Over the Hills and Far Away

I recently discovered the singer/hury gurdist Patty Gurdy. Originally part of the band Storm Seeker, she seems to be striking out on her own. I’ve really been enjoying her songs on YouTube, and I’m particularly fond of her cover of a Storm Seeker song called The Longing:

However, the song I want to talk about is Over the Hills and Far Away:

It’s extremely reminiscent in theme of the Johnny Cash song The Long Black Veil, though I don’t know that there’s any influence:

Either way, it’s very interesting to compare the two songs. And despite the similarity of subject matter, the biggest difference is what kind of song they are: Over the Hills and Far Away is a (sort-of) love song, while The Long Black Veil is a tragedy.

This is of course facilitated by the different penalties for the different crimes. In The Long Black Veil, the man is accused of murder and his refusal to provide an alibi results in his execution, while in Over the Hills and Far Away he refuses to provide an alibi for a robbery and consequently is sentenced to 10 years in prison. This enables the latter to have the theme of eventual return, and it’s this theme which turns the song into a love song.

Which is unfortunate because the man should not return to the arms of his best friend’s wife. He should stay out of the arms of any man’s wife but even more so those of his best friend’s wife. In the song where the adulterer died, it becomes possible to take it as a simple tragedy where he was not directly punished for his adultery, but none the less was being punished indirectly because his adultery prevented him from proving his innocence. He got what he deserved, if indirectly, sort of like the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Unfortunately that sort of interpretation isn’t possible for a man who doesn’t understand what he did to be wrong (only socially unacceptable). But I find it interesting that the woman sings a song about adultery as a love song and the man sings it as a tragedy. This touches on a theme I’ve noticed in stories written by women: a man is so captivated by a woman’s beauty that he’s willing to destroy himself (and often her) because of it. This isn’t a universal theme, nor anything like that, but I’ve noticed that this is a common theme in material that I didn’t usually read until recently.

There’s a lot to say about the theme of a man so entranced by a woman’s beauty that he becomes a monster, which alas I don’t have time for now, but it is an interesting question to ponder how much the becoming a monster is intrinsic to the fantasy or whether it’s a way of defending against the accusations of wish-fulfillment which the story would be accused of if the woman’s beauty captivated the man and helped him to overcome his vices and become a saint. That latter one would be a very good story, though.

Without Midwits, Geniuses Would be Useless

Over at Amatopia, Alex wrote an interesting post called, The Curse of the Midwit:

One of the worst things to be is a midwit. And I am one. Let me explain what I mean by “midwit.” I have seen the term used many ways, and they boil down to these six points: Someone who is not as smart as the truly intelligent, but is of above-average intelligence, Who wants other […]

As usual, it’s a post worth reading, but Alex only tells half the story. He talks about the dangers of midwits but every danger is just the flip side of a virtue. (Of a natural virtue, specifically. The natural virtues are things like intelligence, strength, physical beauty, health, and so on; they are distinct from the moral virtues like courage, self control, etc.; which are again distinct from the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.)

In short, Alex leaves out the virtue unique to midwits. Now, in what follows I’m going to paint with a very broad brush because I don’t have time to give a full description of the hierarchy of being, so I ask you to use your imagination to fill in all that I’m going to leave vague.

As I’ve said before, God’s fundamental theme within creation is delegation (technically, secondary causation). He doesn’t give to each creature everything he gives to them directly, but instead gives some of his gift to other creatures to give to their fellow creatures on his behalf. Through this He incorporates us into his love of creation and into His creative action. But within creation, this theme of delegation echoes. Instead of one intermediary, God orders the world so that there are several intermediaries. He spreads the love around, as it were.

The part of that which we’re presently concerned with is that it is not (usually) given to geniuses to be able to give their knowledge to the great mass of humanity directly. And since it is (usually) not given to them, they generally can’t do it. When a genius speaks to a common man, he’s usually quite unintelligible. If the common man knows the genius to be a genius by reputation, he’ll assume the man is saying something too genius for him to understand, rather than to be raving nonsense, but he will typically get about as much from it as if the genius was raving nonsense. This is where the midwits come in.

A midwit can understand a genius, but he can also speak in ways that common men can understand. Thus God’s knowledge is given to the common man not directly, but first to the genius, who gives it to the midwit, who then gives it to the common man. Geniuses need midwits at least as much as midwits need geniuses. In truth, all of creation needs the rest of creation since we were created to be together.

Of course the distinction of men into three tiers—genius, midwit, and common—is a drastic oversimplification. In reality there are levels of midwits and levels of geniuses, each of which tends to receive knowledge from the level above it and pass knowledge down to the level below it. For example, Aristotle would have had the merest fraction of the effect he has had were it not for an army of teachers, down through the millenia, who have explained what he taught to those who couldn’t grasp it directly.

Of course in this fallen world every aspect of this can and often does go wrong in a whole myriad of ways. And Alex is quite right that midwits can be very dangerous when they consider themselves geniuses—or really, any time that they’re wrong—because the sacred burden of teaching the great mass of common men has been given to them. Midwits have the power to do tremendous good, which means that they have the power to do tremendous harm.  But the tremendous good which midwits were given to do should never be forgotten just because many of them don’t do it.

The Evolution of Scientism

There’s a curious thing which happens to those who believe that the only real knowledge comes from science: they start to believe that nearly everything—except what they want to reject—is science. Ultimately this should not be shocking, since people who live with a philosophy will invariably change it—gradually—until it is livable.

The people who become Scientismists generally start out extremely impressed with the clear and convincing nature of the proofs offered in the physical sciences. It would be more accurate to say, with the few best proofs in the physical sciences which are offered to them in school—but the distinction isn’t of great import. In practice, most of the impressive results tend to be in the field of Chemistry. It doesn’t hurt that Chemistry is a bit akin to magic, with the astonishing substances it allows people to make, but what it’s really best at is interesting, counter-intuitive predictions. Physics, at least as presented in school, generally allows you to predict simple things like where a thrown object will land or how far a hockey puck will skid on the ice. These aren’t very practical, and the results tend to be intuitive. Chemistry, by contrast, involves the mixing of strange chemicals with the results ranging from anything to nearly nothing to things which glow to explosions to enormously strong plastics.

And Chemistry does this with astonishing accuracy. If you start with clean reagents and mix them in the appropriate steps, you actually do end up with close to the right amount of what you’re supposed to end up with. If you try to run a physics experiment, you’ll probably be nowhere close to correct simply because the experiments are so darn finicky. I still remember when my high school honors physics class broke into groups to run an experiment to calculate acceleration due to gravity at the earth’s surface. The results were scattered between 2.3m/s and 7.3m/s (the correct answer is 9.8m/s).

