Towards Secular Language With the Scope of Religious Language

See blog. You don’t need to have read the book to join in.

A study group will meet at 4:00 on Tuesdays fall 2011, working to develop secular language that encompasses the scope of religious language. (For those of us who’ll miss some meetings, an executive summary of each session will be blogged.) Cosmology, ethics, human relationships, life in community, the hope of a Messiah, spiritual experience and a satisfying narrative of our origin, identity, destiny and hope for the future have all been vastly discussed in religious thought—is it possible that secular language can be developed to the same scope? We will work through the book SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed by Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield, and attempt to define both the scope of religious language and the limitations, if any, of secular language.

The book is about $17 from major booksellers. Participants who are or become members of SASS can get it through SASS for only $10, though supplies may be limited.

Meetings are Tuesdays at 4:00, beginning September 13, in EMU Science Center room 16

Participants: So far, the following have agreed to lead at least one session:

  • Christian Early — Philosopher, EMU.
  • John Fairfield — Computer Scientist, and program fellow at EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement.

Please let know if you are interested in leading a session. To be a full participant, even a presenter, it will be expected only that you’ve used the blog to bring yourself up to speed.

Secondly, not everyone who has something significant to present will have the time to read the book. If you can’t take responsibility for a full meeting, but have something you’d like to present on the issue that can be said in 15 minutes or less, please contact and we’ll arrange a date. About half of each session will be spent on the book, but the other half will be used for presentations.


An excellent brief introduction is found in a youTube video by Martin Nowak himself.

David Sloan Wilson discussing his new book, The Neighborhood Project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at a time asks Can we use evolutionary biology to improve people’s lives?

Elinor Ostrom’s work on the economics of the commons, see

The 2005-2008 Evolution and Theology of Cooperation project at Harvard.


The purpose of this blog is to enable those who haven’t read the book, or attended prior sessions, to come and participate. Catch up by scanning this blog, and come, we need your input.

To comment on any session, please email .

September 13:

John Fairfield presented The Synergy Conjecture, the conjecture that language from biology, especially ecology, genetics, and evolution, and the concept of synergy, can be the basis for a secular language with the scope of religious language.

September 20:

Christian Early walked us through the Preface and chapters 0 and 1.

He raised the question as to the way in which the relationship between competition and cooperation is theorized. According to a naive understanding of evolution, cooperation seems irrational because you’re giving away something which would otherwise enhance your reproductive rate. Which is more fundamental? Does cooperation exist within competition, or is it the other way around? Do they both spring from the same “neutral” source in the sense that nature as such is neither competitive nor cooperative but deploys the survival strategy most likely to be effective in the situation? Are they in constant tension? Is there a cyclical relationship between the two?

One conclusion that Nowak implicitly draws from his work with the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that cooperation is not irrational since programs such as “Tit for Tat,” “Generous Tit for Tat,” and “Win Stay, Loose Shift” are all remarkably “competitive” in a tournament of programs. While it may be unclear what exactly that tells us about evolution and life on planet earth, we may need to rethink the simple contrast between competition and cooperation.

Christian regretted the authors’ occasional lapsing into Pythagorean Platonism re mathematics.

After the discussion Christian gave his own position, which is that cooperation is the more fundamental. While there are circumstances, traumas, which can cause us to become competitive, he doesn’t think that competition is either inherent or the default position. Nature is inherently cooperative. While Nowak gets at the nature of things through mathematical modeling, Christian argued that we need an approach that is better at the existential dimension, which is to say an approach that is better able to describe the lived experience of what it means to be human. He pointed out Darwin’s later work on the emotions of animals, and cited work by Patricia Churchland on Neurophilosophy. The problem faced by Camus is “why care in a universe that doesn’t?” In the scientific description of the universe there’s no emotion, yet care has emerged. How does caring emerge from an uncaring physics?

Comment by John Fairfield:

There are a lot of terms being somewhat abused in the book, including competition and cooperation, which have wider meanings than the narrow specific usage of the more scientific parts of the book, and which are yet raised in the more popular parts. Narrowly, individuals don’t compete red in claw. Narrowly, genes compete, and by that is meant solely that any increase in share of the gene pool by one gene (or allele) causes all others’ share to decrease—they’re expressed as percents, so that is merely a logical statement. Now the means—the behavior impacted by the gene—causing that relative increase in reproductive rate may be cooperative, or deceitful, or bloody, or whatever, but all of these are competition (narrowly defined). In Chapters 1-5 the dichotomy will not be between competition and cooperation, but between defection and cooperation, and the question is which is the more competitive.

