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Blog Republic Round-up

Thrilled to report that the blog is not dead, it is just under pressure from conventional social media. I have recently been enjoying my greatest extent of cross-blog conversations since the previous decade – and I’m loving it! Here’s what’s been happening…

More nonsense next week.

Horror and Punishment

Over on ihobo today, my response to Jed Pressgrove’s recent criticism of 2001’s Silent Hill 2. While I concede many of his points, it is substantially to defend the game (and the team behind it) that I wrote this reply. Here’s an extract:

When my wife and I went on to play Silent Hill 2, it annoyed me with its obvious staged linearity and almost total absence of what I, at the time, considered characteristic of game design. Where was the open structure of the first game? The tightly constructed progression? Why am I so constrained in almost everything I do now?  So it was with some surprise that,  after a few more playthroughs and considerable reflection, Silent Hill 2 eventually came to stand out as an exceptional case of game narrative. Indeed, I am hard pressed to find any game prior to 2001 that fulfils its narrative ambitions to the extent of this game – which is not to say that it is an unqualified success on all fronts. But then, my general view of game narrative prior to 2001, when Silent Hill 2 was released, is rather negative. There are signs of what might be possible… but they are rare, and almost always dragged down by an overbearing emphasis on puzzles or combat.

You can read the entirety of Horror and Punishment over on

Voiding The Hard Problem of Consciousness

Glowing brain The philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers famously declared that there was one aspect of consciousness that was especially difficult to explain. In “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, he writes:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

One of the most famous responses to this is Daniel Dennett’s view that there is no ‘hard problem’, that it is effectively an illusion and will vanish as we understand the ‘easy problems’ of consciousness. I have previously suggested that Dennett’s philosophy of mind was “a bit thin”; I can now revise that position: on Chalmers’ formulation, Dennett’s is as close to a correct answer as is plausible. But both Chalmers and Dennett have gone astray in the same manner.

In a series of lectures in 1925, collected as Science and the Modern World, the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead draws out the history of what he calls – and what is still called – scientific materialism. Whitehead’s view is parallel to my own, and although he uses the phrase ‘cosmology’ where I would use ‘mythology’, we are remarkably aligned in our understanding that the materialist mythos is a remnant of an earlier era of scientific research. When the problems being researched were atoms, electricity, and magnetism, the materialist view helped deliver solutions. But after general relativity and quantum physics (both of which were hot topics while Whitehead was speaking), this imaginative system should have been retired. It was not. It persisted, and became ever-more dogmatic over the following century: Whitehead calls it “the orthodox creed of physical science”, and further suggests it has not helped solve any research problems since Lavoisier in the 18th century.

The ‘hard problem of consciousness’ looks very different if we take Whitehead’s concern’s into account, because materialism presents problems far before we get to anything as complex as human consciousness. He suggests that if we are to accept materialism’s view of isolated material positioned in space “there is no reason in the nature of things why portions of material should have any physical relations to each other.” This is a far greater problem than ‘the hard problem’! To understand it, it is important to appreciate that within the materialist mythos it is matter alone that is the ultimate ground of reality. This makes it seem as if all phenomena above the scale of the atom is explicable in terms of atomic behaviour – a view that should strictly be called reductionism, but which is implicit in materialism in its general form. By fixing our frame of reference on matter as fundamental, materialism creates the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness (and many other problems besides!). If our metaphysics are different, our conclusions will be different.

Thus, Dennett deduces that there is no ‘hard problem’ out of faith in the materialistic paradigm to continue solving problems the way it did between the sixteenth and eighteenth century. I will void the ‘hard problem’ in the other obvious manner: by not buying into the materialistic mythos that unites Chalmers and Dennett. Chalmer’s “Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?” is only an inflated form of Whitehead’s objection ‘why do portions of matter have physical relations at all?’, and both spring solely from materialistic metaphysics. Ditch this mythos, and you ditch the hard problem entirely.

Without going too far into Whitehead’s metaphysics, and process philosophy in general, the key to his critique of materialism is the assumption that we have a complete picture of reality when we know what kind of matter is at what location. Whitehead’s counter is that the notion of simple location at the heart of this mythos is misguided (and even more so after general relativity is taken into account). Location alone is not sufficient to describe everything that happens within our universe; we have to take into account the relations between entities – and these relations should be tracked in every context where they (if you’ll excuse the pun) matter. Materialism has had to invent ideas such as ‘emergence’ to deal with this problem – which is actually only a problem within that specific mythos. For Whitehead, relation is what’s important: track the relations, and everything becomes more comfortably explicable.

