This week, I died in Minecraft. This may sound a small thing to those of you used to dying over and over again in these cubic worlds, but for me it came as a shock, a disturbing act of violence against me. It was unexpected because I play – and have done now for over a year – on Peaceful. And partly because of this, I have made dying a big deal, something I had strived very hard to avoid. But like many deaths outside digital worlds, this came from nowhere, an unexpected accident that ended my (fictional) life.
Is the iconoclast responsible for the reactions to their defiant acts? On this, as with so many contemporary issues, those who act with the greatest certainty are all too often the furthest from moral innocence.
Once again, the French press has used freedom of speech as their excuse for publishing racist cartoons. While it is true that freedom of speech allows people to promulgate bigotry, it is not the case (as sometimes seems to be presumed) that this freedom acts as an indemnity against responsibility. Nor is it true, as was claimed in the case of the reprinting of the Danish cartoons in France, that redistributing hateful material is somehow ‘defending’ freedom of speech. That particular freedom is not threatened in any way by people voicing their disgust. I’m particularly disappointed with French anti-racism group Licra who defend the magazine on the ground that the “crime of blasphemy” does not exist in France – a flippant remark that seems to suppose that images that defame Muslims are somehow excluded from consideration as racism, despite the UN’s stance on such matters.
The French government, expecting reprisals, closed a number of their embassies for fear of retaliation from those claiming to defend Islam. Attacks such as these, which certainly do occur, are themselves a great insult to the teachings of the prophet Mohammad, who expressly forbade harming innocents. Those sham Muslims who would dishonour their tradition are not far removed from the members of the French press who dishonour the tradition of free speech by using it as a cloak for their racism. The editor-in-chief of the magazine in question told the BBC: “These publications will not cost lives. Who killed people? We are not killing people, I’m sorry. We are not the violent ones. We are just journalists.” His attitude is like the Zookeeper who, fired from his job, leaves the animals unfed and then releases them from their cages before handing in his keys, claiming “I did not kill anyone.” Responsibility is not a matter of pointing to the last link in a causal chain: those who knowingly act in a manner that will incite violence are not indemnified from the consequences.
This entire incident is an example of what Bruno Latour terms iconoclash – the uncertainty of what transpires when images are destroyed or subverted, coupled with repudiation of the representation involved. Latour persuasively argues that it is no longer possible to understand iconoclasm as clear cut since the meaning of each act of destruction struggles with irresolvable ambiguities. The French magazines believe their ‘attack’ on the image of Mohammad is justified by free speech – how this act is viewed by others (not necessarily Muslim others) is far from likely to endorse their moral certainty in this regard. Latour also offers insightful commentary on the narrow manner in which iconoclash manifests. Artists, believing themselves iconoclasts, defame or insult the Catholic Pope or other religious figures, but will not (Latour confirms this through his own discussions with the artists) defame other cherished icons such as Martin Luther King or Salman Rushdie. Indeed, the only icons they will ‘smash’ are those they themselves do not respect – bringing into question just what the nature of these alleged acts of iconoclasm might be. Latour identifies many forms of iconoclash, and attempts to rescue one kind from among all the others, although this is a point I shall have to pursue at another time.
From the perspective of freedom of speech, a great irony of the French cartoons is that throughout history no religion has been a greater defender of freedom of speech than Islam. Such a freedom was originally claimed not only in both Athens and Rome, but also in the early Muslim world: freedom of speech was declared by both the caliph Umar in the Rashidun period (7th century), and again in the later Abbasid Caliphate period. In Christian-dominated Europe, this right was far slower to emerge. Fast forward to contemporary France, and the situation in respect of free speech is anything but clean cut: consider the recent furore over the topless photos of a future British queen, or the fact that anyone denying that the Turkish Army committed genocide against the Armenians in the twentieth century faces a find of 45,000 euros and a year in jail. As Seyed Ibrahim commented in this regard: “Ultimate and unconditional freedom of speech does not exist in any country in the world.”
Today, in this as in so many matters concerning contemporary Islam, we are still experiencing the consequences of a failure to respect the people of the Middle East during and after the two World Wars. The overthrowing of the Ottoman empire created power vacuums that were almost inevitably filled by dictatorships – often propped up by Western powers keener to secure oil exports than to secure the freedoms of the local populace. If the French iconoclasts really care about freedom of speech – and freedom in general – they should act to support the new Islamic cultures finding their feet after the Arab spring. But apparently they do not care – they are, it seems, merely another pocket of spoiled racists whose iconoclash should expect the condemnation it receives. In the words of White House spokesperson Jay Carney: “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published, we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”
Is the conflict over evolution in the United States a straightforward case of “science” versus “religion” or is there more to this story that meets the eye? In my latest book, The Mythology of Evolution, I look deep into both the research and the cultural conflicts surrounding evolutionary theories and conclude that the usual way these issues are presented is deeply misleading. If we revalidate the science, we end up looking very differently at what evolution can mean.
Over on ihobo today, an exploration of War and Peace in digital games. Here’s the introductory paragraph:
Although videogames are strongly associated with themes of war and violence, the cutting edge of the artistic exploration of imaginary worlds is happening under peaceful regimes. In this piece, I examine four different regimes of play (War, Challenge, Puzzle and Peaceful), their brief history, and their essential nature.
How do the myths of positivists, those spirited defenders of ‘Science’, come to bear upon our commonly shared world? When it comes to the relationship between science and ethics, is the wall that separates ‘facts’ from ‘values’ a valid inference from the evidence, or just another positivistic myth?
One of the essential traits of our mythologies is our difficulty in perceiving them as such. Other people’s mythic stories stand out to us as obvious deviations from what we know is true, but our own beliefs – being necessarily true, or we would not hold them – are excluded from this kind of judgement. At least, this is the broad strokes version; I find I can hold beliefs without expecting them to be true, and Nietzsche also pushed boldly forward in this general direction. Even theists, notoriously tarred by others with the stain of self-deceit, may acknowledge that their own beliefs must be in error somehow: to claim otherwise would be to confuse faith in God with faith in one’s own image of God, a kind of idolatry that is arguably prohibited in the Abrahamic traditions.
Positivists – those that limit their beliefs to the boundary of the testable – are no worse victims of this blindness than anyone else but many have a unique mental defence against mythic self-realisation, namely justifying their entire beliefs as validated by science. This, on closer inspection, is a rather odd claim since positivists wildly disagree with one another – sometimes passionately, and often forcefully – despite claiming identical foundations for their beliefs. The reason for this queer state of affairs is that science does not represent a clean cut box of neatly stacked facts, but rather a haphazard, sometimes contradictory, never quite complete scrapbook of theoretical models and practical measurements. Seeing this edifice as the best foundation for truth is one of the most basic positivist myths.
The original positivist myth, however, is that touted by the person who coined the term ‘positivist’ in the first place, the nineteenth century French intellectual Auguste Comte. Comte was the founder of sociology and (not unrelatedly) of positivism, and believed in “the Law of three stages”, whereby societies (and sciences) evolve from a theological stage, through a metaphysical stage to a final positivist stage, where it is purified of all metaphysics and theology. This ‘science supersedes religion’ story – which I've heard voiced out loud by sci-fi author Ian Banks and others – is reminiscent of the mythologies the early Christian church deployed to stamp out ‘heretical’ religious traditions pre-dating its foundation. It seems positivists are just as prone to mythic visions of progress as their religious cousins.
Another common positivist mythology is what Mary Midgley has dubbed ‘science as salvation’ - the view that whatever problem we face, it can be solved by further research into new technologies. Positivistic faith in technological immortality is one example I’ve discussed before, a bizarre way of wishing for doom and believing it to be liberation. Equally odd is the ‘flee the dying planet’ myth embedded in a great many science fiction stories: if we cannot co-operate sufficiently to stabilise our terrestrial environment, the colossally impractical expansion beyond our world is a tall order indeed. It is striking that after the detonation of the first atom bombs, some of our finest nerds were convinced our civilisation had a life expectancy measured in mere decades – this eschatological myth would seem to be in direct opposition to ‘flee the planet’, yet it often feeds directly into it.
