The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell: REVIEW

It’s undeniable that Bertrand Russell has had an intense influence on a very large portion of Western thought since his heyday.   In some ways, he is the quintessential dogmatic academic.  His ideas about logic, ethics, and philosophy at large have lasted as the vast library of analytic philosophy over the last century.  He and his colleagues constructed a system via logical positivism that seemed at the time to close many of the gaps in philosophy.  Russell himself calls it the answer to all the inconsistencies in Kant in closing the gap between a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge.  From this perspective, he is able to look back at the entire Western canon of philosophy and make judgments about each and every philosophical position.

The book is written not with an emphasis on who Russell thinks was right, but on who was influential.  Three chapters are written on Locke though his inconsistencies are persistently pointed out.  It is split into three books.  The first on Ancient Philosophy, the second on Catholic Philosophy (which he more or less equates with the Dark Ages), and the third on Modern Philosophy up to and including himself (that is concluding with himself).  

A majority of the book feels not as if Russell wanted to provide his readers with a wealth of historical information, but as a stage upon which he makes fun of and pokes at everyone else’s ideas.  This attitude seems to be justified by his occasional assertion that everyone else isn’t scientific enough and they are religiously holding on to ancient dogmas which he is lucky to be enlightened enough to let go of.  He describes other philosophies as inferior to his own in that they are not on an “indifferent quest for truth”.  His attitude is reminiscent of (and likely informed) popular contemporary intellectuals like Bill Nye, Sam Harris, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  It seems as if he does a disservice in writing the book by interjecting every few pages to include his own opinions, and gets especially worse by the end of the book.  Especially his chapters on Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and the pragmatists he shows great dislike and contempt for their philosophies (not to mention that he wholly emits existentialists like Kierkegaard and Heidegger).  I can’t help but think that his vitriol is leftover from arguments he had in graduate school.  

Economist Deirdre McCloskey calls Bertrand Russell a paragon of our current phase of modernism or a dogmatism that claims we have finally found the correct way of doing things.  His chapter on Hume brings up many contentions to the foundation of his own reason, and he even mentions that many of Hume’s problems haven’t yet been solved.  However, he conveniently forgets these when he reaches his own philosophy.  

In spite, of my complaints, I think that the book is well worth reading by any interested in a general picture of Western Philosophy.  Though be warned that what you are reading is nowhere near a consensus, no matter how it is presented.

Ultimately, I give it a 6.5 out of 10 with a big Bias sticker.

 

 

Game Over? – The Economics of Video Game Death

My father, being a casual video game player, will occasionally spectate my endeavors into virtual realms.  Being interested in game design he will on occasion comment on my game, usually ridiculing it and very rarely praising it.  One particular gripe that he has had with many games is in the respawn function in which your character can die and then continue the game.  Compared to the arcade games that he would have played back in the 80s, the consequences of failure or death in a video game is no longer a simple and blunt GAME OVER.  Players are just slapped on the wrist with a loading screen and then plopped back perhaps a few steps.  Essentially, games with narratives are just models of plots in which the players provide some of the exogenous variables as I discussed in my article on Economics and Plot Vol 3.  Various models of death have significant impacts of both artistic importance and in the construction of a solid game without plot holes.  

 

To start we could categorize game death models into two categories.  The first being permadeath, and the second being some sort of respawn.  Permadeath would entail that once the game has decided that you have died, then the game ends and you must start over from the beginning.  This would be similar to the arcade games of my father’s era.  A respawn would not make the player begin the game again, but would bring the player back at some checkpoint or when they last saved.  Most games today function this way.  Perhaps because most games are in the home rather than a quarter a play.  Respawns can be brought down to two additional categories as well.  One being the in-game universe respawn and the other being the out of universe respawn.  In-universe respawns give an explanation in the story of why the player can continue playing after death.  Out of universe respawns merely let the player continue from a checkpoint or their last save.  There are of course some games that fall in between these respawns and permadeath, so they are not all-encompassing.  Some examples would be Super Mario Bros. and Contra where they have a respawn model until the player runs out of lives.  The permadeath model is fairly self-explanatory and now mostly out of date so I will focus on the respawn model.  