The problem for our budding Scientismist  is that virtually nothing outside of chemistry and (some of) physics is nearly as susceptible to repeatable experiment on demand. Even biology tends to be far less accommodating (though molecular biology is much closer to chemistry in this regard than the rest of biology is). Once you get beyond biology, things get much worse for the Scientismist; by the time you’re at things like morality, economics, crime & punishment, public decency, parenting and so forth, there aren’t any repeatable controlled experiments which you can (ethically) perform. And even if you were willing to perform unethical controlled experiments, the system involved is so complex that the very act of controlling the experiment (say, by raising a child inside of a box) affects the experiment. So what is the Scientismist to do?

What he should do, of course, is realize that Scientism is folly and give it up. The second best thing to do is to realize that (according to his theory) human beings live in near-complete ignorance and so he has nothing to say on any subject other than the hard sciences. What he actually does is to then declare all sorts of obviously non-scientific things to be science, and then accepts them as knowledge. Which is to say, he makes Scientism livable. It’s neither rational nor honest, but it is inevitable. In this great clash of reality with his ideas, something has to give—and the least painful thing to give up is a rigorous criteria for what is and is not science.

Telling Reality From a Dream

“What if real life is actually a dream?”  is a favorite question of Modern philosophers and teenagers who want to sound deep. It’s a curious thought experiment, but in reality—that is, when we’re awake—we can all easily tell the difference between reality and a dream. But how? The answer is, I think, very simple, but also telling.

Thought experiments aside, we can tell reality from a dream because—to put it a little abstractly—reality contains so much more information than a dream does. Anything we care to focus on contains a wealth of detail which is immediately apparent to us. Whether it’s the threads in a blanket or the dust in the corner of the room or just the bumps in the paint on the drywall, reality has an inexhaustible amount of complexity and detail to it. And what’s more, it has this even in the parts we’re not focusing on. Our eyes take in a truly enormous amount of information that we don’t exactly notice and yet are aware of.

Dreams, by contrast, are very simple things. They do feel real while we are in them, but I think this comes from two primary causes. One is that we’re so caught up in the plot of our dream that we’re not paying enough attention to ask ourselves the simple question, “is this a dream?”

And I think that this is because dreams are natural to us. We often lose sight of this fact because dreams are involuntary and strange. But many things we do are involuntary, in the sense of sub-conscious; our breathing is most involuntary and our heartbeat always is. Our stomachs go on without our concentrating on them and our intestines wind our food through them whatever our conscious thoughts may be. Merely being involuntary does not make a thing unnatural. And since it is natural to us to dream, it is natural that we do not ordinarily try to escape our dreams. As with our other bodily functions, we ordinarily do what we’re supposed to do.

The other reason that dreams feel real to us is because our attention is so focused in a dream that we never consider the irrelevant details. If you ever try to call a dream back in your memory, though, you’ll notice that you can recall almost no detail in them—detail which was irrelevant at the time, I mean. The things in dreams only have properties where one is paying attention. The enormous amount of information we can see without paying attention to it is missing. This is also why they have a “dreamlike” quality to them—if we turn away then come back, they may not be the same because they stopped existing while we weren’t looking at them.

Dreams lack this stable, consistent, overwhelming amount of information in them precisely because they are our creations. We can’t create an amount of information so large that we can’t take it in.

And here we come to the fitting part: the difference in richness between reality and dreams shows what inadequate Gods we are. Our creations are insubstantial, inconsistent wisps. We can tell reality from a dream at a glance between it only takes one glance at reality to know that we couldn’t have created what we’re looking at.

(Note: This is a heavily revised version of a previous post, Discerning Reality From a Dream.)

Discerning Reality From a Dream

“What if real life is actually a dream?”  is a favorite question of Modern philosophers and teenagers who want to sound deep. It’s a curious thought experiment, but in reality we can all easily tell the difference between reality and a dream. But how? The answer is, I think, very simple, but also telling.

Thought experiments aside, we can tell reality from a dream because—to put it a little abstractly—reality contains so much more information than a dream does. Anything we care to focus on contains a wealth of detail which is immediately apparent to us. Whether it’s the threads in a blanket or the dust in the corner of the room or just the bumps in the paint on the drywall, reality has an inexhaustible amount of complexity and detail to it.

Dreams, by contrast, are very simple things. They feel real only because we’re so caught up in the plot of our dream that we’re not paying enough attention to ask ourselves the simple question, “is this a dream?” But if you pay attention, dreams have almost no detail in them; the things in the dream only have properties where one is paying attention. This is also why they have a “dreamlike” quality to them—if we turn away then come back, they may not be the same because they stopped existing while we weren’t looking at them.

And here we come to the fitting part: the difference in richness between reality and dreams shows what inadequate Gods we are. Our creations are insubstantial, inconsistent wisps. We can tell reality from a dream at a glance between it only takes one glance at reality to know that we couldn’t have created what we’re looking at.

UPDATE: I’ve rewritten and expanded this post in a way that makes its point clearer: Telling Reality From a Dream

The Problem With Outrage Quoting

I’m fairly careful to limit my intake of social media to people who say reasonable things. This is in part a survival strategy for Staying Sane on Social Media. However, this still leaves a fairly large vector for things which unbalance my mood and make me less effective at the main stuff I’m supposed to be doing: outrage quoting.

This is where a person who is themselves reasonable sees a very unreasonable thing, then quotes it to express their outrage at it. There’s also a variation on this where the person quotes it to make fun of it. The latter isn’t quite as bad as the former, but both do have the following problem: one is still being exposed to the crazy stuff one was trying to avoid.

Actually, it’s a bit worse than that—the people one follows are specifically filtering through the stuff from the unreasonable people to find the craziest stuff that they say. This can be extremely unbalancing to one’s state of mind. As I talked about in Social Media is Doomed, human beings aren’t designed to deal with a large number of strangers. We deal with people by acclimating to them, but it takes time and is harder the more different sorts of people we need to acclimate to. Even when we are careful to keep our reading to a set group of people to whom we’ve acclimated—there’s no requirement that these people agree with each other or with us, only that we’ve acclimated to them—outrage quoting constantly introduces new people to our notice who are saying crazy things that we haven’t acclimated to. This is extremely stressful to human beings.

Also, please note that I’m not talking about being exposed to new ideas as being stressful. There are some circumstances in which that can be stressful, but usually it’s quite manageable. I’m talking about running into expressions of ideas we’re not used to. Perhaps we know somebody who will say #KillAllMen and we’ve gotten used to this eccentricity. There is no new argument to be found in a person saying, instead, #CastrateAllMen (I made that up; who knows, perhaps I will have actually come up with an absurd example that the universe didn’t beat me to for once). But if we’re used to the former and not the latter, the latter will be far more stressful to run into. There’s a new person here, and people are complex. They’re also dangerous. A stress reaction to having to deal with a new person is actually entirely appropriate. Best case scenario is a big drain on your emotional energy is incoming.

