Sunday, April 27, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 4

The Role of Myth. In my last post, I briefly analyzed some of the issues dealing with trying to determine how religious beliefs affect individual conduct. There is a common assumption, shared by both pro and anti-religious individuals, that conduct is merely a logical application of doctrine, so that if people hold irrational convictions or pursue imaginary goals, their behavior will be unsuccessful. Since there exist plenty of examples of people holding irrational convictions or pursuing imaginary goals who have not come to grief, theories need to be developed to explain the anomaly.

One possible explanation is that people pursuing irrational and/or imaginary goals are hypocrites. They say one thing and wind up doing something else. This may in fact be true in some instance, or even many instances, but it’s not true in all instances, as a candid examination of history will show. Enlightenment historians, for example, believed that Oliver Cromwell must have been hypocrite. How else could a religious zealot like Cromwell possibly have been so successful as a leader? Yet later historians, after examining the documentary evidence in detail, have found no reason to believe the Cromwell ever was a hypocrite.

Another possible explanation for this anomaly of imaginary goals leading to satisfactory results makes a distinction between motivational rationality and functional rationality. By aiming at an imaginary goal an individual might achieve real utility. Some religions, for example, believe that water can purify the individual from sin. So if, in pursuit of “purificaiton,” the religious enthusiast zealously washes himself, he gains something of real utility: cleanliness. After all, you can’t expect primitive peoples to understand germs. How, then, is the primitive or non-rational, unsophisticated individual to be persuaded to wash? Nothing works better than convince him that washing purifies him from sin or makes him holy in the sight of God. Through an imaginary goal this individual is persuaded to act in his own best interest.

The idea that imaginary goals can be used to motivate individuals to attain individual and social utility was developed into a sophisticated sociological theory by French syndicalist Georges Sorel and Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto as the theory of myths. As Pareto explained:
[It] is commonly recognized ... that enthusiastic derivations are better calculated than cold reasoning to influence human conduct…. The capacity for influencing human conduct [by] derivations that overstep experience and reality throws light upon a phenomenon that has been well observed and analyzed by Georges Sorel, the fact, namely that if a social doctrine (it would be more exact to say the sentiments manifested by a social doctrine) is to have any influence, it has to take the form of a “myth.” To restate in that language an observation that we have many times made, we may say that the social value of a doctrine, or of the sentiments which it expresses, is not to be judged extrinsically by the mythical form that it assumes (they assume), which is only its means (their means) of action, but intrinsically by the results that it achieves (they achieve)….


In other words, it is not what people say or believe that is of the most importance, it is what they do, how they act, what they accomplish. If they can accomplish useful ends through irrational means, this refutes the Randian prejudice against non-logical action. Pareto continues:

If we consider history as a whole it is at once apparent that … acts which have ideal goals, T, or are performed as if they had, must also in many cases achieve results that show a gain in individual and social utility… In point of fact, non-logical actions are still very numerous and still very important in our time; and they were far more so in times past. The impellent of many such actions, the ideal, T, at which they aim, is stated in theological, metaphysical, and like derivations; while the practical purpose of human beings is the welfare and prosperity of themselves and their societies. If the two goals were antithetical, if the person aiming at the ideal, T, never attained practical benefits, it would never have been possible for societies that have made such great efforts to attain T to subsist and prosper…. If, in almost all cases, things had gone [badly], if, that is, in striving for T people had always reached [a worse position], human societies would have to show a continuous decline. That has not been the case, and the hypothesis must therefore be abandoned. [∞1868, ∞1874]


In other words, people aiming at imaginary goals have frequently attained real advantages. If this were not so, it would be impossible for any society holding imaginary goals to have advanced. And, as future posts will demonstrate, that clearly has not been the case. Societies have advanced despite holding imaginary goals—sometimes, even, because of those imaginary goals.

Now the Objectivist argument against religion, if reduced to the broadest essentials, goes something like the following:

(1) A man’s convictions determine his behavior.
(2) Irrational convictions inevitably lead to harmful behavior.
(3) Religious convictions are irrational.
(4) Therefore religious convictions lead to harmful behavior.

