Carrying One’s Cross

In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, it says:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting his life? Or what can anyone offer in exchange for his life?”

Carrying one’s cross is a common expression, though it’s often treated as an atypical thing. People talk about something troublesome as “a cross they must bear”. But I think that there are two things to note about the above passage in this regard.

The first is that carrying one’s cross is a prerequisite of discipleship. That is, carrying one’s cross is normal. Or, in other words, suffering, in this fallen world, is normal.

There was a Twitter conversation I was in, recently, where an aquaintance who goes by the nom-de-plume of Brometheus was pointing out that a lot of people are afraid of having children because they’ve been taught that “having children is a miserable experience, a thankless martyrdom of bleak misery and self-denial.”

There is much that can be said about this arising from misguided attempts to get people to avoid fornication, such as by having to “care” for robot babies whose programming is to be a periodic nuisance, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Instead, I just want to point out that having child is actually a miserable experience, an occasionally-thanked martyrdom of joyful misery and self-denial. Or in other words, it’s good work.

All good work involves suffering and self-denial; it involves this because we are imperfect. We do the wrong thing, at the wrong time; quite often for the wrong reasons. And being a parent quite often involves having to do the right thing at the right time, and if at all possible, for the right reasons. To a creature with unhelpful inclinations, that involves suffering.

And that’s OK. Everything worthwhile involves suffering, because worthwhile things make the world better, and that hurts in a world that’s flawed. Or in other words, if you want to be Jesus’ disciple, you have to renounce yourself, take up your cross, and follow him.

The problem is not that people think that having children involves suffering and self denial. It’s that they think it’s bad that it involves suffering and self-denial. The problem is that they want to put down their cross and follow the path of least resistance.

The other thing to note about the passage above is that people often talk about it like life gets more comfortable when it’s finally time to put down your cross. Perhaps it’s because execution by crucifixion is no longer practiced in the western world.

Something to remember is that if it’s your cross that you’re carrying, when you finally get to put it down the next thing that happens is that the Romans nail you to it, then hoist you up to die.

It’s not the full story, but there’s a lot of wisdom to those lines, from the Dread Pirate Roberts to Princess Buttercup, in The Princess Bride:

Life is suffering, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

Thoughts From an Aging Sex Symbol

One of my better videos, now two years old, is Satanic Banality:

In it, I mention that celebrities can only sell the image of the bad life turning out well for a while, and when they wise up they lose their relevance. Which reminded me of this article by Raquel Welch, back in 2010. As the kids would say, here’s the nut graf:

Seriously, folks, if an aging sex symbol like me starts waving the red flag of caution over how low moral standards have plummeted, you know it’s gotta be pretty bad. In fact, it’s precisely because of the sexy image I’ve had that it’s important for me to speak up and say: Come on girls! Time to pull up our socks! We’re capable of so much better.

But in 2010, so far as I can tell, Raquel Welch no longer had any influence, so it didn’t matter. That’s the resilience of an engine which feeds on ignorance and spits out wiser people as spent fuel. When they were ignorant, the machine gave them their power. Once spit out, their knowledge is powerless.

(Except in individual cases; saving souls tends to be a personal business, not done over television screens.)

Why Consequentialists See Only Shades of Grey

There’s an infuriating thing which consequentialists do where they say that life is never black and white, it’s all shades of grey. For a long time I thought that this was just because they wanted to be evil without being caught, and were trying to disguise it. This may still be the case, but I realized that this is actually inherent in their position.

Consequentialism means judging an action as good or evil not by principles—i.e. not by what the action is—but only by the consequences of the action. To a consequentialist it doesn’t mean anything to say “it is impermissible to do evil that good may result” since, according to their moral theory, if good results, it wasn’t evil that you did. So rape, treason, murder, etc. are all to be judged on the basis of whatever good or evil comes out of them, not on whether they are intrinsically evil.

There is a problem with consequentialism, which is that one cannot foresee all the consequences to an action. In fact, one cannot foresee most of the consequences to an action. In fact, people often have trouble foreseeing even the very immediate consequences to their actions. This makes consequentialism impossible for a human being to actually evaluate, rendering it completely useless as a moral theory.

(As a side-note, consequentialism and principalism are identical in God, since he both knows all of the effects of all actions and created the world such that the consequences of principled actions are good. Consequentialism is completely un-evaluatable for anyone who is not God, however.)

But, while this is completely useless as a moral theory for making decisions, it can be applied somewhat better historically. Not actually well, of course, but at least better. And this is where the consequentialist sees everything as shades of grey. Every action has both good and bad consequences. This is intrinsic, because every action opens up some possibilities and forecloses others. To marry one woman is to not marry all of the others. To save a man’s life in the hospital is to take money from the undertaker. To save the life of a worm who crawled onto the pavement is to deprive the ants of food who would have ate its corpse. Every action disappoints someone. And this much, the consequentialist can see in hindsight.

