Archive for October, 2021

Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside”: Most of Disk 1

October 30, 2021

There are eight episodes on each disk, and this time I’m going to do six of them with short comments on each as I don’t have a lot to say about them.

Before getting into that, though, I want to briefly talk about the narration.  There’s a bit of narration at the beginning of each episode talking about how there exists a Dark Side, and then a little narration telling us to enjoy being in the sun now that we’ve seen the Dark Side.  The opening narration works to set things up, but the ending narration often intrudes on episodes where a somber and subdued ending would work best.  I wouldn’t mention it except that in a number of cases it really grated on me.

The second episode is “A New Man”, which features a recovering alcoholic working in an office and doing a really good job, and his boss offers him a drink to celebrate, which he declines.  Then his “son” arrives, but he doesn’t remember having a son like him.  His wife and other son, however, believe that the kid really is his son, and he gets more and more upset with the kid being around as if he was his son.  Eventually, this drives his family away, and him back to the bottle at the end.  In the end, we see another recovering alcoholic working in the same office, declining the same celebration, and then being faced with the same kid claim to be his son.

The problem here is that many of these sorts of episodes will aim at karmic retribution for their victims, and in fact most of the episodes on this disk aim for that (it’s five out of eight, and one of those isn’t really horrific).  So this is the other type of episode, where its intention is to imply that the “Dark Side” can be malevolent, thus triggering a fear in us that there might be a hidden world that might target us next.  But the lead is a recovering alcoholic, which is not a state that most of the audience will find themselves in, and it’s clear that this is targeting recovering alcoholics.  But since we never know why, then what we have is someone or something trying to drive recovering alcoholics back to the bottle for no real reason. That makes the episode less scary and more confusing, and as I note, well, quite often, confusion and horror do not mix.

The third episode is “I’ll Give You a Million”, which focuses on two rich old men near the end of their lives, and one of them dares the other to sell the first one his soul for a million dollars.  After a lot of cajoling, he agrees, and then immediately tries to get the other one to invalidate the deal, who refuses to do so.  Eventually, the first one gets a telegram that the one who sold his soul was going to give him his million back plus another million, but before the first one can do that he finds out that the other one has already died.  A decomposed corpse — strange since the guy died the previous night — shows up demanding that the first one take his soul before someone else does, claiming that possession is 9/10 of the law, but the first guy is too scared to do that, and dies of a previously established heart condition.  Someone who has to be the Devil shows up to claim the first guy’s soul, and then takes the other guy’s soul, repeating that possession is 9/10 of the law and leaving a burn mark of “Paid in Full” on the first guy’s chest.

The problem here is that plot-wise this is a complete mess.  If they had made it so that the guy who sold his soul was conning the first guy into doing that in a desperate attempt to avoid going to Hell for his sins knowing that his life was ending soon (and perhaps hoping that the first guy would make it a possession and so pass it down on his death as part of his estate) then the ending scene would have made sense.  They could have easily had him making a claim that souls don’t exist and then maneuvering his friend into making the odd contract.  Instead, the entire time the person who sold is soul both denies that souls exist and then is desperately trying to get it back, which makes no sense when at the end he suddenly is completely and desperately aware that this is the only way to save him.  This other way would have made more sense of the “Possession is 9/10 of the law” remarks as well, because if the Devil claimed it first then he could invalidate the contract.  Again, a decent premise ruined by the execution.

The fourth episode is “Pain Killer”, a very simple story where a man who under pressure from his wife is looking to improve his life, but ends up with incredibly back pain from picking up a teaspoon.  Eventually, a doctor tells him that it’s stress from dealing with his wife, and eventually offers to kill her to end his pain.  Since this occurs after months of no improvement, he agrees, and she is killed in an accident, and his pain disappears.  Later, the doctor asks him to kill someone who is causing someone else’s terrible migraines, and while he wants to refuse the doctor puts the pain back, and the episode ends with the man demanding to know what the doctor gets out of it and the doctor only laughing, implying that he’s the Devil or … something.

The problem here is that there’s nothing to this episode at all.  The husband and wife are deliberately bland, and the fact that they do seem to clearly love each other regardless makes the “kill the wife” desire a bit out of place.  It again never reveals what the doctor gets out of it but it doesn’t seem random either — despite the implication that the problem for the man was caused by the doctor, even though the girl with migraines seems to have it naturally — and so we are, again, mostly confused than scared, especially considered how corny the doctor is as a villain.

The fifth episode is “The Odds”, which focuses on an old-time bookie noted for never refusing to take a bet and who is on hard times, who ends up with a new customer who is betting heavily and keeps winning.  He eventually identifies the customer as being someone who bet with him previously and committed suicide after losing so much he couldn’t pay, and who thus wants revenge.  But he doesn’t want to just bleed him dry, but instead wants to win with a double or nothing bet:  that the bookie will die before 8 am the next day.  He accepts the bet, and they settle in to wait.  Eventually, 8 am comes and the bookie is still alive, so the customer and his strange escort fade away.  It turns out that the bookie had set all of the clocks ahead to make the customer believe that he had lost, and ends up dying at what really is the time predicted.

The issue here is that while the story has some potential, it isn’t very scary and so needed to do something other than horror.  Given the set up, they could easily have made it so that he legitimately survives past 8 am, but only from sheer force of will, which is also what distinguishes him from the customer.  As it is, that he cheats makes us like him less but that he wins doing it means that we don’t get karmic retribution, and so we end up watching an unlikable person die of natural causes in a pointless episode, which is not a lot of fun.

The seventh episode is “Mookie and Pookie”, where a teen dying of a disease is working on an important computer who makes his twin sister — who hates computers — promise to finish it right before he dies.  She starts to do that and seemingly becomes obsessed with it, which worries her parents.  When a voice synthesizer arrives we find out that the main idea is that the twin is in the computer network and wants his sister to build it so that he can live there and communicate through it.  The father wants to unplug and sell the computer to get his daughter back to normal and to recover from his death, but at the very end the son decides to communicate with him and they end up as a happy and recovering family.

This isn’t really any kind of horror episode, which is a strike against it given how the other episodes were.  Another strike is that the parents are aware that she promised her twin to finish his program based on instructions he left her and so should have understood that she was going to do that since she cared about him so much.  It’s not a matter of giving her time to recover but instead just to give her time to fulfill her promise, so the entire main conflict is an utterly unreasonable one.  And the son could have communicated with the father earlier but claims the father isn’t ready, but does so right before being unplugged when the father hadn’t done anything to get ready for the reveal.  So it’s mostly a nonsense plot that goes nowhere but at least has a heartwarming ending.  (It also starred Justine Bateman, which might be of interest to people who, like me, remember who she is).

The seventh episode — and the last one I’m covering in this post — is “Slippage”, which involves a young industrial designer who with his friend is looking to get a new and better job but while his friend got an offer he didn’t, and it’s because the company has not received or has lost lots of things about him, like his portfolio and his birth certificate and transcripts etc, etc.  His boss even lost his paycheck that very day.  His wife tells him not to worry about it, but old friends of his don’t remember him and he wasn’t invited to his high school reunion, and strange things like this keep happening.  He accuses his wife of arranging it so that she could be with the friend (who was her friend first) but eventually he and his friend end up at the office where we note that he kept looking in a mirror and has drawings of himself as a child, as current, and as an old man, and there is an explanation that he studied himself so much that he became one dimensional and fades out of the timeline entirely, which then changes so that the friend is with the wife and at the end the door opens and closes as, presumably, the guy leaves their life completely.

Obviously, the supernatural plot is entirely nonsensical and even the explanation raises more questions than it answers, so the episode would have to rely on the personal drama to make this work.  But the characters and situations are uninteresting and unsympathetic, so we don’t really even get invested in any of them to feel for what they’re going through.  So it’s just a nonsensical story that is uninterestingly confusing.

