The Wisdom of Wisdom

“Things are none other than as they are, yet without being transformed they cannot be observed or truly appreciated. Therefore, if things must be as they are, but can only be seen in the alteration of their selves, is it not the case that no man can truly understand the mysteries of the universe until he has sent his account number and security code to”

Wisdom is, in my opinion, one of the most abused and misrepresented concepts in human thought. People have some very funny ideas about exactly what “wisdom” might be, and it is therefore vital that the deepest and most fundamental of questions about wisdom – namely how it can be used to win boardgames – be dealt with in a way that avoids these common misconceptions.

The idea of a means of understanding the world and making decisions that can’t be readily quantified or explained is a very emotionally appealing one, and one of the flaws in human psychology is our general willingness to accept that such a system exists. Correctly exploited, this psychological flaw can enhance the effectiveness of your table talk! People will often pay more attention to a vague or ambiguous suggestion than to an explicit laying-out of what you think they should do and why. Perhaps this is because they can interpret a more loosely-defined comment in a way that ties in with what they already think or what they would like to be true, a fact that is often exploited by purveyors of “wisdom.” The skill, of course, is in pinning down the one thing you really want them to do while leaving everything else vague and flexible…

“A man may move through life as is his whim: forwards, backwards, sideways and inwards, but whatsoever path he takes all ways must lead at last to the starting player space.”

One should also consider tone and phrasing when presenting “advice”: a person talking gibberish slowly and calmly in a deep voice will get far more respect than someone who provides important, truthful information in a whiny or annoying tone! Try to avoid implying that the person you are advising has played badly, and make a special effort not tell them that they’ve already lost when you are ten minutes into a three-hour game – for some reason this always seems to turn them against me when I do it.

The above is all about exploiting the flawed beliefs of others. Let us now consider our own way of thinking. Is there a place for any form of “soft reasoning” in a good boardgamer’s play? Wisdom, gut feeling, hunches – are these all just words we use to allow ourselves to believe what we would like to believe rather than what we have evidence for? Even the application of prior experience can mislead us when we try to apply it to a situation that isn’t quite the same as what we’re used to. Should we just make all our decisions on the basis of explicit reasoning and mathematical calculation?

Exploiting another classic psychological bias, rather than simply stating my answer I shall attempt to reach it via a roundabout route involving an anecdote about some totally irrelevant events. Last year a friend of mine, possibly in search of some form of wisdom, arranged to spend two weeks living as a monk at a monastery in Thailand. On his return I asked him how he had found his experiences. He replied:

“Well, we had to get up at six in the morning to go out and beg for food. We then didn’t really do anything for the rest of the day because we couldn’t be bothered and it was too hot anyway. There was this tree though- I called it The Tree of Many Ants – where whenever you walked under it or even went near it you would find about twenty ants all over you biting you.”

This, it would seem, entirely refutes my earlier arguments. I have suggested that there is nothing in the idea of wisdom – that it is useless and can only serve to deceive us. On the other hand, I and most proponents of scientific thought have to go to work every day and pay for our food, while these advocates of wisdom-based reasoning have clearly achieved a lifestyle that I can only dream of. On the basis of this, I am forced to admit that there must be some validity to their way of thinking.

The key, in my opinion, lies with the fact that these monks have achieved balance. I don’t mean that they have somehow reached a position of mystic spiritual equilibrium, rather I mean that just like almost everyone else on the planet they can stand up and walk around on two feet, despite the strength of the Earth’s gravitational field and the inherent instability of a human being standing on its hind legs. The calculations required to make the necessary adjustments in muscle extension to do this would be beyond the mathematical capabilities of a large fraction of the population, and indeed would need to be done far too fast even for those who were able to do them. But nevertheless we do do them. From this we can conclude that the human brain is capable of performing perfectly valid mathematical calculations without showing its working – and indeed that it often does these calculations rather faster than we can do them in an explicit, conscious way where we can check the working! Sometimes what seems like a psychologically-flawed cleaving to the traditional ideas of wisdom is actually just an application of hidden, but nevertheless valid, logical reasoning.

This means that we have access to two forms of thought, a slow but reliable kind that shows its working and a fast but unreliable kind that doesn’t. When they are in direct conflict on a specific issue we should clearly give precedence to the slower, more reliable kind. However, the fast kind also serves an important role in highlighting the most important problems for the slow kind to tackle. This is essential in a good boardgame, where there ought to be far too many possible sets of moves for anyone to calculate the results of all of them explicitly. I tend to use intuition when planning my long-term strategy, where too many moves are involved for explicit calculation, but to reason out the exact details of my short-term tactical planning. Soft reasoning tells me where I want to be in three rounds’ time, and then I explicitly calculate the sequence of moves required to get me there.

Of course, something that has absolutely nothing to do with different methods of reasoning is The Tree of Many Ants. The tale of the Tree of Many Ants serves no useful purpose, and I only made time for it because I enjoyed it… just like a boardgame! I can’t speak for everyone, but personally I wouldn’t enjoy playing a game if I had to explicitly calculate everything. Sometimes you have to remember why you are playing the game in the first place, and appreciate the instinctive satisfaction that can be got from playing intuitively rather than reasoning everything out. This will of course be particularly true for players of Points Salad, which I am concerned could lend itself to analysis paralysis if not played in the proper spirit. That said, I have just thought of an excellent expansion – Points Salad: The Tree of Many Ants.

So, in short, there is a place for the kind of soft reasoning that some people might refer to as “wisdom” in boardgames. However, it is important to understand what it represents (i.e. perfectly normal reasoning that is simply hidden from our conscious mind) and not attribute any additional qualities to it that it does not in fact posses. To put the same argument in a much more annoying and pointlessly obscure way:

“Though the swan glides on the surface, his serenity in his own motion does not transgress against mundanity. Beneath, like the otter, he swims.”

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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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