More smart people problems

Vox Day finds an article by a high-IQ woman lamenting the terrible loneliness and unhappiness endured by intelligent people because of their inability to communicate with ordinary people.  Like Vox, I’m skeptical.  Communication, and the related arts of rhetoric and pedagogy, are intellectual challenges like any other:  how to get a person of given capacities from prior understanding A to subsequent understanding B.  There’s no reason high IQ should not be an asset in solving this problem, if a high IQ person is willing to apply his or her intellect to it.  If you’re not willing to make the effort to imagine yourself in the other person’s mental place and think through how to get an idea across, then the failure of communication is your fault.

Anyway, I don’t buy this idea of a “communication range”.  True, most of us are in the middle of the IQ distribution and ex hypothesi would seldom encounter our either edge of such a range.  However, even not knowing my IQ, I can know that I’ve successfully communicated with people across a more than 4SD range.  Data point #1:  I have often communicated verbally with children between the ages of 2 and 7, successfully exchanging information on a wide range of topics and having enjoyable social interactions.  If an adult had the mental capacities of a child in this age range, that person would have a low IQ.  Data point #2:  I have read, and (so far as anyone can tell) successfully comprehended, essays, public addresses, or books by several undoubtedly highly intelligent people:  Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Immanuel Kant, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, Richard Feynman, Roger Penrose, etc.  So, no matter what my IQ is, the hypothesis of a communication range is disproved.

Everyone’s entitled to gripe about their problems from time to time, so why do I bring this up?  Because self-pity by the intelligent is a dangerous indulgence in our time.  In fact, high IQ people have no right to feel put upon by society at large.  It is not true that people are treated badly for being smart.  Dumb kids are just as bored in school as smart kids.  Nerds are unpopular not for being smart but for being socially awkward and physically weak.  An intelligent person can always choose not to draw attention to his or her intellect.  On the other hand, people are teased for being unintelligent.  “Stupid” is an insult, one with real sting.  And it is generally much harder to hide stupidity than to hide intelligence.  I doubt any high-IQ person would trade his social isolation from those he regards as inferiors (an isolation ultimately of his choosing) for the humiliation a low-IQ person endures for not being able to keep up with everyone else.  Even if this humiliation weren’t worse, the low-IQ person will often have unemployment or poverty added to it.

In today’s world, moral status comes from victimization.  I’m afraid high-IQ people have convinced themselves that they are somehow a persecuted minority, and thus entitled to behave toward the mass of mankind not as an aristocracy with a sense of noblesse oblige but as a victorious conquerer enacting righteous punishment.  Please, if you are smart, don’t feel sorry for yourself about it.

Seventeenth, the greatest of centuries, and exploratory vs. critical ages

When did each of the major civilizations achieve it’s peak greatness?  For the Muslim world, I’d say the Abbasid Caliphate, for India the Gupta Empire, for China the Song Dynasty, for the West the seventeenth century.  It’s the obvious choice:  Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Racine, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton.  In terms of intellectual and cultural output, what century before or since could match it?

Two other notable things.  First, the West achieved its greatest peak as a collection of separate sovereign monarchies, often “absolutist” (the age of Richelieu and Louis XIV).  Whatever the Habsburgs may want to believe, Warring States periods are the rule for us, not an anomaly.  Empire is not our characteristic form.

Second, the story one often hears, that the West advanced as “religion” retreated, is clearly untrue.  the 1600s were not only peak Western creativity, but also peak Christian zeal.  The 17th century enjoyed the fruits of the 16th century reforms, both Protestant and Tridentine, giving a better catechized laity and a better trained and disciplined clergy than ever seen during the “Age of Faith”.  It was a heroic missionary age, with Matteo Ricci in the Chinese imperial court, the Japanese martyrs, the Jesuit Reductions.  H. Daniel-Rops in his multivolume history of the Church calls this, the century of Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul, Fenelon, and Bossuet, “the age of spiritual grandeur”.  It was also the time of the West’s most terrible religious war.  When peace came to Europe, it owed nothing to secularism or religious indifference/tolerance, whose partisans were still about a century in the future, but to the eminently realistic Westphalian system of clear dominance of one sect in each state.

