Thursday, December 01, 2005
By now most of you have heard about the female Belgian convert to Islam who killed herself in a suicide bombing attempt. Some of you may wonder as to the validity of the imprimatur Islam gives such behavior. Some of you may also know that there is a question as the validity of suicide bombings within Islam. And I'm sure that most of you have become weary of the inane formula that "Islam is peace" in the context of a world where the "religion of peace" is one of the major loci of conflict. To understand these questions we need to get below surface reflections, folk psychology and sociology. One must move past facile quasi-Marxist narratives of economic deprivation, therapeutically modeled psychologies of envy, or tautologically derived assertions that only evil individuals could commit evil acts.
First, I think one must move past the idea of a religion as a set of agreed upon axioms from which the content of the faith is derived. In other words, there is no real Islam apart from how the religion is lived. Our perception of Islam, or any other religion, is simply based on prototypes shaped by induction. By "prototype," I mean more than the standard dictionary definition, I mean in a cognitive sense the idealized average of all exemplars that we insert into the subset of entities we label "Muslim," or "Islamic behavior." The implication is that the prototype is a moving average, likely as a function of time and space. To give an example of what I mean, in 1775 a European gentile intellectual might conceive of the Ashkenazi Jews as a naturally fecund folk, that was part of their prototypical definition. In 1975 no one would generalize that Jews are fecund, though a subset (the Haredi) still remain quite fertile. As a function of space, one might note that in South Africa the Gujarati Muslim community forms the entrenpenurial core and elite of the Indian community. So in this situation there is a perception that Muslims are more educated and well off than the basal Indian population. This prototype is clearly not universally applicable. In other words, the categories and demarcations in our minds are fungible. We may verbally assent to a host of explicit, precise and clean affirmations of axioms which serve as outward boundary markers between groups (i.e., Muslims say salam, Jews say shalom, etc.), but when we conceive of a particular group it is quite likely that we are actually accessing a prototype which serves as an average of our experiences rather than a set of premises or truths from which we derive the identification de novo each time.
The reality that we generate our conceptions of particular groups from prototypes means we need to face another issue, our models of how individuals behave often assume a Standard Social Science Model, where individuals are uniform generalized information processing machines in the soup of culture which dictates their behavioral patterns. A conventional narrative for Muslims, for example, would point to the violence directed toward unbelievers in the Koran, and connect that to the Muslim culture, and then infer that the culture biases believers toward a range of behaviors bounded by the coda encapsulated in the Koran. There are two interesting trends here: a) the individual generating the model is utilizing abductive reasoning, working back to a plausible premise from the set of facts before them, and b) there is an implicit assumption that the individuals (i.e., violent Muslims) utilize deductive reasoning, starting from a set of axioms and deriving actions or truths from those axioms. The same process can be seen when Muslims disavow that violent nihilistic terrorists can be Muslim, because the set of facts they see before them are not congruent with the hypotheses they have which presumably form their construct of what a Muslim is.
We need to get beyond the Standard Social Social Model where culture is a mysterious force of great potency which is determinative in behavior of populations, as well as the folk psychology that is often its partner. Now, I do not mean to imply here that there is no intercultural variation in norms and values which might shape the expected response of a given individual to particular inputs, I am simply asserting that our models might be off, and that we are not reasoning appropriately from the set of facts we have before us. One key problem, which was first elucidated by anthropologist Daniel Sperber in the 1970s, is that minds have particular features and biases which constraint and shape how culture evolves. In other words, imagine that evolutionary biologists simply ignored the reality that phenotypic variation was constrained by phylogenetic history, genetic architecture and morphological dependencies, and pretended as if all the diversity in form and function was simply the result of an exploration of the set of all possibilities. So the explanation for why humans don't have wings would be that wings were simply not favored by selection, or that it was a stochastic outcome. The reality is that we know that tetropod body plans are highly constrained, and evolutionarily novel features are atypical, and more often than not they result in 'monsters' as opposed to functionally improved specimens. In relation to culture, it implies that there are canals of expression that will be favored because of the architecture of the mind, which exhibits biases of comprehension and transmission. One reason that avant-garde fictional styles are often on the margins of the mainstream might be that the human mind is biased toward conventional and derivative plots that it can "relate" to, and styles that are congenial to the way we process information. Similarly, the commonalities that we see between human cultures may simply be an expression of the fact that some cultural styles were not selected for by the human mind's transmission biases. In Richard Dawkins' conception of memes the character of the meme itself was the only consideration in regards to its fitness, that is, a meme that included an instruction for its own propogation was fit. Sperber would add the caveat that ludicrous and unintuitive memes would hamper their own propogation no matter how many clever instructions they had for their own dissemination. Minds are not trivialities floating in a sea of culture, rather, it is culture which is the handmaid of the mind, it is in the mind that culture exists, and it is in the mind that culture modifies how we behave.
