Sapiens: How Shared Myths Change the World

I recently read Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens and loved it. In additional to fascinating and disturbing details about the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens and a wonderful account of human history, he has a really interesting way of talking about the cognitive abilities that make humans distinct from other species. I’ll dive right into this latter topic in this post.

Imagine two people in a prisoner’s dilemma. To try to make it relevant to our ancestral environment, let’s say that they are strangers running into one another, and each see that the other has some resources. There are four possible outcomes. First, they could both cooperate and team up to catch some food that neither would be able to get on their own, and then share the food. Second, they could both defect, attacking each other and both walking away badly injured. And third and fourth, one could cooperate while the other defects, corresponding to one of them stabbing the other in the back and taking their resources. (Let’s suppose that each of the two are currently holding resources of more value than they could obtain by teaming up and hunting.)

Now, the problem is that on standard accounts of rational decision making, the decision that maximizes expected reward for each individual is to defect. That’s bad! The best outcome for everybody is that the two team up and share the loot, and neither walks away injured!

You might just respond “Well, who cares about what our theory of rational decision making says? Humans aren’t rational.” We’ll come back to this in a bit. But for now I’ll say that the problem is not just that our theory of rationality says that we should defect. It’s that this line of reasoning implies that cooperating is an unstable strategy. Imagine a society fully populated with cooperators. Now suppose an individual appears with a mutation that causes them to defect. This defector outperforms the cooperators, because they get to keep stabbing people in the back and stealing their loot and never have to worry about anybody doing the same to them. The result is then that the “gene for defecting” (speaking very metaphorically at this point; the behavior doesn’t necessarily have to be transmitted genetically) spreads like a virus through the population, eventually transforming our society of cooperators to a society of defectors. And everybody’s worse off.

One the other hand, imagine a society full of defectors. What if a cooperator is born into this society? Well, they pretty much right away get stabbed in the back and die out. So a society of defectors stays a society of defectors, and a society of cooperators degenerates into a society of defectors. The technical way of speaking about this is to say that in prisoner’s dilemmas, cooperation is not a Nash equilibrium – a strategy that is stable against mutations when universally adopted. The only Nash equilibrium is universal defection.

Okay, so this is all bad news. We have good game theoretic reasons to expect society to degenerate into a bunch of people stabbing each other in the back. But mysteriously, the record of history has humans coming together to form larger and larger cooperative institutions. What Yuval Noah Harari and many others argue is that the distinctively human force that saves us from these game theoretic traps and creates civilizations is the power of shared myths.

For instance, suppose that the two strangers happened to share a belief in a powerful all-knowing God that punishes defectors in the afterlife and rewards cooperators. Think about how this shifts the reasoning. Now each person thinks “Even if I successfully defect and loot this other person’s resources, I still will have hell to pay in the afterlife. It’s just not worth it to risk incurring God’s wrath! I’ll cooperate.” And thus we get a cooperative equilibrium!

Still you might object “Okay, but what if an atheist is born into this society of God-fearing cooperative people? They’ll begin defecting and successfully spread through the population, right? And then so much for your cooperative equilibrium.”

The superbly powerful thing about these shared myths is the way in which they can restructure society around them. So for instance, it would make sense for a society with the cooperator-punishing God myth to develop social norms around punishing defectors. The mythical punishment becomes an actual real-world punishment by the myth’s adherents. And this is enough to tilt the game-theoretic balance even for atheists.

The point being: The spreading of a powerful shared myth can shift the game theoretic structure of the world, altering the landscape of possible social structures. What’s more, such myths can increase the overall fitness of a society. And we need not rely on group selection arguments here; the presence of the shared myth increases the fitness of every individual.

A deeper point is that the specific way in which the landscape is altered depends on the details of the shared myth. So if we contrast the God myth above to a God that punishes defectors but also punishes mortals who punish defectors, we lose the stability property that we sought. The suggestion being: different ideas alter the game theoretic balance of the world in different ways, and sometimes subtle differences can be hugely important.

Another take-away from this simple example is that shared myths can become embodied within us, both in our behavior and in our physiology. Thus we come back to the “humans aren’t rational” point: The cooperator equilibrium becomes more stable if the God myth somehow becomes hardwired into our brains. These ideas take hold of us and shape us in their image.

