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This article represents the views of its author, J.S.K., not necessarily those of the C.C.S.
Published: October 2014

Towards a Science of Belief Systems
Edmund Griffiths
Palgrave Macmillan, 2014 (hardback and ebook)
204 pp.

Sometimes a new science is born, forms a minor international society, launches a journal, suffers an ideological split, and scatters to the winds in the space of a few decades. It would be a lot to hope that—on the way—it should offer an objective explanation of the processes underlying such events. But a movement did once have such a hope; and has indeed followed that trajectory. Born to an intriguing aside in a popular biology book of the 1970s, its journal was subtitled "Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission", reflecting the movement's belief that processes similar to those of biological evolution could explain the observed diversity in human beliefs.

Memetics, whose "memes" didn't fare very well in the academic "meme pool", appears in the book under review only as a proposition in a trio of possible logical reconstructions of "Dawkinsism", as part of an introductory illustration of the book's core method. But, although "descriptive logic" (the science this book expounds) does not—as far as I can tell—descend from memetics, it shares some of its ambitions and its interests. Descriptive logic, like memetics, purports to be concerned with beliefs but not with the truth value of those beliefs. Like memetics, it appears as a science straddling multiple conventional disciplines, dependent for its development on collaboration with workers in those fields. 

Is descriptive logic, then, just the memetics de nos jours? Will it fall apart as soon as its early adopters find that they cannot clearly define their subject matter, let alone settle on a reliable and rigorous methodology? Thirty years from now, will Griffiths's term "logical reconstruction" have degenerated into a modish phrase for a kind of stereotyped fad delusion in the telepathic web? Such concerns are soon dispelled as the approach of the author to his subject becomes clear. It is based not on metaphor and hope, but on a thorough examination of the evidence. And he clearly defines and justifies the subject matter (belief systems), the range of data sources (primarily verbal evidence), and the methodology (logical reconstruction). Crucially, the methodology provides the wherewithal to test alternative hypotheses about the data, and thus to dispute and revise the conclusions Griffiths—who has written for this website—draws about (for example) "alternative" Egyptology, flying saucer sightings, Western Juche, or the hymns of Charles Wesley.

And it is in that sense, of being a methodologically clear, empirical and revisable discipline, that Edmund Griffiths's descriptive logic is a science. Not, as he points out, in the more narrow sense of "science" as research conducted in a laboratory: "I have no intention of accelerating Calvin’s Institutes round a supercollider underneath Geneva in the hope of recreating the conditions that obtained just after the Swiss Reformation; I shall not be inviting rats to find their way through the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur; and I shall even resist the urge to concoct a quasi-Darwinian 'Just So' story that would account for evolutionary psychologists’ propensity to believe in evolutionary psychology" (§4).

The logical reconstruction, which is at the heart of this science, and of which there are copious worked examples in the text, is a connected logical argument (a sequence of propositions) for all the beliefs in a given belief system, where the logic is intended to model how people actually reason, not (as in normative logic) how people "should" reason. Determined by and determining that logical structure is the intensity and quality of affect attached to the propositions within it. In the introduction, Griffiths applies this technique to a relatively simple "artificial problem": which of three reconstructions of Dawkinsism best fits the evidence (primarily, the propositions and affect in the oeuvre of Richard Dawkins). 

It's no spoiler to say he demonstrates (through a comparison of several five- or six-step reconstructions) that a deeply affect-laden valuing of the truth of natural selection in biological evolution is primary, with memetics appearing as a descriptive-logical consequence of the denial of natural selection by some religious believers. As the author of the present book notes, Dawkins is an "eloquent and straightforward writer" (§33), whose values and belief system are unlikely to be misunderstood by a reader. 

More innovative, however, are the insights the author goes on to uncover through analyses of substantial and thorny issues such as the problem of evil in Gathic Zoroastrianism, the relationship between "9/11 Truth" and the gnosticism of the Untitled Writing from Nag Hammadi, and why Fabians (and, coincidentally, astrologers) rarely mention marginal utility theory. And he achieves these insights not just because of his detailed, careful analysis of the fascinating texts he takes as his data—doubtless many great scholars have examined them before—but because of the descriptive-logical lens he studies them through. It's by separating out the form from the particular content, by resisting the temptations of normative logic, and by taking into account the emotional charge of the propositions alongside their roles in the logical structure, that Griffiths breaks new ground.

