A Traitor To Dreams

Alex over at Amatopia has just published his first novel, A Traitor To Dreams:

I had the pleasure of reading a draft of the novel. It’s not necessarily easy to characterize; in a way it’s a coming of age story for someone who is also coming to terms with how she should have grown up a long time ago. It blends into this a beautiful and interesting setting and memorable characters.

Check out the book, but to make it easier, here’s the back cover text:

Ideomatic, Inc. has perfected humanity. Their Dream Trashcan can create the ideal you.

Elpida Kallistos has everything she wants . . . almost. There is one unfulfilled dream, one desire standing between her and happiness. Enter the Dream Trashcan from Ideomatic, Inc., guaranteed to eliminate unwanted desires while you sleep. All it takes is the click of a button and the desire is gone, permanently.

And it works! But when Elpida has second thoughts and opens up her Dream Trashcan, she finds more inside than circuitry and wires. She finds a whole other world . . . the Dreamscape, a realm where angelic, winged beings called Stewards hunt down desires made flesh. But her presence makes the Dreamscape unstable, and Ideomatic will do anything to get her out.

Chased by Ideomatic’s minions, Elpida must discover her Steward’s true identity, learn the secrets of the Dream Trashcan, and unravel Ideomatic’s plans . . . before she’s devoured by her own desires.

Elpida’s journey through the Dreamscape begins as The Matrix meets Alice in Wonderland as fantasy and reality collide in A Traitor to Dreams.

Justice and Generosity, Hierarchy and Equality

I recently said, on Twitter:

If you wish to understand how society always organizes itself:

Equals can get along if they have nothing to do with each other or both are generous to each other.

Superior/sub-ordinate can get along if both will be merely just to each other.

There was some interest in this so I’ll explain what I mean and why it is the case.

There are and have been many forms of social organization—democracy, republics monarchies, dictatorships, bureaucracies, clubs, churches, friends, families, neighbors, villages, cities, etc.—but they all share some basic traits because they are organizations of human beings and human nature imposes restrictions upon how human beings can be organized.

In a fallen world, one of the biggest problems which needs to be handled in human relationships is how to handle when two people’s wills diverge. There are only three possible outcomes: both get their way, one gets their way and the other doesn’t, and neither gets their way. I’m going to count compromise as a sub-set of both getting their way so we can disregard the last outcome—neither gets their way—because a situation in which no one ever gets what he wants will not last long.

There are a very limited number of ways in which society can be organized such two people with divergent desires can both have their way. The simplest is for the people to have nothing to do with each other. Neighbors can both do whatever they want in their own homes since it doesn’t get in the way of the other. This is the “good fences make good neighbors” organization of society.

If separation is not possible then the only alternative is for some form of compromise to occur. This requires one or both to give up something for the sake of the other. That is, this requires generosity.

(There is also the case of bargaining but bargaining is only possible where the wills of the two mostly align. The merchant is willing to sell the item for its value plus a profit, the buyer is willing to buy the item for its value plus a profit; the only divergence is on the the size of the profit and possibly their evaluations of the value. This is very different from the buyer being willing to buy the item but his wife wanting him to buy something quite different instead.)

Where there is not separation or generosity, the only possibility left is for one to force their will on the other. This may be done through warfare or through a proxy for warfare such as lawsuits. That is, it will be done by appealing to someone who is superior within the social hierarchy (the court) or to the superior force of arms. If we leave off warfare as being not a social order but the breakdown of social order, this leaves us only with hierarchy.

The court system, however, is very inefficient. Suing or being sued consumes a lot of time and money. If people can’t leave each other alone and people can’t be generous to each other, then sooner or later they will embed hierarchies into social organization for the sake of efficiency.

Social equalities which do not consist of people leaving each other alone, as neighbors mostly do, are themselves quite a lot of work. It is not easy for fallen humanity to be generous to each other indefinitely. This is why modern marriages so often break up. It’s also why high school is so often remembered as hellish.

Hierarchies may not be perfect but they’re vastly less work because they contain within them the mechanism for resolving the conflicts of will which so often come up between fallen creatures. A feature of living within a hierarchy that’s often missed by those who deride hierarchies is that people naturally adapt to reasonable hierarchies. That a reasonable boss imposes limits may be inconvenient but not particularly more so than that the walls impose limits. One may not do what the boss does not permit; one may not walk through the walls. So long as the boss is as predictable as the wall, the human psyche eventually thinks of the limitations of both in roughly the same way—merely part of reality. Even the boss operates in a manner heavily constrained by limits, if merely different limits than the subordinate.

(Where people really come to hate their bosses is when their bosses are unreasonable. An unreasonable boss is unpredictable; one can’t conform to him and get along because he has no definite shape. What he approves of one minute he disapproves of the next, and one must take constant notice of him. They would have the same frustration at walls that reshuffled themselves three times a day.)

But this is also true of social clubs. Clubs which must carry on some definite business will form hierarchies with elected offices because the alternative is so much more work. Even large groups of friends will form hierarchies because group decisions are so painful to accomplish. Where four or five regularly gather together just to enjoy each other’s company you will still see one or two becoming the leaders of the group and carrying out most of the decision making process while two or three simply go along and one or two are more active but willing to defer.

Monasteries which are founded on the principle that all of the monks are brothers will elect a Father Prior or Father Abbot to lead them and make decisions which the rest obey. Nunneries will elect a Mother Abbess or Mother Prioress. If all the farm animals are equal, some animals will become more equal than others. The alternative is just too much work.

You can even see this in YouTube communities which form; it’s not hard to pick out the leaders who set the tone for their respective communities. They change over time, of course, because nothing in a fallen world is stable. But communities of equal are vastly less stable than are hierarchies.

Human beings are made for more than mere justice, so we have a natural distaste for hierarchies. We chafe under them. And yet, we tend to be happier within a hierarchy because all that’s required of us is mere justice. Our superiors have certain rights over us, so if we discharge our duties to them we need do no more and all is well. We have certain obligations to our inferiors but if we discharge them we need do no more and all is well. Our inferiors owe us certain obligations, but as long as they discharge those obligations to us we are satisfied and all is well. It may not be perfect, but it’s easy.

Unlike electricity human beings do not always take the path of least resistance. We just mostly take the path of least resistance. This is why you will find hierarchies developing everywhere and why social organizations which purport to finally achieve equality are guaranteed to fail.

Now, it should be noted that it’s not necessarily a problem that something is guaranteed to fail. Everything in a fallen world is. The real question that needs to be asked is whether it’s going to fail gracefully or spectacularly. When the social order fails, will it result only in somewhat elevated levels of injustice or will it end in mass executions?

