A Philosopher's Blog

Interstellar, Science & Fantasy

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Religion, Science by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2015

Although I like science fiction, I did not see Interstellar until fairly recently—although time is such a subjective sort of thing. One reason I decided to see it is because some have claimed that the movie should be shown in science classes, presumably to help the kids learn science. Because of this, I expected to see a science fiction movie. Since I write science fiction, horror and fantasy stuff, it should not be surprising that I get a bit obsessive about genre classifications. Since I am a professor, it should also not be surprising that I have an interest in teaching methods. As such, I will be considering Interstellar in regards to both genre classifications and its education value in the context of science. There will be spoilers—so if you have not seen it, you might wish to hold off reading this essay.

While there have been numerous attempts to distinguish between science and fantasy, Roger Zelazny presents one of the most brilliant and concise accounts in a dialogue between Yama and Tak in Lord of Light. Tak has inquired of Yama about whether a creature, a Rakshasa, he has seen is a demon or not. Yama responds by saying, “If by ‘demon’ you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume any shape — then the answer is no.  This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect. … It is not a supernatural creature.”

Tak, not surprisingly, does not see the importance of this single untruth in the definition. Yama replies with “Ah, but it makes a great deal of difference, you see.  It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy — it is a matter of essence.  The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom, and the unknown.  Some do bow in that final direction.  Others advance upon it.  To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three.  I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable”

In Lord of Light, the Rakshasa play the role of demons, but they are aliens—the original inhabitants of a world conquered by human colonists. As such, they are natural creatures and fall under the domain of science. While I do not completely agree with Zelazny’s distinction, I find it appealing and reasonable enough to use as the foundation for the following discussion of the movie.

Interstellar initially stays safely within the realm of science-fiction by staying safely within the sphere of scientific speculation regarding hypersleep, wormholes and black holes. While the script does take some liberties with the science, this is fine for the obvious reason that this is science fiction and not a science lecture. Interstellar also has the interesting bonus of having contributed to real science regarding the appearance of black holes. That aspect would provide some justification for showing it (or some of it) in a science class.

Another part of the movie that would be suitable for a science class are the scenes in which Murph thinks that her room might be haunted by a ghost. Cooper, her father, urges her to apply the scientific method to the phenomenon. Of course, it might be considered bad parenting for a parent to urge his child to study what might be a dangerous phenomenon in her room. Cooper also instantly dismisses the ghost hypothesis—which can be seen as being very scientific (since there has been no evidence of ghosts) to not very scientific (since this might be evidence of ghosts).

The story does include the point that the local school is denying that the moon-landings really occurred and the official textbooks support this view. Murph is punished at school for arguing that the moon landings did occur and is rewarded by Cooper. This does make a point about science denial and could thus be of use in the classroom.

Rather ironically, the story presents its own conspiracies and casts two of the main scientists (Brand and Mann) as liars. Brand lies about his failed equation for “good” reasons—to keep people working on a project that has a chance and to keep morale up. Mann lies about the habitability of his world because, despite being built up in the story as the best of the scientists, he cannot take the strain of being alone. As such, the movie sends a mixed-message about conspiracies and lying scientists. While learning that some people are liars has value, this does not add to the movie’s value as a science class film. Now, to get back to the science.

The science core of the movie, however, focuses on holes: the wormhole and the black hole. As noted above, the movie does stick within the realm of speculative science in regards to the wormhole and the black hole—at least until near the end of the movie.

It turns out that all that is needed to fix Brand’s equation is data from inside a black hole. Conveniently, one is present. Also conveniently, Cooper and the cool robot TARS end up piloting their ships into the black hole as part of the plan to save Brand. It is at this point that the movie moves from science to fantasy.

Cooper and TARS manage to survive being dragged into the black hole, which might be scientifically fine. However, they are then rescued by the mysterious “they” (whoever created the wormhole and sent messages to NASA).

Cooper is transported into a tesseract or something. The way it works in the movie is that Cooper is floating “in” what seems to be a massive structure. In “reality” it is nifty blend of time and space—he can see and interact with all the temporal slices that occurred in Murph’s room. Crudely put, it allows him to move in time as if it were space. While it is also sort of still space. While this is rather weird, it is still within the realm of speculative science fiction.

