Archive for October, 2020

Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets: 17 and 18

October 30, 2020

Continuing on, the next post again contains two points.  The first point is one where he actually mostly combines two different points.  The title is about religion have no way to determine truth, but he immediately dives into a different argument:

From the standpoint of many Christians, evidence is mere decoration. It’s the parsley on the plate of the Christian argument.

This isn’t an argument that says that Christianity doesn’t have a method to determine truth or that it in fact isn’t true.  It merely says that many Christians don’t base their beliefs specifically on any kind of evidence, which could be used to imply that Christianity, in general, doesn’t care about evidence.  Which would be the common notion of faith, in that faith at least requires you to believe in something more strongly than the evidence suggests you should.  Of course, this argument would contradict Seidensticker’s point as they would indeed be claiming to have such a method, even if it wasn’t evidence-based.

But as I’ve been reading Edward Feser a bit lately, I have to point out one of his arguments, which is that even if some Christians act on pure faith, there are arguments for the existence of God and many Christians and many Christian faiths rely heavily on them.  This responds to his comment:

Craig says, “The experience of the Spirit’s witness is self-authenticating for him who really has it.” Okay, then who really has it? Does Craig have it? Maybe he’s wrong to think that he does. Maybe someone he’s dismissed as unworthy of God’s favor has it instead. There is no public, objective algorithm that we can all apply to see who has been touched by the Holy Spirit. It’s not an evidence-based process.

And when you return his theology to the spotlight, the usual questions return. Does the Holy Spirit (or any member of the Trinity) exist? When two Christians (or Christian denominations) disagree, which one is correct? Of the mountain of supernatural claims made by the world’s religions, which are correct? Religion gives you no way to answer these questions reliably.

Answering these questions is the purview of theology and philosophy of religion, and they’ve proposed a number of ways to go about it, from the more purely philosophical approach of people like Feser and Aquinas to the empirical methods of natural theology.  So all Seidensticker can say here is that they haven’t converged on an answer yet.  But we must note that for pretty much any view that has a major philosophical component, converging on an answer has … not been forthcoming.  Science crows over its success at solving the relatively each questions that can be solved by looking at the world and thinking about it a bit, meaning the questions that are most directly empirical.  God is not that sort of question.

So it’s ridiculous to hold the idea that there is no method for religion to arrive at truth against it.  We have all sorts of other methods for determining truth that can be used to assess it.  The only reason to ever bring this up against religion is if those methods can’t tell us what the right answer is, and even then that doesn’t mean that there is no one true religion that’s right about God existing and what God that is.  So this is not a silver bullet since, again, it doesn’t actually show that God doesn’t exist.

If we lived in God World, we’d know it because supernatural truths would be reliably accessible to everyone using reason and evidence.

Which boils it down to the real objection:  if God exists, His existence should be more obviously true to Bob Seidensticker (because there are a number of theists who insist that it is obvious to them) using only the methods that Bob Seidensticker agrees we should use.  This is not an argument that will have any impact on the belief of any theist, unless Seidensticker can argue that we should have found it with specific other existing methods … which then would be the silver bullet argument, not this one.  Add in that God may want to leave room for faith so that He can have worshippers who trust in him and that faith is not necessarily a bad thing, and this argument really doesn’t get off the ground.

The next argument is essentially another version of “The Problem of Suffering”:

God’s marvelous plan is not that marvelous. Eight million people have died from natural disasters since 1900.

When we fight against natural disasters—stack sandbags against a flood, create vaccines, or warn people about hurricanes—are we subverting God’s plan? How can Christians hold in their heads these two contradictory ideas: God’s plan is to kill millions by natural disasters and we should do our best to subvert that plan? What does it say about the vagueness of God’s plan that we even have to ask that question? (More here.)

He goes on to suggest that it’s easy to see how it could be done better:

And if earthquakes are necessary, God could just clip their magnitude. The energy of a magnitude 8 earthquake could be channeled into 10,000 magnitude 5 earthquakes. Tornadoes could be steered away from towns. Rain storms could be spread out to avoid flash floods. Droughts and locusts could just be eliminated. God is magic, remember?

This, however, runs into the problem with all “Problem of Suffering” arguments (which is an argument that was converted from the old “Problem of Evil”), which is that ultimately end up asking for a perfect world, and God is explicit in Genesis that this is going to be a world where we will suffer, and suffer quite a bit, because of eating the forbidden fruit.  So if the argument ends up demanding a perfect world, then it won’t work against Christianity, since it both says that we won’t have one and also why we can’t have one.  You may not accept those explanations, but they will make Christianity internally consistent, at least, and at the same time nullify the argument as one that can be used against it.

So, how does this end up with a perfect world?  Well, Seidensticker asks why God simply couldn’t make these things just a little bit less destructive.  Spread out the earthquakes a bit more to make them less damaging.  Steer disasters away from populations.  And so on and so forth.  So let’s say that we have smaller but more frequent earthquakes (and that itself doesn’t cause us more mental suffering from the frequent earthquakes we’d have to be experiencing).  These will still destroy some things and probably kill some people.  So why, then, wouldn’t people like Seidensticker simply turn around and ask why God couldn’t reduce them to more frequent but lower magnitude ones?  And eventually, to just getting rid of them entirely?  After all, as he says, God is magic, right?  So what happens is that the atheist asks for God to eliminate just one source of suffering, and since God won’t do that He must not exist.  But if God did that, then the next greatest natural cause of suffering will suddenly be the greatest one, and in that world the atheist will ask for God to eliminate just that one source of suffering, and so on and so forth until the atheist ends up asking for no suffering at all.

This is a unique problem to the “Problem of Suffering” that wasn’t shared by the “Problem of Evil”, because the “Problem of Evil” was based on an argument that God Himself could not create an actual Evil thing — as Goodness flowed from his nature — and so the existence of anything Evil contradicted God’s nature.  Now that we understand that Evil itself isn’t really an existent thing in and of itself — and that’s not just a theological notion of Evil being a privation, but a philosophical one of Evil not being an entity itself but being a classification of the moral character of entities — that won’t work:  God may create things — us — that can be Evil, but doesn’t create Evil itself.  So atheists have moved to the “Problem of Suffering”.  But suffering isn’t necessarily bad, so they have to make a link instead to the idea that God could eliminate the suffering, and that someone who can eliminate suffering but who chooses not to is at least immoral by the morality we think God is demanding of us, and so God would be immoral and so at least not the Christian God.  But as noted, the atheist argument is one that can be made for all suffering, and no one would argue that God must eliminate all suffering.  So to make it work, the atheist needs a way to separate the suffering that God could allow from the suffering that God couldn’t allow.  And that may well be the world we already have.

But does that mean, then, that we, ourselves, shouldn’t prevent suffering, as that’s part of God’s plan?  Unlikely.  First, we aren’t capable of eliminating all of it and so don’t have the same issues that God would have, eliminating all of it and so foiling the purpose.  Second, it’s pretty likely that the purpose of suffering in this world is for us to react to it in a moral way, which means for us to have to decide if we try to prevent it or if we don’t.  So because we can’t eliminate all of it, it’s almost certainly actually God’s purpose of allowing suffering in this world that we try to alleviate it whenever we can.  So, no, there’s really no risk of us foiling God’s plan, so no reason why we shouldn’t try to alleviate all the suffering we can.  As already noted, that’s not true for God.

While suffering does raise some doubts, it’s clearly an argument from emotion — how could God allow this? — than from reason and evidence.  And an argument from emotion cannot be a silver bullet argument.

Thoughts on “Ouija”

October 29, 2020

Not too long ago, Hasbro decided to try to leverage its properties into movies, which gave us things like “Transformers” and the much less successful “Jem” movie.  They also decided to try to leverage some of their board game properties, which gave us “Battleship” and this movie, “Ouija”.

While these moves were widely mocked, on thinking about it a bit these properties are actually fairly good candidates for board game movies.  Sure, neither of them have any real plot themselves to crib, but both of them have structures that give the freedom to find a good plot for them.  “Battleship” is essentially a game about fleet combat, and so all you need is to find a reason for those fleets to fight.  Heck, it practically screams for a “The Hunt for Red October” style cat-and-mouse fleet engagement (note that I haven’t seen the movie and have no idea what it actually did).  And Ouija boards have been a staple of horror movies for ages, including in one that I covered not too long ago.  Given how ubiquitous it has been, it shouldn’t be all that hard to come up with a basic Ouija board story for a movie.

And “Ouija” does.  Unfortunately, it seems to get caught in the trap many modern horror movies fall into of referencing tropes but not playing them out properly and so not getting the effect from them that they were hoping for.

The basic premise is not a bad one.  A young woman and her friend are shown in flashbacks to have enjoyed playing with a Ouija board, and they outline the rules, particularly “Don’t play alone” and “Don’t play in a graveyard”.  Soon after, her friend was begging her to go out with her and she refuses, so her friend goes up and plays with a Ouija board and is eventually hung from her own staircase.  This shocks the woman and she sets out on a mission to figure out why she would seemingly kill herself — which we at this point already know was due to supernatural influence — including getting all the friends together to use the Ouija board to try to contact her.  They, obviously, get the wrong spirit, and this kicks off a chain of events where the friends are getting killed off one by one.  So it’s up to the woman and her sister to deal with the spirits before they are all killed.

One issue is, in fact, with the little sister.  The movie sets up the mother having died, the older sister trying to step in as a mother figure, and the little sister being rebellious and resentful.  This is pretty standard in these sorts of movies.  But the movie doesn’t do anything with it.  It never tells us why they had that relationship, and the little sister is in general surprisingly willing to go along with her sister in all of these things.  You would expect at the end that they’d patch up their differences and that the two of them joining forces would be critical to defeating the spirit.  And while the two of them are involved in the climax, there’s nothing about it that’s really special to their relationship, nor does their relationship and their healing it matter or reflect on the story of the ghosts at all.  So it’s just kinda there almost like they felt it had to be there, but nothing in the movie relies on it.

Part of this is because the friend had to factor into the climax as well, and she does come back to help her friend with at least holding the spirit so that the body could be destroyed.  But considering that the lead character had been spending the entire movie obsessing over her friend and her friend’s death, it really should have been more than that.  At the very least, she should have had a chance to say goodbye to her friend, which the movie didn’t do.  The structure of the movie should have made this the emotional climax of the movie, but instead it’s absolutely underwhelming (if that’s a word).  Again, the movie put the relationship front-and-centre but ultimately treated it like an afterthought when it counted most.

