Missing Things

29 April 2010


I am not a Christian.

There are lots of people who think that this term is used far too often, by people who call themselves this simply by habit, or preference, without actually understanding what it means and living it. These people tend to prefer to call themselves "believers" or "followers of Christ" or something equally ethereal and pleasant-sounding, to distinguish themselves from the petty heathen who have mistakenly confused their own beliefs for the perfect and life-changing doctrines espoused by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately for the proliferation of these terms, the people who use them almost never agree on the manner in which one's life should be changed, and consequently are as disunited amongst themselves as the remainder of the church that they criticize.

I am not a believer or follower of Christ.

In the common parlance, people tend to refer to the kind of people who believe that their beliefs are right and everyone else's are wrong as "fundamentalists" (typically described as "taking the Bible literally"), because that is so mean to all the people who are wrong to actually tell them so, and it is wrong of you to do that! (And fundamentalists advocate, like, killing people who disagree with them, but we only mock them, so we must be better people than they are!)

I am not a fundamentalist.

In lieu of continuing this ridiculous pattern further than necessary, I will also proclaim the following: I am not an American. I am not a Caucasian. I am not a brunette. I am not a gentile. I am not a logician. I am not a scientist. I am not an artist. I am not a philosopher. I am not a body. I am not a soul. I am not a mind. I am not a human. I am not a person.

At least, not in the way you are probably thinking of any of those things.

The thing is, those things are all categories. Categorizing is a human and, you may be surprised to hear me say, good thing to do. We have to stick labels on things in order to make sense of the universe, and just because we label it doesn't mean that the label is arbitrary or wrong, like so many nominalists would have you believe.
But, when we do this, we tend to assume that labeling something is like placing it into a file instead of a pasting a sticker on it. Truth is, if everything exists outside your own head, it has to be the latter.

If we describe something as a door, what we're really saying is that this thing can be opened and closed, and when it's open you can walk through it.

If we say something is an electron, we mean it's tiny thing possessing a certain amount of charge, and a certain amount of mass energy, and behaves like this in these situations.

If we say something is a fact, we mean that it's a statement about the universe (and usually, that it happens to be empirically true).

If we say it's a number, we mean it's a abstract object that can be counted or measured.

In fact, the only real noun in English, or any other language, is "thing". Every other noun just means "thing with descriptions X, Y, Z, etc", "thing with adjectives". Some of these properties are extremely complex, like for words like "human", but it can still come down to something like "thing that is alive, and as an adult is able to walk on two legs (things used for walking), manipulate things with two hands (things used for manipulating, that have smaller things on them that can grip other things), and talk, see, taste, smell, and hear with a head (thing attached to another thing that is able to react automatically and contemplatively in a lot of different ways to things around it) and performs abstract and conceptual thought and communication, OR is descended from another human".

All I'm saying is that you have an independent existence from any of these stickers, and if you and the sticker don't match, the sticker is wrong. Object-oriented linguistics, if you will. I think this is important, because being capable of abstract and conceptual thought means that we end up fixing or adjusting what each sticker means constantly, and a lot of the time something that the sticker used to accurately describe no longer does. Especially when we start referring to the collection of all objects with a particular sticker on it as part of some uniform whole, as if the sticker was there first. No, I'm not being a pedant about this whole thing.

But perhaps I'm being a little pedantic.

22 April 2010

A puzzle

You have a rectangular field containing an irregularly-shaped pond whose area you wish to know.

The tools you have at hand are the property deed for the field, a cannon, and an infinite number of cannonballs.

How do you find the area of the pond?

15 April 2010

Test Yourself

Please choose the best answer for each question.