Woven through this warp of objective rigour, though, is an engaging thread of pleasing artistry. The arguments are not always simple, but they are engrossing, and have a warm, lucid, conversational tone. Necessarily, there are a few paragraphs that are somewhat densely technical, and—less necessarily—there are others that are somewhat densely poetic (or poetico-comedic: elegant and witty constructions—such as "a palace built from fairground mirrors and Parisian philosophy, where the only sounds he can hear are those of Boulez records and the roar of the desert wind" (§60)—that recall the casually elaborate linguistic playfulness of the comedian Stewart Lee). But attention in the more intricate passages does pay off; and the rhythms of the work are such that the book is a compelling page-turner, albeit in both directions.

Something that startles about this book is that the author is so assured and at ease in such a vast range of subjects. And that could be overwhelming for a reader. Certainly I know nothing about almost any of the topics Griffiths discusses. I cannot comment on the relevance and completeness of the evidence he considers while building his logical reconstructions. But the author introduces each topic in a way that shares his at-easeness, makes the reader feel that they do know about it (and indeed, as they read on, they will know enough about it to appreciate the analyses).

Griffiths places no emphasis on practical applications of his work. Indeed, he assures the reader that the science "rests its claim to the student’s attention on the proposition that other human beings are themselves persistently and absorbingly interesting" (§169) and not on any practical benefits that may arise from studying them. But I believe descriptive logic is a science that could engender a technology for manipulating belief systems (a 'prescriptive logic', perhaps?) that could be of use in advertizing, psychiatric healthcare, political propaganda, and state apparatuses.

In psychiatry, for instance, one might want to identify which beliefs depended on which other beliefs, to allow one to target psychological work either on the most fundamental beliefs (if the aim were to rid the patient of a particular belief system); or on those beliefs that most produce the problems the patient wants to deal with but that are least disruptive to the logic to remove. Logical reconstruction could also be a valuable diagnostic tool for psychological disorders. It seems plausible, for example, that a psychotic delusional system, or a maladaptive schema in a person with a personality disorder, would respond better to different psychological or pharmaceutical treatments depending on the form of its logical structure.

And in politics, the advocates of a political belief system would at least do well to understand why they believe what they do, and why others don't. To be able to identify which beliefs are logically primary in a given system, and the quality and distribution of the emotional significance attached to the beliefs, could put advocates of a rival belief system at a significant ideological advantage. Insights into the affective and logical processes determining the acceptance of beliefs, given one's other beliefs and social and material circumstances would be of value, too, in commercial advertizing and in state social control.

In these applications of descriptive logic, an understanding would be needed of the interplay among belief systems, behaviour, and material conditions. And, although Dr Griffiths does not advocate any applications of his research, he does take care to situate his research in the perspective of historical materialism, notably in Chapter 5, "Belief systems and the materialist conception of history". He identifies, here, the critical role historical materialism will have in explaining how belief systems change over time. So, this book presents the foundations, at least, of a technology of belief systems, as well as a science.

Towards a Science of Belief Systems is a curious sort of book. It could be marketed as a 'popular science' work, in that it provides an accessible and readable (actually, entertaining and enjoyable) account of a scientific method and some of its findings. Yet, as its title indicates, it is not popularizing an existing science: it is founding a new one, presenting original methods and findings to the world. But it also offers the reader a way of developing an objective understanding of their own and others' deep beliefs and values; a set of tools that could be personally transformative. And it could, if one ignored the cohesive through-line in the book, be enjoyed as a collection of analyses and observations on the products of diverse collective belief systems. It could even, though its author might deny it, serve as the cornerstone of a new practical political methodology.

It must be difficult to shelve this in bookshops and libraries. In my local shop, they have put it in the philosophy section, but it could just as easily have been put elsewhere. The book should be of interest to academics in the various affected disciplines (anthropology, comparative religion, social psychology, cognitive science, and political science, to name a few), to activists in belief systems (e.g., again not exclusively: people in religious, subcultural, or political movements, and lone craft practitioners such as a stand-up comedian, or the owner-operator of a New Age shop), and to the general reader with an interest in "why other people believe the things they do [and] how it feels to believe them" (back cover).


J.S.K.

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