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Forty Hours

Over on ihobo today, a piece discussing the changing face of videogame length. Here’s an extract:

Nowadays, the forty hour model seems in decline – but it has not primarily been replaced with shorter play experiences. On the contrary, every major commercial game now attempts to ‘capture’ its audience for at least 200 hours, with multiplayer modes being the core method of retention. The forty hour model was a consequence of selling games-as-products, as boxed content that would be played then thrown onto a pile of completed games (although it turns out that the minority of players finish games). The 200 hour model is a consequence of selling games-as-services, with monetization now an on-going process throughout the time the players are engaged with the title in question.

You can read the entirety of Forty Hours over on

The Petty Evil of Timetabling

Galaxies CollideWe live at a time when there is not, despite how it may occasionally seem, a common moral paradigm we can draw against. Rather, as I discuss at length in Chaos Ethics, there are many different ethical methods colliding with each other. Some, facing the cacophony, feel a powerful need to justify one moral system as necessarily superior to others – but this, I’m afraid, is largely a waste of effort. What is needed is not ‘one ethic to rule them all’, but a sensitivity to the moral tensions that emerge from the unavoidable conflicts between different approaches.

I’d like to give an example from my life that illustrates this point. Every year since I began teaching, the timetabling has been horrific. In previous years, it has been horrific because resolving my restrictions (on account of being a parent) with the available teaching spaces and the logistics of the student intake has required tremendous time and effort – and considerable loss of hair! The person responsible for timetabling for the last two years quit his job rather than face it again. This year, someone new took over timetabling, and opted to ‘black box’ the process, meeting only with the line manager involved and not with the staff. I suspect this was a successful strategy for most staff, who are used to receiving the timetable as a circumstance delivered to them. For me, it was hell.

The problem stems from a mismatch of expectations. In my lived practice as a teacher, participating in timetabling was what I had learned, and what I expected. Doing so also allowed me some influence over how my teaching would proceed, which at an emotional level I need for my own sanity. (This is something I have in common with those marvelous folks on the autistic spectrum). Quite understandably, I proceeded with timetabling on the basis that I always had, without really taking on board the consequences of the change of circumstances, since pragmatically that change was invisible to me until it was too late.

The two people who were handling timetabling established new prudential values for the timetable process that were (when I eventually discovered them) perfectly sensible. Their decision to pursue these values was in itself a moral decision: it was the ethical choice to value outcomes over alternative moral approaches, such as virtues. But their pursuit of these values unleashed terrible stresses into my life, because I simply could not understand why my requests (motivated in part by my personal teaching values) were being ignored, when I could see that it was perfectly possible to implement the arrangements I was requesting.

Inevitably, it all came to a dramatic head and, with a little fury, and quite a bit of crying, I eventually came to understand the power relations that had been established and the reasons for their coming into existence. I could completely appreciate the prudential values that had been chosen, once they were made clear to me, and although I did not really agree that the outcome we were getting was better than my circumstances in previous years, I could at least make sense of the upsetting events of the previous few weeks once this perspective was revealed to me. It comes with considerable costs… I had to abandon my conceptual image for one of my classes – a very successful class – and I will have to develop a new image for it that, at the moment, is hard to see as better. But I have no doubt that I will do this.

In my particular case, I was lucky because the line manager involved was sufficiently sensitive to the situation to resolve it through ‘soft power’ rather than through playing the King. But we can see in this example a classic case of how contemporary bureaucracy becomes the enemy of the good through petty evil. Everyone involved in the timetabling process that affected me had laudable ethical values that motivated their actions – yet the tensions that were unleashed could not easily have been avoided, because there was no reason for anyone to suspect that the chosen approach could cause such unintended emotional damage. Furthermore, while some degree of consultation might have resolved my issue, it would have made the practical progression of this particular bureaucratic task untenable.

This is an example of the kind of problems we are all facing in our bureaucratically-arranged organisations at this time in history. At root is the conflict between our outcome-focussed ethics, all of which revolve around prudential values, and agent-focussed ethics, such as virtues, that are embedded in individuals and communities. We have somehow learned that we should let prudential considerations trump all others (an ethical approach that is usually termed Consequentialism), and many hold moral values that inform them this is what they should do, not just what happens. Personally, however, I cannot accept this situation as anything other than a colossal moral error.

The problem with using solely outcome-focussed ethics to judge situations is that we do not ever know all the outcomes when we make decisions, an objection originally raised by Nietzsche. We imagine what the outcomes will be, and these imagined consequences come to be what govern our decision process. If we choose imagined futures over the lived moral practices of the people around us, we will act in ways that are guaranteed to generate moral and emotional tensions. It will cause what I have called petty evil, the damage wrought by large organisations in their inability to understand the deleterious effects they cause through disempowering those affected by their centralised decision making.

Saying that solving this problem in the worlds we live in will not be easy is an understatement. The ideals that got us through the Enlightenment – of freedom, and what we have chosen to call democracy – are no longer capable of bearing the load placed upon them, in part because the prudential values of the marketplace (primarily that of efficiently generating money) supplant deeper moral practices, such as virtue, in ways that are impossible to oppose as long as ‘choice’ is seen as paradigmatic of freedom, rather than a shallow substitution for authentic autonomy. We need to see these problems with better eyes, but it is unclear that we have the will to do so.

The opening image is Galaxies Collide by Robert McNiel, which I found here on his Instagram page. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Knowing That We Know

An open letter replying to Chris at The Journals of Doc Surge as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Further replies welcome!

brain-vs-heartDear Chris,

How do we know that we are right, or that something is true, or that what we think is actually knowledge? Or, to come at this issue from a different conception: what is the emotional component of knowing? Despite a gap of four centuries, our understanding of the world still owes a philosophical debt to the French philosopher René Descartes, who perhaps more than anyone else in the Western traditions of thought wrestled with questions of doubt and certainty. It is Descartes who first raises the sceptical challenge: if I cannot eliminate all doubts, how can I be certain?