Whitehead’s process mythos positions events as the constituting elements of reality, rather than stuff, and this leads to a fundamental concept of value (in a wider sense than this term is usually understood) that is at the heart of all events. Coming at the world from this angle, we should expect everything to have its own value experience – it’s own qualia, to use the term philosophers of mind have adopted to describe the quality of experiencing – because every process has it’s own distinctive quality. We don’t even need to constrain this to conscious entities, as long as we don’t mistake the values relevant to non-conscious entities for those of importance to creatures with minds. For instance, an electron is repulsed by another electron because electrical charge is a value relevant to electrons as entities. Notice that in this metaphysics – in stark contrast to the Kantian schism between objective and subjective – value is not some strange foreigner visiting our universe because of bizarrely inexplicable subjectivities – it is the heart of reality.

The ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is thus not a problem that emerges from consciousness at all, it is a problem that depends upon the materialistic mythos that was so successful for the physical sciences in previous centuries. Only if you think the universe is fundamentally made up of bits of inanimate stuff are you surprised that there are clumps of matter that have unique experiences. If you think the universe is fundamentally made up of events, as Whitehead does, the hard problem vanishes as a philosophical artefact – exactly as Dennett suggests, but for precisely opposite reasons.

Chalmers’ problem was never about consciousness, but about the materialist paradigm he (and many other intelligent people) clung to for metaphysical orientation; his intuition that there was a ‘hard problem’ was justified – but it was the hard problem of materialism, the problem of how inanimate matter could possibly be fundamental in a universe so riven through with value. If you must remain within these metaphysics, then your only option is to do as Dennett does, to take it on faith that all mysteries will be solved within that mythos. If you instead defect to another view of reality, both these so-called ‘hard problems’ vanish as artefacts of a peculiar metaphysics that served the ‘men of science’ well in the past, but that will serve the people of the future rather less dutifully.

As Promised, Many Years Ago…

Some six years back, when I still had a good cadre of people discussing things with me here at Only a Game on a regular basis, I opened discussions about which area of philosophy I should move into next in a short piece entitled Any Requests? There was a broad consensus I should do some philosophy of mind, since I hadn’t then touched it.

As it happened, I got swept up with other things and never quite made it back to philosophy of mind. So it’s with great pleasure that I present – six years later – my first piece unambiguously about philosophy of mind, which goes live at 5:30 pm tonight. It might also be my last, though, for reasons that will become clear shortly.

If DJ i/o, Foster Nichols, or Michael Mouse are still around, please do drop me a line to let me know how things are going!

The Merit of Letters

Dear Chris,

Wax sealed letter For such a short missive, your previous blog-letter has taken rather a long time to mull over. The essential question I have been pondering is whether your viewpoint of the relationship between principles, policy, and practice is something that applies to all human activity. I do not believe that it does.

My suspicion, which I am unable to confirm or deny but can only continue to consider, is that this way of doing things is what the Victorians bequeathed us with their masterful skills at founding and maintaining institutions. An institution requires principles, develops policies, and within that framework practices are applied. But this institutional approach generates massive problems for reasons I explore in the chapter of Chaos Ethics entitled “The Tragedy of Bureaucracy”. While there is much that we cannot pursue without institutional arrangements, there is also much that is impossible within institutions.

One of these problems that I am becoming acutely sensitive to is that the practices of an institution are the institution; the policy envisioned to fulfil principles becomes merely a rulebook to refer to in the case of disputes. Perhaps policy does help frame practices in some situations, but the larger the institution, the more the disconnect between policy and practice. We sleepwalk into thinking that you can change an institution by changing its policies – but that only works to the extent that there is a judiciary presence actively enforcing that policy, or people willing to embrace the new policy. Changes to policies only work if they change practices. We might do better to start understanding our organisations as networks of practice and stop imagining that policies are a necessary foundation for practice, or that policy is the best way to express sets of equally abstract principles.

So you ask ‘what principles inform your practice of virtuous discourse?’. If ‘principle’ means an ideal that guides the formation of policy, my answer is none at all. Because the strength of the Republic of Bloggers is precisely that it is immune to policy, and is therefore free to act in any way imaginable. Yet at the same time, the practice of virtuous discourse is informed by its values, so perhaps you could turn those into principles if it were strictly necessary. Those values include, but cannot be restricted to, politeness, insightfulness, fellowship, eloquence, and wit. I do not believe these can be simply elevated to principles without a distortion of intent. They are rather the aesthetic and moral qualities that makes a discourse virtuous, in my sense. They express the merits of letter-writing, and thus also express the merit of letters.

It is for this reason that other forms of social media are inferior to blogging for the purposes of virtuous discourse. Twitter is a great place to exercise one’s wit – it is the site that most causes me to channel Oscar Wilde – but its water-cooler shallowness makes it a poor place for fellowship, and its policies limit insightfulness to 140 characters and replace politeness with vengeful blocking. Google+ and Facebook seem as if they can either support fellowship (by connecting an already existing community) or insightfulness (by pooling voices on a single topic) at the frequent cost of discarding either eloquence, politeness, or both. There are no walls to make good neighbours, and the disposability of the form discourages quality writing as everything is swiftly lost in the tumult of meaninglessness. Email can support all the aforementioned values, being another form of letter writing, but as private missives they lack that which makes social media public and therefore open to discovery and engagement of voices as yet unknown. The blog-letter is the most obvious form of public discussion suitable for virtuous discourse in my sense.

So if there is a principle to the Republic of Bloggers, perhaps it is just this: to engage in virtuous discourse in public, so that others might join the conversation. The possibility of new encounters, new connections, is key here; even as a merely potential outcome, there is more to gain from practices that are open in this way than from those that simply bind together a small but closed band of individuals, or that sweep away our collective intelligence in a banquet of idle distractions. It matters less, in my view, what is discussed – although it is certainly my hope that something valuable might come from doing so. But it is important to appreciate that changing the world need not – perhaps cannot – come from imagining principles that will formulate policies. The most assured way of changing the world is to change ourselves, and by sharing our concerns and our thoughts through virtuous discourse, we might indeed change ourselves. At the very least, it is worth the attempt.

Thanks for continuing our conversations,


Written as part of the Republic of Bloggers. All replies welcome.

Why the Wikipedia Knows Nothing

Why the Wikipedia Knows Nothing or An Enquiry into Knowledge as a Practice was a short three-part serial that ran on Only a Game in February 2015. The three (unnumbered) parts were as follows:

  1. The Wikipedia Knows Nothing
  2. Factual Knowledge
  3. Knowledge as a Practice

Each piece ends with a link to the next, so you can read the complete serial just by reading the first part. The purpose of the serial was to explore the idea that facts are not a very convincing form of knowledge, and that understanding knowledge as a practice is a stronger form of epistemology.

Knowledge as a Practice

The Tree of Knowledge.eresaw What does it mean to suggest that all knowledge is a practice?

Despite knowledge usually being understood either as the recall of facts, or as the application of skills, I have cast doubt on this by suggesting that every fact was produced by a practical skill, or a cluster of such skills. This reduces factual knowledge to mere repetition, and suggests that all knowledge can be understood as a practice. This also means that my case that the Wikipedia knows nothing is even stronger than first suggested: not only are there questions about justifying any claim that was taken solely from a wiki, but any mere database can only collect facts and cannot adequately provide skills; no encyclopaedia is a source of knowledge since facts are not in themselves knowledge. (That said, Wikipedia editors do possess knowledge: the practices of the Wikipedia itself).

This way of understanding knowledge completely replaces the scheme of thought that originated with Plato, namely justified true belief. This principle is a means of explaining why a fact constitutes knowledge: my counterpoint is that facts are a residue of the knowledge that produces them, and are not in themselves knowledge. A proposition that can be said to constitute a fact attains that status via justified true belief – Plato’s scheme is not incorrect, it is just misleading. It suggests knowledge is a question of the validity of beliefs. The important point is not ‘true belief’, but justification: knowledge is that which can provide a justification.

