« Intelligent Design Honesty | Main | Immodest Caplan »

September 11, 2008

Comments

What exactly do they mean, "supernatural"?

The category's existence is a basic logical error. Nothing supernatural exists. If unicorns, leprechauns, or the Wendigo are real entities, they are not supernatural. If they are supernatural, they are not real entities.

It seems like you should be able to make experimental predictions about irreducible things. Take a quark, or a gluon, or the Grand Quantum Lifestream, or whatever reality is at the bottom, I don't really follow physics closely. In any case, you can make predictions about those things, and that's part and parcel of making predictions about airplanes and grizzly bears.

Even if it turns out that the Grand Quantum Lifestream is reducible further, you can make predictions about its components. Unless you think everything is infinitely reducible, but that proposition strikes me as unlikely.


Well, maybe the fundamental basis of reality is like a fractal. I wouldn't want to rule that out without thinking about it. But in any case it doesn't sound like what you're arguing.

I had a similar, shorter conversation with a theologian. He had hired me to critique a book he was writing, which claimed that reductionist science had reached its limits, and that it was time to turn to non-reductionist science.

The examples he gave were all phenomena which science had difficulty explaining, and which he claimed to explain as being irreducibly complex. For instance, because people had difficulty explaining how cells migrate in a developing fetus, he suggested (as Aristotle might have) that the cells had an innate fate or desire that led them to the right location.

What he really meant by non-reductionist science, was that as a "non-reductionist scientist", one is allowed to throw up one's hands, and say that there is no explanation for something. A claim that a phenomenon is supernatural is always the assertion that something has no explanation. (I don't know that it needs to be presented as a mental phenomenon, as Eliezer says.) So to "do" non-reductionist science is simply to not do science.

It should be possible, then, for a religious person to rightly claim that their point of view is outside the realm of science. If they said, for instance, that lightning is a spirit, that is not a testable hypothesis.

In practice, religions build up webs of claims, and of connections to the non-spiritual world, that can be tested for consistency. If someone claims not just that lightning is a spirit, but that an anthropomorphic God casts lightning bolts at sinners, that is a testable hypothesis. Once, when I was a Christian, lightning struck the cross behind my church. This struck me as strong empirical evidence against the idea that God directed every bolt. (I suppose one could interpret it as divine criticism of the church. The church elders did not, however, pursue that angle.)

Once, in a LARP, I played Isaac Asimov on a panel which was arguing whether vampires were real. It went something like this (modulo my memory): I asked the audience to define "vampire", and they said that vampires were creatures that lived by drinking blood.

I said that mosquitoes were vampires. So they said that vampires were humanoids who lived by drinking blood.

I said that Masai who drank the blood of their cattle were vampires. So they said that vampires were humanoids who lived by drinking blood, and were burned by sunlight.

I (may have) said that a Masai with xeroderma pigmentosum was a vampire. And so on.

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

(Strangely, some mythical creatures, such as vampires and unicorns, seem to be defined in a spiritual way; whereas others, such as mermaids and centaurs, do not. A horse genetically engineered to grow a horn would probably not be thought of as a "real" unicorn; a genenged mermaid probably would be admitted to be a "real" mermaid.)

Phil: Vampires ARE real. Both humans and animals can become vampires after being bitten by another vampire (very often a bat or racoon). After being bitten, they will go crazy and attempt to bite others. They also are unable to cross running water.

The virus has been discovered, and a vaccine exists.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabies

Yeah, I know, those aren't "real" vampires, even though that is very likely the source of the vampire mythology.

Of course water flows downhill because it wants to be lower. It just is not in its nature to be able to want anything else, which distinguishes it from more flexible want-systems like ourselves.

As to the supernatural, I suggest a useful analogy is mathematical objects, like 5, pi, the complex plane, or the Pythagorean theorem. These objects are not physical; they are not made of quarks nor reducible to them, even though any concrete instantiation of them (or instantiation of a thought about them) must involve some physical process; they are non-natural even though they pervade nature. Nobody here would deny the right of mathematicians to be pragmatic Platonists who treat mathematical objects as real things that they can think about and perform mental manipulations on. By analogy, I would at least consider the possibility that theologians have a similar right to make statements about their non-physical, non-natural object of study.

"My thesis is that non-reductionism is a confusion; and once you realize that an idea is a confusion, it becomes a tad difficult to envision what the universe would look like if the confusion were true."

