A Philosopher's Blog

Am I my Own Demon?

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 5, 2016

The problem of the external world is a classic challenge in epistemology (the theory of knowledge). This challenge, which was first presented by the ancient skeptics, is met by proving that what I seem to be experiencing is actually real. As an example, it would require proving that the computer I seem to be typing this on exists outside of my mind.

Some of the early skeptics generated the problem by noting that what seems real could be just a dream, generated in the mind of the dreamer. Descartes added a new element to the problem by considering that an evil demon might be causing him to have experiences of a world that does not actually exist outside of his mind. While the evil demon was said to be devoted to deception, little is said about its motive in this matter. After Descartes there was a move from supernatural to technological deceivers: the classic brain-in-a-vat scenarios that are precursors to the more recent notion of virtual reality. In these philosophical scenarios little is said about the motivation or purpose of the deceit, beyond the desire to epistemically mess with someone. Movies and TV shows do sometimes explore the motives of the deceit. The Matrix trilogy, for example, endeavors to present something of a backstory for the Matrix. While considering the motivation behind the alleged deceit might not bear on the epistemic problem, it does seem a matter worth considering.

The only viable approach to sorting out a possible motivation for the deceit is to consider the nature of the world that is experienced. As various philosophers, such as David Hume, have laid out in their formulations of the problem of evil (the challenge of reconciling God’s perfection with the existence of evil) the world seems to be an awful place. As Hume has noted, it is infested with disease, suffused with suffering, and awash in annoying things. While there are some positive things, there is an overabundance of bad, thus indicating that whatever lies behind the appearances is either not benign or not very competent. This, of course, assumes some purpose behind the deceit. But, perhaps there is deceit without a deceiver and there is no malice. This would make the unreal like what atheists claim about the allegedly real: it is purposeless. However, deceit (like design) seems to suggest an intentional agent and this implies a purpose. This purpose, if there is one, must be consistent with the apparent awfulness of the world.

One approach is to follow Descartes and go with a malicious supernatural deceiver. This being might be acting from mere malice—inflicting both deceit and suffering. Or it might be acting as an agent of punishment for past transgressions on my part. The supernatural hypothesis does have some problems, the main one being that it involves postulating a supernatural entity. Following Occam’s Razor, if I do not need to postulate a supernatural being, then I should not do so.

Another possibility is that I am in technologically created unreal world. In terms of motives consistent with the nature of the world, there are numerous alternatives. One is punishment for some crime or transgression. A problem with this hypothesis is that I have no recollection of a crime or indication that I am serving a sentence. But, it is easy to imagine a system of justice that does not inform prisoners of their crimes during the punishment and that someday I will awaken in the real world, having served my virtual time. It is also easy to imagine that this is merely a system of torment, not a system of punishment. There could be endless speculation about the motives behind such torment. For example, it could be an act of revenge or simple madness. Or even a complete accident. There could be other people here with me; but I have no way of solving the problem of other minds—no way of knowing if those I encounter are fellow prisoners or mere empty constructs. This ignorance does seem to ground a moral approach—since they could be fellow prisoners, I should treat them as such.

A second possibility is that the world is an experiment or simulation of an awful world and I am a construct within that world. Perhaps those conducting it have no idea the inhabitants are suffering; perhaps they do not care; or perhaps the suffering is the experiment. I might even be a researcher, trapped in my own experiment. Given how scientists in the allegedly real world have treated subjects, the idea that this is a simulation of suffering has considerable appeal.

A third possibility is that the world is a game or educational system of some sort. Perhaps I am playing a very lame game of Assessment & Income Tax; perhaps I am in a simulation learning to develop character in the face of an awful world; or perhaps I am just part of the game someone else is playing. All of these are consistent with how the world seems to be.

It is also worth considering the possibility of solipsism: that I am the only being that exists. It could be countered that if I were creating the world, it would be much better for me and far more awesome. After all, I actually write adventures for games and can easily visually a far more enjoyable and fun world. The easy and obvious counter is to point out that when I dream (or, more accurately have nightmares), I experience unpleasant things on a fairly regular basis and have little control. Since my dreams presumably come from me and are often awful, it makes perfect sense that if the world came from me, it would be comparable in its awfulness. The waking world would be more vivid and consistent because I am awake; the dream world less so because of mental fatigue. In this case, I would be my own demon.


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Are E-Athletes Really Athletes?

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on December 1, 2014

While professional video game competitions have been around for some time, it is only fairly recently that competitive gamers have been dubbed as “e-athletes.” Some colleges now offer athletic scholarships to e-athletes and field sports teams that compete in games like the infamous League of Legends. As with some other college sports, these e-athletes can go pro and earn large paychecks for playing video games competitively.

While regarding video games as sports and gamers as e-athletes can be seen as harmless, there are some grounds for believing that these designations are not accurate. Intuitively, playing a video game, even competitively, is not a sport and working a keyboard or controller (even very well) does not seem to very athletic. Since I am both an athlete (college varsity in track and cross country and I still compete in races) and a gamer (I started with Pong and I currently play Destiny) I have some insight into this matter.

