many are good at imagining a worthwhile story for their lives, but are not very good at taking a rationally objective survey of their own situation and habits and goals, and putting it in the larger context of hypothetical alternatives open to them. A mixture of pre-operational credence and concrete operational practicality, in other words, is common among modern adults.  It should not be surprising if these same adults entertain rather fantastic beliefs, giving uncritical credence to beliefs about demonic possession, about ancient visitors from outer space, or about voices from the past speaking through living “channels.”

          Concrete operational thought is the ordinary mode of thought for most of us most of the time.  So it is not surprising that it appears today also in explicitly religious forms   The sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes religious fundamentalism as part of “folk piety,” and his description matches quite well, even if unintentionally, with the concrete operational style of thought. Folk piety is based on personal experience rather than formal arguments.  It is composed of relatively discrete sayings, a set of independent parts gathered but not organized into a coherent unity.  It is “a symbol system comprised of a relatively large number of elements, but with a low number of definite relations among pairs of elements.”  It is focused on solidarity groups and its oral tradition.  This is the style of thought that dominates by default in archaic cultures.  This is also fairly normal human thinking in most cultures today including our own.

          Like other cultures in history, however, ours has also taught most people how to use at least a little of the systematic formal operational style of thought that began to predominate among the cognitive elite in some cultures about 2500 years ago in what Jaspers called the axial-age. High school geometry is an instance of this. So also is any attempt to invent and choose among alternative forms for a year-long budget, figuring in taxes and retirement savings and insurance costs and future schooling for the kids with contingency plans for emergencies, all in relation to long term goals and perhaps even religious or philosophical interpretations of life, in order to bring some overall coherence to it all.

          When a person does employ large-scale formal operational analyses, explicitly rethinking even the basic structures of the person’s life or of the universe, the person can do this because prior generations have demonstrated that this mode of thought is available if a person works at it, and because those prior generations have developed cognitive techniques for such thought. Prior generations practiced how to review previous laws, beliefs, theories of nature, or whatever; then to look for large-scale ways of re-interpreting them; and then to test these large-scale interpretations for inner coherence.  They have handed on organized methods of logic, pro-and-con styles of argumentation, structured outlines for interrelating ideas.  People learn these techniques in schooling, both formal and informal.

          In spite of such education, however, these methods of classical consciousness are difficult and are used only occasionally or only by a relative few.  Systematically logical theorizing has its impact by being gradually imported into the underlying structures of the culture, its government and ethical codes and ideals, not by being common daily practice.  Our ideal of equal and universal justice under a government of laws, for example, is an ideal people respect in theory but have a hard time living up to.  People often respect such ideals because they receive them as tradition and treat them as common sense, rather than because they derive them logically from their own coherently systematic reflections, say, on the nature of the person as a social being in history, or as a child of God who is part of a cosmic Providential plan.  Similarly, it has long been noted that while formal theologies often portray God in rather philosophically sophisticated ways, anthropomorphic images of God are probably more common among religious people.  And most religious people accept these images on the basis of authority, whether of religious leaders or sacred scripture or well-established tradition, rather than because they have done the relevant rational theology or philosophy themselves.

          The empirical-critical cognitive style of modern science also appears in various forms, from simple to sophisticated. We can presume that from primitive times people did a bit of what science does.  They asked questions about things, formulated theories to account for things and then checked up on whether the theories fit with the evidence, remaining often only partly convinced.  There is a sense in which each person incorporates into daily life a skepticism which trusts evidence only so far.  The difference between primitive and modern culture is not that people today are the first to have discovered the possibility of formulating theories and testing them. Modern scientific culture has taken two exceedingly important additional steps.  It explicitly recognizes the need to formulate theories much more precisely and logically than is the custom in rigorously and extensively than in classical cultures.  Modern scientific culture has formalized an everyday human process into a highly self-conscious method.

          In practice, of course, not even the best trained scientist follows a neat pattern of observation and theorizing and testing. The path of discovery is convoluted, cris-crossing itself through many blind alleys along the way.  But the general method of science is eventually to organize the experiences of the journey into data (observations), theories, and tests in order then to be able to check more clearly how reliable the conclusions are so far.  This general method is no longer just an incidental and unschooled approach of this person or that, but is now the formal ideal behind complex techniques for determining what is probably true.  This is the method that has proved to be so challenging to religious belief, both by calling certain specific beliefs into question and by relying on a semi-skeptical method that has turned out to be highly successful.

