The Parable of the Lost Manuscript

Part of an ongoing conversation.

One of my few readers with a name rather than a moniker or handle, Mr Rudolph Harrier poses a fascinating question regarding the topic of whether ot not ‘checkmate’ has mass, length, duration or other physical properties. He speaks as follows:

Chess can be described as a mathematical object, and so if we accept mathematical objects as real and prior to humans, then it would seem that Chess (and so also checkmates) could also be.

To see what I am getting at, consider the Prisoner’s Dilemma from Game Theory. This is a game as well, though a much simpler one, and one which is analyzed through mathematics.

If we define “winning strategy” in a precise way, such as one that will maximize the limit of the utility function with the assumption that all other players play towards the same goal, then there is a true winning strategy.

This can be mathematically proven, and mathematical proofs are necessarily about mathematical objects, so it would seem that the Prisoner’s Dilemma could be prior to the idea of prisoners.

But we can analyze Chess using the same ideas, so would that mean that Chess is also prior to the humans who created it?

I have several remarks to make on this fascinating and difficult question. Here is the deep waters indeed: let us fill our lungs and cliffdive into the ocean of subtle philosophical definitions and distinctions.

Even if we said Chess was prior to man, what about the en passant rule, or castling? Those seem as arbitrary and non-mathematical as the rules of grammar surrounding irregular verbs.

Allow me to propose the idea of subcreation.

Humans cannot invent universal abstract concepts, like mathematical objects, because we discover them.

Someone or something else, nature or nature’s creator, created them, if they can even be spoken of as creations, rather than eternal and timeless.

However, we men can, and do, take apart concepts in our heads and put them back together in new ways, or take words we learn and write them in ways no one else before us has to form new sentences.

Humans do not discover new fictions, but invent them. The Pythagorean Theorem is a discovery, since it is a universal concept. Is is as true here as on Mars. Chess, however, is a fiction. On Mars they play a different game; I have it on good authority that the game there is called Jetan.

These fictions, once made, are not made of matter, but of thought. A unicorn is not made of flesh and blood: it is a chimera invented by imagining a horse with one horn and a lion’s tale.

Neither unicorns nor checkmates nor any other invention of the human imagination are solid things. They are fancies.

They are not eternal nor universal, but only exist in speech. They are only imagined by people to whom they are communicated in speech.

If everyone who once spoke of them forgot them, they would pass outside of our imagination and no longer be present.

I hesitate to say things once imagined and no longer imaged “cease to exist” only because the example of Beowulf hangs before my inner eye.

There was a time not long past when everyone knowing that poem died and ceased to read it. It passed out of imagination as much as anything can.

But then a single, sole manuscript was found in a library, bound into a codex with another name on the cover. The Middle English language had not passed out of imagination, and so the manuscript could be translated, and read.

There are manuscripts which cannot be read. They have passed out of reach.

Upon being read, these dead imaginary things, Beowulf and Grendel, Heorot with its golden roof, the gracious Wealhtheow, the scornful Unferth, all came to life again in the imagination of any reader who cared to read.

Now, in what underworld of the imagination were they waiting between the death and resurrection? Was the mighty Gaet, the monstrous son of Cain, and the golden hall somehow folded up into the pages of an unread manuscript hidden on a bottom shelf in an unvisited library? That seems an odd way to phrase it.

If those who read the manuscript after a century long hiatus were reconstructing in their minds the images described in the manuscript, then they are in the same position as one who takes the blueprints of a long vanished machine, let us say an ancient Athenian clepsydra, and makes his own current copy.

Would this be the same machine?

Here is the difficulty: the essential nature or form is the same, or otherwise we would not have words or categories for such a thing, or for any things. But the particulars differ to a greater or lesser degree.

No material object, no, not one atom, between the first machine and the second is the same. The only thing that is the same is the form, that is, the pattern described in the blueprint.

That pattern is not inside time and space. To speak of it as having qualities like “before” and “after” may be misleading.

The words, spoken or written or merely contemplated, about this formal object do, however, exist in time and space. For all practical purposes, we can speak of the ideas as “existing” only when and where the thoughts about them exist, but this is a non literal use of the word “exist.”

Literally what is going on is that their existence in our speech depends on us, but does not depend on time.

We are centaurs, partly in time, and partly eternal, and so likewise are the creations we as sub creators, and wee images of God, are privileged to make.