The Game Of Infinite Regression
An exercise in examining what lies at the foundation of our belief systems so that we may rebuild them, strengthen them, and become wiser for it.
“I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.”
—The Game of Infinite Regression (GOIR) is an exercise in examining what lies at the foundations of our belief systems, so that we may rebuild them, strengthen them, and become wiser for it.
—If knowledge is the possession of facts or information, like many dots floating in space, then wisdom might be connecting those dots. The GOIR can help with that.
—Playing the GOIR illustrates that some knowledge and wisdom are innate, as opposed to being entirely experiential.
I. A Children’s Game
Children will sometimes play a game with their parents. In this game, the child will ask the parent a question and the parent will answer it. In response, the child will ask yet another question: “Why?” The adult—if they’re feeling kind and patient—will proceed to substantiate their previous answer with another answer. But the child will again ask, “Why?” and the adult will, again, substantiate their answer, which substantiated the previous answer. The child will do this again and again and again, tracing the adult’s knowledge further and further down their pyramid of information to lower and lower levels of wisdom, until, at last, the adult cannot go any further and must concede: “I don’t know.”
It might look like this:
“Why do I have to do my math homework?” the child asks.
Because you need to learn how to do math, and the homework helps you learn, the adult responds.
“Why do I need to learn how to do math?”
Because math is a skill integral to successfully navigating the modern world.
“Why do I need to successfully navigate the modern world?”
Because, otherwise, you’ll be miserable and fail to achieve all the things that make life worth living.
So you don’t want to be a miserable failure.
Uh… because that’s the absolute antithesis of your being.
Uh… I… DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
We’ll call this game the Game of Infinite Regression. As seen above, the child challenges the adult to regress their knowledge down a chain of justification, eventually arriving at a dead-end, where the adult has reached the limit of their knowledge. It’s fun!
However, this game doesn’t have to be reserved for children mischievously antagonizing their superiors—the game can be played adult-to-adult, in an attempt to unpack each other’s belief systems. It can even be played alone, as a means of translating our, otherwise, purely subjective knowledge structures into external reality, so that we may get an objective view of our own Mind.
Let’s try another example of the game:
“Why do people watch movies?”
People watch movies because they enjoy them.
Because people have a psychological, narrative instinct to place avatars of themselves in simulated realities in order to test out potential paths forward in life.
Because it’s an adaptive trait, and would have been a useful psychological mechanism for problem-solving in our prehistoric, evolutionary environment.
Because being able to simulate the future would have allowed for planning, delayed gratification, and abstract cause-and-effect modeling of one’s actions, which, in turn, would have allowed for the outsmarting of prey and predators, the possibility or social cooperation, anticipation of seasonal patterns, and so on and so forth.
Because simulation is akin to model-building, and if you can build a psychological model of something you can interact with that thing in all kinds of crazy, powerful ways.
Uh… because models are the reduction of something overly complex into something that you can actually work with, and if you can work with something you can bring order to it.
Uh… I’m really not sure how to answer that.
Obviously, if someone had not agreed to play the game, this might make them feel challenged or judged—like this was some kind of interrogation. But if both sides have agreed to play (or if you’re playing yourself) the game proves to be very illuminating. All parties can learn something from it.
Each answer—each proposition—is a piece of knowledge, like a dot floating in space. The questions force the individual answering them to connect those dots, to map out a small portion of their knowledge system by linking those pieces of knowledge into coherent, overarching explanations.
The Game of Infinite Regression is a philosopher’s game, and the more we play, the more we expand our awareness of ourselves and our universe.
II. Like Drawing a Map
The GOIR forces us to translate our internal world into an externalized model, by challenging us to articulate our understanding of things. The process is kind of like drawing a map of our psychology.
For example, let’s say we want to draw a map of the city where we live, purely from memory. To accomplish this we have to translate our internal model of the city into an external model on a piece of paper—a map. We might start with a dot and label it ‘home.’ We have an internal, subjective model of home; we know where it resides geographically. We hold that model in our mind’s eye and proceed to externalize it onto a piece of paper, by drawing the dot and labeling it ‘home.’
