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Author Topic:   Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings?
Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 5 of 373 (594477)
12-03-2010 2:42 PM
Reply to: Message 3 by Straggler
12-02-2010 12:10 PM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
Do animals exhibit signs of belief in the supernatural? How could we recognise such beliefs? Is there any evidence to suggest parallels with primitive human beliefs?
I may be completely off base and talking out my ass here, but I draw a distinction between belief in the supernatural and simply an inaccurate view of reality.
For instance, an early human puzzled by how trees began to grow in the forest might guess that the trees crept around the forest at night when he wasn't looking, planting all the trees. A modern animist might instead believe that despite knowing that trees do not in fact physically do that, instead the "spirit" of the trees supernaturally fulfill that same role.
The first one, while definitely not actually an accurate depiction of reality, does not constitute belief in the supernatural because the person genuinely supposes reality to work that way. The second is belief in the "supernatural" because despite knowing that reality doesn't work that way, there is an effort to retain the belief regardless in a separate "super-nature".
So in my view the challenge is similar to that explained for the ape's treatment of the dead vs. wounded; the dead don't need tending of wounds, only protection. What distinction in behavior can we look for to distinguish an ape with a flawed understanding of reality from one who knows full well that their belief is flawed, yet retains it alongside more accurate understanding?

This message is a reply to:
 Message 3 by Straggler, posted 12-02-2010 12:10 PM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 8 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 6:15 AM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 9 of 373 (594655)
12-04-2010 12:11 PM
Reply to: Message 8 by Straggler
12-04-2010 6:15 AM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
Signs of worship and ritualisation seem to be the key indicators.
That seems to be the case. Except that I'm not sure that anthropologists actually distinguish between religion and belief in the supernatural; there isn't anything inherent about ritualization and worship that necessarily implies the supernatural.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 8 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 6:15 AM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 10 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 1:06 PM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 13 of 373 (594690)
12-04-2010 3:28 PM
Reply to: Message 10 by Straggler
12-04-2010 1:06 PM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
But when anthropologists find signs of worship is it not usually taken that this implies some form of supernatural belief? I am thinking of things like neolithic figurines as representing some sort of fertility goddess.
Sure they do, and we have every right to point out when they are talking nonsense. For example:
Anthropologist: "Aha! I found a... well, I have no idea what this is for. I mean: Ahah, this is a religious... thingy! Thats right!"
Assistant: "Are you sure, sir? It looks like a little doll... does that really fit with all that jewelry you found?"
Anthropologist: "Of course, patsy! There is no other conceivable use for a doll than for religious purposes. See, it was among this child's possessions so it was undoubtedly some form of religious instruction. If we don't find dolls in some of the other huts we will conclude that this child and family was part of the religious caste! I was already going to draw some connection between the dissimilar amounts of jewelry..."
Assistant: "Maybe the presence of dolls is connected to if the hut's resident had children who wanted dolls, and the jewelry to their comparative wealth? Maybe if you are more wealthy you can afford more dolls..."
Anthropologist: "Nonsense! Everyone knows that the most ornamented member of the tribe is their spiritual leader, and that by extension any other jewelry is simply a mark of their status in comparison to them! Having jewelry is therefore a direct indication of their spiritual status; after all, you wouldn't be suggesting that they spent large amounts of time and resources just to look pretty would you?"
Assistant: "Well, I wouldn't personally, but sometimes..."
Anthropologist: "Just look at these semi-regular feasts they have, where tribe members would gather around a fire, roast up some meat, smoke from ornamented pipes, and drink some crudely fermented beverage from decorated bowels. This obviously has spiritual significance! Undoubtedly this was an attempt to commune with their gods... its not like anyone puts out the nice dishes and invites their friends over to eat, drink, smoke, and socialize just because that is enjoyable! Be serious man!"
Straggler writes:
Are there any examples of primitive cultures where we know that worship was not related to supernatural belief?
Well I would say any time a culture resorts to "God of the Gaps" type thinking. A primitive animist might actually believe that lightning or rain was caused by the Sky-God, and that if he were able to fly he would potentially be able to encounter an actual physical being up there in the sky.
The dividing line into supernatural belief is when the believer doesn't believe something like the Sky-God physically exists and is the mechanism behind rain and lightning (probably by knowing how things actually work), and instead believes that the Sky-God "metaphysically" exists and causes those things to happen "supernaturally".
So even today I would suspect that there is a full spectrum of beliefs from natural to supernatural according to that criteria. It may be that you don't subscribe to my distinction of supernatural belief, but if not I would then wonder what the distinction was between a flawed understanding of medicine ("bad humors", et. c.) and a flawed understanding of weather systems ("Zeus", et. c.).

