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July 08, 2004

Propositional civilizations II

Randall and I continue our discusssion on the differences between our civilizations below. I suggest readers who are interested check out the comments below. But, I would prefer to make some clarifications before I post on this topic in the future:

1) I do believe that the "character" of civilizations may differ.
2) On the other hand, I also assert there is a large amount of substructure along various axes.
3) This substructure may be constrainted by axiomatic factors (that is, a constitution or religious text).
4) But the constraints may be illusory, because human rationalization can often reformulate the axioms to justify any given contemporary zeitgeist.
5) The dynamic bidirectional interaction between axioms and behaviors supposedly dictated by those first principles makes the long term impact of initial axioms difficult to characterize, that is, they may play a role in determining the path of cultural evolution by shaping the character of the initial culture, which may then reformulate the axioms, and the process may cycle infinitely.
6) Historical scholarship is subject to a large amount of selection bias (ie; what we know about pagan Scandinavians is largely from accounts written by Christian missionaries or Christians who lived under their rule). Additionally, the generalizations do not give an accurate description of the statistical distribution of any assertion. That is, a generalization presumably describes the mean or median of a trait, the closest aproximation to "truth," but does not quantify variance, skew or other modes.

Let me illustrate. Take the following assertion:

Islam was generally spread by forced conversion.

Imagine a bar graph which is divided into various categories, with the height of the bars dependent on the ratio between the numbers of people who fell into each category of "converts." For example:

1) Forced conversion directly.
2) Forced conversion of elite, then forced to convert.
3) Conversion through indirect coercion (ie; threatened loss of elite status).
4) Conversion through self-interest (ie; possible acquisition of elite status).
5) Conversion through moral suasion.

(an aproximate axis of coercion)

Imagine the changes to the shape of the graph as a function of time.

1) In the first 30 years of Islam, conversion through moral suasion would be the mode.
2) For 10-20 years after that, there would be a spike in the other categories (Muhammed's conquest of Arabia).
3) With the expansion of the Arabs, 3 & 4 would rise as a proportion of conversions.

One can imagine this process as a function of time, and the characterization of Islam would change with each decade. Additionally, there would be geographical substructure. For example, during the initial phase of the conversion of Indonesia, 3, 4, 5 would be dominant, as local elites would convert to Islam to join the transnational Muslim elite (conversion through self-interest). They would often force their subjects to convert (I don't really have this category above, voluntary conversion of elite, forced conversion of populace). Later on, as time passed, the critical mass of Muslim rulers began to wage jihad against Indonesia's Hindu & Buddhist rulers, so 1 & 2 would become more prominent.

I can do the same sort of thing to Christianity. The overall point is that I'm careful of generalizations that stretch across time and space, and crucially, neglect the huge variation between individuals and groups (so I put on qualifiers which don't really give a good characterization of the distribution). Perhaps history is just too complicated to ever really be a social science, and must remain ideology buttressed by facts. In any case, simplistic generalizations work in the context of talking to the "common man," but I shy away from that on this blog (or am attempting to), since I presume that the readers are intelligent and well-read. Additionally, I also think that the ingelligent are susceptible to an axiomatic conception of cultural change, direction and dictation, because they are more likely to look at things axiomatically. To some extent, the axiomatic viewpoint works because until recently, elites have dominated many elements of cultural change.

Posted by razib at 02:25 PM