Should we then speak of two 17th centuries, a religious and philosophical?  There is no historical justification for doing so, since the great minds of this age were often deeply involved in the religious currents of their time (e.g. Pascal’s pro-Jansenist polemics, Newton’s fascination with Biblical prophesy).

Even clearer is the contrast with the 17th and 18th centuries.  Religion declined under the assault of the Enlightenment, but scientific progress also markedly slowed.  We don’t notice this only because the philosophes have successfully taken credit for the accomplishments of the previous generation.  (Self-promotion was their one area of undoubted genius.)  Now, one could say that whatever followed Newton’s Principia was bound to seem like a slow-down, but the relative scientific and literary slowdown of the 18th century is notable compared to both the 17th and 19th centuries.  Both the 17th and 18th centuries evince a restlessness of the Western mind, but the 17th century was an age of exploration, while the 18th century was an age of criticism.

The exploratory spirit rests on the belief that there is an identifiable body of knowledge, often newly recognized, that mankind does not yet possess but that it is now in a position to acquire.  Galileo’s quantitative study of constant acceleration puts him in an analogous position to the 17th century as Columbus was to the 16th.  We’ve always known that heavy bodies fall, but thinking about exactly how things move, position as a function of time, opens up all sorts of new questions.

Critical thinking is quite different from the exploratory spirit.  The critical thinker presumes to already have settled knowledge on all the major issues, to be in a position from which to attack and discredit whatever he takes to be the unjust established order.  (Critical thinking always has a predetermined enemy and a pre-determined outcome.)  For men like d’Holbach, Helvetius, Diderot, or Voltaire, all the problems of mankind were quite simple:  just exterminate Christianity, especially Catholicism, and everyone will be happy, free, and rational.  The French Enlightenment accomplished nothing nothing notable because as far as it was concerned there were no outstanding questions.

The philosophes got to try out their ideas, and the rule of Reason brought Terror in Paris, genocide in the Vendee, and war throughout Europe.  By the early 19th century, the critical spirit that had been suffocating Europe, having so spectacularly discredited itself, began to subside, and the West had its second great exploratory epoch.  We might perhaps start this around 1800 with Dalton’s atomic theory and the 1801 Concordat and end it in the mid-1960s.  To this period belong the great discoveries of electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, the evolution of species, quantum mechanics, and genetics, as well as most of the English, French, and Russian novels most people know of as classics.  Even the critics had a sort of exploratory spirit, as with the (bogus) claims of Marx and Freud to have uncovered new sciences.  Again, it was a time of terrible wars, and again it was a time of great Christian vitality.  Constant secularist attacks make this period no one’s idea of a Christian golden age, but the clergy were even more impressive than before, the age yielded a crop of saints and martyrs to match the Patristic Age, and there was another great effort of worldwide evangelization by Protestants as well as Catholics.  Then began another critical age with the “spirit of Vatican II” Christian implosion, and there have been no really great works of art or scientific breakthroughs since.

All I have noted above is a correlation:  the historical facts show that Western creativity is positively correlated with Christian vitality, not negatively correlated, as many have carelessly asserted in spite of the clear evidence.  I have not argued that Christianity deserves all or most of the credit for these great ages of creativity.  The 17th century was a thoroughly Christian affair, but the achievements of the 19th–early 20th century were shared by Christians, Jews, and atheists in comparable measure.  And, of course, Christianity had already been the religion of a civilization for a millennium before this spectacular burst of creativity.  (This is not to deny that Christendom from Theodosius to Copernicus was more culturally impressive than often acknowledged, nor that the 17th century built on its accomplishments in many ways.)  Nor have I given an argument that Christianity is therefore a good thing.  From the same evidence, Western creativity is also positively correlated with major wars.

