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Mimesis as Make-Believe (3): Principles of Generation

Discworld In Walton's make-believe theory of representations, the rules which determine what is to be imagined in any given circumstance are referred to as the principles of generation. However, ascribing the term 'rules' in this context carries a certain risk of confusion. Each possible principle of generation (and there might be no limit in the variety of these) is in force when there is an understanding that a particular set of circumstances prescribes a particular set of imaginings, but this understanding – while understood as socially constituted – need not be explicit or conscious (any more than most people are consciously aware of the rules that determine the meaning of the words they use). Walton cautions that a certain principle “may be so ingrained that we scarcely notice it, so natural that it is hard to envision not having it.”

In the example last week of the two children playing a game in which tree stumps are imagined as bears, the principle in effect was explicit: “Let's say that stumps are bears”. Such stipulations are much rarer in the cases of works of art, where the principles in effect might not only lack an explicit agreement, they may never have been formulated. Walton is keen to deny any assumptions we might have as to whether the principles of generation can be considered in general terms or (in normal cases) conventional, arbitrary or learned. It is unlikely that any human needs to learn how to interpret a life-like sculpture, for instance. It is sufficient for his purposes that we acknowledge that there are principles of generation in effect whenever a representation is involved.

The simplest such principle is what Walton terms the acceptance rule, by which he brings spontaneous imaginings (such as daydreams) into his system. Thus if I daydream that I live on a tropical island, it is fictional (in that particular fantasy) that I do so. The acceptance rule establishes the prescription to imagine. In this case, this may seem odd – surely I was already imagining it? Yes, but that particular spontaneous imagining did not constitute fiction in and of itself; only by something like the acceptance rule does it generate fictional propositions. Furthermore, we can assume that there is a supplementation rule of some kind such that “the body of propositions fictional in the dream is to be filled out in certain natural or obvious ways, preserving the coherence of the whole.” Thus without any change to my daydream, it is fictional that I am a human male in this fantasy – unless I have imagined otherwise. In essence, the model of acceptance and supplementation rules serve as a prototype for principles of generation in other cases, but in practice the principles for representations can be much more complex.

A great many philosophers have pursued issues such as these, including Monroe Beardsley, John Woods, David Lewis and Nicholas Wolterstorff, but prior to Walton the attempts had been largely motivated by an attempt to establish a single, unified theory of the principles of generation in fiction and art. Walton denies this possibility, suggesting that a confusion between the rules of generation and fictional truths has lead to an inflated hope “that there must somehow be, a simple and systematic way of understanding the mechanics of generation.” Nonetheless, by following the work of others in this area, Walton identifies two general approaches that apply in many, but by no means all, situations. These principles of implication are the Reality Principle and the Mutual Belief Principle.

The Reality Principle (RP) is based around the idea that the fictional worlds we imagine are as much like the real one in which we all live as is reasonable, given the nature of the fictional truths concerned. This is intuitively easy to grasp since we all use this kind of principle of generation all the time in dealing with all manner of representations. When we start watching a television programme in which the men are wearing stove-pipe hats and the women crinoline dresses, we imply that it is set in the nineteenth century by something akin to the Reality Principle.

However, philosophers have teased out all manner of problems in applying the Reality Principle in practice, of which the most intriguing is that in logic a contradiction is usually assumed to entail everything – thus any representation which contains a contradiction can generate every conceivable fictional truth. But of course, pragmatically, this is not how we deal with stories. H.G. Wells' The Time Machine contains contradictions, but we do not construe from this that there are goblins on Jupiter or that elephants are microscopic. Walton points out that even if it might be logically the case that “everything is true” when a contradiction can be found, the individual representation still draws attention to certain fictional truths over others. What is in the background can usually be safely ignored, thus whether or not The Time Machine allows us in principle to conclude that there are goblins on Jupiter, it is not important to Wells' book one way or the other.

One significant problem with the Reality Principle is that it is wed to the appreciator's understanding of the world and is thus somewhat divorced from the intentions of the artist. Walton gives the example of stories told in a culture that believes the Earth is flat, whereby adventurous mariners risk falling off the edge of the world. By RP, are we to assume that we must enforce our understanding of the Earth as a sphere into the tale? Walton suggests that this is “contrived and gratuitously uncharitable”. Why ruin a perfectly good adventure story by bringing reality into it? Better to go along with the assumptions in play, and enjoy the ride. This is the strategy of the Mutual Belief Principle.

The Mutual Belief Principle (MBP) takes into consideration the cultural circumstances of those that have created representations , but it can also be used more extravagantly. Every sword and sorcery, science fiction or supernatural horror story requires something like the Mutual Belief Principle in order to hurdle the gap between the nature of the fictional world involved in the narrative and our conventional understanding of the world. In The Colour of Magic, for instance, adventurers do indeed fall off the edge of the world since MBP validates Terry Pratchett's Discworld (pictured above) as flat, whatever the nature of our world. Walton admits that a certain kind of realism can still be in play, citing Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings as an example, but clearly the Reality Principle is an inappropriate mechanic in the face of obvious fantasy.

The two principles represent something of a trade-off: the artist has better control over what is fictional when something like the Mutual Belief Principle is in play, while the Reality Principle affords to the appreciator “richer and more natural participation in his games of make-believe.”Walton is keen to note that reputable critics resort to both mechanisms in their assessment of representational art. The mechanics by which fictional truths are implied are thus quite disorderly, and it seems quite unlikely that there is any general or systematic way of establishing which principle should be considered in effect.

Walton is keen to stress that in many cases, the principles of generation are precisely what are interesting about a particular representation:

The machinery of generation is not just a means of cranking out fictional truths; it and its operation are open to inspection by the appreciator, and are not infrequently more interesting than the fictional truths that result. Much of the artistry of the painter’s or novelist’s work consists in the means he discovers for generating fictional truths.

Thus despite the characterisation of the principles of generation as rules, they are not so much strictures that must be followed so much as assumptions to be exploited. The manipulation of the appreciator by means of these principles is the very essence of what is enjoyed about fiction – whether it fooling the viewer of an action movie into believing that so-and-so has died by the process of implication, or entrancing the appreciator of an impressionist painting by how a few scattered marks can imply so much more.

Next week: Fictional Worlds

Ebert's Fence and Games as Art (ihobo)

This week's Focus essay is a piece about games as art over on ihobo: it seems timely to pursue a rebuttal of Roger Ebert's claim that videogames can never be art while the current serials are running. I characterise his argument as erecting a boundary fence around the art world, and then systematically dissect his various assertions intended to keep games out.

Here's an extract from my counter argument:

Can a goal-oriented activity constitute art? A murder mystery story invites the reader or viewer to figure out the murderer, and if they do, they can be said to win – even though a story is not normally thought of as a game. This analogy has some significance, since Mr. Ebert has given his endorsement to films of this form in the past. He might argue that this aspect of those movies was tangential, and that the artistry present in their representations bears more weight. This would effectively be conceding that videogames could be art, since the creativity of the artists and musicians who work on these projects can be considered apart from the goal-oriented elements of the games they work upon. If Ebert's fence doesn't keep out murder mysteries, videogames might also leap it.

There's much more over on ihobo if the topic interests you.

Mimesis as Make-Believe (2): Props

Van_gogh-starry-night What constitutes a prop? Any and all representations count as props in Walton's system, and as a result the boundaries of the term are relatively soft. For instance, when watching a play, one views many different props – including the furniture and objects on stage (things already termed 'a prop'), the backdrop painting, and even the actors and actresses themselves. When one watches a movie, one could consider the film to be a prop, or comprised of many props. It is unnecessary to distinguish between these states of affairs in order to use the make-believe theory.

What is important is not which objects are ascribed the role of prop, but that props are generators of fictional truths – things that by their very nature render certain propositions fictional. A child's doll of an infant makes it fictional that there is a baby present, so if a loutish child kicks such a doll it is fictional that they have kicked a baby, which is to say that it is prescribed that any observer imagines that a baby has been kicked. Props generate their fictional truths irrespective of what is or isn't imagined, but they cannot do so on their own: there must be a person or people to imagine, and thus props function primarily in a social context.

