Preposterous Hypotheticals & Uncertainty Versus Chaos

Yesterday, we finished up the thesis defenses for the 2016 graduates from Diablo Valley School. Every student who wishes to graduate must write a paper on the thesis: I have prepared myself to be an effective adult in the larger community. Papers are distributed to the Assembly – students, parents, staff, and at-large members who tend to be graduates and their parents. The candidate then must defend it for 50 minutes in front of the Assembly. Questions are not allowed from immediate family members.

It’s very cool. This year, we had 5 candidates, so we did defenses on Friday (2) and Sunday (3). This makes for a long day, especially since the fellow students, who run in age from 5 to 18, participate as members of the Assembly. Over the years, I’ve been impressed almost as much by the endurance of the younger students as the defenses of the candidates. They tend to hang in there, and often ask quite good questions.

As the school has matured, a culture has grown up around these defenses. In fact, for at least the last 10 years, a set of silly questions from the (usually younger) students have become tradition:

  • If you were a Disney princess, which one would you be? (Best answer – a young man: Shrek.)
  • If you were on a hillside with a tiger above you and a tiger below you, what would you do? (Best answer this year: Call State Farm)
  • If 626* stole your left shoe, what would you do? (Best answer this year: I always carry a spare left shoe in my backpack. (Since Every graduate know they’ll be getting these questions, they seem to plan ahead))

And so on. These were all good clean fun, and give the little (and not so little) kids a way to be involved. And, sometimes, the answers are in fact revealing.

But the last few years have seen the burgeoning of another type of question: the preposterous hypothetical:

  • If you were trapped with 3 or 4 of your friends in a cave with no hope of escape, who would you kill and eat first?
  • If you were walking along and saw that a car was going to kill 2 kittens, a dog and some guy you didn’t know, and you could only save either the animals or the man, who would you save?
  • Pacifism or genocide?

To their credit, some candidates – the better ones, I would say – refuse to bite. They answer outside the arbitrary bounds of the question, and suggest they would use magic or work to escape from the cave until they died, or otherwise defeat the question. Others counter by asking the questioner a bunch of qualifying questions, such as exactly what the kittens and dog look like or if the man is nice guy or not. These approaches often frustrate the questioners, who, after all, tend to be younger kids, who think they’re just being cute. And everybody does understand that these are, in some sense at least, joke questions.

But there is, unfortunately, a grim undertone to these questions, and, especially, some of the answers. What is an adult to say when a 18 year old says they would kill and eat one of their friends, or that they’d let the man die and save the pets, or let the opposition of pacifism to genocide, as if one must pick one or the other, go unchallenged?

My kids, at least, were made very familiar with the traps of false dichotomies and preposterous hypotheticals from an early age, and would, I trust, have refused to fall for it. They also know that animals aren’t people and people aren’t animals. But your typical candidate? Who most likely comes from a home broken by divorce? Based on some of the things said, I’m not sure how much of a joke it is they’re making.

This called to mind my senior essay at St. John’s College, which I likewise had to defend, but only in front of a couple of professors and tiny audience, to get my degree.

It was not a masterpiece, to put it generously. I have not so much as looked at it since my defense, and rarely think of it. When I do, I tend to mentally grimace. The question I tried to attack is still with me, however: why does the uncertainty of perceptions lead to doubt rather than confusion and chaos? Why does the possibility we could be wrong lead us, not to some unknown and unnamed mental state of utter suspension of all judgements of any kind, including judgements about our own being and consciousness, but instead to something called radical doubt?

As Descartes’ critics fansplained, his radical doubt was not nearly radical enough. We rapidly descend to Kant via Hume, and construct mental estates and palaces of cards and deny the existence of the breeze that blows them all down. But they did not call into question, at least not seriously, an approach which requires a mind that would be destroyed by any remotely thorough application of that same approach. It’s yet another case of the self-defeating assertion: Nothing is true, which, if true, means the assertion, as a non-nothing, is false, etc.

