David Papineau on Philosophy and Sports

David Papineau is Professor of Philosophy of Science at King’s College London and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York and has served as president of the Aristotelian Society, the Mind Association, and the British Society for the Philosophy of Science. He is the author of eight philosophical books, including Knowing the Score: How Sports Teach Us About Philosophy (And Philosophy About Sports). He is also a keen amateur athlete, who has competed in a wide range of sports without (in his words) noteworthy success in any. These days, he spends as much time as he can on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, where he and his family have a house and a number of small boats. In this interview, we discuss his book about philosophy and sports, Knowing the Score. Enter below to win a paperback or ebook copy of the book.

Knowing the Score, David Papineau's book about philosophy and sports


Greg: You’ve competed in sports, but most of your professional work has been in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. So what inspired you to write a book about philosophy and sports? Were you hesitant to delve into a topic that might not be considered serious philosophy?

David: Sports have always been a big part of my life, and still are. I played plenty of sports as a child—but even more as an adult, when I’ve competed in organized versions of soccer, rugby, cricket, tennis, squash, field hockey and sailing. I don’t play all those sports anymore, but I carried on with cricket well into my fifties, and still do a lot of tennis, sailing and golf.

So when I started blogging on my new website a few years ago, a natural option was to focus my philosophical gaze on sports. I wasn’t at all worried that this mightn’t be viewed as serious—just the opposite really. The philosophy of sport is a well-established branch of philosophy, and is nothing if not serious, very much concerned with issues of morality, doping, enhancement, and so on. I was interested in a far wider range of topics, including the mental and political dimensions of sports, and one of my main priorities in writing about them was to be lively rather than earnest.

Greg: What is it about sports that raise questions of morality and philosophy?

David: When I first started writing about sports, I didn’t expect that they would raise so many interesting philosophical issues. But there turned out to be no end to the ways in which sports teach us lessons that aren’t easily available elsewhere. I came to think of sports as the philosophical equivalent of particle accelerators in physics. Just as particle accelerators allow physicists to find out how matter behaves in exceptional high-energy conditions, so sports show us things about human beings that aren’t normally apparent in less testing conditions.

For example, consider the fast-reaction sports like baseball, tennis, cricket, squash, and table tennis. In all of these, it takes less than half a second for the ball to reach the receiver. That’s no time for anything except reflex reactions. Yet at the same time, the athletes’ responses will depend on their consciously chosen game plans. This tells us something about the way conscious decisions guide actions in general, not just in sports.

As I see it, conscious decision-making does all its work before the moment for action arrives: you formulate a plan before the game, perhaps adjusting it during pauses in the action as events unfold. But once you have opted for a strategy, you must then hand it over to your body and its unconscious control mechanisms to execute it in the few milliseconds allowed by a ball arriving at around 100 miles per hour.

I now think that this is how decision-making works in general, and not just in the context of fast sporting skills. We make our plans in advance, when we have time to think and reflect, and then try to ensure that our unthinking bodily mechanisms perform them automatically when it is time to act. In my view, this division of labour explains an awful lot about how humans work. I’m now trying to persuade my non-sporting colleagues in the philosophy of mind that the sporting evidence undermines their more conventional theories of human decision-making.

“Sports teams also show how we often think as teams.”

Greg: Are there different issues at play in team sports versus individual sports?

David: Team sports also teach us things about human nature that would otherwise be very difficult to discover. Most philosophers and social scientists think of humans individualistically. Groups are just collections of individuals—in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and families.”

If you think about sports teams, however, it’s obvious that they transcend their individual members. Red Sox fans had to wait eighty-six years for their team to win the World Series again. But the fans weren’t of course rooting for a specific set of individuals through all those years. The players who were originally in the 1918 team were all dead by 2004.

The point isn’t specific to sports teams. They are just one example of how many of the things that matter to us go beyond “individual men and women and families”—countries, colleges, traditions, humanity itself.

Sports teams also show how we often think as teams, as well as care about them. When a team is working out its tactics, it’s not a matter of each individual deciding what to do separately, but of their asking what should we do?—and then all playing their parts when they fix on an answer. Of course, sometimes teams fall apart, with their members pulling in different directions. But a harmonious team acts as a single agent. Again the moral is a general one. Groups of people are often willing to subordinate themselves to collective decisions—hunting parties, friends on holiday, political units. Sporting teams are just the most obvious case.

