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Information that is easy to understand vs. what is useful


Haji 2003

873 views

 

ForEtRWX0AE-aAI.jpeg

 

Summary

This post is about the reasons why there is so much imperative in the Qur'an on sellers not taking advantage of their customers. The point being elaborated here is that it can be easy for sellers to take advantage of their buyers. The Qur'an uses a specific context (weights and measures) but this notion can be extended to other areas of the transaction.

We can lump together all sorts of decisions that we make every day. Amongst other things, these can be decisions about:

  • what products and services to buy
  • whether or not to wear masks, get vaccinated or maintain social distancing
  • haram and halal behaviours.

Many (but not all) decisions are underpinned by the information that we have to go on.

But not all information is the same. I distinguish between different types of information that buyers can use and why they may have preferences for some types of information which is why it becomes easier for sellers to take advantage of them. I draw out implications for different groups of people.

I believe this analysis informs an understanding of Qur'anic ayats dealing with the fairness of commercial transactions. 

 

 

The background

The starting point is the Qur'anic injunction (in various places) about the requirements of transactions and commerce. I am starting off with ayats that deal with transactions and focusing on what may distinguish each one. 6:152 refers to full measure and justice, later we will need to explore the meanings of these terms, but for the time being we'll work with their face-value meaning.

 

Quote

 

وَلاَ تَقْرَبُواْ مَالَ الْيَتِيمِ إِلاَّ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ حَتَّى يَبْلُغَ أَشُدَّهُ وَأَوْفُواْ الْكَيْلَ وَالْمِيزَانَ بِالْقِسْطِ لاَ نُكَلِّفُ نَفْسًا إِلاَّ وُسْعَهَا وَإِذَا قُلْتُمْ فَاعْدِلُواْ وَلَوْ كَانَ ذَا قُرْبَى وَبِعَهْدِ اللّهِ أَوْفُواْ ذَلِكُمْ وَصَّاكُم بِهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ {152}

[6:152] And do not approach the property of the orphan except in the best manner until he attains his maturity, and give full measure and weight with justice-- We do not impose on any soul a duty except to the extent of its ability; and when you speak, then be just though it be (against) a relative, and fulfill Allah's covenant; this He has enjoined you with that you may be mindful;

 

 

11:85 makes reference to fairness and full measure and also adds the notion of not defrauding others and 7:85 seems similar.

 

Quote

 

وَيَا قَوْمِ أَوْفُواْ الْمِكْيَالَ وَالْمِيزَانَ بِالْقِسْطِ وَلاَ تَبْخَسُواْ النَّاسَ أَشْيَاءهُمْ وَلاَ تَعْثَوْاْ فِي الأَرْضِ مُفْسِدِينَ {85}

[11:85] And, O my people! give full measure and weight fairly, and defraud not men their things, and do not act corruptly in the land, making mischief:

 

 

Quote

 

وَإِلَى مَدْيَنَ أَخَاهُمْ شُعَيْبًا قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ اعْبُدُواْ اللّهَ مَا لَكُم مِّنْ إِلَـهٍ غَيْرُهُ قَدْ جَاءتْكُم بَيِّنَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ فَأَوْفُواْ الْكَيْلَ وَالْمِيزَانَ وَلاَ تَبْخَسُواْ النَّاسَ أَشْيَاءهُمْ وَلاَ تُفْسِدُواْ فِي الأَرْضِ بَعْدَ إِصْلاَحِهَا ذَلِكُمْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤْمِنِينَ {85}

[7:85] And to Madyan (We sent) their brother Shu'aib. He said: O my people! serve Allah, you have no god other than Him; clear proof indeed has come to you from your Lord, therefore give full measure and weight and do not diminish to men their things, and do not make mischief in the land after its reform; this is better for you if you are believers:

 

 

17:35 recognises that the fairness of a transaction can be influenced by the tools being used to make the measurements.

 

Quote

 

وَأَوْفُوا الْكَيْلَ إِذا كِلْتُمْ وَزِنُواْ بِالقِسْطَاسِ الْمُسْتَقِيمِ ذَلِكَ خَيْرٌ وَأَحْسَنُ تَأْوِيلاً {35}

[17:35] And give full measure when you measure out, and weigh with a true balance; this is fair and better in the end.

