Game Theory and the Garden of Eden

Look – I’m a logical guy. I’m a programmer, a copyeditor, and a math tutor. I have a signed, framed print of an xkcd comic on my dining room wall. I follow rules, and I create rules, and I like things to make sense.

So when I come across something puzzling in the Bible, I get…curious.

The discussion that follows is based on a reading of Genesis that’s probably too literal. I’m not trying for serious literary or theological analysis. I’m just letting my logical brain do its thing.

With that in mind, let me ask you: what would’ve happened if Eve and Adam hadn’t eaten from the Tree of Knowledge?

Ever wondered? I had never given it much thought. If you’d asked me, my answer would’ve been something vague: I guess they would’ve stayed in the Garden and been happy. And lived forever, maybe? Not really sure.

It turns out that Genesis gives a surprising amount of detail about the whole situation, though, and there’s enough information that it feels a little like game theory to me. (I know almost nothing technical about game theory, so math majors, don’t cringe too hard.)

You’ve got two “players.” One is God, the other is Adam and Eve. (The serpent is more of an influencer than a player.) Both players want the best outcome for themselves, but their interests don’t necessarily align.

You’ve also got two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Tree of Life is simple. You eat its fruit, and you live forever (Gen 3:22). Adam and Eve can eat from this tree whenever they wish, because it’s not forbidden (2:16), but in the Genesis story, they never do. If you don’t eat from this tree, you remain mortal.

The Tree of Knowledge makes you “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). It grants other knowledge, too – for instance, they realize they are naked (3:7). In my view, this tree takes you from a childlike state into adulthood.

The way I see it, there are actually four different ways this scenario can play out.

Choice 1: Eat from neither tree.

Adam and Eve don’t sin. They stay in Eden, grow old, die, and presumably go to heaven. It’s implied that sex is a pre-Fall state of affairs, rather than a result of sin (2:23-24), so they will almost certainly have children, and Eden fills with their descendants.

By the way, as more and more people live in Eden over time, it would seem to be ever more likely that someone, sooner or later, will eat from the Tree of Knowledge. From this perspective, the Fall seems almost inevitable.

Choice 2: Eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

This is what happens in Genesis. They disobey, they eat, they become “like God,” they’re kicked out forever, they eventually die. The story we all know.

Choice 3: Eat from the Tree of Life only.

A variation on #1. Adam and Eve stay in Eden, sinless, living forever. They have lots of kids. One wonders if there would have to be some kind of population control after a while, or if Eden grows to accommodate additional residents. Maybe it eventually spreads to cover the whole planet. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Choice 4: Eat from the Tree of Life, then the Tree of Knowledge.

This is where things get really interesting.

See, God doesn’t want them to eat from both trees, because then they would be “like God” in knowing good and evil, and also immortal. (Why God doesn’t want this is not entirely clear.) So, in the Genesis narrative, when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he threw them out to be sure they didn’t eat from both trees.

If they eat from the Tree of Life, however, they haven’t broken any rules. That tree is permitted. They’re immortal, and they can still go anywhere in the Garden. And hey, the fruit on that other tree is looking pretty tasty…

God could do several things here.

First, he could do what he did in #2 and wait till after they eat from the Tree of Knowledge to do anything. Then Adam and Eve are both knowledgeable and immortal, which is what he didn’t want. The humans have “defeated” God. What happens after that? No one knows. (Although, if modern science can figure out a way to stop aging – and we seem to be getting closer all the time – then we may one day find out.)

Second, God could step in after they decide to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but before they actually do, letting them stay immortal but preventing them from becoming “like God” (and presumably kicking them out of Eden). This option is also fascinating, because you’re now in a situation where humans have Fallen (they decided to disobey God) but they’re immortal anyway, and thus don’t need the sacrifice of Jesus to get eternal life. A very odd state of affairs.

Or finally, God could avoid the whole problem by removing or barring the Tree of Knowledge after they become immortal. This actually makes it impossible for Adam and Eve to sin, because there’s no longer any way they can disobey him (unless some new command or situation appears). In other words, the Fall is permanently averted. Adam and Eve “win.” The whole thing could have been avoided if they had just happened to eat from the Tree of Life first.

All three of these possibilities are very strange, yet all three follow directly from the humans taking the simple, obvious, and perfectly acceptable step of eating the fruit that will make them immortal. Funny, isn’t it?

Oh, well. Tomorrow’s post will be about something non-biblical. I promise!

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2 responses to “Game Theory and the Garden of Eden

  1. In Genesis both Adam and Eve eat; what if only one of them did? Unless you assume the same patriarchal vicarious responsibility that some people impute to post-Fall society, only one of them has disobeyed God.

    What if humanity reaches the third generation in Eden before someone eats? Do we suddenly have fallen and not fallen civilisations?

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