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Why the Church is Ahead of Mathematicians on Ecumenical Dialogue

A Stanford School of Engineering research team has developed a new mathematical model for how society becomes polarized, published in the March online edition Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These models are similar to models that seek to predict the behavior of matter based on certain known modes of action, and they are always more difficult for human systems because humans are, inherently, unpredictable (that free will thing). However, they are not without benefit. Opinionaters, debaters, political pundits, anyone passionate about ideologies, can benefit from the insight.

As a Catholic trying to understand better ways to communicate with others, I see some ecumenical insights in this study. Catholicism is all about unity because our God is unity, three Divine Persons who are One God. But as we all know, people are divided. Ecumenism calls us all to engage with the world, whatever our belief, and move beyond our own spheres. Consider the models.

Model 1 – Homophily

The prevailing mathematical theory of social polarization goes like this: Like seeks like. People surround themselves with other people who share their opinions, thereby reinforcing those like opinions. Thus the name, homophily (loving the same).

The model also assumes that people within the polarized groups form opinions to minimize disagreement among like-minded peers, so that the opinions within the polarized group tend toward an averaging unity. People want to appear unified within their groups.

But does that hinder groups from uniting with outside groups? It would seem so.

The Stanford researchers, however, refute this model of homophily. Why? As one of the doctoral candidates and co-author of the paper put it, “You can’t create outliers by averaging.” Over a long enough time, they say, this model would predict that society as a whole, as more and more averaging occurs, would become unpolarized and united, monophilic. I don’t agree with this conclusion because mathematically or naturally, there’s no law that averaging within an outlier subgroup will ever be, or must ever be, extended to the entire population. Just because some molecules react with other ones, doesn’t mean the material world will someday be a mono-substance. But consider the other model anyway.

Model 2 – Biased Assimilation

The research team at Stanford uses another social science model called biased assimilation. This model assumes that what polarizes people is the way they form opinions. When presented with inconclusive evidence (for instance, studies about homosexual behavior, studies about contraception and abortion, studies about whether animals can think, etc.) people easily accept evidence that supports their already held opinion, and discredit anything that does not fit it. They, thus, tend to make more out of inconclusive evidence than they should. It seems counter-intuitive that two people could be presented with the same information, but become further divided in opinion, but the researchers say that is what happens.

Okay, I think we all can relate to that.

If you’ve debated online, you know how it happens. You provide a link to something that you just know will convince the opponent to have an epiphany, and it doesn’t work. Instead, you both talk past each other because you both are trying to further hold your opinions. Have I been guilty of this too? Probably, without even realizing it. At least being aware of the tendency will help to avoid it.

Biased assimilation shows us also why we need to be careful about media choices. Highly polarizing news sources intentionally seek out stories that will further polarize; it’s how they build their audience. Likewise, Internet targeting systems also place ads and news stories in our feeds based on computational preferences. It’s something to be aware of, especially the next time you read or hear a story that makes your blood boil. Try not to assimilate the information with bias, try to understand what the other person is saying.

Catholic Model – Four Concentric Circles

Here’s the thing. I generally find myself wondering after reading these studies why they needed math to figure this out. Isn’t this common sense? The Catholic Church has been pondering human nature for a long time, and rather than mathematical models, Pope Paul VI, for instance, uses an analogy in his 1964 encyclical on ecumenism, Ecclesiam Suam. He describes four concentric circles (96-115) that hold all mankind. Rather than viewing mankind as forming groups and subgroups that are either polarized or united, he describes mankind as one large circle, already united by God, one species.

The circle of mankind includes atheists, other religions, and other Christians — everyone. The next, smaller circle is that of all religions, united because they all seek God. The third inner circle is that of Christians, united because they believe in and love Christ. The fourth, innermost, smallest circle is that of Catholics. So instead of the seeing mankind as polarized by opinion into unmixable substances like oil and water, Catholics are asked to view mankind as one race already and to work from the inner unity we have as Catholics to reach out and draw others in.

