Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Meaning Systems - Big Ideas

A very worthwhile piece of audio to pick up is the podcasted lecture by David Sloan Wilson on Religions and other Meaning Systems on the podcast Big Ideas also without the additional reading and listening that embedded it for me (feed). Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who shines his perspective on religion in general and does so in a very integrated fashion and with fascinating insights.

My perspective on religion is sociological and anthropological and it makes me always feel a bit queasy when I see biologists take on religion. Whether it is Richard Dawkins (in The God Delusion that I recently read) or Stephen Gould or PZ Myers, I always feel they somehow miss a fundamental point. Sloan Wilson is an exception to that rule, he explicitly does not miss the point: even though religions carry claims about facts, claims that biology or other sciences are by far more qualified to make, religion is not essentially about facts, or even about salvation or morality - religions are a social construct that supply people with meaning. That is what Sociology and Anthropology could have told you in the first place and what Sloan Wilson presents as a zoological discovery: unlike other animals man is profoundly symbolic. And while we are at it, political ideologies and science are no less a product of that symbolic inclination of man than religion is. They all are meaning systems, in the terminology of Wilson. I would have called them symbolic universes, but again, that is my baggage from sociology.

It is also my baggage as a sociologist that I feel the social sciences are more qualified to analyze religion, yet I happily acknowledge that the biology perspectives of David Sloan Wilson and Richard Dawkins offer insight as well. It helped I was pointed by the DIY Scholar to the Stanford series with Robert Sapolsky: Human Behavioral Biology which is a very interesting and broad course in its own right, but in this context it gave me the much needed introduction in the tools, methods, terminology and mind set of the biologist. (feed)

More Big Ideas:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog,
Age of Unequals,
Dan Dennett: what should replace religion?,
Chris Hedges,
Needham about China.

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