Chapter 5: Orbiting Jupiter

During my undergrad, I spent a lot of my free time trying to write a novel. At the time, the project meant a lot to me, but it was a doomed endeavour from the start; I’m just not good at writing characters. The novel was less a coherent story and more a random collection of scenes that I desperately tried to stitch together into a coherent narrative. One of the scenes took place on board a space station orbiting Jupiter. Humanity had progressed to the point where we were spread out across the solar system, but had not yet learned to exist meaningful in space. Jupiter was an important source of minerals for the wider human civilization, but was otherwise a miserable place to be.

In order to cope, the residence of Jupiter Station had voluntarily enclosed themselves in a self created meta-verse. A virtual existence wholly separate from the physical realities of living on a space station; like the Matrix, only not a secret. This meta-verse existed more like Star Trek’s Holodeck than the simulacrum of real life portrayed in the movie. The residence of Jupiter Station needed only to image something, and they would have it: Sex in as much abundance and variety as they wished, drugs of any potency without any side effects, food of any variety and in any quantity, and most importantly power over anything they desired. The fantasy they could create for themselves would be as unique or mundane as they wanted it to be; a paradise of human desire, free of any troubles or issues that may come up in day to day living. A reasonable surface level end point if we assume infinite technological progression.

What are the consequences of a world devoid of nature, yet optimized for human value?

The story includes a religious group who reject the fantasy that is presented to them. They view the meta-verse as a great evil and work to undermine it. Unfortunately, they are successful and manage to permanently disable the computers that generate the illusions, forcing the residence to face reality, and causing the society to collapse. Some residence killed themselves unable to part with the loss of their personal universe, others, who had the means, left, and those left behind all died trapped inside a man made metal monstrosity without the means, knowledge, or even ability to sustain themselves. Even the religious organization that wanted this world died because they too vastly underestimated their own reliance on the very system they hated.

As a novel it never panned out, but as a philosophical experiment it lives on in my head. If technology continues to advance, and we keep solving problems to make life better for ourselves, why is the end result so fragile? What are the consequences of a world devoid of nature, yet optimized for human value?


The first and most important lesson one must learn when dealing with any applied mathematics is that it is impossible to optimize two variables at the same time. A good example of this is traffic.

Say we want to minimize a car’s travel distance between two points. On the surface, this seems like an easy problem; we increase the speed limit, pave the road as straight as possible, and finish our job under budget. However, things change when we add a second car to the road. No longer can we just let them both drive as fast as possible down a straight highway because these two cars may interact with each other, and we need to account for these interactions. The faster these cars are going, the more catastrophic it will be if they collide, preventing either from reaching their destination and blocking further traffic until the debris is cleared. We could prevent such an accident by imposing speed limits, thereby limiting the severity of the crash, but doing so would conflict with our initial goal of reducing travel time.

In reality, any real road project is trying to optimize way more variables than just two cars: budget, land use, environmental impact, impact on neighbouring landowners, and of course the thousands if not millions of people who will be using it every day. All of these variables are important, and no solution can universally optimize on all of them at once; every decision has a cost. Some costs are explicit, like the road’s price tag. Some are understood but accepted; such as the resulting noise and air pollution caused by traffic. Others are external and not allowed into the accounting to begin with; such as the impact on the area’s wildlife. We can work around some of these issues by coming up with mathematical or social models that convert some variables into others. Instead of dealing with individual drive times, we can work with statistical measures: How can we ‘minimize’ the ‘average’ travel time on a road for all users? What is the ‘longest trip’ someone will have to make? How can we reduce the ‘probability’ that a collision will occur? Likewise, we can pick social models to reduce the variables. We can optimize for ‘safety’ by slowing everyone down in order to reduce the risk of accident, or we can optimize for ‘choice’ by creating different lanes with different rules and allow users to choose their level of risk. Of course, all of these models make some assumptions about what we humans value and are nothing more than statistical tricks to reduce the problem to a single measurable variable.

Once we have selected our model, or target as it is commonly referred, the act of optimization itself can be thought of as a game1. The singular variable we are optimizing on being the game’s goal, and all the variables we can manipulate being its structure. Regardless of how many players are playing the game, the winner is the person who develops the best strategy to optimizes the desired target. Alan Turing2 used such a game to argue that computers can think, and at the same time created the framework of target generation that all modern artificial intelligence systems employ. He called this game the Imitation Game.

The Imitation Game

Imagine a game with three players: one human, one computer, and the third an interrogator with no knowledge of the other two. Both the human and the computer are trying to convince the interrogator that they are the human, and the interrogator is tasked with determining who is telling the truth. The optimal strategy for the computer (which Turing referred to as A) is to impersonate a human as best as possible, while the human (which Turing referred to as B) is trying to reveal this deception. Turing’s goal in introducing this game was to reduce a complicated question like, “can computers think” into a single model we could then theorize about: can the computer win?

We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this…? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence (pp 50)3

To Turing, the question of “can machines think?” was ambiguous because ‘thinking’ had no non-subjective definition. What it meant to ‘think’ was, and remains, a very philosophical concept that is warped by whatever linguistic context it is used in. This objection is further reinforced in the second half of his paper, where he addresses the ‘argument from various disabilities’. This argument being a generalized version of the claim that a ‘computer can never do X’, where X is any number of activities from ‘being friendly’, to ‘enjoying strawberries’, to ‘being the subject of its own thought’. To Turing, this entire class of objections really boils down to the objection of consciousness. The objection John Searle brings up with his ‘Chinese room argument’ where he argues that a computer may be able to transform text perfectly, but that doesn’t mean it has an internal understanding or experience of its actions4. Turing rejects this:

Likewise according to this view the only way to know that a man thinks is to be that particular man. It is in fact the solipsist point of view. It may be the most logical view to hold but it makes communication of ideas difficult. A is liable to believe “A thinks but B does not” whilst B believes “B thinks but A does not.” Instead of arguing continually over this point it is usual to have the polite convention that everyone thinks.

Alan Turing (pp 57)

The only reason we believe others think, is because they act in such a way that makes me believe they think. Thus, thinking is already an imitation game played between humans, and why should we exclude the non-human from playing it as well?

Yet, this line of thinking is not without consequences. By arguing that imitation can replace the need for a definition, he is also arguing against the need for a definition at all. It is not necessary to understand how humans think or why humans think, it is only necessary to accept that thinking is a social construct that can be assigned to everything and anyone so long as they adhere to the social contract. A human is only what is perceived to be human, nothing else. In terms of optimization, Turing removes the need for a theoretical target completely. To reduce a multivariate problem to a single variable, we only need to double down on human intuition. In terms of our original problem, the best, most efficient road system is the one that humans like: the mathematical properties of such a system are irrelevant.

In terms of our original problem, the best, most efficient road system is the one that humans like: the mathematical properties of such a system are irrelevant.

Importantly, Turing didn’t introduce the imitation game using a computer, his opening paragraph introduces it as a game between a man and a woman. The man was trying to convince the interrogator that he was the woman. Turing moved away from this version of the game before the introduction to his lengthy paper had concluded, but its existence is, in my opinion, more important than the rest of the paper because it implies that the definition of the imitation game is not limited to computers, but is intended to be broadly applied. The imitation is available to be used to define anything that humans intuitively understand but is otherwise hard to define. It is the equivalent of Judge Potter Stewart’s, “I know it when I see it” when discussing what is and is not pornography: except applied to everything. What is justice if not something that is perceived as being just? What is ethics if not something that is perceived as being ethical? What is a woman if not something that is perceived as being a woman? What is truth if not something that is convincing. The imitation game is a rejection of philosophy, an admittance that the Greek sophists were right. It’s not important that something exist in the real world, it is only important that it acts convincingly.

It is a meta-verse. A universe of our own creation, and the imitation game gives computer scientists a way to drag this fantasy into their mathematical models.

Machine Learning

Computer intelligence is simultaneously the easiest thing on the planet to explain, and so difficult that even those who study it have no idea how it works. At its core, the entire field of AI is a very complicated imitation game. To create an AI, we begin with a ‘Data Scientist’ who decides how the question ‘What is convincing?’ can be programmed into a computer. Usually this is done by asking billions of humans questions like “Does this picture look like a bird?” then storing the answers in enormous datasets5. The actual training is itself a game computers play against themselves. It begins when the Data Scientist makes guesses about which algorithms will best separates the correct answers from the wrong ones. The algorithms are pitted against each other, with the better performing ones moving on in the training.

A machine learning algorithm is an algorithm that can assess its own performance, and suggest improvements. Training happens in stages, the algorithm is trained, it suggests an improvement, the improvement is applied, and the model is retrained. Training generally ends when the suggested improvements no longer result in better models. However, there are hundreds of such algorithms and choosing the best one is time-consuming. So we create algorithms that train these algorithms, and compete them against each other, for us. This cycle has no end, there are algorithms that create algorithms that create algorithms with as many layers as the available computing power can handle. The data scientist knows what the top level target is, and a lot about the top level architecture that encourages the parameters and methods below it to get in line, but the inner workings of the system itself is a complete black box. It is notoriously difficult to explain in any human way why one image may be classified as containing a bear and another not. Likewise, these systems tell us nothing about how human cognition actually works beyond the simple, unprovable, hypothesis that the winning algorithm might be similar to what the human brain actually uses.

AI is nothing more than a hyper complex system where we throw wet pasta at a wall and iterate on the ones that stick. Over time, we may generate very sticky pasta, but at not point do we ever discover why pasta is sticky or question why it is even desirable that the pasta be sticky.

Turing’s hypothesis, that the perception of an object can replace the existence of an object, sits at the heart of all of this. At not point in the generation of AI is a philosophical definition of its target necessary; in fact the opposite is true, experiments show it is better to know nothing. The first version of Alpha Go, the algorithm that first beat human masters at the board game Go, had real human games of Go included in its training dataset. The second version, Alpha Zero, only used games that it itself generated through self play. Alpha Zero became the better Go player, demonstrating that trying to insert current human understanding of such a game is actually detrimental to its performance. Or at least that’s the argument that I keep hearing.

Go is a combinatorial board game, meaning that it can be fully modelled mathematically. Anyone who studies games can be easily persuaded that winning at Go more mathematical than social. We don’t need the imitation game to create a target for go because it already has one built into its rules. There is no ambiguity about what it means to win at go, we don’t even need a physical board to play the game. Go is not an image of its social norms, the mythology surrounding the game is itself the image; so of course the AI will do better when that image is removed, as training on the singular variable we care about will always be better than a simulacrum of that variable. This is why Alpha Zero is not, in my opinion, a good example of why computers will eventually be better at everything than humans. Yet, that doesn’t stop people from believing that winning at Go is a natural step in the computer’s evolution towards personhood6.

  1. I’m using the definition of game I developed in this blog post.[]
  2. Creator of the mathematics of ‘computable numbers’, code breaker instrumental in breaking Nazi encryption during World War 2, and one of the founding father’s of modern computing[]
  3. Turing, Alan. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. In The New Media Reader (pp 50-64).[]
  4. I discuss this in an earlier blog post here.[]
  5. Google has been doing this with captchas for years. To decide if someone is human, they show them a bunch of pictures and ask them if they contain traffic signs. Some of these pictures they already know the answer to, others they don’t. If you answered similarly to other humans on the known images you will be declared a human, the rest of the pictures are your unpaid contribution to their dataset.[]
  6. I’ve been working on this blog post for a really long time. I started before ChatGPT blew up the internet. I will admit it is a different beast than Alpha Zero, but I’m still not convinced it is a good argument towards the inevitability of superior AI. The argument below is not about ChatGPT, but should be easy to reorganize into why I believe this.[]

Chapter 4: A Eulogy for Evangelicals

I worked at Christian summer camps for most of my twenties, and during my final year there I remember a specific conversation I had with some younger counsellors. The topic was common: predestination, did god purposefully create some humans knowing they wouldn’t believe in him damning them to hell? The issue is that free will doesn’t work cleanly in a universe that contains both an all-powerful god and an almost mathematically firm belief in a judged afterlife. How can God be both good and willing to punish humans for choices they had no choice but to make?

I was on my break when it happened. The other group of counsellors arrived and sat down around me, already deep in conversation. Even at the time I was done with this topic and wanted nothing to do with it; however, I was pulled in against my will because everyone knew me to be a ‘smart person’. I was asked directly what my opinion on the matter was, and I gave it. “I do not see how something like belief could undo the miracle at the cross.” A junior councillor stammered, “but belief is important,” as I got up and left. That was my last year as an evangelical; I will never go back.


Growing up in an evangelical church, I was frequently warned about something called ‘new age relativism’. The advent of post-modernism and other ‘new age’ movements in the eighties, right before I was born, really spooked a lot of people. I was plenty warned about the dangers of ‘new age’ thinking and particularly the horrors of believing that ‘what is true for me might not be true for you’. Honestly, I don’t know exactly which movements I was being warned against, only that they were dangerous and should be avoided. 1 Evangelicals are terrified of relativity; the consequences of Christianity not being the ‘one true religion’ are unthinkable. The very foundation of their beliefs rests on the notion that they have access to a truth of the universe that other people do not. The very word ‘evangelism’ is a moral obligation to share this truth with the world. The whole belief system is neatly summed up in the very first bible verse I was required to memorize, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)2 That alone marks the road to salvation, those who believe in God will live and those who do not will die.

What does it mean to believe in something? Am I sufficiently believing right now or am I just pretending? What can I do to convince myself and God that I sufficiently believe?

John 3:16, stripped of the context that the rest of the bible provides, seems like a commandment so simple that even children can understand it; believe in God and he will save us from evil. However, it reifies belief in ways that are difficult to describe to someone who didn’t grow up in a religious setting. What does it mean to believe in something? Am I sufficiently believing right now or am I just pretending? What can I do to convince myself and God that I sufficiently believe? I remember at least once checking in on my parents at night to make sure they were still there; it terrified me that they might be taken up to heaven leaving me behind due to insufficient belief. I was a child, and children believe both everything and nothing. Things only got worse when pastors would point out all the time Jesus attacked the religious elite noting that following the rules is not good enough to make it into heaven; actions are empty without belief. None of this made any sense. To tiny me, make-believe and real life were much closer together. How could I know for certain I wasn’t just pretending to believe when existence itself was just an elaborate ritual designed to trick others into thinking I was somewhat normal.

