Archive for March, 2008

Forgiveness and Cooperation

Where to an atheist’s morals come from?

It’s a common question, and I’m not going to give a comprehensive answer here and now. This post is about one small aspect of the issue.

There’s a phenomenally important book by Robert Axelrod, based on an earlier article of the same name, called The Evolution of Cooperation. This book comes up in pretty much every discussion of evolutionary morals, and just about every atheist blogger on the web has reviewed, summarised or referenced it at some stage, so I’ll just give a really brief overview of it. The basic point is that, in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma between members of a population, under certain conditions the most stable strategy is “tit for tat” – you cooperate on the first round, then in subsequent rounds you do whatever the other player did the round before. A fairly small group of players following this strategy can quickly take over a much larger population of players who always defect.

The real-world translation is that, in a population where you often interact with the same members (say, human society), it’s in your own interests to act for the good of others, even when it can potentially disadvantage you – but only as long as they return the favour. If someone responds to your generosity by turning on you, it’s in your interests to avoid helping them in future. You should, however, be willing to forgive them if they change their ways. Basically, you should be nice to people you’ve just met, and from then on you should treat them the way you remember them treating you recently. A similar concept in biology is called reciprocal altruism.

The nice thing about this is that it clicks so well with our (or at least, my) intuitive social sense – it feels natural to behave like this. It’s quite easy to believe that we’ve evolved towards stable, mutually beneficial behaviour. If that’s the case, then we have a basis for morals that make perfect sense without an external Giver of the Law.

Buuut, but but but. The former Christian in me rarely shuts up during discussions like this, and at the moment wants to point out that Christian morals go beyond this. Jesus had this to say:

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. Luke 6:27-31, ESV

It seems Christian morality includes something that can’t be derived from rational self-interest. The stable “tit for tat” strategy says that you should cooperate only with people who cooperate with you. Jesus says to cooperate with everyone, regardless of their behaviour. In Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma terms, this is the (sensibly named) “Always Cooperate” strategy. A player using this strategy tends to get exploited – in fact, it’s the worst possible strategy to use in a population of defecting players.

So do Christians know something we don’t? Are Jesus’ moral teachings something that we can’t derive from first principles, that have to be taught to us from someone outside? Are Christian ethics genuinely superior to our natural altruistic instincts?

If you guessed that my answer is “no”, you know me too well, but knowing why is a different story.

The first thing I should mention is that “turn the other cheek” is high on the list of least-observed commandments in Christianity, at least in western society. Some Christians (and churches) go so far as to say that these verses are hyperbole, and not to be taken literally. Some readily confess that they “fall short” of Jesus’ standard in this area. Others just gloss over it. Certainly there are a select few people who have lived up to it, but I must admit I haven’t met any of them. For the most part, if someone takes away your cloak, you call the police and do whatever you can to stop them taking your tunic.

(In the time since I originally wrote that paragraph, someone pointed me at an interesting theory that Jesus’ comments along those lines weren’t as altruistic as they appear. Interesting.)

The point is that, whatever they say in theory, in practice Christians don’t think it’s a good idea to cooperate with someone who’s trying to exploit you. Maybe I could be accused here of taking aim at the fallible humans rather than the godly ideal to which they aspire. However, I’d say that it’s not that the reciprocal altruism embedded in our human instincts is holding us back from God’s ideal plan; it’s that our instincts are quite rightly telling us that God’s plan is wrong. Whether they admit it or not, Christians have realised that the godly ideal is flawed at this point. Unconditional generosity is not a path to a better society.

I think there’s something more to it though – something that explains why people would accept a moral system like this in the first place, even in theory. Take this passage from Proverbs, for example:

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,
for you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you. Proverbs 25:21-22, ESV

The sentiment in the first part is noble, if (as I’ve discussed earlier) impractical to live up to. But does anyone else find the second part of that a bit jarring? It’s as though it’s saying that being nice to your enemy is just a roundabout way of attacking them.

