Taboos and Antifragility
As I mentioned in my initial post, this blog will be at least as much as about me being a disciple of Taleb as it is about me being a disciple of Christ. That probably overstates things a little bit, but I am a huge admirer of Taleb. And it is to his idea
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As I mentioned in my initial post, this blog will be at least as much as about me being a disciple of Taleb as it is about me being a disciple of Christ. That probably overstates things a little bit, but I am a huge admirer of Taleb. And it is to his idea of antifragility that I’d like to turn now. My last post was all about the limitations of science. And as I pointed out, there are many ways in which people have placed too much faith in the power of science. True science is fantastic, but also very rare, and thus we end up with many things being labeled as science which are only partially scientific. Of course as I also pointed out much of the problem comes from using science to minimize the utility of religion. This does not merely take the form of atheists who believe that there is no God it also takes the form of people who feel that the principles of religion and more broadly traditions in general are nothing more than superstitions which have been banished by the light of progress and modernity. These people may believe that there is “more to this life” or that life has a spiritual side, or in the universal and unseen power of love. But what they don’t believe in is organized religion. In fact it seems fairly clear, that at least in the U.S., that support for organized religion is as low as it’s ever been. But I’m here to defend organized religion, and not just the Mormon version of it.
So what is the value of religion and more broadly traditions in general? In short it promotes antifragility.
Let’s examine one very common religious tradition: forbidding pre-marital sex. These days the idea of some kind of generalized taboo on sex before marriage is considered at best quaint and at worst a misogynistic relic of our inhumane and immoral past, at least in all the developed countries. As you might have guessed I’m going to take the opposite stance. I’m going to argue that the taboo was universal for a reason, it served a purpose and that we abandon it, and other religious principles, at our peril. In this I am no different than many people, but I am going to give a different rationale. My argument will be that regardless of your opinion on the existence of a supreme being, there is significant evidence that religion and other traditions make us less fragile.
Before we get into the actual discussion of religion and antifragility there might be people who question the part of my argument where I assert that the taboo against premarital sex was universal and served a purpose. Let’s start with the first point, was the taboo against premarital sex widespread? For me, and probably most people, the existence of a broad and long-lasting taboo seems self evident, but when you get into discussions like these, there are people who will argue every point of minutia, no matter how obvious it may seem to the average person. To those people, yes there are almost certainly cultures and points in history before modern times where sex before marriage was no big deal, where in fact the concept of marriage itself might be unrecognizable to us, but examples such of these are few in number, and limited in scope. But rather than just hand waving the whole thing (which is tempting) let’s actually look at a couple of very large examples: Western Christianity (the term Judeo-Christianity would also apply) and China. Both of these cultures are successful both in longevity and influence and, as it turns out both cultures, though very different on a whole host of issues, both had taboos against premarital sex. Hopefully the Christian taboo against premarital sex is obvious to readers of this blog, but if you need more information on the Chinese taboo you can go here, here or here.
How is it then that these two cultures, so very different in other respects, both arrived at the same taboo? This takes us to our next point, whether the taboo served a purpose. A few people, somewhat mystifyingly, will claim that two cultures, widely separated in both space and time, just happened to arrive at the same terrible superstition, that it benefited no one and that it arrived and flourished independently in both cultures for thousands of years. This argument is ridiculous on it’s face, and I think we can safely dismiss it.
Other people will argue that both cultures had a reason, and they may in fact have had the same reason, but they will argue that it was a bad one. This explanation generally brings in the evils of patriarchy at some point, and the fact that it was a taboo in both cultures (actually far more than that, but we’ll just stick with those two for now) just means that male domination was widespread. Furthermore, because of our much greater understanding of biology, psychology and anthropology we can now, with the backing of science, declare that it was a bad reason. (Unless of course the science turns out to be flawed…) Furthermore we can not only do away with the taboo against premarital sex but we can also safely declare that it was evil and repressive.
The final possibility, for those who consider the taboo a quaint relic of the past, is to acknowledge it did exist, it was widespread, and there actually was a good reason for it, but that reason doesn’t exist anymore. They might go on to explain that yes, perhaps in the past, having a taboo against premarital sex did make sense, but it doesn’t make sense in 2016 or even in 1970. Historically people weren’t evil or superstitious they just didn’t know everything we know and have access to all of the technology we have access to. Things like birth control, and the social safety net, etc have done away with the need for the taboo. While this explanation sounds more reasonable than the others, at it’s core it’s very similar to those other two views. All three still eventually boil down to an assertion that we’re smarter and more advanced than people in the past. It’s just a discussion of how and by what degree that we’re smarter and more advanced.
