Original Sin: Part 5, A Game Theoretic Summary of Sin in the Malthusian World

In this essay I want to use game theory to summarize how I see Malthusian dynamics operating in human affairs as the locus of "sin."

To do this we need to review a bit about game theory.

Game theory is a branch of applied mathematics where the idea of a "game" is used to isolate critical features of decision-making, particularly when those decisions are social. Simplifying greatly, games from poker to Monopoly to chess have a few common features:

1. Players: People making choices
2. Moves: Choices the people can make
3. Payoffs: The outcome/consequences of the choices

The interest in game theory is that, by using the idea of players making moves leading to payoffs, game theory allows us to create models of real world decision-making scenarios. If we can specify with some degree of realism the actual choices people face along with a realistic appraisal of the consequences attached to those choices then a mathematical/analytical approach to decision-making might be enjoyed.

For our purposes, game theorists speak broadly of two kinds of games. Thus, using game theory as a lens on human behavior, we might also break human interactions into one of two basic types.

The first kind of game (model of human interaction) is called a zero sum game. The name comes from the fact that there are some games where the sum of the player's payoffs at the end of the game sum to zero. Poker is a good example. Imagine you and I play head's up poker. If at the end of the night I'm up $20 then, by definition, you are down $20. Our payoffs, plus $20 and minus $20, sum to zero. The point being that in zero sum games my wins define your losses (and visa versa). Consequently, zero sum games are also called games of "war" or "total conflict." Another way of looking at zero sum games is that the player interests do not overlap. There is no middle ground where we can find a win/win. It is win or lose for either you or me. This slide represents that situation:

The second type of game (human interaction) is called a non-zero sum game. In this game the interests of the players overlap (to some extent). In the space where the interests overlap a win/win outcome is possible:

We can see why the game is called non-zero sum: If we both "win" (positive payoffs to us both) then the sum of our winnings is non-zero. (We should also note the dark side of non-zero sum games: The possibility of lose/lose.)

With these notions of game theory in hand we can now approach some biblical concepts in a novel way. For example, consider the Golden Rule. Using the language of the non-zero sum game we could argue that the Golden Rule is asking us to seek the place where I consider my interests to overlap perfectly with your own. To love you as I love myself. Our interests do not simply overlap to some degree. They form an identity:

I mention the Trinity in the slide because, if one wanted to think of the situation theologically rather than ethically, I think the Trinity--the mutual and loving indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--is another way to consider the identity relationship inherent in love: Distinct persons with fully overlapping interests. This Trinitarian life is to be lived out in the church. Sharing and having all things in common so no one is in need. Weeping with those who weep, rejoicing with those who rejoice.

Okay, we are now ready to use game theory to summarize my notion of Malthusian sin.

Basically, we can see sin and love as forces pulling us in opposite directions. The Malthusian forces of this world are constantly forcing our interests apart. We call this divergence "selfishness." That is, I begin seeing my encounters with others as zero sum interactions. It is me against you. I must "win." I must look out for myself.

As I've argued, I don't think this intense zero sum-ness is innate. I think, as the psychological default, humans approach each other in a non-zero sum manner (to some small degree). Generally, we don't approach people in a state of total suspicion or "war." We are, as a species, open to the possibility of reciprocity, coordination, and cooperation. We know that our personal good is somewhat implicated in the good of others. The point of this observation? Simply this: From a game theoretic perspective humans are not totally depraved.

Depravity comes from the Malthusian pressures that force us away from our non-zero sum default into zero sum war. When we feel vulnerable or in want we begin to grow increasingly "selfish." We start looking at encounters as zero sum affairs. We stop looking for moments of cooperation and start looking for ways to "win."

Conversely, love/salvation/grace/Trinity/church, whatever you want to call it, is constantly trying to fuse our interests in the Golden Rule identity moment. Pushing us toward greater non-zero sum-ness. This is, admittedly, a highly unnatural thing to do, particularly when I'm being attacked or hungry. This is why a force--grace, salvation--is needed to lift us out of the Malthusian trap.