Favorite Color:

1) What is nescience?
(a) Orange
(b) True
(c) False
(d) All of the above
(e) I don't know

2) What is veracity?
(a) Silver
(b) True
(c) False
(d) All of the above
(e) I don't know

3) What is your favorite color?
(a) Blue
(b) True
(c) False
(d) All of the above
(e) None of the above

4) What is melange?
(a) Grey
(b) True
(c) False
(d) All of the above
(e) None of the above

5) What is contradictory?
(a) Vermilion
(b) True
(c) False
(d) All of the above
(e) None of the above

6) What is the capital of Assyria?
(a) Ashur
(b) Calah
(c) Khorsabad
(d) Nineveh
(e) None of the above

7) What is the maximum airborne velocity of an unladen swallow?
(a) 1 m/s
(b) 5 m/s
(c) 11 m/s
(d) 200 m/s
(e) 42

8) Is this a question where one of the possible answers goes "blam"?
(a) No.
(b) BLAM
(c) BLAM
(d) BLAM
(e) Actually, I think several of your possible answer make that noise.

9) Cake. - True/False

10) Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! - True/False

11) This sentence no verb. - True/False

12) Think of a number, any number.

13) Where's Waldo?

14) Fill in the blank: __________

11 April 2010

It's not Thursday yet, but this is just a tech update

I've added the feedback bar thing. I had wanted a nice number of dichotomies so you could tell me that your impressions are that what I write is kind or cruel, true or false, beautiful or ugly, confusing or clear, justified or unjustified.

Unfortunately, I can fit all those into the little box but they'll only put up a few anyway. Foul technology, curse your surprising but inevitable betrayal!

So now there's just three options - good if you think I was persuasive, bad if you think I was unkind, and ugly if it's just too confusing to tell what just happened. (I expect this one to be quite popular.)

Also, I've gone back and added a bunch of links into Socrates Meets Malacoda for explaining what I had in mind with all the various philosophy/literary/science-y geeky references I made - maybe this will clear things up a bit?

08 April 2010

Sparkling angels, come and see

The idea of angels probably irritates me more than the idea of gods does. They're practically identical for all we know about them - they're supernatural and a Lot Better Than Mere Mortals, For Sure, but angels serve even higher beings and gods generally don't... but angels take the lead due to the outstanding problem that the book I've sworn to pledge as the truth, the important truth, and nothing but the truth, claims they exist and gives them fairly prominent roles in the story, and yet still manages to skimp on the details of what, exactly, they are, and how, exactly, they matter.

The details it does provide, however, are fairly clearly in direct contradiction to the average person's conception of them. If you manage to get a clear answer out of this hypothetical person on "such a religious question", she is likely to give you three images of what angels look like:

(a) A divinely cute infant or young child, but with wings.
(b) A divinely good-looking woman, but with wings.
(c) A divinely powerful knight, but with wings.
I suppose there's also (d) some combination of the above, usually (b) and (c) because both possible combinations ("female" plus "powerful", and "knight" plus "good-looking") are apparently synergistically attractive, and warrior children don't really seem like a very divine idea.

You may notice a couple of recurring elements, and oddly they're the only ones that come close to approximating biblical descriptions (which tends to multiply both the "divine" and "winged" aspects to redundancy and beyond). I can think of three good reasons the others are wrong:

First, a fact that I've heard circulated frequently and so I presume is fairly well-known, there are very few angels in the Bible who open their messages with a preamble of "Hey there!" It's generally closer to "Fear not". This would seem to rule out (a), for whom this would be unnecessary unless every biblical hero and heroine happened to have a horrible phobia of children with wings*, and (b), whom studies show should worry more about other emotions than fear getting in the way of the message. Similarly, I can't think of any explicitly described manifestations with more than a passing resemblance to a human being, barring when Raphael goes incognito for most of the Book of Tobit, which would seem to eliminate (c) and (d) as well.

* This isn't necessarily a bad assumption to make, but you do have to consider that among such heroines is Mary, who had very explicitly never had children before.

Second, whatever else angels may be, the Bible is fairly specific that humans alone are made in the image of God. If you believe this refers to physical structure, this should suffice; if a reference to God's triunity as mind, body, spirit - well, angels are obviously spiritual beings and occasionally rebellious, which would leave the body as the key difference.

Finally, outside of their allegiances demons and angels are fundamentally identical. There's no support for the notion that good is pretty and evil disgusting (or vice versa) other than peoples' astonishing tendency to merge goodness, truth, and beauty into a single axis; quite the contrary, metaphors involving demonic activity while "disguised as an angel of light" are common. If demons can be light and still evil, angels can be dark and still good.