Let’s go further into this. In our sophisticated secular society, it’s not too controversial to refer to the belief in all-good and all-knowing gods as a myth. But Yuval Noah Harari goes further. To him, the concept of the shared myth goes much deeper than just our ideas about the supernatural. In fact, most of our native way of viewing the world consists of a network of shared myths and stories that we tell one another.

After all, the universe is just physics. We’re atoms bumping into one another. There are no particles of fairness or human rights, no quantum fields for human meaning or karmic debts. These are all shared myths. Economic systems consist of mostly shared stories that we tell each other, stories about how much a dollar bill is worth and what the stock price of Amazon is. None of these things are really out there in the world. They are in our brains, and they are there for an important reason: they open up the possibility for societal structures that would otherwise be completely impossible. Imagine having a global trade network without the shared myth of the value of money. Or a group of millions of humans living packed together in a city that didn’t all on some level believe in the myths of human value and respect.

Just think about this for a minute. Humans have this remarkable ability to radically change our way of interacting with one another and our environments by just changing the stories that we tell one another. We are able to do this because of two features of our brains. First, we are extraordinarily creative. We can come up with ideas like money and God and law and democracy and whole-heartedly believe in them, to the point that we are willing to sacrifice our lives for them. Second, we are able to communicate these ideas to one another. This allows the ideas to spread and become shared myths. And most remarkably, all of these ideas (capitalism and communism, democracy and fascism) are running on essentially the same hardware! In Harari’s words:

While the behaviour patterns of archaic humans remained fixed for tens of thousands of years, Sapiens could transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relations, their economic activities and a host of other behaviours within a decade or two. Consider a resident of Berlin, born in 1900 and living to the ripe age of one hundred. She spent her childhood in the Hohenzollern Empire of Wilhelm II; her adult years in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi Third Reich and Communist East Germany; and she died a citizen of a democratic and reunited Germany. She had managed to be a part of five very different sociopolitical systems, though her DNA remained exactly the same.

The Scourge of Our Time

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2270, 2274

In this paper, Toby Ord advances a strong reductio ad absurdum of the standard pro-life position that life begins at conception. I’ve heard versions of this argument before, but hadn’t seen it laid out so clearly.

Here’s the argument:

  1. The majority (~62%) of embryos die within a few weeks of conception (mostly from failure to implant in the lining of the uterus wall). A mother of three children could be expected to also have had five spontaneous abortions.
  2. The Catholic Church promotes the premise that an embryo at conception has the same moral worth as a developed human. On this view, more than 60% of the world population dies in their first month of life, making this a more deadly condition than anything else in human history. Saving even 5% of embryos would save more lives than a cure for cancer.

  3. Given the 200 million lives per year at stake, those that think life begins at conception should be directing massive amounts of resources towards ending spontaneous abortion and see it as the Scourge of our time.

Here are two graphs of the US survival curve: first, as we ordinarily see it, and second, as the pro-lifer is obligated to see it:

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 2.22.12 PMScreen Shot 2018-04-05 at 2.22.22 PM

This is of course a really hard bullet for the pro-life camp to bite. If you’re like me, you see spontaneous abortions as morally neutral. Most of the time they happen before a pregnancy has been detected, leaving the mother unaware that anything even happened. It’s hard then to make a distinction between the enormous amount of spontaneous abortions naturally occurring and the comparatively minuscule number of intentional abortions.

I have previously had mixed feelings about abortion (after all, if our moral decision making ultimately comes down to trying to maximize some complicated expected value, it will likely be blind to whether is a real living being or just a “potential” living being), but this argument pretty much clinches the deal for me.

“You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to”

From my favorite book of all time:

“I’m probably just as good an atheist as you are,” she speculated boastfully. “But even I feel that we all have a great deal to be thankful for and that we shouldn’t be ashamed to show it.”

“Name one thing I’ve got to be thankful for,” Yossarian challenged her without interest.

“Well…” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife mused and paused a moment to ponder dubiously. “Me.”

“Oh, come on,” he scoffed.

She arched her eyebrows in surprise. “Aren’t you thankful for me?” she asked. She frowned peevishly, her pride wounded. “I don’t have to shack up with you, you know,” she told him with cold dignity. “My husband has a whole squadron full of aviation cadets who would be only too happy to shack up with their commanding officer’s wife just for the added fillip it would give them.” Yossarian decided to change the subject. “Now you’re changing the subject,” he pointed out diplomatically. “I’ll bet I can name two things to be miserable about for every one you can name to be thankful for.”

