Sunday, June 05, 2011

Arguing about Historical Generalizations and Conclusions

by Gary Berg-Cross

In general most people prefer generalities and general conclusions. It makes life simpler.

We may come to them honestly, naively or via various jumps in reasoning. These may include some mixture of belief and intuition. The honest and scientific way comes by inductive reasoning, or what most of us call logical induction. Formal induction is a kind of constructive reasoning based on evidence from individual instances. These provide the premises of the inductive conclusion. In theory and applied in formal mathematics it is clear and can seem simple.

The idea is to reason logically from factual premises. But in practice, when applied to the human world, it is more typically more complex than that. Any intro course is Social Science suggests this. Just think of the attempts to make historical generalizations. Courses are full of them, but many historical generalizations are suspect as inductive simplifications that leave something out. I got to thinking on this seeing a generalization about Religion and Democracy in a comment from a recent blog discussion on Falwell’s Law. This drifted into discussing the premise that Christianity was anti-democratic. A launching point was Rushdooney's book which is critical of Democracy. Some quotes of his included generalizations that-"the heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state ... Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies."

Another is the flat out assertion that "Christianity is completely and radically anti-democratic.” A commentator agreed and took a strong position that Christianity (but I imagine he would agree with a broader view of all the religions based on the Book) as necessarily anti-democratic. Two types of historical evidence, edited slightly to illustrate the implied a logical argument, were offered:

  • Christianity is everywhere devoted to what he called the “dictatorship” of the clergy, and
  • A close reading of the Ten Commandments, one Judeo source of social priorities, reveals that the majority of the commandments support this religio-centric view.

We can argue about this, but agree that these indicate some degree of support (inductive probability) for the conclusion. We might liberally formalize them like this to expose some of the reasoning:

  • A close inspection has ~60% of the Judeo 10 commandments dictate religious control.
  • Judeo-inspired Religious groups follow the Judeo 10 commandments.
  • Therefore, Judeo-inspired Religious (instance) Christianity dictates religious control.

Classical induction focus on simple premises and the ones I’ve penned above are getting complex. What do we mean by “close inspection”? I’ve added an arbitrary assertion that 60% of the commandments are categorized that they are about religious control whatever that is. And we might add some supporting facts that are in the mind when understanding such an argument. There is often background knowledge and implied things that might further support this or a more specific conclusion. For example, the more “fundamental” a group is the original religious formulations, the closer they may be to a support religio-centric rather than democratic values and control. In practice the inductive process leading to a conclusion can be pretty messy since evidence, especially historical evidence, may go in several directions. Topics that we argue about, such as the above relation of Religions to Democracy are often not unitary things, but composites and mixtures. The 10 Commandments are mixtures of religious adherence and moral suggestion.

The parts of the Bible or Koran that groups look at and the value they give them can vary. The history and experience of a religious group can be formalized as part of their organization approach. Quakers are not like Falwell’s Christian group. All of these make conclusions more complex and tentative. My mind often travels these reasoning paths when I am confronted with historical assertions.One that bugs the Infidel community is the generalized claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. Religious people may prefer this conclusion.As evidence they point to a selective set of “facts” (historical knowledge) to make the case. So they might use a fact that many founders attended church. But here the fact needs to be understood in social and historical context.Bishop William Meade, explained their behavior this way: "Even Mr. Jefferson, and George Wythe, who did not conceal their disbelief in Christianity, took their parts in the duties of vestrymen, the one at Williamsburg, the other at Albermarle; for they wished to be men of influence."

So from attendance, an historical fact that often can be checked, you cannot conclude that they held a tradition belief. The real historical knowledge seems limited to pretty specific statements about specific actors in concrete local circumstances, but from this people generalize and sometimes wildly about what the behavior "means".

In other cases they have made up facts which support their conclusions.

An infamous example is the set of stories create around George Washington. He may not have had Paine’s Deist convictions, but he was far from a traditional Christian. He, along with other founders, was greatly admired in the mid-19th century. Having non-traditional heroes was a great problem for Christian preachers during a time when they were pushing a new awakening and revival that would give us fundamentalism. They wanted the much admired Washington to be on their side. Their beliefs may have been so strong that they could convince themselves that it was true. In any event they portrayed him in stories and art as a person on strong Christian beliefs. Think of the made up image of Washington praying in the snow. A key fabricator of these propaganda pieces was Christian preacher Mason Locke Weems. Among other things Preacher Weems crafted a death bed story for Washington’s saying that:

"Washington folded his arms decently on his breast, then breathing out 'Father of mercies, take me to thyself,' - he fell asleep." Like other things that Christian fundamentalists sat about Washington, this seems not to be true. In this case we can look to the account from Tobias Lear, Washington's secretary. Lear was with Washington's when he died and wrote this:

"About ten o'clk he made several attempts to speak to me before he could effect it, at length he said, -'I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.' I bowed assent, for I could not speak. He then looked at me again and said, 'Do you understand me?' I replied, 'Yes.' 'Tis well,' said he."About ten minutes before he expired (which was between ten and eleven o'clk) his breathing became easier; he lay quietly….”It is also true that Humanists may subscribe to over generalizations base on their world view, although I don’t find them making up stories so readily. that what we now call the Renaissance encouraged “innovative thinking"? Or maybe it was more of a substitution and elevation of a new form of thinking mixed with some innovation. What evidence could prove this? Perhaps it is very much dependent on what you mean by innovation. It's useful to take a skeptical stance about such things as I wrote in another blog on shallow skepticism and another on conservative quotes. The problem with statements like these is the sweep and unity of their generalization. They imply that some complex phenomena which we call the Renaissance (or American culture) were essentially uniform social realities.
This papers over the forms of variation that certainly existed in the phenomena Renaissance, among American founding and in Christianity. Simple generalizations are useful for everyday discussion, especially to draw up side, but thoughtful discussion tolerates more complexity.


Don Wharton said...

I find that people protest when I say that "God" has no implicit meaning. Any meaning must be derived from the linguistic context in the same way that a value of x in an equation must be derived from the other terms in the equation.

Yes Christianity itself also has no real meaning. I am increasingly convinced that many Christians are de facto atheists. I can't prove it but we do have polls saying that 30% of Americans do not believe in Hell.

Reality is complex and our understandings must reflect that complexity.

lucette said...

Not believing in hell does not make you an atheist. I think that the Universalists (one of the "U"s in "UU") don't believe in hell. Where is it declared that one must believe in hell?

Gary Berg-Cross said...

There are probably several uses of a word like "God" in conversation or in textual passages. Sometimes you get an idea of what is in the mind of a speaker from the context, but sometimes you have to know more than the linguistic context. The historical context might be important. An example is how the Founders talked about the relation of State and Religion given that they objected to the role of the Church of England in the Colonies.