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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Gift of the Christian Idea of the World

I just finished teaching a course to some of our adult church members; an introduction to understanding the Bible for yourself. The central analogy of the course was unapologetically borrowed from Susan Haack's "Evidence and Inquiry". She used the image of a crossword puzzle to illustrate a concept of justification with a univocal sense, and as opposed to the two classic images of the raft and the pyramid. The puzzle illustrates the two kind of supports that give evidence to certain propositions; the original clues to the puzzle and the way the answers fit together in the puzzle.

The key idea in deciphering the meaning of a portion of text (where "meaning" is understood to be the sense of the text the original author intended for the original audience to receive - which I won't defend here) is to recognize a textual unit. A textual unit is a specifiable form of text such that all the textual material is mobilized to fulfil a function. A basic example is a paragraph, but other examples would be a poem or a parable or a proverb or an argument. This presupposes that we do recognize such units in our reading and can exploit them in our writing. If a text does form a unit, then the crossword analogy is appropriate since there is an internal coherence to the material as well as clues from the historical and literary context of the writing. Of course, basic units may be connected to form larger units of text, like paragraphs in a paper or verses in a poem. I take it that the claim that such units exist and that they are discernable able as substantially uncontroversial.

If that is so, then it is not out of the question to think that there may be larger recognizable units that incorporate scattered texts. Suppose fairies exist. A single fairy may perhaps use charms on different mundane people to make them dream in rich ways and compel them to write about there dreams over a large area of space and time. After comparing the written dreams of the various victim dreamers it, is discovered that they form a larger unified conception not schemed by any one of the authors. Or suppose that someone creates an Artificial Intelligence that inhabits a laser equipped satellite. The satellite, in a fit of creativity, uses the laser to write bits of prose on several parts of the planet's surface. Others who are not aware of the secret satellite's existence may at least recognize that the diverse scripts carved in the mountains and deserts throughout the world for a single unified document. They may even be able to determine that there remains some yet undiscovered portions from the clues that they have in hand (the ones that were carved in to the bottoms of lakes say).

It seems that someone of a religious frame of mind might thus hope that if God were to express Himself to mankind, such a unity of thought would be recognizable in it, not just in its texts but in all of its parts. Of course, many have a prior sense that such a thing would not be either possible if God existed, since the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, or likely, since we are as nothing to the gods as the fleas are as nothing to us. But supposing that God condescended to speak as we may understand for some reason, we might hope that such a unity would be found in the message.

That Christian teaching embodies such an essential gestalt is what we mean be speaking of it as a worldview. This means that the scattered textual material that comes to be codified in the sacred documents of the faith forms a systematic whole, organically developed over time, that is re-identifiable. Not only is it an intrinsic whole but also it unifies our concept of God, self, and world - which is to say that it brings into its unity our all transcendental representations. It also incorporates our theoretical and practical reasoning, and our emotional intelligence. It also makes sense of history. The basic schema of the Christian world view of redemption, presupposed by fall, which in turn presupposes creation, and which resolves into a final consummation captures in brief the internal logic of the Christian view.

But though the Christian worldview is meant to make some explanatory sense and is meant to be understood as being comprehensive of experience and strongly coherent (not merely consistent), it is also understood to be a gift. It is not expected to be what we would take to be the best explanation of the world that we would have had if we properly reasoned only according to our natural lights, although it must be compatible with what we do conclude by such lights on the principle that all truth is God's truth. Being a Christian is, at least prima facie, neither necessary nor sufficient for being a good scholar. philosopher, or scientist. It is even possible that qua Christian faith compared to qua the best inquiry has to offer at the time, the believer and the non-believer are in different places holding to incompatible claims. The person who is both a believer and a scientist may hold to p as a believer and not p as a scientist, whereas what she holds to, either p or not p, simpliciter will depend on an ethic of belief.

Such an ethic would have to oblige or permit the Christian belief without an ad hoc rejection of the scientific belief. Being a matter of practical reasoning it would have to makes sense from within a Christian worldview but also be consistent with moral reasoning about belief formation. Such a view is possible if we understand that the standard that all belief must be proportioned to evidence as being a prima facie obligation with appropriate exceptions. (A prima facie duty ethic such as W.D. Ross's is a way of making sense of William James' qualifications of Clifford's ethics.) But it may also be necessary to distinguish between the actual sense of the Christian worldview and our take on that sense, letting the observed facts force us rethink what we originally took to be the case. But besides grounding a set of duties in belief formation, a Christian worldview may encourage enquiry in the same sort of way that Socrates' doctrine of recollection encouraged him to seek the truth.