Before properly starting the game, there is the question of why this matter is even worth considering. After all, why should anyone care whether e-athletes are considered athletes or not? Why would it matter whether video game competitions are sports or not. One reason (which might not be a good one) is a matter of pride. Athletes often tend to regard being athletes as a point of pride and see it as being an accomplishment that sets them apart from others in this area. As such, they tend to be concerned about what counts as being an athlete. This is, some would say, supposed to be an earned title and not one to be appropriated by just anyone.

To use an obvious analogy, consider the matter of being a musician. Like athletes, musicians often take pride in being set apart from others on the basis of their defining activity. It matters to them who is and is not considered a musician. Sticking with the analogy, to many athletes the idea that a video gamer who plays League of Legends or Starcraft is an athlete would be comparable to saying to a musician that someone who plays Rock Band or Guitar Hero is a musician just like them.

Naturally it could be argued that this is all just a matter of vanity and that such distinctions have no real significance. If e-athletes want to think of themselves in the same category as Jessie Owens or if people who play music video games want to think they keep company with Hendrix or Clapton, then so be it.

While that sort of egalitarianism has a certain appeal, there is also the matter of the usefulness of categories. On the face of it, the category of athlete does seem to be a useful and meaningful category, just as the category of musician also seems useful and meaningful. As such, it seems worth maintaining some distinctions in regards to these classifications.

Turning back to the matter of whether or not e-athletes are athletes, the obvious point of concern is determining the conditions under which a person is (and is not) an athlete. This will, I believe, prove to be far trickier to sort out than it would first appear.

One obvious starting point is the matter of competition. Athletes typically compete and competitive video games obviously involve competition. However, being involved in competition does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for being an athlete. After all, there are many competitions (such as spelling bees and art shows) that are not athletic in nature. Also, there are people who clearly seem to be athletes who do not compete. For example, I have known and know many runners who do not compete in races, although they run many miles. There are also people who practice martial arts, bike, swim and so on and never compete. However, they seem to be athletes. As such, this factor does not settle the matter. However, the discussion does seem to indicate that being an athlete is a physical sort of thing, which does raise another factor.

When distinguishing an athlete from, for example, a mathlete or chess player, the key difference seems to lie in the nature of the activity. Athletics is primarily physical in nature (although the mental is very significant) while being something like a mathlete or chess player is primarily mental. This seems to suggest a legitimate ground of distinction, though this must be discussed further.

Those who claim that video gaming is a sport and that e-athletes are athletes tend to focus on the similarities between sports and video games. One similarity is that both require certain skills and abilities.

Competitive video gaming clearly requires physical skills and abilities. Gamers need good reflexes, the ability to make tactical or strategic judgments and so on. These are skills that are also possessed by paradigm cases of athletes, such as tennis players and baseball players. However, they are also skills and abilities that are possessed by non-athletes. For example, these skills are used by people who drive, pilot planes, and operate heavy machinery. Intuitively, I am not an athlete because I am able to drive my truck competently, so being able to play Destiny competently should not qualify me as an athlete.

Specifying the exact difference is rather difficult, but a reasonable suggestion is that in the case of athletics the application of skill involves a more substantial aspect of the physical body than does driving a car or playing a video game. A nice illustration of this is comparing a tennis video game with the real thing. The tennis video game requires many of the reflex skills of real tennis, but a key difference is that in the real tennis the player is fully engaged in body rather than merely pushing buttons. That is, the real tennis player has to run, swing, backpedal and so on for real. The video game player has all this done for her at the push of a button. This seems to be an important difference.

To use an analogy, consider the difference between a person who creates a drawing from a photo and someone who merely uses a Photoshop filter to transform a photo into what looks like a drawing. One person is acting as an artist; the other is just pushing a button.

It might be objected that it is the skill that makes video gamers athletes. In reply, operating complex industrial equipment, programming a computer or other such things also require skills, but I would not call a programmer an athlete. Nor would I call a surgeon an athlete, despite the skill required and the challenges she faces trying to save lives.

Sticking with gaming, playing a board game like Star Fleet Battles or classic tabletop war games also requires skills and involves competition. Some games even require fast reflexes. However, when I am pushing a plastic Federation heavy cruiser around a map and rolling dice to hit Klingon D7 battle cruisers with imaginary photon torpedoes, it seems rather evident that this does not make me an athlete. Even if I am really good at it and I am competing in a tournament. Likewise, if I am pushing around a virtual warrior in a video game competition, I am not an athlete because of this. I’m a gamer.