And because all this has to do with the mind, we run into confusions and misunderstandings, because we assume that we understand ourselves. Humans live with the conceit that we are conscious creatures with free will. To some extent we are, but there are also a myrid of subcomponents which are encapsulated and sealed off from the generalized cognitive capacities which have "hard-wired" and "reflexive" responses, and these are no less "us" than our reflective mind. The verbal creeds, affirmations and declarations map well between the outer world of our intercourse with other humans and our inner world of our conscious. But the reflexive subcomponents also have a strong effect on how we behave, how we think and how we interact with our fellow human beings, but this shadow-self often gets short shrift from the conscious mind. Far too often our conscious mind takes credit for our reflexive self, or, offers up specious reasoning to "explain" behavior whose root was not conscious or reflective in the least.
Folk psychology only addresses the conscious world of thought and deed, and so too often it misses the big picture. Because verbalized folk psychology derives from the conceits of the conscious mind it throws up a model which constructs towers of deductive rationality to justify all we do and profess. The complexity of the world around us, and its chaotic meanderings, obscure the reality that our models derived from folk psychology are really rather weak. The idea that terrorists are poor or underprivileged persists because of the strength it takes from our own conceit about being able to model the psychology of other human beings naturally (in other words, we have a cognitive bias to discount our own cognitive biases and accept our consciously generated narratives which slot into our ideologies). This idea is false. Contentless platitudes like "they hate us for our freedoms" appeal to our emotional needs, but really say little about the world that gives us a grasp of what is going on out there, as opposed to our own internal psychology. A model that assumes behavior deduced from axioms that itself derives from abduction fails because the latter form of reasoning is the true clue as to what is really going on in the mind of the Other.
Which brings me to the entity for which Islamic terrorist aver that they are dying for, God. A few weeks ago I read a slim text by D. Jason Slone titled Theological Incorrectness. The central organizing question in the book was this: why do you people profess belief in one idea of a God but behave as if God is a different entity altogether? A clear example is the fact that monotheists (aside from Mormons) express a belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent deity outside of time and space. These are the axioms, the truths, of the faith. The vast majority of believers quicky and articulately can express their belief in these truths. But, during canned experiments where they describe how this God would interact in the world on-the-fly their descriptions of "God" would imply an entity sharply at variance with the one deduced from the truths that they expressed fidelity toward. While the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob is an all powerful entity that knows all and can do all in an infinitesimal period of time, the divinity which is generated by unscripted elicitations of God acting in the world is a sharply delineated creature of supernatural power, but constrained within time and not omniscient in an absolute sense. On the other hand, Theravada Buddhism is often portrayed as a non-theistic religion without a Creator God. While Mahayana Buddhists explicitly accept the existence of divine beings, Boddhisattvas, Theravada Buddhists adhere to the older doctrines which emphasize human agency in the world bereft of supernatural aid. That is the theory, the reality is that Buddha the man for Theravada Buddhists of a non-elite bent is a supernatural being of divine essence, acting serially within time, not omniscient, but of great insight. Even though the Buddha, according to the canons, has left this universe through nirvana, Theravada Buddhists seem to speak as if he remains to watch over the faithful and aid them in their travails. When asked about their beliefs many Theravada Buddhists will deny that they believe in a god-entity, but only if they are familiar with Western thought and perceptions of Buddhism, or, if they are religious professionals. What you see here is a convergence onto a cognitive optimum. Whatever creed individuals profess, and truths they "adhere" to, there are constraints in what they can conceive of (i.e., the reason the Trinity is a "mystery" is that it is bloody difficult to really understand what it is in a concrete sense) and biases in the way they believe (even though Theravada Buddhism enjoins believers toward acceptance 8-fold path as monks to attain nirvana, in practice lay persons simply pray to gods to aid them in their day to day life).
