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The Penultimate CuriosityHow Science Swims in the Slipstream of Ultimate Questions$

Roger Wagner and Andrew Briggs

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198747956

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198747956.001.0001

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Ultimate Curiosity

Ultimate Curiosity

(p.53) Chapter Seven Ultimate Curiosity
The Penultimate Curiosity

Roger Wagner

Andrew Briggs

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter first describes the cognitive science of religion, a multidisciplinary field that draws from anthropology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology to study the nature of religious thoughts and actions. It then explains the meaning of the terms ‘ultimate curiosity’ and ‘slipstream’, and asks how slipstream effects might provide a way of thinking about human curiosity. It suggests that particular configurations of ‘ultimate curiosity’ seem to have produced a powerful motivational slipstream in which the consequences of ‘penultimate curiosity’ became ever more spectacular. The temptation to close the gap between them—to make religion answer scientific questions or vice versa—and the ‘chutes’ that result are part of this story that must be considered.

Keywords:   cognitive science, religion, religious thoughts, human mind, slipstream

At the beginning of most summer evenings a flock of geese, which lived near the river a couple of hundred yards from where the first chapters of this book were being written, would take to the air. Settling into their characteristic V pattern they would give an immaculate demonstration of formation flying as they circled above our stretch of the Cherwell. Occasionally a B team of geese from lower down the river would put in an appearance giving a more ragged performance but still maintaining the semblance of a V. These V formations were not accidental. In using them each bird in the flock was able to find a position of maximum uplift from a vortex of the slipstream created by the bird in front.

As our weekly breakfast discussions continued it began to occur to us that this phenomenon of slipstreaming might provide a way of thinking about the peculiar relationship we were trying to understand. The relationship that is between investigating the visible world and reaching out to something beyond it. In particular it suggested a way of relating the connections we were finding between ‘ultimate’ and ‘penultimate’ curiosity, to a new way of thinking about the development of religion that has arisen in part from the emerging discoveries of prehistoric art.

Homo religiosus

The ‘cognitive science of religion’ (CSR) first received a name in the year 2000 (though studies that now come under this banner had been acquiring definition for more than a decade before that). As a multidisciplinary field it draws from anthropology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology to study the nature of religious thoughts and actions. A basic starting point for this science has been the question of whether religion (defined for its purposes as something that has to do with supernatural agents) is a fundamental capacity of the mind in (p.54) the same kind of way as language and speech, or is a human invention like the wheel.

While language and speech are ubiquitous, inventions like the wheel are not. They occur in some cultures but not in others. While we may remember how we learnt to ride a bicycle or use some other invention, language is acquired so early that we do not remember its acquisition.

Religion seems in these respects to be more like language than technology. Despite the first impressions of some nineteenth-century explorers it has been shown to be ubiquitous.1 Experiments with young children have demonstrated that religious thoughts appear spontaneously from a very early age.2 These observations have prompted a further question: ‘does religion provide some kind of direct adaptive advantage that has been selected for by evolution (suggesting there might even be a “religious gene”) or is it a by-product of other things that do provide an adaptive advantage?’

Although there is some evidence that a tendency towards religiosity may be heritable, even proponents of the ‘God gene’ hypothesis admit that no gene so far identified is able to account for the range of human religion.3 The fact that something like the ability to cook or make clothes turns out to be advantageous does not necessarily imply that they have been directly selected for by an evolutionary process. It would be rather surprising to find a gene that directly codes for making clothes. If religion is in some sense a ‘by-product’ of characteristics that do carry an evolutionary advantage, what might these be? This is the central question that CSR sets out to answer.

In seeking to do so CSR researchers have often focussed on so-called ‘mental tools’, sometimes comparing the mind to a kind of Swiss army knife containing devices that had evolved for one purpose but could be used for another (rather as the pick for getting stones out of horses’ hooves turned out to be rather useful for cleaning nails). Chief among these is the so-called ‘theory of mind’ (discussed in Chapter Five), which may have evolved by allowing advantageous social cooperation.

If the mind has a system for recognizing other minds as well as a system for recognizing inanimate objects, then corpses and bones might bring these two systems into conflict, creating an ‘uneasiness’. Hence, it is argued, the preoccupation of some animals like elephants with the bodies and bones of their species, (p.55) the ‘cult of skulls’ identified by the Abbé Breuil in prehistoric sites, and the ancestor cults described by anthropologists.

