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?


Artificial intelligence: Conversing with computers? ... or with their programmers?

One reason the artificial intelligence fantasy ("Soon computers will think and feel just like people!") has enjoyed such a long shelf life is a fundamental misunderstanding: The computer is thinking.

Actually, the computer is not thinking. A programmer has developed a series of responses to our inputs. To the extent that the programmer can guess what we need, things will work. One way of seeing this is "thought, in the past tense."

Just yesterday, for example, I was trying to order ten copies of a book from an automated book ordering site. But the programmer apparently forgot to build in the option of ordering ten copies at once. Needless to say, I was hardly going to order one copy ten times. But it's no use trying to talk to the computer. I e-mailed the office and asked to have someone phone me. That's what I mean by "thought, in the past tense." If the programmer didn't think of it, the computer won't either.

Now, fast forward to the Turing test (can a machine fool you into believing it is a person?), which is once again being tested. David Smith, the Observer's technology correspondent reports:
Can machines think? That was the question posed by the great mathematician Alan Turing. Half a century later six computers are about to converse with human interrogators in an experiment that will attempt to prove that the answer is yes.

In the 'Turing test" a machine seeks to fool judges into believing that it could be human. The test is performed by conducting a text-based conversation on any subject. If the computer's responses are indistinguishable from those of a human, it has passed the Turing test and can be said to be 'thinking'. ("'Intelligent' computers put to the test. Programmers try to fool human interrogators," October 5, 2008)

October 12, the designers of six computer programs are competing for the Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence - an 18-carat gold medal and $100,000. Volunteers will sit at a computer, half of whose split screen is operated by another human and half by a program. After five minutes of text-based talk, they must guess. If 30% are unsure, then the computer is said to be "thinking."

I've always felt there was something pretty fishy about this "Turing test", and I agree with philosopher A.C. Grayling who points out,
'The test is misguided. Everyone thinks it's you pitting yourself against a computer and a human, but it's you pitting yourself against a computer and computer programmer. AI is an exciting subject, but the Turing test is pretty crude.'

(Note: I think Grayling means here that you are pitting yourself against a human who is a computer programmer who has coded responses to possible questions and a human who is not a programmer and is simply generating the responses in real time.)

I have no doubt that a programmer with Oscar Wilde's dialogue skills could program a computer as a clever conversation partner. Most people will believe that the computer is human if it just sounds wittier or sexier than they do. In fact, the only reason this isn't yesterday's news is that so many computer nerds are inarticulate, and wouldn't have any idea what to program the computer to say.

My level of confidence in the Turing test did not improve when I read cyberneticist Kevin Warwick's explanation that machines are in factc onscious:
I would say now that machines are conscious, but in a machine-like way, just as you see a bat or a rat is conscious like a bat or rat, which is different from a human. I think the reason Alan Turing set this game up was that maybe to him consciousness was not that important; it's more the appearance of it, and this test is an important aspect of appearance.
Professor Warwick, did you get the memo on the "hard problem of consciousness"?

It really is a hard problem. They're not just making that up to get research funding.

See also:

Computers: Most engineers must have guessed that they are not robots

Artificial intelligence: A look at things that neither we nor computers can discover

Can a conscious mind be built out of software?

Also: Mind vs. meat vs. computers - the differences Let the machine read your mind (We offer an installment plan!) Mind-computer blend: Who believes in this? Artificial intelligence: Making the whole universe intelligent? Brain cells release information more widely than previously thought.

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Spirituality: Is this a trend? Guy tries Judaism "on spec" - discovers 7-day no-refund policy, ends as famous pulpit rabbi

In "Responding to Neo-Atheism" (American Thinker, September 21, 2008), Rick Richman - editor of Jewish Current Issues - notes that the "new atheists" are starting to get mail:
Neo-atheism has had a very successful publishing run over the past several years, with best-selling books by Christopher Hitchens ("god is not great"), Sam Harris ("Letter to a Christian Nation") and Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion"), among others. But this year there has been an equally impressive counter-phenomenon. Three recent books, written from three widely divergent perspectives, have responded to the arguments of neo-atheism with both intellectual force and literary grace.
He highlights agnostic mathematician David Berlinski, Catholic scholar Michael Novak and rabbi David J. Wolpe. Wolpe's case is especially interesting:
Wolpe is the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and teaches modern Jewish religious thought at UCLA, but he was -- at an important stage in his life -- an ardent atheist. He grew up in a rabbinical family, initially rebelled against a religious future and, influenced by the works of Bertrand Russell, fell into atheism during his college years. He eventually rejected Russell's views decided to try rabbinical school -- "on spec," as he told his friends. One of his brothers predicted it would be "a phase."

