Good Afternoon December 31, 2016

Good afternoon on this the thirty first day of December, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2016.

Fair warning, I won’t be talking about the changing of the year because as a mathematician I just can’t get worked up about rolling over of numbers in arbitrarily chosen bases. We all have our weaknesses.

I put together a second computer, for my second son, so that he and his older brother can play minecraft together. He had been borrowing an old laptop of mine which was very slow (“laggy” is the term my eldest son has picked up from the minecraft youtubers he watches, though to my ears that refers more to events happening after the fact rather than low framerates). Interestingly he’s a bit young for most cooperative games because in minecraft they tend to be puzzle games, and he’s not old enough to really understand puzzles. Herobrine’s Mansion, which is a class RPG hack-and-slash adventure has proven to be nearly ideal since it is cooperative but the cooperation is all about hitting undead things with your sword until they’ve been restored to a normal state of being dead. It’s a wholesome activity—demon-infested corpses should (in general) be put down quickly and inhumanely—and simple enough even for young children to get the idea and not screw up the game for their older siblings. (It’s also really cute to hear him screaming, “Naughtie zombie! Naughtie skeleton!” as he bashes them with his preferred simulation of a re-dead maker.) I suspect in another year or so they’ll be able to play the games with logic puzzles in them, which will be very awesome to watch. Incidentally, I really enjoy playing Herobrine’s mansion with them. Hack-and-slash are some of my favorite games, and were since I was a child.

Which brings me back to the topic of restored continuity. With new technology people keep recreating old games, both for nostalgia and because the old games were good—I was going to say, “and just lacked good graphics”, but sometimes the graphics were good (if mostly by being skilfully suggestive), and in Minecraft unless you’re using a high quality resource pack (like Chromahills) together with a shader pack like the SEUS shaders, Minecraft doesn’t have good graphics. Anyway, there was a huge disruption of culture in the late 1800s and the first half or three quarters of the 1900s, but I think things are settling down. My parents, I believe, felt somewhat disconnected from me, and their parents—again, I believe—felt somewhat disconnected from them. But I don’t feel disconnected from my children. I don’t mean in a complete sense, of course; all parents have a strong connection to their children. I just mean culturally. My children play the same sorts of games that I played as a child, if perhaps as a somewhat older child than they are now. Then again I listened to the same sort of music my parents did—I was a big Simon & Garfunkel fan as a child—so there is probably some similarity there too. And the things I used to do that they don’t, I mostly don’t do now either. I don’t feel any loss of cultural connection because we had land-line phones and kids these days only use cell phones. I only use cell phones these days too. I think this is classed in, “my children are better off than I was”, even though I can’t take any credit for it unlike the immigrants who worked their fingers to the bone so their children would grow up with a good education and an easy job that doesn’t leave them weary and sore in the evening.

It’s an interesting subject, because for example audio codecs have gotten slightly better than mp3s, but it doesn’t matter much and the music is still the same (especially pop music with its eternal three cords). And amusingly phones are getting HD voices at a time when people increasing text rather than call each other. That in particular I find a fascinating trend. As soon as the technology in cell phones got good enough, we didn’t move to video calling or video+smell-o-vision or whatever. We “regressed” to pure text. Bad news for the blind, perhaps; great news for the deaf, and for most of much more convenient. But we’re not going to see HD text which is radically different from the texts we send now. I’m not such a fool as to think that life will be unchanged in 100 years—in A Stitch in Space I certainly gave a vision of progressed technology with implantables that overlay on top of our optic and auditory nerves, though I didn’t flesh its implications out all the way—but I suspect that we’re going to see technological progress appearing to slow down because of human preferences. We will preferentially adopt new technology which doesn’t require much change of us, and so new technology will often emulate old technology with improvements, and the people who grew up with that old technology will feel that things haven’t changed all that much. We’ll see, of course. Nothing is so hard to predict as the future. But at the very least I sure am enjoying it as my kids do the things that I did as a kid, or those things with mild variations.