In sum, we can think of sin and salvation as two forces, each pulling us in different directions:

Sin is the product of Malthusian forces pulling us into zero sum war with each other. Conversely, grace is trying to push us into non-zero sum convergence.

Next Post: Part 6

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21 thoughts on “Original Sin: Part 5, A Game Theoretic Summary of Sin in the Malthusian World”

  1. Richard, I like the model, but something seems to be missing...probably because I'm sympathetic to Augustine. That is, impersonal forces like Malthusian dynamics may be strongly operative, but is there no room for additional, personal forces, forces that we might usefully call "evil?" If all we had to deal with was Malthus, one can conceive (at least) of a collaborative world in which we learn to live within our Malthusian constraints on the basis of science and reason and some form of altruism.

    Malthus, however, does not fly airplanes into skyscrapers or launch rockets into unarmed neighborhoods. (Or does he?) There seems to be another dimension not shown in your diagram. It does not replace Malthus, but it amplifies it opportunistically. Or, if you'd rather, Malthus gives it a pretext, an existential beachhead from which to work its wickedness.

    Or perhaps not. But the Biblical witness does not seem to allow us to view Malthus as the only game in town.


  2. I guess what I mean is that this extra dimension is deliberate and personal, and its mission is to subvert and sabotage any sort of altruism and collaboration that might rear its head to contest Malthus.

    We see peace initiatives the world over, and then we find people who cannot abide peaceful coexistence and find it necessary to sabotage it. (In g-d's name, naturally.)


  3. I've only just read this series from beginning to here.

    I don't believe in original sin either. And the Contours of Pauline Theology book is now on my to read list.

    But there I'm parting company. First of all (and I'm splitting hairs here) I don't like your Malthusian reference. Partly 'cause the guy was a reactionary bastard - anti-migrant, anti-working class, anti-poor. Also because I think there are plenty of thinkers who would fit your analogy better - Hobbes for a start, also some of the neo-realist thinkers on international relations. (That would focus your argument on insecurity in unstable power relations and the perceived need to establish and press home personal advantage, which is where I think it's strongest, rather than on the fear of the possibility of scarce resources.)

    On the substantive issue, though, I probably have a more traditional notion of sin. I think that any failure to live as God intends separates us from God. The thing is, God intends a particular form of communal life for us - reflecting God's own form of existence in the Trinity - and so any individual failure makes it impossible for any of us to live as God intends, resulting in a state of sin that cannot be said to be internal to any of us (except in the sense that we internalise learned behaviour) but which affects all of us. So in this world, (and following the first sin), sin is inevitable but it is society rather than human nature that is fallen. (I would however go further and say that as we have corrupted the physical world as well, we probably are fallen even before we are born, as our physical and mental development in our mother's womb is probably stunted by factors like diet, environmental degradation, stress etc)

    I think the antidote to that is empathy, which I define as an emotional connection that aligns your interests with those of others by sharing their reactions to events in their lives. But total redemption is impossible without liberating the whole of society because individual relations of empathy can't address the fundamental problem of sin which needs to be dealt with once and for all in a single moment.

  4. Hi qb,
    Models like this do tend to oversimplify. Mainly I saw these diagrams in my head and just had to make the slides...

    Responding to your comment I do think there is something "more" to human evil and my model isn't going to explain horrific human acts.

    But my target isn't the nadir case but rather the workaday existence of humanity. To wit: Today billions of people around the world got up, engaged in their day's work, came home, and enjoyed some rest, conversation, and time with friends and family. That was the day for the vast majority of humanity. In short, humans don't appear, empirically speaking, to be a depraved lot. We certainly are not angels. But we tend to be sensible and sober.

    Yes, we are capable of great evil and many horrible acts were committed today. But when it comes to Original Sin we tend to suffer from selection bias, disregarding the vast, silent ocean of humanity that behaved in a perfectly respectable way today. And on that score, I think Augustine missed his mark.

    Hi Tim,
    To defend my selection of Malthus, I think his Essay does a better job of highlighting the biological contingencies I'm interested in (e.g., food, population, scarcity, death rates) than Leviathan. In my opinion at least.

    On a different note, you use the phrase "separates us from God." That formulation comes up a lot when people talk about sin. But, to be honest, I don't really know what people mean by it. Do you mean that God "leaves"? Or do you mean that he's still "there" but simply "uncooperative" or "upset"?

  5. Your view of sin and salvation looks to be more in line with humanism than Christianity. I find myself gravitating there as well.

  6. Pecs,
    Oh, I'm a big fan of humanism. Interestingly, Charles Taylor in his book The Secular Age shows how humanism actually grew out the Christian notion of agape. Humanism is just a recent, immanent off-shoot of Christianity.

  7. Richard, that's a question I can't fully answer (as you well know!).

    But I think of God has constrained by his own nature and don't think of God as omnipotent in the sense that many do. Just as Chrisian freedom means we are slaves to God rather than slaves to the world, I see God's omnipotence as being a slave to His own perfect, loving, creative nature. Perhaps that means God is restricted from particular kinds of actions. This doesn't have to be just about the old chestnuts of God respecting the free will of human beings, or the suggestion that by ignoring sin and engaging in the same way with us God would be sanctioning behaviour that causes suffering. (Although there may be some level of truth to them, I have never been comfortable with defences that see them as enough on their own.) There are other possibilities. What if, for example (and here I may stray into heresy, but it is only a possible example), God was worried that direct engagement with humans who were continuing to disregard his intentions for good living would somehow corrupt His own nature? That would be disastrous for all humanity. Perhaps it wasn't guaranteed that Jesus would remain sinless but it was a desperated throw of the dice where God hoped that by maintaining communion with Him and the Holy Spirit Jesus could remain blameless and so create that direct engagement with sinners God had thus far been so scared of? That's not something I believe; it's just to show my mind is open to possibilities I can't 100% fathom.

    These reflections are only my instincts and I would find it difficult to find direct biblical references for them.

    But I think this is a dilemma that you still have to deal with as part of your model. Why are human beings not so trusting of their God that they have total confidence he will provide them with their own needs? Limited resources only explain the context of our actions for a society that is already fallen. What removed us from God's grace in the first place? (This isn't a problem if you believe we were never in it, or that we were not created in the likeness of God, I suppose.)

  8. Hi Tim,
    I appreciate you taking a stab at the question. It's just been something I've puzzled over.

    More specifically, I think the tired old formulation that a Holy God cannot be in the presence of sin is nonsensical. With such a view, how could one even try to explain the Incarnation or Jesus' welcoming sinners to table fellowship? Surely God can be in the presence of sin. As far as I can tell, he does it everyday, all the time.

    Perhaps your notion of self-limitation is the way forward here, but, as you note, those ideas get speculative.

    On a different note, you raise a good question about how the Malthusian world got started. Here are two ideas:

    1.) The Malthusian situation is the product of being expelled from the garden. We inherit death from Adam which leads to sin. (This is a variant of the Orthodox view.) That is, we inherit a fallen creation from Adam rather than an innate rot within our souls. The problem with this view is how do we explain Adam's fall? Surely Adam wasn't conceived in Sin. If not, then why was he tempted? What was the appeal of the apple? Many thinkers, from Milton to C.S. Lewis, have struggled to describe a Pre-fall condition where a fall was a latent possibility without implicating God in the whole mess.

    2.) An Irenaean (as opposed to an Augustinian) view of human history, where there was no "Eden" as a state of perfection (see John Hick's work on Irenaean theodicy). In this view, human pre-history looked a lot like what we see in the human anthropological record.

    I tend to go with #2. I struggle with the notion that Eden was a real place and that Adam and Eve were real historical people. Of course, I'm open to the possibility, but when you throw talking snakes into the mix I tend to think a historical reading isn't being demanded of me.

    Finally, going back to your first comment, I am planning to work Hobbes into some of these posts.

