The Metaphysics of Minecraft

Yesterday I rambled on a bit about the difference between natural and artificial things. The gist of it, which possibly I conveyed rather badly, is that natural things, and particularly living things, have a nature that determines what they can do and how they behave—and that this nature isn’t entirely explicable in terms of a collection of atoms arranged in a particular way. This last point is controversial, of course. There are many today of the “materialist” (or, sometimes “physicalist”) camp who would disagree with me.

Be that as it may, I was recently surprised to find this distinction between natural and artificial things illustrated in a rather odd place—the computer game Minecraft.

In Minecraft you inhabit a world made of blocks. You can mine these blocks out of the world, and then make new things out of them. And there are two ways to do it.

First, you can treat the game like the world’s biggest Lego set, and build things (including truly massive structures) out of the blocks by placing them back into the world as blocks. Second, you can “craft”. This means creating a variety of things—tools, armor, new kinds of blocks—out of blocks by using something called a “crafting table”. The resulting objects are either items, things you can carry and use, or blocks that you can place in the world.

Let me give a couple of examples. First, here’s an artifact: A Dark Tower of Wizardry. It’s made of blocks. It has certain behaviors; for example, fire burns on it in various places. But it’s an artifact—its behavior is the behavior of the blocks from which it is made. It has no behavior of its own.


You can make quite amazing artifacts in Minecraft: Star Trek-style doors that open with a woosh when you walk up to them, elevators, logic circuitry, and the like. But all of them are simply artifacts that exploit the behavior of the blocks of which they are made.

Here, on the other hand, is something quite different.


That thing in the middle, with a book floating on the top of it, is called an enchanting table. You can use it to enchant your weapons, armor, and tools to make them more powerful. It’s a single block, made on a crafting table from four blocks of obsidian, two diamonds, and a book. And the point is, it has significant behavior that does not in any way derive from the things of which it is made. Not only can you enchant things on it, the book on top moves around by itself, and letters magically fly towards it from the books on the shelves around it. It is its own thing, with its own behavior. You might almost say that it’s alive.

It has, in fact, a nature. For all that you have to make it from other things, it’s a natural object in the Minecraft world, rather than an artifact. Unlike the Dark Tower of Wizardry, it has its own Java code in the Minecraft application that gives it its nature.

And this is the thing that’s so cool. All of the neat stuff that happens in Minecraft ultimately depends on blocks and items with natures given to them by the application. The neat artifacts you can build work by combining these natural elements in ways that they work together.

Just like in the real world. Everything comes down to the natures of natural objects, which are not necessarily explicable purely in terms of the parts from which they are made.

They say art imitates life. Does it ever!

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