giving his life for an utter masquerade

Reading about the final exploits of “Sky King” Richard Russell, I was reminded of a fad in mid-20th century drama, when existentialism was all the rage, of characters doing crazy things just to prove their freedom, or something like that.  For example, Sartre’s Orestes and Anouilh’s Antigone cause havoc just for the hell of it.  (The myths had to be reworked to make less sense.)  Dostoevsky arguably got there first, but he knew it was foolishness, and Raskolnikov ultimately repents his ultimately pointless murder.  In existentialism’s heyday, it was always assumed that asserting one’s freedom from all socializing and internalized expectations, sticking it to the bourgeois social order, means aligning with the Left.  Indeed, the inspiration is liberal, but there has always been some irony to the pose.  First, the incoherence of determinist materialists fretting about their freedom.  Second, that they thought they could assert their autonomy by aligning themselves with that great impersonal machine, the Direction of History and Progress, and most often with Soviet tyranny as well.

Men of the Right are understandably touchy about accusations of “LARPing” for long-defeated causes.  Still, there is more than a bit of Don Quixote in every true reactionary.  Why deny it?  The knight of La Mancha couldn’t stop history from moving past the age of knight-errantry, but he could resist being carried along in its flow.  He was only crazy because he was serious.

Jean Raspail published The Camp of the Saints in 1973, a story of Western civilization unwilling to defend itself, virtue-signaling itself to death.  It is best known for its cynical portrayal of Leftist humanitarianism, of the hatred and cowardice beneath its facade of compassion.  Raspail does sometimes read like an irate Alt Right blogger of 2018, but that’s not his fault; reality has plagiarized him.  I find, though, that his treatment of the few Right wing characters is what has stuck in my mind.  A Leftist hero may die for the victory of his ideology.  A Rightist hero often lacks an ideology.  He has loyalties, things that he loves, and things he disdains.  And victory is usually not a possibility.  His fighting and dying make no difference in the grand scheme of things.  He is in some ways much more like an existentialist hero than his adversaries.  (Spoilers follow.)

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Becoming a reactionary is only the beginning of thought.

My quarrel with the thinking man

In his essay What we think about, G. K. Chesterton relates his perplexity at finding someone  write “Mr. Chesterton does not mean to enlighten us, for all we know he is modernist enough in his own thoughts.”

What the man really meant was this:  “Even poor old Chesterton must think; he can’t have actually left off thinking altogether; there must be some form of cerebral function going forward to fill the empty hours of his misdirected and wasted life; and it is obvious that if a man begins to think, he can only think more or less in the direction of Modernism.”  The Modernists do really think that.  That is the point.  That is the joke.

Now what we have really got to hammer into the heads of all these people, somehow, is that a thinking man can think himself deeper and deeper into Catholicism, but not deeper and deeper into difficulties about Catholicism.  We have got to make them see that conversion is the beginning of an active, fruitful, progressive, and even adventurous life of the intellect.  For that is the thing that they cannot at present bring themselves to believe.  They honestly say to themselves:  “What can he be thinking about, if he is not thinking about the Mistakes of Moses, as discovered by Mr. Miggles of Pudsey, or boldly defying all the terrors of the Inquisition which existed two hundred years ago in Spain?”  We have got to explain somehow that the great mysteries like the Blessed Trinity or the Blessed Sacrament are the starting points for trains of thought far more stimulating, subtle, and even individual, compared with which all that skeptical scratching is as thin, shallow, and dusty as a nasty piece of scandalmongering in a New England village.  Thus, to accept the Logos as a truth is to be in the atmosphere of the absolute, not only with St. John the Evangelist, but with Plato and all the great mystics of the world….To set out to belittle and minimize the Mass, by talking ephemeral back-chat about what it had in common with Mithras or the Mysteries, is to be in altogether a more petty and pedantic mood; not only lower than Catholicism but lower even than Mithraism.

