Monday, April 30, 2007

Religion: Making the Impossible Possible

In 1950 Kenneth Arrow published an article in the Journal of Political Economy titled, “A Difficulty in the Concept of Social Welfare”. This and related work led him to a Nobel Prize in Economics. Arrow had set out to establish a method for aggregating individual preferences to come up with some sort of intelligent social welfare function. He couldn’t do it. So, like a good economist, he set about trying figure out why he couldn’t do it. He managed to prove it was impossible. The result is generally called, “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem”. The theorem amounts to a relatively simple statement; any consistent well behaved aggregate preference ranking must be the preference ranking of a single individual, and that’s not very aggregate. There is no way to aggregate preferences and retain many of the properties we think preference structures should have. There are 5 or 6 properties a well behaved preference structure should have, depending on how you count. These properties include things like reflexivity, completeness, transitivity, etc. Most of these properties seem pretty mundane. The problem comes when we try to come up with a method for combining them.

What does all this have to do with religion? Consider a situation in which you have to get a large group of people (more than 3) to agree on a fairly complete set of principles to live by. This set of rules should be reflective of the preferences of the group, otherwise they won’t be followed. But Arrow’s impossibility theorem tells us that we can’t incorporate everybody’s preference or the set of rules will internally inconsistent. Any set of rules that is grossly illogical probably won’t last very long. This problem would tend to make large scale society impossible.

One solution is to impose one preference structure on the group. This is, of course, going to create resentment. This is one reason why dictators tend to have to use a “secret police” to rule. There is another way to pull this off. HereThis is religion is a solution to a secular problem. If the preference structure comes from outside the system – particularly from a divine being – there’s likely to be a lot less resentment and resistance. This is why the divine right of kings worked as well as it did in Europe.

With the loss of religion as a method of defining an appropriate social welfare function we’re kind of left at lose ends. It’s getting harder and harder to get large groups of people to agree on anything positive – negative is easy. We’re seeing politics and social movements become increasingly fractious. The result is going to be a movement toward ever smaller political units. We’re seeing this in a lot of the world already, and the trend is only going to continue.

I’m not saying God does or does not exist. Simply that society could not exist without such a concept.


Anonymous said...

read dr.jared diamond's guns, germs, and steel....excellent book on this topic as well.

even though he is an atheist...his comments on this matter are quite excellent and logical.

just on a side note: anyone professing that God exists or does not exist (a believer or a non-believer) cannot in any way prove their is an impossibility. It all boils down to faith - you belief system, and that is personal. Look at all the problems of the world in the past and present dealing with this issue, is when the personal has been taken out of the equation and replaced with some other factor(s) (i won't get into the specifics here).

I tend to believe that certain political/economic systems arose because of the changing sizes of various civilizations that arose around the world. Some died out and others did not (obviously, the political system was not the sole factor for the reason of success or demise, but does play a role) Size made it a necessity to alter various systems. But with technology and along with it the reduction of costs basically right across the board, tradition methods are under attack, society vs. the individual is now back. The environmental debate just makes this situation worse because now we have to debate individial vs.communal rights in order to achieve environmental "progress" or "targets". For instance, to include the environment as a factor that improves quality of life, where does the individual and the community start and end.

Interesting stuff, a lot more debates in the present and the future, and violence too unfortunately.

In the end, however, for better or worse (and this is the point where many many folks still don't get), when in doubt, always defer to the individual. As individuals we will screw up (our ancestors did and so will we) and nothing is wrong with that, you learn, you adapt, you become flexible, and you move on. Nothing wrong with that.

economistatlarge said...

I'll try and track down that piece.

As for proving God does or does not exist - check out Immanuel (spelling?) Kant's critique of pure reason. Basically, he demonstrates that you can use pure logic to prove both sides of the argument. Exactly what you're saying.

As for defering to the individual, it begs the question, which one? That's the heart of the problem. We've lots of individuals who want mutually exclusive things. How do they sort it out? The problem - and here's where I totally agree with you, but in a different way, is that there are no conflict resolution mechanisms left. All we can do is talk it to death. We need a way to defer to the individual in cases where it doesn't directly harm others but the current socio-political theology doesn't allow for the existence of individuals, but at the same time maintains we're all special.

Boy are we screwed.

Anonymous said...

got the spelling right. i like kant, i like sartre too.

that's why rousseau and the gang created the social compact or in other words the state: those mutually exclusive things that at the same time aren't so exclusive but inclusive need some "higher power" to make sure things don't get out of hand but beware of kleptocracy!

it's a shame politics and economics mix! usually it's toxic.

i'm still boggled by your comment to which one about the individual. i referring to you - yourself - only you know what's best for you but unfortunately or fortunately we as indivuduals cannot make that decision by ourselves (there are laws and etc...some positive and negative). unfortunately, wierdly enough i don't think we as a species have advanced enough to have nearly everything deferred to the individual (star treky stuff..i know what you're going to say but in star trek, the individual is quite powerful).

i really think your last comment hit a chord....the individual is under attack and no one seems to give a damn. that's scary. that's orwellian. and at the end of the's wrong/ name it.

there isn't a clear line anymore what should be deferred to society and to the individual...just like in politics...keep gov't in some places and out of others...

the question to make those distinctions? we can go on forever making answers but true leadership i think requires that decisions be made and you stick to them and make sure you make them work. just go for it.

in armenian, there is an old saying that a smart person keeps thinking things out, meanwhile the idiot has surpassed him/her. you catch the drift i hope.

in this case, basic cost/benefit analysis surely works not just in monetary terms but in terms of access. what i mean is that if a lot of people benefit, then the fact that one individual might suffer a bit should not stop something from being done. in economic terms, to get more or less equilibrium there is always some that benefit more than others. that hasn't changed ever, so in this case, really the answer is who cares if you or me suffer a bit. it's a matter about degrees/magnitude.

thought Dr.J?

one more point: it seems so logical but here we are in 2007 and everyone still screws up:
anytime someone/a society/etc...becomes extremist in their position or views always suffers...and i am going to use that qualifer ALWAYS. studying history i cannot find anytime in human history where extremism in any shape or form has benefited the planet for any prolonged period. perhaps for a short time and for a few select people but NEVER for the whole.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thought that religion provided a consensus, however I disagree that the increasing division in society is caused by religious decline. I believe increasing division is caused by increasing technology - we can do more things IF only we reallocate resources.

Consider the Ethiopian famine, the Indonisian tsunami, hurricane Katrina in the age of clipper ships. If it took a better part of a year to transport materials, the crisis is over before a solution could be drafted.

How do we allocate resourses? More for education, heath care, HIV in africa, child poverty? If the law of diminishing returns holds, the greatest total benefit would be to allocating some money for each cause. Yet we could always spend a little more here and improve this. The fact is we can administer medicine, build houses and transport goods GLOBALLY. Our ability to provide steadily increases yet the apparent need always seems to increase at a greater rate. Name one person that said ... no we spend ENOUGH on this.

As our ability to provide increases there seems to be a steadily increasing diversity we ask government to solve. Let us come together and pray for all these issues. I think we can all agree on that. ;)

- stranded in CB