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A Categorical Imperative for the Other

Levinas How does Levinas’ concept of the Other shed light on Kant’s categorical imperative? Or, to put it another way, can Emmanuel’s ethics help us understand Immanuel’s ethics?

Immanuel Kant insisted that ethics could be understood as a categorical imperative, which he viewed as necessary, and capable of being derived from reason, but he had at least three different ways of expressing this idea and insisted that these were all fundamentally the same. It is less obvious to the rest of us that Kant’s formulae really were equivalent. I’ve called the categorical imperative Kant’s yardstick, and summarised his three formula as ‘the ethical as the universal’, ‘mutual respect’ and ‘communal autonomy’. The first formula states that what we deem as ethical is what we would be willing to accept as binding for everyone e.g. we deny murder because we comprehend why no-one should be murdered. The second formula concentrates on not using other people solely as means to our own ends, that is, on respecting other people as people. The third formula imagines a “Realm of Ends” in which everyone’s goals in life might be harmonised – perhaps not in practice, but it is at least “merely possible” that they might.

Emmanuel Levinas (pictured above) insisted that ethics were primary to philosophy, meaning by ethics (unenforceable) obligation. He believed that ethical notions were explained by the fundamental phenomenon of the face of the Other, meaning not the literal visage but the aspect of another person that we encounter. This experience is prior to conscious reflection in Levinas’ account, and leads to a kind of guiltless responsibility whereby we are “responsible without being culpable” for the Other that we encounter. This responsibility can never be absolved, and is prior to any action that might be taken. Responsibility in Levinas’ account is not therefore for oneself so much as it is for the Other. Thus, for instance, we are all responsible for the hungry people in the world in a way that is more fundamental than the way we are responsible for our actions, because the ultimate source of our ethical obligations (for Levinas) is our need to ameliorate the suffering of the Other.

Now taking Levinas’ concept of the Other and using it to interpret Kant’s categorical imperative results in an interesting perspective. Our responsibility for the Other stemming from the Other’s infinite difference from us (the Other’s alterity in Levinas’ terms) is the source of Kant’s formula of mutual respect: to treat another being as a means to our ends would be to ignore the face of the Other. As long as we recognise the Other’s face, and the unenforceable obligation this represents, we have mutual respect for the Other. Joanna Zylinska raised a query to me in this regard, in that core to Levinas’ ethics is the idea that it is one-sided and non-mutual. She notes: “it doesn’t even matter whether the other will reciprocate or not, because this obligation – to respond, and be responsible – is solely mine.” However, Kant’s second formula seems to be compatible with this stance. Consider his original wording: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” Although this formula leads to mutual respect, it begins with the obligation for the individual to treat the Other as an ‘end in themselves’.

Furthermore, since even through inaction we allow the suffering of others to take place, we inherit a guiltless responsibility whereby we have an ethical duty towards the Other in all its faces. Thus the needs of other people (at least in the sense of curtailing their suffering) become our needs – which is Kant’s formula of communal autonomy, provided it is constrained to dealing only with the alleviation of suffering, and in many respects it may even be possible to push this analogy further. Kant characterised this formula as follows: “Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal realm of ends.” This viewpoint is very different to that of Levinas, but both philosophers were gesturing in the same direction – to a communal engagement in well-being (the ‘realm of ends’) rooted in the responsibility of the individual (‘every rational being must act...’).

All that remains is Kant’s first formula for the categorical imperative: the ethical as the universal. But if our ethical duty is for the Other and not for ourselves, as Levinas asserts, this duty by definition must be universal, since we are all the Other for every Other (we are all someone else to someone else). Ironically, Levinas recognises (following Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling) that there is an inescapable conflict of interest in this universality: in any given moment, we have responsibility for everyone else but we can only act responsibly towards a particular Other, so to behave ethically is paradoxically to fail in our duty in some subtle sense. (Zylinska suggests this is also the moment when politics enters into the ethical domain). This circumstance does not alter the duty – it does not alter the universality – it is simply a recognition of its problematic limits.

Thus when Levinas’ concept of the Other is used to interpret Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative, the three distinct formulations that Kant proposes – which seem so distinct when interpreted through Kant’s overly rationalistic, almost computational stance – become simple consequences of Levinas’ approach of situating ethics as a responsibility without culpability resulting from our response to the face of the Other. Kant’s three formulae might indeed be one and the same – this perspective is simply obscured by the rigidly formulaic framework that Kant himself deploys. That Levinas’ approach also allows for Kierkegaard’s overturning of the necessary priority of the universal, freeing the individual to take the action they feel is right for them in any given circumstance, is simply an unexpected dividend of this speculative philosophical investment.

