Sunday, May 23, 2021

Orcs and the One and the Many

Over on BX Blackrazor, JB is meditating on the D&D trope of killing gods. In the comments, I pointed out that the game has been giving gods Hit Points since 1976 and the publication of Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes. I also tried to explain why I (as a Christian) don’t really have a problem with giving gods Hit Points. 

This struck off a conversation that I think deserves its own post, because I make some hefty claims that need their own space to be meditated on and discussed. The most important (and probably controversial) claim is that reality as we experience cannot be fully explained by anything other than the Christianity of the Early Church (by which I roughly mean the first millennia or so). At the core of my argument is a problem that has confounded philosophers since the ancients first tried to understand reality. It is called the Problem of the One and Many. To illustrate this, I present to you this illustration of an orc:

But, Padre, you say, that is not an orc, it’s an owlbear! To which I respond: how do you know?

This may seem an idle question, because it should be obvious that the above illustration is, in fact, an owlbear and not an orc. Even so, in order for us to be able to make that distinction two things need to be very real: owlbears and orcs.

As we all know, however, owlbears and orcs are not real — outside of our imagination. Yet, there exists something that allows us to not only imagine these non-existent creatures but to recognize something we have never before encountered as one of these imaginary creatures. To say that “something” is “the brain,” or “chemicals,” or “an electrical current in our nervous system” side-steps the real issue:

You have very likely never seen the above illustration. I know, because I am the one who drew it and this is the first time I have ever shared it. This new empirical experience that you have just had of seeing this illustration for the first time has triggered an interaction with an interpretive framework that not only allows you to understand that you are looking at an owlbear, but also allows everybody else to see an owlbear despite being potentially thousands of miles apart and growing up in completely different circumstances in terms of language, culture, and beliefs. If we didn’t have this nigh-universal interpretive framework, this brand new experience of seeing my illustration could not result in you seeing an owlbear. It would just be light.

And finally, we come to the crux of the problem:

This illustration is unique. It is its own particular illustration by yours truly. At the same time, it is also an owlbear — it shares the nature of owlbear-ness that all owlbears do. In other words, it is one and it is many. Ancient philosophers wrestled to explain how it is that everything is both one and many at the same time. We must wrestle with it because it is part of reality. I am Fr. Dave and I am a human being. Without the one and the many we would not be able to function in the world. We would have no idea how to interpret the data coming in through our senses.

Materialism does not do an adequate job of explaining the reality of the one and the many, because it cannot merely come down to physical, material things. Owlbears aren’t material, physical things, after all. Yet they are real.

In contrast, it logically follows that a God that is both one and three, who created humanity according to His image and likeness, and, as Paul says in Romans 1:20, reveals his eternal power and divine nature in the things that have been made, would create a world where everything would demonstrate both His oneness and his multiplicity.

In other words, our modern, secular, materialist explanation of the world as we know it, really doesn’t explain the world as we know it; however, ancient Christianity does.


David B. said...

Very good explanation with orcs and owlbears Father, first time I see this lol.

On the subject of "Gods with HP", I feel the podcast "The Lord of Spirits" need to be mentionned. Anybody interested in ancient hebrew view of gods with relation to a God and how early christian view it should listen to that podcast.

Dan said...

The owlbear is just a matter of pattern recognition. Long-term memory and pattern recognition were major survival advantages for our primitive ancestors - including the ability to impose imaginary patterns on reality, as "better safe than sorry" is very true of survival in the wild. This is the root of all kinds of superstitions, such as astrology, and if we can see a bear and an archer in some patterns of stars then we can see a half-bear, half-owl monster in some pen or pencil strokes.

We can name the latter as an owlbear because we've been told that's what it's called, and D&D is an important enough part of our lives that we've committed it to memory. An uninformed person might come up with the name owlbear if pressed, especially given your drawing. Given the original Monster Manual illustration or the plastic figure that it was based off of, I think you'd see a lot more variation in the names that people gave it. The name we know it by is an accident of one man's imagination - the brain of Gary Gygax seeing a resemblance to both owls and bears in a bizarre little plastic toy that was neither owl nor bear.

Here's a reference on the cognitive science behind it:

FrDave said...

I can grant all of that, but this not only doesn’t begin to explain the problem, it raises another. The pattern has to exist prior to our ability to recognize it. The other problem is that if materialism is true, everything that exists came into being by random chance. Patterns require order. Answer me this: how does order arise out of chaos, especially when empirical data seems to demonstrate that the opposite is the norm? How can we justify our expectation that the world is orderly and full of patterns?

Dan said...

