Friday, November 7, 2014

The Metaphysics of Games

If you really dislike philosophy you should skip this post. It is not necessary for understanding subsequent posts and may just confuse you if you do no have philosophical leanings. But, for those who may be interested, I thought I would write a few words about the metaphysics of games.

Perhaps one of the most enduring and perplexing problems in metaphysics arises from the seemingly simple question - how do you know a tree is a tree? The problem here is that we have a specific thing that we assign to a group or category. We use the word "tree" for both the category and the individual instances that populate that category. In metaphysical terms the individual instance is referred to as a particular, and the category is referred to as a universal. In normal conversation we do not distinguish between particulars and universals, as that would just make conversation awkward. But, if we were being precise, the above question would be qualified - how do we know a tree (particular instance) is a tree (member of the universal category).

But, where do these universals come from? And how do we know a particular instance belongs to a category? Are categories defined bottom up based on common attributes? If so how do we select the attributes? Or are categories defined top down based on essences? If so, how do we determine the proper essences? These questions make up one of the most vexing problems in metaphysics known as The Problem of Universals.

Philosophers as far back as Plato and Aristotle have attempted to tackle this problem. In the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein offered an interesting perspective using a family resemblances analogy and used games as an example category. If you go to a family reunion, you can see that the members of the family share some facial features. But, not everyone has the same set of common features. For example, a few people may have the family nose. Others have the family chin. Perhaps others have the family brow. The family is held together visually by a collection of interlocking facial features but no family member has the full set of common features. According to Wittgenstein, many concepts are held together in the same way.

In the case of games, we see a category held together by family resemblances. Some games have a strategy. Some games have winners and losers. Some games involve competition. And so on. But no game has a full set of common attributes. This assertion that 'games' is a poorly defined category would hold for nearly a century, until Bernard Suits would offer a precise definition of games. We will get to Suits in the next post. But for now we will leave it off by saying that the intellectual foundations of games is anchored deeply in the heart of metaphysics.

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