With many thanks to Joanna Zylinska for her feedback on this idea.

What is Game Addiction?

Finally had a chance to write up my position on the controversial topic of game addiction, which is up on ihobo today. Here’s a short extract:

It is futile for anyone to argue that digital games are not addictive, given that for as long as we have been making them we have praised games precisely for their addictiveness – indeed, in the 1980s some videogame magazines used “Addictiveness” as one of their scoring criteria when reviewing games. But this flippant use of “addictive” is of the same nature as when we complain that processed potato snacks are “addictive” (after all ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop!’). We need to be as clear as we can about the distinction between compulsiveness and destructive addiction if we are to understand this issue, but to do so we run up against a major issue concerning the role of medicine in modern culture.

I can’t decide if it goes too far or not far enough, but it should hopefully spark a little debate on the topic all the same. You can read the entire piece over on, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Immortality Stories

cavehands Is it more implausible that Christian beliefs will lead to immortality, or that science and technology will grant eternal life? Putting aside the question of whether we should want to live forever –I for one have no interest in this appalling imaginary scenario – which kinds of immortality stories should we place our faith in?

I’ve written about immortality before, and this earlier discussion should be taken as a foundation for what I wish to explore now. Then, as now, I am agnostic about all kinds of eternal life, whether technological or spiritual, and have no desire to live forever whatever the proposed means. However, I do believe that while mystical immortality beliefs are essentially harmless and tangential to the core values of religion as a whole, technological immortality beliefs are either confused or dangerous and should be subjected to considerably greater scrutiny.

In respect of this strange impulse to believe in immortality I find myself particularly bemused by those people who, miserable and depressed in life, still hold out hope for new scientific breakthroughs that will grant them longevity or eternal life. What is it, exactly, that will make this extended life worth living if it is not so when it is finite? This is akin to finding yourself on a rollercoaster that you are not enjoying, and instead of looking forward to the end of the ride you desperately hope that the ride will go on forever. How can anyone wish this and still make a claim to sanity?

My purpose in revisiting this topic is to draw out what I see as a hypocritical contradiction that people of unfaith display when they betray their own commitment to minimising implausible beliefs by trusting in science to offer technological salvation. It begins as a simple orthodox science fiction story concerning extending the life of cells such that a treatment can be postulated that prolongs human life indefinitely. From this simple story, a ladder of increasingly improbable fantasies is projected to deal with subsequent problems, which are legion. Even if genetic problems with memory retention can be redressed, neural networks reach a point of saturation when they have absorbed all the information they can, and thus senility must inevitable occur at some point. Transferring consciousness to a new body may be offered as a fantasy to solve this. Subsequent conjectures can be deduced to address all the possible problems without stepping far outside of orthodoxy.

What of the end of our sun? This one is simple, since orthodox science fiction prophesies the ultimate expansion of our species out into space and on to the distant stars. Even a distinguished scientist like Stephen Hawking has no hesitation in taking the role of prophet in this regard, since it is a thoroughly conventional faith to believe that this can and will happen. What of the end of all suns? Here more severe scenarios for the continuation of human consciousness must be imagined, which have been criticised in detail by Mary Midgley in Science as Salvation. But what do criticisms matter when one is imagining what might be possible? Once one has chosen to set aside the tenuous chain of absurdity such beliefs rests upon, faith in science and technology can offer eternal life, yea, even until the end of the universe.

Yet proponents of such scenarios are often extremely vehement in their criticisms towards religions that offer “false hopes” of eternal life through metaphysical salvation. Examined with an impartial eye, or as much of one as can be found, this begins to look like orthodox scientism simply behaving as any narrow-minded religious tradition will tend to do when its metaphysics are placed on a pedestal above its ethics: other faiths are wrong, my faith is right, and woe betide you for following false prophets – only my faith will lead to eternal life. Yours must end in eternal damnation. This kind of tale is nonsense however you ground your faith, and the idea that what might be possible (that is, faith in the intersection between what is imaginable and what can be authorised by the science fiction megatext) has some superior claim to truth is frankly laughable.

