Computer Chess

I’ve been finding myself, lately, in these days of social isolation, playing a lot of chess against a computer. As we become increasingly intimate, I find that I tend to assign a gender to him/her, usually him (am I sexist by nature?) as I attempt to counter his increasingly sophisticated attacks. I say increasingly because the program I’m using allows me to choose the level of expertise suited to my skill level and then, if I get competent enough, move up, allow him to use the abilities, and insights he holds back at the lower levels so as not to discourage me.

Well, it’s really algorithms isn’t it? For each of my moves the computer races through possible countermoves at blinding speed settling on the one that will be optimally successful, never getting tired or bored or losing focus. When I occasionally happen on a favorable advantage, he patiently plays it out rather than resign allowing me to realize a rare win. It makes him seem almost likeable.

I’m finding playing the game an intriguing way to pass the time these days but as I think about it it’s also kind of sad that a program on my laptop can almost replace social contact.

How the Dark Ages Began

I’ve been reading, lately, about the extreme self-denial, masochistic behaviors really, some of the early Christians imposed upon themselves believing they could atone for their inherent sinfulness and bring them closer to God. In the third century the apparent suffering of choice was to walk off into the desert without food or water in the hopes that denial of basic human needs would gain them a foot up toward heavenly rewards, which, I suspect, they were looking forward to sooner rather than later. There were other ascetics, the Stylites, who tied themselves atop pillars where some of them would stand for years (really!) while their muscles atrophied, hoping to be swept upward when the rapture happened.

Well, such extremes didn’t work for everyone. There were many men and women who wished to gain spiritual acceptance by denying the needs of the flesh but only up to a point. Monasticism provided opportunity to practice a humble, ascetic life of obedience, gain mutual support from their fellow monks or nuns and engage in service to community as they knew God would want them to do.

Such an organization required a rigid structure, though, rules to help everyone maintain the necessary austerity such a life demanded. There was little room for self-expression or individuality; thinking for oneself was pretty much out of the question. Even those faithful individuals not inclined toward the monastic life understood the sacred duties of denial and following the dictates of the church.

Such behavior, it’s been credibly suggested, can account, at least in part for the Dark Ages lasting for 1000 years.

Politics and Reason

I’ve been reading that one’s social affiliation is the primary determiner of the position one assumes regarding the hot-button issues of the day. Well, maybe not everyone’s, but the suggestion is that a political stance is determined to a great extent by social relations, how one identifies with those around her: a kind of in-group, tribal association that leads to consumption and regurgitation of the appropriate sound-bites consistent with the ‘correct’ political view.

To support such a perspective my very credible source suggests that, when questioned, most on the political fringes (which now make up around 40% of the electorate) have little knowledge of the nuances of the issues: global warming, health-care for all, world trading agreements, capitalistic regulation, the social safety-net, the plight of immigrants are all seen through the lens of political bias; which accounts, pretty much, for the divisiveness in the contemporary social dialogue: each side demonizing the other aided and abetted by profit-seeking punditry.

So, I guess the question is, how to discourage unreasoned dogmatic belief and encourage critical thinking: thinking carefully about both sides of issues and side-stepping political flashpoints. It may fall to the younger generations to re-find enlightened thinking.  Their power is growing after all, funeral by funeral.

Where the Truth Lies

I’ve been wondering, lately, about the public discourse with its multiple narratives, each of which attempting to rationalize and validate perspectives of what was, is and eventually will be.

These conflicting views that are clearly apparent in the political and religious realms are adhered to sometimes vehemently and with little room for compromise, the facts offered in support varying according to the narrative embraced. Support for the facts appears pretty flexible, based on political expediency or scriptural sources that have evolved over the centuries to accommodate changing world views.

So, without any sort of absolute truth I guess one’s preferred philosophical beliefs must derive from some sort of intuition: an intuitive sense of the social milieu and one’s personal stake in it all. In the interests of a sustainable future I can only hope that more than a few of us choose a humanistic perspective in support of our fellow man.

Anticipating Imortality

I was just wondering the other day about the idea of cryogenic freezing, what it’d be like to be thawed in a hundred years or so, whether I’d have any sense at all of the nature of things, how to function in that future time (if indeed mankind survives that long). Given the effort required to keep up with information technologies from year to year, here and now, I’ve a feeling that future century would be pretty mind-blowing.

Our, well, your descendants might even have devised a way to interrupt physical degeneration; immortality might be on the table. An intriguing thought, that, even though the reality of ever-lasting life would take a lot of the excitement away from our current tenuous daily existence, be boring even. I wonder if all those of religious faith out there realize what they’re hoping for.

The Downside of the Reformation

I’ve been reading about the Roman Church’s extreme influence over the population of medieval Europe. Papal authorities demanded monetary compensations for all sorts of things. The sales of indulgences was particularly lucrative. Parishioners were assured such investment would reduce the purgatorial sentences of one’s departed loved ones.

By the early 16th century people began to realize the scam: that their hard earned money was funding a papal court engaged in extravagant living rather than winning early release from purgatorial Hell, which resulted in a serious collapse of papal influence not to mention the drain on monetary resources. The people though, still as religious as ever and now without an absolute overseer to guide them to the after-life (which had they thought about it wasn’t all that wonderful to look forward to anyway) found that they really didn’t need to be led at all, could interpret scripture for themselves and make their own way into God’s good graces.

