Ted Metzler (2002)
Can Agent-Based Simulation Improve Dialogue between Science and Theology?
Journal of Artificial Societies and Social
vol. 5, no. 1
To cite articles published in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social
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This essay introduces a novel application of agent-based simulation systems that
promises to improve dialogue between a number of sciences and Christian
theology. The account of work in progress first reviews a particular research area
in which the scientific and religious communities have already engaged each other
- the investigation of altruistic behavior. Although scientists have employed
computer simulation methods in this work, theological and philosophical
responses have not been equipped with comparable media for expressing their
perspectives. A case is then presented for improving this ongoing dialogue by
developing agent-based simulation tools with expanded representation capabilities
that permit theologians to explore their own theoretical explanations for altruistic
behavior. Initial steps toward development of such tools are reported.
Agent-based Simulation; Altruism; Computer Science; Dialogue; Economics;
- Knowledgeably representing the perspectives of
both science and religion, Ian Barbour has distinguished four broad patterns for describing
relationship between their methods: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration (Barbour 1997). Although each of these options presents some interesting and
defensible features, the present essay assumes the existence of at least enough methodological
commonality to make dialogue possible. Even for topics in which this is the case, however,
explanations of phenomena that are offered by the scientific and religious communities can differ
because they are formulated from distinct theoretical assumptions. Differences of this kind can be
particularly difficult to resolve through dialogue if the participating parties do not have a common
language or medium for expressing their respective theories.
- A specific topic satisfying the foregoing conditions is
examined in this essay. Scientific research using agent-based computer simulation to investigate altruistic
behavior appears to proceed from theoretical assumptions that theologians tend to regard as inadequate.
The religious community, however, has been hamstrung in its efforts to engage this scientific work because
it lacks comparable simulation tools for expressing its alternative theoretical assumptions. A technical
approach for correcting this deficiency is described, and some first steps toward its realization are
Dialogue Regarding Altruism is in Progress
- The subject of altruistic behavior already draws
representatives from a broad range of disciplines, including scientists and Christian theologians, into
spirited discussions and debates. Coined in the nineteenth century by pioneer sociologist Auguste Comte,
the term "altruism" has received somewhat different definitions in various times and disciplines;
nevertheless, the semantic core of the concept has apparently remained fairly stable. The 1971 Unabridged
Edition of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines "altruism" as "the principle or
practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others." This definition retains essentially
the meaning with which the term was coined - according to psychologists Samuel and Pearl Oliner,
"Comte conceived of altruism as devotion to the welfare of others, based in selflessness" (Oliner 1988: 4). The term is regularly contrasted with its opposite notion, "egoism,"
which the economist Henry Hazlitt has characterized concisely as "the pursuit of personal ends at the cost
of those of others" (Hazlitt 1972: par. 4).
- Although the term "altruism" first appeared in modern
times, theologian Colin Grant points out that a distinctively Christian background for the concept it denotes
can hardly be overlooked (Grant 2001: 167). Indeed, biblical Gospel teachings
that encourage unselfish concern for the welfare of others are numerous - e.g., "love your enemies" (Luke
6:27). Another prominent element of the background reflected in contemporary thinking about altruism is
undoubtedly the legacy of Darwinism. Process theologian David Griffin voices a very common concern in
asking how altruism, which "involves self-sacrificial behavior," can be explained by habits of an organism
that "must provide a survival advantage" (Griffin 2000: 267). As the following
discussion turns attention to issues in the contemporary investigation of altruism, Christian theology and
Darwinism will regularly be evident as prominent contextual elements.
- Simulations employing artificially intelligent agents are a
fairly common computer science resource for investigating altruistic and egoistic behavior (Bazzan et al 1997; Hogg 1997; Rizzo 1997; Vidal 1996). Not all of these projects exhibit quite
the attitude toward altruism reflected in a remark attributed by theologian Colin Grant to AI pioneer
Herbert Simon: "activities that aid others are so foreign to the foundational predilection to self-interest that
they can only be attributed to docility and stupidity" (Grant 2001: 72). In fact,
simulation experiments reported by Bazzan and colleagues have produced some results demonstrating
"homogeneous groups of altruistic agents accumulate more points than any other type of group" (Bazzan
1997: 5). Nevertheless, these computer science experiments consistently
incorporate tacit naturalistic (specifically, non-theistic) assumptions about the human agents
they model. If there has been some divergence from assumptions of purely self-interested agents, the
agents remain essentially natural creatures making choices on utilitarian grounds.
- In the field of economics, a range of assumptions may also
be found regarding the nature of human agents and their decision-making processes. Although
contemporary economists such as William Brian Arthur endorse the methodology of computer simulations
(Waldrop 1992: 269), philosopher Joseph Des Jardins summarizes the
discipline's basic view of human agency in the following terms: "human beings act, primarily if not solely,
on the basis of self-interest" (Des Jardins 2001: 53). Alfie Kohn, in The
Brighter Side of Human Nature,corroborates Des Jardins's assessment somewhat more bluntly:
"Egoism is not an assumption but the assumption underlying neoclassical economics,
which is, in turn, the dominant approach to the discipline in this country" (Kohn 1990: 185). In fairness, at least one dissenting voice from the economics
community - that of Henry Hazlitt - deserves to be recognized. Consistently with his common sense
approach noted previously, Hazlitt has observed that a society comprised entirely of either altruistic or
egoistic agents would not be "workable" (Hazlitt 1972: par. 5). Nevertheless,
one can generally expect social simulations in the field of economics not to incorporate the kinds of
assumptions about human potential for altruistic behavior that Christian theologians might propose.
