Luke Skywalker: A Hero of Peace And Purpose

Luke Skywalker was my childhood hero. Back then, I admired him for his adventurousness, bravery, and victory. Now as an adult, I admire him for his philosophical integrity. Here’s why.

In A New Hope (1977), Luke is a farm boy. An orphan. A kid of no special importance. So was I, so it seemed to me at the time: a kid growing up in a small town, far from the centers of power in my society, and the target of most of my school’s bullies. Like my hero, I dreamed of adventure in faraway places.

Then Luke finds himself thrust into an adventure of galactic significance: helping save a princess, and blowing up a WMD. In the course of the adventurer he discovers The Force, a quasi-religious power which “surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together” — and Luke achieves his victory by letting the Force flow through him.

There was a spiritual message there. As I understood it back then, it went something like this: the galaxy as a whole is almost a living thing, and you are part of it; and you can know this by relaxing, calming yourself, trusting your feelings, visualizing relations of energy between and within things, letting go of hate and anger. Chilling out. Meditating upon peace and purpose.

That is a Taoist message:

A skillful fighter does not become angry.
A skillful conqueror does not compete with people.

Tao Te Ching, § 68

Now, I didn’t know anything about Taoism when I was six years old, but I got the message.

I suppose this is no accident. Star Wars was based (in part) on those spaghetti Samurai films from the ’50s and ’60s, in which similar messages are encoded in the ethical principles embodied therein. Bruce Lee taught something like it, in Enter The Dragon (1973), so the idea wasn’t wholly new to cinema-goers.

Later in my life, as an undergrad, I read the Tao Te Ching. And because I had been watching Star Wars through my childhood (as well as listening to The Beatles and The Moody Blues), I found its message rather familiar.

There’s already enough stuff written about how The Force is comparable to the Tao, so I’ll skip it here; I want to emphasize the way in which Luke himself is a kind of Taoist hero. Which leads me to the Return of the Jedi (1983). At the opening of this film, Luke is no longer a farm boy. Now he’s a Jedi Knight. He’s a somebody. He’s marching into Jabba’s palace through the front door. He’s pushing around the guards, force-choking them like a Sith, controlling their minds, taking no crap from anyone. He tells Jabba what he intends to do. Jabba and the whole court laugh at him. Then he does it. Exactly as he said he would do.

And he does no more then exactly what he said he would do, because:

A good general achieves his purpose and stops,
But dares not seek to dominate the world.
He achieves his purpose but does not brag about it,
He achieves his purpose but does not boast about it,
He achieves his purpose but is not proud of it,
He achieves his purpose but only as an unavoidable step.

Tao Te Ching, § 30

Luke’s heroism, and his Taoism, hit home the most for me in the emperor’s throne room scene. Here’s a character who is doing his absolute best to keep his cool, while Vader and the Emperor push all his buttons. When Vader suggests that Leia could be turned to the dark side, Luke finally gives in to his anger. And so he defeats Vader. But then he sees how he was becoming like Vader, in the symbol of the mechanical hand– something he had been warned might happen when he was exploring the cave on Dagobah. So he throws away his lightsabre– an astonishing act of bravery and integrity. That’s the Taoist way. To do nothing, and so to achieve everything. He looked into the dark side within himself, and at the last minute he pulled himself back from it, and refused to act; that is, he refused fight in the the expected, antagonistic way.

Act without action,
Do without ado,
Taste without tasting.
Whether it is big or small, many or few, repay hatred with virtue.

It is precisely because he does not compete that the world cannot compete with him.

For deep love helps one to win in the case of attack,
And to be firm in the case of defense.

Tao Te Ching, § 63, 66, 67.

It’s possible that Luke was also trusting that his father would find the goodness still within him (which Luke had told him, a few scenes ago, was still there), and so come to the rescue of his son. It is also a Taoist idea to see the good in all things, including in what is dangerous or harmful.

Even when a man is bad, when has Tao rejected him?

Tao Te Ching, § 62.

Some Taoist texts which discuss this life-affirming point of view do so in the context of death:

Tzu-lai fell ill, was gasping for breath and was about to die. His wife and children surrounded him and wept. Tzu-li went to see him. “Go away,” he said. “Don’t disturb the transformation that is about to take place…

Tzu-lai said, “Wherever a parent tells a son to go, whether east, west, south, or north, he has to obey. The yin and yang are like man’s parents. If they pressed me to die and I disobeyed, I would be obstinate. What fault is theirs? For the universe gave me the body so I may be carried, my life so I may toil, my old age so I may repose, and my death so I may rest. Therefore to regard life as good is the way to regard death as good.”

Chuang-Tzu, The Great Teacher.

Sounds like what Yoda was telling Luke, when Yoda himself was dying.

So, on to The Last Jedi (2017).

It’s not really Luke’s story; the title is ambiguous enough that it could refer to Luke, although it could also refer to Rey. But as for Luke himself, we learn through the course of the film that he looked into the darkness within himself a second time. In so doing, he almost killed his nephew Ben Solo. Then he pulled himself back from the darkness, and turned again to the light.

But that second time, that brief look to the dark and return to the light does no one any good. In fact it does deep harm to several people he cares about. No wonder that through most of the film, he’s bitter and miserable, full of self-hatred. He is a good enough man to know that he failed, and he is a good enough man to know that he should have been a better man. (A private note: I know what that feels like.) Luke isolated himself on the island so that he would do no harm to anyone else, ever again. He intends for himself to be the last Jedi: as he tells Rey, “The Jedi must end.”

It takes Yoda, who has died / become one with the Force, to prompt him to live in the present moment again and to do something decisive to help his friends, instead of uselessly dwelling on the past. So reminded of what matters, he confronts Kylo, not to kill him, but to apologise. And in so doing, to show Kylo there is still a chance to turn back to the light. And he does so again in the most Taoist way: facing Kylo not to fight him, but to teach him. There is a moral and philosophical heroism in that.

The good man is the teacher of the bad,
And the bad is the material from which the good may learn.

