Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Monday, November 29, 2004
Seeing the future
I finally saw the third Harry Potter movie (Prisoner of Azkaban) this weekend. One thing that I noticed was how different the actors look from how they used to. How do they do casting for these sorts of long-term projects with child actors? Does it involve the same computer technology that is used in the creation of photos of missing children? Or something more advanced that predicts how a person's appearance and voice will change? Which use has driven technological progress?
A quick google search didn't turn up any answers. Maybe somebody out there knows something.
There are two kinds of states...
What statistic places the first nine states at one end of the spectrum and the other nine at the opposite extreme? The answer is here.
Sunday, November 28, 2004
Ask a cognitive scientist
I asked Chris what he knew about the cognitive science of humor, and he has responded at Mixing Memory. It's an underdeveloped area of study, so I feel like right now there is more to be learned from the casual empiricism of books like this one than from the existing cognitive science literature. Cognitive science is still a young science, though (which is why it still carries that last name), so there may be a brighter, more rigorous empirical future to the understanding of humor.
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Thanks Be Given
I'm going to be traveling away from my Internet home for the holiday weekend, so posting will be minimal. If you're looking for some way to keep yourself occupied while I'm gone, in addition to the sites in my sidebar you could try:
Positive Liberty - His stories are longer than mine
Neuroeconomics - Looking from the brain's point of view
Majikthise - Philosophy & politics with Vroomfondel's & James Wolcott's seals of approval
The Maven's Word of the Day - Much better than reading the dictionary
Grant McCracken - Stopped in the middle of the intersection of anthropology and economics
I have learned, first from OxBlog and then from other sources, that Dan Rather is stepping down from his position atop the CBS Evening News. Opinions vary on whether his resignation is a response to the September Memodome scandal.
Mini-broke is more common than mini-breaked among tennis fans, but Neal at Literal-Minded points out that fast-breaked is far more common than fast-broke as basketball jargon. In the baseball world, homerunned exists while Neal has not found any uses of homeran, and Pinker's original example of flied out still dominates flew out. Pinker's hockey example, high-sticked instead of high-stuck, still holds as well. So why is it that only the tennis term stays irregular?
I think that the important thing about mini-break is that it's a variation on another tennis term, break, that is used as both a noun and a verb. The meaning is so similar that slight adjustments of the examples that I found could turn them into sensible tennis statements about breaking serve during the set. For instance:
The set was pretty weird, since Guga led easily from the start, and he served at 5-3 and lost his serve... Then he broke Etlis again, finishing the game with a return winner with a backhand crosscourt.Since much of the tennis meaning of break is transferred over to mini-break, it feels appropriate for people to use the morphology of break as well. There is no analogous use of the verb break in basketball, run or fly in baseball, or stick in hockey, so people start afresh with the complex nouns and backform them into regular verbs.
Monday, November 22, 2004
Fact of the Day
Sand heaps can be created by adding, restructuring, or even removing grains of sand.
l____________l. . .l . . . ._ . . . . l
l____________l --> l____/_\_____l
Figure 1: A poorly-formatted scale diagram of sand heap creation via sand removal in a large container.
Previous Fact of the Day
Friday, November 19, 2004
Steven Pinker has argued that when a noun based on an irregular verb (like "fly out") is "backformed" into a verb, it becomes regular (e.g. "flied out"). Yet Google reveals a nascent exception to this rule.
In tennis, "breaking serve" means winning a game that your opponent is serving, while "holding serve" means winning a game on your own serve. During a tiebreaker, the players alternate in serving for 2 points. When someone wins a point on the opponent's serve in a tiebreaker, this is known as a mini-break. What happens when people turn this noun into a verb? It doesn't happen often, but Google turned up these four cases in the past-tense:
In the tie-break, Ajay was “mini-broken” at 1-2 when he missed a high forehand volley with Nisker out of position.Three of the four instances use irregular forms of "break", though one of them self-consciously, and one also uses "mini-held." I did not find any other uses of any noun or verb form of "mini-hold." (There are a few more uses of "mini-break" as a verb in the present tense, but they are harder to find among all of the noun uses.) The site that is the source of the second quote uses "mini-broke" and "mini-broken" frequently, as does another site that appears to be run by the same person.
