The ways of dragons

Don’t let the cool-sounding title fool you.  This is a My Little Pony post.  In particular, this is a post about Spike the baby dragon, Twilight Sparkle’s servant and friend, a disturbingly accurate symbol of boyhood in feminist America.

Imagine a world in which each person has a unique talent and destiny, and it’s conveniently printed on her ass.  That’s the world of the ponies of Equestria.  Each pony has a predestined role, revealed in due time by the appearance of her cutie mark.  The role may be humble, but it is always a fit to her interests and abilities, and it is always good.  (There are, so far as I know, no evil cutie marks.)

Spike is a dragon, although unlike other dragons, he is missing his wings (a symbolically significant detail).  Dragons don’t have cutie marks, but they do have undoubted powers and inclinations.  The trouble is, Spike has been raised since hatching by ponies, who know nothing about dragon society and have no idea how the distinctive qualities of dragons are meant to relate to survival or the common good.  Unlike the ponies, Spike exists in a state of alienation from his nature.  It is no artistic accident that Spike is also a boy dragon in a girl-dominated environment.  True, Spike’s master, Twilight, has an older brother who seems masculine in a well-adjusted way (former captain of the royal guard, married to the unmistakably feminine Princess Cadence), but Spike doesn’t seem to have spent much time with him or with any other masculine role models.  His friends are Twilight and her five major girlfriends.

This is what a feminist looks like.

This is what a feminist looks like.

How does Spike relate to his dragon nature?  In the season 2 episode “Secret of my Excess”, receiving birthday gifts trigger’s Spike’s dragon hoarding instinct, causing him to begin growing up into an increasingly large, voracious dragon.  No doubt, these instincts serve some important purpose in a dragon’s natural habitat, but in Ponyville, they seem purely anti-social.  In the end, Spike repudiates his natural greed, shrinking back into a baby dragon.  He is thus left in the unnatural state of having no morally acceptable way to pass into dragon adulthood.

How like boys of today!  They find themselves confronted with powerful new urges without an adequate social context to understand their purpose, to morally validate them.  In a healthy society, fatherhood is honored, and so the sex drive exists in a clear moral context, restricting but also validating it.  Feminist America demonizes male sexuality, seeing it as ordered, not to fatherhood, but to rape.  A boy who takes his society’s values seriously is bound to see his new desires as monstrous.  Even greater is the hostility society shows toward natural male aggressiveness.  Traditional society restricted, but also validated, masculine aggressiveness by giving it a meaning:  the calling of a man to protect his family and city.  The modern world thinks it has no need of protectors, and so hopes to shame or drug these instincts out of men.

This is what a feminist looks like.

This is what a feminist looks like.

Perhaps Spike could come to terms with his dragon-nature if he were to seek out the society of fellow dragons.  In the season 2 episode “Dragon Quest”, Spike, finding his alienation from his nature unbearable, sets out to join the Great Dragon Migration and learn “what it means to be a dragon”.  He meets up with a gang of unsupervised male teenage dragons at a volcano.  The gang tease Spike and subject him to a number of difficult and embarrassing tests to prove his worth.  Three of Spike’s pony friends, watching in disguised, are shocked to find Spike responding with enthusiasm.  What’s brilliant about this episode is that it’s shown from the perspective of these girl ponies who can’t understand the psychological forces at play.  Probably most of the little girls watching don’t understand it either.  Spike is getting his first taste of male companionship and camaraderie.  Having to prove himself is important to him, although he is frightened and probably doesn’t understand it himself.  What the ponies don’t recognize, but adult viewers will, is that although the teenage dragons are acting tough with Spike, they’re actually showing quite a bit of restraint and accommodation to this baby.  Belly flopping into lava is not actually impressive, but it lets them give him the sense of having earned membership.  Men being the ritualistic sex, Spike is them put through an initiation ritual, followed by a night of revelry with his new companions.  Again, the ponies are horrified.  How can Spike want to stay with these awful dragons?

Unfortunately, the gang, lacking adult supervision, is prone to mischief.  They take Spike along to raid a phoenix nest and then turn on him when he refuses to follow along and smash an unhatched egg.  Spike runs away with his Pony friends, and ends the episode accepting his state of alienation as permanent, writing to Princess Celestia that “what I am” and “who I am” are not the same.  From now on, Spike will take no guidance from his dragon–or, one fears, his masculine–nature.  He will rely only on the abstract guidelines the ponies have given him about kindness and loyalty.

It is a disturbing ending, at least to those who understand the episode fully and realize the magnitude of the tragedy.  There is nothing wrong per se with the moral principles the ponies have given Spike.  What the ponies haven’t given him, because they cannot give it to him, is a way to relate these abstract moral imperatives to his own nature, a way to see his own abilities and inclinations in their light.  So it is as well with boys in today’s world, deprived of natural law and traditional culture.  We conservatives like to sneer at the morality of “niceness”, but in fact, young people today are given basic principles much better and sterner than mere agreeableness.  They know that doing the right thing can sometimes involve unpleasant confrontations.  They know that they should be promoting other peoples’ interests and positively contributing to society as a whole.  All true, as far as it goes.  And yet it is missing the connection between the abstract and their own given natures and histories that natural law and tradition exist to provide.

Spike the baby dragon has real virtues–courage, loyalty, compassion.  And yet I fear he will always be trapped in a truncated existence.  His boyish fantasies of heroism and adulthood (yet even his comic books are about superhero ponies) shall remain like his crush on Rarity–yearnings with no imaginable consummation.

Brief notes on the news

I avoid newspaper articles, but I can’t avoid headlines.  Eight years ago, we were being told to get with the international consensus and vote for Obama.  Now we’re being told that foreign devils have been pulling strings for Trump.  I’ve been assuming this media craze, like so many in the past, would soon be forgotten, and I’d never regret not learning about it.  The trouble is, I never learned about the previous scandal, the one about emails from the Democrats being leaked, the contents of which were said to be mildly embarrassing.  Apparently, although the leaks themselves were uninteresting, who was involved in the leaking is terribly important, and those with secret knowledge are sure it’s the Russians.  Maybe.  I’m not qualified to have an opinion here.  Being a monarchist, I defy the democratic expectation that subjects must have an opinion on all topics, or even all topics the press decides are of note.  I will content myself with enjoying the impression that the international consensus on American politics is rather less monolithic than we had once thought.

When I was young and naive, I was warned and believed that there are great dangers to having a state-run media.  What I didn’t appreciate then was that, in a democracy, the alternative to having a state-run media is having a media-run state.  I have come to believe that media power and democracy must be destroyed together in a single blow.  As long as democracy exists, unlimited power will accrue to those who can control the perceptions of the masses.  Without democracy, not only does control of public perceptions not immediately translate into power, the ability to control the minds of the public itself erodes.  How may of these issues that the news concerns itself with would really interest many people if they weren’t connected to partisan fighting?  People are indeed motivated to learn their party’s take on many topics if it means the chance of winning arguments for their team or even just having one more reason to think members of their team smarter and more virtuous than their rivals.  This “educative” operation of democracy has even been noted by democracy’s advocates.  I might be impressed if I thought the sort of knowledge gained (and, still more, the intellectual skills practiced) had much in the way of intrinsic value.  But I don’t.

Edge.org on scientific concepts that should be more widely known

Edge.org did a fun survey of notable scientists, asking them “What scientific term or concept should be more widely known?”  There are a lot of interesting responses.  I recommend you take a look.

Overall, the results are more reaction-friendly than one might have expected.  Steve Omohundro suggests Costly Signaling, a subject dear to the neoreactionaries.  He suggests that technology may alleviate costly signaling inefficiencies by providing less expensive ways to reliably communicate hidden traits.  Now if only someone could make a cheap holiness sensor…

Speaking of forbidden topics, Gregory Cochran uses IQ heritability and regression to the mean to illustrate The Breeder’s Equation.

