The Backward Induction Controversy as a Metaphorical Problem

Ramzi Mabsout


The backward induction controversy in game theory flared up and then practically ended within a decade – the 1990s. The protagonists, however, did not converge on an agreement about the source of the controversy. Why was this the case, if opposing sides had access to the same modelling techniques and empirical facts? In this paper I offer an explanation for this controversy and its unsettled end. The answer is not to be found in the modelling claims made by the opposing protagonists, but in the tacit metaphors they operate under. Aristotle defined metaphor as giving a ‘thing a name that belongs to something else’ (Poetica, 1457b). The meaning of metaphors has not changed much since then – in contrast to models which are comparatively new, and still not well-understood, scientific tools. The controversy of backward induction in game theory provides a test bed for the explanatory power of metaphors. This paper frames the controversy in terms of metaphor choice to provide a common framework for the protagonists. This results in the identification of three different domains – mathematical logic, game theory and the world – each connected to the other via different metaphors. The controversy around backward induction is placed in, and tentatively explained by, this framework.

Published on 31st March, 2018, in Economic Thought Vol 7, No 1, 2018