Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Scale

I do not claim to know the meaning of everything: from a mathematical standpoint, one can only theorize based on a minimal set of axioms. I have heard a wide variety of theorems about the meaning of life and the nature of existence. The one that holds most true:

"But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
-Benjamin Franklin

Of this we can be sure. Of the rest, I humbly assert that it is pulled out of my ass. I also take this opportunity to appologize to all denominations that I will intentionally or inadvertently offend in the following. You have been warned. =)

So what is the universal truth? Balance. Yin and Yang. Opposites, positives and negatives. Dualities and dichotomies. Matter and energy. Symmetry and continuity. Male and female. Earth and heaven. God and man. Balance can be an integral part of our diet and lifestyle.

Whether you believe it or not, balance is the ultimate truth. The universe is an equilibrium and many of the dynamics that we observe, whether chaotic or harmonic are held together by a symmetry that maintains an elegant cohesion. From the minute atom to planetary systems, these balanced dynamics are observable in one form or another. From a mechanics standpoint, Newton's 3 laws of motion epitomizes this balance while from a philosophical standpoint we have Yin and Yang.

Yin and Yang is a dual concept originating from ancient Chinese philosophy. The Chinese believed that the dualities of the world could be expressed as either Yin, represented by the dark element, or Yang represented by the bright element. Yin's dark element symbolizes Gaia or mother earth, and corresponds to the night while Yang's bright element sybolizes activity, and corresponds to day. It is important to realize that Yin and Yang do not represent good and evil. The symbol depicts Yin and Yang chasing one another in a cyclical fashion much in the way that night and day are cyclical events: both elements are crucial to existence as they represent continuity. Eastern philosophies in general are not cut and dry. Hinduism speaks of the Devatas and the Asuras. When literally translated, the Devatas are angels, while the Asuras are devils, however much is lost in translation. The Devatas and the Asuras are a lot like Yin and Yang; their existence is dependent on the balance they share as one cannot exist without the other. The Vedas describe the Devatas as immortal beings that preside over natural processes while the Asuras are immortal beings that preside over morality.

Much of the eastern philosophy is deeply entrenched in mythology. Balance however can be a guiding principle. Consider evolutionary theory and its position on altruism. Evolution states that altruism is a characteristic detrimental to survival and as such is a rare occurrence.

Altruism is a quality wherein the individual expresses "selfless concern for the welfare of others" [|]. It is important to distinguish altruism from loyalty or duty. Duty is often precipitated by a moral obligation towards a benefactor (such as God, or a government) and is not the same as altruism as the benefactor often pledges a reward for the actions of the individual when those actions are performed to the benefit of the benefactor. Altruism on the other hand is a purely selfless action with no expectation of reward, and the vast majority of religions in the world believe altruism to be an important and essential virtue.

The Capuchin monkey of the Amazon rainforest is the most intelligent primate in existence and demonstrates cooperation within their community. If a predator attacks the group, the first monkey to learn of the threat will issue an audible warning to the rest of the group. This act in turn jeopardizes the survival of the individual as it facilitates the predator's ability to find the individual. Strictly in terms of game theory, the move that maximizes the monkey's survival in the short term is to flee, however what is most interesting is that the actual behaviour of the Capuchin improves its entire community's ability to survive in the long run even though it puts the individual at risk in the short term.

Within any community, there are three types of members: freeloaders, cooperators and altruists. A freeloading Capuchin monkey would only listen for warnings, but would never warn anyone else. An altruistic Capuchin monkey would always warn the community regardless of personal risk. Cooperators however, will only help those with whom they have already established a relationship, that is to say, they help those whom they expect would return the favour. When the Capuchins search for food, they will only share their food with the individuals that aided in the venture in a tit-for-tat fashion. In the long run, communities tend to develop a large fraction of cooperators with some freeloaders. Altruistic behaviour in general tends not to survive because the altruistic behaviour is easily exploited by the freeloaders.

