Construal level theory says that we think more concretely, as opposed to abstractly, about things that seem nearer to us in space, time, sociality, chance, and plan. Such concrete thinking can reveal itself, for example, in our using more concrete words as descriptors.
It occurs to me that we can also distinguish near from far in many other aspects of language, aside from concreteness of vocabulary. When our minds process a sequence of words, our “nearest” mental analysis focuses on the smallest scale structures: the most literal meanings of words and their exact order, and what those imply for actual concrete arrangements of the world. But our minds also consider many other larger-scale “far” structures of language. For example, there is rhythm and various other style aspects of our sentence and paragraph structure, and more general emotional and other connotations and associations of our words. These all add up to an overall feel we get from a stream of words.
My theory of the sacred says that we see sacred things as if from afar, even when they are near. When applied to language, this theory predicts that, when we talk on sacred topics, our minds focus more on style, metaphor, word connotation, and an overall feel, and less on the literal meanings of words and order. And it seems to me that this prediction, together with other known correlates of the sacred, helps to explain some otherwise puzzling phenomena. (Recall that the sacred is more to be intuited than thought, and that we tend to be more emotional about it.)
First, consider the puzzle of vague language, wherein we use words with especially unclear meanings. Vague language seems to be especially useful in emotional debates. When we are focused on the feel of language, words with precise meanings can be a distraction, tempting us to think about their literal application. Vague words send a message: don’t bother with literal meanings.
Second, I’m told by a philosopher (Agnes Callard) that students find it easier to say that they reject an argument than to say to which part of it they object, and that this effect is stronger for sacred topics.
Third, consider that poetry and music lyrics tend more to be on sacred topics, and they also emphasize more the feel of language, compared to its literal meaning.
Fourth, note that more realistic fiction seems to actually be harder and slower to read than is fiction which better fits sacred ideals.
Fifth, consider that “high vs. low decoupling” issues happen more for the sacred:
High decouplers are those who, like many philosophers, are typically comfortable isolating individual claims from other related but distinct claims. Contextualisers (or ‘low decouplers’) are those who reject such partitioning, and insist that claims cannot – or should not – be interpreted in isolation from their context. … Coupling … seems superficially to be less rational than decoupling. …. But in some instances, contextualising looks like ecological rationality and attention to higher-order evidence in action.
I have personally had many cases where many readers refused to accept the literal meanings of my words, and instead felt justified in (incorrectly) interpreting me as expressing evil intent, via my identity, style, topic, and insufficiently-progressive disclaimers. This sort of thing happens far more often for sacred topics.
I’ve also noticed that, on sacred topics, many are reluctant to accept the usual literal meanings of words, and insist instead that word definitions be given exceptions to ensure the truth of simple sacred mantras, such as that “slavery is bad”.
All of these things seem to me well explained by our seeing language on sacred topics from afar, by looking less on its literal near details, and attending more to its intuitive feel.
This analysis supports my prior conclusion that treating an area X of life as sacred has an important tradeoff: we will put more energy into X, but will also think less clearly about X.
Idea which is consistent with article: Religious feeling depends on a level of distance or remove from proximate reality, that is, it is sacred and behaves like the other examples of sacred things. When I was 8 years old and learned that the events of the Bible happened in physical places and at times that weren't principally different than the one in which I lived, I became an atheist immediately, despite before having genuine religious beliefs (however much is possible for a child, albeit one who went to a medium-commitment Catholic school). Somehow, the fact that there existed a magical time before and separate from the alternate, scientific timeline was OK with me, but when I learned that the world I inhabited (which wasn't magical) was supposedly the same as ((contiguous with)) the magical world, the 'illusion' collapsed, and my metaphysics were desacralized, so to speak. It was the abstraction of the sacred thing which facilitated my belief in it; proximity killed the cat(echism).
Why do atheistic religions (cult of reason, etc.) fail? Because their object is realized and instantiated! Reality is a release valve for intense feeling. We can no longer project a personally-specific set of attributes onto whatever it is we were imagining; we now have to deal what is externally there. What is externally there is not going to be as compelling as the thing tailored to our mind in particular. Conspiracy theorists often seem more engaged in politics than the people working in issue spaces that correspond to the real inspiration or seed of the conspiracy (how many people care about generic ethics in government work vs how many people care about the theory that elites are darkly sinister and sit around long tables with threateningly-highlighted maps in the background?). Although it could just be that more nuanced views require more intelligence, and less intelligent people are more emotional. You could have other just-so stories for the examples to follow as well.
