Volume 0, Issue 0

Archive for the ‘Discussion’ Category

The Sieve

In Discussion on 2016/06/15 at 8:39 am

Sieve_of_Eratosthenes_animationImagine a language where there is no need for a word for “real” or “fact” because there are already very clear terms for such things as…

  • conjecture for the sake of exploration
  • conjecture for the sake of entertainment
  • conjecture one really hopes is false
  • conjecture one really hopes is true
  • angry, unfounded accusations one would like to be true so one can feel justified in being angry because one thinks feeling angry without justification is shameful and the purview of toddlers
  • something deep-sounding and vaguely poetic that one asserts because one whimsically confuses beauty with truth
  • something deep-sounding and vaguely poetic that one asserts because one stoically confuses pessimism with prophecy
  • something one is worried about that one actually hopes is not true that one asserts as a provocation in lieu of actually asking the hearer to make the speaker feel better
  • an outright lie to deflect blame from oneself

Read the rest of this entry »

The Book of Dead Names

In Discussion on 2015/06/27 at 4:21 pm
The Cranium. Leonardo Da Vinci, April 2, 1498

The Cranium. Leonardo Da Vinci, April 2, 1498

Welcome back to high school. In this nightmare, it’s the ninth grade again. You’ve made it through the lunch line, maybe bought some milk to go with the sandwich you brought from home to save you from having to face green beans that were harvested when Nixon was president, imprisoned since then in a can large enough to have contained an adult human’s head, decanted along with nine other identical cans into a huge steel vat, and boiled for six hours or until spreadable.

Now it’s time to choose a table. For those of you who need it, here’s a hint. This is a metaphor for being born.

You see the cool kids’ table and know better than to try. Something tells you that you’d need an invitation, and you’re right. You watch and you listen, and you one of them declare a petitioner a nerd and wave her off in the direction of the Nerd Section. So now you try to work out the map and the rules. Read the rest of this entry »

Symptom of Illness at a Cultural Level

In Discussion on 2014/12/05 at 4:24 pm
DSM-5 and DSM-IV-TR by F.RdeC, Wikimedia Commons, CC-A-SA 3.0

French edition of DSM-IV-TR and English edition of DSM-V by F.RdeC, Wikimedia Commons, CC-A-SA 3.0

Delusions are a bit tricky.

Be aware that I’m talking clinically about a symptom of a number of scary mental illnesses — the symptom that signals a disconnect from proper interaction with the real world. A symptom, but not an illness in and of itself.

In situations like this I adhere to a pretty strict definition of illness, of pathology. Unless the phenomenon interferes with an acceptable level of function of your body and/or interferes with your ability to earn a living (or to complete your coursework, if you are a student) and/or degrades your relationships with coworkers or classmates or peers or friends or relatives, it is not an illness. Short of that, it’s just a quirk or a trait. Read the rest of this entry »

When We Think of Beasts

In Discussion on 2014/01/03 at 10:11 am
La Bête de la Mer (Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse)

La Bête de la Mer (Tapisserie de l’Apocalypse), uploaded to Wikipedia by Kimon Berlin

When we think of beasts, we concentrate on, instead of the volumes of overwhelming similarities, that which sets us apart from them. Distinguishing characteristics. We can own them, for one. They might communicate or not, but they don’t speak any of the human languages, don’t demonstrate a huge vocabulary, and show little facility for learning languages that aren’t the ones they were born with. They aren’t big on manual dexterity and, when they make or use tools, they get by with the bare minimum. Though many of them sing or dance or both, they aren’t big on the literary arts or visual arts — but we should take into account that we look for representational elements when we don’t even share visual spectra with many of them, as we also fail to make allowances for lack of vocabulary and manual dexterity in expression. In any case, they don’t seem to tell stories, and we do like stories. Read the rest of this entry »

Beware the Curse

In Discussion on 2012/09/15 at 1:08 pm

curse tablet: EyguièresGo ahead. Let it out. You’ll feel better.

One of the places where human justice falls down is the belief, embedded in every story we tell our children from their earliest days, that bad things inevitably happen to people who are bad and that good behavior is rewarded. I’d go so far as to say that the recognition of the failure of that axiom is the source of every crisis of faith ever experienced. The innocent starve. The wicked get wealthy by cheating and stealing. Natural disasters take lives indiscriminately. We believe this unsupportable notion of the inherent fairness of the universe so strongly that when we see evidence strongly to the contrary, it is literally intolerable. We feel it as pain.

We demand justice — or we sink into depression, because all actions are futile and the results of those actions are arbitrary. Read the rest of this entry »

One of Many Problems with Religion

In Discussion on 2012/08/25 at 2:02 pm

Octopus uses empty shells to hide, Wikimedia Commons/Nick HobgoodThis isn’t a problem with all religions, mind. In fact, it’s only a problem with a handful. However, it’s a problem with the most popular, and the most violent — and, anthropologically speaking, the most recent. And this is the problem concept: that humans are special, are blessed, are chosen to be God’s favored children, are somehow above the animals and plants and everything else that lives, and have a God-given right of power over life and death with respect to them.

I’m not sure how all of that made it into the dominant narratives, because much of the scripture it’s based on stops well short of the worst of that in wording. But religions are made out of a huge body of traditions that, in those that do have scriptures, have very little support in those scriptures. Read the rest of this entry »

The Trouble with Science

In Discussion on 2012/08/13 at 9:42 am

R136 stellar nursery, Hubble Space Telescope, 2009We look up in the sky and see ten thousand points of light (give or take a few orders of magnitude depending on location and light pollution) and then, because knowing where the stars are in the sky helps us pinpoint where we are in the seasons despite the vagaries of the weather, we draw lines around them and connecting them and give the drawings names. And we make up stories about the drawings so that we can remember them, and remember that the positions of the stars are important, and, if we’re clever enough with the stories, why.

That’s “why the positions of the stars are important to us”, not any bigger sort of why, like “why are stars the things that are important”. Certainly not a “what”, like “what are stars”. Nor a “how”, as in “how do the positions of the stars drive the planting and harvest cycles”.

Well, that’s not true. The stories can actually address such things. It’s just that when they do, the risk of bullshit is dangerously high. Read the rest of this entry »

The Art of Sacrifice

In Discussion on 2012/07/30 at 9:55 am

Suicide Bomber vest at ComicCon 2007, San Diego, CA, by Cory_DoctorowThe man who is prepared to die may accomplish anything.

I’ve been looking through sources to see who I might be quoting for the sentiment above and I still haven’t sorted it. The original could be in a language I don’t know, thousands of years old. Or maybe it’s a James Bond villain. But it’s not just a truth in narrative logic. It’s actually true. One who dies in the process or aftermath of achieving any goal, no matter how stupid or heinous or heroic or pointless that goal is, is freed from suffering any consequences except the one that he or she has chosen. Any punishment or shame or notoriety passes, usually harmlessly, to family or associates. Both heroes and villains, which are frequently interchangeable depending on individual sympathies, derive their status as such by not being particularly opposed to a fatal outcome.

On that topic, these creatures have something interesting in common: Read the rest of this entry »

More on Narrative Logic

In Discussion on 2012/07/27 at 12:08 pm

steps, in detailOne of tenets of narrative logic — the logic used to make things true in our heads, that causes distress when it does not agree with observations — is that effort is rewarded, followed swiftly by a corollary that says greater effort is rewarded more than lesser effort. Of all the major disagreements with the nature of causality that we carry around in our heads, this one is the one that seems to cause the most misery. We desperately want there to be parity between effort spent and reward received, if not a slight tip of the balance in our favor.

Physical causality isn’t like that. An action taken at the right place in the right time under the right circumstances has a result, and it might be a desired one, but it’s just the next step in a cascade. Read the rest of this entry »

On Narrative Causality

In Discussion on 2012/07/16 at 1:36 pm

It’s been ages since I’ve read Isaac Bonewits’s Real Magic, but a huge chunk of it stuck with me.

It’s by no means a how-to. Instead, it’s a book-length, thrice-revised expansion of of the senior thesis of the only person I’ve even heard of to receive a Bachelors of the Arts in Thaumaturgy from an accredited university — though it may explain it a bit to say it was from UC Berkeley in 1970. The overall view is that it is an academic work, in construction if not tone and lack of bias, and as such the analysis it contains is not unscientific. Various traditions and practices of (scientifically speaking) a superstitious nature are deconstructed to reveal a candidate set of underlying laws that seem to govern the construction of esoteric belief and ritual.

I remain fascinated by Bonewits’s analysis, and I believe there is some truth in it — truth in what it reveals of how people think why they try to influence the world around them, leaving aside any question of whether such influences are effective. Read the rest of this entry »