If we can imagine more or less anything, how can it be that representations must be understood at a social level? It is for precisely the same reason that Wittgenstein advocates understanding language as socially embedded, and consequently denies the meaningfulness of a 'private language'. We learn to interpret certain kinds of representations just as we learn to speak a language – and we learn both these skills from the people around us, although this is not to say that all interpretation of representations is learned. This seems surprising, and intuitively we might suspect that we would always be able to interpret a picture of a mouse as representing a mouse. In fact, anthropologists have found tribes who lack this form of representation in their culture, and they are incapable of interpreting such a drawing without some instruction.

Furthermore, social elements are involved in the authorisation of the games that are played with particular props. Walton notes:

…dolls and toy trucks are meant to be not just props but props in games of certain kinds, ones in which they generate certain sorts of fictional truths: dolls are intended to “count as” babies and toy trucks as trucks. I will call games of the kind a given prop has the function of serving in authorized ones for it.

Thus, for instance, nothing stops us imagining that a baby doll is a murderous robot but the fictional world of the game where we make-believe this is so is not authorised for the doll: the only (socially) authorised games for dolls of this kind are those in which it is fictional that the doll stands for a baby. (We will return to this notion of an authorised game in a few weeks).

Among the philosophers who have attempted to tackle the problems of fiction, a common approach has been that fiction should be considered an aspect of our actions; that when we make a fictional utterance this is the root of the fiction. Walton sees this issue differently, and contends that the notion of fiction (and indeed of a story) is better associated with objects – props – rather than actions. This may seem odd: if I tell a short story that begins “There once was a little red train” it may seem that there is no object here to draw upon, and we must turn to my illocutionary act of speaking the words. But the prop in this case is the sentence. The words constitute a prop which prescribes we imagine a little red train.

Note that any given person will imagine a different train in response to this sentence – which doesn't, after all, specify whether it's a steam train, an electric train, a subway train or indeed a wedding train. This may seem to give problems in respect of the idea that a prop can be associated with a particular fictional world, as what is imagined in each of the games people play in respect of this sentence could be wildly different. Walton proposes that we view what is fictional about any given prop to be solely that which would be fictional in any (authorised) game in which the prop was used to prescribe imaginings. We can say that the above sentence is associated with a work world in which it is fictional that there is a train, and the train is both red and little.

An example concerning a visual representation may serve to clarify this idea. Van Gogh's painting Starry Night (pictured above) can be seen to comprise a night sky with stars and a crescent moon, a small town, and a dark object that partially occludes both. It is fictional in the work world of this painting that there is a town, and that it is night, and the moon is crescent. Other features are more ambiguous. A particular appreciator of the painting may interpret the dark object to the left as a tree, in which case it is fictional in the game they play using this painting as a prop that there is a tree. But it is not fictional in the work world of the painting that there is a tree – it could also be interpreted as a crag, for instance. The same objection does not validly hold for the town: one could imagine in one's own game that there was no town, perhaps there is just a series of cardboard cutouts in the shape of a town. But this is not an authorised game for this painting, for few if anyone would doubt that Van Gogh was painting a town, whatever their interpretation of the dark object.

However, not all props have their own fictional worlds. It is possible to create ad hoc props, by playing a game of make-believe that follows a particular rule, for instance. Walton frequently draws upon the example of two children, Gregory and Eric, who have decided to imagine that all tree stumps they encounter are bears. In their game, tree stumps are ad hoc props – the stumps do not prescribe any imaginings in and of themselves, they are merely wooden stumps. It is only in the game that Gregory and Eric play that the stumps are props which make it fictional in their game that there is a bear present. Gregory and Eric may act startled when they suddenly notice that there is a bear right there that they didn't see before, but this prescription to imagine belongs to their game, and not to the stump they encounter.

Representations, however, always generate some fictional truths, and thus have a fictional world (a work world) associated with them. The tree stumps in the previous example, while certainly props in the relevant sense, are not representations. Walton writes:

Representations generate fictional truths by virtue of their features – the marks on the surface of a painting, the words of a novel, occurrences on stage during the performance of a play – in accordance with principles of generation… There is uncertainty and disagreement, in many cases, about what principles of generation are applicable to a given work.

These principles, by which the fictional truths are implied or generated, are the subject of next week's instalment.

