Atheism: The Great Nothing

October 7, 2015

For a long time now, P.Z. Myers has been railing against “Dictionary Atheism”, the idea that atheism, in and of itself, means nothing more than a lack of belief in gods and so in and of itself entails no particular philosophical or moral viewpoint. Many of those Myers (and others as well) have complained about are people who say that if they want to promote a specific moral or philosophical view, why don’t they (say) call themselves humanists instead? If they want to promote feminism in atheism, why not do that as feminists instead of trying to argue that those ideas follow from atheism when they really don’t?

Myers has never accepted that, and in light of the shootings in Oregon he’s talking about it again. The argument he’s trying to make in light of comments that you can’t say that the shooter in Oregon was caused to do that by his atheism because atheism itself posits nothing more than that gods don’t exist is this:

Humanity is suffering under a collection of half-assed ethical and moral principles, assembled with no rational foundation but superstition, and with awful, damaging, exploitive rules mixed in with a few good ones. Religion is primitive and lacking in any tools to address deep injustices and correct errors in its formulation. I am all in favor of tearing it down and replacing it with…what? According to Harris, nothing. Atheism has nothing constructive or productive to replace the bad system most people are limping along under — rip it all out and apparently, brute reason can then be trusted to evolve something better.

We need purpose and value and meaning as well, and if a prominent Leader of atheism is saying that atheism doesn’t do that, that’s a declaration that atheism is bankrupt, and has failed totally. It has become a Great Nothing.

Well, atheism always was in that sense, a “Great Nothing”. From the start, one of the stock and standard ways atheists avoided having the burden of proof in discussions with theists was to say that atheism doesn’t have a burden of proof because it was, in fact, simply a lack of belief in the existence of gods, nothing more. The comment that babies, for example, were born atheists and educated into becoming theists relied on atheism being nothing more than a lack of belief in gods. The widely disseminated claim that religious people were just one more god away from being atheists relied on that assumption as well. Atheists, then, for the longest time based a ton of their rhetoric on atheism being, essentially, nothing more than a lack of belief in gods, implying nothing else in and of itself. Nothing morally, so you couldn’t say that atheists were simply immoral. Nothing socially, so you couldn’t lump them in with political groups. Heck, here Myers is insisting that atheists need meaning and value and purpose which has been one of the major criticisms theists raised against atheism: you can’t get to those things from atheism in and of itself. The counter to that is that atheists can get those things from other secular sources, not to insist that atheism, in and of itself, provides all of those things.

So, in a real sense, atheists have been advocating what Myers calls “the Great Nothing” for ages now, and relied on that to make their arguments. Myers himself seems to have adopted some of those arguments in the past, as have many of those who rail against “Dictionary Atheism”. So what, then, has changed? Why has atheism moved from being a perfectly acceptable and reasonable nothing, based on nothing more than a reasonable skepticism that says that you ought not believe something until you have sufficient evidence, to a “Great Nothing” if it doesn’t provide your life with meaning and purpose just from atheism?

In my opinion, it’s all about identity. They’ve formed an Atheist Community, and discovered that, horror of horrors, just having the rejection of the existence of all gods in common doesn’t mean that they agree on everything … or even, sometimes, most things. And a lot of those things are things that are really important to them. But instead of understanding that just because you agree on one thing that you think really important with someone it doesn’t mean that you agree — or need to agree — with them on everything, their response was to insist that those others were just wrong and really, really have to agree with them on that. I agree with Myers that it started from an insistence that atheists were just more rational than theists, and moved on from there … but people like Myers are just as guilty of that presumption as those who insist on the general use of reason are. To pretty much everyone, atheism followed from basic rationality, and those other positions — on all sides of all of the divides — followed from basic rationality as well, and so anyone who didn’t agree with their position was therefore not applying simply rationality.

The problem, then, was not really with atheism itself, but with the idea that skepticism and atheism were identical. They applied what they considered skepticism to various claims, came up with answers — often answers that aligned with their overall worldview, in a similar way to what they accused theists of doing — and then were convinced that those answers were just plain right. And since atheism and skepticism were aligned — which they aren’t — then atheists themselves had to come to the same rationally skeptical conclusions. And when people like Myers were met with push back from people who argued that they were applying pure reason and skepticism to the answer that Myers et al were very attached to … well, you get this:

Reason is not enough. Reason can show you the best way to achieve a goal, but if your goal is mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy, it’ll help you do that, too.

The denigration of reason in favour of emotional or “empathetic” approaches. Except that while reason will help you achieve your goals no matter how horrible they are, to say this implies that you can get goals — and by extension, values and purpose and meaning — without using reason, or aiming for rational goals first. So, then, how do you determine those things? Just by how it feels to you? That’s what gives people the goal of serving God … or mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy. Myers would be forced to claim that those things are not or cannot be rationally proven wrong, that it’s only something else other than reason that can push us into, well, not having those as goals anymore, but that’s, well, rather ridiculous.

