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The Structure of Christian Existence by John B. Cobb, Jr.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by University Press of America, Inc., 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706, Copyright 1990. Used by permission. This material was prepared for America Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 3: Primitive Existence


The purpose of this chapter is to describe what distinguishes the structure of human existence in general from the structure of subhuman animal existence in general. Since the human developed out of the subhuman, and since this process of development was a continuous one, it is essential to understand what man has in common with other animals, as well as to describe the threshold that marked his appearance as something genuinely and decisively new. The attempt in this account is not to offer a description of the complex diversity of animal and human life, but only to describe types of structures that are to be found within each.

Animals give evidence of both instinct and intelligence. By instinct is meant ordered and predictable behavior to which learning is irrelevant; and by intelligence, the capacity to learn. Human intelligence has other ingredients, some of which are also shared by some animals, but, in general, intelligence among animals can be measured by the speed of learning and the complexity of what is learned.

Instinct and intelligence are complexly interrelated in most animals, and they are not wholly to be contrasted. What is now instinctive may have once been learned by ancestors. Instinctive tendencies may be inhibited by new experience and a different behavior can be learned. Nevertheless, a clear difference exists, and it is possible to formulate the distinctive role and structure of the dominant occasions of experience in the two cases in the categories worked out in the preceding chapter.

For the occurrence of purely instinctive behavior, the dominant occasion of experience functions only as a switchboard. It receives a stimulus either from the environment or from some part of the body. It communicates this stimulus to some center in the brain which then governs the response. In carrying out the response, additional external stimuli may be relevant, and in this sense the occasion of experience may continue to play a role. But what that role is and how it is played are determined by the physical structures in the central nervous system.

The closest approximations to purely instinctive behavior are to be found among insects. There is no reason to deny consciousness to insects. Aspects of the external world appear to register on them, as in the receptive consciousness of man. What is lacking is any significant organization of experience. The relevant sensory stimulus is not interpreted as signifying something. It is simply registered and transmitted, thereby triggering an automatic response predetermined by the structure of the central nervous system. What occurs in each moment is determined by the stimuli of that moment rather than by the cumulative impact of preceding experiences.

If learning takes place, either the central nervous system must be physically changed by new stimuli or new experiences must be influenced by earlier ones. Both may occur. However, it is doubtful that learning could ever be explained purely on the basis of the former, whereas the second by itself can suffice. Hence, we shall focus upon this one.

Before learning can occur, stimuli must function as signals.( I take my distinction of signals and symbols from Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key, third edition [Harvard University Press, 1957] , especially Chapter III. I refer the reader to that book for a much fuller account. I use "signals" instead of "signs" in consideration of Miss Langer’s statement in the "Preface to the Edition of 1951," where she indicates that Charles Morris’ terminology has advantages over her own. "Signs" should then be inclusive of both signals and symbols, and I am using "signify" and "significant" in this inclusive sense.) A signal is a stimulus that is taken as indicating the presence or occurrence of something else, something of more importance than itself. For example, a particular odor or sound, of no importance in itself, is taken by an animal as indicating the presence of another animal. The presence of this other animal may be of great importance as a source of food or a threat to life.

There may sometimes be an instinctive base to the response to such signals. That would mean that the brain, prior to experience, is so structured as to cause the appropriate response as soon as the stimulus is received and independently of its interpretation. However, at least in the higher animals, such responses can be overcome by association of other entities with the signal. Innumerable new stimuli can become signals through learned association. Hence, clearly the stimulus is not simply related to a physical center, but is also interpreted as a signal. We have to do with a much more complex operation of the dominant occasion of experience, an operation of interpretation and organization rather than simply of passive reception and transmission.

Moreover, the interpretation and significant organization of experience is in terms of memory of past experiences. Memory does not mean here conscious recall, although that need not always be totally excluded. It does mean that an important factor influencing the interpretation of new stimuli in the present is past experience. It means that what happens in the present experience will influence the interpretation of future stimuli. The beginning of that continuity of experience from birth to death which allows us to speak of a psyche or soul is there. The degree of such continuity, the extent of its importance in the formation of each new moment of experience, may differ greatly. When we compare the higher primates with the insects, this continuity is very great indeed. Yet even among them the content of each momentary experience seems generally to be more determined by the present deliverances of the sense organs than by its bond to predecessor and successor experiences. An ape, which is capable of using a stick to reach a banana when it sees the stick and bananas together, cannot do so when it sees them successively (Reference is made to Köhler, The Mentality of Apes, p. 37.)