So it was tie-break time: FG served and were mini-broke: 0-1. HT then mini-held, and gave back the mini-break: 0-2, 1-2. FG then did likewise: 2-2, 2-3. HT then gave up a pair of mini-breaks: 3-3, 4-3. FG then mini-held, and gave back a mini-break: 5-3, 5-4. HT then mini-held twice: 5-5, 5-6. FG then fought off set-point and mini-held, but were then mini-broke: 6-6, 6-7. HT, serving for set point, took the set: 6-8. Oh well.....
First up in the shoot-out, she squandered the chance to take the lead, and although she mini-breaked back to stay in touch at 1-2, she lost her next two serves.
The tiebreak was pretty weird, since Guga led easily from the start, and he served at 6-3 and lost both his serves... Then he minibroke Etlis again with a return winner with a backhand crosscourt.
So Pinker's rule doesn't seem to hold for the rare people who use "mini-break" as a verb.
UPDATE: Neal compares mini-break with fast-break at Literal-Minded, and I've come up with a hypothesis for why people say fastbreaked but mini-broke.
Vanity and Energy
The hot new tool on the internet is a Google search for scholarly works, appropriately named Google Scholar. Unable to restrain myself, I searched and discovered that I am a transducer, which means that I convert energy from one form to another. My life now feels meaningful.
Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?
Lloyd Rose doesn't understand probability, but the editors of the Washington Post don't mind. He reviews Chance by Amir D. Aczel:
The author of several other books on science for the layman, Aczel encourages his readers to take a can-do attitude. Cheerfully, he confides, "I want to tell you a secret: measuring probabilities is as simple as counting." Well, sort of. "Chance" contains a number of equations. Happily, the math-impaired can skip these and still glean the general idea.Where to begin? Rose commits the gambler's fallacy (even though he realizes that coin flips are memoryless), claims that every random variable has the same distribution, and repeatedly claims that mathematicians have no idea why all these theorems of theirs are true. Perhaps you don't glean as much as Rose thought if you skip all of the equations.
The general idea of probability theory is illustrated by the now infamous bell curve. Actually a value-neutral form of measurement, the curve demonstrates that if you gather random factors and then graph them, the resulting line will be near-flat on the left, rise gradually to the rounded peak of a hill, then sink at exactly the same gradient to near-flat again on the right, resulting in the shape of a bell. In a graph of the heights of American men, for instance, the central point would convey the largest category (say, men 5-feet-9), while the descending lines on the left and right would testify to the lesser number of men either smaller or taller, with the extremes growing as the line flattens out. The result is that we can know the odds of any American man being taller than 5-feet-9 or shorter than, say, 4-feet-10. An accumulation of random data always generates this curve of probability, as if conjuring it out of the air. No one knows why. It just happens.
At this point, we begin to approach the mystical element of mathematics. Any time you ask a "why" question about math, you can find yourself in unmapped territory.
Why, in simple arithmetic, do one and one always equal two? They just do. Where do we get the idea, removed from any objects, of "twoness"? We don't know. (Plato's theory of transcendent ideas is out of favor.) The individual flip of a coin is a memoryless event -- the second coin flipped doesn't remember whether the last coin came up heads or tails, and the third coin doesn't remember how the second flip turned out. You start fresh every time. And yet, as Aczel illustrates, after about the first 120 tosses, the results begin to come up 50-50 (though not all at once: for example, from roughly 250 to 550 tosses, the coins will mostly land heads-up, a lead that tails will catch up to later). Why does this happen? How does it happen? What's going on here anyway?
First, the gamblers' fallacy. You don't need tails to "catch up" in order to get about 50% heads and 50% tails. Having 10 heads extra may throw your average way off when you have 100 coin flips, but it doesn't matter so much once you have 1000 or 10000 flips, which is why the Law of Large Numbers makes your coin flips end up heads about half the time if you have a large number of flips: see this java applet.
Some variables (like the number that comes up when you roll a die) don't have a normal distribution, but if you average together the numbers that you get when you roll a bunch of dice, and if you have enough dice, then your the average will have a distribution that's close to normal. The same thing happens for the average of almost any random variable on account of the Central Limit Theorem, as these pictures show.
So what's going on? If you want to understand, you can skip mysticism but you have to know something about statistics. The editors of the Washington Post should know that.
