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A multidisciplinary investigation of ‘How China Became Chinese.’ 

Ryan Nichols joined the faculty of Cal State Fullerton in 2006, gained tenure four years later, and became a full professor of philosophy in 2014. He quickly notched up an impressive track record as a scholar, teacher, and book author, with expertise in Chinese philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the cognitive science of religion. But in 2018 Nichols went back to school, becoming a full-time undergraduate and graduate student at Fullerton and at UCLA, to pursue a specially-tailored program in the social and biological sciences. Nichols’ project was enabled by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, as part of an academic cross-training initiative designed to equip promising philosophers like Nichols to take advantage of — and contribute to — the latest tools and ideas used in the hard sciences and social sciences.

FROM EDINBURGH TO QUFU

Nichols’ initial academic training was in the history of philosophy with a special focus on the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment. “You had figures like Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and David Hume all doing what they could to change philosophy — and they succeeded,” Nichols says. “They attempted to reorient philosophy on a much more empirical footing. I was inspired to move from studying what they wrote to putting their lessons and philosophy into practice. I had a lingering sense that the deeper questions that I felt were most important just couldn’t be answered by strictly using philosophical methods.” This realization led Nichols to work on understanding how cognitive biases operate in conversations about the philosophy of religion. Meanwhile his growing study of Chinese philosophy opened up possible alternate approaches. 

“In Chinese philosophy, the currency is not the deductive argument — in fact, arguments in general are just not that important,” Nichols says. “From its origins on, Confucianism is about creating a socially functional system of influence. And the typical tools and philosophy that I had been taught were not very helpful in understanding what was going on.”

Nichols realized he needed a more multidisciplinary approach that would better place Chinese philosophy in its social, historical, and even biological context. He put together a plan of study that included coursework in statistics, computer programming, human behavioral psychology, anthropology, genetics, and neuroscience.

BIG DATA, BOUND FEET

Nichols’ academic cross-training gave him the chance to dive deeply into new territory — his work in graduate courses led to several publications well outside his main academic field. For instance, Nichols used his newly honed knowledge of cognitive science of religion in collaborations with Kristoffer Nielbo of the Centre for Humanities Computing at Aarhus University in which they modeled the ways that concepts of gods and morality are reflected in a corpus of 5.7 million Chinese characters representing all of the most influential Chinese-language texts. Their results suggest that socially important supernatural agents were far more varied and widely distributed than previously thought, undermining the popular so-called “moralizing high god theory” which suggests, more or less, that it takes big gods to generate big societies (and that big societies usually require big gods at the heart of their social organization).

Meanwhile, Nichols’ work in statistical analysis led him to notice significant flaws in a set of recent studies that have suggested the Chinese practice of footbinding (purposely deforming the feet of girls and women to match a specific aesthetic standard) was driven by the economics of home-based handicrafts rather than by parents’ desire to make their daughters more attractive for marriage. Although much of the source material on which this “labor market hypothesis” remains unavailable to outside researchers, Nichols has used new statistical toolkit in a forthcoming article in Evolutionary Psychological Science, arguing that the data supporting the previous, marriage-centric hypothesis was not been properly considered in the labor market-centric analysis. “The mistakes in the hypothesis are not obvious,” Nichols notes. “Some were statistical and methodological; others seem based on false presuppositions.”

Nichols says that his position as an outsider in fields beyond philosophy allowed him to ask questions that were outside the norm for those disciplines. Sometimes this chafed against the grain of other academic traditions. In one seminar, Nichols got pushback for writing a paper that suggested recent findings on the genetic variance in oxytocin production might explain some differences in communal attitudes between East Asian and Western cultures. “It seems like professors in the social and natural sciences are generally not prepared to reflect with both honesty and philosophical care about between-group genetic differences that may influence cross-cultural patterns of cooperation,” Nichols says. “This seems like an area in which philosophers are needed to discuss and clarify these issues and the ethical questions they raise.” 

In other classes, Nichols found his professors were more willing to engage with Nichols’ interdisciplinary queries. “Because I wasn’t doing a degree where I had professors who were all in one department, but was taking courses across the whole range, I often hit walls in the form of others’ presuppositions. Sometimes I would bang around a bit into those walls — but at other times it was really beneficial and healthy.”

PIECING TOGETHER THE LONG VIEW

Nichols’ long-term project is a book titled How China Became Chinese, which will draw on his knowledge of Chinese history, philosophy and religion, coupled with his newly expanded perspective on the worlds of archaeology, evolutionary biology, and behavioral psychology. “One of the most distinguishing things about Chinese culture is its continuity — not just its duration, but the continuity of patterns and features of Chinese culture that are so long-lived,” Nichols says. He points to 20,000-year-old grinding stones found to contain trace remnants of plants used in present-day Chinese cooking and medicine. “I tell my students that Chinese culture should probably be thought of along the lines of Australian Aboriginal cultural and Kalahari Bushman culture.” Understanding elements of a culture whose roots stretch so far back requires every method at hand, from philosophical inquiry and close reading of texts to genetic analysis and radiocarbon dating.

Nichols jokes that he didn’t undertake his academic cross-training out of a desire to change careers and become an empirical scientist — and that he still doesn’t. “While I might spearhead an occasional experimental study in the future, I still see myself as a research partner— a much-improved collaborator with social and data scientists,” Nichols says. “My ability to research questions of special interest to me now knows far fewer boundaries than it did before. It’s been so transformative for me.”

Still Curious?

Follow Ryan Nichols’ latest research and publications.