Ritual Epistemology

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.)

Legal Ritual

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:

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.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Holdonadamnminutenotsofast

    Why does it seem like you’re pulling a fast one here, starting with a properly ritual notion of meaning (speaking in tongues) and calling it “truth” in the same sense that you’re calling the later example of rules of evidence “truth.”

    The former sort of example seems more in the realm of enacting meaning for oneself. The latter in the realm of demonstrating truths in procedural ways that others are likely to accept as legitimate.

    I think you segued from one to the other via the “reasonableness” test in the fish/reptile/Grand Amphibian example. That example is somewhere between truth-as-ritual-enactment-of-meaning and truth-as-epistemology. It is sort of in the realm of truth-as-expedient-narrative. So long as both sides feel they haven’t been screwed over, they let the Grand Amphibian make up any sort of semantics for the narrative itself.

    Three examples:


    A: Blug bloggh killklkggg… God and Satan are real. I’ve felt both in my skin.
    B: Huh, what?


    A: You owe me $50
    B: No I owe you $30
    Grand Amphibian: Give him $40 because Saturn is in the house of Scorpio and apples are blue.

    A and B agree because $40 passes both their reasonable-ness tests since they realize the alternative is a he-said-she-said derpfest. The GA’s justification narrative is superfluous. You could replace it with anything else. The actual epistemology is happening inside the heads of A and B via them applying their private reasonableness tests to the *verdict*.


    A: I didn’t run the red light
    B: You did, I saw you and it has been established I was there

    One is ritual to me, and lacks epistemology in any sense I understand it, even though it might have meaning to A.

    Two is quasi-epistemological via a mapping between the narrative and the agreement between reasonableness tests in play.

    Three is procedural epistemology without much ritual involved. Even though it is in the same universe as the perp-walk (a genuine ritual), it is not the same sort of thing.

    Test to separate one and two from three. One and two need creative imagination to happen. Three can in many cases be programmed into a computer. It’s an analytic-empiric system. A clever lawyer or detective might creatively apply some Holmesian abductive reasoning and come up with a creative theory that solves the case (System 1), but the procedural system is not creative (System 2).

    I think if you drop the notion of “truth” and stick to just meaning/significance and find a term analogous to epistemology for the seeking of meaning (as opposed to truth, which need not be meaningful and might be actively nihilistic) you’d have a stronger case here. There is really no good reason to consider truth and meaning together. Truth need not be meaningful, meaning need not be truthful.

    • I’ll second all of this, especially your last paragraph Venkat.

      Maybe this isn’t what Sarah was going for, but I think it would be interesting to find something to complete the analogy:

      truth/knowledge : epistemology :: meaning : _________

      Is that the role “ritual epistemology” is intended to play?

      While I’m here, might as well throw out two other questions:

      1. What is “meaning,” exactly?
      2. In addition to “meaning,” ritual is also great at creating consensus reality (i.e., common “knowledge”). For example, the ritual of reading someone his Miranda rights helps get everyone on the same page about the fact that he’s “in custody.” Or the ritual of going through the courtroom drama and pronouncing a guilty verdict creates the consensus reality that the defendant is a “convicted criminal.” Is that part of ritual epistemology? Are meaning and consensus reality related?

      • I took the phrase “ritual epistemology” to mean “the epistemological content/import of rituals” not an analogy. Perhaps David Chapman’s “meaningness” is the term that might work here?

        I think meaning is that projected quality of external realities that enables us to care about it and be mindfully engaged with it. A trivial example would be anthropomorphization. We create meaning out of random things by imagining them to be sentient/human or at least mammalian.

        This is why I hold that science, conducted with its native sensibility (not the ritual theater Sarah says the post-rationalists have problems with) is nihilistic. And it is not an ideal; it is a real human sensibility, on display in childlike poke-with-a-stick play-curiosity. In a way, this is anti-ritual, since you have to do random things in order to get to an insight about a repeatable scientific phenomenon, at which point you can proceduralize it into a technology. When the curiosity-content and non-repeating aspects fade, the ritual-content and repeating aspects take over. Truth seeking turns into meaning seeking. If truth seeking parts merely fade into the background, available to be interrogated (example, a logician could still look at transcripts of ritually conducted trials with a critical eye), both can co-exist. But if truth fades altogether, the ritual turns into a cargo cult. It is epistemologically *invalid* (ie others could conduct tests that prove the ritual doesn’t work as advertised; like showing that prayer does not cure disease), but still ritually valid, with meaning.