Even if 3 is correct, the conclusion doesn’t follow, because 1 and 2 are false. If, instead of worrying about whether our views accord with those of Rand and her orthodox followers, we concentrate on the evidence of history, the above argument should be reformulated as follows:

(1) There exists no necessary logical connection between a man’s convictions and his behavior.
(2) Non-rational action sometimes lead to beneficial consequences.
(3) Religious convictions that are non-rational sometimes (though not always!) lead to functionally rational (i.e. beneficial) ends.
(4) Therefore religious convictions don’t always lead to harmful behavior.

The key notion behind this analysis is the idea of the importance of non-logical action. I have often contended that Rand’s view of human nature constitutes her greatest error. An important component to Rand’s view is her simple-minded notion that, since reason is man’s only means of survival, non-logical action (that is, conduct based on non-rational convictions) will generally be harmful to individuals and society. This Objectivist view, however, does not accord with the facts as they have been gathered by anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. The majority of human beings are not, nor can they be, fully rational. Nor is a man’s conduct a logical extension of his ideas. Christian conduct is not a logical extension of Christian doctrine. Why should anyone assume such a thing? The very fact that an individual would choose non-rational doctrines should put us on guard against assuming that he’s going to guide his conduct from logical inferences from those non-rational premises. Hence the need for a new way of explaining the relationship between doctrine and conduct: a way that accords with what we actually find in reality, rather than in the assumptions of speculative philosophy. The theory of myth recognizes that human beings are not, in the main “logical,” and that to motivate them to engage in the action necessary for their own and their society's survival and well-being one must sometimes appeal, not to their reason, which is weak and unreliable, but to their sentiments, their emotions, their psychological states. Hence the utility of myth.

23 comments:

Damien said...
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Damien said...
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john said...

Here's a good example of myth in charge while reason is denied.

http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5g2S4_VL61HrJgLKWc4HOixPEj4KAD90B5R7G0

John Donohue

john said...

Here's a shorter link

http://blogs.usatoday.com/ondeadline/2008/04/reckless-homici.html

Damien said...

John,

The shorter version of the url doesn't work. Only the longer one does. That is a sad story by the way.

JayCross said...

Hence the need for a new way of explaining the relationship between doctrine and conduct: a way that accords with what we actually find in reality, rather than in the assumptions of speculative philosophy.

I have to agree with this point of view. Of course, Rand would say that she agrees, and that her philosophy does reflect what we find in reality. However, Cromwell does indeed refute her formulation.

Still, I feel compelled to point out that irrational premises often do lead to bad things, even if they aren't logically obligated to. Today, for example, a friend of mine told me about a married couple who despise each other but refuse to get divorced and move on with life because the Bible says that's bad.

So, I think the question should be "Does X irrational belief lead to bad things most of the time?" And, if irrational beliefs inadvertently lead to beneficial things, does the benefit outweigh the benefit of rational actions?

Damien said...
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Damien said...

Greg,

Both John and JayCross do have a point. I think that Rand gave to much power to ideas, but you give them too little. It is true that Christian behavior usually isn't a logical extension of Christian doctrine. I also agree with you in that vague ideas can't be blamed for all the evil in the world. If someone says one ought to do what is best for mankind, some will interpret it as saying they should support massive welfare and entitlements, but others will use it to argue for laissez-faire capitalism. Its also possible that someone who believes that morality is based on self interest (like objectives do) might come to conclusions that would horrify Rand and other Objectivists. For example selling government secrets to the enemies of the free world for huge sums of cash.

However, some events in history don't make sense without certain ideas being wide spread at the time. The Holocaust makes no sense without two of the Nazi's most evil and irrational beliefs. Without antisemitism and their obsession with racial purity how could their mass murder be explained? How could the portraitures of the holocaust see any point in what they were doing at all. Couldn't it be argued that the holocaust was a logical extension of Nazi ideology?

Mark Plus said...

Calvinism to me seems like a good example of a logically untenable myth that has led to socially beneficial results, namely, a work ethic, the accumulation of capital and rapid economic growth. We see that myth's legacy in Mormonism, which arose in a Calvinist religious environment in early 19th Century New England and incorporated that era's attitudes towards work and wealth. Mormonism's perpetuation of old Yankee Calvinism has contributed to the Latter Day Saints' worldly success despite the church's unlikely foundation narrative.

Red Grant said...

