Previous month:
August 2007
Next month:
October 2007

Faith, Morality & Christopher Hitchens

I believe that a non-religious atheist has exactly the same potential to be a moral person as a religious person (atheist or otherwise), so it is important that I do not let Christopher Hitchens sway my opinion to the contrary. Hitchens manages the seemingly impossible - he makes Professor Dawkins seem like a puppy dog. While Dawkins merely implies the violation of human rights by denying religious families the right to be, well, families, Hitchens seems to be quite happy to endorse the murder of Muslims, which he apparently considers "a pleasure".

I'm open to the idea that the sensible course of action is to ignore Hitchens - that I only add fuel to his fire by talking about him. But on the other hand, I am reminded of Edward Burke's idea that "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."  My diverse religious beliefs make it hard for me to fall silent.

Hitchens, in a typically polemic tirade for the Washington Post's On Faith section, lays the following challenge:

Name a moral statement or action, uttered or performed by a religious person, that could not have been uttered or performed by an unbeliever.

I'd like to answer this for the benefit of the open minded. Here are five moral statements I can truthfully make that an unbeliever cannot:

  1. My faith in Jesus encourages me to forgive Christopher Hitchens for his intolerance.
  2. My faith in Sufi (the Muslim spiritual tradition) encourages me to make peace with all religions, as each religion reveals part of the truth of God.
  3. My Zen Buddhism teaches me that violence and the advocation of violence will result in further suffering.
  4. My faith in Hindu metaphysics assures me that there are many different paths to enlightenment, including both the theistic path of devotional worship, and the non-theistic path of knowledge.
  5. My Discordian beliefs remind me that we all have freedom of belief since no one belief system can be more True than any other.

Now a non-religious person can certainly speak these statements, but presuming we may take honesty as a virtue, they are only truthful (and hence moral) when spoken by a religious person. Would I claim because of these statements I am more moral than any atheist? Absolutely not. Only that religious motivations lead to different moral statements and actions than non-religious motivations, both of which are valid ways to derive an ethical system.

I ask that atheists demonstrate their morality by denouncing Hitchens' hate-mongering, and that religious people demonstrate their morality by forgiving Hitchens for his bigotry. To paraphrase Jesus: "forgive him, for he knows not what he does."


The Meaning of Life

Nebula A friend of mine has a fridge magnet that reads “the meaning of life is to give life meaning.” It is a neat summation of twentieth century philosophy, the centrepiece of which was existentialism; the idea that humanity was itself responsible for finding meaning. Existentialism was an unprecedented break with prior tradition – both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were “rebels from tradition” (as Hannah Arendt puts it), albeit in markedly different ways. Kierkegaard strived to regain the deeper meaning of religion, while Nietzsche hoped to break free of traditional religion.

One of the problems of the modern Western world is that having made a philosophical break with tradition, we now struggle to address this problem of meaning. In fact, we still tend to turn to the traditional ways of finding meaning more often than we attempt to carve our own meaning from the raw substance of our lives: religion remains the principle means by which most people explore or acquire meaning in their lives, although there is considerable strain between traditional religion and the modern world.

Tolstoy, writing in 1879, neatly summed up the importance of religion to the question of meaning:

The essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: why do I exist, and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me? It is impossible for there to be a person with no religion (i.e. without any kind of relationship to the world) as it is for there to be a person without a heart. He may not know that he has a religion, just as a person may not know that he has a heart, but it is no more possible for a person to exist without a religion than without a heart.

A century later, Raimon Panikkar (an exceptional Catholic Priest whose perspective combines the Hinduism of his father with his mother’s Catholicism) stated:

The essentials of the religious teachings could be summed up in three ideas: the relinking of onself with the rest of human beings, with our neighbours, with the community, with our true self; the relinking of humankind with Nature, with all things, with the environment, including machines; the relinking of humanity with the Divine, with Mystery, the Sacred, the Numinous, the Absolute, Transcendence.

These are the three central themes of religion: our relationship with humanity and each other, our relationship with Nature, and our relationship with the infinite, which some refer to as God. Whether we are looking at the Abrahamic faiths with their focus on surrender to the infinite, or the Dharmic religions with their focus on uncovering the individual path we must follow, these same themes emerge from diverse sources. The meaning of our lives depends upon these three relationships.

