Ars Disputandi, which is a journal on the philosophy of religion, has a review of what looks like a very interesting book using game theory to analyze stories in the Old Testament. Game theory is part of the rational-actor branch of social science. It attempts to understand social interactions by creating mathematical models of different “games” and then deriving the optimal strategy for pursuing those games. The most famous example is the so-called prisoner’s dilemma. (The optimal strategy in a single round game is to rat; in a multi-round game it is to co-operate and punish non-cooperators). So here is an exmple of applying this kind of thing to the Bible.
Consider the story of the Fall. God is playing a “game” with Adam and Eve. (In game theory lingo a “game” is not something you do for fun or amusment, etc. It simply means a situation in which people make strategic choices.) God has two choices: He can give them a commandment or not give them a commandment. Adam and Eve have two choices: They can follow God or not follow God. Combining these choices we have four possible outcomes, which can be represented by this box:
We now rank the different potential outcomes for each team. 4 is the best outcome and 1 is the worst outcome. If we assume that God prefers unthreatened obedience to everything and would prefer anything to consequenceless disobedience by Adam and Eve, then you get the rankings represented by the first set of numbers in the boxes. If you make the assumption that Adam and Eve would prefer disobedience to obedience and no punishment to punishment, then you get the rankings represented by the second set of numbers in the boxes. Still with me?
Now imagine that God is trying to figure out which “strategy” to adopt. Should he issue a commandment or not? If he doesn’t issue a commandment, then there is the possiblity that Adam and Eve will follow him without any threatening, which would be his most favored outcome. However, knowing Adam and Eve’s preferences, God will expect them to abandon him without any consequences, which is their most preferred outcome and his least preferred outcome. On the other hand, if he imposes a commandment, he loses out on the possiblity of completely voluntary obedience (his most preferred option), but he also forecloses the possiblity of consequenceless disobedience, his least prefered option. Faced with a choice between obedience and disobedience in the presence of a commandment, Adam and Eve will still choose disobedience, but God will still prefer the outcome to the one that he could have gotten without imposing a commandment. (Look at the boxes, God gets his 2 rather than his 1). Thus the story in Genesis is explained. It represents what is called a Nash Equilibrium (named after the John Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame), namely niether party has any incentive to change their strategy since they cannot get a more desired outcome by doing so. This also explains why you get the same outcome if Adam and Eve “move” first, ie if they choose whether or not to follow God and God, after the fact, chooses whether to impose a commandment or not.*
Of course the whole “game” depends on rather arbitrarily assigning preferences to God and Adam and Eve, so there is something rather ad hoc to say the least about the way that game theory “explains” this story. Still it is fun.
* Here is how it works: If Adam and Eve choose “Disobedience” they know that God will choose “Impose.” If they choose “Obedience” they know that God will choose “Not-Impose.” In a choice between “Disobedience/Impose” and “Obedience/Not-Impose,” Adam and Eve prefer the latter (ranking 2) to the former (ranking 1). Hence they will always choose to disobey.