Ezra Klein says that local politics are depolarizing because the issues are concrete, whereas national politics polarize because issues are abstract and far away. Distance generates stronger emotion. Poetry is a more emotional medium than prose, because its contents are abstract (distant).
I think when concepts are far-away, we are freer to project onto them. The brain is very good at projection. Lovers are *idealized*: they are rendered an idea (devoid of mundane defects, made perfect). During episodes of acute anxiety, the object of my contemplation is worse in the mind than it would be if I were merely do it (or when I experienced it at the time). Projection!
The beginning of Dennett's Conscious Explained has this bit about how hallucinations happen when the hallucinator is paralyzed (sleep paralysis also reliably produces hallucinations, but I think he was talking about times where the hallucinator reports being 'stunned' or 'paralyzed,' not physically, but from fear or an acute sense of the moment). The accounts in Varieties of Religious Experience of hallucinations or visions also often will mention paralysis. Dennett's point is that this happens because the brain doesn't have the computational power to 'render' the hallucination interacting with 3D space, or changing light levels / perspective and so on. So the intensity of the hallucination (and people describe these events as extremely important in their lives, mystical, although only sometimes sacred because often demonic) is dependent on them not being ruined by external stimuli or data, not having to accommodate the complexity of the real world. That is, being distant, fuzzy, abstract, rather than their antonyms.
I've been following your work on the sacred with great interest, as this topic is important in general and to me in particular. The way you've framed this in near/far is fascinating, and I believe has unlocked my own thinking. Here are some brief examples of what I've been thinking, followed by how near/far elucidates them.
1) Religio turns into superstitio. Even in Cicero's day, nobody was really sure what either of those words meant, but consider how the veneration of the (sacred) bones of one's ancestors (including gifts of food and wine) compares with a credulous fear that their shades will be angry if such gifts go unoffered.
2) What practical notes we can draw from Fat Tony's dialog with Socrates, as well as from that author's faith not being epistemic.
3) Why an archaeologist who expects to find evidence of Noah's Ark or the Garden of Eden does not give off a "deep man of faith" vibe, and instead seems wearisome and hysterical.
4) Slavoj Zizek and the Shroud of Turin: why those eager to DNA test the shroud to prove the divinity of christ seem less 'religious' than those who think it would be better to leave well enough alone.
In all cases, I'd diagnosed the change as due to overthinking -- the 'over' being defined from the perspective of one who wishes to retain his faith. That is, simply keeping a fire lit on the family hearth by the images of one's deified ancestors, setting a place for them at the table, processing with offerings to their tombs on important days -- these things require no thinking at all, and in fact forbid it. "But will they starve if we don't feed them?"; "If they're still active in some sense, where are they?"; "Did they cause this drought because we skimped on the offerings?"; "What will happen to me if my family line dies out and nobody brings food for my corpse?" -- these are all intolerable questions, and the answers to them will burden anyone who asks until at last he throws off from his neck what is now an insupportable yoke rather than a naive and heartfelt honoring of the dead. It requires no belief in the immortality of the soul (even today) to place flowers on a grave -- but doing so in a simple and joyful way is no longer possible after asking questions.
Socrates was an asker of such questions. The young-earth creationist-archaeologist is one who attempts to answer them definitively and empirically, as is one who would DNA-test Christian relics for evidence of divinity. In all cases, it's a drawing near something that only could have remained sacred if left far -- once near, and once subject to the clarity and precision possible up close, we can see that the sacral character has fled away, never to return.
I'd say that the sacred is no so much an artifact of out ability to view both near and far, but rather a predecessor to this new and arguably unfortunate split in human consciousness. The sacred predates the ability not to see near but to think near, and has fared poorly since we learned to start asking questions. This, incidentally, is why people respond to you as they did to Socrates (call you evil at the least, would perhaps poison you if they could at the most) when you bring near for examination sacred objects that cannot survive such scrutiny. When they accuse you of being a destroyer and a vandal of the temples, they're not confused -- they're right. You might believe that you wish to help them, but a man who has made a career of slaying sacred cows will acknowledge the accuracy of their assessment. It's a bit like that hindu story about the buddha (a man that many would put on the shortest possible list of wisest humans ever to live): the gods created a beautiful big hell but it was empty and unused. So they sent the Buddha to lead people there and fill it up.