How Might Ritual Serve as a Medium of Exchange Between Forms of Rationality?

Lawrence A. Whitney
Sunday 24 July 2022
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

That humans are rational animals, i.e. Homo Rationalis, is a philosophical view that reached a pinnacle in the Enlightenment and has been inherited by disciplines that emerged from philosophy since, perhaps especially psychology and economics. According to this view, what distinguishes humans from other animals is our capacity for rational deliberation, employing logic to sort out true from false, right from wrong, beautiful from ugly, rather than merely relying on heuristic patterns and habits in interacting with our world. More recently, cognitive and behavioral scientists have recognized that humans rely on heuristics and habits far more than proponents of the rational animal thesis would like to admit. Among these, some insist that humans do better when we rely on rational decision-making, whereas others see a more balanced role for each type of rationality. A subset of this latter group, most of whom study rituals, emphasize the ubiquity of implicit, habitual behaviors with minimal if any instrumental purpose, and the distinctiveness of this sort of behavior from other animals. Rather than Homo Rationalis, humans are Homo Ritualis, i.e. ritual animals (Whitehouse 2021).

Rituals, and especially the religious subset of rituals, or liturgies, are usually viewed on the heuristic and habitual side of the rational dichotomy with conscious logical reasoning. Here I suggest that rituals are not merely a storehouse of implicit heuristics and habits but also a medium of exchange and integration with the results of explicit, logical reasoning. That is, rituals serve the function of harmonizing and codifying new knowledge derived through explicit, logical reasoning with implicit knowledge maintained in established heuristic patterns. Too much variance of the underlying heuristic risks the integrity of the ritual, and the storehouse of information it conveys to its participants, but too little variance risks the ability of the ritual to remain relevant with respect to the complexity of the world in which it resides. In addition to elaborating this hypothesis, I discuss the sorts of empirical work that might effectively test the hypothesis and draw conclusions regarding the implications for theological anthropology if the hypothesis were to be proven.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Ritual Theory and Liturgical Studies

Liturgical studies is a subfield in Christian theology focused on the history, theology, and practice of Christian worship (Jones et al. 1992). In its historical mode, liturgical scholars consider the development of Christian ritual practice against the background of related theological and broader socio-political developments. Theologically, they consider the meaning of Christian worship and evaluate Christian ritual practices for consistency with normative theological positions. Practically, they consider proper ways of enacting Christian rituals. Liturgical scholars may also suggest revisions of rituals or design ritual innovations. Liturgical studies tends to take for granted that the rituals of Christian worship are meaningful and productive in the lives of participants, or at least would be if they were theologically correct and properly performed.

Ritual studies, by contrast, considers not only the ritual practices of other religious traditions but also rituals in other parts of social, political, and cultural life. While an interdisciplinary endeavor, ritual studies has primarily drawn its methods from the social sciences, especially anthropology. On the basis of empirical studies of rituals in diverse contexts, ritual theorists have sought to build models that interpret the meaning and function of rituals in human life. As Ronald Grimes notes, “For a model of ritual to be adequate, it should enable us to either explain or construct a ritual by taking into account its static elements (using, e.g., mechanical metaphors), internal dynamics (using, e.g., narrative or dramatic metaphors), interactions with their contexts (using, e.g., complex systems, cybernetic, ecological, or cognitive metaphors)” (Grimes 2013, 200–201). The distinction between explanation and construction here is critical: models that explain are functionalist, i.e. showing what it is that rituals do or accomplish or produce, whereas models that construct are formal, i.e. showing what rituals are made up of and how they are ordered. For example, Roy Rappaport’s definition of ritual as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers” (Rappaport 1999, 24) is clearly formal, though his overall ritual theory is often interpreted as functional, much to his own chagrin (Rappaport 1999, 26–28).

The issue of ritual variance is of concern in both liturgical and ritual studies as changes in ritual practice may threaten the integrity or efficacy of the ritual (Hüsken 2007). For example, a priest changing a word in the ritual of baptism recently resulted in numerous baptisms being declared invalid in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix (Salcedo 2022). Rituals are patterned, and it is consistency with regard to the form or structure of that pattern that generates reliable results: “Rituals have an analytically distinguishable structure or form that orders their elements, including ritual participants themselves, and as the form of a process transforms these elements to accord with the structure” (Whitney 2019, 303). That said, invariance can never be absolute. At minimum, repetitions of a ritual are happening at different times, and usually involve different participants, frequently in different locations (Rappaport 1999, 36–37). Moreover, the purpose of invariance is to guarantee the results of the ritual, but changes to the environment in which a ritual is performed may result in the same pattern no longer accomplishing this goal. Ritual innovations may in fact be necessary to preserve the goods rituals exist to produce.

That rituals should generate results raises the issue of the technical capacity of rituals. Scholars of ritual have generally distinguished ritual from technical activity, the latter which “produces observable results in a strictly mechanical way” (Leach 1966, 403; Rappaport 1999, 51), whereas the effects of rituals are due to adherence to convention. That said, much technical behavior is guided by convention, despite the convention itself being irrelevant to its effects.

Some conventions governing technical behavior arise as a means of encoding the most efficient, safe, or otherwise best means of accomplishing the task at hand. Others encode technical ways of doing things that are culturally normative even though there may be other equally practicable, or even in some sense better, ways of accomplishing the same thing. (Whitney 2019, 409)

It is through the social mediation of these conventions that technical skills are transmitted across cultures and generations. Moreover, it is in technical rituals that the genre of ritual moves beyond social construction via establishing and maintaining conventional orders, to engagement with brute reality. In these cases, “the representational process of rite is a secondary process organized in the technical interest of ritual to create, constitute, and, to a degree, control the realities that are through and through those of human construction and circumstance” (Kapferer 2006, 672–673). This perspective is consistent with the principle in liturgical theology of ex opere operato (McFarland 2011) in that it emphasizes that the effects of the conventional order are dependent upon a reality, i.e. God, independent of the conventional order of the ritual, including its participants.

It is also the relative invariance of rituals, when repeated, that results in their classification in terms of heuristics and habits. As rituals are repeated invariantly, their form, process, and functions fall out of consciousness and become taken for granted, and thus heuristic and habitual rather than cognitive and rational. They become patterns available for enactment under appropriate conditions without having to consciously choose or deliberate among options. Rappaport argues that when this happens the conventionality of a given ritual is converted into an absolute: “The unfalsifiable supported by the undeniable yields the unquestionable, which transforms the dubious, the arbitrary, and the conventional into the correct, the necessary, and the natural” (Rappaport 1999, 405). The necessity of such absolute certainty is itself rather uncertain. Indeed, rituals are layered and nested in ways that are not necessarily coherent and consistent with one another, and so rituals must tolerate pluralism and doubt without recourse to a totalizing homogenization under a singular norm (Whitney 2019, 354–355).

 2.2 Cognitive and Behavioral Science

Cognitive sciences—such as psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence—study how neurological processes in the brain result in mental states and related behaviors. Behavioral sciences are likewise interdisciplinary but seek to account for a wider range of influences on human behavior including social, cultural, and environmental dynamics and genetic predispositions. Since this puzzle explores the role of rationality in guiding behavior, the intersection of cognitive and behavioral sciences is highly relevant.

Dual process theories of rationality have become prevalent in the cognitive and behavioral sciences. One process, called implicit or system one thinking, is relatively fast as it relies on heuristics and habits to guide decision-making. “Dual-process theorists generally agree that System 1 processes are rapid, parallel and automatic in nature: only their final product is posted in consciousness” (Evans 2003, 454). The other—explicit or system two thinking—is slower as it logically deliberates to make decisions. “System 2 thinking is slow and sequential in nature and makes use of the central working memory system that has been so intensively studied in the psychology of memory” (Evans 2003, 454). System one thinking relies on codified patterns built up over repeated encounters with stimuli in experience, whereas system two tests a stimulus against logically derived patterns to ascertain best fit in the situation.

While dual process theorists acknowledge roles for both systems of thinking and decision-making, many advocate the logical rigor of system two as superior to the intuitions that undergird system one. Daniel Kahneman, among others, privileges rationality over heuristics because of its capacity to optimize decision making among all alternatives, and locates cognitive biases on the side of heuristic and habit, correctable by system two (Kahneman 2011). To the contrary, “both types of processing can lead to correct answers and both can lead to biases” (Evans 2012, 16). Gerd Gigerenzer has also demonstrated that there are relatively few instances in life when the opportunity for optimization is available, and that in many cases the results of heuristic processes are more accurate than logically derived decisions (Gigerenzer, Hertwig, and Pachur 2016). This bounded rationality approach recognizes that heuristics are capable of making decisions that will be good enough, i.e. satisficing, rather than demanding absolute optimization, which could never account for the totality of environmental conditions anyway (Todd and Gigerenzer 2012).

3. Discussion

Because of the formal structure of their conventions that generate their outcomes, relatively invariantly followed in repetition to safeguard that production, rituals function as a sort of social memory of how to achieve certain ends. The conventions encoded in rituals may or may not be the optimal way of doing so, but the ends they encode are desirable enough that it is important to encode them in a way that works rather than risk not generating those ends at all.

Rituals encode behavioral heuristics for responding to a variety of situations without recourse to rational judgment in deciding which behavior to deploy. When someone walks into a room and reaches out their hand, it is not necessary to decide whether to grasp it, to slap it aside, or to ignore it. In fact, declining to shake an offered hand is likely to be a sign to others of a conscious decision, whereas no such conscious process would necessarily be ascribed to going forward with the handshake. Likewise, in a Christian Eucharistic service, the convention of the priest or pastor giving bread to congregants, and then the congregants consuming the bread, becomes habitual through repetition such that a clergyperson declining to serve someone raises suspicion of a conscious decision to excommunicate that person.

