Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Philosophy (and Religion) of Psi-Wars

Philosophy is devoted to rational discourse, whereas mysticism tries to reach beyond the limits of reason to what cannot be said or even thought.
- Peter Adamson, the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps
(Philosphy) particularly suits a martial-arts campaign in which the character knows combat skills with different (and even antagonistic) spiritual teachings; by adopting both schools' philosophical teachings, they may be combined without conflict.
-GURPS Compendium I
In Psi-Wars, I've chosen to use the Philosophy skill where I should probably use Theology. I've done this, first, as a legacy of GURPS 3e, where "Theology" has a Western connotation (Catholicism is studied with theology not philosophy), while "Philosophy" has an Eastern connotation (Buddhism is studied with philosophy not theology).  I suspect 4e would disagree and suggest that all religion is theology and rational discourse about the nature of reality is covered with philosophy.  Furthermore, Philosophy suggests a state of mind, which is more important to a game about psionic powers.  While Communion is definitely inspired by, and carries the trappings of, religion, it is in fact a highly psionic phenomenon, and understanding it carries the same sorts of approach that understanding natural philosophy might.  Which brings us to the blurry line between philosophy and theology, in that both traditions have defined a culture's worldview, often discussed the nature of God, ethics, morality, the meaning of existence, the immortality of souls, and so on.  Theology and philosophy often informed one another, and throughout much of history, except for artificial distinctions ("Philosophy is Greek, Theology is Islamic"), they represented a similar sort of body of knowledge.  Thus, for my purposes, I'm going to largely treat them as the same, but we must realize that they are not the same.  Philosophy arms its adherents with the logical skills necessary to pursue an argument to its natural conclusion, while theology concerns itself more with an understanding of a body of religious doctrines, texts and laws.

If we look at religion and philosophy both as a way of viewing the world, then we can see the common ground more clearly between the two, and we understand their place as a distancing mechanism.  We're describing through what lens a culture views the world, how they choose to describe it, and the points of agreement all in a culture have (and the fault lines of their most common arguments). Religion in particular is a major touchstone for a culture.  It contains all the rites and traditions associated with a culture: If people go to mass on Sundays and dress "their Sunday best" and attend the same weddings, they begin to form a community, a specific community that might not contain those who follow other beliefs.  A common refrain to describe this is "belonging before believing," an idea that people  join a community before they come to accept its deepest teachings.  Philosophy doesn't necessarily contain this sort of power, though some communities definitely rise up around philosophies (such as the Marxist commune or various attempts to create Libertarian communities).  Nonetheless, I'm going to attempt to discuss both at once.

I'm going to do this so that I can use the excellent GURPS Religion, which to this day remains one of my favorite books from the 3e days and is still very much relevant today.  We'll have a few troubles with it, namely that we're using a sci-fi setting which has some specific issues (though Religion does touch on those), that what we're describing isn't entirely religious in nature, and that GURPS Religion must necessarily be limited in scope, but I'll try to add what I've learned from my various forays into the world of Philosophy and Theology.

I'll tackle religious creation here the same way I did Social Engineering a few days back: the book itself is "good enough" without further commentary, but I'd like to post more than just "Here you go, use this book!"  So I'll walk through the Religion Creation Checklist with you, to give you an idea of what points to hit and what points you might skip, and where major questions might arise.

Origin Myth/Cosmology

The Psi-Wars cosmology is largely already set in stone: We have a fairly well defined set of physics, so most people already know how their worlds were created, or where life came from, or how the universe started.  There's no need to conjure a great story to explain these.  Psi-Wars also features Communion, which is a fact, though it's one poorly understood by most people and wrapped in mysticism, both because of that poor understanding, and due to the nature of Communion itself.

The real trick for a Psi-Wars philosophy or religion is explaining the why behind physics and especially the questions around Communion and psychic phenomenon.  Is it just an expression of energy, a new form of physics?  Is Communion really just a mass unconscious psychic phenomenon, or does it cause psychic phenomenon?  Are archetypes just an accumulation of beliefs, or do they precede belief?  Is an archetype a God and the reason we believe in It is because its psychic presence looms large in our minds?  Or if we stop believing in an archetype, does it change its nature or go away?

This does bring us back to the origin of the world and of life.  If an archetype is a God, if Destiny has a real weight in the world, if p0:01 / 3:59sychic phenomenon predates life and the creation of stars and planets, then did psychic phenomenon play a role?  Did an archetype say "Let there be light"?  Is the reason all sentient life in the galaxy is so similar because of the role of Communion in our creation?  Is it possible that some species are more "favored" by Communion and its Archetypes than others?

Thus, while we have some absolutes for our Cosmology, we definitely have some wiggle room for interpretation as to how we want to use them.  We can use Deity Creation too, but from the perspective of Archetype creation, unless we're doing something else crazy and physical, like the worship of an ancient machine or of a God-Emperor or the like.

It should also be noted that Psi-Wars religions can absolutely be social constructs, which worship classic gods or spirits or follow old ways, for the same reason you still have Christians and Muslims in fully industrialized and scientifically literate societies on Earth: Just because you understand physics doesn't necessarily mean that belief in God goes away.

Status and Relation to Culture

Most of the points discussed in GURPS Religion on this topic focus on religious law and its status within its culture.  In general, I would argue that if a religion isn't central to the culture you're building in some way, then it's not worth discussing except perhaps in passing.  For example, that the average Atheist American gets to stay home on December 25th doesn't mean you need to discuss the inner workings of the Christian faith, other than to note that he has this holiday "as a legacy from the Christian faith."

Remember that every piece of information, flavor and culture you add has a cost.  If a culture doesn't care about its own religion, don't waste time working out the details!  The Jedi Order and its mythology gets so much attention in Star Wars because it's deeply central to the plot.  The Ewok religion, other than C3PO's primacy in it, is largely irrelevant to the plot, so flits by with little attention.

History of Development

The history of a religion is not strictly necessary, especially for quickly-detailed religions, but it definitely serves a useful purpose for a thoroughly detailed one.  I plan on taking a look at the history of Psi-Wars in Iteration 6, and history plays a major role in the creation of relics, thus if you decide an important religion for Psi-Wars, then I would argue it's definitely worth looking over its history of development, especially for psionic philosophies.

The history of the religion/philosophy will tell you a lot about various schisms that might have arisen, give you names of important founders, icons, thinkers or saints, why it's positioned as it is in the Galaxy and among societies, and the nature of the relics that one can get. The primary purpose of all t his history is to ground the religion in the context of the galaxy, and that might seem unimportant, but that's all we're doing in this iteration!


This section is definitely worth your time to go over, as it's one of the defining features of the faith. It determines what your priests look like, what symbols people toss around to mark their allegiance, and what sort of things might become relics.

GURPS Religion focuses on earth-like cultures, which we don't have the luxury of.  Our symbols and symbolism must necessarily be different.  That said, understand you're trying to explain an alien religion using alien symbols, which requires two levels of commitment from your players.  They must be willing to learn about both the religion and the symbol to make the connection between the two.  In the real world, we rely on the understanding of the audience of one to explain the other ("The cat is sacred to the goddess Bast" makes sense; "The hyperspatial matrix is sacred to our Lord Starlio" does not).  We want a minimal level of investment from players, while rewarding any investment they do make.  Where possible, try to connect either your religion or your symbols to real world things, or ideally, both ("Space knight wear sacred armor and wield sacred force swords on their crusades for the martyr god, Starlio" is much easier for the average player to grasp).

Your symbols serve as short-hand for your religion or philosophy, a set of metaphors to help explain its precepts to your players.  Make your symbols as comprehensible as possible.

Graphic Symbol: I absolutely encourage you to devise graphic symbolism for your religions (or organizations, or whatever else you like) because they require little explanation, appeal to the senses, and the player will begin to associate one with the other, especially if you show them the image again and again.  For example, Star Wars fans have routinely seen the symbols of both the Empire and the Republic.  Even if they didn't recognize that's what they were seeing, if you show them the symbol, it'll seem familiar to them, and when you explain the association, they'll nod and then recognize it.  Keep your symbols simple, however.  You want something uncluttered and easily recognized, more "A cross" than "A coat of arms."  Star Wars uses the Japanese Mon as its inspiration, and that's as good a place as any to start, or you can look at the glyphs in GURPS Religion for more ideas.

Clothing and Dress: The entire discussion on fashion should inform how our clergy and lay members dress. Colors might invoke certain Communion imagery.

Food: Everything that applies to Psi-Wars cuisine might apply here.  A religion with roots on a specific world might hold cuisine native to that world sacred (making it a rather expensive religion for off-worlders).

Animals: These must necessarily be different from Earth animals.  We'll get to alien wildlife later, but I caution you against over-use of these sorts of things for the reasons outlined above.  Any creature held sacred for a religion should, ideally, have an easy-to-grasp parallel ("The groht is a sort of space-cat, except it has scales and can speak."), and player should have regular contact with it throughout the course of the game (for example, Star Wars has a lightsaber form called the "Way of the Sarlacc" and every Star Wars fan knows what a sarlacc is) so they can begin to form an association.  Creating a symbolic animal gives players a reward for investment, but it costs investment at two levels, because the player needs to care enough about the religion and the animal to make the connection. Use it sparingly, unless you deliberately want to make the religion seem incomprehensible.

Tools: Again, these will often be different than modern Earth things, but they don't have to be.  It's possible that aliens will also have things like cards, dice, chalices, books, scrolls, flames, etc.  However, it's more sci-fi appropriate to have more advanced technology.  In particular, Star Wars suggests an ancient universe that has more-or-less had the same technology for a long time, and I'd like Psi-Wars to follow suit.  Thus, a force blade isn't a recent invention, but an ancient one, one already steeped in its own mythology.  However, again, we don't want the problem with animals where the player has a hard time making the symbolic connection with an unfamiliar tool.  I suggest finding a way to connect the unfamiliar with the familiar: the force blade is obviously similar to the sword and likely has similar connotations; the cryo-chamber becomes the sarcophagus; the memory crystal becomes the sacred tome; the core of the fusion engine becomes akin to the hearth, and so on.

Dogma, Scriptures and Laws

GURPS Religion goes into surprisingly little detail here, but this is definitely the core of what makes a religion a religion.

First, a religion is going to enshrine certain values in its dogma.  Whatever values the culture holds will likely be reinforced in its religion.  This is especially true of political philosophies and religions that act as social constructs, because both will seek to enforce a certain behavior from the populace.  Its scriptures will act as a primary source for literature, a laying out of these values as laws.

The scriptures and dogma should also answer the difficult questions.  GURPS Religion goes into excellent detail here, but a few additional questions are worth asking.
  • How does the religion/philosophy explain psionic phenomenon and the presence of communion?
  • How does the religion/philosophy handle Destiny, the certainty of future prophecy and free will?
  • How does the religion or philosophy handle some of the weirder natural phenomenon of the universe, such as hyperspace or the universality of humanoid species and their psychology?

Common Rituals, Holy Times and Holy Places

These represent core traditions that may well carry over to non-religious populaces (for the same reason an atheist might celebrate Christmas despite not believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ).  Of anything worth looking at in GURPS Religion, this should be your highest priority, because they'll be the most highly visible.

What rituals and  holidays a culture focuses on will depend heavily on their values.  A culture that values Courage or Independence or Prestige might make a point out of Initiation rituals, to highlight the difference between one class (say, children or peasant) and another (warrior, or noble).  Marriage might be very important in a pious culture or one that values innocence.  How the ceremony takes place will vary too, based on the values of the culture.  A traditional culture will have highly ritualized marriages, ones that are based on how things went over the past thousand years.  A pious marriage might be more about the abstract qualities of love and romance rather than the act of childbearing.  A tribal/nationalistic culture might make a point of the entire community celebrating a marriage, for it signals the attempt of two to bring another member of the tribe into existence.

All of the suggested rituals are definitely worth looking through.  In particular, consider the nature of prayer, sacrifice and ecstatic dance when it comes to Meditation, and any rituals or holidays that might belong to a lapsed religion.  Even if you don't discuss the religion with your players, it might be nice to outline a few elements that underly a culture.  For example, the coronation ceremony of a space emperor might be based on a bygone tradition that nobody follows anymore, but the coronation itself might contain some ancient imagery worth exploring.

Note that if you want to include Holy Times, you'll need to devise some kind of calendar, which is something I haven't tackled.  Star Wars rarely gets into it so I won't bother, at least for now, except to note that most such calendars will either be highly local to a given planet or system, or it'll be spread universally via the FTL communication network, so everyone is more-or-less synched up.

Hierarchy and Organization of Clerics

This is a topic I'd rather touch on when I get into organizations, because what works for secret conspiracies or militaries or spy agencies will also work for religious orders, by and large.  And even where they're different, I want to try to make them work, mechanically as consistently as possible, to draw on the Pulling Rank rules where I can.

Clerical Abilities

This might not seem like something worth discussing, as we already have Communion all sketched out, so what's the point of discussing the specifics of a religion? Because players will want to know what following a particular religion gets them.  Players don't want to become Jedi because they really believe in the tenants of that faith, but because Jedi get cool powers.  The same should be true of our religions.

Note the second quote at the top.  GURPS 3e originally included Philosophy in conjunction with Martial Arts.  Given that Psi-Wars is heavily inspired by martial arts,and the deep connection between martial arts and culture, a philosophy will give rise to unique martial arts styles or psionic styles.  The Oracular style or the Death Cult style should have religions and philosophies associated with them, complete with value systems, symbolism.  To have those styles means exposure to their ideals and symbols, even if one doesn't fully subscribe to them, though often believing in those ideals is necessary to make the power work, on some level.

