Saturday 21 April 2012

Qualia in Wargaming

I seem to be slowly hitting a wall in understanding how wargames work. The problem goes something like this:

Firstly, wargames need to have something to do with history.

Secondly, historical accounts of battles are inadequate

Thirdly, even if historical accounts were adequate, Hume's problem about induction will still mean that we cannot predict what is going to happen in a given situation.

Finally, we seem to be forced back into a situation where a set of wargame rules rely on our a priori understanding of what might happen.

Now, here we hit another snag, I think, to do with our minds.

The thought experiment goes something like this:

Imagine someone who lives in a monochromatic world. All they see are black, white and various scales of grey. Suppose that they were a research scientist, and came across this fascinating concept of the colour red. They become very, very interested in red, and read about it extensively. They do experiments with red light, and measure the effects of it. In short, they become the world’s leading expert on the colour red.

But something is missing, something which you and I take for granted.

Suppose our research scientist opens a forbidden door and steps into our world. A welcoming committee is there, all wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘This is RED’.

Our scientist will have now had an experience that she has never had before – seeing red. Even though she knew everything there was to know about the colour red, she had never, ever experienced it before. Something had been missing from her knowledge.

In technical terms, the thing that was missing is called a ‘qualia’. It denotes a certain quality that experience of something gives to a person. In the above example, the qualia are that of experiencing seeing the colour red. That, of course, is something we have all (or most of us, anyway) already experienced, and it is kind of hard to imagine not have done so. But, nevertheless, there is a distinct difference between knowing about something and having experienced it.

A similar sort of example might be some craft activities. Watching some of these historical farming programs, you come across people doing barrel making or basket weaving. Mostly, they work by eye, by touch, by feel, by hearing and even tasting. This cannot be measured, they argue, you need to be apprenticed to it, to learn the craft over many years. There are qualia here.

You see this lack of understanding of qualia a fair bit in historiography. Academic historians do a good line in pontificating as to how, for example, English Civil War armies formed up. There is a certain amount of historical evidence for this, in terms of manuals, sketches of deployment, and descriptions of the armies just before battles and so on. A good description can be written, and often is.

However, what is lacking is a degree of experience. How, precisely, do 600 pikemen form up into a block? How do the commanders prevent them from falling into disorder? These are not, particularly, questions that can be easily answered from the sources. There is some sort of answer, of course, in terms of sections of block, and files and so on. But there is no understanding as to why this is so.

The answer is, of course, to try it out. The re-enactment societies do this, and it turns out that the structure within the pike block allows it to function without falling into disorder. File leaders and file closers become important men. NCOs are given their proper place in the overall scheme of commanding and ordering the troops. And so on.

Again, there are qualia between reading about the formation and trying it out. In this case, the re-enactors have a point. Only by doing, trying to recreate what happened, can you understand why it happened. The qualia come to the fore.

Now, as wargamers we are, of course, not just interested in how armies deployed, but how they fought. And here, not even re-enactors can help. Despite the sometimes significant rivalry between the different re-enactor sides, when they come into ‘combat’, no one is really trying to kill them. It is, as has been described to me, ‘cream puffs at five paces’.

And yet, surely, here is a qualia set. How does it feel to be encased in armour with an eighteen foot pike in your hand, surrounded by comrades and with someone, somewhere, trying to kill you?

We cannot know. There is a qualia gap too great for us to cross.

Now, perhaps we can gain some understanding from recent combat experiences that too many people have. And, indeed, reading their memoirs or talking to them may help in terms of what it is like to have someone trying to kill you because of the uniform you wear.

But that is not what it was like in the seventeenth century. Again, we have closed the qualia gap a bit, but not by enough to know very much more than where we started from.

Overall, then, there seems to be little we are able to do to close what I have termed the qualia gap. We are forced back on that most difficult thing of the entire human mind to use, our reason.

As I’ve noted before, we can have some reasonable expectation of outcomes from particular combat contexts. We can expect a given range of results from, say, two musket armed units coming to combat. We have a range of possible outcomes, which, if we want to posh it up a bit, we can call a manifold of possibilities.

Unfortunately, as I’ve also noted before, it is very difficult to assign probabilities to these outcomes, even relatively. We do not really have a statistically significant sample size, to start off with, nor do we have repeated experiments. All we can do is assign some sort of reasonable looking probability, based on what we can achieve, usually with a couple of six sided dice.

One of the truisms of wargaming seems to be, therefore, that a lot of it depends on the properties of six sided dice.

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