Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Morality in an uncaring universe

Rihanna.  She has cooperated with established celebrities such as Eminem

What if there is an inherent morality embedded in our reality?  What if it can be shown to appear spontaneously from the primordial Chaos/Paradox and thus provide another sense in which random indifferent Paradox emulates ‘God’?

Well, modern computer studies of some notable paradoxical situations have revealed that this may indeed be the case.  The studies suggest that an individual being’s or a species’ success in any uncontrolled, iterated, competitive evolutionary process is correlated with the following characteristics.  The more a living thing follows these 'rules,' the more successful it will be (no consciousness required):

  • Be nice: cooperate (offer trust and respect), never be the first to act selfishly.
  • Be provocable (vengeful) but not hateful: retaliate against a selfish act (a sin) with punishment in like measure (but not beyond).  “Eye for an eye.”
  • Be forgiving: cooperate with a ‘sinner’ who returns to cooperation. Do this generously and immediately.  Do not hold a grudge.
  • Be humble (don't be envious): be fair with those around you. Do not try to out-compete them.  Do not be resentful if they out-compete you.
  • Be honest (don't be too clever/intelligent): Don't try to be tricky, sneaky, scheming, or subtle.  Keep your approach transparent.

This, to me, is good news - the best I could hope for.  I'll discuss the details in a moment.  But first let me offer the bad news: why Homo sapiens is going to go extinct:

Our current human culture (the species pejoratively called ‘bowlheads’ in my seven-book novel series 'Eden's Womb') fails miserably on nearly every one of the above counts.  We are too selfish and greedy.  We sometimes act hatefully.  Burdened by our self-importance and parochialism we fail to forgive in too many instances — the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is perhaps the most important example of this in human history.  Too often we revert to covetousness and envy and seek ‘schadenfreude.’  And we are just too damn smart for our own good.  “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

Now, how do those five rules emerge from pure indifferent Chaos?  Let's get to the scientific studies - which I'll try to present in simple, easy to understand terms.

Many of you have probably heard of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”  It's a paradox in decision analysis, but ultimately it is a social interaction exercise.  Two 'players' face one another and have two choices: cooperate with the other player, or betray her/him.

As originally posed, the Prisoner's Dilemma is this: You and a criminal associate have been busted for a crime that you committed together.

Fortunately for you, most of the evidence was shredded, so you are facing only a year in prison on circumstantial evidence. But the prosecutor wants to nail someone.  To do so, he needs your testimony.  So he offers you a deal: if you squeal on your associate – which will result in her/him getting a five year sentence – the prosecutor will see that you go free. Which sounds good, until you learn your associate is being offered the same deal – which would get you five years.

So what do you do? The best that you and your associate can do together is to not squeal: that is, to cooperate (with each other, not the prosecutor!) in a mutual bond of silence, and do your year. But wait: if your associate cooperates (that sucker!), can you do better by squealing ("defecting") and get sprung from jail? It's tempting, but then he's also tempted. And if you both squeal, oh, no, it's five years for both of you. So perhaps you should cooperate – but wait, that's being a sucker yourself, as your associate will undoubtedly squeal, and you'll rot in prison for five years. So what is the best strategy to minimize your incarceration?

In the most generalized version of this game it is the story of real life.  Each 'play' represents a basic ‘unit’ of social interaction that confronts us innumerable times every day.  And with each unit we must choose from two simple alternatives: Act cooperatively/altruistically, or act selfishly.  Broken down to its most basic elements, every action we take becomes a series of binary choices, 'Black vs. White'.

And in countless contests conducted and monitored by experts this fundamental game of social interaction is invariably won by following the five rules listed above - a moral code that not so much emerges from nothing but comes pre-packaged the way mathematics itself does.

So ... the dry, indifferent realm of mathematics points the way to a moral code.  How does the Prisoner's Dilemma and the resulting five rules apply to us in our every day life?  In some surprising ways:

Whether we know it or not, we are constantly playing this game with every other person in the world, including people we've not only never met, but do not even know exist.

Consider this: Very few of us would go out of our way to ‘bad-mouth’ or ‘trash’ a complete stranger.  But most of us would treasure the chance to connect with people that we've never met in order to establish some mutually beneficial relationship.  And what better way to make an impression on them than to do something altruistic.

We all want our cup to 'runneth over' with adoring fans.  So there is an obvious bias toward cooperation.  But the cup can also be viewed as half empty: If we sit at home, in our own little cocoon and don't reach out to our potential fans, then this passive option - inaction - can be considered a negative choice: a selfish act.

Who hasn’t heard that venerable old saying: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  Even Jesus of Nazareth said that (Matthew 12:30).

Every one of the seven billion strangers that you've neglected to connect with is a failed social bond and a potential enemy left unconverted.  That's a harsh judgment, I know. But it makes a point:

The highest ‘score’ in the social interaction game goes to those who try the hardest.  Think of these examples:  Mother Teresa, the Buddha, Paul of Tarsus, and … yes … young 25-year-old Rihanna: the single most 'liked' individual on Facebook.

Your choice to engage the people around you positively is the winning strategy.  Your choice to remain aloof and not interact with them is the choice that fails.  When I look at things this way, it is utterly transformative!


Now to delve a little more deeply I'm going to get a bit more technical, let's take a look at the math of the Prisoner's Dilemma Game (don't be scared - this is not very complicated):

Let's assign symbols to the various outcomes of the game:

In every decision unit of the game, if you and your partner/opponent cooperate it produces a modest reward, "R", for both players.  If one of you chooses the selfish option but the other participant ‘turns the other cheek’, the immediate result is a large taking “T” for the selfish one and a large suffering “S” for the victim.  If both of you choose your own selfish interests, then both pay a certain Penalty, "P", in the resulting conflict.

