Blinded by the Light

July 3, 2015

So, there’s a new hashtag out that’s making some of the rounds of some of the usual places, and that is another battle, perhaps, in the ongoing gaming culture wars. Really, I have no idea how to refer to any of this stuff anymore without ticking someone off, and to be honest I’ve lost interest in trying to avoid ticking people off. I’m far more interested in trying to express things accurately, but since that seems impossible …

Ahem. Anyway, the hashtag is #IStandWithTauriq, aimed at defending someone who wrote an article about race in gaming, faced at times harsh criticism from people on Twitter with some comments that were unacceptable but were, well, pretty much what you commonly see from the Internet (unfortunately) and decided to leave Twitter, with this hashtag being used for people to decry this and fight against this and other sorts of unacceptable harassment that you see there.

I’m not going to talk about that part. For one, I think that excessive harassment is wrong and have said it on many occasions, so I don’t need to say it now. For another, after digging into it a bit how much of the response was harassing, how much was simple criticism — even if harsh — and how much was even directed at him is debatable, and so I can’t even tell what the story is accurately enough to write a good article about it. So I’m not going to. What I am going to do is talk about the original article. Tauriq Moosa wants reasonable criticism, discussion and debate … and I’m going to give it to him in spades.

The article starts by commenting on the recent Rust issue, which is essentially this: When the post-apocalyptic (I think) survival game was launched, the only avatars you could have were white bald men. Recently, they added the ability to have more customizable avatars, including being able to have different races … well, if you wanted your race to be white or black. That “have different races” is important, because you don’t get to choose your race; instead, it is randomly generated for you and cannot be changed. The player doesn’t get to see the avatar in-game, but other players do. And as it’s based on your Steam Id — which is what you always use to play the game — there is no way to change what race you are no matter how many times you delete and restart the game. This garnered many complaints from people who wanted to play the game, from people who didn’t want to play as a black character when they were white to people who griped about being unable to choose what race the avatar was (as I’ll explain later, these groups are not identical). At the same time, people who were interested in pushing for diversity hailed this as a wonderful social experiment, which the designers, at least publicly, embraced as the reason to do this, causing more backlash. And there was much fighting.

Moosa here summarizes this the way most of those on the “diversity” side summarized it: when people had to play as a white avatar, then that was fine, but when they’re forced to play as a black avatar, then that’s terrible. So this simply reflects how whiteness (and also maleness) is seen as the default, and how that isn’t political but that pushes for blackness or, more generally, for minority representation is seen as political when the status quo of majority representation isn’t. Thus, it’s just another reflection of racism in video games.

The problem is that Rust is a really, really bad example to hang your hat on for this. For most of the games where Moosa says that he has to play as a white male character, there is, in fact, an actual defined character. If a game is going to force me to play as Miku Hinasaki — Japanese teenaged female — I’m going to accept that, because they will define a character and then make the definition of that character matter to the story. I accept Miku just as much as I accept Yuri Hyuga as a default and don’t care about the details (note that Yuri, one of my favourite male characters and favourite characters ever, is in fact half-German half-Japanese). This is because I’m not really trying to be them, but am instead trying to guide them through their story. This is not, of course, the way I approach a game like The Old Republic, where I get to create my character. Even though the game guides them through a linear story, to a large extent I want them to be like the character I want them to be, and not just some defined character that I follow.

In Rust, you don’t get a defined character with a defined story and a defined personality. Instead, you get a blank slate. From the start, people almost certainly complained about not being able to customize the appearance of the avatar — even though they couldn’t see it themselves — and so when the designers allowed for there to be more variety in appearances players almost certainly expected to be able to choose their appearance as far as the engine would allow them to. After all, what other reason could they have for introducing it? So discovering that not only was that not the case, but that the reason for not allowing that ended up being some kind of social experiment aiming at supporting strong social justice arguments was definitely going to ruffle feathers. After all, the argument isn’t that it makes the game more fun, but that it either promotes a specific social agenda or that it’s something that lets the designers have more fun at the expense of their players. I was also shocked that this could be seen as supporting social justice when one of their big concerns is about letting players of colour play as the race they actually are … and this game introduced the ability to play as that race but then, at random, would say “No soup for you!”. Only the intense schadenfreude of forcing white players to play as black avatars could get them thinking that this was in any way a good idea.

In order to get to the point Moosa et al want to get to, you have to ask: what would the reaction be if the characters in Rust or in any game started with a black or female character and didn’t give the choice? And my answer is this: if the game doesn’t tout it as a way to introduce diversity, there likely won’t be much at all. I don’t recall much controversy over Miku in Fatal Frame, or Heather in Silent Hill 3, because what they did was put out a game that had a female protagonist, but didn’t try to express that as some great leap forward in diversity or for feminism or whatever. Thus, we believe that they did it because they thought it made the game better (with Silent Hill 3, it let them return to the story of the first game and explore the consequences from a unique and important angle). Gamers will, rightly, be at least concerned if not annoyed and maybe even outraged if they perceive that game elements are not being chosen not for what they add to the fun of the game, but for what boxes they check off on some social justice checkbox.

Or think about it this way: if the designers had started with all of the characters being green — which could be a wonderful send-up of a post-apocalyptic, radiation-drenched future — and then decided to make it so that you could have avatars of white, black or green but that you couldn’t choose which, do you really think that there wouldn’t be similar criticisms? “Why can’t I play as Hulkling anymore?” would come the cries. In fact, when I first heard about this story, one of my thoughts was “Hmmm. Post-apocalyptic world where only the strong can survive. I want to play as The Sisko. Except, I can’t, unless the random number generator code happens to come up on that race for me. When I couldn’t choose my race, I could do it because the outward appearance said nothing about the character. When the outward appearance can be changed, then it does seem to suggest, hint at, and limit what characters I can play as. And that’s a serious problem.

(As an aside, I’m now very tempted to put “The Sisko” into the Trooper slot in TOR. I originally had Jag Fel there, but thought the bounty hunter path suited him better, but that meant bumping Logan out of there, who I had there originally because of the role and the link with Mako, but I think that The Sisko works better for the Trooper anyway.)

The next thing Moosa talks about is “The Witcher 3″, where the game doesn’t contain a single human person of colour. He gives a reason for why this isn’t highlighted strongly enough to his satisfaction:

Let’s look at a few uncomfortable facts. Almost every Witcher 3 review I came across was written by a white man — excellent writers and all of whom I respect. But games media itself is, like the tech world, a very white-male dominated area. This is why we got a hundred articles confronting the Witcher 3 devs about less pretty grass physics, but not a single article asking them about no people of color.

Of course, he is actually corrected by the editor of Polygon pointing out that their article actually did that. Did he not read the review done by the site that he was writing the article for. But another reason is probably that given the setting — Slavic/European middle-age — the fact that you only see white characters is more believable. But Moosa has a reply to this:

But this misses a crucial point: Things are not equal. We are not in a medium that features predominantly Indian men, Chinese women, or focuses on stories from Africa. We’re part of an industry that frequently tells the stories of white people and stars white people.

Thus, wanting more people of color in stories that focus on mythology for a predominantly white culture doesn’t work the other way. Wanting white people in spaces dedicated to people of color ignores that stories of white people already dominate this and other creative industries.