The tendency toward increased entropy is true on a universal scale, but in no way precludes patterns or other increases in orderliness within any particular "slice" of the whole. Flip a coin 1000 times and you're pretty likely to see either 10 heads in a row or 10 tails in a row by random chance. That's just one possible configuration of flips that could be construed as a pattern; you're likely to find many other interesting-looking runs if you go through the runs looking to find patterns.

As for how the universe came into being, the empirical evidence is fairly strong that the Big Bang theory is at least approximately correct. How or why the Big Bang happened is beyond the scope of science; a creator deity is just as plausible as any other explanation. Since definitive proof or disproof of God has thus far eluded humans* I certainly don't object to such a belief; if I'm being honest it's one that I share. However, I don't see any way in which it necessitates or even favors one sect's interpretation of God over others - that, to my mind, was the really exceptional claim (and exceptional claims require exceptional proof) on your part, the claim that all this uniquely requires God as He was specifically conceived by the Roman and Greek Churches and their descendants.

* and may well be impossible, though that's simply speculation on my part, since proving the unprovability of something is a monumental task in its own right.

FrDave said...


You still have yet to confront the Problem of the One and the Many. The fact that I can draw a cartoon picture of a cat on a piece of paper with ink and still have that piece of paper and ink universally recognized as a cat, which is objectively a living creature, can’t happen unless there is something intrinsic about the natural order where there is an immaterial cat nature that all varieties of cats share in — including those that are pieces of paper. There is one “cat” that is somehow manifest in all cats.

Numbers and math operate in a similar way. What is a number composed of? How much does it weigh? These are immaterial realities that manifest themselves in multiple physical ways. It goes beyond pattern recognition because no one can imagine or recognize a chillagon, yet it still exists. It is still real.

In order for anyone to be able to do the science that demonstrates the Big Bang, all kinds of non-material things that are both one and many at the same time must be real. Science cannot be done in a purely material world. To boot, science as we know it today arose out of a Christian world-view. Outside of that specific POV, science can’t just happen. Christianity provides the necessary understanding of the world that yields all of the pre-conditions for science to function.

Dan said...

That was the very first thing I addressed - it's pattern recognition. Seeing similarities in things and grouping them together is something we are predisposed to do because it was a survival advantage for our ancestors. Thus anyone who has seen cats - or even just pictures of cats - remembers what they look like and can recognize the "looks like a cat" pattern. Combined with the "better safe than sorry" mechanism whereby it only takes a passing resemblance or loose match to trigger pattern recognition, a cartoon cat only needs a few primary features to resemble an actual living cat in order for us to identify it as such. Plus, we're almost always primed to recognize cartoon animals by context clues, such as them having human owners or wearing collars, or even more explicitly having it in the title of the cartoon or comic (e.g., Felix the Cat).

As to why cats looks similar enough to one another for us to group them together, that's a matter of shared genetic information. Exact distinctions, though, are arbitrarily chosen on the part of humans and can vary over time. For example, one of the major medieval works on the natural world considered bats to be a type of bird. For that matter, an Alaskan malamute is as close to a gray wolf as a domestic cat is to the European wildcat, both genetically and in appearance. However, the former are distinguished as dog and wolf, while the latter are both called cats, because historically it made a huge difference to the safety of livestock whether an animal was dog or wolf - not so much with the two types of cats.

As for the chiliagon, it is indeed pattern recognition. The pattern being that as you increase the number of sides of a polygon, from hexagon to octagon to dodecagon to icosagon and beyond, the pattern emerges that they more and more closely resemble a circle. Their properties with respect to the sum of the interior angles, and also the magnitude of each individual interior angle, are also patterns that we express in the formulae for these things - formulae that can be proved by induction to extend to any arbitrary n-gon. The chiliagon is no exception to these patterns, and therefore subject to being recognized according to them. The fact that chiliagons do not occur anywhere in the natural world is no more of an obstacle to this pattern recognition than the fact that the Ursa Major constellation isn't *actually* a bear.

Dan said...

I seem to have run into a character limit.

As for your ideas of an "immaterial cat nature," that is in fact Plato's theory of Form - it predates Christianity by hundreds of years. Similarly, while Aristotle may have been wrong about many things in the realm of physics, he greatly advanced the field of logic and is the earliest surviving source of empirical data on geology, meteorology and the water cycle, and observational biology and the classification of animals. Archimedes, Pythagoras, and Euclid as well, and while Ptolemy and Hero of Alexandria were contemporary with the Church Fathers they were still operating within the intellectual framework of pre-Christian Greco-Roman culture. The various Islamic scholars who made a great many scientific and mathematical advancements during the Middle Ages did have a monotheistic background, but even then it was a non-Trinitarian one. Not to mention the science and technology of China, which largely doesn't even have theistic religions.

