Choice and possibility

Some card games are determined from the moment of the shuffle: War or Garbage or Solitaire can’t be improved by skill. The only skill consists in avoiding mistakes. Program the results of the shuffle into a computer and you can know whether you’ll win before you even start to play, leaving aside sheer ignorance.

Other card games can be improved by skill, though this seems to consist in something that can be done by mechanical calculation. Hold ’em or fold ’em is a matter of guessing the odds. Here too there is not really contingency, only ignorance. Your chances of winning are set from the shuffle, and deviate only from the ignorance of the players.

We can carve out some sense of how skill improves the game, but no sense in which awareness of alternatives makes a difference. If awareness of alternatives makes no difference, then choice makes no difference. In fact, card games do not involve alternatives but only ignorance. Where we can’t tell which of several possibilities is best, we essentially flip a coin in our head, which is exactly what a computer would do in the face of equiprobable alternatives.

But it is doubtful that all human actions can be captured by this sort of analysis. The choice involved in producing an artwork, invention, story, etc. is not generally like this. No obvious sense suggests itself for the choice to paint the The Fall of Icarus or to write the Summa Theologiae. Maybe it is just a matter of the relevant card game being too complex, and if we knew all the possibilities we would see there were no alternatives but only algorithms acting in the face of data and ignorance. But it’s very difficult to see the possibilities of creativity and scholarship being given in that way. If there is a reservoir of such possibilities it would be intuitive and subconscious, and we can’t make sense of a mechanical subconscious. How would one write the code for it? In subtext? To make all things algorithmic is to reject all that is not by nature distinct and explicit, and so to see there as being no reservoir of possibility at all.

The rejection of alternatives thus involves a rejection of real possibility. Possibility is replaced with temporal passage and ignorance. Time allows a single grove for anything to follow, and an unstoppable progression of time, making everything impossible at the times before or after it exists and necessary while it exists. Possibility has no space in which to exist.

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