As to how caring emerges from an uncaring physics, I believe the answer of the book is that it is logically inherent. The question is similar to “how do eyeballs emerge from a particle physics sans eyeballs” in that the answer is, it’s competitive. But caring is even more fundamental to evolution than eyeballs. One can imagine circumstances (utter darkness of the abyss) where eyes are not useful. But it is harder to imagine circumstances where there are beings capable of language (a formidable reproductive asset) who do not care.

September 27:

In chapters 1-5 the authors investigate five different logical constraints on their simple evolutionary model, all of which lead to the emergence of cooperative behaviors, and without (at least one of) which, defection rules. The authors imply that these five are exhaustive. John Fairfield presented them in parallel, to show the scope of these cooperation-inducing constraints.

An excellent brief intro is found in a youTube video by Martin Nowak himself.

October 4:

The fascinating chapter 6 presents the case that cooperation has been around longer than life itself. Christian Early presented.

There was much discussion and little final clarity on the necessity and exact role of catalysis in the description of pre-life evolution given by the authors. “Sometimes one strand accelerates the reaction rates of other sequences, marking a form of cooperation” (p. 121). Resources include the wikipedia articles on abiogenesis and the RNA world, and a Nowak and Ohtsuki paper Preevolutionary Dynamics and the Origin of Evolution.

Christian doubted that intelligence brings with it instability. First of all, human beings are not the only intelligent creature—wolves are much more intelligent than some species, it’s part and parcel of their cooperation (teamwork within the pack), and there’s no obvious fundamental instability there. Secondly, even if we do end up eradicating ourselves it is not clear that the reason we did so is to be found in our intelligence.

October 11:

Fairfield lead a discussion of Chapters 7 AND 8, the stories of cancer and of eusociality.

Cancer: An organism represents an extraordinary level of cooperative behavior, even programmed self-sacrifice, among the cells of the body. On the genetic level this makes sense to the degree that these cells all have identical genes, though different behaviors because of cell specialization (differentiation). However errors in reproduction can result in successful evolution, i.e. increase in reproductive rate, of certain cell lines. This constitutes a reversion to the older, every-cell-for-itself behavior that predated the evolution of the cooperation of the cells within the body—loosing information can be easier than gaining it. Let k stand for the number of reproductive steps that stand between a given cell and the original fertilized egg. A cell with high k has more chance of containing errors than a cell with low k. The architecture of cell reproduction in the body keeps a small population of very low-k stem cells, which are used to spawn more specialized copies, and which kills off cells whose k is too large, keeping the error rate low. Cancer represents a successful evolution against this whole cooperative architecture. Caveat: apparently “how does mitosis keep track of which chromosomes are the originals, and which the copies, so that of the two daughter cells one has unchanged k, and one has higher k and presumably is the one which becomes more specialized?” is still a research question.

eusociality: While kin-selection appears a natural explanation of eusociality in haplo-diploid species (bee full sisters are more closely related than they are to their daughters, so it makes genetic sense for a bee to help its mother spawn more sisters than to have daughters herself), it is not as obvious in diploid species. The argument presented for the huge degree of cooperative behavior of eusocial species seems to stem from the advantages of the structure of the nest itself. Like lichens (a symbiotic relationship between an algae and a fungus, utterly unrelated genetically), the advantage of the cooperative structure itself is what has caused the eusocial organization to be selected.

October 18: we did not meet.

October 25: Chapter 9, the onset of supercooperation, Language!

Christian Early critiqued the view of language portrayed in chapter 9 in two ways:

First that Augustinian noun-learning (‘Ugg and Uggette’ pg 192)is antiquated. Christian presented three handouts that posited different precursors of language than the noun-referent model.

  • from Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis pp 90-104: pre-language is not grunts that become nouns referring to objects, but shrieks that express emotions. The goal is not the transfer of information, but empathy, the ability to feel someone else’s lived experience, and it begins on the emotional level. Speech is facilitated grooming, an extension of the gestures of comforting. Gesture and language are one system. Research on mirror neurons shows that brains function by a partial confusion of self and other, without which communication is impossible.
  • from Stanley Cavell The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy chapter VII: In order to learn a word, you have to share a world. This is a discussion of Wittgenstein’s critique of Augustinian language learning theory. Cavell, a delightfully thoughtful and trustworthy narrator, takes us into the sophistication of an infant’s resolving what might be meant by an event such as a parent pointing to a kitten and saying the word “kitty”. The obvious, for an adult who already has internalized conventions such as that words can be used to refer to things, and that we classify things in certain ways, isn’t obvious at all to a generalized alien learner with no established context to go on—the child. A mimetic drive, that children want to become like us, is what drives language learning.
  • from Eugene Gendlin “How Philosophy Cannot Appeal to Experience, and How It Can”, in Language Beyond Postmodernism, Saying and Thinking in Gendlin’s Philosophy, David Michael Levin, Editor, pg 7: “Not only does experience (…..) not come in cognitive units; we will also recognize that it is always open for further living and action. And, not just open; it often demands further steps; then we are not at liberty to invent them as we please, and yet they are not already determined. Experiencing offers neither the convenience of finished givens, nor the convenience of indeterminacy. It does not permit us to say whatever we wish, and yet it is not finally determined. Therefore, its articulation cannot be representation nor can it be construction; its articulation is itself a further experiencing.”