This is all just a roundabout excuse for me to cite C. S. Lewis, who deals with this quite a lot in The Space Trilogy (another of the world's best stories nobody has ever read), especially because several of his "angels" are the personifications of planets rather than divine messengers. When two manifest near the end of Perelandra it takes them some time to figure out an appearance that won't cause the human protagonist to be physically ill; before they finally settle on sort of metallic colossi, some of their attempts are closer to vertiginous spaces swirling with geometric shapes than any real object. Lewis justified this elsewhere simply by pointing out that everyone expects the forces of evil to be terrible and threatening, and that's all very well, because you can always have faith that the forces of good will swoop in and save you. But when the same applies to the ones in which you trust for salvation... one way or another, you will have to undergo a very radical change of mind.

And when I am explicitly imperfect by nature, and wisdom begins with the perfect fear of an omnipotent God and ends with it being dispelled by his perfect love, that sounds far more real to me than any pretty fledged human.

And now for something hopefully more comprehensible

I don't understand gods. When someone talks about advances in technology making humans as gods, or some fictional character believes that by doing some particular thing he or she will become godlike, I literally fail to see what the big deal is, and I'm convinced this is a terminology problem.

My beliefs are fairly straightforwardly monotheistic - I'm convinced that there is precisely one god. (Usually I'm going to capitalize this, as in God, not specifically for reverence - I can kind of see how "I consider God so important I'm willing to violate my otherwise-rigorous use of basic grammatical correctness for Him" makes sense, but considering how often "otherwise-rigorous" is a blatant falsehood I don't really buy it - but so that there's at least one visible difference between my use of the term and anyone else's.) More specifically, I believe in a God with the triple characteristics of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, which isn't really a word but I'm going to violate my otherwise-rigorous use of etymological yes I'm kind of being a hypocrite but it makes sense here, okay?

I think this means I use the same basic definition as the average atheistic person, and we just need to figure out whether such a God exists or not. That takes care of the first entry in Merriam-Webster. (I'm not sure what they mean by "supreme or ultimate reality" - it seems to imply that God is somehow more real than anything else, and I don't think I buy the concept of one person or object being more real than another one... is it possible to cite a dictionary for lacking rigor?)

Ignoring the mystical and arbitrary definitions, that leaves (2) - a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship; specifically : one controlling a particular aspect or part of reality. This is the definition that seems to permit polytheism (and any forms of monotheism that don't believe in an omnipotent god), and my problem with it is that it's merely descriptive - not explanatory, and not compelling. My reasons for this are based on the key lines "more than natural attributes and powers", and "requires human worship":

What do we mean by natural? In the past powers that would have been considered unnatural would include things like, oh, sending a message to the other side of the ocean instantly, or throwing rocks into the air and not having them fall immediately back down. This is where Clarke's Third Law - "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" - comes from. Taking that to its logical conclusion, if we're presented with some claimant to the title of a god we never have any good reason to believe any particular demonstration of powers is "more than natural"; sure, it looks like magic, but that's just because we don't know how to duplicate it. And since there's no real reason in theory that human understanding can't increase indefinitely (refer to the conclusion from my last post, that there's always more knowledge to know!), any power that's less than omnipotent can, and, probably, will be surpassed.

It doesn't make any more sense to worship Zeus than it does to worship your R&D department.

Now, there is a counterpoint to this, which is that it is right to pay more respect to more powerful people (which presumably means more respect for Zeus than for R&D, at least until the R&D chair is able to beat Zeus up). The problem with this is that it collapses into some form of might-makes-right (possibly bright-makes-right) scheme, which offers no grounds to argue with Zeus when he says to stop funneling so much of your budget into research and development, unless you resort to citing a higher authority than Zeus, and every possible higher authority can be answered this way... until you decide to cite an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving authority, who, funny thing, either exists or doesn't.

I have no issue in general with the existence of any sort of less-than-all-powerful being. But it's also entirely irrelevant to anything of more than temporary importance.