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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Methodological Individualism and the Old Testament

Having been brought up a Catholic, I knew very little about the Bible. But as I learn more, I am occasionally get a glimmer of insight into the overall movement of the text. And just yesterday, it struck me that...

If methodological individualism were correct, than the Old Testament is false in a way far beyond anything to do with whether there really was a big flood or a tower to heaven. Those things could always be re-interpreted as metaphors. But the whole narrative of the Old Testament is about a relationship and a covenant between God and Israel. Israel... which, per methodological individualism, does not really exist, and can't enter into any sort of covenant. But which, nonetheless, has promises made to it, and is punished, and goes back on its promises, etc. etc. And it's not just Israel; much of the text deals with nations as corporate entities:

"In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance."

24 comments:

  1. Newpapers write things like "company X has done a deal with company Y" all the time. The articles don't show that methodological individualism is "incorrect." The phrases are just concise ways to explain complicated events which involve many actors. If someone wants to learn more about the deal, then they may study it at the level of individual actor decisions.

    The convention is the same if one of the parties is an individual: "Company X hired Gene."

    Any reason why an ancient writer would not use similar conventions?

    Now I think it's true that God in the Old Testament sometimes wipes out large groups of people at once [e.g. the flood]. But is there any reason to think this is not just "Ugh, this civilization experiment has failed. Time to start another one..."

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  2. 'Newpapers write things like "company X has done a deal with company Y" all the time. The articles don't show that methodological individualism is "incorrect." The phrases are just concise ways to explain complicated events which involve many actors.'

    The excuse defenders of methodological individualism come up with every time.

    But it's not going to wash here. (In fact, it is really weak in the other cases, but worse here.) God's covenant is with Israel. Israel is punished for *its* sins.

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  3. "The phrases are just concise ways to explain complicated events which involve many actors."

    A holist can just as easily say: Individual descriptions are really just convoluted ways of describing things that are very simple!

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  4. And, just to note, God in the Old Testament considers families capable of bearing guilt and fitting objects for punishment:

    ""Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.""

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  5. > But it's not going to wash here. (In fact, it is really weak in the other cases, but worse here.) God's covenant is with Israel.

    I'm not sure what position you're arguing. How does this God-Israel covenant compare with "Gene's employment contract is with company X" ?

    Are you saying that the God covenent is a different _kind_ of thing? Or that both are the same kind and _all_ examples of this kind show that methodological individualism is incorrect?


    > Israel is punished for *its* sins.

    Well, I'm not sure what sins Israel could commit apart from "bad acts" by its members. Are there examples of such a thing?

    BTW, I'm not arguing that God _can't_ think of Israel as one thing. I'm just saying that this does not show that methodological individualism is "incorrect."

    For example, suppose Alice wants to investigate the space of ant behavior. Why can't she first study ants in isolation? And then study how an ant reacts to different (non-ant) stimuli? And then study how two ants interact?

    Would Bob, the ant farm owner, be justified in coming up to her and calling her studies "incorrect" ? Could he say that ants can _only_ be studied as members of ant farms?

    BTW, this is how I tend to think of God's relationship to Israel. Israel is the ant farm. If God is unhappy, then He may just destroy the farm and build another one. Or punish the descendants of ant X for something bad that X did. Etc.

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  6. Gene, while I am not a biblical scholar, I don't think the points you raise here make a good case for Biblical holism.

    First, the Talmud holds that every Hebrew at Sinai individually consented to the covenant. Furthermore, a midrash (homiletic story) even teaches that the souls of all future Jews were also present to accept the Torah.

    Regarding the passage about punishing future generations, there is another passage that states that fathers shall not be put to death for their sons' sins nor vice versa, but that each person shall die only for his own sin. How do we reconcile these two apparently contradictory verses? Again, the Talmud maintains, with respect to the former verse, that children referenced in the passage are punished only to the extent that they individually follow in their fathers' evil footsteps.

    You might question these interpretations as departing from the "plain text," but to those who follow and study the Torah, "plain text" readings alone have never been an acceptable method of biblical exegesis. For good reason, too: significant portions of the written text would be entirely unintelligible without the aid of essential oral laws, commentaries, etc., many of which are claimed to have originated alongside the written text and have been followed for thousands of years. In any case, they certainly were not invented by ideologically driven libertarians or methodological individualists!

    Moreover, the Jewish interpretations make a whole lot more sense theologically. Under your holistic view, how would you reconcile belief in a God of perfect justice with a description of a being who inflicts collective punishment on children and grandchildren for sins which they had absolutely no control over?

    The last point might just be a Jewish vs. Christian thing, though. Jews don't buy into things like original sin and collective guilt.