If we wanted to map home to the grocery store, we’d proceed to recall our subjective model of grocery store, hold it in our mind’s eye, and draw a dot on the piece of paper to represent it. Now we have two pieces of knowledge—two dots; ‘home’ and ‘grocery store’—floating in the white void of the piece of paper. How might we connect these dots?
“Starting from home, take a left down 1st Street; walk a mile; take a right on Magnolia Avenue; walk .25 miles; then a left on Sutter Street; the grocery store will be half a mile down on the right.” We draw the lines out on the piece of paper and label them with their corresponding street names. In doing so, we’ve externalized our subjective models—home and grocery store—and linked them together within a larger subjective model of the city.
If we were to continue this project exhaustively, we might externalize our entire, subjective model of the city, by mapping everything we can remember onto the piece of paper, to the best of our abilities. It wouldn’t be very accurate (it wouldn’t be to scale; there’s probably vast areas of the city we’ve never explored and, therefore, never psychologically modeled), but however it came out, it would still be an approximate representation of our psychological model of the city where we live.
Someone else could come along, look at the map we drew and understand, approximately, how we perceive the city; how we think of the city; what we know about the city. In this way the map gives us an objective point-of-view on the inner-workings of our psychology.
This same concept could be applied to writing out the plot of Star Wars from memory, or singing the lyrics of a song from memory, or recalling the events of an interpersonal conflict from memory. These translate the internal into the external, and so someone else can come along, take a look at them, and understand—approximately—our subjective model of the thing.
For Star Wars they might say, “Uh… I’m pretty sure Luke loses his right hand, not his lefthand. Your subjective model of Star Wars is wrong.”
For the song lyrics they might say, “It’s ‘hold me closer Tiny Dancer,’ not ‘hold me closer Tony Danza.’ Your subjective model of that Elton John song is wrong.”
For the interpersonal conflict they might say “That’s bullshit. That’s definitely not how it happened. Your subjective model of the interaction between us is wrong.”
Whatever it may be, we have subjective models of everything we’ve ever encountered, every experience we’ve had, every person we know, every item in our bedroom, every aspect of our reality. Together, all of our subjective models make up the meta subjective model, which encompasses—what people might call—our entire worldview.
Any externalization of that subjective model, which happens any time we honestly try to describe reality out loud, allows us—and other people—to objectively examine these models piece by piece. This is what the GOIR accomplishes. Making propositions out loud is like placing dots on a piece of paper, and the game challenges us to connect those dots.
For example, someone makes a moral claim and we want to map out the psychology that leads to that claim by playing the GOIR:
Lying is wrong.
Lying creates mistrust.
“Why is that wrong?”
Mistrust damages relationships.
“Why is that wrong?”
Without good relationships, life is difficult and meaningless.
“Why is that wrong?”
A meaningless life of suffering and misery is not one that’s worth living.
“But why is meaninglessness and suffering wrong?”
Uh… you just don’t want that, by definition.
“Right, but does that make it morally wrong?
Hmm… I guess it’s not morally ’wrong’… it’s just impractical?
The psychology gets mapped out, piece by piece. Is it a perfect representation of one’s psychology? No, of course not, but it’s an approximation of it and approximations are still useful. The game increases our self-awareness of what we believe and why.
It’s important to note that a higher Truth (like Lying is wrong) can be substantiated by more than one foundational Truth (like Lying creates mistrust). For example, we could say that Lying is wrong is substantiated by Lying creates mistrust and Lying normalizes lying in the culture around you and Lying is more work than telling the truth.
This would start three separate chains of regression, because each justification of the original higher Truth now requires its own separate underlying justification(s) and we would get something that looks like this:
Above, we’ve drawn out a representation of our psychology regarding the morality of lying. We’ve justified the proposition that lying is wrong with three new propositions. Now we have to justify those justifications, and then justify the justifications of those justifications:
As we do this, we’re slowing drawing an increasingly exhaustive map of our morality surrounding lying. It links up with our belief systems regarding human interaction, relationships, culture, the creative process, and so on. Because it’s been drawn out, we—or someone else—can now examine that map and have a better, more objective understanding of our psychology. That’s pretty useful!
