Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A dinner conversation

I tried, half-seriously and without much success, to convince a mathematician I was seated next to at a dinner-lecture last night to attempt a book on the "mathematics of predestination". The conversation inevitably wandered to the subject of free will, and I remarked that whether it existed or not, all human beings were faced with at least the simulation of choice. If we can do nothing else in life, we can bet. There is, for example, Pascal's Wager. "The Wager posits that it is a better 'bet' to believe that God exists than not to believe, because the expected value of believing (which Pascal assessed as infinite) is always greater than the expected value of not believing." And we might as well bet because, I argued, one of life's jokes was whether or not we believed in God; and whether or not we were inclined to take up Pascal's Wager, circumstances inevitably force us into situations where we have to stake everything for an unknown payoff.

Consider, I said, the case of the Jerusalem security guard who chose to stop a suicide bomber from entering the supermarket he was watching in 2002. "Jerusalem's SuperSol supermarket was filled with last-minute shoppers stocking up for the Jewish Sabbath when the suicide bomber struck. ... One man, who arrived just after the explosion, described what he saw in an interview with Israel Radio. ... 'I understood that the guard did not let the terrorist in, and they were blown up together,' he said." How do you understand this tradeoff? It's an absurdity. What job could require a man to give up his life for a minimum wage? Yet the human condition often requires us to risk everything for the sake of ordinary things and people. In practice we are forced to behave as if everything depended on our choice. "We step out of the boat," I remarked to the mathematician, "in the midst of the storm just as if we were called out of it, and we don't know why we do it."

Today Jules Crittenden talks about how "an Iraqi man saved the lives of four U.S. Soldiers and eight civilians when he intercepted a suicide bomber during a Concerned Citizens meeting in the little town of al-Arafia.

“I was about 12 feet away when the bomber came around the corner,” said Staff Sgt. Sean Kane, of Los Altos, Calif., acting platoon sergeant of Troop B, 3-1 Cav. “I was about to engage when he jumped in front of us and intercepted the bomber as he ran toward us. As he pushed him away, the bomb went off.”

The citizen’s actions saved the lives of four U.S. Soldiers and eight civilians. Kane felt the loss personally because he had met and interacted with his rescuer many times before the incident. ...

“He could have run behind us or away from us, but he made the decision to sacrifice himself to protect everyone. Having talked with his father, I was told that even if he would have known the outcome before hand, he wouldn’t have acted differently.”

And like the Israeli security guard, it is hard to rationally reproduce any calculus in which this Iraqi man should risk so much for little. Yet both did it. Without knowing anything more, my guess is that if we could ask either why they took the bullet, neither would cite money, duty or country. I think both would answer that they did it for the oddest of reasons: that they did it for their friends. They did it for love.

On different days the moment came to each of them when they were forced to make a wager about the meaning of their lives; to answer in one moment the question to which all men are condemned by their freedom. They had to decide what life is all about; to set their few tomorrows against an uncertain call which they briefly strained to hear. Did they make the right choice? Who knows. But as Thornton Wilder once observed, there is nothing insane about hoping that life has meaning since you have to live it anyway.

Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God ...

But soon we shall die ... and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.


Blogger James Kielland said...

Wow, Wretchard, thanks for positing this.

One thing that I think is very interesting about these kinds of conversations is that there is so frequently the assumption made that the "rational" is the "selfish." And from this the leap is made that any unselfish behavior is "irrational." But all of this is, of course, based on the very dubious assumption that rational actors are only concerned about themselves.

I wish I knew more about this, but some time ago I took to studying the developments of game theory as brought forth by the likes of the Rand Corporation for applications in understanding nuclear strategy. And as I recall, their assumptions were that everyone was basically selfish. When they tried some of their games and simulations on various groups, such as secretaries at Rand, they found the secretaries behaved far more cooperatively and less selfishly than predicted. Instead of questioning the assumptions of the game they dismissed the secretaries as inappropriate subjects.

If you start with the premise that selfishness is rational it leads to all sorts of inconsistencies and to a model of humans that necessarily defines our best qualities as irrational. And that's a pretty mad world.

You wrote: "I think both would answer that they did it for the oddest of reasons: that they did it for their friends. They did it for love."

