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Things You Don't See Every Day...

Such as an atheist and a Christian preacher publishing a book together.

''The channels for communication are many and the dialogue between religion and non-religion is one of them,'' said Zhao, a Communist Party member. ''It will promote the understandings between people from both sides and help people to get to know the opinions of each other.''

(From, via my lovely wife).

New Audience Model

We have our first new audience model in a while thanks to Parks Associates (via King Lud IC, from Next Gen and ultimately from here). It appears to focus chiefly upon the amount of time and money spent on games, however, making it largely useless for game designers - but still, every new model tells us something. (This one seems to tells us that some people are too busy to play games. Not exactly a surprise.) Still, the message that the market is more diverse than presumed is useful, even if this research adds very little to our understanding of the diversity of players. Patrick has more discussion of the topic for those who are interested.

On Prequels

Porthos The danger of writing prequels in science fiction and fantasy is that fans of these genres often display an almost irrational desire for perfect consistency throughout the lifetime of a franchise. The desire for canonical consistency in the Star Trek franchises is a clear expression of this, with some fans insisting that their own internal representation of the series mythos is somehow factual. In this light, attempting a prequel series was always going to be difficult. Perhaps this contributed to Enterprise's eventual cancellation.

On the other hand, perhaps it was just that the theme tune verged upon musical abomination. It certainly helped me stop watching!

Defining Religion

91_space_line_dot How do we tell if a system of beliefs should be considered a religion? The answer is not as simple as it first may seem, and the obvious and trivial answers are usually based on either a narrow exposure to world religions, or a metaphysical bias. The tendency for someone who follows a religion to claim that what they practice is “not a religion but a way of life” only complicates the matter. How can we unravel this linguistic knot? 

The question naturally hinges upon what belief systems we consider as religions, and this is no trivial matter. As always, I follow Wittgenstein on matters of language, and take the view of language as a game, and that ‘the meaning of a word is how it is used’. But how is the word ‘religion’ used?

I contend we can illicit some consistent agreement on this from census data asking people to identify their religion. The most common responses from a global perspective are Christianity (33%), Islam (21%), Hinduism (14%), Buddhism (6%), Chinese traditional practices (incorporating Confucianism and Taoism) (6%), and primal indigenous religions (6%), (with honourable mentions for Sikhism at 0.36% and Judaism at 0.22%). Another dozen religions collectively make up less than 0.5%. Only about 16% of people do not identify a religion, and of these people roughly half are theistic but do not identify a specific religion, while approximately 4% are estimated to be atheists not identifying a religion. 

I suggest that any definition of religion must necessarily include all these religions if it is to be at all useful. Critically, this rules out a definition contingent on gods or the supernatural, as Buddhism and Chinese traditional practices require no such elements. In fact, key schools of Buddhism (such as Theravada Buddhism) are atheist in nature, while others (Ch’an/Zen Buddhism) not only discard the notion of gods but the notion of self as well! The tendency for people’s definition for religion in English speaking countries to require supernatural elements in general, and deities in particular, is probably a consequence of overexposure to Christianity.

Perhaps the best general framework for considering the question of ‘what is a religion’ comes from Ninian Smart’s ‘seven dimensions of religion’ who suggests that the more strongly a human system expresses these seven dimensions, the more strongly it qualifies as a religion. This is a solid attempt at providing a framework for a family resemblance term defining 'religion', focussing on seven specific traits:

  • Experiential (or Emotional): a variety of different experiences are expressly connected with the notion of a religion, in particular the numinous experience (of contact with that which is wholly other, be it deity or otherwise), and the contemplative experience of inner unity.
  • Practical (or Ritual): the rituals and practices generally intended to invoke the experience, such as prayer, marching, fasting, pilgrimages, festivals etc.
  • Narrative (or Mythic): oral tales, formal and informal teachings, histories and alternative histories, future predictions and so forth.
  • Doctrinal (or Philosophy): the formal teachings and hence the metaphysics that underpin the narrative element.
  • Ethical (or Legal): formal or moral laws that emerge from the system of belief; essentially the behaviours that correspond to the beliefs.
  • Social (or Institutional): the formal organisational element; multiple people sharing the same general belief system.
  • Material: the physical elements of the religion, such as buildings, icons, art, ritual implements, and also natural features that are considered sacred such as holy cities (Jerusalem, Mecca, Lhasa).