And since, to a consequentialist, (naturally) good consequences are identical to an action being (morally) good, and (naturally) evil consequences are identical to an action being (morally) evil, an action having both naturally good and naturally evil consequences makes the action both morally good and morally evil. Since all actions, intrinsically, have both naturally good and naturally evil consequences, all actions must, to the consequentialist, be a mixture of moral good and moral evil.

This disguising the consequentialist’s own evil is just a side-benefit.

When Atheists Pray

In a video in which a former MMA fighter accepts a challenge from a self-defense coach to fight, the comment section was, as you might imagine, lapping up the drama like a man who just walked through the desert a lemonade stand. One comment stood out to me, though:

I’m an atheist, but please God, make this happen.

In his excellent video on prayer, Bishop Barron said that studies show that everyone prays—even atheists. And indeed, they do. But it’s curious to consider when they pray, since they’re not exactly known for regularly saying their bedtime prayers. (What follows is, of course, guesswork and painting with a broad brush.)

The second biggest time, I suspect, is in cases of danger. And of course there is the prayers asking to be spared from danger. But more interesting is a reason given by the blogger Richard Fernandez, who went by the pen name Wretchard the Cat at the time. He was explaining why there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s not because people are scared. It’s because they need forgiveness.

And indeed, forgiveness is one of the two great problems that atheists face which they cannot possibly solve. As a creature in time, they cannot change the past; this means that things done wrong cannot be put right. God, being outside of time, can apply a balancing payment at the very instant of a misdeed; people can only try to make amends and try to forget. But amends do not fix the original problem, since it remains what it ever was. Only God can change the problem in the moment of its existence, since only he was there and not causing the problem.

The other great unsolvable problem which atheists have relates to what is probably the more common type of atheist prayer: hope. An atheist has precisely no reason to hope. The only way to live life, other than in despair, is in hope. We are too finite—too weak and short-sighted—to live in any way other than despair and hope. But to live in despair will probably just end in suicide; though to quote Chesterton it might be suicide using the tools of pleasure, rather than the tools of pain.

The type of prayer that hope produces is generally that of asking for life to work out according to an intelligible rational plan, or as it is more commonly known, asking for stuff.

Which brings us back to the quote with which this started. Everyone knows, on some level, that for the world to be good it must be ordered according to a rational will. It’s curious how much of the time, in a rich society, one can not think about that fact.

America’s Sweethearts

One of my favorite movies to watch when I’m in the mood for something comfortable is a mostly forgotten film starring John Cusak, Catherine Zeta Jones, Julia Roberts, and Billy Crystal called America’s Sweethearts.

The premise is that Eddie Thomas (Cusak) and Gwen Harrison (Zeta Jones) were an incredibly popular hollywood couple until Gwen cheated on Eddie with another actor in a movie they were in, Hector. The movie, Time Over Time, during the filming of which those events happened is about to be released but the eccentric director, Hal Weidmann, won’t show anyone the movie until the press junket. So the publicist for the film (Crystal) must put together the press junket with the two stars of the movies not being on speaking terms and there being no film to show the press. Hilarity ensues.

And hilarity does ensue; it’s a very funny movie. It pokes a lot of fun at Hollywood and the selfishness and complete dishonesty that characterizes the movie industry. Which brings me to the modern difficulty in watching movies of knowing how awful the people who makes movies are.

I think this may be best summarized by sci-fi author Rob Kroese, a few years ago, in response to some idiocy out of Hollywood in the wake of some disaster or other:

Nice to see celebrities taking time off from raping each other to condemn prayer.

(As a side note, there seems to be law of human behavior that a person’s private virtue is inversely proportional to the number of public statements he makes condemning vice in others. Or, more briefly: virtue signaling is often camouflage.)

So, the question come up, unavoidably: does one go on watching movies in spite of their deeply flawed origins?

I think that the answer is yes, but it’s not a question which can simply be dismissed; people who simply say “who cares?” about this are just people who don’t know enough—they’ve never looked in the kitchen to see how the sausage is made.

(I should note that I’m talking about things which do not enrich Hollywood further or do so very minimally. I already own the DVD of America’s Sweethearts so watching it again puts no more money in the hands of the Hollywood. And even buying DVDs of older movies does little to support the current degeneracy of Hollywood, though strictly speaking more than zero. But for older movies, much of the money goes to people who are no longer working in the industry or their descendants because they’re dead. Life is more complicated when you’re talking about watching a new movie in a Theater.)

There are two reasons why the answer is yes—that we should still enjoy the movies made by the wretches of Hollywood. The first is practical (and probably more accessible), the second is philosophical (and more conclusive).

The practical reason is that this is a fallen world and everything is made by wretches. Some are worse than others, but even the best men will inevitably have their work tainted by their imperfections. Worse still, from a practical perspective, many men (rightly) keep their vices secret (so as not to encourage others in vice), and so one will not know what vices secretly infect their work. When it comes to the near-devil-worshippers of Hollywood, one is at least forewarned (and thus fore-armed) against their messages of lust, sloth, and pride. This does not remove the danger, and certainly doesn’t make their work preferable to people who aren’t consciously trying to promote evils, but it does put it in the realm of what can be done safely—or at least as safely as anything can be done in this fallen world.

The philosophical reason is more complicated, but at its heart is the philosophical insight that evil is a negative, not a positive, thing. Evil is the (partial) absence of being—it is a thing being only partially itself. This partial being warps and twists things, but it is impossible to be purely evil—a thing which is pure evil would completely not exist. There’s a sense in which Nothing (with a capital N) is pure evil, but that’s not really different from saying that nothing is pure evil.

This means that in all things which exist, there is good. Evil does not, properly speaking, taint the good in a thing. What it does do is disguise the good. This is not, however, an insurmountable problem. A tainted thing can be safely consumed, since the taint has a positive existence—you can’t drink a poisoned glass of wine and drink only the wine but not the poison. But a disguise can be seen through.

Seeing through disguised good is a skill and thus a person can be good or bad at it; this is highly contextual to the person, the good, and the disguise. What one person may watch safely another may be misled by; it requires wisdom to tell the difference.

And there is no substitute for wisdom.

The PETA Ad That Encapsulates Modernity

It is, unfortunately, not really safe for work, or for children, and in a more extended sense, for people with eyes. And yet anyone who lives in the modern world will probably see worse on a frequent basis. Accordingly I’ll put it in the “click to read more” section so that only those who think it wise will look at it.

The text of the tweet presenting the add is:

“Traditional” masculinity is DEAD. The secret to male sexual stamina is veggies. 😉

The ad itself shows a number of men with large vegetables tied to their crotches in ways that visually suggest part of the male anatomy normally hidden beneath clothing. The first guy looks remarkably like a stereotypical rapist, there are one or two more men I’d never be willing to associate with and would strongly suggest any woman I know avoid too; there are also some normal-looking men, even a few over 50. They are mostly gyrating their crotches to make the tied-on vegetables swing around in ways that suggest that incarceration for public indecency is imminent.

Technically the idea that traditional masculinity is dead comes from the tweet rather than the ad, which limits itself to promoting vegetables for sexual stamina. That said, it’s a great symptom of modernity that “traditional masculinity” is equated, not with character traits such as strength, endurance, competence, loyalty, bravery, and so forth, but only with the procreative act (which one assumes will generally be neutered so as to avoid the actual procreation). It does follow, though, that when a man is nothing but a passive receptacle for sensations he will be conceptually reduced to his most sensitive body parts.

(As a side note, the ad is fascinating in that it’s theoretically promoting vegetables but is so creepy that it would be more effectively pro-vegetarian if it was nominally promoting meat.)

Probably the most notable aspect to it is that the general taboos against showing hardcore pornography in most public places keep the ad from simulating with vegetables the theoretical benefit being proposed. In consequence the attempt to suggest the proposed benefit is forced to become a solitary activity. This makes it not only creepier, but also a great symbol for modernity—it is a video of men celebrating themselves for things which are naturally ordered toward community. In modernity the individual becomes atomized and alone. As such, he becomes entirely sterile.

He can create nothing. All he can do is long for past glory and pretend that he has it.

Continue reading “The PETA Ad That Encapsulates Modernity”

Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night

My favorite novel is Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Among my favorite mysteries is Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I don’t know how often they are connected in other people’s minds but they are connected strongly in mine, and in case this is not universal, I’d like to explain why. (Spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read both, go do that now.)

Both novels are, fundamentally, stories of reconciliation. Pride & Prejudice includes the incidents which separate Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but the real story is that of them coming together. Gaudy Night does include a bit of the strange and strained relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter—and, if one wants to be tedious, a mystery—but it too is a tale of the fixing of a relationship.

But these are not merely reconciliations. Reconciliation can be done in many ways, such as the revelation of information which fixes a mistake, as in the movie Top Hat or the Shakespearean play, Much Ado About Nothing. But both Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night are reconciliations in which the characters reconcile with each other by improving themselves.

Also curious about both is that this improvement is effected both through the help of the other, as well as by the help of someone else acting viciously. The improvement thus becomes a push-pull. The protagonists are both pulled toward virtue but also pushed toward it by the bad example of the witness of vice.

It only takes a few sentences but I think it is a very important part of Pride & Prejudice when Elizabeth hears her sister say that Wickham didn’t care two farthings for Miss King—who could about such a nasty little freckled thing, and that though incapable of such coarseness of expression, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal. This was one of the first moments of true self-knowledge for Elizabeth, though it was led up to, certainly, by previous realizations.