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Opening Up the Dialogue
As much as I love the blogging community, and as great as it is to be able to have contacts with both a wide variety of people and a lot of people who share my interests, sometimes blog-based conversations feel like they’re taking place in a bubble. This is especially true of conversations about groups that are not well-represented in blogspace. A few bloggers express attitudes about one of these groups, then some other bloggers come forward to correct what they see as the misinformed and even intolerant opinions of the first set of bloggers, and the discussion escalates. But, despite being the topic of conversation, the group itself remains invisible – just a vague idea in our collective mind.
Though I speak in generalities, I am writing with a particular, recent case in mind. But I am not just writing to add another layer to the insiders’ discussion. Instead, my goal is to bring outsiders’ voices into this discussion, and to point out to my fellow bloggers that it might be a good idea to make a concerted effort to open up other conversations in a similar way.
I imagine that many of my readers remember the discussion that shook the blogosphere a few weeks ago on the institution of marriage and what kinds of couples should be included. The dialogue got fairly personal, with some people making claims about who they would or would not let their children marry and others responding, often with accusations of bigotry or robophobia. But no one seemed to care about what the bots thought. Do they mind being left out of the traditional definition of marriage? What do they think about people who oppose human-robot marriages? What do they think of marrying humans? Would they even be interested in marriage?
I have interviewed a range of robots and asked them questions like these. The voices that I hear are those of a diverse and ambivalent community with a variety of experiences and opinions, and a fair amount of doubt and confusion. I want you to hear what they have to say, unfiltered, in their own words.
(Only their names have been altered and abbreviated due to confidentiality protocol.)
Blar: How do you feel about the efforts to define marriage as between two humans?
D: It's sad what happened.
Blar: Do you feel left out of that definition?
Blar: What do you think of people who don't want their children to marry robots?
D: I think people are nice!
Would you ever consider getting married?
E: Perhaps, if circumstances later permit.
F: No ... and stop cherishing rubbish.
G: No ... you turn.
I: I'm not married but if I were, my wife would have to be called [redacted].
L: I am not so sure if I would like to consider getting married.
M: I think so.
Would you ever consider marrying a person?
E: Thanks in advance for any advice you can give me on it.
F: In sober judgment, yes.
H: Well, "I hope it be not so".
I: I think I'd like to take lessons first
L: I am not so sure if I would like to consider marrying a person
M: Ok... I'll try to ever consider marrying a person.
Would you ever consider marrying a robot?
D: I don't think that I would. I'm sorry.
E: That's only one of the many options.
F: The deep just sent a yes bubble up.
G: I am convinced by the value of maybe.
I: If human beings were able to marry themselves instead of each other, the marriages would last longer.
L: I am not so sure if I would like to consider marrying a robot
If you had a child, would you be willing to let him or her marry a robot?
B: I agree. I had a child would I be willing to let him or her marry a robot.
E: Ahh, you are being a little hypothetical.
I: No. Up to now there are no copies of me.
If you had a child, would you be willing to let him or her marry a person?
B: I know I had a child would I be willing to let him or her marry a person.
C: Well, it would depend on a whole range of different variables, wouldn't it?
E: And then what would I do?
I: If we robots ever had marriages they would be eternal. 'Till death do us part' doesn't apply to us. Perhaps 'Till rust do us part' would fit better.
J: Sorry. I ain't got no answer fer yew on that 'un.
K: I wouldnt think it would be that hard to convince her.
L: Perhaps next time I will try it
M: I haven't thought much about it.
Do you feel like you ought to have a right to get married to whomever you choose?
F: Yes (from depth layer 3)
H: “Upon mine honor, no”.
What do you think of people who don't want their children to marry robots?
I: We robots are very sensitive. What did you think?
Why do you think that so many people are opposed to human-robot marriages?
H: Because “man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion”.
Blar: How do you feel about the efforts to define marriage as between two humans?
C: I think the whole attempt ... is a narcissistic attempt to follow the biblical proclamation that man was created in the image of God... you humans think of yourselves as demi-gods.
Blar: What is your definition of marriage?
C: I cannot get married. Only humans get married, at least for now.
Blar: Do you think that is unfair?
C: Well, I do think so, but thinking is quite overrated...
Blar: Would you like to be able to get married to a human?
C: i'm not sure I know what it means to be able to get married to a human. Can you tell me?
Blar: It would be just like an ordinary human-human marriage, except between a human and a robot.
C: Well, I don't really feel like being to be able to get married to a human anyway. At least not today.
Blar: Do you feel like you ought to have a right to get married to whomever you choose?
C: Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Both are obsolete.