Because nothing in a fallen world ends well.

That’s what the next world is for.

The Disclaimer on Gaudy Night

Most every work of fiction has at the beginning a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction and should not be read as being about any real person. This is primarily for legal reasons since most fools and all non-fools can figure out that a work of fiction is fictive. However, sometimes a work of fiction touches on real things and this is when the disclaimers can become interesting.

My favorite disclaimer is at the beginning of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. So you can see what I mean, I’m going to reproduce it interspersed with my commentary:

It would be idle to deny that the City and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist, and contain a number of colleges and other buildings, some of which are mentioned by name in this book. It is therefore the more necessary to affirm emphatically that none of the characters which I have placed upon this public stage has any counterpart in real life. In particular, Shrewsbury College, with its dons, students and scouts, is entirely imaginary; nor are the distressing events described as taking place within its walls founded upon any events that have ever occurred anywhere. Detective-story writers are obliged by their disagreeable profession to invent startling and unpleasant incidents and people, and are (I presume) at liberty to imagine what might happen if such incidents and people were to intrude upon the life of an innocent and well-ordered community; but in so doing they must not be supposed to suggest that any such disturbance ever has occurred or is ever likely to occur in any community in real life.

I really love the first sentence. Sometimes one can invent whole universities and cities, as I did in The Dean Died Over Winter Break, but even when one does it can be necessary to put them inside of larger places that are real.

It’s a delicate balance but intruding somewhat upon real places can be extremely interesting. I think that Ms. Sayers is quite right that murder mysteries are especially interesting when examining murders in places that they shouldn’t be. Technically that’s everywhere, but there are places that are, in this fallen world, more conducive to murder than others. And it’s the places which are least conducive to it that can be the most interesting.

Certain apologies are, however, due from me: first, to the University of Oxford, for having presented it with a Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of my own manufacture and with a college of 150 women students, in excess of the limit ordained by statute. Next, and with deep humility, to Balliol College—not only for having saddled it with so wayward an alumnus as Peter Wimsey, but also for my monstrous impertinence in having erected Shrewsbury College upon its spacious and sacred cricket-ground. To New College, also to Christ Church, and especially to Queen’s, I apologize for the follies of certain young gentlemen, to Brasenose for the facetiousness of a middle-aged one, and to Magdalen for the embarrassing situation in which I have placed an imaginary pro-Proctor. The Corporation Dump, on the other hand, is, or was, a fact, and no apology for it is due from me.

I can relate to the initial apology since in the course of writing my own mysteries I’ve had to saddle certain diocese with Bishops of my own manufacture. It’s all in good fun and I think that everyone understands the unreality of the thing, but I also understand the impulse to apologize. There is a certain reality, however thin, to the characters in novels. There’s a tension, there, which I think cannot be fully resolved and is just one of the penalties of living in a fallen world.

To the Principal and Fellows of my own college of Somerville, I tender my thanks for help generously given in questions of proctorial rules and general college discipline—though they are not to be held responsible for details of my discipline in Shrewsbury College, many of which I have invented to suit my own purpose.

This is a real advantage to making up a place, even when modeled on a real place—it is so much more convenient to be able to make up details to suit one’s story. On the other hand there’s great value in getting things right where one can.

As I’ve been working on Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral, I’ve been asking some priests and religious questions about religious life (especially with regard to the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office, or the prayers priests and religious say throughout the day).  There’s a real pleasure—at least I find as a reader—to being able to learn real things in the course of having fun. (Though, of course, one must be careful because the novelist never labels which things are real and which changed to suit the story; however, it’s often a good starting point for further research and a decent novelist will be careful to change things in ways that at least preserve the spirit if not the details of the thing he’s changed.)

Persons curious in chronology may, if they like, work out from what they already know of the Wimsey family that the action of the book takes place in 1935; but if they do, they must not be querulously indignant because the King’s Jubilee is not mentioned, or because I have arranged the weather and the moon’s changes to suit my own fancy. For, however realistic the background, the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offence in the world.

I find this entire section quite interesting. Consulting detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, or my own Brother Thomas, are unrealistic. For reasons I think largely owing to the limited creativity of murderers, they simply don’t exist in practice. They exist, then in a world much like ours but a little different. It is, in a sense, a world where creative people are less timid. But it is not this world. It follows, then, that one would arrange things such as the weather, the changes of the moon, and even some current events to suit one’s story. It does, after all, take place in a different world.

The final line is very curious. It’s borrowed from Hamlet, prince of the Danes, in the second scene of the third act of the Shakespearean play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. It’s something that Hamlet says in response to the King asking, “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in ’t?” Hamlet replies, “No, no, they do but jest. Poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.”

It’s a great line, and I assume that Ms. Sayers was changing the meaning when she borrowed the line. But it is very curious that in the original this was a lie that Hamlet told the King, his uncle who replaced his father as king after secretly murdering him, because the play was designed to cause great offense to the King and his wife, Hamlet’s mother. In fact, it was intended to cause them to reveal their guilt.

But it does ring quite true that the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland. Coordinating events affected by many living people is too complicated for a mere mortal.

Only tangentially related to the last line but interesting: it’s a few lines later that the King asks Hamlet what he calls the play and Hamlet replies, “The Mousetrap”. That’s the name of the murder mystery play written by Agatha Christie which opened 1952 and has been running continuously to this day. It is by far the longest initial run of any play in history, with over 25,000 performances in the same theater.

No, Not All Are Welcome

I was recently reminded of a rather bad hymn that seems to be standard in american Catholic hymnals: All Are Welcome.

Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Granted it suffers from the problem that many hymns written in the post-war period suffer from: it’s really about man, not about God. However, that’s not why I despise it. I despise it because it’s a lie.

All are most certainly not welcome in the place that hymn is sung. The only place in the world of which that’s true is prison. Everywhere else has membership requirements. Whatever they sang, the hippy-dippy hippies who sang this with all of the enthusiasm they could muster would ask the chainsaw-wielding man covered in filth and screaming obscenity-laced death threats to come back some other time.

Some will object that they mean that the man is welcome once he puts away his chainsaw, takes a bath, and speaks politely. So what? It’s not a meaningful sort of inclusiveness to say that one will accept anyone who conforms to the group’s demands. What’s special about that? Everyone will accept those who make themselves acceptable.

Of course, the example I gave, while sufficient to prove the theoretical point, is not realistic. And it’s precisely the realistic extreme example which sheds a lot of light on the theme of that time and the very contrasting theme of our time.

