Secretum secretorum - De Mirabilibus Mundi - Paradigm
Background for Ars Magica sagas

Paradigm and Ars Magica

I begin with some definitions of paradigm that I believe will be acceptable to all.

Paradigm -- a) a pattern, example, or model b) an overall concept accepted by most people in an intellectual community, as a science, because of its effectiveness in explaining a complex process, idea, or set of data.

(Webster's New World Dictionary -- Third College Edition)

A paradigm is a set of rules and regulations (written or unwritten) that does two things: it establishes or defines boundaries it tells you how to behave inside the boundaries in order to be successful.

Barker, Joel A. Paradigms. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992

Paradigm

The dictionary meaning is "an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype." Paradigm is from the Greek compound word paradeigma, with para meaning alongside and deiknunai meaning to see or to show. A paradigm is a concept, often assumed or subconscious, that enables one to see and understand. It is not the thoughts we have, but the framework around which our thoughts are formed. In this sense, our paradigms are the mental tools or mindsets that we use to understand a situation.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition

For Ars Magica, the term paradigm is a difficult and often controversial subject. When it is brought up, it often elicits immediate and often damning response. Yet, at the heart of the debate lies a commentary on the approach to, and the possibility of, the game.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the well-worn phrase "its not in paradigm" may be used to mean, typically (and it should be noted that these three points are not exclusive, but often are unused simultaneously, depending on the user):

  1. that it doesn't follow the physical laws of the game world, usually held to be Aristotelian OR
  2. that it (whether point of view, technology, material good, etc.) is anachronistic to the historic Middle Ages OR
  3. that it does not accord with the speaker's conception of Mythic Europe, drawn on some other basis

These uses of the word cannot help causing a great deal of confusion, and irritation among many people. Thus we have the regular, and sometimes acrimonious, discussions on paradigm.

There are two major points of debate of the concept. The first is the very meaning of the term and its applicability to the game. The second deals with how the concepts behind the term should be applied. I shall first look at the debates on the meaning of the term.

The Value of Paradigm

The first group tends to be best categorized as , "if it isn't broke, don't fix it." This group takes the reasonable position that no matter what the technical or specialist terminology of paradigm that may or may not be used in academia, at the heart the word means: "a pattern, example, or model." The express the opinion is that the word paradigm accurately expresses what the game intends, and that further attempts to describe the concept in other terms should be ignored. This argument usually decides upon a definition of paradigm along these lines as best suited for the game: "The set of rules and laws designed to simulate natural laws that gamers use to define what is and is not possible for their characters to accomplish in their fictional world."

The second tendency is those who wish to stick to a more strict Kuhnian definition of paradigm, that of: an overall concept accepted by most people in an intellectual community, as a science, because of its effectiveness in explaining a complex process, idea, or set of data. Due to this interpretation, this group often finds the use of paradigm within Ars Magica to be misleading or just plain wrong. Many who prescribe here usually argue for the removal of the word and the substitution of more accurate concepts, such as worldview or cosmology.

The third argument is perhaps the most quixotic, as it is not a true argument at all. Here we have those postings to the list asking that this discussion be ended. This group usually creates more messages decrying the discussion of paradigm than those arguing the above two.

The discussion of the meaning of paradigm usually resolves to five options, where the discussion usually becomes bogged down, turns into a flame war or people loose interest for the moment:

  1. Agreeing that there is not something that the term 'paradigm' is used to refer to; therefore, agreement to recognize the term 'paradigm' to refer to this thing, and then argue out of exactly what that meaning might be.
  2. Choose of an appropriate substitute word: 'worldview' for the subjective and 'cosmology' for the objective.
  3. Avoidance of the word 'paradigm' as an inconvenient shortcut word and and the choice to discuss the longhand implications
  4. Continuing to use the word 'paradigm' and argue out of how nobody/anybody/somebody has exclusive right to its application.
  5. Becoming disgusted by the whole thing and/or letting the naysayers end the discussion.

Paradigm and Ars Magica

The other major discussion point regarding paradigm is how to view whatever it represents in the Ars Magica universe. On one side we have the paradigm is absolute. The other side, albeit smaller, tends to argue something often called "belief defines reality" or "bdr" for short.

The absolute paradigm folks take the argument, to varying degrees depending on their view, that what the medieval person believed is the physical (and metaphysical) nature of reality. Hopefully adding the caveat that the game specific aspects are also true, that is, faerie, hermetic magic, etc. Often times the term "big-P paradigm" comes along. This is usually used to refer to the unalterable reality, or the cosmology, of the Ars Magica world. In this context, "little-p paradigms" are what people believe, which may or may not be true.

The inevitable difficulty against this position is that there are many groups within Europe that have their own, sometimes opposing worldviews. Thus it quickly becomes difficult to sort and choose on what is true and what is not. A similar difficulty here is the often brought up argument that we usually only discuss the viewpoint of the educated, and thus the clergy. The simple response to this is that we only have access to their beliefs since they are the only ones who wrote them down.

