Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Game of Life

Amid all the inkthirsty slavering over Plamegate, (and yes, I thirst, I thirst) I thought to take a step back and consider a more fundamental matter upon which both the seemingly inexhaustible radiation of scandals and criminality emanating from the business and political spheres and the current debate over the inclusion of the theories of evolution and intelligent design in education touch: what is the basis of morality?

When partisans of the teaching speak publicly about Intelligent Design, postulating a supernatural guiding force as the author of biological constructs, it isn't the Unknowable that forces them to fill the gaps in scientific knowledge with God. Were that the case, quantum physics, with its unfathomable action-at-a-distance and fluidity of material and energetic states offers plenty of cracks in reality into which to press the mortar of Deity. No, the prime justification for the hypothesis of an active, living, meddling Creator appears to be the primal fear of an amoral void at the heart of existence.

Consider this quote from an NPR interview with Senator Santorum, (R-PA):
"[Intelligent Design] has huge consequences for society, and it's where we come from. Does man have a purpose? Is there a purpose for our lives? Or are we just simply, you know, the result of chance? If we're the result of chance, if we're simply a mistake of nature, then that puts a different moral demand on us. In fact, it doesn't put a moral demand on us."
Or this quote from a Salon interview with Richard Thompson, an advocate for the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools:
"If you are nothing but an accident of nature, then nothing you do is dependent on objective truth," he says. "You can set your own rules. There is no life after death. There are no set moral codes. If you go to bed, and if you die its OK, you're just another piece of matter bouncing around and you'll change into something else. That's why, even if 100 million scientists say we are unplanned, that we're just purposeless beings in this universe, the general population won't buy it. And neither will I."
Setting aside the notion of investing in scientific theory by popular vote, what seems to me the critical idea underpinning these remarks is the absence of morality coupled with the absence of God.

Prior to a single, moral deity governing existence, humans had acquaintance with a variety of supernatural beings whose morality was, at best, questionable, and yet somehow human society in a bewildering spectrum of forms, managed to survive and prosper, which, I'm going to go out on a limb and hypothesize would have been impossible absent some meaure of moral code that prevented a bloody, unwinnable, "war of all against all".

Which leads me back to our crime-ridden political and business spheres in the United States. consider the Prisoner's Dilemma:
Partners in crime are held in separate cells, and the prosecutor offers each one a deal. If you rat on your partner and he stays mum, you go free and he gets ten years. If you both stay mum, you both get six months. If you both rat, you both get five years. The partners cannot communicate, and neither knows what the other will do. Each one thinks: If my partner rats and I stay mum, I'll do ten years; if he rats and I rat, too, I'll do five years. If he stays mum and I stay mum, I'll do six months; if he stays mum and I rat, I'll go free. Regardless of what he does, then, I'm better off betraying him. Each is compelled to turn in his partner, and they both serve five years-far worse than if each had trusted the other. But neither could take the chance because of the punishment he would incur if the other didn't. Social psychologists, mathematicians, economists, moral philosophers, and nuclear strategists have fretted over the paradox for decades.

There is no solution for a single trial. But, repeated trials allow players - partners in crime - to observe and study each other's behavior and develop a better paying strategy. Dawkins describes two competitions organized by Robert Axelrod that showed superiority of a simple strategy Tit for Tat: start mum, then do what your opponent did on the previous trial. In general, strategies were divided into two classes: nice and nasty. An adherent of a nice strategy never rats first, a nasty fellow does. It so happened that, on the whole, nice strategies outperformed the nasty ones.
The fear that without God there is no moral code, I submit, is groundless. Morality arises from necessity. While short-term advantage may be gleaned by individuals through amoral or immoral behavior, the odds are against long term success, even for the individual. Consider the current political climate, and what a strange mirror-image it presents of the decline of the Nixon adminstration. It appears that immoral behavior, as manifested by the Republican party during the last twenty years, as manifested personally by President Clinton, and as mainfested by businessmen such as Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom and Ken Lay of Enron is not a long-term strategy for overall success, or, presumably, survival. Some individuals will certainly prosper, but the odds appear to be against them.

Game theory and statistics trend towards rewarding cooperative, alturistic behavior as a survival strategy over selfish, destructive behavior. Personal gains can be made through immoral behavior, but that true immorality requires society seems to provide an inherent check on the behavior. Nice guys may not finish first all the time, but large groups of nice guys tend to finish first more often than their nasty fellows.

Absent direct evidence to the contrary, a belief in a moral deity appears to be a manifestation of an intuitive grasp of survival odds, a shorthand back-justification and explanation for moral behavior that must occur if a species with volitional behaviors is to prosper. Whether it's bilking investors or the voting public, immoral behaviors have their success stories to tell, but in the end, the more likely outcomes are prison, poverty, or a bloody, corrupting moral quagmire half a world away.


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