Simon and Altruism
First, then, some examples that suggest that science is not religiously neutral.3 I begin with Herbert Simon’s article, “A Mechanism for Social Selection and Successful Altruism.”4 This article is concerned with the problem of altruism: Why, asks Simon, do people like Mother Teresa do the things that they do? Why do they devote their time and energy and indeed their entire lives to the welfare of other people? Of course it isn’t only the great saints of the world that display this impulse; most of us do so to one degree or another.
How, says Simon, can we account for this kind of behavior? The rational way to behave, he says, is to act or try to act in such a way as to increase one’s personal fitness; i.e., to act so as to increase the probability that one’s genes will be widely disseminated in the next and subsequent generation, thus doing well in the evolutionary derby.5 A paradigm of rational behavior, so conceived, was reported in the South Bend Tribune of December 21, l991 (dateline Alexandria (Va.)). “Cecil B. Jacobson, an infertility specialist, was accused of using his own sperm to impregnate his patients; he may have fathered as many as 75 children, a prosecutor said Friday.” Unlike Jacobson, however, such people as Mother Teresa and Thomas Aquinas cheerfully ignore the short- or long-term fate of their genes. What is the explanation of this behavior?
The answer, says Simon, is two mechanisms: “docility” and “bounded rationality”:
Docile persons tend to learn and believe what they perceive others in the society want them to learn and believe. Thus the content of what is learned will not be fully screened for its contribution to personal fitness (p. 1666).
Because of bounded rationality, the docile individual will often be unable to distinguish socially prescribed behavior that contributes to fitness from altruistic behavior [i. e., socially prescribed behavior that does not contribute to fitness–AP]. In fact, docility will reduce the inclination to evaluate independently the contributions of behavior to fitness. …. By virtue of bounded rationality, the docile person cannot acquire the personally advantageous learning that provides the increment, d, of fitness without acquiring also the altruistic behaviors that cost the decrement, c. (p. 1667).
The idea is that a Mother Teresa or a Thomas Aquinas displays bounded rationality; they are unable to distinguish socially prescribed behavior that contributes to fitness from altruistic behavior (socially prescribed behavior which does not). As a result, they fail to acquire the personally advantageous learning that provides that increment d of fitness without, sadly enough, suffering that decrement c exacted by altruistic behavior. They acquiesce unthinkingly in what society tells them is the right way to behave; and they aren’t quite up to making their own independent evaluation of the likely bearing of such behavior on the fate of their genes. If they did make such an independent evaluation (and were rational enough to avoid silly mistakes) they would presumably see that this sort of behavior does not contribute to personal fitness, drop it like a hot potato, and get right to work on their expected number of progeny.
No Christian could accept this account as even a beginning of a viable explanation of the altruistic behavior of the Mother Teresas of this world. From a Christian perspective, this doesn’t even miss the mark; it isn’t close enough to be a miss. Behaving as Mother Teresa does is not a display of bounded rationality–as if, if she thought through the matter with greater clarity and penetration, she would cease this kind of behavior and instead turn her attention to her expected number of progeny. Her behavior displays a Christ-like spirit; she is reflecting in her limited human way the magnificent splendor of Christ’s sacrificial action in the Atonement. (No doubt she is also laying up treasure in heaven). Indeed, is there anything a human being can do that is more rational than what she does? From a Christian perspective, the idea that her behavior is irrational (and so irrational that it needs to be explained in terms of such mechanisms as unusual docility and limited rationality!) is hard to take seriously. For from that perspective, behavior of the sort engaged in by Mother Teresa is anything but a manifestation of ‘limited rationality’. On the contrary: her behavior is vastly more rational than that of someone who, like Cecil Jacobson, devotes his best efforts to seeing to it that his genes are represented in excelsis in the next and subsequent generations.
Simon suggests or assumes that the rational course for a human being to follow is to try to increase her fitness. Rationality, however, is a deeply normative notion; the rational course is the right course, the one to be recommended, the one you ought to pursue. Simon, therefore, seems to be making a normative claim, or perhaps a normative assumption; it is a vital and intrinsic part of what he means to put forward. If so, however, can it really be part of science? Science is supposed to be non-evaluative, non-normative, non-prescriptive: it is supposed to give us facts, not values. Can this claim that the rational course is to pursue fitness then be part of science, of a scientific explanation, or a scientific enterprise?
But perhaps there is a reply. What, exactly, does Simon mean here by such terms as ‘rational’ and ‘rationality’? At least two things; for when he says that the rational course, for a human being, is to try to increase her fitness, he isn’t using the term in the same way as when he says Mother Teresa and people like her suffer from bounded rationality. The latter means simply that people like this aren’t quite up to snuff when it comes to intelligence, perspicacity, and the like; they are at least slightly defective with respect to acuteness. It is because of the lack of acuity that they fail to see that the socially prescribed behavior in question is really in conflict with their own best interests or the achievement of their own goals. This limited rationality is a matter of running a quart low, of playing with less than a full deck, of being such that the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor.
When he says that the rational course for a human being is to strive to promote fitness, he presumably means something different by the term ‘rational’, namely, that a properly functioning human being, one not subject to malfunction (one that isn’t insane, or retarded, or reacting to undue stress, or in the grip of some other malfunction or dysfunctional state) will as a matter of fact have certain goals, try to attain certain conditions, aim to bring about certain states of affairs. Presumably survival would be one of these goals; but another one, says Simon, is promoting or maximizing fitness.