One of the most important features of any game is the separation of knowledge between the player and the character they are meant to represent.  Both Skyrim and Diablo have respawn models.  In Skyrim, the player respawns at the last save.  In Diablo, the player respawns at the last town (checkpoint).  If a player is in a Skyrim dungeon and dies, they will now replay the area on the path to their quest between the save and the location of death.  Since the path will be the exact same that was just experienced, the player then has knowledge that the character does not lead them to make decisions that would disrupt the coherence of the plot, damaging both the player’s experience and the artistic integrity of the game.  In Diablo (or my preferred clone, Path of Exile) each dungeon or area is randomly generated every time that the player goes through.  If the player dies and re-enters the zone, the player and character have the same amount of information with roughly the same difficulty.  If the player is meant to represent the choices of the character then their knowledge must match to allow the game to maintain a coherent series of events.  

 

Subsequently, it becomes quite difficult for the game designer to construct a story that surrounds their death model.  The Skyrim or “Last Save” model can be copied into most stories quite easily, but the Diablo model might be quite difficult.  A game I have found to have a quite good integration of the death model and the lore is the MOBA SMITE.  In Smite, you play as one of the gods of ancient mythology battling it out over various eternal battlegrounds.  When you die, there is a penalty period depending on the strength of your character, and then you respawn at your team’s base.  This makes total sense in the context of deities fighting with one another as they are presumed to be immortal.  The epic saga Bioshock respawns the character in a nearby Vita-Chamber which were apparently reincarnation tools used by the crazed residents of Rapture. However, you still lose the bullets that you used before you died, so there really is no complete do-overs.  The popular FPS Counterstrike also takes a hard line as opposed to its
counterpart Call of Duty in that a death is a death.  There are no respawns until the next round.  This has led to Counterstrike having a much more respected competitive community than COD, but that might have to do with the target demographic for both games.

 

In conclusion, video games, like any other narrative art form, is to some degree subject to economic law.  The player-character dichotomy can likely be further studied and the split is almost reminiscent of the classic problem of mind-body interaction that plagued the modern philosophers.  However, in this case, it becomes a problem that the mind knows more than the body ever experienced, and can reincarnate itself after the body has already died.  Spooky.  The death problem and other player-character problems hopefully will inspire game designers in the future to get ever more creative with their stories and break new ground in the art form of the future.

Photo Credit: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/votpmwC25Ek/hqdefault.jpg

Economics and Plot: Vol 3, Genres

If you have not yet read Vols 1 and 2, do so before reading this article.  

This volume will cover multiple different genres or approaches to writing a narrative, and how the
applications of economic theory can be understood within and complement each style of storytelling.

 

Historical Accounts & Non-Fiction

It is difficult to think of historical accounts as being an art form, but in fact if plot has real artistic value than what is history, but a series of events, characters, and actions that took place in the real world.  It is quite harder for one to come up with a plot hole when writing a piece of nonfiction, because there are no plot holes in history.  Because we are so confident of the economic integrity of historical accounts these stories can also be used in the greater discipline of economic theory and the study of choice.  Historical examples are used to support or refute theories as long as the sources can be trusted because it can be held that those past events follow true economic laws.

Fiction

The realm of fiction is where a lot of the skill of an artist comes in formulating a plot.  Anything can be made up to fit the story that the author wants to portray.  This comes as a freedom for the writer but also a trap with which they can easily make mistakes in.  Historical accounts are almost by necessity relatable to the real world because of both the economic laws found in them and the real events that relate to the present world.  For fiction writers, the author must be incredibly careful to have the plot follow proper economic reasoning or else the connection and meaning of the work will have little effect.  The only limit of a fiction writer is their imagination meaning that they can create any premise from which to start their plot.  This gives them an incredible range with which to create plots that convey a meaning and is likely why most works that are considered with artistic or literary merit do not limit themselves to non-fiction.  This may also have to with the fact that many facts in history are unknown while a fictitious story can have every single detail filled in by an ambitious writer.  

