Extra Credits – A Response
Extra Credits is a pretty brilliant webseries about the craft, philosophy and future of video games. The writer, James Portnow, is one of the most intelligent and considered people I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with. The show is consistently insightful and informative and I completely recommend that you go watch the hell out of it.
This week, though, they hit upon something on which I have some opinions. They spoke about faith in video games, a subject that I feel is very worthy of exploration and know very little about, but they also said a couple of things with which I rather disagree.
They talked about science. More specifically they talked about the role that faith plays in science.
At 1:45 into the video, they say “All reason is based on faith.” I’ll give you a moment to stop frothing at the mouth and we’ll continue after the break.
The argument they give is reasonable on the surface: “All logical systems, by necessity, have to start with a group of postulates that have to be taken on faith.”
That sounds fine, but it isn’t necessarily true. We do base our understanding of math, logic, and much science on some fundamental principles, but none must be taken on faith. If you question any of them, it should be possible to explore the axioms, to see the demonstrations and the formal proofs of them. If the arguments do not satisfy you, or you feel ill-equipped to evaluate them, you can take hold them as tentative or discount them. The strength of good rational discourse is that all assumptions are open to discussion and questioning.
Science is even more liberal than formal logic. Science is based on observation. If something cannot be observed, it is not science. If you are unsatisfied with the conclusions of a scientific finding, you should be able to go back to the observations. One should be able to trace back observations to the source and, in most cases, repeat the experiment. One does not need to take anything for granted. All assumptions should be stated and held as tentatively valid until demonstrated otherwise.
One does not even need to take the existence of reality for granted. It is irrelevant to science whether we are real, imagined, simulated; science is a process for describing the nature of existence as it appears.
So it is not necessary to take logic or science on faith, the facts should always be testable. Of course, it is impractical and probably insane to try to backtrack every new discovery or finding to first principles, so we must take it on faith that the observations are real and based on good reasoning and observation, right? I disagree, but this is where my argument becomes linguistic rather than philosophical.
Is there a difference between faith and trust? I believe that there is. Trust, to me, is verifiable, or at least falsifiable. I trust that most scientists are doing mostly good work most of the time. I don’t have to check their work, I trust that others more qualified me are doing that and that the process is working fairly well and reporting is being done with honesty and rigor. However, If I am given cause to doubt, I can test for myself. It may be hard, but their claims can be verified.
Faith on the other hand, is belief without the promise of verification. If an observation was reported but the claims are impossible to verify, then that must be taken on faith or not at all. It would be my temptation to say “not at all” is probably the more rational choice most of the time.
There is another phrase that they included in the video which I think is a dangerous characterization of the belief in modern science: “They believed in Newtonian Physics in the same way that we, today, believe in our science today, with certainty and conviction.” Good scientists do not believe in science with certainty and conviction. Scientific fact should always be considered tentative. This lesson has been learned over and over and when it is forgotten, things get taken for granted and overlooked. Pet theories occasionally pan out, but more often talented and brilliant people get caught up in their own convictions and fail to see the evidence before them objectively. That is where excessive faith leads to bad science.
So does faith have a place in science or in video games. Well, yes, I think so.
Let’s start with science.
Faith in science, to me, is faith in the future of science and faith its value and promise, faith that the investments made now will pay off in the future. There may be precedent and good foundation for that faith, but it is possible that the discoveries of value are petering out, that any given investment is a waste and nothing of value will be learned. Even worse, an exploration might cause more harm than good. It cannot be known in advance all of the consequences a line of investigation might entail. It should not be, though, faith in science fact. Those facts should usually be trusted, but considered tentative and falsifiable.
How about video games?
Well I don’t think that I can do a specifically better job than the Extra Credit folks on this one, except for having the freedom to expand. Faith isn’t an uncomplicated thing, especially religious faith. It entangles the way the world is viewed, who to trust, and what to believe. It also makes it difficult to understand those of other faiths, or even more, those who lack it. The gaming medium allows an arena were other worldviews and ways of thinking and feeling can be explored. I think it’s a valuable endeavor to try understand other people and a good game allows you the opportunity to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. If done well, it could help unbelievers like me understand how and why others feel the way they do and how that impacts their lives and decisions. It could also give the faithful a chance to understand folks like me, ones who don’t even know what faith feels like.
Thoughts? Feelings? Experiences with faith in gaming to share?
The extra credits crew had such a huge response to the video that they put out another one explaining their position.
To my mind, they covered most of my objections and explained their position much more thoroughly. They use the word “faith” differently than I, and to them it means different things. They seem to conflate what I mean by faith and trust into a single word, but I’m not sure that is wrong. It’s just… different.
Yes, I had a similar reaction to those statements. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he was simply wrong, wrong enough that it undermined the otherwise interesting points that he was trying to make.
Trying to put the faith that underlies religion and the religious experience alongside “faith in science” only makes you look foolish. Things like mathematical axioms, which they referenced obliquely in the video, are not articles of faith by any understanding. A mathematician does not hold faith in Euclidian postulates, for example. The presence of postulates are simply a starting point, a place where we can say “IF this, THEN that”. There’s a world of difference between such a statement and something like “I BELIEVE IN this, THEREFORE that”, which is where faith comes in.
Perhaps someone might argue that people had faith that the Euclidian postulates were necessarily TRUE statements. That’s closer to the truth, and I would concede that it was, practically speaking, an article of faith. However, that had nothing to do with mathematics; in fact, such beliefs prevented mathematicians from realizing the possibility of non-Euclidian geometry for centuries. Had mathematicians had LESS faith, mathematical knowledge might have flourished. It’s an excellent example of why science almost inevitably HINDERED by faith.
Outside of mathematics, of course, evidence is the rule of the land. There is only one article of faith that I think you can argue that science holds, which is that, in general, past behavior is a guide to future behavior. (Thus for example, protons and electrons have always been observed to have equal but opposite charges, therefore it is reasonable to expect that they will in the future, barring some strange event that would be expected to affect this.) The reason this hypothesis remains an axiom is that its self-referentiality defies testing. That is, we have plenty of observational evidence that this is a reasonable conclusion to draw, but only if you already agree that all those observations, which happened in the PAST, really constitutes evidence about the FUTURE. That said, however, I would defy you to find a human being of any stripe — religious or scientific or both or neither — that didn’t take this item as axiomatic, so I’m not sure that you can really lay that at the doorstep of science. (I think Douglas Adams came closest to describing such as person in “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”.)
Another point I would make about Newtonian physics, in addition to the very cogent one made up above, is that general relativity didn’t simply prove Newton WRONG. Rather, it extended it into a realm (namely the subatomic) that had initially been assumed to be the same as the familiar macroscopic one. But an important feature of relativity is that it still reduces to the original Newtonian physics on the scale of our macroscopic lives. General relativity was a stepwise refinement of physics. (Kind of like how soundtracks were a stepwise refinement of cinema.) So, whatever conviction physicists held in Newtonian physics in the 19th century, it was not misplaced, misguided, or in any way outside of reason.