Monday, November 22, 2010

Among the Skiffoids

This weekend was Philcon.  It was curiously small, and I heard this attributed to the Con Committee not sending out Program Participation invites until three weeks before the Con itself.  In any case, there were very few pro writers.  I saw Bud Sparhawk, Tom Purdom, and Gardner Dozois.  I suppose fantasy writers and gamesters were thick as ticks on a hound dog's back, but on panels I saw they introduced their oeuvre with the names of small publishers.  Some were impressive nonetheless.  A twelve-book series of YA fantasy is no mean accomplishment.  But the SF content seems to be getting thinner each year. 

One fellow had an interesting talk about the Apollo Guidance computer.  He had one, discussed the programs, the primitive nature of the hardware and the architecture lo these many years later. 

My own adventures ran as follows. 

1. Aliens Among Us.  The theme was whether other life-forms on the earth are also intelligent.  Yoji Kondo came thinking it was a panel on aliens from other worlds already here on earth in hiding.  He suggested Washington DC as a good place to start the search, but his comments were wide of the panel's mark for a while, to say the least. 

Naturally, in skiffydom, the desire for these other intelligences outweighed any serious rational analysis.  We want our wise old dolphins or in one case New Caledonian crows.  The primary confusion lay with the very idea of "intelligence" of course.  Since science fiction is really technology fiction for the most part, minds were already bent toward the notion that intelligence had something to do with tool-using and problem solving.  One gentleman remarked that we used to think that tool-using marked humans as different, until tool-using animals were noted.  Then the difference became tool-making, until tool-making animals were noted.  Oh, those animals.  They are surely on the verge of revealing their wisdom to the rest of us. 

Lacking the wisdom of Aristotle - who never made the error of confusing the human/animal distinction with tool-using of any sort - the panel and audience constantly shifted among "intelligence", "problem solving", "sentience", "emotion/empathy", and a number of other things thought to be markers of this elusive property. 

I therefore introduced them to the wisdom of Aristotle, blinding them with erudition, etc.  They all nodded -- and then returned to the earlier confusion of concepts. 

For non-Aristotelians among my faithful reader, the distinction is simply that between imagination and intellect.  Perception of concrete particulars and the ability to remember and to manipulate those memories can create wonderful feats on the part of animals.  It's what makes them trainable.  But the intellect abstracts from concrete particulars to universal concepts.  A sheep may perceive a wolf and act accordingly, but when there is no wolf present, the sheep do not get together and discuss what they might do should a wold ever appear. 

For those who are curious, the following is a nice summary of the Aristo-Thomist distinction, and links to some poor scientist's list of "human traits" that are no longer distinctly "human." 

2. Does Time Travel Allow for Free Will?  The panel title tells it all.  It is exactly backward.  The question is properly Does Free Will Allow for Time Travel?  I know from direct experience that I have free will.  Many in the audience did not and so were evidently either automatons or random number generators.  It soon became evident that few understood what free will meant, and so discussion focused on the possibility of time travel and the time travel paradoxes.  The panel moderator was a quantum physics guy and he said that the math, while providing nanoloops of time travel backward, also indicates a self-corrective process that would prevent the paradox from emerging.  I'll take his quantum word for it.  We can build a time machine, but the quantum mechanics of it will ensure that it doesn't work.  Exactly in the way that classical physics ensures that a perpetual motion machine will not work. 

On the free will front, I explained the Aristotelian position: the will is an appetite for the products of the intellect, and the intellect is therefore prior to the will.  I gave the parallel with the perceptions of the senses and the emotions (or sensitive appetites).  The will is necessarily free because the intellect does not know perfectly.  I asked how many wanted world peace.  Most raised their hands, causing some worry regarding the others.  But when questioned, most admitted they did not know what world peace would look like or how it would be achieved.  Since you cannot desire what you do not know, the will is free to choose various means to the end.  That's all free will means, after all.  It doesn't mean muscular motions, or random choices, or unpredictable choices.  For more detail see a previous essay:

3. Continuing Series.  This was where I encountered the lady with the 12-book YA series.  I talked about the Firestar and Spiral Arm series and how you dealt with continuing character growth, cumulative plot development, backstory, etc.  There really are no single right answers, although there are many wrong ones.  The basic distinction in the taxonomy is: the on-going saga of... versus the really long story arc.  The former is episodic, with the characters undergoing only modest changes - think Sherlock Holmes - and is open ended.  Much detective fiction is of this sort.  The latter is envisioned as finite with a completely developed story running through a possibly specific number of books.  In it, the characters grow and change as they encounter various story problems in each volume. 