A disjunction exists between the axiomatic models which assume deductive coherency promoted by religious professionals and world religions, and the conventional cognitive milieu of the online mind, which is predicated on reflexive abductive logic. Without time to reflect, or familiar verbal triggers, individuals who profess a belief in a divine being of transcendent nature, fall back on their online cognitive facilities and abduce from the set of facts on hand to the real, intuitive, conception of God that they can relate to. The persistent emergence of intermediary entities of spiritual import in Judaism, Islam and Christianity which religious professionals have often had to purge, to no lasting effect, speaks to the common cognitive template which all humans possess. To use a geometrical analogy, the monotheistic God can truly only be modeled in higher dimensional spaces beyond the 3 conventional ones, which is simply an impossible task for our minds in any intuitve sense, so humans tend to settle for analogs in 3 space. Conversely, Theravada Buddhists are enjoined to flee the full richness of a 3 dimensional theology for the precise but cognitively sterile philosophical Buddhism, and so they operationally refer to entities which inhabit the full 3 spaces of their mind.
Which brings me back Muriel Degauque. One model might posit that Degauque, for all of her faults, was poisoned by the ideology of Islam, which by its nature is violent and hostile to the Other. This is clearly deduced from innumerable axioms within the Koran and the Hadiths. Another model might posit that Degauque did not convert to Islam, that what she converted to was a cult, because Islam does not fit within the parameters which would be inferred from her behavior. As I noted above, since Islam is likely operationally a prototype, aside from the most general of axioms (i.e., Muslims accept the Koran and Muhammad as the Seal of Prophets), the question about whether Degauque is a Muslim seems irrelevant, she perceived herself as a Muslim, a large number of her markers suggested she was Muslim (dress, name change, etc.), and excluding her violent end and actions a great deal of her behavior and cultural affinities fit comfortably within the set of individuals who we would define as "Muslim." That is, as long as you don't have litmus tests related to violence, she was a Muslim. Now, was Degauque poisoned by Islam? Here is where the SSSM comes in, too often there is a tendency to simply assign Islam the blame (or at least a form of Islam), and implicitly the Koran, because the assumption seems to be that a set of axioms is what drives individuals to particular actions. That is, if you want to know why someone behaves the way they do, look at their "culture," because that dictates who they are and what they will be. The most obvious objection in the case of Degauque is that her own persona might have been atypical, and suited toward the subculture which is rife in fundamentalist Islam. Or the particular type of fundamentalist Islam where women become violent martyrs. Going back to the idea of the prototype as being the ideal around which one categorizes something, various exemplars are used to generate this prototype. The exemplars vary, a robin is not a penguin, but both are birds, with the robin being more birdy because it is closer to the average prototype. Within Islam there are a range of exemplars, a distribution of them. Assuming for argument's sake that the 9-11 terrorists were Muslim, clearly there is an exemplar of Islam which Degauque fit herself into. Who she was was likely shaped by her interaction with her milieu, and and perhaps the shift of the milieu itself. I don't know any better than you, that is clear.