 

 

Here is some commentary from 'The Study Qur'an', I have previously noted the need to use this resource with discernment, but on this topic it seems to be ok. 

 

Quote

To observe fully the measure and the balance with justice refers to the requirement to engage in commerce and business transactions with probity and fairness (cf. 7:85; 17:35; 26:182; 55:8–9; and 11:84–85, where the prophet Shuʿayb admonishes his people to do the same).

Quote

The injunction to observe fully the measure and the balance is a call to integrity and honesty in commercial transactions, and by extension other dealings, an injunction also found in several other passages (see 6:151–52c; 17:35; 18:1–3; 83:1–4). That they should not diminish . . . people’s goods means that they should render to them in full the goods for which they had paid. Among the Quranic prophets, it is Shuʿayb whose mission is particularly associated with the call to avoid fraudulent commercial practices; see 11:84–85 and 26:181–83, where he makes an identical call to the people of Midian and al-Aykah (“the Thicket”), respectively.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein; Dagli, Caner K.; Dakake, Maria Massi; Lumbard, Joseph E.B.; Rustom, Mohammed. The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (p. 438). HarperOne. Kindle Edition. 

 

Some contemporary concepts

The following text provides some additional contemporary conceptual material that may help inform an understanding of the Islamic injunctions.

 

Predictive value

The information that we receive about products and services (and indeed about any life decisions) can be divided into two types, that which has high predictive value or low predictive value.

High predictive value

Information with high predictive value better reflects the reality of a situation. It is better at predicting how a product will perform, how a virus works or what the world will be like and It's better for us clearly to rely on information that has high predictive value.

Low predictive value

Such information is not very useful, it does not serve as a good guide about what things are like, how they work or how they perform.

Why does not everyone just use information of high predictive value?

This is where the cartoon at the top of this post comes in.

Not all information is equally easy to understand and use. We all know this to be the case from personal experience. Some information is easy to understand and remember, other information we may find impossible to understand, perhaps because it is too technically complex and we do not have sufficient education. And even if we do understand some information it may be hard to remember.

If you want a more graphic illustration of what I am talking about watch this 1.5 minute video:

 

Morgan Spurlock provides a humorous insight into how the fast food industry 'deceives' its customers. This screengrab from the trailer gives some indication as to how it does this. Each of the labels below carries a 'meaning' for us as consumers, in each instance, I think we can agree that these are positive meanings.

What Spurlock does in his engaging film is to show how in reality the meanings can be far different to what we think they mean (free range) or in the case of 100% natural the word has no meaning at all, but it still feels good.

Let's work with 'free range'. If I see this term being used on the label for a chicken product my understanding is that it means that the chicken was not cooped up in a small box for its life or even a shed, but rather it was allowed to roam free outside and in the sunshine. This may be naive, but this is what the term means to me. And the key thing here is that because it is a term that I read everyday and because it is simple and easy to understand, I am quite confident that I know what it means.

Let's move onto a concept that describes this phenomenon.

 

Screenshot 2022-01-16 at 12.28.11.png

 

Confidence value

Every product description that we come across has a different level of confidence value for us. Continuing with the above example, 'free-range' has high confidence value, we believe we know what it means in terms of describing how a chicken has been raised. 

The problem is that information which we confidently believe provides an accurate description may not actually do so.

Free-range is a case in point. In his documentary Spurlock explains what the legal implications of the term are in the food industry. Farmers do NOT need to have their chickens raised outdoors in order to call them free range. What they are required to provide (a tiny alcove next to the shed where they spend their lives), is not what most of us would consider free range.

 

Predictive value and confidence value

Bringing the two ideas together, then, we have the following result. 'Free range' has high confidence value, we think we know what it means. But it has low predictive value it does not really indicate how a chicken has been raised.

This leads to the following.

The problem we have in making sense of the world around us is that information which can better predict how products or even events and pandemics will pan out (it has high confidence value) may actually be hard to understand and evaluate (it has low confidence value). This is shown in the top right-hand box below.

 

The human condition

An aspect of the human condition is that sometimes we can be a little lazy in our efforts to engage with information that helps us to see how things will be because it is intellectually more challenging.