So, there is some truth in the Homophily Model, and we ought to avoid seeing ourselves as isolated groups only uniting within. There is some truth in the Biased Assimilation Model, and we ought to be careful that our media sources do not cement extreme biases. However, no mathematical model can ever fully account for the inherent free will of humans. Any parent of a two-year-old or broker on Wall Street knows that. As much as we may benefit from the insight of the mathematical models, I still think the Catholic Church is ahead of the mathematicians on this issue. And I was careful not to assimilate them with bias.
 
 
Originally appeared at StacyTrasancos.com. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Free Math Worksheets)

Dr. Stacy Trasancos

Written by

Stacy A. Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She teaches chemistry and physics for Kolbe Academy online homeschool program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She teaches Reading Science in the Light of Faith at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. She is author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki. Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Ave Maria Press) comes out October 2016. She works from her family’s 100-year old restored lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband, children, and two German Shepherds remain top priority. Her website can be found here.

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  • Mike O’Leary

    If I co-opt Dr. Trasancos's Catholic model, but change the third circle to Muslims and the fourth circle to be Sunni Muslims, what does this show? Do we do anything other than accurately categorize people from the perspective of Sunni Muslims? Do we learn any truths or generate a model for the best possible form of ecumenism?

    • Loreen Lee

      But I thought the definition of ecumenism referred to a closed system of relations between Christians. I will have to keep this in mind in reexamining this post's distinctions between a mathematical and Catholic solution to modern versions of 'tribalism'.. It usually takes me some time to get my head around any one of these presentations. So I'll wait for more comments. Personally, I don't think the old saying: 'birds of a feather stick together' can be discounted, whether or not it refers to the development of 'a clique' or a 'caucus'..

      • David Nickol

        But I thought the definition of ecumenism referred to a closed system of relations between Christians.

        You are correct. The OP says the following:

        Ecumenism calls us all to engage with the world, whatever our belief, and move beyond our own spheres.

        Ecumenism is about the uniting of all Christian denominations in the world, so it deals only with the innermost circle (Catholics) and the next one out ("non-Catholic" Christians).

        • Loreen Lee

          Perhaps there was a confusion in the meanings of ecumenism and evangelism.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Seems like a bit of an apples to oranges comparison here. The first two models seek to answer questions such as "Why do people form groups?" and "Why do groups form different opinions?"

    The "Catholic model" looks like just a method of categorizing people. Sure, we can catogorize based on religion, but why not make the outer circle humans, the 3rd inner circle trade workers, the 2nd carpenters, and the inner circle furniture craftsmen?

    Also the concentric circle model is incomplete. A fuller picture would have multiple 2nd layer circles - one for Hindus, for Jews for Muslims, for Christians, for Zoroastrians, etc. with many more circles within each of those. The first two models seek to answer why all those circles exist. The model Dr. Trasanco proposes only shows (incompletely) the trivial fact that they do exist and the only slightly less trivial fact that they share some commonalities..

  • David Nickol

    How in the world is it possible to compare a dynamic mathematical model of how society becomes polarized to a static conception of the human race as successive concentric circles with Catholics (predictably, given the author and the venue) at the center of everything? And how is it possible to say that one is superior to another? They both have utterly different purposes. The "Catholic Model" of four concentric circles is a description of how things are at a given moment. The mathematical model is an attempt to explain how and why things change over time. The "Catholic Model" has no explanatory power. It does not, for instance, explain why some Catholics leave the Church and become members of other Christian denominations, or why some Catholics become atheists. Nor does it explain why any of the "non-Catholics" move in and out of their own circle toward the Catholic center or the atheist outer circle. And what does either "model" have to do with ecumenical dialogue?

    I am not sure what the point is here, although I think intended message is that Catholics (or Catholicism) is superior to everyone (or everything) else.

