Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ritual, Narrative, and Understanding the World

Inspired in part by a post by Peter Leithart called "Changing the Liturgy," I thought I'd share this piece of human psychology demonstrated here:

What I think this video demonstrates is how we enter into ritual behaviors (which are called "liturgies" in a religious context) and commit to seeing them through to the end, so much that we can be led to miss rather obvious details in our surroundings. The trickster you see in this video, Derren Brown, has a bit of an agenda in mind. He wants to show people how they are so easily fooled. He seems to be trying to train people in the ways of skepticism.

One thing I found just as interesting as the video itself was watching the reactions of my friends to the video. You probably will have them yourself: laughter and incredulity. There's a certain irony to this reaction. The people in the video are so easily fooled because they have accepted a narrative about their surroundings and are committed to acting within that narrative. Our reaction to those people also shows how we have bought into a certain narrative.

The narrative we buy into is that human beings are reasonable people who make choices one at a time; call it the "narrative of rationality." Part of this narrative is that all evidence is equally important. Every detail matters, and if we are alert enough to notice every detail, it shouldn't be difficult to make rational decisions based on those details. Thus our incredulity: how could these people be so stupid? Would I be that stupid if put in that situation? What's happening to the narrative I've accepted about myself as a rational person?

Clearly this video shows the narrative of rationality to be false: normal people often don't operate that way. But whereas Derren Brown might suggest that the average person just needs to learn a bit more skepticism, I would suggest a different idea. Ironically, the firm belief in absolute skepticism (which, to be fair, I can't say for sure Brown holds) requires a commitment to merely a different narrative about the world than the ones ordinary people buy into. Call it the "narrative of unreliability": everything and everyone is potentially a threat, and only by forcing your surroundings to undergo the most rigorous scrutiny can you achieve the best result.

Consider this other video:

Notice that Brown is able to swindle two businessmen--even a high end jeweler!--but he isn't able to swindle the hot dog vendor. My hypothesis: the hot dog vendor more easily accepts the narrative of unreliability. Perhaps in the world as he experiences it, people really are out to get him, and he really isn't safe. The narrative we accept about the world informs how we respond to things.

I don't think the answer is pure skepticism, i.e. just testing everything until you make sure everything works. This simply buys into the narrative of unreliability, and ironically, this narrative cannot be questioned. Skepticism is never able to turn in on itself, or if it does, the result is pure nihilism. I think we can do better than that.

What I'd like to do is offer something more constructive. What we need is a narrative of "constructive ritual-making." This means two things. One is that we can't do without rituals; they are the mechanisms by which we gain access to the order of the universe, the means by which we ultimately understand the world we live in. The second thing is that rituals can and do bind us, and at times they bind us to false things; thus we must continue to build and adapt rituals as we measure the successes and failures of our old ones.

Normal people (and really all people, to greater and lesser extents) must rely on ritual to interact with the world. Skepticism is a leisure activity. Brown's tricks would not be possible if he did not have time to commit to planning them out and executing them. I have no resentment toward Brown whatsoever. On the contrary, we need people who can look at our rituals and penetrate their weaknesses. But such people are specialists; it doesn't make sense for an entire society to be devoted to this kind of analysis. Indeed, the only reason Brown is able to make an influence on anyone is because of the ritual of making and watching broadcasts. Were it not for the rituals built into society, no one would have any reason to give Brown a chance to be heard.

Skepticism also relies on the assumption that all details are equally important. But rituals carry a certain weight and demand a certain commitment that often trumps certain details. Why did people in the first video not recognize the switch from one person to the other? It wasn't because they couldn't see the difference. Indeed, the difference was right in front of them. Almost assuredly, their brains actually took some note of this change. One person even commented on it. He stops, looks at the new person holding a map, and says something like, "I'm sorry, I thought you were someone else for a second," and then goes back to explaining directions. Why did he go back to explaining directions instead of insisting that something was wrong? The social ritual of explaining directions took precedence over any details that seemed amiss.

Hilarious and shocking as this may be, I don't think it shows something fundamentally wrong with us. I think that not only is it natural, but it is also good that we learn to give that kind of commitment to certain rituals. How can people in a large society ever hope to work together without certain cultural artifacts being preserved? Total skepticism would require zero commitment to rituals of social interaction. Language itself would have to be questioned. If we lose that, what do we have left?

Of course, we do need to question the value of certain rituals. There is no doubt that rituals can control us to such an extent that we miss out on opportunities to change for the better. However, it must be acknowledged that no one can question every ritual all the time, nor can all people be equally involved in questioning every ritual. The task of examining the rituals through which we understand the world around us is a specialized task. Thus, the existence of skeptics depends on the existence of trust. Society depends on skeptics, but skeptics in turn depend on the fact that society is not fundamentally skeptical. Every skeptic should also realize the limits of his own skepticism. At the end of the day, even someone whose entire occupation consists in skeptically analyzing the world has to have some basic narrative by which to make sense of the world. And in fact, everyone does have some narrative, whether he acknowledges it or not.

One last point. I've been saying that it is through ritual that we not only interact with the world, but actually "understand" it. Is that right? It might not sound right to most of us, because we're used to thinking of knowledge as something quite different from interaction. Knowledge, in the common view, is something that's out there that needs to be gathered and put into the mind to be processed. I say this view of knowledge isn't quite right. Knowledge is precisely our ability to interact with the world in a way that coheres with its inherent structure. When you write answers on a test, we like to say that you regurgitate information onto the page, but this metaphor is highly misleading. What you are doing, in reality, is interacting with the world around you according to the rituals you have learned. And that is precisely knowledge. Knowledge doesn't "come out" of you while you are taking your test; rather, knowledge is demonstrated while you are taking your test, precisely in that it is demonstrated that you have the ability to respond to the test in a coherent way.

Take another, clearer example. When you are driving, you do not regurgitate information. Rather, you react to things as they come, and the reaction is instantaneous. Later you can explain in words what you have done, but the connection between knowledge and action is far more immediate than words convey. Knowledge is not simply a store of information that allows you to drive; knowledge is the ability to drive. Thus the ritual of learning how to drive, and the rituals that define driving itself (changing lanes, obeying traffic lights, etc.) actually allow you to understand the world around you. You understand driving by following its rituals. It is exactly the same with anything else.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting definition of knowledge. The videos are great as well. Thanks.


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