Models vs. Reality

A little-known change in the attempt to learn about nature happened, in a sense, several hundred years ago. People replaced Natural Philosophy with mathematical Science, in which the attempt to know what nature is was replaced with mathematical models of nature which can predict measurable aspects of nature.

The difference between these two things is that a model may, possibly, tell you about what the underlying reality is. On the other hand, it may not. Models can be accurate entirely by accident.

Trivial examples are always easier, so consider the following model of how often Richard Dawkins is eaten by an alligator, where f is the number of times he’s been eaten by an alligator and t is the time (in the sense of precise date):

f(t) = 0

This model is accurate to more than 200 decimal places. If you conclude from this model that Richard Dawkins is alligator-proof and throw him in an alligator pit to enjoy the spectacle of frustrated alligators, you will be very sadly mistaken. But it’s so accurate!

This is of course a silly example; no one would ever confuse this model or its accuracy for a full description of reality. However, there’s a very interesting story from astronomy where people did exactly that.

I’m speaking, in particular, of the long-running Ptolemaic model of the planets and its eventual overthrow of the Copernican model. The Ptolemaic model was the one where the earth was at the center of the solar system and the planets traveled in cycles and epicycles around it. The thing about this model is that it was actually extremely accurate in its predictions.

(If you’re wondering how it could be so accurate while being so wrong, the thing you have to realize is that Special Relativity actually means that it’s just fine for the earth to be taken as the center of the coordinate. The math just gets harder for some calculations; this is basically what happened. The Ptolemaic model was, basically, a close approximation of that more complicated math.)

However, there is a yet simpler example of incorrect models producing correct results: just consider, for two minutes, that for most of history everyone believed that the Sun orbited the earth and yet they still had highly accurate calendars. Despite not thinking of a year as the time the earth takes to orbit the Sun they nevertheless recorded the years and predicted the solstices with great precision.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in a full history of the shift from the Earth being the center of the solar system to the Sun being at the center, be sure to read the extraordinarily good series of articles by TOF, The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown (originally published in Analog magazine). It is very well worth your time.

Accuracy vs. Charity

A curious experience I have from time to time is when discussing some sort of sin or other moral error, when I identify the lesser good aimed at, I’m told that I’m very charitable. This confuses me somewhat because my goal is not to be charitable, but merely to be accurate.

All sin is the seeking after of some lesser good in place of a higher good. The clearest and easiest example is idolatry—this is worshiping some created good as if it were the Creator. But that means that the idolater is seeking God in a creature. It’s not particularly charitable to note this; it’s simply accurate.

To take a slightly less obvious example, when a person is wrathful—i.e. indulging in excessive anger—they are placing the rectification of some wrong above the good of the injured party and the culprit. In true justice, a wrong done is rectified and a balance restored between aggressor and victim, so that they can return to their proper relationship of friends. When one is wrathful one seeks only to redress the wrong done to the victim, but not to restore the relationship between creatures. By giving an infinite weight to the good of which the victim was deprived, the wrathful person is never satisfied at the restitution and therefore ignores the greater good (once proper restitution has been made) of restoration of the proper relationship between sinner and victim. But saying that the wrathful person goes wrong by over-valuing the victim (or the good of which the victim was deprived which constitutes the injury to the victim) is not—in any way that I can see, at least—being charitable to the wrathful person. It’s just being accurate.

I suppose it’s possible that this is taken for charity because commonly people ascribe sin to the desire to do evil, but this is not actually possible. It’s simply a point of metaphysics that the will can only move towards some good, though it can move toward a lessor good in place of a greater good. As such, whenever a person goes wrong, you know with iron certainty that they were seeking some good, however minor. This doesn’t lessen their sin since it’s inherent in their sin being sin that they are seeking some (lesser) good.

Perhaps people think I mean that the one whose sin I’m explaining must therefore have sinned by accident, or been misled through no fault of their own? That certainly does not follow; we know from the fact that sin is voluntary that one can knowingly choose a lesser good over a greater good.

Oh well. Perhaps some day I’ll understand this.

Pride Vs Stupidity

Over on his blog, Mr. John C. Wright asks the question:

Why is the proud man angry or peeved with the stupidity (real or imagined) of his fellows? I ask because one would think a saint would be very patient with someone who was stupid, if it were honest stupidity, and not merely laziness in thinking. Whereas the devil (or Lex Luthor) is always in a state of haughtiest annoyance, because he is brighter than those around him. Their stupidity proves his superiority – yet it irks him. Why?

To answer this question we have to first answer the question, “what is pride?” (I’m taking the distinction between pride and vanity as a given.) A generally workable description of pride is an inflated sense of the worth of the self. This is, however—when properly considered—a symptom rather than a cause.

The cause of pride is a mistake about the nature of the self. This is inescapable because the value placed on something is inherently a description of its nature. (I should probably clarify that pride is an inflation of the inherent worth of the self—it’s not a utilitarian measure of the worth of the self to someone else’s purposes, as a means to their end. That’s actually a form of vanity.)

