More on Reason

March 29, 2008

I’ve talked about this before (twice). That was a year and a half ago. I hadn’t progressed any further on the subject until a few weeks ago, before Spring Break.

Where I last left off, my conclusion was that, while we have to make assumptions in order to come to any conclusions (i.e. we need axioms, no matter what), it’s only natural to take the validity of reason and logic as an axiom. After all, if we don’t, green pineapple rain. And that still convinces me.

But now, it seems me that the right question is not, “why not green pineapple rain?” – in other words, why shouldn’t we be irrational? Because the answer to that is, “faith”. Even if we can’t prove that logic is valid, we should accept it on faith. And this is at least one component, I think, of faith in the Christian God.

The right question is, “how not green pineapple rain?”. What I mean by this is – if it is a possibility that the world is irrational, what would it even mean for us to assume that it is rational? What does it mean for God to exist if there is such a thing as existence only when you assume that things make sense? I see this as breaking down into two cases:

  • If reason is a human construct, then God/rationality/everything depends on humanity, not vice versa. In my opinion, that’s obviously false, whether you believe in God or not (hopefully you believe in logic). It’s essentially solipsism.
  • If reason is not a human construct, then it must have some sort of being – though we (or at least I) can’t say a thing about what sort. But what does it mean for reason to be somehow real if someone can just deny its existence and then, for that person, it does not exist?

I can accept having to put my faith in something. But I don’t like the idea that my faith in it is the only thing that makes it real, because I think that denies reality itself. I’m not sure I’m expressing this coherently, but basically – it makes it so that both possibilities, reason and unreason, are equally unreal, and I just choose which illusion I want to live with. Whatever “illusion” and “live” mean. Green pineapple rain. :/

Et cetera

March 25, 2008
  • Spring break’s over. Back to school tonight.
  • The Feudal Era has been released, if you play Wesnoth, go to the 1.4 add-on server and download it. We’ve been working on it for a while, C&C would be appreciated.
  • It’s Easter – He Is Risen.
  • New poem on the writing page – “Hubris”.

That’s all for now.


March 20, 2008

Sometimes I find the sheer amount of music out there amazing.

Take metal, for example. It’s generally considered a somewhat fringe genre; not a whole lot of people listen to it. So you’d expect there to not be a whole helluvalot of metal bands. But, on the contrary, there are a great number. And they are quite diverse. The name “metal” is actually quite misleading; I don’t think it makes any sense to group everything called metal into one category. I would never, for example, listen to this voluntarily. I would rather listen to country or, even *shudder* rap. So what I listen to is really this one sub-genre of this one fringe genre. And yet there are dozens of bands that play the kind of music I listen to.

And I suspect this is true for a lot of other genres. I might see most kinds of rap as similar, but anyone who listens to rap probably draws a sharp distinction between their kind and the other kinds (I can’t give examples, I don’t know anything about rap). Same for electronic, country, folk, etc.

Cool as this sometimes seems, it seems somewhat disconcerting. If there’s nothing that everyone agrees to listen to, how can we say that anything has any kind of artistic merit? I tend to think some of the bands I listen to (not all of them, but some of them) are actually worth listening to, objectively – in other words, they are good art. But the same is doubtlessly true of a number of other people, all  of whom listen to different mutually exclusive genres. So how do we decide what is truly meritorious?  It seems like we no longer have people like the old classical composers, who everyone agrees are worthwhile. We just have a million different people singing various songs and no consensus on who’s better than whom.

I suppose it might be that, eventually, a few decades from now, there’ll be some idea of what current music is trash and what is decent. At least some more developed idea that what we have right now. But until then…

Book Review: Martin the Warrior

March 17, 2008

Over Spring Break (15th till the 25th), among other things, I plan to read several books – Phantastes (by George MacDonald), the Poetic Eddas (a collection of Old Norse poetry – translated, of course, I don’t know Old Norse), and (yet another) book about Tolkien. This in addition to my assigned reading for school of two books of Paradise Lost and one book of the Nicomachean Ethics, and to all of the other stuff I plan on accomplishing this week. I should be rather busy.