          Once again, if many people today employ the method of science well, it is not because they are more intelligent than other people. The people of even the most primitive society share in the same general human intelligence.  It is the tools and training that different cultures provide that determines which cognitive skills a given group of people will have available to them.  (Chapter nine deals at length with the topic of the method of science, addressing issues raised by current philosophy and sociology and history of science.)

C.  Addressing the Critics.

          The second chapter of Stages of Thought, entitled “Addressing the Critics,” is devoted to several specific challenges:  1) to all theories of cultural evolution; 2) to Piagetian descriptions of individual cognitive development; and 3) to specifically Piagetian theories of cultural evolution.  The information and analyses in this chapter are too complex and varied to summarize here.  But at least this brief mention of the chapter must be made at this point, because it would otherwise be easy to assume that criticisms of Piaget and of cultural evolution already won the day long ago.   The chapter particularly identifies ways in which opponents of theories of cultural evolution and of Piagetian thought end up themselves giving credence to these ideas in spite of their intent not to.

           This chapter, quite frankly, is a bit tedious.  The reader who is already convinced that cultures have evolved approximately as Parsons or Gellner or Peacock or Diamond claim, or who thinks that Piaget’s general outline of cognitive development is correct, can profitably skip those sections.   It may nonetheless be worthwhile to look at the third part of the chapter, which describes and responds to attacks by Richard Shweder and others to Piagetian theories of cultural evolution.

          Shweder is a good representative of those who emphasize cultural differences, who severely criticize cross-cultural frameworks for understanding human thought and behavior.  Nonetheless, Shweder himself ends up acknowledging developmental differences.  He just claims to find them not very important.  Here is one paragraph from Stages of Thought (p. 49) illustrating what I mean:

Perhaps one of the most significant statements by Shweder in favor of a theory of cultural cognitive evolution, albeit indirectly and apparently unintentionally, is a statement made as part of his argument that modern people are poor at formal operational thought. He cites a 1965 study to examine how well college students could correlate material, in this case between cloud seeding and rainfall. When the information was presented bit by bit in sequence, the students did very poorly at determining whether there was a significant correlation between the seeding and rainfall.  But when the information was summed up in a 2 X 2 table, a much greater number of the students were able to reason through the problem and come up with a valid answer.  Shweder cites this as evidence that people can have the capacity to think in certain ways but be unable to use that capacity well without certain cognitive tools such as a 2 X 2 contingency table, a tool which he calls ‘certainly a formal operational instrument.’  This is an excellent example of what constitutes cultural cognitive evolution: the development of new cognitive tools and a process of educating people in their use. Tools like literacy, list-making, memory techniques, rhetoric, categories for analyzing drama, 2 X 2 tables, musical notation, and so forth, have to be developed. The development of such tools has taken thousands of years.  The tools must in turn be taught to each new generation, so methods of teaching complex cognitive tools also have evolved over centuries. (P. 49)

          Recall that the Introduction and the first chapter laid out the general thesis of the book.  This includes the claim that stages of long-term cultural development are similar to stages of individual development as described by Piaget.  It also includes the claim that scientific rationality has its roots in developments common to cultures East and West from ancient times, and that religious thought has followed approximately the same pattern of development as science. The second chapter considered major critics of some of these general claims.

          The third chapter is on primitive culture.  It begins the historical analysis with a survey of what we are able to say now about paleolithic cultures, through archeology and through cautious extrapolation from the condition of foraging cultures today.  The chapter supports Christopher Hallpike’s claim that foraging cultures exhibit only pre-operational and concrete operational thought.  The most surprising aspect is that some of the best evidence for this comes from those who intend to oppose the kind of claim Hallpike makes.  Various anthropologists assert that primitive or pre-literate people they study have integrated cycles of cosmological tales, or have a metaphysical foundation, or have law systems similar to modern cultures.  The same anthropologists, however, then tell the tales and show they are not integrated at all, or give examples for which the word “metaphysical” is simply misapplied, or confess that the anthropologist can analyze the law system from logical or formal perspectives that the native people themselves have never learned and do not use.  For better or worse, primitive thought is primitive.