Many thanks for your blog letter Validation, Conviction, and Doubt, from June this year, in which you pick up the themes of knowledge as a practice that I introduced in the Why the Wikipedia Knows Nothing serial, and run off in rather surprising directions. I have spent a considerable amount of time pondering the points you raise here, not because I disagree with your general position, but because I want to be clear in my own mind as to the relationship between our emotions and our knowledge. Part of the issue here is that the conventional view of knowledge that I critique in Why the Wikipedia Knows Nothing makes knowing into an entirely rational and testable affair, and this is a disastrous way of understanding this subject since it means we can never know anything, and our conception of what it means to know does not reflect the experiences of knowledge at all.

You cite Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist I have a rather conflicted relationship with, in terms of the idea that our intuitions precede our strategic reasoning. Haidt has been a brilliant voice in the intersection between liberal and conservative politics in the United States, and this aspect of his work I adore. I am rather less impressed with his relationship to philosophy, and particularly moral philosophy. Haidt was a philosophy undergraduate, and quit this degree to pursue another direction. Reading between the lines, I suspect he had violent disagreements with one or more of his philosophy teachers and still bears a chip on his shoulder. His writing (particularly in the book you cite) has so lost perspective on the subject of philosophy that he reads as an almost vindictive critic, bending over to try to justify why philosophy isn’t needed. So, inevitably, when he has to discuss philosophical topics he goes horribly awry – because he knows so little about the topic!

Haidt makes the claim that because our intuitions precede our strategic reasoning about moral judgements that rational philosophy cannot be trusted on ethical matters since it does not describe how people actually engage with moral subjects. I am in a agreement with him that the force of our moral intuitions is greater than that of our ethical reasoning, and also that rational philosophy is problematic, but this latter claim needs some qualification. Rationalism has its roots in the episteme (to borrow Foucault’s term), or conditions-of-knowing, that Descartes gives us. It begins with the conception of knowledge as a necessary entertaining of all doubts, in order to overcome them all and reach certainty – a kind of epistemic Battle Royale. But the principle purveyor of this kind of rationalism are today are the sciences, and thus Haidt very quickly paints himself into a corner. The knowledge he would have us accept is indelibly connected to the rationalism he would have us question. How can we trust the testimony of someone who cannot reliably account for his own knowledge?

At root, Haidt is still operating in the epistemic space opened up by Descartes that involves splitting the world into mind and body or, as Kant refines this, into subject and object. We have gained a great deal from these perspectives, but they also risk misleading us. There is a constant danger of equating subject (mind) with doubt, and object (body) with knowledge – a perspective readily apparent in the insistence that we must think objectively in order to get at the truth i.e. that we must think like something that cannot think in order to reach the facts. Thus we get to a distorted understanding of the sciences where the scientist is merely a priest-like conduit for knowledge that magically arrives from the objective world, distorting the impressive work that scientists actually conduct to get the world to ‘speak’ to us (as the suffix ‘-ology’ implies).

When we look at knowledge as a practice, this whole scheme of understanding becomes inverted – because it is evident that objects cannot know, and that knowledge is something that only beings with minds can possess, and they can only acquire it through interacting with the body of the universe (with the sole exception of logic and mathematics). What made it seem plausible that knowledge could be equated with objects was the idea that knowledge was simply a matter of accurately reporting the status and relationships of objects. But scientists do not learn about the world this way: they develop practices that turn objects into reliable witnesses; they make the world speak. In doing so, they trust their emotions in order to judge when they have an effective practice – and when they don’t (as Haidt quite often doesn’t), their emotions deceive them as to the importance and reliability of what they are claiming.

The whole process of knowing – in all its many guises – is inseparable from its emotional element. Our inquisitiveness or desire compels us to begin to acquire knowledge, either from learning an existing practice (as in the case of most knowledge) or by trying to develop a new practice (as researchers in the sciences do). Our excitement, commitment, curiosity – or stubbornness! – helps us maintain the repetition required to establish the habit upon which our practices are built. And the experience of triumph or satisfaction when we are able to execute a practice correctly – when our knowledge is shown to work in the way we expect – is foundational to knowing that we finally know how to do something, even if we sometimes need someone else to confirm for us that we are doing it right. Even (especially!) in the sciences, knowledge and emotion are intimately entwined. As Pascal suggested: “We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.”

Your discussion of conviction and doubt goes further than I am able to adequately address in this letter, and displays a quintessentially Buddhist appreciation for the wisdom of doubt. I think, perhaps, that conviction is not an aspect of knowledge, as such, and falls under Hannah Arendt’s warning that whenever we resolve to take action, we are committing to a course of events the outcomes of which we cannot actually know. She calls the capacity to take action “the most dangerous of all human abilities and possibilities” and suggests, in 1961:

The totalitarian systems tend to demonstrate that action can be based on any hypothesis and, in the course of consistently guided action, the particular hypothesis will become true, will become actual, factual reality. The assumption which underlies consistent action can be as mad as it pleases; it will always end in producing facts which are then “objectively” true. What was originally nothing but a hypothesis, to be proved or disproved by actual facts, will in the course of consistent action always turn into a fact, never to be disproved.

Here is the danger of believing that knowledge is passively produced by excluding mind from matter: when we divorce knowledge from the emotions that guide the process of beginning to know, we banish doubt and glorify certainty by simply ceasing to know and calling it truth. It is this risk – that of premature certainty, of manufacturing truths to support any action – that is an ever-present danger in all our lives.

With love and respect,


Any and all replies welcome.