Pachacuti’s Revenge


“Check your premises!”

Ayn Rand’s admonition still rings true, in spite of her abrasive personality and cultish intellectual heirs. The admonition, and the name of her philosophy, Objectivism, encapsulate the core of her obsession: epistemology.

A few years ago, my work forced me to examine some of my premises in ways I’d never considered when I had the good fortune of landing a job as a consulting anthropologist for a pair of Canadian Cree Indians, Wendy Bigcharles and Laurie Gauchier, who were filming a documentary about traversing — on foot — the entire Royal Inca Road, a prehistoric engineering marvel stretching from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile — well over 3,000 miles. The project’s sponsors included the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Statoil, the Norwegian state oil company.

The challenge, for a rational empiricist — me — was to explain belief systems without offending believers or pulling my punches.

I first met Laurie at the 14,000 foot mountaineers’ base camp on Aconcagua in Argentina. He was pursuing his attempt to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on all the continents. He’d become a hero to thousands of First Nations children and toured Canada’s Native Reserves lecturing and inspiring. He liked my understanding of aboriginal cultures. More importantly, we shared a libertarian outlook and similar sense of humor, laughing a lot together.

The Crees’ novel conceit was to explore aboriginal attitudes toward, and beliefs about, the earth, in hopes that these might have modern applications for conservation and sustainability. My job, among many other tasks, was to provide context for the project. The challenge, for a rational empiricist — me — was to explain belief systems (inevitably including the evolution of religion) without offending believers or pulling my punches. Ideally, I wanted to propose a paradigm everyone could enthusiastically embrace. What follows was my effort. Did I succeed? You be the judge.

The Empire Strikes Back

In 2001 Alejandro Toledo legitimately became the first Native American head of state in the Andes since Huascar Inca was murdered by his half-brother, Atahualpa, in 1532. The Stanford-trained economist proved honest and competent. By continuing the sound economic policies instituted under the previous Fujimori regime, he provided Peru with high growth and low inflation. However, for some unknown reason — perhaps his lack of personal pizzazz — he was dismally unpopular and declined to run again.

The 2006 elections pitted Ollanta Humala, another Native American — this time of a leftist, populist bent — against Alan Garcia, a disastrous ex-president, previously ideologically indistinguishable from his opponent but newly converted to liberal, free-market policies. Garcia narrowly defeated Humala and, against all expectations, stuck to his promises. For 2009, Peruvian economic growth proved to be the third highest in the world, after China and India. For the 2011 elections, Humala moved to the center-left with a promise of continuity. Even Nobel Prize-winning writer, one-time presidential candidate, and libertarian-leaning writer Mario Vargas Llosa endorsed Garcia. For the time being, economics trumped ethnicity, with the percentage of those in poverty dropping from 55% in 2001 to 21% in 2016.

For some unknown reason — perhaps his lack of personal pizzazz — Toledo was dismally unpopular and declined to run again.

In next-door Bolivia, Juan Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and head of the indigenous coca growers union, was elected president in 2006. Morales never finished high school. To date, his rule has been marked by incompetence, confrontation, expropriation, power grabs, and the near destruction of the republic. Local councils, little more than mobs, bypass the courts and mete out justice with gasoline-filled tire-collars. Yet he retains a measure of popularity.

The Inca heartland is in the throes of a native revival. Though Ecuador hasn’t yet elected a native head of state, the Indians have gone on the warpath. In 2000, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, in alliance with junior military officers, overthrew President Jamil Mahaud and formed a new political party named after Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (1438–1471), tenth emperor of the Inca Empire. Pachacuti is still revered as pre-Columbian America’s most accomplished leader, combining the military prowess of Alexander the Great with the sagacity of Roman Emperor Justinian.

Tahuantinsuyu, as the Inca Empire called itself, did not go gently into that good night. Though Francisco Pizarro’s band seemed to make quick work of the conquest, mostly through luck, disease, and the confusion of an Inca civil war of succession, serious resistance to the new order continued for nearly 250 years. The last Inca rebellion, led by Tupac Amaru, culminated in the siege of Cusco in 1781 and the execution of the last Inca pretender. Ironically, the only firsthand account of the Spanish conquest and its initial aftermath was written by an Inca lord, Titu Cusi Yupanqui; it is still in print.

Evo Morales' rule has been marked by incompetence, confrontation, expropriation, power grabs, and the near destruction of the republic. Yet he retains a measure of popularity.

Native Andean resurgence has not been limited to politics or, for that matter, to South America. Over the past 20 years a quiet and low-key enthusiasm for Andean epistemology has burgeoned in Europe, North America, and South Africa, gaining prominence through the teachings of the Cusco school and elaborated by Americo Yabar, a paqo (or, loosely, a mystic-cum-management consultant); the writings of Joan Wilcox and Diane Dunn, now a paqo herself; anthropologists Inge Bolin and Catherine J. Allen, and Oakley Gordon, a psychologist who has tried to reconcile Yabar’s teachings with non-Andean epistemologies. Not that, from a certain perspective, there is any conflict — after all, if “Western” epistemology can accommodate chaos theory and postmodernist deconstructionism, it is truly an all-inclusive tent.


