Paradigms, dogma, and analytical eclecticism: A thought on religion versus science

This relatively long post reflects an idea I’ve been considering for a long time. It’s by no means fully fleshed, and I welcome commentary, criticism, or contribution to the discussion from thinkers from all sides. This post discusses three analytical approaches: analytical eclecticism, dogma, and paradigm. Further down in this post, I will be applying it to matters of the divine. I’m not making an argument. Rather I’m discussing observations I’ve made and how I think those observations might be explained.

First, I need to get some definitions out of the way. This post will discuss understanding and explanation. For the purpose of this writing, “understanding” is an approach similar to the approach historians use. Why did the Korean War begin? this approach might ask. It answers the question by analyzing every nuance and event that led to the outbreak of war. It might pull from several fields and philosophies. This is called analytical eclecticism. “Explanation,” on the other hand, is to build a generalized theoretical framework that not only discerns the outbreak of the Korean War but can also be applied to war generally. This is a paradigm.

Another example might be medical doctors. Doctors in the ER are concerned with understanding each individual trauma patient who passes through triage. This is an important approach. Generalizing in the ER can be dangerous because human lives are at stake. Medical doctors in research fields, on the other hand, are less concerned with understanding each patient. Rather, they seek to explain a general phenomenon or disease. They seek correlation.

So here we have this academic divide. Although science and academics are almost universally on the side of paradigms, there is a small set of academics who think it’s better to use analytical eclecticism. They might argue that understanding each individual event in politics, for example, is the only way to use academic research to provide guidance to the politicians who hired them in the first place. Politicians, it seems, have been for several decades turning away from theoretical approaches and towards highly detailed eclecticism that often betrays the tested and tried paradigmatic models of explanation.

There’s a third side too, completely divorced from both paradigms and analytical eclecticism. It’s called dogma.

Imagine a scenario where a politician has to behave the exact same way every time an event occurs, even a generalized event. Imagine a dogma — a law, if you will — that required the US Congress to authorize the use of nuclear weapons against any act of foreign aggression against the US. Under this model, the US would nuke China every time one of its ships rams a US Navy ship. This is a highly extreme example, and I’m only using it for illustrative purposes. Things like this don’t happen. Instead of dogma, politicians seek to understand every act of aggression against the US in order to make decisions regarding how to handle them.

My point is that dogma already has everything figured out (according to the individual dogma). It understands and explains everything. It leaves no room for shifting theories. It disallows analytical eclecticism. The bible (or even better, the ten commandments) is a perfect example of dogma. Of course, religious people are not as dogmatic as their bible. If they were, there would only be one Christian church. Instead, it appears religious people are more swayed by analytical eclecticism than dogma.

Most of us in academia use paradigms and build (or borrow) theoretical frameworks to explain phenomena. We generalize because explanation is more important than understanding. Seeking to understand a phenomenon uses no parsimonious theory, but rather employs complicated linkage systems of events that borders on the quantum. This is good and very useful to historians, but not for research. For example, we are not interested in understanding what caused each individual case of religious terror. Theories are not individual. If they were they would be only retroactive, with no ability to predict the future. Instead we seek the ability to explain why religious terrorism occurs. We seek correlation that can be applied to a wide range of action. Religious people are not against analysis. It appears they, on the other hand, in the practice of their religion, use an analytical eclecticism, parts taken from many philosophical approaches, to understand individual aspects of life and death. This form of analysis is not necessarily a bad thing. Even highly respected academics have proposed focusing less on paradigms and more on analytical eclecticism. (I’m not one of those).

I need to note right here — in order to avoid building a straw man — that many religious people, even in the practice of their religion, use paradigms. Not every religious person employs analytical eclecticism.

