Theology of The Nonexistent God: Finding He Who Is Not

Fascinating. If finding an existing God already proves difficult to many, imagine a nonexistent one! A whole theology built around a nonexistent god would then seem byzantine at the very least.

“The world,” we read in the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, “came about through a mistake.” The demiurge who made it “wanted to create it imperishable and immortal,” but eventually he “fell short of attaining his desire, for the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he who made the world.” The Gnostics believed nonexistence to be a mark of perfection, and coming into being a form of degradation.

Now, what I find most fascinating here is the apparent contradiction of a nonexistent God: He Who Is Not. Wow. This is powerful. A fully dematerialized god. In fact, one god quite difficult to meet, if at all possible. So, the nature of nothingness of this god seems quite similar to the nature of the mathematical concept of the empty set: a set void of anything. Not even space void is so absolutely void as the empty set. Yet, the empty set does exist.

But what is also fascinating to me is the absolute metaphysical blabbing that can bring philosophers to state this, the most profound and light concept of He Who Is Not. Sure, the lightness of it all makes it even more unbearable. But also fun.

Oxymoron? It would seem so, but let’s not be that quick to jump to conclusions. In the end, saying “He Who Is Not” implies naming Him. But the simple act of naming someOne or someThing Does Not Make Him/It Be. Example: The famous (if nonexistent) flying spaghetti monster who lives–I am assured– on some orbit on the dark side of the moon. Since unobservable, nobody can disprove the assertion (Apollo missions did not see It, which of course does not prove Its nonexistence). Still, the burden is on proving the assertion, which of course cannot be done. Also, naming the monster does not make it pop into existence. So, He Who Is Not: We do name a He and we state that He has a property, namely that of nonexistence? Wrong!!! If He Is Not, Then He Hath No Property. Saying He Who Is Not is just a language trick. However, it is fascinating to me how absence of existence gets extrapolated into existence of absence and hence, the adoration of the latter.

Does this seem like the famous Gödelian game of “I never tell the truth”?? No, I think it’s much less deep. But not for this reason, less fascinating. It’s the old game of trying to trap the unbound into our modest language technology.

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Mechanical Doll Terror

It’s pure terror: A moving mechanical doll is advancing toward you, and there is nobody else in the room. Not many have used this imagery to tell stories in cinema, while a lot of directors have used the simpler (but not less scary) image of a static (sometimes talking or grinning) doll.

Nevertheless, the image of a doll somehow, when extrapolated from the right childish context, gives the creeps. What scares is the difference factor: the common element in a completely unfitting context.

This is what impressed me after viewing again one of Dario Argento’s classics: Profondo Rosso, or Deep Red (1975), not really an horror movie, but a mix between a classic whodunit thriller  and some gothic elements.

What’s the creepiest mechanical doll ever? Tick tock, tick tock. […] Not familiar with the mechanical porcelain terror that I’m speaking of? Take a look below in the clip:

Oh yeah. I should have also mentioned that there was a pretty gnarly teeth bashing scene in there, as well as some groovy over-the-top soundtrack music from the band Goblin. Only sweetens the deal if you ask me. The focus is on that random mechanical doll in the cute little tuxedo though.
[Both quotes from]

As usual, the Web is full of mementos of films with dolls (mechanical or not) being used as horror motifs. Here is one Short History of Creepy Dolls in the Movies and here the 8 Horror Movie Dolls That Will Give You the Creeps.

Enjoy this, now that you’re at it (from Richard Attenborough’s Magic).


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Teacher Quality

While reading the book Mindware. Tools for smart thinking (link to review) by Richard Nisbett, I came across a couple of nice paragraphs worth citing. Nisbett is reasoning on incentives and discusses the effects of the so-called loss aversion (humans abhor losing an opportunity). I am interested in the paper since it deals with an incentive for teachers which is completely material, i.e., dear old money itself. However, it is interesting that money by itself would not suffice. Read on:

In this paper, we demonstrate that exploiting the power of loss aversion–teachers are paid in advance and asked to give back the money if their students do not improve sufficiently–increases math test scores between 0.201 (0.076) and 0.398 (0.129) standard deviations. This is equivalent to increasing teacher quality by more than one standard deviation. A second treatment arm, identical to the loss aversion treatment but implemented in the standard fashion, yields smaller and statistically insignificant results. This suggests it is loss aversion, rather than other features of the design or population sampled, that leads to the stark differences between our findings and past research.

The paper itself is:

Roland G. Fryer, Jr & Steven D. Levitt & John List & Sally Sadoff, 2012. “Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment,” NBER Working Papers 18237, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
Link to paper (pdf). Link to summary.

Now, when I read such “studies” I can’t but be reminded of Neil Postman’s words about social science: “I do not believe psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, or media ecologists do science”. Well, I am joking here, but the Postman quote is real and full of sense (from a paper titled “Social Science as Theology“, Etc., Vol 41(1), 1984, 22-32.).

What do we make of this? That teachers are but pawns in the midst of a field dominated by forces they do not even see or control? Aren’t we all. However, this sounds really spooky and I resist the linking of the concept of teacher quality with the results of students’ test scores:

This is equivalent to increasing teacher quality by more than one standard deviation.

I believe this is misleading and I really don’t like the word “science” being applied to studies of this kind: if nothing else, because there is no causal link at all, just a correlation. If I add two plus two together and remember that in some institutions administrators request “personal retention rates” for each teacher’s classes and tie those with teachers’ “performance”, then I must conclude we are deeply wrong. The analytics movement, with all its good faith and interesting proposals may be but another route to simply more control, without serious implications to students’ learning.


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Trail Of Magic

Some time ago Seth Godin wrote a very concise and powerful post on the appreciation of the “trail of magic” a student produces in her career (from No direction home).

Can you show me a history of generous, talented, extraordinary side projects?

Have you ever been so passionate about your work that you’ve gone in through the side door?

Are you an expert at something that actually generates value?

Have you connected with leaders in the field in moments when you weren’t actually looking for a job?

Does your reputation speak for itself?

Where online can I see the trail of magic you regularly create?

Alas, famous colleges and the industrial-education process rarely bother to encourage this. [my bold]

No extra words are needed, I think. I love the metaphor because looking at all the work students do within their formal education means getting in awe at the passion, quality and depth of the worlds they try to share.

This resounds deeply with Gardner Campbell’s idea of Wisdom as a teaching outcome (see his Understanding and Learning Outcomes), and of course, with the academic portfolio. The beauty of a portfolio of self expression through Domains of One’s Own is that each students owns (at least, rents!) the space through which he publishes. Thus, a portfolio does not stay put in some Dean’s archive, but acquires a life of its own. Which means the trail of magic goes with (and beyond) the student.

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The disneyBook

Silos, Tunnel Vision and the Infantilization of Everything: the disneyBook

I have gone through a few weeks of classes, and I am emphasizing with my students the importance of the open Web vis á vis the closed, institutionalized silos-like environments like Learning Management Systems or Facebook. Or even today’s Web-based newspapers, so full of text but so shy of links. The Web is but a net of documents and the link system among them is the architecture that holds all together.  So, I try and develop in students a feeling for the magic that is (still) the Web. We ought to defend it, and to nurture it, beginning from academia. At the same time I notice a general decay towards infantilization (at least here, in big America): in cinema (essentially, movies for adolescents), literature (novels for adolescents are on the rise, Harry), gaming (of course, you’d say, but gaming is for all ages) and of course, at school. Infantilization is a technique used to reduce all to a minimal common denominator that everybody responds to. Consequently, it’s easier to script a movie when such a heavy track is imposed: just use proven formulas. So, infantilization gets a return on investment which is foolproof. This is how a class in mythology ends up discussing the wedding of Peleus and Thetis as if it were just a get-together of Zeus’s devising.

Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. 1612

Wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Joachim Wtewael, 1612. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

And then I remembered Disney and Disney World. Aren’t them the epitome of all I’ve been talking about?

So this is my theory.

Beautiful Disney World at Sunset

[Beautiful Disney World at Sunset, flickr photo by Stuck in Customs, shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license]

  1. Our world, It’s  a Wonderful World.
  2. It’s a World where nothing gets questioned (yes, there’s some negative protests from time to time, but that is actually feedback). The world itself never gets questioned.
  3. It resembles a very approximate and simplified model of reality. Disney World, in the end, is just that, a comfortable little toy model of the world outside, without the need to venture outside. FB is like that: a tunnel through the world, that gives one the illusion of knowing about the world, when it only gives back one’s very own idea of the world.
  4. It gets boring in the end, just like Disney World.
  5. Like all simplified models of reality, one only gets what one wants to find. A confirmed view of my point of view. Friends (but not foes) and information sources all confirm what I already know.
  6. Like a Learning Management System, it is a self-contained world. No need to adventure outside. The Web? Why was it invented? Links? Why use them? In fact, the disneyBook resembles one of those distance-ed courses where you got a number of writings or lectures or video or whatever is named “content” aligned one after the other and interspersed with evaluations and assessment. Why is not original material used but only its abridged version? Because abridged Powerpoint slideshows are simpler, that’s it. Because Mickey’s world is so much simpler that ours. And dammit, it is so cute.
  7. It is a confined world, a walled garden. Self-sustaining. Like McDonald’s and Disney, of course. If you eat only McDonald’s, you get a very wrong idea of what the word “authentic” means. If you see the world through the disneyBook you get what you deserve. The point is that your vote is yours but your decisions impact me.
  8. It is the contrary of our idea of liberal-arts education. Within the disneyBook, one gets educated at a simplified, simplistic, not questionable universe, one where everything is certain, and rules are observed faithfully. Famed content is all here.
  9. It’s a world where people don’t do stuff, instead they consume stuff. And by so doing, they abdicate some privacy or data or some of the richness of the world. While couch-surfing, the world seems safer, but you won’t experience it.
  10. On the contrary, never, ever while in it, do people ask: Is this all there is to the world? Instead they tend to repeat the mantra “If only the world outside were like this!”
  11. It’s a world where people don’t show their true self, but a selfie version, a duller self: a version that confirms ad aeternum point #1, It’s A Wonderful World. Until one explodes. Bret Easton Ellis, talking on Living in the Cult of Likability, calls it an “idealized portrait of their lives — a nicer, friendlier, duller self”.
  12. But what if the negative and the difficult were attached to the genuinely interesting, the compelling, the unusual? That’s the real crime being perpetrated by the reputation culture: stamping out passion; stamping out the individual.” –Breat Easton Ellis
  13. Its principles are quite outside the domain of ideas and tenets of the open, free Web. Most importantly, its principles are outside the domain of what we usually label authentic, student-centered education.

Consider how a typical FB timeline works. You get a series of entries, where each has one or more photos and some text. There may be one (just one) YouTube video. And one (just one) link to a Web page. Now, that may seem like a blog post, but it has not the expressive freedom of blog posts and the logic of the timeline’s display is not a simple stack of entries. Instead, FB’s closed algorithms (of which most people don’t even know the existence) decide what gets displayed and in what order, and what does not.

The teachings of the open Web, on the contrary, are not discussed or used within such a closed-system approach. (NOTE the similarity of the FB’s timeline with some LMS’s content sections.)

In his blog, Dave Winer’s wrote:

Imagine there are parks all around Facebook where people get to do all they want. That’s the web. Inside Facebook is heavily policed, there are severe limits on what you can do, so it’s safe. That’s what they’re going for, and it’s not a bad idea. Both ideas have a place, and there should be entry points between the two. That’s what links are, a border crossing between ControlLand and the democratic space.

The fact that Facebook does not support linking in their posts is really hurting the rest of the web. It’s made people choose between writing exclusively on Facebook or mixing it up between FB and their blog, and other services. If you want to do the latter you have to base your writing outside of Facebook because they do not support linking. [My boldface] –Dave Winer (Facebook and linking is a big deal)

If I publish a photo within FB, it gets shut within a closed silos. All (my) friends can see it, but essentially, I lose its property. If I followed an open ethos, instead, I would publish the photo in Flickr or other open system (even if proprietary) and share the photo’s use with the world with a CreativeCommons license. I would get a double advantage: an open publishing system whereby everybody can get access to my media, and more exposure (and marketing power) for my work.

We tend to not typically understand how FB’s tunnel algorithms work.

For years, the News Feed has been fueled by automated software that tracks each user’s actions to serve them the posts they’re most likely to engage with. That proved successful in helping News Feed generate more revenue for Facebook than any other part of the site., Here’s How Facebook’s News Feed Actually Works

The feed is being curated because there is simply too much content to show everyone everything. Curated by humans or automated algorithms does not matter.

Facebook says the average user has access to about 1,500 posts per day but only looks at 300. (A user who scrolls endlessly will eventually see every post from their friends and a smattering of posts from Pages they follow.)

In a study, reports, “62% of people didn’t know that their News Feeds were being filtered. When the algorithm was explained to one subject, she compared the revelation to the moment when Neo discovers the artificiality of The Matrix.”

Neo & The Architect (The Matrix). Rob Gillespie, CC-licensed

Neo & The Architect (The Matrix). Rob Gillespie, CC-licensed

Curated. The magic word in The Magic Kingdom.

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