Monday, May 23, 2005

Disorder in the House

kStyle (and Ann), in the process of sharing her idiosyncratic habits, wonders if there's an intrinsic human need for ritual. And it's such an interesting question I decided it deserved a longer answer, though, of course, your answer might vary considerably from mine.

I do think--and I've said here, many times--pattern-matching is, generally speaking, one of the things that living beings do. Does this situation look/smell/feel/sound like some other situation? Is there something else that would serve as a guide for this situation? I suspect that creatures don't vary so much in terms of the complexity of the patterns they can match but in terms of the ways in which they can "discuss" patterns. Humans (at least) can also do so self-consciously, in ways that other species don't seem to be able to do, and we seem to rely on that aspect of our pattern-matching more than any intrinsic ability to identify or match complexity. (Our senses of hearing and smell seem to be less refined than those of dogs, for example.) Perhaps another way to think about it is that our ability to communicate in words enables us to process more complexity as a group; for species whose ability to communicate is more limited, each individual must be able to handle more information for him/herself. (I have no idea whether I'd really believe that once I thought about it for awhile, but I threw it out there for general perusal.) Come to think of it, Wittgenstein fits in here, too, with regard to what I said below about complexity of world and complexity of language being intertwined.

In any case, I think that humans, like other species, want to order their worlds, in order to make them at least appear to be more predictable (and, therefore, less scary). (I'm thinking now of the studies done in other species showing that animals upon whom pain was inflicted randomly did more poorly than animals upon whom pain was inflicted in a predictable pattern, suggesting that it isn't just the physical sensation of the pain but a creature's ability to predict it, and, thereby, manage it in some way.) Ordering isn't just an effort to stave off unpredictability and fear, though; ordering can make whole other things possible. Subassemblies and language are two kinds of ordering that make additional complexity possible, for example.

One might argue, though, that "order" and "ritual" aren't the same thing, that one has to do with everyday life, and the other with some notion of the sacred and/or with some ceremonial aspect; we could easily throw in a third category, while we're at it, the pathological version of order/ritual that characterizes obsessive-compulsive disorder. Personally, I'd argue that "ritual" can encompass the ceremonial without invoking or involving the sacred, and others might want to give the sacred its own space, so the particular categories can vary.

In any case, this all leads us to the heart of the matter, as well as to the question of whether order is something that is discovered, created, or imposed. That is, atheists like me have lots of uses for order and even for ceremony, and we're probably as subject to OCD pathologies as anyone else, but we might regard religion as merely another aspect of pattern-related behavior. That is, our (human) habit of ordering things--and then imputing meaning to those orderings--may have led us to believe that there is a deity (or a whole wealth of them). Deists of various sorts (and especially the creationists, who make me break out in hives) would argue that the order is there for us to discover, and that the order is a creation of a deity. And then kStyle is just trying to make a proper cup of tea, so there you go.

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