Realistically, scientific advancement comes from whatever culture is wealthy and powerful enough to allow a fraction of the population to devote themselves to mental pursuits rather than physical labor. The fact that the lion's share of advancements in the last 500 years come from the Christian part of the world are a side-effect of the immense wealth that they were able to extract from colonies (or in the case of the United States, from a massive contiguous territory surpassed only by the largest colonial empires). All else being equal, it also scales with population in general, and specifically with cultural interest in specific fields; the greater the number of scientists and innovators, the faster progress is. Hence the rapidity of discovery increasing with the post-industrial population boom, and the astonishing progress in rocketry and astronomy due to the Space Race.

FrDave said...


Thank you for engaging in such a thorough manner, I appreciate it. Unfortunately, pattern recognition is insufficient for solving the problem of the one and the many. It does an excellent job of explaining how it is that we recognize the pattern of the one and the many, but cannot explain why the pattern exists in the first place. Let me explain:

One of two things must be true — either the pattern of the one and the many exists outside of us (it exists prior to our ability to recognize it) or the patterns we recognize originate in us (we have the ability to create patterns out the chaos that surrounds us). If the latter were true, then the patterns we recognize would necessarily be different from person to person in the same way food tastes different from person to person. Sure, we could have certain patterns that are prevalent in certain social groups and cultures, just as we have different cuisines, but then there would be different maths from person to person and culture to culture. The fact that math, the one and the many, the law of entropy, etc. are all universal across individuals and cultures suggests that these things exist outside of us and prior to our ability to recognize them.

Thus, just because we can recognize a pattern does not explain why the pattern exists in the first place. So, you haven’t answered the problem of the one and the many.

Richard Horton said...

Man. It's like an undergraduate pre-modern philosophy course in here. I like this blog, but this insight is basically just Plato told through Christianity for like the millionth time and no consideration given to the entire history of ontology or epistemology since.

FrDave said...

Hume dismantled the modern project, demonstrating that we cannot know anything given modern presuppositions. One has to look to the early church to find any kind of effective counter to Hume's criticism. I would also invite you to read the Synodikon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which rejects your notion that this is Plato told through Christianity. It is more accurate to say that this is Christianity told through Plato.

The Wanderer said...

See Jonathan Pageau "Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy Exist" on YouTube

FrDave said...

And Santa Claus real is more ways than one...St. Nicholas is a real person who took part in the First Ecumenical Council. Stories about his life form the foundation of some of the traditions we still have today surrounding Christmas.

JB said...

Oh, good...I'm glad this discussion is still going on since it's taken me a while to get around to reading/commenting. Apologies!

RE AD&D "gods" (DDG, HPs, etc.)

I am more or less on the same page as The gods of D&D, much like any other character (PC or NPC) are nothing more than constructs, creations of the game. They are quantifiable. You could give them a thousand hit points or one doesn't matter so long as the Supreme Being (the DM) can wave his or her hand and *poof* them out of existence (or retain them for whatever inscrutable reason the DM has). The game is thus VERY analogous to (my particular) Christian worldview: the setting is a testing ground for the players.

[it is, perhaps, unfortunate that I don't use it as a testing ground for my players to grow in Christian values (!!), but other skills are learned as they struggle against the challenges posed by the game. Also, there's no Christ figure in my particular setting...perhaps some day (!)]

RE One & Many Philosophy, Theology, etc.

My understanding is that there already exists an empirical proof for God's existence, but I haven't seen it (the dean of the philosophy department at Seattle U was both a Jesuit and a certified genius, but I never had a chance to take his classes...was more concerned with girls than proving my faith back in those days).

Regardless, I find more weight in your side of the argument here. For several decades now (since approximately 1997) I just find it easier to believe in a (tough) loving God with a plan than in a slapdash, randomly formed universe...the latter simply strains the bounds of credibility beyond my comprehension.

As I sit typing this in my dining room, looking out the front window (with Black Lives Matter sign, penned by my children) at a fresh mowed lawn, while peripherally noting A) framed photos on a sideboard, B) a telescope in the corner, and C) a sleeping beagle on the living room couch...well, I can only marvel at the magnificence of God's creation and give thanks that I am able to enjoy and participate in it.

Cheers, Padre.
: )

FrDave said...

I would point out that it is impossible to empirically prove anything that we cannot perceive with our senses. Yes, we have a lot of empirical evidence that points to the Triune God of Scripture, but proving the existence of the ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, and incomprehensible God is beyond the scope of empiricism. Despite our best efforts and desire to know God with certainty, faith is still a necessary component in our relationship with Him.