September 30, 2005

Halloween

Category: History — Cranky @

Pumpkins, candy, horror movies, children in costume, and a sense of the absurd are the hallmarks of October 31. On that day we embrace alter-egos, and go out of our way to be frightened… or at least to pretend to be frightened. The origins of Halloween are found about 2000 years in the past. The Celts celebrated their new year on the first of November. The new year began after the bountiful summer, and it started with a chill. The celebration was called Samhain.

On that night it was believed that the border separating the living and the dead was weakest. This was viewed as both good and bad, for while the dead were believed to cause some trouble, it was also believed that the clergy could predict the future best on that night.

People would put out the fires in their hearths before the ceremony. The druids would make huge bonfires, and sacrifices of animals were given. And everybody would dress in animal head costumes. And at the end of the night, people would re-ignite their hearths from the sacred fires. It was a celebration of rebirth as much as it was of death.

It was purely a pagan ritual. And some 800 years later, after the celebration had survived being merged with several Roman-based rituals, Christianity came along and did what Christianity often did – it appropriated the day in an effort to extinguish its pagan ancestry. Pope Boniface IV declared the first of November to be All-Hallowmas, or All Saints Day, a day of worship. The night before would become All-Hallows Eve, and consequently Halloween. In 1000 A.D., the church would eventually declare October 31 to be All Souls Day, in honour of the dead. And through it all, the pagan aspects of the celebration would remain.

The systematic disassembling of the pillars of other religions was a calling card of Christianity. As an example, December 25 was chosen for Christmas by Pope Julius I to try to usurp it from the Roman celebrations for Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra, god of the unconquerable sun.

But when it comes to Halloween, as often occurred, Christianity could take the date from the pagans, but they couldn’t take the pagan out of the date. Halloween remains pagan in many ways to this very day.

So embrace Halloween – but embrace it for what it is. The candy feast is hardly the point. It’s a celebration of life while acknowledging darkness and death. Embrace the shadow!

Cranky

September 28, 2005

Is It Free Will, or Just a Reasonable Facsimile?

Category: Science And Technology — Cranky @

When we begin life, we begin with a brain that has been built by DNA. But from the moment the first sensations begin to trickle into that tiny organ, the brain begins to change. At first, the sensations are simple. The beat of the mothers heart, the warmth of the womb, the sense of enclosure coming through touch… these are the first of many things that will mold a child. After birth, the brain is completely saturated with new sensations. For the rest of its life, that brain will take in, categorize, and learn from a continual barrage of input.

From early on the lessons being learned are extremely complex. Cause and effect. Rules. Social behaviours. Orders. Persuasion. Manipulation. These are the lessons of early childhood. The incredible range of sensation made available to every brain is so varied that each one develops differently. Even identical twins raised together and treated roughly the same can end up with dramatic differences in their personalities. After all, they start out with the same brain, thanks to common DNA… so even small differences in environment can clearly make huge differences in people.

At every stage of growth, a person faces a multitude of choices. Each choice made carries with it the weight of countless past choices, and the knowledge of the results. The brain grows even more intricate… and the person learns. But… I look at my life, and I wonder. Looking back at every decision I have ever made… was it possible for me to have decided any other way than I eventually did? I’m bad with money. When I was 18 and I got my first credit card, I might have made smarter choices with it. But I didn’t. Could I have? I just don’t know.

I inhabit my mind. It feels like I’m making decisions as I go… but am I just carrying out the only possible courses of action, ones dictated by the combination of new input and old patterns? It could be. Perhaps it was utterly impossible to make different decisions in my past. Perhaps my future is not in my hands. This new input, the choice made, and the results will become a part of the old patterns, ready to affect my next choice.

In the deterministic universe there is no such thing as chance. If you knew all of the variables you could compute the state of the universe from beginning to end. There is no free will in a universe that winds down like a perfectly ordered clock. But in the quantum universe, the probabilistic one, it isn’t possible to predict individual events. You can only treat large numbers of them statistically.

If free will is real, then the basis of it must be found within the randomness built into the underlying rules that govern the realm of the very small. It can’t simply reside in the cells, ganglia and structures found in the brain. These are tinkertoys, part of the macroscopic world. And as such, they are predictable like clocks.

Free will bucks the universe. It implies that we are capable of guiding our destiny, regardless of what reality dictates. But are we really?

Even if I think I do not have free well, I will still act as if I do. I have no choice. If I am running a preordained treadmill of actions, I’ll never know it, because part of that chain involves me reacting to the world around me as if I did have a choice.

It’s complicated. Sometimes it’s frustrating. I could just stop thinking about it and do something else…

Or could I?

Cranky

September 25, 2005

League? What League?

Category: Social — Cranky @

Last week I heard somebody tell a friend, “She’s out of your league, man.” What an amazingly small-minded and untrue statement. The “league” is a defense mechanism meant to make frightened little nancy-boys feel that not trying is perfectly okay, since there was no chance anyway.

It’s a fully functioning self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s a complete load of dog crap.

The league almost always rests on one single criteria of attractiveness – physical beauty. And any girl who considers herself out of some guys league is almost certainly vain, shallow, and completely worthless in the long run, save for trotting out to briefly impress your friends. The word “vapid” springs to mind.

Guys, listen. Women, all of them, are simply ordinary people like you and I. Their physical beauty alone makes them neither better nor worse than anybody else. They’re all just people, even the ones you’ve carefully placed on pedestals. To put it more delicately, even your dream girl needs toilet paper after taking a dump.

Disgusting, perhaps, but a terrific equalizer.

A girl I know is with a guy who others would have classed as being far, far beneath her. How did this happen? I asked.

He was “persistent”.

Really, that’s all there is to it. If you don’t believe in the league, it doesn’t exist. It really is that simple.

Cranky