Oh dear  

Posted by Ryan Sproull

I Am A: Neutral Good Human Wizard (3rd Level)

Ability Scores:







Neutral Good A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias for or against order. However, neutral good can be a dangerous alignment because because it advances mediocrity by limiting the actions of the truly capable.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Wizards are arcane spellcasters who depend on intensive study to create their magic. To wizards, magic is not a talent but a difficult, rewarding art. When they are prepared for battle, wizards can use their spells to devastating effect. When caught by surprise, they are vulnerable. The wizard's strength is her spells, everything else is secondary. She learns new spells as she experiments and grows in experience, and she can also learn them from other wizards. In addition, over time a wizard learns to manipulate her spells so they go farther, work better, or are improved in some other way. A wizard can call a familiar- a small, magical, animal companion that serves her. With a high Intelligence, wizards are capable of casting very high levels of spells.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Murder! Blow your wig at this keen site.  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

I learned a huge amount of stuff as a kid playing role-playing games. Okay, I still do play RPGs. I meet with a few friends to play D&D (which I never actually played as a kid) every few weeks. Resource books about different historical periods were probably the main source of info - Arthurian legend, medieval Europe, Lovecraft, etc.

Anyway, here's a neat resource, that would probably be pretty sweet for anyone wanting to write fiction set in the decade. Dirty '30s has lots of sweet info about the Mafia, Nazis, Commies, gumshoes, jazz, and all that other cool shit from the over-romanticised Depression times. Yay, art deco, etc. Fun times. Kind of.

Just a Big Softie  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in


DC: The Moment of Creation  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in , ,

Chapter Three: The Moment of Creation

Haha, okay, now things finally get a bit interesting.

Ian points out the similarities of the creation myths, which seems to be basically that they all involve creation. Those that don't - such as the Indian notion of an infinite past - are dismissed as "the much simpler view". Ian does not explain how "stuff was always here" is simpler than "a big invisible man made stuff from scratch".

Here's the passage that cracks me up:

Davies argues that God did not cause the Big Bang, because causing, by definition, can only happen within a time-bound realm, not a timeless one. Davies overlooks the transcendence of God, however - virtually all religions argue that a Deity capable of creating the universe is just as capable [of] plunging his hand into it from the outside to stir the mix. I digress, however.

"I digress, however," is code for, "Let's not think too much about that part, OK? Cos I'm talking out my arse."

What Ian is imagining here is a God who sits outside of time and "plunges his hand in" - makes changes - within the time-bound universe. These words are strung together into grammatically correct sentences, but aren't saying anything at all. To plunge, to act, to change, to cause, to do anything at all... this is an event. To speak of action outside of the context of time is like speaking of shape outside of the context of space. It is simply meaningless babble to say "action outside of time", because everything we have ever known and meant by "action" is saturated by notions of time. There is a before-acting, a during-acting and an after-acting. Without any of those things, the very notion of making a change or causing anything at all is absurd and meaningless. Not just "so difficult that only an omnipotent being could do it". Just meaningless.

And this is apparently made meaningful and sensical by the addition of the adjective "transcendent" to the name God. It doesn't matter what you call God, the statement "action outside of time" means nothing.

So here's the next bit. Davies suggests that the universe could have come into being via a "quantum event". The quoted Guardian piece continues:

The larger the time interval, the greater the probability that a quantum event will occur. Outside of time, however, no quantum event is possible. Therefore, the origin of time (coincident with that of space, matter and energy) eliminates quantum tunneling as 'creator'.

And suddenly Ian takes up the "events outside of time make no sense" standard! "In simple language," he writes, "there's still no natural explanation for the Big Bang." Apparently it's fine for God to act outside of time, but it's absurd to talk of quantum events occurring outside of time. Of course, it is absurd to talk of quantum events occurring outside of time, but no more absurd than to talk of anything occurring outside of time.

Forgetting the origin of the universe in general, there are problems with the origins of the physical laws of the universe. Where did they come from? Davies writes:

The root cause of all the difficulty can be traced to the fact that both religion and science appeal to some agency outside the universe to explain its lawlike order. Dumping the problem in the lap of a pre-existing designer is no explanation at all, as it merely begs the question of who designed the designer. But appealing to a host of unseen universes and a set of unexplained meta-laws is scarcely any better.

From which Ian derives, "[Davies] rejects Intelligent Design because, well, it implies a Designer." Which is not at all what he said. Davies did not dismiss a designer, at least in terms of his quoted statements, simply because he has an emotional aversion to the idea of one. His complaint was that any attempt to find a cause of the laws of the universe in something beyond the universe, be it designer or extra-universal laws, merely brings one back to the same question: where did that design come from?

