A Short Piece

What Does Religion Have to Do With Game Theory?

Have “nonrational” religious virtues played a role in overcoming Nash Equilibria in society?

Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado

I’ve started to think the religions knew something we didn’t. Maybe they got lucky, but luck works out well enough. What I mean by this is that religions emphasized virtues like gratitude, mercy, charity, and forgiveness (just to name a few), which, if we think about, are all irrational. If our home is destroyed by a hurricane, there’s something foolish about making ourselves feel grateful for “still being alive.” Sure, it’s a good practice, but it can feel obscene, like an act of “denial.” If our neighbor steals from our garage, it would be rational to call the cops and irrational to forgive him, right? Ah, we might say “not at all,” but that just suggests how much we have been influenced by religion without realizing it.

Episode #10: Lorenzo Barberis Canonico on Neurodiversity, Collective Intelligence, and Game Theory

We may think forgiveness is rational, but that might suggest we’ve been influenced too much by Kant or something. That, or we might be determining forgiveness is rational from the collective or resulting benefits that we then project back onto the individual decision, but this is a mistake similar to believing a “nonrational” decision was “actually rational” because it solved a Nash Equilibrium. Sure, in a sense, this is true, but if we lose sight of how “nonrationality” (and even “irrationality”) played a role, we’ll misunderstand how we rose to the occasion. Worse yet, we may fail to appreciate the necessary role of “nonrationality” (and religion, by extension).

Think about it: our neighbor came into our garage and stole something that wasn’t theirs. Our neighbor chose to do this — he wasn’t forced — and so it’s simply basic “cause and effect” for the neighbor to then be punished. If we forgive the neighbor, we’re ignoring the evidence: we’re treating the neighbor like he didn’t do anything wrong. We’re ignoring reality and acting like nothing happened, when something very much in fact happened.

Get it? There’s something about “forgiveness” that is irrational and willfully blind, and I think similar cases could be made about most virtues. Why is this important to acknowledge? Because we may fail to identify how virtues could be solutions to “Nash Equilibriums” and/or “rational impasses” precisely because they are “nonrational.” Worse yet, if we eventually realize the “nonrational” character of virtues and mistakenly conflate “nonrational” and “irrational,” we’ll likely assume the only role of virtues is control and spreading foolishness, and so disregard vital solutions to Game Theory quandaries in the name of freedom.

Game Theory is a topic I’ve discussed in the past with Lorenzo Barberis Canonico, and basically a “Nash Equilibrium” (or what I call a “rational impasse”) is a situation where rational action leads to suboptimal results. Often, we have assumed that if all actors in a situation are rational, then “the best of all possible outcomes” will likely arise, but Game Theory has taught us that we can’t be so sure. To make a long story short, it isn’t the case that “rational” is always a simile for “best”; in fact, doing what’s rational is precisely what could get us into trouble. And my point is that this is where religious virtues could play a critical role, a role that may cease to be filled if religions wane (and we as a society don’t appreciate the role religions played in solving “rational impasses”).

If someone hurts us, forgiveness is either irrational or “nonrational,” for all the evidence shows us that the person did indeed hurt us, and the very act of forgiving the person could enable that individual to hurt us again in the future. Worse yet, because we forgive the person, he or she may go out and hurt others: had we put the person in jail, we could have protected those later victims. In this way, there is plenty of rational reason not to forgive, and yet religions teach that we need to forgive. Are religions insane? Well, maybe, but what happens to a social order where (rationally) no one forgives? Society begins to break down. Trust vanishes. Tribes form. Isolationism sets in. Everyone makes mistakes — some more egregious than others — and if there is no forgiveness, it is only a matter of time before it’s “rational” for the social order to dissolve. But though this would arguably be a “rational outcome,” it would not be the “best outcome” — rationality would rationally commit suicide.