The problem here is that, essentially, the creators of this game are from Poland and wanted to write a game that expressed things from their perspective. If you read through the comments, you’d see the quotes that say that Poland is well over 90% white, and that at the time the ratio was at least as bad. So essentially here he’d be criticizing a minority culture for wanting to express things as seen from their culture. And it’s not like the Polish were ever discriminated against for being Polish, right? Oh, wait, they were. So much for intersectionality, then. We can allow you to express things from your own minority perspective and respect diversity right up until the point that it clashes with some artificial quota of representation, at which point you can’t do that anymore.

Look, the obvious solution here is not to push representation into places where it doesn’t fit, but instead to make more diverse games. Creating new fantasy worlds based on Indian, Chinese or African history and mythology will help to break out of the same-old, same-old rut that these fantasy worlds often have, allowing for some new and fresh takes and help to extend the diversity of games. For example, the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” series is based on Chinese history/folklore, and was certainly successful, and was a series of games that I, personally, loved. We need to do more like that, and build new worlds where a diverse cast isn’t a problem, not try to shove it into a world and game just to have it.

He moves on to try to talk about how having fantasy races and dealing with racism issues through that is problematic:

It should be mentioned that The Witcher 3 deals with “racism,” but other “races” literally refers to different species: Elves, dwarves and other non-humans face bigotry.

Indeed, it shows again that humans are white humans and everyone else is non-human and oppressed. I’m not against racism being depicted; the game actually portrays racism and bigotry as bad. But even elves have the opportunity to exist. People of color don’t.

Again: This is literal dehumanizing of people of color. We are relegated to non-human species, whose treatment is supposed to mimic real-world racist policies. This sci-fi/fantasy trope of dealing with racism by showing inter-species treatment could work — if all the humans weren’t white.

Which also ties in with his previous comment on how with fantasy races and monsters the idea of being “historically accurate” goes out the window. Except it doesn’t, because as is pointed out in the comments the story is based on that time and that place, with some minor folklore elements inserted into it. Given that it is supposed to reflect in at least some way a historical time and place, what should we do if we insert PoC into that setting? Do we reflect the racism that they would experience in that setting in the game, which means that in general even our main character either should be or at least should be given the opportunity to act racist? Or do we leave human-human racism out completely, thus sanitizing the setting and thus leaving out all race issues as somehow being miraculously solved? From what I can see, either will be criticized by the same people who want to see diversity. If you do the former, then the game will be criticized for including incidents of racism. If you do the latter, then it will be criticized for sanitizing an era and showing it as being equal when it wasn’t (see The Sisko’s argument against Vic’s in DS9 for how that argument would go). The designers, then, simply cannot win.

Besides, the best way to approach racial issues through games is to cast the discussion into a metaphor that bypasses our ingrained and conditioned responses. If we can see why it is wrong to discriminate against the elves, then we ought to be able to see how it is wrong to discriminate against people who are, in fact, less different from us than the elves are from the humans in that setting. It’s not eliminating PoC to take their issues and cast them in a light that allegorizes it in order to avoid knee jerk and conditioned reactions, so this criticism seems to be way out of place … so much so that it becomes insulting to people who really aren’t trying to do — and aren’t actually doing — anything like what he assert they’re doing.

We also need to note the anger and hostility to minority concerns from those who are always catered to. We should recognize that such hostility is precisely what we do not want in a culture.

Tolerance, not toxicity, is what we should aim for. That such hostility exists at all is the problem,and it perpetuates the silencing of our concerns — leading to marginalized people leaving white-male-dominated industries altogether.

But it’s not like your approach can be called “non-hostile” itself. In Rust, you badly denigrate people who want to play as the race they are just as PoC want to play as the race they are … or so they say. You denigrate people for simply producing a game based on their own minority viewpoint, and accuse them of dehumanizing you because they wanted to avoid the hassle of trying to deal with the issues that people on your side will raise if they try to include races into that setting. You insist that the objections come from a perspective of being catered to as opposed to legitimate complaints about how this isn’t actually done in service of a fun game. While the reactions may well be more hostile than deserved, you do have to take some responsibility for taking an aggressive line with people and silencing their concerns while complaining that others are silencing yours. If you want a discussion, discuss, don’t dictate. And if you say that your opponents are dictating and not discussing, find the ones who are discussing. They exist, and you might benefit from listening to them specifically.

The List – Year 4 (and updated)

July 1, 2015

So, this year I’ve decided to change up my list of games to finish, by removing all of the games that I’ve decided that I just am not going to finish. Or, rather, I went through the list and removed any game that I didn’t think that I wanted to put a push on finishing. It’s still the case that if I finish a game I’ll add it to the list — like I did with Sam & Max — but this list will track the ones that I’m thinking about playing and that when I’m deciding what to play if I want to put a game on the list out of the games I want to finish, then that’s a game that I’d want to put there.

Of course, this messes with the percentages. After adding Sam & Max, my totals were 14 games finished out of 56, for a 25% percentage, which is a big boost from last year. Now, dropping games off the list would greatly improve the percentage, but that felt like cheating. So I kept the total games there which included any I dropped so that I and you can compare it year over year, but I’ve also updated the number of finish to only count the ones that, well, I’m trying to finish. After that update and adding a couple of new ones to the list, the percentage of games finished to the total only counting games finished and that I’m actively trying to finish is 33%, not as big as I’d thought, but still a substantial boost.

Going forward, I’ll keep counting both, and we’ll see if games added to the list overtake the games I actually finish, which hasn’t been the case for the past year or two.

Thoughts on Sam & Max

June 29, 2015

So, I recently updated my list of games to finish with the three seasons of the Telltale Sam & Max games, which I’ve just finished. I decided to add them there despite them not being on the list originally because I made a concerted effort to try to finish them, and decided to add them by season because each game is too short to really be counted as a game, but just putting all three seasons as one entry seemed wrong. Anyway, here are some thoughts on them.

I didn’t care for Season 3 as much as Season 1 and Season 2. The main reason for this is that it seemed, to me, that Season 3 was more like episodes of a TV show than it was like a game. Given my love of walkthroughs, the games tended to seem like “Do these actions, get a cutscene, do some more, get another cutscene” and so on and so on. Which is why the noir detective parts of “They Stole Max’s Brain” worked best for me, since that literally was what you were doing so it was more entertaining, but when it dived back into having to do multi-part puzzles where the pay off was another cutscene rather than known progress, and where most of the humour and plot was in the longer cutscenes and not just in the short reactions to what you did, then it really seemed like I was just clicking on things to get to the next cutscene. And the humour in the third season isn’t a good as it was in the previous two seasons, so much of the time I got a cutscene that wasn’t particularly interesting.

Admittedly, the fun in Sam & Max games is not in actually solving the puzzles, but is more in seeing the odd and funny asides that the game has to offer. This means that you should take actions that won’t further the plot and ask about everything you can just to see what they say. I did this for most of the first season, but didn’t in the second and third seasons. In the first season, I typically tried to solve the puzzles myself first and tried to find the hints for them, and only went to the walkthrough when I couldn’t think of anything to do. This meant that I got more actions and talked to the characters more, which was more entertaining. The fact that you could generally do things out of order and still have solve the puzzles helped to make this a safe option. But in season 2 I found that I was clueless a lot faster — almost immediately — and so ended up developing the habit of just going to the walkthrough right away instead of thinking about it. Considering how counter-intuitive and spread out some of the puzzles were in season 3, this was probably a good move. But it did mean that I didn’t explore as much as you really should in a Sam & Max game.