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  7. You might have expected me to disagree with you Gene, but I think you are right. It is hard to read the OT and not think God is dealing with the collective "Israel." On the other hand, I find Mike B. arguments persuasive too. The collective "Gene and Mike B." is smart.

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  8. "You might have expected me to disagree with you Gene,"

    No, in fact, I thought that you would agree with me here, as you are an honest man.

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  9. Integrity does go a long way... this is probably one of the most important things that I have learned in my life.

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  10. "Gene's employment contract is with company X"

    Well, yes, this too shows methodological individualism is incorrect, because it's NOT the case that my contract is really with some individuals. No, it's really with the company as a corporate entity. Just like when someone says, "Germany attacked Poland in 1939," that is in no way a shorthand for "It just so happened that a whole bunch of German-speaking individuals, who all happened to be wearing the same uniforms, crossed this line and began shooting at a bunch of Polish speaking individuals.

    "Well, I'm not sure what sins Israel could commit apart from "bad acts" by its members."

    Which is to say, you believe methodological individualism is true! (What I am saying is that belief is the *reason* you can't see how a nation might do something bad.)

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  11. > Well, yes, this too shows methodological individualism is incorrect, because it's NOT the case that my contract is really with some individuals. No, it's really with the company as a corporate entity. Just like when someone says, "Germany attacked Poland in 1939," ...

    OK, so you're saying that the God contract and the job contract are similar kinds of things. This is helpful.

    Methodoligical individualism (MI) does not mean that legal entities cannot be defined and used as parties in contracts. It means that there are no actions which can be separated from individual actions.

    I'm not advocating that MI is superior or inferior to holism. I'm saying that you are attacking a strawman. You are not applying MI correctly to the Old Testament.

    No one would suggest that the Germans in your example all happened to show up at the same time by coincidence. But when asked why this particular army showed up, an MI analysis would say that "this army, with these particular constituent members, showed up because each member _chose_ to follow the invasion orders." If half the members had defected along the way, then this particular army _would not_ have invaded France.

    [Of course, other explanations are possible. One may argue that the members were not choosing to follow orders. Instead, aliens had grabbed their neurons and forced them to invade. I'm not saying that you couldn't believe this. But if you did, then you could not expand the soldier behavior analysis with praxeology. Praxeology may still be applicable at the alien level, but the soldiers in this analysis are not acting. They are only the means which the aliens allocate to attain _their_ ends.

    Further, even if you believe the soldiers are choosing, the relationship between their choices and the aggregate outcome may be quite complex. Maybe the commanders will change their orders if the invasion force shrinks to half it's size. We may see _no invasion_ rather than an invasion by an army of half the size.]

    > Which is to say, you believe methodological individualism is true! (What I am saying is that belief is the *reason* you can't see how a nation might do something bad.)

    No. I'm not saying that MI is "true" or "false." I brought this up to ask _you_ a question: Do you think there are examples in the Bible in which God judges that a nation is acting immorally, but all individual members are acting morally?

    I'm not asserting that such examples can't exist. I'm simply asking whether they do.

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  12. "I'm saying that you are attacking a strawman."

    Forget it, Marris. I know what MI is very well, and I am NOT going at a strawman version of it. This is another ruse MI defenders use to dodge criticism: "Oh, you don't really get the *full* depths of MI!"

    Oh, and yet another ruse is framing the debate as MI versus holism.

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  13. Good afternoon, Dr. Callahan.

    God's covenant is clearly with the group entity known as "Israel." I would argue, however, that individuals became part of this entity when they chose to give up their individual identity and become part of the group.

    One biblical proof that I would use to support my point is found in Romans chapter 9. In that passage, the Apostle Paul makes the point that not every Israelite is a part of "Israel." (To be honest, Paul makes this statement as he proceeds to discuss God's sovereignty in election. My point, therefore, takes this passage out-of-context. Nevertheless, I don't believe that I am making an illogical step/leap.)

    The reason that every Israelite descendant is not a part of "Israel" is because some of these descendants did not (individually) take the step of faith/obedience necessary for them to become part of God's family ("Israel").

    (PS: In another discussion about methodological individualism, you pointed me to the Catholic Church. Of course, the church is known as the spiritual Israel. You may have already known that, but since you said you were learning more and more about the Bible, I thought that I would bring it to your attention.)

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  14. > This is another ruse MI defenders use to dodge criticism: "Oh, you don't really get the *full* depths of MI!"

    Nothing in MI is particularly deep. Have you found a logical inconsistency in MI? If so, you should present it immediately so I can concede the argument.