There are two possible mistakes to make about the nature of the self which aggrandize it:

  1. That one is a higher creature than one is, but still subordinate to God
  2. That one is God

While #1 is possible, I suspect it’s not the common mode of pride since it’s too subject to correctives. A human being who thinks that he’s an angel, for example, will have a hard time not noticing that he has a physical body and is, therefore, actually a human being. If he still thinks himself subordinate to God, he will in humility accept this recognition. It is, therefore, hard to see how #1 can be a long-lived error. Even Gulliver couldn’t think himself a Houyhnhnm for long at a stretch.

This leaves #2 as the common form of pride, and it is this form of pride in which stupidity angers the proud man. It angers him because it is proof that he is not God. The proud man wills that the people around him are not stupid and yet they are. This proves his limitations and therefore disproves his opinion of his own power. The larger the difference between what he wills reality to be and what it is, the greater the proof that he is not God, and therefore the greater is his anger.

Most of Life is Unknown

We live so awash in stories and news that we get a very skewed perspective on how much of real life is know to more than a few people and God. What got me thinking about this was watching the following song:

It was the theme song used by a sketch comedy group at the university I went to for my undergraduate degree. They were called Friday Night Live (as an homage to the TV show of similar name) and would put on a show about three times a semester. They had apparently been hugely popular when they started, which was at least a few years before I attended. I was in the rival sketch comedy group, Pirate Theater. At the beginning of my freshman year the attendance at our shows was lower than that of Friday Night Live, but by the end of my senior year the positions had reversed. Our audiences were 3-4 times larger and theirs were smaller even than our audiences had been in my freshman year.

A few years ago I ran into someone who was currently a student at the university and I asked about the shows. He said that Pirate Theater was still reasonably popular but Friday Night Live no longer existed. In fact, he had never even heard of it.

There had been a reasonably friendly rivalry between the two shows, and it turned out that our efforts brought success, in a sense. I don’t think that any of us pirates wanted to kill of Friday Night Live, and ultimately I suspect that it was the quality of their writing which did them in. For whatever reason (I never wrote sketches for FNL, so I couldn’t say what it was like to do so), Pirate Theater managed to attract far more of the skilled writers on campus. It also didn’t help that FNL insisted on having an intermission and hiring a local band to play in it. I think in all the time I was there—and I didn’t miss an FNL show all four years—they had one band that I didn’t leave the auditorium to get away from. Really, really cheap bands tend to be so inexpensive for a reason.

As you might imagine, I was never alone outside the doors when the band was playing. And they were always ear-hurtingly loud, too. Adding injury to insult, I suppose.

Towards the end of my senior year, there were probably less than a hundred people attending the Friday Night Live shows. The total number of people who saw their trajectory for those four years I watched it was not very large; the number who remember it now is probably much smaller. And yet the actors did work on their sketches, however little humor was in them. The “turrets family” where the “joke” was that there was a lot of yelling and cussing may not have been entertaining to watch, but it’s no easier to memorize unfunny lines, or to say them at the right time when you’re live on stage. (There was at approximately one of those per show, for all four years, by the way.)

One of the actors was limber and would do physical comedy with a folding chair, getting stuck in it. It wasn’t brilliant physical comedy, and (due to the lack of skilled writing) never really fit into the sketches it was in; one could see it coming a mile away as the sketches it was used in were basically an excuse to do the wacky chair antics. But someone did write the sketch, and people memorized it, and the actor did twist himself through a chair on stage which is not an easy thing to do. And I do have to say that the final time he did it—which was the last FNL show I attended since he graduated the same year I did—was actually kind of funny because it was actually a protracted goodbye dance with the chair, complete with sad music and longing glances.

 

This was all very real; people put real work, went through real happiness and sadness, and now it is mostly forgotten. That is ultimately the fate of (almost) all human endeavors. This was captured quite well, I think by Percy Blythe Shelley in his poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Most things fade from memory far faster, of course. How many people now remember more than a few fragments of Friday Night Live’s sketches? I don’t think I remember more than a few fragments of the Pirate Theater sketches which I wrote, let alone those I merely performed in. I do have a DVD with a collection of the video sketches we did (many of which I’m in), but it’s been quite some time since I watched it.

It may well be longer until I watch it again. In the intervening decade and a half, I’ve gotten a profession, married, bought a house, had three children, published three novels, made a YouTube channel with over 1,973 subscribers, and a whole lot more. As much a I value my memories of my college days, I don’t want to go back in the way that video takes one back.

But the thing is, that’s not a strength. I just don’t have the time and energy for it. But all the things I’ve done since which so occupy me now will also fade in time. Eventually I will die; eventually this house will fall down or be demolished; eventually my children will die. Nothing has any permanence within time.

So the only hope we have is for permanence outside of time. There’s a great metaphor, which Saint Augustine uses in his Confessions, of God, at the end of time, gathering up the shattered moments of our lives and putting them together as a unified whole. And that’s really the only hope we have for any of our lives to be real.

You Can’t Get an Ought From an Is In Hell

One of the questions which comes up in discussions of morality is whether you can get an “ought” from an “is”. This is relevant primarily to discussions of atheism, since to the atheist everything is a brute fact, i.e. an “is” which is not directed towards anything, and therefore an atheist cannot get any “oughts” out of their description of what is. Or in simpler language, if God is dead then all things are permitted. (Note for the unpoetic: by “God is dead” we mean “there is no God”.)

There are two reasons why if God is dead all things are permitted:

  1. If God is dead, who is there to forbid anything?
  2. If God is dead, then there is no ultimate good because all is change and therefore nothing has any lasting reality.

If you argue this sort of stuff with atheists long enough, somewhere along the line while you’re explaining natural ends (telos) and natural morality, you may come by accident to a very interesting point which the atheist will bring up without realizing it. It often goes something like this:

OK, suppose that what God says is actually the only way to be eternally happy. Why should you be eternally happy? Why shouldn’t you do what you want even though it makes you unhappy?

This question sheds some very interesting light on hell, and consequently on what we mean by morality. Our understanding of morality tends to be like what Saint Augustine said of our understanding of time:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

Somehow or other atheists tend to assume that ought means something that you have to do, regardless of what you want to do. It’s very tempting to assume that this is a holdover from childhood where ought meant that their parents would make them do it whether or not they wanted to. It’s tempting because it’s probably the case and because that’s not an adult understanding of ought. And it’s not because ultimately we can’t be forced to be good. (Or if this raises your hackles because I’m “placing limits on God”, then just take it as meaning that in any event we won’t be forced to be good.)

Hell is a real possibility. Or in other words, it is possible to see two options and knowingly pick the worse option.

What we actually mean by saying that we ought to do something is that the thing is directed towards the good. And we can clarify this if we bring in a bit of Thomistic moral philosophy: being is what is good. Or as the scholastic phrase goes, good is convertible with being. But being, within creation, is largely a composite entity. A statue is not just one thing, but many things (atoms, molecules, etc.) which, in being ordered toward the same end, are also one thing which is greater than their parts.

And you can see a symphony of ordering to a greater being, in a human being. Atoms are ordered into proteins (and many other things like lipids, etc), which are ordered into cells, which are ordered into organs, which are ordered into human beings. But human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy of being, for we are also ordered into community with other created things. (Please note: being part of a greater whole does not rob the individual of his inherent dignity; the infinite goodness of God means that creation is not a competition. Also note that God so exceeds all of creation that He is not in the hierarchy of being, but merely pointed to by it.)

And so we come to the real meaning of ought. To say that we ought to do something is to say that the thing is ordered towards the maximum being which is given to us. But we need not choose being; we can instead choose non-being. The great lie which the modern project (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Satan) tells us is that there is some other being available to us besides what was given to us by God. That we can make ourselves; that we can give ourselves what we haven’t got. And, not at all coincidentally, are the things which we ought not to do—that is, those things are not ordered toward being. They’re just what the atheist says that all of life is—stimulating nerve endings to fool ourselves that we’ve accomplished something.

And yet atheists complain when one says that, according to them, they’re in hell.

God, at least, has a sense of humor.

Superman’s Secret Identity

I had a conversation with my friend Andrew Stratelates recently about the question of why no one figures out that Clark Kent is actually Superman. And I figured something out about it when he pointed out that mannerisms can be very suggestive to people, but it would be very difficult to fool facial recognition software: trying to figure out Superman’s secret identity presupposes that he has a secret identity. And why on earth would anyone think that?

Superman doesn’t wear a mask, and is even clean shaven. Since one can plainly see his face, which he makes no effort to hide, there’s absolutely no reason to think that he has some sort of alternate persona he’s hiding. Moreover, if you think about it for a moment, it’s actually really quite strange that Superman does have an alternate persona. It serves no practical purpose. In most tellings, superman is not a vigilante who is wanted by the police and in any event he has a fortress of solitude which is a reasonable commute away, so it’s not like he has to pay rent to avoid capture. And if Superman did want money, he could take advantage of his super powers to earn hugely more than he could pretending to be an ordinary man. There are much more lucrative things he could do, but since he can travel at super-sonic speeds while carrying multiple tons of material, he could make a fortune as a high speed courier. The list of better ways to make money than working an office job would be quite long, and moreover, obviously quite long to everyone.

Further, there’s the fact that superman is basically an olympian god compared to ordinary men. Why would he choose to do the drudgery the rest of us are forced to do? It’s an imperfect analogy, but consider the following hypothetical:

Suppose you work for a company which makes inkjet printers, and suppose you have a co-worker in your office named Fred who looks like Donald Trump, except that he is polite, self-effacing, drives a 6-year-old Nissan Sentra, and wears glasses. And suppose another co-worker one day whispered to you, “You know what, I think that Fred is Donald Trump’s secret identity!”

Would you:

(A) Say, “You know what, if you take away the glasses he does look exactly like Donald Trump. You must be right!”

(B) Ask, “Why on earth would Donald Trump have a secret identity working a mediocre job in our printer company?”

(If Donald Trump is too polarizing a figure, you could easily substitute Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or the Duke of Cambridge (Prince William), and the point will remain unchanged.)

Superman’s having a secret identity makes about as much sense has his wearing his underwear on the outside of his clothing—it’s interesting, it’s very historically contingent, and it’s plausible only in the sense that life has a lot of quirks to it that we’d never expect. That it is plausible in the sense that life is stranger than fiction does actually lend people not discovering Superman’s secret identity some plausibility. And I think the wild implausibility of Superman having a secret identity is the best defense he has, since it would be trivial to detect superman otherwise, even if he wore an astonishingly realistic face mask. Just use an x-ray scanner and find the guy who’s completely solid. Alternatively, look for people the right height and build and poke them with a very thin, sharp pin until you find the guy where the pin breaks instead of going into his skin. And if you’re a villain, just do it like they did in the movie Pumaman and throw likely candidates out of high windows until you find someone who survives.

Over the Hills and Far Away

I recently discovered the singer/hury gurdist Patty Gurdy. Originally part of the band Storm Seeker, she seems to be striking out on her own. I’ve really been enjoying her songs on YouTube, and I’m particularly fond of her cover of a Storm Seeker song called The Longing:

However, the song I want to talk about is Over the Hills and Far Away:

It’s extremely reminiscent in theme of the Johnny Cash song The Long Black Veil, though I don’t know that there’s any influence:

Either way, it’s very interesting to compare the two songs. And despite the similarity of subject matter, the biggest difference is what kind of song they are: Over the Hills and Far Away is a (sort-of) love song, while The Long Black Veil is a tragedy.

This is of course facilitated by the different penalties for the different crimes. In The Long Black Veil, the man is accused of murder and his refusal to provide an alibi results in his execution, while in Over the Hills and Far Away he refuses to provide an alibi for a robbery and consequently is sentenced to 10 years in prison. This enables the latter to have the theme of eventual return, and it’s this theme which turns the song into a love song.

Which is unfortunate because the man should not return to the arms of his best friend’s wife. He should stay out of the arms of any man’s wife but even more so those of his best friend’s wife. In the song where the adulterer died, it becomes possible to take it as a simple tragedy where he was not directly punished for his adultery, but none the less was being punished indirectly because his adultery prevented him from proving his innocence. He got what he deserved, if indirectly, sort of like the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Unfortunately that sort of interpretation isn’t possible for a man who doesn’t understand what he did to be wrong (only socially unacceptable). But I find it interesting that the woman sings a song about adultery as a love song and the man sings it as a tragedy. This touches on a theme I’ve noticed in stories written by women: a man is so captivated by a woman’s beauty that he’s willing to destroy himself (and often her) because of it. This isn’t a universal theme, nor anything like that, but I’ve noticed that this is a common theme in material that I didn’t usually read until recently.

There’s a lot to say about the theme of a man so entranced by a woman’s beauty that he becomes a monster, which alas I don’t have time for now, but it is an interesting question to ponder how much the becoming a monster is intrinsic to the fantasy or whether it’s a way of defending against the accusations of wish-fulfillment which the story would be accused of if the woman’s beauty captivated the man and helped him to overcome his vices and become a saint. That latter one would be a very good story, though.

Without Midwits, Geniuses Would be Useless

Over at Amatopia, Alex wrote an interesting post called, The Curse of the Midwit:

One of the worst things to be is a midwit. And I am one. Let me explain what I mean by “midwit.” I have seen the term used many ways, and they boil down to these six points: Someone who is not as smart as the truly intelligent, but is of above-average intelligence, Who wants other […]

As usual, it’s a post worth reading, but Alex only tells half the story. He talks about the dangers of midwits but every danger is just the flip side of a virtue. (Of a natural virtue, specifically. The natural virtues are things like intelligence, strength, physical beauty, health, and so on; they are distinct from the moral virtues like courage, self control, etc.; which are again distinct from the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.)

In short, Alex leaves out the virtue unique to midwits. Now, in what follows I’m going to paint with a very broad brush because I don’t have time to give a full description of the hierarchy of being, so I ask you to use your imagination to fill in all that I’m going to leave vague.

As I’ve said before, God’s fundamental theme within creation is delegation (technically, secondary causation). He doesn’t give to each creature everything he gives to them directly, but instead gives some of his gift to other creatures to give to their fellow creatures on his behalf. Through this He incorporates us into his love of creation and into His creative action. But within creation, this theme of delegation echoes. Instead of one intermediary, God orders the world so that there are several intermediaries. He spreads the love around, as it were.

The part of that which we’re presently concerned with is that it is not (usually) given to geniuses to be able to give their knowledge to the great mass of humanity directly. And since it is (usually) not given to them, they generally can’t do it. When a genius speaks to a common man, he’s usually quite unintelligible. If the common man knows the genius to be a genius by reputation, he’ll assume the man is saying something too genius for him to understand, rather than to be raving nonsense, but he will typically get about as much from it as if the genius was raving nonsense. This is where the midwits come in.

A midwit can understand a genius, but he can also speak in ways that common men can understand. Thus God’s knowledge is given to the common man not directly, but first to the genius, who gives it to the midwit, who then gives it to the common man. Geniuses need midwits at least as much as midwits need geniuses. In truth, all of creation needs the rest of creation since we were created to be together.

Of course the distinction of men into three tiers—genius, midwit, and common—is a drastic oversimplification. In reality there are levels of midwits and levels of geniuses, each of which tends to receive knowledge from the level above it and pass knowledge down to the level below it. For example, Aristotle would have had the merest fraction of the effect he has had were it not for an army of teachers, down through the millenia, who have explained what he taught to those who couldn’t grasp it directly.

Of course in this fallen world every aspect of this can and often does go wrong in a whole myriad of ways. And Alex is quite right that midwits can be very dangerous when they consider themselves geniuses—or really, any time that they’re wrong—because the sacred burden of teaching the great mass of common men has been given to them. Midwits have the power to do tremendous good, which means that they have the power to do tremendous harm.  But the tremendous good which midwits were given to do should never be forgotten just because many of them don’t do it.

The Evolution of Scientism

There’s a curious thing which happens to those who believe that the only real knowledge comes from science: they start to believe that nearly everything—except what they want to reject—is science. Ultimately this should not be shocking, since people who live with a philosophy will invariably change it—gradually—until it is livable.

The people who become Scientismists generally start out extremely impressed with the clear and convincing nature of the proofs offered in the physical sciences. It would be more accurate to say, with the few best proofs in the physical sciences which are offered to them in school—but the distinction isn’t of great import. In practice, most of the impressive results tend to be in the field of Chemistry. It doesn’t hurt that Chemistry is a bit akin to magic, with the astonishing substances it allows people to make, but what it’s really best at is interesting, counter-intuitive predictions. Physics, at least as presented in school, generally allows you to predict simple things like where a thrown object will land or how far a hockey puck will skid on the ice. These aren’t very practical, and the results tend to be intuitive. Chemistry, by contrast, involves the mixing of strange chemicals with the results ranging from anything to nearly nothing to things which glow to explosions to enormously strong plastics.

And Chemistry does this with astonishing accuracy. If you start with clean reagents and mix them in the appropriate steps, you actually do end up with close to the right amount of what you’re supposed to end up with. If you try to run a physics experiment, you’ll probably be nowhere close to correct simply because the experiments are so darn finicky. I still remember when my high school honors physics class broke into groups to run an experiment to calculate acceleration due to gravity at the earth’s surface. The results were scattered between 2.3m/s and 7.3m/s (the correct answer is 9.8m/s).

The problem for our budding Scientismist  is that virtually nothing outside of chemistry and (some of) physics is nearly as susceptible to repeatable experiment on demand. Even biology tends to be far less accommodating (though molecular biology is much closer to chemistry in this regard than the rest of biology is). Once you get beyond biology, things get much worse for the Scientismist; by the time you’re at things like morality, economics, crime & punishment, public decency, parenting and so forth, there aren’t any repeatable controlled experiments which you can (ethically) perform. And even if you were willing to perform unethical controlled experiments, the system involved is so complex that the very act of controlling the experiment (say, by raising a child inside of a box) affects the experiment. So what is the Scientismist to do?

What he should do, of course, is realize that Scientism is folly and give it up. The second best thing to do is to realize that (according to his theory) human beings live in near-complete ignorance and so he has nothing to say on any subject other than the hard sciences. What he actually does is to then declare all sorts of obviously non-scientific things to be science, and then accepts them as knowledge. Which is to say, he makes Scientism livable. It’s neither rational nor honest, but it is inevitable. In this great clash of reality with his ideas, something has to give—and the least painful thing to give up is a rigorous criteria for what is and is not science.

Telling Reality From a Dream

“What if real life is actually a dream?”  is a favorite question of Modern philosophers and teenagers who want to sound deep. It’s a curious thought experiment, but in reality—that is, when we’re awake—we can all easily tell the difference between reality and a dream. But how? The answer is, I think, very simple, but also telling.