Prior to encountering Smart’s model, I had been working with an alternative definition which was developed here on this blog through discussion with various visitors’ kind enough to share their point of view. The essence of this model was a focus on three primary components:

  • Mythology (or Central Narrative): which corresponds to the Narrative dimension in Smart’s model.
  • Metaphysics: which broadly corresponds with the Doctrinal dimension in Smart’s model.
  • Ethics: which corresponds with the dimension of the same name in Smart’s model. 

To what extent does this ‘accidental’ subset of Smart’s seven dimensions capture the essence of a religion?

I would suggest that the social and material elements can be considered secondary concerns. After all, any belief system will lead to social and material consequences – we consider science as wholly distinct from religion, but it produces institutions (laboratories, universities, research institutes, scientific bodies etc) and materials (radio telescopes, interferometers, archaeological digs, museums etc.). Material elements of religion such as sacred sites can be considered to be a geographic projection of metaphysical elements (since how is a sacred place defined if not metaphysically?), further suggesting that these two dimensions can be set aside to some extent.

(This is not to suggest that Smart was wrong to include them in his model, rather it suggests a more compact representation is possible). 

This still leaves the experiential and practical dimensions. Smart’s notions of numinous or transcendent experiences do seem to be intimately connected with what is considered religion, although it should be noted that Chinese traditional religious practices do not expressly contain this element (although Taoism tends towards it). I believe this is conspicuous in its absence in our prior model for religion. One could suggest that one must have the appropriate metaphysics to have a numinous or mystical experience, but this is surely an error since many people have such an experience prior to beginning to practice a particular religion. Since the experience can be perceived in the absence of the corresponding metaphysical system, this does not appear to be a viable conflation.

The practical dimension occupies an odd space. As with the social and material dimensions, any system of beliefs can lead to practices – science consists in a large part of its experimental and theoretical practices, for example. But if the practical dimension is seen as practices intended to invoke the uniquely religious experiences then we cannot logically detach this element. However, we can arguably conflate the practices intended to produce the experiential element with that experience, at least in terms of producing a compact definition for religion. 

This suggests that our definition is only missing this experiential component. I therefore advance the following compact definition for a religion, drawing from Smart’s model and our own investigations:

A religion can be understood as a belief system comprised generally of mythology (or a central narrative), metaphysics and ethics, and often relating to numinous or transcendent experiences. 

This definition seems to encompass all the major world religions adequately, and perhaps more importantly excludes belief systems that we would not consider religions such as science (which by Popper’s milestone should not directly include metaphysics, and which does not in and of itself imply a system of ethics) and ideologies (which as political or economic conceptions may contain ethics but do not usually contain a narrative, metaphysics or mystical experiences). 

From this I continue to assert that the domain of religion concerns metaphysics and ethics, and is therefore wholly distinct from science, which (if we agree to uphold Popper’s milestone) contains neither.

What of the objection that what a particular person follows is “not a religion but a way of life”? My suspicion is that the expression of anti-religious sentiments in the twentieth century has corresponded with a new application of the word ‘religion’ as a negative term, and that the above objection is an attempt for an individual to disassociate themselves from the negative connotations. But since the negative connotations almost invariably relate to fanaticism and extremism (which are problematic in any tradition, including science and political ideologies) this approach is disingenuous. I suggest that people in a genuinely free society should never be afraid or ashamed to identify a religion. Besides, surely any belief system can be seen as a way of life – that does not exclude it from being considered a religion. 

The value of this definition depends upon how it is received. While it is doubtful that any single definition of religion will satisfy all people, I am hopeful that sufficient people will accept this as a reasonable ‘best fit’ pattern and I can proceed to more specific philosophical investigations on the topic of religion in the future.