The eighth episode and final episode deserves a post on its own, which is what I will do in the next post.

Jonathan MS Pearce on Free Will

October 29, 2021

A while ago, I commented on a post of Jonathan MS Pearce’s over at “A Tippling Philosopher”, and had an aside about how some things he does there and in his books — I’ve read a couple of them but haven’t commented on them yet — annoy me, and specifically that he will do things like dismiss the free will counter on some positions and then demand that those who want to use that argument demonstrate that free will exists before they can do so.  Not only is that going to be very difficult for people who are not philosophers to do, it also takes an open and long-standing debate in philosophy and asserts that the solution has been found and that it’s hard determinism that has won.  This is actually really, really bad for free will because in general most philosophers are compatibilists, not hard determinists, but almost all of them will agree that the question has not yet been settled.  Pearce himself commented on my post talking about how there is no coherent idea of libertarian free will, which eventually led to him sending me an article in an upcoming book that talks about free will, which is now going to lead to me talking about it, because obviously I disagree that hard determinism is the correct way to look at free will, and over whether we have free will at all.

So let me start with his opening issue.  Like almost all hard determinists, he starts by defining free will as “the ability to do otherwise”, and then works through an example of what that would mean and why it doesn’t work:

Imagine a decision. For example, let us take Wendy. She decides at 09:15 to give $5 to a homeless person she passes in the street. Now imagine that the world continues for any amount of time (say, ten minutes). We then rewind the world back to 09:15. The LFWer believes that Wendy, at 09:15, could just as well have decided not to have given the money to the homeless
person, rationally and consciously.

The issue is that, speaking as a LFWer — Libertarian Free Willer — I don’t believe that, and again most people who care about free will at all don’t believe that.  This sort of situation is what follows if you take the vague and somewhat folk view of “The ability to do otherwise” and try to use that simple basis as the basis for a deep analysis of free will, in much the same manner as people may argue that evolution makes no sense because “If humans evolved from apes, then how come there are still apes?”.  While often proponents of evolution consider that to be a sign that the people making that argument simply don’t understand evolution at all, that’s not really the case.  We can make the objection seem more reasonable by changing it to “How come humans changed so radically from those ape-like creatures, but apes didn’t?’.  The mistake, though, is that when we say that humans evolved from apes or even ape-like creatures what we mean is that there was a common ancestor between humans and apes that had more characteristics of apes than they had of humans.  But the mechanism of evolution would explain that the reason for the differences is due to differences in environment and mutations that caused apes to evolve less or in different ways than humans did, which explains the differences.  The phrase, then, only points to the ancestor, and for evolution the ancestor is less important than the process, which the statement references but doesn’t analyze.  To really do a proper analysis, you need to look more at the process and less at the vague explanatory statement that describes the relationship between humans, apes and that common ancestor.

The same thing applies to the folk phrase of “The ability to do otherwise”.  Taking that as the totality of free will and analyzing free will from that point produces the exact problem we see here, where the focus is on whether a different decision can be made and not on what it means to make a proper free decision.  So then we fall into the pit of winding back time and claiming that different decisions have to be made no matter how ridiculous, which as Pearce notes decouples free will from reasons and reasoning, which would then produce a rather strange idea of free will.  But when we analyze what is important and meaningful about free will, what we discover is that free will decisions are crucially related to reasons and to the decision-making processes that are responsive to reasons.  What we mean when we say that they could do otherwise in that situation, really, is to note that the outcome is not determined until the decision-making process finishes, and whatever decision that process comes to is the one that we will follow.  Now, all rational decision-making processes — like the ones humans tend to use when they deliberate — will respond to reasons, and so an LFWer would have to conclude that if her decision-making process proceeded as it did the first time then she would indeed make the same decision even if we rolled back time.

This actually goes a lot further.  Decisions are made on the basis of us examining the situation we are in and assessing the available options on the basis of what we desire and what we believe to be true to pick the action that maximizes the satisfaction of our desires — including the relative importance of those desires — given what we think is true about the world.  Thus, for a perfect decision-making process, there really is only one right decision or, if there is more than one that is equally important, all you could do is randomly choose between them.  However, in humans our decision-making processes are not perfect, and so we will decide to take suboptimal actions for various reasons, including that we just don’t happen to think of those actions or forget desires we have or beliefs we have when considering what action to take.  For example, imagine that I’m deciding what to have to supper.  I ponder a number of options and then decide that I’m going to cook chicken strips, and start cooking them.  And then I remember that I had leftover spaghetti and wanted to have that because it’s too much to be eaten as a snack or small meal but for the next few days I have other things that I wanted to eat as meals, and if I delay any of those meals they’ll go bad before I can eat them.  However, now that I’ve started cooking I can’t change what I will eat, but if I had remembered about the spaghetti I would have made a different decision.  So given the beliefs and desires I have, there is only one decision that a perfect decision-making process would come to:  I would have the leftover spaghetti.  But since my decision-making process is not perfect, I can come to any number of other decisions, and that is determined by the decision-making process itself and the considerations I make or fail to make while making the decision.

The thing is, though, the decision in the case above isn’t random either, which with totally determined are the two options that Pearce — and, to be fair, most people in the debate — allows for.  The thing is, that decision doesn’t seem to be totally determined, as it does indeed rely on me not considering something that it was perfectly reasonable for me to consider, but it isn’t random either because it not only is based on the other desires and beliefs that I’ve considered but also critically on the desires and beliefs that I forgot to consider.  Ultimately, what we have when we look at our decisions even in such simple and common cases they definitely seem to be reason-responsive, which is certainly not random but also at least isn’t determined by the desires and beliefs we clearly have, but only by the ones that are considered there.

So when Pearce later asks what the world would look like if we had free will, while the simple answer from LFWers would be “Like the one we have, since we have it!”, we can give him a more detailed answer here.  We can see that what we should see when we examine the actions of people when they make decisions that we consider free will decisions is that they should be reason-responsive.  What this means is that if you take the same person and put them in similar situations, they should act in a way that aligns with their basic character and desires and beliefs, and so much of the time they will make similar or perhaps even identical decisions.  And yet, at times even in almost identical situations they will make completely different decisions and take completely different actions, but in general you won’t be able to find something in the environment that has changed that explains the difference, but you will be able to find a “reason” for it so it isn’t entirely random either.  They in general won’t do it “for no reason” but if you try to look outside them to the cause for the different outcome you won’t be able to find it there, but instead only by appealing to their internal beliefs and desires.

For example, imagine that I’m going down to the cafeteria for lunch, and I’m offered a choice between poutine or Sloppy Joes, to use one of my favourite examples.  Given that I really like poutine and dislike Sloppy Joes, there is almost no chance that I will choose anything other than poutine.  While I definitely could choose Sloppy Joes — and so could “do otherwise” — my beliefs and desires are such that I’m never going to.  In order to understand why I will never choose Sloppy Joes over poutine, you will not appeal to the outside world but instead will have to appeal to my inner beliefs and desires.

So what we will see in the world is that in general people will make decisions in line with what we’d consider their basic personalities, but the decisions will not always align with that but if the decisions don’t align with that we will be able to find a reason why it didn’t.  To continue the food examples, some people on going to a restaurant will always order the same thing and will be very hesitant to try any new items that appear on the menu, and some people will always order something different and be eager to try any new menu items.  And yet, either of those people may change that behaviour on certain days or at certain restaurants.  The person who always wants to try something different may, at a particular restaurant, always order the same thing, and the person who always wants to order the same thing may try something different or a new menu item.  But this won’t be random.  They will always have a reason for the change in their typical behaviour, and it will be internal, not external.  So the person who atypically decides to stick with one order might do so because they really, really love that dish and can only get it there, and so every time they get the chance to have it they take it.  The person who generally doesn’t order the new item may look at it and find it appealing.  Heck, someone who always orders the same thing may simply decide one day that they don’t feel like the same old thing and so feel like doing something new.  So they would be deciding to give in to a lower-level — and possibly more determined — feeling that they could resist and have resisted in the past.  That doesn’t make it random, but instead keeps it as reason-responsive, even if their “reason” is just to avoid considering and following their reasons, like someone deciding to flip a coin to decide something rather than working it out in detail.

