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Allen Wood on Ethics (1): Kant and Mutual Respect

Allen Wood Allen W. Wood is Ruth Norman Halls Professor at Indiana University and Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor emeritus at Stanford University. He is one of the most renowned scholars of Kant's moral philosophy alive today. For more than forty years he has expanded people's understanding of Kant's ideals, and helped foster a lively community debating and sharing perspectives on Kantian ethics. I was honoured to have a chance to ask him some questions about his incredible work.

Chris Bateman: The first book of moral philosophy I read was your magnificent 'Rethinking the Western Tradition' edition of Kant's Groundwork – and I fell in love not only with Kantian ethics, but with the vibrant discussion collected in the essays here. The exchange between you and Shelly Kagan in the final two papers seemed particularly heated! Is there a story behind this?

Allen Wood: Don't go looking for trouble! Shelly Kagan and I don't agree about some philosophical issues in ethics, or about how to read Kant. But we were always very friendly colleagues at Yale, and I don't see anything 'heated' about either of our essays in the book you mention.

Chris: I suppose I read the philosophical disagreements between the two of you and interpreted as something more dramatic! I think perhaps contemporary newspapers prepare us to expect for personality battles, which we then look for…

Allen: Well, I invited him to write the essay for that book, and I did so knowing (in general terms) what he was going to say. I wanted his perspective, and I think it is good that there are a variety of positions out there on the subject of ethical theory.

Chris: What do you make of the diversity of moral perspectives available today?

Allen: A half century or so ago, ethics (at least in the Anglophone analytic tradition) was dominated by utilitarianism, and other positions were seldom taken seriously. This has changed a lot. The work of John Rawls, and books such as Onora (Nell) O'Neill's Acting on Principle, made people pay more serious attention to Kantian ethical theory.

Chris: What about contemporary virtue ethics?

Allen: That has added another valuable perspective, which was set off by Elizabeth Anscombe's rather incendiary article "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958).

Chris: But there is still great disagreement about both ethics and meta-ethics.

Allen: Of course philosophers disagree about the foundations of ethics (as about everything else)! A philosophical question may be defined as one on which any answer you give is open to insuperable objections. The only question is which of these hopelessly controversial positions is the least indefensible and the most profitable approach to them. There are many such questions, and they concern, moreover, the very foundations of all the sciences and other fields where people have managed to find ways of answering their questions.

Chris: I like this attitude, whereby philosophy is viewed as a source of questions more than a source of answers. The questions are often the most important part of any enquiry!

Allen: This is the sense in which philosophy 'grounds' the sciences, or social life, or religious faith. It shows all these to be deeply questionable. Naturally people disagree about this, and which positions are ascendant at a given time shifts and goes in cycles, with no position returning in quite the same form it took before. I don't mean these remarks in a sceptical spirit, however, because I think we have to take a position on basic questions in order to act or to make progress in the sciences, and we ought to base our actions and beliefs on the best evidence and argument available. The important thing is for philosophers to remain engaged with others who take different approaches. The only ultimate crime, in philosophy as in life more generally, is complacency.

Chris: You have been a passionate advocate for seeing Kantian ethics as more than a mere 'sausage machine' (your term!) for cranking out answers to ethical questions – yet this caricature of the Prussian philosopher's views still seems to pass for the 'official story' all too often. It sometimes seems people read the first part of the Groundwork and then simply ignore everything else he ever wrote! What do you make of this?

Allen: I think it is understandable, but (when you think about it) obviously erroneous to take your impression of a philosophical work from the way it begins. It stands to reason that a philosopher's message really emerges nearer the end of a book than at the beginning, because of course an argument reaches its conclusion not at the beginning but at the end.

Chris: So you think this is not just a problem that affects the interpretation of Kant's work?

Allen: Another good example is Locke. People think Locke is an empiricist because the Essay Concerning Human Understanding begins with an attack on innate ideas and knowledge. If they paid attention to his account of knowledge in Book Four, they would see that his views are very close to those of Descartes. Knowledge for Locke is the intellectual perception of agreement or disagreement between ideas, modelled on the a priori science of mathematics. The accumulation of sensory information is not knowledge for Locke.

Chris: Both Locke and Kant were writing more than two centuries ago – is this a problem that is exacerbated with the passing of time?

