Sacred and Profane Reasons

One way to think about the sacred and profane distinction is in terms of types of reasons. “Do not trespass on the Holy of Holies,” says the Elder, “for it is sacred.” As far as practical reasons go, sacredness suffices. It has to suffice. Otherwise practical rationality enters an infinite regress, leading to decision paralysis in lieu of an epistemic foundation that simply does not exist. Put differently, the whole point of a good reason is that it provides a stopping rule in the game of giving and asking for reasons.

In the context of decision making, sacred reasons are categorical. That is, we feel duty-bound to respect valid claims of sanctity, where validity is a function of its coherence within the body of reasons we already take for granted (i.e. are presupposed) as implicit in existing social practices. Conversely, violations of sacred objects or spaces is socially deviant, even blasphemous.

The sacred, it seems, is the byproduct of an imperative. When questioning the imperative “do not kill,” an appropriate and argument-ending reply is “because life is sacred.” The question naturally arises as to why we do not simply issue the imperative, full-stop?

Well, some do. In the Mayan language of Sakapultek norms of every kind are conveyed with the underlying imperative, their equivalent of “do” and “do not”, or indirectly through irony. As one would expect, this severely constrains the ways a norm can be expressed. For instance, they lack the ability to say “you ought to do x because y.” By having terms like “ought,” “right” and “wrong,” English speakers have a much easier time expressing and univeralizing imperatives across domains.

This view is an up-shot of taking Wittgenstein’s private language argument and meaning as use claim seriously. The alternative, meaning as reference, leads down a host of dead ends outside of the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, thinking of “rightness” outside the context of use (as in doings, social practices, or deontic constraints over a choice set) leads to the search for a referent somewhere in the universe.

In other words, sacredness is not “out there” like some sort of metaphysical substance, but is rather a stand-in part of speech, a general predicate, that aides in the expression of certain types of imperatives. Rather than having to explicitly declare “do not kill __” in every discrete case, saying “killing is wrong” harnesses our existing competency with verbs and predicates to establish the general case.

While “right” and “wrong” are used to modify actions, “sacred” more usually seems to modify objects, like sacred places, items or institutions. It’s immediately obvious how this can expand our expressive capacity that much more. We have the option of expressing identical imperatives against adultery, or example, either by declaring the act to be wrong, or by declaring the indirect object, marriage, to be sacred.

Sacredness so often attaches to rituals like marriage because rituals require us to overcome our self-interest, such as the temptation of infidelity. Likewise, the categorical nature of a sacred imperative is essential for sustaining collective action, or group rituals, and for legitimating sanctions against defectors. Moreover, sacred imperatives (as opposed to more prosaic ones) tend to be accompanied by feelings of sublimity that group practices are uniquely able to elicit.

Consecration Meets Convenience: Sacred or Profane?

In contrast, consider profane reasons. A profane reason to marry someone is in the expectation to save resources through economies of scale. As economists are want to point out, this is undoubtedly among the fortuitous consequences of marriage, and perhaps in some non-teleological way part of the “ultimate” explanation for the ubiquity of marriage practices. But these profane patterns are distinct from the proximate and sacred reasons proffered by the wedded themselves. If instrumental reasons were all their were, a green card marriage would be celebrated with the same enthusiasm as any other.

This is why its nonsense to claim to be (at least without debilitating cognitive dissonance) “religious but not spiritual” — i.e. To adopt ritual and other religious practices, up to and including prayer and congregational attendance, without endorsing the sacred character of one’s own actions. As soon as one takes a purely instrumental stance towards ritual, its power begins to wane.

The notion of “effective” here is what is problematic, as effectiveness is endogenous to the degree of sacredness, while sacredness rests on a cognitive disinterest in being effective!