 

The challenge

This leads us down the dangerous path of following information that is easy to understand (has high confidence value), but which has low predictive value (won't really tell us what the future will be like). This is shown in the bottom left hand box in the diagram below.

Unscrupulous people will give us the latter in abundance and we will enjoy a false sense of security, but will ultimately arrive at a destination that is considerably different to what we expected. This applies both to the products and services that we buy and the ethical and moral decisions that we make and indeed the health and lifestyle choices that we follow.

 

The diagram

The diagram below illustrates that thought leaders within society are needed to show us those things which are easy to use and can accurately tell us about reality and they're needed to explain to us those things which inform us about reality and which are hard to use. Certainly, one thing which we need from society's leaders is the ability to protect us from those things which we think will help guide us and/or inform us about the way the world really is, but which in reality will not do so.

 

Screenshot 2022-01-02 at 14.07.05.png

 

Illustrative examples

This example shows how the above can work in practice:

Quote

The health halo effect refers to the act of overestimating the healthfulness of an item based on a single claim, such as being low in calories or low in fat. US researchers report that consumers frequently confuse “low fat” with “low calorie”, resulting in the overconsumption of certain foods.

https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/mar/11/know-what-you-eat-health-halo

Here's another example, from the same article above:

Quote

In a separate study researchers demonstrated that when desserts with healthy-sounding names (“Cheesecake de’ Lite”) and unhealthy sounding names (Bailey’s Irish Cream Cheesecake) were presented side by side on a menu, consumers preferred the healthier-sounding option.

Both of these examples show how consumers can make decisions off very limited amounts of information that do not fully reflect what it is that they are buying and the more important issue here is that marketers can take full advantage of this in terms of how they label products and how they photograph and present them. 

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  • Latest Blog Entries

         9 comments
      [amended 19 August 2023 to include references to the Irish potato famine and two Bengal famines]
      Surah Yusuf
      Prophet Yusuf (عليه السلام) advised Pharoah to hoard grains during the years of plenty. I think this episode is a noteworthy one because it shows how a State can intervene in the marketplace in order to improve the welfare of the wider population.
      But as we shall see below, the government intervention that Prophet Yusuf (عليه السلام) instigated favoured some sections of the population over others - it was not neutral in terms of how it spread gains and losses across the population.
      https://www.al-islam.org/sites/default/files/singles/633-yusuf.pdf
      While there is other material in the Qur'an that deals with transactions within the marketplace between individual participants - this story stands out in terms of its focus on state intervention. 
      I'll be coming back to this issue later - but I think it informs the discussions we have about Islam and contemporary socio-economic theories. In particular, I think it illustrates that Islam does see the State as an active market participant and that in an Islamic state, the role of government is not one that is hands-off or laissez-faire.
       
      What policy options did Prophet Yusuf (عليه السلام) have?
      We should not take the story as presented 'for granted'. In reality, the Prophet (عليه السلام). had a range of choices open to him, and thinking those through helps us better understand the reasons for the policy he undertook and the reason why. 
      No government interference
      Let's start with the simplest and easiest option that Pharoah's government could have pursued once they knew that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine (as predicted by the Pharoah's dream which was interpreted by Prophet Yusuf (عليه السلام).) .
      Pharoah could have left the entire issue to the 'market'. During the years of plenty, the price of food would have fallen and people would have enjoyed a higher standard of living. For example, the lower grain prices could have led to people rearing more cattle and their diets would have improved with more meat.
      However, during the years of famine, grain prices would have risen and those people who had accumulated assets in the years of plenty would be able to pay the higher prices in the famine years. Those who had not had such assets would have starved.
      This assumes a fairly high level of self-discipline on the part of the population, but as Milton Friedman would say, the people would have been 'free to choose'. This is not a hypothetical option. The British lack of action to the Irish potato famine has been attributed to the British government's ideological adherence to a laissez-faire approach to macro-economics:
      https://kenanfellows.org/kfp-cp-sites/cp01/cp01/sites/kfp-cp-sites.localhost.com.cp01/files/LP3_BBC Irish Famine Article for Lab.pdf
       
