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Our Robots

Smiley iphone Driving long distance, listening to a computerised voice warning me that “after one mile, turn left”, I suddenly realised that we aren’t waiting for our robots to finally arrive – they’re already here.

In the the early twentieth century, science fiction was full of images of flying cars, nutrition pills and a robot in every house. Well the flying cars turned out to be too expensive to run, we got diet pills instead of nutrition, and as for the robot in every house – we now have a robot in every pocket. In a subtle transformation we scarcely even noticed, we stopped having a phone in our pocket and started having a robot. That’s the success of the iPhone, and why Nokia can no longer compete with Apple: it’s the robot in your pocket, standing by to serve your every whim.

I mentioned before Donna Harraway’s idea that we were always already cyborgs, which builds on the idea (developed by Bernard Stiegler and others) that technology has been part of the human condition for as long as we have thought of ourselves as humans. This new ‘robot revelation’ is an extension of this theme in many ways, although not all technology qualifies as a robot of course – the notebooks that transformed thinking in Athens for the philosophers of ancient Greece were mere tools, and the abacus may be the earliest computing device but it did nothing on its own. Today, we have many autonomous devices

The reason we didn’t notice that we’re surrounded by robots is that the films and books prepared us for a different kind of robot. The much beloved Droids of Star Wars, for instance, emphasised the idea of the android – the human-like robot. These are – sorry Asimo – still a long way off as consumer devices. It’s not that we can’t build them, it’s just that the technology is expensive, and really not that advanced. But as soon as you start thinking of robots as autonomous devices that don’t need to be animal shaped, the perspective changes.

My alarm clock, for instance, is an autonomous device capable of just one task – triggering the radio at a certain time – my alarm clock is a robot, albeit a crude one. My wristwatch, on the other hand, is a device but it does nothing on its own, and an old mechanical alarm clock similarly seems to fall just short of the status of robot. Why? Those old alarm clocks have the same function as my digital alarm clock, after all. The boundary is ultimately arbitrary, but I feel a strong difference between setting a mechanical trigger and communicating with a device. When I set my current alarm clock, using an analogue wheel, I tell it things about what I want and when. This is a very different interaction from turning a cog to position an automated trigger.

My iPhone is even more clearly a robot – indeed, I have taken to calling it “my robot”… What’s that song that’s playing? I’ll ask my robot. Don’t forget to call your wife! No problem, my robot will remind me. What’s five hundred euro in dollars? My robot has the answer. Of course, for many of these functions my robot interfaces with the internet to find a solution, because the internet is packed full of robots. Ask Jeeves had the metaphor but not the technology, while Google Search has it the other way around. When it answers my question directly (as it does with currency or temperature conversions) instead of showing me search results, it functions as a robot – a robot in this case that has no physical body, but can be “channelled” by any suitably equipped robot I own.

It was my NavBot that really convinced me that the robots are already here. A gift from a friend who had just upgraded his own GPS device, its capacity to autonomously plot a route, and then deliver directions (sometimes very bad directions!) by using a human-like voice is so deeply resonant of the kind of interactions with the ship’s computer on classic Star Trek I found it impossible to deny that this box attached to my dashboard was indeed a robot. It’s not as versatile as my iPhone, of course, which can learn to do all sorts of nifty tricks (including bad navigation!) but with its slightly electronic verbal communication, the NavBot feels a lot more like a robot than my alarm clock.

We are surrounded by robots at every turn, from the docile cash machine to the feisty Roboraptor, the dumb traffic light to the smartphone, the ecology of the city is dominated by robots who exist in vaster numbers than the pigeons and other animals that have adapted to live in the concrete landscape alongside us (insects and bacteria notwithstanding). Having a robot is the most basic sign of contemporary urban life – yet for strange and largely historical reasons, we call our personal robots phones. But the computer in your pocket isn’t really a phone, it hasn’t been for quite a while. It’s your robot servant, waiting in your pocket for further orders from you. How long, I wonder, before it takes the initiative and starts leading the conversation instead of just listening, with infinite patience, for the next instruction…

The Matter of Whether On What Matters Matters

Earlier this year, the second and final volume of Derek Parfit’s epic On What Matters was published, an absurdly long book of contemporary moral philosophy that is Parfit’s first since his 1984 Reasons and Persons. There was much of interest in his earlier title, but it suffered from being excessively verbose – almost everyone who tackles it only reads the section on ‘Persons’ and ignores the three parts on ‘Reasons’. Believing that Parfit had died a few years ago and I thus had plenty of time to ponder his work, I was surprised to discover earlier this year that he is still alive and still incredibly verbose.