The movie also relies a lot on stupidity.  While it’s reasonable that the friend would play on a graveyard as she didn’t know that it was one when she did that.  But when she was the one so obsessed with the rules, why would she ever play it alone?  If she had played it with others, then at least she wouldn’t have been the only one at risk, and the things might not have happened (the movie hints that once the spirit was woken up even playing with others would cause issues).  So, essentially, the one who knew the most about how Ouija works was the one who seems to have taken it the least seriously.  Also, the lead character ends up completely awakening the spirit by trusting the institutionalized sister of the dead evil girl when she told her what to do (despite it being the case that if she had known how to do that she had actually had the time to end it long before that).  Okay, desperation could lead to that.  But once that happens, she ends up turning to an expert for help:  her grandmother, who happens to know exactly what to do to end the spirit.  If the lead character knew that she had that knowledge and would believe her, she probably should have asked her first.  And if she didn’t, how did she know this time?  And how does her grandmother know about how to stop it, anyway?  It’s an exceptionally convenient situation that’s required only because the movie wants to create a lame twist instead of focusing on the character relationships that they really should have spent more time on.

I can’t imagine watching this again.  The main characters are not unsympathetic, but the plot is just too dumb to bother with.

Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games (31 – 40)

October 28, 2020

40:  Missing:  Since January

This game was also known as In Memoriam outside of North America.  What was interesting about this game was that it was what is called an “alternate reality game”, where the game attempted to blur the line between the game and reality itself.  It mostly did this through things like websites that you could look up in your research, but the most interesting part was that on installing the game it would ask for a hook into your E-mail system and during the game at various times it would send E-mails to you giving you certain information.  The most memorable one for me was actually a three-way E-mail chain where one of the participants was “introduced” to the other and said that it was nice to meet them.  While it wasn’t going to fool me into thinking that it was reality, that reflected a pretty fair amount of attention to detail that made the game more immersive.

The subject matter was pretty dark, as the premise is that the police are releasing a CD of puzzles related to the disappearance of two people by a shadowy figure, with the references and puzzles being decidedly creepy and even a bit supernatural.  I seem to recall playing it at around the same time as I was watching “Murder in Small Town X”, and the similar atmospheres probably helped them feed off of each other. 

I came into it a bit late and some of the sites and the like had disappeared, but a FAQ helped me get around that.  Still, I never finished it and even though I bought the sequel I never played that one.  That being said, I remember this game quite a bit and often wish that I could find a game like it out there, or could actually play it and maybe finish it.

39:  Age of Wonders 2

For those who know me, there’s probably only one thing I need to say about this game:  it has Hot Seat multiplayer.  Yes, this is another game that I played against myself, looking more for the story than for the actual strategic competition.  Basically taking the standard fantasy races, the game involves some spells, some gods, some bonuses from gods, and some units and throws them all at each other in a fairly decent strategy game.  Balance, however, wasn’t necessarily its strong suit, as some abilities might have been overpowered at times (I can’t remember if the overpowered Death Knights were in this game or only in the previous one).  Still, the series overall provided me with a decent sandbox to play around in, and the fact that it came with a scenario builder only added to the fun.  I never did get around to playing the campaigns.

The first time around, this one was ranked ahead of the first one.  On reflection, I like the first one better because it was simpler and had less moving parts.  This one got a little bit complicated at times for what benefits the extra complexity gave you, which made it a bit more difficult to just jump into and play.

38:  Age of Wonders

So despite promising to say more about these games this time around … there’s not much more to say about this game than was covered in the previous segment.  This was for me the game that really got Age of Wonders in my head and now with the games being out on GOG I’ve pretty much picked them all up, even if I haven’t found the time to play them all yet, and I don’t have the very latest yet because it’s more of a sci-fi setting.  I liked the charm of the fantasy setting for this game and have some other games to play if I want sci-fi, so it will need to go on sale before I’ll even consider picking it up.  Still, the only reason I’m even considering that game is because of my love of the series, and that can all be traced back to the hours I spent playing this game against myself.

37:  Lord of the Rings:  The Third Age

There are other games set in the Lord of the Rings universe, and even board games set in that universe (War of the Ring is the one I’ve played the most) but this is the only game that I’ve ever really played and gotten into.  As proof, I have actually finished this game to the end.  In fact, I’ve finished it twice.  That puts it in the rarefied company of the Persona games, Shadow Hearts and KotOR/Sith Lords.

Part of the reason I liked it is that unlike many other fans of the novels/movies I love works that focus on other characters and try to fit them into the existing structure, which is also one of the reasons I love “I, Jedi”.  Shamus Young talks about them this way:

Throughout the game, there have been two plot threads: One is personal to Travis, where he lets a few of his skeletons out of his closet and gets to know them. The second is the plot where Travis is gathering up these mysterious magical gnib-nabs for the spooky little girl. The former is just tacked on – Travis is sort of working out his issues by running into his past by accident. The latter is a largish retcon where the writers are trying to add a new character and new events to the origin of Silent Hill.

The Half-Life games did this same thing prior to Half-Life 2. There were several expansion packs to the original Half-Life, but since the main story was self-contained the writers didn’t have room to add anything new for Gordon Freeman to do. So instead they grafted all these other characters onto the game. You play as a security guard, some scientist colleagues of Dr. Freeman, a soldier, the guy who delivered pizzas to Black Mesa, Dr. Freeman’s pool boy, etc. These add-on stories had to be written in such a way that their protagonists did things which ran concurrent with the events of original game. In short, nothing new could happen. We could only learn more about peripheral events. Pretty soon it gets pretty hard to justifiably cram in new characters who don’t conflict with any of the others.

This isn’t storytelling. It’s adding cruft to the plot.

But when done even remotely well, I really like them.  They can add things to the existing plot and cover up potential plot holes.  And in fact one of the things that I most admire about them is how they have to add drama and tension to the plot while not contradicting what happened originally, and ideally while adding explanations and details that can add to the original work.  So I’m pretty much always interested in works that try to do that, which is why I bought this one in the first place.

The worst part of it is the gameplay, mostly the fact that you have to use skills to advance them but your skill use is limited by skill points that you can only refresh at certain points in the game and particularly when you hit a save point.  I hate that sort of gameplay because you get torn between having to use your skills and wanting to save them for when you really need them.  It also let you swap characters in and out of your party during a fight and the ones that you didn’t use still got half XP, but ultimately if you focused on a couple of characters — and the lead Gondorian and the elf maiden were two that you probably wanted to focus on — the others ended up too far behind to matter, and the Rohan maiden starts too low in level to survive the fights making it really, really hard to level her up.  Still, I was saved by the fact that save points restore all HP and SP and so if I was worried about that tracking back to a save point was always an option.  As I said, I managed to finish it twice, so I was actually able to overcome the gameplay issues, which is more than I can say for some games with better gameplay.  And better stories too, for that matter.

36:  The Old Republic

I’ve started two Diaries on this around the characters I’ve built that I’ve never finished.  I’ve commented before that this game might spoil me for all other games.  And to that end, right now this is the only game that I have on my schedule and so may be the only game I play for the next few months.  It’s not my favourite MMO, but it’s the one that even when City of Heroes was up and running and when I had Dark Age of Camelot that I could play the easiest.  And that’s only gotten easier with the new changes where with Rest XP, the 25% Bonus XP and what they normally give I can generally only do the planet and story missions and get enough levels to get me through the game.

That’s really the big benefit of the game for me.  The class stories are different so each class is a new story, and with eight of them by the time I finish them all I’ve forgotten the details and so the stories seem fresh again.  By switching between the Republic and Empire with each character, the planet stories also seem fresh, or at least don’t seem stale.  The gameplay is nothing exciting, but is at least simple enough that it doesn’t annoy or frustrate me, and while the combat can get boring mostly due to its sheer frequency, it’s not enough to bore me out of the game.  It’s the MMO I’ve played the most, despite my liking at least two better.  And it’s the only MMO that I’m still playing.

35:  Icewind Dale

Of the Bioware Forgotten Realms games, this is the only one that I can unequivocally say that I like.  Icewind Dale 2 appeals to me sometimes because it has more classes and more varied ones so making characters is easier and more interesting, but I really dislike how it makes level 1 characters commandos able to assault enemy encampments.  Icewind Dale sets you up as adventurers who are meant to be the minor part of a larger expedition, there to help and gain some experience, who end up thrust into larger issues by virtue of being the ones lucky or destined enough to survive.  And while the story can be a bit thin at times, I’ve enjoyed it far more than any of the Baldur’s Gate games or even Neverwinter Nights.  It helps that it lets me create a party all of my own creation, since that’s something that I have a hard time resisting.

Still, I never finished it, getting bogged down in various places over the various times I’ve played it.  This, of course, isn’t exactly odd for me, as it’s only been over the past couple of years that at least nominally “finishing” a game has been a priority for me.  I’d sit down and try to finish it again sometime but I have way too many games to play right now and not enough time to play them.  Still, I do keep considering it now and then.

34:  Lost Dimension

This was a game that left me wanting more.  Still, I did manage to finish it, three times, which is a huge plus for me.  I liked the traitor mechanism, and liked that the missions were simple enough — and enough carried over on a New Game+ — that replaying it was fairly simple.  Being able to mix and match powers on different characters was also cool.  Bonding with someone and then having them reveal as a traitor was heart wrenching.  The story behind everything had its hiccups, but worked pretty well and probably better than the equally dimension hopping Nonary Games.  Ultimately, it was a bit of a mix between the Personas and a standard visual novel, and while it’s not a Persona game it all came together pretty well.  I’d certainly buy and play a sequel, which is more than I can say for some games.

It’s also a game that I used as an example of innovative companion usage, precisely because of the traitor mechanism.  In gameplay, it’s you investing development time in characters that might be traitors.  While you can get back that investment if you have to erase them, relying on them makes it more difficult to get the others to vote them out as traitors.  In story, having to convince the others to vote them out makes for a more democratized experience, and having to erase characters that you’ve bonded with allows for more emotional depth to relationships and to those scenes than you could get otherwise.  And it’s all on you.  You’re the one who ultimately has to decide who are traitors and who aren’t, and who you bond with and who you don’t.  Without that traitor mechanism and pushing the boundaries of co-operative parties, none of that happens.

33:  Dragon Age 2

When I first played this game, I didn’t care for it that much, other than finding the question mechanism addictive.  When I replayed it, I enjoyed it a lot more.  Part of that was because I was playing it to analyze it and so had to pay attention to it.  So no playing while watching or listening to TV, which meant that I had to immerse myself in what the game itself was doing and saying.  And the second was realizing that the game was a tragedy, which let me appreciate it for what it really was and not as just a sequel to Dragon Age:  Origins setting up for Dragon Age:  Inquisition.

Yes, you can’t really solve the problems of Kirkwall.  But things would certainly have been worse without you.  You keep things in check longer and even manage to save some people who would otherwise have died.  You are supposed to fail.  The Templar/Mage conflict will happen.  But while you don’t get to choose your career you can choose at least roughly what will happen to at least some important things.  And while the companions aren’t classic, they do react to you and as they’d expect, as even the ones who don’t want to side with the side you end up siding with can be convinced to do so either by loyalty to you or by arguments.  It’s not perfect, and it can be buggy — my PS3 version seems more stable than, say, Chuck Sonnenberg’s versions — but it’s better than I thought it was at first.

