TfE: From Cyberpunk to Infopunk

I have a somewhat tortured relationship to literary and cultural criticism. I think that, like most people, some of my most complex and nuanced opinions are essentially aesthetic. I’ve written quite a lot about the nature of art, aesthetics, and what it means to engage with or opine about them over the years, but I’ve struggled to express my own opinions in the form I think they deserve. I’ve read far too much philosophy in which literature, cinema, or music is invoked as a mere symbolic resource, a means marshalled to lend credence to a sequence of trite points otherwise unjustified; and I’ve encountered far too much art in which philosophy is equally instrumental, a spurious form of validation, or worse, a hastily purloined content; art substituted for philosophy, and philosophy substituted for art. I care about each term too much to permit myself such easy equations.

I partially succeeded in writing about Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game, though the task remains unfinished. I also co-wrote a paper on the aesthetics of tabletop RPGs with the inestimable Tim Linward. I’ve got many similar scraps of writing languishing in my drafts folders, including an unfinished essay on Hannu Rajaniemi‘s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy, which is my favourite sci-fi series of the century so far. Science fiction is a topic so near and dear to my heart that I find it difficult to write about in ways that do it justice, with each attempt inevitably spiralling into deeper research and superfluous detail that can’t easily be sustained alongside my other work.

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TfE: Incompetence, Malice, and Evil

Here’s a thread from Saturday that seemed to be quite popular. It explains a saying that I’ve found myself reaching for a lot recently, using some other ideas I’ve been developing in the background on the intersection between philosophy of action, philosophy of politics, and philosophy of computer science.

In reflecting on this thread, these ideas have unfolded further, straying into more fundamental territory in the philosophy of value. If you’re interested in the relations between incompetence, malice, and evil, please read on.

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TfE: Corrupting the Youth

Here’s a twitter thread from earlier today, articulating some of my thoughts about the philosophy of games in general, and the nature of tabletop roleplaying games more specifically.

Here’s a rather different set of thoughts for this morning. Some may know that one of my many interests is philosophy of games. This is a topic close to my heart, but I also think it a timely one, insofar as games are now culturally hegemonic.

The concept of game cuts across everything from the philosophies of action and mathematics to the philosophies of politics and art. We ignore it at the risk of our own cultural and intellectual irrelevance.

If you want to know more about the history of the concept and my own take on it, check out my ‘What’s in a Game?’ talk.

To be concise: I think that if games are art, then their medium is freedom itself, and that there is a case to be made that RPGs, whether tabletop, LARP, computer based, or some cross-modal mixture thereof, realize this truth most completely. RPGs are experiments in agency.

This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily very good experiments. Computer RPGs have suffered from very obvious constraints for decades, and I’ve played enough dull dice based dungeon crawls to last a lifetime. But I’ve equally experienced heart-breakingly imperfect art.

Tabletop RPGs have given me the sorts of barely expressible, intensely formative, and deeply connected experiences that others hope for and occasionally find in art, literature, and the collective projects of politics and culture. People will no doubt laugh at this fact.

Again, most RPGs aren’t this good, and it is much harder to plan and execute good ones as you and your friends get older. Boardgames, a representational art form in their own right, become much more tempting for their ludic precision and easy self-containment.

But I pine for the days of dice and character sheets, exploring the weirder fringes of inhuman narrative and the familiar shores of the human condition simultaneously. Werecoyotes and Psionics, insatiable curiosity and crippling anxiety, joyous battles and crushing failures.

So, after this personal preamble, here is the philosophical thought I came here to express: RPG systems are procedural frameworks for interactive narrative generation, and they contain engines for simulating worlds.

They are therefore deeply philosophical, because they must contain a metaphysics (narrative/fate) and a theory of personhood (identity/agency/destiny), but they may also contain a logic (GM/PC/NPC interaction), a physics (simulation/means), and an ethics (alignment/ends).

My first encounter with philosophy wasn’t reading Nietzsche, Sartre, or Popper, but reading grimoire-like RPG manuals, searching for the hidden secrets of worlds they contained, many of which I have never visited even in play. What is creation? Why is there suffering? Who are we?

My partner in conceptual crime (@tjohnlinward) likes to say that RPG manuals are tour guides for worlds that don’t exist, but in many ways they’re more like holy texts. Many even have completely explicit and thoroughly fascinating theology.

An RPG system/setting is a universe in which the throne is empty, awaiting a new godhead, or a new pantheon to play the games of divinity. An adventure supplement is like an epic poem, awaiting heroes ready to test their mettle in struggle against the whims of fickle gods.

Narrative is a product, but the process that produces it is a complex, concurrent, and creative interaction between ideas and inspirations; brimming with contingency; some of which may even be embodied in distinct creators and muses. Games are our window into this process.

And that is why games disprove Hegel’s thesis regarding the end of art, precisely by being the most deeply Hegelian of art forms. The world-spirit arrives, no longer Napoleon riding into Jena on horseback, but Gary Gygax corrupting the youth with pens, paper, and polyhedra.

