Dhanada Kanta Mishra
few hours before Nora Seed decided to commit suicide her cat had died and that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Lucky for her, when she overdosed on her anti-depressant pills at the stroke of midnight, she ended up in an infinite library without an entry or exit! She met with Mrs. Elm – the librarian from her school who had consoled her while giving the news of the death of her father. Matt Haig’s latest book the ‘Midnight Library’ goes on to describe Nora’s adventures through the many parallel lives she had given up on for one reason or the other. After many exhilarating journeys and wise conversations with her librarian cum life coach, Nora finally returns to the original life as she gets convinced that suicide is not the solution to life’s challenges.
As the world deals with the pandemic and death seems to surround us day in and day out, mental health issues leading to suicide have also become a major challenge. Whether it is the much publicised suicide of a cine star or the multitudes of ordinary people, mental health issues need urgent attention. The book couldn’t have come at a better time to show a way in the riddle called life! It weaves a magical spell through the many parallel stories around the central character that conjectures about the existence of parallel universes existing simultaneously as postulated by string theory. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the famous Schrodinger’s cat experiment also duly come into the picture along with Nora’s favourite philosopher Thoreau. What Matt missed out on however was the so-called ‘game theory’ of social interaction which is based on science and mathematics.
I had a friend at the University of Michigan who was studying game theory or rather using the principles of game theory to create actual board games for teens to help teach them about making choices that would affect their lives. To me, it appeared quite superfluous that one has to teach intelligent kids the fact that if you decide to hang out with friends who do drugs then you would most likely end up in prison. Or if you have unprotected sex, then you may have to deal with unwanted pregnancies and parenthood! But some choices in life are much less straightforward! Brilliant yet troubled minds like that of the American mathematician John Nash, a Nobel laureate in Economics, illustrated this through his work which is best illustrated by the famous thought experiment ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’. Imagine two prisoners (say A and B) who are faced with the choice of whether to confess or keep silent about their crime committed together. The rules of the game are that if both confess then each of them gets 2 years of jail term. If one confesses and the other doesn’t then the one confessing gets no jail time with the other getting 3 years. If both choose not to confess then they each get 1 year. The Nash equilibrium refers to one’s decision to be unchanged knowing the decision of the other. Without knowing the decision of the prisoner A, B has to confess in order to keep his/her jail term to a maximum of 2 years. This is known as the ‘dominant strategy’ in game theory reflecting Adam Smith’s free-market doctrine based on self-interest being paramount. The Nash equilibrium, on the other hand, claims that every such game is a combination of decisions that is not only best for the individual but the group as a whole. In this case, it requires both A and B to neither confess nor cooperate. These kinds of games are called ‘competitive games’.
The other group of games is known as ‘cooperative games’ where every player agrees towards a common goal. It could be a situation where a group of friends is trying to decide how to divide a bill for dinner at a restaurant or a group of nations trying to determine how to fight climate change together. Like the Nash equilibrium for competitive games, the Shapley value determines a fair distribution of gain from any joint venture taking into account what is known as the marginal contribution of individual players. For example, let’s assume player A can plant 10 trees an hour and player B can plant 15 trees an hour. Working together they can plant 30 trees an hour for which there is a reward of say Rs 3,000 at Rs 100 per plant. To determine how to divide the reward in a fair manner, Shapley value determines the average of the reward minus the individual marginal contributions. In this case, marginal contributions of A and B being 1000 and 1500 respectively, the Shapley value for player A is half of (1000) + (3000-1500) = Rs 1250. Player B gets 3000-1250 = Rs 1750. In competitive games, game theory teaches us how to be ‘smart’ whereas, in cooperative games, it tells us how to be ‘fair’.
Imagine life as a game with as many players as people we interact within our lives with all its complications. Now, we can appreciate the complexity of decision making in a real-life situation, be it in our individual circumstances or in the lives of nations as in politics and economics. Had Nora Seed been as exposed to the game theory of life as she was to philosophy she perhaps wouldn’t have had to come to the predicament that she did in Matt Haig’s novel. Nora Seed’s life story is about all the life choices she made that were documented in the book of regrets. Each of us has our own book of regrets which helps us to know a particular life that might have been if we made a different life choice! The present time is increasingly stressful with a rampaging pandemic, economic distress and loud footsteps of climate catastrophe looming. The game theory holds out the hope for cooperative decision making that would be perhaps humanity’s only chance to avoid a painful extinction just as Nora Seed managed to right from the brink.
The author is an academician currently visiting Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as a Research Scholar. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org