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!

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