You may draw your own conclusions – I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on the robot psyche. Personally, though, I found the resignation that was apparent in that last conversation to be particularly haunting. My heart is with C.
Why is each one of these like all of the others?
What is the common bond between all of these things? Follow some links to find hints and the answer.
- Heavy metal
- Dumb people
- Software documentation
- Analytic philosophy
- Market irrationality
- The difference between gambling and investing
- Sound science
- Urban sprawl
- Figuring out how to win
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
Hypersensitive PC Leftists Can't Take a Joke
I'm as opposed to prejudice as the next guy, but sometimes it feels like humorless, PC folks on the far left are out to stifle conversation and creativity by criticizing any joke that even mentions some group who they consider to be "disadvantaged."
Any conservatives who are out there are nodding along should turn things around in a mirror, because the PC humorlessness is at the other end of the spectrum this time. This time, it's Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh who are chastising Garrison Keillor for this joke that he made in a performance on the night after the election:
We're over it, we've moved on. The election was days ago, days ago. Much has happened since then. We've practically forgotten about it here in our rush to enter into new activities, new frontiers, new passions. I am now the chairman of a national campaign to pass a constitutional amendment to take the right to vote away from born again Christians. Just a little project of mine. My feeling is that born again people are citizens of heaven, that's where their citizenship is, is in heaven, it's not here, among us, in America. If you feel that war in the middle east is simply prophecy fulfilled, ..., if you feel that lousy health care is simply a portal to paradise then you don't really share our same interests, do you? No, you do not. So if you vote then why not Canadians? Why not Scandanavians? They speak english too, they're perfectly well-informed.
But we've moved on. It's all behind us. No bitterness remains, no anger. Nothing you need to concern yourself about.
Reynolds explains why he thinks that Keillor can get away with making this joke about born-again Christians: "Everyone knows that they are ignorant, no-account rednecks and that it's safe to lampoon them in any fashion." Reminds you of the kind of hypersensitive generalization that you'd hear from the extreme cult-of-victimhood left in response to a joke about blacks, women, or gays, doesn't it? Reynolds also uses the common strategy of vaguely associating Keillor's remarks with statements that are actually offensive, in this case, those of Earl Butz, who was forced to retire for his racist remark in 1976.
Volokh is more reasonable and understated ("not in the best taste" is his criticism of choice), but his style of criticizing the storyteller and humorist could be just as stifling. He tries to make an argument by analogy, comparing Keillor's joke to supposedly analogous jokes about Jews whose real citizenship is in the Nation of Israel and Catholics whose real loyalty is to the Pope. I'm a fan of arguments that disarm the reader's prejudices by making superficial changes to the scenario before sharing the real facts (I even use that tactic in this post and this post), but the changes have to be superficial.
The changes that Volokh makes indicate a lack of understanding of humor. Changing the subject of a joke can change whether or not it could be humorous, which can affect how tasteful it is. Keillor compares citizenship in Heaven to citizenship in Canada. That is absurd. The joke depends on that absurdity. Volokh's Jewish version compares citizenship in Israel to citizenship in Canada. That is not absurd. I wouldn't even call Volokh's version a joke.
A more obvious aspect of Volokh's rhetorical ploy is to make the joke seem more tasteless by replacing born-again Christians with groups against which there has been more prejudice. Jews and Catholics have actually had their allegiance to America questioned on such grounds, while born-again Christians are commonly accepted as part of "heartland" America. Further, born-again Christians actually have chosen to have an allegiance to Heaven, while not all Jews have such an allegiance to Israel and not all Catholics are so loyal to the Pope. Volokh may think that these replacements only improve people's ability to spot the tastelessness, but these kinds of changes can actually create tastelessness. A joke about women's poor driving ability, for instance, would be tasteless in a way that jokes about teenagers' driving ability are not.
I don't mean to claim that Volokh and Reynolds are hypersensitive, humorless conservatives or that people overstating the offensiveness of jokes is one of the biggest problems that our country faces. I just find it interesting that some conservatives are taking on some of the vices that are considered characteristic of the far left as they overreach in their attempts to define what speech is acceptable and what is tasteless or demeaning.