Tao Te Ching, § 27

And at the same time, he gives his friends in the Resistance a chance to escape. It’s similar to how he played for time for his friends while facing the Emperor on the second Death Star, after all.

Luke survives the encounter because he is not really there. He has:

…become one with the dusty world.
This is called profound identification.

And therefore:

The wild buffalo cannot butt its horns against him,
The tiger cannot fasten its claws in him,
And weapons of war cannot thrust their blades into him.
And for what reason?
Because in him there is no room for death.

Tao Te Ching, § 56, 50

Or, as in the context of the film, he scrounged up the last drops of will and energy he had, to astral-project himself to another planet– probably the most awesome thing we’ve ever seen a Force-sensitive character do in all the films and spinoff TV shows.

It costs him his life. It’s a truly great moment of heroic self-sacrifice. But he does not really die; he passes into the Force, with peace and purpose, as Yoda and Obi-Wan (and possibly Qui-Gon Jinn) had done before him.

Notice the two suns. Luke has returned home.

It’s a Christian idea, the idea that everyone can be forgiven, no matter what they’ve done. But it’s also a Taoist message, the idea that everyone can guide their life in accord with the Tao, let go of their anger and their hate, even to the point of letting go of their life, and in so doing accomplish greatness. No matter who they are.

So, now we have a Star Wars cinematic world in which there are no more special bloodlines or aristocratic families. No more knights saving princesses. As Luke says, the Force belongs to everyone. So any of us, even a slave-boy who cleans animal pens all day, can be a Jedi. The galaxy has become more democratic. And I think that is a new source of hope.

It’s this sense of new hope which allows Luke to tell Kylo, and the audience, that he will not be the last Jedi after all.

There is another.

Quotations from the Tao Te Ching, and from the Chuang-Tzu, followed the translation which appears in “A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy” by Wing-Tsit Chan (Princeton, 1963).

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Discourse Ethics, and a possible solution to the Paradox of Tolerance

Discussions, debates, and arguments, are among the most ancient and most useful ways in which people sharpen their intellectual skills and learn from each other. Yet many debates quickly become useless shouting matches or festivals of hate. Online debates are especially vulnerable to this problem, because online debaters need not face each other directly and so need not see, nor bear the consequences of, the effects of verbally harming others.

Some philosophers have therefore proposed principles of discourse ethics, the purpose of which is to keep debates productive and gainful for everyone. Paul Grice’s principles of implicature are one such group of principles. Another is Jurgen Habermas’ theory of discourse ethics; Habermas said that such rules are “necessary for a search for truth organized in the form of a competition”. Speaking personally, I think the search for truth does not need to be competitive. Still, I do see the need for a few basic guidelines, lest the most aggressive or angriest voices dominate a conversation, or other speakers feel compelled to go along with the views of the aggressors for fear of being sidelined or punished. Rather like the rules of the road, where every driver obeys traffic lights and speed limits and so more people reach their destinations safely, the rules of discourse ethics allow everyone’s voice to receive a fair hearing, and to allow the best ideas to rise.

So here’s a proposed set of rules for your next discussion circle, whether it’s in your classroom, your religious community, your online chat room, your political forum, or wherever you find yourself discussing ideas important to you.

  • Everyone who comes to the discussion may speak. The circle may not disband until everyone who wants to speak has had a chance to do so.
  • Everyone who speaks must also listen.
  • Everyone shall assume that all participants are rational, and shall interpret each other’s words in the very best possible way.
  • Everyone shall debate for the sake of progress and knowledge, not for the sake of domination and victory.
  • Speak clearly, consistently, and rationally.
  • Speak only what you actually believe.
  • Speak what understand to be true.
  • Speak from the heart.
  • (These rules are a revision of those which first appeared in my book, Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear (Moon Books, 2012), pp. 357-365.)

    I also like to light three candles and put them in the centre of the circle, in honour of Ireland’s first three druids, Fios, Eolus, and Fochmarc, whose names mean Intelligence, Knowledge, and Inquiry; also in honour of the old Irish triad: “Three candles that illuminate every darkness: truth, nature, and knowledge.

    What should you do about people who break those rules? In my experience, the most useful thing to do is to give offenders a warning after their first offence. Those who break the rules too often may have to be excluded from the discussion, and perhaps invited to return after giving an appropriate apology. This may seem to contradict the basic principle of creating a space for discourse which is open and welcoming to everyone. Philosopher Karl Popper called this contradiction the paradox of tolerance:

    If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

    Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, (Routledge, 1945), chapter 7, note 4.

    Popper published this in 1945, and so it’s likely he was thinking of Europe’s experience fighting the Nazis– a political movement which, during its rise to power in the 1930s, took advantage of other people’s tolerance to popularise intolerant (militaristic, murderous, hateful) political views. The paradox of tolerance leaves us in the logically difficult position of having to exclude certain (intolerant) people in the name of preserving an open and inclusive society. The enemies of the open society sometimes point to this paradox as evidence that the open society is full of hypocrisy. They might then suggest that some value program should replace it: a program which, while it might be elitist or even violent, at least has the virtue of being logically consistent.

    There are several ways to try and resolve this paradox. One is utilitarian: it might be argued that an open society, haunted as it may be by this paradox, is still better than the alternatives. Another is to do with justice: for instance, Rawls said that an open society requires its members to defend the practices and institutions which are necessary for the preservation of its openness: “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971), pg. 220.) This is not much different than asking drivers on public roads to obey speed limits and stop signs: our observance of such rules makes it easier for everyone to drive. (I’m getting lots of milage from that metaphor, eh?)