We could, of course, keep going: we could dig further down into increasingly foundational territory; we could move parallel with more and more justifications of the same proposition; we could even try to move upwards by deriving higher Truths from lower Truths like lying is wrong, up to one should never tells lies, up to speaking Truth brings forth Goodness into the World, up to the Word of Truth is the most powerful force humans have at their disposal, and so on:
Hey, it kind of looks like a Mountain.
It’s important to note that my illustration of the GOIR is overly simplistic, and makes it seem as though our Truth structures, our models of reality are totally linear—they’re not. They can emerge as being somewhat web-like, even cyclical, depending on the questions we ask, the way we navigate through our psychology. The exercise is useful—not perfect.
Regardless, the GOIR illustrates that our models of reality—our psychological map—is hierarchical, structured somewhat like a pyramid, with higher Truths stacked on top of lower Truths. The lower Truths substantiate the higher Truths, serving as foundational knowledge, upon which we build higher structures of understanding. With the GOIR we can chase these Truths up and down our pyramid of knowledge to illustrate how we think, what our beliefs are, and expand upon them to become wiser.
III. Some Knowledge is Innate
The GOIR is played by a mechanism of infinite regression, meaning it should, theoretically, go on forever. What I mean is that, in theory, everything we believe must be justified, right? Otherwise, why would we believe it? And everything justification must be justified, as well, correct?
Proposition 1 must be justified by proposition 2, which must be justified by proposition 3, which must be justified by proposition 4, and so on, forever. Otherwise, proposition 12 has no justification, which means proposition 11 has no justification, etc. and the whole pyramid collapses. Right?
But, strangely, we find that the GOIR cannot go on forever. In fact, it usually ends rather quickly, often without us being able to substantiate even some of the things we feel most strongly about.
That can’t be true. Surely, I know the reasons behind my own beliefs. Surely, I’m in control of what I think.
No, not really. Most knowledge, most beliefs are not consciously justified. We’re somewhat thrust into our belief systems, without much say in the matter. None of us chose to want to survive; none of us chose to experience hunger, fear, and anxiety; none of us chose to be born into this body and mind, with all its impulses and needs and pains and desires. We don’t choose a lot of our psychology—it is chosen for us. And these basic unconscious drives bleed upward into higher-level knowledge systems, determining most of our beliefs, without us really stopping to question it.
This notion, of course, can be unsettling. Most of us hold strongly to notions of what the world is, how the world should be, what is right and wrong, how people should behave, but it’s likely we don’t know how to explain it:
All living things should be treated with kindness.
Because it’s the right thing to do.
Because otherwise, people suffer.
So that’s bad.
Because suffering is bad.
Uh… because it is.
Or something more basic:
I want to wash my car.
Because it’s dirty.
So it looks bad.
So I don’t like how that feels.
I guess because it makes me feel cheap or low-class.
“Why is that important to you?”
Because I don’t want to feel worse than other people.
I guess… I’m not sure.
Or even more basic:
I feel cold.
Because it’s cold out.
“But why do you feel cold?”
Uh… because my body registers temperature and broadcasts a message through the nervous system that prompts me to try and get warm.
To help itself survive.
Uh… because biological life is defined by survival.
Um… I’m not sure how to answer that.
If we play the GOIR, no matter how knowledgable and well-informed we are, we will always arrive at a place where we run out of answers, where we don’t know how to get any more foundational, how to dig any deeper.
However, this paradox of infinite regression does NOT mean that our beliefs are wrong, or that the pyramid collapses, or that no knowledge or beliefs are actually justified, that there’s no Truth—that would be a severe misconception.
The reason that infinite regression comes to an end is only because most knowledge, is in fact, innate—it’s built-in, it’s human nature, it’s a deep, deep interpretive structure that we’re born with.
Our innate psychological architecture continually pieces together a coherent Reality for us, without us consciously having any say in it. How else could we possibly navigate our Existence?
