Macrocosm and Microcosm

Every so often, I have one of those horrifying little experiences that leads me to question my firmly held belief that most of Freud’s thought is utter nonsense.

In this case, I am thinking of a recent exchange with a friend. I have long known that this person had a particular view of power dynamics in the world that he held with particular fervor. The depth of his conviction on this point has always surprised me a bit, as I think that there is limited emperical support to his claims. In the course of our recent exchange, my friend began talking about his family. I was suddenly struck by the fact that the dynamic he described was a perfect microcosm of his macrocosmic view of social power. Generally speaking, I don’t like to pyschologize the opinions of others. Maybe what someone thinks about X really is simply the result of a complex set of negotiations between her id, ego, and superego. In most discussions, however, the move to psychologize a position is — in my view — an illegtimate attempt to dismiss an argument. Maybe anti-gun control activists really are working out some sort of a phallic facination with weapons, but strictly speaking this fact has no bearing on the truth of claims about the effect of gun control on crime. Much better, I think, simply to have a debate on the merits and let the psychology slide.

And yet.

I can’t help but thinking that more often than not, our view of the world probably is simply an attempt to reconstruct on a macrocosmic scale our microcosmic experiences. I think that my friend’s passionate ideas about social power are in large part passionate ideas about his own family. Closer to home, I am quite certain that I tend to dismiss as peripheral claims about how the Church “really is” that do not accord with my own experiences. For example, I don’t really believe that Mormons have a big hang up about evolution. On the other hand, I have never had any powerful experiences of Mormons railing against evolution. It has always struck me as a kind of boring non-issue. Yet, I know that for some evolution is a definining religious and intellectual crisis, one which exercises a powerful influence on what Mormonism is “really like.” Whose right? Whose wrong? It is a tricky question, but not one about which — I think — psychology has a great deal to say. Nevertheless, I’m fairly certain that we are too quick to generalize from our own experiences. Or at least, I think that people who disagree with me are too quick to generalize in this way…

44 comments for “Macrocosm and Microcosm

  1. March 24, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    Interesting. When I read the title I thought of a song by the same name. It was by an early 90’s Seattle thrash band Forced Entry. Maybe I simply view the world as a would-be rock star…

  2. seven bohanan
    March 24, 2005 at 3:30 pm


    I disagree with you. Freud is intolerable at the extremes, true, but generally accurate at the core. And if you throw Carl Rogers into the mix, much of human behavior and human opinion is explained.

    You may not “like to psychologize the opinions of others,” or those you hold, but your friend is not the exception in this case. He is the rule. World views are little more than cottage views extrapolated.

  3. Frank McIntyre
    March 24, 2005 at 3:42 pm


    What human behavior did you have in mind that is explained by Freud and cannot be otherwise explained? Isn’t the problem not that you can’t explain behavior, but that the “explanations” are of the non-falsifiable kind? Perhaps these are the extremes to which you refer.

  4. Nate Oman
    March 24, 2005 at 3:56 pm

    Frank: Is the rational actor model falsifiable?

  5. chris goble
    March 24, 2005 at 4:30 pm

    I think we may continue to macro size our microcosm long after this life. If we can hold the course, this should mean we get to live in an environment exactly like we want. The problem comes when we hold out for something that is not logically possible. However, many things are only impossible if others don’t join in. The axis & allies game I have been wanting to play for some time could be a mundane example. So, to me, this does relate to power dynamics. Ultimately most things get determined by what others think. While it is nice to think we are independent, true independence would be a pretty isolated and limiting environment.

  6. A. Greenwood
    March 24, 2005 at 7:22 pm

    Noah Millman admits that his take on Terri Schiavo is mostly based on his own fear of being unable to communicate and abused, even killed, because of it.

    I don’t know that our personal experiences explain all our ideological commitments. But it may be that they take the same role as burdens of proof and default presumptions do in law. That is, when facts and principles don’t provide clear answers, the truths we’ve learned from experience decide messy issues like Terri Schiavo.

  7. seven bohanan
    March 24, 2005 at 7:58 pm

    I like the way you put that. But I think most people deal from a beyond reasonable doubt or clear and convincing evidence standard rather than a preponderance standard. That is, our presumptions hold true unless we see clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.

    Nate, personally I think the rational actor model is falsifiable. I also think it is an inferior predictor of human behavior than, say, behavioral decision theory.

    Frank, I think all behavior can be “otherwise explained.” I just believe the other explanations are usually ruses.

  8. Derek
    March 24, 2005 at 9:45 pm

    “It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.” –Molière

  9. March 25, 2005 at 12:03 am

    One striking example I’ve found in my experience as missionary, a Mormon, a father, and a psychologist (in training) is the tendency of most people to adopt a view of God the Father that reflects their experiences. Often, these are reflections (or projections) of their experiences of their fathers, but just as often the emotional tone of their views of God reflect their mothers.