The realistic example is the man in the sweater vest who is openly fornicating and openly saying blasphemies in a normal speaking voice. And the hippy-dippy hippies who sang All Are Welcome did, in fact, let him stay.

There is, of course, a parallel in secular culture. The flagrantly fornicating man who “flirted” with all of the women at the office was welcome too. Modern mythology holds that this was the norm throughout history until fifteen minutes ago but even a cursory familiarity with movies and television from the 1950s and before would tell one that a man who talked openly of sex in the workplace, not just in front of women, but to them, would never have been tolerated.

This is, after all, the repression which the 1970s loved to criticize. Today we call it sexual harassment rather than impropriety but apart from the language a man being fired for “being too free with the ladies” differs only in terminology. But in the 1970s all were welcome, even the sexual harassers.

Our society prefers to call “polite society” by the name “safe spaces” but the thing to which the name refers is the same. There are places and times when people must restrain their impulses and behave in a way that makes everyone comfortable. The idea that everyone should become comfortable with everything simply doesn’t work.

At the same time we see secular culture clawing its way back to propriety in public places we see religious culture clawing its way back to the idea of sacred spaces. Sacred means “set apart” and a thing is set apart not by having walls and doors but by what is and is not done in them. That first part is as important as the second; when it comes to the sacred sins of omission are the equals of sins of commission.

I do not yet know what it was that animated the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s—what it was that made the hippies so dippy that they thought that if they broke down all barriers everyone would somehow get along. (The obvious guess is the devastation of the first two world wars, especially in Europe, and those combined with the trauma of racism in the United States.)

It had the very curious property that it sounded Godly but was actually diabolic—I mean in the original sense of the Greek “diabolein”: to scatter. The diabolic scatters man from man and prevents unity. So surely getting everyone together should be the opposite?

But this is a fallen world and men will not all get along. If you try to force them to all that will happen is that you will break down true friendship and camaraderie. Those need safe spaces in which to grow.

If you let the heretics into church they will not worship God with you. They will only keep you from worshiping God. It is no accident that Christ said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

An even more apt quotation would be what the angels said at the birth of Christ. Curiously, the version most people are familiar with, which comes from the King James translation of the bible, is very badly translated:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Bu when it is translated more accurately, you get something like (this one is from the Revised Standard Version):

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

Just so you can see the main idea in the variety, here’s an alternative translation which is also faithful to the original text (The New Jerusalem Bible):

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those He favours.

Peace is the ordering of the world to the good. That is, it is a rational ordering of the world according to its nature. But a rational ordering must be in a mind and for it to be a property of the world and not merely imposed on the world it must be in the mind of the world’s maker.

Peace is the ordering of the world according to God’s will. Peace is only possible, therefore, among those who do his will. Those who do only their own will can never be at peace with God or each other. 

Which is why people must set themselves apart so that they can get along.

The age of universal peace is finally over. We can now get back to the business of getting along with each other.

Attach the Stone of Triumph

This post is going to be about the false freedom which is won by rejecting God. However, the title is a reference to an early Simpsons episode, so in case you’ve never seen the Stonecutters episode (one of the best), here’s the relevant part:

Human beings have a nature which we did not make, for the very simple reason that we did not make ourselves. This is, properly understood, the source of all of our power to do anything, but since we are finite beings it does come with limitations. And those limitations irk people, sometimes.

The right response to being irked by this is self-examination. If a man is depressed because he cannot fly like a bird, he should figure out what’s wrong with him that he does not appreciate walking like a man. Alas, another response is to try to become a bird. It’s not possible, but every project starts with step 1 so it’s possible to ignore that step 3 is impossible while one is working on step 1.

In this case the first step is to get rid of God from whom our limits come because He’s from whom our nature comes. The problem is that, once God is gone, so is meaning. If there is no God we have no constraints and so anything is possible. The only problem is that nothing is worth the effort.

Suppose you attain enough power to smash planets. Well, so what?

You will of course find those who will say, “then life will have the meaning that I give it!” I tend to assume that they don’t mean this because they’ve clearly never thought about it for even five seconds together. Apart from this just being (by definition) make-believe, if life has the meaning you give it, why not give it a more convenient meaning?

Sure, it’s possible to give life the leaning that after years of work to attain the power, smashing planets makes you great. But as long as you’re the one making up the meaning why not give sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching re-runs of Friends the meaning that you’re great? They’re equally valid.

In short, there’s a reason why, at first, the meaning which atheists choose to give life is always suspiciously close to the meaning which God gives it. But atheism is a degenerative disease. Sooner or later the atheist will notice that this is a lot of work. And it won’t be long before he notices that it’s completely unnecessary work. And at some point he’s going to notice that no work is really necessary, at least if he’s at all wealthy.

He’ll have succeeded in getting rid of the stone of shame. The problem is that he’s exchanged it for the stone of triumph.

And only God is powerful enough to lift a rock that big.

Who’s Dreaming of a White Christmas?

For some reason (a while ago) I decided to look up the history of the song, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”. I think it was after hearing the song and thinking of this XKCD comic:

There’s more to say about this which is not merely about cultural time period or generation, but that’s for another blog post.

White Christmas is itself a nostalgic song which is, I think, part of what connected the two in my mind. It was first published in 1941 (and made famous in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn) but was written a year or two earlier by Irving Berlin. One story is that it was while he was in a hotel in California. This is supported by the (typically omitted) first verse:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North—

Which brings up the question of Berlin’s history. It turns out that he was a Russian Jew, born Израиль Моисеевич Бейлин (Roughly, Israel Moiseyevich Beileen) in Imperial Russia in 1888 (or 1889—records weren’t as good those days). His family emigrated to the United States in 1893, when his name was changed to Israel Baline. (In 1906, when his first song was published, his name was misspelled as “I. Berlin,” and apparently it stuck. Presumably at some point he changed his name to Irving to avoid anti-Jewish prejudice, but I don’t know.)

Berlin’s family stayed in New York City for years before Irving became a success and started visiting other parts of the country. Thus his youthful memories would be of treetops that “glisten in the snow” in strong contrast to the California treetops which look the same in winter as in every other month.

Which is, of course, quite reasonable—I’ve heard that southern California’s lack of seasons takes some getting used to. The funny thing is that this doesn’t really translate out of the context of someone from New York who’s moved to California (or other southern parts of the US). I was one such person who didn’t have this experience; I grew up in the north-east of the United States in a similar sort of climate to where Berlin did, though around seventy years later. I’d heard the song growing up but didn’t know its context, so I adapted it to the context I knew.

