Sunday, July 19, 2015

sit a spell in the Silver Chair

And this time it didn't come into her head that she [Jill] was being enchanted, for now the magic was in its full strength; and of course, the more enchanted you get, the more certain you feel that you are not enchanted at all.
My impression is that The Silver Chair is typically placed in the lower tier of the Chronicles of Narnia series. Part of the reason may be the unsettling villainess, namely the witch in green. Her alluring appearance and mostly-cordial composure are only masks. Like her realm of Underland, greedy malevolence lies under the mild surface. She's a patient schemer whose impulse is to work in secret.

Truth be told, plainly she doesn't need clumsy, aggressive threats of force to achieve domination. Her well-suited style of bewitching magic is psychologically manipulative and overpowering. Why would she wastefully assault her enemies' bodies when she can either mislead them or infiltrate their souls, thereby seducing them to defeat themselves? To seize Narnia's Prince Rilian, she doesn't overwhelm him with a contingent of fighters. She gradually fascinates him. She captivates him to make him a captive.

Similarly, his ensuing entrapment in Underland doesn't involve violence or intimidation. His magically mediated self-betrayal progresses to a worse stage due to regularly scheduled sessions bound in the witch's potent Silver Chair. In essence he's no longer himself. He's shifted into a complete second persona. His former memories, motivations, and disposition are displaced. Throughout the day, Rilian's mentality is confined so masterfully that he's mostly oblivious of the difference. The author reiterates this obliviousness a few times to ensure that readers note this characteristic of the witch's powers. It may be an allusion to the author's recurring theme of moral desensitization: frequently committing wrongdoing, or just fantasising about it, can cloud perception of its wrongness.

So much for the author's intentions. In fact, Rilian's second life under the sway of the witch and Chair is a striking multifaceted illustration of living under the sway of religious inculcation.
  • He's gushingly committed and grateful to the witch, i.e the designated authority over him. He trusts the authority wholeheartedly. He believes earnestly in the statements made by the authority, even though he can't explain exactly how the authority got that knowledge. The authority has extraordinary abilities ("magic arts") that he can't possibly duplicate or evaluate for himself, so he doesn't feel able to question.
  • He has been handed a tidy script of expectations to fulfill. His destiny to capture Narnia for Underland. His free will—such as it is—revolves around his willingness to conform, not the individual freedom to chart and assess his course. He's been told what role he will play and how. Equally clear is his present and future hierarchical position; commands will flow from the witch to him and from him to his inferiors. On some level his freedom persists, but external forces have tampered with it.
  • The witch takes him on short trips to preserve his acclimation to the surface, e.g. the intensity of sunlight. Being a prisoner, his trips entail severe conditions. He's forbidden from displaying his face or speaking. These preventative countermeasures embody an attitude of minimizing and filtering unavoidable contact with the frightening outside world. This same attitude is demanded of religious followers. They're cautioned from weakening their faith by paying attention to unvetted sources of information or by studying alternative viewpoints. It's worth noting that this worry isn't far-fetched. I've previously mentioned that my uninteresting background didn't feature ruthless cultural isolation, and indeed my steady absorption of contradictory information was key to ultimately discarding my parents' faith-beliefs.
  • Like the rigidity of followers' attitudes toward outside ideas, the rigidity of their habitual rituals is shrewd. These repeatedly reinvigorate their faith-beliefs, just as Rilian's periods in the Silver Chair reinvigorate the twisted roots of the thought patterns imposed on him. These prescribed doses of "spiritual relief" are indispensable to reinforce the desirability of their specific concepts. The opposite tendency is unrelenting, because observable violations of faith-beliefs inevitably accumulate. It isn't rare to hear devoted attendees comment that their weekly activities renew their faith or to hear them warn that erratic attendance would endanger their faith.
  • That said, the comparison isn't perfect. Most obviously, Rilian must be tied to the Chair. In each sitting, his preexisting self and his central memories temporarily surface. Some of the book's most moving lines of dialogue are his desperate pleas to be released before he loses himself again. Followers of faith-beliefs, some more than others, have comparable episodes of clarity and candor. They may not be nearly as horrified as Rilian about how they've spent their time nor nearly as eager to drop their comforting beliefs. But perhaps they're haunted by the meddlesome pair of questions, "What if my faith-beliefs have been inaccurate all along?" and "Precisely what indicates that my faith-beliefs probably aren't inaccurate?" Those are the occasions when they're more willing to pay sincere attention to the arguments against them, and they're temporarily less inclined to brush away the holes in their own arguments. Debates don't need to convince them immediately; hearing the faults expressed is preparation for a hypothetical future hour, in which they'll abruptly stand up, look around, and deliberate about the soundness of their thinking without the Silver Chair's interference.
  • Lastly, he's courteous and quick to laugh and smile. The problem is that a short amount of conversation with him is enough to reveal that he's selfish, patronizing, boring, flippant, and stubborn about his opinions. He deflects. He's positive but the cost is refusing to ponder anything that might counter his perspective and assumptions. Unfortunately, this demeanor is reminiscent of some irksome followers of faith-beliefs. They're detached and consumed by their image of a happy and proper paradise. Their inoffensiveness is mixed with hastiness to devalue anything or anyone who they consider below their concern and their strict, inflexible standards.
Besides the metaphor of Rilian's spellbound lifestyle, two more topics are obligatory during discussion of this book. The first is Puddleglum's speech to the witch, who moments ago had nearly succeeded at mystifying the whole group of heroes about the existence of anything above ground. In tightly condensed form: "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things [...] the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. [...] 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. [...] we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the 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."