The conventions of ritual are not logically derived, but rather accrete through seemingly insignificant developments over the course of many repetitions. The extravagant Eucharistic rites of the medieval period were developments from far simpler practices, often taking place in homes rather than elaborate churches and cathedrals. Rituals are thus heuristics for transforming a situation into a more desirable state, in the case of the Eucharist, from a state of sin and disease to forgiveness and healing. Moreover, as rituals become taken for granted through repetition, the cognitive effort required to achieve that more desirable state each time a given situation arises, diminishes. “The greatest achievement for a ritual, then, is to become taken for granted as reliable and merely part of the way of things are, rather than being either the subject or object of cognitive attention” (Whitney 2019, 349).

From the discussion so far, rituals rather clearly fall on the system one side of the dual process theory. Ideally, though, heuristics should receive feedback from logically reasoned decision-making, and I hypothesize that ritual plays a key role in mediating that feedback. Since rituals are themselves heuristics, this feedback is reflexive, a quality widely recognized in ritual studies (Stausberg 2006; Patton 2008). Heuristics on their own lack this reflexive quality because they are merely patterns to which stimuli can be fixed, whereas rituals encompass both form (pattern) and process; heuristics are representational, whereas rituals are also transformational. One of the things rituals transform is their own underlying heuristic.

The drive to such transformation is doubt in the success of the underlying heuristic of the ritual, either because it has become less reliable or is discovered to be unreliable. Charles S. Peirce notes that “Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe. . . . The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief. I shall term this struggle inquiry” (Peirce 1992, 1:114). The destabilization of the underlying heuristic of a ritual necessitates a rational process, of either an implicit or explicit variety, to diagnose the instability and identify a path toward stability. There is an evolutionary aspect to this drive toward inquiry in the ritual context: rituals that do not work, i.e. do not reliably produce their entailments, will not be repeated, which is the ritual equivalent of reproduction. To survive, rituals must adapt.

Because transformation of their elements is what ritual processes exist to do, and the underlying heuristic of a ritual is one of its elements, rituals have an inbuilt mechanism to adapt by reflexively transforming themselves. This mechanism was identified by Arnold van Gennep as a three stage process of separation, transition, and reincorporation of the element (van Gennep 1960). Victor Turner further theorized that the transitional (liminal) stage is characterized by anti-structure, in which the elements of the ritual are rendered into a state of radical equality, or comunitas (V. W. Turner 1969, 94–97). Terence S. Turner takes a different approach to liminality, recognizing that rituals transform their elements by stripping them of their prior relationships, resulting in disorientation, ambiguity, and anomie until they are reincorporated into the transformed state (T. S. Turner 1977; 2006, 211–215).

Ritual being a semiotic system, the process of ritual transformation is one of semiosis, or the process by which a sign referring to an object generates an interpretant. In a ritual, the ritual process detaches a sign from its object and either assigns the sign to a new object or attaches a different sign to the object, in either case generating a new interpretant; ritual is a semiotic process of reassignment. (Whitney 2019, 326)

One of the signs that a ritual can reassign is its underlying heuristic, or more commonly, some element or aspect of that heuristic to preserve as much of its prior instantiation as possible. Of course, such self-transformation inevitably results in variance, but rituals are only ever relatively invariant, as already discussed, which is now recognizable as critical for the evolutionary success of ritual as key to its adaptability.

Transforming the underlying heuristic of a ritual has been described as self-transformation, but it is uncommon that a ritual self-transforms in the strict sense of employing its own process on itself. What would it mean to baptize a baptism or shake a handshake? Instead, rituals self-transform within the genre of ritual by recourse to other rituals whose processes have evolved to generate the entailments of transforming ritual forms.

In the case of a handshake, people from different cultures may shake hands differently, grasping the forearm rather than the hand, for example. When a person from one culture encounters a person from the other, they will likely be able to complete the ritual, albeit somewhat awkwardly. That awkwardness is the liminal stage of the ritual transformation of the handshake ritual, which is then reincorporated in some way, perhaps as a fist bump. The participants may then go on to offer fist bumps thereafter, perhaps to members of the other culture, but perhaps also to members of their own. Notably, recourse to a fist bump to resolve the handshake dilemma seems unlikely to have resulted from logical inquiry aiming to optimize initial greetings. In this case, the ritual that transforms the original handshakes is at a higher order level, namely the ritual of civility, which integrates the two handshake signs by transforming them.

