Do the (Poly)math

Vitruvian Man Although I can't claim to have achieved anything like the depth of study required for the title ‘polymath’ to apply to me, I find myself consistently straining under its weight. While I only have finite interests, the problem I face is that even the entailments of my preferred subject areas are sufficiently vast that they constantly threaten to drown me. I spoke about the infinite library problem before, and this is still an issue I face: how do I determine what not to read? Where can I tolerate a gulf in my knowledge?

I am not, I believe, all that well-versed in game studies, which is putatively my home field. For most of my career as a game designer, my practical experience has supposedly stood for more than a comprehensive review of the literature. Yet now I am being published in that field, I find increasing need for the relevant references – and a staggering volume exists, even on purportedly minor subjects like game aesthetics. This is complicated by my desire to then read on related subjects, including narratology and of course philosophy of art – not to mention the history of art. I have a decent grasp of all these areas, albeit sometimes only to a passing degree, but the gnawing sense of an abyssal pit of unread books and papers is palpable.

Philosophy is my Achilles heel right now, as I cannot hope to cover it to my satisfaction. I have long had interests in philosophy of science, of religion, and of mind, but now these subjects are crowded out by aesthetics and especially ethics. My only relief, in this regard, is that most of twentieth century ethics is deeply confused – but even then, I may still have to read it! The sense of obligation I have to be able to address all points on any given path rapidly expands into an impossible funnel of content. Some casualties are inevitable, and metaphysics may be one of them. I enjoy reading about (say) object oriented ontology, since my own metaphysics was moving in a similar direction not that long ago, and also because the emergence of Secular Animism intrigues me as someone who studies nonreligion. But I simply don’t have the time to invest in the corners of my interests any more.

The funny thing is, working on The Mythology of Evolution I didn't feel this tension between wanting to read everything and the practicalities of selective reading. I had thought, on submitting the proposal for that particular book, that I knew  in advance everything I needed to write it. This was a big mistake! But compiling the reading list to rectify my deficits was straight-forward, and mostly involved reviewing an armful of recent publications – many of which strengthened rather than weakened my case. Perhaps it helped in this instance that evolution and philosophy of science were topics I would cover in this book, but perhaps never again. It made the entire project feel self-contained.

Not so Chaos Ethics, the final part of my trilogy concerning the role of imagination in life. Even after years of reading books on moral philosophy there are still untapped seams I would dearly like to give a fair crack of the whip. And unlike the last manuscript, I expect I could be publishing in ethics for the rest of my life if I can get all my ducks in a row, which only intensifies the sense of perpetual incompleteness. (It doesn't help that I also have to contend with moral psychology and ethography!) There's just too much stuff to read, and there isn't enough time to cover it all. Something has to give, but what?

Ultimately, like so many issues today, the problem is all in the mind. Stress about an overly vast reading list is easily solved by either raising the bar on quality control, or lowering the bar on completeness. Most authors avoid such problems entirely by feeling no obligation to understand topics they comment upon solely in passing. So why do I feel the burden of the polymath, even though I have no explicit desire to be judged a jack-of-all-trades? What secret fantasy or fear compels me, against all sense, to attempt to know everything – even if that remit is now at least somewhat constrained? And if being a know-it-all is such a terrible thing, why do I feel bad about my limitations as a know-it-somewhat?

Always Believe

Holding-the-sun-2Whatever you do, believe. Believe in yourself, believe in your world, believe in your future. A commitment to the true is a filter that guarantees the mundane – truth is worthy of understanding, but it’s a flimsy god. Certainty narrows the possible, faith expands it – why live in a world that is anything less than the most it could be? Always believe, but invest your faith with care as the charlatans want your trust as much as they want your money. Cynicism builds a wall that protects you from the hurt of failure, but it also ensures your isolation. Instead, believe – but believe wisely. That is, and always has been, the challenge.

When I Am Gone

Steephill Cove Life is given to us without our choice, and it ends for us whether we like it or not. The fear of dying is only natural, although we cannot fear it the way we fear, say, getting burned since that would mean we'd have to experience death to fear it. Conscious of our mortality, we fear when we shall not be conscious of anything – which is an odd state of affairs.

Hamlet, contemplating suicide as a way to escape his guilt and indecisiveness over his father's murder, suggests that all that keeps him from ending it all is the “dread of something after death”. Today this has ceased to be most people’s concern since those who believe in an afterlife also tend to believe it will be pleasant for them. What holds most people from suicide is either a prudent cowardice or a sense of waste: if (as many believe) this is all there is, there is little to gain from checking out of the game. Most people in the grip of such intense depression fail to recognise the anguish they will cause those around them, or else this inflicted pain is spitefully desired.

Suicide has never been on the table for me, and although I was tortured by intense depression in my youth, the prevailing winds in my life have blown me to ever fairer harbours. I'm not sure when I stopped fearing death, if indeed I ever did have such a fear. When, as a child, I believed in hell as punishment I perhaps knew some anxiety about dying but now I see hell as something we take ourselves into, the despair that for Kierkegaard was synonymous with sin. Now my concern is how to keep my friends safe from such anguish, as much as I can hope to do so. It is often impossible for one on the outside to render aid to someone who has fallen into a hell of their own making.