That being said, I enjoyed the games and am glad I finished them. If you like Sam & Max, they’re worth getting, and if you follow the walkthrough or are good with puzzles you can finish an episode in a couple of hours, making it a good game when you don’t have a lot of time to play.

Awareness, Consciousness, Qualia, and Blindsight

June 26, 2015

So, as mentioned in my review of Rosenburg’s book, I want to talk a bit about the cases of blindsight that he discussed, because I think that there’s an issue there that Rosenburg doesn’t talk much about that is interesting.

Essentially, the case of blindsight is that these are people with specific brain damage where they lose the ability to have phenomenal experiences related to sight … which means that they can’t consciously see objects. But when they’re asked to, say, point to a yellow object, they do so successfully. But if they are asked about it, they always claim that they just guessed, despite having a success rate that can’t be explained by guessing. Rosenburg insists that they see without having a conscious experience of it, but this is a rather odd claim since it seems reasonable that what it means to see an object is to have a conscious experience of it, so what we can see is that they are aware of the colour of an object without having had a conscious experience of it … which might seem puzzling at first, but then I’ve already shown that this, in fact, can be the case. As a short summary, note that you can walk down a street or drive to work completely lost in thought, and yet you don’t generally spend your time running into people, running lights, and generally do so successfully. So we already know that we can react functionally towards things — ie be aware of them — without having to consciously see them. What these results, then, suggest is what we already knew: there is a distinct neural path from the centre of “vision” to simple awareness and to conscious experience. When my consciousness is engaged, the “consciousness” path gets blocked but the awareness path is not. This also, then, happens in cases of blindsight (and we can presume that there is a way to damage the brain so that you get neither, if it is damaged before the split).

So, problem solved, right? Well, this is still a bit puzzling, and it took me a bit to figure out why. See, for the most part we do accept that we can be aware of and react to things that we aren’t conscious of — by which I mean “had a phenomenal experience of” — because that happens all the time, as I just pointed out. But we do think that certain critical beliefs or actions are, in fact, caused by those experiences. Pointing to or even grabbing an object that we didn’t “see” isn’t an issue; again, we do it all the time. But pointing at an object because it is a certain colour is surprising, because we think that you don’t know what colour an object is without actually consciously experiencing a colour-qualia. The same thing applies to the Libet experiments: having subconscious mechanisms kick off a semi- or pseudo-random action isn’t unexpected, but having that kick off a “conscious decision” event is puzzling; in short, the RNG of the brain telling me that I made a conscious decision to press the button when I did no such thing without that being some kind of rationalization is definitely not what we’d expect. In that case, I suspect that they were in “decide to press the button” mode, at which point them acting as if they decided to do it at that moment even though it was caused by neural stimulation is not surprising, because in that scenario all that making the decision means is that you wait for the RNG to kick off telling you to do it. If they were in no way thinking about pressing a button, I would definitely expect them to react as if their wrist just moved, like we see in cases of Alien Limb Syndrome.

At any rate, it is easy to dismiss most of the examples as cases where our conscious deliberations and experiences aren’t normally expected to play a role, but being able to distinguish colour subconsciously seems a bit more of an issue. However, on reflection it should be obvious that we can do that; after all, we can still stop at red lights while driving while lost in thought. So in some sense we can indeed distinguish colours subconsciously. The question is: is there anything that we can’t do subconsciously, that we need to do consciously?

Fortunately, the blindsight cases themselves seem to suggest that there are. The subjects did not in any way remember consciously experiencing the colour of the object, and did not believe that the object was there or had a specific colour. So memory, at least, seem to follow from conscious experience. And since memory is required for reasoning, reasoning about the object and using the facts about the object to decide on future actions probably also requires that we be conscious of those facts, meaning that we have a conscious experience about them. So, again, the actions that we most introspectively think require conscious experience and knowledge seem to be the ones that we do, in fact, need conscious experience and knowledge for.

What these experiments do, in my opinion, is demonstrate that the subconscious is more powerful than we give it credit for, and so might be more influential than we think it is. However, they do not show that the conscious is ineffective or unnecessary, because even they show that for a lot of actions the conscious is still necessary … despite Rosenburg’s and others’ insistence that they show that.

Review of “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”

June 24, 2015

Jerry Coyne often demands encomiums for reading theological works. Given that, I demand many strong encomiums for reading the book he recommended, “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” by Alex Rosenburg. This is because, unlike the books that Coyne cites, this book is, in actual fact, really, really bad. Now, I didn’t say that about Grayling’s book. Or Coyne’s book. Or pretty much any other atheist book that I’ve read. The harshest I’ve been overall is probably to Kaufmann’s book, which isn’t all that harsh at all. So when I say that the book is really bad, you have a bit of a reference point. So let me outline some of the general problems with it, and then address a number of specific concerns. Again, I’m not quoting and am running mostly on memory, so there may be some inaccuracies, but I think that overall my claims will be accurate and descriptive.

The book was incredibly frustrating to read, mostly because it never really made arguments. Instead, it asserted points with great vigour and then attempted to bludgeon the reader with those asserted points over and over again, often in lieu of actually showing how the new argument really links to the asserted points. He makes great hay over “the physical facts are fixed” even in the face of phenomena that might challenge that idea, and often tries to make those challenges go away by, again, simply saying “The physical facts are fixed!” as if that resolves the problem. There were a number of cases where I was screaming “Get to the point!” when he was going on and on and on about how the thing he was arguing was the case was the case … without showing how, indeed, we knew that. His grasp of philosophy and even of science is weak, his argument unconvincing, his prose more like a propaganda tract than an actual argument … which, given that he seems to believe that argument — as it appeals to consciousness — is, like psychotherapy, useless, might well be the point.

But to see this, let me go through some of the more problematic “arguments” he makes (roughly one per chapter) to see how they fail miserably.

From the start, he tries to set up what will be a major theme of the book: humans are conditioned to prefer stories to things that have real “meaning” (I have to put that in quotes, at least once, since Rosenberg at least arguably doesn’t really believe in meaning), but science can only be expressed in things that aren’t stories, like mathematical equations. The equations have real meaning, he says, but the stories don’t, and yet we are primed by nature to prefer the stories, not the equations. Except that he misses the point of what the “stories” that we prefer are. They are descriptions of how the phenomena impacts our every day lives, the things we go through every day and, in fact, the very world we live in. To anyone who doesn’t already know what the equation means, tossing the equation at them is useless. The scientists already know or can derive what the equation means, meaning what impact it has on a relevant domain — their other equations, their theories, their other experiments — but of course the average, every day person can’t. So they want to know what it means to them. And to its credit, science has very often been able to provide that, which is responsible for science’s great successes. Rosenberg wants to get rid of all that … for some reason. Well, it seems, for the reason that stories rely on our own experiences and he definitely distrusts our own experiences … despite the fact that you can’t even do science without, at some point, relying on your own experiences.