Next week: Principles of Generation

Strindberg and the Quest for Sacred Theatre

Strindberg-and-the-quest-for-sacred-theatre August Strindberg was one of the most influential figures in Scandinavian literature, and is considered to be a forerunner of (and major influence upon) modern theatre. In Strindberg and the Quest for Sacred Theatre, Theo Malekin dissects several of the playwright's final plays in the context of his reversion in 1896 to Christianity, having previously adopted an atheistic naturalism that dictated the tone and approach of his middle work. Malekin's enquiry revolves around the nature and content of Strindberg's metaphysical beliefs after returning to the Church – revealing an individual with views wildly disjunct from Christian orthodoxy at the end of the nineteenth century, wrestling honestly with the spiritual crises of his era.

I confess, prior to reading this book I had no awareness of Strindberg's work or life, and had the author not have been a long-time stalwart of this blog it's likely this book would never have come to my attention. This placed me in the uncomfortable position of reading a book concerning the details of a set of plays about which I had no prior experience to draw upon. Yet while my deficits in this regard were tangible, my lack of previous knowledge concerning the man and his work did nothing to blunt my enjoyment of the unravelling of the mysteries of his life and work, which are carefully and studiously exposited in an accessible and engaging style. The tenuous but tangible connections between Strindberg and the pioneering existential philosophers Nietzsche (to whom he briefly corresponded) and Kierkegaard (who influenced his early plays) also served to whet my appetite for Malekin's investigation, which might well appeal to anyone with an interest in theatre, philosophy or theology.

What fascinated me about Strindberg's story and beliefs are the inherent ambiguities, which in turn fed into a theatre that seems transposed between the symbols and practices of traditional Christianity and the Pandora's Box of uncertainty that broadsided conventional religion in the nineteenth century. The paradigmatic figure of the latter is Nietzsche, whose “death of God” is emblematic for the crisis – not connoting an inescapable atheism but rather a severing of the foundational conditions of belief such that we are all stranded amongst uncertainty. As Nietzsche puts this: “Is there still an up and a down? Aren't we straying as though through an infinite nothing?” Strindberg, facing up to this crisis of belief (from an entry point of naturalistic unbelief) entered what is termed his Inferno-crisis, which immediately preceded his (reluctant?) return to the Church.

Malekin describes Strindberg's situation as that of the “half-believer” – not a person who is indifferent or merely partly-committed to a religion, but rather the crisis of the devout in the face of the metaphysical uncertainties Nietzsche's philosophy (and the like) heralded for conventional systems of belief. The latter plays of Strindberg thus contain contradictory themes and situations, which are easily misunderstood if taken to be in strict opposition to conventional faith (as Strindberg's middle work appears to have been), and equally misrepresented if taken to be propping up religious orthodoxy. To Damascus (1898), for instance, appears to be built upon a template of redemption – of unregenerate descent followed by some kind of conversion and ultimate return to the bosom of the Church. Malekin rejects such a simplistic interpretation, pointing out the circular structure of the play and the ambivalence of the ultimate acceptance of Christianity by its protagonist in the conclusion. This is not the linear narrative of salvation that the nineteenth century Church was committed to, but a merry-go-round of half-belief that may have no end.

To Damascus also shows an intriguing attitude of ambiguity towards perception, something not previously explored in theatre. For instance, in an early act the protagonist encounters pallbearers dressed in brown, and asks why they are not wearing the traditional black. One responds: “To us in our foolishness, it's black, but if Your Grace commands, then it is brown for him.” Since the audience also sees these people dressed in brown the result is an inherent uncertainty as to whether what is seen can be trusted. The pallbearer's remark suggests he and his colleagues are indeed dressed in black – whatever the protagonist or the audience may perceive. Malekin draws out this theme in a number of Strindberg plays, and frames this in terms of a movement away from Aristotle's conception of theatre as mimetic and instead towards a kind of Platonic theatre – one in which the reliability of perceptions cannot be trusted, much like the dwellers' in Plato's cave who mistake shadows for reality.

Even more ambiguity and uncertainty can be found in A Dream Play, a piece which appears to have left theatrical directors in something of a quandary. Although the play's content is clearly intended to depict a dream, it is never clear whom the dreamer might be. Directors thus often select (or append) a character in order to provide this framework – a move which Malekin criticises as misrepresenting Strindberg's intentions. Inherent to the play, Malekin argues, is the absence of a denoted dreamer. Strindberg has drawn from religious ideas originating in Dharmic religions (such as Maya; the world as illusion) – an influence explicitly included by a framing narrative concerning the descent to the Earth of the daughter of Indra. In this light, the story might be best interpreted as a dream emerging in an identity-free cosmic mind. Malekin notes the incompatibility of this metaphysical view with the idea of a personal God, an aspect of Christianity Strindberg seems either unwilling or unable to accept in his post-Inferno half-belief, frequently fearing that such a personal deity could only be a tyrant.

Theologically, Strindberg seems unable to commit to anything approaching a typical Christian perspective of God – which leads to the inevitable question as to why in his later life he finds himself returning to the Church, and expressly identifying as Christian. Indeed, rather than the personal God of conventional Christianity, Strindberg seems to find an existential abyss lurking behind divine mystery. Malekin suggests this is not a denial of the divine (such as Nietzsche's project implied) but rather the end of any system of metaphysical certainty. The old beliefs face an apocalyptic termination, yet the unveiling of an infinite abyss lying beyond the world need not be (Strindberg seems to say) wholly negative. Why should the divine be emptied of its force by the discovery of its formlessness? What is denied by this uncovering are the easy answers of dogma, not the possibility of the sacred.

Furthermore, Strindberg's characters seem (especially in his Chamber Plays) trapped in a fallen world. Hell, in these intimate theatrical productions, can be found on Earth, and salvation is either tenuous or unobtainable. Yet this denial of Christian orthodoxy seems not to point away from the possibility of the sacred – rather, the plays seem to invite a discarding of illusions, not only of a personal God (of whom Strindberg could apparently conceive but perhaps could never accept), but of any conception of the world or belief in the self. Stripped of all such illusions, one may encounter the divine. It is a theme from the Dharmic religions that Strindberg imports into Christian symbols, a pathway of belief perhaps opened to him by his time as part of the Unitarian church prior to his atheistic years.

Ultimately, Malekin's exploration of Strindberg's later work reveals a paradoxical turn, underpinned by a confluence of pessimism and doubt that never quite seems to reconcile with his decision to return to Christianity. Just what Strindberg's faith might have consisted in at this time in his life is far from clear. Yet within his plays, one can find conflicting perspectives thrown against each other in a clash of beliefs that provide no easy answers, where no single interpretation can be adequate. This risks incoherence, but only in the same way life itself reflects a constant danger of unintelligibility. It is a theatre less concerned with ideology, and more interested in existential exploration.

Behind the action upon the stage lies – quite literally in A Dream Play – a yawning abyss, which may be the nihilistic negation of values foreshadowed by Nietzsche, but which yet might manifest as a divine groundlessness. It is in this latter possibility that Strindberg's plays may be seen as striving towards a new sacred theatre, one existentially divorced from the dogmatic certainties of the religious dramas that precede it. Yet Strindberg also seems to have been afraid of this, unwilling to cast off his ego into nothingness, even if to do so might be the only remaining path to the divine. Caught between doubt and faith, Strindberg's half-belief peeks behind the scenery of the world to find a vertiginous metaphysical chasm into which he was unwilling or unable to hurl himself. The liberation it might bring seems, in Malekin's view of Strindberg, as much a threat as a promise.

Theo Malekin's Strindberg and the Quest for Sacred Theatre is published by Rodopi, ISBN 978-90-420-2847-0.

Mimesis as Make-Believe (1): Imagination

Mimesis as Make-Believe What do children’s toys, paintings, sculpture, novels, theatre, movies, boardgames and videogames all have in common? Without the faculty of imagination, without the capacity to make-believe that what is represented by these objects has come to life, none of these eclectic forms of human art would have any meaning at all. Imagination is thus the wellspring of the arts, and understanding how we use this power of make-believe can teach us not only about our creativity, but about how we understand the world around us.