In our day, we are familiar with the “thinking Catholic”.  “Thinking” means that he accepts the modernist consensus without question, and “Catholic” means he insists the Church adjust herself to accommodate his lack of imagination.  Similarly, we all know the “thinking conservative”, the type who only ever thinks about what new concessions we must make to liberalism.  I have pointed out before this asymmetry between the Left and Right, that the intellectual leadership of the Left is expected to be more radical than most Leftist voters, whereas the intellectual leadership of the Right is expected to be more moderate than most Rightist voters.  This is one of our major disadvantages.

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The evolving narrative of conservative stupidity (updated)

It’s hard to avoid noticing that egalitarians think they’re better than the rest of us.  After all, there must be some difference between people that makes progressivism convincing to some but not others; that they are smarter and more compassionate they no doubt find an agreeable hypothesis.

To be fair, there is some evidence in its favor.  Some studies have found a definite trend of increasing liberalism with IQ, with the “very liberal” having as much as an 11.6 point advantage over the “very conservative”.   (See here and here for a bit of the literature.)  While this data is of some interest, most of the attention has gone to the proposed explanations, often some variation on the idea that liberalism is cognitively challenging and too difficult for the dim-witted.  Liberalism involves empathizing with strangers, or being comfortable with ambiguity, or challenging received notions–whatever it is, it’s something that smart people do better, or more often, or more easily.

Add to this the longstanding Whig historical narrative that the great men of the past–inventors, writers, artists, scientists, philosophers–have always been “ahead of their time”, i.e. different from their contemporaries in ways that make them more like us.  Of course, it will be granted that one may find in any of them this or that regressive opinion, but this is just the influence of their wicked culture.  They themselves always broke the mold in a progressive direction, and this is what constitutes their greatness.  To sum up, the host culture (if it is a Western culture) gets all of the shame that their great men retained now-disapproved beliefs of their time, but it gets none of their glory.

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Self, world, neighbor

Anthony Gottlieb reviews Will Storr’s new book on the humbug of self-esteem promotion.  It sounds like Storr makes a number of good points, but the following reflections were prompted by his conclusion.

The “lie at the heart of the age of perfectionism,” according to Storr, is that “we can be anything we want to be.” At the end of his quest, he decides that we should stop trying to change ourselves and focus instead on worthwhile ways to change the world.

I would have thought that unearned self-esteem is a hindrance to self-improvement, so that debunking the former would actually promote the latter.  True, there is something narcissistic about an exclusive focus on improvement of one’s self absent any sort of transcendent reference.  But striving to change the world is not to be encouraged, since it only destroys the good things handed down to us.  Is not the jump from self to world an excessively large leap?  Is there nothing in between these extremes?

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The rationale of a brittle Church

Why it may be good for the Church to be brittle

Bruce Charlton comments on the “brittleness” of the Catholic Church.

I feel that with the RCC it is all or nothing – to be viable it needs to be authoritarian, heavy-handed, and anti-individual; and any attempt to reform the undesirable aspects will just smash it.

I agree, although I used the word “fragility” instead.

I do think we should be careful in deciding what is and is not “desirable”.  Vulnerability is per se bad, of course.  Then again, falsifiability is a virtue in a belief system; we don’t want our theories to be “flexible”.  That the Catholic Church can hypothetically lose or sabotage its credibility is a testament to its current clarity.

A Catholic apologist could say that Christ wants the Church to have one particular teaching and to operate in one particular way and that He arranged things so that the Church will fall apart if either is modified.  An institution with more social capital, more sociological attractiveness, could presumably turn that capital to other purposes and still function.  I’ve said before that it is a credit to Christianity that it dies so quickly when it is liberalized.  That the universities have–at least on the surface–prospered so well under political correctness says something uncomplimentary about academia’s real driving force, or that of we its denizens.

Lastly, we could entertain the possibility that the truth is not what we humans would prefer it to be, that popular belief systems have been “optimized” to human wishes to such a point that the truth, whose attractiveness is constrained in ways falsehoods’ are not, is quite unpalatable to modern men given the alternatives, and can only be imposed as dogma during our impressionable years.  Not that an authoritarian religion is particularly likely to be true, but rather that only an authoritarian religion might be true.  After all, Catholicism is predestination without assurance of salvation, moral rigor without the compensating pleasures of self-righteousness, being “deep in history” but always on the losing side, and who wants that?

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I guess every girl wants to be swept off her feet

I am perplexed by JMSmith’s suggestion that Nell Fenwick appreciated being tied to train tracks by Snidely Whiplash, and I’m sure I have no idea what Mr. Spock was insinuating when he said to Janice Rand that the evil transporter double Captain Kirk who had tried to rape her had “interesting” qualities.  But I can’t deny the evidence that they understand something about women that I don’t.

A while back, I got my older daughter (1st grade) a kid’s book on Greek myths.  I thought it would be the sort of thing she’d like, and she took to it right away.  Then she invented a new game.  She’s Persephone, I’m Hades, and I have to kidnap her and take her to my underworld kingdom.  Other stuff can happen too, but that’s the important part.  She’s had us do it lots of times.  After being recruited to play Demeter, her younger sister (preschool) realized that this is a fun game, and wanted to be Persephone too.  It’s strange, because all versions of the myth they’ve heard make it pretty clear that Persephone is not happy to be kidnapped and made Hades’ wife.  (In their games, she seems happy enough.)  Nor does Persephone in the myth do anything particularly exciting.  However, the myths are also clear that she is a particularly beautiful and desirable goddess, and my daughters are fascinated by pretty girls.

The only sense I can make of it is that girls can appreciate a genuine compliment.  A man who tells a girl she looks nice may just be being polite, but kidnapping is always a tribute in earnest.

The marks of anti-intellectualism

There is nothing wrong with mistrusting intellectuals.  After all, intellectuals often mistrust each other, and even those they trust they often vehemently disagree with.  Nor is there anything particularly wrong about a person not being interested in intellectual pursuits, nothing wrong even in a person actively disliking the practice of certain forms of inquiry.  We are all “anti-intellectual” on some topics, those that we find uninteresting or that we think obvious humbug.  I’ve never been interested enough to investigate claims that aliens built the pyramids or that the moon landing was faked.  Life is short, and I must allocate my time accordingly.  The phenomenon of anti-intellectualism involves something more:  dislike of analysis of a topic one has made one’s own.  If I were to write a book about the claim that aliens built the pyramids, it would be my job to give arguments for this view a careful hearing.  If instead I maintained my aloofness to the topic–now my own topic–but instead made my book entirely ad hominem, say seeking out embarrassing personal facts about those who espouse the alien construction hypothesis or accusing them of being pawns of the oil industry, then I would be practicing anti-intellectualism.  I would be engaging in a fundamentally dishonest practice, an abuse of the life of the mind, regardless of who built the pyramids.

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The Whig Interpretation of History

It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent.  One may be forgiven for not being too happy about any division of mankind into good and evil, progressive and reactionary, black and white; and it is not clear that moral indignation is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great confusion of one’s judgement. There can be no complaint against the historian who personally and privately has his preferences and antipathies, and who as a human being merely has a fancy to take part in the game that he is describing; it is pleasant to see him give way to his prejudices and take them emotionally, so that they splash into colour as he writes; provided that when he steps in this way into the arena he recognizes that he is stepping into a world of partial judgements and purely personal appreciations and does not imagines that he is speaking ex cathedra. But if the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge, or stand as the official avenger of the crimes of the past, then one can require that he shall be still more godlike and regard himself rather as the reconciler than as the avenger; taking it that his aim is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past, and that in this understanding, if it can be complete, all things will ultimately be reconciled.
  — Herbert Butterfield,   The Whig Interpretation of History

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Heisenberg on physics and philosophy

Physics and Philosophy
by Werner Heisenberg (1958)

Werner Heisenberg was one of the founders of quantum mechanics and an exponent of its Copenhagen interpretation.  In this collection of essays, he tries to place the quantum revolution in a wider philosophical context.  Mostly, it is a story of prior philosophies having been proven inadequate, although interestingly enough, Heisenberg explicitly connects aspects of quantum states to the Aristotelian concept of potency.  The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, to which Heisenberg subscribes in this book, has been subject to two well-known criticisms.  First, we can only make sense of quantum mechanics as giving us probabilities for given observations by measuring devices assumed to be classical objects, and the existence of a non-quantum realm is an embarrassment if quantum theory is to be regarded as fundamental.  Second, it can appear to eschew ontology altogether, to be not an interpretation of quantum mechanics but a positivistic reduction of it.  To the first criticism, Heisenberg says that what distinguishes measuring devices is that they are not isolated, but interact with the outside world in countless messy ways, and these random environmental couplings somehow produce classical behavior.  Physicists are still pursuing this idea; I suspect there’s something to it but am not yet sold on it.

More interesting is the quasi-Kantian framework in which Heisenberg places the Copenhagen interpretation.  The math terminates on classical measuring devices primarily because classical physics describes core categories of the human mind that we need to make any sense of phenomena.  Heisenberg is slightly more optimistic than Kant; we can get past the phenomena structured around our concepts to gain some knowledge of realms where deterministic causality, Euclidean geometry, etc break down, but this knowledge will always be mediated by the classical realm; the latter can never be entirely swept aside because of the kind of beings we are.  We can learn that our classical ideas of space, time, matter, and causality break down–although a general lesson is that we can’t predict ahead of time where one of our concepts will break down–but we still need them.  In the subatomic realm, we have the wave picture and the particle picture, each of which works in some regime and breaks down in others, but both of which are at least genuine ontologies.  On the other hand, there is the full mathematical machinery of quantum mechanics, which never breaks down (so far as we know) but fails to provide an ontology.

This is something Heisenberg thinks we must learn to live with, but something which may actually be a blessing.  As he understands it, the ultimate consequence of his great work has been to overthrow 19th century materialism.  He sees alternate interpretations, such as that of Bohm, as desperate and mathematically unnatural attempts to rescue the old materialistic ontologies.  No longer should we place blind trust in mathematically precise expressions of materialistic concepts.  These have a range of validity, but it is limited and not to be categorically preferred to the natural intuitions of the human mind.  As he writes

Furthermore, one of the most important features of the development and the analysis of modern physics is the experience that the concepts of natural language, vaguely defined as they are, seem to be more stable in the expansion of knowledge than the precise terms of scientific language, derived as an idealization from only limited groups of phenomena.  This is in fact not surprising since the concepts of natural language are formed by the immediate connection with reality; they represent reality.

our attitude toward concepts like mind or the human soul or life or God will be different from that of the nineteenth century, because these concepts belong to the natural language and have therefore immediate connection with reality.  It is true that we will also realize that these concepts are not well defined in the scientific sense and that their application may lead to various contradictions, for the time being we may have to take the concepts, unanalyzed as they are; but still we know that they touch reality.  It may be useful in this connection to remember that even in the most precise part of science, in mathematics, we cannot avoid using concepts that involve contradictions.

The general trend of human thinking in the nineteenth century had been toward an increasing confidence in the scientific method and in precise rational terms, and had led to a general skepticism with regard to those concepts of natural language which do not fit into the closed frame of scientific thought–for instance, those of religion.  Modern physics has in many ways increased this skepticism; but it has at the same time turned it against the overestimation of precise scientific concepts, against a too-optimistic view on progress in general, and finally against skepticism itself.

My copy has a fascinating afterward called “Science and Religion” in which Heisenberg reminisces on two conversations he had on religion with other physicists.  It seems that Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr also entertained hopes that the principle of complementarity would provide grounds for a rapprochement between religion and science, or at least an ease of tensions.  Perhaps science does not provide a complete picture of reality because such a picture does not exist (at least for minds like ours), and perhaps religions speak in myths and parables not because they are false but because there are truths that can be expressed in no other way.  Perhaps there are even resources here for wider rapprochements between rival religions and philosophies.

There is certainly some irony here.  Heisenberg, a Lutheran Christian, thought he had dealt the death blow to 19th century materialism, just as Rene Descartes thought he had dealt the death blow to 17th century materialism.  Needless to say, materialism is still going strong–stronger than ever–despite the brilliance of its opponents.  In the case of Bohr and Heisenberg, even the memory that they ever saw their work in terms other than those of scientistic triumphalism has been largely forgotten.