Encounter at Farpoint, Part Two

Earlier this week over on WAM TNG, "Encounter at Farpoint, Part Two". Here's an extract:

The most interesting word-drop in this script is Picard name checking 'Ferengi'. For the longest time I assumed that all this talk about them eating their enemies was just because they hadn't worked out who this alien race was supposed to be yet. But no. It turns out that because the Ferengi were originally going to be super-evil in order to replace the Klingons (they're our friends now, dont’cha know), this idea that they would eat their enemies was intended to paint them as dark as possible. Of course, by the end of Deep Space Nine, Ferengi society is busy transforming into a 90s liberal fantasy of the what the United States could be if only US liberals weren't utterly incapable of negotiating social changes with conservatives, so in retrospect this throwaway line looks rather uncomfortable. But this is season one of TNG. It's going to get a lot more uncomfortable than this!

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This post carries an unusually high risk of cognitive dissonance, and perhaps should not be read by anyone.

Ripped Sistene ChapelI want to talk about a schism. It doesn't really matter when it begins, but let's suppose it starts with David Hume in 1739, because it amuses me to kick off this story in Scotland. On the one hand is the faction for whom God is a word that must not be spoken in vain, which is to say, as profanity. On the other is a faction that, by the twentieth century, discovers its own sacred word. I try not swear on this blog, but the sacred word of the breakaway group is the one that Father Ted uses 'feck' as a substitute for. And this word isn't one that must not be spoken as profanity - it is one that people must not be prevented from speaking as profanity.

This is the Godfork - the schism into 'Team God' and 'Team Feck'. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is Christianity versus atheists; its true that the majority of atheists are on Team Feck, but there are significant numbers of Christians on both sides. The God side stands for order and tradition - Kierkegaard called this faction 'Christendom', and denied that it was following Christian teachings, but that argument is a rabbit hole best avoided for now. What matters is the fork, the division into God and Feck and the convictions that flow from this point onwards.

Take Israel versus Palestine, an international political crisis for 74 years and counting. Team God sides with Israel, while Team Feck sides with Palestine. Ironic, really, as both sides of the Godfork are prejudiced against Muslims... this is, after all, a schism in Christendom (which now includes anti-Christendom). Then we have abortion, which has been a political crisis since Roe vs Wade in 1974, 48 years of metaphysical commitments to the unborn vying with incompatible commitments to the autonomy of women. The following year, we get 'global warming', which by 1989 has aligned with the Godfork - Team Feck being increasingly sensitive to the atrocious environmental damage our species causes, and Team God having immense historical and economic ties to the vastly profitable oil industry.

Then we get to vaccination. Don't be deceived by the retrospective histories that get told here (although it is true that political issues surrounding vaccination go back to the first vaccinations). The term 'anti-vaxxer' first appears in 2001, and this time it is Team Feck siding with the corporations, in this case, the pharmaceutical companies. Isn't it comforting to know that whichever side of the schism you align with, you will eventually be required to prop up capitalism...? Capitalism, after all, is only a secular name for Christendom i.e. colonial Europe's dominant culture, and now globalism's only permitted culture. By 2020, this dimension of the Godfork is turbocharged by the so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (face masks and lockdowns). Ironically, since Team God are the sceptics in this aspect of the schism they become the cynics, while Team Feck become the zealots, an inversion of the usual roles played. But don't think for one second the Godfork is about scientific truth, equality, or anything else so noble and principled. All the way down the line, it's just rival teams taking up opposing commitments. In the US, the schism is helpfully colour coded: Red for God, Blue for Feck. Pick a team, pick which multinational corporations to support.

But something unusual has happened in the last decade or so: the Godfork is splintering further... Team Feck are no longer united. They have divided into those who take 'woman' to be matter of biological sex, and those who take 'woman' to be a matter of existential identity. Neither of these correspond to the position of Team God who still take 'woman' to be a question of gender, even though their collective memory is too short to remember what 'gender' used to mean, before the 18th and 19th century destroyed the old gender regime and replaced it with the alignment of sex and gender and the instatement of a new patriarchal political hierarchy. Likewise, Team God is breaking down into new factions. The folks who for a very long time were committed to censorship in the form of outlawing blasphemy and obscenity are now breaking into further factions over the question of free speech.

For the first time since the schism began, new and previously unthinkable alliances are possible. Classical lesbians ally with the very conservatives who shunned them in the late twentieth century: both share a metaphysics of sex and gender opposed to the existentialist tenets of their 'genderfluid' political opponents. Free market capitalists unite with their old opponents who march under banners of environmentalism, cultural diversity, or both: they share a commitment to liberal democracy. This new alliance opposes the regime of censorship emerging from Big Tech's freshly minted coalition with the pharmaceutical corporations. The uniformity of the old factions lies in flux.

The schism I am calling the Godfork dominated the political landscape of Europe and its colonies for three centuries. But the old ways are breaking down... there is now a tremendous opportunity for unprecedented change. Many paths diverge from this turning point, and our old convictions are just as likely to betray us as to guide us wisely into the future. It is time for us to embark upon a new journey, yet the path ahead still remains unknown. We can perpetuate the cultural wars the Godfork has bequeathed us, or we can set forth on a bold adventure together. All that matters is the destiny we have yet to forge: shall we choose peace, or will we prolong the war...? This monumental choice is ours to make together.

