Saturday, August 24, 2013

My son is a point guard

I think most of you would agree that I am not speaking nonsense in saying this, or introducing some "magical" element into my description of my son. Is a straightforward statement of fact, of the kind that would usually pass without any notice.

But what I wish to note here is that no sense can be made of this statement without the larger context of the notion of "a basketball team." It is not possible for a human being to be a point guard in isolation. He might dribble a basketball around, and even pretend to pass to others. But without the larger context of a basketball team, he is not a point guard.

The truth of reductionism is that sometimes good explanations of something larger can be given in terms of breaking down that larger thing into smaller entities. I did this all the time in analyzing the workings of the programs I was writing: when I found a bug, I looked for a particular line of code to explain the bug. But if taken as a methodological dictate, which in the reductionist program it is, its falsity is demonstrated by the fact that sometimes the smaller thing can only be explained in the context of the larger thing.


  1. I'm not sure that's what the reductionist program is, though. Wikipedia says, "Reductionism is a philosophical position which holds that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents."
    It only says that one must be able to construct an account of the larger thing in terms of the smaller, not that such an account must be the only one, or the best one, or even good.

    For example, the reductionist in me would object to your example by pointing out that while it's true that no one is a point guard in isolation, it's equally true that basketball teams are made up of individuals. You can't have a basketball team without having the players to constitute it. If your son's basketball team were to become a football team, this could only(?) happen if each member of the team started playing football, and was assigned an appropriate position.

    So then, the fact that the statement about being a point guard depends on the notion of a team isn't, in fact, necessarily a description in terms of a larger notion; if we wanted to be pedantic and annoying, we could instead say, "he is the individual who is assigned the following responsibilities out of a collection of individuals who are working together to achieve [...] blah blah blah etc. etc.", describing the role of point guard only in terms of other position players (i.e., individuals). True, it's a terrible description (although, maybe not, if you don't actually know anything about basketball) but I don't see that it's clearly wrong.

    1. Jeremy, Jeremy...

      "a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts"

      Did you miss "NOTHING BUT" in that definition?

      "he is the individual who is assigned the following responsibilities out of a collection of individuals who are working together to achieve..."

      Why do you think giving a long DEFINITION of a basketball team somehow avoids the problem for reductionism?

      And tell me this: why do people who have to look up "reductionism" on Wikipedia feel the need to lecture me on what it really is?

    2. I didn't miss the "nothing but", but "nothing but" doesn't have to mean "can only be described in terms of".

      These both sound like reductionist claims to me:
      1. "There is no way to understand a basketball team except as the sum of its individual players"
      2. "There are many ways to understand what a basketball team is, but the correct one is: as the sum of its individual players"

      Claim 2. allows for higher-level descriptions of phenomena, it just doesn't think they count as descriptions of "what's really going on". But I think (and I think you would too) that claim 2 is still reductionist.

      Your example shows that there are higher-level descriptions of basketball teams, but it doesn't explain why a lengthier, lower-level description can't count as "the true" description. (Just to be clear, I don't think there's any reason that it DOES, only that you haven't shown that it DOESN'T)

      That's why I think the long definition avoids the problem: the type 2. reductionist is only stuck if you can find an example that does not admit a lower-level description AT ALL.

      I think your original post implicitly acknowledges this when you say '[...]no sense can be made of this statement without the larger context of the notion of "a basketball team."', and later on 'its falsity is demonstrated by the fact that sometimes the smaller thing can only be explained in the context of the larger thing.'

      The long definition precisely shows that you CAN make sense of a point guard without the notion of "basketball team", and that point guards are not "only explained in the context of the larger thing" -- there is a loophole for the reductionist, albeit an inelegant one.

    3. Jeremy, thank you for your thoughtful response. But i don't think you have really grasped the dilemma facing the reductionist here: you talk of a "collection of individuals." But just how did you "collect" them? If I say "Rajon Rondo is the point guard for the Boston Celtics," just how would you establish which individuals should count in your alternate definition? After all, there are 6 billion people on earth, and an infinite number of "collections" of them into which Rondo could be placed! I say you are just relying on the idea of a basketball team, but stating in a very wordy way!

    4. Or in other words, Jeremy, your long description did not "do without the notion of a basketball team": it simply used hundreds of words to describe that notion instead of two.

  2. I don't get it. The component parts of a point guard are:

    [Player] + [dribbling up the court] + [passing the ball (usually)] + [jump shot (sometimes)].

    How does that not describe a point guard in totality? What specific "extra" are you claiming is added to "point guard" by knowing what a "basketball team" is?

    It seems that I need to know pretty much all the component PARTS of a basketball team (ie, players, passes, shots, dribbles), but that's only because those also happen to be parts of a point guard. It may follow, then, that somebody who knows what a point guard is also will know what a basketball team is, but again, that's just because they have the same parts.

  3. "I don't get it."

    On this point, we are in total agreement.

    "The component parts of a point guard are:

    "[Player] + [dribbling up the court] + [passing the ball (usually)] + [jump shot (sometimes)].

    "How does that not describe a point guard in totality?"

    Well, basically by failing to describe a point guard at all.

    This whole comment is so silly that I half suspect it is a parody, but I will note this: If someone performs each of those "Components" in the middle of the school prep rally, that does not make him a point guard, but instead perhaps a prop or a jokester or a potester.

    1. Sorry, lost your comment KPres. But, "Whatdoes being a point guard on a team consist of besides those things?"

      Well, I have answered that above. But for you, I will again: Did you notice your question included "on a team"? There is one thing required: a team. Someone doing those things in a volleyball game is NOT "being a point guard". It also requires ANOTHER team. It also requires the idea of what the point of a basketball game is: a chimp might mimic all the motions of my son, but he would not be acting as a point guard because he has no understanding of what the game is.

      My son's coach told him "The MOST important job of the point guard is to be the team leader." Of course, that REQUIRES the team!

      And even, say "passing" requires other people who are catching: just chucking balls at random people is not passing but a form of assault.

      So, as I said, you missed almost everything of importance.

  4. Hey, congrats to your son! Besides skill, it takes leadership and the trust of the coach to be point guard. (So you need to add those two ingredients to the list of necessary and sufficient conditions, reductionists!)

  5. Yes, by all means, congrats to your son! Now, what if there were no basketball at all? What if your son, perhaps as great a genius as Shelley in his way of the mind, daydreamed up all of basketball for his own amusement, and pictured himself as a point guard--the best in the world, no doubt, and why not? Even if "point guard" was fully explicable in terms of its parts--whatever they may be--all those parts are, in this world, inside your son! At the very least, you would have to do the entire reductionist decomposition twice.


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