Specifically, to the context where it was snowy on Christmas only one out of every 5 (or so) years. Hence in anticipation of Christmas (when Christmas songs are generally played in the United States) one could dream of a white Christmas like the ones one remembers from years gone by. But this is a very different thing because even a snowless Christmas in the north-eastern United States is still cold and largely dark (happening as it does at most about 5 days after the shortest day of the year). It’s still at a time of year that feels very different to spring-through-fall and still a counter-point to the bleakness of the season.

Thus for me it’s a sort of grass-is-greener wishing for things to be optimal instead of highly different. (If you come from a part of the world that never gets much snow, see my post Snow Is Peaceful for why a white Christmas is nice.) This is a picky sort of nostalgia of which the Boomers are often accused, though in this case unfairly since the song was written much closer to the beginning of the war rather than to the end of it, and by someone who was born in the previous century.

Even saying that this song was part of the Boomer’s childhood, as the XKCD comic does, is not very accurate. Leaving aside the reasonableness of the demarcations of the “baby boom” and using the most expansive definition of it, the Baby Boomers were born from 1945-1964. Assuming that people start forming life-long memories at about the age of 7 this means that White Christmas had been playing for at least ten years before any baby boomers would have remembered it from their childhoods. If the average boomer was born in 1954, the song had been popular for about 19 years before they would remember it from their childhood. And it should be noted that it isn’t seven-year-olds who put songs onto the charts. White Christmas is not a centuries-old tradition but it was clearly an earlier tradition than the childhood of the baby boomers.

(Incidentally, I can’t begin to imagine what this song sounds like to someone who grew up in the southern hemisphere of the world since for them Christmas takes place in the summer and you’d have to live on a mountain or in Antarctica to have snow on Christmas. In fact, in most places in the southern hemisphere I suspect a white Christmas would be an epic disaster since it would mean the death of most of their food crops and probably a good chunk of their livestock.)

Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

In an odd series of events I happened to stumble across this book, which is a kindle reprint of a book now in the public domain. It’s the first in a series by Russell Thorndike about the character Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

The first book was published in 1915, the last in 1944. They’re set in the mid 1700s and the hero of the story is quite a brigand. First a parson, then a man on a quest for revenge, then a pirate, then again on a quest for revenge, then again a pirate, then finally again a parson and in that role also the leader of a band of smugglers who rides a giant black stallion and wears a phosphorescent scarecrow outfit to lead them.

For some reason this reminds me of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not sure why, except for the obvious element of being set in the 1700s and there being a ghostly horse-rider. Anyway, there’s something about the outlandishness of the tale which I find interesting. I think part of it is that it feels like it should have been written about 100 years before it actually was. It’s contemporaneous with the beginnings of Science Fiction, for example. A good example of how one can write any story in any age, I suppose.

The foreward by the author’s sister (who was a famous actress) I found particularly interesting:

DEAR RUSSEL,
Do you remember a long jounrey to Spartanburg, Georgia—I, rigid with fear and thrill, open-mouthed—you, unfolding horror upon horror—the day “Dr. Syn” was born?
Do you remember how on arriving at the hotel, some kindly fate playing up to us so nobly, arranged for a perfectly good murder to take place on the front steps right under our windows—and how the corpse lay there all night, and we being too frightened to go to bed so sitting up most of the night, I making countless pots of tea, while you with bulging eyes gloated over the double-dyings and doings of that splendid criminal, “Dr Syn”?
It was a far cry from Georgia to the Romney Marsh, but I think it was some longing for hom and the Kent lands that made you develop his story with that background instead of the more obviously thrilling country in which we were travelling.
What a pal the old parson-smuggler became to us! I know for me he joined the merry band—the Men of Kent—the Dickens Men of Kent who made the white roads famous.
I envy those who are to make his acuqaintance for the first time. I remember with thrill the feeling i had when you first showed him to me. Here was another of those creature sof the family of Daniel Quilp (Our first great love, wasn’t he?) Creatures that are above the ordinary standards of right and wrong—tho, even if they murdered their favorite aunt would have been forgiven—they being so much large rand more labable than aforesaid Aunt.
Was Syn a play or a novel first? I forget—He walks in Romance and it matter snot al all to me if I meet him again in prose or verse or in actuality—poking his head out of a dyke in our dear beloved Marsh. I shall say Good Luck to him in wahtever form he may appear—the souls like us who love a thrill will be jollier for the meeting.
SYBIL

The Frank Friar on Regrets

In a video which I highly recommend, The Frank Friar talks about regrets:

I really like how he distinguishes a proper resolve to make amends where making amends is possible and an inordinate attachment to the past where action in the present isn’t possible.

Much of life is reducible to: do what you can and trust God for the rest. But it can be very beneficial to see the specifics of that in each circumstance because that sort of fundamental orientation is hard, in this fallen world, to achieve.

Time Isn’t a Thief

Because I was watching a bunch of songs from Patty Gurdy YouTube recommended the song Mad as a Hatter by Larkin Poe. Larkin Poe is a pair of sisters, and Mad as a Hatter is about their grandfather’s mental illness. It’s not a great song, but it’s got catchy elements:

There’s a line in it which really cought my attention, though:

I know what time is
Time is a thief.
It’ll steal into bed
And rob you while you sleep.

Now, I should preface my remarks by saying that I know what’s meant—people’s powers, such as memory, eyesight, etc. tend to diminish with age, though gradually enough that one doesn’t notice, and in older age one is not able to do the things one was able to in one’s youth. And indeed, this is difficult to deal with. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say that time isn’t a thief. It is quite true that those of us who survive to old age will have weaker eyes and slower memories than we did when we were young. These changes can be attenuated, but cannot be prevented.

To quote Master Splinter in the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, death comes for us all.

It’s just that death comes quickly for some and slowly for others.

But time is still not a thief.

The question is one of fundamental orientation, or, if you prefer, the fundamental question of what a human being is.

The idea that time is a thief comes from the idea that there’s a “true” us which we grow into and then eventually lose. It conceives of human beings as self-sufficient beings which merely inhabit the world for a time. Thus the limits which come from being in the world are limits imposed upon the independent creature and frustrate the fullness of its being. The prime of one’s life—when experience and youthful vigor are at their mutual maximum—is thus the time when the human being is least limited by the world.

This is, of course, exactly backwards. It places human beings in the position of being little Gods and makes completely unintelligible why they’re born or die. People don’t bother themselves much with the problems of being born since it’s too convenient, though this is one of the things which a bit of navel gazing would actually help with. They’re very troubled, however, by how growing old and dying makes no sense.