Eschatology - the “study” of the end of all things – is where positivist mythology really puts itself on a par with its religious predecessors. Man has always been obsessed with stories of his own destruction (women, thankfully, have been rather less enamoured with this kind of doomsaying). Science fiction, the mythic wellspring for positivists, is packed to the gills with stories of our extinction, or post-apocalyptic stories of our near-extinction. Some philosophers, stoically abandoning philosophy in favour of their own engaging mythologies, turn extinction into the centre point of a myth that might be uncharitably called ‘doom worship’ (or perhaps ‘dead certainty’). I’ve always found these kinds of stories oddly reminiscent of the eschatologies of early human cultures, many of which accepted as a given the transitory nature of existence.
For myself, the crucial difference between human civilisation lasting for millions of years compared to just thousands of years utterly exceeds the relatively trivial facts of eventual extinction. Besides, on this as with so many matters I am ultimately agnostic: without knowing how this universe came to be, I cannot rule out absurd survival scenarios in the far future (time loops, successive universes and so forth). But either way, what matters now is what happens here and now – the attempt to substitute time as a non-deity in some kind of metaphysical goal-line drive strikes me as rather silly. While this kind of eschatology is a venerable tradition in human culture, it's not much of a foundation for anything worthwhile beyond epic navel gazing.
One striking difference between positivist mythologies and their religious predecessors is a lack of overt moral content. Conventional mythic stories have always highlighted ethical considerations – consider the implications of the Epic of Gilgamesh or The Iliad, to give just two ancient examples. Positivist mythology, by contrast, tends to sidestep moral concerns, often by presenting itself as factual and thus immune from concerns of values. This supposed separation between fact and values, the blight of twentieth century moral philosophy, is incredibly strange! As Bruno Latour has noted, the idea that any kind of scientific fact emerges without any influence from the researchers values is absurd; at the very least, the decision of what to research could not be value-neutral. More than this, however, the idea that fact and value come apart cleanly is entirely farcical – moral values intimately entail facts. The force of the ethical injunction against murder comes in part from the facts of death. If life were more like (say) a videogame, the morality of killing would necessarily differ.
The erecting of an ever-taller wall between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ is the shadow of the now defunct Vienna circle – the logical positivists that inherited Comte’s crown and modernised his dreams. Although logical positivism as such was a dead end, those early twentieth century philosophers and partisans of science did radically affect the mythic landscape of science, helping to give birth to the contemporary split between a science that was supposedly wholly factual and value-free, and a moral philosophy which was then inevitably left with next to nothing once the divorce was finalised.
Ironically, the effect of sidelining ethics in positivist mythology is not to render them value-neutral, but to escalate their moral content to an incontestable status. The mythology of genetic medicine, for instance, presupposes the moral acceptability of its actual research outcomes – or at least, it did until stem cell research collided this issue with contrasting stories. The unstated yet overriding myth of the researcher has always been ‘my research is neutral, and I am blameless for what society does with it’s outcomes’. As Hannah Arendt complained in respect of the nuclear bomb, such indifference to consequences does not paint scientists in a very appealing light. The belief in the neutrality of scientific practice becomes an amoral smokescreen, obscuring matters of concern deserving of debate long before technological genies are released from their respective bottles.
Ultimately, as I assert in The Mythology of Evolution, there is no science without mythology, and positivism is inevitably as riddled with narrative myths as any traditional religion. This is not to say that science or positivism is a religion, per se, this is simply humanity being human, and no great cause for concern. However, the denial of any ethical dimension to science itself takes terrible risks not only with scientific credibility but with the planet we all share. The “Vienna wall” between facts and values must be torn down for the benefit of all, including the researchers whose work can no longer be considered entirely in isolation from their societies. But this is particularly difficult when the primary metric applied to research is that of its market value. The wall conveniently obscures the alliance of greed between science and industry.
Science cannot replace religion, but positivistic non-religion can supplant traditional religion, as it has done to some extent in the UK and France. What we should neither expect nor hope for is the transformation of our mythic landscapes into purely positivistic terms. Older myths still have their role to play – and not just for the practitioners of long-standing traditions. The ethical resources of mythology are just as available to us as they have ever been – we just briefly forgot that there was a vast world outside of the fenced-in domain of ‘fact’ we cannot afford to lose touch with.
Everyone sees something that must be fought, but thus far our rebellion has been scarcely more than a shouting match. Can we find something worth fighting for, or just convenient bad guys to blame for all our mutual problems?
Although I am a lover of those who tilt at windmills, I find it tragic that today's Don Quixotes seem to be driven by a blinkered rage, rather than a noble-yet-hopeless quest. Everyone rails against something, few offer something to strive towards. This ailment was diagnosed by Hannah Arendt half a century ago, yet still we go around in circles, shaking our fists at some scapegoat so abstract that opposing it carries no significant risk of effecting any useful change.
A catalogue of demons reveals the futility of our presumed goals. The crusade against religion has become so laughably self-referential it's a wonder anyone can take it seriously. The political Right's demand to reduce the funding supplied to government and protect freedom becomes farcical when compared against the many costs of war. The political Left's campaign against racism and sexism has gradually become the locus of a more rigorous bigotry than their opponents ever managed. The risk of holding Equality and Diversity as dual ideals is that they are in conflict with one another – absolute equality flattens the particularity inherent in diversity, making everyone equally no-one.
The windmill-tilters par excellence however are the undead remnants of Marx's dream, the enemies of Capitalism. The insoluble problem they face is the uncertainty of what they oppose. Is it private ownership? Ask the rebels to give up their homes and computers, and watch the indignation. Is it money? Our medium of exchange is unlikely to be our central problem. Is it the corporate rape of the natural world? Socialist government have not show a superior record on this account. Is it the sheer unfairness of the staggering caste system wealth has imputed? This was precisely Marx's cause in the first place! So many problems, so few solutions. Capitalism is easier to hate than it is to define.
Look not to the political activists to solve our problems, since once on the battlefield one can only fight or lay down arms. Sun Tzu wisely saw war as something that should be considered solely when all other options had failed – political partisans today start with war because they equate diplomacy with compromise, and their enemy is so loathsome that equivocation is blasphemy. Shame on us all for this empty warrior rhetoric. The enemy – if we must speak in such bellicose terms – is human nature itself, in all its variegated beauty. The outcome of this battle is favourable to no-one.
Both Left and Right go awry by trying to elevate the local to the universal – a feat of weight-lifting that will break our back before it can ever achieve peace. The Right has it correct that our local communities are a just centre of concern, but they have it disastrously wrong in their failure to separate these from national law or global empire. The Left has it correct that equality and diversity are noble ideals, but fail whenever these beliefs obliterate concern for individuals or local communities, and betray themselves utterly when supporting empire as a propagator of liberty.
And the anti-Capitalists, those beautiful fools who know not what they fight for? Ah, we may yet find the windmill for you to tilt at, but what will you do if it involves connecting locally instead of shaking a fist at conceptual foes who are conveniently intangible? The luxury of an intellectualised rebellion is that you don't need to leave your armchair. Real and lasting change may be a great deal more inconvenient.
Free to one lucky player of Only a Game, a signed author copy of The Mythology of Evolution. Simply send an email to comp [at] ihobo.com giving your name and address. Also, let me know if you’d like it signed to you personally, otherwise it’ll just have my signature on its own.
Closing date is 31st October 2012. Offer is open to individuals with a postal address anywhere in the world. Only one entry per person is permitted. The winner will be determined at random using polyhedral dice rolled by an appointed judge. The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. The prize may not be transferred to any other person. No cash alternative or alternative prize is available. Spambots will be shot. All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Entry in the competition implies acceptance of these rules.
Over on ihobo today, the first of a two part series looking at the process of auditing game designs. This is really just an opportunity for me to mouth off about some of the nonsense I’ve endured in this regard, but I hope that I can offer some interesting perspectives for anyone considering auditing their project’s game design or story externally.
Part one, Right Decisions, looks at how to get off to a good start when auditing a game design or narrative, and is up on ihobo.com now.