The big scientific principle that Rosenburg uses to underlie his ideas is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Everything he talks about comes back to that law. And I do mean everything. This, of course, rather quickly gets ridiculous, because he tries to force things into a literal link with the Second Law, instead of using it either as an underlying principle or as an associative descriptive metaphor. This comes to the fore early when he tries to use it to “explain” evolution. He spends a lot of time waxing eloquently about how things like crystals form and how that strictly follows the Second Law, and then seems to argue that evolutionary interactions are molecular interactions and molecular interactions work the same way, which is fair enough, but then seems to conclude that therefore the evolutionary process is therefore the exact same process. And I don’t mean in the sense that Dawkins concluded that multiverses would be a case of natural selection — as roughly the same kind of explanatory process, but obviously not the same kind of process — and not in the sense that evolutionary processes are therefore bound by the Second Law and cannot violate it — which no one would deny — but instead that you can, somehow, literally talk about evolutionary processes in the exact same way as you talk about crystal formation, citing the Second Law, and not getting away at all from “atoms joining together” and it will make sense. At least, that’s how I took it … and it’s ridiculous to think of it that way. While you can compare them at a broad level — that structures form at random and the stable ones “survive” to move on and grow larger and larger — with evolution you end up with interactions that can only be understood at the organism level, and the interactions with the environment go far beyond “heat it up and things react faster”. But those interactions are all he talks about in that chapter, and pretty much all he says about evolution, which is not going to help him when he tries to show that those sort of Second Law dynamics are the only way we can get life.

The big thrust of that argument is that the Second Law moves us from order to disorder, and life is ordered. But we can get order, even without an external force intervening — he repeats the explanation for why we can have evolved order on Earth of “we use the energy input of the Sun to do it” earlier — but it’s just improbable. Perhaps wildly so. But if it happens, then we get life, and then we get all that comes with that. So the only way that we can get that naturally is by a random “lucking out”. Well, sure, except that he has to concede that an external force could do it. So, he’s left with it’s either complete blind random chance … or God. Sure, he claims that no intelligent external force would do it that way because it’s so “inefficient”, but all that means is that it’s hard and takes a lot of energy and effort … and if a God wanted people to know that He created them without telling them, doing something very, very hard would be the way to go.

On morality, Rosenberg’s claims for why there can be no such thing as morality are very, very weak. He completely misses the idea of normativity that is inherent to morality and for the most part simply dismisses morality completely without any real argument. When he does try to argue for it, he ends up appealing to the Nihilism that he thinks is entailed by Scientism that he thinks is entailed by science instead of something that someone who think that, say, morality is a conceptual truth could find in any way convincing. He tries to sidestep the idea that being moral nihilists means accepting that anything goes by pointing out that we all have a core morality built into us by evolution that gives us strong moral reactions and emotions, reactions and emotions that we pretty much have to follow, so we’ll generally act reasonably anyway … except for all the people who don’t, of course. The problem is that this argument is pretty much based on the idea that these things are so strongly wired into at least most people that we just naturally will follow them, at all times, and will never and never be able to change or even eliminate them. Except that we know that we can do just that. He uses an example of intense jealousy as an evolved moral emotion … ignoring that most people who feel it are, in fact, able to suppress of even eliminate that emotion, and most people think that we ought to. Rage to the point of violence when someone offends you is also a natural emotion, but we’ve both developed ways to control it and insisted that one ought only engage in it on very rare occasions. Given that we can control our emotions — which includes our moral ones — then it is a reasonable question to ask which of those I ought to keep and which I ought to eliminate. Which means that if it makes sense for me to eliminate the emotion against hurting children, then I ought to do that. So, even given Rosenberg’s “core morality”, there is still good reason to examine morality, see what it is for, and then align my core morality with what best suits that purpose. In short, normative concerns. Only if I cannot change my emotions does this fail, and all of our experience suggests that we can do just that.

Of course, Rosenberg denies that we can do that, by denying that our experiences are telling us anything at all useful, particularly ones that deal with introspection on our mental processes and states. One has to wonder at what point he considers sense impressions accurate, since they are conscious impressions and so, at least to him, can’t actually drive our behaviour, which ought to be embarrassing for him since they are our only access to an external world at all. Anyway, he uses the Libet experiments and blindsight experiment to show that our introspections about the mind works are just plain wrong. The interesting thing here is that there’s an actual interesting challenge brought up by these experiments, but you wouldn’t know it by reading what Rosenburg says, as he expresses the argument here incredibly badly. Anyway, the interesting argument is this: we tend to think that our conscious experiences are causing certain behaviours, but the experiments are showing that in at least some we can get the same behaviours without, it seems, them being caused by the conscious experience (this is the important point in the blindsight experiments). But if this is the case, how do we know that our conscious experiences ever cause any behaviour? Rosenburg focuses in on the neurological side and showing that tweaking things in the brain can predict or cause things, but never really, as far as I can tell, pushes that line. Now, the short reply to this is that none of the experiments address things that are, in fact, paradigmatically conscious. Facial recognition is known to be an automatic process, and pointing to an object of a certain colour is something that we, for example, never really “think” about, and randomly choosing when to press a button seems to be something that you’d leave to a random number generator, like a sleep(random 10) command in a computer program. I’ll talk more about this problem in another post, but suffice it to say that the interesting parts of the argument are not in Rosenburg, and Rosenburg’s arguments are not interesting.

Rosenburg’s attempts to deal with meaning and aboutness are muddled and self-contradicting. He focuses in on the brain, and insists that there can be no actual link between things in the brain to things in the world, so no aboutness, so no meaning. At this point, he’s conceded the big point that non-materialists want conceded: that the physical brain can’t capture aboutness, but then simply tries to argue that since, of course, that’s all it is, that therefore aboutness can’t happen, there’s no such thing as meaning, and ultimately ends up having to adopt a very strong Skinnerian behaviourism to explain how we go about our daily lives, which then makes it ironic that he cites Chomsky’s theory of language in defense of this since Chomsky’s theory is widely held to have refuted Skinner since language can’t be formed that way. Oops. But Rosenburg gives us no other way to go than this view that is generally considered to be totally false. Oops again. He ends up accepting the argument that most of his fellow materialists rightly think is a bad thing to accept if one wants materialism to be true, is left with no way to argue against the anti-materialist arguments and claimed consequences other than by simply asserting that there is no such thing — he even argues at one point that some of the issues around identity and the like are problems for science, but not for Scientism, which is like saying that it’s a problem for the underlying theory, but not for the things that depend on their truth on that underlying theory being true — and then walks himself into absurdities trying to show what it means to accept those things as not existing. In short, he tries to take the things that people say would demonstrate that we need something non-physical to support them and eliminate them, and when he can’t simply asserts that everything is physical and we’ll figure it all out someday. That’s hardly an argument that anyone should support.

Ultimately, Rosenburg has to dismiss any attempts to interpret the internal mental states of people and predict their behaviour on the basis of that, because of the rather ridiculous claim that there are no such things (or, at least, that they aren’t causally efficacious). This means that he has to deride folk psychology, psychotherapy and history as being absolutely useless and mostly wrong. But folk psychology is, in fact, the most effective method we have for predicting the actions of other people in our every day lives. We use it many, many times a day, every day, and it generally works, and when it doesn’t work it is quick to point out that, hey, something’s wrong here and so you’d better go figure out more about the other person. It boggles my mind that Rosenburg could seriously express the idea that folk psychology is just terrible at figuring out psychology at that level because not only is it wildly successful, it’s also not going to be replaced by “look inside the brain and see what’s happening”. When it comes to history, Rosenburg seems to be insisting that it is pointless because there aren’t enough patterns in human behaviour to allow it to say anything useful … while insisting earlier that we all have evolved traits that are roughly common even between cultures that produce a “core morality”, and that clashes tend to be over facts, not over core moral claims. So … wouldn’t that be a pattern? But the attack on psychotherapy is the worst. He insists that the only way to fix mental problems is going to be various drugs, because if I recall correctly psychotherapy, at best, identifies and treats the symptoms, not the cause (which to him is the brain state). Except that since our only access to the outside world is through seeing and hearing and the like, even if his theory is true we would generally develop those mental problems by what we “see” and “hear”, which means that the cause of those neural patterns is, in fact, the external forces that impinge on our “minds”. So, if you take a drug to simply reset the neurons and then go back out and have those same “experiences” again … your neurons will revert back to the problem state. You will, ironically, have treated the symptoms and not the cause. Psychotherapy, then, both accepts that talking and experiencing is what caused the problem in the first place, and tries to fix the problem by trying to change how one reacts to those things, which addresses the cause and not merely the symptoms. In short, if you can get into it by experiences, you can get out of it by experiences. The only reason for Rosenburg to hold this is to hold his view that internal experiences do nothing, but the whole rest of the work is forced to deny that, so his argument fails.

