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Chess and Philosophy

Daniel Dennett on what makes an activity worth doing.

This post is part 2 of a series.

Daniel C. Dennett is an emeritus professor at Tufts University and one of the most influential philosophers and cognitive scientists of his generation.

In my podcast (see references for the full video), I recently spoke to Dennett about his recent memoir, I've Been Thinking, his views on consciousness, free will, religion, the importance of evolution, and philosophy itself. A few days ago I published the first part of this interview (see here), below you will find an edited transcript of the second part.

Walter Veit: I myself have played chess in my youth. I went to tournaments, played in local leagues, and so forth. In your book, you introduce what you call "chmess" as a variation of chess, where the king can move two squares in any direction rather than just one. Why did you invent this game?

Daniel C. Dennett: Well, I wanted an example of something that was difficult, intellectually challenging [but also] trivial, that wouldn't be of any great importance. You, as a serious chess player, know that many, many brilliant people have devoted their lives to proving things about chess, exploring all the possibilities, and then disproving other things.

So those are the truths of chess. Well, I invented the game, which I've never played, and never want to play. I don't know if anybody's ever played it. I don't care about it. It's simply a variant of chess that, as far as I know, is not worth thinking about. But there are infinitely many truths of "chmess," and it would be hard work to prove them. And people might even make names for themselves by proving truths of chmess.

But so what? What's it good for? For nothing. It was my way of illustrating one of my favorite obiter dictum, stated by Donald Hebb, the great Canadian psychologist: "If it isn't worth doing, it isn't worth doing well."

I think that's a motto that should be treated with care because we sometimes don't know whether something's worth doing till we try it and get very good at it. Then we may discover it wasn't worth doing.

I'm not calling on a relevance or importance czar or committee to rule which activities aren't worth doing.

Take your chances, blurt it out, and get out there. But just remember that a lot of things aren't worth doing well, and philosophy is a field in which, because of the insecurity of philosophers, if a professor or an esteemed colleague expresses admiration, respect, or even interest in something you do, this can have a disproportionate effect on you. Soon you're sucked doing that because you've been praised and patted on the head.

You've got to worry about that because maybe you and your little coterie of nitpickers are wasting your time on an artifactual puzzle. That's just one of my warnings to young philosophers, try not to get sucked into make-work.

WV: When I was perhaps 12 and playing chess, I remember how we often would change the rules of the game. But I think ultimately we decided that none of those alternatives were really that interesting, perhaps compared to the main game.

DD: Did you ever play Ultima?

WV: I don't think so.

DD: I can't remember all the rules, but I remember that they changed the powers of the pieces. Like there was the dread immobilizer, which if it got next to an opponent's piece, it immobilized; those pieces couldn't move.

They had a number of different rules like that. It was mildly fun, but very hard to cleanse your mind of the traditional roles. Of course, that was a sort of bizarre exercise of imagination. Well, it was semi-fun for a few days.

WV: Now I guess some variations of chess are played more or less competitively. It's like tandem chess. You have a team partner, and whatever piece your team partner takes from the opponent, you can place it onto your board as your own piece. I liked that a lot. Bobby Fischer's variants of chess, of course, might be seen as a good variant, where the initial positions of all the figures behind the pawns are more or less randomized.

DD: I thought that was a very interesting idea. Because it sort of turned the game into much less a game of learning lots of openings, and you rely more on general chess principles than on book learning.

WV: That's right, Bobby Fischer hated it when he had opponents that would just study the moves until perhaps 30 turns later, whereas he was more of an instinctual player.


Here the full interview:

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