Parable of the Chessmen

Part of a neverending conversation:

“In the column labeled ‘meaning’, I would then make an entry saying, perhaps, “King’s Pawn to King Four”. Now, I agree that this requires some sort of translation, which is not itself a physical object. In other words, I must know chess to make even this simple translation. But I need not know a whole lot of chess. Just knowing how the pieces move would be sufficient. And it does not seem to me a matter of faith to say that there is such a translation. If I move the atoms in a particular way, there is a corresponding chess move which the wooden pieces represent; I cannot see this as controversial.”

Far from being non-controversial, this is exactly the point of controversy. You are, without noticing it, brushing past not just a point, but the main point in contention, for you assume that an abstract statement which refers to no physical properties whatsoever is the same as or is translatable into a statements of physics, that is, a statement designed to refer to nothing but physical properties. You are saying A is not A.

To make this more clear, let me bring three statements to your attention, a physical, a concrete, and an abstract.

Physical: “Cylindrical object made of boxwood lacquered in gold hue standing three inches high, weighing 3 ounces, with a one inch diameter on a leather base is moved in one second from a location four inches north by northwest.”

Concrete: “Pawn made of boxwood lacquered in gold (in this game, the gold chessmen are considered the ‘black’ instead of the white, because the opposing chessmen are silver) standing three inches high is moved from its starting position four inches on a chessboard north by northwest, moving from King’s Pawn Two to King’ Pawn Four.”

Abstract: “Pawn to King’s Four.”

Please note the physical statement is a complete description of the physical action that recites all pertinent physical properties, including volume, height, weight, mass, composition, direction of motion, duration of motion, and so on. Every one of these assertions could be checked against a sense impression and measured with an instrument. It is empirical fact and nothing but empirical fact.

Please note the difference between the physical and the concrete statement. The concrete statement contains information that cannot possibly be confirmed nor denied by empirical observation. You can prove a gold cylinder weighs three ounces by putting it in the pan of a scale. You cannot prove to a skeptic that it is a pawn who only captures diagonally without pointing the skeptic to an abstract mental concept with no physical existence, such as the concepts to which the words in a book on games point or refer or represent. There is no such thing as “pawn-ness” in the empirical realm. There is nothing to look at with your eye or touch with your hand.

Please note the difference between the concrete and the abstract statements. The concrete statement refers to a specific physical chessman, but also tells the meaning of the chess move. The words “King” and “Pawn” and “Four” and “Black” and “White” are symbolic and entirely symbolic. They refer to abstract Platonic forms which have no physical reality, but which these physical chessman represent or pretend or play-act to be. The “King” is a chessgame is not a monarch selected by primogenitor, nor is the “Bishop” a duly anointed canonical authority of the church. Both of these objects are little more than sets of game-rules about movement and check and capture.

Please notice that the words “chessboard” and “starting position” also do not refer to any physical or real-world object, but to abstract forms of ideas in the realm of the mind. The chessboard and the starting position are merely physical aids or reminders or representations to help chessplayers who cannot visualize the game blindfolded. If the game board is upset, the chessmen can be picked up and places back on the board, and the game can continue provided the men are placed where they were: and this proves the game is independent of the chessmen and the chessboard. Only the mental realm matters. Matter does not matter. If the board is now facing southwest rather than north by northwest, the game is unchanged and may continue.

The abstract statement ignores as irrelevant the specifics of the material chessboard, the composition of the chessmen, the lacquer, the orientation of the board. It is the game move stripped down to its essentials.

Now then — in order to translate between statement one, the physical, and statement three, the abstract, you need an almanac, something that tells you “gold” is “black” and that cylinder three inches high is “pawn.”

You also need something to tell you that pawns are in a thing called a “game” and that a game is something men “play” when they agree to something called “rules” and that “games” have things called “winners and losers” and the purpose of the game is to do this thing called “win”.

Then you need something to tell you “pawns” in chess move may “move” “forward” one “square”, but on their first “move” can move two squares, and they “capture” diagonally. All these concepts, such as “move” and “square” and “capture”, are purely abstract and exist in the mental realm only, albeit they can be represented or play-acted as a visual aid using physical bits of wood or notes on paper or something.

In normal speech, our statements and thoughts tend to be concrete and ambiguous.

If I said “Kasparov moved his King to move out of check” whether I mean the physical black cylinder decorated by a pretend crown or whether I mean the abstract bundle of rules and moves called a chess King makes no difference. The sentence can represent both or either, since Kasparov moves the physical black cylinder called a King at the same time as the abstract game King in the mental realm is moved: the one REPRESENTS the other.

The act of representation is a mental act. Hence, each time you approach the question of using material metaphors to describe mental and spiritual and abstract actions, you fall into the ambiguity of attributing mental acts, like representation, to purely physical statements.

That “something” is itself an abstraction or a representation which has no physical properties and cannot be described in physical terms. By saying that you can propound a physical “representation” of a mental object, you are presupposing the mental act of representation, which means that the alleged physical representation is merely a placeholder or playactor for a mental object. The act itself of reducing mental objects to physical objects is a mental act. The act defeats its own suppositions. A is not non-A.

It is actually rather difficult to make a purely physical or purely abstract statement. That is why scientists (who makes purely physical) and philosophers (who make purely abstract) need training and need specialized vocabularies. Even in the example given above, the statement refers to a final cause: Kasparov’s move is described as being for the purpose of moving out of check.

The difference between “meaning” and “judgment” you propose makes no difference to the argument. Meaning and judgment are mental entities existing only in the realm of the mind, and have no weight, position, duration, candlepower, moles of substance, or any other physical property.

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