War of the Gods

February 28, 2008

In ancient times, or so I’ve read, when each different tribe had a different god, the conquest of one tribe by another was thought to prove that one god was somehow stronger than the other. This can be seen at times in the Old Testament; the Israelites conquering the Canaanite tribes was seen as proving that YHWH existed while Baal, et al, did not.

A lot of people, I think, see examples like this as somewhat absurd. How does defeating the religious followers of another god prove that your god exists and theirs does not? The basic concept, however, seems to me to be more deeply rooted in our psyche than most people realize. The idea than an ideology is somehow proven false because it loses followers is commonplace.

Take the Nazis. The idea that Jews were sub-human died, for the most part, with the fall of the 3rd Reich. I’m not saying that the destruction of the Jewish race was not an abominable evil, far from it – but I am saying that it is only considered evil now because the Nazis lost the war. In a sense, then, their military defeat proved they were wrong to commit genocide.

That’s a somewhat weak example; here’s a better one. Take Zoroastrianism. That religion has a lot going for it. I’ve even seen several people argue that Zoroastrianism was more logical than Christianity. But today the religion has only a few hundred thousand adherents, it will be extinct in a few centuries, and no one takes it seriously any more. This seems for the most part to be just a consequence of having few followers. The fact that no one believes in Zoroastrianism is taken as evidence that it must be false.

I’ve even seen atheists use the fact that religions come and go as evidence that no religion can be true. The problem with this, of course, is that it then means that if a religion stays around for a while (say, Catholicism), it must be true. I doubt they want to imply that. My question is – do Catholics want to imply that?

Perhaps there is some value to discarding belief systems on that basis, perhaps not. I don’t know. But I do think it would be somewhat amusing – depressing and irrational, yes, but it would have a dark humor to it – if the one true faith, which everyone had to believe in order to be saved, was that of Baal.



February 24, 2008

I find that often, when I come across what I consider a good story – but especially when I watch a good movie – the villain will make a much greater impression on me than the protagonist. I can think of several examples off the top of my head:

  • The Operative from Serenity. His cold rationalism awed me at the same time as it kind of scared me. (Incidentally, I just finished watching the series Firefly that Serenity was based on.)

      The Operative: I’m sorry. If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?
      Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: I don’t murder children.
      The Operative: I do. If I have to.
      Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?
      The Operative: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
      Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?
      The Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm. I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

  • Anton Chigurh (the sociopath) from No Country for Old Men. Determinism taken to its logical conclusions.

    The coin got here the same way I did.

  • The King of Qin from Hero. He represented law, order, and empire; really, the protagonist was just his foil, not the other way around.

    In the Kingdom of Qin was a ruthless ruler. He had a vision – To unite the land.

What all of these have in common, you’ll notice, is that they have a philosophy. They’re not purely bad people. Their ideals are, however, the opposite of the ideals of the protagonists of those stories, and so there is conflict.

It’s also interesting how they always seem to have very rational philosophies, while the protagonists have more emotionally based ideas. For example, the Operative pretty clearly thinks the ends justify the means, and he goes from there; Mal Reynolds just doesn’t like being told what to do. He has his own code of honor, but it’s hard to comprehend, and I don’t think even he really understands it. He just goes by what his guts tell him to.

Now, as always, I’m going to tie this in with the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

As many people have noted, the villains in the Lord of the Rings are not particularly… complex. They’re Big Bad Evil and must be stopped for that reason, but they don’t seem to have a philosophy, at least not one that is explored particularly – they’re just evil.

Tolkien did this intentionally. In a way, he agreed with Socrates (in Plato’s Republic) when he said that bad guys should only be talked about, not shown. He didn’t want ‘interesting’ villains. He thought it tempted to reader towards sin. (He didn’t mind conflicted good guys who might turn to bad – see, Frodo, Gollum, Denethor. So people who say the Lord of the Rings isn’t morally complex are, well, foolish.)

Now, this works for what Tolkien wrote. In both the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. The big bad guys there are not human. One is a fallen maiar, the other a fallen valar – in other words, fallen angels. Demons. They cannot repent, they’re simply evil. They define evil, really. They do have philosophies – the philosophy of Satan, pure and simple. As such, there’s nothing to be gained (Tolkien thought) from exploring their characters. If you do, you end up with something like Milton’s Paradise Lost, which, great literature as it may be, I kind of don’t like the concept of. Satan should not be presented as a man.

