Archive for February, 2011

We began our discussion by attempting to define religion. The three major suggestions included:
1) A system of beliefs and practices related to one’s conception of the nature and purpose of reality
2) An attempt to get help in dealing with (or controlling) the world (or life)
3) Belief in an unseen (possibly non-physical) order and adjusting ourselves thereto

There was also an emphasis on the group aspects of religion

We then set out to define several terms which are necessary when beginning a discussion about religion. These included:
1) World – before Copernican revolution this meant everything; afterword it meant planet
2) Universe – A unitary set of all things (could be considered all physical things)
3) Cosmos – An ordered whole (could include non-physical aspects of reality if there are any)
4) Prakriti – Sanskrit term meaning all of physical reality
5) Purusha – everything other than physical reality (the transcendental)

We then moved on to the problematic task of defining the word belief. Several proposals were made:
1) Something held true
2) Held true regardless of empirical evidence
3) Held true strongly
4) Held true plurality-istically (most probable option based on available info, can include, but does not require, the feeling of certainty)
5) An axiom (potentially only provisional)
6) Held true beyond empirical knowedge
7) Something personal in nature with a heart (or will)-mind distinction
8) Held true with consequences in behavior

We concluded that due to the problematic nature of the term, we would not use belief in our discussion but would instead use the phrase “proposition which is held to be true”

Next we engaged in an epistemological discussion on the definition and criteria for knowledge. It was suggested that the standard philosophical definition of “justified true belief” should be supplanted in our discussion instead with the weaker definition of “something held true for a reason” (note this means you can have knowledge of something even though it is false). Whether knowledge required certainty, or that it required the proposition to actually be true was hotly debated. Some held that we don’t actually have knowledge of anything but just varying levels of confidence. We concluded that we would still use the term “know,” but in its weaker sense.

At that point we moved on to looking at different examples of what are called religions to try and find commonalities between all of them. We found that common conceptions of religion as a belief in a god or gods, or the belief in the supernatural do not apply to all accepted cases. Many eastern religions especially have quite different ontologies and metaphysics, some of which do not include gods or supernatural forces. The three areas which all major religions seemed deal with were the “philosophical,” the “praxional,” and “communal.” Under the philosophical area, two major components seem to be the mythos (or narrative) and the logos (or analytic use of reason). The praxional consists of rituals and other practices performed by individuals and groups in both structured and unstructured ways. An example of the communal would be the criteria for which you consider yourself a member of a religious community aside from any practices or beliefs you might hold.

As a final example we took contemporary rabbinic Judaism:
Philosophical: monotheistic, covenantal
Praxional: Halakha, circumcision, mitzvah, tzadaka
Communal: Minyan, closed community, matrilineal, and use of Rabbis.

The discussion ended by saying that we would describe religion based on these three areas, without giving it a strict definition.

Blog contributed by RS


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The first forum meeting for the semester focused on the first chapter of Darwin’s Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson. The chapter, entitled “The View from Evolutionary Biology,” summarized some key aspects of evolution and natural selection for later application to cultural evolution in relation to religion.

First, we discussed levels of selection in order to identify the differences between individual and group selection. Three questions were addressed to help make this distinction.

Individual Selection – Tree arborescence (woodiness)
1. What is selected?
a. The individual plant on the basis of woodiness.
2. What is inherited?
a. Genes and other heritable molecular states.
3. What varies?
a. Genes and other heritable molecular states, woodiness, environment.

Group Level Selection – Bird flock consisting of individual callers that alert the flock of danger
1. What is selected?
a. Individual survival within a group and group survival vs. other groups.
2. What is inherited?
a. Genes and other heritable molecular states.
3. What varies?
a. Genes and other heritable molecular states, calling (degree of calling per individual and number of callers per group), environment.

Delving further into the idea of group selection, we focused on the background of the theory, starting with Hamilton’s 1964 equation which states that an altruistic trait will be increase in frequency when:

rb > c

where r is genetic relatedness, b is the benefit of the altruistic trait to the receiving individual, and c is the cost of the trait to the performing individual. This has been used to describe kin selection, or the evolution of traits that favor the reproductive success of relatives sometimes at the expense of the individual’s own success. Kin selection is heavily dependent on the idea of inclusive fitness where one’s fitness is calculated as:

inclusive fitness = offspring + offspring(from helping a relative) – offspring(from receiving help from a relative)

Hamilton’s equation can be compared to Price’s equation which includes quantitative genetics to define variation within and between groups:

See http://www.stanford.edu/~jhj1/teachingdocs/Jones-PriceEquation.pdf for an in-depth description of the equation. A primary difference between the two equations is that the Price equation is a special case for when there are specific groups to apply it to. Hamilton’s equation, however, always applies to relatives, regardless of other classified groups.

Taking a further look at group selection, we see that the proportion of individuals that act altruistically (cooperators) increases within the population, even though the proportion of cooperators may decrease within specific groups. Consider the following diagram where each circle represents a distinct group and blue is the proportion of cooperators within that group.

In each individual group, the cooperators decreased in number, however, the groups that had a higher proportion of cooperators were more successful than neighboring groups with fewer cooperators. Therefore, even though cooperators may be at a disadvantage within groups, the advantage they confer between groups allows them to increase in number overall.

With this basic understanding of group selection, we turned to the topic of cultural evolution and followed our previous framework in order to understand how it is comparable.

Cultural Evolution – Circumcision
1. What is selected?
a. Individual humans, groups of humans.
2. What is inherited?
a. Intent (mimicry, ideas posed), determinist (mirroring).
3. What varies?
a. Whether it occurs, timing, frequency in population, importance.

When we considered what is inherited in terms of cultural evolution, we discussed the analogy that often arises between genes (biology) and memes (culture), both which are packets of “data” that are inherited or passed to the next generation. However the analogy is not perfect considering memes do not work as discrete units; it is fairly easy to determine when one gene stops and another starts, but the same cannot be said for memes. In this way, cultural evolution cannot be considered to follow similar rules as biological evolution, a point we must remember during our future discussions.

In the final minutes of discussion, we considered the subject of intent and how we might treat it throughout the semester. Biologists normally bracket intent since it is not something we can directly observe or measure. Likewise, sociology typically brackets the ultimate truth, or whether or not God exists. However, in order to be productive, we cannot necessarily ignore these questions, but instead might agree that they are not imperative to our discussions.

As a final note, throughout the semester we will be using Table 1.1 (below) from Darwin’s Cathedral as an organizing principle for our discussions.

For our next meeting (February 7th), we will boldly address the question: What is religion? Be sure to check back to see what we come up with!

Post contributed by K.P.

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