Yes, love. The feeling which is the anti-thesis of selfishness and according to some therefor inherently irrational. But in the history of life, the capacity to love preceded the capacity of reason and even the capability to imagine a self to be selfish about. These things nature brought forth in order that we could love more. Reason does not stand in contrast to love, it was brought forth as a result of it. And attempts to model what is reasonable devoid of the capacity and need to love can only lead to madness.

8/22/2007 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger James Kielland said...

I should add one more thing. Attempts to describe what is rational for a person are naturally based upon assumptions as to WHY people are here and WHAT they were created for.

I don't wish to get side-tracked by a creation or evolution debate. Even if we take the Darwinian view, we can come to some answers as to why we are here. According to the Darwinian view of things, we are here to carry on the species. The idea that we're just here for our own selfish interests has no basis in Darwinian thought.

Not that some self-styled Darwinists haven't tried. Hence we had "selfish genes", the theory here being that proper human behavior consists of simply trying to get as many of your genes into the next generation as possible.

But even this view, in its fundamentalist form, breaks down under scrutiny. It's certainly no argument for atomized individuality. If anything, it appears as if natural selection is working, in the case of humans, on groups and not individuals. And if that's the case we aren't here to merely push ourselves into the next generation but to assure that our social groups survive.

And that would mean that we simply aren't here for us. We are here for others. And thus we will have drives that can't be reconciled with a notion that equates reason with individual selfishness. And we might also find that there's a bit more consilience between the Darwinian and Creationist outlook than many people realize.

8/22/2007 02:15:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

Romans 8:28-39

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among any brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, "For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered." But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

8/22/2007 02:18:00 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Wasn't it Schopenhauer who maintained that the spontaneous sacrifice of oneself in saving another--jumping into that cold water to save the drowning-- represents a valid metaphysical realization--without thought--that is, that behind the scenes, the other and oneself are one?

Harm another, you harm yourself.

8/22/2007 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I thot it was Groucho Marx.
The Secret Army

Today, the U.S. Defense Department announced that it is closing the Talon intelligence database program, which was designed “to collect and evaluate information about possible threats to U.S. servicemembers and defense civilians at stateside and overseas military installations.”
To read some press accounts, one would get the impression that Talon's mission was to gather info on US Citizens for Karl Rove's personal use.

8/22/2007 03:05:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Creative Altruism:
An Ecologist Questions Motives,
The Social Contract Press, 1999, ISBN: 1881780120.
Garret Hardin.
Garret wrote of, and enjoyed discussing, examples of altruism in animals.

8/22/2007 03:10:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Tragedy of the Commons
(short version)

8/22/2007 03:14:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Part 2

8/22/2007 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

"And we might also find that there's a bit more consilience between the Darwinian and Creationist outlook than many people realize. "
Thanks to the dumbing down in Education and the level of media commentary.
"Darwinism" or Creationism in a Sound Bite.

8/22/2007 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger James Kielland said...

Please elaborate on that, Doug.

8/22/2007 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger John Aristides said...

Sorry James. I think you have it almost exactly wrong on the science. Gould et. al. have already moved into the realm of historical curiosity.

Otherwise, good, poetical post Wretchard; aletheia is ugly in comparison.

It is not when truth is dirty, but when it is shallow, that the lover of knowledge is reluctant to step into its waters.
-- Nietzsche

8/22/2007 03:26:00 PM  
Blogger James Kielland said...


What do you find wrong and how do you connect it to Gould?

8/22/2007 03:30:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Aristides is a Dawkins True Believer.

8/22/2007 03:37:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

"It's all about MeMe"

8/22/2007 03:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, I bet a five-spot on tonight's Powerball drawing, speaking of bets not likely to pay off.

8/22/2007 04:07:00 PM  
Blogger John Aristides said...


Wiki on Gould is a good place to start. Punctuated equilibrium and species selection are Gould's memetic progeny.

True Believer is an interesting term, Doug. Eric Hoffer, who as you'll recall, wrote an entire book on this topic, observed:

"If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable."

The last thirty years did see a mass movement in evolutionary science -- except this mass movement was toward the virtues of intelligibility, precision and verifiability. Not exactly the proper context for the term "true believer."

