Religion and morality

The idea that someone’s morality comes from a god is like the idea that their cellular structure is assembled by a god. Biochemistry describes a different process in which macromolecules from food are broken down and/or sorted into the structures in a process of self-assembly. This occurs over developmental and evolutionary time and the idea of assembly from extrinsic sources is not plausible.

My comparison suggests that a science of morality might yield or has already yielded similar conclusions, viz. that morality develops over developmental and evolutionary timescales by a process of self-assembly. Key theoretical pointers are theory of mind and game theoretic notions for the two timescales, respectively.  There is much to elaborate on here, but this is not the purpose of this post. Suffice it say that anticipating this general outcome of research is not unreasonable. It fits the pattern of scientific discovery in general, replacing implausible but intuitively appealing skyhooks with a multitude of cranes to do the heavy lifting of explanation (to borrow Dennett’s admittedly tendentious phrasing).

For those who disagree with me, there are several versions of what it means to say there is no morality without a god. First this might mean that if you do not believe in a god (or in this role for such an entity) then you cannot be a moral person (implying that atheists are necessarily nasty). Second it might mean only that a god plays this role regardless of whether you are aware of that fact (so atheists and theists are equivalent). But there is a third and intermediate position which posits that your being aware of a god’s role in planting morality’s seed in you in will enhance your access to it in some way. The details of this are not important, but the fact that there are several ways this can be imagined (e.g., that you accept a universal love invisible to others, that you can hear a god’s advice, etc.) makes it intuitively more appealing and plausible, at least to deists or theists. (For completeness, the supernatural realm is not always so appealing and it is plausible to be angry or frightened by powerful agents, like witches, and wish to be an unbeliever).

But for those who agree with me, there are also several versions of what it means to say that religion is not a source of morality. First it might mean that religion is essential for the development of morality but is not its source (so that to be good you must be culturally Christian, if not a theist, for example). Second it might mean that religion has nothing to do with morality (so theists and atheists are equivalent). But again there is an intermediate position: perhaps religion has an impact on the development of morality over developmental and evolutionary timescales though it is not essential. (For completeness, you might posit that religion has only negative effects on the development of morality too – more below).

I find the third non-theist position plausible and to explain why I return to the analogy of biochemistry and eating. While it is true that self-assembly, not outside-directed assembly, is responsible for cellular structures, chemicals we ingest do affect physiology. The most obvious class of things ingested which can do this is drugs though all aspects of diet are relevant over developmental and evolutionary timescales. What might this mean in the context of morality?

Religions generate plausible intuitions about morality the most obvious flowing from the concept of an all-access agent (of which the Christian god is an example): crudely, if He knows everything that everyone is thinking (not just doing), then He will know what is right and what is wrong (much of this follows from Pascal Boyer’s thesis in “Religion Explained”). Moral problems are problems of social coordination and are often caused by having only partial information about another’s motives. Now this concept might be too recent in history to have impacted the evolution of morality, but it can surely affect the development of morality in individuals at least as an intuitive framework for moral expression (and possible negative connotations if access to such an agent is claimed as a special privilege). Arguably the causation here is mostly in the other direction with the plausibility of the intuition driving hazy notions about the nature of the agent (e.g., God seems to be aware of all relevant strategic information such as that spoken of in confession, but people don’t make much of His knowing any particular detail of the physical universe unless it is relevant – it isn’t often subject to debate despite the implications for how this feat of memory might be achieved (none of which is to imply it could not)).

On whether believing in all-access agents has good or bad consequences, I suspend judgement. It may be that believing in one intensifies feelings of conscience, which seems like a good thing or it may be that it promotes a command-and-control morality possibly inappropriate after childhood when most fellow humans are on an equal footing as regards privileged information (but seemingly reinforced by fictive kin notions like “God the Father”). Hence the possibility that religion is less like opium, more like an amphetamine: a moral stimulant.

All-access agents aside, religion has been around for a while so there might be a story a bit like lactase persistence waiting in the scientific wings (again with neoteny being a feature). Perhaps notions of other worlds or of reincarnation or life after death have effects on intuitions that are now tolerated or even required by our moral intuitions. I am not sure, but if there are necessary components of religion it seems plausible they may already be dispersed outside of any particular religion in the form of intuitively appealing notions and moral fables and parables.