  • Great Silence

    Is SN on autopilot?

  • Caravelle

    I don’t agree with this conclusion because mathematically or naturally,
    there’s no law that averaging within an outlier subgroup will ever be,
    or must ever be, extended to the entire population. Just because some
    molecules react with other ones, doesn’t mean the material world will
    someday be a mono-substance.

    This isn't a good analogy, because chemical reactions don't involve "averaging". As far as the mathematical model goes, I'll guess the "everyone has the same beliefs" situation occurs if there is a nonzero exchange of people between all groups. If there are two groups that never exchange members, either directly or indirectly via exchange with other groups, then I agree that we wouldn't expect those two groups to harmonize. But if there are exchanges then over time the conclusion appears solid to me.

    There is a good analogy to this on the molecular level, but it isn't chemical reactions - it's kinetic energy. When molecules collide I think there's a kind of averaging going on; the faster molecule slows down a bit and the slower molecule gets a kick. And we do in fact find that this results in the whole set of molecules having the same average kinetic energy over time as long as they're in contact - i.e. the whole fluid ends up at the same uniform temperature.

  • Why not add more circles? Another fifth circle for Practicing Catholics. Then one inside that for Latin Mass Catholics. Then a seventh circle for the Society of St Pius the Fifth.

    The feature of this model is it puts extremists in the center.

    • Mike O’Leary

      What's worse is that it gravitates towards extremism only at the whim of the model maker. You and I could just as easily make a model where the 12th circle is "cafeteria catholics from Perth Amboy who are also left handed dentists name Sally".

    • Kevin Aldrich

      No. It puts in the center whoever creates the model wishes to put in the center.

  • Linda

    The comments on this article are entertaining, because they seem to support Model 2 - Biased Assimilation, where someone presents an idea in hopes of improving the understanding and instead everyone just gets further entrenched. Also, Dr. Trasancos does not seem to be saying explicitly or implicitly that Catholics are superior, as some of you seem to infer. She said "Rather than viewing mankind as forming groups and subgroups that are either polarized or united, (Pope Paul VI) describes mankind as one large circle, already united by God, one species.. . . instead of the seeing mankind as polarized by opinion into unmixable substances like oil and water, Catholics are asked to view mankind as one race already and to work from the inner unity we have as Catholics to reach out and draw others in." The circles are to help Catholics keep in mind that we are all one people, and to reach out to each other, instead of seeing people of other faiths or no faith being in separate circles.

    • David Nickol

      The circles are to help Catholics keep in mind that we are all one people, and to reach out to each other, instead of seeing people of other faiths or no faith being in separate circles.

      Dividing people up by using a series of concentric circles, with Catholics at the center of the innermost circle, is no less divisive and polarizing than using squares or triangles or any other shape. True, it incorporates the idea that we are all human, but that is scarcely a penetrating insight known only to Catholics. And this realization didn't prevent Paul VI from going on at some length about atheists in the document Tracy Trasancos draws her model from:

      Atheism a Growing Evil

      99. Sad to say, this vast circle comprises very many people who profess no religion at all. Many, too, subscribe to atheism in one of its many different forms. They parade their godlessness openly, asserting its claims in education and politics, in the foolish and fatal belief that they are emancipating mankind from false and outworn notions about life and the world and substituting a view that is scientific and up-to-date.

      100. This is the most serious problem of our time. We are firmly convinced that the basic propositions of atheism are utterly false and irreconcilable with the underlying principles of thought. They strike at the genuine and effective foundation for man's acceptance of a rational order in the universe, and introduce into human life a futile kind of dogmatism which far from solving life's difficulties, only degrades it and saddens it. Any social system based on these principles is doomed to utter destruction. Atheism, therefore, is not a liberating force, but a catastrophic one, for it seeks to quench the light of the living God. We shall therefore resist this growing evil with all our strength, spurred on by our great zeal for safeguarding the truth, inspired by our social duty of loyally professing Christ and His gospel, and driven on by a burning, unquenchable love, which makes man's good our constant concern. We shall resist in the invincible hope that modern man may recognize the religious ideals which the Catholic faith sets before him and feel himself drawn to seek a form of civilization which will never fail him but will lead on to the natural and supernatural perfection of the human spirit. May the grace of God enable him to possess his temporal goods in peace and honor and to live in the assurance of acquiring those that are eternal. . . .

