How long ago was Christmas Day 2021?

  1. Christmas Day 2021 was about a month ago, so we’re as far from that Christmas as it was from the Russian anti-satellite test that endangered the International Space Station.
  2. In its turn, that test is now about as far in the past as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was when it took place.
  3. That withdrawal is now as far in the past as the container ship Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez canal was when it happened.
  4. The Ever Given incident is halfway in time between the present and the SpaceX Dragon 2 launch in May 2020.
  5. The SpaceX Dragon 2 launch is halfway between the present and Canada’s legalization of cannabis in October 2018.
  6. Canada’s legalization of cannabis is halfway back to July 2015, when New Horizons flew by Pluto.
  7. The New Horizons flyby is halfway back to early 2009, when Barack Obama became US President.
  8. Mr O’s inauguration is halfway back to early 1996, when Muppet Treasure Island was playing in theaters.
  9. The release of Muppet Treasure Island is halfway back to the summer of 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.
  10. Apollo 11 is halfway back to 1916, when a million people died for absolutely nothing in the battle of the Somme.
  11. The battle of the Somme is halfway back to 1811, when the battle of Tippecanoe spelled doom for Native Americans in what would become the state of Indiana.
  12. The battle of Tippecanoe is halfway back to 1600, when they killed Giordano Bruno for having opinions.
  13. The killing of Giordano Bruno is halfway back to 1178, when five monks in Canterbury saw the meteor strike that formed the crater on the Moon that is named Giordano Bruno.
  14. The formation of the Giordano Bruno crater is halfway back to 334, when Constantine the Great was nearing the end of his time as emperor of the Romans.
  15. Constantine’s reign is halfway back to 600 BCE, when the city of Milan was founded.
  16. The founding of Milan is halfway back to the origins of the Assyrian civilization.
  17. The origins of the Assyrian civilization are halfway back to the Younger Dryas cooling event.
  18. The Younger Dryas is halfway back to the founding of the oldest permanent human settlement yet found, a group of huts where the town of Dolní Věstonice now stands in the Czech Republic.
  19. The settlement at Dolní Věstonice is halway back to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic Age.
  20. The beginning of the Upper Paleolithic Age is halfway back to the building of the earliest surviving stone structures on Earth, which stand near Wadi Haifa in southern Egypt.
  21. The building of the Wadi Haifa structures is halfway back to the first evidence of humans in Europe (circa 210,000 years ago.)
  22. The oldest evidence for humans in Europe is halfway back to the likely date of the first bears.
  23. The first bears are halfway back to the beginning of the Cryogenian Ice Age (circa 850,000 years ago.)
  24. The beginning of the Cryogenian Ice Age is halfway back to the earliest stone tools crafted by hominins.
  25. The first stone tools crafted by hominins are halfway back to the first human ancestors who ate grasses and sedges.
  26. The first human ancestors who ate grasses and sedges are halfway back to the last common ancestors of humans and the other great apes (circa 7,000,000 years ago.)
  27. The last common ancestors of humans and the other great apes are halfway back to the Middle Miocene Climate Transition.
  28. The Middle Miocene Climate Transition is halfway back to the comet strike in the Sahara that produced all that black glass.
  29. The comet strike in the Sahara is halfway back to the Paleocene/ Eocene Thermal Maximum (circa 56,000,000 years ago.)
  30. The Paleocene/ Eocene Thermal Maximum is halfway back to the extinction of Pelorosaurus (circa 112,000,000 years ago.)
  31. The extinction of Pelorosaurus is halfway back to time of the common ancestors of mammals, the mammaliaformes.
  32. The mammaliaformes appeared halfway between the present and the Late Ordovician Event, a mass extinction that wiped out about 85% of all marine species (450,000,000 years ago.)
  33. The Late Ordovician Event is about halfway back to the appearance of the first multicellular life on Earth (circa 900,000,000 years ago.)
  34. The appearance of the first multicellular life on Earth is about halfway back to the appearance of the first eukaryotes on Earth.
  35. The appearance of the first eukaryotes on Earth is about halfway back to the formation of the oldest fossils yet found on Earth (circa 3,500,000,000 years ago.)
  36. The oldest fossils yet found date back about halfway to the formation of Arcturus (circa 6,900,000,000 years ago.)
  37. Multiply 6,900,000,000 by two, and you get 13,800,000,000. So the formation of Arcturus dates back halfway between the present and the Big Bang. Now you know how long ago Christmas really was.

Sitting through the ads?

It seems likely that higher education in the USA will undergo massive changes over the next few years. I have no idea what those will be, and suspect they will be very, very bad.

One change that might be good would be an inversion of the usual schedule of courses undergraduates have been expected to take for the last 120 years. The pattern has been that they take a wide variety of courses in their first year, that the focus tightens a bit more narrowly in the second year, and that they spend the final two years concentrating on their major field of study.

This is something like the experience of going to a cinema. You sit through a bunch of miscellaneous material promoting upcoming films, urging you to buy things at the concession stand, and advertising various other goods and services, as well as warning you to behave yourself and refrain from pirating the movie or distracting your fellow movie-goers. Then you are allowed to pay attention to the feature presentation.

Colleges and universities fret endlessly about ways to fashion a coherent experience out of the courses students take in their first two years. At the same time, the faculty who teach those courses are pressured to use them to recruit students to sign up for the majors their departments offer. The result is that students emerge from the Core Curriculum or General Education or Distribution Requirements or whatever they happen to be called at the moment with the feeling that they’ve just spent a couple of years and a great deal of tuition money listening to people try to sell them stuff they didn’t want. It’s no wonder so few college graduates object when state governments defund academic programs; on the contrary, it’s amazing that states still operate institutions of higher education at all.

Now, suppose it were turned round the other way. You take courses in your major for the first two years; the third year you do several small-scale supervised projects in your major field and take courses in closely related fields; in the fourth year you do a larger scale supervised project in your field and take courses in a wide range of fields. For the last 25 years, I’ve been teaching in the Core Curriculum at a state university in the midwestern USA; most of my students are in their first two years, and most of them are 19. Plenty of students in those categories wind up with A’s, but it is the more advanced undergrads and the students who are in their 30s and older who usually have the most fun and contribute the most to class discussion. The advanced undergrads, both because they are confident that they know how to succeed in college, and because they know enough about their majors to see how they connect with other disciplines; the older students, because the authors to whose work I introduce them in the ancient Greek and Latin literature in translation courses were writing for grown-ups, and those students have the life experiences those authors expected their readers to bring with them.

As the years have gone by and tuition has spiraled up, the older students have become a rarity. If the best-case scenario for the future comes to pass and US colleges and universities either stop charging tuition altogether, or at least lower it to the same percentage of median household income it was a couple of decades ago, they might come back. If they do, I should think they would benefit from concentrating on their majors first, then doing other courses. People who’ve been away from school for a long time are often nervous about resuming the role of student. If they can get that nervousness out of the way while doing something they already know they want to do, they’ll be at their peak coming into subjects that hadn’t been on their radar. They will then get the full benefit of those courses, and their classmates and teachers will benefit from association with them.

Likewise with advanced undergrads of the usual late teens- early twenties cohort. Taking courses outside their major when they have a grip on their major and are looking forward to the next stage of their lives, they should be able to see that, however important their specialty is, there are other forms of expertise, and those forms have something to offer as well.

Maps and Territories


One of my favorite maps, available for purchase here

It’s odd how the mind works.  If you’d asked me last night if I’d ever heard the phrase “stackable probabilities,” I would have said that I had not. Yet this morning, I woke up from a dream in which I was looking at a photograph of the surface of the Moon while a voice in the background explained that “a map is not an image depicting a territory, it is a graphic representation of related sets of stackable probabilities.”

I woke up before the voice could explain what that meant. Since I have never studied statistics, and did not know until I googled it that there really is such a phrase as “stackable probabilities,” probably the only way a voice in a dream of mine could explain it would be if I were sleeping in a room where someone was giving such an explanation.  Making it even stranger that such a phrase would pop into my head, most of the results for “stackable probability” that came up in that Google search were from gaming forums, and I haven’t spent any time playing or discussing electronic games since about 1983.

Anyway, it is in fact plausible that someone might describe a map as graphic representation of related sets of stackable probabilities. As I understand it, a set of probabilities is stackable if it is made up of a series of variables, each of which is dependent on the item preceding it in the series but independent of the item following it.  So there can be river systems only where the parts of a landmass vary in elevation, but parts of a landmass can vary in elevation where there are no river systems.

It becomes plausible to think of maps as summaries of probability structures rather than as images of territory when we consider that maps of large areas of the Earth’s surface do not feature cloud formations, and that maps of coastlines do not show the tide either coming in or going out. It’s virtually certain that a satellite photo of a continent or an ocean would show at least a few clouds, and utterly certain that the seas continuously show tidal motion, but there is no relationship between the probability that any particular cloud formation or state of the tides will prevail at a given moment and the probability that a user will consult the map at that moment.

Standard features of large-scale maps of populated areas, features such as mountains, rivers, roads, cities, centers of extractive industry, coasts, political boundaries, etc, are likely to be there and to be of interest to a user of the map. Moreover, these standard features are also the features most plainly related to each other. Roads connect cities to each other and to centers of extractive industry, unless mountains, coastlines, or political boundaries block them; rivers flow from mountains to coasts and cities grow along them; etc.

In my dream, I was looking at a photograph of the surface of the Moon. There are no rivers, roads, cities, industries, coasts, or political boundaries there. So, what is the difference between a photograph of the Moon’s surface and a map of the Moon’s surface? Add labels naming the mountains, craters, maria, etc, add notations of the elevation of those features, and isn’t the result a map?

I’m inclined to think not. Several times Apollo astronauts lost their way on the Moon; the best-known such episode came during the Apollo 14 extra-vehicular activity, when Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell lost so much time trying to orient themselves that they did not manage to reach the rim of Cone Crater, a key mission objective. Many have accused  Admiral Shepard of showing a cavalier attitude to the geological aspects of the mission; most notable of these is perhaps David Reynolds, author of a well-regarded book called Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon, 1963-1972 (Zenith Press, 2013.) Be that as it may, Captain Mitchell is a famously conscientious man (as witness his willingness to sound rather odd at times,) and it is difficult to believe that he did not use every available resource to prepare himself for such an important assignment.

I suspect the problem was that the resources available to Captain Mitchell and his superior officer included too many photographs and too few real maps.  On a surface where the horizon is so much closer than it is on the Earth, people do not have conventional reference points and cannot rely on reflexive mental habits to determine their location. The essential visual aid for such travelers is therefore one which illustrates, not the surface features which their experience on Earth has not prepared them to interpret, but such statistical relationships among those surface features as are likely to shape their journey.

Why are some shy people interested in politics?

Dude stole my game

As a child, I was both unusually shy and unusually interested in politics.  As early as the age of eight, I was reading up on campaigns and legislation.

