Mars Will Send No More is pleased to present the first of a 3-part examination of the relation of Jack Kirby’s works to religion and science. This essay comes to us with the permission of its author, Iain Carstairs. We encourage you to visit Iain’s site Science and Religion for more thought-provoking essays.
1. Humanity’s Heritage: Symbolic Thought
I’m 71 years old. I used to read the first science fiction books, and I began to learn about the Universe myself and take it seriously. I know the names of the stars. I know how near or far the heavenly bodies are from our own planet.
I know our own place in the Universe. I can feel the vastness of it inside myself. I began to realize with each passing fact what a wonderful and awesome place the Universe is, and that helped me in comics because I was looking for the awesome. I found it in Thor. I found it in Galactus.
Jack Kirby, 1988
In the debates between atheists and believers, some atheists have very strong arguments indeed because they rely only on logic. Christopher Hitchens claimed that we help others not because of the dictates of a God but because we depend on others to make our Earthly experience as positive as possible. This indicates that the intellect is capable of putting people before self interest.
In a debate with Sam Harris, Hitchens was asked, “On what do you base the value of your life, if there is no transcendent God to serve?” He answered that he had spent his life trying to be free, and trying to help others be free. There is no argument, whether rational or religious, which can discredit such a view.
If one abides by the biblical sayings “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or, “Whatsoever ye do unto the least of all thy brethren, that do ye also unto me,” then one must feel that a human life can be amply justified by service to others. Such a life embodies a genuine spiritual impulse, no matter the nature of its justification, just as a harmful act such as a punch in the stomach, easily condemned on humanitarian and logical grounds, cannot be justified by using religious ones instead.
So, even someone who does not believe in a spirit can, paradoxically, create what can only be defined as a spiritual outlook. Perhaps their caution is understandabe if their denial of a Divine Creator is based on characterisations made in ancient religions. Perhaps denial on those grounds supposes archaic concepts to be the only possible such symbols. Even Christ’s detractors found flaws in his message. But, this ignores the input of all modern minds. It would be more sensible for a religious critic today to deal with ideas of today, since ancient symbols can only be expressions of a mind limited by the evolutionary capacity of their day.
Just as language is a collection of symbols which all share a certain flavour per society, created in an effort to make intangible thought presentable to others, so are religious symbols evidence of something inexpressible in any other way. The remarkable thing is not that all languages are different, or that their forms change over time, but that all evolved independently – and continue to do so – to serve the evolving human brain.
Most people are surprised to find we cannot form a mental picture of a number of objects greater than about a dozen. That is, we cannot accurately distinguish this group from a separate mental picture of thirteen objects or eleven. To deal with this disability, the brain has produced symbols – numbers – which are not objects themselves, but an agreed-upon code enabling us to share these otherwise mentally unmanageable ideas. We humans are alone in conceiving such symbolic thought. Some primates can be taught a certain amount of it but do not develop it independently. This makes clear the giant leap made by us at some point in the distant past.
Such symbols began about 8000 BC to represent sheep and other goods, followed around 3000 BC by a further, significant, abstraction: the quantity of these goods represented as symbols in their own right. Such ideas represented leaps which we take for granted now but which could only arise from individuals prone to thinking things over and coming up with inspiration. In fact, the modern function of humans as teachers to primates might mirror this early, slow process of development between the forward-thinking types and the ordinary, slow-moving minds of their day.
Spiritual symbols must have predated such elements of trade by a huge distance. The animism of the Aborigines supposedly dates from 60,000 years ago. The Aurignacian cave paintings, presumed to have more than just decorative purpose – as they are found in inaccessible caves not used for habitation – date to about 32,000 years ago. I believe the temple of Gobekli Tepe is reliably dated to about 12,000 years ago.
We know that 200,000 year old burial sites in Africa show evidence of funerary rites. The Neanderthal also developed these rites. Their race dates from 600,000–350,000 years ago, and we know such beliefs existed at least 300,000 years ago. It would hardly make sense for early man to suddenly develop abstract ideas which changed only slightly over the next 300,000 years, especially when a much more evolved specimen took at least five thousand years to go from symbolic objects to symbolic quantities. So it seems reasonable to believe that religious beliefs – and the language to articulate them – could easily have emerged as long as half a million years ago.
Therefore, if we agree that order in time correlates to order of fundamental importance, the spiritual symbols must have been of huge importance to society, followed only much, much later by a systemised set of symbols encoding objects and their quantity.
The vast gulf we needed to cross to assimilate these concepts is exemplified by the five thousand year gap between symbolic representation of objects and the much harder abstraction of their symbolic number. Bonobo apes have been taught to communicate using symbols. But, the additional learning required to conceive of organised agriculture for the purposes of trade, the concept of payment values to purchase other goods, as well as the assessment of integrity of character of the trader, remain vast, vast leaps into the future.
Symbolic thought is, without doubt, one of humanity’s most precious and hard-earned evolutionary steps. Those who can manipulate symbols with agility are powerful influences on the rest of us.
In well-attended debates where atheistic opinions are based on logic alone, resting a defence of religion on a recollection of ancient events is of dubious worth, and also a little pointless, just as the value of medical science cannot be reckoned by referring to its murky origins or courageous proponents living centuries ago, but by benefits and facts which are at hand today.
If these audiences are polarised into two camps attracted by two completely different things, as if watching the brute force of Hulk Hogan compared to hearing the golden voice of Shirley Bassey, then it is small wonder that nothing is ever resolved convincingly. Each side walks away feeling much the same sympathies as before, and perhaps a little puzzled by the failure of two intelligent minds to somehow communicate the truth of something about which they both feel so passionately.
If one can justify humanitarianism by logic, one should also be able to justify spiritual beliefs by present day knowledge. If not, there is no point in debating. Convincingly resolving the question of God is perhaps for distant generations. The biology which is somehow already in motion must be the thing which concerns us the most, along with what we can do to affect it, just as a driver speeding over a collapsed bridge thinks not about its architects or the technical drawings for his car, but where the brakes are!