But the nature of what "Islam" is, and the nature of how believers believe what they believe, and what they believe about what they believe, is crucial in understanding how Degauque arrived at her destination. As an unbeliever it is difficult sometimes to engage sincere believers in a religion because the beliefs they accept are imbued with transcendent ontological significance, they are so emotionally invested in them that a rational and calm dialogue is difficult. The inner intuition that existence itself is a miracle is mapped onto a particular set of verbal affirmations as to the nature and reason for that existence. But another layer to this is that the dichotomy between a deductive model ideal and abductive operational behavior causes problems. When I am in my more sophistic moments I take advantage of the fact that believers ardently profess a deductive model verbally to corner them in and ensnare them in various logical traps and contradictions. To give a precise example I once a caught a friend of mine in high school expressing the opinion that the Presbyterian Church he attended was so much better than the Methodist Church of his parents, that he agreed with them "100%" to his core (this was a mostly evangelical Presbyterian Church, not a liberal one). Now, I am a shady sort, so I couldn't resist the bate, and I asked, "so would say you are a Calvinist?" I asked. My friend nodded, though he wasn't up on the theological details, he knew that his church was Calvinist in theology (Reformed). Then I asked him how he justified a set of decisions he made if they were predestined? Calvinism of course accepts predestination, though in practice how this works out is rather Byzantine and mysterious to me (Muslims also accept predestination, which is used to explain their lack of individual initiative, in contrast to Calvinist Protestants, who were driven to toil and enterprise by their fatalistic beliefs!). My friend was tripped up, and he had a hard time responding with the typical verbal and cognitive gymnastics that are the norm in systematic theology. In a similar fashion, I recall talking to a two acquaintances of mine who were Chinese Christians who went on for several minutes about how superstitious Buddhists were, and how rational their Christianity was (and that was why one had converted). I then queried said individuals about their opinion as regard to the Athanasian creed, and subsequent clarifications at Chalcedon. Of course I got really confused answers which garbled the philosophical details. My point is that I don't think the philosophical details of Presbyterianism and Christianity were really that salient or significant toward the religious beliefs and practice of either my friend of my acquaintances. But, because of the ontological and world-shaking emotional significance that religion has for believers they would not admit this, perhaps even to themselves, and persisted in attempting to puzzle through my sneaky logic traps as if they were of great relevance. If they were theologians no doubt they could have easily "answered" my questions through artful dodges and semantic ploys, I've read enough Lutheran gibberish about free will to know that I would have given up under any assault of philosophical cognitive gymnastics. But they weren't theologians, rather, they were conventional believers who gave an official nod to axiomatic and somewhat abstract creeds and ideals, while living their day to day life in a religious community which fed their soul in ways far more substantive than through Calvinist systematic theology and Alexandrian formulae.
In our public discourse on the Islamic terrorist phenomenon many of us, Muslims, non-Muslims and terrorists, pretend either as if a) the terrorists live in a world of inverted values and principles from which they derive their anti-truths, or b) they are an unfathomable force of nature beyond comprehension. The sloppiness of operational abductive logic means that justification of a set of facts via any fungible premise or paradigm is not particularly difficult. In terms of practical reality I would be skeptical of the idea that religious professionals could convince terrorists via first principles from the Koran and Hadith that their actions were wrong, rather, I suspect that many who are "convinced" were not convinced terrorists in the first place, or, for whatever reason they left the terrorist life and found an appropriate reason for the set of new facts that defined their life. Verbal models of little substance, such as the contention that Islam is about peace (a priori), are still going to be omnipresent aspects of political life because of the fact that they are imbued with ontological and emotional significance, they are shibboleths that seal tribal boundaries. Nevertheless, God willing no one in a position of power or an analyst of influence will take these creedal affirmations as having great predictive power in terms of how people behave. It maybe important to give a nod to how people say they behave, what they believe, but it is important to know what it is really nested within the structure of their minds. If fealty to the Koran and Hadiths is the justification given verbally by terrorists, one should be cautious in taking their contention at face value, especially given their variation over time (i.e., progressive reshaping of their tactics and values). Rather, it maybe that cognitive and social parameters are the most effective in generating change in patterns of action and professed beliefs (killing crucial charismatic leaders within a network might be far more potent than appealing with Islamic clerics of erudition and renown to the contraventions of Koran and Hadith naked by the action of terrorists).
Unfortunately I have few real answers that extend beyond the typical banalities. But, the point of this post is to suggest that the best means of generating models of social and cultural dynamics relevant to public policy must integrate the insights of cognitive science and social psychology. There is a tendency to resist this because humans have an innate folk psychology which gives us basic social fluency among conspecifics which is not learned. But, this intuitive sense of "knowing" leads us astray in novel or higher order complexity systems. We all think we know how to think, and how we think, but the cognitive revolution really has discovered that the mind is a different beast that it perceives itself to be.
Mind and Religion
In Gods We Trust
Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science
The Robot's Rebellion