Burned by Pyrotheology

December 3rd, 2017
by Chris

(This post was actually written in around November 2016, but for some reason, probably because I wanted to polish it, not published at the time.)

I’ve engaged with Peter Rollins characterisation of what he describes as the “oceanic” experience which is a fundamental feature of mystical experience as a feature of psychosis before, but have just listened to him talk about this again, in which (describing his “Pyrotheology”) he describes the ontological and ontic lack as “original sin”, and have some further thoughts.

The first of these is that he is maybe not a million miles from my own characterisation of original sin, which I wrote about in “The Fall and Rise of Original Sin”, and “Falling Further”. We are both, it seems to me, talking about “original sin” as something formative of the self (or, in his words, the subject). Where we differ is that I see specifically self-consciousness as being the issue, whereas he sees lack as being the issue. I am actually unconvinced by Lacan’s identification of the dawn of self-awareness as equivalent to losing the “oceanic” sense of oneness with the “other”; I think, for instance, that most higher animals are well aware of their individuality without possessing (in at least the majority of cases) a real sense of themselves as a subject of scrutiny; there is no real feedback loop going on there, whereas there is in the case of humans, and it is that sense of self-as-subject which I identify as the source of “original sin” – the discrepancy between the actual self and the self-image we have of ourselves.

However, we both view this as something positive rather than something negative.

I do see him as being unduly dismissive of the mystical/oceanic experience of ultimate oneness as being merely transitory and, perhaps, nice while it lasts but ultimately of no real importance beside what he sees as the vital task of coping with the awful fact that we are separate from the world around us. Being a mystic (and impacted by the self-verifying character of mystical experience) I have little option but to see the experience of oneness with all, the dissolution of the boundaries which constitute us as a “self” or “subject” as being in some way “more true” than the experience of us as separate; at the very least, as equally true. Becauser I am at root a mystic, I value religious traditions first and foremost for their mystical traditions and their technologies of promoting mystical experience; Pete’s conception of radical theology is that it ignores this and concentrates on the complete absence of such experience, which he clearly regards as “more true”, and indeed seems to me to denigrate any attempt by religion to offer mystical oneness as something to be desired.

I think that is a mistake, and abandons a very large amount of what makes religion worthwhile. In particular, there is nothing in his version of radical theology which specifically promotes compassion, “loving your neighbour as yourself”. To use the terminology of AA (of which Pete is fond, in general terms) and the other 12 step programmes, while Pyrotheology is big on Step 1 (“we admitted that we were powerless over X and that our lives had become unmanageable”) it is not particularly conducive to Step 2 (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could relieve our insanity”) or Step 3 (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”); in terms of the Serenity Prayer, it maybe covers “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change” without addressing “And the power to change the things we can”.

It is very difficult not to love your neighbour as yourself when the boundary of what is your neighbour and what is yourself is nonexistent (in the fullblown mystical experience) or, to say the least, fuzzy (in the case of the partial consciousness of oneness which can be cultivated as a day-to-day and near constant experience by mystical practice). Some mystics, I confess, do seem to achieve this lack of concern for neighbour – I was a little horrified to hear, some years ago in a TV programme, a Hindu sage refuse to teach a westerner because it might damage their own consciousness of oneness with God (in that case, the unity of Atman and Brahman). It is not uncommon, as well, to find mystics separating themselves from humanity (as, for instance, monks or hermits) in order more fully to pursue mystical experience, I suspect partly because the overwhelming sense of compassion produced when in contact with other human beings, coupled with a limited or nonexistent ability to do anything much about it, is too distracting or too painful. Most modern mystics, however, seem to find a balance in which they can and do express love of neighbour, sometimes profusely – and if there is any message which stresses love of neighbour to the eventual exclusion of self-preservation, it is that of Jesus (“greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”).

Of course the complete removal of any sense of division between the self and the rest of existence is not something which can be pursued except for very limited periods – it is completely impossible to function normally in the world with no such sense; as I tend to say, this results in you walking into lamp posts. It is, as Pete says, both wonderful and extremely scary (the end point has to be the complete extinguishing of the self). You have to return to the normal existence of distinguishing yourself from, for instance, the lamp post which you are, in the throes of a peak mystical experience, about to walk in to, or at least you do if you want to continue functioning as an individual in the world at large.

This brings to mind the fact that, to me, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of human thinking is the distinguishing of one thing from another. Thinking back to my school days, titles starting “compare and contrast” were perhaps the most common essays ever asked for. We define our political leanings, I find, more by what we are not than by what we are (in the recent US election, I could not under any circumstances have voted for Trump, therefore I would probably have had to vote for Hilary, despite her espousal of neoliberalism and closeness to banks and big business). A key saying in the development of Rabbinic Judaism was the phrase “not as the gentiles” when considering what being Jewish was about; Christianity in its turn moved rapidly away from Judaism having decided that Judaism was one thing which it “was not” (alongside paganism, inter alia).

The trouble with distinguishing the one from the other is that it inevitably sets up a binary opposition – both “contrast” and “compare” involve, unless we are very careful, value judgments as to which is preferable. Even if we are very careful, we run the risk of being accused of moral equivalence. We lose sight of the fact that (as the Taoist logo of two interlocked tadpole shapes, one black and one white, but each with an “eye” of the other colour) drives home, that each of a pair of “opposites” depends on and to some extent includes its opposite, and we fail to appreciate “excluded middle” fallacies. We also, in going binary (i.e. digital), lose the ability to “think analog”, i.e. appreciate that a massive amount of what we perceive is more spectral than divided; one thing shades into another without any clear division between the two.

Some strains of radical theology and the continental philosophy from which much of it stems do this to excess – not a million miles from Pete’s train of thought are thinkers who say that there is a fundamental rift in the structure of existence. This, to me, is the language of conflict, of opposition, and not of love and inclusion.

