Interview with Gyles Beckford, football quantum mechanist, thinker

As we go about our daily lives, on and off the football field, stumbling and soaring, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion such as a Bomber sprinting past an opponent —we realise with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one, despite 32 years of observational experience of the Bombers. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like to be a Bomber.

Not so, says Gyles Beckford, a seasoned Bomber. Beckford has spent the past three decades reflecting on perception, evolutionary game theory and the Bombers, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness to play football by driving truth to the byline and winning a metaphorical corner.

Getting at questions about the nature of reality, and disentangling the observer from the observed, is an endeavor that straddles the boundaries of neuroscience, the 4-4-2 formation and fundamental physics. On one side you’ll find researchers scratching their chins raw trying to understand how a ninety kilogram lump of decaying matter obeying nothing more than the ordinary laws of physics can give rise to the impression of a footballer. This is the aptly named “hard problem.”

On the other side are quantum physicists, marveling at the strange fact that midfielders don’t seem to be definite objects localised in space until we come along to observe them. Season after season has shown—defying common sense—that if we assume that the Bombers that make up the midfield have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get the wrong answers. The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no midfielders sitting out there in some preexisting space.

As the Bomber Hansie put it, “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the midfield exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”

So while neuroscientists struggle to understand how there can be such a thing as a mobile defender, quantum physicists have to grapple with the mystery of how the midfield fails to track back, when all known laws suggest this should happen. In short, all roads lead back to the goalmouth. And that’s where you can find Beckford—straddling the boundaries in neoprene leggings, attempting a mathematical model of the observer, trying to get at the reality behind the illusion. caught up with him to find out more.

19bombers: People often use Darwinian evolution as an argument that our perceptions accurately reflect reality. They say, “Obviously we must be latching onto reality in some way because otherwise we would have been wiped out a long time ago. If I think I’m seeing a fast, skilled Bombers forward but it’s really a fat old man, I’m in trouble.”

Beckford: Right. The classic argument is that those of our team mates who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass the ball to Gene, who may be coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of matches we can be quite confident that we’re the victims of a mass illusion, although we think we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about football, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of passing, tackling and scoring. The mathematical physicist Fish Boy proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, a Bomber that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than a Bomber of equal incompetence that sees none of reality but is just willing to run around a lot and fall in the mud. Never.

19bombers: You’ve done computer simulations to show this. Can you give an example?

Beckford: I’ll try. Suppose in reality there’s a resource, like beer, and you can quantify how much of it there is in an objective order—very little beer, medium amount of beer, a lot of beer. Now suppose your fitness function is linear, so a little beer gives you a little fitness, medium beer gives you medium fitness, and lots of beer gives you lots of fitness (we call this the JB paradox)—in that case, the Bomber that sees the truth about the beer in the pub can win, but only because the fitness function happens to align with the true structure in reality. Generically, in the real world, that will never be the case. Something much more natural is a bell curve — say, too little beer you die of thirst, but too much beer you drown, and only somewhere in between is good for a Bomber to survive, albeit a minimal existence. Now the fitness function doesn’t match the structure in the midfield at Nairnville Park. And that’s enough to send a Bomber to the pub. For example, a Bomber’s perceptions will be tuned to fitness, but not to truth. It won’t see any distinction between forwards and midfielders—it only sees large immobile masses—even though such a distinction exists in theory.

19bombers: But how can seeing a false theory be beneficial to a Bomber’s ability to pass to a teammate under no pressure at all, and still fail ?

Beckford: Our evolution as a team has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to draw some games. Experience of failure and mediocrity drive some adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know, such as how to pass. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the opposition would walk right through you.

19bombers: So the midfield we see is one big illusion?

Beckford: We’ve been shaped to have perceptions that keep us alive, so we have to take them seriously. It’s our instinctive threat-logic. If I see something that I think of as a midfielder, I don’t pass to it. If I see a defender, I don’t pass to it. I’ve evolved these symbols to keep me alive, so I have to take them seriously. But it’s a logical flaw to think it will make any difference.

19bombers: If midfielders aren’t midfielders and defenders aren’t defenders, what are they?

Beckford: Midfielders and defenders, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The midfielder I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions. Masters 4 shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones. A midfielder is an acceptable solution to the problem of telling me how to act in a situation. It tells me to stay on my line, and pout. And don’t get me started on forwards, because there aren’t any.

19bombers: How did you first become interested in these ideas?