The clearest cases can be found in considering the sciences. If you know that E=mc2, you do not have knowledge unless you possess at least one of the practices that relate to this formula. For instance, I have some basic knowledge of Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence because I can derive the formula from a simple thought experiment using Newton’s equations of motion. I have some mathematical knowledge about this subject. However, the equation itself was just an idea until its meaning was experimentally verified.

In 1932, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton bombarded lithium with protons and produced data that is widely taken to prove mass-energy equivalence. Curiously, however, they were not testing this: they were merely testing the hypothesis that the lithium atoms would disintegrate into two alpha particles when struck with protons. Here is an odd case: the evidence produced as proof for special relativity’s most famous formula came from a special practice, that of the design of a voltage multiplier to use with a discharge tube, intended for another purpose entirely. Who has knowledge in such a case?

I find it helpful to deploy the conception of the sciences developed by Isabelle Stengers, that successful scientists learn how to produce reliable witnesses. Cockcroft and Walton’s experimental practices made lithium atoms into a reliable witness. Bruno Latour adds to this idea the concept of a spokesperson: Cockcroft and Walton were spokespeople for lithium atoms after their experiment. Using these terms we can see that anyone who understands the mathematics of special relativity has knowledge of physics that involves recruiting Cockcroft and Walton and lithium atoms in a chain of reliable witnesses. In an odd yet perfectly understandable way, their practices regarding electrical equipment form part of the knowledge of mass-energy equivalence, broadly construed.

What this example illuminates is that when we conceive of knowledge as a practice, that knowledge is rarely if ever the result of individual capabilities. Knowledge is sustained by networks of practices, chains of reliable witnesses (especially in the sciences) or lineages of techniques (especially in the arts) that distribute what we can be said to know between all those whose practices contribute to that knowledge. Frequently, we cannot even adequately elucidate everyone thus entailed: if we look at a contemporary painting influenced by impressionism, we may be able to name impressionist painters, but what of the practices that made the oil paints, the canvases, the paint brushes?

Knowledge is not just a practice, it is created and sustained by networks of practice that cut across history. Facts are merely the residue of these networks, and remembering them is not having access to the knowledge behind them. And yet, the act of remembering is in itself a kind of practice – especially in subjects such as history, where the facts are connected by causal relations and influences that must be carefully distinguished. Perhaps, then, the facts can still constitute knowledge – provided there is a practice involved in their relation. But we should give up the idea that to know is to repeat propositions that are both true and justified as being so: isolated claims mean nothing. To possess knowledge, we must engage in practices – our own, and those of others too numerous to count.

With thanks to Jeroen D. Stout for the discussions that stimulated this enquiry.

The opening image is Tree of Knowledge by eReSaw, which I found here, on their Deviant Art site. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Worldview Denial

WorldviewIn the wake of the terrible events in Chapel Hill, North Carolina this week, I hear once again the cries of disgruntled atheists declaring that “atheism isn’t a worldview,” as if this was a way of shrugging off some important criticism. The basis of this objection is that all atheists believe wildly different things on many different matters. They do – just as is the case with Christians. Worldview denial is also a way of distancing atheists from the atheist murderer in Chapel Hill on the basis that his actions should not reflect upon the majority of atheists. They don’t – just as is the case in equivalent situations with Muslims. The reluctance to accept the term ‘worldview’ is also a means of creating distance between atheists and religion – just as when Hindus say they don’t have a religion, just a way of life.

One of my motives for creating this blog was to offer a space of encounter between atheists and Christians, not to mention any and all other religious and nonreligious traditions. Personally, I dislike the term ‘worldview’ – it creates false impressions, like the presumed need to deny that such-and-such is a worldview. I prefer to talk about religions and nonreligions. Atheism is a collection of nonreligions, just as Christianity is a collection of religions. Yet neither religion nor nonreligion warrants strong causal arguments from the highly abstract terms ‘atheist’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Marxist’ or ‘Christian’ or ‘Baha'i’ to extreme events such as murder. But any such terms mark certain risks, especially of misunderstandings, and these risks cut both ways in all cases.

Comments are welcome, but please try to present your position in the best possible light by being polite and not posting in anger.

Factual Knowledge

Spines What does it mean to say you have knowledge of something? Either that you know the facts, or that you know how to do something. In some cases that you know the facts, because you know how to do something – the practical skills of mechanics give them many of the facts about engine maintenance, for instance. But in what sense does remembering a fact constitute knowledge?