Allen: Not necessarily. People think Marx's Capital is a difficult book because it begins with the analysis of value, which (Marx warns you in the Preface) is difficult, but the rest of the book (like most of Marx's writings) is not obscure or difficult, but sparkles with his wonderful and quite popular writing style. (Of course the ruling classes still have an interest in dissuading people from reading Marx, so they want us to think he is difficult and obscure.) It is a sad flaw in human nature that people don't have the patience to read works to the end – or, often, even beyond the beginning.

Chris: Getting back to the Groundwork, your work has made very clear to me just how many ways there are to misread Kant's argument here.

Allen: I tell students, when I teach Kant's ethics, that the first fifty times I read the Groundwork I did not understand it at all, but accepted many of the common errors, because they were easy to commit and had become hallowed by generations of misreading by others. But the more basic point about Kantian ethics is one that John Rawls made many years ago: It should be seen not as an ethics of austere command but of mutual respect and self-esteem. My development of Kantian ethics has been dedicated to bringing out that truth about Kantian ethics, though sometimes in ways different from Rawls.

Chris: I hear a lot of philosophy professors say they didn't fully appreciate the Groundwork the first time – I think I got a lot more from my first attempt, precisely because your edition helps orient the reader in the context not only of the text, but in terms of discussions about that text that are still going on today. You helped me avoid some of the usual pitfalls by providing a skeleton key to the text, without which I would doubtless have fallen into some of the usual mistakes.

Allen: The errors are especially bad with the Groundwork because the opening discussion about acting from duty is easy to misunderstand (and in my view, is usually quite badly misunderstood). I don't think that discussion is at all about the importance of choosing moral over non-moral motives (and think Kant did not believe we can even make such choices, because our motives are largely opaque to ourselves). His point there – as I might tendentiously put it – is that morality is more truly itself when it is difficult than when it is easy. Morality is important in human life because we humans are so imperfectly rational that we need to constrain ourselves, struggling against our natural propensities, if we are to act according to reason.

Chris: But it's not just the opening sections that have given rise to distortions of Kant's concepts and ideals, is it?

Allen: No, many people misunderstand what Kant is doing with the four examples in the Second Section of the Groundwork.

Chris: You spend quite a bit of space going over these in your book Kant's Ethical Thought, but this is essentially the basis for your 'sausage machine' complaint I mentioned earlier!

Allen: People bring to their reading of this text the assumption that moral philosophy is about finding some nifty test telling us what to do, a test that can be applied just as easily and successfully by a fool or a scoundrel as by a wise and good person. And so they see Kant's examples as attempts to offer such a test. Naturally they are then disappointed, because no such test exists, or ever could exist. And of course it never dawns on them that Kant is fully aware of this.

Chris: As you present Kant's thought, the concept of ethics as the universal – the first formula – has a much smaller role than it is usually given.    

Allen: Kant's 'universalizability' criteria, if you see how he actually applies them, have a very narrow aim. He is interested in the situation of an agent who is morally conscientious at a basic level, and realizes he has a certain duty – for instance, the duty not to make a promise he doesn't intend to keep – but is tempted to think that his own desires or interests, or something about his particular situation (for instance, the urgency of his need for money, which he is tempted to borrow with no intention to repay it) might justify making an exception to this duty in his own advantage. Kant's test is designed to show such agents that their own tastes or self-preference does not justify making such exceptions to their duties.

Chris: So rather than a decision procedure for replacing moral thought, the universality test serves to show individuals where they are failing to act morally.

Allen: Kant's first formula of the categorical imperative was never designed to do more than that, and it is, after all, only the first of the three formulations Kant presents in the Second Section. As he tells us, they represent a "progression," so that the later ones are richer and more adequate than the first one.

Chris: Yet it's still a prevailing view that this is the whole story of Kantian ethics – the psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes this blunder in his latest book, for instance.

Allen: Many readers behave as if Kant's only contribution to ethics had been this first, poorest formulation of the moral principle. And they misunderstand even his intention in offering that. Kant, like Plato or Aristotle or Spinoza or Hegel or almost any great philosopher, is not easy to understand, but very easy to misunderstand. This is the main reason it is worthwhile to devote lot of attention and effort to reading the most important texts in the history of philosophy –Plato's Symposium, or Book Z of Aristotle's Metaphysics, or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

Chris Bateman: The latter part of the twentieth century seemed to show a kind of revival in Kantian scholarship. Yourself and Christine Korsgaard are perhaps the people most associated with it, but there now seems to be a huge numbers of academics writing about Kantian ethics! Do you sense a growing recognition that we haven't yet fully got to grips with everything Kant's ethics have to offer, that there is still a great deal to explore?