If, furthermore, it is suggested, the mind has developed a hair-trigger device for detecting the agency of other minds (whether human or animal) in the surrounding world, that might explain our readiness to attribute sounds or sights that don’t have a discernible physical cause to disembodied agencies (spirits, ghosts, and the like). It might also explain the experimental discovery that young children of all cultures have a bias to explain every aspect of the world around them as having been designed.4

None of these ‘mental tools’ has, however, seemed to researchers in this field sufficient to account for the existence of religion as a social phenomenon. For that, a further capacity was required. The nature of this further capacity bears some relation to what theologians have descibed as ‘self transcendence’.5 In scientific terminology it has been variously decribed as a ‘supervisory system’,6 ‘bifurcation of consciousness’,7 and ‘high end metarepresentational theory of mind’.8 All of these terms refer to the capacity to think about thoughts. The last phrase, coined by Justin Barrett—one of the leading proponents of CSR—is though more specific.

If I have a picture in my mind of a spear, that is a representation. If I turn the spear round in my mind and think about how to make it sharper, that is a ‘metarepresentation’. If I deliberately and reflectively think about the contents of my own or someone else’s mind, that in Barrett’s language is ‘high end metarepresentational theory of mind’. This capacity to look at a thought as though it were a kind of object gives rise, Barrett suggests, to the phenomenon that has been described as ‘joint attention’. This is the ability of two people to consider a shared thought: ‘looking’ together at something that neither of them can physically see. Some such ability would seem to be a precondition of any kind of shared religion. It would also seem to be a precondition of the capacity to create and read symbolism.

Homo symbolicus

Birds sing, dogs bark, lions roar. Many kinds of creatures produce signals in the form of sounds, scents, gestures, and dances that may convey information and trigger behavioural responses. Deliberately created symbols seem to involve something beyond (p.56) this. They are, Barrett argues, ‘metarepresentational’ in the sense that they involve the capacity to manipulate a thought by expressing it in physical form or to read and interpret what has been expressed. They involve a ‘high end theory of mind’ in the sense that they trigger ‘mental states (thoughts, ideas, affective states etc) instead of only triggering behavioural routines’. To understand a symbol ‘I would need to be able to wonder “what is it intended for?”’. It may be this capacity ‘that changes signalling into linguistic communication and symbolism more generally’.

These are also very much the same kind of questions that are applied to portents and omens in a religious context. Hence Barrett concludes that ‘it may be that when metarepresentation was added to our ancestors tool kits’, they quite suddenly became capable of this kind of religious interpretation, of language, and of symbolism ‘all at the same time all because of the addition of one incremental change. If so then the tool kit that makes Homo religiosus makes Homo symbolicus and behaviourally modern humans as well. The three are identical and evolved concurrently.’9

Whether or not this turns out to be the case, it is apparent that something like ‘metarepresentation’ and ‘joint attention’ might together give rise to the cumulative culture that is the distinctive feature of behaviourally modern humans.

Cultural traditions do exist in other species and some of these may involve something like symbolism (though this seems to be the much more temporally and geographically limited). In 1991, for instance, the Boeschs reported that the chimpanzees drummed on tree roots in a way that seemed to convey to other chimpanzees their location and direction of travel.10 When, however, the main drummer died, the behaviour disappeared.

By contrast the hand stencils and pictures in Sulawesi seem to suggest an extraordinarily long line of cultural transmission extended over thousands of years and across thousands of miles. It is easy to see what might motivate the passing on of hunting, cooking, and clothes-making skills. What might motivate the transmission of this kind of cultural activity?

Big Picture Thinking

The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, another leading figure in the CSR field, has argued that gods or spirits who cannot be seen have a particular salience in moral thinking, (p.57) which is likely to have given them a central position in human communities. Whatever other attributes they may have, invisible beings can potentially see the good or evil we are doing when we are otherwise unobserved. They may even see our hidden thoughts and secret motives. They may know the true causes of problems and the future consequences of actions. In a way that no human being can, such invisible presences could genuinely stand in the position of the ‘impartial spectator’.

Indeed they may be more than spectators. They may stand as the ultimate guarantors of moral behaviour, punishing evil and rewarding good when human societies fail to do so. They may, furthermore, control the mysterious force of good or ill fortune, making it possible to relate the way we act to the outcomes of our lives. While not all gods and spirits are conceived as having these kinds of characteristics (so that, for instance, the Baining people of the province East New Britain of Papua New Guinea have two classes of deities, ancestor spirits who read peoples minds and the sega, or forest spirits, who have no such special powers, while the deities of Yucatek Maya of southern Mexico include Chiichi, ‘who do not know much more than a peeping Tom would’) generally, as Barrett points out, ‘it is the more informed gods that matter most to the religious systems’11 (as is the case in both these examples).

