18 February 2011

Explanation vs Interpretation

IN THE INTRODUCTION to their book Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture, the authors Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley admit they intend to cause trouble. The audience for the book is probably involved on one side or the other of the sometimes bitter scholarly conflict they are writing about. The combination of jargon and assumed common political and intellectual background make it a bit daunting for the general reader. However in Chapter One Lawson and McCauley make some interesting observations about the social sciences generally and the study of religion in particular that I want to pick up on.

They note a dichotomy between those who seek knowledge through explanation and those who seek it through interpretation, but make the point that the dichotomy is in many ways a false one.

In its extreme form the explanation camp says that all interpretation is irrelevant. The stereotype here is the materialist scientist, the logical empiricist who is only concerned with the observation of facts. Knowledge is the discovery of causal laws, and interpretive efforts simply get in the way. The approach to knowledge puts strict limits on acceptable subject matters and methods. The important thing about science - which distinguishes it from common sense - is that scientific explanations form general systems of abstract principles. These principles can be applied beyond the domain in which they were discovered. It is the inter-connectedness of scientific theories, the way they work together to support each other, that contributes to their success. Common sense knowledge, by contrast, is typically restricted to a particular domain, and it isn't related strongly to other knowledge. Explanations lead to consensus, but only on the subset of all possible knowledge amenable to empirical observations.

We can safely let Richard Dawkins stand as a good example of the scientist explanationist camp. He is known for his impatience with superstition and ignorance of facts, and for his public attacks on religious beliefs. Interestingly Richard Dawkins evinces surprise that people should see him as 'cold' and 'nihilistic' on reading The Selfish Gene, and attempts to alter that impression with his next book, Unweaving the Rainbow. But for all that he shows that he is familiar with poetry and deft at manipulating metaphors in his factual explanations, he also seems to misunderstand something fundamental about human cognition and decision making - the role of emotion in our lives. Dawkins appears to explain his failure to communicate himself as laziness or stupidity on the part of his audience. He is openly contemptuous of people who are not persuaded by his explanations, but makes no attempt to connect with the values of the audience, which means that he presumes that everyone prioritises cold hard facts as he does. Note that his sub-title for Unweaving the Rainbow contrasts science with delusion as though these are the only two possible positions. His contumely is reminiscent of legacy attitudes of the British upper-classes to the common people. Similarly Stephen Hawking in his recent book The Grand Design declares "philosophy is dead", and that scientific determinism is simply how things are - he goes as far as denying the possibility of free will, but allows that despite the lack of true agency that behaviour is so complex that it remains unpredictable. The Grand Design trumpets itself as offering "new answers to life's ultimate questions" - and the selection of the questions is telling. First and foremost Hawking seeks to answer: 'why is there something rather than nothing?'. Socrates question 'how should we live?' is not only not addressed, is it not even asked! Scientific determinism creates a sterile vacuum by placing many aspects of human life - especially all the creative and imaginative arts, and the human emotions and values - outside the sphere of knowledge seeking and making.

On the other hand is the interpretationist who says that all inquiry about human life and thought occurs in irreducible frameworks of values and subjectivity. Human beings are subjects not objects. The search for knowledge about human beings - and therefore about religion - is the search for reasons (hermeneutics) and meaning (semiotics). Explanation is not only unnecessary it is at best undesirable, and at worst not possible. Since interpretation allows no common (objective) standard and there is much less interactivity amongst knowledge found in this way, there is a tendency to splinter into factions e.g. Freudian, Foucauldian, Feminist, Marxist, Christian, Buddhist, etc. Each group comes up with a plausible story about what things mean, and criticises the other groups with no possibility of consensus. The interpretationist account of humanity is overly fecund, and reaches an apotheosis in the Post-Modernists who reject all explanation and all objectivity, and disclaim all possibility of wider consensus since there is only personal interpretation. However interpretation allows us to structure and understand those areas of life which science cannot touch - particularly human experience. Although laws may not be possible, there are certainly patterns. Identifying and discussing problems such as universal human rights rely on interpretation rather than explanation.

I'm not familiar with any of the examples of interpretationist type given in the book, but it strikes me that Joseph Campbell fits the profile. He interprets myths and legends, seeking reasons for human behaviour and sources of meaning relating to it. He is not concerned with what causes us to behave, in the way that a scientist is, only in what it means that we do behave the way we do. Campbell on the other hand accepts everything as part of life's rich tapestry without judgement. So when discussing the theme of rebirth (in his interviews with Bill Moyers published as The Power of Myth) he sees the images of the Buddha peacefully meditating beneath the bodhi tree, and Jesus brutally nailed to a cross as being the same story without any qualification (I disagree). Equally he discusses ritual murder in the same context without any sense of moral judgement - every expression of human behaviour is valid to him because it is simply an expression of the myth. The term for this kind of view is monist - expressed sometimes as "all is one". There is no way to prove what Campbell says - it is simply one interpretation of a range of observations. Campbell's position is not easily reducible, but he is broadly speaking a Jungian, I think. If he were a Marxist his reading of the myths would no doubt be different. However Campbell creates extremely plausible narratives in many cases and he seems to shed light on the content and importantly the function of myths. Since the Enlightenment myth has become a byword for something which is not true. Campbell shows how myths have value because they symbolically communicate meanings and purposes, and has to some extent rehabilitated the word myth.