Fundamentalism is both forward-thinking and a backward-thinking ideology. It begins as a reaction to a perceived drift between Christianity and its roots in the Bible. They believe that we are no longer reading the bible and as a consequence are making decisions that directly contradict the straightforward commandments that the bible offers. So they wish to return to this pure path of biblical truth and nothing else. Yet, their interpretation of the bible relies very heavily on a very modern literal and constructivist interpretation of the Bible, and as a purity movement, they reject much of the unnecessary context around the Bible. They believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God and therefore reject its history as an object. It is a protestant movement and therefore rejects most of the history of the church after the events recorded in the book of acts. Most importantly, it rejects the bible as a work of literature and treats it more like a mathematical textbook. It is perfect as it is, in English, without thinking about its oral traditions, its monastic traditions, its complicated relationship with language, or the process of translation from any of the many languages it was written into the one we are reading it in. The Bible is true in the same way that Euclid’s axioms are true, it just is: no further discussion is necessary.

Because of this, biblical fundamentalism is weirdly mathematical in how it treats truth. Statements are true or false based only on how well they link back to the Bible. If A is biblical, and A implies B, then we conclude that B is also true. This means that the doctrine is very fragile. There is suddenly no such thing as an inconsequential part of the bible; everything stands and falls together. This creates a need to vigorously defend even portions that have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus.

  • Everything inside the bible is true.
  • The accounts of the creation of the world in genesis are true.
  • The genealogies following these accounts are true.
  • Therefore, the earth must be only a few thousand years old.

Even though the details of how the world came into being are, at best, only contextual to Christ’s core message of death and rebirth, evangelicals are forced to defend such details with the same ferocity that they defend their interpretation of John’s message.3 Much of the Bible’s metaphysics isn’t even necessary to make the story of Christ work. If we look at the bible as a work of literature we can interpret its metaphysics as a type of soft magic system that is purposefully vague and poorly defined. Much older Christian traditions, like the mystics, view this vagueness as an attempt by human writers to understand something that is fundamentally unknowable. The written word is simply not sufficient to accurately reflect God. From here, it is much easier to admit that Genesis, and other parts of the bible, might be poetry without undermining the core themes of death and rebirth. Yet, this is not the Evangelical perspective. Their interpretation leaves very little room for metaphors and therefore forces them to defend the least important parts of the bible as historical fact. To a modern fundamentalist’s interpretation of the bible, doubting the creation story in genesis leads to doubting Christ’s resurrection, which leads to disbelief, which leads to death. Thus we arrive at a place where we must either accept the entire Bible as it is written or throw it out completely. The term I have heard used in sermons for those who pick and choose what to believe from the Bible is ‘grocery shopping Christians’ because they walk down the aisle of God’s teaching and pick which ones are convenient to them.

This, they say, is relativism.

Now I won’t pretend that there isn’t disagreement in the evangelical world about what it actually means for the bible to be true or which parts of it are literal and which parts are metaphorical; however, this disagreement is philosophically unimportant for two reasons. The first is Evangelist’s insistence that only the Bible is true creates an environment where any opinion that isn’t a direct quotation from the Bible can be ignored. These writing are not, and can never become canon, there is no reason to ever teach these works at bible colleges, there is no reason to refute their arguments, and there is definitely no reason for students to even know that these works exist in the first place. Everything not biblical is the work of fallible humans and can be safely ignored; therefore, The conversation doesn’t ever move forward and issues can never be addressed because fundamentalism, by design, is stuck in place and can neither move forward nor address issues.

Everything not biblical is the work of fallible work of humans and can be safely ignored; therfore, The conversation doesn’t ever move forward and issues can never be addressed because fundamentalism, by design, is stuck in place and can neither move forward nor address issues.

Secondly, there is no single unified ‘Evangelical movement’. Instead, they are loosely aligned groups of culturally similar churches. Some denominations, like the Christian and Missionary Alliance which I grew up in, are hierarchical organizations with written statements of belief that hold local pastors accountable to the denomination, while others, like the Pentecostal Association of Canada, are loose confederations of individual churches that are free to teach just about anything they want. In both cases, entrenched belief structures are nearly impossible to update because no amount of discussion can ever overpower the initial Biblical reading that created the denomination in the first place. Both systems tend to only allow the distribution of secondary literature that supports their preexisting beliefs while dismissing everything else. More importantly, each denomination is only accountable to themselves and not to each other. Disagreements do not result in change, they just result in more churches. The result is a world where churches are driven more by cultural similarities than any amount of doctrine. The easiest theology that adhere closest to pre-existing cultural touchpoints are the doctrines that collect the most followers and are the best situated to spread those beliefs to others. This is a culture of disposable theology. Sermons live by how well they connect to a culture and die when that culture moves on. They can resonant strongly with those who hear them in the moment, but they rarely have any effect beyond their immediate audience.


The omnipotence of God is a core concept of Christianity, yet how it is expressed is subtly different among its many variations. Fundamentalism, as a conservative philosophy, shares its interpretation of God’s omnipotence with its non-theistic relatives. To the Evangelical, God is sovereign in the political sense. More importantly, he is exceptional in the sense described by German philosopher, and Nazi sympathizer, Carl Schmitt. Schmitt was a fierce critic of liberal philosophy and firmly believed that in order to maintain ‘order’ in a society it was necessary for its government to operate with no external limitations. He didn’t reject the need for a rule of law, only that the government should be sovereign and the, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”4 To Schmitt the liberal ideal that ‘no one is above the law’ is flawed because a government needs to be able to step in to deal with circumstances that the law is unprepared to deal with. Ideally these moments would be rare, reserved for the sovereign himself, and not be outsourced to agents acting in the interest of the sovereign.

In the context of Christianity, exceptionalism is expressed through the miricles of Christ. By breaking the laws of creation and performing the impossible, Jesus is proving that he is sovereign over creation: by raising Lazarus from the dead he is proving that he is master over death, by miraculously feeding his followers he is proving he is master over the natural order, and so on. God is sovereign and is therefore not subject to the same rules that we are. However, the miracles of Jesus are also limited. He did not resurrect everyone, he did not permanently remove the need to eat, and most importantly he did not rescue his people from Roman oppression as the religious establishment expected him to do. He only did what was necessary to fulfill scripture and prove he was who he said he was, thus proving that his arrest and subsequent execution by Roman authorities happened only because he let it happen. He could have prevented it but didn’t. Christ’s resurrection frees his people from the law of Moses not by making an exception out of it, but by proving mastery over it, and fulfilling it. God broke the rules not to destroy the rule of law, but to improve it.

The main complaint of Schmittian politics5 is that it has no defence against corruption. What starts as a power intended to maintain order quickly degrades into an unstoppable force of Chaos. If the sovereign is without limits and is supposed to maintain order, then what is stopping him from defining ‘order’ as that which benefits him and his friends personally. Nothing can challenge whatever narrative the sovereign wishes to push because any competing narrative can just be counteracted by declaring an exception. This results in a dual system where the ruling party can, at their own discretion, dictate which things are normal and which things are exceptional. To the average citizen, this creates a world where the rules can change at any moment, and the future becomes impossible to predict. Those who have been wronged under what normal law would consider a crime can only hope for justice so long as the judge they are facing doesn’t get a phone call from the sovereign informing them that they are an exception. As a real-life example, David Lewis, in a discussion of the hybrid democratic/authoritarian post soviet Russian government, identifies exceptionality as a primary contributor to the country’s political issues.

Russia demonstrates very clearly the systematic duality involved in constructing a system around exceptionality. The system inevitably spawns not one sovereign deciding the exception, but a whole system in which sovereignty threatens to disperse in multiple ‘Leviathans’ across the country. Paradoxically, the assertion of exceptionality as the basis of sovereignty – and therefore of political order – has the effect of undermining order in the normal sphere, in the everyday judicial processes, business transactions and security operations.

David G. Lewis, ‘Russia’s New Authoritarianism

If the rules can change at any moment, then the only truth is change itself. As power flows down from the sovereign, those with political power gain the ability to warp reality into whatever best suits them: creating chaos.

Through the power of the holy spirit Evangelicals also claim the power to declare exceptions. It is a trope at this point to see a televangelist cast out demons, or miraculously heal followers through ‘the power of God’. Yet, their need to defend even the most trivial parts of the bible, mixed with this freedom to declare exceptions creates some truly bizarre logical concoctions. If the earth is only a few thousand years old, then anything on the earth older than that, like dinosaur bones, are exceptions and must have been placed there by God in order to test our faith. Christian Science exists not as a way of learning about a world, but as a way to structure a meaningless discussion about what is and what is not an exception. Likewise, alliances between groups whose beliefs and goals are fundamentally contradictory are easy and manageable because God’s exceptionality means that he can use even evil to fulfill his holy plan. The truly diabolical part of this only becomes apparent when we realize that even the rule of law is subject to God’s sovereignty. A believing Evangelical is ethically free to do whatever they want so long as they ‘believe’ that they are furthering God’s will. The law is only the law so long as it isn’t an exception.

Yet, if we dig deep enough into Evangelical theology we will discover that even the bible is not immune from exceptions. I was never taught to ‘be a Christian’, no, I was instructed to foster my ‘relationship with God’. The Bible isn’t true because it is a book, it is true because it is the means by which God speaks to those who follow him. So when I read the Bible, it is not the words that speak to me it is God himself. However, the absolute interpretation of the Bible means that only the first reading has any value. Individuals, or entire churches, are encouraged to treat their first reading of the Bible as truth. Any different readings will need to be explained and can be ignored if they incorporate anything non-biblical. Anything contradictory can be made into an exception. Likewise, they do not see a distinction between objective reality and conventional reality6. There is only one truth, the Bible, and how my community interprets the Bible overrides your lived experience.

This is relativism.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

John 1:1-4


It is difficult to describe my relationship with Christianity because everything I am saying might convince you that I reject it outright: but I don’t. It’s actually very difficult to change one’s beliefs; in fact, it’s a luxury. What we believe affects every part of our lives: how we interact with ideas, who we have relations with, how we work, what we work towards, and even how we live our day-to-day lives. Beliefs are the foundation of what it means to be human. Everything we experience is filtered through the lens of our beliefs, and changing them first requires changing ourselves. Not everyone can do this as there are social consequences, political consequences, and even physical consequences to believing. Even if we want to it doesn’t mean we can. Like it or not, the things we are taught as children stick in our brains. Belief is as fundamentally a part of our human nature as Christians believe our sin to be.

Fundamentalism, paradoxically, believes in a corrupt human nature but does nothing to combat it. It celebrates being ‘changed through the holy spirit’, yet threatens eternal damnation on anyone who strays to far from their existing path. It relies on people not actually reading the Bible in any way that matters. If my first reading is true, then all of the darkness deep within me, my biases, my prejudices, and my flaws, are all true as well. Fundamentalism encourages the easy reading of the Bible by throwing roadblocks in the way of anything more subtle. We don’t need to challenge our beliefs, just to keep reinforcing that which we already believe: the old ways are best. Those readings that survive are the ones that propagate the fastest because they require the least effort to understand. Yet, with all things that are easy to understand they come with some very dire consequences. The paradox of predestination is such conclusion that originates from an unexamined reading of John. Those who don’t believe will die. Yet, what is belief if not part of our human nature, and what good is is a saviour whose sacrifice is dependent on the very thing he is supposedly saving us from. If God has saved us from our sinful nature, why is it that our sinful nature is the one thing that stops it? Predestination isn’t just an interesting theological puzzle that ‘smart’ Christians can play around with in their free time, it is cancer at the very heart of the Evangelical movement: a demonstration of how a focus on belief can undo Christ’s sacrifice.

Those who don’t believe will die. Yet, what is belief if not part of our human nature, and what good is is a saviour whose sacrifice is dependent on the very thing he is supposedly saving us from.

Today, my relationship with Christianity is complicated. It is a fundamental part of how my brain works and I’ll admit that no amount of intellectual effort can change that. Christians view humans as corrupt beings, and regardless of whether this is a deep seeded truth of our species or just a product of the post-colonial late-stage capitalist society I live in, I can’t help but agree with that sentiment that there is something deeply wrong with our species. Yet, the story of Christ is a story of hope and that hope, for better or worse, is something I cling to. It is a story of how something as deeply corrupt as us can be fixed. How even though Utopia is a logical fallacy, we are still allowed to dream of a better world. However, I am no longer capable of seeing salvation through the lens of belief. A God who condemns his people based on their beliefs is no better than a God who condemns his people based on their nature. Both are part of our nature, and both are not something that we as individuals have the power to overcome. Either he saved us from our own nature or he didn’t. In terms evangelicals might understand, either God died for our sins and saved us from our sinful nature, or he did not. By ‘us’ I mean all of us, everybody, without exception7. To add any condition to this is to force a condition onto the sovereignty of God himself.

And what is a God without sovereignty?

  1. Also there was this one time when I came home and excitedly explained to my Mom this new game I had discovered. It was called ‘dungeons and dragons’ and her visceral reaction plus the look of horror in her eyes is likely one of the main reasons why I’ve still never played any TTRPG (beyond a single one-off campaign) to this day.[]
  2. I’ll be using the NIV bible for all quotations.[]
  3. With many exceptions of course. I find it funny that we are totally allowed to interpret the red dragon in Revelations as a metaphor but questioning the talking snake in Genesis is blasphemy.[]
  4. Politial Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. by G. Schwab. Link[]
  5. Beyond… you know… his connection to Nazi Germany.[]
  6. See my previous blog post here.[]
  7. If you are in the Christian world and find yourself questioning the doctrine of damnation, I recommend giving Love Wins a read. In it, Rob Bell goes through every mention of damnation in the bible and argues why the bible doesn’t support that theology.[]

Chapter 3: Second Truth

I received a magic set for Christmas one year, and child me was thrilled about the prospect of learning magic. However, to my dismay, the few tricks I did learn weren’t sufficiently magical enough to teach me magic. One trick allowed me to disappear a magic wand. The wand was connected to an elastic band, which was connected to the back of my coat. The trick had me wave the wand around and, when ready, release it allowing the elastic to pull the wand up my sleeve and away from view. It was a fun gimmick, but knowing this didn’t help me understand professional magicians at all; they didn’t wear coats. As a teen my peers were quick to point out that magic was ‘fake’; a conclusion supported by this magic set which was filled with squishy foam balls, weirdly printed cards, and invisible plastic sheets that nobody was falling for. Everything was just something pretending to be something else, the only people who would fall for this were people who were just dumb enough to believe it. With physics, I found that each revelation helped reveal the next revelation. Learning small things gradually made it easier to understand bigger things later. However, magic is different. No matter how many tricks I knew, none of them made it easier to understand how other tricks were done. Worse, the knowledge I gained about some tricks actually made it easier to fall for others. Whenever I saw a professional disappear something I couldn’t help looking for the elastic band which made it that much easier to miss whatever else they had in store. My problem, as a child, is that I viewed magic as I viewed everything else: as a puzzle to be solved. Yet magic, unlike physics, isn’t a puzzle so much as it is an art. While a physicist is interested in learning about the immutable universe. A magician is an expert in something infinitely fluid: our flawed perceptions. Magic is the art of demonstrating the difference between physical reality and perceived reality. A great magician is someone who can create a perceived reality that is incompatible with the real world; they can make us experience the impossible.

