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Is it possible for a group of stone age humans to survive and thrive with a humanist mentality, believing not in supernatural entities and magical thinking, but simple scientific observation and the power of human achievement.

I'm not saying they don't have fairy tales and just-so stories, but the ones they do have are known to be lies-to-children (in the Pratchett sense) or outright fictions, even by the children (and those who don't know this are considered pitiful or even downright dangerous).
I'm also not saying they don't have wrong beliefs, only that when they discover their beliefs are wrong, they are willing and able to correct them to the "right" ones.
The one belief they will not change is the belief that everything is explainable by observable, physical phenomena. They consider all explanations that invoke "spirits" or "gods" to be lies-to-children at best, and all "rituals" must have a transparent connection to their claimed result - that is, one that doesn't rely on placating "spirits" or "gods".

To preserve the moralizing effect of the belief in an eternal soul, suppose instead they value genetic immortality in the form of producing children and memetic immortality in the form of raising children, and the society ostracizes those they deem unworthy of both - chief among them those who honestly believe the lies-to-children and cannot be persuaded otherwise.

Obviously, there will be splinter groups with a more "traditional" religious mindset that get shunned in their entirety, but will there be enough of the stone age humanists to survive, both genetically and memetically, for any length of time?

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    $\begingroup$ To see how hard this question is, consider what evidence we have that stone age people DID believe in the supernatural. Obviously you can point to things like Newgrange and the Venus of Willendorf et cetera. But deducing belief in the supernatural from these things is a guess at best. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 10 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ It seems trivially possible and I don't see a convincing reason to believe otherwise. Belief in supernatural entities has popped up commonly throughout history, but it hardly seems like a necessity. Why do you think stone age humanism might be a problem? What would a belief in supernatural entities allow them to accomplish, or why do you think they would necessarily end up believing in those? $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 11 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ While I'd say stone age humanism is trivially possible within the scope of this site, a comprehensive answer to question, one way or the other, would probably be a rather significant academic paper or thesis in sociology/psychology (which would be too long, technical and/or research-heavy for an answer here). $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 11 at 3:03
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    $\begingroup$ Why would that not be possible? If any of us could guess what beliefs governed Stone Age life, would you suggest those beliefs measurably helped anyone? $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ @workerjoe With all due respect, A singular account of arguable authenticity which conflicts with several other accounts(other religious texts), all of which are mutually exclusive, furthered by the fact that on top of that that account would be FAR from firsthand(thousands of years old, now play telephone), would render such an account, not a valid source on its own and would be required to be viewed in a broader context. The broader context suggests there was a flood. Very little else is consistent. No evidence for whichever religion. $\endgroup$
    – Madman
    Apr 12 at 19:25
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This question is really asking, "Is belief in the supernatural an inherent part of the human make up?" I submit that it is.

A key component to the development of humanism is that it arose in the conflict between a number of religions. When everyone around you believes a religion, you will believe it also. When a trader is moving between groups of people and encounters a different religion in each group, that trader gets the experiences needed to start questioning all religions. Western Humanism has its roots in the people who traveled from Europe to many other parts of the world. They saw that different religions could be believed elsewhere.

As humans, we believe in a structure beyond the visible. This starts early when a child can start to believe that people out of view are still there. We augment that with language. In short, belief in the supernatural is an outgrowth of our cognitive abilities and language development. It takes effort to not believe.

So, in the stone age, people did travel long distances. A person buried at Stonehenge came from Germany. Stones were brought from far away. Thus, some people could have had the experiences needed to question.

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    $\begingroup$ Modern conspiracy theories can easily be seen as an extension of that "belief in a structure beyond the visible", too. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Apr 13 at 20:45
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The issue with your idea is that there is no way for the tribe to be able to parse between what we would consider obviously supernatural explanations and physical ones. The reason that humanism became popular is because of the advent of technology that allowed us to prove and disprove certain beliefs. God stopping the sun in Joshua makes no sense in a universe that runs on heliocentricity. Spontaneous generation makes no sense when you can isolate and sterilize something see that nothing grows on it. In a world where you only have Stone Age hunter-gatherer technology, how do you know that a volcano erupting or lightning striking isn't because some god or spirit did it? How can you prove otherwise? There's no way to test either Oog's hypothesis that Vulcan did it or Ugh's hypothesis that it was due to natural processes deep below the Earth's crust.

The thing is ancient people weren't stupid. Their beliefs in gods and spirits really were things that made logical sense to them. And in many cases the beliefs did have actual reasons behind them, they worked but not for the reasons that ancient people believed. For example the Chinese Mandate of Heaven may seem silly until you realize that widespread famine and disaster can easily be caused by governmental mismanagement instead of divine providence, and it could be taken as a sign the government is incompetent and must be deposed.