    Virtue ethics offers another possible resolution to the paradox: a model of discourse ethics which includes the possibility, however small, that an excluded person could some day be welcomed back. In such a model, intolerant people would remain outside the conversation for as long as they remain a danger to it. But those inside the conversation move to exclude them in the manner of an educator, rather than as a jailor. They should preserve the hope, however faint the hope may be, that some day the intolerant will learn that intolerance is no path to any kind of good and worthwhile life. If and when the intolerant demonstrate that they’ve learned that lesson, then we might have a reconciliation with them. This is virtue-ethics because it presupposes that everyone, even the very worst people, can change their habits of character, and become better people; that optimistic view of human nature is arguably necessary for a good and worthwhile life. Now, I think it’s undeniably un-virtuous to enjoy the sight of someone being excluded: that would be shadenfreude, not virtue, however deserved the exclusion might be. Yet like every other ethics theory we’ve looked at so far, some critical questions can arise. Whose job is it to educate the excluded person? Might the safety of those inside the conversation matter more than the effort to include as many people as possible? What if the excluded person remains intolerant– should he be excluded forever, and if so, would that only strengthen the paradox instead of solve it? And what if the view of human nature presupposed here is not supported by enough evidence in human behaviour?

    I leave these questions in your capable hands.


    Revised 4th December 2017.

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    A game development studio in my house? And other questions.

    A few weeks ago I posted this question to my social media followers: “Hypothetically speaking: if I were to create a games development team, would you or someone you know be interested in joining?

    Lots of people said yes– many more than I expected. And they had many talents: artists, designers, writers, voice actors, and programmers. My friend J.S. sent me a link to an agency that pays seed money to gamedev startups. So I began to think: maybe there’s a future in this.

    As if I haven’t re-invented myself enough in the last five years. 🙂

    My first attempt to create a map for a computer-based RPG, using Unity, around two years ago.

    So, in the days that followed, I revisited some of the notes I made over the years about games I’d like to create. Most are tabletop “soft power games” that I invented as teaching tools in my philosophy classes, one of which, “Iron Age”, I published. Another of my games is a big tabletop RPG based on my urban fantasy novels, and the object of two failed Kickstarter campaigns to publish it.* And one is a stack of notes for my “dream game”, a big open-world first-person RPG in the style of Skyrim and Mass Effect, with the look-and-feel of the early modern period— think of The Three Musketeers, or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen– and set in a social-political context resembling China’s Warring States period. I made notes for fictitious religions, corporations, several superpower nations, quasi-magical plants and animals and substances, a timeline of the world’s history going back 2,500 years, and I charted the planets and stars in the night sky. And I really enjoyed the process.

    As it turned out, the notes I made for that game were used for my science fiction novel. That story is set in the near future instead of the near past, and it addresses different questions, different problems. But I think it would be a shame to use all those worldbuilding notes for only one (as yet unpublished) project.

    While I decide whether to dive into the world of game design, I also ask myself what should I really want to do with my life, and what legacy should I want to struggle for. I’m getting too old to wait until later to follow my dreams. But I do know that I am basically happiest when I’m writing. And I know that of all that I’ve accomplished in life I am most proud of my books. (Well, some more than others.) If I had to choose between the games and the books, I would choose the books. But I also want to bring the worlds of my books more to life, more visible, more real.** That’s my fiction and my nonfiction– RPG games might also be a good way to explore the philosophy of civilization, or of ecology, or a few of my other intellectual curios. And besides that, game design looks like it might be fun. 🙂

    So, I sent one of my games to some people who might be able to tell me what would be involved in developing it from a pencil-and-paper game into a computer game. While I wait to hear back from them, I have a few more hypothetical gamedev questions:

    – If I had a pencil-drawn elevation map of the world, what would it take to turn that map into an explorable 3D VR space?
    – Same for sketches of houses, buildings, towns and cities, clothing, items and equipment, etc.
    – Is there anyone local who could show me how to use Unreal Engine, or Unity, or some other gamedev software?
    – If you have done computer game development work already, how much time and money was involved in what you did?
    – If I hosted a games night, featuring my own games (so that we can beta-test them), would you come?

    So at the moment, my hypothetical game design studio is a set of questions. It might go no further than this blog post. But I am curious to see what would actually be involved in making it happen. I have the writing skills and the management skills to do something like this. But I don’t have the computer programming skills, or the money. (And I’m not quitting my day job.) So I can’t make a computer game all by myself. Well, unless I made it on a Commodore 128, but then no one would play it. So, I am curious to see if this idea of mine is something that might also interest you.

    And now, back to my library. I have another book to write.

    —-

    * One day I’ll buy a subscription to a stock image website, so that I can create a good interior layout for that game, and publish it under my own imprint. I don’t have enough money to pay an artist to create original work for it. But I might have enough money to buy a license to use artworks that are already ‘out there’.

    ** I’ve read my Beaudrillard, and I’m entirely aware that nothing in VR is truly alive nor real. But I’m sure you grasp the point I’m making.

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    Whatever happened to the romantic life? A personal question.

    When I was a teenager, my favorite film was Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988). It’s about the nature of fantasy, and argues that a life of romanticism and imagination is better than a life of science and reason. It’s titular character makes the argument that:

    Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this that and the other– no place for three-legged cyclops in the south seas, no place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine, and no place for me!”

    Later in the film, when one of the villains tells the Baron that he has no grasp of reality, the Baron says “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash! And I am delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever!”

    It’s delightful writing. And for a long time, I thought the romantic life endorsed by the film was the sort of life a wise person should want to live.

    Other teens had pop stars and rock guitarists for their heroes. I had this guy.

    The defining quality of the romantic is struggle. In the film, the Baron assembles a team of heroes to save a town from a besieging Turkish army. But the Turks are not the enemy, and the film makes it abundantly clear that the Turks live in the same fantasy-imaginal world that the Baron lives in. The enemy is the rational-minded Horatio Jackson, the mayor of the town, who thinks the war can be won through a rationalist world view. At the beginning of the film, he’s failing at it; the war has dragged on for what seems like forever, and some of the townsfolk are confused about why they are fighting or how the war started in the first place. The Baron and his friends save the town in the most absolutely ridiculous way possible, but he dies in the process– and then the film frames the whole thing as the Baron merely telling a story: “And that was one of the many occasions in which I met my death. An experience I do not hesitate strongly to recommend.”

    But then the townsfolk open the gates, and find that the Turks have withdrawn, after all. It’s magnificent silliness. I still love it.

    But I’m not a teenager anymore. Today I’m a college professor, and the head of my department. I have a PhD, and I’ve written a textbook on logic (and am writing its second edition). I teach and research the history of Western civilization’s art, science, and philosophy. It might look as if I’m on Horatio Jackson’s side now.

    The change in my thinking leads me to some interesting questions about things like what a romantic life is really like, whether it’s still possible to live such a life in this day and age, and about the continuity of personal identity over time– the latter question I have known about since my high school days but never fully appreciated until recently.

    I have a few answers which I’ll publish some other day. For now I’ll merely observe that I still make time for imagination and wonder, whenever I can: walking in the Gatineau hills here in Quebec or in the hills of Bohemia, Czechia; writing fantasy fiction and science fiction; reading it; learning a new field of knowledge every year. This summer I taught myself the basics of ecology, which I haven’t studied in detail since my grad student days.

    I think philosophy and the examined life could be Romantic, in the sense of involving a struggle. Obviously philosophy is about using systematic reason, not fantasy and not mysticism, to reveal the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful. In that sense, I have indeed left the Baron behind. Yet philosophy is also about love, and it’s also about wisdom– such are the roots of the word. And it seems to me it’s not the rational life which is unromantic. It’s the sedentary life, the uncurious life, the life of a passive consumer of other people’s stories (corporate branded, focus-group tested, market-driven), which strikes me as not worth living.

    An intellectual, if she’s still curious about things, and still prepared to go wherever her logic takes her, even if it’s to the more frightening and dangerous places, could be every bit as romantic as a fantasy adventurer, or a political rebel.

    I’d like to meet more people who think that way.

    Urania, Muse of mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers. Another of my heroes.

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    From whom must civilization be ‘reclaimed’?

    I’ve been asked this question, because the title of my books is “Reclaiming Civilization”. Who, or what, am I saying civilization needs to be reclaimed from?

    It needs to be reclaimed from several world views of cleverly-disguised misanthropy which, if they are accepted by a sufficient mass of people, including a sufficient mass of the world’s most politically powerful people, are likely to lead toward a future of widespread environmental destruction, entrenchment of poverty, entrenchment of the superconcentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands (as few as eight individual men, who own half the wealth of the entire world), and the proliferation of never-ending global wars.

    Here’s an example of this world view, from a speech by Steve Bannon, former investment banker, former chief strategist to Donald Trump’s election campaign, and chairman of Breitbart News (like it or not, BN is one of the most influential news outlets on the web, well-funded and read by millions). When asked a question about how the West should respond to radical Islam, he said the west should take “a very, very, very aggressive stance” because:

    Because it is a crisis, and it’s not going away. You don’t have to take my word for it. All you have to do is read the news every day, see what’s coming up, see what they’re putting on Twitter, what they’re putting on Facebook, see what’s on CNN, what’s on BBC. See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions. It’s very easy to play to our baser instincts, and we can’t do that. But our forefathers didn’t do it either. And they were able to stave this off, and they were able to defeat it, and they were able to bequeath to us a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do what I call a gut check, to really think about what our role is in this battle that’s before us.

    (Full source of Bannon’s speech, including audio transcript, here.)

    Looking at a pull-quote like this, you can see the language of war and battle and crisis, presented as if that language describes a revealed and inevitable reality. But in fact Bannon’s holy war is a product of the decisions of men: decisions that could have been different; decisions that, in some cases, can be reversed. There is nothing inevitable about anything in human affairs.

    The word I’d like to use for a work of human artifice dressed up as a revealed reality is illusion. So, to answer my above question more precisely, it’s the illusions, like the ones which the war-mongers and hate-peddlers in our midst would like to foist upon us, from which I think civilization needs to be reclaimed.

    There are better ways to think about civilization. It’s not all holy war and battle. It’s not all art and music and the glorification of this or that model of political order. It’s not all oppression and colonialism and empire, either. Civilization is people. It’s the ongoing, never-ending process of working out what it means to be human, not by discovery, but by invention. So I say it again: there are better ways to think about civilization. And if you’d like some help to find them, then here’s your book.

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    Thinking about Civilization (the computer game) and what it says about Civilization (the human phenomena)

    Every time I play Sid Meyer’s Civilization, a moment arrives when I stop playing, look at the map, and think about what the game is saying about nature and essence of civilization as a human phenomenon. The game was thus one of the inspirations for my book on the philosophy of civilization. Here are some of the notes I made about the game which I didn’t include in the final text of the book.

    The game as a model of human life.

    I understand that the game designers regularly grapple with the question of how closely the game should act as such a model. Even when the answer to that question is ‘only distantly’ (after all, this is a model of the world where the Aztecs can conquer Japan, and where Mohandas Ghandi can launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on his allies), the game designers must pick and choose which aspects of real-world history they will represent in the game, and which aspects they will omit. Those choices can be treated as propositions about the nature and essence of civilization-the-human-phenomenon. So we can ask, what do those propositions say about civilization? Why these propositions, instead of others? And where does their logic lead us?

    Screen shot of the last game I played. I am Queen Gorgo of Sparta!

    Proposition 1: Civilization is chess with more complicated rules.

    Both games are about how a variety of pieces can occupy space on a board. And both games treat territorial empire as a path to victory, with the capture of key pieces (the king; the capital city) as game-winning actions. Civ is distinguished here by having a larger variety of pieces, some of which move (military units) and some of which don’t (cities), as well as a larger variety of spaces, each having properties that affect what can be done with a piece sitting on it or near it. Civ also differs from chess in that it offers territories beyond the board which the player may attempt to conquer—territories like other planets (the space race victory) or the hearts and minds of the world’s population (the cultural, religious, and diplomatic victories). But the more I think about those differences, the more superficial they appear. The core principle, territorial conquest, is common to both. But must territorial conquest be the core purpose of civilization? Are there no other purposes to which we human beings could aspire, in our largest social groupings?