Allen: In Kant's case, as in the case of many great philosophers, their fundamental insights far outrun their own appreciation of the conclusions that follow from them. Thus it is very easy for people hostile to Kant, or impatient with the difficulty of his writings, to find (bad) excuses for dismissing his philosophy, in the form of his own time-bound or idiosyncratic views about sex, or capital punishment, or race or the position of women in society.

Chris: A lot of your work, both in Kant's Ethical Thought and the more recent Kantian Ethics, explores the differences between what Kant's moral philosophy claims, and what Kant himself believed. And most of Kant's more offensive claims appear to be of the latter kind.

Allen: Considered in the context of his own time, Kant was on many topics socially, morally and politically progressive; but many of his opinions on specific issues that matter a lot to us now appear grotesque, ridiculous or even abominable. There are many people who dismiss moral philosophy with the casual and condescending observation that people's views inevitably reflect their own time and culture, and all moral questions need to be understood in context, so that it is hopeless to propose general philosophical theories regarding them. These same people, however, are the very first to ignore the historical context of a great philosopher's thinking, and the first to dismiss him because he doesn't share our latest fashionable views on the issues that matter to us.

Chris: I sometimes wonder if there is a fear of just how vast the corpus of human knowledge has become – such that people are looking for any excuse to cut down on what they need to read. Philosophy in particular looks dispensable to a lot of people today, which has a tragic cost because we need it now as much – if not more than – ever.

Allen: It is important in thinking about moral and political questions to realize that at bottom these are deeply problematic, and we need to engage in fundamental and often abstract theorizing and reasoning even to see the basis of our own opinions about them. The past philosophers who can most help us to do this are not necessarily the ones who were most ahead of their time in thinking about the issues that concern us most today. Thus if you want to find someone in the late 18th century who best anticipated our views about the role of women in society, you can't look to Kant, Fichte or Hegel for that, but must look instead to Mary Wollstonecraft or to Kant's friend Gottlieb Hippel.

Chris: The merits of Kant's approach lie elsewhere.

Allen: If you want to understand the fundamental philosophical grounds of our belief in human dignity and equality, Kant is probably the place to look for that. Some people want to remain only on the surface in their thinking – and maybe for the purposes of immediate political activity, this is enough. But there is also a role for understanding the roots of what we think. Of course, when you do understand these roots, you also come to see how problematic is all our thinking about moral questions.

Chris: People are generally looking for answers, and dislike finding only more questions.

Allen: Maybe that is what these people are really afraid of. They want to remain complacent about their dogmas or faiths. They are afraid of the fundamental absurdity of the human condition.

Next week, the second and final part: Political Realities

A Meta-ethical Blight

Turmoil_by_algorias Although my beliefs are at heart very different to theirs, I have great respect for meta-ethical realists like Derek Parfit and Allen Wood, and have learned an immense amount from their work. But I tire of all the scuffles over realism, in all its forms. In ethics, the rebellion against Moral Law has gone on long enough, and both sides have gained too little to make the skirmish seem worthwhile continuing.

After the dawn of the twentieth century, moral philosophy took a giant, unfortunate step away from actually discussing morality. This diversion, which shelters under the umbrella of meta-ethics, seeks to ignore moral discussion in favour of arguing about how and whether moral arguments can be grounded. If these combative meta-ethics were a supplement to morality, it would be understandable that they receive so much attention – the problem is not that metaphysical questions don't have ethical bearing, after all. Rather, the crisis twentieth century meta-ethics birthed is the over-shadowing of moral discourse by the war over truth, and the consequent escalation of the priority of meta-ethics over ethics.

The disaster at the heart of contemporary meta-ethics is affording central importance to whether there is a kind of realism appropriate to ethics. Like every other fight centred around any kind of ‘realism’, this quickly loses coherence. Fervent supporters of realisms all too frequently fall into defending the idea of an objective reality when opponents challenge the capacity to attain to that reality via thought. Their opponents in turn suffer from the likelihood that whatever undermining tricks they perform can be used against their own arguments, since they must joust using reason or reality in some role or else have no teeth with which to deliver the bite of their argument. No-one on either side seems to notice that making the switch to meta-ethics – really, to metaphysics – inevitably means abandoning any hope of finding sure footing.

