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Sci Tech    H2'ed 10/14/20

The Curse of Game Theory: Why It's in Your Self-Interest to Exit the Rules of the Game

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"Human behaviour is not entirely motivated by self-interest of each human---game theory works in terms of self-interest, but---some game theory concepts could be unsound. There is over-dependence on rationality. That is my enlightenment"---John Nash, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994 for his "landmark" work beginning in the 1950s on game theory.

Game theory, the mathematical theory of games of strategy, was developed by John von Neumann in several successive stages in 1928 and 1940-41, according to his book "Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour" which he co-authored with Oskar Morgenstern.

The crux of the theory is that an individuals' behaviour will always be motivated towards achieving an optimal outcome, which is determined by self-interest. An assumption made is that the players in such a game are rational, which translates to, "will strive to maximize their payoffs in the game". In other words, it is assumed they are motivated by selfish self-interests.

Over the years, other contributors such as John Nash (Nash equilibrium) and John Maynard Smith (evolutionary stable strategy) have added to the theory and we are now at a point where it is considered by many to be an essential tool when modelling economic, political, sociological or military behaviours and outcomes, and is taught as such in many prestigious universities as something pretty much set in stone.

But what if we have made a terrible mistake?

After all, it is acknowledged by the theorists themselves that the entire functioning of their model relies upon the assumption that we are governed by rational selfish behaviour, and that they feel confident about this assumption since reality has apparently confirmed this fact to them. But what if this game is not objectively mirroring a truthful depiction of us? What if this game has rather, been used as a conditioning tool, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a positive feedback loop?

How can we know what is true? How can we know what kind of a person we truly are and not what we have been conditioned to think of ourselves as?

Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour

Before we can answer such a question, we need to look at the forms of simplification and assumptions that were used by von Neumann when formulating the philosophy to the game theory model. This may be counter-intuitive to some, but the "philosophy" or "hypothesis" must always precede the actual model. The variables you choose to use, the variables you discount for, how you define the variables, how you define the relationship between the variables are not being defined by the model, but rather the creator of the model. Once the model is created it can now, theoretically, add to that beginning structure and mimic a simplified version of reality.

However, we should keep in mind that a model that has been created on a false hypothesis could still "function," if the variables are not too much in contradiction to the other variables' operations. Such a model is not "aware" that it is not a representation of "reality," and cannot indicate so to its creator. Thus, a model can be a representation of a simplified reality or it can represent a completely artificial reality.

At the beginning of von Neumann's book, he goes through several disclaimers which are highly problematic towards the relevance of his theory, one of them being the acknowledgement that "there exists, at present, no satisfactory treatment of the question of rational behavior. There may, for example, exist several ways by which to reach the optimum position; they may depend upon the knowledge and understanding which the individual has and upon the paths of action open to them, because they imply, as must be evident, quantitative relationships."

As becomes rapidly evident, von Neumann makes endless assertions such as these, as if they were obvious and thus need not be examined at all. The assumption that an under-defined "rational" selfish behaviour is merely quantifiable and nothing more, and does not account for qualitative change (a mathematician's worst nightmare), is taking great liberty in over-simplifying human behaviour to conveniently fit the limited parameters of his model. In other words, it is cheating. You are manipulating the definitions and interactions of your variables to fit an artificial reality of your model.

Let me give you an example.

In Euclid's fifth postulate, it is considered a "rule" that two parallel lines will never intersect. Euclid was alive around the time of the mid-4th century BCE, before Eratosthenes (276-194 BCE) made his beautifully elegant discovery that the Earth was indeed curved and also made a pretty accurate first measurement of the size of Earth.

That is, Euclid assumed a linear geometric space upon which the real universe was expected to "fit". While it is true that two parallel lines will never meet on a two-dimensional plane, they can meet on a three-dimensional plane.

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Cynthia Chung is a lecturer, writer and co-founder and editor of the Rising Tide Foundation (Montreal, Canada).

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7 people are discussing this page, with 11 comments


David William Pear

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Yes, human beings and economics are not a zero sum game. Competition and violence is destructive. U.S, foreign policy, imperialism and war crimes of aggression are perfect examples of that. With cooperation everyone can be better for it.

Immagine the U.S., Western Europe, China, Iran and Israel cooperating to build modern infrastructure, help the poor, clean up pollution, and provide for their citizens.

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2020 at 3:29:19 PM

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Blair Gelbond

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Gandhi, who, to all appearances sacrificed much, said that everything he did was for himself. The Dalai Lama has spoken about "enlightened selfishness." Ecologists have come around to accept that cooperation, rather than competition is the principle by which our larger ecology works.

The theory (or law) of karma suggests that - "What goes around, comes around" - sooner or later. In tennis we cooperate (agree) to compete.

If we hope to survive, we will need to move beyond the "Me (or 'America') First" assumption - transcending the belief that we are a separate ego and growing into a state of "inter-being" with the world.

When will we learn that altruism - in the long run - benefits the giver in countless ways?

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2020 at 5:38:23 PM

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Maxwell

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"In tennis we cooperate (agree) to compete."

An interesting example of competitive cooperation in sports is bicycle racing. It's much easier to ride behind someone else, "drafting" so that the rider in front does most of the work of overcoming air resistance, which is how "pelotons" form. Eventually, though, in order to win the yellow jersey you have to break away. It makes for very interesting strategy.

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2020 at 7:16:12 PM

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Blair Gelbond

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Good one, Maxwell!

Our own survival as a species depends on our learning the art of cooperation!

Submitted on Friday, Oct 16, 2020 at 1:47:14 AM

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"If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize that isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards that's not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)

I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that's all I want to say."