It reminds me very greatly of how Harriet saw a picture of herself in Violet Cattermole’s desire to bite the hand of her friend toward whom she was always having to be grateful. Harriet’s advice in this case was quite interesting and also a piece of self-insight; she advised Violet that if she disliked being grateful she should stop doing things that would require her to be grateful to others.

Harriet’s being tried for murder was in a sense bad luck, but it was bad luck that she had let herself in for by living with the poet on terms other than marriage. Had she done what she ought, she’d never have been tried for murder. Had Violet Cattermole not went out without leave and gotten drunk, she’d not have had to be grateful to her friend for helping her into her room and nursing her. Though Harriet didn’t say it, I think she realized in the moment of giving advice that her own bitterness at gratitude was not, in fact, bitterness at being grateful. It was bitterness at her own misbehavior. Genuine gratitude is a pleasure; what Harriet disliked so much was having to acknowledge her own bad judgment.

There is a curious aspect to repentance: it is difficult not because one must do something differently, but because one must admit that one was formerly wrong. The meaning of hell is that it can be so painful to admit that one was wrong that people can cling to it instead of letting themselves be happy. Curiously, the feeling which attends admitting that one was wrong is a freeing feeling. It’s also, interestingly, freeing in social circumstances. If one announces a mistake oneself, most people don’t care past whatever trouble is now involved in fixing it. It can be amazing how much, if one takes all of the blame one is due, no one else bothers to give it to one. There’s probably something in here related to, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.

Break a Leg

Through a chain of coincidences not worth mentioning I came across the wikipedia page for the phrase break a leg. It’s got a little actual history, which is interesting. The phrase (used among theater people to wish each other good luck) seems to be fairly recent:

Urbane Irish nationalist Robert Wilson Lynd published an article, “A Defence of Superstition”, in the 1 October 1921 edition of the New Statesman, a British liberal political and cultural magazine. Lynd regarded the theatre as the second-most superstitious institution in England, after horse racing. In horse racing, Lynd asserted, to wish a man luck is considered unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”[ Lynd did not attribute the phrase in any way to theatre people, though he was familiar with many of them and frequently mingled with actors backstage. Break a leg is most commonly used to wish an actor in audition to be part of the cast; hence the term “break a leg”.
The earliest known example in print is from Edna Ferber‘s 1939 A Peculiar Treasure in which she writes about the fascination of the theater, “…and all the understudies sitting in the back row politely wishing the various principals would break a leg”.[7] In Bernard Sobel‘s 1948 The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays, he writes about theatrical superstitions: “…before a performance actors never wish each other good luck, but say ‘I hope you break a leg.'” There is anecdotal evidence from theatrical memoirs and personal letters as early as the 1920s.

The reason I’m writing about it, though, is that it describes a collection of purported origin stories of the sort that, twenty years ago, used to go around as email forwards. They include:

  • There was a line on the stage, called “the leg”, past which one was visible, and far more actors would show up than would perform and were only paid if they performed. Thus “break the leg” was a wish that they’d get paid.
  • Bowing “broke the leg” in the sense of breaking the line of the leg, and was a wish that the audience would applaud.
  • The mechanical crank for the curtain was called “the leg” and it was a wish that they’d be called back by applause so much the crank would break.
  • In Greek times people stomped their feet instead of clapping and the idea was to wish a performance so good that members of the audience would break their legs stomping so hard.
  • Some ridiculous thing about a yiddish phrase being take to be a german phrase that doesn’t sound all that close but means “neck and leg fracture”, which was used by German WWI pilots to each other.
  • John Wilks Booth broke his leg leaping to the stage in Ford’s Theater after killing Abraham Lincoln, which was his most memorable performance.
  • 18th Century British actor David Garrick became so engrossed in his role as Richard III that he didn’t notice his leg fracture.

They all have a sort of historical plausibility, though my experience of these things is if you try to track them down they often turn out to simply be false. The thing about these explanations I find fascinating is how unpoetic they all are.  Wishing someone, not success, but failure, is obviously a recognition of how often our wishes don’t come true and thus is trying to trick fate by wishing for the opposite of what’s hoped for. School children of my day might respond to someone prophesying their success by saying, “don’t jinx me”, as if the expectation of success would produce failure.

There’s a psychological component behind this, of course; overconfidence tends to lead to under-performance. But much more significant, I think, is the universal human fear of Nemesis. She was the Greek god whose task it was to ensure that mortals who thought too much of themselves were brought low.

All of the explanations proffered on the wikipedia page have in common that they are some form of positive wish. That is, they explain the phrase away. They purport to show that the phrase is not in fact a negative one but a positive one.

I can’t help but see a curious similarity here to internet atheism. There seems to be the appeal of being in the club of those in the know—to be distinguished as superior from the unwashed masses. There is also the appeal of taking a phrase which required a poetic understanding and turning it into something prosaic and insignificant. It makes the world at once easy to understand and not worth understanding.