Impressive arguments are mounted – Parfit's meta-ethical work is scrupulously perfect – but only a tiny change in presuppositions renders the entire edifice hopelessly fragile. Against this, all manner of alternative realisms grapple for Nietzche's flag in vain attempts to be the first among the valueless. The opposition no longer settles for the label ‘anti-realism’ since to give up realism has been interpreted as abandoning all claims to truth. Whatever the label, the scenario remains similar. If morality cannot be squared with the highest standards of testability, it can be dismissed as irrelevant: human values are a small sacrifice when fighting for the claim to be the most real. Honestly, in the shark tank of realist philosophy I'd far rather side with Parfit, for all that I will never be comfortable with realism. Better moral realism than pretending we can just give up on morality altogether because it’s not ‘real’ enough.

When you face a difficult moral decision, the question of the plausibility of various kinds of realisms will have absolutely no bearing on what you decide to do. The only reason the irresolvable meta-ethical battles are perceived to have immense value is because if there were a secure foundation to be found it might allow final ethical answers to be calculated, for Deep Judge to be built. For some, this is desirable as a bulwark against chaos; for others, the chaos itself would be less dangerous than tailor-made justifications. Either way, morality suffers when the focus shifts to that particular issue, rather than those which face us every day. As Allen Wood notes, albeit from within the camp of meta-ethical realism:

To some twentieth-century meta-ethical skeptics, [Kantian ethics] may seem extravagant. But then to someone trying seriously to decide on the basis of the best reasons she can find what she absolutely ought to do, a lot of twentieth-century meta-ethical skepticism will seem extravagant.

Incidentally, just because I resist realism does not make me an anti-realist; my objection runs to both sides of this dispute. There were always moral facts, and there was never just one way to inventory them - it is a trivial moral fact, for instance, that there are people opposed to abortion in all cases, even if there are no certain facts (moral or otherwise) as to whether a foetus is a person. Precisely what makes moral reasoning difficult is that the moral facts are the least important part of the situation, since by the term ‘fact’ we intend to impute indisputability. Morality is difficult precisely because its challenges do not reduce neatly to matters of fact, and attempts to do so always risk replacing ethics with mere logic. My argument here is not an attempt to enforce the “Vienna Wall” between facts and values, but rather to insist that morality involves facts and values, both of which are always in dispute where moral conflicts occur.

For meta-ethics to regain significance it must first admit its lesser importance to morality when compared to actual moral systems and traditions, and especially to the dilemmas and crises real people face in everyday life. When meta-ethics seeks to pre-empt certain approaches and render them invalid, it is truly a blight – a hindrance to collective moral judgement. If, however, it were to admit to more modest goals, it might still have a vital purpose – like the sciences, our ethics will forever have a boundary in metaphysics, after all. While this quixotic passion for firm foundations outstrips usefulness to actual moral disputes, meta-ethics is merely an ostrich-head-in-the-sand, and perhaps best left in belligerent isolation from the problems we all share. Feel free to sketch the foundations, if you must, but please don't get in the way of building the house we all have to live in.

The opening image is Turmoil by Vitor/Algorias, which I found on his website, The Fractal Forest, and is used with permission.

Mike Singleton

Mike Singleton Yesterday, I was saddened to learn of the death of Mike Singleton, who passed away last week at the age of 61. This was especially moving for me as the news came as I was putting the finishing touches to my Game Narrative presentation on Open Worlds, which opens on Mike’s classic The Lords of Midnight, and spends some time discussing his truly visionary contributions to digital gaming. Open Worlds are a truly British creation, and all the early manifestations were developed in the UK – David Braben and Ian Bell’s Elite (1984), Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid (1985) and Novagen’s Mercenary (1985), and of course Mike Singleton’s Midnight and Midwinter series. I wrote about these landmark titles several years ago under the title Early Playground Worlds, and this is the heritage that leads to DMA Design’s Grand Theft Auto (1997) and the creation of the contemporary Open World concept.

Of all the games released on the ZX Spectrum, The Lords of Midnight had the greatest impact, attracted the most dedicated fans, and truly pushed that little rubber-keyed black plastic brick to its limits. Mike had already made a name for himself in the nascent games industry as a visionary programmer who could squeeze impossibly ambitious content out of very limited hardware. With The Lords of Midnight, Mike took direct inspiration from (some might ungenerously say ‘ripped off’) The Lord of the Rings and found a way to do what no-one else thought possible: to make a game that offered both the adventure story and the strategic battles of Tolkien’s epic trilogy. Using a ground-breaking technique he called landscaping, Mike realized he could simulate thousands of locations from small component images that could be composited into first person views on the basis of situational data. The result was magical.

Although it is at it’s most impressive when measured against its contemporary games, The Lords of Midnight still has a following today. Within a week of discovering a Spectrum emulator, I had dug out my old maps of the land of Midnight and set to work trying to win it. I managed to overcome the nefarious Doomdark by melting the Ice Crown easily enough, thanks to recruiting the dragon Farflame as an ally, but never quite held the citadel of Xajorkith from the horde of armies that overrun it. Still, I had great fun trying, and the sense of scale provided both by the size of the world, and the number of allies that could potentially recruited kept me coming back for more. There’s always the sense that there was something different you could have tried, some different way to petition a neutral leader to join the fray, or some better place to ambush advancing forces. It showcases what makes strategic play fun at a time when most such play was confined to board games.

Originally intended as a trilogy, Mike did release a sequel the following year, entitled Doomdark’s Revenge, but the final instalment never emerged. The final game, Eye of the Moon, was foreshadowed in the manual of the second game, and much of the engine was apparently developed. However, a combination of circumstances, including the arrival of 16-bit home computers, contrived to prevent the trilogy from being completed. Mike did later release another game set in Midnight for the PC, but it suffered from a surplus of ambition and a deficit of resources, and arrived in an industry that had already moved off in other directions.

The 16-bit era saw Mike advance the roots of the Open World concept even further with the universally acclaimed Midwinter series. The first game, published in 1989, dabbled in rendered 3D years before the technology for doing so became commonplace (although Carrier Command, released the previous year, had slightly beaten him to the punch with its shaded polygonal vehicles). With a giant island produced by a fractal algorithm, Mike used the strategic team management elements of the Midnight games to present a futuristic battle for survival in a frozen wilderness. Characters could ski, fly delta wings and use other vehicles to wage guerrilla warfare against an invading foe, with the action occurring in real-time but the game divided into turns of two hours game time per character, adding strategy to action – and offering first person shooting years before the classic first person shooters began to emerge. The sequel, Midwinter II: Flames of Freedom (or just Flames of Freedom) increased the variety of vehicles that could be used to roam its vast sprawl of tropical islands, and enjoyed the same critical success as the original two years earlier.

An English school teacher turned programming ‘superstar’, Mike’s legendary games came too early in the history of the games industry to net him millions, and like his contemporary Andrew Braybrook, he lacked the business acumen that rocketed other 8-bit visionaries to fortune and fame many years down the line. Despite this, Mike’s legacy is a catalogue of exceptional games that are still beloved today, and which influenced generations of game designers to follow. On more than one occasion I designed a map module for a game that was inspired by Mike’s early designs, although sadly none were ever built. It took incredible genius to produce games within the savage constraints of early computers – The Lords of Midnight fitted into fewer than 48 kilobytes, smaller than the draft file of this obituary. Mike will be sadly missed by his fans, and remembered as a true pioneer who took games where no-one knew they could go, and from where they could never be the same again.

Cross-posted from, please leave comments at the obituary there.

Cyberpunk is Dead

Giger.The Trumpets of Jericho Cyberpunk is dead. All that remains is mere cyberfetish.

The cyberpunk movement that erupted in the 1980s is now long gone. In its place can be found only bland echoes of its visionary origins – predictable near-future dystopias devoid of any inventiveness or insight, and something else, stranger In many ways: a desire for these collisions between technology and body, computer and mind. This titillating fixation on the cybernetic moment, or union with the machine, deserves the label cyberfetish, a term which I intend to be derogatory as a profound betrayal of the ideals of the original cyberpunks.

Five authors stand out as the centre of what was at first simply called ‘the Movement’, and later ‘the Mirrorshades Group’. William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and Bruce Sterling did not coin the term ‘cyberpunk’, like most artists their label was foist upon them by critics. But it stuck firmly, it had an irresistible appeal, and it seemed to link this movement with its predecessor, the New Wave of the sixties and seventies – John Brunner, Michael Moorcock and (perhaps more than anyone) J.G. Ballard were icons in this movement who went on to influence the nascent cyberpunks even more than the traditional science fiction writers.

Although William Gibson is the cyberpunk author most associated with the movement, Bruce Sterling did the most to try and rescue it from being perceived as mere dystopianism. His edited collection, Mirrorshades: the Cyberpunk Anthology, remains a definitive tribute to the first wave of cyberpunk authors, and its preface is the most illuminating presentation of what the movement was about. Sterling notes the importance of the rapid acceleration of technology to its ethos. Gone is the comfortable distance between an imaginary Science and a somewhat distant society that populated the pages of Amazing Stories, rather there is almost a trace of the monstrous products of technology foreshadowed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – but no longer set aside in isolated laboratories.