____________________________

It's also possible that someone who believes that morality is based on self-interest(like objectivists do) might come to conclusions that would horrify Rand and Objectivists. - Damien
____________________________




All considerations must be purely calculations for oneself, and absolutely not for obeying external ethical codes, or for so-called feelings of responsibility. - Comrade Chairman Mao

Damien said...

Red Grant,

You have got to let us know where you are finding those quotes.

Damien said...

Mark Plus,

You definitely came up with a good example of the positive effect of religious belief. The Protestant work ethic is something to admire. It makes no sense to assume all religious beliefs would have only negative effects. If religious beliefs motivate negative behavior, why couldn't they also motivate positive behavior as well?

By the way, I am still hoping for Greg or at least someone else to respond to the first comment I posted on this subject. My Question was not intended to be rhetorical.

gregnyquist said...

"Still, I feel compelled to point out that irrational premises often do lead to bad things, even if they aren't logically obligated to."

I can agree with this if you remove the word often. And the reason for this is quite simple. No matter how irrational human beings can be, they still aim for well-being and happiness, and this serves to temper and even brake the worst excesses in their beliefs. There is usually always a small minority that is fanatical enough to take irrational beliefs to their logical conclusions, and so you have such disagreeable phenomenon as extreme asceticism, holy rollers, Christian science, Islamic terror, etc. etc. But the conduct arising from these things is not likely ever to become widespread. 50% of the world, or even 10% of the world, is not going to suddenly eschew medical care, or start handling venomous reptiles, or strap bombs to themselves and wander into populated areas to kill as many people as possible.

Most irrational beliefs that actually affect conduct in the personal realm are quite harmless. Take astrology, for example. There are few superstitions that I find more obnoxious or more irrational than astrology. But having said that, I have to admit that the stuff seems pretty harmless. If you read horoscopes in newspaper, the advice they give is pretty vague and innocuous; it's hard to imagine anyone getting into trouble following it. I worked on a documentary some years ago that involved video taping church services and interviewing pastors, and most of the stuff I saw in those places was more along the lines of good moral advice: be nice to people, don't carry grudges, be open to criticism, learn from experience, try to be a better person, etc. So on a personal level, to the extent that these sort of non-rational beliefs actually influence people, I suspect they do more good than bad. Where irrational or non-rational beliefs potentially become troublesome or even dangerous is in government, because of the enormous ramifications that political decisions can have, and the complexity out of which they must be made.

Red Grant said...

Page 13, Mao, the unknown story


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mao:_The_Unknown_Story

Damien said...

Red Grant,

Thanks for letting me know where you got that quote. I think I might like to buy that book. It looks interesting.

JayCross said...
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JayCross said...

Greg,

good moral advice: be nice to people, don't carry grudges, be open to criticism, learn from experience, try to be a better person, etc.

Again, it's not that there are no positive outcomes from following religious doctrines. The problem is that it is a confused, indirect path to those outcomes and also that better outcomes are forfieted in the name of living out an irrational doctrine.

John T. Reed wrote a scathing expose' of "get rich quick" guru Robert Kiyosaki, who despite offering fraudulent, illegal, or impractical advice is still adored by his readers. From the piece:

Another compliment readers often pay Kiyosaki is along the lines of, “Well, at least he motivated me.”

Yeah, by lying to you. That’s like me telling you I buried $100,000 in your backyard which is yours for the taking. Would that motivate you? No question. You would probably spend the next two weeks digging up your backyard. After you found out it was a lie, would you think I was a great guy for having thus motivated you to get all that healthy exercise? I doubt it.


His point is that yes, you were motivated, but his book has not given you the advice it promised and has thus prolonged your ignorance and delayed your actual success. Same goes for religion: you may reap rewards (which you could get without religion), but forfeit larger ones.

The example of the married couple who stays married despite hating each other comes to mind. Are there any benefits to that? Sure. Sharing the bills. Living in a nicer house than you'd have alone. But does that eclipse the benefit of moving on and living out a full, rich life?

I don't know many non very religious people who would say yes.

JayCross said...

Greg,

Also, regarding horoscopes: I agree that they are mostly harmless, and I wanted to expound upon the vagueness you mentioned. This is from John Allen Poulos book "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper."