- For the discipline of sociobiology, this expectation
apparently may be promoted to certainty - biologist Jeffrey Schloss illustrates a common complaint with
his simple declaration that "sociobiology remains committed to seeing altruism as self-interest by another
name" (Schloss 1998: 248). Moreover, the seriousness with which this
discipline has worked to explain altruistic behavior in such terms is reflected in E. O. Wilson's oft-quoted
description of altruism as "the central theoretical problem of sociobiology" (Grant 2001; Kohn 1990; Sober 1998). The zeal with which self-interest has been molded to solve this problem is
impressive. When birds save their flocks from predators by drawing attention to themselves (as they often
do, at substantial individual risk), they are not really exhibiting altruistic behavior - they are merely acting
to preserve their own genes (via survival of their kin). If a human risks her life to save a drowning stranger
(and the "kin selection" explanation seems unconvincing), we have a clear case of so-called "reciprocal
altruism." According to this explanation, the rescuer has (again) acted in self interest, since
burnishing her reputation as a rescuer increases the probability she will benefit from someone's
"reciprocal" heroism at some future time when she is in danger. Not surprisingly, explanations of
this kind have managed to generate some dialogue between the biologists and members of the Christian
- Ian Barbour illustrates this development, expressing a
number of misgivings in his book, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues,
regarding the research approach of sociobiologist E. O. Wilson. He observes, for example, "Wilson does
not even consider cultural explanations," and displays "no place for real freedom in his analysis" (Barbour
1997: 81, 256). Similarly, theologian Colin Grant's Altruism and
Christian Ethics repeatedly challenges aspects of the sociobiological research of Richard Dawkins.
Grant charges Dawkins, inter alia,with logical inconsistency, noting his Preface for The Selfish
Gene insists that "we are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish
molecules known as genes," while his Conclusion surprisingly announces "We have the power to defy the
selfish genes of our birth" (Grant 2001: 97). Although he generally is
somewhat more sympathetic in assessing sociobiological work, theologian Stephen Pope further complains
that "[Martin] Buber's 'I - Thou' relations transcend the simple exchange model common to reciprocity
theories" (Pope 1994: 119). On the other hand, theology professor Thomas
Hosinski, reviewing a recent lecture by biologist Jeffrey Schloss, has reported scientists may be moving
toward acknowledgment that "reductionist approaches to understanding altruism are not sufficient to
account for observations," suggesting the "possibility of a constructive conversation between science and
religion on this topic of altruism" (Hosinski 2001).
Agent-Based Simulation Can Improve the
- Progress toward the sort of constructive conversation
Hosinski envisions must engage issues of theoretical differences distinguishing religious from
scientific perspectives on altruism research. The foregoing review of altruism investigations in computer
science, economics and sociobiology indicates they have been characterized by naturalistic, non-theistic,
utilitarian, and egoistic theoretical assumptions about human agents that are consistently reflected in
pertinent computer simulations of social behavior. Theologians could significantly improve - i.e., enhance
the quality of - their dialogue with these sciences by applying comparable simulation tools specifically
designed to express their alternative theoretical assumptions as well.
- Objections to developing such tools should be unlikely to
arise from any scientific principles. Neurobiologist William Newsome, in one of his contributions to the
2001 Science and the Spiritual Quest Boston Conference,observes that dismissals of deity and "any
possibility that humanity can participate in a reality that transcends itself" are neither findings of
science nor "logically necessary to the scientific process" - rather, they are simply common theoretical
assumptions that scientists choose to adopt (Newsome 2001: 5). By all
means, scientists are to be commended for adopting skeptical stances toward God-of-the-gaps conjectures
that indiscriminately present theistic "explanations" for any phenomenon scientific methods currently treat
as an open problem. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no scientific reason agent-based computer
simulation tools should not be permitted to incorporate and test models of theoretical constructs such as
- Contemporary theology, moreover, displays some authentic
support for innovation of this kind. In one of their contributions to a recent religion and science anthology,
Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp ask "what better way to justify the inclusion of Christian theological
beliefs in the Western scientific web than to show (if this is indeed possible) that a certain Christian belief
does the best job of explaining some set of scientific data?" (Clayton 1996:
164). Could agent-based computer simulation tools incorporating representation of theoretical constructs
such as divine grace support more adequate explanations of certain altruistic behaviors than comparable
tools restricted to non-theistic theories? Perhaps they could not - but fairness and scientific
objectivity recommend they at least be given an opportunity to do so. Moreover, representatives of
the contemporary theological community have issued unmistakable calls for innovative directions in
Christian theology that would benefit from provision of exactly such tools. The Revd. Canon Dr. Arthur
Peacocke, for example, boldly asserts "We require an open, revisable, exploratory theology in all religions"
(Peacocke 2001: 5). Again, Sallie McFague describes what she calls
"heuristic theology" - a theology "that experiments and tests, that thinks in an as-if fashion, that imagines
possibilities that are novel, that dares to think differently" (McFague 1997:
251). Users of current computer simulation systems hardly need to be reminded they are ideal tools for
thinking "in an as-if fashion." Appropriate development of such systems for theological application could
significantly contribute to emergence of a new class of experimental theological methods.