So the key to free will and our decisions as we see them in the world is that we need them to be reason-responsive in a way that determined outcomes and random/probabilistic outcomes don’t seem to be.  If we look at a determined decision — and examples like the Libet experiments — we see that they separate our deliberations from the outcome, and so the reasons we think we are using to make those decisions don’t actually have to be the “reasons” we actually took that action.  A determined world leaves no room for anything else to be the causally determining factor, and since it’s only in our conscious deliberations that we truly consider reasons that would have to have a causal impact on the outcome, and determinism says that it can’t do that.  On the other hand, random or even probabilistic methods don’t allow for reasons to play a strongly determining role.  Probabilistic ones might allow reasons to bias the outcomes one way or the other, but it really does seem like reasons — and, in particular, the reasons that we consciously consider — play a determining role in what actions we take, not merely a biasing one.  So neither of these work for our experience of making decisions.

And speaking as someone who rejects materialist ideas of mind, these considerations are what characterizes the entire debate:  it doesn’t seem like a purely physical mechanism has any room to actually take into account things like meaning, reasons, intentionality, intensionality and all of the things that seem to make humans actually intelligent.  While some may point to neural nets as examples of purely physical intelligence, the interesting thing about them is that they actually don’t decide things on the basis of reasons at all, and you cannot ask them what their reasons are for deciding what they decide.  Any determinations of the reasons behind their decisions have to come from humans, not from them.  We can contrast this with inference engines that can give the reasons for their decisions, but we can see that under the hood all they are doing is symbolic matching and explanation and so there is little reason to think they really understand what those things mean.  Ultimately, what is important for human intelligence is meaning, and strictly physical systems don’t seem to have any way to actually get that.  As noted above, that’s the issue with free will:  we need reasons, and the alternatives don’t seem to be able to actually provide reasons.

So after clarifying what the free will really means, we can address his comment on compatibilists:

Compatibilists deny LFW too. But they take the term free will and mold it into something new; they redefine it.

This is a common take from hard determinists on compatibilists, but it’s actually incorrect.  Compatibilists don’t want to redefine free will, but instead want to clarify what is important about it, given that the arguments from hard determinists don’t really seem to be making a dent in convincing either the common people or most philosophers that we really don’t have free will.  And while Pearce casts their view as generally being about being able to do what we want to do, the common thread among compatibilists tends to be pretty much what I’ve pointed out above:  they’ve identified that what is really important to us about free will is that our decision-making processes are what determine our actions, and so try to find ways so that our decision-making processes can be determined and yet still be meaningfully determining our actions.  I’m not a compatibilist because I don’t think that can be done, but I respect their move even if I think it won’t bear fruit.  Pearce’s comment here only highlights that the simple view of free will as “ability to do otherwise” is insufficient to properly analyze the philosophical debate around free will.

Which we can now finally return to.  In general, LFWers will say that if her decision-making process ran properly and nothing changes her reasons, then she will make the same decision again and that will still, in fact, be a free decision.  Compatibilists will argue the same.  And I dare say that the average person would say the same thing.  Of course, there have been numerous psychological studies that show that the average person will give deterministic or libertarian answers to questions depending on the context, which I think the above discussion can explain.  If we focus on Wendy deliberating on her decision and have a good reason not to give the money to the homeless person, I suspect that in the above thought experiment most people will answer that she will not change her decision, which would look deterministic.  However, if we focus on Wendy regretting her decision not to give the money to the homeless person then I suspect that most people will say that she would change her decision.  In both cases, we’d be focusing on the reasons she had for the decision in the first place and how “proper” those decisions were.  If she had a good reason for not giving the money, that won’t change just because time was rewound.  But if she feels that based on what she knew at the time she made the wrong decision, then we think it possible that the decision-making process could work out better the second time around.  Again, as noted, it’s all about the reasons.

So, after all of that, let’s see what’s left to talk about in the essay.

Some libertarians will claim that, yes, we are largely determined, or influenced, but that we can overcome this problem with our own volition. This is what I call the 80/20 Problem. That is to say, if an LFWer claims that they are influenced, say, 80% then this leaves 20% of a decision making the process open to agent origination (this is often put forward by proponents I have spoken to). The problem is that all the logical issues I mentioned above are now distilled into the 20%. In effect, it makes the problem worse. The LFWer here accepts much determination, but allows a small window of opportunity, but does not escape the grounding objection and any other logical issue with causality previously expressed. The problem of LFW is even more acute, then.

I’ve gone over a lot of free will books and views lately, and the most common view that seems like the one Pearce is referencing is the idea that in general things are determined but that our decisions can interrupt that determination and substitute a different path and so a different action.  This avoids the need to have free will being constantly active while preserving our decision-making mechanisms.  So it isn’t just that it’s a certain percentage, but instead that it’s under certain conditions, which alleviates the problem that Pearce is referring to here.  And, of course, no libertarian has ever claimed that everything we do must be driven by free choices, allowing for things like automatic and instinctive and emotional responses and the like to be determined, but that we can override them if we decide we want to, as I talked about with the restaurant example.

Which is important, because in the next long section Pearce spends a lot of time talking about genetic and psychological components that impact the decisions we make.  But libertarians do not deny that things like that can influence our decisions.  They only argue that they don’t determine them.  What we can have are predispositions or influences, and those influences and predispositions can cause our decision-making processes to come out with less than ideal conclusions, but ultimately it’s still our decision-making processes that make the final decision.  And, in fact, these sorts of things actually support libertarianism more than determinism, because we can see that people with these things often have radically different outcomes in the very areas where those things are most relevant.  We know that there’s a genetic predisposition for alcoholism, and yet while children of alcoholics disproportionately become alcoholics as well, the children of alcoholics run the gamut from alcoholics to people who never drink to people who drink normally.  Pearce talks about priming but again all that does is make people more likely to make those choices, but many people in the experiments don’t make the choices they are primed to make.  The most interesting example Pearce gives is this:

Liane Young and her colleagues have astonishingly found that in making moral judgments, a key area of the brain is a knot of nerve cells known as the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ), and that by sending in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), they were able to change people’s moral judgments. 18 The judgments of the subjects shifted from moral principle to verdicts based on outcome (in philosophy we might say from deontology to consequentialism). The ramifications of which are that such judgments are physical in nature or grounding and that physical influences in the brain are likely to have an effect on core moral judgments.

However, that example never actually said that it determines their decisions or that it was even moral decisions, but that it focused them more on considering the consequences of their actions than the strict morality of them.  As noted above, that could be just impacting our decision-making processes to make them less — or more, depending on what your view of morality is — correct.  So it’s not really changing our moral judgements because it isn’t clear from the example that people still thought of it as a moral decision.  At any rate, it’s all influence, and libertarians accept evidence.  And as Pearce himself notes, the issue with Libet-type experiments is that they don’t look like actual decisions of the sort that we care about.  (I’ve already addressed Wegner’s view here).

Here Pearce highlights something that is always a problem for hard determinists (Jerry Coyne has fallen into this trap consistently):

The point I want to make here is that most people think that such a tumor would abrogate moral responsibility in the agent. In other words, Whitman should not be deemed fully morally culpable for his actions since his brain was impaired: he couldn’t help himself. I want to look at this claim because it implies that a neurotypical person is categorically different to
someone with a brain tumor.

