Science and the Sacred: A Comment from Mary Douglas

Rex elsewhere characterized the discussion around what has unfortunately come to be called #AAAfail as “…between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers” (emphasis added).  He further called for empirical description and analysis of the social and cultural dynamics structuring this discussion.  Both called to mind Mary Douglas’s ruminations on Durkheim and science, from the preface to the 1975 edition of Implicit Meanings:

Around the beginning of this century Durkheim demonstrated the social factors controlling thought.  He demonstrated it for one portion of humanity only, those tribes whose members were united by mechanical solidarity.  Somehow he managed to be satisfied that his critique did not apply to modern industrial man or to the findings of science.  One may ask why his insights were never fully exploited in philosophical circles… If Durkheim did not push his thoughts on the social determination of knowledge to their full and radical conclusion, the barrier that inhibited him may well have been the same that has stopped others from carrying his programme through.  It seems that he cherished two unquestioned assumptions that blocked him.  One was that he really believed that primitives were utterly different from us.  A week’s fieldwork would have brought correction…[snip] His other assumption allowed him to reserve part of our knowledge from his own sociological theory. This was his belief in objective scientific truth, itself the product of our own kind of society, with its scope for individual diversity of thought. His concern to protect his own cognitive commitment from his own scrutiny prevented him from developing his sociology of knowledge… [snip]

For Durkheim, sacred and profane are the two poles of the religious life on which the relation between individual and society is worked out. The sacred is that which the individual recognises as having ultimate authority, as being other than himself and greater than himself. The dichotomy profane and sacred is not isomorphic with that between individual and society. It is not correct to interpret the indivudal as profane and society as sacred, for each individual recognises in himself something of the sacred. Sacredness inheres in the moral law erected by consensus to which each individual himself subscribes. The sacred is constructed by the efforts of individuals to live together in society and to bind themselves to their agreed rules.  It is characterised by dangers alleged to follow upon breach of rules.  Belief in these dangers acts as a deterrent… Because of the dangers attributed to breach of the rules, the sacred is treated as if it were contagious and can be recognised by the insulating behaviour of its devotees…

The first essential character by which the sacred is recognisable is its dangerousness… The second essential characer of the sacred is that its boundaries are inexplicable, since the reasons for any particular way of defining the sacred are embedded in the social consensus which it protects.  The ultimate explanation of the sacred is that this is how the universe is constituted; it is dangerous because this what reality is like.  The only person who holds nothing sacred is the one who has not internalised the norms of any community… The definition quickly identifies the sacred which in Durkheim’s universe is not to be profaned:  it is scientific truth… It is entirely understandable he should have internalised unquestioningly the categories of nineteenth-century scientific debate since he strove to have an honourable place in that very community from which the standards of conduct emanated.  His blind spot, for all the theoretical weakness it brought him, at least vindicates once and for all the value of his central theory of the sacred.  At that time science itself was unselfconscious about how its edicts were formulated and followed. But science has now diversified. It has moved from the primitive mythological state of a small isolated community to an international body of highly specialised individuals among whom consensus is hard to achieve.  According to his theory, such a new kind of scientific community would be hard put to identify anything we could have recognised as sacred fifty years ago.  So he is vindicated again by the passage of time which has made ‘correspondence-to-reality’ a fuzzier concept than it used to be…

[snip... Foucault... Quine... Hume... Wittgenstein... Bloor...]

When {Durkheim} entered the great debate {on social determinants of knowledge}, he muffed his cue. He could have have thrown upon the screen x-ray pictures just a disturbing as {Marx and Freud}. He could have been telling us that our colonisation of each other’s minds is the price we pay for thought.  He could have been warning us that our home is bugged; that though we try to build our Jerusalem, others must tear up our bridges and run roads through our temple, the paths we use will lead in directions we have not chosen. Woe! he should have cried, to those who never read the small print, who listen only to the spoken word and naively believe its promises. Bane to those who claim that their sacred mysteries are true and that other people’s sacred is false; bane to those who claim that it is within the nature of humans to be free of each other.  Begging us to turn round and listen urgently to ourselves, his speech would have disturbed the complacency of Europe as deeply as the other two.  But instead of showing us the social structuring of our minds, he showed us the minds of feathered Indians and painted aborigines. With unforgivable optimism he declared that his discoveries applied to them only. He taught that we have a more genial destiny. For this mistake our knowledge of ourselves has been delayed by half a century.  Time has passed.  Marx and Freud have been heard. Wittgenstein has had his say.  Surely now it is an anachronism to believe that our world is more securely founded in knowledge than one that is driven by pangolin power.

