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Popper's Milestone

Popper What do we mean when we talk about ‘metaphysics’? It seems inevitable that the answer to this question will be tediously complex, and yet we do possess a surprisingly neat and simple solution thanks to the work of the Austrian-born British philosopher Sir Karl Popper. In his efforts to explore the question ‘what is science?’ Popper inadvertently laid down a metaphorical stone marker which stands on the borders between science and metaphysics, providing us the option to distinguish simply between the two.

All explanations of metaphysics tend to stray into historical sidelines; perhaps the simplest explanation of metaphysics is to claim (unfairly!) that all the abstract nonsense philosophers discuss with no direct relevance to every day life such as Universals, Necessity and Possibility, notions such as Final Causes and so forth – all this is the realm of metaphysics. One can understand quite easily why someone might have cause to oppose metaphysics as meaningless, or at least unhelpful, given this admittedly misleading definition. 

The most infamous challenge of this kind came from a movement known as Logical Positivism which grew out of the infamous Vienna Circle of the 1920’s, which Wittgenstein was at first associated with, and later went to great lengths to oppose. Enamoured with the successes of science in the previous century, the Logical Positivists proposed that propositions gain their meaning by some specification of the actual steps taken to determine their truth or falsehood (the so-called verification principle). This focus on truth values is a common property in sceptical thought. Critically, it was the view of the Logical Positivists that metaphysics was meaningless since everything within this domain was unverifiable. 

Popper thought differently. To his mind, the success of science did not lie in it being more verifiable than metaphysics (or, for that matter, than ethics). Unlike many scientists, Popper took a decidedly cool view on induction (following Hume’s approach to the matter) and observed that it wasn’t possible to confirm a universal scientific theory as this would require absolutely complete knowledge, but that it was possible to disprove a universal theory.

Black_socks The relevant flaw in induction can be shown by a simple thought experiment. Suppose we have an infinitely large sock drawer (or one with so many socks within it that it is effectively infinite). Every day, we pull two socks from this drawer, and every day both are black. We might conclude via the process of induction that the sock drawer contains only black socks. But suppose one day we reach in and pull out a white sock. This immediately invalidates the ‘black sock theory’! In the same way, a scientific theory cannot be proved to be true, but it can be falsified by contradictory evidence.

Popper advanced the idea that falsification was a more useful criteria to apply to science than the verification principle, since universal theories can be falsified but they can never be conclusively proved, as with the sock drawer thought experiment. He therefore proposed that falsification be used as a boundary condition for science, and consequently that anything that could not be falsified belonged to the domain of metaphysics. 

While the Logical Positivists held that metaphysics was meaningless because it could not be verified, Popper never suggested that because metaphysics could not be falsified it was without meaning. Rather, he recognised that metaphysical statements tend to imply beliefs, and therefore that anything in the realm of metaphysics is a matter for individual belief. Nothing could rationally force a change in such beliefs, at least in terms of definitely proving them false, but this was categorically not the same as claiming that such beliefs were meaningless.

By the time of Popper’s knighthood in 1965, Logical Positivism was widely recognised as having run its course, in no small part thanks to Popper’s contribution. 

Kuhn Sadly for Popper, his position that falsification could be used as a boundary condition for science was quickly under attack. Thomas Kuhn and others observed that scientists do not abandon their theories in the light of contradictory evidence, which was a central assumption in Popper’s account, and Feyerabend (who had severe personal issues with his ex-mentor Popper) went on to demonstrate that there were no lasting boundary conditions to any human endeavour, never mind science.

However, this in no way invalidates the importance of Poppers work: Logical Positivism was a particularly vicious form of intellectual fascism and Popper’s contribution to its demise is to be commended and celebrated. Indeed, it is sad that despite the collapse of this school of thought in philosophy, echoes of its influence are still found in the tacit opposition certain prominent scientists and their supporters have for metaphysics.