Opposition to such binaries is something which was picked up in a talk I recently heard by Richard Rohr (this link is to an interview with similar content). He sees the Trinity as an opportunity to break this binary thinking via the concept of perichoresis, which is something like “mutual indwelling” (analagous to the Taoist symbol); he sees Trinity as indicating that relationship is fundamental, rather than distinction. Rohr is, of course, a mystic, and I generally find it difficult to argue much with mystics. On this occasion, however, while I think that if you already have a concept of Trinity as fundamental to your understanding of God, Rohr’s meditation is a very good one, I do not think that a trinitarian concept is necessary to get away from the binaries and the “either/or” mentality. I also think that it leads to all sorts of conceptual problems, not to mention about half the heresies ever identified by the Church!

But I do think that mystical practice gets away from binary opposition. The essence of much mystical writing is “both/and”; the distinction of self and other is real, but so is the identity of self and other – and while it may be impossible to conceive both at the same time rationally (digitally), the mystic is forced to feel that both are simultaneously correct.

But it isn’t psychosis. Sorry, Pete!


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Sheep and goats

December 1st, 2017
by Chris

Adam Eriksen has written an interesting post about the Matthew 25 sorting into the sheep and the goats, in which he advances the thesis that salvation is there understood in the traditional way in which it was understood in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely as a collective salvation, something which happens to a nation rather than to the individual.

This is a deeply uncomfortable reading. I can largely control what I do myself, but my ability to influence what my nation does is extremely limited; my ability to influence what my town did was very limited even when I was a member of the town council, and I am much further from any means of influence in terms of national government than I was as a town council member. OK, I did have a year as mayor, during which I did have much more power to influence, as people listened to the mayor, but even then it was a power to influence rather than the power to implement.

However, if my nation is judged and condemned in the way Eriksen suggests may be happening (or about to happen) in the USA, one thing of which I can be certain is that the individuals making up the nation will suffer.

I don’t know about you, but personally I have a rooted objection to suffering as a result of what someone else does, when it’s something I would never have done myself and have argued strongly against (or voted against). There is, however, a powerful example of this in my own country at the moment. We voted (by a rather narrow margin) for Brexit. I can’t help feeling that the most major factor behind this was a wish NOT to welcome the stranger, i.e. to limit immigration, which is one of the categories which the Hebrew prophets (and the Law) was most adamant should be cared for. Admittedly, by a fairly considerable margin we also voted, a little earlier and then again a little later, for a set of representatives (members of parliament) who did not personally support Brexit, but our government is taking the view that “the people have spoken” and we have to leave the EU, and has invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which more or less guarantees that this will happen. And we will be judged, and will suffer. Notably, we will have to pay a large amount (the current figure stands at around £50 billion) as a “divorce settlement”, money which could have reversed the cuts to benefits and have funded the NHS and social provision adequately for several years, whereas the NHS is currently horribly stretched and social provision is being cut left right and centre, plus, under Mrs. May’s current proposals, paying for another two years worth of membership in something which we will have no further say in. In addition, economists are, on balance, predicting that Brexit will produce a drop in our GNP of 2-5% (some argue that it will be larger), and several large employers are leaving the country, and no doubt more will follow. The government’s response to this (which will severely affect their income from taxes) will assuredly be more austerity, more cuts to benefits, NHS and social care, and a country heading for more of exactly the failure to provide for the poor, the sick and the marginalised.

“Not my government, not my prime minister” sounds hollow – and it buys no tins to put in the food bank (prior to the narrow win of the Conservatives in 2010, there was no food bank locally, and probably little need for it – and I still have some animosity toward the party which I supported and stood as a candidate for for some 40 years, the Liberal Democrats, for supporting them in 2010-15).

The trouble is, it isn’t just Brexit which could precipitate a judgment on us. We are also very strongly linked with the USA economically and in foreign policy – it has been said of our economics that if America catches a cold, Britain has pneumonia – and we will also suffer if the USA suffers as a result of any of the matters which Eriksen raises. Most notably, we are militarily linked with a nation currently headed by as malignant narcissist who seems to have the emotional maturity of a 5 year old, and who could easily precipitate us into global conflict (insofar as we are not already in a global conflict with radical Islam). A malignant narcissist, what is more, who republishes material from our home-grown extreme right hate group, Britain First (who exemplify rather a lot of the traits for which nations can be judged), but claims to be “the leader of the free world”. While Mrs. May has criticised his use of Britain First’s material, she has not cancelled a state visit, and she has not taken steps to draw back from our uncritical support of American actions in world politics (and particularly the Middle East), which have generally been called a “special relationship”.

Not my President, not my leader of the free world, and not someone I think my country should have any dealings with. Let me put it in a way Adam Eriksen would probably balk at. If you lie down with pigs, you will end up covered in shit.

Or, of course, judged in an apocalypse…

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Cock-up rather than conspiracy

November 30th, 2017
by Chris

My facebook feed seems, at times, full of conspiracy theories these days. A recent essay lists some of the most prominent, and starts to suggest a psychology which gives rise to such ideas. A lot of the items in my feed are the result of one extremely intelligent facebook friend having, to my mind, dropped out of criticising the trends of modernity into something resembling outright paranoia.

