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Act of Dog

Boomer After years of intentions foiled by international moves, my wife and I have finally adopted a puppy; an 8-week old black Labrador called Boomer. Because of the disruption to my usual schedule as we adapt and build a new routine, I'm struggling to get the blog time I would usually have. To help me adjust, I'm taking next week off, then I'll return with the previously mentioned "Bioethics mini-campaign".

Back soon!

The (Gaming) Gods Must Be Crazy (ihobo)

On ihobo today, another of my idle musings about the state of the videogames marketplace. Here's an extract:

The videogames industry is about making money. This is essentially the goal of every industry, and since adults need employment in order to earn the money to live, those of us who work in this sector should be glad that commercial reality overrules artistic aspiration (and equally glad that we are finally getting an "art house games" movement with the reverse priorities to help explore the creativity of the medium). But what kind of "commercial reality" is it that informs the heads of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony? Because examination of the marketplace makes me question all three companies' strategies.

Click here to read the complete piece.

Episteme vs Paradigm

If you have not read the post Mythology of Science, it may be wise to begin there.

Thomas Kuhn's notion of a paradigm as the underpinnings of prevailing scientific thought seems remarkably similar to Michel Foucault's notion of an episteme. Foucault writes in Les Mot et Les Choses (usually translated as The Order of Things):

I would define the episteme retrospectively as the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific.

Jean Piaget has asserted the similarity between these ideas, while the Wikipedia page on episteme asserts that there are decisive differences, citing Foucault's work as the source for this claim. The distinctions raised in the Wikipedia article rest on a literal interpretation of both Foucault and Kuhn's texts - this to me is formalised pedantry, and another example of why the Wikipedia's lofty epistemic goals fall down in practice. (The decision of siding with or against Piaget's interpretation has been made by the author of the page in question, citing only Foucault - thus opinion has been disguised as knowledge, as is so often the case).

There's no doubt that Kuhn and Foucault were thinking and writing about significantly different things, but nonetheless I assert that they were gesturing at the same concept: that the epistemic underpinnings of knowledge and theory change, and that the underpinning of science and knowledge is never the solid foundation that is claimed, but always a principle of thought (an episteme to Foucault, the root of Kuhn's notion of a paradigm). It is the oft-ignored scandal of twentieth century philosophy that science never attained the bedrock it was believed it had already secured.

That science is not well-grounded, however, does not prevent it from making discoveries or attaining technologies. Or to put it another way: that we are doomed to subjectivity doesn't deny an objective universe, it only places a limit upon how we gain access to that external framework. And that limitation means that certainty of understanding is always metaphysical - even the scientist does not escape from their reality being founded upon their beliefs.

Consider that the remarkable accuracy of Newton's gravitational law with respect to Enlightenment measuring instruments in no way hinted that Newton's model was a mere approximation of Einstein's model of gravitation that was yet to come. Thus, even accurate reliable predictions are not an indication of certain knowledge. And what in turn will follow Einstein? We cannot know. Neither can we actually know that the gravitational constant of the universe has a fixed value - we assume this, just as we assume the constancy of the speed of light, because without these assumptions there is no science of cosmology.

The epistemes of modern science work well within their own fields, but they do not allow an escape from metaphysics, from having to hold beliefs that cannot be decisively proven; nothing can.

Does God Exist?

This is a far simpler question than it first seems, but not for the reason usually assumed! Regardless of one's beliefs or experiences of God, it can be interesting to explore this issue as a matter of philosophy of language.

The answer to this question obviously depends upon what one means by "God" and "exist". When we ask "Do unicorns exist?" we are asking if there is a physical animal corresponding to the idea of the unicorn. But if we ask this same question about God, then clearly God does not exist since no-one claims that God is a physical entity (except, oddly, Dawkins in his complexity disproof).

So what does it mean to say that a non-physical entity exists? Does Switzerland exist? Well, yes and no; there is a physical landscape we call Switzerland, but the country itself is a concept of mind, a mental model of its borders and people (what Benedict Anderson calls an imagined community). Does Einstein's theory of general relativity exist? No, it's a concept of mind that models physical events. Similarly, for most people who believe in God, the word "God" is a concept of mind that models spiritual events. Paul Tillich sees God as "the ground of being", John McQuarrey as "being itself" and Emmanuel Levinas as "the unknown and absolute other". Not one of these ideas of God implies any claim to existence in the way this term is usually used.

So no, God does not exist. But this statement has nothing much to say about God.

Punishment & Fear (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, a follow on from the recent piece about punishment and time penalties which briefly considers the theoretical benefits of punishment in games. Here's an extract:

When we are punished by a game, we experience sadness or frustration – if we experience frustration (i.e. anger), we might become riled up and continue to pursue the challenge that drove us to anger. If we experience sadness, we are more likely to stop playing. (It looks as if a lot of players in the wider market have been kept out of playing games by the focus on punishment, hence the success of casual games, i.e. forgiving games).But more than this, the knowledge that we might be punished acts as a source of anxiety (i.e. fear), and fear is an enhancing emotion for play.

