Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Witzel, Witzelsucht & the origins of Religion.

Prof. Michael Witzel's Casaubon like magnum opus- unifying all mythology by means of comically obsolescent scholarship- is due to drop in a couple of months. Meanwhile here is a link to a paper of some interest in itself, which provides a plausibly Scientific sounding- i.e. guaranteed to be obsolescent- justification for the exercise. Essentially, two different claims are made- one is that myths are fragile, ecologically sensitive, and have low fidelity transmission, second that myths have deep genealogy. There may have been some model of memetic epigenetic effects which made this not utter moonshine- but such models have ephemeral 'half lives' and in any case are not robust. Still, it is the very ludic obsolescence of the underlying model which will make Witzel's book worth reading but that is not the topic of this post.
Instead it is the medical phenomena known as Witzelsucht- about which Wikipedia has this to say-
Witzelsucht (from the German witzeln, meaning to joke or wisecrack, and sucht, meaning addiction or yearning) is a set of rare neurological symptoms characterized by a tendency to make puns, tell inappropriate jokes or pointless stories in socially inappropriate situations. Ironically, however, the person is insensitive to humor produced by themselves or others around them. They do not understand that their behavior is unnatural, therefore are nonresponsive to others’ reactions. This disorder is most commonly seen in patients with frontal lobe damage, particularly right frontal lobe tumors or trauma.

The causal connection between Religious ideation and frontal lobe epilepsy is both ancient and widely recognized today not least thanks to Karen Armstrong's candor on the subject. What makes Theology interesting is that it is part of what Witzel has called 'a highly correlated system' which, in a sense, seeks to impose a curb or discipline upon a type of mental activity not uncommon and which would be bound to shape the Evolutionary Stable memetic endowment of any given Society.  If a lot of privileged discourse is indeed a type of  ethological 'displacement activity'- and Witzelsucht, like philosophy, is clearly a displacement activity- then there are also going to be Tardean mimetic effects which alter dynamics.

Mythologies, as opposed to Visionary ideations, if arising from Witzelsucht, are less amenable to the discipline of intensive correlation. Indeed, the distinct feature of myths as opposed to totalizing narratives is that they point to the impairment of the very faculty to which they otherwise appeal. They are the Fermat's Last Theorem of the great wits and  comedians, the shaggy dog stories which true Lords of the Ludic exchange the way Mathematicians exchange conjectures that tremble upon the verge of being transgressive to received axioms.

How does this relate to the origins of Religion? It doesn't except in the sense that if there were no noise Evolution wouldn't be Information theoretic. But that, surely, isn't saying much.

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