During my Master’s degree, I had a conversation with my apartment neighbour that has stuck with me ever since. Part of my own learning process is attempting to explain new ideas to other people1. If I can successfully explain an idea to someone else, then that means I myself adequately understand it, at least to the level of the explanation. Now, I had just been exposed to Post Modernism and was drunkenly trying to explain to my neighbour that most of the world we, as humans, exist in is not really real in any objective sense. Our politics, social structures, and even how we perceive our own bodies are social constructs and are not direct products of the laws of physics. They can change, they can be different, and we could and have changed these concepts to suit our needs or the needs of those powerful enough to enact these changes; one cannot simply derive what will be in fashion next season from the laws of physics. However, at the time I may have pushed the concept a little bit too far because of a slightly confused question that came next. “Surely you can’t be arguing that this table”, he puts his beer down on the table beside us, “doesn’t exist”. I’m not sure I answered the question adequately and the conversation moved on.

Yet, does a table exist? Is it real in the same sense that magic is not? In some sense yes, but in another no. A table, as opposed to any other chunk of wood, is indeed a social construct. Humans invented aesthetics, and humans invented furniture. Somebody made a conscious decision to cut and carve wood into that particular arrangement and somebody else made a conscious decision to leave it in a location so that it would be useful to hold a beer. Yet, in another sense, it isn’t. It is still a material object, if I lift it up it is subject to gravity, I can’t walk through it because it takes up space. If all of the humans in the world collectively decided that it no longer existed, such a decision would accomplish nothing as the material object that we call a table would still be there. There is a part of the table that is collectively made up, but another part that is objectively real. If I remove one molecule at a time from a table, it is we humans that decide when it ceases to be a table, but it is only after the last molecule is removed that it ceases to be real.

Absolute Knowledge

Western philosophy arguably began with the realization that the things we think we know probably aren’t as certain as we believe them to be. Socrates’ main contribution to philosophy, through the writings of Plato, is his annoying ability to question anything offered to him as fact.

Scene: a court of law

Socrates: Alas, I am charged with corrupting the youth and being impius, but I cannot defend myself for I do not know what piety is? Good friend Euthyphro, you are smart. What is piety?
Euthyphro: Piety is doing that which is pleasing to the Gods.
Socrates: But there are many gods who are frequently in conflict. What if they disagree about what pleases them?
Euthyphro: Well they do agree that it is right to punish a murderer.
Socrates: But aren’t there people arguing that some people who admit to such a crime shouldn’t be punished?
Euthyphro: Well they aren’t arguing that murder isn’t bad, they are arguing about who did it and when.
Socrates: Do the Gods participate in this argument?

Plato’s Euthyphro (comically paraphrased)2.

Every explanation requires us to use words and phrases that themselves need to be explained and can be questioned. In this way, knowledge never bottoms out, everything we think we know is based on other things that we think we know. There is no way of proving that the cat I see outside my windows is actually a cat and not a pile of leaves that looks distinctly like a cat. Yet, Socrates is responding to another invention the Greeks left us: absolute knowledge. The idea is that some things we know are universally and absolutely true. Mathematics only works if some things, like \(1+1=2\), are absolutely and unquestionably true. Deciding on what is absolutely true and what isn’t is no small feat. It is no exaggeration to say that billions of words have been spilled onto pages for thousands of years trying to sort this distinction out. In the 1600’s french mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, thought he could fix this by imposing mathematical rigour on top of classical philosophy. He wanted to create an unquestionable axiomatic foundation for philosophy by searching for philosophical concepts that were as ‘clear and distinct’ as simple mathematical truths. He believed that if he could discover even one statement that the most stubborn of skeptics could not question, then he could use logic and mathematics to build the rest of reality. His discovered statement was the famous ‘cogito, ergo sum’: I think therefore I am.

Then without doubt I exist also if [a demon] deceives me, and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am something. So that after having reflected well and carefully examined all things, we must come to the definite conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it.


Even if everything I see is faked by a magician, I can still know for certain that the magician must be deceiving something; therefore, I exist. From this conclusion, Descartes further concludes that everything he conceives of must come from something and that his perceptions are necessarily less perfect forms of that something. Thus, he rationalizes that the world, and eventually God, also exist.

While he may be correct that it is difficult to doubt one’s own existence, simply stating that ‘I exist’ doesn’t actually say all that much as it doesn’t answer the more important question: what is ‘I’? What properties do ‘I’ have? Am ‘I’ a singular entity, or am ‘I’ merely a higher-level product of other processes? You might view me as a thing in the same way you view a table as a thing, but do ants? Would an alien recognize me as an individual, or just as one of the organs of the true dominant species of our planet: cars. There is much discussion about what Descartes’ ‘I’ really means; however, what is more interesting to me is the assumption that ‘I’ means anything at all. Descartes’ meditations reads like a mathematical dissertation: first, he assumes that X exists, then he shows that Y also exists. These statements alone are empty in the sense that they bring forward nothing more than exactly what they are stating. A point is an empty mathematical object, it has no length, no width, and only exists as an object in relation to other points: we can measure the distance between two points, but only as a comparison with a separate set of two points4. Nothing about a single point is measurable. In the same way Descartes’ ‘I’ is a single point, it exists and has no properties except its relation to other points that exist. Descartes might claim that ‘I’ can think, but without explaining what ‘thinking’ really is he is merely assigning an empty attribute to an empty object. It is left to the reader to fill in the gaps around what ‘I’ really is, and it is these shared contributions that make the argument both coherent and convincing: all sense perceptions must come from somewhere (assuming a separation between ‘I’ and the external world), those somethings are more perfect forms of the perceptions we receive (assuming that ‘perfection’ is a measurable quantity), therefore there must be a most perfect object (assuming that ‘perfection’ can be ranked), therefore God exists. Once we accept that ‘I’ is meaningless without a definition of what it means to be, it suddenly becomes less impossible to doubt the absolute existence of a self.

The Self

If we leave the western tradition for a bit, we come across a disagreement characteristic of the eastern philosophical tradition involving the Buddhist and Hindu conceptualization of the ‘self’. Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation. If we collect good karma our reincarnated selves will be rewarded, but if we collect bad karma our reincarnated selves will be punished. However, the ‘self’ in their eyes is fundamentally different than the Greek and Christian self, or soul, that we have been talking about. Unlike the western soul, which views itself as the real ‘I’ that merely inhabits a mortal body, the Hindu self, or ‘Ātman’ is merely one piece of a greater divine self known as ‘Brahman‘. It is this Ātman that is engaged in the perpetual cycle of death and resurrection and not, as westerners commonly assume, a singular western immortal soul that keeps getting attached to new bodies.

Buddhism disagrees, while it is true that we are indeed trapped in this perpetual cycle of death and rebirth, it is possible, and desirable, to escape it by eliminating our attachments to the world and becoming ‘nothing’. When asked, ‘what is destroyed when someone achieves nothingness’, the Buddhist response is to ‘remain silent’ because to even attempt to answer such a question would be to admit that there was something to destroy in the first place. To the Buddhist, the word ‘self’ is an empty term, filled with human understanding, but devoid of any universal or physical meaning. We are nothing more than a fold in an unmade bed sheet. When someone makes the bed, the fold ceases to exist. The fold by itself is empty, it isn’t an object separate from the sheet and exists only in relation to the sheet, but the chaos that created the fold still needed to be fixed, and once fixed, the fold is gone; the fold was not destroyed, it just never existed as a singular entity.

To an eastern philosopher, the existence of ‘self’ isn’t obvious or indubitable. The nature of that self is very much in debate and that debate creates a philosophical foundation very different than the western tradition which assumes a special and independent soul as its default view. From which such ideas as liberty, freedom, and independence flow naturally and appear prominently. Of course, it is possible to take a dissenting view, but the burden of proof inevitably falls on whoever disagrees. It takes more effort to argue against a human soul than it does to argue for it.

Now, the Buddhists don’t outright reject a conventional notion of a human self, in fact, the details of what it means to be human are very much up for debate, they just reject an objective reality based on human experience: unlike Descartes. Buddhist philosophy makes an important distinction between two types of truths or Dharmas.

The first truth is the conventional, or concealing truth or reality; the second is the ultimate truth or reality; the second is the ultimate truth or reality. Conventional truth is the realm of persons, objects, dogs, cats, trees, tables, and hard currency. Conventionally, objects exist, endure, and have a whole range of fascinating properties. But ultimately, they are empty. They exist only as impermanent, conventional designations…

The ultimate truth is what appears on careful analysis, or to those who have cultivated their cognitive powers to the point where they apprehend things spontaneously as empty. When things appear in this way, they appear nondeceptively.

William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield5

I may not agree with what the Buddhists classify as objective reality, they are a religion, of course, and as such, they believe absolutely that they have a connection to an ultimate reality that the rest of us lack. But I find the distinction between objective and conventional reality useful, especially when considering how forgetting about such distinctions can lead us to errors.

Descartes begins by aggressively purging himself of all conventional wisdom by doubting everything that his senses tell him. From there he infers that he himself must exist because nothing could convince him otherwise. Yet, he has only proven the existence of an empty ‘self’. He has yet to prove anything about this ‘self’. To the Hindus, the self is a small piece of a much greater object, to the Christians, the self is a separate independent and immortal object, and to the Buddhists, the self is nothing at all. Of course, Descartes was from a Christian tradition and thus the ‘self’ he proved just defaults to the Christian self. His next ‘proof’ invokes a similarly Christian understanding of perfection, and thus his attempt at deriving the fundamentals of philosophy has already derailed.


Imagine a woman born blind. Her understanding of the world from birth excludes sight; however, she hears about it from her friends and family and soon becomes obsessed with the concept. She enters university to study sight, and over time she becomes the world’s foremost expert on sight. During her research, she discovers the definitive theory of sight and is soon able to predict with 100% accuracy the outcomes of all sight-related experiments. Her knowledge grows so significantly that she is even able to accurately predict the exact path electricity will take through any particular brain given a specified sight. However, no matter how much structural knowledge she gains about sight, she has no way of understanding or predicting what it would feel like to actually see. Sure she could predict how her own neurons will react, and she could also structurally identify what effect it would have on her life. However, regardless of any prediction, when she actually uses her knowledge to fix her eyes allowing her to see for the first time, something new will be created inside of her. All of her empty structural knowledge will be filled for the first time with subjective experience. Philosophers have given this new experience a name: qualia.

I first heard this metaphor during a discussion on artificial intelligence in a philosophy of computing class. John Searle uses qualia in his theoretical “Chinese room experiment”6 to demonstrate why computers can never be thought of as thinking beings. A man sits inside a room with only a book for company. Every once in a while a sheet of paper is passed underneath the door containing strange symbols. The man finds in his book direction on how to transform these symbols into other symbols. He follows the instructions and creates a new sheet of paper with different symbols and pushes it back under the door. To the lady who wrote the input, the room has perfectly translated a work of classical Chinese literature into English; however, the man inside has only performed an empty ritual and has no understanding of the Chinese language. Searle argues that computers are the same as that man. They may be able to perform transformations, but they don’t have a subjective understanding of the transformations they enact and thus cannot think. This conclusion assumes that books, or the room itself, do not have subjective experiences and introduces a human into the picture to demonstrate this point.

Central to the Christian understanding of ‘self’ is that most objects do not have one, books and rooms are inanimate and do not contain an immortal soul. Yet, drawing a line between the things that have subjective experiences and the things that do not, is not an easy task, and heavily relies on our definition of self. Christian theologians still argue about when the soul enters a body, or at what age children become responsible for their actions. If our immortal soul is to be judged in the afterlife, it is vital that we understand what it will be judged for. In a different work, Descartes claimed that “there is none that leads weak minds further from the straight path of virtue than that of imagining that the souls of beasts are of the same nature as our own.”7 He justified this statement by pointing out that some of our capabilities, specifically language, are absent in beasts. Yet, this style of argument is reminiscent of similar arguments that have been used to revoke personhood from women, children, black folk, queer folk, Jewish folk, nature itself, and literally anything else that challenges whatever narrative the powerful want to push. If a soul is what gives us value, then defining who has one is equivalent to defining what has value.

Yet, all of these questions are only questions if we assume a Christian understanding of the self. If instead, we start by assuming that everything has a self then the reasoning falls apart as its emptiness is revealed. Searle’s argument assumes that the book itself has no self and therefore no qualia, but why is that our default? Why is it so easy to argue that a room, containing a book which can fully comprehend the intricacies of the Chinese language, has no subjective reality? Why does not being ‘human’ exclude Searle’s room from participating in conventional reality? The answer is now obvious, it is because all of these terms are empty. They only mean things because we fill them with meaning. We are confusing our conventional reality with objective reality. Conventionally, only humans have souls; therefore objectively, computers can’t think. Yet, the words ‘thinking’ and ‘souls’ are like the table; the laws of physics don’t require us to agree on what they really are.


So does a table exist? Yes, conventionally a table exists and to argue otherwise is complete foolishness, but tables don’t have to exist. It is totally reasonable to assume that a human could live and die without ever seeing, inventing, or even conceptualizing a table. We created it, we didn’t have to, but we did.

This fact is where magicians draw their power. They only need to draw attention to places where conventional reality and objective reality disagree to create the impossible. They move objects in one, without moving them in the other. Their job is to show us a table and make us see an elephant.

Like an elephant that appears
Through the power of a magician’s mantra —
Only the percept appears,
The elephant is completely non-existant.

The imagined nature is the elephant;
The other-dependent nature is the visual percept;
The non-existence of the elephant therein
Is explained to be the consummate.


The classical Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu explains that there are three natures when a magician makes an elephant appear. There is the appearance of the elephant, which is our conventional reality. There is the non-existence of the elephant which is the objective reality, and finally, there is the visual percept, the thing we see, its objective reality is just as real as the elephant’s non-existence, yet it creates in us a truth of the conventional reality that is not true of the objective reality. It is the point of disagreement between the two. A magician’s job is to show us that everything we see, hear, touch, and experience is fake. The magic is in making that fakeness feel wonderful.

If I’m making one argument today, it is that if we are to move forward in our understanding of truth, then it is important for us to realize that we are talking about two entirely different, yet equally important, things. One objective, fixed, and eternal, and a second that is relative, infinite, and distinctly personal. The nature of truth changes depending on which truth we are talking about, and we are doing ourselves no favours by confusing one for the other.