I think that what appealed to me about politics was the same thing that made me so shy.  In politics, I saw people interacting according to rules that were explained in words and charts.  Those explanations represented a promise that political activity would eventually be comprehensible.  I could start by learning the rules, and work out from there in my efforts to figure out what was going on among the people involved.  Moreover, the adults I knew best, when the topic of politics came up, would speculate and try to puzzle out what was really going on among political figures.  Meanwhile, in the actual social life around me, I saw people interacting in ways that I found utterly mystifying.  In something like ordinary small talk, I couldn’t find any set of rules that I could start by learning, and it seemed that not only all of the adults in my life, but even all the other children knew exactly what was going on and couldn’t understand why I was confused.

As I grew up, I did find rules I could understand and follow in my interactions with others, and by the time I was college age I was about average in my number of friends and level of comfort in social situations.  As that developed, my interest in politics tapered off.  So one evening when I was in college, my phone rang and it was my brother asking me what a particular presidential candidate had just said in a televised debate.  Remembering me as I’d been several years before, he was surprised to find that I wasn’t watching the debate, and amazed that I had to get off the phone because I was going out on a date.

I’m still interested in politics, as readers of this blog will have noticed.  I do find it difficult to resist a political discussion when I’m among friends, and even more difficult to avoid mentally dwelling on political topics when I feel isolated from friends.  But I’m a married man whose wife is only mildly interested in politics as such, and we have a fairly active social life.  For my wife, politics is interesting mostly when it relates to feeding the hungry and stopping war.  She is a Quaker by conviction, and her religion puts those issues at the center of public life.  For many of our friends, politics is interesting as a way of building a feeling of team spirit.  They enjoy getting together with others who all root for the same political party, much as they enjoy rooting for the same sporting franchises. I recognize the importance of the issues and am not immune to the appeal of team spirit, but my background as a one-time obsessive who found in politics an intelligibility that eluded him in everyday social interaction inclines me to value process, impartiality, and fair play to an extent that is alien to most of my acquaintances.  I think that it is important that there should be people who have that inclination, and so I think that people with such a background, depressing as it undoubtedly is in some ways, have a contribution to make to the political life of the community.

It is probably best that we make our contribution in roles outside elected office, however.  I can think of a number of strong introverts who have attained high political office, and they haven’t generally turned out too well.  People who knew Richard Nixon all remarked on his intense shyness; it was by dint of great intelligence and self-discipline that Nixon was able to rise to the US presidency.  When that self-discipline broke down, though, Nixon plunged into a whirlwind of anger and self-pity that expressed itself in bizarre behavior, most obviously in regard to the Watergate matter.   Barack Obama seems to be just as deeply introverted as was Richard Nixon, though more self-disciplined- certainly Mr O has never allowed himself a public display like Nixon’s infamous 1962 “last press conference”:

I’m no fan of Mr O, any more than I am of Nixon or any other US president since Warren G. Harding.  While it is possible that Richard Nixon and Barack Obama may, as shy children, have been drawn to politics for the same reasons that I was drawn to it, their time as active participants in politics at the highest levels kept that experience from settling into a concern for process, impartiality, and fair play, and indeed the two of them stand at the opposite extreme from me in regard to those values.  So the role that people like me ought to play is not one in which they are directly involved in competition for office or particularly influential as individuals, but in which we are a subset of the population whose goodwill policymakers would like to have.  That’s where blogs each of which attracts about a hundred readers a day come in.  A site like this one is of infinitesimal significance by itself, but considering that a couple of hundred thousand of us maintain similar blogs, we as a group occasionally sway enough opinions that policymakers are wise include us as one factor in their decision-making processes.

There are other ways in which introverts can have an influence on the political process, of course.  Rich introverts can give money, introverts with special expertise can become staff aides, introverts with the time to devote to it can volunteer for campaigns and make themselves indispensable to parties and candidates, etc.  But all of these forms of involvement tend to engage the competitive drives, and can very quickly undermine the very qualities that give our contribution its value.  So something like blogging is essential for the shy citizen to do all s/he can to promote the common good.

Rationality and patriotism

Here’s a quote from the late Bill Hicks that often shows up on social media sites:

It goes on:

I do think this rather misses the point.  Certainly it would have been absurd for Hicks to have taken credit for being an American, as it would have been absurd for him to have taken credit for being his parents’ child.  That is not at all the same thing as saying that it would have been absurd for him to have taken pride in his relationship to them and their native land.

Take for example the matter of achievements.  Children want their parents to take pride in their achievements, and parents want their children to take pride in their achievements.  But if parents took credit for their children’s achievements, or vice versa, it would be a betrayal.

Likewise with regard to one’s country.  A person who had done something extraordinary would no doubt be pleased to find that s/he had become a source of pride for his or her countrymen.  Were s/he to find that those countrymen were trying to efface his or her name and to take credit for his or her achievements for themselves, I am sure that s/he would react with dismay and anger.

Taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s countrymen is part of patriotism, just as taking pride in, but not credit for, the achievements of one’s family members is part of devotion to family.  There are many other parts to each of these things.  Affection to other members of the group, eagerness to defend the group when it is attacked, willingness to sacrifice one’s own individual interests for the sake of the group’s collective interest, all of these belong both to family devotion and to patriotism.

Nor is this the whole story of patriotism as a virtue.  I’ve been developing an interest in Moral Foundations Theory ever since I finally got around to reading Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind a few months ago. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist with an interest in anthropology, concludes in that book that in the ethical systems of the world, people consistently show concern with a few major oppositions.  He and his associates summarize the most readily identifiable of these as Care vs Harm, Fairness vs Cheating, Liberty vs Oppression, Loyalty vs Betrayal, Authority vs Subversion, and Sanctity vs Degradation.

