God and Game Theory

However bleak a globalizing world may look at times,
the story could still have a happy ending, an ending that brings
out the best in religion as religion brings out the best in people.
– Robert Wright

A couple of weeks ago, a professional colleague of mine suggested I should check out something called “game theory.” It is a mathematical theory and also, I have since learned, for psychologists and others a way of analyzing social interactions. Briefly defined, game theory divides social interactions into what are called “zero-sum,” and “non-zero-sum.”  In zero-sum exchanges, one person wins and the other person, or persons, loses. Non-zero-sum exchanges, on the other hand, are similar to what I also have heard called “win-win scenarios.” They involve an exchange in which both parties benefit equally from their interaction.

At the time my colleague made the comment, I did not see any particular reason to pursue learning about game theory, so I let the idea drop. However, within days of that conversation, I obtained a book, called The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright (2009). One morning as I was reading in Wright’s book, I turned a page and, lo and behold, the next chapter segment was entitled, “Game Theory and the Bible.” Whoa. When something like that happens, I know to take it as a signal to sit up and pay attention.

It turns out Wright also is the author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. I had not known that when I chose to read his book on God. However, I found his reasoning around applying game theory to the evolution of our God images quite fascinating. I hope that I can share some of that in this post in a way that will make sense.

The idea behind game theory put to use in this way, it seems to me, is that Life itself offers reasons for us to begin to act in non-zero-sum ways. In other words, in concert with the reality of our interconnectedness. As Wright says, “Human existence abounds in self-serving reasons to start thinking less selfishly…” (p. 200).

I was reminded, in reading how Wright uses the theory to talk about evolving images of God, of the learnings I took from ecofeminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson on the cycle through which we humans develop and then change our God images. I wrote about this in an earlier post, but will briefly summarize her insights here.

According to Johnson (and Wright also suggests this), humans seem to have a tendency to develop ways of speaking and thinking about the Divine based on what they are experiencing in the current situation in which they find themselves.  In this way, God becomes thought of as the provider of rains needed to grow crops, or the strength needed for battle. When the situation changes, the community may enter into a period in which it reconsiders the way it understands the Divine, until a new dominant image emerges.

Wright argues for a similar process, drawing on the work of Edward Tylor, an influential British anthropologist of the 19th century. Wright summarizes Tylor’s conclusions about the connection between human experience and the ideas that came to shape the world’s religions:

However diverse the forces that shape religion, its early impetus indeed seems to have come largely from people who, like us, were trying to makes sense of the world. But they didn’t have the heritage of modern science to give them a head start, so they reached prescientific conclusions. Then, as understanding of the world grew – especially via science – religion evolved in reaction (p. 15).

This is all to indicate that it is quite natural that images of God change over time. Wright specifically suggests that often the changes in gods (or images thereof) came as a result of the influence of game theory. He traces the presence of what he labels non-zero-sum behavior from its influence in the first hunter-gatherer tribal villages through the development of cities and nation states, and finally to today’s global village. He suggests that in each of these stages of development there came moments in which it was recognized, often by so-called prophets, that the local God or gods now promoted an attitude of cooperation with neighbors who previously had been regarded with staunch animosity.

As Wright suggests, humans evolved in “a world full of neighbors.” Growing up in a social milieu, each successive generation evolved a greater capacity to distinguish between behaviors that promoted cohesion and survival for the group. These behaviors are supported by our feelings of gratitude, trust and affection. We feel gratitude when others in our social group do something for us; we learn to trust and hold affection (love) for those whom we view as reliable “reciprocators” of our own generosity. Those who fail to hold up their end of the mutual bargain receive our disdain, and, as we know, may even be punished for their disruptive behaviors. But in small communities, and as our world grows smaller through technologies of contact, it makes more sense to try to work things out with our “neighbors.”

Wright suggests it is this “change of heart” dynamic that led to such Biblical stories as God asking Jonah to bring a message of repentance to Nineveh, or the Israelite commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Ending on a note of hope, Wright suggests that this history of the “expansion of the moral circle” appears to be in our destiny. As Wright says, “you might say that the evolution of the human moral equipment by natural selection…allowed our distant ancestors to work together in small groups, and it set the stage for them to work together in much larger groups, including, eventually, transcontinental ones” (p. 455).  Here is where Wright begins to offer new and exciting ways to image God within us and our entire Universe as “an incarnation of a non-zero-sum logic that …can be called divine.”

For Wright, the presence of this non-zero-sum dynamic just might be the only dependable truth that will save our planet. It will require yet another expansion of our ability to grasp “the objective truth of seeing things from the point of view of someone else, and the moral truth of considering someone else’s welfare important.” For Wright, this is also a way to explain love. Wright concludes:

Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons. One of the more plausible such properties is love (p. 459).

Well, there you have it: my very brief introduction to God understood through game theory. These days, I appreciate anything that holds out a sign of hope and, given the synchronicity of how I came across the concept, I wonder if the God of our Universe just might be trying to tell me something.

Note: For a summary of Wright’s thought, see the article at this link: One World, Under God

Wright, R. (2009). The evolution of God. NY: Little, Brown and Co.

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