From other posts of his, Myers has said something right: for most atheists in this world, becoming an atheist means that you have to find new goals, values, meanings, and purposes, because for most people those were formed intertwined with religion and with God and when you reject that, you have to find something to replace it. But where he is wrong is in insisting that atheism, in and of itself, has a preference for what those things are. Atheism equally supports many worldviews, only excluding — maybe — ones based on religion. Atheism is nothing more than a belief about the state of the world, and so Myers’ comments here are like someone insisting that evolution is a “Great Nothing” if it can’t be used to form some kind of Social Darwinism. If we can’t use evolution to create our values and goals and purposes and meaning in life, what good is it? Well, it’s a true fact about the universe; how we react to that is up to us.

The same thing applies to atheism. Assuming they are right, then they have a belief — or lack of one — about how the world is. That, in and of itself, is not nothing. How we respond to that fact does not follow from it, but is instead something that we have to work out philosophically. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t better or worse answers, but those answers do not follow from atheism itself; just like evolution, atheism itself can’t tell us how to live. It can constrain certain choices if we value the truth and living in accordance with it, but in and of itself it isn’t a worldview and doesn’t create one. There are myriad worldviews compatible with atheism, so maybe Myers needs to find one and take that one on, instead of insisting that there should be One True Atheistic Worldview and trying to force others to conform to it.

I Miss Arcades …

October 5, 2015

Every so often, I get wistful and find myself missing a very large part of my childhood and early adulthood: Video Arcades. In the days before you could have multiple consoles in every house, video arcades were the primary way to play games, and I took advantage of that every chance I got.

When I was a child, in the nearby semi-city there were two major malls. At one point, both of them had arcades, but towards the end, only one of them did. But what would happen is that when we’d go there to shop, my mother would take us to do the shopping that she needed us with her for, and then let us go off to play games at the arcade for a while. So, in some sense, it was a way to keep us occupied while she did the boring sorts of shopping that, at that age, we probably wouldn’t sit still for, and also a way to let us go out and have some fun on that trip ourselves. And it was great. I played Kung-Fu Master, some kind of karate game (with a judge that gave points and judged who won in a rather stilted voice), Battlezone, Track & Field, the first and second WWF games, and a number of others. There was also an arcade in the town where I went to school, and I played a number of the same kind of games there.

I also used to stay with my grandparents in the summers, and there they had an arcade as well. That’s where I played the Star Wars arcade game, the Star Trek arcade game and other games.

When I went away to university, the university had two arcades, one in the Student’s Centre and one in the Residence Commons. As I lived on or very near campus my entire time at the university, I played a lot in that arcade, from another wrestling game, to the Wayne Gretzky hockey game, to the X-Men and Avengers arcade games, to Street Fighter (I forget which version) to the Star Trek pinball game to Mortal Kombat to the Street Fighter game based on the movie to Dark Stalkers and … well, a host of others. One that stands out and that I really miss is that Star Wars pinball game.

Even while working, I went to arcades when I could, but even then they were getting hard to find. My group went on a couple of informal and unofficial trips to a nearby amusement park, and I always set aside some time to go off by myself and play some arcade games. That was really the last gasp of my arcade gaming career.

I miss arcade games. In some sense, I’m happy to be able to game far more and probably far better at home, on my own, without having to wait for others to get off the machines, or worry about crowds, or annoying people. But, still, there was something about playing on the machines themselves that I somehow miss.

Zombies, Blade Runner, and the Mind-Body Problem

October 2, 2015

The next essay in “Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy” is “Zombies, Blade Runner, and the Mind-Body Problem” by Larry Hauser. This essay takes on the sorts of zombies famously used to discuss the mind-body problem, most commonly by David Chalmers. These zombies are creatures that act exactly like us, and are physically exactly like us, and yet they have no mental experiences at all. In other words, they have no qualia at all. So, essentially, they act like they are conscious but actually possess no conscious states at all. They act like they’re in pain, but they aren’t. They act like they love, but they can’t feel love at all. They act in every way like they have the same internal experiences as we do, but they don’t actually have them. The conclusion that is drawn from this is that they aren’t really conscious, and therefore don’t really have mental states, and this is a problem for strictly physical views of mind.

Hauser tries to take this on, but he does it in a fairly standard way. He starts with but moves a bit beyond the standard functionalist reply: if they act like they are in love or are in pain or see things or taste things or whatever, then they really do. He then seems to tie it to a cognitivist view, where he comments that you should not deny their cognitive abilities for those things if, in fact, they can reason out the proper reactions so as to act appropriately to all the inputs. Finally, he seems to make an argument based on Searle that we have to look at it from the perspective of the zombie in order to determine this … but this is what we are denying them by definition. Essentially, we can’t know what their first-person perspective is like, so we can’t know if they are a zombie or not. To take this a step further, if the zombie acts like they have subjective experiences, and even seems to believe that they have subjective experiences, who are we to deny that? At the end, he accepts that they may be missing that, but argues that if they act appropriately what does it matter if they don’t have qualia, for the relatively small number of mental events that absolutely require it?

This is very similar to the argument made by Andrew Brook that I replied to in this essay. Essentially, the argument is that if they have awareness, then that’s good enough for consciousness. If they believe that they feel pain, that’s good enough for us to say that they are in pain. But that essay demonstrates through the examples of someone wearing goggles that filter out colours but where the person can tell what colour things are using a spectrometer that we can be aware of subjective qualities without actually experiencing them. And if we can be aware of those qualities without experiencing them, then we can act as if we had them, even if we didn’t. Thus, we can have a zombie with no subjective experiences at all, but that acts as if it does have them, because, for example, it can know what colour an object is through other means than simple experience. My main theory, then, is that qualia is input level, not representation or belief level; we can form the representations and beliefs in different ways, with qualia being one of them.

So now we can answer Hauser’s last comment: does it matter if a zombie doesn’t gain any beliefs or representations through qualia or subjective experiences at all? In terms of cognitive or psychological abilities, no, probably not. But in terms of consciousness, yes, it really does. And thus when it comes to something like love — Hauser’s Blade Runner example is Rachel — it’s hard to say that someone is really in love with someone if they are only cognitively aware of the state, but don’t feel love at all. Love seems to be something that you actually feel, not something that you merely know. In short, you become aware that you’re in love when you feel that you’re in love, which is true for all emotions: you know that you are angry because you feel angry. You know that you are sad because you feel sad. You don’t look at your life and decide “I’m feeling sad”. You only feel sad when you are, in fact, feeling sad. And this holds for all qualia-essential traits … which are pretty much the ones that relate to actual consciousness. You only see colours when you are seeing colours, not merely by being aware of what colour something is. And so on.

So, the purported good zombies that Hauser talks about don’t provide any protection from the bad zombies of Chalmers and Searle, because their goal was to get at consciousness, and Hauser’s good zombies still aren’t conscious, and it still matters whether or not they’re really conscious. Thus, the zombies still eat brains … at least, the brains of those who are not, in fact, conscious or experiencing at all.

Lost Dimension: Thoughts After Finishing It Once

September 30, 2015

So, I finished “Lost Dimension” once, and have restarted. This is because the game really, really is built to be finished more than once, because you only get the True Ending if you finish it having maxed out relationships with all of the characters, and you have to erase two, maybe three of them before you’d be able to do that, so that leaves three characters to do the second time around. After finishing the game once, the game itself points out that you need to do that to understand everything, and so it encourages you to play it more than once. However, this does make the first playthrough a bit disappointing, as the ending is more confusing than scary.

The biggest annoyance I have with the game is that it’s often a bit unfair. As far as I can tell, at least on the Vita, you only get one save slot, and if you restart the game it uses your clear data as the save slot. This is bad enough, but it autosaves a lot, and only warns you that it’s going to do that when you go to the Judgement Room, although it does that everywhere else, too. For example, I just accidentally selected Himeno for Deep Dive when I wanted Agito, reset and noticed that on loading my save it started me from the start of my Deep Dive into her mind. I suppose they do that to stop save scumming, but it’s really annoying as it forces you to be very, very careful. You can pretty much screw up your entire game by accident and be stuck because of this. Also, there’s a section where you have more than the usual number of traitors. The game doesn’t warn you about this at all, so if you don’t know it’s coming you don’t know what you need to do to avoid it, and so might end up killing off an innocent. That being said, the sequence with a traitor at the end is interesting. Still, I’d like to be able to avoid that.

But putting that aside, the game is interesting. The combat is fast-paced yet has some strategic elements to it, including how you use your characters and which enemies you target first. You have to manage HP, GP (Gift Points) and Sanity, so you can’t just spam your powers (although I did that a lot with Himeno and used items to heal her up). Being able to give other characters the abilities of characters you’ve erased leads to some interesting combinations, which I underused, other than giving Himeno the Levitation ability which let her move very quickly which, combined with her fire abilities, made her a very deadly character. I was very glad that she didn’t turn traitor on me in the first game.

The characters have interesting backgrounds, but you don’t get to interact with them in enough depth. You have conversations with them after missions, and doing so gets them to their highest level of affection with you, and then you run a special mission with them — the only missions that you can’t run more than once — which reveals something about them. But the general conversations are thin and often boring, and at least after the first time through there’s nothing at the end to say how these relationships turn out in the future. So they could be more, but end up being pretty much just asides that are mildly interesting and can help you develop feelings about the characters. As an example, the first time through by the second time you had to erase someone I had started to really like Yoko and hate Zenji, and when the possible traitor came down to those two I was very disappointed that it was Yoko. As another example, hearing about Himeno’s story made me far more sympathetic to the rather harsh and bitter person that she was. But a lot more could and, in my opinion, should have been done with that.

The way you influence your team members to vote properly is interesting. You do it through telling them who the traitor is, and by using them or not using them in combat, as the team thinks that people who do more in combat are less likely to be the traitor, despite the fact that it is made clear many times that the traitor fights just as hard as everyone else does. This leads to how the game facilitates grinding without actually pushing grinding, as you rarely have to grind just to get levels, but instead have to grind to determine who the traitor is, to make sure that your team votes the right way, or even just to get S ratings on all of your missions. I only officially grinded once on my first run — on Easy, of course — and that was just to get money to get the best equipment, not to get levels (I got levels along with it as well, which made the final mission pretty easy). I very much appreciated that, as grinding is much more fun when you’re doing it for another reason than grinding.

Overall, this game is similar to the Personas in terms of story and associations with your team mates, but it’s lacking a lot when compared to those games in terms of overall impact and effect. I’d say that this game is a good start to a potentially promising game series, and if they make a sequel I’d certainly be interested in checking it out, but it isn’t really there yet. It’s a fun game, worth playing, but it’s easy to see where it can be improved in the future. If they can do it, they might have a legitimate competitor to the Persona games there.

The Moral Quandary of “Tuvix”

September 28, 2015

So, as SF Debris returns to new videos in October, I found myself pondering a commentary on an older video, that of the Voyager episode “Tuvix”. Now, I’ve only ever seen anything from this episode through Chuck’s review, and can’t even watch it again to refresh my memory, but I was thinking a bit about it and want to highlight its moral quandary, and how that moral quandary would be solved by the three main ethical views: Deontological, Consequentialist, and Virtue Theory.

So, let me summarize the episode. Due to a transporter accident, the characters Tuvok and Neelix are merged — along with, it seems, a plant — into an entirely new being, with a completely new and different personality and mentality from the other two. Tuvix thinks of himself as a completely separate person, not as merely an amalgam of Tuvok and Neelix. Eventually, they discover a way to use the transporter to separate Tuvix back into Tuvok and Neelix. Tuvix doesn’t want to undergo the procedure, arguing, essentially, that the procedure is nothing more than killing him. He appeals to the rest of the crew to help him avoid the procedure, but no one helps. Eventually, they get him down to Sick Bay, where the Doctor refuses to perform the procedure as doing so would be a violation of his oath as a doctor. Janeway performs the procedure herself, with Tuvok and Neelix restored and Tuvix eliminated.

Chuck, in his review, definitely took Janeway to task for this, if I recall correctly, taking the side of Tuvix, and arguing that this was, essentially, the murder of a sentient person. However, that interpretation is valid only if one considers that Tuvok and Neelix were, in fact, actually dead. If not, then we have to consider their wishes and situation as well, and things get far more complicated. For example, while the Doctor might be said to have a duty to do no harm to Tuvix, what duty does the Doctor have to Tuvok and Neelix? Does he have a duty to cure their condition? What demand can they make on him as his patients as well? After all, again, they aren’t really dead; they in some sense exist in Tuvix. So you can’t consider Tuvix merely a separate entity, but instead as a separate entity formed from two other entities. Given that, the interests of Tuvix have to be considered, certainly, but so do the interests of Tuvok and Neelix.

Given this, let’s look at how the various moral theories might approach this question, from the perspective of both the Doctor and Janeway:

Deontological: Many deontological theories are based around duty, and the context of the decision make it easy to evaluate this from the context of what each has a duty to do. As a doctor, the Doctor has a duty to do no harm to any of his patients, so he can’t sacrifice one of them to save two others. He can perform triage in situations of limited resources, and one can argue that this is indeed one of those cases: given the resources the Doctor has, he can either save Tuvix or save Tuvok and Neelix, but not all of them. However, this would be rather shaky, as the Doctor would have to take a direct action against Tuvix to save Tuvok and Neelix, as opposed to simply not taking time or resources. It is reasonable to suggest that taking a direct action to sacrifice the life of one patient for that of two others — essentially, directly killing one to save two — is a violation of his medical ethics, as no one would expect, say, that a doctor letting someone die so that they could use their organs to save other people would be acting in line with medical ethics. So it is reasonable to think that, here, the Doctor’s decision is the one that he is indeed compelled to make by his medical ethics.

But does that make it inherently wrong for Janeway to do it? I think that many people over-interpret the universality of deontological ethics. Just because one person would be, under a deontological view, morally constrained from taking an action, that doesn’t mean that everyone is, therefore, also so constrained. If I’ve taken an oath against committing violence, then I can’t morally take any violent action because that would violate my oath. Someone who had not taken such an oath would, however, to be able to take violent actions — if moral otherwise — because they wouldn’t have an oath stopping them from doing that. Here, the Doctor’s oath as a doctor constrains him from performing the procedure on Tuvix … but Janeway has taken no such oath.

So we need to consider what Janeway is morally bound to do under a deontological view, and I think here it also returns to duty. Janeway has also made an oath, and it’s an oath to protect her crew. While you can question how well she did at that throughout the series, morally she is bound to protect the well-being of her view. Tuvix may be considered a member of her crew, but Tuvok certainly is and Neelix has more of a claim on that than Tuvix does. Even if she considers them all equal, she has to consider that performing the procedure will be sacrificing one of her crew to save two others, which is something that starship captains have to accept: sending a crew member off to die to save others, if there is no other option, which there isn’t here. And that’s if she even considers that Tuvix really is a distinct individual, as opposed to merely an amalgam of Tuvok and Neelix. In that case, she’d have no duty to save Tuvix and every obligation to save Tuvok and Neelix. So I think that, under deotological ethics, it is reasonable to say that she is morally obligated to perform the procedure. Only a very strong rule against killing — like the Doctor’s medical ethics — could change that.

Consequentialism: While things are probably more complicated, this comes down to the idea that you can sacrifice one person to save two. Under almost all views, this would result in better consequences if we are judging the morality of the action by its consequences. You can make a case for the Doctor that doctors having a strong proscription against sacrificing their patients is overall better even if there are cases where it isn’t, due to the above example of sacrificing a patient to harvest their organs, but there doesn’t seem to be even that argument for Janeway. This is one of the reasons why consequentialist theories can actually seem heartless and downright evil, at times, as they can only justify individual autonomy by appealing to the consequences of having it, not to something inherent to either the moral view or to the individual themselves.

Virtue Ethics: The most relevant virtue here, for Janeway and the Doctor, is probably also duty, and the oaths they’ve taken. As such, this probably works out the same as it does for deontological views. The difference is that, under this view, it is them as persons that is evaluated here; they act as only they can given the people they are and the commitments they’ve made, and aren’t just following the rules. If Janeway is a proper starship captain, she performs the procedure; if the Doctor is a proper doctor, he refuses. You might be able to appeal to other virtues like, say, compassion … but as soon as you start considering Tuvok and Neelix themselves in the mix and stop thinking of them as dead, they deserve compassion just as much as Tuvix does, which means that it doesn’t help (Virtue Theory does not, generally, merely sum the impacted people). Duty, however, seems to work out reasonably well.

So, contra Chuck, I think that the Doctor acted properly, as did Janeway. It’s only if you think of Tuvok and Neelix as dead or otherwise unworthy of consideration that it becomes clear that performing the procedure is morally wrong. Once their interests are considered, things get more complicated, but ultimately at the end of it all performing the procedure is probably the more reasonable option for most people.

The Easy Road …

September 25, 2015

So, I was playing The Old Republic this morning, with a massively overleveled character — who got that way due to my normal XP gaining tricks as well as the 12X story mission XP bonus that’s currently running — and started thinking about games and difficulty in general, and thought that the ideal sort of game in terms of difficulty is one where if you are slow, cautious, meticulous and willing to spend a lot of time playing, you can breeze through the game fairly easily, but if you want to take more risks and be more adventurous you can get through faster, but require more skill and are more likely to die if you screw up. Also, given that, it’d be nice if you could give little options to help casual gamers along, such as little ways to gain extra XP with a bit of a cost, or little things that can give an advantage, but that you actually have to deliberately aim for in order to succeed. And the theory, then, is that if you do this then the hardcore gamers can simply avoid using them and retain the challenge, while the casual gamers can use them to avoid having the game be too overwhelming for them. In theory, everyone wins.

There’s only one slight problem with that: a lot of the time, the hardcore gamers are the ones who actually use those tricks, while the casual gamers simply never learn about them. If you make them hard to figure out — ie you only figure out that they exist if you’re trying to find them — it’s the hardcore gamers who figure them out and the casual gamers don’t even know they exist. This means that the hardcore gamers learn all of the tricks to make the game easier, and the casual gamers don’t, which means that the hardcore gamers complain that the game is too easy and the casual gamers complain that the game is too hard. This is the exact opposite of what you wanted. On the other hand, if you make it very obvious, then the casual gamers find out the tricks and at least manage to reduce the challenge of the game to a manageable level for them … but the hardcore gamers also figure that out and still complain that it’s too easy. This isn’t what you wanted either; you were hoping to provide challenge for those gamers who wanted that while allowing those who didn’t want that much of a challenge a way out.