    When I was a teenager I saw God as a judge and healer, but since becoming a father I have come to view God as an omniscient, loving being whose sole desire is to see me learn and grow. I think this is basically because I’ve taken my feelings about my son and superimposed them onto my relationship with God. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve come to understand him better through this experience. Either way, I think it points strongly to what Nate and Seven are talking about.

  10. Adam Greenwood
    March 25, 2005 at 12:55 am

    What you’re saying, Mr. Ferrin, is that me (see here: and Jonathan Edwards have some serious problems.

  11. Adam Greenwood
    March 25, 2005 at 1:03 am

    Maybe there’s an argument for democracy lurking in here somewhere. By getting mass participation in decisions we are either giving people who don’t have an emotional preconception the opportunity to decide an issue, which means that they’ll have to look at arguments and things. Or, more likely, we’re taking a bunch of people all of whom have emotional preconceptions and hoping that we get enough of them that the preconceptions iron out.

  12. Daniel Ure
    March 25, 2005 at 10:24 am

    What do you make of President Benson’s statement (as prophet in General Conference) where he referred to false doctrine and specifically singled out that taught by Freud and Marx? It has generally been my opinion that Freud was hypersexualized, and, as a result, saw everything through his own sexually-dysfunctional lens. It has also generally been my opinion that Freud’s theories largely serve to negate the power of agency and the Atonement. Let me explain a little, and then I’d be curious to hear your comments:
    Generally, as Elder Packer has pointed out, it does not matter into what kind of situation we are born, but it does matter what we do about it. One of the most profound doctrines of the gospel to me, and I’ve said this before on this site, is the fact that the Atonement overcomes not just our sins, which we always think about when we talk about the Atonement, but also overcomes the “false traditions” and the “traditions of our fathers” that are arguably more difficult to overcome than our sins, since they are not the result of conscious action, but rather are the result of how we’ve always seen things. We simply cannot get out of the box of our experience — that is, we cannot without the Atonement. D&C 93:39 seems to reinforce this to me, and Elder Bradford of the Seventy once made a comment to a group of missionaries while I was on my mission referring to this. Also see an article that appeared in Sunstone (“Not for Adam’s Transgression: Paths to Intergenerational Peace”) that is life-changing and talks about the power of baptism for the dead. Freud seems limiting precisely because he ignores the power of the Atonement, which later scholars building peripherally on some of his work, such as Jung, did not.

    Now, I am not saying that Freud was completely wrong — even a stopped clock is right twice a day–only that his was a counterfeit of truth. I don’t think that he is wrong only “at the extremes,” either, but rather only a slender thread of his work may be relied upon.

    That has been my opinion, but I am curious to hear a rational defense of his work that squares his research with gospel insights and President Benson’s statement. I am by no means an expert on Freud (dabbled a little in this kind of analysis with my English degree, but am now a lawyer), but I would love to hear thoughts from someone with a little more knowledge in this area than myself.

  13. Nate Oman
    March 25, 2005 at 10:26 am

    Adam: I think that democracy is a a useful concept here if it gets us thinking about the institutional or social structure of our beliefs. For example, I think that most political beliefs are pretty “bad” in the sense of being sloppily thought through, poorly justified, etc. (And just to be clear, I would include my own beliefs in this category.) But I think that this is because, by and large, our political beliefs don’t matter much. There is no clear feedback mechanism by which we can see whether our particular beliefs were wrong or right. In a large part, I think that the success of experimental science comes not necessarily because of Frank’s falsifiability claim (I think that there are many important scientific concepts that are not really falsifiable), but because the concept of experimentation is an instiutionalized feedback mechanism. Most of our beliefs lack this sort of a mechanism and as a result they are pretty “bad.”

  14. Nate Oman
    March 25, 2005 at 11:05 am

    Kaimi: I take that Mardell’s mother knew at that point that you were going to law school, and who can really blame her? I mean, the shame of having one of those pettifogging lawyers in the family!

  15. March 25, 2005 at 11:30 am

    For example, I don’t really believe that Mormons have a big hang up about evolution. On the other hand, I have never had any powerful experiences of Mormons railing against evolution.

    Nate, such a choice experience is waiting patiently, yours for the taking at your leisure, simply by opening Elder McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine to “Evolution.” If Dialogue and Sunstone were favored fare in your home growing up, perhaps this volume was unavailable to you, explaining this lacuna in your experience? ;) The prosecuting case is long, a defense nonexistent, and the final judgment summary: “There is no harmony between the truths of revealed religion and the theories of organic evolution.”

    Elder McConkie isn’t alone in his railing; he cites numerous predecessors. One of these citations is a real gem. For the sheer breadth of pages it references, it may be the Mother of All Citations: (Man: His Origin and Destiny, pp. 1-563.)—which, as you can imagine, is a solid book-length railing.

  16. annegb
    March 25, 2005 at 11:37 am

    Well, I’m not sure I understand what the topic is here, all these big words, some I’ve never even heard before. I don’t know much about Freud, except for the idea that the mom is at fault for everything?

    But I think almost everything is relative, we see everything in life based upon our own experiences and point of view. The gospel is true, but for everyone that truth can vary quite a bit. My reality is different than yours. I think that God knows, understands, and expects this. Perhaps that’s why motive is so important in the judging process.

  17. March 25, 2005 at 11:47 am

    Nate wrote:

    I think that most political beliefs are pretty “bad� in the sense of being sloppily thought through, poorly justified, etc. (And just to be clear, I would include my own beliefs in this category.) But I think that this is because, by and large, our political beliefs don’t matter much.


    This statement above is ample evidence suporting your original remark– that or macro views are by-and-large a product of our micro experiences. Your experience has been that you and those with whom you’ve chosen to interact generally develop sloppy, unjustifiable political beliefs. You then rationalize this observation by drawing the conslusion that this is so because “our political beliefs don’t matter much” even though alternative conclusions can be posited. Don’t you think it’s possible that you choose to socialize with people who tend to think political beliefs are not all that important the result is that you and your acquaintances choose not to dicipline your thought on the subject?

    I’m a relative newcomer to T&S but based on other of your posts I find the above comment somewhat out of character for you. Plus, I earnestly disagree with the conclusion you do draw– but that’s a discussion for another day.

  18. seven bohanan
    March 25, 2005 at 12:02 pm


    I too am no expert on Freud and a lawyer. I studied psychology in undergrad and have a budding interest in law and psychology, as I have seen the latter’s import first hand in my practice. Thus, I will give my two cents but defer to someone with more experience in psychology, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, etc…

    Freud was most assuredly hypersexualized. But so is the world. I don’t think false doctrines, as that term is used by prophets modern and ancient, are false because they are poor predictors of human behavior. Rather, I think they are false because the behavior they predict (often times accurately so) and the behavior with which they correlate are incongruous with the teachings of the Gospel. In other words, the methodology is false not flawed.

    Now, how can a methodology be false and not flawed? Easy, in my opinion. Lucifer’s premortal methodology was arguably flawless but wholly false. Everyone would be saved (flawless) but his plan would have thwarted God’s plan (false).

    I am not suggesting that Freud or Marx proffered flawless theories. And I must say that I am not sure those two names belong in the same comparator group. What I suggest is that the foundation laid by Freud — which foundation unquestionably consisted of his own personal experiences, biases, prejudices, and foibles — and built upon by Jung, Rogers, and others, goes a great distance in explaining and forecasting human behavior, even if that behavior is “false” or contrary to the plan of happiness.

  19. Frank McIntyre
    March 25, 2005 at 12:24 pm


    Rationality isn’t falsifiable, but stable preferences are in a given model. The permanent Income Hypothesis is, constant marginal propensity to save is, perfect credit markets are, moral hazard and adverse selection are, etc. etc. The rationality part is the green base upon which all the legos are built and is the maintained assumption. But plenty of the rest of the stuff is quite falsifiable.

    So the analogy is apt. Rational action is a base from which one launches all sorts of scientific (in the sense of falsifiable) predictions. Perhaps Freudian explanations are similar. What, for example, is a Freudian theoretical response to the 1996 welfare reform?

  20. Jack
    March 25, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    It seems to me that the more difficult crises come when one begins to sense a dichotomy between the two (macro vs micro) because of increased awareness of what’s happening on a macro level. For example, I learned, after living outside of the U.S. for a time, that a family of 5 or 6 can be successfully raised in a two bedroom one bathroom house. I learned that folks can have less square footage in their home, an older model vehicle in a carport instead of a garage, hand-me-down clothing for their children, etc. etc. and still be good responsible people. Of course, in the U.S. to raise a good sized family in such conditions may constitute a criminal offense. Even so, I find myself having to adjust my microcosmic views to better match my improved understanding of the macro-world in order to be morally at peace.

  21. Derek
    March 25, 2005 at 1:16 pm

    Daniel wrote: What do you make of President Benson?fs statement (as prophet in General Conference) where he referred to false doctrine and specifically singled out that taught by Freud and Marx?

    Unfortunately, we as humans make the mistake of discrediting everything we hear from a source with which, on only a few points, we disagree (sort of an ad hominem argument). It’s easier to accept what we hear from one source as all truth or as all lies, and this must be the reason for President Benson’s counsel.

    I don’t know exactly what President Benson said, but if he warned us not to read or believe anything written by Freud or Marx (or even if he only implied that everything these two ever said or wrote was false), then he is basically telling us to throw the wheat out with the chaff.