But with the movies Serenity, No Country for Old Men, and Hero (and I could list more), I think having interesting villains is necessary – because the villain is not a demon, but a human. He can change. And since he’s human, not demon, what he believes isn’t necessarily, unquestionably wrong. We have to confront the philosophies of our enemies, not just destroy them because they’re the bad guys and we’re the good guys.

So I’m going to say that having interesting villains like the Operative, Anton Chigurh, and the King of Qin is a good, not an evil. It doesn’t make for bad literature. Amazing, yes, I am actually… disagreeing with Tolkien! Actually, I don’t think I am. I think his claims about not having sympathetic villains really only apply to the ultimate bad guy – Satan. After all, every other kind of villain is, really, more like a tragic hero, just with the story told from a different perspective.

Crime and Punishment

February 18, 2008

A simple question – what is the purpose of punishing criminals?

A common answer is that you want to deter future criminals by showing what will happen when they commit a crime. Punishment as deterrent. Makes sense, right? Well…

The obvious problem with this is that you’re not showing what will happen when they commit a crime – you’re showing what will happen when they commit a crime and are caught. In a sense, this turns it all into a game of odds. As a potential criminal, you just evaluate what you will gain from committing the crime, what you will lose from being caught, and what your chances of getting caught are. If it ends up being an average gain for you, commit the crime; otherwise, don’t.

Following this reasoning, “an eye for an eye” is only effective if your chances of catching the criminal are greater than 50%. Otherwise, he gains an eye if he succeeds, the changes of which are >50%, and he loses an eye if he fails, the chances of which are <50% – the estimated result is a gain of a fraction of an eye.

Of course, most people don’t actually consider taking an eye from an enemy to be exactly equal to losing one of their own eyes. They’d rather have the eye themselves even if it leaves the enemy with the eye. But consider theft – there, you actually do gain something from the crime. Let’s say I’m planning on stealing $10,000. If I get caught, I’ll have to give it back, and I’ll go to jail for, say, 10 years. Let’s throw in that I’ll pay a $10,000 fine. So if I get caught – if I lose the crime game – I lose $10,000 and 10 years of my life. If I win, I gain $10,000.

Sure, that looks like a bad deal, but only if my chances of getting caught are fairly high. Let’s say I value a year in prison at $50,000 per year (in other words, that’s how much I’d be willing to pay to avoid that punishment). So, in defeat, my total losses would be $510,000, and in victory, my total winnings would be $10,000. That means that if my chances of success are over approximately 98%, I should commit the crime – it averages out to a benefit, not a loss. It all depends on how much risk I’m willing to take on, of course, but to reduce risk just ensure that your chances of success are higher. 99%? 99.5%?…

The point is that some people will have those chances at success – or at least they will think they do – and so people will still commit crimes. Even with a literal eye for an eye – at some point, if I want to harm the other person badly enough and I think my chances of success are high enough – I will take his eye even if there’s a chance of it costing me mine. It’s actually an even better deal than the theft because they can’t make me give the eye back.

And, as Saint Thomas More pointed out, you can’t just increase all punishments to be extremely harsh because then people have no incentive to commit lesser crimes not greater. If I’ll get hanged for stealing, why not kill the witnesses so there’s less of a chance of getting caught? If I get caught, I die either way. Might as well decrease the chances of that happening. So you need punishments that are fairly reasonable. But then people only have to have good, not even great, chances of success before it’s worth it for them to commit crimes – 70%? 60%?

So how exactly is punishment a deterrent? It deters criminals who were likely to get caught. It doesn’t deter the ones who will probably succeed. But that’s really what we need to do. They’re probably the more dangerous kind anyway. An executive at a large company who can steal $1,000,000,000 and probably get away with it is far more dangerous than someone who can rob a convenience story, get $100, and have a fairly good chance of getting caught for it. “Deterrence” might stop the latter, but it won’t stop the former.