This message is a reply to:
 Message 10 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 1:06 PM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 14 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 4:20 PM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 15 of 373 (594703)
12-04-2010 5:21 PM
Reply to: Message 14 by Straggler
12-04-2010 4:20 PM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
You don't think the above is a supernatural belief? Is that right?
Right, because they thought that was how nature worked. In their view there was nothing supernatural about it; Vulcan really did have a huge forge down there. It would only become a supernatural belief if they actually understood nature to be something else, such as magma heated by radioactive decay bursting out through a weakness in the Earth's cooling crust.
A supernatural belief must be, by definition, separate from beliefs about nature. Supernatural beliefs are in essence built on top of beliefs about nature; they didn't start that way of course, but were often simply "pushed up" as better explanations were discovered. In hindsight, knowing the more accurate natural explanation for things, it is easy to look at these beliefs and assume they were viewed as supernatural explanations in the past.
For example, consider Thomson's "plum pudding" model of the atom where solid negatively charged electrons are embedded in a positively charged material, like plums in a pudding. This was of course inaccurate and the idea of positive atomic pudding is no less fictitious than the existence of Thor's hammer. The difference is that the idea was intended to describe nature and was abandoned when proven inaccurate, rather than preserved beyond its natural explanatory uses in the case of Thor's hammer.
Of course this is assuming the definition of "supernatural" as meaning "of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena; abnormal." If you want to use a different definition then I think it is crucial we clear that up before the real discussion can start.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 14 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 4:20 PM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 16 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 5:32 PM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 17 of 373 (594705)
12-04-2010 5:45 PM
Reply to: Message 16 by Straggler
12-04-2010 5:32 PM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
So belief in gods doesn't in itself constitute belief in supernature as far as you are concerned?
Not necessarily. The distinction is if you believe that god to be a part of nature or separate from nature.
Of course you could use the secondary definition of supernatural which is "of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or attributed to god or a deity," but then you would be scratching your head over ghosts and magic curses not being supernatural.
Basically what I am trying to avoid is a instance like when a "god" is defined to be someone who has obtained a level of self control and peace with themselves to the point of divesting themselves of desire and dissatisfaction. Then when this completely mortal person shifts a cup of tea from one side of the table to another, such an act would be technically "supernatural" (attributed to a god).
I think that its much more reasonable to differentiate belief in supernature and belief in nature directly, rather then by adding caveats for gods or spirits just so we can call belief in unicorns supernatural and belief in atomic positively charged pudding natural.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 16 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 5:32 PM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 19 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 6:06 PM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 20 of 373 (594711)
12-04-2010 7:02 PM
Reply to: Message 19 by Straggler
12-04-2010 6:06 PM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
Then regardless of whether I agree with it or not I am not sure how useful your distinction is in this thread.
Fair enough, but then as I have taken great pains to express, if you are going to be using a different criteria it would greatly aid the discussion if you would define what exactly constitutes a supernatural belief. Otherwise people won't know what you or anyone else is talking about.
As you said quibbling over whether their gods were supernatural or not may not be relevant, but surely that would lead to quibbling over if they should be considered gods. What exactly are we discussing? If animals believe in "supernatural beings" I should hope. So one of the very first steps should be to develop a clear definition of what a supernatural being *is* before we get too far ahead of ourselves.
So, in the context of this thread, what criteria need to be met to be considered belief in a supernatural being?
Straggler writes:
I think supernatural (broadly) means something that is neither derived from nor subject to natural laws and which is thus materially inexplicable. And gods are (broadly) supernatural conscious beings who are envisaged to have power over some aspect of reality.
Ok, sure. But you still run into exactly the distinction I was talking about. What if someone believes that fire is the effect of various fire spirits? It isn't that these fire spirits are not derived or subject to natural laws; the person believes that natural laws allow fire spirits to exist and perhaps dictate how they may operate (wood feeds them, wind aids them, water kills them). Fire spirits are the material explanation of fire, and are as natural as squirrels.
By extension a fire spirit cannot be a god as it is not supernatural, even if the person's tribe were to worship a "Father Fire" figure in exactly the same manner others might worship a "god of the Hearth".
Straggler writes:
I am not sure that is too much of a concern in the case of examining whether animals exhibit signs of supernatural belief.
But what if we have an ape which waves a small crafted figure of a squirrel at some trees before beginning to harvest food for the day. Are we to draw a distinction between the ape thinking that doing so will directly influence the squirrels to aid in the harvest, or a plea to the "Great Squirrel in the Sky-Canopy" to provide a bountiful harvest?
Straggler writes:
I don't see how the plum pudding model of the atom could ever be described as a supernatural claim.
Right, and I'm not arguing that it should be. But what exactly is the difference between this attempt at an explanation and a different attempt that claimed positively charged pixies carried the electrons around? Are we going to base this distinction entirely on a cultural association of some inaccurate explanations of reality being supernatural and others not, or are we going to lay out a consistent criteria?