Secondly, Christian averred that Nowak’s choice to model a too-simplistic view of language was not totally innocent—that Nowak’s tendency to platonic forms which Christian has before lamented primed Nowak to too easily ignore the desperate complexity of the issue.

November 1: Chapter 10

Bill Hawk led the discussion around the tragedy of the commons, or how to avert it. The chapter voiced confidence that reputation—reliable information on a person’s past cooperative performance—could so foster cooperation that the tragedy of the commons need not occur. There was discussion on the optimal size of community—neither too large nor too small, for reputation to play that role. Bill asserted that the paradigmatic commons is world population. Clair asked whether ‘the environment’ was a better formulation, of whether impact = ( population * per capita environmental impact) is real driver of environmental impact (as opposed to just population), whether growth in per capita impact had not outpaced even growth in population. Bill voiced optimism that the proportion of the population leading more fulfilled existence is greater than a century ago, that human flourishing is on the increase, that cooperation is increasing, that violence is decreasing (Steven Pinker), that appreciation of each other is increasing, that there is hope that given challenges people will find ways to cooperate, and that even nation states, with their divisive complications, are on the decline. John averred that this sounded like pre-WWI optimism, “Day by day, in every way, I am (we are) getting better and better.” Bill lead a round discussion.


Nov 15: Chapter 11, When does punishment induce cooperation?

John led. He averred that the chapter was far too simplistic to cover the subject, but that the subject particularly engaged the Anabaptist perspective. He offered the following 3-column by 9-row matrix as a talking piece.

The columns place one’s policy on the spectrum from Punishment to Defection to Cooperation. Punishment is paying a cost so that the partner pays a greater cost, Defection is minimizing one’s costs (minimizing also any benefit to the partner), and Cooperation is paying a cost so that the partner receives a greater benefit.

The rows represent the prior exchange in a game where there are repeated interactions with the same partner—did “I” Punish, Cooperate, or Defect, and did “Thou” Punish, Cooperate or Defect.

I-Thou| P D C
C – D |
D – P |
C – P |
D – C |
P – D |
P – C |
C – C |
D – D |
P – P |

The red rows John described as formulating one’s policy after an injustice (from the point of view of “I”), the green rows formulate one’s policy after mercy (an injustice in the other direction), and the blue rows formulate one’s policy in reaction to being met with the same behavior as one’s own.

The rows of this matrix are really proxies, in our discussion, for more complex ways one might remember the past. For example, was one’s past action a reaction to the previous exchange, and shouldn’t that be taken into account? Or one might be in a game where there is no repeated interaction with the same individual, rather one might have some information as to the reputation of one’s prospective parter. So one can imagine many many more rows, each one designating a complex past situation for which one formulated a policy (whether to Punish, Defect or Cooperate).

Even with such generalizations, there are many ways in which this matrix, and the discussion in the chapter, are not realistic. There’s little modeling of risk. Are we risking the top 1 percent of a comfortable income, or are we risking the seed corn without which our family starves next year? And there’s no modeling of power asymmetry. The chapter concludes that punishment has limited effectiveness for inducing cooperation, but the punishment described is the very limited punishment handed out by one’s peers in exchanges. What about the power of the state to inflict much more sure and devastating punishment, with such asymmetry of power that “punishing back”, punishing the state, is not a real option? The chapter offers no data as to the effectiveness of such punishment in inducing cooperation.

Suppose one’s policy is unremittingly to cooperate (the rightmost column), for all possible pasts. John asked whether this is “The Anabaptist Policy”, in obedience to Jesus’ “Bless those who curse you” and the like, and answered that while we were often perceived that way (as stupid dupes), and even sometimes proudly describe ourselves this way, it was not the way he espoused. Rather, he claimed our policy in response to aggression or injustice ought to be to move towards the aggressor to build a relationship—that faith is action taken on the assumption that the enemy is not a demon, but a human that can be negotiated with; that faith results in an effort to heal the relationship. Such a policy is yet outside the framework of this chapter, and indeed of the book.

Nov 22: Chapters 12-14, FINAL MEETING