Thus we may find ourselves subject to the counsels of prudence, climbing a ladder of instrumental reasons that, rung by rung, persuade us that ritual practice is an effective means for reaching our ends, namely well-being, group cohesion, and so on and so forth. Yet one will never reach the highest height until the ladder has been kicked away, and the practice left to stand on its own sacred terms. This is not to embrace the non-rational. On the contrary, it is to recognize instead a higher type of reason, a reason that cannot be circumvented.

That modernity has had a rationalizing tendency is what led Habermas to remark that all traditionalism has become neo-traditionalism. By that he meant that, whereas true traditionalists saw tradition as a valid source of authority as such, neo-traditionalists have revealed themselves to be indirect rationalists, offering up great reasons for obeying tradition that go beyond presupposition: Tradition is stress-tested wisdom, or a product of smarter-than-thou spontaneous order, and so on. To simply accept tradition as a “good reason” in and of itself is, to most moderns, absurd, and rightly so.

So it appears instrumental rationality has a great power to crowd out more communicative and categorical types of reasons over time, as our shared presuppositions are torn asunder by critical self-reflection and re-conceived as anachronistic husks around a fundamentally profane kernel. We are still clearly in the thralls of this rationalization process, which has progressed sporadically and unevenly, and which has never once reversed. Recall, Prisoner’s Dilemmas by design preclude any communicative action. But once strategic maximizing becomes the norm, it’s cooperation that’s heretic. As the only remaining disposition that we may will that it should become a universal law, this destines cynicism to be our last and most endearing mode of communion.


Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling

The Boyhood of Raleigh by John Everett Millais

As far as I can tell, “deconstruction” is a word that simply means “academic trolling,” at least when it is performed by the man who coined it—Jacques Derrida.

This can clearly be seen in his deconstruction of speech act theorist J. L. Austin, which Jonathan Culler provides an account of in On Deconstruction.

Austin was arguing, against his predecessors, that language is not simply about making descriptive statements. He pointed out that fitting language into that straightjacket meant treating as exceptional what in fact was characteristic of huge amounts of discourse. As an alternative, he proposed the idea of language as including both constative statements, those which are true or false, and performative statements, those which have some consequence within the social reality in which they are stated. The canonical case of the latter would be the making of a promise.

Continue reading “Interrogation, Dialectic, and Storytelling”

The Ontology of Economics

Earlier this year I opined on twitter that economists are essentially philosophers with full employment:

Jokes aside, my glaring omission, of course, was ontology. Ontology is the subset of philosophy concerned with the nature and categories of being and existence. In the case of economics, the core ontological preoccupation is with the nature and existence of market equilibria and their constituent parts: supply and demand, institutions, representative agents, social planners, and so on. Some focus on ontologies of being, like a static equilibrium, while Hayek and Buchanan famously had ontologies of becoming that emphasized the importance of analyzing economic processes. Others debate the gestalt between whole markets and individual exchanges — supply and demand curves versus a game theory model of bargaining, say. Others-still question the reality of economic “absences,” like productivity measurements produced as a statistical residual, or the output gap between real and potential GDP.

Economic ontology therefore touches on every aspect of economic thinking and analysis, and as such the biggest rifts in economics often come down to mutually incompatible ontological commitments. For instance, I once read a polemic against Keynesian economics that proclaimed matter of factly that the macroeconomy “doesn’t exist,” that it’s nothing more than a metaphor for a complex aggregation of individual interactions. Well — no duh. Individuals are aggregations of complex biochemical interactions, as well, but that doesn’t make them any less real. Much like debating the point at which a collection of individual grains becomes a heap — there simply is no fact of the matter.

As in the example above, it’s important to be able to discern the difference between a category mistake (like attributing motives to GDP or the fallacy of composition) and a difference in construal (like acknowledging aggregates exist in the first place). More often than not, the existential quantifier (or dubbing something “real”) is less about proposing an object as genuinely more or less fundamental and more about raising or lowering that object’s social status. This may be incredibly useful in the context of rhetoric and persuasion, but it is usually safer to embrace a plurality of ontologies as equally valid based on use and context.