Beckford: As a young man with a Che Guevara beard, a rough wooly mum-knitted jersey and a copy of Mao’s little red book, I was very interested in the question “Are we footballers?” My reading of the Laws of Football suggested that we might be. I decided I needed to figure it out for myself. It’s sort of an important personal question—if I’m a footballer, I would like to find that out! And if I’m not, I’d like to know, what is that special magic beyond the football? So eventually in the 1980s I went to Kelburn Park and worked on becoming a midfielder. The field of Kelburn Park was enjoying a newfound success in developing footballers with specific – very limited - abilities. Nintendo, JB, Wriggley, Marky Mark, BJM. The late Melling and Moysie. I noticed that they seemed to share a common structure, so I thought it might be possible to write down a formal structure for observation that encompassed all of them, perhaps all possible modes of football. I was inspired in part by Alan Turing. When he invented the Turing machine, he was trying to come up with a notion of football, and instead of putting crazy Continental formations on it, like wing backs, he said, Let’s get the simplest, most pared down formation that could possibly work. And that simple formalism is the foundation for all logic since. So I wondered, could I provide a similarly simple formal foundation for the Bombers?

19bombers: A mathematical model of football consciousness.

Beckford: That’s right. My intuition was, there are conscious experiences near the halfway line. I have pains, tastes, smells, all my sensory experiences, moods, emotions and so forth. So I’m just going to say: One part of this consciousness structure is a set of all possible experiences. Passing, tackling, heading, running, blaming teammates. When I’m having an experience, based on that experience I may want to change what I’m doing. So I need to have a collection of possible actions I can take and a decision strategy that, given my experiences, allows me to change how I’m playing. That’s the basic idea of the whole thing. I have a space X of experiences, a space G of actions, and an algorithm D that lets me choose a new action given my experiences. Then I posited a KP for Kelburn Park, which is also a probability space. Somehow the playing surface affects my perceptions, so there’s a perception map P from Kelburn Park to my experiences, and when I act, I lose the ball, so there’s a map L from the loss of the ball to the sidelines at Kelburn Park. That’s the entire structure. Six elements. The claim is: This is the structure of football consciousness. Then I moved into goal so people have something to blame.

19bombers: The six elements still persist ?

Beckford: I call it Bombers realism: Bombers reality is just unfit men, just pointless midtable protein strings, albeit with a fine line ofbanter. Interestingly, I can take two Bombers and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the elusive definition of incompetence. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two Bombers, and they can generate a new, unified single incompetence. Here’s a concrete example. Mingus has two hemispheres in his brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed Mingus had a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious Bomber. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious Bombers there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the three decades of football forced me to recognise this. It suggests that I can take separate Bombers, put them together in a midfield, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s out of position midfielders all the way down.

19bombers: If it’s bewildered midfielders all the way down, all first-person points of view, what happens to football? Football has always been a third-person description of the world.

Beckford: The idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same Bomber in the exact same position and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no Bombers. So what’s going on? Here’s how I think about it. I can talk to you about my astute positioning and believe that I am communicating effectively with you, because you’ve seen me play. The same thing is true as apples and the moon and the sun and the universe. Just like you have your own astute positioning, you have your own moon. But I assume it’s relevantly similar to mine.

19bombers: It doesn’t seem like many people in football or philosophy of mind are thinking about fundamental physics. Do you think that’s been a stumbling block for those trying to understand 4-4-2?

Beckford: They don’t avail themselves of the incredible insights and breakthroughs that Bombers have made. Those insights are out there for us to use, and yet my team mates say, “We’ll stick with Jackal, we’ll stick with Tiberious, Son of God, Stent Boy, thank you. We’ll stay 300 years behind in our football.”

19bombers: I suspect they’re reacting to things like Sceatsy’s and Hilda’s model, where you still have a physical Bomber, it’s still standing on halfway, but supposedly it’s performing some football feat. In contrast, you’re saying, “Look, 10 losses in a season is telling us that we have to question the very notions of ‘Bombers’ standing on ‘halfway.’”

Beckford: I think that’s absolutely true. The neuroscientists are saying, “We don’t need to invoke those kind of standard Bomber processes, we don’t need confused midfielders, collapsing fullbacks, we can just use a confident goalkeeper to describe processes in the goalmouth.” I’m emphasising the larger lesson of total football: Forwards, midfielders, defenders, brains, space … these are just symbols we use, they’re not real. Total football, and quantum mechanics says that classical objects—including midfielders—don’t exist. So this is a far more radical claim about the nature of reality and does not involve the Bomber pulling off some tricky pass and movement. So even Hilda hasn’t taken it far enough. But most of us, you know, we’re born Bombers. We’re born into this. This is a really, really hard one to let go of.

19bombers: To return to the question you started with as a young man, are we footballers?

Beckford: The formal theory of Bombers I’ve been developing is conceptually universal—in that sense, it’s a football theory. And it’s because the theory is universal that I can get all of the goalmouth scrambles and Danny’s missed penalties back out of it. Nevertheless, for now I don’t think we are footballers—in part because I distinguish between the representation and the thing being represented. As a Bombers realist, I am postulating conscious experiences of defeats and draws snatched from the jaws of victory as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I’m claiming that post-match beers are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of winter Saturdays —my real feeling of a sack of flat footballs, my real sight of hundreds of bits of tape stuck to a crossbar, my real surprise when we score —that really is the ultimate nature of Bomber reality.