Tuesday, May 31, 2011

“Spring Time” Notes on Power

The negative view of power seems to be: people who seek it wish selfishly to benefit themselves. The positive view: people who seek wish unselfishly to benefit others. Generalizations of this sort arise in sophisticated times when power has been institutionalized. But since such simplifications are misleading, sometimes we need to get back to basics. When people suddenly erupt, it’s not some sort of democratic impulse that moves them. Something much more basic is involved.

If we look for the genesis of power, we’ll find it in disorder. This may be “natural disorder” arising from natural events or disorder arising from “conflict.” I’m struck by the fact that the earliest Biblical rulers are Judges, that in what we call primitive societies those exercising power are the Elders. The situation of one ruling over many arises when such rule is efficient and necessary—efficient in responding as one to general chaos. The other arises when parties are in conflict and, to resolve it without bloodshed, it is necessary to look to some third party—not because that party seeks to rule but because it has the character of authority: it is older, wiser, more experienced, more skilled—and this by general consensus of the many.

It is rarely labeled that, but use of excessive power by one person or a group is itself a kind of disorder. Such generally is the case in the situations that have produced the so-called Arab Spring. The very notion that underlies our own constitution is the recognition that the exercise of power is supposed to be occasional—when disorders or conflicts arise. Therefore, in principle, power should be limited and hedged around.

The organizing, enabling role of the oldest—among siblings, for example, among children generally—holds within it the fundamental rules. The oldest will stop useless conflicts; the cleverest will devise the games everybody wants to play. We call the problem of excessive exercise of power in this context the bully. And if the childish society is a healthy and natural one, the bully will be brought under control. When the oldest intervenes, he or she isn’t acting narcissistically. He or she is doing what needs doing. If the scale of things is right, everything works out quite smoothly—although there may be a lot of shouting.

Now it strikes me that in this context top down rule is the natural form. Those more complete generally organize the less complete, those more skilled the less, and so on. Such individuals will be spontaneously seen to have more natural right to do this. Thus elders, judges, and military leaders (who’ve gained authority elsewhere, as it were) are natural—provided, always, that the scale is right. Those governed should be able to see their “betters,” to use a hoary phrase. If they can, they will find the outcomes natural and fitting. In contrast to this, democracy as practiced today is clearly a degeneration.

It is, first of all, based on a false generalization—equality. We may be equal before the law and in the eyes of God; we all have immortal souls. In all other regards, however, we’re observably unequal in gifts, capacities, energies, etc. If the scale were right we would, of course, quite naturally grant the rule to our natural leaders. I’ve seen this amply demonstrated at the local level, where it still works—you might say despite, not because of, the democratic forms. Those challenged by local problems and voluntarily taking them on—as a first-born spontaneously takes charge of younger children when the need arises—become visible because they’re already serving. And it is then quite natural to elect them to office. And, of course, they are our neighbors. But beyond the local level, the scale is wrong. It is too great. Therefore people seek power for murky reasons, rather than, always reluctantly, accepting invitations. And in the very process of seeking it, they disqualify themselves.

Now in the Arab Spring, which is a spontaneous reaction to disorder, excessive power selfishly wielded, the urge is not to achieve democracy, which is, at modern scales, a decadent sort of thing. The Arabs are seeking proper rule. In that context elders, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood and other naturally-occurring groupings of leaders, represent a threat in the eyes of our western media.

But the irony here is that modern democracy, above all, gives power to the media. It is only the media that gives visibility to would-be leaders and is therefore the unelected but permanent source of all power—in the exercise of which it maintains its status and its income and reserves the right to show, under the constitutional right of free speech, whatever programming it pleases, even when it is obviously destructive of social order.

Theoretically, thinkably, we could of course, reform our methods of governance—but practically it is not likely to happen, not until Disorder and Conflict, with leading caps this time, eventually degrade our society sufficiently until a natural devolution takes place. In the meantime, the only rational action is to vote for those who are almost certain to fail—people like Ralph Nader and Ron Paul, for instance—who represent the natural way, sound like our elders, and are clearly running because they see the problem and not the glory or the gain.

* * *

Having written the above, I read it to Brigitte. She reached out and picked up a full-page ad. It said:

Last Wednesday, over
50 million
people watched the
finale of American Idol.
The season’s #1 show
on the #1 network.

Brigitte then said: “With news like this around, what are you doing writing blogs about power?”

To which I answered: “What do antibodies do while waiting to fight a disease? Why, they sit and wait—and, in the meanwhile, they write blog posts about disease.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Poetry by Invitation

Woman and the choir invisible
by Michelle Darnay

Our bodies : the vessel.

We carry the makings of earthly hosts,
Put forth to the world
Generations, generations
Of sadly singing souls
Our impregnated bodies,
The prison guards of essence.

Our cavity : the shell.

Within our wombs two cells unite,
Their nuclei meet, mingle and create
The murky burgeoning,
The original egg,
The tiny prison of a soul flower…

Our world : a purgatory.

Trapped spirits, captured in bodily form.
Ghostly energy striving to be free,
To expand toward the heavens,
To join the swell and wane,
The ever churning smokes :
The lifestream…

Our lives : momentum.

From beginning to end a surge
Of pain then relief,
Of pain then relief;
An ebb and flow,
From one pole to the other,
From there to naught and back again…

Our self: a spark.

The mysterious all
Shattered into morsels;
Ephemeral electricity,
Enlightened fluids
Animating not the vastness
But tiny specks of human dust…

Our existence : a reduction.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Vitalism and the C-H Bond

Organic matter is defined by some, described by others, as matter in which carbon-hydrogen bonds are found. We don’t find such bonds in the inorganic realm, only in what lives right now or once did live. In my private lexicon, the astonishing difference between the living and non-living realms is that life seems almost compulsively (though lustily might be the better word) determined to maintain the same complex form in perpetuity, if possible, and this by countering the death of individuals by reproduction. By form, here, obviously, I don’t mean shape but something like what Aristotle had in mind. Bees will be bees. These forms are not rigidly fixed; they can change over time by various mechanisms; but the changes so made will also then be reproduced.

The fact that C-H bonds are universally present in living entities (or their residues like oil and coal) is also fascinating but not on the same level of incommensurability which life and inorganic reality manifest. Yet it is this difference in kind, rather than in degree, that first generated the notion that some kind of independent life-force must be present in organic matter in addition to the big six (hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur) or the more numerous thirty-three (link) before form preservation by means of reproduction can come about.

I gather that his notion is traceable back to alchemy where, evidently, it arose from the study of combustion. Minerals don’t burn. Clearly the alchemists mustn’t have known about coal—which at least appears to be a mineral. But they observed that things that do burn (wood, straw, etc.) once lived. Therefore that which formed these substances must have added something special to them so that combustion could later work. This idea later evolved into the notion that organic matter had to have carbon. Living matter therefore stood witness to the missing ingredient, the life-force. Chemists therefore held that organic compounds could not be synthesized from the inorganic. The Swedish chemist Jöns Berzelius (1779-1848) formalized this definition; it is to him that we owe the organic-inorganic distinction. He also originated several other new terms, not least catalysis and polymer.

It was one of Berzelius’ students, Friedrich Wöhler (1800-1882), who, later in his career, managed, although unintentionally, to synthesize urea. Wöhler was trying to make ammonium cyanate from silver cyanide and ammonium chloride. Urea, found in urine, was then viewed as an organic compound—it came from a body, after all. Alas it does not contain a C-H bond, but never mind. As this brief biography of him states, his action “shattered the vitalism theory.” But did it? Really?

The modern view is something like this: If it can be shown that a process might have happened accidentally it must have happened accidentally the first time it ever did. But, restricting ourselves strictly to urea, the question arises: Under what circumstances would “nature” be playing accidentally with nice pure forms of silver cyanide and ammonium chloride? The interesting feature of the claim that vitalism has been shattered is that that claim is firmly grounded on a particular kind of metaphysics—namely that life is just a pure continuity of the inorganic, different from the latter by degree, not different in kind.

Now I’ll be generous and stipulate that a thousand monkeys playing on a thousand keyboards might if set the task produce:

Mary had a little lamb,
Little lamb, little lamb,
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow…

...but that would not necessarily prove at all that that ditty had originally also come about by accident. Therefore, in seems to me, vitalism is by no means shattered by the Wöhler synthesis. Here I might add that the synthesis of urea in bodies takes place with casual frequency all the time as the consequence of extraordinarily complex processes of the same sort that cause entities to reproduce. And that showing how one or another chemical can be synthesized does not explain, above all, the very odd phenomenon, reproduction, thus the compulsion, as it were, to preserve a certain kind of form against all odds.

The teleological tendency in life, which reproduction at minimum hints at, is not removed by showing that humans (themselves a form of life), with a good many fancy instruments, can laboriously synthesize what the cells in the body do with ease. Vitalism will be shattered (or transcended) when the teleological tendency is finally explained away (or explained more fully). And a more generous explanation of it would be mildly underlined by the brute fact that inorganic chemistry lacks—but biochemistry majorly, vitally uses—the carbon-hydrogen bond.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


I wonder who these Parkers are? They’re not a prepossessing-looking couple.
     [Inspector Japp in The Market Basing Mystery]
So what exactly does that word mean? Until the recent housing melt-down it might have—but didn’t—mean a couple just before they finally signed that enormous mortgage. But by the early twenty-first century, and long before that time already, the word had lost its currency, certainly in American English. I am sure that I’ve never used it, not in any public writing, nor yet in diaries (where my vocabulary often grows quite rich). But you’ll find it in so popular a novelist as Agatha Christy.

The word speaks of possession and uses the prefix pre, thus before. Literally prepossessing means [someone] possessing [something] before. But before what? In the quoted sentence, it seems as if the prepossession gives the Parkers a certain look—not. But when we unfold the actually meaning of this word, the possessor, or in this case non-possessor, is Inspector Japp. “To prepossess” means that a feeling or impression takes hold of an observer (in our case Japp) of what kind of people the Parkers are—before Japp has gotten to know them. Convoluted sort of meaning. It suggests that first impressions convey something immediate about the people we meet. And people who’re not prepossessing are people who don’t make a good impression. I’ve never seen the word used as an active verb employed by the observer. Japp could have said: “Prepossessing that Parker couple, I don’t get a good impression.” Thus another active verb has fallen into the pit of passivity. Back when the word came into use, the seventeenth century, it used to mean “causing prejudice.”

In the act of curling up with something entertaining to read, laziness prepossesses me. I’ve seen that word hundreds of times in the past. The context had taught me that its meaning is either glowing—or not if it is denied. Now, in my advancing years, I’ve looked it up. At last. And now, finally, I possess prepossessing.

Unprepossessing? Nondescript, not particularly pretty...

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Ring to Rule Them All

Herewith a story:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.

Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result—when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.

Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.

And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. Enough of this. [Glaucon speaking, in Book II of Plato’s The Republic, Benjamin Jowett’s translation]
A collet is a flange that holds the precious stone on the ring. I found this quote thanks to Brandon at Siris who, in this post, made me aware that hidden in Plato is one of the earliest suggestions of cyclic civilization, moving from timarchy (rule by honor, by the best), to oligarchy, democracy, and then to chaos—by very arrangement suggesting a down-ward spiral. I was too young and ignorant in college when last I looked at the Republic and read only selected parts of it as part of a survey course. At the same time I am fairly certain that J.R.R. Tolkien, certainly a scholar, must have read the whole of it. If I had read it, I would certainly have remembered it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is Ether Back?

A May 19, 2011 story in Science Daily (here) carries this headline: Dark Energy is Driving Universe Apart: NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer Finds Dark Energy Repulsive. Most of the text is quoted directly from NASA’s own site here, a press release also dated 5/19/2011.

