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Lecture Four: How Do We Believe? Developing Human Culture

Professor Fuentes delivered his fourth lecture earlier this evening focusing on how humans changed the world. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Adam Marshall and Jack Williams will offer their initial reflections. Marshall is currently a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and Williams is currently a PhD student in Divinity also at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Fuentes opened up his fourth lecture with reference to the work of Rowan Williams and Ashley Montagu concerning the human ability to “think things anew and create material realities for these new ‘thinkings.’” He pointed out that in previous lectures his primary focus has been on the various developments in our human lineage for our capacity to believe. In this lecture he began to focus on how it is that we believe.

The initial answer to this inquiry, Fuentes asserted, is human culture. Human culture is “how we generate, embody and produce belief.” He was quick to defend this answer, arguing that answering with human culture “is not a superficial statement nor one so general that it is useless.” This is because, as he claimed, most people do not have a sufficiently accurate understanding of the complexities and nuances that make human culture what it is. So, in order to set out an answer to how we humans believe Fuentes set out to articulate how culture and humans relate to one another, what culture is, where it comes from, how culture works, and then, finally, how human culture makes belief possible.

As he stated early on, “culture is not just the regional ‘flavors’ of humanity. Nor is culture the ‘nurture’ to a biological ‘nature.’” Humans do not just have or make culture, they are culture. As he went on to explain, “Culture is both a product of human actions and something that shapes those actions; culture is the context, the framework, the milieu that helps give meaning to our experiences of the world and to embody them, physiologically, neurobiologically, emotionally, philosophically, and faithfully.” He went on to further articulate this point about the relationship between humanity and culture saying, “there are not two halves to being human, two processes that interface mutually but can be disentangled and itemized for their additive contribution to our eventual whole. We are simultaneously biological cultural beings with complex schemata and social lives that shape and populate our perceptions and philosophies.”


Understanding this dynamic relationship, as he stated, forms his main argument. Namely, “how we believe is explicitly an aspect and outcome of human culture. Thus, a fuller understanding of how we believe lies in the elaboration of how human cultural processes function.”

Fuentes moved on to further discuss what culture is. He reviewed some common, older, attempts at definition given by E.B. Tyler, Franz Boas, and Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckholn. Referencing the definition of the latter two he quoted:

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand, as conditioning elements of further action.

He went on to ask, however, whether these definitions sufficiently described the uniquely human culture given what we know now in 2018 about the social traditions of other animals. He went to ask, if other species have culture, then does this mean that they also have belief? In order to begin answering this question Fuentes engaged with Andrew Whiten’s “taxonomy of three key elements to consider when looking for and at culture.” Namely:

  1. Patterned distribution of traditions in space and time
  2. Social learning as central in acquiring such traditions
  3. The content of the social traditions (actions, materials used, ideas, etc.)

Fuentes stated that when comparing human culture to the potential culture of other species “humans vary more widely than other animals in the specifics of the third category and have heightened complexity relative to other animals in the first two.” Referencing the philosopher Grant Ramsey’s definition of culture as “information that is socially transmitted between individuals or groups such that it brings about changes in behavior and/or patterns of tradition” Fuentes went on to state that these attempts to define human culture do well to highlight continuities between humans and other species, but, however, they do not satisfactorily draw out the distinctiveness of the human niche. As he went on to state, “If we are truly interested in generating insight into how humans are in the world, and thus how we believe, then direct comparison to other species might not be the right direction to be headed.” Simple observation of behavior, especially in the human case, is not enough since “what we humans do often has little directly observable, simply interpretable, or even conscious, connection to why we do things.”


Fuentes then moved on in his lecture to speak about the origins and development of human culture. Culture itself was not statically transmitted, but itself developed over evolutionary time. He emphasized the continuously developing and dynamic nature of human culture (and, therefore, also of humans). As Fuentes stated in reference to previous Gifford lecturer Bruno Latour, “we have never been modern humans, we are humans evolving past, present and future” and in reference to the philosopher Tim Ingold that “we are constantly becoming human, and have been through our history and will continue to do so into our future.” He then went on to acknowledge and briefly speak about the significance that human language played and plays in the development of human culture and the human niche in general. As he stated, “Human culture and human language are covalent, intertwined in reciprocal causation and mutually restricting. And both are necessary for humans’ contemporary capacity for belief.”