          The fourth chapter, on archaic cultures, reviews the enormously important development of literacy.  Neolithic societies lived in small to large cities, with problems of property ownership, religious duties, trade, and government for five thousand years without inventing literacy.  Denise Schmandt-Besserat has made a good case that literacy first developed at Sumer over a 600 year period.  Even when Sumerians had begun to make more complex markings on clay containers, they were extremely slow to perceive the potential of such markings to turn into writing.  It is possible that the Sumerians were the only people in the Old World to invent literacy entirely on their own; even the Chinese may have had to wait for hearsay about literacy to create their own form.  Literacy is not an easily acquired set of ideas and skills.

          The fifth chapter, on the axial age in China, India, and Greece around 500 BCE, describes the concerns of a literate elite in each of
these locales to create clear standards for truth, to articulate some sort of formal logic, and to seek out some single Ultimate in terms of which all else could be explained.  The surprise here is that this entrance of formal operational thought into these cultures occurred around the same time.  One suspects that the ideas traveled along the East-West trade routes.  It is significant that formal operational thought seems to be attractive to at least some people in any culture where literacy has first laid a basis for it.

          The sixth chapter narrows the focus at this point to Western thought. Formal operational rationality was not restricted to the West in subsequent centuries.  But, regrettably, a study of philosophical rationality, as in India in the ninth century work of Shankara or of the twelfth century neo-Confucian intellectual renaissance in China, would have demanded a lengthier book.  So Stages of Thought mentions these only in passing.  And it was in the West that this common human rationality would eventually, in what should be considered a true historical surprise, turn into modern empirical science, a main concern of the whole book.

          The sixth chapter develops a topic that appeared earlier, the relationship between religion, philosophy, and science.  Simple beliefs in magic and spirits continued in the axial age as did worship of gods, but under the influence of the new formal operational techniques some religious belief took a more rationalistic form, as in the veneration of the Stoics for the divine Logos or the desire of Platonists for union with the One. In Judaism and Christianity (with similar patterns in India), religion was often a mixture of older more archaic elements and the newer rationalized thought.  Alexandrians like Philo and Clement, for example, sought philosophical clarity and justification for their beliefs, even as fellow religionists focused mainly on miraculous events and trusted in traditional authority rather than reason.  The roots of science are as deep as those of religion.  It developed alongside religious thought, beginning with the ordinary investigations and knowledge of the natural world by primitive people, to the more organized information that literacy made possible (as evident in the ancient astronomy of the Babylonians, for example).  The same rational approaches of the axial age that created philosophical theologies also produced more rationalized attempts at science, especially in medicine but also in speculations about the ultimate nature and patterns of the cosmos.

          This sixth chapter also introduces a topic that recurs through history, the demythologizing and demystifying effect of formal operational rationality.  The Enlightenment is often blamed for this. But as soon as formal rationality appears in a culture, that rationality challenges belief in spirits, gods, portents, magic, or supernatural interventions.  Various schools skeptical of traditional religion appeared in ancient China and India.  The Stoics mocked Christian belief in a God who meddles in things. (Of the skeptical philosophy outlined by Sextus Empiricus in the second century BCE, the probabilist school is startlingly similar to David Hume’s eighteenth century thought, and in some ways is the forerunner of modern semi-skeptical science.)

          The fall and rise of rationality in the early and late middle ages in the West is the topic of the seventh chapter.  The period from the sixth to eleventh centuries in Europe reinforces some important aspects of cultural evolution.  The first aspect is that there are no iron laws of history, no intrinsic drive towards progress.  The early middle ages in Europe were a time of intellectual decline and stagnation.  Though brilliant thinkers appeared now and then, their accomplishments are all the more marvelous for the lack of wide-spread and well-supported rational analysis.  The second aspect is that during much of this time a number of non-Western cultures enjoyed great intellectual ferment. Both Hindu and Muslim philosophy flourished.  The history of these times makes it clear that Europeans do not possess any innate intellectual superiority.