“Be thankful you’ve got me,” she insisted.

“I am, honey. But I’m also goddam good and miserable that I can’t have Dori Duz again, too. Or the hundreds of other girls and women I’ll see and want in my short lifetime and won’t be able to go to bed with even once.”

“Be thankful you’re healthy.”

“Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way.”

“Be glad you’re even alive.”

“Be furious you’re going to die.”

“Things could be much worse,” she cried.

“They could be one hell of a lot better,” he answered heatedly.

“You’re naming only one thing,” she protested. “You said you could name two.”

“And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. “There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about–a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?”

“Pain?” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife pounced upon the word victoriously. “Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers.”

“And who created the dangers?” Yossarian demanded. He laughed caustically. “Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn’t He?”

“People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads.”

“They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupefied with morphine, don’t they? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It’s obvious He never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife had turned ashen in disbelief and was ogling him with alarm. “You’d better not talk that way about Him, honey,” she warned him reprovingly in a low and hostile voice. “He might punish you.”

“Isn’t He punishing me enough?” Yossarian snorted resentfully. “You know, we mustn’t let Him get away with it. Oh, no, we certainly mustn’t let Him get away scot free for all the sorrow He’s caused us. Someday I’m going to make Him pay. I know when. On the Judgment Day. Yes, That’s the day I’ll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and–”

“Stop it! Stop it!” Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. “Stop it!” Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed. “What the hell are you getting so upset about?” he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.” Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly. “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Is [insert here] a religion?

(Everything I’m saying here is based on experiences in a few religious studies classes I’ve taken, some papers that I’ve read, and some conversations with religious studies people. The things I say might not be actually be representative of the aggregate of religious studies scholars, though Google Scholar would seem to provide some evidence for it.)

Religious studies people tend to put a lot of emphasis on the fact that ‘religion’ is a fuzzy word. That is, while there are some organizations that everybody will agree are religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), there are edge cases that are less clear (Unitarian Universalism, Hare Krishnas, Christian Science). In addition, attempts to lay out a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in the category “religion” tend to either let in too many things or not enough things.

For some reason this is taken to be a very significant fact, and people solemnly intone things like “Is nationalism a type of religion?” and “Isn’t atheism really just the new popular religion for the young?”. Sociologists spend hours arguing with each other about different definitions of religion, and invoking new typologies to distinguish between religions and non-religions.

The strange thing about this is that religion is not at all unique in this regard. Virtually every word that we use is similarly vague, with fuzzy edges and ambiguities. That’s just how language works. Words don’t attain meanings through careful systematic processes of defining necessary and sufficient conditions. Words attain meanings by being attached to clusters of concepts that intuitively feel connected, and evolve over time as these clusters shift and reshape themselves.

There is a cluster of important ideas about language, realization of which can keep you from getting stuck in philosophical dead ends. The vagueness inherent to much of natural language is one of these ideas. Another is that semantic prescriptivism is wrong. Humans invent the mapping of meanings to words, we don’t pluck it out of an objective book of the Universe’s Preferred Definitions of Terms. When two people are arguing about what the word religion means, they aren’t arguing about a matter of fact. There are some reasons why such an argument might be productive – for instance, there might be pragmatic reasons for redefining words. But there is no sense in which the argument is getting closer to the truth about what the actual meaning of ‘religion’ is.

Similarly, every time somebody says that football fans are really engaging in a type of religious ritual, because look, football matches their personal favorite list of sufficient conditions for being a religion, they are confused about semantic prescriptivism. At best, such comparisons might reveal previously unrecognized features of football fanaticism. But these comparisons can also end up serving to cause mistaken associations to carry over to the new term from the old. (Hm, so football is a religion? Well, religions are about supernatural deities, so Tom Brady must be a supernatural deity of the football religion. And religious belief tends to be based on faith, so football fans must be irrationally hanging on to their football-shaped worldview.)

It seems to me that scholars of religious studies have accepted the first of these ideas, but are still in need of recognizing the second. It also seems like there is a similar phenomenon going on in sociological discussions of racial terms and gender terms, where the ordinary fuzziness of language is treated as uniquely applying to these terms, taken as exceptionally important, and analyzed to death. I would be interested to hear hypotheses for why this type of thing happens where it does.