Thursday, February 09, 2006

InG we T - quasi-propositional beleifs

In Gods We Trust
Commitment 2.5 - Quasi-propostional beliefs

From page 113
Religious doctrines, rites, and liturgies are only diversely connected sets of examples that serve as public entry points into the vast network of mostly unarticulated commonsense beliefs that nearly all human beings share or have ready inferential access to. In fact, the so-called norms and values of religious traditions are not rules, principles, axioms, or injunctions with fixed factual or propositional content. They are public representations of quasi-propositional beliefs. Quasi-propostitional beliefs may have the superficial subject-predicate structure of ordinary logical or factual propositions, but they can never have any fixed meaning because they are counterintuitive. Their cognitive role is to mobilize a more or less fluid and open-textured network of ordinary commonsense beliefs in order to build logically and factually impossible worlds that are readily conceivable, memorable, and transmissible.


One of the complaints against Mormonism is the ever shifting theology and doctrine. Religious attackers get frustrated as they assume religion should be creedal based and definite. Our open theology can be very frustrating because there seems to be such a church emphasis on religious conservatism and orthopraxy. In essence, they are attacking our beliefs as too quasi-propositional, just as Attran attacks religion in general. Personally I think many of these attacks come because people fail to account for vagueness and propositional uncertainty. Outside of faith in Christ, repentance and baptism, theologically, Mormons are pretty open about the uncertainty, or more accurately the lack of importance of much else. Sure conservatives may not come across this way, but chances are if the prophet told them things had changed, they would be quite accommodating. (look at polygamy WofW, black & priesthood, etc). In this sense, the fluidity LDS have with theology may partially arise from the lack of fixed meaning towards other's revelations.

As I mentioned over at ISSUES IN MORMON DOCTRINE, I think revelatory experiences can never be communally applicable. For them to have any weight, they must be experienced first hand. The fluid nature of quasi-propositionals ensures that we must always search for meaning that is ever changing. From Attran's point this makes religion a costly wast of resources. From a Mormon perspective it forces one to seek grounding spiritual experiences. In this light, scriptures are less about certainty of meaning than they are keys for enabling equivalent personal experiences.

The problem arises with the apparent ease we have in creating, and building upon counterfactuals. We tend to take these relatively rare personal experiences and feel free to apply them where we will. We seem to have a tendency to turn them into fantasy, or at least use them to justify other pleasing fantastical assumptions.. Perhaps it is just me, but I think we may abuse the reality of these experiences if we use them as an excuse not to deal with reality. There should be no caveat assumptions that things will work out when Satan is bound. There should be no assumptions that communal issue problems will be worked out once society is purified. It seems to me that the reality of the gospel indicates that there are workable solutions available. It is the working through these solutions that creates the fantasy that we may envision. Dreams are ethereal until somebody puts them down on paper and gets busy making them.

religious counter-intuitions...draw attention to those aspects of the world that people wish were otherwise. Such counter-intuitions evoke other, logically and factually impossible worlds that are nonetheless readily conceivable because they leave intact most of the everyday world - minus a few worrisome facts and inferences.

13 comments:

Christian Y. Cardall said...

Perhaps some of the burdens and sacrifices religions impose serve as a counterweight to the things religion offers that people hope for or wish were different about reality. The sacrifices relieve a sense of getting "something for nothing" which would seem too much like fantasy.

Christian Y. Cardall said...

One Mormon example of hoping for something to be made automatically right in eternity is marriage. I get the sense many people just sort of "hang in there" with the expectation that if they can just get through this life, their relationship will suddenly and magically be better on the other side.

chris g said...

That's quite an interesting point Christian. Religion's cost is a ground to keep us from making things too supernatural. For this to be true, does there need to be a direct association between a specific fantasy and its specific cost? Or can we just say that in general a tendency towards more fantastical ideas will be balanced by a tendency towards more heavy costs?

It seems like the averaging of the latter would enable pockets of deep fantasy to be balanced by a more concrete base. While this certainly could be said to be what some Mormons tend to, it doesn't seem to jive with Atran's idea of mild counterfactuals. ....Well perhaps it does. People have a tendency for congruency (furniture needs to be of similar quality, you can't wear an old shirt with new pants,etc). I wonder if this tendency causes the bubbles of fantasy to average out over time, tending to a congruent state?

chris g said...

That's quite an interesting point Christian. Religion's cost is a ground to keep us from making things too supernatural. For this to be true, does there need to be a direct association between a specific fantasy and its specific cost? Or can we just say that in general a tendency towards more fantastical ideas will be balanced by a tendency towards more heavy costs?

It seems like the averaging of the latter would enable pockets of deep fantasy to be balanced by a more concrete base. While this certainly could be said to be what some Mormons tend to, it doesn't seem to jive with Atran's idea of mild counterfactuals. ....Well perhaps it does. People have a tendency for congruency (furniture needs to be of similar quality, you can't wear an old shirt with new pants,etc). I wonder if this tendency causes the bubbles of fantasy to average out over time, tending to a congruent state?

jeff g said...

I should mention that Dennett's newest book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" came out last week and I am half way through it. In it he reviews the work of both Boyer and Atran at a level that the average religious person can understand what they are saying and (I haven't yet gotten to this part) adds a few criticisms as well. It's a pretty good book, though definitely not for the faint of heart.

Clark Goble said...

That is interesting Christian. I should add that the idea things will magically be alright after death is a view that constantly bugs me since I see no evidence for it and considerable evidence against it. On the other hand perhaps many of our problems are due to a combination of ignorance and the neurological aspects of our cognitive habits that can be more easily cured. Yet especially with marriage I think we ought think in terms of things we make rather than things we are given. That seems especially more in keeping with Joseph Smith's thought.

