Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.
If you are reading this, you are probably aware of the existence of the rationalist community. The community is characterized (broadly) by a scientific worldview, skepticism of religion and paranormal claims, atheism, and an almost fanatical devotion to Bayes’ rule. The skeptic wing of rationalism devotes itself to debunking “woo” – paranormal phenomena, energy healing, psychics, spoon benders, and the like. The wing known as “effective altruism” devotes itself to doing good in the most rational ways possible: donating money to charities that save the most lives per dollar, for instance. (My personal observation is that many self-identified effective altruists are vegans, evidencing their concern for not only human but animal lives as well.) Overall, the rationalist community is concerned with having correct beliefs; a troll might even call this their sacred value. Frequent topics of discussion include artificial intelligence, game theory, and optimizing effectiveness in personal goals.
You may or may not be aware that there is such a thing as post-rationalism (see, e.g., this and this). Post-rationalists tend to value true beliefs, but have more sympathy for religion, ritual, and tradition (including monogamy) than the rationalist community. They are skeptical of the ability of science (as it is practiced) to solve humanity’s problems and provide a sense of meaning or happiness.
I am sympathetic to both groups. I view post-rationality as a kind of hyper-rationality: a concern with truth, efficacy, meaning, and human experience that is willing to be skeptical of even the foundational beliefs of the rationalist worldview.
An acquaintance of mine, as a graduate student in religious studies, attended the services of several Central American Penteecostal churches in the Los Angeles area. Pentecostal churches are known for the ritual of speaking in tongues (glossolalia), with members often being possessed by the Holy Spirit during ritual services. My friend’s theory was that the members of these churches had, through behavior and ritual rather than dialectic, worked out a satisfying solution the Problem of Evil (the question as to why a benevolent, all-powerful God would allow evil to exist): good things were attributed to God, whereas bad things were attributed to possession by Satan and his demons. The subjective experience of being visited and inhabited by God provided plausibility to the possibility of evil spirits doing the same.
I have previously written that belief is not necessary for glossolalia to occur, citing the example of the anthropologist Felicitas Goodman subjectively experiencing this kind of “possession” during her research, despite her appropriate scientific detachment. In fact, practice generally precedes belief. Ritual is more powerful than arguments and facts. The Pentecostal church members are a prime example of ritual epistemology: working out truth and meaning not through argument, papers, and conferences, as in analytic philosophy, but through ritual, practice, and experience. (Of course, one might argue that arguments, papers, and conferences are, in fact, analytic philosophy’s rituals.)
The domain of law is a ritual domain that has the feature of making its epistemological claims explicit. Both English (and American) common law and Talmudic law are ritual systems regulating human life that make plain both their own truth claims and their system for resolving truth claims. I will focus here on American law, as it is my field of expertise, but my slim knowledge of Talmud suggests that it is an even more coherent, beautiful, and internally consistent system (example: if your husband forbids you from ornamenting yourself and wearing perfume, you legally have to divorce him, because that’s obviously cruel).
About fifteen years ago, I read an essay that I can no longer find. It was likely published in a law review, but years of searching have not recovered it. (Perhaps a reader can point me to it.) My recollection is this.
There are two neighboring tribes, one tribe of fish people, one tribe of reptile people. They have frequent contact with one another. Often, disputes arise and must be resolved. Fish people cannot be relied on to be fair to reptiles, and vice versa. However, at any time one or more people with characteristics of both fish and reptile is born. This person is given the ceremonial title of the Grand Amphibian (it might be Grand Hermaphrodite, don’t google that). This person is charged with resolving disputes in a special ceremony.
The Grand Amphibian is often quite insane, but as long as he resolves the disputes in a reasonable manner, the two tribes are happy. When a Grand Amphibian is so insane that his resolutions are regularly unacceptable to the tribes, he might be found to quietly disappear, to be replaced by a less unreasonable successor. Two features of dispute resolution are apparent: the resolution must be unambiguous and final, and it must be approximately reasonable most of the time.
The author compares these tribes with the mythical Usa people. The Usa resolve their disputes by means of a black-robed figure, who sits on a throne and wields a ceremonial gavel. The point is that our own justice system is not so much a system for establishing truth as for resolving disputes in a manner that people regard as final and fair.