I contest this.

Of course, the tumor makes a person act differently to that which they would have done. But all it actually does is change one form of determined outcome into another. It is not, I posit, a categorical difference. I think people make this mistake too often such as in the sort of claim that follows: “I think it’s not sensible to infer anything about ‘normal’ cognition from experience of people who exhibit obviously-abnormal cognition.”

The issue is that even hard determinists need to consider the case of tumors or abnormal brain states or else nothing can make sense.  There is a significant difference between someone who has a brain condition that short circuits their decision-making process that makes them act in a certain way and that way following from their decision-making process.  We need to treat those people completely differently, and differently in a way that aligns with what we think of as moral responsibility.  Pearce may argue that these things are all determined, but we still need to make the distinctions that he contests that we need.  And one of the arguments that compatibilists make against hard determinists is that they argue for rejecting these concepts and distinctions but in the end need to reinsert them so that they can explain human behaviour.  So if the compatibilist move would work and continue to make sense of human behaviour but also accept determinism, there seems to be no reason for hard determinism at all.  And we know that we have to treat the kleptomaniac and the person who steals to feed their family and the person who steals for the heck of it differently, no matter what we call the distinctions that justify that different treatment.

I don’t want to get too deep into discussions of God, but at the end Pearce basically uses the ideas around free will to argue that the nature of God as defined in Christianity, at least, makes it so that we can’t have free will and so that God Himself can’t have free will.  Let me just address these briefly.

First, Pearce takes on the pretty standard argument that God’s omniscience means that He knows everything that we are going to do before we do it, and so we can’t do anything other than what He knows we will do, and so we can’t have free will.  So imagine that I get the ability to go ahead into the future, and if I do so I see that you are going to do something, but when I return to the present I do nothing with that knowledge.  I have no causal contact with you.  If I have no causal contact with you after I gain that knowledge, that knowledge I have cannot play a causal role in your decision.  And if it can’t play a causal role in your decision, then the fact that I merely say it cannot change the causal chains that produced that decision.  So my knowledge cannot cause your decision and so cannot override whatever causal process produces it, so my knowledge in and of itself cannot determine your choice, and so cannot take away your free will.  So simply observing the outcome of a free choice before it was technically made cannot turn it into a non-free choice without it somehow actually causally determining the choice itself, and God’s omniscience is an observation, not a cause, so that in and of itself cannot mean that we do not have free will.

In general, then, what we think of when we think that being able to simply observe a choice before it was made means that it cannot be free is that the only way to be able to do that is if the world is such that all choices are, in fact, determined.  The future must already exist at the time of the choice and so must also be determined at the time of the choice or else how could we actually observe it?  This, however, is not a safe assumption.  Take the case of the Prophets from Deep Space 9.  They could see the future, but only because they themselves were outside of time and so the idea of the past, present and future made no sense to them whatsoever.  They were indeed outside of time.  So, then, given that their knowledge didn’t have any causal impact on anyone (er, for the most part, as they did interfere in the affairs of people inside of time), is it necessarily the case that we needed to have a process that could determine everything so that the “future” could exist for them to observe?  Being outside of time, they could progress up and down the “timeline” at will at any point that time exists, but that would only mean that they technically came in “at the end”, once everything had been done.  If they are only observing, then all they’d see are the free will choices that people have made, and would have no causal impact on them.  So the choices could still be free and yet they’d technically see them “before” they happen.  God is noted as being outside of time, and so again it isn’t at all clear that his omniscience would impact our free will.

(Note that, yes, there are issues for the Prophets and God who do interfere in the timeline.  That’s not an issue I want to take up here since it isn’t Pearce’s original comment).

In the second argument, Pearce argues that God’s perfect nature means that He can only do what is maximally loving (Pearce’s example) and so since He can do nothing else He doesn’t have free will.  However, as noted above a perfectly rational agent will also do the thing that is most in line with their beliefs, desires and nature.  That is not a clash with free will, but is instead the definition of free will.  So that God will always perfectly exercise his free will in line with his nature is simply the result of the fact that, unlike us, his decision-making processes are perfect and so always perfectly reflect his free will, a state that we can only aspire to but never achieve.

Ultimately, Pearce tried to argue that free will is logically inconsistent and so no one can credibly think that free will exists.  As we’ve seen in this post, I strongly beg to differ, and think that I’ve made a good stab at it.  The ball, then, is back in Pearce’s court since someone clearly has tried to take on his arguments against free will and clearly finds them lacking.

Thoughts on “Come Play”

October 28, 2021

“Come Play” is a fairly recent movie, and seems to lamentably reflect the more modern sensibilities and even terminologies, which at least to someone like me can be fairly annoying and awfully wordy and self-gratifying.  However, I also think that those sensibilities also impacted the plot and especially the end of the movie, to their detriment.  Given that, I am going to talk about and so spoil the ending of the movie, so if you think you might want to watch it don’t continue past the fold.


Thoughts on “Pacific Rim: Uprising”

October 27, 2021

So as noted last week, the next movie in that ten pack is “Pacific Rim:  Uprising” which is a sequel to “Pacific Rim” which I only know about through Chuck Sonnenberg’s review of that.  Thus, I’m coming into this a bit behind the eight-ball, as I am only vaguely aware of the overall universe and the characters and events from the first movie, which is a bit important here.  Still, any decent sequel does have to explain things enough so that people who start there can at least understand enough to enjoy this one, even if they might be a bit confused at times.

The universe is basically a Mecha vs Kaiju universe, where Rifts to an alien Hell dimension have started randomly opening and the aliens in that dimension have started sending huge monsters through to attack Earth, presumably at least in preparation for an invasion.  Humanity responds by building huge mechs that require two — or more — people working in sync to run, with them being joined by a neural interface.  In the first movie, the organization that runs this manages to build and develop mechs and pilots that are eventually strong enough to beat the monsters back and seal the Rifts, presumably ending the threat.

The sequel fast forwards to a number of years later.  The organization has been ramping down a bit, and its mandate has changed from stopping the monsters to tracking down people stealing, selling and using the mech tech.  The main character used to be a mech pilot and is the son of a man who sacrificed himself to seal the Rifts, but now he’s selling mech tech using his knowledge of how they work from when he was in the organization.  A raid goes wrong because another person is there at the same time and steals the things first, and this turns out to be a young girl who is obsessed with being a pilot who has built her own mech.  Anyway, they both get caught and both get enlisted — or re-enlisted, in the case of the main character — into the organization.

Meanwhile, the organization is about to be replaced by a set of automated drones, which is an issue for them.  The head of the company is portrayed as completely amoral and only concerned about getting the contract.  At a demonstration for the drones, another rogue mech shows up, kills the main characters adoptive sister, which prompts the immediate activation of the drones.  This turns out to be a bad idea, because one of the former pilots from the first movie had interacted with the aliens and is now working for them, and has co-opted the drones to re-open Rifts, which spawns three hugely powerful monsters who want to go to Mount Fuji and use their energy to trigger a disaster that will turn Earth into a wasteland like the home dimension of the aliens.  The drones attack the main base of the organization and so put out of condition most of the mechs and almost all of the pilots except for the trainees, who must get together in what mechs remain with the main character and his former mech partner to take out the monsters and save the planet.

I have to start by saying that while I understand the neural interface idea and think it’s interesting, in practice what you have are two people standing next to each other acting in pantomime, because the controls are mechanical for the most part, and it looks kinda silly.  The worst is when they have to run, as they are basically running in place in sync, which always struck me as being funny.  It does have an impact on the fight scenes, at least for me, but doesn’t really ruin the movie.

