1 Topoi (2006) :39–41 DOI 10.1007/s11245-006-0005-2 RESEARCH ARTICLE Higher-order truths about chmess Daniel C. Dennett Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006 Abstract Many projects in contemporary philosophy facts plays an indispensable role in the activity of are artifactual puzzles of no abiding significance, but it working out the a priori truths of chess, which also exist is treacherously easy for graduate students to be lured in abundance. All you need to know are the rules of into devoting their careers to them, so advice is prof- the game. There are exactly 20 legal opening moves for fered on how to avoid this trap. white (16 pawn moves and four knight moves); a king and lone bishop cannot achieve checkmate, and neither 1 Keywords a priori truth, chess, graduate students, can a king and lone knight, and so forth. Working out Hebb these a priori truths about chess is not child’s play. Proving just what is and is not possible within the rules of chess is an intricate task, and mistakes can be made Philosophy is an a priori discipline, like mathematics, that get perpetuated. For instance, a few years ago, a or at least it has an a priori methodology at its core, computer chess program discovered a mating net—a and this fact cuts two ways. On the one hand, it excuses guaranteed win—consisting of over 200 moves without philosophers from spending tedious hours in the lab or a capture. This disproved a long-standing ‘‘theorem’’ of the field, and from learning data-gathering techniques, chess and has forced a change in the rules of the game. statistical methods, geography, history, foreign lan- It used to be that 50 moves without a capture by either guages ..., empirical science, so they have plenty of side constituted a draw (stalemate), but since this time for honing their philosophical skills. On the other lengthy mating net is unbreakable, and leads to a win, hand, as is often noted, you can make philosophy out it is unreasonable to maintain the fifty-move stalemate. of just about anything, and this is not always a blessing. (Before computers began playing chess, nobody Consider, as a paradigm of a priori truths, the truths be a guaranteed win of could imagined that there of chess. It is an empirical fact that people play chess, anywhere near this length.) All this can be pretty and there are mountains of other empirical facts about interesting, and many highly intelligent people have chess, about how people have been playing it for cen- devoted their minds to investigating this system of a turies, often use handsomely carved pieces on inlaid priori truths of chess. boards, and so forth. No knowledge of these empirical Some philosophical research projects—or proble- matics, to speak with the more literary types—are This piece grew out of informal discussions with graduate rather like working out the truths of chess. A set of students attending the Brown University Graduate Philosophy mutually agreed upon rules are presupposed—and Conference on February 16, 2002, and my own graduate seldom discussed—and the implications of those rules students at Tufts. I thank them, and colleagues at Tufts and elsewhere, for valuable reactions and suggestions. 1 A few days after I wrote this, the chess column in the Boston D. C. Dennett ( & ) Globe published a special case in which it is, in fact, possible to Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, Medford, achieve checkmate with a lone knight. But in general, it is not MA 02155, USA possible. The special case is shown in the accompanying figure. e-mail: [email protected] 123