First published in 1990, but expanding upon earlier papers from 1973 onwards, Professor Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe: on the foundations of the representational arts presents the distinguished philosopher's “make-believe theory of representation” in fascinating detail, but the basics of his approach are easy to grasp. All works of fiction are representations, in Walton’s sense, and ‘fiction’ and ‘representation’ are interchangeable terms in his theory (except when comparing fiction to nonfiction), and indeed ‘mimesis’, as Walton uses the term, can also be understood as corresponding roughly to ‘representation’.

Walton introduces the centre of his concept as follows:

In order to understand paintings, plays, films, and novels, we must look first at dolls, hobbyhorses, toy trucks, and teddy bears. The activities in which representational works of art are embedded and which give them their point are best seen as continuous with children’s games of make-believe. Indeed, I advocate regarding these activities as games of make-believe themselves, and I shall argue that representational works function as props in such games, as dolls and teddy bears serve as props in children’s games.

At first glance, such a claim seems too trivial to be taken seriously: surely the experience of watching a movie is not as trifling as what is pretended by young children at play? Isn't an impressionist painting is worth more than a young girl's doll? But these objections are about the relative value we place on different representations, and Walton is well-aware of this aspect of art. It does not diminish the merit of interpreting the products of the institution of fiction in terms of make-believe.

Similarly, it's easy to be dismissive of the make-believe theory on the grounds that it is self-evident that imagination of some kind is central to works of fiction. Walton admits that “establishing this much is like pulling a rabbit out of a hutch.” Yet if one works through the consequences of this observation, as Walton does in great detail, it leads to quite startling conclusions about the human experience. He quips: “In the end one might think the hutch must actually have been a hat. But by then the rabbit will be in our hands.”

Walton interprets representations as “things possessing the social function of serving as props in games of make-believe”, and the notion of a prop is central to the make-believe theory. A toy gun, a plastic doll, a painting of a watermill and a game of Cluedo (Clue in the US) are all different kinds of props, but each in its own way mandates specific imaginings. The toy gun is to be imagined as a real gun, and similarly the doll is imagined to be a baby. In parallel manner, the painting of a watermill proscribes the imagining of such a mill, and the pieces in a game of Cluedo proscribe the imagining of a murder investigation. The principles of generation behind the specifics of these imaginings may be wildly different, and can be quite obscure in some cases, but the same essential process is involved in each case.

Propositions, that is, statements about the world, are usually taken to be either true or false. It is true that you are reading my blog, for instance, and false that I am immortal. However, in the case of representations thinking in terms of 'true' and 'false' can be misleading – Walton proposes instead that we think of the propositions associated with representations as being ascribed fictionality, which he sees as a “prescription to imagine”. Thus just as belief aims at the true in our conventional understanding of truth, imagining aims at the fictional: “What is true is to be believed; what is fictional is to be imagined.”

Any given fictional proposition can be seen as a fictional truth, and collectively these form fictional worlds. We are familiar with the idea, for instance, that the episodes of Star Trek constitute a fictional world, but in Walton's theory every representation has a corresponding fictional world: the Mona Lisa prescribes a fictional world in which it is true that a women with no eyebrows has an enigmatic smile. What's more, while any given work has its own fictional world (the work world), every appreciator enters their own fictional world when they appreciate that work.

Thus when I look at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre I enter into a fictional world where, if I am playing what Walton would term an authorised game, I see a woman with no eyebrows and an enigmatic smile. It may be fictional in the world of my game that the woman belongs to an alien species which lacks eyebrows – that is a matter for my imagination – but this proposition can only belong to the fictional world of my game: it is not fictional to the work world of the Mona Lisa that she is an alien.

Over the next few weeks, this serial will work through the elements of Walton's system and provide a brief yet comprehensive introduction to his make-believe theory of representation, while over on another of my blogs a parallel serial will adapt this model to game design. As well as explicating some thorny problems in the philosophy of art (many of which were remarked upon by Wittgenstein), Walton's approach has much to say about how we deal with the world around us – although he himself wisely leaves much of the implications therein unspoken.

Next week: Props

Next Week on ihobo

Running in parallel to the serial on Professor Kendall Walton's philosophy book Mimesis as Make-Believe here at Only a Game (which starts tomorrow), will be running its own serial: Game Design as Make-Believe. Beginning next Wednesday, these posts adapt Professor Walton's work to the design of videogames, boardgames and tabletop role-playing games. Each part mirrors a piece of the main serial, which will be cross-linked each week. You don't need to read both, but if you do you'll be sure to get the most out of the ideas being presented.