The problem was that if anyone and everyone could make up his (or her) own mind about ‘True Faith’ then there would probably end up being a lot of differing opinions about what exactly the ‘True Faith’ was and whose side God was on, which is indeed what happened. As it turned out people discovering their own personal ‘True Faith’ weren’t particularly amenable to being contradicted by someone else’s idea of ‘True Faith’ which led to some pretty nasty and bloody conflicts, wars, beheadings and burnings that continued for over 100 years.

I guess, in the end, the tumult did bring about needed social reform and, you know, re-establish a semblance of authority.  The means to achieve it, though was certainly a far cry from the message of the gospels.

Embodied Souls

I’ve been reading, lately, that there is reason to believe that the earliest notions of the existence of God, entertained by our primeval ancestors, may have been the result of an idea of an inhabiting soul; something existing within that transcends physical existence. I have to wonder, if my scholarly source is accurate, how such a belief came about.

The idea that a serendipitous organization of protrusions and gaps in an old gnarled tree might take on the appearance of a human face would reasonably, I suppose, lead to anthropomorphizing, to the idea of Being within, spirit even, a belief that might grow with the enthusiastic agreement of one’s cave cousins. The tree could be thought to be of a special sort, sacred even, and if ‘spirit’ existed in certain trees it reasonably follows that the same would be true of animated nature.

From such ruminations, I can’t doubt, the realization of a super-natural spirit could fairly easily grow into a hierarchical spirit world with a God in charge. The real magic in all this, it seems to me, is the wondrous imagination of the human animal.

 

Devious Narratives

It’s pretty clear, these days, that some of the narratives emanating from the public stage are motivated by special interests with ulterior motives being presented, of course, as irrefutable fact.

To the astute listener, aware of the possibility of unsavory manipulations at the hands of a smooth-talking narrator, a degree of skepticism will always be present in determining the validity or falsity of the narration, but, if the story being told, truthful or not, is consistent with the chosen beliefs or inherent inclinations of the listener caution may very well be swept aside in favor of an open embrace of the narrators ‘factually truthful’ account (nothing like the re-enforcement of one’s beliefs to build personal self-confidence) which then opens the door a bit wider allowing for the inclusion in one’s belief system, other fringe ideas that would have been unthinkable only a couple of narrations ago, and, the louder and more often the narrative is repeated the more legitimate it appears to be.

It’s frightening to consider what innate anti-social tendencies we may harbor, masked, as they are, by our supposed spiritual upbringing.

Justification through Faith Alone

I’ve been reading about Martin Luther recently. Quite an exciting story really: deeply religious god-fearing monk confronts the powers of a Roman Church that in the 15th century was pretty much absolute. The newly developed printing press provided a means for the prolific Luther to convey his dissatisfaction with a corrupt church to a more than receptive peasantry who bought into his conception that redemption was justified through faith alone and could be accomplished by the individual without a mediating clergy.

As tensions rose so did the peasantry who overran monasteries, burned churches, looted and murdered indiscriminately in God’s name. Luther, rethinking what he had started, turned on the peasants, encouraging the established powers to put them all to the knife.

Later in life Luther took responsibility for the peasant uprising as well as their ultimate slaughter at the hands of political and Papal authorities. In explanation he responded: ‘God commanded me to speak as I did.’ I guess his personal messages from God might have inspired him to vehemently denounce, demonize the Papists and Jews as well because he attacked those folks with particular zeal, not to mention his denunciations of the Calvinists, humanists and Anabaptists. His absolute certainty that God had shown him the only true way to salvation, justification through faith alone, displayed a zealotry that rather than bringing mankind together in a peaceful harmony did just the opposite.

Well, on the positive side, I guess Martin’s actions in the 16th century gave Lutheran church fathers a lot to think about over the centuries. The idea of justification through faith alone must require a lot of explaining.

 

A Plunge into the Deep Web

I’ve been aware for some time of the existence of a mysterious algorithm alive within the internet that feeds me stories and information it thinks I want to see. It’s usually pretty much right on and I’m assuming it (the algorithm) does the same to everyone who shops on-line or just surfs the web.

Having become aware of this insidious (being?) hovering over my every search I find a couple of things disturbing: I think twice about seeking out a sight that might generate pop-ups that I would find embarrassing should someone happen to be looking over my shoulder at the wrong moment. And, I’m somewhat concerned that my political perspectives are being reinforce daily when it would be to my benefit if I were to receive a more balance view, although, as the algorithm knows, I prefer reading such reinforcement so am inclined to stay on-line longer, which, I guess, may very well be the algorithm’s intention.

So, as I participate in what I always thought to be pure freedom of unrestricted surfing, searching out information, shopping or whatever, I’m being manipulated by an entity who is essentially satisfying my desires and inclinations whether I want it to or not. I don’t think I’m in a filter bubble, or anything, I do get news feeds I don’t agree with but every once in awhile I contemplate escape.  I wonder what would happen, if I’d be followed were I to make the plunge into the deep web?