Steven Pinker suggests The Second Law of Thermodynamics.  One can’t help but think of the Left’s scapegoating tactics when he points out

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish…

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it

Helena Cronin makes the shockingly un-PC suggestion Sex.  That is, sex differences are real, and trying to make every job 50/50 is foolish.

Here’s why the sexes differ. A sexual organism must divide its total reproductive investment into two—competing for mates and caring for offspring. Almost from the dawn of sexual reproduction, one sex specialized slightly more in competing for mates and the other slightly more in caring for offspring. This was because only one sex was able to inherit the mitochondria (the powerhouse of cells); so that sex started out with sex cells larger and more resource-rich than the other sex. And thus began the great divide into fat, resource-laden eggs, already investing in “caring”—providing for offspring—and slim, streamlined sperm, already competing for that vital investment. Over evolutionary time, this divergence widened, proliferating and amplifying, in every sexually reproducing species that has ever existed. So the differences go far beyond reproductive plumbing. They are distinctive adaptations for the different life-strategies of competers and carers. Wherever ancestral males and females faced different adaptive problems, we should expect sex differences—encompassing bodies, brains and behaviour.

Paul Saffo suggests Haldane’s Rule of the Right Size, in what concludes as a general argument for subsidiarity.

Frank Tipler suggests the Parallel Universes of Quantum Mechanics as a solution to the problem of evil.  Readers interested in theodicy should take note.

Jerry Coyne struggles mightily to convince people of what thinks are the consequences of Determinism:

I find it harder to convince atheists that they don’t have free will than to convince religious believers that God doesn’t exist.

Just because they’re atheists doesn’t mean they’re crazy.  Does our being physical beings evolving deterministically necessarily invalidate personal descriptions of human behavior?  This is implicitly critiqued in Franck Wilczek’s contribution, Complementarity.  Also relevant is Antony Lisi’s suggestion, Emergence, which is how scientists like to talk about hylomorphism.

Seth Shostak suggests Fermi Problems, i.e. order of magnitude estimates, as a pedagogic tool for helping people appreciate science / reason quantitatively.  Tried that in my introductory astronomy classes.  Very hard to pull off successfully.

My old statistical mechanics professor, Nigel Goldenfeld, suggests The Scientific Method.  Forget the postmodernist bullshit; science gives us truth.

And there are many other worthy contributions.

2016: the year of the Left’s greatest triumph

2016 was full of electoral theatre, but it was above all the year of Amoris laetitia, which by making Kasperism apparently the official teaching of the Church has discredited the Catholic Church as an authority on matters of ethics, perhaps permanently.  One can argue whether Pope Francis’ exhortation really does say that wives should not submit to their husbands but may be obliged to render the marriage debt to their adulterous partners and that personal conscience has the authority to overturn universal ethical norms.  I may be a bad Catholic for finding this the natural reading of the document, but most Catholics, including bishops (who are eagerly extending the logic), seem to agree, and the pope’s own correspondence seems to reinforce this understanding.

Perhaps I should ignore the natural reading and try to read AL according to previous teaching?  But this undermines the rationale for a living Magisterium, which is that we are supposed to read old documents in the light of new ones, rather than vice versa.  How can I trust the natural reading of these older documents without tracing them all the way back to the oldest Magisterial documents, the Bible itself?  Must every Catholic follow this chain all the way back?  At the very least, we must concede that the Protestants were write all along about the “private interpretation” thing.  Not only is it possible to understand the Bible without the Pope; it’s impossible to understand the Pope without the Bible.

Perhaps Francis, by teaching heresy, is not a valid pope?  But if an anti-pope can rule the Church without the Church noticing it, corrupting the deposit of faith, how can we be sure this didn’t happen 100, 500, or 1500 years ago?  You see the magnitude of the problem?

What’s more, the damage is irreparable.  A conservative pope might someday reverse every controversial bit of AL, but that would only mean that a rival faction would have temporarily come to power.  Everyone would remember that Rome had once taught the opposite with the acquiescence of the world’s bishops.  The ethical teachings of Rome will henceforth always be seen–by people on all sides–as current policy rather than immutable doctrine.

Plus, I know it’s not magisterial, but having a Pope tell interviewers stuff like that communists are the real Christians and only cohabiters are really married is taking its toll, even on me.

Everything I’ve said is true even if your innocuous reading of AL is correct rather than mine and the majority’s.  Assuming Catholicism survives the Francis pontificate, teaching authority will henceforth play a far smaller role for the Church than has been the case for a thousand years.  For a long time, Magisterial authority has played the key role in convincing people (to the extent they were convinced) that Catholicism is a package deal, that one may not pick and choose the bits one likes.  Without this assurance, it is much easier for liberalism to pick off “difficult” teachings one by one until nothing is left.  Now that Peter has faltered, what can hold the pieces of the Church together?

  • Tribalism.  Obviously, loyalty to Catholics as a people with distinct rituals and history can’t completely substitute for the certainty of faith, but it does give a lot.  It provides a will to resist liberal attacks.  It is itself a principle for resisting liberalism, which rejects loyalty on principle.  It gives a reason for valuing the sacraments, namely their communal binding role, even apart from their supernatural efficacy.  Ironically, tribalism is the only way to make the communal focus that liberal Catholicism wants actually work.
  • Reverence for the sacraments.  The Eucharist is the true heart of the life of the Church, but assuming your appreciation for it is more than merely tribal (not that there’s anything wrong with tribal appreciation!), it is based on certain doctrines like Transubstantiation which you regard as assured.  That is, sacramental Catholicism is no substitute for doctrinal Catholicism.  We must have some core of beliefs that can’t be shaken no matter how absurd, offensive, and self-contradictory the Church’s official teachers shall henceforth be.
  • The ideology of Catholicism.  One could try to formulate Catholicism not as a living authority but as a fixed set of principles and the deductions from them.  Catholicism would then be defined as the application of meta-principles like corporatism and sacramentalism to the historical assertion of the Incarnation.  I sort of tried to build such an ideology here.  The trouble is that, insofar as Catholicism has an ideology, it is an ideology that points to the inadequacy of ideology, that any finite set of axioms cannot adequately represent the truths in supra-rational sacramental acts and a living tradition.
  • Nitpicking.  We can continue ignoring non-Magisterial statements of popes, devising readings of hostile Magisterial documents that avoid direct contradiction with previous teaching, when that fails arguing that some older document trumps the newer one in authority according to non-arbitrary criteria.  Catholic readers will tell me this is the only viable course for an orthodox Catholic.  It suffers, though, from a priori improbability.  People are rightly skeptical that a few scattered malcontents understand Catholicism better than the Pope and bishops.  They rightly realize that our critique is self-devouring:  if 2017 Catholicism can’t be taken at face value because it doesn’t match 1958 Catholicism, how do we know we can accept the latter at face value?  The 2017 Church is every bit as emphatic about rejecting racism, national borders, and proselytism as the 1958 Church was about rejecting Communism, Protestantism, and Islam.  We could argue, as I have, that the 1958 condemnations fit Catholicism the ideology better than the 2017 condemnations, or one could argue that the 1958 condemnations carry more authority for technical reasons.  Either way, our case is complicated and non-intuitive.  I’m not entirely convinced myself.

So, what else happened in 2016?  Somehow, believing that a man who cuts his dick off and puts on a dress does not thereby become a woman passed out of the Overton Window.  Given the magnitude of the Left’s recent victories in the culture wars, this felt much less momentous than it otherwise would have.  We on the Right had gotten spoiled, expecting that it would take a full half-decade between the time the Left invents a crazy idea to the time no one is allowed to disagree.  Now it happens faster.  Welcome to the era of the no-limits Left.