    Proposition 2: Civilization is driven forward by great men, not by social movements.

    I think that a video game could have no other way of looking at civilization: it has to treat the player as a “great man”, lest the player become irrelevant to the events. Yet this proposition also appears in the fact that the AI opponents are represented by historical ‘great men’ who never change. Queen Elizabeth remains the leader of England from the stone age to the space age, no matter how many changes in government England undergoes. I think it started in Civ IV, that ‘great men’ would emerge from one’s civilization, giving various advantages to the player in whose territory it appears, which further solidifies this proposition. The player never has to deal with refugees or immigrants, nor homeless people, nor the rights of aboriginal people living in conquered territory, nor the danger of non-state militias (aside from barbarians in the early game), nor populist demagogues who could unseat him from his throne. The people are nowhere to be seen in this game, and the player almost never has to meet their approval. Maybe a city with too few amenities will produce a few rebel army units. But the people take no initiative, offer no challenge, do the work they’re assigned, and don’t matter.

    Proposition 3: Civilization is intrinsically progressive.

    Tech advances, once acquired, are never lost. Populations rarely decline. Cities never disappear unless they are conquered by other nations. No nation ever undergoes a loss of knowledge; economic depressions are rare. Earlier versions of the game included a period of anarchy when changing governments, but that’s gone in Civ VI. But those seven rounds of anarchy are only a holdup in the march of progress; the game admits of no ‘dark ages’, no steps backwards.

    Proposition 4: The landscape is the first object of colonization.

    I have always found that rapidly expanding my territory in the early game is a necessary condition of winning. If my civ was not the largest or second largest territory on the board, I always lost (well, if I played at Warlord level or higher). In this way, it seems to me that the game presupposes a lord-and-master model of humanity’s relation to the earth. There’s no way to adopt a stewardship model, except perhaps to build recycling centres and national parks. In Civ II and III your landscape might change due to global warming (I haven’t seen that happen in later editions). I realise the game designers are probably trying to avoid making political statements. Still, the advent of climate change in the endgame made for an interesting challenge. Player choices had long-term, non-obvious consequences. But in Civ VI, when the land is conquered it stays conquered. No wild animals attack from forests anymore; no diseases attack cities or crops; no bad weather stops the army, no land-tiles will change due to global warming. Once, while playing Civ II– and only once– I saw an army unit who I had stationed in a jungle die of disease. But that’s the exception that proves the rule.

    Don’t get me wrong here– I really like this game. I’ve been playing it since my undergrad days, when a friend introduced me to Civ II. (I’m actually not very good at it. When I play at Prince difficulty or higher, I lose. Every time.) But I also think it’s okay to be critical of the things that you love. And so, whenever I play this game, as well as other games I enjoy (Skyrim, Mass Effect, etc) I end up fantasizing about creating my own, better games. And then, I do create my own games, using low-tech tools like dice, pencil and paper, index cards, and playing pieces on boards. (Who knows if they’re better). But I know nearly nothing about how to publish and market them. I’m open to suggestions here.

    Some flotsam about the current edition of the game (version 6)

    I like the districts, spreading my cities over the map. It made for some interesting choices about land use, and about how to specialize my cities.

    In my day job I’m a philosophy professor, so as a point of pride I always try to build the Great Library wonder. In Civ VI, it doesn’t seem to do much. It gives the Eureka moment for all the ancient techs, but by the time I build it I already possess almost all of them.

    Potash should be a strategic resource. A civ who possesses it could make their farms more productive.

    No philosophers among the Great People. No philosophical books among the Great Works of Writing. Why not?

    In Civ VI, all cities produce their own food. Previous versions of the game allowed a trade caravan to send food from a city with a surplus to a city with a deficit. I’d like to bring that back. Direct-transfer of production shields, too. So that it’s possible to build productive new cities at places that are geo-politically important but where there are few resources (such as on islands, or beside arctic sea routes, etc.)

    There should be an option, in the pre-game setup, where the player can create a completely original nation, with its own name, its own cities, and its own unique advantages (unique units, etc.) mixed-and-matched from the pre-loaded civs. I’d like to play the game using the fictitious nations from my (as yet unpublished) science fiction novel. Civ-the-game has always been open to player modification, but the current version requires a download from Steam that I can’t use because I bought the game from the Apple store.

    Baba Yetu, the title-screen song from Civ IV, is still my favourite title-screen song.

    It’s interesting to be the suzerain of the city-states. I’d love to see an option in the diplomacy dialogue screen for “Unconditional surrender!”, which allows me to become suzerain of another entire civ, or to annex a city-state into my civ without warfare.

    Civ V had a better graphic design, especially of the leader interactions. But I like the wonder movies in Civ VI better.

    The game could use more kinds of non-combat units. Some suggestions: Doctors (to stop the spread of diseases in a city), Engineers (to help with a city’s production) Farmers (to boost crop yields on the tile he’s standing on), Entertainers (improve a city’s cultural output and its morale; the name could change by era), Professors (add to science output), and so on. A civ could have only a limited number of each, much like the limits on spies and traders. They could also be captured from rival civs during war, or the spies could persuade them to defect, or as a sign of the player’s “approval rating” they could come to the player’s civ on their own– or leave the player’s civ to join another.

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    My writing plans for Autumn 2017

    While I was in CZ this summer, not only was I editing my scifi novel and my logic textbook, I also started two new works of fiction, intending both of them to be short stories that I could finish in a matter of weeks. As it turns out, I didn’t touch them again– until yesterday. Which is perhaps appropriate. They are October stories.

    Autumn in Gatineau Park. My own photo, from 2015.

    They take place in the same world as my Fellwater: The Hidden Houses novels, although they are set in a different town and they feature different characters. It felt good to return to “my world” again. A hint: one of them features Urania, the muse of philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers; and it starts with her having a conversation with Nicholas Copernicus.