  22. Nate Oman
    March 25, 2005 at 2:14 pm

    Christian: I am aware of the McConkie quotations, the Joseph Fielding Smith stuff, etc. I have even read it, but — to be perfectly blunt — it has never really occurred to me to take it all that seriously or get too worried about it. I am not really sure why I have this reaction, but there it is.

    Paul: I think that you are misunderstanding the sense in which I am using “important.” It is not that I think politics is unimportant an some absolute sense, or that I think our beliefs are unimportant in so far as how concerned about them we are. Rather, my point is that there is no clear feedback from our beliefs. If I have a particular set of beliefs about how I should use a credit card, there will be pretty immediate feedback. If my beliefs are wise, I will be able to pay off my balances and will not pay huge amounts of interest. If my beliefs are not wise, then I will face large amounts of debt, stiff finance charges, and the like. It is quite easy to draw a causal chain from my beliefs to my actions to my financial condition. In contrast, most political beliefs have limited implications for my behavior (vote, work on a campaign, perhaps donate some money) and it is very difficult to draw a clear causal connection between that behavior (and hence my beliefs) and the subsequent shape of my experience. To what extent is my world different because I voted for George W. Bush in 2000? It is — I think — nearly impossible to say. Hence, even if I subjectively feel that my political beliefs are important, and even if as a philosophical matter it is true that politics is an important endeavor, political beliefs have limited practical significance and that significance is very unclear. In this practical sense they are unimportant and are disciplined by argument and analysis but not by concrete experience. My point is that even disciplined argument and analysis are probably not as good at identifying flaws in our beliefs as being able to see the concrete results of those beliefs.

  23. Shawn Bailey
    March 25, 2005 at 2:24 pm

    It seems necessary to distinguish between “psychologiz[ing] the opinions of others” and “generaliz[ing] from our own experiences.” Perhaps this is painfully obvious; perhaps not. Anyway, this discussion has dove-tailed nicely with my reading this week on the train regarding 19th Century English and American philosophy. As I understand him, John Stuart Mill argues that all reasoning is empirical and that its basis is “enumerative induction” or simple generalization from experience. He moves from this insight to discussing what makes some inductions more reliable than others. His point, as I see it, is that we cannot possibly abandon generalizing from our experience. However, we can refine or improve our understanding by constantly revising it based on new and different experiences. The pragmatic idea that beliefs are hypotheses that are born out by experience or abandoned, is obviously related. Thus, it seems clear to me that there is alot of generalizing from subjective expericence that does not involve seemingly groundless “psycholigizing.”

    Incidentally, I am simultaneously intrigued by and deeply suspicious of much psychology. It brings to mind recent discussions here of literary theory. I will not foolishly dismiss things that I do not fully understand. But my suspicions do run deep for a variety of reasons. For one, it seems to me that psychology intrudes into domains that I percieve to be better grounded. Domains seemingly invaded include the religious/spiritual, the philosophical, and the more fully scientific. Much of the discussion above seems to run over specific parts of this ground. Any psychologists (or psychologists in training, Shelby*) willing to respond to my concern?

    * Is that you? The Shelby Ferrin I knew in high school? If so, great to hear from you! Hope all is well with you and yours! If not, well … you are using a name that belongs to a good friend of mine. Please consider changing it.

  24. seven bohanan
    March 25, 2005 at 3:50 pm

    “Incidentally, I am simultaneously intrigued by and deeply suspicious of much psychology. It brings to mind recent discussions here of literary theory. I will not foolishly dismiss things that I do not fully understand. But my suspicions do run deep for a variety of reasons. For one, it seems to me that psychology intrudes into domains that I perceive to be better grounded. Domains seemingly invaded include the religious/spiritual, the philosophical, and the more fully scientific.”

    That is interesting. I think it underscores what we are getting at here. Your starting point is skepticism of psychology, if I can sum it up as such, and you perceive that it intrudes into domains, like science, religion, and philosophy. Others, including myself, on the other hand are “intrigued by and deeply suspicious of” philosophy and what many term hard science. Still others look at religion and spirituality with a jaundiced eye. Why the difference in opinions? I don’t think science adequately explains it. Nor does philosophy, religion, or spirituality. To me, psychology comes the closest.

  25. Frank McIntyre
    March 25, 2005 at 4:06 pm


    “Why the difference in opinions? I don’t think science adequately explains it. Nor does philosophy, religion, or spirituality. To me, psychology comes the closest.”

    I don’t know much about psychology so you’ll have to explain this to me.How exactly does Freudian theory explain your love of psychology? And at the other extreme, how does Freudian theory explain someone else’s (Shawn’s for example) distrust of psychological theory?