I still seem to be able to envision what things would look like if a form of Cartesian dualism were true. Our ordinary laws of physics would govern all matter except one or more places deep in the brain, where the laws of physics would be violated where the soul is "pulling the strings" of the body, as it were. These deviations from physics would not happen unlawfully, but rather would be governed by special, complicated laws of psychology, rather than physics. In principle, this should be testable.

Unlawfulness and nonreductionism are distinct concepts; I can see how the former is incoherent, but the latter still seems logically possible, if false.

My point was that vampires were by definition not real - or at least, not understandable - because any time we found something real and understandable that met the definition of a vampire, we would change the definition to exclude it.

But the same exchange might have occurred with something entirely real. We are not in the habit of giving fully adequate definitions, so it is often possible to find counterexamples to the definitions we give, which might prompt the other person to add to the definition to exclude the counterexample. For example:

A: What is a dog?

B: A dog is a four-footed animal that is a popular pet.

A: So a cat is a dog.

B: Dogs bark.

A: So if I teach a cat to bark, it will become a dog.

etc.

Constant: with dogs, you can point to examples and say "these animals, and animals closely related to these are dogs".

I think it comes down to the fact that, if you want to understand the universe around us, the scientific method is consistently successful and supernaturalism is consistently a failure.

If you want to actually prove that scientific method is better, it's very hard to do without reasoning with the scientific method itself, which would be circular logic and thus inconsistent with the scientific method.

So let's just say that, I like to know how the universe works, and if any form of supernaturalism were the best way of doing that, then I would use it. Instead I use the scientific method, because that is what works.

Supernaturalism has other uses, but they are not uses that I subscribe to.

Okay, so here's a dryad. You cut her open, and see white stuff. You take a sample, put it under a microscope, and still see white stuff. You use a scanning tunneling microscope, and still see white stuff. You build an AI and tell it to analyze the sample. The AI converts galaxies into computronium and microscopium, conducts every experiment it can think of, and after a trillion years reports: "The dryad is made of white stuff, and that's all I know. Screw this runaround, what's for dinner?"

But using an outside view of sorts (observed behavior), you can still predict what the dryad will do next. Just like with quarks and with Occam's razor and with prime numbers. And things you haven't reduced yet, but think you can, like people or the LHC.

So, what would you call this dryad?

In that special Cartesian theater, I can picture an even smaller Homunculus pulling the strings of the larger. And so on. Turtles.

Ennui: "In that special Cartesian theater, I can picture an even smaller Homunculus pulling the strings of the larger."

But what if the homunculus were ontologically fundamental?--of course the notion is silly and of course it's false, but I'm not yet convinced that it's literally nonsense on the order of square circles or A-and-not-A. It could be that I just need some intuition-reshaping, but in the meantime I can do nothing else but call it as I see it.

Aaron - yes, I know that. It's beside the point.

Z. M. Davis: But if you think about the things that the homunculus tends to do, I think you would find yourself needing to move to levels below the homunculus to do it. To give it a coherent set of actions it is likely to take, and not to take, at any given time, you would have to populate it with wants, with likes, with beliefs, with structures for reasoning about beliefs.

I think eventually you would come to an algorithm of which the homunculus would have to be an instantiation, and you would have to assume that that algorithm was represented somewhere.

I just don't see how you can make sensible predictions about ontologically basic complicated things. And I know people will go on about how you can't make predictions about a person with free will, but that's a crock. You expect me to try to coherently answer your post. I expect a cop to arrest me if I drive too fast. More to the point, we *don't* expect neurologically intact humans to spend three years walking backwards, or talk to puddles, or remove their clothing and sing "I'm a little teapot" in Times Square.

And the same goes for gods, incidentally. Religious folk will say that their gods' ways are ineffable, that they can't be predicted. But they still expect their gods to answer prayers, and forgive sins, and torture people like me for millennia, and they don't expect them to transform mount everest into a roast beef sandwich, or thunder forth nursery rhymes from the heavens.

They have coherent expectations, and for those expectations to make sense you have to open the black box and put things in there. You have to postulate structure, and relationships between parts, and soon you haven't got something ontologically basic anymore.

The dictionary has at #1: "of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena; abnormal."

It seems about right. E.g. travelling into to the past is supernatural.

It's deeper than science being only applicable to natural things -- *reason as such* is only applicable to natural things. Once you are in the realm of the supernatural anything is possible and the laws of logic don't necessarily hold. You have to just close your mouth and turn off your mind and have faith. Which does not give a teacher a lot of material to work with...