Anyway, that’s why I’m wary of the idea that punishing criminals is useful as a deterrent. So what is it good for? Education? Retribution? The former sounds absurd (the criminals who get caught aren’t the ones who need to be convinced that crime is wrong) and the latter potentially blasphemous (who are we to decide who is guilty and deserves punishment?). It might well be that deterrence is really all that punishing criminals is good for – the idea being that you don’t have to deter all the criminals, just enough to have some semblance of order in your society. Anarchy tends to be unpleasant.

But I suspect that so long as we have to punish criminals at all, there’s no hope of creating some sort of crime-less society… that would, after all, be a Utopia, a no-place. And any claim that a change in how criminals are punished will somehow drastically reduce crime should be examined very, very carefully. The only way to reduce crime is to reduce the criminals’ chances of success.

Purpose of Blogging

February 13, 2008

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time (read: one post), you might have noticed that it isn’t exactly typical – I try to post on a regular basis, but the posts tend to be more like essays than short notes, and in fact I’ve adapted several essays written for school for posts here. My posts tend to average around 1000 words, which is fairly long (four pages typed double-spaced).

There is actually an explanation for this. The main reason for this is that I’m not primarily interested in audience interaction, or with gaining a huge readership. (I’m averaging about 20 hits per day, which is quite small, but so what? I don’t get anything for bringing people here.) The real point of this blog is to force me to write down my thoughts so that I can get them in order. For example, before I wrote my recent post about clothing, I wasn’t sure exactly what my thoughts on clothing were, I just knew that, instinctively, I wore more clothing rather than less, and that that wasn’t the case for some other people, and I decided one day to sit down and write about it until I had figured out why.

While I followed essentially the same process before I began this blog, this has the advantage of recording my thoughts, helping solidify them by forcing me to write them down for someone other than myself to read, and opening them up to public criticism. Without it, I would probably be too lazy to write anything down, and would end up musing about the same subjects over and over, never really coming to any conclusions.

In other words, what I’m doing isn’t exactly blogging, as it is usually practiced… I don’t provide commentary or news on a particular subject, and this doesn’t function as a personal online diaries. I rarely if ever link to other blogs. Reader interaction occurs but isn’t a major component. So I don’t seem to really fit Wikipedia’s definition of blogging, at any rate, other than that my posts appear in reverse chronological order.

In short, this is technically a blog, but… don’t think blogs are particularly important or novel or even good. I write one because it’s amusing and it helps me, personally, to write essays like I do here, not because I think it really matters. It helps me because I’m lazy and would never write anything if I didn’t feel like there was a deadline I had to meet, even if self-imposed. But why do these other people blog? Honestly, I don’t understand it. They seem to just like to hear themselves speak…

Today is Thursday

February 7, 2008

I went to my Philosophy class at eleven o’clock in the morning. I did the same thing on Tuesday, and the same thing those two days last week, and the same the week before that. I’ve done it six times so far now.

Is that enough for it to be a “routine”?

It does seem like I’m already in the habit of getting up, eating breakfast, walking over to the building the class is in, spending an hour reading or whatever, and then going to class. But I’ve only done it six times so far – actually less, because on some of those days I haven’t done exactly that, instead, I’ve slept in, or went to Mass, or whatever.

How many times must you do something before it becomes routine?

It’s an interesting general question. I think our instinct is to say it’s a rather high number. In the book Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds, an alien artificial intelligence is set to destroy any life form that acts in a routine, unvarying manner. It takes the same guy taking the exact same route hundreds of times before the alien reacts and instantly kills him. (It then takes them the death of another minor character and several more pages to figure out what the heck happened, but that’s a different story.)

This idea that it takes hundreds of repetitions seems flawed to me. Think of the game of chess. There’s an unofficial rule that if you get in the exact same situation three times, the game is a draw. The reasoning is that if the same thing happens three times, it’s going to keep happening, again, and again, and again, and the game will never progress. That sounds about right to me. After the first three Thursdays of waking up and going to the same class, it was almost instinctive to do so.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that we only have to do something a couple of times for it to become habit. At one level, it’s kind of disturbing that after only three Thursdays I know what my Thursday routine is for the rest of the semester. But, there are only around 15 Thursdays in the semester. I’m sure some of them will be out of the ordinary with one thing or another, and so really, it took over 1/5th of the available average Thursdays to find out what the average Thursday is like. That seems like a long time.