Is it possible to give life meaning without religion? Certainly. But in Tolstoy’s terms, any attempt to do so still implies a religion. Most twentieth century attempts to create meaning resulted in ideologies (such as Marxism or Humanism) that deal very much with the issues traditionally handled by religion. What, if anything, do we have to gain from denying that these modern attempts to create meaning are functionally religious? It is as if we believe that ceasing to use the word ‘religion’ will somehow change human psychology so that the problems that can and do emerge from thoughtless slavery to an entrenched ideology (religious or otherwise) will miraculously vanish.

Whatever we choose to call those beliefs that give our lives meaning, we all either have such beliefs or we seek them. Some reject traditional religion, others embrace it, still others work to help mediate traditional values with the modern world. But whatever you choose as your inspiration, the meaning of life is something we each must discover for ourselves as individuals. If you cannot find it within traditional religion, as many people in the West struggle to do, you must strike out and find your own path – you must, in effect, create your own religion. This is not an easy road to travel, but the rewards are more than commensurate to the challenge.


The Human Condition (2): Public versus Private

Distinctions are at the heart of how Hannah Arendt explores political issues, and one key example is that of the public realm versus the private realm. Possessing an erudite knowledge of history, Arendt is able to explore changes in subtle perspectives throughout Western history, often by examining the use of language in different accounts. Usually, subjects are traced back to an origin in ancient Greece, and Arendt provides many examples of ideas still extant in modern thought that originated in the Greek polis, or city-state.

In ancient Athens, the distinction between the private realm and the public realm was very clearly defined. Citizens has their own households, within which they were effectively despots (having authority over both their family and their slaves), and collectively these citizens ran the polis by coming together and discussing the political affairs of the city-state. The public realm was home to the political realm – the realm of action and speech.

However, in the modern age we have seen something emerge which is neither private nor public, namely the social realm, the political form of which is the nation-state. Arendt suggests that what we call “society” is akin to a “collective of families economically organised into the facsimile of one super-human family”. She ties the rise of society to an emergence of housekeeping activities from the “shadowy interior of the household” (the private realm) into “the light of the public sphere” – resulting in a blurring of the borderline between private and public, since the social realm stands between the two, unable to be either. 

Arendt claims that the rise of society corresponds to the decline of the family; people have become absorbed into social groups (nations) which have taken the traditional role of the family. And much like the members of a household in ancient Greece, there is a kind of equality that results – but it is not the equality of peers, so much as it is the kind of equality the members of an Athenian household had before the despotic power of their household head.

With the rise of society, it is bureaucracy that has emerged as the dominant ruling system, which Arendt terms “the most social form of government” and accuses of being rule by no-one. She notes: “But this nobody, the assumed interest of society as a whole… does not cease to rule for having lost its personality,” and warns that “the rule by nobody is not necessarily no-rule” – indeed, she notes, it can be one of the cruellest and tyrannical forms of government. 

Arendt is often criticised for her reliance upon the distinction between private and public. Modern feminists complain that constraining the political to exclude the private realm has been part of the manner in which women’s concerns have been dismissed from political importance, and Marxists make similar claims about placing economic concerns in the private realm and not the public (and hence political) arena. These criticisms have some validity, but do not blunt the core concerns that Arendt is raising.

If we allow our lives to become secondary to society, we in effect lose the capacity for action associated with the public, and hence political, realm, and we equally lose the privacy inherent to the notion of a private realm. By regaining these distinctions, we can reconsider the nature of modern life, and judge to what degree we are willing to surrender our political freedoms to the rule of no-one implicit in bureaucracy. 

Next week: Labour


The Market Value of Violence

Theimpactofviolentvideogames2 Videogames are perpetually linked to violence - yet in terms of the highest sales figures ever achieved, violence is not enormously in evidence. Have we overestimated the importance of violence to the games industry?

Before proceeding, it is necessary to be clear what we mean by "violence", since this could mean a great many different things. Super Mario Bros., the best selling game of all time (with some 40 million units sold, albeit on the back of bundling with the NES) contains a form of violence, in so much that one can prevail against opponents by attacking them, but this cartoon violence is very distinct from the violence of, say, a Grand Theft Auto game. For the purposes of this discussion, therefore, let us consider "realistic" (or film-like) violence to be separate from "Cartoon violence" of the kind found in a Mario or Pokémon game.

