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Friday, January 13, 2006

random walks of the old mole

While Schopenhauer’s essay begins with ghosts, ghosts are not the figures that haunt the essay: sleepwalkers are. One believes one is wandering into a production of Hamlet, but it turns out that this is Kleist’s the Prince of Homburg.

All of which is to say that Schopenhauer’s notion that the analysis of spirit seers should be left to the experts – the philosophers and physiologists – gives him the framework for the next move in his essay – a departure from the empiricist tradition that tries to keep faith with the empiricist principle of tracking ideas to the senses.

But LI would be remiss if we didn’t point out that the philosophical topic of ghosts has been, apparently, picked up again by Dennett. George Johnson begins his review of Dennett’s latest book, Breaking the Spell: RELIGION AS A NATURAL PHENOMENON in Scientific American with these finely turned out two grafs:

“If nowhere else, the dead live on in our brain cells, not just as memories but as programs--computer like models compiled over the years capturing how the dearly departed behaved when they were alive. These simulations can be remarkably faithful. In even the craziest dreams the people we know may remain eerily in character, acting as we would expect them to in the real world. Even after the simulation outlasts the simulated, we continue to sense the strong presence of a living being. Sitting beside a gravestone, we might speak and think for a moment that we hear a reply.

In the 21st century, cybernetic metaphors provide a rational grip on what prehistoric people had every reason to think of as ghosts, voices of the dead. And that may have been the beginning of religion. If the deceased was a father or a village elder, it would have been natural to ask for advice--which way to go to find water or the best trails for a hunt. If the answers were not forthcoming, the guiding spirits could be summoned by a shaman. Drop a bundle of sticks onto the ground or heat a clay pot until it cracks: the patterns form a map, a communication from the other side. These random walks the gods prescribed may indeed have formed a sensible strategy. The shamans would gain in stature, the rituals would become liturgies, and centuries later people would fill mosques, cathedrals and synagogues, not really knowing how they got there.”

The origin of religion in the ghost story is an old story itself – reverence for the dead being the kind of ritual that interests both a Durkheimian and a Freudian, and that has had quite an impact on 20th century anthropology.

Oddly enough – and perhaps this oddity shapes the essay – Schopenhauer does not mention the dead with relationship to ghosts in his introductory paragraph. In fact, the dead are sublimated into what is present and what is absent, as if life were a matter of secondary metaphysical import. The random walk Schopenhauer wants us to follow is the somnambulist’s, to whom Schopenhauer attributes a Caligari like ability to navigate obstacles.

But… let’s give you a flowsheet of the essay, and not get ahead of ourselves. In the next post.

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