Hail Lithuania!

Until I spent a few minutes googling around just now, all I could tell you about Lithuania is:

  • One of those surprising medieval empires was built by Lithuanians, as a kingdom that passed into a duchy (I think.)
  • A disproportionate number of tall, athletic men hail from Lithuania. Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis being perhaps the most famous.
  • They have very good and cheap wireless access there (read this in some business publication somewhere…).
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This dude, for example, is HUGE!

Aaaaand – that’s about it. Sounds like a fascinating place, just never really read up on it. How such small countries/nationalities retain their identity and culture when so many others are crushed and forgotten is a subject of great interest to me, so I suppose I should try to find out how a couple million people managed to hold on when surrounded by much larger and more aggressive cultures (Russia and Germany, for starters). There must be something strong about Lithuanians.

Why am I writing this? the inscrutably bored reader might wonder in passing. According to WordPress’s blog stats, some person or persons from Lithuania have been surfing this humble blog over the last few days.

So consider this a shout out! Welcome & thanks!

 

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Science and ‘Scientific’ Education

When I’m cruising through my giant pile of education history books, the pernicious phrases  ‘scientific’ education and ‘scientific’ schooling keep popping up.

That word you keep using – I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Brief recap of the use of the word science: The ancient use of words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ referred to the systematic and logical exploration of a topic. Only later did the ‘scientific’ method arise. Science in the original sense was developed from fragmentary origins by Aristotle into the method of inquiry he used, for example, in the Physics.

Aristotle’s standard formulation of his approach: we start with what is most knowable to us and move toward what is most knowable by nature. As with much Aristotle, this is stating an obvious, simple thing: if you want to know about, say, horses, you start with the actual horses at hand – most knowable to us – and move toward the generalized knowledge of horses as a genus – more truly knowledge. Aristotle will use examples like ‘four-legged’ to describe the sort of thing we’d learn from the horses at hand. We’d conclude that having four legs is natural to horses in general. Stuff about horses in general is more knowable by nature as follows: a particular horse may be brown and unusually skinny and short, but once you know enough individual horses, by the miracle of the human mind, you can understand something about horses in general. Horses can be many colors and sizes (but not all colors and sizes!) but all of them have 4 legs and eat grass.

Image result for weird horseWhen applied in this manner to natural objects, Aristotle’s ‘scientific’ approach is not much different in nature than what modern hard (read: real) scientists do, including the part about where all conclusions are conditional: given the horses we have looked at are really representative of horses in general, and that we’ve perceived what we think we’ve seen correctly, then horses are of such and such nature. Aristotle would have never asserted that what he knew about horses rose to the level of certain knowledge, such as can be achieved in mathematics and logic. But it was interesting, and not unworthy. Aristotle didn’t care much that it was also useful – the tamer of horses better know what horses are like! And the city-state needed horses! – that came later with the likes of Francis Bacon. To Aristotle, the satisfaction of knowing something was the short term reward; the goodness of cultivating one’s mind and the excellence that results from such cultivation were the long term benefits. Making a buck, not so much.

To get from Aristotle’s approach to modern science, three things were missing: experimentation(1) – the idea that one could tease out knowledge from nature by making it jump through carefully controlled hoops; math – the idea that many of the relationships so teased out could best be expressed through numbers and formulas; and motivation – that whole ‘conquer and subject Nature to Man’s will’ thing. The Franciscan friar and scholar Roger Bacon is often credited with adding experimentation in the 13th century, although this is disputed (historians love to view the ancients through modern biases – see? Bacon was advanced – like us!). Be that as it may, Bacon’s writings pointed in the direction of  the increased importance of careful observation of the natural world as a way to knowledge. (His contemporary Albertus Magnus, a Dominican friar and scholar, whiled away some of his time making careful observations and drawings of plants – much like Darwin 650 years later – so the successful ideas again prove to have many fathers.)

Once experimentation and math got added to the mix over the next couple centuries, and people like Francis Bacon (the bring-home-the-bacon Bacon, as it were) promulgated the dogma that the purpose of science is to be useful (2), we’d reached both what we’d recognize as the the modern scientific method – and a great divide.