This is not to look down on gaming—after all, I am a gamer and I take my gaming almost as seriously as I do my running. Rather, it is just to argue what seems obvious: video gaming is not an athletic activity and video gamers are not athletes. They are gamers and there seems to be no reason to come up with a new category, that of e-athlete. I do not, however, have any issue with people getting scholarships for being college gamers. I would have loved to have received a D&D or Call of Cthulhu scholarship when I went to college. I’d have worn my letter jacket with pride, too.


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#Gamergate, Video Game Wars, & Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on October 20, 2014

As a gamer, philosopher and human being, I was morally outraged when I learned of the latest death threats against Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian, who is well known as a moral critic of the misogynistic rot defiling gaming, was scheduled to speak at Utah State University. Emails were sent that threatened a mass shooting if her talk was not cancelled. For legal reasons, the University was not able to prevent people from being weapons to the talk, so Sarkeesian elected to cancel her talk because of concerns for the safety of the audience.

This incident is just the latest in an ongoing outpouring of threats against women involved in gaming and those who are willing to openly oppose sexism and misogyny in the gaming world (and in the real world). Sadly, this sort of behavior is not surprising and it is part of two larger problems: internet trolling and misogyny.

As a philosopher, I am in the habit of arguing for claims. However, there seems to be no need to argue that threatening women with violence, rape or death because they are opposed to misogyny in gaming and favor more inclusivity in gaming is morally wicked. It is also base cowardice in many cases: those making the threats often hide behind anonymity and spew their vile secretions from the shadows of the internet. That such people are cowards is not a shock: courage is a virtue and these are clearly people who are strangers to virtue. When they engage in such behavior on the internet, they are aptly named trolls. Gamers know the classic troll as a chaotic evil creature of great rage and little intellect, which tends to fit the internet troll reasonable well. But, the internet troll can often be a person who is not actually committed to the claims he is making. Rather, his goal is typically to goad others and get emotional responses. As such, the troll will pick his tools with a calculation to the strongest emotional impact and these tools will thus include racism, sexism and threats. There are those who go beyond mere trolling—they are the people who truly believe in the racist and sexist claims they make. They are not using misogynist and racist claims as tools—they are speaking from their rotten souls. Perhaps these creatures should be called demons rather than trolls.

While the moral right to free expression does include the saying of awful and evil things, a person should not say such things. This should not be punishable by the law (in most cases), but should be regarded as immoral actions. Matters change when threats are involved. Good sense should be used when assessing threats. After all, people Tweet and post from unthinking anger and without true intent. There are also plenty of expressions that seem to promise violence, but are also used as expressions of anger. For example, people say “I could kill you” even when they actually have no intent of doing so. However, people do make threats that have real intent behind them. While the person might not actually intend to commit the threatened act (such as murder or rape), there can be an intent to psychologically harm and harass the target and this can do real harm. When I contributed my work on fallacies to a site devoted to responding to holocaust deniers I received a few random threats. I was not too worried, but did have a feeling of cold anger when I read the emails. My ex-wife, who was a feminist philosopher, received the occasional threats and I was certainly worried for her. As such, I have some very limited understanding of what it would be like receiving threats and how this can impact a person’s life. Inflicting such a harm on an individual is wrong and legal sanctions should be taken in such cases. There is a right to express ideas, but not a right to threaten, abuse and harass. Especially in a cowardly manner from the shadows.

As might be suspected, I am in support of increasing the involvement of women in gaming and I favor removing sexism from games. My main reason for supporting more involvement of women in gaming is the same reason I would encourage anyone to game: I think it is fun and I want to share my beloved hobby with people. There is also the moral motivation: such exclusion is morally repugnant and unjustified. If there are any good arguments against women being more involved in playing and creating games, I would certainly be interested in seeing them. But, I am quite sure there are none—if there were, people would be presenting those rather than screeching hateful threats from their shadowed caves.

As far as removing sexism from video games, the argument for that is easy and obvious. Sexism is morally wrong and games that include it would thus be morally wrong. Considering the matter as a gamer and an author of tabletop RPG adventures, I would contend that the removal of sexist elements would improve games and certainly not diminish their quality. True, doing so might rob the sexists and misogynists of whatever enjoyment they get from such things, but this is not a loss that is even worthy of consideration. In this regard, it is analogous to removing racist elements from games—the racist has no moral grounds to complain that he has been wronged by the denial of his opportunity to enjoy his racism.

I do, of course, want to distinguish between sexual elements and sexism. A game can have sexual elements without being sexist—although there can be a fine line between the two. I am also quite aware that games set in sexist times might require sexist elements when recreating those times. So, for example, a WWII game that has just male generals need not be sexist (although it would be reflecting the sexism of the time). Also, games can legitimately feature sexist non-player characters, just as they can legitimately include racist characters and other sorts of evil traits. After all, villains need to be, well, villains.