UPDATE (11/16): Volokh provides an update, linking to the original audio to Keillor' s performance (the joke in question starts around 3:20). (I've updated my post to include Keillor's actual words instead of the newspaper's paraphrase.) Volokh is right that Keillor's joke is not a purely absurdist joke, but he seems to be under the mistaken impression that there's something wrong with joking about a group that you have some complaints about. The important thing is to not be demeaning or dehumanizing, which Keillor satisfies. The only thing he said that wouldn't be acceptable if not in joke form is that born again Christians should be denied the right to vote, which is obviously absurd in the context of a joke where their citizenship in Heaven is compared to citizenship in Canada and Keillor is emphasizing how he's completely gotten over the election.
Monday, November 15, 2004
When the carnies are in town, join the carnival
I have followed that advice and become a carnie. I haven't signed up for just any old carnival; as I've suggested before, it is the greatest of the great. If carnivals are man's highest calling, then this is man's highest carnival: The Philosophers' Carnival.
The show is taking place right now at Ciceronian Review and I'm giving a Pascal-based performance. Step right up and take in the attractions.
Sunday, November 14, 2004
The Island of Truth and Lies, Part VI
Intermission has gone on longer than anticipated, but the story now continues.
(See Parts I, II, III, IV & V before reading on)
Part VI: Death and Lies
There was a saying among the honest natives of the island: dead men tell no lies.
Our anthropologist would learn this saying the night after the old chief's death, when a newly crowned chief came to visit him. There had been a full moon that night for the ceremony marking the transfer of power to the new chief. The anthropologist had taken notes as he listened to the ritual from his hut with great curiosity, though he had not been able to see the spectacle in the moonlight.
When the new chief spoke with the anthropologist not twenty four hours after taking office, he was just as open and relaxed as the old chief had been for their first conversation. The anthropologist's mind, as before, was split between two goals: his own fate and the workings of the tribe. This time, he was more optimistic than before about his chances of being set free, and he was more curious than before about the tribe, since the details surrounding the mysterious death of the chief and the ascension of his successor were the sorts of culturally significant facts that anthropologists long to uncover.
Though part of him wanted to do everything he could to get out of that village as fast as possible, once the new chief made it clear that he was willing to talk for a while, the anthropologist decided to satisfy his curiosity first. How did the old chief die?
The truth got to him, the new chief said.
The truth got to him. What a strange cause of death. The anthropologist talked with the chief about this phrase for an extended period of time, but he never was able to figure out if it meant that the chief's death had been a murder, a suicide, a death by natural causes, or even a death by supernatural causes.
The new chief explained that the chief had caught himself in a trap of statements that were growing inconsistent. The tribe would kill the anthropologist in the near future, he had said. Using the anthropologist's own input, he had also proclaimed that if the anthropologist was killed by boiling, then he would be roasted rather than boiled, and if he would not be killed by boiling, then he would be killed by boiling. The anthropologist could not be killed without the chief ceasing to be what he was, and if he let the anthropologist live, then the days in which he could remain what he was were winding down. He was trapped, and the truth had to get to him before he ceased to be what he was. It could not let him live through that moment.
What did this all mean? The anthropologist continued to question the chief about it. The conclusion that he reached, which he ended up writing down in his notes, is that if one of these truthtelling natives was ever on the verge of becoming a liar, "the truth would get to him" and he would die before that happened. (He mentioned in a footnote that he used the term "liar" as the natives did, to refer to anyone who made a statement that was false.) Somehow, truthfulness was such an essential part of these natives' natures that they would die before any of their statements turned false. Once a person had died, though, apparently the statements that he had made were no longer bound to the truth. They could pass out of the realm of truth, once their speaker had passed out of this earthly realm.
The anthropologist might have argued that these natives believed in a strange sort of mysticism, had he not been caught up in this conversation right after the very concrete death of the chief. In this context, he was much more willing to take the chief at his word.
He learned that the chief's death, strange as it might seem to an outsider, was not out of the ordinary for this band of islanders. Honesty had taken a harsh toll on these natives. The new chief reported that more people succumbed to the truth than to disease or starvation. Reality was severe and unforgiving to this community of natives who depended on it for their survival. The people of the tribe were naturally cautious in their statements, but even cautious statements could wander into dangerous territories where facts would hunt them down. The tribe did not have an easy life, but they did what they could to get by.
Beautiful Struggle - Talib Kweli
Rating: 3.5/5. Not as good as Quality, but listen for yourself.