Without the math and especially experimentation, and, for really modern science, without the need for discoveries to prove themselves useful and profitable in the real world, science could trundle along including any number of subjects and approaches. Many things might be thought of a science, loosely speaking, in the old sense of something thought about rationally and systematically, that are not at all science in the current sense.

On one side of the divide, then, we have science in the full modern sense of the term – a body of knowledge that was teased out by careful experimentation, generally expressed at least in part through mathematics, and which has proven useful in some sense. This usefulness may merely be as an aid to further understanding (such as astronomy or even Darwinian evolutionary theory) but most often it means cold hard cash. Maxwell’s equations are used to make sure the lights go on when you throw the switch; Einstein’s discoveries are used to give you your correct location when you use the GPS function on your phone. And people have made a lot of money making use of that science, and we are all better off for it.

Sorry (slightly. Very slightly) if I’m bursting any bubbles here: Systematic, mathematic and profitable. That’s the science to which we owe allegiance. Pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake is lovely stuff, I am a fan, but the crass truth is that we’re never as sure about the claims of science as we are when somebody puts it into practice – and nothing motivates that like cold, hard cash.

On the other hand, there is a form of envy? Ambition? Greed? that compels some people to put on the sacred lab coat of science and claim that their pet ideas are science, even if there’s no systematic, replicable experimentation behind it and no one has challenged or is even allowed to challenge their ‘discoveries’. They then claim their ‘science’ is owed the same allegiance we pay to the science behind all the wonderful tech and gadgets that have given us, among other things, cars and phones, clean water, lots of food and long lives. Some – Freud, for an egregious example – wanted to be famous SO BAD that they just make stuff up and call any who object bad names. Others – their name is Legion – infest our colleges and schools so that they can inflict their ‘insights’ unchallenged on callow children. No systematic, repeatable experimentation? No solid math?  Nobody making the world better by applying these discoveries? No science, no allegiance owed.

Phrenology springs to mind as an historical example – serious people worked up what they took to be a serious scientific theory about how different areas of the brain created or controlled ‘propensities’, higher and lower ‘sentiments’ and so on. Phrenologists had theories about how the physical configuration of the skull could tell us about the mental condition of the brain inside it. They had all sorts of case studies, after a fashion, which proved their theories to their satisfaction.

The idea that you’d need careful definitions and double-blind, controlled studies preferably conducted by non-believers didn’t really seem to occur to fans. As is so often the case with complicated ideas about human behaviors, it would be difficult if not impossible to concoct an experiment that illuminates phrenology’s claims. How does one define a propensity, say, such that anyone could do a double-blind a study  to shed light on what sort of correlation, if any, exists between skull shape (or brain configuration – there were different flavors of phrenology) and such a propensity, as compared to some other propensity? One can imagine an ‘instrument’ of some sort by means of which one person could gather information about subjects and some other person could judge from that information to what degree any particular subject had this or that propensity, and then other people could survey their craniums (inside or out or both, I suppose) and someone else could attempt to correlate skull/brain topography to various propensities – but nothing remotely like this was ever done, as far as I can discover with the minimum amount of research I’m willing to do for a blog post. Way too much work, I imagine, for the armchair pseudo-scientist.

All the foregoing is to simply show that the term ‘science’ in the modern world is used equivocally. There’s the science that’s *hard* in at least 2 senses of that word, the science that leads to the tech that leads to better living (or at least works!). Then there’s the ‘science’ that is a combination of wishful thinking and browbeating and child abuse (telling self-serving lies to 18 year old under pain of expulsion from at least the cool kids club and maybe college itself isn’t abuse?).

Which brings us to today’s point:  There is no science behind ‘scientific’ schooling. No careful studies were ever done showing that grouping children by age and feeding them all the same instruction at the same time regardless of what those kids already knew for hours and months and years on end is better than any other approach or even works at all. (3) No studies were ever done showing that this approach succeeds better than any other approach or even no approach at all. There’s no evidence to show compulsory graded schooling yields better results than 1-room aged mixed schooling, homeschooling, or unschooling or any other approach, for that matter.

