Friday, August 30, 2013

The Universe Is Too Big

I've been of the opinion that anyone who can look at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and not see the need for space travel is a terminally boring person, and recently the ALMA radio telescope captured a star being born. It's wonderfully amazing stuff, but it carries with it a set of petty problems: The universe is just too big.

We're all clinging to the outer shell of a pebble floating in a void so huge it might as well be infinite. We can't see the ends of it, because light itself takes billions of years to cross such distances. We can try to understand it, incrementally, one faltering step at a time, but we will never have anything close to a complete understanding of its intricacies.

And when it comes to even contemplating the universe, we run headlong into a major obstacle. Our brains are very good at understanding other people. We can read intent and emotion from subtle gestures; figure out what a person will do from their posture; even figure out what people thousands of years ago may have intended and done from the artifacts they left behind. That's what our brains do, and that's what our brains are good at; we are society-forming by nature, and so evolution has selected for brains that are well-suited to living and coping in a society. The problem is, the universe shows no indication of being manmade, and so understanding it is firmly outside our brains' area of expertise.

Yet my brain is all I have to think with. I'm trying to contemplate the universe with a tool made for fitting into society. Brains are wonderfully plastic things, and so I can freely contemplate the universe with it; people can study the universe, measure the universe, learn about the universe, and share that knowledge with future generations, but fundamentally, that's just not what our brains are "meant" to do. The scientific method, with its constant tests and retests, is fundamentally a workaround for the fact that our brains are wired to make all the wrong assumptions. Double-blinding compensates for confirmation bias; repetition of results accommodates for our innate failure to guess probability; peer review compensates for our tendency to favour pet ideas and dogmas even in the face of contrary evidence.

So when I try to think about things bigger than everyday life, I find myself overwhelmed in a manner hard to replicate elsewhere. I'm trying to understand something far too big to be understood; to impose purpose for no other reason than my brain is built to read purpose. The universe defies my understanding, and what little we do know about it just makes what we don't that much more intriguing. I suppose in a sense, the universe is literally awesome.

I suppose, though, that a post on the wonder of the universe would be incomplete without mentioning religion, if only because some knob is going to comment on their pet faith so I might as well head that off as long as I'm typing. As I said before, our brains are adapted to read and understand people, but the universe shows no evidence of being manmade. Religion is the failure to recognise that fact. Religion is the assumption that because your brain is adapted to understand manmade things, the universe must be manmade, because you have a hammer so that something may not be a nail is simply inconceivable. This is why the vast multitude of religions, though they agree on very little, all seem to reach the conclusion that the universe was made by humans (for an expanded definition of "human" at any rate).

That's not to say religious people are stupid; in fact, religion is probably the perfect culmination of our brains' inherent faults. Religion assigns the entire universe to the category of "manmade things," which exploits our desire to do what we're good at, and our natural tendency to anthropomorphise, while entrenching itself with confirmation bias, and our tendency to cling to pet ideas, as well as our natural societal instincts to follow authority and follow the group. Religion is the dust that collects on the white decor inside our heads, or the fingerprints that collect on the polished black surfaces.

Religion is also an arrogant declaration that the entirety of existence is limited to what we, personally, are good at doing and a fundamental failure to understand and compensate for the inherent flaws in our brains. Religion is the dogged insistence that you are the be all and end all of existence itself; the center of the universe, whose personal flaws and foibles dictate what is possible or impossible. An infant believes an object disappears if he stops looking at it, and an infant species believes that a thing is impossible because they have trouble understanding it. Religion is a phase that we as a species are just starting to grow out of, and any comments claiming otherwise will be summarily deleted.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Expanded Human

Having posted on politics and religion, it's now time to complete the trifecta of topics that inflame fanboys by posting on a trope that I feel should be on TVTropes (if it isn't already there under another name) but I'm too lazy to write out and consolidate examples of.

Specifically, the Expanded Human or expanded definition of "human."

Any character in any work of fiction that is officially declared to be non-human but who looks and acts human in all the ways that matter is an expanded human, so I guess the TVTropes-friendly definition would be any character who has non-humanness as an Informed Attribute, but unlike Human Aliens, their resemblance to humanity is never acknowledged, or its implications are buried, or the audience is ostensibly expected to file it under suspension of disbelief, along with why the alien planet resembles the lot behind the studio or a rock quarry they got permission to film in.

For visual media, any character that is portrayed by a human actor without CGI is human, expanded or otherwise.

Likewise, any character that could have been portrayed by a human actor without CGI is human, expanded or otherwise, even if they were actually created entirely with CGI.

This particular trope is pernicious because even if you accept that aliens/gods/etc just happen to look human into suspension of disbelief and decide they're "supposed to be" different (but the budget didn't allow it or something), there are subtle effects that linger. For example, the basic premise of humans locked in a struggle to preserve/defend/build their society against alien interlopers has basically been done to death at this point, but in an example used above (namely, Avatar), the formula is turned upside down with humans declared the bad guys— and the only reason it works is because the "aliens" are clearly and unambiguously human. Swap them out for the aliens from, say, Alien, or Independence Day and suddenly the human society desperate for Unobtainium (yes, they actually called it that) doesn't seem so bad.

And then of course, there's all the hot romance with Green Skinned Space Babes that would be really disgusting except for the fact that the "aliens" are clearly and unambiguously human. Seriously, this is annoying. Would you be romantically interested in this? No? That's your closest evolutionary relative. That's not even this (which is at least a placental mammal), let alone this, (which is still a mammal), let alone this, (which is still a vertebrate). An actual alien is less related to you than THIS, (at least you share common descent). Yet more works than I can name include an alien love interest (it is, after all, a trope of its own) and no matter how committed one is to suspension of disbelief this leaves no other option than that the "alien" is, in fact, a bona fide human and is supposed to be that way. (Well, you don't have to assume it, but the alternative is unpleasant.)

And while this should get an entry of its own under LTTBM, it just bugs me when an EH character's non-humanness is stated, invoked, held up, or used to justify things narratively when the character never actually does anything that seems the slightest bit non-human. I suppose The Doctor from Doctor Who is one of the more prominent example of this, but Doctor Who gets a free pass on many things that bug me because it's So Bad It's Good; cheesy tropes and a budget of £10 per episode are what makes it what it is so the fact that the Time Lords are all clearly human fits right in perfectly. If Doctor Who suddenly developed a bigger budget and used CGI, however, than the humanness of approximately all the aliens with speaking parts would bug me quite a bit. Thankfully, the show was cancelled in 1989, so that'll clearly never happen.

So remember, no matter what planet he's supposed to come from, Superman is fully human, even if his weakness is krypton. (They do know krypton is a noble gas, right? Never mind.)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Religious Comparisons

I posted about politics a few days ago, but politics is a very contentious subject, so I've decided instead to post on a topic which is decidedly non-controversial: Religion.

Here are a few analogies to help you understand religion.

Comparing Christianity to Islam is like comparing Star Trek: Original Series to Star Trek: Next Generation.

The characters are different and the stories are a bit different as well, but to someone entirely uninterested in the franchise they're basically the same thing and only a fanboy would get upset if you mistake them.

Comparing Catholicism to Anglicanism (or Protestantism) is like comparing the idea that Kirk was the best character on Star Trek: TOS to the idea that Spock was the best character on same.

In this case, they are the same thing; the only difference between them is the fanboys' quarrels over the fine details. Someone who is entirely uninterested in the franchise wouldn't notice the difference and certainly wouldn't care.

Comparing Shia Islam to Sunni Islam is like comparing one obscure fan theory about one prop that appeared in the background of one episode of Star Trek: TNG to another obscure fan theory about same.

Same as above, but in this case the distinction is even more obscure and meaningless. Seriously, do you even know what it is? Apparently, these two factions have been killing each other for centuries over a dispute as to who was the proper successor of Muhammad— the various sects of Christianity may hate each other, but at least they're not killing each other today over whether Romulus Augustus was rightful ruler of the Western Roman Empire or whether Julius Nepos was improperly deposed.

Comparing Christianity to Hinduism is like comparing Star Trek to Star Wars.

In this case, the differences between the two are more pronounced and even someone uninterested in either franchise would probably be able to distinguish them, but they're still very similar in all the ways that matter and someone completely uninterested in the genre might confuse them.

Comparing Christianity to atheism is like comparing Star Trek to the Apollo space program.

What the latter lacks in promises it makes up for in delivery.

Comparing Christianity to ancient Norse religions is like comparing Star Trek to Firefly.

Although the latter was abandoned ages ago, it still has a small core of devoted fans who keep the ideas alive.

Comparing Christianity to Mormonism is like comparing Star Trek to Star Trek fan fiction.

Mormonism takes the official canon of Christianity and then adds its own book containing essentially nothing but a pile of its author's prejudices and fantasies.

Comparing Christianity to Scientology is like comparing Star Trek to Scientology.

This one's pretty self-explanatory; Scientology is itself science fiction.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

I'm A Republican

Accordingly, I have dutifully ignored all of the hoopla surrounding one random baby who by virtue of birth alone is simultaneously one of the most overprivileged people on the planet and a stain on humanity's very existence.

This blog is a royal-free zone. (Except for royalties from people licensing my content; those are always welcome.)