Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Metaphysics of Wargaming

Yes, I know, a title that takes pretentiousness to new levels of ultra-bizarreness. But bear with me, there might be something interesting below.

By some measures, metaphysics is not a popular subject in modern western philosophy. This might be something to do with the influence of Heidegger (or, as the Epictetus blog described him recently, “the tainted Heidegger”. Well, OK, he was, at least, a Nazi sympathiser. But then, so were a lot of other people). Heidegger, of course, was not a fan of metaphysics, to the extent that he spoke and wrote an awful lot about it. I think this might be an older manifestation of the Streisand effect, whereby attempting to ban something simply draws attention to it.

Anyway, metaphysics is rather sniffed at these days, which is a bit of a shame because eventually most things can be tracked down to metaphysical presuppositions. Science, for example, does not do metaphysics. If you run into an atheist scientist (and they do exist) then, if you track back far enough, they will often simply claim that the laws of nature are a brute fact, a given, arbitrary, about which we can say no more. Now, obviously, this is to an extent attempting to admit either ignorance about the origins of the laws of nature, or an inability to define said laws (which is not as easy as we might assume) or a last ditch attempt to avoid metaphysics and the ‘G’ word. But the conclusion that the laws of nature are simply brute facts is a metaphysical one. There is no evidence to suppose that it is the case, it comes from a presupposition.

Similarly, in fact, science uses metaphysical assumptions in carrying out its day to day activity. The assumption is that the physical world is regular, intelligible and predictable. These things may have been shown inductively to be true, but as Hume pointed out centuries ago, there is no justification for induction, and any attempts to do so have failed. Of course, most science is massively indifferent to this; most scientist are just trying to get their experiments to work, write the next paper and grant application and not worry about ultimate justifications.

In the determination not to worry about ultimate justifications and the presuppositions which they might rest upon, scientists have much in common with wargamers. After all, the presupposition of a wargame of any description is that the universe is, in some senses, explicable. If someone is shot at with a musket, a ball will likely fly in their general direction and there is a chance that it will hit them and disable them. We assume that this is the case, without a huge quantity of justification except that we know, somehow, that it is the case. The presumption of regularity in the universe is metaphysical.

In fact, recent historical research suggests that modern science would not have come into existence without Christianity. The presumptions of Christianity are that the universe is intelligible, regular (because guaranteed by a good God) and that part of our activity as humans created in God’s image (whatever that might actually mean; don’t get me started) is to try and understand it. Many early scientists were people of faith, such as Roger Bacon and Robert Grossteste. Without Christianity, modern science might not have got going.

But I digress. I am trying to examine here what I might have referred to before as the framework assumptions or the conceptual archetypes of wargaming. I think that we can probably assume that wargaming, in common with more or less every other human activity, takes some metaphysical items pretty well for granted, such as the regularity of the physical world and the validity of induction. Without that, wargaming, let alone anything else, would not have got going.

So what other assumptions are made in order to have a wargame at all? I think that possibly the main one is that there is an interplay of chance and necessity. As I said above, if you pull a musket trigger, you have a reasonable expectation that a bullet will come out of the other end of the gun, that it will fly in the general direction in which you pointed it, and that it will do some damage if it happens to hit something or someone. But note that the sentences are hedged with conditionals – it might do some damage if it happens to hit something.

Thus the elements of chance are introduced into the game. Few wargames operate entirely without chance elements. Most use dice, but it is not obligatory. I seem to recall that HG Wells used matchstick firing cannon, and I’m fairly sure I read somewhere about entirely card driven games. Whatever the mechanism, we recognise that despite the necessity of some effects occurring given certain causes, chance is also a factor in war and, even more so (because we cannot model every level of human decision) in wargames.

At the risk of reinforcing my pretention credentials, I think I would want to classify such presuppositions in wargaming as metaphysical. I think that such assumptions are made, tacitly, in most, if not all wargames. Stuff happens. There are causes and effects, and sometimes things go a bit awry, but not so much that the awryness cannot be accounted for by chance or awkward human decisions. Hume, after all, argued that we only link cause and effect because that is how we link them together. His claim is that cause and effect are only due to our habits of associating the events. Of course, this is another metaphysical claim, and this from a man who argued that all books of metaphysics should be burnt.

In sum, I think that we should, as wargamers, try to be aware of some of our basic assumptions in holding a wargame at all. I am not really arguing that we should hold the laws of cause and effect, or the laws of nature in mind when wargaming (that way, I suspect, madness probably lies, and I do not wish to be held responsible for a decline in the mental health of the wargame community), but I do think that, from time to time, an investigation of what those assumptions are, and their validity, might be a good idea.


  1. I suspect that it was scientists who were Christians who decided that non Christian science isn't? Presumably as it does not fit criteria they have chosen to describe themselves? Laymen like myself are often guilty of confusing science with mathematics, chemistry, physics, metallurgy, engineering etc etc and liable to mislable philosophers like Archimedes with his observation of the rising water in his no doubt apocryphal bath.

    However, never a bad thing to think about why you are doing something and what beliefs are involved.

    In my own case I think less of finding Universal truths behind the warfare that I recreate in a game and more about recreating what I have read. This does not mean that what I read is true in every or even any way but it gives me something concrete to measure the game against and thus judge one facet of the game. (Others including various things such as challenge, fun, practicality and so on which are often purely subjective.)

    This is particularly lucky for me since many if not most successful commanders who have left their thoughts on paper over several millenia seem to agree that the intangible (morale, emotion, psychological) factors greatly outway the physical factors in importance. Lucky since while we might build physical replica weapons in hope of testing their physical properties, we cannot really test theories about the intangible aspects of war 2,000 years ago.

    1. I think that the concept of science only emerged slowly from philosophy - theology, but in retrospect you can see the trends. I think the modern natural sciences only really emerged in the late C17 early C18. ~After all, Newton wrote far more dubious theology than he did physics.

      But yes, it is good to examine the basics from time to time, and to consider what we measure against. Sometimes wargaming has veered towards a science (all those numbers, I think) and sometimes towards being a free for all. The trick is to find the right balance, and that is often determined by reading the sources (and re-reading them, and then reading them again; it is amazing what you miss the first time).

      The world views of even WW1 are very different from our own, so we've probably no hope of wargaming except by reading the accounts and matching them.

  2. I think I have two questions:

    1. Is modern warfare knowable - or at least, are there fewer metaphysical assumptions?

    2. When Ross says he is recreating what he has read, does that trump the metaphysical problems involved? For example, if I say that I am recreating Tolstoy's War and Peace rather than Napoleonic Warfare, does that require less induction?

    1. Ooh; difficult questions.

      1. I suspect that there are as many metaphysical assumptions in modern warfare, it is just that, for the west anyway, they are part of our ordinary experience of the world. Like a fish in water, they are just part of our usual background. It is somewhat interesting to consider that someone like, for example, the Taleban, comes to a conflict with different assumptions. What constitutes victory, defeat and even tactics can vary.

      2. I suspect that this pushes the assumptions back a bit. We create W&P but that means we have to interpret Tolstoy's interpretation of, say Borodino. It might just make things a bit more complex. On the other hand, trying to recreate an eyewitness account probably lands us up in the same place, just not as far removed from the action.

      I'll have to think about this some more...