Saturday, July 10, 2010

Teehan on the Moral Function of God

John Teehan's book In the Name of God is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the relationship between moral psychology and religious ethics.

The opening two chapters cover the evidence and theory surrounding the evolutionary origins of moral and religious beliefs and practices. They are worth the price of admission alone, providing a wonderful survey and synthesis of a diverse range of studies and theoretical concepts. The evolutionary perspective adopted is a marriage between traditional evolutionary psychology, cultural evolutionary theory and cognitive science. The end result is, I think, impressive.

The remaining chapters use the theoretical framework from the opening chapters as the basis for a textual analysis of the three main religions-of-the-book: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Teehan shows how the beliefs and practices of the evolved mind are reflected in these texts.

I have only managed to get through the chapter on Judaism so far so I won't comment on the remainder of the book. My only observation would be that, because the Hebrew bible is such a large, sprawling and multi-vocal text, the analysis is necessarily limited and focused in what it can do.

Anyway, I thought I might share one of the core ideas of the book. It comes from Chapter 2 and it deals with the putative moral function of belief in God (or gods).

1. The Problem of Cooperation
To understand the moral function of God-belief, we must go back for a moment and consider some of the practical social problems that evolutionary theorists suppose gives rise to our moral and religious beliefs.

These problems tend to stem from the oft-times troubling results of the interactions between self-interested actors. One such problem is that of cooperation: how do we get self-interested actors to cooperate in order to enhance overall welfare?

The problem of cooperation is well-illustrated by a famous social game: the tragedy of the commons (TOC). I use "game" here in the sense employed in game theory to cover any social interaction with actors, choices, outcomes (payoffs) and information.

A simple story can help to illustrate the TOC. Imagine two firms (A and B), each producing the same product and competing in the same market. Suppose their product relies ultimately on having a clean, unpolluted environment, but that their production process leads to increased levels of pollution. They would both be better off if they internalised the costs of this pollution and changed their production process. However, if  one factory does this on its own, the other factory can gain a short-term competitive advantage and drive the other out of the market.

As described, the game has two actors, two choices (stop polluting or continue to pollute) and common information (i.e. both sides have access to the same information). The game also has four outcomes or payoffs. We will rank these outcomes from best to worst from the perspective of firm A. The exact same ranking, only reversed, applies to firm B. The outcomes and rankings are as follows:
  • Firm A pollutes, but Firm B does not. (Payoff = 4)
  • Firm A and Firm B do not pollute. (Payoff = 3)
  • Both firms continue to pollute (Payoff = 2)
  • Firm A stops polluting, but firm B does not (Payoff = 1)
A standard game-theoretic analysis predicts that, although it puts them both in a worse position, the firms will continue to pollute. This is because the prospect of gaining a competitive advantage provides a temptation to pollute, while the prospect of being driven out of the market prevents the unilateral cessation of polluting. More formally, this strategy is a Nash equilibrium

The basic dynamic of the TOC crops up in many situations, e.g. overgrazing of common pastures, overfishing, global warming and so on. The TOC is also structurally equivalent to the more famous Prisoners' Dilemma.

The resolution of the TOC and the PD is cooperation. In other words, if people can cooperate they can achieve the more mutually advantageous outcome. But how do you get them to cooperate? This will require some sort of system for inspecting and punishing those who fail to cooperate. Examples are given in the diagram.

Evolution-oriented psychologists will also argue that we have evolved a set of moral instincts and biases that encourage cooperation. These can help ease the difficulties with policing cooperation. However, our brains are a tangled web of competing instincts, some of which are disinclined to cooperation. Thus, continued cooperation is a perpetual problem. Eternal vigilance seems to be the only solution.

2. The Moral Function of God
This brings us face-to-face with God. Teehan, among others, argues that one of the core moral functions of God is to help solve the problem of cooperation. To see how this might work, we need to first consider the content of God-belief.

Teehan follows the work of Scott Atran in seeing God as a minimally counter-intuitive concept (MCI). God, as conceptualised by major world religions, is a person. As a person he has a mind. This mind thinks, feels, and has beliefs and desires just like the rest of us. However, he is not "just like the rest of us": he has something more.

Specifically, he has far greater cognitive and perceptual faculties. Some even go so far as to say he is omniscient and omnipresent. These capacities are what make the personhood of god minimally counter-intuitive.

Conceptualised as such, God can help to resolve the problem of cooperation. You see, the temptation to defect in the TOC stems largely from the belief that we won't get caught, i.e. that we can "free-ride" on the good will of others. Human invigilators are, after all, fallible mortals. They cannot be everywhere at once. They won't know -- will they? -- if I catch more fish than my quota?

God is not like that. God knows all and sees all. He is the perfect, eternal invigilator we need to ensure stable, lasting cooperation.

3. Commitment
Interesting things can follow from this basic idea. One of which tells us something about public affirmations or signals of religious belief.

Although belief in God can help to solve the problem of cooperation, it does have one obvious shortcoming: you have to actually believe in God. If I live in a populous society and must cooperate with many people on a daily basis, it would benefit me if I could distinguish the trustworthy from the duplicitous. And if God-belief makes people more trustworthy, it would be good if I could tell the believers from the non-believers.

How might this be done? One way is to have hard-to-fake public signals of religious commitment. The complex and time-consuming rituals that are so typical of religions may function as these hard-to-fake signals. They allow members to constantly monitor and convince one another of their trustworthiness.

4. Conclusion
Teehan backs-up a lot of this theoretical sketch with empirical evidence. Unfortunately, you'll have to read the book to chase down the relevant references.

I will conclude simply by noting that, although God-belief can help to encourage cooperation, it is not necessary for it. Secular beliefs, rituals and practices can have similar effects. For example, citizenship tests might function as a signal of commitment to the laws and values of a particular country.

Furthermore, the above theory does not rule out the potential negative impact of religious belief on moral behaviour. For example, the desire to develop well-defined group boundaries can lead to harsh or discriminatory treatment of "outsiders".

See the five features of fundamentalism for more.

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