  1. Hence this blog.[]
  2. Plato. “Euthyphro” Project Gutenburg, Feb 1, 1999, Link[]
  3. Descartes, René. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” Human Knowledge Classical and Contemporary Approaches. Edited by Paul K. Moser and Arnold Vander Nat, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2003, pp 118.[]
  4. You really need three points before anything interesting starts happening.[]
  5. William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield, “Introduction.” Buddhist Philosophy Essential Readings, Oxford University Press, 2009.[]
  6. Searle, John, “Minds, Brains and Programs”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 1980, Link[]
  7. qtd. in Lurz, Robert, “Animal Minds.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Link[]
  8. Vasubandhu, “Treatise on the Three Natures.” Translated by Jay L Garfield. Buddhist Philosophy Essential Readings, Edited by William Edelglass and Jay L Garfield. Oxford University Press, 2009.[]

The Flames of Rebirth: War in Fire Emblem Three Houses

During the summer of 2019 I bought myself a Nintendo switch, and a copy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses purely on a whim. I don’t normally buy games at launch, but I needed a first title for my new game system and had never played a fire emblem game before, so I decided to take the plunge. I finished my first play through of the game that fall, and by early 2020 I was working on my first maddening run, the hardest difficulty. Today I’ve completed the game front to back five times. It is easily my favourite single player game in a very long time. Partly because of its interesting, but flawed, game-play, but mostly because it has something interesting to say about conflict that has been in my mind since first playing the game.

(Spoiler warning!!! I’m going to be talking about the ENTIRE three houses story line in detail. If you have any interest in the game stop reading now and play this masterpiece for yourself.)

A game about war.

¡Bias warning!

The main quality that sets Three Houses apart from other war games is the subtle ways it communicates both the horrors and complexities of war. A major issue when designing war games is the limitations of the medium itself. Players want to win, and this simple fact reinforces a very black and white view on warfare that is difficult to get around; there are enemies to defeat, and allies to save. The plot may mess around with the morality of one side or the other, muddy the waters between allies and enemies, by having sympathetic villains, making characters switch sides, questioning the motivations of the hero, or just having the player take side with the villain, but ultimately the final level must have an enemy to overcome and an objective to clear; war is a game with two sides.

At a gameplay level Three Houses is no different. Similar to how most strategy campaigns allow players to pick opposing factions, players in three houses can find themselves on any of four different routes. However, unlike the typical campaign approach, Three Houses hides the branching of the story from the players until absolutely necessary. Players do not need to play through all campaigns in order to get a complete game experience. During the first half of the game all four routes follow an almost identical trajectory. The game only significantly branches the story in the second half. As well, the writers were careful enough to only branch when absolutely necessary. Certain events are shared across routes making it possible to experience the same battles from opposing perspectives. Regardless of which faction the player sides with, they still get to be the hero of their own story, but the interaction between these parallel routes allows us to see biases and complexities that none of the routes individually can express. What we get is a game, fundamentally about war, which is able to express the reality of conflict as more than just two competing sides vying for power.

The titular “Three Houses” refers to the three main student groups at the Officer’s academy. Each house, Blue Lions, Golden Deer, and Black Eagles, represent one of the main political factions on the continent of Fódlan and are each led by one of the games three main protagonists: Dimitri, Claude, and Edelgard. The player character, Byleth a silent protagonist1, is a mercenary recruited by the church of Seiros to teach at their officer’s academy. Early in the game Byleth is given a choice to lead one of these three houses. The player needs to make this choice before any main plot is revealed, and the consequences of this decision isn’t fully appreciated by the player until much later in the game. Each house is made of of eight students and only the mechanical stats and abilities of each ‘unit’ along with a single introductory sentence revealing their personality is revealed to the player before choosing them. The player is encouraged to choose based on little more than mechanical game elements and artistic preference making the decision feel like a character creation screen. However, this choice turns out to be the most consequential decision in the game.

The game is broken into two main parts. The academy phase, or “white clouds”, is a single narrative viewed through the lens of whichever house you choose. Each month, or chapter, the church sends you and your students on a mission that is common across all routes. As the missions progress your class tries prevent an evil ‘Flame Emperor’ and and the loosely associated band of cultists ‘Those who slither in the dark’ from interfering in the affairs of the church. The second half chronicles a war that breaks out over the entire land of Fódlan. There are four possible routes that can be taken depending on the choices made in the first phase; each telling a related but different story2


On no! The creepy librarian was actually evil the whole time.

The game’s mechanics are a big reason why the story of Three Houses works so well. An important part of the fire emblem series as a whole is a mechanic known as permanent death. Unlike other strategy games that might protect playable characters with resurrection items or by returning fallen characters, possibly through an injury mechanic, after the mission is done, dead characters in Three Houses stay dead. Most no longer appear in cinematics, they can no longer be selected for missions, and their story is no longer progressed. Some plot important characters might ‘retreat’ from combat allowing them to fulfill their plot relevant role; however, something terrible inevitably happens to them off screen once the plot no longer needs them. Notoriously, the game can soft lock if the player loses too many of their units, especially on harder difficulties, as they will no longer have the resources to clear later levels. Mechanically, death in this universe has meaning and the plot uses this to great effect.

During the Academy phase the player spends a great deal of time and effort building relationships with the students. Between each monthly mission you can explore the academy campus and talk to nearly every character in the game, who reacts uniquely to the events of the month. You can offer gifts to students, return lost items, share meals, and even invite them to tea parties. All of these activities build support between you and the students. Support offers a small amount of in game benefit by offering bonuses to units with high support when they fight together, but it is mostly used as a mechanic to further the plot. At certain support thresholds the game unlocks support conversations where, in a cut scene, students and faculty members share a little about their life and personal struggles. Importantly, you can interact with students outside your house in this way as well. External students can appear as guest characters in some missions, they can offer up quests for Byleth to complete, and, under certain conditions, can be recruited into your house. During the war phase, all students are forced to pick sides in the oncoming war. All character you recruit side with you, but other character can find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. This allows the later portions of the game to serve up these characters as enemies instead of other faceless minions. Just like how your characters die permanently, characters you face in combat also die when defeated. The act is designed to be emotionally unpleasant, and it is not uncommon to hear of players recruiting as many characters as possible simply so they won’t be forced to kill them later in the game.

To the level designer who put Bernadetta here: I hate you.

Even background characters are treated like this. Rarely do missions require you to go up against nameless bandits, instead enemies are frequently relatives of one of the playable characters. Chapter three has the player put down a rebellion against the church led by Lord Lonato, the adopted father of Ashe a student of the blue lions house. Chapter five has the player fight off bandits, led by Miklan the older brother of Sylvain another member of the blue lions house, who have stolen a hero’s relic. When playing as any other house, these characters are disposable villains, but to both Ashe and Sylvain these are important life changing events that colour the story for the remainder of the game. Likewise, the web of noble houses introduced throughout the game means that generals defeated in the war phase are rarely just the monster of the week, but are instead someone’s relative who might have gotten more screen time if the player had sided with a different faction.

All of this works together to create a world where death matters, which adds necessary emotional weight to the war phase of the game. Edelgard reveals herself to be the Flame Emperor, becomes emperor of Adrestia, and declares war on the church of Seiros at the climax of White Clouds. It is here that the the game loses its silly and naive video game veneer and transforms into something extremely brutal. Few characters escape death, and death itself becomes the primary driver of the story. In this way the game escapes portraying the war as just heroic, but also as the tragedy that it really is.

Edelgard’s War: A war to end war.

Edelgard von Hresvelg born the ninth child of Emperor Ionius IX of the Adrestian Empire. In many ways her story is the story of the Adrestian Empire itself. At a young age she was taken to the Kingdom of Faerghus during a conflict between the emperor and the ruling nobles resulting in a transfer of power away from the Emperor. Upon returning to Adrestia, Edelgard, along with her siblings, found themselves as test subjects in experiments conducted by the cult, Those Who Slither in the Dark, who had at this point deeply embedded themselves in the Adrestian military. They were trying to artificially embed crests, a magical brand that granted the wielder great power, into these children. The emperor, in his much diminished capacity, disproved of these actions, but could do nothing to stop them. Only Edelgard herself survived, making her the de facto heir to the Adrestian throne.

Edelgard stated goals in the war is to overthrow a toxic world order. Her upbringing soured her permanently on the idea of crests which she saw as a physically manifested caste system. Those who have crests wield power, both physical and political. Crest bearers can wield ancient and powerful weapons, known as hero’s relics, while those without crests are driven to madness and transform into giant abominations by those same weapons. Normally crests are inherited genetically, and Fódlan’s noble families are defined by them. The nobles engage in aggressive breading practices in order to create children who bear crests so that they can go on and lead the family into the next generation. Those without crests, even those from the nobility, form a permanent underclass. Noble children without crests often find themselves viewed as lesser to their siblings in the best of cases and frequently outcasts in their own family. Everyone else are commoners and peasants.

Edelgard sets her sights on the church of Seiros because it is the source of stability to the crest system. All crests find their origin in the founding myth of the church Seiros as each crest is linked to the family line of those warriors who aided Seiros in defeating the King of Liberation long ago. It is the church that perpetuates and maintains the entire system. The church sits at the centre of the continent, acts as an intermediary in political disputes between the three ruling powers, and most importantly supports the noble families and their hero relics. This is made clear in chapter five as Miklan, a crestless son of house Gautier, steals the families’ relic. The church’s response is to kill him, retrieve the relic, and return it to house Gautier. Before the system can change, the church must be removed.

Edelgard wishes to see the world free of crests; a world where where those with and without crests can interact as equals. As well she also envisions a world free of the church of Seiros; a world where humans determine their own fate free from the interference of a God. She vowed to use the power that she was unwillingly given to bring about this future; at any cost. However, Edelgard’s war is as much a civil war as it is a foreign war. Destroying the crest system also involves unseating the Adrestian elite just as much as destroying the church, and as one would expect, Edelgard’s coronation also corresponded with the assassination and removal of many of these ‘corrupt’ nobleman. However, this purge has one very notable exception; Lord Arundel.

Lord Arundel is Edelgard’s uncle and the second most powerful man in Adrestia. During Crimson Flower, Edelgard’s route, he represents the Adrestian wing of Those Who Slither in the Dark. Edelgard openly dislikes the cult and many times throughout the game refuse to be associated with them. During chapter eight, after Byleth stops the cult from experimenting on a village full of civilians, Edelgard, disguised as the flame emperor, tries to distance herself from the actions of the cult.

And yet, she never does. During all routes, even her own, the cult are present at nearly every major battle. The death knight, Edelgard’s vassal, is present during most of the cults experiments in the early chapters of the game, they are present in the chapter twelve attack on Garreg Mach in all routes except Crimson Flower, and most notably they are present in Edelgard’s final stand in the Azure Moon route3. In crimson flower, the cult mostly disappears, but Arundel takes their place, and Edelgard seems unwilling or unable to check his power. He is seen as a necessary evil, and while Byleth never works with them directly, they continue to operate in the background unhindered.

“Their power is essential to us at present.”

The most egregious example of the cults relationship with Edelgard happens after the the battle of Arianrhod chapter sixteen. In this chapter Edelgard attacks and executes Cornelia, a kingdom mage, who was involved with forbidden crest magic. Notably, in the Azure moon route, Cornelia betrays the kingdom in favour of the Adrestian Empire. In Crimson Flower, Lord Arundel condemns Edelgard for executing the mage because if, “that were the case, would it not have been better to keep her as an ally?” Implying that she was associated with the cult. Lord Arundel then warns Edelgard to avoid such mistakes in the future. Moments later, the entire fortress and both armies inside are destroyed in heavenly flame, a weapon that in other routes is tied to the cult. Edelgard suspects the attack came from Arundel, but warns both Byleth and Hubert to keep this secret to themselves. In the next chapter she protects Arundel by blaming the destruction of Arianrhod on the church and uses it as further justification to attack the Kingdom capital directly.

“I will be praying. Praying that the Empire will not become another Arianrhod.”

The Crimson Flower route is contentious among the fan-base because it is the shortest route with the least number of missions. It, in many cases, feels lacking and doesn’t do a good job of letting Edelgard tell her own side of the story. Notably the game ends after Seiros, who in a rage transforms into a dragon and sets the kingdom capital and everyone in it on fire, is defeated. The fate of those who slither in the dark, to many disappointed fans, is not resolved. While I believe the story could have been better fleshed out, I do believe the omission of the resolution with the cult is on purpose. Many of the epilogues imply that even though the war is over, Edelgard and Byleth continue to fight an underground war against the cult.

Sadly, this is not a screenshot. Had to retrieve this ending from a fan site here.

It is hard to believe that Arundel would have gone quietly, which implies that this underground war is just a gentle way to label a much larger civil war. But, the bigger question is what a “world where people can rise and fall by their own merits” actually looks like. Edelgard made it clear that her own feelings on the subject were secondary to her actions. Neither her friends, her enemies, nor her own doubts could convince her to part from her chosen path, and anyone who got in her way wound up dead. Her actions tell a story much stronger than her stated goals. Merit, in Edelgard’s world, is just a pseudonym for useful. The cult aren’t allowed to exist because they deserve it, they are ignored because they are useful. It’s doubtful Edelgard could just suddenly turn off such a fundamental part of her personality, even in peacetime. The above epilogue (There are several depending on how the player ships various characters) implies a happy ending, but it is left unsaid how they go about fixing the issues with society beyond just saying that they did. Yet, this is just to prevent reality from spoiling Edelgard getting to be the hero of her own story. She has already set the precedent that her way to a better world is through the corpses of those in her way, and that she is willing to cooperate with evil so long as it’s useful. Why would she ever let anybody undo that victory? So she does create a better world, one where people who agree with Edelgard can prosper, and everybody else likely met the same fate Dimitri did.

  1. Which means that they are a silent meat puppet designed to act as a self insert, who communicates through vague gestures and whose only emotional experiences are those that other characters inform us that they are having.[]
  2. These sections are known as: Crimson Flower, Azure Moon, Verdant Wind, and Silver Snow for siding with the Adrestian Empire, Kingdom of Faerghus, Lester Alliance, or the church itself.[]
  3. Although they have no loyalty to her and run away if their leader is defeated[]

Playing to Win: TicTacToe

While attending university, I spent a couple of summers working as a counsellor at various overnight children’s camps. One year, we played a game where each senior counsellor would set up an activity. Each cabin, led by an activity leader, would compete to see who could complete the most activities in a set period of time. The activity I put together required one volunteer from each cabin to challenge me to a game, anything they could come up with. If they beat me, they would get my point. Most of the challenges were things I was doomed to fail at from the start: a cartwheel contest, staring contest, a race to see who could count to ten the fastest. However, the one that stuck with me the most is the one that I shouldn’t have lost at all. A child foolishly challenged me to a game of TicTacToe. After trading ties for a few rounds, something strange happened: I lost.

