Practice and proposition

Seth Roberts, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at U.C. Berkeley, says:

It is better to do an experiment than to think about doing an experiment, in the sense that you will learn more from an hour spent doing (e.g., doing an experiment) than from an hour thinking about what to do. Because 99% of what goes on in university classrooms and homework assignments is much closer to thinking than doing, and because professors often say they teach “thinking” (“I teach my students how to think”) but never say they teach “doing”, you can see this goes against prevailing norms.

Religion isn’t just a set of propositions, but is more a set of practices. Intellectuals like to focus on the propositions, because they are good at manipulating abstract symbols, arguing about them, and synthesizing them with other sets of abstract symbols (or showing that there are seeming contradictions between the sets, say).

The problem for intellectuals is two-fold:

1. Religion is more about a practice, like learning a musical instrument, than it is a set of propositions. To understand religion, then, one must do, but this is scary for intellectuals because a) it is often outside their area of core strength, and b) it entails the possibility of changing who they are.

2. Many of the propositions associated with something which is largely a practice often to an extent are nonsensical until one starts the practice. Only then do the propositions begin to make sense. This is because the practice involves creating new conceptual categories, and so on. When learning singing, for example, one’s teacher may say all sorts of things that use English words and are grammatical, but which one does not really understand … until one starts doing the various practices, at which point the propositions start to take on a (new) meaning.

Some of the best academic work involves the academic doing: an example of this is Mary Carruthers’ work on medieval memory, where she undertook to learn various techniques about which she was writing. This process changed her understanding of the plausibility of the techniques, and helped guide her in understanding the meaning of what the people using the techniques were saying.

If an academic wants to collect data about a religious practice, he must either begin the practice himself, or rely on what people who have done the practice themselves say. If the latter, he probably won’t really understand what they are talking about, but it is at least a step closer to figuring out the truth than logic chopping an unfamiliar set of abstract symbols on his own.

Also see here.

2 thoughts on “Practice and proposition

  1. Bruce Charlton

    This is getting into the deep waters of recognizing that academic practice/ methodology has zero intrinsic validity – which is absolutely correct, but has catastrophic consequences for academia as currently constituted.

    Underpinning all methods and practices there must be truth-seeking – and the academic community (or any specialty thereof) is merely a group of people who are thus motivated and who devote time and effort to elucidating particular truths.

    With truth-seeking a great deal may be possible; absent truth-seeking and we see the results all about us: not merely worthless research, but worthless research which displaces any truth which may happen to be out there (for example, worthless, dishonest, incompetent modern scholarship in the humanities such as literary studies which displaces superb scholarship from earlier generations).

  2. Pingback: The purpose of asceticism | Anthony Burgoyne

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