Whether Magic Should Have Rules

I came across an interesting series of tweets recently about whether Magic should have rules (within fantasy fiction):

In case it goes away, Andrew said:

To explain the mechanism is bad. To explain the rules for the magician can be good.

Andrew is right, though only in the case where the magician is either one of the protagonists or antagonists. If the magicians are all omniscient mentors or the long-dead creators of artifacts, then there is no need to create rules for their magic.

Long-dead artificers are constrained not by rules but by causality. They did what they did and not what they didn’t and they aren’t doing anything any more. Further, their actions were based on their own time and not the present so the author is free to have them create the artifacts with any combination of powers and limitations the author wants. In essence, rules aren’t necessary for the magic because rules are already present for time.

With respect to omniscient mentor wizards, there is no need for rules because the mentor is not necessarily ignorant of the plot. Not that he’s breaking the fourth wall but rather his omniscience, wisdom, and benevolence means that he will often refrain from doing what he is capable of doing for reasons of his own. Such characters aren’t really part of the plot so much as intermediate authors. Analogous to how God gives us the power of secondary causation, the omniscient mentor is a sort of secondary author to the story. Characters need limits, but authors do not.

Authors only need wisdom.

Good Morning December 3rd, 2016

Good morning on this the third day of December in the year of our Lord 2016.

I had an interesting discussion with a friend about the bayesian interpretation of statistics. I was doing a little research for a video which I’m working on (answering a question from a friend) and what I studied in math was what would often be described as the frequentist interpretation. I’m still a little skeptical of the bayesian interpretation, but much less so as I learn that it’s an interpretation of statistics which completely punts the assigning of probabilities. It calls them “priors”, as in “prior assumptions”, and says nothing about how we arrive at them. Basically, it turns statistics from a math problem that doesn’t apply to the real world (frequentism) into a quantification of our ignorance. Perhaps the clearest example of this is using bayesian statistics to gauge how surprised we should be by an outcome; surprise being, in this case, a measure of how much work we should put into re-examining our priors.

This is a far more reasonable thing than the descriptions of bayesian statistics I had heard before. I should note that those sources were not reliable ones, so I did hold off on judgment. And I think the problem with them was common to how people use classical mathematical probability: they want it to be a way of turning ignorance into knowledge. The desiderata is: garbage in, gold out. Which is to say, what is desired is alchemy for data. The ability to get a lot for little work. And that desire is a perennial temptation.

In other news, I’ve been working through the Vulkan tutorial. I’m still a ways away from being able to display anything on the screen, but I’m up to the point where I’ve found an available graphics card and a suitable queue family from which to request a queue to use for submitting commands. Having already read through the tutorial once, Vulkan is very verbose to set up—the tutorial took abut 800 lines of C++ to get a single, motionless triangle onto the screen—but a lot of that involves making decisions appropriate to your project, which you encapsulate into functions which are much easier to work with, so once you’ve done all this setup work, actually using it for the main graphics work is not significantly harder than other easier, less verbose APIs like openGL. And I do like the approach of having skimmed the tutorial first, then going back and doing it slowly to learn how things go. (And since I’m using the lwjgl (Light Weight Java Gaming Library), there’s a bit of translation work from the C++ of the tutorial to how lwjgl does things.) Fun stuff.

And it’s been a long time since I’ve done any bowmaking, but my problem is that since my third child was born it’s very hard to get an hour or two to myself when it’s OK to make baby-waking levels of noise. When she’s a bit older, I’ll get back to it.

One thing I’ve learned over many years of having a large number of hobbies, is that it’s important to be OK with putting some things on hold for a few years. It’s probably going to be four or five years until I take up knitting again, which I haven’t done much of in the last five years. And that’s OK.

Science, Magic, and Technology

There is an interesting observation made, I believe, by Isaac Asimov:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This has been applied many times in science fiction to produce some form of techno-mage, but what’s more interesting is that the origins of modern science were in magic, specifically in astrology and alchemy. The goals of science were the same as that of magic: to control the natural elements. If you really study the history, it’s not even clear how to distinguish modern science from renaissance magic; in many ways the only real dividing line is success. There is some truth to the idea that alchemists whose techniques worked got called chemists to distinguish them from the alchemists whose ideas didn’t work. This is by no means a complete picture, because there was also at the same time natural philosophy, i.e. the desire to learn how the natural world worked purely for the sake of knowledge.

