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Superior Beings: If They Exist, How Would We Know?

Steven J. Brams
Springer Verlag
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Angela Vierling-Claassen
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Can mathematics to help us determine whether belief in God is rational or help us understand our actions in response to a (possible) superior being? Many thinkers, both ancient and modern, have attempted to construct “proofs” of God’s existence or non-existence (for examples, try googling the exact phrase “proof god exists” — this currently returns about 10,500 hits). Others, both believers and non-believers, contend that the existence of a supreme being is a question of faith which cannot be tackled using logical and scientific methods.

From its title, one might suspect that Steven Bram’s book Superior Beings: If They Exists, How Would We Know? would be a tiresome exercise that attempts to use game theory to sway the reader either toward religious faith or away from it. Instead, Brams analyses human interactions with the divine in order to effectively cast light on some of the toughest questions in philosophy and theology. Brams acknowledges that for the confirmed theist, or the confirmed atheist, the games that he addresses in this book may not be interesting at all. But for the rest of us — agnostics as well as those who are religious but feel some ambiguity or doubt — Brams provides a new way to look at ancient questions. This book is accessible to those with little background in game theory and theology, as Brams carefully steps through both as he tackles theological questions. There is also a useful glossary of terms from game theory at the end of the book.

Issues addressed in Superior Beings include the tension between human free will and divine omnipotence and the interaction between God’s desire to remain unknowable and the human desire to understand God. In Bram’s analysis this second conflict pushes God to act in an arbitrary fashion, providing an interesting way of looking at the so-called “problem of evil” — how we reconcile a benevolent and omniscient God with the existence of evil and suffering in the world.

Superior Beings represents a first step in applying game-theoretic analysis to religious issues and reading it brings up many questions and directions for future work. For example, in the chapter on the “Paradox of Omniscience,” Brams considers a testing game in which God (called SB or “Superior Being”) decides whether or not to test a person (P). The person can either prepare for the test or not prepare for it. Without considering SB’s omniscience, this game leads to a sub-optimal outcome in which P prepares, but SB does not test. Examples of the testing game discussed by Brams include the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as well as the notion of temptation as a test by God. These are two very different types of divine tests, and it would be interesting to consider them separately and to factor in the preferences and strategy choices that different religious faiths would assign to SB and P.

The only criticism I have of this book is its exclusive use of masculine God language. Gender-neutral God language can be cumbersome, but the new Springer edition could have tackled the conversion either to neutral language or to language that alternates between male and female imagery, especially since mathematics lends itself to this kind of gender-neutral treatment.

Overall, Superior Beings is an excellent book that tackles a challenging series of topics with grace and depth. Brams frames theological questions about the interaction between a personal God and human beings in terms of rational choices without either dismissing or trivializing the role of faith. Brams does not seek to solve or expunge the “Great Mystery,” but instead claims that “From a religious viewpoint, this is the quintessential element in our existence, and we should celebrate it, not try to snuff it out of our lives or dismiss it as purely metaphysical and, therefore, unworthy of study.”

Angela Vierling-Claassen is Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She and her wife, Dorea, have recently begun to use game theory to study family relationships.

 Preface.- Preface from First Edition.- Preface to the Second Edition.- Acknowledgements.- List of Figures.- Introduction.- The Rationality of Belief in a Superior Being.- Omniscience and Partial Omniscience.- The Paradox of Omniscience and the Theory of Moves.- Omnipotence: Moving and Staying Power.- Immortality and Incomprehensibility.- Superior Beings: They May be Undecidable.- Appendix.- Glossary.- Bibliography.- Index.