Place, U. T. (1992h). The Tower of Babel: some speculations on the role of technology, language and trade on the evolution of religion, philosophy and science [Conference presentation with additional notes, presented at the Centennial Conference of the Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds, on the Philosophy of Religion, Fairbairn House, Clarendon Road, Leeds, 6 August 1992]. Department of Philosophy, University Leeds.
[Abstract]The paper explores the relationship between three features which, it is often claimed, distinguish human beings from other species of living organism: (1) the ability to colonize a new environment by developing an appropriate technology, (2) the ability to communicate with one another by means of a learned language, and (3) the propensity to develop a system of magico-religious beliefs and practices. The Tower of Babel legend is seen as reflecting the way in which a new environment and the development of a new set of technologies designed to deal with that environment leads to changes in linguistic practice within the community involved. The dependence of human beings on the possession of integrated systems of causal theory and technological practice for their survival, is proposed as the motive for the creation of a system of magico-religious beliefs and practices in those areas of human life where understanding of the causal relations and consequent technological control is lacking. Because they are not constrained in the way that technological beliefs and practices are constrained, by the need for precise control over the technological process, magico-religious belief systems tend to proliferate in much the same way that languages proliferate as a consequence of the Tower of Babel phenomenon. The consequent multiplicity of magico-religious belief systems creates a barrier to trade and other forms of social co-operation between communities which differ in this respect which, to judge by the lengths to which human beings have gone to iron out such differences, is more serious than that presented by differences in language. The development of philosophy, the supra-national religions and science are interpreted as successive responses to this problem.
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