Somebody let me know if I'm pushing my allowed post rate?

Tim: I'm not sure about that definition. Are we saying unexplainable by natural law as understood by humans at the time - ie quantum tunneling was supernatural 100 years ago, but is no longer?

Or would that mean unexplainable by the natural laws that exist? I just don't like this one because then we've simply defined the supernatural out of existence. The set of supernatural things and the set of real things would be non-overlapping by definition.

more pragmatically you can't teach creationism because you wouldn't know which which creationist story to teach? The christian one isn't the only creation story. How about the jain one? the buddhist story? the viking story? the Roman creation story?

One way to go about it would be to assemble the whole canon of stories, and then look about in the world around us to see if there is any evidence that helps support or falsify the different accounts. Maybe one could examine the stories and create some testable predictions from them and .... oh, hang about...

Howmany believers in the supernatural examples given in this post would after reading this post remain believing the supernatural?


About teaching ID as science, isn't it often done before learning how to do scientific research?

People seem to learn about God, bible, while they still believe in Santa .

I share your difficulty of imagining irreducible mental stuff, but I'll still assign a 10^-3 chance of it being there anyway. Anyone else care to assign a number?

Robin, what's your algorithm for drawing up a number like that? I'd genuinely like to know.

I only ask because you can get 1000-1 on Stoke to win the Premier League this season, and I'd rather have a tenner on that than on 'minds are made of fundamental mind-stuff' at the same odds.

What does it mean for something to be irreducible?

I would ask the same question as Nominull and Tiiba: Why is a fundamentally mental thing different from a fundamentally physical thing like quarks? If we discovered a spirit in a tree that wasn't composed of quarks and leptons, is there a reason we couldn't take that spirit to be a new fundamental particle that behaves in such-and-such a way, just as a down quark is a fundamental particle that behaves in such-and-such a way?

Eliezer: If, on the other hand, a supernatural hypothesis turns out to be true, then presumably you will also discover that it is not inconceivable.

Right. So apart from Occam's razor, what's the reason for excluding things that aren't quarks and leptons from your set of fundamental particles?

This is why I claim that atheism is an established scientific result. One of the strongest lines of evidence is, indeed, that we have successfully reduced minds and shown the notion of an irreducible mind to be incoherent. Mind as an irreducible simple is basic to all monotheistic religions. Demonstrating something once thought coherent to be incoherent is, of course, one of the strongest lines of evidence in science. Other avenues through which atheism has been established by science include conservation in physics, chemistry and biology (which led directly to materialism), evolution, and the development of plausible sociological accounts of religion. I would argue that atheism is as well established as Plate Tectonics and Natural Selection. What I think is telling is that most contemporary approaches to religious apologetics implicitly recognize that science has established atheism.

The theist has three avenues of response. The first is to attack specific parts of science. This is what Fundamentalist Christians do. The second, by far the most popular, is to attack the very possibility of scientific knowledge. This is what nearly all "liberal" religious believers who claim there is no conflict between science and religion do. They generally adopt a skeptical epistemology, holding that no knowledge claim can be true, or instrumentalism about science, holding that scientific claims are nonfactual, or a quasi-Kantian constructivist metaphysics wherein "true" reality is forever out of reach. The weird thing is that this position, which essentially rejects all of science, is considered more "sophisticated" and acceptable than the Fundamentalist position which rejects only select parts of science but remains realist about the rest. The third approach is to adopt some sort of nonfactualism about religious claims; essentially to hold that your religious practice is merely tradition. I think this nearly exhausts contemporary positions on religious apologetics and is therefore evidence that people implicitly accept that science has established atheism.

I thought about this a bit more last night. I think the right justification for religion - which is not one that any religious person would consciously agree with - is that it does not take on faith the idea that truth is always good.

Reductionism aims at learning the truth. Religion is inconsistent and false - and that's a feature, not a bug. Its social purpose is to grease the wheels of society where bare truth would create friction.

For example: In Rwanda, people who slaughtered the families of other people in their village, are now getting out of jail and coming back to live with the surviving relatives of their victims in the same villages. Rwanda needs this to happen; there are so many killers and conspirators, that they can't keep them in jail or kill them - these killers are a significant part of their nation's work force. Also, this would start the war all over again.

I have heard a few accounts of how they persuade the surviving relatives to forgive and live with the killers. They agree that the only way to do this is by using religious arguments.