If we think of Christian experience as being exclusively mystical and ecstatic, we may neglect the experiential potentials of a religious intelligence. "To see that" is an important part of perception and requires a prior concept but it is also deeply religious and satisfying. This provides another motive for inquiry, to gain a deeper grasp on the Christian idea itself.

William Lycan Essays linked.

Two essays by William Lycan on eliminative materialism and dualism. I had the priviledge of hearing Lycan discuss the dualism paper at Syracuse University.


William G. Lycan
University of North Carolina
William G. Lycan
Hat tip to Dr. Feser.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Getting John Calvin right.

Linked to this post header in Timothy George's CT article on John Calvin and the secret to his being principally neglected. I also linked the article on the side board.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Echo

SCENE: Olympia, WA -- 09SEP17, 28 days after the outbreak. A special Army helicopter is coming toward the city carrying Major Karl Wesson USA special forces and Father Winston O'Bannon in hermetically sealed compartment. The priest is looking very concerned and the soldier very grim.

O'Bannon: How much longer before we get to the aid site.

Wesson: We'll get there soon enough. I'm glad you were willing to risk going back into that hell hole to retrieve more survivors without yet having been set down in a safe area yet.

O: I understand that time is of the essence. Besides that the look that appeared on your face when you received that radio call from base tells me that things have suddenly become even more grave than before. But I have a pastoral calling and I cannot but be willing to sacrifice my life when my Lord has sacrificed himself for me. If there is anything that I can do I am willing.

W: Those are some fine words, Father. But what really impresses is me is that you are willing to say that and go back to that particular place. I have seen seasoned combat troops come out of there screaming in horror. Yet you seem willing to face it all again in spite of knowing first hand what it was all like.

O: Oh, I could barely cope with it at the time, believe me. Five nights ago, it seemed that there was a sudden bright light in the sky that came down into the midst of the city. There was a huge explosion and many of the buildings were damaged from the shock wave. But even that was not the worst of it. Almost immediately several of the city people began to suffer. The began to grab their heads and scream in agony. Nothing could be done for them, even when they were rushed to the hospital. Whatever it was seemed to be affecting their minds. Very often the shear pain would make them pass out into a kind of coma. We tried to gather as many of the poor victims as we could and take them to homes, hospitals, schools, and so on. Whatever cause the syndrome, it seemed to only effect a certain percentage of the population. Many of us seemed totally unaffected by it.

W: I can tell you that what exploded on the city was a commercial satellite that was forced out of orbit by some kind of meteor. HQ thinks that the meteor or th satellite had contact with some kind of alien virus that attacks the brain and the CNS. The rapid spread of the viral effects makes it clear that it is something we haven't seen before. There was nothing we could do but quarantine the city and let the disease run its course. But that wasn't the worse part, was it?

(The priest took a deep breathe.)

O: No. No, not at all. The comatose eventually came to after a few hours or so. But it was clear that their humanity had been lost. They couldn't talk anymore, nor could the use their motor skills as efficiently as before. But even worse, even worse, they began to viciously attack anyone like some feral beast. Family members who were keeping vigil over their sleeping bodies were suddenly jumped by them and torn apart. The disease must have activated an increase in adrenaline because the victims displayed increased strength and speed. They did not stop at the ones near them but they began to rampage the city so that those who had not suffered from the disease still were hurt by those who were. And they didn't just attack them they . . . they . . .

W: They ate them.

O: Yes. Yes! I dare not describe the sites I saw. It must have been like the Black Plague only with people as the vermin and with no escape.

W: Please do not explain further. We have enough grisly documentation by satellite camera and by the various texts and photos from cell phones sent along to us. But can't you look at me when you talk about it?

O: But I am looking at you. Right at your eyes.

W: So I see. Sorry. It must be difficult even for you as a man of faith to accept such a horror from the hand of a supposedly good God.

O: Well, alien or not, what happened must have happened according to the course of the way nature regularly works. I can understand that God might rather make a world with natural regularities so that people could make reliable predictions and plans over one which nothing at all could be predicted, even if that means the some of the consequences include natural disasters.

