Skip to content

How all the Welkin rings

January 1, 2017

My favorite Christmas carol has long been “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Its was written by Charles Wesley, but the first two verses, especially, have been heavily modified. (Songs, unlike poems that sit inert on the page, tend to be transformed in the mouths of their cantors.) I almost wish the first line had been retained, if only for the wonderfully English word “welkin” (which means sky, celestial sphere, etc):

HARK how all the Welkin rings
“Glory to the Kings of Kings,
“Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
“GOD and Sinners reconcil’d!

Joyful all ye Nations rise,
Join the Triumph of the Skies,
Universal Nature say
“CHRIST the LORD is born to Day!

I also like the emphasis on the welkin, rather than its angels. It reminds me of Giotto’s Adoration of the Shepherds—though this is something of an historical accident; much like the sky itself compared to the earth, the blue paint has retained its riches where the other colors have succumbed to the ravages of time.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Giotto in the Cappella degli Scrovegni

Adoration of the Shepherds by Giotto in the Cappella degli Scrovegni


Rolling on and folding out

December 19, 2016

I realized recently that I often make use in my own thought of a distinction that isn’t commonly recognized: that between evolution and development. So I thought it would be worthwhile to set down what I mean by these two terms.

I derive this distinction in part from John Henry Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine. (Incidentally, when papal encyclicals in the late 19th century condemned the view that doctrine evolves, many took this to be a condemnation of Newman’s book—but Newman’s theory of doctrinal development is now considered to have been foundational for Vatican II, so if there is any continuity at all between the pre- and post-Vatican II Church, this distinction better hold water!) In that book Newman distinguishes between the development of a single entity over time, and the replacement of that entity by another, related entity. Take Newman’s example of the Roman Republic: it developed in various ways over a span of several hundred years, and then in the time of Augustus was replaced by the Roman Empire. An entity can change, and indeed must change, so long as the changes do not change the entity’s substantial nature. The changes, moreover, have a direction: a frog does not turn back into a tadpole.

Newman’s book is all about how to recognize the identity between frog and tadpole; he offers little theorizing about what is going on when Empire replaces Republic. Here we look to Charles Darwin, and his theory of evolution via natural selection. The key thought is that there never exists an individual in a vacuum; rather, there exist many, competing individuals, all members of the same species, but all slightly different from one another; and when a new individual comes into being, it is related more closely to some individuals than to others. Over time, the characteristics that predominate in the group, turn out to be the characteristics of those individuals who managed to outcompete the others by producing the most offspring. Unlike development, the “subject” of evolution is not the individual, but the species. But, of course, a species can also be considered as an individual, just an immaterial one, and immaterial v material is not the key difference here. Rather, the key difference is that, for Darwin if not for Aristotle, a species has no nature of its own, but rather is defined only as a set of biological individuals are able to reproduce with one another. Given enough time, a group of rats could be made to evolve into a group of monkeys, and (a point not always recognized) that group of monkeys could be made to evolve into a group of birds, or crocodiles, or anything, really, if the circumstances are correct. We can posit that the group retains its identity across time because it would always be possible to draw a chain of heritage and potential interbreeding between any two members, but no other characteristics of the group are necessarily preserved.

So, to summarize the distinction—which, happily, coincides with the etymologies of the words—evolution (=rolling on) means “altering the composition of the group in accordance with changed external circumstances”; development (=folding out) means “unfurling the nature of the substance according to fixed internal principles”.

According to Newman and Darwin, both forms of change are produced by internal conflict: evolution, through individuals competing against one another to populate the set; development, through individual parts competing against one another for control of the whole. But these are different kinds of conflict, and they generate change in different ways. For Darwin, the conflict is accidental. Even if two members of a species compete directly with one another for a given resource, the conflict is about that resource, not about the species of which both are members. Members conflict with one another in just the same way they conflict with non-members, and we can see that their conflict is “about” the species only in that it affects the species’ trajectory, and can even, if there ever occurs a large enough divergence between subpopulations, lead to speciation. For Newman, on the other hand, the conflict does not just happen to determine, but is actually about what the organism will do next. It is best understood as a form of productive tension. Absent a connection to be tensed, the conflict makes no sense, and so if the two parties to the conflict ever reach the point of having nothing in common, the organism has not been split in half, it has ceased entirely to exist—it has died.


