Friday, January 06, 2006

InG we T - Societal Morals

In Gods We Trust
Commitments 2.3 - Societal Morals

From page 112

Simple consent between individuals seldom, if ever, successfully sustains cooperation among large numbers of people over long periods of time. Displays of commitment to supernatural agents signal sincere willingness to cooperate with the community of believers. Supernatural agents thus also function as moral Big Brothers who keep constant vigil to dissuade would-be cheaters and free riders. To ensure moral authority survives without the need for brute force and the constant threat of rebellion, all concerned - whether master or slave - must truly believe that the gods are always watching even when no other person could possible be looking. Once these sacred relations become a society's moral constitution, as in our "One Nation Under God," they cannot be undone without risking collapse of the public order that secures personal welfare. This is one way that the conceptual ridge of our evolutionary landscape connects with the ridge of social interaction.

According to this chapter, supernatural entities function as big brothers because of our awareness and sensitivities concerning false belief. Abstract thinking gives us the ability to assign intention to seemingly non-random events. Thus supernatural beings arise as plausible explanations for some of the doors abstract thinking opens. Our heuristics for false belief detection, make us conscious about our actions, or at least the way they may be perceived. This combination explains why we believe God is always watching. It also explains why people may be so concerned about the consequences of eliminating the unifying effect of religion in our society.

We can only operate in large groups if we believe other people are generally acting on a set of accepting laws and behaviours. While exceptions will always occur, society is glued together because it is accepted that these individuals will be punished, eliminating the benefits that one could get as a rogue. Once people stop playing by these rules, society can't help but collapse. The evolutionary cognitive arms race has selected for people who have no trust with strangers. After all, strangers may or may not play by accepted rules.

Can an open society ever create a strong enough sense of nationalism or strong enough cannon of accepted social guidelines to replace an evolutionary programmed Big Brother?

InG we T - Supernatural expansion

In Gods We Trust
Communication 2.2 - Supernatural expansion

Humans have an ability and tendency to take small packets of infromation and assume large background stories. Put in Atran's words,

A few fragmentary narrative descriptions or episodes suffice to mobilize an enormously rich network of implicit background beliefs.

When this is applied to the malleability of abstract beliefs, we have the potential to create our own Gods complete with fully fleshed out narratives.

All things being equal, some supernatural beliefs are better candidates than others for cultural transmission and retention in any given population of human minds because (1) they are more attention-arresting; (2) they have greater inferential potential (3) they cannot be processed completely; (4) they are more emotionally provocative.

Atran cites a number of examples that make this list easy to understand. Perhaps applying this list to the most famous Christian narrative of them all is reasonable. A 30 year old man doesn't seem to make an overly arresting as a deity. Certainly the Jews of Jesus' time didn't think so. His virgin birth has high inferential potential. His human nature certainly leads to the idea that he could be fully processed, however, his trinitarian claims oppose this. Emotional provocativeness seems to depend on his acts of charity, the cruel (although for the time, not unusual) death, and his low caste status. These are rather ordinary things that probably become significant because of their baseness.

From my perspective, the areas where God could be made more supernatural are the areas where things may have become leavened. Perhaps it is just my perspective, but it seems like these are also the areas that traditional Christians defend vehemently against corruption: virgin birth, mystery of the trinity, and significance of the cross. Has traditional Christianity unknowingly done its best to supernaturalize the possible down to earth nature of divinity?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

InG we T - Feedback loop errors

In Gods We Trust
Commitments 2.1 - feedback loop erros

Atran has a very interesting critique of religious thought in the start of his section on counterintuitive worlds. He starts off by discussing a feedback loop of inference and interpretation.

If one understands what a speaker intends, there is a smooth flow of communication. Information is processed subconsciously (or at least non-overtly), because it does not need to be questioned. Meaning just seems natural, and obvious. According to Atran, "you stop cognitively processing information the moment communication makes sense. (If there were no such stopping rule, inference and interpretation would go on forever)". This is contrasted in a very interesting manner with another Atran quote on religion; "To be sure, people interpret God's message in particular ways for specific contexts, but they have no reason to ever stop interpreting."

This seems like a popular complaint against religion. It is a moving target stuck in a feed back loop where reinterpretation is mistaken for depth and a lack of definitiveness for the complexity of God. Traditional religion never gives people a reason to stop interpreting. Because of this, it seems infinitely complex and mysterious. Some people like this, others don't.

Perhaps this tendency occurs because we like to remove ideas of vagueness as we rationalize our paradigms. Problems occur when people assume entrance into Atran's feedback loop is real religion. It seems like the feedback loop falls apart once reinterpretation stops. Since traditional Christians assume, in a neoplatonic like way, that we can never fully comprehend God, the loop is fundamental and, perhaps, not problematic to their world view. Since I assume a real God is knowable, I think this loop can function as an irreligious opiate. While it may be a corollary associated with exploration, getting out of it seems to require putting down roots and working through problems. It does not seem to get solved by progressive idealism.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

InG we T - Inference in revelation

SInce I have just gotten back from a nice vacation down in southern Utah, I thought I would finish up the posts on "In Gods We Trust". While many of the ideas have been pretty well discussed in the previous posts, I thought I would still finish posting all the notes I jotted down while going through it in November. Again, things are more tangential discussions than substantial commentary.

In Gods We Trust
Commitments 2.0 - Inference in revelation

Accepting a text on authority and faith implies that the listener or reader suspend the universal constraints on ordinary communication, that is, pragmatic considerations of relevance. In ordinary communication the listener or reader "automatically" attempts to fill the gap in understanding between what is merely said or written and what the communicator intends the listener or reader to think or do as a result."

In Gods We Trust, 91

As I read this paragraph it struck me how similar the presentation of this idea was to my thoughts on translation. Revelation seems to involve lots of automatic gap filling. If we move away from a dictographic view of revelation to one where revelatory communication is done in a vicarious manner by individuals who convey it in God's name, problems can be tackled in a unique manner.

For instance, lets assume that when we die we can get a rough feeling of the thoughts and intents of those who are living. Perhaps this is not done overly well. Perhaps information is based on observation or perhaps it is based on a short range spiritual based connections. Perhaps, those on the other side have the same degree of contact with us as we do with them - rare, weak, lots of effort involved, and relatively faith based.

As we can see from experience on our side of the veil, communication is rarely overt. At best it comes across as a fuzzy sense of guidance. So, assuming those on the other side really do want to help us, we can conclude that Christlike tendencies to help people is pretty important if doing so across the veil gets substantially harder. That aside, with fuzzy, broken communication lines, content must be packeted in ways uniquely appropriate. For instance, dictographic translation may not be wise in case packets get dropped. What would seem most wise, would be the transmission of content that builds on receiver intent. Thus one would guide the receiver along, perhaps in a way analogous to a jpg expansion.

Now one doesn't need to go out on a limb with assumptions of vicarious representation. One could certainly take a more traditional view of God, and assume a similar transmission style. Personally I think transmission style is reflective of what works best with those involved, and a post creedal omnipotent God, at least to me, doesn't make much sense with the fuzziness that exists in revelation (and scripture).

To finish up a last quote from page 92

In everyday communication, humans effortlessly, but necessarily and unmistakably, make these many assumptions and inferences [ what the speaker is talking about, intentions, relevance, etc]. Often, they do so very many times in a single minute of ordinary conversation. In interpreting a religious utterance or text, however, people need do very little of the sort. Ordinarily, believers assume that the utterances or texts connected with religious doctrines are authorless, timeless, and true. As a result, people do not apply ordinary relevance criteria to religious communications.