I have some experience with government, albeit at a very local level; I also have some experience with uncovering wrongdoing in the police (systematic racism, in fact), and in investigating the cover-up of that – and then, as a result of some success there, being asked to investigate several other cases of alleged conspiracy and cover-up. This has led me to be extremely sceptical of any conspiracy theory which requires widespread participation by large number of people. By and large, I do not think such conspiracies can avoid the well-known tendency of secrets to slip out as soon as they are shared with more than one other person – and even one is dangerous. I am, however, always ready to entertain cock-up theories – organisations will always have people in them making mistakes (which is another reason to be sceptical of vast conspiracy theories – someone among the hosts of conspirators WILL make a mistake, and the more people who are involved, the faster the first mistake will occur, and the more mistakes will happen…)

Once a mistake has happened, however, there will very frequently be an attempt to cover it up. Perhaps this will be fairly innocent – the person who has made the mistake will try to put it right, and then pretend it never happened. More serious, but still not a conspiracy, the erring individual will try to blame someone else. However, most seriously, and particularly in organisations which attract a lot of loyalty from their members (and the police and the armed services are particularly strong in that characteristic, as, often, are political parties), other people will join in the cover-up because admitting it would make the organisation look bad. This is a particularly strong tendency, I have found, with people who are guilty of sexual offences – people in organisations have regularly turned a blind eye to these or just failed to take action, rather than produce negative publicity – it’s largely in that way that, in the UK, people like Jimmy Saville and Cyril Smith managed to get away with abusing children for many years. These are rarely conspiracies – people have generally not got together to agree to say nothing, they have just decided individually that it isn’t something they want to make a noise about.

That mechanism also operates to protect people who have deliberately acted in a reprehensible manner, for instance discrimination or petty harrassment fuelled by discrimination. If it is going to make the organisation, or the part of the organisation involved, look bad, other people will often feel that the harm to the reputation of the organisation outweighs the demands of justice and honesty and the harm to the individual and will try to minimise the action, to deny that it happened, or to cast blame somewhere else.

“Blame someone else” at that point often extends to the blackening of the character of the victim, as indeed it did in the first case I dealt with involving police corruption. If the person complaining can be shown to be “a bad person”, then their complaint can be ignored. That happened; the individual concerned was prosecuted and, in fact, jailed as a result of a train of fabricated statements, missing evidence and general bias. The trouble was, it wasn’t possible to prove conspiracy. All the people involved (with perhaps two exceptions) were motivated primarily by protecting the police rather than being induced by threat or reward to join in something which they knew was illegal; they didn’t get together and say “We need to fix this guy”, they just went along with what was happening. The problem was more systemic than it was a specific conspiracy.

It took over ten years of effort (by myself and many other people, among whom were a team from another police force) before a number of police officers were prosecuted or disciplined, and before the victim was fully vindicated and compensated. Even then, only about half the people who should have suffered sanctions actually did, and the amount of compensation was less than one might have wished. That makes me doubly suspicious of people who claim, without access to internal records, to have uncovered wide-ranging conspiracies within governments, and to have done that within hours of an event.

What does strike me, however, is that many of the allegations floating around the internet look a lot like blackening someone’s character in much the same way as was done with the victim in the case I started with. I have in mind particularly the venom which seems to be directed at Hilary Clinton. The current president is a self-admitted sexual abuser, but since his election there are suddenly claims that Hilary Clinton has been involved in even more serious sexual abuse, and people seem to be getting excited about that rather than about the fact that the person actually in power is someone who admits to abusing power. The pressing issue has to be the person currently in power, because they are in a position to continue abuse (and, in the case I’ve been referring to, it was to an extent sufficient that several policemen resigned, thus ensuring they wouldn’t repeat their own misuse of power, rather than being formally disciplined or prosecuted).

If there has, indeed, been historic abuse, obviously that should be investigated and, if proved, acted upon (though I have some sympathy with people who suggest that we should not be doing that many years after the event, and with various men in their 70s and 80s who find themselves in jail for things done 30 or 40 years ago; jail, especially for sexual offences, is an appalling place for the elderly). The thing is, in that particular case, given the fact that apparently approximately 50% of the population cordially detest Mrs. Clinton, it is inconceivable to me that a conspiracy could have covered up that kind of systemic misdoing, particularly given my comments about cock-ups. It’s extremely unlikely – and it diverts attention from the monstrosity of Trump.

I fear that my facebook friend, whose sympathies have most definitely historically lain on the left (and further left than I would ever be likely to go) is actually assisting the alt-right in sharing that particular conspiracy theory.


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God is not dead

November 17th, 2017
by Chris

Recently I was watching something (clearly forgettable, as I’ve forgotten what it was) on TV, and had a thought on hearing a father reading to his child, ending “and they lived happily ever after”.  The thought started with a memory of a BBC science fiction series of the late 70’s called “Blake’s Seven”. It was the 70’s, it was the BBC, and the budget massively failed to live up to the space opera setting, and the acting was a little lacking from time to time, but I really liked it – perhaps heretically, I actually liked it rather more than “Dr. Who”.

Anyhow, the last series ended with virtually the entire cast being killed, in a tableau vaguely reminiscent of the end of “Hamlet” (at least to anyone whose tastes run to both extremes of theatre, high and low), resulting in many of the series fans expressing outrage and/or anguish in letters to the editor in various places. The authors had very clearly made it impossible for there to be a fifth series (or so thought the fan base, although the Wikipedia entry suggests an avenue was still open, albeit without the title character, Blake). The story had, it seemed, conclusively ended – and fans were disappointed.

What struck me, though, was that the words “and they lived happily ever after” also finish a story conclusively. There is no more to be told. The story is, if you like, dead, even if the characters (unlike the appearance of the end of Blake’s Seven) live on.

Being a theology nerd, this made me think of the common concept of God put forward by philosophical theologians in the West fairly consistently between Augustine and sometime in the 18th century (at the earliest), and which agreed pretty closely with the concept of God reached by Greek philosophy. God, it was argued, is perfect, and therefore possesses the quality of aseity (being entirely complete in and of itself), is unchanging (as any change from perfection is argued to be impossible while remaining perfect) and is therefore impassible, i.e. incapable of being emotionally moved by any outside influence.

I’ve long thought that this may look like good philosophy, but doesn’t resemble the God of love, who has mercy, sometimes changes his mind (e.g. in the book of Jonah) and can be swayed by argument (e.g. when Abraham argues for the sparing of Sodom) who is described in the Bible, nor a God to whom there is any point in praying. Here, however, was another angle.

If indeed God were perfect, unchanging, impassible, then God’s story would be at an end. God would, in effect, be dead – not in the sense of Niezsche’s madman running through the streets saying “God is dead, and we have killed him”, but in the sense of being inert, non-living and rather less relational than a brick.

To a mystic (and thus a panentheist) or anyone who espouses process or open and relational theology, this is not God – God has to be capable of the statement “God is love” having the deepest possible reason; instead of the “unmoved mover” of classical Western theology, God is the most moved mover – God is radically immanent, radically present to all events, and if not moved by them, is not God.

So, I assert that “God is not dead”.

Not in the sense of the film of that name (which is worth a trip to avoid seeing), but in the sense that God is in relation to and is moved by everything and everyone in creation.


(This post first appeared, mutatis mutandis, on the Way Station blog)

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In non-essentials, liberty…

October 19th, 2017
by Chris

Peter Stanley blogs at “Outside the Goldfish Bowl of Christian Religion”, and as someone still critically examining faith at 82, gives me hope for the future! He has recently republished a piece by Andy Vivian which took my attention.

Vivian sets out to identify four strands of “Progressive Christianity”, which are “Evolutionary Spirituality” (referencing John Spong), “Emerging Church” (referencing Brian McLaren, with a mention of Marcus Borg, although I question whether putting Marcus in this category is at all helpful), “Radical Theology” (referencing Peter Rollins) and “Atheistic Christianity” (referencing Greta Vosper). He does clarify that he is referring to PCN conference speakers here, and states “For the sake of simplicity, I’ve divided them into four strands or paradigms, but the boundaries between them are diffuse so please don’t take the titles too seriously.” No doubt he expects by that to deflect the criticism that dividing Christians into groups is at least potentially a counterproductive thing, but nevertheless he is doing it.

Dividing Christians into groups is clearly a tendency which was established very early, as Paul talks about it (and argues against it). Indeed, although in the West we tend to think for a large slice of our history of “One Church”, this being the Catholic Church, there were plenty of early divisions, and although at least the fiction of a single Christian church was maintained until Catholic and Orthodox separated finally in the eleventh century, ostensibly over a point of trinitarian doctrine which most these days find absurdly trivial but in truth more over the issue of whether there should be one Pope or multiple patriarchs of whom the Bishop of Rome was only one, in fact there were several other strands of Christianity, usually referred to as “oriental”, such as the Coptic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church, which were not part of this. Nonetheless, until the Reformation (the anniversary of which we celebrate this year, though “celebrate” has too upbeat a ring for my taste), there were only two major “denominations”, and they were not massively dissimilar – indeed, had the filioque and the status of the Pope been finessed, there might well only have been one Church of major extent. Then, of course, Luther came along with the concept of “sola scriptura” and the “priesthood of all believers”, and the result was  a splintering of the church, to the effect that there are now over 41,000 Christian denominations.

I actually think that there are more strands than Vivian identifies, and would particularly mention Open Theism and Process Theology, which the AAR lump together as “Open and Relational”, though those do find room for serious discussion, as a Homebrewed Theology live podcast recently demonstrated. Nonetheless, as Rachel Held Evans commented at the end of that podcast, they may have differences, but they are happy to acknowledge each other’s points of view as valid – and to get tipsy together.

This, I think, well illustrates the saying of Marco Antonio Dominis quoted in this Biologos piece, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The question is, what are to be regarded as “essentials”. I wonder whether some help can be found in a new book by Philip Clayton, which is a follow-up to his book “The Predicament of Belief”, which I strongly recommend (I haven’t yet bought the new one, but it’s on my wish list!). He talks about it in this podcast, and makes, I think, a good case for us all to go away and ascribe a set of numbers to the strength of our beliefs.

As for myself, I definitely fall within the category of “Liberal Christian”, at least when it is opposed to terms like “Conservative Christian”, but I also find quite a bit of identification with people who are comfortable with the “Progressive Christian” label. The thing is, I wouldn’t really say that I was in the camp of any of Spong, McLaren, Rollins or Vosper. Yes, I think spirituality is evolving, yes, I think something which has the potential to be a “new thing” is “emerging” from Christianity, yes, I am sometimes extremely radical in my thinking about scripture and God (although not in quite the same way that “Radical Theology” is normally couched, given that it stems from the “Death of God” concept emanating from Nietzsche and made famous by Thomas Altizer) and yes, I can reasonably be described as atheistic, if that is the appropriate term for someone who does not believe that God wears his knickers outside his tights, as I tend to put it – the picture of God as an intervening super-superhero (hence the knickers and the tights…) who constantly intervenes in a way contrary to established natural processes. I have time for all those thinkers, however – and others, such as Tom Oord in the “Open Theism” camp and, of course, Philip Clayton (see above), who is a Process Theologian.

The thing is, using Philip Clayton’s 1-6 rating of beliefs, most of what I believe in terms of theology is down in the 4-6 region. I have certainty that God exists (for some value of “God”), so that is, perhaps, my only relevant belief rated “1” (I wouldn’t even rate as a “1” the proposition that “I exist” – that’s at best a 2 or a 3…). I can entertain viewpoints which seem to conflict (hey, I’m a Theoretical Physicist if you take my University degree as defining, so I grew up with wave-particle duality…), and I tend to find that most people in the “Progressive” camp are at least tending in that direction. I shudder at the viewpoint I saw in an article a little while ago, which suggested that the first and most fundamental thing we should fix is a “doctrine of God” – I may be certain that God exists, but I at least strongly suspect (maybe a 3 or a 2) that human brains are fundamentally incapable of a full understanding of God, so any “doctrine of God” is going to be wrong. That is the last thing which we should be claiming is an essential and demanding unity on!

