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November 2010
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January 2011

Raimon Panikkar

panikkar I recently learned that on August 26th this year (2010), Father Raimon (Raimundo) Panikkar passed away at his home in Tavertet in Spain at the age of 91. Although I never met the man, I found his writing and ideas to be truly inspirational.

The son of a Hindu father and a Spanish Catholic mother, Father Panikkar was committed to interfaith dialogue in a manner beyond the mere studying of other forms of belief, believing that “the encounter between religions must be a religious act”. Living between two of the world’s great religious traditions, Panikkar suggested that the proper attitude of a Christian towards Hinduism was not to try and “bring Christ to the Hindu” but rather for the Christian to recognise the unknown aspects of Christ that were already there. He insisted that “no particular ritual or set of means can claim exclusivity and absoluteness.”

Panikkar viewed himself equally as a Hindu, Buddhist and a postmodern secularist as well as being an ordained Roman Catholic Priest, all without a trace of contradiction. His scholarship was animated by a desire to build (rather than burn) bridges between different forms of belief, a spirit that also sustains my own writing on religious topics. I will not say that he will be missed, since I rather suspect that most of us have only just begun to find him.

Father Raimundo Panikkar, November 3, 1918 – August 26, 2010.

Coming in 2011: Souls in Science Fiction

Sci fi logo Following the success of the Religion in Science Fiction serial, I have begun work on a sequel provisionally entitled Souls in Science Fiction. My use of "soul" in this context is deliberate, via a door opened by Douglas Hofstadter, and combines elements from philosophy of mind, metaphysics and theories of personal identity.

The serial will explore and contrast the philosophy of Descartes, David Chalmers, Daniel Dennett, Justin Leiber, John Locke, Mary Midgley, Derek Parfit and others concerning the notion of a "person", "conscious mind" or a "soul" by looking at how these concepts have been portrayed in popular science fiction including Avatar, Dollhouse, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Star Trek, Stargate Universe, Doctor Who, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 1972 films Solaris and  Silent Running.

The Souls in Science Fiction serial will commence in Spring 2011.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Wintersun As the northern side of our planet sinks into the dark heart of  winter, everyone seems swept up in one Winter Festival or another. Today is the Solstice, the wellspring from which our other celebrations at this time of year emerge. It's the shortest day.

In times long passed, villagers would revel at this time of year, rejoicing at the return of the Sun King. Today, Jesus or Santa get more of the spotlight, the latter (who emerged from the pagan story of the Holly King) being only the most modern incarnation of the turning  seasons. These tales and festivities are more than just our heritage, they connect us to the great chain of lives that went before us. Practices and beliefs may change, but humanity has remained quintessentially unaltered within the scale of history. We are still intimately connected to the seasons, and the passage of time.

To each and all I wish a festival of the kind you or your traditions prefer, to mark this fleeting time of year and to remember those stories and people that matter to us. May we not forget that we share this world, and that our residency here is all too brief.

That's all for now. On Thursday there's a sneak peak at something that's coming in the Spring, and the Game will be back on 4th January 2011 with more nonsense. Have fun!

Crisis in the Infinite Library

Infinite library What am I going to read in my lifetime? The challenge, I think, comes down not to what I shall read, but what I shall choose to exclude from reading.

In practical terms, something might as well be infinite as finite but beyond our capabilities – it matters not to us as individuals whether the universe is infinitely large, or simply larger than we could possibly perceive or conceive. Except as an abstract point of argument, these two situations are indistinguishable. So it is with the problem I face in what to read. In the twentieth century, the number of books that had been printed escalated to the point that for the first time in human history it was impossible for any one person to have read them all. It is as if our libraries transformed themselves into infinite spaces, shelves without end bearing books without end.

When I look at the list of books sat on my 'waiting list', I find many things I'd like to read but haven't found the time or reason to justify. If everything I have even thought about reading were upon this list, it would be too daunting to tackle it at all, for it would take me hours to read even the titles of the books that would qualify. At the moment, the bulk of my reading is within philosophy, but even within this single field of enquiry I cannot hope to achieve anything close to comprehensive philology. (And to be honest, I do not want to be condemned to read solely philosophy for the rest of my life, since I do have other interests). Some things have to be excluded –but what, and how shall I demark my area of interest? By domain, excluding (say) epistemology and logic in order to focus on (say) ethics and metaphysics? By era, excluding (as I have done thus far) anything prior to Descartes? By author, perhaps preferring the dead to the living on the practical grounds that this choice excludes the greatest number of books?

I am trapped in the infinite library, trying to find my way out whilst carrying an every heavier burden of bound volumes that continually threaten to trap me in the stacks forever. That no-one else seems to be in the same situation only adds to the sense of anxiety – what do they know that I do not? Or perhaps, what is it that they do not know that I might also get away without knowing? Why, ultimately, must I acquiesce to the necessity of knowing at all? Plenty of people live perfectly contentedly without one iota of the pointless trivia I have accumulated over my meagre lifetime. Yet still, I am compelled to read more, to learn more. The obvious course of action – to stop reading – appeals to the Buddhist in me, but I think there are few things I should find as hard to give up as books.

So it is that I wander the shelves of the infinite library in the eternal pursuit of the impossible hope that I might someday have read enough...

Game Design is Dead

Something of a firestarter rant to round out the games content for 2010; here's an extract of the new post up on ihobo today:

For videogames, the art and craft of game design is dead. In its place we are left only addiction design and geek design, which is after all only a particular form of addiction design. If game design means the creation of tools for play tailored to the needs of specific groups of players, the rising cost of development on the power consoles has strangled this possibility out of existence in the blockbuster market. The concern there is in attracting, addicting, and retaining a community of players – and as ever, it's chiefly the adolescent boys (and their adult successors) who are sufficiently compulsive to be gouged regularly for 60 bucks a pop.

You can read the complete rant, Game Design is Dead, over on

Why I Am Not a Postmodernist

Postmodern-junk-sculpture-moreno-pazin You could be forgiven, after reading the material that has accumulated here at Only a Game in the past five years, for thinking that I was a postmodernist, one who rejects objective truth, attacks black-and-white characterisations, and who adopts a position in support of scepticism, plurality and difference. But despite sharing many goals in common with postmodernism, I am not now a postmodernist, nor have I ever called myself such.

In 1927, Bertrand Russell wrote his classic essay Why I Am Not a Christian, in which he expressed the logic by which he rejected Christianity and, by extension, all religious traditions. It is not, to be honest, Russell's best work – next to, say, In Praise of Idleness, it seems positively childish. It is coloured in a large part by his own biases, which in turn are formulated in response to the excesses of early twentieth century Christianity which, to be frank, was so wildly removed from the teachings of Jesus as to warrant critique. But Russell's appraisal just isn't up to the task; he's not interested enough in Christianity to provide the requisite grease for the squeaky wheel and consequently ends up parodying religion solely in terms of doctrines of fear.

Like Russell I do not believe in immorality, nor do I believe that "Christ was the best and wisest of men". According to Russell's terms, I am not a Christian, but personally I do not see these as barriers. I do not judge Jesus to be the best and the wisest of men solely in the sense that I believe that the Buddha, Krishna, Confucius and so forth were also wise, and I am not in the habit of making wisdom into a contest. I do consider myself a Christian, because this is the religious tradition I was raised in and, despite many years of angry opposition to this faith, I still have infinite respect for the non-doctrinal Christianity of my mother and father, which I seek to emulate even today. But I also consider myself a Zen Buddhist, some kind of outsider Hindu, a Sufi, and a Discordian. In other words, I am a Christian among other things.

Many Christians will think that this gives a good reason why I am not a Christian, and this brings me to the point of this matter: why I am not a postmodernist. I am not a postmodernist because to be such seems to imply a rejection of the validity of grand narratives. These, for the typical postmodernist, are to be exposed and deconstructed, not to be believed. But I believe in the ethical truths of Christianity, the (non-)epistemological truths of Zen, the mythological truth of Hinduism, the meta-theological truth of Sufi Islam, and the ridiculous truth of Discordianism. I do not reject these narratives – I embrace them. And this, I suspect, makes me a very bad postmodernist.

I have long accepted – as do Discordians, Sufi, Zen roshi and many Hindus – that absolute truths are not something we have access to. The truths of science, which are often elevated to the claim of absolute truth, are far more limited than is usually allowed: the standards of evidence they depend upon do not attain a status of absoluteness because, as Hume first noted, induction is not something that can be proved; it is rather something that must simply be accepted. Thus, nothing attains to absolute truth for us as humans. But since the only use of an absolute truth is as a big stick to hit other people around the head, insisting that they too adopt this truth, it is probably just as well that nothing achieves this status. We shouldn't need absolute truth to avoid reducing everything to falsehood.