  26. seven bohanan
    March 25, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    I would not agree that I love psychology. True, I believe it is as useful as science and more useful than philosophy, but it is not omniscient. Further, I do not think psychology and Freud are synonomous. I see Freud as the founder of psychoanalysis, a base on which others have built. I don’t know Shawn at all, so I can only speculate why he holds that distrust. The nuances of his upbringing, his achievements and failures, his family and friends, and a multiplicity of other factors likely hold the answer. As they do for me.

    Most members of the church, in my experience, are skeptical about psychology because psychology is areligious. It is thus seen as anathema to the gospel because it, as Shawn said, seemingly “intrudes” into a sphere in which it has no place. I view psychology differently. I believe it is inferior to the higher law but essential to understanding the path that leads to the higher law.

  27. A. Greenwood
    March 25, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    Any relation to Neil Ferrin?

  28. Shawn Bailey
    March 25, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    Seven (no. 24): Psychology comes the closest to what? Absolute truth? Something else? How and why do you reach your conclusion (whatever it is)? Is this an intuitive or faith-like response or an evaluation based on standard academic criteria (i.e., verification based on experimentation, logical coherence, predictive power, usefulness)? I am sincerely interested.

    I do tend to privilege religious knowledge primarily as a matter of faith and due to personal spiritual experiences. In doing so, I try not to be closed to challenging my religious beliefs and having them grow deeper in the process. But generally I try to harmonize (if possible) other types of knowledge that I encounter with my core religious convictions.

    In contrast, I don’t approach non-faith ways of knowing (i.e., psychology, philosophy, science) in the same way. Thus, I am not assuming, a priori, skepticism of psychology. Skepticism is my response based on my limited experience and understanding—a response that I would gladly abandon if I came to see why it was mistaken.

  29. Shawn Bailey
    March 25, 2005 at 5:00 pm

    Seven (no. 26): your statement that psychology explains my perception of psychology did strike me as funny. It looks like an example of what I think Nate was getting at: the tendency of some to view psychology as all purpose tool—a magical Gordian-Knot cutter. Perhaps psychology does explain my response. But I may also have sound reasons based on some other way of knowing.

  30. Shawn Bailey
    March 25, 2005 at 5:09 pm

    On second reading of your comment no. 26, Seven, I think I inferred that you were speaking of psychology when you wrote: “The nuances of his upbringing, his achievements and failures, his family and friends, and a multiplicity of other factors likely hold the answer.” Apologies if my reading was unfair. Either way, your argument seems deterministic (i.e., my response cannot possibly be a reasoned conclusion; it is a product of my nature and experience).

  31. Russ Frandsen
    March 25, 2005 at 7:21 pm

    The 19th Century was the most profound century since Anno Domini – evincing the extremes of beneficence and bane. The 19th century includes the restoration of the gospel, the flowering of science and economics, the consolidation of democracy, and the propogation of the dogmas of Marx, Darwin and Freud.

  32. Jack
    March 25, 2005 at 9:50 pm

    While I believe that psychology has proven itself to be useful in some ways, it can most certainly be destructive in others. IMO, the biggest problem with psychology is mechanization. We can now determine that individuals are “wired” to commit sin thereby alleviating them of personal guilt without the need of a redeemer. It gets even worse when other sciences support this notion with biological evidence.

  33. Frank McIntyre
    March 25, 2005 at 10:37 pm


    “And if you throw Carl Rogers into the mix, much of human behavior and human opinion is explained.”

    This was your comment. So you think Freud and Rogers explain “most of human behavior”. I am still trying to figure out what this means. In reference to your claim that psychology explains why some people favor psychology and some favor religion, you note that Shawn’s experiences affect his beliefs. Of course one’s experiences affect one’s beliefs. Is this the fascinating psychological insight of Freud or Rogers or some psychologist? Didn’t we already know that? If this is the insight then I agree that it is true, but am less than dumbfounded.

    To put it another way, I am still trying to figure out what broad strokes of human behavior are so impressively explained by careful psychological theory. As of yet, I don’t even know what you are really claiming.

  34. John H
    March 27, 2005 at 11:56 am


    I don’t put much stock in Freud either, but I think you’ve made some great points. Let’s take the evolution example you bring up: I’ve always thought it is a big deal among the Saints and the issue has been a source of tension for me. And yet, after I read your post, I took some time to think about it. In reality, I’ve spoken to less than half-a-dozen members who object to evolution, and the rest of my perspective comes from the antecdotes of others, which are sometimes two or three times removed.

    It is difficult for me to step outside myself a bit and try and see the perspective of others on issues like this. My world has been framed through these experiences, and if you haven’t noticed, I get unnecessarily nasty when challenged – which is another interesting part of the puzzle. Why do people have an emotional attachment to their outlook that makes them bristle when challenged?

  35. March 28, 2005 at 10:08 am

    I’m just getting back to this thread after an Easter weekend away from my computer. Yes, Shawn, I am one and the same. I was referred to Times and Seasons by a law student friend of mine and have been pleased to unexpectedly run into you and H.L. here. I’d love to swap notes some time on what you’re up to these days.

