The other day I was walking across campus, minding my own business, when there came a sudden flash of light and the low, pulsing hum of something other-worldly. I ducked and covered my eyes. When I looked up, there it was—a giant spaceship. I stared incredulously, as a sort of door opened from the bottom of the ship, and out walked three aliens—each with a large head, tiny mouth, and inky-black eyes. One of them approached me, while the other two remained near the ship. Either out of fear or curiosity (or both) I just stood there until I was face to face with the alien (well, almost face-to-face—he was about a foot taller than I). Here is how our conversation went:
Alien: Hello. Don’t be alarmed. We’re scientists from sector 1781 of Elzork Onjkoglion. We want to learn about your species.
Spiegel: Wow, you speak English…and with no accent!
Alien: Yes, we have rather advanced translation software. Its pretty nifty—downloaded directly into these giant brains of ours.
Spiegel: Really? Very cool. I always wondered what—
Alien: Apparently you have a modicum of intelligence, seeing all of these things your species has built. Tell us about of your kind.
Spiegel: I’d say we have more than a modicum of intelligence, sir. We might not have spaceships like that—very nice, by the way—but we are quite rational. Anyway, I’d be happy to give you more information about us. Hmm…where to start… Well, as you note, we do like to build things, as you aliens obviously do. But you can observe those things easily enough, I suppose. What you can’t directly observe are our various institutions—legal, educational, medical, and so on.
Alien: Yes, good. We have these institutions as well—all crucial for social flourishing.
Spiegel: Exactly. We also have various art forms—like music, dance, poetry, film.
Alien: Yes, for the sake of beauty and learning, correct?
Spiegel: Absolutely. And we also love our sports—like football, baseball, soccer, and basketball.
Alien: Right, we have observed some of these. We have our frivolous activities as well.
Alien: Yes, they have no inherent value.
Spiegel: What do you mean? Of course they do!
Alien: Describe one of your sports.
Spiegel: Like what?
Alien: Oh, any of the ones you mentioned. How about… ‘basketball,’ as you call it?
Alien: What does it involve?
Spiegel: Well…you take a ball—
Alien: A bounceable spheroid?
Spiegel: Yeah, that’s right. And you try to shoot it into a basket.
Alien: A metal ring?
Spiegel: Uh, yeah…right.
Alien: And what purpose does this serve? What is the inherent value of putting the spheroid through the ring?
Spiegel: Well, it’s good physical exercise, for one thing.
Alien: But many of your people watch when just a few others play, right?
Spiegel: Yeah, when pros and other really good players play.
Alien: And watchers just sit there?
Alien: They don’t get exercise.
Spiegel: Okay, good point. But it has value in other ways.
Alien: Such as?
Alien: Competing to do what?
Spiegel: To score and win.
Alien: To win at placing the spheroid through a metal ring?
Spiegel: Yes, that’s right.
Alien: Why care about winning at this? It is frivolous.
Spiegel: No, its not.
Alien: Are hungry people fed by watching others do this with the spheroid?
Alien: Are people educated?
Alien: Are sick people healed by watching?
Spiegel: Of course not.
Alien: Then where is the value?
Spiegel: The value is in winning…or trying to win. And playing as a team. Yeah, there is huge value in that.
Alien: If there is no inherent value in placing the spheroid through the metal ring, then why is it any more valuable to do it together?
Spiegel: Hmm….well…because it makes you learn certain skills, like how to cooperate with people and unify around a goal.
Alien: But there are many ways to do this that involve inherently meaningful actions like educating, healing, and doing other services. Why bother with a frivolous task?
Spiegel: Because people like to watch it and be entertained.
Alien: Then your people are entertained—by the millions as we understand—by watching groups of people do inherently meaningless tasks, such as putting spheroids through metal rings.
Spiegel: You make it sound so silly.
Alien: Because it is silly.
Spiegel: No, its not.
Alien: Why not?
Spiegel: Because the best players do it so well. They are truly amazing athletes.
Alien: But if a task is frivolous and inherently meaningless, then why should anyone care, much less be entertained by watching others do it well?
Spiegel: Well, professional basketball players get paid enormous sums of money for doing it.
Alien: More than your teachers and healers?
Spiegel: Yes, a lot more in most cases.
Alien: So let me get this straight. Your basketball players are paid enormous sums of money to do a frivolous task that has no inherent value, while your teachers and healers who do the most inherently meaningful work are paid much less?
Spiegel: Yeah, that’s the situation.
Alien: And you call your society rational?
Spiegel: Okay, look pal—I’m tired of your questions. You’re going to have to find someone else to interview. I’m leaving. I have an appointment anyway.
Alien: To do what?
Spiegel: To play racquetball with a friend.
Alien: What is racquetball?