4. Can SF or F Enhance People's Religious Beliefs?
  I was the moderator, and a good thing, too.  The answer is too obvious:  No it doesn't.  Few people will come away from F/SF with their religious beliefs altered in any fashion.  On my left was a bioscientist who introduced himself as a born-again Christian.  On my right was a guy who declared himself the president of North American Atheist Association, or some such thing.  I was in between.  On the far right was another free-thinker, but of more scholarly bent who said he was JRR Tolkein's first biographer.  As is usual in panels like this, discussion kept veering off into the factual nature of religious beliefs.  (They tended to say "truth" rather than "fact," possibly under the impression the two were the same.)  Oddly, no one attacked atheism per se.  Although several audience members self-identified as Christians, all of them acted like, well, Christians.  

Our atheist association guy announced that SF, by presenting "other" (including fictional) religious systems, would induce readers to think critically about their own religion.  Me, I think the reader would like/dislike the story, recognize a plot element as precisely that, and forget most of it after moving on to the next book.  Our born-again panelist stated that he welcomed critical thinking applied to religion and thought that it would strengthen religious beliefs.  This engendered some scoffing from the audience and the aforesaid panelist, but I pointed out that, whether you agreed with their beliefs or not, the medievals had thoroughly applied logic and reason to their religion - Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas being only the best known. 

At some other point, the presidential atheist made some comment about the "invisible magic man in the sky."  (This is called "critical thinking".)  I halted discussion for a moment to point out that this was not the nature of the God the Abrahamic religions attested.  He said it was too.  (More "critical thinking.")  I answered that the truth or falsity of religious beliefs was not the subject of the panel, but advised him that if he wished to disprove a religious belief he ought to at least understand what that belief was. 

At another point, our born-again dude mentioned that Christianity had invented science.  This elicited howls of outrage on the part of several and shouted - shouted, mind you - denunciation of such a thought.  (More critical thinking, perhaps.)  The fellow on my right said into the hubbub that science had been invented by Christians, but not by Christianity.  That was nice of him, and a bigger concession than most would grant.  But I wondered why either man thought an abstraction could ever invent anything.  There were certain beliefs in Christianity that facilitated the blossoming of science, but the panel was not one on the origins of science.  Someone in the audience objected that all the people of the world had discovered things about science.  I countered with Poincare's dictum that a pile of stones is not a house and a pile of facts is not a science.  Everyone has indeed come across facts, rules of thumb, and so forth; but this is not science, and is not the topic of the panel. 

There was a comment made that religion was simply a pre-scientific effort to explain nature.  Even if true, this would be irrelevant to the panel topic.  But skiffy-folk will typically think everything is about natural science and technological accomplishment.  Man, it was like herding cats. 

My favorite comment came in the concluding comments.  Our atheist friend advised his listeners to read all sorts of books.  He mentioned Dawkins, of course, but also urged them to read the Bible - possibly because he thought it would disillusion them - but he emphasized they should read it themselves without any interpretation, without any advice from "experts," etc.  So my concluding remark was how much his advice resembled that of fundamentalists. 


  1. Do I detect a bit of free will at work, as in you specifically asking to be moderator for that religious panel?

    Those final remarks reminded me of something Larry Jannifer once told me: "I never argue religion with a man who doesn't no he has one."

    Jeffery D. Kooistra

  2. I answered that the truth or falsity of religious beliefs was not the subject of the panel, but advised him that if he wished to disprove a religious belief he ought to at least understand what that belief was.

    I'm reminded of trying to argue evolution with a Creationist who doesn't know what evolutionary theory says.


Wonder and Anticipation, the Likes of Which We Have Never Seen

  Hello family, friends and fans of Michael F. Flynn.   It is with sorrow and regret that I inform you that my father passed away yesterday,...