32:  The Sims

I do love life simulators, which is pretty much why I like the Social Link aspects of the Personas the most out of everything.  This was one of if not the first games that provided me with that experience (I think the first one was an actual dating sim), and is still probably the only one that I’ve actually gotten into.  I’ve played other Sims games, but none of them really captured my attention like this one did.

Of course, for me I wasn’t really playing it as a strategy game.  As is my wont, I was playing it as a way to generate stories and so kinda liked the free will elements combined with my being able to have control myself.  Sadly, I was never really able to play it long enough to build up any really memorable stories, but the little I did do were interesting enough.  I probably would have liked more control over the initial set-up — you know, with some sort of cheats perhaps to tweak things exactly they way I wanted them to be in the neighbourhood — especially since the progressions — especially on the career tracks — were long enough to be annoying and got in the way of building a good story.   Still, I remember it fondly and again this is a game that I consider playing again at various times.

31:  Infiltrator

You know, I don’t think games today can capture the simply multi-component gameplay that old games managed to do (see also:  Pirates!).  Each element here was simple yet logically related:  fly your helicopter to the site in a simple flight combat simulator, infiltrate the site using various tools, get what you need, and fly out.  It provides variety in terms of gameplay and tools while still being simple enough that you know what you’re doing at all points.  Today, many such games I think would want to make each component deep enough for those who would like it, leaving almost every potential customer confused and struggling in at least one of those components, or else would clearly favour one over the others leaving fans of that component bored.  Infiltrator does not pretend to be anything more than it is, and I loved it for it.

Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Asylum”

October 27, 2020

“Asylum” is the second season of “American Horror Story”, and it seems to combine the issues of the first season with the issues that will become much worse in the next couple of seasons.

The first issue is that instead of being a tight, focused story it combines a number of different plots into one loosely related plot and so loses the focus.  We have a serial killer in modern times, which is what starts the season (a newlywed couple are exploring the abandoned asylum and meet the killer).  Then we also have a number of plots set back in the time when the asylum was active, where most of the time is spent.  We have the original serial killer plot.  We have a UFO abduction plot.  We have a demonic possession plot.  We have a Nazi scientist creating horrors plot.  We have the horrors of the asylum being driven by the psychotic head nun plot.  And we have the reporter trying to figure all this out and getting trapped inside the asylum plot.  There’s just way too many plots going on here for something that’s only going to run for thirteen episodes.  The serial killer angle with the reporter, the guy accused of it, and the UFO abduction that the serial killings mask would work as a main plot, while the power struggle between the head nun, the demon and the doctor would have worked as an interesting B-plot that could have brought a break from the main plot but also tied into it.  The modern killings could have been cut completely as all they did was set up for a plot point in the ending that actually would have followed as well if not better just from the original plot itself, and showing murders in the modern era didn’t add anything to that.  Instead, it’s all a mix of convoluted ideas that often only seem to be there to do cool things (the demon plot really seems like that, as it has no real impact on anything in the show).

The other issue is that it seems to be focusing in Jessica Lange’s head nun character, who is sadistic and cruel and so isn’t sympathetic in any way.  This is despite the fact that the reporter and the nun that ends up being possessed are far more sympathetic and often seem to be characters that would work better as focus characters.  The reporter has good reasons to interact with everyone and is only there against her will, while it would have worked really well to have the nun being corrupted slowly instead of just turning into a completely evil demon.  But, no, instead the season focuses on the head nun who is ambitious and at least morally ambiguous, if not sadistic and evil.  And as noted the worst part about doing that is that the other characters and plots lose time that they needed to develop properly.  We don’t care that much about the demon-possessed nun, or the reporter, or the accused man and his disappeared wife and the woman who he falls in love with because we don’t get the chance to get to know them well enough, and often what we do know isn’t pleasant anyway.  This makes the more emotional scenes later fall flat, because we really don’t care enough about the characters or their predicament.

This also carries over to the ending, as while it’s told by the reporter, it focuses on making sure the head nun gets a good ending.  The reporter sets out to try to rescue her from the asylum before it closes, only to find out that the accused man already freed her and took her into his home.  This is despite the fact that his wife, after returning from being abducted by aliens, ended up in there after killing the woman he met in the asylum (they were living together in a polyamorous relationship, with their two children, who survived).  So he wants to save her, but not his wife whom he loved and went through hell for.  Then, she lives with them but has … issues, yet he comments that while she could be nasty at times the children loved her as they saw through it.  This is someone that early on he had to angrily yell at to not hit his kids (and I’m thinking that she wasn’t going to just give them a spanking).  Then she gets a nice death scene where she gets to give some final inspirational words and we’re supposed to feel emotional about it.  Except that she was a sadistic woman and we’re given no real reason to think that she’s reformed or redeemed in any way.  And she gets a better send off than the man does — he disappears in a flash of light after getting too old to do much — and a longer resolution to her arc than the seemingly more central serial killer son did.  The show didn’t even really resolve the UFO plot or why the kids were so special, despite harping it up throughout the series.

She’s also involved in one of the most obvious examples of where the writers took up time to do something cool but that wasn’t really relevant.  There’s one scene where the head nun is now a patient and a jukebox has been brought in to replace the record that she constantly repeated all the time (which, to be honest, I kinda missed when it was smashed and went away).  Anyway, we get a musical number to “The Name Game” starring the head nun, which turns out to all be in her head.  Unlike in “Agent Carter”, the scene is fun and not a total waste, but that’s only because it isn’t really related to anything in the season at all.  I would have been more forgiving of it if it hadn’t been for all the other things that were more cool than meaningful, like the two-parter with someone who is supposedly Anne Frank that only reveals what we already knew about the doctor and that could have been revealed without that, especially given its meaningless ending.  They have thirteen episodes; they really needed to get on with things.

There are also some Social Justice elements as well.  At the risk of being branded anti-gay, I reacted to the revelation early on in the season that the reporter was a lesbian with rolled eyes and a “Of course she is”.  As in the first season, this wasn’t really relevant and nothing was done with it.  This could be another example of “normalization”, except that normalization means that you don’t make a big deal out of it and they did, using the time to make comments about discrimination against gay people.  Still, I probably would have forgiven it since it ultimately does do some things — explains why she’s locked up and the relationship to her lover when the lover is killed by the serial killer — and so is somewhat relevant.  The problem is that they also introduced, just before that, an interracial relationship and again explicitly called out the issues with those sorts of relationships, and of course that won’t be relevant to the story either.  Since that happened in the same episode if I recall correctly, it’s clear that they wanted to draw attention to that — thus ensuring that it can’t be normalization — but didn’t want to do anything with it either.  That it could have been done with a friends relationship or with other means only highlights how badly they mucked that up.

Because they have too many plotlines and focus on unsympathetic characters — especially the head nun — this isn’t a season that appealed to me.  It’s unlikely that I’d watch it again.

Do we not have free will?

October 26, 2020

I came across this from a post by Jerry Coyne (it was a few weeks ago so I’m not going to track it down again), as it is fits neatly in his own preconceptions and arguments over whether or not we have free will.   It’s a video by Sabine Hossenfelder, who is a theoretical physicist who nevertheless felt the desire to weigh in on the free will debate.  She takes aim at some philosophical positions, too, but seems rather blissfully unaware of what they actually entail while being totally dismissive of them.  More on that later, so let me examine this scientific examination of free will.

She starts by outlining why she thinks we don’t have free will:

Last week, I explained what differential equations are, and that all laws of nature which we currently know work with those differential equations. These laws have the common property that if you have an initial condition at one moment in time, for example the exact details of the particles in your brain and all your brain’s inputs, then you can calculate what happens at any other moment in time from those initial conditions. This means in a nutshell that the whole story of the universe in every single detail was determined already at the big bang. We are just watching it play out.

These deterministic laws of nature apply to you and your brain because you are made of particles, and what happens with you is a consequence of what happens with those particles.

There are a couple of problems with this.  The first one relates to a criticism that Edward Feser makes of at least some scientific positions in “Scholastic Metaphysics:  A Contemporary Introduction”, where he points out that science reduces all of its phenomena to things like differential equations, and then insists that those things describe all of reality without remainder.  But how does science know this?  If all it ever looks for and incorporates into itself are these things, and it leaves out anything that doesn’t conform, how does it know that it is really capturing all of reality.  Feser uses the analogy of the drunk looking for his keys under the street light rather than where he dropped them because the light is better there and, in the case of science, that he’s had such great luck finding things under street lights so surely he will find his keys there as well.  For Hossenfelder, things are actually even more serious, because the move she actually makes is to argue that we can represent the natural laws with differential equations which is controversial in and of itself and then attempts to argue that a feature of differential equations is reflective of reality:  that given an initial term you can always calculate what will happen at a future point of time.

The first problem with doing this is that we don’t know that everything in reality can be described with differential equations of that sort.  While it has roughly worked that way, some of those equations have been a bit messier and for the most part we’ve worked them out as models, not as definitions or identities.  Most importantly here, we don’t know that we can describe conscious decisions using them because, right now, we don’t have equations describing how those work, and especially not ones where we can plunk in an initial value and know what will happen at any future point in time.  I’m not saying that we can’t do that, but it is entirely possible that conscious decisions are something that really cannot be described in that way and using differential equations.  So she’d be jumping the gun to use that to argue that we can’t have free will.

The worse problem, though, is that as noted above she’s not actually making an empirical observation or talking about the observed behaviour of, well, pretty much anything in existence, even the ones for which it works.  No, what she’s doing is taking a property of differential equations, the things we are using to describe reality, and mapping it directly onto reality itself.  So it isn’t just an argument that those equations describe reality, but instead that they define reality.  Reality, by her argument, really is differential equations, so much so that the properties of differential equations can be considered to be properties of reality without any argument, experimentation or observation required.  Her argument for determinism is essentially that we describe reality with differential equations and differential equations by their nature would be deterministic, therefore reality is deterministic.  Even Coyne wouldn’t make such a blatantly scientistic argument, defining reality precisely by what science is currently using to model it.

The leads into the second problem:  quantum physics.  She does attempt to address an appeal to quantum mechanics later:

What about quantum mechanics? In quantum mechanics some events are truly random and cannot be predicted. Does this mean that quantum mechanics is where you can find free will? Sorry, but no, this makes no sense. These random events in quantum mechanics are not influenced by you, regardless of exactly what you mean by “you”, because they are not influenced by anything. That’s the whole point of saying they are fundamentally random. Nothing determines their outcome. There is no “will” in this. Not yours and not anybody else’s.