The immediate question is how can you be so sure? What makes us better than the people that came before us? And how can you be confident that there was no reason for the taboo, or that there was a reason, but that it was bad? The most reasonable of the explanations requires us to be confident that whatever purpose a taboo against premarital sex served, that progress and technology have eliminated that purpose. Not only does this throw us back into a discussion of the limits of science, but this also requires us to put an awful lot of weight on the last 50-60 years. By this I mean that if we have eliminated the need for the taboo we’ve done it only fairly recently. The sexual revolution is at most 60-70 years old in the US, and it’s even more recent in China (continuing to stick with two cultures we’ve already examined.) Which means that in that short time frame we would’ve had developed enough either technologically or morally to eliminate the wisdom of centuries if not millennia. And this is what I mean by putting a lot of weight on the last 60-70 years.
To review, as you might have already gathered, I have a hard time believing that there was no reason for the taboo. For that to be the case multiple cultures would have to independently arrive at the same taboo, just by chance. I also have a hard time believing that the reasons for the taboo were strictly or even mostly selfish or misogynist. That discussion is a whole rabbit hole all by itself, so let me just reframe it. If the taboo against premarital sex was bad for a civilization than other civilizations which didn’t have that taboo should have outcompeted the civilizations which did have it. In other words at best the belief had to have no negative impact on a civilization, regardless of the reasons for the taboo, and more likely in an evolutionary sense (if you want to pull in science) it had to have a positive effect. Of course this takes us down another rabbit hole of assuming that the survival of a civilization is the primary goal, as opposed to liberty or safety or happiness, etc. And we will definitely explore that in a future post, but for now, let it suffice to say that a civilization which can’t survive, can’t do much of anything else.
And then there’s possibility number three. The taboo was good and necessary up until a few decades ago when it was eliminated with the Power of Science!™ There are in fact some strong candidates for this honor, the pill being the chief among them. And if this is your answer for why pre-marital sex no longer has to be taboo, then at least you’ve done your homework. But I still think you’re being overconfident and myopic. And here, at last, is where I’d like to turn to the idea of antifragility, in particular the antifragility of religion. Taleb arrives at his categories by placing everything into three groups:
Fragile: Things that are harmed by chaos. Think of your mother’s crystal, or a weak government.
Robust: Things that are neither harmed nor helped by chaos.
Antifragile: Things that are helped by chaos. Think about the prepper with a basement full of food and guns. Normally speaking he’s just wasted a lot of money, but if the zombie apocalypse comes, he’s the king of the world. It should be pointed out that often things are antifragile only relatively. In other words everyone’s life might get worse during the zombie apocalypse, but the prepper is much better positioned in the new world than he was in the old relative to all of the other survivors.
Like Taleb, we’ll largely ignore the robust category since very few things are truly robust. Though as you can see it’s a good place to be. What remains is either fragile or antifragile. For our purposes time is essentially equal to chaos, since the longer you go the more likely some random bad thing is going to happen. Thus anything that is fragile is just not going to exist after enough time has passed. A weak government will eventually be overthrown, and your mother’s crystal will eventually get dropped. Accordingly anything that has been around for long enough must be antifragile (or at least robust), particularly if it has survived catastrophes fatal to other, similar things. Religion fits into this category. Government’s may fall, languages may pass away, nations and people may be lost to history, but religion persists.
Returning to look specifically at the taboo against premarital sex, I would argue that it’s been around for so long and is so widely spread because it promotes antifragility. How? Well I think it’s longevity is a powerful argument all on it’s own, but beyond that there are dozens of potential ways a taboo against premarital sex might make a culture less fragile. It might decrease infant mortality, better establish property rights, create stronger marriages with all the attendant benefits, increase physical security for women, promote better organized communities, or create better citizens. (That’s six, I’ll leave the other six as an exercise for the reader.)
If the taboo does make the culture which adopts it less fragile, then have we really eliminated the need for that it in the last 50 years? Or to put it another way is our culture and society really that much less fragile than the society of 100 years ago or 1000 years ago? I’m sure there are people who would argue that in fact that it is, but this mostly stems from a misunderstanding of what fragility is, assuming they’ve even given much thought to the matter. As I said in the last post so much of what passes for thinking these days is just a means for people to feel justified in doing whatever they feel like, and they haven’t given any thought to the impact on society, or consequences outside of whether their beliefs allow them to do what they feel like. That said, if pressed, they would probably assert that the world is less fragile, particularly if doing so gives them more cover for ignoring things like religion and tradition. But is it true? Taleb asserts that the world isn’t less fragile, it’s less volatile. Which can be mistaken for a reduction of fragility, particularly in the short term. Allow me to give an example of what I mean, continuing with the example of premarital sex.
One of the problems of premarital sex is that it leads to out of wedlock babies and single mothers. In a time before public assistance (or what a lot of people call welfare) having a baby out of wedlock could effectively end a woman’s life, or at least her “prospects”. On the other hand it could be handled quietly and have little actual impact. The child could be adopted by a rich relative, or it could die in the street shortly after being born.
A great example of what I’m talking about is Fantine and Cosette from Les Miserables. Initially the two of them have a horrible time, Fantine has to spend all her money getting the horrible Thénardiers to take care of Cosette, and instead they mostly abuse Cosette. Fantine eventually has to prostitute herself and dies from tuberculosis, but not before Jean Valjean agrees to take responsibility for Cosette, which he does and while it’s not a perfect life, Jean Valjean treats Cosette quite well. This is volatility. You get the lowest lows one one hand or potentially a great life on the other hand. In this case the outcome for a child is all over the place, and individuals are fragile, but society is largely unaffected, in large part by having taboos and other systems in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the first place.
That was then, now we have far more single mothers and absent some angry old white men, most people think that it’s not a problem, or that if it is we’re dealing with it. Certainly very few single mothers are forced to the drastic steps Fantine had to take. While I’m sure there are single mothers who resort to prostitution I think that if you were to examine those cases there is something else going on, like drugs. There are also probably fewer children being taken in by wealthy relatives. Most single mothers do okay, not fantastic, but okay. In other words you have a decrease in volatility. As I said, many people mistake this for a decrease in fragility, and indeed the individual is less fragile, but society as a whole is more fragile, because a huge number of those single mothers rely on a single entity for support, the government.
At first glance this seems to be okay. The government isn’t going anywhere, and if EBT and other programs can prevent the abject poverty that characterized previous times, that’s great. But whether you want to admit it or not the whole setup is very fragile. If the government has to make any change to welfare then the number of people affect is astronomical. If Jean Valjean had not come along it would have continued to be horrible for Cosette, but it would only have affected Cosette. If welfare went away literally millions of mothers and children would be destitute. And of course they would overwhelm any other system that might be trying to help. Like religious welfare, or family help, etc.
There’s no reason to expect that welfare will go away suddenly, but it is a single point of failure. I’m guessing that very few people in the Soviet Union expected it to disintegrate as precipitously as it did. Of course there are people who think that welfare should go away, and it may seem like that’s what I’m advocating for, but that’s a discussion for a different time. (Spoiler alert: unwinding it now would be politically infeasible.) That said it’s indisputable that if congress decided to get rid of welfare legislatively it would be less of a shock then if one day EBT cards just stopped working. Which is possibly less far fetched than you think. The EBT system goes down all the time, and people can get pretty upset, but so far these outages have been temporary, what happens if it’s down for a month? Or what happens if it becomes the casualty of a political battle. Thus far when government shutdowns have been threatened there has been no move to mess with welfare, but that doesn’t have to be the case. The point is not to predict what will happen, even less when it might happen, but to draw your attention to the fact that as one of the prices for getting rid of this taboo we’ve created a system with a single point of failure, the very definition of fragility.
In the short term if often seems like a good idea to increase fragility, because the profits are immediate and the costs are always far in the future (until they’re not). We’ll talk in more detail about antifragility, but the point I’m trying to get at is that in the long run, which is where religion operates, antifragility will always triumph. Does the a taboo against premarital sex make society less fragile? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else.
Is our current civilization more fragile than people think? On this I can unequivocally say that it is. I know people like to think it’s not, because the volatility is lower, but that’s a major cognitive bias. The fact is, as I have pointed out from the beginning, technology and progress have not saved us. Religion and tradition have guided people through the worst the world has to offer for thousands of years, and we turn our backs on it at our peril.
For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.
And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.
And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.
Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and bejudged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.
Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!
Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!
Yea, wo be unto him that hearkeneth unto the precepts of men, and denieth the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost!
2 Nephi 28:20-26