So, less essentials, please. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of Christian who can be called “Progressive” is a willingness to consider more stuff to be non-essential. Vivian illustrates what he regards as “Progressive” by saying “The concept of an all-powerful, heavenly Divine, who intervenes in our fate is no longer credible. The time-honoured Christian narrative of a God who sends his Son into the world to save it, is at best a poetic myth.” I would respond that he is being far too prescriptive there. Yes, I agree with his first sentence – I cannot bring myself to believe in an interventionary God in the supernatural Theist mould. But “at best a poetic myth”? As Philip Clayton would put it, the idea of a God who sends his Son into the world to save it, is not less than a poetic myth (a 6 on Clayton’s scale). But it might be more than that, and in conscience, a poetic myth is already an incredibly powerful thing…

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Board games and economies

October 13th, 2017
by Chris

Among my interests which have so far not come up on this blog is board games. I’ve liked board games since I was in primary school. I’ve had flirtations with other games – I’ve spent quite a bit of time playing bridge, for instance; I went through a phase in my teens and early 20’s of liking table top wargames a lot; I did a lot of fantasy RPG play back when the concept was very novel and I’ve played a lot of computer games in my time, but I keep coming back to board games, and in that category tend to like the ones which have at least a nodding acquaintance with some aspect of reality (so chess and go are not high up my list) as well as preferring those without massive amounts of chance (so generally not games involving a lot of dice throwing). Wednesday night is games night here, and most Wednesdays a small group of friends gather with me to play the board game of the moment.

This post is going to involve a lot of talk about games, but it is also going to touch on economic, politics and even maybe a little religion – so non game players may not actually want to stop reading just yet!

For some time now, that has been a game called 1817. This is a fairly recent development in a family of games which revolve around building railways (and making money in the process) which started with 1829, a game set in England (with a later extension covering Scotland), the name being taken from date of the first passenger-carrying railway. I’ve had a copy for a long time! The same game designer, Francis Tresham (who also designed one of my other favorite boardgames, Civilisation, which deals with the rise of civilisations in Mesapotamia and points West of there) then cooperated with others to produce 1830 (the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio RR), which was set in the Eastern United States, and had rules which were far more slanted towards financial manipulations than were those of 1829.

Tresham is one of those game designers whom hobbyists love; he was entirely open to having enthusiasts produce other games using the same basic mechanics, and there are now an absolute host of 18xx games produced by other people, usually with the last two numbers being the date of foundation of the first passenger railway in the country the game is set in – the main Italian game, for instance, is 1841.

1817 is also set in the Eastern USA, but the date comes not from an early railway, but from the date of foundation of the New York Stock Exchange. As you might guess from that fact, it’s possibly the most financially complex of the set so far, having advanced concepts like short-selling shares. It’s also more random than any of the big titles in the 18xx series previously, with players starting their railways in any available station (not one already taken by another player save one double station and one location, New York, with two startpoint station places), whereas the norm is to have fixed, historical locations. It’s taken the 18xx gaming world by storm – at some recent conventions, more than half the games played were 1817.

I’m also a compulsive tinkerer with games, as are a couple of the other Wednesday players. Tresham’s “Civilisation”, for instance, involved a map of Europe and the Middle East and North Africa cut off to the North at around Switzerland, to the West at around the boundary between Italy and France and to the East in Western Iran, and after a little while it acquired an authorised extension map which took the Western boundary to approximately Gibraltar. Those boundaries seemed far too arbitrary to me – after all, Roman civilisation extended throughout Spain and into Britain, and Greek civilisation at one point extended all the way to the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan. So there is in existence a set of extensions designed by me which do include much of the British Isles, all of Spain and the rest of Iran – and no, they aren’t available commercially. There were good game-play reasons why the board was truncated where it was, as I found out in trying to keep the gameplay sensible, and although my extension does allow and additional two civilisations to be played above even those in the extended game, very few people want to try to assemble even the seven players needed for a full game of the original.

By the time I bought a copy of 1817, my Wednesday group had been playing 1830 for a while, but a significantly altered 1830. Many years ago, when Avalon Hill was still producing 1830, they also produced a DOS computer game of the same name, and one of the features of that was that you could have a random map, which I fancied seeing for the board game. I had played around for some years with mechanisms for producing an at least somewhat random map for the game (as had another of our group), and about three years ago I came up with a scheme involving triangles of 6 hexagons which could be shuffled and dealt into a larger hexagon with a set of border pieces and a single centre hex, plus the ability to start railways anywhere on the map (which is now a feature of 1817) and a wrinkle on the ideas of private companies in the base game which added to the randomness. It was a real hit with our Wednesday group, and we’d been playing it (with some slight adjustments to the map pieces to improve balance and playability along the way) more or less exclusively when 1817 came along.

1817 took over. However, after we’d played it for a couple of months, one of our regulars said “Chris, why don’t you do a random map for 1817?” So I did that, and that’s what we’ve been playing on since then. Then someone else suggested we try simluating the westward expansion of US railways in a second phase of building, so we now have a double-hex map with a second set of private companies…

All this tinkering with games and their mechanics has taught me a number of things. Firstly, where a game includes maps, the maps have been very carefully designed to avoid obvious winning positions based on the topography – games are no fun if the only factor is who gets to start! I spent months tinkering with the Civilisation map to ensure that all the start locations had a decent fighting chance of doing well, and even more designing the random map sections for 1830 and then 1817. A game is only fair if you don’t have huge advantages from the start (or alternatively if huge start advantages can be easily circumvented – there are some games where this is the case). Secondly, if you’re trying to design a game which has a long playing time (and both Civilisation and the 18xx games typically take 5-10 hours), you have to be very careful to design mechanics which prevent someone getting an early advantage which is impossible for other players to overcome – and you have to do that through carefully crafted sets of rules, not (for instance) by just saying that everyone in a multi-player game has the same chances of making bargains with others as does any other player. Although there isn’t all that much luck in the 18xx games, there is definitely some – mostly based on where you are in the turn order compared with other players. I’ve mentioned avoiding the first player being able to take a prime position which can’t be matched by others, but in addition the player whose turn is immediately after someone who makes a mistake in game play is typically the one who can capitalise on that mistake.