By ‘facts’ we mean those things that are known to be true – irrespective of how this is ascertained or justified. This wider question of justification was precisely what led me to suggest that the Wikipedia knows nothing, based on the usual construal of knowledge as justified true belief. Yet knowing a fact does not mean we are able to reproduce the conditions by which it is known to be true; this would be rather difficult in many cases. How exactly would you demonstrate that it was true that the city of Constantinople fell in 1453 AD, or for that matter that the city of Istanbul was captured in 857 AH? Knowing the facts by themselves usually means little more than remembering something that you heard was true, and continuing to assert it as true.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the school of philosophy that was soon to be termed ‘analytic’ was keenly focussed on logic, since this was the aspect of philosophy and mathematics that dealt with truth, which was taken to be fundamental on the basis of Plato’s work. Bertrand Russell’s concept of logical atomism (first expounded in 1911), inspired by the early work of his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein, was based on the idea that the world could be understood as being comprised of facts, about which we could have beliefs that would be (logically) true or false. The relationship with Plato’s thought is clear, and logical atomism in effect shored up the construal of knowledge as justified true belief discussed last week. However, it is far from clear that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – upon which Russell built logical atomism and the logical positivists built their project of elevating the sciences above all other ways of knowing – was intended to be used this way.

Wittgenstein’s own view of his early philosophy seems to have been that it attempted to lay out the mistakes that philosophers are apt to make by building theories to address problems that are at root problems of language. His claim in proposition 1.1 of that work that “the world is the totality of facts”, and similarly in proposition 4.01 that “a proposition is a picture of reality”, were thus not meant to endorse the stated ideas (as Russell and the logical positivists did) but to explore the problems that would follow from doing so. The implications of this have still not been taken seriously by the tradition of analytic philosophy set in motion at this juncture, and Wittgenstein spent the rest of his career trying to undermine what he had inadvertently set in motion.

Regardless of Wittgenstein’s own views, a great many people would support his proposition that “the world is the totality of facts”, at least in principle. To have the facts is thus to have knowledge of the world, and some subset of all the facts that might be asserted constitute what is called in English ‘general knowledge’. While any catalogue of general knowledge might contain any number of different facts, for every cultural context the truth of the vast majority of the propositions in circulation is not really in doubt. Factual knowledge is thus cultural knowledge, a point that comes out clearly in French and Spanish which render the concept as culture générale or cultura general. The fact that Everest is the tallest mountain in the world is certainly a part of the general knowledge of Great Britain, whose colonial surveyors measured it and named it thus; it might also be true in Nepal that Sagarmāthā is the tallest mountain in the world, or true of Chomolungma in Tibet, but anyone in English who replied that Chomolungma was the tallest mountain in the world would need to provide the additional explanation to demonstrate that this fact still accorded with general knowledge.

Factual knowledge like this is precisely what an encyclopaedia aims to collect and present, as indeed is also the case for an almanac. In such cases, we trust in the authority of the people who have compiled the reference book or database when we take the propositions they contain as facts. That trust is part of our justification for accepting them as true; it is why our belief in it is considered justified. But in each such case, the production of the fact itself – the height of a mountain above sea-level, for instance, or the history of a city – involved the application of skills. Every fact was derived by a practice, or a collection of practices: geometry and the use of a theodolite provided the height of Everest; calenders, record-making, and the interpretation of records provide the history of the city at the mouth of the Bosphorus.

This being so, it would seem as if there are not two kinds of knowledge at all, since factual knowledge rests at its core upon practical skills. It is these practices that have the authentic claim to knowledge – knowing ‘the facts’ without the practices that underlie them is only trusting that you are connected by a chain of reliable witnesses to those who do possess the relevant skills. The extent to which we truly share in the knowledge being conveyed in such a way will always be limited by the extent we understand the relevant practices. Factual knowledge is nothing but repeating.

This enquiry concludes in Knowledge as a Practice, next week.

My thanks to everyone on Twitter who helped me explore the 'general knowledge' concept via different languages, namely Oscar Strik, ðaryl, Late Tide, Rémy Boicherot, Miguel Sicart, Adrian Froschauer, Jacek Wesołowski and Ewa Stasiak.