If you want to read more along these lines, check out my ‘Castalian Games’ piece in Glass Bead.

TfE: Sincerity vs. Honesty

I often talk about the virtue of sincerity, and how important it is to me. There’s even a section of my book devoted to disputing Harman’s interpretation of sincerity as authenticity (‘being oneself’) and contrasting it with my own take on sincerity as fidelity (‘meaning what one says’). However, a question William Gillis asked on Facebook gave me a concrete opportunity to articulate my ideas more concisely, by contrasting sincerity with honesty:

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TfE: The Politicisation Pipeline

Here’s a thread from a few weeks ago reacting to the controversy that unfolded surrounding Natalie Wynn‘s twitter remarks on the complexities of asking for pronouns in certain contexts. This was written before her more recent video ‘Opulence‘, and the second act of that particular clusterfuck. It gave me an opportunity to articulate some of my thoughts on the problems of left-wing political culture, and the way these problems are exacerbated by its transposition and sometimes transmutation into various forms of online discourse. These are closely related to my thoughts on zero-sum politics, and will likely be relevant to some other things I want to say in future, so I think it’s good to get them down here.

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TfE: Immanentizing the Eschaton

Here’s a thread from a little while back in which I outline my critique of the (theological) assumptions implicit in much casual thinking about artificial intelligence, and indeed, intelligence as such.

Another late night thought, this time on Artificial General Intelligence (AGI): if you approach AGI research as if you’re trying to find algorithm to immanentize the eschaton, then you will be either disappointed or deluded.

There are a bunch of tacit assumptions regarding the nature of computation that tend to distort the way we think about what it means to solve certain problems computationally, and thus what it would be to create a computational system that could solve problems more generally.

There are plenty of people who have already pointed out the theological valence of the conclusions reached on the basis of these assumptions (e.g., the singularity, Roko’s Basilisk, etc.); but these criticisms are low hanging fruit, most often picked by casual anti-tech hacks.

Diagnosing the assumptions themselves is much harder. One can point to moments in which they became explicit (e.g., Leibniz, Hilbert, etc.), and thereby either influential, refuted, or both; but it is harder to describe the illusion of coherence that binds them together.

This illusion is essentially related to that which I complained about in my thread about moral logic a few days ago: the idea that there is always an optimal solution to any problem, even if we cannot find it; whereas, in truth, perfectibility is a vanishingly rare thing.

Using the term ‘perfectibility’ makes the connection to theology much clearer, insofar as it is precisely this that forms the analogical bridge between creator and created in the Christian tradition. Divinity is always conceptually liminal, and perfection is a popular limit.

If you’re looking for a reference here, look at the dialectical evolution of the transcendentals (e.g., unum, bonum, verum, etc.) from Augustine and Anselm to Aquinas and Duns Scotus. The universality of perfectible attributes in creation is the key to the singularity of God.

This illusion of universal perfectibility is the theological foundation of the illusion of computational omnipotence.

We have consistently overestimated what computation is capable of throughout history, whether computation was seen as an algorithmic method executed by humans, or a process of automated deduction realised by a machine. The fictional record is crystal clear on this point.

Instead of imagining machines that can do a task better than we can, we imagine machines that can do it in the best possible way. When we ask why, the answer is invariably some variant upon: it is a machine and therefore must be infallible.

This is absurd enough in certain specific cases: what could a ‘best possible poem’ even be? There is no well-ordering of all possible poems, only ever a complex partial order whose rankings unravel as the many purposes of poetry diverge from one another.

However, the deep, and seemingly coherent computational illusion is that there is not just a best solution to every problem, but that there is a best way of finding such bests in every circumstance. This implicitly equates true AGI with the Godhead.

One response to this accusation is to say: ‘Of course, we cannot achieve this meta-optimum, but we can approximate it.’

Compare: ‘We cannot reach the largest prime number, we can still approximate it’

This is how you trade disappointment for delusion.

There are some quite sophisticated mathematical delusions out there. But they are still illusions. There is no way to cheat your way to computational omnipotence. There is nothing but strategy all the way down.

This is not to say that there aren’t better/worse strategies, or that we can’t say some useful and perhaps even universal things about how you tell one from the other. Historically, proofs that we cannot fulfil our deductive ambitions lead to better ambitions and better tools.

The computational illusion, or the true Mythos of Logos, amounts to the idea that one can somehow brute force reality. There is more than a mere analogy here, if you believe Scott Aaronson’s claims about learning and cryptography (I’m inclined to).

It continually surprises me just how many people, including those involved in professional AGI research still approach things in this way. It looks as if, in these cases, the engineering perspective (optimality) has overridden the logical one (incompleteness).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you cannot brute force mathematical discovery; there is no algorithm that could progressively search the space of possible theorems. If this does not work in the mathematical world, why would we expect it to work in the physical one?

For additional suggestive material on this and related problems, consider: the problem of induction, Godel’s incompleteness theorems, and the halting problem.