Professor Haidt is not a Perennialist like my hero Irving Babbitt, who held that the wisdom traditions of every culture and age could be distilled into a set of doctrines and that his personal system of ethical and aesthetic and political beliefs was identical to that set of doctrines.  Rather, he argues that these oppositions crop up in the ethical experience of people in culture after culture, and that practical morality in all of the infinite variety of forms it takes among the world’s peoples is usually an attempt to address all of these oppositions all at once.  So, people try to be caring, fair, free, loyal, orderly, and pure, all at the same time.  Professor Haidt criticizes academic philosophy for a tendency to isolate one or the other of these oppositions and focus on it to the exclusion of the rest, and more broadly criticizes the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) cultural elites for their tendency to reduce morality to Care, Fairness, and Liberty, disregarding or actively deprecating the values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  Professor Haidt claims that, among other ills, this disregard leads to political polarization, as the less WEIRD members of Western societies find that they cannot trust the educated elite to attend to matters which they, like most people in the world, consider to be of great moral weight.

If we take our cue from Professor Haidt and his fellows, we might want to develop a concept of patriotism that would draw on all six of the principal moral foundations.  We would need a standard of care that imposes a special obligation to look after one’s countrymen, without denying that others may also have a claim on our kindly ministrations.

As for fairness and cheating, something of that concern enters into our distinction between taking pride in something and taking credit for it.  It would be cheating to take credit for something another person did, but would also be cheating to refuse to take pride in what that person did if they were connected to us in a way that would entitle them to hope that they would make us proud.  A citizen who refuses to take pride in a countryman who discovers a great scientific truth or creates a magnificent work of art or wins a major athletic contest or conducts herself bravely in combat is cheating that countryman, just as a parent who refuses to take pride in a child’s achievements is cheating that child.  Fairness, indeed, demands that we take pride in the great deeds of our countrymen.

Inasmuch as the opposition of Liberty vs Oppression is obviously political, in a world of nation-states efforts to cultivate Liberty as a virtue must be obviously patriotic as well.  Liberty is always liberty as expressed in a given country, by its people, within its customs, under its laws; oppression is always oppression of a given people, in violation of their customs, in contempt of the restraints that law places on the exercise of power.  So liberty is a patriotic virtue.  When Nathan Hale resisted the British in defense of the liberties of Connecticut, he saw himself as his fellow rebels saw him, as a patriot.  Whether or not Hale actually died with the words “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country” on his lips, he certainly does symbolize a conception of patriotism that is very much alive to the opposition Liberty vs Oppression.  Likewise with an organization such as Veterans for Peace, with its slogan “Peace is Patriotic.”  Their focus is consistently on the ways in which militarism and the war economy erode the freedoms for which Americans have long hoped their country would be known.

When you get to Loyalty vs Betrayal, patriotism starts to have its unpleasant associations.  There’s a very long and extremely familiar history of irresponsible ruling elites branding all opposition to themselves as betrayal of the country, and using that smear to justify oppression.  I do think that remarks like Bill Hicks’ “I hate patriotism!” and similar statements from the political Left are counterproductive in that they make it difficult for others to trust that anyone on the Left will appreciate the value of Loyalty, and that in that distrust they tend to be dissatisfied with any but the crudest conceptions of loyalty.

Authority vs Subversion strikes liberal ears with an even nastier ring than that of Loyalty vs Betrayal.  The essence of modernity is rebellion, the essence of liberalism is rebellion institutionalized as a permanent feature of civic life.  That isn’t to say that modern, liberal people can never accept authority as legitimate, but that they can find legitimacy only in authority that is the byproduct of an adversarial process, such as an election, a market competition, or court trial.  So in a modern, liberal society, we have to develop a patriotism that can be expressed through adversarial processes and notions peculiar to adversarial processes (such as “rights,” for example.)  That is to say, a modern, liberal patriot must value adversarial processes, participate in them, respect other participants, and accept the outcomes of those processes.

Sanctity vs Degradation is largely about keeping symbols intact.  That’s why Bill Hicks’ suggestion that “instead of putting stars and stripes on our flags we should put pictures of our parents fucking” in order to destroy patriotism is apt.  That would certainly degrade both the flag and the parents, pointing to a rejection of both patriotism and devotion to family.  Considered as a dimension of patriotism, then, Sanctity vs Degradation brings to mind the idea of ceremonial regard for patriotic symbols.  It also suggests that the range of things we treat as patriotic symbols should be subject to dramatic expansion.  So the conservation movement that led to the creation of US National Parks in the early twentieth century presented the country itself as a patriotic symbol, and many social welfare proposals have succeeded because the people of the country were seen as patriotic symbols.  That’s one of the reasons why the moral imagination and the religious imagination are so often so deeply intertwined, that they both reject any attempt to confine the symbolic realm to limits set by explicitly rational thought.

The meaning of life (seriously- well, almost seriously)

Mother and son

A year or so ago a friend of mine asked me a series of questions, to each of which I happened to know the answer.  After I’d told her everything she wanted to know about whatever trivial subject she was asking about (it must have been a trivial subject for me to have had all the answers,) she asked, “okay, what’s the meaning of life?”  I laughed.  She pressed me on it.  I decided to play along.

My wife, Mrs Acilius, has cerebral palsy that affects her arms and legs in a big way, but her cognitive abilities hardly at all.  So a wheelchair and a trained dog can fill in for everything she needs to make her way in life as an independent person with a professional career.  At about the time my friend insisted that I craft an answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?,” I’d been spending more time than usual involved with her dog and his training, and was thinking that there might be some kind of deep cosmic significance in it.  So I took a shot at the question based on that.

