On Football, Determinism, Science and Utopia

My brother and I got into an argument that was ostensibly about American football.

He argued that there are coaches who have the best schemes, bar none, and that other coaches are only as good as they measure up to those schemes. Furthermore, such schemes emphasize the interchangeability of players: find the right players for the scheme, and then there is no need to account for special players that might have more talent than most.

Any coach with the right knowledge, of course, will not have to change anything or take into account circumstance, for his work is built to win. It may work some years, may fail others, but it gives him the best chance in any given situation.

The problem I’m having with the argument isn’t merely how reductionist the hard determinism involved is.

The big problem I’m having is with how purposely blind that determinism is. To give an example: suppose the best players for your scheme aren’t available. On what grounds does one make compromises?

Aristotle held that knowledge of practical things is knowledge of changeable things. My brother wants to say that isn’t true: there is a theory in a “game” which could be eternal.

Underneath the concerns about football, then, is a very real quarrel about the limits of modern science.

My brother is really arguing that the ideality of theory cannot be achieved because of circumstances only. But if one could control circumstances, then one would see, at the very least, how powerful theory in the practical sphere can be: it is so powerful that it has the status of truth that in previous ages would be considered eternal. For eternal truth was the measure by which all other things had status.

I guess I need to clarify our relation to utopia. We moderns reject utopia on the surface, but that’s really our secularism trying to pose as objective. Truth be told, we firmly believe in utopia: ideals come from a place that can’t be achieved now but oh-my-god-it-would-be-so-cool-if-this-were-different and wouldn’t you know, technology inherently holds that promise.

The deep problem, to reiterate, is the idea that a theory so dependent on particulars can have the literal epistemic status of moral truth, being beyond reproach. The question for me is exactly how the character of the particulars can be depicted so as to show that theory conceived such must be fallible. The general idea is that of “falsification:” scientific theories are useful precisely because they can be falsified.

The particulars in question are of two sorts: 1) the rules of the game and 2) the talent available. The rules affect who has what sort of talent and vice versa. I mean, the game is made for people with two arms, not three: that sort of consideration is inherent in the rules. It would seem that hard determinism is justified entirely if the talent and the rules create a system within which certain standards are more effective, others less.

Except that to say such a thing is to assume that one has total control over the human element, and understands it entirely. In other affairs, such as war, control over external circumstances like the weather defeats the idea that there is a perfect theory. Here, what defeats the idea is that a game is literally centered around the players.

A good coach is not someone that has ideal schemas. He’s someone that gets people to play their best and puts them in the best position to win. It’s a game that’s being played, ultimately.

Truth is, the determinism can hold wholly, but it is of no consequence, because at best, it gets more abstract and starts dictating ideal conditions that become more and more remote. It does not seek to understand what people get out of a game, or what motivates them to play it. A perfect example of this is computer chess: since computers don’t understand our psychology, they’re too good at chess. The better a computer is at chess, in fact, the less sophisticated the AI is.

I’m conflating arguments at this point, but you get the general idea. The limit of theory is precisely the strength of theory: it can specify parameters. It can tell us what logically cannot hold. But in terms of understanding or comprehending possibility, it can only aid. And in terms of our will to possibility, it draws a blank. What my brother reduces to “it’s the same things this coach does year after year” are emphatically not the same things: different players, different conceptions of what they do, and slightly altered, sometimes wholly altered, mechanics within the scheme.

We don’t need to carve out arguments for “free will,” truth be told. Theory’s strength needs to be recognized as such, and we need to remember the practical origins of our modern concept of theory. The older concept of theory was far more determinist, but that is a topic I will take up next time.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting set of thoughts- I’m interested in your concept of what we mean by utopia- what’s the difference between alternative and utopia

    Interesting points all over though- I’ve got to think this through- by the way I think playing into all of this is the idea of chaos- particularly in mathematics and the way that some systems just are too complicated to predict their outcomes. They can be simplified so you can make some predictions but they can’t be exactly predicted.

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