In chess or go, of course, there are only two players, so it matters a lot less that a single mistake can cost a game – in multiplayer games a single mistake can still cost a player the game, but it can also win the game for another who has done nothing to deserve it other than being in the right place at the right time. Or it can lead to a player being eliminated very early, and having nothing to do but watch the other players for the next few hours, which is also something which game designers are going to want to avoid. Typically, therefore, in multiplayer games you want to have mechanisms in the rules to let players recover from mistakes, and to ensure that someone who is a beneficiary of such a mistake doesn’t run away with the game as a result of that.

In other words, you need a lot of carefully crafted rules in order to have a fair game which carries on for a long time. If you want a game which allows someone to come into it after it’s been running for a while (which we haven’t done in the 18xx games, but which I have considered for other games), you need to have additional rules in order to give the new player a sensible chance of not getting knocked out pretty much immediately – giving them the resources someone had at the start of the game absolutely doesn’t work, because other players will have built up far greater resources than that. Without such rules, even if a new or existing player has a wonderful idea which can improve their position massively, the inertia of others who have massively more resources is impossible to overcome.

With that in mind, I look at the naive suggestion by neoliberals that the “free market” should be shorn of any rules, and see in that a recipe for a “game” which eliminates “players” fairly quickly, leaves them little or no chance of “getting back into the game” and equally prejudices anyone who comes late to the “game”. It doesn’t even have the benefit of an end-point at which you can say “George has won”, after which you pack up the game and, perhaps, start another where everyone has an equal chance at the beginning. It condemns an increasing number of the players to sitting on the sidelines watching others and having no real stake in what is going on. In a financial game like 1817, money makes more money, eventually more or less irrespective of how well a player is playing – unless there are rules to stop that happening, to deliver some penalty for “bad play” – and that is equally what happens in “free market economies” unless they are well-regulated. As the author of this article comments, “Right now, the economic game is enormously fun for far too few players, and an increasingly miserable experience for many others.”

Our Wednesday group is a fairly friendly group, and in fact the better players frequently deliberately don’t make use of opportunities which having vastly greater resources gives them, particularly if that would result in bankrupting another player and thus removing them from the game (a smaller group does occasionally get together for a more cutthroat game in which bankruptcies are very common – but even then tends to declare the game won after any particularly sensational coup which produces an obviously winning situation, so as to relieve the loser from the burden of being a spectator only for some hours). This is, of course, conduct which in the real world, practising neoliberal economics with the dictum that the only responsibility of directors is to maximise shareholder value, would be horribly penalised. The share price of a company run like that would fall hugely, and the directors would be sacked… But it reflects a compassion which neoliberal economics regards as a fault (and, of course, Christianity regards as a virtue), as well as the self-interested motive of retaining the other players’ interest so that you have people to play with next week.

And having people to play with next week is something which neoliberal economics doesn’t take into account, even via the mechanism that, if you grind down all the other players enough, you will have a monopoly (all the money in the game), but you will have no-one able to buy your product any more. Indeed, the end of each game has a player in what is either a monopoly position or which, if continued long enough, one which will become a monopoly position – and a monoply (or, in the real world, more often a cartel) is the inevitable end point of these economic games – and where there is a monopoly or cartel, the “free market” no longer exists. Unlike a board game, you don’t pack up the economy and start from scratch next week.

Against my neoliberal friends, therefore, I can say with complete confidence that in order for there to be a free market, you need rules (i.e. government regulation) and in order for it to stay a free market you need more rules, as a free market is inherently an unstable thing.


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The mechanics of mysticism?

October 1st, 2017
by Chris

Thanks to James McGrath for pointing me at this article, which sets out at least a partial neurological mechanism for mystical experience.

The question has to be, of course, does this in any way negate such experience? I think the answer has to be “no”; it is trivially obvious that mystical experience occurs in the brain of the person experiencing it, and so there are going to be neurological processes involved – and these researchers have, perhaps, pinpointed one of those. Indeed, though they don’t yet have an answer for why such experiences are ecstatic (“better than sex, drugs and rock & roll” as I tend to put it), sooner of later I expect an answer to that as well.

The mechanics of neurology are, however, never going to determine the content of such experience, any more than dissecting an eye tells you about what you see in front of you. Admittedly, the content which is capable of being communicated after the event is fairly small (and trying to communicate the content during the event is one of the surest ways I know of stopping it in it’s tracks), but I have to believe the powerful sense that there is a LOT more content than that, were my brain capable of reducing it to intelligible language.

OK, maybe that is a side-effect of the fact that the experience is hugely self-verifying, at least in it’s fullest expression. But what mechanism self-verifies experience? I am not, frankly, used to experiences which do that, being a confirmed sceptic…

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Identity is not the most important issue

September 30th, 2017
by Chris

I’m not always a big fan of Sam Harris, as I think his antipathy to religion in general and Islam in particular is toxic – he would do far better to acknowledge that religion is a facet of human existence which we need to take into account. However, the guy does think, and think deeply, as evidenced in a recent podcast largely focussing on identity politics.

At this point, I perhaps need to confess to being a cis white male in a Western developed country, which, according to identity politics, arguably gives me no place to stand in terms of criticism of the state of the world. Sam does make the point (and I think it needs underlining) that this does not preclude someone from having a valid opinion – most of us, if we have a habit of thinking rationally, are able to separate ourselves to at least some extent from our situation in life and consider other points of view. Granted, unless you are (for instance) black, you are handicapped in having an emotional understanding of how it is more difficult to make your way in society (and, from what I see, more so in the States than in the UK, which is where my experience comes from). Likewise I might find it more difficult to relate emotionally to the situation of women, who still face a significantly greater challenge in reaching high level positions here than do men (though that has lessened massively over the course of my lifetime).

