Belief in God: A game-theoretic paradox

Steven J. Brams

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The Belief Game is a two-person, nonzero-sum game in which both players can do well [e.g., at (3, 4)] or badly [e.g., at (1,1)] simultaneously. The problem that occurs in the play of this game is that its rational outcome of (2, 3) is not only unappealing to both players, especially God, but also, paradoxically, there is an outcome, (3, 4), preferred by both players that is unattainable. Moreover, because God has a dominant strategy, His omniscience does not remedy the situation, though - less plausibly - if man possessed this quality, and God were aware of it, (3, 4) would be attainable. How reasonable is it to use the device of a simple game to argue that nonrevelation by God, and nonbelief by man, are rational strategies? Like any model of a complex reality, the Belief Game abstracts a great deal from the problem that confronts the thoughtful agnostic asking the most profound of existential questions. Yet, to the degree that belief in God is seen as a personal question, conceptualized in terms of a possible relationship one might have with one's Creator, it seems appropriate to try to model this relationship as a game. The most difficult question to answer, I suppose, is, if God exists, what are His preferences in such a game? I have argued that He would first like to be believed, but at the same time not reveal Himself. These goals, in my opinion, are consistent with the role He assumes in many biblical stories, although this is not to say that the Bible offers the final word on philosophical and theological matters in the modern world. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be a logical place from which to start, and the clues it offers on God's preferences seem not contradicted by contemporary events. Of course, the Belief Game supposes that God not only has preferences but makes choices as well. To many people today - myself included - these choices are not apparent. But if He does make them, and in particular chooses not to reveal Himself, I think the Belief Game helps us to understand why nonrevelation is rational. Furthermore, it gives us insight into why, given this choice by God, our own reasons for believing in Him - in a game-theoretic context - may be rendered tenuous.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)121-129
    Number of pages9
    JournalInternational Journal for Philosophy of Religion
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - Sep 1982

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Philosophy


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