Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences

When I first started writing about religion for Ribbonfarm, I argued that humans have the capacity for interesting mental states that have become harder to access during the transition to modernity. Here, I focus on the core mental state at the heart of religion, the sacred experience.

When I first read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, I was disappointed by his focus on “personal religion” (the subjective experience of conversion or of the divine), rather than on ritual, tradition, and organized religion. After many years, I now think his focus on subjective experience is exactly correct. Rituals vary and evolve because the sacred experience is itself the success criterion for the ritual, and as the context changes, the form of rituals must change to continue to produce sacred experience.

I define the sacred experience as follows:

Sacred experience: a subjective experience of unusual emotional arousal, especially in a social ritual context, potentially including negative emotions such as terror, guilt, or hopelessness, followed by unusual calm or euphoria, in the presence of a sensed metaphysically problematic entity or principle.

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Boat Stories

Last year, I discovered Ursula LeGuin’s fascinating talk, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, (transcript) by way of Donna Haraway’s equally interesting talk Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene. Both have been nagging at me for a year now.

The theory, building on the significance of containers (bags, baskets) to early humans — the default human here is female of course — in forager societies, offers a model of narrative as a “carrier bag” of community context and its evolution. It is a model that stands in radical opposition to the hero’s journey model of narrative.

Panels from Asterix and the Great Crossing, a boat story.

Thinking about the two opposed theories, it struck me that between the carrier bag story and the hero’s journey, there is a third kind of story that is superior to both: the boat story. A boat is at once a motif of containment and journeying. The mode of sustenance it enables — fishing, especially with a net, a bag full of holes — is somewhere between gathering and hunting ways of feeding; somewhere between female and male ways of being. It at once stands for the secure attachment to home and a venturesome disposition towards the unknown. It incorporates the conscientiousness and stewardship of settled life, and the openness to experience of nomadic life. A boat is a home, but a home away from home. A boat story is a journey, but one on which you bring home, and perhaps even Mom, along with you. But it isn’t an insular home, even though it has a boundary. It is a territory but it is not territorial. It is socially open enough to accommodate encounters with strangers, and is in fact eager to accommodate them. Xenophobes do not generally go voyaging.

Boat stories, like hero’s journeys and carrier-bag stories, are a good way to understand the human condition. They are especially good as a mental model of blogging.

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Complete 2017 Roundup

It’s been a disorienting pivot year of mayhem and chaos here at ribbonfarm. I am going to pretend it was entirely by design. I decided at the beginning of the year that since I was personally feeling rather annoyed and upset by all the disturbances in the Force, I ought to spread the cognitive pain around. If I can’t enjoy a pleasant, harmonious life of the mind, why the hell should you? We practice grievance-driven blogging around here. “With malice towards one and all” as my old writing idol Khushwant Singh used to put it.

And since we observed (“celebrated” seems like a stretch) our 10th anniversary this year, it was high time anyway to blow things up and put the pieces back together in a new way. Mission 50% accomplished. We’ll get to the “put together again” next year.

Main symptom of the blowing-up: After years of cautious growth in number of contributors, we had a whopping jump: 32 contributors bringing in 62 posts (not counting administrative ones), with traffic holding miraculously roughly steady. By comparison, in 2016, we only had 13 contributors for 57 posts. Much of the increase was due to the spectacular output (in terms of both quality and quantity) from the longform writing course Sarah and I taught twice in the last 12 months. That course may or may not have benefitted participants, but it sure helped stir things up for us.

One effect of this step-function increase in the number of contributors is that I have effectively lost the editorial plot. In a good way though. To create a new order, you first have to create chaos.

Read on for a tour of the debris and a big list of the 62 posts.

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A Glitch in the Theocratic Matrix

When I was a kid — I was about 12 I think —  and relatively new to atheism and its social burdens, I had a little run-in with a sincerely religious classmate. He simply would not believe that my non-belief in religion was even possible. He was sure I was lying or being provocative for the hell of it. As a test, he pulled out a little picture of his favorite god from his wallet, and dared me to tear it up. I did, and he was suitably shocked. After a moment of stunned speechlessness, he said something weak, like “err… oh wow!”

I was reminded of this little episode when a little clip from CNN did the rounds a couple of days back. It features a religious conservative being visibly stunned speechless by the revelation that you do not need to swear on the Bible to assume an elected office in the United States. Ted Crockett really appeared to believe that a Muslim politician could not hold office because “You have to swear on a Bible to be an elected official in the United States of America…a Muslim cannot do that, ethically, swearing on the Bible.”

Like my old schoolmate, this guy was genuinely shocked to learn he was wrong in a fairly trivial way. Unlike my old schoolmate, however, we’re not talking about a 12-year old boy. We’re talking about a man who appears to be in his late fifties or sixties, and has held an elected office.

Like many others, once I was done chuckling, I found myself wondering: how is it even possible to arrive at, and hold, this particular sort of bizarre false belief, about swearing-in ceremonies being necessarily tied to the Bible in a non-theocratic state?

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Feeling the Future

In After Temporality, I wrote about the phenomenology of the ordinary, healthy experience of time. I wrote this as an outsider, because my own experience of time is not normal. Here, I focus on the phenomenology of time in psychopathological states (prefrontal brain injury, schizophrenia, mania, and depression). What can breakdowns in the experience of time reveal about how the brain constructs time under ordinary circumstances?

In my previous article, I used the word “chronesthesia” to refer to the sense of time: awareness of one’s past and future, coupled with the ability to do “mental time travel,” assembling appropriate memories and projecting the self into imagined possible futures. This is a rather cognitive and bloodless way to describe an alleged sense. But the psychopathological time experience suggests that the experience of normal time is produced and guided by emotion. We feel the future as much as we think it. The feeling of time is instantiated in our bodies out to our skin, and beyond, in the felt bodies of others with whom we synchronize.

