Earlier this week Mike Abbott wrote about how unconsciousness was his key to victory in Mega Man 9, and it reminded me of Lumines Live!.
My girlfriend has a dynamite Lumines Live! game. She slaughters me on a regular basis. It's a result of our differing play styles. Me, I'm planner-- I spend a lot of time in the early game laying out careful rows of blocks that will be easy to clear out. But she looks on my neat little rows with contempt. She's more a damn-the-torpedoes type. She works quickly-- she'll spend the first part of the game just dropping blocks pell-mell, as fast as she can. By the time I've got anything going, block-clearing wise, she'll have built up a lead by chipping into that initial heap and I'll be up against the wall. Give her some space to work she is nearly unstoppable, because I can't match her speed. I can't switch the planning-section of my brain off long enough to keep up with her.
Basically, she doesn't have to think about the game at all when she's playing, and this confers a huge competitive advantage over a thinker. She can beat me on total cruise control. While I'm feverishly scouring the block-pile for landing spots she can be daydreaming about kittens. She'll still win. I know what this mindset is like, because I'm totally capable of playing Guitar Hero without directing any conscious attention at all towards the wave of oncoming gems. I'll be off in some unrelated head-space and Strutter will leap, unbidden, from my hands.
There is that way that habituation causes us to internalize extremely ornate forms of reasoning, to the point that we are hardly able to make these inferences explicit. When we're apprehending a new rule-system we have to think about the rules in order to follow them. (“So, if I make a square of four blocks, then they will disappear when the time-line sweeps by” or, “If I press this button and strum with correct timing, then it'll play this note.”) But once you've trained yourself into practice of note-strumming and block-dropping all these explicit rules fall by the wayside, replaced by this kind of thoughtless mastery. That's why we call certain transcendent performances unconscious, or say that C.C. Sabathia was pitching out of his mind last Sunday.
Interesting philosophical problems arise from this kind of phenomenon. When we're pressed to justify ourselves, when we get to talking about things like knowledge and right action, we usually fall back on the idea that our beliefs and behavior stem from sound principles. We talk about how our conclusions follow from sound rules of evidence and logically sound reasoning. Philosophers tend to be caught up in the idea that there is an explicit set of rules that guides our reasoning in certain areas, and that our ability to state and justify these rules is the soul of wisdom. But experience shows that we can be pretty reliable performers (we can come out with correct performances-- expert block-dropping and peerless plastic-guitar-tapping) without ever being able to explicitly cite the rules that produced those performances. (Like, I know there's some sort of complicated algorithm being processed in the lizard-part of my brain, which is telling me when I shift my hand around on the neck of the guitar, but I'll be damned if I can tell you how or when I make that decision.) There is even this way that thinking about what you're doing ruins your capabilities-- when you start thinking about what you're attempting and it all goes to shit.
Even though we can often work backwards towards the guiding thread of reasoning if we think about it long enough, there are these more extreme cases where we cannot frame an explicit rule at all. American neopragmatist philosopher Robert Brandom uses the example of chicken-sexing in his book Articulating Reasons: “Industrial chicken-sexers can, I am told, reliably sort hatchlings into males and females by inspecting them, without having the least idea of how they do it. With enough training, they just catch on. In fact, as I hear the story, it has been established that although these experts uniformly believe that they make the discrimination visually, research has shown that the cues that their determinations actually depend on are olfactory... [they] are quite unable to offer reasons... for believing a particular chick to be male.” (102-3)
Brandom thinks cases of this sort provide an foundational insight into the nature of reasoning. For Brandom, the idea of a game gives a pretty apt metaphor for the the kind of practice reasoning is-- what the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would call a language-game. A game is a system of rules, which designate correct and incorrect performances-- valid and invalid moves within the game. But unlike a video game, whose rules are exhaustively thematizable (someone had to write those lines of code), ethical and theoretical reasoning might not be the sort of thing that is reducible to an explicit set of rules, consciously followed. Reasoning and inferring are moves in an evolving practice that we engage in with each other, guided by our implicit sense of how-the-game-is-played, more than by a set of explicit principles. (we gather evidence and draw conclusions and act without having to think about it; we've been schooled since birth in this game's ins-and-outs by other human beings.) For Brandom, philosophy is about reflecting on the game's practices and trying to make the rules that guide our practices explicit.
One of the reasons that games are interesting is that they serve as great metaphors of the kind of practices that guide the rest of our cognitive lives. When it comes to making judgments about the world, we have instincts and gut feelings that often serve us better than our attempts at conscious reasoning, because they are promptings of our unconscious mastery of how the game is played -- you can find examples aplenty of this kind of thing in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. And as Wittgenstein's philosophy shows, focusing on the simple and well-worn examples of reasoning (like block-dropping) can overturn our most basic conceptions about the nature of rule-following and inference. Games are about the wonder of learning rules, and using them to master the world and dominate our enemies. I wish I was better at not thinking about them.