At first glance, “burning coals” might refer to inducing guilt or something – it’s not totally clear. Paul quotes the passage in Romans and adds his own interpretation:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary,

“if your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink;
for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21, ESV

Again, there’s a germ of a noble sentiment here, but it’s marred by the “burning coals” business. But the bit that sheds some more light here is the command to “leave it to the wrath of God”. This seems to be saying that you should treat your enemies well, not because revenge is inherently bad, but because revenge is God’s job, and he can do it better than you ever could. To Paul, the “burning coals” are cast down on your enemies from heaven.

This is where, in my opinion, the Christian “turn the other cheek” sentiment reverts to “tit for tat”. As I said earlier, few Christians manage it in practice; but those even those who do are assured that their enemies will still be punished. Basically, they’re getting out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game by relying on another player to (heavily) punish their enemies, while they give the appearance of cooperating.

If you squint just right, this is actually a pretty cool trick. Christianity has (unwittingly, unless you’re the conspiracy theory type) set up a system for people to be nice to each other, even when they don’t think it’s merited, because they’re confident that justice will be doled out in the end. The bit that almost impresses me is that this works even if the justice never happens, because the ultimate punishment is assumed to come after death, where (conveniently) no one can report back whether it happened.

When I say that I’m almost impressed, what I mean is that this encourages (in theory) niceness and generosity in a way that doesn’t upset our natural need for justice; but that doesn’t make it a better moral system. The strategy is still “Always Cooperate”, it’s just that the players don’t think it is. And it has the same vulnerability – if someone comes along who decides to exploit everyone’s niceness, they’ll get away with it. Everyone else will turn a blind eye, believing that, if what they’re doing is really wrong, then God will put a stop to it. Society will be worse off as a result.

Whether this has ever happened in a Christian society is left as an exercise to the reader.

So my point in all this is that there’s at least a starting point for morality without a god, which holds its own against Christian morality, even though the latter sells itself as more “noble” in the surface. This isn’t the end of the story by a long stretch, and yes, I know other people have explored this area much more thoroughly. But this is the beginning of my take on it.


You’ll regret reading this post

Many people I know who have answering machines or voicemail (myself included) have them set up to answer fairly quickly after it starts ringing. This means that often, even when the person is actually there, they don’t manage to answer the phone before the recording answers it automatically. Often, though, I don’t want to leave a message, either because it’s not important enough, or because I need to ask them a question and there’s no point asking a machine.

My solution to this is to call them twice. I call the first time, wait a few seconds, then hang up. This gives them time to get to the phone. After a brief wait, I call again. If they’re available, they’ll answer immediately, because they’re alert and right next to the phone. If it rings for more than a few seconds, then it’s almost certainly going to voicemail, so I hang up. I can tell by how long it takes to answer whether I’ll be talking to a human or a machine.

I call this the Two-ring Test.


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Trivial trivia

I recently turned 27, and I’m about to indulge in a curmudgeony “Damn kids! Get off my lawn!” moment.

The topic of the day is exercise books. Now, I’m more comfortable than most people with using a computer as a primary medium for reading and writing. Some people have to print out a document to be able to read it comfortably; I usually only do that if I’m going to make lots of annotations, or if I’m going to take it somewhere I won’t have a computer. But it’s also handy to have a book on hand in case I want to record something while I’m out, or if I’ve got a particular project mulling around in my mind and want to keep all the notes on it in one place. (Generally this doesn’t work, but that’s getting off-topic.)

Exercise books often have random collections of information on the back that someone thought would be a good reference for school students. Multiplication tables, imperial-to-metric conversions, that sort of thing. Cool. I remember that from my school days.

But quite a few exercise books I’ve seen lately have something that concerns me slightly.

Addition tables.

What… is the point of an addition table?

Multiplication is tricky. Most people learn their times tables, up to twelve, by rote, because it’s just a lot easier than working it out from scratch. To this day there’s a very sharp dropoff in my ability to multiply by numbers greater than or equal to thirteen. A multiplication table on the back of an exercise book is a good idea.

But I have no recollection of addition of numbers up to twelve being hard enough to need a table. Maybe I was too young to remember, or maybe I’m just being elitist, but I don’t remember a time when the easiest way to add two numbers together was to look them up in a table. For one thing, counting fingers is faster than flipping over an exercise book and finding a place in a table. And when the sum gets bigger than ten, you sort of learn to mentally carry the one.

