|Fundamentalism and the Difference between Concrete and Abstract Thinking
Why do people seem to talk at cross purposes, especially when they come from different cultures? How can words mean different things based on culture? How can people come to such different conclusions given the same raw material from which to draw them? And how can fundamentalists of any religion differ so much not only from their cultures at large, but from the vast majority of their non-fundamentalist co-religionists?
Part of the answer to such questions may be found in the profound differences between thought systems and patterns, particularly between what we might call concrete thinkers and abstract thinkers.
Some cultures are concrete cultures; they do not much think in abstracts. Their languages may even be poor in vocabulary for western abstract concepts. In some cultures, the question "why" is rarely asked directly, and when it is, it doesn't mean quite the same thing as it does to an abstract thinker. For western thinkers, the question "why"generally asks for abstractions.
If one reads the Bible in the original languages, one may be struck by the cultural fact that Hebrew thinkers are concrete thinkers. For example, they tend not to talk about "joy" per se; rather they say "the mountains skip like lambs," or some other more concrete pictorial way of expressing the abstract idea. Greek thinkers, on the other hand, of whose culture we in the Western world are the inheritors, are abstract thinkers, especially in the scholarly world. To abstractors, the question "why" is very meaningful, and as a result disciplines such as (our particular way of doing) science flourish in the western world. To concrete thinkers, the question "why" is not usually asked; rather it may be replaced by the question "when?" An abstractor would say "My toe hurts. Why?" The concretizer thinks "My toe hurts. When?" The answer in both cases sound similar and result in similar future behavior. The abstractor says "because I stubbed my toe. Why? Because it struck something in its way. In this case, a chair is in the way. What to do? Move the chair." The concretizer says "it happened when? After I stubbed my toe. Can it be prevented from happening again? Yes, let me move the chair."
Both Japanese (and many other Oriental cultures) and most Middle Eastern cultures, represent concretizers. It may be one reason why (thinking abstractly) it is often observed that the Japanese seem to be wonderful perfectors, but not notable innovators. They tend not to ask "why does this happen," and so stumble on a new approach, rather, they ask "when," and so improve what exists. Even when using the word "why," it means when or how to them, and you will tend to get an answer more akin to what we might answer to those questions, and they will tend to be see-hear-touch-taste-able explanations rather than an abstraction.
Here is another common illustration. Everyone has heard of the Zen koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Occidentals tend to be more mystified by this koan (if they have never heard it before) than Orientals, and more amazed by the simplicity of the accepted answer: to swing one hand forward as if to clap - to show rather than to explain the sound. This is concrete thinking. When a Western abstract thinker asks a concretizer "why" and gets what seems like a too obvious and trivial concrete answer he regards as unsatisfactory, the concretizer is mystified. The question asking for an abstract answer asks the concretizer to think in ways not culturally natural, and that, if you have ever really tried to do it yourself, is VERY difficult. I want to come back to this in a minute.
People who employ primarily concretizing ways of thinking tend to deal in concrete "facts," which must be right or wrong - black or white. Members of cultures where this way of thinking is predominant tend not to state controversial but important "facts" straight out. Rather, they do what we call beating around the bush. For example, in Papua New Guinea (where I lived for eight years), a villager who thought his neighbor's son had violated his daughter would NEVER say so straight out. He might be wrong, and even if he were right, to shame his neighbor would be wrong (more about this later). So he might say, "one of my chickens is missing!" To the abstract thinker, this seems to make no sense, but it is concrete picture language. The neighbor knows the father is not worried about chickens, and also knows it was not his own son who was messing with the neighbor's daughter. So he may say, "I saw your chicken around So-and-so's garden." He, too, does not say what he thinks straight out, but the father gets the idea and can investigate further.
With something important, members of many such cultures, notably the Oriental, want always to be right. Even more so than in our culture, to be wrong even in matters of fact is felt to be a moral failure and possibly an inexcusable error. This, I think, has to do with the relative values of shame and guilt. Anthropologists say we are a guilt culture. We carry our moral error around within ourselves, and if we have a conscience, feel guilty even if no one knows about the error. For us, forgiveness means absolution of guilt. We also tend not to feel guilty about errors with no moral significance. Orientals, culturally, tend not to experience guilt at all! Rather, they focus on shame. This means that, quite apart from what we in the West might consider morality, if your error is public, you are shamed. In some cultures, to be the cause of another's shame even by bringing his wrongdoing to light, is to be morally reprehensible. In New Guinea, for example, if you can defraud your neighbor without his realizing it, you are regarded as clever, but if you are caught, then you are shamed and disgraced. In Japan, to be shamed might lead to hara kiri for the one shamed, since there may be no recovery. Forgiveness in such a culture has to mean restoration of reputation, rather than merely excusing the penalties for guilt.
So if a student from a concrete-thinking shame culture does not wish to risk being shamed, s/he may decline to answer a "why" question at all! S/he expects the teacher to give a definitive answer to such questions. Combine that with the fact that "why" doesn't mean what Occidentals mean by it in their culture, so that their answers are very likely either to be wrong, or at least to be shown to be inadequate by the teacher's continuing to ask the question "why," and you have an explanation why such students may appear very silent. The shame of being "wrong" before others is deeply felt. There is a reason why there may be so relatively many suicidal oriental students in western situations. Orientals are not stupid, even though thought patterns differ, and when they catch on to the differences and can think like a westerner, they often excel beyond native westerners. By combining both ways of thinking, I suspect, they simply see more possibilities.
