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LEGO® and the Building Blocks of Metaphysics

Stephan Leuenberger

LEGO® allows each of us to do something traditionally thought to be reserved for God: to create a world. In fact, we can even create more than one world, a privilege rarely attributed even to God.

Calling LEGO creations “worlds” prompts a question: how similar are LEGO worlds to the real world? On one level, the answer will differ for each LEGO world, and will depend on the intentions, the skills, and the resources available to the builder. But there is another level at which the question can be asked, where the details of a particular LEGO world do not matter. How similar is a LEGO world in its fundamental structure to the real world—specifically, in the way in which the world as a whole relates to the parts out of which it is made?

The Metaphysics of LEGO

Our question relates to a central area of philosophy called “metaphysics,” which is concerned with the fundamental categories of being and the basic structure of the world. Typically, the metaphysician wants to know what kind of world we live in. She takes an interest in its most general features, and abstracts away from the vicissitudes of its history. But we can also ask about the metaphysical features of a LEGO world. In addition to being interesting in its own right, this might provide us with a good model for the true metaphysics of the real world.

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.

Consider a creation—a My Own Creation, or MOC—made from a traditional, pre-1978 LEGO set, not containing any minifigures. Such an object has a few features that seem hardly worth mentioning because of their familiarity, but which are nonetheless remarkable from a philosophical point of view. The first thing to observe is that the MOC is a complex object made up of many atomic building blocks—LEGO bricks. (They are atomic in the sense that they cannot be broken down further—at least not while playing by the rules.) This is a fundamental difference between the metaphysics of LEGO and the metaphysics of Play-Doh, for example. Play-Doh is “gunky,” in the jargon of contemporary philosophy: each part of a bit of Play- Doh is made up of smaller parts (at least on a macroscopic level of analysis, though quantum physics may offer a different perspective).

Further significant characteristics become apparent when we consider LEGO’s atomic building blocks themselves:

  • • They fall into a small handful of different kinds, all of whose members have exactly the same properties (shape, color, size, density, and surface texture).
  • • They are homogeneous: they have exactly the same properties (color, density) at every region of space they occupy.
  • • Their different kinds differ from each other only along a very small number of dimensions, such as shape and color. They are the same with respect to density, surface texture, and often even size.

Of course, LEGO worlds also contain houses, towers, bridges, fences, and other features. These items differ in their characteristics from the atomic building blocks:

  • • There is no limit to how many different kinds of them there are.
  • • They are heterogeneous: they have different properties, notably different colors, at different regions of space that they occupy.
  • • Their different kinds differ from each other along a good number of dimensions, such as shape, size, and color.

Still, all the features of the complex objects are the result of putting the bricks together in a certain pattern. The LEGO houses are nothing over and above the bricks, arranged in some specific way. Heterogeneity arises out of homogeneity, through complexity.

Worlds can be strikingly different from each other, even though they are made from the same kinds of ultimate building blocks. This is obvious to any builder: the blocks are arbitrarily re-combinable. Every block can stand on its own, or can combine with every other one. Each one is the key to every other’s lock. Again, this may seem obvious, but it is not something the metaphysician takes for granted. It represents a fundamental difference between LEGO bricks and the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. There is typically only one way for the latter to fit together into a picture. On the spectrum between full re-combinability and the complete lack of it, they are at opposite extremes.

Well, there is a small complication: bricks cannot be combined completely arbitrarily. They do not have studs on each side, and a stud does not fit together with another stud. Studs Not On Top (SNOT) techniques achieve a greater degree of re-combinability.

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