Legal ritual is apparent from the early stages of the justice system. In the criminal justice system, thousands of pages of case law have been written regarding when, exactly, a person is “in custody,” a ritual state of separateness from the community in which one is in police control and not free to leave. Peter Winn (in “Legal Ritual,” Law and Critique, 2:2:207-232, 1991) regards the Miranda warnings as a new legal ritual that, even if it has no effect on confession rates, is regarded as important by suspects and onlookers as a transition into the state of custody. An older legal ritual is placing a suspect in handcuffs. Handcuffs are useful for protecting police from potentially violent and uncooperative suspects, but they are also useful as a spectacle: one author says “Bring on the handcuffs!” in regard to white-collar financial criminals, most of whom probably pose little risk of immediate flight or danger to police officers. “[I]t’s still a small satisfaction to see someone, anyone offering financial smoke and mirrors do a perp walk these days,” says the author. The ritual of handcuffing a suspect, memorialized in photographs, is socially useful in making people feel that even the rich and powerful are subject to the same justice as the poor and weak. Handcuffs are evocative as props in a morality splay or scapegoating spectacle.
The courthouse follows a universal pattern of “sacred space” identified by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language: successive entrances and chambers of increasing privacy and effort to enter (see figure). The courthouse itself is accessible by a main entrance, these days often guarded by a metal detector and attendants. Then, rather than accessing the courtrooms directly, there are usually hallways, elevators, or both. Courtrooms are guarded by bailiffs, and governed by special codes of ritual conduct (no chewing gum or using phones, and special attention must be paid and quiet observed if the judge enters). Within the courtroom, an area (often demarcated by a gate) is reserved for attorneys and litigants. Finally, and most private and inaccessible, is the judge’s area, the bench and “chambers,” open only to the judge, his attendants, and sometimes litigants by invitation.
The behaviors, architecture, and costumes create a sense of gravity that is quite distinct from a purely rational attention to the apprehension of the truth. I am not suggesting that these ritual embellishments are silly or unnecessary to the functioning of the justice system; rather, they are likely crucial to it. They help people involved in a civil dispute feel that their problems are taken seriously, and add to the plausibility structure by which they will regard any decision as final. And they encourage people accused of a crime and their relatives to accept and adjust to the ritual transition from citizen to criminal.
The vast majority of poker hands do not reach “showdown,” when all the community cards are on the board and participants’ hands are revealed. Rather, the possibility of the ceremony of “showdown” informs the actions of the players, most of whom choose to fold based on the information provided by their cards and the actions of other players. Similarly, the vast majority of both criminal and civil cases (in excess of 97%) do not reach trial; participants evaluate the strength of their “hands” (cases) and reach a settlement or plea bargain. But even the settlement process is highly ceremonialized and formal, with arcane rules and procedures at each phase. And the possibility of the ceremony of trial (and its hypothesized outcome) inform all phases of the proceeding.
The central ritual of the trial is the presentation of evidence, almost always in the form of, or connected to, testimony. The rules of evidence in particular are a fascinating case study in ceremonial epistemology: a large group of people working through notions of truth in a practical and explicit manner.
One of the most interesting rules of evidence is the “hearsay rule” – a statement made out of court must not be testified to in court in order to prove the truth of the matter asserted. The heart of the rule is the idea that in order to trust any statement, the maker of the statement must be before the court, so that judge and/or jurors may observe the witness, and his credibility may be called into question by cross-examination. Furthermore, a witness testifying in court is ceremonially sworn to tell the truth, ritually assuring his credibility (under penalty of handcuffs, jail cells, and all that).
I like to explain the “truth of the matter asserted” part of the hearsay rule with a story about the Sufi mystic Nasrudin. Nasrudin had a neighbor with the irritating habit of borrowing things and not returning them; the neighbor borrowed pots, pans, tools, lawn mowers, and who knows what else, never bothering to return them. One day the neighbor visited Nasrudin and asked to borrow his donkey. Not wishing to lend it out, Nasrudin said “oh I would totally lend him to you but he’s not here, I just lent him to someone else.” Just as the neighbor was walking away, the donkey, who was out back, brayed loudly. Then neighbor said, “I thought you said your donkey was out, but I just heard him!” To which Nasrudin replied, “you would take a donkey’s word over mine?!”
The joke, of course, is that we don’t need to take the donkey’s “word” – the donkey’s bray was not an assertion, and his braying has no truth value. We don’t need to trust the donkey to know that he’s there – his credibility is not in question. The donkey’s bray would be admissible as nonhearsay evidence; the neighbor or Nasrudin might testify to it, without the necessity of swearing in the donkey himself.
