Recently in Fantasy Category

We got to see X-Men: Days of Future Past today, and I have to say that it's the best of all the X-Men movies so far. (Well, I haven't seen The Wolverine, but I can't imagine that's better. I'm also not sure it counts as an X-Men movie.) I do have a relatively unpopular ranking of X-Men movies. Of the ones I've seen, I think they tend to get better with each one, with one exception. I didn't like X2 nearly as much as the first one. But I think the remaining ones get better with each one, even the much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which I do think is better than any of the original trilogy. And I think the third was better than the first two, which is also a very unpopular view among most people I know. (I also think the original Spider-Man trilogy improves with each movie, and hardly anyone agrees with me on that, and I loved Batman Begins but hated the Dark Knight, and I'll forever be on some people's nasty lists for that.) All that is to say that I certainly don't expect people to agree with me on every point when I evaluate this, but at least I can give reasons for what I think.

I wanted to reflect a bit on some of the things I did like and a couple things I didn't. First, what I didn't like. It seems action movies, and superhero movies especially, have lately became averse to explaining things. They include dialogue to explain things enough to prevent you from becoming completely lost, but it's not sufficient to get you a good sense of everything that's going on. A story like this with this many characters should include something to let us understand who it is that we're supposed to be watching. We got nothing about Blink except what she looks like and, after looking at her do what she does a few times, a vague sense of what her power does. We got even less on Bishop or Sunspot (and were there others in the opening future scenes that we haven't seen before? I wasn't sure at first who some of them were). The mutants in Vietnam were almost incognito, even to the audience, except for the obvious Toad, who we've seen a later version of. Ink was probably recognizable to comic readers who started after I did, but I'm sure most people had no idea who any of them were besides Toad. It's bad storytelling to have dialogue that no character would ever say, when everyone in the room should know it, just to explain things to the audience. But it's equally bad storytelling to do nothing to explain things to the audience when they do want to get to know these characters and how they work a bit more. Several of the X-Men movies have this problem, but this was particularly annoying, because some of these characters looked really interesting.

I also can't resist saying that the time travel metaphysics in this movie is just plain stupid. It uses a very common time travel story motif, that when you go back in time and change something you have the contradictory scenario where at one time the timeline is one way and then at a later time the entire timeline is different. At what point within the timeline is the entire timeline one way, and at what point within the timeline is the entire timeline a different way? There's simply no way to make sense of it the way they tell the story. The only way to do so is to have simply different timelines, all of which continue to exist, with no change having occurred, just one timeline that's one way and another that's another way, and someone from the future of one timeline is the explanation for events that occur in the past of another timeline. And it was always that way in both timelines. (This is what Abrams Star Trek did.) But the motivation for the story makes little sense there, and the trick of having everyone disappear and suddenly having always been somewhere else instead is a deception, because it's a switch to an entirely different timeline, and everyone still/always dies in the first one. Only in the new one is it different. No timeline actually was one way and then changed to another way. That would require a timeline of ordering where a whole timeline can be earlier than another, but time only occurs within timelines, not between them.

But I never let bad metaphysics ruin a fun time travel movie for me. I can enjoy a contradictory story, and I did enjoy this one, much as I did some of the worst offenders (the Back to the Future trilogy topping the list, with Timecop coming in a pretty close second). I am always impressed at someone doing it right, as Babylon 5, 12 Monkeys, LOST season 5, TNG Time's Arrow, TOS The City on the Edge of Forever, and a number of other stories have done. But fun stories abound with unworkable metaphysics, and this was certainly one of those. I'm always a sucker from time travel, no matter how badly it's done.

So on to what I liked. This was not just the best of the X-Men movies so far. It was an incredibly good story, rivaling the best of the Marvel movies.

It doesn't beat you over the head with a moral message. It's not even prominent, like in Iron Man, the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, or the original X-Men trilogy. Nor is it a debate with unclear answers, as in Captain America: the Winter Soldier (and the followup in the Agents of SHIELD show), much as I enjoyed that. But it's there. And that usually makes a superhero movie better. In this case, it's not so much the usual mutant analogy with race or the like, although you do get references to that. It's actually the Spider-Man message that great power brings great responsibility, one of the things Sam Raimi did really well in all three films that the too-soon reboot of that franchise didn't do so well at. Iron Man had the same message. Charles Xavier was basically abandoning his responsibilities, and we begin the movie with dire consequences of that in the future (although we don't know Xavier is really the one to blame until much later. There were people under his charge who died, we discover from Magneto, all because he felt sorry for himself and his circumstances and couldn't bear to deal with the difficult situation he'd found himself in. And it ultimately leads to mutants being hunted down and wiped out.

It also didn't seem like it was bringing in as many characters as they could just to fill the movie with toys for marketing or to try to set up other movies that will likely fail (cough ... Amazing Spider-Man 2). The people who were in it from previous movies made sense to appear when they did, and the ones that only had cameos made sense only to have cameos. The ones that were in it more made sense to be in it more, and even the big change from the comics of making Wolverine the time-traveling consciousness instead of Shadowcat could make sense from a story point of view (and not just because Logan is a favorite of fans or because they needed someone who could play both parts as the same actor). Their explanation for why it has to be Wolverine is not that bad, anyway, even if it's clear that the writers really did it because of those other reasons. I was dreading Quicksilver, given the photos released ahead of time, but I liked how they pulled that character off, and the references hinting at his true parentage were nice. I'm not sure why they showed Polaris (his younger sister) and not Scarlet Witch (his twin), unless they were worried about too many comparisons with the Marvel versions of the twins from Godzilla Avengers: Age of Ultron. But that was a nice cameo of a very minor character for the sake of fans.

But the crucial thing is that they told a story. They told one story. It was cohesive and mostly made sense from the point of view of the characters, which is really saying something given how out of character some of them were acting at various times in the story. There was one overall problem to be solved, and every scene in the movie contributed toward that problem coming about or someone trying to stop it. It was a compelling, high-stakes problem, and you really don't have any assumptions about who is safe (other than Wolverine, of course), and that goes for either time period. When everything the characters do seems to make things worse, the story becomes far from predictable. But so many details that most viewers wouldn't notice are there to be picked up on by fans of the comic books, but none of them should distract from what else is going on for those who don't pick up on them. In that it very much resembles Captain America: the Winter Soldier. This didn't have the benefit of several successful franchises coming together, though, as the Marvel movies do. The fact that they pulled it all off without that really speaks well of the people Fox has gotten together to make this. I'm really looking forward to X-Men: Age of Apocalypse now.

I recently rewatched the 1975 Doctor Who episode "Genesis of the Daleks" by Terry Nation. Some online discussions I looked at about "Genesis of the Daleks" made some interesting, and to my mind obviously false, claims about how it fits (or doesn't) into the overall canonical fictional world of Doctor Who.

One claim in particular claim that caught my interest was the accusation that Terry Nation contradicted some of his earlier Doctor Who episodes about the Daleks in giving the origin of the Daleks in this serial. One discussion pointed out that Nation had made an effort not to contradict his first serial "The Daleks" from 1963, where he establishes the Daleks as creations of a race called the Dals in their war against the Thals. The supposed contradiction comes with "Genesis of the Daleks" when Nation actually shows us this war between the Thals and the race that created the Daleks, and the creator race is not called the Dals but is called The Kaleds.

Here's my problem. This is not a contradiction. A contradiction takes the form 'P and not-P". There is nothing of that form here. What you do have is:

1. The race who created the Daleks at the time of the Daleks' creation called themselves the Kaleds.
2. The Thals also called them the Kaleds at that time.
3. At a much later time, probably many centuries later, after an apocalyptic destruction of all civilization and a loss of a good deal of accurate information about the details of that earlier time, someone speaks of the race that created the Daleks as the Dals.

I'm sorry, but I'm not seeing how any of that makes for an inconsistency. If we were sure the person telling us they were called the Dals was speaking the truth, that would even be difficult to get a contradiction, because it's possible they came to be called the Dals at some time after "Genesis of the Daleks" or that they were called that at some earlier time, and that name came to be the more common one to use again after the apocalypse. But we can't even be sure the Thal telling us this has the right information. Maybe it's just that the wrong name was preserved. There are quite a number of things that could explain how 1-3 might all be true. Terry Nation simply did not contradict his earlier Dalek stories. What he did is use a different name without explaining why different names were used at those two different times, but it's not a contradiction.

I think there's a certain personality type that just likes to find contradictions in everything. A lot of fan criticism of science fiction and fantasy stories exhibits similar problems to the one I've been discussing here. I could point out lots of other examples. That doesn't mean there aren't legitimate criticisms to level against authors. I've criticized J.K. Rowling in print about her concept of changing the past in the third Harry Potter novel, although I did so after pointing out some rather implausible ways of making the story work to avoid the problem I raised. The implausibility there would involve reliable narrators who would know better telling untruths, however, which is more of a stretch than someone centuries after an apocalyptic event getting a name of an extinct civilization wrong or the possibility that the group was actually called by two different names.

How you evaluate such attempts to make canonical worlds coherent in part does depend on how plausible the explanation might be to avoid the contradiction. It's nice for fictional worlds to be coherent. Sometimes that's impossible. Sometimes it involves an implausibility but is possible. And sometimes it's not all that implausible if you just think a little harder to see how things might fit together, when at first they seem not to.