Except that this being a one-off quote means that actually, a big drain on one’s emotional energy isn’t incoming because you don’t actually need to get used to this new person. You’re almost certainly never going to see them again. And therein lies one strategy to help mitigate the stress from encountering outrage quoting: focus on how this is a person you’ll never see again and how they don’t really matter.

I don’t have any other good suggestions, other than be careful about people who do a lot of outrage quoting. But certainly I think the golden rule applies, here: be very careful when quoting to make sure that one isn’t outrage quoting. For example, when I wrote a humorous blog post about that CNN article on cuckolding (CNN’s Love of Cuckolding), I started it off with explaining why it doesn’t matter and isn’t worth stressing over. And I’ve stopped myself from quoting outrageous things often enough that it’s now becoming a habit to not quote outrageous things. Still, it’s something I always keep in mind—if I’m quoting something, what effect will seeing that have on the people who read what I write?

We Live In Cycles

In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (if you haven’t read them, see the note at the bottom for context), he observed that human beings live according to cycles. It’s in the beginning Letter 8:

Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) AS spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of trough and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life—his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth, periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going on are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.

Our lives are lived according to many cycles, some independent, some interrelated. What Lewis refers to as troughs and peaks are actually the lining up of many troughs at the same time, or many peaks at the same time. What are these cycles?

There are some obvious cycles, like the diurnal cycle we live in every day (day/night). There are longer cycles, like weekly, monthly, and yearly cycles, too. Work weeks, weekends, pay days, construction seasons, busy season, and all sorts of other cycles affect us. But probably least well appreciated are feedback cycles.

It’s not uncommon when feeling well rested to make the mistake of staying up too late. If we do this a little bit we get progressively more exhausted during the days until we simply can’t do it and start getting enough sleep. Once we’ve gotten enough sleep, we’re ready to start getting too little sleep again.

Another common feedback cycle is the stress cycle. When we’ve got plenty of emotional energy, we tend to be more tolerant of people taking up our time and placing demands on us which consume a lot of emotional energy.  More things on our to-do list, more leniency for people being annoying, more patience with people being rude or unappreciative. Lots of things can consume emotional energy which we can deter or allow to consume more. The better we’re feeling the more generous we tend to be. But as that continues, our surplus gets used up. Depending on what we tolerated, this might have resulted in increased demands past the rate at which we replenish emotional energy. This continues until we’re emotionally exhausted and start being defensive of our energy. This might result in simply turning things down, or it might result in bad temper. (Like all cycles, one deals with it best when one is realistic about it; letting oneself get pushed to complete exhaustion is a terrible idea because it makes us most likely to explode at small irritations.)

There are other feedback cycles in life, like entertainment versus unpaid work or spending time with friends versus solitude. They’re all around us, if we look for them. There’s value to identifying them, but life is complex enough that we also need to be able to recognize when there are cycles we don’t know about at work. Some days we just feel awful and if it’s the result of cycle troughs lining up, it may just be time to go to bed early and soon things will be better. Some days are great because of peaks lining up and it can be a good idea to take advantage of them rather than expect them to be the new normal. It’s also helpful to try to recognize the feedback loops and smooth them out—especially the troughs—by anticipating them and adjusting before things get too extreme.

We live tossed around in the waves. It’s a good idea to learn to surf instead of being tossed around, gasping for breath.

About The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters are written as a series of letters from the demon Screwtape to his “newphew”, the demon Wormwood. Wormwood is the demonic parody of a guardian angel assigned to a human being to try to corrupt him and trick him into damning himself. Only Screwtape’s letters offer advice to his “nephew” on how to do his evil work. All of Screwtape’s letters are good advice on how to damn a soul; as such they are really advice on how to live well (in the sense of being upright or good) presented in what you might call photographic negative. What is good, Screwtape calls evil; what is evil, Screwtape calls good. But that’s true in all cases, so one very easily learns the habit of just flipping everything around.

Reading the book—which is excellent, and I highly recommend—is an interesting experience. Probably the closest analogy I can come to is honestly examining one’s conscience for faults with the intention of improving.

Facebook Had a Bad Year

Having recently talked about how Social Media is Doomed and Another Perspective on Facebook as Social Poison, I just saw this article: 2017 Was a Bad Year For Facebook, 2018 Will Be Worse.

The article is mostly about taxation, but it does mention this:

Facebook has reacted nervously to Palihapitya’s accusations, saying he hadn’t worked at the company for a long time (he left in 2011) and wasn’t aware of Facebook’s recent initiatives. But I can’t see any practical manifestations of these efforts as a user who has drastically cut back on social networking this year for the very reasons cited by Parker and Palihapitya.

To outsiders and regulators, Facebook looks like a dangerous provider of instant gratification in a space suddenly vital to the health of society. It’s also making abuse and aggression too easy — something the U.K. Committee on Standards in Public Life pointed out in a report published on Wednesday. Sounding one of the loudest alarm bells on social media yet, the panel urged the prime minister to back legislation to “shift the balance of liability for illegal content to the social media companies.”

The article also talks about concerns related to targeted advertising.

I haven’t talked about targeted advertising, but its problems are partially related to the problems of push-based social media. One part of targeted advertising is only showing advertisements to people who might want to see them. This is a net-positive for all involved, since irrelevant advertisements are just a waste of everyone’s time. The part that’s about figuring out how to manipulate people into buying things they don’t think are a good idea, though, is far worse. It’s also related to the fundamental problem of push-based media because it’s trying to get around the adaptations people made to their environment in order to live in peace with it. Unfortunately from the advertiser’s perspective, those adaptations involve a great deal of not buying things; and hence the temptation on the part of advertisers to upset that balance which the viewer has constructed for himself.

I’d like to reiterate that my point is not that social media is evil, but rather that the push-based social media as we know it today is fundamentally flawed for human use; this makes changes to it inevitable. What form those changes take is less clear, but they are certainly coming.

Whence Comes the Book?

I read a curious article about a fan of The Mists of Avalon which is about her reaction to learning that the author of the book (Marion Zimmer Bradley) (allegedly) sexually abused her own daughter and other children. It’s curious because of the degree to which it regards the author indulging in astounding amounts of sexual evil as if it were simply a ritual impurity, rather than as something which might be woven into the book itself. A book which, by the reader’s own admission, was very unlike anything else:

I still cannot imagine anything more perfectly aligned with my thirteen-year-old sensibilities than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterpiece. Bradley opened my eyes to the idea that, when we look at the past, we are only ever seeing a small part of it — and usually, what we are seeing excludes the experiences of women. Encountering the vain, self-serving, diabolical Morgan le Fay transformed into the priestess Morgaine compelled me to question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men. The Mists of Avalon also gave me a glimpse of spiritual possibilities beyond male-dominated, male-defined religions. In retrospect, I can see that it gave me ways of seeing that helped me find the feminine even within patriarchal systems while studying religion as an undergrad. The impact of this book lingers in my feminism, certainly, but it also influenced my scholarly interest in folklore, and it still informs my personal spirituality.