The take home point is that nobody should prejudge the matter. Religious people do give blood more (a measure which gets round the confounding fact that charities are often religious) and religions are effective at organising the distribution of club goods from social welfare to suicide terrorism. Religion has an impact and it is likely to be complex. Understanding this is important especially if as a social democrat you are interested in the forces responsible for social solidarity and want to move beyond the religious right’s “family values” (think Mafioso – amusing comparison made by Stephen Fry) and the atheist left’s tendency to throw the baby out with the authoritarian bathwater (see this article or this talk for a slightly hyperbolic version of this sentiment).


Finance and ignorance

This opinionated and philosophical article about the financial crisis by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (writer of “The Black Swan”; see my “Induction and scepticism” post) has caught my attention. With the benefit of hindsight we can attribute the current crisis, in broad terms, to the existence of incentives to misrepresent risk and the otherwise beneficial fact that the risk is distributed in the financial system. This story tells us whom to be angry with and why: the brokers for not being honest and the regulators for not regulating. (What’s more there is the moral intuition that if the public bails out companies we ought to impose costly regulation on them).

But Taleb has a different target for his ire: those who claim to understand the financial system! In the course of mapping out how we mistake our ignorance for knowledge he makes two interesting points about: 1. the inverse problem and 2. functional redundancy.

1. The Inverse Problem

This is the problem of using data to create a model (accommodating data) and can be contrasted with using data to test the predictions of an a priori hypothesis. Considering this contrast, we can ask the philosophical question: is accommodation worse than prediction?  The answer to this is not as obvious as it seems, but for a clear and excellent description I recommend this article. To summarise, the problem is that ad hoc hypothesising is bad because it increases the chance that the person (or computer) doing it will violate parsimony (and for why this is bad see my post: “Parsimony is probabilistic”). While the correctness of an hypothesis is strictly independent of how and when it is formulated, this argument does, under partial ignorance, give reasonable grounds for suspecting error.  What Taleb misses is that this suspicion can be overcome by paying attention to theoretical virtues (such as simplicity) as well as a priori information from multiple sources (for another suggestion see this article).

But Taleb makes a new and more practical argument. This begins with the fact that the inverse problem is intensified for rare events because the backward time slice required for modelling is larger so, for a given time slice, sample sizes are smaller and inference weaker. When rare events have big consequences (e.g., leading to banks losing more money than they have ever made), we are in trouble. Adding to this abstract point he claims to demonstrate the negative point that future rare events are unpredictable from past rare events using a über-large dataset.

Into further detail I shall not/cannot descend, but I’d like to add that, by logic, the sorts of phenomena that we model rather than predict are likely to be the rarer ones. I think Taleb has therefore made a general and valuable point about the limits of knowledge.

This admission of ignorance is rather sobering for those who want globalisation to work better and are not too ideologically blinkered about how. If we are ignorant of rare destructive events, applying more regulation against specific threats isn’t likely to help us (quite apart from the neoliberal defence that regulation can itself produce perverse incentives). An interesting answer might lie in redundancy.


2. Functional redundancy

Taleb argues that part of the problem is that markets are short-term optimisers. Rare spikes in demand are more likely to lead to catastrophic events like the NY electricity blackout if the system matches supply with demand too efficiently.

But how does natural selection do it? The short answer would seem to be with more time and with lineage-level selection. By analogy a free-marketeer might need to argue that whole economies should go under to bring the benefits of the market to bear (an unpatriotic sentiment). But how is the solution to rare events instantiated in the design of living organisms? Robustness through redundancy might be the answer achieved for example by having multiple copies of a gene. This is a controversial topic in biology and one I need to learn more about. With my ignorance noted, I might argue that gene duplication is incidental to robustness because: 1. it doesn’t always lead to it – in true redundancy a population could always drift to having only one active copy by Muller’s Ratchet and 2. duplication is something that happens anyway and isn’t selected for because it increases robustness.

This second point is key. Perhaps the evolution of redundancy has less to do with selection per se and more to do with its substrate. The relevant property is that the substrate is modular and is therefore subject to selection at a lower level. In finance perhaps regulators should be looking at the design of the system itself with an eye to building incentives for redundancy in?

Is this a real example of how knowing more about biology might inform politics?