In many cases their beliefs became outdated and you had people desperately holding onto them through faith alone, but the original reason they were adopted was not because they were stupid. It was merely because they didn't have a complete understanding of the phenomenon. And to be honest more recent scientists aren't much better, what with historical researchers believing all sorts of dumb ideas that don't make it into the science textbooks (e.g., Newton and his mysticism).

Another question you have to ask is what purpose does this behavior serve? The scientific method became popular mostly among Western aristocrats who had enough resources and time that they could afford to sit down and run repetitive experiments to rule out all possible alternatives, or sit on their butt theorizing and writing equations. For a Stone Age society that is more concerned about day to day survival and is working a lot of the time, and who does not have a need for complex mathematics or have access to things like paper or parchment, what good does this behavior serve? In terms of day to day survival, the superstitious person will do just as well (if not better, due to higher caution) than the humanistic one.

Additionally, because of their Stone Age technology, your tribe would disregard a lot of ideas that thanks to science we know today are actually real, simply because they lack the technology to observe and visualize them. To put it another way, your tribe would scoff at the idea of DNA/genetics, space travel, other planets, continental drift, and evolution, because it cannot be explained by the physical phenomena that they are able to observe in their environment.

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    $\begingroup$ I've always said this about Mosaic Law. Kosher eating for example gets a surprising amount of modern health codes right even without understanding things like Trichinosis, Vibrio, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Kosher eating may be ascribed to the will of God, but deciding what things did and did not offend God to eat likely took a fair amount of scientific research. "God keeps blinding the children of the swineherders, clearly he does not want us eating pigs." $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 10 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Except that "kosher eating" includes far more detail than is necessary for health codes (no cheeseburgers, not even to sell to non-Jews?) and conversely provides very little relevant guidance to healthy eating ("kosher eating" doesn't include any mandate against heavy overeating, for example. In addition, part of Mosaic Law is that the relevant laws were delivered at a single point in time, not developed over an extended period. $\endgroup$
    – Zev Spitz
    Apr 11 at 11:52
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    $\begingroup$ A minor critique here on this point: "God stopping the sun in Joshua makes no sense in a universe that runs on heliocentricity." Doesn't that mean that modern people would be better able to recognize that miracle had a supernatural cause, compared to stone age people? For your stone age people, it might be easier to explain away as "just one of those things" like an eclipse which happens from time to time. For modern people, there's no way to rationalize the miracle away. $\endgroup$
    – workerjoe
    Apr 11 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ "There's no way to test either Oog's hypothesis that Vulcan did it or Ugh's hypothesis that it was due to natural processes deep below the Earth's crust". They do have the option of not believing either hypothesis until evidence presents itself, though. (The hypothesis of "You shouldn't live near that mountain. It catches on fire sometimes" could be believed in the meantime.) $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Apr 11 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ @ZevSpitz Also the eating rules people make go back to what's relevant to the people making the observation at the time. Specific rules for healthy eating wasn't really a thing for most Abrahamic religions specifically because most people living at the time those rules were codified didn't have access to the high-fat diets and sedentary lifestyles seen in modern industrialized nations. People were more worried about starvation and famine than being overweight. And gluttony is still considered a sin in Judaism. $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 20:02
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No, not because they are inherently superstitious and illogical, but because you are putting too many restrictions on them.

Apollo and his chariot pulling a big ball of fire is just as reasonable an explanation as living on a huge rock whose insides burns but doesn’t turn to ashes circling an insanely huge amount of gas that is burning an insanely long distance away. And the parts of the explanation where we go “I don’t know” aren’t evidence that the parts we have an explanation for is wrong.

And at their level, a belief that everything is explainable by observable phenomena is illogical. Because what they can observe is so limited, and knowledge is passed down through oral reports. Even today, 99.9999 percent of what people know is not known through personal observations or test, but through stories we hear from other people that we trust. Someone saying that Tefnut makes it rain is no more absurd than that the water evaporates, rises miles into the air for no particular reason, condenses and then falls to earth. Less even, as at least Tefnut has a reason to make it rain.

If instead, you simply do not have such beliefs and just shrug and say “don’t know”, that works. There’s no reason to claim to know why it rains, and if you don’t claim to know there’s no problem. And if someone claims it’s Tefnut and someone else claims it’s Indra, and your personal answer is “I don’t know”, that works.

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Science, or better a scientific mindset, is not given by just repeating the same "right" information over and over. Doing so is not different from the ipse dixit which stopped progress after Aristotle.

