Some Books Recently Read

So, I like a few others read Mr Stephenson’s Seveneves. Unlike Mr Beale I was not as taken aback by the social themes for their own sake, but unlike Mr Likko while I agree Mr Stephenson has full control of his craft, I found much of the major plot elements unlikely. The whole Lord of Flies destruction of thousands for the sole purpose of the title of the book seemed, to strain my credulity (as well as the transparent venality of the former President, which oddly enough few seem to notice). So, when I finished the book, I was on the verge of recommending to many of my acquaintances … but as the hours (not days) passed, the “but …” kept coming up about things I found unlikely or unreasonable. So, for my 2 cents, if you’re going to grab some science fiction for your summer reading, I’d instead recommend Mr Wright’s two series (start with The Golden Age or Count to a Trillion). Of those two series my thought’s keep returning to themes and phrases drawn from those two. That of course is if you haven’t read The Martian already.

I did finish Prit Buttar’s Collision of Empires, covering World War I focusing on the Eastern front, the blog post which pointed me to this work, of which I don’t recall the provenance, noted that this was one, if not the only, historical English work covering that part of the war. It was striking how all of the actors in this affair while mostly (to greater or lesser degree) understood that defense in this time (due to technology) far outstripped the capabilities of offense at the same time. Yet almost everyone of them (Conrad especially) insisted that vigorous offense was required of their troops (to the obvious horrific consequences).


Dr Freud Sketched to Eastern Sensibilities

Dr Freud famously sketched the person as consisting internally as ego, super-ego and id. In Eastern Orthodox tradition you find discussions of nous, spirit and soul. Nous is your intellect, your soul motivates you to action … and the spirit is your moral sense and decision making processes. Not entirely dissimilar to the Freudian breakout (and my definitions are inexact … as all such definitions by necessity are). Take that in conjunction with the difference in personhood on East/West and there’s grist for some thought (again rougly West locates person in attributes of the individual and the East personhood is defined by his/her relationships).

In part this means “spirituality” in the Eastern lexicon has very little to do with new age touchy-feely notions … but something completely different. Of what relevance.

Well, Lent begins in mid-March for the East, and I’m going to read this book for Lent. I’ll be blogging about my progress through it and this difference noted came from the introduction.

Star War and Religion

In the little book Star Wars on Trial, in the chapter “Charge #2″ (to whit: While Claiming Mythic Significance, Star Wars Portrays No Admirable Religious or Ethical Beliefs”. The witness for the prosecution (John C. Wright) attacks this in part by pointing out that Star Wars borrows more from boy-fiction Flash Gordon &etc than anything pretending to be religion. Mr Wright suggests:

A real religion addresses metaphysics, spiritual powers, martyrdom, ethics, salvation, miracles, and life after death.

And no, all world religions necessarily evidence all of these. What he argues, point by point, is that Star Wars “Force” as religion is a calisthenic, it is

an atmosphere, a spooky hint of mystic powers and hidden forces meant to lend an air of exotic super-naturalism to the proceedings. The Force is there for the sword fights. The Force is meant to explain why a kendo fencer can perform amazing leaps, parry laser bolts or make a single one-in-a-million bull’s-eye shot into a ray-shielded thermal exhaust port with a proton torpedo and blow up a space station the size of a small moon.

The Force isn’t learned by credoa nd ethics, it’s something you learn by practice, “by doing one handed handstands while levitating crates on Swamp Planet.”

What, for example, are the doctrinal differences between Obi-Wan and Mr Vader?

Three Books

Last night, I noted a book I’d been reading (The Instant Economist). Two more might be noted, From the same place the I/E was mentioned another Econ text was noted. Economics 2.0 is the title (available for ebook in various formats). What is ec 2.0? This book is a lightning overview of current research topics and results from (according to the authors) the forefront of research and developments and analysis in the economics world …. in layman’s terms. Each chapter ends with a short list of 12-15 references to the papers and books that give the non-layman’s version on which the section was based. It is readable and recommended.

Also recommended, although I haven’t read it much, is a book that has a much closer personal connection. The book A Passion for Discovery is a book on backstories and personal anecdotes of the leading men and women in Physics from the last century. This book was authored by Peter Freund … my thesis advisor when I was in grad school in the late 80s.  Professor Freund always had lots of stories to tell, well know he’s telling them to a larger audience. Oddly enough this book was much cheaper by a factor of 3 on the Amazon eBook format than from Google … and the sony store didn’t have it at all. At leastl that was the case last night.

Secular vs Religion and the Public Square

On and off again I refer to the little book published that consists of the debate between Jurgen Habermas (eminent German philosopher) and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict). The title of this book is Dialectics of Secularization. Mr Habermas opens, sets the stage and gives a brief argument (streching 30 pages of a small format book) … and Cardinal Ratzinger replies in like length. This book is published by Ignatius Press (2006) and is quite inexpensive (and available on Amazon). It was, of course, originally published in German.

The Question:

Does the free, secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee? This question expresses a doubt about whetherthe democratic constitutional state can renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence; it also expresses the assumption that such a state is depenedent on the ethical traditions of a local nature.

Mr Habermas takes the affirmative, and of course Mr Ratzinger the negative. Continue reading →

Guilty Pleasures

Well, this weekend the clever routines at Amazon suggested an interesting book, on which I bit and a problem of sorts arose. This book, in electronic form, was priced at that-which-must-be-obeyed level, that is to say $1. It was a “trilogy” of short books, fiction, in a genre I enjoy. Enjoy in the “guilty pleasure” sense of the title of this little essay.

So. Do you like space opera? If so, check out the series by Mr Randolph Lalond (here’s a start in paper First Light Chronicles Omnibus or eInk First Light Chronicles Omnibus.

Thoroughly enjoyable. I’m into the continuation series … as time permits. The continuation books are a little more expensive in the eInk version … but only by a little.

A Book of Interest

Well, I’ve started reading Raghuram Rajan’s Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, and have gotten through the overview/introductory chapter and the first chapter as well. Mr Rajan in his analysis of the current recession blames it on what he terms “fault lines” where competing interests and actions of different organization, nations, and other groups, which taken by themselves individually are understandable and rational when they interact at their “boundaries” create phenomena he likens to the fault lines of geology. The first chapters of this book describe the major players and how they contributed to the recession and why what they were doing was rational and in their best interest. 

The first thing he looks at in the opening chapter is perhaps one of the biggest causes of the recession. The US mortgage industry, specifically the two big government mortgage institutions. He begins by looking at the rising 90/10 income gap and locates its primary cause as education. He follows that story by looking at politicians and then a short history of mortgages in the US in the 20th (and current) century. Politicians respond quite quickly to pressures and unrest of the voting public. Currently in the US there is a rising income gap between those with HS education or less and those with college degrees and technical aptitude. This problem has been on the rise for the last 30 years. Politicians the long term (right?) recourse which is to attempt to “fix” the broken educational system. The quick fix is re-distribution. One particularly dangerous form of such redistribution is by given them loans. And lo, this is what we did. Begun by the Clinton administration and followed by Mr Bush the mandate for Fanni and Fred were to sell more and more NINJA and liar loans. For a guy like myself, who thinks a limited role for government is best especially the federal government the story of continued ghastly decisions that comprise the story of the mortgage industry in the US and its history was horrifying to say the least. This ugly road down which we’ve been travelling is going to be a long road hard path to undo. 
Here’s one thing not brought out clearly in the first chapter, but which seemed problematic. Fannie/Fred wrote $3 trillion of questionable loans in the last 10 years. 20% of them defaulted and where one of the driving factors behind our current recent economic unrest as the banks had some little difficulty absorbing that. Here’s the thing. The housing prices skyrocketed in a large part under the pressure of this expansion. Now they are falling. What happens when the next 20 or 40% of those loans default? Why does anyone think that won’t be happening? 
Isn’t it wonderful that Fannie and Freddie are government institutions but aren’t accounted for by/on the budget? Clever of them. 

10+ Books with Significan Influence (on me)




Philosophers and Slaves

In the In the First Circle: The First Uncensored Edition, there is a striking scene that I’d like to highlight. Most of the characters in the book inhabit one of the Moscow Sharaskas in the early 50s. A Sharaska was a special prison camp, unlike the work camps, the conditions of these camps were not so lethal. The conditions, while far far better than in the work camps, was liveable. These camps were primarily for those individuals who had skills, glass-blowing, engineering, electronics, mathematics, and so on that the regime decided to put them to forced work conditions in their speciality in order to further the regime. One of the major projects ongoing in the book was developing a working scrambler/descrambler system for their analog phones.

In the sharaska, the hours were long each day … and the work has very closely supervised by non-prison workers because the prisoners could not be trusted. Yet, apparently the guards and watchers could not be compelled to work the long hours every day and Sunday evening at 6pm until early in the morning Monday the prisoners were locked in and left to their own devices.

For the prisoners a day off meant that the heavy iron doors were locked from the outside, after which no one came in to summon a prisoner or haul him out. For those few short hours not a sound, not a word, not an image could filter through from the outside world to trouble a man’s mind. That was what their day of rest meant — the whole world outside, the universe with all its stars, the planet with its continents, capital cities with their blazing lights, the whole state with some at their banquets and others working voluntary extra shifts, sank into oblivion, turned into an ocean of darkness barely discernible through the barred windows by the dead yellow half-light from the lights on the prison grounds.
Those who sailed on in the ark were weightless and had only weightless thoughts. They were neither hungry nor full. They knew no happiness and so felt no anxiety about losing it. Their heads were not busy with trivial professional concerns, intrigues, the struggle for promotion; their shoulders were not burdened with worries about places to live, fuel, bread, and clothing for their children. Love, which has brought man delight and torment from the beginning of time, could neither thrill nor distress them. Their sentences were so long that not one of them as yet gave any thought to the years after his release. Men of remarkable intelligence, education, and experience of life, they had nonetheless been too devoted to their families to leave much of themselves for their friends, but here they belonged only to their friends.
During those Sunday evening hours, matter and body could be forgotten. The spirit of masculine friendship and philosophy hovvered beneath the canvas vault of the ceiling.
Perhaps this was the bliss all the philosophers of antiquity had striven in vain to identify.

It seems that the prison experience of Solzhenitsyn (not accidentally) reinforces that learned from early Christian experience that ascetic suffering has its own particular rewards.

One final thought to add, from another section. “You have but one life to live” spurred some of the characters (not in the prisons) to seek pleasures, riches, and to enjoy life to the fullest.

We are people who behave naturally,” Dotnara used to say. “We don’t pretend; we wear no disguise. Whatever we want we go all out for!” As they saw it, “We are given only one life” — and so must take from life all that it has to offer.

This is countered …

The great truth for Innokenty used to be that we are given only one life.
Now, with the new feeling that had ripened in him, he became aware of another law; that we are given only one conscience too.

Flotsam and Jetsam

And by jetsam, I really mean it. Well, I read bits and pieces of a few books tonight while riding on eastward on a plane from Chicago to Philly … and then drove to Cranbury (NJ), at which in a hotel now I am typing. Anyhow, here is a little bit about the books I’m reading because from that future posts will derive.

The first book was Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, by Nathan Sharansky. Now Mr Sharansky has been a political figure of sorts from the 70s onward, but my personal history has been such that I am pretty much unaware prior to reading this book of any of his prior history. I came about this book, mainly from an Amazon recommendation when I purchased a different book, Chantal Delsol’s book Unjust Justice: Against the Tyranny of International Law, which I have not really started as yet. Anyhow, I haven’t really got yet to the meat of Mr Sharansky’s book, so far he’s been picking away at the edges of it. Describing, from his personal experience, how his personal identification as a Zionist bolstered his personal struggle to retain his identity and sense of purpose the gulag system (and how a fellow prisoner, a Christian also used his own personal identity for the same purpose).

Paul Collier, author of the The Bottom Billion, which last year was my pick of “most influential” book that I had read that year, has another (well more than one, but I only had one with me). This book, Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, makes  a very very interesting observation. There is a notion, shared almost universally which is wrong. This is a political tenent held in common by Mr Bush and Mr Soros. But both are wrong. Democracy is not universally helpful. There is a statistical correlation, and the causes for which Mr Collier thinks he has uncovered, that demonstrates quite robustly that there is a crossing point in the measure of relative harm vs good democracy can do for a country as a function of wealth. This crossing point is located by Mr Collier specifically at $2.7k/year ($7/day) average income. If a country’s average income is below this … democracy becomes more and more harmful. If a country makes more than that, autocracy is harmful. Now, paging through, Mr Collier will not ultimately abandon democracy as a recommendation for poor countries, and I think this is in a large part because one would hope that those poor countries do not remain poor forever and there’s going to be an ugly transition point if democracy is abandoned. I might describe his recommendation that democracy needs “tempering” or external maintenance when countries are poor.

Finally, another French (conservative) social/political observer, Philippe Beneton has a book Equality by Default: An Essay on Modernity As Confinement translated for the English reader. Modern liberals, especially recently, denounce the modern conservative movement as having lost it’s intellectual way. Well, liberalism/progressivism shouldn’t throw stones while living in glass houses. For while, something rotten may be affoot in Denmark, modern liberalism/progressivism has been treading into shallow intellectual waters itself and Mr Beneton points to the causes and the roots of their error(s). One of the symptoms of this matter can be seen in the proliferation of “rights” that can be found coming from the left.

Anyhow, more on all these … later.

Of Hermeneutical Influences and the Bible

There’s a five books (scholars) meme going around, and I’ve been tagged (I noticed it here too). This is to list five scholars/books which influenced your Bible hermeneutic, i.e., how your read and interpret the Bible.

  1. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, which outlines the best of historical way of reading the Bible that I’ve seen.
  2. Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, in which a philosophical method of reading Scripture is outlined. In brief, reading Genesis (and to extend beyond) as you would read Plato.
  3. The Orthodox liturgical canon (of the morning Matins or all-night Vigil) which is drenched with the typological method of reading Scripture.
  4. Origen and his introduction of the allegorical reading of Scripture. I’m peeking ahead here, I’m not up-to-speed on this yet … but will get a shock introduction shortly in a class I’m taking.
  5. Robert Alter and his Introduction to his translation of Genesis (there are more now The Five Books of Moses, The David Story, and The Book of Psalms)… and the subsequent translation in which the sparse economic poetry of the Genesis writers is highlighted.

I’ll tag Matt Anderson (who is blogging somewhere but I’ve lost track of where), Brandon, and Kevin, and Doug one of my co-bloggers at SCO.

Summer Reading

So, summer reading lists? I’ve got the Delsol (The Unlearned Lessons Of the Twentieth Century) and Beneton (Equality by Default)to pick through and I thought I’d work on finding some post-fall Eastern European literature that evaluates “what happened” and “what did it mean” questions. I’m also listening to “Snoop” as recommended by one of the blogs on my RSS list. Theology? John Behr’s three books on the early church, The Way to Nicaea and The Nicene Faith 2 Volume Set.  And … for pure escape, Steven Erikson (Toll the Hounds) and of course Dan Simmons (Drood: A Novel).

Any more suggestions (although it looks like my July is “booked”)? Any suggestions for the post-fall dissidents list?

How about y’all? What are you reading this summer?

Moving Into Late Modernity … an Introduction

The Unlearned Lessons Of the Twentieth Century: An Essay On Late Modernity by Chantal Delsol, a french contemporary philosopher seems like a very interesting book. Ms Delsol self describes herself as a neo-liberal. This book came up in a search of book in the “Library of Modern Thinkers” series which summarizes the currents of thought of (mostly conservative and libertarian) important political, economic and philosophical figures. This book is very much different in that it is a (striking it seems) essay by one of these figures and not another author or expert summarizing and putting their works in perspective. Over the next few weeks (months?) I’m going to examine, hopefully chapter by chapter, the topics and ideas presented in this book.

In the introduction (chapter 1) Ms Delsol poses following, “Imagine and heir who has just been informed that his inheritance consists of a trunk full of serpents.” This is how she presents our present inheritance from the turbulent 20th century. The 20th century began with hope and a looking for great promise of the future and is ending with shame over totalitarian excesses. Ours is an age which is rejecting hope.

She also suggests why this age might be termed “late modernity” in particular to call to mind particular parallels with late antiquity. Like (Western) Rome of late antiquity, our society shows similar signs of aging in its arts. Late antiquity had “an affirmation of art without meaning, literature which was simultaneously pretentious and trivial, and a dwindling population.” Hmm. Sound familiar?

There is yet, one idea which had sprung forth in late antiquity which still remains, perhaps wounded and ailing today, that offers promise. The idea of the dignity of individual man remains. This idea had come under assault in the 20th century, notably in the totalitarian regimes but in other venues as well. Ms Delsol offers in what follows a clarion cry for the necessity of preserving this core principal.

On Science and Method

The Galileo/Copernican and the Ptolemaic views of the solar system lay in dispute for the 150 years between Galileo and Newton (specifically between the dates of the publication of Copernicus De Revolutionibus and Newton’s Principia). In the period of time between these events, with the possible admission of Kepler’s third law) there were no facts to distinguish these theories. In fact, glancing far to the future, the negative results of the Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrating that the Earth was at rest would have been a point to the Ptolemaic not Copernican view. The scientific (heuristic) passions of the proponents of the Copernican view is what drove the outlook of astronomers to the point where at the publishing of the Principia the Copernican viewpoint was dominant. Attached to the prologue of Galileo’s thesis was a forward by Osiander expressing the point that this view was not necessarily “true” but instead was a “fruitful” way of approaching astronomy. This is a red herring. Ptolemaic astronomy was a fruitful source of inquiry for thousands of years. Astrology has been fruitful employment for 2500 years, Marixism was (and remains alas)
a fruitful mechanism for obtaining political power. Fruitful by itself is not sufficient. Theories are fruitful in that they are believed to be fruitful mechanisms for getting to the truth of reality.

In 1914 TW Richards was awarded the Nobel prize for an extremely accurate measurement of atomic weights. Fifteen years this result was completely scorned as useless, for as that measurement made no allowance for isotopic ratios those painstaking measurements were rendered useless. This was a measurement, of high accuracy, of a value that was discovered to have no correspondence to any features of nature. Accuracy qua accuracy is of no value. One misconception about science is that it is experiment that drives progress. Yet it is theory that is required before experiments to provide the basis for how experimental data is interpreted and in fact for what experimental data is deemed to have any value at all.

New visions and insights drive theoretical breakthroughs. Yet the history of science is littered with far more failures than success. This is not limited to “lesser scientists”. Einstein’s vision following Mach imagined Relativity and against Mach solved Brownian motion. Yet Einstein same said vision rejected quantum randomness. Major theoretical breakthroughs in science require a major reworking of our view of nature, a replacing of an older view with a newer one. Proponents of the new, driven by their heuristic passionate belief in the correctness of their vision, must pursuade on the basis of future intimations of fruitfulness in the search for truth of their vision. In doing so, they also must invalidate the older vision. This process of invalidation is often rancorous and ugly. This “feature” is common and perhaps not easily escapable.

This then suggests some striking things about the scientific process. Theory preceded and both validates and interprets experiment. Major theoretical breakthroughs require persuasion. The passion of scientific discovery must be transformed and moved to the passion of persuasion that the new vision of the truth has intimations that it might be fruitful for further deepening of our understanding of nature. Yet a problem remains. Is there anything left? What differentiates the project of chasing the structure of matter at CERN and Fermilab from astrology? Why was it right for the Copernican view to supplant the Ptolmaic in the period between Copernicus and Galileo and before Newton? There are good answers to these questions but that will have to wait until a later essay.

The first parts of this essay draw heavily on Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge which is an epistemological inquiry looking toward a “post-critical reality” epistemic framework. It might also be noted, this book predated Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Critical reality is the idea that our physical theories accurately represent reality. This is in contrast to the Positivist (which is not as far as I can tell the same as Logical Positivism). This view espoused for example by Stephen Hawking suggests that the question of whether the underlying matches the theory is irrelevant and that physics (or theory in general) merely is a mechanism for predicting experimental results.

Looking Back at the March Forward

I’ve begun reading John Behr’s (so far) two volume series (three are reported as planned) subtitled Formation of Christian Theology. The first volume, in soft cover from SVS Press, is entitled The Way to Nicaea. This books covers aspects of the formation of Christian theology, focusing on the development of the answer to Jesus query to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Volume 2 is split into two books and covers in some detail the controversies surrounding the two councils which developed the Nicene creed.

The first chapter of this book begins with a look at how the Scriptural canon for the Christian church developed and was set. There were a lot of alternative canonical choices at the end of the second century when the canon was set. But the result, to summarize Behr, was that two key criteria were used to select what books and epistles were included in the New Testament canon. They are that the books chosen were “according the the Scriptures” and that the cross (the passion) was central. The phrase “according the the Scriptures” meant specifically that the acts and narrative account in the selected book connected these actions with the accounts and prophecies of the Old Testament. This meant that books like the Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic works were excluded. Behr defends his interpretation of this development of canon by examining the methods and arguments used by St. Irenaeus in discussing various heresies of his day at the close of the 2nd century.

David Schraub blogging at the Debate Link, dislikes the term “Judeo-Christian”. This term admittedly can be misused. The above historical notes demonstrate how this term is at the same time correct and how the traditions diverged. For certainly in the context of investigating first and second century theological currents and ideas that term is relevant. Throughout the first century the majority of Christians were Jews who felt that Jesus was in fact the awaited Messianic figure, the fulfillment of Scriptural promise. At the same time, there is here a key difference which will form the basis possibly for the contention that this term does not make sense. Christians over the centuries following embarked on a program to reinterpret the Jewish Scriptural canon through the “lens of the cross”, i.e., via the life and passion of Jesus. That is they re-examined and reinterpreted, often as “type”, events and prophecies of Scripture to be interpreted specifically in the context of Jesus message, and his crucifixion and resurrection. Christian theology at the end of the second century defined itself and its theological methods in the light of Jewish writing. At the same time however, it was beginning to highlight the differences by beginning a program of returning to and examining that same canon in a radically different way (although it might be noted that “different” way was himself a 1st century Jew).

A Little Book

Tuesday night I attended the choral concert at my daughter’s middle school. Stylistically speaking choral arrangements of 20-30 year old popular songs and show-tunes are not my cup of tea. Before the concert I began, at long last, reading Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys and am now about a 1/3 of the way into the book. “Bad Monkeys” we discover is the short-hand phrase for the place on the org chart of the secret “evil fighting” society of which Thiour main character was(is?) a member.

  • The Department for Optimal Utilization of Resources and Personel — Cost-Benefits
  • The Department of Ubiquitous Intermittent Surveillance  — Panopticon
  • The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons — Bad Monkeys. Bad Monkey’s are the “assassins” who remove from circulation people who are, well, irredeemable. A common weapon used is an NC gun, NC stands for “Natural Causes,” this gun works at short range and has two settings, MI and CI which stand for myocardial and cerebral Infarction respectively.
  • The Department of Organizational Counterintelligence — Catering

Our narrator is a young girl who is being interviewed by a doctor in a criminal psychiatric ward. She is recounting how she became a Bad Monkey and some of her exploits. Anyhow, judging from the cover the rest of the story is going to have its share of twists, turns and weirdness.

Some Fandom

Mr Sandefur poses an interesting question, well actually the question that it prompted for me was not at all the point of his post but be that as it may, he writes:

My favorite living writer, John Varley, is a candid man. He’s also a proud hippie. So when he says something about politics, it’s candid hippiness, and thus a good opportunity to see how weird that sort of thinking (obviously in the ascendant now) really is.

I haven’t read John Varley since the mid 80s, but that prompted a question for me, namely was who is my favorite living (fiction) writer. To which I have no ready answer, but I have a few suggestions for my favorite (living) writer spread across a few different categories

  1. Fiction in General: Dan Simmons. If you like the Homer epics read his Ilium and Olympos books. This is his latest (Drood: A Novel), which I have not read yet.
  2. Classical fantasy: Steven Erickson. He’s coming to the end of an intensely complicated series of 10 books, intricately imagined. Start with Gardens of the Moon and be warned there’s a deluge of characters and names. Many if not most return in later books.
  3. Historical Fiction: Sharon Kay Penman. Her writing gripping and interestingly enough on of the most difficult parts of her writing is how the narrative seems to jump randomly forward in her characters life … but the reason for that is fascinating. It’s because she only writes and imagines in narrative scenes of a her protagonists lives which are supported by the historical record (with the addition of one or two fictional characters to help her fill out the narrative). I’d highly recommend The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III and Here Be Dragons to start.
  4. Honorable Mention: Matt Ruff.With Ayn Rand getting back in the news, every libertarian with any sense of humor should have Sewer, Gas and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy as required reading to be a card carrying libertarian. And Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls was a fascinating psychological thriller

How about you?

Wing to Wing: A Reload

Recently I suggested returning to reading through an excellent book on marriage. Hopefully, for the foreseeable future, I’m going to be blogging my way though in exhaustive detail through the book Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying. This is a repost of some introductory remarks about this book and then look ahead, via the table of contents at what is in store for us over the upcoming weeks.

Leon Kass, by virtue of his tenure on the President’s Committee on Bioethics has become a somewhat polarizing figure. I had the distinct pleasure of having him teaching a class at the U of Chicago some few years ago in a class on .. of all things, ethics and science. He was (and still is) an amazing discussion leader. His ability to “sum up” and hone in and restate the jumbled thoughts of undergraduates. His wife Amy was even more sought for her courses by those Humanities and Social Thought undergraduates.