It’d be easy to simply tell those hardcore or challenge gamers that if they don’t want the game to be too easy they should just deliberately avoid taking advantage of the tricks, and in fact that’s what’s done a lot of the time. It’s an argument that I myself have made and found reasonable in the past. But I now think that the challenge gamers generally don’t like that argument because it comes across as saying that if they want the game to be challenging, they ought to deliberately play inefficiently and play deliberately less competently than they can. They have to deliberately hamstring themselves to have anything like a challenge in the game. But, they can protest, shouldn’t it be the game that sets the challenge, not them? I think that for them one of the main things that they take pride in is in playing the game by its own rules to the highest standard possible. That means that if the game puts in tricks to allow players to gain experience, items, money, powers or whatever more efficiently, they take pride in finding those tricks and exploiting them. If this makes the game too easy, telling them that they were free not to do that really misses the point of what they want out of a game. Essentially, it becomes a case of telling them to stop having fun because their having fun will eventually make it so that they’re bored to tears. It’s reasonable, when thought of that way, to say that that’s a problem with the game.

This is why the only way to make it work is, in fact, to present them as deliberate, conscious choices outside of the game, not in-game. So, difficulty levels, difficulty sliders or menu options work, because then the player isn’t, in fact, simply exploiting the rules in-game, but instead is determining what the rules of the game are. If a player decides to play on “Easy” and then complains that the game is too easy, it’s definitely reasonable to tell them to play on a higher difficulty level then. The same thing would apply to someone who, say, decided to activate a 25% increase in XP item that then means that they level faster than normal, as long as they had to purchase it. But something like Rest XP wouldn’t fit into that, because all that requires is stopping in the right places when you log out, and maybe cycling characters … all of which are exploiting things that are just in the game, not something that you consciously have to seek out.

At any rate, balancing the challenge of a game so that all players can enjoy the game and get what they want out of it is a monumentally difficult task. And game developers need to hit as broad an audience as they can in the age of the AAA blockbusters, so they can’t just make games for casual or for hardcore gamers (generally; there are still a lot of games that can focus on an audience). This is an issue that simply isn’t going to go away.

Lost Dimension: First Impressions

September 23, 2015

So, as hinted at in my last post, I did put Dungeon Travelers 2 aside for a while, and instead turned to Lost Dimension. The main reason for this was that the grind was getting me down a bit, and Dungeon Travelers 2 is a good game to play when I want to play something for a couple of hours … and I’m off for a while, and so have time to play for longer stretches.

Anyway, Lost Dimension is a game built around a climb to the top of a tower to face a terrible evil (stop me if you’ve heard that one before). In this case, the evil is a terrorist known as “The End”, who’s blowing up parts of cities from orbit and threatens to detonate nukes in most of the major cities of the world. You are part of a team of psychic-powered teens sent in to stop him. So far, a pretty standard JRPG setup. However, there’s a difference. There are traitors in your team, and you have to root them out. One of them is either revealed or remembers being one every floor — I’m not sure what the procedure is supposed to be — and at the end of each floor, before moving on, you have to choose one team member to be “erased”. But it isn’t the case that you simply decide that, as it’s determined by vote, with the three characters with the best record in the battles getting two votes each. You, of course, are always one of those characters, as you’re the only one guaranteed to fight in every fight. Okay, I suppose it’s possible if you take mostly the same characters every time and you don’t really do anything, but at least on “Easy” that’d be hard to pull off.

At any rate, it isn’t just guesswork and randomness. First, after every battle you “hear” the voices of your team mates. There are three potential traitors generated each turn, and their text is displayed in red. By subbing team mates in and out and watching the text, you can get an idea of which of those three are the ones that might be the traitor. From that, you can then move on and deep scan each of them, which involves a little mini-game where you run through their heads chasing their words, and once you reach them you’ll know if they’re the traitor or not. This means that you should know who the traitor is long before the “Judgement” phase, especially since you can replay almost any mission at any time (the exceptions to this are the character specific missions you need to run to build up bonds).

Okay, so you’ve figured out who the traitor is. Now all you have to do is convince the others that that is who the traitor is. You, in general, have two main ways to do this. First, the characters with the worst record in the battles are automatically suspected. So if you have a traitor with an excellent battle record, all you have to do is run a number of missions without them and with the current character that is believed to be the traitor and eventually that will change. In addition, the rest of the team will talk to you after every battle, and either suggest a traitor, or else ask you who you think it is. Tell them the truth, and the projected vote will change to be the way you want it to go.