Things are made rather more difficult by the concept of intersectionality. This quite accurately notes that there is an additive (or possibly a multiplicative) effect of being in more than one group which is underprivileged; the concept stems initially from the observation that, within feminism, being black disadvantaged you twice – feminism tended to benefit white women, and anti-racism tended to benefit black men. The trouble is that this leads to a tendency toward discounting anyone’s voice unless they are an unemployed black lesbian immigrant disabled muslim, for instance.

I will grant that, in the upside-down economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, this does put one person of my acquaintance at the very pinnacle of that economy. Should she, however, be the only person whose opinion is valid? To listen to some exponents of identity politics, one would think so. Sam and his guest make the extremely good point that this divides people (which is a bad thing) and makes it more difficult to create a broad platform which can actually hope to gain political power.

What I would like to see is a recognition that in a puralist society like ours, everyone is a member of some minority, at least if they apply enough labels to themselves – I have a number of potential labels which render me a member of an underprivileged minority (notably being partially disabled by reason of mental illness), and while I have to accept that I am not as underprivileged as some, I can still look to the fact that (for instance) in the open labour market I am pretty much unemployable. Happily, I have a couple of part time occupations which bring in some money, and am old enough to draw a pension and disabled enough to receive some benefits, so I don’t actually need to work for a living. There was, however, a period during which I was already ill enough not to be able to work, but hadn’t yet the part time occupations, the pension or the benefits, so I do understand on an emotional basis to some extent the situation of those who are less lucky than I have been in those respects.

I also have the liberty to think and write about this, which a lot of people who are less lucky don’t have – their whole concentration is going to be on where the next meal is coming from…

Harris and his guest also touch on the fact that there is actually a sizeable majority of people who are seriously and increasingly underprivileged in our society, as the gap between the very rich and the rest of us widens and the category of “very rich” shrinks, while the middle class who used to bridge the gap increasingly become little or no better off than the working class or the poor. That is a point which I would have liked stressed much more – there is a problem which the vast majority of us face, which is now systemic, and it prejudices most of us, and it is the imbalance in our financialised globalised “free market” capitalist societies.

Nick Hanauer has a splendid TED talk expressing this. Now, Nick is a self-confessed plutocrat, but he sees that the levels of inequality which we now face and which are growing will inevitably lead to a collapse in society – as he says, “the pitchforks are coming” – but that will not merely mean that he and those like him are likely to find themselves on the wrong end of pitchforks, but that there will be a huge disruption in society. I, for one, do not relish the thought of living through a revolution (though, actually, I probably wouldn’t live through it, only into the early stages of it…); revolutions are messy things and tend to kill a lot of people, and in addition have very unpredictable results – sometimes things become better for the majority, but often they don’t. Both the BREXIT vote here and the election of Trump, it seems to me, are expressions of a population which is saying “I don’t mind if things are in complete turmoil, I don’t mind if the world burns, I just want change… any change”

[There was, arguably, a long, slow revolution in the UK between 1800 and around 1970, which progressively made things better for working people and certainly reduced inequality massively, both in absolute terms and in terms of opportunity. That was among the very few revolutions which I can point to which had a generally beneficial effect and very few deaths – a few protestors, but nothing on a large scale. Sadly, the Thatcher government coupled with Blairite Labour managed to undo most if not all of the progress which took 150 years to achieve…]

Identity politics on the left, it seems to me, get in the way of addressing this problem; they divide us where we need to unify to face a more existential threat. There has been a cartoon going around showing a couple of people amid the smoking ruins of a city saying “But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders“.

My worry is that they might equally have been saying “for a beautiful moment in time we achieved marriage equality and eliminated racial and religious discrimination”.

Inequality is not the only existential threat, either. Climate change, unless we can by some miracle mitigate it sufficiently, is going to produce just as much misery as would worldwide revolution – but actually is likely to be accompanied by worldwide revolution.

I have huge sympathy with minorities, but do not want to concentrate on bettering their situation at the expense of civilisation.

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Myths, metaphors, mysteries and making it up: theology meets fiction

September 2nd, 2017
by Chris

(This is another post which first appeared on The Way Station blog).

There is a saying which I’ve seen variously attributed to African, Amerind and Asian wise men, which goes “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.

A little while ago, I blogged on the back of a short story by Ursula le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (here’s a link if you’re interested), which is most definitely “made up”. On the other hand, through an entirely fictional place and people, it conveys a really important truth about how I, at least, feel about morality, and in particular the utilitarian concept that the individual should be sacrificed for the greater good. It rests on the concept that the entire happiness of an otherwise idyllic, utopian society is founded on them keeping a vulnerable innocent in appalling conditions, and never even speaking a kind word to the victim – and, on learning of this truth about their society, some elect to walk away, then or later, despite leaving also all the positives of their society.

Now, the blogger who reminded me of the story was using it as a metaphor (or, probably strictly speaking, an allegory, which is an extended and often more symbolic metaphor) for the church – and it made sense and conveyed, I think, a truth about the church. I used it as a metaphor for western society, and in particular the society of the UK in which I live. It doesn’t aspire to the category of myth – myths are the great stories, the archetypes of human interaction or of the identity of a people. The story within the story of Omelas is, for the society described, a myth (as are our British legends of King Arthur, a foundational myth) – Ms. leGuin writes science fiction and fantasy, so within the logic of the story, it might be true, and in that event it would be a true myth,  or it might be false, in which case it would still be a myth, but the happiness of Omelas would not actually necessarily depend on their continued cruelty. As it is clearly a foundational myth, though, tinkering with it might well produce unanticipated consequences even if there is no material causal link between the misery of the innocent and the wealth and happiness of the society, which is why I use the caveats “necessarily” and “material”. One such possibility lies in the works of Rene Girard; the innocent may be functioning as a scapegoat, and thereby actually contributing to the peace of the society through psychological rather than material mechanisms.

