Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Good morning!

Over at All Manner of Thing, we have a link to the latest First Things article by David Bentley Hart, who reviews the latest book-writing efforts from the New Atheists and finds them - surprise! - tediously preachy and intellectually shallow. None of this is news, of course. No trained logician or historian could endorse for a minute the arguments in the bestselling tracts by Christopher Dawkins, Richard Hitchens et alia. Still less could a person of any aesthetic sensibility sympathize with their mission, which is essentially to bully people away from the nourishing symbolic frameworks of religious belief and propose, instead, that they accept the tiresome secular humanism that was fashionable in the 1970s. This is weak-tea stuff indeed, and its prevalence today - as Hart rightly notes - is symptomatic of a general decline in all religious discourse, from believers and non-believers alike.

Hart's article is worth a read, but mostly for its wit: anything that can be said about the New Atheists has already been said, and there is little hope that the continued discourse will produce anything other than mutual misunderstanding and shrill diatribes. More interesting, perhaps, is an exchange between two similarly-named atheists of very different stripes: John Gray and A. C. Grayling.

I've mentioned Gray's writing on these pages before, but knew little about Grayling (although I enjoyed reading his compact exposition of Wittgenstein). The publication of Grayling's book Ideas That Matter has ignited an apparently longstanding rivalry between the two, with Gray's publication of a rather scathing review of the book:
. . . his views on ethics, politics and religion, while adamantly held, are commonplace. Aside from the vehemence with which his prejudices are expressed, there is nothing in Ideas that Matter that would raise an eyebrow at the most genteel Hampstead dinner party. Anyone who remembers British left-liberal opinion as it was in the seventies will immediately recognize it here. Socialism and democracy, the horrors of religion and the near inevitability of ongoing secularization—these ephemera of a half-forgotten past are presented as ruling ideas of the twenty-first century.
Grayling, in other words, represents the traditional liberal-humanist view: reason can solve all problems, religion is irrational and therefore evil, and society can be indefinitely ameliorated by applying logic and technical know-how to all problems. Gray, on the other hand, believes that reason has its limits, that religion serves an important role as social cement (even though he disbelieves its metaphysical claims), and that the idea of infinite progress is an illusion.

(Three guesses which one of the two I find most sympathetic.)

In his book Saving the Appearances, Owen Barfield argues that we perceive reality through a series of representations. When we come into contact with an everyday object, like a chair, we never perceive it as a set of raw sense data ("I see an irregularly-shaped brown patch in my visual field") - we simply perceive the object ("I see a chair"). The neurosis of the modern world, argues Barfield, is that for the first time in history we have come to perceive our collective representations of reality as though they were universally true: that is, we imagine that we have access, through scientific reason, to an "unrepresented core" of reality that is valid for all. Yet this consensus seems to be growing more and more fragile: the more we investigate the core constituents of physical reality (the world of subatomic particles), the more it begins to seem as though we can speak about them only in metaphors.

If Barfield is wrong and we understand the world perfectly, then there's no reason in principle why we couldn't indefinitely improve our civilization forever. If, on the other hand, our understanding of the world models and imperfectly tracks a reality that we can never fully grasp, then we are doomed to rely on traditions, habits, and customs to orient ourselves. We can strive to improve our lives at a local level - after all, our local surroundings are the part of reality that we best understand - but we can no longer believe that history is a steady march towards a secular utopia, each day a little better than the next.

Perhaps the different outlooks in question here can be reduced to three different ways of saying "Good morning". Most of us mean it as an expression of good wishes: "I hope you have a good morning". The secular humanist intends it as a prediction: "You will undoubtedly have a good morning, and an even better one tomorrow." The totalitarian dictator makes it a demand: "You will have a good morning."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Well, it could happen.

An article at Futility Closet reprints an awesome 1910 Strand magazine feature: "If Insects Were Bigger." Basically, the authors inserted closeup pictures of insects into idyllic Edwardian street scenes. My favourite detail is the man brandishing his walking stick at the enormous creature:Fig. 1: A Lacewing Fly Spreads Consternation in Wellington Street.

The author of the original article ends with the following thought-provoking insight:

"It is true we are still molested by hordes of wild animals of bloodthirsty propensities. These wild animals only lack the single quality – namely, that of size – to render them all-powerful and all-desolating, and this quality they have not been able to attain owing to the lack of favouring conditions."

The pedant in me is obligated to point out that the scenario envisaged by the Strand author - that is, the growth of houseflies the size of camels and grasshoppers the size of passenger aircraft - is physically impossible. It's not just a matter of a "lack of favouring conditions"; the fact is that a housefly simply can't be scaled up to that size and still support its own weight. Suppose that all its dimensions were increased by a factor n; its volume would thus increase by n^3 (ie: cubed), which would mean that its mass would also be cubed. All this extra mass, however, is still supported by its spindly insect legs, whose cross-sectional area has increased by the factor n^2 (ie: squared). As the insect becomes larger and larger, the difference between n^2 and n^3 would become larger and larger, until finally its limbs become completely unable to hold up its body and the creature is unable to move. The same logic applies, of course, to its wings and every other organ in its body. An insect could never reach the size depicted above without massive physiological changes that would make its appearance unrecognizable.

That's what the pedant in me says. Mostly, I just think giant insects would be awesome.

(h/t Wondermark. Does everyone read this webcomic already? If not, you should.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The joys of WikiHow

I'm not sure how I first came across WikiHow, but I'm endlessly amused. It's a collection of how-to articles on a variety of subjects which anyone - yes, Billy, absolutely anyone! - can edit. Some of the these articles teach useful skills that everyone should learn; for example, operating a mini excavator, hanging a door, or kicking one down. Others fall in the line of hobbies - the site will teach you how to make a zoetrope, or a crop circle. The crop circle article suggests the best way to flatten cornstalks in a regular pattern (stand on a plank with a rope tied to it, and walk with a shuffling gait) and the best methods for alerting the media to the incipient threat of alien invasion (anonymous phone calls, presumably from a payphone). Be careful, though - if you bring a can of pop to drink while making a crop circle, be sure to pick up the container when you're finished! This is a dead giveaway.

Other articles deal with more nebulous tasks, like how to be a good person. (Step Two: Accept everyone around you as your brothers and sisters.) The secrets of political correctness are revealed in another article. All you have to do is examine the citizenship status (step 5), medical records (step 4) and and religious background (step 6) of every person you meet before speaking to them, and you're good to go! Unless, of course, you encounter someone who reads negative inferences into the words you choose (step 7), or who wishes to be referred to using special language of their own invention (step 8). In either case, the misunderstanding is your own fault, and you will probably be fired from your workplace (Warning 1) and become a social pariah (Warning 2).

But the articles get weirder. "How to Amuse Yourself When You're Home With Nothing to Do" is marketed toward bored children whose parents have left them alone in the house for half an hour. After exhausting the more obvious options ("5: Play with a not-so-jumpy pet, like a turtle." "9. Spend some time on your laptop/computer, that's always a good passtime.") the authors suggest harassing strangers ("13: Have a "hug-a-thon" by asking people that pass you on the street if they want a hug!"). Older children might enjoy the guide on How to Persuade Somebody that Religion is a Bad Thing - after selecting a likely target for conversion (step 1), and subtly shifting the topic of every conversation towards religion (step 2), you need only point out "some of the great facts about atheism. For example, state that religion puts people into groups." Repeat until your friends are all converted, or until they refuse to talk to you, whichever comes first.

My favourite, though, is the one on "How to Sing in Church Without Feeling Embarrassed," which should be mandatory reading for everyone, ever. Stop being self-conscious! Just sing!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Propositioning society

One of my recent concert announcements included the following exhortation:
Since music gives audible form to the intangible patterns of shared perceptual experience on which our common life depends, nothing less than the future of civilization may hang upon your efforts to promote organ recitals.
It was intended as a joke, of course. But I think there's something here that's important.

The issue is this: can all human knowledge be articulated in a propositional form? Or does our store of knowledge and experience include non-propositional knowledge, things that can never be expressed in the form of a statement?

I know, for example, that two and two are four, and that a piece of white phosphorus will ignite if I expose it to air. These are very different types of knowledge, but they're both propositional. However, I also know how to play the organ, which is at its core a non-propositional form of knowledge. There are any number of statements that might be relevant to my knowledge of how to play the organ (sit on the bench facing the keydesk; place your music on the stand with the right side up; extend your hands toward the keyboard with palms facing downwards, etc., etc.) but it's not clear that my ability to play the organ can be reduced to these statements. Imagine that a person was able to empirically describe every action that an organist must take in order to play a two-hour recital, but when asked to demonstrate their knowledge was unable to perform any of the actions they described: would we say that this person knew how to play the organ? Clearly not. The best we can manage is "This person knows a lot of information about how a person capable of playing the organ would play the organ," which in the final analysis is not enough to impress a paying audience.

Most of our knowledge is like this; it involves some propositional content expressed in the form of statements embedded in non-propositional content derived from our life experience. You may know that a piece of white phosphorus ignites in air, but do you know how to share this information with your friend using audible speech? You may know that two and two make four, but can you walk across the room without falling down? If not, it's going to be a long day.

All of this is interesting because our experience of music is one of the purest possible examples of non-propositional knowledge. In fact, it's not clear that anything about music can be expressed directly in a propositional form at all. One can certainly know a great many propositional statements about music, but none of them address the musical experience directly. Knowledge of the history, aesthetics or political context of a composition may affect our musical experience, but it's not itself the content of that experience. Likewise, learning music theory teaches us to analyze the musical score, which puts it at a substantial remove from the actual listening experience; at best, if the performance is faithful to the score, it might correlate to your analysis of the piece. If we try to describe the musical experience itself, we are forced to use metaphors ("lively," "hopeful," "sorrowful,") that seem to evoke the important aspects of that experience. And while this disjunction between academic theory and lived reality is familiar in many of the other arts, music has the additional disadvantage that the object of our musical experience is an intentional object (that is, an object that we've constituted ourself in our imagination) rather than a physical phenomenon (like a sculpture, painting, or a group of oddly-dressed people saying things in iambic pentameter). The result is that music is as far removed from the world of propositional statements as a human activity can possibly be.

Our experience of the world, then, necessarily depends on some combination of propositional statements and non-propositional knowledge. In some disciplines, like the natural sciences, propositional knowledge is clearly the most important; in others, like music, the essence of the art form seems to be wholly non-propositional. Healthy individuals and societies must accept that both ways of knowing are necessary to our existence, and allow for both in the makeup of our major institutions. In practice, however, since the rational madness of the Enlightenment, non-propositional knowledge always loses out - it's hard to justify why music is important, or what role tradition ought to play, when the answer expected (ie: a proposition expressing utilitarian value) is by nature foreign to the concept you're trying to defend. Yet these non-propositional aspects of experience - music, art, tradition, friendship, religious experience - are the ones that ultimately hold society together. When everything in human life has to be explained in propositional form and defended by a cost-benefit analysis, we lose something essential in our human nature. This, of course, is the mistake behind all radical politics - the assumption that everything in society is susceptible to rationalist analysis, that the world is essentially a puzzle to be solved, and that uniformly applying a single principle to everything in society will make all of our problems disappear. This doesn't work, and we prove it doesn't work every time we listen to a piece of music.

If all of this were true, of course, it would follow that artists and particularly musicians have the most to lose when traditional social mores are attacked. The context in which they work depends for its very meaning on a community of listeners who share a common reserve of non-propositional knowledge. Political radicalism, antitraditional ideologies, and other reductionist approaches to human life threaten this consensus, both by direct attack on the concept of "non-propositional knowledge" and by undermining the traditional institutions on which that knowledge depends. If musicians were to act according to their own self-interest, therefore, they ought to be known for their stalwart traditionalism, and their violent opposition to any forces that undermine social cohesion. Anyone who knows anything about musical history, however, is aware that this is not the case, and hasn't been for centuries - Beethoven was infatuated with Napoleon, Wagner was exiled from Germany after participating in an ill-conceived attempt at a revolution, Stravinsky was an admirer of Mussolini, and Webern explicitly endorsed the Nazi regime. The radical antinomian sentiments in much popular music since the 1960s are not a departure, but a continuation of the same trend. Should it be surprising that music is becoming an increasingly irrelevant part of our common life, when the very foundations of that common life are so little valued by musicians themselves?

Two points, then, come out of all this. Firstly, that economists are wrong: humans don't work toward their own self-interest. Very few people are capable of perceiving what actions ultimately benefit them - myself very much included - and most of us are probably continually undermining our own interests by ill-considered actions of various sorts. Secondly, that I am running out of procrastination methods and should get to work on my taxes.

He is risen indeed, alleluia

Blogs are supposed to offer timely, up-to-the-minute commentary on the issues of the day. Why read the newspaper - by the time it goes to print, any information in it is already hours out of date. If you want to know what's going on in the world right now, everyone knows to head to This Blog Will Change the World, where you can find out about the very latest fashions and trends before anyone else. Right?

Not really. TBWCTW has always been less about "up-to-the-minute news" and more about "densely written essays addressing a wide variety of topics, particularly ones upon which I am absolutely unqualified to give a considered opinion". But as indifferent as I usually am to timeliness, it is now Friday in the Easter octave and my most recent post is a Good Friday responsory. I apologize to those of you who may have been confused.

So - Christ is risen! The days immediately following Easter were intensely busy, but the service itself was a highlight of my week; there is nothing quite like accompanying a full congregation in all nine verses of "Hail thee, festival day."

As part of your forty days of feasting, I commend to you Britten's spectacular Festival Te Deum, in this 1963 recording by the choir of St. John's College, Cambridge:

Friday, April 2, 2010