Letters Column for March 2006: Blah! Blah! Brain Freeze!


Note that I am dizzy so this may be sub-par.

Also, everyone please wish happy birthday to Hitherby_Admin, who has tirelessly labored on your behalf to add Previous and Next Page links to the archives!

Y’know, this reminds me of that one Borges story with the guy writing the play, who has to face a firing squad.
— Eric

The laws of Tlon are harsh and unyielding. Those who write plays must die. Those who write things that are translated into plays must die. Even those who credibly claim to participate in the playwriting process must be hung from the neck until Act VI.

The laws of Tlon and Uqbar are harsh and unyielding, and it was only later that a court— packed with anti-Uqbar judicial activists— determined that they do not apply within the boundaries of the continental United States.

On the way to his execution, the playwright caught some inkling of this future ruling from the corner of his mind’s eye; saw, with the bitterness of impending doom that his death was unnecessary; cried, “Curses! Curses!” into the darkness of the night.

But the UNIX cursor-handling library availed him not; it heard his cry, but answered him not; and deep within the bowels of the operating system it dwelt, pondering what things it is that curses ponder; and so he died, and we the only ones to mark his passing.

Y’know Eric that reminds of the one about the guy writing the play about a guy writing a play, who has to face a firing squid.
— Juke Moran

If you take out the squids, the ocean is harmless!

(Please do not take this as license to play with the ocean at home, or around children, with the squids removed. Hitherby Dragons is not responsible for any incidents that may transpire if you do so.)

“Yeah, it’ll be great!” JFK says, forgetting for a moment that he is about to be shot in the head. “A real mystery for the masses!”
— Ford Dent

Thank you for your (Audience) post!

I think that in the end it is all right to be shot in the head, as long as one first gets to see a time-defying chocolate rabbit.

Here is why I believe this.

It is because we suspect that the world is without romance, I think, that we fear to die. We fear that in the end it shall be the dreary men who are right and all our afterlifes as dust; or worse, that the canons in their robes are correct, with their preaching of a world after death that most exactly supports their precepts.

We do not fear more remarkable things. We do not fear that some Great Snatching Snouse shall, Seussian, seize souls setting forth, snatching them, swallowing them, hashing them, hollowing them, gulping them down to its dim Snousy belly where their hearts will dissolve while their brains turn to jelly.

We do not really believe in more hopeful things, either. Death could be a gift more generous than we deserve. We could wake to find a completion such as we can scarcely imagine to desire: a Heaven not of the paltry dreaming but the grand one, as far beyond Lewis’ inverted onion-Heaven as that is beyond the harp-strewn cloud dwellings of the Hallmark Paradise. We could wake to find ourselves better, to find our lives and loves greater, and to find that even in our errors and weaknesses we have served a greater good than we had imagined our best and brightest moments to do. But we do not think, on some level, that that will be the case.

We do not even believe the simplest and most plausible of notions, that our lives will simply not finish with our deaths; that the pattern that is ourselves will prove as independent of our flesh as software is of the machine. We do not believe that we will become imago.

And whatever it is we do believe, with the preponderance of our thoughts, we fear that it is the dreary men who shall have their say; them, or the canons in their robes.

So I think that it is an anodyne to fear to realize, in the moment before one’s death, that the world is infinitely stranger than we suppose, and that the dreary men have never known thing one about it.

I think there is ground for tragedy— terrible, unimaginable tragedy— to die the dreary man’s death immediately after seeing the rabbit.

To have the Qwik Rabbit come to you and feed you chocolate milk before you die, and then, before you have any recognition of what that means, before you can understand the world this has created for you, to pass forever from existence into the dreary man’s empty grave. I believe it is tragic if the last manifestation of the endless labors and turnings of your life is the question, “Wait, what the fuck?”

But I think that it is unlikely.

I think it is a hopeful sign, when one sees the Rabbit, that the dreary man’s death is not your fate.

That is why, I think, it is the rabbit that escorts you into Wonderland; that Carroll knew, as all the great fantasists knew, of the rabbit that would come to him before he died.

That is why it is the psychopomp.

It is through the Qwik Rabbit that is made manifest the glory and the thunder of the Lord.