  9. Richard, your idea about "the vast majority of humans" having behaved respectably and honorably and soberly today may tell us more about you than it does about us. All we know about that is what we can see with our eyes or hear with our ears.

    One of the things I'd like to explore someday is the idea that we only interact with surfaces, not with the full dimensions of things. I cannot know anything about the inside of any (non-transparent) object without cutting it open...but when I do, all I see are the cut surfaces again. When I shake your hand, my only true interaction is at the skin/skin interface. If my head gets hit by a wrecking ball, my only interaction with that ball is at the steel/skin interface. When I observe Nancy Pelosi or Charles Grassley, all I can gather is what reflects into my eyes from the surface of their faces. So their truest behavior is unknown to me.

    Imagine we could get everyone's honest answer to your question, "did you behave in a perfectly respectable and sensible way today?"

    The answers certainly hinge on how the semantic range of "behave" is distilled into a precise meaning by each person. You seem to be a pretty generous-spirited, optimistic dude. Confronted with Jesus as a behavioral paradigm, and forced to deal with interior behaviors as well as what other see me do, I have to answer, "no." But somebody tagging along with me might answer on my behalf, "yes," not knowing what I alone can know.

  10. Richard,

    I came on board with the last post, but your comment about the majority of humanity going to work and coming home, etc., strikes me as missing the point of Augustine and Calvin's (among others) doctrine of original sin/total depravity.

    As I understand it, their thrust is that in describing the situation in terms of radical evil versus normality is missing the point. When people wake up, they may or may not be thankful for all that they have; when they go to work, they may sexually harass a coworker or act selfishly or be inhospitable or ignore a poor person; when they take a break they might be dishonest and take more time than is allotted; when they leave they might resent having to pick up the kids; when they get home they might be unkind to their spouse; when they eat they might not be grateful for food; when they have extra time they might zone out watching violent or pornographic television rather than spend time with friends or family; and so on.

    I don't think we necessarily need "Original Sin" in the sense that it has often been argued to allow for this reality or to address it; but to treat is as something that is not supremely serious, morally damaging, and destructive to both self and community is to misunderstand the reality and effects of sin. I don't think you are doing that; but I think it can be a temptation in the way you set up the world as either depraved or angels.

    I agree that "depraved" is just about as wrong a word as we can have to describe sin theologically. But the point it seeks to drive home, in my opinion, cannot be lost.

  11. qb,
    I understand what you are saying. Just to clarify (or, more likely, to muddy the waters some more)...

    I'm not saying that humans are angels. And, true, if you cut to the inside lots of icky stuff is to be found.

    But what I find remarkable is how well we do, as a species, at keeping that icky stuff from ruining our collective existences. It's a remarkable bit of collective self-restraint.

    Again, I contend that the vast majority of people are just trying to get through their day. True, they have their foibles, temptations, and hang-ups, and the often succumb. But, amazingly, given all the icky stuff on the inside, most people tend to get through their day without damaging humankind.

    But if someone insists that this collective behavior warrants the labels "evil" or "totally depraved," well, I'm flummoxed. Because I do have notions of what "total depravity" and "evil" look like and I don't see those as the norm. I see evil as an all to common deviation from the norm, and I don't wish to minimize it, but it's called "evil" for a reason: It's not the norm.

  12. Brad,
    I think we just cross-posted.

    I totally agree with your analysis. What I was aiming at wasn't to say humans weren't sinful. This entire series is about how and why we are sinful. My comments were mainly against hyperbolic rhetoric, all too common in Christian groups, about Original sin. The point is, my model can't explain or support a hyperbolic view of Original Sin (humans are "depraved" or "evil"). But my response is that I don't have to support that view because I don't think it's accurate. I think my model does better with a more realistic assessment of human sinfulness per your very nice description of it in your comment.