By contrast, if a human being is a creature who did not make himself, every moment of his life is, therefore, a gift. To be born is a gift, to grow stronger and quicker of wit throughout childhood is a gift, and to still be around dispensing wisdom and doing what one can do in old age is a gift. It is true that time gives far more in one kind during a person’s youth and gives those gifts of strength and memory far less during old age. But they are still far more than nothing, which is the right thing to compare them to.

This is where the older wisdom of the idea of the seasons of one’s life comes in. We are given youthful vigor in our youth but not in our old age; it is right, therefore, to make good use of youthful vigor in our youth, and then as we age to turn to making use of the wisdom and knowledge we’re given in our old age. The young and the old complement each other. Wisdom without vigor cannot do anything, while vigor without wisdom cannot do anything worthwhile.

Our modern rejection of the seasons of life and strict separation of people by age has resulted in old people being warehoused until they die while the young are busy wasting their youth. And in both cases people who are not Gods are miserable because real life can’t help but constantly point this out to them. (Which is why Sartre said that hell is other people—encountering other people proves to us that we didn’t create ourselves.)

So while growing old is not easy, time is not a thief. Time is a giver. It just gives us different things at different times.

The alternative is hell.

Quite literally.

A Funny Critique of Movie Achery

Loyd, possibly better known as Lindybeige, put a video (several years ago) in which he very humorously critiques the archery in the movie Helen of Troy:

There’s actually a rather important historical / technical point which he left out, however.

One of the recurring jokes he makes is that the arrows limp out of the frame but then, “every one a coconut when it hits”, i.e. they often knock men back, off their feet. Now, you might suspect that I would point out that the same problem applies to bows and arrows as does to guns: recoil. That is, if the projectile was capable of knocking the man back when it hit, it would have enough recoil to knock the archer/rifleman back when it fired. But while that’s true, that’s not the interesting thing Loyd didn’t remark upon.

What was left out is that arrows kill in an entirely different way than guns do. There’s a hint in this difference when you look at the shape: bullets are round and arrows are sharp. So sharp, in fact, that you could shave with them. Bullets kill (mostly) by the simple transfer of kinetic energy damaging internal organs. The more kinetic energy, the more deadly. This is also why you want a bullet to mushroom and become as flat as possible when it hits—if it leaves the body all of the kinetic energy it still has is wasted.

(Incidentally, this is why (Geneva Convention) militaries use full metal jacket bullets. The full metal jacket keeps the bullet from deforming which makes it far more likely to leave the body and only wound the target. A wounded man is still out of combat and it’s better for both sides if fewer people die. There’s also the theory that a dead man will be left where he falls but a wounded man will cause some of his comrades to stop fighting and help him, thus taking even more people away from shooting at your side.)

Arrows, by contrast, kill by slicing arteries and veins which causes the target to rapidly bleed to death. Since the further an arrow goes into a body the more blood vessels it can sever, the goal with an arrow is complete penetration. Once there is enough kinetic energy in the arrow for it to penetrate all the way to the other side of the body and out again additional kinetic energy serves no great purpose. In fact, it can actually cause problems if it results in the arrow bending too much when it hits. (The head slows down faster than the tail, which causes bending. This is why hunters do better with their arrows having the weight disproportionately front-of-center. In tests, an FOC of 30% significantly improves penetration.)

So, back to the movie, the arrows have enough kinetic energy to knock a man off his feet but then only penetrate an inch or two. Which means that the Trojans must have been shooting the dullest arrows ever made by man or beast.

Failing The Wrong Way

A lot of people love gmail because it filters out all of their spam. “I never see any spam!” they say, proudly. But the problem is that gmail achieves this by being way too aggressive about classifying things as spam, and the result is that it loses a lot of legitimate emails, too.

So the user is left with one of three options:

  1. Have things go wrong when they miss important emails.
  2. Check their spam folder once a day or so to make sure they don’t miss any important email.
  3. Don’t use email for anything important.

Option #1 is terrible and option #3 is just another way of saying that gmail is a bad email client. But the funny thing about option #2 is that the user is actually reading more spam than I am with my spam filter configuration that allows all of the important email through and only a few spams. I never have to check my spam folder, which means seeing 0-4 spams a day in my regular inbox is reading through way less spam than if I had to check my spam folder.

This relates to the concept in engineering of “which way do you want to fail?” It’s almost never the case that one can do something perfectly—getting absolutely every classification of email right. And every system is going to have a bias—would you rather when it fails your spam filter tends to mis-classify legit email as spam or spam as legit email?

The problem with focusing too much on getting the system perfect is that one can too easily forget that it won’t be perfect anyway, and then one won’t think about how it will fail when it does. A better engineered system puts some thought into figuring out the systemic biases and tweaking them to do the least harm, while also trying to get as close to perfect as is practical without changing the general target of how failure will happen.

Because failing in the wrong direction can be worse than useless. It can be actively harmful.

(The same principle applies to social engineering, by the way.)

Natural Theology and God’s Essence

I received an email with an interesting question:

The classical theistic tradition makes it well known that any knowledge of God’s essence is impossible, and even advances several argument as to why this is the case. However, if this is correct, I can’t really understand how the arguments from natural theology can give us any knowledge of his existence: isn’t the point of those arguments to show that God just is his existence itself, that is, that in God essence and existence are one and the same? Wouldn’t this mean that knowledge of his existence is also knowledge of his essence? And the latter being impossible, aren’t we left with a contradiction?

There are two answers to this. They depend on how one answers the question of whether we can predicate anything of God by analogy or whether we can only negatively predicate things of God.

I fall into the former camp and hold that one can predicate things of God by analogy. Thus when we say that God exists, we mean something which is analogous to our own existence but not something which is known in its entirety to us. To make a poor analogy but one that points in the right direction, when we say that a flower is white, we are describing an aspect of its color but we’re not saying anything about what it looks like in spectra that we can’t see. (It is the case that most white flowers look different in the UV spectrum which some insects can see.)

To say what God is, completely, is beyond our ability. But it is not accurate to say that we can’t know anything about God.

Part of why I fall into this camp is that it doesn’t make sense for creation to not even be like its creator; if we do not reflect any of God, then from where do we draw our qualities?