The issue of how to present this viewpoint without seeming to be expressing solely my own bias gave me considerable pause until I received unlikely aid in the form of an article in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy on the topic ‘Metaphysics, Opposition to’ written by Prof. E. J. Lowe of the University of Durham. This hefty reference book has been a helpful tool in my philosophical investigations, but it is mostly written in such a dry and inaccessible prose that I never expected to find buried within its pages something as fiercely impassioned as the following extract: 

Opposition to metaphysics has come from both within philosophy and outside it. Logical positivism, though now defunct, was particularly hostile to what its adherents saw as the meaningless, because unverifiable, claims of metaphysics. These objections foundered on the impossibility of providing an acceptable criterion of verifiability. But the deference to empirical science displayed by the Logical Positivists is still a feature of much Anglo-American analytic philosophy, creating an intellectual climate inimical to the pursuit of speculative metaphysics… Such writers are often blithely unaware of the uncritical metaphysical assumptions pervading their works and the philosophical naivety of many of their arguments. But it is ironic that the deference shown by many philosophers to the latest scientific theories is not reciprocated by the popularizing scientists, who do not conceal their contempt for philosophy in general as well as metaphysics in particular. 

Professor Lowe seems to take some delight in exploring the specifics of opposition to metaphysics (both from systems of thought equivalent to Logical Positivism, and also from cultural relativism), and in doing so demonstrates that opponents to the field do not agree on even basic metaphysical tenets, thus allowing him to conclude:

The very fact of such widespread disagreement over fundamentals demonstrates the need for critical and reflective metaphysical inquiry pursued not dogmatically but in the spirit of Kant. 

Or to put it another way: since we do not agree, even on purportedly objective issues such as science, the need for metaphysics is amply demonstrated.

While Feyerabend was correct in asserting that there are no lasting boundary conditions to human endeavour, this does not preclude using Popper’s concept of falsification usefully. After all, the absence of lasting boundary conditions does not mean we cannot choose to erect boundaries wherever we wish. Indeed, if we agree to a particular boundary it may stand (by custom if by no other means) for as long as we wish. This, after all, is the basis by which one country distinguishes itself from another. 

Somewhere out in the metaphorical landscape of knowledge lies an almost insignificant stone marker reading ‘Erected at the boundary of Falsification’. It was set down by Popper to mark the end of science and the beginning of metaphysics. I suggest that even if we do not wish to use it to mark the border of science, Popper’s milestone can still be usefully interpreted as saying: ‘beyond this point lies metaphysics!’


Things to Come

Greetings and salutations! A few quick notes before I get on my way:

  • I've very much enjoyed the character sheets people have attached to the Player's Handbook - hope we get a few more!
  • Have I made my scientific background clear? I did half of an Astrophysics degree before switching to Computer Science (the Physics department forbade me to use their computers for my own projects in my spare time - the CS department didn't mind). Afterwards, I did an Advanced Computer Science Masters degree specialising in Artificial Intelligence - it's curriculum was nearly identical to the Cognitive Science Masters degree  (for which I couldn't get funding), so I sometimes suggest that I have credentials as a cognitive scientist, which I don't think is unfair.
  • On that subject, I'm going to do some philosophy of mind this week. I feel some discussion on the psychological subject of cognitive dissonance is called for, as there is a gross misunderstanding surrounding this topic, and we can all benefit from taking this lesson to heart.
  • I want to state for the record that my desire to improve upon the "new synthesis" and move forward to superior models for the evolutionary process is motivated by my lifelong love of science. I am not, and never have been, a creationist, but as a philosopher I can recognise that different systems of metaphysics lead to different conclusions. If I ever seem to be attacking the idea of evolution there has been a gross misunderstanding! I apologise if my choice of words ever contributes to such a misunderstanding but please check the category of a post before drawing conclusions as posts on the subject of religion are generally concerned with metaphysics and not science.
  • And on the subject of distinguishing metaphysics from science, I'm going to kick off the week with a post about Popper's valuable contributions to the philosophy of science so that we might gain a better understanding of what metaphysics is about.
  • Oh, and I might post on some game topics too, depending how the week goes!

All aboard! Off we go...


Player's Handbook

Website_mapcleaned_up Only a Game is a non-fiction role-playing game, played in text and pictures over the internet by no more than about a hundred players. Its Games Master (GM) is Chris Bateman, who designed some of the more trivial mechanics. However, much of the game mechanics were designed by an unknown entity or process known variously as God, the Universe, Fate, Time, Chance and a number of other names. 

Setting

In this role-playing game, or RPG, players take the roles of people who have fallen by chance into the reality (or mind, or sometimes language game), of Chris Bateman. The GM describes aspects of this reality to the players, who respond in a number of different ways. Most common is to say and do nothing at all. However, some players go and talk about the latest events in the game to other people. A few respond, directly or indirectly, to the GM. It is these responses, by and large, that drive forward what can be considered the narrative of the game (although it is, always remember, a game of non-fiction). There are occasional bouts of time travel, as parts of the reality exposed at an earlier point in time are brought up again by fresh comments.

The play is focused upon games and game design, philosophy of language, philosophy of science and philosophy of religion, although squirrels and nonsense also occur. The landscape of the reality the game is set in (Chris Bateman’s mind) is complex and changeable, but a few things are always the same: he never means to cause offence, he always believes that diversity is essential, especially diversity of thought and belief, and he is both pro-science and pro-religion. A large metaphysical wall has been built between these two regions in the reality, and while players are free to cross between them, a certain amount of resistance will occur when this happens. 

Unlike more commonly encountered realities, the reality used in this game is not always a tunnel and the play may flip from one reality to another, apparently at random. At one moment, players may find themselves in a grounded scientific debate with no recourse to metaphysics, in another, they may find themselves in a part of the reality that is dictated by Christian metaphysics (or Sufi, or Hindu, or Discordian, or…) and experiencing what that reality feels like. This causes some turbulence, but adds to the ilinx of the ride. 

Rules

There is only one rule, which is play friendly. Even this rule is occasionally broken, bent, twisted, nudged slightly, folded, spindled or mutilated, but usually everything runs smoothly. As long as there has been no intent to offend, everything usually works out.

Politeness is requested, but since standards of politeness vary wildly from culture to culture, and from individual to individual, a certain latitude must be allowed.

Character Generation

Most players enter the game as themselves, but a few adopt a persona to play with. Character development is random, but players have some control as to how their character will change as the game progresses. Players are encouraged to attach their character sheet below, using whatever mechanics they wish to invent.

Known Bugs

Occasionally, one of the plays will result in some of the players experiencing an intense discomfort or frustration, often manifesting as anger. In the worst instances of this bug, (often referred to as cognitive dissonance), the flow of the game may be disrupted. This is a known bug, resulting from design flaws in the firmware of the organisms used to play the game. An upgrade has been requested, but is not expected before the end of the game.

If you find yourself experiencing cognitive dissonance, take three short breaths and three long ones, step away from the game for a while, and come back to it later if you feel like it. 

Universal Disclaimer

As with all Chris Bateman games, the Universal Disclaimer applies. 

We hope you enjoy Only a Game, and look forward to playing with your reality soon!

The opening image is a recent map of the game’s progress thus far, generated using a rather cool tool I learned about from Corvus that maps websites. Please feel free to attach your character sheet (using any system of mechanics you like, real or imagined!) or post rules queries below. Thanks for playing!


Reluctant Hero: Chapters

I believe I've solved my time problem. Here's my solution:

  • At the start of the game, players choose the (average) number of chapters that their game will be composed of, e.g. 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 chapters.
  • Most of the quest content is procedural, emerging from a card-type system. Originally, this would be continuous, but in new the chapter system idea it is discontinuous. At the start of each chapter the game will 'draw' some cards. Some of these won't affect the player (but will still be in the world to find), others will. For instance, if they run the merchant's guild and a brigand event is drawn and assigned to a road the player trades along they will get word that brigands are attacking their trade route.
  • The player must resolve all cards which affect them directly before the end of the chapter. They can do this by direct intervention - they may fight the brigands, bribe them to move, or recruit them to a thieves guild if they own one - or indirectly by (for instance) hiring a hero to fix it for them.
  • Once all relevant quests are completed, then an 'End Chapter' option is added to all the player's buildings and locations. Using this triggers the end of the chapter, and a time advance. (The player doesn't have to use the End of Chapter option, but no new events are drawn until they do).
  • Time advances by a random number between, say, 1 and 1+{[(age range/number of chapters)-1]/2} years, where age range is (maximum age - starting age). In other words, over the length of the game, the time advances for the chapters will average out to the player characters final age.
  • The time advance is depicted by a fade to black followed by the text overlay 'x years later...', according to how much the next time advance represents. (The fewer the chapters, the bigger the time advances).
  • The player's skill paths are credited for the time advance as a result of the nature of the location they choose to trigger the chapter end, and also as a result of their own abilities.
  • I imagine a typical game will be 20 chapters, but the player can make a short game in 5 chapters. First time through, each chapter will take 1-3 hours (or more) but in replay, an hour a chapter will be fine. So at 20 chapters we have 40 hours for your first time through, and replay possible in 5 hours or less.

Many thanks for everyone who contributed to the discussion on this! Getting an external perspective really helped move me towards to this solution. More on this game soon, I'm sure.


Bucky's Big Idea

Buckminster_fullerthumb R. Buckminster Fuller was that rarest of things, a genius touched by an idealistic fervour. There is no shortage of geniuses on the planet, but most decide to invest their talents in self-advancement, or become distracted with issues of little social benefit to mankind. Bucky, as he is affectionately known, saw further. Although he is most famous for his now-ubiquitous geodesic dome design, perhaps his most impressive idea was that of the Global Energy Network. 

Bucky examined the resources of our planet and concluded that – contrary to what is usually assumed – there was plenty to go around. The problems were not a shortage of resources, but a failure to fully capitalise upon those resources. He set himself the utopian vision:

To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.

This goal is still pursued by the Buckminster Fuller Institute. 

As a game designer, I have always been impressed by Bucky’s innovative World Game. This participatory game, using both computers and human moderators, challenges players to make use of the resources of the country they are assigned to play in order to solve that nation’s problems. Since the players do not have to worry about ‘real politic’, an astounding amount of progress is possible. Indeed, the World Game demonstrates to a fair degree that the game of global resource management is not a zero sum game. In a zero sum game, players make gains only when other players make loses – gain and loss balance out. The suggestion that global resource management was not such a game strongly suggests it is possible to make co-operative gains without accruing losses. (Biology, seen through the eyes of Lynn Margulis, sends a similar message – if it did not, planet earth would still be a battleground for rival mono-cellular organisms). 

(As an aside, I think perhaps that my personal issues with Sid Meier’s Civilization stem in part from its rendering of international issues as a strictly competitive affair. A marvellous game it may be. Helpful to the global situation…? Not so much).

Bucky concluded from his investigations that the problems of power supply were less about making more electricity and more about distributing it more effectively. He suggested that the global energy problems could be largely resolved by a Global Energy Network – a power grid that connects all the countries of the world together into a single global power grid. The fact that this principle works on the scale of individual nations is perhaps the clearest evidence that it could work on a broader scale. 

As a simple example of the benefits, most power stations generate power constantly but during the night, when electricity use is reduced, much of this power goes to waste. But of course, it’s always day somewhere. By the use of a global power grid, countries could sell their night time surplus to other countries – benefiting both. The concept is being pushed forward by the Global Energy Network Institude (GENI) in San Diego.

When Bucky’s big idea was first pushed forward, it was well received by many countries – especially the poorer nations, many of whom had great potential to export power and work their way out of poverty. According to Robert Anton Wilson’s account on the matter, it collapsed because the United States of America would not back the plan. The political reasons why support for this idea was not forthcoming are numerous and readily derivable by the interested party. The chief problem is not the cost of the endeavour, however, but the issue of trust. A global energy network requires global trust – you are asking to share infrastructure with another country. This commitment does not come lightly, especially as it arguably calls for an end to war. In the context of real politic, this is apparently too much to ask.

But fortunately, the matter is not closed. I was delighted to discover that Bucky’s big idea has re-emerged recently in a modified form. If the US will not support it, perhaps we can make a start in part of the world? The Trans-Mediterranean Interconnection for Concentrating Solar Power (Trans-CSP) is just such a plan. Originating in Germany and supported by both European and Arab countries, the plan calls for the construction of solar power stations in hot deserts (particularly the north Sahara), and for the power generated to be conducted by low-loss, direct current transmission lines up to 3,000 miles away – far enough to connect the whole of Europe and North Africa.

Csp The technology is already extant. CSP technology, which uses mirrors to focus sunlight upon a column of water generating steam to run a turbine, has been used successfully in the Mojave desert for more than 20 years. It goes without saying that the energy of the solar flux hitting the surface of the Earth is vast, and also that this energy has an extremely minimal carbon cost. It has been estimated that the cost-effective component of the global CSP resource exceeds the most ambitious plans for nuclear expansion by more than 200 times.

And as if these benefits were insufficient, CSP "light farms" (as I have termed them in my novels) located near the ocean can also act as desalinization plants at minimal additional cost; since the next most obvious resource war (once we have finished fighting about oil) is a global water war, the capacity to eliminate this problem before it occurs is surely tempting.

The only real barrier to this project – a viable first step towards Bucky’s big idea – is political. Our representative democracies trap politicians into making dumb decisions about energy policy because to a politician the immediate issue of keeping their job outweighs long term issues of benefit to all mankind except in rare cases.

We can work against this by making it clear that we will not vote for anyone who will not support such a plan. Study the case put forward for Trans-CSP. If you are in agreement with its plans, write to your political representatives to voice your support and make it clear that if they are not willing to support such a plan, you cannot vote for them. (You do not need to find politicians willing to back the plan for this strategy to be effective). Even though the number of such letters or emails received will be low, politicians know that for every letter received a hundred others feel the same way, and in this way influence can be applied. 

R. Buckminster Fuller dreamt of a utopian world. His vision was not based upon arcane political systems, but upon the capitalisation of mutual co-operation. All that is needed for his Global Energy Network to become a reality is for the political pressure to remain, and to gradually build, until no other choice is plausible. This may take time. But it is surely worth the pursuit.


The End of the Game

One day I shall be dead, and then I shall be at peace. Until then, I have little choice but to be who I must be, and say what I must say.

My wife suggests I put too much of myself into my blog; she's right, of course. Isn't that the point? But this does affect me from time to time. I do not see myself as a troubled soul (although one might justifiably do so): I spend so much of my time in a state of contentment, focusing on the times when I am otherwise seems monstrously impolite to those who live in a harsher world than I.

Like a Chinese finger trap, the less one struggles, the easier it becomes. That was Buddha's view as well. Only when the depression or the anxiety overwhelm me do I falter, and thankfully I have essentially vanquished the former and fought the latter to the point where it has at least become manageable. I hope I can help others with their own peculiar trials. That was also Buddha's view.

This blog must inevitably end. Perhaps it will end with my death. Perhaps it will end because I acquire  too many subscribers and can no longer handle the comments. Perhaps attempts to foresee the causes of its end are futile, as life sweeps us along in its involuted currents irrespective of our attempts to anticipate the contingencies.

One day I shall be dead, and then I shall be at peace. Until then, I must speak my mind. I hope that you will gain something, no matter how insignificant, from sharing in this adventure.


A Question of Time

Question_mark_1In Reluctant Hero, I have to deal with issues of balancing the progress of time. On the one hand, I want the player to be able to be able to complete a single game in, say, less than 10 hours so that there is realistic potential for replay. On the other hand, I need to control the passage of time in each individual game such that players feel they are playing a life, and not rushing through it.

Key to this is the notion of time advances. These will always occur in connection with something e.g. a time advance might represent spending (say) a year with your spouse (which may also result in a child being born), or spending three months maximising the efficiency of your warehouse, or training the young thieves in your guild.

Now I've recently learned that the team has already implemented a rather neat system of seasonal representation - the world graphically changes through spring, autumn and winter. So there is a temptation to make the advances in time limited to seasonal boundaries.

Here's the question: assuming the life expectancy of the protagonist (barring magical intervention) is 70 years, and the game starts at age 18, we have roughly 50 years (or 200 seasons) to 'spend', what is the best model for time advances if we'd like the game to be theoretically completed within 10 hours?

Bear in mind we have a 60:1 time gradient i.e. 1 second of real time = 1 minute of game time, 24 minutes of real time = 1 day of game time. This means we can't play out the life without time advances - it would take almost a year of continuous play!

Here are some ideas to step off from:

  • A Fibonnaci sequence starting with a 1 month advance e.g. 1 month, 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, 5 months, 8 months, 1 year and a month etc. This guarantees getting through the available time fast enough for replay, but means there is no pattern to the time advances.
  • Quarterly advances, where time advances to the next season. This means 1-3 month advances. This is pleasing in that seasons advance linearly, but will be too slow for replay value to be reasonable.
  • Annual and Quarterly advances - combining the above with several situations where a whole year will pass ("One year later..."), with the events of the year summarised in prose for the player.

I welcome your views on this knotty issue!


Ussher Nonsense?

Ussher Archbishop James Ussher was a 17th century Irish clergyman most famous for publishing a chronology which dated the origin of the world back to the nightfall preceding October 23rd, 4004 BC. Although the date is not always so precisely rendered by modern Young Earth Creationists, Ussher's work still holds some influence in minority Christian sects found almost exclusively in the USA. But what beliefs must one hold before Ussher's date can be instantiated as the origin of the world? And does it still hold any relevance for modern Christians?

Before beginning, it is vital for me to reiterate my position regarding people's beliefs: that we all have the freedom to believe whatever we wish, and that there is no mechanism for revealing  Truth that does not depend upon the prior assumptions and beliefs of the individual. I am not arguing in this piece against Creationism, per se - I occasionally find the criticisms of Creation Scientists draw attention to interesting problems in evolutionary theory which any scientist might do well to consider in order to improve their own thinking about the topic, and specifically that any scientist still considering evolution solely in terms of mutation and natural selection has commited greater logical errors than a Creation Scientist (whose position, after all, is far more explicitely connected to their faith, and is therefore logically simpler).

Ussher's work was an exceptional piece of scholarship for the century in which it was written, as it required the Bible to be carefully rooted in actual historical events. Ussher must have studied the history of Rome, Greece, Egypt and Persia in considerably greater depth than his contemporaries to arrive at his chronology. However, even this was insufficient to deliver a specific date. One cannot, for instance, use the geneology in Genesis 5 et al to track down a specific day of the year since the information provided only tracks years, not days. Ussher had to resort to numerology and astrology to complete his calculation - something which most Creationists would be exceptionally unlikely to tolerate.

It follows, therefore, that for Ussher's specific date to be instantiated by any individual, they must believe that God was specifically trying to communicate via Usser - that he was in effect another prophet. This view is rather inconsistent with all but the most esoteric of Christian theologies. In particular: why would God have any reason to want to communicate a specific date for creation?

This indeed highlights the specific problem with all forms of Young Earth Creationism. Although there is little harm in an individual deciding for themselves that God created the world 6,000 to 10,000 years ago (provided they do not attempt to force this belief upon others), this viewpoint is rather inconsistent with what Christians believe about God. Firstly, this position requires the individual to believe that, amongst other things, fossil evidence was planted by God as a test of faith. Now while it is true that the book of Genesis does have an account of Abraham's faith being tested by God, nothing in the Bible nor in Christian theology in general corresponds to a general test of faith designed to target all people. This belief seems rather close to what Bill Hicks called "the prankster God", and is not enormously helpful.

More specifically, the central message of the Old Testament in respect of modern Christians can be  crudely summarised as: behave equitably and honourably towards your family and community. The central message of Jesus' ministry is summarised in the only commandment he gave: love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34). Given that these themes are the key messages that (from a solely Christian perspective, at least) God has delivered to man, the question must be asked: why would God care what year we believe the Earth was created? If Jesus were to return to corporeal form today, do we really believe he would consider the age of the Earth to be an important issue? This is surely inconsistent with everything what we know about Jesus' life and teachings.

I feel it is a sad thing indeed when issues such as the age of the Earth are held in greater esteem by Christians than the central message of Jesus' ministry. I suspect that the reason it has become such a hot button issue for the minority sects that believe in Young Earth Creationism is that they feel that evolutionary theory contradicts the Bible and is therefore false. But evolutionary theory only contradicts the Bible if one believes (1) that the Bible is the precise word of God, rather than inspired by God (2) that all translations of the Bible are the precise word of God despite their relative inconsistencies (or that only one specific translation is the 'True' translation) and (3) that the interpretation of the Bible does not depend upon cultural factors. Obviously given my philosophical investigations and following Wittgenstein, I don't believe language has this quality of exactitude, and if language lacks this quality then all religious texts must lack it too. This does not and cannot preclude religious texts being inspired by God, of course.

It is time, perhaps, to "put away childish things" as Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:11). And for those willing to accept the idea that the current Bible is a product of a selection process driven by an early Christian sect with its own agenda for excluding certain books, and therefore that the "Christian Apocrypha" might contain some of Jesus' teachings with continuing  relevance, I draw attention to the line where Jesus says: "Anyone with a mind should use it to think!" (Gospel According to Mary, 3:9). And as a brief aside, I was delighted to see the idea of an “unexpurgated Bible” raised in this charming online discussion of the Christian perspective of homosexuality and not causing any kind of stir at all.

Evolutionary theory is not, and never can be, a challenge to God. Clumsy anti-religious bigots may antagonise certain Christian sects on this principle, but we should laugh at their foolishness, not take their nonsense seriously. Modern Christians increasingly accept that believing that God was the ultimate cause of creation says nothing about the mechanisms by which God's will was implemented. I do not wish to suggest that one must accept evolutionary theory (it is a highly subjective science at best, and most modern theories of it are riddled with strange assumptions, logical errors and gaping holes), but I do wish to suggest that for a Christian, the scientific process reveals the wonders of God's creation. Evolutionary theory is astonishing. The idea that we are here at all is almost beyond belief. For these reasons and many others, evolutionary theory should increase the glory of God to a Christian perspective.

Let us, if you will excuse the pun, usher in a new era of Christian enlightenment where science and religion are recognised as belonging in utterly different spheres. That frees Christians to focus on finding ways to mirror God's love for them in their love for other people, instead of getting mired down in arguments over such trivial nonsense as the age of the Earth.


EA Decides People Want Fun

This quote from EA Executive VP and COO of worldwide studios, David Gardner made me chuckle:

There's no  doubt that EA has historically bet more on PSP. I think we were excited by the technology. But the consumers have proven that actually what they want is fun.

Fun, you say? Who would have thought it!


This is Not a Tomato

Magrit_lartdevivre Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Your answer says more about you than it does about tomatoes. We have already seen how Wittgenstein’s concept of a language game can provide us with a more mature approach to language by seeing that words are symbols used in games of communication, and words are essentially moves in these language games. But to get to the bottom of the problems of language, we must also see how differences in our individual use of language – our idiolects – can completely change the game we are playing.

Roots

This post presumes a basic understanding of Wittgenstein’s concept of a language game. In the absence of this, please read the earlier post, Language Games. It will greatly reduce the risk of potential misunderstandings. Even if you have read this post before, it might not hurt to re-familiarise yourself. 

The notion of an idiolect refers to the specific elements of language as used by any individual, including but not restricted to patterns of word selection, grammar, idioms, pronunciations and the semantic content of words. It should be understood, therefore, that if we accept the notion of an idiolect, then every individual has their own individual idiolect. 

Many philosophical problems originate in the way in which one treats idiolects. For instance, the most common philosophical error (the fallacious ‘name theory’ Wittgenstein argued against, and what I sometimes call ‘Plato’s error’) is to believe that words are labels which correspond to real word entities – that is, to believe that one’s idiolect accurately refers to specific concepts irrespective of context and the content of the idiolects of those people you are talking to.

For example, it would be a philosophical error to presume that when one says “tree”, one refers to a class of entities: ‘trees’. But of course, what will be understood by a second party when you say “tree” will vary according to that person’s idiolect. If you are both sat by a tree, it is quite likely your language game move “tree” will be interpreted in reference to the sensory impressions you both have of this tree. But in other contexts, other meanings will apply. If your Irish friend just asked you how many beers you wanted, the answer “tree” will likely be taken as a number! 

Please note than an idiolect is not the same as the notion of a private language, which Wittgenstein argued against. His view was that there is no such thing as a private language since language is, in effect, a social construct – meaning is something that occurs between people. This does not preclude idiolects, however, since the idiolect can be understood as the (abstract) sum of a person’s knowledge and habits in the language games that they play.

When two people enter into argument with each other, the most common cause of the disagreement appears to be differences at an idiolectual level – that is to say, most arguments result from nothing more than attempts to make moves in a language game the meaning of which transpires to be radically different than expected. Because the meaning of the words you use with respect to someone you are talking to depends upon their idiolect (among other things), attempts to enforce one’s own conception of what the words mean is a disaster which can only result in the confusion and anger of cognitive dissonance. 

A thought experiment may serve to put this into context. Suppose there exists a person in whose idiolect the word ‘fruit’ means apple, orange or tomato (only), and this person has a friend for whom the word ‘fruit’ means apple, orange or a homosexual (only). They are both in a room, and there is a tomato and a telephone upon the table. What happens when the first person asks their friend to “pass the fruit”? She can be justifiably confused! There are no apples or oranges upon the table, so perhaps he means that either the tomato or the telephone is a homosexual? An argument will ensue if the two do not take the time to ensure they are using their words consistently.