Perhaps a true rationalist could be persuaded to leave the killer of their family alone, on grounds of self-interest. I'm easily more rational than 99.9% of the population, but I don't think I'm that rational.

If we had a population of purely rational thinking machines, perhaps we would need no religion. But since we have only humans to work with, it may play a valid role where the irrational nature of humans and the rational truth of science would, together, lead to disaster.

Eliezer, I think I agree with most of what you say in this post, but unless I misunderstand what you mean by "Bayesian confirmation," I think you're wrong about this bit:

If the "boring view" of reality is correct, then you can never predict anything irreducible because you are reducible. You can never get Bayesian confirmation for a hypothesis of irreducibility, because any prediction you can make is, therefore, something that could also be predicted by a reducible thing, namely your brain.

I think that while you can in this case never devise an empirical test whose outcome could logically prove irreducibility, there is no clear reason to believe that you cannot devise a test whose counterfactual outcome in an irreducible world would make irreducibility subjectively much more probable (given an Occamian prior).

Without getting into reducibility/irreducibility, consider the scenario that the physical universe makes it possible to build a hypercomputer -- that performs operations on arbitrary real numbers, for example -- but that our brains do not actually make use of this: they can be simulated perfectly well by an ordinary Turing machine, thank you very much. If this scenario were true, would it follow that we cannot possibly obtain "Bayesian confirmation" of its truth? I don't think that is the case: Of course, it is true that any empirical test our brains could devise in this scenario could also be passed by a Turing machine that simulated our brains to decide what its answer should be. In fact, every test "does the universe do X if we do Y at time T" we may devise to test whether the universe allows for infinite computations can be met by a Turing machine universe whose code simply includes the instruction to do X at time T. But, such a Turing machine may be complex enough that we start taking "the universe allows for hypercomputation" to be the simpler (and thus, more probable) alternative -- unless we are willing to completely exclude that possibility a priori, which I'm not willing to do and I expect you aren't, either.

Thus, I think that either your argument doesn't support your conclusion, or I don't understand your argument yet :-)

I still seem to be able to envision what things would look like if a form of Cartesian dualism were true.
I'm sure there are people who believe they can envision an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. They do not possess a special ability, they are merely in error.
Our ordinary laws of physics would govern all matter except one or more places deep in the brain, where the laws of physics would be violated where the soul is "pulling the strings" of the body, as it were. These deviations from physics would not happen unlawfully, but rather would be governed by special, complicated laws of psychology, rather than physics.

The matter always obeys the laws of physics, because the laws of physics describe how matter acts. The laws would simply be more complex than you had anticipated.

What conditions are necessary for your "special laws" to apply? By what mechanisms does substance interact with spirit?

You can patch any model by introducing new, special-purpose premises that cause the model to match the observations, but what good is that?

You can redefine words so that any assertion about reality is correct, but what good is that? What use is it to say that the Eucharist transforms wine into blood, and bread into flesh, if you have to redefine 'blood' and 'flesh' in the process of speaking?

@poke (i think you posted in the wrong thread) -- if you did a survey, limited to scientists, and asked questions like "is general relativity largely correct?', or 'Does DNA encode genes?', you would get near-100% agreement. If you asked 'is atheism true?', you would get a much lower number. Therefore, whatever opinions or arguments might seem convincing to you personally, atheism is not the strongest modern scientific result.

As ought to be obvious, statements about god are not scientific statements. You will not find peer-reviewed scientific literature proving or disproving the existence of god. God is a topic of endless of fascination on the fringes of science, which include philosophy, blogs like this one and popular books written by scientists, but is largely absent from the literature of actual science, for good reason.

If god is not a natural being, then science does not have the means to say whether it exists or not. It is not even clear what "exists" means for such entities. You can say that it makes no sense to talk about non-natural, non-material entities in any way, but as I pointed out before, we do it all the time for mathematical entities and I assume nobody here has a problem with that.

I find atheist fundamentalists amusing, because they are so certain that they know what "god" means, just like religious fundamentalists. Most sane and intelligent people with religious tendencies (and there are many, although they don't seem to get much press) understand that if "god" means anything, it is a pointer towards something unknown and perhaps unknowable, and arguing about whether it exists in the physical sense is missing the point completely.

You can say that it makes no sense to talk about non-natural, non-material entities in any way, but as I pointed out before, we do it all the time for mathematical entities and I assume nobody here has a problem with that.
Mathematical entities are not non-natural or non-material.

Why do you say that you find people who are certain they know what 'god' means amusing, then make it clear that you believe you know what 'god' means? Do you find yourself amusing, then, and in error?