Christian Y. Cardall said...

Some sacrifices may be directly linked to specific post-mortal benefits, but not always. Adherence to sexual restrictions could be seen as the price one pays for the capacity for procreation in the hereafter. Others, like tithing and the Word of Wisdom, are cited as measures of obedience and dedication---ways of "paying one's dues" in a more general sense---rather than being associated with specific benefits in a cause/effect sort of way.

chris g said...

Jeffrey, it would be interesting to hear more about Dennet's critiques. Right now I am picking up the Fowler stages book for my girlfriend. The idea that complete rejection is a necessary step for progress still strikes me as too narrow a concept. I think keeping a balance between accurate belief and hope is a necessary balance. Certainly swinging over from one paradigm to another facillitates many things, but, perhaps, like quasi-propositional beliefs we want to find a balance between accuracy and slightly fantastical hope.

Clark Goble said...

Well, you probably read my comments on Fowler over at M*. My biggest concerns are regarding it as science.

If you read it I'd be interested in your thoughts.

jeff g said...

"The idea that complete rejection is a necessary step for progress still strikes me as too narrow a concept."

In the book Dennett goes to great lengths to assure everybody that this is not his thesis, though you would never guess that from most all of the reviews which are posted on the web thus far. Of course the last 2-3 chapters do suggest in its not so subtle tone that it might be the best option available to us.

What Dennett's main thesis is that the protective barrier which currently shrowds religion from all PC scutiny and criticism needs to be torn down, and that as quickly as possible. He insists that religion simply MUST be studied in a depth which has heretofore been studiously avoided. He considers Boyer and Atran to be the pioneers in this effort with Sperber and Robney Stark receiving a lot of positive attention as well.

Dennett's account differs from these other accounts in a few notable areas:

1) He considers the "meme's eye view" to be indispensable. Just as Terrence Deacon suggests that language evolved to conform to our capabilities to a far larger extent than the latter did to the former, so too Dennett suggests that the idea that religion in all its features (or even the essential features) were adaptations benefiting the genetic fitness of its adherents is simply the wrong perspective altogether.

2) Given this difference in emphasis, while Atran and Boyer discuss our propensities toward forms of religious life and experience, Dennett focuses far more on the religions themselves and how they and not its adherents came to be how they are today.

3) Dennett's book is geared to a far less specialized audience than Boyer and Atran's are. He specifically writes his book for the educated religious person, and this is why he is so adamant in his denial that his book is anti-religion.

Perhaps the most interesting part of his book was his discussion regarding "the belief in belief in God." He suggests that many people don't really believe in God, but they believe that a belief in God is itself important and that these two camps can be VERY difficult to distinguish from one another. He also has a couple of pages which actually offer this first discussion which I have ever read regarding the meaning of what it means to be a "spiritual" person.

He offers a number of suggestions for future study of religion which sound quite promising. For instance, he says that it should be possible as well as necessary for a scholar to speak of a tradition from an "insiders point of view" without having to convert. He suggest that religions should offer a test (they can make it as hard as they want) to any potential scholars as well as some of their own which are supposed to be in the know. These tests would be graded by a blind authority so that the group would have to either admit the competence of the scholar, demonstrate his incompetence or expose the incompetence of their own ranks. Sounds like a good idea to me.

I did finish the book, but I must admit that I blew through it with full speed. Perhaps during spring break I will put up a few posts which will basically be Dennett's "harder sayings" and see what everybody has to say on the matter.
I think keeping a balance between accurate belief and hope is a necessary balance. Certainly swinging over from one paradigm to another facillitates many things, but, perhaps, like quasi-propositional beliefs we want to find a balance between accuracy and slightly fantastical hope.

jeff g said...

Oops. I accidently left some of Chris's comment at the end of my own.

Clark Goble said...

Jeffrey, I think Chris by "complete rejection" was referring to Fowler and not Dennett.

chris g said...

Yes, I was referring to my second hand interpretation of the way Fowler is presented.

The Dennet book sounds interesting Jeffrey. I like the idea of a more scientific approach to religion. However, since I think religious experiences are only personally applicable, I am not sure standard methods deal well with this. With this avenue excluded, one would probably wind up with a conclusion that religion is false hope. While this is one of many possibilities, I think my experiences lead me to the idea that midly fantastical beliefs can actaully create something real. They also lead me to believe God is a real person, even if many supernatural conceptions of him may be false ( from an absolute perspective at least).

My opinion on the effectiveness of religion is based on some assumptions
1. Religion is very good at creating meaning out of rather nebulous connections. In effect, religious tendencies are able to embody things that we otherwise could not effeciently deal with. (Atran's itza example of communal good via religion in the prisoner's dilemma of resource management)
2. The only way to create something truly novel is to have some sort of belief in the improbable or more likely, the impossible. If not all we are doing is flushing out circular modes of enquiry.
4. If spiritual experiences are in fact valid, why not take them at face value rather than rationalize them away as physical symptoms. ie if religious tendencies are an inherit part of our make up, why not assume that religion is, at the very least, functionally real?
5. If religious tendencies are an effective organizational tool, why not assume a more intelligent being has decided to use this modality as, well, an organizational tool. One could call this a "God as an actor" type approach, however since I think reality is pretty much determined by function, I don't have a problem with it.
6. Reality is determined by the probability that actions will lead to results. I think the church's religious beliefs are capable of leading to indicated results.