It is, as I said, a very bad book. The philosophy is weak and inconsistent, the arguments generally poor, and the writing style more that of a propaganda piece than of a philosophical argument, which I suppose is consistent given his views of their efficacy. Out of all of the books I’ve read so far, this is the only one that I recommend everyone stay far, far away from.

The Damsel In Distress Role in Video Games

June 22, 2015

So, after promising to talk about the “Tropes vs Women” videos over two months ago, I’m finally going to sit down and start talking about them. Well, kinda. See, the main reason for the delay was that I thought I had a lot to say about the first video, but on re-reading it turned out that I actually didn’t have a lot to say about that video, as some of the points that I thought I wanted to talk about there were actually expressed or better expressed in later videos. But I still had a rather long introductory discussion to do about how the damsel in distress fits into games, which I think is a bit different than how it fits into other media. Thus, I decided to make a post just about that before going on to the video itself. And then as is my wont I put it off for a bit while posting about atheism.

I’d worry that this would leave me further behind in talking about her videos, except that she’s done only two videos since my introductory post, one of which I’ve talked about, so it’s not like her pace is that rapid either [grin].

Anyway, to understand the role of the damsel in distress in games beyond the simple general trope that’s ubiquitous in all media, you first have to understand what is different about the gaming experience from, say, reading a book or watching a movie. The key difference is that in a game, the “observer” is not really just an observer, but is instead an active participant in the story. This means, as Shamus Young once opined (in frustration at Travis in “Silent Hill: Homecoming”) that a game not only needs to provide reasons for the character to do something, but also — and, I think, primarily — has to provide reasons for the player to do something. In a movie, if the character is doing stupid things for stupid reasons that might not break immersion as long as that is portrayed consistently. Even in a game, in a cutscene you might be able to get away with having the PC do something stupid if that’s part of the portrayal of the character. But in the actual game itself, for the actions that the player does, if you try to force the player to take a knowingly stupid action you end up with Stupidity Is the Only Option combined with But Thou Must … which frustrates players to no end.

And even having the character do it in a cutscene doesn’t always work, because in a game — particularly customizable RPGs — the player can associate themselves with the character, and then be jarred when the character does something that they, personally, would never, ever do. From this, we can see that the difference is in how immersion works. In a movie, you are immersed in it if you are accepting what you are seeing as if it was real and a reflection of real life. In a game, you are immersed in it if you feel that you are actually doing those things and that those things are happening to you, or a reasonable facsimile of you. In a movie, you get jarred out of immersion when you realize that this isn’t or can’t actually be what’s happening, and are reminded that you are just watching a movie. In a game, you get jarred out of immersion when it stops being about you and starts being about the characters in the game. Good games can transition that to the sort of immersion that you get while watching a movie, but it’s still a shift from the sort of immersion that is unique to games.

So, at the heart of video games is the challenge to find reasons for the player to start playing the game and — more importantly — to find reasons for them to continue playing the game. The simplest ways to do this were, in fact, the first: either to achieve a new high score/complete more levels (eg Pac-Man, Asteroids) or to win the game against someone else (eg Pong, Combat). These are fine as they go, but they don’t easily foster any kind of emotional commitment to playing the game except for those who either really care about beating their last high score or who have friends that they really want to beat. There are a large number of people who are interested in playing games who don’t care that much about that. Also, this led to a notion of “beating the game”, as limits were built in to early games, and that was then added as a potential motivation.

But we can see in games like Defender and Missile Command that giving the player a reason to start the game and for their character to be doing things adds more to the game, and gives them an emotional and maybe even personal motive for trying to do better. In Defender, you can try to save more humans, or keep them alive longer, which essentially makes what would essentially be simply strategic assets have a personal meaning to you; these are actually people. In Missile Command, you’re saving cities. While at this point the personal aspects aren’t fully integrated into the games, we can see how there’s a push to get the player more personally involved in the game, beyond just trying to keep themselves alive.

This leads to another way to keep the player playing: build in a narrative, and a real ending to the game. If you add a story to the game, the player will keep playing to see how the story turns out. For arcade games, this is a wonderful add-on to the existing “beat the game” motivation, as now you aren’t just trying to beat the game, but are instead trying to resolve the story and see how it turns out. Adapting the original “Save the world” sort of story works well for this, but there are others as well.

From there, it’s only a short hop from taking “Save a loved one” as a motivation, as we see in games like Donkey Kong, where that’s the motivation. But just as we see in movies and novels, we get massive impact from combining the two, if for no other reason that what the Green Goblin espoused in one of the Spider-man movies: it lets you force the player into a sadistic choice, to either save the world … or save their loved one. This lets you build far deeper plots and conflicts into your game, which is critical for making RPGs and games with RPG elements.

Now, it’s true that adding the damsel in distress trope almost certainly followed on from how that trope was represented in other media that games adopted, as well as from the fact that at the time, at least, games were seen as a “guy thing”. But there are other reasons to think that the best relationship to exploit for these sorts of plots is indeed the “true love” relationship, given the unique nature of games. Remember, in a game you need to convince the player that they should care about the person they need to rescue, not just establish that the character cares about that person. So let’s look at the most obvious “loved one” relationships. We can have the loved one be the parent/mentor of the PC, the child, the sibling or the true love. But there are potentially issues with most of these that might reduce the emotional impact:

1) A parent/mentor might be seen as having lived a full life, and so when the PC is faced with the sadistic choice it may be very easy to choose to save the world instead. I suspect that a lot of the puzzlement over “One More Day” in Spider-man is because while the creators thought that it would be obvious that Peter would do anything to save Aunt May’s life, most of the fans thought that she didn’t have much longer to live anyway, so it made no sense to, essentially, give up the future for the past.

2) A child works well for parents, but not as well for people who are not parents and for children. Also, if the villain has to hurt or threaten the loved one in a strong way, violence against children is generally seen as being far more evil than it would be to an adult, so you might risk your villain turning into a far more evil villain than you wanted, which is especially important for more nuanced stories in games.

3) While in general siblings count as loved ones, there are enough rivalries between them both in real life and in stories that more of the audience might find it harder to make that emotional connection.

But the true love (mostly) avoids these problems. While children might not have been in love yet, the trope is so common that they’ll all pretty much get it if they’ve ever been exposed to fairy tales. The true love has as full a life ahead of them as the PC, and are seen as a key component to that happy life. Therefore, there’s lots you can do here, and it’s pretty easy to do. Now, of course, all of these have been done and done effectively in games, and will continue to be done and done effectively in games, but using the true love is just so much easier to do that it’s a natural choice when you want to set this up.

