Saturday, March 22, 2008

People often say that religion is unscientific. But one of the primary thrusts of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judiasm and Hinduism is that helping others is the road to happiness. A recent study confirms this. For a quick laugh (or a sobering reality check), read the last paragraph in the article.

This doesn't prove any of the other stuff, like Jesus rising from the dead or reincarnation, but it's something to think about. The religions I know about give you a basis for acting against common sense; common sense being that I should take care of myself in preference to others. One way to look at this study is as a confirmation of that; another is to just use it as another mechanism for getting yourself to act against your common sense (if you didn't already get that generosity was good).

7 Comments:

Anonymous Perry E. Metzger said...

I'm not sure that what you claim is common sense actually is -- Robert Axelrod's work on the theory of iterated games tends to indicate that the truly "selfish" will in fact help others -- those that do not may think they're being selfish but are in fact not following an optimal strategy. ("The Evolution of Cooperation" is his groundbreaking book on the subject.) Common sense would therefore indicate that the right thing is to be nice.

Your argument might be that many people don't see this as common sense, but perhaps the problem with "common sense" is that it isn't terribly "common" -- different people have very ideas of what "common sense" says...

Saturday, March 22, 2008 3:33:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

What I mean by common sense is what we would tend to do without thinking about it too deeply. In order to do the smart thing, we have to think about it, or try to get our habits in line with it.

So things like Mr. Axelrod's study and this one that I'm referring to now go against common sense, for people whose natural tendency is not to be generous.

And given how much poverty there is in the world, one would have to assume that indeed peoples' natural tendency is to fail to seek out opportunities to share.

I say "fail to seek out opportunities to share" because I don't want to say "selfish." Selfish is pejorative, and indicates an active tendency not to share, whereas what I am talking about is a more passive tendency.

Saturday, March 22, 2008 4:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Perry E. Metzger said...

Ah, but again, would people really fail to cooperate if they were operating purely on "common sense"? I think the in-built instinct *is* to cooperate. I would go so far as to claim that in this chicken-and-egg scenario, religion probably took the idea of cooperation from what people were already naturally doing (and had naturally evolved to do), rather than the other way around.

On poverty, the cause of poverty has not, traditionally, been a lack of sharing. It has been (literally) a lack of wealth. Your society needs a minimal level of capital equipment (things like backhoes and harvesting machines) before everyone really can live comfortably, and for the most part that just didn't exist until the last century or so.

Right now, most of the poverty isn't caused by the failure of the west to share -- it is mostly the failure of local kleptocrats to leave people alone. My favorite recent instance of this was the law passed in Ghana taxing the importation of used clothing -- as though it was the (much needed) clothing being imported that made people poor and not the taxes...

Sunday, March 23, 2008 7:19:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

You're half right. It's true that people within communities do tend to cooperate, to some degree. However, communities frequently do not cooperate, and I would argue that this is how we evolved - we form bands, and within the bands the common good is valued, but we consider people who aren't in our band to be subhuman, worthy of being killed.

I say we, meaning humans, not we meaning me or you specifically. My point here is that our evolved nature is not necessarily quite as altruistic as you suggest, although clearly we do have some kind of natural drive to cooperate in some limited sense.

The reason you give for why there is poverty, in addition to being incomplete, also disproves your point. The presence of people who are willing to exploit others to such a degree that those others starve to death is proof that it is not in our nature to be generous; it is something we choose to do, not something that comes entirely naturally. If it came naturally, there would be no kleptocrats.

And again, if it were common sense to be generous, then when we saw people in need, we would do something about it. But the evidence of our eyes is that we don't - this is what homeless people are. Evidence that we are not sufficiently generous, as a society.

Where I think you are right is in your point about religion. Religion has to come from somewhere - it doesn't just spring up uncaused. Whether it comes from some supernatural being carving commandments in stone, or an enlightened being teaching the path to enlightenment, or simply some very smart thinkers thousands of years ago who saw clearly the same things that Mr. Axelrod and the author of the study I mentioned saw, it's no accident that all the world's major religions agree on the question of generosity. I am making the claim that they agree on this *because* of science, not *in spite of* science. It's just that the science was done a long time ago, and so we don't necessarily see what led to the codification of the conclusions that were reached (although in fact Buddhist scripture has a *lot* of reasoning to prove that, e.g., generosity is a good thing).

And what I'm further saying is that the purpose of religion is to meaningfully carry that understanding of how best to act, when how best to act is indeed not really in our nature. You could say that it's adaptive, if you like: a society where the religion teaches generosity is more likely to survive than when where it does not.

No matter how it *actually* came about, it's interesting to contemplate how it *might* have come about.

Monday, March 24, 2008 4:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Perry E. Metzger said...

The "small bands cooperate internally but not externally" thing is well explained by a couple of parts of evolution -- you have a stronger incentive to cooperate with kin or with people you've dealt with repeatedly than with strangers, and humans have limits on the number of relationships they can track well. (See the "Dunbar Number" -- there are probably articles in Wikipedia.) However, the studies that have been done on altruistic punishment behavior tend to indicate that the standard analysis is borne out in the real world -- people will go out of their way to cause trouble for people that they observe harming other people, even at personal cost.

As for the presence of individuals who are willing to exploit others is well explained by game theory already -- in a population where most people cooperate, a small number of defectors can manage to get a temporary advantage. The trick, generally, is that over a small percentage everything collapses, thus (partially) explaining the inbuilt instinct towards altruistic punishment. (If you want to see extreme examples of defection in action, I'd suggest listening to the recent "Radiolab" radio show on lying.)

My larger point was not that society is perfect already, but only that instincts towards cooperation and interfering with harm to others are fairly deeply built in already and don't need religion to arise.

BTW, generally speaking, most tribal societies have strong taboos against harming individual strangers who show up on their doorstep -- they tend to be hostile only to groups. This is, again, quite explicable in context.

Anyway, if one wants to improve the way people act towards each other, I am not sure religion is a well designed institution for the purpose. You can rationally design institutions and norms that reinforce cooperation over defection -- I think economic analysis is a lot more powerful than religious analysis in figuring out how to create disincentives towards defection. David Friedman's "Law's Order" is a very good introduction to that subject.

Monday, March 24, 2008 10:07:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

I'm talking about in practice, not in theory. How many people actually live their lives according to the teachings of David Friedman?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008 8:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Perry E. Metzger said...

You misunderstand. David Friedman's work is on how to set up societal structures to avoid conflict and maximize happy interactions, not about why it is good to be nice to people. He economically analyzes the incentive structures of legal institutions, the goal being to find systems that actually achieve the goal people claim to wish to achieve.

Thursday, March 27, 2008 5:45:00 PM  

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