Game Theory: An assessment of the theory that aspires to unify the social sciences

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Just as physics has its holy grail (A Theory of Everything Natural), so do the social sciences. It is the ambition of many a social theorist to articulate a theory that encompasses every facet of social life: economic decisions, social norms, behavior in the context of groups and hierarchies, national and international politics, negotiating contracts, jurisprudence or, indeed, working out the Social Contract that binds us as societies. Yet, despite this ambition, and the plethora of megalomaniacs in the social sciences academy, no one in fact claimed to have produced such a Theory of Everything Social. Until, that is, Game Theory came around in the late 1940s and, by the 1980s, some of its most ambitious proponents issued a very large claim on its behalf: Game Theory can unify the social sciences. This talk will examine the basis for this Grand Claim. It will do so from the perspective of a (once) young graduate student who made it his business to get to the bottom of this claim and to inspect properly the theory’s foundations. The talk will conclude with some ‘lessons’ for graduate students, and also for Faculty, about the perils of becoming absorbed in, or co-opted to, a totalizing project whose sociology of knowledge may be detrimental to one’s quest for truth.