Where it really fails, of course, is that it’s more significant to understand why a thing has persisted than it is to know where it started. There are phrases which had the origin in misunderstanding or mispronouncing a different phrase, but most of these die out, just as most of everything dies out. When things last, it’s because they tap into something lasting. And that’s the part that’s worth knowing.

Justice and Generosity, Hierarchy and Equality

I recently said, on Twitter:

If you wish to understand how society always organizes itself:

Equals can get along if they have nothing to do with each other or both are generous to each other.

Superior/sub-ordinate can get along if both will be merely just to each other.

There was some interest in this so I’ll explain what I mean and why it is the case.

There are and have been many forms of social organization—democracy, republics monarchies, dictatorships, bureaucracies, clubs, churches, friends, families, neighbors, villages, cities, etc.—but they all share some basic traits because they are organizations of human beings and human nature imposes restrictions upon how human beings can be organized.

In a fallen world, one of the biggest problems which needs to be handled in human relationships is how to handle when two people’s wills diverge. There are only three possible outcomes: both get their way, one gets their way and the other doesn’t, and neither gets their way. I’m going to count compromise as a sub-set of both getting their way so we can disregard the last outcome—neither gets their way—because a situation in which no one ever gets what he wants will not last long.

There are a very limited number of ways in which society can be organized such two people with divergent desires can both have their way. The simplest is for the people to have nothing to do with each other. Neighbors can both do whatever they want in their own homes since it doesn’t get in the way of the other. This is the “good fences make good neighbors” organization of society.

If separation is not possible then the only alternative is for some form of compromise to occur. This requires one or both to give up something for the sake of the other. That is, this requires generosity.

(There is also the case of bargaining but bargaining is only possible where the wills of the two mostly align. The merchant is willing to sell the item for its value plus a profit, the buyer is willing to buy the item for its value plus a profit; the only divergence is on the the size of the profit and possibly their evaluations of the value. This is very different from the buyer being willing to buy the item but his wife wanting him to buy something quite different instead.)

Where there is not separation or generosity, the only possibility left is for one to force their will on the other. This may be done through warfare or through a proxy for warfare such as lawsuits. That is, it will be done by appealing to someone who is superior within the social hierarchy (the court) or to the superior force of arms. If we leave off warfare as being not a social order but the breakdown of social order, this leaves us only with hierarchy.

The court system, however, is very inefficient. Suing or being sued consumes a lot of time and money. If people can’t leave each other alone and people can’t be generous to each other, then sooner or later they will embed hierarchies into social organization for the sake of efficiency.

Social equalities which do not consist of people leaving each other alone, as neighbors mostly do, are themselves quite a lot of work. It is not easy for fallen humanity to be generous to each other indefinitely. This is why modern marriages so often break up. It’s also why high school is so often remembered as hellish.

Hierarchies may not be perfect but they’re vastly less work because they contain within them the mechanism for resolving the conflicts of will which so often come up between fallen creatures. A feature of living within a hierarchy that’s often missed by those who deride hierarchies is that people naturally adapt to reasonable hierarchies. That a reasonable boss imposes limits may be inconvenient but not particularly more so than that the walls impose limits. One may not do what the boss does not permit; one may not walk through the walls. So long as the boss is as predictable as the wall, the human psyche eventually thinks of the limitations of both in roughly the same way—merely part of reality. Even the boss operates in a manner heavily constrained by limits, if merely different limits than the subordinate.

(Where people really come to hate their bosses is when their bosses are unreasonable. An unreasonable boss is unpredictable; one can’t conform to him and get along because he has no definite shape. What he approves of one minute he disapproves of the next, and one must take constant notice of him. They would have the same frustration at walls that reshuffled themselves three times a day.)

But this is also true of social clubs. Clubs which must carry on some definite business will form hierarchies with elected offices because the alternative is so much more work. Even large groups of friends will form hierarchies because group decisions are so painful to accomplish. Where four or five regularly gather together just to enjoy each other’s company you will still see one or two becoming the leaders of the group and carrying out most of the decision making process while two or three simply go along and one or two are more active but willing to defer.

Monasteries which are founded on the principle that all of the monks are brothers will elect a Father Prior or Father Abbot to lead them and make decisions which the rest obey. Nunneries will elect a Mother Abbess or Mother Prioress. If all the farm animals are equal, some animals will become more equal than others. The alternative is just too much work.

You can even see this in YouTube communities which form; it’s not hard to pick out the leaders who set the tone for their respective communities. They change over time, of course, because nothing in a fallen world is stable. But communities of equal are vastly less stable than are hierarchies.

Human beings are made for more than mere justice, so we have a natural distaste for hierarchies. We chafe under them. And yet, we tend to be happier within a hierarchy because all that’s required of us is mere justice. Our superiors have certain rights over us, so if we discharge our duties to them we need do no more and all is well. We have certain obligations to our inferiors but if we discharge them we need do no more and all is well. Our inferiors owe us certain obligations, but as long as they discharge those obligations to us we are satisfied and all is well. It may not be perfect, but it’s easy.

Unlike electricity human beings do not always take the path of least resistance. We just mostly take the path of least resistance. This is why you will find hierarchies developing everywhere and why social organizations which purport to finally achieve equality are guaranteed to fail.

Now, it should be noted that it’s not necessarily a problem that something is guaranteed to fail. Everything in a fallen world is. The real question that needs to be asked is whether it’s going to fail gracefully or spectacularly. When the social order fails, will it result only in somewhat elevated levels of injustice or will it end in mass executions?

Because nothing in a fallen world ends well.

That’s what the next world is for.

No, Not All Are Welcome

I was recently reminded of a rather bad hymn that seems to be standard in american Catholic hymnals: All Are Welcome.

Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Granted it suffers from the problem that many hymns written in the post-war period suffer from: it’s really about man, not about God. However, that’s not why I despise it. I despise it because it’s a lie.

All are most certainly not welcome in the place that hymn is sung. The only place in the world of which that’s true is prison. Everywhere else has membership requirements. Whatever they sang, the hippy-dippy hippies who sang this with all of the enthusiasm they could muster would ask the chainsaw-wielding man covered in filth and screaming obscenity-laced death threats to come back some other time.

Some will object that they mean that the man is welcome once he puts away his chainsaw, takes a bath, and speaks politely. So what? It’s not a meaningful sort of inclusiveness to say that one will accept anyone who conforms to the group’s demands. What’s special about that? Everyone will accept those who make themselves acceptable.

Of course, the example I gave, while sufficient to prove the theoretical point, is not realistic. And it’s precisely the realistic extreme example which sheds a lot of light on the theme of that time and the very contrasting theme of our time.

The realistic example is the man in the sweater vest who is openly fornicating and openly saying blasphemies in a normal speaking voice. And the hippy-dippy hippies who sang All Are Welcome did, in fact, let him stay.

There is, of course, a parallel in secular culture. The flagrantly fornicating man who “flirted” with all of the women at the office was welcome too. Modern mythology holds that this was the norm throughout history until fifteen minutes ago but even a cursory familiarity with movies and television from the 1950s and before would tell one that a man who talked openly of sex in the workplace, not just in front of women, but to them, would never have been tolerated.

This is, after all, the repression which the 1970s loved to criticize. Today we call it sexual harassment rather than impropriety but apart from the language a man being fired for “being too free with the ladies” differs only in terminology. But in the 1970s all were welcome, even the sexual harassers.

Our society prefers to call “polite society” by the name “safe spaces” but the thing to which the name refers is the same. There are places and times when people must restrain their impulses and behave in a way that makes everyone comfortable. The idea that everyone should become comfortable with everything simply doesn’t work.

At the same time we see secular culture clawing its way back to propriety in public places we see religious culture clawing its way back to the idea of sacred spaces. Sacred means “set apart” and a thing is set apart not by having walls and doors but by what is and is not done in them. That first part is as important as the second; when it comes to the sacred sins of omission are the equals of sins of commission.

I do not yet know what it was that animated the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s—what it was that made the hippies so dippy that they thought that if they broke down all barriers everyone would somehow get along. (The obvious guess is the devastation of the first two world wars, especially in Europe, and those combined with the trauma of racism in the United States.)

It had the very curious property that it sounded Godly but was actually diabolic—I mean in the original sense of the Greek “diabolein”: to scatter. The diabolic scatters man from man and prevents unity. So surely getting everyone together should be the opposite?

But this is a fallen world and men will not all get along. If you try to force them to all that will happen is that you will break down true friendship and camaraderie. Those need safe spaces in which to grow.

If you let the heretics into church they will not worship God with you. They will only keep you from worshiping God. It is no accident that Christ said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

An even more apt quotation would be what the angels said at the birth of Christ. Curiously, the version most people are familiar with, which comes from the King James translation of the bible, is very badly translated:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Bu when it is translated more accurately, you get something like (this one is from the Revised Standard Version):

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

Just so you can see the main idea in the variety, here’s an alternative translation which is also faithful to the original text (The New Jerusalem Bible):

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those He favours.

Peace is the ordering of the world to the good. That is, it is a rational ordering of the world according to its nature. But a rational ordering must be in a mind and for it to be a property of the world and not merely imposed on the world it must be in the mind of the world’s maker.

Peace is the ordering of the world according to God’s will. Peace is only possible, therefore, among those who do his will. Those who do only their own will can never be at peace with God or each other. 

Which is why people must set themselves apart so that they can get along.

The age of universal peace is finally over. We can now get back to the business of getting along with each other.

Time Isn’t a Thief

Because I was watching a bunch of songs from Patty Gurdy YouTube recommended the song Mad as a Hatter by Larkin Poe. Larkin Poe is a pair of sisters, and Mad as a Hatter is about their grandfather’s mental illness. It’s not a great song, but it’s got catchy elements:

There’s a line in it which really cought my attention, though:

I know what time is
Time is a thief.
It’ll steal into bed
And rob you while you sleep.

Now, I should preface my remarks by saying that I know what’s meant—people’s powers, such as memory, eyesight, etc. tend to diminish with age, though gradually enough that one doesn’t notice, and in older age one is not able to do the things one was able to in one’s youth. And indeed, this is difficult to deal with. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say that time isn’t a thief. It is quite true that those of us who survive to old age will have weaker eyes and slower memories than we did when we were young. These changes can be attenuated, but cannot be prevented.

To quote Master Splinter in the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, death comes for us all.

It’s just that death comes quickly for some and slowly for others.

But time is still not a thief.

The question is one of fundamental orientation, or, if you prefer, the fundamental question of what a human being is.

The idea that time is a thief comes from the idea that there’s a “true” us which we grow into and then eventually lose. It conceives of human beings as self-sufficient beings which merely inhabit the world for a time. Thus the limits which come from being in the world are limits imposed upon the independent creature and frustrate the fullness of its being. The prime of one’s life—when experience and youthful vigor are at their mutual maximum—is thus the time when the human being is least limited by the world.

This is, of course, exactly backwards. It places human beings in the position of being little Gods and makes completely unintelligible why they’re born or die. People don’t bother themselves much with the problems of being born since it’s too convenient, though this is one of the things which a bit of navel gazing would actually help with. They’re very troubled, however, by how growing old and dying makes no sense.

By contrast, if a human being is a creature who did not make himself, every moment of his life is, therefore, a gift. To be born is a gift, to grow stronger and quicker of wit throughout childhood is a gift, and to still be around dispensing wisdom and doing what one can do in old age is a gift. It is true that time gives far more in one kind during a person’s youth and gives those gifts of strength and memory far less during old age. But they are still far more than nothing, which is the right thing to compare them to.

This is where the older wisdom of the idea of the seasons of one’s life comes in. We are given youthful vigor in our youth but not in our old age; it is right, therefore, to make good use of youthful vigor in our youth, and then as we age to turn to making use of the wisdom and knowledge we’re given in our old age. The young and the old complement each other. Wisdom without vigor cannot do anything, while vigor without wisdom cannot do anything worthwhile.

Our modern rejection of the seasons of life and strict separation of people by age has resulted in old people being warehoused until they die while the young are busy wasting their youth. And in both cases people who are not Gods are miserable because real life can’t help but constantly point this out to them. (Which is why Sartre said that hell is other people—encountering other people proves to us that we didn’t create ourselves.)

So while growing old is not easy, time is not a thief. Time is a giver. It just gives us different things at different times.

The alternative is hell.

Quite literally.

Failing The Wrong Way

A lot of people love gmail because it filters out all of their spam. “I never see any spam!” they say, proudly. But the problem is that gmail achieves this by being way too aggressive about classifying things as spam, and the result is that it loses a lot of legitimate emails, too.

So the user is left with one of three options:

  1. Have things go wrong when they miss important emails.
  2. Check their spam folder once a day or so to make sure they don’t miss any important email.
  3. Don’t use email for anything important.

Option #1 is terrible and option #3 is just another way of saying that gmail is a bad email client. But the funny thing about option #2 is that the user is actually reading more spam than I am with my spam filter configuration that allows all of the important email through and only a few spams. I never have to check my spam folder, which means seeing 0-4 spams a day in my regular inbox is reading through way less spam than if I had to check my spam folder.

This relates to the concept in engineering of “which way do you want to fail?” It’s almost never the case that one can do something perfectly—getting absolutely every classification of email right. And every system is going to have a bias—would you rather when it fails your spam filter tends to mis-classify legit email as spam or spam as legit email?

The problem with focusing too much on getting the system perfect is that one can too easily forget that it won’t be perfect anyway, and then one won’t think about how it will fail when it does. A better engineered system puts some thought into figuring out the systemic biases and tweaking them to do the least harm, while also trying to get as close to perfect as is practical without changing the general target of how failure will happen.

Because failing in the wrong direction can be worse than useless. It can be actively harmful.

(The same principle applies to social engineering, by the way.)

Natural Theology and God’s Essence

I received an email with an interesting question:

The classical theistic tradition makes it well known that any knowledge of God’s essence is impossible, and even advances several argument as to why this is the case. However, if this is correct, I can’t really understand how the arguments from natural theology can give us any knowledge of his existence: isn’t the point of those arguments to show that God just is his existence itself, that is, that in God essence and existence are one and the same? Wouldn’t this mean that knowledge of his existence is also knowledge of his essence? And the latter being impossible, aren’t we left with a contradiction?

There are two answers to this. They depend on how one answers the question of whether we can predicate anything of God by analogy or whether we can only negatively predicate things of God.

I fall into the former camp and hold that one can predicate things of God by analogy. Thus when we say that God exists, we mean something which is analogous to our own existence but not something which is known in its entirety to us. To make a poor analogy but one that points in the right direction, when we say that a flower is white, we are describing an aspect of its color but we’re not saying anything about what it looks like in spectra that we can’t see. (It is the case that most white flowers look different in the UV spectrum which some insects can see.)

To say what God is, completely, is beyond our ability. But it is not accurate to say that we can’t know anything about God.

Part of why I fall into this camp is that it doesn’t make sense for creation to not even be like its creator; if we do not reflect any of God, then from where do we draw our qualities?

However, it is possible to go the other way and to say that we can only negatively predicate things of God. (These are not, in general, the people who do natural philosophy.) In which case, you get this result:

it is wrong to say that God exists

(“It is wrong to say that God exists. It is wrong to say that God does not exist. But it is more wrong to say that God does not exist. –Saint Dionysius the Areopagite)

Jordan Peterson, Falsehoods and Consequences

A friend of mine (rather incautiously, given how little provocation it takes to get me to write a blog post) said,

[T]here’s a part in the trailer for this movie where Peterson says “Falsehoods have consequences. That’s what makes them false.” If you discern any meaning in that statement, please tell me.

I’m now going to explain what Peterson means. (Or what I think he means—I haven’t been given the gift of reading souls.) First, I think that we can rephrase this less poetically but more clearly as:

[Falsehoods have negative consequences. That’s intrinsic to them being false.]

To break this down, we need to start with what a “falsehood” is. It’s not merely something that’s not true, but it’s an idea of something that’s not true. An idea points to something. What a false idea points to is something that’s simply not there. That is, the falsity is a relationship between the idea and reality.

Take a really simple example from classic bugs bunny cartoons: someone walks off a cliff but doesn’t look down so he keeps walking as if the ground is there. He only falls when he notices. This is funny because it’s the opposite of how reality works—in real life if you believe the cliff is a flat plain and walk off the cliff, you fall immediately. Believing the cliff to be a prairie is the falsity. Falling when you try to stand on what’s not there is the consequence.

What Peterson is trying to point out is that this relationship is inherent because truth and falsity are not properties of the idea but of the relationship of the idea to reality. We live in such a pluralistic culture and want so badly to get along with each other that we try to pretend that truth and falsity are private things—that they only apply to the idea itself. If we can believe this, we can then not care about what awful beliefs someone else has because we can pretend it doesn’t really matter.

But ideas do matter—precisely because they either correspond to reality or don’t. If you treat reality as if it’s something else, very bad things will happen because what you’re actually doing is contrary to reality. That’s the primary meaning.

However, this quote also works the other way—you can use consequences as a test for truth. This is, basically, the entire approach of science. It’s got some major problems if you take it too seriously, but if it’s only one tool in your tool belt, pragmatic truth can be a useful tool. To continue our original analogy—suppose instead of thinking that the cliff is a cliff you think it’s a canyon but the opposite side of the canyon is too far away to see. There’s a pragmatic sense in which this isn’t false—to put it in a more scientific way, your model corresponds to reality as far as you are able to measure.

A more practical example of this would be the “white lie”. Suppose your wife asks you if she looks good in a particular dress and suppose further that it’s really one of the least flattering dresses she owns. But suppose further that the question at hand—whether she knows it or not—is really, “should I be embarrassed to show my face while I wear this dress—will I be risking social ostracism by wearing it?”

If you give the answer, “yes, it looks good on you”, what is the difference between that and the strictly more accurate, “It doesn’t look very good on you but is still well within the range in which no one’s opinion of you is going to change because they love you, they will still think you put effort into your appearance for their sake, and realistically you would need to be wearing a rotting corpse or something equally extreme to change our friends’ opinion of you and hence your social standing, so by all means wear it if your favorite dress is in the wash and this is way more comfortable than the other dress which looks better on you and is clean”?

Assuming for the sake of the example the obviously unrealistic idea that your wife could accept such a robot-like answer at face value, neither of them has any sort of negative consequence to living—in both cases your wife will wear the dress, feel that she didn’t quite make the maximal effort she could have, and not worry more than she would regardless of what she was wearing. So in a practical sense, neither of these statements is false—that is, neither of them corresponds to reality so badly that you’re going to walk off a metaphorical cliff by acting according to it.

When you put these two things together, you have the meaning of the original quote:

Falsehoods have consequences. That’s what makes them false.

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.