What Can You Build?

Bob Fischer

You have pile of LEGO® bricks in front of you. What can you build with them?1 A natural answer is: whatever you can imagine!

It’s so natural an answer that representatives of the LEGO Group have actually given it,2 and they’ve used this refrain in their catalogs to advertise certain sets.3 Obviously, the LEGO Group’s representatives aren’t doing philosophy, as they’re too busy making billions of dollars. Still, it sure sounds like a good answer. Is it true?

Well, maybe not whatever you can imagine. I’m pretty sure that I can imagine a three-headed LEGO guy—and I’d guess that you can too. Just imagine the torso being a bit wider, three head posts instead of one, the legs suitably far apart, and so on. Then, there will be room for all three of his heads to sit happily beside one another. Of course, we know you can’t build such a figure—the LEGO gods don’t allow it—but he’s no less imaginable for that.4

Did that feel like a cheap move to you? If so, you’re probably thinking something like this: “It’s not that you can build whatever you can imagine period—instead, you can build whatever you can imagine with stock pieces.” Fair point. This nicely solves the three-headed guy problem, since extra-wide torsos certainly aren’t stock pieces. But there are other problems. If you’re like me, you’ve imagined structures that really seemed like they were going to work. Then you start pressing pieces together, and you find that the arch you’re making can’t quite support its own weight, or you can’t quite get the curvature you wanted, or whatever. But that means you imagined something that

LEGO® and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick, First Edition. Edited by Roy T. Cook and Sondra Bacharach.

© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

you couldn’t build with stock pieces. Again, your imagination let you down.

Perhaps we can live with fallibility—perhaps we can accept that the imagination is merely an OK guide to what we can build, getting things right only sometimes. The worry with this move is that it leaves us with an uncomfortable question: for any particular imagining (a life-sized three-toed sloth, a MINI Cooper replica, an Escher-inspired castle), why think that this is one we can trust? If the imagination isn’t usually trustworthy, why trust it at all?

So we could keep tweaking. Maybe you can’t build whatever you can imagine, or even whatever you can imagine with stock pieces, but only whatever you can imagine in detail with stock pieces. In other words, you can build whatever you can completely imagine, brick by brick. Which is probably true. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty useless, since we never imagine anything but the simplest structures so thoroughly. (There might be a few especially brilliant designers who do. Odds are, you aren’t among them. I know I’m not.) The upshot: if we know what we can build by imagining-in-detail-with-stock-pieces, then we don’t know very much.

All that said, it doesn’t seem crazy to say that our imagination helps us figure out what we can build. It just isn’t clear how. Can we tell a better story?

 
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