Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Problem of Universals

If I look out my window, point at a thing and call it a tree, how did I know that this object is a tree? A simple answer might be "it looks like a tree". In fact there is a delightful line in Mark Twain's Diary of Adam and Eve to this effect:

"Entry in Adam’s diary:

Tuesday: Been examining the great waterfall. It is the finest thing on the estate, I think. The new creature [Eve] calls it Niagara Falls – why, I am sure I do not know. [She] Says it looks like Niagara falls. That is not a reason, it is mere waywardness and imbecility."

How can a thing 'look' like Niagara Falls. For that matter, how can a thing 'look' like a tree. What we are really saying is that we have been shown instances of trees in the past and this new thing is similar to those instances. But this observation does not get us very far. There is a general category called 'tree' and we believe that this object outside the window belongs to that category. But, where did that category come from? And, how do we know the thing we are pointing at belongs to that category?

The problem of getting from the individual occurrences of things in the world to the groups into which we organize them is known as The Problem of Universals. The things that make up the instances or occurrences in the world are known as particulars and the groups into which we organize them are known as universals.

Why is the problem of universals so important? Consider the definition of a triangle. It is a three sided geometric figure the sum of whose interior angles is 180 degrees. That is a great definition. All triangles are included and nothing is included that is not a triangle. And from such precise definitions whole fields of knowledge have been developed. Now consider what would happen if we defined a triangle to include other geometric objects such as polygons, and metaphorical uses such as a 'love triangle'. How far could geometry get with definitions like that? And that is the crux of the issue. Defining universals is at the very heart of how we develop our knowledge of the world. And without well defined universals, progress in discovering knowledge is seriously hampered.

Since this is such a crucial problem in the advancement of knowledge we are going to stay with it for a while. While it is tempting to just move on with our understanding of games, not getting the concept nailed down threatens anything we would do from this point on. It would be like saying, let's not bother pouring a concrete foundation for this house. Let's just start putting up the walls. Whether or not you fully grasp the Problem of Universals, I think you can easily see where the analogy would take you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Concept of Identity

How do we know when two things are the same thing? This question seems uselessly abstract until we consider the fact that our knowledge is organized around sameness. And if we do not know what we mean when we say two things are the same, it is not possible to develop or acquire knowledge. When we say that two things are both games, we are saying they have the same essence or arché, which, in turn, means certain things should be true about both of them. To push this further, all things called games should have the same essence and certain things should be true about all of them. Further, all games should be related in a consistent manner to other concepts such as enjoyment, pleasure or growth. This is how we organize our knowledge and organizing our knowledge around essences leads to greater intellectual economy.

The concept of identity is the metaphysical problem that we encounter when we attempt to establish sameness. There are, in fact, two quite different varieties of sameness: sameness of a thing over time and sameness of two distinct things. The first, sometimes called the persistence of identity, addresses the problems that arise when I say that I am the same person who graduated from college, lo so many years ago, even though that person was decades younger, much less wiser, and very different in so many ways. The second, usually called the problem of universals, addresses the problems that arise when we group things into categories. Where do those categories come from? With no intention of minimizing the first, we are going to consider the second over the next few posts. There are two reasons for this. First, we need to know what we mean by the term 'games' if we are going to study them seriously. And, second, 'games' have an important role in the development of our understanding of universals.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Search for the Arché

Early pre Socratic philosophers were engaged in a quest to find the fundamental unchanging essence of which all things were made. They are sometimes referred to as the earth, air, fire and water philosophers as they, in turn, posited each of these as the most fundamental element. Their quest is sometimes referred to as The Search for the Arché from the ancient Greek word, Arché , meaning the beginning or first principle. We see this word in modern words such as archeology (study of the beginnings), archaic (belonging to the beginning), and monarchy (one first). We can take the word to mean the essence or underlying principle. And while the pre Socratics were looking for the underlying essence of all reality, we usually limit ourselves to the underlying essence of the particulars that make up a concept.

So, what does this have to do with games? We saw in the previous post that normal conversational usage of a word or concept (such as game) is inadequate for serious rigorous research. Included in the conversational usage of the term games are such disparate particulars such as sports games, games people play (social roles), and the game of life. If we wish to study games, we need to come up with a crisper definition. We want the concept of games to include only things that are essentially the same.

The reason for this is simple. If the particulars that we include in the concept of games are essentially the same then we should be able to describe attributes or properties that they all have in common and we should be able to identify regular relationships that these particulars have with particulars in another concept.

In order to do this we need to make sure that all of the particulars are essentially the same; that they have the same essence. Or, in simple terms, that the instances are all instances of the same thing. We need to find the arché of games in order to be sure they are all the same. But, what exactly do we mean when we say they are the 'same'. This question, which seems to be far to simple and obvious to even comment on, actually opens up one of the most perplexing ideas in metaphysics - the concept of identity. What do we mean when we say to things are the same? We will turn to that in the next post.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Idols of the Marketplace

In the last post, I asked the question - What is a Game? I mentioned Wittgenstein who said you really can't define a game and Suit who said you can. Let's take a step back and ask - Why does it matter? You have probably never had the experience where you used the word 'game' in a sentence and somebody interrupted you to ask - What is a game? We seem to get along just fine in our normal conversations using words like 'game' without actually defining them. And, if we need a definition there is always the dictionary. So why all the fuss and bother?

The answer is that in order to study something from the perspective of rigorous research the usual definitions and fuzzy understandings we carry about in our heads are not good enough. I will explain why this is later. But for now, I just need to draw a line between meanings used in conversational discourse and meaning used in research.

Francis Bacon, one of the philosphical fathers of modern science, discussed four illusions we suffer from that prevents us from advancing our knowledge. He called these illusions 'Idols' and one of these 'Idols of the Marketplace' is on point here. 'Idols of the Marketplace' refers to the fact that the terms we use in normal conversations (e.g. when chatting in the marketplace) are simply too poorly defined to advance scientific understanding.

Taking a step beyond Bacon, I would point out that the purpose of casual discource is not the advancement of knowledge. The purpose of casual discourse is social bonding. And social bonding is easier to achieve if we blur distinctions rather than sharpening them. Hence, in casual conversation we may use the word 'game' in a wide variety of imprecise ways such as 'games people play', 'the game of life', 'gaming the system', 'playing the game to get promoted' and so on. However, for the purposes of research we must refine our definitions. We need precise definitions that refer to precise categories and all of the instances of those categories should have the same essence.

The same essence.... What does that mean? Well, perhaps we can take that up next time.