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Brain Games

Posted in Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 7, 2014
Brain Games box art

Brain Games box art (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a general rule, most people want to gain for as little as possible effort. For example, people seem to often buy exercise equipment thinking that it will make exercise easier. They usually find out that is not the case—thus the brisk trade in lightly used exercise equipment and its regularly being buried under clothes. The latest brain training games seem to be offering the same temptation: if a person plays these brain games, she will become smarter. The appeal is, of course, that the games are supposed to fun rather than burdensome—like education tends to be. The obvious questions is whether such games work or not.

On the face of it, the idea that playing these brain games can have positive effects does make some sense. After all, exercising the body improves it—so, by analogy, the same should hold for the brain. The obvious concern is that not everything that people think is exercise actually improves the body. Likewise, the brain games might be like useless exercises for the body: you are doing something, but it is having no effect. To address this matter, the thing to do is to turn to some actual science.

As it stands, the unbiased research seems to show that the current crop of commercial brain training games have no meaningful impact. While people do get better at the games, this is most likely due to familiarity. To use an analogy to another type of video game, doing the same scripted event over and over in a game like World of Warcraft or Deadspace III will cause a person to improve at that specific task. To use a specific example, in Deadspace III the player has to “fly” through a field of debris and avoid being smashed. My friend and I smashed into the debris repeatedly until we finally made it—through familiarity with the process rather than by getting “better.” The same seems to be true of the current brain games and getting better at such a game does not entail that one is smarter or more mentally capable. In light of the existing evidence, spending money on the commercial brain games would be a waste of money—unless one is just playing them for fun.

Interestingly enough, video games of the more “traditional” sort can improve memory and mental skills. This is not surprising—such video games typically place players in challenging environments that often mimic general challenges in the real world. As such, rather than simply focusing on a relatively simple game that is narrowly focused, the gamer is forced to fully engage the general challenge and develop a broader set of capabilities. As such, video games of this sort probably help improve mental abilities in a way analogous to how reality does so. In the case of video games, the challenges will tend to be more challenging and more frequent than what a person would generally encounter in the real world. For example, participating in a World of Warcraft raid involves tracking abilities, maintaining situational awareness, following (or giving) orders, following a strategy and so on. That is, it provides an actual mental workout. So, a person looking for games to make her smarter would be better off getting a gaming console or PC and selecting challenging games. They will probably be much more fun than the brain games and apparently more effective.

I would also like to put in a plug for traditional table top games as well—be they games like Risk or D&D. These games provide enjoyable challenges that seem to have a positive impact on cognitive abilities. Plus, they are social activities—and that is no doubt better for a person than playing brain games online solo.


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Sexbots: Sex & Consequences

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 3, 2014

Sexbot-ColorAs a general rule, any technology that can be used for sex will be used for sex. Even if it shouldn’t. In accord with this rule, researchers and engineers are hard at work developing ever more realistic sexbots. By science-fiction standards, these sexbots are fairly crude—the most human-like seem to be just a bit more advanced than high-end sex dolls.

In my previous essay on this subject, I considered a Kantian approach to such non-rational sexbots. In this essay I will look at the matter from a consequentialist/utilitarian moral viewpoint.

On the face of it, sexbots could be seen as nothing new—currently they are merely an upgrade of the classic sex dolls that have been around for quite some time. Sexbots are, of course, more sophisticated than the famous blow-up sex dolls, but the basic idea is the same: the sexbot is an object that a person has sex with.

That said, one thing that makes sexbots morally interesting is the fact that they are typically designed to mimic human beings not merely in physical form (which is what sex dolls do) but in regards to the mind. For example, the Roxxxy sexbot’s main feature is its personality (or, more accurately, personalities). As a fictional example, the sexbots in Almost Human do not merely provide sex—they also provide human-like companionship. However, such person-like sexbots are a still a thing of science-fiction. As such, human-mimicking sexbots of this sort can be seen as something new.

An obvious moral concern is that the human-mimicking sexbots will have negative consequences for actual human beings, be they men or women. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns are analogous to existing moral concerns regarding pornography.

Pornography, so the stock arguments go, can have considerable negative consequences. One of these is that it teaches men to regard women as being mere sexual objects. This can, in some cases, influence men to treat women poorly and can also impact how women see themselves. Another point of concern is the addictive nature of pornography—people can become obsessed with it to their detriment.

Human-mimicking sexbots would certainly seem to have the potential to do more harm than pornography. After all, while watching pornography allows a person to see other people treated as mere sexual objects, a sexbot would allow a person to use a human-mimicking object sexually. This could presumably have an even stronger conditioning effect on the person using the object, leading some to regard other people as mere sexual objects and thus increasing the chances they will treat other people poorly. If so, it would seem that selling or using a sexbot would be morally wrong.

People might become obsessed with their sexbots, as people do with pornography. Then again, people might simply “conduct their business” with their sexbots and get on with things. If so, sexbots might be an improvement over pornography in this regard.  After all, while a guy could spend hours each day watching pornography, he certainly would not last very long with his sexbot.