The significance of invisible gods and spirits, in the endeavour of individuals and groups to ‘act as a whole’, might help to explain why human communities (apparently from the earliest times) have manifested a continual need to extend the horizon of curiosity beyond the rim of the visible world. The ‘integrative struggle’ to act as a whole, in other words, would seem to require a larger cognitive struggle. This is a curiosity that employs every sense and capacity in the attempt to create ‘a big picture’, an integrated image of reality.

The sticks used by chimpanzees in the ‘rain dance’ and the stones employed in the ‘waterfall dance’ already show how tool use could be pressed into the service of something ‘akin to wonder and awe’. In Homo sapiens, however, such synergies had more far-reaching consequences. The evidence of the Ardèche cave suggests that in the attempt to see different aspects of reality as part of a meaningful whole, early human beings discovered radical new ways of perceiving and describing the world.

(p.58) Making and Matching

In the deepest chambers of the Ardèche cave are two extended compositions, both around 30 feet long, which demonstrate discreet individual perceptions being formed as it were into a big picture of reality [Fig. 7.1]. The exact motivations may remain mysterious, but here as in the Trois Frères Cave, the presence in the end chamber of a bison-headed human figure (if that is what it is) on a rock pendant is strong evidence of some kind of religious purpose [Fig. 7.2]. In pursuit of this purpose, however, the Palaeolithic artists employed techniques of representation that anticipate developments tens of thousands of years later.

Ultimate Curiosity

7.1 The end chamber of the Chauvet Cave.

Ultimate Curiosity

7.2 Composite figure in the Chauvet Cave.

In the penultimate chamber there is a panel of four horse heads, which have been drawn one on top of another on a diagonal axis. The first is at the top of the axis, the last at the bottom. The images were made by scraping the clay from the wall to provide a white background, outlining the heads with a charcoal stick, then stumping—that is, mixing the charcoal with white limestone to produce halftones which model the (p.59) head—and finally working into the heads with an engraving tool to sharpen the contours and highlight features like the nostril and mouth [Fig. 7.3].

Ultimate Curiosity

7.3 Detail from the panel of the horses in the Chauvet Cave.

There is a clear progression in accuracy between these four heads. The first head is a little wobbly and generalized. The horse’s eye floats unconvincingly in its socket while the muscles are undifferentiated and represented by a single stroke. In the second horse, the eye is still unrelated to the structure of the head but more attention has been given to the muscles of the jaw. In the third the eye is more clearly anchored in the skull, the great sternomastoid muscles of the neck are indicated and the artist has used an engraving tool to outline the nostril and lips. On the fourth head this technique is used to even greater effect to outline the flaring nostril, and the open mouth where the masseter muscles of the jaw are clearly differentiated. Meanwhile the eye is firmly lodged in the horse’s head, which displays a grasp of underlying structure that is comparable to the anatomical exactness of the great horse painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries [Fig. 7.4].

Ultimate Curiosity

7.4 The panel of the horses in the Chauvet Cave.

Although there are several examples in the cave of what look like second thoughts (where the outline of an animal has been first sketched and then rubbed out), the way that the panel was prepared for a large composition suggests that the first three horses were not conceived in this kind of way as preliminary sketches for the fourth. Nevertheless the differences between the four images does reveal a pattern of what the art historian E. H. Gombrich referred to as the rhythm of ‘making and (p.60) matching’ or ‘schema and correction’—the experimental process by which an artist setting out to make a life-like picture makes an image or ‘schema’ and then progressively corrects and modifies it to achieve a tighter fit with reality.12

Ceaseless experimentation of this kind can sometimes lead to the discovery of new techniques of representation. In the end chamber, in a central niche between the lions and the bison, other bison are seen front on with their bodies foreshortened so that they seem to be emerging from the wall. On another ridge in the wall ‘a bison was drawn with its head on one plane, seen full face, and its body in profile on another, at 90 degrees’. ‘The effect of perspective’, according to those lucky enough to have access to the cave ‘is astonishing’ [Fig. 7.5].13

Ultimate Curiosity

7.5 Bison in front and three-quarter view, in the central niche of the end chamber in the Chauvet Cave.

Harnessed to the development of an interest in narrative that changed the religious function of art, ‘the illusionistic tricks of foreshortening and modelling’ were, Gombrich argues, at the centre of what he calls ‘the Greek revolution’. The moment between the sixth and fifth centuries BC when this combination of means and motive produced a ‘chain reaction . . . unique in the annals of mankind’14 which set the course ‘for new continents of human experience’.15

