Saturday, August 25, 2007

Drink as I say   posted by Razib @ 8/25/2007 01:07:00 PM

I'm reading When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise And Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty, a history of the Abbasids. This on page 169 caught my attention:
...the caliph called for wine. A golden goblet was brought and the drink was poured into it. Ma'mum drank and handed it to Hasan....Hasan, a good Muslim had never drunk wine, yet to refuse could be seen as an insult to the caliph...'Commander of the Faithful,' he said, 'I will drink it with your permission and following your order,' for if the caliph himself had commanded him to do it, how could it conflict with Islam? The caliph replied that if it had not been his order, he would not have held out the goblet to him. So the tension was relaxed and they drank together

There are many references in this book to the consumption of wine at the court of the Abbasids, and even the patronage of a genre of poetry focused upon wine. I knew the general outline of this, and amongst Muslim rulers alcohol consumption doesn't seem that rare. I recall that the Mughal ruler Jehangir was an alcoholic, as was Saud bin Abdul Aziz, the king of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and early 1960s (his problems with alcohol were one of the reasons that he was forced to abdicate by his brothers). Of course, Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol, and yet here you have the titular spiritual leaders of the Islamic world, the caliphs, making it a normal part of their lifestyle. What's going on here?

One of the main reasons that I have generally turned a skeptical eye toward explanations of religious constraint upon behavior are these sorts of examples. From an atheist perspective I had always tended to view religions as clear and distinct sets of axioms; but operationally the practice seems far more subject to social consensus and individual rationalization. This isn't only an issue with religions, I have known of environmentalists who drive SUVs, self-proclaimed social conservatives who are heavy users of drugs and indulge in non-standard sexual practices, and so on. I'm sure most people can repeat such examples. Years ago when I found out that George H.W. Bush had switched from being pro-choice to pro-life, as had Ronald Reagan to some extent (Reagan's pro-choice period was more that he simply signed laws decriminalizing abortion in California as governor), I assumed this was conscious political opportunism. The same for Al Gore or Jesse Jackson, who made the inverted transition. And surely some aspect of political calculation was at work here on the ultimate level, but what about the proximate cognitive processes? Humans are good at rationalization, and I'm not sure anymore that the elder Bush or Reagan were insincere in their rather fortuitous conversions. Or, at least part of their minds were pretty convinced that their change in opinion had more to do with reflective shifts in the underlying assumptions and values and not an exogenous push due to circumstance.

In short, humans beings perceive themselves to be reflective beings shaped by essential axioms open to conscious inspection. But the reality is that human behavior and psychology seems to exhibit a great deal of contextual contingency which shape a host of cognitive processes insulated from conscious inspection. We regularly seem to make up, and believe in, stories which reinforce our self-perception that we are rational beings with free will who make decisions and form beliefs by carefully taking into account data filtered via our avowed norms. But cognitive psychology shows that humans can be easily influenced by priming inputs which they are not conscious of in regards to the choices they make, all the while happily regaling researchers with their theories that sketch out the underlying causal factors behind their behavior. Yet it seems here that as in the case above the reason is posterior to the act; constructed post facto to give intellectual support to decisions made via other means.

Surely there is a method to the madness, and the outline of human behavior is constrained by a host of concrete parameters (biology, sociology, history, even rational calculation!). But, the biases which serve as weighted parameters in the function that generates the distribution of human behavior are likely more complex, contingent and opaque to the naked eye then we might have hoped for. Just as "friction," "bounded rationality" and "behavioral economics" are emerging as necessary and essential tools in economics, so broad brush histories and anthropologies must take into account the multi-dimensional nature of human psychology and the disjunction between the stories we tell and the dynamics which drive us.

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