The British are getting a lesson in the futility of democracy in the absence of rival elites.

On the bright side, LIGO detected gravitational waves.  Woo-hoo!  And the day after the press conferences, I got tenure.  I suppose that should make me bolder for The Cause, but given what the Catholic Church has just done to herself, it’s hard to see the point anymore.

A challenge to eternity

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

                                 — Albert Einstein

I cringe a bit to read one of my heroes say the phrase “believe in physics” (he would not have been the great scientist he was if he had believed in physics as bequeathed to him), but Einstein’s conclusion that the loss of death is an illusion does seem to follow from the block universe conception of time that I myself have defended.  Facing the prospect of being annihilated tomorrow and being reassured that one’s occupation of a certain chunk of spacetime is immutable, does it not seem that physics must be leaving out something terribly important?

I don’t have a conscience. Neither do you. They don’t exist.

…if geometry were as much opposed to our passions and present interests as is ethics, we should contest it and violate it but little less, notwithstanding all the demonstrations of Euclid and Archimedes…

                                                                             — Gottfried Leibniz

Obviously, “conscience” in the general sense of a capacity for moral deliberation exists.  However, when contemporary Catholics invoke “conscience”, they seem to refer to a particular mental faculty.  It sounds very sophisticated to say that moral rules cannot be mechanically applied to particular cases.  Each case is unique, meaning no finite number of specifications suffices for one to deductively apply general moral rules.  Even for a unique case, moral evaluations perhaps reveal themselves only from the first person perspective.  This is done through a mysterious, mystical faculty called “the conscience”, through which each person intuits whether or not the relevant general rules apply to him.  “Conscience” is thus some sort of moral authority independent of the deductive application of universal norms to specific cases.

Examples of the need for this mysterious supra-rational moral sense are unconvincing.  A popular one is the poor remarried divorcee who has to render the adultery debt to her new partner for some dire reason–to keep her partner around for the children being the only one I’ve seen.  That’s funny in itself:  there are supposed to be an infinite number of distinct situations so that we could never hope to formulate universal rules, yet very few examples (namely one) are given as evidence of this.  Couldn’t we at least try refining our general rule?  Suppose, for the sake of argument, there really are cases of morally acceptable adultery.  Then we need to alter the sixth commandment to something like “Thou shalt not commit adultery except in case of dire need of someone within one’s care”, and we’d have to define “dire need” with sufficient precision that one’s own “need” for companionship and sexual fulfillment do not qualify.  But the Church has recognized similar qualifications to “Thou shalt not steal” for centuries without the exceptions swallowing the rule.

Yet the Kasperite party, which now rules the Catholic Church, will not follow this path.  Their whole claim to orthodoxy is that they have not admitted the existence of categories of morally permitted adultery, only individual cases.  How can this claim be tenable?  If one woman is justified in committing adultery to secure some good for her children, then surely every other woman in similar situations is also so justified.  Surely we can identify the morally relevant facts of the case and use it to define a category.  To avoid this conclusion, the Kasperites must invoke “uniqueness”, i.e. that the morally relevant facts are infinite in number or somehow do not survive abstraction.  This despite the fact that, in their one example, only a few facts seemed to be needed to morally size up the situation.

The new Catholic party line conflicts with modern ethical philosophy on a deep level.  Kant, for example, saw abstraction as a key part of moral reasoning, particularly with his formulation of the categorical imperative that we must be able to consistently will our acts to be universal laws for everyone in like situations.  Morality is associated with the third-person view, of replacing the question “what should I do” with “what should one in this situation do”.  Because of our interests and passions, it has been assumed that people are less reliable moral reasoners when analyzing their own cases.