And this is her analysis of the book in light of the revelations about the author:

The sexual act described [above] takes place around the Beltane fire. As a young reader, I was disturbed by it, but I saw it as a description of people who have passed beyond the normal world and into the sacred time of a fertility ritual. The scene was frightening for me as a child, and repellent, but also, I must admit, fascinating. In context, this passage made sense: The horror of the scene was an element of its power. And that was all I found. Everything I had always loved about the book was still there, and I didn’t find anything new to hate. So, what was I going to do with this book?

And finally, here is her conclusion:

So, what to do with this once-beloved book? I’ve read it once since Greyland spoke out, and I don’t know if I will read it again. Probably not, I’m guessing. Discovering that powerful men are predators is disturbing, but not surprising. Learning that the author who introduced me to feminine spirituality and the hidden side of history abused children — girls and boys, her own daughter — was horrifying in an existential kind of way. I’m a writer and an editor and I know that characters can exceed their creators. I would go so far as to say that that’s the goal. So I can keep Morgaine — what she has meant to me, what she has become in my personal mythology — while I reject Bradley.

This is a common thing I see in the modern world: assuming that all propositions stand alone, unconnected from all others, as if truth is not things fitting into each other but like a butterfly collection on unconnected facts.

This woman never asks herself whether the book teaching her to “question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men” is just Bradley trying to escape the blame for her own evil, projected. If in most other parts of the world, people who don’t rape their (and other) children take responsibility for their own wrongs, but a rapist teaches how to shuffle the blame off on others, perhaps the right course of action is not to keep the lesson that you should always shuffle the blame onto others.

Virtue is not a simple thing. Virtue is required for people to live together. Virtue is required for people to live together with everything, in fact, even nature. Virtue is what places us into a right relationship with the hierarchy of being. Evil people reject the hierarchy of being; they substitute their own for the real one. At the extremes you have Satan’s nolo servire—I will not serve. The more vicious an author is, the more one expects this to permeate every aspect of their being, because the fundamental solipsism of their orientation to the world cannot but touch on every interaction they have with the world. To learn life lessons from the book of a thoroughly wicked man is a fool’s errand; they will be right by accident. And since they will be right by accident, their effort will not be in making the truth attractive.

In short, if you’re going to sell your soul to the devil, don’t do it in exchange for wisdom.

The Origin of Rights

In the aftermath of the enlightenment which emphasized the rights of man, the fact that a world which thinks only of rights will fall apart is something of a problem. But the enlightenment gives no framework for reconciling rights and responsibilities, which has left many people very unsure of how to try to reconcile them. It’s actually quite simple as long as you look at the problem in the right way. The key to the whole mess is that rights come from responsibilities.

Obviously rights come from God, since all things come from God, but they don’t come directly from God. The most proximal intermediary in giving human beings rights is the responsibilities that they were given. Whatever a man has a responsibility to do, he has a right to do.

Consider, for example, feeding himself. A man has a responsibility to feed himself. Because of this, he has a right to the things intrinsically necessary to do it, such as the right to own property with which to get for himself food, the right to do the labor necessary to procure food, and so on.

Now, It is important to distinguish what is intrinsically necessary to fulfill a responsibility from what may be accidentally necessary. If I don’t happen to have any bread on hand, that doesn’t automatically give me a right to your bread because it is an accident of circumstances that you have bread on hand while I don’t. A responsibility conveys the rights that anyone would need in order to fulfill a task, not what would be necessary only for one person in some particular moment.

And this is the origin of all rights. Parental rights originate from the parental responsibility to care for one’s child. Speech rights originate from the responsibility to tell the truth. Religious rights originate from the duty to worship God.

Once you look at rights this way, the problem of reconciling them with responsibilities—or of reconciling conflicting rights—becomes a non-issue. Responsibilities exist in a hierarchy, and so whenever a right and a responsibility conflict, or when two rights conflict, one merely has to look at the responsibility from which the right derives and compare it to the other responsibility—or the responsibility from which the other right derives—and always fulfill the more important responsibility over the less important responsibility.

This also very neatly solves the problem of how to strongly defend rights without becoming a libertine. Because you never want to be this guy:

Why Is Determinism Attractive?

I used to assume that people believed in determinism (that human beings do not have free will) merely as a consequence to materialism, and that they weren’t really invested in it. More recently, however, I’ve come to suspect that it is determinism which they are primarily attracted to, and atheism is a way to achieve that determinism. (Not so explicitly, of course.)

One strong reason I suspect this is that we have direct, unequivocal experience of free will. If there wasn’t a strong attraction to determinism, this experience would render anything which contradicted free will simply unbelievable. (And for many people, it does just that.) So there must be some deeply compelling reason to want to disbelieve in free will. What can it be?

Before I answer that question, I want to note that there are several belief systems which denied free will, since there is a hint to the answer of this question in that fact. Hinduism is varied, but at least according to the hindu philosophers the monism of everything being God leaves no room for individual free will. Free will implies the existence of sin, but since everything is God nothing can be sin. (Ordinary hindus probably do believe in free will, I should note.) Buddhism does not believe in free will, which is just one of its many contradictions. (By Buddhism I mean the original Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama which was a reaction against his failure to achieve happiness as a hindu yogi; I’m not talking about more modern, often syncretic Buddhisms.) And very interestingly, Martin Luther didn’t believe in free will either. In fact he wrote a whole book about how there’s no such thing as free will. (On the Bondage of the Will. It’s a terrible book.)

Now, what do all these things have in common, and what do they have in common with materialism? They are all reductionist systems. They all posit that reality is less than it seems, in some manner or other. But curiously only two of them are atheistic; the other two are theistic. This suggests that what people really object to is not God, but other people. And indeed, that makes sense in reductionist systems. People are messy. There are so many of them, and if they’re free they’re not explicable by a small number of easily understood rules.

To be content with understanding the universe but not being able to comprehend it (that is, to stand in right intellectual relationship to it but not to be able to fit it inside of one’s head) requires humility, and more than anything it requires trust. Trusting God, specifically (which seems to me to have been Martin Luther’s big hangup). So I suspect something like the following rule is the case:

Those who cannot trust God cannot deal with the existence of their fellow men, and will seek some philosophical means of getting rid of their fellow men as important.

In practice, the really thorny part of one’s fellow human beings is their free will. Thus to any such creature who finds trust in God to be impossible, determinism will have a huge appeal.

(As a post-script, I should note that reducing men to their base instincts is merely a less rigorous way of accomplishing the same denial of free will; wherever you find a man who reduces all men’s actions to greed or lust, you have found a man who doesn’t trust God.)

Admitting One’s Weird

In an interesting essay I suggest reading, Ed Latimore gave, “5 Lessons From Growing Up in the Hood.” One of them in particular caught my eye:

1. Good manners go a long way.

I fought a lot as a kid. That’s just par for the course growing up in the hood. I would have fought a lot more if it wasn’t for one simple phrase: “My bad.” For those of you that don’t speak hood, “My bad” is the equivalent of saying “I’m sorry.”

You bump somebody in a crowd? ‘My bad’ goes a long way. Step on someone’s foot on a crowded bus? Dude might get mad, but you can cool it quick by just saying ‘My bad.’ Say something a little too offensive that gets guys in the mood to fight? Just say ‘My bad’ and dial it down. It’s amazing what an apology can do to cool tempers in the hood.

I didn’t grow up in the hood, nor even particularly close to it, but I found the same thing applies to situations with much lower stakes: being willing to admit error where one can truthfully do so goes a long way to smoothing out human interactions. And the curious thing is that where one is telling the truth in admitting error, most people are very willing to accept that and move on. People, by and large, don’t tolerate affronts to their dignity, but they are very willing to tolerate other people’s human imperfection where it is acknowledged as such and where a person is willing to put in the work to make things right afterwards.

This applies quite a lot in the context of business. If one makes a mistake in a professional setting, simply admitting it in a straight-forward way tends to turn such mistakes into a non-issue. Professionals are there to earn money, which they do by solving problems. Co-workers’ mistakes are just one more problem to solve. This can of course become excessive to the point where you are causing more problems than you are solving, but if that’s the case you’re probably a bad fit for your job and should move on for everyone’s sake. But where you are competent at your job, people just don’t really care deeply about the occasional mistake, and if you own up to it, there’s nothing left to talk about so people just move on.

And it’s that last part that I want to talk about in another context. Most people are weird but hide it; and most people are made very uncomfortable by other people being different (which is just another way of saying that they’re weird). At its root this comes from a tribal instinct; it is not good for man to be alone—and we know it. Differences make us fear rejection, though a little bit of life experience and sense teaches us which differences matter and which don’t. But sense is surprisingly uncommon and learning from life experiences is—for quite possibly related reasons—similarly rare. So a great many people fear whatever is different from them. This can be people who look different but I think it’s far more common to be afraid of people who act differently. And one thing people do when they’re uncomfortable is talk about it.

And this is where admitting that one is weird can be a very useful strategy. To give a concrete example, I shoot an 80# bow. (For a long time it was actually 82# but string creep eventually set it and for some reason they couldn’t get it back up.) That’s pretty uncommon, these days, especially for someone with a 30″ draw length. Most men shoot a bow somewhere in the range of 55#-70# (women tend to shoot in the 35#-50# range). You’d think that an 80# bow wouldn’t seem that odd to people shooting a 70# bow, but for reasons relating to how many reps you can do in weight-lighting being a function of how close you are to your one-rep max, it actually is a pretty big jump for a lot of people. They could draw the bow, but only a few times an hour. I’m not that strong, but I’m a relatively big guy (6′ tall, over 200lbs) and so I can comfortably shoot my bow for an hour or two at a stretch without losing more accuracy than if I was shooting a 70# or a 60# bow (really the main thing affecting accuracy is that your shoulders get tired of holding the bow up at arm’s length). So it’s a very reasonable thing for me, personally, to do, but it’s pretty odd among people at the archery shop I go to. And moreover it’s not really necessary. Where I live the only common big game is whitetail deer and you can reliably kill a whitetail with a 40# bow if you’ve got a good broadhead/arrow setup and are a good shot. I do it because I like it, and because it acts like insurance. With the double-edge single-bevel broadheads I use on top of 0.175″ deflection tapered carbon fiber arrows, the whole thing weighing 715 grains, shot from an 80# bow, if I make a bad shot and hit the large bones my arrow will most likely go right through and kill the animal anyway. And I could use the same setup for hunting moose or buffalo without modification, should I ever get the opportunity. (That would fill the freezer with meat in one shot!)

So, as you can see, from my perspective this is a reasonable thing to do. But from most everyone else’s perspective, it’s weird. And moreover, it’s more than most men at the archery shop I go to can do. Some people there can’t even draw my bow, and many who could would find the strain too much to do more than a few times. It would be easy for people to suspect that I look down on them as lesser because of it, and to reject me in self-defense. If someone you respect looks down on you,  it’s painful. If someone you reject as mentally deranged looks down on you, it’s irrelevant.

So when people make jokes about me/my bow being atypical, I go along with it. I will cheerfully admit that I’m engaging is massive over-kill; I will joke along with them about the way deer are wearing bullet-proof vests these days. (My setup could probably go through a lighter bullet-proof vest since broadheads are razor sharp and can cut through kevlar. It has zero chance against the sort of vest with ceramic plates in it.) If someone characterizes me as crazy, I smile and say, “nuts, but I like it.” And in general the joking lasts for a minute then is forgotten about and things are normal. This is, I think, for two reasons:

  1. I have signaled that I know I am abnormal and am happy with the status of being abnormal. I am clearly indicating that I am not the standard against which others should be measured so I am no threat to anyone’s social standing or sense of self.
  2. It smothers the impulse to joke about me, in the sense of taking the air away from a flame. If you say that someone’s crazy and he smiles and says, “certifiable,” you just don’t have anywhere to go. Joking/teasing requires a difference of opinion. If someone agrees with you, there’s nothing left to say since a man looks like an ass if all he does is repeat himself.

Of course, this does depend on the content of what’s being said about me being something which I can agree with. In this example, “crazy” just means “abnormal,” which is quite true. If someone were to accuse me of being a criminal I would defend myself, not agree with them. The point is not to be a carpet for people to walk on but rather to learn how to pick one’s battles and only fight the ones that need to be fought. That’s a general principle of skill, by the way; skill consists in applying the right amount of force to the right place to generate the best results. A lack of skill wastes force first in applying it to the wrong place and so needing far more force to achieve the desired result, and then in needing to apply more force to correct the problems caused by having applied force to the wrong place. That’s as true of picking one’s battles as it is of swing dancing or balancing in ice skating. Or, for that matter, archery; missing the target in archery often means that you have to spend a lot of effort to pull your arrow out of a tree.