Another concern raised in regards to certain types of pornography is that they encourage harmful sexual views and behavior. For example, violent pornography is supposed to influence people to engage in violence. As another example, child pornography is supposed to have an especially pernicious influence on people. Naturally, there is the concern about causation here: do people seek such porn because they are already that sort of person or does the porn influence them to become that sort of person? I will not endeavor to answer this here.

Since sexbots are objects, a person can do whatever he wishes to his sexbot—hit it, burn it, and “torture” it and so on. Presumably there will also be specialty markets catering to particular interests, such as those of pedophiles and necrophiliacs. If pornography that caters to these “tastes” can be harmful, then presumably a person being actively involved in such activities with a human-mimicking sexbot would be even more harmful. Essentially, the person would be practicing or warming up for the real thing. As such, it would seem that selling or using sexbots, especially those designed for harmful “interests” would be immoral.

Not surprisingly, these arguments are also similar to those used in regards to violent video games. The general idea is that violent video games are supposed to influence people so that they are more likely to engage in violence. So, just as some have proposed restrictions on virtual violence, perhaps there should be strict restrictions on sexbots.

When it comes to video games, one plausible counter is that while violent video games might have negative impact on the behavior of some people, they allow most people to harmlessly “burn off” their desire for violence and to let off steam. This seems analogous to sports and non-video games: they allow people to engage in conflict and competition in safer and far less destructive ways. For example, a person can indulge her love of conflict and conquest by playing Risk or Starcraft II after she works out her desire for violence by sparring a few rounds in the ring.

Turning back to sexbots, while they might influence some people badly, they might also provide a means by which people could indulge in desires that would be wrong, harmful and destructive to indulge with another person. So, for example, a person who likes to engage in sexual torture could satisfy her desires on a human-mimicking sexbot rather than an actual human. The rather critical issue here is whether or not indulging in such virtual vice with a sexbot would be a harmless dissipation of these desires or merely fuel them and drive a person to indulging them on actual people. If sexbots did allow people who would otherwise harm other people to vent their “needs” harmlessly on machines, then that would certainly be good for society as a whole. However, if this sort of activity would simply push them into doing such things for real and with unwilling victims, then that would certainly be bad for the person and society as a whole. This, then, is a key part of addressing the ethical concerns regarding sexbots.

(As a side note, I’ve been teaching myself how to draw-clever mockery of my talent is always appreciated…)

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Openly Gamer

Posted in Pathfinder, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2013
Dados do sistema d20

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I started my gaming lifestyle when my mother got me the basic D&D boxed set over three decades ago. Since I was already solidly classified as a nerd by the other kids, I made no attempt to conceal my gaming ways. I also did track, cross country and debate—which actually resulted in more mockery than my gaming. When I went to college, I continued my openly gamer lifestyle, although I also continued my running ways.

In graduate school, I took my gamer lifestyle to a new level—I began writing professionally and my name appeared in print as solid evidence of my gaming lifestyle. While some people leave gaming behind after college, I stuck with it and still have a regular game, usually Pathfinder or Call of Cthulhu, each week. I also have my own tiny publishing operation and obviously still am open about my gaming ways.

Thanks to the popularity of video games, fantasy and science fiction, gaming now has less stigma than it did in the past. However, I know numerous gamers who are careful to conceal their gaming lifestyle from others. For example, one person tells people that he is playing poker or watching sports when he is, in fact, rolling D20s and pushing around miniatures. He also forbids any photos of him engaged in gaming. Another person is careful to conceal his gamer status from his professional colleagues out of concerns that it will negatively impact his career. Others are less secretive and do not deny being gamers—if directly asked. They do, however, do not usually talk about their gaming around non-gamers and tend to have anecdotes of bad experiences arising from people finding out about the gaming.

Jokingly, I tend to refer to people who actively keep their gaming secret as being in the dungeon. Folks who voluntarily tell people they are gamers come out of the dungeon and those who are involuntarily exposed are outed as gamers.

In my own case, being openly gamer has been a no brainer. First, I was obviously a nerd as a kid and there would have been no point in trying to deny that I gamed—no one would believe that I didn’t have a bag of strange dice. Second, I studied philosophy and became a professional philosopher—in comparison being a gamer is rather down-to-earth and normal. For those who are curious, I am also openly philosophical. Third, because I am socially competent and in good shape, I do not have any fear of the consequences of people finding out I am a gamer.

I also have moral reasons as to why I am openly gamer. The first is my moral principle that if I believe that a way of life needs to be hidden from “normal” people, then it would follow that I should not be engaged in that way of life. Naturally, there are exceptions. For example, if I were in a brutally repressive state, then I could have excellent reasons to conceal a way of life that those in power might oppose. As a less extreme example, some gamers do believe that they will suffer negative consequences if people find out about their gaming ways. For example, someone who knows her boss thinks gaming is for Satanists would have a good reason to stay in the dungeon.

