“The man whom we believe is necessarily, in the things concerning which we believe him, our leader and director.”
– Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments
This post is a summary of the first chapter in Steven Shapin’s A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. While Shapin’s book is largely about the sociological origins of scientific truth, his account easily generalizes to a discussion of truth, trust and dissent within religious communities.
Shapin is a leading figure in the “strong programme” of the sociology of knowledge associated, primarily, with the University of Edinburgh. This school largely defines itself in terms of its claim that the truth-value of a claim does not causally explain it. Thus, claims that are true must be causally explained in a way that is “symmetrical” to false claims… which is exactly what makes many people on the other side of the science wars more than a little nervous. Thus, Shapin says:
“There is a massive mismatch between dominant characterizations of the sources of our factual knowledge and the ways in which we actually secure that knowledge. Both seventeenth-century and present-day ‘moderns’ widely advertise direct experience as the surest grounds for factual knowledge, just as they identify reliance upon the testimony of others as an insecure warrant for such knowledge. Similarly, both sets of ‘moderns’ celebrate proper science as a culture which had indeed rectified knowledge by rejecting what others tell us and seeking direct individual experience. In contrast, I argue that no practice has accomplished the rejection of testimony and authority and that no cultural practice recognizable as such could do so.” (xxv)
Whereas Shapin writes specifically with regards to the roles that truth-claims play within scientific practice, the ways in which they generalize to religious practice should be relatively straight forward. Indeed, it is the degree to which the strong programme places science so close to religion in this respect is the primary motivation for their oppositions. Thus,
“[M]uch modern epistemology has systematically argued that legitimate knowledge is defined precisely by its rejection of trust. If we are heard to say that we know something on the basis of trust, we are understood to say that we do not possess genuine knowledge at all. It is unwise to take the world on trust…
“Knowledge is supposed to be the product of a sovereign individual confronting the world; reliance upon the views of others produces error.” (16-17)
(Notice how politically oriented this individualistic view of knowledge is, such that the liberal bourgeoisie of the 18th century were more than happy to align themselves with and dedicate resources to such a worldview.)
This is not to say, however, that Shapin sees no difference between how truth claims operate within a premodern, religious context and how they operate within a modern context that is largely defined around scientific practices as well as a division of intellectual and manual labor.
“In the past we made judgments of other people; now we are obliged to trust in impersonal systems, for the cost of doing otherwise is unbearable.” (15)
Thus, while a trust in explicitly designated, centralized individuals has been largely replaced with a much more diffuse division of intellectual labor, the amount of trust that is involved in the evaluation of and dependence upon truth claims has not changed at all. Relationships of trust in authority figures have not been dissolved, only re-distributed. This, I suggest, is a point which is actively repressed within a lot of discourse surrounding those who are currently leaving the church for political and intellectual reasons. Such dissenters (as I myself once was) describe their experience as a largely passive disenchantment with religious authorities, rather than an active replacement of trust in one set of authorities by another.
It is important that we do not underestimate how deeply our trust in intellectual authorities runs. Shapin’s primary point is that there is no escape from such an intellectual tutelage to others. Not even direct, empirical investigation or an inward introspection provides us with a release from this tutelage:
“When we have experience, we recognize it as experience-of-a-certain-sort only by virtue of a system of trust through which our existing state of knowledge has been built up… It is incorrect to say that we can ever have experience outside a nexus of trust of some kind. Such skepticism as we choose to exercise is not a stepping outside of trust; it is, instead, the attempted calibration of one dubiously trustworthy source by others assumed to be trustworthy.” (21)
A similar point is made when we attempt to leverage our judgments of factual or moral plausibility against church leaders:
“Our schemes of plausibility, which become so naturalized that they appear wholly independent of trust, were themselves built up by crediting the relations of trusted sources. The appearance of plausibility as an independent criterion is the result of a massively consequential evaluation, splitting judgments of what is the case from the everyday relations by which knowledge is made, sustained, and transmitted. Plausibility incorporates judgments of trustworthiness at a remove. It is trust institutionalized.” (22)
While Shapin is mostly concerned about empirical investigations, this point is even more applicable to any inward appeal to moral feelings and intuitions. Many dissenters from the church have allowed political ideologues, activist organizations and social media to calibrate their trust in the church leaders rather than the other way around.
Since, “[t]he distribution of trust is therefore coextensive with the community, and its boundaries are the community’s boundaries,” (36) it should not come as a surprise when frequent expressions of distrust in the community’s authority figures results in expulsion from that community. Again, while Shapin is specifically speaking about expulsion from a scientific community, this applies at least as well to one’s standing within the church.
“It is at least uncivil, and perhaps terminally so, to decline to take knowledge from authoritative sources… Skeptics run the real risk of being ejected from the practical communities of which they are members. Their skepticism expresses an uncooperativeness which invites uncooperativeness from others. Persistent distrust, therefore, has a moral terminus: expulsion from the community.” (20)
Despite frequent, and very naïve claims to the contrary, there is no community that can tolerate the repeated questioning or doubting of its authoritative sources by any of its members. To be sure, different communities have different rules surrounding which questions can and cannot be asked, but every community allows its members to question the competing authority of outsiders and no community allows its member to fully call its own, internal authorities into question. I challenge any member of OW to frequently and aggressively question its leaders’ decisions and statements in order to see this process in action. The same can be said for commenting on any blog. There will always be some amount or kind of “just asking questions” that will get any person banned from each and every community although the kind amount and kind will, obviously, be unique to each individual community. (One can find no better example of this than in how Socrates’ dialectical method led directly to his own death.)