This definitely still applies for non-psionic philosophies.  If we consider, for example, science and "rationalism" to be a philosophy, it definitely grants the believer some benefits in that he's better able to verify his experiments and knowledge via the concepts and ideas taught to him by rationalism.  A non-psionic philosophy may well offer its adherents interesting abilities or access to esoteric skills that they wouldn't normally have access to.  GURPS Powers: The Weird has plenty of suggestions on this point

Sample Religions

I'd like to close by noting, as I have done with the rest of Psi-Wars, that material already exists.  Religion has quite a few. of which I'd like to draw your attention to the Kalm of Sequan (an interesting choice for Felinoids), the Disciples of Change, and Dhala, Destroyer of Worlds.  You can find more religions you can rip off in Pyramid, including Ostara in Pyramid #3-79: Space Atlas, or the ideas in "God is Dead" in Pyramid #3-41: Fantasy World Building.

Philosophy as Philosophy

In this post, I've treated Theology and Philosophy as synonymous and from a certain perspective, they can be.  But philosophy and theology do legitimately tackle different concepts, and if I'm going to use the Philosophy skill, it might be interesting to look at what philosophy actually does.

You can break real-world philosophy into several components, and a philosophical system tends to look at at least one of those elements.  Thus, if you're going to design a philosophy system as a philosophy system, or add strong philosophical elements to your religion, it might be worth considering some of the following.

Natural Philosophy: How does the world work?  Many philosophies offer a physical theory, such as Epicurean atomic theory, Parmenadian monism, or Platonic forms.  Religion and philosophy often blur on this point, especially when it comes to questions of how the world was formed, or whether the world is eternal, etc.  In Psi-Wars, this needs to accommodate advanced science, hyperspatial physics and psionic theory.

Metaphysics: literally "after physics", this often tackles the deeper implications offered by a physical theory.  It discusses what really exists as opposed to what, if anything, is "illusory", and the underlying principles that guide true reality.  Often, philosophers pursue the ultimate "original principle" from which all other principles are derived, and metaphysics underlies physics.  Theology and philosophy blur again when that underlying principle becomes "God" or otherwise divine.  Even seemingly non-divine principles often take on god-like qualities in a philosophical system, and as such some more rigorous philosphers reject it entirely.   Theories of mind often fall into this category, whether they are accepted or rejected, and whether or not "souls" exist, etc.

Metaphysics certainly needs to take into account the physical elements described above, but hyperspatial theory and psionics offers new routes for describing "what is real."  This also suggests that exceptional philosophers might be better at picking out truth from lie, reality from illusion, provided their system actually works.

Epistemology: How do you know that you know something?  Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, and it tackles how to educate others, when you can feel confident in your system, etc.  In a sense, an epistemological system supports the system we call "science:" You can be confident you know something when you've proven it with repeatable experimentation.  When you can apply a model that you use to describe the world to predict an outcome and that outcome occurs exactly as you predicted, then you have achieved knowledge.  Other philosophers might point out that you don't truly know that you know, however, because there's always a chance, however small, that your prediction was a coincidence.  Psionics adds a new problem to the mix: is extra-sensory perception true knowledge, a new form of sensory impression, or delusion?  As with a metaphysical philosopher, an epistemologist might be good at pointing out when a group is acting out of ignorance or is on sturdier ground.

Ethics: What is virtue?  How do you know you are doing something that is "good" and "right?" Do those terms even have any useful meaning?  Theology and Philosophy both argue ultimately for ethics and thus share a lot of ground, but theology tends to argue that ethics must be revealed from a divine source, while philosophers attempt to derive it from their underlying metaphysical principles.  Given that underlying principles can often be divine, this might be a meaningless distinction in some cases.  But can psionic power, or understanding of hyperspatial principles, reveal new ethical principles?  Can communion tell you what is "right" and what is "wrong?"  An ethical philosopher, with a coherent system, might use Philosophy the same way characters can use Meditation: to tell if a particular action would violate their code of honor, or would otherwise be "morally wrong or right."

Political Philosophy: Ethical philosophy expanded out to running an entire society.  This too often looks a great deal like theology, with the difference between a "righteous king" and an "ethical ruler" a blurry one.  Political philosophy might help a ruler know if what he's doing is "right."  It might also tell him if what he's doing is effective, but I would put that skill under Expert Skill (Political Science).  A philosophical system that contains both is best handled as a philosophical style.

Aesthetics: What is beauty?  Aesthetics discusses whether or not beauty is subjective, universal to all people, or ultimately an objective truth, and where there are divisions ("Some men like blonds and some men like brunettes, but all men know what a beautiful woman is"), they discuss which parts are which.  Beauty often plays an important role in religion, with Divinity described as the source of beauty (which is often seen as "good"), but Psi-Wars doesn't really turn much on the philosophical principles that underlie artistic criticism.  Still, a philosophical system might contain references to such, especially if it applies its underlying metaphysical principles to the idea of beauty (such as the platonic form of beauty, or the idea that the closer that something is to the original source of all things, the more perfect and beautiful it is).
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