      It seems to me this is not the most helpful document to quote on a site where the goal is Catholic dialogue with atheists!

      But setting all that aside, both OverlappingMagisteria and I have pointed out that Tracy Trasancos is comparing apples and oranges. There is no way to compare and rank the mathematical models described with the "Catholic Model." They are utterly different kinds of things.

  • Michael Murray

    Didn't Dante say there were nine circles ?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inferno_(Dante)

    Or are they gone now that Catholicism has quenched the inferno ?

    • The four circles of the OP are not hell, but earthly life today. Let dots be added to the circles to designate individuals. In the context of the Catholic concept of the Mystical Body of Christ, if the individuals comprising the Body were colored red, there would be red dots in every circle. However, this too would not be apropos, because the OP is addressing thought not grace.

      • David Nickol

        However, this too would not be apropos, because the OP is addressing thought not grace.

        If you place all Christians, Christian denominations, and Christian sects in the next circle out from Catholicism, you have the televangelists, the prosperity-gospel preachers, and the Westboro Baptist Church closer to the center than—in my humble opinion—they ought to be. Even if Catholicism is everything it claims to be, who is to say a Jew who knows and loves the "Jewish God" with all his
        mind and all his heart is not closer to Truth than a Christian (or a
        whole sect of Christianity) that misinterprets and misrepresents Jesus?

  • Doug Shaver

    Any scientific insight into human behavior seems to elicit one of two responses from Christian apologists. Either (1) it's wrong or (2) the church has always said so.

  • Loreen Lee

    Perhaps what she means, is that science is exploring the 'mechanisms' behind polarity within human relations, but she can give an example that, even within a restricted area, the CC is doing something? A theory vs. practice distinction!!!! But as I said, there is some confusion between ecumenical and evangelical!!!

  • Christopher Hammond

    As a mathematician, I feel compelled to point out that the model being contrasted was proposed by ENGINEERS, not MATHEMATICIANS. That may not sound like a major distinction to non-specialists, but it is a huge one to us.

    • Agni Ashwin

      "That may not sound like a major distinction to non-specialists, but it is a huge one to us."

      Sheldon would agree.

  • Loreen Lee
  • Jeff_from_Mpls

    As you move progressively toward the center, you are nearer to the truth. Those with training in philosophy of science will know that some of us -- not all of us -- say that a theory close to the truth has to (1) explain all the things the previous theories explained, and (2) explain new things, and explain in what sense the old theories are farther from the truth. So, Einstein would be central, and would be surrounded by a ring of clinging Newtons, followed by various fringe folks who still we must presume -- because they are human beings with an intellect -- desire to know the truth. As Catholics, we have a better grip on the truth of things, but we understand and can explain more about human experience than the next ring out, and the one after that, and finally, the non-religious person. Catholicism accounts for what they know, but we possess a context and a fulness of truth that the outer rings do not possess. Again, think Einstein and Newton. It's not a matter of "me smart" "everybody else dumb" but rather degrees of coming to rest in the fullness of truth. The Catholic model is fruitful and satisfying. Thank you Dr. Trasancos for this article.

    • Luke

      As Catholics, we have a better grip on the truth of things, but we understand and can explain more about human experience than the next ring out, and the one after that, and finally, the non-religious person.

      Could you please provide evidence for these claims and define your terms (e.g., "the truth of things," "understand," "explain," "human experience")? Thanks in advance.

  • NDaniels