Game Theory, False Narratives, Survival, Life Advice - Daniel Schmachtenberger | BSP# 20

24th May 2024 Gemini 1.5 Pro

Game Theory and the Tragedy of the Commons

Daniel Schmachtenberger begins by defining game theory as a branch of mathematics focused on optimal strategic decision-making under uncertainty. He emphasizes that game theory essentially models strategic thinking in situations involving competition and incomplete information, similar to what one finds in chess or military strategy.

Schmachtenberger introduces the "Prisoner's Dilemma," a classic game theory scenario demonstrating how individuals, when uncertain of their opponent's actions, often choose selfish actions that lead to a suboptimal outcome for all parties. This tendency towards selfishness, driven by a lack of trust and the fear of being exploited, is amplified in multipolar traps like arms races or environmental exploitation, where multiple actors compete for dominance, even if it ultimately leads to a scenario detrimental to everyone.

“If there are a number of players, a number of actors, let's call it tribes or countries or companies or whatever, and one of them does something that provides a lot of near-term advantage for them, it might be doing something particularly destructive…So now you take the other tribes. If they don't do the same thing, it doesn't protect the forest because the other guy's going to cut down the forest anyways. And if they don't do the same thing, they might not even be able to protect their people. And so now, even if they didn't want to, they have to race to cut down the forest faster just for their own need to survive.”

He cites climate change as a prime example of a multipolar trap. Despite widespread acknowledgment of its dangers, the global community continues to increase fossil fuel consumption due to the fear of short-term economic disadvantage and the lack of assurance that others will cooperate. Schmachtenberger argues that this game-theoretic logic, where winning at all costs overrides long-term sustainability, underpins many of the global crises we face.

The Non-Neutrality of Technology

Schmachtenberger challenges the idea that technology is inherently neutral, arguing instead that technological tools carry embedded values that condition human behavior and reshape our relationship with the world. He uses the example of the plow to illustrate this point. While the plow revolutionized agriculture and allowed for increased food production, it also necessitates the domination of animals and the clear-cutting of forests, leading to a shift in worldviews from animistic reverence for nature to one of human dominance.

“Tools actually have values built into them that they end up conditioning in the population that uses them.”

He extends this argument to other technologies like writing and smartphones, suggesting that their widespread adoption has led to unintended consequences such as the decline of oral traditions, a diminished sense of direction, and a decrease in environmental awareness. Schmachtenberger posits that the values embedded in technology often become obligate, shaping our perceptions of human nature and obscuring the fact that alternative ways of being are possible.

The Illusion of Progress

Schmachtenberger critiques the dominant narrative of progress that champions continuous technological advancement, economic growth, and increased lifespans as indicators of a better world. He argues that this narrative cherry-picks data points while ignoring the externalities of this "progress," such as environmental degradation, social inequality, and psychological distress.

“The progress narrative focuses on narrow areas of progress without looking at all the externalized costs of that. And so you can't really consider that...I think that's a ridiculous definition of progress. It's a very immature definition at best, generously and immature, if not actually just propaganda.”

He points to the decimation of indigenous cultures, the exploitation of animals in factory farms, and the rising rates of mental illness as evidence of the hidden costs of our current trajectory. Schmachtenberger argues that our obsession with progress, fueled by addictive reward circuits and a market system that prioritizes profit over well-being, has led to a world increasingly disconnected from the natural world and the wisdom of past generations.

The Crisis of Meaning and the Need for Wisdom

Schmachtenberger emphasizes the limitations of a purely scientific worldview in addressing the existential challenges we face. He argues that while science excels at describing the physical world ("what is"), it struggles to provide guidance on values and ethics ("what ought"). He suggests that this "is-ought" distinction has led to a situation where technological advancement, guided by market forces and game-theoretic logic, often lacks a moral compass.

“If there is no meaning, then like hedonism is kind of a rational perspective, in which case market dynamics and game theory and whatever. Okay. So, but now if you have no thing, no system within science for what ought to be, then what ends up making the choice of what tech gets built and what science gets funded? The market does. And game theory does.”

Schmachtenberger calls for a rediscovery of wisdom, a quality often associated with restraint and a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of life. He suggests that true progress necessitates a shift in our values, prioritizing the maintenance and stewardship of the planet and recognizing the intrinsic beauty and meaningfulness of all life forms.

The Path Forward: Rethinking Progress and Governance

Schmachtenberger concludes by exploring potential paths forward. He acknowledges the inherent tension between the need for strong regulation to mitigate the dangers of runaway technological development and the risk of centralized control leading to dystopia.

“The market forces without very strong regulation will drive us past planetary boundaries and lots of other global catastrophic risks. Incentives alone are not enough to fix it. It needs deterrence. And yet the regulatory systems don't have the visibility, the integrity, the checks and balances they need to be trusted with the power needed to regulate all of that.”

He highlights the need for innovations in governance that can keep pace with rapid technological change, ensuring transparency, accountability, and a deep understanding of the interconnected nature of our challenges. Schmachtenberger calls for a more nuanced approach to progress, one that considers the total set of effects of our choices, prioritizes the well-being of all beings, and is grounded in a deep appreciation for the beauty and fragility of life. He emphasizes the importance of individual responsibility, urging listeners to cultivate curiosity, humility, and a willingness to challenge their own biases in order to contribute to a more viable and meaningful future.