Nothing induces instant boredom in a reader more acutely than a word like epistemology in the title or first sentence of a casual read. And well it might. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, and is at least one or two categories of abstraction away from concrete reality. Epistemology is not what most people would consider as fun or relaxing as, say, Canadian politics or Chinese opera.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary eye-glazingly defines it as “the study of knowledge systems,” or “the theory of knowledge.” Dr. Oakley Gordon elaborates (and I paraphrase slightly), that it encompasses not only the formal fields of science, philosophy (of which it is also a subcategory), and religion, but also “patterns of assumptions, beliefs and behaviors” that are tacit, subconscious, or otherwise unexamined. Simply put, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know.

If “Western” epistemology can accommodate chaos theory and postmodernist deconstructionism, it is truly an all-inclusive tent.

The word is cobbled together by academics from the Greek “episteme” (knowledge) and “ology” (study of) because they had no run-of-the-mill word at hand to describe the convoluted concept they’d come up with. So they coined a new word, modeled on words like geo-logy (study of earth), bio-logy (study of life), philo-logy (study [or love] of words), psych-ology (study of the mind) and many other words ending in “ology.”

What makes epistemology so much more difficult to grasp is that epistemology is twice as abstract as these other “ologys.” Whereas most “ology” words are the study of the concrete things that precede them, epistemology is the study of those studies — in other words, the hows and whys of what we know.

But epistemology can attain an even more rarefied and abstract level. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is also “the study of the validity of knowledge.” So judgments can be — and often are — part of this philosophical endeavor.

Hector Sizes Me Up

On our first trip together down to the Andes one of my employers, Wendy introduced me to Hector, a Peruvian labor organizer who had spent 13 years in a Peruvian prison during the Fujimori and Toledo regimes. While there, he had dedicated his time to studying the Inca road system, over 15,000 miles in its entirety (including the Royal Road, its main trunk). It has been described as the Inca’s “dialogue with the land." Wendy characterized Hector as having “the sort of knowledge that can’t be put into a book.”

Well, to a professional writer and dyed-in-the-wool rational empiricist, that phrase bristled my neck hairs and set my BS antennae quivering apoplectically. I couldn’t wait to engage this sage of the unwritten.

Nevertheless, when I first met Hector I was struck by his modesty and transparency. Figuring that full disclosure was the best strategy for establishing rapport, I leveled with him about what Wendy had told me. Hector looked at me thoughtfully and, after a minute’s reflection, said that he could size up a person’s character within minutes of meeting him or her — and that that sort of knowledge he could not convey in writing.

He had a point.

To a professional writer and dyed-in-the-wool rational empiricist, that phrase bristled my neck hairs.

Still, though it might take thousands of words to describe the process one goes through when one sizes up someone, it can be done. Malcolm Gladwell did it in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, 2007. And the skill is not uncommon. Research by Jefferson Duarte of Rice University suggests that one of a person’s most telling moral features, his creditworthiness — as well as his sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, teaching ability and personality — can be seen in his face, often after only half a minute’s exposure to even a years-old photograph.

On the other hand, effectively teaching the art of successful snap judgments is much more difficult. But I digress. What Hector’s lesson suggested to me is that well-honed intuition is not fundamentally in conflict with rational empiricism; both are ways of grasping and understanding the world around us — both are the proper study of epistemology.

Not too unrelated is kinesthetic knowledge, or physical, as opposed to intellectual, knowledge. Remember learning to ride a bike or play a musical instrument? No matter how long you leave it, your torso, fingers, and lips never lose that knowledge.

What Hector’s lesson suggested to me is that well-honed intuition is not fundamentally in conflict with rational empiricism; both are ways of grasping and understanding the world around us.

Timothy Leary, the late guru of LSD, and Carlos Castaneda, author of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, offer to expand epistemology’s territory even further — much further. They argue that the judicious use of psychotropic drugs yields an entirely different understanding of, and approach to, reality. For some people, psychoactive drugs have the unusual effect of suspending the perception of time. To these users, past and future disappear and all reality is concentrated into the here-and-now. This extraordinary sensation intensifies events experienced during the “trip” and alters the user’s perception of reality.

But Back to Chinese Opera

Have you ever read a poem or listened to a piece of music and had one of those “aha!” moments when a light bulb goes off in your mind and suddenly your understanding changes? Art, literature — even music — are media that help shape our view of reality. So then, these too are also the proper territory of epistemology: the study of how those transcendental endeavors create new insights. Problem is, one man’s Chinese opera is another’s cat-scratching-on-a-blackboard. Why the difference?