However, it is possible to go the other way and to say that we can only negatively predicate things of God. (These are not, in general, the people who do natural philosophy.) In which case, you get this result:

it is wrong to say that God exists

(“It is wrong to say that God exists. It is wrong to say that God does not exist. But it is more wrong to say that God does not exist. –Saint Dionysius the Areopagite)

Jordan Peterson, Falsehoods and Consequences

A friend of mine (rather incautiously, given how little provocation it takes to get me to write a blog post) said,

[T]here’s a part in the trailer for this movie where Peterson says “Falsehoods have consequences. That’s what makes them false.” If you discern any meaning in that statement, please tell me.

I’m now going to explain what Peterson means. (Or what I think he means—I haven’t been given the gift of reading souls.) First, I think that we can rephrase this less poetically but more clearly as:

[Falsehoods have negative consequences. That’s intrinsic to them being false.]

To break this down, we need to start with what a “falsehood” is. It’s not merely something that’s not true, but it’s an idea of something that’s not true. An idea points to something. What a false idea points to is something that’s simply not there. That is, the falsity is a relationship between the idea and reality.

Take a really simple example from classic bugs bunny cartoons: someone walks off a cliff but doesn’t look down so he keeps walking as if the ground is there. He only falls when he notices. This is funny because it’s the opposite of how reality works—in real life if you believe the cliff is a flat plain and walk off the cliff, you fall immediately. Believing the cliff to be a prairie is the falsity. Falling when you try to stand on what’s not there is the consequence.

What Peterson is trying to point out is that this relationship is inherent because truth and falsity are not properties of the idea but of the relationship of the idea to reality. We live in such a pluralistic culture and want so badly to get along with each other that we try to pretend that truth and falsity are private things—that they only apply to the idea itself. If we can believe this, we can then not care about what awful beliefs someone else has because we can pretend it doesn’t really matter.

But ideas do matter—precisely because they either correspond to reality or don’t. If you treat reality as if it’s something else, very bad things will happen because what you’re actually doing is contrary to reality. That’s the primary meaning.

However, this quote also works the other way—you can use consequences as a test for truth. This is, basically, the entire approach of science. It’s got some major problems if you take it too seriously, but if it’s only one tool in your tool belt, pragmatic truth can be a useful tool. To continue our original analogy—suppose instead of thinking that the cliff is a cliff you think it’s a canyon but the opposite side of the canyon is too far away to see. There’s a pragmatic sense in which this isn’t false—to put it in a more scientific way, your model corresponds to reality as far as you are able to measure.

A more practical example of this would be the “white lie”. Suppose your wife asks you if she looks good in a particular dress and suppose further that it’s really one of the least flattering dresses she owns. But suppose further that the question at hand—whether she knows it or not—is really, “should I be embarrassed to show my face while I wear this dress—will I be risking social ostracism by wearing it?”

If you give the answer, “yes, it looks good on you”, what is the difference between that and the strictly more accurate, “It doesn’t look very good on you but is still well within the range in which no one’s opinion of you is going to change because they love you, they will still think you put effort into your appearance for their sake, and realistically you would need to be wearing a rotting corpse or something equally extreme to change our friends’ opinion of you and hence your social standing, so by all means wear it if your favorite dress is in the wash and this is way more comfortable than the other dress which looks better on you and is clean”?

Assuming for the sake of the example the obviously unrealistic idea that your wife could accept such a robot-like answer at face value, neither of them has any sort of negative consequence to living—in both cases your wife will wear the dress, feel that she didn’t quite make the maximal effort she could have, and not worry more than she would regardless of what she was wearing. So in a practical sense, neither of these statements is false—that is, neither of them corresponds to reality so badly that you’re going to walk off a metaphorical cliff by acting according to it.

When you put these two things together, you have the meaning of the original quote:

Falsehoods have consequences. That’s what makes them false.

A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic (Script)

The following is the script to my video, A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic.

I got an email from an (I presume young) man by the name of Ken who said:

What you say about the burden of proof is very interesting to me, especially about engaging with [the] question and not just saying “you have to prove it to me; I don’t have any burden of proof so get busy proving your idea to me”:  I think part of why so many atheists, and I am an atheist at this time say the burden of proof is on the one making a positive claim i.e. god exists or god doesn’t exist is because so many Christians respond to questions of how do you know god exists with ‘”well, can you prove god doesn’t exist?” “I’m going to continue to believe god exists until someone proves to me he/she/it doesn’t”  Have you heard of Matt Dillahunty? He said something about burden of proof I find very compelling: He talked about the game of guessing how many [whole gumballs] are in a clear glass jar. Matt said that before you even begin to try to figure out the answer there is one thing you absolutely know and that is that the number is either and odd or even. If someone asserts that the number is even and I say I don’t believe that, that is not the same as saying I think the number is odd. The default position before you find out the answer is “I don’t know yet’.  He said a god either exists or it doesn’t exist. For clarity we need to keep god exists and “god doesn’t exist” separate and examine them separately. if I say you have failed to meet your burden of proof that your god exists I am not saying your god doesn’t exist but that you have not established that it exists. It seems to me that if the burden of proof is on atheists to prove YHVH does not exist then Christians have the burden to prove that the thousands of other gods do not exist and if you set about trying to prove all those gods/goddesses don’t exist those believers will use the same defenses Christians use to defend their god claim [and will say] you failed to prove their deity doesn’t exist.  I am wondering what you would say I am missing here?

This video will answer this question.

I’d like to preface my video by saying that the Christians who respond to questions about how one can know the faith is true with “how can you know it’s false” are simply not the people to talk to. Most people—regardless of belief system or topic—are simple people and simple people are not good at explaining things. This is true whether you’re talking about religion, engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or anything else. Only some people are good at explaining things and these are the people you should seek out when you want an explanation. But, unlike in engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or just about anything else, Christians who are good at teaching will happily teach you about the truth of Christianity for free. There are tons of free apologetical materials online and plenty of excellent books available at basically the cost of printing—and plenty of Christians will happily buy books for people who are sincerely seeking the truth.

With that out of the way, there’s one other thing which will help for us to establish before we proceed: every positive claim is convertible to a negative claim, and vice versa. This is because a double-negative is equivalent to a positive. You can say that a man is dead or not not-dead, and they mean the same thing. If you want to make it sound better, just give not-dead a name, like “alive”. This will come up in a bit.

So the first thing to say about Matt Dillahunty’s jar of gumballs is that his explicit conclusion is entirely true. To not come to a conclusion and to conclude a negative are not the same thing. To not be convinced that somebody is right and to be convinced that they are wrong are not the same thing. To not accept the truth of a proposition and to accept the truth of its negation is not the same thing.

