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You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Sat, 15 Jan 2005

James Carse at the Long Now
I've been to a few of the Seminars about Long-term Thinking, sponsored by the Long Now Foundation. They're hit and miss. Sometimes they're really interesting, sometimes they're kind of boring. This week's speaker was James Carse, author of a book called Finite and Infinite Games. I'm not sure where I'd heard of Carse (although reviewing my notes beforehand, I found his book mentioned in a talk by Jaron Lanier at AC2004) (I should really type up those notes at some point). Anyway, he sounded interesting, so I went. And it was a great talk. Carse was a fun guy to listen to. He just kind of rambled on about topics that interested him. And he would occasionally pop out with these quotes that were just perfect observations about the state of the world. I tried to scribble down as many of those as I could, and I'll drop them in as appropriate.

So in this talk, Carse was applying his theory of finite and infinite games to larger societal questions. In particular, he claimed that war was the ultimate finite game, and religion the ultimate infinite game. He also wanted to make the case that belief and religion were two different things; he's apparently working on a book that's tentatively titled "Higher Ignorance - The Religious Case Against Belief". That distinction is important because he observed that any kind of war anywhere eventually involves the phenomenon of religion. But he didn't want to blame wars on religion, but on belief. So he had to differentiate the two. But first he went back to reviewing the concepts of finite and infinite games, as described in his book (which I haven't read, but plan to now).

The basic idea, as far as I can tell, is that finite games are played within a well-defined set of rules, where for one player to win, the others have to lose. The boundaries are important to finite games. There has to be an ending, and there has to be an agreement on how you get there. If you can play with the rules, the game might never end (e.g. Calvinball). Carse posits infinite games as those where the point of playing is to continue the play, changing the rules if need be. He compares the difference between finite and infinite games as the difference between a boundary and a horizon. You can approach a boundary, and cross over it, and then you're on the other side. However, as you move towards the horizon, the horizon keeps on moving away from you, and you have changed your perspective.

He also pointed out that finite games requires "veiling", where we consciously restrict ourselves to play the game, take it seriously, and ignore any other considerations. We are playing within the rules. He points out that it is important to realize that such "veiling" is done freely, by choice. He quoted Sartre, who apparently wrote that you always have the freedom not to fight in a war. Even if they kill you. Think Gandhi.

Random quote: "Whoever must play, can not play" i.e. forgetting that a finite game is played freely kills the spirit so that one no longer remembers the sense of play. Or so I interpret that.

So since he was blaming wars on belief rather than religion, he asked the question "What is the nature of belief itself?" Good question. He then made several observations about belief that many people would find rude, but I found wonderful.

Then he got back to his original topic of religion. He had realized at some point that the great religions were among the longest lasting cultural traditions in the world, which made him speculate whether they were, in his terminology, infinite games. He pointed out that the most successful longest-lasting religions were ones that had transcended space and time. They were not tied to a specific cultural context, or to a specific place. When one asks "What is Christianity?" (or Buddhism or Islam or Judaism), the question is not answerable; it's almost as if there's no definable identity, no core. He posited that this was characteristic of infinite games, that they are infinitely adaptable and non-contextual, that they are slippery and elude definition because they are not tied to a specific set of rules. It's a bit of a stretch, but maybe it will make more sense after I read his book.

Then he moved on to war. He pointed out that "War is brevity", and that the enemy has to be veiled, because it's important for us to think of the enemy as "one of them", and having no otherwise humanizing characteristics because once we do, they're no longer monkeys, and we have to treat them fairly. In a similar way to the true believer, "the army creates its enemies". The soldier must take on most of the same characteristics as the true believer; when you are in combat, you must have put aside thinking, and just believe that you are on the right side. I don't think it's a coincidence that people in the army tend to vote Republican, the party of the true believer these days.

Random quote: "We get up every morning deciding to be San Francisco, our church, America." I loved this quote, partially because I wrote something similar: "The country of America is nothing more than a shared story".

He then moved on to the role of the poet as a possible enabler of infinite games. While Plato apparently pointed out in the Republic that poets can deceive you and bend reality, Carse pointed out that poets can also unveil us and help us escape the finite games that we are trapped in. Carse believes that we need poets to "cure" blind faith and believers, to be non-judgmental, to create a larger inclusive context (which I loved, because I've been positing the same role for stories). Because "finite players will destroy themselves". Which I thought was interesting, in light of Beemer's comment (quoted here) that "you'd be able to tell that Good was Good because Evil eventually annihilates itself when correctly applied."

Unfortunately, he ran out of time around here (I would have happily listened to him talk for much longer), and was forced to take questions, so the rest of my notes are just random quotes.

Really interesting talk. Carse had a lot to say that I totally agreed with. I like his conception of poetry as the generator of infinite games, because I've been on my story kick. I'll read his book at some point, and report back here.

posted at: 23:05 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal/events | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal