Review: The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson

Folklore of Discworld 2009When I was getting to know the brilliant Discworld series of comic yet profound fantasy, I soon noticed the books were crammed full of clever things I often missed on the first go. A lot of these were references to things I’d never even heard about. Finding out what they were, say by reading the Annotated Pratchett File, taught me all kinds of random things.

This book was written by Discworld author Terry Pratchett together with folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, whom he met at a book signing when asking people what they knew about the Magpie Rhyme — another thing I’ve only heard in a Discworld book, Carpe Jugulum. It goes through numerous elements in the novels and their connection to folklore. It’s a big list of things, from many mythological creatures through old violent football customs through landmarks through obscure languages to the origin of Santa Claus, and much more. Continue reading


The fly in the window

A few days ago, for the first time this summer, there was a fly inside our apartment. I opened the smaller window to let some fresh air in, and the fly came in immediately. However, it was not happy to be inside; just as soon as it was, it flew to the larger, closed window, and started trying to furiously buzz through it. This went on for several minutes, with the small window open next to it all the while, until I forced the fly out. Naturally, it resisted.

How often when we are trying to solve a problem, or unintentionally causing one, are we like a fly trying to go through a window? My informed guess is that often, or even most of the time. The fly may be trying hard, but it can’t succeed because it’s got the wrong idea of what it’s doing. At best, its random flailing might lead it to accidentally move from where it is and fly through an open window instead of the closest one, but that would be sheer luck, and it might take indefinitely long. We are in the same position when we try to reach our goals but follow false and unhelpful ideas of how to get there. Continue reading

On multiplexity and the Zarathustrans

In my last post talking about simplex–complex–multiplex, there was one angle missing from what Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart say about them. I’ll write about it in a post of its own but also add it there afterwards.

In both their book The Collapse of Chaos and the previously mentioned Figments of Reality, Cohen and Stewart sometimes illustrate their points with stories about the fictional aliens called the Zarathustrans. In Collapse, human space travellers encounter Zarathustrans on their own planet, whereas in Figments, Zarathustrans observe the Earth. They look vaguely like flightless birds, but this resemblance is superficial, and they’re both very alien and very human at the same time. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that they have evolved not to be entirely independent individuals but to live in groups of eight Zarathustrans (plus one symbiote of a different kind). This means not only that they are obsessed with the number eight and see numerological significance based on it everywhere, but also that they naturally think in a multiplexual way and find simplex thinking hard. Continue reading

Simplex, complex, multiplex: A collection of quotes

Samuel R. Delany’s science fiction novel Empire Star introduces an intriguing trio of concepts: simplex, complex and multiplex. They concern how much a mind is stuck in one world view or how much it can think through multiple ones. Unfortunately, the concepts as “explained” — and more often exemplified — in the novel are left very obscure. I first ran into them in books by the scientists Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, but reading the original novel almost made me more confused about them. Yet, I have found the concepts as best I’ve been able to understand them to be useful for describing at least one thing: why and how people see contradictions where there really are none, or don’t see how points of view can be reconciled when they can.

I looked on the internet for an analysis of the concept trio, but didn’t find much of one. I did find a collection of quotes from Empire Star, which is included below. I don’t yet feel up to writing an analysis simply saying what the concepts mean, but I thought it would be helpful to create a bigger collection of quotes about them — including from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, who may or may not have understood them as the original novel intended, but in any case make use of some version of the concepts. They both explain them more clearly than the original and give additional examples of their application. Some other authors have also said relevant things and will be mentioned here.

So: If you want to go straight to the clearest definition, click here to see one by Cohen and Stewart. If you want to start with quotes from the original work, click here or just scroll down a bit.

I am using the concepts myself in another article, which also provides examples of how to apply them, though I won’t copy the text in this article. I recommend seeing this other article as well, though: “A synthesis of religious belief and naturalism?” Continue reading

A synthesis of religious belief and naturalism?

A vague sketch of an idea, but might be significant.

I’ve been reading and thinking about the nature of religion and its relation to belief and to the supernatural. What ideas I get depends on what I focus on or what I read. If I read Daniel Dennett, it seems religion really is built around the supernatural. If I read Karen Armstrong, it seems that it’s not. This idea comes from the latter way of looking at it.

So, this idea is that religion was not originally supposed to be about beliefs, that this is only something we think because we’re confusing it with science. On the other hand, I’ve also read that science has been made too much about knowledge only. And that religion — and myth — used to have an important function that we’re partly missing now.

This makes me think: Do a naturalistic world view — belief in only verifiable things, nothing supernatural — and religion need to contradict in any way? From this perspective, it seems that not. Here’s a sketch of different ways they could be closer and closer to each other as they come to involve a better understanding of the world and people. Continue reading