Lawson and McCauley outline some intermediate positions, but these require some familiarity with the literature and are therefore harder to explain. Overall when there are concessions made by 'social scientists', the authors say, they inevitably privilege interpretation and subordinate explanation. Some see the methods of social science as yet inadequate to the task of an empirical approach, leaving interpretation as the only way forward. A second group acknowledge that explanation has a role, but see human actions as guided by reasons and not by causes, so it seems natural to focus on interpretation while not actually discounting explanation (I think the problem here is free will). A third intermediate position sees all knowledge seeking - including the natural sciences - as fundamentally interpretive, and in particular argue for the importance of subjectivity in the construction of scientific knowledge systems. For this last group interpretation sets the agenda for explanation. In studying humans they prioritise the concrete contents of human experience over the abstract theories about them.

In my experience most religious people are interpretationists of either the extreme kind who deny any possible explanation for human, especially religious, experience; or they tolerate a level of explanation but place certain types of experience forever beyond the reach of empiricism and factual knowledge (my Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita is overtly in this camp I would say). Religious people are wary of explanation which they see as 'cold', and as 'killing the magic'. They speak of scientists 'explaining away' their beliefs. The danger religious people see is that science, in explaining human religious behaviour, will destroy the things they value about their religious practices and communities. And on past evidence this is not an unreasonable fear as explanationists are often insensitive to values.

It's clear that the extreme approaches are not always helpful. Although both have had their successes, they have tended to polarise the discussion about religion and stymie communication and understanding. The point that Lawson and McCauley wish to make is that there is a way to combine both interpretation and explanation without privileging or banishing one or the other, and that in effect we all do it anyway. They point out that in fact explanation and interpretation are different cognitive tasks.
"When people seek better interpretations they attempt to employ the categories they have in better ways. By contrast, when people seek better explanations they go beyond the rearrangement of categories; the generate new theories which will, if successful, replace or even eliminate the conceptual scheme with which they presently operate." (p.29)
Interpretation presupposes a body of explanation (of facts and laws), and seeks to (re)organise empirical knowledge. Explanation always contains an element of interpretation, but successful explanations winnow and increase knowledge. The two processes are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated, and both are necessary.

In the process of attempting to integrate Buddhism and Western Culture (which includes science and technology as well as distinctive myths and ideas about what gives life meaning) we cannot afford to take an exclusively explanatory or interpretive approach. We are forced, by intellectual honesty, to accept the strong conclusions of science: the classical laws of physics and chemistry for instance are not really in doubt despite being dependent on a frame of reference - we do in fact live in that frame of reference. Some of the critique of each camp is useful - explanation helps to put useful limits on interpretation; while we are reminded that facts are not always hard (think of statistics and how vital they are in biology or quantum mechanics) and laws governing imagination and emotion are vague, though not without importance.

One of the big issues of religion in the modern world is the status of the supernatural. On the trivial level we have ghosts and 'energies' of various kinds, and on a more serious level we have a transcendental Buddha beyond any predication or description, let alone explanation. Nirvāṇa is taboo, and remains not just inaccessible but forbidden to scientists. Though one of the most interesting areas of neuroscience is the effects of meditation on the brain.

To even consider trying to explain the Buddha is seen as a kind of heresy. We Buddhists do maintain conceptions equivalent to both heresy and blasphemy - despite all protestations to the contrary - that emerge when we transgress. It can be heresy to deny some doctrines. To some denying rebirth is a heresy. More or less any doctrinal innovation in Buddhism leaves one open to the charge of heresy. If we go further and declare our belief that consciousness is entirely based in the brain (which I more or less accept) or that the Buddha was just a human being who was kind and not troubled by psychological suffering then we will find the charge of blasphemy being laid surreptitiously at our doorstep. We may find that someone will say that we are not in fact Buddhists if we don't accept a transcendental version of Buddhism; or we may be called a materialist. The label materialist has a powerfully pejorative sense in this context; and often comes with an offhand, sometimes contemptuous, dismissal of the so-called materialist's opinions. The form of the arguments is identical, I would say, to those we see in theistic milieus.

Buddhists like to emphasise true, original (in the temporal sense) and authentic teachings; genuine masters, living Buddhas; unbroken lineages; and fully ordained individuals. We are a bit obsessed with appealing to external authorities to bolster our internal authority. Why do I constantly refer to the Pāli Canon for instance when I have my personal experience? Could it be from lack of experience?

We have some way to go as most of these issues are not even conscious. As someone with a science education and a leaning towards explanation, I regularly find myself in conflict with those who embrace interpretation - often having to point out that my disinclination to supernatural interpretations of experience does not amount to materialism (see Am I a Materialist?). The important thing about Lawson and McCauley's analysis is that it clarifies what issues and values are at stake so that we can bring them to awareness, and have the discussion in the open. Facts are important, and we should not be denying facts in promoting Buddhism. One fact is that human values are not easily objectified, and another is that experience doesn't necessarily conform to mathematical laws.

Lawson, E. T. and McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chapter One Reprinted as Lawson, E. T. and McCauley, R. N. (2006). "Interpretation and Explanation: Problems and Promise in the Study of Religion." J. Slone (ed.). Religion and Cognition: A Reader, London: Equinox.

See also:
Oliver Sacks on Why the brain creates myths on bigthink.com: "Jerome Bruner, a great psychologist, has spoken of two modes of thinking. One is to create narratives, one is to create paradigms or explanations or models."
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