I’ll close with some examples of evolution and development:

Biological species, as already discussed, evolve through competition between their different members, while biological individuals develop through the tension established between various body parts. When the members of a biological individual begin, not just coming into productive conflict, but actually competing, we call that cancer. And when any subset of a biological species stops competing, we start thinking of it as analogous to an individual—for example, in a beehive.

The civitas terrena evolves: different regimes in different lands rise, fall, war with one another, and inspire one another’s politics. The civitas Dei, on the other hand, develops: the Church is a single organism, and its parts may strain to move it in different directions, but any civil war within it would be a scandal. This is, incidentally, the reason why federalism can be good idea in secular politics, but not in ecclesiology. Evolution requires experimenting and seeing what works, with little any imposition of top-down authority. Development, on the other hand, cannot abide experimentation: the activity of every member affects every other member, and it is impossible to just “do one’s own thing” without damaging the unity of the whole.

Economic markets evolve. Economic agents, even “fictional” agents like corporations, develop. Attempts to establish an artificially selective environment in corporate settings tend to backfire, since it encourages workers to compete against one another directly, as individuals, rather than to come into conflict only when they disagree as to the good of the firm. Of course, a corporation can undergo many transformations, beginning as a small-town soap manufacturer and ending as a global conglomerate. This is perhaps because corporations are only analogous to agents, and so can undergo transformations that would mean death for any substantial individual. Or perhaps it reveals the true essence of that particular structure of corporation, as a pure profit maximizer. But either way, we still need to draw a distinction between this kind of transformation, which is at worst a perversion of development, and evolution, which is another thing entirely.

Levels in the evolution of (X)

December 5, 2016

This somewhat rambling post is an attempt to think about the two things in the history of the universe which have in some sense evolved: life, and thought.

Walter J. Ong was an English professor and theorist of information technology, that is, of the different modes of consciousness brought about by orality (speaking), chirality (handwriting), printing (which really should have a Latin word!), and, now, the various electronic media. As I read, I found myself persuaded of the existence of these differences—for example, orality emphasizes memorability, while printing emphasizes visual organization—but skeptical of the claim that these modes followed one another in a teleological sequence. Why should that be? I was particularly skeptical of his claim that electronic media are the next step in said sequence. To be sure, it is difficult to envision writing being invented before speaking, or printing before writing, or computers before printing. But it’s also easy to imagine any of these being invented in a slightly different way and so leading to an entirely different future. “Electronic media,” in particular, is a black hole: why assume that telegraphy, telephony, radio, television, computers, and the internet share some common essence, rather than being disparate inventions with disparate implications for the human psyche?

Meanwhile, I’ve been mulling over Eliezer Yudkowsky’s thoughts about natural selection (which are intended as an analogy for how artificial intelligence will bring about a new paradigm of self-optimization, and so are also, in a way, about that vague category “electronic media”). I’m still not sure what I think of AI GO FOOM!, but I am attracted to the more restrained form of teleology his approach suggests. Each innovation, he says, happens by accident, but each innovation also makes possible new innovations by opening up a new “search space,” so it begins to look teleological, when really it is just a question of dependencies.

The other development Eliezer thinks comparable to AI GO FOOM is human rationality, i.e. civilization. Here we come to the reason for this post: though Eliezer doesn’t talk about it, there exists a noteworthy homology between the various innovations which contributed to evolution, and those which contributed to civilization. The (roughly) three evolutionary developments Eliezer thinks “notable” are:

  • Cellular integrity (and DNA is basically an extension of this): The point, Eliezer says, is to “Force a set of genes, RNA strands, or catalytic chemicals to share a common reproductive fate”
  • Multicellular organisms: Of course this depends on cellular integrity. Eliezer says that “the key here is the controlled specialization of cells with an identical genetic heritage”; in other words, the cells aren’t bound together in the organism the way genes are bound together in cells, but rather the the cell itself comes to contain more genes which now express themselves only in special circumstances; the point is again to allow for more complex blueprints
  • Sexual selection: Eliezer doesn’t go into detail here, and it’s difficult to sum up what sexual selection does. The Red Queen hypothesis suggests that, once sexual reproduction comes into being, sexual replicators can change more quickly and so outcompete non-sexual replicators; hence it being advantageous even for some single-celled organisms. But true sexual selection can exist only when the individual replicator has something like a “desire” to reproduce, which leads to competition between possible mating partners. Best-case scenario, this accelerates natural selection by having organisms be attracted to what will make them more fit; worst-case scenario, it leads to weird feedback loops and the peacock’s tail.