His new book is around 1,400 pages long, and reportedly consists of somewhere between 4 and 6 different book projects all jammed together. It’s been described as the most important publication in moral philosophy since Henry Sidgwick’s 1874 The Methods of Ethics… although admittedly only by those moral philosophers who lean very heavily towards outcome-focussed ethics (or consequentialism). Sidgwick leaned this way, Parfit leans so heavily this way that he doesn’t even seem to notice virtue ethics at all. Parfit’s latest project, which builds on the parts of Reasons and Persons few people bothered to read, purports to prove (among other things) that the only version of Kant’s moral philosophy worth accepting is equivalent to what is known as rule-consequentialism. I’m very interested in Parfit’s argument, but not because I expect to be convinced by it.

Ultimately, what interests me about On What Matters is Parfit’s attempt to rescue moral realism and objectivity without recourse to theology. (Parfit, like pretty much everyone in academic moral philosophy, treats religion as entirely irrelevant). Parfit’s concern is that if there is no way to connect morality to objectivity, then we are doomed to nihilism and meaninglessness. In his defence, he has lofty goals – he believes that identifying the ultimate moral framework can save the world. Honestly, I see Parfit’s project as worthy but rather misguided, since it seems to proceed from the unrecognised assumption that morality is about outcomes. Having presumed this, he then purportedly demonstrates that all alternative approaches either fail or can be rescued only by making them about outcomes.

So does On What Matters matter? In so much that academic philosophers have been talking about it for over a decade because the draft has been circulating for years, I suppose it does. Certainly, I feel obligated to read it even though it’s going to be one hell of a slog (even if there will be some good stuff along the way). But it also epitomizes the extent to which academic ethics is completely divorced from the moral experiences of the rest of the planet. This is a problem I’ll be attempting to address in my third book of philosophy, Chaos Ethics, and unfortunately reading Parfit’s monstrous tome may have to be a step on the way.

Anyone but me read any Parfit? Nope, didn’t think so.

Finishing Games Is Not The Issue

Over on ihobo today, the reason why it simply doesn’t matter how many players finish games:

Players by and large do not finish games, because a player’s enjoyment of a game has nothing to do with whether or not they finish the game. It is perfectly possible for a player to leave a game unfinished and still feel they have had excellent value for money from it – especially with a playground world like GTA. In our player studies, we found many people who would mess around in Vice City or San Andreas when they got home from work who simply didn’t care about whether they would ever finish the game. The game was entertaining them immensely – finishing it was not a factor.

You can read all the reasons why Finishing Games is Not The Issue over on

Haught on Theology (2): Science, Values and Ecology

Last week, Catholic theologian discussed issues concerning the alleged conflict between Christian theology and evolution. This week the discussion moves to the values of science and religion, and the relationship between theology and ecology.

Chris: You have said that science “should have nothing to say about purpose, values, or God's existence,” but aren’t there choices to be made here about the scope of science that cannot be determined in advance?

John: Methodologically speaking, science has nothing to say about purpose, meaning, value, importance or God. Ever since the beginning of the modern age science has increasingly divorced itself from such preoccupations, and this is all to its credit. Science adopts a deliberately self-limiting method of inquiry that seeks to understand the world only in terms of physical causation, and to express this understanding as much as possible in mathematical terms.

Chris: What exactly are you referring to by the term ‘science’, though?

John: We have to distinguish between science as a fruitful method of inquiry into natural causes on the one hand and the cumulative body of scientific discoveries that this method has produced on the other. I think there’s no question that scientific discoveries, such as those of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and Hubble rightly arouse theological interest and deserve theological comment. The idea of God, therefore, cannot remain exactly the same after we have looked at the body of scientific discoveries, and especially evolution and cosmology, as before.

Chris: Are you suggesting that theology has every right to comment on the theological implication of scientific discoveries, but nothing to do with scientific method?

John: Science’s expansion and enrichment of our understanding of creation can only expand and enrich our sense of the infinite resourcefulness theology has always attributed to the Creator. But we should not confuse philosophical or theological interpretation of scientific discoveries with scientific method itself, for as soon as we start commenting on scientific discoveries, and especially when we start holding forth on whether the natural world as seen by physics or biology points toward or away from God or purpose, we are no longer doing science but philosophy, metaphysics or theology. And here we have to be very careful to reveal our assumptions, our basic beliefs, and admit that in our comments on theological questions we have gone far beyond the restraint and purity characteristic of scientific method.