Sometimes his speech is portrayed as a stirring counterpoint to all kinds of atheism. In 2005 I might have agreed. Now, I can't stop noticing the shaky premises it rests on.

  • If it's interpreted to mean that goals and ideals depend on faith-beliefs, then I've already responded to that. Of course faith-beliefs aren't necessary to envision improvements to realities. Moreover, the odds of attainable progress increase when goals and ideals aren't kept separate from accurate realities. Certainly one can emulate Narnian behavior without believing in Narnians by faith. 
  • If Pud's speech is treated like the claim that one's realities are in the realm of personal preference, then I don't accept that either. Realities routinely violate personal preference, to put it mildly. Humans' preferences don't adjust realities telekinetically—no, psi energy doesn't appear in the equations of quantum mechanics. But humans are manifestations of matter who can participate in causing changes to other matter to better fit their preferences. (This doesn't deny the instrumental effect of their chosen mode of reaction on how current realities disturb their thoughts.) 
  • If P-glum's words are understood to be serious essential downsides of not relying on faith-beliefs, I would disagree. Generally those downsides are uninvestigated prejudices. Reaching a negative conclusion about a faith-belief doesn't imply that one is negative about everything all the time. Examining rather than surmising a notion's likelihood doesn't imply that one lacks sufficient imagination for the notion
  • If one follows the symbolic lead of Puddy-g by pronouncing the verifiable world "dull", many who share my stance would recommend additional closer, curious, nonjudgmental peeks. Then the world might not seem dull enough anymore to justify futile attempts to intertwine it with a world of faith-beliefs.

Moving along, the second obligatory book topic is Aslan's hurried "signs" of guidance to the heroes: curt instructions for them to carry out the mission while the lion is, er, somewhere else doing something else. Maybe his absence from the bulk of the story is a factor behind its lesser popularity in the series. An immensely capable and compassionate entity leaves behind Delphic (oops, wrong mythology) sayings. The recipients are assigned to conscientiously obey all the sayings. But since Aslan isn't more communicative either that time or later on, they themselves bear total responsibility for refining and applying the sayings' meanings. They anxiously debate with each other to sort out various missing details that would've been extremely helpful to have known for sure in advance.

Golly, I can't imagine why followers of faith-beliefs aren't more enthused and flattered by such an analogy...

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

competing structures

Lately I've been describing examples of ideas that overlap between my software career and my philosophical positions. The foremost consequence is the thorough puncturing of information's abstract mystique. First, the traceable meaningfulness of information is rooted in the corresponding work performed by teams of computers and humans; conversely, the traceable meaning of the work is shown in the corresponding transformations of information that the work achieved. This principle underscores that information is tied to concrete efforts, and it doesn't arise out of nothing or exist independently. Second, when a computer performs information work, the humdrum process backing it is less like mystical transfiguration than like sending water through a dauntingly intricate maze of pipes, as countless synchronized valves rapidly toggle. This principle underscores that neither information nor its changes have nonphysical foundations.

The third example of overlap is the competition among structures to be used in software projects. Projects have more than one hypothetical solution. A solution contains particular structures to represent and store the targeted information, e.g. a short alphanumeric sequence for a license plate. Additionally, the solution has a structure for the code to manipulate the information, a structure which joins together separate actions for differing circumstances (an algorithm governing algorithms). Thus, depending on the analyst's choices, the total solution houses information in varying discrete sets of structures. Each set might be functional and intelligible. Nevertheless, the structures could have serious faults relative to one another: redundant, complicated, circuitous, simplistic, disorganized, bewildering, fragile. What's worse, frequently the problems aren't apparent until more time passes, at which point the structures need to be delicately replaced or reshaped. Not all of the prospective structures that are doable for the project are equally faultless and prudent. And this is reconfirmed once shortsighted structures proceed to collide with challenging realities. ("I wish these modifications had been anticipated before the structure of this code was chosen.")

Instructive parallels to the principle of competing structures aren't hard to find outside of software. In so many subtle, open-ended contexts, there isn't a uniquely correct conclusion strictly reachable through systematic steps of deductive logic. As a result, humans end up with widely divergent "mental structures" as they attempt to grasp their confusing experiences. While they don't need to turn those structures into effective software, they do need to apply these structures of interpretation to bring order to their thoughts and acts. If they're considered sane, a lot of their adopted structures probably have at least a little coherency and accuracy. As disparate as the structures might be, obviously each is good enough in the adopter's estimation. The differences might even be superficial on closer examination. After all, as much as possible the entire group of structures should be accommodating constraints that are universal: the crucial details asserted by reliable evidence and/or by other, prior. well-established structures.

Regardless, again like the technological structures in software projects, the potential for numerous candidates does not imply that all have identical quality as judged by every standard. An organizing structure can be possible without attaining a competitive level of plausibility. Although the normal complexities of existence might not dictate an obvious and definitive singular structure, intense critique casts doubt on some candidate structures more than others. For instance, belief structures seem more dubious after calling for repeated drastic revisions, i.e. retcons. So are structures that propose "backstage" causes which happen to be almost completely undetectable by impartial investigators. Structures that avoid claiming unbounded certainty merely earn a ribbon for sincere participation in the competition of realistic ideas, not instantly gain as much credibility as the leading structures that also avoid this glaring flaw.

The criteria for ranking require great care as well. Explanatory structures should compete based on thoughtful neutral guidelines, not on indulgence of the favoritism embedded in preconceptions and preferences. Brisk disregard of a structure's failure to withstand unbiased evaluation is an error-prone strategy. Note that like items placed indifferently on the pans of a balance scale, directly measuring one structure alongside a second shouldn't be construed as close-minded disrespect toward either—provided the method of comparison in fact fair and not like a tilted scale.

Generally speaking, the principle of competing structures thrives in the commonplace domains that are unsuitable for the two extreme alternatives. These are domains where there isn't one indisputable answer, but at the same time the multitude of answers aren't of uniform worth by any means. Of course, software projects are far from the only case. For an art commission, a dazzling breadth of works would meet the bare specifications...though some might consistently evoke uncomplimentary descriptions such as insipid, garish, disjointed, derivative, slapdash, repellent, etc. Out of all the works that qualified for the commission, who would then foolishly suggest that some couldn't be shoddier than the rest, or that comparative shoddiness doesn't matter?