The case of Christian religious rituals provides an alternative look at the ritual transformation of ritual, this time with recourse to logical inquiry aimed at optimization. The liturgical developments in Western Christianity that resulted in the extravagant rites of the medieval period mentioned above became increasingly untenable in some quarters by the sixteenth century. As a result, the Protestant Reformation began a long period of theological reflection on liturgy resulting in various liturgical simplifications across Protestant denominations and within the Roman Catholic church. That period of reflection may have culminated in the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the accompanying ecumenical liturgical renewal, though ongoing transformations of the global religious landscape and demographic declines of Western Christianity are necessitating further reflection. That said, the Second Vatican Council and the various meetings of the World Council of Churches that underpinned much of the ecumenical liturgical renewal are themselves excellent examples of ritual processes for incorporating the results of system two reasoning. They learned from the results of theological reflection and harmonized those results with the existing heuristic pattern by transforming them to generate their outcomes more effectively.

For those for whom the ritual integration of system two, explicit, conscious, logical reasoning seems suspicious, it is worthwhile to consider the diverse ritual contexts in which the results of system two thinking are routinely integrated and harmonized. Courts of law have many rituals governing their operation, including not only the order in which cases are presented but also the norms of decorum, nomenclature for various parties, and idioms of discourse in written briefs and spoken address. All of this exists for the purpose of harmonizing conflicting logical analyses of a given situation. The academy is also replete with rituals, ranging from how classrooms and conferences are conducted to how articles, chapters, and monographs are organized to how lectures and presentations are given. All of these rituals exist in service to maintaining free inquiry and the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge by harmonizing and integrating new results with prior conclusions.

4. Conclusion

Part of the challenge of empirically testing the complex hypothesis elaborated in the discussion is a lack of robust, formalized models of rituals that would enable comparison across a wide range of ritual types and measurement of variation over the course of many repetitions. Ritual theories that serve as models in the literature are diverse and remain contested as many of them were derived from detailed ethnographic field work, making them appropriate to the instances they theorize but limiting their broader generalizability. Further, many are rooted in frameworks of specific religious traditions, and a tendency to reduce the category of ritual to religious instances persists in the field. Formal models that are applicable to the breadth of rituals that pervade human life are needed to enable cross-cultural comparative engagement of the ritual domain, and to evaluate the alignment of the ritual mode with the formal models being developed in the cognitive and behavioral sciences to test this hypothesis. Ritual may even prove an effective category for analyzing the forms and processes of explicit, logical, system two thinking, though elaborating that hypothesis lies beyond the scope of the present puzzle. Development of robust, formal models of rituals will enable assessment of the conditions under which a ritual will successfully integrate more optimal processes into the heuristics it teaches and transmits. Assessing rituals in this way is important for liturgical theology to be able to understand whether and why certain liturgies are effective or ineffective, and to be able to suggest adjustments to improve ineffective rituals.

The primary implication of proving this hypothesis for theological anthropology is that the domain of ritual that pervades human life is integral to successful, and at times optimal, decision-making in a complex and dynamic world. Given their association with heuristic modes of reasoning, rituals are frequently written off as biased and ineffective, if not downright meaningless (Staal 1993; Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994). A bounded rationality approach from the cognitive and behavioral sciences better balances the importance of both implicit and explicit forms of reasoning for human livelihood, and so is more capacious in its embrace of ritual as integral to humane life and human flourishing. This being the case, rituals could not be written off as anachronisms of a bygone era, irrelevant to contemporary life that has evolved beyond such primitive and superstitious behaviors. Instead, due consideration will need to be given of the rituals that currently guide life, including their limitations, which should then be redressed.

At the same time, approaches to theological anthropology that identify human likeness with divinity exclusively or primarily in terms of an analogy to system two thinking will be put under pressure if this hypothesis is proven true. This does not mean, however, that proving the hypothesis would negate the Christian doctrine of the imago dei, that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. Kimberly Patton has shown that a diverse range of religious traditions understand their ritual practices to be reflexes of divine action (Patton 2008). Proving this hypothesis would thus not require negating the doctrine of the imago dei but rather harmonizing it to recognize that the whole of human bounded rationality is in the image and likeness of God.

In bringing ritual theory into conversation with approaches to rationality in the cognitive and behavioral sciences, rituals emerge as both critical for human adaptation in a complex and dynamic environment and as themselves complex adaptive systems. Rituals are complex because their products, generated by their process as guided by their form, is not usually predictable from an analysis of their elements. They are adaptive in the ways that have been shown in the discussion. And they are systems because they harmonize and integrate their elements according to their forms by their processes. Like language (Deacon 1998), rituals coevolve with humanity, enabling humans to adapt, even as they are adapted by humans to meet the needs of changing circumstances.


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Cite this article

Whitney, Lawrence A. 2022. How Might Ritual Serve as a Medium of Exchange Between Forms of Rationality?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 12).

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Lawrence A. Whitney
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