Different people, brought up in different cultures and traditions, respond differently to different sensory stimuli. Exactly why this might be is not only the subject of anthropology and psychology but also, ultimately, of epistemology. Language is a case in point.

Benjamin Whorf, in Language, Thought, and Reality, argues that since much of our conscious thought is in the language(s) we speak, its conventions affect our perception and interpretation of reality. Modern English grammar with its built-in verb tenses inadvertently forces us to think in terms of past, present, and future. Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, has no tenses; a Chinese speaker must consciously include a reference to time if he wants to convey tense. Perhaps that’s why Chinese has such an aphoristic inscrutability.

The judicious use of psychotropic drugs yields an entirely different understanding of, and approach to, reality.

Quechua grammar, like that of many indigenous American languages, has a construct that would benefit Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence and science no end: referential reliability. This requires the speaker to attach suffixes that clarify his relationship to the data being conveyed. While English now has three basic tenses — past, present, and future — built into its verbs, Quechua has three levels of validation built into its.

When the content of a sentence is directly experienced by the speaker, he uses the first level of reliability indicator, called a witness validator suffix. When conveying information learned secondhand, the speaker uses the hearsay validator suffix. Finally, when speculating without evidence, or when uncertain, the speaker employs the conjectural validator, indicating that the reliability of the information is a complete crapshoot.

How might this structure affect a Quechua speaker’s perception of reality? How does it affect his social relationships and what he knows about people? Does our English grammatical structure with its tenses make us particularly vulnerable to the way psychedelic drugs stop time? Epistemology seeks to answer this and many other even more subtle relationships between the world, our senses and our minds.

Have We Lost our Minds?

Just how does one actually do epistemology? Is it anything like doing biology or geology? Let’s take a (short) look at epistemological investigations into the nature of consciousness.

For centuries, philosophers, biologists, social scientists, bartenders, and every sort of investigator of the human condition has been clawing away at that black box and, more importantly, at one of its central underlying assumptions, what is known as the mind-body problem: what is mind and how does it emerge from physical and chemical processes?

Quechua grammar, like that of many indigenous American languages, has a construct that would benefit Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence and science no end.

The investigations have yielded few answers but have shed much light on the nature of the problem. On the one hand, diehard advocates of mind still harbor faith in the existence of a “thing” that is mind and attribute our failure to unlock its secrets to not enough hard work. At the other extreme are those who have thrown up their hands in frustration, declared that we’ve done all possible research, still not found “mind,” and that therefore “mind” does not exist.

Into this quagmire jumped some researchers who decided that perhaps part of the problem lay in how we approached the problem. Traditional Victorian scientific investigative techniques approached a complex problem by analyzing its many parts separately, gaining individual insights and then summing the parts in order to understand the whole — a very productive methodology in most instances. However, in some cases, results were a bit like the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant: the particulars didn’t add up to the sum of the whole.

These investigators decided that perhaps it might be better not to analyze certain phenomena into their parts but rather to investigate complex entities — such as sentient beings — as a whole. That, perhaps, in order to understand the nature of sentient beings, these shouldn’t be approached as mind-body dualities but approached as a single entity — a monistic approach. Ironically, this “new” approach mimicked “primitive” animistic philosophies, according to which the interrelationship of everything was impossible to separate (a subject further investigated in the following subsection).

Zindler suggested that mind is better perceived as a process, a dynamic relation, an emergent property, and not a thing.

In the spirit of this new approach, Professor Frank R. Zindler, both a biologist and linguist, late of the State University of New York, and others decided to take a fresh look at “mind.” They believed that through purely historical accident the word mind, in all European languages, is grammatically a noun. Because of our grammar and the hidden assumptions of our language, we tend to think of nouns as substantive “things” such as tree, table, brick, etc., despite many nouns being quite insubstantial, e.g. truth, beauty, velocity, etc.

Zindler suggested that because mind was a noun, it was conceived to be a thing. Because it was thought to be a thing, it was thought to have existence apart from the brain. Neurobiological studies offer no supporting evidence for these ideas. Rather, mind is better perceived as a process, a dynamic relation, an emergent property, and not a thing. If we change the processes of the brain, we change the mind. If nothing else, psychedelic drugs have taught us that fact.

For perspective, Zindler posits that to wonder what happens to the mind after the brain decays is as silly as asking where the 70-miles-per-hour have gone after a speeding auto has crashed into a tree:

Now that scientists recognize mind as a process rather than a thing, they are making rapid advances in understanding the specific brain dynamics that correspond to the various subjective states collectively known as mind.

Foremost among these advances is the discovery (at Goldsmith’s College, London, and the University of Houston) that the previously mentioned “aha!” moments of insight are detectable with an electroencephalograph up to eight seconds before an individual’s mind is aware of them. More startling, Dr. Allen Snyder at the University of Sydney has been able to induce savant skills through repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. Clearly, epistemology is useful.