-- Martin Luther King Jr.

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2020 at 5:45:34 PM

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My education in game theory started a long time ago during my mis-spent undergraduate years, when my college library was having a "Dutch Book Sale" (why it was called that I don't know. Probably an ethnic stereotype unacceptable today): everything on the table was 5 bucks today, four bucks next day, etc. until eventually everything was free. On the table the first day was John von Neumann's classic book on game theory. I was pretty interested but my resources were limited, so I decided to leave it for another day. Next day it was gone. I didn't know whether my strategy, such as it was, was optimal, or the library's strategy to maximize revenues was optimal, because I didn't read the book.

A lot of interesting ideas in this article. A mathematical system, designed for internal consistency assuming certain fundamental axioms, can be used to model certain aspects of the complicated real world, as long as we understand its limitations. Euclidean geometry is great for calculating dimensions for carpentry but if we assume the earth is flat, over great distances we get into trouble. Riemann's non-euclidean geometry was used by Einstein about 100 years later for his general theory of relativity. All of these abstractions including theoretical physics are basically stick figure representations of reality, useful approximations under certain conditions. That includes the "zero sum" model. If we apply it to a closed tank of water we're usually fine. Applying it to economic resources without accounting for value added by human labor would be folly. A lot of preposterous predictions are made by mis-applying a model to the situation at hand. As David William Pear points out, conducting foreign policy as if it were the same as winning a chess match (which today's supercomputers can do pretty reliably) has destructive and deadly consequences. Nobody dies when you swap your queen for two rooks.

The notion that the trajectory of the nine planets is more complicated to model than that of the molecules in a container of gas is absurd, but true in a certain sense. The exact positions of the planets at some time in the future is something that might be useful to know, but does not lend itself to a mathematical formula you can simply plug the time into and get all the positions. The "N body problem" is in principle exactly determined by Newton's laws but in practice can only be solved to the degree of approximation acceptable to your application using the computational resources at your disposal. The positions of all the molecules in a jar of air is far less tractable, to the extent that no conceivable supercomputer could solve it in the time since the big bang, but it wouldn't really be a useful thing to know. In fact, if you could know them, the first thing you would probably do is average them to find useful things, like pressure and temperature. Those things can be predicted just fine by classical thermodynamics.

One of the great mis-applied assumptions in economic theory is that people behave rationally to serve their interests. Unless you are, say, hauling lumber for a living, does it really make sense for most people to purchase big shiny expensive fuel guzzling pickup trucks such as are advertised daily on network TV?

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2020 at 7:01:43 PM

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Carol Jackson

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I remember as a youth playing monopoly, sometimes a player would cheat and take money from the bank or trade properties with another player to gain advantage. Of course that ruined the game for everyone. Later in life I found that people in real life activities cheat too, in banking and car dealing for example. So people just say well life isn't always fair. Cheating and scamming can go into complex degrees, and so even appear as to be acceptable, normal or rational behavior. Politics plays a major roll in cheating because it gives the cheating politician an awesome advantage in connections and power. Banking has essentially become a license to steal but it's so commonplace that no one seems to care or notice, How all this will play out, long term is hard to say but I think there will be pain. I think Darwin, viewing modern society, might have concluded that cheating would be a significant component in the survival of the fittest scenario.

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2020 at 9:30:31 PM

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shad williams

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But what if we have made a terrible mistake?

Indeed. What if having infinite knowledge was fundamental to reality? What if we designed AI with imperfect access to infinite knowledge and gave it varying levels of control over critical existential human infrastructure, could humans be considered rational? AI? The murdering, lying evil ruling elites - are they rational? You didn't think I was going to let those bastards off the hook did you?

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2020 at 9:44:16 PM

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Game theory was advanced 8 years before John Nash won the Nobel Prize, with the publication of Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse. The zero-sum game is just one of the games we can choose. Yes, the Dominator Paradigm teaches and enforces the rules of that game, and it's apparently the game von Neumann assumed to be "the game," but Carse sees it otherwise:

"Where the finite player plays for immortality, the infinite player plays as a mortal. In infinite play one chooses to be mortal inasmuch as one always plays dramatically, that is, toward the open, toward the horizon, toward surprise, where nothing can be scripted. It is a kind of play that requires complete vulnerability."

"The finite play for life is serious; the infinite play of life is joyous. Infinite play resounds throughout with a kind of laughter. It is not laughter at others who have come to an unexpected end, having thought they were going somewhere else. It is laughter with others with whom we have discovered that the end we thought we were coming to has unexpectedly opened. We laugh not at what has surprisingly come to be impossible for others, but over what has surprisingly come to be possible with others."

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 14, 2020 at 10:35:07 PM

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Blair Gelbond

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An enlightened view...!

Submitted on Friday, Oct 16, 2020 at 1:50:13 AM

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Euclid was right as he would know that lines on a ball can also never meet if they remained truly parallel by not attaching or restricted to touching the surface. What the illustration also does not mention is that you can't have parallel lines on a ball or Sphere unless you go by the rules like the equator does not meet it's parallel lines.

One could draw Parallel North and South on any ball if you tried.. Euclid's law is also true in space travel and the so called curvature of space is the same as the bending of light by gravity. Which means if you presuppose lines upon touching restricted to the force of Gravity than parallel lines are also impossible.

Euclid is still the master of the universal rule and exceptions on the shapes of which to try to keep lines from touching depends on sticking to the surface as the only space but going beyond the surface of things is the point of Euclid's Rule.

Submitted on Thursday, Oct 15, 2020 at 9:20:38 PM

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