This message is a reply to:
 Message 19 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 6:06 PM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 21 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 7:26 PM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 23 of 373 (594722)
12-04-2010 7:52 PM
Reply to: Message 21 by Straggler
12-04-2010 7:26 PM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
Where we see animals behaving in ways that are directly comparable to humans exhibiting belief in supernatural beings we can consider the possibility that animals are doing something similar.
Which is why I pointed out the importance of making sure our definition of "supernatural" meshes with our observation of humans, such as with my "self control" example which you dismissed as not being a concern. Since we are to base our determination of animals from our position on humans, it is necessary to have a cohesive and comprehensive definition of what constitutes belief in supernatural beings for humans if we are to hope for anything close to that for animals.
Straggler writes:
Look if we even get to the stage where there is any evidence to suggest that animals might believe in such things then we can quibble over what exactly is meant by "supernatural being". But let's establish whether there is even a case to be made for the possibility before we get bogged down in detailed definitions.
No, lets decide what we are looking for before deciding that we have found it, or not, and then later arguing over what it is we found. How can we find evidence in support of belief in something when we don't even know what it is we are looking for evidence about? Much less what form that evidence might take?
Straggler writes:
Why does every single thread in this place have to end up as an exercise in "define your terms" tedium?
Because *sometimes* terms are an important thing to know! Surely this hasn't completely escaped your notice in your time here. But if you are just after a quick answer, I will give you two:
No, animals do not exhibit belief in supernatural beings.
Yes, animals do exhibit belief in supernatural beings.
Both of these answers are based off of incompatible definitions of what constitutes belief in supernatural beings, which haven't been bothered to be explained or reconciled because you are being too much of a prat to bother with such trivialities.
Straggler writes:
One is able to be materially investigated and the other isn't.
But you can! These pixies were not defined as being undetectable, and regardless the research that proves the positive charged thingies are concentrated in an extremely dense nucleus contradicts them being out carrying the electrons around.
More importantly, here is another criteria you have offered for differentiating supernatural beliefs from natural ones. Unfortunately your example of belief in Vulcan *can* be materially investigated so it doesn't constitute belief in a supernatural being. Is that meshing with your preconceived ideas, because it seems that it wouldn't.
Now let me recount my view of the thread so far:
You: Do animals believe in supernatural beings?
Me: What sort of beliefs of an animal would qualify, or what behaviors would indicate such beliefs?
You: Easy, we can just compare to the behaviors and by extension beliefs of humans!
Me: Ok, but what human beliefs and by extension behaviors constitute belief in supernatural beings?
You: Arrg, stop complicating things and just answer the question!
Now I haven't even addressed the radical leaps of logic between linking human beliefs to human behaviors to animal behaviors to animal beliefs. I have simply offered what I consider to be a cohesive criteria of distinguishing a supernatural belief both in humans and in animals. Admittedly that criteria may be difficult to apply, and I asked for your input considering you started the thread. But if you are going to continue to provide definitions that don't even accurately represent your own views as expressed in this very thread, I can't see any way to provide a meaningful answer!

This message is a reply to:
 Message 21 by Straggler, posted 12-04-2010 7:26 PM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 27 by Straggler, posted 12-05-2010 6:22 AM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 24 of 373 (594723)
12-04-2010 7:54 PM
Reply to: Message 22 by Taz
12-04-2010 7:45 PM


Ahh, but does your cat believe you are supernatural?

This message is a reply to:
 Message 22 by Taz, posted 12-04-2010 7:45 PM Taz has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 25 by Taz, posted 12-04-2010 9:54 PM Phage0070 has not replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 32 of 373 (594828)
12-05-2010 11:48 AM
Reply to: Message 27 by Straggler
12-05-2010 6:22 AM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
And before you ask me to define "religious behaviour" here is what I mean by a broad definition of religion: "having or showing belief in and reverence for a deity".
Well its good that you spelled that out because I was going to say "yes" to the question, but now I say "no". I was under the impression that there were some religions that didn't have deities but GOSH, seems like I was splitting hairs!