It is a fair reply to say that quantum mechanics, being random, doesn’t allow for the sort of free will that we want, which is “free” and yet influenced by external factors and so “sensible” given conditions.  Most Hard Determinists can use this to escape most challenges from those who use quantum mechanics to argue against determinism.  But not me, because the argument I make is that most Hard Determinists rely more or less on an argument that science has proven that all things are determined, and therefore our conscious decisions have to be as well, but even they have to admit that quantum mechanics is not determined, and so those arguments fail.  Not only has science not shown that everything is determined, it has in fact proven that statement false.  Science knows that lots of things aren’t determined at all, and so any argument based on the universality of determinism is doomed by science itself.

Now, most of the time most Hard Determinists can escape this by limiting their scope, and so for example by saying that determinism applies at the macro level and conscious decisions and brain operations are at the macro level.  But to make this argument actually even more devastating for Hossenfelder, she can’t actually go there.  First, because she repeatedly makes the mistake of talking about particles instead of things like neurons, and particles exist at the quantum level, and so she’d have to be talking about them.  But if we are charitable and grant that her phrasing there might be a little loose, she still has the problem that she’s argued that all things are describable by differential equations which has the consequence that they are deterministic, and since quantum mechanics are not deterministic then either they can’t be described by differential equations or else the initial condition property doesn’t hold.  Since her only argument is this universality based on differential equations, this would be an issue for her, and attempts to escape it by appealing to the macro level fail because we don’t have those equations for conscious decisions yet.  So science has proven that some things cannot be described by differential equations in the way she insists produces determinism, and she has no way to get to conscious decisions being things that are described that way because we haven’t done it yet.  So not only is science not supporting her case, it’s actually working against it.

So, she turns to discussions of philosophy:

A lot of people seem to think this is a philosophical position. They call it “materialism” or “reductionism” and think that giving it a name that ends on –ism is an excuse to not believe it.

This comment clearly shows that Hossenfelder does not understand philosophy.  At all.

First, materialism isn’t a relevant position here.  Well, maybe eliminative materialism is, but that’s in the same vein as reductionism and there are a host of non-reductionist,  non-eliminativist materialisms out there.  Materialism is basically the idea that all that exists is matter.  It doesn’t take a strong stance on whether all material things are deterministic.  And good thing, too, for the aforementioned quantum mechanics is generally considered to be completely material and yet not deterministic.

Second, labeling things with an “ism” is never considered an excuse to not believe it, at least not in philosophical terms.  Pretty much any consistent position in philosophy is an “ism”.  If anyone is using that as an argument against her, then they would seem to understand philosophy about as little as she does.  I suspect that no one actually is doing that — hence the bit of snark here that’s probably unworthy of me — and that instead they are classifying the views into those positions to point out the known issues with those positions, and her response here is her either not getting that or dodging those criticisms.

Third, materialism and reductionism are, in philosophy, possibly the majority positions.  So anyone assigning her position to those labels as an attempt to get them dismissed out of hand should not be replied to with a comment that the move is invalid implying that we should not call her views such, but should be replied to with the fact that those positions are far from being ones that philosophy dismisses out of hand.

Fourth, her view is, at least, reductionist.  As noted above, she thinks that what is important about reality can be completely captured in differential equations, so much so that she thinks she can use the properties of differential equations themselves to determine what reality is and must be like.  The criticisms of reductionism are all about whether we can captured everything interesting and important about reality in things like that, or in her case it’s probably more accurate to ask whether all phenomena can be reduced without remainder to differential equations of the sort she relies on.  And as noted above, we can’t … and that’s before we start talking about the really complicated things like qualia and therefore consciousness.  So rather than being an insult or an attempt to dismiss her out of hand, it is instead an accurate classification of her position and her position is indeed actually particularly vulnerable to the objections raised against reductionism.  Her response here can only indicate that she has no idea what those positions are, and doesn’t want to be bothered to figure it out, and so wants to dismiss then out of hand with an almost certainly strawman reply of them wanting to use them to dismiss her views out of hand.

Well, of course you can insist to just not believe reductionism is correct. But this is denying scientific evidence.

The scientific evidence does not demonstrate reductionism, as anyone who actually knew the positions would know.  And just to demonstrate further that she doesn’t understand them, her justification for that statement is this:

We do not guess, we know that brains are made of particles. And we do not guess, we know, that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does.

The first statement is irrelevant:  you can believe that brains are made of particles but that not all things that are important about the brain and what it does — meaning consciousness here — is reducible to physics (see emergentism, another evil “ism”, for example).  And what the challenges to reductionism are all about is questioning whether you can do that for every relevant phenomena, and there are good reasons to think that even with the more common ones — from, say, biology to physics — that it can’t be done.   Writing laws to reduce all animal behaviour, for example, to physics tends to leave us with gaps and rather useless physical laws.  So she first doesn’t want her view to be reduced to an “ism”, then insists that the “ism” is proven by science, but then never addresses the actual philosophical objections to her position, many of which use science.  And her specific view isn’t actually scientifically valid.  This makes this statement unintentionally hilarious:

If you make a claim to the contrary, you are contradicting well-established science. I can’t prevent you from denying scientific evidence, but I can tell you that this way you will never understand how the universe really works.

I feel confident in saying that you will never understand how the universe really works by reducing it to differential equations and then using the mathematical properties of differential equations to dictate to the universe how it really works.  You’re going to have to at least do some observing to figure that out.  And, remember, this is coming from a philosopher.  If the scientist is ignoring observations and the philosopher is saying that maybe we should do some, something has gone seriously wrong.

She then takes a quick stab at a philosophical argument:

You see, that thing you call “free will” should in some sense allow you to choose what you want. But then it’s either determined by what you want, in which case it’s not free, or it’s not determined, in which case it’s not a will.

Of course, this argument equivocates on “determined”.  As will be important later, the big issue with free will is that we want our conscious decisions to be the result of our conscious decision-making processes.  So wrt wants, we want it to be the case that given the wants I have and how I believe the world works, that my decision will be what rationally follows from them as best as my capacities can do them.  So we want our choices to be “determined” by my wants in that they rationally follow from them, and if we make a poor decision we can trace back the error we made — either in considering wants or considering the world — and note where our decision-making process failed.  So it’s independent of neither our wants nor our decision-making abilities.  But the operations of those processes are what determines it.  It has to be the case that the decision is not fixed until those processes complete.  Determinism in Hossenfelder’s sense breaks this by insisting that the actual outcomes are determined well in advance, at the Big Bang in fact.  What this means is that the details of that decision-making process and our wants might not matter.  We could very well have that deterministic process produce different conscious ruminations than what is “actually” used under the hood.  If that’s possible, then how do we know that we make decisions at all?  In fact, it’s more reasonable to say that we never make decisions at all.

Yes, our wants need to be in some sense free as well, so there are issues.  But it’s hardly the case that free will simply never made sense, as she asserts.  It’s only her equivocating her notion of determined with how wants would determine decisions that allow her to even make an argument that at first glance might appear to be one that we might need to consider for more than a second.

In summary, the idea that we have a free will which gives us the possibility to select among different futures is both incompatible with the laws of nature and logically incoherent. I should add here that it’s not like I am saying something new. Look at the writing of any philosopher who understand physics, and they will acknowledge this.

I suspect that she defines “any philosopher who understands physics” as those who would agree with her.  Yes, she isn’t saying something new.  Philosophers have raised issues with free will and its relation to physics for centuries.  But for centuries other philosophers — yes, even some who understand physics — have raised issues with those issues and with Hard Determinism, and she seems blissfully unaware of any of them.

But some philosophers insist they want to have something they can call free will, and have therefore tried to redefine it. For example, you may speak of free will if no one was in practice able to predict what you would do. This is certainly presently the case, that most human behavior is unpredictable, though I can predict that some people who didn’t actually watch this video will leave a comment saying they had no other choice than leaving their comment and think they are terribly original.

Okay, she has a point that the last comment isn’t original.  However, one of the issues with that is that there is a potential contradiction here, with Hard Determinists in various ways exhorting people to change their views or positions and take responsibility for their views in a way that isn’t compatible with Hard Determinism.  By her own views, Hossenfelder can talk and talk and talk at me about there being no free will but if the Big Bang did not deign to permit me to be convinced by her words then I won’t be, so I can’t bear any responsibility for my views.  And any attempts to move the relevant processes into the decision-making processes themselves and so retain that sort of responsibility lead one to some form of compatiblism, which is the view she is denigrating with the comment on redefining the term (they see it as coming to a proper understanding of it, not redefining it).  There’s another issue where many Hard Determinists talk as if they make choices and bear responsibility — usually positive — for their ideas and the like, when they are no more free than anyone else.

This leads to the underlying issue around those responses to Hard Determinists:  their views, if treated consistently and taken to their logical conclusion, so thoroughly contradict our actual experiences that it is almost impossible for us for actually talk and act as if Hard Determinism is true.  That it’s so foreign to our experience is prima facie reason to at least be skeptical of the position, and most Hard Determinists only have “Science says all things are determined” as an argument, which as we’ve seen is quite inadequate.

Others have tried to argue that free will means some of your decisions are dominated by processes internal to your brain and not by external influences. But of course your decision was still determined or random, regardless of whether it was dominated by internal or external influences. I find it silly to speak of “free will” in these cases.

That she finds it silly doesn’t make it, well, actually silly or not useful.  As noted above, we want our actions to be determined by our internal processes.  Given that, if they were able to show that the internal processes mattered more then that would be important and would flatly contradict her own stated position at the beginning of the post.  She might be able to quibble over whether we should call it “free will” but her view would still be wrong.  That’s hardly inconsequential.

What is really going on if you are making a decision is that your brain is running a calculation, and while it is doing that, you do not know what the outcome of the calculation will be. Because if you did, you wouldn’t have to do the calculation. So, the impression of free will comes from our self-awareness, that we think about what to do, combined with our inability to predict the result of that thinking before we’re done.

If the outcome of the calculation is already determined before it starts, then what is the calculation itself specifically doing?  Is it even doing the calculation that it purports to be doing?  The issue is one that we see with neural nets.  The actual calculation, at the hardware level, isn’t content-aware.  You can use that same neural net for a different purpose and given its input it will spit out an answer.  I remarked once that you could use a neural net trained to solve differential equations to play chess and it would work, which is probably a bit facetious, but perhaps what will drive the point home is that I could train a neural net to solve differential equations and then use it to play chess and it is possible that it would be better at playing chess than it would be at solving differential equations.  At the level of the hardware, content does not matter.

Which leads to that self-awareness.  See, the self-awareness isn’t us looking at the brain doing the calculation and thinking that it isn’t done yet so I don’t know what the answer will be.  It is us working through the calculation consciously.  When I am revamping my schedule while going for my daily constitutional, it’s not that my brain is calculating what will be best on which day and just not telling me what the answer is but that my conscious reasoning is walking through the options and ultimately deciding what works best on each day.  If we cut those processes out and place the ultimate responsibility on the Big Bang then all of that might be epiphenomenal.  Those considerations need not be what the brain itself is actually considering.  But if they aren’t, then are my decisions rational?  Even if they come to the conclusion that a rational analysis hints should be the decision?  What is the point of conscious deliberation if it doesn’t do anything?  But what could it possibly do under Hossenfelder’s view?