The Qwik Bunny is at *that* stage of the evolution of deities, then. The transience of this particular expression of a god’s nature is due to the fact that all gods pass through this stage, granting pain, or reverence, or spaghetti, or courage to each soul at the moment of death, reasoning that only when there can be no consequences for the gift is it a pure answer to the emptiness of the world, and not treacherously an answer to something trivial.

Time cannot be sliced infinitely thinly and so inevitably there is some overlap. So those at the point of death experience everything it is possible to experience, except where the ynth of some gift has overmastered anothers. Spaghetti is much ynner than the experience of writing a novel, and Borges’s god and the FSM share an affinity for the same moment, which is why most experience spaghetti and only a few experience novel-authorship. This melding of gods’ gifts resolves to life itself. When the bunny notices this, he will, by a divine trick, insert himself into that godlife as an actor instead of an author of it, and begin searching it for just what exactly yn means.
— HonoreDB

. . . silly rabbit!

Divine tricks are for KIDS.

. . .

Is there a name for ‘that trepidation that one feels towards spaghetti, knowing that to experience noodles is to move one step closer to death?’

. . .

Thank you for your (Audience) post!

“Then why would they build such elaborate homes for us to live in? Why would they feed us so often, only rarely taking offense? why do they have made such perfection, and deny us this eden by killing all who venture into it?”

“They think it’s beautiful.”

“Beautiful? But.. what is beauty?”

“Ah… and that’s what makes what they do ok.”
— GoldenH

Thank you for your (Audience) post!

The mosquitos are better off for having had a dream, however fatal, of the obelisk—

Such, at least, is the moral assertion of the manufacturers of FRED.

The user’s guide declares that the mosquitos’ lives are primordial and without form. Then the installation of the zapper elevates them. It gives them a context and in that context they may develop thought, character, shape, form, and emotion.

They are natively formless; they are natively empty; they are a silence without power of existence disturbed by the placement of FRED even as a lake is disturbed when a stone falls in. The meaning and merit of their lives ripples out from FRED like the ripples in that lake.

It is because there is FRED that the mosquitos have names, natures, ambitions, meaning.

Can a mosquito be said to exist without the context of that FRED-caused death?

Is there more to its life than a reaction, a series of reactions, a pattern of reactions both forwards and backwards in time to the moment of its fiery end?

According to the user’s guide, page 31, in the Troubleshooting section, the answer is no. If it were otherwise you would have defective mosquitos and would need to call the hotline at once.

The mosquitos may disagree.

It is, in fact, probable that they disagree.

But we cannot hear their arguments above the buzz.

I wake, and I’m so terribly, terribly cold. I rub the circulation back into my arms, and say a prayer to she who watches over me.
— SusanC

Thank you for your (Audience) post!

I liked this one. I could say something funny, but that appears to be Dracula vs. Frosty the Snowman with the tagline, “Brain freeze!” and I’m not entirely sure how relevant it would be.

I think the ruthlessness that the world shows us is . . . not as morally ambiguous in dreams as in other cases.

Here is why.

I think that almost everything bad that one person can do to another person essentially flows out of violation: that is, it’s not the pain or suffering that’s the problem, even in extreme cases, but the denial of boundaries and inherent rights necessary to inflict it. Pain is an outcome, and we don’t control outcomes; boundary-crossing is a process, and we have an obligation to virtue in our processes.

I think that if we permit the world to grant us dreams, then we must accept the data that comes in them, however uncomfortable. That means that it’s not as cruel for the world to throw dreams of immolation at us as it is to pinch.

Of course, the world shows no moral hesitation to crush people who fall off cliffs, to bite them with nettles, to drown them with water, so perhaps this is not even so relevant as typical webcomic letter answers might be.

More tomorrow!


24 thoughts on “Letters Column for March 2006: Blah! Blah! Brain Freeze!

  1. You have my sympathy for being dizzy — it’s very difficult to preserve creative activity when one is feeling physically unwell. I often kind of give up on poetry for a while during cold / flu season (there are small children in my family, so we’re guaranteed to pretty much get everything), and it must take a lot to keep going with a daily schedule of writing.

  2. I think that almost everything bad that one person can do to another person essentially flows out of violation: that is, it’s not the pain or suffering that’s the problem, even in extreme cases, but the denial of boundaries and inherent rights necessary to inflict it. Pain is an outcome, and we don’t control outcomes; boundary-crossing is a process, and we have an obligation to virtue in our processes.