19 thoughts on “Science and the Sacred: A Comment from Mary Douglas

  1. Here’s the thing I don’t understand: why is all the furore over removing the word ‘science’ from the definition, and not over the addition of ‘public understanding’? Public understanding is not the aim of anthropology; it can’t be, because the public really couldn’t give less of a shit about anthropology. If public understanding is the aim, then let’s stop doing DPhil research, or any research, and just make BBC documentaries about existing research. In fact, we could do that, and that would be great, but it’s far from the aim of anthropology, which is to try to account for human cultural diversity. I’d say to ‘scientifically’ account for human cultural diversity, but that doesn’t matter so much. The only way to do that is scientifically, I’d say.

    I think social anthropology is science, because it has to be incorporated into the knowledge of the other sciences. We have to know a little psychology, a little economics, even physics, and nowadays especially, biology (of your noggin, mostly). We’ve got to take into account the idea that people are the products of natural selection, and we’ve got to be able to verify or falsify propositions. So social anthropology is part of the sciences, and it is a mischaracterisation to expect sciences to be concerned entirely with the formation of laws. Anyway, to me, incorporating our knowledge into broader scientific knowledge, investigating the truth, and trying to falsify propositions means science, and I would also characterise ‘humanities’ subjects like history as science in this sense, pace Boas. But it doesn’t matter all that much. It’s just a word.

    But what does matter is when your definition is completely out of whack with actual anthropology. ‘Public understanding’? Really?

  2. I think many of us scientists are aware of the complexities of knowledge production and are anthropologists for precisely that reason.

    The systematic elimination of several mentions of science, however, is very familiar to many of us. It cannot be dismissed simultaneously as thoughtlessness and inclusiveness. I find the new text rich with evidence about the power relations in the AAA, and I am surprised that many humanists insist on an uncritical reading. It comically reminds me of the cut-and-paste replacement of “creation” from the textbook at issue in the Dover trial.

    Anthropologists: The new “cdesign proponentists”!

  3. At the same meeting where AAA revised the long-range planning statement, the association also approved the following definition of anthropology:

    Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems. Historically, anthropologists in the United States have been trained in one of four areas: sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Anthropologists often integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their research, teaching, and professional lives.

    See also:

  4. “…between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers”

    Good grief. Can anyone here provide a better example of black-and-white ideological rhetoric with down the nose elite hauteur than this characterization of debate as one between thoughtful people aware of complexities and religious fanatics whose self-identification as scientists can only be understood as “psychological,” a.k.a. irrational?

    Why am I reminded of Terry Eagleton noting the difference between “Prince Charles is an admirable specimen of British manhood,” an obviously ideological statement and “Prince Andrew has the brains of a chipmunk,” a simple statement of fact? Please, if you must be snide, at least be witty. Persuasive this is not.

  5. Good grief indeed.

    From over here on this sceptred isle, this whole affair has only served to reinforce current opinions vis-a-vis American anthropology. American anthropology is a joke at Oxford and Cambridge, to a large extent. Or maybe just a punchline. It’s certainly not a funny joke, especially when some of the best funded centres for anthropology on earth are riddled with completely contradictory notions. America produces some utterly fantastic anthropology, and anthropologists. But the discipline will always attract kooks, due simply to its focus on diversity, variation, and re-examining common cultural notions. It seems like America is especially full of kooks, even if that’s not actually true, and even though some of the biocultural and ethnological stuff by American anthropologists is some of the best anthropology going these days.

    This controversy is pretty unimportant, especially in light of the other AAA statements. ‘Science’ is just a word. What matters is the approach used to human phenomena. No, we can’t find social laws expressable in simple equations. There are simply too many variables and almost no constants. But that doesn’t mean these phenomena can’t be investigated scientifically – ie, trying to find principles, tendencies, and so on, that derive from the empirical data, and that we can then examine in light of other scientific areas (neurobiology, cognitive psychology, &c). Call it a humanities subject, call it science – it doesn’t matter. Just don’t produce bollocks.

    That would be my mission statement.

  6. Speaking of jokes, there’s one circulating internationally about British anthropology, to the effect that first the British didn’t like ‘culture,’ then they got rid of ‘society,’ and now all they have is ‘shopping.’

  7. Gizzly, that is in contention with “What did the post-modern anthropologist say to their consultant? ‘But enough about you, let’s talk about me.’” as my favorite anthropology-related joke ever.