But with Descartes, we arrive at doubt – the round tower seen from a distance turns out to be square when we get closer. We could say: and, if we get closer still, it may turn out to be hexagonal, and yet closer will make it pentagonal, and therefore we have no doubt that our attempts to understand what the tower *is* are hopelessly doomed. Just keep getting closer, and the tower changes shape, becomes a wall, becomes a miasma of nuclear forces, becomes an epiphenomenon of primordial matter roiling in and out of existence…

Why not arrive at chaos? Oh, sure, moderns think they do so, after the manner of the flat earth devotee who answered his critics by saying that not only was he not crazy, but that people all around the globe are flat earthers, too!

Perennial philosophers do not deny their own existences, nor spend much effort proving the existences of their friends and colleagues. This confidence in a rational world populated by rational being is not an act of desperation made by cowards too frightened of the Abyss to face the ‘reality’ of profound isolation and misery. Rather, it is the cheerful recognition that, as Aristotle put it: no man sleeping in Egypt dreaming of Athens ever awakens in the Agora. That the questions of radical doubt and, by extension, the whole mind-body meshugas, can even be raised is, in itself, sufficient proof that we live in a real, objective, Aristotelian world, a world of uncertainty, yes, but not of chaos and darkness.

Everything cannot be unknowable. We cannot doubt everything, even if we can mouth those words. We, one set of possible rational being among who knows how many such sets, live in a world where tantalizing, incomplete and often frustrating sense impressions give us access, however flawed and subject to correction, to a wonderful, beautiful objective Universe. Moreover, through the processes by which we gain knowledge of this objective reality, we come to know other truths – mathematics and logic, on one hand, and philosophy and the moral law on the other – that are required for meaningful interaction with and in such a beautiful world. The existence of these meaningful interactions is primary – we know of this existence if we know anything. Therefore, our knowledge of logic, mathematics and philosophy and the moral law are results *of* the existence of our interactions with the world, not things we bring to the world from somewhere outside it. Logic, math, philosophy and the moral law are as much parts of this Universe as we are.

And that’ll do it for today’s philosophy lesson.

* That’s a Lilo and Stitch reference, FYI.

Science! Weasels! And Not Just the Human Kind!

As always, surfing the Google news Science! feed:

1.  Weasel knocks out CERN’s powerful particle accelerator. I think there’s nothing more to add.

2.Yay, Webb! NASA is testing it now. Here, they expose the lovely gold-plated mirrors.

NASA Space Mirror

They have to be very careful not to break the mirrors, because they are made of beryllium. As we learned from Galaxy Quest:

Computer, is there a replacement beryllium mirror on board?

Negative. No reserve beryllium mirror exists on board.

No, we have no extra beryllium mirror on board.

Set to launch sometime in 2018. I can hardly wait.

3. To sleep, perchance to dream – of eating black soldier fly larva and turnip greens as likely as not. Yes, somebody, in the name of Science!, slapped electroencephalogram headgear – tiny, no doubt terminally cute electroencephalogram headgear – on the noggin of a bearded lizard. Seems, contrary to expectations, the lizards showed evidence of the kind of sleep patterns one finds (when one has slapped enough tiny, adorable electroencephalogram headgear onto the heads of small helpless animals)  in birds and mammals.

 Headgear. Neither tiny nor adorable. 

Why, exactly, one would even have expectations about what one would find when one finally gets around to checking out brain activity in largish, pointy lizards is not explained. One would think that prudent restraint on expectations would be called for. But hey, nobody’s ever funded my research into brain activity, so what do I know?

4. Japan loses a space telescope. Bummer. Go, Webb!!

Have a nice weekend!

Cultural Data Point?

On the phone with a friend, who is one of those wonderful converts who know and love the faith much better than us spoiled cradles,  where she told us she is working with the faith formation/RCIA group at her parish in a big midwestern college town. One project she’s on is a series of evening discussion groups designed for the professors at the University. They have been quite successful, with enthusiastic participation by a number of faculty members who, even though pressed for time, were looking forward to doing it again, and doing even more, next year.

So, first, hurray! Thank God for sending the Church enthusiastic and educated converts! As an aside, almost, she mentioned an oddity: that those participating seemed to all come from the math, engineering and science departments.

