Optimization Multiplicity

Religion fascinates me. I am not religious myself, but I sometimes yearn to be. It’s fashionable among the intellectual set to disparage religion, especially when the discussion is political, but having grown up in a religious town, I try to stay away from that (not always successfully). I knew lots of good people whose faith is inspiring to me.

And I like the religious system in a lot of ways. It emphasizes the needs of the community over the needs of the individual. In fact, it creates community – the first thing people do upon moving someplace new is to find a new church to belong to, as that is what anchors them and gives them a base to explore their new environment from. Religion also presents a coherent world view so that its adherents don’t have to waste time and energy trying to make sense of the world; they are given a filter to work with, which allows them to spend their cognitive effort elsewhere.

I had a discussion about this at work several months ago, and was surprised to hear myself defending religion. My point in that discussion was that religion is optimizing for different things than egghead intellectuals believe in. It’s optimizing for stability of community, for hierarchy (in the Catholic Church at least), for commitment and continuity, for long-range planning. And it’s very effective at that; I was filled with awe and wonder when I was at Salisbury Cathedral, where workers spent two lifetimes to create this building with a 40-story tower as a monument to their faith. It’s phenomenal. I can’t imagine the level of commitment necessary to work on something that won’t be completed until decades after you have died.

Judging religion based on intellectual standards such as freedom of thought or technological advancement is unfair. That’s not what it’s about. For what it’s designed to do (or at least what it’s grown into), it’s excellent. Honestly, religious people I know tend to be more happy and content than my other friends. They have a strong community. They do more charity work and more volunteer work. They are, in most ways, better people than I am. If we want a society where people are happy and content, where they will work hard but not expect a reward in this lifetime, where they help each other out, where things are stable and long-lasting, religion is a very good solution.

So why do people, including myself, dislike religion? Because there are many things it sacrifices in the pursuit of those goals. It may not be fair to judge religion based on the things it sacrifices, as it is not concerned with those, but I can still prefer another system of thought that emphasizes goals that I value more than those of religion. That does not mean that religion is inherently bad. It just means that religion, as a system, is optimizing for different things than I value.

This is the key point I want to make. Systems can not be good at everything. Any system must have particular goals for which it is optimizing. If it does not, or if those goals change, the system isn’t good at anything. This holds true for software systems (where I have more experience), and for companies (more on this in another post), but I think it also holds true at the level of societal structures such as religion. Since we don’t have unlimited resources, we can’t have everything – we have to choose what we value.

So what are the reasons I have for not being religious? It sounds like a pretty great deal, doesn’t it? Happiness, comfort, community, self-sacrifice – what’s not to like? I think there’s a lot of value in religion, and I’m discovering more all the time. But I can’t get over the idea that faith trumps reason. There are elements of religion that can not be questioned. And I question many many things in life, although not everything. The idea that I’d not be able to change my mind tomorrow, even if I discover something new, really bothers me. But it may be that I’m just a commitment-phobe; in the pursuit of having all options available to me at all times, I end up choosing nothing (this is stolen from David Brooks’s discussion of the bourgeous bohemians’ quest for spiritual fulfillment in Bobos in Paradise, which prompted me to dust off this half-written post and finish it).

Which system is better? Religion or relentless individuality? It’s impossible to say. One isn’t better or the other. They are optimizing for different things. It’s a choice of what you value. Judging either by the standards of the other would make it look like a failure, but that would be using the wrong criteria, like judging a track meet by aesthetics. First you have to figure out what you want to value, and then you can figure out how to construct a system that delivers that.

P.S. It frightens me that that last paragraph relates well to the reading in my management class – Henry Lucas has a theory of Conversion Effectiveness that says almost the same thing. I had already planned to do a follow-up post on relating these ideas to management, but it’s weird to discover these links being created in my brain by my classes. New frames are being put in place, and I’m not always aware of it. Weird.

P.P.S. In case you haven’t, you should go read the comments on my last post, as my friends are way smarter than me.

