Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Not a game I'd like to play

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
For a class assignment this week at CJP, we were to watch a 4-part video series on game theory. I'll tip my hand by saying this is not a theory I'm inclined to jump on board with, but it's had some interesting consequences in its history, not all of which are bad. Check out the videos and then after the break I have some commentary...

Game Theory - Parts 1-4
(I'd embed them here, but they're not embeddable.)

First, a note on responding to YouTube videos. The videos in this series are my first introduction to game theory. I don't know the person who uploaded them to YouTube or if that person is the one who produced the videos in the first place (my guess is No, they look professionally produced and the guy's YouTube profile looks pretty not-professional). So I have no idea when or by whom these videos were produced. The danger is that I'm getting one construal of game theory that is relying on at best secondary material. The series as a whole presents a pretty coherent narrative and there is an interview with John Nash, the father of game theory, so that gives it enough credibility in my mind to make some comments here. So what I'm responding to is this story of game theory. Now with those provisos out of the way...

It seems like any theory that's born of paranoia (in this case, Cold War paranoia) is pretty much setting the stage for all that follows. In other words, how can its outworkings - explicitly or implicitly - not exhibit and encode that paranoia onto any who would accept its concepts and engage in its practices? It's a theory that's entirely predicated on a philosophical commitment to the grand Enlightenment principles of idealism, individualism, rationality, objectivity, and the unstoppable progress of Man (sic; note what happens in the experiments when women are asked to play "the game" at the Rand Corporation). All of these commitments are suspect, especially when brought into conversation with Christian theology, but also more recent philosophical and scientific work done from the late 60s onward.

Notice, for instance, when they're talking about psychiatric tools developed out of this theory and used on families, how the results of the assessments seemed to "prove" the game theory, when what was actually happening was the tools themselves were "writing" the values of game theory onto the families. It's this ignorance of story and its power that blinds those beholden to a modern scientific worldview (which includes a great number of Christians). This stuff seems to have been legion in the mid- to late-20th century (cf. eugenics and the practice of lobotomies, practiced until the 1970s). Thankfully these philosophical walls have been crumbling for decades now along with their social practices, though we still see both very much in practice and use. Old habits die hard, after all.

I was fascinated to learn that Rosenhan's landmark study from the early 70s, On Being Sane In Insane Places, was conceived amidst the game theory conversation. This study was one that I read back in my gen-ed psychology class. It was fascinating to me then and it's stayed with me over the years, so to see it pop up again here was an "ah hah" moment. So to me this signals that despite game theory's depressing view of human nature and social order, not all its results were necessarily bad. The Rosenhan study shook the psychiatry and mental health fields in ways they needed to be shaken. Sadly, it seems the powerful systems of control just shifted to accomodate for such a challenge, and now we're left with another philosophically and morally ambiguous "bible" such as the DSM-IV and the practices that cluster around that work (including my wife's professional field, counseling). THEN, enter my Marxist critique of psychiatric practice in the U.S. and it's being co-opted by powerful economics forces a.k.a. insurance companies and big pharma, brought on by my recent reading of this article: Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy - NY Times. These developments seems to be more recent than the video's production date.

Excursus: Colliding with attachment theory
One pretty strong challenge to the modernist/individualistic sciences comes from the field of attachment theory and its practice in family and couples therapy, and attachment's counterpart in the hard sciences, interpersonal neurobiology. These fields are signaling a paradigm shift in terms of a scientific theory of human nature that is social from the word "go." On the campus of EMU this past weekend we happened to host a conference called: Conversations on Attachment: Integrating the science of love and spirituality. I may say more on this conference later, but one neurobiologist described our socially constituted brains as essentially acting as "catcher's mits awaiting social contact." This statement in itself is a strong rebuke to game theory's individualistic notion of the human self, in which you are "alone" in the walls of your skin, only capable of rational self-interest and bargaining with other poor isolated souls. These two theories simply do not line up at their deep structures. While there are  plenty of critical things I could say about attachment theory from a theological perspective, it's exciting to see the sciences breaking out of the 300 year old habit of individualism. To which the long Christian tradition says (along with other ancient traditions): It's about time!

What can be said theologically? Quite simply, the Bible gives those who cluster around it as scripture a starkly different account of the way things are, in the world and within ourselves (who are indeed in the world and an integral part of it). While the reality of sin does remind us that we're sometimes selfish and greedy (like game theory), it need not be so (unlike game theory). There is no account of love whatsoever in game theory; it simply doesn't exist. Love in the Bible is costly stuff, not primarily emotional but rather profoundly ethical and social. We are to love the Lord, our God, with the very fiber of our personal and collective being as the church, and to love our neighbors as well as ourselves. At the conference this past weekend, Christian philosopher, Nancey Murphy, uttered an intriguing, attachment theory-informed version of that biblical command: "Love your neighbor as yourself....because they ARE your self!"

Further, Jesus informs us we are to love even our enemies! None of these commands and the attitudes which make them conceivable have any room for individual self-interest, as in game theory. We are not our own. Our lives are a gift from God for which we give thanks and in turn serve that glorious God by being a blessing people, to God and for the world.

In closing, game theory seems to be a late modern story that has produced profound consequences for Western societies. For today's world: How much of its influence on economic systems has stuck around? How is it being exported around the world through global hypercaptialism? And for Christians: How can we enact our story which is predicated on a radically different view and points toward radically different ends? How do we allow God's active Spirit to inscribe that story onto our bodies, members of the united body of Christ? God grant us vision to see and ears to hear, that we may proceed more faithfully.

P.S. a few hours later: In a Skype call with my classmates to discuss the videos, my wise classmate summarized game theory like so: "Well, we might as well call it 'greed theory'!" :)

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