This may just be an artifact in the Small Sample Size Theatre, but I suspect not. To recap a point made before on this blog, university faculty fall roughly into two groups: those who got their positions at least in part because they had mastered an objective discipline, and those who got their positions because they conformed to the beliefs of those already in the department, despite there being no objective way to determine if those beliefs are true.

Objective disciplines are those where one can judge success or failure by reference to something other than the feelings of others in the field. A good engineer can design buildings that don’t fall down or machines that actually work; a good chemist concocts mixtures that do what his theories say they’ll do. And so on. I or anyone else who is not an engineer or a chemist can still, at least in theory, judge whether a given engineer or chemist is any good simply by looking at the results: The Bay Bridge is still standing; Round Up does kill the weeds.

Then there are those fields which have metastasized in our modern colleges and universities, and successfully invaded  even once honorable fields like English and History, in which success is measured entirely by how well the aspirant conforms to the established orthodoxy. Thus, a sociologist may or may not actually know anything about society, but may still hope for a academic job based on how well he applies critical theory, class dynamics and historicism to the Australian aborigines or Amazonian Yanomami. His knowledge, such  as it is, is largely irrelevant: if he fails to apply the proper Hegelian/Marxist hermeneutic, he has practically no chance at an academic job in any major public or private college or university.

Job qualifications in these cases is completely self-contained and circular. You get the job by demonstrating that you think exactly like other people who have similar jobs. It is not possible that you, the job applicant, are looking at the same *external* evidence as the job holders in your field and have come up with a different theory – that you and they agree on the observed, objective thing, but disagree about how it is to be understood. Nope, historicism teaches that all understanding and all observation are contextual, are informed entirely by their historical context. Of course, the current enlightened historical context, that held by the current bodhisattvas embodied as university professors and their mewling sycophants, is conclusively presumed to be, for lack of a better word, “true”. Thus, your success or failure in getting a university teaching job depends entirely on how well you conform to the beliefs held by those already holding those jobs.

In my experience, you’ll rarely come across more insecure and twitchy folks than college professors in the humanities and soft sciences.* On some level, they know they got their jobs by conforming and so lack that confidence that comes from true competence. Maybe. An even smaller sample size here.

Back to my friend’s discussion class. If you throw a discussion together about Catholicism, are insecure people who are professionally required to think they know everything there is to know about the Church (that it is evil, reactionary and counter-revolutionary) going to come? What if their coworkers were to see them? Or are those who are accustomed to seeing their ideas and works tested out in the real world more likely to be interested? Different ideas, in themselves, threaten one group; different ideas are measured against reality by the other.

* To be fair, this no doubt has something to do with me – I tend to be not very awe-struck by fancy degrees and prestigious jobs, and want to talk about the stuff they are experts on. So, imagine you’re some junior professor and you give a talk on something I know something (however little) about. I’ll tend to walk right up, introduce myself and start right in as if I’m an actual human being just like the prof. So perhaps I’m totally wrong about professorial insecurity, I’m just perceived as rude and their (generally snide) reactions do not express a need to establish pecking order. I don’t think that’s it,. though.

Earth Day: A History of Violins

Musing on this most holy of days:

1. People like a tidy planet. People like critters and trees, free-flowing rivers and streams, dolphin-filled seas and clear, starlit skies. Right after we’ve taken care of feeding, clothing and housing ourselves and fending off barbarian murderers, we humans tend – all evidence points to this, just look around – to tidy up, set areas aside and otherwise keep the planet in a pleasing state. This is not speculation – Earth Day itself is a result of this basic desire for a nice place to live.

Even strip miners, lumberjacks and petroleum engineers generally want their little corner of the planet to be nice, and so can understand other’s desire for a nice place to live, too. Often – you’ll be flabbergasted to hear this – they can be reasoned with. We do ask them to balance the desires of urban-dwelling iPhone-using Prius-driving sophisticates for the raw materials and cheap energy that make their low-fat latte, light foam lifestyles possible with their desire for nothing bad to ever happen to anything in Nature.

Unless of course the Bad Thing is the Circle of Life manifesting itself as baby caribou paralyzed by terror being disemboweled alive by wolves – something like that, it’s not often clear. And policies that will condemn Africans, say, to death by malaria or permanent energy-starved poverty are OK to our current betters in the name of saving the planet.  So clarity isn’t a strong suit of Earth Day participants in general.