Anyway, to conclude: we will someday make things that are smarter than us in every way, but the intermediate stages involve things smarter than us in some ways. We will not cross this intelligence threshold by merely adding more computing power.

However it happens, it will not be because of an exponential process of self-improvement that we have accidentally stumble upon. Self-improvement is not homogeneous, or without autocatalytic instabilities. Humans are self-improving systems, and we are clearly not gods.

TfE: Moral Logic, the Diversity of Nature, and the Nature of Diversity

Here are some thoughts from a twitter thread a little while back, which expand on some of the ideas in my post about moral logic. Here’s the initial thought:

Before all else I stan: ought implies can.

I am deadly serious about this. I think ought implies can is as close to an a priori truth about the normative as one can find. However, it’s important to interpret it in the right way. It’s generally used to reason in the contrapositive direction: if one cannot fulfil a purported responsibility, then there is no sense in which one must fulfil it (i.e., can-not implies may-not).

There are two important corollaries of this: (i) that infinite tasks need not be seen as impossible and thereby non-obligatory, insofar as there is a finite procedure that can be indefinitely iterated (e.g., an infinite series: 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8… that converges on an ideal limit, namely, 2; this is Hegel’s true infinite); and (ii) that insofar as capacity is not static, there can be increased responsibility relative to increased capacity as easily as decreased responsibility relative to decreased capacity (‘with great power, comes great responsibility‘).

There is more that could be said about this, but I’ll restrict myself to the thread I used to elaborate the original tweet:

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The Going Price of Power

I’m really enjoying using twitter as a medium in which to do philosophy, because it forces me to make an argument that is organised in chunks, and to ensure that those chunks are more or less well formed and reasonably compressed. It then allows me to capture those thoughts here, and edit, extend, or recompress them. It also lets me use hyperlinks instead of references, which is impressively liberating. What comes out isn’t exactly perfect, but that’s the point: to enable one to make things better and better beyond the suffocating bounds of the optimal. As I have said many times before, I can be concise, but I find it much harder to be brief, but the twitter-blog feedback loop is helping me to work on that. Moreover, it has allowed me to think a bit more about the writing processes of different philosophers throughout history, some of whom are more or less accessible depending on the way they were able to write and permitted to publish.

I feel like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein would have loved twitter, while Leibniz would have preferred the blogosphere, and Plato would have immersed himself in youtube (Socrates: That’s all very well Glaucon, but you have not answered question with which we began: are traps gay?). I think Hegel would have preferred a wiki, and would have been a big contributor to nLab. I would have loved to have been Facebook friends with Simone Weil or Rosa Luxemburg, but I can imagine getting caught in flame wars with Marx and Engels if I stumbled into the wrong end of a BBS (Engels: Do you even sublate, bro?). I desperately wish I could subscribe to Bataille’s tumblr, or browse the comments Baudrillard made on /r/deepfakes before it got banned. I know the world would be infinitely richer for de Beauvoir and Firestone’s Pornhub comments, but we should be thankful we were spared Heidegger and Arendt’s tindr logs. However, I’m pretty convinced that nothing would have stopped Kant from thinking very hard for a couple decades and then publishing all his thoughts in several big books. We’d have gotten a few good thinkpieces from him (Clickbait: ‘This man overturned the authority of tradition using this one weird trick, now monarchies hate him!’), but nothing could have stopped his architectonic momentum.

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TfE: Mysterianism and Quietism in the Philosophy of Mind

Yesterday, I had an excellent conversation with Peli Grietzer on the subject of qualia and the hard problem of consciousness, and the reasons why some attempts to defuse these problems (e.g., Dennett’s ‘Quining Qualia‘ or his response to Chalmers) leave people who are drawn to the seriousness of these problems cold. I recommend Peli’s work to everyone I know, and even some people I don’t. It’s simultaneously incredibly unique and incredibly timely, trying to unpick issues at the intersection of aesthetics, epistemology, literary theory, and philosophy of mind using the theoretical insights implicit in deep learning systems, particularly auto-encoders.

Peli has come the closest of anyone I know to giving real, mathematical substance to the most ephemeral aspects of human experience: moods, vibes, styles; the implicit gestalts through which we filter the rest of our more explicit and compositional cognitions. Why does being in Berlin have a distinct cognitive texture that’s different from being in London? It’s not any one thing you can put your finger on, but a seamless tapestry of tiny differences that you drink in without needing to reflect on it. So when Peli says that he’s not sure that these most immediate, holistic, and yet nonetheless cognitive features of our experience are being taken seriously, I have no choice but to listen, and to see if there’s another way to articulate my own worries.

This result was probably the best thought experiment I’ve ever managed to articulate, and probably the most concise explanation of my problems with certain styles of thinking in the philosophy of mind. Given that my thoughts here are also in some sense an engagement with Wittgenstein and his legacy, I thought it might be nice to try articulating them in an aphoristic style. Here is the result.

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