Suppose you have a computer that evaluates whether an equation has a real-valued root. The answer is yes or no. You can predict the answer. But now you can change the algorithm so that if you input the correct answer, the code will output the exact opposite answer, ie “yes” if you predicted “no” and “no” if you predicted “yes”. As a consequence, your prediction will never be correct. Clearly, this has nothing to do with free will but with the fact that the system you make a prediction for gets input which the prediction didn’t account for. There’s nothing interesting going on in this argument.

This highlights the issue here, as she proposes messing with the decision-making processes to produce wrong answers to make it unpredictable, and then says that that wouldn’t be free will.  All of those who advocate free will — even those who make the predictability argument — accept this.  What they argue is that we can’t predict the answer until the decision-making processes do their job because the answer is determined by those processes.  Hossenfelder thinks that’s not the case, so there’s still a difference in argument there that she doesn’t acknowledge.

Another objection that I’ve heard is that I should not say free will does not exist because that would erode people’s moral behavior. The concern is, you see, that if people knew free will does not exist, then they would think it doesn’t matter what they do. This is of course nonsense. If you act in ways that harm other people, then these other people will take steps to prevent that from happening again. This has nothing to do with free will. We are all just running software that is trying to optimize our well-being. If you caused harm, you are responsible, not because you had “free will” but because you embody the problem and locking you up will solve it.

Well, a number of Hard Determinsts, like Jerry Coyne, argue that understanding that we have free will should change how we treat people since they aren’t responsible for their actions.  So we should treat them more like we treat people who right now we consider are clearly not responsible for their actions, by trying to cure them and not considering them morally responsible for their actions.  So surely saying that people aren’t morally responsible for their actions and having us treat them as such will erode anything that depended solely on morality, as it would eliminate morality as such.  I also find it interesting that she rather blythly talks about locking people up on the basis of maximizing well-being, since morality tends to preclude us doing that.  Essentially, she rejects the idea of Coyne that we should cure or rehabilitate offenders since they have no choice and only solve the problem by locking them up if there is no way to do that and accepts the idea of locking people up because they are “bad”, in that they challenge her well-being.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think that people who do not understand that free will is an illusion underestimate how much their decisions are influenced by the information they are exposed to. After watching this video, I hope, some of you will realize that to make the best of your thinking apparatus, you need to understand how it works, and pay more attention to cognitive biases and logical fallacies.

Even Libertarians about free will believe that our decisions are influenced by the information we have, and exhort us to pay attention to errors in our decision-making processes.  If her Hard Determinism is true, though, our decision-making processes will just do what they do and there is no reason for us to attempt to correct them, especially since we will likely be unable to.  And so, at the end, we see Hossenfelder creep back towards compatibilism while trying to convince us that only Hard Determinism is the right answer, as so often happens in these discussions.

Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets: 15 and 16

October 23, 2020

Moving on to a post that contains two points, the first point he makes is basically asking why the Bible isn’t simple and has difficulties that need to be worked out:

Why is the Bible so confusing that this category of book exists? (I want to ask why Christians are content to accept that their all-knowing god couldn’t get his story down simply and unambiguously, but that’s a topic for another day.) The dictates of an actual perfect god would be simple and unambiguous. By contrast, the “perfect” Bible is so flexible that it has spawned 45,000 denominations of Christianity.

But we need to ask the question if those things that are ambiguous are indeed the sorts of things that would be simple and unambiguous.  Seidensticker gives some examples from the New Testament about the Resurrection:

We can look just at the four gospels’ accounts of the resurrection to see the problem. When was the Last Supper—was it the Passover meal or was it one day earlier? What were the last words of Jesus? Did zombies rise from their graves when Jesus died? Who buried Jesus? How many women were at the tomb? Did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus? Did the women tell anyone about what they’d seen? Could Jesus’s followers touch him after he rose? The Bible gives multiple answers to each of these.

And this reflects a line of argumentation that always bugs me.  Yes, these may be questions that aren’t clear in the New Testament accounts.  So what?  Are any of these questions critical to Christianity?  Are any of these questions ones that if we didn’t get the right answer it would completely invalidate the Resurrection?  Are any of these questions ones that define Christianity and Christian doctrine?  No, they are not.  They are varying accounts from four different authors that while at least some of them seem to have had access to other accounts are still distinct and do seem to use some different sources.  So it’s clear that they would have differences in details like this, since they’d be referencing different stories.  That’s how these sorts of historical sources work.

But Seidensticker then goes on to assert otherwise:

The accounts in the gospels don’t sound like journalism or history, but since they must be for most Christians, apologists are happy to step in to reshape the facts to be more agreeable.

Why don’t they sound like histories?  Luke’s is explicit that that’s what he’s trying to do.  The gospels do read like ancient history accounts, and it is entirely reasonable to see them as a collection of word of mouth stories that each author assembled into a consistent story.  And the fact that there are other gospels out there that the Catholic Church, at least, does not consider canon — mostly because of serious differences in what they say — only adds support for these things being a collection of assembled stories.  Unless Seidensticker wants to insist that the Bible and everything in it is really just the dictated words of God, he has to accept that it really does look like an ancient history.  That doesn’t mean that we have to accept that these accounts mean that God exists — ancient histories, as he will point out, made a lot of reference to deities and the like that we don’t think exist — but we do have to accept that, yeah, it’s a history, and differences over the details happen in those.  And if he wants to insist that they really are the dictated World of God, then he’s taking a position that most Christians don’t take and so his arguments will not convince them.

I have found that much of the time atheists want to take the Bible more literally than most Christians do, only so that they can use any discrepancies, no matter how minor, to “disprove” the Bible and therefore God.  As noted, most Christians do not hold such a view, and so we really should dismiss such minor discrepancies because they aren’t important enough to bother with.

The next point is about reconstructing Christianity from first principles:

Imagine that a global catastrophe wiped out all traces of religion and science, but a tiny fraction of people remained alive to repopulate the earth and recreate a scientifically advanced society. They would roughly retrace the steps we took to develop modern science and technology. Of course, they would describe things differently and advance in their own way, but they would duplicate the very same laws of motion, gravity, and thermodynamics; the same theories of evolution, relativity, and the Big Bang; and so on.

But would they duplicate the same Christianity, Islam, Scientology, Falun Gong, Jediism, and all the others? Of course not. Religion is what people say it is. It’s disconnected from objective reality. (More on this here.)

Well, of course he’s correct.  If all of history was wiped out, we would not, on our own, reconstruct Christianity or any of the other religions.  But there are two responses we can make to this:

The first is that while the specific religions wouldn’t come back from first principles, if we lost all history and science based on what we’ve seen so far it’s almost certain that they would recreate God or gods.  They might have different names and some different properties, but they’d be observably gods, and we’d probably resurrect gods before we properly resurrected science.  And there’s a pretty good chance that we’d create a god like the Judeo-Christian God — powerful creator that is above humanity — and not merely create human-like gods like the Greek or Norse gods.  This makes this not so good an argument for a generic atheist as opposed to an anti-Christian, because going from first principles it’s quite likely that gods — and so religion in some form — is more fundamental to us as humans than science is.  That doesn’t mean that God or gods exist, but does indicate that this isn’t an argument that an atheist can use against the idea.

The second is that while we’d lose the religions, we’d also lose, as Jeffrey Sinclair from Babylon 5 put it:

It’ll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes …

In short, if we lost all of history all historical aspects would be lost, and we cannot rebuild historical aspects from first principles.  This, of course, is rather obvious.  And as evidenced from my above point, all that we’d lose with wrt religion are the historical aspects.  We’d lose the events that specifically happened.  So if a god existed and if that god wanted those specific details to come out, that god would have to recreate them in some way.  Specifically for Christianity, if God wanted us to know of Jesus God would have to send Jesus again.  This is utterly uncontroversial.  And Seidensticker can’t even retreat to the idea that a perfect God shouldn’t allow that situation to come about because what we are dealing with here is Seidensticker’s thought experiment, not reality.  In reality, maybe God would choose to have the important religious texts preserved.

Seidensticker also proposes another thought experiment:

As yet another thought experiment, imagine a naive religious seeker, unaware of the specifics of any organized religion, who meditated or observed his way to Christianity or any other religion. This never happens.

Well, it doesn’t happen in this world because it doesn’t need to.  The history is there.  And for a number of religions, the changes in doctrine did come from meditation and revelation.  So while we could never meditate or observe our way to Julius Caesar, someone could do that with Christianity and Jesus if God gave them a revelation with those details, so this is a bad example.

And given the two points, we can answer Seidensticker’s comment that the Bible says that the existence of God must be obvious:

The Bible says otherwise:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

Since we would likely recreate a god with God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature if all of history and all knowledge of religion was wiped out along with all science that might insist that such things don’t exist, it seems like the Bible is indeed accurate on this.  It doesn’t promise the historical details, but just the idea of the nature of God … precisely what we’d rebuild from first principles in Seidensticker’s thought experiment.

Thoughts on “Nightmare Cinema”

October 22, 2020

“Nightmare Cinema” is a horror anthology.  We all remember what happened the last time I watched one of those.  Still, “Nightmare Cinema” works better because not only was I aware that it was an anthology before watching it, it also made it more clear that it was an anthology movie in the movie itself, especially at the end.

The basic idea is that people walk past one of those classic old movie theaters that is showing a movie.  The movie marquee gives the title of the short and claims that it is starring them.  When they go inside, the theater is empty but the projector starts up and shows them a short horror film, well, starring them.  And, in general, they die at the end of it.  Relatively early on in the film, we meet the Projectionist, who has some mysterious motive for being there and showing them these films that we … don’t really find out by the end of the movie.

The segments are all right, and encompass a number of different subgenres of horror.  The most memorable one was the first one, which is more a parody or subversion of teen slasher films than one itself, while the others tend to play things a bit more straight.  With the movie framing device wrapped around it, we do get the sense — unlike in “Portals” — that these are distinct stories loosely connected by the framing device, which is what you want in an anthology series.

Still, there are two problems with the framing device and how it is used.  The first is minor.  For most of the segments, they put the name of the short and claim that it is starring the character on the marquee, and show this to us clearly.   However, they didn’t do that for the second segment.  Perhaps they were worried that it would give away which character was the main character, but since that’s revealed pretty early on that wasn’t really necessary.  Why this is an issue is that doing that would have made it abundantly clear that this was an anthology, avoiding any confusion.  But as I said, it’s minor because the movie is still pretty clear about that.