Greg: In your book, you also discuss rules in sports. These rules can either be explicitly written down in a rule book or tacitly accepted by the players. Baseball is especially known for having several “unwritten rules.” These behaviors aren’t written in any rule book but were accepted by most players as consistent with fair play and good sportsmanship. In recent years, many Major League Baseball players have started to flout these unwritten rules. Is there an inherent danger that unwritten rules can fall by the wayside over time? How are unwritten rules enforced in other sports? And how do we judge which rules (written or unwritten) take precedence when they come into conflict, whether in sports or society at large?

David Papineau

David: In the book, I distinguish (1) the rules that are written down, (2) the rules as applied by the officials, (3) the code of “unwritten rules” accepted by the players and (4) the morally proper way to play the game.

The main point I make is that, at first pass, the morally proper thing is to respect the unwritten rules, rather than the formal rules applied by the officials. We can think of the unwritten rules as a kind of deal that the players have made among themselves. So reneging on that deal is immoral, just as going back on any agreement is. But transgressions of the formal rules can be perfectly all right, as long it’s part of the deal. (Just think of committing a personal foul to stop the clock at the end of a basketball game.)

What exactly goes into the unwritten rules is often a matter of convention and history. In baseball, it’s acceptable for fielders to claim catches they know they’ve only trapped, but in cricket, this would be completely shameful. (Cricket fielders found out doing this would be shunned by their own team.) So in this case, an action that’s fair in one game is quite immoral in the other—not because morality is relative, but because it depends on what the players have agreed to. (Do we leave this to the umpires, or do we police it ourselves?)

Given this, I wouldn’t assume that any slackening of the unwritten rules is necessarily reprehensible. It can simply be a matter of the players swapping one set of workable conventions for another. Imagine that over time cricket moves towards the baseball arrangement and starts leaving it to the umpires to decide on catches. This wouldn’t mean that the cricketers have suddenly become less moral. After all, there’s nothing wicked about the baseball system. It’s just a different deal. (No doubt some cricket fans would talk about a sad deterioration of standards. But those same fans probably despise all foreigners for their uncivilized ways.)

By the same coin, I don’t see that it’s generally up to the authorities to enforce the unwritten rules. The conventions of fair play are a matter for the athletes. In the natural course of events, they will evolve over time, but only fools will hold that all change is for the worst.

Having said that, we should recognize that some conventions aren’t just alternative ways of doing things, but downright immoral. The principle “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” only takes us so far. In some societies, slavery and the subjection of Jews were regarded as the norm. But that didn’t make these practices right. I feel the same about athletes who secretly take performance-enhancing drugs, or who fake injuries to get other players into trouble. When the players stray into objective immorality in this way, then the authorities do need to stamp it out.

As you can see, it’s all pretty complicated—the rule book, the officials, the players’ expectations, objective moral limits. In the book, I show how much of this also goes over to society at large—the letter of the law, the police and the courts, social conventions, real wickedness. The match isn’t perfect, of course. But once more sports provide a model that helps to illuminate larger issues.

“[The problems of sports] are very much philosophical problems.”

Greg: Your book picks out several philosophical concepts in sports, including morality, game theory and consciousness. These ideas seem to fall under “What Sports Can Teach Us About Philosophy,” the first part of your subtitle. But what about the second half of the subtitle? What can philosophy teach us about sports?

David: I don’t think of philosophy as some special body of knowledge that has implications for how to live our lives. Rather it’s just a matter of thinking hard about puzzling issues, wherever they arise. That’s why we get philosophical puzzles in physics or biology, say, as well as in traditional philosophical areas like ethics and metaphysics. Even after all the experiments have been done, it’s not at all obvious how to interpret quantum mechanics, or how to understand the workings of natural selection.

And similar puzzles arise within sports. Why does it matter what baseball batters have in their minds, given that their reactions are essentially reflexes?  How can exactly the same action be right in one sport but deeply immoral in another? These are very much philosophical problems, and my book shows how a philosopher goes about answering them.

Knowing the Score is available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. Keep up to date with David Papineau’s work on philosophy and sports on his website and Twitter.