With regards to the ease according to which the order of civil human relationships can break down, merely as a result of “just asking questions” Shapin references Garfinkel’s classic Studies in Ethnomethodology. Within these studies, people were asked to express a tacit distrust by way of questioning some person with which they interact on a casual, day-to-day basis. One person started “just asking questions” to their bus-driver about whether they would really arrive where they wanted. Another “just asked questions” to her husband when he came home late from work that day. In all such instances, these “innocent” questions quickly unraveled the civility of the relationship, a civility that was not easily re-established even after it was revealed that this was merely a sociological experiment. Shapin’s conclusion was that
“since … order is disrupted with such spectacular ease … everyday order is maintained by a complex set of practices that motivated actors use to constitute ‘interpretative trust.’ These practices notably include trusting as a routine, not inquiring too far or too much, not seeking to go too deeply beyond the ‘face value’ of things, letting the quality of knowledge be ‘sufficient unto the day.’” (35)
When dissenters justify their expressions of obvious distrust in terms of “just asking questions” they are either being overly naïve or flat out disingenuous.
Before concluding, I would like to briefly summarize Shapin’s discussion of the mechanisms by which we attempt to tolerate civil disagreement within a community. Within scientific communities, practitioners operate with the commonly shared and morally regulated assumption (he calls it the ‘natural attitude’) “that accounts of the world will not be significantly discrepant.” The science wars were themselves an example of the uncivility that can erupt when this natural attitude is openly called into question. By contrast, Shapin insists that within science, there are 4 ways in which discrepant accounts of the world are morally tolerated without ever calling the natural attitude itself into question:
- We attribute discrepancies to a difference in perspective (abnormal lighting, ambient noise or some other kind of external interference).
- If such differences in perspective cannot account for these discrepancies, we fall back upon a difference in interpretation of the phenomena (the color of that dress, duck/rabbits, double entendres, etc.).
- If the perspectives and their interpretations cannot account for these discrepancies, we fall back on the different ways in which the interpretations have be described (It was poorly worded, etc.).
- If differences in perspective, interpretation and description are not enough, we fall back upon uncertainty (I could be wrong, etc.). (31-32)
These are all the non-empirical, indeed, fully moral mechanisms by which scientists prevent the “natural attitude” from being called into question. (Habermas insists that this natural attitude is 1) pragmatically justified and 2) the defining feature of the project of modernity. I largely agree with both of these claims.)
As a final thought, I would like to question the ease with which many church members import these same mechanisms in order to adjudicate our different views of doctrine and policy. The “natural attitude” is aimed at a thoroughly naturalized world that has – to the extent that it can – cleansed all facts of any moral value. The natural attitude is a moral assumption aimed at sidelining all discussion regarding things that are not public in a deeply non-subjective sense. Thus, appeals to the utter privacy of transcendent experiences and moral rules are totally sidelined for the sake of preserving the (in this case scientific) community.
A classic example of this natural attitude at work can be found in how Hobbes was not allowed admission to the Royal Society specifically because he rejected the idea that natural experiments could answer any question with finality. (Shapin’s most famous book, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, deal with this episode in great detail.) The Royal Society was an intellectual community that followed on the heels of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. It thus sought to 1) avoid the extremely uncivil disputes that had erupted as a result of differences in political/religious views and 2) avoid the political and religious censors/inquisitions that had also emerged in response to the violence caused by these disagreements. Thus, this intellectual community found itself practically forced to depend upon a rather Baconian view of crucial experiments as a means of settling disputes that could safely isolate itself from sectarian morals, doctrines and politics. (Our modern views regarding the objectivity of science and the fact/value distinction are very much the products of these pragmatic decisions.)
Hobbes, by contrast, thought that the results of every experiment are always open to different interpretations and as such could never resolve any question at all with finality. “Just asking questions” was always an option in Hobbes’ mind, and for this he was banned from the Royal Society. It is also worth noting that Hobbes’ rejection of experimentalism lead quite seamlessly to his own solution to the problem of the religious and civil wars: the decision of the sovereign. Since natural experiments were not capable of singling out one interpretation as final, the best we could do was single out a person whose interpretation would thus be final in a morally decisive sense. In this way, Hobbes was much more upfront about the ways in which scientific practice inevitably involved a particular allocation of trust. It was this allocation of trust in some authority or another that the Royal Society actively sought to repress for the sake of its continued existence as a community.
The problem with importing the natural attitude into Mormonism is that we have no intention of sidelining questions of moral and religious authority. We thus have very little interest in the “objective” phenomena upon which the Royal Society exclusively focused and the mechanisms by which they morally enforced their exclusive appeal to experimentalism. Revelation is far more concerned with questions of moral direction which can, and often do change from person to person and across different contexts:
“That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.’” (Teachings of Joseph Smith)