Recently in Science Fiction 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.

These are my rankings of Doctor Who stories from the First Doctor period. I have categorized them into five categories, rather than finding a linear ranking order for each story. For links to the entire series, see here.

Cream of the Crop

10. The Dalek Invasion of Earth: One of the best First Doctor stories. It's the second appearance of the Daleks, and given the original naming conventions (where individual episodes were named, not overall serials, as became standard practice later in the show) you wouldn't have gotten the presence of the Daleks spoiled by the title until the end of the first episode. The TARDIS crew ends up in 22nd Century London, where the city has been devastated, with very few people in sight, all of them acting in a robotic manner. When they discover the first Dalek they come across, it's a bit of a shock, because they'd only met the Daleks on their home planet in their first appearance. Despite a ridiculous sci-fi premise for why the Daleks have invaded Earth, this story works incredibly well, which certainly isn't true of all the Terry Nation Dalek stories in this period. I don't think it's his best. That honor goes to The Daleks' Master Plan. But this is among the truly classic stories of the First Doctor period.

21. The Daleks' Master Plan: This is by far my favorite First Doctor story. A full dozen episodes (a baker's dozen, if you count the prologue episode Mission to the Unknown, which came two stories before but was really part of this story). Unfortunately, only three episodes survive, so you either have to listen to the soundtracks for the rest or watch the fan-created reconstructions based on the large number of set photos that exist and the existing soundtracks. But it's worth it. The stakes are higher than any previous Dalek story, and it has better good science fiction concepts than many of the other non-historical earlier episodes. We get to see a future Earth empire with a military that knows all about the Daleks and is trained to fight them, including two noteworthy characters, a brother and sister played by Nicholas Courtney, who later went on to play Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and Jean Marsh as Sara Kingdom, one of my favorite companions over the entire run of the origianl series. Marsh also had earlier played Princess Joanna in The Crusade and much later returned to play Morgana in the Seventh Doctor story Battlefield, which was also the final appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart in the Doctor Who show. This was the only story featuring Sara Kingdom, unfortunately, but she's present for something like eight or nine episodes of it. Terry Nation wrote episodes 1-5 and 7. Unfortunately, the seventh was a Christmas episode that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, which is its only real low point. By that point in the story, we're reliving The Chase, where the Doctor, The Meddling Monk (from The Time Meddler), and the Daleks are running around through time, and it slows down a bit, but those parts are a little better than the middle episodes of The Chase in my view. But the first half of this story and the last two or three episodes are as enjoyable as the First Doctor gets, even with reconstructions of the episodes.

23. The Ark: This is one of the better "future of humans" stories of the First Doctor. The TARDIS appears on a human ship in the future, and there's another intelligent species serving humans as slaves, in effect, although from all appearances it's consensual, and the humans are unaware of the full intelligence of these beings. Halfway through, the TARDIS crew has resolved their original problem keeping them there, and they reappear in the same spot but much further in the future. Since this is a time when the Doctor had no control at all over where the TARDIS ends up, that seems remarkably odd. Then they discover that a revolution has occurred, and the other species has turned the tables on their human masters. Instead of being victims that we feel sorry for, they are now the villains. This was a nice nod to the common phenomenon in human history of the victims gaining control and becoming just as bad oppressors as those who had oppressed them. We also get to see an invisible (i.e. money-saving) but very powerful alien race that reminded me much of the sort of thing you might see on the original series of Star Trek, which was being made around the same time period as this episode. This episode didn't win me over to new companion Dodo. But it has some funny moments between her and the Doctor, where her slang expressions (that are entirely commonplace now, to a point where it shocked me that anyone wouldn't be used to it) give us a glimpse of the First Doctor's cantankerous nature in his complaints that she's not speaking English (which I should note is her first language and not his). And this is one of the few First Doctor stories that I'd gladly show to someone who wanted to see a good example of what the best of his period was like.

Very Enjoyable Stories

2. The Daleks (AKA The Mutants, not to be confused with a later Third Doctor story): This is the serial that gave the show its initial success. It drags a bit about 3/4 of the way through, but overall this is a great introduction to the Daleks. As with most of Terry Nation's Doctor Who stories, there are deeper themes to the story than just an action/adventure romp. In contrast to some of the emphasis of later Doctor Who stories (including some of Nation's own), here we see the Doctor encouraging pacifists to take up arms to destroy a menace that would otherwise end up destroying them. This is one of the best First Doctor stories.

17. The Time Meddler: In this story we get the introduction of our first Time Lord character (not that we have that name yet) besides the Doctor and Susan, and we even get to see his TARDIS, both inside and out. His chameleon circuit works, so we see a TARDIS properly disguised. The Meddling Monk returns as well in the Daleks' Master Plan, so he's also a recurring villain. A renegade Time Lord seeking to change history for some unclear profit motive (or perhaps for some higher good, but in any case the Doctor disapproves), the Meddling Monk has set himself up at a monastery, where he's pretending a whole group of monks are present by using future technology (including a phonograph with recordings of medieval-style chant) to give the appearance of a larger population of monks (as well as to make his stay more comfortable with appliances such as a toaster). The Doctor and his companions eventually figure out what's going on, and the Doctor manages to show some know-how when it comes to how a TARDIS works by sabotaging the Monk's TARDIS (which unfortunately never manages to help him get his TARDIS working properly again so he can actually control where it goes, not until the Time Lords help him later on during the Third Doctor period). This is the first time we see a historical setting with something non-historical worked in, a formula that the show eventually uses almost exclusively for stories taking place in the Earth's past, but we still have another season or so of purely historical episodes to go before that becomes standard. It's the first time also for the new lineup of the Doctor, Vicki, and Steven. It has some moments of lagging, as historical episodes tend to do, and it's the first historical episode with discussion of the real possibility of history-changing (see The Space Museum for the first instance of this, however, although this doesn't have the complete incoherence of that story). That is a disappointment from the perspective of metaphysics, but the unique elements of this story more than make up for it.

27. The War Machines: This is one of my favorite. If it weren't for the musical companions, it would be in the top category. The adventure starts with the Doctor and Dodo arriving in Dodo's own time period (roughly the time the episode aired). She's in the first episode and maybe part of the second. She never even appears to say goodbye to the Doctor. It introduced Ben and Polly, but Polly is brainwashed for most of the episode, so we don't get to see her in her right mind very much. And much of the episode Ben hasn't really connected with the Doctor. So it's not really the usual Doctor and his companion (or companions) sort of piece. That being said, this was a great introduction to what became a much more standard format for the Second Doctor period, where the Doctor (and in the other cases his companions) is in the time period when the show was being made, the mid-late 1960s, fighting off some menace threatening the time period of the viewers of the show. In this case, it's an artificial intelligence that, in a rare case, seems to have nothing to do with aliens, but you do get some rather rudimentary-looking robot threats (in keeping with the era they couldn't have them be too sci-fi looking). The Doctor uses logical paradoxes to undo the machine, as he does in several other stories (The Green Death, Death to the Daleks, and Shada come to mind). I do tend to like Ben and Polly, but we don't see a lot of Polly in this one. There's a nice scene at the end where the Doctor thinks he's all alone for the first time since the show began, but he ends up getting surprised with some unintended stowaways at the end, leading into the next season (and his final two stories).