          In the twelfth and thirteenth century Europe enjoyed a major intellectual renaissance, centered around the new universities. By contrast, Islam’s earlier intellectual expansion tapered off because of pious suspicion of non-Qur’anic thought.  Perhaps, as Edward Gran argues, it was the early Christian experience of growing up in the world of Hellenistic philosophy that allowed late medieval Christians to look to that philosophy again as a legitimate means of analysis. Or perhaps, as Toby Huff speculates, it was the independence of the city universities, situated halfway between secular and sacred authorities, that provided just enough freedom for adventurous thought. Whatever the cause, it was not some uniquely European attributes.  During this same period in India, Ramanuja showed how to integrate Vedantic philosophy with religious devotion; and in China Chu Hsi created a neo-confucian metaphysics that had an impact comparable to that of Aquinas in Europe.

          The problem of miracles did not go away.  The seventh chapter begins by showing that even in the fifth century Augustine of Hippo had trouble explaining miracles.  At times he proposed that they were just surprises that God had built into a rational universe from the start.  Other times he insisted they were genuine interventions.  In later centuries, one of the most widespread texts left to us contained arguments that the bible miracles were all natural events, not supernatural interventions.  Still later Aristotelians and nominalists argued about how rational God had to be in setting up the universe and allowing it to operate.  By the seventeenth century it was an old topic.  When deism wrestled with it again, it was not the peculiar rationality of the Enlightenment that challenged religious belief; it was just another instance of the general formal operational rationality that has appeared across cultures and through time since the axial age.

          The eighth chapter takes up another charge against Enlightenment thought and/or modern science, that they begin with a naturalistic and mechanistic bias.  Science does indeed work with a naturalistic method, for the simple reason that natural causes can be understood rationally and tested empirically, whereas the work of a supernatural agent like God is closed to any investigation except untestable theological or philosophical speculation.  As was just mentioned, wherever there has been formal operational rationality, naturalism — in the sense of skepticism about supernatural interventions – has been common.  This is a bias of rationality, perhaps, but it is not a bias restricted to the Enlightenment. For centuries this bias represented only hope that reality is intelligible. In the form of modern science, however, it has proved to be eminently successful.

          The major point of the eighth chapter is to show that “mechanistic” philosophy of early scientists was only one of several approaches in early modern science.  These approaches have had four centuries in which to show their stuff, to show which of them succeeds in developing reliable and effective truth-claims and which fail.  Some claimed that matter is inert and requires spirits to activate and guide it. Others claimed that matter is active but follows patterns established by God from the beginning.  Yet others claimed that science showed God must intervene on a cosmic level. Some even said that the forces of nature were such that people who trained their soul in certain ways could harness natural magical powers. The chapter begins in fact with a list of ten different models of the universe that were proposed at some time or another. The point of the chapter is to provide an historical account of why the current “energist” and naturalistic view of the universe has prevailed in science.  It was not just a mechanistic or naturalist bias that determined the path of modern science.  Instead it was an open and often vigorous competition among different approaches.  What we know as modern science was the only approach that worked.

          The historical chapters create a platform on which to analyze the nature of the scientific method that has emerged from history. That is the work of the ninth chapter.  Here is the most important claim of that chapter, summarized in a paragraph (p.197):

Modern science has laid upon the world the old axial age expectation that it be an intelligible world, where the events are all part of a natural whole, where the validity of truth-claims can be tested by their fit with all other truth-claims.  This expectation might not have worked. The world as it appears to us might have turned out to be chaotic and largely unintelligible.  As we have seen, it might have turned out that a careful attentiveness to the world of appearances would yield a polytheistic concrete operational result: a world of events which do not cohere in any overall way.  Or it might have turned out to be a monotheistic world in which a high degree of “slack” and a lot of divine interventions made many events incomprehensible.  Or it might have been a world of Neoplatonic forces subject to magical control; or a world of Aristotelian essences opaque to further inquiry.  But after more than twenty-five hundred years of attempts at understanding the world rationally (perhaps minus the half millennium of the early middle ages), of speculations and theories and trial-and-error, a scientific model of reality has emerged that works so well that philosophical uncertainties about its method do not stand in the way of it effectiveness at its task of testing truth claims to see which will work as though they are simply true.

