We should aspire to mediocrity

Half of people fail to attain average.

Life isn’t fair.  We would like it to be true that most people are good at something, that weaknesses in one area are usually countered by strengths in another and vice versa.  Hence the popularity of the stereotypes of the dumb jock, the ditsy blonde, the physically-socially inept nerd, and so forth.  I more often find that talents go together, a weak but positive correlation.  Of course, if organization A selects for beauty and organization B for intelligence, the average member of B will be smarter but uglier than the average member of A, but that’s not the proper comparison.  It may nevertheless be true, if unfair, that, for example, for the whole population pretty girls tend to be a bit smarter and vice versa.

When I brought home my first baby girl, I resolved to devote myself to her utterly and be an excellent father.  Since then, I’ve tried very hard to raise my girls well, but honestly I’m at best an average father.  The thing is, every new father says the same thing to himself, every father earnestly tries, and every father learns that doing right for your children is actually very hard.  The right thing is often unclear.  I’ve been sometimes too strict, sometimes too permissive; the more one fears one excess, the more likely one is to fall into the other.  The more one is alert to problems in one area, the more one is apt to overlook problems in another.  If I am an average father, then I’m pleased, because average is pretty good.

Like all physicists, I went into my field wanting to do exceptional things, but I clearly have not been able to operate at the level of my colleagues at my university.  To be fair, when I look at what they’ve done–in research, advising, teaching, and community outreach–the average physics professor is pretty impressive.  Then again, the average farmer, fireman, nurse practitioner, airline pilot, kindergarten teacher, marine, veterinarian, priest, electrician, or secretary in the physics department (seriously, they make the department run) is pretty impressive, when you stop to really think about it.  It is with careers like it is with parenthood (although less important).  Nobody wants to be a screw-up.  Everybody has a very strong incentive to give it their best effort.  To achieve average is pretty good.

Of course, there are screw-ups.  We’ve all known some.  But it would be sad for us to base our sense of self-worth on the contrast with them.  Then we would come to want them to be screw-ups.

I don’t think that popular entertainment–television and movies–does a good enough job preparing people for a life of mediocrity.  Sure, movies will often begin with the hero consigned to apparent mediocrity, so that he shares our own insecurities.  But usually he finds his secret calling, the calling that makes him successful and important to more than just a few.  I fear that some screw-ups have wasted their lives in fantasy from the idea of a secret calling.

One can have a satisfying life as an average man or woman.  Average means (or should mean) being able to make enough money to support a family, being able to cook well enough to feed them, being creative enough to invent stories and games to entertain one’s own children, and so forth.  Your children and their children will remember you, and then you will be forgotten.

It is enough.

Book review: Patriarcha, a Defense of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People

Patriarcha: a Defense of the Natural Power of Kings against the Unnatural Liberty of the People
by Sir Robert Filmer (1680)

Filmer’s great defense of absolute monarchy deserves to be known aside from its role as John Locke’s punching bag.  Filmer deals with a foundational problem in political philosophy and proposes a compelling solution.

What are the types of authority, and where do they come from?  Everyone before the French Revolution recognized parental authority–the authority of fathers over their children, as one type of authority.  Uncontroversial, rooted directly in nature, it is in some ways the gold standard of legitimate authority.  Then there is the political authority of government, which–while kings were often thought of as relating analogously to parents–was often considered distinct.  In the pluralist and traditionalist social order of the Middle Ages, these were only two of a bewildering array of authorities, each with its own historically contingent jurisdiction, all held to be legitimate by the fact of their establishment.  The Middle Ages lacked the concept of sovereignty as Bodin and his successors understood it.  Thus early modern political philosophers were left with the problem (which medievals would have regarded as misguided) of explaining who is really in charge.  Filmer’s rhetorical opponents are mostly the Jesuits Bellarmine and Suarez who foolishly claimed that sovereignty resides in “the people” who then delegate it to their ostensible rulers but may take it back should those rulers prove obnoxious.  Perhaps the Jesuits’ goal was to vindicate the medieval practice of recognizing all settled forms.  Perhaps, as Filmer says, the goal was to reduce the authority of kings to be benefit of the pope.  Regardless, such a doctrine could only encourage democratic rebellion.