His new book is his seventh he has written during the phase. His first book, "The Healer of Shattered Hearts," was a lyrical summary of rabbinic Judaism that established him, in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's words, as "the poet of Jewish theology." His mother's stroke at age 52 led him to write "In Speech and Silence," a book-length meditation on words and song in religion. His most remarkable volume, "Making Loss Matter," described a way of capturing meaning from the most painful moments of life. It was written in the midst of the cancer that struck his wife at age 31, preventing her from bearing further children.
See also:

Dismantling Dawkins's Case Against God

Atheist bigots: Avoiding serious questions and targeting ignorant religious folk

Philosophy: God is not dead yet - but some haven't gotten the memo

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Neuroscience: Getting past the "You are a computer made of meat" phase

In "Faith Beyond the Frontal Lobes" (Washington Post, September 27, 2008) Michael Gerson offers a common sense corrective to rampant materialism in neuroscience. Reviewing Andrew Newberg's work with meditators, which Mario and I discussed in The Spiritual Brain, he notes,

Human beings routinely have experiences that are not commonly associated with normal consciousness yet seem more real than normal consciousness. "There is something in the brain that facilitates and rewards that type of experience," Newberg says, "and our brain desires to make sense of it."

This leads some, of course, to reductionism -- the assertion that a physical basis for transcendent experience proves there is no such thing as transcendence. It is an evolutionary joke on humanity -- perhaps useful, but not accurate -- because everything explainable is thus illusory.

But this view is not more "scientific" than other views. It involves a philosophic materialism that is entirely faith-based. We know, for example, that a complex series of physical, hormonal changes helps bond a mother to her newborn child. Does this mean that parental love is a myth? Only according to the philosophic claim that chemicals exhaust reality. Is it not equally possible that a cosmos charged with transcendence might organize itself in such a way that human beings can sense transcendence?
Yes, it is equally possible. And it is also a better explanation than reducing ideas to chemicals.

Put another way, the chemicals that help mothers bond to newborn children don't help us understand why there is a black market in babies for infertile women who have never experienced such chemicals. Nor do they help us understand Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity, who provided homes for thousands of children, even though they never tried to have any children themselves.

Neuroscience can help us understand some important things about human beings, but it will be the most use if it is treated as one source of information, rather than as a reductionist explanation of the whole subject- especially when the subject is something like spirituality.

For example, Gerson notes that some people's genes might not predispose them to spiritual experiences. Perhaps, but many spiritual traditions do not emphasize personal experiences; they are viewed as a gift that can become a distraction from the main business of learning to live as a whole human being.

See also:

"Neuroscience: Getting beyond the mind-body problem

"Neurotheology": Bad neurology and bad theology?

Neuroscience: Meditation really can change the brain

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Psychology: Picture yourself deciding you actually like the way you look!

In "The skinny on why thin is still in" (National Post, October 2, 2008), Joanne Laucius,
summarizes recent news and opinion around the ultra-thin, photoshopped models in magazines.
In one of his studies, Kees and a fellow marketing researcher found that, although female subjects felt badly about themselves after looking at ads with skinny models, they also evaluated the brands the models were selling more highly. The subjects who saw ads with regular-sized models didn't feel bad about themselves, but they also gave the brands a lower value.
It gets worse.
Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty got a lot of attention. A 75-second viral film for Dove that showed the fast-motion "evolution" of a live model into a billboard pastiche through the magic of makeup and retouching got more than 1.7 million views on YouTube in 2006.

But empowering women doesn't necessarily sell soap. Sales of Dove bumped up during the first two years of the campaign, then levelled off.
The sad fact is that many women are used to feeling bad about themselves, and they seek out opportunities. They decide that thin is good, and also hard to attain, and the rest is dieting, self-punishment, and eating disorders.

Laucius's informative article documents the conflicting opinions around the question of whether ultra-thin, photoshopped models encourage eating disorders among women of normal body size. I've written about that elsewhere, and, quite frankly - despite all the disclaimers you hear from the fashion industry and its supporters - the answer is, yes, of course they do.

For example, Dr. Janet Polivy, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and an expert on eating behaviour, is quoted as saying, "If they're asked to compare themselves, naturally, they feel inferior". (And in the mood for self-punishment, I suspect.)

Recently, Spain banned ultra-thin models from the catwalk, and many supported the move. After all, low body mass index (= serious underweight) is strongly associated with early death. If the fashion industry is going to howl about the use of fur and such, they could at least spare a thought for human skin that dies to be thin.

Historically, thin has not been hard to attain. It is called starvation, and is widely shunned worldwide. That's why most traditional cultures thought plump women were beautiful. And they were right, too.

I am not advocating censorship; my solution is that readers should insist on models with normal body mass index - women who make normal look good.

I sometimes tell younger women, there is such a thing as healthy self-love. Here's one way of looking at it: The great religious commandment "Love your neighbour as yourself" assumes that you do love yourself. And if you don't, you won't be able to love others either. So just accept yourself the way you are today, and make the world a slightly happier - and less commercially driven - place.

See also:

"Hungry men supposedly prefer plump women for "evolutionary" reasons":
Oh? So everyone in the world is and always has been as obsessed with body shape and image as anorexic, white, middle-class American/European girls? ... The article notes the interesting cultural fact that some African women are force-fed milk to fatten them.
"Grandma was right: Just eat and be thankful" (Contrary to the scare stats, only seriously obese people (body mass index over 35) are at greater risk of premature death.)

Pudging the Truth Exercise matters far more to health than dieting

Our weighty obsession - this one should be required reading for teen girls you know. Eating disorders very often begin with a diet. And things have got so bad now that fashion gurus have started throwing emaciated models off the catwalk.

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