Now, if you’re going for true love, as most protagonists are male you’re definitely going to end up with predominantly female “distress objects”, let’s call them. The overall narrative in almost all other works of male hero and female damsel also feeds into this. But the good news is that as games move towards more female protagonists, the same pressures should lead to less female damsels (unless there are other issues, which we’ll look at when we look at “Dude in Distress”), despite Sarkeesian’s skepticism.

Essentially, the loved one in distress trope is a powerful tool in motivating players — and especially players that are immersed in the game — to continue on and try to win the game. The true love motivation is the most powerful of those. So it in and of itself doesn’t need to change and to try to eliminate or minimize it would greatly hurt games, in my opinion. So if there is an issue here, it’s going to have to be with how it is handled, not its mere presence.

If I only chose female protagonists when given the choice …

June 19, 2015

… what percentage of the games I play would have female protagonists?

That’s what Jason Thibeault opines, in an aside in a post that I’m not going to talk about. At all. So don’t ask me.

In this playthrough, I’m playing a female Courier (I’ve long said that if I always choose playing a woman in the games I get that give me the choice, I might come close to 40% female representation!).

This got me wondering if the same would be said about me. I don’t generally play FPSs, and so tend towards Western and JRPGs. Given that, could I come close to or even beat that 40%? Let’s find out.

(At the time of writing this, I don’t know what the percentage is. So we really will find out together).

Anyway, the first thing to do is to try to get a representative list of the games I play or have played. Given that I’ve been playing games for decades, trying to find all of them is likely to be a long process. So, for the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to rely on two things. First, my not-yet-updated List of Games to Finish, including the finished ones. And to supplement that, my Most Memorable Games. Between the two of them, we should get a long enough list of games to make analysis meaningful while being representative enough of the games I’m playing to have that work out. I’ll add a couple that I note missing as well.

So, then, what counts as a game with a female protagonist? For these purposes, it’s a game where you can play a significant amount of the time as a female protagonist. For example, Suikoden III would count because you play as Chris for a significant portion of the game, and can make her the main protagonist. A party-based game like X-Men: Madness in Murderworld would also count because Storm and Dazzler are main characters. But if you only have a small sequence as a female protagonist, then it wouldn’t count. I’ll give more details on odd cases as we go along.

Note that I’m also going to leave off generic strategy games, as those don’t really have a protagonist at all, so it wouldn’t be fair to assign them arbitrarily to male or female protagonist. For simplicity, let’s limit it to games that have a protagonist. Also note that I eliminated completely any games where it would be really, really hard to say whether it counted or not.

So, with that out of the way, onto the list:

Shadow Hearts: Covenant M
Fatal Frame II F
Fatal Frame III F
Final Fantasy X M
.hack (4 games) M
Suikoden M
Disgaea 2 M
Silent Hill 2 M
Silent Hill 3 F
Mana Khemia M
Mana Khemia 2 F
Growlanser: Generations M
Grim Grimoire F
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne M
Oblivion F
Dragon Age: Origins F
Catherine M
Record of Agarest War Zero M
Record of Agarest War 2 M
Skyrim F
Saints Row the Third F
Enchanted Arms M
Folklore F
Disgaea 3 M
Cross Edge M
Overlord M
Overlord 2 M
L.A. Noire M
Persona 4: Arena F (All fighting games where you can go through the whole fight as a female character will count for this)
Mass Effect F
Mass Effect 2 F
Mass Effect 3 F
X-Men: Destiny F
Baldur’s Gate 2 F
Icewind Dale F
Icewind Dale 2 F
Fallout F
Fallout 2 F
The Witcher 2 M
The Old Republic F
Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday F
Gold Box AD&D (9 games) F (You can create a full party of female characters in almost all of these).
Persona M
Persona 2: Innocent Sin M
Persona 3 F (The P3P version allows the choice of a female protagonist)
Persona 4 Golden M
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time M
Conception II M
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love M
Space 1889 F (Party-based again)
Fatal Frame F
City of Heroes F
Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom M
Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII F (Yes, you can create a female character to play as when you create your own)
Knights of the Old Republic F
Knights of the Old Republic 2: Sith Lords F
Suikoden III F
Wizardry 8 F
Defender of the Crown M
Dark Age of Camelot F
X-Men Legends: Rise of Apocalypse F (You could choose to use mainly or maybe even only the female characters)
Shadow Hearts M
The Sims F
Infiltrator M
Turrican M
Pirates! M
X-Men: Legends F
Marvel Ultimate Alliance F
Wizardry: Tales of the Forsaken Land M
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age M
X-Men: Next Dimension F (Fighting game again)
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe F (Ditto)
Injustice: Gods Among Us F (Ditto)
Tropico M
Tropico 3 (I think) F (Now allows you to use a female avatar)

So that’s 86 games total, if I did the math right. I’ve marked with “F” for female protagonist (choice or sole) 49 games. That’s about 57% of the games. Even if you doubt some of my calculations, none of the games that I’ve marked as “F” would end up being games that should be considered as “M” games, where you can only play as a male protagonist. They’d be gray area games that I’d have to drop from the list.

This means two things:

1) It means that my personal assessment of the amount of female protagonists — even just as a choice — in the games I play is pretty accurate; in the games I play, I can or must play as a female protagonist for at least a significant portion of the game over half the time.

2) That if Thibeault is right in his rough, semi-joking self-assessment, then this highlights the differences in genres. Even on my list, most of the games that were marked as “M” were either JRPGs or older games, while most of the ones marked as “F” were either newer games or Western RPGs. There were vanishingly view FPSs. Most of the people who complain about the typical “dudebro” protagonist play FPSs. So maybe it has less to do with games and more to do with the genres of games that they play.

Anyway, it was an interesting exercise, even if I don’t think it really proved anything beyond “There are a lot more games out there where you can play as female characters than people think”.

Ways of Knowing

June 17, 2015

One of Coyne’s big pushes in “Faith vs Fact” is the idea that science, broadly construed, is the only “Way of Knowing”. The problem, however, is that in order to justify that he needs to, well, define what it means to know in such a way that that can work. As with most of the terms in his book, Coyne eschews the actual fields that study it and work with it, and instead runs to the dictionary to yank his definition out of that, tweaking it with some supplemental material to allow him to make his point. The failings of that approach are on full display when he talks about “Ways of Knowing”, because he essentially defines knowledge in such a way that science is the only thing that could produce knowledge, because he limits the domain of “true” to the “empirical” world, and denies that, in general, to mathematical truths and philosophical truths. Unfortunately, Coyne needs at least the latter to be true in at least a meaningful sense in order for his points to work out, because if I can say that his definitions of knowledge and truth are not, well, true and therefore ignore them, and if Coyne cannot say that he “knows” that those definitions are correct, then anyone who wants to deny that science is the only way of knowing can, in fact, simply dismiss his claims and insist that, by their definition, faith still counts as a way of knowing. The fact that his definitions are, in fact, fairly self-serving only heightens the temptation to simply dismiss what he’s saying as an attempt to win the debate by definition, not by evidence or argument.

And the sad thing is that if he was a little more open to philosophy, he could have avoided all of these issues, because the field of philosophy that studies knowledge — epistemology — has already provided a pretty decent rough-and-ready definition of knowledge that he could have used: knowledge is justified true belief. To remind you of the details of that:

S knows that p iff:

S believes that p.
S’s belief that p is justified.
p is true.

