There is but one infinite game.
So writes James Carse in Finite and Infinite Games, inspiring the bloom of a thousand biz-gurus.
The title of this article is the final remark and closing line in James Carse's remarkable book, Finite and Infinite Games.
There is only one infinite game.
That's a bit awkward for the peddlers of "deep insights" who haunt TED Talks and "give value" in the spaces of the Great Online. The insight-peddlers speak of playing infinite games, stress on the plural.
Carse's book is a beautiful and deep work which few readers have the patience to understand in an era when 10-second videos challenge attention spans. The marketers and biz-gurus and influencers entirely miss the final section of Finite and Infinite Games, where Carse dives deep into the difference between myth and explanation.
It's often surprised me (not really) how few of the infinite game lovers pick up on this part, which connects myth and storytelling to the infinite game concept.
In a finite game each player has a goal, and reaching that goal brings the game to an end. A finite game has explicit rules and definite victory conditions. Players act by the rules and play to win. The point of such games is to end them.
The infinite game -- the definite article indicating that there is but one -- does not conclude. Players aren't bound by the rule-book. The infinite game plays with the rules. Maybe we don't like Texas Hold'em. Maybe it's time to break out the miniatures for a D&D campaign. Instead of collecting $200 as you pass Go, an infinite player will make up and use new and different sets of rules, play many different finite games.
The aim of the infinite players is to keep playing.
This makes the infinite game profoundly unlike any other game.
A game, by the way, is a metaphor for any human activity involving two or more people. Which means all human activity. Nobody ever plays alone.1
Explaining people and things, the way the sciences do, is one of these game-activities, although the term explanation reaches well beyond science. You’ll soon see why.
Once you've offered a definite answer to the question "Why?", there's nothing left to say about the matter. Explanation brings the game to an end.
Explanations establish islands, even continents, of order and predictability. But these regions were first charted by adventurers whose lives are narratives of exploration and risk.
Carse goes to great pains to show that explaining is not the one, the only, or the most interesting goal of human action. The act of telling stories is at least as important. Some stories serve as myths, and myths do not explain, though they can point us at new explanations.
Indeed, the very liveliness of a culture is determined not by how frequently these thinkers discover new continents of knowledge but by how frequently they depart to seek them. A culture can be no stronger than its strongest myths.
Myths ask new questions, show new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing. Instead of closing the circle with a list of accepted answers, myth opens into new territory.
And what do our sagely biz-gurus do?
Offer you another explanation. Some tactics that you can bring to your finite games. Absorb the mind-expanding consequences into more dead, uninspiring corpo-speak. "Bro I'm playing an infinite game," he says while chasing the same goals, for the same purpose, as everyone else on social media.
If you're using this idea for goals as conventional as acquiring wealth and material goods, first of all, great. I don't hold that against anyone. I've got nothing at all against entrepreneurs and free enterprise. Infinite play includes all forms of finite play, and everybody's got to eat.
But I ask you to consider that you're in possession of a nuclear weapon which you're using to spark wet tinder in order to light your cigarette. It's a start, but you haven't begun to understand the potential of what you've got in your hands.
It might be that you see your life and your world under a new light and realize that you have vastly more options open to you than you were told by teachers, TV, friends, family, the howling screen in your hand, and your entire culture.
Even a momentary glimpse of the chasm between your reality and true infinity is enough to leave you on the floor gasping for air.
Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.
Infinity is hard to understand. I'm not sure I do, or anyone does. We may grok it in abstract mathematical symbols known through the intellect, but nobody knows infinity in the way you know what you had for breakfast or the color of the object nearest to your left hand.
The infinite transcends all finite properties. Any limitation, boundary, constraint, rule, or characteristic that you can put into words is finite, and therefore not infinite.
No finite game is identical with the infinite game. The infinite game contains all finite games. All of them. Any game that anyone has ever played, and that anyone ever will play -- or could play.
Great stories cannot be observed, any more than an infinite game can have an audience. Once I hear the story I enter into its own dimensionality. I inhabit its space at its time. I do not therefore understand the story in terms of my experience, but my experience in terms of the story.
In the hands of the biz-guru "playing infinite games" shifts out of storytelling mode and becomes the entire story. Explanation replaces myth.
Instead of opening up to true infinity, the circle closes on itself. "I'm playing an infinite game, bro" becomes another game-stopping end to thinking and imagining.
