Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Diffuse Arguments for God

When Dr Michael Jacoby debated Michael Shermer on the existence of God, he pulled out three arguments to support his position; first cause, fine-tuning and morality. While the first argument is a god of the gaps, the second is mistaking complexity for intelligence and the third has nothing at all to do with supernatural phenomena, together they make a nice personal justification. But for a non-believer it's simply more empty rhetoric that seems if asserted loud enough and repeated then it will somehow be valid. Of course it's not ever going to be valid no matter how many times it's used, it just leads to a futile struggle against the ignorant claims that are pushed by otherwise intelligent people.

A finely-tuned argument
The arsenal of the religious handbooks seems to be the loaded word. In the arguments, the word God is put in as a substitute for the unknown. And from there because it's "God" then it's the God they believe in. Even if the first cause argument was correct and didn't violate it's own principle, it does not point to the Judæo-Christian God. These "proofs" obfuscate the meaning of a word to encompass the argument, then because the words is now "proven", it's shifted back to it's original context. As Michael Shermer said: "smart people are great at rationalising things they came to believe for non-smart reasons", and the rationalisation of God, though put through a huge transformation, can be shifted back to it's original form that would make mathematicians wonder just how they can get that efficiency with matrix multiplication. With that in mind, a proper refutation of some of the more widely used arguments is warranted.

  • Cosmological Argument (first cause) - The argument that the universe had a beginning, so it needed a cause, that cause is God.
There are a few things wrong with this argument, firstly it's anthropomorphising the unknown. We don't know precisely what happened before the big bang, or that there even is a before. Time may indeed be a construct of this universe. We honestly don't know. There are theoretical physicists trying to work this out. Hopefully the research at CERN will shed some light on the nature of atomic particles. To call it God is nebulous, we don't know the exact cause. So calling it God is just putting an anthropomorphic view on the universe. Along that line, it's also just pushing what we call a "god of the gaps" where it's taking a gap in human knowledge and throwing God in there. There is no reason to put in God in a gap in knowledge, it's an argument that is done for centuries and each time we discover more in science that God shrinks.

The argument violates it's own principles. A universe with no innate intelligence just can't exist, but a supernatural entity of unlimited intelligence can? If you are going to make an argument that everything needs a cause, then you can't put presuppositions in that violate that rule. Not to mention that it puts a deist or pantheistic type god and uses the labelling of a personal god to describe that. Even if the universe did need a creator, why the personal god who takes interest in the trivial affairs of one species? Why not a deist god? or a Pantheistic god? Why not a polytheistic order of gods who created the big bang by playing marbles with balls made from Higgs Bosons? There is just nothing to say in the argument that it was God, the creator of original sin, the redeemer, the judge of your eternal soul. It's just using a loaded word so if you can make a specious argument to support that nebulous use of the word God which then carries on that Jesus must have come down to earth and was tortured to save us... some 13.7 billion years later mind you.

  • Fine Tuning argument - The universe has such order to it that an intelligent agent is needed to explain the complexity.
As stated above, the fine tuning argument is one that mistakes complexity for intelligence. Complex patterns can arise without an intelligent designer. 300 years ago Sir Isaac Newton used the argument of fine tuning of the solar system to show there had to be an intelligent agent behind it. Now we know how the solar system formed and how galaxies, stars and planets can form. And it's like that with many of the assertions made under this poor argument, it looks all so complex yet working in harmony. Yet none of the interstellar observations we have made need a supernatural explanation. What we know about physics fits perfectly with a naturalistic explanation for interstellar formation. If we saw improbable structures forming naturally, then yes, there may be cause for a designer. But there is a reason we don't see buildings or watches occurring naturally, the only known cause for buildings and watches are that they are made by intelligent agents, they go against any natural process (that we know of).

There are two other run-off arguments that go with the fine tuning; the first is the number of different constants that make up the universe that without it wouldn't be able to harbour life, the second is that the world is so perfectly made for humans. With the first, it's pure speculation. We know that the constants of the universe work as is, because we have a limited frame of scope to test out whether or not these variables really are fine-tuned. It works in the universe we are in, but that is not to say it's the only way a universe can work. Same goes for the extension of that argument that since the earth can harbour life it must be fine tuned. We know life works one way under one set of conditions. Who is to say that the way life came about is the only way? Again it's probably unknowable for it to happen any other way given our very limited scope and the vast distances between galaxies / stars we'll probably never encounter another life-form.

