Friday, June 5, 2009

On the Problem of Freedom and the Incoherence of Sport (Warning: demotivational)

Ok, maybe this isn't the best post to write before racing tomorrow. But I've got to write it.

Why do we race bikes? And why do we care about other people racing bikes? Why do we participate in, or even follow, competitive sports at all?

Dude, why are you asking such idiotic, annoying questions?! Maybe because your only ability of note is descending fast in a (nearly) straight line.

Fair enough. But if the question is idiotic, what's the answer?

Here's one: we're just curious as to who is all around fastest and fittest. Racing tells us who those people are.

Right. Well, that is valuable information, particularly if you're a female looking for the highest quality sperm to fertilize your viable eggs. An evolutionary basis for cycling (and podium girls).

Victor of athletic contest between male primates releases his pressurized, uh, champagne, uh, against a backdrop of attractive female primates bearing tokens in his honor.

But suppose you could determine who's fastest without endangering anyone's testes... without racing, I mean.

The Joe Parkin book I reviewed a few weeks back tells a story about a father and son team of doctors who tested him upon his arrival in Belgium. They first attached some leather straps to his wrists and ankles, each with wires connecting to a tan steel box. Then measured. Parkin reports:
It was amazing how accurately the doctors' numbers foretold the truth... The good doctors had compiled quite a bit of data on riders and had devised a graph that would put me into a category of cyclist. At the bottom of the list was "Cyclotourist" and "Amateur" and then a boundary line signifying "Beroepsrenner" (professional). At the lower end of the professional category was the "Kermis racer" and then "Classics racer," with the top level being "Tour winner." I fell into the category of classics riders, somewhere in the middle of that group.
Parkin goes on to say that if he accepted his fate he would have made a lot more money, and found a lot more contentment than chasing after the polka dot jersey in a grand tour.

Remember, this was nearly two decades ago, with what sounds like torture equipment. Imagine what medicine will be like two decades hence.

Will we be able to determine the winner of a race before the starting gun is fired?

Suppose we could. Not only would we measure brute physical attributes like strength, endurance, and the ability to process oxygen, but also efficiency, tenacity, pain threshold... you name it. Anything relevant to the physical process whereby one bike wheel crosses that finish line before all the others.

Ok, so in that case, why race? We'd already know the outcome. Would we do it anyway? Would we avoid the data beforehand so as to enjoy the surprising reveal?

Is bike racing like the television show, Deal or No Deal, where the logical thing to do is to draw up a curve beforehand with one's risk tolerance, i.e., the price of insurance, i.e., the price one would be willing to pay beyond expected utility for various bets? And then to write down the sequence of breifcases to be opened? (Or accept the proposed order of a random sequence generator. This part of the show is just plain irrational.)

Deal or No Deal
continues on, as far as I know, and makes a lot of money. People watch it just to see something unfold over 30 minutes that shouldn't take more than a few seconds.

Hey Howie... Here's what I'm willing to pay for insurance. Here's what you are offering. Here are my briefcase numbers, should you need them. Decision is predetermined by our formulae plus the sequence. Just patch our spreadsheets together and we're done.

There's no reason to sweat over this stuff in real time. But we like the titillation, the surprise, the suspense, of just coming to know something. Is that all bike racing is? A striptease?

In the cheesy, but surprisingly hard to forget film, Gladiator, Proximo (Oliver Reed) tells Maximus (Russell Crowe): "Listen to me. Learn from me. I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom."

In other words, entertainment requires suspense. Suspense requires prolonged ignorance of the outcome.

Another way in... My brother proposed a different way of setting up racing categories. You do a complete genetic profile and base the categories on groups of people with roughly the same genetic potential. Great idea. If we did that, I'd be racing some pretty sad competition.

But what would separate out the people within each category into faster and slower? Well, the variations in RNA, variations in how neatly the genetic sequences were triggered in development, the history of the person's diet and environment (e.g., altitude), and so on. If we knew all of these, we could make all of the categories more even still. That is, we could make the categories even fairer.

But then what would account for the remaining variation in the categories? Still more causal factors that would need to be programmed into the system, until eventually you would have categories with perfectly evenly matched people, destined to tie, or else some unknown or lucky factors would decide the race (e.g., squirrel gets caught in one guy's spokes). So then the joy of racing rests on ignorance and chance. (And a really great system would take the squirrels into account and predict their actions as well!)

The deep underlying problem, I think, is none other than that old philosophical chestnut: the freedom of the will. We think that for all of the medical factors: genetics, childhood conditioning, diet, and brain chemistry, there is some mysterious leftover: the will. And racing sorts that out; it is a "test of wills", after all.

The will is a magical, living thing, operating outside the scientific realm of cause and effect. It's an unmoved mover, a first cause. There's no figuring it out beforehand. You've just got to reach deep into your suitcase of courage and see what you're packing. That's what racing is all about.

Except I think the notion of free will is an illusion. It's not just that we don't have it. It's that the very idea doesn't make any sense.

(More later. Or not. I'm guessing this post will not be well received. Even I'd rather read about Floyd's apocryphal exploits.)


chuck hutch said...

I don't see how that is demotivational! I thought it was a fine write up.

Bryan said...

From a scientistic conceptual framework with no room for free will, free will makes no sense. (Scientistic shouldn't be confused with scientific.)

The key to this free will question is in the prior reasoning process, the process by which a person comes to adopt that scientistic conceptual framework.

As children, we do not start in the scientistic or reductionistic conceptual framework. We start in a personalistic framework, believing in the meaningfulness and freedom of our choices as well as those of others. We believe that we and others "could have done otherwise." That's universal among children. It is only much later that a person might come to the scientistic position. But the reasoning process by which he or she moved from the personalistic framework to the scientistic framework somewhere treated as a modus ponens what should have been treated as a modus tollens. That is because at no point was the truth of the scientistic framework more certain than the already known truth of the meaningfulness and freedom of his or her own choices, and those of others.

"Whoever by his own reasoning does away with certain [principles] which are better known to him than the ones which he posits, adopts an absurd position." (Aquinas's Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, 990a17-22)

So, you do have free will. Use it tomorrow to check your equipment before the race. :-)

qualia said...

Chuck: how could I possibly demotivate a man who finds the darker realms of cycling pain something to smile about?

Bryan: you might be right. Everyone believes in his own free will when it comes time to act, no matter how scientistic.

No equipment problems today, just people going down right in front of me, in both races. I went over the bars twice and I'm pretty banged up.

Calvini *won* one of his races (single-fisted sidearm victory salute) and came in *third* in the other. What an amazing day for him!

Grayson said...

Awesome post, Qualia.

Bryan, my brain just exploded.