It is possible that the two phenomena of exploration vs. criticism and religious zeal vs. skepticism are correlated because they share a common cause.  Indeed this seems probable to me.  The smug self-confidence of the new atheist is not the sort of attitude that leads to great breakthroughs.  We have none of the great ambitions of past ages.  The most impressive thing we can imagine doing is tearing down our own inheritance.

Bishop Dukes’ good idea and the reason for segregation

The report:

Bishop James Dukes, pastor of Liberation Christian Center, said he wants the statue gone, and he wants George Washington’s name removed from the park.

Dukes said, even though Washington was the nation’s first president and led the American army in the Revolutionary War, he’s no hero to the black community.

“There’s no way plausible that we would even think that they would erect a Malcolm X statue in Mount Greenwood, Lincoln Park, or any of that. Not that say Malcolm X was a bad guy; they just would not go for it,” he said. “Native Americans would not even think about putting up a Custer statue, because of the atrocities that he plagued upon Native Americans. And for them to say to us ‘just accept it’ is actually insulting.”

The pastor also said President Andrew Jackson’s name should be removed from nearby Jackson Park, because he also was a slave owner. He said he’s not necessarily asking the city rename the parks altogether. He suggested Washington Park could be named after former Mayor Harold Washington, and Jackson Park could be named after civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson or singer Michael Jackson.

Dukes said he’s not trying to erase history. He said black people should be able to decide who is and is not honored in their communities.

“I think we should be able to identify and decide who we declare heroes in or communities, because we have to tell the stories to our children of who these persons are,” he said.

He said parks, statues, or other monuments honoring Presidents Washington and Jackson might be appropriate elsewhere, but not in black neighborhoods.

This is a humane view.  One expects each community to honor its own heroes and ancestors, rather than others’.  And given the way history works, one group’s hero might be another group’s villain.  Nothing wrong or unusual about this.  Having distinct communities allows multiple collective memories to endure, each in its own place.  It follows that if whites wish to continue honoring their own heroes and their own past, they must not allow negroes into their communities in any significant numbers.  Conversely, blacks should not allow whites to colonize their neighborhoods.  That the members of the other race are friendly and law-abiding is irrelevant to this.

Today, public places in the American South are transitioning from white-controlled to black-controlled, at least in terms of whose collective memory is publicly acknowledged.  A certain amount of friction is inevitable in such a process, but it is exacerbated terribly by the failure to distinguish the public space from white and black communal private spaces.  Of course, this is because we’re not allowed to identify white-owned spaces.  But look what opportunities for conciliation arise when one does grant the existence of distinct ethnic spaces, as Pastor Dukes does above.  We move from the plane of moral absolutism to legitimate cultural pluralism.  Of course black-controlled public spaces will have statues of Malcolm X rather than Robert E. Lee.  It follows that statues of Lee should be transferred (in location and ownership) to white spaces, where whites can continue to venerate their hero.  That’s not going to happen.  Leftists are too wedded to their white-demonizing totalizing.  However, even if whites are completely eradicated, the problem of cultural pluralism will remain, and considerations like this will have to be made.

Leibniz and his great task

A review of G.W. Leibniz:  Philosophical Essays, translated by R. Ariew and D. Garber

“I have found that most sects are correct in the better part of what they put forward, though not so much in what they deny.”  — Leibniz

