Chess and Philosophy

I am not a good chess player. The fact that I’m still unable to beat my father after 15 years of playing attests to this fact. Still, I love the game because it gets my mind churning in a way that is both fun and challenging.

Chess is also fun to ponder about from time to time. Kenneth Silber has written an intriguing Tech Central Station piece that posits the implications of Platonic philosophy on chess. Plato argued there existed what he called “forms,” which were abstract manifestations of real objects. Here’s a very basic description of this theory; for example, a perfect circle can never be manifested in the physical world. The width of any line marking the circumference of a circle changes the length of the radius, making it impossible to physically construct a perfect circle. Plato would insist that there exists an abstract “form” of a circle which all physical circles correspond to.

Does this theory apply to chess? Are all the possible moves in a chess game existent in the abstract, if not in the real world? Silber seems to think so:

Platonic ideals are normally defined as timeless, yet in this case they seem also to be historically grounded. The world of abstractions seems to depend on our world…Perhaps in some sense, all chess moves, positions and games are “out there,” but they have a rather limited existence if nobody plays them. Interestingly, it appears physically impossible for any computer or other material entity ever to store complete information about the game. By some estimates, the number of possible chess games exceeds the number of particles in the universe.

This, of course, begs the question: Do any perfect chess players exist in the abstract?

Who knows? Right now, I’m just clinging to the theoretical possibility that I will one day beat my dad in chess…if we play enough games.

2 thoughts on “Chess and Philosophy”

  1. Jared,

    From one bad chess player who loves to play to another–Keep Trying! I’m just worried that my wife will soon be good enough to beat me!!! 🙂

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