Chapter 12: The Principle of Computational Equivalence

Section 12: Historical Perspectives


Belief in animism remains strong in perhaps several hundred million indigenous people around the world. In its typical form, it involves not only explaining natural phenomena by analogy to human behavior but also assuming that they can be influenced as humans might be, say by offerings or worship. (See also page 1177.)

Particularly since Edward Tylor in 1871 animism has often been thought of as the earliest identifiable form of religion. Polytheism is then assumed to arise when the idea of localized spirits associated with individual natural objects is generalized to the idea of gods associated with types of objects or concepts (as for example in many Roman beliefs). Following their rejection in favor of monotheism by Judaism—and later Christianity and Islam—such ideas have however tended to be considered primitive and pagan. In Europe through the Middle Ages there nevertheless remained widespread belief in animistic kinds of explanations. And even today some Western superstitions center on animism, as do rituals in countries like Japan. Animism is also a key element of the New Age movement of the 1960s, as well as of such ideas as the Gaia Hypothesis.

Particularly since the work of Jean Piaget in the 1940s, young children are often said to go through a phase of animism, in which they interact with complex objects much as if they were alive and human.

From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]