Maybe, I said, it’s something to do with a reciprocity between care and need.  Mrs Acilius’ relationship with her dog has a meaning to her that a relationship with a human whom she or some social services agency paid to perform the same tasks wouldn’t have.  She and the dog both need each other and both care for each other.  A paid human attendant might need a job, but might not need her; she might need the help the attendant provided, but might not need the attendant.  In other words, the need that goes toward making a relationship meaningful isn’t just what the parties in it need from each other, but that they need each other.  And what completes that meaning is that those who need each other care for each other.

This came back to mind this afternoon as I was reading an article on 3 Quarks Daily about the value of children’s lives relative to other people’s lives.  The author, Thomas Rodham Wells, tries to fit children into a utilitarian moral scheme where they are “special, but not particularly important.”  I am not a utilitarian, for many reasons, some of which I explain here.  I do think that Mr Wells’ article is well worth reading, not only because he is a most sophisticated utilitarian, but also because his article can help to flesh out the idea that the meaning of life can be found in a relationship between care and need.

For Mr Wells, children are special because of their extreme neediness:

Children are special in one particular, their extreme neediness. They have quite specific often urgent needs that only suitably motivated adults can meet, and the younger they are, the greater their neediness. That makes children’s care and protection a moral priority in any civilised society – there are lots of things that aren’t as important and should give rightly way to meeting children’s needs. As a result, children create multiple obligations upon their care-givers, as well second-order obligations on society in general, to ensure those needs are met.

Yet the fact that you should give way to an ambulance attending an emergency doesn’t mean that the person in the ambulance is more important than you; only that her needs right now are more important than you getting to work on time. Likewise, the immanence of children’s neediness should often determine how we rank the priorities of actions we want to do, such as interrupting a movie to attend to a baby’s cries.

However, the special priority neediness confers on children’s needs is not to be confused with extraordinary value.  Indeed, children are, other things being equal, less valuable than are adults:

People’s lives get more valuable as they ‘grow up’ because part of growing up is having more life to live. The greatest part of the value of a human life, as opposed to that of a merely sentient animal like a mouse, relates to the development of personhood. Persons are what children are supposed to grow up to become. Persons are able to relate to themselves in a forward and backward looking fashion, to tell a story about where they have come from and where they are going, to determine how they should live, and so on. Persons are able to relate to other persons as independent equals, to explain and justify themselves, to make and keep promises, and so on. Personhood in this sense normally rises over the course of a life, peaking generally around the mid 50s, the traditional prime of life, before beginning to decline again.

The trouble with our attitude to children is that the less like this idea of a person they are the more valuable children’s lives are supposed to be. The younger and more inchoate their minds and the shallower their ability to relate to themselves, others, or the world the more important they are held to be and the greater the tragedy if one should die. Of course I don’t deny that the death of a child is a tragedy for her parents, I’m quite convinced of the depth of their anguish. But the fact of their grief that doesn’t address the issue of relative value. Is it really the case that the death of a baby is an objectively worse thing to happen in this world than the death of a toddler than the death of a teenager than the death of that middle-aged accountant?

The death of an adult person is a tragedy because a sophisticated unique consciousness has been lost; a life in progress, of plans and ideals and relationships with other persons, has been broken off. The death of a young child, is also a tragedy, but it seems a comparatively one-sided one, the loss of an tremendously important part of her parents’ lives.

I suspect that the idea that lives are to be valued because of their narrative content is more defensible than the idea that actions are to be valued because of their net contribution to the amount of pleasure (minus pain) in the world, and so I say that Mr Wells’ utilitarianism is more sophisticated than is the garden variety of that school.  Still, like other utilitarians he ends up putting lives in order by the rank of their worthiness to live.  In the Book of Genesis, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob specializes in this sort of ranking and presumably carries it out according to some rational plan, but I think it is safe to say that the job of the God of Genesis is unlikely to come open any time soon.  Failing that, the only scenarios in which it is at all necessary to rank particular lives by worthiness of life that are at all likely to befall any of Mr Wells’ readers may be battlefield cases where time is extremely short and highly-developed ethical codes are of little use.

Still, reciprocity of need and care, the potential for such reciprocity, need for a person rather than for anything one might get from that person, these are all narrative concepts, and all involve the kind of growth and strength upon which Mr Wells places such a premium.  Even a utilitarianism much cruder than his, which would be blind to these concepts, would still highlight the requirement that the needy person also have the ability to answer the other’s need for such a relation to have importance.

One of the weaknesses with the idea that The Meaning of Life is to be found in a reciprocal relationship between need and care is that people’s actual experience of moral reasoning in cultures around the world has many more than one dimension.  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has recently attracted a good deal of attention with a model of what people are actually talking about when they talk about right and wrong, a model that operates on 6 dimensions.  One of these dimensions, an axis running from care to harm, is predominant in the thinking of many in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) circles.  Indeed, classical utilitarians do not recognize any other component to morality than care and harm.  Looking beyond the WEIRD world, though, we find that, while humans in all times and places tend to agree that it is usually good to care for others and bad to harm them, they also place great importance on other concerns as well.  Professor Haidt arranges these other concerns in five further dimensions of moral reasoning: loyalty vs betrayal, sanctity vs degradation, fairness vs cheating, liberty vs oppression, and authority vs subversion.