As a means of exploring the issue of the market value of violence, let us sum the unit sales of the best selling games according to whether they are based around violence, cartoon violence or non-violence. This is a coarse yardstick, and hugely open to interpretation, but nonetheless... The results are as follows:

  • 54% (172 million units) belong to games featuring cartoon violence - principally various Mario games and various Pokémon games.
  • 31% (98 million uints) belong to non-violent games - namely, The Sims and its sequel (16 and 13 million units respectively, Nintendogs (which may yet overtake The Sims as it is rapidly approaching 15 million units), plus two Gran Turismo games (about 11 million each).
  • Just 15% (50 million units) of the unit sales from the Top 20 belong to games featuring violence. The games in question are the last three major Grand Theft Auto titles, and World or Warcraft (which by itself is responsible for about 4%).

It transpires upon analysis that although violent games are a staple purchase of the gamer hobbyist and dedicated FPS player, they are something of a niche in the context of the industry as a whole. Although the most successful first person shooter titles (Goldeneye 007, Half-Life and Halo 2 have all sold 8 million units) do make a stir, the reach of this kind of game in general is still quite weak. Doom 3, for instance, only managed 3.5 million units. Now that's perfectly healthy, but it's also quite small compared to the size of the market as a whole - certainly compared to the coverage the game received in the specialist press. Quake appears to have sold only 1.7 million units.

Is the games industry crazy? Despite the relatively modest success of FPS titles (which are dominated by the mega-hits which can muster the greatest marketing), a great deal of money is invested every year into more and more first person shooter titles (or third person shooter titles, which are fundamentally similar). My suspicion is the popularity of the FPS title with game developers is the reason for their ubiquity.

Of course, the success of non-violent titles such as The Sims and Nintendogs doubtless owe their enormous sales figures in part to the scarcity of non-violent titles to compete with them. Publishers then and now are reluctant to pursue a title similar to The Sims in any shape or form as a result of a quite sensible desire to avoid going head-to-head with EA. Excessive caution thus strangles a viable market.

And what of cartoon violence, which seems to have been even more successful? The staple of this kind of violence is the platform game, which has become something of a dead genre perhaps in part as a result of the flagship platform titles being gradually geared towards gun violence. Both Jak and Daxter and Ratchet & Clank gradually emphasised guns and de-emphasised traditional platforming, perhaps in an attempt to regain the support of the core gaming market. It does not seem that this attempt was particularly successful, but it has effectively destroyed publishers faith in the market value of platform games, which now seem to be off the menu. It's certainly going to be interesting to see whether Mario Galaxy has got what it takes to reverse this trend.

With many publishers following the lead of EA and restructuring to consider how they can get a slice of the highly lucrative "casual" market, will we see more of an effort to design games with non-violent content? I'm somewhat doubtful. For a start, designing for non-violence often involves genuinely difficult design problems. It is simply easier to make games with guns and violence by following proven design patterns than it is to innovate new approaches. Nonetheless, as the Wii and DS open the games market up to a new and wider audience the potential for market-successful non-violent games has never been more promising, not to mention the remarkable impact of non-violent massively multiplayer games such as Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin.

It is dangerous to draw conclusions from a brief and crude analysis such as this one, yet it seems certain that there is market value in non-violence, and in cartoon violence. Yet violence - conventional blood and guts, guns and ammo violence - remains inextricably linked to videogames, and investment in games of this kind remains high. It is my suspicion that this reflects the playing habits of the people who work in the games industry more than a fair assessment of the market as a whole.

The opening image is taken from IGN, and is used without permission. No copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.


Happiness

We all want to be happy, and yet many of us live “lives of quiet desperation”, as Henry David Thoreau put it. Is happiness so hard to find?

One of the more astonishing things about happiness is that it has taken this long for science to take an interest in it. Up until recently, psychology was mostly focussed on the many strange and terrible things that can go wrong with the human psyche; an interest in “positive psychology” has emerged only recently.

So, what of the things that are supposed to make us happy? Money, it transpires, is not one of them. A range of studies have concluded that once personal wealth exceeds about $12,000 a year, additional income produces little or no improvement in life satisfaction. Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University authored a study on this subject. He notes: “People grossly exaggerate the impact that higher incomes would have on their subjective well-being.”

What about kids? Well, while family repeatedly shows up as a factor in happiness, the evidence that being a parent is a recipe for contentedness is rather slight. Rather, the prevailing view among psychologists seems to be that the rewards of parenting are more-or-less offset by the tremendous demands of being a parent.

Other things that don’t (statistically) make people happy include a good education, a high IQ, being young (older people are consistently more satisfied with their lives), and marriage – although the jury is still out on this one. Married people are “measurably happier”, but it has been suggested that this may be because they were happier people before they were married.

