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“Anatol Rapoport, Abridged”, Systems Sciences Meetup, February 18, 2010

In the Toronto area, we have had a legacy of many systems scientists as residents.  Although many Meetup attendees were familiar with Anatol Rapoport in association with the prisoner’s dilemma, they did not know that had had been a professor at the University of Toronto since 1970, and resided in the city until his passing in 2007.

One systems scientist who knew him well is Helmut (Ken) Burkhardt, professor emeritus of physics at Ryerson University.  We were delighted when Ken agreed to speak on “Anatol Rapoport, Abridged“.  As a bonus, Ken coordinated the meeting so that Anatol’s wife Gwen and son Tony could join in the discussion.

For those who were unable to attend the February 18 meetup, Ken agreed to allow me to post the notes from his talk on this blog.

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Anatol Rapoport as I Remember Him

Helmut (Ken) Burkhardt

Anatol’s biography as given in the Wikipedia is pretty good, therefore, I will report on what cannot be read in the Wikipedia, my personal impressions of Anatol as

  • Concert Pianist,
  • Systems Science pioneer,
  • Peace Researcher, and
  • Ethicist.

Anatol the Pianist

I heard Anatol play the piano very forcefully in a public concert at the Hart House of the University of Toronto.  It reminded me of a story told about Beethoven, who played so forcefully that pianos would break.  I was afraid for the piano at the Hart House would not survive Anatol’s concert.  It did.

At one of the Canadian Section of ISSS conferences, Anatol declined to play piano for the group because the instrument we had on site did not meet his standards of quality.

Later I heard Anatol give a piano concert at the Banquet of the ISSS Annual General Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, 1998.  Anatol was 87 years of age at the time.  It was a beautiful setting in a high-rise penthouse, with view all around over the city.  Anatol played a few pieces beautifully, but then in the middle of another one he stood up, and said “sorry, I cannot continue, my strength was failing”.

When Anatol was well over 90 years old, and his mental faculties began to wane, I still remember him playing the piano beautifully at his home.  Gwen may tell us more about that.

Anatol the Systems Scientist

In developing systems research, Anatol emphasized the analogy to physics.  I totally agree with that.  Systems science and all the branches of science must recognize the limits to their freedom of choice set by the physical sciences, and today I would add the limitations set by the ecological sciences.  These are the vital primary sciences that determine what is possible, and set the imperatives for individual, social, economic and political action.

Unfortunately, social scientists including politicians are often not knowledgeable of physics and ecology, and have a tendency to design systems and policies outside of the allowable physical and ecological limits, and are therefore prone to fail; by ignoring the scientific limits solutions become the problems.  One international civil society organisation that promotes this physical framework for policy is the ‘Natural Step’ society that originated in Sweden .

Anatol’s pioneering contribution to societal system science was in Game Theory.  One of the most insightful and also popular stories is the Prisoners’ Dilemma.  In an example, two individual prisoners A and B are tied together through their circumstances to form a little mafia system within the state system.  It turns out that in the interests of the prisoner system are opposite to the interest of the state system.  Furthermore, the interest of the individual members of the mafia system can be contrary to the interest of the mafia system.   Thus, there are many different values to be considered, and rational decision of the individual, can cause damage to the mafia systems, which represents the interest common to both prisoners.

I took the following example from the website that Anthony has set up for his father’s published and unpublished works: .  The judge has proof of the prisoners’ possession of stolen goods, which justifies a prison term of 1 year for each prisoner.  Pursuing the interests of the state system, he would like the prisoners to confess to burglary, which would justify a 5 year prison term.  Therefore he designs the four scenarios: if no one confesses to burglary, then each prisoner is sentenced to one year in prison.  The judge offers a plea bargain if only one of them confesses to burglary, he goes free and the other one gets a five year sentence. If both confess, they get for being honest only 3 years prison term each.

Before listing the rational options of the prisoners, I would like to represent the example in terms of the mafia ethic of the prisoners.  In this context a ‘ratter’, according to the dictionary, is a slang expression for a person who deserts his/her associates, not a dog that catches rats. Confessing has a positive value for the state ethic, but for the mafia ethic it is ratting, which has a negative value.  The reason for this value inversion will become clear later, when I apply the prisoners’ dilemma to climate change; here the nations are prisoners of the globe, and the national interests are often opposite to the global interests.

Table 1: the four scenarios in prisoners’ dilemma derived from the example given by Anatol Rapoport
. A B M
No one rats 1 1 2
A rats, B not 0 5 5
B rats, A not 5 0 5
Both rat 3 3 6

Each prisoner has two options, which are to rat, or not to rat.

What are the consequences for them personally and for the prisoner mafia?

If they rat, they might go free, or get 3 years prison term, on average they have to expect 1.5 years prison.

If they do not rat, they will get one year in prison, or might get a 5 year prison term, on average they have to expect 3 years in prison.  Therefore, the individual prisoner’s rational decision for the prisoners is to rat.

However, this meaningful, rational decision for each individual is the worst case scenario for the mafia collective; namely 6 person years in prison, while the when both do not rat, the mafia gets away with only 2 person years of prison time.

I suppose because of this benefit for the collective, trust in your associates has been praised a virtue since Ancient Greek times, as beautifully described in a ballad by Friedrich von Schiller in 1799.  Wikipedia (ürgschaft )  has the following synopsis of the story: The ballad is set in Ancient Greek polis of Syracuse. After a failed attempt by Moerus to kill the tyrant Dionysius, he is sentenced to death. However, he is granted a delay in order to consign his sister to her designated husband. Moerus’ friend remains with Dionysius to guarantee Moerus’ return. To the astonishment of Dionysius, after many obstacles, Moerus returns to save his friend. Ashamed by this deed, Dionysius admits the moral value of fidelity and asks to be considered as a friend in their midst.

