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.

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.