Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Ant and the Grasshopper

[The setting is heaven, with the old foes reunited at last.]

GRASSHOPPER: I didn't expect to see you here!

ANT: Believe me, I'm equally shocked! – Glad, too, since I recently read a book about you that contained some thoroughly implausible claims, and I've been looking for an opportunity to take them up.

G: Ah yes, my authorized biography. Tell me, though, what do you find implausible in it?

A: This, for a start (the ant begins to read from page 34):

[To] play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.

So Wittgenstein should quake? As a definition of game-playing, this is hopeless. It may work for sports like running a marathon, where the goal of being 26 miles from here before the others would be achieved more efficiently by taking a cab. But what about chess? Checkmate is defined in terms of the rules: it is not a goal that could be achieved more efficiently without them!

G: Perhaps you didn't read the book with sufficient care. What I call the "prelusory goal" of chess is that the pieces should be arranged so that the conditions for checkmate are satisfied, which indeed makes no sense apart from the rules, but can be achieved without following them, as when someone cheats, or sets up the board as an illustration without ever playing a game.

A: Hmm. Fair enough. Let me try again. Now that you've mentioned them, there seems to be a problem about those who cheat. Your definition mistakenly counts them as not even playing the game. Professionals will be tempted to do this all the time. Come to think of it, they cause problems anyway, since they don't accept the rules just because they make the activity in question possible, but in order to make a living.

G: You are certainly persistent, my friend. No surprise there! Professionals do accept the rules in order to make the activity possible, even though they have further reasons for welcoming its possibility. You were misled by the phrase "just because," which was never meant to conflict with this. And I deny that cheats play the game, strictly speaking; they merely pretend to.

A: Are you serious? Well, of course not, but still…you are proposing a definition on which the majority of baseball players are not playing baseball, since they pretend to have caught balls they merely trapped, to have tagged runners they missed, to have touched bases they merely passed by.

G: Not playing baseball when they do those things, that's all.

A: I can see that it's hopeless to press this line. Here's another: your definition counts as game-playing all kinds of activities that are not games at all. Think about the institutions of promising and punishment, as they are analyzed by Rawls in "Two Concepts of Rules": we engage in activity directed towards cooperation or deterrence using only means permitted by the rules of a practice, and we accept them because they make this activity possible – though, like professionals, we have further reasons for welcoming its possibility.

G: Ant! I would have expected you, of all insects, to do your homework. This is dealt with in the book. Rules against punishing the innocent or creating false expectations are not accepted because they make punishment and promising possible, but on moral grounds. That is why these institutions are not the institution of games.

A: But your proposal doesn't work. Yes, there are moral constraints on the institutions of punishing and promising, as there are on any activity – "Don't kill the shortstop sliding into second base" – but so long as the rules of those institutions are to some degree arbitrary, as Rawls suggests, you can't deny that they are games.

G: Let me answer you with a riddle, which came to me in a dream…

A: Don't play with me, grasshopper! The truth is that you don't have any reply to this objection. In fact, it's worse than you think. Almost any ritual that we engage in self-consciously is going to count as a game for you, along with a vast array of practices whose rules we adopt because we need some practice of that general kind. No wonder you find yourself able to argue that life in utopia consists exclusively in playing games: what doesn't? Alarmingly absent from your discussion, as reported in the book, is any reference to fun!


Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

I'm not yet halfway through the book, but I'd venture to say that cheating is either a symptom of alusoriness or of taking oneself to be playing a different game (viz., the "game" of gaming the rules).

8:20 PM  
Blogger 4539203 said...

Seems to me that the Ant is right here, but that we are, at the conclusion, left with a pretty good definition of games -- one better than the one we had before the Grasshopper started talking.

E.g. we can understand now why we call this a game.

8:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life's a game.

9:08 AM  

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