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July 11, 2004

Propositional civilizations III - deductive history

A small coffee break in Bend has landed me free wi-fi. First, I haven't spent much time in Central Imbler on the lee side of the Cascades much before this weekend looking around and taking it in, but it's really "happening," kind of a micro-Boulder-out-West. Population has jumped from 20,000 to 55,000 in 15 years, and the fact that Porsche and Mercedes dealerships face each other along a main drag tells you what kind of people are moving here....

In any case, earlier (here and here) I took issue with the tendency to take a broad-view of civilizational development, and look toward central texts as important causal agents that help determine the general path of a culture as a function of time. This is a general tendency of many broad-sweep historians and scholars, and in many ways, I find it entertainingly seductive. And that is one of the reasons I am more cautious of this methodology, if scholarship resembles a story that appeals to our sense of narration and drama (think Freudianism) I suspect we are more likely to take it on face value.

Let me re-cap two essential points: Though I believe there are substantiative differences between the emphasis on various human universal values between many cultures, which broadly cluster together in civilizational groups, I also assert that the reasons between these differences are more difficult to discern than one might think. I say this because it is in the reasons that "solutions" to the issue of "problem" civilizations come from. To illustrate, Ann Coulter suggesting that we "kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity is pretty indicative of what she thinks the problems are. But what if the problem is deeper, that the leaders Arab Muslim nations throw up are reflections of the values of the general society, and the Islam they practice is a reflection of what non-religious values they valorize?

Broad sweeping generalizations are useful, and induction is a crucial way to extract knowledge from our world. But patterns can deceive, and with something as complex as culture the data we sample, and our perception of it, may skew the reality that is "out there" to suit our own preconceptions.

I believe that examination of the cognitive tendencies of humans is a crucial check out the causal mechanisms we ascribe to the valid patterns we perceive. For example: given common principles (eg; The Ten Commandents), do a group of individuals isolated from each other agree upon a non-intuitive (that is, a non-human universal value) set of inferences as true or correct? Ultimately, it is a move toward reductionism, and connecting the broad-sweep with the atomic level that is the most fertile path. Imagine chemistry without even Dalton's atom, one could still classify various elements and compose a list of reactions where A + B => C, but ultimately, it would be a predominantly descriptive science without great predictive power.

Finally, as I have noted below, I think that the kind of people who ponder intellectual issues and cross-cultural comparison are also psychologically atypical, tending to put more stock in texts and ideas and the propositional logic and the inferences that follow from them than the vast majority of human beings. This then leads to the question on the importance of the intellectualized elites and the less reflective masses in the development of a culture (one could assert that civilization is becoming more axiomatic and textual as literacy spreads and various democratic governments become the norm).

Postscript: Below, Randall implied that the invention of Gutenberg's printing press set in motion cultural changes, and as mass literacy and vernacular comprehension of the Bible became widespread this might have implications for Christianity (this is a no-brainer as far as changes, but the implications are more difficult to pin-down). This is most relevant in the case of Protestant Northern European nations. Did all the Northern European nations tend to follow an inevitable arc of development dictated by the new found understanding of Christianity that was imparted by the Bible? I will examine this question later in the week (eg; did "Render Unto Caesar" help crystallize the tendency toward Church-State separation?)....

Posted by razib at 02:00 PM