Implicit desacralization: Kellogg against atheist churches

In a few conversations I’ve had with a few different people over the past month, the same theme has cropped up: that praising tradition for its mere effectiveness, in the manner best popularized by the airport-bookstore philosophaster Alain de Botton with his idea of ‘atheist churches’ but also existent in the traditionalist sphere (as with the social benefits of Mormonism), strips tradition of its power even more than attacking tradition as evil.

I didn’t get it at the time—but Kellogg clearly did.

Why read Kellogg?, the reader may protest. He was crazy! That he was, but the reader should already understand in some sense the virtue of reading intelligent madmen: they are frequently wrong, frequently obviously wrong, but what danger is there in reading something obviously wrong?—and their perspective is so alien, so outside what is normally thought, that when they get something right, it’s likely to be something few else would have thought of. I doubt anyone here would take up Kellogg’s suggested uses of carbolic acid, or even his advocacy of yogurt enemas (but one must wonder how different they are than fecal transplants, now that the latter is an accepted medical practice), but he was still responsible for ending the constipation problem widespread in America at the time—though he unfortunately failed in preventing his brother from sweetening the cereal—and his writing anticipated the probiotics craze of today.

The error has been noted and criticized, on LessWrong and elsewhere, of assuming that rationality is an attribute that inheres overall in a person: that each writer has an overall rationality level that remains constant throughout everything they say. Kellogg was frequently wrong; that doesn’t mean he was never right.

But on to what he said.

To present a child no higher motives for doing right than the hope of securing some pleasant reward, or the fear of suffering some terrible punishment, is the surest way to make of him a supremely selfish man, with no higher aim than to secure good to himself, no matter what may become of other people. And if he can convince himself that the pleasure he will secure by the commission of a certain act will more than counterbalance the probable risk of suffering, he will not hesitate to commit it, leaving wholly out of the consideration the question, Is it right? or noble? or pure? A love of right for its own sake is the only solid basis upon which to build a moral character. Children should not be taught to do right in order to avoid a whipping, or imprisonment in a dark closet,—a horrid kind of punishment sometimes resorted to,—or even to escape “the lake of fire and brimstone.” Neither should they be constantly coaxed to right-doing by promised rewards,—a new toy, a book, an excursion, nor even the pleasures of Heaven. All of these incentives are selfish, and invariably narrow the character and belittle life when made the chief motives of action. But rather begin at the earliest possible moment to instill into the mind a love for right, and truth, and purity, and virtue, and an abhorrence for their contraries; then will he have a worthy principle by which to square his life; then will he be safe from the assaults of passion, of vice, of lust.

It is well-known that the presence of extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic motivation; and extrinsic motivation is much easier to change than intrinsic motivation.

It’s obvious from the last sentence that he’s writing about the promotion of abstinence; but the principle generalizes, so I will use the example of the consumption of junk-food, a practice which I recently began trying to abandon.

I have known the intellectual arguments for months—sugar observably causes brain fog in me, and evidence suggests that it is generally unhealthy, causes weight gain, and so on—but knowing the intellectual arguments wasn’t effective. What I eventually realized I had to do was appeal to intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic: instead of reciting the evidence that sugar causes weight gain, I had to cause myself to feel disgust at the thought of eating a candy bar or a sugar-laden yogurt.

While the view of the Tumblr tankies (who are really more worth reading than the label makes them sound) that the solution to the ‘death of God’ (they’re Catholic, so obviously they wouldn’t put it in those terms, but what Nietzsche was talking about was not only the loss of overarching narratives of meaning [which caused the explosion in new narratives seen in the first half of the 20th century] but also [though of course the two are connected] the loss of the imperium [i.e. mass acceptance of intrinsic motivation-structures, or internalization of the shared kernel, composed in part of purity-norms] toward self-abolishing individuation) is to simply go through the motions—which, as far as I can tell, means to maintain the social structures and status-systems even after the imperium is gone, and get by on the power of the status-system alone—has some power behind it, the extrinsic motivation provided by the status-system struggles to compete with the extrinsic motivations inherent in the actions the status-system attempts to suppress, especially if there exist powerful alternate status-systems that contain no such tendency toward suppression—or even go in the opposite direction and provide status payoffs instead of status penalties, as with casual sex—and it is doubtful that such a system could survive without being recognized as a sham and abandoned. (But I think they understand this on some level. I’m probably strawmanning them. One must, at least, internalize the value of going through the motions.)

The point: to praise a system for its extrinsic benefits implicitly strips it of the intrinsic benefits it must internalize in order to function properly.

Can a system first adopted for its extrinsic benefits spawn new intrinsic benefits that make it function? Can someone who adopts a system for its extrinsic benefits reach and internalize its intrinsic ones? Can imperium follow and strengthen actions originally taken for self-interest alone?


6 responses to “Implicit desacralization: Kellogg against atheist churches

  1. twistedone151 May 21, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    “Can someone who adopts a system for its extrinsic benefits reach and internalize its intrinsic ones? Can imperium follow and strengthen actions originally taken for self-interest alone?”

    Blaise Pascal certainly seemed to think so. Recall his famous “wager”, a probabilistic argument that believing in God is in one’s self-interest. As many critics have responded since, even if one is persuaded by this, human beliefs are not so subject to our wills that one can simply choose to believe a statement is true simply because we’re convinced it is in our interest to do so. However, Pascal himself addresses this:

    “You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, &c. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.”

    Or, in modern parlance, “fake it ’til you make it”; if you act as if God exists long enough, you’ll come to really believe it.

    And I recall reading in places that there is some psychological research that supports “fake it ’til you make it”; our behavior, especially over the long term, has more influence on our beliefs than many of us think; at least, those of us of the West. I also recall a book I once read on religion in Japan made a contrast between proselytization methods by small sects and religions in Japan versus those in the West (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and so on). The author noted that Western methods begin with Scripture, and with attempts to persuade others of the correctness of the doctrine, and with correct action (orthopraxy) following as a consequence of correct belief (orthodoxy). In contrast, Japanese pamphlets often share specific prayers, meditation techniques, or rituals, with exortations to try them and see what benefits result; one begins with orthopraxy, and orthodoxy follows. (Note also the Confucian emphasis on proper observance of rites and rituals, which even the materialist philosopher Xunzi emphasized.)

    • nydwracu May 25, 2014 at 10:35 pm

      Pulled that last paragraph to a post. The political implications are… amusing. In the usual “my god, we’re living in a low-budget dark comedy” sense.

  2. E. Antony Gray (@RiverC) May 25, 2014 at 2:51 am

    Interestingly, this all depends on the ‘extrinsic’ actions — what they actually do. It is better to say ‘just do them and see what happens’ than to say ‘do them and get these benefits’. The latter tends to appeal to the ego and cause the tradition to be judged solely on whether it confers the promised benefit or not.

    As an example of this, Orthodox fasting is not commanded based on promised benefits “you’ll lose weight”, “you will be able to pray easier”, etc. It is simply commanded.

    In the latter case what you’re talking about is the change from interest to desire – you generated the intrinsic reason from your desire or will. You said, “I want to be able to do this thing, but simply wanting the benefits is not enough.”

    I also feel like removing any notion of extrinsic benefits is not good, because those are base level things. In his commentary on The Prodigal Son, St. Maximus Confessor says that there are three levels of spiritual attainment: 1. the slave, 2. the mercenary, and 3. the son.

    The first is motivated by fear, particular fear of punishment. The second by desire for gain, the third has an intrinsic desire (love.) His analysis is that these are stages in the development of spirituality, though some will never move past one stage or another.

    So this is like Maslow’s pyramid thing – unless you can fly, don’t kick out the base.

  3. Pingback: Proselytization the Western way | nydwracu niþgrim, nihtbealwa mæst

  4. Alrenous May 29, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Virtue ethics.

    Except virtue ethics are unstable. You adopt virtue ethics because the consequence of not adopting virtue ethics is extrinsic motivation, itself unstable. Consequentialism per se did not lead to less sugar-eating, so you turned to an act that did.

    I think your problem is seeing extrinsic motivations as extrinsic. Did you want to reduce brain fog, or did you want to be rational, or what? Apparently not much of either. But you do want to not feel disgust, so that ‘worked.’ But if you were not averse enough to brain fog to avoid it, was it really worthwhile?

    • Alrenous May 29, 2014 at 7:18 pm

      If it wasn’t clear, virtue is non-sacred.

      Problem: the sacral is real, it just keeps getting appropriated for politics, which desecrates it. Or status games, which can profane anything.

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