Please share your view! It might be helpful if you also identify your religion(s), or state you do not identify a religion (I would be grateful if you refrain from using ‘atheist’ to mean that you do not identify a religion as this may lead to confusion). Thanks in advance for your participation!

The opening image is Space, Line, Dot by Wieslaw Sadurski, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Teaching An Old Dog

Corvus has a great piece over on his blog right now; he compares his experiences teaching a rescue dog how to play (which would be enough to get my interest by itself) with some guidelines on game design. Here's an extract:

Discourage Undesired Behavior Note that this rules doesn’t say punish or disallow, but discourage. Your game should not be a battlefield between designer and player. You should not take an adversarial stance with your audience. Remember that even negative attention is attention and gently discourage undesired behavior with non-threatening, non-harmful guidance. Die-and-repeat gameplay only appeals to a small segment of the game playing public, so give the rest of your audience plenty of gentle discouragement when they wander astray.

Prod Corvus for pictures of Eliot!

Word Ate My Homework

No post of substance today because Microsoft Word ate my notes for the week. All of them. They were in a Word document, which yesterday developed a strange bug - a black line which I could not delete. Today, everything below that line - which happens to be the entirety of this week's notes - is gone. There's no trace of it whatsoever. I would be furious, but I expect this sort of behaviour from Microsoft products, which lessens the frustration when they invariably let me down.

Hope everyone else's day got off to a better start!


Sometimes, we have no choice but to be patient...

  • Waiting for the next Play with Fire Beta candidate. The delay between builds on this project are just too slow; we have to improve on this in the future.
  • Waiting for news about Reluctant Hero's reception with the publishers. I want to dig into the design ideas and issues here on the blog, but my colleagues have cautioned me (sensibly) to wait until we know it's going to get signed before doing any more work on it. However, I have been invited to write a piece about the project for new website RPGwatch which launches next month.
  • Waiting for any useful information at all about "the generic game engine" project that might allow us to start the game design process.
  • Waiting to get my copy of Keirsey back from my neighbour; for the next campaign I plan to finally bite the bullet and provide some solid material on Temperament Theory, and how I connect it to game design.  I've been vacillating about this for some time, but I think I should just wade in and do it.
  • Waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn...

In the meantime, I have some clean up on the subject of metaphysics to attend to:

  • Why Popper's Milestone means Intelligent Design shouldn't be part of a science curriculum, and the challenging philosophical consequence for scientists.
  • A long standing question in philosophy of religion concerns the striking resemblance between Marxism - which categorically rejects all religions - and religion. Is there a different way of looking at this issue?
  • And I still owe Johnny Pi a reply to his perfectly valid queries in response to some of my earlier ramblings on the subject of religion (thank you so much for actually taking the time to think about this topic! Many atheists would have dismissed it out of hand, and it means a great deal to me that you did not). I will eventually get to a piece on atheist religions (i.e. religions without gods), and why I implore humanists to reject their divisive term 'lifestance', but it might be more appropriate to dig into the  topic of metaphysics a little deeper first.

And maybe some random game posts as well. Have fun!

PS: we're moving through metaphysics on our way towards ethics... if anyone has any recommendations for books on the subject of ethics, please let me know!

A Problem in Mind

Dissonance What connects resistance to new scientific theories, religious persecution, racial prejudice, and political partisanship? The answer is a psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. Although this topic often comes up in the context of religion, few people seem to appreciate that cognitive dissonance is not a rare event experienced only by those with strong religious beliefs, but rather a known flaw in the operating system of the human mind. We are all subject to its effects, to varying degrees, and a widespread comprehension of this idea has the potential to be the greatest advance for human culture in living memory. 

Let us begin by looking at recent research into the behaviour of people with strong political affiliations, as recently reported in the Washington post:

Partisans who watch presidential debates invariably think their guy won. When talking heads provide opinions after the debate, partisans regularly feel the people with whom they agree are making careful, reasoned arguments, whereas the people they disagree with sound like they have cloth for brains.