But what does this mean? It means we must be vulnerable and willing to suffer with no guarantee of a return on our investment (an act which is “individually irrational”). We must either irrationally or “nonrationally” make ourselves vulnerable “toward” people relative to whom it is rational to never interact with again. There’s frankly something crazy about this, but it’s necessary. And so the wisdom of religions to place martyrs, self-sacrifice, and the like at the center of their message — it all starts to become clear.

Religions, it seems, didn’t just help us get into heaven: they also helped us solve “rational impasses” by making it “God’s Will” for us to do “un-rational” actions which were necessary for societies to avoid Nash Equilibriums and suboptimal results. Yes, religions could threaten the public with Hell and Eternal Damnation, but it’s not easy to get people to do things that are “individually irrational” but “collectively/ultimately beneficial” (though obviously “afterlife doctrines” could be used for private gain too). Myths, rituals, traditions — maybe all of these enterprises were in the business of convincing people to accept actions that hurt them as individuals (and even seemed insane to do) for the sake of their futures, for their neighbors, and/or for the society as a whole. Many people perhaps never saw the fruits of their “irrational decisions” which contributed to “optimal results,” thus the need for doctrines of “rewards after death,” “self-sacrifice,” and “self-forgetfulness.” Maybe there are “nonrational” reasons to nearly everything religions do that only make sense through the lens of Game Theory?

Hard to say.

If a couple never forgives one another, the relationship will collapse, and it’s easily the case that the couple would have been happier had the relationship survived. Perhaps not, but if couples only ever acted rationally, then the likelihood of them discerning or “making it to” the best outcome would be low. Usually, when couples are hurt, there is “good reason” for the pain: two people who love each other don’t tend to get upset for totally “ungrounded reasons” (at least not at the start of “the drama”). To avoid the problem compounding into something dire, “irrational” and/or “nonrational” action is needed: there seems to be no other way to avoid the “Nash Equilibrium” (arguably, most “relationship guides” are in the business of Game Theory, not that they realize it). And so it goes with society as a whole (which relies on “trust,” just like relationships), and traditionally it was religion which helped manage — and convince people to do — (individually) “nonrational” behavior for the sake of optimal outcomes.

When life is good, gratitude is “cheap”: it “costs” us little (and arguably isn’t even “gratitude,” just “acknowledgment” of circumstance). The power of gratitude comes precisely from the moments when it is radically irrational to be grateful, to instead lament and scream. The power of thanksgiving, forgiveness, love — it all comes from the key moments of highest nonrationality (and/or individual “irrationality”), which could be confused with insanity. It’s precisely when we’re hurt and most devastated and thus hardest for us to do “the nonrational” that “the nonrational” because most effective. But again, this is so incredibly hard that the support of myth and “divine reward” might be necessary to convince the majority to go through with it, and if it is indeed the case that “nonrational actions” are necessary for overcoming Nash Equilibriums, then there might not be any other option than the use of myths and rewards. Perhaps today we no longer need that support to do what is individually “nonrational,” but I’d be surprised.

(Do note that just because religion may entail a function to overcome Nash Equilibriums, it doesn’t follow that therefore religion is false and only survives because of its social “use.” On the contrary, some believers may claim that the social advantages of religion are evidence that the world was indeed made by God to be religious — such claims are outside the scope of this paper.)

Today, there is a lot of talk about religions just being wild fantasies that have nothing to do with reality, but this sentiment suggests a bias that assumes “If it isn’t rational, it isn’t real.” If it is indeed the case that “pure rationality” can lead us into “Nash Equilibriums,” then defining “only rationality as real” will inevitably cause us terrible problems, problems of which we’ll only have rationality to solve, even though it was “pure rationality” that got us into the mess in the first place. Will arrive at “rational impasses” and find ourselves only equipped with rationality to use as a key. And the lock will not accept it.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that religions are in the business of “nonrationalities,” which can certainly entail “(individual) irrationalities,” but if we take Game Theory seriously, a world without “nonrationalities” will end up suboptimal. Perhaps we’re not wrong to assume that erasing religion will increase rationality; rather, our mistake rests in assuming that the result will be best.




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