One day, I will be gone. Vanity hopes I will leave something by which I might be remembered, but in a century, a millennia, an aeon, the only trace of me that might remain will be inconsequential. I don't mind one jot: shorn of my flesh, my vanity will equally be dust. Scatter my ashes at Steephill Cove and go on with your lives. But despite no fear of death – at least, no fear of my own death – I find myself for the first time concerned about when I will die. I worry not for myself, nor even for my wife, but for my son.

I became a parent willingly and knowingly, with far more anxiety than mere death could cause! I was unprepared for what my intimate connection to this tiny creature would do to my experience of life. If I had died two years ago, well, it was a hell of a ride! If I die two years hence, I condemn my son to grow up without a father. That weighs heavily upon me now, although I could not wish to erase my wild youth for it made me who I am today.

When I am gone the world will still be much as it was. People will still mistake their ingenuity for wisdom, their desires for needs, their fears for hopes. They will decry intolerance and persecute difference from themselves, thus becoming what they hate. They will dance and love and sing, and bring such beauty into being they ought never fear the illusionary sense of meaninglessness that is the intellect’s revenge on humanity. When I am gone, the world will go on. Somehow, that is enough.

The Age of Recrimination

Finger We live at a time in which almost everyone has allegations and insinuations to direct against others – politicians, co-workers, neighbours – yet almost no-one thinks ethics is an interesting subject. How can this be?

I fear the bad reputation that ethics has acquired is a result both of the dull tone that academic moral philosophy has fallen into sustaining, and the odd belief that the only thing ethics has to teach is what we shouldn’t do – as if ethics was merely the formal counterpart of law. The idea that ethics could still be, as the Greeks believed, about how we should live, has taken upon a negative context: any possible basis for ‘should’ is either discredited or simply disbelieved. Yet ethics is, and always has been, about our mutual happiness. Somehow, we lost sight of this.

We constantly make moral judgements against others, rarely against ourselves, and thus live within poisonous half-ethical mythologies that make no reference to virtue (except to note its absence), have no mention of duty (except when criticising others for not doing theirs), and have absolute certainty about the consequences of other people not sharing our beliefs, while discounting outright the idea that anyone else has any beliefs worth holding. Recrimination has replaced reflection in our moral world – never mind what I do or don’t do, what you did is so much worse.

The consequences of this corruption of our moral perspectives are deeper than are often credited. The belligerent stalemates in politics, the incremental devastation of the natural world, the return of international imperialism all stem from the same withered tree. In this respect, Alain Badiou has it right when he condemns traditional ethics as being built on an image of evil; we know what is wrong, and it isn’t ourselves but always others:

Ethics is conceived here both as an a priori ability to discern Evil (for according to the modern usage of ethics, Evil – or the negative – is primary: we presume a consensus regarding what is barbarian), and as the ultimate principle of judgement, in particular political judgement: good is what intervenes visibly against an Evil that is identifiable a priori. Law itself is first of all law ‘against’ Evil.

Thus the liberal blames the conservative for their traditional beliefs because this fails to live up to the standards of tolerance liberality demands – despite the fact that this demand (as Badiou also notes) becomes self-defeating. The liberal is hopeless at tolerance; they can only tolerate those people who share their specific liberal values. Thus too the conservative blames the liberal for their “godless” or “progressive” values, yet fails to live up to the demands of the religious traditions they claim to extol and bring about the kind of destructive ‘progress’ they abhor by an unholy alliance between tradition and ever-greedy capitalism. Always, the fault lies elsewhere.

We go awry when we think of ethics solely in the form of moral law because then it seems unachievable, and all that is left is to vilify, persecute and ultimately murder the worst excesses that lie outside this unattainable ideal. Instead, we can recognise our imperfection and uphold moral ideals from within, instead of reflecting them as hostility without. We can praise virtues when we find them, we can be dutiful for its own rewards, we can discuss consequences in the light of the uncertainty that inevitable obscures the future. In short, we can practice ethics personally instead of solely pursuing the persecution of the unethical nationally and internationally. We can return to the original ethical question – how should we live? – and answer it for ourselves by living well.

Fox in a Steel Trap

Fox in Trap Are we a uniquely rational animal, or does some other capacity set us apart from other species?

Unable to escape a trap, a fox will panic when a human approaches - struggling even to the point of death. We tend to think this is not rational behaviour, especially if the approaching human has come to release the trapped animal, yet it is completely rational from the fox's perspective. Humans, as far as the fox is concerned, are deadly predators for whom they have no realistic expectation of aid. Equivalently, a soldier caught in a trap behind enemy lines may vainly struggle when their realistic expectation is that they can expect no mercy from their foes.