So, of course, as soon as I got home Friday night I immediately decided to pick up another book. It was Martin the Warrior, by Brian Jacques – one of the Redwall series. A children’s book, but one of my favorite, and I had been talking a few weeks ago about Redwall with some people, so I decided to re-read it. It only took five hours or so, if that.

Now, the books undoubtedly have their flaws. As this xkcd strip points out, the morality is not particularly complex (bad guy bad! good guy good! why? uh…). The writing isn’t brilliant. As the series went on (it’s reached eighteen books now, I think), it got rather repetitive – the same plots recycled over and over. But Martin the Warrior was one of the better Redwall books – along with the original Redwall, Mossflower, Outcast of Redwall, and Mattimeo (or so I’ve heard – I’m not a big fan of Mattimeo, myself, but it’s certainly better than, say, The Long Patrol), and perhaps a few others.

There are a few reasons to like it. For one, it has (somewhat strong, as a friend of mine pointed out) echoes of the Iliad, especially with how Felldoh, mimicking Patroclus, goes out to fight Badrang, dies through treachery, and is avenged by Martin. I also like how the book raises the question of what it is to be a warrior, and whether it is good to be one. It actually does it in a surprisingly well-thought-out way. Finally, and related to both of these, I like how Jacques is (at least in this book) not afraid to let major characters die, in tragic ways.

First of all, Felldoh dies – perhaps slightly predictable, since Jacques often has the most bloodwrath-ful warriors (mostly badgers) perish in battle. But this time, his death is not in sacrifice to save the main character. Really, his death seriously harms the efforts of the good guys. He starts the battle too early by charging up and attacking Badrang alone, which forces his friends to chase after him and try to save them, but then they get caught by the much larger bad guy army. You can interpret him as being redeemed in the end by taking so many bad guys with him before he dies – but, in the end, is he really? I don’t know. Jacques doesn’t usually leave moral ambiguities like this unanswered. I thank him for leaving this one open.

Then, unexpectedly, Rose dies. The first time I read it, I didn’t realize immediately that she was dead – she is killed by Badrang almost in passing. He’s trying to escape, he sees the hedgehog, who is curled up in his way; he pokes at the hedgehog with the sword. Then he runs past him, sees the mole, who tries to hit him with a ladle; he pushes the mole out of the way. Then this mousemaid runs up and tries to stop him; he graps the mousemaid and throws her against a wall. Then the duel between him and Martin begins. Oh, and by the way, the mousemaid died from hitting her head like that. Martin doesn’t even notice until after he defeats Badrang, but the mousemaid he swore to protect – who he was in love with – was killed. He failed, and now his victory has been made bitter.

This was much more emotionally powerful, I thought and think, than any other death in the Redwall series. Warriors in the series often die in battle – but they die as heroes, taking down enemies, and their deaths accomplish something. Rose’s death just seems so pointless and wasteful. And the emotional connection between Rose and Martin actually seemed real, so it felt like Martin actually lost something when she died. Jacques has tried to do stuff like that in a few different books – The Bellmaker springs to mind, where one of the pair of buddies whose names I can’t remember dies and the other lives and ends up being the one telling the story – but it usually seems forced. Here it worked.

And it underscores something that I think is crucial to understanding good literature (literature about war – any kind of war, so long as it might involve death – especially). People have to die, and the reader has to care about their death. In all of my favorite books that involve some sort of armed struggle, major characters die, and those deaths are a large part of what make me like the books – even if the fact that, in the sub-created world, they are dead, deeply saddens me. Piccadilly from the Deptford Mice trilogy, Gollum and Frodo (who didn’t die, but suffered a truly horrible fate, which I think makes any catalog of tragic endings for individual characters in the midst of happy endings overall) from the Lord of the Rings, a whole host of characters from the Silmarillion… their deaths improve the books they are in. Even Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I have great problems with the Harry Potter series, but one thing J.K. Rowling did right was let Dumbledore die. (I wish she had had the guts to have someone important die in the seventh book – a few people died, sure, but none major. I suppose some people cared deeply about Lupin and Mad-Eye Moody, but I never did, really. Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with how the books completely failed to make any emotional connection with me. Anyway, this would be another essay entirely, so I’ll stop now.)