The main issue I have with this movie is that it seems like it was written with tropes but that they don’t all mesh together and aren’t properly developed.  We have the former pilot being dragged back in who eventually has to embrace that life and lead, the former partner now rival out of a sense of betrayal, the conflict between them being exacerbated by a love interest, the young ingenue who is looked down upon for not getting there the right way but who is eventually accepted for her abilities, and so on and so forth.  About the only thing that isn’t really that is the betrayal plot, and that follows on from the first movie which means that it loses some of its emotional heft because I’m not really aware of the characters or of their relationship or of the reasons why the one betrays humanity, although his move from submissive to mastermind works pretty well.

I also have to give it some credit for pacing and action scenes, as aside from how silly sometimes the neural interface can look the fights move well and are suitably dramatic, and the rest of the plot around it proceeds at a good pace with everything seeming relevant so that you don’t feel that the movie is dragging its feet.  Ultimately, in my opinion that makes it a decent action romp, but I have no real attachment to either Kaiju or Mecha, did not see the original movie, and am not a huge fan of action movies at the best of times, so while I have to say that it’s not a bad movie, there’s really nothing in the movie for me to latch onto, as I don’t really care for the universe, don’t care for the characters as they seem to be more tropes and archetypes than real characters, and don’t care about the action either.  So this is a movie that I will not watch again, although in this case that’s more because it’s not my type of movie than that it’s a bad movie per se.  People more interested in its genre would have to judge that.

Thoughts on “The Jewel of Seven Stars”

October 26, 2021

After re-reading “Dracula”, I decided to finally read a collection of three Bram Stoker novels tagged as “Lost Novels”.  “The Jewel of Seven Stars” is the first of these.  As noted by the editor, Stoker had had a long fascination with the supernatural and had spent a fair amount of time at least later in life trying to be a writer.  “Dracula”, however, was the only work that really took.  From my experience with this one, there’s probably a reason for that.

While “Dracula” focused on the vampire legends, this one focuses on mummies and those legends.  In this work, he doesn’t use the journal approach of “Dracula”, but instead focuses on a first-person account from a solicitor who is also in love with the daughter of someone who is obsessed with Egyptian artifacts, and who brings him into the story when the father is attacked and left in a coma.  The first part of the book is all about trying to figure out what happened to him, especially when a nurse also falls into a coma and the father is attacked again.  He outlined a bunch of conditions in case something happened to him, which are bizarre and involve keeping him in that room and under watch at all times (which doesn’t prevent him from being attacked again).  The detective and doctor are baffled by the case, but then an associate arrives with information and items that were to be used by the father, and soon after the father recovers and the detective fades out of the case.  In turns out that his goal was to participate in a Great Experiment to raise the mummy of a remarkable woman to life again, as she seemed to set things up for that, and the next step is to actually perform it in some out of the way place.  After a lot of exposition and delay and a suspicion that the daughter was somehow possessed by the spirit of the mummy, they try the experiment.

I’ll talk more about how that turns out later — as that’s the ending of the book — but let me start by talking about how uneven the plot actually is.  It starts as more of a supernatural mystery, but halfway through that changes to the experiment angle for no real reason, and all of the events in the first one are mostly forgotten and not particularly explained.  Especially since the father was purportedly put in a coma by the mummy herself in an attempt to get the titular “Jewel of Seven Stars” back for some reason, but then they seem to think that she’s on their side in the matter and she doesn’t really seem to attack them or try to get that back again. So the two parts don’t mesh well together, and the work seems to change style right in the middle but, again, for no real reason.

I noted in talking about “Dracula” that Stoker had a tendency to waste time expounding on how wonderful the characters are, especially the female ones.  Here, it’s even worse.  Stoker has the protagonist wax eloquently about how wonderful the daughter is — which makes sense since he’s in love with her — but also takes time to have the father wax eloquently about how great the mummy was in life, and then the daughter to opine on the mummy’s psychology and desire for love despite her having no real way to know any of that (which is lampshaded).  The worst part of this is that none of this actually matters, as we never actually get to meet the mummy.

Which leads into the ending, which is hugely problematic.  There are two endings, both of which are incredibly abrupt and neither of which is at all satisfying.  The original ending — at least according to the editor of the book — implies that the experiment succeeded, the mummy recovered and left, and everyone except the protagonist ends up in comas that they never recover from (perhaps because he managed to get his respirator on and they didn’t).  The alternate ending implies that the experiment failed and that the mummy turned to ash.  The problem with both is that there is so much time spent on the experiment and talking about the implications if it succeeded or if it failed that to end it this way makes it seem perfunctory.  We also never find out in either case what the mummy’s real goals were, which matters more in the original one where she ends up back in the world.  Both endings also pretty much ignore the love story that was so prominent, with the original ending ending it and the alternate ending not referring to it but instead only referring to the experiment failing.  So on all counts the endings are totally unsatisfying because they end without exploring any of the implications and without resolving any of the plots and character arcs that the book spent so much time talking about throughout the book.  It is odd that a book that spends so much time on exposition can’t take a few more pages to explore the ramifications of what it had set up.

Overall, this wasn’t a very good book.  It shifts plots in the middle for no real reason despite spending a lot of pages on the first one, spends a lot of time on exposition that is boring and even somewhat repetitive, and then doesn’t have a satisfying ending because the endings don’t resolve any of the arcs and both end quite abruptly.  I won’t be reading this book again.

Thoughts on “The Masters”

October 25, 2021

When the pandemic hit, it interrupted the Grand Slam of Curling, and what they decided was to essentially skip a year in-between and play the two events that weren’t played in 2020 in the spring of 2021 while skipping the events that should have been in fall 2020.  The spring events were played inside the bubble in Calgary that also hosted the Scotties, Briar and Men’s Worlds, but now they are able to travel and are returning to open arenas without a bubble to host their events.  “The Masters” is the first event of the fall and of the 2021/2022 season.

The final ended up being between Jennifer Jones and the defending champion Tracy Fleury.  Now, I’m not a fan of Jennifer Jones’ team — although I concede that she’s a great player — because she has a tendency to beat teams that I like better than her, and also she gets a lot of attention which always grates on me.  I also do quite like Tracy Fleury’s team, so this was a final where it was easy for me to decide who to cheer for.  Tracy Fleury took two 3s and had a 7 – 4 lead going into the seventh, but Jones took 2 in seven and stole 1 in eight to force an extra end, where Fleury took 2 to win 9 – 7.  So I was happy with that.

As noted, I like Fleury’s team.  I also like Kerri Einarson’s team, but when the two teams meet I always cheer for Fleury’s team to win.  This isn’t really an indication that I like Fleury’s team better, but mostly reflects the fact that Kerri Einarson used to skip Fleury’s team and left them to form a team of four skips.  So it’s always nice to see that team beat Einarson to basically show her that they can play as well as if not better than the team she left them for.  Einarson has done better than Fleury over the past while — winning the Scotties twice — but it’s always nice when Fleury can beat Einarson.  Fleury beat Einarson twice in this event, and is perfect against her this season (playing in other events that don’t get televised).

The format for this event was a triple knockout, where essentially a team has to win 3 games before they lose 3 games to make the quarter finals.  I think they’re going to use this for most of the season.  I don’t think I really like it, though, because there’s no set schedule of who plays who (who plays you?) and some teams can play two less games than other teams, and the better teams get more time off which isn’t always a good thing.  In these quarterfinals, both of the teams that made it through the A-side and so hadn’t lost before then lost to the teams that had had two losses and so qualified through the C-side.  Getting time off isn’t always a benefit in curling, not so much because the players lose their touch but instead because the ice conditions tend to change day over day and the teams that had to play in the morning would have a leg up on understanding those changing conditions.  So perhaps the time off hurt the game or changes of those who won through the A-side.  That being said, on the men’s side that didn’t happen — both of the A-side teams made the semis — so it could just be a coincidence.  Well, I’ll put up with it and watch to see if it’s a pattern on the women’s side.