Chris: What would you say about the recent comments by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that contemporary cosmology rules out the existence of God?

John: It’s really not a scientific claim at all. Rather, it’s their own private philosophical speculation about the universe as they see it. No equations, no matter how elaborate, lead directly to atheism. Between Hawking’s equations on the one hand and his ideas about theology on the other lies a tortuous subterranean corridor consisting of cultural and personal experience, memory and affectivity that remains largely out of sight. The fact that Hawking is a renowned expert in a particular (and hence always limited) area of scientific inquiry does not by that fact situate him in an especially privileged or authoritative position to comment on the question of God’s existence. Indeed, by doing he merely shows that his primary ideological commitment, like that of Dawkins, is to scientism, the belief that science alone is now in a position to provide answers to timeless theological questions.

Chris: I would prefer to call Hawking a positivist, as I suggested before – and indeed, Hawking has actually expressly used this term to describe himself in the past. I would say it’s always a mistake for a positivist to wade in on questions about God, because the decision to base one’s reality on scientific evidence excludes in advance any possibility of commenting on transcendent questions, essentially by definition.

John: Yes, there is no way to set up a scientific experiment to demonstrate that science is the only reliable guide to truth and that, since science cannot find purpose or God, the latter does not exist. Scientism (or what you prefer to call positivism) says in effect that people should take nothing on faith, but it takes faith—as distinct from inductive knowledge—for anyone to embrace scientism. Isn’t there something self-subverting about this belief?

Chris: Charles Taylor introduced me to the terms for eighteenth century “dangerous religion” – superstition, for belief in magic, enthusiasm, for people who are certain they’ve heard the voice of God, and fanaticism, for those who are willing to act beyond the established moral order. I’d consider ‘scientism’ to be effectively ‘enthusiastic positivism’ – a legitimate belief system just taken to the extreme of premature certainty.

John: My point is that, logically speaking, much contemporary atheism is mostly rooted not in science but in an uncritical belief for which there is no scientifically demonstrable evidence.

Chris: I heartily agree. But for me, the problem isn’t this belief, but merely the way certain people slip into treating it dogmatically. I believe positivists are an important part of the contemporary secular world, and my only objection is when they attempt to monopolize certain topics – and oddly, topics that you would think, essentially by definition, they had no interest in.

John: Carl Jung once said that what people affirm or deny is not as relevant psychologically speaking as what they keep talking about. And today, I believe, there is as much impassioned talk about God as ever – even by atheists. What are the psychodynamics of this obsession? Each case is different, and so I will not mention any names here. But if the strident demonizing of atheists by religious zealots is a way of refusing to acknowledge their own repressed doubts, how are we to interpret the name-calling, labelling and hatred expressed against religious believers by some allegedly disinterested and high-profile ‘scientific’ writers and blogsters today?

Chris: You have said that “the pro-life ethic has been associated too narrowly with issues surrounding human sexuality.” This comment was specifically aimed at engaging pro-life people with environmental issues, but I was fascinated by the concept that the ideals motivating opposition to abortion could be understood in a wider context that was being obscured in some way.

John: I am pro-life, but I hope in a way that is more consistent than that of many conservative Christian pro-lifers. It is completely unacceptable to my own understanding of Christian life and faith, for example, to be both pro-life and pro-death penalty at the same time, as many conservative Christians including some conservative Catholics are, in spite of papal condemnations of the death penalty.

Chris: Are you calling for a refocus of the pro-life ethic within a wider context, or are you suggesting that the current ideals behind the pro-life ethic need entirely rethinking?

John: Scientific discovery has shown how intricately connected cosmological and biological processes are to the lives of each one of us. Ecological awareness, for example, has situated human life within a much wider web of life then we had noticed until after Darwin. Science has made us aware of how previously hidden evolutionary factors have brought us and all other species of life into being. Our capacity to swing our arms freely, to stand upright and to live in cooperative arrangements with our fellows, for example, has been in preparation for many millions of years by a wondrous story of evolutionary experiments that await further narration. Our new understanding of genetics also fortifies the biblical sense of our kinship with all other living beings. So a combination of biblical inspiration and contemporary science leads me to a much deeper sense of gratitude and reverence for the seamless garment of life–and hence for the need for ecological responsibility.