(The major's stony face looked out of a portal into the night.)

W: Still, did God have to make a lawfully operating world that involved this much pain and horror. Doesn't it bother you at all that there seems to be no good reason for allowing this much suffering? God could have made the world regular without this having to happen.

O: I do know what you mean. But if there is a God, His nature would be such that He could have really good reasons for allowing such things that we in our limited resources cannot fathom, and that would explain we we don't see the reason for them. And there are to many great goods in the world like our mysterious universe and the sacrifices of good people that encourage me to believe that such a God lives.

(The major continued unmoved to look out of the portal and spoke again.)

W: Still, did God have to make a lawfully operating world that involved this much pain and horror. Doesn't it bother you at all that there seems to be no good reason for allowing this much suffering? God could have made the world regular without this having to happen.

O: I do know what you mean. But if there is a God, His nature would be such that He could have really good reasons for allowing such things that we in our limited resources cannot fathom, and that would explain we we don't see the reason for them. And there are to many great goods in the world like our mysterious universe and the sacrifices of good people that encourage me to believe that such a God lives.

(The major turned away from the window and began to stare at the floor between them. He began to rub the temple of his head.)

W: I had a friend and fellow combat officer put it differently. He told me that when he was in Afghanistan fighting, his troop came across a Taliban warlord's compound in a network of mountain caves. Apparently this warlord had been capturing Baha'ists migrating from Iran and had been torturing and abusing them, especially their women and children. The journals they kept were in extreme clinical detail and they told of the absolute indifference toward the victims as human beings. My friend told me that he knew at that time he had encountered genuine evil and not just suffering and that the recognition of the existence of actual evil actually had renewed his belief in God.

O: Yes, it is hard for good willed people to contemplate such a possibility in a fellow human being but there are times when we cannot fail to recognize an objective universal justice, if only when we see it violated.

(The major grimaced and a strange smile traveled part way across his lips. He continued to look at the floor.)

W: It's almost time for drop off.

O: Drop off? I thought we were picking people up? What about those who didn't fall sick to the virus?

W: There is no one who didn't fall sick to the virus.

O: What? What about me?

W: That call that I received informed me that the virus has broken out of the quarantined area into the centers where we were gathering the refugees from the city. They are frantically trying to redraw the quarantine area to contain the virus again.

O: But how could that be?

W: This is the picture we are getting from research. The theory is that it is not a virus but rather a parasite that multiplies and tries to take over the organism of a host body by taking over the higher order functions of the host's brain. The parasite is capable of multiplying and to network with its spawn while each of them work to kill the host and take over the existing neural connections and functional patterns in the brain. The success or failure of this seems to correlate with the rhesus factor in the blood. If the host is type positive, this attempt fails, the host succeeds in surviving the attack, and the parasites die, but the damage from the attack is so devastating that most higher brain functions are destroyed or isolated within the brain. It's like suffering from severe brain damage and falling into a permanently vegetative state, except in this case all that survives are the host's most basic animal instincts. The host essential becomes feral in the worst possible way but they still continue to live.

O: And what happens if the parasites win?

W: What happens if the type is negative is that the host dies and the body becomes simply the vehicle for the colony of parasites that are now using the existing networks to operate the body, camouflage their presence, and continue to spread and multiply. The host is dead but a simulacrum of the former host continues to persist until the parasites can suitably reproduce. The simulacrum is able to reproduce typical and predictable output behaviors to standard situations so that it seems as if the person that was their originally is still there.

O: I see. My blood type is O negative. This is why you were called to take me back to the hot zone.

W: To take us back to the hot zone. I was already pretty well exposed to you long enough before they found out and I'm A positive.

O: And you made it seem like a mercy mission in order to manage us better.

W: It's still a mercy mission of a sort. Even though type positives have become mostly feral, it seems that there is still complex brain activity in the part of the brain that is correlated with dreaming. This activity increases when the animal needs are sated. The feral become sated when they eat the simulacra and eating them destroys the parasites they are carrying while at the same time providing them a little more of their last joys as a human being. Eventually the feral will die -- they cannot survive for very long in that state -- and then controls will come in and clean up the mess. So the plan is to contain the situation until it burns out. No one survives.

