Factual Mind-Sets, Communing Sensibilities

As someone who writes quite a bit about religion from philosophical and literary — not to say, religious — points of view, I was not surprised but piqued by a Sunday opinion piece in the New York Times. Here is T. M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist who writes regularly for the Times on religion. Here she reports on “Faith vs. Facts.”

processing_dataA broad group of scholars is beginning to demonstrate that religious belief and factual belief are indeed different kinds of mental creatures. People process evidence differently when they think with a factual mind-set rather than with a religious mind-set. Even what they count as evidence is different.

Note that the scholars she defers to for assistance in understanding religious and factual belief are all doing science — looking for the causes of things, and trying from that angle to explain how the mind works. But of course literature or painting can display how the mind works, so the scientists shouldn’t try to corner the market.

As important, notice the extreme simplifications at work: there are only two kinds of belief worth considering, religious belief and factual belief, and belief is construed as the outcome of assembling evidence for conclusions. But our exchanges with the world come not only from an evidence-assessing mind but also from a caring heart.

Hearts are in the business of caring for, or loving, or trusting the world — or being amazed at the musician about to perform or at the child smiling impishly from across the room. They are overcome by wonder or terror or affection or disgust. Religious trust, wonder, love, or disgust (or ordinary appreciations of paintings or impish kids) are miles from being beliefs spit out from processing evidence.  The contrast between cognition and the heart is not between two ways to reach conclusions from evidence.

Belief in our friends or loved ones is a matter of trust and appreciation — not a matter of assembling evidence to support a belief that something is true. And if I marvel at the wonder of a towering California sequoia, the marvel doesn’t arrive from processing evidence. The wonder strikes me in an immediate way — just as the smile of a child can overcome me directly.

The view of persons as data- or evidence-processing-machines that so many scientists promote and laypersons accept is horribly confining and false. Persons are so much more — creatures of desire, of moral and aesthetic and interpersonal sensibility. And for some, all this overlaps with religious sensibility. I don’t weep with joy as an outcome of processing evidence. Surely the heart gravitates toward beauty and retreats from a disgusting mess. This means the person is, let’s say, a mind and a heart, or a mind that can be heart-ful, or a heart that can be mindful.

Of course, scientists aren’t the only ones to think that fact-processing is at the center of brain work. A certain kind of ordinary religious believer will think — mistakenly — that if the Bible (say) isn’t a fact-based account of things, then it’s worthless as a religious document. But the Psalms and books of wisdom literature are closer to Bach or Rembrandt or W. E. Sebald than to Kepler or Darwin or Heisenberg.

Thoreau respected the search for scientific knowledge, and was very good at assembling it — identifying causes and collecting data and evidence. But he also reports, toward the end of his great late essay “Walking,” that he also desires something in life other than scientific or practical knowledge. His highest desire is a kind of sensuous contact with things that is immediate, that lacks the detachment of factual scientific reports, and is akin to being struck by beauty.

Luhrmann (and many others) think that a religious sensibility rests on what the mind counts as evidence in favor of beliefs. But what if a religious sensibility is a matter of how one tunes the heart (or lets it be tuned). I’m terribly moved by Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which overcomes me completely. But my response to it can’t be illuminated much by seeking some posited auditory inputs that account for, or explain, its marvel and my being overcome. Our aesthetic, spiritual, and moral responses are not just data processing.  They are responses to presences — the radiance of a smile, the lilt of a tune, the allure of a portrait, the song of a stream, the glamor of heavens.  None of these are reducible to data or facts.

Thoreau pursues a kind of sympathetic contact or communion with life. That’s a matter of tuning the heart to the music and poetry of the world — letting the heart flow toward beauty or the sublime or the wondrous, we could say. And it’s also a matter of letting the presence of the sublime or beautiful or wondrous flow toward the heart, and help tune it.

 — Ed Mooney, Contributor

Citations: T. M. Luhrmann’s “Faith vs. Facts” is found in the New York Times Sunday Review section, April 18, 2015. Thoreau’s “Walking” can be found in Collected Essays and Poems of Thoreau, ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell, New York: Library of America, 2001. See p. 249f., for his remarks about desiring more than scientific or useful knowledge.

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