Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Dragon in my Garage

While I was surfing reddit looking for something to write about for this week’s blog I found a quite interesting story-essay from the Atheists of Silicon Valley called The Dragon in my Garage by Carl Sagan. If you want to understand the rest of this blog and indeed read something both very well written and thought provoking, I suggest you read it now.

For the slow ones the invisible, floating, heatless, incorporeal dragon is a metaphor for God. To begin with Sagan seems to imply that not believing in the God-dragon is reasonable; as indeed it would be were the dragon completely undetectable. However at the end of his first scenario he proposes a case where, while the dragon is not directly visible, a number of alternative ways of detecting it seems to strongly suggest that it exists. As he correctly says

you must now acknowledge that there is something here.
It seems to me that Sagan is implying that there are enough pieces of evidence of God’s presence to mean that it would be reasonable to believe in him despite not being able to directly experience him.

However by listing a series of ways in which a dragon is someone’s garage may be detected, he assumes that the evidence for God is as convincing without ever explaining why. By using the mysterious dragon as a metaphor he allows himself to invent proof for the dragon and then transcribe those proofs onto God without ever making it explicit. It is up to the reader to make the connection, but in essence what Sagan has done is played a clever little word trick. He never tell us what the corresponding evidence which god leaves us is, he simply implies that it is there.

His second scenario muddies the waters further because he seems to disagree with the conclucions of his first scenario. In this case he says that

the only sensible approach is to tenatively reject the dragon hypothesis 
on the basis that there is some evidence, but it is not compelling. In this scenario Sagan widens the perspective of the metaphor to include multiple dragons inhabiting the garages of multiple people. This would seem to widen the base of evidence, but he now seems to reduce the amount of evidence we are getting from each individual dragon, making the essay seem a little confused. But who am I to criticise the writing of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century?

Anyway, to cut through the dragon bullshit because it is getting rather tiresome, Sagan is essentially saying that there is some rather unconvincing evidence for the existence of God which leads seemingly sane people to believe in him. What he neglects to account for is the fact that much of the evidence is mutually excusive; you cannot have a god which exactly fits the profiles created by both Muslims and Christians. While we may be able to pick out certain key themes between theses two faiths, it is hard to see how evidence which is so far from these key themes and so contradictory in the specifics can point towards the same God.

Further research (read Wikipedia) tells me that Sagan was an agnostic and the conclusions of his essay point to this. It would be interesting to know exactly what Sagan understood by the term ‘agnostic’ because for me the term is almost meaningless; it literally means ‘without knowledge’ and it would defy intellectual honesty for anyone to claim that they ‘knew’ god did or did not exist. It seems to me then that we are all ‘without knowledge’ one way or another about god, so are we not all agnostic? If we are all agnostic then the term is meaningless as a distinguisher; both the theist and the atheist will be agnostic by virtue of the fact that they cannot know that they are right. It seems to me from his essay that Sagan does not believe in God, but is open to the possibility that He does exist. As yet the evidence is inconclusive, but that, as always, is subject to change. By my understanding that makes Sagan an atheist, maybe not as convince an atheist as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, but an atheist nonetheless.

Atheism literally means ‘without belief in god’. It seems to me that this is a default position; everyone who is not a theist is an atheist by virtue of the fact that they do not believe in god. Atheism is often touted as an opposite and equal faith position to theism but this assumes that there is some positive statement about the nature of the universe inherent in atheism; there is not. It is simply a rejection of the statement made by theists that the universe somehow depends on a metaphysically being which we cannot directly experience; a dragon living in the universe’s garage. People often ask me to prove that god does not exist, but I content that this is impossible; you cannot prove that there is not a dragon living in my garage, this does not meant that it is any more reasonable to believe in the dragon that not to. It need not be proven that there is no dragon living in my garage for me to believe that anyone who thinks there is one is batshit-bonkers.

So, to return to the original topic, Sagan builds up a picture of an elusive dragon (or collection of dragons), living in a garage, leaving the odd piece of inconclusive evidence. Because of this barely palatable evidence, which he neglects to say is somewhat contradictory, he seems to imply that it is reasonable to reserve judgment on the existence of the dragon, refusing to even concede the default position of disbelieve until proven; innocent until proven guilty. While it is an incredibly perceptive and thought provoking essay, it is not a complete picture. Nonetheless it provided an interesting platform for something that I’ve wanted to write about for a while, but never been able to find a good way of getting into to.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Back to Earth

Unless you didn’t notice last weekend was Easter weekend; an opportunity for us all to celebrate the fact that Jesus is dead. I think there’s some more too it that that, I’m not entirely clear on the detail. Given that it was Easter I was expecting the usual dirge of terrible festive TV shows to erupt from my television like raw sewage from a rusty pipe, which was why I was both surprised and somewhat worried when I found out that the BBC has decided to make a three part Red Dwarf Special. For those that don’t know Red Dwarf is a cult comedy show from the 80’s and 90’s which sadly stopped being aired after its 8th series in 1998. It’s really funny and if you haven’t seen any of it yet then I pity you for it, go watch some now. Go on it’ll probably be on Dave, or the internet.

Anyway, I was a little worried that they decided to remake the show because frankly this sort of thing almost never works. Returning to a franchise after is has died a death in order to milk a bit more cash from its withered and useless udders is almost doomed to failure from the start. Not only are they beating a dead horse, they’re digging up the rotting corpse of a long dead horse and beating that. Perhaps the recession has caused the bank of good ideas for comedy shows to go bust.

While I wasn’t expecting much there was a glimmer of hope poking its head above the sludgy sea of cynicism. Maybe, just maybe Doug Naylor would be able to resurrect his brainchild and give the fans of the series another taste of his genius. It has to be noted that Naylor is only half responsible for Red Dwarf; Rob Grant is the other half of the original team, however the Naylor and Grant went their separate ways after series six and the subsequent series were no where near as good as the first ones. I was certainly not hoping for a repeat of the shows original brilliance, but if it could replicate the fun of series seven and eight I would be happy.

While it didn’t quite reach such daunting heights, it was a lot better than I was expecting. It had a fair few good gags and the interplay between the characters was still there despite the 10 year layoff. Inevitably there where some short comings however; firstly it relied far too heavily of self-reference. The very concept made that inevitable I suppose but it feels like poor writing when one has to consistently put a wrecking ball through the fourth wall to get any laughs. While Romantic Irony is generally an underused medium it is best is small doses; too much of it just feels like a copout excuse not to have to make any real jokes.

Another major quibble I had was the fact that it just didn’t feel like an episode of Red Dwarf; their was no laughter track, almost all the sets were CG and the fact that it took place on earth rather than is deep space billions of light years from anywhere made it feel wrong. Ok so the characters were the same and they had the same brilliant chemistry, but it felt like some goofy side project, rather than a continuation of the franchise.

Ever since Rob Grant left there has, inevitably, been a chance of direction to the show. I have no problem with the writers trying to take the show to new places, but it felt like too much a step away from what made the show brilliant; a human, a hologram, a robot and a highly evolved cat alone in deep space with nothing but a senile computer to keep them company. The show really worked like that and the comic styles of the writers was ideally suited to it. Granted they occasionally worked their way into different situations, but this special was a step too far into uncharted territory for the show. Some of the magic was lost on the way into the dark cesspit of the unknown.

The ending bugged me a little; it seemed like they just pulled an old story idea out of a hat, changed a few of the specifics, added a few story elements from other past shows and redressed it to look like originality. Talking lots of old things and gluing them together in a way that has not been done before is not originality. People think that Harry Potter is original, it isn’t. Not one of the ideas is new, it’s just tired old clich├ęs put together in a new way. The storyline for ‘Back to Earth’ (the title for the special if you didn’t know) was not original. It worries me somewhat that Doug Naylor cannot think of one original idea after having 10 years off from the show. Maybe he was trying to induce nostalgia over past brilliance to excuse his lack of an original idea or many good jokes to go with it. In any case he failed.

It wasn’t all bad however. Red Dwarf has always been good at taking snippets from other films and smuggling them into the show. Ok so it’s not original, but the way they do it is fantastic. 2001 A Space Odyssey is a massive inspiration for the show; many of the monsters encountered in the show are inspired by Alien and there is even a sci-fi reimagining of Casablanca knocking around the archive somewhere. The film inspiration for this special was Blade Runner, right down to characters asking their makers for more life and big pyramid shaped building in the middle of London. While perhaps a little thick, the reference felt like good clean red dwarf and fills me with hope that the show may well be reborn. There were hints dropped like bricks off a bridge about a ninth and even a tenth series, so here’s hoping that the crew get back on Red Dwarf and give us another few series of deep space hilarity. You never know, they may even be able to tempt Rob Grant back, pigs may well fly and hell will probably freeze over.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

I don't think I'm turning Japanese

Well I’m back from Japan, as I’m sure you can tell, and it was incredibly awesome. The reason I was there (if you didn’t already know) was a rugby tour with my school. We were the first school from England to tour the country, so it was a pretty unique experience. We stopped off in Dubai for three days before flying to Osaka. We stayed there for a few more days, and then spend some time with some host families in Kyoto before moving on to Tokyo. We did a couple of excursions, one to Himeji Castle and one to Hiroshima, which was fucking depressing. Anyway it was a fantastic trip and I promised some photos, so here goes.

Our first destination was Dubai, which is horribly overrated. It just feels so fake. The city was just build from nothing in the middle of a desert and it feels like it. The city has no history, no culture. A city is more that just a collection of buildings, built in the space of a few decades by oil magnates with nothing more to do that build 7 star hotels and indoor ski slopes in the middle of a desert. It has no history, no culture and hence no character. It felt like any generic western city with no defining features apart from its sheer scale. The only thing that makes it different from any other city is the fact that it is bigger and more excessive; it has the biggest building in the world, the best hotel, the biggest indoor ski slope, the biggest ego, and it’s not even finished yet. The place is half building site half city and neither is all that pleasant. If the entire city were to disappear overnight, leaving only the desert on which it is built the world would not loose much of note.

Sorry I got distracted for a minute there; I didn’t like Dubai very much. Here’s a photo of the 7 star hotel.

Our next stop was Osaka, which was nice enough I guess. The main highlight of this city was the day trip to Himeji Castle, which is one of the biggest and most well preserved castles on Japan. As a historian it was really interesting to compare is with European castles, but I won’t bore you with the specifics.
Anyway here's the castle. It was pretty large as you can see and these photo's speak for themselves a bit but a feel obliged to write something here so I'll just ramble.

And a close up of the main keep which was about 6 stories high or something, and very hard to move around in because it was built for small Japanese people not large rugby players, but we managed.

It's a big bird, it looked cool. I have nothing else to say.
Castle enthusiasts should be jizzing in their underwear at this next one. The rest of you can just admire the stonework or something.

I don't have so say why I put this next one in; it's a fucking zombie samurai.

Ok so that was Himeji Castle, The next place we visited was Kyoto, which was my favourite city of the ones we visited. My host family took me to a temple in the hills above Kyoto which was really interesting.

I didn't get many good photos of this place as i was running low on battery life at the time.

Easily the most depressing place we visited was Hiroshima. This one of the buildings in the city which remained standing after the blast and has been repeatedly restored as a reminder to everyone (as if we need it).

This is called the 'peace bell' it has a map of the world and some writing in Japanese, Greek and Sanskrit engraved on it.

Here's the bell with the dome behind it. How profound of me to take that photo.

Similarly for this one. The flame that is between the arch and the dome (in the middle distance) is only supposed to go out when we have full nuclear disarmament, which will probably be never.

This rock has been turned black by the nuclear radiation, I assume.

That was the last of the excursions that we did. i have a few more general photos, such as these cherry blossoms which the Japanese have an obsession with which borders on the fetishistic. Seriously, they'll just stand there and stare at them for no apparent reason.

We also went to Disneyland Tokyo which was a uniquely Japanese experience, ha ha irony.

The Tokyo skyline... at night.

And some hilarious innuendo to finish off.

That's all folks! I'll be back next week with fewer photos.