Natural philosophy has existed since the Greeks—Aristotle did no little amount of it—but it especially flourished in the renaissance with the development of optics which allowed for the creation of microscopes and telescopes. Probably more than anything else this marked the shift towards what we think of as modern science. As Edward Feser argues, the hallmark of modern science is viewing nature as a hostile witness. The ancients and medievals looked at the empirical evidence which nature gave, but they tended to trust it. Modern science tends to assume that nature is a liar. Probably more than any other single cause, being able to look at nature on scales we could not before and seeing that it looked different resulted in this shift towards distrusting nature. Some people feel a sense of wonder when looking through a microscope, but many people feel a sense of betrayal.

Another significant historical event was when the makers of technology started using the knowledge of natural philosophy in order to make better technology. This may sound strange to modern ears, who are used to thinking of technology as applied science, but in fact technological advancements very rarely rely on any new information about how the world works which was gained by disinterested researchers who published their results for the sake of curiosity. Technology mostly advances by trial and error modifying existing technology, and especially by trial and error on materials and techniques. In fact, no small amount of science has consisted of investigating why technology actually works.

But sometimes technology really does follow fairly directly from basic scientific research. One of the great examples is radio waves, which were discovered because the Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism predicted that they existed. Another of the great examples of technology following from basic scientific research is the atomic bomb.

I suspect that these as well as other, lesser, examples, helped to solidify the identification between science and engineering. And I don’t want to overstate the distinction. In some cases the views of the natural world brought about by science have certainly helped engineers to direct their investigations into suitable materials and designs for the technology they were creating. But counterfactuals are very difficult to consider well, and it is by no means clear that the material properties which were discovered by direct investigation but also explained by scientific theories would not have been discovered at roughly the same time, or perhaps only a little later.

However that would have gone, the association between science and technology is presently a very strong one, and I think that this is why Dawkinsian atheists so often announce an almost religious devotion to science. I’ve seen it expressed like this (not an exact quote):

Science has given us cars and smartphones, so I’m going to side with science.

Anyone who actually knows anything about orthodox Christianity knows that there is no antipathy between science and religion. Though it is important to note that I mean this in the sense of there being no antipathy between natural philosophy and religion. In this sense, Christianity has been a great friend to science, providing no small amount of the faith that he universe operates according to laws (i.e. that being a creature is has a nature) and that these laws are intelligible to human reason. Moreover, the world having been created by God, it is interesting, since to learn about creation is to learn about the creator. It is no accident that plenty of scientists have been Catholic priests. The world is a profoundly interesting place to a Christian.

But there is a sense in which the Dawkinsian atheist is right, because he doesn’t really care about natural philosophy. What he cares about is technology, and when he talks about science he really means the scheme of conquering nature and bending it to our will. And this is something towards which Christianity is sometimes antagonistic. Not really to the practice, since technology is mostly a legitimate extension of our role as stewards of nature, but to the spirit. And it is antagonistic because this spirit is an idolatrous one.

The great difference between pagan worship and Christian worship is that Christian worship is an act of love, whereas pagan worship is a trade. Pagan deities gain something by being worshiped, and are willing to give benefits in exchange for it. This relationship is utterly obvious in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, but it is actually nowhere so obvious as when the Israelites worshiped the golden calf. For whatever reason this often seems to be taken to be a reversion to polytheism, where the golden calf is an alternative god to Yahweh. That is not what it is at all. If you read the text, after the Israelites gave up their gold and it was cast into the shape of a calf, they worshiped it and said:

Here is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

The Israelites were not worshipping some new god, or some old god, but the same god who brought them out of Egypt. The problem was that they were worshiping him not as God, but as a god. That is, they were not entering into a covenant with him, but were trying to control him in order to get as much as they could out of him. Granted, as in all of paganism it was control through flattery, but at its root flattery has no regard for its object.

And this is the spirit which I think we can see in the people who say, “Science has given me the car and the iPhone, I will stick with Science.” They are pledging their allegiance to their god, because they hope it will continue to give them favors. And it is their intention to make sacrifices at its altars. This is where scientists become the (mostly unwitting) high priests of this religion; the masses do not ordinarily make sacrifices themselves, but give the sacrifices to the priests of the god to make sacrifice on their behalf. And so scientists are given money (i.e funded) as an offering.

To be clear, this is not the primary reason science gets funded. Dawkinsian atheists (and other worshipers of science) tend to be less powerful (and less numerous) than they imagine themselves. Still, this is, I think, how they view the world, except without the appropriate terminology because they look down on all other pagans.

And I think that it is largely this, and not the silly battles with fundamentalists and other young-earth creationists that result in their perception of a war between science and religion. There were other historical reasons for the belief in a war between science and religion, but I am coming to suspect that they had their historical time and then waned, and Dawkinsian atheism is resurrecting the battle for other reasons. They are idolaters, and they know Christianity is not friendly to idolatry. And idolaters always fear what will happen if their god does not get what it wants.