Thursday, March 16, 2023

More on directed activity without ends

In my previous post I focused on how the phenomenon of games with score undercuts the idea that activity is for an end, for some state of affairs that one aims to achieve. For no matter how good one’s score, one was aiming beyond that.

I want to consider an objection to this. Perhaps when one plays Tetris, one has an infinite number of ends:

  • Get at least one point.

  • Get at least two points.

  • Get at least three points.

  • ….

And similarly if one is running a mile, one has an infinite number of ends, namely for each positive duration t, one aims to run the miles in at most t.

My initial worry about this suggestion was that it has the implausible consequence that no matter how well one does, one has failed to achieve infinitely many ends. Thus success is always muted by failure. In the Tetris case, in fact, there will always be infinitely many failures and finitely many successes. This seemed wrong to me. But then I realized it fits with phenomenology to some degree. In these kinds of cases, when one comes to the end of the game, there may always be a slight feeling of failure amidst success—even when one breaks a world record, there is the regret that one didn’t go further, faster, better, etc. Granted, the slightness of that feeling doesn’t match the fact that in the Tetris case one has always failed at infinitely many ends and succeeded only at finitely many. But ends can be prioritized, and it could be that the infinitely many ends have diminishing value attached to them (compare the phenomenon of the “stretch goal”), so that even though one has failed at infinitely many, the finitely many one has succeeded at might outweigh them (perhaps the weights decrease exponentially).

So the game cases can, after all, be analyzed in the language of ends. But there are other cases that I think can’t. Consider the drive to learn about something. First, of course, note that our end is not omniscience—for if that were our end, then we would give up as soon as we realized it was unachievable. Now, some of the drive for learning involves known unknowns: there are propositions p where I know what p is and I aim to find out if p is true. This can be analyzed by analogy with the the infinitely-many-ends account of games with score: for each such p, I have an end to find out whether p. But often there are unknown unknowns: before I learn about the subject, I don’t even know what the concepts and questions are, so I don’t know what propositions I want to learn about. I just want to learn about the subject.

We can try to solve this by positing a score. Maybe we let my score be the number of propositions I know about the subject. And then I aim to have a score of at least one, and a score of at least two, and a score of at least three, etc. That’s trivial pursuit, not real learning, though. Perhaps, then, we have a score where we weight the propositions by their collective importance, and again I have an infinite number of ends. But in the case of the really unknown unknowns, I don’t even know how to quantify their importance, and I have no concept of the scale the score would be measured on. Unlike in the case of games, I just may not even know what the possible scores are.

So in the case of learning about a subject area, we cannot even say that we are positing an infinite number of ends. Rather, we can say that our activity has a directedness—to learn more, weighted by importance—but not an end.


Brandon said...

It seems to me to be more reasonable to take the Tetris case to be a matter of continually acquiring new ends; thus at any given stage, you have a limited number of ends (e.g., get the next few points, or beat a given score), but as stages progressive you can add new ends, which direct new actions. This seems to transfer, mutatis mutandis, to the learning case, the primary difference just being that some learning is massively more complex, involving massively more kinds of actions, than any particular game. Thus in such cases every action has finitely many ends, but some kinds of actions can change indefinitely, and thus can indefinitely acquire new ends.

Perhaps a more plausible case for argument would be 'playing around' with something or doodling; the kind of action one does when bored or restlessness. At least one interpretation of such things might be that they are byproducts of actions with ends (e.g., getting through a dull lecture or waiting until the person you are meeting with arrives) without themselves aiming at any state of affairs; these seem to be cases in which we are acting not to achieve any state of affairs but because if we didn't, we'd fall below an endurable miminal level of activity.

Wesley C. said...

1) I presume the feeling of slight failure in Tetris or other games where there is an endlessness to the direction is only in the context of individuals who really want to push further in general, even if they don't have that general end in mind when playing a particular game or beating a specific record. But it seems those who've decided beating the world record is as far as they'll go wouldn't experience even slight frustration out of not getting an even better result. But even more importantly, there are many individuals who DO indeed desire ever increasing scores yet don't feel even SLIGHT frustration in achieving a world record but not higher than it is, PRECISELY because they aren't focusing in that moment on breaching beyond. They have their minds set on breaking the world record, and that is enough to satisfy them without leaving any bitter taste in their mouth due to infinite failure at higher scores.

2) But even more importantly is that your wording reminded me of a recent question I'm contemplating; namely, will there be frustration, or even games at all, in our resurrected state? Because several assumptions come to mind that could eliminate either:

Beatific Saturation: The Beatific Vision, when fully experienced & allowed to overflow into our whole nature, may be so great that it can't help but fully drown out and erase any mental suffering. This goes not only for the more intense kinds, but even the smaller form of it known as frustration.