In one sense the images in the Ardèche cave seem to anticipate this revolution by some 30,000 years, even to the extent in the end cave of depicting a kind of narrative in which ‘a whole group of lions appear to be hunting bison and seem to be stretching out towards them’ [Fig. 7.6].16 The difference, however, between individual observations of shadows or foreshortening that appear before the ‘Greek revolution’ is, as Gombrich points out, ‘that they remained without consequences. They do not become part of the tradition to be improved and extended as they do in Greece.’17 Our knowledge of Palaeolithic art is too fragmentary (based as it is on miraculous survivals like the Ardèche cave) to be sure of its progress, but there is no evidence that the final horse in the Chauvet series intiated a new way of drawing.

Ultimate Curiosity

7.6 Lions hunting bison in the end chamber of the Chauvet Cave.

‘Ultimate curiosity’—the attempt to see beyond the rim of the visible world—may have motivated this kind of experimentation in cave art, but it did not by itself create the kind of ‘chain reaction’ that occurred in Greece. If it was a necessary condition for such developments it was not a sufficient one. Tens of thousands of years seem to have passed in which although the small groups of hunter-gatherer communities (p.61) scattered around the world evidently possessed the capacity for new kinds of symbolic communication and technological innovation, there is very little evidence of either. Instead there seem to have been prolonged periods of stasis in which entrenched traditions were handed on with little challenge or modification.

When ‘the Greek revolution’ came, the ‘chain reaction’ in representation took place alongside a kind of revolution occurring across the whole landscape of thought. This had at its centre a deep entanglement between a radical paradigm shift in religious thought and a new way of looking at the natural world. Nor was it the last time that such a thing was to occur.

The series of revolutions in thinking that ultimately gave birth to what we now call ‘science’ each seems to have taken place in tandem with some kind of religious paradigm shift. While these religious developments were not necessarily the primary causes of the revolutions they accompanied (though they were sometimes contributory factors) neither were they incidental to them. Rather they were connected in a manner that bore a more than passing resemblance to what can be seen in a physical slipstream.

Moving in a Slipstream

The term ‘slipstream’ can refer to a variety of phenomena. At the most basic level one object travelling behind another—say, (p.62) a child walking close behind a parent in the teeth of a howling gale—will experience less force from the wind. Riders in the Tour de France who stick close enough to the lead cyclist (the effect tapers rapidly with distance) can move at the same speed as the leader while exerting less energy. This is because at high speeds the lead bike reduces the drag experienced by the riders behind who are carried along in a wake of forward-moving air.

In a similar way fish swimming in a school derive a significant hydrodynamic advantage from the slipstream of those ahead of them. Depending on their position in the school this is probably obtained by exploiting vortices generated by the leading fish, and enables the followers to achieve the same speed with a slower rate of tail beating, and thus a lower energy consumption.18 These stronger effects depend rather precisely on the fluid dynamics and the positions of those involved. Hence, the exact V formation of the Cherwell geese.19

How might this phenomenon provide us with a way of thinking about human curiosity?

If the expenditure of effort involved in paintings at Lascaux or the Chauvet Cave demonstrates the urgency and importance of their ritual functions in prehistoric societies, it also shows how less urgent interests, like the close observation and representation of animal anatomy, could be borne along in the slipstream of these larger purposes. While this slipstream seems to have remained at a steady level for a prolonged period, when physical, geographical, and social circumstances precipitated radical changes in human society the strength of this kind of motivational current markedly increased.

The first such major developments in human cultures seem to have flowed from the material results of emigration. When small groups of human beings began to migrate from Africa, the different physical circumstances of the continents in which they settled ensured that the cultural construction of different societies proceeded along dramatically different trajectories.

The beginning of agriculture in regions where there were suites of wild plants that were relatively easy to cultivate and species of animals that were relatively easy to domesticate triggered an extraordinary cascade of new developments.20 The ability to sustain large settled populations which followed the development of agriculture allowed a division of labour in which some could focus on new kinds of tasks, such as the (p.63) development of writing systems that seem to have been employed initially to record commercial transactions.

As they developed, these writing systems rapidly began to be used to record those broader human concerns which, as the cave paintings suggest, were already there. Creation stories and other kinds of sacred text begin to appear, allied to attempts (found in everything from Chinese oracle bones to Mesopotamian instructions on the significance of marks on the liver of sacrificial animals) to interpret every aspect of reality as part of a meaningful whole.