This message is a reply to:
 Message 27 by Straggler, posted 12-05-2010 6:22 AM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 34 by Straggler, posted 12-05-2010 11:53 AM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 33 of 373 (594829)
12-05-2010 11:50 AM
Reply to: Message 29 by Jon
12-05-2010 11:10 AM


Re: Most Likely
Jon writes:
She bows to me each morning in order that I feed her.
Lots of human cultures involve bowing to each other without that being a religious behavior at all, much less implying a belief that the target of the bow is supernatural.
I recognize the joke of course, but its a pertinent observation.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 29 by Jon, posted 12-05-2010 11:10 AM Jon has not replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 35 of 373 (594833)
12-05-2010 12:01 PM
Reply to: Message 34 by Straggler
12-05-2010 11:53 AM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
So what examples do you have (definitions aside for one moment?)
The ritual attention paid to the dead by apes and elephants, as well as the hierarchical social structure involved, seems to qualify as "religious" in the broadest sense of the term.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 34 by Straggler, posted 12-05-2010 11:53 AM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 36 by Straggler, posted 12-05-2010 12:14 PM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 37 of 373 (594842)
12-05-2010 12:24 PM
Reply to: Message 36 by Straggler
12-05-2010 12:14 PM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
Straggler writes:
Haven't found anything similar on apes. Do you have any links for that?
*Multiple sites. Gorillas are known to hold wakes for dead friends; zoos have cermonialized this. Donna Fernandes reports that at Franklin
Park Zoo, Boston, ten years ago, after a female Babs died of cancer, her longtime mate said ‘good-bye’: ‘He was howling and banging his
chest,and he picked up a piece of her favorite foodceleryand put it in her hand and tried to get her to wake up. I was weeping it was so
emotional.’ Later the zoo held a funeral, similarly moving. As reported by the local news, gorilla family members ‘one by onefiled into’
the room where ‘Babs’s body lay’, approaching their ‘beloved leader’ and ‘gently sniffing the body.’ In addition to gorillas holding wakes,
baboons are known to seek the comfort of friends after deaths in their family. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania
She} began grooming with a female of much lower
status, behavior that would otherwise be beneath her’ (Bekoff 2007).
This is just from the "Chimp Spirit Database" linked at the start of the thread.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 36 by Straggler, posted 12-05-2010 12:14 PM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 38 by frako, posted 12-05-2010 12:28 PM Phage0070 has replied
 Message 41 by Straggler, posted 12-05-2010 12:51 PM Phage0070 has not replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 39 of 373 (594847)
12-05-2010 12:31 PM
Reply to: Message 38 by frako
12-05-2010 12:28 PM


Re: Do Animals Believe In Supernatural Beings
frako writes:
I go to many a funeral thoug i do not belive in a soul or a god there is nothing supernatural for me about it.
Who said anything about supernatural? I thought we agreed we weren't talking about that.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 38 by frako, posted 12-05-2010 12:28 PM frako has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 40 by frako, posted 12-05-2010 12:46 PM Phage0070 has not replied
 Message 42 by Straggler, posted 12-05-2010 12:53 PM Phage0070 has not replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 50 of 373 (594977)
12-05-2010 11:02 PM
Reply to: Message 49 by Jon
12-05-2010 9:01 PM


Re: It's All Relative
Jon writes:
What does that have to do with the thread title?
Heck if I know, it sounds like he is trying to investigate if animals believe in something he is unwilling to discuss.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 49 by Jon, posted 12-05-2010 9:01 PM Jon has seen this message but not replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 51 by barbara, posted 12-06-2010 10:43 AM Phage0070 has not replied
 Message 54 by Straggler, posted 12-06-2010 1:08 PM Phage0070 has replied

Phage0070
Inactive Member


Message 55 of 373 (595081)
12-06-2010 1:20 PM
Reply to: Message 54 by Straggler
12-06-2010 1:08 PM


Re: It's All Relative
Straggler writes:
Y'know those entities of the sort that lot's of people believe exist but for which there is no objective evidence?
Well thats great, but I don't expect any animals to believe in the same entities humans believe in. Or were you talking about just entities that have no objective evidence of existence? Because if that was what you meant, you are making a curious distinction between misinterpretations of evidence and whatever else you meant.
"Entities for which there is no objective evidence" could simply encompass whatever the heck cats are swatting at in the air that nobody else can see. But no, that doesn't seem to qualify for reasons which you consistently refuse to reveal.
Straggler writes:
But if you want to discuss the detailed meaning of the term "supernatural" further I suggest...
But I don't, I really don't! In the absence of a clearly defined topic I provided my own definition with the generous caveat that I was willing to substitute whatever definition you wanted to use in the context of the thread.
I don't want to debate over it, I want you to just spit it out! TELL ME! And for goodness sake stick to it, because so far you have been providing more exceptions than rules.

This message is a reply to:
 Message 54 by Straggler, posted 12-06-2010 1:08 PM Straggler has replied

Replies to this message:
 Message 58 by Jon, posted 12-06-2010 2:40 PM Phage0070 has not replied
 Message 60 by Straggler, posted 12-07-2010 4:38 PM Phage0070 has replied

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