John Dewey, in the early 20th century, was one of the first Western philosophers to minimize the mind-body duality. He argued that philosophers’ obsession on creating a problem of the relation between the mind and the world was a mistake. He retorted that no one had ever made a problem about the relation between, for example, the hand and the world. As Louis Menand puts it in The Metaphysical Club:

The function of the hand is to help the organism cope with the environment; in situations in which a hand doesn’t work, we try something else, such as a foot, or a fishhook, or an editorial . . . They just use a hand where a hand will do. Dewey thought that ideas and beliefs are the same as hands: instruments for coping. An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork. When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of forks . . . or soup that accounts for the failure. You just reach for a spoon.

Pachacuti vs. Plato: The Nature of Religious Faith

With modern man facing a slew of problems ranging — according to some — from overpopulation, pollution, and global warming to the recent economic-fiscal crises, many people are questioning our approach to, and use of, knowledge. This analysis has resulted in the recognition of a distinct “Western” epistemology as opposed to epistemologies that developed outside the modern tradition — epistemologies that bear examination in hopes that these might be mined for some nuggets of wisdom. This was Wendy’s and Laurie’s project.

“Aha!” moments of insight are detectable with an electroencephalograph up to eight seconds before an individual’s mind is aware of them.

Western, or modern, epistemology has its roots in a movement that emerged independently throughout centers of high culture all across the Old World in the first millennium BC. Robert N. Bellah, an anthropologist, has characterized it as “an extremely negative evaluation of man and society and the exaltation of another realm of reality as alone true and infinitely valuable.” This dualistic perception emerged in Greece with Plato’s classic formulation of a realm of the ideal that mirrors mundane reality; in Israel with the conception of a transcendent god in whom alone there is any comfort; in India with the Buddha as the only refuge from a world of chaos; in China with the Taoist admonition of withdrawal from human society.

It is hardly necessary to cite comparable Christian sentiments, while the Koran stresses that the life to come is infinitely superior (virgins or no virgins) to present reality. Even in Japan, usually so innocently world-accepting, Shotoku Taishi declared that the world is a lie and only the Buddha is true, and in the Kamakura period the conviction that the world is hell led to orgies of religious suicide by seekers after paradise.

This world-rejection zeitgeist is unlike anything that came before or after. Prior to this radical shift in perception, epistemology was more concerned with the maintenance of personal, social, and cosmic harmony and with attaining specific goods — rain, harvest, children, health — as men have always been concerned. Salvation in an afterlife was virtually absent; the intellectual focus was on getting along with the natural forces that ruled existence — the sun, the earth, water, wind, thunder, fertility, game, plants, etc — in a word, animism.

Animism is a holistic approach that reveres natural phenomena without separating the whole into constituent parts — vital essences, soul, energy, their physical manifestations, or their subsystems — while still including them. It is a monistic perception as opposed to the later revolution’s dualism. Animism seeks integration while world rejection seeks transcendence.

This world-rejection zeitgeist is unlike anything that came before or after.

The revolution that took place in the first millennium BC, by creating a schism between the real world and an ideal reality, started an intellectual movement that helped humankind look at the world differently. If reality could be broken down into its constituent parts — real and ideal — couldn’t everything else? Might there be more than two parts? Now that natural phenomena could be analyzed into building blocks, these became much easier to understand and, ultimately control. It was the first step towards a philosophical reductionism that later culminated in Victorian science.

With the existence of an ideal world theorized, comparative analyses between the real and ideal worlds also led to the possibility of reform on this earth — of the self, society, government, technology, etc. — as separate entities. There was nothing that couldn’t bear some improvement. Even the ability to separate itself became a tool of reform. Power could be split into political-military and cultural-religious, as could social classes and economic specialties. Doubtlessly, this new paradigm greatly aided mankind’s adaptation to growing population pressures worldwide by facilitating technological innovation.

Still, the revolution was not democratic. Control was still vested in authority: church and state. It took yet another revolution another 2,000 years later (more or less) for epistemology to undergo as radical a change as it previously had with world rejection — the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation made man’s relationship with — and understanding of — reality, much more democratic. Prior to the Reformation only the religious elite had access to God’s revelation, the Bible. They, in turn, interpreted God’s word for the rest of society. In some European countries it was actually a crime to own a Bible in the vernacular.

There was nothing that couldn’t bear some improvement. Even the ability to separate itself became a tool of reform.

The second revolution that the Protestant Reformation wrought was simple: the concept that everyone had the right to own, read, and interpret God’s word for himself. This principle of individual autonomy and the devolution of ultimate authority spread to governmental and economic realms where it presaged the end of monarchy and the rise of capitalism. In the meta-sphere of epistemology, it was the beginning of the end for the earlier, world-rejection, revolution. Western epistemology diversified. It was an age of enlightenment — in science, philosophy, and even religious thought, where hundreds of new sects flowered.

Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, Cusco

Whatever its benefits, the Protestant Reformation had little effect on the divide-and-conquer dualistic-reductionist approach that was still yielding so many insights. If anything, Victorian scientists were predicting mankind’s imminent omniscience. By first identifying the constituent parts of whatever was being studied (dualism), investigators could more easily analyze each part individually and finally re-assemble the lot into a complete explanation (reductionism).

However, there was a problem. With time, the dualistic-reductionist approach proved inadequate when faced with highly complex, integrated systems such as climate, ecosystems, economies, and living organisms. A new, more holistic approach was necessary because understanding constituent parts didn’t fully explain the whole.

Philosopher and ecologist Robert Ulanowicz said that science must develop techniques to study ways in which larger scales of organization influence smaller ones, and also ways in which feedback loops create structure at a given level, independently of details at a lower level of organization. In an attempt to reconcile this difficulty, James Lovelock, an exobiologist for NASA, postulated the Gaia Hypothesis, named after the Greek goddess of Earth.

With time, the dualistic-reductionist approach proved inadequate when faced with highly complex, integrated systems such as climate, ecosystems, economies, and living organisms.

The Gaia Hypothesis proposes that the biosphere and physical components of the earth — atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere — are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on earth in a preferred homeostasis.

Today we are in the throes of a new revolution. If a more holistic approach has been productive in studying the mind, perhaps other fields of inquiry might also benefit from a less dualistic-reductionist approach. The door was opened for a re-evaluation of the animistic approach.

A New Age (literally) dawned. The democratization of religious belief, initiated so violently during the Reformation, flowered into a thousand blooms. Now that each person could find his own road to enlightenment, people scoured the world for alternative spiritual approaches, particularly holistic, natural phenomena-centered (as opposed to world-rejecting) beliefs.

In popular culture, that search probably began with the Beatles’ discovery and popularization of Transcendental Meditation as practiced by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Though world-renouncing in its transcendentalism, it did not renounce worldly involvement or pleasures.

The democratization of religious belief, initiated so violently during the Reformation, flowered into a thousand blooms.

More recently, the search for a new approach has focused on indigenous American animist epistemologies, particularly Andean epistemologies, not only because of their geographical isolation from world-rejection creeds but also because of the sophistication and success of Inca civilization — a civilization that absorbed virtually its entire known world, maintained a burgeoning population more-or-less peacefully and without famine; and displayed a reverence for their environment that attracts many today.

A Formicable Society

If nothing else, anthropological theory has taught us that increasing population density tends to beget technological innovation in a continuous feedback loop but is always associated with increased governmental power, regimentation, and social stratification.)

Inca society was the antithesis of a liberal ideal. Tax freedom day didn’t fall until September — in most years; subjects worked for state and church two-thirds of the year. Even when too old, poor, or incapacitated to pay, individuals had to at least pay their tribute in lice to maintain the integrity and fairness of the system. (Perhaps giving some of their lice in lieu of anything else was at least a required token of participation in the system.) There was no private property beyond one’s clothing, tools, guinea pigs, and such. Individual organized trade was not permitted; the government monopolized trade. Nuclear family autarky was the rule and the economy was rigidly centrally planned. Beyond the firstborn, a family’s children were at the disposal of the emperor and were sometimes subject to human sacrifice. Inca and subject populations were resettled at the whim of the emperor to discourage revolt. Inca society was the human equivalent of a bee or ant colony.

Food supplies, information, justice, and armies moved between what is today Colombia and southern Chile along a road system that rivaled the Roman Empire’s. And it was fast.

Still, it had its attractions. Tahuantinsuyu was the first successful, corruption-free welfare state in the world. Few starved, lacked a home, or suffered arbitrary injustice at the hands of local administrators. Corvée labor kept state granaries full to supply the army and areas hit with failed harvests. A sophisticated network of spies and informants provided instant polling to the Inca. Local chiefs and administrators guilty of malfeasance suffered swift punishment. Food supplies, information, justice, and armies moved between what is today Colombia and southern Chile along a road system that rivaled the Roman Empire’s. And it was fast. Trained relay runners with sophisticated mnemonic devices could cover 140 miles in one day and could go from Quito to Cusco in 7 days. (For comparison, the US Pony Express could cover 250 miles per day, or about 10 days from the Atlantic to the Pacific.) Giant llama caravans carried supplies and the armies’ kit over the paved, bridged and accommodation-replete Royal Roads. And medical care was free, with Inca cranial surgery being second to none.

Best of all, Inca rule created peace. The Pax Incaica was achieved with a minimum of bloodshed. Inca ambassadors would regale prospective conquests with the benefits of Inca rule while massive Inca armies camped outside the walls of the target city. Generous bribes were offered both to the chiefs — who would retain their positions, if accommodating — and the populace. Siege tactics could last for years but were always punctuated with truces during planting and harvest. But ultimately, if the peaceful incentives failed, Inca armies were known to inflict hideous torture and annihilate entire male populations.

