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March 13, 2005

Landsburg and Aquinas on Junk Food, Law, and Flexibility

Steven Landsburg has a good April 2001 article using the economic approach to theology in Slate: "Why God Created Junk Food". Some of it from its beginning and end:

Suppose you're God. It's the sixth day of Creation and Your project for the day is to design a man and a woman who will be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth. Then You plan to take a rest and let the Universe unfold on its own. The problem is that once You cede control, Your free-willful creatures just might screw up big time. Your one and only chance to avert disaster is right at the Beginning, when You endow human beings with the preferences that will forever guide their choices.

For example, it would be a major catastrophe if Your people routinely forgot to eat. To guard against this, You have a choice of two strategies. You can create people who are very smart and self-aware, so they'll go around saying things like, "Hmmm ... I'm currently burning 315 calories per hour, which means I'm three-point-seven hours away from needing some fresh protein in order to maintain my blood sugar at the optimal level, so I think I'll cook a steak." Or you can create people who really like food, so they'll go around saying things like, "Man, I could sure go for a steak right now." Neither option is perfect; the first requires an awful lot of brainpower (which in turn requires an awful lot of energy, which might be difficult to maintain), but the second can lead to grotesque excesses (think of Bill Clinton let loose in a McDonald's). On balance, You settle for a dollop of the first and a whole lot of the second....

All of which is, I think, a really cool application of game theory to a fundamental puzzle about human behavior. Here, though, is what bothers me: Samuelson and Swinkels take their Prime Mover to be not God, but Nature, acting through the forces of evolution. But there's no obvious reason why an impersonal Nature would play this game with the same subtlety as a purposeful God. That's not to say there's no reason, just that the reason isn't obvious (and glib appeals to "the survival of the fittest," while quite possibly suggestive of a good argument, do not constitute a good argument in and of themselves).

He was inspired by a working paper by Larry Samuelson & Jeroen Swinkels, probably "Information and the Evolution of the Utility Function," which is not downloading properly from IDEAS.

I think the idea is related to the following passage from Aquinas's "Whether the New Law ought to prescribe or prohibit any external act" in his Summa, II-1-question 108, article 1.

In the second place there are those external acts which ensue from the promptings of grace: and herein we must observe a difference. For there are some which are necessarily in keeping with, or in opposition to inward grace consisting in faith that worketh through love. Such external works are prescribed or forbidden in the New Law; thus confession of faith is prescribed, and denial of faith is forbidden; for it is written (Mt. 10:32,33) "(Every one) that shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father . . . But he that shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father." On the other hand, there are works which are not necessarily opposed to, or in keeping with faith that worketh through love. Such works are not prescribed or forbidden in the New Law, by virtue of its primitive institution; but have been left by the Lawgiver, i.e. Christ, to the discretion of each individual. And so to each one it is free to decide what he should do or avoid; and to each superior, to direct his subjects in such matters as regards what they must do or avoid. Wherefore also in this respect the Gospel is called the "law of liberty".

I won't comment further now, though.

Posted by erasmuse at March 13, 2005 09:01 AM

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