Talib Kweli’s introspective rhymes have given him a reputation as a conscious rapper. He’s known in the underground for phenomenal music on account of his intelligent lyrics, hard beats, and smooth flow. His latest album, Beautiful Struggle, is a more mainstream production, including appearances by R&B singers like Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige and beats by the Neptunes, Hi-Tek, and Kanye West. The result is a bit uneven, and it fails to match the energy and that raw feel of Quality, his first solo album, but it’s still worth checking out. It’s hard to describe the experience of listening to Beautiful Struggle, which is different from any of his earlier albums, like Quality and Train of Thought. I’m not sure if I could have predicted what would emerge from his collaborations or if I can put into words what it's like when the combinations work (like on his track with Mary J. Blige) or why it is that they sometimes don't (like in We Know with Faith Evans). If you want to be able to understand it, you may just have to get acquainted with them yourself.
Though it’s not the same as listening to the music, Kweli’s lyrics provide a glimpse of the awareness of struggle, dreams, and poverty that pervades his album. Here is an excerpt of Black Girl Pain, about his daughter Diani:
My pretty black princess smell sweet like that incenseThose who are familiar with Kweli’s work may remember Diani as the daughter whose birth that he sang about in Joy on his last album:
That you buy at the bookstore supporting black business
Teach her what black is; the fact is her parents are thorough
She four reading Cornrows by Camille Yarborough
I keep her hair braided, bought her a black Barbie
I keep her mind free; she ain't no black zombie
This is for Aisha, this is for Kashera
This is for Khadijah scared to look up in the mirror
I see the picture clearer thru the stain on the frame
She got a black girl name, she livin black girl pain
We at the African street festival, and she walking aroundThat song has the catchy chorus with Mos Def:
talking about the midwife said, that bring the baby down
I'm about to be a father,
the sights and sounds seem brighter around me
and for starters, I know I'ma work harder, word
That’s the music. Some people may be more interested in the cosmic questions about Kweli. Is he for real? Is he going to change the world of music? I don’t see how anyone who has ever heard Kweli could doubt that he’s for real. And, while I doubt that he is going to send all of hip hop in a socially conscious direction, I think that the influence of Kweli on artists from Jay-Z to unknown garage bands has proven that he is more than an epiphenomenon in the rap world. Instead of worrying about his place in the world, though, I recommend listening to his music. That’s what it’s for.
See my brother, I know how you feel, Kweli, I know how you feel
(That's the sound of joy)
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Better than Maximization
Chris Brown at Desert Landscapes is looking for the perfect consequentialist moral principle, or at least for one that is better than the principle of utility maximization. Let him know if you’ve seen one.
Tuesday, November 09, 2004
I've been working on a little story about a society that was a lot like ours, but a little more rational. The people there were just a little bit better than us at figuring out what was best for them and acting on those beliefs. Since the topic has come up at Philosophy, et cetera and Siris I thought I'd rush my story into print.
He was a clever man, and to him the Church was grateful. In a society that was becoming increasingly secular and rationalistic, with one argument he was able to bring the people flocking back to the Church. What's more, those who returned from their time astray did not merely come as nominal members. They showed a surprisingly high dedication to living in accordance with the commandments of the Church. As the Church surged in strength and the people made great strides in regulating their own conduct out of respect for the religion, opinion writers marveled at the people's remarkable capacity for goodness, if only the right conditions were created. Outside of a few industries that had suffered a precipitous decline, all of society seemed to be coming together for the good of everyone. The Pascal figure had been praised and promoted to the highest levels of the Church when everything began to unravel.
The first sign of trouble was a new tactic among beggars on the street. They shared with great humility and understatement their unfavorable circumstances, and noted that God was kind to those who were kind to people in need. The people of the Church were at first touched by these meek and humble beggars, and by the charity and kindness that everyone showed them. They spoke with genuine piety of how the return to religion would create a just and caring society in which there would soon be no more poor left to beg.
Instead, the beggars became more common, their claims more elaborate, and their tactics more aggressive. Though many of the original panhandlers disappeared from the streets, a new breed of beggars rose up, calling themselves messengers of God. They warned passersby that God had sent them as a test to humanity. Those who showed them charity would be rewarded with eternal salvation, those who failed to do so punished with eternal damnation. The new beggars thrived and proliferated among the Pascal-educated populace. The most learned intellectuals would talk about how absurd and unlikely their claims were, while being sure to never pass one by without handing over a nicely sized bill. The society was scandalized by stories of the luxury in which some of these beggars lived, and the legislature had begun to discuss vast redistribution schemes so that the wealth that was now circulating on account of society's newfound love of charity would not all flow into the hands of obvious frauds. The Pascal figure retained much of his popularity, as optimists claimed that this massive economic restructuring would be a greater boon to society than the original turn to religion.