Allegory

Allegory may be a somewhat synthesis between the real world non-fiction plot and that of a fictional story.  In an allegory, the author creates a fictional story with a plot that includes many plot events, characters, and actions that exist in the real world as well.  It is a way that an author can write the non-fiction story while being able to fill in all necessary plot gaps, and also use their freedom of fiction to accentuate scenarios that they see as important or want to emphasize.  Allegory uses the plot to not only bring in connotations from the possibility of those choices within it’s own plot, but also to raise connotations from the non-fictitious plot of the real world.  After those connections are established the author may further their own plot into how they believe real choices and their consequences will be within their own fictitious model of non-fiction.

Fantasy & Science-Fiction

It may seem initially inane that the problem that a knight has while battling a dragon can have any relevance to attributing meaning to any problems in the real world, but often fantasy and science fiction are cited as some of the greatest works of literary achievement.  It is easy for a creative writer to design a dragon or a spaceship that does not exist in reality, but it is very difficult for an author to create a plot that does not follow economic law.  Even wizards evaluate means and ends, and in one way or another try to maximize their utility.  Markets still function in the same way even if they are for space widgets rather than earth widgets.  Fantasy and Science Fiction are used often with allegory to create a fictional world in which fantastical creatures and aliens are exaggerations of the real world things which they represent.  It is difficult to use other scientific possibilities to represent reality, and the use of fantasy and science fiction are an incredibly powerful shortcut for writers to use in connecting their fantastical fictitious world to the real one.

Games

A game is typically not thought of as a plot, but in fact might be the best example of one.  In a game the rules and setting are the economic environment, the players are the characters, and the various choices they have throughout the game are the determinants of the plot.  This may not apply to certain abstract games such as puzzles.  The only thing that game designers choose are the rules and the design of the game pieces.  The rest is left up to the choices of the players, and the rolling of dice.  A game designer may use the theme of a game to allow players to realize the connection between the choices they are making, and what they are valuing to a real world example of someone in that situation.  

 

The goal of these posts was to synthesize the understanding of what makes a plot work and how choices are made in the real world.  The validity or relevance of a plot being based on the having its plot points connected to economic law is the same as the validity of a painting having its colors be within the range of the light spectrum that can be seen by the human eye.  Different genres function similarly to different strokes of a brush.  Games are analogous to the painter being able to draw themselves and others into their painting.  If we can consider a painting beautiful because of the connotations that it draws the viewer to because of its masterful combination of color, then we can consider a plot beautiful because of the connotations that it draws the reader to because of its masterful combination of economics.

Picture credit to http://www.holyworlds.org/blog/?p=1494

Two Christmases and a Birthday Worth

There is a lot of economics in Christmas, and I’ve been waiting to post this article since I first saw a recent episode of South Park.  South Park just recently finished up its 20th season in which they commented on a wide range of topics as they usually do.  However, one particular joke in one particular scene stuck out to me.  

Did you catch it?  When Cartman’s laptop, iPad, and iPhone are being destroyed he pleads to the boys by saying “This is like two Christmases and a birthday worth of stuff!”  Imagine if Cartman had been perhaps a 30 year old man.  He very likely would have cried out, “This is like 3000$ worth of stuff!”.  Kids, especially before they’re teenagers, are in a very different economic situation than most people, but they still function alongside many of the same basic rules.

Money is used for many different purposes, one of which is that it functions as a unit of account.  This means that when we try to measure value between items we refer to how much money we would be willing to spend on it to give our desire a numerical value.  Since money is divisible, transferable, and valuable it lends itself to this use.  However, it is only useful to this purpose from a perspective where you are actually using money regularly.  