  8. Right, and that too is a complete mischaracterisation of British anthropology, just as the idea that American anthropology is chock full of relativists and kooks is a complete mischaracterisation. British anthropology is full of relativists, nutters, and yes, fashionable morons who love to study shopping. It’s also full of clever, resourceful, sensible people who want to study what people do and why they do it. The same is true in the US.

    It’s a problem in the discipline. By its very nature, it attracts hippies, pomos, relativists, and other trash. Somehow, over the past few decades, anthropology has become a subject which people study without having any clear idea as to why. ‘Human nature? Why would we want to study that? I want to end war by interpreting myths from around the world to encourage mutual understanding.’ I was having a discussion with a chap from Canada, and I mentioned that logical fallacies are evidence of innate human tendencies, like irrational deference to perceived authority, straw-manning, and so on. He then said that the entire concept of logical fallacies was a hegemonistic, neo-colonial ideology that denigrated cultures with other logical systems that think argument from analogy and argument from etymology are perfectly good ways to debate.

    So, it’s not just America. At all. My point is just that the stereotype in British anthropology of American anthropology has only been reinforced by this silly non-controversy at the AAA.

  9. MTBradley, your joke just slayed me as I was drinking tea. Could I trouble you for a new keyboard?

  10. Qua, I fail to see why not being a relativist or a pomo automatically makes me a full-blooded sociobiologist. Is Maurice Bloch a sociobiologist? Having said that, yes, it’s a charged comment. I don’t see any problem with that. Conciliation is not my strong suit. And frankly, it shouldn’t be anyone’s. Anthropology is divided. It does no one any good to pretend that it isn’t, and this is, of course, where I disagree with practically everybody in the field.

    MTBradley: you are thus relieved of responsibility for the tea-stains on my keyboard. The only ‘jokes’ my MSc tutor (RH Barnes) told were riddles, intended to illustrate some point or other. Not so funny, really.

  11. “Bane to those who claim that their sacred mysteries are true and that other people’s sacred is false”

    Seeing as how we’ve been basically ignoring the original posts of the threads, as of late, due to the strange model of not giving the audience what it wants; I’ll deconstruct this meaningless sentence that no one actually agrees with. No one here agrees with this sentence, because it is vague enough to be context free, and one can agree with anything sans context. Anyone that would read that sentence and nod their head in agreement is a hypocrite, because they would be the same person that would say that a shamanic rite is as true as anything else, but that someone carrying a gun and and a sign at a Tea Party rally is an ignorant fool, unaware of simple facts. If it’s true for one, then it’s true for all, and no one here actually thinks that. There are things that are more true than others. There are contexts and domains in which some things are true, but false in others. Anyone that denies this has no idea what science is, and that’s a problem in the debate when people are arguing the nature of science.
    I’ve deconstructed speeches by folks like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for key themes, and like all politicians he’s got regular talking points. One of his favorite rhetorical devices is to redefine something, like science, in order to develop a base for a wider argument. Science becomes a context free way of simply knowing the world, and really a light to the world. It was given to us by God, after all. Therefore, it is anti-scientific to not continually question the validity of the Holocaust. His logic is undeniable if one were to subscribe, without any actual scientific judgment, to the Mary Douglas quote above. Go and read one of his speeches and see how he basically coopts the language of post-modernism in order to argue for everyone from nuclear power to the destruction of Israel.

    Here’s a counter quote from the first chapter of Harris’, “Cultural Materialism,” which I doubt most of the people who hate it have ever actually read:

    “I readily admit that there are domains of experience the knowledge of which cannot be achieved by adherence to the rules of the scientific method. I am thinking of the ecstatic knowledge of mystics and saints; the visions and hallucinations of drug users and of schizophrenics; and the aesthetic and moral insights of artists, poets, and musicians.
    One does not obtain knowledge of God and flaming cherubim or of the beauty of a Beethoven quartet by applying the rules of science to sunsets or by studying the sound waves produced by bows drawn over taut strings. Science does not dispute the authenticity of aesthetic knowledge. Moreover, I can readily subscribe to the popular belief that science and religion need not conflict. But one proviso must be kept in mind. Science does not dispute the doctrines of revealed religion as long as they are not used to cast doubt on the authenticity of the knowledge science itself has achieved. For example, there is no conflict between biological and theological versions of the origin of species as long as the Bible is regarded as a metaphor. But if fundamentalists insist that the revealed word is more authentic than science as a source of information about evolution, then the lines of battle are necessarily drawn.”

    It’s really that simple. Now ask yourself which side you come down on, and realize that anthropology as a discipline -not a hobby for someone that really wants to be a poet, philosopher, or writer instead- isn’t for everyone, and that’s cool.