Evolution, per Dawkins, optimizes genes; human reason, meanwhile, optimizes memes. If memes exist wherever there is learning, then the memetic equivalent of the first time a molecule copied itself (i.e. of the first gene), was the first time an animal got the idea to do something by looking at what another animal was doing—at that moment was born the first meme. Of course, like a free-floating molecular replicator, such memetic replication is quite weak. It takes further developments to get to things that seem really interesting. And these developments are in many ways analogous to those that took place in the history of genetics:

  • Language seems a lot like cellular integrity. The point of language is to tie together a bunch of different memes in the vocabulary of the language itself, allowing them to be transmitted together (you can’t learn just one word of a language), and so allowing more complex memes to form than otherwise would have been possible.
  • Writing is like multicellular organisms. It allows for the controlled specialization of thinkers who share an identical memetic heritage. Without writing you cannot have a division of labor between domains of knowledge, you can only have the received wisdom of your culture. Put differently, without writing, it’s difficult to develop jargon.
  • Printing is like sexual selection. Writing did, of course, allow for communication between disparate regions, but it’s primary purpose was to pass on information within a society. Printing allowed for the development of vast communication networks, and so to the cross-pollination of ideas. It also seems reasonable to say that it edges out writing-sans-printing through something like the Red Queen hypothesis. Finally, printing can, in fact, exist without writing—printing just means pressing a single pattern onto multiple receptables. But it only gains it’s innovative power when it is combined with writing, ie with specialized thinking, at which point it produces something like the scientific revolution.

What, if anything, is “electronic media” like? Of course we can’t answer this question until we know what “electronic media” means: is Ong right that the most important aspect of it is that it allows for instant communication, or is Eliezer right to emphasize the way it allows a feedback loop in the designing of machines? If Eliezer is right that AI GO FOOM, then it doing so resembles nothing so much as the origin of life and thought themselves. In which case it’s silly to think about electronics as a stage in human consciousness, just as it’s silly to think about the origin of human consciousness as a stage in the history of evolution, rather than the stage at which biological evolution ceases to be the most interesting thing going on.

I’m suspicous of this way of thinking, of course, but not so suspicious that I’m willing to dismiss it entirely.

Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, Universorum Regis

November 20, 2016

As so often happens, history figures liturgy. Some poems for the present climate:

“Ovid in the Third Reich,” by Geoffrey Hill:

non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare, solaque famosam culpa professa facit. (Amores, III, xiv)

I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Choir. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.


“Epitaph on a Tyrant,” by W. H. Auden:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.


“Thou art indeed just,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.


November 14, 2016

A sequel to my election-day post: now that the apocalypse has arrived, what has been revealed? In fact, very little; almost nothing. On the one hand, because everyone already knew how all but a minute fraction of the population would vote; the outcome was surprising, but the intentions behind the outcome were all known in advance. On the other, because, precisely because the outcome was surprising, we thus far have no idea what it means.


This absence of significance reminds me of an essay written by a professor of mine, Miguel Tamen, called “In Defense of King Louis XVI”. (For those not on a university campus it might be behind a paywall. I’m not sure.) Tamen observes that we often insist on the right to determine the meaning of our actions, and argues that

A conflation of psychology and politics appears to be responsible for this state of affairs. Such is the confusion of self-description with self-­determination that surrendering one’s right to the former feels like surrendering a civil right. Self-description, however, is barely a right, if at all; it is, rather, a matter of being good, true, accurate, and successful at describing this-­thing-­here. Some people are naturally good at it, some learn how to become good at it, some forget how good they once were, and some are hopelessly inept. None should be deprived of their civil rights because they failed the introspection exam, just as no one should be granted any additional right because he or she happened to be at the right time in the right place.

Which is to say: you do not get to decide what your vote meant. You cannot say “I voted for A because of X, not because of Y, and so Y is not my responsibility.” Ignorance of Y is not excuse; you might be culpably ignorant. A belief that X outweighs Y is no excuse; you might be culpably mistaken. Even your belief that you did not vote for A because of Y might be mistaken; you have no special insight into your own motives. You cannot know if your conscience is clean. This is, incidentally, why I do not trust Kant as a moral guide: he assumes that the good will will always recognize its own purity.


Note that your ignorance as to your own culpability is increased, not decreased, by the fact that to vote is to participate in a collective action. “We the people” elected Donald J. Trump president. If you voted, regardless of whom you voted for, you are a member of this “we”; you demonstrated your assent to the system of government under which Trump is the lawful president-elect. (If you want to take your assent back because Trump won, it means that all along your vote was in bad faith.) The meaning of this election might already be determined, but it remains to be seen what it signified, and no one has the authority to decide what their vote meant independent of the meaning of the election as a whole.