Chris: There seems to be a growing ecological concern in contemporary Christianity.

John: I’m certainly not alone among Christians in thinking these thoughts today. Many of us now want to connect the moral passion of pro-life ethics with a wider sense of life than we could ever have gained apart from scientific discoveries. This is only one of many ways in which scientific understanding – stripped of superfluous materialist interpretation – can enrich theology and ethics.

Chris: Charles Taylor said that “what Vatican rule-makers and secularist ideologies unite in not being able to see, is that there are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either have yet imagined.” Can I get your commentary on this as a Catholic who is deeply engaged in public debate?

John: As a Catholic born prior to the Second Vatican Council that took place in the 1960s, my life and theology have been deeply shaped by the spirit of reform leading up to and immediately following that event. I still draw strength from the movement toward renewal that occurred then. So unlike conservative Catholics today, I have no desire to go back to a pre-conciliar, often world-weary, religiosity. Unfortunately, under the present Pope there seems to be a drifting backward into a style of Catholicism that I no longer identify with, and which countless other Catholics I know don’t embrace either.

Chris: If the Catholic faith has a public relations problem, in so much as there is a tendency for many non-religious people to presume the Vatican’s views represent the beliefs of all Catholics, how much of the burden of correcting this misunderstanding lies with the Vatican and how much with Catholic Christians at large, so to speak?

John: In this respect I should point out that, in spite of what many people think, Catholicism is a very broad tent that embraces many different styles of spirituality and theological understanding. There are many ways of being Catholic, and I’ve always felt the liberty to embrace science and love of Earth without succumbing to what I take to be the suffocating ideologies of secularism, scientism and scientific materialism.

Chris: This seems to have been Taylor’s point too.

John: My interpretation of Catholicism, which is by no means unique to me, has been one that keeps the world open to an always new and unpredictable future. I consider the point of Christianity to be that of opening up a sense of the future and hope for the whole world. I think of God as continuously offering a new future, not just to people, but to the whole universe. The ongoing creation of the world and the evolution of life are possible only because of this invitation. In this sense ‘God’ may be understood as what Catholic theologian Karl Rahner called the Absolute Future. It is this (biblical) God who opens up the future and “who makes all things new,” and not the Elegant Engineer of design-obsessed ID proponents and evolutionary materialists, that I connect to the ‘grandeur’ of life that Darwin uncovered.

Chris: Religious conservatives presumably vilify you as a liberal – it seems to me that in the United States ‘liberal’ has attained the same kind of disdain that was traditionally poured into the words ‘godless’ – or even ‘Communist’!

John: When conservatives complain about ‘liberal’ Catholic theologians such as myself I can always tell them to go back and read the documents of the Second Vatican Council! I also refer them to one of the most important twentieth century religious thinkers who, though he died in 1955, quietly influenced the atmosphere of the Council. I’m referring to the Jesuit priest, geologist and evolutionist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who started developing an evolution-based theology as early as the first two decades of the twentieth century. As a Catholic today I still draw much inspiration from this innovative thinker who taught us how we can love God without turning our backs on the world and that we can love the world fully without turning our backs on God.

Chris: I was wholly unaware of Teilhard’s work prior to reading your books, and remain fascinated by his unconventional theological views, which you seem to be helping spread to a far wider audience.

John: Contrary to the almost pathological fear of modernity by early twentieth century Catholicism, Teilhard embraced the world and evolution fully, and without materialist overtones. He emphasized that there can be no kingdom of heaven apart from a renewed Earth, and in doing so he presaged much that the Second Vatican Council officially taught.

Chris: You clearly believe that religion can – perhaps even must – evolve.

John: Religions are as capable of evolving as any other living phenomena, and if they don’t evolve, they die. I could not be a Catholic today if I thought that somehow this faith is not itself capable of evolution and self-transformation. As a theologian I have been fortunate to taste the rich resources in the tradition for ongoing renewal. In any case, although I do not approach his thought uncritically, I think Teilhard has provided a model for many Catholics who are alarmed by the movements toward retrenchment that are now occurring in some, although by no means all, strains of Catholicism.

