Friday, April 29, 2011

the state of the industry, Part I: Narrative

This post is going to be about video games. If you could care less about video games, leave the room now.

Any attempt to address the state of the game industry needs to involve an clear and detailed list of the current at-large issues facing the audience of said industry: gamers. We, as gamers, as those who play and enjoy and invest in games, need to face facts and be HONEST with ourselves about what issues actually exist, about what issues actually matter, and what issues can actually be resolved. Let's start then with a list.

Monday, April 18, 2011

America: Land of the Free, Home of the resultant moral ambiguity

I've been hovering around this idea of morality and "rightness" and a kind of absolutism for a few weeks now, so I hope that you can bear with me as I continue to do so. I haven't yet been able to put a finer point on why it's a constant element on my mind, but I can tell you that, by Jove, it certainly has been coming up a lot. A lot.

Of especial import today was a documentary I watched on netflix. I owe a huge debt to Netflix, as it's recently allowed me to reach unprecedented levels of both "hip" and "smarts" that had been hitherto unreachable at such a low rate, price, and convenience. I barely have time to read books because I'm so busy watching things I never knew existed!

So the film was called "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" with the asterisk cryptically stating "the side effects of being American". It's a documentary about the demonization of steroids and steroid use following a number of high profile cases in the world of professional sports, both in America and on the world stage. It begins innocuously enough: a few vignettes about the director/writer's home life, growing up in the 80s with movie star influences like "Rocky", "Rambo", and "Conan the Barbarian." From this start I was already hooked. I'm a sucker for 80s nostalgia and navel-gazing. Although I was born in '85, I feel very attached to many of the icons and iconography of the 80s, and much less that of the 90s (though I did love Animaniacs.) Even if this documentary ended up being a heavy-handed, rant-and-raving, "F** the man" propagandaganza, I had a feeling I'd enjoy it. They even had a clip and an interview with an extra from Sly Stallone's "Over the Top". How could I lose?

What it ended up being was a surprisingly insightful, honest look at morality in America. Where morality comes from, what morality is for, what morality does to the psyche of young people who eventually grow up to be adults that then use that morality as a compass for how certain behaviors should make them feel. All of this is in the context of steroid (actually more about "performance-enhancing drug") use, which does an amazing job of being an adequately controversial and complex substrate for the concept of morality to chew on. He also does an adequate job of making distinctions between the types of steroids and their various uses (but I wouldn't cite it for a paper). Some of the greatest moments in the film come not from the stats though; they come from the candid questions he asks to his parents, his brothers, and to steroid advocates and opponents.

While the film was primarily impelled by the statistics, legislation, and sound bites of media coverage during these controversies, it very much found its substance in the midst of these aforementioned candid conversations. The issue at hand was about much more than the simple questions of "is using steroids cheating?", it often turned into questions about why these individuals chose to use steroids, when and why is the same action considered cheating in one context and not another, why do some people feel a moral repulsion to the idea of steroid use, and how do these individuals justify the use of these technically illegal substances. The answers ran the gamut of "everybody's doing it" to "you can't win without it". What's interesting is that he goes as far as to bring up the not-too-afar-off issue of "gene doping", which involves the manipulation of a person's genes to essentially imbue them with "the qualities that mother nature didn't." That in itself raises the always controversial issue of "playing God", but beyond that, it highlights the increasingly blurred lines between what would be considered cheating (and ergo morality) and "playing fair".

While it's definitely easy to counter some of the simpler arguments for moral relativity and an amoralist view, it's harder, for me, to shake the notions and consequences that technology often brings to the table that are undeniably relevant to notions and beliefs heretofore considered inscrutable or unchallengeable by virtue of their complexity. It's a paradox: My belief in a rational creator logically implies that creation itself can eventually be understood, and in turn manipulated and controlled. However, once we reach this point, will it perhaps point to something else that's not very rational at all...?

I want to believe it won't. I mean, of course, on paper it makes no sense that it would. But, Lord knows I've been wrong many, many times before.