Natural Fulfillment: Any form of frustration is a form of suffering and imperfection, however slight, which we also happen to dislike when undergoing it, and so complete human happiness may eventually demand the elimination of all forms of frustration.

So because we will be perfectly happy in our final state as humans, and we'll have the Beatific Vision, and all tears and sufferings will be wiped away per therefore seems plausible to suggest we won't be able to experience any frustration, no matter how slight, because the Vision will render us immune to it, and/or the full fulfillment of our nature requires it.

And IF that's the case....what will happen with our enjoyment of games or competition in the glorified state? There seem to be a few options:

a) Assuming the desire to win is necessarily tied to frustration in losing because to lose just IS for that desire to be option is that we'll just never lose any game or competition in Heaven. We'll have the desire to win, but that desire will just never be frustrated, and so we'll only be able to enjoy games that fulfill the following conditions:

--- Zero-sum games where there doesn't have to be a fellow human loser, which limits this to AI opponents only, or just games where one overcomes obstacles of whatever category.

---Non-zero-sum games with fellow humans where there doesn't have to be a loser. But that makes up a minority of games.

b) Even assuming the same as above though, it may just be possible that we WILL be able to lose games & competitions in the final's just that we somehow WON'T ever experience the frustration of losing. Maybe because we'll laugh at our loss in good jest? Or find even the event of a loss interesting in its own right, kind of how some people even today love watching fail compilations simply because they're interesting events in their own right, or enjoyable in their own unique way? Maybe the Vision will also somehow add new perspective to our losses?

Wesley C. said...

c) On the other hand, and more unfortunately, it could be the case that the desire for victory also necessarily has the desire to AVOID loss and AVOID failing to obtain them as a strictly necessary definitional converse. If that's the case, and assuming Beatific Saturation and Natural Fulfillment as explained above, then it seems we'll also lose the desire to win games & competitions because this desire necessarily has an imperfection tied to it in the form of desiring to AVOID losing them & AVOID failing to obtain them, which would be irrational to desire since there can be no loss or failure to enjoy in the final state, or just completely undesirable in the sense that one is already in a state where loss will always be avoided, there's no possibility the threat of loss could be a real threat, and one can never fail to obtain any good one desires.

But one problem with this is that MANY other goods which most people admit we could enjoy in the final state COULD also be lost in principle, so there will either be many other goods LACKING from the final state, or they WILL be there because desiring to enjoy their goodness CAN be wholly divorced from the desire to AVOID the loss of them, or failing to obtain them - since the goodness of a good ISN'T defined by the desire to avoid failing to gain them, or losing them

d) Or, we can reject both the Saturation or Fulfillment assumptions, and say that the frustration of losing at games & competitions is not only natural but even intrinsically good since it forms a part of the value of games or the value of the pleasure of winning - and so the perfection of human nature would entail the existence of perfect virtue to easily handle loss, not the wholesale eradication of loss.

e) An interesting appendix to the above - often times, the pleasure of winning is increased by a real risk of losing, and great immensity of the loss, such that one focuses extra more on avoiding the loss & desiring the great victory, where the very frustrating prospect of loss acts as an additional motivation, and even a reward system, not too dissimilar to gambling. One can see this very clearly in attempts to beat world records, for example.

In other words, the prospect of a really frustrating loss, really great victory, and real risk in desiring victory actually adds the pleasure of excitement to playing games; but I don't know how ubiquitous that excitement is in any game or competition in general. Maybe the risk/loss factor is only present where the victory is greatly rewarding & loss very frustrating, but not in many more casual game instances? Or maybe it's a necessary component of any enjoyable victory and dislikable loss, so unavoidable?

This adds an additional variable to the above options; maybe we'll be able to experience frustrating loss & rewarding victory in general, but not the great reward of a great victory where the loss would be a great frustration? Maybe all games will become more relaxed following this, and so there either won't be any great losses or wins, or we just won't be able to engage them?

What do you think, Dr. Pruss?

SMatthewStolte said...

Aristotle says in Book 1 of the Metaphysics that the wise person knows all things, as far as possible, without knowledge of each of them individually. And this translates into knowing the causes and principles. This seems plausible.

Quantify those as the most important. And of causes and principles, quantify those closest to the first cause as most important.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Interesting suggestion. It _can_ happen like this: one can have an initial plan to get x points, and then when one gets near to x points, one can change plans and aim at x+1000. But it need not happen like this. One need not be changing plans at all. The initial plan can be to keep on playing "as long as one can" (except that for the reasons in my other post, we shouldn't take that as the specification of the end either, but rather as a way of speaking).

Alexander R Pruss said...


The question about games in heaven is fascination! Thank you for it.