In formal mathematical terms, for the individual participant in the Prisoner's Dilemma game, these four outcomes are arranged from largest reward to largest cost thusly:  T > R > P > S, where the symbol > means "greater than".  We'll call this relationship "Inequality (1)".  These relative sizes define the phenomenon, and so are fundamental to it.  Other arrangements don't work.  Some simple thought exercises can confirm this.  In the real-world context the relative 'size' of the four variables, as specified above, makes intuitive sense:

T: Mugging on the street/Warriors pillaging the innocent: "To the victor go the spoils.”  Big payoff for the winner.

R: Peace: "We get no spoils, neither do either of us suffer."  Biggest combined payoff, but never the maximum score.

P: War: "The battle between us will be bloody, so even the winner will suffer losses.”  Rarely as rewarding as Peace and co-operation.

S: Mugging on the street/Warriors pillaging the innocent: "The victim suffers exceedingly.”  The loser endures not just from the physical defeat, but also psychologically.

So Inequality (1) mirrors real life: The Temptation to act selfishly T offers a pay-off greater than the Reward for mutual cooperation, R.  But the Reward for cooperation is better than the Penalty P for always acting selfishly.  And the worst cost, S, is reserved for the "Sucker" who chooses to cooperate, faces a selfish ‘opponent’, and is robbed blind.

Now ... The Prisoner's Dilemma game is most relevant to our reality when it is played over and over among a large and diverse group of players.  This is called the "iterative" version.

In order to be a valid model of reality, the iterative version of the Prisoners Dilemma game also requires that 2R > T + S.  Let's call this Inequality (2).  It means that the combined reward to two players who cooperate must exceed the sum of the benefits achieved by one Sucker and one selfish player:

That might seem like stacking the deck - a rule that fixes the outcome.  But in the natural, very real world of human interactions this stipulation, in the long term, is naturally met without anybody forcing it to be so:

Think of it this way: A mugger on the street will sometimes come away with very little whereas her/his victim will always suffer in some way.  Both players have higher stress levels during and after the encounter than they would have if they agreed to cooperate.  The resulting sum is therefore almost always less than the alternative: ‘Both of us respect each other, keep what we have, and cooperate to get more.”

So in reality, since this inequality (2) does apply.  Nature itself stacks the deck.  Two heads are better than one.  You attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.

Do Nice guys finish last? Only if they ignore another old saying: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

Be nice but not gullible, be humble, forgiving, and honest and you'll end up on top of the evolutionary mountain.

And if you find the 'pearly gates' up there ... if there's a caring God there waiting for you ... well, now you know why.


  1. Wow. The pick-at-bones climate debaters are having a field day with just this very subject on a blog that I follow.


    If you can wade through this, keep in mind the fifth rule on the list. These debaters (on both sides) seem entirely immersed in attempts at cleverness, preferring debating tricks, scheming, and subtlety to simple reality. The number of words generated during a 30 year climate cycle is approaching the number of molecules in the atmosphere.

    The abandonment of simple honesty and humility is appalling on both sides, and it just reinforces my conviction that our species is far beyond redemption.

    The 'common sense, cooperative' response to global pollution succumbed to selfishness centuries ago. And every one of us alive today is a participant in a culture of selfishness.

    The honest solution has long ago been abandoned: live sustainably, as our stone age precursors did. Anyone who proposes this in today's society would be considered insane. It would mean economic calamity.

    Well, that doesn't change the truth. The reality of our situation is that we are failing to cooperate with our fellow species on this planet. Who will win? I'm betting on the cockroaches.

    1. Great, clear explication of the PD as used in game theory, PJ--many academics could benefit from it.

      I agree with this essentially constructivist-tempered Hobbesian view of human nature. We may be selfish, but in the face of cooperation, not everyone chooses to defect...especially when there is more than one interaction. In fact, as you say, over the long haul, the dominant strategy for both sides is to cooperate.

      I'd also like to emphasize your point about war, or P, not being a rational course of behavior in the long run. That war/conflict breaks out at all can be seen as resulting from at least two situations: 1) asymmetries in information on both sides, and 2) the incentive each side has to misrepresent its capabilities.

      The way to "solve" this dilemma is to provide the means whereby the two sides can communicate, and thus ameliorate the worst side-effects of the Prisoners' Dilemma.

      If it is one thing we are not short of in this globalized world of ours is the ability to communicate. Various forms of social media help this tremendously. One of the problems, however, is the technological divide that exists in the world: the overwhelming majority of the world's population doesn't have access to the Internet or own a computer.

      If ever there was a reason to spread technology, I think this is it.

      I like the optimism that underlies your whole philosophical approach, for it is derived rationally (in an enlightened self-interest way). The prospects for its success, therefore, seem greater than approaches that rely on peace arising spontaneously from the beneficence of human nature.

      I look forward to your series.

  2. We have made some progress, but I fear it's been two steps forward, three steps back in the struggle of decency against evil. The Code of Hammurabi, which predated Mosaic law, decreed the death penalty for minor offenses; with Moses it became One eye for an eye, not two, the first attempt at real justice. Most industrialized nations, the US excepted, have abolished the death penalty. That is an advance for humanity.

    But from the bow and arrow to advanced chemical warfare, the human race has excelled at destroying itself. And spreading more technology around will not mean spreading goodness and decency. Technology, like money, is in itself neither good nor evil. How people use it determines that. Many empowered with computers and internet technology only use it to play violent video games and spew hatred on websites, with the tragic results we have seen happen.

    Then there is pollution. We may already be past the point of no return. As a merchant marine sailor, I have seen the plastic garbage in the middle of the Pacific and choked on Shanghai smog. It will take more than emails and petitions to Congress to made any serious headway on that front. A lot more.

    The world situation is rather depressing. Could I have some milk and cookies now?