Unvaryingly, partisans also believe that partisans on the other side are far more ideologically extreme than they actually are, said Stanford University psychologist Mark Lepper, who has studied how people watch presidential debates.

The article continues:

The result reflects a larger phenomenon in which people routinely discount information that threatens their preexisting beliefs, said Emory University
psychologist Drew Westen, who has conducted brain-scan experiments that show partisans swiftly spot hypocrisy and inconsistencies – but only in the opposing candidate.

When presented with evidence showing the flaws of their candidate, the same brain regions that Kaplan studied lighted up – only this time partisans were unconsciously turning down feelings of aversion and unpleasantness.

Although the brain scans of political partisans are a recent addition to the body of published research, the underlying issue has been an established part of psychology for half a century. 

In 1949, Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman demonstrated that despite the aphorism ‘seeing is believing’, the reverse is often the case – our beliefs can dictate what we perceive. The two psychologists ran a unique experiment for which they created a deck of normal playing cards with one subtle difference: some of the cards had suit symbols that were colour reversed, that is, some of the hearts were printed black, some of the spades were printed red and so forth. These altered cards were shuffled into a normal deck and were then displayed one at a time to the test subjects, who were asked to identify them as fast as possible. Initially, the cards were shown for such a short time interval that accurate identification was essentially impossible, then the display time was gradually lengthened until all the cards were identified. Although all of the subjects were eventually able to identify all of the cards no-one noticed that there was anything unusual about the deck.

When facing a black four of hearts, people would see it either as a four of spades or as a perfectly normal red four of hearts – their expectations about what a four of hearts should look like dictated what they actually saw. As the display times lengthened, people did eventually begin to notice that something was amiss, but they could not determine what was wrong. 

Quotes from the transcripts are particularly revealing. One person, gazing at a red six of spades, responded: “That’s the six of spades, but there’s something wrong with it – the black spade has a red border.” Lengthening the display time increased the confusion and hesitation experienced. One exasperated participant reported: “I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what colour it is now or whether it’s a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure what a spade looks like. My God!”

Festinger In the 1950s, studies of this kind led Leon Festinger and his colleagues at Stanford University to develop the theory of cognitive dissonance. This holds that when a person is facing contradictory cognitions there is a driving force that compels their mind to acquire or invent new beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, in order to reduce the conflict (or dissonance) between these thoughts. In essence, cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling that people experience when confronted by things that ‘should not be, but are’. 

When the force of the dissonance is sufficiently strong, it leads to intense emotional responses such as anger, fear or hostility. Extreme responses may occur in pathological cases of unresolved cognitive dissonance, such as incidents of people blowing up abortion clinics in the name of Jesus. The drive to avoid cognitive dissonance can be so strong that people sometimes react to disconfirming evidence by strengthening their original beliefs and creating rationalisations to dismiss the disconfirming evidence. This is especially problematic when people have committed to a belief publicly.

There are three basic strategies a mind will employ to reduce cognitive dissonance: 

  • Adopt what other people believe: this is related to what is commonly called peer pressure, and provides an explanation for the apparently irrational need children sometimes display for some item that their peer group has adopted. Even in younger children, the need to conform to social pressures is a powerful drive.
  • Apply pressure to people who believe differently: this is what we can see underlying the case of Wilhelm Reich’s persecution by the FDA, and in all manner of religious and other persecutions throughout history.
  • Make the person who believes differently significantly different from oneself: this is the psychological origin of the religious label ‘heretic’ and also the scientific notion of a ‘pseudo-scientist’. It is also the origin of such horrors as ethnic cleansing.

Of course, while we might be able to spot these behaviours in other people, we are less likely to detect them in ourselves. In particular, many scientists, secure in their belief in the objectivity of the scientific process, never consider that science itself might be subject to problems originating from this phenomenon despite widespread documentation to the contrary. 

The celebrated philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), noted how the effects of cognitive dissonance applied to the scientific endeavour:

...novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation. Initially, only the anticipated and usual are experienced even under circumstances where an anomaly is later to be observed. 