To go back to the example of my wife and her service dog, I think we can bring all of these dimensions to bear in explaining the superiority of a canine companion over a human employee.  Compare the direction of loyalty in the relationship between dog and handler with the direction of loyalty in the relationship between client and employee.  Dog and handler are loyal to each other.  Unless something has gone very far wrong, that loyalty is typically deep and untroubled.  Between client and employee, however, there is a complex network of competing loyalties.  The client and employee may or may not develop a loyalty to each other.  The employee, however, must also be loyal to whoever is paying his or her wages, who may be the client, but more likely is a social services agency, an insurance company, etc.  And in a capitalist economy, an employee cannot avoid being both cheated and oppressed unless s/he throws aside all loyalty to his or her employer and clients when negotiating wages and conditions of employment.  That isn’t to deny that this suspension of loyalty, like the suspension of disbelief when watching a play, can sometimes in the long run strengthen what was once suspended, but the sheer complexity of loyalty as a phenomenon within the marketplace does mean participants in the marketplace have a harder time building up loyalty as a virtue than they do when participating in other institutions.

In the matter of sanctity vs degradation, the reciprocity of care and need that the dog offers the handler brings sanctity into settings where a client and a human attendant might have to make a special effort to avoid degradation.  Sometimes a dog helps a handler to dress and undress, to bathe, and to do other things during which the handler is exposed and vulnerable.  The handler does the same for the dog, and the dog looks to the handler for every need.  Therefore there is nothing degrading about receiving such service.  Human attendants are usually trained to be respectful and inclined to be so, but even so, there is something demoralizing about the helplessness one feels when asking for help from someone to whom one can offer no comparable help in return.  Again, a qualified professional with the average amount of human compassion will minimize that demoralization, but some trace of it is always there.  With the dog, you are building a loving relationship in which both canine and human find something that can only be called sanctity.

As for fairness vs cheating and liberty vs oppression, the dog avoids the problems inherent in an adversarial economic system to which I alluded above.  This is especially the case in a program like that which has provided Mrs Acilius with her current service dog and both of his predecessors, Canine Companions for Independence.  CCI is funded by donations and operated largely by volunteers; clients pay only their own personal expenses.  Of course, it functions within the USA’s economic system, so it isn’t altogether a utopian scheme.  For all that Mrs Acilius is given to telling her dogs that they are “angels from heaven,” they are in fact bred and trained using wealth produced in our capitalist system, with all its characteristic virtues and vices.  But I would say that CCI’s philanthropic structure maximizes those virtues and minimizes the accompanying vices.

As it does with loyalty and betrayal, the market introduces complexity into the experiences of authority and subversion.  So an employee is under the authority of an employer and sometimes under the authority of the client, but occasionally is required to give the client direction.  This need not be an especially frustrating complex of roles, but it does make it difficult to see how there can be any great moral significance in any particular phase of it.  The relationship between dog and handler, however, is one in which the lines of authority are crystal clear.  And it is the mutual need and mutual care that keeps those lines of authority functioning.

So maybe my response to my friend wasn’t quite as silly as any response to the question “What is the meaning of life?” must initially sound.  I’m not planning to work it up into a scholarly project of any sort, because I’m not actually the sort of person who wants to have an answer to that question, but I’ve posted it here for what it’s worth.

Some what-ifs

I recently posted a much-too-long comment on Peter Hitchens’ blog.   Mr Hitchens had posted about one of his recurrent themes, that, contrary to what the popular phrase “special relationship” might suggest, the United States does not in fact treat the United Kingdom in a markedly more indulgent fashion than it brings to its treatment of its other allies.  He gave a series of examples of hard bargains the US had driven in its relations with the UK.  The last of these examples was the aid the US gave to Britain in the period 1940-1941, which was conditioned on Britain’s yielding to the US a large portion of its gold reserves, its shares in many US and Latin American firms, and its naval bases in the Western hemisphere. To this I responded as follows:

Well, with regard to US policy towards the British Empire in 1940 and 1941, I do think you are overlooking rather an important point. It did seem quite likely from May of 1940 on that Britain might very well surrender to Germany. The expectation that Britain would surrender seems to have motivated, for example, Hitler’s declaration of war on the USA. Without Britain among the allied powers, the USA would have been as impotent in Europe in the 1940s as Britain and France were in Poland in 1939. In view of that expectation, Hitler would likely have thought of his declaration of war on the USA on 11 December 1941 much as Argentines may have thought of their country’s declaration of war on Germany on 27 March 1945, a costless gesture designed to appease a nervous ally.

If we look back at the events between May 1940 and December 1941, not in the light of the Allies’ eventual victory, but of the United Kingdom’s probable defeat, both Washington’s demands and London’s acquiescence in them become far less of a scandal. Even if Germany had not chosen to occupy Britain after its defeat, it is likely that the Nazi regime would have found ways to help itself to at least as much of Britain’s gold reserves and other financial assets as the USA in fact claimed, making the Reich a major presence in business in the USA and the leading economic power in Latin America. Had the Nazis added Britain’s naval bases and other imperial assets in the Western Hemisphere to this economic power, the USA would have been entirely incapable of making a contribution to any war against either Germany or Japan.

In that light, I think we can see the Roosevelt government’s demands and the Churchill government’s concessions as a kind of super-Dunkirk. Without actually making British surrender more likely, these concessions represented the choice of a postwar environment in which the far Western boundary of German power would in no case exceed the shores of the Atlantic. Even in the event of the absolute worst case scenario for the UK, in which the Germans occupied and subjugated Britain, a great power would still exist somewhere in the world that was neither fascist nor communist, with a population that speaks English and courts that occasionally cite Magna Carta. Such a power might not be in a position to intervene militarily on the island of Britain, but its example could embolden guerrilla resistance to the Germans. A United Kingdom government of the period may even have harbored the fond wish that the continued viability of the USA might foster a certain residue of respect for Englishness even among Nazi occupiers. This fond wish may look silly in retrospect, as we consider what we know of the Nazi regime, but at the time might not have been an altogether contemptible basis for policy.