The Cusco Creed

Inca theology reflected the sophistication of such an advanced civilization. Like the Romans, the Incas allowed their subjects religious freedom but required a few minimal doctrinal concessions. During his reign, Pachacuti convened the Council of Curicancha, which, like the Council of Nicaea, set out to standardize doctrine. It integrated all the beliefs of the newly conquered trans-Andean subjects with Inca theology. Pachacuti started by recognizing three contradictions in traditional simple sun worship:

  1. Inti — the Sun — cannot be universal if, while giving light to some, he withholds the light from others.
  2. Inti cannot be perfect if he can never remain at ease, resting.
  3. Nor can he be all-powerful when the smallest cloud may cover his face.

Therefore, the Council of Curicancha postulated the existence of Viracocha, an all-powerful, creator meta-deity that it imposed on all Inca subjects. Viracocha was more or less simply grafted onto what was becoming an extremely complex doctrinal edifice while not conflicting with minor, local deities, and the still intact Inti.

Generous bribes were offered both to the chiefs — who would retain their positions, if accommodating — and the populace.

Not only was Andean animism suddenly flirting with monotheism but its theological subtleties and elaborations — too numerous and esoteric to describe here, but including much practical wisdom in addition to abstruse arcana — were becoming every bit as mysterious and complex as the Christian creeds of transubstantiation and the Trinity. But instead of rejecting the world, Inca religion embraced and revered it. Alongside the more traditional (at least from a Judeo-Christian-Muslim perspective) — and challenging — coming-of-age ceremonies, fasts and trials of endurance, there were feasts, sex, drugs (such as ayahuasca), alcohol, and music. Faith, commitment, and pleasure were celebrated.

An important part of Andean animism is its self-help aspect. Practical nuggets of wisdom that promote character, conviviality, and satisfaction — akin to combining the teachings of Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, and Deepak Chopra with the Bible — are canonical in it.

Heady stuff.

But probably Andean epistemology’s biggest draw today is its reverence for Pachamama, mother earth, and her myriad natural constituents — soil, water, wind, plants, animals, and even rocks. In today’s enlightenment-seeking, ecology-conscious, hedonistic modern world, Andean epistemology seeks to provide a holistic balance — in living with oneself, society, and the earth.

Animism vs. Atheism? Hector Weighs in

One evening after dinner Wendy sought Hector’s advice on a matter that had been troubling her. She asked me to translate.

She recounted that the Inca Road Project, to her great surprise, had not been well-received by certain members of her Cree Band. In fact, she’d been attacked by a shaman who tried to stab her between the shoulder blades with a porcupine quill. At the last moment, Laurie, her husband, deflected the thrust. Still, the medicine man succeeded in casting a spell. Ever since, Wendy had been troubled by headaches, chest pains and neurasthenia. Could Hector recommend an Andean shaman who might lift the spell?

instead of rejecting the world, Inca religion embraced and revered it.

By this time I was internally cringing and questioning my involvement with such people and this project. I braced myself for Hector’s response.

Hector looked at both of us thoughtfully and, after some moments’ reflection, said that Wendy had undertaken a big project with tremendous responsibility that generated a lot of envy and jealousy amongst a close-knit clan in an Indian reservation setting. She was no doubt stressed out and weary. Hector suggested rest, a positive attitude, and forging ahead with a clear conscience. When Wendy insisted on a referral to a medicine man, Hector recommended a more conventional doctor.

The contrast struck me. Wendy, a modern Canadian in every sense, had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. She had discovered her tribe’s animist Cree beliefs as an adult, and had embraced them — in my opinion — in a New Age-ish sort of way as a reaction to the hypocrisy that she believed she had encountered as a child. The dream catchers, medicine wheels, frequent allusions to Indian beliefs, and other paraphernalia that was now a part of her seemed necessary reinforcements for a new-found faith.

In fact, she’d been attacked by a shaman who tried to stab her between the shoulder blades with a porcupine quill.

Hector, on the other hand, had been raised in an Andean animist milieu that subtly permeated his practical character. His animism wasn’t a compensatory reaction. Their different approaches got me to thinking about my own epistemological evolution.

Keeping the Faith

Humankind’s oldest and most widely held religious beliefs are animism and ancestor worship — both almost always found together (a linkage that begs to be investigated) — and both labeled a bit too glibly by condescending observers with a monotheistic background, little regard for translation difficulties, and therefore scant appreciation for the depth, complexity, or subtlety of alien beliefs (especially the often slippery concept of hierarchical divinity).

Animism literally refers to a belief that everything — living or inanimate — has an essence — a soul, or anima, if you will — and that this soul need not be a spirit or ghost-like being with a potentially independent existence. Animism usually regards human beings as on a roughly equal footing with (other) animals, plants, natural forces, and even objects — all deserving respect. Humans are considered a part of nature, not superior to or separate from it. However, it is not a type of religion in itself but rather a constituent belief or virtue — analogous to polytheism, monotheism, or even filial piety — that is found in many belief systems.

