Archive | November, 2011

Degrees of Freedom

11 Nov

Albert Camus wrote that absolute freedom is simply the freedom of the very strong to enslave everyone else.

One could argue that there can be no such thing as absolute freedom, but this is simply nit-picking, essentially Camus is right.

Have you ever noticed that people who are already very rich and powerful often seem to argue in favour of free choice?

Did you know that both sides in the American Civil War claimed that they were fighting for freedom? (Although they preferred to use the term Liberty). In the case of the Confederacy, this freedom included the freedom to own slaves, while supporters of the Confederacy would have claim that the Union was fighting for the freedom of the Federal Government to deny freedom to individual states within the Union.

Cliff Hanley put it rather well when he said that the freedom of my fist ends at the tip of your nose.

If you dislike Camus’ talk of absolute freedom, then it’s always possible to borrow from the language of calculus and talk in terms of ‘tending towards absolute freedom’.

In this way, it becomes possible to express a paradox in the relationship between freedom and justice. (Two concepts that are often assumed to go together).

Hence one can rephrase Albert Camus’ observation to say that, as conditions tend towards absolute freedom, justice is reduced to zero.

One can also add that as conditions tend towards absolute justice, freedom is reduced to zero. To illustrate this point consider the way we legislate for justice by introducing more and more rules and regulations of ever-increasing complexity.

The above argument may seem to indicate that freedom and justice are essentially incompatible, but this is only true when either is taken to extremes. In moderation freedom and justice are actually mutually dependant. One does not produce any meaningful form of justice by denying freedom, one does not produce any meaningful form of freedom without justice.

This is all very abstract and may seem quite irrelevant, but it does have a certain bearing on how we understand the claims made by politicians and campaign groups for their policies.

So when someone claims that they’re standing up for freedom, it’s worth asking ‘who’s freedom?’ and ‘freedom to do what and to whom?’.

Similarly when someone talks about justice, or fairness, it’s always worth asking how this is going to restrict people’s ability to make their own choices.



Implications of the Geometric Progression for the Undead

9 Nov

A paper published on the Internet by Costas Efthimion , a professor of physics at the University of Florida and his graduate student Sohang Gandhi indicates, amongst other things, that if  vampires actually existed they would very quickly have  overrun the human race.

This conclusion is based on the assumption that each person bitten by a vampire would inevitably become a vampire themselves and begin to bite, and therefore infect, others who would then go on to bite and infect yet more people, thereby leading to a geometric progression. IE one, then two, then four, then eight, sixteen etc.

If we accept this basic premise, then the conclusion follows with, quite literally, mathematical certainty.

The only flaw in this argument is the basic premise.

The literature is by no means unanimous on the subject of how vampirism is spread. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula the implication seems to be that being bitten by a vampire is sufficient, while in Whitley Strieber’s The Hunger and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, for example, more is required in order to pass on the ‘dark gift’.

I should point out here that (Blade films notwithstanding) the undead do not reproduce sexually. Vampires are incapable of sexual reproduction, since the males are prone to erectile dysfunction, while females do not menstruate. (It’s all to do with their problematic relationship with blood). 

Helpful hint: sexualized behaviour amongst vampires is all to do with predation, ie they’re hungry, they don’t really think you’re cute.

It’s difficult to say whether or not zombies might e capable of sexual reproduction given that the zombies themselves show no interest in sex and, being perfectly frank about it, they’re really not that attractive as partners.

Even where being bitten is sufficient in order to become a vampire, there is also the fact that vampires may, themselves, control their rate of reproduction.

One example of this is given in the case of  the vampire Marie, as played by Anne Parillaud in Innocent Blood, who makes a point of feeding only from bad people and who takes plains to blow their heads off when she’s finished with them in order to prevent them from resurrecting as vampires. (It’s a film worth watching for many reasons, but particularly for Anne Parillaud. She has the sweetest smile and swings a mean baseball bat).

If you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense for vampires to control their numbers. The population of any given predator always has to be in proportion to the population of their prey, otherwise they’re going to go hungry. It’s worth noting in this context that even dung beetles limit their reproduction depending on the resources available to them, so given t hat vampires are generally depicted as being more intelligent than dung beetles, one would assume that they would follow the same principle.

Zombies are not necessarily any more intelligent than dung beetles. (I suspect that George Romero might dispute this point, actually, and he prefers to call them ‘flesh eaters’ anyway).

As a result of this relative lack of intelligence, and consequent lack of environmental awareness, zombies are not noted for limiting their rate of reproduction. And since they do reproduce purely through biting, their numbers do tend to increase very rapidly once an outbreak has become established.

