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.

  • “Belief is the point where your thinking ends.” It’s a boundary condition. When we reach a belief that we truly hold dear, we have conditioned ourselves not to think about the implications of it not being true. Or as Orson Scott Card put it in Speaker for the Dead, “We [humans] question all our beliefs, except for the ones we really believe, and those we never think to question.”
  • “Once we have a belief, history has ended.” Belief inherently puts temporal limits on our thinking. We have essentially stated that once we believe something, nothing will change our minds. No new evidence will sway us. The world as it applies to the area of belief has frozen.
  • Another way of putting that concept is that true believers don’t live “in a long now, but a ‘right now’ that stays forever.” What a great quote to tie it into the Long Now foundation, and to make his point crystalline.
  • “People don’t state their beliefs, except when they are stating them to non-believers.” If we are surrounded by people who agree with us, we never talk about our belief. The whole red-state/blue-state thing comes from this. However, Carse’s extension was fascinating – “The believer can’t believe without the non-believer.” In other words, if the non-believer doesn’t exist, the believer must create him. You can’t play a finite game without an opponent. So we demonize al-Qaeda, or Saddam, or John Kerry. Once an opponent has been created, then we can use all of our techniques and methods used to win finite games. I mean, this is one of those ideas that is somewhat obvious in retrospect, but I think it may strike at the heart of some of what I feel is offensive about the conservative movement. As he put it, “Evil is where an infinite game is absorbed completely into a finite game.”
  • He also commented on the importance of certainty to belief. There must be an authority. This is why many beliefs place so much importance on textual certainty. The Bible is the literal Word of God, etc. It’s not just that a text is used, it’s that the text is used to assure Truth and Certainty.

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.

  • “A true teacher makes themselves dispensable, makes themselves disappear.”
  • We are “not dealing with the enemy, but with the enemy within ourselves”. We are always most vigilant about the things that we hate most within ourselves. I know this is so true of myself.
  • “All evil is itself the attempt to eliminate evil.” As he notes, Hitler was very clear on what the evil was, and took what were, to him, obvious steps to eliminate that evil. Behavior like that is why Carse posits evil as the consequence of a finite game seeing itself as the whole game. And it ties into his ideas about “veiling”; when we veil the other and turn him into our enemy, we have also veiled ourselves, and limited our ability to think outside the rules of the finite game. This is a really really powerful observation. I’ve had some thoughts about similar subjects before, but apparently was never get them together coherently enough to blog. Stuff like this was why I thought it was a great talk. These brief ideas that can change the way you look at things.
  • He described a friend of his who’d put all his savings into a business that was heavily dependent on a particular supplier, and who then got screwed over by that supplier. He ran into his friend at an airport, asked him how things were going. His friend said that he’d run into that supplier just then. Carse asked “So what’d you do?”, imagining a thrashing (the friend was a former Marine). His friend said “I bought him a beer”. When Carse’s mouth dropped open, his friend said “It’s only business.” It’s just a finite game. Move beyond those self-set boundaries, and take on the infinite game of life. We have the “freedom to give up the involvements of daily life.” So easy to say. So, so, so hard to do. Or I’d be trying to turn this blogging thing into a job right now.
  • On a similar note, it’s scary to think of that kind of freedom. Terrifying to realize that the only thing keeping us in the prisons of our daily lives is ourselves. Carse pointed out that true believers were essentially trying to get rid of their own freedom. They wanted history to end, to not have to think any more about what to believe. The concept of freedom was too terrifying. This topic is handled wonderfully in V for Vendetta, a graphic novel partially about anarchy, but mostly about the exploration of the idea that the most powerful person is one who realizes that he is free in exactly the way that Carse describes.
  • Carse pointed out that we are often so scared of that freedom that we go to war against our own uncertainty. The example he gave, of course, was Iraq. We couldn’t deal with al Qaeda, and couldn’t deal with the idea that terrorists might be able to hurt us, so we created a new enemy (or, technically, resurrected an old one) and went to invade Iraq.
  • Somebody from the audience (it turned out to be a friend of mine from MIT) asked whether science could be construed as being an infinite game, on par with the great religions. Carse agreed whole-heartedly. He used Freud as an example of a “poet” of the type that he lauded. He said that Freud may not have been a great scientist, but his conceptions of the unconscious and of dreams changed the culture of the world, because his ideas were so powerfully attractive. That was true poetry in Carse’s world.

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.

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