Monday, April 11, 2011

why do you keep apologecizing

I like mad libs. If you don't know what mad libs are, they're a sort of a word game that was especially popular in the 80's, and less so in the 90's. The intrigue of this little activity came from the fact that you (the reader) were given the opportunity to obliviously insert your own choice of words (as long as it was the correct part of speech), into these pre-determined blanks. It was a play on the term "ad lib", which is short for the latin phrase ad libitum or "at one's pleasure". In a more practical sense, it used this phrase to conjugate itself with the idea of improvised comedy (also popular at the time). Some mad libs books perhaps gave you a title or a topic with which to guide you on your choice of words, but otherwise it was a laissez-faire carnivale of word soup by the time your words had been chosen (hence the "improv" part). As you read the story, you would then insert your nobly-chosen syntactic vittles when prompted and absurdity-based hilarity would ensue (hence the word "mad"). Those were craaaaaaaaazy times!

Aside from the anarchic comedy that results, I always found it fun and fascinating how plausible the stories ended up being. Really, the humor came not simply from the absurdity, but rather, how absurdly awesome the result was. What if I really did find a hoe stuffed beneath my friend's summer dress which we subsequently used to putt a barrel full of endangered hedgehogs down a rolling green hill on a sweet and sticky summer's day? What if the Power Rangers really did drive their radioactive bumblebee cars in to my house when I called the electrician to fix my fireplace that ran on old dishwasher rag water? Awesome, that's what if.

Which brings me to my point. Why were mad libs so absurd? You might say because it took words out of context, or because it mischaracterized certain people, or because it was just "made that way". I suppose all of that is true, but it still makes me wonder why it was absurd. Why did I find it absurd? All the words were words that I had used before, in sentences that "made sense" according to the rules of grammar (though there were exceptions). The situations were often commonplace and ordinary, like shopping at the supermarket or spending the day cooking. What was so absurd then? Was it the simple ridiculousness of a gelatin hummingbird splashing out of your boiling pot of apple juice?

If I were to present the story to someone who didn't know English, it would cease to be funny. It would also cease to be absurd. It would cease to contain any significance or structure or point because that person would have no grounds on which to analyze it. It only makes sense when you know that it doesn't make any sense at all.

In CS Lewis' Miracles, he talks about the opposing viewpoints of naturalism and supernaturalism, and how, if one believes in naturalism, no miracles are possible. Beyond that, thinking itself is impossible. In a naturalistic worldview, everything is an effect due to a cause which is in itself an effect of a cause, etc. etc. etc. In this view, there is no guiding direction or reasonable force behind these causes and effects (how could there be? If every cause an effect and each effect a cause, what could possibly be responsible for the first effect? Is there a first effect? If so, what is the first cause?) Science itself would be impossible, because scientists could no longer believe themselves to be fully in control of any given cause, given that their own actions are in fact effects and not causes. The conclusivity of a result of an experiment hinges on its assertion of exclusiveness of cause and effect.And yet, here we are, with science continually proving our hypotheses not incorrect.

Supernaturalism, on the other hand, assumes an outside force apart from the natural world of causes and effects that can (and did) in fact cause something without itself being caused (at least not by anything in the natural world). If you (ironically) think about it, this is what scientists (and most laypeople), mean when they speak of "objectivity". Only an with uncaused (impartial, objective) cause or causor can we conclude that there are true and real causes and effects between entities. In naturalism, if I say "I think", what I must mean, in order to remain philosophically honest, is that something is causing me to have a feeling or sensation of thought that is causing me to speak. In supernaturalism, if I say "I think", I mean exactly that. Even die-hard naturalists often miss the point when they "think" about what everything is all about.

What I mean to say through all this is that there is something undeniably absurd about this life.

Don't you think?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Euthyphro's Dilemma

Recently I've been spending many of my hours listening to and reading a number of articles on (Stand to Reason), a christian apologetics website, which address various philosophical and intellectual challenges to a christian worldview. It's a cool resource, and a great way to pick your own mind and plow the fertile ground of thought for new ideas and clearer thinking. At the same time, there are a number of formidable and useful secular sources that also address these challenges in a decidedly christian-less way. Which camp do I fall into? Well, I'll let you figure that out as we go along.

