Monday, May 28, 2012

Ultimate Sacred Postulates

I was finishing up Malley's How the Bible Works last night and came across this interesting idea, one that is congruent with some thoughts I had a few years back but never really followed up on:

In Rappaport's model, the most fundamental premises of a society are its "ultimate sacred postulates" (USPs).  USPs are distinguished from the other understandings present in a society in that USPs are nonempirical, beyond the reach of logical refutation, and regarded as unquestionable.  Examples of USPs given by Rappaport are the Shema of Judaism and the Shahada of Islam.  Such postulates have an important social function in that they define a community and thus serve as a kind of core around which the community can transform and adapt to circumstances while preserving its essential identity.  It is important for this function that they be neither empirically nor logically falsifiable, because this shelters them from every having to change.  Their nonempirical, often nearly tautologous nature makes them ideal foundations for community identity.  (pp. 137-138)

This passage brings together a number of strands of scholarship without referring to any of them.  For instance, it is resonant with my own interests in cultural robustness and evolvability.  Note in particular how an instance of robustness, the unchanging nature of USPs, is said here to form a core around which a community can adapt.  In other words, the presence of USPs allow a degree of evolvability by virtue of the fact that they can remain constant markers of group identity.  Presumably, if group identity were not so robust, then the social boundaries of that community might have to be renegotiated with every adaptive change, thus risking group cohesion at every twist and turn of a community's evolutionary trajectory.  The proximate mechanisms by which this robust trait is brought about is by placing USPs outside the realm of refutation, a very clever trick when you stop to think about it.

And, of course, this passage evokes, though likely unintentionally, Lin Ostrom's work.  Clear social boundaries are part of the very first design principle.  This naturally leads me to wonder if USPs might also accompany other design principles as well.  My work on religion and natural resource management doesn't currently touch on this question, but it wouldn't take much effort to launch a study of USPs and design principles from this project.  That isn't to say it wouldn't take a lot more work.  We'd basically have to code each instance we've found of religion playing a role in a design principle for whether a USP is evoked or not.  This might require more research into the specific beliefs involved than what we currently have in the database.  However, it might not if we could get by ignoring the requirement that USPs be "regarded as unquestionable" and instead focus exclusively on whether they are "beyond the reach of logical refutation."  For instance, I would be inclined to code the belief that ancestors are watching over a sacred grove as something beyond the reach of logical refutation.  This point could be argued, but it wouldn't be a bad first approximation, and one we could use our existing coding of case studies to address.

Needless to say, Rappaport has moved to the top of my reading list...

I was going to start a new blog entry for this last quotation from Malley, but it seems closely related to these ideas so I'll just continue here.  Malley makes the point that an important aspect of Evangelical Biblicism is the fact that the canonical texts are closed and well defined, making them clearly demarcated from other kinds of texts.  He then goes on to say:

This conventional boundary affords a different kind of flexibility.  By demarcating the boundary of scriptures very clearly, the content of the texts can be left unspecified.  So long as evangelicals can know what counts as a biblical text, they do not need to have a very elaborate knowledge of what is in those texts.  Their practice turns on establishing links between their ideas and some biblical text or other, and this can be done in ad hoc ways so long as one has some way of knowing what counts as a biblical text.  The closure of the canon affords openness in interpretation.  (pp. 150-151)

So once again we see an example in which robustness, in this case the rigidness of canonical boundaries, can lead to greater evolvability in the form of openness of interpretation.  Good stuff!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis

It's been many years since I've seen the names Scylla and Charybdis.  In fact, the last time I read those names was probably in middle school when I had something of an obsession for Greek mythology.  With so many years elapsed, I had to refer to Wikipedia just to be sure I remembered them correctly and, though the details had largely vanished from my mind, I did still retain the basic idea.  Scylla and Charybdis were two sea monsters situated on opposite sides of a narrow straight.  Sailors making a wide berth to avoid Scylla, a six headed beast, ran the risk of coming too close to Charybdis, a formerly beautiful daughter of Poseidon who became a hideous bladder that sucked in and spit out water in the ocean to form whirlpools.  Being caught between Scylla and Charybdis, then, is to be caught between a rock and a hard place, but with ghoulish monsters to make things more interesting.

