Friday, October 29, 2010

Rules and Games


Games have rules. Given any particular game, it is obvious that if some set of its rules are changed, that game will cease to exist, giving rise to a new game. For example, if the rules of chess change to allow unmoved pawns to move three spaces, queens to move only three times per game and knights to move only diagonally, a new game is created: call it “chess-β.”

However, some rules of a given game can be changed without thereby creating a new game. For example, one could change the rules of baseball such that only the use of wooden bats is permissible, yet not thereby create a new game.

A few days ago, some friends and I attempted to answer the following question: If the rules of baseball were changed such that an umpire’s call could be overturned by video evidence, would a new game, call it “baseball- β” be created?

One side argued that it is just part of the game of baseball that the ruling of the umpire stands. More strongly, this side argued that there is no criterion, say, for a strike, outside of the umpire’s call. On this view, a thing isn’t a strike until the umpire says so. By allowing video evidence to overturn an umpire’s call, this side argued, we would thereby change the definition of strike in baseball, essentially creating a new game.

The other side (Black Socrates's side), argued that there just have to be criteria for the correctness or incorrectness of an umpire’s call which are independent of the umpire’s judgment. Otherwise, it would make no sense to say, for instance “The umpire made a bad call,” or “The umpire got that one wrong.” If it does make sense to say these things, then there is a standard of correctness for the calling of a strike outside of an umpire’s judgment. If this is the case, we would not create a new game in allowing an umpire’s call to be overturned by video evidence. The video would simply serve as a better umpire. It would track more accurately what the umpire seeks to track: the facts about whether something was a strike or not (or, better, whether someone threw a strike according to the rules of baseball).

I think my side’s argument is absolutely right. And it’s interesting to contrast baseball with a game in which the referee’s judgments are more closely tied to facts about whether something counts as something according to the rules of the sport. Take, for example, wrestling. A wrestler scores two points for a takedown and a wrester has taken his opponent down when he as established control. Now, obviously, establishing that a wrestler has control isn’t as easy as establishing that a football player is down, or that a pitcher has thrown a strike. Two people could watch a perfectly clear recording of a match and disagree about whether one wrestler established control.

In this sport, the judgments of the referee are essential to establishing the fact of the matter about whether a wrestler has established control. While we may disagree with a referee’s call, that the referee makes the call he does, in a sense, makes it the case that a wrestler has control. We hear wrestling fans say things like “That was a questionable call,” or “I wouldn’t have given him a takedown,” but rarely “The official just got that one wrong.” If we were to establish more clear criteria for takedowns, replacing “control” with a more technical and objectively verifiable definition, we would, I think, thereby change the sport of wrestling, creating a new sport “wrestling- β.”

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Spirituality for the Existentially Post-Racial Black Atheist?


The existentially post-racial black atheist is an odd creature (statistically speaking that is). While 89 percent of African-Americans identify with some religion, she hasn’t been in anyone’s church in a while. She has no desire to live forever and finds no comfort or meaning in the notion of an omnipotent, benevolent god. In fact, she may agree with Zora Neale Hurston that prayer is a “cry of weakness.” (Or with O-Dog from Menace II Society, who thinks that “black folks got too much damn religion as it is.”)

She realizes that religion (particularly, Christianity) continues to be a source of meaning and hope for many African-Americans. She acknowledges the essential role the black church played in securing basic civil rights for black and brown people in this country. Though, like Beneatha Younger (From A Raisin in the Sun), she is “sick of hearing about god” and looks elsewhere to find meaning and purpose in her life. She’s an atheist.

Also, the existentially post-racial black atheist doesn’t derive much personal meaning from her racial identity. She does acknowledge that she is black. She’s not one of those black folks who refused to join the black student association in college. In fact, she believes that racial solidarity is necessary in certain circumstances. She loves Obama and thinks that Clarence Thomas is completely wrong about nearly everything.

However, she’s not really interested in wearing the “I love being black” t-shirt. She thinks of herself as a strong person, but not a “strong black person.” She does not devalue her racial identity, but she does not necessarily value it either. She just takes it to be a fact about herself, like her nationality, that may positively or negatively impact her in certain situations. Race is not at the center (or even the periphery) of her conception of herself as valuable. She, like Frantz Fanon, has “no wish to be the victim of the fraud of a black world.” She is existentially post-racial.

The existentially post racial black atheist is an anomaly. Many African-Americans gain a sense of purpose and personal fulfillment from their belief in god and/or their racial identity. But the existentially post-racial black atheist finds little meaning in god or blackness. From where, then, could she derive her spirituality, her sense of purpose, pride and personal fulfillment?

To answer this question I’m going to shamelessly borrow Nietzsche’s concept of self-overcoming. For Nietzsche, great individuals are able to continually overcome themselves, that is, to continually rework and refine their personalities and values. Nietzsche’s great individual, the Übermensch, is not only able to, say, overcome her shyness, but is also able to reevaluate the values and practices she has inherited. Like Toni Morrison’s Claudia (from The Bluest Eye), she is able to recognize that there’s a distinction between strength and aggression, compassion and politeness, goodness and good behavior. She is an evaluator, destroyer and a creator.

For the existentially post-racial black atheist, the process of self-overcoming can be a source of grounded spirituality and a conception of the self that transcends racial categories. The spirituality associated with self-overcoming is “grounded” in the sense that the meaning associated with self-overcoming is not derived from something transcendent or otherworldly. The activity of self-overcoming takes place in time, in this world. It ends with the death of the body.

Additionally, for a person engaged in the activity of self-overcoming, the self is simply an ongoing project, something to be overcome. The existentially post-racial black atheist has already overcome her black identity and (most likely) her identity as a Christian. Her self- conception, then, will simply become the process of doing more of what she has been doing.

But again, and crucially, this self-conception is not to be simply negative. The Übermensch must not simply destroy old ideas and conceptions of the self, but must also create. The existentially post-racial black atheist should constantly remind herself, as Fanon puts it, that “the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence.”

What, you may ask, is the final goal of all this self-overcoming? When, you may wonder, can the Übermensch rest?

Well, there is no final goal. The activity is the goal. If one continues to evaluate one’s self and one’s values, one reaches the goal at every moment. And, there is no rest for one who wishes to self-overcome. This form of grounded spirituality is necessarily active and creative. Fanon expresses the essence of self-overcoming beautifully: “[i]n the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.”

The real challenge for the existentially post-racial black atheist will not be that of finding meaning in her life, but navigating a world which is largely racial and theist. A world which assumes both that she takes her race to be an essential component of her identity and assumes that she is a Christian. To self-overcome in these circumstances is both a challenge and a source of meaning and purpose.