Thus we have a fallacy: altruism cannot be a virtue. Altruism is a characteristic that leads inevitably to extinction. The same is true for freeloaders. Cooperators within a society will shun freeloaders, and so while freeloading will benefit an individual in the short term, the freeloaders will be shunned when they are discovered for what they are. Altruists can only exist in a system of primarily cooperative members as cooperators will reciprocate with individuals they trust. There are always some freeloaders and while altruists serve everyone, they also benefit the freeloaders which provides a disservice to the cooperators. Within any system, the cooperator is thus the optimal solution with the overall goal being survival. A balance between giving and receiving provides the appropriate mechanism by which a society can flourish. It is through the atomic exchanges between the individuals that trust is established.

The capitalist system is successful because it rewards cooperators. Money in the capitalist system is the currency of trust and the penny is the most atomic of exchanges. We all know that a rich person however is not necessarily trustworthy, however it is understood that if an individual's living is made through worthy endeavours that contribute to the wellbeing of a society, the money they earn is used to acquire other products and services from other members of the community which helps them survive. Naturally, the system isn't perfect. Money can be obtained through deception, however the cooperators of the community pay taxes, which enables the government to maintain the law which more or less benefits the cooperators. The most important point of this discussion is that the emergent behaviour of this system leads to balance. An individual's lifestyle must be balanced. We should give, but we should also expect reciprocation.

There are many examples of the necessity of balance in the individual such as the importance of a balanced diet. Couples entering into relationships should also be balanced. In this respect, the man should be the equal of his partner and vice versa. Unequal partners would lead to the harbouring of feelings detrimental to the relationship. A woman far more intelligent than her partner, for instance, would cause the man to feel insecure and she in turn would become annoyed when he simply doesn't measure up. Balance in relationships however can be tricky. A characteristic in one partner need not be balanced by the same characteristic in the other. Often, it is more important that the characteristics complement one another in order for the relationship to work.

This complementary balance is seen readily in nature in the form of symbiosis. Nature balances itself through natural processes that regulate everything. The entities on our planet share a symbiotic relationship with everything else within its biosphere much in the same way that a man's character must complement his partner. Their roles in a marriage must complement each other such that both of them appreciate each other's contributions to the relationship. Without this mutual respect for one another, the relationship is destined to failure.

Balance is indeed a universal phenomenon, after all, there can be no shadows without light. It manifests itself in the microscopic as well as the astronomic and we accept it unequivocally in our every day life. But understanding balance within the context of our lives helps us to understand ourselves and gives us the ability to make intelligent decisions. We all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. So, when faced with a difficult choice, ask yourself the question whether the decision may upset the balance and tip the scales, because if it does, you will have to consider what the reaction will be.

By: Shad Sharma

1 comment:

edoules said...

Amazing Shad,

In one fell swoop you've tickled four points of controversy in me. Feel free to decapitate me as you see fit.

(1) The Ying Yang actually is slightly deeper than you described, each of the 'horses' (as they were originally) have eyes of the complementary colour: "Within each, its opposite." -- following in your theme of balance, that is the homeostatic resolve of each individual :)

(2) Altruism doesn't appear selected out in your example monkeys. Presumably the observations are derived from a steady state, meaning that although a selection 'should' take place, it hasn't. Hence each altruism and freeloading -- must be engrained in the genomes and memes of the coöperators. Within each, its opposite.

(3) The freeloader is the ultimate capitalist: It cannot be argued that receiving a quantity greater than zero for a price zero is infinitely efficient albeit a useless figure. There are the classic ideological pathological counter cases: "What if the freeloader was once an altruist but has now broken his legs and is unable to even coöperate at the same level from those he stands to benefit from?" (liberal); "An altruist will never be rewarded equally and damages the good of the community by dragging up the freeloaders -- furthermore, even coöperators cannot be counted on to return the same amount of favour." (conservative).

(4) The biosphere is ridden with examples of parasites -- be they microscopic phages or hideous lampreys. The selection gradient there is different: each particle and member of the named taxa are to be as freeloading as possible -- to stand to gain an exemplary amount of at the absolute cost of its host individual and naught of its own.

I think we understand each other. You are however one of the better spoken that I'd disagree with. I will rely on you to occasionally be my balance.

Cheers :D