So let us remember the earth, this day, a tiny jewel in the firmament, as meaningless as the life of a single amoeba, as pointless as the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, as doomed as the red giant which will eventually consume it – except for the souls of the billions of people who have lived, do live, and will live upon it. Long may its beauty and utility reign!

2. The chief form celebrating Earth Day takes is having members of a hemp-vested priesthood lead the faithful in Lamentations, and to entreat their collective omphalos for progressively  more dire prophecies of the Apocalypse.  Here are the predictions made at the 1st Earth Day back in 1970, via the Oracle Wikipedia:

  • Denis Hayes, the chief organizer for the first Earth Day, wrote, “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation.”
  • Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, stated, “Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, believes that in 25 years, somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”
  • Peter Gunter, a professor at North Texas State University, stated, “… by 1975 widespread famines will begin in India; these will spread by 1990 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East, Africa. By the year 2000, or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions…. By the year 2000, thirty years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”
  • Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, predicted that between 1980 and 1989, 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would starve to death.
  • Life Magazine wrote, “… by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.”
  • Ecologist Kenneth Watt stated, “The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”
  • Watt also stated, “By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate…that there won’t be any more crude oil.”

In accordance with this now-hoary tradition, we should expect sincere and possibly sweaty (1) panic mongers, knuckles white, to make any number of equally wrong and stupid predictions this year as well. Ice sheets melting, deserts spreading, sea levels rising, dogs and cats living together – that sort of thing.

The anti-Cassandra effect is in full force: these people will be believed no matter how wrong they have shown themselves to be in the past. No evidence to the contrary will ever sway those for whom the destruction of earth at human hands is their deepest religious belief, nor will any prediction of doom be judged too preposterous to promote as gospel.

3. Our youngest son is learning to play the violin. He recently got large enough to use a full-size violin. He is borrowing a violin I gave to his older sister back when she played. This violin I got from my father, who in turn got it from his father – the instrument is about 125 years old, a run of the mill fiddle made in France back when you could sell violins to lots of people.

When I had it worked on by John Jordan years ago, he told my daughter to never take it out of the country, because US Customs might not let her bring it back in. The tailpiece is made of tortoise shell – common enough a century ago, but trafficking in (possibly) protected species parts today. John had horror stories.

So now our diligent federal employees are protecting us and our French tortoise friends from the terror of little girls playing their great grandfather’s old violins. In the name of protecting the planet. Reminds me of the Gibson Guitars wood scandal of a few years back. Not that anything done to save Gaia from evil, evil humans could ever be motivated by anything other than unalloyed virtue…

4.  Just imagine how much more beautiful this scene was before a bunch of French villagers mucked it up with their quaint little farms and village:

french village

Or not. Maritain pointed out the beauty inherent in proper human activity – that, as beautiful as nature is in itself, adding beautiful works of man improves it. He used the example of a French farm – that French farmers took some care that their farms be beautiful. A natural scene was improved by adding an attractive French farm or village to it. (2)

To call nature “Unspoiled”, when that term is applied to part of the natural world merely lacking any evidence of the presence of humanity, is blasphemy.

We’re not “destroying the planet” when we turn it to our uses. Farms and cities and indeed all works that man makes in the course of being human are, in themselves, improvements and fulfillments of nature. Of course, we can do it badly, making ugly or ill-conceived things. But our very human drive as makers is part of our Nature, and part of our being the image of God, and thus exercising it glorifies and completes the natural world. This is what the natural world is for: to be the home to Man and our works. That is its purpose and glory .


  1. Or is that sweaty and possibly sincere?
  2. He was contrasting French farms with American farms, where the farmers often left huge piles of junk and trash right out in the open. He said he’d never seen such a thing growing up in France. (Wish I could remember where I read this – must be close to 30 years ago.)