  13. Cross-Posting: A New Philosophical-Theological Phenomenon; a 12-part series by Richard Beck.

    I think I hear you. Would you say that your polemical object in these posts is less Augustine/Calvin's construal of Original Sin/Total Depravity than the popular level versions of them? I understand that you're still shifting the ground away from their emphases, but it does sound like you are engaging the on-the-ground notion of "everyone is totally depraved because we are steeped in sin at birth." Which, of course, seems right, because theologies/doctrines always need to be assessed concretely and not in some pristine original author's tome of an explication.

    Either way, I'm with you; and I'm glad to have experienced my first cross-posting.

  14. I take your piont, Richard. But what if we were simply to measure "evil" by the percentage of global GDP devoted to suppressing it worldwide? By that measure, we add together our military, intelligence, police at all scales, legislative bodies, the entire judicial branch at all scales, big chunks of the SEC and transportation departments, security cameras, all the software and hardware investments required to integrate all of that, prison administration, weapons and environmental research, a big chunk of our insurance costs, a nontrivial proportion of health care costs, security for food and fuel transportation across the high seas, environmental enforcement apparatus, the list goes on and on and on.

    Sure, some of it seems superfluous. But as we move beyond groups of 8-12 people in our various "inner circles," beyond the folks the whites of whose eyes we are able to see all of the time, the overhead required to suppress evil skyrockets.

    Ranchers are fond of styling themselves as the "first environmental stewards" because they have to take care of the land that takes care of them. But even that is fraught with pitfalls...if I don't know my downstream neighbor closely and well, what's a little pollution going to hurt if noone downstream can measure it reliably? That same scenario plays out a gajillion times a day at tiny, tiny scales. Surely there must be a cumulative effect on our world.

    Nice work on this Malthus thread, though. I'm in general sympathy with the idea that we should own the evil that belongs to us but that it's also counterproductive to try to own more than that.


  15. One last thought. Many thinkers have observed what happens to the probability of systemic evil as groups grow from the platoon scale to the scale of the nation-state. That implies, doesn't it, that the act of banding together entities at a smaller scale into an entity at a larger scale introduces some kind of ineluctable force that gives rise to evil?

    And in the Malthusian context, if others band together to make themselves more competitive for resources, doesn't that force my hand if I want to survive, so that I must also band together with other groups, increasing the likelihood of evil simply because of the scale of interaction?

    Finally, to the piont of your series here, aren't you suggesting that the "ineluctable force" that pushes us to band together at larger and larger scales - echoes of globalism here - is essentially resource scarcity? At what piont do those forces move from the morally inert, self-preservation mode to the morally degraded, nest-feathering mode? Where is the crossover from need to greed, and what is it that gives us a push? Is it Malthus, or something sinister looking over his shoulder?

    Just musing aloud,


  16. Is it possible that the prevailing
    soteriological model of the "Christian faith" has created a Malthusian predicament concerning God Himself - His accessibility and acceptance of us?

    If God's acceptance is percieved as partial (vs. all inclusive), might that foster a similar urgent, competitive, zero-sum reality in the practice of our "faith" (as if battling food, water, housing, energy shortages AND the inevitability of death aren't already enough)?

    Bibilical history records that Adam/Eve "wanted more" despite what appeared to be a perfect and complete enviroment.
    Lucifer "wanted more" - to be
    like the Most High, despite that
    perfect environment. The apostle John and his brother had the audacity make a play to sit by Jesus' right hand and left, and also requested fire to rain down upon the Samaritans, despite being in His literal incarnate presence.
    (yes I realize that the disciples
    are in their "fallen" state in this example). I have witnessed intense selfishness of pastors and music ministry participants of prominent churches behind closed doors.
    Apparently, Malthusian hazzards existed in the Garden, in heaven prior to the angelic rebellion, in Jesus's incarnate presence, and in supposedly Spirit-filled churches today.

    A question that has haunted me throughout this series: What will guarantee our immunity from our inclination to acquire
    "more" or to be superior to others when arriving in our "perfected resurrected bodies" and spending the remainder of eternity in His literal presence?

    Gary Y.

