Reverse Engineering – Explanation

Reverse engineering offers a systematic way of relating and employing different methods for studying human experience as it is mediated by complex cultural concepts (CCCs) in the context of social formations. By analogy with scientific practice in a wide range of fields, from biology and chemistry to software development and industrial design, it is about taking a system apart to see how it was put together. The overall strategy proceeds in a series of steps: (1) redescribing complex phenomena in more basic behavioral or event terms, (2) identifying components (building blocks) and explaining how they interact to produce the behavioral phenomenon of interest, and (3) testing the proposed theoretical model using comparisons, experiments, and/or simulations (see Toolbox for some examples).

The research process consists of three steps:

  1. Redescribing complex phenomena.
  2. Identifying components and explaining their interaction.
  3. Testing the theoretical model.

1. Redescribing Complex Phenomena

This step is comprised of three sub-steps: (1.1) CCC identification, (1.2) behavioral redescription, and (1.3) expression in basic terms.

1.1. CCC identification involves charting the variable meanings of the term in different social settings and strategic contexts, assessing its role in defining, marking, and policing the boundaries of a social formation, and analyzing the identity and behavior of those who participate in it. Tools such as critical discourse analysis, genealogy, and conceptual history are indispensable for doing this job properly.

1.2. This analytical process allows us to redescribe CCCs in behavioral or event terms. In some cases this is relatively easy, as, for example, when we shift our focus from “prayer” to “praying.” With highly abstract nouns, such as “art” or “religion” or “esotericism,” the process will be more involved and highly dependent on the SF in which the CCCs are embedded. Thus, in some SFs typically characterized as “religions,” people may refer to “getting religion,” in others to “practicing their religion,” and in others to “believing in God,” “venerating the ancestors,” or “serving the spirits.” In SFs typically characterized as “esoteric,” people may refer to “accessing special knowledge.” In SFs typically characterized as “arts,” people may refer to creating, painting, acting, performing, and so on.

1.3. Behaviors can then be expressed in more basic concepts. Basic concepts express (or point to) features in the world (such as representations, actions, and events) that are recognized more or less the same way across individuals and communities – regardless of whether or not these features are recognized as “real” (or part of any causal chains) by science. Here the goal is to specify the behavior of interest in language that is simultaneously as precise and as generic as possible. For example, we may have identified the CCC “PRAYER” in the formation of contemporary evangelical Christianity, redescribed it as “PRAYING,” and noticed that in a particular evangelical practice tradition the novice is instructed to imagine the presence of a person (Jesus) who is not otherwise visible in an everyday context (such as a park bench or at the breakfast table) and engage him in conversation (Luhrmann 2012). In this case, praying would be specified as part of an event (going to the park or having breakfast), actions (preparing a place for the person, imaging the presence of an unseen person, speaking to the person), and representations (of Jesus). If we had an account of such an event, as opposed to instructions for performing it, we could also include whatever sensations the individual claimed to experience during the event, e.g., a spontaneous thought that the person attributed to Jesus. In a similar fashion, we can ask what specifically is happening when a traditional Protestant “gets religion” at a camp meeting or a Haitian “serves the spirits” on a traditional Catholic feast day. The former could be specified in terms of an event (the camp meeting), actions (hearing preaching, falling to the ground), sensations (internal heaviness [the weight of the spirit]), and representations (of heaven, hell, sin, salvation, the Holy Spirit, etc.). The latter could also be specified in terms of events (celebration of a saint’s day), actions (preparations, offerings, movement), sensations (a shift in sense of self [possession by the spirit]), and representations (the spirit / saint in image and narrative).

2. Identifying Components and Explaining Their Interaction

Careful descriptions of this sort allow us to focus more precisely on the behavior we want to explain in order to (2.1) identify potential components (building blocks), and (2.2) explain how they interact to produce the phenomenon (a mechanism).

2.1. In this step, we move from describing the phenomenon in behavioral terms to describing it in mechanistic terms by identifying the building blocks that (we hypothesize) might interact to account for the behavior. Comparison of the phenomenon of interest with other phenomena with which it may share a component in common, especially when the other phenomenon is better understood, is a crucial tool for identifying components. In the case of the evangelical praying as just described, we might want to begin by comparing the sensations generated by this prayer practice with what children experience when interacting with imaginary companions. Our purpose in doing so would not be to equate the two phenomena, but to look for common features that might help us to identify similarities (e.g., in cognitive processes) and differences (e.g., in context and framing). Our comparison might then lead us to scientific literature on the use of mental imagery (e.g. Kosslyn et al. 2013) and the role of theory of mind in detecting agency and attributing intentional states (Leslie 1987) as building blocks of the behavior, along with contextual and framing components.

In the case of the camp meeting, we might search for other situations in which people have an internal feeling of heaviness and, in the Haitian example, other instances in which people’s sense of self is displaced. In these cases, relevant discussions may appear in medical or psychiatric literature. Researchers should not shy away from these comparisons, but need to recognize that lines of research are pursued within SFs (in this case disciplines) with their own CCCs. To set up a fair comparison, the phenomena to be compared must be redescribed following the sequence of steps just described. Doing so highlights the specific social interactions and framing effects that produce a “psychiatric” or “medical event” and allow us to specify the point of analogy between the events we want to compare in generic terms. With these qualifications, research on “catalepsy” and “conversion disorders” in the medical literature can help to refine the sensation of heaviness and the literature on “dissociation” can help us to refine shifts in sense of self. As in the case of prayer, the sensations are only one among several potential components, which might also include (e.g.) the degree of executive control as evidenced by the individual’s (unconscious) ability to limit the behavior to appropriate contexts, the nature of the social interactions, and the overall framing of the event.