Don’t you?

There’s an exercise book in front of me at the moment, and here’s what it has on the back:

Exercise book

Look how much space the addition table takes up. I have mixed feelings about the “Commonly Used Computer Terms”… I can see how someone has made the argument that “in this day and age” this sort of information is relevant, and I can sooooort of agree (I am a software engineer, after all), but… it seems like it made the cut over a lot of things that could have been more useful. (And the definition of DOS is a bit weird.)

So what would have been a better use of this space? Hmm. Keep the multiplication table, that’s useful. Here’s a random list of things off the top of my head that I’d like to see on the back of an exercise book:

  • Written and spoken English pitfalls. “they’re = they are; their = belonging to them; there = referring to a place”. “its = belonging to it; it’s = it is”. Different tenses of “is” and “has”. Apostrophe use for possesion and not for plural construction. Stuff like that.
  • A map of the world, with as many countries labeled as space permits. Or, a list of countries and their capital cities. Or a list of time zones.
  • I’m sure I used to have exercise books that listed a few basic formulæ – area of a triangle/circle/whatever; the quadratic formula; equations of motion; that sort of thing.
  • A timeline of major world events, on the scale of the last century, or the last 500 years, or 2000, or 10,000 (just to annoy the creationists). Obviously anything too recent has the potential to get out of date, but exercise books don’t last all that long anyway (if they’re in active use).

What else? Thoughts? Anyone?

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Further descent into geekdom

So I installed BSD for the first (successful) time yesterday.

My setup at home, as of a few weeks ago, was as follows.

  1. Wireless router with four Ethernet ports.
  2. My laptop, running Ubuntu, which generally connects via wireless.
  3. Tina’s second-hand desktop, also running Ubuntu, with a PCI wireless card (because at the time it seemed cooler than running a long Ethernet cable).
  4. A server that stayed on most of the time, connected to one of the Ethernet ports, running some mutant Xubuntu-like monstrosity that had been upgraded half a dozen times. SSH and BitTorrent from the outside world were directed here. The machine itself was a Pentium 3 or something, chosen because it could get away with just a heat sink over the CPU so it was pretty quiet and (I think, although I never actually measured it) low-power.
  5. My gaming rig, now essentially obsolete, but still with the best video card in the house. Dual-boot Windows XP and Kubuntu, connected via Ethernet.
  6. A couple of random boxes that I used for now-defunct projects and haven’t bothered to get off my desk yet.

Tina’s desktop (3) had had a slightly flaky hard drive for a while. A few weeks ago it finally gave up and refused to boot, although it was still mostly readable. I have a few spare drives lying around and could probably have just swapped it out, but on an impulse I bought an ex-lease box from an online auction instead. Pretty cheap too – $235 including delivery for a Pentium 4 3.0 GHz, 2 gig RAM, DVD writer. Yeah, there’s a risk with buying stuff ex-lease, but at a price like that I’m not arguing.

Anyway, it turned out to be a good decision ’cause the server (4) died about a week later. Actually it may have already died, I hadn’t been using it much, and it had been temperamental for a while, but it was a couple of weeks ago that I finally realised it wasn’t booting at all. It’s had some other hardware issues too, so although I like the fact that it’s so quiet, I don’t really trust it to keep working with a new HDD.

So I got a new hard drive ($125 for a 500GB IDE drive?! That’s like 25c a gig), stuck it in Tina’s former desktop, and installed FreeBSD 7.0 (which came out last week) on it. I spent most of Sunday coming to terms with the little differences between BSD and Linux, and getting a few things up and running.

Thoughts so far? It feels more responsive than Ubuntu, although I’m probably going to switch to a lighter-weight window manager than Gnome; maybe Enlightenment, if I can get my head around it. I’m trying to SSH to it at the moment from work, and the connection keeps dropping, although that could just be my ISP going through one of its IP-address-shuffling frenzies. Will have to keep an eye on that. The central configuration of nearly everything in rc.conf seems really elegant, although I’m sure there are quirks that reveal themselves over time. I’ve installed a couple of things with ports, and it seems quite powerful. The whole system feels much more like a coherent whole than Linux.

So is there a world of pain waiting for me just around the corner?

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