Coming back as I promised to an earlier reference, the problem of abstract vs. concrete thought is not merely cross-cultural. There are many concrete thinkers in our culture as well, including all children, to begin with.Children are very literal-minded. If you say "the moon is made of green cheese," children want to know what it tastes like. The very notion of symbols is difficult for the very young to apprehend. Most children are unable to think abstractly until they hit puberty, when there must be some kind of brain changes as well as other physical changes. It is not that children don't ask "why, why, why" in trying to figure out how the world works; it is just that a parent knows that s/he has to answer in concrete ways, not with an abstract philosophical explanation which is not at all what was requested!
A significant proportion of the western population, furthermore, is NEVER able to think well abstractly. Their lives run from one concrete, practical, down to earth moment to the next. "Why" is not of interest; they want to know what and when and how. As you have noticed, such things have concrete answers! Even in religion, they want answers, not abstract explanations, and they want their answers to be black and white, as nuance-free and as unchanging as possible. Many adults, even those capable of abstract thought, are not comfortable with it and prefer to see their world very concretely; but I believe a large proportion never really develop the ability to do it well at all!
One misconception relatively common in our culture about the nature of religious faith, but I think especially common among those who do not think well abstractly, is a confusion over the kinds of questions religion is able to, or properly is interested in answering. Religious faith is concerned with meanings and purpose of life, the universe, and everything. "What, when, and how" are matters for science and are not issues of particular concern or interest to proper religion, except, as it were, as clothespins upon which to hang the laundry of meaning and purpose. The clothespins are not what are important, even though one diligently keeps them and uses them. The important questions center on "why?" Why is the world as it is; what is its meaning and purpose? The concrete answers are grist for the thought mill; they are not the center of religious thought.
It may seem that I have just demonstrated how half the population even in abstract cultures think concretely and wonder how this can be so. Remember, it is not that concrete thinkers have no interest or concern in meaning and purpose, but that they express their concern and think about them in concrete ways. They are more interested in certainty, perhaps less able to deal with ambiguity and ambivalence (although everyone has to learn to deal with those things in a pragmatic way: it just will never happen that you will never again stub your toe or bark your shin if you are still walking!) Genesis, for example, is not giving us a recipe book for making people, for all that some people with distorted ideas seem to imagine it is. Neither the Bible, nor the various creation myths of other religions are attempting to explain God's methods of creation. Rather these stories are intended to answer more fundamental questions of why the universe exists and who is responsible; not how, but why human beings came to be; not which sin broke the ice, but why the relationship between humanity and God is, shall we say, strained? It tries to explain what the meaning of sin is, not what kind of fruit was on the tree or even that there was a tree with fruit. It wants to know why is there suffering at all, not what suffering is. An abstractor would say, "The world is here because it was created by God, Who, being a loving being, needed beings to love and by whom to be loved. Sin came about because any being that can love has to be able to choose whether or not to love, which means they must be capable of unlove, of selfishness. The break in relationship comes when humanity decides to set its own will above God, to love one's own ego more than God. Suffering is the result of that broken relationship." But that is all abstract, and lots of people can't follow the idea. The Hebrew wouldn't even have tried to express it that way; rather Hebrews, like other concrete thinkers, tell stories with concrete characters and events that mean much the same thing as the abstractors express.
It is not that the concretizer necessarily thinks those characters are real people with historical existence such as we think of history, anymore than the New Guinean thought his neighbor was talking about real chickens. The confusion of concrete with literal is a failure of understanding, a confusion common to cultures such as our own where we don't customarily speaking of meaning in concrete terms, and where when we do speak in concretes we tend to think of them in literal, almost journalistic ways.
Further trouble can come when an excessively literal mind focuses on the details rather than on the purpose of such stories, whether they originate in concrete or abstract cultures. This does often happen in certain fundamentalist sects, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist. In such cases, faith itself is transferred from God to teachings (doctrines) about God, to sacred books, or sacred acts (rituals), and the details become more important than the meanings, or the meanings are seen to be dependent upon the details, rather than the other way around. Among Christians, this shows up when the focus is upon the Bible or particular interpretations of particular passages within it, or on selected practices or counsels within it, rather than upon the Christ to Whom the Bible points. The Bible is the clothespin; Jesus is the laundry! When religious believers come to think faith is about what when and how instead of about why, religion becomes sick. The irreligious then point to the straw man of sick religion, and rejecting that, believe they have rejected the possibly healthy faith misrepresented by the proponents of sick religion. Thus when people focus their faith on knowing and believing stories which were intended to illustrate meaning and treat them as if they were stories in a newspaper about concrete details, they obscure the meanings and purposes of life which the faith - and the illustrative stories - were intended to offer and actually lead believers away from the faith they claim to follow.
Coming today from a Western, abstract-thinking culture and reading stories originating in a concrete-thinking culture from two to four thousand years ago is difficult enough. To grasp the concepts expressed we need to think with different vocabularies and assumptions than those which exist in our own culture. When added to that is a mindset which assumes that literature expressed in concrete ways must be taken literally, rather than as concrete expressions of abstract concepts, the problem multiplies. When in addition such a reader tends to be among those uncomfortable with abstractions in the first place, the result is fundamentalism: a substitution of details for meaning, a literal interpretation of stories intended to explain meaning, and a fervent clinging to such interpretations, fearing that to be mistaken will result in irrecoverable shame or guilt and, in terms of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions, damnation.
Is it any wonder those who have fallen victim to such handicaps fight so firmly for their misguided positions?