Furthermore, many of the categories of distinction that postmodernism denies I assert as truths of some kind. I cherish our ethnic diversity, and do not wish to claim that it is purely an artificial construction (I will not ever be eligible to win a MOBO because I am not black, and I recognise the reason for such an award existing). I equally value the distinction between male and female that is so often denied in postmodernism, and I don't quite understand how one can campaign for equality of access and advancement between the genders if one does not recognise them as different. (I will not ever give birth to a child because I am not a woman, although this is not to say that the definition of a woman lies in this capacity). We may need a more nuanced view on gender and identity to tackle some of the new ways of being we now acknowledge and accept, but this doesn't mean that the concept of gender is dead.

I do not reject objective truth; I reject any secure claim to it that can be used as a reason for the enforcement of one truth as a doctrine. I believe we can have experiences of truth, and that we should be true to those experiences when we have them – if for no other reason than they are both rare and valuable. I believe that some subset of the findings of science will remain valid if one accepts the preconditions of the paradigm used to make those observations – I just don't believe in enforcing paradigms as ideologies. I believe that the ethical and metaphysical truths of religious traditions do not vanish simply because they are not built on rock solid foundations: since no knowledge has recourse to such foundations, it is ludicrous to eliminate anything on such grounds.

In short, I am not a postmodernist because I believe in truth. It may be that I believe in truth in a thoroughly postmodern fashion. But still, when it comes to questions of identity I say with confidence that if I am anything it is a Zen Sufi Hindi Christian Discordian, a Unitarian lay minister, a scientific anarchist, a philosopher, a non-foundationalist, a hermeneutic fictionalist, a game designer, a player of games, a reader, an author, and last, but by no means least, a husband and (soon to be) father. As I write, these stories are truth for me. And my awareness of the impossibility of eternally secure foundations to knowledge does not change this.

The opening image is Postmodern Junk Sculpture by Moreno Pazin, which I found at the Fine Art America website. No copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.

The Only Practical Ethics

R-NO.1.Clyfford Still.1947 The only practical approach to ethics is that which accepts the existence of many ethical traditions. Any new proposal for ethics which suggests that we throw these traditions away and instead adopt some shiny new ethical model is not only doomed to failure but is advocating something not far from a universal religious conversion such that everyone will miraculously belong to the one true faith. Substituting science for God in this kind of exercise won't make it any more reasonable a course of action, and for the same reason: neither science nor God mean the same thing to any two different people.

We have to get past this idea that the solutions to our problems will come when we all share the same point of view. We do not and we will not. Continuing to beat this drum is to substitute ideological certainty for practical methods. The solutions to our problems will come when we begin to engage each other in a dialogue that acknowledges precisely this central fact: that we do not share the same point of view, and that we all have something different to bring to the table. We may also need to accept that we are not the best judge of what we ourselves might gainfully bring into the debate, but this humility can be hard to attain while we remain so utterly convinced about precisely those matters our emotions most greatly distort.

Ethics is concerned with how we live, how we should live and how we might live. It has for too long been conceived in assured terms, as something that can be known in advance. This is no longer a practicable solution to our moral and political crises. We live in a plural world where fixed solutions to known problems represent the fantasies of the prematurely certain. The only practical ethics remaining is one that begins with recognition of our different values and perspectives, such that from a foundation of diversity some new possibility for action can be wrought.

The opening image is R-No. 1 by Clyfford Still, painted in 1947.

Avatar and Doll: Entering Fictional Worlds

Here's an extract from a short piece over at ihobo discussing the distinction between what we call an avatar, and the representational props that can be considered dolls (or models):

What is it that we call an avatar? How do we actually use this term, and are the things we tend to call avatars really the entity most deserving of this title? The term avatar, if it is to be deployed usefully, refers to the means by which the player of a game interacts with its fictional world. But in which case, the avatar as a representation is secondary to the avatar per se – surely the parser was the source of interaction in Colossal Cave Adventure, which after all did not represent the player at all... But if there need be no graphical representation for the avatar, then there is a distinction between the avatar as the source of interaction and the avatar as representation. The latter is merely a doll that prescribes we imagine how we appear in the fictional world, not that we are present in the fictional world.

You can read Avatar and Doll: Entering Fictional Worlds over on

Faith, Unfaith and Nonfaith

Seperating the waters from the land What do you value: faith in the untestable, the unfaith of knowledge or the nonfaith of discarding reality as illusion? Whatever path you choose, there is no way to approach life without some element of belief behind the attempt.

