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Categories in Cognitive Science

How humans form categories through interaction with the world around them is a recurring topic in the cognitive science literature. The ability to abstract categories from our experience, a core cognitive process in both animals and humans, is defined by Harnad (2005) as “any systematic differential interaction between an autonomous, adaptive sensorimotor system and its world” (p. 21). In short, humans learn categories to more effectively interact with entities and respond to events around them.

Many modern theories of categorization postulate that humans have two separate categorization systems. The explicit system “dominates the learning of ver- balizable, rule-based category structures”, whereas the implicit system “dominates the learning of non-verbalizable, information-integration category structures” (Maddox & Ashby, 2004, p. 309). Basically, there are categories that people reason and talk about, which can be determined using rules. And then there are those that people can’t talk about, that are gradually built up through ongoing experience of the world. Importantly, the explicit system, unlike the implicit system, is associated with conscious awareness. The nature of the implicit system is currently debated, and it may, in fact, represent different systems. In our everyday life, the relative engagement of each system is based on a wide range of factors to include the stage of learning, the size and organization of a category, and the amenability of a category to rule-based learning (Smith, 2014).

The two types of categorization likely perform distinct functions in religion. For example, when there is an overriding concern about orthodox)' and heresy, the rule-based system is likely to be employed so that distinctions are clear-cut. Consider as one example prohibition against consumption of certain foods, such as the Islamic halal rules.The determination of what is halal, or permissible, is always based on clearly stipulated criteria. In contrast to this, in other areas believers may employ categories with fuzzier boundaries. For example, what constitutes sainthood in Catholicism or the superior man (junzi) in Confucianism is less clear. Adherents of these belief systems may point to a list of exemplars and specific criteria for inclusion in these categories, but some degree of discussion and disagreement would be expected. For example, in the case of sainthood, differences in opinion could be expected over precisely how to assess the qualities (and the precise weighting of those qualities) of Christian virtue, a reputation of holiness, and the performance of miracles.

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