-----

A similar argument helps clarify why inane I Ching sayings or ambiguous horoscopes seem to many to be so apt. Their aptness is self-provided. In effect, their cryptic obscurity provides a random set of ‘answers’ that the devotee fabricates into something seemingly appropriate and useful...psychologists count on the amorphousness of Rorschach ink blots to elicit evidence of a person’s core concerns.

I know someone who actually consults horoscopes and Zodiac signs while choosing who to date, where to work, etc. I guess it's harmless, but it seems like anything good coming from it is accidental. Seems to me that ways to succeed and flourish on purpose are preferable.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "Again, it's not that there are no positive outcomes from following religious doctrines. The problem is that it is a confused, indirect path to those outcomes and also that better outcomes are forfieted in the name of living out an irrational doctrine."

This assumes that the individuals involved are capable of getting better outcomes if they subscribed to more rational doctrines. But if those individuals are not capable of high level of rationality to begin with, there's no reason to think that it matters one way or another. The fact is, that for many ordinary life situations, rationality pays dividends only for exceptionally intelligent people. The ordinary or below average intelligence person is better simply following traditions that he absorbs from more experienced individuals, or simply using trial and error and doing what works. There's a kind of functional rationality in that in everday life often works better than painstaking rational analysis. Where you need rationality is for things like sending people to the moon, buidling computers, modern medicine, etc. etc. Domains where you can apply scientific principles is where you get the most for rationality. In domains where there's a lot of complexity and uncertainty (i.e. in social domains involving interacting with other people), people are often better off following non-rational guides, such as intuition or traditional usages.

I would say one other thing about rationality: there's little evidence that it has much to do with what abstract doctrine you believe in. Rationality cannot be attained simply by adhering to "rational ideas." It is a discipline that can only be attained through practice and hard work. For example, a scientist who happens to be a devout Christian is likely to be more rational than a non-religious person who has no scientific training, if for no other reason than most people without scientific training don't understand what it means to be rational—they confuse rationality with rationalizing; whereas the scientist who happens to be Christian is at least rational in his scientific work, even if he isn't rational elsewhere in his life.

gregnyquist said...

Damien: "The Holocaust makes no sense without two of the Nazi's most evil and irrational beliefs. Without antisemitism and their obsession with racial purity how could their mass murder be explained?"

But where did antisemitism and obsession with racial purity come from? Why did the Nazis choose those beliefs? Well the fact is, antisemitism has a long history in Europe stretching back to Roman times. Horrible crimes against the Jews didn't begin with the Nazis. Antisemitism was fierce in the Middle Ages. The Jews were kicked out of England, Portugal, and Spain. There are many factors behind antisemitism, from dislike of outsiders to resentment of debtors against creditors. Antisemitism intensified as Jews integrated into mainstream society in the 18th and 19th centuries and achieved success in science and the arts, fanning the resentment of fiercely nationalistic mediocrities. Nazi doctrine acted like gasoline on the fire of antisemitism, enflaming it and turning it into something genocidal. But the fire was there before the Nazis came along.

JayCross said...

Greg,

I have a different view on why only super-intelligent people seem to be rational. They are the only people who see through what John Taylor Gatto described at a 1991 awards ceremony:

“The only reason I received this award – the only reason I've been a great teacher for my students – is because I didn't do a single thing you told me to. I ignored your ‘standards,' I thwarted your bureaucracy and I taught unauthorized material. I filled out those forms that said the students were in their desks, when they were really taking horizon-expanding study trips. I had them read real books instead of those inane, dumbed-down textbooks of yours, I taught them real history instead of the porridge of revisionist pabulum you call 'social studies'.

Your bureaucracy is a mill that grinds up human beings and turns them into consumer fertilizer for a planned economy. Human potential erodes as hungry minds sit in listless boredom, and teachers operate without the tools they need, just so you guys can fill your administration buildings with cushy jobs and give contracts to your cherished vendors.

That's why most of our students can't read after 12 years of education – yes, even though it only takes 3 months to learn how to read. That's why most kids follow the herd into a bleak future instead of thinking for themselves."


Maybe more people would be rational if this isn't where they spent most of their childhood. Sadly, it is where they spend it. If anything, it is now worse than in Gatto's time.

meg said...

Talking about religion on an Objectivism criticism blog is like mixing baking soda and vinegar... look at them go!

Damien said...

Meg,

Still Going......