That is, economists should be ontological pluralists. And self-consciously so.

Canaries and Coalmines

For a brief, shining moment in the middle part of the final decade of the twentieth century, it looked as if wire-frame punctuated real-time battle systems would replace the old turn-based or active-time combat systems in Japanese console role-playing games. Or, at least those produced by Squaresoft. Though the moment proved to be ephemeral, the idea of pausing real-time combat briefly to set up a planned sequence of attacks survived in later titles. Even if you’re old enough to have played the games to which I refer, it’s unlikely you recall the title I consider to be the superior offering: Vagrant Story. Beset by dismal sales and poor reviews, this sadly underrated delight languished on shelves, victim to half-hearted localization and a plot that was somehow both mediocre and confusing at the same time. Still, gameplay was fun, and the gear creation system was years ahead of its time. No, the game you’re more likely to remember if you were there at the time served as inspiration for George Lucas when he got around to revisiting the Star Wars film universe for the three prequel films. I mean, of course, Parasite Eve.  Continue reading “Canaries and Coalmines”

Michael, Elliott’s Older Brother

My older boys watched Steven Spielberg’s E.T. with me. It was an experiment of mine to see how they might appreciate the movie completely out of cultural context, meaning, when I was nine years old, the bicycle silhouetted against the moon was iconic; we lived and breathed E.T. for years, knew all the tropes, memorized most of the dialogue, collected the E.T. stuffed toys, played the terrible Atari video game, and so forth. As far as my investigations could gather, Tom and Jack hadn’t even heard of E.T. They were tabulae rasae.

Therefore, I was surprised by my own reactions. First of all, as a critic, I was surprised by how many stories are being told, and, moreover, how the main story was told so subtly. For a kids’ movie, Spielberg took an enormous risk with symbolism and framing cues (if you know what I mean). In other words, there was no cabbie explaining the plot to the lowest common denominator in the audience, practically ruining the mystery and imagination. Do we have kids’ movies told so subtly nowadays? My impression is no, but I’d love to see something to contrast the thick stream of broadly told kiddie adventure movies loosely tied to minor character attributes such as loyalty, honor, friendship, or whatever tertiary trait we might want to see develop in ourselves or our children.

Secondly, as a real grown-up with kids of my own, I was struck by the spectacular emotional arc. The man-cave got awfully dusty. The movie is about separation, most importantly, about severance of the home and family. “Dad” is a major character in the movie because he’s not there; he ran away to Mexico with Sally, and this fact drives so much of the movie’s symbolism, character development, theme, etc. Elliot mercilessly pushes this point home near the beginning of the film, driving it deep into Mom’s broken heart.

Are we even allowed to tell stories like this anymore? Divorce was practically a brand-new feature of the American middle class, and it was at that time viewed as entirely and selfishly self-centered, especially with children involved, and we hadn’t yet rationalized away the immense pain created, which yields to rage. I have these memories (perhaps I’ve shared elsewhere) of riding skateboard in brand new residential subdivisions, such as were featured in the movie, talking with my friends about our parents’ divorces. The emotional wreckage was a seed planted to blossom later. How does divorce rank lately? Because we are enraptured by solipsisnormativity, crimes against home and family have been marginalized, so I don’t know that E.T. could have been told today.

Michael, Elliott’s older brother, owns the movie. Naturally he is overshadowed by the puppet and the marvelous performance of Henry Thomas as Elliott, but the story hinges on his own yearning for a father figure, someone who might teach him how to be a man. Spielberg cues us to think to this effect now and again, mostly in the numerous scenes of his mustering up manhood in defense of his mother, but later, more subtly, in the care and protection of E.T., the newest, most vulnerable member of the family, perhaps a father figure himself, though cast in weakness. At the end, Michael, a new man, has gathered to himself a vindication that he has reunited the family around his own courage.

E.T. says to him, “Thank you.”