Consider the following thought experiment, which I will call Uptime Resurrection:

In the distant future, temporal duplication technology is developed that is capable of transcribing information from the past in high resolution at a subatomic level. Because nothing is actually transferred through time except information, none of the restrictions implied by relativity are violated. A far future culture descended from those of the Earth constructs a gigantic interstellar environment, perhaps a Dyson sphere (or shell) built around an artificially generated quasar created by supplying matter to a supermassive black hole, the accretion disc of which generates vast quantities of energy and light. The interior of the Dyson sphere thus spans light years, and after it is completed it is populated with plants and animals cloned from original Terran species, their genetic and epigenetic factors acquired by uptime duplication – even extinct species with no preserved genetic material can therefore be reproduced. The benevolent descendents of Earth then proceed to use the uptime duplicator to resurrect each and every human being that ever lived, placing them in a specially created environment within the Dyson sphere, modelled upon the historical period their data has been acquired from. With the incredible resources of their technology, the whole of the history of the planet Earth is reproduced in its new environment, but by virtue of the advances in nanotechnology and biotechnology each of the resurrected humans is immortal and indestructible.

It is clear that the addition of one additional element to this story changes the tone of the Uptime Resurrection thought experiment completely: the people who create and populate the Dyson sphere are Christians, and believe they are doing God’s work by resurrecting humanity: they have used technology to bring about the parousia. Prior to this additional clause, we have a simple science fiction scenario that no person of unfaith need have a problem with, except perhaps on technical grounds. (Most of the individual elements can be found in, for instance, Phillip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, Walter Jon Williams Knight Moves and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker). But the additional clause that transforms it into the Christian Uptime Resurrection thought experiment is the least fanciful aspect of this immortality story – all it requires is for a specific religion to be prevalent in the culture responsible for implementing the scenario, and given the general absurdity of this outcome it might even require this justification to make sense of their motive for doing so.

Clearly, these future Christians would see themselves as “doing God’s work”, and the Christians who were resurrected would see this as the fulfilment of the prophecies they had been told when they were alive for the first time. Let’s assume the future Christians are universalists and thus decide to resurrect everyone, and not just some subset of people, believing this to be God’s plan. In this case we might well imagine that the more belligerent people of unfaith so resurrected would remain incredulous that anyone could be so naive as to believe that an unknowable entity had in any way been responsible for this state of affairs. They would point to the role of technology in bringing it about, thus believing that their own faith in science was equally validated by this outcome. Which just goes to show, even if the Christian afterlife were actually to happen it would in no way change the beliefs of those opposed to Christianity or religion, which were already set in stone.

The moral of this story is not that one kind of immortality belief is more or less plausible than another, but that the availability of justifications for absurd outcomes has nothing to do with people’s belief or disbelief in their likelihood. The decision to render certain stories acceptable and others dangerous is a natural result of orthodoxy of any kind, and has nothing to do with religion, per se, since scientism and political ideology yield similar outcomes. The important question concerning immortality is not whose faith is invested wisely, but whether we should be investing in eternal life at all. If we cannot live together contentedly as mortals, what sense does it make to pin our hopes on becoming immortals?

Forbidden Stories: What Shall We Not Tell?

Freedom of speech and belief was not easily won, but these have become the cornerstones of modern individuality, the greatest prize of the Enlightenment. Prior to modernity, what was allowed to be spoken was dictated by a handful of aristocratic elites. Now that we have liberated individuality from these shackles, we are supposed to have abandoned the idea that certain blasphemous or otherwise forbidden ideas cannot be spoken aloud.

We should therefore be cautious of anyone who advances rhetoric suggesting that certain stories are detrimental and should not be told, as sometimes happens when truth is elevated to sacosanctity. Neither should we be fooled by the concealment of this suppressive motive behind concern for children. There can be no greater denial of freedom of speech than dictating which stories a mother or father is permitted to tell their son or daughter. This is a matter for the family and not the State.

Freedom of belief lies in precisely this: the freedom to choose which stories we shall tell. This means allowing the telling of stories that we disagree with, or that we know are false – or perhaps that we believe are gravely harmful. But if we do not grant this freedom, we cannot be free in even the most minimal sense of the word. Our stories are what tell us who we are, and to dream of a world where only those claims that are proven true may be spoken is to fantasize tyranny.

The Grind Mystery: Escalating Reward Schedules

Today’s post on ihobo is about the Grind Mystery, namely:

Given the tremendous volume of psychological research that has been conducted on reward schedules, why is it that the most basic form used in digital games – that behind the grind in every computer RPG, and many other games beside – does not seem to exist in the literature?