    I’m not aware of any relation to Neil Ferrin, though it’s not unlikely. The one I usually get is “any relation to Arnie Ferrin?” (a U of U basketball player about 40 years ago).

    To respond in a general way to some of the above comments (probably the best I can do first thing in the morning), I was attracted to psychology precisely because of its connections (or “intrusions”) to so many other disciplines. I consider psychology, clinical work in particular, to be a considerable help to many people in understanding the nature of their own feelings and behaviors, particularly when their lack of awareness has led to problematic patterns in their lives.

    I do not consider psychological theory to be on par with spiritual ways of knowing, but I do think it has much to offer. I find its contributions at least as useful as what I’ve been exposed to in philosophy, literary theory, etc.

  36. Jack
    March 28, 2005 at 10:50 am

    I agree with Shelby. Dispite some of the difficulties cause by psychological therapy, it’s nice to know that some of our “demons” are metaphorical.

  37. Nate Oman
    March 28, 2005 at 10:59 am

    “Why do people have an emotional attachment to their outlook that makes them bristle when challenged?”

    This is an interesting question that I have thought about a bit of late. I have been working for the last several months on an article on the philosophy of contract law, which is currently being considered for publication at several law reviews. In it I attack some arguments put forward by a duo of moderately prominent law professors. Today, one of these professors finally got back to me with his response and critique of my article. It was long, polite, and in many ways quite generous. However, it was also essentially unremittingly hostile to my central thesis. I didn’t have any stong personal reaction to this criticism. The prof clearly thinks that my argument is wrongheaded and a bit silly, and I think that he makes several valid points. However, other than the unavoidable fear of the silent claim “Your argument is wrong, therefore you are stupid for making it,” I didn’t feel personally attacked or upset.

    On the other hand, I have often had the sort of visceral reaction to criticism that you identify. I suspect it comes because there are certain beliefs and opinions which we hold that we think of as constituting ourselves in some way, while we have other beliefs and opinions which are essentially accidental to our identity. The problem with constituitive beliefs is that they leave us particularlly vulnerable to criticism. Attacks on those beliefs will be experienced as personal attacks, attacks on our identity. By and large, religion is more likely, I think, to form such a constitutive belief. Indeed, that is one of its chief virtues and attractions. It seems to me that there are a couple of ways of coping with discussion of these sorts of constiuitive beliefs:

    1. We can become hyper-defensive, vehemently responding to every criticism as a way of shoring up our own identity.

    2. We can simply withdraw from conversations in which our constitutive beliefs will be challenged.

    3. We can abandon the constitutive aspect of those beliefs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we no longer believe that X is true, but rather it means that our belief in the truth of X is no longer central to our identity. One can continue to believe that X is true without that belief being constituitive.

    4. We can cultivate some set of intellectual and conversational “virtues” that allow us to manage challenges to constitutive beliefs. It seems to me that there are several potential candidates here. We might cultivate a sense of arrogance, whereby we feel comfortable dismissing certain challenges. Ironically, it seems that we can also respond by cultivating humility and charity, so that whether that shielding ourselves in contempt, we shield ourselves with personal charity toward the critic. Finally, we might cultivate a sense of daring in which we enjoy the possibility of challenge to our constitutive beliefs, a sort of intellectual bungee jumping.

    It seems to me that calls to be objective about religion amount to calls for response 3. The problem with this response, however, is that it involves a certain constriction of one’s self, a real loss of something important and valuable. The virtue-based responses in 4 are more difficult and none of them is entirely satisfactory. I think that 1 and 2 are not without their own conversational difficulties. I suspect that ultimately, there is no good solution to this problem. To have constitutive beliefs is to live with pain. One can only avoid the pain by avoiding such beliefs entirely, but this option leaves you in a position in which you are never defined by your beliefs and convictions matter. One might think of it as a kind of intellectual version of Lehi’s teachings on the Fall (Cf. 2. Nephi 2). By the fall comes pain, but the pain is a necessary condition for the possibility of joy. The trick is to learn how to cope with pain in such away that one does not destroy oneself or others, which is, of course, one of the things that Christ teaches.

  38. March 28, 2005 at 11:17 am

    Very perceptive, Nate. I think, though, that the “sense of arrogance” you mention in #4 doesn’t really belong there, but reduces to #1, and that #4 really amounts to charity through-and-through. For even the last part of #4—the daring intellectual bungee jumping—could be upgraded to charity, though I might recast it as walking a tightrope without a net: Considering “the other’s” point of view with a vulnerable openness to the fact that it might actually change my point of view, and even my convictions, is perhaps the most selfless and charitable interaction possible.

  39. March 28, 2005 at 11:20 am

    Ironically, this walking-a-tightrope-without-a-net is what we ask of our proselytes (indeed the whole world), but we are loath to do it ourselves.