Today’s Questionable Sartorial Choice

This morning, just prior to 6:00 A.M., fumbling around in the closet for a shirt. Came across an old company shirt, with an old logo for our flagship product on it. What the heck, I thought – it’s the classic ‘Raiders’ look – silver and black – much prized among my coworkers back in the day, maybe 15 years ago, when this shirt was new. Here’s a picture:

A bit out of focus – it looks cooler in person. 

Was taking my lunch hour walk before it occurred to me that maybe I didn’t want to be a tiny walking billboard. Think I may retire this shirt until after the elections, maybe until after the next 4-8 years, depending. Maybe forever.

Science! Um…

Here we have an article about the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Seems we – you know, that we – now know that dinosaurs were petering out for 40 million years before the asteroid/comet wiped them out.

There are a couple of problems with this article and the study it is based on. The first is just silly:

Around 66 million years ago, the sky fell on the dinosaurs’ heads. An asteroid smashed into the Yucatan Peninsula, causing cataclysmic climate changes that marked the end of the Cretaceous period, and killed off some three-quarters of animal species.

Climate change? The way the sentence is structured, one can read it as saying that climate change killed off the dinosaurs. Really? This reminds me of a quip a friend once made, when a report came out saying the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11 was due to substandard steel used in the buildings. He opined that a couple fully-fueled airliners crashing into them also had something to do with it.

Let’s recap that fateful day 66 million years ago: A significant percentage of dinosaurs were pulverized on impact (1); many were crushed or otherwise killed by the debris and shock waves; another chunk were asphyxiated as dust filled the air; another bunch buried in ash; more crushed and drowned by tsunamis; the earthquakes that result from having a large mass smash into the earth’s crust took out some more. THEN many starved as the dust high in the atmosphere killed off what was left of their food supplies. Some tiny percentage that made it through all this then had to deal with a world in which the sun was blotted out for nobody knows how long, trying to find food in a dark and growing cold.

Some creatures, like Coelacanths, who happen to live in caves deep in the ocean, survived. Others were able to travel around easily – birds, say – and could expand the range in which they could look for food. But larger creatures would need to be very, very lucky to avoid all the things that would kill them and still find enough food to not starve. Goodbye all the classic dinosaurs we loved as kids (those that had not died off before the asteroid, that is).

After all this, the post asteroid impact climate was different than the pre-impact climate, because few things can change your climate like a giant chunk of rock hitting your planet at high speeds. Saying the climate killed them is a little like saying blood loss killed somebody who was shot by a murderer – kind of missing the point, even if not entirely untrue.

The second problem is more subtle and ubiquitous if not any less damaging to modern science properly understood. Here’s the abstract from the paper that occasioned the article in the Atlantic linked above:

Whether dinosaurs were in a long-term decline or whether they were reigning strong right up to their final disappearance at the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event 66 Mya has been debated for decades with no clear resolution. The dispute has continued unresolved because of a lack of statistical rigor and appropriate evolutionary framework. Here, for the first time to our knowledge, we apply a Bayesian phylogenetic approach to model the evolutionary dynamics of speciation and extinction through time in Mesozoic dinosaurs, properly taking account of previously ignored statistical violations. We find overwhelming support for a long-term decline across all dinosaurs and within all three dinosaurian subclades (Ornithischia, Sauropodomorpha, and Theropoda), where speciation rate slowed down through time and was ultimately exceeded by extinction rate tens of millions of years before the K-Pg boundary. The only exceptions to this general pattern are the morphologically specialized herbivores, the Hadrosauriformes and Ceratopsidae, which show rapid species proliferations throughout the Late Cretaceous instead. Our results highlight that, despite some heterogeneity in speciation dynamics, dinosaurs showed a marked reduction in their ability to replace extinct species with new ones, making them vulnerable to extinction and unable to respond quickly to and recover from the final catastrophic event.

(Full study behind a paywall, darn it!)

The problem in its most general form: you don’t get more certain results by applying statistical analysis to uncertain, speculative data (2). The most well know and egregious example would be the Drake Equation, which purports to tell us something about how common intelligent life is in the Universe, when we have no data to support any of the values used in the equation itself. In other words, *if* we know how often life arises under the right conditions (we don’t) and what those conditions are (we don’t) and how common those conditions are (we don’t) and on and on, *then* we can apply a little math and – voila! – we commit a Sagan and start talking about a universe just crawling with inevitable, mathematically demonstrated intelligent aliens.