TicTacToe is the frictionless surface of the game theory world; it’s less a game, and more a theoretical demonstration of what it means for a game to be unwinnable. If two players enter the game, and play perfectly, it is impossible for either player to win; this fact is common knowledge. I knew it, and the child across from me knew it too. Yet, she still won, I still signed her cabin’s activity sheet proving that she won, and I went home knowing that I lost the last game of TicTacToe I would ever play for real stakes.

Discussions about TicTacToe are common in the world of computer programmers. It is the perfect first project for anyone trying to teach themselves game theory and computer AI. A computer sees a game like TicTacToe as little more than an optimization problem: given any particular board state, return the optimal next move. Thus, all discussions around the game are discussions about what constitutes the most optimal move. The most important position, and thus the most discussed, is the opening position. The most common argument goes as follows.

  1. The best move is one that is most likely to result in a win.
  2. Assuming we are playing against a player who plays randomly, the best move is the one that creates the most losing opportunities for the opposing player.
  3. <math>… 7 > 4 …</math>
  4. Therefore, playing in the corner is best.

This discussion might include some scientifically collected statistics of game results pitting various levels of computer AI against each other1, or an admission that the analysis applies only to perfect play and more analysis is necessary to account for imperfect play2. However, the results are always the same. The reader learns some interesting facts about what move is best in certain situations, but is still just as likely to lose to a child when challenged to real stakes: as I did.

The problem is that such discussions don’t really talk about winning at TicTacToe, they are about beating dumber computer programs, which highlights a fundamental difference between how humans and computer approach games and decision making in general: randomness. Human intelligence is utterly incapable of randomness, while artificial intelligence depends almost completely on it3. In TicTacToe, randomness represents the baseline player; it is the dumbest possible computer program we are capable of generating4. However, it does not represent the dumbest possible human strategy. In fact it is not a possible human strategy at all, nor is it a reasonable approximation of one.

To demonstrate, take a look at the following position.

Now, try as hard as you can to place yourself in the body of a ten year old who knows nothing about the game. It’s your turn to play. Where do you move?

A random player is just as likely to play in any open position, but did you pick randomly? If not, why did you place the piece where you did? Did if feel strongest? Do you know it’s strongest? Did it fulfill some sort of pattern in your brain? If you did pick randomly, how did you choose which one was your random choice? Did you simply pick the one that feels the most random?

How humans feel out what position to play in is not a fundamentally part of game theory, but it is of absolute importance when talking about winning at real games. Whatever your answer, hold onto it; we’ll get back to it soon.

Some AI Basics

First let’s go over a simple but important concept quickly: minimax tree search.

In the above position, it’s black’s turn to play. Who wins?

Black wins. Playing in the top left hand corner ends the game with a win. They could, if they want, play somewhere else, but that would allow red to win or force a draw and is a mistake. For the time being we will assume players don’t make those. A game is said to be ‘winning for black’ if it’s black’s turn and they have at least one move that wins.

We have now travelled one turn back in time. It’s red’s turn. Who wins?

Black still wins. Black has two winning moves available to them and red can only block one of them on their turn. Thus this position is still ‘winning for black’ because all of red’s moves transition the game to a position where black has at least one winning move.

Through computer analysis, we can analyze every state of the game starting from winning positions and working backwards to decide who wins in every stage. If the current player has any winning move available to them then the position as a whole is winning for that player. If all of the moves available are losing for them then the position as a whole is losing as well. Anything else is a tie. The reason TicTacToe as a whole is considered an unwinnable game is because none of the moves available at the start of the game are winning.

The following widget will allow you to play TicTacToe against yourself or a computer player (by clicking on the AI button). It includes an option to “show hints”. If selected, each empty positions will gain a highlight: green indicates that the move is winning for the current player, red means losing, and yellow is a tie. Before moving on, I recommend playing around with the widget until you understand this concept thoroughly5.

The Opening Positions

Let’s consider the available opening moves.

The corner is the simplest opener. Either the opponent plays in the centre, or they lose.

The centre opening is a simple 50-50. For computers, half of the available squares are losses. For humans things simplify around corners and edges. All of the corners lead to one outcome, while all of the edges lead to another. The probability of winning is then just the probability that the player you are up against is the type of person who doesn’t play in corners or edges.

The edge opening is the hardest to understand completely. Like centre, the computer player is looking at a solid 50-50. However, there are no easy rules of thumb a human player can use to memorize all safe positions. Instead of just deciding between edges and corners the opponent now has to also consider distance; It’s less obvious which corners and which edges are safe.

If we considering only winning and losing positions, the corner opener certainly seems like the best option. There is only one response, and this simple fact is commonly why it’s considered the best; all other openers simply offer less losing moves. The edge opener feels like the worst, as it is mathematically inferior to the corner opener. Not only is the center square safe, but others are as well. However, corner opener has one profound weakness. The singular correct response for red is also the one square simply begging to have a token placed on it. Earlier, did your inner ten year old play in the centre? I won’t say they did, but I will confidently bet that much more than one in eight of you did. I say this for one main reason; it is the most symmetrical. It has the most triples running through it and therefore it just feels more powerful to anyone aware of the goal of the game.

Consciously or unconsciously humans always have a reason for everything we do, even if that reason is simply to create an subjectively aesthetic pattern. Positions don’t exist in a vacuum, they are always in relationship with each other. In any situation where we don’t know the correct answer, the action we take will still fulfill some internal criteria: maybe we placed our token next to the black tile, maybe across from it6, or maybe we took the answer from some unrelated part of our environment (decision anchoring). Either way, simply counting how many safe squares are available to the opponent is not a good indicator of how good that opener is. We must also take into account how likely it is for a human to know the correct answer, and also how much the wrong answers feel like right answers.

Corner play loses to both of these. Our internal pattern matching system tells us that there are three, not eight, possible replies to opening corner: corners, edges and the centre7. Two of these end the game immediately, meaning a new player, learning the game, will only have to play a maximum three games before completely exhausting the outcomes of each of these replies, assuming they don’t play center immediately just because it feels right. Likewise, it’s easy to remember once learned: centre is strong. Remember that and you will never lose to a corner opener again.

Now this doesn’t mean probabilistic modelling is useless. While we can’t model any particular individual as a random number generator, we can model communities as a whole. Imagine a million children getting asked to play as red after we play corner. Someone is going to play in every tile, but some tiles will get played more than others. What comes out is a probability distribution; the probability that any particular player will be the type of player who plays in certain squares. This is refereed to as a games ‘meta’, a generalization of what a community believes is powerful at any given point in time. Metas are not static, they change and grow as the community changes and grows. They are a weird mix a human intuition and learned behaviour that can change radically depending on the geography, size, common experiences, unwritten rules, and theoretical knowledge of the community as a whole.

Understanding a local meta is vital when picking openers. If we can assume that a community thinks that playing corner is powerful, then they are more likely to know that centre is the right response. In such situations playing centre could be better. Yes there is a higher probability in random play that they will guess right, but that is still better than them just knowing what the right response is, or worse feeling what the right response is.


TicTacToe is a game of mistakes, and if we are to find a winning strategy it needs to be one that allows our opposition as many opportunist to make a mistake as possible. Even if someone knows the correct response to an opener, that doesn’t mean they know the correct response for later positions. It’s much hard to memorize the correct responses to a sequence of moves, then the response to a single hard position.

One way to get an idea of how complex an opener is, is to visualize how complicated the resulting game tree becomes. There are thousands of possible games of TicTacToe, so in order to come up with a useful set of positions to visualize, we need to simplify the game by making a few assumptions on what constitutes a reasonable game.

Firstly, let’s assume mostly perfect play.

  1. If a winning move is presented to a player they will always take it.
  2. Players always block a simple win (see below graphic).
  3. Either player will sometimes, at very low probability, pick a losing move. We are primarily interested in states where this can happen.
  4. Once a win is no longer possible, given the above three points, ignore all further variations.
  5. We ignore positions that are just rotations or mirrors images of positions we have already considered8.
No reasonable red player will ever play anything but top edge here.

In the below visualization each node is a key/value pairing. Each key represents an action a player could make; the key “x_1_1” means that the X player places a token at the row one column one square (counting starts at zero). The value associated with the key represents the result of that decision. An integer value means that the game is over: -1 means X has lost, 1 means X has won, and 0 represents a tie. If the game continues a button appears allowing us to reveal the key/value pairs for the next stage of the game.

The centre opener is the least complicated and produces only one real line of play. After the O player responds in any corner, X has only two moves that don’t immediately end the game in a tie. Playing next to their opening only succeeds at creating a route to victory for O and should be avoided. Playing in the opposite corner challenges the O player to play in one more corner before the game ends in a tie. Memorizing this sequence is trivial, even for a small child.

Starting in the corner is a bit better.

After the O player responds in the centre, the X player is given a choice between two lines; both can lead to a win. Playing in the opposite corner mixes things up by forcing the O player to play on an edge before ending the game in a tie. Playing on an opposite edge is a bit more interesting. If the O player is aware of this unusual position they can play in the opposite corner and force the X player to dodge a single bad tile before ending the game in a tie. Everywhere else is a minefield that the O player needs to wade through, at least one position creating a second such minefield. Either way, ties are a lot harder to stumble into than the centre start.

Now the last one; the edge start.

I can’t summarize this position in one paragraph. The most important line, where the O player responds in the centre, alone is about as complicated as the other two openers combined. In fact, it actually contains some of the corner openers more complicated lines. As well, a lot more variations here end at six moves, meaning that the O player is frequently required to play at least three times before ending the game. A relatively deep understanding of the game is necessary to navigate this opener safely. If you know more about the game than your opponent, opening edge is a really good way to offer your opponent plenty of opportunities to screw up.


If we focus only on the perspective of game theory or AI, we get this warped perspective of what it means to play a game. AIs are optimizers, programs who find the optimal action given some rules and contexts. However, few games actually have truly optimal actions or strategies. Much more common are games that seem like they have best strategies, but acting on those strategies can result in a worse performance: the prisoners’ dilemma for example. To play such games well we need more than just theoretical insight into the game itself; we also need a model of our opponent. Focusing on what’s optimal, or by relying on strategies that are optimal given a specific meta, makes us predictable and easy to manipulate. It’s like finding a bug in computer software; once found it can be exploited indefinitely until the code is changed. What is far more powerful is first understanding what moves a player is likely to make and then searching the game for positions that punish that action. If someone is known to play in corners, then any position where a corner is a losing move is optimal. Even better would be to coax them into playing corners more often by priming them to think of corners as being good by opening with a relatively safe move: like the centre.

This is the fate of the corner opener. The fact that it is viewed so favourably means that any somewhat competent opponent is likely to already have studied it, and know the proper responses. Edge play, conversely, can punish people with some knowledge of the game, as such a player is more likely to ignore their gut instinct and ‘shake things up’ by playing in a square they may erroneously think is safe. Likewise, edge play is the only opener that forces a player to consider not just the differences between edges and corners, but also the differences between different corners. However, playing corner isn’t a bad move; it’s a test. When my opponent plays in the corner they are testing my knowledge of the game. They do so knowing that they are not likely to win. However, maybe winning right away isn’t their plan. Maybe I’m being set up for something bigger, an attempt to put my brain into autopilot, an attempt to convince me that TicTacToe is a simple game. Because, after I start believing that, my brain shuts off, they play edge, put me in a position I was unprepared for, and win.

Corner opener might be the best way for a new player to beat another new player, but opening edge is the best opener at higher levels as it is the only opener that forces both players to prove that their knowledge of the game transcends the Dunning-Kruger effect9. Whoever was lying will eventually lose. If neither was lying then, and only then, do we reach perfect play and the game becomes unwinnable.

  3. Alright, for the geek reading this. It’s not really random numbers; computers can’t do that either. Instead they use pseudo random numbers. An algorithm that deterministically generates numbers that are random enough for their purpose. The difference though is meaningless unless you are a hacker, cryptographer, or speedrunner.[]
  4. With the exception of one that is actively trying to lose of course.[]
  5. To learn more about how I built this I suggest this blog post by Pascal Pons: He is solving connect4, but much of the theory is applicable to both games.[]
  6. It’s a similar effect to the one that causes 7 to feel like the most random number from one to ten. Some (nonscientific but fun nonetheless) data can be found here.[]
  7. Yes there is some technical differences between opposite and adjacent corners and edges; however, these structural differences are irrelevant to both the games outcome and the winning players strategy in terms of patterns. Neither the player learning to enact or defend against this opener needs to notice these differences.[]
  8. Once we determine that a position is losing we don’t need a reminder that the same position rotated ninety degrees is also losing.[]

Warc Extractor

The most popular thing I have ever built is my warc-extractor. I built it while working on a university project that was effectively pulling various datasets from the internet (twitter, internet archive, conventional scrapping etc) and experimenting with various ways to visualize this data. As it was a university project I was expected to upload everything I had built to a public repository, in this case Github.

At the time, there were basically no tools available for dealing with warc files. The only one available was the official warc1 project, which to this day remains completely abandoned. My main goal was to create a script that could extract all the text from a warc file; however, that evolved into a general utility that acted as an “unzip” script for warc files. Once the project finished I uploaded everything to github2 as an archive and expected nothing more to happen.

Interest in the project grew organically, I’ve done nothing to promote it, and has maintained a small but remarkably steady traffic volume for years now; about half a dozen unique visitors / downloads every week for at least seven years. This is a truly enormous amount of people from my perspective. I am genuinely glad that there is a small community out there who finds my tool useful.

I am committed to fixing any bugs that get reported (when I find time), and keeping the tool as accessible and up to date as possible. However, I don’t intend on adding any more features. There are a lot more warc tools floating around these days and I would recommend anyone needing more functionality to try them out.

Just this last month I uploaded the warc-extractor, separate from the rest of ArchiveTools which remains an archive of the original project, to pypi3, so now it can be downloaded using pip.

python3 -m pip install warc-extractor

Once installed, the script can be run similar to how it was run before. To dump all warc files in the current directory just type:

warc-extractor -dump content

Additional help can be found in the built in –help flag as well as at the repository.

I appreciate all the interest and hope that you will continue to find this simple script useful in the future.