29. The Tenth Planet: This is the introduction of the Cybermen and the last story for the First Doctor, so there's particular significance to it, but it doesn't work as well as I'd like. The Second Doctor Cybermen stories are much better. They look like they're wearing cloth outfits instead of metal. It's hard to hear what they're saying sometimes. The Doctor is showing his age, and several of his scenes had to be given to Ben or Polly. (Both Hartnell and the character are dying of old age at this point.) At the end, after defeating the Cybermen, he just collapses and dies, only to be regenerated into the Second Doctor. They don't explain the regenaration all that well, and the final episode is missing (although there are copies of the regeneration scene that have been released on DVD and online). Fortunately, this is one of the missing episodes that have now been animated. Still, this is a decent base-under-siege story, a template that becomes much more common with the Second Doctor, and as the introduction to the Cybermen and the final First Doctor story, it's certainly one to see.

Doctor Who Rankings

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Now that I've watched the entirety of the Doctor Who TV canon (at least what's available, along with the reconstructions with original sound alongside extensive set photos from the missing episodes), I've been wanting to put together some sort of ranking of all the episodes. It became clear pretty quickly that it would be impossible for me to put the episodes into some linear order of preference. There are far too many of them, and too many are such close calls that it would be insane to insist on making a list, and it would be unwieldy to have lots of multiple-way ties. There are such listings, such as the  io9 rankings, but it seems artificial to me to bring oneself to do such a thing.

One thing they did, though, is to my liking. They broke the stories down into Classics, Good Stories, Decent Stories, Below-Average Stories, and Disappointments. I'm comfortable putting the various stories into such groupings, even if I'm not inclined to have a numbered list of each story within each group, as they did. My categories will be: Cream of the Crop, Very Enjoyable Stories, Stories With a Lot Going For Them, Meh Stories, and Relative Disappointments. There are very few stories that I'd have a lower evaluation than that, so it didn't seem to justify an entire category.

Within each category, I'll put stories in air order (or in the case of the unaired Shada, the order it would have been aired in). I'll also preface each title with its story number (as opposed to episode number, since the original show nearly always had multiple episodes for each story). A few of the earliest stories had episode titles but no clear serial title for the overall story. In cases where there are multiple titles used, I will try to give both if I know about them.

I also feel kind of weird about mixing up episodes from very different periods. It's easier for me to weight them within each period. At least for the first few Doctors, I'll keep them separate, but I'll combine Doctors later on, since the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Doctors have much shorter tenures, one of them appearing only for one TV movie. But this post will look just at the First Doctor period, and subsequent posts will continue with further Doctors. I'll update this post as I go with links to the entire series.

1. First Doctor

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.

Doctor Who and Race

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Apparently a new book is out (or perhaps is about to come out), analyzing Doctor Who and race, and it has angered someone at the BBC enough that they've come out with a response to the charge that the show is "thunderously racist". The article gives no further information about the book, but a quick Google search turns up this site that seems to be intended to promote the book. This seems to be the call for papers, giving a sense of what the publisher or editor wanted the articles to be like before any of them were written.

I have two thoughts. One is that the pushback from the scifi blogs and from the BBC, pointing out ways Doctor Who is racially forward, seem to me to be generally accurate. Consider the contemporary show especially. Martha Jones was by far the most intelligent of all the recent companions, and she's black. She was a medical student, even, and she eventually became a doctor. The other recent companions have mostly been working-class women with much less education. They dealt with the inter-racial relationship of Mickey and Rose as if that were perfectly normal. There have been plenty of guest starts, and those of non-white races have not seemed to me to be remotely racially stereotypical in most cases.

There might be racially insensitive moments of the original series, reflecting those times (meaning that it's not any more racially-insensitive than anything else in those days). The show started in the 1960s, after all. There were several early serials where the reality of the available actors in the UK at the time required that they use white actors to play Aztecs or the soldiers of Genghis Khan. If you did something like that now, you'd better do it right.

Some say the SNL portrayal of President Obama by a white actor was much more successful at this than most instances of blackface. It remains to be seen whether Johnny Depp will get away with his Tonto in the Lone Ranger later this year. But in the 1960s, when the actors you had available were all or mostly white, you had to make do with what you have, and the issue is mainly not who's playing the characters but whether they act in a way that furthers harmful stereotypes. In my judgment, most such instances on Doctor Who do not, at least where I am in the series now, which is 1971, with a smattering of episodes throughout the later Doctors and then the new series through the early sixth season.

As for the claim that primitive cultures are portrayed as savages, all you need to do is look to the second serial, The Daleks, where the Thals, who had gone primitive after centuries of post-apocalyptic avoidance of technology, were anything but savage. It was The Doctor who convinced them to overcome their pacifism and fight back against the Daleks. There was even the serial called The Savages, where the idea that they were savages was held by the dominant technological society in that world but turned out to be false, and at the end they have to learn to live together in harmony. And those examples were both in the 60s.

The reality is that a long-running show like Doctor Who will eventually display the prejudices of its times, but it has many, many moments of breaking away from those, and it often has done so in creative and helpful ways, using alien races as analogies for human racial relations or for colonial or slave relations. It's perfectly legitimate to point out ways Doctor Who has assumed cultural superiority of certain groups and such, assuming it has done so in the particular cases. It's fine to point out ways the show has represented stereotypes when it has done so. But it does not do to make blanket statements based on a few individual cases about the show as a whole, especially if the current show is implicated in problems with past representations. And if you talk about Doctor Who now, it doesn't make any sense just to point to examples from decades ago.

So that's my first thought. The reaction of Doctor Who fans and the BBC to the charge of racism seems to me to be largely correct. The show doesn't seem to deserve the label "thunderously racist". The criticism seems to me to be ill-informed.

But that brings me to my second thought, which is that the knee-jerk reaction doesn't strike me as very informed either. Take a look at the call for papers, and then go to the site promoting this new book to see what the various articles in the book are actually doing. Here is a list of the main points for each chapter

This is on an NPR show I've never heard of. Our local station doesn't carry it. But I'm listening to the episode right now, and the authors do are doing a good job presenting the barebones issue they're dealing with. I'm not hearing much in the way of arguments, though, just quick summaries of positions. But it's done in an imaginative way, just because of the Doctor Who context. The particular issue is the genocide of the Daleks issue from the Fourth Doctor serial "The Genesis of the Daleks" (along with the general issue of pacifism and the Doctor's resistance to violence). There's more about the show itself than the philosophy, but I won't complain about any intelligent publicity for the show and for what I hope to be an excellent book.

I really wanted to submit something on the ethics of time travel for this book, but the editors wanted full submissions, and I can't afford to devote the time to write an entire chapter that might not get published. Most editors in this series and the similar Wiley-Blackwell series sort through a larger number of proposals, select their chosen entries, and then commission the people they choose to write the chapters. These editors wanted entire chapters that would likely not get published anywhere if they weren't accepted.

A while back I was watching an episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. One of the characters made the claim that Kyle Reese would have been better off going back much further in time and killing Alan Turing instead of bothering to defend Sarah Connor to ensure John Connor would make it into the future to fight the machines. Presumably the argument is that without Alan Turing the project of artificial intelligence would have been delayed significantly.

Of course, someone else would have come along to do the kinds of things Turing did, so I doubt this would change too much, perhaps slowing down the age of the machines by a little bit. But there are two much worse problems with this suggestion.

First, there's an ethical problem. Turing is innocent. The machines easily kill people who would threaten them in the future, but should humans sent back in time by John Connor become like the machines in their willingness to kill any innocent that would improve things for the humans fighting against the machines?