    I have not yet heard back from any of the publishers I approached, back in the spring, with a pitch for my scifi novel. I know the publishing industry and I know these things take time. Now that it’s October, I will probably never hear back from some of the big-name New York agents I approached back in June (such as Tor). But that’s okay; the publisher I originally wanted is a mid-size indie, owned by a friend of mine, and they’re reading the whole manuscript right now.

    By the way– I originally called it “Lorelei’s Planet” but I’m considering different titles. What do these possible titles make you think of?

    – The Starshot Race
    – The Nightfall Equation
    – The Terminus Equation
    – The Razor’s Edge
    – Where There Appears To Be Nothing
    – After Starlight
    – After The Darkness
    – The Verlassen Discovery
    – The Distance

    Probably the planet Venus, setting over the hill south of Krenicna, CZ, August 2017

    While I wait, I can work on the beat-sheet for the sequel. And I can work on these other novels. And on a nonfiction project about ecology and enlightenment, which I also worked on this summer while in CZ. And on– well, you get the idea.

    By the way– you can help me. By buying my books, writing reviews on Amazon (even if only one sentence, that’s all they need), and telling your friends about my work. (You heard that I published a new one two months ago, yes?) I do as much marketing as my time and money allow, but it isn’t much. I don’t expect to become a big-name celebrity intellectual. But I do hope that more people will read my books, think about them, study them, discuss the ideas in them with friends, occasionally criticise them. I’d like to see a community of sorts formed around the ideas in my books: made up of people who live according to the questions and the values raised in them.

    And please accept my most sincere thanks for your ongoing support of my writing.

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    Brendan’s Socratic Dialogue Game

    Last week, while working on the second edition of my logic textbook, it occurred to me that Socratic Dialogue, the method of philosophical reasoning used by Socrates, is a kind of game. Or, it could be turned into one.

    Insert obligatory image of classical Greek philosophers doing their thing.

    Of course, Socrates didn’t write down any of his philosophy at all; everything we know about him, we know from the writings of others, especially from his student Plato. Still it’s possible to infer his method by studying how he did things. So, this game is based on my interpretation of Socrates’ method as it is represented in some of Plato’s early books.

    I’m going to include it in the logic textbook. But I’m terribly excited about it and my students appeared to have a fun time playing it. So I will share it here on my blog for you now.

    Bren’s Socratic Dialogue Game, Agora Variation

    • Find a partner. Choose one of you to play the role of “Socrates” and the other to play “The Expert”. Socrates will ask all the questions; The Expert will answer them.
    • The person playing the role of Socrates asks The Expert a philosophical question, chosen by a random draw from the “Deck of Many Questions”. The Expert answers.
    • If the Expert’s answer is something evasive (a description or an example instead of a definition, or a weasel-word answer, etc.), then Socrates may gently ask for a more direct answer.
    • When the Expert gives a direct answer, Socrates thanks her for it. Then Socrates asks the Expert to clarify any undefined or poorly-defined terms. Raise counter-examples or analogies, if necessary, to show that a term is too broad, or too narrow, or circular, or in some other way unsatisfactory. The Expert can also object to a question if it appears vague or irrelevant.
    • When the Expert has clarified everything that needs clarification, Socrates can ask questions which explore some of the likely consequences and implications, especially those which seem to lead to contradictions. If you can do so respectfully, then explore any implications which the Expert may find uncomfortable.
    • Continue this back-and-forth, question-and-answer exchange, until 1) you both agree you have a satisfying answer to the original question, or 2) Socrates runs out of questions, or 3) The Expert admits to having no idea how to answer the original question. Then switch roles, and start again with a different question.

    The game requires at least two players, and in experimenting with this game in my classroom I found that it can work in small groups of no more than five members. Apart from the rules noted above, I also asked my students to observe the principles of informal logic which we had covered in some previous classes: good v bad types of questions, good v bad thinking habits. (See chapters 1 and 2 of Clear & Present Thinking, 1st edition, if you’re curious.)

    Bren’s Socratic Dialogue Game, Symposium Variation

    Players choose a card from the “Deck of Many Questions”. Each player writes a one-page speech to answer the question. Then everyone swaps their speech pages around: giving their answer to another player, receiving an answer (to a different question!) from a third player. Each player then writes a one-page counter-argument. Players then take turns reading their answers aloud, and hearing the counter-arguments read aloud; then a chance is offered for players to reply to the counter-arguments. This variation can be used as a classroom assessment technique. It also makes for a fun dinner party activity among friends, especially when the “answers” are prepared in advance, and the “counter-arguments” are off the cuff. In fact, I think I might like to host a symposium dinner party here at my house, some time this fall.

    Some further remarks:

    I like games. I used to write my own video games on my family’s old Commodore 128, using its BASIC 7.0 programming language. I played Dungeons & Dragons all through high school, then played White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” games (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage) through my undergrad years. I’m especially fond of chess even though I don’t know anything about strategy and all I can do is push the pieces around according to the rules; I haven’t won a game of chess in probably twenty years. But in general I think that games are good for us, and that’s one of the reasons I invent games for use in my classroom.

    The Socratic Dialogue Game does not need winners or losers. The point is to practice reasoning skills, perhaps learn something about the complexity of simple questions, perhaps learn something about yourself (when for instance you are forced to acknowledge that you don’t know all the answers), and to enjoy the use of our own minds. It’s a game that does not require any specialized knowledge of philosophy as a discipline, nor any specialized knowledge of logic apart from what’s described in the rules. It’s a game in which it’s okay to ask for a moment of quiet to think, and it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” It’s foundational philosophy for the people; it’s the common heritage of all humanity.

    But if The Expert ends up feeling embarrassed or upset by the questions or by the exposure of her ignorance, it’s not okay for that player to make Socrates drink the hemlock.

    Appendix: “The Deck of Many Questions”

    I bought a stack of index cards and wrote an open-ended philosophical question on them; a different question on each card. If you can think of more questions to add, feel free to add them.

