Play

"But in acknowledging play you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter. Even in the animal world it bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by the operation of blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play, so they must be more than merely mechanical things." -- Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p. 3-4

31 comments:

  1. Why can't a deterministic physical machine play?

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    1. Well, it can mechanically imitate play, but you don't really think Big Blue was having fun, do you?

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    2. No, Deep Blue was definitely not having fun. But it's just a chess-playing program. That says nothing about whether there could in principle be a deterministic physical machine that could have fun.

      Now as it happens, I think consciousness is something unique to creatures that have souls. But that deserves a better argument than saying "Play only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos." Why couldn't someone believe that play and consciousness are completely reducible to a deterministic physical machine?

      By the way, on a side note I don't believe in blind materialist determinism, but I do believe that the future is predetermined in the sense of fate and destiny. Why would acknowledging the existence of play and mind foreclose the cosmos being governed by that kind of divine predetermination?

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    3. You are wrong. That argument is perfectly sound. You just haven't thought it through.

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    4. Well, I'm trying to think it through. Could you enlighten me on what I'm missing?

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    5. If you were being forced to engage in football at gunpoint, did you say you were playing?

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    6. No, that wouldn't be playing, because my actions would be determined by something other than what I actually desired. But if my desires themselves were determined by the behavior of neurons in a way that I wasn't consciously aware of, I don't see how actions that were driven by those desires wouldn't qualify as "playing".

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    7. So... if you go to work in a coal mine all day, because that's what you wanted to do, to help your family survive, then that is "play"?

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    8. No, because working in a coal mine is only desired as a means to an end. But I'd say if something is desired as an end in itself, then actions that were driven by those desires could qualify as play. And I don't see why, if those desires were determined by the behavior of neurons, such actions wouldn't qualify as play.

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    9. "as a means to an end."

      Now you have introduced categories that do not apply to any deterministic system: "means" and "ends" are categories of mind, not of deterministic systems. You have just demonstrated Huizinga's point: to consider play necessarily introduces mind into a world of physical causality.

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    10. OK, but now we're back to what I asked in my earlier comment: what about someone who believes that mental activity is reducible to the behavior of a deterministic physical machine? Refuting them would require a better argument than saying "Play only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos."

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    11. Whoa! I knew there was a reason that I just read through all of this mumbo jumbo.

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    12. @MathMan: "Now you have introduced categories that do not apply to any deterministic system..."

      Yes, if you just ignore what I wrote, we will, indeed, never leave square one.

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    13. Gene, I'm not ignoring what you wrote, I'm asking for a justification. What is the justification for the claim that a human being with mental categories like means and ends can't be completely reduced to some deterministic physical system?

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    14. The categories "means" and "ends" have no meaning for a deterministic process: Means are what we employ to get to an end we aim for. But deterministic processes do not "aim" for anything.

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    15. But just because deterministic processes do not themselves have means and ends doesn't mean that creatures with means and ends can't be reducible to determnistic processes, does it?

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    16. That is exactly what it means.

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    17. I don't understand what your reasoning is. Surely you don't believe that just because X is reducible to Y and X has property P means that Y must therefore have property P. So you'd have to make some argument that "having means and ends" is a property that's special in some way.

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  2. Does this also work as an argument for free will?

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  3. "Surely you don't believe that just because X is reducible to Y and X has property P means that Y must therefore have property P"

    If X has property P and Y doesn't, that would constitute a proof that X is not reducible to Y.

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    1. To take a concrete example, suppose that tomorrow scientists announced that they completely understood human behavior, and it was completely reducible to deterministic firings of neurons, and easily predictable by doing a simple neural scan. They found that there was a certain section of the brain known as the "ends" section, in which everything that a person aims for is stored as a certain configuration of neurons, and every second or so there's another part of the brain which consults the ends section and feeds information from it into the consciousness section, where information from the outside world and other parts of the brain are processed, leading to certain neurons that fire and make the person do a certain action in an attempt to fulfill a certain end.

      If that were the case, would that that mean that humans don't have means and ends?

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  4. OK, if that's how you want to do things, then your assertion that deterministic systems don't have means and ends is no longer a self-evident statement, but rather something that has to be defended by an argument.

    Let me put it this way: at the fundamental level atoms don't have hands and feet, but certain large collections of atoms do have hands and feet (that are completely reducible to atoms). Similarly, why couldn't it be that at the fundamental level deterministic processes don't have means and ends, but certain large deterministic systems do have means and ends?

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  5. "but certain large collections of atoms do have hands and feet (that are completely reducible to atoms)."

    That statement is utterly false. Hands and feet are absolutely not reducible to atoms!

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    1. OK, substitute it for another analogy; I wasn't trying to make a controversial claim with that remark. Individual pebbles don't have the ability to knock someone unconscious. A collection of a hundred pebbles can knock someone unconscious, even though it's completely reducible to pebbles.

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    2. You have confused a property and an accident: the pebble and the pile of pebbles both have the property "mass." That mass, in the case of a large enough pile, can accidentally knock someone unconscious.

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    3. Oh, and it is actually force that knocks you out, and a single pebble can have enough: just git it going fast enough.

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    1. I assume that's a response to my example of scientists and brains. Well, if you would say that humans wouldn't have means and ends in that case, and they wouldn't be capable of play, then I think you're using the words, means, ends, and play in a different way than the average person.

      If the average person engaged in a game of football, and afterwards you told them that there was a part of their brain that encoded their aim to engage in football because it's enjoyable, and another part of the brain which made a decision as a function of information in the first part, and then told their body parts to engage in football, I don't think they would conclude that they weren't playing. They would conclude that they still employed certain means to achieve certain ends, it's just that they had been unaware of the underlying process that explained how it all worked.

      (Let me reiterate that this isn't how I actually think human beings work. I believe there are critically important roles for the mind and the soul.)

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    2. You have just stated that the average person is immune to philosophical sophistry, and would maintain the common-sense view of things in the face of such nonsense.

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    3. No, I'm saying that even if you proved to his satisfaction that that "nonsense" was absolutely correct, he would still maintain that he has means and ends, at least in the way that he would use those words.

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  7. You are talking rubbish: "convincing" him already assumes he has the free will to agree to your argument or not.

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