    This is an interesting and concise formulation of basic morality. I like it.

    How would you formulate agreements, within this framework? Two people agree to some course of action. To me and (I think) to most people, it is a moral imperative that such agreements be carried out, not reneged on.

  3. Is there a name for ‘that trepidation that one feels towards spaghetti, knowing that to experience noodles is to move one step closer to death?’


    Thanataglio-e-ogliophobia ?

  4. I’m…a bit saddened to be called a dreary man. But just because something is dreary or sad doesn’t make it not true.

    the pattern that is ourselves will prove as independent of our flesh as software is of the machine.

    Seems to me that your own metaphor is betraying you here — when the machine breaks, the software stops running. And if that’s the only copy of that software, well….

    “Where do we go when we die?”
    “Where does the light go when the bulb burns out?”

  5. Mr. Goldfarb,

    I’m afraid that we are in disagreement regarding the nature of software. ^_^

  6. Well, this is why I’ve always questioned the Hitherby focus on holes in one’s worldview, distrust of contradictions, and so on. Because the least contradictory, most consistent worldview for our world is that souls, God, an afterlife, indeed all spiritual qualities and entities, do not exist. That’s far less full of holes than something like Christianity, say, which is always asking one to believe in things that are contradicted by scientific evidence or by methods such as textual analysis or by a basic sense of justice.

    But a materialist worldview is dreary, to most people anyway. So, given the premise that we should want whatever helps people, not what is least contradictory, the best plan appears to be to create a complex, contradictory fooling-oneself apparatus. Often a religion seems to be good enough; for myself, I figure that if I read enough different religious texts with conflicting premises, I can keep myself sort of involved with the whole idea, and in hope, until it no longer matters.

  7. (late) Happy Birthday Hitherby_Admin!

    rpuchalsky (probably tangential)
    So far, i’ve found Idealism to be more consistent than materialism, due to it kinda dodging the mind/body problem. Of course, i also find it intuitively *wrong*, but that’s another problem.

  8. rpuchalsky: are you distinguishing between holes as in “statements that are contradictory” and holes as “statements that require faith”?

    Because I don’t think any philosophy is by nature incapable of being consistant, religious or not (it is the perfection we strive for). And I’m not aware of any that doesn’t likewise require faith. (and how much faith is “acceptable” simply tells a value judgement about faith)

  9. I’m afraid that we are in disagreement regarding the nature of software.

    No doubt.

    I can say that I love your vision of Heaven and wish that it could be true. I just can’t imagine actually believing in it.

    (And if you like, feel free to call me David.)

    given the premise that we should want whatever helps people, not what is least contradictory, the best plan appears to be to create a complex, contradictory fooling-oneself apparatus.

    For my own part I think of myself as someone who values a single truth, however hard or dreary, over a thousand falsehoods, however comforting. (I am not insensible to the whiff of self-congratulation in that last statement, but I can’t think how better to put it.)

    That’s not to say that the falsehoods can’t be extremely interesting. I find religion fascinating, and read fiction avidly. Hitherby may not be literally true, but it’s a look into the inside of Rebecca’s head, a place both real and amazing.

  10. rpuchalsky,

    Your comment reminds me of the following logic puzzle:

    A woman is in a room with two exits.

    Taking the first exit leads to the superior outcome if it is possible to solve this puzzle.

    Taking the second exit leads to the superior outcome if it is not possible to solve this puzzle.

    Which exit should she take?

  11. GoldenH, I wasn’t referring to faith as contradictory, no. But miracles are inherently woglies, right? If you take a miracle to mean an extraordinary event in which God or some other supernatural entity contravenes natural laws, then it’s like (to use the Hitherby focus on the sequence of natural numbers) all of a sudden n + 1 = n + 3. Very few religions have faith that doesn’t involve effects in the world of some sort — even Tibetan Buddhism has the transmittal of memory between reincarnations of lamas.

    A lot of Hitherby is concerned with this theme, it seems to me. A miracle that doesn’t really exist, or can’t really change anything, is an isn’t. The attempt to change isn’ts into reality is an attempt to replace the laws of nature with the laws of narrative. At least, that’s how I take the attempt to make the whole process *meaningful*. Narrative is meaningful; natural processes are not, as most people understand the kind of meaning that they want.

