Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Negative-Sum Game: A Sunday Rumination

     Welcome, Gentle Reader, to the Feast of Christ the King. It falls on the last Sunday of the Catholic liturgical year, which is immediately followed by the inception of the Advent season that prefaces Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. If you’ve hoped to revisit the Rumination I’ve traditionally posted on this feast day, here it is. However, what’s on my mind today is somewhat different.

     The branch of finite mathematics known as game theory partitions games in several ways. One partition is by aggregate payoff:

  1. If at the game’s end, the sum of the payoffs – losses are figured as negative payoffs – is greater than zero, the game is positive-sum.
  2. If at the game’s end, the sum of the payoffs is exactly zero, the game is zero-sum.
  3. If at the game’s end, the sum of the payoffs is less than zero, the game is negative-sum.

     (A brief digression: At one time a game was reckoned as positive-sum if an only if all players were no worse off at the end than they were at the beginning – i.e., no player lost anything. Games of that sort receive very little analytical attention, for which reason the category was redefined as I’ve stated above.)

     Real-world games that involve money are almost always zero or negative-sum. Casino gambling is the best example of a negative-sum game: “the house percentage” guarantees that. Bets between individuals are usually zero-sum; at least, I can’t think of a counterexample at the moment. Positive-sum games are much rarer. The best example of a positive-sum game is a contest in which both the winner and the loser receive a payoff from a third-party sponsor. Some sports contests and tournaments are like that. So are television game shows.

     There are parallels to be drawn between games that involve monetary stakes and “games” that consist of arguments over ideas in politics, political economy, and social currents.

     Some categories of argumentation are analogous to the partition of games delineated above. Arguments in which it’s possible for all participants to learn something may be called positive-sum. Arguments in which one participant must “defeat” the others may be called zero-sum, as long as the defeated participants lose nothing but the positions they espoused. But an argument in which all participants lose by playing would be zero-sum. An example would be an exchange from which neither participant learns anything and both depart feeling insulted, injured, or alienated. These days there are many such arguments.

     The above might have you thinking of political arguments. Indeed, many would qualify. But this is a Sunday Rumination.

     Exchanges over religious beliefs are seldom other than negative-sum. Mind you, persons of different faiths can exchange their views without arguing. I’ve certainly done so often enough. But an argument must involve the testing of some proposition against logic and the available evidence (if any). What are the usual consequences of an argument over religious beliefs?

  • Neither side is convinced of anything;
  • Seldom does either party learn anything;
  • Insults and hurt feelings are commonplace.

     Today, the most common species of “argument” that involves religious beliefs occurs between a Christian of some denomination and a militant atheist. Neither side is willing to embrace the other’s convictions. Only on the rarest occasions does either party confront any verifiable facts new to him. And yes, in the usual case there are insults and hurt feelings to deal with. Moreover – and this is what has me writing about this subject today – at least one party enters the exchange knowing that that will be the outcome.

     Why would anyone enter such a contest? What is he playing for?

     With the Christmas season almost upon us, the various pseudo-public-service pitches will proliferate once again: the ones that say “Keep Christ in Christmas” or some variation on that theme, and the ones that say “Forget the Imaginary Friends and Just Make Merry” or words to that effect. And with those pitches will flower the usual arguments – to no one’s gain I can detect or imagine.

     The “Keep Christ in Christmas” banners are largely aimed at persons who already describe themselves as Christians. More than anything else they’re an exhortation not to let one’s family’s Christmas celebration become over-commercialized. Christ, after all, is “the reason for the season.” Non-Christian Americans can certainly celebrate the holiday season in their preferred way, but for Christians remembering that we’re celebrating the Feast of the Nativity of the Son of God and the Redeemer of Mankind is obligatory.

     For some reason, militant atheists tend to become especially irritating at this time of year. It’s as if their personal options aren’t enough for them; they seem to feel a need to “educate” the rest of us about our “irrationality.” But as I’ve written on more than one occasion, any firm conviction about the supernatural is a faith in and of itself, as in the nature of things it’s non-falsifiable. The atheist can no more “prove” that there is no God than I can “prove” that there is one, an observation that only heightens the rhetorical temperature once things get started.

     Most militant atheists are bright enough to be aware that these are negative-sum games. Most of them can foresee that no one will gain and – quite likely – some folks will be seriously insulted, possibly alienated for life. So why enter into such an exchange?

     I don’t know. I have a theory, but it’s one I’d prefer to keep to myself. What I do know is that it’s important to avert such interactions, and to terminate or depart from the ones I blunder into before they become heated.

     Well, life is for living and learning, and for conferring upon others what benefits are within one’s power to create. Perhaps one of my Gentle Readers will have an insight to share. At any rate, may God bless and keep you all – and go easy on the leftovers. (No more snacking from the tray of stuffing! I saw you sneaking a glance at the fridge. It’s not even noon yet, you naughty person. What would your mother say?)



Writing as a former "militant atheist" - at least in the early days - I was pretty obnoxious about it, and (shamefully, now that I look back at it) took delight in tweaking believers.

I've returned to my believing roots; even before I did, however, I was massively ashamed at my behavior.

But I've noticed similar trends; it's like the old joke "How do you know you're talking with a vegan? They'll tell you - in the first five minutes." In other words, it's all about virtue signaling, or in the case of atheism, broadcasting that you're SOOOOOO much smarter and intellectual.

jabrwok said...

Insecurity, an obnoxious personality, the conviction of the converted and the consequent desire to share one's enlightenment...probably more reasons apply.

I try not to be militant in my atheism. If pressed I'll say I'm an intellectual agnostic (as you said, the God hypothesis is non-falsifiable) and an emotional atheist (can't make myself believe and have no particular desire to try). If I'm being snarky then I'm an Apatheist; I don't know and don't care:-D.

But at root I try to live by a version of the Golden Rule, to wit: do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. The positive formulation is too pro-active for a lazy sod like myself:-).

So anyway, I hope you had a pleasant Thanksgiving and I wish you and your readers and co-bloggers an early Merry Christmas.

Linda Fox said...

Christmas is the "Feel Good" holidays of Christians. All joy and wonderfulness. They all seem to forget the Bloody Aftermath of Christmas - the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

Easter is the more important - indeed, central - Catholic holiday. Again, the importance of this has been blanded down to the least offensive celebration - Easter bunnies, eggs, and chocolate. One thing that absolutely astounds me about both holidays is how few self-identified Christians can be bothered to go to church on those days.

The church has some strong needs - after getting those damn pedos out of the church, taking back the Role of Catholic Teacher from the incompetent and/or malevolent is second.