Filmer ably demolishes the claim that government can rest on the consent of the people.  There is simply no way to get from free individuals to legitimately ruled subjects.  What right would the majority have to compel the minority?  Even if unanimity could be achieved, why would people continue to be bound with it?  And would one not need unanimous consent of the entire human race to establish a government?  If any group may at any time decide to be a people for political purposes, we must accept endless fragmentation.  If not, how can separate kingdoms be justified?  And how could consent at some time in the past bind anyone in the present?  If one says that sons are bound by the decisions of their fathers, than one has already accepted Filmer’s patriarchal principle; the social contract is an extraneous extra hypothesis, and Occam’s razor cuts it away.  Authority that requires consent is no authority at all.

Filmer claims, on the contrary, that there is no second type of authority.  There is the natural, paternal authority that everyone recognizes, and there is nothing else.  Filmer draws his historical data from Scripture and Greek and Roman history, but modern knowledge of tribal peoples also lends some credibility to Filmer’s hypothesis.  Start with a rule that fathers have authority over their children and older brothers over younger brothers, stipulate that these relations carry over to adulthood and that authority is transitive, allow families to grow and multiply, and soon one has a tribal structure.  And the chieftain of a large tribe has all the properties of a king.

Filmer also attacks the confusion, still popular today, that laws can be higher than the ruling authority and bind it.  There is no such thing as rule of law, although there can be rule by law, law being a means that subjects may know their ruler’s pleasure.  Laws cannot (and Filmer says should not) cover all unusual cases and in any case always require interpretation.  And while binding the king with laws sounds good in the abstract, in practice the people are pleased with the king’s ability to sidestep procedural justice and issue pardons.

Note that Filmer makes no claim that Charles I was personally the senior descendent of Adam.  He freely admits that monarchical power has been achieved historically by a variety of messy means, and that no one today really knows the proper natural hierarchy.  It doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that Charles’s authority is that of a father, and since the paternal relationship is natural, its authority is not ours to decide.  To give an analogy, we recognize that sometimes a man can become a father artificially, by adoption.  However, no man can decide to become a father as far as provision goes but not discipline, or vice versa, because the role of father is fixed.  One either takes it one whole and entire or not at all.

Filmer was perhaps more a man of the 17th century than he knew.  The great century of Descartes was a time of bold and brilliant (but often incorrect) simplifications.  Filmer finds that one can save the appearances of political theory using only the basic atom of authority, the father-son bond.  A remarkable achievement if the appearances are truly saved.  However, if medieval monarchs did not claim the sort of power that Filmer grants them, we may wonder if he has explained the monarchy or constructed something new.  And there is no mention of the authority of the Church, which is divinely sanctioned but clearly independent of paternity.

Book review: The Direction of Time

The Direction of Time
by Hans Reichenbach (1956)

Reichenbach died before writing the final chapter of this book, but the unfinished manuscript was edited and published by his widow, Maria.  The topic is our experience of the flow of time and the asymmetry between past and future.  The mystery, recognized for centuries, is that the laws of mechanics contain no such asymmetry.  They can equally well be run backward as forward.  This has led some philosophers to deny that causality, as opposed to correlation, is a real feature of the world.  However, the identification of causality with temporal succession is not the classical position, but that of Hume.  We pre-modern philosophers thus have little investment in an intrinsic past/future asymmetry, and can watch with disinterested curiosity what physics does to the concept.

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retaliation and inclusiveness

Jason Richwine, contributing to Quillette, writes

The model that says “government censorship = bad; non-governmental censorship = good” is not sustainable. I believe that free speech should be a cultural value for the same reason it is a legal right—namely, that an open discussion is valuable.  But censors will eventually turn this logic around. They will argue that if it’s right and good for private actors to persecute people for their “wrong” views, then surely it is also right and good for the government to do it…

In the long run, the rights of a free people are sustained not by laws, but by a cultural consensus that places real value on freedom. That’s why the “spirit of free speech” is so important to revive. Debate people vigorously, but don’t try to silence them. Don’t try to prevent others from hearing what they have to say. Don’t try to get people fired from their jobs or shunned by their friends and colleagues.

When responding to speech we don’t like, a useful guideline is to ask ourselves, “Am I disagreeing, or am I retaliating? Am I trying to persuade, or am I trying to silence?”

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Materialism done right: my review of Aristotle’s Revenge in one post

The original posts at the Orthosphere are here, here, and here.

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