Previous month:
February 2010
Next month:
April 2010

Coming Attractions: Mimesis as Make-Believe

That's the end of the Game this winter, as I'm off for my Spring trip to the States. Before I go, I want to briefly mention the new blog project that begins shortly after I return. It's the biggest endeavour I've attempted on my blogs so far, and consists of several inter-related elements:

  • Mimesis as Make-Believe (Serial on Only a Game)
    What are the foundations of the representational arts? In this summary of the work of  the philosopher Kendall Walton we examine the make-believe theory of representations. Art - whether sculpture, painting, novel or otherwise - can be seen as a prop in a game of make-believe, quite similar to the way in which a child uses a doll or a toy gun as a prop in an imaginative game. Examining representations in this way reveals a striking perspective on the way we experience the world.
  • Game Design as Make-Believe (Serial on ihobo)
    It is often asked whether videogames are art, but in this serial (based upon the work of Professor Walton) the issue becomes reversed and all art is seen as a game. Adapting the make-believe theory of representations to videogames, boardgames and tabletop role-playing games, a new way of thinking about game design is developed - one in which we design props that prescribe specific imaginings for players. These props can have representational or functional aspects, but imagination always remains at the root of the play that is generated.
  • Walton on Make-Believe (Interview on Only a Game)
    To conclude this sequence, Professor Walton has kindly agreed to an interview about his make-believe theory of representations, and how it relates to the way we perceive the world around us.

Thanks to everyone who played in the Game this winter! It would be no fun without you.

Only a Game returns in April.

Wendy Despain Elected to IGDA Board

International Hobo is proud to announce that our very own Wendy Despain has been elected to serve on the board of the IGDA. Also elected this year was long-time friend of the company Darius Kazemi, while Coray Seifert - THQ's dice-throwing ninja - had his board position renewed. You can read about the election results on the IGDA website.

Wendy will be at GDC this year, and will be happy to talk about issues concerning the IGDA with anyone who corners her. She will once again be hosting the IGDA Writing SIG's Group Gathering, while ihobo's Ernest Adams has a talk entitled Single-Player, Multiplayer, MMOG: Design Psychologies for Different Social Contexts. I will sadly miss this year's GDC, but will return in 2011.

Cross-posted from, please leave any comments at the other site.

Kant's Critique of Judgement

This serial ran in two divisions of four parts from January 14th to March 4th 2010 (eight parts in total). The first four parts deal with the opening half of Immanuel Kant's classic 1790 philosophical treatise, the Critique of Judgement, and are concerned with aesthetics, while the second four parts deal with the latter half of the book and are concerned with teleology (what has recently come under scrutiny as intelligent design). Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on part one in the first division, below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the eight parts:

        First Division: Kant on Aesthetics

  1. Introduction
  2. The Beautiful
  3. Nature versus Art
  4. Taste

        Second Division: Kant on Intelligent Design

  1. Introduction
  2. Organisms as Natural Purposes
  3. Mechanism versus God
  4. Kant on Darwin

If you enjoyed the serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Kant on Intelligent Design (4): Kant on Darwin

Darwin The Critique of Judgement was published in 1790; On the Origin of Species was published in 1859. Writing some seventy years before Darwin, one could be forgiven for thinking that Kant would have nothing to say on evolution, but this would be a mistake. The popular view that Darwin destroyed a prevailing belief in divine Creation is as historically confused as the popular view that Columbus destroyed a prevailing belief in a flat earth. (Both Columbus and his critics believed in a round planet, they merely disagreed as to its size – and as it happens, it was Columbus who was wildly in error in this case).

One quote in particular is frequently proffered with the intent of showing how wildly mistaken Kant was in respect of the prospects for understanding the origins of life:

It is indeed quite certain that we cannot adequately cognise, much less explain, organised beings and their internal possibility, according to mere mechanical principles of nature; and we can say boldly it is alike certain that it is absurd for men to make any such attempt or to hope that another Newton will arise in the future, who shall make comprehensible by us the production of a blade of grass according to natural laws which no design has ordered. We must absolutely deny this insight to men.

Sounds like a blunder, doesn't it? But Kant continues:

But then how do we know that in nature, if we could penetrate to the principle by which it specifies the universal laws known to us, there cannot lie hidden (in its mere mechanism) a sufficient ground of the possibility of organised beings without supposing any design in their production? would it not be judged by us presumptuous to say this?

In some respects, Kant was indeed mistaken – Darwin's natural selection did allow people to imagine organised beings arising from purely mechanical principles; this insight was not denied to humanity. But Darwin's theories did not rise to the explanatory power of Newton's laws; they did not mechanically explicate a blade of grass – they provided a new way of thinking about how an ordered design might emerge from natural laws. And this possibility Kant had afforded.

