Sunday, May 27, 2012
'Beauty' is a puzzle.
Though it is often framed as being a highly individualistic, 'in the eye of the beholder' sort of impression, experience certainly teaches that there are beauty standards -- things deemed desirable by any given general population. So then, what subtle forces contrive to dictate our deepest emotional reactions to a face, a flower, a painting, a sunset? Why is it that when we meet two people of indistinguishable personality, one may strike a spark in our hearts while the other simply does not register in that way, perhaps simply because of the shape of a chin or the width between the eyes? There are theories for all of these things -- that we have, perhaps, evolved an inclination towards being attracted to those traits or trails which best suit the survival of the species. Our bent, it is proposed, is towards finding lush green spaces beautiful because those are likely sources of food (though many would find as much beauty in cracked desert plains and solitary frozen ice floes).
But with respect to the sort of facial beauty which yields a physical, sexual attraction, the road may fall rather more narrowly. Here, the researchers speculate, attraction is all about a nagging desire to reproduce, and to do so in the way which will generate the most advantaged offspring. So here is where it gets interesting. After all, what exactly are the physical features most likely to yield offspring who will live to adulthood and outcompete their acquaintances in the reproduction contest? Why ought an oddly shaped nose or too much of a chin be off-putting in terms of the whole 'survival of the fittest' racket. Well it turns out that what makes somebody attractive tends to be their.... averageness.
Averageness and symmetry, indeed, go hand in hand on that score. Or, to be more exact, what tends to cause somebody to be deemed unattractive is their deviation from averageness and symmetry. Now this tends to be surprising because we often think of 'average' as a synonym for 'plain, but what is average and what is plain are not so aligned as one might think. There's an historical story here intertwined in the history of evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin, you see, was not the only scientifically minded member of his generation. Oh, you might be thinking of his grandfather, good old Erasmus Darwin, but Charles had a cousin as well -- Francis Galton -- who invented 'composite photography' (that is, the laying of photographic images over one another to demonstrate a final image averaging the features of the initial ones). And in 1883, Galton set out to employ this technique in what he thought would be a crime-fighting endeavour. Specifically, Galton supposed that by taking many images of criminals and overlapping them, he could ultimately produce the image of the 'average criminal.' This, in turn, he thought would aid society in finding those with criminal features and identifying them before they engaged in nefarious deeds (all of this being in the age of phrenology, when it was believed that the bumps and knots of a person's skull provided details about their personality and characteristic tendencies). But as Galton put together more and more of these faces, he discovered the composite result to be not somebody looking more and more 'criminal,' but more and more conventionally attractive. And, indeed, further experimentation by Galton and by generations of later experimenters has repeatedly confirmed this, that if a random grouping of a few dozen or more randomly picked people from the population are image-composited, the 'average' person's face turn out a beauty.
The simple explanation of all this is that each face deviates from the average in some aspect or another, but most every faces deviates in a different way; and so, as more and more faces are composited together, any especial deviation displayed by one will be subdued by comparison to the others, which are free of that deviation. So, if one face has a very long nose, one too wide a brow, and one sunken cheekbones, the two faces with average noses will subdue the long nose, the two with average brows will subdue the wide brow, and the two with sharper cheekbones will subdue the sunken example. And indeed it goes beyond that, for a dozen faces with too-long noses composited with a dozen faces with too-short noses will yield one face with that perfectly average nose (and approaching perfect symmetry as well, for the same reasons). And in the same breath, since wrinkles and other signs of aging are not equally distributed amongst the aged, a composite of many people (even of many old people) will subdue all of these features, and end up looking youthful, smooth-skinned and vibrant. (Note that this effect is restricted by gender; mixing of genders yields androgynous faces, which are themselves a deviation from gender norms, and have generally been deemed unattractive by those surveyed).
So having gotten to that point, the question returns, what is the advantage of being most attracted to the person with the most average of faces? Well, it is always possible that any deviation from the average evidences a defect, a parting from the healthy biological norm. And so, though adhering to average faces causes the reproducing person to pass upon potentially beneficial evolutionary changes, it does so in the cause of keeping to the safest position, that of reproducing with the person least likely (based on outward appearance) to carry some harmful genetic quirk. And, just to provide an illustration to this principle, I went to faceresearch.org and generated some 'average' faces (try it yourself -- pick the twenty faces from one gender which you would find least attractive, and then see how those unattractive faces average out); and then uploaded those average specimens to morphthing.com, a site which allows you to create composite images of celebrities (and upload your own), and morphed dozens of Hollywood starlets and women similarly considered famously beautiful, and then morphed that into the other 'average' faces; then I put this in Photoshop and tinted the whole thing green for no especial reason, and got the face at the top of this post, for your consideration.