Many people routinely make the mistake of thinking that all words can be consistently applied as logical categories (an issue often intensified by strong faith in dictionaries). This may work sometimes and for some words, such as numbers, but it is a minefield of potential misunderstandings. Wittgenstein noted that the way most words are used is quite different: they are more like family resemblances; a generalised connective principle applies. In other words, a person’s idiolect connects such a word with a group of general properties that indicate to what degree individual instances belong to the class the word represents, in much the same way that a group of biological relatives share certain common characteristics. (Since this kind of ‘fuzzy logic’ is already closely associated with the behaviour of neural networks, we should perhaps not be wholly surprised). 

Consider this: horticulturally, a tomato may be defined as a ‘fruit’ but to anyone who is not a horticulturist the issue of whether a tomato is a fruit depends upon how closely they feel tomatoes fit the family resemblance category of ‘fruit’. A large proportion of people feel tomatoes better fit the family resemblance category of ‘vegetable’. As a result, anyone whose idiolect favours the horticultural definitions will find themselves potentially at risk of argument with other people when it comes to discussion of the humble tomato.

The more obviously the word fits this idea of family resemblance, the worse the potential for misunderstanding and argument. For instance, all genre terms are family resemblance terms practically by definition. During my early philosophical investigations, I was surprised by the differences in people’s idiolects with respect to the term ‘soap opera’, as it is used in the UK. Although to most people this term seems to be clearly defined, it transpires that different people note different commonalities between those things which are referred to as ‘a soap opera’. In one case, a friend of mine denied that a certain show was a soap opera because of the unique definition he used in his own idiolect – and since he was emotionally attached to the show in question and he viewed ‘soap opera’ as having negative connotations with regards to quality, his protestations were quite agitated! One can see the same problem whenever people argue about the meaning of genre terms, especially for videogames as those people that talk about videogame genres tend somewhat towards both bellicosity and premature certainty. 

Another classic example of arguments rooted in what might be called the family resemblance problem occurs whenever the word ‘religion’ is used. Once again, the diversity of systems that are referred to as ‘religions’ is very large, hence the idiolectual variation accompanying this term is correspondingly large. Especially problematic is the fact that people in English speaking countries tend to have been exposed primarily to the major monotheistic religions, but have little personal experience of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Vodou, animistic religions and so forth. The result is often family resemblance categories that reflect monotheism rather better than world religion in general. (This does not make such a person ‘wrong’, but it is a potential cause of argument with someone with a different view). And of course, because people have strong emotional attachments to their positions on religion, cognitive dissonance is often the result of a clash of idiolects in the context of religion, especially between people with different stances on the topic of theism.

One of the consequences of the issue of family resemblance in language is that there is a certain sense in which a person’s reality is determined by their idiolect. This is closely related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, although it should be noted that the more we examine the proposition, the clearer it becomes that it is beliefs which determine personal reality (or emic reality), as the meanings of words are a special case of beliefs. This does not preclude there being an ‘external reality’ (or etic reality), although it is a simple philosophical exercise to demonstrate that there is an unavoidable step of belief involved in accepting the existence of such a concept, albeit a step many people find trivial. 

Let us close with another thought experiment. Suppose there is a person from a culture that considers all soft ovoid foodstuffs to be called ‘fruit’, has no other word for any of these objects (an apple and an orange are simply green and orange fruit respectively), and has no tradition of constructing linguistic taxonomies to describe objects. What happens when they encounter a tomato for the first time? If they had no word adequate to the task of describing the tomato, they might be inclined to coin a new word. But since their word ‘fruit’ fits the tomato, the tomato will be interpreted as a ‘red fruit’. No degree of argumentation is likely to convince them to call the red fruit ‘a tomato’, because without a tradition of taxonomies, words are not grouped under classes designated by other words. It is clearly a fruit – how can it be anything else? The more you attempt to exert the word ‘tomato’, the more likely they are to conclude that ‘tomato’ is simply your word for fruit! 

For such a person, ‘tomatoes’ simply don’t exist in their reality, and they may justifiably argue: “this is not a tomato!”

The opening image is ‘L’art de vivre’ (‘The Art of Living’) by René Magritte, whose painting ‘La trahison des images’ (‘The Betrayal of Images’) inspired the title of this piece.