Monday, February 06, 2006

Concrete Operations Thought, Graven Images, and Islamic Backwardness

First of all, I'd like to thank Petey for taking the helm of the Cosmos yesterday and sharing his, ahem, subtle commentary with us.

But Petey's assistance notwithstanding, I'm still backed up and somewhat short on slack. I was planning on writing an interesting post on Piaget's concept of concrete operations thinking and how it relates to the Biblical prohibition against making graven images, and then tying this into the Muslim cartoon controversy. But I have to conduct a psychological evaluation in a godforsaken place called Ontario, which is situated right before you fall off the edge of the world. It takes a good two hours to get there, and now I have approximately 17 minutes before I have to hit the road.

For those of you who don't know, Piaget was a child psychologist who documented how our style of thinking develops from infancy to adulthood. He may have been the first to recognize that it wasn't just a matter of the content of our thought, but its very form, or structure, that changes. His four main stages are called sensori-motor, pre-operational, concrete operations, and formal operations (more on which later).

Concrete operations thinking usually emerges between the ages of seven and adolescence, when children become more aware of the differences between thought and reality. But they still interpret reality in a very concrete and literal way, and have only a limited ability to think abstractly. Suffice it to say that much of the Arab Muslim world is mired in concrete operational thinking. In other words, we err in thinking that we simply have some cultural dispute about the differing "content" of our thought. Rather, this dispute is much more over the very form of thought.

That is--and this is, of course, a sweeping generalization--the average person of the West is in formal operations thought, while the cognitive "center of gravity" in the Muslim Middle East appears to be mired in concrete operations. This is partly because the higher stages don't just emerge on their own. Rather, they must be modeled by the culture. We generally develop to a point allowed by the culture. After that, you're on your own. History shows time and again that more primitve cultures actually punish people for developing beyond the group, as they represent a threat to the myths and cognitive structures that serve to contain their collective anxiety.

In the course of writing my own book, I came across a book entitled Stages of Faith: The Co-evolution of Religious Thought and Science, By Michael Barnes. In it, the author demonstrates how our conception of God and religion necessarily change as we move through Piaget's cognitive stages. God is a very different reality for someone in a more developed psychological stage. In fact, thinkers such as Ken Wilber and Sri Aurobindo have outlined developmental stages beyond formal operations, which was Paiaget's final stage of development.

In the Islamic world, there is no room whatsoever for these higher stages with the exception of Sufism which, as we have mentioned before, constitutes a tiny fringe of Islam.

And that, my dear bobbleheads, is as much as I can say in 17 minutes. I don't even half tome to spiel-check what I wrought. I'll have to get back to it either later today or Tuesday morning, assuming I don't drive off the edge of the world.


Dilys said...

Darn good run at 17-minute wisdom! I think part of the genius of healthy Christianity is that it can accomodate the ignorant babushka who prays to the icon-as-saint and also the uber-formal modern faithful who speculates the literal story may itself be a cognitive bot for soul-repair, the "Truth" to undertake at a later developmental moment the re-display of Itself clothed in 11+-string Moebius radiance. None of which will make the babushka wrong. Or is an incentive to distance from the story. Or justifies dragging the babushka through the Cognitive Bot formulation.

But most tribes, yes, permit advance only by running the gauntlet of the firing squad.

I know OntarioCA too well, since when my Spiritual Mentor lived in Barstow, it was a toss-up whether visitors flew into Las Vegas or Ontario (and Las Vegas has just too much flocked wallpaper). Many's the fine day I've gotten lost in Ontario trying to return a rental car.

At least you're driving your own car off the map. The goal, I suppose, of this blog?

jwm said...

Paraphrasing Confucius:
(can't find the book)

If a man has risen above the middling sort, one may talk to him of higher things. But if a man has not risen above the middling sort, it is useless to talk to him of higher things.


Bro. Bartleby said...

Over two thousand years ago the Hebrew Bible settled the ‘problems’ of subjective notions of honor and face with objective rights and wrongs that trump family/tribe insults. In other words, the Hebrew Bible is full of stories of imperfect individuals who do foolish things and in the end must 'fess up to their foolishness, instead of blaming others, which is the 'honorable and face-saving' thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Bro Bartleby,
Are you a Prager listener? If not, what a great point and amazing syncronicity! If so, still a great point!

gumshoe1 said...

odd that
"blaming others"
could be equated
in any meaningful way
with "honor".

Bro. Bartleby said...

Yes, it is odd, saying that 'blaming others' and 'honor' are somehow equated with each other. But in these honor-based societies, 'honor' takes on new meaning. A good example is 'honor killing', the UN statistics puts the figure at 5,000 'honor' killing last year. If a female member of the family 'shames' the family, then it is up to the males to preserve the honor of the family, by doing what? Killing! In a morality-based society, one may 'feel like killing' a daughter for having a sexual affair with some 'outsider', but 'morality trumps honor' and 'killing' is not an option.