And there are two things to say about this claim. In the first place, we might ask what the evidence is that, as a matter of fact, properly functioning human beings do indeed all or nearly all display this goal. It isn’t easy to see precisely how to answer this question. One suspects that a study done by way of the usual polling and questionnaire techniques wouldn’t yield this result; most of the properly functioning people I know, anyway, wouldn’t give as one of their main goals that of increasing their fitness. (Perhaps you will retort that this is because most of the people I know are past childbearing age, so that directly increasing their genetic representation in the next generations is no longer a live option. Of course they could do their best to see that they have a lot of grandchildren–judiciously distributed bribes, perhaps, or arranging circumstances so that their daughters will become pregnant, or encouraging their younger relatives to drop out of school and have children). But obviously there is always another option: we can say that the goals or aims in question aren’t conscious, are not available to conscious inspection. They are rather to be determined by behavior. It is your behavior that reveals and demonstrates your goals, no matter what you say (and, indeed, no matter what you think).
Well, perhaps so. It would still remain to be shown or argued that properly functioning human persons do as a matter of fact display in their behavior this goal of increasing their fitness–where, of course, we couldn’t sensibly take their displaying this goal as a criterion of normality or proper function. As a matter of fact, Simon doesn’t proceed in this way; his procedure, with respect to this question, is a priori rather than a posteriori. He doesn’t tell us what it is that leads him to think that properly functioning human beings will have this goal, but one suspects his answer would be that human beings acquire this goal somehow by virtue of our evolutionary history. I suspect he thinks it would follow from any proper evolutionary account of human beings (and for many other species as well) that they have maximizing fitness as a goal. How exactly this story would go is perhaps not entirely clear; but for the moment we can ignore the difficulties.
The second thing to say about this claim is that the same question arises with respect to it: isn’t the idea of proper function itself a normative notion? There is a connected circle of notions here: proper function, health, normality (in the normative, not the descriptive sense) dysfunction, damage, design (a properly functioning lung is working the way lungs are designed to work), purpose, and the like. Perhaps none of these notions can be analyzed in terms of notions outside the charmed circle (so that this circle would resemble that involving the notions of necessity, possibility, entailment, possible worlds, and so on). And aren’t these notions normative? Indeed, there is a use of ‘ought’ to go with them. When the starter button is pressed, the engine ought to turn over–i.e., if the relevant parts are functioning properly, the engine will turn over when the starter button is pressed. When you suffer a smallish laceration, a scab ought to form over the wound; that is, if the relevant parts of your body are functioning properly, a scab will form over the wound. A six-month-old baby ought to be able to raise its head and kick its feet simultaneously; that is, a healthy, normal (in the normative, not the statistical sense) six-month-old baby can do these things. Must we not concede, therefore, that this notion of proper function is itself a normative notion, so that if Simon uses ‘rationality’ in a way explicable only in terms of proper function, then what he says is indeed normative and thus not properly a part of science?
Perhaps; but if the employment of the notion of normality or proper function is sufficient to disqualify a discourse from the title of science, then a lot more than Simon’s account of altruism will turn out not to be science. Consider functional generalizations–the sorts of generalizations to be found in biological and psychological descriptions of the way in which human beings or other organic creatures work. As John Pollock points out, such generalizations seem to involve an implicit presupposition:
when we formulate similar generalizations about machines, the generalizations we formulate are really about how machines work when they work properly; or when they are not broken. Similarly it seems that generalizations about organisms should be understood as being about the way they work when they are ‘working normally.’6
Here ‘working normally’ and ‘not being broken’ mean something like ‘subject to no dysfunction’ or ‘working properly’ or ‘not malfunctioning’. Functional generalizations about organisms, therefore, say how they work when they are functioning properly. But of course biological and social science is full of functional generalizations. Thus, if Simon is appealing to the notion of proper function in his idea of rationality, he may be appealing to a kind of normativity; but that kind of normativity is widely found in science. Or, at any rate, it is widely found in what is called science. Some will maintain that the notion of proper function doesn’t belong in science unless it can be explained, somehow, in other terms–finally, perhaps, in terms of the regularities studied in physics and chemistry. We need not enter that disputatious territory here; it is sufficient to note that if Simon is appealing to the notion of proper function, then what he does appeal to is in fact to be found over the length and breadth of the social and biological sciences. Therefore, we should not deny the title ‘science’ to what Simon does unless we are prepared to raise the same strictures with respect to most of the rest of what we think of as social and biological science. And even if we do say that Simonian science isn’t really science, nothing substantive changes; my point will then be, not that religious considerations bear on science properly so-called, but rather that they bear on what is in fact called science, which is a very important, indeed, dominant part of our intellectual and cultural life.
I shall therefore assume that Simonian science is science. So in Simon’s account of altruism we have an example of a scientific theory that is clearly not neutral with respect to Christian commitment; indeed, it is inconsistent with it. Simon’s theory also illustrates another and quite different way in which religious considerations are relevant to science; they bear on what we take it needs explanation. From Simon’s perspective, it is altruism that needs explanation; from a Christian or theistic perspective, on the other hand, it is only to be expected that humans beings would sometimes act altruistically. Perhaps what needs explanation is the way in which human beings savage and destroy each other.