Indeed, Kant goes on at some length in the final sections of the Critique of Judgement concerning various issues that a naïve appraisal might be surprised to encounter seventy years before On the Origin of Species. Kant takes the idea of organisms changing – evolving – quite seriously:

The agreement of so many genera of animals in a certain common schema, which appears to be fundamental not only in the structure of their bones but also in the disposition of their remaining parts – so that with an admirable simplicity of original outline, a great variety of species has been produced by the shortening of one member and the lengthening of another, the involution of this part and the evolution of that – allows a ray of hope, however faint, to penetrate into our minds, that here something may be accomplished by the aid of the principle of the mechanism of nature (without which there can be no natural science in general).

One can even see the seeds of Darwin's “descent with modification from a common ancestor” in Kant's text:

This analogy of forms, which with all their differences seem to have been produced according to a common original type, strengthens our suspicions of an actual relationship between them in their production from a common parent, through the gradual approximation of one animal-genus to another – from those in which the principle of purposes seems to be best authenticated, i.e. from man, down to the polype, and again from this down to mosses and lichens, and finally to the lowest stage of nature noticeable by us, viz. to crude matter.

He thus notes:

And so the whole... of nature, which is so incomprehensible to us in organised beings that we believe ourselves compelled to think a different principle for it, seems to be derived from matter and its powers according to mechanical laws (like those by which it works in the formation of crystals).

This isn't Kant pre-empting Darwin, but merely Kant expressing his views on the prevailing discussions concerning the origins of life in biology at his time, all of which was part of the background conditions of Darwin's work. And in this regard, it can be quite surprising to uncover just how much had already been surmised. Kant comments:

Here it is permissible for the archaeologist of nature to derive from the surviving traces of its oldest revolutions... that great family of creatures... He can suppose the bosom of mother earth, as she passed out of her chaotic state (like a great animal), to have given birth in the beginning to creatures of less purposive form, that these again gave birth to others which formed themselves with greater adaptation to their place of birth and their relations to each other...

He considers this latter thought “a daring venture of reason” but acknowledges that “there may be few even of the most acute naturalists through whose head it has not sometimes passed.” Rather than Kant failing to anticipate Darwin, as is usually suggested, Kant was already thinking in terms of what Darwin was going to deliver – as indeed were a great many other thinkers at this time. What they lacked, and what Darwin delivered, was a viable mechanism i.e. natural selection. Darwin big idea was not, in fact, as explosively novel as is sometimes suggested, which is in no way to denigrate its contribution to natural science.

Kant has one final point he wished to make, and did so in a section he later relegated to an appendix. He had, through his various Critiques, systematically debunked each of the proofs of God that had been advanced as being inadequate (the disproof of the teleological proof of God we saw last week, for instance). But he advanced a different kind of “proof” of his own – what Kant considered to be a moral proof of God. The short version of this argument is that it is rationally and morally necessary to attain the perfect good, and this is only possible if there is a God to secure an overarching moral order and causality. In the absence of God, one could strive towards perfect good, but it would be impossible to reach. This is not a “proof” of God as a fact – it was precisely these kinds of proofs that Kant debunked. It is a justification for faith in God.

In exploring his moral philosophy, Kant's central idea was that humanity, via the power of reason, was capable of legislating moral laws for itself (an ability he believed, as a Christian, was God-given). In the Critique of Judgement he ventures that one may choose to believe that the existence of creatures capable of ethical reasoning could constitute “the final purpose of the being of a world” i.e. that humanity as an ethical being is the culmination of Creation (or evolution). He recognises that one need not believe this, however, but notes that the alternatives are “either no purpose at all”(i.e. nihilism) or “purposes, but no final purpose” (i.e. subjectivism). Kant obviously favours the first option – the belief that humanity is the pinnacle of nature, that our ethics are our highest achievement, and that perfect good is attainable (because it is secured upon God).

Kant divided the kind of things we can mentally consider into three groups: opinion, fact and faith. Of matters of opinion, he had little to say. Matters of fact (or knowledge) he constrained to the faculty of reason and empirical observation of the world i.e. to science. But matters of faith were wholly separate from knowledge in Kant view. He stated that faith is “trust in the attainment of a design” and “the possibility of the fulfilment of which... is not to be comprehended by us.” To put this another way, Kant says that even if one has faith in God, it is absolutely not on the cards that we should understand God's plan. He even admits “I cannot cognise what God is.” Both God and God's plan are incomprehensible to humanity according to Kant.

If this is so, what value in the idea of God? Kant states:

If it be asked why it is incumbent upon us to have any Theology at all, it appears clear that it is not needed for the extension or correction of our cognition of nature or in general for any theory, but simply in a subjective point of view for Religion, i.e. the practical or moral use of our Reason.

