Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fooled by Randomness

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Daniel Dennett cites Julian Jaynes "brilliant but quirky and unreliable book" The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind as noting "that the very idea of randomness or chance is of quite recent origin" (Dennet, p. 133):

"Sortilege or the casting of lots differs from omens in that it is active and designed to provoke the gods' answers to specific questions in novel situations. It consisted of throwing marked sticks, stones, bones, or beans upon the ground, or picking one out of a group held in a bowl, or tossing such markers in the lap of a tunic until one fell out. Sometimes it was to answer yes or no, at other time to choose one out of a group of men, plots, or alternatives. But this simplicity -- even triviality to us -- should not blind us from seeing the profound psychological problem involved, as well as appreciating its remarkable historical significance. We are so used to the huge variety of games of chance, of throwing dice, roulette wheels, etc., all of the vestiges of the ancient practice of divination by lots, that we find it difficult to really appreciate the significance of this practice historically. It is a help here to realize that there was no concept of chance whatever until very recent times. Therefore, the discovery (how odd to think of it as a discovery!) of deciding an issue by throwing sticks or beans on the ground was an extremely momentous one for the future of mankind. For, because there was no chance, the result had to be caused by the gods whose intentions were being divined." (Jaynes, p. 339-240)

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