Click here to read the full piece, which is comparatively short for a change.

Conservative vs Liberal

Leftright Why is the political conflict between liberals and conservatives (which goes on in one form or another throughout the world) so intractable?

It is widely understood that liberal political philosophies are characterised by a focus on individual liberties and equality, while conservative political philosophies primarily stem from one of two attitudes: a drive to uphold tradition (which can be termed social conservatism), and a desire to give as little money as possible to government (fiscal conservatism). In both cases, what is usually denoted is not so much a clearly defined ethical position so much as a broadly constituted political position. Yet any political belief also has an ethical dimension.

The relationship between ethics and politics bears some brief examination before we consider the specifics of the liberal-conservative divide. On the one hand, there is a widespread intuitive appreciation that ethics is intended or claimed to underlie politics, and on the other there is an equally widespread cynicism that claims that politics is wholly divorced from ethics. I might assert that the former conclusion is based around the relationship of the electorate to ethics (expressed in the idea that 'we vote what we believe'), while the latter is drawn from the relationship of the politicians to ethics (which I express in the idea that 'all politicians are weasels'). There is less of a disconnect here than it might at first seem – in the battlefield of politics, the forces amass beneath an ethical banner but the acts of the warriors must be focussed on the conflict.

An interesting recent attempt to understand the liberal-conservative divide can be found in the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, who have researched the psychological roots of morality and political ideology. Moral foundations theory is the result of this study, an attempt to identify common dimensions behind beliefs concerning morality. Haidt's research has produced a model of five moral foundations:

  1. Harm/care: the desire to care for others and avoid harm, which underlies the virtues of kindness, gentleness and the desire to nurture.

  2. Fairness/reciprocity: the basis for concepts of justice, autonomy and individual rights.

  3. Ingroup/loyalty: the force of collective identity which underlies the virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group.

  4. Authority/respect: the need to defer to legitimate authority and have respect for tradition which underlies the virtues of leadership and the duty of the follower.

  5. Purity/sanctity: arising from the emotion of disgust, and the concept of contamination, which underlies the striving for a more elevated and noble way of life summed up in the idea that 'the body is a temple'.

(You can test how you score on these five measures by taking a test at

Haidt's research has demonstrated a consistent pattern behind the liberal-conservative divide in the United States. It transpires that people who identify as strongly liberal are happy to endorse statements relating to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, but they largely reject those concerned with ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Conversely, those who identify as strongly conservative endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.

This is an interesting perspective on the political divide since, contrary to the way it is usually conceived, both parties share a common grounding in terms of fairness and the avoidance of harm. The conflict arises in the context of the relationship of the individual to the group: liberal beliefs stress autonomy in a way which comes into conflict with the sense of loyalty and duty to the group which holds an important role among those who hold conservative beliefs.

Yet there is an irony here: while people who identify as liberal may largely reject statements concerning ingroup loyalties, the psychological forces behind those groups still apply to them. Vehement liberals in the United States demonise their conservative opponents just as forcefully (and unfairly) as their political enemies. This kind of behaviour is explored by Henri Tajfel and John Turner's social identity theory, which claims that we all assume particular identities (including religious, political and sexual identities such as Christian, Buddhist, atheist; liberal, conservative; gay, straight, bisexual) and having done so we feel a natural kinship with those groups, which in turn tends to lead to a bias against different or opposing groups. When opposing groups publicly decry each other, this hostility naturally becomes more entrenched.

I believe the conservative-liberal conflict in the United States and elsewhere can be boiled down to two battlegrounds: the group versus the individual, and the welfare state versus the fortress state. In stressing individual autonomy, the archetypal liberal celebrates diversity and personal freedom in a manner which seems to the conservative to be threatening because it involves an alliance with many identity groups, rather than the sole support of their own identity group. Similarly, the stereotypical (social) conservative upholds traditional conceptions of the group (and the nation in particular) which is abominated by the liberal on account of its expectation and requirement of deference to leaders (which stands in opposition to the concept of personal autonomy) and the absence of obligation to other groups (which runs counter to liberal concepts of fairness and justice) .

The conflict over the purpose of the state, on the other hand, occurs primarily between the liberal and the fiscal conservative. In pursuit of greater equality and the avoidance of harm, many liberals believe the state should pursue its duty of care by setting up a welfare state which provides various support mechanisms at the expense of the taxpayers. Fiscal conservatives object to paying their money into the state for redistribution in this way – yet bizarrely, the majority of conservatives in the United States are perfectly happy to fund the military at great expense to the taxpayers. The desire to protect the ingroup leads to this need to set up a fortress state – not necessarily by force of arms and attempts at foreign pacification (as in the US) but more commonly by control of immigration. The goal is the same: to 'protect' their identity group (their conception of their nation).