  40. Nate Oman
    March 28, 2005 at 12:56 pm

    Christian: Even if my classification is right, it is a bit question begging. Why do we latch on to some beliefs as constitutitve while not others. To take the evolution example: Why are beliefs about evolution so constitutive and intense for some, while being perphiral and accidental to others? It is easy to see how certain beliefs — e.g. There is loving God and we are his children. He has a plan for our happiness and progress — could be central to our identity. On the other hand, there are other beliefs — e.g. There was or was not pre-Adamic life — that seem to be constititutive for some, but it is not really clear why, or at least it is not obvious.

  41. Shawn Bailey
    March 28, 2005 at 2:39 pm

    Shelby (no. 35): Reflecting on my comments above from last week, I think there are distinctions that, although unstated, were in the back of my mind as I wrote. First, I was not thinking of what I understand to be clinical psychology. I wasn’t thinking of an individual psychologist helping a troubled person. Nor was I thinking of actual psychological research that as far as I know is as rigorous and valid as any other social science. I can see, as you said, connections between psychology in this sense and religion, philosophy, science, etc.

    What I was thinking of was attempts to use seemingly clumsy generalizations from psychology to dismiss or explain away otherwise significant questions or arguments. Perhaps my suspicion noted above is only a reaction to shoddy pop-psychology. Also, perhaps it is pointess to attempt to evaluate an entire profession or field of study without engaging any particular ideas or achievements. I suppose I would be interested to read some kind of introduction to psychology for the non-specialist.

  42. March 28, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    Nate, I’ll put on the dilettantish literary critic’s hat I’ve been trying on lately, and say the answer lies in the power of narrative, and try to generate a story that explains why.

    You’ve labeled certain beliefs “constitutive” because they are formative to our identity in some way, but I think we have to go a little further. The beliefs that really matter do not just form our identity, they determine the future welfare of that identity. In this sense, they might profitably be labeled some other way, maybe “predictive”, or probably better “preservative”. “Predictive” is too closely associated with the “objective” epistemology of hard science; as I’ll explain below, by “preservative” I might hope to connote both the subjective nature of and emotional commitment to the beliefs in question.

    To lay the groundwork, a big story behind why stories are so important: Consider two faculties that were important for humanity to make its particular way in the great competition among species—the abilities to (1) imagine the future, and scheme and plan accordingly, and (2) raise cooperative enterprises. Both of these require “storytelling”: (1) is essentially the generation of a plot (note the dual meaning), and (2) requires the convincing narration of that plot.

    So we develop these faculties for generating and telling “stories” (with a small “s”), faculties which are necessary for us to solve day-to-day problems (with a small “p”).

    But these faculties, initially selected for because of their utility in our day-to-day survival, have an “unintended” consequence. Being conscious and concerned for our future, we cannot help deploying these faculties beyond their original utility; we imagine not just the outcome of tomorrow’s group hunt or next fall’s harvest, but also our Ultimate Fate. And so we generate “Stories” (with a big “S”), to cope with this Problem (with a big “P”).

    Despite the common motivation and mechanisms of generation, there is a major difference between “stories” and “Stories”. Quick feedback is provided on the former, so that they are continually tested, refined and improved, and there is little controversy as to which are “true” (in the architecht’s sense: “in line” with the real world) and which are “false”. But “Stories”, while giving us the expectation of having solved “Problems”, are untestable on mortal timescales. Attached to “Stories” are the emotional imperatives that selection bequeathed us as a means of ensuring we would latch onto “stories”; but as “Stories” remain untested in the real world, they proliferate unchecked, with their emotionally attached adherents finding themselves in unresolvable conflict (as in this Saturday Nite Live video).

    Note that beliefs you labeled as obviously constitutive—There is loving God and we are his children. He has a plan for our happiness and progress—might not have any emotional power whatsoever to a thoroughgoing secularist, because these ideas are not part of her Story.

    Finally, to come to your example of evolution: Accidental, or Preservative? For you, it’s apparently accidental. Since I’ve indulged in armchair psychologizing of Elder McConkie before on one of your threads, let me speculate on why it might conceivably be Preservative for him.

    Elder McConkie’s Story is that his eternal destiny is contingent upon exacting, precise obedience to the commandments of God. But precise obedience is only possible with precise knowledge of God’s will, which he believes is available in the scriptures. Hence he becomes the embodiment of dedicated concern with systematization and harmonization of all scripture and practice, ancient and modern. An idea like evolution, that is not readily harmonized with scripture, threatens the integrity and reliability of the Word of God, which threatens his ability to know and obey the Word of God, which threatens his eternal destiny. Hence he attacks it, essentially out of self-preservation.

    We might be more daring, and get more specific and speculative. Part of his received doctrinal matrix is the expectation of unbounded literal procreation of spirit children, and the right to live polygamy (he says definitively in Mormon Doctrine, It Shall Return). Denied its practice for now because of the oppression of man, he manages his disappointment at living under the restriction of the natural privileges of God’s elect by savoring the anticipation of its enjoyment in eternity. Now, he’s no fool when it comes to the implications of evolution; he’s thought it through carefully, and realizes it’s difficult to reconcile with the traditional (scriptural, for him) notion of literal spirit progeny (and also divine procreation of Adam). This undermining of his eternal expectations is unbearable; in order to preserve his hard-fought eternal expectations, once again evolution becomes anathema.

    All in good fun, to put my theory to the test: Is Nate existentially concerned with precise, exacting obedience to the Inerrant Word? Is he wedded to the expectation of literal spirit procreation and polygamy in eternity? If not, maybe this is why evolution is accidental for him. ;)

    DISCLAIMER: I am not a trained and qualified literary critic, biologist, psychologist, theologian, or biographer of either Elder McConkie or Nate Oman, so everyone should blow off these ruminations accordingly.

  43. Nate Oman
    March 28, 2005 at 4:34 pm

    Wow. Literary theory and sociobiology. I am impressed. On the other hand, I suspect that these may be two approaches to knowledge whose epistemological foundations deserve each other.

    One problem with your thesis is that I don’t think that constiutitve beliefs are confined to religion. Hence, I don’t think that they are necessarily tied to concerns about Answers and Stories and Problems. For example, a while back there was a book published by a poltiical scientist (forget name; sorry) entitled _The Hollow Hope_. The basic thesis was that civil rights litigation in the 1950s and the 1960s was essentially irrelevent. The courts issued opinions but no schools were desegregated. Nothing much happened in terms of real social change. Then there were race riots. Congress acted, and the south began to desegregate. The conclusion: Courts are pretty sorry insturments of social change.

    This book drove a large percentage of the law professoriate batty. They fell over themselves condemning and attacking it. They couldn’t say enough awful things about the book, its conclusions, or its author. In my mind the response seemed a bit disproportionate. My theory is that the idea of successful cause lawyering was an absolutely constitutive belief for these law professors. Their faith in the ability of heroic civil rights lawyers and enlightened courts to transform society for the better was fundemental to their understanding of themselves as lawyers and thinkers. Yet I don’t see that this belief is predictive in any sense. It wasn’t necessarily the lack of feedback that made their beliefs so intense. It was the role of the beliefs in self-definition.

    As for evolution, I suspect that it has less to do with inerrantism or anything else than with the fact that I was taught at a very early age that Elder McConkie’s theology was suspect and not authoritiative, that the Church took no position on evolution, etc. etc. This is basically the stuff that my father taught me when I was a kid watching nature shows on PBS about evolution. This early experience then became the core of both my reaction to evolution and my sense of its place in Mormon theology. I don’t believe in Inerrant Scripture (I don’t think that any Mormon should). I do think that obedience to divine command is necessary, and I have a pretty literal view about the after life. I think we’ll be resurrected, recieve the glory that God has prepared for us, and go forward with eternal progression. I don’t think of this stuff as metaphorical mumbo jumbo or cosmic myth in a kind of Joseph Cambell way. I’m pretty literal about this.

  44. March 28, 2005 at 5:25 pm

    On the other hand, I suspect that these may be two approaches to knowledge whose epistemological foundations deserve each other.

    Sweet retort! Rhetorically, at least. And there may well be a lot of truth in that, for all I know.

    But I am genuinely curious… Dilettante that I am, I’m anxious to learn, and wonder if there’s a substantive basis lurking somewhere beneath the double disciplinary slander, or if it’s simply parroted from overheard academic infighting.

    However, it might be argued that your example can be interpreted as an example of preservative beliefs. True, the professors are already immortal, in that they have tenure; but what good is tenured immortality if nobody listens to them anymore? To an academic, this is the empty immortality of Xanadu. Their fight is one for the preservation of an influential academic existence, and the trappings that come with it (just, for fun, to go all the way with the sociobiological importance of the privileges of status).

    I might also point out that while you’ve repeated your claim of the importance of identifying “constitutive beliefs,” the bare repetition of this assertion (albeit with an additional putative example) has made no progress towards answering your questions: What makes people come to have these beliefs, and why are they so emotionally attached to them? I went out on a limb with a story of explanation; you don’t like it, that’s fine; but substantive argument against it would be interesting, and an alternative theory even more interesting. I think at the end of the day, it’s not “It’s me!” that matters, but “the preservation of me” that haunts us.

    As to eternal progression, I don’t know if you subscribe to the traditional literal interpretation of spirit progeny, and if so, if you have a reconciliation it with evolution. (I understand not everyone cares about this, but if by chance you do have a reconciliation I’d be interested to hear it.)

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