    I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing to do. (It does have the problem of power and control of potentially locking other people into your narrative — something that Martin, in the Hitherby story, seems to have confronted multiple times.) But the amazing thing about natural law (as I believe that Rebecca once wrote in a past Merin) is how wogly-free it is. Any narrative is going to involve contradictions — and there seems to be a tension involved between that and the definition of woglies as destructive. It sets you up for a very difficult narrative problem: you can write (to take Hitherby as an example again) that Martin has the ability to destroy woglies, but then at some point the narrative has to actually get there. The classic postmodern approach of saying that people can see the same events and read them as different narratives doesn’t seem to work if you’ve already defined woglies as being undesirable.

    I’ve kind of drifted from my original answer, which was much more about Occam’s Razor and the “God of the gaps” (there’s a phrase that brings woglies to mind) and so on. villum mentions the mind-body problem, but if we assume that neurology is going to progress, then there isn’t going to be a mind-body problem in its current form. Either we’ll understand the brain well enough so that no other entity is needed, or we’ll have identified whatever else it is that interacts with it, which will in turn becomes its own object of study. (Given that suffering the wrong sort of brain injury can change your personality, I’m guessing the first.) I mean, there’s a tendency to say that various religious branches are wrong when they oppose evolution and scientific cosmology and so on, but they’re really right; from their point of view, these concepts really are going to inevitably conflict with their faith. If lack of contradiction is the highest value for one’s worldview, I don’t think that you can do better at the moment than atheism — which what I take David Goldfarb to mean when he writes that he “values a single truth”.

    But I don’t see why people should necessarily value a single truth. We swim in fiction, almost all of us, at all times. People learn how to reconcile truth and fiction, to both agree with an essentially naturalistic worldview (as I do) and create a narrative fiction that makes their life meaningful (as I also try to do, and as I would guess that David Goldfarb does — David, your statement includes “I think of myself as someone who”). Faith, for those who can have it, seems better than most of the various other expedients, as long as it isn’t a reactionary faith of the “Christianity means hating the gay” kind that some people try to promulgate.

    Longest Hitherby comment ever, I know — but to answer Rebecca too, isn’t your logic puzzle a bit like Pascal’s Wager? It seems to have some of the same problems. But for now I’ll just point out how it assumes narrativity; both exits lead to an outcome.

  12. Standing still in front of the uncertainty of the problem is the only alternative sure to prevent oneself from achieving the “Superior Outcome”. Take the first door.

  13. Everyone takes an exit whether they want to or not, PM. Standing still isn’t really the problem. Or, looking at it another way, standing (mentally) still is a sort of Buddhist solution in which you give up both on the idea of superiority and the idea of outcomes.

    I’m not there, I’m still trying the old cartoon trick of painting a door outline and seeing if it makes a real door. Unfortunately, whenever the Roadrunner whizzes through …

  14. Miracles are only woglies if you accept that the things we interpret as “the laws of nature” have absolute primacy and inviolability.

    If we grant them that, if we let our assumptions state that there are physical rules and laws that are the foundation of the world, and that for things to act otherwise creates not only an anomaly, but an actual logical contradiction…

    Well, for one thing, you can’t get that from observation. Problem of induction, see, for one thing. You can’t get it from science, as that’s not what science is for, and you can’t use an assumption to prove itself.

    Now, that assumption, that these rules we have partially deduced are absolute… it’s a useful one! It works well for science and engineering and all that stuff.

    Might not be a true one, though. If miracles are possible, then by definition it isn’t. And using this assumption to disprove miracles is begging the question.

    Mind, there’s a long and distinguished history of begging the question on this issue. But begging the question makes the fullness of the world cry.

    I admit the possibility that there is a way that, without begging the question, one can still show “natural laws” to be such as to have any violation of them be a logical contradiction. But a quick mental overview of possible approaches fails to show any obvious method.

    Could you, then, tell me why the contravening of natural law is a logical contradiction? Also, in the process, could you tell me how you define the term “natural law”?