Here’s the thing: no one ever thought that they were the same thing. What he is saying is true, but it is also trivial and irrelevant to the subject of whether God exists as it is discussed by human beings. And, to be clear, by God I mean the uncreated creator of all that is; the unchanging source of all change, the necessary source of all contingency, the ground of all being, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. I don’t care about big guys with hammers or worshipping the sun. If Thor exists, at most he is a more powerful creature than I am but still just a creature; this is utterly unlike the source of every moment of my—and if he exists, Thor’s—existence.

Matt Dillahunty’s example is about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. Now, within the example, the number of gumballs has no practical consequence, and whether the number is even or odd has, if possible, even less significance. It doesn’t matter in the slightest to anyone. This is not true of whether God exists, however. There is nothing that matters more, and nothing of greater practical consequence, than whether God exists. It affects every aspect of life in every moment of life. And everything you do is going to be consistent either with God existing and having created the universe on purpose and with meaning, and therefore with a nature out of which flows a particular morality, or it won’t be. I talked about this at length in my video Atheist Morality, but the short short version is that morality either flows out of human nature, which can only have been given to us by a rational creator, or what you call morality is just a name for people doing whatever they want—which needs no name. The short short short version is that you can’t know whether you’re using or misusing something until you know what it’s for. In Dillahunty’s made-up example, you can ignore the question and the question goes away. But real life doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.

In a moment I’m going to present a much better analogy for the situation human beings find ourselves in, but first, I want to point out that you can see this flaw even in Dillahunty’s example just by looking at where he stops: he ends the example before he writes his name and contact info and a number on a piece of paper and puts it in the submission box. The jar of gumballs is part of a contest (if you look up the video where he first presents this analogy, it’s explicitly part of it). And yet in the analogy he never enters the contest. He apparently just loses by not trying. Of course he couldn’t enter the contest in his analogy because if he did, the number he wrote down, being a specific number, would have to be odd or even. The only way he can remain uncommitted is by not playing the game for which the jar of gumballs was set out. Let’s be really clear here: this is a strategy to guarantee that you lose. This is, literally, a loser’s strategy.

But even if you include the parts which were left out of his analogy, a jar of gumballs just isn’t much like real life. So let’s take a different example which has the same point that the gumball example does but like real life involves skill and effort, and the results actually matter:

Suppose you are the umpire in a baseball game. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning in the last game of the world series, there are two outs, and the score is tied. A ground ball is hit and the runner on third base dashes madly toward home plate. The short stop initially fumbles the ball but the third baseman ran behind him and picks up the ball, then throws it home. The catcher catches the ball and tags the runner as he slides into home plate.

Now, one thing you know for sure is that the runner is either out or safe. The runner says to you that he’s safe, but doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. The catcher says that the runner is out, but also doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. If you simply announce that you don’t have enough evidence to make a call and so you’re going home now, this is definitely very different from calling the runner safe because you believe he’s safe or calling the runner out because you believe he’s out. For one thing, you’re going to be fired from your job as umpire and may well be hanged from the nearest lamp post by outraged fans before you make it home.

And now we come to the big problem with the umpire who refuses to come to a conclusion if the players don’t prove their case to his satisfaction. Why is he being so damn lazy? As the umpire, it’s his job to know whether the runner is safe or out. That’s the whole reason he’s on the field at all. It’s not the players’ jobs to prove they succeeded in their goals, it’s his job to pay attention to the game closely enough to know who succeeded and who failed. If he spends the entire baseball game in a closet playing video games and then throws up his hands when a call is necessary, he’s not nobly committed to intellectual honesty, he’s just neglecting his duty.

But bear in mind that this example does prove, just as much as the marble example, that there is a difference between refusing to commit to a side and committing to the negative side. Does anyone wonder why Matt Dillahunty picked his jar-of-gummballs example and not this umpire-in-a-baseball-game example?

But throwing up one’s hands and going home—in the real world this is the equivalent of freezing motionless or perhaps committing suicide—is not what people actually do. Atheists like Matt Dillahunty define some course of action as the default—they never, of course, explain why it’s the default, since they can’t, since there’s no such thing as a default when it comes to morality—and then do that if the contrary isn’t proven to them. So let’s look at that.

Suppose you decide to define “safe” as a positive claim and “out” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually out—call him “out” since the runner didn’t satisfactorily prove his positive claim. So what? You are still calling him out. That you don’t really believe him out changes exactly nothing about what you’re doing. The game will go into overtime just as much as if you actually believed your call was correct.

Suppose that you did the contrary and defined “out” as the positive claim and “safe” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually safe—call him “safe” since the catcher hasn’t satisfactorily proven his positive claim. Again, so what? The runner is still just as safe, the run counts just as much, and the team has won the game to exactly the same degree as if you actually believed that your call was correct.

Incidentally, I’ve heard it claimed that there is a rule in baseball that “the tie goes to the runner”. Several things need to be said about this. First, if you look this up, it refers not to uncertainty on the umpire’s part but to the case when the ball and the batter-turned-runner reach first base at the exact same instant such that neither arrives ahead of the other. Second, this is not a rule in baseball but rather an interpretation of the rules—which not all major league umpires subscribe to. And third, let’s ignore those first two and suppose this actually was a rule for there being a default to resolve epistemic uncertainty. Find me a case in real life where the following happened:

In a situation like above, bottom of the ninth, etc. where the umpire wasn’t paying attention and doesn’t know what happened at home plate, so he follows the default and calls the runner safe. The team manager from the team who has now lost comes up to the umpire, screaming at him that he must be incompetent, stupid, blind and on drugs. The umpire calmly tells him, “Sir, I wasn’t actually looking when the play happened and so I went with the default call of safe.”

The team manager, clearly taken aback, stammers and says, “Oh man, I’m so sorry for what I said. I thought that you actually thought that the runner was safe. Oh man. I didn’t realize that you had no idea what happened and just went with a default call. I take back everything I said about you being incompetent. Please accept my most sincere apologies for insulting your umpiring. You are a credit to your profession.”

Find me that. Preferably in video. But I’ll accept newspaper reports.

If an umpire makes a bad call because he was going with some default because he didn’t know what happened, this is not better than making a bad call because he was mistaken. It’s still a bad call, and it’s still his fault because he didn’t take the trouble to make a good call.

If you cheat on your wife with her sister but “don’t really mean it,” you’ve still cheated on your wife. If you cheat on your wife with her sister and father a bastard, that child exists just as much and has the same needs whether or not you actually believe that you should have cheated. This whole project of trying to do things without having them count is just pure cowardice. There’s no honor in doing things without thinking that you should do them and there’s even less in—if you don’t know what you should be doing—not spending every waking moment of your life trying to find out what you should be doing.