To prevent panic, vets and animal researchers will put a hood over the head of a horse, bear or seal. Unable to see what is going on, the animal is calmer and more amenable to examination or treatment. Someone wishing to free a fox from an animal trap might benefit from doing the same. Conversely, a hood placed over the head of a human is more likely to incite terror than suppress it. Blinded, we begin to imagine the terrible things that might be about to happen. Is this more rational than being calmed by the hood? We can construct scenarios to support such a claim, but it seems odd to believe that panic is a more rational response to uncertainty.

The idea that we are uniquely rational among animals is so familiar that it scarcely seems to require justification. Still, when it comes to stupidity it is evident that no species can possibly hold a candle to humanity's ridiculousness. Other distinguishing features might be more plausible than rationality: Heidegger singled out our capacity to think of ourselves in time (Dasein) – to conceptualise more than just the present – as unique to humans, but what allows us to do this is a faculty quite apart from rational thought.

The attempt to position rationality as a distinguishing feature of humanity flails helplessly against the patently irrational behaviour that is typical of our species. We routinely overeat, overburden our environment, and ‘solve’ problems by enlarging them – as when building more roads is offered as a solution to excessive traffic, or when collapsing financial institutions are treated as sensible recipients of large sums of money. Like the fox in a steel trap, our behaviour tends towards the self-destructive, and in ways far harder to defend as rational.

The analytic philosopher’s praise of rationality should be treated like a baker’s claim that cake is humanity’s greatest creation. Every sports fan believes their team is the greatest. All these assertions require, not rational thinking, but imagination. It is the extent of our imaginative faculty that distinguishes us from other animals, and this does not necessarily make us more rational than, say, a dolphin or a rook – if anything, it allows a tremendous capacity for irrationality, which is often a wonderful thing.

Faith in the goodness of humanity could not be rational, but it is certainly imaginative. Similarly, there is no more beautiful madness than dedication to a marriage that actually works – rational judgement could not possibly commit to such insanity. The immeasurable greatness of our species is found in the creative extremity of our imagination – art, entertainment and engineering all transcend the shackles of the sensible, which is in part why we laud their achievements. Do we really believe it was sane to travel to the moon?

The fox in a steel trap finds itself in a terrifying predicament that none of it's prior experiences prepared it for. Whenever we truly understand our situation, we may share with the fox a deep sense of helpless panic. Unlike the fox, we can invent ways out of the crises that we encounter. We are never helpless, never hopeless, always capable of imagining something other than what we face in life. This creative potential distinguishes us from other animals, which may otherwise be just as rational as we are.

Slightly Fewer Winter Greetings Than Usual

Stonehenge Solstice It’s time to wish a Happy Winter Festival to everyone, but sadly this time the Islamic calendar (which pivots on the lunar cycle) has nothing on offer. The Day of Ashura was back on December 5th, and Milad Un Nabi isn’t until February 4th – so sorry Muslims, no special shout for you this year. Similarly, the Hindu festival of Makara Sankranti isn’t until January 14th, the Bahá'í Faith have nothing between 28th November 2011 and 2nd March 2012, and as far as I can tell Theraveda Buddhism still doesn’t have a winter festival at all. As for the Sikhs, although there are several festival dates in December, I confess to not knowing how to send appropriate greetings for any of them. Suffice it to say that I wish all of you well, even though you don’t seem to have a Winter Festival on the table this year.

However, I can still wish Pagans a Happy Solstice, Zoroastrians a Happy Yalda, Jews a Happy Hannukah, Mahayana Buddhists a Happy New Year, Christians (both religious and cultural) a Merry Christmas, African-Americans a Happy Kwanzaa, and a very Merry Swik to everyone else! As for myself, I am turning forty on 1st January, so if I survive the festivities I'll see you all on the other side of this meaningless numeric milestone. Have fun!

Only a Game will return in January with yet more nonsense.

Crisis in the Infinite Library

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

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

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

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

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

Russell on the Financial Crisis

Bertrand Russell, writing in 1932, noted that unregulated financial markets were not in the interests of society:

There are some activities in which the motive of private profit leads, on the whole, to the promotion of the general interest, and others in which this is not so. Finance is now definitely in the latter class, whatever it may have been in the past. The result is an increasing need of governmental interference with finance. It will be necessary to consider finance and industry as forming a single whole, and to aim at maximising the profits of the whole, not of the financial part separately. Finance is more powerful than industry when both are independent, but the interests of industry more nearly coincide with those of the community than do the interests of finance. This is the reason than the world has been brought to such a pass by the excessive power of finance.

Ghandi on Unity

Mohandas Ghandi, writing in a political pamphlet, speaking through the voice of the Editor in one of his dialogues:

Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal? Wherein is the cause for quarrelling?

Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), 1908

Pannikar on Spirituality

Catholic Priest and proponent of inter-religious dialogue, Raimon Pannikar, summarizes the central ideas of all major spiritual traditions:

The essentials of the religious teachings could be summed up in three ideas: the relinking of onself with the rest of human beings, with our neighbours, with the community, with our true self; the relinking of humankind with Nature, with all things, with the environment, including machines; the relinking of humanity with the Divine, with Mystery, the Sacred, the Numinous, the Absolute, Transcendence.

“Religions and the Culture of Peace”, in Religion, Politics & Peace, 1999