Kuhn illustrated this state of affairs with the case of William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus. It was observed seventeen times by different astronomers from 1600 through to 1781, and none of these observations made any sense if the object being observed was a star (the prevailing assumption about most lights in the sky at the time). Herschel suggested that the ‘star’ might have a planetary orbit, and suddenly it all made sense. After this shift in perception, which was caused by a change in the way astronomers thought about old observations, suddenly everyone was seeing planets!

180pxalfred_wegener_die_entstehung_der_k An equally famous example is the case of Alfred Wegener, who in 1915 published a shocking new theory that the Earth’s continents had once been contiguous. He claimed that over millions of years this continent split into separate segments which drifted apart into their current arrangement. This theory, dubbed ‘continental drift’ was supported by extensive geological evidence. Still, British and American geologists laughed and called the idea impossible, and Wegener died in 1930 as an intellectual pariah. Today, Wegener’s theory is taught to every schoolchild, and when we look at a map of the world we consider this once impossible theory to be self-evident. 

Knowledge of cognitive dissonance is relatively widespread among modern intellectuals, yet the benefit of this knowledge has been severely limited by partisan effects. People are quite capable of spotting cognitive dissonance in people with opposing beliefs, but seem utterly unable to recognize it within themselves.

But make no mistake: whoever you are, whatever your belief system, you have been affected by your own cognitive dissonance in the past, and you will be affected by your own cognitive dissonance in the future. It occurs with any and all belief systems, whether religious, scientific or otherwise, and no choice of belief system allows you to escape it since all mental states are founded upon beliefs. Even a diehard agnostic still has beliefs locked up in their idiolect, and in their conceptions of self and society. 

The situation is not hopeless, however, as it is possible to control and minimise the effects with experience and practice, or by patching our belief systems with appropriate philosophies. To begin with, however, you will need to observe or recall an instance of you yourself being affected by your own cognitive dissonance.

Watch for situations that cause you to react in an extreme fashion, or that trigger an unexpected fit of rage, or examine cases where you have taken a mental step to make a group of people significantly different from yourself (perhaps an opposing political party, or contrary religious stance, or even people who like a particular sport or game you hate). Until you perceive an incidence of cognitive dissonance in your own life, you may struggle to believe that it affects you, but make no mistake – you are human, and this phenomenon occurs as a consequence of having a human mind. No-one escapes it. 

The rise in the diversity of races, cultures, religions and media in our pluralistic societies have arguably caused a corresponding increase in the incidence of cognitive dissonance, expressed as intolerances of all kinds. Fractious attitudes in religious matters and political partisanship only intensify the problem. If we could truly get to grips with the issue of cognitive dissonance in our modern world, we would gain the potential to solve a great many of our global problems. Until we learn to effectively communicate with each other despite the massive variations in our respective belief systems there is little hope of serious social progress. And this communication will doubtless flounder unless we manage to keep our own cognitive dissonance on a tight leash.

Become someone exceptional – tackle this problem within yourself. Debug the operating system of your own mind by working on your responses when encountering dissonant beliefs, and try to avoid mental models that create hostile ‘us’ and ‘them’ divisions. Once we have all won our own private battles, then we can take the fight to a wider stage, and perhaps make a better world.

The opening image is Dissonance by Sungsook Setton, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

DS Apathy

DsliteblackjoyWhen I picked up my DS earlier this month (I know, I'm way behind the curve, as usual, but I always wait for the revised versions of handheld consoles), I thought I'd be keen to explore all the games that are already out for it. But I just can't seem to muster any enthusiasm right now. I remember Corvus saying in passing on his blog that while he loved his DS, he didn't want to play it right now either. Has anyone else been struck with DS apathy?

And while we're on the subject, are there any DS titles that I should absolutely make the effort to see? Let me know what you think!

Colour Faiths

Pf_917521colourstudiesposters What alternatives are there to a basic truth value system such as 'true, false and meaningless?' One such system (and there are potentially many) is that of colour faiths, which allocate a degree of confidence that reflects a person's belief in a certain proposition.

