Monday, March 30, 2015

Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge: Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi on Dignāga (Part Two)

This is another of my more professional academic posts.  I hope you find it interesting, or if you don't, I promise I'll be back to science fiction soon!

In Part One, I explained the critiques of Dignāga’s epistemology offered by Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi. In Part Two, I’ll consider whether these arguments create serious problems for Dignāga’s epistemology.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge: Candrakīrti and Jayarāśi on Dignāga (Part One)

A Tibetan image of Dignāga
While I don't include a lot of my strictly speaking professional academic work on this blog, I thought I'd try a post on an issue in the tradition of epistemology (theory of knowledge) found in classical India.  I've been thinking about this topic for a few years; I hope to think about it more in the near future. I should warn that there are some technical Sanskrit terms (which I define); even worse, there's not much science fiction except for the sense in which the study of ancient philosophy is like science fiction.

In his text Pramāṇasamuccaya (Collection on the Means of Knowledge), the Buddhist philosopher Dignāga claims that there are two means of knowledge (pramāṇas): perception (pratyakṣa) and inference (anumāna). Perception has as its object the particular (svalakṣana); inference has as its object the universal (sāmānyalakṣana). The key distinguishing feature between the two is that “perception is free from kalpanā (imagination, conceptual construction)” (Pramāṇasamuccaya, 1.3a). This is an exclusive dichotomy: any means of knowledge must be either perception or inference, but not both.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sci-Fi Music (Part 2: Metal Edition)

In Part One, I covered some of my favorite examples of science fiction music in a variety of genres (funk, prog rock, and, in the case of Janelle Monáe, R&B and almost everything else).  In this part, I'll concentrate on one of my favorite genres that has perhaps the greatest affinity for science fiction music: heavy metal.

Black Sabbath, "Iron Man"

In the beginning was Black Sabbath.  While other musicians paved the way, Sabbath was the first true metal band.  The band's concept was simple: if people like to get scared by horror movies, might they like to get scared by music, too?  The band gets its name from a 1963 Boris Karloff movie, Black Sabbath.
Paranoid (1970) (Kitten added)

Although they started out with horror, with their 1970 album, Paranoid, Black Sabbath made their most famous foray into science fiction.  The song "Iron Man," contains what may be the most awesome riff of all time (according to internationally recognized authorities Beavis and Butt-head).

Iron Man is a robot (or maybe cyborg) abandoned by his makers and out for revenge.  It's not super innovative as a science fiction story, but to its philosophical credit the song asks the million dollar question for any artificial intelligence research: "Has he thoughts within his head?"

And did I mention that riff?

(When it comes to science fictional Sabbath, I have to give a shout out to the Dio-era song "Computer God."  RIP Ronnie James Dio.  And it looks like Sabbath itself will meet its final end later this year.)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sci-Fi Music (Part 1)

Science fiction began as a form of literature and later moved to other media such as radio, TV, comics, and film.  Musicians have also been inspired to create science fiction.  Here are just a few of my favorite examples.

Janelle Monáe

 Monáe's trio of releases, Metropolis: The Chase Suite (2007), The ArchAndroid (2010), and The Electric Lady (2013)follow an android named Cindi Mayweather as she is persecuted for her love of a human.

As the title of the first one indicates, Monáe was inspired by the 1927 film, Metropolis.  Through the story of androids, Monáe explores issues of difference (racial, sexual, robotic, etc.), discrimination, and acceptance.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review of Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Time travel is a science fiction trope, but Kindred is essentially a horror novel.  The horror is American slavery.  Here we see it through the eyes of an American black woman living in 1976 who is transported to an early 1800's Maryland plantation.

Octavia Butler is one of my favorite authors.  Her Earthseed and Xenogenesis series are some of my all time favorite science fiction (see my Goodreads review of the first book of the Xenogenesis series).  These series also focus on the issue of slavery, albeit in the future and not always between humans.

Like all of Butler's work, Kindred is horrifying, touching, thrilling, and thought provoking all at once.  Butler's work is seldom easy to read.  It's often downright uncomfortable.  If you want an easy, comforting read, look elsewhere.  Nonetheless, Butler's novels and stories are also hard to put down.  Butler's readers are encouraged to have thoughts and feelings as complex as those of her characters.  For instance, the main character of Kindred, Dana, has a difficult relationship with Rufus, the son of the owner of the planation.  She hates him, but she also pities and somehow loves him.

Friday, March 13, 2015

In Honor of my Mom on her 66th Birthday

Today would have been my mom’s 66th birthday.  She died from breast cancer almost fifteen years ago, but I still think about her quite a bit.

This purpose of this post isn’t to elicit your sympathy or to process my grief, but to honor my mom and to reflect on what she continues to mean to me.

Without her, I would not be who I am.  This is not merely true genetically, but in almost every other way I can think of.  For instance, my mom constantly emphasized the value of reading and education to me and to my sister even though we were economically hovering near the bottom of lower middle class through much of my childhood (where, statistically speaking at least, such things tend to be less emphasized). 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mini-Reviews of Unpopular Movies: Chappie, Cloud Atlas, Love, and Cosmic Slop

Here are mini-reviews of some interesting but unpopular movies that I’ve seen recently.

Chappie (2015)

Chappie is directed by Neill Blomkamp, who also directed the just okay Elysium and the excellent District 9.  As was the case with my recent defense of Jupiter Ascending, I like another movie most other people don’t like (it has a 30% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes).   I think part of people’s dislike is that Chappie himself is a loveable robot and these days people like their artificial intelligence menacing and threatening the human race with annihilation (there’s another Terminator movie coming soon, not to mention last year's half-awful Johnny Depp movie, Transcendence – the second half was awful, but I liked the first part).  I, however, think Chappie’s loveableness is a strength.  What reason do we have to think that AIs would be out to harm us?  And even if they did, could you blame them if we treated them the way most humans treat poor Chappie? Two of the characters are played by a crazy duo that make up the South African band Die Antwoord, which provides some of the music and is apparently a thing I’m not hip enough to know about.  Plus, you get to see Hugh Jackman as a complete asshole Australian. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Irrationality of Moral Relativism

Moral relativism has been in the news lately (see here and a response here).  My concern in this post is less about the explanation for why some people (especially college students) are relativists and more about the claim itself.

The basic idea of moral relativism is that the truth of moral claims (e.g., “cheating is wrong,” “murder is immoral,” etc.) is relative to cultures or individuals (one could also be a relativist about all truth claims, but that's not my concern here).  This isn’t the blasé descriptive claim that people disagree about morality, but rather that when two people disagree they are both right in a normative sense.  Just as “I like chocolate better than vanilla” and “you like vanilla better than chocolate” can both be true at the same time, so can “censorship is morally wrong in the United States” and “censorship is morally permitted in China” both actually be true at the same time.

My claim is that moral relativism is irrational in two ways: first, there seem to be no good reasons to believe it, and second, if it were true, it would make our moral beliefs irrational.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why I Don't Like Superheroes

I don’t really like comic books or comic book movies.  There.  I said it.  It’s not so much that I don’t like comic books as an art form (I’ve enjoyed a few graphic novels, especially the Sandman series).  What I don’t like is the comic book genre that has taken over Hollywood and the entire geek universe: Superheroes. 

How can a nerd like me, a fan of most things science fiction, not like what is today the biggest nerd industry, one that almost single-handedly made it cool to be a geek?

It boils down to three things: power, individualism, and elitism.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review of Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail isn't an entry level Culture novel.  While newcomers might enjoy this one, you probably need a few Culture books under your belt to get the most out of it (especially if one of the books under your belt is Use of Weapons).  As I've mentioned in my review of Matter, I recommend reading the books in publication order, but doing so isn't necessary (the previous link also contains some background on the Culture if you're not familiar with this whole business).

Surface Detail is the longest of the Culture novels and probably one of the most difficult to summarize (it's less convoluted than Excession, though).  While this, like most Banks novels, evades attempts to encapsulate the whole plot, I can give a sampler: a "reincarnated" murder victim seeks revenge on her murderer, we are introduced to several new sub-divisions of Special Circumstances, we have plenty of intrigue and galactic politics (this time mostly revolving around virtual reality), there's a heartbreaking story of a separated couple, and the vividly gnarly descriptions of hell realms would make Christians like Dante and Buddhists like Vasubandhu jealous.  Surprisingly for a novel this long, I never found it lagging even if I didn't always completely understand what was happening.  Have faith, though: Banks wraps everything up.