One of the strongest lines of evidence is, indeed, that we have successfully reduced minds. . .

Just what exactly are you referring to here?

"Mind as an irreducible simple is basic to all monotheistic religions." - poke

That is a wonderful definition of religion. And I think it covers all religions, not just monotheistic, which is why it could be so useful. Most definitions of religion have trouble covering the non-theistic versions, such as Buddhism and Jainism, which yours does cover. ("Mind as an irreducible simple" would be required to make their reincarnation systems work.)


Atheists don't know what god means - it is meaningless.

God is a shapeshifting horror from the outer beyond that constantly adapts its properties to whatever is most convenient given the argument currently being considered.

The dictionary doesn't specify that. Often it won't make much difference (assuming our understanding of physics is pretty good), and other times it would be clear from the context ("the ancients would have regarded human flight as supernatural").

The point is that "supernatural" has an established meaning that is supported well by the etymology of the word. I don't see much of a case for attempting to redefine the term it to mean something relatively arcane which the etymology gives no indication of.

mtraven,

Most sane and intelligent people with religious tendencies (and there are many, although they don't seem to get much press) understand that if "god" means anything, it is a pointer towards something unknown and perhaps unknowable, and arguing about whether it exists in the physical sense is missing the point completely.

This is just a version of my second option available to the theist. There's a knowable "physical" world and an unknowable one beyond it. There's no reason to believe this is the case. Moreover, if you believed something like this, you would be able to say "I'm an atheist about the physical world" and we could all agree on that and discuss whether talk of "something beyond the physical world" is coherent. You would also agree that science has established atheism about the physical world. Which is just my claim.

Matthew C. - I'm referring to neuroscience.

Tim, see The Argument from Common Usage and 37 Ways that Words can be Wrong.

Mathematical entities are material? Do tell. What are they made of? How do you determine their position and mass?
Why do you say that you find people who are certain they know what 'god' means amusing, then make it clear that you believe you know what 'god' means?

I thought I made it clear that I don't, but my apologies if I expressed myself in too subtle a fashion for you.

Let me try again. People deploy the term "god" in different ways and mean different things by it. I'm distinguishing two different broad classes of meaning. One set of meanings, employed by both religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists, posits a god that acts in various ways that contradict the findings of science. This is not a meaning that I myself am interested in, for what I hope are obvious reasons. The other kind of meaning, employed by people who are sane, intelligent, and nevertheless religious, means something else that is hard to define, certainly hard to define in the context of a blog flamewar, but does not contradict the findings of science.

Despite the squishiness of this second set of meanings, it is an undeniably true fact that there are many practicing scientists who have religious beliefs of that sort, such as Francis Collins. So the social facts demonstrate that religion and science are not inherently incompatible, no matter how much they seem so to you.

I myself am not very religious at all, but I find it a lot more interesting to take religious statements (or discourse from other fields that I am not conversant with) and try to imagine what it is that they could be true of, rather than dismissing them as nonsense.

Do you find yourself amusing, then, and in error?
Quite often, to both parts of your question.

Eliezer, your characterization of religion is not generally accurate, as evidenced by the fact that not all religious persons posit an irreducibly complex God. As one example, Mormons posit a material God that became God through organizing existing matter according to existing laws.

On the other hand, I wonder, do you attribute irreducible complexity to quarks?

>>So... is the idea here, that creationism could be true, but even if it were true, you wouldn't be >>allowed to teach it in science class, because science is only about "natural" things?

If god(s) exist and (s)he/they/it created the universe and we possessed irrefutable evidence for both of those things, then s(he)/they/it would be "natural", and so, yes, you would be allowed to teach this in science class in that case.

>>Let me try again. People deploy the term "god" in different ways and mean different things by it.

There are in fact three definitions I am aware of:

(1) Theist - god(s) interfere in the world today and listen when we do stuff like "pray",
(2) Deist - god(s) created the world at the beginning, but no longer actively interfere after than point, and
(3) Pantheist - god(s) are a metpahor for a concept like "mother nature" or "the laws of physics".

Phil Goetz,
could you elaborate on the psychology of mythical creatures? That some creatures are "spiritual" sounds to me like a plausible distinction. I count vampires, but not unicorns. To me, a unicorn is just another chimera. Why do you think they're more special than mermaids? magic powers? How much of a consensus do you think exists?

means something else that is hard to define, certainly hard to define in the context of a blog flamewar, but does not contradict the findings of science.