The intractability of these disputes has a certain historical momentum that is hard to overcome, and is further ingrained by self-justifying narratives that demonise the opposition. Consider, for instance, that most liberals in the United States cannot understand why vast numbers of economically impoverished individuals vote for Republicans. Haidt raises this point and explains it in terms of the latter three foundations of his theory. But it is in no way logical for low-income workers to support a party which will tax them more severely and distribute this money primarily among entirely different socio-economic groups elsewhere in the country. If one escapes the narrative of the welfare state, it severely reduces the appeal of voting Democrat, just as the eschewal of the narrative of the fortress state decreases the sense in voting Republican.

The so-called “culture wars” in the United States rest not only in a failure for each camp to understand the perspective of the other, but in an inability to apply their own values to their political opponents. If people with liberal beliefs value autonomy and diversity, this should extend to defending the cultural rights of their conservative opponents; if people with conservative values are truly loyal to their country they must extend respect to all their fellow citizens, even those who have opposing political beliefs. The narratives required to support this conciliation already exist in the foundations of the nation itself – all that is needed is a willingness to return to the spirit of a Republic founded on a commitment to liberty and justice for all.

Weird Decisions

In one of the strangest findings in recent psychology, it seems the grouping of objects affects human decision making. Dubbed the group-contagion effect, it seems that when looking for objects with a negative connotation (defective or infected) people prefer to select from objects spaced further apart, and when looking for objects with a positive connotation (beneficial or desirable) people prefer to select from objects that are more closely packed.

The current explanation being offered is that we naturally imagine that the traits of objects transfer to their close neighbours - that is, closely packed objects are considered "contagious". But this explanation is just as weird as the phenomena: it might be logical if the people in question were arranging the objects, but why should it affect their decisions when choosing from pre-arranged objects?

It's another reminder that while we tend to believe our decision processes are logical, our subconscious and subjective beliefs are always working to sway our conclusions.

Games as Learning (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, I muse about the 'games as learning' perspective and contrast it to 'games as rewards'. Here's an extract:

The problem with 'games as learning' in this context is that it draws the individual's attention to an outcome (learning) and risks misleading people as to what actually goes on while a player is enjoying a game. To make his theory of fun track, Koster has to eliminate all forms of visceral fun, since these are not based upon learning, despite the fact that, yes, rollercosters are fun even though they do not involve learning. Conversely, 'games as rewards' does not fall prey to this limitation so easily – from this perspective, visceral enjoyment is intrinsically rewarding, and thus can be sought for its own sake. Furthermore, 'games as rewards' has specific lessons for game designers as to the mechanisms they can use for structuring those rewards.

Check it out by clicking here!

Circumstantial Blindness

Blindness As you push open the door to leave a building, a man shouts obscenities at you. What a rude man, you think. But unbeknownst to you, when you flung open the door you hit the man in the face. You interpreted the event in terms of the man's personality traits (he's rude), and ignored the situation which caused him to behave this way (you hit him in the face with a door). You've fallen prey to circumstantial blindness.

In psychology, this phenomena is known as the fundamental attribution error (or correspondence bias). These terms refer to the tendency to presume that a particular situation is best explained by the (internal) personality traits of the people involved, not the (external) circumstances surrounding those people. In other words, when we observe an event we tend to process it in terms of what it tells us about the people involved, and underestimate the importance of the context within which the event occurred.

In 1967, Edward Jones and Victor Harris ran an experiment in which subjects were asked to assess a person's attitude towards Fidel Castro based on an essay they had written. In one of the studies, the subjects were told that a coin had been tossed to determine whether the writer would pen a pro-Castro essay, or an anti-Castro essay – that is, the essays did not represent the attitudes of their writers, and the presented attitudes had been assigned at random. Despite being told this, the subjects consistently assigned pro-Castro sentiments to the authors of essays that expressed a positive view of Castro and vice versa. Even being told that circumstances were the root cause of what was written, people still linked their impression of the text directly to the attitude of its writer.

Jones & Harris used the term correspondence bias to represent this discovery, and the experiment caused Jones to observe:

I have a candidate for the most robust and repeatable finding in social psychology: the tendency to see behaviour as caused by a stable personal disposition of the actor when it can be just as easily explained as a natural response to more than adequate situational pressures.

This work was later pursued by Lee Ross and his team in the 1970s, who first coined the rather clunky term fundamental attribution error (or FAE) for the phenomena. A simpler way to understand the concept is with the phrase it's not you, it's here, or to put it another way: people are 'victims of circumstances' more often than we think.