Cooper is somehow able to interact with the room using weird movie plot rules—he can knock books off the shelves in a Morse code pattern, he can precisely change local gravity to provide the location of the NASA base in binary, and finally he can manipulate the hand of the watch he gave his daughter to convey the data needed to complete the equation. Weirdly, he cannot just manipulate a pen or pencil to just write things out. But, movie. While a bit absurd, this is still science fiction.

The main problem lies with the way Cooper solves the problem of locating Murph at the right time. While at this point I would have bought the idea that he figured out the time scale of the room and could rapidly check it, the story has Cooper navigate through the vast time room using love as a “force” that can transcend time. While it is possible that Cooper is wrong about what he is really doing, the movie certainly presents it as if this love force is what serves as his temporal positioning system.

While love is a great thing, there are no even remotely scientific theories that provide a foundation for love having the qualities needed to enable such temporal navigation. There is, of course, scientific research into love and other emotions. The best of current love science indicates that love is a “mechanical” phenomena (in the philosophical sense) and there is nothing to even suggest that it provides what amounts to supernatural abilities.

It would, of course, be fine to have Cooper keep on trying because he loves his children—love does that. But making love into some sort of trans-dimensional force is clearly fantasy rather than science and certainly not suitable for a science lesson (well, other than to show what is not science).

One last concern I have with using the movie in a science class is the use of what seem to be super beings. While the audience learns little of the beings, the movie does assert to the audience that these beings can obviously manipulate time and space. They create the wormhole, they pull Cooper and TARS from a black hole, they send Cooper back in time and enable him to communicate in stupid ways, and so on. The movie also tells the audience the beings are probably future humans (or what humanity becomes) and that they can “see” all of time. While the movie does not mention this, this is how St. Augustine saw God—He is outside of time. They are also clearly rather benign and show demonstrate that that do care about individuals—they save Cooper and TARS. Of course, they also let many people die needlessly.

Given these qualities, it is easy to see these beings (or being) as playing the role of God or even being God—a super powerful, sometimes benign being, that has incredible power over time and space. Yet is fine with letting lots of people die needlessly while miraculously saving a person or two.

Given the wormhole, it is easy to compare this movie to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This show had wormhole populated by powerful beings that existed outside of our normal dimensions. To the people of Bajor, these beings were divine and supernatural Prophets. To Star Fleet, they were the wormhole aliens. While Star Trek is supposed to be science fiction, some episodes involving the prophets did blur the lines into fantasy, perhaps intentionally.

Getting back to Interstellar, it could be argued that the mysterious “they” are like the Rakshasa of Lord of Light in that they (or whatever) have many of the attributes of God, but are not supernatural beings. Being fiction, this could be set by fiat—but this does raise the boundary question. To be specific, does saying that something that has what appear to be the usual supernatural powers is not supernatural make it science-fiction rather than fantasy? Answering this requires working out a proper theory of the boundary, which goes beyond the scope of this essay. However, I will note that having the day saved by the intervention of mysterious and almost divinely powerful beings does not seem to make the movie suitable for a science class. Rather, it makes it seem to be more of a fantasy story masquerading as science fiction.

My overall view is that showing parts of Interstellar, specifically the science parts, could be fine for a science class. However, the movie as a whole is more fantasy than science fiction.

 

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Cheben at Paizo Store & DriveThruRPG

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2013

Cheben-Cover

Description

The good folks of Cheben have four problems they need solved.  To start things off, the dead have been walking about in the old graveyard and scouts have reported seeing something else skulking around the old mausoleum. Good Father Rollin would go deal with them himself, but he is busy ministering to the spiritual needs of the community.

Second, goblins have been spotted near the old auxiliary armory and it is feared they might have set up a base of operations on the island. The militia would handle the problem, but the mayor worries that the goblins might be engaged in a ruse to lure away the defenders of the town.

Third, an area of woods near the town is permanently in shadow, no doubt due to magic of some sort. Two hunters have gone missing in the woods and others have reported siting strange creatures in the woods. The town wizard would deal with this, but he is busy with critical research, which leads to the final problem.