Fascinating story. We’re approaching a major redefinition of reality. Herewith some background I’ve extracted from Wikipedia. The notion of dark matter surfaced in 1934 and is attributed to the Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky. His calculations suggested that the Coma galaxy cluster had to have considerably more mass than its luminosity indicated. He referred to the invisible mass, necessary for the rotational behavior of the cluster, to be due to “dark matter.” Dark energy got its name in 1998 from the American cosmologist Michael S. Turner. He took his phrasing from Zwicky to give a name to something. That “something” was an even more invisible mass necessary in the cosmos, but present outside of galaxies. This “something” was what caused the observed expansion of the universe; it was some kind of force. Ironically, the theoretical root of this concept dates to 1917 when Einstein introduced a fudge factor into his gravitational field equations; he called it the cosmological constant. Einstein’s equations suggested that gravity would ultimately cause the universe to collapse. A steady-state universe was then the orthodox view; the cosmos was neither growing nor expanding; for this reason Einstein chose a constant that would counteract the gravitational pull suggested by his equations just to the right extent to keep the cosmos in a steady state. When Edwin Hubble’s later observations suggested an expanding universe, Einstein is said to have labeled his constant his biggest blunder; and removed it. Prematurely, it seems. The constant is now back, as dark energy.

Indeed there is, based on calculations of the expansion (now said to be accelerating) and the anomalies observed in galactic rotation (that cannot be explained by gravity working on the visible bodies), far more of it than anything else. Contemplate the picture (from Wikipedia here but downloaded from NASA) of the constitution of the cosmos. Virtually all of the cosmos is dark energy and dark matter, leaving a mere 4 percent for matter; of that 4 percent only 0.4 percent are stars, and the matter of planets is too small to note.

To this I might add that both dark energy and dark matter are based on inferences, not on direct observations, one of cosmic expansion the other of anomalous galactic rotation. I will not be surprised if, in the fullness of time, the two will be found to be the same. It’s all dark energy. And that, folks is the cosmos.

* * *

Now Brigitte (my unfailing muse) pointed me to that story in Science Daily yesterday because of an earlier discussions about David Bohm (see this post). It turns out that Bohm’s own formulation of Quantum Theory in 1993—but already articulated in various forms in 1980 and before—offers a grand theory of the cosmos entirely in consonance with what we are seeing today. Bohm suggests that reality consists of two orders. One he calls the Implicate (enfolded) and the other the Explicate (unfolded) Order. He pictures the first as an “immense ocean of cosmic energy.” A sudden wave pulse within that ocean could create our universe, the Explicate Order, in extent tiny relative to that ocean. “This pulse,” Bohm continues, “would explode outward and break up into smaller ripples that spread yet further outward to constitute our ‘expanding universe’.” These words are from Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980), p. 192. The scientific presentation of these ideas is in his 1993 The Undivided Universe.

In Wholeness Bohm introduces this subject saying:

What is implied by this proposal is that what we call empty space contains an immense background of energy, and that matter as we know it is a small, ‘quantized’ wavelike excitation on top of this background, rather like a tiny ripple on a vast sea.… In this connection it may be said that space, which has so much energy, is full rather than empty. The two opposing notions of space as empty and space as full have indeed continually alternated with each other in the development of philosophical and physical ideas. Thus, in Ancient Greece, the School of Parmenides and Zeno held that space is a plenum [fullness]. This view was opposed by Democritus, who was perhaps the first seriously to propose a world view that conceived of space as emptiness (i.e., the void), in which material particles (e.g., atoms) are free to move. Modern science has generally favored this latter atomistic view, and yet, during the nineteenth century, the former view was also seriously entertained, through the hypothesis of an ether that fills all space. Matter, thought of as consisting of special recurrent stable and separable forms in the ether (such as ripples or vortices), would be transmitted through this plenum as if the latter were empty. [p. 191]
Well, it seems to me that ether is back once more, but differently named. New names are necessary because reputation is so vital in science, and while it is now fashionable to be darkly energetic, it will not do to be ethereal.

Words, words, words. To see our great universe as a minor bubble deep in an ocean of eternity, a bubble broken up and carried by the ocean’s immense energy towards re-absorption in the whole (read expanding universe), is humbling but has a promising flavor. Indeed, NASA seems to agree. It suggests that as Dark Energy has its way with the universe, time will come when we will no longer see the stars out there. Eventually even our own galaxy will begin to spread apart.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Mirror on the Stick

Media produce the feeling that my reading or watching them shows me what is going on in the greater world. The feeling holds an element of truth. News bring reports of distant public, even of private events. My sphere of awareness is thus enlarged. Venturing out locally at six-thirty in the morning I learn only that quite a few people in Grosse Pointe, MI start their days jogging. Reading the morning news is a bit like extending an immensely long stick out of the dark pit of locality where I live; at the end of the stick is a mirror—by means of which I can survey the wider reality I can never actually see in the flesh. Because I am always—even if I travelled to Cairo, say—in a pit of locality. The nature of the mirror at my stick’s other end is therefore of importance. How good is it? To what extent does it distort reality?

Our working assumption is that we can actually know, that we can see, the world. But the mirror is distorted by the very structure of the media. The media report a composite, a manufactured image. It will contain reports of physical events: storms, earth quakes, heat waves, floods, accidents, the outbreak of wars. At a guess these average out to about 10 percent of all reporting. The bulk of news will tend to be political. Strictly speaking these won’t be reports of happenings of the physical kind but accounts of things people are saying. Say 45 percent. Rarely do media stop at that point: President Obama said; Prime Minister Netanyahu said. Accompanying this sort of reporting will be stuff labeled or functioning as commentary, thus things people are saying about what other people are saying. Let’s gauge this, conservatively, at 15 percent. What people say in public life sometimes has consequences, outcomes, results: votes, the passage of laws, financial results of corporations, Supreme Court rulings, etc. 5 percent? This leaves 25 percent, dedicated to what might be labeled as all else, thus sports, “people,” entertainment, “style,” culture, science, etc.

The media have always been about advertising income, somewhat shaded by the will of certain powerful publishers to influence politics. Too many things happen, too many words are uttered; all of it can’t be reported. Editors must therefore choose. And their choices will be government by perceived public interest. If it bleeds it leads; sex sells; celebrity; scandal. The very need to choose, combined with the structural need of news corporations to gain circulation, produces a manufactured composite that mirrors back to us not the world so much, thus as it actually is, but the average of human desire at any moment, but even that desire only as filtered by short-term interest.

Hence of course the notion that the mature adult will consult many sources of information before he or she can be reasonably certain of getting a genuine glimpse of reality. That mirror on the end of the a long stick just won’t do. But by and large it does set the tone.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fitting Equations

All that is clear about the quantum theory is that it contains an algorithm for computing the probabilities of experimental results. But it gives no physical account of individual quantum processes. Indeed, without the measuring instruments in which the predicted results appear, the equations of the quantum theory would be just pure mathematics that would have no physical meaning at all. And thus quantum theory merely gives us (generally statistical) knowledge of how our instruments will function. And from this we can make inferences that contribute to our knowledge, for example, of how to carry out various technical processes….

It follows from this that quantum mechanics can say little or nothing about reality itself. In philosophical terminology, it does not give what can be called an ontology for a quantum system. Ontology is concerned primarily with that which is and only secondarily with how we obtain our knowledge about this. [David Bohm and B.J. Hiley, The Undivided Universe, Routlege, 1993, p. 1-2]
David Bohm (1917-1992) was a quantum physicist. He wrote the definitive Quantum Theory (1951) that Einstein read and of which that sage said that it helped him, finally, to understand the theory. The book remains the central text in the field. The book from which I quote was Bohm’s last work, published posthumously, produced in collaboration with Hiley, a younger mathematician. It is subtitled An ontological interpretation of quantum theory. The book introduces an intuitively accessible (thus “physical”) version of quantum events in which new equations still produce the correct results but beneath them is another conceptualization of what really happens. Bohm approaches the perplexing particle-wave duality issue, for instance, by hypothesizing “that the electron is a particle with well-defined position and momentum that is, however, profoundly affected by a wave that always accompanies it. Far from being hidden, this particle is generally what is most directly manifested in observation.”

I bought this book soon after it appeared. I chanced across it, if that’s the word, while browsing in a bookstore near daughter Monique’s then new apartment; it fell into my hands. I read it, despite its forbidding difficulties (not written for the layman). It opened up huge vistas about the nature of science for me, and particularly the state of science in our times. The content of this book is quantum physics, but its thematic is the profound difference between knowing how we know (epistemology) and knowing what we know (ontology). So long as science is satisfied with fitting equations to observations—without a genuinely physical conceptualization of what actually is or happens behind the observations, science enters a stage of stagnation and of symbolical wizardry without genuine meaning. Bohm quotes a telling statement of fellow physicist, Murray Gell-Mann: “Quantum mechanics, that mysterious, confusing discipline, which none of us really understands but which we know how to use.”

My elated reaction to these revelations from a genuine insider then (and that’s now twenty years ago) was: “I knew something was wrong—but now I know why.” In a way, nothing derails as surely as huge success. And mathematical modeling of phenomena—without genuinely, intuitively, understanding them—has been exactly that. But in that process, in a way—having gained the power to predict and therefore to control—the deeper urge that actually feeds real science, the search for truth, is lost. I would, of course, extend this view backward to relativity (space-time?) and upward to astrophysics (singularity?).

Until I encountered this volume, I only knew of Bohm as one of the physicists—and no doubt often confused him with Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist, who forms the other polarity of quantum theory. Bohr was its high priest, its pope, and a dogmatic preacher of know-nothingism. He is quoted as saying: “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature...” [Emphasis in the original.]

Bohm own view of the problems related to relativity as well as quantum theory was that the answer lay beyond both; both were approximations that frayed at the edges. His own theory of an undivided universe, however well expressed in equations and however accurately matching observations, has not exactly caught on since 1993. But it’s early days yet. In a vast and contentious social process like science, where orthodoxy is very helpful in rising professionally, it takes a long time before paradigms fall.

An earlier work of Bohm’s, first published in 1980, titled Wholeness and the Implicate Order, provides a more accessible approach to his thought. Alas, I found that book long after I’d broken several teeth on his scientific summation.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

They Bended the Light

The trials and traumas of being a science-fiction writer? There are plenty, let me tell you. How do you reconcile the following, for instance: Newton believed that light was made of tiny little particles with mass—but that gravity did not affect them. But Einstein believed they had no mass, but gravity pulled them nevertheless!

Fortunately SF-writers have a kind of license, like court jesters used to have. The latter could speak truth to power and still stay out of dungeons. In our more commercial times, SF-writers don’t aspire to publication in peer-reviewed journals. They worry more when Marvel Comics frowns.

My problems have been with gravity bending light. A writer needs light to fly in straight lines to produce decent space tales. If massive things bend light, even if ever so slightly, and if dark matter is as prevalent as science tells me that it is, how do I know that a star I see at night is actually where it is? It might be somewhere quite different, hiding at the tail end of a million-light-year-zigzag course and not be rotating where it seems to. There may in fact be a huge body entirely obscuring the star I see, but the light from it has managed, by Einsteinian assists, to curl around this obstruction. To illustrate this hide and seek, I provide a graphic I made myself, but the inspiration for it was Jeffrey Reynolds’ here.

The way science explains the dilemma is to say that photons “follow the geodesic” and their mass-less nature does not guarantee straight paths. But what does such phraseology mean? By “geodesic” scientists refer to the curvature of space, more correctly of space-time. It isn’t as if gravity affects a mass-less particle. No. It is that great masses cause space-time to curve. And once that space-time has curved, light follows it. Self-evident, isn’t it? Or is it? Well, let me not try to explain that to a science-fiction reader. Space-time exists (in the sense of really being there) largely as a mathematical conception. And if it exists in reality, there is no actual physical description of how this “whatever” tangibly influences things we can actually see (like light) or touch and feel (like matter). It’s a muddle. I can fill whole walks just pondering how space-time knows to straighten itself out again after a big bad ball has caused it to curve. Or is it just displaced? Like water by a sinking ball of lead? But if so, it must be something. Is there a Theory of the Elasticity and Fluidity of Space-Time? I wonder.

The trigger for these thoughts? Well, in today’s paper I came across a front page story on a discovery, by Takahiro Sumi and team, at the Osaka University, that hundreds of billions of gigantic planets, gas giants like Jupiter, clutter-up our galaxy, none of which is associated with a solar system—orphans, in other words. There are supposed to be twice as many of these orphans as there are suns in the Milky Way—thus around 400 billion of them. Okay. But the interesting thing, for me, is that this discovery is based not on actually seeing these giants in their enormous numbers but by a method called microlensing. And what is microlensing based on? Why, the ability of big heavy objects to bend light. Now we have yet another marvel to add to black holes (that relentlessly suck everything in but, no surprise, sometimes let things escape), the curvature of the universe into a self-contained sphere (what is outside that sphere?), the blackness of space (why isn’t space brilliantly lit when light cannot escape the sphere?), the perpetual expansion of the universe (into what? the as yet undiscovered Cosmic Container?), the big bang before which there was, what? nothing? And finally the energy-death of reality when every last hydrogen has been burned up? Lordy. I sometimes think that treating science as if it were immune to the current philosophical and cultural meltdown is actually a mistake. But not a mistake we have to make in fiction. Those 400 billion lonesome giants might one of these days come in quite handy. And soon there might even be a country-song about them…

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Beguine?

When they begin
the beguine
it brings back the sound
of music so tender
it brings back a night
of tropical splendor
it brings back a memory of green.
         Cole Porter, 1935
When they start showing the black and white movie, and the young lady with lovely bare shoulders begins to sing “Begin the Beguine,” my feelings fly back, right back to my childhood, because this music had flown on the waves, yes, before I was born, before I had been.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it took nearly three quarters of a century before, last night, and for the first time, I asked myself what it was, the Beguine? Blame it on close captioning of spoken text, brought us by those helping the hearing-impaired. The lovely sound had suddenly become something I could read, and that, in my case, is a stopper. Beguine?

Oh boy! I had no idea that the word revealed such dizzying depths! Wikipedia first informed me that the beguine is a dance and derives its name from begue, meaning a white person. The feminine of begue is beguine. From Martinique. But where’s Martinique? Well, travel to Venezuela’s easternmost, northernmost coast and swim to Trinidad and Tobago. Travel to the easternmost and northernmost coast of that island and look due north. You won’t see it, but there, hidden in the ocean mists, is Martinique, a French-Black sort of place where they speak Creole. The way our singers actually pronounce the word is “begeen,” not with the French oui-sound that I’d reflexively use. Therefore for those like me, until close-captioning “learned” me, I’d assumed a poetic meaning like “Begin the Begin.”

But this only for starters. Things get really wild. Let us put our little hand into the big hand of the Online Etymology Dictionary and march backwards. In colloquial Martinique Creole, béguin actually means a boyfriend, girlfriend—and thus an infatuation. When they begin the beguine, they fall in love. But earlier the word meant a child’s bonnet—and earlier yet, a nun’s headdress. Come again? A wimple?

Now the word really deepens. It turns out that members of a woman’s spiritual order founded in 1180 in the Netherlands, in Liege, were called beguina, from Latin. My dictionary doesn’t actually tell me what that meant, but here we have the linkage to the whimple, as that word is also spelled. The order, unfortunately, decayed (in the hands of imitators) into a heretical sect; then the men got involved in the 1220s, called the Beghards, who, evidently, were organized hypocrites (one meaning of beguin, the male kind of fake monk). Hypocricy lay in disguising aggressive beggary by making it seem religious. And, surprise, the English “to beg” and “beggar” originates in this condemned order. Wow! I bet you knew no more about this than I did. And I’ll make you another bet. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of Ru-Tube either. Ru-Tube is the Russian version of You-Tube, and herewith I’m pleased to point to a Ru-Tube presentation of this famous song accessible at this link.

Genius ultimately has the last word. This word would have long, long ago sunk and become a fossil had it not been for the genius of Cole Porter—whose words and music make “Begin the Beguine” instantly recognizable even today and arousing the same basic emotions even as far away as Vladivostok.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gains, Losses, and Salvation

I discovered an article titled “Heaven Can Wait” face up on the kitchen counter where Brigitte had been preparing vegetables. I removed carrot peelings and rescued the page to read it. It was a book review in the Sunday Times (May 8) by Clancy Martin, philosopher, novelist, and now teacher at UMKC, once one of our environs. Martin was reviewing John Gray’s book, The Immortalization Commission. The book deals (and evidently harshly) with big names in the period that overlaps the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who took seriously the notion that souls might survive death. It’s not the sort of book I’m likely to buy—because I find that containers often contaminate the contents. But I found the review itself laudable and balanced, although Martin’s ultimate conclusion on the subject is that of a young man who has not yet felt the airs of the beyond icily whistling in the wilds. Martin’s conclusion is “that life seems to get much of its meaning from the fact that it ends.”

But my subject isn’t survival but meaning. I remembered the article when headlines, sort of melting into each other this morning, suddenly produced a phrase in my mind. I thought it was a mental stumble. The phrase was “the tragedy of the moderns” — and I thought my mind was trying to retrieve instead “the tragedy of the commons.” But no. The thought, occurring in that still half-awake state of early morning, meant what it said and soon unpacked itself. The tragedy of the moderns is belief in progress—and progress in this realm alone, where, indeed, everything ends. The troubled striving for additional gains (in the form of battles over gay marriage) competed and melted into headlines strongly signaling the passing, everywhere, of coherence and order—not least erosions of gains that had made the United States, when I arrived here in the early 1950s, a seemingly happy and confident time—yes, despite McCarthyism and the silent generation, and all that. The ordinary American still had unbounded confidence, and this confidence produced a wide-spread benevolence in society that those of us arriving from war-torn Europe found almost magical.

Present in that thought was a commencement address at Worchester Polytechnic Brigitte read me over lunch yesterday, made on Peak Oil by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. The speech was couched in positive tonalities, addressed as it was to the young. The facts it presented, however, sharply clashed with my sense of what they really signaled. Yes. Let’s by all means try to picture 7 billion people making a rapid transit into a post-fossil era. The little minions that labor invisibly deep within me where already beginning to build that phrase, “the tragedy of the moderns,” even as I turned to the practical problems of coaxing our new HD TV set to produce close-captioning for the hearing-impaired.