Children rarely buy a majority of their own needs with money, but they still spend something.  When an adult spends money on something their cost is an opportunity cost.  They lose the opportunity to buy the next best thing for the same amount of money.  Kids often make a list of things that they want for Christmas, and they also often order their list.  When children ask for the top present for Christmas or their Birthday they lose the opportunity to ask for the second thing on their list.  Thus to children, Christmases and birthdays function like a unit of account allowing Cartman to say that his electronics are worth to him Two Christmases and a birthday.  Gift-giving occasions are still not money as they can’t be exchanged, spent on anything, or saved up over time, but they offer a route for children to receive one of the many societal benefits that we gain from a currency system.  

Economics and Plot: Vol 2, Applications

If you have not read Vol 1 yet ,do so before reading this article.

As I stated in the last article, a plot can only be considered relevant at connoting a message to the audience if it follows economic reasoning.  This doesn’t make economics the sole determinate of how good a story is.  Remember, this method can only be applied to the pure plot.  Other literary devices can be just as effective if not more so.  We can still use a criticism of the piece through economics to determine a plot’s coherence.  Coherence is not in and of itself a artistically superior pillar of a story, but is necessary to open up certain doors to the writer.  In this article, I will elaborate on some of the applications that plot coherence offers to a work.

 

Plot Holes and the Suspension of Disbelief

A plot hole is a gap in the flow of logic in a plot or the blatant disregard of relevant information.  If the author doesn’t regard information about the world that they have already established then the actions of the characters will likely be economically incoherent, and limit the value of the story.  It is unrealistic to assume that an author can create a world that has absolutely zero plot holes, but as a rule of thumb the fewer plot holes the better.  Plot holes are often mistaken to be a part of the plot that isn’t explained.  However a plot hole has to directly violate economic law not just possibly violate it.  The author gives the audience relatively little information about the world behind the story, and there are many other economic factors that may affect the surface story.  An example of this misinterpretation that often annoyed me was in The Lord of the Rings.  Many plot hole whistle-blowers will claim that Gandalf could easily have called upon the Great Eagles of Mirkwood to drop the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom instead of making poor Frodo do it.  However, unlike most of Tolkien’s work he gave very little information as to the background of the Eagles.  Even though we see Gandalf acting friendly with them we really have no idea what their goals and motivations are in the world as a whole.  The suspension of disbelief is occasionally necessary to keep a plot coherent.

 

Crossroads as a Question

Often characters will find themselves in a situation where they have to make a decision.  If they had all of the knowledge that they needed  to make this decision they wouldn’t find themselves at the crossroads and the plot would continue.  When a character is stuck in this position the reader is presented with the same question.  By showing that a character lacks information it asks the reader whether they have the proper information to answer the question as well.  This may be transient knowledge about the plot of the story, or it may be something deeper that in fact the reader or author also does not know such as a moral question.  The reader might in fact have an answer that neither the characters in the story nor the author has which can lead to quite a bit of frustration.

 

Perspectives as a means of Revealing Information

The amount of information that a reader has about the fictional world is incredibly important to what the reader can draw from the plot.  The way that an author designs the telling of their story is integral to the amount of information that the reader has and the best example of this is the perspective of the story.  First person limits all of the reader’s knowledge down to one person, and the crossroads method can be applied more often.  A plot from one perspective can evoke more thoughts of personal choice and moral deliberation.  Third person gives the reader far more information, and gets them to understand the greater world.  A multi-perspective presentation of the plot can offer more social, political, or economic questions because they give the reader enough information to believe they could actually answer such questions in both the fictional world and in similar circumstances in the real one.  

 

Incoherency

No author is perfect and plot holes do often arise in a work, but this doesn’t mean that nothing can be understood from the incoherent story.  Sometimes incoherence, intentional or not, can shock us to the degree that we realize what makes this plot incoherent.  Often comedy will use this tool, and a particularly good example would be South Park.  The characters commonly act in incredibly contradictory, and not utility optimizing ways.  This brings out flaws in the characters that represent people in the real world, and make us laugh.  When we find unintentional incoherence it also might tell us something about the author’s views or understanding of how the real world operates, and whether our view of what that is is validated by this plot.
Vol 3. Will cover specific genres and elaborate how they use plot in their own ways.