  12. Conan, in your recent comment you make reference to your conversation with a “chap from Canada” indicating that you believe “logical fallacies are evidence of innate human tendencies, like irrational deference to perceived authority, straw-manning, and so on”. I take it that you dislike the response made by the “chap from Canada”? Do you believe that what Westerners, particularly of the British variety, describe as logical fallacies are held in accordance amid various forms of logic across temporal and spatial foci? Also, if we take Western logic as a starting point, then why the need to simply consider a particular perspective (relativism) aligned with “kooks? Your comments seem like attacks on American Anthropology, for simply being American, as opposed to fleshing out certain facets of American anthropology you find problematic and proposing alternatives that better suite the needs of the discipline.

  13. Is the concern centered upon ‘fallacy’, ‘bias’, or ‘logic’?

    There are many well documented cognitive biases, so many in fact that one may be tempted to conclude that the product of bias is in fact thought itself (or perhaps the other way around). The term ‘bias’ often carries a negative emotional valence, but a bias can be one that favors truth, or social justice, or emotional well-being, or a number of other good things. In as much as we are shaped by natural selection, then whatever we are is (partially) explained by that selective process- if our cognitive faculties were biased toward the execution of first order propositional logic, then that too would probably be explained by some sequence of selection events (presumably if two mutually inconsistent tendencies can be explained by the same cause, then there must be differences in some third conditioning causal variable somewhere involved).

    Let us say that reasoning is a cognitive process oriented toward the attainment of facts given other perceived facts. Acts of reasoning itself will have other more concrete goals also, of course, but only in addition to the foundational goal of attainment of facts. Note that by this definition I am excluding what may appear to be acts of reasoning but which are only performances contrived to convince (or deceive) an audience of the truth of some proposition, regardless of whether this performance of reasoning does or does not conform to some normative standard of correct reasoning. Such a performance may be intended to lead others through a process of reasoning though.

    Logic may be understood as a system of reasoning, a framework of rules the application of which is intended to derive new factual propositions from other factual propositions. Logic may be viewed as a prescriptivist cognitive technology. Much like formal micro-economics.

    Formal logic is an especially rigorous specification of a framework of reasoning. We must be careful though of misleading and oversimplifying phrases like ‘Western logic’, to which the appropriate response is the question ‘Which Western logic?’. Formal logic is extremely diverse. I may name a few: propositional logic, first order logic, second order logics, modal logics, relevant logics, intuitionistic logic, epistemic logics, paraconsistent logics, non-monotonic logics, and so on, each of which is a mind-boggling family of minute variants. The important point here is that not all of these are mutually consistent. For example, intuitionistic logic counts reasoning with the so-called law of the excluded middle a fallacy, though it is well accepted in first-order logic.

    Does this mean that intuitionistic logic (or FOL) is wrong? Wrong for what? These formal logics are all, or mostly all, quite rigorously defined. Their study constitutes an elaborate and true body of mathematical knowledge. In some important, if partial, way, their truths are self-contained, but just as in the rest of mathematics, these truths do not mean these formal objects are useful in every application to reasoning.

    One does not need to conjure up some obscure logic to make this point. First order logic is monotonic. If A |- C then A,B |- C. This means that if the fact that A entails the fact that C (within the logical system) then adding another premise B will not, no matter what, entail not(C). This is pretty reasonable. If A is sufficient for C, then A and B are also sufficient for C.

    But suppose A is the proposition that the flash-light’s light switch is in the ON position and C is the proposition that the light-bulb is lit. This seems like an ordinary bit of reasoning, and presumably it would be monotonically valid if B were the fact that the surface of Mars is predominately red. But what if B were the proposition that the flashlight batteries were dead, or that the bulb was broken. Then concluding that C from the conjunction of A and B no longer seems like a good piece of reasoning at all! What?

    Now, arguably, in this former case, the problem stems from our supposing that A|-C in the first case. Rather A entails either C or not C, and A,B|-not(C). It is true that this preserves monotonicity. But the problem here is as follows: when we are reasoning about the real world, we must reason from a position of incomplete partial knowledge. Reasoning from a position that presumes complete knowledge does not itself seem reasonable. When are we ever in the position to say that there is not some additional fact that is necessary to make what otherwise seems a reasonable entailment monotonically sound? This is why non-monotonic logics like default logic, and probabilistic logics were developed. In a default logic, one might conclude C from A, but then retract C when one discovers that B.

    Another example is as follows. In most logics, substitution of logically equivalent statements is supposed not to change the truth value of its encapsulating statement. But substitution of such statements does not preserve truth if embedded in belief statements or informational reports.