Friday, May 25, 2012
Many millions of words have been devoted to the question of what role religion and religious symbolism play in the richly populated and thoroughly described world of Harry Potter -- indeed, commentary and scholarship on this subject, all taken together, dwarfs even the substantial content of the Harry Potter novels themselves. But there's another question to be asked here, which is, what theological model would best explain the goings-on in Harry Potter's reality.
Naturally, the first theological voices raised with respect to the series -- which ultimately produced seven books and eight blockbuster movies -- were condemnatory. Fundamentalist Christians, especially, responded to the popularity of the works with some of the same vitriol which had earlier been vented towards such threats to the moral order as Dungeons & Dragons and Elvis Presley. The initial focus of theological ire towards these words stemmed from the accusation that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft, and in so doing, Satanism, or Satan worship. And, unquestionably, the books do expressly portray witches (and wizards) not simply in a positive light, but in a positively glorious light. Numerous flyers and pamphlets, and eventually entire books detailed the satanic scheming credited to the works, a trap to draw children into defying authority and believing in all sorts of outlandish things (condemnatory sources including a Jack Chick comic decreeing Harry Potter to be a 'doorway to Hell').
But, even as the popularity of Harry Potter grew (utterly brushing off these efforts), others within the same faith communities began seeking to exploit this popularity by drawing parallels, asserting that the Harry Potter stories were in some sense allegorical of their own belief systems. This sentimentation seems most fully borne out by the culmination of the series, wherein Potter, for the sake of saving his friends bravely goes forth to be killed by Lord Voldemort -- except that instead of dying eternally, Potter is resurrected. Doesn't even have to wait three days for it -- more like three minutes. And, in his death/resurrection scenario, he takes a big necessary step towards vanquishing evil. Other broadly symbolic events are pointed to throughout the series. Snakes are shown as being evil, as with the Biblical serpent. The House of Gryffindor, into which Harry is sorted, has as its symbol a lion, claimed to be a symbol of Jesus (I'd not especially heard that before, but it's unsurprising given the vast number of gods and men for whom this animal is claimed).
All of this aside, in reading these works one can not help but notice that there is simply no overtly religious dimension to Harry Potter's world. Excepting a few uncredited scriptural quotes showing up on tombstones, there is no acknowledgment that religious belief even exists. No one ever discusses any degree of faith in a higher power or supreme being; no theory of creationism is ever proposed or sought to be reconciled with evolution (though the latter, as with all of our 'hard science,' goes unmentioned as well). Scripture of all stripes goes unmentioned while spellbooks flourish, and adversity is met with action instead of prayer invoking the name of any deity. But, then, the question is not really what people believe in this world -- for people all over the world (our real world, that is) believe in all sorts of contradictory things, necessarily mostly false, if not all inevitably so. And indeed, the sorts of 'miracles' which have traditionally captured theistic (and polytheistic) attentions are accessible lessons at Hogwarts -- mundane, even. Transformation of materials; invisibility; healing all manner of illness or injury; divination. But the world of Harry Potter naetheless can be found to operate consistently with a pandeistic Universe, and it may be contended that the world of Harry Potter is more likely a Universe of Pandeism than of any other theological model.
Consider first the capacity of certain individuals to practice 'magic.' In Harry Potter's world this certainly appears to be a matter of genetics. Like an ear for music or a knack for golf, some people are simply born -- even to unremarkable parents -- with this talent. And, as with most genetic traits, two parents with a higher degree of ability in exercising such talent are likely to give birth to children similarly expressing such talent. Now there are in this fictional realm two other phenomena worthy of discussion, and these are the prevalence of magical items and the magical bestiary. The interesting thing about magical items is that they seem generally contingent upon the activation of a magically able person to work. This ought to bring to mind the degree to which a hammer is especially useful when put into the hands of a carpenter; or a collection of circuit board parts and other bits of metal and plastic can be transformed by an appropriately educated electrician into a device capable of transmitting communications to distant people or perhaps rendering an electrical shock against an opponent. As to the magical creatures, these seem most likely to be the product of a magical counterpart to genetic engineering. There is very little likelihood that natural selection would by happenstance yield a centaur, with a perfectly horselike lower body and a perfectly humanlike upper body and mind. But the sort of magic shown throughout the series might well be accommodated towards the modification of existing life towards having these unusual characteristics.
