The New Mindscape
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The New Mindscape

Non-human persons?

Don’t step on their feet!

The New Mindscape #7–2

The film Avatar dramatises the conflict between two ontologies: the materialist, disenchanted worldview of the humans, and the enchanted worldview of the Navis, whose imagined culture is inspired by anthropological accounts of the Indians of the Amazon. This culture is animist, in that it considers all beings to have human qualities of personhood.

In the materialist operating system of modern secular culture, the world, its beings and events may have meaning for humans, but in themselves they have no consciousness, no agency, and nothing to communicate to humans.

Many human societies, on the other hand, have conceived of themselves as living in an “enchanted” world, in which people, animals, objects and invisible beings all have consciousness, agency, inter-communication and mutual influence.

Let’s use anthropological cases and thought experiments to imagine what it might be like to live in an enchanted world; and analyse the process of disenchantment (and re-enchantments) in secular modernity. We will focus on a prevalent type of enchanted ontology — animism.

“Animism” is the ontology of most hunting and gathering tribes, and which has inspired the depiction of the Navis’ religion in the film Avatar. In an animist world, humans are not the only conscious beings. All beings, or at least many animals, plants and even landscape features, are endowed with consciousness, emotions, desires and intentions.

Animism is widespread among nomadic hunting and gathering bands of the indigenous peoples of North and South America, as well as in Africa, Siberia and other regions. There is also an animist substratum in most Asian cultures.

In an animist world, the universe is populated by persons with consciousness, intention and human-like desires and emotions.

However, the concept of a “person” here is not exclusively associated with a human body, as it is among us. The bodies of humans, animals, plants and trees, objects, mountains, stones and so on, can be compared to clothes which are worn and changed by persons. Thus, for example, a tiger can take the body of a human or vice versa (like an animagus in the Harry Potter novels). When persons die, they might take another (human or animal) body.

Among the Inuit of Northern Canada, hunters were always careful to kill their prey in a most reverential and dignified manner, so that the soul of the animal, when it took a new body, would be willing to give his body again in future hunts. Otherwise, they would not let themselves be killed. In an animist world, since all beings are considered to be animated, conscious, and having feelings, all beings are “persons” that need to be treated with the care and reverence that humans give each other.

Animism is a holistic view of the relationship between man and nature. People do not see themselves as the rulers of nature, but as inseparable components of the cosmos. They believe that humans have their proper place in the world, just as other living forms have their own places and roles. There is a sacred balance in this cosmos. Humans need to maintain this balance if they wish to survive.

For example, among the Inuit hunters of the Canadian Arctic, before going out to hunt, the hunter would explain to the master spirit of the polar bear that the people need him for food and for clothing. In a respectful way, the hunter would ask the spirit of the animal to allow itself to be taken. After the kill, he would offer a song or words of thanksgiving for the animal’s self-sacrifice.

If the animal was treated with respect and gratitude, it would reincarnate itself, and offer itself again at a future hunt. But if the humans hunt recklessly, forgetting to ask permission and to show gratitude, the animal spirits will not reincarnate, and there will be no more animals to hunt. This custom shows a deep sense of mutual dependence, reciprocity and respect between the human and animal worlds.

In fact, in the animist worldview, all kinds of animals, rocks and everything all have subjectivity. They all have consciousness. They are all the same as us human beings — they think and perceive like human beings. The only difference between them and us is that they have different exterior appearances. Just like us changing clothes, animals can switch bodies. That’s why so many stories and legends talk about a human becoming a tiger, or becoming a bird — it’s actually the same person switching bodies. They have the same interiority/subjectivity, but their bodies are like clothes that can be changed.

Some people imagine that if we lived in an animist world, we might stop eating animals, try to be humane to everything, and become minimalist in our consumption. But in fact, in most animist societies, they also hunt animals all the time. These are hunting societies, in which killing animals is a central part of life.

In the film Avatar, which can help us to imagine an animist world, the imagined animist world is where everybody is in harmony with nature. But we can see that in an animist society, the natural world is quite dangerous. These creatures with consciousness are not necessarily friendly to human beings. So a member of such a society must protect himself or herself from the danger of these creatures, while trying to establish a trusting relationship with them.