This book is not what one might expect. It doesn’t put forth any particular viewpoint in any obvious way. The majority of this book comprises a collection of essays or short excerpts bequeathed to us as part of the heritage of Western civilization. For example, contributing essays or excerpts are drawn from: Darwin, Erasmus, Keirkegaard, Homer, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Franklin, Tolstoy, and Frost. The structure of this book is as follows, after a short introductory remarks, the readings and discussions are drawn up in seven larger/basic sections:

  1. Where are we Now? This section is comprised of essays by modern critics, anthropologists, and scholars who examine and critique the state of modern courtship and marriage. Contributors are Stone, Bailey, Bloom, and Blankenhorn. Arguably this might be the most controversial or biased section of the book.
  2. Why Marry?The book then pushes forth with a firm defense of the institution of marriage. Contributors range through history: Darwin, Aquinas, Erasmus, Bacon, Austen, Keirkegaard, Tucker, Meilaender, Borowitz, and Muir.
  3. What about Sex?Next, sexuality itself is examined via writings of Homer, Genesis, Rousseau, Herodotus, Kant, Riezler, and May.
  4. Is this Love?What is this (little) thing we call love? Answers are sought from Divakaruni, Plato (2 contributions from the Symposium, The Song of Songs, De Rougemont, Shakespeare (2 entries), Rousseau, Rilke, and Lewis.
  5. How Can I find the Right One?If Marriage is good, and love is a thing we are beginning to have a glimmer of understanding, Courtship must be considered. Advice from Miss Manners (Martin), Genesis (2 entries), Abraham, Pitt-Rivers, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Franklin, Rousseau, Tolstoy, and Austen is on offer.
  6. Why a Wedding?When one considers wedding, May, De Rougemont, a variety of wedding ceremonies and vows are included (including Anglican, Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, and “Contemporary” vows), and an essay by Kass and Kass on the patronym.
  7. What Can Married Life Be Like?Finally, what are the blessings one might obtain in marraige? These include contributions from: Homer, Aristotle, Jewish Midrash, Kipling, Ballou, de Toqueville, Rousseau, Capon, Tolstoy, and Frost.

In each of chapters, each of the readings is introduced by a very short (page or less) introduction explaining the context of the reading selected, why it was selected and perhaps some assistance in understanding how the writer operates if the dialectial methodology is unfamiliar to most, e.g,. the formalized dialectical methods of the scholastics as is used in the example drawn from Aquinas. Continue reading →

Of Reason (or Warrant) and Faith

This weekend I began reading a book by Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, which is a philosophical defense of the Christian faith. This book poses an extended argument supporting the notion that Christian belief is intellectually acceptable and justified in the modern era. Mr Plantinga distinguishes between de facto and de jure objections to Christian belief. De facto objections are those which dispute particular Christian truth claims whereas de jure objections are those which speak more to the intellectual defensibility, that such belief is not reasonable or justified … or following two earlier books by Mr Plantinga warranted.

In the first part of this book (and I have not finished but am only about 200 pages or so in), Mr Plantinga begins to examine what arguments have been made supporting the claim that such belief is not justified. Ultimately he finds only two, after having discarded as inadequate quite a few. I thought this passage, supporting the notion that one is being responsible with respect to ones deontological epistemic duty, that is one has done one’s due diligence to support ones foundational beliefs. He writes (pp 100-101):

Consider such a believer: she displays no noticeable dysfunction. She is aware of the objections people have made to Christianity and has relfected on Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche (not to mention Flew, Mackie and Nielsen) and other critics of Christian or theistic belief; she knows the world contains many who do not believe as she does. She doesn’t believe on the basis of propositional evidence; she therefore believes in the basic way. Can she be justified (in this broadly deontological sense) in believing in God in this way.

The answer seems to be pretty easy. She reads Nietzsche, but remains unmoved by his complaint that Christianity fosters a weak, whining, whimpering, and generally disgusting kind of person; more the Christians she knows or knows of — Mother Theresa, for example — don’t fit that mold. She finds Freud’s contemptuous attitude toward Christianity and theistic belief backed by little more than implausible fantasies about the origin of belief in God (patricide in the primal horde? Can he be serious?) and she finds little more of substance in Marx. She thinks as carefully as she can about these objections and others but finds them wholly uncompelling.

On the other side, although she is aware of theistic arguments and thinks some of them not without value, she doesn’t believe on the basis of them. Rather, she has a rich inner spiritual life, the sort described in the early pages of Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections; it seems to her that she is somtimes made aware; catches a glimpse, of something of the overwhelming beauty and loveliness of the Lord; she is often aware, as it strongly seems to her, of the work of the Holy Spirit in her heart, comforting, encouraging, teaching, leading her to accept the “great things of the gospel” (as Edwards calls them), helping her to see that the mangificent scheme of salvation devised by the Lord himself is not only for others but for her as well. After long, hard, conscientious reflection, this all seems to her enormously more convincing than the complaints of the critics. Is she then going contrary to duty in believing as she does? Is she being irresponsible? Clearly not. […] She could be mistaken […] nevertheless, she isn’t flouting any discernable duty. She is fullfilling her epistemic responsibilities; she is doing her level best; she is justified.

Another cute logical demonstration Mr Plantinga elaborates is related to arguments concerning evidence. Classical foundational or evidential arguments separate statements as basic or contingent. A contingent statement is one which is dependent on other tatements or evidence which should in turn rest on those until founds the whole array on basic truths and evidence.The statement that evidence is required is not a basic statement but is complex and contingent on other statements. Alas, it seems there is no chain of logic and propositional evidential argument that leads to any evidential support for the evidential method. This is stated baldly here and if needed I’ll attempt to unpack and express Mr Plantinga’s argument on this matter in more detail. If you really want the goods, of course, buy or borrow the book.

I should mention that ultimately the complaints of lack of warrant given by Freud and Marx are found to be the only sustainable objections. In part III, which I have not completed, Mr Plantinga mounts argument for Christian warrant against these complaints.

According to Freud, theistic belief is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, but the process that produces them — wishful thinking — does not have the production of true belief as its purpose; it is aimed instead at something like enabling us to carry on in the grim and threatening world in which we find ourselves.

Therefore it fails one of the conditions for warrant, namely reliability. Marx’s view is similar.

He thinks first that theistic and religious belief is produced by cognitive faculties that are not functioning properly. Those faculties are, to the extent that they produce such belief, dysfunctional; the dysfunction is due to a sort of perversion in social structure, a sort of social malfunction. Religious belief therefore doesn’t meet the first condition of warrant; it is therefore without warrant and an intellectually health person will reject it. Further, Marx also thinks that a person whose cognitive faculties are functioning properly and who knows what was known by the middle of the nineteenth century will see that materialism is very probably true, in which case Christian and theistic belief is very likely false.

As, in the future, I return to this book I will attempt to summarize Mr Plantinga’s defense against the “F&M” objections to Christian warrant and as well, if elaborations of arguments or discussion of matters from the early sections are desired, let me know and I’ll attempt to provide them.

A Possible Avenue

Considering the amount of discussion that an offhand comment on fidelity and monogamy stirred up, I’m considering returning to a chapter by chapter overview/discussion of what I feel is the hands down best book on the subject of relationships, dating, and marriage. Namely the compilation by Amy and Leon Kass entitled Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying.

This book is not polemical or one which takes any position in particular. The purpose of the collection is not to drive the reader to any particular conclusion but instead provide a resource of thoughtful discourse on the insights of the great thinkers of the past on the subject. In that vein, it follows more in the line of a Great Books approach, and comprises with a few exceptions a fairly complete series of excerpts collected from the Western Canon which deal specifically with courtship, romance, and marriage. Each excerpt includes a brief half page to one page introduction describing the piece, providing some thoughts to motivate the reader, and in some cases assist the reader to penetrate the stylistic methods employed by the author. Contributors include Rousseau, Aquinas, Darwin, Shakespeare, and many more.

I began that endeavor a year or more ago but set it aside, should I return to it? Would that be interesting?

An Earnest Bleg

What I’d really really like to see sometime is the following:

Ayn Rand and discussions of John Galt and her Atlas Shrugged abound everywhere these days. For a while, every time that I saw someone mentioning Ayn Rand I’d pop in with “did you ever read Matt Ruff’s Public Works Trilogy?” Sewer, Gas and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy is an absolutely hysterical book. It’s just a little dangerous … in the “you’ll laugh so hard you’ll be in danger doing harm to yourself and those around you.”

So, what would I like to see. I’d like to see someone take my advice and read this book and then tell me how much they enjoyed it. I’ve lent it to people and they’ve really liked it. Libertarians and the like are enamoured of Ms Rand it seems. Do they not have any sense of humor. Why does it seem that they’ve never heard of this book. And why do they ignore the chance to read this escapes me.

So humor me. Read the book, and when people start talking about “going John Galt” we can mutter about, “By which you really mean Harry Gant.”

Book Reviewed: Preserving Democracy

Henry Neufeld, long time blog neighbor, owns a small publishing firm. Quite surprisingly (to me), he offered to send me a pre-publication copy of a book which he is releasing shortly, more specifically on April 15. I readily agreed and here is a short review of the book he sent me. This book, Preserving Democracy by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. will be released next month. Mr Neufeld locates this as “a conservative” book, and I’m not entirely sure I agree with that assesment. First, bear with me for a quick overview of the book (my impression at any rate from a somewhat cursory/quick read) after which I’ll explain what I mean by that that claim.

Mr Hushbeck’s book is an eminently readable exposition detailing point by point what might be described as political or cultural catchpoints with each chapter addressing a different catchpoint. These catchpoints are issues which, if matters go unchecked might be seen as most likely stumbling blocks for our American political experiment. Taxes, Law, Central planning, Voting, Language and other issues are covered succinctly and simply. The language is plain spoken and non-technical with liberal illustrative examples from current events and past history. Graphs and charts are frequently used and contain no evidence of the sorts of trickery used to mislead via manipulation of axis, the data is honestly presented (and the source data cited).

Another item which I must praise highly is that Mr Hushbeck doesn’t fall into the all to common “Thomas Paine” fallacy. John Adams, according to his biographer, praised Mr Paine for being very good at “tearing down” and assisting the American efforts at Revolution but noted that Mr Paine was not well suited for “building up.” It is terribly easy to criticize. But criticism is incomplete without an offer of a solution. Mr Hushbeck in each of his chapters in which a catchpoint for our society is identified and located also then briefly sketches a way to avoid or steer clear of the problem.

My only criticism of the book is that some of his historical allusions to highlight a modern problem gloss over historical details perhaps stretching some points in order to make a point. Allow me to give one example, in the first chapter in a long historical overview of the (Western) Roman progression from Kingdom to Republic to Empire … Mr Husbheck notes that:

It was only with the fall of the Roman Empire 500 years later and the subsequent rise of Christianity that a new set of values would dominate the culture and slavery would be questioned

and to this a footnote expands

Slavery did disappear in Europe following the rise of Christianity, only to reappear following the Renaissance as the Church’s hold on the culture weakened and Europeans explorers started sailing down the coast of Africa encountering and then becoming part of the slave trade.

I’d take issue with that reading of the history of slavery and the Christian influence … setting aside the very Western reading of Christianity in general as an member of the Easter Orthodox tradition myself as well, e.g., Rome finally fell in 1453. It might be argued that the timing of slavery disappearing from the West in a large part coincided less with the spread of Christianity than with the economics of Western Europe. Western Europe slid back into late Bronze age subsistence economic and social conditions. Organized and widespread slavery needed a higher level of culture and standards of living in order to exist. When economic and social conditions improved … slavery returned. This aside is a brief sidelight to the main point of a brief summary of Roman political history. My only point is that Mr Hushbeck in painting the historical situation with a broad brush, well to be frank, paints with a broad brush and in doing so occasionally makes claims which when examined in detail are questionable.

Aside from that (minor) criticism this book makes for a very readable overview a number of issues facing America today. However, in conclusion I’d like to return to the claim that this book is not conservative. The issues chosen are in fact issues which conservatives would identify as the most serious issues facing our nation today. However by and large the methods used to address these issues and way in which these issues are framed are not “conservative” per se, but more aligned with classical liberalism. Mises and Hayek, the Founders, Locke, Smith and so on (for example) are quoted as much if not more often by Libertarian writers as conservative and these sources are used liberally in this book. I don’t see a Libertarian or Conservative disagreeing with much that is said in this book. What exactly a liberal/progressive would disagree with … that might be a task more suited for a different reviewer. 🙂

Must Read

I will get to the comments later tonight … however I’d like to point out. I’ve now seen several blogs (here’s one) pointing out sales of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged have been strong this year. Anybody and everybody who reads that book should also read Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy. Well, to be honest I guess there  is a condition on that.

Anybody and everybody who has read Atlas Shrugged and has a sense of humor should read Sewer, Gas, and Electric.

From Mr Obama’s Reading List

Starting reading a book … but for now, the question is … should I continue? The book is Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. Apparently, one of the books noted as a book our President has read recently. I think I may continue, but some of the errors spotted in a quick perusal at the start were annoying.

For example, Mr Zakaria notes in pointing out how commodity prices are getting higher because, apparently Malthusian shortages. One of his examples is Helium. He notes that Helium is the “second most abundant element” in the Universe … yet is a shortage. This is really ignorant. Helium is called helium because it is very very rare terrestrially. It was discovered via spectral analysis of solar radiation … because it is so rare on earth. It is basically only found in any quantity from oil wells.

I think the thesis that American’s dominance in all sphere’s is going to wane is uninteresting. The question is what to make of it. America will likely remain dominant at the “things at which we excell” and no longer be dominant in sphere’s in which we had been dominant by default.

As Mr Collier notes in the The Bottom Billion that of the 6 1/2 billion people on the globe, one billion are “very rich”, 4 1/2 billion are “getting rich very quickly” and one billion are stuck at the bottom. While his book concentrates on the billion which are stuck in poverty, the obvious logical consequence of the other 5 1/2 billion being rich or getting rich quicker is that influence of nations and economies will spread.

I think I’m going to skip or quickly skim (and try not get hung up on rhetorical simplification and overstatement) this book tomorrow night. I’ll hunt for some conclusions … because otherwise the book just a long winded statement of the obvious.

Words Read … Thoughts Churned in 2008

It’s typical of periodical media of many types, news, sports, special interests at this time of year to do year end reviews and so on. Last year I suggested some books which I thought most affected or influenced my thinking and ideas in the prior year. As a reminder the two books, which I still very highly recommend from last year were Stephen Collier’s The Bottom Billion (note: now in paperback) and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

  • For the first book, an interesting approach to the theodicy problem in The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? This book frames the problem and stresses that there aren’t “trivial” answers locates the best solution (and framing of the problem) in the literature as being found in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which … I also finished reading this year at long last. And which, now having found the suggestion that this book, among other things, is “about” theodicy I will start to re-read. This book too, I glanced at but will return to when I return to the latter book here Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction.
  • For my second book, I’m going to have to go with The Princeton Companion to Mathematics, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes math and has a few collegiate mathematics classes under their belt. 

How about you? Any books you found interesting that you read in 2008?

Ontological Freedom, Christians in the Public Sphere, and Liberatarian Ideas

John Rowe (for example this post at Positive Liberty) is just one example of many who frequently cite the notion that Christian theology is not one of freedom. Putting it quite strongly, a commenter Andy Craig apropos of the post above notes:

A pretty good argument as to why biblical Christianity is on the whole a fundamentally authoritarian worldview and has little place in a world of individual liberty, actually. It’s one of the main reasons I rejected Christianity and religion in general (most religions take a similar view of government authority).

In the post itself, it is noted that Romans 13 written by St. Paul in the rule of Nero (who it might be noted did have a predilection for augmenting lighting public fixtures with Christian corpses) specifically enjoins the Christian,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

which is pretty straightforward … it seems. However, this in a large measure misses the point. Continue reading →

Some Book Notes From a Long Train Ride

I’ve just completed a 24 hour or so train trip to the East Coast. In the absence of computers and the net, books were read.

I’ve really enjoyed reading through the first parts of the Princeton Companion for Mathematics. I’ve been away from academics and “real” mathematics for almost 20 years. This book is aimed at a mid-collegiate level math background and so far is pitch perfect for me, although I’m just getting into topics in section 3 with which I’m not very familiar. Anyhow I recommend it highly.

St. Siluan the Athonite is a great spiritual read, but best taken in smallish bites … at least for me.

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy was very good and a very short study on why a little self-examination and reflection is a good idea. Actually (as my parents don’t regularly read this blog), I’ll admit that I’m going to give it to my father for Christmas once-read.

I’m about half-way through Ian Banks The Algebraist which paints an interesting galactic society without breaking (much) known laws of physics (I think wormholes, if possible are harder to “work” with than suggested). Oddly enough for the beginning parts of the book the hero brought to my mind my impression of frequent commenter “the Jewish Atheist.” I’m getting hints half-way through that this is a book about oppression and liberty.

I’ve read a few chapters of Fagles and Fox recent translation of The Aeneid and had brought a parallel book The Black Ships but didn’t get a positive impression of the second from the first 10 or so pages and will defer returning to that for a while.

Finally, I still have “grand” plans on reading a Banks “Culture” novel (The Player of Games) and a translation of Henryk Sienkiewicz With Fire and Sword before getting back to the midwest, but that will depend on time remaining and how much the Companion grabs me in the meantime.

On that Justice/Fairness Book

Recently I began reading John Rawl’s ‘restatement’ of his position of Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, and in fairness to Mr Rawl’s I’m going to stop reading it. I think I have to get a larger more complete book. The problem is, as far as I can tell, this edition of his book is not so much as an argument but a “concise” statement of his position. But for myself, I’m needing a bit more. For example, when he makes claims equating justice as fairness, which gets stated more than once … I’m afraid I’m looking for a bit more meat than just that statement.

Justice it seems to me is a complex concept, of which fairness is an element. This becomes problematic as Mr Rawl’s spends no time exploring other “classical” or notions of justice he is replacing and then comparing that to his in order to demonstrate the superiority of his position. And this is even before he rolls out his axiomatic notions of what politically speaking fairness is, which on the face of it seems, well, to be honest unfair. So … I’m going to seek to get one of his larger works in the hopes that I can get into some meat of his argument instead of being frustrated with unsupported claims.

A Tale of Two Textual Traditions

Recently I’ve drifted through Jaroslav Pelikan’s odd little book, Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (mostly reading this material while on airplanes in the last week). I say odd, because while Mr Pelikan makes a lot of interesting connections between the hermeneutical traditions behind the extraction of meaning by the Church from the Bible and the legal community from the Constitution it is hard to see what to do with the connections thus made.

One such striking observation made by Mr Pelikan are in some of the parallels between their traditions. One such interesting parallel is that today academic theology and academic legal thinking no longer actively orders its study to serve the practice of its attendant organs (as it once did). Specifically, academic legal writing and thought is not directed at aiding and influencing the practice of practical law and theology is not aimed at producing insights for pastoral application.

Another thought which struck me concerned the divisions in the modern church on the other hand … and the Civil War and other political organs of power which prevent similar divisions from occurring in the Union. Modern evangelicals and protestants deride and dismiss the hierarchical structure of the Eastern and Roman churches and particularly point to efforts to keep ecclesiastic and theological unity within those churches. However, those same people applaud the civil war and stand firmly against separatist movements within the nation.

Mr Pelikan does occasionally amuse himself (and the reader) by tweaking the reader’s expectations. Allusions to liturgical trappings … are found to allude not to Church at times but to the rite and rituals (and dress) of the law courts.