I should prefix this piece by explaining that I invented colour faiths for my second novel, Dreamtime (ISBN 1 74100 176 5, currently out of print). This book, set at an inspecific time in the future after mankind has spread out among the stars, concerns a diverse group of visitors who arrive on a lost colony where heterosexuality is a crime, and society is built upon a history of deception. I wanted the language of the visitors to reflect possible cultural changes in future societies, and one of the several new mechanisms I added to their language was the colour faith system, as it suggested a more philosophically advanced culture where archaic notions of absolute truth and falsehood had been successfully dispelled.

Despite some people's conviction that the keyword 'faith' implies religion, most dictionaries reflect a much more general meaning for 'faith', such as "Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing." (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000) . Certainly, no-one who reads it will mistake Dreamtime for a religious novel!

The colour faith system is relatively easy to understand, being a method of assigning a degree of belief to a statement. We all know how to say if we believe something is 'true' or 'false', but with colour faiths one makes an assignment from a range of values, rather than a binary assignment. A comparison can be made with fuzzy logic, which is another alternative to naive truth values  but with greater application to engineering than to human communication.

The sequence of colours used in Dreamtime is essentially a short spectrum with black and white used as bookends. It runs from black (essentially no belief) through red, orange, yellow, green, blue and finally white (near-certainty) as follows:

  • Black faith: no belief in a statement or model (equivalent to 'false').
  • Red faith: a small degree of belief in the plausibility of a statement or model.
  • Orange faith: marginal belief in the plausibility of a statement or model.
  • Yellow faith: general uncertainty or agnosticism about a statement or model.
  • Green faith: a reasonable degree of belief in a statement or model.
  • Blue faith: considerable belief in a statement or model.
  • White faith: near-certainty of belief in a statement or model (equivalent to 'true').

The system allows a person to ask, for instance: "what degree of faith do you assign to Lemaître's Big Bang cosmology?" To which one might reply: "I have green faith." (As an aside, it is not widely reported that Lemaître, who formulated the Big Bang theory from Einstein's general relativity equations, was a Roman Catholic priest).

My wife and I occasionally use the system to communicate the strength of our convictions to each other, particularly as regards to problems of navigation. For instance, while hiking we might have the following conversation: "Which way do we go from here?" "I think we go this way." "How sure are you?" "I don't know... green faith?" "Hmmm... I have blue faith that it's this way". "Okay, we'll go that way."

I'm not suggesting that you adopt the system to communicate with other people (it requires that all parties have learned the mechanism), but I would suggest that you can productively explore your own belief systems using this method. (By belief systems, I mean to say the position you hold on all the concepts of which you are aware).

Which propositions and models do you have absolute belief in (white faith)? Which do you absolutely disbelieve (black faith)? Where are you rather uncertain (yellow faith)? What issues fall between these extremes? By exploring your own belief system in this way you will be better equipped to communicate with other people with different belief systems. Also, if you find that your belief systems consist solely of black and white faith responses, you have problems that you could use to work upon.

For instance, when an atheist and theist talk together there is an inherent problem when using a basic truth value system in that the proposition 'God' is True for one and False for the other. Since naive truth values presume that True and False refer to an objective reality, any communication on this subject is likely to be unproductive, to say the least. But if one can accept that the atheist has black faith in God and the theist has white faith in God, we have at least removed the appeal to an objective external reality (which for an unfalsifiable proposition such as God is an appropriate step!) Although conversation may still be difficult, at least the cognitive dissonance each may suffer facing their antithesis might be somewhat reduced.

It is perhaps appropriate at this point to mention Clarke's First Law: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." I could restate this in the colour faith system as: "Scientists should be wary of assigning black faith to any model or proposition."

I hope you will take the time to explore your own beliefs - linguistic, scientific and metaphysical - by this or another system. There's much we can learn simply by exploring our own minds.

The opening image is Colour Studies, by Kandinsky.