Imagine a Martin the Warrior without Rose dying, or a Lord of the Rings without Gollum dying or Frodo going off into the West, or a Romeo and Juliet with the couple living happily ever after. This may seem somewhat of a stretch, but I think they would be like a Resurrection without a Crucifixion. Don’t think this comparison blasphemous – the life of Christ is, as Tolkien said, the one true myth that other myths (and stories in general, I would add) all echo, to one degree or another.

I’ll end with a quote from the final chapter of the Silmarillion – after the Valar have returned, defeated Morgoth, and saved what was still left to be saved. In other words, after the happy ending. As happy as it could be, given the circumstances.

Here ends The Valaquenta. If it has passed from the high and beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred; and if any change shall come and the Marring be amended, Manwë and Varda may know; but they have not revealed it, and it is not declared in the dooms of Mandos.

A Defense of Brawl

March 13, 2008

So, Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out Sunday at midnight. A friend of mine bought it then, so I’ve had access to it for the last 96 hours. And I’ve spent way too much time playing it. (according to the game it’s been played for 40 hours, but I myself have probably only played for 10-15 hours. Which is still a lot.)

Sure, it’s fun. For those interested, my characters are going to be Zelda, Pit, Ganondorf and Wolf. I already knew how to play Zelda from Melee; I basically learned Pit on Sunday, since he’s a pretty easy character; I played as Ganondorf for a while on Monday, and I’ve decided I’m going to learn how to use him, but so far I’m not that great with him; I picked up Wolf yesterday and have played him exclusively since then, and have gotten decent with him.

But, I wonder, and perhaps you do as well… Is playing for 10-15 hours not a bit excessive? Am I not wasting my time?

I’ve thought about it, and in the end, I think – no.

Playing video games is justifiable in several different ways. I’ll look at three – (1) It’s a social activity, (2) it stimulates thought, and (3) really, what better stuff do I have to do?

  1.  Clearly Smash is a social activity (as long as you’re playing in a group, not by yourself). And it’s truly social, not like sitting in a room with a bunch of people and watching a movie, which is either a solitary experience in a group setting or extremely unpleasant. You interact with the other people playing – taunting them, allying with them against the leader, yelling raucously, and generally getting into the competitive spirit. If you accept that social activity is a good thing (and I think you have to – if we were not intended to participate in society, we might as well not be corporeal beings), Smash seems like a fairly good option as far as social activity is concerned.
  2. Indeed, I do think Smash is good for the mind. I have been gently mocked for using the term “strategy” in relation to Super Smash Brothers, but I think I had a point – playing Smash, or really any video game of decent complexity, does more than just train pattern recognition and quick reflexes. Take a stage like Hyrule Temple. It requires thought to decide when to go into the “cave of infinite life”, to decide when to charge the enemy and when to use ranged attacks, to figure out the best places to place mines, to decide who to target and who to avoid fighting (and this depends on the skill level of other players as well as the in-game situation). Really, Smash presents the players with a fairly complex system they must try to manipulate – and I think that probably helps with system manipulation in general. (I’ll stop now before it sounds like I think Smash should be taught in schools.)
  3. This isn’t to say I think Smash is the ideal activity or anything. But, really… what do I have to do that’s more important? I can only spend so much time every day processing knowledge, by which I mean the verb “reading” generalized beyond literature, or producing knowledge, by which I mean writing generalized beyond literature. I honestly couldn’t stand spending 100% of my waking hours doing that, and I don’t think it would be natural for me to do so either – like I said above, man is meant to be a social animal, not just a knowledge processing/producing machine. So I might as well play Smash. It’s better than going out and getting smashed.

That said, I could probably stand to spend a bit less time playing Smash and a bit more working on Orbivm, etc… and I probably will. I only played for 10-15 hours over the past four days because the new game had just come out. Isn’t not a permanent thing. Really. I promise.


March 6, 2008

I’ve mentioned before that I believe organized religion is superior to some kind of spiritual free-for-all, and promised to write a post on that subject. I’ve been planning the post for a while, and today, after listening to a lecture by Brother Guy Consolmagno (a Jesuit) about “how scientists and engineers view religion”, I finally have the inspiration to do it.First of all, I’ll say something about the bad reasons for organized religion. I was somewhat disturbed, actually, by some of what Br. Guy said about “techies” (as he called them) and religion, specifically why the ones that are religious are religious (note that Br. Guy didn’t endorse their reasons, just said that this was what they believed).

Many people (not just techies) are religious not so much because they think their religion is true as because they like the sense of community they get from it, or they want to instill virtues in their children, or some nonsense like that. Those are horrible reasons to belong to an organized religion. If you want a community, join a book club or something. If you want to instill virtues in your children, then first think about why you believe one ought to be virtuous, then instill virtues in your children using those reasons – and if you can’t, perhaps your reasons aren’t very good any you should rethink them. But don’t try to convince your children of something you yourself don’t believe is true just to make them good people.

And people who don’t believe in any organized religion often have decent reasons. Br. Guy gave several common (techie) responses to the question of, how do you decide between the myriad possible religions out there, many of which have compelling arguments for them? I think they boil down to essentially three different ways of looking at religion.

    1. Clearly, since they can’t all be right, they’re all wrong. This is not a logical argument, but it resonates emotionally, even with me, a committed Catholic. And unfortunately logic isn’t really applicable when trying to decide between axiom systems. This way lies atheism.
    2. Clearly, since they all seem to be right, or at least make sense, they are all in some sense right. So just pick one, it doesn’t really matter which one. If you disagree with some aspect of that religion, no big deal. You don’t actually have to agree with the beliefs of the religion you supposedly profess. This way lies what is often called cafeteria religion – just try to find a religion community you can fit in well with, that you mostly agree with, and don’t worry about what you disagree with them about.
    3. Clearly, there is one truth, and every religion is an attempt to approximate this truth. They may all seem equally true, but they cannot be – after all, they contradict. So one ought to find the religion that converges most closely with the truth. This leads to a more sophisticated form of cafeteria religion – you pick the religion you find most true, but if you think you know better than it in some way, you follow your variant rather than the standard.

      The first two I find it hard to argue with. To one who rejects religion out of hand, the only response, I think, is to point out the rather illogical nature of the claim that because it is impossible to determine which religion is actually true, no religion is true – but this really doesn’t get anywhere. I think with these people you have to abandon reasoned discourse – you cannot change someone’s axioms with logic unless you prove them inconsistent. The second I simply cannot respect. If you do not care about truth, what can I say to you to convince you to change your mind?

      But the third is actually interesting. Why shouldn’t one be allowed to be Catholic but disagree with the Church over contraception, or women priests, or papal infallibility, or whatever your particular complaint is?

      My answer: because organized religions are not simply collections of like-minded people. The Catholic Church sees itself as a Church. The organization itself exists, and you’re either in, or you’re out. You can’t disagree with the Church about something it has definitively settled (like any of the things I mentioned above) – if you do, you’re not actually in the Church. Perhaps you are in name, but I would say that you’re really already excommunicated – you excommunicated yourself, by deciding not to actually be in the community of Catholics by believing what the Catholic Church teaches. This applies to a lesser degree to other religions. It doesn’t make any sense to be Jewish and reject the Torah, or to be Muslim and disagree with parts of the Qur’an.