The second one is more serious, and it revolves around the Projectionist.  The movie spends a lot of time setting him up and having him be involved.  It sets out a mystery about who he is and what is intentions are, and at the end it shows him taking the films out of the projector and placing them in a storage area, and then pans away to show that this storage area is absolutely huge, which is clearly supposed to get the audience to feel that he doesn’t just do this for the ones that are in the theater, but for a large number of people, and so be horrified by that.   Except that it never really reveals what he’s actually doing.  Is he taking innocent people and putting them into these scenarios to kill them?  Unlikely, since one of them survives and is the person who can see dead people, and so can see all of the others, who are clearly dead.  Is he just recording their deaths?  Maybe, but then having all of those films isn’t all that shocking, except perhaps as an indication that the world they’re in is a crapsack world.  Is he simply capturing nightmares of people?  Then that’s not scary and we don’t really know why they died.  Is he forcing them to relive their horrible deaths?  Then why is he putting away the films at the end of it?

If the movie hadn’t built in this mystery, this wouldn’t be a problem.  But since it builds in the mystery and never explains it, and also makes a big deal out of the Projectionist at the end of the film, all it means is that the big moment in the ending is confusing, not horrifying.

It’s not a bad movie, but the issues with the Projectionist and the fact that it takes on some genres that I’m not fond of make it so that I’m not really interested in watching it again.

Most Personally Memorable/Favourite Games (41 – 50)

October 21, 2020

So, let’s start this all of with numbers 41 – 50:

50:  Summer Games/Summer Games II

I forgot about this game (games?) the last time around, but was reminded of it when I picked up a bunch of old classic console thingies.  Getting those games was indeed one of the big drivers behind getting the C64 console, since I knew that at least I’d want to play the various Epyx games again, and this one in particular.

The Epyx games are probably the best of the various games that tried to emulate the Olympics.  Summer Games and Winter Games are the ones that did that explicitly, while other games like World Games and California Games built on the model to allow for games that you wouldn’t see in the Olympics.  The basic idea, of course, is to have a number of competitors — that were usually intended to map to players — compete in a number of events.  If you competed in one event, the winner was awarded the gold medal, second place the silver, and the third the bronze.  If you did more than one, then it totaled medals across all events and the person with the highest “score” (golds counted for more than silvers which counted for more than bronzes) was declared the overall winner.  The events used a variety of mechanisms, some of which were harder on joysticks than others (the 100m dash, for instance, required rapidly waggling the joystick, while skeet shooting was obviously far more restrained).

Of course, this was one of the first games where I played on my own by creating multiple players using the names of my friends.  You would have thought that since I was pretty much as good as myself in all events that this would result in a lot of ties, but the race events and even gymnastics had me often enough not get things quite the same so that the scores didn’t quite work out.  The only one that I recall being terrible for that was skeet shooting, where whomever missed one skeet pretty much didn’t get a medal in that event.  Still, again, my performance tended to be just inconsistent enough that not everyone got the gold in every event, making for some close competitions for the overall title … and no, the one on top wasn’t always or even usually the character named for myself [grin].

Summer Games II includes all the Summer Games games as well as some new ones, but the original is the one I played the most.  It’s the only one that makes the list because I never really had the other games to play either, and when I did play them the classic events tended to be more fun.

49:  Saint’s Row the Third

This was one of the games that I managed to finally get around to playing and finishing this year in the afternoons/evenings after “work”.  The best thing about the game was that it worked wonderfully in that role, and I haven’t found anything close to it (and IV) since.  Whether this would make the list or end up in my honourable mentions was debatable, though, because I liked parts of it and disliked parts of it.

This game, for those who don’t know it, is basically the type of open-world gangster game in the vein of Grand Theft Auto (which I’ve never played).  You get to insanely customize a character known as “The Boss” and then you step into a world where you can do lots and lots of things, and also where you have to go through some sort of story as well to end the game.  Unlike Grand Theft Auto, the game doesn’t take itself at all seriously, even in the story sections.  “The Boss” is pretty much a psychopath using violence to solve their problems, and all of their companions are pretty much the same.  This, then, makes the over-the-top violence more tolerable as we aren’t supposed to be thinking that this stuff is the way the world works or wondering if these people are heroes or villains.  They’re the people you play as to get to do the funny things in the world.  That’s it.

I really liked the driving part of this game.  I enjoyed running out to buy a store or do a quick mission or two and then running back to the hideout to dodge the gangs or police — or both — that I had offended.  The open world missions tended to be fun and easy to manage.  On the other hand, the story missions tended to involve, well, things that you’d normally see in games like this, and I’m not a fan of games like this, so the multi-stage protect missions tended to annoy me and I tended to, at least at times, not easily see the tricks to beat them.  So the game ended up being a mixed bag.

Still, driving around the city listening to my mix tape was really fun.

48:  Aliens

I was reminded of this game after watching the movies again.  I think I might have survived the game once or twice, but what really struck me about the game when I remembered it and why it makes the list now is because of its structure.  It has a really strong structure for a movie tie-in, especially one like “Aliens”, as it divides the game up into multiple sections that each represent some of the more interesting moments in the game.  It doesn’t simply ape the movie sections, but instead builds out different gameplays that you could say are “inspired” by the movie scenes so that you both get to explicitly play in the movie’s context while not being forced into crappy gameplay because the movie section doesn’t really fit into what the game wants.  So you get varied gameplay and yet get the scenes from the movie as well as a strong reference point (the James Bond tie-in “A View to a Kill” did the same thing, but I didn’t care for that one as much).

Also, the music they had while you were trying to bring the dropship down for a landing on the planet was really cool.

47:  Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

I picked up “The Nonary Games” in general because I liked the idea of an escape room video game.  “Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors” was the first game in the series, and so the first one that I played.  It mixes visual novel style conversations and choices with escape room sections, which I guess means that I have to say that there are visual novels that I like.  There are, of course, two main issues that I have with visual novels, which are that often they have limited interactivity (and so all I’m doing is reading, which I can do without having to have a game for that) or that the gameplay elements are poor and uninteresting.  The escape room elements are pretty fun in this game, and while the story sections can drag the story and characters are usually interesting enough to get me through it.  I also really like the multiple endings and the fact that you need to hit bad endings in order to get the good endings, so it encourages you to replay the game — and thus do the rooms that you skipped the last time — in order to get the full story.  So going back to do the rooms that you missed the first time isn’t something you do just to do it, but you get rewarded by finding out more of the story in doing so.  So if you like the story and like the escape rooms, you have more than enough reason to go and replay it.

Of course, without the ability to hop to the key choices in rooms you’ve already done — which is how the game worked originally — this wouldn’t work, as you’d have to do all the escapes that you’ve already solved just to advance the story, which would be boring, and also have to see all the story elements you’ve already seen.  But revamped as it was, it really worked for me, which is why it made the list.

46:  Virtue’s Last Reward

I, uh, already talked about the game series, didn’t I?  So there isn’t much to say about this game other than to link to where I played it, I guess?

Well, no, there’s a reason this game came out ahead of 999, and it’s because this one has more philosophical implications.  999 had everyone trying to work together to escape, with competing agendas and personalities potentially leading to deaths and foiling that.  It introduced a section where they believed that only some of them could escape that raised some tension, but that was the standard tension that you’d see in, say, a suspense or horror movie with that premise.  Virtue’s Last Reward based the main story choices on a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation, and had the characters debate what the right approach was.  This is what led to my musing on how it really should work and pointing out the issues with assuming that betrayal is the rational move in that position, and probably contributed to my position — that, to be fair, I was already pretty much ascribing to — that the major Game Theory problems result from us not considering what the other person will do when considering what the rational move is, which is itself irrational.  It also, of course, continued on with notions of a deadly virus and multiple worlds, elevating its story — like 999 — above simple and basic premises like you’d see in most games of its type.

Also, the lagomorph is both annoying and compelling.

45:  M1 Tank Platoon

This is the one game to survive from the bottom of the first round, and really was the game that made me think that redoing the list would make more sense than simply adding in the new games where I thought they’d fit.  This was a game where, again, I could add characters as my friends.  But they could also get killed, adding a different emotional element to it.  It also was pretty interesting without being overly complicated. 

You basically ran a platoon of tanks trying to defend against a Soviet conventional assault on Europe.  You always had your four tanks, but you often got other elements like artillery and recon helicopters that you needed to use to their fullest advantage to win the section.  If you won enough, you’d blunt the Soviet attack and push them back and essentially win the non-nuclear WWIII.  It had personalization, strategy and history.  For someone like me, that’s an irresistible combination.

44:  X-Wing Alliance

As I said when I talked about this the last time, this is the only game of the X-Wing series that made the cut.  I could have added X-Wing, Tie Fighter, or X-Wing Vs Tie Fighter here as I played all of those, but this game gets the nod for very similar reasons to M1 Tank Platoon:  you can argue that the other games had better aspects, but this game had the combination of aspects that most appeal to me personally.

First, there’s the main story, which ties into the movies and ends — although I never got there — with the attack on Death Star II.  You could easily argue that Tie Fighter’s story that for what could have been the first time focused, at least initially, on the Empire was a better story, and I know that many have and will.  But Alliance’s story mode is still as interesting as any in the series, and the events tie into the missions fairly well.  So even if other games in the series did it better, it’s still pretty good and suffices for people who want that.

Second, there’s the personal story, where you run smuggling missions and deal with the issues around your family.  This doesn’t really exist in any of the other games, and again provides a more personal element to the story than you’d have otherwise.  It’s not really personalization, but it does provide a story that shows that the main character is a person, and not just someone piloting an X-Wing.

And finally, and probably most importantly for me, it has a wonderful simulator, where you can set-up a scenario and play through it to see what happens.  None of the other games have anything like this, and I almost certainly played with the simulator more than I played with anything else in the rest of the series.  When I think about this game, what I miss is the simulator, not so much the story missions.

So, it has a good Star Wars related story, a good personal story, and a great simulator.  For someone like me, you can’t get much better than that.

43:  Fatal Frame 2

As I noted last time, this is the game that justifies my not adding games by series, as I liked it, just not as much as I liked the original Fatal Frame (and Fatal Frame 3 didn’t make the list).  I also never managed to finish it, unlike Fatal Frame.

The basic idea of a horror game where you don’t get to use a lot of weapons but instead have one — a camera — is still good.  The twin idea isn’t a bad one, although Mayu can be a bit annoying at times and having someone else on hand can make things a bit less scary (until Mayu goes nuts, I suppose).  But it does seem to lose something moving to a village rather than one house, and the worst part is that they take the camera away from you at one point and expect you to carry on, which is the part where I stopped playing the game.  That’s pretty much a Clocktower 3 section, but wasn’t what I was interested in at the point.  I still have these games and still have some PS2 consoles and so perhaps I could play it and finish it, but it’s not looking promising.