Also, the World Curling Federation is looking to change some rules, pondering adding a “No-tick zone”.  What this means is that there was already a rule that said that you cannot remove guards — stones placed out front of the house and so not in the scoring zone, intended to be used to protect stones in the scoring zone — for the first five stones, but you can move them around.  So what teams developed was a “tick shot”, where they bumped the guards — especially ones in the centre — out of the way to the edges without removing them, which made them pretty much irrelevant.  So the rule they were trying out in this event was in the eighth end and in the extra end was that you couldn’t even tick them out of the way (I’m not sure what would happen if someone was trying to go around them and wrecked on them).  I don’t like tweaking rules for these reasons, especially since tick shots are not automatic — Lisa Weagle was known for being able to make them consistently, but they aren’t easy — and it isn’t great to take away a skilled shot that can go wrong by a rule change instead of allowing teams to find ways to deal with that potential strategy.  From what I heard the commentators say, the players themselves are somewhat split on it.  I know that some teams incorporated it into their strategies — Kevin Koe explicitly made a call planning to take advantage of easier stealing in the eighth and in the extra end — and some weren’t all that happy with it.  So we’ll see how that all shakes out.

The next event is the Boost National at the beginning of November.

Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside”

October 23, 2021

I very recently — like on Monday — finished off a run of all eight seasons of “That 70s Show” (watch for my comments on that coming up in the near future) and have moved on to a horror anthology-type show that I picked up cheap without ever having heard anything about it (I might have heard a reference to the actual movie at one point, but don’t remember watching it) called “Tales From the Darkside”.  I both did and didn’t arrange to watch this coming up on Halloween.  The shows that I’ve been watching over the past few months were selected in an attempt to clear out all of the half hour shows out of my stack of DVDs, and as this is a half hour show it fit in that category.  However, one of the reasons to put it last was indeed that it would probably slide into the schedule around Halloween and so would be appropriate.  Anyway, I started watching it and after watching the first disk I decided two things.  First, that some of the story ideas in the show had promise but that the execution was sorely lacking and, second, because of that I kinda wanted to comment on it in more detail than my normal analysis would allow for.  Hence, I want to go through all of the episodes of all six disks and talk about them in some way.

Which leads to a few changes.  First, it’s the case that I don’t need or want to talk about each episode in detail, but at the same time there are some that I want to talk about in detail.  So some episodes will get their own post while some episodes will be combined together into one post covering all of them in less detail than the other posts.  If I only did each disk per post, that would be six posts, which would work out to six weeks in my normal horror slot on Thursdays, and as noted I will have more posts than that.  So that’s an awful lot of time to take away from horror movies, especially since I do have a backlog of horror movies to watch and comment on, and those won’t be put on hold because watching this one fits into my TV show watching time, not my horror movie watching time (which is good because I still have big stacks of horror movies to watch as well).  I could put it into other slots, but honestly I have other things to slot there as well, and trying to mix the two would only delay posts that I’d like to make longer than Id like (especially since I want to at least write these posts as soon after watching a disk as I can to ensure that later disks and episodes don’t impact my judgement of earlier ones).  Hence, this post coming out on a Saturday.  I will be writing these ahead and scheduling them for Saturdays, but if in one week I don’t have the time to write a post for a day I’ll just move these posts from Saturday to that day.  Since I’m busy, I’m hoping I’ll be able to manage all of this, but we’ll see.

Anyway, this first post is going to cover the very first episode, “Trick or Treat”, which is both an episode with a lot of things to talk about and one that also, rather unfortunately, sets the tone for the rest of the disk.  This one was written by George A. Romero of “Night of the Living Dead” fame, which makes it rather surprising that this episode’s writing is so poor.  I’m having a hard time deciding the right way to outline this one, as I’d normally do a plot synopsis first and then talk about its issues, but it’s hard to talk about the sections without talking about their flaws.  I think I’ll try to do a plot outline and then pick out the individual sections and their failings and see how that goes.

Anyway, it starts with an old man sitting with two accountants balancing his books late at night.  The movie establishes that he’s cheap and won’t hire an assistant, which explains why they have to come to his store late at night to do the books.  One of them asks for another cup of coffee, which starts a lengthy conversation about how he’s going to charge 4 cents for it — his cost + 20% — and establishes in even more detail that he’s frugal, but he insists that he is always fair and always only gets what he should.  After that, there’s a scene where the old man is in some fear and then there is an apparent monster attack, but the old man reveals that it’s just a trick, Halloween is coming up, and he loves Halloween.

We then move on to a scene in the daytime in the store, where it is revealed that he runs the general store and has collected IOUs from pretty much everyone in the town, as it’s a farming community and the crops have not been doing well lately.  A father and son come in to make a payment, and then say that they won’t be going to the old man’s house for Halloween.  It turns out that the old man on Halloween holds an event where the kids come into his house one at a time to look for his stack of IOUs, and if they manage to find them the debt their parents owe is wiped out.  The trick is that the old man tries to scare them into running out of the house before they manage to find it.  He insisted to the child that the hiding place is obvious and is fair, but we find out later that he does hide it in a place that isn’t that easy to find.  Anyway, the boy insists that he can do it but the father refuses to let him, and the old man threatens to raise their payments unless he does, but the father stays firm.  After he leaves, another father says that his son is going to do it this year, as he’s been whipping him all year in preparation for that.

Anyway, on the night we see a kid come to the house, and the old man has set it up with animatronics to scare the children.  The girl can’t take it and runs out to her mother’s waiting arms.  Then comes the boy who was whipped, and he does pretty well, but the old man taunts them with “warmer” and “colder” and uses that against the boy when he almost finds it, which makes his approach seem less fair than advertised.  Anyway, he is distracted away from the real hiding place and is eventually scared out, and we see him run to his father’s arms who comforts him, and in one interesting part we can see that the father wasn’t whipping him because he was just inherently abusive, but instead because he wanted the boy to be more afraid of coming out without the IOUs than staying inside (and seems to have regretted that at the end).

At the same time, the first boy insists that he can find the IOUs and sneaks off to do just that.  The old man gets a visit from a witch, whom he derides with a “No adults!” line.  On opening the door to repeat that, he can see that she’s floating off the ground and floats into his house, with all of the animatronics coming to life and all of his IOUs and money being spread around the house as he pleads for his money, and then he stumbles into a room with the Devil and some imps/demons who taunt him with “Getting warmer/getting hot!” until it all fades away.

The boy eventually arrives at the house and meets the witch, who just keeps on laughing — that’s all she did throughout the entire episode — and then dumps the IOUs and the old man’s money on him, and he walks away feeling happy and good about himself, despite not really having done anything at all.  As he leaves, he walks past the gravestone of the old man, marked as “A businessman”.

So let’s start at the beginning.  The first scene with the accountants is totally extraneous.  All it could possibly do is set up that the old man is a miser who likes Halloween and the following scene in the store itself establishes all of that equally well.  And at least that scene set things up for later in the episode while the first scene adds nothing that gets any reference in the rest of the episode.  It’s a long, pedantic scene that adds nothing except perhaps a cheap scare, which is not a good way to start.

Another issue is that the witch herself comes completely out of nowhere.  We don’t know why she’s there, what her purpose is, or why she’s targeting him.  If this had followed from the two accountants arranging something because of the scare he put on him or because they find him too miserly, that would at least have made that scene have a point and explained the witch, but as it is she just shows up for some unknown reason and torments him presumably to death after giving away all of his money.  It doesn’t make sense.