Now, there are potential issues with all of these — as philosophy is well-known for generating problems for any theory that it comes across [grin] — but for the most part this works. It seems a contradiction to say that you know something to be true but don’t believe it to be true. It also seems a contradiction to say that you know something to be true that isn’t actually true, no matter how strong the purported justification is. And the difference between simply believing something to be true and knowing it to be true seems to be tied to how strong a justification you have for thinking that it is true, and is something that Coyne himself it seems definitely wants to accept (because that’s how he tries to eliminate “faith” as a way of knowing). So the only thing to clarify here is what it means for something to be true, as Coyne definitely tries to limit it to statements of “fact” about the empirical world, while philosophers and mathematicians, at least, will want to extend it to include their fields. In general, though, the way I define truth is this: the statement accurately describes what is the case in a particular domain. So empirical truths describe the way things are in the empirical world. Mathematical truths describe what implications and statements are correct given a certain mathematical system. And most importantly, philosophical truths describe what is true about a set of concepts or philosophical positions, such as, well, what the definition of “knowledge” must be conceptually. This, then, allows Coyne — even if he rejects the standard definition of knowledge — to be able to point to a definition of knowledge that is “true”, and therefore can be justified to be true, and therefore is one that people cannot simply dismiss … which his view actually doesn’t, as “truthiness” is not a property of the empirical world.

In talking about science, it seems to me that Coyne does at least roughly align with Larry Moran’s definition of science, in that he seems to regard science as being critically involving rational thought, skepticism and empirical evidence. I’ve talked about that before, and pointed out how that leads me to say that there are three different ways of knowing: science, everyday reasoning, and philosophy. Everyday reasoning, it seems to me, rejects skepticism, but also produces the vast majority of the knowledge that we rely on, well, every day. Philosophy rejects empiricism, although unlike in the linked article I now actually believe that philosophy is, in fact, even more skeptical than science is.

Which is a good place to talk about skepticism, since in order to demonstrate that everyday reasoning is not skeptical we need to know what it means. Many assert that skepticism is critically about tailoring your beliefs to the evidence, but this is, I think, problematic because it essentially defines the skeptical approach as reasonable and then argues that it is the only reasonable one you could have. People relying on faith, for example, could easily insist that they do tailor the confidence of their beliefs to the evidence, but that the skeptic simply denies that the evidence exists, which leads to a massive morass that we probably didn’t want to jump into simply by defining a term. So I prefer this, and relate it to belief itself, directly: a skeptical approach says “Do not believe without good reason”, while a non-skeptical approach says “Believe unless you have good reason not to”. Now, neither approach means that you accept things that are “unevidenced”, or that have no evidence in their favour. And both, in some way, insist in appropriate evidence for the beliefs, especially if they want to make a knowledge claim out of it. So opposing a non-skeptical approach that way won’t work.

Let me use everyday reasoning, which I think is a non-skeptical approach, to show how this works in practice. To form a belief, in everyday reasoning we first have some kind of initial “evidence” for that proposition. We see something. Someone tells us something. We conclude something from what we already “know”. We get a belief from the culture. Whatever. At that point, we check that against our Web of Belief, against the things that we already believe or know to be true, and if there’s no contradiction we accept it. Contrast this with science, which wouldn’t stop there, but would instead definitely try to directly test it before accepting it, and would do so in ways that would try to prove it wrong. Everyday reasoning doesn’t try to prove things wrong, but instead adopts them, acts on them, and lets reality disprove it if it can.

When I say that everyday reasoning is non-skeptical, then, this is what I mean: everyday reasoning will not doubt — and therefore will not explicitly test — a proposition unless it has reason to. It does not reject skepticism outright, but instead instead rejects skepticism as a primary criterion for truth and, most explicitly, as a starting point for forming true beliefs.

The same applies to philosophy’s rejection of empiricism. It’s not that philosophy says that empirical data can’t produce knowledge, because philosophy concedes that it can and often does. And it’s not even that philosophy says a priori that empirical data can’t be used to settle traditionally “philosophical” problems, because the history of naturalized philosophy and empirically-minded moral philosophy belies that as well. No, philosophy rejects the idea that empirical data is required in order to know anything — even about the empirical world — because it can think of at least possible propositions that could be true and yet where empirical data is useless for determining its truth value, and of cases where even purely rational proofs could indeed prove truths about things that are typically considered empirical. This is why I say that philosophy is even more skeptical than science is, because while science accepts certain preconceptions built around the idea that there is a certain method that one ought to use when examining the empirical world, philosophy rejects even that: in a philosophical argument, it is quite reasonable to demand that someone demonstrate why they think their approach can actually get them to the right answer. Imagine someone in a scientific context demanding that the scientist show that the use of scientific method is actually reasonable in this case! But in philosophy, you can demand that the person justify their use of rational conceptual analysis here instead of science, and vice versa.

So, to me, there are three different ways of knowing: everyday reasoning, science, and philosophy. (Whether mathematics is another way of knowing or just a special case of philosophy is not a discussion that I want to go into today). But it can be asked, especially given science’s record, what we need the other two for? Science gives us truths and is very good at it, so why use the other two at all?

Everyday reasoning, because it is less skeptical than science, is wrong more of the time (although it is also self-correcting). But its big benefit — and why it is non-skeptical — is that it is fast. For any proposition that both everyday reasoning and science come to the same conclusion on, science will take a lot longer to get there because it will have to run far more tests to come to that conclusion. This means that if we need to act on that proposition in the world, we will have to wait far longer for science to tell us which way we should act towards it: as if it is true, or if it is false. But we generate a massive number of beliefs, and act on a massive number of beliefs every day. We just don’t have the time or resources to test every belief skeptically, nor do we have the time to wait for science to tell us what we should or shouldn’t do. If when I have a cold I eat chicken soup and feel better, I certainly feel justified in continuing to do that — and so making a claim that I know that chicken soup makes me feel better — without waiting for science to demonstrate that it really can … whether I’m actually right about that or not. If science, on testing it, finds reason to think that that is not true, then I have reason to doubt and adjust accordingly. But I don’t have to wait until it does to decide whether that belief is justified or not, and so to act on it or not in the world … which, since I don’t have the time to do that, is a very good thing.

As for philosophy, the biggest benefit of it are what we might call “meta” analyses: examining whether what a method entails and whether or not it works to achieve its goal. This is why we have so many “Philosophy of …” fields, as philosophy looks at the field from the outside, without using its own methods to study itself (which, even if it can be done, must be considered suspect from the start). In this way, it also challenges presumptions, which can reveal flaws and also that a field is rejecting a finding only because of presumptions and preconceptions that it need not make. And, currently, it’s also the go-to field for any propositions that might not be empirical, as science can’t address it. So, the normative claims of morality or even of epistemology. Again, philosophy does not presume these to be non-empirical or beyond the reach of science, but instead argues for it … and challenges that conclusion itself.

In short, we definitely seem to have three methodologies that are fundamentally different and yet all produce justifications for propositions that we definitely want to consider “true” in a strong sense. They are not all science, nor can they all be science without losing what makes science good at what it does. Thus, there are definitely more ways of knowing than just science. Note that I personally don’t think that faith is a way of knowing because I don’t see how it provides any justification for a proposition; it seems to be about coming to believe a proposition with a greater confidence than the evidence supports, not about providing a justification of that move. So we agree on that, at least that far. But to deny that there are any other ways of knowing is, to my mind, going way too far.

NHL Playoff Predictions: Summary

June 16, 2015

So, with Chicago’s win last night, my final record is a respectable 9 – 6. I aim to do better than a coin toss, and I definitely did that.

