Why do humans reason sometimes and avoid doing it other times?: kotodama in Japanese culture.

Author:Suzuki, Takeshi
Position:FORUM
 
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After reading Mercier and Sperber's article (2011), I have two questions in mind: Why do humans reason sometimes, and why do they avoid doing it other times? Let me critically examine Japanese culture as a case in point within the two questions. Mercier and Sperber assume that humans reason, but I suspect that humans sometimes do reason and avoid doing it other times. To begin with, the authors are right in their agreement with Dawkins and Krebs. Mercier and Sperber directly quote Dawkins and Krebs:

Reasoning enables people to exchange arguments that, on the whole, make communication more reliable and hence more advantageous .... For communication to be stable, it has to benefit both senders and receivers; otherwise they would stop sending or stop receiving, putting an end to communication itself. (as cited in Mercier & Sperber, 2011, p. 60)

Following their own logic, where arguing is considered unbeneficial by senders and receivers, it might function to prevent us from producing reasonable beliefs based on critical reasoning.

Given the 2011 Greater East Japan Earthquake, I want to think about why the Japanese sometimes reason and other times avoid doing so. Arguing or engaging in critical reasoning is a modern act, but old traditions die hard. One such example is kotodama:

[A] belief, reflected in the earliest Japanese sources, that a sacred power or spirit dwells in the words of the traditional Japanese language. Particularly when expressed in certain forms, such as norito (ritual prayers) or waka poetry, it was believed that the words of the Japanese language could exert a special influence on people, the gods, and even the course of the world. Extreme care thus needed to be taken with words to utilize their power properly, for good or for ill. Although the notion is similar to beliefs in the magical power of words found in most traditional societies, it has been employed by some modern Japanese thinkers to explain what they believe are the special characteristics of Japanese language and culture. (Campbell & Noble, 1993, p. 834)

Although kotodama is a pre-modern concept, it still influences or even controls Japanese people. Izawa (1995) explains that in the world where kotodama rules, there is no freedom to choose words since they are divided into "words inviting good results" and "words inviting bad results" (p. 24). In such a world, to use a word is to realize what it means at the same time. It is called kotoage, or the realization of...

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