The fact that most Christians, for example, reject the idea that the bible is literal underscores the use of analytical eclecticism instead of dogma. Where the bible is not literal, some Christians look to philosophers, clergy, authors, and maybe even scientists to understand a phenomenon. In this case they’ve utilized several sources (the bible included) to understand, for example, the creation of the universe. Even Christians who accept “big bang” cosmology might even see an intelligent hand guiding it. Here, they have borrowed from science, philosophy, and religion to answer their question. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they don’t insist this is the ultimate truth regarding the cosmos).

Although analytical eclecticism has its merits in individual cases, it’s my hope that people — particularly religious people — will refrain from using it and instead focus on the explanatory power of paradigms. But what do you think? Do my ideas make sense? Are religious people in the practice of their religion more concerned with understanding than explanation? Am I completely wrong? Is analytical eclecticism a better practice than paradigm building? In any case, I will continue to focus on the explanatory power of theory and leave understanding up to historians and people with access to the state’s nuclear arsenal.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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5 Responses to Paradigms, dogma, and analytical eclecticism: A thought on religion versus science

  1. As I am understanding your points, analytical eclecticism is a backwards looking philosophy, capable of evaluating past events better than using that information in a forward looking manner. Paradigms, on the other hand, produces theories that yield sound predictions for future events. The tie between these two modes of thought, I think, is skepticism. And if I have read these concepts correctly, then I agree with them. Furthermore, neither would be inherently superior to the other as long as they are used appropriately.

    Dogma, on the other hand, could be expressed in terms of its lack of skepticism. It already has the answer (in your example, nuclear strikes). This suggests that dogma has a conclusion and conforms the world to it. And while sometimes hypothetical nuclear strikes might be warranted (against other nuclear strikes), there are other times where they would be excessive (accidentally beaching a Russian sub on U.S. soil).

    Religions, at least those that require belief in something relatively specific, are by their nature dogmatic. This makes them more interested in conforming information to what needs to be believed first, with eclecticism and paradigms coming after that. Based on this reasoning, I think a conclusion can be reached that these religions are not interested in understanding or explanation unless and until dogmatic concerns are met first.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Yeah you got it!

      Personally in my field I’m concerned with predictability. That’s why I (and many in political science) am more concerned with theory than understanding. But Katzenstein (see link in post) makes a very compelling case for analytical eclecticism. Personally, I reject it. But one could make a compelling case that I’d have to accept that the two are not mutually exclusive if we want a perfect theory. In other words, using eclecticism first in our case studies might strengthen our overall theory. So your comment that the neither is superior is not necessarily wrong. You might enjoy Katzenstein. I recommend it.

      Lastly, I was referring to religious people, not religion. Religion creates dogma, but the people who follow it do not necessarily use it in their daily lives. The “big bang” example sums it up. In order to form opinions or make decisions, it appears religious people use eclecticism over paradigms. Maybe I could’ve been more clear about the “over paradigms” bit. But yeah, “religions are not interested in understanding or explanation unless and until dogmatic concerns are met first” makes sense.

      • Actually, I mistakenly conflated religions with religious people who adhere to religions that have specific dogmatic requirements. I do agree that there seems to be a trend, at least after dogmatic requirements are met, that religious people would favor eclecticism over paradigms. And the reason I agree is that, at least in my own personal experience and interlocutions with religious people, evaluating what has transpired in the past takes precedence over producing reliable forward looking results.

        Your reasoning in this post might also explain the attempted use of analytical eclecticism with regards to intelligent design, or other attempts to square scientific theory with religious doctrine. At least it seems to be an attempt at analytical eclecticism. The downside, of course, is that non-scientific principles are relied upon in presentations of this nature. This is not limited solely to religious thought as well, so I can see a good argument also for why analytical eclecticism is weaker than paradigms.

        Maybe, then, analytical eclecticism is only as strong as the principles it relies upon to evaluate a past event.

  2. people Sort says:

    Hello friends, nice paragraph and good arguments commented here,
    I am really enjoying by these.

  3. Pingback: Paradigms, dogma, and analytical eclecticism: A thought on religion versus science | Christians Anonymous

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