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A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Pot of Message

Today's miscellany of pithy quotes and comments offered for your intellectual snack-food.

Toward the Notion that Great Art is Objective
We distinguished the excellent man from the common man by saying that the former is the one who makes great demands on himself, and the latter the one who makes no demands on himself, but contents himself with what he is, and is delighted with himself. 
-- José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses

Art and Craft
Installations have always seemed the genre best suited for people whose ambition to be an artist is greater than their willingness to acquire the skills necessary to become one.
-- Theodore Darymple

The Smell of Great Art
But then I am a bit old fashioned in that I still believe in truth, that people ought to be able to distinguish by smell a Big Mac from a filet mignon.

For more on the question of Great Art and whether there is any such thing, see Wm. Brigg's blog and John C. Wright's blog, here and here.

On the Nature of the Savage
It is the point about the Prussian that with him nothing is mutual. The definition of the true savage does not concern itself even with how much more he hurts strangers or captives than do the other tribes of men. The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you; and howls when you hurt him.
-- G.K.Chesterton, The Barbarism of Berlin

This is more general than it may seem, since the savage might be an artist who laughs when he foists some new trendy work on the public and howls when the middlebrow public dares to criticize him.  Constant Reader is welcome to supply other examples of "do unto others, but not unto me."  


This is exemplified by a news story in the Detroit Free Press
Since being sent to a state prison near Ann Arbor [for planning the murder of her father and attempted murder of her mother], Tia Skinner said she has not heard from her mother, her siblings or anyone else from the close-knit Yale community near Port Huron.
"It's been rough. It's hard losing your whole family in a blink of an eye," she said. "It's tough because that's my family; they're supposed to stay by you through thick and thin."
Come to think of it, isn't that the definition of chutzpah, too?

On the Desire of the Late Modern Artist to Shock
Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. . . . It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal; and that you are a paralytic.
-- G.K. Chesterton, “On Dialect and Decency”, Avowals and Denials
+ + +

Never say philosophy never did anything for natural science....

Creatio ex Nihilo and the Conservation of Mass-Energy
In physics it is a fundamental truth that energy can neither be created nor destroyed (the first law of thermodynamics). This simply reflects the metaphysical truth that since all changes in nature require natural causes, and since those causes are finite, and since finite causes cannot create something out of nothing or turn something into nothing, a natural substantial change is not a series of creations and annihilations. Positively speaking, a substantial change is an actualization of the potentiality which some substance has with respect to some new substance: walls can be turned into rubble but not into fish. 

Now let us take a moment to consider taking a moment. 

Achilles and the Tortoise, to the Limit
   The question to be considered is whether time is made up of durationless instants.
   The short answer to the question is that it cannot be, for the reason Zeno originally proposed in respect of lines: if a temporal interval or a line segment were composed of durationless instants or points of zero length respectively, then neither the interval nor the segment could have a length greater than zero. The usual approach to the problem now is to invoke the mathematical consistency of proposing finite sums to series of infinite numbers, but this does not dissolve the paradox since infinite series never literally sum to a finite number, they only converge on it as a limit. ...  Similarly, when derivatives are invoked to model motion at an instant, they are only ever limits to an infinite series of measurements: instantaneous velocity, for instance, is no more nor less than v = lim (dt→0) dx/dt. While it is convenient to ignore talk of limits when calculating using such concepts as instantaneous velocity, and while such concepts may be mathematically consistent, the ontological truth is that limit concepts do not denote actual entities. And an instant, conceived of as durationless (not as a fleeting “chronon” or “instanton” of some physical speculation), is just such a limit concept – it is not an actual something, it is an actual nothing. And no number of nothings can ever make up a something, no matter what sorts of mathematical technique are invoked.


One often hears that Zeno was refuted by the development of mathematical limit theory, which only goes to show that Moderns did not know what Zeno was trying to do.  The medievals considered Zeno well and truly answered by Aristotle, long before mathematical limits were conceptualized.  (Which, btw, can be found in Bradwardine and Heytesbury in the 14th cent.  "Instantaneous motion" was devised by Bradwardine.)


Whitehead Takes a Moment
In the concept of instantaneousness the concept of the passage of time has been lost.  Events essentially involve this passage.  Accordingly the self-contradictory idea of an instantaneous event has to be replaced by that of an instantaneous configuration of the universe.  But what is directly observed is an event.  Thus a duration, which is a slab of time with temporal thickness, is the final fact of observation from which moments and configurations are deduced as a limit...  [I]t is an essential assumption that a concrete fact of nature always includes temporal passage.

Triumph!
[S]ince the triumph of what was called rationalism, we have successfully cultivated everything except reason.
 -- G.K. Chesterton, “On Monsters and Logic”, Avowals and Denials
The first essay in the collection involves our friend from an earlier post, the Loch Ness Monster.  

On the Inadequacy of the Natural
Irrational natural explanations are no less irrational for being natural.
-- Brandon Watson

Especially when they are hanging in the air, unsupported by factual evidences.  A scientific theory used to need something more than mere plausibility.  It was not enough to have a "natural explanation."  You had to show that nature actually did act in that manner. 

On the True Nature of Heresy
I attacked the foundation of morality in Erewhon, and nobody cared two straws.  I tore open the wounds of my Redeemer as he hung upon the Cross in The Fair Haven, and people rather liked it.  But when I attacked Mr. Darwin they were up in arms in a moment.
-- Samuel Butler, quoted by John Lukacs in "History and Physics."

On the Triumph of Credentialism
As long as the piece of paper called a BA remains the emblem of educational success, it will lead to colleges and community colleges that collude with students to provide that piece of paper without regard to anything that is learned.
-- Charles Murray

Bureaucracy vs. Meritocracy
In reality the term 'meritocracy' was misleading.   As in so many other spheres of life, the rules that governed the practices and functions of schools and universities were bureaucratic rather than meritocratic.  It is bureaucracy, not meritocracy, that categorizes the employment of people by their academic degrees. 
-- John Lukacs, At the End of an Age

On the Spread of Literacy
The majority of people during the last one hundred years who learned how to read and write made little use of it. ... [I]n the long run the literacy of the masses made very little difference.

It matters less that you can read than that you do read.  It may also matter what you read; which takes us full circle to the top of today's post.

11 comments:

  1. Irrational natural explanations are no less irrational for being natural.

    -- Brandon Watson

    That is wonderful. Thanks, that should go on a refrigerator or t-shirt, at the very least.

    As to the final Lukacs quotation: true, but the model changed about that time (100 years ago) - prior to around the 1880, the majority of Americans learned to read on someone's knee from the King James Bible; after that time, they would have been more likely to have learned how to read in a 'scientific' school, where, as Woodrow Wilson pointed out, the great bulk of us peons were to be prepared for specialized manual labor, not thinking.

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  2. [S]ince the triumph of what was called rationalism, we have successfully cultivated everything except reason. -- G.K. Chesterton

    Mr. Flynn, somewhere else, in "Orthodoxy," GKC suggests that the Modern Age, rejecting Aristotelianism in the name of cultivating reason or rationalism, has instead ironically ushered in a kind of madness that can only end in skepticism (HT: Martin Cothran):

    The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end. ... The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious.

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  3. Oderberg: This simply reflects the metaphysical truth that since all changes in nature require natural causes, and since those causes are finite, and since finite causes cannot create something out of nothing or turn something into nothing, a natural substantial change is not a series of creations and annihilations.

    I'm not quite sure what he's getting at here. There's no metaphysical necessity to mass-energy's being conserved; a different universe with different laws of physics could have total mass-energy changing over time without any creation or annihilation. Or does he simply mean that physics "reflects" the metaphysics in this way in the sense that God happened to make a universe which happens to have some kind of poetic resemblance between the two; he's drawing our attention to the divine pun or parallel which didn't have to be there, but delights us just like discovering some parallel in a work of literature.

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    1. The first law is more of a definition rather than a 'truth'.

      Physicists freely define and invent or postulate all kinds of energies as to keep the first law. E.g. potential energy and also now 'dark mass'.

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    2. Those are what we used to call simply "potency" and "the aether." (N.B., not the Lorenzian aether.)

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  4. Oderberg: And an instant, conceived of as durationless, is just such a limit concept – it is not an actual something, it is an actual nothing. And no number of nothings can ever make up a something, no matter what sorts of mathematical technique are invoked.