2.2. Explaining how the mechanism works involves figuring out how the components interact to produce the behavioral phenomenon of interest. This step goes beyond describing the building blocks (components) to proposing a model or theory to explain how the mechanism (comprised of interacting components) works to produce the phenomenon. This is the mechanistic explanation proper. So for example, a mechanistic explanation might theorize that the phenomenon in question emerges through an interaction between the default mode network, (which generates our sense of self and simulates scenarios based on input from our emotional and motivational systems), the salience network (which weights information in terms of its significance), and reality or source monitoring systems (which frame events in light of internal and external cues, including social interactions). With respect to physically enacted conversions at a camp meeting or revival in which people fall to the ground or are “slain in the Spirit,” we might generate the following theoretical model: preaching on sin and damnation simulates a scenario involving eternal hellfire in the DMN, this scenario is weighted with high significance (due to contextual and personal factors), and coupled with internal (feelings of despair and distress) and external (others falling to the ground) cues that those present link with the Holy Spirit.

Since this step depends on knowledge of cognitive and brain systems, it is often easier for humanists to identify components than to explain how they interact, especially in cases where scientists have not worked out applicable models. Even though mechanistic explanation is one of the potential outcomes of this approach, simply identifying the components is sufficient to allow humanists to reconstruct the emergence of formations and analyze how the components come together at the level of human interaction. Whether or not researchers can reconstruct the emergence of a specific historical phenomenon depends on the nature of the sources. Where the sources permit, reconstructions advanced with varying degrees of certainty, allow humanists to contribute to the development of explanatory models through a close analysis of the role that social interaction, context, and framing play in the process. If and when researchers can integrate these components with the cognitive and brain processes to generate a full-blown mechanistic theoretical model, researchers can then test the model by manipulating the components via experimentation, modeling and simulation, and/or comparison (step 3).

3. Testing the Theoretical Model

Researchers can test the theoretical model in a variety of ways including comparison, computer simulations, and experimentation.

3.1. Comparatively, we can ask whether other systems that “do” similar things also appear to be composed in this way. Alternatively, are there systems that appear to be composed in the same way that do not behave this way?

3.2. We can use computer simulations to see how idealized models of this system behave with different specifications and see if the results thus generated fit with historical or ethnographic records. For example, in the theoretical model of bodily conversion sketched above, the key variables that would determine who had a bodily conversion would be individual differences in imaginative ability (i.e., to generate a realistic simulation of suffering in hell), in attitudes toward revival meetings (i.e., preexisting beliefs about their value and significance), and emotional susceptibility (i.e., preexisting feelings of shame or guilt and/or suggestibility). We could then test this theory by plotting these variables into a computer model to simulate expected outcomes given various combinations.

3.3. Finally, we can use experimental methods to manipulate components of the mechanism under controlled conditions in order to test if they affect the behavior as we would predict. For example, semi-experimental studies have been conducted in the field used to test hypothesized differences between meditation practices that emphasize mental imagery and those that discourage it, showing the effect of “mental imagery cultivation” modified by individual differences in personality factors (cf. Luhrmann 2012). Other experimental studies have tried to isolate specific components in the lab to see whether they alone suffice to produce the phenomenon – for example, whether sensory deprivation (reduced reality-monitoring ability) and suggestion (increased expectations and salience to specific cues) are sufficient for explaining experiences related to spiritualism (Andersen, Scjoedt, Nielbo, and Sørensen 2014).

The possibilities are vast, but the principle is the same: when we have successfully identified lower-level building blocks, we are in a unique position to formulate strong research programs for studying the complex relationships between basic human cognition and the broad variety of capacities that emerge when they are put together in various ways through patterned practice.


Examples and Further Reading

The following publications employ the reverse-engineering strategy to specific CCCs, in order to generate new research questions:

  • Andersen, Marc, Uffe Schjoedt, Kristoffer Laigaard Nielbo, Jesper Sørensen. 2014. “Mystical Experience in the Lab.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 26: 217-245.
  • Asprem, Egil. 2015. “Reverse-Engineering ‘Esotericism’: How to Prepare a Complex Cultural Concept for the Cognitive Science of Religion.” Religion. DOI: 10.1080/0048721X.2015.1072589.
  • Taves, Ann. 2015. “Reverse Engineering Complex Cultural Concepts: Identifying Building Blocks of ‘Religion.’Journal of Cognition and Culture 15: 191-216. DOI: 10.1163/15685373-12342146.


  • Gallagher, Shaun. 2005. How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kosslyn, Stephen M., William L. Thompson, and Giorgio Ganis. 2006. The Case for Mental Imagery. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Leslie, A. M. 1987. “Pretense and Representation: The Origins of ‘Theory of Mind’.” Psychological Review 94: 412-426.
  • Luhrmann, Tanya M. 2012. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.


By Egil Asprem & Ann Taves (2016). License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

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