So, before we head down this bunny trail, let’s recap what we know about dinosaurs. Not what we speculate, however reasonably, but what we know in any demonstrable sense.

Continue reading “Science! Um…”

One’s Personal Sample Population & Stuff

1. Long liked the assertion – can’t recall who asserted it – that the only generalizations you can make about mankind should be those that hold for you and your friends, for the obvious logical reason that you and your friends are just a particular sample of People In General: My friends and I are bloodthirsty killers; my friends and I are destroying the planet; my friends and I are gullible rubes. Then, if you don’t like how that sounds, you must come up with what it is about you and your friends that makes you all so special. Which, if you’re the least bit self-aware, ought to make you really, really uncomfortable. Not that it can’t be done, but the exercise would expose, one fervently hopes, naked tribalism for what it is.

This is often rare. People are pretty dense and clueless, after all.

2. My own direct, personal sample of Humanity consists of a few hundred people, a huge chunk of whom are blue collar workers and their spouses and kids (almost everybody I knew before I went to college) or low to mid-level professionals of some sort (almost everybody I’ve met since). Sprinkled here and there are some top-level professionals (I’m related by marriage to a hedge fund manager, for example, and do know a couple CEOs of non-trivial corporations). All of these folks live or lived in the 2nd half of the 20th century and first part of the 21st.

Then there are the memorable outliers. I’ve know a few college professors, a mixed group for sure; a number of semi-elite (as in: college-level) athletes; several crazy artists and a few sane ones; people with various disabilities physical and mental; all flavors of orientations (at least of which I am aware – and I frankly don’t need to be aware of any more  at this point at this time); some people with chemical dependencies of one kind or another sufficient to destroy them and those they love. Races and ethnicities, yep, got those pretty well covered. No Inuit that I can think of, but that’s the level of detail we’re talking about.

Yet this is an insanely narrow, hardly representative sample of Humanity, considering that billions of us have lived for half a million years over millions of square miles of the planet, under a bewildering variety of conditions both social and physical. I’d have to be reckless, crazy reckless, I tell you! to make any generalizations at all about People from such a laughably limited collection as my own sample.

Unless… Unless there’s something common to humans across time and space and social conditions, something perceptible and understandable by a lowly individual trapped in his own personal data set, as it were.

One reason to suspect that this is so (1) is all the people one meets through reading. Including them, my sample now spans millennia and continents, cultures long dead and still going, people unimaginably poor and unimaginably rich, incomprehensibly violent and stunningly passive, and a dozen other extremes as well.

While there’s often things that are shocking about true strangers – strangers to our time and culture – when we first meet them, the underlying impression is always one of recognition and familiarity. People are people, as the philosophers in Depeche Mode so astutely put it. An eskimo, bushman or Mongolian is first and foremost clearly a human being, even if he’s chewing whale blubber or poison-darting an elephant or throwing down the boodog when we first encounter him in person or in print, or, now days, in pictures and video.

3. No real point here. I am happy to report that I generally really like people. That I mostly like the people I meet leads me to imagine, however unjustifiable on technical grounds, that I’d mostly like the people I haven’t met, too. One thing that’s helped a lot in this regard is that I’ve now raised a batch of children, which makes it easy to see that adults are just children who have grown up through no fault of their own. Their interests and emotions are largely the same as any 2-year olds, however much wrapped in and disguised by grown-up trappings.

This is comforting. What appears to be evil intent is, more often than not, just a kid who wants a cookie or needs a nap. Heck, I could use a cookie and a nap right about now myself.

4. This break from reading education history has, lately, rekindled(2) my reading jones.  Stayed up past midnight finishing off John C. Wright’s Somewhither. It was good. I may need to reread it in order to give it a worthy review. I’ve got 3-4 more fun books to read in the queue, which will also require reviews.

Maybe I’ll get back to the schooling stuff once summer rolls around.

  1. in addition to the basic Aristotelian reason that there’s something that allows us to correctly identify them all as ‘people’ in the first place.
  2. Not to mention reKindled. Ha.