So what brought these images back to my mind?  They were used as a metaphor in Brian Malley's How the Bible Works to describe the tension Evangelicals face when transmitting their interpretive tradition:

The interpretive tradition is perennially caught between the Scylla of interpretive freedom and the Charybdis of irrelevance:  to much hermeneutic freedom and the tradition disintegrates, loosing its epistemological appeal; too little interpretive freedom and the Bible becomes merely an irrelevant historical artifact, rather than the ever living word of God. (p. 124)

This is relevant not only to our collective work on tight vs. loose congregations but also to my own work on cultural robustness and evolvability.  On the latter point, I find Malley's observations particularly illuminating and worthy of further research at some point down the road.  According to him, the interpretive tradition received by lay people is relatively devoid of interpretive freedom.  People aren't really reading the Bible to search for new meaning.  Rather, they read the Bible in the search for relevance.  They do become skilled in finding Biblical passages that confirm beliefs they hold, but in terms of their personal reading of the Bible, they mostly seek to find ways in which what they are reading can speak to their lives at the moment.  When they find this kind of relevance, they perceive it to be God speaking to them through the intervening text.  Note that this is a very different relationship with a sacred text than what is common in, say, Jewish tradition in which each generation is encouraged to wrestle with the Torah and Talmud in order to create new meaning that speaks to an evolving world.

So where, then, is the source for new interpretations in Evangelical traditions?  How do they avoid the Charybdis of irrelevance?  Malley locates at least a partial answer to this question in Evangelical seminaries.  Ministers often undergo extensive training at institutions of higher education in which a true hermeneutic tradition is taught.  New generations of pastors, then, have the opportunity to read the sacred text anew and engage in a Biblical scholarship that can open up new possibilities.  Obviously, this is a relatively conservative process, constrained as it is by notions of what the previous generation of scholars, who are the current professors, deem acceptable deviance from the norms.  Nevertheless, it is a fertile ground for at least some innovation and this, then, after undergoing its own kinds of selection processes, can leak its way into the more general population of believers, who will generally accept it without much critical thought.  This dynamic strikes me as an excellent example of robustness and evolvability at work.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mind = blown

I don't remember what specifically prompted me to order Brian Malley's How the Bible Works:  An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism, but it arrived late last week and I've spent most of today devouring it. However the book captured my attention, it has so far been well worth the read and I have no doubt but that I'll be quoting it in our Bible as Cultural Genotype manuscript.

Of all the insights it's given me though, the one that stands out most strongly in my mind after a solid day of reading came in the introduction. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it and its implications so for now I'll simply quote a thought provoking paragraph (p. 8):

The presumption of textual meaning, it seems to me, is a specific case of the general principle proposed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (1995), that although humans generally transmit only partial and ambiguous representations of the messages they intend to communicate, listeners' presumption of an intended message's relevance enables them to select, from among the possible interpretations, the one intended by the speaker.  On Sperber and Wilson's view, all communicative signals are partial and ambiguous representations of their intended messages.  The recipients of signals are therefore confronted with the task of sorting out which of the possible interpretations is intended by the speaker.  They are aided in this task by the speaker's implicit promise that the signal is as appropriate as possible for the intended message (Grice 1989).  Sperber and Wilson give a cognitive explication of this promise:  the speaker, in attracting the listener's attention and offering an utterance, implicitly guarantees that the informational value of the intended message is greater than the energetic cost of cognitively processing it.  The listener recognizes this implicit guarantee, and selects the first interpretation that meets this standard of relevance.  It may be that further interpretations could be explored with more cognitive effort, but once the promise of relevance is satisfied, interpretation stops.  (Of course, the guarantee of relevance may not be given in good faith, or a speaker may misjudge the conditions of relevance for the listener, or a number of other things might go wrong but in general, the principle of relevance guides the listener to the speaker's intended meaning.)  In ordinary conversations, then, interpretation is both initiated and guided by the expectation of relevant meaning.

In other words, "In a sense, the meaning arises only because it is presumed."  (p. 8)

Food for thought, presuming of course that all this really means something.