In the Aristotelian version of animism all things are composed of matter and form — the essence — the latter being the defining characteristic and corresponding to a “soul,” albeit one that is neither immortal nor deserving of any sort of worship. It was merely an expedient he proposed to account for things such as butterflies whose “matter” undergoes radical transformations during its life cycle but whose “form” ostensibly remains a butterfly. This concept was appropriated and greatly elaborated by the early Christian church into the modern “soul” most of us are familiar with.

There is a constellation of “transformational” retreats and festivals in the United States that cater to New Age seekers. But to keep away the riff-raff, many charge hefty fees.

Likewise, ancestor worship is not a religion but rather a practice, one that is a part of nearly all religious traditions. And it is better rendered as “ancestor veneration,” a more accurate description of what practitioners actually do, which is to cultivate kinship values such as filial piety, family loyalty, and family continuity, often with rituals such as visiting graves, offering flowers and grave decorations, burning candles or incense, reciting genealogies, or simply displaying photographs in special locations. Prayer, actual worship, belief in the transformation of dead relatives into deities or communication with them may or may not be present.

Today’s shift from a world-rejection zeitgeist to a more holistic, New Age approach to spirituality is by no means limited to Andean epistemology. The August 25 issue of The Economist (“With Spirits Kaleidoscopic”) reports on a constellation of “transformational” retreats and festivals in the United States that cater to these seekers: the Beloved Festival, SoulPlay, Sonic Bloom, Kinnection Campout, Stilldream, Wanderlust, Symbiosis, and, yes, Burning Man. But to keep away the riff-raff, many charge hefty fees. Tickets for the Beloved Festival start at $265.77.

Not Keeping the Faith

Sometimes, when pressed for my religious beliefs, I’ll respond — as a heuristic device with a less polarizing tendency than, “I’m an atheist” — that I’m an adherent of reformed ancestor worship-animism. In other words, I venerate the DNA line that I now represent; and my habits are respectful and frugal — about life and the things that support it. Is there a conflict between these values and atheism? I don’t think so. What do you think?


After a few years, the Royal Inca Road Project was put on hold indefinitely. Wendy and Laurie, the Cree principals behind the project, waged a (so far) losing battle to maintain adequate funding from corporate and government donors while holding on to full-time jobs. But their efforts continue. They moved to Stavager, Norway where Laurie worked as a pilot for a subsidiary of SAS airlines and Wendy managed a branch of Statoil’s international office for indigenous affairs, a position that allowed her to pursue their quest.

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Reading your description of our tendency to simplify complex problems by breaking them down to one constituent part at a time ,much like we would crack a code on a combination lock, reminded me of an excellent illustration of the limitations of this approach by the technical editor of Cycle World magazine Kevin Cameron in his article "Truth Space." There he writes (and please ignore the technical details as they are not really relevant): “How can you discover the truth?" No, I'm not talking about the kind philosophers seek, just the ordinary useful kind that makes more power or reduces fuel consumption-physical stuff.

Easy? Just get on the dyno and start thrashing? Not so fast. According to California legend a couple of decades ago a wealthy racing enthusiast decided to get to the bottom of the vexing two-stroke power mystery once and for all. (The simplest gas engine there is- my note) He instructed his team to order 40 TZ250 cylinders and a hundred pistons from Yamaha, and to modify and test one variable at a time. Step-by-step testing was sure to uncover The Truth.

It didn't. Instead, every modification produced less power than stock. He therefore concluded that the cylinders were as good as could possibly be made.
We know that's not true- 250cc road race engines were making 45 bhp (horsepower) then, but now they more than double that. How could The Method fail? I found out when I built a 250 for the 1977 Daytona race. I widened the exhaust port 3mm, raised it 1.5 mm, took 20mm out of the header pipe and jetted-in a pair of carburetors 2mm bigger than stock. Rider Richard Schlachter took those quickie mods to third place. The wider, taller exhaust port would have been useless without running the engine at higher revs, so the pipe had to be cut. There wasn't much point in letting exhaust out faster if intake wasn't increased to match. If we'd used the step-by-step method, we'd have gotten nothing, and finished back in the pack, where we'd come from originally.

My point here is that answers- truth, if you want to call it that- can be complex, and finding answers may require the changing of more than one variable at one time.

Experienced Superbike tuners tell a parallel story about chassis setup. It's not easy to find a workable chassis/suspension setup, and the search can consume many a rider-year. They compare looking for a good setup with playing golf in a completely dark warehouse, on a perfectly smooth, featureless floor. Somewhere in that floor is the cup. You can play a long time and never find it... But what do you do when your problem best fits the "golf-in-a-dark warehouse" model?

