The dead end above us

A recent note on Slate about Tom Gauld’s Mooncop discusses Mr Gauld’s vision of life in a decrepit and soon-to-be-abandoned lunar colony as “the residue of an older fantasy,” of the Cold War-era dream of thriving human settlements on other planetary bodies.

No doubt there is an element of this at work in Mr Gauld’s imagination, and in other visions of a future in which settlements and stations in outer space are decaying, forgotten remnants of failed enterprises of expansion. Films such as Moon (2009) and The Martian (2015,) with individual space travelers alone on the surface of alien worlds, play to the image of outer space as a realm of abandonment. Yet such visions were part of science fiction before the end, or even the beginning, of the US-Soviet Space Race. Even the founding text of space travel-themed science fiction, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865,) ends tragically, with its heroes forever separated from the rest of humanity, dying pointlessly in a metal ball orbiting the Moon. A work like Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men (1930) is steeped in an overwhelming sense of decline, introducing one species after another descended from humans, each of which meets extinction in its own way.  

Some of the most prominent science fiction productions of the Cold War days also represent space travel as a dead end. Robert Altman’s film Countdown (1968) depicts a US project to land a man on the Moon. The film ends with a lone astronaut wandering the lunar surface, finding a crashed Soviet space-craft and the corpses of the cosmonauts. The final moments of the film are ambiguous, as the astronaut finds a device that may or may not enable him to escape back to the Earth. The overall sense of loss and futility is the same as that with which Verne’s novel ends. The relationship between the cosmonaut and the planetary being in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) develops the same feeling of isolation and helplessness, though where Altman contrasts the isolation his astronaut suffers on the Moon with the professional camaraderie and relatively satisfactory married life he had enjoyed in his life in Texas, Tarkovsky’s film is openly critical of the Soviet Union as a place where the kind of social isolation his cosmonaut suffers in space is commonplace on Earth.

Arthur Clarke, a novelist strongly influenced by Olaf Stapledon’s work, returned throughout his career to a story set a thousand million years in the future. He turned this story into novels twice, as Against the Fall of Night (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956,) and explored it in many of the unfinished tales published in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001.)  The heart of the story is that humans had once created a vast stellar empire, an empire fragments of which perhaps still existed in some remote corners of space, but that the Earth had been separated from this empire, and its people had forgotten the major points of the empire’s history.  The abandoned empire, the isolated Earth, and the forgotten history of the conquest of space are also the background of a much more famous series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels (1942-1993.)

The two most familiar products of Cold War science fiction are Star Trek (1966-1969) and Star Wars (1977.) The image of outer space as a realm of unkept promises figures in those as well.

The background of Star Wars is a fight, not to claim new territory or develop new settlements, but to restore the liberties of a lost Republic. We meet the hero, a young man unaware of his true parentage and his lofty destiny, in the grubby place of exile which he has grown up regarding as his home. Using battered ships, antique weapons, and a plotline recycled from 1930s movie serials, the good guys score a victory for their nostalgic cause.

While Star Trek is set in the early days of an expanding interstellar federation, in many episodes our heroes encounter the ruins of lost civilizations and other traces of abandoned developments. The initial pilot, “The Cage”(produced in 1964-1965,) shows us the ship’s captain as the prisoner of a species who have retreated underground after a war found millennia before, and while there have lost so completely lost their technological skills that they can no longer “even repair the machines left behind by their ancestors” and are faced with inevitable extinction.

Many other episodes show societies that have declined from extraordinary heights of technological development into primitive conditions, conditions that suggest either control of the population by a computer mistaken for a deity (for example, “Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky,”) impending doom (for example, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?,” “Miri,” and “The Paradise Syndrome,”) or disconnection between intellectual and carnal satisfactions, resulting in a society of casual sadism and implied cannibalism (for example, “The Man Trap,” “Return to Tomorrow,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Turnabout Intruder.”)

Nor does Star Trek present decline and abandonment as things that happen only in alien cultures. We meet such luminaries from the history of the Earth as a former ruler of India (“Space Seed,”) the inventor of faster-than-light travel (“Metamorphosis,”) the god Apollo (“Who Mourns for Adonais?,”) and Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan (“The Savage Curtain,”) all forgotten and imprisoned in the infinite void of deep space.  Our heroes encounter nightmarish doppelganger versions of political entities such as the Roman Empire (“Bread and Circuses,”) the United States of America (“A Piece of the Action” and “The Omega Glory,”) and Nazi Germany (“Patterns of Force,”)  showing that space is a realm in which not only individual humans can become isolated and powerless, but that whole human societies can be cut off, condemned to stagnation and historical irrelevance, by a misconceived response to technological development.