The Abrahamic faiths, the devotional worship of Bakhti in the Hindu traditions, and many other religions centred upon the numinous experience (the encounter with that which is wholly other) are all traditions built on faith. Faith, the surrender to something that can be experienced but not known, is what many people associate with the word 'religion' itself, although this is a gross simplification. Within the religious traditions of the world there are many paths (including the Buddhist schools of Theraveda, Ch'an and Zen, as well as certain Hindu philosophies) that involve a form of nonfaith: rather than believing in the unknown, it is the known which is disbelieved. The self in particular is dismissed by nonfaith, with the same kind of tranformatory result as faith – the release of compassion. It is almost as if these distinct paths share a common goal, which may explain why Mahayana Buddhism can seem like nonfaith shifting into a faith tradition.

Against the path of faith, we increasingly contrast another form of life, the path of knowledge. Science, referring to procedures of verification and explanatory theories, is believed by some to have invalidated traditional belief systems. There is something dishonest about this view when it is elevated to the status of self-evident truth, for knowledge too rests on foundations of faith, as Nietzsche so presciently observed. While knowing does not escape a necessary element of belief, it generally seems like such a small step to accept this viewpoint (at least when compared to the leap of faith associated with numinous religion) that for many people it feels like no step at all.

We might call this pursuit of knowledge unfaith: just as we talk in fiction of undead to refer to something which is not alive yet still lives in some sense, so unfaith captures the strange underlying tension in a commitment to knowledge. The way of unfaith is essentially an attempt to minimise the extent of faith in one's thinking, and thus attain to certainty (or something close). Undeniably, this approach has its merits – technology and medicine depends upon such levied constraints. However, catastrophic problems emerge when faith and unfaith collide.

When faith ignores its own nature and tries to attain to certainty, it becomes corrupted by unfaith. Creation Science is precisely this kind of muddled nonsense. Christians should be acutely aware of the role of faith in their religion, but it is all too easy to cross from belief into certainty. To know the Bible is true is to betray the role of faith in Christian life, and make an idol of a book. Similarly, when unfaith becomes contaminated by faith it can only lead to foolishness. The commitment to knowledge should oblige one to agnosticism about whatever cannot be tested, in order to minimize the degree of faith entailed. If instead a leap of unfaith is taken, the result is certainty about unknowable matters. What cannot be verified is treated as definitely false, and perhaps by implication dangerous. When this occurs, a twisted kind of faith has polluted the clarity which unfaith strives towards.

Furthermore, it is all too easy to miss the role faith plays in life outside of religion. Marriage – the promise of lifelong commitment between two souls – is a leap of faith. One does not know that love will last; it takes something of the way of faith to make a marriage work. Distorted unfaith does not openly attack this manifestation of faith in life, although corrupted faith sometimes makes an idol of what marriage 'should' be. Love, the earthly manifestation of compassion that traditions of faith and nonfaith both revere as sacred, speaks with its own voice. Its clarity rings so true that even unfaith dare not challenge its claims, despite the centrality of faith to the experience of love.

Traditions of faith, nonfaith and unfaith all rest upon particular beliefs. Even if the enlightened soul of nonfaith is liberated from both faith and knowledge, they cannot reach this state without adopting certain transforming beliefs, as the butterfly must pass through the chrysalis. Belief is thus the inescapable condition of life. To attempt to monopolize its infinite possibilities – whether by faith or unfaith – necessarily betrays one's chosen path. In our diverse societies, perhaps we should accept a role for all three attitudes.

The opening image is Seperating the water from the land from, and is copyright Shoshanna Bauer (All Rights Reserved).

Family Level Up! New Baby Unlocked

14Weeks My wife and I have finally collected enough experience points to add a new member to the party; the upgrade should be complete sometime around 31st January 2011. The new kid (a boy, if the sonographer is correct) is already practicing his martial arts by kicking the hell out of my wife's belly from the inside. It will be our first, or at least our first human child, since we adopted a black Labrador puppy a year and a half ago who is already a beloved member of the party. I vouch not to deluge the Game with endless photos of the wrinkly newcomer (pictured left at minus 26 weeks old), on the basis that all newborn babies are indescribably ugly except to their parents. (Although at least one image, perhaps, may be unavoidable).

Wish us luck –we're going to need it!

PS: We tried to tell you and your lovely wife face to face, Peter, but alas you were consistently unavailable!