      The Bengal famine is another one where government policy was different to the one Prophet Yusuf ((عليه السلام).) prescribed to Pharoah. In this instance, it was lack of government restriction over the action of privateers:
      https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/29/winston-churchill-policies-contributed-to-1943-bengal-famine-study
       
      Going back still further, the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 has been directly attributed to British government laissez-faire economic policy.
      https://worldfinancialreview.com/the-political-economy-of-famines-during-the-british-rule-in-india-a-critical-analysis/
       
      Light interference - provision of information
      A common policy option nowadays, where people do not want direct government intervention is to recommend improving the provision of information to the population who will then be better able to make the correct decisions for themselves. The government could have mounted an information campaign during the years of plenty and told people to hoard food themselves, hoarding when there is no shortage is allowed in Islam.
      However such attempts to influence awareness about the famine to come and changing peoples' attitudes so that they saved more than they were used to, would likely have run against increased social pressures on people to do the opposite. For example typically in societies as wealth increases there is social pressure to spend more, in this case, for example, have more lavish weddings.
      Also providing information would have been a practical benefit for the better off e.g. those with storage capacity, but not so good for the poor (who would not have room to store grain, for example).
      The government (using a bit more intervention) could have given tax breaks to people who owned granaries, to help the poor who needed such facilities. Again this solution would be to focus on market-based interventions and simply alter the working of the market using incentives. Current economic theory holds that people discount future risks very heavily i.e. they don't perceive them as much of a threat as they should. So, for example, just telling people they should save for a pension does not work. 
      So we can likely predict that the solutions described above would not have worked had they tried them.
      Heavy interference
      This is what they actually did.
      In times of plenty, Pharoah's government did not let prices fall as would have happened under free market conditions. They kept prices higher than they otherwise would have been because the government intervened and took excess stocks of grain out of circulation.
      All people (rich and poor alike) had no option but to pay the usual higher prices - effectively, the government was taxing everyone, but this was not seen as a loss by anyone because the prices were no higher than usual.
      The government stored the grain centrally and then they decided to release the grain according to their own policies.
      Assumptions made by Prophet Yusuf's government
      If you leave people to their own devices they may not make the best decisions (whether they are rich or poor), this could be due to: People do not have the resources to cater for future shocks (mainly the poor) People do not have the discipline to address future shocks (applies to both the rich and the poor) The government can make better decisions than individuals acting in their own self-interest because: The government can have access to more and better information than individuals do The government may not be as susceptible to a lack of self-discipline  
      Conclusion
      Of all the policy options open to Prophet Yusuf (عليه السلام) he advised Pharoah to pursue the most interventionist one. Some people may be tempted to call this socialist or communist, but I think those terms carry a lot of excess baggage, so I won't bring them into the discussion.
      What I think can be safely inferred from his choice of policy is a fundamental principle that could inform economic policy in any Islamic state.
      Facing an external shock to the Egyptian economy, he went for the option that would cause the least pain to the worst off in society. Other policy options would have caused more pain for the poorest but somewhat less for the better off.
       
       
         0 comments
      By the fig*
      And by the olive
      And by Mount Sinai
      You have certainly created me in the best of stature.
       
                                 *********

      Angels told you: "Don't create Human.It will cause corruption in the world".
      But I had not still been born so how could they prejudge me?!
      Despite the complaints, you were determined and therefore, I was born.
      "Peace be upon me on the day I was born, on the day I die, and on the day I shall be raised alive!"
       
       
      You put me in a very great cradle. It was extremely white and bright and Holy Spirit rocked it with his fingertip. I was filled with delight and embraced by light.
      Angels all came to see me. They were amazed that I was born without parents!
      But you kept silent and then I talked in the cradle. Suddenly, they uttered a loud exclamation of surprise.
      And you, pleased with you work, said:
      "So blessed is Allah, the best of creators".
      How beautiful lovely those days were! Alas, how quickly they went by!
      I had told you about my sad memories in exile; about the day when you banished me from your heavens and I was separated from you.
      I had told you about my battles against my ownself. Everytime I fought myself, the pillars of Satan's palace started shaking. And I could hear its sound and Satan's wrathful shout.
      Ah, what a time it was! I have many things to tell you. For narrating my memories, I need a long time, as long as the history of mankind!
      Footnotes:
      * Fig tree is very strong and resistant. It can grow in nutritionally poor soils and needs little water.
      It has a high tolerance of bad situations. It can tolerate droughts, and grow in dry sunny areas and still remain productive.
      When it recieves enough water, it cools the environment in hot places, creating a fresh and pleasant habitat for many animals that take shelter in its shade in the times of intense heat.