In the phenomenological account, there are two modes of being that are relevant here. The first is the absorbed state: proficiently using tools without awareness of the tools as such. Picture driving a car. One is not aware of the motions of one’s hands and feet, or of the internal workings of the automobile. One is simply absorbed in going someplace, and possibly thinking of other things, or even socializing. The second mode is the breakdown state, initiating conscious awareness of oneself and one’s equipment. The brain “wakes up” to some aspect of the environment, because it has failed to accord with previous unconscious predictions. Imagine the gas pedal stops working and the car slows to a halt. Now one pops out of absorbed state into a state of simply using the car, and becomes aware of the car as a thing (a broken thing).

It is the same with time. In the ordinary case, time is invisible. The experience of time is one of absorption. Only when there is a problem do we become conscious of time, and of ourselves in time.
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Prolegomena to Any Dark-Age Psychohistory

When I think about history, the picture in my head is that of a roiling canvas of many choppy, intertwingled narrative streams, enveloped by many-hued nebulous fogs of mood and temper. Star-like cosmic irruption-events, ranging from discoveries to disasters, wink through from the void, disturbing the flow of human affairs and forcing steering imperatives onto those living through them. The picture is as much a portrait of a sentimental sense of history, as it is a map of an unfolding gestalt of events.

When I try to capture this poetic mental image in a drawing however, all I get is the kind of crappy cartoon you see below.

It’ll  do to get the idea across though. This particular sample from my doodle files is what contemporary American history looks like to me today: a generally well-defined low-fog Blue story, getting interrupted by less well-defined, high-fog Red tendrils.

It is this kind of image that is conjured up for me when I ask myself the question many are asking today: Are we in a Dark Age?

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The Leaning Tower of Morality

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. — Ice-T

Game theory is asleep, cooperate for no reason. — Deity of Religion

There’s an image that’s taken root in my mind recently that I can’t seem to shake. I picture humanity living in a large, rickety tower, tilting at a precarious angle to the ground — like so:

The tower represents our capacity for moral behavior. Lower levels are more base; higher levels, more virtuous. We don’t need an exact floorplan, but here’s the kind of thing I’m imagining:

  • Ground floor: Perfect zero-sum selfishness. Aggression and exploitation. The war of all against all.
  • Middle floors: Various flavors of mutualism. “I’ll help you if you help me.” Reciprocity. Tit for tat.
  • Higher floors: Empathy and compassion. Turning the other cheek. True virtue (not just signaling). A tendency to cooperate in one-shot prisoner’s dilemmas.
  • Penthouse: Perfect self-sacrificing altruism. A willingness to give time, energy, money, or even one’s life to help a stranger for nothing in return.

Now, some people inhabit higher floors than others, but with the exception of bona fide psychopaths, all of us live somewhere in the tower, happily above ground.

Here’s the question I want to explore today: How does this structure remain standing? On what ultimate explanatory principles do our moral instincts rest?

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Folk Concepts

“Folk concept.” You may have never heard the phrase defined, or even used, but you probably already know what it means. Consider this list:

  • luck
  • Bayes’ rule
  • ghosts
  • vitamin C

Which two are folk concepts?

If you were able to instantly see that luck and ghosts are folk concepts, then you are already in possession of the folk concept of the folk concept. The descriptor “folk” invites the hearer to a conversation about less sophisticated people, behind their back. The slick Latinate precision of “concept” underlines the humor: can you imagine common folk having concepts? While the phrase is not always used as a pejorative, the connotation is slightly negative, and social distance is implied. Connotation – the emotional valence of words – is a crucial element in grasping folk concepts. [Read more…]

CEOs Don’t Steer

There is a pattern to the most influential business writing, in The World is Flat league. Especially writing that CEOs seem to like enough to exhort their organizations to read. Every such work offers one big, unqualified, unquantified, universal proposition. Usually with an obvious black-and-white moral assessment attached as an implied parenthetical [and this is a good thing]. The proposition will typically offer a big generalization covering a really vast range of things going on in the environment: An extreme, if very lossy, compression.

There are no if…then…else conditions attached. There are no temporal markers or spatial delimiters like this will be true between 2017 and 2022 in the developed world.

Compare:

The World is Flat [and this is a good thing] 

to

Under Certain Assumptions, the World Will Likely Continue Flattening for Approximately at Least Another Decade, and This Is a Probably a Good Thing.

This pattern isn’t mere rhetorical pithiness in the title or a distaste for weasliness. It permeates the entire idea being offered. And it exists as a consequence of a CEO trait:

CEOs Don’t Steer [and this is a good thing].

Big business ideas are the way they are because they are designed to feed and nourish this CEO trait. It’s a proposition that, at first sight, sounds both wildly untrue and something that would be really bad if it were true.
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The Blockchain Man

The term Organization Man is a rich one. From it, we can conjure up an image and a life.

It’s a man, not a woman. He’s white, standing somewhere between 6’0 and 6’2. He has a strong chin and medium length light brown hair parted on the left.

He walks from one meeting to the next wearing a dark suit with a pressed white dressed shirt and dark Oxford dress shoes. His wrist holds a watch – nice, but not extravagant, with a brown leather strap and a gold-rimmed face.

More than just an image, you can conjure up a life for The Organization Man, a term coined by William Whyte in his 1956 book of the same name. Even though the novel predates Whyte’s book by 30 years, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922) established the archetype perfectly.

Today, the successor of the Organization Man — the Blockchain Man — is starting to emerge. To understand how he might evolve, let us first look back.

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