42:  Marvel Ultimate Alliance

Yes, there is a new version of this out for the Switch.  Yes, I was considering buying one for this and a few other games.  No, I haven’t done that, because at right about that time I was a) looking for Ring Fit Plus which I can’t get and b) the virus stopped me from browsing in video game stores.  Anyway, it’s hard to believe that it will capture what made this game great.  The story works as a typical video game story.  The combination of characters is pretty interesting.  You don’t seem to be as forced to use certain characters as you might have been in the X-Men Legends series, although maybe the only characters I liked were ones that could do everything.  I even — and Shamus Young will hate me for saying this — like the Quick Time events because the consequences of failing were minor.  And I could actually beat the game, which is always a plus.  This is another game that I might be able to play again but … probably won’t any time soon.

41:  Elder Scrolls:  Oblivion

I have an interesting relationship with the Elder Scrolls series.  I tried to play Morrowind and my excursion ended under an hour in with me going berserk on a guard and then uninstalling the game.  On the more modern end, I’ve tried playing Skyrim something like three times and haven’t gotten past the first town.  I even started Oblivion at least twice before managing to get a run going that I finished, playing as Angel from the Buffyverse and ending up with a character that was massively strong and great at hand-to-hand combat.  My favourite move was to sneak up to an enemy and then punch them, which with the extra damage from attacking while in stealth often killed them.

These sorts of open-world games have always struck me as “single-player MMOs”, with the sort of quests and wandering and lack of story focus of your typical MMO but without the other players.  In order to keep things open-world, they don’t want to push players to do the story too much for fear of making it a linear game, but this lack of focus often — at least for me — hurts the impact of the story.  Oblivion is indeed fairly bad at that, as at one point I stumbled across the main story while looking for a shop.  But the second (third?) time through I managed to enjoy at least the gates enough to get through it.

Still, by far the best part of the game for me was the Shivering Isles expansion.  It had an interesting environment with a nice self-contained story so that I could follow it along while exploring the Isles.  The thing I most remember about the game is that, and I wish the rest of the game could have been more like that.

Thoughts on “American Horror Story: Murder House”

October 20, 2020

When I heard of the premise of “American Horror Story”, I was intrigued.  It sounded like an interesting idea:  take an ensemble cast of actors and create a story from a different horror premise every season.  From what I understood, the stories were completely separate, and so didn’t reuse characters, at least not very much.  This would allow them, I thought, to create one set, simple, self-contained story in each season, as they didn’t have to worry about either closing off loose ends from previous seasons or building for the next season like shows like “Buffy” and “Angel” often had to do.  They also wouldn’t have the “character cruft” of having to take into account the evolving backstories and events that happened to their on-going characters.  In short, each plot and character would be new and they’d be free to explore them as they wanted.  This would also be good for the actors as they’d be able to explore a variety of character roles without having to change series.  Sure, they’d lose the world-building that previous seasons could provide, but without having to do any of those other things surely they’d have the time to do that themselves.

So when I found the first six seasons cheap at Walmart, I definitely wanted to give them a try.  Obviously I didn’t watch them right away, because I never watch things right away.  But with “Doom Patrol” and “Rat Patrol” coming up in the sched after I watched “Deep Space 9”, it seemed like a good fit, especially since as each season was self-contained I’d want to talk about each season individually which would provide a number of posts for my blog, it seemed like a perfect time to give it a try and see how it worked out.

Remember what happens when I look forward to things?

Anyway, at the point of writing this I’ve just finished Season 4 (Freakshow) and am about to start Season 5 (Hotel).  I’m planning on writing about all of these seasons in a short period of time and scheduling them ahead, because I want to talk about at least Season 3 and 4 before they fade in my memory (this is usually not a good sign, as the only series that I liked that I wished I hadn’t left for a while before writing about it was “Nightmare on Elm Street”), and I should be finished watching the next two seasons in the next week or so, so what you’re going to get is six weeks of that in this slot.  I’m lumping this series in with my horror examinations in categories and tags because it is horror, but it fits into the “Things I’m Watching” slot that is normally in the “Not-So-Casual Commentary” category because I’m not watching it because it’s a cheap horror series, but because it’s something that I wanted to watch in the vein of “Pretty Little Liars”.

So with that preamble out of the way, let’s start looking at “Murder House”.

The horror premise here is one of the most classic:  a haunted house that has experienced shocking acts of violence in its past, and a troubled family that moves into the house and has to face it.  It includes a tragedy among the parents — the wife had a miscarriage recently — and a moody teenage girl who seems to be interested in the supernatural and dark things.  Along the way, they meet various ghosts, most of which have murderous intent, along with the normal assortment of creepy neighbours, along with, later, the woman the husband had an affair with who turns up pregnant.

Let me talk about the horror premise first, because it is used in a couple of interesting ways.  The first is that anyone who dies on the property becomes a ghost and trapped in the house, seemingly with no way out.  This is interesting and also allows for a few relatively unique situations.  First, when the husband and one of the creepy townspeople end up killing his lover, they do so on the property and that means that she doesn’t actually go away.  There is an explicit event where there is a murder and the murderers insist on moving the body off the property before the person dies so that they won’t come back as a ghost and so cause even more trouble.  And one neighbour, when her daughter was hit by a car, tries desperately to drag her onto the property so that she can at least be revived as a ghost.  These are things that you wouldn’t see in a normal haunted house premise.

The other thing is that at the very end a new family moves into the house and the “good” ghosts make it their goal to scare them out before the “bad” ghosts kill them and trap them there as well.  A similar twist has been done before — in “The Others” — but this has to be one of the first times that the ghosts themselves are trying to frighten the people so that they will avoid a greater threat.  The idea that the threatening and very frightening ghosts are doing that not to frighten the people and are not really a threat to them is pretty interesting, even if given the nature of the show and series it can’t really be explored in detail.

But — and you knew this was coming — the season has its problems.  The first one is that I was hoping that with one season — and a short one at that, as it’s only 12 episodes — that they’d be constrained by the format and so would write a nice, tight story with well-done, consistent characters with interesting arcs.  After all, they had one season to tell the story they wanted to tell here, so they’d have to be focused, right?

Well, no, not really.  There’s a lot of side stories that they take a lot of time on that don’t really add that much to the overall story.  For much of it, we aren’t sure how all these pieces will fit together and often at the end they aren’t really paid off.  Probably the worst is the gay couple, who were in the house just before this family (I think) and supposedly tie into the plotline where one of the original inhabitants lost her baby and desperately wants one back.  Why this becomes a problem is that they inserted the gay couple who are having problems since one of them is cheating and the other is obsessive into this plot by having them contemplating having a baby.  Now, this is of course possible, but their whole purpose is to tie into that plot and we know that they were going to have to adopt or use a surrogate, so as soon as that comes up we are going to think about the implications of that.  Using a male/female couple wouldn’t raise any of those issues and so we could focus on their connection to the plot without thinking about how that would work.

Jonathan MS Pearce wrote a post talking about normalization in media:

A few weeks ago, I was watching a film on Netflix with my partner called The Old Guard. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable action/fantasy movie.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the film that I turned to my partner and said, “I bet you haven’t really realised that the two main protagonists in this action flick are female, and one is black!”

She admitted that it hadn’t even crossed her mind (not to mention that two of the other main protagonists were casually gay, by which I mean it wasn’t an integral part of the story/plot or a particularly meaningful thematic point).

So you could argue that that’s all this one:  attempting to normalize gay relationships.  The problem is that normalization doesn’t work if there is a relevant difference that people will notice.  You can’t just plunk characters into a situation where their presence will change how the situation will be perceived.  As an example, putting a white person into a position of being discriminated against based on their race is going to raise issues of privilege and whether racism can apply to whites and so on.  In fact, it would likely be perceived in today’s climate as being a right-wing attack on the concept of racism and racial discrimination.  If one didn’t want to raise those issues, then being “colourblind” would mean accidentally raising those issues which will distract from the main issue.  If they didn’t want to raise the issues around a gay couple having a kid, then they should have used a male/female couple and avoided that.  So you can’t explain that with the “normalization” argument, because the issues it raises will make the perceptions not normal.  Without the baby aspect, it could have worked.  Of if they had made the issues explicit and used them in the plot, then that would have worked as well.  But they didn’t do either.

This is only made worse by the fact that they actually overemphasize the relationship.  They have one scene in an episode where they have a fight and all the issues come out, including the “wanting a kid”.  Then in a later episode they move forward in time and … have the exact same argument revealing the same situation.  And then they appear as ghosts, raise similar issues, and the cheating member of the couple aggressively propositions the husband.  All this was doing was taking up screen time that could have been used for other things.  If they had, for example, shown that they weren’t having the problems until later and used that as an example of the house’s influence and then hinted that it was affecting the main couple as well (and at the time the ghosts did seem to be trying to corrupt the husband, mostly sexually) then it would have worked because the scenes would have been different and built on each other.  But all it did was repeat what we already knew, which obviously is quite boring.

It also has a problem where the two characters that I think we are supposed to most relate to aren’t very sympathetic, and the husband whom I think we’re supposed to see as a bit shady comes off better than they do.  The first is the daughter, who is angry at her father for some reason but not at her mother, even though at times the mother seems to be more responsible for the problems.  She also seems to immediately fall in love with the house for its “dark” aspects, but then later acts like she hates the house and everything else, despite her enthusiastic approval being presented as a reason for them to take it.  Now, she is a teenage girl so this isn’t necessarily unreasonable, and she talks about hating it after being bullied a bit which could explain it, but the show never calls her out on the contradiction, even if she wouldn’t answer why she had the change of heart.  A lot of the time she comes off as being whiny and unfair, so she isn’t all that sympathetic.  She is likeable at times, so it mostly works, but we certainly don’t want to trust her opinion of things and people … especially once she remains in love with and interested in the guy she knows is a murderer.

She’s also involved in an unnecessary side plot, where it turns out that she was actually dead, which reveals to us the nature of the house.  The problem with this is that while it did drop hints that we can follow up on later — why isn’t she going to school and why isn’t she eating? — it didn’t build it as enough of a mystery for us to be puzzled enough to care about the resolution, so it comes off as a kinda clever twist that wasn’t properly developed for its full emotional impact.

The other character is the mother herself.  Her tragedy should make her sympathetic, and the fact that her husband cheated on her should again make us feel for her.  But where the show lost me with her is when they start fighting over having moved out there, and she throws the miscarriage in his face, completely ignoring that it’s something that would have bothered him as well.  Sure, it would have bothered her more, but she completely ignores his feelings to force him to focus on hers, and at that point he really did seem to be focusing on hers as well.  This argument is also over them starting to potentially have sex again, and it is revealed that they hadn’t had sex in over a year, which makes his cheating in her not acceptable, but more understandable, as he was a professor who met attractive young women daily — many of which were probably trying to seduce him — and was sexually frustrated.  This would make this a tragedy on both their parts, as she reasonably wouldn’t be ready for sex that quickly and he would still have needs he wanted to satisfy.  Yes, he should have resisted the temptation and what he did was wrong, but it wasn’t him simply being a philanderer.