The alternative surrender scenario, in which the British Empire had held onto enough of its assets for its fall to terminate the USA as a world power, would in the short term have given Germany and Japan free hands in their expansionist programs. Considering how wildly those programs were inflated beyond each country’s ability to support them, in particular with regard to Germany’s invasion of Russia and Japan’s invasion of China, it seems likely that they would eventually have collapsed and brought the regimes down with them.

But that only makes the idea of Germany capturing a more-or-less-intact British Empire the more frightening. On the one hand, the Germans, unbothered by the nuisance of a Western front, would doubtless have had time to complete their extermination of European Jewry and to make great headway in their genocidal plans against Gypsies and others. On the other, the force that would eventually have defeated the Germans would not have included the USA, the UK, or any other democratic governments. The Soviet Union alone would have defeated the Reich, and the Red Army would have swept into all the territories it had once controlled. Perhaps that would have been rather a different Soviet Union than the one that actually existed in the late 1940s or early 1950s; it’s easy to imagine that Stalin, for example, would not have survived had the Second World War gone much worse than it did for the USSR. But even if the Wehrmacht had done as well against the Soviet Union as Napoleon did against the Tsar, surely it would in the end have been defeated even more thoroughly than was the Grande Armee.

And without the USA in the Western Pacific, Japan’s eventual, surely inevitable defeat in China would have come when the Kuomintang forces were even more completely exhausted than they were in 1945. That would have left Mao’s Red Army to pick up the pieces, not only in mainland China, but in surrounding countries as well. With no American forces in the region to offer an alternative, the Japanese occupations may have proved merely a prelude to a domination of East Asia by Chinese Communists, as the victories of the Third Reich may have been a prelude to the domination of the rest of the Eastern hemisphere by the Soviet Union.

A nightmare world, certainly. And, as with all nightmares, it grows from long chains of contingency. But I don’t think that any of these contingencies are either inherently unlikely to have happened, or unlikely to have haunted the minds of British and American policymakers in the period May 1940-December 1941.

This comment far exceeds the Daily Mail‘s limit of 500 words, a limit of which I was unaware when I submitted it.  (I had never posted a long comment to the Daily Mail‘s site before, amazingly enough.)  I am most grateful to Mr Hitchens for waiving that limit and allowing my post to stand as it is.

A few weeks ago, I read, for the first time, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  I suppose the influence of that alternate-history novel can be seen in this comment.  I would add that, unlike Dick, I don’t propose a scenario in which the USA would be occupied by Nazi Germany and militarist Japan, merely one in which German influence in the Western hemisphere and the absence of a staging area from which to launch attacks against German positions in Europe and Africa made it impossible for the USA to fight against the Third Reich.

The only beliefs likely to survive rational scrutiny are those formed in response to rational scrutiny

Maybe it is possible to categorize the set of a person’s beliefs by the importance that person attaches to each of those beliefs.  If we visualize a person’s collection of beliefs as a sphere, we might imagine a solid core consisting of beliefs to which the person attaches great importance, a loose periphery of beliefs to which the person attaches very little importance, and various layers in between.  Over time beliefs would of course shift from one layer to another, so that a belief held only tentatively under one set of circumstances might take on great significance under another set of circumstances.

layers 4For example, if I am walking through an unfamiliar part of town, the shape and color of the buildings may not be of any great interest to me.  If in that case I were to be asked to describe a building I had passed a few minutes before, I might not be surprised or bothered to be told that my description was in error.  My impressions of the details of any given building’s appearance might be very tentative, formed only incidentally as I walk along paying attention to the street signs and to features of greater interest.  However, if I lost my way and were trying to use those same buildings as landmarks, my ability to describe the buildings would have a direct bearing on my ability to find my way.  While I might not care about the buildings for their own sake, I certainly care about that task, and would therefore have a stake in my beliefs about their appearance.

Contact with other people of course has an effect on the movement of beliefs from one layer of significance to another.  Contact with an appealing person or group of people who represent a challenge to an idea in or near the core might pull that idea up towards the loose periphery of tentative beliefs, while contact with a hostile person who attacks a peripheral belief might drive that belief down towards or into the core.  So, a religious believer who at one time regards it as a core principle of his or her identity that only the practices of his or her religion can make a person virtuous may come to put less emphasis on that belief after meeting and beginning to like a number of apparently virtuous people who do not follow those practices.  Conversely, a person who has chosen one candidate for public office over another in the belief that his or her preferred candidate was the slightly better choice may very quickly begin to behave as if the difference between the two candidates was of immense moral significance if some obnoxious person confronts him or her with a demand that s/he shift his or her allegiance to the other one.

A striking example of this latter process took place in my living room some time ago.  Mrs Acilius and I were watching a television program in which singers competed for the votes of the text-messaging public.  Mrs A had been watching the program from its first installment months before, I was watching it for the first time on the night the winner was announced.  As they played the two finalists’ previous performances, I said that the female singer seemed much better than her male antagonist.  Mrs A agreed that she was the better singer and said that she had voted for her, but insisted that the difference between them was really very slight.  “They’ve just chosen better clips from her performances than from his,” she explained.  “I wouldn’t be at all upset if he won, he’s almost as good as she is.  I want to buy some of his music, as much as of hers.”  The male singer did win.  Mrs A’s immediate response?  “How the %$&# did that happen!?  She was so much better!”  Well, I said, I suppose more people voted for him, and– “People voted for Hitler, too!”  So in about fifteen seconds, the man went from being virtually as good as the other singer to being Hitler.  When I pointed this out to Mrs A, she burst out laughing.  Her belief that the female singer was the better choice floated back up towards the peripheral layer of her tentative, relatively unimportant beliefs.