The combat system itself is interesting. It’s a turn based approach, where you have to face a number of enemies with different abilities. Early in the game, there’s not much to it, but later you actually have to learn strategies and know what your objectives are. For example, one mission threw a number of enemies and a number of devastating fixed emplacements at you, and I died a couple of times with it … before realizing that the objectives were only to kill the two main tank mechs. Focusing on them and taking some deaths led to my getting an S-rank on that mission, after getting slaughtered the first couple of times (I did grind a little to get more levels as well). You have a number of weapons and a number of powers at your disposal, and you even get to use the abilities, to some extent, of the characters that you’ve “erased”, which is how I now have a really, really nasty Himeno (I hope she doesn’t turn traitor).

The number of missions is a little light, and the game is probably a bit short (I’m almost to the final floor after playing it a bit starting on the weekend). But the game seems to be built for you to play it once and then immediately play it again to get the true ending, which I might do considering how short it is. So far, it’s fun and worth playing, and the character interactions are deeper than the first part of the game would suggest … but the character interactions are also a bit repetitive, and so doesn’t have the depth that you get in a Persona game or even, really, Conception II (which might shock people, I know). At any rate, so far, like Dungeon Travelers 2, it’s a good game and I’m thinking about looking for other games like that for the Vita or PS3.

Dungeon Travelers 2: Thoughts as of Chapter 7

September 21, 2015

I wouldn’t have thought it possible … but Dungeon Travelers 2 is actually making me miss playing Conception II.

This is not because Dungeon Travelers 2 is a bad game. It is still at least a semi-addictive game, and one that I have and likely will put a lot of hours into. The problem, though, is that all that it really has going for it is the dungeon exploring … but the dungeon exploring seems, to me at least, to be needlessly annoying. They add a lot of things that could be really annoying — anti-magic zones where your magic doesn’t work but the enemies’ does, one way doors, hidden doors, dark zones, etc — and then seem to structure them to be maximally annoying. Not, for me at least, dangerous, but instead really, really annoying. It’s not like, say, Persona 3 or Persona 4 where there’s just a lot to explore if you want to explore everything, which sometimes requires backtracking, but instead there are sections that seem to be explicitly designed to force you to backtrack over and over and over again to explore everything, while you fight random bosses that move from a challenge to, essentially, “They’re going to take off some of my HP, so I’ll have to case Circle Heal after the battle, maybe”. Admittedly, I’m still a little overlevelled, but that really shouldn’t make someone like me like the game less … and if I wasn’t overlevelled, I’d be cursing this even more.

The main issue for me in the game right now is that outside of the dungeons, there really isn’t anything else to the game. Compared to, say, Conception II, the story is too shallow to sustain interest, as is the interaction with the characters, despite them being potentially interesting (mostly because I don’t see any way to actually directly interact with them outside of canned events). The only thing that it has over Conception II is the one thing that I really hated about Conception II: the grinding. Potentially, Dungeon Travelers 2 requires grinding, as bringing new characters up to appropriate levels can take a long, long time. But I’m able to create a relatively balanced party using 5 of the 6 initial characters, a party that with my overlevelling can pretty much handle anything I need handled. And so grinding so far, for me, has simply been wandering through the dungeons to get to the end, chasing optional bosses, and doing quests (which also aren’t as interesting as Conception II’s).

The story mode is about half the actual game, and if I get that far that will probably be it for me. I don’t know if I’ll continue with it, or if I’ll put it aside for a bit to play other things. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s one of the few games I have where I can play for an hour or two and feel like I’ve accomplished something, but also can keep playing it for hours and hours without getting incredibly bored. It’s a good game, but I’m not sure it’s really the sort of game for me. So it won’t be a classic for me, is what I’m saying.

Gothic Anxiety

September 18, 2015

The next essay in “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy” is “Gothic Anxiety” … no, really, it’s not an essay from “Batman and Philosophy”, but is from “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”. It’s essentially uncredited, and covers off a trope used frequently in, at least, Gothic Horror: the idea of double selves, specifically doubles and dopplegangers.

The relation to the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica” series should be obvious, since it seems to contain both. You have doubles specifically when it comes to the various human Cylon models, and internal dopplegangers play a large role in Gaius Baltar and Caprica Six’s story arcs. The essay does a reasonable examination of those cases, but I think doesn’t really explain why these things are commonly used as horror tropes, per Jekyll and Hyde and variations on that theme.

For doubles, the fear is, I think, fairly obvious. There’s a fear of them taking over your life, as also seen in movies like “Single White Female” … and then killing you off so that they can live it. There are concerns about an evil twin using your face to commit evil and letting you take the blame for it. There’s also the fear of having to fight someone who pretty much has exactly your skills and abilities to stop them from doing evil, to you and to those you love.