      What is love?
      What is justice?
      What is courage?
      What does it take to live a worthwhile life?
      What does it mean to be a woman? Or a man?
      What is friendship?
      What is the significance of death?
      What is the best kind of government?
      What is education?
      What is greatness?
      What is truth?
      What is the significance of sex?
      What is civilization?
      What is a family?
      What is the point of sports and games?
      What is our moral responsibility to the Earth?
      Should people always obey the law?
      What does it mean to be an “authentic” individual?
      What is God?
      What is our duty to the community?
      What is reality?
      What is art and beauty?
      What is wisdom?
      Do we human beings have a soul?
      Where does knowledge come from?
      What kind of people should we be?
      Do we human beings have free will?
      What are the best kinds of stories?
      What is the true value of money?
      What is health?
      What is fairness?
      What is the significance of history?
      What is happiness?
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    Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and the Problem of Evil

    On 1st November 1755, a Sunday that year, a powerful earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal. The quake itself and the wildfires and the tidal wave caused by it destroyed most of the city, and killed an estimated 60,000 people.

    Lots of people back then said that the earthquake was sent by God to punish them for their sins, Old Testament style.

    I’ve noticed some similar comments from people on my social media, and in the news, in reference to the three hurricanes that have struck or are about to strike the USA, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Some from Christians who say the hurricanes are sent to punish the sinful persons of their choice: abortionists, trans people, gay people, liberals, whatever. I have also seen a few greens and environmentalists pronounce the hurricanes a just punishment for America’s love of the oil & gas industry, and its pursuit of industrial capitalism in general.

    Infrared satellite picture of hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Katia, as seen on 7th September 2017.

    The earthquake in 1755 produced big changes in European culture. Seeing that lots of perfectly moral, God-fearing, probably mostly innocent Christians died in that earthquake, people began to think it likely that natural disasters had nothing to do with their sins. People didn’t become atheists overnight, obviously; philosophers like Voltaire and Kant, who wrote extensively on how nonsensical it was to connect the quake to God’s wrath, nonetheless remained religious men. But it did change the way people thought about their relationship with God, and it changed the meaning of their faith.

    I wonder how religious culture in America, and the world, might change as a result of these three hurricanes.

    There is at least one way in which the hurricanes of 2017 are different from the earthquake of 1755. The hurricanes were predicted in advance by scientists. Not that they predicted these exact three storms on these exact dates. But they did predict that global warming and climate change would lead to more storms and bigger storms. There are a few associates of mine right now whose Twitter and Facebook feeds have become a steady stream of “I told you so!”

    (Which isn’t helpful. In fact it’s likely to alienate the very people who need to be persuaded to appreciate science better. But I digress.)

    The fact that these storms were predicted, in broad strokes if not in fine detail, makes me wonder if more people will turn away from the Bible-thumping, foaming-at-the-mouth moral-panic-instigators who have insisted that climate change isn’t happening, or that it is happening but we deserve it, or that it is happening but we don’t need to do anything about it because when human suffering reaches a pinnacle of misery then God will come down from heaven and save us. Yes, there are such people, and they have bully-pulpits that reach millions. I’m sure those people won’t go away. But as “God’s judgment” continues to look more and more random in the people it kills, might the preachers of God’s judgment look more and more wrong?

    I suspect that religious people are about to have a big discussion of a new form of the old ‘problem of evil’. If we believe, as most religious people do, that the gods care about humanity, why do they not prevent natural disasters? How can we see the divine in the hurricane that destroyed your city and killed some of your loved ones? And indeed, what shall we make of the apparent fact that the storm selected the people it killed at random?

    Is it because the gods have some reason not to interfere in the world, as in the old version of the problem?

    Or— here’s the new part of the old problem— if the gods reveal themselves in the world of nature (by the way, there’s a perfectly sensible way for monotheists to understand this proposition; you don’t have to be pagan to believe it), then what are we to make of the fact that some of those natural revelations are disasters and that science can predict them in advance?

    Is it because the gods are not powerful enough to prevent those storms? In which case, is there still much point in worshipping them?

    Or, is it because the gods are those storms? (Now that would be a pagan point of view.) In which case, how could you relate to them? I suppose you could make expressions of awe, and then offer propitiatory prayers (“Dear god, wow you are so big, now please don’t kill us…”). But it’s hard to see how you could build a positive life-affirming worldview around that.

    Or, perhaps “the divine” is not a person, but rather some kind of presence or force or ‘way’ of things, rather like the Tao, or the old Neoplatonic idea of the One-And-All. In which case, ‘worship’ was never the point, but we still need to ask what to make of the way science can predict its movements.

    I’m sure lots of people will resolve these problems for themselves by becoming atheists. Remember your Wittgenstein: “the solution to the problem lies in the disappearance of the problem.”

    But for those people for whom atheism isn’t an option, perhaps because they have known the oceanic feeling of immensity and one-ness which lies at the heart of personal spirituality, I think this conversation about the problem of evil will produce a new understanding of divinity. It will look nothing like the religions of the past and the present. It will call itself Christianity, or Buddhism, or Neo-Paganism, or whatever, but it will be a very different animal.

    I make only this one prediction about it: whatever it will be, it will be less otherworldly and more human. By which I mean: it will acknowledge our human ability to make stupid decisions, such as those which result in the destabilizing of our climate, costing us millions of lives. But it will also acknowledge our human ability to solve our problems, work together, find solidarity with others no matter how different or disagreeable they are, and to dispel the illusions that hold us back from realizing our original goodness.

    I predict this, because I think these beliefs follow from the realization that God will not save us from global warming, nor from war, injustice, oppression, nor any of our other problems. We will have to save ourselves.

    —-
    Addendum, a few hours later.

    A friend of mine who read this blog told me she knew someone who saw these storms as a sign of the end of the world. So, in the future, religion might grow even more fundamentalist.

    Well, I suppose that’s possible. Indeed, I think some people may want the condition of the world to grow worse, so as to accelerate the arrival of the Messiah. (Actually, I think that is exactly what motivates certain climate change deniers and authoritarian politicians.)

    But I predict– no, I hope, I summon my confidence– that as the end of the world continues not to happen, more people will see that kind of apocalyptica for the silliness that it is.

