Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Counter-intuitive Nature of Reality and Altruism

Trasmitting motion without moving is counter-intuitive (By Lookang many thanks to Fu-Kwun Hwang and author of Easy Java Simulation = Francisco Esquembre (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Trasmitting motion without moving is counter-intuitive (By Lookang many thanks to Fu-Kwun Hwang and author of Easy Java Simulation = Francisco Esquembre (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

I see people around me living their lives as if they have eternity ahead of them. They are rarely self-aware, or think about death, or what’s after this life until they reach a certain age when frail body starts reminding them – the end is near.

Does our existence even make sense? What is the point of life if we die. For Christians and some other people of faith, it’s a promise of afterlife. But what about the non-believers? Shouldn’t life have its own meaning regardless of one’s beliefs?

Sometime ago I asked you to give me challenging questions to write about. The first one is by my friend Igor on counter-intuitive nature of reality.

Brace yourself, some demagogy is inevitable from this point.

Here’s the big question: do you need to work hard to build your future, to earn money and make discoveries or other contributions to the world when you know you’ll die all the same? Is it all for kids? When they grow up and senesce – they’ll die too eventually. Generations will pass with the same outcome, why to bother?


Hedonism a la russe (The Merchant’s Wife by Kustodiev, 1918)

Hedonists think like this and just enjoy life while it lasts. This kind of thinking would be catastrophic for the society though, the world wouldn’t hold together even a year if everyone was a hedonist.

So, here is the clue to answer the question. What is good for society and species may not be good for an individual. Humans like other organisms have evolved in populations, natural selection is applied on the population level, individuals are just vehicle for genes, so the selection would only partially be about the individual survival, it’d be about the whole species.

As a society, we are an atavism of the animal population. To make it last for thousands and millions of years, individuals have to reproduce, if we stop, the species is gone. So, biologically there is a lot of sense in individuals working hard for the benefit of the society, to preserve and improve the fitness of our species. On the individual level, most people just want to have fun. Without infrastructure, education, laws, etc. we can’t afford individual hedonism for everyone.

And that’s counter-intuitive: you would think what is good for the species is good for me. But in reality, most of the people live lives full of constraints and can’t afford to be lazy and have fun without fulfilling their duties. They are slaves and their own species, own people, is the collective ruler.

This was too negative, it can’t be the ending of my post.

Helping the homeless by Ed Yourdon from New York City, USA  via Wikimedia Commons

Helping the homeless by Ed Yourdon from New York City, USA via Wikimedia Commons

So now I’ll ramble on the most beautiful example of counter-intuitive nature of reality – altruism: it is you doing things for the benefit of others, which often involves some extent of self-sacrifice. Some of us don’t believe it exists, which is laughable in my opinion. Because the common word for altruism is simply kindness.

But here’s the counter-intuitive thing: why do people do kind things without getting any benefit out of it and even harming themselves financially or anyhow else?

My guess is that something regarded as counter-intuitive is probably not so, it could make sense if one just had enough information.

To see that altruism is perfectly logical we need to look into science.

Psychology suggests that altruism is linked to empathy, it’s an instinctive desire to help someone in trouble. What are the benefits: helping others makes society more stable and a helping person gets a moral and endocrine satisfaction. Fact: the levels of joy endorphins shoot up when you help someone.

Even when it’s selfless it’s not totally selfless.

In 2007, using a brain scanning technique neurobiologists identified areas of brain responsible for altruistic behaviour: one focuses on reward, so it’s related to cases when people doing good things for gratification, while another is responsible for “perceiving and giving meaning to the actions of others.” As an example, we selflessly tend to help someone who, as we think, deserves it, someone who may contribute much to the society in the future. In other worlds, we often do good because it is right to do so.

If you’re keen on more info, Wikipedia has a very detailed article on social and religious aspects of altruism.

So, the science suggests that selfless urges to do something good are perfectly justified on the scale of human population. If more people knew about this maybe the evil would be less acceptable as a natural human feature, but rather an abnormality or reaction to stress, danger or resource shortage. Nature has the right answers as always.

A little bit of teasing in the end. Do you think Christianity is counter-intuitive? Jesus allegedly preached to forgive your enemy and not to resist the violence. How would that benefit the victim or the aggressor? Food for thought …


Your brilliant thoughts