This was a hard year to predict. Series were a lot closer, in general, than I recall them being in the past. And yet, this was one of my better years. Go figure.

So, that’s it for hockey until October. Time to watch baseball!

Review of Varieties of Scientific Experience

June 15, 2015

So, another of the books that Jerry Coyne recommends reading — and so that one should read if one wants to understand the atheistic position — is done. I finished Carl Sagan’s “Varieties of Scientific Experience”, and didn’t find it particularly enlightening. It’s not really fair to criticize it for not saying anything new, because these are a set of lectures first given in 1985, so at the time some of the things said might well have been. That being said, a lot of them weren’t even new then, and that doesn’t mean that people haven’t said the same things better, with more nuance, and with a better appreciation for the responses than you’ll find in this book. Also, it’s not really fair to criticize it for not being a deep examination of the issues, because as a set of lectures it has a limited time frame to work with and so won’t be able to examine things as deeply. But, again, that doesn’t mean that others haven’t done deeper examinations that are more worth reading that this is. In terms of style, Sagan is not particularly snarky towards religion but at times drifts into it, which are probably Coyne’s favourite parts, as Coyne seems to really appreciate snarky, sarcastic attitudes and arguments. So, it was a fairly neutral read; I wasn’t taken to new heights by the scientific wonders he talked about, nor did I find the book either particularly challenging to my beliefs nor particularly egregiously wrong. However, there are a few points that I want to highlight.

In the Q&A, there is one question about the burden of proof. The questioner says that he thinks that the person who says that God does not exist has an equal burden of proof to the person who say that God does exist. Sagan falls back on the old line that the person making the contention has the burden of proof, but tries to defend it by saying that we can’t do otherwise, else someone could toss out a number of contentions and, essentially, leave the opponents with the burden of proof. This then ties in to his overall contention about the person in that position having to provide sufficient evidence. But the key is that if the person making the contention doesn’t provide sufficient evidence, that does not mean that the opposing viewpoint is justified. In this case, just because I cannot provide sufficient evidence that God exists does not mean that, therefore, the proposition “God does not exist” is justified, or that someone saying that has no burden of proof. All that it means when sufficient evidence cannot be provided is that the contention isn’t proven, so all you are strongly justified in saying is “I don’t believe you”. But just because you may be justified in lacking belief does not mean that you are justified in believing in lack … and if we’re going to talk about belief, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t justified — in the sense of being reasonable — in believing.

This, I think, carries on to the chapter where Sagan looks at the actual theology. In that chapter, he constantly brings up theological arguments, finds faults in them, and then declares that they are unconvincing … and does nothing else. Yet he brings up the Problem of Evil as a problem for theism … despite the fact that there are as good reasons to doubt its truth as there are for most of the theological arguments, and so good reasons to theists to find it unconvincing. This should lead to a stalemate; no good arguments for or against. But it doesn’t seem that Sagan thinks of it that way, probably because he thinks that the theist has all of the burden of proof. However, atheists who want to claim that God does not exist or even that theism is not reasonable/rational share the burden of proof to demonstrate that. It’s no wonder that theists often find the atheist arguments shallow and naive when they start from the position that all they have to do is find a flaw, any flaw, in the argument, and then they can declare victory. In short, they hold that all they need to do is show how the argument might be wrong, or as Sagan does that there might be a natural or scientific explanation that he personally finds credible, and the theist is refuted. Simply showing that the theist might be wrong only forces you back to the stalemate, unless you show an argument that supports the contention that God doesn’t exist beyond that.

This carries over to what probably should have been the most interesting and useful part of the series, but which was sadly addressed far too briefly: what Sagan thinks skepticism entails. But even here, Sagan shows his own failings at skepticism, and the tendency for science to declare old answers irrational and unscientific even if they were as valid scientifically as the theories that replaced them. His big example is of the purported discovery of the canals on Mars, and he essentially says that the people who thought that they were there as opposed to those who thought that it was just a trick of the human eye were letting their desire for a particular answer cloud their judgement because they wanted there to be alien life on Mars … in the same chapter where he points out that many people, for religious reasons, wouldn’t want there to exist life on other planets in an era at least as religious as the one we have now, if not likely far more so. So, then, why doesn’t he also charge those arguing against the canals with also potentially acting on personal bias? The biggest bias one could charge the scientists who accepted the canal theory with is the bias of wanting to discover something scientifically revolutionary … and if that bias is as strong as Sagan suggests, then this puts any revolutionary scientific discovery under suspicion.

But it isn’t clear that the people who thought that there really were canals on Mars were preferring the theory that was less scientifically supported. I’m not an expert on the history of that discovery, but from what Sagan says they saw canals that were too long and straight to be natural, and thus concluded that they were made by intelligent life. The counter was that maybe it was an artifact of the human eye or of the equipment or of something else. But the scientists pointed out that this was seen by many scientists in different areas independently, and so wasn’t likely to be simple human error. Thus, their only counter was that there was some fundamental flaw in the sensory organs or in the telescopes used to look at Mars, but their only reason for asserting that was, essentially, that they didn’t like the results they were seeing. It is not a good idea to undercut the accuracy of the very things required to get any data at all just because you don’t like what they’re telling you, and it looks like the opposition was doing exactly that. Sure, the theory ended up being wrong and ended up being due to other factors, but at the time it doesn’t seem like it was an unreasonable theory … and might have even been the one that was the best supported. That it ended up being wrong doesn’t mean that it was unreasonable or an example of science done badly.

I find that this is common with scientists and scientific theories: the desire to ditch theories that today look ridiculous and insist that they weren’t really scientific theories, while accepting conceptual and common sense arguments that happened to be right as properly scientific, as long as one adjusts the meaning of the word “science” accordingly. Democritus’ atomic theory — one of Sagan’s favourites — is a prime example of the latter. Democritus and his mentor did not have any real empirical evidence for atoms, just equally philosophical speculations … and yet their results are considered “scientific” because they happened to be right. Plato and Aristotle appealed as much to the empirical as they did, and yet are claimed to not be doing science at all. For the former, the dismissal of phlogiston and caloric shows how scientists, typically, want to deny that those were even scientific theories, at least in my experience … and yet they were, at the time, just as valid scientific theories as the ones that eventually won out. They just happened to be wrong, but that doesn’t make them unscientific.

Which reveals, I think, an underlying and unspoken foundational principle of science: the desire to be right. Sure, when pressed scientismists will accept that science has been wrong, but then immediately jump to a defense that science, at least, finds out its own errors, unlike theology or philosophy … who, in fact, often do find out their own errors. The only errors that science finds out for them are the ones based on clashes with empirical fact … and since that’s all science does, it had better be the one finding those most of the time. At any rate, if science cannot dismiss an error as not being “truly” scientific, it consoles itself with saying that its method finds the truth anyway, so it is, in fact, right … and scientism is based on science taking the right answers and right methods and claiming that that was part of science all along.

At any rate, I can’t really recommend this book, because again I’m not sure what audience would appreciate it. Anyone who is already interested in the topic will probably already know everything Sagan is saying, and someone unfamiliar with the debates won’t find enough depth in the discussion to really learn anything. The discussions around science are probably the most interesting, but he neither prompts me to share in his wonder of the natural world nor talks about science itself in detail enough for me to take a philosophical approach to it. It is, however, a most inoffensive book, so you won’t toss it against the wall too often, and it’s a relatively easy read, so you could do worse than read it.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers