Sunday, April 18, 2010

Future Findings now Foreshadowed

The Internet is not an environment directly comparable to—I’m searching for a phrase—“the pre-web world of books and readers.” But the web has masses of written materials intended to be read—and intended to be read in the same way as books or magazine articles were once written—namely with an expectation that they would get concentrated attention. The big difference is that all of the material on the web is held by computers. The environment is also interactive. In the old days authors did not have access to praise or vitriolic criticism jotted into margins. But precisely such interactions on the web could be tracked and studied. The resources we’re now accumulating may in the future give us insight not only into how the web performs as a medium of communications; the data may also illuminate how the “world of books and readers” once behaved. What it might show is that genuine readers—the kind that authors really write for—have always been and still remain a very tiny fraction. Rereading that last sentence, I think: “Yes, but that’s kind of obvious.” True. But sometimes the obvious is novel.

This came to mind yesterday. I visited the blog of the philosopher, Edward Feser. I’d been there before, but this time I followed a line of exposition across numerous posts and got a better feel. Feser’s is a genuinely popular blog with lots of comments—thus producing a wealth of material on its readers, those, at any rate, who spend time writing comments. Feser’s content is on a high level and his writing communicates with fluidity and grace. In the sequence of posts I read, Feser notes at intervals that his critics rarely seem to understand what he is saying—and do not read his or others’ writings with sufficient care to grasp the fundamentals. The comments—if one girds up the loins for the unpleasant task of reading them—largely confirm the charge.

In this family we are much taken with the concept of adequacy. We encountered it in E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed. (I’ve mentioned Schumacher before a number of times; to see earlier entries, please use the Index.) The concept goes deep into the past; it's also “obvious” and yet perpetually “young”; but the formulation which emphasizes adequacy comes from Thomas Aquinas in the context of truth. “Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectusOn Truth, Q1, A1-3. Truth is the adequacy of the thing and the intellect. Put less mechanically, truth emerges when the intellect is adequate to the object it perceives. Schumacher quotes Plotinus (who goes back to the third century AD) as saying: “Knowing demands the organ fitted to the object.” The intellect is personal. It develops over time. Adequacy grows as the organ is developed. Conversely, when some people do not “get it,” bad will may not be the cause. They may simply be inadequate.

We all know—and it is a matter common experience—that when something new emerges, be it good news or bad—those who hear it have an urge to share. Waiting for my daughter Michelle to be born, I fell asleep in the waiting room; I was all alone. It was the morning of November 24, 1963. I was awakened by a young black woman, a nurse’s aide, I think. I emphasize: she was quite young. She shook me, shook me awake. As my eyes opened, her face was in my face. “They shot him,” she said to me with evident emotion. “They shot him.” She held a little radio but did not wait for an answer. Having informed me, she was off, running down the empty corridor. I was, no doubt, the first human she had glimpsed after having heard the news—and she had to tell someone. Who had been shot? Lee Harvey Oswald.

The urge to communicate appears to be innate. The capacity to understand, however, depends on slow development; it grows slowly and over the years. The truth, therefore, presents the picture of a mountain that narrows as it rises to the heights, and as we ascend toward its peaks, the number of climbers diminishes in proportion to the height. The decillions of bytes held in computer memories across the world may someday be subjected to critical analysis by computers of the future; that analysis will then, I think, present a scientific proof of these musing. A handful of people then will understand the findings; lots of other people will hear of the news in a sound-byte or two and soon again forget.


  1. "The truth, therefore, presents the picture of a mountain that narrows as it rises to the heights, and as we ascend toward its peaks, the number of climbers diminishes in proportion to the height."

    I especially like this image in the context of the current Information Age. Truth is indeed out there, even if sometimes it seems that its peaks are mere islands that rise briefly amid oceans of sludge.

    We just all need to take care to look for those islands and to try to climb them from time to time, even if we don't succeed on the first attempt.

  2. It is funny that in the Information Age, one should feel as if it is as difficult as ever, more so even, to find reliable, measured, and trustworthy information. Then again, this is the age in which I live and my ideas about what other ages were like is... not all that trustworthy. Thinkg have probably not changed dramatically in this regard, other than to make it easier for those who in any age would make the effort, to get at stuff. And, that is good.

  3. A good story. The nurse in 1963 experienced something, but it could not be understood as useful knowledge until she had created a story about it, no matter how brief and perfunctory and ambiguous: "They shot him!"

    If she could not have articulated...if we could not have articulated...we would have mourned, but there would have been no Warren Commission.