Ori and Neuroscience: A Contextualization of the Yoruba Idea of Causality in the Age of Modern Science.

AuthorAdebola, Gbadamosi


Various philosophies guide the way of life of the Yoruba, and the concept of Ori, a dominant idea of causality, is one of them. Ori, to the Yoruba, is not just the physical head; rather, it is a force that features prominently in questioning whether humans are free or not. The philosophical debate about freewill has been of great importance in the history of philosophy and within religious circles. Recently, neuroscientists have joined the quest for an answer to this significant subject. Within the past few decades, advances in neuroscience have led to claims that threaten the existence of freewill by the position that human will is determined by cerebral activities. The concept of Ori clearly shows that a human being has no power on what has been affixed to his/her destiny. If what has been affixed to a person must take place, then he/she is not free.

Thus, the actions of human beings are deterministic, which threatens the whole idea of human freedom. Abimbola (2006) believes that the Yoruba concept of Ori cannot be about the standard freewill determinism issues that exist in Western philosophy. (1) A Yoruba will say that once destiny is "fixed" by Olorun (God), it cannot be changed. It must take place. (2) On a similar note, despite the different issues of determinism between the Yoruba and Western philosophy, there is a basis for comparison because both the concept of Ori and the current trends in the field of neuroscience favour determinism. Recent advances in neuroscience have led to a proposal that seems incongruent with the traditional notions on freedom. The famous work of Benjamin Libet has attracted a great deal of attention in a variety of fields, including philosophy. In a recent article, Libet vividly asserts: "If the 'act now' process is initiated unconsciously, then conscious freewill is not doing it". (3) This connotes that certain electric changes occur in the brain before actions that are done voluntarily, thereby making the initiation of such acts unconscious processes. (4) In a laywo/man's language, this discovery in neuroscience shows that decision-making is a biological process which occurs before human beings are conscious of the urge, intention or will to perform such an act. Thus, the issue of a human being's freedom might be an illusion.

Determinism, however, implies the absence of freedom. This study therefore examines the common themes found in the modern sciences -Neuroscience--and Yoruba traditional religion--Ori. Incidentally, the brain which features prominently in the findings of neuroscience on human will is situated in the head, which is called Ori among the Yoruba. It also explores the implications of some of the salient issues being advanced in neuroscience. It argues that accepting the Yoruba idea of Ori, literally, would constitute a pose to our understanding of human freewill. Moreover, this research discusses how the advances in neuroscience can be upheld, while recognizing the concept of Ori, and, at the same time, logically sustaining some, if not all, of the religious beliefs on human freewill, which anchors on responsibility, reward and punishment.

Scientific positions are based on empirical facts which can be verified. Thus, refuting them without any concrete reason for doing so is a daunting task. However, there are serious implications for the sustenance of the submission of neuroscience, which posits that freewill might be an illusion in any civil society. Therefore, the Yoruba of South-western Nigeria are not an exception. Besides, since the concept of responsibility is central in any society, we cannot but find a way to reconcile the position of science--neuroscience--with its obvious implications, which this study intends to achieve. On the other hand, traditional belief systems still form an integral part of the Nigerian society despite the fact that civilization and foreign religions have eroded some of the elements of indigenous culture. Hence, finding a place for the concept of Ori in the "modern-day" Nigerian society is quite challenging. This is a task this research intends to achieve.

Ori and Ideas of Causality among the Yoniba

Ori is a very important component in the Yoruba understanding of human personality. In other words, it is seen as a vital force that guides human life. This further influences the usual Yoruba prayer for a new bride as she leaves her father's house: Mo ri lo, ma mu ewa lo--Depart with your Ori and not with just your beauty. Although there are various philosophies that shape the way of life of the Yoruba, the concept of pre-destination or causality cannot be undervalued. According to Beir (1980), the Yoruba see their lives as partly dominated by fate and predestination, and partly controlled by their own actions. Beir further believes that "although a man is born with a fate and a career in life, what he makes out of his fate depends on his actions" (p.61). Thus, a wo/man picks the type of life s/he is going to lead, even up to the period of her/his death, before s/he enters into this world. This unchangeable part of a wo/man's fortune is symbolized by her/his Ori, which literally denotes 'head', but in this context, signifies 'inner head' or soul. (5) According to Awolalu (1979), Ori is a complex concept. It is a physical head as well as that force that is responsible for controlling one's being; however, to the Yoruba, Ori means head. Literally, it is actually more than the physical head because it represents the personal force that guides and also controls the activities in the life of a person. The quality of Ori also determines the success or failure of a life. (6)

Idowu (1982) makes a very comprehensive argument for determinism in Yoruba thought, which is outstanding on the subject of discourse. Idowu believes that it is the Ori that kneels down and makes a choice in the process of 'taking' destiny. The fulfillment of destiny is also done by the coming of Ori into the world. However, what makes the individuality of each Ori is its quality. The destiny of a person is known as Ipin-ori (iponri)--the portion of Ori or its lot--which is usually abbreviated as 'Ipin'--portion. (7) The Yoruba believe that the end for which a person is made is inextricably bound up with her/his destiny since wo/man's deeds on earth have been predestined by Olodumare (God in Yoruba belief). (8) Idowu makes arguments for strong determinism here, which he supports with a few sayings:

A-kunle-yan ni 'adaye-ba A-kunle a yan 'pin A 'd' aiye tan oju n ro ni Meaning, That which is chose kneeling is that which is found on getting to the world We knelt down and chose a portion We get to the world and are not pleased. (9) Another saying to make a strong case for determinism is A-yan-mo 'o gbo 'ogun--That which is affixed to one cannot be rectified by medicine. (10)

The concept of Ori among the Yoruba is closely related to what is understood as destiny. There are different types of interpretation used interchangeably to express destiny. Some connote the meaning of destiny as understood by the Yoruba accurately, while some others are misinterpretations. A line of understanding that runs through different interpretations and misinterpretations of destiny is the belief that there are certain factors that affect the quality of a wo/man's life on earth. These factors are derivable from certain events that take place prior to her/his present existence on earth. Dasylva (1998), while attempting to address some of the misinterpretations of the term, destiny, begins by establishing the difference between the Western view of destiny and that of the Yoruba. He holds that many writers, including Ola Rotimi, the writer of the famous tragic play, The gods are not to Blame, situate the Yoruba view of destiny erroneously in the Western context. The Western conception of destiny is synonymous with fate which is not so among the Yoruba. (11) Dasylva posits further that the nearest equivalent of destiny is Ayanmo--that which is chosen and sticks. The difference between the Western and the Yoruba view of destiny is that while the westerners believe that destiny is imposed by the gods on wo/man in the pre-life and that wo/man was not a party to this choice, the Yoruba believe that Ayanmo is the pre-life selection or choice consciously made bowing in the presence of Olodumare, and which is being confessed before Onibode (heaven gate-keeper) as a witness. (12) Contrarily, Adetunji (2001) explains the clear distinction between Ayanmo and Ori. She holds that destiny is Ori and not Ayanmo. Ori, she holds, represents the configuration or structure of a person's destiny. It is also a god. The contents of Ori are what Ayanmo entails, and a person's Ayanmo is discovered in his/her destiny. Ayanmo also plays the role of the creator. This belief is illustrated in the Yoruba saying: "Ori lo ni se, eda la'Ayanmo)--Ori is the creator, the human being is its fulfillment." (13)

Another terminology related to the concept of destiny is the word Kadara which could also be interpreted as destiny. Kadara is a word believed not to be originally Yoruba but having its roots in the Arabic language. This belief system became infiltrated into Yoruba thought over time, and now, it is believed to be an important concept in Yoruba religion especially because of its close relationship with human destiny. Olaleye (2014) holds a divergent view; he sees Kadara not directly as the direct terminology for destiny but as a particular type of destiny. He opines...

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