Considering the rationality of ritual behaviour

Posted on August 6, 2007


I have recently read another article that is very rich in useful ideas and connections. The article is from 2006 and as written by Mort and Slone. The abstract gives a good idea of the content so I quote it in whole:

Engagement in religious ritual acts is, from a scientific point of view, a surprising feature of human behavior given the inherent commitment to counterintative worlds, including, generally invisible entities such as superhuman agents. Why people engage in such behaviors has preoccupied many scholars in the history of the study of religion (including scholars from within anthropology, psychology, sociology, and numerous other disciplines). These scholars have engaged in the Rationality Debate; the goal of which is to determine standards that could be used to make judgments about the rationality of human behavior. While ritual behavior might be ineffective for the achievement of purported goals and fail to conform to principles of reasoning based on rules of logic, the simple fact that this behavior is widespread, transmitted in a stable fashion, and the result (at least indirectly) of evolutionary processes suggest that considering its rationality or lack thereof is largely irrelevant. The question should not be “if” ritual behavior is rational but rather “why” this behavior is consistently exhibited. We argue that in order to answer this question anthropologists ultimately depend on heuristics recast as postulated entities. These are conceived as causal variable(s) governing patterned human behavior and consequently circle back and affirm a fallacious Durkheimian description of ritual behavior. This is a major and fundamental flaw in the current anthropological research tradition; the correction of which requires fundamental shifts in the philosophical commitments held—knowingly or unknowingly—by anthropologists.

The authors are concerned with much the same question that engages me:

A significant challenge for naturalistic approaches to human behavior is therefore to explain why people engage in seemingly irrational ritual behaviour.

Mort and Slone begin by presenting the Rationality Debate that took place within anthropology between the Universalists such as Levy-Bruhl who felt that rational standards are universal and the Relativists such as Evans-Pritchard who felt that they are culture-specific. Although they do not explicitly say so, the debate that took place during the twentieth century within anthropology was part of a much greater debate that has been happening within the academia and even outside of it. This debate was caused by the seeming failure of the Enlightenment notion of rationality and the threat of nihilism that this brought about. This is significant as knowing the context makes it easier to realise that the necessary tools to arrive at a solution may lay outside of anthropology – the very conclusion to which the authors are headed.

The authors rightly criticise Levy-Bruhl for failing to rocgnise how similar we are in many ways to what he called the ‘primitives’. They are worried that his distinction has reappeared in a distinction between lower and higher varieties of cognition. Their worry regarding this distinction is very much shared by me:

Since it is increasingly evident that lower level cognitive processes inform, influence, and undergird higher level and reflective processing it is in our view critically important that, if nothing else, debaters move away from the Weberian understanding of rationality, which is that rationality stems from reflective thought.

They even refer to Gigerenzer in making their criticism (and note that dual processing accounts disagree). As they make clear, the basic issues lie within the scope of the sciences of human cognition, i.e. psychology among others, that allow a study of both the context and the content of minds. Anthropology must work closely with these if it is to go beyond the discussions of the past. Their next claim is too reductionist for my taste, however:

Like ‘memory’, notions of ‘rationality’, ‘ritual’, ‘culture’, ‘religion’, magic’, ‘religiosity’, etc. are used as heuristic devices by anthropologists to potentially organize observed regularities in a helpful way. Nevertheless, these are mere empirical generalizations and are insufficient for gaining knowledge on their own; they are not explanatory.

Going down the hard-line reductionist road leads to too many problems and allowing an explanatory pluralism is perfectly adequate to what Mort and Slone are apparently aiming for. Anthropological concepts are explanatory but must be understood and developed in the context of the sciences of cognition because these delimit and inform our ideas about anthropology. As such, all of our concepts are heuristic devices, to be used carefully and while retaining a certain willingness to be critical about them – anthropological concepts are not particular in this respect. The pluralism regarding explanatory levels goes as far as causes – the search for a ‘true’ level at which causes work being a chimera better killed off than assumed. As Bill Wimsatt (whose recent book I am currently reading) says in a slightly different but relevant context: “It’s heuristics all the way down.”

These criticisms of the reductionism in their paper do affect their final conclusion – that there is no point asking whether human behaviour is rational, instead focussing on providing an explanation of it. Without the hard reductionism this conclusion must be weakened to saying that these two projects must be both pursued, quite possibly in tandem due to the nature of the multi-level explanations that will be ultimately sought.

In the end, while I find that the article makes a lot of very interesting connections and is definitely useful, I also think that it is somewhat lacking. An additional example of this the authors’ apparent failure to recognise that the rule-based, algorithmic view of rationality runs counter to their basic position and the resultant failure to properly consolidate their discussion of rationality with that of the traditional anthropological debate. Still, the authors are attempting to carry out interdisciplinary work and as such are to be commended despite the perhaps predictable inability to please everyone.