Leibniz was the the great ecumenist of the seventeenth century.  A very Catholic-friendly Lutheran, he credits some of his key insights to Thomas Aquinas and Teresa of Avila and invokes the relativity of motion to defend, or at least reduce the significance of, the condemnation of Galileo.  However, most of his effort he devotes to the ominous gap opening between scholastic philosophy and the “new philosophy” of Descartes and the science of mechanics.  Leibniz had made his own contributions to mechanics as co-discoverer of calculus and the discoverer of kinetic energy, but he was convinced that the Cartesian reduction of matter to geometry had unacceptable implications; philosophy needed to rediscover substantial forms and final causes.  How to connect these to mechanics?  In some of his writings on dynamics, he tries to connect a substance’s “striving” or “active force” with substantial form and with (what we would now call) kinetic energy, while the substance’s resistance to being acted on is connected to primary matter and mass.  This, unfortunately, is subject to the same critique Leibniz levels against the Cartesians who had gave primacy to (what we would now call) momentum.  Leibniz denies absolute space and any preferred reference frame.  Space is, he thinks, an abstraction describing the reality of relations between bodies.  (To make this work, he denies that a vacuum is possible.  How could things be separated except by some thing?)  But kinetic energy is as frame-dependent as momentum.  The real interest here is what Leibniz is trying to do, to rediscover a connection between Aristotelian metaphysics and incipient modern physics.

Of more lasting philosophical interest is his investigation into the nature of substantial forms, or monads, as he calls them.  Monads are, to use his wonderful term, metaphysical atoms, the basic ontological blocks out of which the world is made.  Each is unitary and indivisible, but a world unto itself, a distinct reflection of the entire universe from its own unique perspective.  Monads have become famous for being “windowless”, but it could equally be said that each one just is a window, or rather a mirror, containing everything else within itself.  The human soul is a monad, but so are animal souls, and indeed infinite numbers of monads are everywhere, and all the world is alive with them.  Never has a philosopher paid less heed to the principle of parsimony–and why should he, when by his own argument God must have made the most perfect and diverse universe possible?

In Leibniz’s logic, the predicate is necessarily in the subject.  If one thinks of the subject as a bag of all its predicates, a true statement is just a matter of factoring out some subset as the predicate and connecting it to the subject with “is”.  Leibniz takes this mathematical analogy quite literally; in his early days, he hoped to map properties to numbers and reduce logic to literal factorization.  Here is the origin of Leibniz’s distinctive solution to the problem of individuality and the problem of evil.  Leibniz doesn’t believe in primary matter as the scholastics saw it, as irreducibly unintelligible.  Therefore, Saint Thomas’ argument for the angels, that each incorporeal substance must be its own species, applies to all substances.  Each monad contains all its individuating predicates essentially.  That Caesar crosses the Rubicon is part of his definition; Adam could not have failed to sin, or else he would have been another person (another person named “Adam”, perhaps, but not the person God actually made).  Each monad plays through its destiny by the exigencies of its own nature, while God has ordered each so that everything stays synchronized.  (Leibniz is a little evasive on this point, but that’s my reading.)  At each time, every monad contains its past and future as well as that of the entire universe inside of it, and if all this infinite information didn’t reduce to noise to our finite minds, we could see the foreshadowing of future events, the intelligible unity of each life.

If you’ve followed him this far, why not all the way?  Monads, being unitary, are indestructible and uncreatable, except by divine intervention.  Leibniz thinks it likely that the souls of animals, for example, have some sort of pre-existence and post-existence, albeit miniscule.  Human souls, on the other hand, mirror not only the universe, but God Himself, and for the righteous among these, he intends eternal felicity and fellowship with Him.  Leibniz is the originator of the principle of sufficient reason:  there is always a reason why things are so and not any other way, although some things are necessary because the opposite is contradictory and some because God is constrained always to choose the best.  Thus, although there is much wickedness in the world, we can be sure God chose what will ultimately lead to the greatest good, the greatest order and diversity.

I came away liking Leibniz for the enthusiasm and charitable broad-mindedness that come through in his essays and letters.  He made many lasting contributions to philosophy and mathematics, but judged on his own terms, it was at best a spectacularly creative failure.  By the time the Monadology is done, we have forgotten the original goal of being able to clearly identify substances and their essences; we have only multiplied them to infinity and left the task more hopeless than we found it.  Western conceptions of free will and divine sovereignty continued to drift apart, as did mathematics and metaphysics.  In the next generation, the Enlightenment war against Christian civilization would begin.