I wonder if it's not possible to have a disjunction of two ends, either of which is satisfying on its own, but one of which is more satisfying than the other, in such a way that if one achieves the less satisfying end, one is not frustrated at all. If so, then one could have two player games in heaven without any frustration, if x aims at a disjunction of, say:
- x winning after y giving a valiant effort
- y winning after x giving a valiant effort
with a prioritization in favor of the first end.

In the Tetris case, I now wonder if the disappointment at finally finishing might not be vicious, a form of ingratitude.

Actually, on reflection, the issue of frustration comes up in other contexts than games. In heaven, will we always succeed at everything on our first attempt? Suppose I set out to prove some theorem. I initially think of three approaches I can take to proving it, and I choose one at random. Would I be guaranteed that that approach will be successful? I don't think so.

Maybe what will happen in heaven will be more generally the two-end thing. Thus, in the proof case, I might intend:
- to prove it with method 1, or
- to make a valiant effort at method 1 and try again in a different way,
with a preference for the first option, but both options being satisfying.

By the way, thinking about this disjunctive end thing shows that here we have another phenomenon that we can't quite capture with the traditional end-based story. For the disjunctive end thing really does happen. I go to the cafe hoping to get a raisin bran or blueberry muffin, with a preference for raisin bran. If I try to capture this by saying I _just_ have a disjunctive end, then I leave out my preference for raisin bran (which need not just be an idle preference; it may explain why I went to cafe X rather than cafe Y, if X is more likely to have raisin bran). If I try to capture this by saying I have a bran end in addition to the disjunctive end and/ or the blueberry end, then the story implies that when I don't get the bran muffin, I have failed. But it need not be a failure: it might just be a lesser success.

The directed action account can handle the muffin case by supposing myself aiming "along" the direction from blueberry to raisin bran.

Wesley C said...

@Alex I wonder though how your two-ends model would avoid frustration with games that don't require or have a second human player; things like beating non-human obstacles, or gaining higher scores in challenging Tetris levels, or fighting against AI?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Nice objection!

Perhaps you find some good in the lower scores, or in playing the game for the game's sake, and you intend the disjunction of that with the higher scores, in such a way that you are satisfied with whatever you get, but happier when you do better?

If there are games in heaven, then perhaps:
(a) you always do minimally well, and
(b) you love the games for their own sake in such a way that you are satisfied with doing minimally well, though you would prefer to do excellently.

I remember talking to a fellow climber mid-way up the wall, and asking how he was doing, and he said that any day he is climbing is a good day. That's the kind of attitude I am thinking about in (b). (Though we probably do want to put a minimal success condition on it. We were half-way up, after all.)

Wesley C. said...

These are all interesting aspects to consider! Two points:

1) I honestly still wonder though whether or not the sweetness or excitement of some victories can be divorced from the risk factor & desire to avoid loss - because it really seems that some challenges like beating the world record carry a lot of their enjoyability from the fact you CAN lose in such a way that it would be a bit frustrating, but you DON'T.

The bitterness of the loss is proportional to the sweetness of the victory too, so maybe we could divorce these two and still have the sweetness in principle? I think this could work

What I don't think could be salvaged though seems to be the excitement aspect - that one seems to be directly connected to the possibility or frustration; I have a hard time imagining having the same excitement and delight in winning if one didn't find losing a bad thing. It kinda mirrors the adrenaline rush one gets when the prospect of loss gives you both something to truly avoid in itself and something to desire in itself.

I think that's the key - the loss is something to avoid in itself, not just accidentally, in the same way victory is to be desired in itself, no accidentally. This dynamic where both are either willed or nilled in themselves seems essential to at least SOME of the pleasures of winning, in some cases.

Is there any way to get the unique investment, focus and enjoyment in cases where loss is feared, without the actual fear or disliking of the loss? Without the risky factor that makes winning more pleasing in this way?

2)On another would your model deal with the desire to AVOID losing in principle? Maybe one could still have the desire to AVOID losing, but it's immediatly moderated by the fact it's desired in conjunction with some other good, where the loss doesn't actually take anything away, so the desire to AVOID loss is parasitic on desiring victory primarily but accepting & even appreciating some aspect about the loss secondarily?

How would desiring to AVOID loss work with the conjuctive hierarchy you've set up, if we'll still be able to desire to AVOID loss?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe our desire for excitement, insofar as the excitement depends on a real chance of things going poorly, badly ordered?

But maybe there can be great excitement even when things go really well. Let's say I'm watching my son climb in a competition, and it becomes inevitable at some point that he is going to be in the top three. It will be good if he gets third, great if he gets second, and amazing if he gets first. I think this is all compatible with much excitement. I don't know that it becomes better if there is a chance of not placing at all. (In the actual case, I think I relaxed once he climbed past the point which guaranteed he would be at least in third place, and it became more enjoyable. And it was still exciting that he won. :-) )