Saturday, February 9, 2008

Vox Day, Author of "The Irrational Atheist," plus Hitchhiker's' and Star Trek's Rules

Tomorrow I hope to post my review of The Irrational Atheist, a book that responds to the recent wave of “New Atheist” arguments from people like Michel Onfray (whose Atheist Manifesto I reviewed yesterday) and Christopher Hitchens (who I’ve seen debate twice in recent months). Today, though, a review, as it were, of the author of Irrational Atheist, Vox Day.

One of the first things likely to strike an atheist reader is that Day sounds young, smart, hip, and funny, so one can’t simply dismiss him as a crusty old man repeating tired dogma instead of making thoughtful arguments. I think he gets into some unproductive semantic knots but scores many useful points, as I’ll explain tomorrow.

Speaking of scoring points, though, it’s interesting how much Day’s background as a videogame designer — not a theologian — influences his philosophical arguments, usually in very positive ways. Many of his strongest arguments arise from his detailed knowledge of military history (used to address the question of whether religion tends to cause wars — with the same statistical savvy he uses to dispel the recently-popular idea that “Red States” are more socially-pathological than “Blue States,” a claim that apparently falls apart once we more closely track redness and blueness at the county level).

There are hints near the end of the book, though, that Day is a “gamer for God” in a more profound way than just having a handle on number-crunching and war scenarios. In one of those cases where someone offers a metaphor so elaborate that you start to suspect he thinks it’s more than just a metaphor, Day explains that game designers like to employ relatively simple, elegant code that can sometimes produce strange results without warranting completely erasing the program and starting over from scratch — and indeed, that one of the most delightful aspects of games is the occasional unexpected, seemingly autonomous actions undertaken by game character artificial intelligences that were thought to be completely predictable.

You wouldn’t want to erase the program every time strange results occurred, even though the characters (were they fully sentient) might think some of those strange results horrible, confusing, or unjust. They don’t realize that their short-term comfort is not what the game was designed for — it has a grander purpose they cannot perceive. Likewise, Day seems to be suggesting, God may have created a universe with a simple set of rules that produce sometimes-confusing results for the programs (us) dwelling within it, but this is not proof that the whole design is monstrous and useless and should be scrapped — not even when a malevolent rival designer (Satan) hacks into the program and starts interfering with the AI programs, a situation the designer could solve by wiping the board or, as a Christian gamer would argue is in fact the case, through the less-invasive technique of deploying a bit of the designer’s mind into the game disguised as a human being, in order to spread the word about how to resist the malevolent code (think of this as the twenty-first-century version of C.S. Lewis’s plainly sci-fi-influenced description of Earth as “territory seized by the enemy” in a cosmic war).

The Rules of Hitchhiker’s and Star Trek

Day’s generous view — that the universe isn’t fundamentally absurd, it just looks that way to all the people who live inside it — helps explain how Day can be a Christian and a big fan of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to which he refers repeatedly. Hitchhiker’s would strike most people (including its author) as a profoundly skeptical book, with interstellar bureaucracies and religions (such as that of the Almighty Prophet Zarquon) constantly interfering in disastrous and ultimately meaningless ways with the lives of innocents — not a vision of a just, reasonable universe. But again, Day might say, perhaps we just don’t perceive the larger purpose of the game (or more likely, Day is wrong, and the universe has no designer — but you can see how the metaphor might be a powerful one for someone of our game-loving time period). This attitude enables him to keep a sense of humor about the whole topic — even while being zealous enough to dismiss atheists at one point by saying that the difference between open-minded agnostics and (per Day) stubborn, combative atheists is that agnostics say, “I don’t believe in God because I don’t see how we can ever know if He exists,” while atheists (should rightly) say, “I don’t believe in God because I’m an asshole.”

As it happens, when I considered trying to write something for Star Trek back in 1995, as mentioned in yesterday’s Retro-Journal entry, I got a chance to read the actual rules of the Star Trek universe, or specifically, Star Trek: The Next Generation, since the writer’s guidelines I saw were written at the height of that show’s dominance of the overall Trek media empire (later series would be more action-oriented and emotion-driven). And many a writer must have looked upon those rules and despaired, since they forbid:

•depicting Starfleet personnel suffering from the routine neuroses and interpersonal emotional conflict common in our own era, these things having been eliminated

•depicting time travel or alternate realities (not that Trek has ever been without these things, but the producers rightly sought to keep it to a minimum by discouraging freelancers from leaping to those tired tropes first)

And, most relevantly:

•depicting a God-like alien being who tests humans to judge their worthiness to survive

That last one, too, had been overdone in Trek by that time — and I wish we could lay down a similar rule for humans considering starting a religion.


Samuel Skinner said...

Arguements still suck- they may be know, but they still are rather bad.

First red state vs blue state county divide- probably related to wealth and poverty. orange country is red and rich- Oakland is blue and poor. But since the state overall is blue the social policies are blue and the state is better off. My explanation could be wrong (Not all poor people are dems), but it does explain it.

Not sure about the wars- I don’t claim all wars were started by religion- most atheists don’t. I just claim that some wars were started by a religion, pointless wars are bad and the blood of those who were killed in it is on those who justified such slaughter. People keep on saying that atheists view religion as the root of all evil. Although I can’t speak for alll atheists, I know religion isn’t the root of all evil. However, it is the root of some evil, just like racism. And fighting evil is always worthwhile.

The video game design arguement doesn’t work. Omnisience doesn’t mean knowing the starting conditions and the rules- it means knowing everything; at the very least being able to calculate the change second by second in its head. Human designers aren’t omniscient and so you get results like the one he highlighted.

Bad example for video games- they are never created for the ingame characters. A strategy game results in the death of countless troops and RPGs have triggers (why? What have I ever done to you free will?) as well as the obligatory kill everyone in the home town moments.

The whole video game example also nullifies gods omnipowerful. If he couldn’t set up a bug free program, he isn’t all powerful.

I really hate the “agnostic vs atheist” position divide people make. Agnostic is a knowledge position- atheism and theism are belief positions. So you can be an atheist agnostic, a strong atheist or a theist agnostic. You can’t be a plain agnostic though.

Finally… I just realized I got side tracked- no of these are reasons for gos existance- he doesn’t prove anything at all!

snooch said...

He wasn’t trying to prove anything other than that the high priest atheist’s arguments are quite flawed. Something he did quite handily.

Sean Dougherty said...

Small world. Simon Jones, Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Radio and TV series, just wrapped up a three-performance gig in “The Andersonville Trial,” a courtroom drama that confronts the barbarities of war through the lens of what the commander of the Andersonville camp should have done when ordered to inflict intolerable cruelties on its inmates by his superior officer (who was dead by then and beyond the reach of the court).

He was also a close friend of Douglas Adams apart from their professional relationship. Adams was an atheist who said that a London street preacher’s ravings made him one day realize that all religion was all nonsense and that was the frame for his worldview from then forward.

There is going to be a reunion of the surviving cast members of the radio series with a recreation on March 12 in London. I wish I could afford to go.