Words

Yesterday, on one of the conference calls that make up much of my working life, a problems with words arose. This is not unusual. My company’s products and services straddle the finance and high tech worlds, where jargon and acronyms rule the earth. This conference call was typical, involving people from IT, finance, training, documentation, management.

Having been  ‘tasked with’  creating training*, we were working on  putting together a list of items that the salespeople were going to need training on. About a half hour in, I meekly suggested that we needed to translate the items from various preliminary lists into the words our customer uses to describe various processes. Making a list of items where there is no agreement on what those items mean is not going to be very helpful.

The team seemed in general agreement wit this observation, and assigned people to do this thing. We may all end up meaning pretty much the same things when we use the set of words used in the document. This is a minor illustration of how people, no matter what they say they believe, always behave as Aristotelians whenever they try to get anything done. Idealist, Nominalist, Marxist, Deconstructionist: they all call a plumber when the pipes need work.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up: Say my sink backs up.

Aristotle:  I, a rational soul in the physical world, with a mind capable of receiving sensations and processing those sensations to arrive at perception which end up after further mental work as conditional knowledge of the physical world, see that my sink is backed up. Since I desire the sink to be unclogged, I exercising my free will and intellect and call a plumber, who is another rational soul who existence, like that of the sink and the world in general, is in no way contingent on me. This plumber I will choose based on him having special, detailed (if nonetheless contingent) knowledge on the workings of plumbing – hence the name ‘plumber’. He and I will deploy words, the truthfulness of which is solely based on how well they correspond to the reality to which we are applying them. I expect that, in exchange for some consideration, this plumber will be able and willing to unclog my sink.

Idealist: I profess that the only knowledge I have is of  my own mind, whatever ‘mind’ may be. I have no evidence that an external, objective world exists, per Descartes’ evil demon. l only claim to know of some things in my mind as I whistle past the rather obvious  notion that the evil demon could just as easily put those ideas there as well. So, sink? What sink? Plumber? What plumber? But, alas! Within my utterly self contained and demon-haunted mind the prospect of a flooded, stinky floor seems real-ish. Real-ish enough for me to act as if I exist in an Aristotelian universe and call a plumber. We’ll call this ‘irony’, because ‘intellectual dishonesty’ and ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘self-delusion’ are such harsh words.

Nominalist: Universals like ‘sink’ and ‘plumber’ and ‘clogged’ don’t exist, which makes talking about any particular sink, plumber or clog difficult, if the impossible can be called difficult. I might want to call a plumber, but since that particular whozit isn’t looking at this particular whatzit  having this particular cablooey, I’d have to use words representing universals to ask his help. But I can’t. In fact, I’m not even having this internal discussion, either, as it is impossible. But, alas! The illusion that there are abstract universal concepts shared by both me and any potential plumber and manifested in a particular way in this particular clogged sink just won’t go away. In my inarticulate weakness, I’ll have to call – using meaningless  deceitful words – a plumber, who – miraculously – knows stuff about sinks and clogs in general that he claims – impossibly! – to be able to apply to this particular never before seen by him clogged sink item thing. I’ll simply mock anyone who points out how stupid this thought process is, and layer on the obfuscatory nonsense. Then I’ll behave exactly as if in a world as described by Aristotle.

And so on.

* I am assured that completing what we’ve been ‘tasked with’ will be easier once I’ve been ‘on-boarded’. Resistance is futile.

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Seven Quick Hits

1.

You know, I love Jennifer Fulwiler’s blog, partly because it is so different than my blog, but mostly for the scorpion stories. But here, at least, is something that sounds like it sorta kinda could be more or less related to the sort of things she writes about: what I learned from my father.

2.

Another difference is that Mrs. Fulwiler is careful not to needlessly offend people.  I, on the other hand, have a gift for cluelessly writing offensive stuff, offensive to people I really don’t intend to offend. Only much later does it dawn on me how it will be taken. Such is this post on Higher Education.

The discussion in the middle on how Science comports with distinctively Catholic versus distinctively Protestant metaphysics is very much based on actual history and on somewhat technical philosophical points. What I’m not saying: that modern Protestants and Evangelicals have rejected the scientific method, or consider the truth of Scripture to preclude certain findings of science. What I am saying is that there is an historical tension present between science and uniquely Protestant theology such as Sola Scriptura that is not present between science and Thomism, and that this situation is reflected in the Church essentially shrugging at scientific claims that have – historically – caused much consternation and conflict in Protestant circles.  This conflict smolders in some circles even today. But this requires a book, or perhaps a book case, to explore.

What we all can agree on and unite behind, I hope, is that it is a bad thing when colleges and universities no longer believe in truth.

3. 

As the Caboose’s corn snake gets bigger, so do the mice we feed it. The snake is now around 2′ long, so we fed it older pinkies – mice a few days old, starting to get a little bit of fuzz, and starting to move around a little. This triggered a tiny amount of sympathy, even though I’m of the ‘Die, vermin! Die!’ school of nature lover. (Vermin include mice, rats, uppity squirrels, and suburban deer. Among other things.)  But that whole Circle of Life thing kicked in – that’s what I’m calling our bloodthirsty fascination with Death when it happens to vermin. For the first time, the snake didn’t just swallow the prey live – it constricted it. Seems the snake can constrict a young mouse to death in a minute or two. But mouse #2 – the snake gets 2 at this point – got the suck it down live head first treatment.

Should I be mortified that I find this stuff fascinating?

On the plus side, our son now handles the snake like a pro, and the snake has grown used to it. I was worried for a time because the snake seemed calm enough when I picked it up, but tended to freak our a bit when the Caboose held it. Now, it’s pretty mellow – as long as you’re not a little mouse.

4.

William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars, is doing a series of posts on arguments against redefining marriage. While these are typically brilliant, the kicker is his instructions to his commentators:

Warning Tolerance is a hallmark of those supporting same-sex marriage. Never will you find proponents employing abuse, vituperation, appeals to emotion, or angry senseless shouting. They do not label their opponents enemies, nor accuse them of being hate-filled. They instead use calm, logical, well-reasoned argument; they understand rational and sincere people may disagree on certain points. I therefore expect supporters of traditional marriage to act similarly. Comments which do not accord with ladylike or gentlemanly behavior will be ruthlessly expurgated.

Nyuk.

5. 

Humor:

You never really know who your friends are until you accidentally set them on fire and then knock out several of their teeth trying to put it out with an hors d’oeuvre tray before inadvertently pushing them into the champagne fountain, bringing down the entire wedding pavilion and getting their pictures on the front page of the society section as they’re carted off to the emergency room in their smoldering formal wear.  But, once that happens, it all becomes very clear, the lying weasels!

6.

Next time, I’ll tell you about our psychotic dog. For now, just know that the teenagers in the household have decided it would be cool to get a parrot and train it to say: “Jimmy (that’s the dog’s name), nobody likes you.” So, you know, they can stop having to say it all the time.

7.

Northern California suburbia is largely free of scorpions, so we must make do when the situation calls for either large poisonous inveterates or terror and/or humor based on same. Deer ticks, as disgusting as they are, just aren’t in the same league. Therefore, I must direct you, again, back to the epic Jennifer Fulwiler: Scorpion Slayer‘s blog. Oh, and there’s more Quick Takes there as well.

 

 

Seven Quick Takes (Am I Actually Doing This?)

1.

As the #1 daughter pursues adventures in college, the #2 daughter, 15, has taken up the culinary mantle:

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Top pic is of Day 4’s entry into the Lemon Curd and Scones extravaganza, with the variation that, on that day, she made some sort of coconut sweet bread in place of the scones. Bottom pic is a chocolate cream pie she just whipped up to she if she could.

Not to exclude male offspring – the #2 son, 17, made bacon-mushroom-blue cheese burgers for son #3’s 9th birthday today.

Why, yes, I am overweight. Why do you ask?

2.

Speaking of daughters, wrote recently What do we tell our daughters? Because we are sending them out into a world that very much does not have their happiness in mind, yet is very much interested in influencing how they see themselves and what they do. I’m thinking about if what it is we tell our sons should be any different – I think not.

All I would add is that we should teach our sons and daughters to respect, honor and support the roles other sons and daughters have honorably embraced. Example is not only the best, but most likely the only teacher here.

3.

Today’s conundrum: I can really understand how a certain friend of mine came to identify himself as a Liberal (Note: I’m of the ‘A Pox on Both Your Houses’ party). I mean, when you parents and grand parents, your ethnic group in America, your city, your friends and business associates have been liberal Democrats for your entire life, and have united around the unshakeable conviction that your team is the good guys and the other team is the bad guys – well, that’s hard to shake. But, by the same token, I’ve watched another good friend slowly come to grips with what the party of his loyal affiliation (same story as my first friend – parents, ethnic group, friends and coworkers, etc, have almost exclusively been liberal democrats, and he’s lived in worked in San Francisco his entire life) actually DO and support, and tried to square that with being Catholic, and run into some serious difficulties.

This is not to condemn either friend or even either party – it’s to condemn the idea of party loyalty. Sure, in the old days, as an immigrant, if you wanted a job in a place like San Francisco or Chicago, it sure helped to hitch your fortunes to the Democratic party. Political machines are always friends of the people – if the people play along. But now, that cultural and historic loyalty keeps many Catholics in line when there party does things like assert the right to assassinate Americans on American soil (It’s all theory! It’s not gonna happen! ) attack religious freedom (hey, even Catholics don’t agree on birth control) and promote free and unhindered access to abortion as the essential, rock bottom basis of any civil rights program for women (um…). My liberal catholic Democratic friends only very timidly offer even the slightest resistance to these ideas – because vigorous criticism, including the ultimate criticism of refusing to vote for candidates who espouse these ideas, is not only disloyal, but, as is pounded into them relentlessly, is a vote for the other guys. Who, by the way, are irredeemably EVIL.

How about we take a deep breath, and say – with feeling – ‘it’s a free country’ – and MEAN it? In the form of making it publicly known that if a candidate wants our vote, there are certain positions he or she must not take?

4.

That was heavy. On a lighter note:

This is my youngest son’s corn snake. He’s (she’s?) about 20″ long now, and, in a most moving ‘circle of life’ way, devours 2 little newborn mice alive every week. It perhaps says something about human nature how fast this fact went from ‘horrifying’ to ‘fascinating’.

Further, speaking of Darwin and all that, it is likewise informative how people react to snakes. Some people have a deep reflexive fear, almost loathing, of snakes. Other, like me, are surprised at how much we like them, once we actually see them and hold them. This snake here is a totally beautiful animal, and watching it move is fascinating. Yet, even though I know it’s harmless, I practically jump out of my skin when it feigns striking at me – guess the evolutionary wiring is still intact.

The real learning curve is getting my son to be calm and patient with holding the snake, which, as a still small and young snake, is still very skittish about being picked up – the boy, understandably, get nervous and wants to put him down immediately. But the snake will have a hard time getting used to being handled if we don’t calmly handle him. Progress is being made.

5.

Greek is really hard. But fun. Had a discussion with the professor at the end of the last class about Aristotle’s notion that ‘a This’ is something that separates itself out from the background and presents itself as a unit to our senses, perception and understanding. I offered that this concept contains within itself the rebuttal to the mind-body ‘problem’ – we would know nothing if a ratio did not exist between the thing understood and the understanding logically prior to the act of perception. This notion is lost from Descartes up through Kant, and then shrouded in epic mystery by Hegel, who cements the fog by removing logic as a method of clearing it.

But I digress. And I need to get those noun declensions down.

6.

Speaking of learning: as both my loyal readers are aware, our 5 kids attended no classes of any kind until they chose to attend classes a the local community college. We put no pressure on them to learn anything. First two learned to read, do math, and got into 4 year colleges with little difficulty. Next three are still in process, but look to be doing well. 9 year old just now getting around to learning to read.

So, why do this? Why horrify friends and family, and bring opprobrium onto ourselves and our children? What’s so bad about cracking the whip a little, any way?

– we can set aside ‘they won’t learn!’ as manifestly and demonstrably false.

– we can set aside ‘how will they learn discipline if they always get to choose for themselves?’ as manifestly false as well. Note how many children of ‘helicopter parents’, kids who did all the homework, took all the AP classes, had their lives completely structured for them are now social cripples of one sort or another, waiting around for somebody else to tell them what to do or, conversely, refusing to do anything anybody wants.

– That whole teen-age rebellion thing? Guess what – it’s not natural and inevitable. We had 4 teenagers at once in our house for a couple years, and – we all got along great. That time will be a happy memory for me – and, I trust, for the kids – until I die.  What, after all, would they be rebelling against? They have always been trusted to do the right thing, to choose their own paths. Our household rules are few, reasonable, clearly defined and consistently applied: we all go to Mass on Sunday – non-negotiable. We all help with the cleaning and cooking and laundry. We tell people where we’re going, and show up when we say we will.

Now it could be that we got a batch of freakishly well-behaved kids by some wholly unmerited extraordinary blessing. But I tend to think not. One fatal flaw I often see: telling kids they are responsible and trusted, but not really meaning it. Kids will see through that *instantly* and push back in a variety of inventive ways.

–  by avoiding homework (except for college-level self chosen stuff – and we aren’t enforcing that), we reduce tension, free up time for family, and help the kids learn the difference between busywork imposed by little conformity droids and real learning – a valuable life lesson.

7.

More Quick Takes at Conversion Diary. This is a girl thing, isn’t it? I’m like loosing serious guy points for doing this. It’s OK, I can take it. But it is a girl thing, right?

Theory as Filter

This essay from Darwin Catholic coincides with what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

To sum up: Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist with decades of experience with the Yanomami, had the nerve to observe that (looking for the PC way to say stone-age primitives) indigenous peoples with simple tribal lifestyles tend very much toward killing each other at the drop of a hat. Further, the more readily and successfully a man in such cultures resort to murder and mayhem, the more offspring he’s likely to produce. So, it’s not an accident that violence reigns supreme – it works.

In this one respect, modern Western cultures  are in fact much less inclined to violence. In other words, civilized people are less violent in their day-to-day lives than spear-chucking, hut-dwelling peoples living a precarious, terrifying hand-to-mouth existence. (Therefore, Christian missionaries would be doing them a big favor by converting them to Catholicism and introducing them to agriculture and trade. But I jump ahead to the real point of all this. So sorry.)

So, of course, the howling banshees of Academia and their unholy Activist spawn start gnashing their teeth in fury and attempt to destroy Dr. Chagnon – how dare he say that indigenous tribal peoples are more violent than Westerners! This is a ‘dangerous’ outrage that will lead to exploitation!  Tribes could be forced into reservations “for their own good”! Unimaginably worse, it will lead to Christian missionaries destroying their beautiful lifestyle of thuggish slaughter, assault and rape!

A theory can be an attempt to understand a set of facts, or it can act as a filter on what facts are permitted to exist. While there’s likely to be some overlap in the sense that one tends to find what one is looking for, and therefore not see what one is not looking for, that seems to me fundamentally different than the simple dismissal of facts brought to one’s attention by those who do not use the theory as a filter. Thus, an honest, hardworking physicist might miss evidence of physics that fail to comply with the Standard Model, because he might not be looking for it.* An anthropologist who insist a priori that all cultures are of equal value and therefore refuses to consider evidence that they are not – that’s not just a failure of science, but a moral failure, too. It’s called lying.

As in so many bad things, Marx is the all-time grand champion of this approach. Human nature suggests difficulties in achieving your worker’s paradise? There’s no such thing as human nature. A resolution to the worker/capitalist conflict that doesn’t require slaughter of all the capitalists and their stooges? Can’t happen. Decent, charitable acts by rich people? Can’t happen. Evil behavior by workers? Not possible.

What’s really hilarious is that the counterargument – no, the Yanomami are not more violent and nasty than us – which Darwin Catholic seems to imply in the title of the post is relativism, is anything but. The relativistic argument would be: What’s your hang-up with violence, anyway? So they kill each other brutally and frequently – calling that ‘worse’ is just your Western Christian biases showing. No, the underlying position is not relativistic at all – primitive, non-Christian cultures are *better* than ours. The counterargument accepts the idea that killing people is generally a bad idea, and so, because the Yanomami are better than us, they *can’t* kill each other much more frequently than we do. Relativism would simply dismiss any claim that killing each other is somehow bad.

But, since logic and consistency are not a characteristics of such modern thinking, we can expect *both* claims to be made at the same time depending on circumstances with no hint of awareness of the inherent hypocrisy – there is both no basis upon which to judge one culture better than another AND primitive non-Christian cultures are better than our, too! Waaay better!

Finally, this story is yet another example about how misplaced are the worries that creationists threaten science. The real threat to science is in the tenured professors over in the Anthropology building, and their philosophical sisters and brothers over in the Sociology, Women’s Studies, Comparative Lit and Philosophy buildings, espousing whatever bastard grandchild of Hegel’s views that holds the key to their academic advancement. They are right there in the camp, poisoning minds, belittling science while at the same time calling what they do “a politically committed and morally engaged anthropology” as if science is involved at all – now, that’s a threat. These folks might get to vote on your tenure, or on funding expansion of your facilities, or on giving a green light to your next project – and so, like a worker with an abusive boss, we kick the dog of creationism.

*although that’s a poor example, because there’s probably a Nobel Prize in finding something that contradicts the Standard Model – eyes would be sharp for such a thing.

Hypatia Again, Aristotle, “Dead Ends” & Science

Been away from academia since my 1981 graduation from St. John’s College. (I’m not counting the MBA as an ‘academic’ experience – high-end VoTech.) But now, I’m taking Attic Greek at Cal, one of the great institutions of higher learning in this galactic sector. (OK, it’s the extension program, but still.)

File:Aspasie Pio-Clementino Inv272.jpg
Aspasia
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Sappho

So, it was only a matter of time before somebody said something that was going to set me off.

Week 1 passed without incident. In week 2, the professor, a charming Bulgarian lady, mentioned Pericles’ consort, Aspasia, and went to some lengths to describe the semi-scandal it was in 5th century Athens for a woman to talk with men. And I had heard somewhere that, at that point in time, it was often better to be a man’s horse than his wife, and that Rome, for all its funkiness, was a better place to be a noble woman by far than Ancient Greek.  But this is a topic about which I know little.

However, the little I do know is that, according to semi-classic work A History Of Education In Antiquity by H. I. Marrou, Sappho’s day gig was running a school for women very much on the lines of the various schools in Athens, with the intent of forming cultured women who could hang with the boys, and that hers was not the only such school. True, this would have been a couple centuries before Pericles, and Marrou does mention that “… for a long time afterwards, however, to judge by the available evidence, women’s education was eclipsed by the dominance of the masculine element in Greek civilization, and it did not reemerge into the full light of day until much later, only shortly before the Hellenistic Age.” Yet the women portrayed by Aristophanes in Lysistrata, written a couple decades after Pericles’ time, don’t seem unduly shy about talking to men on a fairly equal footing.

And so, in my ignorance, if I had bothered to think about it, I’d have said that, while educated women were not the norm in ancient Greece, (heck, educated *men* were not the norm, either. Slaves and peons were the norm), I would have supposed that they were not so rare as to be freakish. Continue reading “Hypatia Again, Aristotle, “Dead Ends” & Science”

(Late) Mid-life Crisis? Aristotle, Hegel and the UC Extention

What have I gotten myself into?

As mentioned here from time to time, I have been reluctantly driven to reexamine Hegel because it’s only fair that I know what he’s saying if I’m going to hate and denounce him all the time. Ya know? The first thing I latched on to during this laborious plowing (did you know Hegel wrote a fair pile of really dense books? Painful stuff.) was his explicit rejection of logic as everyone prior to Hegel understood the term. Law of non-contradiction? Syllogisms? Carefully constructed step by step arguments? Pshaw! That’s weak stuff for little people, which does not apply to real philosophers! Thus speaks Hegel.

What Hegel proposes in place of logic, it seems, is a sort of ontology – the direct grasping of being. This leads to the ‘you either get it or you don’t’ nature of his philosophy – the enlightened get it, the benighted ignorant do not.

Handy, that.

But, thinking about Aristotle, with whom Hegel seems to be pretty familiar, it occurred to me that I wasn’t giving Hegel quiet enough credit here – Hegel’s approach does , in some respects, reflect Aristotle’s. Somewhere – Categories? Posterior Analytics? Dragged out my Loeb edition to track it down, haven’t had time yet – Aristotle discuses ‘a This’ –  a thing that presents itself to the mind whole. As is usual with Aristotle, he’s got really simple cases in mind as he lays out the explanation, so one should keep really simple cases in mind while attempting to follow him – in this case, a man or a horse would be good examples.

So, Aristotle recognizes that certain things by nature present themselves to the mind for apprehension, conception and understanding. He says this because a) that’s our normal experience – we don’t seem to apply our minds much to noticing a wolf or a beautiful woman, but rather such things leap out of the background into our awareness; and b) he recognizes that there has to be a connection between things in themselves and our apprehension and understanding of them for knowledge to be possible. The world consists of a huge class of things that a healthy person notices automatically, and that a healthy person recognizes as a ‘This’ – this horse, this man.

OK, enough until after I’ve tracked down the actual passages I’m half remembering. But it seems I’m barking up the wrong tree if I’m tracing the origins of Hegel’s unique approach   solely to his destruction of logic. Rather, isn’t what Hegel is claiming is that the World is a This? That it presents itself whole to the understanding, and that our minds are, at least potentially, capable of grasping the whole as a whole – as a This – prior to any active thinking? That, as is the case with all items that fall into Aristotle’s category of ‘a This’, that the ‘this-ness’ of the item must be prior to any logic? Further, keeping in mind that Aristotle chooses simple, common examples, would it not do violence to the This-ness of an object of contemplation and utterly defeat efforts at understanding the thing as a This if we were to focus on some component of the thing out of context? You can never understand a horse in its natural horsey-ness by studying a chunk of horse meat.

But can you understand that horsey-ness without seeing This Horse in a herd of horses? Out on the plans over time? From birth to death? In an evolutionary context? Is Man any different? Thus, we are lead to contemplate the universe as a This, prior to all logic, an actualizing thing in itself.

Phew!

So, of course, this lead me to sign up to take an extension course in Attic Greek. Because, cracking open that Loeb edition brought me face to face with failure. Almost 40 years ago, took two years of Greek, and was possibly the worst student in history who was not actually thrown out of the class. Plus, promptly repurposed those neurons before the echos of Liddell and Scott slamming shut for the last time had died. I could pick out a few words in the left-hand page Greek, but wasn’t even sure about some of the letters. Sheesh!

Indefensible. The only slack I’ll claim is that Greek is a pretty hard subject for a 18-year old SoCal boy who coasted through K-12 in a near-coma, and then came to 1,000 miles from home at a college with, you know, actual academic expectation. And temptations I had not previously even imagined. It was not a smooth transition.

In conclusion: to understand Hegel, I needed to go back to Aristotle. But to really understand Aristotle, you need at least *some* Greek. Therefore, to understand Hegel, I need at least some Greek.

I suspect there’s no end to this.