O: A pyre for the dead and a hospice for those who are dying. I'm really sorry that you couldn't escape.

(The major collapses down on the floor between them, his face lined with pain.)

W: It was an echo of a good lesson before dying. Besides, being a simulacrum means never having to say you're sorry.

The major laid unconscious on the floor while the priest watched over him.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Archie at 600

Nothing says protracted adolescence like "Archie Andrews". Say what you want about Doonesbury, at least all their primaries survived their respective Mid-Life crises. Now, when the plot starts to actually develop, we see Archie proposing -- to Veronica rather than Betty, indicating Archie's failure to cultivate a learning curve -- which explains why he's been in high school for six decades.

Still the story begins by displaying some higher order alertness, such as reference to Archie as a Peter Pan. But the integrity of the story seems more due to viscosity than to coherence. Finally proposing to either member of Archie's harem would be a groundswell -- if it were really happening. But unlike recent "demises" of Superman and Capt. America, Archie comics lets the cat out of the bag right away. Commit-o-phobic males should take note of what happens when you go down memory lane the wrong direction. You can't call that a spoiler.

The first comics I ever collected where Archie's at 15 cents each and I thought prices were excessive at 30 cents. But here's to a revisit to the land of denominational requirement, monoxidal jalopies, and all you can drink milk shakes, and more states.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

PnCing OGL

Or, how to incorporate Pulp in the Cup with D20 rules.

Treat all rolls like oppositional roles, even rolls against a difficulty class (DC).

For rolls against a DC, subtract 10 from the given DC, even if that leaves a negative number. Call this the difficulty adds. So when the player rolls their d20 and adds his bonuses, the GM rolls a 3d6 and adds the difficulty adds. If the player's total beats the GM's total, the player succeeds.

For saving throws against a fixed DC subtract 10 as before, but this time the player rolls a 3d6 and adds their bonuses, and the GM rolls a d20 and adds the difficulty adds to that.

In character versus character contests where both are equally footed (like arm wrestling, foot racing or competing for initiative in combat), everyone rolls a d20.

But in cases where one is acting and the other responding (such as when one is sneaking and the other guarding, or when one is attacking and the other parrying) the initiating player adds their bonuses (or boni) to a d20 roll and the responding player adds their bonuses to a 3d6 roll.

That ought to do it. It will also add some thrill to the game, I think.

Shadows of the Emerald City

Free RPG day has come and gone. I wanted to use it to make a dry run on my new campaign setting idea but no one showed up at the store. Sad. It looks like RPGs are in decline again from where I'm sitting.

About the setting: "Shadows of the Emerald City" (formerly "Mutants of Syracuse")

The Basic Idea: Make an actual city (in this case, Syracuse NY) the setting of a campaign. Syracuse is your typical upstate blighted urban city, standing always in the shadows of NYC (and even Rochester), yet a home to several people whose families have lived here for generations, with strongly defined ethnic neighborhoods and festivals that bring a taste of their cultures to the front. The city is struggling with harsh economic realities and faux relief proposals, just like any American city in a post industrial age. It has its local personalities (car dealers and mall builders, for example) and its own personality.

But also, unknown to the general population, the city is at the nexus of several circles of arcane power, a mysterious reservoir of concentrated perturbations of psychic force that has drawn the attention of those who live in the background of the world. The immediate effect is that this power has imbued several of the residents and given them (or cursed them) with strange powers and advantages, forcing them to go into hiding from the public. This has attracted ambitious scientists who have attempted to harness and understand (typically in that order) these strange powers to their own uses. But others have also noticed, others from in and outside of the Galactic Confederacy of Worlds, which sees Earth as a protected zone and Syracuse as its point of contact, but also yet others from alternate planes of existence also are drawn into the Mystical Vortex, including the Ancient Ones walled off in their Dimensional Prison wishing to reclaim their old authority over Earth. But first the must prevent the Final Cause from being born in the south side of the city.

In this campaign, player characters are Syracusian natives who have become thus surprised by their new powers and have begun to discover this alternate world that co-exists "alongside" the city. They discover the "openings in the hedge" that allow them to see the real contest of power that mundanes aren't able to see. In part, this is like a "Men in Black"/"Harry Potter" type of campaign where the existence of the hidden world is kept secret at all costs. Players have to solve the mysteries behind the curtain while maintaining the facade of civil society.