It's hard not to think of critics who like to find contradictions in the Bible when I look at these stories. There are some genuine difficulties in fitting together some parts of the Bible. I've never seen one that guarantees a contradiction, especially when you take into account that inerrantists don't take the current manuscripts to be inerrant but allow for errors in transcription from manuscript to manuscript. But I have seen places where it's not easy to come up with one highly plausible explanation that shows for sure why the apparent contradiction is not a real one. In most of them, there have been several explanations, where not one stands out as the most plausible, and even most of them involve something somewhat unlikely but possible. There's none I know of where I would judge all the explanations as so implausible as to require rational evaluators to think it has to involve two contradictory statements that can't be resolved. But I'm coming from an epistemological standpoint where I think the prior plausibility is relatively high. I consider myself to be in a position where I think I have good reasons for taking the Bible as it presents itself, as God's word, and it follows from that that it's more likely that there is a solution even if I don't know what it is than that there isn't. So I'm going to take the less-plausible-sounding accounts as less certain, but I'm going to be more likely to think that one of them is probably true.

That's one difference with fictional worlds. I don't believe there even are Daleks or Time Lords, never mind that the entire Doctor Who canon is consistent. (I think it certainly isn't coherent when it comes to fundamental questions of time travel, for example.) But someone who thinks God is real and is basically the way God is presented in the Bible is going to place a higher prior probability on there being some resolution to a proposed contradiction than someone who has no prior trust in those documents. And I would argue that someone doing this is right to do so if the prior probability is based on a good epistemic state to begin with. And that makes accepting truth in texts that are hard to fit together much easier to do (and not in a way that undermines rationality, assuming the prior probability itself has a rational grounding.

That assumption of prior probability, of course, is one of the fundamental disputes to begin with, but you can't just assume at the outset that someone who is more willing to trust a set of scriptures is wrong in doing so, and pointing to potential contradictions isn't necessarily going to turn the tide of the conversation unless you first undermine the prior probability. Supposed but not actual contradictions, even if they are difficult to put together, are therefore very weak evidence against the coherence of a worldview when the person who holds that worldview is more sure of it than they are of the irresolvability of the supposed contradiction. That makes for people coming from very different standpoints evaluating the supposed contradictions very differently, and from within their world view each seems to themselves to be right in how they do that. That's something that I think not enough people on either side of such debates can see.

I was thinking last night about the new show Once Upon a Time, and it occurred to me that it might provide a really good illustration of the difference between externalism and internalism in epistemology. (I haven't seen last night's episode yet, so please no one spoil it for me.)

Internalism holds that what justifies our beliefs or makes them rational or what grounds our knowledge must be something internal to our thinking, in other words something where the reasons why it is justified, rational, or grounded are accessible to our conscious thought. We have to be able to see why our beliefs are grounded for those beliefs to be grounded. We have to be aware of what makes it a good belief for it to be a good belief. It wouldn't be enough to have reliable belief-forming mechanisms (such as senses that reliably give me the right information).

Externalism holds that there might be things make our beliefs justified or rational or grounding our knowledge that are not accessible to our conscious thought. We don't have to be aware of what justifies us in thinking something for it to be a justified belief. For it to be well-grounded knowledge, we don't have to know that our knowledge is grounded in reliable practices and thus why it is well-grounded knowledge. It just has to be grounded in the right sort of ways.

Perhaps the biggest place of disagreement comes over how to respond to skepticism. If internalism is true, I would have to prove that my senses are reliable for them to ground my knowledge, which of course I can't do, because I might be in a virtual reality for all I can know by internalist standards. There are internalists would would disagree, but a lot of philosophers have concluded that internalism leads hopelessly to skepticism, because I can't prove that my senses are reliable, and just having reliable senses isn't enough. I'd have to be able to prove it, which I can't do. But externalism can handle skeptical arguments by pointing out that I can know all sorts of stuff even without being able to prove it. It doesn't mean I can prove I know things. It just means that skeptical arguments fail, because the skeptic has to show that my senses are unreliable to show that I don't know things. With internalism, all the skeptic has to show is that I don't know if my senses are unreliable. With externalism, the skeptic has to show that they are in fact unreliable. So the burden of proof on the skeptic is higher with externalism.

Once Upon a Time provides a nice illustration of externalist epistemology. The basic premise of the show is that the Evil Queen has cursed all the characters in the Enchanted Forest by bringing them to a terrible place where there are no happy endings except for her. That terrible place is Storybrooke, Maine, in a world otherwise very much like our current day. The Evil Queen is the mayor. The story shifts back and forth between events in the characters' lives back in the Enchanted Forest and events in their lives now in Storybrooke, where no one is supposed to remember their previous lives except the Evil Queen.

Snow White and Prince Charming are the Evil Queen's primary targets. She wants revenge against Snow White for something we haven't seen yet (as least as of last week's episode). She wants to ensure that they are not together. They have no memory of each other, certainly not of having been married to each other. He was in a coma when the show began, and apparently he had been since the curse began. She has no memory of him. When he awakes from his coma, he has no memory, until the Evil Queen at some point seems to have interfered to give him memories of being married to someone else, someone who turns out to have been engaged to him in the Enchanted Forest before he broke it off to marry Snow White. But when they meet up, they feel such a longing for each other, as if they have always been meant to be together.

Prince Charming tries to rebuild his marriage, but he can't ignore his feelings for Snow White. This woman whom he (falsely) thinks is his wife brings out no current feelings, but he seems to have memories of feelings for her, and he tries to make it work. Technically, he's living in an adulterous relationship with her while thinking his feelings for Snow White are the adulterous ones. But Snow White is really his wife, and some process within him is leading him to think he should be with her. But he has no access to what would be leading him to that. An externalist would say that he has some process within him that he can't understand that's leading him to know that Snow White is the one for him, and his false beliefs about his past do not interfere with that knowledge. An internalist has to say that his most justified beliefs are the false ones.

So suppose there's some reliable process whereby his body's memories of his love for Snow White are leading him to know that she's really the one he's supposed to be with. His resistance to this woman who isn't his wife, whom he believes is his wife, is then grounded in processes that he has no access to. An externalist could say that his belief that he should be with Snow White (whom he knows now by another name, of course) is justified by these processes he's unaware of, and it's bogus to rely on his memories for the belief that he's married to the other woman. An internalist would say that his belief that he is married to the other woman is in fact false but is justified. Which belief is justified, then, depends on which epistemology is correct.

Which view you adopt would seem to have significant moral implications. He's doing something clearly wrong, according to internalism, by having clandestine romantic interactions with Snow White. But what if he has knowledge on some level that can somehow cancel his seeming knowledge (that isn't knowledge at all) that this is adultery? Those are false beliefs, based on false memories. If he doesn't know those things but falsely believes them, and he also knows on some level that Snow White is his true love, is it enough to remove the wrongness of the adultery? Perhaps that's too much, but it does seem to be ethically different in some ways.

Rowling's Ethics of Magic

| | Comments (4)

I was involved in a conversation several weeks ago about the fiction of Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling and the theological-ethical frameworks that those authors apply to their characters' use of magic. One viewpoint among the participants was that Tolkien and Lewis have clear criteria for when the use of magic is evil, and Lewis has a complete theological framework. Tolkien argues that magic is perfectly appropriate for beings created with it as part of their natural abilities. In their case, it's not actually supernatural, because it's part of their innate capacities. As long as they keep the use of such abilities within their proper limits and in the appropriate circumstances for the right motivations (as with any natural ability or function), there's nothing wrong with it. Lewis clearly disapproves of Lucy's use of magic to overhear what her friends are saying about her and her desire to change her looks with magic. (This was one of the most disappointing things about the third Narnia film, which completely misunderstood that scene and left out both in exchange for a different misuse of magic.)

I didn't agree with all the details of how this was presented, but the basic thesis struck me as correct. But then came the claims that J.K. Rowling's treatment of magic is very different. There are some differences in the magic of her world, but they are incidental to this issue. The claim that struck me as most difficult to support was that she treats magic as casual, ordinary, and mundane, and there's no sense of the serious import of magic with dire consequences if it's misused. In responding to that, I realized that it was probably worth writing up a more careful presentation of why her treatment of magic is nothing like that.

First of all, one of the early distinctions we learn in the Potter books is between curses and charms. Curses are never intrinsically good, and when she presents them as morally permissible it's only because a greater good is at stake. They aren't intrinsically good, just like violence, but some of them can be used in certain contexts, perhaps, to achieve a good purpose. The same restrictions would apply as with violence in the real world, and any arguments against the of use of curses would parallel those pacifists make against using violence. Snape takes Harry to task for using Sectumsempra on Harry, but he's willing to use a nasty curse (but notably not one that would kill) against George Weasley as part of his masquerade as a Death Eater. There's no question that she distinguishes between good and bad use of magic, and it's not hard to see much of what she's doing as an analogy for technology in the real world. The ethics of magic is a major part of her series.

Even on relatively small-scale misuses of magic (meaning not Death Eater level but just things Harry and his friends do that seem fun), there's a lot of moral reflection going on. Take love potions as an example. Rowling is pretty clear that love potions don't actually produce love, just an intense infatuation. She distinguishes that from genuine love. We see the consequences of love potions most clearly in the case of Voldemort's parents, but a love potion also has serious consequences for Harry and Ron in the sixth book. We also receive a number of serious warnings from Professor Slughorn about the Felix Felicis potion, which Harry does put to great use at the end of book 6, but it helps him mostly in ways he doesn't recognize at the time, and Slughorn's cautionary urgings demonstrate mature reflection on important moral principles, and we see tight regulations on its use (e.g. the restrictions on its use in Quidditch). We encounter severe warnings about splinching from apparition (called apparation in its earlier appearances in the series), and becoming an Animagus is so dangerous that it requires registration with the government. The warnings in the third book about the dangers of time travel require a metaphysically-impossible theory of time, but the moral considerations brought to be there show that Rowling certainly has a moral framework at work to evaluate the use of magic.

The true horror of dark magic is front and center from book 4 on. You have the unforgivable curses. She seems to be tolerant of the use of the Imperius curse for a greater good (she certainly has Harry thinking so), but she doesn't seem to take the other two unforgivable curses to be ever all right (except for Snape's use of the killing curse on the already-dying Dumbledore to continue his masquerade as a double agent and to prevent Malfoy from doing so and harming himself in the process). You can't even use the Cruciatus curse without deeply evil intentions. Harry tried and failed. Harry's killing blows almost always come from redirecting evil characters' curses back at them (something the Death Eaters consistently make fun of him for). The depth of evil required for making horcruxes is vividly portrayed both in what Voldemort comes to look like as he's been losing pieces of his soul and by what he appears like in the afterlife-like scene in King's Cross toward the end of the final book. He destroys himself by using magic in this way.

Then there's the moral evaluation of the Deathly Hallows. It's clear by the end of the book that Rowling wants us to see the invisibility cloak as the only Hallow of continuing value to Harry. The elder wand is most appropriately acquired and used by someone who never wanted it. The resurrection stone is most appropriately used so Harry could get moral support in his preparation for giving up his life, not holding on to it. He ends up leaving it out in the forest where it had fallen. There's a clear sense of the illegitimacy of trying to hold on to your loved ones who have died, and the idea of acquiring power just to have more power leads her to write of the elder wand's history with one owner after another, each losing their prize and their life from the continued pursuit and acquisition of the wand by the next possessor. Harry uses it to repair his broken wand and then buries it with Dumbledore.

Rowling's "deep magic" based on love, a magic Voldemort never understands, is a clear tribute to Lewis. A voluntary sacrifice on behalf of someone else provides magical protection. She has Harry protected from Voldemort's magic in this way in his very body, until Voldemort takes Harry's blood into himself in a perverse use of magic that comes to backfire on him (because he in effect made himself serve as something like a horcrux for Harry, preventing Harry from dying when he finally could deliver a killing curse to Harry, which in the end only destroyed the scar that served as a horcrux for Voldemort. But Harry's mother's sacrifice continued in an extended way in the protection of the home of Harry's mother's sister as long as he officially lived there, and Harry's own voluntary sacrifice on behalf of all those who opposed Voldemort, together with the fact that he was using a wand whose loyalty was to Harry, ended up preventing his curses from doing anything after he and Harry returned to the world of the living from the King's Cross scene.

The contrast between these kinds of magic is one of Rowling's major themes, and the idea that she has nothing of a theological-ethical framework for the use of magic just flies in the face of all the work she does to present exactly such a framework. It's true that she's nowhere near as theological as either Lewis or Tolkien, but you have to have a pretty superficial reading (if you read the books at all) to suggest that she's treating magic is purely mundane, with no serious consequences, no sense of when it might be misused. There's quite a lot of reflection in her series about the ethics of magic, and her reflections strike me as thoughtful and morally mature, with few exceptions.

Tolkien and Mixed Race

| | Comments (12)

In a paragraph in my dissertation, I explain a (supposedly) pre-theoretical approach to mixed race that made sense to me when I was a kid. It seemed to me that a helpful way to explain what I would have thought (and what many Americans seem to me to think) is sort of parallel to the way Tolkien speaks of half-elves in his fictional world. In the process, I realized how Tolkien speaks of this is much more complicated than I'd though, and I couldn't in good conscience leave it the way I had initially stated it, so it led to a long clarificatory footnote that I thought a number of the readers of this blog might appreciate for its geekiness.

Here is the sentence in the text of my dissertation that led to this:

I confess that this is how I thought of these matters in my unreflective, supposedly-pretheoretical analysis of things in high school. I would have taken a Barack Obama to be half-black in the same way that I took Elrond in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to be half-elf, his daughter Arwen to be three-quarters elf, and her children with Aragorn to be three-eighths elf.

I realized there was a complicating factor, though. Aragorn had an elvish ancestor as well, and I wanted to check to see how far back it was. In the process, I was reminded that Elrond himself wasn't the product of a full elf and a full human, and it led to a much longer and much geekier footnote than I ever expected to be putting into my dissertation, but it's hard to be fair to Tolkien without acknowledging this, and it turns out to illustrate a different phenomenon in how racial classification works in some places outside the U.S. Here is the footnote as it stands now:

Tolkien buffs may quibble here, and they would be right to, for two reasons. (1) Aragorn was the sixteenth in the line of Elros, Elrond's brother, and thus he himself has elvish ancestry, even if minuscule (I believe one over two the thirty-second power). (2) Elrond and Elros themselves weren't exactly half-elves to begin with. Their father was actually half-elf, and their mother was one-fourth human, one-eighth Maia (a kind of lesser angelic-like divinity), and five-eighths elf. That would make Elrond and Elros nine-sixteenths elf, three-eighths human, and one-sixteenth Maia. Arwen's son twenty-five sixty-fourths elf, by these measurements, not the three-eighths that would result if Elrond were literally half elf. But we get the language of half-elves for a number of Tolkien characters with mixed ancestry, regardless of actual percentages. What this suggests is that the culture of Tolkien's world seems to treat someone as half-elf for having any level of mixed ancestry, eschewing a one-drop rule in either direction but insisting on little expression of nuance or gradation among those labeled half-elves. This would presumably operate something like the label 'brown' in some Latin American and Caribbean countries, applying to anyone of mixed heritage regardless of the particular number of ancestors of each race.

This doesn't (at this point) make it into my dissertation, but compare Rowling's terminology in the Harry Potter books. There are two systems of classification, the one that is dominant until Voldemort's rise to power (and presumably again afterward) and the one operating during his reign of terror. In the method of classification that we learn throughout most of the series, someone with a magical parent and a Muggle parent is a half-blood. Harry's mother, Severus Snape, and Voldemort himself are half-bloods. Someone with no magical parentage but who has magic is called a Muggle-born. But in the generation after a half-blood, if the other parent is magical, there is no discussion of being a half-blood. Harry himself is never called a half-blood by anyone in the mainstream of wizarding society. There's no one-drop rule in either direction, but there's a sufficient-drop rule apparently, because once you get to three-fourths magical parentage you're no longer consider partial, and even if you have no magical parentage you're treated as magical in one sense. It's what you can do and not your parentage that makes the difference in terms of the law.

But then there's Voldemort's regime. Muggle-borns are Mudbloods by the pureblood mindset even before Voldemort's return to power, but once he takes control of things they simply become Muggles. They're assumed to have stolen their wands, because they're not magical. Half-bloods (other than Voldemort and Snape) are sometimes called Mudbloods, and Harry (who had a full magical parent and a Muggle-born magical parent) is considered a half-blood, because his mother was a Muggle.

There's something more like the one-drop rule operating here, although not quite. But neither of these systems of classification works out quite like Tolkien's. And keep in mind that elves in Tolkien don't think of humans as corrupting or impure. A half-elf can choose to be mortal or to be an elf in ways that don't involve just legal status. It affects whether they become mortal. Arwen, with much more elf ancestry than human, still could chose to become mortal. There's nothing parallel to that in Rowling's classifications. Perhaps if we had enough evidence for how half-orcs were classified (there are only a couple suggestions in Tolkien that there are such things but no clear cases where it's more than just simple one-human, one-orc parentage). If he treated three-fourths orcs as half-orcs in a case where the human is mixed with something seen as corrupting, we'd have a good test case for whether his principle would expand to other cases of mixing. But I know of nothing in his fictional world that gets any more complex than simple one-one mixing except when it comes to elves (and the one Maia in the line of Elrond).

LOST Finale

| | Comments (5)

The series finale of the six-year show LOST aired on Sunday night. Judging by comments I've seen on Facebook and other places online, it was a love-or-hate-it kind of finale. Like Battlestar Galactica, a lot of how I evaluate the whole show was going to hang on whether they pulled it off in the finale. I thought Galactica was successful. I left the LOST finale thinking we may have a candidate for a worse finale-to-show ratio than Enterprise, whose final season was among the best Star Trek and final episode was among the worst moments of Star Trek (and the worst moments of Star Trek include Star Trek V, so that's really saying something).

One of the interesting questions for me was the new storytelling device of season 6. The first three seasons included flashbacks, with a different character focus each episode, detailing the backstory of characters now stranded on the island. In the third season finale, the producers pulled a fast one on the audience, because the flashback sequence interspersed throughout the episode ended up at the very end revealing that we weren't seeing previous events but ones that didn't happen. Somehow some characters get off the island, and they're not having a good time of it.

Season 4 then implements a flash-forward dramatic device showing the lives of these characters after they leave the island, with the on-island events eventually catching up to their departure from the island in the season 4 finale alongside the science fiction device of the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which (a) moves the island, (b) sends the guy who turned it himself off the island, and (c) sends the characters who remain flashing through time to various significant moments in the history of the island. 

Season 5 focuses on getting those who left back to the island and getting the flashes through time to stop, which happens when another character leaves the island by turning the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which traps everyone in 1974. Meanwhile, those who return mostly end up in 1977, three years after their friends arrived in the 70s and became part of the until-then mysterious Dharma Initiative, which was exploring the unusual properties of the island. All during Season 5, the character keep reiterating that they can't change the past. Whatever happened happened. Whatever they're about to do already happened in terms of the past of the time they originally came from, and they will now witness it from the perspective of its being present, but anything they know to be true about what will happen is going to happen. Everything that does happen seems to confirm this. But some characters decide to try to change the past anyway by blowing up a nuke near a major outlet of the electromagnetic properties of the island where the Dharma Initiative is drilling.

From that point on, it's unclear whether they changed the past or merely fulfilled what they already knew took place. Season 6 begins with the characters on their original flight, and it doesn't crash. Then the camera zooms underwater, and we see key locations on the island. Did their plan work? Did they blow up the island and sink it? But then we flash to 2007 on the island, thirty years after the bomb blew up, and our characters appear to be still on the island. Their adventures continue as if they changed nothing. They merely fulfilled the past by causing the Incident, an event they'd heard about happening during the Dharma Initiative. That event caused Dharma to build a setup where electromagnetic energy needed to be siphoned off every 108 minutes, and they needed someone to push a button that often. The survivors ended up taking on that task for a year but only after the guy assigned to the task before them forgot to push it and crashed their plane. So their bomb basically caused their own crash. Instead of preventing it, they caused it.

Then what was going on with the plane that landed in Los Angeles? The producers called that a flash-sideways, which suggests an alternate universe. But they denied that it was an alternate universe, leaving it mysterious what was going on. Over the course of the season, flash-sideways characters began to remember events on the island. It wasn't until the finale, though, that we discovered what it was. It's what happened after they all died. Some of them died during the show, some early and some only at the end. Some survived the island-storyline and presumably died much later. But everyone dies sometime. The flash-sideways turned out to be a place they somehow created for themselves to meet up before moving on to whatever is next.

I'd been looking forward to an explanation of this flash-sideways, because it's especially important to the time travel stuff I've been working on. It turns out not. The original "whatever happened happened" line seems simply to be true. The sideways isn't an alternate timeline caused by the bomb blowing up. It's nothing but an illusion for the gathering of all the characters deemed appropriate by the writers to have their as they awaited their walk through the door of glowing light.

It's an understatement to say that I was disappointed. It makes my time travel stuff easier to write, and it confirms that they weren't messing with their originally-stated explanation of how time travel works. But it seemed like pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo that made the whole flash-sideways elements of the season seem irrelevant. There is no sideways reality. It's a fakeity created as an illusion so they can work out their issues with their lives before going on to whatever is next, and the writers left it open what's next. The suggestion seems to be that it's a good afterlife together with their buddies, but it's possible they all step into the light and go on to a miserable eternity in hell for all the show has to say.

So I thought much of the finale was dumb. Even in the island part of the story, which I mostly liked, one main character sacrificed his life needlessly, because another character could have done what he did that killed him but survived. That was truly dumb, because it invalidates the sacrificial death the writers wanted to give him. But most of the island story was all right. I watched it again, fast-forwarding through the sideways except for the last ten minutes, and I enjoyed the episode a lot more.

I should also say that someone convinced me in between watchings that there is a redeeming quality of the overall point of the episode, at least from a Christian perspective. While the show suggests a number of things that I'd disagree with about the religious perspective of the writers, some of it that even seems pretty lame to me, I at first didn't recognize that the writers were recognizing the value of eternity and relationships with people as more important than temporal things, and no Christian should see that as a bad message, even if it's mixed with other things we might disagree with. This is a work of fiction, and I think Christians should see this episode as containing one or two important seeds of the Christian gospel (while also undermining one or two others).

Has that changed my opinion of the finale? Well, watching it a second time without the flash-sideways portion (except the very end) was a lot more enjoyable. I do think I would have preferred removing that whole storyline except the very end if they wanted to insist on that and replacing it with something that would have delved more into the history of the island and the mysteries of the island than the time travel of season 5 was able to do. But I think I can say now that I don't think this was as bad as the Enterprise finale. It was more like the mixed bag that was the Stargate SG-1 finale, which had some fun and interesting moments but didn't at all do what I thought a series finale for that show needed to do.

1. The trailer for Going Postal is online. It's one of Terry Pratchett's best Discworld novels, so I expect it to be good. The adaptations have so far been pretty good. I didn't like the Hogfather book as much as most of the series, but the adaptation was great, and The Colour of Magic adaptation (which included the stories from the book of that name and its followup, The Light Fantastic) was very well done. This is the third by the same people, and it's got an even better story to work with, although the downside of that is that it will be harder to measure up to the book.

2. Terry Pratchett has written a letter updating fans on how he's doing. There's no mention of how he's doing with his Alzheimer's in general (other than the clear implication that it's not easy for him right now), but it sounds as if he's done with the first draft of his next book, which awaits editing and revision, and there's a long diatribe against some of the people writing letters to him.

Some of them seem pretty evil, but it doesn't justify his lumping together those who oppose assisted suicide or abortion with those who wanted to outlaw painkillers during labor because it negates the curse of Genesis 3 or those who opposed letting women vote. I expect better of him than this. I feel sorry for him having to put up with some of the ridiculous mail he's been getting, some of it giving a bad name to things I happen to agree with, but it doesn't justify the association of all who disagree with him on a contentious moral issue with those who held positions in the past that we all disagree with now.

I'm curious about the reference to Chesterton's fame "fool the prophet". Google turns up exactly zero on that phrase with his name. Does anyone happen to know what he's referring to?

Wiley/Blackwell finally has a page for The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles, to which I'm one of the contributors. (Why do I want to say "of which" there instead of "to which"? That doesn't seem grammatical, but it sounds better.) Amazon also has a page for it now.

There's still no picture, and I have no idea what this is going to look like. I wasn't all that impressed with the X-Men one's cover, but I guess they couldn't get copyright permission to depict anyone from the X-Men on the cover, and without that what can you do but have a cool way of writing the title and trying to do something interesting with the cover scheme? The Open Court volume on Harry Potter had a picture of a castle with a snow owl, and I'm guessing Wiley/Blackwell will come up with something else generic that doesn't violate copyright.

It says it won't be out until September, but the editor tells me they're actually shooting for July. Either way, it will be out in advance of the seventh movie, which I'm much happier about than I was about their original plan, which was to put it out concurrent with the eighth movie in 2011. This thing has been done for quite a while already and has just been sitting around waiting for the publisher to find it appropriate to release it. It could have been done in time for the sixth movie if they'd wanted to do that.

I'm looking forward to reading the other pieces in this one even more than I was with the X-Men one that also included a piece by me. I read the whole Open Court volume, and there were only a few duds there. I've gotten most of the way through the Narnia one, and the same is true of that one. I was disappointed in a lot more of the X-Men ones, for different reasons in different cases. I haven't read anything in this one but mine (and one that got pulled for legal reasons that I can't say anything else about here), but I've seen the email addresses of the other contributors, and I've been able to deduce who quite a few of them are, several of them very good philosophers who undoubtedly have interesting things to say.

My piece has been retitled "Destiny in the Wizarding World", which I think is superior to my own title, which was "Destiny in Harry Potter". I'm much more satisfied with the final state of this chapter than I was with the X-Men one, which I thought had been worsened by the removal of the most interesting discussions of race and even in one place the weakening of my argument due to crucial bits taken out (it even reads as fallacious to me now). There was a whole section I'd added at the editors' insistence that the series editor removed without discussion. This one, on the other hand, was, I think, noticeably improved at every stage of editing. So I'm looking forward to holding it in my hands and reading all the pieces.

James Sennett's chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy considers several views on the extent of salvation:

Universalism: Everyone will be saved.
Pluralism: There is no one, true religion. Multiple religions are legitimate paths to God.
Inclusivism: There is one, true religion, but some who are technically in other religions are nonetheless on a legitimate path to God by means of the correct religion, even if they don't know it.
Exclusivism: There is one, true religion, and the only path to God is through explicitly following that religion.

Sennett argues, correctly I think, that Lewis was an inclusivist. He allows for Emeth to be saved without any explicit trust in Aslan, but he insists that Emeth was following Aslan while falsely believing he was following Tash. Aslan clearly states that Aslan and Tash are not the same being, and the followers of Tash are evil and do not make it into Aslan's country. Universalism and pluralism are as easily ruled out as exclusivism. I haven't spent an awful lot of time thinking about inclusivism, because it seems so hard to square with Paul's train of thought in Romans 10. But Sennett has helped me see that Lewis' inclusivism makes sense of one puzzling element of the Narnia stories, and he's also helped me think a little more fully about what an inclusivist view should look like.

Sennett argues that inclusivism best explains something that might otherwise be puzzling in the Narnia stories. See The Mouse Trap Theory of Atonement at Green Baggins for a serious discussion of Lewis' theory of the atonement in the Narnia books. After reading Sennett, I'm now wondering if the discussion makes any sense. It's an attempt to get an entire theory of atonement out of an event that isn't really atonement for anyone but Edmund. Sennett has a much better alternative. He insists that the Narnians' following of Aslan is not Christianity. You don't have anything in Narnia like salvation by means of faith in a work of atonement. The stone table was one event for one person that turned the tables in one war against one opponent. It's much better to think of Narnians who follow Aslan in a way more like how Christians generally see faithful Jews before the time of Christ and how Lewis saw Emeth following Aslan without knowing it when he thought he was serving Tash. I think what Sennett is suggesting is that the real atonement for Narnians is the same one for us, namely the cross in our world. The Narnians don't know this to put explicit faith in it, but it's enough that Aslan does when he initiates the work of faith in their lives to guide them along in their progress toward greater understanding, some of which may only come after their death (as was the case with Emeth). I think this makes much better sense of what Lewis is doing with the stone table and how he might say that Narnians are saved.

Anther intriguing statement Sennett makes is that Aslan is not Jesus. I thought it was obvious that Aslan is Jesus. Isn't the stone table supposed to refer to the cross, even if it isn't really salvation for all the Narnians? Well, yes, literarily. But in the world of the fiction, Aslan is a lion. Jesus is a man. The incarnation of the first person of the Trinity as a man in our world is not the same incarnation as his incarnation as a lion in the Narnian world. The incarnation is hard enough to figure out philosophically, but a double incarnation? Fortunately, Prosblogion has already had two discussions of that issue for those who are curious.

Finally, it occurs to me that inclusivism fits best with a Calvinist model of divine sovereignty. Sennett's way of describing who among other religions is genuinely on the path to salvation is that they're the ones God is working in to move them toward the right attitudes and practices, despite not having the right information to know what the gospel even is. Without that, and without the evidence of explicit faith in Jesus Christ, it's very hard for there to be objective criteria for someone to be saved. The easiest way around that is for the criteria to be simply whoever God is genuinely working in, a work that will always be brought to completion, but that requires Calvinist views of divine sovereignty over human salvation. There may be other ways to do it, but that's certainly the easiest answer to the problem. Ironically, Calvinists are probably more likely to be opposed to inclusivism than other groups, and inclusivists rarely want to be Calvinists.

Puddleglum's Wager

| | Comments (7)

We've been listening to C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles on CD. I read them when I was about ten years old, and I never got around to re-reading them, so some of it is almost as if I'm experiencing them for the first time. When I got to the following scene from the Silver Chair, it struck me as a strange argument, sort of like Pascal's Wager, but something rubbed me the wrong way about it. The main characters were in the Green Witch's underground domain and had fallen under her influence, which was causing them to lose their belief in the above-ground world. Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle then gives the following speech:

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, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, 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.

What rubbed me the wrong way was that it sounded as if he didn't care whether the world was real. He was going to believe in it anyway, because it's more pleasant to believe in it. How can the upper world be so much better than the underground world that its mere finite value of being better would be worth believing in a lie if it's not true?

When I raised this issue with a friend, he said, "But it's Pascal's Wager!" I said, "No, it's not!" He insisted that the upper world is Aslan's world, which I'd been thinking of as the place at the end of the world that they went to in the previous book, and the upper world was just Narnia, which is the analogue of Earth. But we were interrupted and never managed to finish the conversation.

I realized later, when teaching Pascal's Wager, what Lewis must have been up to, and it's actually a neat trick. If he was seeing Narnia as a placeholder for the eternal reward of Pascal's Wager and the underworld as a placeholder for this life, then you have an interesting argument that isn't quite Pascal's Wager. Pascal's Wager concedes for the sake of argument that life in this world is more pleasant if you don't believe in God but then argues that the chance of eternal reward in heaven compensates for that in terms of rational decision theory. You shouldn't even need 50% likelihood of God's existence for the wager to be worth it given that the reward is infinite and the cost merely finite if you bet wrong. But Lewis' Wager is different in exactly one way: it doesn't make the concession. It takes the finite value of life in this world to be better if you believe in God than if you don't. So life is finitely better if you believe in God, and the afterlife is infinitely better if it turns out there is one. Therefore, it's a no-brainer. You might as well believe in God. If it turns out you lose the bet (i.e. God doesn't exist), you still end up finitely better off, and if you win (i.e. God does exist) then you get an infinitely better result.

One interesting result of Puddleglum's Wager is that it easily avoids the problem Mike Almeida raises against Pascal's Wager. Mike's problem (which I'm not taking a stand on at this point) relies on its being better in this life not to believe.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

The District of Columbia was ticketing people for parking in their own driveways, and apparently this was actually legal (at least there was a law that provided for this; I'm not sure whether the courts would find it constitutional). I don't know if this is still going on, but it sounded like a hoax when I first heard of it.

David Boies, Al Gore's lawyer in Bush v. Gore, and Ted Olsen, George Bush's lawyer from the same case (who was also Bush's first Solicitor General) are working together to try to get judicial declaration of same-sex marriage at the federal level. Olson, to be fair, is not advocating the kind of policy-preference right that more liberal lawyers and judges often see in the Constitution and that he has consistently argued against his entire career. His argument doesn't even assume that there is a right to marry. It just relies on the fact that our court system recognizes a right to marry and concludes that it ought to be applied to gay couples as well as straight couples if we're going to be in the business of applying such rights. (However, their argument does seem to assume that couples as couples and not just individuals have rights, or else it assumes what an Equal Rights Amendment would have provided but didn't when it never passed.)

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to reinstate the draft during the Bush Administration and then voted against the bill (almost no one actually voted for it, which was what he had expected). I thought it was strange when Republicans kept pushing a marriage amendment that they knew they didn't have enough votes to pass, but it's well beyond that to waste government time and money by pushing something you don't even want passing to begin with.

Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges are brothers, and Lloyd Bridges was their father. Beau I can understand. But Jeff? I wouldn't have expected it.

All the miscreants who linked the phrase "miserable failure" to President Bush's biography had succeeded in making it the top website in Google for that expression. I was sure this was a joke when I first heard about it. It was pretty quick to verify, though. It had less skepticism when I heard that miscreants on the right had done the same with getting John Kerry's senate bio at the top of searches for "waffles".

Jeremiah Wright, whose heterodox, anti-white language makes him sound as if he doesn't think white people can be genuine Christians, actually has white members actively ministering in his congregation, sometimes even occupying leadership roles. (I don't think that excuses his rhetoric, which I think still counts as heterodox divisiveness, but he seems not to mean what he says.)

Philip Pullman wrote an entire scifi/fantasy series (His Dark Materials, whose first novel is The Golden Compass) out of an anti-religion and particularly anti-Christian agenda. When I first heard this, I thought it must be an exaggeration and that it probably just had some anti-religious elements throughout, but it turns out as the series develops that the agenda is far more central to the books than at first it appears. Pullman has even portrayed it as his remedy to the Narnia Chronicles, which he thinks call good evil and evil good. (I happen to think he failed in some crucial ways at what he was seeking to accomplish, but I wanted to post on that at some point separately, and I just haven't gotten around to it. Finishing up this post, which I started weeks ago but didn't have enough items to finish, has reminded me that I had wanted to do this, so maybe I'll get to it soon.)

Two days after his big announcement revoking President Bush's stem-cell policy, President Obama signed into law the big budget bill for the year, including a provision that prevented any funding from being used for embryonic stem cell research. I was especially skeptical about this, and it took me a long time and some hard Googling to find enough information to confirm it, but it does seem to have happened.

The Obama Administration's original discussion suggestions for his speech to school kids on September 8, 2009 really did ask kids to write about how they could help Obama, but they later changed it to ask about how they could be responsible. This was especially surprising given the actual content of the speech, which was mostly politically neutral. Why would they then ask how kids could help Obama when the thrust of the speech was just calling them to work harder in school and to be responsible? The original question therefore puzzles me a little unless he changed the speech too, which we have no evidence of (and the official explanation that the revision was what they had meant all along is completely implausible).

You can't help out your neighbor in Michigan by putting their kids on the bus for them every morning without a license to operate a daycare business.

So I've listed ten myths that I at one point just believed when I first heard them, even if in some cases it was only when I was pretty young. I also wanted to put together a list of myths that never sounded plausible to me, even the ones I heard as a kid, but that somehow get passed around as if true (and in some cases even get trotted out as if any serious scholar must believe such a thing).

1. KFC changed its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken because they don't use chicken anymore. They use clones of chickens grown without heads, and the U.S. government won't allow them to call that chicken.

2. There's such a person as Santa Claus.

3. The Bush Administration orchestrated 9-11.

4. Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S.

5. The Pentateuch was compiled over several generations by people with different and conflicting ideologies, and we can reconstruct which ideology is behind which verses or even partial verses with pinpoint precision, according to such tell-tale signs as which name is used for God or whether it happens to involve a negative or positive assumption or conclusion about a certain tribe of Israel. It amazes me how confident scholars can be of this even though no sources have ever been found for such texts, no textual statements in the text we have indicate anything about any such sources, and no two scholars can even agree on which parts come from which sources.

6. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, is a practitioner of Wicca who sought to convert Christians to Wicca by writing novels about magic.

7. Sarah Palin cut funding for teen mothers because of pro-life convictions.

8. George W. Bush attacked Iraq because he believed God told him to.

9. Sarah Palin thinks God directed the U.S. to attack Iraq.

10. Divine foreknowledge and predetermination are incompatible with human freedom and responsbility. Sorry, I suppose I should find something less controversial. How about the commonly-heard line about how Jesus' statement that it's easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than for the rich to enter God's kingdom once you know that there's a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle, and camels can get through it, but it's hard. (I once heard someone repeat that false background to Jesus's statement and then say that knowing that changed her life. Somehow. She never explained any further and probably couldn't have done so even at gunpoint.)

Now that I've seen Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, here are my rankings of the movies and books at this point.

Movies rankings:

1. Chamber of Secrets (movie 2)
2. Sorceror's Stone (movie 1)
3. Half-Blood Prince (movie 6)
4. Prisoner of Azkaban (movie 3)
5. Goblet of Fire (movie 4)
6. Order of the Phoenix (movie 5)

Books rankings:

1. Deathly Hallows (book 7)
2. Order of the Phoenix (book 5)
3. Goblet of Fire (book 4)
4. Half-Blood Prince (book 6)
5. Prisoner of Azkaban (book 3)
6. Chamber of Secrets (book 2)
7. Sorceror's Stone (book 1)

Isn't it interesting that how much I liked the movies is roughly inversely proportional to how much I liked the books? Part of what influences it is how faithful the movies are to the books, not that I insist on getting it exactly like the book, but until the latest film they were increasingly leaving out significant parts of the books, even parts that help explain otherwise unexplained phenomena or actions of characters. It left a much less satisfying experience, especially if you knew that there was an explanation in the books. Plus a lot of the scenes and entire plotlines that were left out were fun, interesting, and suspense-building. When you consider that the movies were actually getting shorter as the books got longer, it just drives home the disappointment, because there was so much room for more in Order of the Phoenix, the longest of the books but the shortest of the movies.

I expected Half-Blood Prince to be an improvement over the last few, because the book is much shorter than the two previous books, and they were willing to make it a longer movie. I figured they'd be able to include a higher percentage of plotlines and scenes from the book, and I was right. They were. There were still places where they changed things needlessly (most annoyingly at the end where they made Harry's incapacity to act because of Dumbledore's spell into a moral choice not to act). There wouldn't have been a huge increase in time if they'd explained a few things a little better with explanations from the book. The most unexplainable thing was the scene they completely made up that wasn't in the book at all with the Christmas attack. Harry's actions there made no sense. But it was far superior to the three previous movies, which all had major plots missing. What was missing from this was no more than what was missing from Prisoner of Azkaban, but it affected the plot less, so I place it above that. I didn't understand from the movie alone everything that had happened by the end, and I didn't get it fully until I read the book.

This film should be understandable in the most crucial ways to those who haven't read the book, and it's the first one since the two directed by Chris Columbus that that's true of, at least in the most important aspects. But those stories made complete sense in pretty much every way as films, and they didn't cut major plots the way this one did with the private lessons Dumbledore gave Harry all year about Voldemort's past, which they abbreviated far too much in the movie to be satisfying. I also thought they shouldn't have cut out the Professor Trelawney storyline, which both explains more on her prophecies, which will play a big role in the next one (although maybe they'll find a way to put it in that one instead). They didn't explain the Room of Requirement well, why Harry couldn't get in, why it looked different from it did in Order of the Phoenix when he did, and why it looked like what it looked for for Malfoy. They had Ginny hide the book rather than Harry, and I wonder if that will create problems when they need to return in the final movie for the item that in the book Harry sees while hiding his potions book. Leaving out the new Minister of Magic might make it harder to explain the transition for the Ministry near the beginning of book 7 as well, and the absence of the house elves again might create problems for when they have to reintroduce Dobby and Kreacher in the next one.

I'm hoping that the decision to split Deathly Hallows into two movies will prevent it from being any worse than this outing, since there really is a lot to include, and pretty much all of the necessary parts could easily make two three-hour movies if done well (and they're shooting for two to two-and-a-half hours per movie). They're going to have to trim some things, as they did here. I'm just hoping that they choose a little more judiciously than they did with a few things in this film.

As I was responding to this comment from Neil, I realized that I was getting into a bunch of issues that I don't think I've ever discussed comprehensively on this blog before, and I thought it might as well be its own post. Neil raises some questions about Christians reading (and presumably watching) science fiction and fantasy, questions that are more general (and more legitimate) than the common complaint about magic in fantasy. He wonders whether certain writers or stories (he has in mind a series by Stephen Donaldson that I'm not familiar with) can be dangerous in leaving behind what he calls an amoral residue. There's also the worry that spending time in fictional worlds is escaping from reality and might even be an addiction. It also might be a waste of time when there are more important things to do. He suggests that God might speak through such literature, but hasn't God spoken much more clearly in other ways already, so why should we need this kind of thing?

I think there can be a number of different healthy motivations for a Christian to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, many of them no different from the motivations for any other kind of fiction. One is simply entertainment. The idea that entertainment is just escape from reality seems wrong to me. I know people who think of it that way, but I don't think that's what they're actually doing when they see themselves as escaping. They might be distracting themselves from things they don't want to think about, but the things they're thinking about, while fictional, are based on reality in some way, or they couldn't think about them. It's just a rearrangement of real things, and those are good things that God created. It's also an engagement with the process of creation, an ability that I think God has given to us as part of being made in his image. The use of the imagination develops abilities God wants us to develop. Thinking about fictional worlds is one way to develop intellectual virtue. It's also simply good to enjoy good storytelling and to appreciate people using their God-given abilities to produce something enjoyable.

There are also moral themes in literature, and fiction of any kind helps us evaluate our lives in many ways. If the story in question only motivates moral evaluation of fictional cases, and those cases could never come up in real life, then at least it allows us to practice our ethical thinking in hard and strange cases, which is still a good skill to develop, because we will confront new situations that require such skills, especially as technology develops and social relations become further changed from what we see as the norm. But many ethical issues in fiction, even in fantasy and science fiction, are also going to come up in real life. Sometimes the author wants to make certain moral points, and sometimes we need to develop the ability to think for ourselves about those questions and not just accept what the author wants us to take away from it. But that's not a reason not to read or watch it except in cases where someone has a problem doing that. Maybe in Neil's case the Donaldson series was like that, and for all I know it might have that effect on me too (I know little about the series in question, so I have no idea). It's certainly worth being vigilant about how things affect you, but that's true of any fiction, and it's true of a lot of things besides fiction. It's true of observing how your friends live, and Paul tells us not to isolate ourselves from those who aren't Christians, even if he also says that Christians ought to live differently from the world.

I like fantasy and science fiction in particular because they help illustrate philosophical questions in ways that real life sometimes can't. One way to show that a sophisticated hedonism is wrong is to point out that with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak or Sauron's ring you could get away with almost anything you want, and it would still be wrong to do so. A sophisticated hedonism says it's only wrong to do certain things because it's against your self-interest (given that people will be mad at you for doing it and want to stop you and punish you). But these cases show that the real reason it's wrong isn't because it's against your self-interest, because you can achieve the self-interested goal in such cases, and it's still wrong. Scenarios like the Matrix or science fiction or fantasy worlds with very different social relations raise interesting questions about the moral principles that we assume as fundamental, because they lead us to wonder if they would apply in a very different situation. If I spent ten minutes coming up with a list, I could probably name off at least a dozen examples from science fiction and fantasy that I use regularly in my philosophy classes to illustrate points that are a lot harder to make clear or vivid without the aid of such examples.

So you don't need to think of fiction as revelation in any important sense to think that it provides an occasion for something that can be productive. It's bad if it distracts from more important things, as is true of any kind of enjoyable activity. At the same time, a little rest and relaxation, especially if it engages aspects of our thinking that we don't otherwise use, is part of being productive in the long run. So there has to be a balance, but I think this kind of imaginative fiction can contribute a lot of good toward our moral development and to our lives as well-rounded human beings, even if there are also risks and dangers, as there are with most pursuits in life.

Fantasy Recommendations

| | Comments (12)

We usually listen to audiobooks while we're driving. We've gone through the whole Harry Potter series (after reading them in hard copy). We've also tried out some new authors. We didn't like Ursula LeGuin's first Earthsea book very much, but we did like Terry Goodkind's first Sword of Truth book (something I can't say about the new TV adaptation Legend of the Seeker, which doesn't have much of anything to do with the book besides the character names and a few very general characteristics taken from the original storyline but modified enough to remove the most interesting aspects). Sam has long been a fan of Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and we listened to one of those also (after having read a bunch). I'm not as impressed with her writing, but I like the world she's created, which is one of the things I like about fantasy and science fiction in general.

One of the problems we keep running into is that we listen to something and then can't continue on because our library doesn't have an audio version of the next volume in the series. They don't have the second Goodkind book or the next McCaffrey one after Moreta, where we left off. We also are re-reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and the library had book 6, so we've been listening to that, but they only have a few more, and they're much later in the series. We could always listen to books we've read or ones one of us has read. I'm thinking Lloyd Alexander might be good (new to Sam). There is always Tolkien or Lewis if we want to go through those again. Our library system has Stephen Lawhead's first few volumes in the Arthur/Pendragon series. I tried reading the first one when it came out but didn't get very far, and maybe having an audio version would make it easier to get through it.

But I'm wondering if anyone has further recommendations of authors to try who would be similar to what we've liked. I don't like Stephen Donaldson. I thought his white gold series was awful. Besides what I've mentioned, we both really like Terry Brooks. I've thought about Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Raymond Feist, Fred Saberhagen, Katherine Kerr, and David Eddings, but their respective first volumes aren't in the library system. They do have some of the Dune series, including the first one, but I'm somewhat hesitant about that unless Sam decides to push it. Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber is available, but I don't know much about that other than seeing his name mentioned a lot in scifi/fantasy contexts.

Dawkins vs. Potter

| | Comments (3)

In a bizarrely ironic twist, Richard Dawkins has joined the anti-Harry-Potter bandwagon. I wonder if his allies in this fight will appreciate his help.

It reminds me of when secular feminists decided to recognize the harm pornography contributes toward women. The difference here is that Dawkins' reasons don't seem to be anything like the usual anti-Harry crowd's. Religious opposition to pornography typically involves some reasons the recent feminist opposition hasn't included (such as its being wrong to lust after someone you're not married to), but Focus on the Family and other evangelical groups that have opposed pornography have long accepted many of the same arguments that feminist opponents of pornography have more recently come to. It objectifies women. It sends a message about women that harms them and psychologically influences the men who view it in a way that leads them to do things that further affect women negatively. I've seen one prominent feminist, Catherine MacKinnon, claim that her religious allies against pornography didn't share any of her reasons, but when I read that I couldn't help but conclude that she hadn't actually talked to James Dobson, Josh McDowell, or any others among the most prominent evangelicals opposing pornography. I'd heard almost all of MacKinnon's arguments from evangelicals while growing up.

Dawkins, on the other hand, shares very little in reasoning with other Potter foes. He doesn't fear that kids are going to become Satanists because they read fantasy literature, and he doesn't care a whole lot about whether the series teaches kids bad morals. (By the way, David Baggett's chapter in Harry Potter and Philosophy gives an excellent response to such arguments, especialyl on the latter issue.) Dawkins just worries about whether it's a good thing to stir kids' imaginations about things that aren't possible given the way the physical world works in real life, and his reason for that is that he expects fantastical literature to open kids' minds up to the possibility that naturalism is false, which might make them more likely to become creationists or something.

Warning: for those who have not read the last two books of the Harry Potter series, this post does include spoilers.

Before she wrote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling answered a question about the Fidelius charm on her website:

When a Secret-Keeper dies, their secret dies with them, or, to put it another way, the status of their secret will remain as it was at the moment of their death. Everybody in whom they confided will continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else.

Just in case you have forgotten exactly how the Fidelius Charm works, it is

"an immensely complex spell involving the magical concealment of a secret inside a single, living soul. The information is hidden inside the chosen person, or Secret-Keeper, and is henceforth impossible to find -- unless, of course, the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it" (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

In other words, a secret (eg, the location of a family in hiding, like the Potters) is enchanted so that it is protected by a single Keeper (in our example, Peter Pettigrew, a.k.a. Wormtail). Thenceforth nobody else - not even the subjects of the secret themselves - can divulge the secret. Even if one of the Potters had been captured, force fed Veritaserum or placed under the Imperius Curse, they would not have been able to give away the whereabouts of the other two. The only people who ever knew their precise location were those whom Wormtail had told directly, but none of them would have been able to pass on the information.

This seemed fine to me when I read it. But then I read Deathly Hallows. Hermione Granger seems to contradict the above explanation. She acts as if everyone in on the secret becomes a Secret-Keeper once the Secret-Keeper dies. If that's right, then the secret can be spread after the Secret-Keeper is dead, and it can be spread by anyone who was told the secret. This is why she thinks the Death Eaters know about Sirius' house once they apparate into its location with a Death Eater in tow. As Secret-Keepers, they can reveal the site to someone.

There's one problem with this. Severus Snape was also in on the secret, and he could have told them the secret. He didn't, and he would have had to have an excuse. If the secret couldn't be told by those who were merely told it, then he would still have that excuse. So is this a sign that Hermione is wrong and Rowling's original explanation is correct? Not necessarily. Perhaps Snape was lying about who the Secret-Keeper was, and Voldemort didn't know it had been Dumbledore. Then Snape would still have an out, and he could pretend not to be able to say. So this isn't really strong evidence that Rowling's original explanation was correct after all.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion]

I'm working on a chapter for the forthcoming Blackwell Philosophy and Harry Potter on the topic of destiny, and one of the things I'm trying to do in the chapter is distinguish between different metaphysical analyses of prophecy. I've come up with three, and I'm inclined to think that it might be exhaustive enough for the purposes of a popular-level work like this, but I'm curious if anyone here can think of any others.

Here's what I've got (and how I'm presenting it in the draft I'm writing):

1. They involve mere likelihoods. No one has access to the actual future, but someone might have magical access to information that's derived from what's likely. Given what's true about the various people involved, it's very likely that a certain outcome will happen. That means prophecies, even the ones Dumbledore is inclined to call genuine, are not infallible. They can turn out get it wrong.

2. They do not derive their content from the actual future. Rather, they make the future happen. When a genuine prophecy occurs, it influences those who hear it in such a way that they end up doing things that will fulfill the prophecy. This kind of prophecy is self-fulfilling in a very literal sense.

3. The seer has some intuitive connection with the way things will really happen, such that the words of the prophecy are true about a future that really will be that way. If it's a genuine prophecy, it can't be wrong, because its origin lies in the very future events that it tells about. In the same way that a report about the past can bring knowledge about the past only if there's some reliable connection with the actual events in the past, a genuine prophecy in this sense must derive its truth from a reliable method of getting facts about the future.

My understanding of J.K. Rowling's view of prophecy, judging by this interview and my sense that the Albus Dumbledore character represents her views when he discusses this issue with Harry Potter, is that she wants to treat Professor Trelawney's two genuine prophecies as the first kind, a kind of prophecy an open theist could accept.

There are hints in at least two of Dumbledore's conversations with Harry that he thinks something like the second kind is going on, but it's clearly not a reduction of prophecy to what happens in #2, because the characters in question (mostly Lord Voldemort) still make free choices and aren't simply caused by the prophecy to do anything the way some ancients thought Laius was caused by Apollo's prophecy to do what he did that led to Oedipus eventually killing him.

My argument at this point is that there isn't really a way for Dumbledore to distinguish between Trelawney's two genuine prophecies and all her vague predictions that can often be interpreted as coming true unless the genuine ones are of the third kind (because the pseudo-prophecies are of the first kind, and the genuine ones can't be completely explained by the second kind). Rowling doesn't seem to want to accept that, and Dumbledore is clearly with her, so there's a consistency issue here both for the character and the author. But my argument depends on the options I've listed being exhaustive. Is that true?

We recently finished listening to Harlan Ellison's reading of Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. This novel is often thought of as one of the great fantasy novels of our time (well, the time of the people saying it; I wasn't around yet). It was difficult going to such a sparse story, with very little character development and hardly any dialogue (and Ellison, while very expressive in prose narrative, reads dialogue like it's the phone book). My sense is that Le Guin is appreciated for the world she created rather than for her storytelling, which simply didn't impress me, not after coming off of listening to the whole Harry Potter series. Rowling is a much more entertaining writer. Her characters are much more fully developed. The world is much more developed, even in the first book. It's much more imaginative. There's a richer, more complex plot. There's nothing to latch onto in Le Guin's book. It's like a short story extended over a whole novel.

So it surprised me to see Le Guin's derisive comments about J.K. Rowling:

Her credit to JK Rowling for giving the "whole fantasy field a boost" is tinged with regret. "I didn't feel she ripped me off, as some people did," she says quietly, "though she could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original. She has many virtues, but originality isn't one of them. That hurt."

She doesn't think Rowling ripped her off. Yet she is hurt that people think Rowling was original. I'm guessing she thinks there's a level of borrowing between ripping her off and being original and that the Harry Potter books are in that area. I don't see it. The way magic works is very different in the two worlds. The general storyline is very different. I don't see much similarity at all, actually. Wikipedia's reference to the above quote offers some explanation, however:

The basic premise of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), in which a boy with unusual aptitude for magic is recognised, and sent to a special school for wizards, resembles that of Harry Potter. The hero encounters Jasper, a typically unpleasant Draco-like rival, in the Flashman tradition.

The way Harry Potter's unusual aptitude for magic is recognized is nothing like Ged's. It's a completely different kind of magic that gets discovered in a different way, and the way he ends up at the school isn't remotely similar. The school itself is nothing like Hogwarts and occupies only a fairly brief section of the book. The rival Jasper appears for maybe one chapter. If that's the best they can do, then I think they're grasping at straws. If that's what Le Guin really had in mind, then it doesn't reflect well on her to have said this.

This isn't the only time I've seen Le Guin overreacting to something and taking it way out of proportion, to the point of almost ignoring more important things. Her response to the by-all-accounts awful pseudo-adaptation of her novels has an introductory paragraph mentioning that the story of the miniseries doesn't resemble the novels at all, four paragraphs on her role, or lack thereof, in the process of producing the miniseries, nine paragraphs on the issue of race, and one final condemnation those who produced the miniseries. She says the miniseries changes her story almost entirely, using some scenes from her books but putting them together in a very different overall plot and removing the important context. That's a significant claim. Yet she doesn't substantiate it, at all.

The one thing she does complain about in detail really is worth complaining about. I would have been very upset if I'd written something like what she wrote, and they had done this to it. She explicitly made most of her characters something like darker natives of the Americas in look. There's a small minority of brown-skinned characters (with straight hair, so more like Indians than Africans) and a small minority of Viking-like pale, blond, blue-eyed barbarians. Most of Earthsea is dominated by people she describes as reddish. She's deliberately playing with people's sense of race and the assumption of whiteness as a norm. She doesn't make a big deal of it in the books, but it's noticeable just because she mentions it offhand as if it's normal.

So it would have been nice if the miniseries had gotten that aspect of her world. But it's far from being central to the storyline itself, as she says it is, and it's certainly not worth nine significant paragraphs when absolutely nothing in her complaint surfaces about any specific things they changed about the storyline. I have no sense, since I haven't seen it, of what specifically they did to change the plot, and I couldn't evaluate it other than the racial issue, which again is relatively minor to the plot of the book, without actually seeing the thing. The way she deals with race in her books is very important for her world and for one of the points she wanted to get across with her novel. But it's simply not central to the novel itself, which is a story that race hardly enters into in the course of the events that take place in it. She deliberately made it non-central, so it's strange that she sees it as so central that she can spend all her time complaining about it without even a quick mention of what they got wrong on more significant matters.

I have a few requests in case anyone reading this blog can help. If you've been following my recent submissions and approvals for the Blackwell philosophy and pop culture series, you might have some idea of why I want some of the following information if anyone has it readily available. If you have exact quotes or specific scenes from the movies or issue numbers in the comics, that would be wonderful. I have a large number of X-Men comic books (mostly from the mid-late 80s until the early 90s, but I have reprints of older stuff too), but if it's easy for anyone to find some then it will make my work much easier in two weeks once I'm done grading and begin writing, so I can focus on the philosophy.

1. I'm looking for any instances in X-Men movies or comic books where any character or the narrator uses race-language or species-language to refer to mutants as distinct from humans. This includes when it's morally loaded but also when it's not. I'm interested both in Magneto's elevated view of the rights of mutants as superior beings but also in the factual claim that mutants are a separate race, sub-species, or species.

2. I'm also looking for instances where Magneto has given moral justifications for his questionable or immoral actions, again from the movies or the comic books. (I have no cartoon episodes to verify the information.) I'm interested in his attitude toward humans and the moral difference he sees between mutants and humans. I'm also interested in any general moral principles he might state in the process of explaining his reasons for doing things. Any specific descriptions of Magneto's actions as terrorist would also be nice or descriptions of particular actions he's taken that are morally questionable or outright immoral would also help me.

3. For those more wizard-inclined, I'm hoping to compile a list of seemingly-chance occurrences in Harry Potter, where something not under the conscious control of any character, i.e. lucky occurrences, are absolutely crucial for the major plot of the book to move along, particularly if Harry's success or the bad guys' defeat or frustration in their purposes hinges on it. I'm also looking for specific instances where any characters talk about issues related to destiny, the various prophecies, time travel and changing the past, free will, and so on. If you can give page numbers in the American paperback editions (hardcover for Deathly Hallows) or chapter numbers otherwise, that would be great. But even just mention of the events and how important they are could help me if it's something I haven't thought of yet, especially if it's a really big deal.

Whatever help anyone can offer is appreciated.

I wrote before that my proposal for a chapter on mutants and the nature of race was accepted to The X-Men and Philosophy volume and that I'd submitted three other proposals for two other volumes. I haven't heard anything one way or the other about my submission about The Hobbit, but I found out today that one of the two proposals I wrote for Harry Potter and Philosophy was accepted. They liked what I submitted about the limits of authorial intent, but they had a number of good submissions on that topic, and they decided they'd rather go with my proposal on destiny in Rowling's series, so they accepted that one. You can see the blog version of my initial thoughts on the matter here.

Before I even started graduate school, I hoped to be able to write popular-level philosophical discussions about questions that I thought needed serious philosophical reflection that science fiction and fantasy often raise, and I guess now I get to write about two topics I care a lot about in two fictional worlds that I've spent a lot of time in. These will be my first publications besides a book review (although it was a book review that made several substantive points, some of which I thought were genuine contributions to how to think about the issues). That means I need to work hard to submit some parts of my dissertation to journals pretty quickly to avoid giving the impression that I'm a lightweight when it comes to publication. Still, I'm glad to have the chance to contribute to these volumes. has a page reviewing J.K. Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which she wrote out by hand, distributed four copies of to people important to her, and sold the fifth to the highest bidder (with the proceeds donated to charity), and the highest bidder turned out to be Amazon. Unfortunately there's no way to read these stories for yourself, since it's not (at least at this point) being published (and I know of no plans ever to do so. One of them, at least, is already present in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it plays an important role in the plot of that book, but the others are new (although I believe all the titles were mentioned in that book).

It consists of five short fairy tales told in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. A few elements of magic as Rowling conceives of it do appear, but mainly these can stand alone as simply good fairy tales. I was less impressed by "The Wizard and the Hopping Pot" (although it may be better as a story than the impression I get from the review), but the other four strike me as very well-conceived stories with excellent moral lessons, often with nice twists at the end, excellent ironies, and so on.

Many of the things I appreciate about her books seem to be in these stories as well, especially in "The Fountain of Fair Fortune" and "The Warlock's Hairy Heart", which serve as illustrations of what great virtue and its opposite, respectively. The latter tale strikes me as something Edgar Allen Poe could have written. It's impressive that she managed to turn her title "Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump" into what's not just a plausible story for such a name but a fun romp illustrating a nice moral lesson. "The Tale of the Three Brothers" is, of course, not new to those who have read the seventh Harry Potter novel, but it is a great fairy tale in its own right, and that one we can actually read in its published form (which apparently differs in a few details from the handwritten version in this work).

I really wish these end up being published so we can all read the actual stories. Until then, I do appreciate having the Amazon reviews. I'm glad they ended up with the fifth copy.

A week ago, I posted about J.K. Rowling's views on destiny, taking my starting point from this interview that she gave a few weeks ago. I ended with the thought that Rowling's own interpretation of what was going on wasn't the best interpretation of her actual text. That raises questions, however, about how an author might not interpret her own work correctly. She created it, after all. Does authorial intent have no bearing on these kinds of questions? [As with the previous post and the interview, there may be spoilers in this post, so don't read it if you don't know how the series concludes and want to find out in chronological order as the author intended it.]

So what does authorial intent contribute to the story when the text itself can be interpreted in several ways? Can an author determine that a character is, for example, gay even if the text itself doesn't make that clear? Can an author declare the character's motivations even if the text itself doesn't make them clear? This arises in the interview when it comes to the motivations and moral character of Albus Dumbledore in his various machinations in the war against Lord Voldemort.

I say the author can declare the intent of the character, even if the text doesn't, but I know some people make the text fundamental rather than the author. But even if that's right, it doesn't follow that everything an author says in interviews after the fact are canon. There's a debate over whether Dumbledore is a bit too manipulative. Apparently Rowling herself thinks so, judging by this interview, while many fans don't (or at least think he's less so than she seems to think; I'm one of those fans, by the way).

She can tell us what a character did and what the character's motivations were. She doesn't, however, have the power to determine whether those actions and motivations count as manipulation or whether they are immoral. Whether the word 'manipulation' applies is a matter of linguistic fact, and authors of a fantasy world can't determine by themselves what the word 'manipulation' means in English.

By the same token, whether what Dumbledore does is wrong is a matter of moral truth. Whatever determines morality (and views on that abound), it's certainly not authors of fantasy novels by themselves. I can't just write a novel where killing innocents for fun is morally ok. That can't be part of the stipulation within the novel. I can write a novel in a world where people think that, but I can't as an author make their beliefs true. I can write a novel whose characters speak a language slightly differently from English, where the word 'manipulation' means something different from what it means in English, but that doesn't change what we who speak English mean by the word when we apply it to those characters.

So there's room for debate over whether a character really is manipulative even if the author takes a side on the issue, and the same goes for whether what the character did (whether you call it manipulative or not) was morally wrong.


    The Parablemen are: , , and .

    Twitter: @TheParableMan



Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

I've Been Listening To