2 D. C. Dennett 40 One good test to make sure you’re not just are worked out, articulated, debated, refined. So far, so exploring the higher-order truths of chmess is to see if good. Chess is a deep and important human artifact, people aside from philosophers actually play the about which much of value has been written. But some game. Can anybody outside of academic philosophy philosophical research projects are more like working care whether you’re right about whether be made to out the truths of . Chmess is just like chess chmess Jones’ counterexample works against Smith’s principle? except that the king can move two squares in any Another such test is to try to teach the stuff to direction, not one. I just invented it—though no doubt uninitiated undergraduates. If they don’t ‘‘get it,’’ you others have explored it in depth to see if it is worth really should consider the hypothesis that you’re playing. Probably it isn’t. It probably has other names. following a self-supporting community of experts into I didn’t bother investigating these questions because an artifactual trap. although they have true answers, they just aren’t worth Here is one way the trap works. Philosophy is to my time and energy to discover. Or so I think. There some extent an unnatural act, and the more intelligent are just as many a priori truths of chmess as there are you are, the more qualms and reservations you are of chess (an infinity), and they are just as hard to dis- likely to have about whether you get it, whether you’re cover. And that means that if people actually did get ‘‘doing it right,’’ whether you have any talent for this involved in investigating the truths of chmess, they discipline and even on whether the discipline is worth would make mistakes, which would need to be cor- entering in the first place. So bright student Jones is rected, and this opens up a whole new field of a priori appropriately insecure about going into philosophy. truths of chmess, such as investigation, the higher-order Intrigued by Professor Brown’s discussion, Jones takes the following: that is given H a stab at it, writing a paper on hot topic Jones’ (1989) proof that p is a truth of chmess is 1. an ‘‘A’’ by Professor Brown. ‘‘You’ve got real talent, flawed: he overlooks the following possibility ... Jones,’’ says Brown, and Jones has just discovered Smith’s (2002) claim that Jones’ (1989) proof is 2. something that might make suitable life work. Jones flawed presupposes the truth of Brown’s lemma begins to invest in learning the rules of this particular (1975), which has recently been challenged by game, and playing it ferociously with the other young Garfinkle (2002) ... aspirants. ‘‘Hey, we’re good at this!’’ they say, egging each other on. Doubts about the enabling assumptions of the enterprise tend to be muffled or squelched ‘‘for Now none of this is child’s play. In fact, one might be the sake of argument.’’ Publications follow. able to demonstrate considerable brilliance in the So don’t count on the validation of your fellow group activity of working out the higher-order truths of or graduate students your favorite professors to settle chmess. Here is where Donald Hebb’s dictum comes in the issue. They all have a vested interest in keeping the handy: enterprise going. It’s what they know how to do; it’s If it isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well. what they are good at. This is a problem in other fields too, of course, and it can be even harder to break out Each of us can readily think of an ongoing contro- of. Experimentalists who master a technique and equip versy in philosophy whose participants would be out of an expensive lab for pursuing it often get stuck filling in work if Hebb’s dictum were ruthlessly applied, but we the blanks of data matrices that nobody cares about no doubt disagree on just which cottage industries any longer. What are they supposed to do? Throw should be shut down. Probably there is no investigation away all that expensive apparatus? It can be a nasty in our capacious discipline that is not believed by some problem. It is actually easier and cheaper for philoso- school of thought to be wasted effort, brilliance phers to re-tool. After all, our ‘‘training’’ is not, in squandered on taking in each other’s laundry. Voting general, high-tech. It’s mainly a matter of learning our would not yield results worth heeding, and dictatorship way around in various literatures, learning the moves would be even worse, so let a thousand flowers bloom, that have been tried and tested. And here the trap to I say. But just remember: if you let a thousand flowers avoid is simply this: you see that somebody eminent bloom, count on 995 of them to wilt. The alert I want to has asserted something untenable or dubious in print; offer you is just this: try to avoid committing your Professor Goofmaker’s clever but flawed piece is a precious formative years to a research agenda with a sitting duck, just the right target for an eye-catching short shelf life. Philosophical fads quickly go extinct debut publication. Go for it. You weigh in, along with a and there may be some truth to the rule of thumb: the dozen others, and now you must watch your step, hotter the topic, the sooner it will burn out. because by the time you’ve all cited each other and 123

3 Higher-order truths 41 responded to the responses, you’re a budding expert on How to Deal with How to Deal with Responses to Goofmaker’s minor overstatement. (And remember, too, that if Goofmaker hadn’t made his thesis a little too bold, he never would have attracted all the atten- tion in the first place; the temptation to be provocative is not restricted to graduate students on the lookout for a splashy entrance into the field.) Of course some people are quite content to find a congenial group of smart people with whom to share ‘‘the fun of discovery, the pleasures of cooperation, and the satisfaction of reaching agreement,’’ as John Austin once put it (see Austin 1961, p. 175), without worrying about whether the joint task is worth doing. And if enough people do it, it eventually becomes a phenomenon in its own right, worth studying. As Burton Dreben used to say to the graduate students at Harvard, ‘‘Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship.’’ Some garbage is more important than other garbage, however, and it’s hard to decide which of it is worthy of scholarship. In another lecture published in the same book, Austin gave us the following snide masterpiece: It is not unusual for an audience at a lecture to include some who prefer things to be important, and to them now, in case there are any such present, there is owed a peroration. (‘‘Ifs and cans,’’ pp. 230–31) Austin was a brilliant philosopher, but most of the very promising philosophers who orbited around him, what is interesting and important. On the contrary, the no doubt chuckling at this remark, have vanished best bold strokes in the field will almost always be met without a trace, their oh-so-clever work in ordinary- by stony incredulity or ridicule at first, and these language philosophy duly published and then utterly should not deter you. My point is just that you should and deservedly ignored within a few years of publica- not settle complacently into a seat on the bandwagon tion. It has happened many times. just because you have found some brilliant fellow So what should you do? The tests I have men- travelers who find your work on the issue as unignor- tioned—seeing if folks outside philosophy, or bright able as you find theirs. You may all be taking each undergraduates, can be made to care—are only other for a ride. warning signs, not definitive. Certainly there have been, and will be, forbiddingly abstruse and difficult topics of philosophical investigation well worth pur- Reference suing, in spite of the fact that the uninitiated remain Austin JL (1961) ‘‘A plea for excuses,’’ in his Philosophical unimpressed. I certainly don’t want to discourage papers. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 175–204. explorations that defy the ambient presumptions about 123

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