Thought experiments aside, we can tell reality from a dream because—to put it a little abstractly—reality contains so much more information than a dream does. Anything we care to focus on contains a wealth of detail which is immediately apparent to us. Whether it’s the threads in a blanket or the dust in the corner of the room or just the bumps in the paint on the drywall, reality has an inexhaustible amount of complexity and detail to it. And what’s more, it has this even in the parts we’re not focusing on. Our eyes take in a truly enormous amount of information that we don’t exactly notice and yet are aware of.

Dreams, by contrast, are very simple things. They do feel real while we are in them, but I think this comes from two primary causes. One is that we’re so caught up in the plot of our dream that we’re not paying enough attention to ask ourselves the simple question, “is this a dream?”

And I think that this is because dreams are natural to us. We often lose sight of this fact because dreams are involuntary and strange. But many things we do are involuntary, in the sense of sub-conscious; our breathing is most involuntary and our heartbeat always is. Our stomachs go on without our concentrating on them and our intestines wind our food through them whatever our conscious thoughts may be. Merely being involuntary does not make a thing unnatural. And since it is natural to us to dream, it is natural that we do not ordinarily try to escape our dreams. As with our other bodily functions, we ordinarily do what we’re supposed to do.

The other reason that dreams feel real to us is because our attention is so focused in a dream that we never consider the irrelevant details. If you ever try to call a dream back in your memory, though, you’ll notice that you can recall almost no detail in them—detail which was irrelevant at the time, I mean. The things in dreams only have properties where one is paying attention. The enormous amount of information we can see without paying attention to it is missing. This is also why they have a “dreamlike” quality to them—if we turn away then come back, they may not be the same because they stopped existing while we weren’t looking at them.

Dreams lack this stable, consistent, overwhelming amount of information in them precisely because they are our creations. We can’t create an amount of information so large that we can’t take it in.

And here we come to the fitting part: the difference in richness between reality and dreams shows what inadequate Gods we are. Our creations are insubstantial, inconsistent wisps. We can tell reality from a dream at a glance between it only takes one glance at reality to know that we couldn’t have created what we’re looking at.

(Note: This is a heavily revised version of a previous post, Discerning Reality From a Dream.)

Discerning Reality From a Dream

“What if real life is actually a dream?”  is a favorite question of Modern philosophers and teenagers who want to sound deep. It’s a curious thought experiment, but in reality we can all easily tell the difference between reality and a dream. But how? The answer is, I think, very simple, but also telling.

Thought experiments aside, we can tell reality from a dream because—to put it a little abstractly—reality contains so much more information than a dream does. Anything we care to focus on contains a wealth of detail which is immediately apparent to us. Whether it’s the threads in a blanket or the dust in the corner of the room or just the bumps in the paint on the drywall, reality has an inexhaustible amount of complexity and detail to it.

Dreams, by contrast, are very simple things. They feel real only because we’re so caught up in the plot of our dream that we’re not paying enough attention to ask ourselves the simple question, “is this a dream?” But if you pay attention, dreams have almost no detail in them; the things in the dream only have properties where one is paying attention. This is also why they have a “dreamlike” quality to them—if we turn away then come back, they may not be the same because they stopped existing while we weren’t looking at them.

And here we come to the fitting part: the difference in richness between reality and dreams shows what inadequate Gods we are. Our creations are insubstantial, inconsistent wisps. We can tell reality from a dream at a glance between it only takes one glance at reality to know that we couldn’t have created what we’re looking at.

UPDATE: I’ve rewritten and expanded this post in a way that makes its point clearer: Telling Reality From a Dream

The Problem With Outrage Quoting

I’m fairly careful to limit my intake of social media to people who say reasonable things. This is in part a survival strategy for Staying Sane on Social Media. However, this still leaves a fairly large vector for things which unbalance my mood and make me less effective at the main stuff I’m supposed to be doing: outrage quoting.

This is where a person who is themselves reasonable sees a very unreasonable thing, then quotes it to express their outrage at it. There’s also a variation on this where the person quotes it to make fun of it. The latter isn’t quite as bad as the former, but both do have the following problem: one is still being exposed to the crazy stuff one was trying to avoid.

Actually, it’s a bit worse than that—the people one follows are specifically filtering through the stuff from the unreasonable people to find the craziest stuff that they say. This can be extremely unbalancing to one’s state of mind. As I talked about in Social Media is Doomed, human beings aren’t designed to deal with a large number of strangers. We deal with people by acclimating to them, but it takes time and is harder the more different sorts of people we need to acclimate to. Even when we are careful to keep our reading to a set group of people to whom we’ve acclimated—there’s no requirement that these people agree with each other or with us, only that we’ve acclimated to them—outrage quoting constantly introduces new people to our notice who are saying crazy things that we haven’t acclimated to. This is extremely stressful to human beings.

Also, please note that I’m not talking about being exposed to new ideas as being stressful. There are some circumstances in which that can be stressful, but usually it’s quite manageable. I’m talking about running into expressions of ideas we’re not used to. Perhaps we know somebody who will say #KillAllMen and we’ve gotten used to this eccentricity. There is no new argument to be found in a person saying, instead, #CastrateAllMen (I made that up; who knows, perhaps I will have actually come up with an absurd example that the universe didn’t beat me to for once). But if we’re used to the former and not the latter, the latter will be far more stressful to run into. There’s a new person here, and people are complex. They’re also dangerous. A stress reaction to having to deal with a new person is actually entirely appropriate. Best case scenario is a big drain on your emotional energy is incoming.

Except that this being a one-off quote means that actually, a big drain on one’s emotional energy isn’t incoming because you don’t actually need to get used to this new person. You’re almost certainly never going to see them again. And therein lies one strategy to help mitigate the stress from encountering outrage quoting: focus on how this is a person you’ll never see again and how they don’t really matter.

I don’t have any other good suggestions, other than be careful about people who do a lot of outrage quoting. But certainly I think the golden rule applies, here: be very careful when quoting to make sure that one isn’t outrage quoting. For example, when I wrote a humorous blog post about that CNN article on cuckolding (CNN’s Love of Cuckolding), I started it off with explaining why it doesn’t matter and isn’t worth stressing over. And I’ve stopped myself from quoting outrageous things often enough that it’s now becoming a habit to not quote outrageous things. Still, it’s something I always keep in mind—if I’m quoting something, what effect will seeing that have on the people who read what I write?

We Live In Cycles

In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (if you haven’t read them, see the note at the bottom for context), he observed that human beings live according to cycles. It’s in the beginning Letter 8:

Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) AS spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of trough and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life—his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth, periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going on are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.

Our lives are lived according to many cycles, some independent, some interrelated. What Lewis refers to as troughs and peaks are actually the lining up of many troughs at the same time, or many peaks at the same time. What are these cycles?

There are some obvious cycles, like the diurnal cycle we live in every day (day/night). There are longer cycles, like weekly, monthly, and yearly cycles, too. Work weeks, weekends, pay days, construction seasons, busy season, and all sorts of other cycles affect us. But probably least well appreciated are feedback cycles.

It’s not uncommon when feeling well rested to make the mistake of staying up too late. If we do this a little bit we get progressively more exhausted during the days until we simply can’t do it and start getting enough sleep. Once we’ve gotten enough sleep, we’re ready to start getting too little sleep again.

Another common feedback cycle is the stress cycle. When we’ve got plenty of emotional energy, we tend to be more tolerant of people taking up our time and placing demands on us which consume a lot of emotional energy.  More things on our to-do list, more leniency for people being annoying, more patience with people being rude or unappreciative. Lots of things can consume emotional energy which we can deter or allow to consume more. The better we’re feeling the more generous we tend to be. But as that continues, our surplus gets used up. Depending on what we tolerated, this might have resulted in increased demands past the rate at which we replenish emotional energy. This continues until we’re emotionally exhausted and start being defensive of our energy. This might result in simply turning things down, or it might result in bad temper. (Like all cycles, one deals with it best when one is realistic about it; letting oneself get pushed to complete exhaustion is a terrible idea because it makes us most likely to explode at small irritations.)

There are other feedback cycles in life, like entertainment versus unpaid work or spending time with friends versus solitude. They’re all around us, if we look for them. There’s value to identifying them, but life is complex enough that we also need to be able to recognize when there are cycles we don’t know about at work. Some days we just feel awful and if it’s the result of cycle troughs lining up, it may just be time to go to bed early and soon things will be better. Some days are great because of peaks lining up and it can be a good idea to take advantage of them rather than expect them to be the new normal. It’s also helpful to try to recognize the feedback loops and smooth them out—especially the troughs—by anticipating them and adjusting before things get too extreme.

We live tossed around in the waves. It’s a good idea to learn to surf instead of being tossed around, gasping for breath.

About The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters are written as a series of letters from the demon Screwtape to his “newphew”, the demon Wormwood. Wormwood is the demonic parody of a guardian angel assigned to a human being to try to corrupt him and trick him into damning himself. Only Screwtape’s letters offer advice to his “nephew” on how to do his evil work. All of Screwtape’s letters are good advice on how to damn a soul; as such they are really advice on how to live well (in the sense of being upright or good) presented in what you might call photographic negative. What is good, Screwtape calls evil; what is evil, Screwtape calls good. But that’s true in all cases, so one very easily learns the habit of just flipping everything around.

Reading the book—which is excellent, and I highly recommend—is an interesting experience. Probably the closest analogy I can come to is honestly examining one’s conscience for faults with the intention of improving.

Facebook Had a Bad Year

Having recently talked about how Social Media is Doomed and Another Perspective on Facebook as Social Poison, I just saw this article: 2017 Was a Bad Year For Facebook, 2018 Will Be Worse.

The article is mostly about taxation, but it does mention this:

Facebook has reacted nervously to Palihapitya’s accusations, saying he hadn’t worked at the company for a long time (he left in 2011) and wasn’t aware of Facebook’s recent initiatives. But I can’t see any practical manifestations of these efforts as a user who has drastically cut back on social networking this year for the very reasons cited by Parker and Palihapitya.