In developing an image of outer space as a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness, this line of science fiction writers from Jules Verne to Tom Gauld may be harking back quite far into literary history. It is often said that Lucian (circa 125-circa 180 CE)’s “True History,” a satirical tale recounting a journey to the Moon, is the first science fiction story. Lucian’s story is itself more than a little reminiscent of two plays by Aristophanes (circa 450 BCE- circa 386 BCE,) The Birds (414 BCE) and Peace (421 BCE.)  In each of those plays, disreputable characters fly to the heavens and pull off unlikely schemes.

Particularly relevant to our discussion is the scene in Peace when Trygaeus, a poor farmer, arrives in the heavens, having flown there on the back of a giant dung-beetle. Trygaeus’ goal is to arrest Zeus and prosecute him in the courts of Athens for having allowed the wars among the Greek states to go on so long that Greece is weakened and in danger of a takeover by the Persian Empire.  Once in the heavens, Trygaeus finds that Zeus and almost all of the other gods have abandoned their usual realm, going off deeper into space in their disgust at the warlike habits of the Greeks.  Only Hermes remains in his usual spot, and he is a degraded figure, so impoverished that that Trygaeus can easily bribe him with a small bag of meat, so powerless that when the god of war and some of his minions come through, Hermes hides from them.  The lower heaven from which the rest of the gods have departed is as much a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness for Hermes as any of the heavenly bodies are for the characters of the gloomier sort of science fiction.


The man who has lived by truth leaves you with nothing

When Harper Lee’s manuscript Go Set a Watchman, the story to which her novel To Kill a Mockingbird was written as an extended prologue, was published early this summer, I realized that I, unlike virtually everyone else who graduated from a high school in the USA in the last three decades, had never read To Kill a Mockingbird. So I borrowed the copy my wife’s tenth grade English teacher gave her and read that before our copy of Go Set a Watchman came in the mail.

I’m glad I read them back to back.  The key passage in Go Set a Watchman is an imaginary conversation Jean Louise, a.k.a. Scout, Finch has in her head with her friends in New York after she comes home to Alabama and discovers that her adored father is the head of Maycomb County’s white supremacist Citizens’ Council:

New York.  New York?  I’ll tell you how New York is.  New York has all the answers.  People go to the YMHA, the English-Speaking Union, Carnegie Hall, the New School for Social Research, and find the answers.  The city lives by slogans, isms, and fast sure answers. New York is saying to me right now: you, Jean Louise Finch, are not reacting according to our doctrines regarding your kind, therefore you do not exist.  The best minds in the country have told us who you are.  You can’t escape it, and we don’t blame you for it, but we do ask you to conduct yourself within the rules that those who know have laid down for your behavior, and don’t try to be anything else.

She answered: please believe me, what has happened in my family is not what you think.  I can say only this- that everything I learned about human decency I learned here. I learned nothing from you except how to be suspicious.  I didn’t know what hate was until I lived among you and saw you hating every day.  They even had to pass laws to keep you from hating.  I despise your quick answers, your slogans in subways, and most of all I despise your lack of good manners: you’ll never have ’em as long as you exist.

The man who could not be discourteous to a ground-squirrel had sat in the courthouse abetting the cause of grubby-minded little men.  Many times she had seen him in the grocery store waiting his turn in line behind Negroes and God knows what.  She had seen Mr Fred raise his eyebrows at him, and her father shake his head in reply.  He was the kind of man who instinctively waited his turn; he had manners.

Look sister, we know the facts: you spent the first twenty one years of your life in lynching country, in a county whose population is two thirds agricultural Negro.  So drop the act.