Wherever settled civilizations begin to develop, whether in China, India, South America, or the Middle East, there is evidence of these kind of attempts to make sense of the world as a whole, creating a slipstream of interest in specific physical phenomena.

In the British Museum, for instance, there are 70 cuneiform tablets known as Enuma Anu Enlil. First deciphered by a Jesuit priest named Johann Strassmaier, they record astronomical phenomena, like the appearance of planets, alongside earthly phenomena like plagues and flood. These have been described as perhaps the first ancestor of something like scientific writing.

Slipstream effects of this kind, though far from insignificant, might still be thought of as relatively weak. Certain configurations of ultimate curiosity seem though to have created much stronger kinds of slipstream (analogous to that experienced by geese, fish, and Tour de France riders) in which penultimate curiosities about the physical world were able to advance more rapidly.

As our breakfast discussions continued it seemed to us that if we were to answer the question that seemed to be posed by the doorways in Oxford and Cambridge, it was these strong slipstream effects that we would need to focus on. Along the way we might hope to gain some insight not only into the factors that made them strong, but also into the particular hazards that come with this strength.

The strength of a slipstream, as we noted, increases with the velocity. In the Tour de France, to gain maximum benefit from the slipstream of rider in front a following cyclist must come as close to him as possible—within centimetres of his bike. At these speeds a clash of wheels can spell disaster—hence the ‘chutes’ or pile-ups that are a not uncommon feature of the race.

Particular configurations of ‘ultimate curiosity’ seem to have produced a powerful motivational slipstream in which (p.64) the consequences of ‘penultimate curiosity’ became ever more spectacular. The temptation to close the gap between them—to make religion answer scientific questions or vice versa—and the chutes that result have been a part of this story that we would need to consider.

Our objective though, we reminded ourselves over coffee, was not to explain how what we now call ‘science’ had developed nor to decide the importance or otherwise of religion in that development. Still less was it to try and answer the million dollar question of integration: whether and in what way ‘science’ and ‘religion’ were or were not compatible. Our more modest, though hardly unimportant, aim was to try rather to understand why there had in fact been this long and continuing entanglement.

The first example of the kind of strong slipstream effect in which we were interested occurred when literacy began to spread from the priests or administrators responsible for Enuma Anu Enlil to a larger segment of the population. It was only then that a new kind of reflection on religious ideas began to appear. Slipstreaming behind it came a new kind of interest in the physical world.

The original epicentre of this earthquake in thinking was associated with a very small number of individuals, located in just a handful of city-states scattered around the Aegean. These were the men who came in time to describe themselves as ‘lovers of wisdom’: the philosophers of ancient Greece.


(1) S. Atran, In Gods We Trust (2002).

(2) D. Kelemen, ‘Are Children “Intuitive Theists”? Reasoning about Purpose and Design in Nature’, Psychological Science 15 (2004), 295–301.

(3) D. H. Hamer, The God Gene (2004).

(4) D. Kelemen, ‘Are Children “Intuitive Theists”? Reasoning about Purpose and Design in Nature’.

(5) R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1964).

(6) D. M. MacKay, Behind the Eye (1991).

(7) E. S. Savage-Rumbaugh and W. M. Fields, ‘The Evolution and the Rise of Human Language: Carry the Baby’, in Homo Symbolicus: The Dawn of Language, Imagination and Spirituality, ed. C. S. Henshilwood and F. d’Errico (2011), 13–48.

(8) J. L. Barrett, ‘Metarepresentation, Homo religiosus, and Homo symbolicus’, in Homo Symbolicus: The Dawn of Language, Imagination and Spirituality, ed. C. S. Henshilwood and F. d’Errico (2011), 205–24.

(9) J. L. Barrett, ‘Metapresentation, Homo religiosus, and Homo symbolicus’, 220.

(10) C. Boesch, ‘Symbolic Communication in Wild Chimpanzees?’, Human Evolution 6 (1991), 81–9.

(11) J. L. Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004), 49.

(12) E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (1977), 24, 99.

(13) J. Clottes, Return to Chauvet Cave (2003), 140.

(14) E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 120–1.

(15) E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 115.

(16) J. Clottes, Return to Chauvet Cave, 137.

(17) E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 123.

(18) S. S. Killen et al., ‘Aerobic Capacity Influences the Spatial Position of Individuals within Fish Schools’, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279 (2012), 357–64.

(19) S. J. Portugal et al., ‘Upwash Exploitation and Downwash Avoidance by Flap Phasing in Ibis Formation Flight’, Nature 505 (2014), 399–402.

(20) J. M. Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (1998).