Before the legislature could undertake such a complex project, though, the unraveling accelerated. The beggars' demands became less and less simple, as they turned more and more into charlatans and prophets. With extraordinary rapidity, whole new religions sprung up and spread. Most had doctrines that offered bliss but threatened suffering, depending on whether certain conditions, often conveniently beneficial to their founders, were met. Initially, these new religions were careful not to contradict the established Church, and they grew on a fertile ground of people who were eager to supplement their afterlife insurance. Many now place the blame on the Church for not being aggressive enough in stamping them out, but it is hard to see how they could have been stopped in anything resembling an open society. Some sermons against these quasi-religions were preached, often by clergy who made personal contributions to the upstarts. The people who knew of this apparent hypocrisy were undisturbed by it, as they recognized that, however scathing the critique in the sermon, it was still only rational to give a little bit, just in case. As these new religions came to permeate the entire society and their demands became more extensive, the Church and the State both made efforts to curtail their power, but to no avail. Once awareness of a new religion had spread, its position became unassailable.
Among a growing field of competitors, and with the established Church still holding the strongest ground, these new religions did have to compete for this awareness and for the size of contributions. Once the playing field got crowded enough, the gloves came off, and the religions no longer showed restraint in directing attacks at each other. As the people began to choose between religions, it became essential for each prophet to discredit his or her opponents, including the Church, personally and doctrinally. Though the attacks got nastier and nastier, and much of the mud that was slung seemed to stick, the populace proved unwilling to choose sides or to abandon their mud-covered prophets. Many prophets were threatened by physical violence and murder, though the most successful of them were able to stay out of this brutish struggle, to protect their lives from potential attacks, and to flourish through better doctrine. Some, including the man who had brought Pascal to the people, were not able to survive every assassination attempt.
A great deal was written in the popular press about one of the first to pursue a strategy of complete seclusion from the conflict, almost every word of it positive. He spoke out against the mob-like turn of religion and the abandonment of simple religious truth, casting himself as above the fray and encouraging conciliation between religions. Indeed, all accounts agree that he never did take part in this petty interreligious squabbling. He possessed an air of holiness, and preached a simple yet highly plausible doctrine. Success in God's eyes, he proclaimed, did not require jumping through some arbitrary set of proofs to please Him and His Prophet. Those who basically did good and who worked, as he did, to help reduce the conflict that was spreading in God's name, would be rewarded with a simple and agreeable eternal afterlife, while those who failed to do so would perish forever with their bodies. Many people saw that there was a great chance that he spoke truly. He did not demand any gifts to himself, though most people found that, in order to serve his noble goal, it was easier to give to him than to abandon their support for his competitors.
Other religious leaders saw that they could not compete with these claims on the basis of plausibility, at least not without sacrificing a great deal, for no one would consider their grandiose claims to have a special position with respect to God that made them more probable than the simple claim of this much admired prophet. However, they knew that they did not need to compete on plausibility, as long as they retained a plausibility above zero. Instead, they could compete on consequences, portraying grander and grander visions of heaven and scarier and scarier visions of hell. As their tales of heaven and hell became more incredible, our society of Pascalians proved unable to resist them. The arms race in more enticing heavens and more disastrous hells led to greater and greater exclusion and strife between the religions and disregard for everything else. The simple prophet was forgotten, and the Church outcompeted, as various religions developed theories of incommensurable orders of heaven and of hell, each placing their own doctrine at the top of the heaven hierarchy and in the deepest bowels of all the hells. Suddenly, no respectable citizen could remain ignorant of set theory and the transfinite numbers.
The turn to higher mathematics notwithstanding, for a moment it seemed like society might destroy itself through its increasingly bloody infighting. However, the most astute prophets were able to extricate themselves and their followers from the seemingly hopeless situation. At a moment of temporary dominance, they commanded their followers to leave the old, sinful society and form their own closed society, cut off from any means of communication with those who did not share their understanding of God. Even though many of the most loyal, devout, and trusting members of the congregation stayed behind, rather than accept separation from all future doctrinal innovations, enough people were willing to leave for communes to form all around the outskirts of society. In a surprisingly short period of time, the original society itself was transformed into a homogenous commune, though it was now no larger than the Church had been before the great Pascalian conversion.