Storytellers become metaphysicians, or ideologists, when they come to believe they know the entire story of a people.
If you wonder why I'm so hard on the skeptics pushing neuroscience and flawed theories of "consciousness" on the public conversation, Carse gives us one handy way to think about it.
With those ideas we have the perfect storm of a barely-coherent mythology crowning itself as monarch in the realm of facts.
If it is true that myth provokes explanation, then it is also true that explanation’s ultimate design is to eliminate myth.
Consider a few of the myths of our time:
The mind is the brain.
The brain is a computer.
All human behavior can be explained with the theories and hypotheses laid out by evolutionary biology.
The only things that really exist are particles and forces.
Freedom isn't real because the above items are true beyond any questioning.
Not one of these thoughts is the mere product of dispassionate science. They each aim to explain, but they each began in stories. They are myths that were taken by human beings and articulated into conversation-stopping explanations.
Ever since the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century, our civilization has taken up a fevered quest for the origins of everything. If we understand the root and ground of mind, life, and nature, then we'll be secure in ourselves through mastery of nature.
Our culture craves certainty at any price. Truth is optional, as long as the experts remain confident in next quarter's projections. Put it like that and it's no wonder we're so collectively neurotic.
In that climate of thought, the infinite game, which defies all origins, roots, and grounds, becomes one more explanation.
Myth is story, story is drama, and drama is action taking place between actors. Drama can't be shouted down by one single voice, even if it calls itself The Science and declares itself the final word on everything.
There is no possibility of conversation with a loudspeaker.
Carse's infinite game is one of those mind-boggling, world-changing insights that fundamentally changes how you see yourself and the world by the mere attempt to understand it.
You'll never get to that understanding, but that's the whole point. This journey is infinite. It can't end.
Once you grasp that, you're dancing precariously on the crumbling ledges of the human mind's cognitive domain. Strictly speaking, this topic cannot be spoken about at all.
That's precisely what makes it so exciting.
Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture. — Iris Murdoch
The infinite game is what Immanuel Kant identified as a transcendental condition on human existence. It is the sort of fact that makes possible all the rest of our experiences. Story and myth represent horizons into which our lives fit like jelly in a mold.
Being infinite, any interpretation I give it is only one of an endless buffet of stories to tell about it.
We are beings who tell stories to each other, in order to understand and know ourselves, but no story can define us once and for all. The storyteller tells stories about himself in order to become himself, but his identity is not found in any of them.
If you find this hard to understand, you're not alone. You're looking a paradox square in the eye, trying not to flinch.
As soon as we say what it is, we’ve limited what cannot be limited. The whole idea is steeped in the paradox that it cannot be an idea.
The contradiction is the beating heart of this magic.
This is not a fact that about human life that we can settle with scientific anthropology, cognitive science, or neuroscience. Infinite play is not achieved by being an entrepreneur or owning a business or any other activity you can name.
The infinite game is not something that you do or I do, but the conversation that we were born into, which continues to unfold all around us, and which will carry on long after we're gone.
It is a game because it brings us together in dramatic action, and because its purpose, its rules, and its conditions of play do not belong to any person or group.
Elsewhere I've touched on a conflict within Plato's complicated mistrust of art and the artist.
What Plato's getting up to, in my personal head-canon, is much like what Carse describes as the infinite game. Language and artistic imagery are necessary steps to achieving understanding. But true understanding is that lightning-flash of insight that happens inside you when the spark of an idea catches hold and you go "AHA!"
That insight, inside your own inner realm, is the goal.
The written doctrines are only dead words, mere means to that purpose.
If we're all storytellers "telling ourselves", doesn't this lead into that banal "anything goes" sort of relativism, where any story is as valid as any other?
It's exactly the opposite of that. Accepting the priority of story brings us closer to reality, not further from it. But that’ll have to wait for another time.
Thanks for reading.
p.s. If you found this valuable, interesting, funny, or it made you upset that you had to use your mind for something besides infinite scrolling, I ask that you do me a favor and share it with just one person.
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If you want to get under the hood, Carse's reference point is the notion of a "language game" introduced by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations . The way language weaves itself into the tapestry of our shared lives, and what this means for our ideas on, well, ideas, is a massive subject and, as I read him, also Carse's topic. That's a realm we'll have to explore some other day.