Obviously this is important for them, because, let’s face it one zombie on his, or her, own isn’t very interesting and not very scary. (Although George Romero has probably managed to get as much character and interest out of individual zombies as anyone could). So you really need a crowd (plague?) of zombies if they’re going to make much of an impact. Given also that they’re not that hard to kill, all you have to do is shoot them in the head, and they never have learned to duck, they really do need a fast rate of reproduction.

This being the case, one is drawn to the conclusion that the geometric progression model of reproduction is much more applicable to zombies than to vampires.

Why is a duck?

7 Nov

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716) didn’t actually use the ontological argument in order to prove the existence of God. (That is, the argument that, since God is ‘that than which nothing greater can be thought’, he must exist because anything that exists is greater than anything that doesn’t exist). The argument was put forward by St Anselm in the Middle Ages and more or less discredited when St Thomas Aquinas rejected it.

Immanuel Kant put the final nail  by pointing out that existence isn’t actually a predicate. In his view, existence is a means of marking synthetic connections between concepts therefore the ontological argument is synthetic and not analytic and therefore does not convey a necessary truth.

In a way what Leibnitz had in mind sounds similar, but it’s different. His idea was essentially that God ‘must exist if he is possible, and nothing can prevent the possibility of that which has no limits, no negation, and consequently no contradiction’. In other words God des not exist as a result of the definition ofthe word ‘God’, but as a necessary consequence of his own nature.

Leibnitz goes on, in effect, to say that basically God, because he is God, had no choice but the create the world, since it is in his nature to create and that, God being God, he had no choice but to make the very best world that could possibly be made.

This is what gives rise to Pangloss’ continual refrain throughout Voltaire’s Candide about all being for the best in the best of all possible worlds. A comment he usually makes just after things have all gone horribly wrong.

Obviously Voltaire was not a huge fan of Leibniz. Neither was Sir Isaac Newton due to a dispute over the invention of the Apple (And you thought it was the late Steve Jobs who did that).

Essentially the argument would go something like this. God being perfect had no choice but to create the best of all possible worlds, therefore if something in the world looks to you like it might be evil, that’s only because you’re a feeble-minded human and you can’t understand the purpose behind this apparent evil which is, in fact, something very good. If you could only see things the way God sees them, then you would understand the purpose behind what seems to be evil and you would see that it’s all a necessary part of the overall pattern.

Obviously this forms the basis for an attempt to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the existence of a God who is both benign and omnipotent with the existence of evil.

Essentially this attempt fails, because it depends on God being bound by laws or conditions that make it necessary for him to do certain things, or to allow certain things in order to achieve his ends. If God is truly omnipotent then he can have no limits and therefore he is not actually compelled to do anything.

Another problem with Leibnitz argument is that it implies that everything exists with a purpose which ultimately flows from God’s divine nature.

If this were the case, then the question ‘Why is a duck?’ would not only be meaningful, but probably quite important.

Vampires. What can you do with them?

3 Nov

The following thoughts plaigerise freely and have no particular academic standing.

Obviously there were vampires in classical literature, but they weren’t all that interesting, so we’ll ignore them.

For long enough vampires were part of East European folklore, and then they started to pop up in Gothic literature, hence Lord Ruthven, Varney the Vampire and, probably pick of the bunch, Carmilla.

And then Bram Stoker said, ‘Let there be Dracula’ and the world changed. All of a sudden we had a fusion of folklore and Gothic vampirism.

It’s also worth noting that, although we tend to see Dracula as a period piece, it clearly wasn’t at the time of writing. If you’ve actually read Dracula, you would probably have been struck by the extent to which Bram Stoker refers to what would have been cutting edge technology, ie electric search lights, chorale hydrate, hypnotism, phrenology, phonographs and even some nascent attempts at forensic psychology.

It’s also worth noting that for Bram Stoker, Victorian London was the here and now. He was bringing an exotic, occult monster into his own backyard and grounding him in the mundane realities of life. (All a bit ungothic when you think about it).

From this perspective, you could say that Stephen King was essentially doing exactly the same thing in Salem’s Lot, except that for him the here and now was small town New England in the mid seventies. This is not to say that Salem’s Lot is no more than a rip off, it’s definitely worth reading if you’re into the genre (Although the ending’s a bit weak in my opinion). But I don’t think Stephen King was really doing very much in terms of extending the genre.

Interestingly there had already been attempts to move the genre on prior to Salem’s Lot. Notably Richard Matheson’s  I am Legend, first published in the 1950s, which has been adapted into films under the same title and also as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston.

Essentially what Matheson was doing was moving vampires over to a more scientific basis. In a way, you could see this as anticipating Whitley Strieber’s The Hunger. What Strieber also did was to write much of his novel from the vampire’s point of view, albeit in a 3rd person narrative.

I think the next major contribution would have been The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice. She not only wrote from the vampires point of view, but also in a 1st person narrative, taking you right inside the vampire’s mind. Unfortunately, I don’t very much like being inside the minds of her vampires, they whine too much.

I don’t have much to say about the Dark Romance phenomenon, mostly because I haven’t read any of it. I did see one of the Twilight films and I can’t say it made me want to read the books.

Obviously I’m not a traditionalist, I like to see the genre moving on, but honestly, vampires who glitter in the sunlight? Please. Everyone knows they burst into flames, or at the very least collapse into sawdust. As for the whole “my boyfriend’s a vampire, ain’t that cool” thing, well I’m sorry but I prefer my vampires to be at least a little bit predatory.

Having said all this, I do approve of the secularisation of vampires. All that hissing at crucifixes might have worked in a predominantly Christian society, but in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, I think certain realities have to be faced.

Essentially we have two possibilities. Either you take an ecumenical approach and have vampires equally repelled by emblems of all faiths, or you have to secularise and chuck the crosses and Holy Water out.

This incidently raises a question. Coming from a more or less Christian background I’m well accustomed to Christians using crosses to fend off evil, but I’m not sure that Jews would do the same with a Star of David, or Moslems with a crescent.

Perhaps there’s an interesting cross cultural study to be done here in which various methods of warding off evil in different faith groups are compared and contrasted.

Any takers?

Incidently Christopher Frayling has written at far greater length (And academic rigour) on this subject in Vampyres Lord Byron to Dracula. Unfortunately, as the title suggests, he stops with Bram Stoker.

Sequel please, anyone?

So to return to the question in the title.

What do you do with vampires.

Well, as I’ve suggested above, I think you have to start from a secular, if not scientific basis. Much though I respect the work of Richard Matheson and Whitley Strieber, I think there’s always going to be a problem with producing a scientific basis for vampires, unless you want to debunk them completely and have a porphyria suffering serial killer (Check out CSI Crime Scene Investigation for an episode that did precisely that).

Probably the best thing to do is to ground the vampire in real life (as in Bram Stoker/Stephen King et als) Maybe avoid the more extravagant occult features, ie turning into bats etc and beyond that ignore the science.

Beyond that, I think it’s interesting to think about how vampires, if they did exist, would fit themselves into human society, as I’m sure they would.

The sociology of vampirism? You kind of get hints of it in the Blade films and also in Underworld, but I’m not sure anyone’s gone into it in any detail.


2 Nov

Let me tell you a story.
One day Mullah Nasruddin went for a walk. It was a nice clear day and he had nothing much else to do. Besides, he needed the exercise.
The day turned from being warm and pleasant to being really hot and Nasruddin decided it was time to go home.
His normal route hoe would have been along a road, but the road was dusty and rocky and it left him exposed to the sun. Just beside the road, there was a forest.The forest was cool and shady and full of birds and butterflies and brightly coloured, perfumed flowers.
Nasruddin decided to leave the hot, dusty road and walk through the forest.
Just as he was enjoying the cool shade, the scent and colours of the flowers and the songs of the birds, Nasruddin fell into a deep hole.
Obviously the  must have been hidden by the undergrowth, but anyway, Nasruddin had to admit to himself that he hadn’t really been paying attention to the ground under his feet, he’d been too busy admiring the birds and the flowers and the butterflies.
The hole was very deep and the sides were very steep. Nasruddin had to scramble and climb to get out and when he finally managed to haul himself out, he was very hot and dusty and his fingers felt all sore and swollen from scrabbling at the sides of the hole.
He dusted himself off, and tried to cheer himself up.
As he finally made his way home, it occurred to Nasruddin that really he had been very lucky. If he could have had such a nasty accident while he was walking in a beautiful forest, then who knew what might have happened to him if he’d stayed on that hot and dusty road.
When I first read this story I was about fourteen and I thought Mullah Nasruddin was being very silly.
It took me about twenty years to realise that Nasruddin was quite right. He had no way of knowing what might have happened to him if he had stayed on the road. All he knows is what happened to him on the route that he chose. Even if he went back to the road another day, he still wouldn’t find out what might have happened if he had stayed on the road on that particular day.
Essentially you can never be sure how clever, or stupid, your decisions were, because you can never know for sure what would have happened if you had chosen to do something else.
Does that help?

I should add that this is a traditional story that I’m retelling.

If you find this story interesting, or you want to read more about Mullah Nasruddin then there are various collections of stories about him that are available from any good book seller (Or you could try your local Public Lending Library. In fact, do please use your local library the old adage, use it or lose it comes to mind)