Can rationality cure human ills?

It is not as if the world does not have the resources to solve the basic problems of humanity; it is just that the system becomes meaningless in its present intentions.
Can rationality cure human ills?
Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Lars von Trier is one of the great auteurs of this century. His Melancholia (2011) is dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky. It tells the story of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young woman suffering from acute mood swings and depression. She walks out of her marriage with a ‘nice’ young man before the wedding party is over. Through the party, Justine refuses to play the game. She makes love to a stranger, insults her boss—the head of an advertising firm who has just given her a promotion—estranges her loving sister, and generally busts the game.

All of it happens in one night. But it is a rather special night because a rogue planet, Melancholia, hitherto hiding behind the sun, is approaching Earth and may collide with it. Until the last moment though, we are given to understand it might just drift by.

Watching Trier’s movies is a visceral experience. Nothing is left to the imagination in his Antichrist or Nymphomaniac, which along with Melancholia form a loose trilogy that tries to plumb the female unconscious. At the bottom, Trier appears to say that the female unconscious is as chaotic as the male one. His characters are proof that he does not believe in game theory.

Game theory is a great invention of the mentally troubled mathematician John Nash. In application to social and political situations, it provides conceptual tools for the players, all of whom are interdependent. The theory seeks to facilitate proportionate payoffs to every player. As a result of this interdependence, each player has to formulate his moves according to his/her payoffs. This probably works in a sporting event like football or even in a dire situation like war: a group working towards a goal. This is one reason Narendra Modi would like to forge his dream game of One Nation, One Race.

In a new book—Reason To Be Happy: Why Logical Thinking is the Key to a Better Life—which I have been reading in spells when Trier gets a bit too trying, economist Kaushik Basu makes the case for a wider application of game theory. Basu writes: “An exciting research agenda is to create a more sophisticated game theory where each player’s pay­off function depends on other people’s pay­off functions. In such a ‘sophisticated game’, an equilibrium will require first locating a vector of pay­off functions, one for each player, such that they are mutually compatible… This is a research problem that can… be fully solved and, if that is done, it… will also help open up scope for research and analysis for creating agreements and conventions for a better, kinder world.”

Basu’s entire book rather endearingly rests on the hope that homo sapiens is a rational animal species. Trier would not agree. But the very first chapter of Basu’s book has a subsection called Melancholia, a title Trier would approve. In it, Basu talks about a dark period when he was 18, which lasted for over a year, never to return. He jells in with the world.

Basu believes that collective behavior can be organised for the better if game theory is sophisticated enough, and everybody gets their payoffs. On the other hand, Trier’s movies are about the rogue individual, the planet Melancholia. An individual who will not play by the rules of the game, and so threatens the order.

In the movie, the planet finally crashes into Earth. On a literal dimension, Trier is saying our entire existence, a blue speck spinning in a universe spanning 93 billion light years across, is endangered. On another level, he is saying the melancholic (or the misfit true only to herself) will wreck the system as well as herself. Either way, game theory will not work for Trier, because insanity is the essence of human brilliance.

If we look around, Trier seems to be winning the argument. A few weeks ago the irrepressible Sam Pitroda mentioned the possibility of bringing back an inheritance law to redistribute wealth. He was pilloried. The ‘invisible hand’ of the collective of all persuasions was immediately at work. In a world intelligently designed by, say, a Basu, the thing to do would be to come up with a game model of inheritance and see if the payoffs contribute to everyone’s happiness. But instead of debating the issue, we dismissed it with the violence characteristic of homo sapiens, most of it directed personally against Pitroda, the equivalent of Justine in the Trier movie.

The system cannot co-opt such radical ideas because it cannot survive them. The group, always amorally survivalist, must always sacrifice the individual. It is not as if the world does not have the resources to solve the basic problems of humanity; it is just that the system becomes meaningless in its present intentions.

The reason why Basu’s model of the world will not work is that humans are not rational. In groups, they obsessively look for order in systems as a kind of guarantee. Often, destruction in the form of a war is the result. You see, the order itself is not necessarily rational. Or ethical. It is only what it is.

Melancholia is not a planet. It is Justine. The Justines among us. The system will always penalise her. Which is why she is on a collision course. Either way, in the long run, the game itself is programmed to self-destruct.

(Views are personal)


C P Surendran | Poet, novelist, and screenplay writer. His latest novel is One Love and the Many Lives of Osip B

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