While beliefs can shift from one layer of importance to another, they often stay at one level for long periods of time.  Beliefs about religion, politics, sexuality, economics, and other matters touching group identity and kinship structures tend to cluster at the core, while beliefs that do not have any obvious bearing on one’s social position or on any task one is attempting to perform tend to remain in the periphery.  It strikes me that this has implications for the concept of rationality.  What sorts of ideas are subjected to rational scrutiny?  Ideas in the periphery are too unimportant to subject to sustained analysis, unless one is a student in a humanities course looking for a paper topic.  On the other hand, ideas in the core are too important to subject to sustained analysis.  Challenging them brings discomfort and makes enemies.  Only a powerful incentive can ensure that a person will test them thoroughly, and even then defensive bias can be expected to enter in at every point unless one is guided by the most robust methodological constraints.

Of course, there may be times when one takes a perverse pleasure in experiencing discomfort and enmity.  I think of an old friend of mine whose second favorite activity is the denunciation of the Roman Catholic Church, its hierarchy, its doctrines, and its practices.  The only thing to which she devotes more energy than her jeremiads against the Roman Catholic Church is participation in her local Roman Catholic parish, of which she has long been one of the mainstays.  Clearly the denunciations and the devotions are two parts of the same complex of behavior, though how exactly that complex fits together I cannot say.

There are also times when people take pleasure in inflicting discomfort on others and displaying enmity towards them.  At those times, a critic of core beliefs might show both an aggressive bias in treating the beliefs that are explicitly under attack and defensive bias in an attempt to preserve other beliefs, even beliefs that are closely related to them.  We often see this in debates between political partisans or religious sectarians who seem to each other to be separated by vast ideological gulfs, while outsiders find the differences between them incomprehensibly subtle.  I confess to having spent a significant amount of time during the 2012 US presidential campaign listening to supporters of the two chief candidates explain in all earnestness that the health insurance reform one of them had sponsored as governor of Massachusetts was in reality profoundly different from the health insurance reform the other had signed as president, despite all appearances to the contrary.  I did my best to avoid probing into this topic when in conversation with committed partisans on either side, and every time I failed to express solemn agreement with their talking points I elicited a flash of real anger that I only made worse by laughing in their faces.

layers 2

Between “Don’t Care” and “Don’t Dare”

Rational scrutiny, then, is something that takes place mostly in the intermediate layers between the core and the periphery.  This suggests a troubling reflection.  The history of philosophy, the history of art, the history of science, all suggest that the only beliefs likely to survive rational scrutiny are those formed in response to rational scrutiny.  Even a belief supported by such compelling evidence as the belief that the Sun, the stars, and the planets revolve around the Earth eventually collapsed when it was subjected to examination.  If neither the beliefs in the core nor those in the periphery are regularly challenged, then it is only in the intermediate layers, between the outer periphery of beliefs we do not care about sufficiently to challenge them and the inner core of beliefs that we do not dare to challenge, that we can expect any significant percentage of our ideas to be capable of withstanding rational scrutiny.

This may explain why descriptions of rationality so often tend to drift into discussions of problem-solving, even among people who theoretically disagree with thinkers like Max Weber or the pragmatists who would identify rationality with problem-solving.  Our intermediate-importance beliefs tend to be those which we use in performing specific tasks.  So most rational scrutiny takes place among these beliefs, and in the course of problem-solving.  That in turn may go some distance towards explaining the popularity of ideas which depict rationality and emotion as so deeply opposed to each other that any high level of attainment in abstract reasoning is to be taken as evidence of emotional immaturity, and vice versa. 

Indeed, such ideas are so widely taken for granted that it may seem odd to suggest that their popularity needs explaining.  To me it has always seemed odd that our culture posits such a stark opposition between reasoning and feeling.  It is as if we all regarded it as a self-evident truth that there is a war between hands and feet, and that anyone who has exceptional manual dexterity must on that account have difficulty walking, or that any accomplished dancer must be at a loss when called upon to make use of his or her hands.   Regarding hands and feet, the opposite is of course more nearly true.  The more adept one is in using any part of the body, the less distracting that part will tend to be when trying to use another part.  Surely it is the same with emotions and reasoning, other things being equal.  The more mature and integrated one’s emotional state, the wider the range of topics about which one can reason calmly for sustained periods; the more experience one has using reason rigorously, the narrower the range of unfamiliar ideas that are likely to prompt one to seize up with panic.  So why do we assume that expert reasoners must be emotionless automatons, or that deeply happy people must live by pure feeling, not sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought?

That rational scrutiny, in practice, is confined for the most part to a rather narrow band of ideas might explain why it is so commonplace to draw this absurdly stark opposition.   To subject ideas to rational scrutiny seems to imply that they are neither core beliefs, which because of their sensitivity must be exempt from such criticism, or tentative impressions, which because of their triviality do not merit such serious attention.  To set no bounds to rational inquiry may therefore seem to suggest that one has no core beliefs, no tentative impressions, and indeed no sense of proportion whatever.  It is difficult to see how a person of that sort  would be able to empathize with others, and if one had chosen to become such a person it would be reasonable to suspect that one was hiding from some sort of deep pain.  However, that suggestion need not be accurate.  One can have a strong sense of proportion while numbering among one’s core beliefs the conviction that rational scrutiny is of sufficient value that any belief might be subject to it.  Training in philosophy, the arts, science, or any of a number of fields might underpin such a conviction.  Living in accord with that conviction can be a sign, not of perversity or hostility, but of courage.