And as for the magic itself, certainly the nature of this fictional realm is inconsistent with atheism being its operative theological model, as it is a world in which nonscientific metaphysical phenomena really do exist. But it is, as well, a world crediting no theistic revelation or scripture, and showing no signs that any of its magical happenings reflect any sort of divine intercession. But here is where Pandeism comes in, for this is still a world wherein events have transpired as necessary for intelligent life to come about, and this life is certainly not simply able to reflect upon itself, but is exceptionally self-accelerative. The defining capacity of this world, of certain of its inhabitants exhibiting a limited seemingly supernatural control over one's surroundings is a phenomenon which would be fully accounted for in the pandeistic model. The persons using such powers would actually be unknowingly accessing the underlying power of our Creator, of which all things are simply aspects. (Not that they wouldn't know they were accessing power, but they simply wouldn't know that it is the underlying power of the all-encompassing and all-sustaining Creator).
And so, I propose that the world of Harry Potter is entirely consistent with, really a sort of supercharged Pandeism. One wherein an especially large segment of the population is, by dint of a talent developed through evolution, able to access the underlying power of a Creator which has wholly involved its energy in the becoming of a nonintervening Universe, of which all denizens are fragments. And such magical energy is seen by the inhabitants of that world (as we see with gravity and magnetism and such in our Universe) as a useful natural phenomenon of that world, whose origin and fundamental nature are simply unknown, perhaps appearing unknowable.
Sunday, May 13, 2012
The animal pals were sitting happily around their picnic blanket on this fine sunfilled day, laughing and singing songs and telling stories, and such, for that is their friendly way. There was the good Dr. Turtledove and Mrs. Turtledove, and their three little turtledoves, who pleased everyone with their beautiful song. And there was diligent Colonel Ram whose ram regiment was known well for its discipline, and his dear old friend Mr. Bull, who had come with his lady Ms. Cow. And then there was Mr. and Mrs. Goat and their kids, and Mr. and Mrs. Pigeon, and Mr. and Mrs. Badger, and various little ones playing in the grass.
And as the day got on into the afternoon, they noticed that wise old Mr. Turtle was sitting under a tree nearby, flipping through a black-bound book with some gold lettering on the cover, and the others asked, "what book is that?" And Mr. Turtle told them, "well this one's called a 'Bible'--"
"Buy bull?" interrupted Mr. Bull "don't know if I like the sound of that...."
"Well," Mr. Turtle went on, "some feller gave it to me. Seemed to be some kind of salesman. Told me to read the stories in it and take 'em as true, and that afterward I'd be kind to get in a habit of giving some money to the group of salesmen he'd come from. Don't reckon I'll do that, but I guess it couldn't hurt to have a look-see at what's in here."
"O, read us some!" the animal pals exclaimed. And so, old Mr. Turtle flipped open to one of the beginning pages.br>
Mr. Turtle read the story which told of the main character -- apparently a lord of some sort, making a garden and creating all the animals in it, one kind at a time (Dr. Turtledove commented "that's just silly, hasn't he ever heard of natural selection?", but was hushed by the others wanting to hear the story.)
And so on he read. There was some odd bit about this 'lord' intentionally putting a bad tree in the garden, and then one of its animal creations, a snake, getting the humans in the garden to eat some of its fruit. A bunch more stories were all centered on humans and their usual boring human troubles.
But then Mr. Turtle read: "Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made." He looked up just a bit as some of the animal pals gasped; then back down to the text. This lord made a flood, he read, and then: "Every living thing that moved on the earth perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth."
The animal pals sat, stunned-- until finally one of Mr. Goat's kids piped up: "What-- what did the animals do to this 'lord' of the humans that made him want to drown everybody?"
Mr. Turtle flipped back and forth through the pages for some moments before intoning, with a sad shake of his head, "nothing. They did nothing wrong at all."
"Well," shrugged Mr. Pigeon with a nervous laugh, "at least he had somebody save a few of every kind, right?" The other animals glared at the comment, so Mr. Pigeon tried to change the subject, asking "So, uh, what happens after this flood?"
Mr. Turtle returned to the book. "Well let's see. Genesis eight: Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he--" Mr. Turtle stopped and blinked hard at the text for a moment, "he sacrificed burnt offerings on it."
"Wait a minute, now" Mrs. Turtledove interrupted, "so out of all the animals he murders, this 'lord' has but a tiny number saved-- and then he lets some of those get killed as well? As a-- as a sacrifice? That's insane!!"
"Yes, the very definition of it. Quite disgusting," Dr. Turtledove agreed.
Mr. Turtle read on, "The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma--"
"What?!?!" cried out several of the animal pals -- "this 'lord' finds the smell of our burning flesh 'pleasing'?"
Mr. Turtle harumphed in agreement with their disgust, and flipped ahead a few pages. "Indeed. Let me see if I can find something less horrific." He began reading from a random page: "And the Lord said to Abraham, 'Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.'" The other animal pals looked on warily. This didn't sound like it would end well. "Abraham brought all these to him, cut them in two--"
Mr. Turtle stopped reading abruptly, while some of the animal pals looked positively ill. He flipped through the book further. "Let me see. Let me see. Oh no, no, more demanding of animal sacrifices." After a pause, "there's a story where this 'lord' tells this human, Abraham, to kill his own son-- the human's son-- but.... at the last moment sends a ram to be killed instead."
"It figures," muttered Colonel Ram, snorting at the insult.
Mr. Turtle flipped on some more, coming to more and more similar instructions of this lord. At one point he read out: "And thou shalt make a covering for the tent of rams' skins dyed red, and a covering above of badgers' skins."
"Hey, what the fuck!!" cried out Mr. Badger. "Oh, really," chimed in his wife.
There was more, much more, and it descended into deep horror. One story-- it wasn't even a story, really, just animal slaughter porn-- demanded a bull be slaughtered right in front of some religious meeting tent, that the bulls blood be smeared on things, and specific organs burnt, again so that the smell of the burning flesh would please this horrible lord's nostrils. Similar instructions were demanded of several rams, with the equally horrific instruction that its blood from its murder be smeared on the ears of certain favoured human children. And the stories went on, demanding the slaying of sheep and goats and various bird for the perverse pleasure of this human lord.
At last, everybody agreed, enough was enough. Mr. and Mrs. goat trotted over and tore and chewed the pages from the offending book. They spat and shoved the remnants of the vile thing into a deep hole dug by Mr. Badger, and after several of the animal pals relieved their bowels into the hole, they at last covered it over with dirt, never to be though about again.
And then the animal pals went back to their usual way, laughing and singing songs and telling stories.
Sunday, May 06, 2012
If you believe that ours is a created Universe, then there is only one question to ask.
Is the Creator in which you believe powerful enough to set forth the Universe as we experience it, in every particular while needing do nothing more than set forth the energy of this Universe and the governing dynamics which control the behavior of that energy?
Is it powerful enough to initiate a Universe where everything which we experience comes to pass -- stars, planets, the origin of life, the rise of complex ecosystems, the rise of intelligent life, machinery, technology, and social institutions -- by doing no more than causing the Creation?
Is it powerful enough to bring about our experience of our world without needing to interfere again, after the moment of Creation?
If the Creator in which you believe is not this powerful, then it is inferior to one which is.
Now, you may claim that it has such power, but that you believe it has continued to intervene....
But if it was powerful enough to bring about our Universe in every particular without intervening... that would include bringing about the appearance of intervention where there is none.
And you may claim to believe your Creator has told you otherwise....
But if it was powerful enough to bring about our Universe in every particular.... that would include bringing about your belief that you have been told things -- even when you have not.
And you may claim to believe your Creator would not mislead you....
But every faith has its own holy books and sacred traditions. And though these contradict and conflict with one another, most of their adherents share the conviction that theirs is the only truth, and that their Creator would not mislead them.
But if our Creator was powerful enough to bring about our Universe in every particular, without intervening in any way after the very moment of Creation.... that would include bringing about your belief, and everyone else's competing belief that you would not be mislead.
But then, there is the Creator discerned by the theological theory of Pandeism....
The pandeistic Creator is not only powerful enough to bring about our Universe in every particular --including the existence of intelligent life and all of our beliefs and traditions--through nothing more than a singular transformative moment of Creation....
It has actually done this!!
And this accounts for our Universe in every particular, including all beliefs to the contrary.
Naturally, you may yet deny that this theological model fully accounts for every aspect of our Universe....
You need only confess that your God lacks the power to set forth our Universe in such a manner.