Cross-posted from

A Brief Introduction to My Philosophy

$45 haircut.croppedWelcome to Only a Game, the philosophy blog of game designer and author Chris Bateman. Originally dealing with videogames as well as philosophy, most games-related material now appears at (but is also cross-linked here). All sincere – and preferably polite – comments on posts both new and old are welcome, and will elicit a reply as promptly as I am able. What's this blog about? Read on!

Why philosophy? I started out among academic scientists, but my interests and writing these days lie to a greater extent among the discussions of philosophers. I sometimes characterise my rambling nonsense as an attempt to popularise philosophy, which is to say, to bring the resources of philosophical thinkers such as Wittgenstein or Kant a little bit closer to any quirky intellectual nerd who stumbles upon this site.

What do I philosophise about? My main interests in philosophy concern how we perceive the world (and in particular metaphysics, our untestable beliefs that undergird these perceptions), and how we behave in our world (our ethical beliefs). I strive to aid communication between people with wildly different beliefs, and suspect a philosophy that labours in isolation to uncover the sole truth suffers severe limitations. Wisdom lies scattered amidst the world it might inform: even when uncovered by a lone investigator, wise thoughts lack value until they are brought back to a shared space.

What are metaphysics? Untestable beliefs, foundations upon which different thoughts and ideas attain authority. Everyone has to believe something to get by in life, whether a notion of self, a cultural identity, an abstract (Science, God etc.) or some combination therein, but the eclecticism of our modern beliefs can be bewildering, as Charles Taylor has discussed at length. By talking about metaphysics I hope to share some of the charms of our many different ways of looking at our shared world, and dissipate some of the prejudices.

What's the point of ethics? Our ideals for life are as different as our metaphysics, so in ethics my project takes its spirit from Kant's “Realm of Ends” (what I term communal autonomy): since we must all live together, I seek methods that permit this possibility. My early attempt in this regard was relative ethics, an acceptance of ethical diversity set against a denial of strict relativism (which risks reducing morality to meaningless subjectivity).

What's your religious agenda? Its impossible to explore metaphysics and ethics without intersecting with religion, but my principal agenda in this regard is freedom of belief, the foundation of all our freedoms. I hope that by discussing religion I can offer a more balanced perspective on traditional beliefs than the usual caricatures – any endeavour will seem dreadful if it is judged solely by its worst excesses.

What about science? Scientific research continues to fascinate me, but attempts to portray modern research programmes as successors to religion are misguided – the alleged war of “Science” versus “Religion” is an ideological construct. Science is one of mankind's greatest tools, but we run into severe problems if we deify it. Philosophy can unweave the mythology of science, allowing for a better understanding of the relationships between ourselves, our knowledge, and the world we live in.

What is this Game you mention? I jokingly call the discussions here at this blog a non-fiction role-playing game, and this is “the Game” I refer to. Furthermore, at this point in my philosophical endeavours all the themes I'm exploring are connected to some extent by the image of a game, which is perhaps unsurprising since I am also a professional game designer.

What does this have to do with you? Join in if you're interested! My philosophical thinking thus far – or my nonsense, as I oft term it – is right here at this site. Simply pick a topic from the sidebar (or a link in this post) that spurs your interest and join me for a while in contemplation of questions that I hope will, at the very least, provide an entertaining diversion.

Welcome to the Game!

This piece, written in March 2010, replaces an older foreword to the site written in June 2006, which had begun to feel dated. The links within this new foreword are intended to offer points of ingress into my nonsense for the intrepid explorer of ideas.

Mirror, Signal...

Still getting up to speed on the blogging since returning from the States - work is implausibly busy right now! I have the raw material to post but I'm struggling to find the time to actually mark it up for posting... I will try and get rolling this week.

You may have noticed an absurd influx of spam comments - about four a day right now. TypePad are working on new measures which should curtail this, but it will take about a month. In the meantime, I have the option to hold comments for approval, which would mean a day or so delay before legitimate comments appear.

Would anyone prefer this over the current spam situation? Let me know your thoughts.