The other issue is one that kinda gets retconned later in the season.  He asks her what her plan was for working this out, and she says she doesn’t know.  The implication up to that point was that she was the one who thought moving there would help them save the marriage, and he went along with it because he wanted things to work out.  And so I wondered why in the world she would suggest this plan with no idea for how to proceed with it, which made me think less of her.  Later, they show the original scene and he is the one pressing her to do it and she is reluctant.  This doesn’t work because if he had asked her that question in the original argument and it was his idea, she would have thrown that back in his face instead of saying that she didn’t know, since how could she know how to proceed when it was his idea in the first place?  They also later show — in an attempt, I think, to make the dates work out — that after she found out about the affair he had sex with his lover to get her pregnant.  But all this does is attempt to make him look worse and her look better, and if we’ve been paying attention we’re probably going to notice that and not be that receptive to it.

The season also makes the mistake — which might be reasonable given that it was the first season — of potentially setting things up for future seasons.  It starts with the fact that the family is still in the house and is planning on scaring off future families, but the Christmas aspect actually makes that a happy ending … and is where it should have ended.  But then they add in the daughter’s psycho boyfriend — that she rejects for being psycho — and the husband’s psycho affair both watching from outside the window and planning to deal with them:  the boyfriend to win her back and the lover to get revenge.  And then there was one child who was born to the wife who lived and was taken out of the house who commits a murder at the very end.  None of these were necessary and blunt the tragic yet happy ending for the family, as they are together and happy with the good ghosts.

The babies are also odd, since one of them was supposedly fathered by a ghost, and yet the women in the house — and all people in the house are corporeal, but just can’t really die again — can’t have children.  I can come up with an explanation for this — they’re physical, but wouldn’t be physical enough to nourish an actual life — but it’s just a really weird thing that they never really explain.

Ultimately, the season wasn’t bad, but I was hoping for a more consistent and coherent story, and it seemed like it rambled for a bit.  It’s possible that I could watch it again.

Religious Belief, Ridicule, and Science

October 19, 2020

Jerry Coyne recently made a post wondering about this:

I was thinking last night about someone who asked a fairly prominent religious scientist—not Francis Collins—if he believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus.  The scientist refused to answer—and it wasn’t on the grounds that he kept his religion private. Rather, it was the equivalent of this person, who publicly and openly professed his Catholicism, saying, “I don’t want to answer.” When you get down to the actual claims of Catholicism, or of religion in general, scientists often take the Theological Fifth, in effect saying, “This far and no farther.”

Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?

When I first read this, I thought that he was actually referring to Francis Collins, who would be someone who shouldn’t be reticent to answer that question because he’s very public about his religious beliefs and often will advocate for that specifically.  So at least finding that odd would be not unreasonable.  However, it wasn’t Collins — Coyne does say that specifically — and so what we really need here is the context.  No matter what belief you hold, there are contexts where you won’t want to talk about it.  In this case, if the scientist was in an interview about a specific scientific project that they were working on, they may indeed be very hesitant to answer questions about their personal religious beliefs, if for no other reason than that it would take time away from talking about what they really were there to talk about.  If the interviewer or questioner is known to be an avid atheist, then the scientist might well know that answering the question is going to lead to a long discussion that they don’t want to get into at the moment.  It might even lead to an argument that they don’t want to have then.  So there are lots of reasons to avoid answering the question in that context, and the context is precisely what Coyne doesn’t provide.

Coyne also titles the post by asking “What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?”, and things get more complicated if they really are “sophisticated” believers who have examined the issues in more detail than the average “folk” believer does.  They may well know that the question is vague and there’s really more to the answer than a simple yes or no.  If the question is phrased as a “Do you believe in a literal Resurrection, yes or no?” they are likely to at least demure that things aren’t quite that simple.  This goes for pretty much any “sophisticated” belief.  If you ask me, for example, if I think that the Stoics demanded the elimination of all emotion or thought that emotion was just a bad thing, I couldn’t really answer that with a simple yes or no.  From what we have of the Greek Stoics, they probably leaned that way, but Seneca and the Roman Stoics tended to make a distinction between emotions and passions.  So to answer the question, it actually depends on what is meant by “emotion”, because the meaning of that term has shifted over time.  As an example, I once argued in an essay that while Hume refers to basic emotions as “passions” and so would include calm passions as passions, the Stoics clearly didn’t include such things in the passions that they argued against, so you can’t simply use that term and map it to the Stoic emotion/passion.  So if you are talking about the feeling, Seneca does not necessarily think it bad, but if you include accepting its judgement and acting on it, then Seneca clearly does think it bad.  In a relatively short interview, I’m much more likely to simply demure that things are more complicated than to be boxed in to a yes or no answer that can be interpreted incorrectly based on what meaning of “emotion” the person listening to it or reading it happens to be using.

So there are lots of reasons and lots of contexts for someone religious to not be willing to dive into the details of their religious belief.  Of course, Coyne has another theory:

Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs.

You can’t get from “Other people will consider me superstitious and irrational” to “It clashes with the scientific method”.  Most scientists who are still religious by now all pretty much believe that religious belief and scientific belief are at least justified by different methods.  Or else that the findings of science actually support their beliefs (by at least providing gaps that religious beliefs better fill).  So it isn’t very likely that they consider their religious beliefs incompatible with their scientific ones, and especially that that’s the reason they won’t answer the question there.  It’s more likely that they have been convinced that at least most scientists consider religious beliefs irrational and so will mock them or think badly of them for holding them, or at least think that talking about their religious beliefs isn’t really relevant when talking about science.  Coyne can insist that that’s invalid compartmentalization, but whether that doesn’t work or not he cannot ignore that reasoning when trying to figure out the actual motivation behind their reticence to answer the question in those circumstances.

And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance. And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

So, some scientists don’t want to specify their specific religious beliefs in some context, and that means that science and religion are incompatible?  So would the fact that I am unlikely to outline my Stoic beliefs while talking about software design and might well be evasive if asked about them — considering them irrelevant at best and being suspicious about my questioners motives at worst — be prima facie evidence that Stoicism and software design are incompatible?  Heck, Coyne’s big push is that people would consider them superstitious and he and other atheists often like to mock people who have what they consider to be ridiculous religious beliefs.  Yes, if I know that someone might mock me for stating my beliefs I am unlikely to give them the ammunition for their mockery.  That doesn’t mean that my beliefs are wrong or incompatible with what we’re talking about.

Also, Coyne starts from one anonymous example that he provides no context for, and then states that it’s “frequent”, and then says that he’s seen some other cases of it, which one would hope to be the case if it’s “frequent”.  But we don’t know the contexts of those examples and Coyne hasn’t bothered to ask the scientists why they don’t want to answer the question.  Nor do we know how “frequent” that really is.  Coyne has found one example, claims to remember other examples, moves from that to frequent and then to frequent enough that he can make a hypothesis about it … that he then seems to have no desire to test.  It seems to me that he’s trying to prove what he already believes — that religion and science are incompatible — rather than trying to find a reason for behaviour that he finds odd or interesting.

Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor. Since the claims listed above are largely (but not completely) unprovable, they can remain (barely) in the realm of literality.

Coyne, like most atheists who raise this argument, ignores that the creation stories don’t need to be literally true in order to serve their purpose.  That’s not true of some of the things that he lists.  Let me quote and go through the list for the ones that we can doubt or treat as metaphor and the ones we can’t, as well as highlight the ones where one shouldn’t expect even a sophisticated believer to be willing or able to answer in a short conversation:

The Resurrection
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense

So, for transubstantiation, many Catholics will have to be reminded of what that is before they can answer it, will probably at least vaguely accept it, and are really not going to have any kind of full description of what sense they accept it in.  This is mostly because that belief, while part of Catholic canon, isn’t very important to the overall Catholic project.  Whether the bread and wine really turn to flesh and blood isn’t that important to the everyday life of Catholics.  If the Pope came out tomorrow and said that it didn’t happen, most Catholics — rightly — wouldn’t care.  They don’t accept Catholicism because of transubstantiation … even those who converted specifically to Catholicism (as opposed to those who were raised Catholic).

The Virgin Birth is pretty much the same:  it’s part of Christian/Catholic canon, but not very important to the average believer.  Again, if the Pope came out and said that it was a mistake, most Catholics would accept it without much comment, and the same applies to other religions.  So at best you’re probably going to get a lukewarm “Sure” without much detail, and attempting to go into detail with them will get vague responses because most Christians just haven’t thought out the details.  That doesn’t say anything about whether they find the belief shameful or not.

On the afterlife, pressing even sophisticated Christians about the details of Heaven and Hell to the point of demanding an answer about specific forms is definitely going to trigger responses that are vague because, well, those questions are complicated.  Even if they themselves have answers to those questions, they are likely to be personal and require a lot of explanation that they may not want to do now, especially with someone who is demanding an answer to whether they accept an afterlife and then immediately moves on to demanding specifics, and likely to demanding justifications for why they believe that.  Coyne’s strategy of pressing them with new challenges is only going to make them believe that the challenges will be never ending which will only make them decide that continuing the discussion isn’t worth the effort (at which point Coyne will declare victory).

Souls are the same.  Folk Christians won’t know whether animals have souls and Sophisticated Christians will know that this is a huge issue that requires a lot of explanation and exploration.  Asking where the soul is is a gotcha question, not an honest question, and what happens to it ends up right back in the afterlife box.

Most Christians should be able to answer whether they believe in the Resurrection or not.  As noted above, in some contexts they may not want to talk about it, but I tend to agree with those who say that if the Resurrection didn’t actually happen then Christianity is in trouble.  There are details in that that may not be necessary — most of the purported contradictions in the story are details like that — but it needs to have happened.  From there, we need some sort of afterlife to make the Resurrection meaningful.  From there, we probably need some kind of soul to survive to an afterlife since our physical bodies don’t literally do that.  But Coyne would demand more details and if they didn’t give those details to his satisfaction would declare victory.  Which kinda makes a lie out of this:

I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot. 

Coyne would never be non-judgemental, nor would anyone who actually follows his procedure.  So neither he nor his commenters are likely to find any such case, let alone be able to determine what it is a sign of.

After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.

Actually, this is flatly false, since if you believed in a religion other than the dominant one in a culture you definitely kept quiet about it.  The best case was that you’d be mocked and shunned for that, and the worst case involved strong punishments.  Coyne seems to want cultures where secularism is dominant to do the same thing:  to mock religious beliefs as being nonsense.  And, yeah, in that environment people will be hesitant to talk about the beliefs that will get them mocked.  Go figure.

You don’t need a complex psychological hypothesis tying into the compatibility of religion and science to explain why sometimes people aren’t willing to speak openly about their religion.  All you need is that people don’t like to be mocked and in today’s world people like Coyne mock religion and religious people a lot.  That says nothing about what they really believe or whether religious belief is nonsense or not or whether science and religion are compatible … even if the ones who don’t want to be mocked are scientists.