Consider one of Ross' most striking experiments. Subjects observed two sets of basketball players shooting hoops indoors, but were not told that while one of the two groups was playing, the lighting in the gym had been lowered. Needless to say, the players in low lighting conditions did not play as well as those in the well-lit gym. Nonetheless, the subjects consistently attributed the poor performance to the player's lack of skill, not to the lighting conditions in the gym.

In another experiment, subjects were placed into pairs and randomly assigned the role of questioner and answerer for a general knowledge quiz. During a preparation interval, both subjects created a set of difficult questions on whatever subject they choose, then during the test the questioner asked their questions to the answerer. Afterwards, they were asked to rate each other on a number of different traits. Everyone involved knew the circumstances behind the test, but nonetheless they consistently tended to rate the questioner as having better general knowledge skills, despite the fact that they had chosen questions from their own areas of expertise.

This finding – that people tend to explain events in terms of personal characteristics even when there was a clear situational influence – caused some economists to believe that personality could be all but ignored and that only the circumstances needed to be taken into account, although work by Brent Roberts challenges this view, and confirms that personality does indeed play a critical role in life. It's not that personality doesn't matter, it is simply that we tend to prefer explanations in terms of personality to those in terms of circumstance.

At least, we do when we're dealing with other people. It seems that while we are too quick to explain the behaviour of other people in terms of their nature, we naturally tend to explain (or perhaps, excuse) our own actions in terms of the situation. Jones and Nisbett call this the actor-observer bias, or to put it another way: if you do it, it's your fault; if I do it, I'm a victim of circumstances.

So is correspondence bias another bug in the human operating system, like cognitive dissonance? Well, yes and no. Research by J.G. Miller has revealed that this effect varies according to culture, so it is not part of the underlying wetware (like cognitive dissonance), but rather something we learn. In Western, individualistic societies the tendency to circumstantial blindness is quite pronounced. Yet in Eastern, collectivist societies the reverse tendency has been demonstrated – explanations in terms of situation are often preferred to those in terms of personal traits.

Although these psychological phenomena are well documented, and even quite widely distributed (the popular book The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, discusses the fundamental attribution error, for instance) we are a long way short of fully appreciating their implications. If we tend to turn to explanations in terms of personality too easily, what does this mean for our societies?

One particular consequence of note has been explored by Donald Dripps in the context of criminal justice: because of circumstantial blindness, we are frequently too certain in our application of blame. In his paper, Fundamental Retribution Error: Criminal Justice and the Social Psychology of Blame, he suggests:

In the actual practice of criminal justice, we frequently give legal force to intuitive judgements of personal responsibility, and this practice is approved by many strands of both popular theory and prevailing practice. But our intuitions about blame are not to be trusted. What criminal law reformers can learn from the research on FAE—and it may be all we can learn from it—is that we should reach judgements of blame with as much humility as possible.

We learn to trust our judgements, because to doubt them constantly is the path to insecurity and madness. Yet in the case of other people's behaviour, we would do well to remember that the context within which events unfold are like a secret actor, working unseen from behind the scenes, but with as much a part to play in what occurs as the people themselves.

Creationism Exam Question Scrapped

The BBC reports that a question on creationism in the GCSE biology examination has been scrapped following complaints. Here's an extract from the news article:

An exam board has scrapped a GCSE biology question about creationism after admitting it could be misleading. The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance paper asked pupils how the Bible's theory of creation seeks to explain the origins of life. AQA stressed that pupils taking its biology GCSE were not required to study creationism as a scientific theory. But it admitted that describing it as a "theory" could be misleading, and said it would review the wording of papers.

The article also notes that "candidates were expected to have some understanding of [creationism]". Indeed, how are evolutionary theories to be fully appreciated if they are not contrasted against something? (Ideally, they would be contrasted against each other, but that's too advanced a topic for high school students).

But there's a grave error here that isn't covered by the BBC article: talk about "the Bible's theory of creation" is entirely misleading, since the book of Genesis provides an account of creation, not a theory. Most Christians interpret the opening chapters of Genesis allegorically. It is creation scientists (i.e. Young Earth Creationists) who deploy scripture as the foundation for their theory (i.e. explanatory principle), first proposed in the 1960s, although of course natural theology goes back far further.

As a current affairs subject, I contend that the topic of creationism (and in particular, the clash between proponents of this view and staunch defenders of evolutionary theories) is relevant in the science classroom, although only as a minor side topic. Furthermore, it makes more sense here than in a high school religious studies class, which may cover origin beliefs but not the creation science movement, which is a science or philosophy topic.

I continue to support Professor Reese's claim that teachers should be allowed to (briefly) discuss creationism when a student comes from a family which holds these beliefs. Shouldn't we be encouraging debate in our classrooms, rather than stiffling it by asserting dogmatic claims as to the boundaries of science?