Gods, Ghosts and Metaphors

Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition,
commitment, compassion, communion
,” by Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan, to be published in Behaviorial and Brain Sciences, 2003, http://www.bbsonline.org/Preprints/Atran-12172002/Atran.pdf (latest version published Behavorial and Brain Sciences 2004, from Gene Expression).

Razbib links to a draft (the latest version is forty bucks!) by “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape” by Atran and Norzenzayan. Razbib is most interested in apparent, widespread acceptance of prototheology, or as he says

monotheists regularly aver belief in a god they can’t really conceive of, and when psychologists have them tell stories about gods in an impromptu situation where they can’t regurgitate stuff they’ve been drilled in the god(s) they describe is much more like a godling of the days of old than the omni-god of their theologians.

From my perspective, the article was most interesting for its unstated faith in modernity. For instance, the authors write that alternative models of religiosity are flawed because

They cannot
distinguish Marxism from monotheism, or secular ideologies from religious belief

Yet the distinction the authors are groping for, which relies on the existence of a “supernatural” world that differs from a natural one. Or as the authors write

Conceptions of the supernatural invariably involve the interruption or violation of universal cognitive principles that govern ordinary human perception and understanding of the everyday world.

The belief that the understanding the “supernatural” requires a different epistemology from understanding the “natural” one is far more modern, recent, and limited than the authors would believe.

As if to throw a bone for everyone, they even give Curtis of Phatic Communion something to chew on:

Science, like religion, uses metarepresentation in cosmology building, for example, in analogies where a familiar domain (e.g., solar systems, computers, genetic transmission) is used to model some initially less familiar system (e.g., atoms, mind/brains, ideational transmission). In fact, science and religion may use the same analogies; however, there is a difference in these uses. Science aims to reduce the analogy to factual description, where the terms of the analogy are finally specified, with no loose ends remaining and nothing
left in the dark: Atoms are scientifically like solar systems if and only both can be ultimately derived from the same set of natural laws. Whereas science seeks to kill the metaphor, religion strives to keep it poetic and endlessly open to further evocation. In religion, these ideas are never fully assimilated with factual and commonsensical beliefs, like a metaphor that metarepresents the earth as a mother but not quite, or an angel as a winged youth but not quite.

Read the whole thing.

2 thoughts on “Gods, Ghosts and Metaphors”

  1. On second thought, and as a broad initial swipe at the subject, I'm wondering if we could say that:

    1. modernist scientific thinking and theological thinking both utilize horizontal thinking and consilient thinking, but

    2. modernist scientific thinking favors horizontal thinking and theological thinking favors consilient thinking.

    Typically speaking, I mean. Or metaphorically speaking. 😉

  2. Curtis,

    I remember somewhere that another interpretation of that, because of the way Hebrew tenses work, is “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE” … which makes the statement

    A' = A'

    (heh)

    Hmmm… in what way does science favor horizontal thinking? As a reductionist enterprise it's typically pictures as a prime example of vertical thinking (just specialize enough and eventually everything will all make sense), with a good deal of analogical thinking used in practice.

  3. I was thinking of ways that science looks across domains for patterns and then labels what it finds as “properties” of objects — caused by the substance and interaction of smaller objects — or else finds new objects that just happen to interact with the old objects. Discovered patterns are used merely to explain these objects, or to give us a “fuller” explanation.

    Even when looking at energy and forces, modernist scientists tend to see *things* that are separate from concrete things but just happen to interact with what they've already known to exist. Hence, we have the “graviton”. When science can't quite understand the relationship between things, it creates new things in order to fit their observations into their known categories — because, science doesn't like a vacuum. Science may want to “kill metaphor,” but it's only because scientists do not want to believe that there are a-physical (or metaphysical) domains…which are really perhaps just domains that don't operate according to their limited physics. They leave much space unexplored or else fill it with hypothetical particles and energies.

    I think that both, scientists and religionists, can take whatever they've observed and attempt to abbreviate it or abridge it, draw a vertical line. Modernist science certainly utilizes reductionism, but this occurs while or after using horizontal thinking to find the patterns between disparate things.

  4. Curtis,

    I think you nailed a basic contradiction in the scientific enterprise.

    “Even when looking at energy and forces, modernist scientists tend to see *things* that are separate from concrete things but just happen to interact with what they've already known to exist.”

    Exactly! Scientific theories are idealistic “ghosts” that exist in some realm beyond what is physical. The forces that effect the universe are hardly more concrete. Science at its heart is not an epistemology for seeing what concretely is, but would could be in an idealized future given an idealized past (that is the essence of a predictive theory).

    “Science may want to “kill metaphor,” but it's only because scientists do not want to believe that there are a-physical (or metaphysical) domains…which are really perhaps just domains that don't operate according to their limited physics.”

    Exactly. Most science v. religion attacks are one branch of metaphysical idealists attacking another. I'm often bothered by such scientific hypocrisy, as religionists are more open in their “superstitious” metaphysical beliefs.

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