The University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC) and Rockhurst College (these days Rockhurst University) are kitty-corner from each other, one to the west the other to the east side of Troost Avenue in Kansas City. I went to school at Rockhurst, but all of us in the family then, and later Brigitte and I as a couple, with our children, often visited UMKC, not least its wonderful theater. Indeed our last house in Kansas City was within the boundaries of its extended campus.

Rockhurst taught eternal values grounded in hoary Catholicism. UMKC, an outrigger of the state university, was modern. Meaning at Rockhurst was placed vertically above us, outside of time. The modern values are horizontally arranged, achieved in time. In the one salvation is the word to use; it is personal and, ultimately, independent of the realm in which it must be achieved. To be sure, selflessly laboring for the common good is one of the means of achieving the vertical goal. Tradition therefore does not ignore cultural and social obligations. In the other, where progress rules, there are gains and there are losses. The tragedy of the moderns is that, anchored entirely in time, gains must be but never can be held for long, and then years or centuries of effort can indeed be wiped away and leave no trace of meaning. From a traditionalist point of view, Clancy Martin’s conclusion, however, is indeed correct, even if, as quoted above, it is incomplete. Much of the meaning of life does derive from its bounded nature—but not because it ends but from the personal state we have achieved when it does.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Finnish Lesson

In Europe Finland came very close to refusing the bailout of Portugal, a package of around $115.5 billion (€78 billion). On April 17, the True Finns won 39 seats in the 200-seat Finnish Parliament (third in size). The party, while left-wing, is nationalist, anti-globalist, and culturally conservative. It’s only been around since May of 1995. With the party’s sizeable gain in seats came buzz that Nazism was back in Finland and comparisons of True Finns to the U.S. Tea Party came instantly as well. The party polarized the Finnish population on the subject of the Portuguese bailout and hence has been denied a role in a governing coalition. Just how stable the Finnish government will be hereafter is another matter.

Now, mind you, Portugal is in the ditch and Finland is among the leading economies of Europe. Just a few weeks ago Brigitte and I marveled at some tables obtained from the European Central Bank showing that in crucial measures of competitiveness, only Germany topped Finland’s performance in recent years. But huge economic meltdowns always hurt an element even of the best-off populations. And it is this element—the people who are hurt—who undoubtedly formed the energy behind the rise of the True Finns. We work like crazy, we’re disciplined, and then some careless, free-spending, indulgent people, far away, Greece, Portugal, whatever, get themselves in trouble, and when it’s time for them to buckle down and suffer the consequence, No, none of that. Here they are at our door and ready to take our money so that they can party on.

Is this a caricature or is this reality? Just yesterday I wrote elsewhere about evil and called it an absence of empathy. This morning’s news brought—if not a corrective to that view then at least a meaningful enlargement of the concept. I learned just how narrowly the EU escaped disaster because the Finnish Parliament narrowly backed the bailout after all. The Finnish lesson for me has been to realize that empathy among people will rapidly thin out if justice is not seen to be visibly applied to all, in like measure, everywhere.

Visible justice. Yes, we need it. When people are hurting, they will balk at pragmatic fixes to collective problems that minimally have the appearance of injustice—and where smoke, there fire. This is certainly the case in Europe where the “union” is new, thin, and where the competent and disciplined are called upon to rescue the apparently neglectful and possibly corrupt. Big mess. And it is precisely in times like these, erupting with righteous rage out of the poorest elements of the population, that ugly political movements rise and sometime, with disastrous consequences, gain the hammer hand.

But the problem of justice, even-handedness, of consistency also arises when we are watching dramatic interventions in favor of political resistance in Libya—but not in Syria. Just to name a single pair. Arises when we watch one or two billionaires tried in the courts but others bailed out with billions of taxpayers' money because they did not technically violate any laws…

Having commented on Swedish influence in Finland in earlier and other contexts, a lighter moment came as I pursued my research. I discovered one of the important party platforms of the rigorously nationalistic True Finn Party. The party’s top cultural demand is the abolition of the mandatory teaching of Swedish to all Finnish pupils from primary school on up to vocational universities. I found this delightfully meaningful, especially that word “vocational.” The lower classes in Finland, surprise, speak Finnish—and nothing but. They must be taught Swedish so that their bosses don’t have to learn Finnish.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Resisting 500

□ Thousand □ Million (check one)

Occupied with necessary real world tasks for about a week, I got back into the unreal world of news recently and noted two stories, both on the front page of the New York Times. The stories are superficially quite different, but they struck me as oddly similar. One dealt with a hedge fund billionaire who persuaded well-placed, already quite wealthy individuals to feed him insider information for $500,000 a year. One of those so approached reportedly hesitated for a while before finally (was it reluctantly?) accepting the offer. The other tells of the Pakistani Army Chief who now “balks at U.S. demands to cooperate,” as the headline tells it. That article contains this sentence: “While the general does not want to abandon the alliance completely, he is more likely to pursue a strategy of decreasing Pakistan’s reliance on the United States, and continuing to offer just enough cooperation to keep the billions of dollars in American aid flowing.”

The temptation to receive $500,000 regular as clockwork, or $500 million, ditto, must be enormous for some. For the principled individual, to be sure, the temptation would be a mere flicker of emotion, never genuinely entertained, almost a little inward laugh of dismissal. But in a mental or cultural setting drained of all higher meaning, such numbers will produce titanic “moral” struggles, it would seem. Indeed, in the Pakistani case, the numbers are much bigger. Five hundred million is roughly the average annual volume of grants and credits that flowed from the U.S. to Pakistan in the 2000-2008 period; over and above that flowed an average of $740 million in military and civilian aid.

Now it seems to me that the sheer presence of so much extra wealth—not already spoken for by human needs—in itself produces corruption. By in itself I mean this. We have lots and lots of people, and in these situations there will always be some people inclined to offer such money and some who will be inclined to accept it. And to reach the places where either action is possible would probably require an amoral stance only informed by that great slogan of modernity: You only go round once!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Wars and Nations in These Latter Days

It’s fascinating to ponder how overwhelming military power based on huge wealth and technology have changed the nature of military conflict since the end of World War II—and in time when conflict has been swirling principally in regions that don’t really qualify as nations at all.