Kosven, the town wizard, needs some brave souls to investigate an old and abandoned library. The library has reputation for being haunted and no one in the town wants to face what lurks within its walls.

As usual, it is up to starting adventurers to solve the villagers’ problems. Or die trying.

Cheben is a Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure. It is intended for a party of 1st-3rd level characters.

Here are some of the features of the adventure:

  • Detailed color maps for the adventure.
  • Full statistics are included for all encounters—no need to look up monsters.
  • New Monsters (Paper Phantom, Silent Guardian (Least), Rage Wolf, and Whip Plant).
  • Retro Art (=Bad Art).
  • A complete campaign starter adventure with four distinct adventure areas.

Available  on Amazon
Available at DriveThruRPG
Available at the Paizo Store

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Cheben Monsters & Maps

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See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Lawful Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2013
Book cover, Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gyga...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I am a professional philosopher, my view of ethics was significantly shaped by the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons alignment system. This role-playing game provided players with a choice between the alignments: neutral, lawful neutral, chaotic neutral, neutral good, neutral evil, lawful good, lawful evil, chaotic good or chaotic evil. The player’s choice of alignment determined how she would (or at least should) play her character. As might be imagined, morality tends to be a significant part of fantasy role-playing games. After all, the fantasy genre has traditionally been about the epic battle between good and evil (or law and chaos).

While my training in philosophy has provided me with a robust set of ethical theories ranging from moral absolutism to moral nihilism, I still find the AD&D alignment system rather useful for describing people and their actions. In my own case, I find the alignment system a handy organizer. In terms of speaking with other gamers, it is a handy way to get across my view of an actual person. For example, if I say “what he did was chaotic neutral at best” a fellow gamer knows just what that means. Or should.

One interesting aspect of the alignment system is that it applies to organizations and not just individuals.  This, interestingly enough, includes entire nations. While an entire nation will generally not be monolithic in its alignment (after all, evil nations have their plucky rebels and good nations have their malign plotters), a country can be described generally in terms of one of the alignments. In the fantasy settings of role-playing games, this alignment is usually set by the rulers. For example, a country ruled by a council of evil necromancers would be evil. As another example, a country ruled by a paladin queen would be good. Real life countries follow the same model. That is, the effective alignment of the country is set by the alignment of those in power. To use the obvious example, during WWII not all Germans were evil, but Germany acted as a rather evil nation. To be fair, most nations tend to be evil and, more specifically, lawful evil.

Pathfinder, which is a current variant of Dungeons & Dragons, defines the alignment of lawful evil in the following way:

 

A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order, but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.

This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.

Some lawful evil people and creatures commit themselves to evil with a zeal like that of a crusader committed to good. Beyond being willing to hurt others for their own ends, they take pleasure in spreading evil as an end unto itself. They may also see doing evil as part of a duty to an evil deity or master.

Lawful evil represents methodical, intentional, and organized evil.

 

This definition nicely captures the behavior of most countries in terms of how they operate (or desire to operate). In regards to the lawful aspect of the alignment, it is obvious that a country would tend to be lawful. That is, they have a set of laws aimed at creating order and expect the citizens to be loyal to the rulers. Appeals to the value of tradition, be they religious or social, are commonly used to persuade the citizens to maintain the existing order. Hierarchy is, of course, essential to the state as is a willingness on the part of the citizens to follow the laws.

Anarchists and other thinkers have argued that the state is essentially evil—interestingly enough because the state is supposed to be opposed to freedom and dignity. While it could be argued that evil is not a necessary quality of a state, the rulers of states always seem quite ready to restrict freedom in order to maintain security and order. There is also the obvious fact that the rulers of states generally act to take or do what they wish, albeit within the limits of the rules (even if they must create new rules and laws to allow this behavior—note how the Obama administration carefully argues that drone strikes and Prism are both legal).