The rationality of the individual and of the system decisions changes with the conditions.  If the crime the prisoners confess to leads to a penalty of life long prison, of even death, then the expectation changes.

Table 2: four scenarios of the prisoners’ dilemma for severe crimes
. A B M
No one rats 1 1 2
A rats, B not 0 death 1 dead
B rats, A not death 0 1 dead
Both rat Life in prison Life in prison 2 life in prison

If they both don’t rat, each spends one year in prison.  The alternative is to go free or risk a lifelong prison term, which is worse than one year in prison.  If  both rat, then both get sentenced to life in prison.  In this situation the rational decision for the individual is not to rat, which at the same time benefits the collective.

Let me now apply Anatol’s prisoner dilemma to last December’s climate change discussion in Copenhagen.  Assume the two global coal burning giants of the world, China and the USA think they each will lose a trillion Dollars by no longer burning coal.  However, when one of them continues burning coal they will lose nothing, if the other stops burning coal, which will result in a 5 trillion dollar disadvantage.  If both continue burning coal, the environmental damage will amount to each of them losing 3 trillion Dollars.

Table 3: the four scenarios in prisoners’ dilemma applied to economy based decisions on climate change losses
. A B M
No nation burns coal 1 trillion 1 trillion 2 trillion
USA burns coal, China not 0 5 trillion 5 trillion
China burns coal, USA not 5 trillion 0 5 trillion
Both burn coal 3 trillion 3 trillion 6 trillion

Not knowing for sure, what the other nation will do, it is rational for each nation to continue burning coal, because they expect 0 or 3 trillion dollar losses, while if they do not continue burning coal, they must expect 1 or 5 Trillion dollar losses.  However, the global economy will have most losses in this situation, namely of 6 trillion dollars, compared with 2 trillion in if they both were to stop burning coal.

Again, the rationality of the individual nation’s decision will depend on the circumstances.  If we trust the predictions of the International Panel on Climate Change, that the consequence of continued burning of coal and oil is the catastrophic collapse of the ecosystem and with it the global collapse of human civilization, then the individual nation’s rational decision must be to stop burning coal.

Table 4: the four scenarios in prisoners’ dilemma applied to science based decisions on climate change losses
. A B M
No nation burns coal 1 trillion 1 trillion 2 trillion
USA burns coal, China not 0 5 trillion 5 trillion
China burns coal, USA not 5 trillion 0 5 trillion
Both burn coal Global chaos Global chaos Global chaos

In these scenarios described by mainstream climate change scientists the nations must chose between 1 trillion dollars economic loss, and no economic loss but risking global chaos.  Obviously, the rational choice of nations is not to continue burning coal, which coincides with the global interests in the science based decision making.

The Peace Researcher

In the early 1980th, when I joined Science for Peace, they were asking for proposals for research projects.  I stepped forward and proposed research on appropriateness of weapon.  My idea was that the right kind of weapons are survival tools, and inappropriate weapons such as nuclear weapons are suicidal.  Eric Fawcett, the founding president of Science for Peace arranged a lunch with me an Anatol to discuss this peace research proposal.  Anatol’s decision was swift and firm.  No!  All weapons are inappropriate.  To this day, I disagree with this judgement.  When I meet a hostile grizzly bear in the wild, I would rather have bear spray, or even a gun with me, because my strength is no match to theirs.

There are other opinions on peace, which I share with Anatol.  Many, including the Buddhists claim that peace comes from within us, it is made by individuals attitudes.  By contrast, Anatol maintains that individual psychology need not be changed to achieve peace; it is the military industrial complex, the whole war system that must change. I think I have proof that Anatol’s view is correct.

I live with millions in Toronto at an acceptable level of peace.  I only know a few of them personally, but most of the strangers are peaceful enough as they are.   The few who are disturbing the peace are removed by police from the social system.  All functioning states are characterized by such internal peace.  The United Europe, with all the difficulties has extended peace beyond the national level to the continent.  In my view it is just another step to global peace through the adoption of an appropriate global political structure, without changing the psyche of humans.

Anatol the Ethicist

The traditional ethics lists four values: the True, the Beautiful (the Pleasurable according to Anatol), and the Good.  This ethical system I found not really helpful, because it does not define the Good.

I learned from Anatol to differentiate between primary values, and instrumental values.  In contemplating the difference I concluded that only the primary values are universally valid, not only for humans, but for all life forms.  The instrumental values are relative to cultural and environmental conditions.

On this basis I have formulate a science, not philosophy based ethics; it has only two primary, universal values, namely one’s own life, and the life of one’s offspring.  All other values are instrumental for achieving the primary values.  While this is basically a very simple ethical system, it has ‘brutal’ consequences, and in practice it becomes very complicated when considering all the value conflicts arising between the individual and the community, the short term and the long term, the local and the global.

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Conversation at the Meetup

The conversation at the meetup with rich.  Although I’ve discussed prisoner’s dilemma in the past, the “mafia” view somehow eluded me.  From the description of Anatol Rapoport’s perspective, the story moves from the usual arena in economics to the sphere of morals and ethics.

One of the surprises from the meeting was the history provided by Gwen Rapoport .  She was already well developed in her career at the founding of the new field of industrial relations at the University of Chicago, in the era of Robert Hutchins — a great advocate of interdisciplinary studies — when she met Anatol.

For those interested in reading more about the life and work of Anatol Rapoport, Tony has launched a new site at .  There’s a more complete article on Prisoner’s Dilemma over there.

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