As for us, the world isn't made for us. We are made for the world, though mutation and adaptation. We are a product of 4 billion years of evolutionary adaptation, where as an organism species that have been better adapted to the environment they are in have survived. And even then we can only live in small portions of the world, and most of the that can only be habitable through the use of technology. The poles are off-limits, as are the mountains and anywhere in the ocean. We are land animals, land animals that rely on technology for any extreme conditions. There are many species that are more suited to living under a wider range of conditions, but no-one suggests that the universe was made entirely for them. Not to mention that we can't venture into space again without technology. When the universe is almost infinitely big and we are just one species on a small planet orbiting around a star which is one of hundreds of billions in a galaxy which is just one of billions. Over-design comes to mind.

  • Morality - Morality exists, therefore God exists.
This one I won't expand too much on now because I want to write a more complete argument on it later. Morality does not come from God, morality is a social construct, an implicit set of rules that determine whether our behaviour is good or bad. The basis from which morality is derived can not only be seen across cultures, it can be seen in different species. Sure it could mean that God made morality, that he programmed pack animals to behave in a certain way in order to have a better chance of survival, but it would be like saying that since evolution could have been made by God it proves God exists. Morality is not an argument for or against God, God is irrelevant to the process.

Why people get morality and God so confused is the church's role over history being the authoritative source for morality in a society. Traditionally the church has dictated behaviour, backed by a supernatural being that would punish those who didn't obey. As we've moved to a secular society where no one church has authority over the population that role has been broken, but the attitude in the community that morality is tied to God remains. Quite simply, because of the Euthyphro Dilemma, morality cannot be attributed to a deity. We know how morality works in society, and it's not an infinite absolute as set by an external being. It's a fluid process that changes as the environment changes around those in society. Morality as laid down in the bible, especially the old testament is almost completely at odds with the moral fibre of today, and it's a good thing too. Those old laws are quite barbaric and have no place in a modern civil society.

Chance? Chance?!? CHANCE?!?!?
If diffuse arguments weren't bad enough, the way to destroy the credibility of the opposing side is to create a false dichotomy; when dealing with natural occurrences, if it's not done by God it must be chance. And with the word chance, you can turn the opposing argument into that game of probability I talked about earlier where, without any frame of reference, completely explainable processes can become statistically improbable to the point where they appear absurd. It shows such a complete misunderstanding for the process and application of science that it baffles me how people who make this naïve claim could even begin to think they understand science. Scientific theories are there to explain how a process happens, it's the opposite of chance. Cause and effect only
appear as chance to the casual observer. It would appear as chance that if we rolled a die and the number 4 came up. But the number 4 was determined by the way the die was rolled.

If we extend the die metaphor, if we rolled the die 100 times we would always get a result between 1 and 6 because they are the range we can get on a single die. At no point in that would we ever roll a 7 or a -35. If they are not options, then it won't happen. The implicit use of the word chance in these arguments is to make that premise, that the sun just didn't form by itself, that life just didn't come about on it's own. The usage adds the absurdity of statistical improbability to natural occurrences. The earth has the right conditions for life, the way the solar system formed allowed this. The atomic composition of the planet comprised of the right material from which life could have sprung. It's not chance, it is a direct consequence of a gravitational collapse of particles from an exploded star. Chance it seems is just a way we put meaning onto non-meaningful events. It's another loaded word, one which shows the profound and wilful ignorance of believers who are looking for any possible way to make their irrational beliefs credible in a rational world.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Death of PC Gaming

As GTA IV rushes off the shelves and onto the 7th generation consoles, the hype surrounding the game fills me with a sense of lament. The once great fortress for hardcore gaming that is the Personal Computer is now nothing more than a slowly decaying ruin inhabited by the few who hold the delusion that someone will gallantly ride in and save the day. That's not to say that hardcore gaming is completely dead, but as consoles catch up to the technology that has long kept the PC gaming market viable the platform is growing more and more irrelevant. It's become a system dominated by World of Warcraft and The Sims where piracy and extreme copy protection are making the system less and less favourable for users and developers alike.

A brief history of gaming
To understand the situation now, it's important to understand the difference in the life cycles of PCs and consoles and how each intertwines with development and sales. For an in-depth look at the history of games and gaming there is always Wikipedia. If I tried to explain it in my own words, I'd just muddle it up, leave out vital details and possibly push false information. Instead I'm just going to focus on the technology vs marketplace battle which to me is very indicative of why the battle has gone the way it did.

