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Ted Metzler (2002)

Can Agent-Based Simulation Improve Dialogue between Science and Theology?

Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 5, no. 1

To cite articles published in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 6-Jan-2002      Accepted: 12-Jan-2002      Published: 31-Jan-2002

* Abstract

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; Sociobiology; Theology

* Introduction

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 reported.

* A 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 theological community.

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 Dialogue

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 divine grace.

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 norms).

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 altruistic behavior.

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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