Often this involves adventures that are set among landmarks familiar to locals - bars, villages, malls, research institutes, and so on. The way these function as portals to the world alongside is in having things like a basement below the basement, the loft above the loft, the floor between the floors, the coliseum inside the phone booth, etc. Also, while the city setting follows the actual city to a large degree, in the actual narrative it is described as an alternate history of Syracuse so that features attributed to locations and persons in the city are not to be confused as attributions of actual locations and persons in the actual history of Syracuse. The setting is set in an alternate version of the 1990's prior to Y2K, Destiny Co. has placated the city boards by rebuilding the New White City" roller coaster park, and Franklin motors has reopened its plant to produce an innovative hybrid vehicle. This also allows a bit more color to be added to the setting.

I am adapting the setting to Mutants and Masterminds because it is a rules lite, narrative friendly, and widely used set of rules. I had to concede that this is a kind of superhero setting but in my mind it is definitely not a four color high power one (no capes!). Fortunately, M&M allows for power level adjustments and their new "Iron Age" supplement captures the vibe I want.

With respect to Christian integration; I am aiming to follow C.S. Lewis' example in his novel "'Til We Have Faces", which is basically to operate within a pagan interpretation of life but to make Christian points from within it, something that a Christian writer is well within their rights to do. The point of course is to work around the cloying familiarity (or rather the "quasi-familiarity) with the Christian tradition that causes people to dismiss understanding it out of hand while subtly reintroducing it afresh one little nudge at a time. And of course, the point is still to entertain and have fun in a creative and social way.

Big Gnus: You want a piece of me?

I have just received word that I (the Gnu) will be in print next year. The up coming volume of Open Court's series of books on philosophy and popular culture "Anime and Philosophy" will contain my chapter entitled "The CPU Has Its Reasons", an exposition of William James paper on the will to believe, using "Armitage the Third: Poly-matrix" to illustrate it.

Finally, my fan tribute op has come.

(And I suppose it has some pedagogical value also.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Moe for Peno!

I just finished the anime series "Ergo Proxy". This is a thing to see especially if you are now burnt out with the whole anime interest as I imagine many are. The market has gotten pretty saturated with predictable tropes and there seems to be no expectation of avoiding them.

"Ergo Proxy" is not recent but it is breakout. Several of the typical themes in anime appear here. But there is still a greater and refreshing pitch in the execution and direction in this story. It is not a Gonzo product but it does use the latest in CGI techniques. The visuals are stunning and the music score production values are very high. The character designs are closer to American comic styles but are still well done. It is also important that they are not static. Changes in the plot coordinate with changes in the depiction of characters so that the design is part of the story.

There are several philosophical references but much of them are just for kitsch.

The supplements to the DVD indicate that the story was influenced by the turn to the "dark age" of comics in American comics. That's too bad since I have had it up to here with the Dark Age of comics, which seems to have reduced from striving for a sense of authenticity to a formula for a political platitude. However, that decline has not quite found its way into this piece which seem to reflect more of the original inspiration of that movement.

The story is edgy and hard hitting. It is not compromising, which makes this anime more tough than other recent eye candy. The story is fairly complete. There are refreshingly few danglers by the end of this than I have seen in a lot of recent anime. However, some moves still seem to be ad hoc to me.

Commentators speak well of the influence of dystopian nature of the story as if that were the reason to like it. It is dystopian but it trades most on striving being an original story and concept. The element of plausibility that is normally an important feature of a dystopian scenario is not so strongly highlighted here.

One of the things that I like in anime in general is the speculation about robots with a soul. That appears in different degrees of sophistication in many anime features. This anime features them also but without much speculation about their significance. But on the up side, it has one of the most endearing robot characters I have ever seen in an anime so far. One of the main characters is Peno, a robot originally designed as a companion android who gets infected with a computer virus that induces sapience and personhood in robots. But the important thing is the deep way this is portrayed in the story. I couldn't help but worry about this character and her fortunes in the story. What other anime accomplish concerning the theme of sentient robots by introducing exposition, this anime accomplishes in the Dickensian fashion of simply showing rather than saying.

For more details, see the link in the post title.

I have had to take seriously the belief that there very little chance that one is going to find the good stuff saving money. The best anime is often the BANDAI or GENEON which also is more expensive than ADVision.