    I don't buy that infinitesimals are impossible (if talk of limits is really the problem, then recast calculus using hyperreals à la Robinson), but maybe he has better arguments in the rest of the paper. However, this last point surely is mistaken — he seems to be falling into the same trap that catches anyone who thinks zero is "nothing", or philosophically naive physicists who think the quantum vacuum is "nothing". An infinitesimal bit of time is most definitely something; for one thing it is temporal (as opposed to, say, an infinitesimal spatial distance), and it seems quite proper than an infinite number of infinitesimal moments should add up to a finite moment. I don't know why Oderberg is so suspicious of mathematics; it is true that the map is not the territory, but if the math works, reality might be more than what the mathematics alone tells us, but it cannot be less. (And if he wants to say that the math isn't really right, it's only approximately so, that may be, but that doesn't show that a different universe couldn't be exactly that way, and he's claiming that that would be impossible, not merely that the real world happens not to be built that way.)

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    1. In this regard, Whitehead's comment is helpful.

      Remember, too, that mathematical models are an approximation to reality. Reality is not an approximation to the mathematical model. ("All models are wrong; some are useful" -- George E.P. Box) For example, the normal distribution gives a useful model for many variables - say, the heights of adult Frenchmen. But the normal curve goes to plus and minus infinity, which Frenchmen do not.

      In the same way, a limit is a mathematical fiction. For example, consider the power function Y^λ used in Box-Cox transformations of certain species of non-normal data. The actual value of Y^0 is 1, a constant. But lim(λ→0)Y^λ=log(Y).

      If anything, a Thomist like Oderberg is more likely than most to realize the distinction between zero and nothing.
      + + +

      That other "universes" exist in which mass-energy is not conserved awaits empirical observation. We are meanwhile stuck with the universe we have. I suspect the later scientific principle of conservation derives from the earlier metaphysical insight that natural causes are transformations, not creations.

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    2. TOF: If anything, a Thomist like Oderberg is more likely than most to realize the distinction between zero and nothing.

      Yes, which was why I thought it was a strange thing to say. And as I said, if the "useful" mathematical model isn't literally true of durations, i.e. if there really are no such things as infinitesimal times, then that's fine; but if there were such things, then the model would apply, and we could conclude that an infinity of infinitesimals does add up. But we have to decide whether the model applies or not based on whether instants are infinitesimal, not the other way around. I do think that the interpretation of "limits" is relevant in this regard, but I believe it can be suitably framed in other terms.

      I looked through the paper, but only very quickly; I need more time to give it proper attention. But I never have understood how infinitely divisible time (or space) helps. Not being infinitely divided means we don't have to worry about traversing an actual infinity of points, but if something passes through a continuous stretch, we have to account for each possible "point" anyway. So either time is discrete, or we have an infinite number of [potential] points, which add up the way calculus says.

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    3. if something passes through a continuous stretch, we have to account for each possible "point" anyway.

      As I understand it (which I may not) there are no physical "points". They are only convenient concepts to enable the math to approximate to the reality. The math (indeed, the natural science) only considers the abstract structure of reality, and not reality itself. Whitehead made the same point about the unreality of instants in physics in his Principle of Relativity.

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  5. TOF: I suspect the later scientific principle of conservation derives from the earlier metaphysical insight that natural causes are transformations, not creations


    That sounds quite likely to me. Though I suspect that a confused idea of reductionism might have been mixed in: supposing that if everything is just re-arrangements of atoms, then there is no creation or annihilation. When actual substances come and go, however, their properties needs not add up so neatly. (Somewhere in there is also the notion that things would be more "elegant" that way, and God would have created an elegant universe.) Of course, I'm not really awaiting empirical confirmation because I was only thinking of hypothetical universes.

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  6. TOF: As I understand it (which I may not) there are no physical "points".

    I can appreciate the desire to avoid physical points (as in, say, individual substances) so as to avoid a completed infinity. I think the desire is misplaced — a "big" infinity can be a problem (e.g. an infinite per se causal series), but an infinity of points that is finite in measure (if not in count) seems fine. But even allowing that the points don't actually exist as such, they must exist virtually; that is, if an object passes through a certain span of space [or time], then either it hits only certain points (and the span is effectively discrete), or else it occupies all the virtual points in the span. But then why isn't that just as much a problem as if the points were physically real? Or, as I would have it, just as little a problem, given that we have a perfectly good mathematical explanation. (In fact, I think Aristotle himself somewhere replies to Zeno by pointing out that the infinitely small points of space would take infinitely small amounts of time to pass through, so it works out.)

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