Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Memento mori: The Metaphysics of The Game

I just lost the game. And so have you, especially if you know what I'm talking about.

Some background: my eldest son, Conall, attended a highland dance camp this past summer. While he was there, he learned about The Game. Being obsessed with games in general and mind games in particular (like his dad), he came home and told us all about it, and has since reveled in telling us every time he loses the game. Since learning about The Game, I have myself announced the same to several of my classes at Cornell, each time to a chorus of groans.

So, how does The Game work?

The Game has only three rules:

1) Everyone is always playing The Game.

2) Whenever you think of The Game, you lose.

3) Having lost The Game, you must announce this to at least one other person (usually by saying or writing "I just lost The Game").

Some active players of The Game also assert that there are two corollaries:

4) You can lose The Game multiple times.

5) You can only lose The Game once every half hour.

That is, The Game "resets" after half an hour, so that having forgotten that you are playing, you can lose again and again and again...

Having lost The Game many, many times since Conall told me the rules, it has occurred to me that there is a metaphysical dimension to The Game. Thinking about The Game is essentially the same thing as thinking about one's own death. That is, The Game is a kind of memento mori. Most of us go through most of our lives without often thinking about the incontrovertible fact that all of us will, at some point in the indefinite future, cease to exist. We will all, in other words, "lose The Game".

There have been several times in my life when I have become bemused by the thought of my own mortality. The first time it happened I was four years old. We were living in an old farmhouse on Scott Road, east of Homer, New York, and I was walking up the stairs to my bedroom. Between one step and the next, it occurred to me that I would someday die - that I would cease to exist. This realization was very shocking to me, and came back into my mind steadily for some time.

But then, I forgot about it...for a while. Since then, I have gotten caught in the same "becoming aware of mortality loop" several times, and each time it has had the same quality as losing The Game. That is, it comes with a sense of "doubled consciousness", in which I have become conscious of my own stream of consciousness, and its eventual termination.

Many theologians (and some evolutionary biologists) have speculated that the origin of religion is grounded in the realization of personal mortality. From an evolutionary standpoint, the argument is as follows:

1) Individuals who avoid situations in which their lives are threatened survive (and can therefore reproduce) more often than individuals who do not avoid such situations.

2) Individuals who are aware of their own mortality are more likely to avoid situations in which their lives are potentially threatened.

3) Ergo, the cognitive operation in which one becomes conscious of one's mortality has adaptive value; that is, it can increase in frequency among the individuals that make up a population as the result of natural selection.

Some evolutionary psychologists (myself among them) have argued that the capacity for such cognitive operations is the basis for our evolved psychology, and that there is a positive feedback relationship between ideas like "mortality" (and The Game) and the underlying neurological wiring that facilitates the acquisition and transmission of such ideas. This idea, known as "gene-meme coevolution", was first and most rigorously explored by Charles Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson in their 1983 book, Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process. The underlying ideas in their work were summarized in non-technical language in Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind.

Having pondered both The Game and mortality, it seems quite plausible to me that our minds are indeed adapted to the kind of mental operation that results in both "losing The Game" and recalling our personal mortality. And so, I expect to go on losing The Game until I lose The Game...and now, having read this, so will you.


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


Labels: , , , , ,