The sacredness of God
One of the difficulties I run into in expounding Pascal Boyer's theory of the minimal counterintuitiveness of religious concepts ("MCI theory") is that many people feel that the critical feature of god concepts—the gods’ sacredness or ultimacy—is not explained by the theory. Here I propose a sort of solution to this problem, or at least a response to the objection.
Sacredness, holiness, awesomeness, ultimacy, greatness—these terms (at least in their religious uses) denote a quality that seems to elude definition. Let us denote the quality to which these terms refer as A. A may be a simple quality, or some compound of qualities—I do not know and it does not matter for this discussion.
In my own experience, there was a time when I used these terms because they were used by other people in my religious tradition, and early on I discerned that they were used primarily in reference to God, but occasionally and partially in reference to other things as well. They were part of church language, to be used in religious contexts but not, at least in the same sense, elsewhere. They were abstract and theoretical, unconnected to any perceptible quality, and emotionally sterile. Nonetheless, I knew how to use them in socially appropriate ways. Later, after I had a set of experiences, these terms came to life for me…
they became uniquely apt for describing something that was otherwise indescribable, and connected with a kind of powerful joy. I still use the terms in the same semantic sense, but I use them more often than I used to. And there are times when, in conversation, I can tell that they resonate for someone else the way they do for me, and that this recognition is mutually known, and then this shared experience introduces a new quality to our relationship.
Looking back, I would say that I learned the lexical rules surrounding terms like holy and holy first, and then later experienced A. (I am sure that there is some proper linguistic terminology for this distinction, and I would appreciate it if some commentator would let us all know what it is.) I think this process is in most respects similar to what happens anytime people learn vocabulary associated with a particular kind of experience, and then later have the experience come along and incomparably enrich their understanding of the vocabulary.
If this account is correct, then it suggests an answer to the objection to MCI theory that it does not capture the gods’ sacredness or ultimacy: it suggests that A is an experiential rather than conceptual quality. MCI theory does not address what sorts of experiences people might have with the entities to which MCI concepts refer. There is often—perhaps always—a distinction between experiences and concepts: this distinction underlies the philosophical problem of qualia, the fact that any plausible cognitive description of red or salty or soft seems far removed from the experiences of these things that our cognitive systems deliver. So it is with religious terms like sacred and holy and awesome: they correspond to experiences that are not well captured by any sort of conceptual description. The “solution,” then, is to recognize the generality of the problem.
A final remark: The problem of qualia, as it is usually construed, seems to me illusory. It arises from the expectation that a description will have the same qualities as the thing described—that the only representational strategy is replication. I don’t see any reason to expect this. But I think it is a much bigger issue, one that cuts to the core of psychology, that qualia are considered a problem at all. A science that so marginalizes the thing we know best and care most about—our own lived experience—has seriously lost its way.