The thing about metaphor, allegory and myth is that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether “it happened this way”, the truth (or falsehood) of one of these literary figures is in how we apply it to situations in the real world – and it is then true to the extent that we are able to construct such an application.  A similar example is a joke – if I say “A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar”, you are not going to ask me where the bar was, or what an imam was doing in a bar anyway, or when this happened, far less whether it happened. Those are just not the point – the point is in the punchline (which is “and the barman says ‘this is a joke, isn’t it?’ “).

Similarly, when Jesus told parables, they were metaphors or allegories; it wasn’t important whether they happened that way (or at all), the message what in what you took from them. We are quite happy with the idea that Jesus made up these stories on the spot to illustrate a truth (or sometimes several truths) which were outside the stories themselves. Happily, even my most fundamentalist friends realise this.

However, when we are talking of events in the life of Jesus which are recounted in the gospels, the more conservative among us suddenly become very concerned about whether things happened this way – where the bar was, in other words – and it becomes very difficult to get beyond that.

There is a quite excellent book by John Dominic Crossan called “The Power of Parable – How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus”, which treats the narrative history of Jesus contained in the gospels as story, not asking whether it happened this way, but what lessons we can draw from those stories today. This just ignores the issue of “whether it happened like that” and looks at a selection of stories from the gospels purely on the basis of what these stories can tell us about the situations we are in now.

The trouble is, I suspect that my more conservative friends would really not be able to glean anything from it, because Crossan is taking as read the fact that the gospel writers were adjusting their stories in order to make their own points…

It rather recalls to me discussions on the old Compuserve Religion Forum, where a wide variety of people were posting, from absolutely fundamentalist Christians through very liberal ones to atheists, agnostics and followers of other religions – the objective there was to discuss the religion, not to proselytise or fellowship. There were permanent problems actually getting a viable conversation going between these viewpoints, as the fundamentalists permanently homes in on whether the Bible was an inerrant historical (and scientific) account. Where I found an avenue to better discussion was in saying “let’s set on one side whether it happened that way, leaving biblical criticism and theology for later, and discuss application – how does this account impact your life at the moment?”

That way, we could sometimes manage to avoid the issue on which the two sides were never going to agree, and have sensible discussions. Not infrequently, the result was that a biblical inerrantist and a non-supernaturalist materialist could actually agree on the meaning of a passage, and that ultimately it was the application which mattered to them.

And they “got the joke”…

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The patterns of AI in the stuff of the future.

September 2nd, 2017
by Chris

There’s a fascinating interview of Max Tegmark, a prominent physicist now focussing on artificial intelligence research, by Sam Harris (the well known atheist neuroscientist), broadly on the future of AI, in particular once it reaches the point of producing a generalised intelligence at least equal to that of humans.

There are too many points of interest for me to extract those and save you from the recommendation that you listen to the podcast, but a few points stood out to me.

Firstly, Max has apparently pretty much the same view as I have about ontology (i.e. the study of what is actually there at the most fundamental level); he even uses the same language as I’ve been doing. I suppose that as we are both physicists at root, this is not as surprising as it might seem (I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read what I write, and I’ve not read anything he’s written!) There is “stuff”, and there is pattern, and pattern is not heavily dependent on the stuff which bears the pattern – as he puts it, pattern is substrate-independent. He points out that wave equations later adapted to describe fundamental particles were originally developed in fluid mechanics; the mathematics describes this class of patterns (which happen to be dynamic patterns) irrespective of whether they are in water or in, say, the electromagnetic spectrum.

He moves rapidly from there to discussing how AIs of the future are likely not to be using electrons in solid state systems, they could be in something entirely different – but the patterns will be transferrable, and in the process mentions that in IT there is one basic element, the NAND gate, which he likens to synapses in the human brain. However, of course, you can construct a NAND gate out of all sorts of “stuff”…

The bulk of the interview is about how we might control intelligences we create which could be far greater than our own intelligence, but there are many directions in which they could have gone but didn’t. Can we hope, sometime, to upload the pattern which is “us” to a computer, and thereby defeat death, or at least the limited lifespan of our biological substrate? Mention was made of the fact that the best chess player is now not a computer, after the famous defeat of Gary Kasparov, but a human-computer team, which Max calls an “android” – probably correctly, as it is a human-machine combination. Might we augment ourselves and become amalgams of human and machine? (As I get older, I would very much appreciate some memory augmentation, perhaps a few terabytes…)

What, morally, is our position regarding a machine with a generalised intelligence greater than ours? Is it morally acceptable for it to be effectively a slave? (There is some discussion of this, but by no means exhaustively). If not, will we see a situation, as Sam and Max discuss, of the superhuman intelligence being, in effect, in the position of an adult surrounded by young children, unable to make decisions as good as the adult?

If I have one overwhelming worry about this prospect (and it is closer than we might think – the self-driving car is already with us, the military are playing with machines which may, Bond-like, have a “licence to kill”, and the cheapest calculators can perform calculations many times faster than even the fastest human, giving a glimpse of what the situation might be were their “intelligence” generalised rather than restricted to arithmetic), it is that we are biological systems, and as such have emotions – and emotions are what founds most of our moral behaviour (as well as some of our most immoral). Without emotion, can an artificial intelligence ever be trusted to make good moral decisions? I worry about that; my long period of depression, which ended in 2013 (deo gratias!) ended up in a state of anhedonia, in which, broadly, I did not feel emotions. I could assess what would happen if I did something fairly well – my computing power wasn’t seriously damaged – but I couldn’t make a decision as to whether actually to do it or not because there was no emotional charge giving me this instead of that course of action. Even the prospect that the action would damage me, perhaps kill me (or others), had no emotional charge – it was a matter of indifference whether I were injured, or in pain, or dead in the future.

I got through that period by following a set of rules, largely “act as if” rules. Others did not get damaged, other than perhaps emotionally, and I got damaged relatively little and am still here to write about it. But it could so easily have been different.

Would a super-AI have the same problem? If so, we would want there to be VERY strong “rules” imbedded at an early stage to avoid disaster.

But then, I took much the same view when raising children…

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