101015 5 min

Roots of the Contemporary Epistemological Model in Mesopotamian Mythology

Yagmur Denizhan
Assoc. Prof. at Electrical and Electronics Engineering Department
Bogazici University, Istanbul - TURKEY

Any system, in order to maintain itself, must possess some form of a “model” about its context and itself. In relatively simple systems with little agency this “model” is inseparable from the underlying physical, chemical etc. principles, while in more complex systems it gains an increasingly symbolic aspect, which seems to find its peak in human beings in the form of “knowledge”.

Particularly in systems with high agency, model-based actions lead to changes in the environment, which in turn require modifications in the “model”. This circular causality loop, within which the “model” is both a cause and a result, may or may not lead to an equilibrium, depending on the speed of adaptation of the “model” relative to the speed of induced changes in the environment. Systems, which fail to learn to anticipate the longer term results of their model-based actions, become self-destructive and are bound to disintegrate sooner or later.

Furthermore, as far as the viability of a system is concerned, the initial form of its “model” at the time of emergence of the system is of crucial importance. This initial “model” carries the imprints of the external conditions at the time of emergence, and its basic framework cannot be changed much during subsequent adaptations, just like biological evolution –though introducing huge innovations- cannot alter the fundamental body architecture specific to a phylum.

In that sense, human social systems, which have gained their identities at the time of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, keep on carrying strong imprints of the basic mental model of that period, which would better be termed the “dawn of domestication”. Here, domestication should be seen as a general framework, within which human societies impose their own will upon not only plants and animals but also the whole environment (at that time basically by building canals). May be more important than the changes induced in the environment are the effects of this interaction on the societies themselves. Domestication as a paradigm seems to have shaped the epistemic substructure of these societies in such a way that the delicate balance between acting according to the “model” and adapting it according to the feedback gained from the environment was destroyed in favour of the former. It is not a coincidence that exactly such societies, which have gained their identities at a Neolithic stage, have been carrying the banner of “civilisation” extending their domain of control unboundedly, eventually up to a catastrophic point.

The aim of this contribution is to investigate the roots of modern epistemology in the cradle of civilisation: Mesopotamia. As the most archaic form of epistemological model, mythology has a high potential of providing evidence about the mental model of a social system.

To this end, various Mesopotamian myths will be considered and the continuity of some basic perceptions and problems will be demonstrated, which have propagated through millennia to the present day.

The myth “Dream of Dumuzi” describes from the perspective of a hunter-gatherer state of mind the transition to domestication, which today has reached its utmost manifestation in gene technology.

The myth of “Adapa” gives an allegoric description of how man departed from a trustful coexistence with the whole and started imposing upon the rest what he thought appropriate according to his “model”.

The destabilising effects of domestication-paradigm-based human actions on social and environmental conditions must have required even more control such that under the influence of this positive feedback a very fast transition to early city states has followed the Neolithic revolution. The extent, at which human beings started imposing their will upon the rest of being, and the resulting departure of human culture from the natural order seems to have been accompanied by the loss of divinity in the sense of being part of the whole. Both the epic of “Gilgamesh” and the Akaddian creation myth “Enuma Elish” (like many other creation myths of Neolithic-based societies in other parts of the world) demonstrate how the original natural order is represented as a dragon or beast that needs to be slaughtered and partially used as “building-block” in the construction of the man-made world.

An immediate result of the loss of divinity as being a harmonious part of the whole and its replacement by one that praises production and reproduction as the utmost values manifests itself in the emergence of a new perception: “aging and death as a problem”. Various versions of the epic of “Gilgamesh” have as their central theme the search for immortality and eternal youth.

In view of the mythological evidence for the Neolithic roots of modern reductionist, materialist and control-oriented world-view, civilisation’s claim of “progress” seems to be of purely technological nature, while the goals defined by the epistemological model are still the same as 10,000 years ago. The fed back consequences of human actions have failed to improve the goals towards a search for a truthful model of the natural order that would allow a harmonious co-existence with the whole. Rather than that, technological progress, which has the self-created destabilisation as its motive force, has been enriching the model with ever more sophisticated tools of control and encouraging the replacement of natural order by an artificial one.

A solution to this unfortunate stagnation and its catastrophic consequences cannot be pursued merely in precautions against the unbounded drift of technology but requires a much harder task: putting our mental model about ourselves and our environment into the right place.