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: 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.