42

With a growing backlog of books to review (Polanyi: what a fraud! Oops, sorry, should have spoilered that!) and about 120 draft posts to clean up/finish/toss/whatever, I digress:

If you already know the answer to life, the universe and everything, such that your dearest, most heartfelt belief is that everything is explained and all ends known with certainty, all discussions either support the conclusion, or are irrelevant noise. The very idea that something, something real or even some line of thought, might not fit in with the already known and sacred conclusion is anathema. Those who insist on bringing up challenges to The Answer are to be silenced with extreme prejudice.

The only worthy intellectual exercise is explaining and expanding on just exactly how 42 is the answer. An intellectual exercises his mind and creativity in coming up with ever more ingenious and detailed ways of getting to 42. The new ways 42 is demonstrated to be the one and only answer is a great comfort to the true believer, and a shield and bulwark against any line of thinking that might cause unease.

This much should be obvious. A little more subtle: Since 42 is the answer beyond challenge, any way of getting to 42 is valid regardless of the method used. 42 is beyond logic, beyond criticism of any kind. It explains – it must explain! It explains everything! – all attempts to unseat it. While it might be possible to have esthetic arguments about how one way to get to 42 is more elegant or thorough or technically accurate, it would be bad form to criticize the logic or structure or heaven forbid, the truth of any explication, so long as it gets to 42 in the end.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it might be helpful if some of the observations upon which the presentation (it won’t do to call it an argument) are true, or that some of the connections proposed (again, can’t invoke logic) are obvious and reasonably granted. When Polanyi and Marx point to the suffering of the urban poor when industry replaced rural life with slum life, they are pointing to something real. The emotional appeal is also real – what sort of heartless monster would be indifferent to the suffering of the children?

File:Child Labor in United States, coal mines Pennsylvania.jpg
Breaker Boys

Suffering, especially suffering that primarily benefits somebody else, is nothing to be laughed at. Ignoring the suffering of others is a bad thing (under a moral code that recognizes right and wrong, of course). Yet identifying suffering is not the same thing as understanding what causes suffering. Even less is it an argument for whatever solution one might want to propose.

Ultimately, the truth of the observations, references and connections made as part of the presentation meant to demonstrate the truth of 42 do not reflect – are not allowed to reflect! – on whether 42 is in fact the answer. Quite the contrary: 42 becomes the filter used to determine what lines will be pursued and which will be ignored, and what tidbits of reality will be allowed to intrude. Marx and Polanyi have their defenders, rabid defenders, even, despite reality and history (you know, what happened, as opposed to mythical History, which make things happen in the future). The Soviet Union didn’t quite pan out? Well, Polanyi was right about the Asian Financial Crisis! (Except for the part where it was a hiccup in the now 75 year long planet-wide rise in economic productivity and subsequent drop in poverty and violence. Places where the likes of Polanyi are taken seriously being the exceptions, of course). Workers of the world are still not revolting (they have, increasingly, nothing to lose but there vacation packages, hi-def flat screens, second automobiles and iPhones).

The existence of injustice in the world – and there’s plenty to go around, don’t get me wrong – does not in fact prove anything about whether 42 is the answer or not. Describing problems is cheap; solutions are not, and may not even be possible.

Your math proving 42 not add up to 42? No problem! You got the right answer, that’s what counts.

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Feser and the Galileo Trap

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Galileo showing the Doge of Venice how to use a telescope.

Edward Feser here tackles the irrationality on daily display via the Covington Catholic affair, and references a more detailed description of skepticism gone crazy:

As I have argued elsewhere, the attraction of political narratives that posit vast unseen conspiracies derives in part from the general tendency in modern intellectual life reflexively to suppose that “nothing is at it seems,” that reality is radically different from or even contrary to what common sense supposes it to be.  This is a misinterpretation and overgeneralization of certain cases in the history of modern science where common sense turned out to be wrong, and when applied to moral and social issues it yields variations on the “hermeneutics of suspicion” associated with thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx.  

Readers of this blog may recognize in Feser discussion above what I refer to as the Galileo Trap: the tendency or perhaps pathology that rejects all common experiences to embrace complex, difficult explanations that contradict them. In Galileo’s case, it happens that all common experiences tell you the world is stationary. Sure does not look or feel like we are moving at all. That the planet “really” is spinning at 1,000 miles an hour and whipping through space even faster proves, somehow, that all those gullible rubes relying on their lying eyes are wrong! Similar situations arise with relativity and motion in general, where the accepted science does not square with simple understanding based on common experience.

Historically, science sometimes presents explanations that, by accurately accommodating more esoteric observations, make common observations much more complicated to understand. Galileo notably failed to explain how life on the surface of a spinning globe spiraling through space could appear so bucolic. By offering a more elegant explanation of the motion of other planets, he made understanding the apparent and easily observed immobility of this one something requiring a complex account. But Galileo proved to be (more or less) correct; over the course of the next couple centuries, theories were developed and accepted that accounted for the apparent discrepancies between common appearance and reality.

We see an arrow arch through the air, slow, and fall; we see a feather fall more slowly than a rock. Somehow, we think Aristotle was stupid for failing to discover and apply Newton’s laws. While they wonderfully explain the extraordinarily difficult to see motion of the planets, they also require the introduction of a number of other factors to explain a falling leaf you can see out the kitchen window.

Thus, because in few critical areas of hard science – or, as we say here, simply science – useful, elegant and more general explanations sometimes make common experiences harder to understand, it has become common to believe it is a feature of the universe that what’s *really* going on contradicts any simple understanding. Rather than the default position being ‘stick with the simple explanation unless forced by evidence to move off it,’ the general attitude seems to be the real explanation is always hidden and contradicts appearances. This boils down to the belief we cannot trust any common, simple, direct explanations. We cannot trust tradition or authority, which tend to formulate and pass on common sense explanations, even and especially in science!

Such pessimism, as Feser calls it, is bad enough in science. It is the disaster he describes in politics and culture. Simply, it matters if you expect hidden, subtle explanations and reject common experience. You become an easy mark for conspiracy theories.

I’ve commented here on how Hegel classifies the world into enlightened people who agree with him, and the ignorant, unwashed masses who don’t. He establishes, in other words, a cool kid’s club. Oh sure, some of the little people need logic and math and other such crutches, but the pure speculative philosophers epitomized by Hegel have transcended such weakness. Marx and Freud make effusive and near-exclusive use of this approach as well. Today’s ‘woke’ population is this same idea mass-produced for general consumption.

Since at least Luther in the West, the rhetorical tool of accusing your opponent of being unenlightened, evil or both in lieu of addressing the argument itself has come to dominate public discourse.

A clue to the real attraction of conspiracy theories, I would suggest, lies in the rhetoric of theorists themselves, which is filled with self-congratulatory descriptions of those who accept such theories as “willing to think,” “educated,” “independent-minded,” and so forth, and with invective against the “uninformed” and “unthinking” “sheeple” who “blindly follow authority.” The world of the conspiracy theorist is Manichean: either you are intelligent, well-informed, and honest, and therefore question all authority and received opinion; or you accept what popular opinion or an authority says and therefore must be stupid, dishonest, and ignorant. There is no third option.

Feser traces the roots:

Crude as this dichotomy is, anyone familiar with the intellectual and cultural history of the last several hundred years might hear in it at least an echo of the rhetoric of the Enlightenment, and of much of the philosophical and political thought that has followed in its wake. The core of the Enlightenment narrative – you might call it the “official story” – is that the Western world languished for centuries in a superstitious and authoritarian darkness, in thrall to a corrupt and power-hungry Church which stifled free inquiry. Then came Science, whose brave practitioners “spoke truth to power,” liberating us from the dead hand of ecclesiastical authority and exposing the falsity of its outmoded dogmas. Ever since, all has been progress, freedom, smiles and good cheer.

If being enlightened, having raised one’s consciousness or being woke meant anything positive, it would mean coming to grips with the appalling stupidity of the “official story”. It’s also amusing that science itself is under attack. It’s a social construct of the hegemony, used to oppress us, you see. Thus the snake eats its tail: this radical skepticism owes its appeal to the rare valid cases where science showed common experiences misleading, and yet now it attacks the science which is its only non-neurotic basis.

A Couple More Links, and Sola vs Schola Revisited

I’ve written here before on the importance of the setting in which philosophical enquiry is done. This is summed up by Sola vs Schola: Are you, like Descartes, Hume, and Kant, contemplating your navel in your private, sunless room? Or are you going a round with other philosophers and students in a Greek academy or medieval university? In the first case, you can pretend to doubt everything – the world, the room you sit in, even yourself. No smirking sophomore buddy is there to sneak up behind you, as you hold forth on the compelling nature of radical doubt, and smack you on the back of the head, and then act all innocent while explaining that he could not have smacked you, as he does not exist, and anyway, what’s with this whole ‘smacking the back of your head’ phenomenology? Awful lot of unsupportable assumptions in there…

In the second case, there is.

Image result for back of head
If I don’t exist, I can’t whack this dude on the back of his head. But I can. Therefore, etc. QED

So we can see that Sola – alone – leads quickly and inevitably to insanity, while Schola – a school or group – has within itself certain corrective forces, called ‘other people,’ whose presence, specifically, whose unwillingness to be dismissed as fantasy, offer at least some chance to stay sane. In the modern world, philosophy falls broadly into two camps: the sons and daughters of Sola occupying one (and occupying virtually all University teaching positions) while the children of the schools, the sons and daughters of Aristotle and Thomas, hold the other.

With that in mind, here is an essay that floated to me across the ether unbidden: The Crisis: Nothing New? The author asserts that the situation we, specifically, the Church, are in today differs substantially from all previous challenges to the Church and, more broadly, sanity.

Now, in all sane societies, it has long been understood that, when you come into the world, you come into a whole network of relationships, rights and duties, which you did not choose, but which in a sense choose you. You can’t legitimately say, “I didn’t choose to be born into this family, this town, this country, so I owe none of them anything.”

But to Enlightenment ideologues, the social world is made up of autonomous individuals who form only those relationships they choose. Things like family, Church, governments, and so on are institutions set up by evil people to oppress other people. Of course, the ideology does recognize that autonomous individuals can form alliances with other autonomous individuals to protect themselves from each other, but, in principle, this is the closest it comes to recognizing any concept of community. But basically, there is no such thing as community, or an ordered society, or an ordered universe, ordered to a common good, but only the mechanical arrangement of fragments of matter, including human matter. And no Creation.

It is easy to see how this outlook could evolve in time into nihilism, and that is exactly what has happened in the lifetime of those of us who are now elderly.

Sola versus Schola, but written large across all relationships.

In the religious ed classes I’m involved in in our parish, I tend to point out that things in the Church have always been bad, as she is made up of people no better than any of us. The author of the above is asserting that this round of heresies (and the corruption that necessarily follows) is worse.

I don’t know, I don’t have a broad enough historical perspective to say that Ambrose’s challenge at the hands of an Arian emperor were less threatening to the Church than what goes on today, or the rise of Islam or the Protestant Revolt. Those also seem pretty bad. But the point warrants consideration.

Next, I’m struck by a more subtle inconsistency (or, if you’re feeling less generous, hypocrisy) in today’s world: the same people who claim progressivism, socialism or communism (insofar as there’s any difference. Hint: not materially) are enlightened and kind and the only future worth pursuing are also very unlikely to promote or even notice what the people behind such movements actually say. That the Communists have said repeatedly that they not interested in reforming the system, but are pursuing whatever moves the world toward revolution – well? That the Fabians* said that they were promoting Communism by working for anything that would lead to communism, but – wolf in sheep’s clothing is their coat of arms – hiding the fact that what they are promoting is moving us toward communism – well?

So we live in a world where Communists promote Progressive and Socialist ideas only because and only to the extent that they believe these ideas will promote revolution. Communists repackage these ideas with plenty of lipstick and misdirection, and then simply lie. But their intent is out there for anyone to see, in print, in their own words, if they want to. It’s not the liars that concern me here, it’s the many, many useful idiots who just refuse to look.

That’s spelled out in this article here.

*The Fabians have fallen into a sweet and sticky Kafkatrap of their own making: What could be more Fabian than not openly joining the Fabian Society? Or denying your communist aims? Or even having the Society itself sort of peter out over the years? All of those things are exactly what one would expect the most dedicated Fabians to do! Thus, Polanyi and Keynes we ‘attracted’ to the Fabian Society, but never formally joined (although the London School of Economics was a Fabian project, and Keynes was their guy) – Well? Are they Fabians? Not formally joining is exactly what a prudent Fabian would do….

Reading the Unwoke

Since I have it on good authority that I should be made to live up to my own rules in order that the Glorious Worker’s Revolution can take place, I got some reading to do. If I have one rule about reading/research, it’s go to the source first. Then, once you’ve taken a respectable crack at understanding what writers have to say for themselves, read commentaries and summaries if necessary or desirable.

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Antonio Gramsci. His father was a bureaucrat from a well-off family who did time for embezzlement, and his mother the daughter of landowners. Definitely not a prol – they were poor because daddy was an incompetent crook – and definitely had daddy issues – the classic Red profile. 

Thus, recognizing that I’ve never seriously read anything but summaries and excerpts from Gramsci and Alinsky, I cruised the ever-helpful if hegemonically managed internets, and downloaded some – stuff. Knuckle up. 

Also skimmed some Gramsci online. Based on a few of his many journalistic articles I looked over, my enthusiasm for the task of working through his prose is well contained. Starting with Kant, who in his defense can be said to be merely an innocent victim of the lack of writing talent (maybe), subsequent philosophers have discovered the value in being as verbose and obscure as possible. This puts the writer in the position of always being able to accuse critics of not understanding him, and allows him to stand figuratively with Newton and Einstein – geniuses whose thoughts are legitimately hard for almost everyone to understand. Newton and Einstein are hard to understand, see, yet have proven foundational to scientific understanding – just like me and philosophy! Woohoo!

That it’s perfectly possible, in fact more likely, that hard to understand writing is the product of muddled thinking and bad ideas, is a notion not allowed standing. Nope, when I say stuff like “Dasein’s experiential-bodying-forth as being-in-the-world with-Others” I’m showing, not an inability to use English or, more fundamentally, to think my way out of wet paper bag, (1) but that I’m *deep*. Right. 

Gramsci, based on the slight fairly random sample of his newspaper editorials I just read, can in fact form perfectly straight-forward sentences and even string a few together. (2) This is not nothing, far from it, and I am grateful. However, he will then turn around and write: \

Understanding and knowing how to accurately assess one’s enemy, means possessing a necessary condition for victory. Understanding and knowing how to assess one’s own forces, and their position on the battlefield, means possessing another very important condition for victory.

You mean, maybe, “To win, you must know your enemy and know yourself, and where you stand.” That whole “possessing necessary conditions” is the tag that says “I’ve read Marx! And Hegel!” but otherwise adds nothing, or, since I’ve read them, too, can be said to be empty of concrete reality. But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I am much more enlightened than Gramsci. He is so unenlightened that he fails to see his stage of enlightenment as merely a stagnant backwater, a stage long subsumed and suspended in a synthesis itself long subsumed. History, to continue to speak a language he would find familiar, has unfolded yet further stages of enlightenment far past his, until, finally, it unfolded me! 

It’s how the rules of wokeness work: the less woke simply cannot understand the more woke. Until you get woke, the mechanics of which make the mysteries of human participation in redemptive grace seem trivial, you Just Don’t Get It. Therefore, my standing as a World Historic Individual (to continue to use language familiar to the tragically less woke) will simply be invisible and incomprehensible to poor Gramsci and his ilk. Just the way it is.    

Moving along: as evidenced by the increase in blog post frequency, I’m feeling better these days. I’m now antsy to finish the shameful backlog of half-read books I’ve started and petered out on over the last, well, year or two? So a book-review-alanche may be in the offing. 

The list includes, among many others: 

  • School of Darkness, Bella Dodd
  • The Great Transformation, Polanyi (almost done, darn it!)
  • Parish Schools, Timothy Walsh (actually a reread of sorts. But I never really reviewed the book as a whole.)
  • That goofy book on r/K selection theory (actually finished, but did not review)
  • The Man Who Was Thursday (only have about 70 pages to go! Why did I stop?) 
  • Philosophy of Spirit, Hegel (reread. Stalled out after the Preface 2 years ago. Sheesh.)

And so on and so forth. 

And then I’ve got to find a job or otherwise figure out how to get to a financial place where we can retire. Suggested to the wife this morning that we simply move to Costa Rica. We could live like minor nobility down there! The picture look good, and they have internet!  And we’d be a 1,000+ miles from all our friends and family! 

Right. So look for a job it is. Plus – I’m not even brave enough to face this yet – there’s this small boatload of stories and 15,000 words of a novel and that book on the history of Catholic education I’m pretending to write by reading other books and creating mountains of notes… Soon, and very soon? 

  1. It dawns on me – I’m slow, sometimes – that I’ve used this expression a couple times without explanation, which may not be fair. If it’s clear, pardon my pedantry, if not: It’s a play on a possibly obscure boxing insult: “He couldn’t punch his way out of a wet paper bag.” I’ve loved this since I first heard it, because it captures the failure of a presumed expert to execute that upon which their expertise is predicated. A boxer who can’t punch even through damp paper isn’t even a boxer. Thus so-called intellectuals who can’t think their way out of a wet paper bag. Well, it amuses me.
  2. Or maybe his translator. The translators of Hegel, for example, have been accused on occasion of reading more coherence into the text than is actually there.  But I think not in this case. 

Science & Religion: The Difference

The horse that won’t stay dead no matter how hard we beat it. 

Here are some examples: 

I think the preponderance of evidence strongly supports the idea that species arise over time as a result of differentiated survival rates among members of a population with different characteristics.

This is a scientific judgement. 

I believe in evolution. 

This is an act of faith. 

Based on evidence from many sources, I think it very likely that the climate is changing, and has been changing for the hundreds of of million of years over which any evidence can be found. 

Again, a scientific judgement. 

I believe in climate change

Another act of faith. 

These examples are of a point so basic, so simple and dazzlingly obvious, that it would seem no one who has reached intellectual adolescence should need to have it made to them more than once. One reaches a scientific conclusion based on evidence and reason (and, being based on evidence and reason, such conclusions are always conditional – but that’s up one small level from what we’re talking about now). But, alas! The evidence strongly supports one or the other or a combination of two factors making this basic point obscure to many: either few reach intellectual adolescence, or many do not care to see this distinction.

Great Scott! It’s Science!

I love adolescence. Having had 4 of our kids pass from childhood to adulthood, and having one 14 year old now, I can say that one of my greatest joys as a dad has been witnessing the intellects of my own children awaken. (The most obvious step is when they start really getting jokes.) And this distinction, this idea that not every mental experience is a feeling, but that there are – yes, I’m going to say it – *higher* functions of the intellect, is a step into a larger world. A better, more interesting, world.

A step surprisingly few people take. As any perusal of the interwebs or conversations with just about anyone will quickly reveal, there are a lot of people who use faith language about what they conceive of as science. They believe in their bones that such acts of faith render them morally and *intellectually* superior to those who dispute their dogmas or even who refuse to mouth the shibboleths. (1)

Wednesday Ramble: Predestination, etc.

(Man, gotta get back to blogging and writing. Just still not feeling well, and more than a little down about losing my job, And other things. Anyway – )

(Edit: just reread the first few sentences of this post, and – wow, I need to make sure the coffee is fully kicked in before posting. Seriously incoherent. Here’s what I think I was trying to say:)  Woke up this morning musing about Hegel. I was getting angry. People take this guy seriously? His more direct followers – Marxists – cut to the chase and apply his ‘reasoning’ in such a way that its inherent nihilism, which Hegel dresses in the sheep’s clothing of the sweetness and light of Christian eschatology, gets exposed to anyone willing to see it. Just not so exposed that Marxists and all the little people who have absorbed their methods and assumptions while being somewhat unaware of the origins, can’t pretend otherwise. (whew! That’s better, I think.)

Hidden under Hegel’s haystacks of verbiage is essentially an angry narcissism, the soul reacting to the hopelessness evident in, for example, Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Sola – alone – is the rallying cry. Schola – together – is the largely unspoken enemy.  Luther (and Calvin) puts it simply, Hegel buries it under of mountain of words: We are not actors in our own salvation, not even in the tiny yet cosmic Catholic sense that God’s great good gift to us is a sacred freedom, vouchsafed by God’s Will alone, which grants to each of us the mysterious and paradoxical ability to give our ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to That Will. Instead, we suffer alone. We cannot act.

Stripped of its religious trappings, predestination is determinism. The soul does not exist in any manner different from how a rock exists, inert and passive. The soul, as conceived by the Greeks, Christians and a myriad other cultures, does not exist. We, however we chose to conceive of ourselves, don’t matter.

The sanest reaction is to reject the premise. We all, from the most callow Pelagianist to the most hubris-ridden materialist, reject determinism whenever we do anything at all. We can then explain to ourselves how the whole cycle of intellection and choice is an illusion, but we are of course incapable of behaving as if it were true.

Once the religious sheep clothing is yanked off and Hegelianism’s superficial reliance on God/Spirit is bled out, we’re left with a ravening wolf. Even this wolf dresses down, in gutted Christian mysticism, promising us the pie-in-the-sky Worker’s Paradise, codename: Progress, for which all sacrifices (of others) are immediately justified beyond question.

(If you personally are called upon to sacrifice, that’s a sure sign you are not of the Elect, not of the Vanguard, and are probably a useful idiot. The absolute Calvinist-style sign that you are among the Revolutionary Chosen is that you have the power to make others do the sacrificing. See, for reference, HISTORY.)

Thus my fevered mind, stuffed full of Hegel and Marx and with a couple decades to stew on them, concludes. The issues Hegel presents to Reason, even apart from the religious context, even without any sort of Christian faith, should cause all men with any claim of being or desire to be rational and logical to reject his vile nonsense, especially as distilled by Marx, especially as clothed (see a trend here?) in academic robes. Critical Theory, which – you can look it up – is merely Marxism reformatted for dissemination through all available academic channels, must be denounced by any who claim to be rational and have any shred of integrity.

First: the rejection of the Law of Noncontradiction is not, as some imagine, a subtle criticism of the hubris of rigorous logic, a valid criticism in some deep philosophical sense even if nonsensical in all practical senses. No law of noncontradiction = no science and no law, for example. No – it is a rejection of even the possibility of communication between people. Without the Law of Noncontradiction, everything I say and everything you say can both mean and not mean whatever the words themselves might suggest. Any and no understanding of what you or I may mean or not mean is equally invalid, or valid. The Tower of Babel prevails.

Nihilism, again. Sola, again. Every man is an island, surrounded by unbreachable reefs of confusion.

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An NPC in a Che hat, evidently.

Whenever we say Gender or Science or Class Consciousness is a social construct, we are  simply putting a Che hat on the  meaninglessness of nihilism. This is an intellectual ouroboros; this is turtles all the way down, except the existence of the turtles is simultaneously denied. It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is – and, by definition (which is of course simultaneously impossible) is means isn’t. Is means nothing.

The price of admission to the academic cool kids club is not pointing out the idiotic nakedness of these non-ideas. The price of secular intellectual salvation is to keep pointing it out, to never bow to it, to challenge it whenever presented. I am reminded of the words Robert Bolt puts in Thomas More’s mouth as he talks to his daughter: Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.

 

 

Wednesday Flotsam, Including Science!

A. Stray thought: there is evidence that we’re in a Golden Age in at least some fields, and not just the obvious technological ones. Besides, we’re so close to the birth of technical fields such as computer and material sciences that calling this a Golden Age in that respect seems too premature to mean much. No, I mean areas old enough to have gone through a few boom/bust cycles.  There seem to be an awful lot of people, many  young or youngish masters, doing very impressive work across a number of fields.

Further, while Golden a Ages seem to feature a disproportionate number of true masters, I would think that the true measure isn’t the individual genius (who can pop up anywhere at any time, it seems) but rather the number of competent to great practitioners beneath them. For example, the 16th and early 17th centuries were the Golden Age of polyphony. Everybody who knows anything about that era can name Palestrina, de Lasso, Victoria, Byrd. But what’s astounding is that the few times I’ve gotten to perform stuff written by the supposed 2nd tier guys, I’ve been blown away. There seems to have been a lot of great music written back then, for which Palestrina in particular has been chosen as the poster boy, with everybody else getting at most a ‘oh, yea, him too’ reference. (1)

Years ago, listened to an interview with some pianists involved in competitions. Turns out there’s a general consensus that there are more fabulous piano players alive now than at any time in history. Used to be that, for example, Rachmaninov’s piano concertos used to be the peak of the virtuoso mountain, attempted by only the best of the best. Today, there are thousands of 15 year olds around the world knocking them off. It’s gotten to the point where, in competitions, as single mistake will disqualify you; as one young pianist said: it’s like they’re judging your soul. Technical perfection is simply the price of admission.

Sticking with music, Rick Beato, an accomplished musician with a Youtube channel I follow, mentions in one of his videos the growing number of utterly excellent guitar players out there today. He tells a story familiar to any of us older, say, over 50, guys: when we were young, a new song would come out and you’d throw the vinyl record on the turntable and wear it out while you figured out how to play it. A noble, useful exercise, but time-intensive and often frustrating.

Today? On Youtube, you can likely find a dozen videos of people, occasionally, even the original performers, showing you how to play the song. Technical issues such as fingerings and voicings that are often difficult picking up from the recording become clear. You still have to do the work, but it is so much faster and less frustrating to see it worked through, especially when you’re a relative beginner.

Same general principle holds for woodworking, blacksmithing and boat building, and no doubt a thousand other crafts and arts. There’s some normalish guy out there building a Bombay chest, a classic rapier or a cedar strip canoe right this minute, and his work will stand comparison the the best that’s out there.

But the real value is more subtle: you get to see normal people doing extraordinary things. Teenage girls will shred their way through Eruption or arrangements of Beethoven sonatas; you can watch her hands and see how she’s doing it. Dude will show you how to do epic, Japanese-flavored woodworking projects in his home shop. A guy will build a 45′ steel boat in his front yard; a young couple will build a ketch from scratch with the intention of sailing the world. A 20 year year old kid will make swords that should be hanging in museums. And on and on.

There’s even a sort of Art Tatum of this crafty world, a guy whose patient perfectionism and awesome skills might intimidate you even he wasn’t so matter of fact and charming: on his Clickspring channel he’s building a replica of the Antikythera Mechanism out of sheets of brass, often using tools he makes for the purpose. It must be seen to be believed.

Is it just that social media makes all this cool stuff easily seen, when in the past it was hidden from all but the hardest hardcore hobbyists? I don’t think that’s the whole story. Rather, I think there’s a general spreading of inspiration, that people everywhere are seeing that people just like them can do these incredible projects, and that some of those people then start incredible projects of their own.

I think this a very good thing, if true. People with a sense of accomplishment are much less likely to get blown about in the winds of political and social fashion, seems to me. They’re not looking, or looking less, for that practical sense of meaning in their daily lives that mastery of a craft gives you. People who finally master that instrument, build that boat, or finish that home addition are more likely to be stable, solid citizens.

Maybe. I could be delusionally optimistic. Wouldn’t be the first time.

B. In comments to  this article from the Medical Press, a nuclear physicist points out that even elite scientists often screw up their statistical analyses. In the initial paper, data was collected from a carefully selected representative sample of people who use statistics. Just kidding! I slay me! Using an ‘instrument’ of some kind, some college students were asked to solve questions where the solution required following 3 or more logical steps OR really knowing stat so that you could plug some numbers into standard stat formulas. There is an example in the initial paper.

Now, knowing quite a few people, including myself, I’d say the likelihood a high percentage of any group of people who aren’t professional statisticians or logicians to solve such problems is slim to none. It would fall well below half. I’d expect single digits among, say, pedicurists, long haul truckers and journalists – you know, fields were being able to follow 2 or more steps of logic isn’t a job requirement.  No knock – if we don’t use it, our minds are pretty good at freeing up space for something else.

The purpose of the study was no doubt to obtain a stick with a patina of science on it with which to beat some target or other. Since the reason suggested – I hope you’re sitting down – is that statistics is taught very badly in schools, it looks like the target is people whose money the state wants for funding reliable statist voters, such as ‘educators’ and teachers. The state of eternal school reform must be maintained, while at the same time all who question why we would pay for something that has failed to work for 200+ years are automatically excommunicated.

I don’t think teaching will help much, unless lots of us peons somehow reach the conclusion that following logic very carefully is something we can’t live without. Until then, even ignoring any possible issues with native intelligence, people aren’t going to learn this. For those who might want to know how to think a little but for whom the schools have  succeeded in their stated goal of preventing just such thought, well, they could start with Dr. Briggs’ book.  In it, he shows convincingly that probability and statistics are branches of philosophy (and thus necessarily, of logic) with a little math attached. In other words, knowing what you are doing and what is possible comes first. Do that, and the math is either completely unnecessary or firmly secondary.

Statistics properly understood is both a powerful tool and a cautionary tale. As Briggs explains in his book, there are more interesting questions in this world about which statistics can tell us nothing than there are ones where statistics can give us great insight. I’d guess exactly 98.83% of all statistical analyses you’ll ever hear about are out and out nonsense, at least as presented. How the data is gathered, what the data even is, whether the subject matter even admits of numerical analysis – these are philosophical questions that get booted even before the perp gets a chance to screw up the math.

  1. And it’s even worse than that, in that about a half dozen works by Palestrina are well known among the tiny subset of people who care about this stuff. Palestrina and de Lasso were very prolific, writing hundreds of pieces over their careers. Palestrina also maintained legendarily high standards – all his work is good to epically great. It’s too much! So we get to hear the same small set of pieces repeatedly, and just take the experts word for it being representative. And that’s not even counting any of the other masters who you’ve never heard of and whose names I promptly forget.