The last “conventional” war was the conflict between Iran and Iraq (1980-88). It’s length and horrors are not in our consciousness because it did not involve us directly; and because it did not involve overwhelming might and wealth, it harked back to the past. Our last conventional war was in Korea; it came soon after World War II. All other wars since have been of the guerrilla kind, including Vietnam and the Iraqi conflict. Iraq’s military melted away: no point in fighting shock and awe. Standing armies maneuvering over wide terrain have become temporarily obsolete. Conflict hasn’t disappeared but contenders have adapted to the American reality. Those who’d challenge us—or whose we choose to challenge—must remain invisible. They must make themselves indistinguishable from the population. They must inflict deadly damage in small but many times multiplied doses on relatively isolated pockets of the patrolling overlords. The actual fighting isn’t therefore between armies, corps, or army groups but small, ranger-style combat teams facing irregulars and road-side bombers.

Areas targeted by the us (we mustn’t really call them nations) are fragmented and therefore collectively incoherent jumbles of conflicting interests. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are obvious examples. If American force were removed from these places overnight, civil war would be the immediate consequence as these disturbed societies would once again attempt to establish a, for them, still mythical unity absent even before we came—except on the surface.

Each of these places represents a successor state to colonial rule of some sort—Ottoman, British, Russian, and the British Raj. Iraq? A rough-formed dumpling made of Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish bits of dough left over by the Ottomans and re-formed by British imperial cooks. Afghanistan? The battle-ground of half-a-dozen civilizations, an unsymmetrical patchwork quilt of tribal peoples of whom Pashtuns are the most numerous—eleven different language groups. Pakistan? It was virtually impossible to separate just the Muslim parts of India and make a coherent state from it in the days of Ali Jinnah and the breakup of the British Raj. The Muslims are not all Sunni, the conflicts with the Shi’ite minority flare frequently. Nearly 3 million Hindus couldn’t quite make it out of there back in the British days. And on the western edge of the country are tribal areas literally escaping all effective rule—and these tribes intermixed and often in conflict too.

In Pakistan itself I discern five or six semi-independent forces: the military, the intelligence portion of the military, the nobility, the Sunni street, the Shi’ite minority, and the western tribes. Speaking of Pakistan as if it meant anything genuinely coherent is just a manner of speaking that remains without content until we understand exactly which parts we’re talking about and how these parts are currently aligned against and/or with others—and the ambiguous “and/or” is very pertinent to such areas as these. Not surprisingly we can intervene at will anywhere in Pakistan; there is no single power that effectively rules there.

The fighting itself is interesting. We move huge masses of troops, tanks, armor to distant lands. There we build, at vast expense, American settlements for them—with all of the necessary infrastructure not least huge embassies housed in city-sized palaces to govern over our presence. But the actual fighting is by tiny groups; ours arrive sometimes riding mules because the helicopters cannot land. Fighting is by exposure—to improvised explosive devices. Or by exposure—to sniper fire. Bombing is no longer deployed to destroy an opposing nation’s productive might. We spare factories and power plants; we need them for the soon-to-follow nation-building step. But building nations out of raw materials like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan requires millennia, not years. Bombing is of compounds or of vehicles moving on roads; collateral damage is therefore unavoidable.

But I note that our ways of thought remain behind, still rooted in modes of thinking appropriate for World War II. We still treat vast aggregations of jumbled ethnic and tribal societies as if they were nations; we act as if the enemy is centrally directed by the equivalent of a nation state; we go to war as if we’re facing armies when in fact we’re facing persistent but endlessly many pockets of resistance, people who already act as if they felt—in their bones, perhaps?—that civilization as we know is the past and not the future. But we keep stumbling, fumbling, flailing on. Why? Because we can still afford it? An image rises in my mind. It is of a theatrical company engaged in a performance. A tornado has just ripped up the theater and carried it off. The company remains on stage under the open sky, surrounded by ravaged trees. But the actors continue on; they voice lines with flawless enunciation, follow stage directions with strict discipline, stand before a mirror that just flew away, pretend to handle objects no longer there. Why? The show! It must go on!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Return of the Plants

Yesterday our plants left the basement. My work-table returned to its normal uses again and the big table stands empty too. The neon lights are out. I work down there, these days—ever since we converted my old upstairs office into an upstairs secondary reading-living room we call “Europe.” “I’ll be in Europe, for a while,” I say to Brigitte when I want to take some time to read. Down here, in the basement, Winter is filled with life—a great mass of our plants just sitting under bright lights and waiting, waiting with infinite patience for the day when, once again, they will see the sun again. That day came yesterday. Then we anxiously checked all evening because the Weather Service reported spot frost warning for our area. Our times are indeed bizarre. The official dictum is Global Warming, but for me these past two years or so, it has seemed like our area is feeling the onset of the Little Ice Age once again. Remember it? Surely you do: 1550 to 1850 A.D. This one has my initials too. Checking this morning, I’m happy to report, the plants had withstood the Little Ice Age, for the moment, and were singing (audibly for me) an Ode to the Sun.

That ode? Well, here's one, by Sonagolese, its closing verse:

We must perish, but you, by your wonderful powers,
Will rescue from darkness those bodies of ours,
And fashion them over to foliage and flowers.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Late and Soon

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
     William Wordsworth, 1806

(To handle a nitpick first, I hate accented syllables as in wreathèd, hence I removed that accent grave above. When I entered college it was to study English Literature, but I abandoned that for History after a horrid course in Shakespeare early on when I discovered what that kind of learning actually portended—namely the reading of critics on critics on critics on literature light years distantly removed. Therefore I think I missed out formally learning that in early English poetry such syllables were actually sounded out. People read wreath-ed not wreathd. I made the discovery sailing solo through Spenser’s The Fairie Queene where you find lines like this one (plucked at random):

     Then called she a Groome, that forth him led

… a line in pentameter that demands that we read call-ed and not called. Therefore, up there, we hear old Triton blow his wreath-ed horn. Nitpicks sometimes take over, but I grow passionate about such things.)