To an overwhelming extent, the animal psyche exhausts itself in its service to the organism. In the case of the higher animals, this service requires a considerable activity on its part, both conscious and unconscious. This activity can be effectively performed only as past experience can cumulatively provide help in the interpretation of present experience. All of this has a thoroughly functional role, fully intelligible in terms of survival value.

The question now arises as to whether this highly organized and active psyche performs any of its actions for its own enjoyment or enhancement and independent of its contribution to the welfare of the organism as a whole. For the great majority of animals the answer is probably that it does not. The pleasure of the psyche is a function of the well-being of the physical organism, and it seeks no other pleasure. However, there is evidence that among the higher primates there is the emergence of a small amount of nonfunctional psychic activity. Here again I appeal to Susanne Langer’s evidence, which consists largely in noting cases of irrational fear on the part of chimpanzees, fear that cannot be explained either by instinct or by learning. She writes, in addition, of a case in which an ape could be consoled for the absence of its master by presenting it with a garment.(Langer, op. cit., pp. 110-115.)

All of this points to the minimal presence in the higher primates of a capacity for what I call the autonomous development of the psyche. Autonomous development involves two elements. First, the aim at intensity or richness of experience on the part of individual moments of the soul’s life leads the soul to actualize itself in ways that are immediately rewarding to it, independently of their consequences for the organism as a whole. Second, successive occasions build upon the achievements of their predecessors, in this respect, in such a way as significantly to modify the behavior of the organism as a whole. The behavior of the apes indicates that at least some surplus psychic energy is available for autonomous activity, although its use and expression are so random that we cannot affirm that an autonomous development actually takes place.

The distinction of man from all other animals is that in him autonomous development assumes great importance. As with all the thresholds crossed in the evolutionary process leading to man and in the further development of man, we do not have the sudden emergence of an element previously totally lacking. We may assume that the simian ancestors of man were in this respect far more developed than any present-day ape. If we had before us all the creatures in the evolutionary development, we would not be able to say at exactly what point we are confronted by the first man. The transition would be too gradual. Nevertheless, we can say that at that point at which the surplus psychic energy became sufficient in quantity to enable the psychic life to become its own end rather than primarily a means to the survival and health of the body, the threshold was crossed dividing man from the animal. Man is that being in which the psyche aims at its own well-being. Since that well-being largely depends on the survival, health, and comfort of the body, the psyche continues in man to serve these. But the human psyche also seeks its satisfaction in ways that have nothing to do with the functional needs of the body and even in ways that are detrimental to the body.

The great primary increase in man’s psychic activity was unconscious. The primordial role of consciousness was to relate the organism to its environment through the reception of stimuli and their interpretation as signals. Even in this functioning, unconscious processes play a large role, and hence we must attribute unconscious experience also to animals. These functions continued in man, and mans s increased ability to learn and his improved manual dexterity enabled him to make better practical responses to these stimuli. Nevertheless, it was not these practical advantages that constituted man’s true distinctiveness, but rather the greatly increased unconscious psychic activity organizing the whole of experience for its own sake.

The data with which the unconscious operated in its quest for significant organization of the psychic life included the content of the receptive consciousness as well as signals and their conscious interpretation. But they included also the whole welter of conscious and unconscious emotions and feelings from the past as well as the cumulative results of previous psychic activity. In addition, they included material received directly from the psychic life of others. These materials were combined with each other in all manner of ways, but it is important to see that the guiding principle of such organization was not practical usefulness in the adaptation to the environment, but intrinsic satisfaction. The modes in which organization was achieved did not altogether exclude those we would call rational, but these were far from primary.

This whole process of psychic activity is one of symbolization. Symbols, unlike signals, have their meaning independently of the presence or absence of what is symbolized. They connote ideas, concepts, and one another rather than simply denoting some other entity. The process of symbolization is one of giving new material its place in relation to the old. For primitive symbolization, whether the source of the material was in the external world or in private experience was irrelevant.

With the growth of symbolization, practically the whole of conscious experience was symbolically organized. This meant that it was given meanings and placed in relation with other elements of experience according to principles of association and interpretation spontaneously generated in the unconscious life independently of pragmatic value. Since these symbol systems in their most important expressions were social products, their communication and use placed some check upon the freedom of unconscious fantasy, and this is clear if we compare them with dreams. Nevertheless, they are to be understood primarily as expressions of the unconscious mind, designed to satisfy unconscious needs, rather than as conscious responses to conscious questions.