The findings of science are almost irrelevent. The means justify the ends. The usage of concepts that are not clearly and properly defined is incompatible with scientific methodology, and thus incompatible with science.

No sane, rational, and sufficiently-educated person puts forward arguments incompatible with science.

poke: There's a knowable "physical" world and an unknowable one beyond it. There's no reason to believe this is the case.

How would you know? Surely there are a great many things that are unknown and unknowable. The idea that it constitutes a separate "world" is your phrase, not mine.

Moreover, if you believed something like this, you would be able to say "I'm an atheist about the physical world" and we could all agree on that and discuss whether talk of "something beyond the physical world" is coherent.

Er, no. You make the mistake of supposing that this "unknowable world" is just like our own but disconnected from it. Again, I return to my analogy to mathematical objects and the world of Platonic ideals that they exist in. There's a non-physical "world", vastly different from the physical world yet intimately involved with it. If the spiritual concepts have any reality at all, it's got to be something like that.

So, if anyone is still interested in talking about this, how about breaking down this idea into two parts:

- standard mathematical Platonism (not a settled truth, but usually considered the default position in philosophy of mathematics)
- my tentative analogy between mathematical objects and supernatural entities

Feel free to disagree or question either of these parts, but at least say which one you are disagreeing with.

@mtraven

"- my tentative analogy between mathematical objects and supernatural entities"

By the Chair of Jacob Klein! That part. Right there. No. The Eide are not that. The Eide are what thinking thinks about, the Forms (Eide) the Mind (Nous) Shines (phaino) Upon. They are "seen" only in the light of the intellect. Supernatural entities - I guess you mean ghosts or souls or such - are not. . .ack! English sucks sometimes. . .

This is very difficult, as English doesn't have good terms to equal the Greek. German might be better. WTF. Ghosts and souls are not objects of the intellect, people assert they are things, albeit not like the things of phusis (nature).

Actually, this isn't really the best place to discuss Plato - maybe it would be better to just refresh yourself with Meno & Parmenides, but since you seem interested in physics and number, maybe go with Timaeus.

Surely it is clear however, if one is going to groove with this beat, that mathematical entities are grasped by thought, or revealed purely by thought, or are phenomena (with that root in phaino) of pure intellect; they do not "go bump in the night" nor are they "reincarnated."

Frelkins -- thanks for the references. I am pretty philosophically illiterate and it wouldn't surprise me at all to find out that I'm reinventing stuff that has been around for thousands of years.

I did not mean to imply that supernatural entities are identical in every way to mathematical entities; I'm just using mathematical entities as a club to beat up a certain sort of simple-minded materialism. It turns out that even science geeks talk about immaterial entities all the time. That's interesting.

You are right, this is probably not the place to discuss these idea, but I wanted to drop two more bits if anybody is still reading:

No less a mathematician than Kurt Gödel spent part of his later years coming up with formal proofs of the existence of God. I personally am not impressed by this proof, but it shows that working too long with the foundations of mathematics can lead one in strange directions.

Another is this web site, Religious Naturalism, which is a sort of clearinghouse for versions of spirituality and religion that are compatible with science.



could you elaborate on the psychology of mythical creatures? That some creatures are "spiritual" sounds to me like a plausible distinction. I count vampires, but not unicorns. To me, a unicorn is just another chimera. Why do you think they're more special than mermaids? magic powers? How much of a consensus do you think exists?
Sorry I missed this!

I think it may have to do with how heavy a load of symbolism the creature carries. Unicorns were used a lot to symbolize purity, and acquired magical and non-magical properties appropriate to that symbolism. Dragons, vampires, and werewolves are also used symbolically. Mermaids, basilisks, not so much. Centaurs have lost their symbolism (a Greek Apollo/Dionysus dual-nature-of-man thing, I think), and CS Lewis did much to destroy the symbolism associated with fauns by making them nice chaps who like tea and dancing.

Now that I think about it, Lewis and Tolkien both wrote fantasy that was very literal-minded, and replaced symbolism with allegory.

To Phil, who asked for a definition of "vampire":

A vampire is a person possessed by the lust for vengeance. That spirit is notably difficult to kill or banish. The young and innocent are particularly susceptible. Once you invite it into your home, it can always return. Of those completely possessed by it, one can say "on reflection, there's no one there". It thrives in the unexamined dark and cannot abide the full light of day.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Less Wrong (sister site)

May 2009

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30
31