The second group in this part of the argument is the "belief defines reality" crowd. This argument reached its hey-day during the time White Wolf was publishing the game. Its proponents argue that it is only people's belief in something that makes it change. If people's beliefs change, then so does reality. The logical conclusion of this is that if you get enough people to believe something than reality changes accordingly. This was originally required by White Wolf to explain how the Ars Magica universe would evolve into their World of Darkness.

Teleology and Paradigm

Teleology is the study of ends, purposes, and goals have a teleological world view, the ends of things are seen as providing the meaning for all that has happened or that occurs. If you think about history as a timeline with a beginning and end, in a teleological view of the world and of history, the meaning and value of all historic events derive from their ends or purposes, that is, all events in history are future-directed. Aristotle's thought is manifestly teleological; of the four "reasons" or "causes" (aitia) for things, the most important reason is the "purpose" or "end" for which that thing was made or done. The Christian world view is fundamentally teleological; all of history is directed towards the completion of history at the end of time. When history ends, then the meaning and value of human historic teleology experience will be fulfilled. Modern European culture is overwhelmingly teleological in its experience of history, that is, we see history and experience as entirely future-directed. This, in part, is responsible for the proliferation of alternatives, for in a teleological world view, history has potentially an infinite number of options and alternatives, and this proliferation of alternatives is primarily responsible for the crisis of modernity.

In Ars Magica, this term is often used concerning the question of the eventual outcome of Mythic Europe. Does the world eventually turn out like our own, or does it go off in a totally different direction, or something all together different? Ars Magica is an account of Earth as it might have been in consequence of some hypothetical alteration in history, in this case the presence of magic, faerie and the true power of God. The question then becomes, what will its future bring. This is a question that only the individual saga can give. However, the list has tended to have its share of discussion of the subject. Like anything, there are several positions staked out and then a wide spectrum of belief between those.

A normal view is to make a connection i) historical fidelity, ii) historical teleology, and iii) cosmological commitment. The implication is that fidelity to our-world history goes along with a commitment to modern physics and cosmology. There are many different ways to be faithful to the historical record, and one of them, which is perhaps the standard one -- presented in the various Ars Magica books, is to be faithful to some of the beliefs of the inhabitants of our medieval Europe -- so that the sun does circle the Earth, and a different physics is in operation. Furthermore, playing through our world history, with a different set of explanatory resources (magic, the Fay, demons, Hermetic conspiracies, Aristotelian cosmology) than is available to the modern historian, can form the basis of highly imaginative Sagas that have no concern to prevent divergence from our world history beyond a certain point -- and hence have no commitment at all to the development of the modern world. Historical fidelity can also take the form of a commitement to socio-economic history, without resort to significant events in the political sphere.

An eventual goal to this view would be to develop a future history for Ars Magica, utilizing the socio-economic history of our own as a guide. Such an undertaking has daunted even the most ambitious of us on the list.

Others would argue that it is impossible to develop the modern age with the assumptions brought to Mythic Europe. For them, a truly 'mythic' campaign requires diverging far and wide from the historical record. This is an attractive view since it requires little thought on merging our history with all the difficult assumptions that Faerie and Magic and such are real.

Others imagine a game world where the history is like our's, though cosmology is different and the teleological commitment is just the one of the medieval theologians. That prethomistic medieval theology usually did not consider the contemporary politics and historical events of the time under this aspect -- unless an author's intention is obviously panegyrical. Indeed every prerequisite for the individual's salvation, but the contribution of the individual herself, has already been provided by the sacrifice of Christ. So, in the view of Augustine in particular, there is only one issue of the present that is of importance under teleological perspective: the continuous existence and operation of the church. This is supposed to be guaranteed by decree of God. Any other historical events are accidental until the end of time, even the crusades. St. Bernhard used the complete indulgence offered by Eugenius III, not any teleological arguments regarding history, to incite the assembly of Vezelay 1146 -- as far as we know. Of course there were dissenters who gave the present more importance concerning the end of the world: Joachim de Flore with his great following, and most heretics. Thomas Aquinas, however, again avoids the treacherous terrain of teleology in contemporary history and politics nicely. This position might be thought of as a good argument in the starting condition of Ars Magica: there all the history up to the starting point of a campaign has happened by the history book, and still there are magi, faeries, dragons, saints and demons. So it is logical to think how history can proceed by the book while magi, faeries, dragons, saints and demons are still cavorting about in the game world.

Wherever one falls on the debate, in the end, the issue of history and its use in Ars Magica is a fascinating one, one that can and does provide many hours of fascinating debate. Long may we continue to ponder these questions.

Some personal reflections

The most important thing about the whole paradigm discussion, no matter where you are is to have patience. Learn from others' mistakes. This subject can and will easily develop into a flamewar. So think closely about what you truly wish to say, and then say it. Do not let others discourage you from the subject. Do not let others say this issue has been hashed over a million times, perhaps it has, but there are still important things to be covered. No discussion can ever truly be over. Contrary to what some may say this is an important issue for this game. One that should, and will, be continually reexamined. Read what others have posted, and then add your view points and opinions. And above all, have fun with it.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest