Arbtirary thoughts on nearly everything from a modernist poet, structural mathematician and functional programmer.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Short Bit on Faith

I started writing this a few months ago, and forgot to actually finish it until today. I understand that it is all over the place, but I'm not terribly worried about that...

For all of history, people who pushed for something greater have been mocked and ridiculed; even today, when much of America claims to be Christian, nearly anyone who dare profess the absurdly idealistic love that Christ represents would be ignored, or, at best, called a hopeless romantic who needs to awaken to the real world. When I hear this, I think of Puddleglum's speech:
"One word, Ma'am. One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, [...] we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

The key word in this whole speech is "important". He does not say that the made-up things are more "fun" or "interesting" he says they are more important. This choice of words changes the whole speech from a confession of willful delusion to a statement of purpose. Puddleglum is not deluding himself into believing that the Overworld exists, he is saying that, since that world is more fulfilling, more alive, it is more real, whether it is tangible or not. We shouldn't stop fighting for true love, for brotherhood, for God, just because people call them romantic concepts designed only to give us hope; Oh, no! They are of greater consequence, of more value than any end on this earth, so even if they do not exist, they are still worth more than this hollow, dark, empty pit of a cave through which we wander hopelessly.

What is it, exactly, that makes them more important? Just before Puddleglum makes this speech, the queen, Jadis, is telling them that all these things are silly exaggerations of real things: Aslan, the large lion, is just a house cat; the sun is merely a large lamp, the sky just a large roof, and so on. The things she mentions are the things we need in order to live: Shelter, light, someone/something to comfort us and keep us company. The things Puddleglum mentions fulfill all the same functions, except they are more fulfilling. The sun is warmer and brighter than any houselamp, the light more comforting; Aslan is like a house cat, only larger, warmer and gentler; Narnia is just like the large underworld, only more just. Likewise, God's love, the kingdom of God and pure romance are more fulfilling than the "real-life" equivalent. Note, however, that this is not a Utopian, happily-ever-after sort of fulfillment; it is satisfaction, which is the reward of action. Effort is required for satisfaction: Anyone who tells you Christianity does not require tremendous force of will has never felt God; anyone who says that a relationship is not difficult has never committed to another person; anyone who says there is no stress in loving your fellow man has never helped out a friend in need. But this love, this faith, has more power, more value than any end on this earth. Is there any loss in living for these things? You will miss whatever the "normal" purpose of life is, but to quote Puddleglum again, "It's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

What's even more important than anything Puddleglum says is that the Overworld does exist. Puddleglum is in fact not a dreamer who has committed himself to a non-existent cause, but rather a lone seer, who has stepped out of Plato's cave into the warm sunlight. How, then, can we be assured that we are right, that the world is blind and stubborn, while we walk in Truth? How can we convince others that we walk in the Truth? Unfortunately, there is no certain way; there is no proof that God exists, no proof that there is a higher purpose, and the cave is as empty and meaningless as the Underworld. However, stronger and more convincing than any clever display of logic is the experience of these things. Those of us who proclaim the power of God have seen His light; those who hold love as a greater end than anything on this earth have loved and been loved in such a way that they cannot deny its power.

Once again: how can we convince others of this? Only by showing the same that we've seen. We have to spread love, God, and brotherhood, not by word of mouth, but by deed. We cannot just talk, convincing people of the Truth because Truth is not a reasoned conclusion. It is not a statement of the form "p therefore q." God is not something you know, it's something you feel, something you understand. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein invented the "Martian" word grok to describe this concept. Literally, grok means "drink", and it should be no surprise that Jesus used the same term to describe living in faith; when you drink something, it becomes a part of you, a part of everything you do, and every decision you make. We must drink in God's love until it flows out of us like a fountain. Only by spreading this, by sharing the same beautiful experience of God's presence can we hope to expand God's kingdom.

There is no knowledge, no action, no speech which can by itself convince anyone of God's existence and love. Even if someone understands philosophically that God exists, that does nothing for them. "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that- and shudder." (James 2:19) Faith is not an intellectual adherence to doctrine; it is a statement of purpose a commitment to live "as like a Narnian as possible, even if there isn't any Narnia." Once you experience God's love-- once you have that first sip of grace-- you cannot be content with anything less than the whole cup. "If only you knew what it would have meant to drink the thimbleful of fire. But, alas! you swear you already know its taste! and yet your belly remains intact."

If there is no way to convince people of the Truth, we must then live our lives to the fullest-- live in God's joy and freedom all hours of the day-- and pray and wait for them to reach up and grab the thimble from Jesus' hand. When that happens, and only then, will they understand the fire that consumes the believer. We cannot wait for our lives to end, for Heaven, "the afterlife" to experience God's Grace. There is so much more on earth than we see around us, so much more than we accept and feel content with. Why then are we sitting here waiting to die? We must reach out, and search for Narnia! We must go out and find Aslan! If God is there, reaching for our hands, why would we sit here and wait for him to? Shouldn't we strive with all our heart, soul, mind and strength to reach up and grab at his gentle strength?

And you, will you look and think and pray? Or sit, and simply wait?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Spirituality, laws, and love

I've been in an interesting spiritual state for the last month and a half. On the one hand, I feel much closer to God than I ever have (barring a few short bursts of inspiration); on the other, I feel like I'm exactly the same-- with the exact same flaws-- as I've always been. Perhaps it'll always be that way. Paul himself struggled with the personal disgust that's associated with sin.

Anyway, I've read in the last 2 months, from Genesis through Kings. There are times when I'm reading and I'm trembling with awe at God, but it typically ebbs after I close the book (or just as often, leave it lying open on the floor by my bed). I've perpetually been just below that state. It's extremely frustrating because I think "What can I do to come closer to God," but I know (and it's so hard to actually live it) that it is not through our own ability, but through God's grace that we come closer to God. I want Elijah's spirit. I want to be able to talk to God the way Moses did. So I pray for the presence of God; I pray to be struck dumb with his beauty and glory; I pray for this more frequently than I've probably ever prayed in my life.

Today, Sully and I were talking and he talked about how annoyed he is when someone thinks they have the way; that if only people would listen to them, do things like they do, they'd be righteous-- as if our knowledge and ability save us. I listened, and agreed, but was struck with how much God was pointing a finger at me through him.

I'm so quick to judge legalists, so quick to pass off everything they say with a "Your mind is in the right place, but your heart is empty" that I've slipped off the other side of the mountain as I backed away from them. I am a whore for what Kierkegaard calls "the aesthetic". I really need to take one large step back toward those people I've so long tried to distance myself from.

On a related note, perhaps I am closer to God than I think. Katie broke up with me today, and I'm surprisingly fine with it. It's not that I actually don't mind. It's just that I know it's something God has called her to do. I've been hoping otherwise, but it's becoming increasingly obvious (especially over the last week) that we are being called in different directions. Suppose it had not happened now, but in another 6 months... It would be so difficult for either of us to give it up for what we've been called to do. Anyway, I think she's having more trouble with this than I am, and the "gentleman" I am, I just want to be there to help her through it... which may or may not have the opposite effect.
I can deal with talking to someone I want a romantic relationship with, but the one thing I'm dreading is telling people it's over: I'm afraid that other people won't understand, or will think it's just a cop out.

On video games, and adult content

This was supposed to be a post here

So... I've been playing video games for longer than I can remember. I'm sure I've played every game that any activist has ever said should be banned. As someone who is studying math and computer science, and plans on either doing research into fields that most of the world hasn't even heard of, or teaching at a Christian school in some random country, I really, really just don't see where the outrage comes from.

Lot's daughters rape him; Noah passes out drunk and naked; David (A man after God's own heart!) has his way with a woman (it never says how compliant she is, but since they marry, we can assume she didn't object) and kills her husband; Prophets rain fire from heaven; there are prostitutes; there are "male temple prostitutes"; there is a vile amount of sex and violence in the Bible. And yet, most of us here (myself included!) would encourage a child to read it. Why?
1) It represents a strikingly accurate picture of how vile and corrupt we humans are.
2) It is a song of praise to the glory of God.

Crime and Punishment contains a graphic depiction of a murder. 100 Years of Solitude contains multiple rapes, sex scenes, murders, massacres, ... Frankenstein is about a vile corruption of nature. Therese Raquine is horrifyingly gruesome
Many, many, classical books contain the same. Graphic depictions of sex and/or violence are an inherent part of literature.
And yet, most people here (myself included!) would encourage a child to read these things. Why?
There is an intellectual stimulation in reading literature; vocabulary improves, writing ability improves, speaking ability improves, etc., etc., etc.

Now, what we must remember is that sex is not evil; The portrayal of sex and the portrayal of violence are not necessarily evil, if in their proper place.

Now, mature people (I refuse the word adult) can handle portrayals of sex and violence, and either can see through them to the message (as in the Bible), or understand the entertainment or intellectual value of a story, which-- for immersion-- must necessarily contain sex and/or violence (as in Literature).

If you don't believe that there is intellectual stimulation in video games, find the name of a game and google search "[name of game] tactics" or "... strategy" or "... walkthrough". Look at the depth in the results you find.

Remember that there are no restrictions on ordinary literature, only on "dirty magazines". Remember that there is no *legal* restriction on the sale of R movies/tickets, or Parental Advisory music. What makes games any different?

There was a war with comic books. There was a war with movies. I'm sure the many centuries ago, there was a war with papyrus that sounded something like this:
Those rebels are using papyrus to write messages that blaspheme our gods and slander our king. We must control the use of this artificial memory.

I would have put something about "sex and violence", but that wouldn't be historical: the two things have been an integral part of nearly every civilization since the dawn of man. And certain people have the arrogance to claim that our "traditional morals" are being attacked? If those values are Elizabethan, Roman, Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian, Indian, Turkish, Germanic, Frankish, Nordic, Chinese, Arab...
If those morals were the morals of the crusaders, the zealots, the pharisees, the Conquistadors, or slave-owning Americans...
Well, if any of those are the case, I really don't think I mind seeing any of those corrupt, broken moral systems corroded.

Instead, I will continue to study group theory, Galois theory, and combinatorics; I will continue reading about those two harlots- Oholah and Oholibah- and when I need a break, I will read about gruesome murders and outrageous rapes in books that have been praised for centuries, or I will play video games- probably violent ones, or ones with "sex scenes" that are on prime time TV- and I will feel confident that when my kids experience these things, they will have been raised well enough to understand them.

Edit: it has been brought to my attention (see comments) that I have forgotten to point out how wrong the original article is. Not only is there no rape (according to everyone I've heard from who has played the game), but the "sex scene" only has (quoting my roommate) "a few seconds of ass."

Since someone posted as a response to the original article a youtube capture of the video in question (I did not watch it), I cannot accept that the game is as raunchy as Mr. McCullough makes it seem. I would like to call him a liar, but I'm much too fair, and a little wise for such name calling. The question is not a question of misrepresenting data to fool others, but a question of misinterpreting the data your senses feed to your brain-- He's irrational, not malicious.

You see, when someone has not been taught to critically analyze information they receive, they automatically jump to a conclusion based in part by what they do see, in part by what they expect to see, and in part by what they have been taught to see. Mr. McCullough (and others who have advocated censorship of interactive content) expect games to be such filth, so when they see the slightest evidence of it, they cache that-- confirmation bias. It then exaggerates itself, so that these people actually believe the nonsense that spews out from their mouth and pen. I could go on for a while about the state of an education system which does not teach one to think, but I want to make progress in 1st Chronicles; I want to make progress in an abstract algebra book, and I want to start a story (ironically and coincidentally, it's about preconceptions)

Mr. McCullough is wrong. He is wrong about what happens in Mass Effect; Were he right about the nature of Mass Effect, he would still be wrong.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


I often have to explain to people that I do math, not for it's scientific utility, but it's aesthetic value. Many people either get confused by this idea, or think of pretty math pictures or mystifying symbols. This is not at all what a mathematician is thinking of when he calls math "pretty".

A much closer representation would be Pope's question "Ah, Why, ye Gods, should two and two make four?" Why, indeed! There is a simplicity, a finality that is striking and counter-intuitive in math. It is obvious that 2+2=4, and saying otherwise will confuse people (even when you're correct.)

But mathematically obvious and intuitively obvious are two very different things. Mathematically obvious means "a proof is trivial". Intuitively obvious means "the assumption that it is true is so ingrained within us that another system is difficult to comprehend." 2+2=4 is not mathematically obvious... until you define addition, and define equality. 2+2=4 is so often used because of this fact. It relies, almost solely on the foundations of mathematics. If math were a building-- one built over millennia, with thousands of architects-- 2+2=4 would be the buttress opposite 1≠0.

There is something mystifying in this idea, something almost haunting. More haunting yet, is Euler's Identity. eiπ+1=0. This may be meaningless to my audience...
e (2.718281...) is the "natural base" It has a number of fascinating properties, perhaps the most important of which is that the the slope of the line
ex at any point is also ex. This number is primarily important in calculus (where it is the most important number): real analysis and the study of differential equations. π (3.14159) is the ratio of a circle's circumference to it's diameter. It is the most important number in trigonometry, and therefore all of geometry. Consequently, π, like e, shows up everywhere in math. i is the imaginary number √-1. Complex analysis is the study of this number.

We have, then, undoubtedly the 5 most important numbers in math: 0, 1, e, i, π. They come together in one simple equation-- 7th grade math-- eiπ+1=0. When you see this equation, you are simultaneously looking at all of analysis, as well as analytic geometry. If this doesn't leave you in some way uncomfortable, you have missed something: take a math class.

As you learn the required material-- certainly more work than 7th grade math-- the equation changes from meaningless symbols to utterly counter-intuitive. Mathematically, it's obvious; there are proofs which require no more than high school math; but intuitively, it cannot be. How can everything be related so simply?

If you still do not see it, if you still cannot feel it. Think of the way a good song can almost bring you to tears, or the way certain paintings refuse to be forgotten, or the power in a great piece of literature. That's what a mathematician feels when he sees this equation.

"Why must e to the i pi negate 1? And how, O God, does it steal my sleep?"

Monday, January 7, 2008

On Medieval Paintings

Heather Bamford writes a blog that I sporadically check. In her most recent post, she asks a series of questions that essentially amount to "How can surreal sources present reality to us, and how can we use these to understand the real nature of the world?" Unfortunately, I can understand only the English in the post, but I will try to respond anyway.

The answer, I think, lies in the emotional and subjective nature of human experience. We are not rational creatures, and we do not have an objective tie to the world we live in. While most people will see a very similar world, each person's experience of this world is affected by past experiences. Thus, to answer her actual question: the images in the LA help us to understand the medieval psyche and medieval perspective. Through these pictures, we can begin to understand how the world impressed medieval persons.

Flos Duellatorum
(or Fior di Battaglia) proves to be a similarly surreal instruction manual. In answer to a somewhat rhetorical question posed by Heather in an earlier post, the text has corresponding illustrations (not the other way around). In Fiore's manual at least, the illustrations seem to be for the purpose of refreshing a a knowledgeable student's memory, providing key points for comparison; The student is expected to fill in the missing parts based on the text and prior knowledge. There are, of course, differences between the LA and FD, but the art, and the relation of the art to the text seem to be similar. Perhaps my untrained eye sees non-perspective illustrations and expects them to be related; I do not count this possibility out.

The next research question, then, would be "why do medieval artists see the world as they do?" What about the pictured positions, people, locations, etc. makes them more important than others?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

I try to stay out of it...

Among the very long list of discussions I try not to waste my time with is the Evolution/Creation debate. I haven't seen any new developments in the debate since 9th grade... and I first started to care in... 9th grade. That was ~6 years ago now. So, for more than 5 out of less than 6 years, I've seen the same ideas expressed in the same words, and I just don't care any more. Now... for at least 4 of these nearly 6 years, I've realized that the question is not one of "logical conclusion", but of analysis from core values. Allow me to explain.

Science is an attempt to objectively observe and hence explain our universe. Since the only objectively observable part of our universe is the natural, science is conducted in the naturalist realm. Further, since a mathematical proof requires agreed upon axioms, and well-defined operations, and these cannot be established in a concrete, non-theoretical system (read: the universe), the strongest support for a theory is its repeated observation in nature.

Observation of a theory requires more than observing a specific phenomenon; it requires the prediction of related phenomenon, along with valid reasoning as to why the theory can account for both. Also, it is required to not contradict currently accepted theories.

An example. The constant cycle of the sun, moon, stars and planets around the earth would lead one to initially believe that the celestial objects rotate around the earth. There is, here, one unexplainable phenomenon: the planets do not circle the earth in any sort of logical pattern. If we then say the earth circles the sun, which creates days (one phenomenon), years/seasons (a second), and the planets revolve around the sun (a third), we see that this theory is "stronger". That is, it accounts for more with fewer observations. A stronger theory is not necessarily a more correct one; however, when Newton's Laws and Kepler's Laws are taken into account, the theory is nearly uncontestable.

Another example, Both Einsteinian Relativity and Quantum Mechanics were difficult to accept due to their clash with (then) currently accepted theory. Their strength and consistent observability are the factors which allowed for their acceptance.

Science, as a way of knowing, suffers from the fact that it is a strict rationalist system with no possibility for proof. For a naturalist, then, the only theory which can begin to account for the evidence in the fossil record and otherwise, is evolution. The core values, the system of analysis they use, forces the acceptance of evolution.

Faith, on the other hand, is also an attempt understand the universe. It is, however, a vastly different way of knowing. Rather than empirical evidence, it is based on a priori revelation, and subjective experience. It suffers from other flaws than science. The flaws of faith are much more complicated, although hardly more numerous than those of science, and relate primarily to the subjective nature of faith.

Faith, unlike science, does not attempt to objectively collect data, so is not bound to accept a naturalistic, or for that matter "observable" theory. Thus the discrepancy. Further, when a person of faith attempts to view the evidence with a scientific eye, they start, naturally with their faith-based assumptions, rather than scientific assumptions. Evolution, then, does not present itself as a stronger theory, but creation does. It is not an unscientific way of thinking, but an unscientific starting point that "leads creationists astray".

It would be wonderful if people on both sides of the debate would take the time to actually research where their opponents' views come from, rather than just assuming everyone thinks the same way, and calling each other idiots for not seeing the "obvious" conclusion.

On another note, most of what Darwin said (before The Descent of Man) is really not that hard to accept, even from a creationist perspective. Mendel's gene theory is also absolutely acceptable. Modern Synthesis, then, is also acceptable. It is when modern DNA theory, and genetic mutations begin to enter the picture that things get shaky. Even speciation through mutation (assuming the data fits) can fit within a Christian perspective, the problem is once you accept speciation through mutation, there is nothing, save an argument by authority, preventing the conclusion that everything has evolved.

Anyway, You'll not see me write anything on this topic again for years, because, well.... I've been hearing both creationists and evolutions refused to try to understand what the other camp is trying to say for almost 6 years now, and it's a waste of breath...

Thursday, January 3, 2008


Yesterday, I read both A Case Against the Goto Statement and On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computing Science, by Edsgar Dijkstra. They were both rather eye-opening. One amazing thing about Dijkstra, is that he did not even own a computer until very late in his life, and rarely used them throughout his life... but he is one of the most important computer scientists in history. Why? Because "Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes." Just like telescopes for astronomers, computers are the tool used by computer scientists to engage their science with the real world. Fortunately for us, Computer Science is abstract theorization, rather than concrete study of physical phenomenon. Because it is abstract theorization, a computer scientist is allowed to spend no time actually using a computer.

The point is that computer science is not a discipline, but a branch of mathematics. A branch that deals specifically with the generating, solving, and analyzing algorithms. Some people may try to disagree with me on this. "How is a professional [insert type of program here] an algorithm we can analyze?"
Firstly, this argument is ridiculous, because all a computer can do is manipulate symbols by a concrete, predefined set of rules. That is, all a computer can do is process an algorithm. If you don't believe me, read anything on the theory of computation (typically by mathematicians), specifically pay attention to Turing's work. Anything a computer can do must be describable by an algorithm... Would you be surprised, then, if I told you that all programming languages are just systematized algorithm languages? All compilers do is translate these algorithms to a form the computer can use.
Secondly, I would hardly call most of today's programming an exercise in computer science. To continue Dikstra's analogy, putting a satellite in orbit is not a job for astronomers. A computer scientist lays the groundworks: creates algorithms, creates languages, etc, and then the programmer uses these as tools for a finished product. Just as a physicist doesn't need to know why group theory works, just that it does, or an aerospace engineer doesn't need to know or why wings work, just how they work.
The why and how are for theoretical disciplines, primarily math and computer science (I know, I'm biased away from sciences). The engineer, or applied scientist doesn't need to know why,they need to know what and sometimes how.


Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Game design

I've been thinking about video game design again lately; I think just like movies, game designers are trying too hard to make worlds understandable, and not hard enough to make them unique and alive. I want to see a fantasy world with surreal landscapes; you should see Dalí or Kush everywhere. I want characters like Marquez's. I want creatures like Tolkien's-- not in appearance, but in imagination and originality.

Castes need to be broken; roles need to be changed. Turn our ideas on their heads. We gamers talk about games as art, but where are our artists? Gears of War? Assassin's Creed? Beautiful games, to be sure, but we can achieve a whole new level of beauty-- a whole new type of beauty-- with video games. Who is doing that? I see cloud ships and sky harbors; I see cultures that represent these things; I see a player making a drastic change in these cultures; where are they? When will we see our beloved games wrapped up in literature and art in a new way? Where are the cubist and surrealist game designers?

Game makers need to spend less time making games look amazing, and more time making them feel amazing. Is there tremendous detail in Van Gogh's work? Or Picasso's? How about Dalí? Then fuck detail: we need worlds that come alive and strike us with awe. Until someone steps out and does that, we will be stuck playing tired old FPSs that play exactly the same, RPGs with the same classes, and fighting games with a Bruce Lee look-alike. Some companies have been making small steps in this direction, and have been welcomed, but we still need something drastic. We need someone to step out and fail, keep pushing and succeed in everything that failed, and perfect everything that worked.

I know I've been ranting for a while now, but it just struck me as I imagined a harbor city on a cloud. Can you imagine piloting a ship from the clouds, through a pirate attack, and down to an ocean harbor? Then why hasn't this game been made?

A sudden realization.

I think I'm going to make a conscious effort to let my stories become more surreal. I've always found a certain level of reality in surreal works-- an awe-inspiring mythical atmosphere-- something that's missing in realism. For the most part, my writings fit under the classification of surreal, but even Breviary, which has a extremely surreal plot, is framed as a series of dreams. It's as if I'm trying to rationalize my works, bring them into reality. I need to stop doing that. I feel like I'm trying to make my writing something it isn't; trying to add something in order to make it better, or more literary or something. I'm killing it when I do that. I need to just let it flow.

On another note, I'm definitely going to start drawing and painting again soon. It's a lot of fun, and I've spent far too long away from it.
Creative Commons License Cory Knapp.