God bless you.

Good Morning December 10th, 2016

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

Winter is clearly here in force now. I was waiting for my oldest son at the bus stop and felt like I was slowly turning into an icicle. And I deal better with cold than with heat. There’s something fascinating about the cycle of how in northern climes the world dies off then comes back to life again. It’s an interesting metaphor, anyway. It also raises a curious question about fiction set in lands that are in permanent snow: what’s the basis of life there? It various with the fictional environment, of course, but perhaps the ones I find most interesting are the ones where there are warm lands nearby, so the basis of life is something like fish which wander into the colds to birth their young where there are fewer predators. It can make for some very pretty images.

As I’m working on the video response to my friend’s nephew which I mentioned before, I did a quick video which is just a short description of how to use a neodymium magnet as a stud finder, in place of an electronic stud finder or knocking with one’s finger and judging how hollow the sound is. The video wasn’t great but came out alright. As the British would say, it’s fit for purpose. But there’s one mistake in it where I want to put a text overlay and for some reason the video editor just isn’t playing sound. I’m sure I’ll fix it eventually, but it’s a reminder of the continual frustration of using technology. None of it works very well. Chesterton complained about this in What’s Wrong With the World:

Cast your eye round the room in which you sit, and select some three or four things that have been with man almost since his beginning; which at least we hear of early in the centuries and often among the tribes. Let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner, or a fire on the hearth. About each of these you will notice one speciality; that not one of them is special. Each of these ancestral things is a universal thing; made to supply many different needs; and while tottering pedants nose about to find the cause and origin of some old custom, the truth is that it had fifty causes or a hundred origins. The knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects. The stick is meant partly to hold a man up, partly to knock a man down; partly to point with like a finger-post, partly to balance with like a balancing pole, partly to trifle with like a cigarette, partly to kill with like a club of a giant; it is a crutch and a cudgel; an elongated finger and an extra leg. The case is the same, of course, with the fire; about which the strangest modern views have arisen. A queer fancy seems to be current that a fire exists to warm people. It exists to warm people, to light their darkness, to raise their spirits, to toast their muffins, to air their rooms, to cook their chestnuts, to tell stories to their children, to make checkered shadows on their walls, to boil their hurried kettles, and to be the red heart of a man’s house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die.

Now it is the great mark of our modernity that people are always proposing substitutes for these old things; and these substitutes always answer one purpose where the old thing answered ten. The modern man will wave a cigarette instead of a stick; he will cut his pencil with a little screwing pencil-sharpener instead of a knife; and he will even boldly offer to be warmed by hot water pipes instead of a fire. I have my doubts about pencil-sharpeners even for sharpening pencils; and about hot water pipes even for heat. But when we think of all those other requirements that these institutions answered, there opens before us the whole horrible harlequinade of our civilization. We see as in a vision a world where a man tries to cut his throat with a pencil-sharpener; where a man must learn single-stick with a cigarette; where a man must try to toast muffins at electric lamps, and see red and golden castles in the surface of hot water pipes.

This is not precisely the complain that modern technology doesn’t work, but it’s tied to it, for modern technology being more complicated, it is more prone to failure. And nowhere is this more true than in computers, which in general barely work. (I say this as a professional programmer.) But even when they barely work, they are marvelous things, allowing us to do all sorts of marvelous things like write and read blog posts. And whenever these things which barely worked in the first place do fail, we get very frustrated by it. Which is natural enough; but I try to remind myself of how close all modern technology comes to not working, and to remember that even if computers and phones and such work 99% of the time, it is still when they work that is the exception, not when they fail. For all their success is snatched from failure. It is really a miracle that they work at all. It’s not accurate to the small picture, exactly, but it is accurate to the big picture. We live in an enchanted world, and it’s healthy to remember all he millions of men who have lived and died without ever having placed a single telephone call, or whose computer never booted up at all because it would be several centuries until the invention of electricity on demand.

God bless you.

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.