How do we know to feel hunger when we need nourishment—where did we learn that? How do we know to perceive great heights as being dangerous—did we read that in a book? How do we know to pull our hand back from a hot stove? How do we know how to piece together pixels on a screen into something that fills us with excitement and emotion? How do we know how to convert variations in air pressure into something that makes us want to dance?
I enjoy movies about the Hero’s Journey.
Because I admire individuals that risk their well-being to Conquer the Great Unknown.
“Why would you admire that?”
Because it’s innate, it’s built-in, it’s psychological architecture I was born with.
So here, in actuality, the regression ends—we’ve reached the bottom of that chain. (You could, theoretically branch off into a discussion about evolution, but that would be a tangential objective chain, not the subjective, experiential chain that we started on.) If we rewind to the first question, and articulate it more precisely, we ask: “What is your personal justification for enjoying fantasy movies?”; and the answer is: There is no rational, conscious justification—I just do. The knowledge is innate.—and that chain ends.
I see the chair.
Because my innate psychological architecture knows how to piece together visual information and broadcast it into subjective experience. The experience of seeing things, and knowing they exist, is innate.—and that chain ends.
I should protect the people I love.
I have no conscious justification other than knowing that it’s true. I want to protect them and that’s that.—and that chain ends
These examples show that our knowledge runs deep—very deep—and whatever knowledge we consider to be conscious is merely the tip of the iceberg, just a tiny complement to our vast, vast underground river of shadows, which is what truly runs the show.
IV. The Amnesiac Climber
Playing the GOIR illustrates that we often make strong claims without being able to back-up those claims. Or, that for how much people engage in heated arguments about morality, philosophy, and politics, most individuals don’t even consciously understand why they believe what they believe or why they’re arguing so vehemently.
If we imagine the subjective realm as being a Mountain—with higher truths at the top and foundational truths at the bottom—it’s as if we find ourselves waking up somewhere on the slope unsure of how we got there. We’re cut off from higher Truths; we’re cut off from foundational Truths—we simply believe what we believe and feel what we feel, and we don’t really question or try to explain it.
I feel very strongly about this.
I read it in an opinion piece and now I share that opinion.
“Right, but why?”
Uh… I guess because it sounds good.
“Why does it sound good?”
Uh… I guess I’m not sure, exactly…
We’re an amnesiac climber, waking up on the Mountain after passing out from altitude sickness. We don’t how we got to this belief system we have; we don’t really have any conscious justification for having this belief system; we don’t really have an end game with our belief system.
We’re just sitting in the snow, screaming into the great beyond, not sure if we should climb up or down. Unpacking my own beliefs and making sure I can justify them sure is a lot of work. So we just stay put where we are and succumb to the cold, intellectually and spiritually frozen.
We might have a heated argument about the state of our romantic relationship without examining our underlying reasons for being in the relationship in the first place. It might be prudent to ask: What’s the goal here? What is the purpose of our relationship? If we haven’t stated the desired outcome of our relationship, doesn’t that mean we haven’t established a right or wrong in the relationship? Why do humans even enter into romantic contracts in the first place? What are they looking for?
Maybe we’re making strong moral claims without any notion of what life’s purpose is. Why should people do anything at all? If life has no purpose, no goal, doesn’t that mean nothing has any implications? Doesn’t that mean there is no right and wrong because there’s no such thing as a negative or positive outcome? Shouldn’t we figure out the meaning of life before we start talking morality? Do animals manifest ethical social behavior? Where does it come from? What does that say about humans?
Maybe we’re discussing the problems of society without any understanding of human nature. If we’re going to talk about humans, shouldn’t we understand where they come from? Shouldn’t we examine the patterns of their behavior from a scientific perspective? Shouldn’t we contextualize this with patterns from human history? Shouldn’t we make note of the way humans behaved prior to civilization? Prior to the evolution of modern culture?
By playing the GOIR we challenge ourselves to push our understanding of things to greater and greater depths and, in doing so, we confront the difficult realization that perhaps we don’t know what we’re talking about—that our beliefs are unsubstantiated, that our beliefs might actually contradict one another, that our Mountain is not nearly as mapped out as we thought it was.
