Two really nerdy guys talking

“A government is an agent that imposes an offset on the payoff matrix to make the Nash equilibrium compatible with the common good.” — Joscha Bach

In this interview, this aphorism is too dense even for Lex Fridman, who is thoroughly conversant in the game-theoretic language that Joscha is deploying.

Cooperation in the Prisoner's Dilemma Game Based on the Second ...

Deconstruction: This idea comes from what we might call the Adam Smith view of human nature, or, to be more historically accurate, the Ayn Rand view. Every individual is utterly selfish, indifferent to the welfare of everyone besides himself. In every interaction, he will take as much as he can get, without regard to the price that anyone else has to pay. For example, he’ll gladly take a penny’s profit for himself, even the result is to cost another person a dollar’s loss.

Imagine you have a choice of a range of behaviors, and other members of the community have a similar choice. Array all your possibilities down the left side of the page, and all of the responses you might receive across the top. Then make a grid, and each box represents a possible event (your action x another’s reaction). In this box, write a number corresponding to how good the result is for you.  This grid is called a payoff matrix.

The classic problem is that it is in everyone’s interest to behave selfishly, but that results in a disaster for the community. Everyone is stabbing everyone else in the back. That’s because my not stabbing you in the back benefits you, but I’m the one who has to decide, and there’s no benefit for me in not stabbing you in the back.

A “Nash equilibrium” is where the game goes if everyone does what is best for himself. For the game just described, we have the paradox that everyone is seeking his own best interest, but the result for the community (Nash equilibrium) is terrible.

It is the role of government to align the Nash equilibrium with the common good by “adjusting the payoff matrix”. In other words, the government adds rewards and punishments to the expectations associated with each individual’s behavior that motivate the individual to cooperate. The new Nash equilibrium is then a more cooperative state, in which everyone benefits.

Suffering is the result of caring about things that you cannot change. If you grow to care about only things that you can change, then you will not suffer. Then you can be happy.

But happiness itself is not important. Happiness is like a cookie. When you are a child,you think that cookies are very important. You look forward to being an adult because you think that then you can have as many cookies as you want. But when you are an adult you realize that a cookie is a tool for making you eat your vegetables. And once you get used to eating vegetables, you don’t feel so much need for cookies. Otherwise you will get diabetes, and you will not be around for your kids.

Happiness is a cookie that your brain bakes for itself. It is not made by the environment. The environment cannot make you happy. It is your appraisal of the environment that makes you happy. You can learn to change your appraisal, so you can attain arbitrary states of happiness. Some meditators fall into this trap. They discover the basement room in the brain where the cookies are baked, and they stuff themselves. And after a few months it gets really old, and a big crisis of meaning happens. They thought before that unhappiness was the problem, so they fixed this. Now they have trained so that they can release the neurotransmitters at will. Then the crisis of meaning pops up from a deeper layer. They ask, “Why am I alive? How can I create a sustainable civilization so I can feel good about my participation?” And this was the problem that they could not solve in the first place, that drove them into themselves, to meditation.   

— Joscha Bach

2 thoughts on “Two really nerdy guys talking

  1. Hi, Josh. I enjoyed today’s Daily Inspiration . Do you realize that the embedded video will not play? It appears that some kind of exclusive condition has been set. Perhaps it can be corrected by inserting a YouTube link instead of the video.

    Thanks for your efforts! Walt

  2. “Selfish” is an odd word that is usually intended to describe something crassly self-serving, but more literally might indeed be the not-so-terrible basis for virtually all conscious and much semi-conscious individual actions. If I dive into the roiling river to save a drowning person, I am arguably doing it 100% for myself. This is because my training and personal beliefs demand that I act heroically. Maybe the payoff matrix simply needs to be upgraded to include a more complete picture of value. If it must be monetized and otherwise quantified, I might well let the unfortunate swimmer drown if they were a known mass-murdering lawyer who eats pangolin, has willed me a billion dollars, and is known to have terminal cancer, stinky feet and a lot of supposed food allergies.

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