Alongside this rich symbolic growth lay the continuing operation of intelligence in the interpretation of signals and the devising of new responses. In this area practical success and failure were decisive. Men learned from trial and error.

In our attempt to understand primitive man, we must think of these two psychic activities together. Each involved both consciousness and unconsciousness, but in different ways. Symbolization occurred in the unconscious, taking the data supplied largely by consciousness and ordering them in symbols only partly influenced by the forms present in the data. This in turn produced a symbolically ordered consciousness. The intelligent interpretation and response to signals, on the other hand, originated in the receptive consciousness. The association on which it was based was determined by the association given to that consciousness by the external world. Unconscious processes played a role as they do in relation to all consciousness, but in this case checked and controlled by results in and for consciousness.

Of these two modes of psychic activity, the intelligent interpretation and response to signals was prior, since it was in continuity with animal existence. For man, however, symbolization was primary. It encompassed everything, including the practical dealing with the environment, overlaying it with new meaning and relating it thereby with the rest of experience.

The dominance of the symbolization based on unconscious processes was as often inhibiting of intelligent action as it was productive of it. Because of their symbol systems, men have, at times, failed to respond to novel challenges and have preferred, instead, simply to be destroyed. Thus the value of the symbol has little to do initially with any improved ability to deal practically with the environment. Yet it is easily confused in the primitive mentality with such capacity. Symbolization and magic go hand in hand and remain associated quite independently of the empirical evidence supporting the claimed power. On the contrary, whereas the effectiveness of signals is directly correlated with the actual experience of the environment, the power and intrinsic value of symbols is so great that they can withstand what appears to us as counterevidence for hundreds and even thousands of years without weakening. This is possible partly because the symbols determine the interpretation of the evidence insofar as what we would call evidence is relevant at all. But it is true also because the symbol does give to man immense psychic power -- the power to bring together past and present in conscious memory and to relate and order what is otherwise simply given.

This symbolic ordering of experience, although primarily unconscious, gave rise to a new and incomparably richer mode of consciousness. This we will call the "reflective consciousness." Animal consciousness contained receptive and significant elements, but these latter were almost entirely limited to signals. By the use of symbols, consciousness could order and fill with meaning far larger portions of what it received. It could relate this to a context that included both past and future. It could preserve its achievements through symbolized memory and thus gain a new possibility of cumulative growth.

The reflective consciousness need not be rational.(Discussion of the meaning of "rational" is postponed to the next chapter.) Indeed for primitive man, rationality played a minor role. The reflective consciousness was chiefly a function of unconscious processes in relation to which it had little autonomy.

Although the term "myth" applies strictly to only some portions of this primitive symbolic activity, I shall speak of the whole as mythical and characterize primitive man’s existence as mythical existence. By mythical existence I mean, then, an existence that satisfies two conditions. First, reflective consciousness supersedes receptive awareness and the organization of experience in terms of signals. Second, the symbolization involved is governed by modes of creation and association characteristic of the unconscious and not subject to testing against receptive awareness.

Mythical thinking is not to be thought of primarily as an attempt to explain the external world, for such a concept presupposes a consciousness of the duality of subject and object, internal and external, which is not characteristic of the mythical mentality. Nevertheless, if we view it in terms of our distinction of internal and external, we can highlight certain features in a useful way. From this point of view, the mythical mind engaged in a great deal of projection. This should not be difficult for us to understand, since this is also a large part of our own way of understanding significant elements in the environment. Its presence in our own experience is illustrated by the use of projective techniques by psychologists as a means of learning about our unconscious. They confront us with inkblots or with somewhat indeterminate pictures and ask us to tell what we see. It would, of course, be possible to respond to such a demand by very exact description of what is objectively there to be seen, that is, what is given in receptive awareness, but this is not what the psychologist means, and the success of the test indicates that, in fact, we "see" a great deal in our environment independently of its determinate presence there. The strange shapes of the inkblots or the indeterminate figures in the drawings present themselves to us in terms of definite meanings, which we unconsciously project on them. It is clear that in our relations with other people and groups, they are often the occasion but not the cause of a great deal of what we perceive in them. Much of what we see in one another is unconsciously projected by each upon the other.

