May. 19th, 2015

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T. M. Luhrmann has an extraordinary capacity for redefining issues about which folks have been muddled for generations, if not centuries. “Faith Vs. Facts,” in the April 19, 2015 New York Times ( see ) clarifies fifty years of muddle by redefining religious behavior versus religious content; once we suspect that holding beliefs religiously is not the same thing as believing in a divinity of any description, then of course Communism and atheism and vegetarianism and environmentalism and free-market economics are religions. Ordinary language already knew this; we do things “religiously.”

So if in fact “sacred values are immune to the normal cost-benefit trade-offs that govern other dimensions of our lives,” and “sacred values may even have different neural signatures in the brain,” as Scott Atran and his colleagues* would argue, then the mysteries of mysticism are suddenly clarified; why mystics are so often at odds with their religions, to the point of having no interest in dogmatic tenets and traditional practice alike. They are taking a completely different approach to relating to the forces that govern their lives (never mind what those forces really are) because they are not religious. They often aren’t “spiritual,” either; they frequently take something like what I have been calling a (w)hol(l)y agnostic stance, operating empirically and rationally within their definitions of reason. (“Mysticism” being one of those cluttered categories in which we park everything that doesn’t fit into some other category, rather like “genre fiction,” there are of course mystics who are totally emotional and anti-verbal as well as ones who are so concerned with the limits of language that they might as well be Ludwig Wittgenstein,, who seems to have understood in the Tractatus what mysticism really is.)

But this means that we need to discard the concept of mysticism even as we apply the term “religion” to any set of beliefs in which total identification with particular god-terms (see, we’ve had the concepts for two generations, we just haven’t known how literally correct they were) is more important than fidelity to demonstrable fact—a position that is easily defensible, since ‘fact” is so often mediated by social position and psychological predisposition. We’ve known for a very long time that being a rationalist is frequently the opposite from being rational, but now we have better grounds on which to argue that. As with so many false binaries, the opposite does not apply; being an irrationalist is not the opposite from being irrational, although there have been ample numbers of writers who have devoted considerable rational analysis to demonstrating why abstract reason just doesn’t cut it when it comes down to cases.

Getting back to those folks who don’t have much truck with god-terms and a great deal of truck with what some people call God but those particular folks often don’t—we have no terms with which to distinguish belief-inclined agnostics who both think and believe that there is something out there but we don’t quite know what (one species of mystic) from emotion-based believers who, however, don’t have much use for religion as opposed to direct experience. As good ol’ Ludwig would say, “Don’t say they must have something in common or they would not both be called ‘mystics.’ Don’t think, but look!” How do they behave, and why do they behave that way? What is their relationship to that imperceptible thing we like to call reality? (College dorm exchanges of conceptual nonsense really do have a grasp on fundamental problems; the more we look at everyday reality, the less real it appears to be. We survive because we don’t ask ourselves how we navigate through this mess of physical circumstances that our self-aware primate species has been handed.)

Is there a bumper sticker that says “Anyone who has a firm grasp on reality is delusional”? I seem to recall something similar from the ‘60s, when nobody had a firm grasp on much of anything, but everyone of all political stripes believed passionately that they did. (We can thank the transgender activists for forcing grammarians to declare that “everyone” can now be construed as plural rather than awkwardly singular, by the way.)

*Luhrmann, who is a professor of anthropology at Stanford, doesn’t bother to identify the anthropologist Scott Atran, and as so often in web searches, an effort to learn more turned up something else, an astonishing book of essays from Edge edited by John Brockman, titled This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works—wherein a variety of academic professionals answer the question posed to them by Steven Pinker, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” But as always, you don’t have to fill up your bookshelves to read the 192 answers, all of which are published online:

As so often in such matters, Dr. Atran’s explication of his ideas makes me feel more uncertain of their validity rather than more convinced, illustrating how much one’s choice of rhetoric determines the plausibility of one’s opinions.


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