    So here we are: what is a logical fallacy or a valid logical inference varies across logics, and individual logics fail in various ways in real-world reasoning tasks. Logics may have internally desirable formal properties (notably completeness and soundess), but their utility crucially depends on their domain of application.

    If we were to suppose an economic logic of informational utility under uncertainty, then it may be difficult to fairly call deference to perceived authority irrational, at least if one is good at choosing the authority upon one relies (e.g. Rush Limbaugh vs. Real Climate on climate science).

    But it is also mistaken to suppose that any-old framework of reasoning will do. If it is reasoning, which as I said is intended as a means of deriving new facts from old (but not necessarily in making these things into social facts), then obviously the measure of a logic is how well it performs that goal in the contexts in which it is used. But not all mental activity is reasoning, even when its goal is to convince or to inform.

  14. Jacob Lee,

    My response was directed towards Conan’s description of a dialogue he previously had with another individual. We are only provided with a snapshot, a particular perspective of how the dialogue occurred but it is from within that particular representation that I added my “two cents”. Within the scenario’s context he (Conan) mentions a specific exchange, dealing with logical fallacies, and how the other interlocutor viewed the concept as demonstrative of “hegemonistic, neo-colonial ideology that denigrated cultures with other logical systems that think argument from analogy and argument from etymology are perfectly good ways to debate”.
    Far from conjuring up, what you call “obscure logic”, we need only take into account if “logic” is a universal phenomena, if so what are the differences across temporal and spatial parameters? You point out that there exists much diversity in logic, and by stating “Western Logic” I was generalizing and oversimplying, I respond by stating ” Yes, within the context of my message directed to Conan I felt no need to explicate the specifics, but rather point out that for the most part, from a NON-Western perspective, such diversity will still be categorized under a macro umbrella term as Western- given that these are not Non-Western systems, although some overlap or similarity may exist.”

    Basically, I thank you for unraveling the basics of various systems of logic, but I ask that you take into account that other systems outside of western frameworks have existed and do exist.

  15. My comment and critique was directed mainly at Conan; I am afraid that I did not understand T’arhechu’s original comment well enough to respond to it directly, apart from wanting to suggest that Western logic (which is now globally employed, e.g. in the design of your computer hardware) is not monolithic. I wanted to show how the notion of logical fallacy is relative to the logic being employed, but how this relativity does not assault the integrity of the notions of truth and the pursuit of effective systems of reasoning, in the same way that using a philips screwdriver is not an effective means of screwing a flat-head screw, but does not call into doubt their foundational principles.

    I distinguished first between reasoning and logic, in which the former is a particular kind of mental activity concerned with the discovery of facts, whereas the latter is a system by which such reasoning may be guided. It seems quite reasonable to suppose that reasoning is a basic cognitive activity engaged in by every normally functioning member of our species. But how such reasoning is gone about varies.

    Logic may be explicit or implicit, in that any body of reasoning will have some form, and that form may be called its logic. In general we all deploy a diverse repertoire of logics appropriate to different kinds of situations, and it is to be expected that these repertoires will be different at different times and places. Not every logic will have every desirable property however. Formal logic is a means of making a logic explicit so that its internal properties are well understood, or so that a better one can be found. It is a tool.

    I am uncomfortable with the question of the universality of logic, because it seems to me that the question is frequently ill posed. Do all people reason in the same way (use the same logic)? No. Is there more than one good way to go about reasoning? Yes. Are all logics equally good at all kinds of reasoning tasks? No. Is reasoning something that all humans do? Yes. Are the truths about the properties of individual logics universally true? Yes, in the same way that some propositions are true of the natural numbers regardless of whether anyone has proven them, or whether anyone has imagined the natural numbers at all.

    I am sure that the non-Westerners have been bludgeoned by accusations of being illogical. So have women, and children, and peasants, the poor, and racial-minorities. That is despicable; aside from reflecting negative social biases, it also reflects a critical lack of imagination and sensitivity, and a too narrow understanding of reasoning.

    But that does not make logic, or the notion of logical fallacy a “hegemonistic, neo-colonial ideology that denigrated cultures with other logical systems that think argument from analogy and argument from etymology are perfectly good ways to debate”. Neither does it mean that every system of reasoning is equally effective at all tasks. We must resist the urge that that would flatten the world for the sake of those who believe it is flat. Some ideas are wrong and some tools don’t work well, even if they make sense given the truth of other ideas, and even if they serve some valuable social function, or give meaning to someone’s life. Lastly, a good way to debate is not necessarily a good way to reason. The former involves the task of convincing an audience, the latter with knowledge.

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