Science is the habit of verifying every statement by formulating an hypothesis and experimentally testing it (falsifying it, a la Popper).

For a stone age man there is little to do, because there are no means of performing refined experiments: life is a struggle to survive to the next day, the knowledge is gained empirically but there is no need nor reason to move to more complex systems.

Don't forget that the first scientific subjects like geometry and astronomy came to be when humans needed to measure land and time because from that it depended their harvest.

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Yes and They Exist Today

Many Pygmy tribes living in Africa have no concept of gods, supernatural beings, or religion what so ever. This is not because they actively reject religion so much as they have never been exposed to it so they just don't have it.

The theory here is that religion requires the passing of religious ideas from one generation to the next. In larger civilizations this is easy because even if a few parents decide not to pass on their religious beliefs, their children still tend to be exposed to them from other people in their society, but if you have a very small society like you see in some stone aged tribes, it is much easier for everyone in the group to just decide to stop teaching religion for a generation and see it completely disappear from future generation's collective consciousness. In this respect, it is actually harder to eliminate religion from an advanced civilization than it is from a very primitive one.

This answer on History.SE cites Will Durant in his The Story of Civilization about the pygmies, but I can not find an original source from Story of Civilization itself to link to.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you provide a source for these Pygmy tribes? $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 10 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ Which subgroup of pygmies are you referreing to? Because encyclopedia.com/environment/… suggests otherwise, and lists religious beliefs for several large groups of pygmy tribes. $\endgroup$ Apr 11 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Daron source added. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 12 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ I think the source is "Sumner and Keller, the Science of Sociology, p 1419." I haven't found the text of that yet. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Apr 12 at 20:08
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It's possible for a people to follow a belief system that excludes the possibility of non-human agents as a matter of faith. It's no more unfalsifiable than the alternative, nor is it going to get them killed (unless, of course, in your world, it is wrong). But it would take a lot of faith, and a fairly advanced understanding of statistics and psychology.

Modern humans know that if you randomly drop points in a 2d plane they will appear to cluster, and that if you look at enough pieces of toast you should expect to see a certain number of Virgin Maries by chance. But these pieces of knowledge are themselves technologies. They might be hard to develop, or to teach, without reliable access to machine-generated randomness, the sort of physical security that lets one feel safe in ignoring what might be an omen, or the industrial capacity to have a truly large number of anything. They almost certainly depend on writing.

You'd also expect this to affect other aspects of culture. Would a society this dedicated to the idea that only people do things develop the corporation? What would their opinions be on animal welfare or animal interiority? How would they handle contact with aliens? After thousands of years not explaining lightning, would they even have a desire to investigate it when that became possible?

They also might have trouble with some modern scientific theories. If they reject invisible deities, why should they accept invisible electric fields, particles that weirdly are also waves, or a table full of a hundred chemical elements with just-so properties and individual characters?

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  • $\begingroup$ I concur, the persistence of magical thinking without some sort of viable (and somewhat advanced) alternative is "iffy". Welcome to worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 19:57
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According to Evolutionary Psychology the sort of development you're talking about is extremely unlikely due to the difference in survival outcomes due to Type I and Type II errors, especially with regard to agent detection.

The classic example is the lion in the grass. If you're a primitive pre-sentient animal on the plains of Africa and you see a patch of grass moving you can either react as if there is a dangerous animal in the grass or assume that the grass was moved by the wind or some other non-life threatening cause. The first assumption will lead you to take more care, run, prepare to defend yourself, etc. while the second will not. If it was just the wind then neither option significantly affects your survival probability. If there is a lion stalking you then the first option is much more likely to result in your survival.

In scientific terms a Type I error is a rejection of a true null hypothesis, in this case by accepting that there is a lion in the grass. Type II errors involve acceptance (non-rejection) of a false null hypothesis. Type I errors in survival situations like this are survivable, while Type II errors tend not to be.

So even before a species evolves to true sentience the ancestors of the species are already likely to have developed to rely more on the assumption that everything is trying to eat them than the more rational but less survivable approach.

The result is that early humans are inclined towards seeing agency in the world around them. Since this agent detection is a major survival advantage it becomes embedded deep in the psychological and social structure, and is trained into the children. Everything that happens is more likely to be attributed to some agent, seen or unseen. From there it's a very, very small step to attribute every natural phenomenon to one or more hidden agents - spirits, gods and so on.