At this point in his lecture Fuentes shifted his focus to articulate not only what culture is, but specifically to how culture works. In short, culture works as part of our human nature in concert with and as human ways of being in the world with, for, and against one another, other species, and our environment in general. As Fuentes stated, “mutual interfaces across the last two million years between human selves, communities, and our niches formed a relationship in which human development has evolved as a system that is always in concert with, and mutually constitutive of, the linguistic, socially mediated and constructed structures, institutions, and beliefs that make up the human niche.” This relationship is not one of strict determinism as if we were “hard-wired,” but one of co-acquisition and co-enactment. This mutual process of becoming, as Fuentes told us, consists of three main aspects: “enskilment, neuroendocrine development, and the capacity to think “off line” and experience the true imaginary.” He went on to elaborate on these three aspects for much of the remainder of this fourth lecture and pointed out how each of these developments is significantly constituted by the specifics of space and place.


Fuentes ended his lecture with five main take-way points concerning the processes of human culture:

1) Neurobiological and endocrine systems develop as humans learn to orchestrate themselves within a cultural context. Through this process social concepts and meanings become anatomy, an anatomy that in turns interfaces with, and potentially reshapes, those very social concepts and meanings.

2) Skills, the specific patterns of how we use our bodies and minds, are grown, incorporated into the human organism through practice and training in a given environment. They are thus simultaneously biological and cultural and are contingent on the capacities and constraints of the development of our bodies and our relationships with one another and the cultural and material environments we are in.

3) Because of the particular histories of neurobiological development and expansion of the human brain’s frontal lobes, and the processes and structures of human culture, humans developed the capacity for extensive detached mental representations (a particularly powerful capacity for imagining).

4) Thus, the shape of, and boundaries to, the human niche are not always material or bounded by cued representation.

5) This enhanced capacity for detached representations and the complexity and diversity of our social and ecological milieus enables humans to experience, create, and even develop skills in perceptions/awareness that are highly diverse and not contingent on material reality, and thus may include transcendent experiences as a central process of the human niche.

Lastly, after recapping the understanding of belief that he has promoted throughout these lectures Fuentes ended with two points about why belief is central to human existence. The first was the dictum that “cultural constructs are real for those who hold them.” The second was that “what is and what should be . . . are, in large part, both contextualized and contingent on where and how we develop and are embedded in who we are and how we become.” With these insights Fuentes ended his fourth lecture by pointing towards the sociality of belief, the capacity to be religious, and to the development of religion that he would tackle in further detail in the next lecture.

3 replies to “Lecture Four: How Do We Believe? Developing Human Culture”

  1. Adam Marshall says:

    In his fourth lecture, Professor Fuentes ambitiously revisits the underlying question that has continually haunted the discipline of anthropology – namely, just what exactly is culture? Culture is an abstraction and a fiction that has very real life-shaping capacities. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that we anthropologists struggle to agree on any definition. Culture is not unique to humans (chimpanzees, for example, have a sophisticated sociality), but human culture is indeed distinctive. What makes human culture distinct is, he suggests, our ability to believe. This lecture ultimately traces the human evolution of how we came to believe.

    As Fuentes urbanely puts it, “humans are immersed and constitutive of a semiotic ecosystem that includes substantial symbolic components and continuous potential for the imaginary, even the transcendent”. He provocatively suggests that, while other beings also live in a semiotic world, humans have the distinct capability to imagine, create, manipulate, and believe in things. A stone, for example can be used as a tool (a skill not unique to humans). Yet humans have the capacity to carve, manipulate, imagine, and believe the stone to be a god. In this sense, signs and symbols are never static. They evolve, just like humans.

    Following this logic, and borrowing from Tim Ingold, humans are “continually becoming”. Semiotics like language, mutate, change, and expand. Like our changing, evolutionary brains’ capacity to understand and engage with semiotics, so then must culture evolve and change. “[Human] Culture”, Fuentes suggests, “is both a product of human actions and something that shapes those actions; culture is the context, the framework, the milieu that helps give meaning to our experiences of the world and to embody them (emphasis mine), physiologically, neurobiologically, emotionally, philosophically, and faithfully”. This post-structuralist take on culture complements Gilles Delueze’s concept of “the diagram”, which Jon Bialecki explains “is an abstract machine, a set of pure relations that fold in, interrupt each other, and, when given content, have a product or expression” (A Diagram for Fire (2017): 69-70). It is no wonder that with the extreme diversity of human life and experiences that there are so many variances of what people believe.

    But can culture and, thus, belief be boiled down to a meaning making machine that we embody? Being sensationalised by the West, notions of witchcraft have been a classic enquiry of anthropology. Fuentes would surly classify witchcraft, like religion, as a robust “belief system” that gives meaning to our world and animates our behaviour. Indeed, notions of witchcraft have been known to hold the social order together (EE Evans Pritchard (1937) Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande), give meaning to complex social and political change (Peter Geschiere (1997) The Modernity of Witchcraft), help understand and navigate the precarities of life (Harry West (2005) Kupilikula), and so on. Notions of witchcraft, in other words, seem to fit well with Fuentes’s conceptualisation of belief and, thus, culture. However, I would suggest that our ability to not only believe, but to doubt is a core part of the human niche.

    In his highly impressive book The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island (2014), Nils Bubandt effectively shows that for the Buli, witchcraft is a very real, dangerous, and invisible force in the world that is importantly understood not through belief, but through aporia and doubt. It is through doubt and aporia, in other words, not belief and certainty, that the Buli understand and engage their world. Witchcraft is not a “belief system”, but rather an “aporia system”, if you will. Fuentes certainly privileges human culture to our abilities to imagine, create, and believe. Perhaps uncertainty, perplexity, aporia, and doubt might play a larger role in our “continual becoming” than we give credit.

    1. Excellent summary, but I disagree with your question about meaning. Prof Fuentes would, I think, say that witch craft is an imaginative belief system if not a religion or religious manifestation of thought processes. Doubt is an integral part of belief and in mass religions it operates as Faith however you would define it. Our understanding is always dependent on the period of time we live in. Truth is culturally dependent and I agree with Prof Fuentes that interdisciplinary cooperation is way forward.

  2. Last summer I attended the Society for the Study of Theology’s annual postgraduate conference in Leuven, Belgium. The conference theme was ‘Faith in the Academy: Theology Among the Disciplines’ and I remember Karen Kilby’s contribution to the closing panel discussion, in which she spoke in praise of an approach to Theology which can listen to other disciplines. The scope of theological interest is incredibly broad, including not only God and revelation, but people, societies, history, art, literature, the natural world and much more besides. As such, a theologian should be willing to listen to the insights of other disciplines – to the Natural Sciences, to the Social Sciences, to History, to Philosophy, to the Arts. Our work is not subsumed to these disciplines, but we offer a generous and humble ear as we listen to and learn from them. This is precisely what has made Professor Fuentes’ Gifford Lecture series so valuable to students of Philosophy and Theology, such as myself. Towards the end of the Q&A session of the fourth lecture, there was a discussion about interdisciplinarity. While the focus was on co-operation between fields such as Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology and Biology, I believe Philosophy and Theology too have much to gain from and much to offer these conversations.

    As a philosopher and theologian, I am particularly interested in the capacity human beings have for religious belief. Quite apart from epistemological or doctrinal questions about what is true, the question of how and why humans have religious beliefs, practices and experiences – as Fuentes put it, the inclusion of ‘transcendent experiences as a central process of the human niche’ – ought to be of interest to religious and nonreligious enquirers alike. For a religious questioner, there is a human pole to any divine-human relationship, and our humanity influences our experience of transcendence or the divine. Understanding our capacity for belief will help us to understand ourselves and our relationship to the divine. For the nonreligious, the fact that religion still plays an enormously influential role in the world today (despite predictions to the contrary from figures such as Marx, Freud, Weber and Durkheim) makes understanding how and why human beings are prone to religious or transcendent belief a vital task.

    Anyone interested in these questions is in good company. David Hume’s The Natural History of Religion (1757) concerns the question of the origin of religion in human nature, quite apart from the question of the rational grounds for religious belief (which is taken up in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)). We see a similar kind of enquiry in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (1670) and Kant’s Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason (1793) – for an excellent summary of this tradition, see chapter one of Gordon Graham’s Wittgenstein and Natural Religion (2014). What Fuentes offers students of Philosophy and Theology is a deep insight into precisely what the origins of religious belief might be. In this fourth lecture, we heard about the importance of neuroendocrine systems (‘responsible for maintaining homeostasis, regulating reproduction, metabolism, eating and drinking processes, energy utilization, osmolarity and blood pressure in all organisms’) and their ‘constant mutual interface with social behaviour, cultural institutions and processes, and individual perceptions of social context.’ The human is a complex whole, incorporating corporeality, physicality, affect, cognition, sociability, emotion, and a deep embeddedness within the environment. For the theologian or philosopher of religion this should not be forgotten. Whatever our theological commitments, the fact remains that we are embodied animals, embedded in our environment and in society; this is not some accidental fact about human beings, but rather the specific niche that we have created for ourselves through the course of our evolution. At this point, theologians may contend that this is not the whole story – that there is more to being human than simply being the product of our evolution, however much we take into account the development of communication, culture and belief. There is an important insight here. This kind of interdisciplinarity does not mean giving the final word to Evolutionary Anthropology and we must be wary of a reductionism that would sideline any input from the Humanities. Nevertheless, any account of “human nature” offered by Theology will be impoverished by not taking insights such as those of Fuentes as an important starting point. If we want to know how and why human beings have a capacity to believe in and encounter transcendence (whatever we think of the veracity of these claims), we could do worse than start by considering the contributions made by Fuentes and his colleagues.

    It is at this point that I would like to offer a critique of Fuentes. Fuentes concluded his fourth lecture with a discussion of cultural constructs. His lecture outlined the deep relationship between human culture and human belief, and there is no doubt that culture deeply influences what we believe. Yet to anyone worried about the diminishment of religion as a mere cultural construct, Fuentes offered this reassurance: the anthropological dictum that ‘cultural constructs are real for those who hold them’. There is no “all in the mind” because the mind is part of a deeply integrated system involving physiology, perception, culture and the Umwelt in which we live. This puts the lie to a Cartesian model, according to which there is separation between the contents of our minds and the world in which we live. Beliefs have an intense reality to those who hold them because they are integrative of a human’s entire lived experience. And yet for many religious believers, this caveat does not do justice to their beliefs. Many religious believers want to be able to make universal claims: my religion is not just real for me, it is real for you too, whether or not you believe it. Maybe we are operating with slightly different concepts of “the real”; in this afternoon’s Gifford seminar, Fuentes asserted that humans with different beliefs ‘literally experience different realities’. There is an important insight here, namely the recognition that different beliefs and belief systems have a world-creating capacity. Nevertheless, there must surely be some way of making universal truth claims (or even believing that there is a universal truth without committing to what that truth is) without losing the ability to co-operatively communicate with people who have very different beliefs to our own. There is perhaps room here for theological reflection on what we mean by “reality”, and whether there can be any coherence in making truth claims that transgress my experience of my reality is a question that will only be answered in conversation between these disciplines.

    The theme of my response to Fuentes’ fourth Gifford Lecture – both in praise criticism – is the importance of interdisciplinarity. As a theologian I want to advocate an approach to my discipline which is able and willing to listen to approaches from other fields, with the confidence to both take on board new ideas and offer critiques where appropriate. The Physical and Social Sciences will teach us much about who we are and our relationship to the world and each other. They can even teach us something about our capacity for transcendent experience. Nevertheless, there remain questions about who we are and our place in the world that call out for philosophical and theological input. I have been delighted at the opportunity this year’s Gifford Lectures have offered us to think beyond the confines of individual disciplines. There are important conversations still to be had, and I eagerly anticipate the final two lectures of the series.

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