You can read the entire post, and comment on it, over at

Orthodox Science Fiction

2001 When a fan says they prefer to read ‘hard science fiction’, what do we take this to mean? It is effectively a demand that the stories they read accept various limitations such that they will then accord with the reader’s conception of scientific knowledge. If this description is accurate, we might better understand ‘hard science fiction’ as meaning orthodox science fiction.

The phrase ‘hard science fiction’ has always troubled me, because it seems to represent a contradiction in terms. Science fiction, by definition, is a form of fantasy, one in which scientific knowledge and technology are the inspiration (as opposed to the magical worlds of sword and sorcery, for instance). Fans of ‘hard science fiction’ want to read fantasies in which their understanding of science is not transgressed – this is how the phrase is used. But in respect of the kind of stories that are told as ‘hard sci fi’ – often intergalactic adventures, constrained by the limits of special and general relativity, contemporary biology and so forth – we can be almost certain that our current understanding of science and technology is radically insufficient to allow us to predict with any confidence just what will be involved in such distant and speculative endeavours as interstellar travel.

Consider how wildly wrong the science fiction of the early atomic age was about what was to come: we did not get our promised flying cars, humanoid robots or nutrition pills. Technology was to move in a very different direction to what was imagined by the writers of the 1950s. Similarly, if mankind is to explore beyond the solar system, it will happen at a time and in a way radically impossible to predict now. Even the colonization of our solar system is difficult to adequately anticipate. Not even something closer to home like moon colonies simplifies our task to the point of it becoming entirely straightforward. We don’t have the requisite knowledge or resources to make these fantasies happen, and if and when we do, they will inevitably unfold in a manner that diverges from what we would imagine when thinking about such problems now.

So what exactly is being expected of ‘hard science fiction’? I believe it may be illuminating to interpret the demand for fantasies that do not transgress an individual’s scientific beliefs by considering this strange genre as orthodox science fiction. The parallel with religious doctrine may rankle – science, after all, is not a religion, and talking about it as if it were is therefore misrepresentative. But what is it that we are calling by the name ‘science’ that we can be so sure it is not a religion? Until we understand what the abstraction ‘science’ represents, it would be premature to be certain that it is not functioning in some way as a religion, or at least, as a doctrine.

The mythologist and historian Charles Segal coined the term megatext to refer to the Greek myths when taken collectively to imply a single fictional world, and this term has been taken up and used in the context of modern science fiction and fantasy franchises. Thus Star Trek, Star Wars, Middle Earth, James Bond, Marvel Comics, Dungeons & Dragons and so forth each comprise a megatext. These are all works of fiction, but they function in a manner exactly parallel with historical mythologies. They are not, as Joseph Campbell puts it, living mythologies, which is to say, they are not mythologies that belong to an extant religion (as, for instance, the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are for Hindus) but it is chiefly this element which distinguishes the megatext of (say) Star Trek from the megatext of Native American mythology.

Now science fiction as a whole also functions as a megatext, as does sword and sorcery when taken as a whole, and for that matter superhero stories. Fantasy author Michael Moorcock often quotes a fellow writer with respect to the way genre fiction functions in practice: “Terry Pratchett wisely said that genre is a big pot from which you take a bit and to which you add a bit.” No-one owns the megatext of science fiction, fantasy or horror – it’s a collectively shared mythology (although not a living mythology in Campbell’s sense). Thus science fiction novels take place within the wider mythology of the science fiction megatext. It is acceptable for these novels to feature starships, faster than light travel, teleportation, humanoid robots or psychic powers because these are all part of the wider mythology, even though specific fictional worlds might reject certain elements. It is clear on this reading that ‘hard science fiction’ represents a subset of the megatext for science fiction.

Now it is my suggestion that science itself functions as a kind of megatext. This is not to say that science is purely mythological – far from it. Specific individual acts of research such as the Michelson-Morley experiment or the double-slit experiment have their empirical validation, and provided you accept the paradigm they are conducted within, you will be able to confirm their claims. (Although, of course, most of us do not test these claims: we take it on faith that if the experiment were in error, other scientists would raise a red flag). But when we talk of ‘science’ as an abstraction, we are not talking solely about the experiments or the theories, or any other aspect of the specific paradigm. We are also drawing against a kind of mythological accretion that goes beyond the latest findings of practical scientists and the most recent models of theoretical scientists.