Encounter at Farpoint, Part One

Over on WAM TNG, the very first WAM ran this Wednesday, for "Encounter at Farpoint, Part One". Here's an extract:

It's fair to say that until Sternbach and Okuda sat down and thrashed out canonical rules for how TNG shields work, the show's writers were still operating in the same woolly space that allowed Decker in Star Trek: The Motion Picture to say "Recommend defensive posture, Captain: Screens and shields," a statement that has mobilised fans to all sorts of interesting retconnery and fanonising in order to make sense of it. I love that we do this... but the explanation for this and so many other inconsistencies is that writers only borrow the technobabble for narrative reasons and don't ever truly understand it - certainly not in the way that fans do. There is no logically consistent world in which all these contradictory statements make sense, there's only the scripts and the circumstances behind them. It is we, the fans, who force it all to make sense.

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The Paradox of Conviction

Topographical3-1200The 1992 movie A Few Good Men gave us the memorable phrase "You can't handle the truth!", beloved by internet memesters. Yet it is just so: we cannot handle the truth, and indeed we would far rather have certainty than know the truth uncertainly. Certainty brings with it a contentment that we long for, even while we profess that our longing is for the truth. We want to know, we say... but what we desire is the certainty we call 'knowledge', or 'science', which we then falsely conflate with truth. We are not committed to the truth at all. We are desperately seeking certainty - and will sacrifice anything - even and especially the truth - to get at it.

Here is a paradox: certainty (a mental state) seems to rest upon alignment with the truth. We think that if we know the truth, then we are certain. Therein lies precisely the pitfall - we feel certain, and this feeling has nothing at all to do with whether what we are feeling certain about is true. Yet beyond doubt, the only thing our feelings can offer certainty upon is how we feel - and even then, we can be deceived. We can persuade ourselves that we hate someone we love, or vice versa. As Wittgenstein realised, our mental state of conviction is in no way dependent upon any associated truth.

In the grab-bag of half-developed ideas that is contemporary psychology, it is accepted that we are uncomfortable with uncertainty. One experiment conducted in 2016, based upon the ever-popular delivery of electric shocks, suggested people would rather be given a shock immediately than suffer one at an indeterminate point in the future. The amygdala, which mediates fear and anxiety, can be activated by incomplete information - consider a simple example of having said something that you worry might have caused offence. Not knowing is, in itself, a significant cause of anxiety. Certainty alleviates fear.

It is therefore not surprising that we have made an idol out of this thing we call 'Science', which no longer means (as it once did) 'knowledge'. Two centuries ago, many and varied were the things that could be called a science. Today, this term denotes the exclusive authority of those experts upon whose say-so we attain certainty. Yet the history of the sciences is not just theories being replaced with later theories that explain situations with greater accuracy. It is also the history of plausible-sounding gobbledegook that was accepted as knowledge by humans who placed more value on certainty than on truth.

The psychological description of this kind of certainty is nothing of the kind: it is literally faith. Never mind the mismatch between belief and certainty we ascribe to the religious - this has little to do with religion and everything to do with human nature. Our desire for certainty is such that we will take claims on faith as long as in so doing we can feel certain. The truth, on the other hand, is always uncertain. It is only in logic and mathematics that a system admits of truth by 'proofs', which is to say, reliable inferences from foundations that are secured by definition. Once we depart from the artifice of constructed systems, truth lies distant from us and requires tremendous effort to uncover - and even when it is uncovered, it is still uncertain.

And here we are today, still just as human as we ever were. We hide from the truth because it is too challenging - too exhausting! - to seek it, and also because that very search is neither guaranteed nor likely to end in certainty. Instead, we choose certainty, by whatever means it is offered to us. A hypothesis dressed up in theoretical clothing. A non-binding referendum that becomes binding. A fallacious argument from authority. Any escape at all to avoid dealing with the inevitable uncertainty of the truth.

This is the paradox of conviction: we are certain that certainty is truth, and that only the truth deserves our certainty. Thus, we fail to accept that uncovering the path towards truth requires a commitment to uncertainty. The most essential skill for any scientist to cultivate is the one we don't want from them: an openness to the inevitable uncertainties of scientific practice. Certainty and truth are not one and the same, but the exact opposite of one another. Knowing this, we still gladly choose certainty over truth, without hesitation. We must know, and we must know with certainty... and so the truth is forever barred to us.

The opening image is Conviction by Dan Sisken, which I found at his art blog. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

The Beautiful Closed World of Shenmue III

Over on ihobo today, my reflections on the narrative design of Shenmue III. Here's an extract:

Gladly will I concede that, as a commercial proposition, Shenmue III has serious problems... but those problems are the ones it inherits from Shenmue itself, and as a game that was funded by a Kickstarter pledging to provide a true sequel to 2001's Shenmue II, objecting that it is too much like the games that preceded it might rather miss the point. Frankly, if the flaws in an artwork are that some people do not like it, this really isn't as knock-down an argument as it may seem. Rather, to appreciate Shenmue III we have to understand why it is the way it is, how it fulfils the promises made by its creators, and why its beautiful closed world has more to teach about game narrative than most of its critics are prepared to allow.

I don't write as many games pieces these days (I work all day making games... it's hard to want to blog about it as well), so it always feels like something of a special event when a game moves me to write. Check out the entirety of The Beautiful Closed World of Shenmue III over at ihobo.com.