Human speech can function the same way. If Alice hears Bob say “The light was red,” Alice may not testify to this to prove that the light was actually red (unless it falls within one of the many exceptions to the hearsay rule). Bob himself must be called to the stand. But she may testify to Bob’s statement in order to prove that Bob speaks English, or that Bob was present, or that Bob was alive at the time. Similar to the donkey braying, speech conveys truths other than its factual assertions.
Along the lines of the donkey bray, one category of nonhearsay speech is known as a “speech act.” This is speech that has a legal effect, rather than a truth value – much like magic words or incantations. If someone says “I do!” at his wedding, makes or accepts an offer for a contract, or gives an order to a subordinate, this speech is not “true” or “false” in the declarative sense, but it has an effect on the world. Laws themselves are speech acts (including the hearsay rule), but there are many verbalizations that are agreed to have a particular effect on the world aside from truth value.
Another epistemologically interesting aspect of evidence rules is the process called laying a foundation. All evidence – even DNA and other physical evidence – must be presented by a witness who is testifying as to what it means. And in order to present evidence, a witness must be asked a question by the examining attorney. It is a form of telling a story by asking questions. In order to have the right to ask a question free from objections, an attorney must establish that the witness has a basis from which to answer the question. He cannot simply ask, “was the light red or green?” He must first establish that the witness was at the relevant intersection at the time of the accident, that the witness had an unobstructed view of the light, etc.
These arcane rules and ceremonies are very different from everyday conversation. A person not trained in the rules of evidence may have difficulty even asking a single question that cannot be successfully objected to. But this is a system that people have worked out to come to terms with uncertainty, to symbolically tame it through ritual.
Objectively, our modern justice system may be no better at arriving at truth and justice than the Grand Amphibian system. But that is not its true purpose. The point is to resolve disputes in a manner that is generally recognized as final, such that its decisions have the reasonable support and respect of the community. A purely rational system that dispenses with ceremony in favor of accuracy would likely not serve this purpose at all. “Bring on the handcuffs,” perhaps – and the black robes, imposing architecture, and arcane rules.
This is the post-rationalist critique: that irrational-seeming systems often serve the interests of people better than purely rational systems that attempt to dispense with ceremony.
Truth and Ritual
In everyday life, arriving at true beliefs is often less important for a person’s values and goals than behaviors, institutional participation, and rituals. Kevin Simler says:
Is America "true" or "false"? Makes no sense. But when we insist on treating religions as empirical propositions, it's almost as silly.
— Kevin Simler (@KevinSimler) November 5, 2015
What is the truth value of ritual? Presumably, a ritual is an act (or speech act) that does not have a truth value. Rather, it is expected to act on the world in some way, often in a manner whose causality is opaque. But as with the example of the Pentecostal churches, our rituals are part of what constitute our beliefs. They inform our beliefs and what we regard as plausible – and, more importantly, they inform our actions. Technologies are not adopted because they are “true” – rather, they are adopted because they offer attractive ways of behaving and interacting with the world and each other.
The time to worry about a ritual order is not when it appears irrational, but when it is so costly (in monetary terms or in terms of suffering or human life) that its costs outweigh its benefits. This can be difficult to evaluate; the War on Drugs is currently being evaluated in terms of costs and benefits, for instance. It is the same for the ritual orders of our modern education and medical systems. Our medical system is extremely costly and a source of major suffering, but it has traditionally been viewed as the wellspring of increases in lifespan over the past century. However, a natural experiment calls its benefits into question: the Old Order Amish, a group that uses very little medical care, has the same (or greater) life expectancy as other American caucasians. The ritual order of medicine, with its priests (doctors) and rituals (tests and treatments), may be too costly to justify its benefits compared with cheaper ritual systems. It is the same for the education system: the “signaling theory of education” calls into question whether education significantly increases intelligence or ability, and suggests that it instead serves as a very costly mechanism for students to signal their already-existing intelligence to potential employers. If it were a cheap system, this irrationality would be no problem; but since it is so expensive, equally effective mechanisms must be considered.
Ritual orders have a life of their own, however. The “plausibility structures” of law, medicine, and education as they currently exist are powerful in our culture. Shredding a functioning ritual order, even one that imposes significant costs, is not without risk. It is impossible to replace a functioning system from scratch. The Amish mentioned above, for example, function in a different ritual order, not in a vacuum.
Driving out every vestige of irrationality and silly ceremony is not the right approach: ceremonies are effective and useful, often in unexpected ways, and help us coordinate and figure out reality together. But we should neither exempt our “rational” systems of medicine, education, and law from skepticism. Religion and “woo” are not the only repositories of harm, and incorrect beliefs are not the only kind of harm.