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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Armchair Psychology and Missions

I want to compare and contrast some claims of three kinds of psychology: social psychology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology.  Then I want to offer some suggestions for Christian psychology.

Social Psychology: Peter Berger and others have argued that the impact of globalization has been detrimental for religion.  As the world, through greater and more rapid forms of technology, political power, and economics, has increased in the awareness of alternative cultures and worldviews it has undermined more and more the presumption of truth that each culture presumes about its own religious beliefs and ways of life.  The experience of alternative total interpretations of life has a strong psychological effect on individuals, which might be called the Rashomon Effect (from Akira Kurosawa’s great film “Rashomon” about an encounter witnessed from four different perspectives with four radically distinct ways of looking at the event).  One wonders what could make one’s own cultural view the true one or the right one.

The impact of this pressure of a larger but dissonant community is what Berger calls “the Heretical Imperative”.  By this Berger means that one’s own experience of one’s own religious beliefs after being exposed to alternative beliefs is simultaneously orthodox and heretical as those positions are subjectively felt.  As a member of one’s own culture, one is satisfied with being considered right-minded.  But as one who is aware that many others totally disagree, one feels like a heretic going against the faith of others.  As a result, one can no longer presume his own faith being aware of alternatives.  One must willfully choose but even if one chooses one’s own faith, there is a social psychological dissonance.  The believer is supposed to be submissive to the assured doctrine but one can only appropriate the doctrine by a willful act more characteristic of apostasy than submission.  How can one be a believer and an apostate at the same time?

As a result, the psychological tendency is to reduce tension by avoiding commitment to any religion.  Thus social psychological dynamics tend to move the person into religious or point of view skepticism.  Forces of globalization guide each person in the world to the sort of arguments provided by philosophical skepticism and methodological doubt.  Not surprisingly this tends to go hand in hand with a tendency toward naturalism, scientism, and emotivism.  Quantifiable results based on direct experiences are not so open to controversy and do not demand religious commitment.  One does not have to really choose between, say, quantum physics and general relativity as a commitment to ultimate truth even though they contradict each other.  They are both continued works in progress demanding no further doubling down.  But metaphysical commitments and ethical commitments are not judge by science or logical consistency and do not have a basis in anything like public truth.

It is important to see that there is a causal account of the prevalence of skepticism, naturalism, emotivism, and scientism that is not simply the logic of holding certain presuppositions.  Yet if these tendencies follow through without any qualification, it is clear that they will lead to one particular worldview, namely Pyrrhonic skepticism like David Hume’s and the related value placed on ataraxia or the absence of conflict.  In fact, ataraxia maximizing seems to be the dynamic.

Cognitive Psychology: On the other hand, we need to be careful about just looking at things from the point of view of social psychology.  For starters, the same Peter Berger has noted that even though the social psychology of the heretical imperative and the craving for ataraxia leads us to predict growing widespread secularization and the adoption of a secular worldview, this is not happening.  Secular societies are the exception not the rule, suggesting that there are other sources of causation that mitigate the effects of globalization.

Research in cognitive psychology suggests that humans are hard wired to believe certain things no matter what.  Developmental psychology has discovered that, no matter what culture they are raised in, children have a common pattern of cognitive development in theoretical and moral judgment making as they age.  Further, linguistic psychology has discovered that all humans seem to have a common capacity to learn a language from birth as if all humans shared a universal grammar behind the particular grammars of each language in the world.

It also seems that we are hard wired to form particular beliefs until later experiences lead us to give them up.  We tend to believe that things have a natural teleology, such as that the stomach is for digestion and gravity is for holding things down.  There are certain moral beliefs that seem immediately true such as that torturing babies for fun is wrong.  We have a belief that we are subsistent subjects that exist through time as well as rational agents that impinge upon the world of causes.  We also seem to believe that there are other people besides ourselves and that there are states of affairs in the world that must have adequate causes.  We also seem to begin life with a belief in God and other non-material agents that cause good or evil.  These beliefs are not necessarily irresistible but they do not just get erased either.

These beliefs point to a species-capacity to form the framework of a non-naturalist and non-skeptical worldview as a feature of humans as a natural kind.  Such beliefs reinforce each other since God could see to it that our belief forming mechanisms are reliable, the world is intelligible, and that morals have objective status and things have objective purpose.

Evolutionary Psychology: In light of these competing visions from two sub-disciplines, it is interesting to read that some evolutionary psychologists are arguing that the evolution of human psychology has brought to a point where the species no longer is adapted to its environment.  This seems other than expected since, if natural selection is true, survival over time is an indication of successful adaption over time.  This does not rule out the possibility that such a thing as failure to adapt may occur.  And so the discrepancy between the exogenic factors of the social environment that tend to lead to skepticism and the endogenic factors of the cognitive powers of the human species that tend to lead to deism at least.  It seems that we have a case of a nearly irresistible force meeting a nearly immovable object.

Of course, evolution will tolerate free riders – the appearance of traits that come up randomly but do not play a role that contributes to either the survival of failure to survive of the organism.  But the cognitive tendencies to such beliefs do seem to effect the behavior of humans in ways that impact survival (the Libyan attacks on Sept 11 for example) so again it is other than expected.  So it seems that at first glance, the evolutionary approach makes conceivable that species and social factors could be so diverse, but it also makes it seem incredibly odd.

Philosophical and Christian Observations:  Obviously I can take no credit for being any kind of psychologist.  There could be many places where my fundamental assumptions which are simply false and lead me astray.  I defer to the experts but don’t spoil my fun now.  But taking things as they stand, it seems that merely empirical approaches to psychology are coming up against each other.  Further, it seems that what is mystifying on the empirical level is what we might expect on a rationalist level.  Instead of tending to think of the situation as bottlenecked. It may make more sense on the view that some tendency toward certain knowledge is baked into the mind.  On this view, those tendencies are common to all members of the human species in virtue of their kind.  But since those tendencies require appropriate contexts to be actualized, it is not necessarily the case that all of them are actualized in all times and places.  But because there is a common feature in all properly functioning persons, the apparent perplexity of diverse narratives is potentially resolvable.  When one is perplexed, it does not seem to be the case that a clear answer is available but there may be “a light at the end of the tunnel” if we keep going further in.  It might be worth our while to endure dissonance to see what may come of it.

It is also clear that on closer examination, the Rashomon effect is not totally peculiar to our time.  Past cultures had to deal with rival perspectives and either survived and thrived or become taken up in a larger but still not a skeptical perspective.  Some cultures survived because their environment prevented interaction with other cultures.  And some cultures actively contained or eliminated rival cultures by force.  There is something to be learned from cases of flourishing cultures in rival environments that seem to have overcome to some extent the Rashomon effect and not sink into skepticism.
One source of explanation for the divergence of cultures is the difficulty of incorporating different types of inquiry.  Certain methods and disciplines may tend to different conclusions and it becomes necessary to take a meta-disciplinary or genuinely philosophical perspective on the whole.  We see that illustrated here in the diverse explanatory tendencies of different parts of psychology.

Finally, in light of this, we see the point of Leslie Newbigin’s claim that though we are Christian in a culture once thought to be a Christian culture, we need to think and live more like cross-cultural missionaries.  This reminds us that the mandate for Christian mission necessarily incorporates a mandate for cross cultural exposure, that one of the engines of globalizing and one of the forces that lead to the Rashomon Effect is global missions.  Christ must know and he assures that in going and making disciples of all nations that he would be with us.  Christ calls us to experience the heretical imperative and to work through the perplexity and apparent contradiction of it.