The second is my moral commitment to honesty. Being a gamer is part of what I am, just as is being a runner and being a philosopher. To actively conceal and deny what I am would be to lie by omission and to create in the minds of others a false conception of the person I am. While I do recognize that people can have good reasons to create such false conceptions, that is something that should be avoided when possible—assuming, of course, that deceit is wrong.

I do know some gamers who hide their gaming when they start dating someone—I recall many occasions when one of my fellows went on a date or met someone and others, on learning this, said “you didn’t tell her you are a gamer did you?!” The assumption is, of course, that being a gamer would be a deal-breaker. While I do not advocate being an in-their-face gamer (just as I do not advocate being an in-their-face runner), honesty is the best policy—if the dating leads to a relationship, she will eventually find out and dishonesty tends to be more of a deal breaker than gaming.

Naturally, some gamers have made the reasonable point that they want to win over a person before revealing that they are gamers. After all, a person might have a prejudice against gamers that is based on ignorance. Such a person might unfairly reject a gamer out of hand, but come to accept it once they get to know an actual gamer.  After all, gamers are people, too.


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Playing with Solipsism II: Ethics

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 1, 2013
English: , Prussian philosopher. Português: , ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Very crudely put, solipsism is the philosophical view that only I exist. I played around a bit with it in an earlier post, and I thought I’d do so a bit more before putting it back in the attic.

One interesting way to object to solipsism is on moral grounds. After all, if I believe that only I exist, this belief could result in me behaving badly. Assuming that the world exists, people commonly endeavor to lower the moral status of beings they wish to make the targets of their misdeeds. For example, men who want to mistreat women often work hard to cast them as inferior. As another example, people who want to mistreat animals typically convince themselves that animals are inferior beings and hence can be mistreated. Solipsism would seem to present the ultimate reduction: everything other than me is nothing, which is presumably as “low” as it goes (unless there is some sort of negative or anti-existence). If I were to truly believe that other people and animals merely “exist” in my mind, then my treatment of them would seem to not matter at all. Since no one else exists, I cannot commit murder. Since the world is mine, I cannot commit theft. As might be imagined, such believes could open the door to wicked behavior.

One obvious reply is that if solipsism is true, then this would not be a problem. After all, acting badly towards others is only a problem if there are, in fact, others to act badly towards. If solipsism is true, what I do in the “real” world would seem to have no more moral significance than what I do in dreams or in video games. As such, it can be contended that the moral problem is only a problem if one believes that solipsism is false.

However, it can also be contended that the possibility that solipsism is wrong should be taken into account. That is, while I cannot disprove solipsism, I also cannot prove it. As such, the people I encounter might, in fact, be people. As such, the possibility that they are actually people should be enough to require that I act as if they are people in terms of how I treat them. As such, my skepticism about my solipsism would seem to lead me to act morally, even though it is possible that there is no one else to act morally towards. This, obviously enough, is analogous in some ways to concerns about the treatment of certain animals as well as the ethical matter of abortion. If I accept a principle that entities that might be people should be treated as people, this would seem to have some interesting implications. Of course, it could be argued that the possible people need to show the qualities that actual people would have if they existed as people.

It can also be contended that even if solipsism were true, my actions would still have moral significance. That is, I could still act in right or wrong ways.  One way to consider ethics in the context of solipsism is to consider ethics in the case of video games. Some years back I wrote “Saving Dogmeat” which addresses a similar concern, namely whether or not one can be good or bad in regards to video game characters. One way to look at solipsism is that the world is a video game that has one player, namely me.

One obvious way to develop this would be to develop a variant of Kantian ethics. While there would be no other rational beings, the Kantian view that only the good will is good would seem to allow for ethics in solipsism. While my willing could have no consequences for other beings (since there are none) I could presumably still will the good. Another way to do this is by using a modified version of virtue theory. While there would be no right or wrong targets of my feelings and actions (other than myself), there would still seem to be a way to discuss excess and deficiency. There are, of course, numerous other theories that could be modified for a world that is me. For example, utilitarianism would still work, although the only morally relevant being would be me. However, my actions could make me unhappy or happy even though they are directed “towards” the contents of my own mind. For example, engaging in “kindness” could make me happier than engaging in “cruelty.” Of course, this might be better seen as a form of ethical egoism in the purest possible sense (being the only being, I would seem to be the only being that matters-assuming any being matters).

While this might seem a bit silly, solipsism does seem to provide an interesting context in which to discuss ethics. But, time to put solipsism back in the attic.

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Violence & Video Games, Yet Again

Posted in Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2013
Manhunt (video game)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there is an abundance of violence in the real world, there is also considerable focus on the virtual violence of video games. Interestingly, some people (such as the head of the NRA) blame real violence on the virtual violence of video games. The idea that art can corrupt people is nothing new and dates back at least to Plato’s discussion of the corrupting influence of art. While he was mainly worried about the corrupting influence of tragedy and comedy, he also raised concerns about violence and sex. These days we generally do not worry about the nefarious influence of tragedy and comedy, but there is considerable concern about violence.

While I am a gamer, I do have concerns about the possible influence of video games on actual behavior. For example, one of my published essays is on the distinction between virtual vice and virtual virtue and in this essay I raise concerns about the potential dangers of video games that are focused on vice. While I do have concerns about the impact of video games, there has been little in the way of significant evidence supporting the claim that video games have a meaningful role in causing real-world violence. However, such studies are fairly popular and generally get attention from the media.

The most recent study purports to show that teenage boys might become desensitized to violence because of extensive playing of video games. While some folks will take this study as showing a connection between video games and violence, it is well worth considering the details of the study in the context of causal reasoning involving populations.

When conducting a cause to effect experiment, one rather important factor is the size of experimental group (those exposed to the cause) and the control group (those not exposed to the cause). The smaller the number of subjects, the more likely that the difference between the groups is due to factors other than the (alleged) causal factor. There is also the concern with generalizing the results from the experiment to the whole population.

The experiment in question consisted of 30 boys (ages 13-15) in total. As a sample for determining a causal connection, the sample is too small for real confidence to be placed in the results. There is also the fact that the sample is far too small to support a generalization from the 30 boys to the general population of teenage boys. In fact, the experiment hardly seems worth conducting with such a small sample and is certainly not worth reporting on-except as an illustration of how research should not be conducted.

The researchers had the boys play a violent video game and a non-violent video game in the evening and compared the results. According to the researchers, those who played the violent video game had faster heart rates and lower sleep quality. They also reported “increased feelings of sadness.”  After playing the violent game, the boys  had greater stress and anxiety.

According to one researcher, “The violent game seems to have elicited more stress at bedtime in both groups, and it also seems as if the violent game in general caused some kind of exhaustion. However, the exhaustion didn’t seem to be of the kind that normally promotes good sleep, but rather as a stressful factor that can impair sleep quality.”

Being a veteran of violent video games, these results are consistent with my own experiences. I have found that if I play a combat game, be it a first person shooter, an MMO or a real time strategy game, too close to bedtime, I have trouble sleeping. Crudely put, I find that I am “keyed” up and if I am unable to “calm down” before trying to sleep, my sleep is generally not very restful. I really noticed this when I was raiding in WOW. A raid is a high stress situation (game stress, anyway) that requires hyper-vigilance and it takes time to “come down” from that. I have experienced the same thing with actual fighting (martial arts training, not random violence).  I’ve even experienced something comparable when I’ve been awoken by a big spider crawling on my face-I did not sleep quite so well after that. Graduate school, as might be imagined, put me into this state of poor sleep for about five years.

In general, then, it makes sense that violent video games would have this effect-which is why it is not a good idea to game up until bed time if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Of course, it is a generally a good idea to relax about an hour before bedtime-don’t check email, don’t get on Facebook, don’t do work and so on.

While not playing games before bedtime is a good idea, the question remains as to how these findings connect to violence and video games. According to the researchers, the differences between the two groups “suggest that frequent exposure to violent video games may have a desensitizing effect.”

Laying aside the problem that the sample is far too small to provide significant results that can be reliably extended to the general population of teenage boys, there is also the problem that there seems to be a rather large chasm between the observed behavior (anxiety and lower sleep quality) and being desensitized to violence. The researchers do note that the cause and effect relationship was not established and they did consider the possibility of reversed causation (that the video games are not causing these traits, but that boys with those traits are drawn to violent video games).  As such, the main impact of the study seems to be that it got media attention for the researchers. This would suggest another avenue of research: the corrupting influence of media attention on researching video games and violence.

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A Six-Gun for Socrates

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2013

Six-Gun for Socrates - Michael LaBossiereThis short book presents a series of philosophical essays written in response to gun violence in the United States. While the matters of guns, violence and rights are often met with emotional responses, my approach has been to consider these matters from a philosophical standpoint. This does not involve looking at them without emotion. Rather, it involves considering them in a rational way and this requires considering how our emotions affect our views of these vital matters.

The book contains the following essays:

    • Gun Control
    • Costas & Guns
    • When is it Time to Discuss Gun Violence?
    • High Capacity, High Powered Semi-Automatic
    • Mental Illness, Violence & Liberty
    • God and Sandy Hook
    • Mental Illness or Evil?
    • Video Games, Movies & Violence
    • Background Checks
    • Dr. King & Guns
    • Gun Rights & Tyranny
    • Is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?
    • Is there an Obligation of Self-Defense?
    • On Not Being Ant-Gun
    • The Founders, the Future, the First & the Second
    • Are Cars Analogous to Guns?
    • Conclusion

Available now on Amazon.

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Knowing I am Not the Best (Extended Remix)

Posted in Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2012

Long ago, when I was a young boy, I was afflicted with the dread three Ss. That is, I was Small, Smart and (worst of all) Sensitive. As a good father, my dad endeavored to see to it that I developed the proper virtues of a young man. Fortunately, his efforts were ultimately successful although the path was, I am sure, not quite what he expected. Mainly because the path was mostly track, road and trail rather than field, court and gridiron.

