In the previous post, I promised that game theory has applications in pure philosophy. Some of these applications are economic in nature – a colleague has written a paper using a branch of mechanism design to link the seemingly disjoint methodologies of induction and falsification – but others really are pure. In particular, there is a branch of zero-sum games which deals with the fundamental nature of truth itself!

Verificationist theories of truth like those proposed by Michael Dummett suggest that a statement is true if we can prove it to be true. This may seem trivial, but it absolutely is not: for one, to the extent that there are unprovable statements as in some mathematical systems, we ought say “that statement is neither true nor false” not simply “we cannot prove that statement true or false”. Another school of thought, beginning with Tarski’s formal logics and expanded by Hintikka, says that truth is a property held by sentences. The statement “Snow is white” is true if and only if there is a thing called snow, and it is necessarily white. The statement “A or B” is true if and only if the thing denoted by “A” is true or the thing denoted by “B” is true.

These may seem very different conceptions. The first is a property requiring action – something is true if someone can verify it. The second seems more in the air – something is true if its sentence has certain properties. But take any sentence in formal logic, like “There exists A such that for all B either C or D is true”. We can play a *game* between Verifier and Falsifier. Move left to right across the sentence, letting the Verifier choose at all existentials and “or” statements, and the Falsifier choose at all universals and “and” statements. Verifier wins if he can get to the end of sentence with the sentence remaining true. That is, semantic games take Tarksi truth and make it playable by someone with agency, at least in principle.

The paper by Boyer and Sandu takes this as a starting point, and discusses when Dunnett’s truth coincides with Tarksi and Hintikka’s truth, restricting ourselves to semantic games played on recursive structures (nonconstructive winning strategies in the semantic game seems problematic if we want to relate truth in semantic games to verificationist truth!) Take statements in Peano arithmetic where all objects chosen are natural numbers (it happens to be truth that in PA, every recursive structure is isomorphic to the natural numbers). When is every statement I can prove also true in the sense of a winning strategy in the recursive semantic game? Conversely, when can the semantic game truth of a sentence by given by a proof? The answer to both is negative. For the first, check that the sentence that all programs x1 and inputs x2, there exists a number of steps y such that the system either halts after y steps or it does not halt. This is the halting problem. It is not decidable, hence there is no winning strategy for Verifier, but the sentence if trivially provable in Peano arithmetic by the law of the excluded middle.

Boyer and Sandu note (as known in an earlier literature) that we can relate the two types of truth by extending the semantic game to allow backward moves. That is, at any node, or at the end of the game, Verifier can go back to any node she played and change her action. Verifier wins if she has a finite winning strategy. It turns out that Verifier can win in the game with backward moves if and only if she can win in the standard game. Further, if a statement can be proven, Verifier can win in the game with backward moves using a recursive strategy. This has some interesting implications for Godel sentences (“This sentence is not provable within the current system.”) which I don’t wish to discuss here.

Note that all of this is just the use of game theory in “games against nature”. We usually think of game theory as being a tool for the analysis of situations with strategic interaction, but the condition that players are rational perfect optimizers means that, in zero sum games, checking whether something is possible for some player just involves checking whether a player called Nature has a winning strategy against him. This technique is so broadly applicable, in economics and otherwise, that we ought really be careful about defining game theory as solely a tool for analyzing the strategies of multiple “actual” agents; e.g., Wikipedia quotes Myerson’s definition that game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers”. This is too limiting.

Final copy. This article appeared in Synthese 187/March 2012. Philosophers seem to rarely put their working papers online, but Springer has taken down the paywall on Synthese throughout December, so you can read the above link even without a subscription.