What I've been thinking about most recently though is the idea of "good" and "bad" (I also posted something on this a little while ago, though, admittedly, with a lot less thought and research). It's also been presented as "the problem of evil" or Euthyphro's Dilemma (a discourse by Plato, where Socrates is having a dialogue with a man named Euthyphro). In plain terms, it asks, "is God good because he is God, or is good good because God is good?"

Essentially, it posits two possibilities for why good is good:
  • Goodness is a command from God - "good" is determined by divine fiat. An afflatus of good, in certain terms. Things are considered good because God says so.
  • God is good because goodness is good - "good" is objective, and God is aligned with goodness. God commands good things because he likes good things.
This presents Christians (and any moral absolutists) with a grave dilemma.

In scenario A, goodness dissolves into an arbitrary;  that whatever the will of God happens to be, that is what good is. In that case, good would mean little else than "as God likes it." In this sense it attributes the goodness of good (and of God) to simply power. Because God wields power absolutely, this power dictates what is good and what is not.  Not only is this argument counter to what the Bible teaches about God and goodness, it is lethal firepower that can be used against the moral absolutists stance that "good" is in fact "good". It lends more credence to the atheistic and relativistic argument that "good" is in fact "whatever is appropriate for the time" (or "whatever God says it is").

On the other hand, scenario B presents us with a different problem. In this case, if God is good because goodness is good, which then implies that goodness is somehow deemed so by a power higher than God. In this case, the charge against moral absolutism is simpler, but much more compelling: if true, than God is in this case subordinate to some other power which has deemed good to be good.

Now, at this point many atheists and some moral relativists would be more than pleased with themselves, seeing an unsolvable dilemma posited to moral absolutists and theists at large. Having shifted the burden of proof from themselves about the existence of moral absolutes and of the omnipotence (and therefore validity) of the Christian God. (side note: The ironic thing here is that if in fact they disprove the existence of moral absolutes, they lose the ability to consider themselves better than those they've defeated.) As a Christian, which I am, and a moral absolutist, which I must necessarily concede to be (I feel), how am I to answer this dilemma?

In order to completely understand my own answer to this question, you may have to familiarize yourself with these two articles: Greg Koukl's own discussion on Euthyphro's Dilemma (specifically the section under "Grounding") and Paul Copan's rebuttal to atheist author Michael Martin's argument for how atheists can be moral absolutists (specifically the first half of that paper.). I have a feeling you won't be too surprised by my answer if you take the time to read these two articles.

The short answer is this: Euthyphro's Dilemma is a false dilemma. That is, as a rhetorical device, Socrates is painting the poor fellow into a corner despite the fact that they're talking in a circular room. In addition to the argument about grounding and about general moral presuppositions about the dignity of humans, my own conclusion is thus: we can recognize good.

The simplicity of this answer, after having attempted to think and read and write something more compelling or more explanatory, does a better job than any of the other statements I can think of. The statement is pregnant with meaning. As it employs the word "good", it contains the entirety of the discussion about the arbitrariness of good and the autonomy of those who deem it so. In the act of "seeing good" we are in reality interpreting meaningless (in naturalist terms) behaviors and infusing them with our presuppositions. By stating the action of recognition, it asserts that perception is the key to understanding the false dilemma, and that the existence of morality is not based simply in the physical realm, but also as a presupposed idea with which we link behaviors to. And finally, by presenting ourselves, human beings, as the perceivers, I mean to reestablish the profundity of the idea that morality is an idea "queerly" (as Bertrand Russell would have stated) confined to humans, and is therefore evidence for the unique imprint of God in each and every one of us.

The best evidence for the existence of moral absolutes is the fact that we look for and find moral absolutes. The only way this is possible is if A) moral absolutes are out there and B) we know what they look like.

God, being good, created us in his image. As a result, we know what good is, we know what it looks like, and we see it in the world, because the world is also created by God.

Someday, we'll all just have to admit it.