Even the idea of a soul/spirit can be derived from the same line of thinking. When a person dies they go from being an agent to a lump of cooling meat. Clearly some change has occurred, and it's not difficult to make the leap that something has left the body, taking the 'agency' with it. From there you can start having all sorts of interesting thoughts about what happens to that spirit, whether it goes into the environment or moves on to some other place. Fear of death is such a major survival advantage that it's unsurprising that an intelligent creature would combine it with departing agency, comforting themselves with the idea that they could live on after death.

And now we've managed to account for about half of religion, and it's an easy stroll from here to the rest of the fundamental religious concepts.

Of course the theory has all sorts of challenges, but it certainly seems to fit the world as we observe it today. Most animals will react to anomalous noises and movement as if it were caused by another creature. Deer will spook at the sound of a falling branch, even insects react to unusual changes in the normal environment. It's the part between animal and human that is slightly questionable, even if it makes sense to us.

In order to not develop overactive agent detection your early humans would have to evolve in a very different environment where survival was tied more to their ability to rationally process their reality rather than spooking at every unexpected event. If there were no successful predators around for a few thousand years then survival would perhaps be tied more towards working out how to best gather food. Unfortunately the reduction in survival pressure would also likely result in a much longer evolution, and it may even stall completely without a suitable survival challenge.

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  • $\begingroup$ "The classic example is the lion in the grass" the classic example is a very poor one then & ignores the third possibility // nothing in that 'example' precludes knowing it could be a lion OR the wind and then acting on the principle of better safe than sorry, zero magical thinking is needed & it in no way proves magical thinking. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Apr 12 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore it's a very good example because it shows why Type-I errors (seeing agency when there is none) have higher survival outcomes than Type-II (seeing no agency when it exists). This leads to heightened agency detection, which in turn leads to magical thinking. It's all pretty straight-forward, and happens long before a species develops true rational thinking that you appear to think should be involved. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Apr 12 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ You appear to be talking about instinctive reflex reactions to stimulus that occur without intervention of & even the absence of the rational mind, I flinch because something cold or hot touches me, no thought is involved, no thought so no reasoning, as such they can only be irrelevant to the OP's question, I wasn't sure b4 but thanks you've cleared it up for me & I can [-] now. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Apr 12 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore Nope, I'm talking about the instinctual foundations that influence early thinking patterns. This is inevitable unless you're proposing that intelligence and rational thought sprang into existence instantaneously, dismissing all previous mental characteristics and inherited neural topologies. Are you proposing that? $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Apr 12 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ So now it's "early thinking patterns" & not " instinctive reflex", so you're recanting your previous comment then, I'll leave the [-] then because it appears you don't know yourself what you mean here. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Apr 12 at 23:45
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It's backwards. Hunters are totally, completely rational: like dogs.

Let's go with Dawkin's terminology, the "God meme".†

The "God meme" is that there is a supernatural, rather than just straightforward, explanation for things.

The notion that humans - let's say - 100,000 years ago had the "God meme" is very likely ass-backwards.

Hunters and gatherers are as practical and on-the-ground as our good friends the wolves/dogs (from whom we learned to use pack techniques in hunting).

When grain growing began, you had criminals (aka "government") who wanted to eat without working.

It was a step from there to government's bedfellow in Leading-Not-Working, religion.

Hence the "God meme" arrived, taking over from "normal" hunting era humans.


For the record I do not here endorse nor unendorse Dawkins in any way, but his terminology is the best!

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    $\begingroup$ And yet every indication is that almost all primitive cultures have some sort of supernatural beliefs. Animism, spirits, nature gods, etc. Superstition is a hallmark of primitive cultures. And my experience with dogs doesn't exactly paint them as the most rational of creatures. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Apr 12 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ Also, chimps have troops, and they do engage in hunts (or at least wars) and they don't have pets of any sort. If anything, our hunting style evolved naturally, and was preadapted for life with dogs. $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Apr 13 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ Valid discussion guys! But it's worldbuilding here :) $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Apr 13 at 11:08
  • $\begingroup$ My dog hides from thunder, and is scared of (among other things) dark clouds. He responds rather fearfully to new situations, in part due to a few bad experiences. While I have no special insight into exactly what he's thinking, I've often said that his world is ruled by angry gods. I would not describe dogs as rational. $\endgroup$ Apr 13 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Dark! Hmm, I don't see it that way at all. Dogs just (sensibly) hide or run from events that could indeed be dangerous or hurt them. They ascribe no "cause" (Zeus, etc) at all to thunder. They're "super-rational", they don't even have a concept of the "reason" for thunder. (Modern humans, who are almost totally supernatural, believe thunder is caused by Zeus, God, Environmentalism, etc. A scant handful of modern humans believe thunder is caused by "water" and other rational, non-supernatural causes!) $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Apr 13 at 18:04

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