Saturday 12 February 2011


I’m currently, extremely slowly, reading a very interesting book, Insight, by Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan argues that we can understand how we understand, and, once we have done that, we have a general method for understanding anything.

According to Lonergan, understanding is a process which includes a moment, or several moments, of insight. An insight is what happens when Archimedes jumps out of the bath shouting ‘eureka!’, or you or I say, ‘ah yes, I’ve got it’. That moment of insight is a critical point in our development of understanding. The movement to the moment of insight may be lengthy or short. Teachers, colleagues and others may, along the way, provide pointers, information, experiences and similar sorts of things that build up the context in which we can have an insight. But the insight can only be had by and within us, individually.

Lonergan further distinguishes between empirical sciences, like physics, and common sense. Empirical science, he argues, abstracts from the events of experience and creates a system of relating objects to each other. An example of this would be the model we have of the planets, revolving in elliptical orbits around the sun. This started with a set of observations, some mathematical tools and a good deal of insight from the likes of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. The point is that the observations were abstracted to provide the basis for the model. The model has predictive power in the concrete world, but, in itself, it is abstract and could be applied to any planetary system we care to think of.

Common sense, on the other hand, is a system of experiences, reflections on those experiences, traditions, ways of doing things, and so on, which are completed by the concrete. For example, I know how to ride a bike, but I cannot demonstrate this without a bike to ride. My knowledge is completed by the concrete item, the bike to ride. Lonergan argues that common sense knowledge is as valid as scientific, but that they inhabit different worlds. They are not in conflict because they start from different viewpoints.

To return to the planets, a common sense view of the solar system would be that the Earth is stationary and everything else revolves around it. The scientific point of view is that the Earth and everything else revolves around the Sun. Both of these claims are correct, it just depends on your point of view, and what you are trying to do. No-one would use the common sense view to calculate the trajectory of a comet, but nor would you use celestial mechanics to catch a ball.

So how do these considerations apply to wargaming?

I think I’ve mentioned before the problem with the evidence for wargaming. What happened in a battle was a one-off, never to be repeated set of circumstances and outcomes. Even assuming that our sources are accurate, there were only a few battles and the whole manifold of possible combinations could not have been tested. Therefore, we have an incomplete data set to start with. Wargames can, and probably do, cover a much larger range of combinations of troop types, morale, location and so on than were covered in real life.

So, what does Lonergan add to this? I think that we need to put the data side of wargaming, the accounts of battles that we have, the archaeology and so on, down on the common sense account. The insights that they contain are concrete, completed by the circumstances of the particular incidents.

Wargame rules, on the other hand, attempt to abstract the data of wargaming to a system. We wargame rule writers, poor benighted beings that we are, attempt to take the information that we have, extrapolate it to fill the gaps, abstract it to a few common principles, and present it as a system to provide the required concrete results once it is applied to the particular circumstances on the table.

In the process, of course, the original data will have been interpreted, misinterpreted, ignored, bent out of shape to fit our preconceptions and over-used. Thus, it is unlikely that the abstract system of rules that we develop will reproduce the outcome in real life. There will be some residue, what Lonergan calls the ‘empirical residue’ of those things which don’t fit within the abstraction process required to obtain the general rules. Thus, even if we believe we have sufficient evidence on which to base our rules, the process of abstraction is highly likely to mean that the particular incident cannot be reproduced in all its detail.

Is there then no hope for wargame rule historical accuracy?

I think there is. Another of Lonergan’s points is about the self-correction of these processes. Scientists make loads of mistakes and misinterpretations along the way to scientific truth. As testing takes place, the errors are discovered and discarded. Common sense is self-correcting in that both we as individuals and as collectives of people do learn and change our common sense understandings. Thus, over time, we do correct our misunderstandings, notice our prejudices and overcome them, and improve the way we look at and do things.

Thus, as our knowledge and insight into a period deepens, as new ideas for rules are bandied about, we can develop rule sets which are more accurate, more fun to play and so on. Each set can be regarded as an abstraction from the knowledge and insight of the time, and as a building block for the future.


  1. I guess that you would expect then that, in general, wargames rules are becoming "more accurate, more fun to play and so on" - you think that is true? If so, the 'Old School' movement would seem to be particularly perverse!

    More seriously, I worry about weighting. Because the dataset is so small and vague, our 'common sense' could tell us that armoured troops are at an advantage against unarmoured troops in melee. But by how much? There doesn't seem to be enough discrete data to really help us out.

    Of course, one way out of this is to increase the size of the period to increase the amount of data - but that brings its own pitfalls... :-)


  2. Well, 'Old School' wargaming is an interesting phenomenon, but it seems to be more of a reaction to the crushing realism of some wargaming and a hankering after a simpler, nobler age. I also suspect that many aspects of OS gaming are no less inaccurate that some much more complex rules.

    One of the real problems of writing rule is the lack of data. Even when we have a record of a clash, we don't have enough information to decide on what was important, and that itself might very from clash to clash. Plus we are trying to quantify something which is a continuum and which, ultimately, may prove to be unquantifiable.

    But now I'm arguing my way out of writing rules at all....