There is a bit of this in the doppleganger as well, as there is the fear that you have this personality inside you who is not you, who might be literally trying to take over your life, through taking over your body. But I think that there’s another big fear, which is the fear that the doppleganger isn’t some foreign personality that has infected you and is trying to take over, but is, in fact, really you. A part of you that you don’t like. A part of you that you repress. A part of you that might, in fact, actually be you. Maybe that personality is who you really are, and the person you are now is the facade over top of that. That fear, the fear that you aren’t who you think you are, or that you are in fact capable of the evil that that personality is committing, drives a lot of the horror of that scenario, it seems to me.

As the essay points out, Baltar and Six’s cases are not like that. They are more complementary, providing help and benefit and supplementing their own abilities. They may, in fact, reflect ignored or buried parts of their personalities — assuming, of course, that they aren’t actually angels — but those personalities are benign and helpful. They bring good aspects of their personalities forward, generally, and reveal things that they need to worry about. The competing doppleganger is not of that sort. It either competes with the main personality, or brings forward aspects of their personality that they don’t want to face, live with, or even have. Even if they are what’s necessary, they do what the main personality doesn’t want to do, at a minimum. And that is frightening on a number of levels, from losing control to understanding that that person is who you really are.

The Argument from Theology … again.

September 16, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne posted a post from Dilbert on free will, and again retreated to the argument that those who accept free will in any sense — be they compatibilist or libertarian — are acting like theologians, presumably in that they don’t simply accept his arguments and evidence as being compelling (which, of course, isn’t under their control if Coyne is right) and thus don’t just accept his position.

Leaving out the comic, here’s pretty much all of Coyne’s post:

Dilbert tells Dogbert that doesn’t think we have any—at least of the contracausal, “libertarian” sort.

I like the last panel, which goes along with brain-scanning experiments that give the surprising result that you can predict (with 60-70% accuracy) the results of a binary decision up to ten seconds before the person who “makes” that decision is conscious of having made it. Of course, compatibilists and libertarian free-will advocates have found reasons to dismiss these experiments as evidence for free will. This is one of many ways that such people resemble theologians (another is that they think that belief in free will—even of the compatibilist sort—is, like belief in God, essential to keep society moral and harmonious.)

So, the first point thus says that Dilbert is either a hard determinist or a compatibilist, since compatibilists reject libertarian free will. Thus, what he says in theory can apply to them as well. Of course, he then goes on to strongly imply if not outright state that compatibilists and libertarians reject the Libet experiments simply because they want to dismiss them and don’t like the results, not because there are serious problems with them. He then goes on to add in the other argument about how some might argue that people believing that we don’t have free will might have a negative outcome, in line with his other arguments about how they only reject the positions because of those consequences … the “We all know that this is true, but let’s not let the rubes know because they’ll act badly” argument. All of which many people — including his commenters — have disabused him of repeatedly.

But if we want to go down that route, Coyne’s own behaviour doesn’t flatter him. First, he talks repeatedly about the importance of accepting hard determinism because of the impact he thinks that thinking that we are morally responsible for our actions has on society, especially with regards to punishment of offenders, including but not limited to reasons for the death penalty. While others have pointed out that you don’t need to be a hard determinist to come to the same conclusions about punishment and the death penalty, the big issue here is that if Coyne doesn’t think that his strong stance on those social consequences means that we ought to say that he is only accepting it for the consequences — rather than him, you know, really thinking it true and wanting people to accept that truth because knowing that truth will happen to lead to better results — then there’s no real reason for him to claim that about compatibilists either. If we ought not examine his psychology in order to determine if free will exists or not, there is no reason for him to examine the psychology of compatibilists or libertarians either.

But, even worse for Coyne, it would be quite easy to claim that Coyne’s behaviour is like that of a lot of creationists: come up with something that they think is evidence for their case, and then when people point out that the evidence doesn’t support their position the way they think it does retreat to claiming that they are dismissing that legitimate evidence. Add in a claim that the only reason they disregard the evidence is because it actually proves their view false and they don’t want it to be false, and we can see that this is exactly what Coyne does to compatibilists.

Now, I don’t claim that Coyne really is acting like a creationist. But I do claim that these sorts of arguments are counter-productive and useless. Either the evidence supports the conclusion or it doesn’t. Coyne is either right or he isn’t. Coyne reacts rather badly to people trying to dismiss his arguments on the basis of psychology, but insists on doing it to others, and then — intentionally or no — tries to win through an argument ad hominem by saying “You’re just like those really bad people that you don’t want to be like! Stop being like that! Accept my view!”. Coyne has not established his position strongly enough to insist that everyone must accept it or they just don’t want it to be true, and so are rejecting it irrationally. Some probably are, but Coyne dismisses all who reject his idea. He doesn’t have the evidence to support that strong a claim … which is a bad thing for someone so insistent that we should follow the evidence and come to our beliefs rationally.


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