Sunday, July 12, 2015

Monastery Garb and Alien Civilizations

I must apologize if the title has misled anyone into thinking I was going to describe the clothing that aliens would be wearing. That is one detail that the information we possess on planet earth won’t prescribe. It is mental clothing that the title relates to, or rather how the changes in monastery garb gives us a clue as to how the belief systems in an alien civilization would gradually change into the belief systems compatible with asymptotic technology, or the approach to it.

Monasteries, for those of you living in cultures where they don’t exist, are living facilities for people, almost always of one sex, who are devoting themselves to religion. They were common in earlier eras in Europe, and are common now and have been for millennia in Buddhist areas, and probably exist in more places I am unaware of. Entering a monastery was often voluntary, but in times and place where women were subordinate to men, women would be sent there to remove them from society. Sometimes economics forced people to join them, as the typical monastery or its female equivalent insisted on a very simple life, often in a self-supporting way. In Buddhist cultures, begging was a common method of seeking a minimal survival ration, and in other culture, donations played a large part in the economics of the monastery.

Daily life was prescribed and much time was spent in religious rituals, praying in Europe and meditating in Buddhist lands, and other time was spent in the maintenance of religious shrines or churches. What was left was for sustenance and the daily acts required for a self-respecting life. Buddhist monasteries might be said to have descended from the collection of monks that surrounded Buddha and followed him around, listening to his daily teachings. In Europe, it was different. Monasteries were founded by individuals who were very enthusiastic about their religion, and served as an inspiration to others. The others who gathered around these individuals had to live somewhere, and the idea of monasteries was formed. Since people were hungry for learning back in the era in Europe when monasteries were being founded, the teachings of these founders were recorded and propagated, and there were filial monasteries started after the number of monks grew large enough to support branching to different locations. A term for the group of people following the teaching of one very fervent and very influential individual was ‘religious order’, and there have been many founded in Europe, and the names of the largest are well-known.

The action of the founder in providing such an inspiring example, not just for the monks who joined the order, but also for everyone else in the religion, was so appreciated by religious authorities that the founders were rewarded, always posthumously, with a title, ‘Saint’. Thus, we have the Franciscans founded by Saint Francis, the Dominicans founded by Saint Domenic, the Benedictines founded by Saint Benedict, the Augustinians founded by Saint Augustine, and so on. The followers were so impressed with the founders that they attempted to follow all the habits of the founder, or rather how the leaders of the orders organized the habits of the follower into something that could be taught and learned. One part of these habits was the clothing, or monastery garb. This was prescribed in detail, and following the foundation of an order, given a little time for the monastic rules to be sorted out, one could see all the followers dressed exactly the same way. They did not dress this way only while they were inside the confines of the monastery, but when they went outside or interacted with the general public in spaces designed for use by both the monks or their female equivalents and the ordinary people. This would include schools, as the monastic orders often founded a system of schools in all the areas where they had monasteries for the teaching of children, both those who were going to live in the external world and those who, for some reason, were given over to the order at a young age and were designated to become monks.

The clothing of the monks was the ordinary clothing of the founder of the order. Of course, as a hierarchy was established, trappings were added especially for the higher ranking officers of the order, but the rank-and-file wore the clothing that the founder did. At the outset, this was nothing unusual, but the order preserved their garb for decades and centuries following the demise of the founder, while all around them clothing changed. The founder was often a member of the higher classes, so the clothing they used set them apart from the lower classes at the beginning, but after time passed, their clothing, frozen in time, set them apart from everyone. This was considered a good thing, until it became considered a bad thing. In recent times, the more extreme clothing choices of monasteries have succumbed to the pressure of the modern world, leaving now only token bits to differentiate the followers of the order from the rest of the world surrounding them. The leadership simply had to give up and change in order to try and keep the order populated.

This is a very visible metaphor for what happens to clusters of beliefs as technology advances. Technology has a strong effect on society and resistance to it can be maintained for a period of time, but then it crumbles. Technology defines society, and groups can form to maintain beliefs not consistent with it, often around some impressive individuals, but as the decades and centuries pass, the resistance dissipates and the followers of the belief system meld in with the rest of the population. Imagine cavitation bubbles popping up in a fast flowing stream when the water passes by a sharp rock. They last for some distance, but then they don’t. Belief systems that try to freeze current thinking in and deny the new insights that the advances in technology provides can last for sometime, cause social disruption or other effects while they do, but then technology just erodes them and their membership declines and becomes less fervent about their adherence to the old ways.

One extremely famous example of belief systems holding and then failing is the belief in the geocentric view of the Earth’s position in the universe. The Earth was held to be the center, corresponding to the impression one gets by standing on it. The change to a belief that it was just a little ball of rock flying around the sun, which was flying around the galactic center, took a long time to become universally accepted. Resistance was strong and even violent. But technology just took its own time and the antiquated belief systems dissolved away.

Thus an alien civilization which has been existing for millennia, after achieving asymptotic technology, will have belief systems that are determined by the technology, not those which an earlier era had. We are in an earlier era, but to assume the things we believe now in all kinds of fields will be common to any alien civilization is a mistake. The controversies that might rock our media will have been resolved in long forgotten history in a long-enduring alien civilization. Their behavior will be determined by the technology. Their beliefs will also. That is why we can gain an understanding of how these civilizations might be, and what they might do for star-faring, by thinking through what asymptotic technology means.

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