- Full assessment of the improvement that agent-based
simulation tools could bring to science-theology dialogue in the area of altruism research must await
development of the suggested kinds of systems. It is already possible, however, to envision a plausible
scenario for their application. Future theologian Sallie McTuring, one imagines, employs the user interface
of her new Theological Artificial Intelligence Simulation Tool (THAIST) to set up two simulations. The
simulations will respectively explore two different theoretical explanations for the emergence of altruistic
behavior within human kin groups, as well as altruistic behavior that is not restricted by kin group
boundaries. Both simulations will execute for fifty simulation "days," on each of which (according to an
interaction schedule Sallie specifies) ten randomly selected pairs of software agents modeling humans
within each of three kin groups (and one randomly selected pair representing interaction of two of the
groups) will participate in human-human interactions resembling Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma transactions.
All of these agents will enter simulation tagged with an initial altruism / egoism ratio of 0.5. The agents are
also supplied with some learning methods that were determined for THAIST at design time. In addition,
Sallie specifies one agent representing an ecosystem of nature (also starting with an altruism / egoism ratio
of 0.5), and requires every agent representing a human to participate in one human-nature interaction
(similarly following standard Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma patterns) with this agent each day. The null
hypothesis in each of the two experimental simulations will be that neither of the two theoretical
approaches being examined (for convenience, named the Naturalistic and the Theistic alternatives) will
significantly increase the (cumulative) value of the altruism / egoism ratio for any agent.
- Expressing theory for the simulation that will explore the
Naturalistic alternative, Sallie defines human-human interaction rules, human-nature interaction rules, and
regularities (guiding the agent representing nature) that reflect some currently popular scientific strategies
(such as Tit for Tat). For this purpose, THAIST might exploit some commercial-off-the-shelf package that
supports authoring of fuzzy logic rule sets. Aiming for clean and simple comparison of the Naturalistic and
Theistic theoretical approaches, Sallie might elect not to use some of the library of system-supported
variables for human agents (e.g., variables representing beliefs, social condition, social location, and social
- Set-up for the simulation exploring the Theistic alternative
obliges Sallie to define some additional factors. Divine nature, God-human interaction rules, human-
human interaction rules, human-nature interaction rules, agent autonomy and grace are interrelated factors
that Sallie uses to specify an additional theoretical dimension for this simulation. Specifically, she
employs the resources of THAIST in the following manner: (1) divine nature prescribes that the agent
modeling God imparts grace to all other agents on each simulation day, (2) human-human interaction rules
and human-nature interaction rules prescribe that grace tends to increase altruistic choices by agents
representing humans in their interactions with other humans and with nature, and (3) God-human
interaction rules and initial values of agent autonomy prescribe the possibility of increasing "uptake" of
grace by agents representing humans. The net effect of the foregoing prescriptions is a supplement to the
human-human interaction rules and human-nature interaction rules that Sallie has supplied for the
Naturalistic simulation. This supplement represents the effect of God's grace in "luring" human agents (if
a common expression from Whiteheadian process theology may be permitted) toward increasing levels of
altruistic behavior. In addition, the supplement expands the domain of investigation for altruistic
behavior - the range of expression furnished by THAIST allows not only human-human interactions, but
also human-nature interactions to be affected by God's grace.
- The simulation experiments Sallie conducts, with the
foregoing sorts of set-up conditions, have obviously not been specified here at a level of detail that should
warrant predictions of particular results. Regardless of their initial outcome, however, we may reasonably
expect Sallie to conduct subsequent "what-if" experiments to explore effects of certain changes in rules,
beginning values of variables, and the like. Moreover, she will be generating information (even with the
simple set-up described) that reveals the dynamics of a fairly complicated system of interacting agents -
information of a kind, and in a form, that scientists can engage and critique (or find instructive). Such are
the representative potentials for improvement in science-theology dialogue concerning investigation of
- In fact, first steps have already been taken toward
developing a version of the THAIST tool just described. The present author has completed a draft thesis in
theology that includes chapters devoted to formulating functional requirements for a proof-of-concept
system to serve theological users engaged in investigating altruistic behavior (Metzler 2001). The project plan aims initially to design and implement a modest-scale
simulation system with enough range of capability to allow prospective users to explore and assess its
utility. The author's experience with development of similar simulation tools (Heinekin 1999; Metzler 1997; Ortiz 1998) indicates that cycles of user-centered experimentation and testing, followed
by responsive system enhancement, is a sound method for producing a strong product. It is especially clear
that furnishing a working prototype to members of the target user community often enables discovery of
previously unimagined uses for such systems.
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