While Ian's answer to this question is not explicit, it seems clear that the usual theistic explanation of "God breaks the rules" comes into play. Other things need reasons for making sense; God is the exception.

The choice of Paul Davies as a representative of Big Bang theorists is interesting, as Paul Davies is basically a theist himself. What seems to convince Davies (and Ian) that the universe is designed is the apparent harmony of physical laws, when so many things "could have" been different, and thus not given rise to life on earth.

Ian declares at the end of the chapter that this is going to be a major theme of his book. There are so many things that "could have" been different, therefore we are so lucky to be here that it is unbelievable that our being here is not the result of sentient intention.

At first glance, it's a compelling argument. It makes a few assumptions, though, that aren't immediately obvious.

1. The assumption that it is intelligible to speak of what "could have happened" in the universe - that things like "if gravity was just a bit stronger, life wouldn't be possible" are meaningful statements. Against what other universes are we comparing this one?

2. The assumption that earth life, or even sentient life at all, is special enough to require special explanation. As phenomena go, we find ourselves pretty interesting, but if talk of "what if the universe was different" is meaningful, what makes sentience any more amazing than a total dispersal of all energy and matter? We happen to be the kind of phenomena that can reflect on our situation and think, "Fucking hell, that was lucky!" But just because phenomena in some hypothetical other universe lacks such self-reflective ability doesn't mean that it's any less "lucky" in the same sense.

3. The assumption that there aren't "other universes" which fall victim to exactly the sentient-life-less fate we're told we narrowly avoided, and that this just happens to be one in which sentient life is possible. I put "other universes" in scare quotes, because if "other universes" exist in any way that is relevant or real, then they are really part of what I call "the universe" - which is everything that exists.

Anyway. I'll save further rants about the anthropic principle to later chapters, as I assume that's the direction in which Ian will be taking us.

DC: In the Beginning  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in , ,

Chapter Two: In the Beginning

This chapter is dedicated to debunking an idea that is apparently common among some of the people Ian doesn't like, such as Karen Armstrong. The idea they espouse is that there was an "Axial age" - a time in history when disparate cultures made similar leaps in their thought. In India, Vedanta was showing up, as did Gautama (the Buddha). Plato was doing his thing. Isaiah was doing his for the Hebrews. Taoism in China, etc. Basically, it's considered a pivotal (axial!) time in the development of these cultures.

Ian's concern is that some of these thinkers believe that there is an evolution of theism, from animism to polytheism to monotheism (to atheism, apparently), which therefore lends some kind of historical superiority to atheism in the minds of these thinkers. Comparing atheism to monotheism is like comparing Einstein to Newton - "we know better now". Ian will have none of that.

In order to debunk the evolution-of-religion idea, Ian cites various creation myths from around the world, and shows that similarities and differences don't follow any kind of evolutionary progression. Monotheism and creation ex nihilo was a very old idea, rather than a later stage of natural religious development, as his targets assert.

Recent Middle Eastern archaeological discoveries suggest that analogies to the Genesis creation stories existed long before the penning of Genesis, in a city called Ebla. Tablets recovered relatively recently from Ebla make references to names that are potentially Hebraic biblical names, like Adam and Eve, and Sodom.

While I don't find myself as blown away as Ian apparently does by the idea that two Middle Eastern cultures shared similar creation myths (when Adam and Eve are referenced in 2500-year-old Chinese writings, I'll be impressed), I think he adequately messes with the theory that monotheism is only ever a development out of polytheism, rather than a potentially older idea.

Though, really, it's a long-winded way to go about things. If the concern is that Some People Say that atheism is the most advanced step of evolution of a natural religious progression, then one need look no further than the confirmed atheists of ancient India. I've never been much of a fan of the essentially Hegelian idea of a natural progression of ideas. It has the worrying tendency to imbue recent thinkers with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, as evidenced in just about every German philosopher ever. They all seem to think that no one has got it right in history until them, and they're the culmination of human wisdom. Hegel finished writing The Phenomenology of the Spirit and thought, "There, I'm the end of history." Kant called his Critique "a Copernican revolution" in thought and went on to write The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, which could have been titled "all you motherfuckers gotta take me into account". He was right, but come on, fella. Chill out. And then there was Nietzsche. He thought he was so right that people wouldn't even understand how right he was for another few centuries.