At least, so we must say if our vote is to make any sense at all. But I worry—are elections epiphenomenal? By which I mean, does any human being have any significant influence on the results, or are they merely the spontaneous overflow of collective feeling? Does it even make sense to think of the election as a collective action—and if not, is democracy any more meaningful than augury?

In favor of the individual-action theory, we can place these facts: that Clinton could have won if she had just campaigned in the states where she most needed to; that Trump won without winning the popular vote because he realized that he lived in a system where he did not have to do so. The former is pure hubris and ineptitude, the latter a winning strategy open to anyone willing to give up on the idea that winning an election conveys, above and beyond the raw power, some sort of moral legitimacy. These are both comprehensible as human actions, and lend themselves, even in these democratic times, to somewhat of a “great man” theory of politics.

In favor of epiphenomenalism, on the other hand: the fact that it came down to these two candidates in the first place; the fact that not only were both candidates wildly unpopular, but also all of the third party candidates were more laughable than usual; the fact that, despite the caution of the most competent data analysts, all of that part of the country that thinks it represents the country was convinced that Clinton would win easily. None of these facts can be blamed on Trump, or on Clinton, or on any other particular person. Rather, we can identify a number of systemic causes: our “first past the post” voting system (a ranked-preference voting system would have led, if nothing else, to a considerably larger third party vote, and might well have changed the results of the Republican primary); the flash-in-the-pan faux-outrage made possible by Facebook and Twitter; the epistemic bubbles made possible by those same technologies. All of these things could have been otherwise, but could only have been changed by people who had no idea why the change might matter.


Implicit in this skeptical doubt, of course, is the feeling that Facebook and Twitter &co. simply exist, independent of anything we do. I’ve written before about how dangerous this feeling is. What I want to mark now is its pervasiveness. “For those not on a university campus,” I wrote earlier, “it might be behind a paywall, I’m not sure.” It’s difficult to specify why, but I can’t help but think that to make such a link while failing to know such a thing is somehow in bad faith. I have no idea what the election will turn out to mean. For now,  I can’t help but suspect that what we’ve seen so far is more significant as an epiphenomenon of the history of technology than as an action in the arena of politics.

Divagations on the impending apocalypse

November 8, 2016

From the Greek ἀποκαλύπτειν to uncover, disclose, from ἀπό off + καλύπτειν to cover. One does not, of course, expect that anything particularly unexpected will occur. Rarely, in fact, does one feel so fully the difference between the difference between future and preterite, and the difference between certain and uncertain. Nor does one expect anything unusually horrific; undoubtedly the horrorshow of history will continue as per usual.


The verb “to vote” is almost always treated as self-explanatory, which ought to strike us as strange, since the act of voting cannot even be imagined except under political conditions that are far from universal. For those curious: “vote,” from Latin vōtum promise, desire, properly the past participle neuter of vovēre to vow, to wish. Agamemnon desired; Jephthah promised; we vote.


Since voting is not, after all, very much like pulling a lever on a baroque piece of machinery, these two propositions at least seem clear. To “vote your preference” is to endorse a system of government under which decisions are made based only on the aggregation of personal lust. To “vote your conscience” is to endorse a system of ethics under which actions are judged based only on the subjective state of the agent.


Of bloggity-thingy-endorsements, my favorite was that given by SlateStarCodex:, mainly for how unabashedly neoliberal is its reasoning: “Suppose you live in a swing state. If you think (in a well-calibrated way) that it’s 10% more likely that your candidate will use $1 trillion well than that the other candidate will, your vote is worth $500. If you live in a safe state, it’s more like $30. If you value the amount of time it takes to vote at less than that, voting is conceivably a good use of your time.” Of course, “We don’t know for sure that we’re right about politics,” but “if you’re seriously uncertain about whether or not you think more clearly than the average voter, by that fact alone you almost certainly do.” That’s all well and good—but what if the average voter and I differ not in our knowledge, but in our preferences?


In Australia, voting is mandatory, with a small fine—about $30, I’m told—for those who fail to fill out a ballot. Of course, Australia also has preferential voting: I rank this candidate #1, this candidate #2, this one #3…; tally results, kick out the lowest performer, shift the votes of those who supported them to the next candidate on the voters’ ranked list, and repeat until some candidate has a majority. Like all non-dictatorial systems, preferential voting is susceptible to tactical voting (that is to say, lying), but it is more resistant to it than most.


