Guilt and Shame in the Colossus of Rhodes

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was the Colossus of Rhodes, an iron-framed and brass-covered statue of the titan and sun god Helios, which stood in the harbour of Rhodes, Greece. Built in 280 BCE, it was the tallest statue of its time at 70 cubits high (about 33 metres or 108 feet). Contrary to popular depiction, it likely did not straddle the mouth of the harbour. Nonetheless, it would have been an impressive sight to any sailors approaching the city. Greek myth animated another bronze colossus in Crete named Talos: either Hephaestus or Daedalus made the automaton on Zeus’s behalf in order to defend Europa, queen mother of Crete. He had one vein in his metal body, which ran from his neck to his ankle; it was fastened shut with a single nail. When the Argo approached, with Jason at the helm, Talos tried to repel it and Medea used her sorcery to dislodge the nail. His ichor ran out of him like molten lead and he died. The Cretan word talôs is equivalent to the Greek hêlios, meaning the Sun, which is the subject of the Colossus of Rhodes. Much later the Romans made further bronze colossi: the Colossus of Barletta, the Colossus of Constantine, and the Colossus of Nero.

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Source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coloso_de_Rodas..jpg

I feel like I live inside a colossus of this type: a brazen image of myself, physically idealized, well-proportioned and gargantuan. It is hollow, and I stand inside it with the clear understanding that I am supposed to grow into it. I am supposed, somehow, to fill this statue so that it is merely my own skin. But I have no sense that this thing is possible, nor how to achieve it if it is. Instead I try to operate the colossus and speak from it like a puppeteer. Relying on the full extent of my scant ingenuity I try to create the illusion that I have done what I am supposed to do, or at least that I am in the process of growing into it. But I know better. I have made no gains in that direction. From within, the colossus rings as empty as it ever has.

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Monthly Marvel: Salmon of Knowledge

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I want to share the Salmon of Knowledge.


Salmon of Knowledge

This week’s fantastic being is the salmon of knowledge. An Irish fish, known in Irish as bradádan feasa, the salmon of knowledge has a few stories associated with it.

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Source: William Murphy at flic.kr/p/9EzTuX. This statue, called “The Big Fish,” sits in Belfast and depicts the Salmon of Knowledge.

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Tzimtzum and Inherent Vice: A Personal Myth of Pattern

The last time I wrote about the pattern-based worldview I’m trying to work out, I got on the topic of afterlives and religion, in a way very brief, casual, and personally unsatisfying way. I do not have a strong sense of my audience yet, so I can’t say whether that’s something that would bore or bother you; nonetheless, I’m going to be talking about my personal religious attitudes for at least a few more posts while I talk about living and thinking in this world I’m working out. For this post I’m going to pick up where I left off when I was talking about digital phylacteries: if resurrection is “easy,” why would Christianity suggest that it is difficult for God to effect?

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“Order. Chaos. Order.” Source: Mike Mahaffie at flic.kr/p/q37UpB

But first I want to make something clear: what follows is on the order of myth. I do not mean to offer it as a complete, literal cosmology, not even of a highly speculative variety. Certainly it is no replacement for physics as a description of the cosmos. Moreover, I am open to correction on how compatible this myth is with other bodies of knowledge; if you see problems, let me know.

A second thing I should make clear is that this account is stitched together from Richard Beck’s “Warfare and Weakness,” a series of posts on his blog Experimental Theology, in which Beck looks to combine the insights of John D. Caputo’s The Weakness of God and Greg Boyd’s God at War to create an invigorating, enabling warfare theology that will rescue progressive theology from its doldrums.1 In particular, I am drawing on “Part 5, The Weakness of God,” “Part 6, Let There Be Light,” and “Part 7, The Victory of the Lamb.” I have also layered it with my own views on emergence, reality-as-reliability, and other pattern-based worldview work, which don’t appear in Beck’s version nor, as far as I know, in Caputo’s and Boyd’s books.