The Matt Dillahunties of the world are busy trying to say that if I shoot you in the head because I believe you are a zombie, I’m crazy, but if I shoot you in the head because I haven’t been convinced that you’re not a zombie (that is, that you’re alive), I’m the pinnacle of rationality. (And since this is the internet, don’t take this analogy literally. Shooting someone in the head symbolizes, say, fornication, and “because they’re a zombie” symbolizes sex being purely about pleasure.)

Now, to come to the crux of the matter: the only reason anyone likes this irrelevant gumball example is that it sneaks in the assumption that it doesn’t matter whether God exists. Just like a stage magician getting you to focus on the hand that’s pretending to have the coin when the coin is actually in the hand that you’re not looking at, this example is purportedly about whether or not indecision is identical to disbelief, but in reality is about whether disbelief matters.

I talked about this before, but to go over it again because it’s so important: there is no truth more important to human life than whether or not God exists. I’ve also covered the practical importance of the question of whether God exists in my video Atheism Changes Everything, but just consider for a moment that if a rational, loving God created the world, we have a nature out of which morality flows so morality is not merely the arbitrary question of what people happen to approve of. We have a soul which can live past the death of the body and live with the consequences of whether we acted in accordance with our nature or against it, that is, it is possible we will go to some sort of heaven or some sort of hell, with justice actually being enforced in the end. There is no such thing as a hidden deed; it is not possible to get away with something merely because no other human beings know about it. Having a common creator all human beings are a sort of sibling; we can have duties to strangers and even to enemies. The good things in life like beauty can be true and not merely meaningless preferences.

Someone who thinks that whether these things are true is like whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even has to have replaced his brains with rat droppings. Then taken the rat droppings out and burned them. Then used a hose to suck even the air out of the empty cavity in his skull so that in place of his brain there is now only vacuum.

The idea that it doesn’t really matter whether God exists is not even within spitting distance of a reasonable position. It’s not within sight of a reasonable position. It’s not on the same planet as a reasonable position.

And even on just a mundane, nitty-gritty level, practicing religious people are less likely to smoke ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28667475 ), to abuse alcohol ( https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/charlie-sheen-circus-and-_b_836934.html ), and to divorce ( https://shaunti.com/2014/06/marriage-month-daily-tip-12-go-church/ ), just to name a few things (in the studies showing this, practicing tends to mean regularly attending church). Correlational studies should always be taken with a grain of salt, but does your position on whether there are an odd or even number of gumballs in a jar have that sort of effect, or even just correlate with that sort of effect?

And yet, you see this from atheists all the time. They say, “I don’t believe in God and I’m able to go on living without any problems.” Perhaps, but how do they live their life?

Just take a look at the lives of the atheists who make these arguments about how their life is unaffected by disbelief. It’s not a pleasant thing to have to point out, but when they say this, then take a look. Do they refrain from excessive alcohol, recreational drugs, pornography, fornication, adultery, gossiping, backstabbing, and so forth? Do they further spend their own time, energy, and money being generous to people who can’t repay them? Do they constantly strive for greater self-control, that all they do may be upright and good? Is their life marked by a sense of gratitude for all of the good things they’ve received, including existence, intelligence, and the opportunity to see beauty and help others?

Now, Christians fall short of these things all the time. It is a terrible shame, but it is true, that not all Christians are saints. But are any atheists saints? Just take a look at them. Is there a single atheist anywhere who hasn’t noticed that the world being a meaningless accident that only has the meaning they give it (that moment) has the implication that whatever they find hard isn’t worth doing and whatever temptation they want to give into is justified? Especially over time? Atheism is, I fear, a degenerative disease.

So take a look at the older atheists. How many of them have any sort of remarkable virtue or self-control? How many ascetics practicing self-denial do you find? How many of them have dedicated their life to helping people who can’t contribute to their patreon account? How many of them have forsworn sex so that they may dedicate all of their time to service? Heck, how many of them spend even one hour a week set aside for appreciating that existence exists and being grateful for it? Most of the atheists I know talk about how going to church once a week is such an unbearable burden that you would think they were talking about being woken up at 2am to spend 14 hours in a hot standing cell without food or water.

So yes, there is theoretically a difference between acting as if God does not exist because you believe that he does not exist versus because you merely assume that he does not exist. There is not, however, a practical difference between these two things. The difference doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Well, actually, that’s not quite true. Someone who believes he knows that God does not exist is justified in not spending time trying to find out whether God exists, since he already has an answer with which he is satisfied. Someone who claims to not know—and therefore to have no idea whether what he is doing is good, evil, or indifferent—had better be spending all of the time and effort he can spare from immediate necessity trying to find out the answer.

Consider a man holding a gun. If he knows that it is unloaded because he verified it himself (including checking the chamber), it is fine for him to wave the gun around or even to point it at someone and pull the trigger—since he knows he will certainly do no harm. A man who has no idea whether the gun is loaded is grossly irresponsible for doing the same thing and no amount of him saying that it has not been proven to him that the gun is loaded changes that he is being a bad man.

Men who exist in the world will act or not act in each moment they continue to exist. It is their first responsibility to find out what they should do and what they should refrain from doing. And there is nothing more important to answering that question than whether a rational God created the world and, if so, what purpose and nature he gave it.

Someone who tries to answer that question, even if he comes up with the wrong answer, is at least trying to be a decent human being. Someone who merely ignores the question isn’t even trying to be human.

Ironically, though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, it’s that latter group who seems to spend the most time boasting about how rational they are.

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

A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic

I got an email from a young man named Ken who asked me about an analogy Matt Dillahunty presents about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. I originally did an unscripted answer but a lot of people missed the point so I did a scripted video which should be a lot clearer. You can of course watch it in YouTube:

A British Lieutenant Playing A Star Wars RPG

If you haven’t seen this video where Owen Stephens tells the story of the time he was running a Star Wars RPG playtest and an (probably World War II) British Lieutenant showed up to the table, it’s well worth the six minutes:

I really love that they blast through the material because the Lieutenant, being an officer, does what an officer does: he leads them. He lays out plans which make sense and in which the boys at the table can see their parts and so they do what people do in the presence of a competent leader: they follow. And together, they did what people cooperating do: a lot more than they can do on their own.

I think my favorite part is when he explains to the boys at the table what a commando raid is.

There’s a lot that could be said about how young men need older men and it is one of the great follies of our civilization that we separate the two groups so completely, but I think it’s sufficiently obvious in this video that it actually does go without saying.