Technology has collided with life and can no longer be prised apart. As Sterling puts it:

... the gap is crumbling in unexpected fashion. Technical culture has gotten out of hand. The advances of the sciences are so deeply radical, so disturbing, upsetting, and revolutionary, that they can no longer be contained. They are surging into culture at large; they are invasive; they are everywhere. The traditional power structure, the traditional institutions, have lost control of the pace of change.

Thus the origin of the movement’s name – high tech (cyber) fusing with counter-culture (punk). Sterling comments that for he and the other original cyberpunks “technology is visceral... it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.” The prevailing themes of those original cyberpunk stories found a horror and a fascination in this collision, epitomised in George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, whose protagonist has great anxiety about the vast array of ‘add-ons’ and ‘moddies’ that everyone else is using to get wired. The ethical stance of cyberpunk was not in unequivocal support of this blind fusion between humanity and machine. Gibson lamented on occasion his fans inability to spot the irony that animated Neuromancer and its sequels – their fervent desire to be part of the fallen future he depicted was distinctly distasteful to him.

As it transpired, the original vision of resistance to institutional power against a backdrop of technological future shock quickly gave way in the fanbase to a fetishist fantasy about body modification, a desire for cybernetic limbs and mental union with the computer, epitomised by the nonreligion of The Singularity, whose future visions are so hilariously reminiscent of the eschatology of traditional religious mythology that their signature event was quickly dubbed ‘the Rapture of the Nerds’. Cyberpunk thus eroded down to mere cyberfetish. Gone was the grassroots rebellion, now substituted by fanciful dreams of trading flesh for tech – a reverie intimately connected with the vacuous hope of techno-immortality, the contemporary opiate that seeks to quell the fear of death in younger mythology. There is no ethical side to these phantasmagorical distortions of cyberpunk – this is simply a reflection of the base egoism that Gibson and Michael Swanwick had exposed in their short story Dogfight.

Cyberfetish is brazenly absurd in its longings, and a profound betrayal of cyberpunk’s roots. It is also deeply ridiculous in its iconic manifestations. Why desire cybereyes when your phone is forever at hand to snapshot your life and distribute it online to your friends? We are all trivially cybernetic now but more than this, as Donna Haraway shrewdly observed in 1985 (at the height of the cyberpunk movement) we were always already cyborgs. The distinctions we make between our bodies and our machines are contrived; our prostheses are as much a part of our lives now as they ever were, although their nature has changed and their diversity has skyrocketed. The surgical implantation of an artificial hip doesn't make your granny more cyborg than you – the bird was a cyborg the moment it built its first nest, the beaver’s dam profoundly reconfigured the world millennia before we began to fear our capacity to do so.

The cybernetic moment is not union with the machine, but its usage. Cyborg existence began with tools, long before humanity. Cyberfetish wants to narrow the gap between human and machine, flesh and metal, but this change is all but meaningless when measured against those original cybernetic moments, when animals began to explore the boundless realms of tools and technology. We have, without a doubt, accelerated the process immeasurably within the last century – and it was this that the cyberpunks alternately warned us about, or hoped we could use to change the world before it could change us. Cyberfetish abandons this dream, preferring instead to surrender. I had always hoped cyberpunk might serve as a timely warning, instead it has devolved into a fatalistic fixation with nothing to offer but escapism. Truly, cyberpunk is dead. Long live... well, that perhaps is the remaining question.

The opening image is from H.R. Giger’s The Trumpets of Jericho. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Over on ihobo today, my thoughts on the thin play galaxy explorer Noctis:

It has awful graphics, absolutely no sound, rules that are utterly incomprehensible and a terrible interface design certain to frustrate anyone used to traditional 3D game control schemes. So why can’t I stop playing Noctis IV?

The Empty Rituals of Peer Review

Peer Review (James Yang) Is peer review a valuable contributor to the objectivity of the sciences? Or an absurd obfuscator of the actual practises and views of scientists?

The Jewish people have a word, ‘kibitzing’, which means to offer unwelcome or even unhelpful advise in a back seat driver sense. It is often associated with games – for me, the archetype of this is playing solitaire and hearing over your shoulder “put the red ten on the black jack”. In academia, however, kibitzing has been made central to the progression mechanics of the game, and dignified with the title ‘peer review’. I have given and received many peer reviews of papers for conferences and the like, as well as reading feedback other people have had from the peer review process and am forced to conclude that the system, while having many strengths, also serves as a means to strangle innovation and contrary perspectives, and to uphold and enforce every half-baked dogmatic philosophical prejudice at large in the research community.