         0 comments
      در عالم حشر, تابنده رخش
      هر که نکرد گوش, بر اهریمن زشت
      کاخی است بهر او, فاخر, باشکوه
      پرده اش از حریر, وز طلایش خشت
      باغ آن پر گل, فصلش همیشه بهار
      در کنارش هیچ است, ماه اردیبهشت
      ...
      Part 2:
      This was Satan's last trick which didnt work.
      He said disappointedly: do you remember that once I gave you some helpful advice?
      I replied: yes.
      He said: so you owe me a lot! Now, ask God to forgive me!
      Gabriel appeared and told Satan: If you wish God to forgive you, prostrate before Human.
      Satan said: I will never do it. When Human was not my enemy, I didnt agree to prostrate before it. How can I do it now while it is my enemy?!
      Gabriel said: Once, when you lived in heaven, you heard that, in the near future, one of the worshippers would be punished and cast out of heaven.
      At that point, you prayed for everyone but yourself. You were so proud that you didnt think that you yourself could be the worshipper who would be cast out of heaven.
      Satan began crying.
      And I remembered him laughing while I was crying in the court.
      Satan became weaker and weaker until he died among the ruins of his palace.
      Then his corpse, as those of his followers, caught fire and burnt to ashes. And the earth swallowed the ruins of his palace.
      Satan died; on that day when I decided to never sin; on that moment when he became completely disappointed in me.

         0 comments
      "Indeed Allah taught me and He taught me well"*
      *"ان الله ادبنی فاحسن تادیبی"

      During these thousands of years, God tested me frequently until I got permission to return to Him.
      Now, I am going to fly; but how can I do it without my wings?
      Everytime I committed a sin, I lost one of my feathers. I must find the feathers and restore my wings.
      I found a feather at the foot of the Rocky Mount and another feather in a rivulet, floating in the water. One feather was close to the Mirror of Truth and many feathers were around the Square House.
      I am going to fly towards paradise... Towards paradise?!... No!...Somewhere higher...much higher than paradise!
      Somewhere that even Gabriel cannot go...I need to create two wings stronger than Gabriel's.
      I am going to fly to Qab-e Qawsain...To Qab-e Qawsain and maybe closer**
       
      The final part of my book, "From Earth to Heaven" (Az Khāk ta Aflāk)
      Footnotes:
      * a narration from the prophet (s)
      ** surah Najm: 8. Then he came near, and hovered around. 9. He was within two bows’ length, or closer.
       
      -----------------------------
         0 comments
      In Bait-al Ma'mur, Azazil-later called Iblis-sitting on a white minbar and holding a tasbih in his hands, was preaching for a crowd of angels and other residents of empyrean. He was deeply happy and proud to see that he had such a special superior status and that the angels listened to him with great interest.
      After he finished his sermon, angels started asking him theological questions and he answered with full confidence. One of the angels asked:
      O God's beloved, we have worshipping God the Almighty for hundreds of years but we have not achieved a status as high as yours. Tell us, please, the secret behind your success in rising to this enormous  dignity and supereminence.
      Azazil, pleased to hear such a joyful acknowledgement but unaware of that what he thought and what he uttered would put him in a difficult imminent test, smiled and replied: "My friends! Listen to me carefully: I don't deserve the status I have been granted but let me reveal the secret behind my sucess to you.
      Of course, I am not going to boast but to offer help to those who desire to approach our Lord and make him pleased.
      Pure intentions! Friends! Pure intentions! Your problem is that you dont worship God purely for himself but you do it for the purpose of achieving a higher status. Such insincere worship is worthless and is never of any benefit to you.
      Another important point is to avoid being arrogant for it is a major obstacle to...".
      Azazil was preaching when suddenly he found some of the angels talking and not listening to him.
      He shouted :"What is up?! Why are you making so much noise?!"
      One of the angels said :"Sorry, sir! Our minds have been occupied with the recent news!"
      Azazil asked: "the recent news?!"
      The angel replied: "Yes. The news about a new unique creature which God the Almighty is going to create. It is said that no other creature will be equl to it and that God has special plans for this beloved creature-to-be".

