Thursday, July 28, 2005

Not a "paradox" at all   posted by Razib @ 7/28/2005 03:21:00 PM

The article, The Christian Paradox is making the rounds. It starts:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife...Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture.

Perhaps the readers of Harper's believe that Christianity is something you find in the Gospels (sola scriptura writ large), but if you are an unbelieving anthropologist you would say that a religion is lived by the people who profess it, and it is out here, not in there. This is relevant to the thread below where we discuss the future of (North) American Islam. If you are a believer in religion X, you are going to assent to creedal assertions a, b, c..., and the intersection of those assertions help define what a religion is fundamentally. But, if you are not a believer a religion is nothing fundamentally except for what the people who espouse it say it is, and to make that judgement you need to weight various semantical nuances in their proper context, ascertaining the character of a religion is not an act of faith but a cognitive process of category creation.

Apropos of this, in the first chapter of Knowledge, Concepts, and Categories I learned that:
  1. People tend to create concepts or categories with OR conditions more than AND conditions (that is, a loose set of probable characteristics rather than a tightly integrated set of necessary traits).
  2. People are aware of the correlated variables within the concept.
  3. Context matters in how people perceive a category.
  4. Repeated input can result in adaption via inductive reasoning so that the center of gravity of a concept can shift over time.
  5. Not all traits have additive effects (ie; not "linearly separable").
  6. And people tend to attribute essences to a category.

I think the last is a problem in light of public policy disputes because we no longer live in bands of 100 people, we exist in a world where macroscale constructs which exhibit flux and continuity are the norm. 10,000 years ago there might have been 50 Muguloo tribesmen, and you could make pretty robust generalizations of those Muguloos, to the point where a distribution-population way of thinking was unnecessary. Today, you have 12 million Jews, or 1.2 billion Muslims, tens of millions of liberals and conservatives...but we still talk as if they were just a band of Muguloos.1 Additionally, the disjunctive tendency of categories (trait A OR trait B OR trait C) also causes confusions because people disagree about the particulars but never make their axioms explicit so that it is often the norm to just talk past each other. More later....

1 - The closer a category or concept comes to one's own self-reference the more nuanced, precise and qualified one will get about defining it. Muguloos be damned!