Beauty and the Beholder

In a recent blog post, John C Wright discusses beauty and where it is located. Now, there is nothing wrong with what he says, but I do submit that he is somewhat taking the meaning of a person who says the words to be overly related to the words that they say. You can see a similar thing when people criticize doing evil that good may come of it with the words, “the ends don’t justify the means”. Taken literally, this is nonsense. Of course means are justified by ends, because nothing else can justify means. There is no such thing as a self-justifying means. Pushing a sharpened piece of steel into somebody’s bodies is justified or not entirely on the basis of why you’re doing it. Is it to shiv him in revenge for a minor transgression? Or are you a surgeon cutting out a cancer to save his life? Plunging the metal into him is merely a means, and as such must find its justification in the ends for which it is used. What people really mean, of course is one of  “this end don’t justify those means” or more commonly, “remote ends do not justify proximate, intermediate ends”. But it’s less catchy, so you can see why people don’t say what they literally mean. Plus most people would have to look up what proximate means (in the proximity of; right next to, approximate meaning an estimate by way of analogy to not-right-next-to).

I submit that the same thing applies to the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Taken literally, it is as Mr. Wright says a denial of beauty as a concept. But many if not most people do not mean it literally. (I’m on relatively safe ground here; when discussing anything less practical than passing the salt at dinner, people rarely mean what they say literally.) There is a real thing which is being described, which is that beauty is a direct perception of the goodness of God as reflected by the goodness in creation, and each person is given a different (if largely overlapping) perspective on the goodness of God, and hence what precise goodness each man is able to perceive does vary. Thus when beholding any particular beautiful thing, one man may see the goodness of God revealed clearly in it because it matches what he was made to see, while another may see it only dimly because he was given something else to see clearly. To generalize, there are those who like roller coasters and in them appreciate the power of God in velocity and turning; this is an aspect of God’s goodness I see only dimly, while I appreciate the stillness of a forest and the loudness if leaves falling to the ground in it quite a lot. Now, my inability to perceive God’s goodness in the rush of the roller coaster does not mean that it is not there, any more than a deaf man’s inability to hear the beauty in Mozart’s music does not mean that it is not beautiful.

It is quite wrong to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it is quite accurate to say that perceiving beauty depends on the eye of the beholder. But the second phrase is harder on the ear, and when it comes to expressing truths most people are far more traditionalists than they are philosophers, and those of us who are capable of saying what we mean should always look out in charity for those who are not. On the other hand, it is always good to give people who misuse common phrases a (metaphorical) hard slap upside the head to try to bring them to their senses, which I think is what Mr. Wright intends. So please take this post as an elaboration on the subject Mr. Wright is speaking about, and not a contention with Mr. Wright’s post.

The Probability of Theology

This is the script to my video, The Probability of Theology:

As always, it was written (by me) for me to read aloud, but it should be pretty readable.

Today I’m going to be answering a question I got from the nephew of a friend of mine from the local Chesterton society. He’s a bright young man who was (I believe) raised without any religion, and has been introduced by his aunt to some real, adult, theology, and has the intellectual integrity to seriously consider it until he can see how it’s either true or definitely wrong. Here’s his question:

I am an atheist, mostly due to a few primary objections I have with religion in general, the most prominent of which is that since there are infinite possible theologies, all with the same likelihood of being true, the probability of one single man-made theology such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam being true is approximately zero. My aunt … is quite convinced that you can prove this idea false [and] we are both hoping that you could make a … video about this on your channel, if possible. We will be eagerly awaiting your response.

This is an excellent example of how it’s possible to ask in a few words a question which takes many pages to answer. I will attempt to be brief, but there’s a lot to unpack here, so buckle up, because it’s going to be quite a ride.

The first thing I think we need to look at is the idea of a man-made theology. And in fact there are two very distinct ideas in this, which we need to address separately. First is the concept of knowledge, which as I’ve alluded to in previous videos was hacked into an almost unrecognizable form in the Enlightenment. Originally, knowledge meant the conformity of the mind to reality, and though in no small part mediated by the senses, none the less, knowledge was understood to be a relatively direct thing. In knowledge, the mind genuinely came in contact with the world. All this changed in the aftermath of Modern Philosophy. It would take too long to give a history of it so the short version is: blame Descartes and Kant. But the upshot is that the modern conception of knowledge is at best indirect and at worst nothing at all; knowledge—to the degree it’s even thought possible—is supposed to consist of creating mental models with one’s imagination and trying to find out whether they correlate with reality and if so, to what degree. Thus there is, in the modern concept of “knowledge”—the scare quotes are essential—a complete disconnect between the mind and the world. The mind is trapped inside of the skull and cannot get out; it can only look through some dirty windows and make guesses.

This approach of making guesses and attempting (where practical) to verify them has worked well in the physical sciences, though both the degree to which it has worked and the degree to which this is even how physical science is typically carried on, is somewhat exaggerated. But outside of the physical sciences it has largely proved a failure. One need only look at the “soft sciences” to see that this is often just story-telling that borrows authority by dressing up like physicists. It is an unmitigated disaster if it’s ever applied to ordinary life; to friends and family, to listening to music and telling jokes.

There have been a few theologies which have been man-made in this modern sense; that is, created out of someone’s imagination then compared against reality—the deism that conceives of God as winding a clock and letting it go comes to mind—but this is quite atypical, and really only exists as a degeneration of a previous theology. Most theologies describe reality in the older sense; descriptively, not creatively. It is true that many of them use stories which are not literally true in order to convey important but difficult truths narratively. This is because anyone who wants to be understood—by more than a few gifted philosophers—communicates important truths as narratives. Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t matter at all whether George Washington admitted to cutting down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie; the story conveys the idea that telling the truth is a better thing than avoiding the consequences of one’s actions, and that lesson is very true. It may well be that there was never a boy who cried “wolf!” for fun until people didn’t believe him; it’s quite possible no one was ever eaten by a wolf because he had sounded too many false alarms to be believed when he sounded a real one. But none of that matters, because it is very true that it is a terrible idea to sound false alarms, and that sounding false alarms makes true alarms less likely to be believed. None of these are theories someone made up then tested; they are knowledge of real life which is communicated through stories which are made up for the sake of clarity. And so it is with the mythology of religions. Even where they are not literally true, they are describing something true which people have encountered. I am not, of course, saying that this is what all religion is, but all religions do have this as an element, because all religions attempt to make deep truths known to simple people. So when considering anything from any religion, the first and most important question to ask about it is: what do the adherents mean by it. This is where fundamentalists of all stripes—theistic and atheistic alike—go wrong. They only ever ask what they themselves mean by what the adherents of a religion say.