To outsiders and regulators, Facebook looks like a dangerous provider of instant gratification in a space suddenly vital to the health of society. It’s also making abuse and aggression too easy — something the U.K. Committee on Standards in Public Life pointed out in a report published on Wednesday. Sounding one of the loudest alarm bells on social media yet, the panel urged the prime minister to back legislation to “shift the balance of liability for illegal content to the social media companies.”

The article also talks about concerns related to targeted advertising.

I haven’t talked about targeted advertising, but its problems are partially related to the problems of push-based social media. One part of targeted advertising is only showing advertisements to people who might want to see them. This is a net-positive for all involved, since irrelevant advertisements are just a waste of everyone’s time. The part that’s about figuring out how to manipulate people into buying things they don’t think are a good idea, though, is far worse. It’s also related to the fundamental problem of push-based media because it’s trying to get around the adaptations people made to their environment in order to live in peace with it. Unfortunately from the advertiser’s perspective, those adaptations involve a great deal of not buying things; and hence the temptation on the part of advertisers to upset that balance which the viewer has constructed for himself.

I’d like to reiterate that my point is not that social media is evil, but rather that the push-based social media as we know it today is fundamentally flawed for human use; this makes changes to it inevitable. What form those changes take is less clear, but they are certainly coming.

Whence Comes the Book?

I read a curious article about a fan of The Mists of Avalon which is about her reaction to learning that the author of the book (Marion Zimmer Bradley) (allegedly) sexually abused her own daughter and other children. It’s curious because of the degree to which it regards the author indulging in astounding amounts of sexual evil as if it were simply a ritual impurity, rather than as something which might be woven into the book itself. A book which, by the reader’s own admission, was very unlike anything else:

I still cannot imagine anything more perfectly aligned with my thirteen-year-old sensibilities than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterpiece. Bradley opened my eyes to the idea that, when we look at the past, we are only ever seeing a small part of it — and usually, what we are seeing excludes the experiences of women. Encountering the vain, self-serving, diabolical Morgan le Fay transformed into the priestess Morgaine compelled me to question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men. The Mists of Avalon also gave me a glimpse of spiritual possibilities beyond male-dominated, male-defined religions. In retrospect, I can see that it gave me ways of seeing that helped me find the feminine even within patriarchal systems while studying religion as an undergrad. The impact of this book lingers in my feminism, certainly, but it also influenced my scholarly interest in folklore, and it still informs my personal spirituality.

And this is her analysis of the book in light of the revelations about the author:

The sexual act described [above] takes place around the Beltane fire. As a young reader, I was disturbed by it, but I saw it as a description of people who have passed beyond the normal world and into the sacred time of a fertility ritual. The scene was frightening for me as a child, and repellent, but also, I must admit, fascinating. In context, this passage made sense: The horror of the scene was an element of its power. And that was all I found. Everything I had always loved about the book was still there, and I didn’t find anything new to hate. So, what was I going to do with this book?

And finally, here is her conclusion:

So, what to do with this once-beloved book? I’ve read it once since Greyland spoke out, and I don’t know if I will read it again. Probably not, I’m guessing. Discovering that powerful men are predators is disturbing, but not surprising. Learning that the author who introduced me to feminine spirituality and the hidden side of history abused children — girls and boys, her own daughter — was horrifying in an existential kind of way. I’m a writer and an editor and I know that characters can exceed their creators. I would go so far as to say that that’s the goal. So I can keep Morgaine — what she has meant to me, what she has become in my personal mythology — while I reject Bradley.

This is a common thing I see in the modern world: assuming that all propositions stand alone, unconnected from all others, as if truth is not things fitting into each other but like a butterfly collection on unconnected facts.

This woman never asks herself whether the book teaching her to “question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men” is just Bradley trying to escape the blame for her own evil, projected. If in most other parts of the world, people who don’t rape their (and other) children take responsibility for their own wrongs, but a rapist teaches how to shuffle the blame off on others, perhaps the right course of action is not to keep the lesson that you should always shuffle the blame onto others.

Virtue is not a simple thing. Virtue is required for people to live together. Virtue is required for people to live together with everything, in fact, even nature. Virtue is what places us into a right relationship with the hierarchy of being. Evil people reject the hierarchy of being; they substitute their own for the real one. At the extremes you have Satan’s nolo servire—I will not serve. The more vicious an author is, the more one expects this to permeate every aspect of their being, because the fundamental solipsism of their orientation to the world cannot but touch on every interaction they have with the world. To learn life lessons from the book of a thoroughly wicked man is a fool’s errand; they will be right by accident. And since they will be right by accident, their effort will not be in making the truth attractive.

In short, if you’re going to sell your soul to the devil, don’t do it in exchange for wisdom.