      So what do you do if you like many of the teachings of a religion, but disagree with others? This is where many people say that it’s OK to believe what you want to believe. Just don’t be a member of any church or synagogue or mosque.

      But I think doing so is hubris. You claim, essentially, that you yourself have found the truth while no one else ever has. You might say that you think religion X was close to the truth, and you’re just trying to get closer to the truth – religions evolve to converge closer and closer to the actual truth, which no religion has. But this strikes me an nonsense. Religions don’t just offer a set of unconnected beliefs, some one which you can take and some of which you can throw out as outdated – they offer comprehensive systems of belief. Systems like that don’t “evolve” or “converge”.

      That is my essential point. If you disagree with one part, you basically have to either be humble and say that perhaps the combined weight of hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of tradition just might have gotten this right and you wrong, or you have to throw out the entire system and build a new one with different premises – or prove conclusively that your religion’s original axioms do not lead to the conclusion you disagree with. Which is damn hard to do.

      [Note: As I was writing this post, I realized that “spiritual free-for-all” can really mean two things – cafeteria religion, on the one hand, and gnosticism, meaning here not the Manichean spirit-body dualism but the idea of hidden knowledge, on the other. These two are really different, and require radically different arguments against them. This is an argument against cafeteria religion. I’ll hopefully write something about gnosticism in the near future. But I think this is an adequate, if not extraordinary, response to the question of, why organized religion?]

      The Ides of March

      March 3, 2008

      First off, congratulations to the Wesnoth dev team for releasing 1.4 (the official announcement hasn’t yet been made but it will be in the next few days). Yeah, technically I’m a Wesnoth dev, but since I don’t actually do a whole lot for mainline it doesn’t really count, does it? Anyway, if you’ve never played Wesnoth before, download 1.4 and try it out, it’s a damn cool game.I’ll stop advertising now. On to what I actually want to talk about. It’s now the month of March. What do I expect to do this month?

      First off, I want to finish the story I’m writing (which I started last November and have been working on at random intervals since then). I’m at 5595 words right now – that’s around 8.5 pages single-spaced – and it’ll probably end up being around 7000. Which means I probably won’t actually finish this month, but you never know.

      I’d also like to actually get some work done on Orbivm. Development has stagnated over the last month, mainly because I’ve been obscenely busy with assorted Real Life tasks. But most of those are out of the way now (after tomorrow, anyway – I have two midterms then), and hopefully I can get my Orcei Gladiatores campaign written, make some tweaks to the three current campaigns, and perhaps even get the Feudal Era into a releasable state.

      Finally, I need to figure out – soon – when I want to go to Rome. I’ve already turned in my application, and I put down Fall 08, so if I don’t take any action I’ll be in Europe from September to December. But I I’m conflicted – there are also compelling reasons to go in Spring 09 instead. So I might end up changing my application, meaning I’ll be in Europe from next January to next April. And I need to decide soon – before the end of March, definitely.

      But, of course, I really don’t expect to get either of the first two tasks, or the final one actually, done until Spring Break. I’ve found that college, while the classes don’t take up too much time, has a tendency to suck away time that could have been productive, meaning I don’t do much with regards to writing or scripting more than a few days a week. Which means that this month, with regards to what I want to do with it, actually starts on March 15th, not March 1st.

      Now, as always, I must look at what Wesnothian or Orbian character that makes me. I’m going to have to say Primus Maximus. First of all, because Primus is modeled on the historical person of Julius Caesar, who died on the Ides of March, and I can’t resist making that connection. But also because much of my current thought is preoccupied with Rome, whose counterpart in Orbivm is Lavinium. And because Primus was a builder, creating the Lavinian Empire, unlike many of the main characters in Orbivm – Alfhelm, Vaniyera, etc – who destroyed. That’s what I’m trying to do this month. But we’ll see how successful I am.
      Julius Caesar

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