The retreat of "scientific selfishness," a literature review

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I don’t think Ayn Rand was a sociopath. I think Ayn Rand was a person who was traumatized by the Russian revolution and the brutal transition of Russia into a communist country. They worked out their trauma through stories that portrayed people who could triumph over a corrupt society through sheer will and individuality. Why English-speaking nations took Rand as someone with something important to say rather than a sad person journaling about their inner demons is revealing of our psyche rather than Rands.*

Nash did some really worthwhile math, but Nash’s ability to extrapolate from that math to the real world and human behaviour was coloured by schizophrenia with paranoia. I’ve seen no evidence that Nash ever overcame or questioned that lens, or allowed reality to feedback into the theory. Like when Nash did experiments with the secretaries and found out humans didn’t behave in a mathematically optimal way to maximize their score in a game, the assumption was that there was something wrong with the people rather than with the theory that humans would behave in a mathematically optimal way to maximize their score in a game.

At some point I need to read a biography of Adam Smith to find out what was wrong with that guy, but as someone who personally just doesn’t get “trust”, I have a pretty good idea of where Smith was coming from.

Always remember that philosophy is just the diary of a person who is trying to make sense of the world for themselves.


Don’t forget that orthodox economic theory was also built upon the “Myth Self-Serving, Counter-to-the Facts, Absolutely Bug-Nut Crazy Lie of Barter” also!

Selfishness IS a deeply ingrained part of the human animal. Cooperation IS ALSO a deeply ingrained part of the human animal. People balance the two all the time. It’s not even that we have a world made of a mixture of Gordon Geckos and Fred Rogers. It is that each of us is a mixture. Sure some people are bigger assholes than others, but it is also true that our degree of cooperation depends on our perception of the probability that cooperation will be reciprocated. The less likely we are to have to deal with people again, the greater advantage there can be to be selfish. So this influences our tendency to be more willing to cooperate with people that we know, or at least seem LIKE us in some way. Contrarily, people are more likely to be selfish to strangers, or those less like them. in some way.

Of course those basic drives are imperfectly mapped to any kind of theoretical game-theory optimal behavior. And not only do people balance selfishness and cooperation differently, but their perception of the situation and the probability that their cooperation will be reciprocated differ. So it is no surprise that changing the name of the game changes the chance that they will cooperate because it changes their perception of the likely behavior of others.

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Anarchist mathematician did a nice evolutionary game theory take-down of the Prisoner’s dilemma:

Worden, L., & Levin, S. A. (2007). Evolutionary escape from the prisoner’s dilemma. Journal of Theoretical Biology , 245 (3), 411–422.


Speaking as a mathematician, this is a really bizarre sentence. JvN worked in many areas of mathematics, and shifted from logic to functional analysis to game theory to the designing of bombs to computer science to systems theory then back to logic, but didn’t abandon or repudiate any field when he moved on to the next, and certainly his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism was motivated by his impending marriage to a Catholic woman during a period of rising anti-Semitism in Hungary and Germany, and not because he had some kind of spiritual awakening. Good grief, the very suggestion is incredibly offensive.

Meanwhile, John Nash lived many years past the movie, which was a fictionalized account of his life and work, and the suggestion that his work on game theory influenced his mental illness, or even vice-versa, is almost as offensive as the implicit antisemitism in the first half of the sentence


I just want to present an alternative frame for the whole issue. I don’t really think that selfishness and care for others are two completely different things. I do think that some people seem incapable or unwilling to perceive others as things worth caring for. How many people does Gordon Gecko care for? One, Gordon Gecko. Gordon Gecko is a person and deserves that caring. How many people does Mr. Rogers care for? 6.36B (I looked up the population of Earth the year that Mr. Rogers died).

Also people might have limited energy, limited resources, or lack skills that would help them care for themselves or other effectively.

So I don’t like the idea of balancing caring and selfishness against one another. I like the idea of maximizing caring while keeping in mind that you are a person who also needs to be cared for and that our ability to see the bigger picture and execute on good ideas shrinks the more stressed/hungry/tired we are.

I’m a mentally ill person who’s studied math and philosophy. I’ll also admit to having a personal dislike for Nash because although I never met Nash I do know someone who knew Nash and who greatly disliked Nash (even if I know it was for fairly petty reasons).

Math is probably the area where you can most divorce the individual and their psyche from the work. If the math holds up then the math holds up. But when you take math and start trying to find ways to apply it to human behaviour in the real world, your personal lenses that you view other humans through show up in your models.

If someone said that because I suffer from depression I can’t have worthwhile insights into the world or other people I’d find that very ignorant (which could be roughly translated to “offensive”). But if I said that my perception of other people and the world isn’t shaped by being a person who suffers from depression, I’d forgive you for laughing me out of the room.


The problem is that very rich people have spent very large amounts of money to convince us that selfishness is the only good and change economics from an attempt to study a very difficult subject into a Priesthood blessing the worst of human behavior as Natural Law.


Most of us are not Frank Rodgers or Gorden Gecko, but are a mix. And so any analysis or structure of society that requires people to be all one or the other will get it wrong. Empathy is important, but because others are not our mirror images it can lead us astray. It is no wonder that assholes think that everybody else is an asshole too. Fred Rodgers sometimes made people uncomfortable, because people couldn’t picture themselves being that nice.

I’d just say “are in between” rather than “are a mix”.

Possibly, though I think that road can lead to mathematicians being denied credibility or even jobs for illegitimate reasons, and in any event the sentence I quoted seems to imply causation in the other direction w/r to Nash, and strikes me as either nonsensical or callous.

We live in the aftermath of the world outlined by Friedman and Hayek. They were funded by sociopaths (Mont Pelerin) to design an intellectual system that would make the world safe for sociopaths.

Sociopaths care fuck all about actual human behavior (love, cooperation). And they certainly regard most other human beings as commodities to be used up and turned into waste.


I’m often amused/amazed to find out so many widely used economic philosophical approaches to modelling society are the product of sociopaths or schizophrenics. Case in point, John Nash, a paranoid schizophrenic. Who’s game theory teaches us we’re fools to trust anyone.

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I actually used “a mix” intentionally, because some actions can be both booth cooperative and selfish at the same time. The cannonical example is a soldier that risks his own life to kill an enemy. He is putting his own life at risk for the good of his fellow soldiers, but he is placing the good of his friends as more important than the fellow humanity of the enemy that he is trying to kill. Because your earlier point is right: selfishness and care for others are NOT completely different things. Perhaps inbetween is right, though:Because the difference between Fred and Gordon isn’t the CAPACITY of care for others or selfishness but rather who they felt were deserving of their love.

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In a lot of cases, there isn’t even a difference between selfishness and cooperation if you frame the problem correctly. At the genetic level of course, there is kin selection, which explains why, for example, sterile ants work for the benefit of the colony. More metaphorically, in the realm of human ideas rather than genes, people do volunteer work at political parties, which is altruistic in a sense (they’re not getting paid), but selfish in another sense because if their political party wins, they’ll benefit – either by just having policies they want enacted, or maybe even getting a political appointment.


And I us “in between” because I’m labeling selfishness as caring for the self. Which is also compatible with the solder who saves their friends by killing another because their circle of people they are looking after extends to their allies and does not extend to their enemies (or it does and they are just trapped in the nightmare of war).

There are a lot of paradoxes of selfishness that at some point struck me as being much like the paradoxes one might run into if one believes that both hot and cold were actual things and tried to think of how things could be hot and cold at the same time. Of course all of this reframing of moral issues is in service of my own neuroses (by my book!).

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