Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The Game of Philosophy

Originally posted on May 16, 2008

I think of philosophy as a game: It’s not a frivolous game, but rather it’s a game in the sense of challenge, flexibility, and its provisional nature. It’s a game of building the best possible explanation, a working model that accounts for an expanding range of phenomena. Of course, the game  should be played with some degree of humility, because it’s likely that there will be new discoveries that might change basic paradigms in the not-too-distant future.

In the last three centuries, the last 6% or so of recorded history, a number of discoveries have broadened our horizons in many dimensions: The microscope, the telescope, the spectroscope, a thousand electronic devices to measure subtleties in time, space, energy, and matter, and from all these, new views of humanity’s place in the Cosmos has continued to emerge. The mainstream of humanity hasn’t begun to absorb the full implications of these discoveries. I see no reason to expect that for some strange and inexplicable reason our species has just happened to reach the end of all discoveries. It seems more plausible that they will continue to unfold and that a certain percentage of them will not just modify but actually revolutionize the ways we think about nature and perhaps even the ways we think.

With this as a preamble, I think it presumptuous to consider that the systems of explanation we develop, in light of the past, and considering also the probabilities in the future, that these systems, these philosophies, are anything more than provisional.

It occurred to me that building philosophical systems, rationally-coordinated ways of explaining as much as possible, is a craft that requires as much of an infrastructure of skills and knowledge (if one is to do it well) as the craft of building or remodeling a house. (I admire my neighbors who are so handy, and then I realized that apparently very few do what I do—i.e., philosophize. Many do a little, but they’ve admitted that it is tiring and not fun for them. A few—but only a very few—actually seem to enjoy the game, as I do.)

Part of the reason the game is tricky is that there are a number of criteria that can and should be woven together, some taking more precedence than others for different tasks: The criteria include logical coherence, comprehensiveness, explanatory power, usefulness (I especially favor this one, this “pragmatic” criterion), heuristic power (to generate yet other interesting or useful questions and applications), basis in evidence, inclusiveness, aesthetic elegance, psychological support, and so forth.

Philosophy to me is akin to building bigger, more elaborate, and more detailed sand castles. (Actually, this activity has become astonishingly elegant in the last fifty years, if not more recently. Googling “sand castles” gets you websites with amazing pictures. It’s become a more recognized recreational-artistic field. Will it become an Olympic event? Other kinds of sculpture are also developing—ice sculpture, snow sculpture, what else?)  There is a recognition that the models so developed are dependent on current evidence, circumstances, based on current thinking, although ideally the more sophisticated streams in current thought. This recognition also takes into account the virtue of humility, the inevitability of dialectic, or stated more dramatically, the idea that some irreverent scamp—possibly younger and with the freshness of innocence, not knowing it can’t be done—will come up with an approach that can shatter our elegantly, meticulously built model, explanation, theory, philosophy. Ah, well, that’s the game!

In truth, though, it isn’t or should not be a game of winners or losers. If someone can prove me wrong and, better, offer something better to replace it, that part of me that cares about the advancement of truth (rather than the illusion of how “right” I am) will rejoice. The game shifts and becomes not just one of defending my vulnerable position, but of re-building on the new foundation. Or perhaps I’ll stay in the game by seeking a way to synthesize the best insights of the challenge, the antithesis, and my own best insights, my distilled thesis.

I’ve talked to G-d about this, and (in this mytho-poetic-drama fantasy) She says, “Go to it! I rejoice in this game of philosophy as much as I rejoice in the building of beautiful temples or cathedrals, bridges and highway systems; I rejoice in the advancing games of mathematicians and physicists, the inventions and discoveries—many of which lead to more interesting and subtle questions. Worship to me is even sweeter when, instead of slavishly saying, ‘Oh God, you’re so great!’ you say “Wowsie Woozy! How did you do that?!”

It’s possible to be a bit proud of achievements in this game of philosophy without tumbling into arrogance; to be humble about the vastness of the game without tumbling into over-awed paralysis. The game partakes of the innocence of childhood, knowing that there’s more to learn, those with finer skills, but for now, for here, let’s play!

One Response to “The Game of Philosophy”

  • Charlie Welsh says:

    A homoletics professor said to us years ago, “Gentlemen, don’t tell themn about the labor pains, show them the baby.” That may be of value with sermons. With philosophy, however, I’m not sure there is a “baby”, some final product worth arriving at. Rather, like the sand castles, the resulting postulates are only dust in the wind. The value, the meaning, the true product lies in the quest, in the pursuit of unresolved quandary, in the thought process itself, which, when done with passion and fascination, stretch the soul and make of the self something qualitatively more than it was at the outset.


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