Saturday, April 21, 2007

Civilized Inference

I wanted to write down a few thoughts I had as a bit of follow-up to my first chat with Ernie and as preparation for our next one.

Ernie brought up Arnold Toynbee and his 22 identified civilizations. I have only the most passing familiarity with Toynbee's work. I picked up one of his books about the history of Christianity at the library today, and I've read through a only couple of articles on Wikipedia about him and his work. So I cannot speak in any detail about his ideas, but I would like to address Ernie's reference to his work.

Basically, Ernie's claim was that the success of Christianity in contributing to so-called Western civilization, one of only twenty-two identified successful civilizations (according to Toynbee) is evidence that Christianity is "onto something" and further, that a "truer belief" must be better than the "false belief" it replaces.

There appear to me to be several difficulties with drawing any strong conclusions from these statements. First, most of the other civilizations Toynbee identified were not based on Christianity or even monotheistic belief systems. Some of these other civilizations continue today. Second, that the lists of "aborted" and "arrested" civilizations includes several based on Christianity suggests that Christianity was not sufficient to guarantee success. Both of these difficulties reflect a more generic problem: we are talking about complex systems of complex elements in dynamic environments, and teasing out causes and effects is going to be difficult. As I understand it, Toynbee advocated explanations based on "creative minorities" and challenges that were neither to difficult to overcome nor too simple to allow stagnation. Whether or not that is true (or partly true), the diversity of beliefs represented in these civilizations suggests that the truth content of the beliefs may not be a critical factor.

Can false beliefs be helpful? Yes, I think they can. Beliefs are important contributors to intentions (and therefore to intentional actions). False beliefs can lead to beneficial actions. They have important limitations and potential for other problems, but they can still be helpful.

For example, in Bali there are water temples whose priests control the distribution of water to farmers through a system of offerings to various deities. In the late 1970's or early '80's, this system was disrupted when the government attempted to modernize agriculture with new fertilizers, new pesticides and new types of rice. After a brief increase in productivity, things fell apart. Later computer simulations showed that the water temple system was far more effective than the newer technology in the Bali climate.

Does that mean that the religious beliefs of the Balinese were true? No, it just means they had evolved successful rules and encoded those rules in religious stories and rituals. The beliefs were false, but they were helpful. On the other hand, while the rules may have been well-adapted to Balinese climate, they may not have worked well elsewhere or during periods of abnormal rainfall or other sustained environmental changes. While the technology that was introduced turned out to be a step backwards for them (based on other presumably "scientific" but false beliefs), science still provides a more reliable platform for learning and eventually predicting and controlling the behavior of the ecological system, especially in the face of changing climate.

I came across a similar example a couple of months ago regarding the ecology of Central or South American rain forests, but I cannot find a reference to it now. The basic idea was that the religion of the native people contained beliefs about the kinds of spirits that inhabited different kinds of trees and/or animals with corresponding rules about the circumstances in which the trees could be cut down or the animals killed. Those rules, again encoded in the guise of religious beliefs and rituals, were found to promote the health of the forest ecology.

Because of these and other considerations, I think we have to be pretty cautious about inferring too much about the truth of Christian doctrines based on the continued existence of Western (Christian?) civilization. Even according to Toynbee, that success is partly dependent on historical contingencies in the form of challenges faced (not too strong, not too weak, but just right).

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