The console is on an approximately 5 year lifecycle; when it comes out it's the latest greatest thing, from there it takes about 12 months to build up a decent gaming library. For the next year or so it features it's best sales, then it starts to taper off by which time the hardware is becoming redundant and a new console needs to come in it's place and start all over again. The PC is a much more incremental process, when a new piece of hardware comes out, it doesn't require buying a complete new system. Likewise the software that games are built on stays the same. With computers, you don't build to hardware, you build to software. With Microsoft having the effectual monopoly on home computing, it does add the stability the computer needs to foster a development environment.

For the most part, the PC market has been the centre of innovation in gaming. Partly this has been driven by the nature of early development. Games were small and could be made by small teams or even garage developers. An incremental system is perfect for this kind of development environment. At the same time, the console market was primarily a way to bring arcade games into the home. The divergence in the style of games is quite clear at this point. Consoles and arcade games were at best joystick / pad + buttons while the computer had the keyboard / mouse combo. Just the speed and complexity that the mouse allowed for gaming brought complexity to the likes never seen. Without the mouse, the RTS would still be turn-based. The First Person Shooter genre would not be where it is now, nor would RPGs. Though it's interesting how the RPG genre developed on both console and PC resulting in two very different ways to do the genre.

The Playstation for me was the console that changed everything. It had targeted the audience that PC games and packaged it up in something affordable. Sony in their first foray into the gaming market killed Sega and seriously dented Nintendo. Though the PC market still survived thanks to the 3DFX and NVidia providing a graphics arms race, while gaming took on a new dimension with the internet providing a new multiplayer experience. While the incremental PC system kept ahead of it's console counterparts, the software libraries and convenience meant an ever-growing market. And with the onset of the PS2 and X-Box finally there was a large enough market share worth going after for non-Japanese developers. The advantages of developing for a market like that are well worth the switch in a field where only 10% of games make a profit and most companies go bankrupt after one game. It's a cut-throat multi-billion dollar industry, risk management comes into play. The problem of piracy on the PC makes the platform a higher risk, as does programming software to work on an almost infinite combination of hardware configurations as opposed to the one.

In the mid to late 90s, consumer electronics were still reasonably expensive so it made sense that the market would be dominated by those looking towards an all-in-one machine which a computer would fit the bill. Now as the price has dropped, the silicon boom has meant that we can afford purpose specific devices. The power and range of hi-definition entertainment equipment combined with wireless LAN and broadband really harbours the lounge rather than a desk as the prime candidate for entertainment. The new consoles offer the best of both worlds; a globally connected device that also allows for social multiplayer action.

Piracy vs protection
I was browsing one of my favourite webcomics this morning and came across this article. It somewhat shocked me to see the extent of copy protection, but really it shouldn't. Sure it's extreme and for the most part impractical, but it's really not much more than the Half-life 2 or Bioshock protection. When Half-life 2 came out, I did the right thing and bought it. From the time I first tried to install the game to the point where I could play it was well over 3 hours. Over 3 hours for a legally bought game! It's getting beyond a joke just how restricting and invasive copy protection is. Only the really extreme measures are effective, and the regular methods only serve to hurt legitimate consumers.

Yes, piracy is a problem for game developers. Though as I asserted with the music industry, the days where we have high-speed broadband lend itself towards a global distribution system over the internet. We get shafted here in Australia in terms of game prices. What retails for $100 AUD retails for $50 USD despite a strong exchange rate. I didn't rate Steam when it first came out, but now I can see it's appeal. When I can buy games for $50 USD and they are downloaded onto my computer ready to play, why should I go out and spend $100 to support the dying retail chains that put such a huge mark-up on the price? is it really worth that extra $40 to have a physical copy any more? Consoles themselves are still geared to that centralised distribution system by selling games on physical media. Though I feel this generation of consoles will be the last to operate that way, given XBox Live and the Wii Virtual Console are showing that digital distribution is achievable on consoles.

To me invasive copy protection is one of the worst things the industry can do. Checking for unique cd keys is one thing, installing rootkits on the users system is another. Having to disable virtual drives, making sure a game can't be duplicated, surely these methods contravene fair use policies. At a time where it's far more convenient to play off backups and virtual drives, copy protection becomes more and more restrictive on the ability to do so. Note that it's not stopping piracy, just do a search on bit torrent for any game you can think of. Massive global copying is still happening, just like it's happening for albums. And there is a consumer backlash against companies that use more extreme methods to stop piracy, so there should be. Because it is contributing to the downfall of the medium that so many of us still choose to game on.

The future?
There's just so much to cover with this topic, and there have been so many angles I've wanted to push but not had time for. But I'm sure that over the next few months as I get back into casual game development, my interest will be sparked enough to lay forth all the issues I deem noteworthy. As much as my pessimism rang out in the above prose, I'll say now that PC gaming will never die completely. There is too much of a base following for it to completely die. Some genres like Real Time Strategy is far too complex to be streamlined effectively on a console, and the market for fast and complex First Person Shooters will always be there. MMORPG's like World of Warcraft thrive because of the social atmosphere they provide, something a keyboard is geared towards. Not to mention that most developers are PC gamers who love to play on the platform just as much as their target audience.

There will be gaming on this platform while there are still those to support it, though the model for "epic" games should continue in it's "console release followed belatedly by a PC release" as has been the case since the turn of the decade. I lament the shift away from the PC as a preferred platform, but for all the reasons specified above and more, I understand why it has to be this way. All I can do is sit back and watch as it changes in a metaphorical arms race that will largely focus on giving the consumer what it wants. But I fear that it will be like TV in that eventually most games will be made for the lowest common denominator as gaming becomes more and more socially mainstream.

Monday, 5 May 2008

New NIN!!!

I'll forego making a long post, instead just a few quick words. A new Nine Inch Nails release has been sprung on us, not totally unexpected given the release of a single two weeks ago. Still I did not expect this:
Click HERE to get the new full-length nine inch nails record: the slip

(thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years - this one's on me)
Holy shit, first $5 US for the awesome instrumental quadruple EP Ghosts I-IV, now this? I've got to admire the worth ethic of Mr. Reznor, I was at the concerts last year where he told the crowd to steal because the record companies were being greedy. Since then he's seen out his contract and made Radiohead's album give-away look like the gimmick it was. Trent has given us choice in format and he hasn't compromised on quality to do so. But above anything else Trent has shown there is a market for online downloads. The numbers may have been disappointing for Niggy Tardust, but it was the first step in a long line of refining a successful Internet business model. The new album give-away is just going to do even more to increase his status as the leader of the MP3 revolution.

The Music
  • Ghosts I-IV - Somehow in the week this was released, I amassed over 400 listens to Nine Inch Nails that week on last.fm. It's instantly recognisable as a NIN release, just very stripped back. At 1h50m, I could see it pushing the reflex action of a portion of the fanbase, the ones who want have Starfuckers Inc. or Closer as their favourite track. But for those who don't mind a bit of NIN's instrumental work and ambient music, it really is worth a listen. It works so well to as background music, being the ultimate generic fanboy I even put it on while sipping wine and reading Chuck Palahniuk's "Guts". As I've had a multitude of concerts and new releases in recent times, it's faded from my playlist, but I can see myself coming back to it time and time again when I wish to construct a dark serenity in my mind.

  • The Slip - I'm on my 5th listen in the few short hours since I was able to get the album down, and I'm loving it. The leading single Discipline is much like Only on With Teeth; it's not completely indicative of the sound of the rest of the record. Tracks like 1,000,000, Letting You and Head Down will not feel out of place alongside the classic tracks off Broken / TDS era in the live set. Still the melodic sensibilities of Trent shine through, resulting in yet another album so brutal and fragile at the same time. The man knows how to pace an album. The disillusion and despair of Lights In The Sky and Corona Radiata sits so perfectly in the soundscape. It's never a collection of songs thrown together with NIN, it's always a musical and emotive journey. Each track has it's own position and much like a movie, without proper pacing having great scenes is worthless if you can't make them flow seamlessly. It's a great album, worth triple the price I paid easily.

All I have to do is wait patiently for another Nine Inch Nails tour to come along to Australia. It'll be sad to see them without Aaron North in the line-up, but Robin Finck isn't by any means a downgrade. I'm very jealous of the US dates that have either Deerhunter or Crystal Castles opening, those are shaping up to be fantastic shows. I hope the NIN crowd gives them a chance, both have put out fantastic albums in recent times and are definitely worth a listen. But being stuck down under means I'll have to wait patiently, hoping that Reznor's work ethic continues in this fast release cycle. He's taking music to the fans directly using a medium which he can see the potential of that major record labels have failed to capitalise on. iTunes is a fucking joke, as are the companies pushing DRM on highly compressed WMA or AAC files. When the bottom line is money, it's hard to see how these corporations will ever pull their heads out of their asses and work towards a consumer-based product. Individual artists have realised this and that's why it's so important that NIN stays on this internet pathway. For if they waver at all, it may be the final nail in the proverbial coffin the record companies are looking to do with online material. Well done Trent, another great release!