Photo Credit by http://feelgrafix.com/1001400-crossroads.html

Economics and Plot: Vol 1, Theory

Last year, I wrote an essay for my high school senior project.  Originally I began writing for fun, but then quickly realized I needed to turn something in (sunk costs I guess).  The question that I wanted to answer is, how can we relate the study of economics to characters in a fictional story, and what does it tell us about plot as an art form.  The essay itself was a bit too long to upload all in one go, but I thought I would summarize it in multiple parts.  This one is the theory, second are some applications, and thirdly the theory in the context of various genres.

Economics is traditionally a science for use in the concrete world.  However, I want to broaden the uses for the discipline.  Economics can be used anywhere where scarcity and decision makers exist to make choices.  When these things exist we observe certain patterns that we call economic laws.  These laws certainly exist in our world and we don’t have a choice to live without them.  Our intimate yet often unrealized connection with economics can lead us to appreciate the economic situations of others, and draw meaning and understanding from purely their position in the world.  Many people have probably already used economics in this artistic style before without even realizing it.  What most people would call plot in a piece of literature or a film, could be described as a series of actions, events, and values intertwining to create a story.

If economics is the understanding of the laws by which individuals make decisions in scarcity then any imaginary plot which assumes scarcity would also obey these laws.  It may be difficult to differentiate between plot and other parts of the work of art.  In film for example, the cinematography, lighting, acting skill, and editing are all important parts of the artwork, but none of them directly affect the plot.  If we were to strip away all artistic elements of a story and describe it in purely terms of the plot we have the plot all by itself.  This can be called the Pure Plot.  For example,  the epic poem of the Aeneid describes the great journey of Aeneas and his compatriots after the Trojan War.  The poem is famous for its use of poetry to emphasize points of meaning complimented by Virgil’s excellent craftsmanship of the Latin language.  If we ignore the poetry all that we have left is the pure plot.   Here is a pure plot version of Book 2:

  1. Aeneas decides to tell the Carthaginians the story of Troy’s fall.
  2. One morning, the Trojans find a large wooden horse in front of their gate, and the Greek ships are no longer on the horizon
  3. They must debate over whether or not to bring it into the city.
  4. Laocoon, a priest of Neptune, warns them that this horse is just another one of Ulysses’ tricks.
  5. Laocoon is then eaten by a serpent from the sea.
  6. The Trojans take this as an omen, and bring the horse in.  
  7. At night, Ulysses and his men come out of the horse and let the Greek army in.  
  8. Troy is destroyed.

Even though this passage has thrown out all of the “artistic” elements it still has a relation to our world in that the economic laws which govern the individuals in the story are the same as those that govern us, or at least they should be.  With a good understanding of how economics is the range in which plot is formed, economic analysis can be used to judge the validity of a plot and help readers and critics judge the validity of a plot as an artistic piece.  If a plot is artistic because it connects to economic realities of our world then connections that more effectively connote the message the artist wants to get across to more people can be considered better.  One way in which plot can be considered objectively better is that if it properly follows the economic laws that it is based on in the first place.  If a character’s action clearly violates an economic law then there is no way that that plot, or at least that section of the plot, can connote anything about the real world.  It would be the same as if an artist were to paint in a color that does not exist.  The reason that green can be effective in a painting is because we experience green in the real world and can connect the painting to those other parts of our life and the artist recognizes this.  If an artist was to paint in a nonexistent color there is no possible way that we could connect this artwork to our lives because we have nothing to connect it to and therefore can make no connotations about it. Strangely enough, this is a problem that no painter will ever have to face unless someone figures out how to paint in infrared or ultraviolet.  Authors however must make sure to avoid this mistake.

Vol 2 will cover some applications that I have discovered of how Pure Plot is used to connote something to the reader.

Thanks to Sarah Chaga Crispin and David McCauley as I came up with the idea in their class.

Picture Credit to http://www.amaravatiproperty.net/amaravathi/plots-for-sale