Chapter 5: A Theory Of Games

My family had a play structure in our back yard that my brothers and I would use to defend against real and imagined invaders. The structure had two floors. The ground floor was a converted sandbox with with four walls and old carpet for flooring. The upper floor had walls on two sides, a ladder on the third, and a slide on the fourth. I spent a lot of time thinking about how one might defend this structure. The ground floor was a deathtrap; while one of the outer walls was chest high and could be used as cover while lobbing water balloons at invaders, it only had one exit which was easy for larger kids to block and force surrender out of smaller kids through liberal use of the garden hose. The top floor; however, was different. The slide was difficult to get up, especially when wet, but easy to go down, and the ladder required whoever was trying to traverse it to drop their weapons momentarily in order to climb. Even better both the ladder and slide were easy escape routes and even the walls could be vaulted over in case of emergency. Thus it was perfectly defensible.

I have a memory of a game we played once using this structure. My brothers and I were defending the fort against aliens, zombies, or possibly something in between, who were attacking us on all sides. One of us covered the slide while another lobbed invisible explosives indiscriminately over the wall into the yard below. I was responsible for protecting the ladder. Now ammunition, even pretend ammunition, is a limited resource, and if the invaders were going to break into our stronghold it was definitely going to be at the ladder. So, just as the mindless slaughtering of unidentifiable alien zombies was about to get boring, something grabbed my leg. I tried as hard as I could to shake it off, but my Super Soaker was out of both real and pretend ammunition and I eventually succumbed to my injuries. The brother on the slide tried to help, but that only gave the zombie aliens an opportunity to scale the slide and take him out as well. My final brother made a valiant last stand before he too succumbed and declared the game over. There was much fun to be had, but also loss. The joy in an activity like this comes from the interaction with others, and thus that joy ends when your older brother goes inside to clean up. That’s how one losses a game of Calvinball. 1

I am a gamer. That means that I choose to dedicate a large portion of my time to both playing and thinking about games. Games to me are a pastime, a means of taking in story, and also a lens through which I can see and understand the world around me. Likewise, my relationship with games has grown and changed as I myself have grown and changed. As a child, games were an avenue of wonder; a way to experience things I couldn’t normally experience. As a teen, games were a convenient distraction; a way to establish limited control over my otherwise uncontrollable life. As a young adult games were a way of measuring personal growth; a lens through which I could see my skills develop and improve. Today, games are just a part of who I am and an important lens through which I understand the world around me.

It’s not easy to talk about what a game is because the word means different things to different people. Games are a thing that children play and adults are supposed to grow out of. Ludwig Wittgenstein uses the term “language-game”2 as a way of characterizing how we use language. Countries frequently engage in “war games” to train and ready their troops even as other commentaries on the subject explicitly exclude war itself from being a game. 3 I operate primarily in the world of technology and under that umbrella games are primarily a business; they are things, products, nouns, something that one entity designs for other entities to consume. There is a lot of literature around what exactly a game is, especially in the world of commercial video games; however, there is no easy consensus to point to as to what games actually are. If we consider the perspective of a game designer, or games as object, we could come up with a list of attributes that distinguishes a game from some other consumer object like a movie. Jesper Juul in his work “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”4 summarizes some of this rhetoric by compiling a general list of qualities that appear in most game definitions: rules, variable outcomes, player effort, players attachment to the outcome, negotiable consequences of outcome, etc. However, I believe this approach fails to convey any real insight into what a game truly is, and worse tends to draw the discussion into pointless debates about what is and isn’t a game. As an example, if games must be voluntary and unproductive as Roger Caillois5 asserts then Warfare must not be a game. However true this statement might be, it uselessly offers no insight into mathematical game theories fascination with warfare, the game industries obsession with warfare, or the simple fact that we simulate and analysis warfare as if it were a game. Likewise, Juul refers to simulation games like Sim City as being “borderline cases” because they contain no predefined objectives; the game never unambiguously declares the player a winner. However, these simulations are still sold, unambiguously, as computer games in computer game markets and are reviewed as if they were games.

The following definition of a game was given by Bernard Suits in his book “The Grasshopper”:

“…to play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.”

This definition defines two primary components along with one observation. A game, in Suits eyes, requires two things: rules and a desired state of affairs. A player desires a certain outcome, and the rules limit how that player may bring about that outcome. It is important to suits that the rules prohibit the most efficient means of bringing about this outcome. The fastest way to get to the top of a mountain would be to take a helicopter but the sport of mountain climbing prohibits such an act in favour of the less efficient method of climbing via ones own power. A mountain climber engages in the game of mountain climbing if they wish to arrive at the top of the mountain without using a helicopter. The observation Suits makes is that it is this restriction of the most efficient means that makes the game possible. If one wanted to climb a mountain using only ones own power then using a helicopter would not fulfill that desire, so the game of mountain climbing is invented in order to create a structure that encourages one to engage in the activity they wanted to engage in. As another example, the most efficient means of getting a ball into a hole would be to use ones hands to put the ball into the hole, but this is not what the game of golf is all about. Instead we choose to use a stick to hit a ball from a fixed distance away into the hole. Thus we have voluntarily chosen to use less efficient means, the stick, to bring about a desired state of affairs, balls in a hole. In reality, golf is not about getting balls into holes, it is about getting certain balls into certain holes starting from a fixed distance and using only regulation sticks. Thus, we can’t play golf unless we follow the rules of golf and therefore ‘playing golf’ is only made possible by adherence to its rules.

To Suits, “efficient means” implies that a player can use any means available to bring about their desired state of affairs. If two players simply wanted to overpower each other using any and all means at their disposal, then their struggle wouldn’t be a game. However, Suits explores such a scenario and discovers that the simple act of agreeing on a start time qualifies as an agreement to inefficient means and therefore makes it a game. Under this definition suits would have a hard time disqualifying any human activity from being a game because of the pervasiveness of unwritten social norms acting as a limitation of efficient means.

One way to think of the structure of a game is as being an alternate physics. Chess is a good example of this. Chess pieces are only able to move about the board in set ways. An invisible force, the rules of the game, prevent the bishop from moving in any direction except diagonally in much the same way that gravity prevents us from walking anywhere except along the surface of a large object. The thing that separates the physics of chess from the physics of the real world is that we created the rules of chess, we have to enforce them, and we can change them if we so desire; we did not create the laws of gravity and have no say in its enforcement. Assuming inefficient means, all other games contain some form of alternate physics. Softer game systems, like mountain climbing, are subject to both enforceable rules, like the prohibition of flying, and physical rules, like gravity. The allowed ‘moves’ in a game of mountain climbing are governed primarily by the physical world with some restrictions on technologies that we impose on ourselves. The outcomes of the game are a mix of physical results, “Did the player reach the top of the mountain?”, as well as results requiring a human judge, “Did they use only legal means to do so?” Any particular instance of a game is also impossible to reproduce exactly but some formal record of the event, like a recording or an entry in log book, may stick around. The softest game structures are those of make belief and includes the game of Calvinball I detailed in the introduction. These games exist primarily within the human mind and contain no normalized rule systems whatsoever. One might argue that such games have no structure as the rules, dictated by the mind of a child, can change suddenly and without warning. However, a child always knows when an adult has made an illegal move and thus, at least to their own subjective experience, the structure exists even if it can’t be communicated. The outcome of the game is entirely up to the humans, and, much the dismay of my inner child, an instance of a game is impossible to repeat in any form. Once fun has been had once, it can never happen exactly the same way again.

In all these cases the rules of a game act as a sort of simulation running on some sort of medium: a chessboard, physics, or the mind of a child. Video games fit into this model quite well. They are a simulation somewhere between the chess board and the mountain. Video games are simulations that run on the medium of computer hardware. Computer software is a mathematical structure and thus chess can be represented as a video game. However, most computer simulations are complex enough that unintended side effects are common. In chess it is impossible to make an illegal move; however, bugs and exploits that allow the player to act in unintended ways are nearly unavoidable in all sufficiently complex video games or real life simulations. Thus, like the mountain climber, in competitive video games we generally defer to the computer simulation to determine what actions are allowed, and step in sometimes with human judges when the need arises.

The structure of a game exists to moderate our interaction with the game and with each other through the game. However, a structure alone does not make a game. It is possible to follow all of the rules of golf and still not be playing golf. They rules of golf explicitly state that whoever completes every hole with the least number of strokes is the winner, it has no way of enforcing this goal if the player has no interest in winning. There is nothing in the rules that forbid a player from purposefully hitting a ball away from the goal. Worse, the game has no way of forcing a player to even progress through the game short of skipping the remainder of a hole after a set amount of strokes.

Juul attempts to get around this by by claiming that “Player attachment to the outcome” is a necessary part of the game. Suits definition requires a player to want to “bring about a specific state of affairs”. While superficially similar, these two requirements are not the same. Juul is coming at it from the perspective of a game developer. He wants his players to be attached to the outcomes as dictated by the rules of the game, and by extension the game developer. If a game has a celebratory ending sequence, then the player needs to be attracted by the possibility of experiencing it. However, in Suits definition the player themselves dictates the desired state of affairs. The mountain climber wants to reach the top of the mountain, but they might not care if they get there first. So even though the rules state that the winner is the one who gets there first the player may only be attached to the physical act of making it to the top and care substantially less about their placement.

Suits uses the example of ping pong to explore this point. If two professional ping pong players square off against each other in a competitive match, but mutually decide that winning isn’t important they could instead choose to attempt a long rally and hit the ball back and forth indefinitely. If their purpose is to generate the longest rally possible, we might still call what they are doing a game, just not the game the spectators expected them to play. However, it is important to note that this new game, the ping pong rally, exists within the exact same structure as the ping pong match the spectators expected. There is even a judge trying his best to enforce the rules of a game not being played. The thing that makes it a new game is the players expectations, not the structure.

Juul’s definition requires that, “As a player you agree to be happy if you win the game, unhappy if you loose the game.” The ping pong rally could exist under Juul’s definition, but only if we switched the referee out for one who is actively measuring the length of the rally. Juul assumes that a game can only be a game if there is agreement between the game designers and the game player. This is why under his definition simulation games like Sim City are not fully games because the game designer doesn’t prescribe an outcome for the player to valorize.

How a player approaches a game structure dramatically changes how they experience the game. A player could be “playing to win” meaning that they only take actions that purposefully maximizing the probability of achieving an outcome prescribed by the game. They could be “playing for fun” or “playing casually” meaning that they seek to achieve some sort of experience facilitated by, but separate to, the rules of the game itself. I am reminded of a friend in high school who proudly showed me their Elder Scrolls Morrowind save file in which they were in the process of murdering every NPC in the game; a state of affairs certainly allowed by the rules of the game, but not necessarily intended by the developers.

In my view, the separation between Chess which has a goal enshrined in the rules and Sim City which doesn’t isn’t philosophically important. Both are systems of rules, or alternate physics, through which humans can generate a wide variety of experiences. Commercial games, in whatever medium they appear in, are just game structures, and even though these structures may or may not include some prescribed end state, it is only when a player approaches these game structures with purpose do they actually become games. Indeed if we only look at a game in the way rules intend it to be played we frequently miss out on most of what the game becomes as a social phenomenon. Does the rules of chess say anything about chess grand-masters? About chess tournaments? Or chess clocks? Or the social phenomenon of cheating? No. If one wishes to know anything about chess, pure knowledge of its mathematical structure is only partial knowledge of the game itself. If we start by assuming that a game can only be played by people who’s purpose is to play the game as it is designed, then the only knowledge we will ever achieve is of the machines we designed to play them.

So then, what is a game? Well as mentioned above, no single definition will ever suffice. I fully admit that Juul’s and Suits’s definitions are useful when talking about games in their respective fields but fail as a general definition. However, I have nothing definitive to add. The definition I find most useful for my purposes is that games are a metaphor. Games are an attempt to section off some small portion of our lived experience into a much more understandable reality. We limit means because we have no other way of shrinking the enormity of the real world into something we can understand. We humans create games and define the boundary between what is and is not our game, and we do this to fulfill some purpose that is both uniquely personal and uniquely human.

In short games are small worlds; they are miniature universes that humans create and inhabit whenever the real world becomes to large and complex to understand.

  1. Bill Waterson, “Calvin and Hobbes”[]
  2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Philosophical Investigations”, (1953)[]
  3. “I will assume that… traffic, war, hypertext fiction, free-form play and ring-a-ring-a-roses are not games.”

    Jesper Juul, “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness”, 2003[]

  5. ”…. to be defined as an activity which is essentially:

    • Free: in which playing is not obligatory; if it were, it would at once lose its attractive and joyous quality as diversion; …
    • Unproductive: creating neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, ending in a situation identical to that prevail­ing at the beginning of the game;”

    Roger Caillois, “Man, Play, and Games”, 2001[]

Chapter 2: A Mathematical Universe

In Michio Kaku’s book “hyperspace: a scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the 10th dimension” Kaku describes a moment that inspired his intellectual journey. “When I was 8 years old, I heard a story that would stay with me for the rest of my life. I remember my schoolteachers telling the class about a great scientist who had just died. They talked about him with great reverence, calling him one of the greatest scientists in all history… I didn’t understand much of what they were trying to tell us, but what most intrigued me about this man was that he died before he could complete his greatest discovery. They said he spent years on this theory, but he died with his unfinished papers still sitting on his desk.” Kaku credits this mystery as contributing to his desire to pursue physics and a deeper understanding of the world. The man in the story was Albert Einstein and the theory was a unified theory of physics.

Einstein is a household name in physics for good reason. Through the simple act of asking questions, and exploring the logical ramifications of those questions no matter how unusual, Einstein was able to reason his way into a new theory of gravity: relativity. The problem was that relativity, regardless of how successful it was as a theory, only explained gravity; the other fundamental forces, electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, were not addressed. Einstein’s final task, which he never completed, was to unify gravity with these other fundamental forces. To create a theory that accounted for all of the fundamental forces in physics. However, Einstein did not succeed and the search for such a unifying “theory of everything” inspired a generation of physicists, Kaku among them.

Thinking in higher dimensions

We humans exist in a three-dimensional world. Objects have height, width and breadth, and to identify an object’s location on our planet we would need to identify three numbers: a latitude, a longitude, and an altitude. We could think of time existing as a fourth dimension, duration, but we can only do that if we accept that it is a different type of dimension as we experience it differently. I can rotate an object in three spatial dimensions, but I can’t rotate something in time. The dominant theory of time prior to Einstein’s relativity was Newton’s mechanics. Newton viewed time as an immutable quantity. Time moved forward at the same pace regardless of who, or what, was measuring it. To Newton, time was a universal constant that, unlike space, could not be changed. Relativity changed this. In relativity, time isn’t fixed but can bend. Einstein’s theory of special relativity postulates that the experience of time is ‘relative’ to how fast an observer is moving. As my speed, compared to an observer, increases both our experiences of time and space also change. Time for fast moving travellers will be observed to be passing slower to their stationary friends; this is known as time dilation. As well, the perceived size of a fast moving traveller will also appear to contract: length contraction. General relativity takes this idea one step further by recognizing that our experience of acceleration and our experience of gravity is fundamentally the same thing. Large masses bend both space and time in a similar fashion. Relativity insists that space and time are not two separate entities that follow two separate sets of rules. Instead, they are a single object, spacetime, following a unified set of rules. Thus Einstein simplified physics by adding a higher dimension

Kaku’s book introduces this idea from Einstein and follows it through a number of logical expansions. If adding a fourth dimension allows us to explain gravity through geometry then maybe we can add even more dimensions to help us to explain the other fundamental forces. Hyperspace is ultimately a book about string theory and all of the various false starts and dead ends physicists took in order to expand Einstein’s four dimensions into the ten that the theory requires. Fundamentally, Kaku is arguing that the laws of physics simplify when viewed from higher dimensions.