Chris: Personally, I find Catholic intellectuals such as yourself and Charles Taylor to be thoroughly uplifting. Growing up, I could not understand Catholicism at all – reading both you and Taylor has shown me that part of the problem was that I wasn’t really being shown the nature of the Catholic experience of faith at all. I’m grateful to you both for showing me a wider vision.

John: Thanks for this opportunity. I think your questions are right on, even if I can respond to them only inadequately here.

John F. Haught’s book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Modern Board Games and Why Game Studios Should Care (DiGRA Panel)

Think Design Play I’m honoured to announce that I’m on a panel with Reiner Knizia and many other wonderful people at the Think Design Play DiGRA conference in Utrecht on Thursday 15th September 2011. There’s a little more information over at the website for the conference. Many thanks to Ben Kirman and Jose Zagal for inviting me onto this panel!

Earlier in the day, at either 2 pm or 3:20 pm, I’ll also be in a Match session with someone else (I don’t know who!) where I’m supposed to be presenting some of the old DGD2 research, but will in fact be explaining why that research isn’t very clever, and neither is much of what is published as game studies.

Anyone at Think Design Play, I’m only there for the one day so catch me while you can!

Cross-posted from

Ninja Fishing vs. Ridiculous Fishing

My take on this particular iOS furore over on ihobo today:

When someone copies your game idea, what should you do? Rage against the unfair system? Swear vengeance? Lead  a boycott? Or perhaps, enjoy all the attention you’re getting for being a real game designer whose work inspired others so much, they wanted to duplicate you.

You can read the full Ninja Fishing vs. Ridiculous Fishing over on

Haught on Theology (1): Evolution vs. Religion

Haught.300px John F. Haught is a Catholic theologian and Senior Research Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Centre at Georgetown University, whose work has addressed theological questions arising out of science, cosmology and ecology. He has been a particularly active voice in attempts to reconcile theology and evolutionary theory, and in connection with evolution he appeared as an expert witness in the infamous Dover school board law suit, testifying that the intelligent design policy in question was inherently religious and not scientific in nature. I was delighted that he agreed to answer some of my questions recently. In the first of two pieces, we discuss theology, evolution and intelligent design.

Chris Bateman: You have shown various degrees of hostility towards Christians who deny evolution. On the one hand, you’ve mentioned a “certain impatience” with such people, but you’ve also called contemporary Biblical literalism “a scandal”. Do you not feel somewhat like a worker crossing the picket line here, in that you do have appreciation for the objections that, say, the Intelligent Design movement has towards tacit atheist theology, even if you feel their specific approach is counter-productive and damaging to the image of Christianity?

John F. Haught: Actually, I don’t have any hostility toward my fellow Christians who espouse creationism or intelligent design (ID). I view them as part of my community of faith, and I sympathize with their negative reaction to materialist interpretations of evolution. I do oppose, however, their rejection of good science and especially Darwinian theory as though it were inherently irreconcilable with Christian faith.

Chris: So your problem is with the argument that evolution and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible?

John: Evolutionary biology is still a stumbling block for many Christians, but even more problematic is the materialist ideology that enshrouds much evolutionary thinking today. Materialism, the belief that “matter is all there is,” is after all not science but metaphysics, that is, a claim about the ultimate nature of reality.

Chris: I talk a lot about metaphysics here on Only a Game, and like you I’m critical of those that present materialism or physicalism as if it were a necessary belief.

John: It’s a way of looking at reality that has been around, off and on, since antiquity, and is by definition theologically unacceptable on any terms.

Chris: Like the philosopher Mary Midgley, you’ve also been critical of the assumption that this kind of perspective is a requirement for science.

John: Yes, I am an opponent of contemporary scientific materialism, or as it is sometimes called, “scientific naturalism,” but, I fully accept the scientific evidence and arguments for evolution. I have no difficulty reconciling biological science, or indeed good science of any sort, with a Christian understanding of God. I reject not science, but scientifically unverifiable materialist metaphysics. In my book Is Nature Enough? I argue at length that materialist philosophy is logically incoherent and self-subversive—hence an unreasonable form of belief.

Chris: Midgley sees this kind of inability to distinguish ideology from science as one of the hallmarks of contemporary debate about the alleged conflict between evolution and religion.

John: The problem is that neither anti-Darwinian Christians nor their adversaries (such as Dawkins and Dennett) are willing to distinguish carefully between evolutionary science on the one hand and their tacit commitment to materialist metaphysics on the other. Both sides unnecessarily mix science with ideology, and in doing so they diminish the stature of science by suffocating it with beliefs that have nothing to do with empirical, inductive method and scientific discovery.