Let’s consider the example of the Inuit people in the far north of Canada. They are hunters. They don’t eat any vegetables, because there are no plants up there at all, but only bears, seals, whales and so on. They consider all these animals to have consciousness and intention, just like humans. So, as they come near their prey, before they throw the spear, they will look into the eyes of the animal.

Photo credit: Dewey Smith via pxhere.com

For example, when they hunt a deer, they will look into its eyes and ask, ‘Will you give your life to me, please? I need your life so that I can feed my family.’ Then, that deer may run away — in that case, it means that the deer refuses the request. But it is possible that the deer doesn’t move, and the hunter can kill it. This means that the deer agreed to the request, and allowed itself to be killed. Now, the hunter must thank the deer, ‘Thank you for giving your life. You sacrificed your life for me, my family and my tribe.’ And he will conduct a ritual, a kind of prayer, and give some kind of offering — to give something back to repay the deer for giving its life to the hunter.

In return, the hunter, his family and his tribe must give something back to the soul of the deer. Failure to do so will upset the deer. It will think, ‘Hey, I gave you my life, but you just took it and didn’t even say thank you.’ The deer might get angry; the angry deer’s soul will not come back, it will not be reborn in the form of another deer, and so there will be less deer in the future. However, if the hunter expresses his gratitude and makes an offering to the deer, then the soul of the deer will come back by being born as another deer. In this way, there will be more and more deer in the future — they will come back, and there will be food for the future generations of humans.

In some sense, it is give and take, similar to “guanxi” relationships in China. If people do something good for you but you fail to return the favour, they might get quite angry and will not be good to you next time. Likewise, each time the hunter kills a deer without expressing gratitude and making offerings, this deer will not reincarnate in this world. Gradually, the chance of hunting a deer will become smaller and smaller. According to this Inuit worldview then, all these animals — the polar bear, the whale, the deer and so on — are getting upset that humans are coming and killing them without expressing gratitude or giving a gift in return. So there are fewer and fewer polar bears, whales, deer and so on. The environment is depleting itself.

The point I wish to make here is that in the animist worldview, it’s not just about communication between humans and non-humans. Exchanges between humans and the nonhumans are expected — we give something to them, and they give something to us. It is like human interactions. We have to negotiate to help each other, because we can’t be completely independent; we depend on each other.

So for animists, not only do humans depend on each other, but all living beings do. And this interdependence is not some abstract idea, like the naturalist notion of ecological balance. We are interdependent and have relationships with specific living beings in the forest, who have their own feelings. If we don’t respect them, then we will have problems. Sometimes, we have to help people or respect people we don’t like, but that’s what we have to do. And the same goes with animals.

In an animist society, humans and animals don’t love each other in some cute, cuddly, furry intimacy. In an animist worldview, living beings in the forest are often selfish, jealous, or angry. Just like humans, even selfish people need to negotiate and respect each other. A person always needs to consider that what he does might offend or upset someone or something around him.

When I walk down the streets of Hong Kong, which are so crowded, the least I do is that I try not to step on people’s feet, because I know people have consciousness and will get upset if I step onto their feet. I have to be careful. If I do step on people’s feet, I will immediately apologise at least. There shouldn’t be any problem, if we apologise in time. But if I am walking in the forest — in the animist worldview, I’m constantly “stepping on the feet” of trees, plants, rocks and everything — I might need to apologise constantly. Therefore, you will see different ways of doing rituals and shrines, and ways of expressing gratitude. The world, in the animist worldview, is not necessarily friendly. It might get rather nasty, if you don’t take good care of it. That’s what we see in Avatar.

Even when you build a house, maybe the earth is unhappy about people trampling on it or digging a hole. The earth is giving itself to you, you’re puncturing it, you’re cutting it, using it, so maybe you should say ‘I’m sorry for disturbing you, thank you for everything you are giving us’. That’s why everywhere in China, there are shrines — a little shrine and a stone — for the earth God 土地公. That’s where it comes from. You are always walking on this earth, which gives you fertility, your land, your crops, your food, your house, et cetera. The earth gives us so much, and people give something as a token of gratitude in return. People conduct ritual to express their thanks and respect; they burn incense and give offerings of food and wine. So this is a kind of give-and-take relationship. It’s a process of relationship-building.

Earth god shrine in Hong Kong (via Wikimedia Commons)

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This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.

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