There is NO science behind the modern schools. None. Nada. It’s ‘science’ in the same way Freud’s ad hominem harranges and phrenologists’s pretty diagrams are science. In other words, not science at all.

Modern schooling does demonstrably work considered as a tool for the destruction of the families and communities that might oppose the total state. There’s some science behind that idea, although not generally expressed in those terms.

  1. I’m saying experiment for the sake of brevity. Please include ‘careful, replicable observation’ under ‘experiment’ in this sloppy blog post. Yes, astronomy can be a modern science.
  2. Through the expedient of making scientists like Bacon rich and famous. Or maybe I’m seeing things through my modern biases?
  3. For example: control for parents: if a child has successful, happily married parents, does modern school contribute anything to the likelihood of that child’s future success? Similarly, if a child has a single drug-addicted parent and lives in squalor and neglect, does school help? Intervention might help – but is school the best or even a workable form for such intervention? Inquiring scientific minds would like to know.

Music at Mass Review: 1st Sunday of Lent 2018

Up at Lake Tahoe for our annual President’s Day weekend snow trip with friends from Diablo Valley School. ‘Snow’ being pretty much nominal this year, unlike the 10′ high drifts last year.  So off to the striking church of St. Theresa’s Parish in downtown South Lake Tahoe for the 8:00 Mass. A lovely group of people with a good, humble priest.

One amazing thing happened. This building has a large window behind the altar through which one sees forest and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra – very striking, especially on a windy winter’s day when clouds whipped by, sunlight dappling the sanctuary as they flew past.

At the Elevation, the altar was in shade. As the priest lifted the Host, It was brilliantly back-lit while all else remained in shadow. Very beautiful and appropriate.

In previous years, I found the amateur woodworking on the pews distracting, as discussed in the post linked above. I think I’m finally over that particular temptation. The music, however…

Again, some sweet people are doing their best. A young woman with a lovely light voice lead the singing. But if all you know is Ripple, good red wine will be spit out of your mouth.

Theory: contemporary church songs are particularly bad in Lent, because contemporary writers have no concept of repentance. How could they, when, at least in the West, the whole project since V-II seems to be to get everybody to accept everybody (themselves included) as, essentially OK as they are. Repent from what? in other words. Hurting Gaia’s feelings, I suppose?

That Desert Father and Counter-Reformation Jesuit recognition that we’ve screwed up both individually and as a Church and could not possible do enough to correct it (we need a Redeemer, after all – another thought conspicuously absent from 99% of modern songs) is completely foreign to enlightened sensibilities. The idea that it is meet and just and ESSENTIAL TO OUR SALVATION that we throw ourselves weeping on the Mercy of God, despairing of our own strength and trusting solely in grace of Christ’s Holy Sacrifice as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world – not so popular. Am I saying we’re not OK? How dare me!

Pick any Catholic Lenten hymn more than 75 years old, and it’s easy to see St. Francis fasting and lying on the cold ground while praying those thoughts, or St. Catherine of Sienna weeping her eyes dry. It works. Now, imagine St. Teresa of Avila, in her stern humor, or Mother Theresa or even Dorthy Day reading over ‘Ashes’ and – I think some anathemas might be forthcoming.

Continue reading “Music at Mass Review: 1st Sunday of Lent 2018”

Time & Eternity

It seems that a lot of modern arguments over the existence and nature of immaterial reality hinge on a misunderstanding of what classic philosophers mean by ‘eternal’. Fool rushing in, I, the least among philosophers, will try to explain in one blog post what Aristotle and Thomas and hundreds of vastly better thinkers have filled libraries discussing. But, hey, never stopped me before! And maybe it will prove helpful to somebody. Weirder things have happened.

Here’s a description of how I understand the relationship between time and eternity as understood in a Thomist/baptized Aristotelian scheme:

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Da Man.  St. Thomas says so. 

Time is, as Aristotle says, the measure of motion. By motion, philosophers mean a change of any kind, not just changes in location. This definition may seem a little weird, but upon reflection is what any other meaningful definition must boil down to. For something to be one way or in one place and then get to another way or place, time must pass. A moment ago, the ball was orange and at my feet; now it is green and over there. Somethings have changed – time has passed.

Oddly enough, the key here is the verb ‘to be’ in its various forms. A mutable thing *is* at a given point of time; it *becomes* something else – green and over there – over time.

The funny thing: a man or a dog or tree or a river is what it is over the course of its life or existence, even though the material it is made of – meat or wood or water – changes over time. A man is the same man in some fundamental way over the course of his life, even if, as is the case, most of the material his body is made of gets swapped out, often many times, over the course of that life. Something persists over time that makes that man who he is, and it can’t be material. If it were matter, then a man would not be the same man after each meal or breath.

This fact, without which we could talk of no thing, has inspired much philosophizing and is at the roots of the Perennial Philosophy.  It is the recognition that some things are not matter and that talking and thinking about things requires a type of presence and persistence that matter alone does not offer.

Further, there are certain fundamental ideas to which no matter at all corresponds, that have no place in time whatsoever. No physical thing is a triangle or a rule of logic. Yet we are more certain of what a triangle is and what the law of noncontradiction means than we are of any of the ‘blended’ being we encounter in the physical world. These pure ideas are not mutable – it is of their nature that, if we understand them at all, we understand that they cannot change.

Some understanding of the nature of being falls out of this necessarily. Unchanging things belong to eternity. Eternity is not lots of time, or even infinite time, but rather is – something else. When we say that triangles, laws of logic, our souls or God are eternal, we don’t mean they last a long time, even an infinitely (unbounded) amount of time. We mean they are of a different order of being.

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Too humble to claim to be Da Man. But, really – he’s Da Man. 

Over the Physics and Metaphysics, hundreds of pages of Aristotle filled with arguments teasing out what reality is like. The Philosopher concludes that things in time – all the common things we experience – are the way they are because of immaterial things. Ultimately, through however long a chain of causes (or ‘becauses’ if you want) everything is caused – is and does what makes it the thing it is – by an eternal, unchanging Unmoved Mover. This, as Thomas pointed out 1500 years later, is what everyone understands is ‘God’.

In De Anima, Aristotle discusses the ‘soul’, by which he means the animating principle of all living things. Plants have souls which cause them to grow and reproduce; animals have souls that, in addition to growth and reproduction, allow them to sense and move about.  Men, as animals, have a soul that shares these powers. But men do one thing animals and plants don’t do – they understand.

Aristotle saw no reason animal and vegetable souls would be any less mortal than the material bodies they informed. You dog dies – its soul is gone. The remains are no longer a dog in any coherent sense – dead means ‘its soul is gone’ and that soul is what made that dog a dog. A dog, or a petunia, or a person does not have a soul; a living thing IS a soul and a body – an immaterial form informing matter. For plants and animals, the distinction between body and soul is purely intellectual or even theoretical. In practice, every plant and animal is both, or it is not a living thing.

Aristotle puts a surprising number of mental activities within the realm of the animal soul, because he, unlike most of us modern men, lived intimately with animals. He could see that a horse or dog figured things out, imagined some sorts of things in the course of acting (like where the rabbit was likely to be hiding), and even, in the case of dogs at least, dreamed dreams. But men do some categorically different thinking. We are capable of knowing eternal things, of pondering triangles, moral law and God Himself. Aristotle saw that this kind of thinking is different in kind from anything animals do, and so recognized a third kind of soul, the rational soul or intellect.

Here’s the logical step not followed, one I can’t spell out in a blog post: Souls capable of contemplating eternal things must themselves be eternal at least in some sense. Aristotle isn’t clear that this sense is personal as we understand it – that each individual human being has a unique immortal soul. Thomas spells this out: each human being has a unique immortal human soul that is and must be a direct creation of God.

The human soul is a creature of eternity. When we speak of our eternal home, we don’t mean a place within time, except with way more time. We mean a state beyond human understanding, of which we have only the faintest ideas as if seen in a mirror darkly. Somehow, within the Eternity that is God Himself, all creation from beginning to end is loved into being. Somehow, we have been given the incomprehensible gift of Time, within which we get to act on our nature formed in the image of God by understanding and creating and especially procreating.

A mystical as this all sounds, Aristotle, no Christian and no respecter of gods, got almost all the way there as a result of pure, hard-headed reasoning. He asked the hard questions: how is it that we know anything at all? How do we know about things like math, logic and the moral law that don’t materially exist? How is it that the world is so rationally ordered? In modern times, we flinch, and instead ask sophomoric questions and smirk suicidally at our own cleverness as we assert that our better questions are unanswerable: do we know anything at all? Are math etc. knowledge at all? Is the world really rational, or is that just us projecting?

Then we answer them. It is not clever to saw off the branch you’re sitting on, especially considering how high off the ground you are. To say we know nothing, that only material things exist and that what appears as an orderly world is just a projection, wishful thinking or a construct, is to destroy any basis for understanding or even communicating.  It’s not more reasonable. It’s just another flavor of the impulse that drives teenagers who snap back at their parents: I didn’t *ask* to be born!

More “Progress”

Surfing for job related reasons, came across this article (which I link to be polite; life is too short to read such things unless you’re paid to do it). I was lead to ponder: A related idea to Chesterton’s  point about classrooms – it’s what the schools assume that the students will learn even as they ignore what the teachers say – is the notion that it is the assumptions underlying an essay such as the article linked above that carry any message that might stick.

What message would that be?

Peter Drucker, the management guru, is often credited with the all-too-true saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In a later era, tech guru and investor Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world.” Now … there’s a growing realization that culture is eating software for breakfast, and perhaps lunch and dinner as well.

The challenge for IT executives and developers alike is addressing corporate culture and organizational issues that complicate even the best intentions.

There’s more along a similar vein. In fact, there really isn’t anything else in this essay.

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This man has the world at his feet! Or by the feet. Something like that.

I suppose a Cobbler’s Guild, faced with the daunting challenge of filling blank electronic pages, might publish articles about how nobody’s going anywhere without shoes, and there must be a meeting of minds between the shoemaker and the shoe wearer. People wear shoes at breakfast, lunch and dinner! We have a shod culture! Imagine the solemn duty, the awesome dignity we, the shoemakers, have to lead the culture – in comfortable, stylish footwear – into a glorious future.

Note the relationships implied in these short sentences quoted above. Culture, which we might think of here as simply the conventions honored by people when they function together, eat strategy. The implication – Peters is a *management* guru, after all – is that the culture should be *managed* in order to better facilitate acceptance of strategy.  Andreessen, an alpha geek, stands Peters on his head and says software is eating the world. (Software assumes the rhetorical position held by culture in the previous sentence – hmmm.) I suspect he might not see this world-consumption by bug-ridden and ephemeral tech as an entirely bad thing, or at least see it as an opportunity of some sort. Sounds like a horror movie plot to a sane person.

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An artist’s impression of Software.

IT people face ‘challenges’ in addressing corporate culture that complicate ‘even the best intentions’. Who, then, would be having these intentions? Would it not have to be the people in charge of the corporation, who have more or less intentionally shaped the culture?

IT people, who are legendarily among the least socially clued in people on the planet, are to see trivia like other people’s intentions and culture as mere obstacles to their intentions, which they summarily and conclusively presume are the *best* intentions. IT intentions contain, as an island inside another circle in a Venn diagram, any *worthy* intentions of the customer.

I wish this were exaggeration. Instead, it’s not the half of it. Man with a hammer style, IT people tend to more or less consciously believe that, always and everywhere,  top-down, expert-driven, we know what’s best for you solutions are not only the best solutions, but are, definitionally, the entire set of possible solutions.

And it gets worse! Because of various tech booms and consumer gadget-lust, technology leaders are often rich, insulated by money from those factors in the real world that stood a chance (however slight) of smoothing off the jagged edges of their hellish ideas. AND that money allows them to ACT on those unpolished ideas.

Woe unto us, and our children! Those ideas will fail in the long run, as all ideas untethered from reality eventually fail. But the damage inflicted as they thrash in their death throes would be something to behold – if we weren’t the folks getting thrashed.

Our heartfelt appreciation of a good, solid, comfortable pair of shoes does not, I should hope, incline us to appoint the cobbler God-Emperor. Our humble gratitude is what is due, and should be enough. IT is glorified cobbling, no more the fount of wisdom than any other rather narrow craft. But try telling that to the tech billionaires.

Let’s paraphrase Heinlein:

“Throughout history, ignorance and hubris are the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be ameliorated — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from enlivening the culture, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject ignorance and hubris, and recommence killing each other with appalling gusto.

This is known as “bad luck.”

 

 

Short Book Review: The Ophian Rising

The 4th and final book of Brian Niemeier‘s Soul Cycle, The Ophian Rising  is I think the best of the four books – and that’s no small complement, as each book is in its own way very good to excellent. Short & sweet: if you’re a fan of mind-bending fiction, and epic tales spun out over centuries, of heroic heroes you can love and disturbingly inventive and evil monsters, then check out this book and the whole Soul Cycle series. And buckle in for the ride.

The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book 4) by [Niemeier, Brian]Throughout the series, a continuing theme is how truth and reality are not obvious to us, the readers, or to the characters in the story. The greatest heroes in this fourth book, Navkin and Astlin, are two women who at first do not even understand their own origins, eventually end up queens and builders of society, and finally are willing to die and surrender what they thought they were in order to banish evil from their worlds. Even that is not exactly what’s going on – but any more would risk spoilage.

The ending is a very cool and surprising twist. I will say that I long suspected some amazing reveal at the end. Hints are dropped. As mentioned in reviews of the earlier books in the series, Niemeier is not world building, but universe building.  What I mean: world building takes place in this universe – the worlds thus built, however wild, are posited to exist, somehow, with us here. From very early in the Soul Cycle, it’s clear Niemeier’s  universe of prana, the Cardinal Spheres, the Strata, substantial ether and techno-spiritual magic is not in this universe in any material sense. So the questions lurks: where is *our* universe in this story? Are we in this story simply in some other place entirely, where the elves are Gen and the magic is Factoring and warp drive is ether-running? But otherwise unrecognizable as home? Or is there a deeper home?

After an exhausting Sunday following an even more exhausting work week, I collapsed on my bed around 9:00 with the last 20% of the book to read. Fell asleep and woke at 11:00 – and didn’t get back to sleep until after midnight. Then, immediately upon finishing the book, reread the author’s glossary and cast of characters, because I know I missed 75% of what was going on. Then considered rereading Nethereal, the first book in the series, to see what I missed. That’s a pretty good book that makes you care enough to want to make sure you didn’t miss too much.

Because there is a lot there. Some of it is merely mechanical – dozens of characters and worlds and cities and ships and circles of Hell to keep straight. Some of it is the kind of convoluted plotting one should expect over a 4-book series. But there’s also a lot going on in the realm of ideas – right and wrong, true and false, loyalty and treachery, which are loved or rejected for about every flavor of reason one can imagine. The reader must keep it all straight or, alas!, some key action by some secondary character will cause a ‘what?!?’ moment – that then makes sense once you parse out where we last left things with that character.

But it’s worth it. Excellent read.

I read somewhere that this series had been percolating in the author’s mind for a decade or so. It does have a bit of a ‘everything & the kitchen sink’ feel to it, sometimes. I’ve found Niemeier’s shorter works, such as The Hymn of the Pearl and Elegy for the Locust from Forbidden Thought to be easier to get my brain around and so more immediately satisfying. That said, these are the first 4 novels Niemeier has written – I can only imagine with happy anticipation what the next novels will be like, given the quality already present and improvement evident over the 4 books. Bring it on!