Default theories

by Carl Dyke

There’s a terrific post up at In Harmonium on “Epistemological Battlespaces.” Bouncing off a variety of sources, including an earlier post of mine, and drawing on years of research, Marc considers a series of ideal-typical “meta-epistemologies” that often underlie (or rationalize) conflicts. It’s a banquet for thought.

Marc’s work made me think of a discussion I often have with students when I’m introducing them to formal theory of whatever kind. As you may know, college teachers of theory are often met with wrinkled noses and squinted eyes when theory comes up; theory is something eggheads do far from the ‘real world’, at best sort of a cultural boiled spinach. So the first task is to yummy up theory by showing that it’s something we all do, for good reasons, and may want to do better. I do this by talking about what I call default theories.

Theories are basically ways of explaining or making sense of things. Like the C: drive on a computer, a default theory is the first place you go when you’d like to know why something happened or what it meant. Everybody’s got one. If your default theory promises explanation or understanding, you stop there, boot up the operating system, and don’t look any farther. This is obviously just a different metaphor for the ‘boxes’ we’re sometimes told it’s good to think outside of.

Default theories are also where you go back to if you try some other theories and they don’t work out. Usually our tolerance for failure is much higher for default theories than for the ones we learn later. Default theories get built into our basic input-output system, so they’re pretty rough-and-ready. We then build a whole worldview onto their kernel, and this can become quite elaborate.

Here are some default theories about how and why stuff happens, corresponding to several overlapping worldviews:

It was Fate
It was God’s will
It was me, I did it
It was them, they did it
It was the government/Trilateral Commission/international Jewish conspiracy
It was human nature
It was hormones
It was the Devil

I’d be tempted to call all of these species of theodicy except that they are accounts of good as well as evil.

From the standpoint of people living inside them, default theories are effective and comforting orientations toward a big, confusing, sometimes scary world. From the standpoint of egghead theories the defaults are delusional, incoherent garbage that needs to be thrown out, or at best accepted as raw data about the perhaps exotically beautiful ignence of the masses. In his post, Marc starts with an illuminating contrast between “civilized discourse” based on open-minded reasoning from facts and its opposite, a narrow “totalitarian way of thinking.” He declines to choose up sides about which is better, and I agree in this undecision; but it also seems to me that this is a choice that is already made for each of us, by default.

8 Responses to “Default theories”

  1. Hi Carl,

    Thanks for the vote of confidence . My mind keeps circling back to the comment you made on the post about “choice”. I’ve been re-reading Bateson’s stuff on the Map-Territory split, and tying that in with some of my own thinking about the nature of mystical / magical systems, and I’m about 95% convinced that a fairly accurate description would be we have free choice” within the limits of the maps we operate with… 19 times out of 20; and then we get hit in he head with a flying ladle going “where did THAT come from?!?!?” .

    Back when I was working on my MA, I spent a lot of time looking at the (so-called) Western Magical Tradition (it seems to have been cobbled together from about 1810 to the 1930’s). One thing that really impressed me was the technologies developed using “active symbols” as a way of “neutralizing” default reaction values. What really struck me was that the entire system was designed as a way to overcome cultural neuro-linguistic proramming. Pretty cool stuff, albeit insanely expensive.

    While I was doing my PhD fieldwork, I was lucky enough to actually see one of these systems spontaneously develop in a non-religious setting (career transitions; hard to get more pragmatic than that ). What really got me was that the career transition industry was actually replicating, before my eyes, analogs of rituals, tools and symbol systems used by Western magicians, and they didn’t even know it!!!!! I knew I was on to something when I realized that they had even replicated the same “sacred foods” as a number of traditions (bran muffins, anyone?).

    That really got me thinking about how our brains worked; especially the bran muffin thing. As it turned out, it wasn’t that hard to track down (high potassium level), but it started me thinking about how our “default” systems are built and structured and under what conditions that wold be selected for and against. That’s what I’m playing with now, trying to describe and define environmental conditions that can select for or against (or are neutral) to each of these meta-epistemologies, and any other ones I can discover.

  2. Marc, really can’t add anything to that first paragraph. I agree completely. To me this is the value of Bourdieu in structure/agency discussions: he says, basically, we have quite a bit of tactical freedom of maneuver within the strategic schemes of the habitus. And it’s not just that structure is constraining, it’s enabling, in the way that gravity is enabling of leverage and road markings are enabling of traffic flow.

    Your project is really exciting. Just off the hip, a point of reference for me in thinking about environmental conditioning is Sahlins in Culture and Practical Reason, in which he clashes with vulgar materialism by pointing out that pretty quickly cultures become structurally interactive with environments to create complex conditioning systems that are not merely material and not entirely ideal. As I recall, what counts as food was a vivid example. Latour’s arguments about nature/culture hybrids, assemblages and networks are along the same lines. So your observations about the spontaneous emergence of such systems in the WMT and career transition industry are plausible and profound, especially in the way they get at change dynamics and even default/worldview transformation.

    I’m curious how you’re leaning on whether the bran muffin is an analogy or a homology. Is there a condition that structures for bran muffins specifically, or is the conditioning for something more general that bran muffin happens to fit? There are actually a lot of ways to get potassium, just as Sahlins notes there are a lot of ways to get protein.

  3. Theories are basically ways of explaining or making sense of things.

    What if there is no sense to be made? Some traditions go out of their way to not make sense.

  4. Yes, and that can be illuminating about the limits of theory. So can other theories that make sense in different ways. Not making sense needs a theory, however, that accounts for why it’s worth doing.

  5. So everything refers back to itself? Everyone has theories but they have limits but even ‘no theory’ demands a theory. It feels like fluff that is just hanging in midair. I can understand the need for the solid ground of “because God said so is why”.

    A lot of this is over my head. I’m just a poor artist who enjoys intellectual wankery on blogs. That’s what they are for aren’t they?

  6. Yeah, pretty much.

    That hanging in midair thing is just right. God does provide solid ground. The cost is accepting some wacky shit. Otherwise we kind of muddle along and make a series of commitments that boil down to habits or gambles. (And God is either a habit or a gamble. See Pascal.)

    I’m not seeing the part where this is over your head. So far you’re making complete sense to me.

    The gamble I like is the one where we trust our senses. And that’s really crazy, which as an artist I’m sure you know. But flying mallets have a certain quality of persuasion.


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