    Whether or not God exists, the future is going to be all about us.

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    Is Optimism Still Possible In the Age of Trump?

    Timing is sometimes everything.

    When I finished the final draft of Reclaiming Civilization and submitted it to my publisher, the US presidential election campaign was still in the party primaries. It looked likely at the time that Bernie would win the Democratic party ticket, and most everyone I knew including my conservative friends regarded Trump’s candidacy as a joke.

    We all know what happened next. And now there are neo-Nazis marching openly in the streets of major American cities; racist police officers shooting black people without provocation; five states in the northwest are on fire; climate-change-related flooding in Texas and hurricanes the south-east; and the president appears prepared to force a constitutional crisis and to start a nuclear war with North Korea. And that’s just some of what’s horrible in the United States, to say nothing of what’s happening in other countries.

    So it may be strange to promote a book whose subtitle is “A case for optimism for the future of humanity” at a time when it appears that there’s almost nothing to be optimistic about.

    You might be angry that the world has come to the state it’s in. I am too: in fact the first few lines of the book say:

    I wrote this book because I am angry. The practice of civilization, its customs and institutions and power-relations, and even the language by which we speak of it, has been hijacked by some profoundly evil people. I wish to wrest it back from them…

    But I also wanted to know why we got here. What’s wrong with civilization? Let me briefly describe what I found when I reasoned about that question.

    One of the purposes of civilization is to produce people whose character and disposition reflects some model of “the civilized person”. Different societies will have different models of the civilized person; but whatever the model, they’ll deploy its political, economic, religious, cultural, and social forces to influence people to become more like that model.

    And we have some remarkably terrible models of the civilized person. Homo Economicus. Patriarchal Man. Someone who is born a straight white man is someone who could embody one or both of those models. That person would be rewarded for doing so, and punished for not doing so. Suppose someone could not possibly embody Patriarchal Man, because they’re black, or asian, or a woman, or whatever. That person would have to defer to (or obey, or give way to, or give precedence to, agree with, etc.) the people who do embody the Patriarchal Man. Or be punished for not doing so. It’s obvious to me that models of the civilized person like Patriarchal Man are ethically terrible. But I also think the solution can’t involve inventing new models. I think we need to look at the problems in the public sphere in an entirely new way.

    Hence, my theory that the root of our social and political problems has to do with the maintenance of illusions. Originally invented to stave off nihilism and despair, they now also serve to export a lot of unnecessary suffering on to the marginalised people of the world.

    Some of the illusions discussed in the book:
    – the illusion of the permanent self
    – the illusion of the higher and lower men
    – the illusion of the virtuous prince
    – the illusion of the self-made man
    – the illusion of our separateness from the earth
    – the illusion of “no alternative”.

    Such is the short version of the argument.

    Something else happened to my book in the year-and-a-half between finishing it and finding it published: some of my conclusions turned out to be somewhat prescient. For example, Trump’s ban on transgender persons serving in the U.S. military:

    If my thesis about civilization is correct, we should see the civilizing forces move to punish people who renounce or who refuse to defer to that model. In the example of transgender women, that’s exactly what we see… For a person born a man, and thus born in a position to assume the benefits and privileges of the patriarchy, yet instead who undergoes the chemical and surgical and social process to become a woman, appears in the eyes of the patriarchal man as evidence that there might be something wrong with the image of the patriarchal man.

    The anti-semitic slogans shouted by the Nazis at the rally in Charlottesburg Virginia, expressing the fear of being “replaced” by Jews, or by Black people, and so on, might have been anticipated here. First I show the evidence that Trump won the primaries in states where the death rate among middle-class white men had risen in the past 15 years. Then:

    Contemporary psychologists have found that strong reminders of mortality tend to make people more conservative and nationalist, and more likely to express racial or religious prejudices. More than 200 scientific studies over the past 25 years confirm this… Simple knowledge of their [the Other’s] existence is enough to prompt the envious and fearful feeling that ‘we’ will not survive because ‘they’ will some day out-breed us, economically out-produce us, or even come down from the hills and kill us. They don’t have to threaten anything; they just have to exist.

    And as for Trump himself, it seems to me that the one thing he is remarkably good at is political theatre, which is perfect for maintaining one of those illusions I mentioned:

    A particular variation of the illusion of higher and lower men is the illusion of the virtuous prince. In this case, the glamour is cast not only upon a society’s nobility, but particularly upon a society’s leading individual, its commander-in-chief. This illusion serves the same purpose as its predecessor: to preserve the political and economic powers of whomever happens to already possess those powers. What makes this illusion insidiously interesting is that, unlike some of the illusions previously discussed, the person projecting this illusion need not actually believe it. Indeed, he may know perfectly well that the truth is the exact opposite of what the illusion portrays.

    Amid all this, do any sources of optimism remain? One of my conclusions is that if we allow ourselves to let go of those illusions, we have a chance to re-discover humanity’s original goodness. This is not the naive optimism which imagines that everything will get better by itself, like magic. This is the intelligent optimism which looks at the world, sees it for what it is, and works to do something to change it. My four sources of optimism are:

  • First, the discovery that human nature is sufficiently malleable that human society and culture can change, even if it can change only very slowly, and even if it is supposed that some individuals cannot change;
  • Second, civilization itself emerged as we taught ourselves empathy and co-operation and compassion, and it continues to be partially sustained by those values;
  • Third, although we may be left with despair when we cast away our illusions, so we are also left with a chance to find greater depths of life than we could find any other way;
  • Fourth and finally, yet perhaps most importantly, many of the things we need to do to bring about a better world are things we are already doing.
  • .

    I hope you will take a look at my book, consider its ideas seriously, and experiment with them in your communities. What other illusions might there be? What other sources of optimism might we discover if we let go of them? I want to know! I hope you do too.

    Purchase from: Amazon / Barnes and Noble / Chapters Indigo / Direct from the publisher

    Watch my “Book Trailer” on YouTube, here.

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