Game theory could explain humanity’s biggest problem
Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker argues that while the Enlightenment idea of using knowledge to improve human well-being is not natural to us, it is vital to social progress.
One hurdle facing great progress has to do with game theory, especially with situations involving the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons describes the predicament in which people independently pursue their own interests, leading to over-exploitation and eventually depletion of the common resource, ultimately detrimental to the welfare of all.
According to Pinker, one example of the tragedy of the commons is publicly shared beliefs. A person may have an incentive to believe in something because it will make him look good in the eyes of other people. But if enough people behave this way, the likely consequence is that fewer people will be interested in a serious search for truth.
However, Pinker maintains a hopeful outlook. He cites advances in science and morality as evidence of progress, and argues that humanistic values have an inherent advantage in that they appeal to universal human desires and shared experiences.
STEVEN PINKER: The ideals of the Enlightenment – that we can use knowledge to improve human well-being – are not entirely natural. For most of our history and prehistoric times, there was no knowledge on which to act, such as reducing the spread of infection, reducing tribal warfare, or extending life. Until recently, it would have been madness to even hope for it. So it’s not intuitive and there’s always a tendency to backtrack.
For example, there is a disregard for scientific discoveries, the effectiveness of vaccines, the reality of climate change. The war in Ukraine, another inflation of educational values: the idea that the ultimate good is people’s lives. For Putin, perhaps several hundred thousand people died, their schools, hospitals, their apartments turned into ruins – a small price to pay for glory and revenge for the humiliation of the Soviet Union. We are not inclined towards enlightenment humanism, but, nevertheless, we must support it. We must promote it. We need to remind ourselves of what’s so great about it.
One idea needed to understand our current predicament comes from “game theory.” Game theory is: what is the sensible thing to do if you are in a situation where the outcome depends on what other rational people do. And The Tragedy of the Commons is a game-theoretic predicament where what everyone does rationally for themselves leaves everyone worse off when everyone does it. There are many situations in which we face tragedy in common use: if I wait for a bus in the rain instead of driving my SUV, I won’t be saving the climate, so it makes sense for me to take an SUV. Well, if everyone thinks that, then we’re all in danger of being cooked. Another arena in which we have the tragedy of the commons is rationality itself. Do you have a person who thinks, “Should I believe this or that? Well, if I believe this, I will be a hero to all the people who are important to me.” Another member of the group thinks the same, and another member, and they all think, “Well, if you doubt it, then you make us look stupid and evil.” And if everyone believes this, then you can have two sides, each of which is, as it were, individually rational in the sense that each receives the respect of its friends, its friends, its colleagues, but the whole society is in a worse position, because you are just warring tribes instead of a joint search for truth. In the case of comments about rationality, you want adherence to the truth to be more important than a slogan that makes your side look good, so that everyone enjoys what is objectively good for everyone.
With all the threats from identitarian left and right populists, nationalist leaders and religious fundamentalists, is there any hope? Civilization as a whole tends to slowly drift towards greater rationality. Our science really knows more than 50 or 100 years ago. Many superstitions have been pushed to the sidelines. Not only factual beliefs, but also moral beliefs. Slavery, thank God, we no longer have such debates, but 150 years ago in our country they did. Disenfranchisement of women, criminalization of homosexuality, segregation in schools. The list of things we have actually made progress on goes on. Humanist values have a kind of inherent advantage when you think about them, as they are the only things you can defend when you are negotiating with someone who looks like you. We would all rather be alive than dead. We prefer to be healthy than sick. We prefer to be educated than ignorant and illiterate. There is a long list of things that we share because we are human despite all our differences in race and religion and ethnicity and nationality – Enlightenment humanism simply addresses this common humanity. It’s not particularly intuitive, but always has a built-in advantage.
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