So what does work? According to a 2002 study conducted by Diener and Seligman at the University of Illinois, friends and family are the biggest source of happiness in life. Religion also has a measurably positive impact, although many psychologists attribute this to the community aspect of traditional religions. The unhappiest people tend to be those who are socially isolated, and there seems to be no better cure for their depression than becoming part of a community.

Deiner and Seligman’s research also compared individuals from radically different cultures. The Maasai, an African herding tribe who live in huts made from dung, are about as content as the wealthiest people in the US. The Amish, who live without modern amenities, rank at the top of the “life satisfaction” scale, as do the Inughuit people of northern Greenland who live in conditions most people would consider to be utterly inhospitable. The idea that progress leads to happiness is rather untenable.

Other factors that seem to contribute greatly to happiness include gratitude and forgiveness. In fact, University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson claims his research shows that forgiveness is the trait most strongly linked to happiness. Again, this may help contribute to the positive benefits of religion, most of which encourage a natural gratitude for life and cultivate a willingness to forgive. Holding grudges appears to be extremely contrary to feeling happy, which is scarcely a surprising result.

Beyond the analysis of what factors contribute to happiness, there is perhaps a deeper reason why happiness can be hard to find. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert believes that human beings are naturally useless about predicting how happy future events will make us. According to Gilbert’s studies, people routinely misjudge the impact of things to come, both in terms of imagining they will be happier than they will be, and in terms of thinking they will be more distressed than they will be by negative events.

Part of the problem seems to be that when we visualise the future, we tend to examine future events in isolation, but of course in real life we experience the unfolding of time as a deeply intertwined series of events – we rarely have the luxury to enjoy only the good, as we are often beset with new and unanticipated problems along with every new delight.

Gilbert believes that even if people knew precisely what the future held, they would still be unable to assess accurately how much they would like it when they get there, and has conducted numerous studies to demonstrate our general inability to predict our response to future events. He suggests we should “have more trust in our own resilience and less confidence in our predictions about how we’ll feel.”

The irony is, Gilbert also asserts that an ability to predict the future is quintessentially human, and entirely absent from other animals. It just happens that, while we can predict future events through the process of casual inference, we are naturally incompetent at predicting our own feelings in future circumstances. We don’t want the things that could make us happy – and the things we believe we want rarely have that power.

The prevailing view of “positive psychology” remains the same: seeking happiness in the acquisition of things, or staking our happiness on perceived future goals, will not lead to contentedness. Rather, we should be grateful for what we have, forgive others, and form close interpersonal ties in our communities. It may be possible for the hermit to find happiness, but the rest of us will have to learn to live together. 


British Ethical Code for Scientists

Having spoken the other week about Ethics of Science, I note that the UK has just announced a seven part Ethical Code for Scientists:

  1. Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date
  2. Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest
  3. Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists
  4. Ensure that research is justified and lawful
  5. Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment
  6. Discuss issues science raises for society
  7. Do not mislead; present evidence honestly

I learned about this from Ann at Purse Lip Square Jaw. She asks:

Personally, I struggle to see how scientific authority is under serious threat from lay people - it's still scientists telling the rest of us what they should do and not the other way around - but I appreciate how a manoeuvre like this opens up the opportunity to debate what science is, and should be.

Thoughts welcome.


The Human Condition (1): Hannah Arendt

Arendt Hannah Arendt, perhaps uniquely among the great thinkers, refused the title of ‘philosopher’ on the grounds that philosophy is concerned with “man in the singular”, whereas her work was centred upon the fact that “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” Distinctions of this kind are central to Arendt’s work, and although her divisions are often open to dispute, there is no doubting the insight generated by her application of these distinctions. Whereas much political philosophy develops towards a central argument, Arendt’s work is a diverse and complex examination of the activities of humanity – it challenges us to take command of our lives and societies, rather than suggesting a specific goal or model by which to do so. 

Born to a secular Jewish family in Germany, she studied philosophy with the highly influential Martin Heidegger, with whom she also undertook a stormy romantic relationship. Later, she befriended and studied under Karl Jaspers, another major twentieth century philosopher. After being interrogated by the Gestapo, she fled to Paris, and in 1941 escaped Nazi-occupied France to the United States. Returning to Germany after World War II, she testified in Heidegger’s defence at his denazification hearing, and in 1950 became a naturalised citizen of the United States.