Given the state I live in, I was surprised the other day to see on television an ad for a major party presidential candidate. But then I remembered that the Senate race here is rather close. This observation does not, of course, disprove the claim that local elections matter, but it calls into doubt whether anyone really considers any elections to be local.


In 1939 David Jones wrote to his friend Harman Grisewood, after reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “it is amazingly interesting in all kinds of ways—but pretty terrifying too. God, he’s nearly right—but this hate thing mars his whole thing.” The word “hate,” for a devout Catholic, is quite strong, and surely, one would think, sufficient to dispel any suspicion that he was a Nazi sympathizer. And yet many, perhaps most students of modernism are convinced that Jones and his ilk were secret fascists; the moderate position being that they kept their fascism secret even from themselves. To be sure, Jones opposed both liberal democracy and communism, which cannot help but make him a fascist, if “fascist” is our term for all those who are both  anti-communist and anti-liberal.


We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this,” reasoned the politician. SMBC calls it “the falling problem.” Meanwhile, Alisdair MacIntyre tells us that “The way to vote against the system is not to vote”; since, in the American system at least, abstentions are not counted against either of the major candidates, ones suspects MacIntyre of an equivocation.


The problem with voting for a third party is not that a third party candidate cannot win; it’s that a third party candidate is almost never actually prepared to be president. This poses no practical problem, since of course they stand no chance of winning. But it poses a theoretical problem: if you refuse to vote for a major party candidate because you think them likely to be a disaster in this or that respect, why are you willing to vote for someone who would, if elected, be an absolute disaster all across the board? The same, of course, applies to those who abstain from voting entirely: do you really want to live in a world where the U.S.A. suddenly has no head of state?


Ishmael says of the monkey-rope: “So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death….”


In the intersection of the legal doctrines of felony murder and common purpose, if one bank robber kills a security guard, even if by accident, he and all of his accomplices are guilty of murder. Or so, at least, Denis Johnson’s Angels would have it.


Criminal and corporate law, two-party systems, print radio and television, webcomics and bloggity thingies and websites of statistical aggregation—all these baroque pieces of machinery—are not, of course, to blame. To blame are those who summoned them from the deep without a plan for how to subjugate them to our will. But then, without such mechanisms, we have no way to determine what will, if any, should be called ours.


Is this post’s greatest flaw that it takes all these things too seriously, or that it takes them not seriously enough? The only note I can think to end on is that sounded by the gloriously melodramatic pastiche that is the original Star Wars, when Obiwan Kenobi senses the destruction of Alderaan: “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”

On talking to yourself

October 31, 2016

Socrates, in Plato’s Theaetetus:

You, Theodorus, are a lover of theories, and now you innocently fancy that I am a bag full of them, and can easily pull one out which will overthrow its predecessor. But you do not see that in reality none of these theories come from me; they all come from him who talks with me. I only know just enough to extract them from the wisdom of another, and to receive them in a spirit of fairness. And now I shall say nothing myself, but shall endeavour to elicit something from our young friend.


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IX.iv:

Therefore, since each of these characteristics [of friendship] belongs to the good man in relation to himself, and he is related to his friend as to himself (for his friend is another self), friendship too is thought to be one of these attributes, and those who have these attributes to be friends. Whether there is or is not friendship between a man and himself is a question we may dismiss for the present; there would seem to be friendship in so far as he is two or more, to judge from the afore-mentioned attributes of friendship, and from the fact that the extreme of friendship is likened to one’s love for oneself.


Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §270:

Let us now imagine a use for the entry of the sign “S” in my diary. I find out the following from experience: whenever I have a particular sensation, a manometer shows that my blood pressure is rising. This puts me in a position to report that my blood pressure is rising without using any apparatus. This is a useful result. And now it seems quite indifferent whether I’ve recognized the sensation correctly or not. Suppose that I regularly make a mistake in identifying it, this does not make any difference at all. And this alone shows that the supposition of this mistake was merely sham. (We, as it were, turned a knob which looked as if it could be used to adjust something in the machine; but it was a mere ornament not connected with the mechanism at all.)

And what reason do we have here for calling “S” the name of a sensation? Perhaps the kind of way this sign is employed in this language-game. And why a “particular sensation”: that is, the same one every time? Well, we’re supposing, aren’t we, that we write “S” every time.