So this is the first thing we must get clear: theologies are not man-made in the sense of having been created out of a man’s imagination. They are not all equally correct, of course; some theologies have far more truth in them than others, but all have some truth, and the real question about any religion is: what are the truths that it is trying to describe? Christianity describes far more truth than buddhism does, but buddhism is popular precisely because it does describe some truths: the world is not simply what it appears at first glance; the more we try to live according the world the more entangled in it we get and the worse off we are; and by learning to be detached from the world we can improve our lot. It is not the case—as many buddhisms hold—that we must reject the world outright; we need a proper relationship to it, which Saint Francis captured in his Canticle of the Sun. The world is our sibling, neither our master nor our slave. And so it goes with all religions: they are all right about at least something, because the only reason any of them existed at all was because somebody discovered something profoundly true about the world. (Pastafarianism being the exception which proves the rule; the flying spaghetti monster is a joke precisely because it was simply made up and does not embody anything true about the world. Even the Invisible Pink Unicorn falls short of this; it embodies the truth that some people don’t understand what mysteries actually are.)

The second thing we must address in the man-made part of “man-made theologies” is that—at least according to them—not all theologies are made by man, even in the more ancient sense of originating in human knowledge. The theology of Christianity originated with God, not with man. Christian theology is primarily the self-revelation of God to man. And we have every reason to believe that God would be entirely correct about Himself.

Now of course I can hear a throng of atheists screaming as one, “but how do you know that’s true?!? You didn’t hear God say it, all you’ve heard is people repeating what they say God said.” Actually, these days, they’re more likely to say, “where’s your evidence”, or accuse me of committing logical fallacies that I can’t be committing, and that they can’t even correctly define, but for the sake of time let’s pretend that only top-tier atheists watch my videos.

Oh what a nice world that would be.

Anyway, this gets to a mistake I’ve seen a lot of atheists make: evaluating religious claims on the assumption that they’re false. There’s a related example which is a bit clearer, so I’m going to give that example, then come back and show how the same thing applies here. There are people who question the validity of scripture on the basis of copying errors. “In two thousand years the texts were copied and recopied so many times we have no way of knowing what the originals said,” sums it up enough for the moment. This objection assumes that the rate of copying errors in the gospels is the same as for all other ancient documents. Actually, it also exaggerates the rate of copying errors on ancient documents, but that’s beside the point. It is reasonable enough to assume that the rate of copying errors in Christian scriptures does not greatly differ from that of other documents, if Christianity is false. Well, actually, even that is iffy since a document people hold in special reverence may get special care even if that reverence is mistaken, but forget about that for now. If Christianity is true, the gospels are not an ordinary document. They are an important part of God’s plan of salvation for us, which he entrusted to a church he personally founded and has carefully looked over throughout time, guarding it from error. In that circumstance, it would be absurd to suppose that copying errors would distort the meaning of the text despite the power of God preventing that from happening. Thus it is clear that the rate of copying errors is not a question which is independent of the truth of Christianity, and therefore a presumed rate of copying errors cannot be used as an argument against the truth of Christianity precisely because whatever rate is presumed will contain in it an assumption of the truth or falsehood of Christianity. (I should point out that what we would expect—and what the Church claims—is that God would safeguard the meaningful truth of revelation, not the insignificant details. That is, we would expect that if Christianity was true God would keep significant errors from predominating, not that he would turn scribes into photocopying machines—within Christianity God places a great deal of emphasis on free will and human cooperation. And as it happens, we have some very old copies of the gospels and while there have been the occasional copying errors, none of them have amounted to a doctrinally significant difference. Make of that what you will.)

So bringing this example back to the original point, whether Christian theology is man-made is not a question which is independent of the question of whether Christianity is true. If Christianity is false, then its theology is man-made. But if Christianity is true, then its theology is not man-made, but revealed. And as I said, while men often make mistakes, we can trust God to accurately describe himself.

So, to recap: theology is descriptive, not constructive, and in historically-based religions like Christianity, theology is revealed, not man-made. So now we can move onto the question of probabilities.

First, there is the issue that probability says nothing about one-offs. I covered this in my video The Problem with Probability, so I won’t go into that here, but since I’ve heard the objection that I only discussed the frequentist interpretation of probability, I will mention that if you want to go with a bayesian interpretation of probability, all you’re saying by assigning a probability of zero to an event is that it’s not part of your model. Now in the question we’re addressing, it’s not a probability of zero that’s being assigned but rather “approximately zero”. But the thing about the Bayesian interpretation is that probability is at least as much a description of the statistician as it is of the real world. It is, essentially, a way to quantify how little you know. Now, sometimes you have to make decisions and take actions with whatever knowledge you have at the moment, but often the correct thing to do is: learn. There is no interpretation of statistics which turns ignorance into knowledge, or in bayesian terms, the way to get better priors is outside of the scope of bayesian statistics.

But more importantly, this atomization of theologies is very misleading. Among all of the possible theologies, many of them have a great deal in common. They do not have everything important in common, obviously. There are some very substantial differences between, say, Greek Orthodoxy and say, Theravada Buddhism. But for all their differences, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Baha’i, Sikhism, and several others have quite a lot in common. They all worship the uncreated creator of all that is. That’s actually a pretty big thing, which is to say that it’s very important. An uncreated creator who transcends time and space has all sorts of implications on the coherency of contingent beings within time (such as ourselves), the existence of a transcendent meaning to life, and lots of other things. This is in contrast to things that don’t matter much, like whether there is an Angel who has a scroll with all of the names of the blessed written on it. Whether there is one or isn’t doesn’t really matter very much. Grouping those two distinctions together as if they were of equal importance is highly misleading. Now, granted, there are all too many people who take a tribalistic, all-or-nothing approach to religion where the key thing is to pick the right group to formally pledge allegiance to. But one of the things which follows from belief in an uncreated creator is that this primitive, tribalistic approach is a human invention which is not an accurate description of reality. An uncreated creator cannot need us nor benefit from us, so he must have created us for our own sake, and so our salvation must be primarily not about something superficial like a formal pledge of allegiance, but about truth and goodness. And by goodness I mean conformity of action to the fullness of truth. For more on this, I’ll link my video debunking Believe-or-Burn, but for the moment, suffice it to say that being fairly correct, theologically, must be of some greater-than-zero value under any coherent theology with an uncreated creator behind all that exists. The correct approach is not to give up if you can’t be be completely correct. It’s to try to be as correct as possible.

And in any event there is no default position. Atheism is as much a philosophical position as any theology is. Well, that’s not strictly true. There is a default position, which is that there is Nothing. But that’s clearly wrong, there is something, so the default position is out. And while in a dictionary sense atheism is nothing but the disbelief in God—or for the moment it doesn’t even matter if you’re too intellectually weak for that and want to define atheism as the mere lack of a belief in God—western atheists tend to believe in the existence of matter, at least, as well as immaterial things like forces and laws of nature. So each atheist has a belief system, even if some refuse to admit it. The only way to not have a belief system is to give yourself a lobotomy. But until you do, since you have a belief system, it is as capable of being wrong as any theology is. And does it seem plausible that, if Christianity is true, if the version of Christianity you’ve encountered is a little inaccurate, you’ll be better off as an atheist?