        This is not necessarily a bad thing. If I have a few weeks to live due to terminal cancer, say, and I have to choose between aggressive cancer therapy that will get me 6 weeks, or some woo treatment involving music and friends and meditation that will get me 3, I might well choose the latter as the more *meaningful* way to die, even if any claims that it will extend my life by the “power of the mind” are nonsensical and only the aggressive therapy can demonstrably do that.

        • Meaning and truth are both aspects of the fact that our consciousness is based on language. Meaning is a pointing or reference relationship between things; an important sub-class is pointing relationships toward and away from the self coupled with some kind of affect (happiness, poignancy, sorrow). Truth is the ideal that the pointing relationships be mutually consistent and accurate, which in practice usually means consistent with other observations (including observations of one’s own behavior) and with the reported observations of others (requiring trust, as in the hearsay stuff). So (in reply to Kevin) I’d say both meaning and truth (as it is practiced) are related to consensus reality.

          Different situations require different levels of accuracy. Accuracy and seeking truth are costly, and energy and attention are scarce. The glossolalia example seems like a situation unlikely to need a high standard of truth; incorrect beliefs about religion are not going to hurt anyone, and may possibly help, as with your alternative medicine example. In legal cases, however, the stakes are usually a lot higher than who gets $50: do we let a potential murderer or rapist go free, or do we potentially lock up or kill an innocent person? Which parent loses primary custody of the kids? Does this person lose his business or house to pay damages? While the need for accuracy seems much higher, legal rituals often get no closer to justice than do divination rituals. But we have to do something, so we elaborate with more imposing and plausible-seeming rituals to cover up the essential uncertainty.

          Reasonableness is a cop out – that’s just going back to consensus reality, trust, etc. It’s a very common and useful cop out in the domain of the law, though – you see it everywhere as a hand-wavy way of saying “you know, consensus reality” and then courts ritually interpret what that means.

    • Marc Hamann says

      Venkat, I think you are underestimating the epistemological process that goes into “You did, I saw you and it has been established I was there”

      If the two parties have that same conversation on the street, it’s “he said, she said”, and is not considered to resolve the matter officially.

      The “establishing” that happens in that sentence is done by the “magic” of the formal ritual of testifying in court under certain circumstances and rules.

      The ritual which transforms the statement from “innuendo” into “proven facts” is in fact the key epistemologically determining mechanism.

  2. Hannu Haikonen says

    I find very useful the idea of “rational” practices as “religious” rituals.

    I’d also like to point out one more area that I think is rich in such ritualistic and ceremonial content: nonfiction books and articles meant to be taken seriously, that supposedly have science and rational analysis behind them. To become an efficient reader one has to become aware of these rituals to be able to skip them and see fast where the meat is or if there is any.

    The rituals are often there only to show the reader that “this is serious”. Serious magazines and newspapers require them to appear serious. And, of course, to become a serious writer you have to learn and use them.

  3. The truth of glossolalia might not be as “objective” as that of the testimony of a sworn witness, since it requires an interpretive schema to provide context. But, the rules of evidence also serve as an interpretive schema. Sustained objections to lack of foundation, relevance, speculation, etc. will exclude testimony that many jurors might find reasonable and potentially helpful.

    The Catholic Church has always striven to promote orthopraxy in its liturgical rituals because the link between habitual practice and orthodox belief is a recognized one. Thus, the saying lex orandi, lex credendi, i.e. the law of prayer is the law of belief. While the Church fathers would deny that truth is relative, they would have no difficulty believing that the appreciation of truth can be shaped by human perception. While glossolalia is acknowledged to be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, the actual practice is rare and not particularly encouraged. It probably strikes most Catholic theologians as a bit too free form and unregulated to ensure orthodox perceptions.

    It is a bit like the use of trial by combat or trial by ordeal, both common means of legal truth finding in the medieval era. Outcomes were not consistently predictable, so they ultimately relied upon faith in the perfect justice of a divine judge as a guarantor of fairness.

    So, I see the link between glossolalia in a church and trial in a court; but I suspect that most people would join me in finding the latter inspires more comfort and confidence in the results that flow from the ritual.

    • Marc Hamann says

      I think if you look at the work that has been done on the weakness of eye witness recall, the variability of expert testimony, etc.you might not make such a big distinction between the comforts of glossolalia and those of a court trial. The main distinction is which solemnization rituals you accept, based on which model of the world.

  4. James Babcock says

    I have a slight objection to your characterization of the rationalist community, as one within it. Rationalists and skeptics overlap much less than you’d think. Spending time debunking easy targets like energy healing is seen as a little disreputable, like you’ve gone way out of your way to find a punching bag and can’t you debunk something more challenging like an aspect of mainstream medicine. It’s also incorporated quite a bit of ritual (http://www.humanistculture.com/ for the biggest example, but there are plenty of other central and noncentral examples). Theistic religion is still outside the overton window, but there’s a subset making heavy use of pseudo-polytheism, albeit always with disclaimers about it being figurative.

