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November 2012
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January 2013

Seasonal Chaos

Alas, that’s all I have time to offer the blogs for this Gregorian year as I am already hard at work on the manuscript for Chaos Ethics, the final part of my Zero Books quasi-trilogy on the philosophy of imagination.

Let me just wish you all a happy Solstice / Soyal / Yule / Hanukkah / Christmas/ Makar Sankranti / Pongal / Bodhi Day / Kwanzaa / Swik / Zombie Yule / Hogmanay / Gregorian New Year / Oshogatsu / Birthday of Guru Gobind Singh / Rastafari Christmas / time off work / gigantic hangover*

The game will resume next month.

*delete as applicable

Almost Summer

Over on ihobo today, my critique of the latest Tale of Tales art/game, Bientôt L'été. Here’s a taster:

With this new title, Tale of Tales riff off the idea of online encounter they brilliantly reinvented with The Endless Forest, and which went on to influence Journey. However, whereas Journey offers a powerful pre-designed emotional experience on the back of its one-on-one encounters with other players, the experiment in Bientôt L'été walks purposefully in the opposite direction, asking how much ambiguity can be introduced into a fictional world before it ceases to offer a coherent story. Indeed, the latest Beta begins by warning you that there is nothing to do, and there is no story. Respectfully, I must disagree.

You can read the entirety of Almost Summer over at

A Truce

Peace Let’s call a truce so we can talk. A truce between we who know we are right (whomever we might be), and those who are so obviously wrong.

A truce for those whose ideal is equality and who therefore do not need to give equal weight to the views of anyone whose perspective differs; those who hold fast to tradition and so avoid revising any of their standards; and those who only care about themselves and expect to get what they want.

A truce for those who judge marriage by the shape of genitalia and not the content of hearts; those who will never marry but insist on determining who can; and those that believe marriage is an outdated institution but still try to catch the bouquet.

A truce for those that value sexual freedom so highly that future children are expendable; those who value human life so highly that they are willing to traumatise distressed girls to protect it; and those who reduce ethics to calculation and thus deem killing reasonable as long as the net benefits are positive.

A truce for those who find the greatest injustice in the fractional disparity between gender incomes among the wealthiest people on the planet; those who think headscarves are proof of oppression without the need to talk to those who wear them; and those who think gender issues are so old fashioned they no longer matter.

A truce for those that value animals so highly that they will persecute human animals to prove it; those that value vanity so highly that animals can be tortured to serve it; and those that think only human animals matter, but implicitly endorse the murder and torture of humans as long as someone has declared a ‘War on Something’.

A truce for those who cannot imagine God and therefore know that those who do are always misguided; those who know God’s mind so well that they can ignore whatever inconvenient advice He might have given them; and those who bite their tongue when God is mentioned because they can’t understand what all the fuss – on either side – is about.

A truce for those who declare the sky is falling and who twist the evidence in favour of panic; those that refuse to believe our glutinous guzzling of resources has a deleterious effect on the planet around us; and those that support the environment as long as they don’t have to give up their cars, planes and computers.

We are all fools in the eyes of our opponents, but we dismiss their judgement on the certainty that whomever doubts our perspicacity must be fools whose viewpoint doesn’t count. No wonder contemporary democracies cannot work! To be a faithful representative is to treat disagreement as evidence of idiocy. All politics is betrayal, at least while the electorate speaks in a baffling array of different tongues – even (especially!) when they speak the same language.

Instead, let us propose a truce. Let us return to the table and begin the jigsaw puzzle afresh on the belief – however fantastical – that there is a way to fit it all together, once the pieces have been properly sorted. The difficulty is no longer that we are surrounded by fools, but rather that we need to be positioned between similar fools if we ever hope to communicate. It was only when we tried to force pieces that could never fit to sit together that our problems seemed insurmountable. There is still hope – and, once again, it begins with a truce.

The opening image is Peace by Celeste Bergin, which I found on her website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

The Console Wars Are Over

Over on ihobo today I ask the question: are the console wars over? Here's an extract:

The home consoles are still very much profitable - but it strains the imagination to suggest they compete in isolation from all the other ways people can now play games. What distinguished the home consoles more than anything was the fact they were played on the household TV. But this venerable device is no longer the de facto entertainment hub, since a tablet or laptop – hell, even a cellphone – is just as capable of delivering the media the TV always used to have a corner on.

 You can read the entirety of The Console Wars Are Over at

Scientists Distorting Science?

Fact-BeliefDo scientists have a miraculous hotline to truth, or are they just as prone to having their assertions skewed by their prior beliefs as everyone else?

Every now and then I stumble upon a paper that's truly revealing about some aspect of the zeitgeist. Joshua Greene's "The Secret Joke of Kant's Soul" is just such an artefact: it alleges to disprove deontology in general (and thus Kantian ethics in general) on the basis of functional magnetic imaging, evolutionary metaphysics, and a handful of psychology experiments. Yet everything about the paper is spectacularly wrong: the neurobiology, the moral philosophy, the metaphysics – every brick in Greene's wall is ill-shaped, and a gentle push is enough to cause it to crumble. Yet the paper has generated considerable secondary literature – Jonathan Haidt cites Greene's results with approbation, as if his argument held water. I begin to suspect an ideological slant motivated this research, that Greene and team set out to 'disprove' Kant based on a prior commitment to Consequentialism and positivism. If this accusation holds water, how did such a shockingly biased paper survive peer review?

Before answering that question, let me review Greene's case, and the presented evidence. In essence, this paper reports fMRI results obtained from subjects in response to various Trolley Problem thought experiments. The two main examples used are: should you flip a switch to reroute a runaway tram to kill one person tied to the tracks instead of five (Phillipa Foot's original Trolley Problem), and the Footbridge variant whereby instead of a switch you have to physically push a fat man from a bridge to stop the tram, killing him in the process. The nub of the new data is that in thought experiments involving direct harm, like Footbridge, Greene claims 'emotion' centres light up, while in impersonal cases he claims 'cognitive' centres light up. Greene alleges that the former involve quintessentially deontological (duty-focussed) decisions, and the latter involve basically consequentialist (outcome-focussed) decisions. Then, on this basis, invents a stunningly spurious evolutionary How-Why Game, of the kind I criticise in The Mythology of Evolution, to explain why our emotion reactions, having allegedly evolved in different contexts to those we face now, can't be trusted and therefore Kantian ethics is false and consequentialism is the One True Ethics.

Trouble is, no part of that argument makes sense or is based on viable research. Picking just a handful of the papers that have offered rebuttal to Greene demonstrates the extent of the problem. Colin Klein demonstrates that the fMRI inferences are badly reasoned, since the weight of research does not favour a dual track model of moral cognition involving 'emotional' and 'cognitive' modules, but a single network involved in imaginative self-projection. Richard Dean is one of several people who have demonstrated that even if the core experiment held up, it wouldn't be evidence against any salient form of deontology. Guy Kahane makes the point that if the evolutionary debunking were plausible, it would undermine the cognitive judgements just as much as the emotional ones! More worryingly, John Mikhail points out that all the thought experiments used, if treated as legal cases, would fail to absolve the actor of blame for the murder they commit.

Indeed, if we were to take Greene's case seriously, we could easily conclude precisely the opposite: the fact that most people would consider flipping the switch but not murdering the fat man shows how easy it is to act immorally when the circumstances are de-personalised. Rather than disproving Kant, Greene's paper perhaps sheds light on why Milgram's famous electroshock experiment was accepted by so many subjects as reasonable. But on this reading, Greene's case does not disprove Kantian ethics, but rather the Consequentialist theories he favours! I do not want to draw that conclusion too strongly – outcome-focussed ideals such as 'the greatest good' are just as valid as their duty-focussed rivals – but it does underline just how flimsy Greene's case is that the same evidence can be used to derive a contrary conclusion.

Ultimately, the sole reason Greene believes he has constructed a case against Kantian ethics is that he has a prior commitment to Consequentialism (which is admitted later in the paper) which allows him to conclude that people are morally right both to flip the switch and to murder the fat man, thus something has gone wrong (Greene believes) when we are ready to murder an innocent by flipping a switch but not by pushing someone off a footbridge. I am far more inclined to use Allen Wood's savage critique of these kinds of thought experiments to expose just how far from morality they take us:

The deceptiveness in trolley problems... consists at least partly in the fact that we are usually deprived of morally relevant facts that we would often have in real life, and often just as significantly, that we are required to stipulate that we are certain about some matters which in real life could never be certain. The result is that we are subtly encouraged to ignore some moral principles (as irrelevant or inoperative, since their applicability has been stipulated away). And in their place, we are incited to invoke (or even invent) quite other principles, and even to regard these principles as morally fundamental, when in real life such principles could seldom come into play, or even if they did, they would never seem to us as compelling as they do in the situation described in the trolley problem... In the process, an important range of considerations that are, should be, and in real life would be absolutely decisive in our moral thinking about these cases in the real world is systematically abstracted out. The philosophical consequences of doing this seem to me utterly disastrous, and to render trolley problems far worse than useless for moral philosophy.

In other words, by stipulating away almost all the real world information necessary to morally interpret the implied situation, Trolly Problems present false dichotomies as if they were the most important part of the situation. If we think rationally about the basic Trolley Problem we are forced to ask: how is it that I am faced with control of the lever, and have perfect knowledge of the outcomes associated? Indeed, the basic problem with Consequentialist ethics, as Nietzche observed, is precisely that we don't know how to accurately predict the outcomes of our actions. The Trolley Problem makes it look as if moral decisions are as simple as five is bigger than two – a logical truth. Precisely what makes real moral dilemmas agonising is that the truly difficult problems for morality do not have such easy answers.

Which brings us back to the question: how did this paper survive peer review? I can only speculate, but on the basis of what Greene was allowed to say, the most plausible answer is that his metaphysical biases – towards consequentialism in ethics, and towards positivism in general – align with a fair proportion of those who were likely to peer review him. The evidence for this claim is the following scholarly clanger Greene plops into his paper smugly:

From a secular humanist's point of view... what is distinctive about religion is its commitment to the existence of supernatural entities... And they are right.

Consider me gob smacked by this racist dogma masquerading as rational fact. You'd think the peer reviewers would at least have picked up on his use of 'they', which surely should read 'we'. Greene cites no-one in connection with this, which is unsurprising since no-one who studies religion could possibly endorse such a muddled view of world religion. Those who aren't sure why this charicature of the Abrahamic faiths fails to characterize religion as a whole are welcome to check Ninian Smart, William James, Joseph Campbell or any one of a host of scholars who, unlike Greene, actually bothered to do their research rather than writing down their beliefs as if they were necessarily factual.

We have in Greene a classic example of prior commitments skewing supposedly neutral research – and, let's not forget, a paper which gets nothing right. Yet there is no outcry over Greene, no hordes of screaming science nerds tearing their shirts in horror at this risible display of metaphysical prejudices. In fact, for all the flag waving about how Religion purportedly distorts Science, nonreligion is far more effective at distortion of the sciences because this wooden horse is already safely inside the gates of Troy. But let us not panic too quickly and completely, or will miss the lesson in Greene's gaffe.

What is revealed by this and other papers is that if we believe in an abstraction called Science that corresponds to truth, the publications of the sciences cannot be part of it. Which means that the work of the sciences isn't Science. This would be shocking if we had failed to recognize that Science (like its rival Religion invented to shadow it) is merely a metaphysical image, a fictional phantom as impossible to prove empirically as God or absolute Truth. It is even tempting to call it supernatural, but only because doing so would offer an amusing mirror image of Greene's misunderstanding of world religion.

Bruno Latour correctly links the mythology of 'Science' – and its equally preposterous villain, 'Religion' – back to Plato's allegory of the cave (which was the very first philosophical artefact I tilted my quixotic lance at, some seven years ago). Via the magic wand of Science, the scientist supposedly flits between the true world and the false social world of culture without any issues at all. Trouble is, scientists actually are human, and there is no perfect world of truth outside of our imaginations (although theists may certainly claim God has one in his back pocket, so to speak). Meanwhile, the sciences are perfectly capable of reading data about the world from a dizzying variety of instruments – as, for that matter, are we all. To extend an example Latour uses, the wine taster's palette can detect things gas chromatography cannot.

In Latour's terms, the problem with Greene is that he is not a reliable witness: he reads his own mind from tools meant to speak for brains (or at least he did in this paper – I am hopeful his later work, which I shall be reading shortly, has improved). The valuable lesson we can learn from Greene's blunderous paper is to be suspicious of research that purports to speak truth instead of reporting the findings of instruments. It is this uncovering of what the different parts of the world can be made to 'say' that constitutes the excellence of the sciences. 'Science', by contrast, offers a mirage of truth on the faith that those who read instrumentation acquire superpowers to discern absolute Truth, like the origin story of a comicbook superhero (ScienceMan!). Greene's paper demonstrates the absurdity of this belief. And that may be it's most valuable contribution to our knowledge.