8 thoughts on “Optimization Multiplicity

  1. I agree. I’m been trying to come up with ways to talk about experiences, and religion falls into many of those categories. I’m starting to come around to a notion of value-centered evaluation, but the point is that the values arise from the experience, they’re not pre-meditated or pre-ordained. Much of the work on value-centered design in my field is all about explicitly specifying values (say, almost invariably, privacy) and then building software to support those values. What I think is interesting about post-hoc value-centered evaluation is that you find the values in the experience, and that experience becomes good for those values (‘sense of community’) that you may not have known you held beforehand. Or the experience may have less worth to you (ie be de-valued) because of ways it doesn’t live up to your values (‘equal rights for women’, ‘irrationality’) which are themselves as values perhaps pre-existing or perhaps found in the experience.

  2. First off – love the posts. I stumbled on this the other day. Hope you don’t mind me jumping in.

    Coming from a strong religious background, I can see some of the good that it brings in the world. Sense of purpose, security, and sense of belonging are probably the most important.

    But – coming from a strong religious background, I also have a bitter taste in my mouth due to the dogma that ruined it all for me and turned the ‘religious community’ into not much more than an exclusive club just waiting to see their fellow man of different beliefs be tortured for eternity. Or that has decided that everyone else’s personal (or sex) life is their own business. Or that believes that the best way to raise children is to scare the pants off of them with tales of a bogeyman that they themselves really don’t understand or have any factual basis for.

    It’s the latter details that render religion dangerous and destructive. I personally believe that the ‘good’ benefits of religion can come from ethical systems such as Buddhism or Humanism. Even Thomas Paine’s Deism is worthy in my eyes – the belief in a supreme being isn’t the fallacy: it’s all of the extra rules meant to make man miserable and malleable (by authority figures) that need to be contested.

    Hmm. I have no idea if I even stayed on topic, but there’s my two cents 😉

  3. Jofish, that’s really interesting. I think I get where you’re coming from. To put it in terms I understand, value-centered design would be like the waterfall methodology of software design – pick objectives and design to them. Post-hoc design evaluation is more like rapid prototyping, where the objectives are less clear to start, and so you have to release and then evaluate the experience to find out where to go next. Only by allowing users to experience the software can you get them to articulate their values (“because of ways it doesn’t live up to your values”).

    I don’t think it’s that the values are “not pre-meditated”, it’s that they are unarticulated. They are deeply buried assumptions that people are not good at discovering. In their mind, they short-circuit the design process, and present what they think is the solution as the problem, and it takes a good designer or ethnologist or whatever, to get through that and find the unarticulated assumptions.

  4. I think I’m the obvious candidate to deliver the obligatory religious-fanatic rant here.

    The question of whether it’s beneficial really ought to come after the question of whether it’s true. If you believe it’s untrue, then no matter how beneficial it is, you’d be dishonest in practicing it, and I don’t think you can depend on anything really good can come out of even well-intentioned dishonesty.

    Believing it’s untrue is a belief, of course. Believing that you shouldn’t form an opinion on its truth is also a belief. It’s all belief. It’s possible to be an unstable-equilibrium agnostic, of course – not knowing but being willing to know – but I think committed agnosticism (intending and desiring not to form a belief) is more common.

    Anyway, religion doesn’t necessarily figure things out for you – it can make them really hard. For instance, I believe in Jesus, who taught that his followers should do lots of things I don’t have the guts to do. Now I have to decide between a dozen competing theological structures designed to tone Jesus down and make him a little less terrifying for a middle-class child of privilege – or cook up my own – or live with the humbling reality that my beliefs and my actions don’t align. Or, God forbid, actually get the guts to do it, but we know that’s out of the question.

    As for questioning, some of us think that’s a bad thing; some of us think it’s a very good thing. I question my beliefs every chance I get, because I wouldn’t feel honest saying “I believe…” if I meant “I refuse to investigate…” That’s not for everybody, I’m sure. It’s my deepest reliance, my when-all-else-fails-here’s-what-I’ve-got – yet I’m prepared to abandon it if I’m convinced it’s untrue… that’s a potentially terrifying place to be, and I wouldn’t expect just anybody to sit there.

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