Models and Games

This seems like an auspicious occasion to announce that, following in the Larry Solum model of developing a paper from blog post to short idea piece to full-blown article, I’ve posted on SSRN the complete version of what was known in a prior iteration as “Aboutness, Thingness. . . .” The last thing to go was the old title, and the second to last were the first several paragraphs of the old introduction, I suppose because the words are like children, these particular words had been around since I first put fingers to keyboard, and, if truth be known, I thought they were really clever. But these are all aspects either of self-deception or unwillingness to make choices, and who of all people inspired me but Katie Holmes (or at least her character in Wonder Boys, Hannah Green) who observed to Michael Douglas (as Grady Tripp) that writing was about making choices and he had made none in the manuscript of his second novel.

The gist of the piece, if I were to put it blog-colloquially, is how some modes of making sense of cause-and-effect, particularly in the realm of human behavior, just plain miss the boat. In natural science, an example would be trying to explain dog behavior and conditioning at the level of physiology. That level of explanation might suffice for a physiologist who is interested in measuring muscle contractions at feeding time, but it doesn’t tell the microbiologist much, nor does it do much to explain at the level of operant conditioning. In the social sciences, the distinction would be (courtesy of historian Thomas Haskell), the difference between explanatory cause and attributive cause. If you ask the thug why he beat the old man, an answer that involves neural pathways and muscular contractions may explain cause and effect at one level, but it doesn’t make sense in the same way this answer does: “because I wanted his wallet full of money.”

The part of the piece with which I had the most fun was where I applied the foregoing to the 2003 Yale Law Journal article by Alan Schwartz and Bob Scott on contract interpretation. In a nutshell (but you will have to read the piece to see why), my claim was that their mode of explanation simply missed the boat in the same explanatory versus attributive way.

The article is Models and Games: The Difference Between Explanation and Understanding for Lawyers and Ethicists. The abstract follows the fold.


Here is the abstract:

There is value in thinking about constructs of rules as games on one hand, or models with on the other. Games are real in a way models are not. Games have “thingness” – an independent reality – and they can be played. Models have “aboutness” – they map onto something else that is real for the sake of simplification and explanation. But models and games are not dichotomous as the preceding claim makes them out to be. Sometimes models look just like games, and sometimes games can serve as models. Because models look like games, we may come to believe they are real – that the models have thingness rather than aboutness. People are prone to think some of the models they deal in all the time are real, like games, and perhaps even more real than the reality the models are supposed to represent. When that happens unreflectively in business, ethical and legal problems can ensue.

There is also a relationship between games and models as a way of thinking, and the position of the thinker as modeler, game creator, or game player. To engage in any of those acts is to use the legally trained mind to make sense of what is going on, and to act on it. But there are different ways of making sense, either by explaining or understanding, and it is not common in legal education to undertake the exercise of thinking about thinking, or theorizing about theory. I explore the consequence of confusing games and models in two contexts, financial accounting and contract interpretation, and consider the possibility of co-optation from models into games and vice versa. I conclude that practicing lawyers (or law professors) need to think about thinking itself or face the possibility of being misled by precisely the same context facing their clients. In short, lawyers need to be pragmatic ontologists.

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