Today through careful and prolonged reflection, often requiring the aid of a trained counselor, we may gain considerable ability to distinguish between that which comes from our unconscious symbolization and the external reality we confront, although even the most rational of us should be very hesitant about claiming much success. Ancient man could not conceptualize such distinctions. His total experience was, from our point of view, a selective synthesis of the outer and the inner worlds, but for him the experience was simply given with its meanings indissolubly a part of the whole. There was little distinction of inner and outer, subject and object; little distinction between those elements of the experience contributed by the more remote past and those contributed by present occurrences. There was a single meaningful whole. The meaning of the whole was primarily determined by symbols arising out of the unconscious aspects of experience. There was no second-level critical reflection about these meanings. Hence, they were absolute.

We can find other aspects of our present experience that help us to understand the mythical mentality of our ancestors.

Which of us in talking to children has not at times said: "People don’t do that," or, "Boys aren’t supposed to do that." When we say this in a certain tone of voice and with sufficient finality, it seems to settle the question. Many of us are very sure that certain things are not to be done, even though when pressed we are hard put to find effective explanations. Indeed, we may regard the demand for an explanation as a kind of absurdity or even sacrilege. Some things, we think, are simply beyond such questioning, and the person who does not see things that way is lacking in essential humanity.

This means, of course, that for us, too, some things are still sacred. Our reaction toward the prospect of eating human flesh or having sexual intercourse with our parents transcends, in its violence, any rational justification we may subsequently give for our views. Yet we are the most secularized generation ever to walk upon the earth One wonders if the time is coming when men will be unable to achieve any empathy at all toward the sense of the sacred -- the "ought" that is prior to and independent of any justification. In any case, since most of us can recognize such feelings in ourselves, we do have a starting point for empathizing with a very different kind of human existence in which every feature of life was determined in great detail by the sense of the sacred. A man must do in each situation that which men have always done, that which was originally done, or simply that which is done. Even today, we often ask, What is one to do in a given situation? and we mean, What do people do? For primitive man there could hardly be another question.

Alongside projection and the sense of the sacred, we can find other aspects of our experience that we share with the mythical mentality. The poet and artist, as well as the psychologist, sometimes make use of an association of symbols quite different from that of controlled scientific and philosophical thought. We continue to take occasional delight in the fantasy of fairy tales and cartoons. Our dreams bring us in contact with still stranger workings of the unconscious, and our daydreams are often patently wishfulfilling.

More important than all this, in spite of our urbanization, we still feel in our depths something of the rhythm of the seasons, their endlessly varied but repetitive recurrence, the wonder of new beginning each spring. We still feel some need to celebrate the great events of birth and death and marriage. When things go wrong, we still seek explanations in a more than factual sphere. Our need for scapegoats has not declined. For us as for our tribal ancestors, the world is divided into "our kind" and the others, and we invent strange stories to tell ourselves in order to justify our hatred or fear of the others. In these and many other ways, we can feel our co-humanity with our ancient ancestors. Nevertheless, the basic structure of our existence differs from theirs, and we will trace the emergence of this difference in the following chapters.

Before concluding this chapter, however, something should be said explicitly about oral language. Symbolization is much broader than language, but language is by far its most important form. The further developments in the structures of existence, which are described in subsequent chapters, are wholly dependent on language.

There are many theories about the rise of language, but in relation to the analysis offered in this chapter, the question can be simply posed. Did language arise in the attempt to communicate about signals and to invent additional signals, gradually developing beyond signals into genuine symbols? Or did language arise as a part of the nonpragmatic activity of the psyche? If a choice must be made between these alternatives, the latter is certainly preferable. Since for the primitive mentality the world of symbolization was far more inclusive than that of practical adjustment to the environment, it would be surprising if so pervasive a factor as language were not a part and product of it. Furthermore, the actual use and form of language renders it very difficult to understand as primarily practical in origin. Nevertheless, there is no real necessity for choosing. Is it not likely that man’s extraordinary capacity for making sounds and his spontaneous pleasure in doing so influenced both sides of his psychic life?

The structure of primitive existence may now be summarily described as follows. It continued the receptive awareness and the consciousness in terms of signals structurally unchanged. It added an immense richness to the unconscious, which, by the continuity of its life, constituted the successive occasions of human experience as a unified soul. This unconscious life was characterized by a vast autonomous development, which in its turn brought into being the reflective consciousness. This was organized by means of the symbols developed in the unconscious. Thus the older and more primitive aspects of consciousness continued relatively independent of the unconscious, while the new and dominant segment of consciousness was itself primarily a function of the unconscious.

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