Of course, no one actually got it right until me. Syntheism all the way, baby.

Anyway. People just think stuff. Ian does a good job here of presenting counter-examples to the evolving-religion hypothesis he finds in Armstrong. That doesn't greatly concern me, because my views aren't embodied by the people with whom he is concerned. I do find that with Ian, though. He tends to think that citing people he considers "liberals" gives him some kind of added weight when debating people he considers "liberals". Kind of a "you don't like Hawaiian pizza? WELL, LIBERAL HISTORIAN HOWARD ZINN LOVES PIZZA" thing.

Anyway, interesting chapter. Moving on.

The Divinity Code  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in , ,

Well, in addition to receiving a few requests for me to start posting again, Ian Wishart's new book, The Divinity Code, quotes me extensively. Seeing as I pointed put that whole Marx not-quite-quote debacle in Eve's Bite, I should have a look at Code and let you know what I think.

Firstly, if anyone's interested, Ian Wishart did not quote me out of context in chapter 17, and he references the full conversation in a footnote. I am not unhappy with how I was portrayed. Ian did not "pull a Marx" on me. And so he shouldn't, but for some reason I feel grateful.

Chapter One: The Quest for Fire

This chapter can be summed up as follows.

1. What do we know? Maybe there was an Atlantis. Oooh! Therefore, no one knows what they're talking about. Therefore, Dawkins and Geering and others don't know what they're talking about. Keep reading! Cos Ian knows what he's talking about.

2. Lots of people believe in God. Not just stupid Americans. New Zealanders do too! And fewer people believe in ghosts and reincarnation and astrology, which are apparently New Age, despite all being pretty goddam old. So lots of people believe in the supernatural. YOU JUST THINK ABOUT THAT. Also, Fox News!

3. Some people say we evolved to believe in God. Ha! How did single-celled organisms know that believing in God would be useful? They couldn't, therefore theism cannot be an evolved trait.

Ian's pulled out this bizarre primary-school misunderstanding of evolution before, and I'm quite certain he understands it better than that. But I'll clarify. Evolutionary theory does not suggest that traits are intentionally evolved. That is, if anything, Lamarckism, or perhaps a New Agey kind of guided-evolution thing. Traits arise randomly, and if they are useful or not an impediment, they survive. The simple rule of evolution is this: What tends to survive, tends to survive.

There are ideas that the tendency for theism is an evolved trait. They tend to go along the lines of assignment of agency to unexplained phenomena. If animals evolve a trait to assume the rustling in the trees behind them is caused by a conscious agent rather than the environment, they are at an advantage. If it is a predator, they are better off running. If it is prey, they are better off hunting. If it is neither, and is simply the wind, they don't lose much by looking a bit silly assuming agency. Darwin actually cited an example of this - his dog barking at something blowing in the wind.

So it's possible that the assumption of agency is an evolved trait. That would go some way to explaining the widespread belief in the supernatural with regards to natural phenomena. Animism, believing in spirits for each tree and river, is an example. Lightning as thrown by a god, etc. But really, such beliefs can be explained by sociological and psychological theories no less believable than a genetic-tendency theory.

In fact, the idea that we have a genetic tendency to assume agency doesn't really deserve the title "theory", because it's just an idea. It's not as ridiculous as Ian makes it out to be, but it's not the cornerstone of many people's attitude towards theism either. It's certainly the kind of thing that would be evolutionarily advantageous, and nothing in the behaviour of animals or humans contradicts the hypothesis, but it's not a testable theory, unless some odd fellow went about trying to isolate a gene responsible for it, which would be an absurdly difficult and basically pointless venture.

It's worth noting that "an evolved tendency to assume agency when faced with unexplained phenomena" is a bit more of a complex idea than "the idea that evolution created the idea of God in our heads", which is the way Ian phrased it. It's a little like describing gravity as "the idea that chunks of stuff are in love with each other, but like each other less when they're further away". It's easy to dismiss ideas out of hand when you frame them in ways that make even a cursory analysis seem like a waste of time.

But then, that's just the introductory chapter, and frankly, it's already much better than Eve's Bite, which was more of a paranoid diatribe about Capitalised Nouns that are out to get you because everyone's out to get Christians, which just goes to show how right they are. Eve's Bite dealt with values, however misrepresented and caricatured, and that makes it a tricky topic to cover without resorting to, "What are you, insane?" The Divinity Code deals with actual concrete arguments, and that is refreshing as all hell. Gives a fellow some traction.

Anyway, next, chapter two.