Second, I can't imagine how this is supposed to make Reese better off (or help fulfill his mission any better). He was sent by John Connor to protect his mother from the Terminator, and in the process he became John Connor's father, thus not only protecting Connor but ensuring his existence. If he went back to Alan Turing's time, he wouldn't become Connor's father. Even apart from the metaphysical problem (he couldn't go back to Turing's time, because then Connor couldn't have been around to send him there), there's the mission issue. The basic assumption of Reese's mission is that if John Connor never exists we'd never get the resistance movement going. This mission prevents Connor's existence. So whenever the machines get around to trying to take over the world, even if it's delayed, there would be no John Connor to lead the resistance. Reese would automatically fail in his particular mission if he'd gone back to kill Turing instead.

Other than the silly view of time travel this show assumes (along with all Terminator movies except the first one), I really have enjoyed it so far (I have several episodes left to go in the second and final season). But this particular suggestion struck me as being just stupid, even if you suspend disbelief and go with the crazy view of time travel they presuppose.

LOST Finale

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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.

The Author Theodicy

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My friend and sometime co-blogger Wink likes to think of God as the author of creation in a much more literal way than most people do. He sees God as writing a story, with human beings as some of the main characters, and one response he has to the problem of evil is that the story overall justifies certain instances of badness occurring throughout the story.

This also serves as a helpful analogy for him in thinking through the relation between divine sovereignty and human freedom, since the characters in a book can easily have free will of whatever sort you'd like even if every step of their fictional lives is written by an author. Within the story, their choices are all free. They make choices, and those choices need not be determined in any way by anything outside their control (although if it's a story in a deterministic world, then of course something outside their control does determine their actions, and they at most have only compatibilist free will).

It was hard to resist thinking about the author theodicy when I heard this quote on a recent podcast (see writeup here) by the executive producers of Lost:

We're sorry that it happened, but we're not sorry that we did it, and we make no excuses for it. It is a very intense and dark time on the show. Obviously the deaths of these characters provides a tremendous emotional catalyst for the survivors, because now they're at war. The sides were a little hazy before now. Now, there's great clarity. -- Damon Lindelof

Then consider the specific reasoning given:

We felt it was really important that the audience understand that, going into the end of this show, nobody is safe. One of the problems in television is that you innately know that certain characters aren't going to die, and that strips certain shows of their jeopardy. We want there to be a feeling that anything is possible, and that going into the end of the series, that is very much true. There will be some surprising things.

It's the author-theodicy version of a point made by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in sections of their work that I've taught in my history of philosophy intro class. Augustine asks us to consider a painting. There will likely be spots that, taken apart from the whole, would look ugly. But in the context of the whole painting they fit and make the painting itself more beautiful than it would be without them. Aquinas similarly says that the occurrences of evil in the world are indeed intrinsically bad. The fact that they occur is unfortunate, and other things being equal a good God who could prevent them would do so. But other things aren't equal, because the macroscopic picture of the history of the universe (which, of course, goes on forever into eternity according to Aquinas, with evil defeated forever after a certain point) is better as a whole if that evil occurs, even if the microscopic look at just that bit of evil should lead God to declare it bad and worth avoiding.

Lindelof seems to be making a similar point. It's unfortunate that these beloved characters had to die, but they thought things would be best for them to die at this point given the story they are trying to tell. The macroscopic look determines whether it's worth doing. They're not sorry they did it, because of that macroscopic effect. The microscopic look determines whether the event is unfortunate in itself, and in this case they admit that it is. But the macroscopic effect is what matters for storytelling, even if sometimes honesty requires acknowledging the microscopic picture as Lindelof does in this quote.

In the new season of Lost (stop reading now if you haven't watched through the sixth season premiere yet and don't want to be spoiled), the writers have introduced a new storytelling device. The first three seasons filled out the backstories of the characters by means of alternating between the current story and flashbacks, usually from before the characters were on the island, focusing on a different character each episode. The fourth season changed the device to flashforwards. The main story continued where it had left off the previous season, but in most episodes it alternated with what happens to some of the characters after they leave the island. At the end of the season in the main story, we see the events that lead up to them leaving the island.

The fifth season splits in two pieces. For the first half of the season, we have the continuation of the characters who remain on the island, as their location in time becomes unstable, and they shift from one time period to another across various periods in the history of the island. This is alternated with the characters who left the island, as they move toward returning. Mid-season, we see those characters arriving, and the time-shifts end. The characters who had remained on the online got stuck in 1974, and the characters who returned to the island have arrived, some of them in 2007, three years after they had left, and some in 1977, three years after their compatriots had arrived in the past. At the very end of season five, we see them initiating a plan to try to change the past and prevent themselves from ever having arrived on the island. The fifth season ends as it looks as if they have achieved what they intended, but we see no effects from it.

Now the sixth season has begun, and the new storytelling device is neither time travel, flashbacks, or flashforwards. They're calling it flash-sideways. One storyline involves the original characters in the aftermath of their plan. They seem to be in an unchanged timeline, back in 2007, where they will presumably meet up with the other characters who arrived on the island in 2007 as planned. The new storytelling device adds a story about people who look just like the characters we already know but who have led very different lives, as if the world has been different since 1977. The plane doesn't crash. The island seems to be underwater. We see small differences, some of them attributable to the island's demise in 1977. Hurley is lucky rather than unlucky. John Locke isn't depressed, and he at least seems to indicate that he went on the walkabout. Jack is nervous and Rose calm. Charlie is suicidal rather than just addicted. Desmond is on the plane rather than on the island pushing the button. Some characters who were on the plane are not there now (e.g. Boone couldn't get Shannon to come back with him). I'm guessing that some of the slight differences in personality or life-path are due to Jacob not meeting up with some of the characters (whatever it is he did to them by touching them), and some from other aspects of the island being changed (the numbers not being broadcast for Hurley to encounter them, the island not being there to be found by Desmond or maybe even Charles Widmore not being alive to send him on his trip to begin with).

What seems to have happened (and I'm guessing we might end up being surprised to find out something else is actually going on, judging my the executive producers' cryptic comments about this) is that the time-traveling characters did something in 1977 that didn't change anything in their own timeline but did cause a different timeline to take a different path. This sort of fits with what J.J. Abrams and his associates have done with time travel in another franchise, namely the latest Star Trek film. The time-traveling characters in that movie traveled back to the past and changed it. But the past they changed wasn't their own past. It was the past of a different reality. That's the similarity, but there's a big difference with Lost. The world Nimoy-Spock ends up in is another reality, the changed one. He's there with his alternate-past self. In Lost, the characters don't see any change whatsoever, even though they're present when they presumably cause the change. So the cause of the change is in their reality, and it has an effect in a different reality that they never enter. The Star Trek version involved the time-travelers simply going to an alternate world and causing the different path of history in that other world, while their past remained the same without them in it.

The problem with the Star Trek way of doing it is that all time travel would have to be really just alternate-reality travel in the cases when it seems to be past-changing, but then why would some time travel be that and others be going to your own past (the ones where you don't change anything)? Why would events after you arrive (i.e. whether you change anything) determine whether you went to another world, when you've already been wherever you are the whole time before those events? So it must be that all time travel is alternate-reality travel to avoid such a problem.

The Lost way of doing avoids that problem, because you go to your own past, but anything you do that you might think changes anything has no changing effects in your own reality but does in the other one. The problem now is that something you do in one reality causes a different reality to have a different history, when nothing in its own timeline causes the difference. But if you don't actually do anything different from what had ever occurred all along in your own reality, why does an action you don't even do have an effect that makes the other timeline different? So something's really confused if the story the writers want us to believe is really the explanation for the flash-sideways.

Robert Orci explains the rationale for treating time travel as alternate-universe travel in this interview, which I've commented on previously. He rightly opposed the idea of changing the past. Damon Lindelof, who worked on that film with him, is one of the two executive producers of Lost who run the show (and both projects are under J.J. Abrams' ultimate leadership). Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have said several times that they opposed time travel stories with paradoxes, and presumably they mean the kind caused by changing the past. Here is one instance from Lindelof:

We're not going to tell you that we're against bending the time-space continuum. We are very for it. Carlton and I are PRO time-space continuum bending! But we're ANTI-paradox. Paradox creates issues. In Heroes, Masi Oka's character travels back from the future to say, ''You must prevent New York from being destroyed.'' But if they prevent New York from being destroyed, Masi Oka can never travel back from the future to warn you, because Future Hiro no longer exists. Right? So when we start having those conversations at Lost, we go, ''This show is already confusing enough as it is.'' To actually have characters traveling through time has to be handled very deftly.

That sounds to me as if they're committed to having stories that don't change the past despite allowing travel to the past (which must be what they mean by bending time). That does in fact seem consistent with everything they've done in the show so far with genuine time travel. Anything time-traveling characters do is something that always had happened that way. The only possible exceptions are the few instances of consciousness-time-traveling, but even in those the small variations are explicitly said to change nothing, since attempts to change things fail to make a significant change (and they were pretty much done with those before they got to the genuine time travel, so they may have solidified their view more fully by then, and it's also possible that those instances of consciousness-time-travel that had slight changes to the past were travel to alternate timelines anyway).

So what's this business about a timeline where the island is underwater and the plane doesn't crash? For it to make sense, some event in the flash-sideways timeline (as opposed to an exploding bomb in the original timeline we've been following, or a non-exploding bomb in the original timeline we've been following) needs to have caused the island to sink, and we get to see the effects of there having been no island for a few decades, presumably with no Jacob to visit people, no numbers to be broadcast, no characters like Desmond or Juliet being brought to the island before flight 815 passes by, and all the characters on the island at the time being dead (presumably all the Dharma Initiative members still there along with all the Others still there, which should include Charles Widmore, Eloise Hawking, and Ben Linus if it's in 1977).

Also, how is this going to connect with the original reality we have cared about for five seasons? If it's to make sense, it better involve something funky, because it doesn't make a lot of sense for the event that causes things to go different in reality B to be in reality A, unless the island involves not just space and time anomalies but causal gateways to affect other realities. By exploding the bomb in 1977 in reality A (or perhaps by not exploding it; it's not clear whether it exploded in reality A), Juliet causes the island of reality B to sink (when there should have been no time-traveling characters to see off any bomb in reality B). It doesn't make sense. My guess is something else is going on. There has to be some device to connect both realities, because they reportedly will end up with one storyline with no switching back and forth (according to what Matthew Fox has said, anyway), and I don't see why they'd start flash-sideways stories without some impact on the original story's reality. I can't imagine how this will all work out if it's going to make sense, but I don't want to rule out the possibility that they just don't have a coherent view. Enough stuff has come together that I suspect they do, and they handled "what is done is done" time travel over a whole season with expert finesse, which isn't easy to do. So I'm looking forward to seeing what they do, but I'm hoping it's not what they want us to believe from what we've seen so far this season. Ultimately, I have to say that this show stands or falls by how it ends, just as Battlestar Galactica did. The writers of that show pulled it off to my satisfaction, and I've liked this show enough that I want it to end well too. I just hope the writers are aware of some way to avoid these sorts of problems.

Artificial Intelligence

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This is the 52nd post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. In my last post, I looked at Frank Jackson's argument for property dualism, concluding the major arguments involving dualism and materialism about the human mind. This last mind-related post covers artificial intelligence, particularly whether a computer program could be enough to generate genuine thinking.

The strongest argument that a computer might think is an argument from analogy. At least some examples of artificial intelligence in science fiction seem to do the same things we do when we think. In Star Trek: the Next Generation, Lt. Commander Data is an android who certainly seems to be a conscious, thinking being. In one episode, Starfleet conducted a trial to determine whether he was the property of Starfleet or whether he has rights enough to refuse to be dismantled for research into artificial intelligence. The argument that won the day is that, though we can't prove Data to have a mind, we also can't prove anyone besides ourselves to be consciously aware. They do the things we do when we're consciously aware, and they have similar brain states according to our best science, but is it absolute proof? So it doesn't seem like Data is in much worse shape than any normal human being, right? We should at least give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to moral issues.

Nevertheless, John Searle's Chinese Room example is designed to show that a computer program that appears to think isn't thereby thinking. You might be able to design a program that follows steps to appear to think, but that doesn't mean it really understands anything.

Put a man in a room and give him instructions about what to do when he sees certain symbols. He is to follow the instructions and write down different symbols as a result. Little does he know that the symbols he receives are actual Chinese questions, and he's giving back actual Chinese answers. From the outside, someone might think someone inside understands Chinese and is answering the questions, but it's all based on rules. This is exactly what people trying to develop artificial intelligence are trying to accomplish. Searle says it's a misguided goal if people think this is genuine thinking and understanding, since the Chinese Room case shows that no one is thinking, even though all the behavioral responses to stimuli indicate that someone must be thinking. This is a problem for functionalism, since all the functional roles are present. It's a problem for the Artificial Intelligence project, since something like this could be developed, but Searle insists that merely accomplishing it doesn't give us anything that thinks.

Searle considers some objections. The Systems Reply admits that the man in the room doesn't understand, and the room itself certainly doesn't, nor does the instruction book. But the whole system - the man, the room, and the instruction book - does understand Chinese. Searle responds that he can make the system disappear by having the man memorize all the rules. The room does little work here. Now give the man Chinese questions, and he can write the proper answers. He acts as if he understands, yet there's no way he does - and he is the system. So the system doesn't understand.

The Robot Reply says what's missing is involvement in the world. Just language isn't enough. Make it interact with the world in more ways by putting the program in a robot that can talk, move around, play catch, etc. In that case, it seems more as if it thinks. A computer doesn't get to hold things in its hand and move around. It has no contact with the things its statements are about. Some have thought that giving it contact with those things would make it easier to see it as understanding what the statements are about.

Searle gives two problems for this reply. First, it concedes a bit much for the artificial intelligence thesis to be true anymore. Thinking is no longer about symbol manipulation but has to be caused in the right way and lead to certain kinds of behavior. It's not all based on just getting the right program. Second, simply getting a machine to move around and interact with the world doesn't make it think. Put a person inside the robot and give her instructions as with the man in the Chinese Room, and you would get the same result - it doesn't seem as if thinking is going on here.

There's an even easier reply that Searle could make (but doesn't). He can go back to his example of the person inside the room becoming the system. This is a person who moves around and can interact with things. This person can even know that these statements are about these things somehow. But that doesn't require the person to know which words mean what. I can know a Chinese statement is about the apple in my hand without knowing what the words mean. So interacting with the world can't be enough for me to understand what my statements are about.

The Brain Simulator Reply says that what's missing in the Chinese Room case is that it's not based enough on the actual human brain. Base it more directly on how neurons cause neurons to do things and such, and then maybe you'd be more inclined to call it genuine thinking. First of all, Searle points out that the whole idea was to get the right program, and then it thinks, regardless of the actual structure of the thing doing the thinking. It no longer fits with this if you model it directly on the human brain. It's no longer discovering the right program but is now just duplicating aspects of human brains. Second, you can do something like this with a person inside. Instead of manipulating symbols in a room, imagine that he has a complex system of water pipes, and he manipulates levers and nozzles so that water moves through pipes the way electrical signals do in the brain. Model it on the human brain. There's still no understanding.

Finally, the Combination Reply says to take aspects of the previous examples and combine them into one, so this would be an interactive robot with a computerized brain modeled directly on a human brain with behavior indistinguishable from human behavior, and then we'd be more inclined to think the whole system thinks. Searle admits that we might find that claim to be more reasonable. The problem is that now we're as far away from stumbling on the right program as we could get. We haven't discovered a program but have simply made something very close to a human. When we say apes think and feel, it's because we can't find any other explanation of their behavior, and they have a similar enough brain to ours. If we say that about this robot, it's for the same reasons. If we discover that it's just a program, we'd be inclined to say there's no thinking going on.

Searle insists that human thinking is based on the human brain, and our minds are just our brains. He resists the idea that thinking might occur apart from actual human brains. Any thinking must be based in something very close to the human brain. Consider the seeming possibility of a human body acting purely according to physical laws but not actually experiencing anything (philosopher David Chalmers has coined a technical term in philosophy for such a being: he calls them Zombies). Or consider someone who experiences things differently from most people even while having the same brain state (philosophers call such people Mutants, again coining a technical term that doesn't coincide with normal usage). Zombies and Mutants, in these senses, are impossible, according to Searle. Something had better be close enough to the normal human brain, or it doesn't have pain, boredom, or thoughts such as the thought that 2 + 2 = 4. Searle just has to deny that Mutants are possible, something David Lewis, who started out with a view similar to Searle's, didn't want to insist on, since there's no real argument for it. Zombies also couldn't exist, since something with a human brain automatically thinks. Maybe this is right (many materialists besides Searle think so, e.g. Simon Blackburn), but it's hard to prove such a thing.

Stargate: The Ark of Truth introduces a very old artifact into Stargate mythology. The Ark of Truth was designed to give knowledge of the truth to those who look into it. In particular, it was designed by those who were resisting the Ori, advanced beings masquerading as gods in order to gain power from those who worshiped them. Somehow (we're not told anything more than this of how), those who look into the Ark of Truth suddenly know that the Ori are not really gods and are not really good at all, that they've been lying to their followers about rewarding them upon their death, and that their primary purpose is to gain enough power to be victorious over their similarly-advanced fellow ascended beings who had departed from their galaxy into ours.

So what is it exactly that the Ark of Truth is supposed to do? It's presented as giving this knowledge somehow to those who look into it. I'm not so much interested in the process of how it accomplishes this as I am in the result. What does this knowledge consist of? It doesn't seem to involve being given any actual evidence in terms of beliefs that then support a further belief. It must involve their somehow seeing what is wrong with their previous beliefs, somehow simply being given the ability to know something that they didn't have enough information to know beforehand. It seems almost like a miraculous ability to know something. One reason for thinking this is that they explicitly say in the movie that the Ark of Truth can't be reprogrammed to convince those who look into it of some falsehood, so it could never be abused if it fell into the wrong hands. It could only be used to give knowledge of the truth. So somehow its mechanism leads to genuine knowledge and doesn't just operate in a way that convinces someone that something is true without being connected to its actual truth. Whatever it does is somehow tied to the thing's actually being true.

I've seen the movie several times now, but it wasn't until the most recent time a week or so ago maybe that this even occurred to me, and it reminded me of a suggestion John Hawthorne offers in his "Arguments for Atheism" chapter of Reason for the Hope Within. He calls it the Gift of Faith. He's responding to the no-evidence argument for atheism, i.e. the claim that we should believe what we don't have enough evidence for and that there isn't enough evidence to believe in God, so we should be atheists.

The Gift of Faith is a possibility Hawthorne proposes for why it might be perfectly fine to believe in God without any evidence at all. He says that, for all we know, some people might be given this ability simply to know that God exists. This ability might just be something God gives to some people. Faith here is nothing like the notion of a leap of faith, where you believe despite having no good reason to believe. Faith here is a kind of knowledge, an ability given by an omnipotent being to allow someone to know of the existence of that being and enough of the nature of that being to know that it's worth following that being. Hawthorne argues, then, that since atheists can't rule out this possibility, they can't go on to argue that the lack of evidence makes theists irrational. Perhaps they have this ability to know God's existence that the atheists making the argument against theism don't have. They can't rule out that possibility, so their skepticism about God by the very skeptical standard they propose (not believing in something without enough evidence) has to falter (because they don't have any evidence for the claim that no one has the Gift of Faith).

The Ark of Truth, then, seems like a nice science fiction device that captures some of what Hawthorne had in mind with his Gift of Faith. The Gift of Faith seems to be very much the same sort as what the Stargate writers (particularly Robert Cooper, in this case) were thinking the Ark of Truth would do. A lot of people I've discussed this with have found the notion of the Gift of Faith hard to make sense of, but Robert Cooper at least found something very similar comprehensible enough to base an entire Stargate movie on.

I remember reading an interview with J.J. Abrams during the writers' strike, when he was supposed to be working on Star Trek XI. Abrams said he was coming up with great lines every day that he couldn't use in the film, because the union was on strike, and that would count as working.

One of Marx's underlying principles for thinking capitalism is bad is that capitalism alienates workers from the product of their labor. They work for someone else on a project that belongs to someone else and don't own anything to do with their project. One of the nice features of some jobs in a capitalist system is that you can identify with your project. Moviemaking is one of those jobs. J.J. Abrams has written, produced, and directed quite a number of successful productions, including Mission Impossible III, Lost, and Star Trek XI. Sometimes a writer doesn't own the characters or the story, but the writer gets credited and gets royalties from how many copies sell. There's a kind of ownership that's there even if some corporation owns the rights to the franchise.

But when the writer's union strikes, and members of the union have to refrain from using some of their best ideas, they get alienated from their work in a way that I think does count as an anti-Marxian effect of the strike. Maybe what that particular union was fighting for on that particular occasion was so important that it would be worth it to most of their members to sacrifice that kind of thing, but it does seem to be an unfortunate sacrifice, and I'm sure the Star Trek film would have been better in small but noticeable ways if he'd been able to use all those ideas.

Heroes is still my second-favorite show on TV right now, behind Dollhouse. But something occurred to me last weekend when I was watching the original V miniseries. One of the things many have said was new and original to Heroes was that they came at it from the everyday lives of ordinary people and focusing as much on how their lives are affected as on the science fiction elements. This was especially true in the first season, and it got increasingly less so as the show moved on (until the second half of last season and the first half of the current season, where we've gotten a lot more of that).

What occurred to me last weekend is that this isn't really all that new. It's new for a superhero TV show, but it's not new for science fiction. Heroes was just doing for superhero stories what V had done decades earlier for alien invasion stories. The original miniseries was especially focused on how the alien occupation affected ordinary people. I don't think I've ever made that connection before, and I'm pretty sure I've never noticed anyone else doing so.

Heroes is much better on interesting science fiction elements than V ever was, though. Also, compare Deep Impact and Armageddon, where you have a contrast between the focus more on how ordinary people are affected vs. a spotlight on those who end up being instrumental in saving the planet. There's something interesting about what Heroes season 1 did that's been diminished to a significant degree but somewhat returned of late, and I accept the value of that in the original V miniseries.

But it's not what drives me to science fiction, and I think that's what explains why I think Heroes got better even as many people thought it was getting worse and why I think Lost, which has now ended up being one of the most interesting shows I've ever seen, took way too long to start getting consistently interesting in the way that would keep me longing for the next episode the way I do with Dollhouse and Heroes (which didn't really happen until the second season, when they started introducing more concrete bits of the larger mysterious backstory that's driven the show since). And please don't tell me you thought Deep Impact was better than Armageddon. I wouldn't place the latter on my list of favorite movies, but at least it wasn't boring.

I'm much more fascinated with the focus on more science fiction elements like various creative powers, especially time travel, prophetic visions of the future, and memory-erasing. I've been interested in how they've handled what healers can and can't heal and the reasons why. Several elements that interested me included a virus that could kill all with abilities that was modified to affect everyone, a formula to give normals abilities, someone who could empathically imitate anyone's powers, several characters who steal powers in different ways, a character who can reactivate someone's powers who had been lost, and the most interesting science fiction move in a TV show in decades, the entire removal of one major character's personality and memories and its replacement with another who had just died (I won't spoil who for those who haven't seen it yet, including my wife who is more than a year behind on the show). If only they'd dragged it out longer and raised some of the philosophical questions more fully the way they are on Dollhouse.

That being said, I really did enjoy V. There was a dearth of science fiction when it was on in the early 80s. Battlestar Galactica was over. Star Trek: The Next Generation started a year or so after the regular TV show for V was canceled. What was especially good about the original miniseries wasn't the ordinary lives angle or the science fiction, though. It was the Nazi analogy. I'm glad to see that, even though they've removed the Nazi elements from the new V reboot, they've retained the fascist elements that are probably now going to be an even better analogy for any fascist-like elements of our own day without the Nazi distractions. It's too bad that they lost those as they lost and gained writers and had to deal with budget problems. But aside from not really being the most engaging kind of science fiction for me, and aside from the problems the show ended up having in its progressive incarnations, it was a major mainstay of my childhood entertainment (and we had them all on VHS, so we continued to watch them for years after it was off the air). It's still amazing to watch the original miniseries now and to see how effective it was at capturing that element that many have given such high praise for in Heroes, a full two decades earlier.

Fate Without Providence

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It's pretty common to find unlikely occurrences in fiction, where the one-in-a-million chance just happens to occur, and our heroes are saved. Terry Pratchett makes fun of this in one of his Discworld novels, where the characters assume that something that unlikely has to happen precisely because it is a one-in-a-million chance.

J.J. Abrams was recently asked about such an occurrence in the latest Star Trek movie. I think his response is revealing. Kirk ends up being beamed down to the same ice world that the future Spock from the original Trek reality happened to have been exiled on, and he happens to be beamed to a spot on that world right near where Spock happened to be, which also happened to be right near a Federation facility that Scotty was on, and Scotty just happened to have been the person doing the research Spock with his future knowledge could capitalize on to get Kirk and Scotty to the Enterprise.

Abrams accepts the radical unlikelihood. His excuse? He says it's the timeline attempting to repair itself and that the movie is about fate. The kind of friendship that these people (or rather their counterparts) in the original timeline had been part of somehow created itself again (actually not again but simply in parallel) in this other timeline.

It's hard to know how to respond to this. One the one hand, this is so ludicrous as to be unworthy of comment. Does Abrams really think it's plausible to respond to the claim that something is incredibly unlikely by asserting that his audience should just accept it as fate? If so, what mechanism of fate does he imagine here? What he seems to be saying is that the friendship itself is making itself happen, when at the time of these events there is no friendship yet. Or maybe he means the friendship in the original reality is causing the new friendship among these different individuals who are very similar, in which case it's backward causation from some future alternate reality. What he's saying just sounds crazy.

On the other hand, there is something that could make sense of this, something he's resisting bringing in. What wants is something like providence. He wants something that could only occur with intelligent guidance of events. When it's writers who have some level of intelligence who are guiding the events, you can get things like this, but Abrams seems to want to accept something like this as if it's plausible, and I have trouble seeing how that could be without a providential hand guiding things along. He apparently doesn't allow for that and has to attribute it to being caused by the friendship or something. I wonder sometimes if the desire for fate without providence is really a longing for providence or perhaps even an assumption that there is such a thing without an admission that there's any such thing.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

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.

Every once in a while I run into someone criticizing the Bible because it contains some depiction of someone doing something immoral, usually when the text never endorses that act or even if it's clear from the general context that the narrator considers the act downright evil. For example, Richard Dawkins objects to the story of Jephthah's rash vow, that if God gives him victory he'd sacrifice the first thing coming through his gates to greet him as he returns home, only to be greeted by his daughter, so he sacrifices her. His reason for objecting? Well, Jephthah did something obviously wrong. So the Bible must not be a good guide to immorality.

As has been said many a time, Dawkins would fail an introductory philosophy or religion course if he submitted materials from his book or similar quality work for such classes. This idea that the mere inclusion of an immoral act in a narrative somehow makes that narrative immoral is downright crazy. No one really believes that. Murder mysteries would suddenly because evil, for instance, because a murder does take place in them. You couldn't have crime-fighting stories of any sort, because those would contain evil acts to be fought against.

Nevertheless, despite this idea being absolutely ridiculous, it apparently comes up in contexts that have nothing to do with the Bible. There's been a campaign against the forthcoming Stargate Universe, the third (and I think what may well be the best) series in the Stargate franchise. Darren Sumner of Gateworld has an excellent discussion of what these objections are and why they fail completely.

Aside from the fact that it's pretty dumb to criticize a show you haven't even bothered to wait to see when you have at best partial information, the argument itself seems silly. It's been rumored that there will be some temporary body-switching, with the consciousness of one person controlling the body of someone else in a different galaxy (which the Stargate franchise has done several times before), only this time the controlling parties will have sexual encounters using other people's bodies. That raises obvious moral questions, in particular if the owner of the body in question didn't consent to have their body used this way. But merely depicting them something doesn't imply endorsement, and it's almost certainly true (given what I know from the Stargate writers) that they will want us to question whether this is ok, again assuming no consent (and we haven't been told if there will be consent to use each other's bodies this way by mutual agreement, which for all I know will be part of the arrangement).

The claim (see the comments) is that it's rape, and they shouldn't be depicting it. Well, we don't know if they'll be depicting it. But they do depict rape on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or at least they sometimes come close enough. They did depict rape on Battlestar Galactica. There were people who objected to the latter, but I never understood why the mere depiction of rape, especially when it's absolutely clear that the people doing it are being downright evil, is somehow wrong. It was, in that case, an easy way to show the morally degenerate state of the Pegasus crew under Admiral Cain's command. The Galactica crew were certainly not perfect, but the Pegasus crew had gone well over the edge to true evil. That scene made that abundantly clear, and it was good storytelling.

The difference here, as some commenters in that thread point out, is that main characters carry this out. But main characters can be morally flawed in a good story. They can even be pretty evil. Why is it immoral for a storyteller to have a main character do something as bad as raping someone? I see no argument for this claim anywhere in any of these discussions.

But comparing these two kinds of fallacious criticisms at least helps me understand that such shoddy thinking isn't present just among those seeking to have any argument, no matter how bad, against the Bible. Those who want to have any argument, no matter how bad, against a forthcoming TV show will resort to the same tactics. So maybe this isn't a problem just among those who want to attack Christianity, the Bible, or religion. It occurs much more generally than that.

A Few Quick Notes

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1. I've been extremely busy. I'm teaching two summer classes and barely keeping up with them. Plus the kids have been sick, meaning some have been home and in need of more attention than normal. So I haven't had time to do much blogging. But I've got a few things I've been thinking about that I did manage to put in Facebook updates, which I might as well put here in lieu of anything that will take more time than I have.

2. Remember when Rosie O'Donnell outrageously called it a separation of church and state for President Bush to take the religious identification on the Supreme Court from three to give Catholics, making Catholic justices the majority? I just thought it was worth noticing that President Obama has nominated another self-identified Roman Catholic to replace another Protestant, and I've yet to hear any similar claims from Rosie O'Donnell (although I did hear that Christopher Hitchens is being consistent on this by finding it grave and troubling).

3. I heard a strange NPR story on the dangers of fracking. It took a little listening to discover that they meant this. It was hard to listen with a straight face. I don't know how the reporter got through it.

4. The Supreme Court could rule as early as Monday on a case Judge Sotomayor was involved in that could lead to some real fodder for criticism in her hearing. SCOTUSBlog has an excellent presentation of the issue and how it might go.

5. Once I get a breather I intend to look closely at some of the Sotomayor stuff that SCOTUSBlog has been posting since before her nomination even occurred. I haven't had time to comment on her nomination, but I'm not sure I would even know what to say just yet. Her actual opinions are kind of important, and most criticism so far has not focused on them but on some political speeches and interviews she's given.


I was really looking forward to the eleventh Star Trek film, due out in a few months now. Casting Zachary Quinto as young Spock was brilliant, and I'll have to see the movie for that even if for no other reason, although I think loyalty to the franchise would be sufficient grounds to see it anyway. But I'm no longer holding my breath about whether it will be a good movie. If it is, I'll be pleasantly surprised, but I'm not expecting as much as I had. I was already a bit skeptical about a script written by the writers responsible for the recent Transformers movie, which was fun but was certainly not interesting script-wise. It was fun mostly because of the visuals. The main human character was painful to watch, and the storyline wasn't all that interesting given the richness of the Transformers material available in the comic books.

It was this interview with script writer Robert Orci that put a full stop to my optimism, though, for two reasons. The most important is that the assurances of producers that I've been seeing that it will be faithful to Trek canon for the fans while still doing something new for newcomers turn out to be a mere facade, given Orci's explanation of why he says it's faithful to canon. But I think the theory of time travel he endorses will also make the movie painful for me to watch, even if it won't be as painful as most Trek time travel stories are.

First, this is how Orci understands the time travel in this movie to work. He recognizes that there's a problem with any time travel theory that allows changing the past, although I don't think he makes it clear exactly why it's a problem. The real reason it's a problem is because if the past happened, then it follows that it didn't get changed, so when you go back you can't change it. If you can change it, then it's not the past. He gets into grandfather paradox issues, but I think those are derivative problems. The main reason is that it just makes no sense to think of changing the past. You can't make something that already was one way no longer be that way but be another way.

There's only one plausible way to interpret time travel stories that seem to change the past (other than the people didn't know what really happened and thus thought they changed something but actually only did what had already happened). If I travel back in time and do something that didn't happen, I must have traveled somewhere other than my past. If I ended up in an alternative time line somehow, then it makes sense to do what seems like changing the past. But the past of my time line doesn't change, and that time line continues on without me. The time line I entered always had me entering at that point and thinking I'd changed the past. This is the only way to make changing-the-past stories internally consistent, but it's still not a genuine change of the past, which the authors of those stories would usually not want.

So I applaud Orci for preferring this to the usual time travel approach. It's an improvement. There are still big problems with it, though. It would seem odd if time travel that doesn't change the past goes to our past and time travel when you do seem to change things ends up at other time lines. So a plausible version of this view must have every instance of time travel involve going to a similar time line, where it can generate a change that makes it diverge from the original one. The unwelcome consequence is that there isn't really anything that we can just flat-out call time travel. It's all Sliders-like world-jumping but with time travel too. You can never just time travel. That's an odd result.

Also, it does disastrous things to the fabric of a narrative in a fictional work that takes years and even decades to weave. Little did we know that the Star Trek canon time line isn't a constant world at all. Every time there's been time travel the characters have moved to a different world. We have no idea what happened after the events of City on the Edge of Forever in the time line that our characters began in. With such a view, it's not surprising that Orci wouldn't mind completely revising Star Trek history, because Spock of the TNG period going back to pre-TOS times and changing things would result in a different time line. That it violates canon is perfectly ok, even if the changes are drastic and far-reaching. It's a way to destroy the canon of Trek history while insisting that the original time line is untouched. It's crazy to think this won't anger fans who see Trek canon as something to build on, not to alter with impunity. It seems Orci wants to go by the letter of his time travel theory in good Pharisaical fashion to ignore the spirit of observing Star Trek canon while technically allowing it to remain in a time line that the movie doesn't follow (except to show that Spock and Nero will presumably never be in that time line again).

Worse still, Orci acts as if this theory of time travel is based on hard science, which just isn't true. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is certainly held by a handful of scientists working in the philosophical end of theoretical physics. It's a far cry from being the majority view, as far as I've been able to tell, though, and it's certainly nothing in the area of being demonstrable by experimentation. I think, in fact, that it's in principle completely impossible to verify or falsify it. There are several other interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the only reason I know of for preferring the many-worlds interpretation is that it avoids the most plausible fine-tuning arguments for an intelligent designer, not a very compelling scientific reason. If Orci is willing to reinterpret all of Trek canon because of misinformation about what science teaches, that's unfortunate. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm hardly confident with the future of the franchise resting partly in his hands, judging by what this interview reveals. I thought maybe they would finally have an odd movie better than some of the even movies. I'm not so sure now.


The outstanding revival of Doctor Who will soon be retiring another incarnation of the Doctor. David Tennant, who I think has been the best Doctor of the whole franchise, is going to move on to other things after several TV movies that also finish off the tenure of head writer Russell T. Davies, the man behind the series' revival. Steven Moffat, who is taking over the head writer's spot, happens to be my favorite writer of the bunch, having written three episodes that I'd put in the top ten of all time and one that unquestionably occupies the top spot. But there's been a bit of worry about who would become the eleventh Doctor. Rumors circulated that they might pick a woman or a black man. I'd be very surprised if they picked a woman, but I wouldn't have been surprised at all if they'd found a black man who could capture the essentials of the Doctor very well. They've certainly made great efforts to be racially inclusive in the revived show, marking a stark contrast with the very white casting of the original episodes.

It's strange, however, to see some of the response that I've seen now that they've finally chosen the eleventh Doctor, and he turns out to be white. It strikes me as affirmative action absolutism. To be clear what I mean, here are a number of different things people call affirmative action:

It can mean (1) outright quotas, where you guarantee a certain number of spots for whatever group you're extending affirmative action toward. This was originally what happened at the college and university level until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for state and federal funding to be used that way.

It can mean (2) idealized quotas, where you lower the usual standards to try to reach a ballpark figure, but you don't do it by the numbers. It's effectively a quota, but because you're not an absolutist about an exact number of spots, the Supreme Court allowed it in 2003 as long as you don't use strict numerical criteria in letting race affect your calculations.

Then there's (3) what George W. Bush calls affirmative access, which is to go out of your way to find qualified candidates but not to lower your usual standards very much, and if there aren't qualified candidates in the target group or aren't as many as you'd like, then you don't lower the standards more to fill up the spots more.

The third policy has always struck me as the best, particularly for this sort of situation. You're casting for an iconic character with a history dating back over 40 years. You want to produce the best artistic product you can, and the choice of the lead role on such a show is huge. It would do a lot of good in the world to cast a black actor for the part. However, there are considerations more important than race, and those should never be put aside if it turns out all the black actors who audition are enough away from what you think the role needs to be like compared with a candidate who just stands out as perfect. According to all reports from the producers, they chose someone who does exactly that. He seemed exactly what they wanted. If they had a black actor who'd auditioned who could do the job passably, it seems to me that it would be immoral to hire him instead of the guy they went with. If they had someone who would have been great for the job if the guy they hired had never appeared, who perhaps might have otherwise been their first choice, then it becomes a harder question. It depends entirely on how much better their first choice is. It didn't sound like anyone was close from the way the producers were talking, though.

So it seems like this sort of complaint relies on a very strange moral premise, which I'll call affirmative action absolutism, a view that becomes very strange when applied to the case of there being only one spot. Somehow the idea is that whenever you've got an ongoing role where the actor can be replaced and not have to look anything like the previous actor, and all the previous actors were white, you've done something bad by not choosing a black one at the next opportunity. Such a view strikes me as completely crazy. Race is an important consideration, but it's not the only one, and there are other ones that can be more important. You have to know that none of the more important considerations are determining the decision to complain that something bad has gone on in the selection of a white actor to play the Doctor.

I can't see how anyone but the producers can flatly say that they've failed at some moral responsibility by choosing a white actor, because only those present at the auditions and casting decision meetings can know enough to assert that the producers are lying when they said Matt Smith stood out so far above the other auditioners that it was hard to consider anyone else. I very much doubt they're lying, though. Steve Moffat isn't out to cater to higher-ups in the BBC. He's a long-time fan who has a very good understanding of the essence of the character. He's a storyteller who wants to tell the best story he can with the best cast he can. Why would he choose someone and then lie about the reasons? It's extremely implausible. Besides, claiming that you know they're lying is stronger than wondering if it's true. Claiming you know it requires having been at the auditions and knowing that there are black actors who tried out who would have done just as good a job or almost as good a job as the Doctor. I very much doubt that's true of the complainers, since they almost certainly weren't present for any of that.

SciFi Samson

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Warner Brothers has announced a science fiction retelling of the Samson story in a futuristic context. SciFi Wire's description of Samson catches my interest:

Samson gives a futuristic twist to the story of the biblical strongman who was invincible until he was betrayed by Delilah, to whom he entrusted the secret that his strength came from his long hair.

I have no idea if they're just repeated something WB had given them or are going by their understanding of what the Samson story is about, but it strikes me as relying on a popular misconception of Samson, one that I've seen gotten right in pop culture only once that I can think of (and that was Veggie Tales' Minnesota Cuke: the Search for Samson's Hairbrush).

Samson's strength in the book of Judges doesn't derive from his hair at all. His hair is only mentioned twice. The first time is God's command to Samson's parents that he would be a Nazirite from birth, an exceptional situation given that a Nazirite vow was usually voluntary and temporary. Those who took the vow wouldn't cut their hair, among other restrictions, for the duration of their vow. Nothing is said there to tie the strength to the hair. His hair is simply part of his being a Nazarite. Nowhere else in the Samson narrative is his strength mentioned in the context of his hair until the Delilah account. His strength is simply something God gives him for use in judging those who are evil toward God's people. When Delilah presses him for an explanation, and he mentions his hair, with every reason to believe that she'd have it cut (given her past responses to his lies about the source of his strength), he in effect sets himself up to violate his vow. So God takes his strength away. But the narrative itself never endorses the view that his strength really did come from his hair.

Now it's possible that Samson himself really did think the hair was the source of the power, in which case the fact that he's willing to boil it down to his hair is a sign that he doesn't get it himself. That theme appears throughout Judges and the Samson narratives in particular. The judges get progressively less faithful and more mixed in motivation, culminating in Samson, who frequently shows little care for the Torah's stipulations, up to the point of putting himself in a position where his Nazirite status gets prematurely cut off (pun intended). But it's not clear that he really thought this, as far as I can tell, and the narrator never tells us this.

I can see how a scifi version of it can get some basic plot similarities, but it certainly loses the main point of the whole thing unless it's not replacing the religious elements with scifi ones but simply tells the story with that side intact but in a different context. I have a feeling they won't do that, though, since the point of doing a futuristic version of it is probably to have some science fiction explanation of how hair can contain within it the explanation for super-strength.

Galactica 4.5 Begins

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The last leg of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica aired last night. If you haven't seen it yet and intend to, you might want to avoid this post for now.

Eight months ago, I suggested a possibility for who the final Cylon model is. Based on the information available at the time, I had concluded that the final model must be someone who wasn't on Galactica when the four had heard the music. What I didn't have at the time (it came a few weeks later) was D'Anna Biers's revelation when she arrived in the colonial fleet that the final Cylon wasn't in the fleet at all. That actually rules out several people I'd considered in that post, but it doesn't eliminate my favored choice. In fact, it only made me more sure by eliminating the only other serious contender I was considering.

Even though I've given a spoiler warning, I want to save discussion of the details for after the jump, but I can say first that it looks like I was wrong in my May post about the significance of the numbering of the twelve models. Models 1-6 and 8 were the known models before the last scene of Season 3. The final five consisted of a group of four revealed at the end of season 3 plus one unknown, not revealed until the end of last night's episode. I suggested that maybe the four known of the final five were models 9-12 and the unknown one was model 7, a number often significant in numerology. But according to Wikipedia, Ron Moore has said that the final five aren't numbered. It also looks as if what sets the final model apart from the four we've seen is nothing significant in terms of origins. It's just that not all of the final five are still with the fleet, for reasons that have nothing to do (as far as we can tell) with how the final five got into the fleet to begin with. I don't think that's a big enough spoiler to have to put it after the jump, since it's based partly on Moore's statement and partly on information I was thinking through in my post back in May, not on what happened in the episode.

I do want to raise a question about this statement by Moore, though, before I muse on the details of last night's revelations. How can it be that the final five have no model numbers, and yet the seven we know do? It may be that the two groups have completely different origins. I get that. But why are the ones we first knew about numbered 1-6 and 8 if there's no number 7? If they're not going to number the final five, they at least need an explanation of why the seven are numbered the way they are, or they're going to look pretty foolish for setting things up that way and not thinking to work their revised storyline into an explanation for it (because I'm pretty sure the idea of the final five being different is a later idea, after they'd already numbered Sharon's model as Eight). I was almost expecting a downer after the excellent final episode of Stargate Atlantis last week, and there were certainly low points to this episode (most of the scenes focused on Adama, Roslin, Lee, and Dualla). But I'm looking forward to the rest of the season in a much greater way than I was at the end of the opening episode of the season back in March.

(Was it really that long ago? There's got to be some moral rule about spreading out two halves of the same season that much.)

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.


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