For instance, when something is dismissed as “not scientific” it is not usually meant that it does not adhere to the standards of contemporary paradigms – it usually means that the thing in question is incompatible with the beliefs of people who accept some hypothetical common core of scientific theories and experimental results. So, for instance, the claim that astrology is “not scientific”  seems intended to mean that astrology is false under the terms of the abstraction ‘science’, not that astrology isn’t a scientific research programme (I don’t think there is anyone who thinks astrology is a research programme of this kind). This kind of statement isn’t even a claim that “experiments have shown astrology is false” – it is more commonly an a priori claim that the causal mechanisms deployed in astrological practice are incompatible with something being called ‘science’. What is that something?

I believe the something in question is what we might call the science megatext. There is a collection of things that can be broadly recognized as validated by the current paradigms of science – the theories, the experiments, and the metaphysical beliefs that are assumed to underpin both (such as materialism). These form a mythology of science, which includes (for instance) beliefs such as “science evolves towards truth” that Kuhn has demonstrated are not in any way necessary for understanding the practices of scientists. The science megatext is more than the sum of scientific knowledge, since it incorporates in addition to this a mythological stance concerning what science is, what it will be, what it can be, and perhaps most significantly for our current purposes, what it cannot be.

Thus when a person prefers ‘hard science fiction’, they are saying that they want to read stories that are not simply part of the science fiction megatext, but that are consistent with the science megatext. This excludes anything not currently considered plausible by mainstream scientists (such as psychic powers or, for the most part, faster than light travel). One can see here that the science megatext is operating as a kind of doctrine, and the fan of ‘hard science fiction’ is requiring that the fantasy stories they read that are to fit this term will be orthodox with respect to the science megatext. This is why I suggest we can better understand what is meant by ‘hard science fiction’ if we recognize that it is orthodox science fiction – orthodox with respect to the current interpretations of the science megatext.

This is not, I will repeat, to claim that science is a religion. But it is to claim that the science megatext can function as a mythology, and whenever someone (such as Iain M. Banks) claims that science has replaced religion, or has invalidated religion, this comes remarkably close to treating the science megatext as a living mythology. Banks (and others who believe similarly to him) effectively claim that the mythology of science must necessarily replace other mythologies (often as a result of taking the contemporary mythology of the science megatext as unambiguously factual), and this kind of assertion does treat the science megatext as a doctrine. Again, this doesn’t make science a religion – traditional religion, in fact, is neither necessarily nor quintessentially doctrinal – but in the same sense that the political non-religion of Marxism can be considered a religion (as Bertrand Russell and others have asserted) there is an ideology which functions as a scientific non-religion.

There is a sense in which the fans of ‘hard science fiction’ are treating the science megatext as the basis for a non-religion, or at least, as an approved doctrine, and because of this I believe it is not only reasonable but also clarifying to refer to this subgenre as orthodox science fiction.

Astrology as Fiction

astrology wheel Every rationally minded individual today considers astrology false. But this conclusion depends upon an unstated premise: that the correct way to evaluate astrology is by a scientific audit of its premises. What if astrology is understood not as a system of knowledge, but as a game of make-believe? What if astrology is evaluated not as fact, but as fiction?

Professor Kendall Walton’s make-believe theory of representation suggests we can understand artworks – paintings, statues, books, movies and games – as props which prescribe certain imaginings. This description is perfectly suited to explaining how astrology functions. When one plays with astrology, there are various principles of generation in force by which maps of the position of stars serve as props which prescribe one imagines certain things, for example that people born at such-and-such a time of year possess certain personality traits, and that they will experience certain generalised events during certain periods of time.

This is not to claim that astrology is false. The truth of an artwork and the truth of a logical proposition or scientific investigation are not equivalent terms. The works of Shakespeare faithfully capture many aspects of the human condition even though they are fiction, and mythic works such as the Ramayana in Hindu tradition have cultural and religious value that is not hindered by its status as fiction. Heidegger asked “What is truth that it can happen as art?” In this vein, I would ask “if astrology is art, can it not contain truth?”

The idea that astrology can be dismissed entirely because it is “obviously false” (which is to say, it is incompatible with orthodox science) fails to ask the more important question: can astrology have value? The question of its cultural or personal value does not rest on its compatibility with scientific method or theory, and the assumption that it does borders on the doctrinaire. Within the game of astrology, one might find a motivation to act when one would otherwise be afraid (“now is a good time for change”), or a means to accept the human nature of others (“Aries is a fire sign”), and these benefits have nothing whatsoever to do with a scientific evaluation of astrology.