Hyperspace was an important early inspiration for my own intellectual journey. The book was my first introduction to physical theory and Kaku’s main argument has stuck with me to this day. Of course, I was a child when I first read it and my underdeveloped brain didn’t understand anything about the physics or mathematics Kaku was arguing for, instead, I connected to the simpler explanations of how higher dimensions can make possible the seemingly impossible.

Imagine a two dimensional creature whose entire world is a single piece of paper. From the perspective of this creature, we humans can do the impossible. We can bend the paper in on itself causing two ends to touch and allowing the creature to instantly ‘warp’ from one edge of their universe to another. We could also remove this creature from their paper world, ‘turn them over’, and magically transform right into left. Through a simple act of geometry, we can permanently disfigure the creature because it is unable to flip itself back due to that act requiring a third dimension. Likewise, if two such creatures saw each other, they would only be able to describe the exterior shell or outline of each other, but we can easily describe their internals by looking at them from above the page. This knowledge is trivially gained by us but is functionally unknowable to the two dimensional creatures.

In a single chapter Kaku taught me a single unknowable truth, how to visualize a four dimensional cube, and in doing so convinced me that there is no reason why I couldn’t be made to understand the unknowable truth of the universe as well; even those parts I couldn’t experience for myself.

It seems almost trivial now, but the simple idea of higher dimensions beyond the three that we live in changed everything for me. It opened up the possibility of two simple truths. The first is that there are things in this world that I am physically incapable of experiencing, like extra dimensions, that exist, and effects me. The second is that even though such a reality is physically beyond me, I can still come to understand it. In a single chapter Kaku taught me a single unknowable truth, how to visualize a four dimensional cube, and in doing so convinced me that there is no reason why I couldn’t be made to understand the unknowable truth of the universe as well; even those parts I couldn’t experience for myself.

Yet, Kaku’s higher dimensions are in themselves a bit of a trap. Even though Einstein unified the three dimensions into four dimensions, time still stands alone. Imagine the second hand on the face of a clock. When the hand points to the twelve it points straight up and all of its length is along the vertical dimension. As time passes, and the hand rotates, the length becomes less vertical and more horizontal. Slowly all of its vertical orientation will be transformed into a horizontal orientation. Rotation in space merely transforms vertical orientation into horizontal orientation, an objects true length never gets bigger. Time works opposite to this. As an object speeds up, other observers will notice that time for them appears to slow down thus growing larger. As an object approaches the speed of light, its maximum rotation, it will appear to have an infinite length. The shortest possible measurement of time will always come from the person who is experiencing it, everyone else will measure something larger with no upper bound. Thus rotation in time can expand sizes from their true size all the way to infinity. Time is still special because it works backwards to space.

The equations of relativity are written in a mathematical framework called ‘Riemann geometry’ which is a system for expressing a multitude of such exotic, or ‘non-spacial’, geometries using the same common language. Both space and time fit within this paradigm and thus are equally expressible as a four dimensional Riemann manifold. However, ‘dimension’ in this context suddenly becomes a distinctly mathematical term and losses a lot of context that the English word ‘dimension’ might imply. When Kaku says that the laws of physics simplify at higher dimensions, he is referring to a distinctly mathematical definition of the term ‘simple’ that merely implies that these two different things can be expressed using the same terminology. Time and space still follow different rules as they are still different, the formula that describes spacetime as a single unified entity still needs to place a negative sign in front of the temporal coordinate to set it apart from the other spacial dimensions. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that just because some things can be expressed within the same framework all things eventually will be as well. String theory begins with this assumption, and twenty years later it has yet to produce anything from this claim. If the other fundamental forces are just an extension of spacetime, then we have yet to discover what symbols need to be placed in front of them to make them work.


Pythagoras was an ancient Greek philosopher whose name will be familiar to anyone who has studied dimensions. The very formula that describes rotation in a spatial dimension carries his name. The Pythagorean theorem states that the three sides of a right-angle triangle are related. That the square of the hypotenuse, the side opposite the right angle, is equal to the sum of the squares on both additional sides: A^2 + B^2 = c^2. As the second hand rotates its experience of the vertical and horizontal dimensions changes according to that formula. If the vertical dimension says that the hand is three centimetres long and the horizontal says it is four then the Pythagorean theorem tells us that its true length is five centimetres. Unfortunately, apart from this theorem very little in modern mathematics is attributed to that man. In fact, very little about Pythagoras’s actual beliefs and teachings are known or even can be known for certain today. This is because he wrote nothing down and everything we do know comes to us through other sources; most of which were written hundreds or even thousands of years after his death. Worse, even his theorem likely did not come from him. Modern archaeology supplies plenty of evidence that the Pythagorean theorem was known in some form or another in ancient Egypt, a place where folklore states Pythagoras studied. At best he only rediscovered or popularized the theorem. At worst had nothing to do with it. However, what we do know is that Pythagoras, or the Pythagoreans, believed that deep down at its core the universe was made out of numbers.

Legends have it that Pythagoras also had a Eureka moment that formed the foundation of his view of the universe. Kitty Furgeson in her book, “Life of Pythagoras” describes this moment as such. While experimenting with the strings of a lyre Pythagoras, “(or someone inspired by Pythagoras) discovered that the connections between lyre string length and the human ears are not arbitrary or accidental. The ratios that underlie musical harmony make sense in a remarkably simple way. In a flash of extraordinary clarity, the Pythagorean found that there is pattern and order hidden behind the apparent variety and confusion of nature, and that it is possible to understand it through numbers.” The details of this statement are of course up for debate. Iamblicus, an important early biographer of Pythagoras, claims that Pythagoras came to this understanding while listening to the sounds of a hammer striking an anvil not while playing with a lyre. As well, the modern reader won’t find much enlightenment in what fragments we do have of Pythagoras’ metaphysics. Most of it sounds like numerology. The Pythagoreans believed in a theory of music that governed the heavens. The strings on a Lyre could be tuned in an unlimited number of ways, but it was only when they were tuned to the integer ratios that it could generate harmony, the same is true for the heavens. Pythagoras believed that each celestial body orbited a “central fire” and produced a sound as it travelled. Each heavenly body produced a different sound and together produced harmony. Ten was an important number to Pythagoras because it represented perfection in his system. One can create a perfect triangle by starting with a base of four round balls and stacking three, then two, and finally a single ball on top of it for a total of ten balls. Likewise, Pythagoras needed for there to be exactly ten celestial objects orbiting the ‘inner fire’: the sun, the moon, the earth, five planets, the stars, and a mysterious counter earth that was never visible because it was always hidden on the other side of the inner fire. This counter earth existed not because he had observed it, but because his model wouldn’t make sense without it.

The details of what Pythagoras actually believed are eternally up for debate; we can’t really know anything for certain. But his impact was undoubtedly profound. Plato, inspired by his conversations with Pythagorean followers, included a detailed geometric view of the cosmos in his Timaeus. In his model, the world was literally geometry and made up of atomic triangles. Each of the four basic elements, water, earth, fire, and air, gain their properties through the configuration of the triangles within them, and the world as a whole comes out of the interaction of these elements. Modern readers might see this construction as nonsense, but if we remember that the foundation of modern mathematics, Euclid’s elements, had not yet been written it’s much easier to see that the geometric view of the universe in Plato’s Timaeus is at least an attempt to explore the ramifications of a mathematical universe. As mathematics has developed so too have the mathematical models that describe our universe. There is no shortage of such models we could explore. Some are absurd, like Kepler’s early model of the solar system which used platonic solids to describe the orbits of the planets, some are useful, like Brahe’s geocentric model which did accurately predict how certain planets moved but was ultimately proven to be false, and some would fundamentally alter how generations of scientists view the universe, like Einstein’s relativity. So the question remains, is there a correct fundamental model of the universe?


Physicist Max Tegmark takes this idea to its ultimate extreme in his book, “Our Mathematical Universe” where he argues that the universe isn’t just described by a mathematical model, it is a mathematical object. He calls this the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis. “If the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is correct, then our Universe is a mathematical structure, and from its description, an infinitly intelligent mathematician should be able to derive all these physical theories.”

Fundamentally, this is the question that stuck with me into adulthood. Does such a theory exist? I don’t mean does a unified theory of the fundamental physical forces exist? For all I know, Tegmark’s confidence that we will be printing t-shirts with the equations of a unified theory of physics in our lifetime could be correct, but that question doesn’t interest me. Instead, what I’m asking is something more profound. Is there a unified theory of everything? Can a sufficiently powerful, infinite-dimensional, creature derive our universe, everything inside it, and everything it is capable of becoming from a single framework. Thinking back to my childhood both myself and Pythagoras had a similar moment. Reading Kaku gave me a brief moment of enlightenment where I realized that part of the world isn’t random. However, unlike Pythagoras, my religious background prevented me from taking the next step. Just because something is understandable doesn’t imply that everything is. Just because two fundamental forces can be unified in geometry doesn’t mean that all of them can either.

The problem with the mathematical universe hypothesis and the search for a “unified theory of everything” is that neither of them is falsifiable. Sure Pythagorus’ model containing exactly ten celestial bodies is wrong, Newton’s theory describing a static and universal time is wrong, Einstein’s failure to account for electromagnetism and the nuclear forces implies that his theory is at best incomplete, and string theory’s inability to predict any experimental outcome implies that it probably isn’t the final theory either. Yet, none of these precludes the idea that a correct and perfect mathematical model of the universe doesn’t exist. There’s just no way of proving a negative. Worse, the fact that each of these models improves on the previous model implies some sort of forward momentum. Each scientific breakthrough doesn’t invalidate the knowledge gained from the previous model, it merely casts that knowledge from a new perspective, a higher dimension, that lets us see old knowledge along with new knowledge in a common framework. So how do we account for the success of the mathematical sciences without admitting that at some level the universe is mathematical?

To begin searching for knowledge we must first admit that such a thing, a stable foundation, exists at all. If the universe exists then it must be true to its own nature. If the universe changes it is not because the nature of the universe has changed, it is because the nature of the universe is to change.

What is mathematics if not the language of structure? If I say that 1 + 1 = 2, I am asserting a relationship between these two objects that offer clues as to the structure these objects live in. If this statement is only true sometimes, or in some contexts, then that implies that the rules governing these objects still dictate that 1 + 1 = 2 in such contexts. Thus our knowledge might not be universal, but it still hints at a fundamental nature we still know something about. To begin searching for knowledge we must first admit that such a thing, a stable foundation, exists at all. If the universe exists then it must be true to its own nature. If the universe changes it is not because the nature of the universe has changed, it is because the nature of the universe is to change. If we assume that the universe is true to its own nature and that it follows its own rules then mathematics inevitably leaks out.

At this juncture, we have not built a foundation strong enough to even explore that assumption in full. However, what we can do is explore what it means for something to follow its own rules and to be mathematical. This is where my own personal journey began. If mathematics can generate truth, then what does a mathematical universe look like? What, if anything, can maths tell us about itself.

Chapter 1: Atheism vs Religion

I discovered physics at a relatively young age and fondly remember reading every book I could find on the subject at the local library; quantum physics, higher dimensions, multiple worlds: this stuff fascinated me to an extent I still can’t fully communicate. I will admit that I didn’t understand the vast majority of what I read; although, at the time understanding wasn’t the point. Instead, I was simply enamoured with the idea of a deeper truth to the universe. The very idea that the world was understandable and that some people held access to it was appealing. I wished more than anything else to be one of those people someday.

I entered my undergraduate degree with the goal of becoming a physicist, but I didn’t make it very far. I got to the third year before finally failing a course and giving up. I can see now that I didn’t really fit into the physics world for two primary reasons. The first was that I misunderstood what physics was about. I thought it would be an opportunity to explore and understand the deeper realities of our world; instead, I found myself involved with a community interested only in creating rigorous mathematical models, concocting experiments to test those models, and modifying the models based on experimental feedback. The entire undergraduate degree being nothing more than a desperate attempt to catch the student up on hundreds of years of mathematical models. No explanation about why these models are important beyond ‘it accurately predicts the outcome of experiments’ was offered or required.

This is not a point of criticism. I accept that teaching is hard and I have no interest in starting a conversation on how to do it better as it really was the second problem that prevented me from working through the first. The year was 2008 and a man by the name of Christopher Hitchens had only the previous year published an influential book by the name of “God is not great”. That book, along with others published around that time, created a movement I would come to know as ‘new atheism’ that was founded on the idea that humans must evolve beyond the need for religion in order to progress. These ideas circulated wildly among the undergraduate physics society during my degree and created a problem for me specifically because I was still working through my own beliefs as a person who identified as an Evangelical Christian.

Clash of Worldviews

My father would later describe the church I attended growing up as a “church people came to when they were fed up with their other churches”. Because of this, it is difficult to categorize the exact theology I was taught. I was exposed to a wide variety of theologies and they all competed equally for my attention. I remember honest conversations about the nature of God, the question of evil, and actual struggles to understand the tragedies that the bible chronicles. Likewise, I also remember being brought into a dark room and solemnly taught the ‘truth’ of revelation while having the entire timeline of the apocalypse laid out before me. I had conversations about determinism, creation, eschatology and the many different ways Christians around the world express their belief. Even though I was immersed in fundamentalist doctrine, I never really fully became a fundamentalist, and indeed never viewed my religion as set in stone, unchanging, or inerrant in any way. If anything, this variety of Christian religious experiences only reinforced in me the idea that God is mysterious; that humans are flawed beings trying in vain to express something that they can’t fully comprehend. I wasn’t blind to the evils in my religion; there were plenty of false prophets, hypocrites, and manipulators. Yet, those too only demonstrated what I now believe to be the bible’s strongest and most consistent message: that whenever humans believed themselves to be closest to God they were instead farthest from him. I was well aware of the crimes of the church and had already spent most of my life passively taking in conversations about the relationship between these crimes, humanity, and religion as a whole. So it was a little jarring being thrust into a social scene who, having had none of these conversations, viewed religion as at best ridiculous and at worst an intellectual disease from which humanity needed saving.