Arendt is perhaps most famous for her essay Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she argued that (contrary to conventional thought) the Nazi atrocities had not emerged from a will to do evil, or a delight in malevolence, but from individuals acting unthinkingly and with a lack of imagination that allowed them to disconnect their actions with their grim human consequences. She characterised this as “the banality of evil”. 

The Human Condition is perhaps her most influential work, and much of Arendt’s later work depends upon distinctions she explicated and explored in this book. Published in 1958, its chief concern is the vita activa (the active life), that is, “human life in so far as it is activity engaged in doing something”. The work centres upon a tripartite distinction of human activities: labour, the activities of the human body and life itself; work, which provides the artificial ‘world of things’ within which we inhabit; and action, which stems from plurality – the capacity to begin, and to affect change. 

In this serialised study of The Human Condition, we will explore Arendt’s ideas concerning these three concepts – labour, work and action – and consider their relationship to the world we live in today.

Next week: Public versus Private


Spore - An Assessment

Pc_spore_logo_2 With the release date slipping yet further into the future, Spore seems even more distant than it ever did. Will Wright's latest and most ambitious project to date, Spore is almost guaranteed masterpiece status even before its release - and given that Wright seems to have the luxury (in common with other great designers, such as Shigeru Miyamoto) of holding the project back until its "ready" there seems little reason to doubt the quality of the finished article, whenever it should arrive.

The purpose of this piece is not to question whether or not Spore will be a great game - I am in little doubt that Spore players will love this game with an abiding passion - but rather to question the impact on the games industry this title has had, and may yet have.

Firstly, I wish to be blunt about the market potential for this title. I do not believe this game can outsell The Sims, which to date has racked up 16 million unit sales (and 70 million unit sales of expansions), making it the best selling PC game of all time. Spore should clear 5 million units without breaking a sweat, after which it is likely to begin to struggle, as the early adopters will all be sucked into the vortex, and there may be a struggle to push the number higher. I predict ultimate sales figure of approximately 8 million units for this game, assuming it is easy enough to use that it can reach out to a wider more "casual" market. This would put it into the Top 40 Best Selling Games of all time, but a long way shy of the Top 10 (The Sims, incidentally, is the number 6 Best Selling Game of all time).

The problem with this game's ultimate appeal is that evolving an organism from a microbe to an interstellar empire is an awesome hook for many dedicated PC game players and science fiction geeks - but it is a poor hook outside of this kinds of people. A World War II shooter has more inherent mass market appeal than anything so focussed on pseudo-scientific details. Evolution games are not new, and have never been commercially successful - how many people remember Seventh Cross (NEC Home Electronics, 1999), which was probably the best of the crop so far? Only the talent of Will Wright and his team, and the money of EA, will permit Spore to break this trend, which it certainly will do.

Trouble is, EA are very much counting on Spore - and there seems to be a growing fear inside the company that they have banked too much on its success. Because, frankly, until the announced restructuring, EA was still not signing original content: Spore was one of very few original titles in development inside EA. Since the last announced delay on Spore, there seems to have been a change internally to EA, and a realisation in the wake of their dipping share prices that they might actually have to do more than continue the sports franchise production line.

And here we come to the next problem. Spore has swallowed up the game industry's available new talent. I started to become concerned for this when Jenova Chen, whose inventive indie company was behind Cloud and Flow, was hired as an addition to the team. I appreciate that Spore relies upon extremely inventive procedural content tools, and this requires a lot of talent to make it happen. My concern is what happens to this team after Spore is finished. If they take this awesome resume point and leverage it into their own inventive projects, then my concerns will be unwarranted. My suspicion is that most will remain tied up inside EA, and thus unable to pursue their own projects.

A final problem with Spore is perhaps an unfair criticism. The games industry is in desperate need of innovation - new directions to explore. Spore doesn't really give us that. It's going to be an amazing piece of software, and no doubt an engaging play experience. But beyond that, it seems like a dead end. If it proves to be more successful than I predict, it won't help the industry because no-one other than Wright's team could afford to make a project of this nature. And if it proves to be less successful than I predict, will that make it even harder than it already is to push innovative projects through the publishing mill?

I have little to gain from Spore's success nor, for that matter, from Spore's failure. That makes it hard for me to be excited about its release, now scheduled for sometime around April 2008 (although don't be surprised if it slips further). This project will be a great achievement for Will Wright. But alas, it doesn't seem to hold the promise of expanding the market in that incredible and unanticipated manner than The Sims did.