Dawkins, Dennett, Hofstadter, Pinker, Hauser -- the list of high priests lengthens. Perhaps you should visit the temple to hear what they're saying, and try your strength against the sword of falsification: it is still stuck in the stone of reason, yet to be drawn out. Many strong and dedicated have tried and failed.

8/22/2007 04:21:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Garret Hardin Interview

What have been the major influences on the development of your own personal ethics?

GARRETT HARDIN: Well, it hasn't been any different from anybody else's. I've done some thinking about this lately, looking back on my own life, and I realized that every period in my life there's at least one person who was keenly interested in my welfare.
I'm very lucky; this isn't true for everybody.
I've always had someone very close, a teacher, my wife, friends and so on.
I've never been alone.
Did you have any childhood experiences which had a major influence on your life?

GARRETT HARDIN: All the years that I was growing up, in the summer time and during vacations as well, we would go to the Hardin family farm, five miles from Butler, Missouri. So this was the one, fixed place. My own home, the home of my parents, kept moving all the time because my father kept moving from one place to another. The one stable place in my life was the farm in Missouri. After about my tenth birthday I spent all my summers there until I was about eighteen or nineteen. My work load was stepped up as I grew older. It had to be kept back somewhat because of my physical disabilities. But still, by the time I was eleven or twelve I was in charge of about 500 chickens, which I had to take care of- feed and water. And I had to kill a chicken every day for lunch.

This, I think, was a very important part of my education - learning to kill an animal. I regard this as an important part of everybody's education. I think the fashionable attitude is one of the many foolish things in this world. If you want to eat meat, somebody has to kill it I think everybody ought to have to do it, and not just once but many times. Because one of the things that I was imbued with, by this farm family, was a horror of cruelty - not of killing, but of cruelty. If you are going to kill an animal, you have to kill it instantly and as painlessly as you can.
It's a disgrace to do otherwise.
Killing is part of life, you see - one of the things that has to be done.

8/22/2007 04:29:00 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

That would have been Harpo that said it, Doug, not Groucho.

8/22/2007 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Wow, Gould was one of the lucky ones:
"In July of 1982 Gould was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, a highly terminal form of cancer affecting the abdominal lining. "
My best friend took a trip to the mainland, felt poorly and decided to see a Doctor.
Despite the Best efforts of Stanford and a East Coast expert in the field, in 4 months he was dead.

8/22/2007 04:34:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

My wife went to school with some of their offspring, AlBob.
Also Salk's.

8/22/2007 04:36:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Here's a good summation of what I was refering to, James:
"Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995) is a controversial book by Daniel Dennett which argues that Darwinian processes are the central organising force in the Universe.

Dennett asserts that natural selection is a blind and algorithmic process which is sufficiently powerful to account for everything from the laws of physics and the creation of the Universe through the generation and evolution of life to the ins and outs of human minds and societies.
Probly the Antidote for
Global Warming, too!

8/22/2007 04:58:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

W: I think both would answer that they did it for the oddest of reasons:

The oddest reason might not be love or anything external, the oddest reason may be to act like a real man, to do the right thing because one's highest honor is to do the right thing.

And in the oddest cross-over with our suicidal enemies, when we do the right thing without regard to our personal concerns, we have entered the realm of holy action.

Saints don't start with murder in mind.

Such heroism as W writes this paen to in this post exists in the body of humanity, leaping out like antibodies to save the body without thought of the cost to the antibody.


8/22/2007 05:04:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

"As the great evolutionist R.A. Fisher showed many years ago in the founding document of modern Darwinism (The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, 1930), natural selection requires Mendelian inheritance to be effective. Genetic evolution works upon such a substrate and can therefore be Darwinian. Cultural (or memetic) change manifestly operates on the radically different substrate of Lamarckian inheritance, or the passage of acquired characters to subsequent generations.
Whatever we invent in our lifetimes, we can pass on to our children by our writing and teaching.

Evolutionists have long understood that Darwinism cannot operate effectively in systems of Lamarckian inheritance--for Lamarckian change has such a clear direction, and permits evolution to proceed so rapidly, that the much slower process of natural selection shrinks to insignificance before the Lamarckian juggernaut.