What I wanted to say in comment is that Wordsworth’s leading phrase has taken such roots in our language that the unwary might think it biblical. And then those who, having forgotten what it might be all about, if they’d ever read it—one really wonders if such things are even read in school any more—thus curious about the poem itself, might then be slightly shocked (or thrilled) that it appears to promote pagan values, Pagan with a leading cap at that. That would be wrong as well, but indeed the world is too much with us, hence almost anything written is read in a polarized way. Now I propose that almost nobody actually understands that this poem is about Diet, about Nutrition.

Whoa! Hold it! Is that some lame joke slouching towards Broadway to be born? No, sir. I’m deadly serious. To use a genuinely biblical phrase, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.” And applying that teaching, Wordsworth is speaking of nutrition. The world that’s too much with us is the world of human fabrication—distraction from the meaningful, the high, that which gives us genuine life. We don’t even attend to Nature—which is God’s word in its most elemental form. Despites its roaring sound and howling wind and breaking surf it represents a kind of silence in midst of which we can perceive the still small voice that nourishes the distinctly human. The problem’s with us, late and soon, and has nothing to do with the times.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Closed Open Spaces

In Hopkins, Minnesota we once lived in a neighborhood with windy paths, big-lawns, and lots with many trees. The place had a name and so forth. It was split in two by a thoroughfare, one half terminated to the north by the Burlington Northern Railroad headed west to Seattle, I think. North of the rails themselves extended a vast empty stretch of swampy land, kind of desolate, untended, natural. From that direction sometimes came deer and foxes. Sometimes the deer got themselves caught in hedge-hidden wire fences but always eventually managed to get away. Out that way, to the north (we lived in the northern half) I used to range far on walks with our dog Winston. We could walk miles and miles. It was open open space out that-a-way.

To the south our neighborhood adjoined a golf course. I got to know it very well because I used to ski there in the winter. The Golf Club’s management seemed not to mind this. No one ever stopped me—but then I also never ever saw a living soul on this vast acreage although at one point on my huge cross-country circle I always passed by the club buildings themselves. This region was closed open space.
Those who lived on its borders could, as it were, borrow the landscape, as Japanese say. It wasn’t their property, but who can deny the eyes. In summer green, open, undulating land—the occasional sand trap. In winter a pristine, snowy wonderland, the trees intricate black renditions as if in ink, the sun almost painfully brilliant in reflection. I always wore sunglasses to manage the glare. Silence. Silence. You could not hear the traffic—although it was there. Swish, swish went the well-waxed skis, swish, swish; swish, swish.

The private golf course is, for me, an oddly ambiguous datum. These courses are invariably beautifully tended, natural spaces rarely ever fenced by solid walls hence accessible to view to those walking or driving past—or living in view of them. The open landscape is a kind of gift to the population—but in the giving itself, it is taken away. The wire fence at intervals carries signs: PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO TRESPASSING. Not vast landscapes owned by some lord, no. But by membership only. A kind of democratic nobility? A subset of the public owns these landscapes and mere membership signals privilege. Walking by these in the height of the season tells you something else. Users are few. One rarely sees the golfer, alone or in groups. Even using these places, and even in company, one still remains a cipher in their vast expanse.

The feel of the emptiness was much the same—whether to the north of our neighborhood or to the south, swallowed by the Burlington Northern right-of-way, untended, or lost in the seemingly endless roll of the golf course, manicured. But in the one up north the feeling of solitude was deeper and greater because it was just there. In the south I was trespassing on something human-made. Can’t quite say what it was that I was violating, but it was tangible when I happened to think about it.

I took the photographs shown walking on the wrong—or is it the right?—side of the fence of the Lochmoor Club in Grosse Pointe Woods, MI the other day. I was borrowing the Spring, as it were, from this members-only privileged enclave.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Awe v. Control

A stubborn mystery cleaves to existence because we cannot of our own accord explain what we are doing here and why. We can make sense of life only by reaching for explanations that transcend the visible, tangible, measurable—but the transcendent is by definition out of reach. Humility is built right into us, you might say—if we but look around. But that our existence should make sense is also quite natural. I favor the word “innate”; the usual term is “instinctive.” We should make sense—but we don’t really, not from what we can see. A lifetime and then a meaningless death? Therefore a great mystery surrounds us.

Awe is the appropriate response if we assert the presence of both—the mystery and the meaning. And the denial of transcendence necessarily produces the denial of meaning. If all we get is what we see, the world makes no sense. Dostoyevsky was therefore right, even if he did not actually pen the words so often attributed to him: If there is no God, everything is permitted. The appropriate response to that, of course, is a rush to Control.

In a deeply secular society—one in which religion is trivial because it is a life-style choice and, using that sort of phrasing, equivalent to a hair-style or a mode of dress—ultimate meaning is denied although relative meanings survive. The demand for Control, however, is very much present—however unreasonable it is. The deepest wisdom modernity offers is that Shit Happens. One of the dominant scientific explanations of reality is statistical (for more, see here). Thus the so-called laws of nature are extremely high probability recurrences of a fundamentally random reality. Control, therefore, is only relatively possible; no sooner achieved, it dissolves.

This almost reflexive demand for control manifests inevitably in the Blame Game when the events are not routinely explicable by visible chains of causation. How does this work? Well, humanity innately feels that meaning is present—and if not in nature, then in humans. Therefore when things fail, we must find somebody to blame. Accidents may happen, but they shouldn’t. Not if meaning is present, and it is—in people. Therefore, sooner or later, no matter what happened and no matter how unavoidable, our media will sooner or later discover a culprit or be seen diligently to be seeking him or her. Thus I found myself rolling my eyes watching an interviewer trying to blame the weather service for failure to predict the tornadoes that savaged the center of the country (turns out, they did warn). Where people are involved—and we’re not in the least interested if they are not—sooner or later human failure can and will be found, and will be held responsible. The Japanese nuclear problem was due to ignoring a report about cracks years ago—and never mind the tsunami. Secularists are not the only people who exploit disasters to play the blame game. No big disaster, human-caused or otherwise, can go down without some TV evangelist revealing that Gohhd had told him the cause—which was to punish the wicked.