The Rationality of Belief in a Superior Being

  • Steven J. Brams


In this chapter I shall consider the question of whether it is rational to believe in a Superior Being (SB), who may be thought of as God, or some other religious figure, or a secular force. I shall not stress the religiosity of SB, but I shall allude to religious works, particularly the Bible, to try to ferret out and understand what the goals of SB might be in games I postulate he plays with Person (P), the human player who must decide whether or not to believe in SB’s existence. A few technical terms will be introduced in this chapter, but all will be illustrated in the games and decisions that are analyzed.


Nash Equilibrium Rational Choice Expected Payoff Dominant Strategy Strategy Choice 
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  1. 1.
    Hans Küng, Does God Exist? An Answer for Today, translated by Edward Quinn (New York: Doubleday, 1980). For arguments that God’s existence is “probable” but not “indubitable/’ see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979); to me Swinburne’s calculations smack of bogus quantification.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    George I. Mavrodes, Rationality and religious belief—a perverse question, in Rationality and Religious Belief, ed. C. F. Delaney (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), p. 31.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Hans Küng, Freud and the Problem of God, translated by Edward Quinn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979). For a collection of other views on this question, both ancient and modern, see Rationality and Religious Belief Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This and the next section are based largely on Steven J. Brams, Belief in God: a game-theoretic paradox, Int. J. Philos. Religion 13, 3 (1982), 121–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 6.
    Note, though, that because the best outcome for one player is not worst for the other, etc., the game is not one of total conflict. (For an example of such a game, see Section 2.4.) Rather, since both players can, comparatively speaking, “win” [at (3, 4)] or “lose” [at (1, 1) or (2, 3)] simultaneously, the game is one of partial conflict. Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    See Peter C. Fishburn, Lexicographic orders, utilities and decision rules: a survey, Management Sci 20, 11 (July 1974), 1442–1471.MathSciNetCrossRefzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  7. 8.
    For a developmental analysis of faith, see James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981). Different kinds of evidence, and the different kinds of rationality they give rise to, are discussed in Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), Chaps. 2 and 3.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    For the evidence in support of these contentions that goes beyond the cursory biblical citations I provide here and later, see Steven J. Brams, Biblical Games: A Strategic Analysis of Stories in the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    All biblical passages quoted in this book are from the following translations of the Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia: The Torah: The Five Books of Moses (2nd Ed., 1967); The Prophets (1978); and The Writings (1982).Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    See John Nash, Non-cooperative games, Ann. Math. 54 (1951), 286–295; and, more generally, Steven J. Brams, Game Theory and Politics (New York: Free Press, 1975), on this and related game-theoretic concepts. The classic work on game theory is John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953); the first edition of this book was published in 1944.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    If not all preferences are strict (i.e., if players are indifferent about some outcomes), then a Pareto-inferior outcome is one that is worse for at least one player, and not better for the other player(s), than some other outcome. For example, if (2, 3) in Fig. 2.1 were (3, 3), then (3, 3) would be Pareto-inferior to (3, 4) in this game because it would be worse for P, and not better for SB, than (3, 4). In all the games analyzed in this book, I shall assume that the players can strictly rank outcomes from best to worst, so Pareto-inferior outcomes will be worse for both players, as in Fig. 2.1.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    There is another paradox in the Revelation Game, independent of the Pareto-inferiority of (2, 3), that has been called one of “inducement”; it occurs because the player without a dominant strategy (P) is induced to make a choice— by his anticipation that his opponent (SB) will choose his dominant strategy—that leads to an outcome [(2, 3)] ranked higher by the player without a dominant strategy (P) than the player with one (SB). In other words, the possession of a dominant strategy hurts one, relatively speaking, in a game like the Revelation Game that is vulnerable to the inducement paradox. See Nigel Howard, Paradoxes of Rationality: Theory of Metagames and Political Behavior (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), pp. 168–198; and Steven J. Brams, Paradoxes in Politics: An Introduction to the Non-obvious in Political Science (New York: Free Press, 1976), Chap. 5, for an analysis of this paradox and the controversy surrounding it.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Norwood Russell Hanson, The agnostic’s dilemma, and what I don’t believe, in What I Do Not Believe, and Other Essays, ed. Stephen Toulmin and Harry Woolf (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1971), pp. 303–308 and 309–331. I am grateful to Raymond Dacey for this citation.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    This idea is expressed in a novel by Petru Dumitru, Incognito (London: William Collins and Sons, 1964), p. 453; its implications and relation to other work are discussed in Rustum Roy, Experimenting with Truth: The Fusion of Religion with Technology, Needed for Humanity’s Survival (Oxford: Pergamon, 1981), pp. 55ff.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    For a description and analysis of Prisoners’ Dilemma, see Anatol Rapo-port and Albert M. Chammah, Prisoners’ Dilemma: A Study in Conflict and Cooperation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1965); and Brams, Paradoxes in Politics; Chaps. 4 and 8.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    In quoting from Pensées, I use the arrangement and numbering in Pascals Pensées, translated by H. F. Stewart (New York: Pantheon, 1950); all citations in the text are from No. 223.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    For an illuminating discussion of some of the problems of “going through the motions” of believing in order to generate the real thing, see Jon Elster, Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 47–54.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    William James, The will to believe, in The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 723.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven J. Brams
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PoliticsNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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