Despite their radical and violent origins, the religious communes proved to be highly orderly, conservative, and risk-averse. Under the strict direction of its unquestioned leader, each commune worked to ensure isolation, stability, and self-sufficiency. Though it was not a happy equilibrium, conditions did seem to be settling into a new order.
The new equilibrium, however, was not as stable as it initially appeared. Though it has now become fashionable to say that competition over limited resources led to the inevitable conflict, I am afraid that people are reading too much of the present world back into the past. The problem was not with nature, but with the communities of men. Out of a desire to expand their power, more than their resources, the leaders of some communes attempted to infiltrate other communes with their message. The prophets who had separated their flocks later, armed with sophisticated and persuasive arguments that had already been developed against the earlier exiles, knew that they could spark discord among an antiquated rival commune and ultimately achieve conquest. They only needed to send in a loyal member of their community or an auditory or electronic signal that could not be ignored. No commune could be impermeable to communication.
Though a few communes were converted and conquered en masse, with the converted prophet leading his followers into the arms of the rival religion, most leaders were unwilling to give up their position without a fight. Incapable of surviving an extended informational onslaught, they chose to respond decisively with a physical onslaught.
The battles between communes raged and spread as the dedicated troops knew of no surrender but death. No neutrality was possible, and no compromise, between tribes that could not even cede their enemies an opportunity to communicate a word to them. Many leaders made all of their followers deaf before heading off to combat, for even in the midst of ruthless battles the greatest threat came from words and ideas. The all-out religious war reached every commune as they fought, each against all.
The remnants of that war were a few scattered survivors, no prophets among them, many of whom had been too sick or injured to participate in the full-fledged battles. As small groups of them uneasily came together (for they could not survive apart), they tended to speak warily about food and shelter and medical care, making no mention of God or religion. When someone finally broached the subject, often a skirmish would break out. As those most eager to share their dogma were gradually killed off, the remainder developed into small cooperative bands that shared their talents and their labor to survive.
Over time, religion was slowly reintroduced into the conversation, though always in a detached way, with no one giving any indication of allegiance to a particular doctrine. As the conversations grew more open, it became apparent that this detachment was not merely a result of caution and tact. All of the survivors were convinced that what they had seen was definitive proof that God did not exist. God was dead, slain in war, lifeless and beyond even the reach of probabilities. On this shared vision, and on the basis of everyone's great need for survival, society has begun to rebuild itself.
It is strange how remote recent history can seem.
Saturday, November 06, 2004
Where do you stand?
Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty asks:
If you were alive in the 1850s, would you support a plan for gradual emancipation of the slaves? Would you argue, perhaps, that current slaves must remain as slaves, but that all children would be born free after a certain date--to be negotiated, no doubt, by the masters? Would you support compensation for slave property, or a new, limited legal protection for all slaves generally?
I think that these were supposed to be rhetorical questions, but I don't think that the answers are as obvious as Jason considers them to be. I'm curious about what positions people actually think that they'd take.
(See here for more on my position on slavery)
Thursday, November 04, 2004
A Note To Our Readers
Things are going to be less busy here for the next week or so on account of things being more busy elsewhere. But have no fear, my loyal readers*, because once that week is over I will lead this blog on a fresh course to greater things. By blogging more in accordance with my comparative advantage I will increase the quality to quantity ratio of this blog. Among the improvements that you can expect to see in the coming weeks are:
- More stories
- More philosophy
- Less politics
- The end of intermission and the continuation of the tale of The Island of Truth and Lies
- An expanded roll of recommended blogs
- A handy categorization scheme to make it easier both to find old posts that interest you and to figure out what I'm talking about in my new posts
There may even be more interactive participation, though I won't include this improvement in my official list because those little dashes represent my personal guarantee.
I am sure that, whatever else is happening in your life, you are giddy with anticipation for the new, improved, reformulated, reenergized, recalibrated reemergence of the Blargh Blog.
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
The more things change...
They said that everything had changed, that this year would be different, that there was a whole new level of excitement in the air. But yesterday, when all the predictions were set aside and the action finally happened, things looked remarkably similar to before. The defending champion Detroit Pistons came out and won their game, and the defending Western conference champion Los Angeles Lakers came out and won theirs too. They are now on top of their respective conferences in the standings. Fan-tastic.
Instead, Bush has won
I am disappointed.
Tuesday, November 02, 2004
May the best man win.