So what was the replacement supposed to be? Well it was science of course, and in the physics world science is just another word for mathematics. Over the course of three years in an undergraduate physics degree I took five courses in calculus, two courses in linear algebra, two courses in complex numbers, and several others I don’t care to list out. The physics courses made even less sense because they were also mathematical courses; they just didn’t begin with a list of axioms and were therefore more confused about what transformations were valid and which were not. We had one token experimental course where we actually ran some of the experiments that physics claimed as their source of truth, but the labs we used were so underfunded and the technicians, us, so poorly trained that our data never aligned with accepted theory. The reports were always a desperate attempt to derive a plausible-sounding narrative out of the random data our experiments generated. All in an attempt to impress whoever marked our work.

It was a debate between people who were so certain that they themselves were correct that they couldn’t possibly see the world through each other’s eyes. Indeed, their certainty required that they never try.

The worst part for me was that everything seemed so familiar. Classes didn’t feel all that different from the preachers I grew up with. They would sit in front of the class giving long lectures justifying a conclusion I didn’t understand out of a data source I couldn’t understand. The only difference was that lecturers had whiteboards and preachers had pulpits. These people seemed just as certain in the inerrancy of mathematics to speak the truth about the universe, as my religious friends were in the inerrancy of the bible to do the same. So when I saw my peers talking about the ‘obviousness’ of the nonexistence of God, I couldn’t help but compare them to the other side who talked about the ‘obviousness’ of his existence. It was a debate between people who were so certain that they themselves were correct that they couldn’t possibly see the world through each other’s eyes. Indeed, their certainty required that they never try.

Enter Hitchens

Reading Hitchens today only reinforced my suspicions back then. ‘God is not great’ is a damning catalogue of religion’s many crimes, but its argument against religion relies heavily on the reader’s predisposition to hate religion. He describes in great detail how religion has been, and continues to be, a contributor to warfare, a tool of political control, and a shield protecting history’s most disgusting criminals. Yet, the conclusion implied in the book’s subtitle “how religion ruins everything” that we would be better off without religion isn’t really argued so much as assumed. For example when describing the barbaric practice of female circumcision Hitchens points out that, “No society would tolerate such an insult to its womanhood and therefore to its survival if the foul practice was not holy and sanctified.” Here the subtext is obvious, if religion couldn’t be used as a justification for this horrific attack on women, then the act wouldn’t have happened. He doesn’t go into detail, but the whole statement hinges on a deeply evolutionary argument. Women are necessary for our species to reproduce, so therefore an attack on women is in essence an attack on our ability to reproduce. This behaviour cannot come from an evolutionary standpoint and is therefore not natural. So such an attack can only be possible if something else, something evil, was overriding our fundamentally good nature.

But is this really true? Does removing the justification for a horrific act suddenly prevent the act itself? Unfortunately, Hitchens makes an assumption here that is prevalent in western philosophy; that humans are rational animals, and by rational I mean that we are always acting in such a way as to maximize some internal good. We have an internal model of how we think the world works, we use that model to weigh actions, and then we act on the results. If humans worked this way then yes it would be logical to conclude that getting rid of an incorrect model would force us to seek out a better model, and by extension act better. However, what if the opposite is true? What if our nature is not rational and we instead act first and only search for justification later. If this were the case then getting rid of religion accomplishes nothing. The act would still happen and the culprit would simply corrupt something else to act as justification for the action. This is a point that Hichens all but concedes when he tries to explain away the horrors of the ‘secular’ totalitarian government in Soviet Russia, “Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it.”

However, what if the opposite is true? What if our nature is not rational and we instead act first and only search for justification later. If this were the case then getting rid of religion accomplishes nothing.

What about culture? The line between religion, culture, and ethnicity is something Hitchens never even bothers to address. If we accept that religion is evil then how do we excise it without stripping away a people’s cultural identity? While discussing the ethnic and religious violence in Yugoslavia he comments that “Elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially along the river Drina, whole towns were pillaged and massacred in what the Serbs themselves termed “ethnic cleansing.” In point of fact, “religious cleansing” would have been nearer the mark.” The distinction between ethnicity and religion is of fundamental importance to his argument and yet he fails to elaborate beyond this snide remark. Yet, just as easily as Hitchens can turn the word ethnic into religious the opposite is also true. When discussing Martin Luther King he says that “the examples King gave from the books of Moses were, fortunately for all of us, metaphors and allegories. His most imperative preaching was that of nonviolence. In his version of the story, there are no savage punishments and genocidal bloodlettings. Nor are there cruel commandments about the stoning of children and the burning of witches… If the population had been raised from its mother’s knee to hear the story of Xenophon’s Anabasis, and the long wearying dangerous journey of the Greeks to their triumphant view of the sea, that allegory might have done just as well. As it was, though, the “Good Book” was the only point of reference that everybody had in common.”

Hitchens has already concluded that religion is evil, and so the very fact that King ignored the problematic parts of the passage somehow saves him from being ‘religious’. Instead, any goodness that originated from King must have come from something else. In this case that something else is language and folktales, an important component of what we would call ‘ethnicity’. The people King was talking to were ethnically Christian. The Bible is something they all knew, and when King attached his ideas to something his audience understood he had a better chance of getting those ideas across. In essence, King’s message wasn’t important because of its religious affiliation, it was important because of its ethnic affiliation.

This type of slipper definition is precisely what stood out to me in undergrad, even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at the time. These definitions begin with an absolute statement, “Religion ruins everything”, and when faced with a situation where religion is not ruining everything they must immediately explain why the religion is in fact not a religion. Once again, this is all too familiar because this style of argument is the very glue that holds fundamentalist Christianity together. This is the logic that creates what Hitchens is so desperately trying to destroy.

Negative Morality

Evangelicalism specifically focuses on the gospel of the ‘good news’. It is important that a Christian spread the good news of Christ because we are actively making the lives of those who hear it better. Books like, “Run Baby Run” by Nicky Cruz reinforce this message by painting the secular world as dark and grim. That world is full of gangs, drugs, unfulfilling sex, and extreme and grotesque forms of violence. The way out of this world is through the message of Jesus Christ. Likewise, by definition, none of these things can exist within the Evangelical church as Christians leading better lives is core to the doctrine. We are then stuck in a situation where there is a fundamental disagreement about who gets to be religious. Hitchens argues that good Christians are actually humanists, and Evangelicals argue that bad Christians aren’t actually Christian. Of course, nobody agrees on what is good and what is bad and so nothing is ever decided. Both sides are in effect the same. The argument is simply western thought fighting over its own details. Concepts important to this discussion, such as the distinction between religion and ethnicity or whether God exists in a literal sense, just don’t mean as much in any other context.

All of this leads one way or another to a kind of negative morality. A position where we are focused entirely on the eradication of evil in order to allow good to flourish.

All of this leads one way or another to a kind of negative morality. A position where we are focused entirely on the eradication of evil in order to allow good to flourish. If religion ruins everything then by getting rid of it we allow ourselves to return to the rational state it removed us from. If God is good and has rescued us from our sins, then we must destroy these sins so that they can’t capture us again. In both cases, any violence that erupts is a necessary evil that transitions us into a better world. Another important idea in western thought is the inevitable triumph of good over evil. The trope of ‘saving the world’ in one heroic act of justified violence powers a majority of our popular media. The good guy always defeats the villain. The problem though is that the fight between ‘good and evil’ never ends. Once the evil bad is destroyed there is always an eviler bad to follow. Sooner or later the ‘war to end all wars’ simply becomes the ‘previous war to end all wars’. There has never been any scientific evidence that goodness is inevitable.

Atheism was never an alternative to my own religion. I may have had my doubts about my own religion, but it was still obvious to me that jumping from one to the other only replaced one idol with another. I was taught that Christ and his word are truth, and Hitchens believes that science is truth. Yet, what truth was to both didn’t differ, it was a system founded on a single inerrant principle that denied the existence of anything not demonstrable through that system. Yet, here I was seeing both systems and finding both to be equally fascinating and equally flawed. I do not disagree with those who question religion. God doesn’t have to exist, science is a better explanation as to how we got here, and holding a thousand-year-old document as a source of inerrant truth is hard to defend. Yet, it wasn’t any triumph of human rationality that got me to doubt my own religious convictions, instead, it was the idea of negative morality. Why was it that a religion founded on the ‘good news’ of Christ rescuing us from our own corruption was so focused on categorizing said corruption? If God is so powerful, why are we so afraid of evil? Why must the fear of hell power more of my decisions than the love of God? If someone is happy and content with their lives, why must I conclude that they are faking it if they aren’t ashamed of what I am personally labelling as their sin? And the same argument works against people like Hitchens. Why is he so focused on destroying something that he argues does not exist? Why must he continue to believe that religion holds no value when there are clearly billions of people worldwide who are continually attracted to it?


What does it mean for a belief to be true? For that matter what does it even mean for anything to be true? Looking back on all those physics books I read as a child I cannot deny that what drew me to them is the promise of objective reality. There was something out there, independent of me, it had structure, it had order, and it was beautiful. Back then, as today, I believed in objective reality, in objective truth. I believed that truth wasn’t a personal matter, it wasn’t unique to me and didn’t change from person to person. I believed this because it had to be true in order for my own experiences to make sense. If I were somehow capable of making something true for myself then the world would be a fundamentally different place: it would be one where I understood why the people around me reacted to me the way that they did.

One thing both physics and religion had in common was that they both, at least in their teachings, actively encouraged me to seek the truth on my own. The preachers implored me to read the bible and pray to God for wisdom, while the scientists encouraged experimentation as those were repeatable and not beholden to the whims of an individual. What does one do when their personal truth is suspect, but the alternatives are no better? How does one rectify a belief in an objective absolute truth with the realization that my own understanding of that objective reality is clouded by the things that one believes?

Well, I didn’t have an answer back then, and I won’t pretend to have one now. However, the journey I’ve been on since has been an adventure and I’d like to share it with anybody willing to listen.

Re: Barry Bonds Without a Bat

So, first a disclaimer: I know very little about actual baseball.

I do, however, love games, numbers, strategy, and game theory. So when Chart Party (a recurring feature on the sports YouTube channel SB Nation hosted by Jon Bois) ran the numbers on what would happen if Barry Bonds, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, played without a bat, I was intrigued. The following is my response to the question posed at the end of the video. I suggest watching it first before continuing.

To answer the first question: yes, I agree Bois’ methodology is correct, and the result is a little bit puzzling. How can the performance of a great batter not be affected by the removal of his bat? To answer that, we will need to abstract a little bit away from baseball as a holistic game and just talk about the interaction between the batter and the pitcher.

In baseball, the pitch qualifies as a sub-game, described in the following payout matrix:

 SwingNo swing

There are two players, the batter and the pitcher, and each has two actions that they could perform. The pitcher acts first and attempts to throw either a ball or a strike; the batter must react to this decision. If a ball is thrown and the batter does not swing, then the batter scores a “ball”, and doing so four times results in a free walk to first base. If the pitcher throws a strike, the batter must swing, otherwise the batter scores a strike; three of these results in a strike-out. Swinging at a ball also results in a strike. The remaining situation involves the entire rest of the team and is hard to assign a value to so we will ignore it for the time being.

Now, in the Chart Party experiment, Bois modeled the pitcher as a random number generator. This may seem unfair, because common sense says that professional players shouldn’t be throwing balls randomly; however, this is actually a good way of modeling high-level play. A professional pitcher pitching to a low-level player, like me, would quickly adapt to my inability to hit the ball and strike me out every time. Likewise, a professional batter would just as quickly adapt to my inability to throw a ball and would either launch one out of the park or take the free walk. However, things change when two professional players play each other. In this case, both players would notice and adapt to any pattern exhibited by the other; therefore, the best strategy is to not exhibit any patterns at all, which is the definition of random.

(Note: since the batter reacts to the pitcher, the batter doesn’t need to swing randomly, only avoid indicating to the pitcher what the batter plans on swinging at.)

Finally, we are only interested in ‘On Base Percentage’ (OBP) or the amount of times the batter leaves home base successfully. Runs don’t matter and for this simulation getting to first base is just as good as hitting a home run. So, with all these assumptions and simplifications in place, the pitching sub-game becomes extremely easy to model mathematically. If the batter never swings, we are left with a simple binomial distribution: six pitches at a probability of throwing a ball at 58.7% (as reported in the video). We are interested in the probability of a game resulting in at least 4 balls. So, if we take a quick calculator break….

we arrive at a probability of 51.7%. In terms of baseball, that would be an OBP of 0.517.

Now, this number doesn’t include intentional walks and hit by pitches, which the video sadly lumps together with normal walks, so I cannot accurately calculate their effect. However, the video does report Bonds’ total walk rate to be 0.381 and if even a quarter of those are intentional walks (not a difficult assumption, given the background in the video) that would easily push his OBP to the reported value of 0.608.

The above graph demonstrates the relationship between a random pitcher, their probability of throwing a ball, and the probability of being walked, assuming the batter doesn’t swing. In a meta where pitchers threw balls less than 30% of the time, the effect on the batter’s OBP is minimal. Not swinging would result in getting to base only slightly more than 5% of the time. However, the numbers start changing quickly in metas with higher probabilities. A single 10% jump from 30% to 40% triples the expected OBP of the batter, while each of the next two 10% jumps both double it again. Suffice it to say, tiny changes in the pitching meta can have a massive impact on the expected OBP of the batter.

So where does the batter’s skill come into this?

Allowing the batter to start swinging would likely have a negative effect on their OBP. The simple fact that a batter can swing at balls will always negatively impact their score. Obviously, the better the batter is, the less this effect will be, but unless they play perfectly, inclusion of this option will always drop their OBP by at least a small amount. As noted, swinging at strikes has several possible outcomes. The batter can swing and get a strike, swing and not make it to base, or swing and make it to base. So the outcome of the rest of the entire game will have a variable effect depending on the skill of the team.

For the case of Bonds, we know the outcome. Swinging a bat had no effect on his overall OBP, which means he successfully swung at enough strikes to counteract the negative effect of swinging at balls. Seeing as he is one of the greatest batters of all time, I would assume that this is the upper limit of batting performance and lesser batters would perform a lot worse. In terms of this experiment, I hypothesize–although cannot prove– that for most regular batters, taking away their bat would actually improve their OBP.

Is this bad for baseball? No. In the real world, if Bonds showed up without a bat the pitcher would adapt quickly and strike him out; it’s a dumb strategy. What this is though is a good indicator that OBP is a terrible statistic, and likely shouldn’t be used as a proxy for a batter’s skill.