I have written, in The Mythology of Evolution and elsewhere, about the way ground-breaking new ideas struggle to emerge in scientific fields because peer review tends to uphold orthodoxy and therefore suppress alternative points of view. The peer review process is far more effective than the central authority of something like the Vatican in this regard, as both responsibility and blame is anonymously distributed, ensuring the status quo is always upheld. This is one side of the problems inherent to peer review, but since innovations that upset the applecart are rare, this cannot be the worst excess of peer review. No, this occurs in the almost mindless way that empty ritualism becomes substituted for good judgement in the exchange of opinions dressed up in artificial authority.

When asked to be a peer reviewer, I have always taken the view that I am doing a favour both for conference organisers and authors of papers: my feedback, I believe, should help clarify the strengths and weaknesses of a paper, and provide suggestions for additional citations that might be helpful (sometimes supplemented with apologies for the fact that there won't be enough time to consult these extra sources). Despite my efforts, some of my responses were probably badly received – the peer review process is doomed to hurt feelings, no matter how hard a reviewer tries to be civil. I view this as unfortunate but inevitable, and still preferable to the bland uselessness of the publishing review system which issues stock rejection letters of zero use to anyone.

However, some peer review feedback I have read is not helpful, nor polite, nor necessarily well-reasoned. Under the cloak of anonymity, it seems some peer reviewers vent their frustrations and prejudices in the sure and certain knowledge that this will never come back to them. Papers are subject to review; peer reviewers are generally immunised from assessment – no matter what their feedback might be like. One cannot be censured as a peer reviewer, although a bad incident might have someone removed from the invitation list for a single journal or conference.

The worst empty ritualism, however, occurs in the sciences, which persist in the farcical belief that facts speak for themselves, that everyday language is less scientific than jargon (especially jargon derived from the classical languages) and that the scientist is strangely irrelevant to scientific practice, being a mere observer – like Cassandra's pronouncements on behalf of the gods. I am always irritated when peer review asks for me to remove first person references, something that only happens in the sciences and which has no methodological advantage: the sole benefit gained by excising individuals from accounts of their research is the maintenance of a form of writing that is less accessible to a wider audience, thus preserving the mystique of the expert.

This complaint concerning inaccessibility is even more true of the substitution of comprehensible terms for bland neologisms based on Latin and Greek. The Victorian scientists did much to invoke the aura of objectivity around dead languages – a process amusingly reminiscent of the old priestly requirement to speak Latin. Just as the priest used to be viewed as apart from – or even sometimes above – the “common man”, so too the scientist’s resort to dead languages creates an unnecessary mystification that allows them to preserve the sense of separation from the ordinary, a communion with the imaginary objective world they believe they are investigating that somehow elevates their work from being merely the practises of mortal scientists to the perfect exposition of immortal Science.

The peer review process in the sciences serves to maintain the mythology of Science by providing specific rituals of objectivity that do not and cannot make the work more objective. An experiment’s most vital component is the scientist running the protocol – eliding their involvement or perspective is to obfuscate what actually happened in the lab, or to censure the view of the only people who witnessed the relevant events. This preserves the mythic status of those facts which are claimed to speak for themselves, a claim that ironically is advanced by people whose speech is absolutely required before any notion of fact could conceivably be brought to bear. Furthermore, muzzling personal opinions in scientific papers on grounds of objectivity is to confuse esoteric ritualism for transcendent principles of knowledge, and to favour the maintenance of a community of priest-like experts over the integration of the scientist into their communities.

I do not see the peer review system changing, especially while belief in its empty rituals serves as a prop for the objectivity of Science – that grand abstraction that substitutes (often in highly suspicious circumstances) for the actions, beliefs, and discourse of scientists. But neither can I go on pretending that these vapid traditions are anything but arbitrary components of a professional rituality, like the wigs worn in British courts. Objective they are not, nor could they ever be so. If we wish to be objective about the sciences, and I’m uncertain we should, perhaps we could begin by letting scientists talk about their work, instead of pretending that the work speaks for itself.

The opening image is by James Yang. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Gametrekking Omnibus Marks End to the Project

After 236 days, 5 countries and 10 games, Jordan Magnuson’s Gametrekking project is coming to a close. To celebrate its conclusion, Jordan has made an Omnibus edition of all the games made for both Windows and Mac available from the Gametrekking website.

Jordan comments:

This is going to be the final official release of the Gametrekking project, because it’s been two years since the project launched, I’ve clearly finished “the journey proper,” and a downloadable collection of the work I’ve managed to produce so far seems like as good a place to wrap things up as any. I say this is the “official” end of Gametrekking, because I see the project continuing on indefinitely in some sense… It seems certain that I will keep traveling into the future in some capacity or another, and that I will continue to experiment with interactive sketches and notgames about the things that impact me. But still, I think the Kickstarter project deserves some kind of closure, and that’s what I’ve tried to create with this downloadable collection.

I’d like to congratulate Jordan on this project, which has produced some truly memorable art/games such as The Killer and I shall look forward to exploring the titles in the Omnibus edition I’ve not had a chance to try yet, as well as his work in the future.

Cross-posted from

Latour de France

Bruno Latour For a long time, I largely ignored Bruno Latour because the principal people who were talking about his work seemed to be speculative realists – specifically the object oriented ontologists – and I took their work to be interesting but tangential to my own. Speculative realism – partly by virtue of their ‘realist’ epithet – always seemed much more concerned with epistemology (knowledge plumbing) than ethics, and was thus distanced from my interests. Indeed, it took a long, long time for perpetually-verbose speculative philosopher Levi Bryant to come close to laying out any kind of moral position, and others in the ‘movement’ haven't even done this as far as I can tell, although I am at best an interloper in that community.

But by judging Latour solely by those he influenced I was being even more unfair than I have been to the speculative realists (as I discovered, in the latter case, by tweeting a few idle thoughts about them and bringing the wrath of Bogost down upon me!). Latour’s work may be focussed in ontology (the sorting of things), but his motives are far, far deeper and connect immediately with moral philosophy, even though he never seems to venture there directly. He is, sadly, coming at this primarily from the political – a strategy that is often necessary but frequently jumps the gun – but his goal is nothing less than the reconstruction of the unstated Constitution of the contemporary republic, a venerable system of thought built by Plato and the Greeks and then later ‘debugged’ by Kant and the Enlightenment.

Latour is the first French philosopher since Maurice Merleau-Ponty that I have taken a shine to – indeed, I would go so far to say “j'adore Latour”! Reading him on the encounter between different cultures in On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods rang my philosophy of religion and science bells so soundly that I went on almost immediately to read We Have Never Been Modern, after which I felt incredibly in tune with Latour’s goals (if not his methods). For the first time since discovering Mary Midgley, I had a powerful sense of finding an ally, someone who shared similar concerns and attempts to tackle them philosophically (although, alas, Latour is quite impenetrable when compared to Midgley’s slickly accessible prose). I’m currently reading Latour’s Politics of Nature and chuckling at the almost Robert Anton Wilson-like way he talks about ‘epistemology police’.

What’s more – and especially unusual for a French philosopher – Latour is a practicing Catholic, another gem of a philosopher like Charles Taylor who demonstrates how profoundly unjust it would be to take the pronouncements of the Vatican as in any way defining what it means to be a Catholic Christian. Latour’s general scepticism of the concept of ‘belief’ as it is usually applied to religion (both by Christians and their opponents) refreshingly recasts the issues in a way that highlights the sheer extent to which Western secularity is not an escape from Christian thought but merely a reshuffling of the deck. Latour is justifiably unimpressed, and demands instead a whole new deck of cards – perhaps even a new game played with something other than cards. If he reaches too high in this regard, it would still feel wrong to chastise him for his ambition.

The trouble with Latour, alas, is the curse of many French philosophers: he prefers to imply rather than state, goes around the houses showing you the front door and generally fails at clarity. He is in desperate need of something more than mere translation: he needs exporting into a less cumbersome, more accessible form. Perhaps this is true of many great philosophers – one could hardly commend Kant for his clarity, after all – but still it creates a barrier around work that bears pressingly on a number of salient issues. A great deal more could be done, and would need to be for even a fraction of Latour’s ‘political ecology’ to be practically implementable, or indeed widely comprehensible.

Discovering him has slowed down my next philosophy book project, Chaos Ethics, in quite considerable ways, but I believe this Latour detour will ultimately prove fruitful. At the very least, citing Latour updates my arguments in a few key places so that I can point to work that is only a few years old, instead of decades or centuries (even millennia in the case of Aristotle!). I do not yet know if Latour’s work is going to influence the thrust of my polemic in new ways, or if it will simply complement it, but either way the time I am spending on Latour de France is an investment I expect to pay handsome dividends.