  5. Dorothy Kahn says

    example: if your husband forbids you from ornamenting yourself and wearing perfume, you legally have to divorce him, because that’s obviously cruel). Considering that under Jewish Law only a husband can initiate a divorce I fail to see how this can be.

    • The Mishnah reference is Tractate Ketuboth 8:3. A husband can be ordered by a rabbi to give his wive a get, or risk being sort of banished. Of course, as with any kind of law, this law changes over time and varies in interpretation and emphasis depending on which rabbi you follow.

      I chose this example because it is cute and short; my favorite example, from Tractate Nedarim, would have taken way too long to explain.

      • Dorothy Kahn says

        “cute and short” it may be but I think it is also false in its implications about Jewish family law. The plight of the Agunah is as acute in today’s ultra-orthodox world as it has ever been.

  6. ” The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life- preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live–that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.”

    Definitely needs to be said out loud I guess, i’m sure most of us in neoreaction who recognize the legitimacy of apophatic knowledge recognize the importance of ‘ritual epistemology’. Epistemic seems like the wrong word to use. I’ve heard pistemic is related to practice so it’s probably a bit more appropriate.

    I can’t be the only person who thinks that post-rationality is hubris and should be treated like a disease, it’s such poor form to attach ‘post’ to a well-respected research tradition like heuristics and biases and attach ‘post’ without having done the work.

    Another thing I was considering to explain stuff like rituals to people who specialize in only declarative knowledge is making an analogy to Nicholas Gomez Davila http://don-colacho.blogspot.com/ , one of his books is called “Notes on an implicit text”, the apophatic part is “The Implicit Text”, the declarative part is well, the notes.

    Hope this makes sense. We should burn the people who say ‘woo’ at stake no doubt.

    • I’d like to respond to the Nietzsche quote. It might be a little far fetched to assume that Nietzsche had much compassion for traditional wisdom or the rituals of the church. It is also known that he had nothing but contempt for spiritualism ( “Geisterseher” ). Self-referential as he was, it is more likely he meant philosophical speculation and artistic imagination, processed as an infinite game. If the life of the mind comes to rest in an objective truth, it would be essentially dead as it could be exchanged with the truth.

      It’s not easy to predict from his oeuvre what he would have made of the trends and fashions of early modernism with its adoration of primitivism and basic forms, which artistically mimicked the reductionism of the physical sciences, of Dada, expressionism, surrealism and other manifestations of creative-destructive energy. His ideal of saneness wasn’t far apart from the tastes and manners of the high culture of the Goethe age but it is also hard to imagine that he would have howled with the squares who wanted their academic paintings and their classical music back.

      Early modernism has now long been part of the cultural canon, while scientism took over the place of high culture in the state of progressive decadence. Post-rationalism could then be perceived, in Nietzschean terms, as an expression of the decadence of scientism, its folksy and democratic variant with its compassion for the wisdom of the crowd, for alternative states of the mind, for tradition and religion even, together with a smarmy desire to eliminate sarcasm, sharp criticism of irrational tendencies, of high priest judges, in favor for participation and good moods. Compassionate scientists with tribal tattoos and funny T-shirts instead of high modernist engineering elites.

  7. I know I’m very late to the party, but allow me to suggest that a “scientific” worldview as I see it is distinct from the way you characterize the “rationalist” worldview.

    You write that “the rationalist community is concerned with having correct beliefs”. The scientific community, on the other hand, is concerned with something slightly different. Science is only concerned with arriving at useful ideas, rather than strictly correct ones. We are well aware that our basic understanding of the universe changes, dramatically, every so often. (See, for example, the enormously different viewpoints adopted by pre-Einstein and post-Einstein physicists about the fundamental nature of matter.) It is therefore unlikely, based on precedent, that the scientific viewpoint at any particular moment is the Truth (with a capital T). Arriving at Truth isn’t a goal that can be reasonably expected. The only thing that science really focuses on is being able to predict the outcome of future events. If an idea leads to correct predictions about the outcome of some future observation, then it is embraced as “scientific”. If it consistently fails to predict future observation, then it is discarded.

    It is in this sense that rituals and ritual beliefs are usually discarded as “irrational”: they fail to add to our ability to predict future observations. But I think there is room in a scientific worldview for a pro-ritual sentiment (at least in certain contexts). Because rituals are very often “useful”, in the sense that they add utility to human life. And, as I see it, the main concern of science is utility rather than truth.