This can be painful. But the pain experienced from confronting that you might be wrong about something, and the pain of doing the work to correct that wrong, is not as terrible as continuing to be wrong about something. The pain experienced from confronting that you don’t understand yourself as well as you think you do, and the pain of doing the work to better understand self, is not as terrible as continuing to not understand yourself.
This realization that we’re not what we should be is powerful because it unlocks the opportunity for us to fortify the foundations of our knowledge pyramid, to fill in the gaps, to renovate our knowledge structures by doing the work to substantiate our claims as much as possible.
The more we play the GOIR, the more we map out our Mountain, the more we buttress its foundations, the higher we can climb. We cannot access higher truths without first solidifying our lower truths. We can’t possibly expect to become truly enlightened without first diving into the depths of reality to discover the sunken cities at the floor of our psychology.
A strong foundation—of, let’s say, science, evolution, and psychology—gives us the stability to reach the great heights of Truths like “This is how I should live” or “This is what’s right” or “This is what’s important.” Otherwise, we’re just floating in the abyss, possessing irrelevant knowledge linked to nothing, shooting bullets into the dark that will inevitably hit the things we care about, the people we love, and ricochet back to bite us in the ass.
Like the Fool confronting a great Unknown, or the Hero confronting the Dragon of Chaos, recognizing that we actually don’t understand ourselves, or the World, is the first step to wisdom. We leave the warmth of our sheltered Mind and wade into the cold darkness knowing we cannot touch the light without first getting acquainted with the shadow.
If we knew everything, if we could provide correct answers any and all questions, then we could keep playing the GOIR forever. The entire universe, everything in it, including ourselves, would be completely mapped out. Our subjective model would be 100% absolutely isomorphic to the material world.
We would be God.
Not the stereotyped, fundamentalist Christian god—a man in the sky of questionable morality who intervenes in mortals’ lives on a whim—but an omniscient being who had the vision to see all, and know all; a being perfectly aligned with the truth of all existence.
This god would have no need for punishment or protection, or any intervention at all for that matter, because the cause and effect of every wave, particle, object, body, thought, and action throughout all time, past and future—forever and always—would be known.
Everything would have a reason.
Everything would be forgiven.
The concept of absolute knowledge is incoherent, but the concept of forgiveness rings true: the more we know, the more we forgive.
It’s easy to blame other people for their blunders, their mistakes, their lapses in judgment. It’s easy to pretend your life isn’t what it should be because of somebody else. It’s easy to blame Them.
But this resentment, this hate, this dividing the world into good and evil is a product of ignorance.
The deeper we dig, the more we expand our horizons, the more we lay eyes on the gears that turn the wheel of the Universe, the more we realize how little we understand, and how little control humans have over the forces that carve their destinies.
Can we really blame anyone for the breakdown of values, the loss of meaning that has come with modernity? Aren’t those just symptoms of something bigger, some inevitable tide of change? Can we blame the creators of social media for the misery it causes people? If Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t created Facebook, wouldn’t someone else have inevitably filled that niche to the same effect? Can we blame our parents for not giving us better childhoods? Their childhoods weren’t so great either. Can we blame our grandparents for that? Can we blame the people around us for being so miserable and confused and treating each other so poorly?
We definitely try. But humans are like little toy boats being tossed around by fifty-foot waves in an endless sea of mystery. Their little paddling makes the tiniest of ripples, but does nothing to influence the motion of the ocean (as much as we like to pretend otherwise).
If we play the GOIR often, diligently, sincerely, we’ll dig underneath all that black and white, and uncover Truths that are much grayer. We’ll forgive those who seem to do us wrong. We’ll forgive those who cannot forgive us. There are forces that push them that they cannot master. There are forces that push us that we cannot master. All we can do is try to make progress towards getting a grip on the things that are possible to get a grip on.
If we can do that, we’ll stop yelling at the puppets, and see the strings that are pulling on them. We’ll stop kicking and screaming and see the strings that are pulling on us. Rather than flail in terror as they jerk us around, we’ll look up at the puppet master, smile, wink, and carry on with the performance, knowing that—even though we’re not controlling the movements—it still feels good to dance.