8/22/2007 05:07:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

""Daniel Dennett devotes the longest chapter in Darwin's Dangerous Idea to an excoriating caricature of my ideas, all in order to bolster his defense of Darwinian fundamentalism.

If an argued case can be discerned at all amid the slurs and sneers, it would have to be described as an effort to claim that I have, thanks to some literary skill, tried to raise a few piddling, insignificant, and basically conventional ideas to "revolutionary" status, challenging what he takes to be the true Darwinian scripture.

Since Dennett shows so little understanding of evolutionary theory beyond natural selection, his critique of my work amounts to little more than sniping at false targets of his own construction.

He never deals with my ideas as such, but proceeds by hint, innuendo, false attribution, and error."

8/22/2007 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen Samild said...

C.S. Lewis uses the metaphor of God as gambler in The Problem of Pain, arguing that, in setting loose free willed humans who may or may not respond positively to Him, the creator calculates 'the risk worth taking.'

If we can do nothing else in life, we can bet.

Perhaps we are made in His image in this regard too.

8/22/2007 05:23:00 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

In short, Dennett is a blowhard idiot, and there's an end to that.

8/22/2007 05:23:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

The Grandmother Hypothesis

Ten years ago, Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, was examining the biological basis and evolutionary origin of menopause in humans.

Her observations led to the so-called “grandmother hypothesis,” which suggests that grandmas reap an evolutionary boon from ceasing reproduction in their fifties and just helping to raise the grandkids.

I'm trying to figure out how Hardin spoke and wrote of the
"Grandmother Effect"
when it was only invented 10 years ago!
Go Figure!

8/22/2007 05:39:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Point being:
Sometimes "Great Notions"
really amount to reinventions of the wheel.
Esp in the world of Soundbite Science.

8/22/2007 05:42:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Little known fact:
"Sometimes a Great Notion"
was inspired by none other than our own AlBobAl.

8/22/2007 05:48:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

I think its helpful to recall that St Paul wrote the book of Romans in +-58 CE/AD and the destruction of Herod's Temple occurred in +-70 CE/AD.

Its hardly likely that st paul did not not see the growing stress between jerusalem & rome.

8/22/2007 07:21:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

It's obvious that selfishness is rational. It's also obvious that helping others close to us is both selfish, and rational. Kin selection is undoubtedly correct. Humans, of course, will also make bad decisions. Not all actions are objectively for our own benefit. We make mistakes.

We are pack animals. There have been endless discussions on this blog about tribalism. All people are tribal, to a greater or lesser extent. A commonplace of the military is how military training has as one of its most important goals the forming of ties between soldiers. Any soldier who has been in combat will tell you how great his buddies were. He had to rely on his buddies for his very survival. If you ask him why he fought he may mention god and country, but he'll certainly mention that he fought for his buddies, and they for him. Giving his life for them, if required, is a certainty, and they would do the same for him. Why? Because they are part of the same group. They are faced with death daily. They know the only way to get out alive is one for all and all for one. The military knows this too and they make sure that new recruits learn to rely on their buddies, their teammates.

Any soldier in combat will have thought about giving his life to save others. He will have thought about whether he would jump on a grenade. Faced with the reality he will react. Run away? I don't think so.

The security guard was like these soldiers. He had certainly thought about the possibility of facing a suicide bomber. That was the whole reason for his job. For him as an Israeli, obviously the bomber was the enemy, and his group was everyone in the store.

It's a bit more difficult to suss out the reasons behind the Iraqi man on the street who gave his life. Most likely he believed that the bomber was his enemy and the people he saved were his group. He may have been mistaken in some manner, or he may have been right. Hate may have as much to do with this as love.

It may be that we have a strong predilection to kin selection. When we are placed in other groups, that are not really kin, we still respond as if they were kin. An adoptive parent will act the same towards adoptive children as toward their biological children. So being placed in a group may make us act in a mistaken manner.

8/22/2007 07:35:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Smith said...

That kind of sacrifice ain't written on DNA. I'll concede most of you guys are much smarter than me, but I gotta say there's no real substitute for experience.