Karamazov and the Squinch

For the “throwaway book” I read on my recent business trip, for entertainment value I selected Walter Jon Williams Implied Spaces. This book is a relatively straightforward science fiction far future book in the modern vein. The name of the book, “implied spaces” is in away all about squinches. The residents of this far future world live in and construct for their entertainment pocket universes designed to order. However, in designing your perfect fjords and vistas … between them what appears is not to design … and those pockets end up being, like squinches or being “spaces who’s construction is implied” and not designed by intent. At the beginning, we find our somewhat implausible hero entertaining himself by personally exploring “implied spaces” finding mostly deserts and spiders.  (Note: spoilers ahead), but I’d like to comment on some of implied spaces in Mr Williams story arc itself.

One of the plot twists we find toward the end of the book, is that the villain discovers empirically that the universe of our origin is itself designed. It is a space which has been designed by some exterior and unknown entity. It is … made to design. But … this outrages our villain for our universe … unlike the universes which are constructed by design by his civilization seems sloppy. Our villain’s rage and his driving force (creating the problem for our protagonists) … is in a sense the theodicy problem … or the Karamazov question returning in modern guise, except God is replaced by the unknown designers, but whom the villain is intent on recasting and reshaping humanity to the quest of confronting in person that errant creator. Why? Because in our universe he is finds it an extreme affront that man and the pain of humanity, for him a thing looming so large in the Universe … might be a squinch … just an implied space for the creator.

Ultimately Mr Williams provides no good insights I think for confronting theodicy … but for the deist (not the Christian) is the “rage against the incompetence of of the designer” truly a problem of that sort? I have not always been a Christian. That man might be an Creator’s squinch? Is that really a problem for the non-believer?

Waves and Swans: Black Marks (on Swans)

Mr Taleb in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable makes an essentially clean distinction between “Mediocristan” and “Extremistan” (I’ll attempt to summarize those in a bit). This distinction however is strained. He cites, for example, the extreme income disparities in Extremistan occupations, for example the high wages pulled in by celebrities. Now, there are fundamental differences in some high wage situations. It may be argued, perhaps successfully, that hundreds, if not thousands, could step into the shoes of say any given news broadcast anchor and pick up with not a big hitch. However, consider another big category of very visible salary discrepancies … sports. It might be interesting to say that Tom Warner(for example who is playing on MNF right now), any given baseball pitcher, or to pick on my favorite sport cycling do not deserve their wage. The problem is … people pay and are interested in that sport and their place is not replaceable. Their status and position is very much meritocratic. The reason that I, a once and future (ahem) amateur cyclist, am not a “highly compensated” star of the international peloton is not a factor of luck. Not luck but the meritocratic factors talent, abililty, and training tell more. Or consider for a moment your fate on a professional football field. Continue reading →

Waves and Swans: A Beginning

On my flight to the East Coast (New Jersey) I read the The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, which in an of itself being #76 on the Amazon best-seller list is by the authors criteria itself a “Black Swan”. This book has a number of good ideas, but alas uses a number of fallacious notions and claims, some less critical some more so to stake its claim.

One of the interesting repeated targets of Mr Taleb’s scorn, which he terms Platonism, is one which is carried too far. Platonism, that is essentially the use of abstraction, is ridiculed and dismissed repeatedly. However, one might at the same time, put alongside the paper cited a few days ago of Mr Wigner’s on the unreasonable success of Mathematics in Physics (or one might say … the unreasonable success of Platonism in explaining the Physical universe).

I plan to get into more detail about some of the notions in this book during the rest of this week, but I’ll leave with a few short comments tonight.

  • I had mentioned when I noted that I was going to be reading this book, that camparisons to the more traditional historical work by David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, might serve as a counterbalance to this book. In The Great Wave, Mr Fisher notes some intruiging research. In the last 800 years of Western history there have been a small countable number of periods of dramatic stability (or in the Mr Taleb’s terms the “Black Swans” had little impact) and periods of great instability (lots of Black Swans having greater effect) on political and social fronts. Mr Fisher correlates ecomonic price data of staples and commodities and lines them up with those historical periods and found a strong correlation. Periods of growing price instability especially in staples and other commodities precede and continue throughout periods of instabliity and during periods of relative price stability … political stability was also seen. 
  • Mr Taleb “cleans” up his argument a great deal. He presents occupations as being part of, or disconnected from, the affect of Black Swans, i.e. the improbable. One of his consistent examples is writing. However there in addition to luck (or the improbable) as connected with the career of writing at the same time a stable (non-Black Swan) related career one can derive from that. Not all aspiring writers are either wildly successful novelists like Ms Rowlings or operating machinery in Starbucks. Many, if not most, writers are writing copy for ordinary use. Writing technical manuals, textbooks, advertising copy, white papers, and so on. Programmers like the Woz made a killing, but there is an ordinary profession and stable livelihood to be made from perfecting and developing skill at programming (as at writing).
  • It’s interesting to note that the ancient Chinese Lao-Tzu philosopher also considered the problem of the danger of upheaval and perhaps loosely interpreted the Black Swan in the political arena. Lao-Tzu suggested becoming a craftsman in a trade that was specifically not useful for the machinery of State, so you wouldn’t get drafted into the games of Nations and at the same time, being useful for society, but not useful for the state insured the greatest chance of not being caught up gristmill of intra-national and inter-national strife.

Evening “Notes”

Choral. I was at my daughter’s choral middle school choral concert. As the kids get older, these events get easier and easier to bear. The only trouble is it’s spring, which for far too many musical directors means … showtunes. Gaack. I find the showtune music aesthetic to cloying, to syrupy if that makes any sense.

I’ve also begun, for fun reading, the space opera by Walter Jon Williams, Dread Empire’s Fall, finishing the first book while between dropping my daughter off and for the concert to begin. It’s failing so far, is that it has been just a little predictable … on the other hand it is well crafted and imagined. I suspect as well, that the other books will have some surprises in store. For predictability is not exactly a damning thing, many of the events of the great novels are “predictable” but it’s the getting there that makes it worth the doing.

Personal Knowledge: Science and Objectivity

In reading Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, he begins with a critique of the notion of objectivity in science. To examples are instructive although he provides some others. I’ll try to summarize briefly. The first concerns the Copernican notion of solar vs geo centrism as a view that this is “more objective” and therefore that is the reason for its predominance. The second example is the account of Einstein and his development of Special Relativity and its relationship to the Michelson-Morely experiments on motion and ether (below the dreaded fold). Continue reading →