Journaltalk - Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management

Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management

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  • Rupert Read and Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Volume Number 11
Issue Number 2
Pages 219-226
File URL Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management
Publication year 2014

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Categories economic, economics

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  1. Links to discussions of debt from non-Abrahamic lineages:

    Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: Still More Papers on Monastic Buddhism … By Gregory Schopen

    posted 30 May 2014 by Tom Garnett

  2. Though I disagree with its economic approach, this is a perceptive article. Much of religion is about teaching humility: I am not God. We are not even gods. And, religions say, this is true even if you’re very smart and even if you’re a king. The virtue of humility is express in Christianity, but it’s implicit in a lot of religions. And it enters through Providence—- natural laws and the ordinary workings of the world—- as well as directly. THink of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, (“copybook heading” means a wise, often trite, sentence used for children to practice their handwriting).

    posted 05 Jun 2014 by Eric Rasmusen

  3. On the Modigliani-Miller Theorem:
    “Economists calling this result a “theorem” when it is fragile to change of assumptions caused it to be taken more seriously than was warranted.” Actually, a statement is a theorem ONLY if it is fragile. The idea of a theorem is that you specify the exact conditions under which the conclusion is true. The most satisfactory theorems, for theory, say, “If and only if X is true, then Y is true also.” The MM theorem says that capital structure doesn’t matter under certain conditions, including that there is no corporate income tax and no moral hazard. The problem is with people who don’t know what “theorem” means and who think of mathematics and science as magic rather than ways of thinking, or who know better but are trying to fool less sophisticated people (which was more important in the case of the Li copula formula is still unclear to me).

    posted 06 Jun 2014 by Eric Rasmusen

  4. This article suffers from several flaws. First, the authors fail to make a compelling case for religion as a mechanism to avoid “silent risks.” The only case noted is debt, and a strict prohibition on debt might well prevent debt-related catastrophic failures, but given the centrality of credit and debt to the world economic system, this seems like a disproportionate “cure.” Furthermore, the authors give us no mechanism, other than perhaps the most stubborn conservatism, how religion per se actually would prevent silent risk.

    The most glaring problem, though, is that the authors fail to offer a good definition of religion. They point out that religion shares features of every social institution, i.e. intergenerational propagation of norms, but fail to adequately distinguish religious from secular institutions beyond mentioning the label “God.” But what do they actually mean by “God”? Their preamble is unhelpful: what precisely do they mean by “true religion” and “genuine spirituality”? The authors are silent.

    Finally, the authors insistence on the irrelevance of the epistemic basis of religion, indeed even of its truth, seems deeply problematic. Should we not try to understand how and why systems of ideas (i.e. ideologies) work and don’t work? Should we not make our best effort, albeit imperfectly, to base our worldview on truth? Is the understanding that some ideologies rest on obviously untrue beliefs about the world not at least raising an important problem? The authors’ handwaving away of epistemic analysis seems also in contrast to Taleb’s other work, which offers a sharp and perspicacious critique of the epistemic problems in science, and especially economics and political economy.

    I have a more thorough analysis on my blog: Religion as risk management

    posted 29 Jul 2014 by Larry Hamelin

  5. I found this to be a stimulating and useful article. However I find two major shortcomings. Firstly it could provide more substance to illustrate various religious taboos. Secondly it could examine beyond hard religion and look at social taboos/ tabus as projected by groups less formally spiritually aligned.
    I am partial to the perspective shared by Harari in his recent book “Sapiens” (and before that by others) that like most human concepts and beliefs, religions are simply self-serving myths that either evolved or were constructed for various reasons – control and power, security, resilience, etc. Most of the mainstream, monotheistic religions – which the authors focus most closely on – arose out of various distillations of incorporated belief systems. For instance the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity incorporated various beliefs and myths from other sources, as reflected by various branches of those religions. For instance Catholics consume fish on Fridays but Protestants are less likely to. Alligator is considered a fish by New Orleans Catholics, reflecting one of many local belief systems. These various belief systems are largely reflected by the various sects of the Abrahamic (and other) religions.

    What is interesting for me, as a scholar of food, agriculture and diet, are the prohibitions, which can also be expressed as taboos in other non-Abrahamic cultural / spiritual beliefs, on consumption of various varieties of food, or the mixing of various foods.

    This is particularly strong in the Jewish Kosher tradition, around shellfish, mixing of milk products with meats, consumption of pork and so on.

    This prohibition is echoed in the Islamic fatwa against the consumption of pork as haraam (forbidden). If we consider why these particular foodstuffs have been forbidden, we can propose that there are good reasons for doing so. Pigs have long been considered dirty, although this is largely a condition of their domestication and scavenging nature. Imagine also, in the Middle East, pork would have been more likely to spoil, given the associated pathogens from its living in close association with humans, exacerbated by the hot climate.

    Further, as scavengers pigs are prone to infection by various helminths (worms) such as tapeworm and roundworm, which are readily passed onto those who consume their meat, weakening and often killing people if not treated.

    It is also interesting to consider the fact that pork, is said to be closest to human flesh (in Polynesia humans were called “long pig”) when cooked and consumed, so a further, obvious reason for taboo can be postulated.

    Considering shellfish, why would these be forbidden? Look no further than dinoflagellate toxins (caused by so called red tides, a fairly common global event) that can cause paralysis and death – and are impossible to detect without modern laboratory equipment. Shellfish are also readily prone to spoilage if not kept properly without refrigeration. Crustacea such as crayfish, lobster and prawns are bottom feeders, literally and scientifically, consuming detritus at the bottom of the food chain. Crayfish and lobster, for instance are noted to congregate around sewer outfalls and are also prone to rapid spoilage.

    Cholera outbreaks are associated with the consumption of raw shellfish, particularly in Peru, Chile and Ecuador (ceviche, etc.) where this is a common practice. So again, using religion to reinforce this absolute interdict, followers are protected and are more likely to survive than those who do not follow that religious belief. This provides an evolutionary as well as an economic advantage. Because the population will be less prone to infections, plagues or parasites, it is less likely to be unwell and able to be economically productive and to be able to contribute to the community, the church, the faith, etc. Therefore an evolutionary advantage emerges from such an interdict, providing increased resilience or a tendency to reinforce antifragility in individuals, in communities and in religions, benefiting all who subscribe to these interdicts. So while the religion may be based on a myth, the related interdicts and taboos reinforce the power of those who have logically and experientially curated and evolved the heuristics to improve on the lot of those who follow these shared belief systems. Those on the margins or those cast out or rejecting such systems would become prone to genetic and economic erosion and extinction.

    I thought I would share these considerations with the authors as I believe they provide some useful practical examples of application of the sort of heuristics, expressed as a religious taboo or interdict, able to confer practical and real social advantages. Given the nature of this forum I don’t really want to go much further beside say that these examples can be extended to other foods, seeds, poison fruits, mixing of dairy and other foods, ways of food storage and treatment, etc. that have bearing on the how risk and religion are managed and analysed.

    posted 15 Aug 2015 by G. Ashton

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