As the description notes, some lawful evil people (and nations) profess to have a better sort of morality and use this to claim that they are good people, especially when engaged in activities that are rather clearly not good at all. Interestingly enough, the lawful evil type tends to avail herself of utilitarianism. The idea is rather straightforward: a person can claim that the seemingly evil acts being committed (like drone assassinations, domestic spying, enhanced interrogation, denying women rights, allowing pollution, and so on) are not evil because they serve the greater good. Or, rather, the greater good as they see it. Perhaps they truly believe they are on the side of the angels even while they are using the devil’s tools.

 

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Shark Island Pathfinder RPGCA Free on Amazon

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on July 11, 2013

Shark-Island-Cover

A Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 1st 3rd level characters.

Free on Amazon from 7/11/2013-7/15/2013

Description

After the fall of a great empire, the survivors set out in the remaining ships in search of new lives elsewhere in the world. In the course of the voyage, some of the ships became lost. During one particularly violent storm, several ships were separated from the main fleet and most of those were destroyed. A few, however, survived to see the sun shining on a promising new home-a seemingly empty island. After discussing the matter, the captains decided to remain on the island and the people set out to construct a fortress and a village.

For the first year, things went well for them. They completed their houses, established the fortress and planted crops. Unfortunately, the survivors had brought their doom with them.

Available on Amazon.

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Shark Island Monsters & Maps

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Smelter PFRPGC Adventure Free on Amazon

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2013

Smelter-CoverA Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 2nd-4th level characters.

Free on Amazon from 6/3/2013-6/7/2013

Description

Important: This is a Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure. It is not a novel. It is also not an interactive Kindle “adventure book.”

While the mines of Ulthus produced a variety of high grade ores, ore is not particularly useful in its mined state—it has to be refined in a smelter. In order to prepare the ore, the Empire constructed smelters.

Now that the Regency is expanding into the region and the PCs have taken Ulthus, the next step is to reclaim the smelter of Ulthus from whatever howls within its blackened walls.

Available on Amazon.

Downloads

Smelter Map & Monsters

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Pirates & Merchants: Free Pathfinder RPGC Adventure for March 10-14

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on March 9, 2013

Pirates-&-merchents-CoverA Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 1st-3rd level characters.

Description

The success of the Regency in establishing peace and order within its domains has made life much better. Villagers no longer need to worry that they will be awakened by the bloodthirsty howls of gnoll slavers. Merchants can travel in safety from one end of the regency to the other with little to fear but going broke from bad business decisions.

However, one group now faces tough times: amateur adventurers. There is little for the starting adventurer to do within the safe confines of the Regency, yet the foes remaining near the borders tend to be so terrible as to make short work of those who are as foolish as they are weak. Because of this, many young adventurers have elected to seek alternatives that do not involve boredom or certain death.

Well aware that power and boredom are a dangerous combination; Regency officials have established various means to encourage these young adventurers to seek their fortunes in appropriate ways. Some are recruited into the Regency forces, often dying nobly fighting terrible foes. Many more elect to take advantage of cheap or even free passage to untamed lands that the Regency desires to claim.

While these lands no doubt contain foes leftover from the days of the Cataclysm and new perils, the possibility of reward is even greater. In addition to the loot to be gained from fallen foes and old treasure troves, the Regency is known to be very generous to those who serve its interests well.

You adventurers are among those who have boldly chosen to leave the safety of the Regency and take free passage to a place of suitable adventure via the legendary TransportTowers. You will be sent to the newly reclaimed island of Kalthos in the lands of Aegus. While the area is still something of a wild frontier, the Regency has already established a small presence on the island and there is a small village, Arthos, there. You are tasked with aiding the villagers and expanding the power and influence of the Regency in the area.

99 Books 99 Cents Kickstarter.

Available on Amazon

Available free from 3/10/2013-3/14/2013

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Pirates & Merchants MM

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See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Pathfinder Adventure: Cheben

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2013

Cheben-CoverA Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 1st-3rd level characters.

Free on Amazon from 1/30/2013-2/3/2013.

Description

“You young bucks should be just what Cheben needs. Cheben, as you may know, is a fairly new town located on the island of Leskalisem. We recently reclaimed the island, but there are still a few rough and…weird spots left there. If you know your history, then you know the island was once held by the Empire. Before you get too worried about things, you’ll be reassured to know that it was just a small garrison with a few civilian structures around it. The garrison really didn’t get touched by the Cataclysm and, as far as we know, the soldiers and their families survived to escape to Rykos.

