Data and enlightenment

Data, so the modern proverb goes, is not the plural of anecdote. In fact, it’s not even the plural of experience. Data is a certain sort of experience treated by a certain sort of means, and it both illumines and occludes experience.

Data is, first of all, something recorded. But records involve a good deal of social infrastructure: they normally require specialized scribes, a consistent source of stuff to keep the records on (paper, clay tablets, etc.) building structures that are secure enough to expect records to stay safe and uncorrupted, etc.

On the other hand, data is publically given according to standards laid down in advance. Personal experience can be made data only after we have testimony of it according to some unifying question; the personal and interior element in the experience is never what is recorded.

At the moment I’m fascinated by how the rise of data is involved in Durkeim’s concept of disenchantment, which he takes as a central feature of the growth of the secular, contemporary world. It seems undeniable that the pre-enlightenment world of healing shrines, ringing bells to ward off lightning, sympathetic medicine and potions, and fanciful saints’s tales cannot survive the rise of data,which is to say they can’t survive a world where data is taken as ideal experience. You can ring bells to ward off lightning but the records won’t show any decrease in fatal strikes; you can tie turnips to the feet of persons with gout, but the records won’t show improvement any greater than chance. Steven Pinker wants to extend this point to all prayer –  the data won’t give you any more reason to expect results than not.

This shift to data will necessarily kill off much of the popular basis for pre-enlightenment magic, in much the same way that it deserves to kill off the widespread scientific superstitions of our own day (diet pills, muscle-builder gimmicks, health fads, etc.) We’ve killed off the bell ringing and some of the fanciful saints’s tales, but what are we supposed to do with the healing shrines, prayer, and liturgical action that are still alive and well? We might see these as the last strongholds left in front of the march of data, which will be driven out just like the rest. Sooner or later the weight of the prayer-data will make prayer seem ridiculous to everyone, and all the attempts to evade the data will seem far-fetched and ad hoc.

Data certainly seems to drive out magical thinking, and spiritual practices of all sorts often have magical aspects. But in light of all our modern superstitions it might seem better to see magic as a certain corruption of anything powerful, science included: if you can put a man on the moon, you get late-night advertisements for foolproof diet pills. But this doesn’t speak to the question of how shrines or prayer might relate to data: is it enough to argue for some quantifiable benefit to prayer (say, maybe daily prayer makes us more calm and long-lived) or should we also fight for some good of prayer that is not captured by data?



  1. Joseph Moore said,

    September 27, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Thanks. I’ve been wrestling with more quotidian aspects of data – understanding, as you outline, that data is not experience and not the whole story, and is as subject to whatever winds are blowing as anything else – one needs eternal vigilance not only to have a Republic, but to even have good data.

    Even apart from cultural or spiritual considerations, one must put a box around data – it is not that which from everything flows and toward which everything points – in order for it to remain useful at all, and not just be another source of self-deception.

  2. September 27, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    It’s not just prayer and superstition that have fallen to data: How many sociologists take Durkheim seriously these days (honest question)? How many of their students are even aware of him (rhetorical question)? Freud, Weber – same problem: show me the data, or be relegated to philosophical interest.

    There are certain ironies in this. I once coached parliamentary debate (rather different from the policy debate familiar to most), and one of the things I emphasized was to avoid arguments that start with ‘Studies show…’ so far as possible. If the other guy can cite a study of his own off the top of his head, *or even dishonestly make it appear he can*, the point becomes a toss-up between authorities – not arguments – that no judge is going to be qualified to evaluate on the spot.

    Data can, whether through lack of transparency or sheer mendacity, be just as corrosive to rational cousciousness as to religous or mythical.

  3. Crude said,

    September 28, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Data certainly seems to drive out magical thinking, and spiritual practices of all sorts often have magical aspects.

    Since when? Some data drives out some magical thinking. Other data encourages it. It depends on a lot of factors, including how the data is processed – data rarely speaks for itself, and when others speak for it, problems can arise.

    But this doesn’t speak to the question of how shrines or prayer might relate to data: is it enough to argue for some quantifiable benefit to prayer (say, maybe daily prayer makes us more calm and long-lived) or should we also fight for some good of prayer that is not captured by data?

    The topic of prayer seems to be loaded with magic and superstitions – but increasingly on the scientific side.

    I could go on about this, but to keep it brief: I think it’s pointing out the obvious to note that our ‘data’ and ‘scientific thinking’ is at its best and most reliable (and even there imperfect) with straightforward questions about very basic things. Physics, mechanical details, and so on. When it gets to sociology, psychology, mind and more? Calling it rife with magical thinking may be an insult to magic.

    As far as science goes, with regards to relevance for Christians and monotheists, there’s not much data to be had, and not much prospect of their being data to be had, unless prayer is thought of as a way to reliably influence results in specific ways – which is popular, but wrong.

    • September 28, 2014 at 8:17 pm

      “Data rarely speaks for itself”

      James goes to good length to show data is an artifact. The “standards laid down in advance” on experience (or, really, on the report/record) may as well be as the ax-head pattern is to a hunk of iron. Data doesn’t do anything for or of itself anymore than any other artifact. It owes itself to another’s intention.

      Might I presume to say we’d all be a little unsettled by findings of, say, a significant increase in 5-year survival rates among cancer patients making a pilgrimage to Lourdes? Or, frankly, any findings – good, bad or indifferent? It would seem to miss the point: are we going on pilgrimage or to an oncology ward?

      What’s destructive of religious (or rational) consciousness is not data – not first and foremost – but we who would take the experience and subject it to our own intentions, whether by forcing it to answer to the standards of data or anything else of our invention (e.g., political or moral standards).

      For prayer and other religious practices vis a vis data, all caveats about testing the Lord apply.

  4. David Tye said,

    September 29, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    James, this is fascinating. I’d like to hear more along these lines… can we say, for instance (and along with, perhaps, Kant) that data is the answers to the questions we pose to nature, rather than what nature spontaneously reveals to us? So data is necessarily already conditioned by our interrogation? Prayer “doesn’t work” because we pose our questions to nature in a manner that doesn’t permit it to work?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: