Monday, October 06, 2008

Altruism: Can mathematics, with a dash of faith, explain altruism?

In "Mathematics and faith explain altruism" (Boston Globe, September 27, 2008 ), Rich Barlow profiles the work of mathematician Martin Nowak, who claims to have shown through game theory that altruism pays off. We read:
Then there is Harvard's Martin Nowak. A mathematician and biologist, he agrees with Dawkins's explanation of how we evolved to be good Samaritans. Yet as a Catholic, he rejects Dawkins's notion that believing in evolution precludes belief in a God who included altruism in evolution's bequest to us. Needless to say, he also rejects Dawkins's disdain for believers as scientifically illiterate yahoos. This Vienna-born mathematician says that if you do the math, you'll find that cooperation is more than just a nice leftover from humanity's infancy; it's a winning strategy for living, a way to thrive.

For the past three years, with Sarah Coakley, formerly of Harvard Divinity School and now at Cambridge University in England, Nowak pursued a study project, the title of which - "The Evolution and Theology of Cooperation" - gives a clue to its partnership between science and religion. Nowak said his work demonstrated the mathematical probability that being cooperative, generous, and forgiving produces better results for people than looking out for Number One.

Oh? Tell that to the Canadian martyrs, pictured above.

I don't mind people making up theories - of differing degrees of plausibility - about how altruism got started, but I do mind when they confuse key issues around "altruism."

In the Christian tradition, the quest is to become more and more like Jesus. That, of course, necessarily entails some suffering on behalf of others, perhaps considerable suffering, which must be borne patiently and cheerfully.
We may hope that our suffering is a "winning strategy for living" - but it may not be. And it isn't the reason we do it because many issues are very difficult to judge.

Suppose, for example, a woman in her mid-thirties devotes herself to the care of an Alzheimer-stricken mother, giving up her own chance for marriage and a family. Opinions among well-disposed people may well differ as to whether she should just put the old woman - who does not even recognize her, and often shouts vile abuse - in a home. The only question the daughter can try to answer is, in the trite phrase, "What would Jesus do?"
True, traditional Christians believe that Jesus will redeem it all, but they resist believing that that redemption will be evident in the simple and obvious way that game theory could shed light on.

Life is certainly more complex than that.

See also:

Humanity's hopeful sign: Disaster causes outpouring of charity in China

Altruism: Why it can't really exist but why it does anyway.

Social science: Why are the religious more charitable?