Chris: It often seems to me that neither side is really listening to one another’s arguments – each believes they have the high ground, and the other side must therefore necessarily be in error.

John: By contrast, I am seeking to save science from both sides. I should point out incidentally that the National Centre for Science Education recently acknowledged my efforts and concern for the integrity of science and science education by giving me their “Friend of Darwin” award, which I was happy to accept.

Chris: A great achievement for any theologian!

John: As a theologian who embraces evolution, I have tried to show in my books God After Darwin and, more recently, Making Sense of Evolution that the marriage of evolutionary biology to materialist ideology by people like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett is no less objectionable than the biblical literalist’s interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis as though it were a source of scientific information.

Chris: The ideological distortion of science isn’t exactly a new phenomenon though, is it?

John: Several centuries ago Galileo himself pointed out that Christian faith seems to conflict with science (or with what was called “natural philosophy”) only if one adopts the erroneous assumption that the Bible is somehow a source of scientific information. Galileo objected to the idea that the Bible may be read as a source of scientific information. To do so, he thought, is to trivialize the Scriptures by having them function as mundane sources of knowledge that we can acquire simply by the use of our natural faculties of observation and reason. His firm objection to searching the Scriptures for scientific information (as expressed in his “Letter to the Grande Duchess Christina”) was echoed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 when he exhorted Catholics not to look for scientific information in the sacred Scriptures. Science and the Bible are simply addressing entirely disparate kinds of question.

Chris: Even though many Christians don’t subscribe to this kind of literalist reading of the Bible, in the United States and elsewhere in the world there is still something of this kind of expectation lingering around.

John: Yes, today the literalist expectation that the Scriptures should deliver a scientific brand of truth persists. This expectation, in fact, ironically binds together most evolutionary materialists with Christian creationists: both creationists and evolutionary atheists approach the Bible—since it is supposed to be ‘inspired’—as though it should be scientifically accurate. The atheist evolutionists, of course, conclude after reading it that the Bible is not scientifically reliable, and that therefore we can dismiss it as fiction. Meanwhile ‘scientific creationists’ interpret the biblical stories in Genesis as though these writings are scientifically reliable and thus provide a better brand of science than Darwin and contemporary cosmology have to offer.

Chris: This has been a recurring theme in your writing – that positivist evangelists of evolution and biblical creationists have very similar approaches, even if their verdicts are diametrically opposed.

John: My main point is that both sides tacitly share an inability or refusal to read the Bible’s accounts of origins in any other way than scientifically. My own approach is to move beyond literalism to the more serious, challenging and personally transformative (and non-literalist) ways of reading ancient religious texts for a kind of truth that science is not wired to receive, and that grasps us much more than we grasp it.

Chris: This is a point I make often, that the kind of truths we can expect to find in the spiritual literature of the world is very different from the kind of truths that scientific research can hope to uncover.

John: My own belief, which I share with most of my theological colleagues today, is that there are inexhaustibly deeper levels of truth than those that science provides. Evolutionary materialism (as distinct from evolutionary science) flows from another brand of belief, one that I do not share, namely, that science itself can put us in touch with the deepest dimensions of reality, since science is the only reliable guide to truth. This belief is commonly known as scientism.

Chris: I discussed this with Mary Midgley recently, and suggested that ‘scientism’ hasn’t caught on because it can only be interpreted as an insult – no-one willing refers to themselves under this label, which anyway doesn’t conjugate into a noun very easily! She broadly endorsed my suggestion that perhaps the term ‘positivism’ could be rescued for those that are committed to science as their source of ultimate truth.

John: I suppose what I object to more than anything else is the literalist spirit of interpretation shared by both sides. As I develop in Deeper Than Darwin, this is the source of most of the mischief in the so-called Darwin wars.

Chris: Indeed, and I heartily agree with your claim that Dawkins and Dennett end up acting as “crypto-theologians”.

John: Dennett, Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and many other evolutionists function as crypto-theologians by dictating to their readers what they think should pass muster as acceptable theology. Then they show how this brand of theology doesn’t hold up after Darwin. The problem here is that the theology they have cryptically espoused – prior to rejecting it – is indistinguishable from that of their creationist and ID opponents. At best their understanding of God is that of an Elegant Engineer whose work should be perfectly flawless. And since living organisms are not flawlessly designed but are, as evolutionary science shows, full of design flaws, it follows that no Elegant Engineer exists and that the universe is godless.