    At first, I thought you may be arguing that MI is _inapplicable_ to actions in the Bible. But you presented no examples where the actions of a group were not not actions of the group members.

    Then I thought you may be arguing that "bad actions" in the Bible are not "bad actions" by the group members. This is certainly possible. After all, God can decide what is good or bad based on whatever criteria He wants. So he can certainly say "group X is sinning, but no individual member of X is sinning." But you haven't produced any examples of that either.

    > Oh, and yet another ruse is framing the debate as MI versus holism.

    I did not bring up holism to "frame the debate." You brought it up as an alternative, so I felt I should contrast it to MI. If had brought up some _other_ alternative to MI, then I would have compared MI to that view instead.

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  15. I didn't say MI is logically inconsistent. I said it is factually false. Groups make decisions. It is IBM that hires people, not its representatives. It is the Cardinals that won the World Series, not a bunch of individuals.

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  16. > I said it is factually false. Groups make decisions. It is IBM that hires people, not its representatives. It is the Cardinals that won the World Series, not a bunch of individuals.

    Well, _that_ is a strawman. MI does not say that people can't coordinate or interact with others. It also does not say that people cannot play different *roles* in groups.

    It says that there is no "group action" which is not the aggregate effect of individual actions.

    Applying this to IBM: IBM does not "hire" anyone unless one or more representatives of IBM interviews the applicant, selects a compensation package, writes an employment contract [possibly from a template], and signs it as IBM's representative.

    [Now it's possible that there is some computer which *could* do all these steps. There is no reason a computer couldn't be given the functionality to create contracts for the IBM legal entity. It's up to you whether you want to call this an "action" or not.]

    Applying this to baseball: Scoring a run may require coordination by different team members. But MI analysis does not dispute this. It just says that the members _individually chose_ to coordinate. If any of the team members wanted to, he can try to "throw the game" by not playing well.

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  17. "It is the Cardinals that won the World Series"

    While it is a different sport, you must have not payed much attention to Cleveland when LeBron played here... Haha!

    Let's just say that I disagree with your examples. We can have a discussion on it, and I am sure you've heard most of it before, but those two examples of yours simply aren't adequate. Come on, you know that they aren't.

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  18. As a rough counter-example, I'll just propose 'The Beatles'. Did the they write the songs as one, or did others contribute more than the others? Further, in the social sphere, did 'The Beatles' represent one body, or did people prefer some members of the band more than others?

    This isn't an attempt to be a jerk, merely it is an attempt to use a similar argument/example as yours.

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  19. Gene, what does it mean to say that a group acts, other than metaphorically? It seems like this is just reifying collectives.

    If you think that the family is a fitting object for punishment, then tell me: how can a God who is just impose punishment on people not for their own sins but for the sins of their "family," i.e., grandfathers? (And how would you reconcile such a view with Deut. 24:16?). This is exactly why Thomas Jefferson rejected the Old Testament. He referred to the very passage you quoted as "contrary to every principle of moral judgment." Unfortunately, as I've tried to explain, his understanding of the passage was no better than yours. As for your other examples:

    Corporate personhood is a legal fiction. So sure, IBM may be legally deemed your employer, but it's still the staff and management at IBM, i.e., concrete individuals, who make the decision to hire or fire you. Can you point to a corporation that runs itself?

    And what is a team besides a group of individuals working closely together for a common cause? I have been a team member, and I never experienced a team decision that wasn't explainable by the choices of the individual actors who comprised the team.

    None of this is to deny the importance of social context, or that people behave differently when congregated in groups than they do in isolation, or the synergistic effects of team members working harmoniously together. But none of that stuff is relevant to MI, unless I have badly misunderstood MI, and I don't think I have.

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  20. "We can have a discussion on it, and I am sure you've heard most of it before, but those two examples of yours simply aren't adequate. Come on, you know that they aren't."

    Joseph, I used to think they weren't adequate, and I do believe I know the reasons you think they aren't adequate. But I was wrong.

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  21. "None of this is to deny the importance of social context, or that people behave differently when congregated in groups than they do in isolation, or the synergistic effects of team members working harmoniously together."

    Ah, so methodological individualism now incorporates things that can only emerge at the group level, like "synergy"! I see.

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  22. "It says that there is no group action' which is not the aggregate effect of individual actions."

    Marris, this response prompted me to write my own version of it.

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  23. Joseph, you make my point! "The Beatles" as a collective certainly *were* something more than the sum of their individual talents. That, of course, doesn't mean they had merged into a single blob, any more than does the fact that a leopard is a distinct entity mean we cannot differentiate its atoms!

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  24. OK, great. I will post new comments to your more recent post.

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