As part of this process, I was sent to basketball camp to develop my skills in this reputable game. I was a terrible player with no real skill and I had no real interest in the sport. I much preferred reading over shooting hoops. However, I went to the camp and tried to do the best I could within the limits of my abilities.

During one drill, the coach yelled out for the best player to run to the center of the court. Immediately all the other boys rushed to the center of the court. Being honest in my assessment of my abilities I did not move. While I might not have been the worst player present, I was clearly not the best. I was not even within free throw distance of the best. For some reason, the coach made all the boys do pushups. He also made me do pushups, albeit double the number done by the other boys.

I thought this was very odd since this sort of thing seemed to encourage self-deception and that seemed, even to the young me, wrong. I recall quite well getting considerable abuse for my actions, which made me think even more about the matter. I did know better than to discuss this with anyone at the time, but I have thought about it over the years.

In recent years, I have run into something similar. I am always asked before I go to race if I will win. I always give an honest answer, which is usually “no.” This always results in an expression of dismay. While I have won races, I am now 46 years old and folks with far fewer years and miles show up to take their rightful place ahead of me, earning this because they are better than I am. My pride and arrogance, of course, compel me to say that when I was the age of many of my competitors, I was faster than they are now. But, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. Barring a TARDIS picking up my twenty-something self to go to the races of now (to save the galaxy, of course—racing is very important) I am forced to content myself with a folly of age: looking back on how good I was and comparing the younger me with my current competition.

One the one hand, I do get the point of self-deception in regards to one’s abilities. After all, it could be argued, that a person thinking incorrectly that he is the best would help him do better. That is, thinking he is the best will push him in the direction of being the best. I do, in fact, know people who are like this and they often push very hard in competition because they believe they are better than they actually are and are thus driven to contend against people who are, in fact, better than them. On the downside, when such people are defeated by those who are better, they sometimes grow angry and concoct excuses for their defeat to maintain the illusion of their superiority.

On the other hand, such self-deception could be problematic. After all, a person who wrongly thinks he is the best and operates on this assumption will not be acting rationally. There are, in fact, two well-known cognitive biases that involve a person thinking he is better than he is.

One is known as the “overconfidence effect.” This bias causes a person to believe that she has done better than she has in fact done. As a professor, I commonly see this bias when students get their grades. For example, I have lost track of the times a student has said “my paper felt like an A” when it was a D (or worse) or has said “I think I did great on the test” when it turns out that they did not do so great.

A closely related bias is the “better-than-average Illusion.” A person falls victim to this when she overestimates her abilities relative to others, usually those she is engaged in competition with. Since people often think very highly of themselves, people commonly fall into this trap.

While confidence can be a good thing (and thinking that one is going to do poorly is a way of contributing to making that a reality), this bias obviously has negative consequences. One rather serious problem is that it can lead people to actually do worse. After all, a person who overestimates her performance or abilities might not try as hard as she should—after all, she will think she is already doing much better than she is, thus overestimating her performance and coming to a false conclusion about, for example, her grade. This is most likely to occur when the person does not have immediate feedback, such as on a test or paper.

It can also have the impact of causing a person to “burn out” by trying to hard it based on a false assessment of his abilities. For example, a common sight at road races is inexperienced runners sprinting out ahead of the experienced (and better runners) only to quickly discover that they are not as a capable as they had believed. It can even happen to people who should know better. For example, some years ago I went to the USA 15K championship race as part of a team. Our supposed best runner was bragging about running with the Kenyans. Unfortunately, he got passed by some female runners (as did I—the race attracts top talent) and this apparently broke him to the point where he gave up. I knew my capabilities and was honest about them, so when the fast ladies surged past me I just stuck to my plan. I knew what I could do and what I could not do—and I knew I had a lot of race left and no reason to burn myself out due to a false belief in my abilities. Fortunately, the rest of the team delivered solid races and we took an honorable third place. My experience has been that I do better when I have an accurate assessment of my abilities relative to my competition, most especially in running. Naturally, I do my best—but to do this, I must have a reasonable gauge of what this is to avoid being overconfident and to resist being defeated by my own foolish and unfounded pride.

It might be objected that my rational assessment of my abilities robs me of the critical passion that one must have to be a true competitor. This is, however, not the case. As my friends will attest, while I am gracious in defeat I also hate to lose. In fact, honesty compels me to say that I hate losing slightly more than I love winning. And I really love to win. As such, when I get to the starting line, start presenting a philosophical paper to people looking to score philosophical pissing points, or join a competitive video game I am there to win and to make others lose. But, victory often rests on knowing what I and my competitors can and cannot do. I gain no advantage by deluding myself into thinking I am better than I am or they are worse than they are. True, I am not free of self-deception. But I do not willfully add to it.

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