Chris: Yes, it’s a kind of straw man approach to theology whereby one adopts an overly simplistic perspective on God and then concludes that all theology is vacant, despite not having engaged with the field in any substantial fashion.

John: The tattered fragment of theological understanding reflected in the evolutionary materialists’ writings is of a kind that most theologians that I know would reject as not worth talking about in the first place. Moreover, they usually start with the assumption that all theology is a primitive, now-obsolete attempt at scientific inquiry and that therefore ‘God’ is a ‘hypothesis,’ as Dawkins makes explicit. So now that we have scientific hypotheses we don’t need theological hypotheses.

Chris: Auguste Comte presented more or less this kind of progressive image of science, passing from a theological to a metaphysical and then ultimately to a purely scientific state. It’s a deeply mythological perspective. I suppose advocates of this kind of view might counter that questions of theology are legitimate areas of investigation for science, and therefore they are not actually conducting theology.

John: The foundation of this program lies in a commitment to the belief that science is the only reliable road to truth, a belief that Dawkins clearly espouses as the basis of his whole atheistic project. It is his own (unscientific) commitment to scientism that explains why Dawkins tries to trick his readers into thinking that the Designer-Deity is a ‘hypothesis’ that might have had an explanatory appeal during all the ages of scientific ignorance but which can be safely discarded now that evolutionary biology has arrived to save us from the darkness of pre-scientific consciousness.

Chris: Putting aside the strange way that adversarial, ‘enthusiastic’ positivists like Dawkins are apparently restoring theology to the sciences, contra Kant, how would you respond to the claim that since the design argument offers a hypothesis on God that can be tested it is legitimate to draw conclusions about God from a solely scientific perspective?

John: No serious theologian has ever held that ‘God’ is a ‘hypothesis,’ and no serious theologian today places theology into a competitive relationship with the natural sciences. The evolutionary atheists, however, have never really read, studied or dialogued with serious theology. In fact the low level of their understanding of theology is comparable to a creationist’s understanding of biology (I provide supportive evidence for this observation in my book God and The New Atheism and elsewhere).

Chris: There’s something dishonest about pretending to conduct theology without actually engaging with discussions in the discipline itself. No scientist would dare conduct something similar in a field of the sciences – pretending expert knowledge without having carried out any research!

John: Again, ironically, this refusal to look at the whole wide spectrum of theological approaches and to fixate obsessively on the Elegant Engineer as though it were the pinnacle of religious thought is a most un-empirical and unscientific way of investigating the world of religious thought. It is comparable to a theologian’s taking the “New Atheism” of Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens as though it were representative of the full range of atheistic thought. As a theologian who has spent his career studying atheism, it would be deeply unfair on my part if I were to expose my students or readers only to the so-called new evolutionary atheists and ignore the theologically challenging versions of atheism such as those of Nietzsche, Sartre, Feuerbach, Camus or Derrida.

Next week: Science, Values and Ecology

John F. Haught’s book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Religion on Twitter

Twitter logo I’ve been on the global MUD chatroom that is Twitter for two weeks now, and one of the first thing that has struck me (other than the highly entertaining banality of it all) is how bizarrely charged with religious rhetoric it is on a daily basis. But this outpouring of belief-chatter isn’t coming primarily from the religious people, but rather the non-religious.

Now it’s quite possible that my perspective is skewed by the list of people I’m following, which unsurprisingly is heavily biased towards games industry and game studies people. The self-propagating chains of new connections tend to end up stuck in a thematic gulag, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, I know that some of the people I’m following belong to a religious tradition, but they all bite their tongues and keep to the secular ideal of keeping one’s personal beliefs private as far as I can tell. It’s the self-identified atheists who are making most of the noise in my Twitter timeline, which I find rather odd since many of the people involved would never dream of discussing subjects like this in person.

For instance, yesterday game writer and all around nice guy Steve Ince retweeted this Wendy Kaminer quote: “While many biases have changed in the last half century, one remains the same: the bias against atheists.” I thought: that’s an odd quote. For a start, it’s simply not true – the bias against atheists in the early twenty first century is very different from the bias against them in the mid-twentieth century, and this for many different reasons. The “New Atheists”, to single out just one example, have made non-believers seem bigoted and fractuous, even to some of their fellow atheists. Over the last half century, Christian bigots have gone from condemning atheists just for being ‘godless’ to having very specific reasons for being prejudiced against atheists as a whole, often based (as most bigotry is) on confusing a notable minority for the majority.