No doubt historically the role of astrology far exceeded that of a game of make-believe: forms of divination were used to guide important decisions of state in ancient China and Europe. But for the most part there were no better methods for settling the decisions in question, and as a spur to action it may still have been an adequate tool. If the astrologer was an intelligent, learned, intuitive individual they could raise matters to the attention of the heads of state through divination that otherwise might never be taken into consideration. This of course could also allow a Machiavellian individual to gain power and influence. But substitute “advisor” for “astrologer” and “analysis” for “divination” in the above claims and this is still a valid concern today.

If astrology is understood as fiction, as a game of make-believe in which participants can acquire entertainment and diversion as well as psychological benefits such as increased confidence or mitigated hostilities, it ceases to matter that its methodology cannot be squared with modern scientific paradigms. Perhaps we are too jealous in the guarding of the wall we erect between fiction and fact: man does not live by fact alone. Even the most intensely orthodox scientist still believes in some fictions, such as their sense of self, the reality of the nation they live in, and the validity of the abstraction ‘science’. Fiction is sometimes as useful as fact, and often more enjoyable, and perhaps this is why astrology maintains its popularity even today.

The Power of Games

Over on ihobo today, I adapt  Noël Carroll’s thoughts about the power of movies to digital and other games. Here’s the opening few paragraphs as a taster:

Where does the power of games lie, that they can entertain hundreds of millions of players, and engage gamers so intensely that they can forget even to eat?

In 1985, philosopher Noël Carroll wrote about “The Power of Movies” in a seminal paper exploring why the moving image had become “the dominant art form of the twentieth century”. The paper was unique in that rather than looking at cinema as a medium it considered the Hollywood blockbuster-style movie as a genre in its own right, and then explored what it might be about these films that made them so intense for so many people. The power of movies, in Carroll’s eyes, consists of two elements: widespread engagement (movies engage a broad mass audience) and intense engagement (movies hold interest strongly).

What intrigues me about Carroll’s observations is that these are two phenomena now shared with digital games. Mass market games (e.g. Wii, Facebook, Scrabble) have generated widespread engagement, while titles targeting the gamer hobbyists (e.g. Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Minecraft) generate intense engagement. This leads to obvious questions about how Carroll’s account of the power of movies relates to the power of games: what is the relationship between the two?

Read more in the Power of Games post at

Pluto and Eris - a dialogue

Concerning the nature of gods and planets, and the attempt to deny Pluto the right to either title.

Pluto on the small table Eris: Greetings my uncle, how fare you Lord Hades?

Pluto: You mock me, my most treacherous and beautiful niece. I have not gone by that name for nigh upon two millennia, and surely you use it now as a reminder of everything I have lost because of you.

Eris: It is my nature to tease, my uncle, but on this occasion I meant no disrespect. How can it be that he who is Unseen has been wronged by such an insignificant goddess as I?

Pluto: It is because of you, oh mistress of discord, that I have been denied the tribute I have enjoyed for a scant seventy six years, after centuries of neglect. Once I was a god; then, at least, I was a planet; now I have been denied even this status.

Eris: Ah, you speak of my newest role, that of dwarf planet.

Pluto: The very phrase irritates me!

Eris: I was rather touched by the whole thing, dear uncle – that 1,600 mile wide rock which bears my name was almost to be named after television’s most famous warrior princess, after all.

Pluto: Your rock dethroned me from the lofty heights of planethood, for the rock which bears my name is only some 1,400 miles wide, bringing my status as a planet into disrepute – hence my ire!

Eris: But you can scarcely apportion blame to me for what the mortals conclude. And speaking for myself, it’s nice to get some recognition for a change – I appreciate a small cult has grown up around me in the last century, but it doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. Since the mortals managed to lose that epic poem the Kypria in which I was given the honour of starting the Trojan War with my famed Golden Apple, I have been left to twiddle my ethereal thumbs. At least you had Ralph Fiennes play you in that recent movie about Perseus.

Pluto: Yes, but as a villain... Mortals used to avert their eyes when they made sacrifice to me – the Romans declared games in my honour! Now I am reduced to a melodramatic foe to be humiliated in failure. (And, what irks me all the greater, I didn’t even get a mention back when Harryhausen was making his delightful models...)

Eris: You expect too much, uncle. Isn’t it enough that stories about you are still told?