The town is doing well, but as I mentioned there are still a few rough spots left. Nothing too major, but the townsfolk have their hands full building up the community. Also, you and I both know that townsfolk just aren’t cut out to handle anything too much. So, it is up to fellows like us to handle things for them.

You won’t have to be there very long and the pay is quite good. You’ll get 25 gold pieces up front and then a bonus for each task you are able to complete for the townsfolk. Naturally, your passage to the island will be paid for. Do you want the job?”

Available  on Amazon

Downloads

Cheben Monsters & Maps

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See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Free Pathfinder Adventure for December #5: Goblin Spies

Posted in Miscellaneous, Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on December 29, 2012

Goblin-Spies-CoverA Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 1st-3rd level characters.

Free on Amazon from 12/30/2012-1/3/2013.

Description

The peace of the village of Thusul is broken by what the local constable suspects is a burgling Halfling. The guard badger that tore off the intruder’s pants thinks differently. Whatever the nature of the intruder, the PCs will be sent to deal with the problem.

Available  on Amazon

Downloads

Goblin Spies Monsters & Maps

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See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Free Pathfinder Adventures for December #4: Ril’s Lesser Sanctum

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on December 22, 2012

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for 3rd-5th level characters.

Description

This adventure will be free on Amazon from 12/22/2012-12/26/2012! Merry Christmas!

This adventure is the second in the Rils’ series. It is preceded by the Tomb of Rils.

The brave adventurers travel to a desert land in search of the Lesser Sanctum of Rils. There, they will face the dangers of the desert before entering the sanctum. Within its dark chambers, they will face terrible monsters, cunning traps, and one of Rils’ failed students. Those strong enough to survive will leave the desert land laden with treasure and new knowledge. Those that fail shall leave their bones and flesh to the whims of the necromancer.

This adventure includes new monsters, new spells and new magic items.

Available now on Amazon.

Downloads

Rils’ Lesser Sanctum PDF

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See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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Free Pathfinder Adventures for December #3: Tomb of Rils

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on December 16, 2012

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for 1st-3rd level characters.

Available for free  on Amazon from December 16-20th 2012.

Description

The history of Rils is a matter of considerable debate among the great scholars of necromancy. There is even some doubt among the learned as to whether Rils ever existed. Some scholars claim that stories about different necromancers were combined over the centuries as a matter of convenience or ignorance and this gave rise to the idea of Rils. These learned folk point to the fact that many of the deeds attributed to Rils are actually credited on the basis of a similarity in names (such as “Ril”, “Rils-Oshen” and so on). Other scholars contend that while not all the deeds attributed to Rils were actually his (or her) deeds, the evidence conclusive shows that Rils was (and perhaps still is) quite real.

While the myths and historical accounts vary, a common point of agreement is that unlike most of the others of his ilk, Rils was not particularly interested in spreading undeath across the world or waging terrible wars with the living. Instead, Rils was apparently devoted to the study of necromancy and the undead as a matter of intellectual curiosity. This is not to say that Rils was altruistic nor is it to say that he was free of ulterior motives.

It is claimed by many scholars that because of his devotion to knowledge, Rils created numerous repositories in which he placed scrolls and books containing much of what he had learned. These accounts also claim that Rils did not wish his knowledge to fall into unworthy hands or to be acquired too easily. As such, these repositories are supposed to be guarded and trapped. They are also said to be located in isolated places to prevent the innocent and ignorant from blundering into them (and dying horribly).

Rils’ actual fate (assuming he existed at all) is not recorded in history. Some scholars believe that he was destroyed by adventurers who mistook him for an evil lich. Others contend he was destroyed by adventurers because he was an evil lich. Some even say that he still exists and dwells within a vast underground library containing untold secrets of necromancy. Whatever the truth, from time to time the location of one of Rils’ alleged repositories is discovered and adventurers brave the dangers within.

Available now on Amazon.

Downloads

Tomb of Rils Monsters, Spells & Maps

Hero Lab Portfolio Folder

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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