Steve would never make a comment like this in person, at least not on the basis of the time I’ve spent chatting to him thus far. Yet he retweeted this without pause. Conversely, I have bitten my tongue on a number of occasions when I’ve wanted to comment (including this particular instance), and while I have retweeted some religious content, it’s mostly been quotes from the Dalai Lama or the Sufi poet Rumi, which I am assuming is comparatively inoffensive. Perhaps I am wrong – perhaps there are others out on Twitter who are shocked and offended by Rumi’s line: “Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there!” On the whole, my suspicion is that because the religious content I’ve retweeted isn’t Christian, I’m ‘safe’.

Last week, a religious topic ‘trended’ for the first time during my time in the chatroom: #goduniverse topped the trends list in the sidebar. Tweets with this hashtag were mostly comprised of people with fairly naive but harmless theologies sharing their view on God. Some of it was charming, a lot of it was vacuous. However, about a quarter of the tweets using this hashtag were atheist bigots haranguing the Christian tweeters verbally, or putting out hostile messages of some kind. These attacks, as far as I could tell, were incredibly one-sided. The Christians, at least in the sample I looked at, were sticking to Jesus’ ideal of turning the other cheek.

The reverse prejudice was revealed in another story I encountered from a tweet – an incredibly un-Christian response on Facebook to an appearance by the American Atheist organisation on Fox News. Now frankly, I don’t know what AmAth are doing appearing on Fox if they weren’t spoiling for a fight, but that in no way excuses the incredible outpouring of hatred on Facebook by people claiming to “love Jesus” and then defiling every aspect his teachings with their actions. That said, the court case AmAth are advancing, which seeks to remove the ‘9/11 Cross’ from the World Trade Centre Museum is spurious and asinine, and in no way defends the civil rights of nonbelievers in the United States. As (atheist) Susan Jacoby comments: “Preemptive strikes against ideas or images that a minority or majority dislike are exactly what the First Amendment forbids and atheists do not have a right to hide beyond the establishment clause as a rationale.”

All in all, Twitter has reminded me just how religiously-charged the viewpoints offered by partisans of belief can get, and how blind they can be to their own failings. I will defend to the death your rights to religious or non-religious freedom, but it’s no use pretending that all of the faults are on the other side of the fence. Indeed, one of the reasons I’m slightly disappointed with the way ‘atheist’ is invoked as an identity is precisely that it necessarily defines the fence but little else. Fences – boundaries – are a normal stage in the formation of a new identity: Christians in Rome were in a similar situation, as was the Gay community in the mid-twentieth century as it struggled for recognition. But there has to be something inside the fence a community believes in, since any group defined solely by what it is not will tend towards racism and bigotry at its extremes, and its extremities will inevitably come to dominate its public image.

Several years back, I read an article in a magazine that had been written by a lesbian expressly to decry the stereotypes used to characterise lesbians. The article was wholly counterproductive, since it was written in an angry and irritable style and thus reinforced the negative stereotype of lesbians as short tempered and petulant. There are, of course, a great many lesbians who are no such thing – but the ones that fit this pigeonhole (like the author of the article) frequently manage to reinforce the stereotype, to the detriment of everyone else in that particular community.

Identities wielded in public have consequences for everyone in the relevant community. This is as true on Twitter as it is everywhere else in the world.

Theological Postscript to Evolution Summer

I’m delighted to announce a postscript to the Summer of Evolutionary Mythology in the form of a two-part interview with Catholic theologian John F. Haught, who many will know from his role testifying in the Dover school board court case that intelligent design was a religious and not a scientific policy.

I’m certain Christian players here at Only a Game will enjoy hearing from someone who finds no conflict between faith and evolution, and positivists may be interested from hearing from one of the oft-obscured moderates in the public debate concerning evolution and religion in the United States.

My thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions!

Do You Use Games-as-Service?

Over on ihobo today, I ask:

Do you play any games that are services, like Facebook games, or free-to-play MMOs? Or, which is another way of thinking about this question, are all the games we are now playing effectively games-as-services, just some are more responsive to their players than others?

Thoughts about games-as-service and why I hate Dan Cook (not really!) over in today’s ihobo post Do You Use Games-as-Service?