07 January 2011

Conflict Resolution through Mutuality

'Conflict resolution through mutuality: lessons from Bayesian updating' is the title of my forthcoming paper in the Journal of Quantitative Economics and the pre-print version has been put up as a working paper. An earlier version was presented at a conference in 2009 and the initial idea came up while teaching Bayes' rule around the time of 9/11 and put up in an earlier working paper. The abstract, introductory paragraph and concluding remarks of the current version are given below.

If priors are deterministic (zero or unity) and conditional evidence is uncertain (lies between zero and one) then Bayesian updating will lead to posteriors that are the same as priors. This in a sense explains the persistence of fundamentalist belief. Under such a belief system, only if conditional evidence is deterministic and diametrically opposite to that of the prior then a process of change can set in. Conflict resolution is possible through dialogues that calls for mutual respect and allows reasonable pluralism – a Rawlsian prerequisite. If interaction is the basis then self-defeating scenarios can be avoided by giving space to others. Thus, in the political sphere one has to be accommodative.

Attempts at conflict resolution are welcome and it is in this context that the theme of the forthcoming World Development Report 2011 is on ‘Conflict Security and Development’. However, it is a matter of concern that over time, instead of the differences getting reduced they may get aggravated; there is belief polarization. One possible way of conflict resolution is through mutuality and reasonable pluralism – a Rawlsian prerequisite that gives space to and respects others. This paper explores this with lessons from Bayesian updating.

In this paper we try to understand fundamentalist belief through Bayesian updating, that is, when priors are deterministic. Doing away with a basic Bayesian philosophy of subjective probability turns out to be the strength in the present discussion because it can also explain persistence of fundamentalist belief. This result is used to explain why Brahe fails to go beyond geocentric consideration whereas Kepler using Brahe's data conclusively proves the heliocentric view. The role of belief including experiences and views of correct scientific inquiry has also influenced research in probability: Sir Ronald A. Fisher concerned with reduction and evaluation of experimental data believed and developed tools and methods as a frequentist, whereas Sir Harold Jeffreys who tried to calculate the internal structure of the earth was aware that conclusions will always be uncertain made important contributions as a Bayesian. Belief (not necessarily fundamentalist) but at least in a subjective sense has also had an impact on many great scientists.

As Kepler's result led to a shift in popular belief from geocentric to heliocentric view of universe, one feels that the involvement of Islamic religious authorities can act as an effective counter to the terrorist organizations who issue fatwas by invoking Islam. However, to create ground for the effective use of religion one has to take care of another condition that affects the fundamentalist mind – the political dimension. To analyse this we make use of the conventional understanding of subjective probability, that is, it lies between zero and unity. One can also suggest a higher lower bound and a lower upper bound depending upon the context and this can be considered as part of the prior. This can be interpreted in social situations as one where multiple scenarios co-exist and form the basis for interaction. The role of associational interactions and their positive influence on Hindu-Muslim conflicts in some specific instances have been discussed by Varshney in Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, 2002.

Having identified the relevance of interaction in the political dimension it suggests that the world ought to be accommodative and appreciative about the views of Middle East. If Islam has to play a positive role in countering the role of violence then conditions from outside should make it convenient. This requires a respect and appreciation for the other viewpoints; reasonable pluralism – a Rawlsian prerequisite. This approach, however, does not deny difference of opinion but rather consider this necessary for discussions and debates, a basic requirement in a civil society.

We do agree that the above two approaches proposed to be used in conjunction with each other do not exhaust all possible suggestions of tackling terrorism. This is consistent to our discussions using Bayesian updating in two ways. First, we are not dogmatic of our proposals and agree that these can only form a small part in our concern against terrorism. Second, by considering the existence of other possible methods we leave scope for multiple views. In fact, to tackle such a serious global concern the fight has to be in multiple directions.

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