I have an apples and oranges comparison, identical only in that my decision took a split second also. Christmas time, 2 shopping bags full of presents, pouring rain, music on earphones, put the key in the car door, 3 guys with guns from nowhere. I gave up the presents refused (in a split second) to give up my wallet. Just couldn't do it. It flashed before me but I couldn't do it. I ran between 2 cars onto the sidewalk, turned and slipped down, dropped my Walkman, 1 guy followed picked it up and didn't shoot. Thirty feet away, tops.

Now why couldn't I reach into my pocket and give him my wallet? Was my decision rational. It certainly wasn't in the interest of my survival. I just couldn't let that bastard own that much of me. For what it's worth, I had already been shot once before when I made the mistake of being in a gunfight armed only with my fists.

I love all this Ivory Tower horseshit abstraction from the "great minds" who's deepest experience of fighting for survival entails watching fish struggle against a pole. I'm no creationist, but I know that theories of evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, or whatever they're calling it now, are just as fanciful as Freud's original theories.

8/22/2007 07:40:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Smith said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8/22/2007 07:48:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

Cowboy Confessional
Cowboy Confessional
Writer, songwriter, political provocateur
Rectal Reincarnation
August 22nd, 2007

Irony is the ultimate entertainment, and today the Chinese government has outdone even itself. In effect the Godless Communists have proclaimed themselves God.

In an effort to culturally castrate Tibet, Chinese Communist Party Hacks (forgive the quadruple redundancy) have laid their heavy police state hands on Tibetan social systems, transportation, immigration, and even religious practices. Not content to control Tibetan temporal transactions, China’s chief thugs are now targeting the afterlife.

Buddhists — Tibetan and otherwise — believe in reincarnation, that they will be born again into this world, which stands as the most complete form of auto-masochism ever conceived. They are particularly fond of hunting down the deceased lamas and upon their reentry into this world, give them immediate employment again as … a lama (imagine holding the same job for a couple of thousand years).

This causes China’s Chief Chumps no end of angst as any garden variety lama will outlive every member of the Central Committee, the Communist Party, and China itself. Tibetans are a patient lot, and willing to wait for instructions from their lamas even if it requires waiting for them to be born, and born, and born …

So the Chinese government is now regulating reincarnation. The Administration for Religious Affairs will specify “the procedures by which one is to reincarnate.” It will be verboten “to identify the child reincarnation of the Dalai Lama” without the approval of Chinese authorities. Seems the Dali lama might wish to be reincarnated outside of China, which would prevent the Central Committee from controlling him in the future, and thus controlling the will of pious Tibetans. Thus the Chinese government will undoubtedly pick some random newborn whelped within Tibetan borders to be the “official” Dali Lama.

And the Tibetan people will ignore him.

In my short life time, I have never seen a human — much less a committee — challenge God. I fear this may well be the one thing that ticks off the Old Man, and he may well rain a little Hell Fire down on Beijing. This would be an overall Good Thing. Not only would it kill off a few communist (which is always the right and proper course of action) but it would also demonstrate that God does exist and he has limited patience. That would make Richard Dawkins piss himself, which would be almost as entertaining as a meeting the the Chinese Central Committee.

8/22/2007 07:52:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

there is a genius book out there for someone to write on the difference and similarities between genetics, human spoken and written language, mathematics, computer programming language and machine code.

8/22/2007 08:01:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Life as an Energizer Bunny.

I think the Dalai Lama was born again last time he was on Maui, Charles.

At the very least his wallet was re-invigorated.

8/22/2007 08:21:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

Cowboy Confessional

8/22/2007 09:32:00 PM  
Blogger David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 08/23/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

8/23/2007 08:15:00 AM  
Blogger The Wobbly Guy said...

It's been suggested that in the long run, cooperation and unselfishness, to a certain extent, may actually be the most beneficial to the self.'s_dilemma

Check out the section on the iterated prisoner's dilemma. In some ways, could it explain the ultimate decision made by the security guard and the Iraqi man? By their sacrifice, they make it more likely that others will do the same for those 'in their group', in some way ensuring the passing on of some of their genes, or the memes they believe in.

No god required, though it certainly helps for a lot of people in finding a shortcut through the morass of reasoning involved!


8/25/2007 06:51:00 AM  

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