It’s because, I think, we don’t think of days in terms of how many there are, but of how frequent there are. There’s a Thursday every week –  but we don’t consider that the semester is only 15 weeks long, and after that, everything changes again. We’re already 5/52nds of the way through 2008. Etc. Really, our lives aren’t as long as we think they are. A year is 52 weeks long, and we live on average 80 of them; I will only experience around 4,000 total Thursdays in my life.

When said like that, it sounds like I should know exactly what I do with each of them. But again, routines come into play. I can’t remember many of my Thursdays at all. A few, perhaps, the most recent ones. I’m sure some of my memories take place on Thursdays, but I’m not sure which ones. Should that disturb me?

I think perhaps it should. By similar calculations, I’m only going to live around 30,000 days. It really doesn’t seem excessive for me to expect to remember more of them than I do – surely I can hold many more than 30,000 facts in my head, would it be too much to remember at least one thing that happened each day? In fact, it seems like most of my life I do not remember. Day-to-day living is just not interesting enough to make an impression in our minds – it’s too routine, too mundane. Nothing really interesting happened today, nothing I’m likely to remember. Perhaps I’ll remember that at one point in the vague past, I wrote about this subject on my blog, and I could then go back and look at it and see that I did so on Thursday, February 7th, 2008. But in a few weeks the particulars of this day will be gone forever.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I doubt I would enjoy the ability to remember the minutiae of every day of my life – why will I care, in the distant future, what I did today? And it really does seem to me that there is something fundamentally flawed with the practice of keeping a diary, of writing down every day something about the day itself (as opposed to just writing down interesting thoughts and doing so on a regular basis, e.g. this blog, which consciously is not personal in nature). Still – I do wonder what has happened on the 900 Thursdays I have already experienced, and what will happen on the several thousand that still await me. And it kind of scares me that in the end, all of that will be forgotten – my life will be summed up in a few defining events and the fact that the majority of my life did not have to do with those events will be forgotten.

Afaron (February)

February 4, 2008

It’s strange – this month, I am, well, not overworked, but actually worked. I actually have stuff I have to do for school, and some stuff I’m trying to get done on my own (not for Orbivm), and I really don’t have a whole lot of free time to continue writing FFF like I wanted to or work on FE art.

And some of my time, of course, is spent writing this blog. Whatever.

The situation reminds me of my Econ class, the main lesson of which so far seems to be “people have limited resources”. Um, that’s obvious. Mine right now is time, usually it’s energy to actually do anything.

Though, I find that usually I alternate between thinking I have too much to do and not enough to do – right before I do my homework I’ll think to myself, this is way too much, I won’t have any free time tonight, and then I’ll be done half an hour later and think, what am I supposed to do with all of this time? And because I didn’t expect to have it, I usually waste it. But I can’t do outside work before homework because I’ll be thinking about my homework and how I have to go do it. I think that’s probably why I usually don’t get stuff done except during holidays.

Anyway, last month I was Jugarthus Massaesylus, comrade of Caius Regilius last Tribune of Silvium. This month… who? Since I haven’t written my Inferno essay yet, I feel pressed for time – I’d better decide soon.

Well, I noticed today another (accidental?) literary reference in Orbivm –  the cosmological set-up is actually rather similar to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with the Garden of Eden located on an island across the ocean from the main continent. And in Canto XXVI Ulysses is revealed to have journeyed across the ocean to Mount Purgatory (location of the Garden of Eden) and there been destroyed. That’s similar in many ways to Tolkien’s story of Ar-Pharazon the Golden, who sailed from Numenor to Valinor and punished for it (I suspect Tolkien read Dante – probably some influence there; really, every work of literature is so interconnected it’s quite hard to discern what idea comes from where). And like I’ve said before, the story of Ar-Pharazon inspired my own story of Afaron, last king of Evrosia, who tries to do what Ar-Pharazon did but with somewhat different results.

So for that reason, if no other, I’ll be Afaron. Seems fitting somehow.

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