Pluto: I was the eldest of the Olympians! We destroyed the Titans that were born of earth and sky. Were it not for an unfortunate game of chance, I could have been the king of the gods ruling on Olympus instead of my younger brother Zeus. (I’d blame you for that outcome, my niece, but you weren’t even born at the time).

Eris: There were many other tales told of your exploits, my uncle. Do not forget the story of your wife Persephone, not to mention Theseus’ attempt to kidnap her. And you even had a softer side revealed in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, when his music touched your heart... do you not recall?

Pluto: What good are stories that are now told solely by the folklorists? The one source of my acclaim was that ball of rock which was named after me (although I could have done without that cartoon dog named after it, frankly).

Eris: Honestly, it amuses me, uncle! When we were gods there was no question of us ceasing to be gods. If all the priests of Hellas had voted to disallow me the status of goddess, declaring me instead, perhaps, a lesser goddess or a dwarf goddess, it would have made no difference to the mortals’ attitude towards me. Their concepts were discussed as personifications – thus I was Eris for strife. It allowed them to tell stories to make their wry observations, and they still tell their stories.

Pluto: But those stories no longer have the influence they once did. The mortals dismiss fiction as “not real”. But Pluto the planet was real and significant. Children learned my name!

Eris: The mortals protest too much, my uncle. Whatever they say, they are still just as influenced by fiction as they ever were. Just look at this furore over the dwarf planets. What is this International Astronomical Union that denies you the claim to planet if it is not a modern priesthood recounting its stories?

Pluto: You exaggerate, sister of Ares. A priesthood is concerned with ritual and worship; the astronomers are concerned with matters of fact.

Eris: You place too much stock in the mortals’ new mythologies, uncle! It is true that much of what they now call ‘science’ is concerned with facts – the number of electrons that may be in each shell of the atom, the velocity of light and its relationship to energy – but so much of what the scientists say goes far beyond this limited remit. And, I might add, even these facts depend upon fictions.

Pluto: Come now, this is too much. How do electrons or the speed of light depend upon fictions?

Eris: The mortals talk of electrons as things, objects, but what is being described can be understood in many different ways – as a wave, a particle, or something of both, for instance. The concept of an electron is in itself a metaphor, a fiction.

Pluto: But it describes a real phenomenon. When mortals say something is a ‘fiction’, they think of unicorns or Godzilla – things that never were except in imagination.

Eris: True enough, son of Kronos, but the mortals understand these kinds of phenomena via fictions that make them easier to understand. They relate to real things, but the fictions are still tales. It is as it ever was when we were gods – I embodied strife because it made talking and thinking about discord easier to think of that concept as a person. Mortals now talk of electrons because it makes it easier to conceive of that particular concept as an object.

Pluto: Even if I allow that fiction is involved in expressing the concepts of mortal science, this does not make scientists into priests. Their primary concern is their research.

Eris: But uncle, the scientists are far more than mere researchers – it is they that tell the stories that make the new mythology – and from which the more evidently mythic tales of science fiction spring.

Pluto: You surely go too far, delighter in mischief... And what does all this conjecture have to do with the end of my short reign as a planet?

Eris: Precisely the point I am making is that whether or not the mortals call you a planet was never a matter of science at all. It is just as Alan Stern suggests –scientific fact cannot be determined by voting. A Chihuahua is still a dog, a dwarf planet is still a planet.

Pluto: But whether or not it was a matter of fact, the mortals pay heed to what the astronomers decide.

Eris: And this is why I call them a priesthood, oh Silent One – not in the manner of those Greeks that first spun tales of you and I, for the priests of that time never had the authority that scientists now hold. They were merely facilitators for rituals and offerings. No, they are priests in the manner of the religion that followed.

Pluto: The bureaucrats claiming allegiance to a doomed rabbi?

Eris: A spiritual man who had himself spoken out against such tyrannous claims to authority, I might add! It was those later priests who claimed to have the authority to determine truth, and it is this authority that the scientists now claim.

Pluto: You try to trick me... The kind of claims those priests made were wildly different to those the scientists now make. There was no role for experiment or observation in the case of the former.

Eris: The concerns and methods may have changed, lord of the underworld, but the authority to determine what is true remains. My friend Friedrich saw this clearly. (You know, he once wrote: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star”; it is perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me!) Since his death the mortals have been more interested in his damnation of the religion of bureaucracy than in his critique of the deification of truth.

Pluto: Your argument is obscure... You admit that science is concerned with facts, yet you call the scientists priests, and deny their authority.

Eris: They are indeed concerned with facts, but they treat as factual many things which are nothing of the kind.

Pluto: You fool me with your words, little one!

Eris: It is not my words that fool, but words themselves. Did you happen upon that tortured soul, Ludwig Wittgenstein? In the same year my new cult was founded in a Californian bowling alley, poor Ludwig was uncovering problems with the way mortals comprehend language.

Pluto: I never met the man. He sounds like the philosophers of Athens who never paid me tribute.

Eris: He was indeed a philosopher, and he recognised that there were no eternal concepts that words encapsulate, as the Athenians had thought, but rather that words were like moves in a game – their meaning determined solely by their usage.

Pluto: And what is this gibberish supposed to mean? The meaning of a word must be known before it is used, or else it cannot be used meaningfully at all!

Eris: My dear uncle, I mean simply this: that to be a planet is to be called a planet, just as to be a god is to be called a god. It is not a matter that can be resolved by voting or fiat. And thus as long as the children of mortals call you a planet, a planet you shall be!

Pluto: But already they begin to do otherwise, to label me a mere dwarf planet – and a dwarf planet, they say, is not a planet.

Eris: It is as you suggest, many of the young mortals study the hieronomies of the scientists and believe they learn eternal truths, unaware how much fiction there is amidst the facts. They are not good at distinguishing fiction from its alternatives – only an insignificant few recognise, for instance, that numbers are fiction.

Pluto: Now I know you deceive me! Surely there can be nothing more certain than the works of the mathematicians. How else are the mortals’ feats of engineering to be explained?

Eris: Mathematics may be certain, perhaps, but only because the rules of the game of mathematics define logical truths. There is a philosopher named Stephen Yablo who argues, in fastidious detail, that numbers are merely metaphors.

Pluto: You speak nonsense! How can metaphors allow the building of bridges and skyscrapers, or the flight of metal birds?

Eris: Some nonsense is truth, giver of wealth – the utility of a model is separate from its facticity, and numbers, as such, do not exist – there is no such thing as the number twenty three.

Pluto: Then what comes between twenty two and twenty four, young goddess?

Eris: I do not mean we cannot speak of numbers – we can speak of any metaphor – but no matter where we look in the world of real things we will find nothing that we may justly call “the number twenty three”.

Pluto: That is not what Plato claimed back in our day.

Eris: True enough, host of many, but Plato’s intuitions exceeded the facts. Yablo observes that the calculations of mathematics cannot answer to any external facts about numbers, because there are no such facts outside of the game of numbers – just as there is no fact as to who is “It” in a game of tag outside of the game of tag itself.

Pluto: This is too much, mother of lawlessness. Fact is fiction, and fiction fact... My head is swimming with your trickery.

Eris: Not my trickery but the tricks of mortal language, dutiful employer of Death. I will not say nothing is real – there are indeed bodies of rock out in what the astronomers name the Kuiper belt. But that they are called ‘Eris’ and ‘Pluto’ (or that their region is called ‘the Kuiper belt’) is just a move in the game of language, and the number of planets can never be a matter of fact but only a particular kind of make-believe game, the content of which depends upon what one chooses to mean by ‘planet’.

Pluto: So am I a planet or not? I must know!

Eris: It is not for you or I to know, and certainly not for the astronomers to decree by mandate or proclamation. It is up to the mortals themselves to decide what is or is not a planet, and thus whether there are eight, thirteen, fifty or a hundred-score planets within this sun-bound realm.

Pluto: Are there no answers to be had in these confusing times? Must everything become a question? At least the men of Athens purported to uncover the truth of the matter. You speak as if there is no truth to be found wherever one seeks!

Eris: Ah my uncle, I did not intend to vex you, only to reassure you. Sweet Aletheia still lives, it is just her demesne is seldom what mortals believe it to be. People still call you a planet, and thus a planet you shall be. You need not doubt it. It is I whose path is uncertain, for few if any care whether Eris is a planet or otherwise.

Pluto: But you do not seem troubled by this ambiguity, daughter of Zeus.

Eris: Why should I? Where there is uncertainty there will be strife, and while the mortals quarrel I shall always be with them. Take care, dear uncle; our stories may have changed over the millennia, but they are still told, and as long as the mortals speak of us – whether as gods, or planets or dwarf planets, or whatever there is to come – we will always be with them.

For Eris, with love.