I think that nearly answers the question, but there is a final topic which I think may answer an implicit part of the question: while there are infinitely many theologies which are theoretically possible, in practice there haven’t actually been all that many. This is something I’m going to cover more in my upcoming video series which surveys the world’s religions, but while there certainly are more than just one religion in the world, there aren’t nearly as many as many modern western people seem to think that there are. Usually large numbers are arrived at by counting every pagan pantheon as being a different religion, but this is not in fact how the pagans themselves thought of things. I don’t have the time to go into it—I addressed this somewhat in my video on fundamentalists, and will address it more in the future—but actual pagans thought of themselves as sharing a religion; just having some different gods and some different names for the same gods, just like French and American zoos don’t have all the same animals, and don’t use the same names for the animals they do have in common. But they will certainly recognize the other as zoos. American zookeepers do not disbelieve in French “python réticulé”.

And so it goes with other differences; those who worship nature worship the same nature. All sun worshippers worship the same sun. Those who believe in an uncreated creator recognize that others who believe in an uncreated creator are talking about the same thing, and generally hold that he can be known to some degree through examination of his creation, so they will tend to understand others who believe in an uncreated creator as having stumbled into the same basic knowledge.

And this explains why minor religions tend to die out as small groups make contact with larger groups. Those religions which are more thoroughly developed—which present more truth in an intelligible way—will appeal to those who on their own only developed a very rudimentary recognition and expression of those truths. There has been conversion by the sword in history, though it is actually most associated with Islam and often exaggerated in other faiths, but it is not generally necessary. When people come into contact with a religion which has a fuller expression of truth than the one they grew up with, they usually want to convert, because people naturally want the truth, and are attracted to intelligible expressions of it. And the key point is that the expressions of truth in better developed religions are intelligible precisely because they are fuller expressions of truths already found in one’s native religion. And this is so because religions are founded for a reason. I know there’s a myth common that religion was invented as bad science, usually something to the effect that people invented gods of nature in order to make nature seem intelligible. The fact that this is exactly backwards from what personifying inanimate objects does should be a sufficient clue that this is not the origin of religion. Think about the objects in your own life that people personify: “the printer is touchy”, “the traffic light hates me”, “don’t let the plant hear that I said it’s doing well because it will die on me out of spite”. Mostly this is just giving voice to our bewilderment at how these things work, but if this affects how mysterious the things are in any way, it makes them more mysterious, not less. If you think the printer is picky about what it prints, you’ll wonder at great length what it is about your documents it disapproves of. If you think of it as a mere machine, you turn it off, take it apart, put it back together again, and turn it on. Or you call a repairman. But if you personify it, you’ll wrap your life up in the mystery of its preferences. And anyone with any great experience of human beings has seen this. Especially if you’ve ever been the repairman to whom the printer is just a machine.

It’s also, incidentally, why many atheists have developed a shadowy, mysterious thing called “religion” which desires to subjugate humanity.

People personify what they don’t understand to communicate that it is mysterious, not to make it less mysterious. And they do this because people—having free will—are inherently and irreducibly mysterious.

So if you look past the mere surface differences, you will find that religions have generally originated for very similar reasons. So much so that more than a few people who haven’t studied the world’s religions enough are tempted to claim that there is only one universal religion to all of mankind with all differences being mere surface appearance. That’s not true either, but that this mistake is possible at all, is significant. Religions are founded for a reason, and that’s why there aren’t infinitely many of them.

Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

Authority Figures in Movies

One of the curious things about the roles of authority figures in movies is that they are very rarely played by people who have ever had any authority. One might think that this wouldn’t have too much of an impact since the actors are just reciting dialog which other people wrote. (People who most of the time haven’t had any authority themselves, but that’s a somewhat separate matter.) And in the end, authority is the ability to use force to compel people, so does it matter much what the mannerisms an actor uses are?

Actually, yes, because in fact a great deal of authority, in practice, is about using social skills to get people to cooperate without having to use one’s authority. And a great deal of social skills are body language, tone of voice, emphasis, and pacing. Kind of like the famous advice given by Dalton in Road House:

For some reason, authority figures are usually portrayed as grim and stern—at this point I think because it’s a shorthand so you can tell who is who—but there is a great deal which can be accomplished by smiling. There’s an odd idea that many people seem to have that smiling is only sincere if it is an instinctual, uncontrollable reaction. I’ve no idea where this crazy notion came from, but in fact smiling is primarily a form of communication. It communicates that one is not (immediately) a threat, that (in the moment) one intends cooperation, that the order of the moment is conversation rather than action. Like all communication it can of course be a lie, but the solution to that is very simple: don’t lie with your smile. Words can be lies, but the solution is not to refrain from speaking unless you can’t help yourself; it’s to tell the truth when one opens one’s mouth. So tell the truth when you smile with your mouth, too. And since actions are choices, one very viable option, if you smile at someone, is to follow through and (in the moment) be nice.

Anyone (sane) who has a dog knows that in many ways they’re terrible creatures. They steal your food, destroy everyday items, throw up on your floor when they’ve eaten things that aren’t food, get dog hair everywhere, and make your couches stink of dog. And yet, people love dogs who do these things to them for a very simple reason: any time you come home, your dog smiles at you and wags its tail and is glad to see you. And it’s human nature that it’s impossible to be angry at someone who is just so gosh darned happy that you’re in the same room as them.

People in authority are rarely there because they have a history of failure and incompetence at dealing with people; it may be a convenient movie shorthand that people in authority are stone-faced, grumpy, and stern, but in real life people in positions of authority are generally friendly. It’s easy to read too much into that friendliness, of course—they’re only friendly so long as you stay on the right side of what you’re supposed to be doing—but this unrealistic movie shorthand makes for far less interesting characters.

And I suppose I should note that there are some people in positions of authority who are often stone-faced and grim, but these are usually the people responsible for administering discipline to those already known to be transgressors. This is especially true of those dealing with children, who have little self control and less of a grasp of the gravity of most situations they’re in and who need all the help they can get in realizing that it’s not play time. By contrast, during the short time I was able to take part in my parish’s prison ministry, I noticed that the prison guards were generally friendly (if guardedly so) with the inmates. Basically, being friendly can invite people to try to take liberties, but being grumpy usually gets far less cooperation, and outside of places like Nazi death camps where you are actually willing to shoot people for being uncooperative, cooperation is usually far more useful than people trying to take liberties and having to be told “no” is inconvenient.

But most of the actors who play authority figures don’t know any of this; and when you research the individual actors they often turn out to be goofballs who don’t like authority and whose portrayal of it is largely formed by what they most dislike about it.