Josh Stowe '01 | June 6, 2019
The capacity to see beyond what’s in front of our eyes has shaped humanity in profound ways, says Agustín Fuentes, the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, CSC, Professor of Anthropology. And, adds the author of The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional, beliefs that stretch the imagination reveal a key aspect of what it means to be human.
“When we talk about belief like these weird, crazy things — fairy tales and ghost stories and stuff like that,” he explains, “we laugh at them and we think that’s funny how the mind can be tricked. But it’s not really about the mind being tricked. It’s about our capacity to develop, to imagine and to commit to those imaginings. And it doesn’t mean they’re not real or true. A lot of people talk about belief as being fooled by a lie. That’s not what we’re talking about. It’s the capacity to come up with ideas or be inspired by ideas and commit to them fully.”
Fuentes, who is working on a new book, says the fossil record shows humankind’s capacity for belief increasing over time. Between about 2 million and maybe 500,000 to 400,000 years ago, he says, our ancestors’ brains doubled in size. Since then, the brain hasn’t gotten any larger, but there’s been a shift in its shape and complexity, leading over time to an accompanying growth in art, complex tools, human migration and the development of trade.
At some point, he suggests, our ancestors looked at stones and saw they could be fashioned into something more. “Their capacity to see in a stone another shape — that’s not there, you have to make it — that kind of belief, that kind of commitment to the ability to imagine, and to make those imaginings real, that’s really impressive,” he says. “And we forget how much of everything that we take to be human is just totally grounded in our capacity for belief.”
This growing capacity has empowered us, enabling us to fashion increasingly complex realities, from tools and towns to cities, nation-states and modern economies. “We believe in them, thus they are real,” Fuentes says. “Money only works because we believe in it. These are complex systems and they’re completely real and dynamic, but we completely believed them into being, as we have so many things.”
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