          There are nonetheless many critics of science.  So chapter nine responds to them.  Positively, it offers an analysis of the method of “fit,” which is the fundamental criterion that science applies to all of its ideas.   Every idea (fact, pattern, law, hypothesis, theory) gains plausibility when it fits well with other ideas, particularly ideas about the relevant evidence.  There is very strong plausibility to ideas that fit well both with available relevant evidence and with other ideas which fit well with their own relevant evidence, and which also do not fail the test of fit with any other evidence or other well-evidenced ideas.  The test of “fit” is the basic test people everywhere use to determine whether their ideas are correct. It is how our minds work.  When ideas and evidence fit, so far so good.  When they fail to fit, it is time to rethink things. This commonplace observation about scientific method is stated too simply here.  The chapter in fact reviews seven distinct aspects of the scientific form of this general human method for determining what is true.

          This in turn sets up a response to critics.  This chapter then identifies the serious inadequacies of most criticisms of the scientific method.  Some critics do not make much sense. They just do not like scientific rationality.  Other anti-science positions require a more complex response.  Thomas Kuhn’s work in particular is used by those who wish to relativize science or portray it as an unreliable guide to truth. Chapter nine shows that Kuhn obscures or diverts attention from the role of evidence in science, and that the “values” which Kuhn says guide science are in fact just variants on the rule of seeking the best “fit” of ideas with evidence and other ideas.  This chapter offers similar critical analysis of other anti-science positions, including social histories of science.  (Be sure also to read Higher Superstition by Gross and Levitt for criticisms of some forms of anti-science, if you have not yet done so.)

          The final chapter of the book reviews the position of religious thought in relation to the long history of cultural developments.
This includes a critical survey of non-scientific methods used by religious thinkers for determining what is true.  Convictions based on the attractiveness of certain religious ideas (like angels) is similar to the pre-operational tendency, first experienced in early childhood, to believe any ideas that are vivid and appealing, including fantasies like invisible friends.  Convictions based on the authority of tradition are the normal result of our usually useful concrete operational mode of thought.  But what is usually useful is not necessarily true, of course.  Another method that may reflect concrete operational thought is a tendency to give credence to those whose lives are morally admirable.  Again it is authority, this time of moral character, that performs as a criterion for truth.  But moral character is not the same as intellectual competence, and it brings no special means for sorting out evidence about factual matters. Convictions based on the overall coherence of a set of beliefs, as in a systematic theology, is like the initial tendency of formal operational thought to seek and support logical coherent systems of ideas, and to hold to them dogmatically.

          Another non-scientific means for discovering truth, especially religious truth, is harder to classify in Piagetian terms.  It is strong inner “religious” experience.  This could, of course, be no more than pre-operational imagination at work.  But religious thinkers have argued that one can have an inner experience of the sacred or even of God, an experience that is somehow self-justifying and/or fully convincing.

          An ambiguous form of God-experience as the God-question is readily defensible.  Post-axial thought opens the mind to explicit ultimate questions.  Like Kant’s antinomies, they are unanswerable. What lies beyond the origin of all things?  If there is no origin, why is there something at all rather than nothing?  What will be the ultimate end of all things, if any?  Is there an ultimate purpose to all things?  If I arrive at an answer to any of these questions, how do I know the answer is correct?  If I find criteria for knowing the correct answer, how do I know the criteria are right?  And so on, potentially endlessly.  In traditional theological terms, questions about the ultimate are questions about God. Formal operational thought about ultimacy makes a thinker a walking God-question.  One who thinks extensively about such things can experience the God question rather intensely.

          But in the case of a person who also experiences ultimacy not just as the God-question but as God, as the divine presence, then
formal operational thought can also challenge this conclusion: how does the person know that this experience of God reflects how reality ultimately is?  Some religious thinkers turn then to natural theology; others propose a leap of faith; others accept the infinite Mystery as God by a choice of how to live with hope and trust and compassion.

          There is further analysis of the types of religious beliefs people have held, and the kinds of justifications that have been offered for such beliefs.  There is not room here to discuss more specifics of that analysis.  It is enough to note that the late formal operational style of thought of modern science, semi-skeptical and naturalistic, continues to challenge religious beliefs of various kinds.  Some theological responses try to evade either science or the rationality that science uses or both. This is unwise and even harmful.  Other theological responses accept a cosmological naturalism, which places us human knowers in a world we can come to understand, as a gift from an always present divine source. Stages of Thought does not attempt to create an adequate theology for a scientific era.  It does argue, however, that no theology will be adequate if it evades or denigrates modern science and its method.