Which is an incredible admission – for Kant not only allows that faith in God is subjective, but states that the only reason to contemplate God is for the ethical aspects of religious practice. Treating God as a matter of knowledge was a grave error as far as Kant was concerned – God should only ever be a matter of faith, and even then, the only way Kant allows that one can do God's work is to combine faith and reason in the pursuit of ethical living. This is a long way from the blind faith in Biblical authority that actuated intelligent design, for he did not presume that “God's law” was static, factual and beyond question. Kant instead believed that reason has the power to derive an ethics of the universal that could potentially bring about a “Realm of Ends”, the state of communal autonomy. Thus Kant believed that it was up to humanity to pursue what he claimed was our God-given purpose: learning how to live together.

A new serial begins in April.

Lazzaro on Choices in Games (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, Nicole Lazzaro and I talk about choices in games. Here's an extract from the beginning of the discussion:

Chris Bateman: Nicole, in your chapter for the book you claimed that there is a strategic game that players of slot machines engage in, when they try to pick the right machine. Do you really believe there’s strategy at work here?

Nicole Lazzaro: The players in Vegas that I've interviewed absolutely do. (I had to sneak a camera in under my coat!) Likewise the floor managers adjust the odds for different machines. The ones on the end have different settings than the ones in the middle. The reason there is a rolling jackpot above many banks of machines is that players will choose a machine that has not won in a while, “because the odds are better.” But in truth the odds of winning are the same. Like Bejeweled, players engage in a tight activity loop each time they go through an emotion cycle from hope to anticipation to seeing if they won. The simplicity of the choice tightens the activity loop and makes it more immersive.

Chris: It feels to me that you're reaching to maintain the illusion of omnipresent choice behind the pleasures of gambling.

Nicole: From my perspective, we see slot machines evolving and adding new features to create more engagement by adding other layers of fun. Players decide how many lines to play before they spin and often choose when to stop the wheel(s). More choices in the bonus rounds, more lights and video and so forth – I do think that choice is important in slot machine gambling.

You can read the whole thing by clicking here.

Anthropocentric BBC Rides Again

SouthAfrica_Zulu_Hunting_with_Dogs Recall the other week my grumbling about a BBC report which implied via its choice of words that squirrels were better communicators than humans? Well this week, the BBC reports (in an article concerning symbiosis between hornbills and warthogs)  that "banded mongooses remove ticks from warthogs, in what is believed by scientists to be the only symbiotic relationship between two mammal species."

Really? So is it that humans aren't mammals, or that the relationships between cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, rats etc and humans aren't symbiotic, despite the fact that both parties benefit? The non-human gets food and care, the human gets companionship (and with it, superior health and longevity). Looks like a form of symbiosis to me. Perhaps they just missed out the phrase " the wild"?

But of course, domestic cats and dogs originate from symbiotic relationships between their wild ancestors and humans; all modern dog breeds are descended from wolves that are believed to have lived symbiotically on the edge of human settlements. Symbiosis between cats and humans is believed to have originated in Egypt where grain storage lead to plagues of rodents that created an opportunity for symbiosis that still persists today.

Besides, there are several other instances of symbiosis between mammal species in the wild - one of which was even reported by a BBC nature documentary. Beavers are willing to share their lodge with other mammals; the other mammal brings in some food to "pay" for the lodgings, but this is still essentially a symbiotic relationship. Some naturalists report muskrats and beavers frequently share lodges in winter, a clear example of mammals of different species co-operating.

The point isn't that mammal-mammal symbiosis is rare, but rather that bird-mammal symbiosis is incredibly common. There are huge number of bird and mammal species that co-operate either in grooming rituals (such as one between the warthog and the hornbill mentioned above), alarm calling (as with antelope and Hartlaub's ducks, or red squirrels and jays), or mutual foraging (as with jacanas and gorillas, or egrets and elephants). Neither is inter-class co-operation restricted to birds-with-mammals; dolphins have been known to co-operate with sharks in order to corral fish - a relationship that connects species separated by 400 million years of divergence.

The point is that, once again, an anthropocentric viewpoint obfuscates the facts being reported: the BBC reporter who wrote the article didn't think twice about the claim that mammal-mammal symbiosis was rare, not once it was validated by nebulous "scientists". Yet humans are mammals, and we live symbiotically with a huge number of species - both as pets, and in many other contexts besides. If one is willing to count the conservationist's feeling of elevation when they act to preserve a species under threat as their "gain" in a symbiotic relationship with an animal being protected, the entire field of nature conservation falls under the remit of mutual benefit between animal species.