And worse, it actually ruins one of the main plots.  Remember the kid who insists on going there anyway even though his father won’t let him?  We would expect that his character arc would be that he goes there and succeeds, which could then give rise to the ending of the old man in some ironic and horrific way.  But he faces less than any of the other kids, and the “whipping boy” faces far more terrors than he did.  All he does is show up and get gifted with the IOUs and some money, and while the father seems to be the most honourable character in the episode there’s no real reason to think that they will use that money to help everyone else as well.  So he doesn’t earn the money and doesn’t seem like he’s necessarily going to use it more wisely than anyone else, so all of that build-up is completely wasted due to the completely undeveloped witch monster that nevertheless overwhelms it.

And the final scene is itself confusing, because seeing a grave like that usually implies that he was already dead, but we know that wasn’t true, so it’s stylistic but completely meaningless to the episode.

While the idea of an old man setting up his house to torment children while the parents make the children go because they really need to get out of debt is a good one, and there are some hints at perhaps a deeper purpose (when the “whipping boy” hugs his father, the old man comments that the people in the town have things “backwards”, but there is a wistful sense to the old man there), the execution is completely lacking.  We aren’t going to be that afraid of the special effects that a show like this can provide, so we really need the plots and the twists to do the heavy lifting, and the execution of them here completely fails to do that.  Not a good start to the series.

Jesus as Exemplar

October 22, 2021

Over at “A Tippling Philosopher”, Jonathan MS Pearce has been talking a lot about the Resurrection, and more specifically what’s wrong or inconsistent with it, as he has a book out on that very topic.  Recently, he wrote a post talking about the idea that the Crucifixion is about atonement and made it clear that he thinks the idea is completely and irretrievably incoherent.  I do think that we can make sense of what the Crucifixion was about, and noted that I might make a post here on that since I needed a Friday post anyway and it was probably short enough to work, so this is that post.

Before I start, note that my idea here is philosophical, not theological.  While I think it can be reconciled with theology, that’s not the point here and it certainly isn’t the standard theological views that we all know and love.  In fact, anyone who knows me will have no problem believing that it’s pretty eccentric,  So comments that say “That’s not what religion X says!” will not be comments that I take at all seriously.  Also, the idea is going to take the Bible “at its word” and so be derived from the Biblical accounts, as that’s what’s expressing the idea.  So comments of “That never really happened!” won’t really be entertained either.

After all of that, on with the show!

First, let me highlight a pet peeve.  Pearce’s focus is on why Jesus would say on the Cross that God has abandoned him but that that in general doesn’t make sense, and in doing so says this:

It makes absolutely no sense of the Holy Trinity – why would God be talking to himself and claiming he had forsaken himself?

Sigh.  This always comes across as a cheap attempt at a “Gotcha!”, but anyone philosophically minded — as Pearce is — will be able to come up with all sorts of ideas of how that could work, with things like aspects and avatars and incarnations and all sorts of things that would make this make sense.  Yes, some of them don’t work theologically and I believe that Edward Feser comments that we can only ever attempt to understand it by analogy, but in general there are ways for that to make sense, so that sort of “talking to himself” line doesn’t really address the overall issue in any way.  And this is especially bad because it turns out that there is a key difference that would explain why Jesus would have to address God, even in the Trinity.

Fortunately, Pearce does add some more philosophical complaints against the line, but I’m not going to address them directly.  Instead, I’m going to outline my own view, which I think will either address or dodge most of his complaints.

To start with, to understand Atonement here we have to go way back to the beginning to the thing that needs to be Atoned for, which is Original Sin, and the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden.  It will surprise no one that I have an eccentric view of that story, but one that I think works whether or not the Garden of Eden story is meant to be allegorical or literal (I lean towards it being an allegory myself).  The basic idea is that the key takeaway is that after Adam and Eve ate the apple, they gained knowledge of right and wrong, and that is the key to the rest of the story and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  It is, for me, less a punishment for their having dared to do what they were told not to do, but instead a sad realization that moral agents who know are capable of knowing right from wrong cannot live in a paradise anymore, at least not immediately.  They need to be able to act on that capacity and so through that develop a moral character, and only if they develop a moral character that will always choose the right can they be readmitted to paradise.  Such a life must be difficult because it’s only through adversity that our moral character gets tested, and so again it’s less a punishment and more a necessity.  And the story shows that you cannot have people who do not have that capacity simply inhabit paradise either because if there are any rules whatsoever they cannot be trusted to follow them because they don’t know that it’s wrong to break them.

So the Original Sin, to me, is not a taint that we need to overcome, but instead a recognition that to develop as moral agents we must be capable of being tempted to do wrong and yet also capable of resisting those temptations to develop our moral character.

This then leads into what is important about Jesus, which is made clear in the Bible:  Jesus was made human.  In doing that, Jesus gained a unique ability to understand what making those sorts of decisions are for us, and importantly the ability to be tempted.  And the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus can be tempted and can fall prey to human foibles.  I think it’s early in John that the Devil takes Jesus to the desert to be tempted, and the story makes it clear that while Jesus rather easily resists his temptations, we are supposed to believe that Jesus was tempted by that.  Crucially, the Devil also notes that Jesus could use the powers He gained for His own benefit, and Jesus refuses.  This will be important later at the Crucifixion.

As we proceed through the New Testament, we can indeed see Jesus being tempted and acting human.  He flies into a rage at the moneychangers in the Temple.  He curses the fig tree for not having figs.  We see on a number of occasions that Jesus is indeed human and shares our foibles, but in general He’s able to resist them and do the right thing anyway.  He feels our temptations, but for the most part, except in a few cases, is able to resist them.

Importantly for the specific topic of feeling abandoned by God, long before the actual Crucifixion we can see that Jesus does not want to go through the Crucifixion and does not want to face that suffering.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, He asks repeated for the cup to be taken away from Him, but submits to God’s will anyway.  On the Cross itself, He is taunted by at least one of the criminals who says that if He really is the Son of God He would have the power to free himself and should do it, but refuses to do so and praises the one criminal who rebukes the other for it.  Thus, like us He is frightened of the sacrifice and suffering He is called upon to make and doesn’t want to go through with it, but unlike a lot of us He goes through with it anyway.

This carries over to the abandonment line that Pearce references.  Briefly, Jesus calls out to God asking why He has abandoned Jesus and left Him to his suffering.  This is a moment of human weakness that many religious people have experienced when enough bad things happen to us.  But nevertheless, at the end Jesus accepts his fate and commends His spirit into the hands of God, something He would not have done if He still felt abandoned by God.  So through all of this, while even His faith is shaken, it is not destroyed.  So Jesus faces the same temptations and fears and feelings of abandonment that we do, and yet He goes through with what He, at least, knows is the morally right thing to do anyway and accepts its necessity.

Now you can argue that that’s all fine and good, but that only works if that’s the morally right thing to do, and we need something for Jesus to be Atoning for for that to work.  But I don’t see it that way.  Following on from my view of Original Sin, Jesus isn’t really Atoning for our sin, but is instead providing an Exemplar for us as an ideal of morality to follow.  If we look at the Old Testament, morality is very much following rules and being punished if we don’t, but in the New Testament while Jesus does talk about Hell morality is far more a matter of doing the right thing even if we have to suffer for it, and not letting potential suffering stop us from doing that.  Jesus is the example to demonstrate that transition as He shows us that we, as humans, can act morally no matter how much we suffer or have to sacrifice for it, and even when there is no terrible punishment waiting for us if we don’t act morally.  Jesus comes when we are at the stage where we can accept that new sort of morality and don’t need the simple rules-and-punishment-based morality anymore.

This also ties into the idea of sacrifice.  In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were required and there was a lot of ritual involved in worshiping God, which I submit was necessary in the time to build a community around it and to get people at that level of civilization to follow the rules and not stray, and to be moral.  But Jesus minimizes ritual and focuses more on doing the right thing and having a more direct and personal and not public relationship with God.  So, then, He can also be seen as the last sacrifice that, again, marks the transition from the more primitive religion to the new more modern religion, where the sacrifice is not literal in terms of sacrificing an animal that was raised and designed as a sacrifice but instead sacrifice is seen as every day being willing to sacrifice everything, even your life, for the right thing and to do what God wants you to do.