  15. Eric, if we ever really observed things like angels and so on, they’d be part of natural law, pretty much by definition. If miracles occured testeably — even if there was only one occurance in history that could only be explained by miracle instead of by currently known natural law — then a science of miracles would spring up to describe them, and they would eventually no longer be considered to be supernatural. Science doesn’t concern itself with what is “natural” vs “supernatual”, really, it concerns itself with what is observeable. That’s basic both to science’s understanding of itself *and* to Christian theology’s explanation of why God doesn’t just tell everybody that He exists.

    The Hitherbyverse, of course, is different in this respect. Ordinary people in the Hitherbyverse come into contact with fairies and so on; theologians do experiments. For someone in the Hitherbyverse, it would indeed be a delusion to hold to a version of natural law that didn’t include gods. But, you know, for the purposes of this discussion, that’s the C.S. Lewis effect. A fictional universe designed to point up “what people should see” about the real universe is not really a convincing argument, because you can set up a fictional universe with evidence that the real one doesn’t contain — not that I think that this is what Hitherby is doing. I just always have problems with fictional universes in which people feel sorry for atheists for not seeing the obvious in which the universe has been written so that evidence really is obvious, instead of, say, imperceptable.

    But Hitherby clearly “wants” to say something about the real world, right? There’s a recurring gesture towards “this is a webcomic, don’t expect too much from it” which is well and good, since if the writing took itself too seriously, it would lose most of its value — but at the same time, the musings about the dreary men who see no afterlife wouldn’t make sense if this was just about Hitherby and nothing else.

    So — there’s a contradiction. When someone like David says that they see a single truth that doesn’t include God, I think they’re right, in terms of what someone can be reasonably described to see instead of to take on faith. And that really is the most *consistent* solution for our world, it solves all the problems at once. Troubled by the problem of pain? Well, it’s no problem if all events are essentially meaningless. Things just happen.

    So I think there’s a problem with consistency, or whatever it is you want to call the integrity of the world that woglies destroy. I can fully imagine, or make up legend-reasons, why Hitherby was written with this emphasis — game designers generally value consistency at some level because they make rules, math and computer science people value it, people with abuse histories most especially are concerned with putting a shattered world back together into something whole — but I have significant doubts about whether an answer that preserves hope can really preserve it as well. Once Rebecca wrote something in a Merin about her premises (where have the Merin gone, anyway?) that she trusts that the universe does not resolve down to a contradiction. But faith is a contradiction, isn’t it?

  16. I’ll add one more thing to that. I would guess that it’s possible to write a consistent worldview that preserves hope. But that would be doing a better job than any world religion, really. Given that this is after all a webcomic, I think that there’s probably going to come a point where the narrative gets too difficult to write, and at that point we’ll see something mystic and impressive, but not really that consistent — i.e., Martin can’t really succeed, because it’s too difficult to *describe* how he’d succeed. A sort of metanarrative dilemma. If Rebecca had defined Jane and Martin’s goals differently, then we’d see a naarrative arc that could be wrapped up pretty easily, but that would be nowhere near as valuable. So I’m quite happy with it the way it is.

  17. But faith is a contradiction, isn’t it?

    Err, no?

    That is to say, what causes you to believe otherwise?

    (I assume, here, that you refer to faith in and of itself being a contradiction. If you are simply saying that certain people {possibly even all people!} believe contradictions, then you have no argument from me.)

    I do not see the contradiction intrinsic to the idea of faith. Could you please show me what you mean?


    On a side issue…

    I do not believe that you are being fair to miracles. While I’ll agree that “natural” and “supernatural” are often woefully inadequate categories for thinking about such things, (I blame the Renaissance! Self-important metaphysically dualistic 15th century bastards!), I do not agree that a single instance in the past that’s best explained by a miracle would suffice for a science of miracles, which does not exist in our world.

    Here is why.

    First, I do not believe that it is possible for there to be an event that is explainable only in terms of a miracle. People are better at providing daft and incorrect alternate explanations for things than fish are at swimming. Thus, for the rest of this argument, I will work under the assumption that what you mean is an event that is best explained by a miracle. If my interpretation here is wrong, could you please show me how it’s even hypothetically possible to have an event that can be explained in exactly one way?

    Second, there are various historical events that one could build a decent case for the miraculous nature of. In such cases, people who already believe in miracles consider them to be miracles, or at least to possibly be miracles. Likewise, people who disbelieve in miracles come up with alternate explanations. This demonstrates that people have a strong tendency to interpret any debatably miraculous events within the framework of their existing beliefs. Thus, a single most-likely-miraculous event creating a sea change in the way we think about causality would not, I believe, be consistant with what we know about humans.

    Third, science is no good at single unusual things. It isn’t really well-equipped to deal with them. If there were exactly one clearly miraculous event, I don’t think we’d get a useful science out of it.

    Fourth, and finally, I believe that to the extent that it’s possible for a science of miracles to exist, it has already existed since, at the latest, the fifth century CE.


    Finally, and on a tangent, I don’t think that one should really talk about a given solution being more or less contradictory than another. Either something is contradictory, or it isn’t. Contradictions do not admit to degrees of graduation.

    Do you disagree? If so, why?


  18. Well, faith pretty much by definition is a belief in something that there is no good evidence for. If someone had good evidence for the existence of God, in the form of a repeatable experiment (I’ll leave aside the issue of a singular miracle), a mathematical proof, or of lightning bolts preferentially hitting doubters etc. then it wouldn’t take faith to believe in God any more than it takes faith to believe in electricity.

    Therefore, faith appears to me to be essentially contradictory. If you want to build a wogly-free worldview, better to leave out faith entirely, right? Because faith can introduce just about anything. And it almost inevitably conflicts (if the existing world religions are any guide) with the observed universe, which is noteably contradiction-free.

    With regard to the possible singularity of miracles, I think that it’s clearly possible to have a miracle that can be explained no other (believable) way. Clearly anything approaching omnipotence would include the ability to do such a miracle and make everyone believe that it was a miracle. (Which, according to my poor grasp of Christian theology, is exactly why such miracles don’t occur.) I don’t know what you’re referring to about 5th century CE.

    Lastly, I don’t think that contradiction is an all-or-nothing affair. It may be in certain branches of math, but in general usage, people talk about degrees of contradiction quite often. For instance, the scientist who is also a young earth creationist is living a more contradictory life than the believer who is indifferently good according to the dictates of the religion and hopes to kind of skate by on the afterlife without doing much about it.

  19. I never understood the concept that faith requires an absence of proof. Faith doesn’t *need* proof – but would our faith in an idea be shaken by proof that the idea is correct? No. People often have their faith stengthened by their experiences, becoming more devout. These experiences are certainly not evidence *against* their faith.

    And while faith, on it’s own, can introduce literally anything, it can’t when combined with a larger philosophy, such as natural science or a religion. The christian faith cannot include something more powerful than god without being inconsistant. But this idea can be removed to create a more consistant philosophy. Therefore while faith can be potentially inconsistant with reality, it doesn’t have to be, if you have faith in the right things.

    Maybe it’s just my scientific background, where I regularly use incomplete or special-case theories to solve problems. But the existance of woglies doesn’t bother me. And, frankly, I think they’re an important and even necessary part of our world.

  20. I don’t think that you are quite getting my argument, GoldenH. First, since this is Easter, PZ Myers. Probably worth reading, it’s short. I agree with most of it.

    I think that you need to start with something like that if you’re looking at things clearly. But, as Myers says, wishful thinking is no crime. I’m arguing *against* too much consistency, which — if you read Maya talking to Siddhartha in the excellent Hitherby series — almost always comes off as rather harsh, whether you’re talking Christian, Buddhist, existential or whatever. All of these are concerned to a greater or lesser degree with penetrating illusions to help someone by having them see a reality. But what about the people left behind, who aren’t going to make it for whatever reason? C.S. Lewis created a special doctrine in which a property of Heaven was that people going there could have no sympathy for people going to Hell, because otherwise that would give Hell a form of power over Heaven — the Hellbound could make the Heavenly feel bad. Buddhism has the idea that people get reincarnated until they get it right, but I’m concerned with what happens until then (i.e., in Buddhist terms, I guess that’s my point of attachment that keeps me from progressing). Like Jane, I guess, and unlike Martin, I really would like an answer that doesn’t exclude anyone, and if it doesn’t, it seems to me that it’s going to have to be plural, which means inconsistent.

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