Overcoming Interdisciplinary Stalemates

A previous generation of historians appears to have grand, often grandiose, ways of describing the Lisbon Earthquake. It “destroyed a firmly fixed image of the divine order on earth” (Seligo 1958, 21), marked “the end of optimism” (McKendrick 1974, 22), “struck the Western world like a thunderbolt, and forever transformed the philosophy of human thought” (Bestermann 1956, 23), and after it “[C]onfidence in the harmony of the world and a gracious ruler of it was shattered” and the “optimistic conception of the world…collapsed” (Moltmann 1983, 565).

They might be right. After all, it remains the largest documented seismic event in Europe (Mezcua et al. 1991); gave rise to almost 500 aftershocks in the following year; and its Richter value has been estimated between 9.5 (Mezcua et al. 1991) and 8.5-8.6 (Tiedemann 1991).

Recent historians seem to agree that it was a major world event. In Evil in Modern Thought (2002) Susan Neiman writes that “The sharp distinction between natural and moral evil that now seems self-evident was born around the Lisbon earthquake” (3) adding that natural disasters after 1755 are “neither punishment nor sign but part of an order that is, literally, meaningless” (39). For the first time in Christian history, natural disasters were not interpreted as caused by God on purpose as a punishment. On this narrative, activity at what was eventually named the ‘Marques de Pombal’ thrust fault on the East Atlantic Rise welcomed Europe into the Modern world.

These and other historians believe the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 caused a widespread secularizing trend in Europe by changing God’s moral relationship to his people and to the natural world. On the secularizing interpretation, the death, suffering and unparalleled destructive force of the earthquake prompted people of the period to believe that an all-loving God did not or could not cause these effects intentionally, let alone as a punishment on Catholics. On the secularizing interpretation, people of the period probably did not believe that God caused the earthquake at all.

In contrast to this secularizing interpretation we might hypothesize that in the aftermath of the earthquake people, especially Protestants, interpreted the Lisbon earthquake as caused by God, on purpose, as a punishment, of the out-group Roman Catholics. I say this because a number of confirmed theories in the psychology of religion suggest that religious people would interpret the earthquake that way.

First, people across the age spectrum engage in promiscuous teleology (Kelemen & Rosset 2009). Natural objects and events are interpreted as the products of purpose. Data in favor of this hypothesis extends support to believe that people in 1755 would believe the earthquake was caused by an agent on purpose. This calls into question historians’ secularizing interpretation of the Lisbon earthquake.

Second, the mortality salience of the earthquake and its endless aftershocks, continuous newspaper coverage, and grim timing on All Saints Day seems likely to contribute to a religious conception of the earthquake. In fact, very recent work by CERC partners Joseph Bulbulia and Chris Sibley demonstrate just this correlation with data drawn from participants in Christchurch, New Zealand, before and after the 22 February 2011 quake there. Sudden death in 1755 and before was especially likely to be associated with God’s wrath and eternal damnation (Atherstone 2009, 53), which calls into further question the secularizing interpretation.

So while many historians believe that the Lisbon earthquake represented the first modern disaster and was conceived as the product of natural, not divine, action, it appears theories documenting promiscuous teleology, mortality salience and more would lead psychologists to a different conclusion. We at CERC are attempting to work through this and other interdisciplinary stalemates by designing methods to test the historians’ hypotheses that the earthquake was not interpreted as caused by God on purpose, as a punishment, of the out-group.

Using techniques of quantitative textual analysis and accompanying software, like the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (‘LIWC’ pronounced ‘Luke’), it seems we can test the judgments of historians on the earthquake. We need to convert these hypotheses into statements about the linguistic representations of, among other things, relationships between God, nature, judgment, morality and the earthquake. This sort of project presents us with a number of hurdles. I’ll describe some of these in the next blog post, and indicate how we approach them.

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