Thus, Jesus “atones” for our sinful nature by being both the example that we can be better and putting Himself in a position to help us overcome that nature and refuse to sin.  He can do this because He was human and so has experienced the pull of our sinful nature and our temptations, and so knows both how tempting it can be and from experience that we can, in fact, overcome it.  Because of that, He needed to feel that sense of abandonment by God so that He can overcome it and not use His powers to save Himself and so that, in the end, He can commend his spirit to God secure in the knowledge that ultimately, at the end, He did what was necessary and what was God’s necessary will.

Thoughts on “Candyman”

October 21, 2021

After finishing off the pack of Universal Dracula movies, I returned to some more modern horror movies, such as this one that basically started off a popular horror franchise.  I had heard of the series but had never watched any of them, and so was looking forward to this one.

What I’ll say in its favour is that the performances are fairly good.  Tony Todd plays the titular villain and the rest of the case, though less recognizable, does a fairly good job.  What I also really like about the movie is that it does a really good job getting the lore exposition dump in.  The main character — not the villain — is a grad student doing research on urban legends, and decides to chase the “Candyman” legend, and so we get the gist of the modern stories from her interviews of people who know about it and claim to have experienced it.  Later, we get the full story as she mentions looking into it to a professor and he goes into it in full detail — in an arrogant and patronizing manner — since he had written a paper on it a while ago that he chides her for not reading.  The exposition arrives about when we need it and is wrapped in character or plot developments so it doesn’t seem out of place.  This makes the early to mid-parts of the movie interesting as the movie develops the backstory of the villain and ties it in to the main characters.

However, after that point it falls apart.  I have opined before that one of the worst things you can do for a horror movie is confuse the audience.  You do not want the audience stopping in a scary part to think “What, how does that work?” or “Why is the villain doing that?”.  It takes them out of the emotional space that they need to be in to enjoy the horror parts, so the last thing you want to do is confuse the audience and make them start thinking about things.  And in the last part of this movie I found myself completely confused that the movie never really resolves.

The movie seems to be trying to build an ambiguity between whether the main character is doing the murders because she’s obsessed with “Candyman”, or whether there is really a supernatural “Candyman” who is doing that.  The problem is that in most movies that try for the former we see a slow degeneration as the character gets more and more obsessed with the thing that is supposedly driving crazy or to do insane things, but while she is obsessed with the legend it isn’t to any greater an extent than pretty much any overly ambitious person who thinks that this can lead her to achieving her ambitions.  Moreover, we do seem to see things happen that could only happen with a supernatural element doing the driving.  On the other hand, it’s not really clear why “Candyman” would do these things to her.  Arguably, he wants her to join him as she resembles his lost love but he doesn’t seem to want to claim her and end with the two of them reunited.  He might want her to join him in his murderous quests but since we aren’t sure why he keeps doing these things we can’t really understand why he’d want her to join him in these things.  So that entire relationship is confusing, which makes her death saving a child that he claimed that he was going to kill if she didn’t join him confusing and a bit weak emotionally.  And on top of all of that, the implication at the end is that the people in the neighbourhood where she found the Candyman’s past believe that she did join him, and that that belief in some way made that true as her husband — who was cheating on her — cries out her name in the mirror and gets killed, implying that she, herself, is now an urban legend in her own right.  But the movie never explored the idea that belief can make something true, even through her belief in the Candyman driving the things he did.  You could find elements that hinted at that, but the movie does not pay that off directly enough to convince me that that was the overall point of the movie, especially since so much time was spent on other things.  So, ultimately, even at the end I was just left confused.

Despite the fact that the performances are good and the lore exposition was done really well, the ambiguity just leaves me confused.  I won’t watch this movie again, despite I’m sure some people considering it a clear classic.

Thoughts on “Oblivion”

October 20, 2021

The next movie in that ten pack of Science Fiction movies is “Oblivion”, which is a Tom Cruise vehicle.  The basic plot is that an alien race arrived on Earth to conquer it, and was winning handily until humans nuked the Earth, which chased them off but left Earth fairly uninhabitable.  Humans moved off to a far off planet and some kind of station there, but they are using huge machines to generate power that will leave the Earth completely barren when they’re done.  Two humans are charged with keeping the machines running and repairing them in the face of attacks from “raiders” that are believed to be the remnants of the original alien race that attacked the Earth.  The project is supposedly almost completely, and the two humans are living out their final weeks before they are finally recalled to the station to live a better or perfect life.  Tom Cruise’s character is one of them, while the other is not only his partner on the mission but also the woman he loves, and they plan to have a life together when they get to leave Earth.  But his character is obsessed with Earth and with the history of old Earth, which is decidedly odd and entirely forbidden.  Eventually, they find a crashed human spaceship with one survivor, but that survivor only does manage to survive because, for some odd reason, the drones that help them defend against the raiders wipe out every other survivor of the crash.  The movie is basically solving that conundrum and the other oddities that have been cropping up to this point.

As a Tom Cruise movie, there’s a fair bit of action featuring Tom Cruise.  He gets into dogfights in the sky and fights on the ground with the raiders.  The action is fine and moves well, but it does seem to be unnecessary in this movie, as the thing that is the most entertaining is the mystery itself and the building oddities that follow from it, as well as the personal clashes that it involves.  So the movie could have focused on that and left the action out and still been entertaining.  That being said, the action does integrate into the movie fairly well and the movie makes the good move of being a bit longer so it isn’t like the plot and characterization is getting truncated to allow for more action scenes.  The action scenes aren’t strictly necessary, but they aren’t intrusive either.

What struck me about the movie is that it highlights how science fiction movies, dramas, and horror movies can get a lot out of building a mystery that when it is solved it is clear that the audience was not expected to and in fact could not have solved it before it was revealed in the movie.  While I’m going to avoid spoiling the ending here, the twist could not have been predicted until it is revealed in exposition, and yet the mystery does drive the drama and the plot forward.  In an actual mystery, if the writers don’t allow the audience to at least potentially be able to solve the mystery before the reveal it can turn into a “Clueless Mystery”, which can leave the audience feeling cheated.  In a drama, or horror movie, or science fiction movie, that doesn’t really happen.  The mystery isn’t there for the audience to solve, but is there for the main characters to explore, deal with and react to.  We find it as mysterious as they do, and if they need to go to an exposition giver to get the answer given to them we’re okay with that, especially since once the reveal happens we also have the interesting — and usually climactic — portion where they react to the consequences of that reveal.  If you build these sorts of movies around a mystery, you do still need to resolve it and that resolution has to be compatible with the hints and mysterious things in the rest of the movie, but the audience at least shouldn’t be trying to solve it.  They should instead be entertained by watching the main characters dealing with and attempting to solve it.

This movie does that pretty well.  Other than taking the odd tack of doing a huge information dump — through a flashback, no less — right before the climactic final mission, things build slowly and we can see the mystery deepening and causing more issues as things go along.  So, as noted, it is indeed entertaining to watch Tom Cruise’s character find the hints and eventually find the exposition givers to explain to him, at least in part, what’s going on.  And the movie does a good job of explaining all of those elements and fitting them into the narrative, with explanations for why the two are there and why the character is having odd memories in dreams about the woman who ended up being the only survivor of that crashed spaceship, and feels strangely attached to her even though he’s supposed to be in love with his partner.  And the ending, while a bit of a surprise, was also set up very well so when it happens you think “Oh, right, I remember that!”.

This is the best of the movies in that pack so far, and so is a movie that I will likely watch again at some point.  The next movie up is “Pacific Rim:  Uprising”, a sequel to a movie that I only know through Chuck Sonnenberg’s review of it.