We See The Sacred From Afar, To See It Together

I’ve recently been trying to make sense of our concept of the “sacred”, by puzzling over its many correlates. And I think I’ve found a way to make more sense of it in terms of near-far (or “construal level”) theory, a framework that I’ve discussed here many times before.

When we look at a scene full of objects, a few of those objects are big and close up, while a lot more are small and far away. And the core idea of near-far is that it makes sense to put more mental energy into analyzing each object up close, objects that matters to us more, by paying more attention to their detail, detail often not available about stuff far away. And our brains do seem to be organized around this analysis principle.

That is, we do tend to think less, and think more abstractly, about things far from us in time, distance, social connection, or hypothetically. Furthermore, the more abstractly we think about something, the more distant we tend to assume are its many aspects. In fact, the more distant something is in any way, the more distant we tend to assume it is in other ways.

This all applies not just to dates, colors, sounds, shapes, sizes, and categories, but also to the goals and priorities we use to evaluate our plans and actions. We pay more attention to detailed complexities and feasibility constraints regarding actions that are closer to us, but for far away plans we are content to think about them more simply and abstractly, in terms of relatively general values and principles that depend less on context. And when we think about plans more abstractly, we tend to assume that those actions are further away and matter less to us.

Now consider some other ways in which it might make sense to simplify our evaluation of plans and actions where we care less. We might, for example, just follow our intuitions, instead of consciously analyzing our choices. Or we might just accept expert advice about what to do, and care little about experts incentives. If there are several relevant abstract considerations, we might assume they do not conflict, or just pick one of them, instead of trying to weigh multiple considerations against each other. We might simplify an abstract consideration from many parameters down to one factor, down to a few discrete options, or even all the way down to a simple binary split.

It turns out that all of these analysis styles are characteristic of the sacred! We are not supposed to calculate the sacred, but just follow our feelings. We are to trust priests of the sacred more. Sacred things are presumed to not conflict with each other, and we are not to trade them off against other things. Sacred things are idealized in our minds, by simplifying them and neglecting their defects. And we often have sharp binary categories for sacred things; things are either sacred or not, and sacred things are not to be mixed with the non-sacred.

All of which leads me to suggest a theory of the sacred: when a group is united by valuing something highly, they value it in a style that is very abstract, having the features usually appropriate for quickly evaluating things relatively unimportant and far away. Even though this group in fact tries to value this sacred thing highly. Of course, depending on what they try to value, such attempts may have only limited success.

For example, my society (US) tries to value medicine sacredly. So ordinary people are reluctant to consciously analyze or question medical advice; they are instead to just trust its priests, namely doctors, without looking at doctor incentives or track records. Instead of thinking in terms of multiple dimensions of health, we boil it all down to a single health dimension, or even a binary of dead or alive.

Instead of seeing a continuum of cost-effectiveness of medical treatments, along which the rich would naturally go further, we want a binary of good vs bad treatments, where everyone should get the good ones no matter what their cost, and regardless of any other factors besides a diagnosis. We are not to make trades of non-sacred things for medicine, and we can’t quite believe it is ever necessary to trade medicine against other sacred things. Furthermore, we want there to be a sharp distinction between what is medicine and what is not medicine, and so we struggle to classify things like mental therapy or fresh food.

Okay, but if we see sacred things as especially important to us, why ever would we want to analyze them using styles that we usually apply to things that are far away and the least important to us? Well one theory might be that our brains find it hard to code each value in multiple ways, and so typically code our most important values as more abstracted ones, as we tend to apply them most often from a distance.

Maybe, but let me suggest another theory. When a group unites itself by sharing a key “sacred” value, then its members are especially eager to show each other that they value sacred things in the same way. However, when group members hear about and observe how an associate makes key sacred choices, they will naturally evaluate those choices from a distance. So each group member also wants to look at their own choices from afar, in order to see them in the same way that others will see them.

In this view, it is the fact groups tend to be united by sacred values that is key to explaining why they treat such values in the style usually appropriate for relatively unimportant things seen from far away, even though they actually want to value those things highly. Even though such a from-a-distance treatment will probably lead to a great many errors and misjudgments when actually trying to promote that thing.

You see, it may be more important to groups to pursue a sacred value together than to pursue it effectively. Such as the way the US spends 18% of GDP on medicine, as a costly signal of how sacred medicine is to us, even though the marginal health benefit of our medical spending seems to be near zero. And we show little interest in better institutions that could make such spending far more cost effective.

Because at least this way we all see each other’s ineffective medical choices in the same way. We agree on what to do. And after all, that’s the important thing about medicine, not whether we live or die.

Added 10Sep: Other dual process theories of brains give similar predictions.

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