Without further ado, the myth:

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Digital Phylacteries and the Simulated Afterlife

If I’m right to endorse the Hofstatderean idea of the self (that is, that self is a pattern, and any instance of that pattern is an instance of the self), then I probably have to support the idea that if my pattern were replicated in a computer, it would also be a version of myself. Again, as always, it might be a poor-quality or imperfect version, but it would still be a version (instance? copy?). As a consequence, a person might want to extend their lives after death by uploading their consciousness to a hard-drive. If you believe in some sort of essential self that is not contained in any pattern, or if you require some historical continuity in order for identity to persist from one instance to the next,1 then you might not identify with a copy of your consciousness (and sub-consciousness, presumably) on a computer. But if you ultimately accept Hofstadter’s idea, then you should accept that the simulation on the computer really is you, to the extent that it is a faithful representation of your pattern.

So let’s talk about afterlives.

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Christian Hendriks 2015; detail of a diorama at the Field Museum

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On Santa Claus and Hofstadter’s Souls

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ear even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside you head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

—J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

 

I.

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Source: Chloe Blanchfield, flic.kr/p/9AZChS

Whatever else Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop might be, in its sixteenth chapter, “Grappling with the Deepest Mystery,” it becomes something like a spiritual memoire.

Strange Loop is Hofstadter’s attempt to explain human consciousness and personal identity through many elaborate analogies, the most pertinent being Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, showing that the mathematical language in Bertrand Russel and Albert Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica was capable of making self-referential statements despite the authors’ best attempts to prevent that from happening. His thesis is that human consciousness—or personal identity or what he calls a “soul”—is a self-referential pattern. A representational system that is capable of perception and categorization (in Hofstadter’s view, perception necessarily involves categorization) should be capable of perceiving and categorizing itself, and perceiving itself perceiving itself, and so on, and this self-perception will get “sucked into the [feedback] loop and cycle around and around, like a tree limb picked up by a tornado.” In other words, a soul is a pattern of thoughts that refers to itself, updating its model of itself as time goes by.

A consequence of Hofstadter’s view of the self—a consequence I happen to find convincing—is that a human brain contains more than one soul. Specifically, because I have representational models in my mind of everyone I know, I have a fragment of their pattern in my brain; if a person is their pattern, then in a very real, literal sense they inhabit my brain. His privileged example for this is a married couple, specifically he and his now-deceased wife Carol (content warning: in many cases Hofstadter seems flippant about serious mental disorders, in this case postpartum depression):

…Our oneness-in-twoness started to emerge clearly in my mind on several occasions during the first year of our marriage, right after we’d had several friends over for a dinner party and everyone had finally left and Carol and I started cleaning up together. We would carry the plates into the kitchen and then stand together at the sink, washing, rinsing, and drying, going over the whole evening together to the extent that we could replay it in our joint mind, laughing with delight at the spontaneous wit and re-savoring the unexpected interactions, commenting on who seemed happy and who seemed glum – and what was most striking in these post partyum decompressions was that the two of us almost always agreed with each other down the line. Something, some thing, was coming into being that was made out of both of us.

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Reliable, Therefore Real

[Content warning specific to section III: discussion of gender, sex which remains (I think) in the spirit of social justice culture but does disagree with specific prevalent ways of articulating that spirit]

 

I.

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Source: PhotoJeff at Flic.kr/p/3QwE7K

I have no interest in any definition of the word real which isn’t useful. If I cannot use the word real to distinguish between unicorns and horses, Conan the Barbarian and Conan O’Brien, Iceland and Dinotopia, then it is of no use to me. I want to say that Iceland is real while Dinotopia isn’t—or, more accurately, I want to say that I wish Dinotopia were as real as Iceland is. Therefore as I try to define this word—real—I want to make sure I can use it.

Usefulness may seem like a silly and fringe-case qualification, but it isn’t. An example that a friend recently provided for me: a physicist tried to convince him that the table they were talking over was not real. He did not tell me the details of the argument, but I can imagine them. The table is mostly empty space, with an arrangement of molecules filling out a tiny proportion of the “table”; there is no firm distinction, on the level of fundamental particles, between the table and the air around it. Even those particles are not “real,” being made up of—strings, I guess? I don’t really know.

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Revisiting: Book-Eaters and Titanomachy

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This time I look at “Book-Eaters and Titanomachy” from The Thinking Grounds, which concerns some metaphors for reading and learning I was exploring at that time.

Image source: Harris County Public Library at flic.kr/p/fksxun

Image source: Harris County Public Library at flic.kr/p/fksxun


Book-Eaters and Titanomachy

TW: a brief discussion of cannibalism

Back in November, I posted the following to Facebook:

Does anyone else find themselves, at times, thinking, “I ate that book,” rather than, “I read that book”?

Eating a book, for me, is different from reading it. If you read a book, you look at the words, understand them, and recognize the whole book as an object. If you eat a book, you do all of that, but then you also internalize it, assembling its ideas and perspectives into yourself. Moreover, you bring those perspectives into yourself as one perspective among many, and you do not take it as is; you fix it, alter it, improve it, nuance it, cut out the stuff that doesn’t work, fit it into your framework. It may challenge you, but after you’ve responded to its challenge, you then challenge it. You internalize it, but you also tame it. If you merely internalize it, and you let it take you over, you did not eat the book, but rather the book ate you.

(Today, I was thinking of a book, and then imagined telling someone, “I ate that book,” and it was weird but also made sense to me.)

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After the End: Meditations on Post-Apocalyptic Media

Upon reading Dallas Hunt’s very compelling interpretation of the totemic transfer narrative in Mad Max: Fury Road, I remembered that I had not yet written about the myth-making and existentialism that run through that film—or, for that matter, more general thoughts on what it might mean that the post-apocalyptic has become a pervasive and powerful myth for our time. What does the wasteland, the world in ruin, do for us? What part of the imagination might the wrecks of civilizations and planets capture?

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Revisiting: The Great Silence

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. I want to continue thinking about Fermi’s Paradox and Pascal’s firmament which does not speak, which I did in “The Great Silence” at Dreamtigers and Silent Skies.

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Image source: Diana Robinson at flic.kr/p/pzpgjM


The Great Silence

One of the projects I’m working on is the Weekly Wonder, through which I post a brief entry on something I find interesting according to a five-week schedule of categories: prehistoric animals on Mondays, plants and fungi on Wednesdays, and so on. On Tuesdays I post ideas, and a while ago I posted about Fermi’s paradox; you can see the entry here.

Fermi’s paradox is the strange fact that, on the one hand, the chances that extraterrestrial life exists and is capable of communicating with us are objectively pretty high but, on the other hand, there is no concrete evidence that extraterrestrial life is out there, let alone has come here. Or, as the physicist Enrico Fermi reportedly put it, “Where is everybody?” This is a serious question, or at least a question which is seriously asked and which many people have tried to seriously answer. Some attempted explanations are quite interesting; you can go to the Weekly Wonder to learn about them. That’s not why I’m bringing it up, though.
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Revisiting: About Dreamtigers and Silent Skies

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs to help readers get to know me better. This week I am sharing “About Dreamtigers and Silent Skies” for my current reblog tumblr, Dreamtigers and Silent Skies. It had formerly been called The Neglected and the Changed, but for certain reasons I chose a new name and wanted to explain it. If I were to summarize my feelings in this post, it would be with these two lines: “Whatever has captured you about the world, especially the world of childhood, cannot quite be made again by art. Yet we try”; and “I exult in the world’s indifference.”


About Dreamtigers and Silent Skies

Why did I rename this blog Dreamtigers and Silent Skies? I’m glad you asked! Both are references to the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, but it might take a bit of explaining.

Image source: Susanne Nilsson at flic.kr/p/fD9a1N

Image source: Susanne Nilsson at flic.kr/p/fD9a1N

Dreamtigers refers to the poem/short story “Dreamtigers” (the original Spanish poem has this English title). In this piece, Borges describes his childhood fascination with tigers. His love of tigers has faded with age, he writes, but they still prowl his dreams. The story (or poem) ends thus:

As I sleep I am drawn into some dream or other, and suddenly I realize that it’s a dream. At those moments, I often think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will, and since I have unlimited power, I am going to bring forth a tiger.
Oh, incompetence! My dreams never seem to engender the creature I so hunger for. The tiger does appear, but it is all dried up, or it’s flimsy-looking, or it has impure vagaries of shape or an unacceptable size, or it’s altogether too ephemeral, or it looks more like a dog or bird than like a tiger.
from Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley

I take “Dreamtigers” to describe and lament the difficulty of capturing in art the particular enchantment that reality has over you—or, I should say, the particular enchantment that you have draped over some favoured piece of reality. Whatever has captured you about the world, especially the world of childhood, cannot quite be made again by art. Yet we try. Our dreamtigers are our attempts. Continue reading