  17. Richard,

    Your posts and the responses have been enriching. Personally, I think both Augustine and Calvin brilliant but damaged and sick sons of bitches in their take on humanity. Malthus also. Freud, another brilliant but sick misanthrop called it projection (which he himself did in infantilizing sexuality). Biblically, sin is an action, a transgression, a missing of the mark. Socially, it shapes our active senses and brain early on. Ask anyone traumatized who has the words to express their trauma. Sorting out individual and collective motives--ontological states--into good and bad belongs Biblically to God and God alone. And sometimes even God seems misanthropic.

    Blessings anyway,

    George C.

  18. Hi Brad,
    Hmmmm. I don't know if I have a polemical point, but if I did I think I'd agree that I'm aiming at some of the more popular notions of Original Sin than Augustine himself. However, I think my ideas to ding him a bit in that by focusing on extrinsic factors I am shifting the "responsibility" for sin onto God a bit, creating those theodic tensions you and I chatted about a few posts ago.

    Some of what you are talking about fits with what Tim noted as Thomas Hobbes's position. That is, a great deal of the worst evil in the world is when nations get into Hobbesian traps with each other. I'm hoping to stick that idea in a future post. And, at root, the inherent immorality of large social groups is what Niebuhr was talking about in Moral Man and Immoral Society

    I think you make a fantastic point. I've also been musing about if Christians are behaving like salvation is a finite Malthusian resource.

    Here's an analogy. Baby birds fight with each other to get the food from the mouth of the Momma Bird. It's a Malthusian pressure that creates rivalry in the nest. And it often seems like the baby birds we call "churches" seem to fight as rivals to get the worm (grace) from God.

  19. George,
    I love your comments. "damaged and sick sons of bitches..." You made my day with that. (And I'm on board with the indictment sitting behind the sentiment.)

  20. *chuckle*

    One professor to another...I suppose this is where the value of tenure comes in, right?

    BTW, the number of tithing saints in a community IS a finite resource, so perhaps our churches should be merging and hiring Senior Pastors who know how to outcompete their peers for cheeks in the seats.

    Just a Malthus-inspired thought, totally devoid of any bitterness whatsoever, that nobody else has had, I'm sure.

    (As to Niebuhr, how is it that social groups - which form primarily as a result of collective choices by individuals - can be said to have "inherent" immorality at all? Isn't that immorality actually derivative, conceived somehow by whatever it was that tempted the individuals to throw in their lots with one another? That's the part I don't get. Don't bother with this; I just need to read Niebuhr, I guess, and I need to do it before I have a b33r with Coop.)


  21. First, you are presupposing that the parties don't have certain convictions, or beliefs that prohibit, or deter them from colaborating...so it may not be due to a "game" of "win/loose". Your win/loose scenario seems to be based purely on economics. Surely, there are those of us who choose to behave in certain ways that have nothing to do with economics...

    Whenever the power brokers leave out any voice in a discussion of vision, resources to acquire the vision, and how things are to be done, then, have they acted in a "trustworthy" way? Are leaders to be followed blindly?

    We need both the Republican and Democrat on board from the beginning in deciding and implementing policy, as this balances power, and maintains/corrects abuses, in holding each accountable to "balance". Otherwise, one side's decision rules, and this is when hopefully, fillabuster works to deter the other side's aim to sabatoge all right of voice....even the puny little person on the street has a voice in his vote to be represented.

    In your model, absolute power decides without input from the other side, which is unjust, whether one talks of social contract, or trial by jury...so, the result is the "victim" gets something, rather than nothing. That seems "fair", doesn't it, after all the "leader" is the one that sets vision. The follower should just shut up and do what he is supposed to do, "follow".

    No, I believe that when one starts out in an unjust way, then things grow worse and worse, due to the compounding of "sin", that is, covering up and over what was done in the first place, deciding in isolation what another's life will have or not have. That is unethical, whether you want to theologize it or not. And if you believe that that is "correct" theology, then that is not a God I would desire to serve. (Aren't leaders to represent God's character most of all?)

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