Scientists call their method for doing this "combinatorial analysis." This simply means that you write up all the possible combinations and permutations of what you think are the important variables, and you try them as fast as you know how, hoping for a score. It's basically the same as buying lottery tickets by the dozen or feeding silver to the dollar slot machine. At the racetrack, it means testing, testing, testing endless combinations, starting with (you hope) reasonable assumptions about approximately what the variables should be.
What if your assumptions are wrong? What if you've left out variables altogether? You fail- as many have.

Engineers know a few big crude things about these questions, but little in the way of useful details. This is part of why new racing motorcycle engine designs so often take a couple of years or more to mature- it takes that long to figure out what's really going on (even as computers can speed up the testing of our hypotheses in a virtual environment).
So much Mr. Cameron on seemingly much less esoteric pursuits and I would have to add here that finding a good workable setup for a well functioning society is even more a hit or miss process than for any machinery, with many more moving parts and modifying it should not be undertaken easily, as it is even easier to get the society out-of-tune than the environment or climate.

Also, not to be nitpicking, but this sentence got me confused: “They believed that through purely historical accident the word mind, in all European languages, is grammatically a noun.“
Given that, except for a few exceptions (Hungarian, Finnish,Estonian, Sami, Basque and a few odd languages in Russia and the Balkans), ALL the other European languages are essentially just “vernaculars” devolved from the -now lost– “proper Indo-European” wouldn’t it seem more like a “historical accident” if they didn’t all use the word mind as a noun? Especially as it is such a core word bound to be retained through time? And I think there can be little doubt as to its Indo-European origin, as the recognizable root of the word can be found in probably all Indo-European languages, both past and present, as well as in some related words (to mind, to think, memorize, mean to, brain, thought etc). But then again perhaps what they meant was that it was a purely historical accident that nearly all European languages are of common origin and those few that aren’t (most of which are also from just one other Finno-Ugaric language group and low in numbers ) have perhaps mind as noun as well.

Anyway, exceedingly enjoyable article, where comments were forming in my head (in a completely complimentary way) to nearly any paragraph in it.
Thank you.

Fred Mora

Mr. Miller,

Fascinating article. Thank you. It's not easy to write about epistemology in way that sustains the interest of a non-specialist, so kudos.

I am surprised about your praise of the old Inca Empire. You write:
Tahuantinsuyu was the first successful, corruption-free welfare state in the world.

I understand the welfare part since it was financed by keeping most of the population into serfdom. But success is harder to quantify. I'll grant that the regime's elites found it successful. But what about your assertion that it was corruption free? What are your sources? There is, in my opinion, a dearth of documents about the inner history of the Inca Empire, so I am curious to know how you came to this conclusion.

You also write: The Pax Incaica was achieved with a minimum of bloodshed.. My understanding is that one of the reason the Conquistadors triumphed is that they found thousands of prisoners that the Incas were going to sacrifice and, by freeing them, got help from a mob of enraged locals willing to help them topple the hated Incas. Shouldn't institutionalized human sacrifice be counted as bloodshed?

I agree that the Inca civilization was very advanced, as attested by the remnants of its engineering. The theological and philosophical works you describe underline how this complex Empire could have rivaled the other advanced cultures of its time. Its fall should be a warning for our own civilization.

P.S. "suddenly you’re understanding changes" - typo, should be "your"

Robert H. Miller

Dear Fred,

Thank you for the kind words. Please don't confuse the statements of fact as praise. As to successful, a term that is variable, I use it in a general sense: high civilization, well-organized, long-lived (especially if one includes pre-Inca civilizations), famine-free, architecturally advanced, etc. Also, please consider the 250-year armed resistance to Spanish rule, an indication of appreciation of pre-conquest life. The Spanish were not welcomed as liberators in the Andes, unlike in Mexico where Cortez gained many allies. Even today, Quechua and Aymara country folk retain a collectivist attitude reminiscent of Inca life.

You're right that human sacrifice is bloodshed; however, I would label conquering other tribes with little fighting, a minimum of bloodshed.

As to my sources, compared to pre-conquest Mexico, there are many. Tito Cusi Yupanqui, along with many informants (Pedro de Cieza de Leon, a conquistador, to the fore) wrote down about life in the empire. Secondary, aggregate sources are many: Prescott, Hemming, Brundage. But one of my aces is a personal friend, Jorge Urioste, professor emeritus of anthropology at UNLV, a Bolivian fluent in Quechua (and a libertarian), and author/redactor of the Huarochiri Manuscript, a pre-conquest animist bible.

Fred Mora

Mr Miller,

Thank you for your response. Among the authors you list, could you list a few books accessible by a non-specialist?

Robert H. Miller

"Empire of the Inca" by Burr Cartwright Brundage and "The Conquest of the Incas" by John Hemming are the most inclusive, readable and fun; with the first covering pre-conquest life and the second moving through the conquest.

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