      Azazil, surprised at what he had just heared, was lost in thought for a few moments and then said:
      "What a good wonderful news! Indeed, every decision our Lord takes, is wise and praiseworthy. Now, it is better to go and prepare yourselves for celebrating the birth of this welcome creature".
      As the angels were leaving, the purple beads of tasbih, one by one, slipped from his lap and the stairs and scattered on the ground; the tasbih that had been pressed and torn among the fingers of its angry owner who tried to show himself happy and satisfied.
       
       
      Footnotes:
      1. Bait-al Ma'mur( بیت المعمور) is a place in 4th or 7th heaven. It is a Ka'ba for angels.
      2. Tasbih( تسبیح) is a prayer beads.
      3. Minbar(منبر) is a pulpit.
      4. Azazil: عزازیل

         0 comments
      Left alone in the dark desert of ignorance,
      With wings, one broken by greed the other by arrogance,
      Do you wish for deliverance?
      The gates of the heavens are always open to you,
      You just need two restored wings, strong enough and new.
      O you lost in the complete dark,
      You could be Noah, the owner of the salvation Ark,
      The mountains and the birds will sing praises with you*,
      Just get up and create two wings for yourself, strong enough and new.
       
      *surah34/v.10

      ای رها شده در بیابان ظلمت و تنهایی
      بالی شکسته ز شدت کبر
      بالی شکسته ز فرط آزمندی
      دروازه های آسمان همواره به رویت باز
      برخیز و بالهایت را ز نو بساز
      ای ماه بی پناه افتاده در اعماق چاه
      ای کودک سپرده به امواج رود نیل
      لحظه ای گمگشته در برهوت
      لحظه ای گرفتار در دل حوت
      خسته و بیتاب, نالان و پریشان در پی آب

      کوه ها و پرندگان با تو هم آواز
      برخیز و بالهایت را ز نو بساز



         1 comment
      Summary
      Just because something is not created via the scientific method, does not mean it can't be useful - implications about how we think about religious precepts.
      Serendipity (pot luck)
      I have previously remarked upon how, in some fields of human endeavour where the scientific approach is held to be the ideal, in reality human scientific and technological discoveries has often been the results of luck and even mistakes.
      Social science 'theories'
      There is a corollary in the field of the social sciences which also emphasise the value of the scientific approach to generate knowledge. In this domain the anomalies are various frameworks and models that are widely taught and even used, but which have no basis in rigorous scientific research.
      The famous work by Abraham Maslow on motivation and his resulting 'hierarchy of needs' is very widely studied and used. He posits that human motivation at the fundamental level is driven by physiological needs, and once these are satisfied (he did qualify this in later works) people try and address safety needs and then, social needs and self-esteem and finally self-actualisation. 
      But Maslow did not come up with this through any research that would hold up to scientific scrutiny.
      Does the lack of a scientific approach invalidate a model or framework?
      Yet the Maslow hierarchy is productively used by professionals in a variety of industries, managers, MBA students and others in universities. For example, people use it to understand why consumers buy certain products.
      The same issue applies to Bloom's taxonomy in the field of learning and also Elmo's buying funnel in the area of marketing. The three laws of robotics have their basis in science fiction and in the area of web searching there is no scientific basis for the information-navigational-transactional categories that are used.
      Face validity
      The implication from this is that while ideas and knowledge may ideally be the result of the scientific approach I.e. hypothesising and then testing, there are many instances where this is not the case. In the area of the social sciences and management the value of some types of knowledge seems to rest on their 'face validity', do they make sense to the individuals who are presented with them and can those individuals make better sense of their external environment as a result of using these tools and if they can, that is good enough.
      Implications for religion
      The same principle could surely apply to various aspects of religion. There may be no scientific proof underpinning various religious ideas, but if they have face validity, if they help the individual make sense of their external environment and manage it, surely that is good enough?
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