You will not believe me, but I will tell you: never in my life until today did I hear the word “n****r” spoken by a member of my family. Never did I think in terms of The N*****s.  When I grew up, and I did grow up with black people, they were Calpurnia, Zeebo the garbage collector, Tom the yard man, and whatever else their names were.  There were hundreds of Negroes surrounding me, they were the hands in the fields, who chopped the cotton, who worked the roads, who sawed the lumber to make our houses.  They were poor, they were diseased and dirty, some were lazy and shiftless, but never in my life was I given the idea that I should despise one, should fear one, should be discourteous to one, or think that I could mistreat one and get away with it.  They as a people did not enter my world, not did I enter theirs: when I went hunting I did not trespass on a Negro’s land, not because it was a Negro’s, but because I was not supposed to trespass on anybody’s land.  I was taught never to take advantage of anybody who was less fortunate than myself, whether he be less fortunate in brains, wealth, or social position; it meant anybody, not just Negroes. I was given to understand that the reverse was to be despised.  That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man.

You must have lived it.  If a man says to you, “This is the truth,” and you believe him, and you discover what he says is not the truth, you are disappointed and you make sure you will not be caught out by him again.

But a man who has lived by truth- and you have believed in what he has lived- he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.

I think virtually the whole of To Kill a Mockingbird can be explained as an attempt to clarify this passage.  Throughout Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise’s father Atticus Finch is described as the perfect type of the Southern gentleman, truthful, courageous, gallant, modest, unfailingly courteous. Yet he does almost nothing in that book.  To Kill a Mockingbird gives these words the force of actions that match them.  And so, having read To Kill a Mockingbird, when in Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise reacts to Atticus’ addressing her as Scout with the furious thought that he had forfeited all right ever to use her childhood nickname, the reader’s heart breaks as it would not were Atticus merely the list of adjectives piled up next to his name in Go Set a Watchman.

What Jean Louise describes as “the way I was raised” by her father Atticus and their housekeeper Calpurnia sounds pretty dreary from some perspectives. Atticus lived by truth in that he, unlike other whites of his class and time, waited his turn when African Americans were in line ahead of him at the grocery.  His African American neighbors may have appreciated the courtesy, but it certainly did not cost him much, and to reward him for it by citing it as evidence of his superiority to his “grubby-minded” white neighbors sounds almost like a joke.

Moreover, that Atticus and Calpurnia raised Jean Louise to be courteous to everyone who had been placed at a disadvantage to her, including African Americans, and to cite this as evidence that the Finches were better than were the ill-bred whites who exploited their advantages and whom she was therefore taught to despise is to accept as a simple fact that is not subject to change that African Americans are and ever will be at a disadvantage to whites in regard to “brains, wealth, or social position.”

Compare the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman who teaches Jean Louise that her obligations towards African Americans are rooted in their status as her inferiors and that she has the same obligations towards her white inferiors as she has towards her black ones with the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird saying that the lowest of all creatures is a white man who takes advantage of the ignorance of a Negro.  In both cases, Atticus is teaching that whites are to regard themselves as noble by comparison with African Americans, that nobility creates obligations, and that the most profound moral failure is a failure to meet those obligations. In both cases, Atticus conceives the great moral drama of life taking place among white men, with white women as spectators and African Americans as props.

Seeing this in the abstract, as it is presented throughout Go Set a Watchman, despite the book’s many hilarious, touching, and gorgeously crafted stories of Jean Louise’s childhood, is to remain in the position of Jean Louise’s New York friends, looking down on her as an unconscious racist.  If that were the only position the book allowed us to take, it would in fact be what some critics said To Kill a Mockingbird was, a Southern novel for people who hate the South.  Coupled with To Kill a Mockingbird, however, we can see that this attitude, the very thing that put Atticus Finch at the head of the Citizens’ Council in the mid-1950s, was what led him to defend Tom Robinson in the mid-1930s.  Indeed, the portrayal of Dolphus Raymond in To Kill a Mockingbird, and to some extent the portrayal of Atticus’ brother Dr John Hale Finch in Go Set a Watchman, suggest the man who could have emerged as an ally of the African American freedom struggle in the 1950s might not have been any more use to anyone in rural Alabama in the 1930s than was Atticus in the 1950s.  Perhaps all of us are like that, heroes or villains as circumstances call for, and the lucky ones are those who rise to the occasion when circumstances call for the heroic side of their personalities.

Many have faulted Go Set a Watchman for its obvious lack of editorial revision; one review was titled “Go Get an Editor.”  There are some parts where this lack is a serious problem.  For example, when Jean Louise goes to call on Calpurnia on the occasion of Calpurnia’s favorite grandson’s arrest on a manslaughter charge that is likely to ruin him and blight the whole family’s prospects, she is shocked to find that Calpurnia and her family are looking at her, to whom Calpurnia was virtually a mother, and not seeing her, but seeing only “white folks.”  That’s a poignant moment, and should be one of the centerpieces of the novel.  However, the conversation between Jean Louise and Calpurnia is so jaggedly narrated that it is difficult to tell who is speaking to whom, and so abruptly phrased that it all collapses into Jean Louise’s regard for herself and her own feelings, feelings that apparently lead her to forget all about  Calpurnia’s grandson and the rest of her family almost immediately upon noticing that Calpurnia isn’t particularly excited to see her.  The rest of Go Set a Watchman doesn’t have trouble assigning lines to characters and doesn’t depict Jean Louise as a bizarrely self-absorbed person, so I’m sure that a rewrite would have straightened that scene out.

The ending of Go Tell a Watchman is quite disturbing, letting Atticus and the Finches off the hook almost completely.  That’s a shame for a novel that faces up to so many of the challenges of the period, but it is no different from To Kill a Mockingbird.  At the end of that book, Atticus has had some unpleasant afternoons, but he is reelected to the state legislature without opposition, still practicing law, still living in the same house, still welcomed by the same friends.  I do wonder if people who claim that the sensibility of Go Set a Watchman is less progressive on race than is that of To Kill a Mockingbird were quite honest with themselves when they read To Kill a Mockingbird, or if to them it really was just a Southern novel for people who hate the South.

I wonder about some other things.  Around the time Harper Lee was deciding to put Go Set a Watchman in a drawer and to write a novel about the childhood of its main character, Edmund Wilson was criticizing William Faulkner’s later novels for devoting too many pages to long speeches in which wise but flawed old men defend segregation, speeches which are supposed to make an international audience understand and respect the viewpoint of the white South, but which because of their length and because nothing in the plots of the novels highlights any of the weaknesses in their reasoning seem very much to reflect the author’s own views.  The horror with which Jean Louise reacts to her discovery that Atticus is the head of the Citizens’ Council distances her and Harper Lee from Atticus’ and Dr John Hale Finch’s pro-segregation speeches, but the ending of Go Set a Watchman, together with the length of the speeches, does give it something of the same problem, and because the worst things Jean Louise learns about the Citizen’s Council are the speeches and writings it promotes, it would be quite a challenge to make Atticus and his brother understandable characters without giving them long, largely unrebutted speeches in self-defense.  So perhaps one of the reasons she set the prequel in the 1930s was that the tacit understandings of that time would make such speeches unnecessary, and another part was that the 1930s were Faulkner’s heyday, at least in terms of critical acclamation, and a Southern novel set in that period might not raise the suspicions of Edmund Wilson the way a novel with a contemporary setting would.

Amasa Coleman Lee, who was not universally regarded as a Gregory Peck lookalike

Ms Lee’s decision not to publish Go Set a Watchman after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird  is not so hard to explain.  Atticus Finch was pretty clearly based on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee.  On the set of the film version of To Kill a MockingbirdMs Lee saw actor Gregory Peck made up as Atticus Finch and was moved to tears, saying “Oh Gregory, you’ve got a little pot belly just like my Daddy.”  To which Peck, with the film star’s consciousness of his appearance, rather stiffly replied, “No Nell, it just looks that way because of my acting.”  Anyway, having introduced her father to the world as the prototype of a character so beloved that thousands of boys would be named “Atticus” in his honor, it would take quite a bit of chutzpah to turn around and publish a novel in which she made it clear that whatever her father’s virtues may have been, his vices included a racism so disgusting that at times she couldn’t bear to hear him say her name.

So, if you read either book, I recommend you read them both.  Treat To Kill a Mockingbird as an extended prologue to Go Set a Watchman, and the two books together will shatter complacencies you didn’t know you had.

In which I demonstrate that I am the world’s nerdiest nerd

In a recent email exchange with the cofounders of this blog, known here as VThunderlad and Lefalcon, I shared some thoughts about Star Trek, including a synopsis of an idea for a new Star Trek movie.  Find the relevant bits below the jump.


the Help: A Book Review

Title: the Help  Type: Fiction

By Kathryn Stockett

What I like about the book.

My favorite character is Aibileen, and my favorite relationship is the relationship between Aibileen and the little girl she cares for, Mae Mobley.  I am delighted to discover that Aibileen is teaching Mae Mobley not to judge people based on their skin color.  She does this by taking advantage of her special times alone with the little girl.  During these times, she tells Mae stories that capture Mae’s attention.  One such story begins on page 234 and is about two little girls who cannot figure out why one of them is black and one is white.  The girls point out that they both have hair, a nose and toes.  They decide that their skin color is all that is different about them, and that they will be friends.  Telling Mae Mobley these stories is very brave on Aibileen’s part.  I am sure real people in her position in 1960’s Jackson Mississippi were killed for a lot less.

Aibileen is also concerned about how Mae Mobley feels about herself.  Most of the attention Mae gets from her mother is negative, and Mae Mobley has taken to saying “Mae Mobley bad”.  Aibileen decides to try to boost Mae’s self-esteem by getting Mae to say good things about herself each day.  Aibileen says, “’You a smart girl.  You a Kind girl, Mae Mobley.  You hear me?’  And I keep saying it till she repeat it back to me” (P. 107).

Even in times of sadness and stress Aibileen is careful to do what’s right.  On her last day with Mae Mobley, Mae has a high fever, and both Aiboleen and Mae are crying.  When Mae Mobley asks if Aibileen is leaving to care for another little girl Aibileen says, “’No, baby, that’s not the reason.  I don’t want a leave you, but’… How do I put this?  I can’t tell I’m fired, I don’t want her to blame her mama and make it worse between em.  ‘It’s time for me to retire.  You my last little girl’” (P. 520).

I wonder if there were a lot of maids like Aibileen in real life 1960’s Missisippi.  Black women loving and caring for white children.  Loving those children enough to risk their own lives to teach them that good people come in different colors.  I wonder if some of those children grew up to have a positive impact on race relations and other aspects of society.

What I do not like about the book.

I am keeping this part short because I do not want it to take over this review like it took over the book.  I hate the poop pie.  I am very disappointed in Kathryn Stockett for putting it in what could have been one of the most interesting works of fiction on race relations.  This book cannot be considered for such an honor now.  I think I know Minny better than Kathryn Stockett.  Do I think Minny would have gotten the better of Hilly?  Do I think she would have taught Hilly a much needed lesson?  I most certainly do, but Minny would not have committed such a crime to do it.

Note to Sociologists

This would make a great introductory to doing social research.   

Justified True Belief

There are a couple of passages where Plato seems to define knowledge as “justified true belief.”  So, if you have enough evidence that you have a right to accept a given proposition as true, if you do in fact exercise this right and accept that proposition as true, and if  it so happens that the proposition is true, then Plato might have said that your belief in that proposition is an example of knowledge.

This definition was occasionally challenged in an oblique sort of way in the first 24 centuries after Plato put it forward, but it was still uncontroversial enough that philosophers could use it matter-of-factly as late as the 1950s.  In 1963, Professor Edmund L. Gettier of Wayne State University wrote a very short, indeed tiny, article in which he gave two counterexamples to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief.  Here is example one:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition:

  1. Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.

Smith’s evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones’s pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails:

  1. The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.

But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith’s pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith’s pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones’s pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job.

Here Smith is justified in believing that “The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket,” and it is in fact true that the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.  However, the same evidence which justifies that true belief also justifies Smith’s false belief that Jones will get the job.  In Smith’s mind, these two beliefs are so intertwined that the true proposition is unlikely to figure in any line of reasoning uncoupled from the false one.  Moreover, since Smith does not realize that he himself has ten coins in his pocket, nor presumably that there is any applicant for the job other than Jones who has ten coins in his pocket, there is no reason to suppose that he would regard such a proposition as anything other than a statement that Jones will get the job.  So, true though the proposition may be, and justified as Smith may be in accepting it as true, his belief in it can lead him to nothing but error.

This counterexample is of course highly contrived, as is Professor Gettier’s second counterexample.  That doesn’t matter.  His only goal was to show that there can be justified true beliefs which we would not call knowledge, not that such beliefs are particularly commonplace.  Having given even one counterexample, Professor Gettier showed that justified true belief is not an adequate definition of knowledge.  Needless to say, Plato himself would probably have been thrilled with these counterexamples.  One can easily imagine him starting from them and proceeding to spin out a whole theory of justification, perhaps based on the idea that what we have a right to believe varies depending on the plane of existence to which our belief pertains, or that justification isn’t really justification unless the subject is approaching the topic in the true character of a philosopher, or some such Platonistic thing.

As it happens, Professor Gettier’s article was followed by a great many publications giving “Gettier-style” counterexamples, including many that are far more natural and straightforward than his original two.  Evidently all that needed to be done was to give some counterexamples, and the floodgates of creativity came open.  Professor Gettier himself did not write any of these articles, or indeed any articles at all after his 1963 paper.

Once you’ve read the 1963 paper, you may begin to notice naturally-occurring Gettier-style counterexamples.  The first novel I read after I was introduced to this topic about 20 years ago was Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds.  Trollope is not often called a philosophical novelist.  However, a Gettier-style counterexample lies at the heart of this novel.  Lizzie Eustace is the childless widow of Sir Florian Eustace.  Among Sir Florian’s possessions had been a diamond necklace valued at £ 10,000.  Lady Eustace claimed that Sir Florian wanted her to have the necklace, and so insisted on treating it as her own; however, the Eustace family lawyer claimed that it was a family heirloom, entailed to Sir Florian’s blood relations, and so that it should revert to the family in event of his death without issue.   While this dispute was moving towards the courts, a person or persons unknown broke into a safe where Lady Eustace was known to keep the necklace.  The burglary was discovered; the necklace was not there.  Lady Eustace did not tell the police what was in fact true, that she had taken the necklace from the safe before the burglary and still had it in her possession.  The leader of the police investigation is Inspector Gage, a wily and experienced detective who quickly arrives at the conclusion that Lady Eustace has stolen the necklace herself, likely in conjunction with her lover, Lord George de Bruce Carruthers.

In fact, Inspector Gage is mistaken not only about Lady Lizzie’s complicity in the burglary, but also about the nature of her relationship with Lord George and about Lord George’s character.  For all that they seem like lovers, and for all that Lady Eustace would like to become Lord George’s lover, they never quite come together.  And for all that Lord George’s sources of income are shrouded in mystery, he proves in the end to be thoroughly law-abiding.  However, the collection of evidence on which the inspector bases his theory is so impressive that if it did not justify him believing it, one can hardly imagine how anyone could be justified in believing anything.  So those three propositions could be classified as justified false beliefs.  At the nub of them all, however, is a justified true belief: that the necklace is in the possession of Lady Eustace.  Surrounded as it is by these false beliefs, false beliefs which would prevent the inspector from forming a true theory of the case, he cannot be said to know even this.

Cartoonist Zach Weiner devoted a recent installment of his Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal to laying out some thoughts about Gettier-style counterexamples:


I want to make a few remarks about this strip.  First, it doesn’t seem right to say that Professor Gettier proposed a “philosophical problem.”  To the extent that there is a “Gettier problem,” it is a problem with Plato’s proposed definition of knowledge.  By finding a weakness in that definition, Professor Gettier may have reopened philosophical problems that some had hoped to use the definition to mark as solved, but his article does not in itself suggest any new problems.  To jump directly from Professor Gettier’s challenge to Plato’s definition to a statement that “humans find the order of events to be cute” is to introduce quite an unnecessarily grandiose generalization.

Second, it’s clever that the irate child denounces “the Gettier ‘problem'” with a claim that “Maybe all the ‘problems’ of philosophy are just emergent properties that disappear when you simplify.”   Professor Gettier’s 1963 paper includes just three footnotes.  One refers to the two passages where Plato floats the definition of knowledge as justified true belief (“Plato seems to be considering some such definition at Theaetetus 201, and perhaps accepting one at Meno 98.”)  The other two cite uses of the definition by Roderick Chisholm and Alfred Ayer, two very eminent philosophers working in the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy (“Roderick M. Chisholm, Perceiving: A Philosophical Study (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1957), p. 16,” and “A. J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 34.”)  Much of the analytic tradition stems from the suspicion that “all the ‘problems’ of philosophy are just emergent properties that disappear when you simplify,” and Ayer and Chisholm both had interesting things to say about this suspicion.

Third, by what criterion can brain cells be regarded as “small stuff” and consciousness as “big stuff”? I’d say the only person to whom that idea makes sense is one who has heard straightforward explanations of the basics of brain anatomy and woolly explanations of the metaphysics of consciousness.  Everyone who is likely to read this strip either is, or has at some time been, awake.  Consciousness is thus familiar to all of them, an everyday thing, the very smallest of the “small stuff.” Conversely, brain cells are knowable only to people who have access to a microscope or to findings arrived at by use of a microscope.  They are, therefore, a relatively recherche topic, and most definitely “big stuff” to any truly naive subject.  To connect the phenomena of consciousness with brain cells, or with brain anatomy, is not only an even more sophisticated topic, but is at present wildly speculative.

Fourth, it’s clever to have the irate child find that “the small stuff” is no easier to understand than “the big stuff.”  I think Plato would have liked the strip, not for its defense of his definition, but for its illustration of the difficulty of separating “the small stuff” from “the big stuff.”  After all, probability wobbles and the rest of quantum theory are, so far as we are concerned, highly abstract.  We may use various images to make physics intelligible, but the deeper we enter into the subject the more thoroughly mathematical it becomes.  As the final nose-flicking indicates, our experience of “facts” and “brain cells” and “stuff that happens” are also theory-laden, so that it is an empty boast to claim that one regards them as real and the ideas behind them as unreal.

The careers of ghosts

One of Ambrose Bierce’s most famous stories is “The Moonlit Road.”  Three narrators describe the same killing.  The third narrator is the victim, speaking through a medium.  Two of the victim’s remarks suggests that Bierce had worked out some sort of a theory about what it’s like to be a ghost:

Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives, invisible even to ourselves, and one another, yet hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed, the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the spell — we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave tenderness and sympathy.

A bit later, she elaborates on this:

You think that we are of another world.  No, we have knowledge of no world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship.  O God!  what a thing it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey to apprehension and despair.

A very similar theory seems to inform the lyrics of Lila Burns’ “Young Hearts, Young Minds.”  A contender for “Ukulele Video of the Year” honors at Al Wood’s incomparable Ukulele Hunt,  the song enlists our sympathies for those who are powerless to do anything but “float around town/ just sing out loud goin oo oo oo-oo oo-oo.”  Whether Lila Burns has read Ambrose Bierce or developed her conception of the afterlife independently I don’t know.

While I’m at it, I should mention John Zmirak’s recent Halloween essay.  Who likes Halloween?  Radical traditionalist Catholics, that’s who likes Halloween.  Zmirak expresses a measure of sympathy for anti-Halloween Protestants:

Some homeschooling friends of mine confessed to me that they felt torn over whether or not to let their son dress up and go trick-or-treating; their Protestant friends kept telling them that this holiday was pagan or even Satanic. And given their theology, you can see their point: The souls of the dead are either in Heaven — in which case they’re not walking the earth and need not be appeased, represented, mocked, or even commemorated, depending on which reading you give to the way we Catholics appropriated old pagan customs that marked this time of year– or else they’re in Hell, and not worth remembering.

Only if you believe in Purgatory, Zmirak argues, can you fit earth-haunting ghosts into the world of Christian imagination.  Zmirak gladly claims the Addams family as rad-trad Catholics.  “Indeed, I think I may have spotted several Addamses at the indult parish in New York City…”  He urges devout parents not to dress their little trick-or-treaters as saints, but to give them costumes that display the eerie and frightening parts of life that Halloween is meant to confront.  He does draw the line somewhere, though:

Now, I’m very much in agreement that two-year-old children should not be dressed as Satan. For one thing, it’s a little bit too realistic. Indeed, the fallenness of children, which Augustine bemoaned in his Confessions, is so evident to everyone that garbing the little tykes in the robes of absolute evil seems to overstress the point. Nor do we wish to trivialize the serious, deadly purpose of our infernal enemy — dragging each of us screaming to Hell. If you’re feeling puckish, it’s in much better taste to dress up your kids as Osama bin Laden, Annibale Bugnini, or some other of the Evil One’s lesser minions. If you must dress your boys as saints, choose military martyrs, canonized crusaders, or patriarchs from the Old Testament. One suggestion I made as editor of the Feasts and Seasons section of Faith & Family magazine was this: Dress up your daughters as early Roman martyrs, like Agnes and Agatha, and your sons as the Roman soldiers, gladiators, and lions that sent them to heaven. Stock up on lots of fake blood for the girls’ machine-washable tunics, and let the games begin! (Alas, this idea never saw print.)

Bierce grew up in Ohio in the 1840s and 1850s; his family and neighbors were staunch Calvinists.  One of his sisters was so committed to that faith that she went to Africa as a missionary.  She was never heard from again; many Ohioans thought that she had been eaten by cannibals.  Perhaps she was an inspiration for the cartoons magazines used to run showing pith-helmeted figures in great pots of boiling water.  Bierce himself was alienated from religion; at times he made a show of atheism, at other times he cultivated a reputation for the Satanic.  The God in whom Bierce did not believe was the God of Calvin.  When he turned his imagination to the supernatural, Calvinism would have been his starting point.  Perhaps the isolated, helpless, misunderstood ghosts of Ambrose Bierce and Lila Burns represent a stage in the decay of Calvinist theology, even as the Addams family and other products Zmirak endorses represent the current stage of rad-trad Catholicism.

Books of short stories by Tatsumi

Looks like they’re putting out material by Tatsumi on a chronological plan.  Each book below represents material from a stretch of 1 or 2 yrs.

I like the design for this series.  These are really pleasing hardcover books.  You might be able to check them out from a local library – but they’re worth buying outright ($19.95 each) if you believe you’ll be returning to them repeatedly.

These came out, respectively, in 2005, 2006, & 2008.  The last couple yrs, D&Q has put out other Tatsumi stuff – but not in the specific format \ design used for these three volumes.

Rebecca and The Idea of History

The young Daphne du Maurier

The young Daphne du Maurier

During our vacation, Mrs Acilius and I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  At the same time, I was reading R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History.  These two books were both written in the mid-1930s by English authors; otherwise, they seemed to have nothing in common at all.  Rebecca was a popular novel, intended for a mass audience; The Idea of History is a rather austere work of philosophy, which its author never even attempted to publish.  It was found among Collingwood’s papers after his death, and brought to his publishers’ attention by his friends.  We wanted to read Rebecca because we had seen Hitchcock’s movie and were curious about some themes hinted at there; I’d been meaning to read The Idea of History for several years.  They just happened to turn up on our reading lists at the same time.  

I was surprised to find that the two books complement each other rather nicely.  The narrator and main character of Rebecca is a woman who never gives her own name; we know that her husband is named Maxim de Winter, and that Maxim de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, died suddenly about a year before the story begins.  Rebecca was a powerful personality, and once the second Mrs de Winter arrives at her husband’s estate to start her new life with him she finds that everyone she meets there seems to be obsessed with her predecessor.  Having spent her life up to the moment when she married Maxim in a modest station, the second Mrs de Winter had already been intimidated by Maxim’s great wealth and prestige.  She was also keenly aware of the fact that she had none of the skills required to manage Maxim’s immense household.  The second Mrs de Winter hides from the servants and comes to feel that the contrast between her own homely self and Rebecca’s great brilliance must be a painful disappointment to everyone.  To escape from her fears and find her place in her new home, the second Mrs de Winter must come to understand her husband’s relationship with his late wife. 

The challenge facing the second Mrs de Winter was one that Collingwood would have diagnosed as a task for historianship.  Collingwood sees a great deal of historianship in everyday life.  To quote from the 1968 Oxford University Press paperback I read (hereafter I’ll just call this book “Collingwood”):

If we look out over the sea and perceive a ship, and five minutes later look again and perceive it in a different place, we find ourselves obliged to imagine it as having occupied intermediate positions when we were not looking.  That is already an example of historical thinking… (Collingwood 241)


The Onion is funny sometimes


Camus’s The Stranger



I just read _The Stranger_.  It’s a pretty engaging book.  But I keep wondering:  what the heck was Camus thinking when he wrote this thing?  I cannot understand what the main character’s problem is.  Camus himself claimed the novel’s protagonist, Meursault, “refused to play the game.”  I take this to mean that Meursault did not accept some of his society’s basic values, such as belief in God and Christianity.  At the same time, he is also apparently incapable of familial or romantic love, or of experiencing any emotional reaction to having killed someone.  These “shortcomings” are not the product of some ideological stance against societal indoctrination; they are indications of a severely stunted human personality.  He does boil potatoes.  I suppose I will continue to wonder about this book for some time.