Despite the insistence of clerical hacks, the new official Catholic doctrine of “conscience” also conflicts with her own ethical tradition.  Thomas Aquinas denies that conscience is a distinct power, identifying it rather as the act of applying general moral principles to specific cases.  Moral reasoning is, for the Thomists, a deductive “top-down” affair.  Moral first principles are innately known by synderesis.  They are elaborated into secondary principles (like “don’t commit adultery”) and properly applied through the virtue of prudence.  It would be a grave misreading to assign prudence a role similar to the Kasperite conscience.  An analogy inspired by Leibniz’s quote above should make this clear.  In Euclidean geometry, all demonstrations proceed from the five axioms.  This is like the first principles of practical reasoning known by synderesis.  The truth of any conclusion depends only on the axioms and the logical validity of each step of the proof proceeding from them.  Certainly, geometric reasoning involves a sort of skill (analogous to the virtue of prudence), but this skill is not a separate source of information; it reveals nothing not logically deducible from the five axioms.  In this analogy, conscience is like the result of a geometric proof.  It is inconceivable in a system like Aquinas’ for conscience to turn against, to grant exceptions to, the moral rules of which it is only the application.  Nor should we respect a man’s conscience more than we respect his arithmetic.  An outsider can detect errors in the one as surely as he can detect errors in the other.

To deny “conscience” is to deny the existence of a moral sense that judges particulars and does not depend on general rules.  Against this, one could point out that people don’t start out with perfectly refined sets of moral principles.  Moral education proceeds by recognizing certain acts as worthy of praise or condemnation and then asking why, and how could this process get off the ground without something like “conscience”?  I suspect that moral education must start with a presentation of heroes and villains, clear cases where the synderesis can be applied even by the unpracticed.  From the case of clearly treacherous adultery, one comes to understand what is wrong with adultery in general.  Then knowledge of the general rule makes it possible to judge more complicated cases with morally irrelevant distractions to one’s sympathies (“…but her husband didn’t appreciate her, and she was lonely…”).  These “complicated cases” are not ones where we must set aside general rules and return to undifferentiated synderesis, but are in fact the ones where general rules are most important.

It’s not clear if Catholic moral theology is salvageable.  I suggest that a sane ethics of the future must drastically reduce the role played by “conscience”.  Surveying the larger history of ethics, this should not be so shocking.  Plato and Aristotle discussed ethics at length without needing it.  It was only with early 18th-century philosophers like Shaftesbury and Butler that conscience assumed the dominant role we think natural today.  We are used to hearing conscience described as an interior authority, as the ultimate authority.  However, this does not reflect our actual experience of conscience.  My conscience applies the general rule “Thou shalt not commit adultery” to “I should not have sex with Alice, the cute girl in the office next to me who is a woman other than my wife.”  The authority here is not in the application itself, but in the general rule.  Whatever authority “I shouldn’t sleep with Alice” has, it derives from “nobody should commit adultery”.  But what about the duty to obey an erring conscience?  Even here, the authority one experiences comes from the general rules one is misapplying, and the sin in failing to obey comes from the intention to violate these rules.  One cannot appeal to one’s conscience as some sort of separate authority.

It’s only dissent when conservatives do it.

That was the first thing I thought, reading Austen Invereigh’s claim that critics of communion-for-adulterers (or even those requesting clarification as to whether that is now official policy) have crossed the line “into dissent”.  After all, Cardinal Kasper was promoting his heresy long ago.  Popes John Paul II and Benedict VI answered quite unambiguously that unrepentant adulterers cannot receive the Eucharist.  Wasn’t Kasper obliged to accept this ruling with full sincerity, to accept its teaching as his own belief and to never raise the issue again?  What’s the difference?  Why is it that when liberals don’t get the answer they want, it just means they should keep asking, whereas conservatives have to accept any answer, or ambiguous non-answer, we don’t like?

Invereigh claims that today’s critics of Amoris Laetitia resemble past heretics and schematics, but the resemblances are peculiar.  One resemblance is supposed to be our insistence on logical deduction from accepted principles.  One notes here the anti-intellectualism Pope Francis has fostered across the Catholic world, its hostility toward clarity and precision, its interpretation of questions as attacks.  More vaguely, there is the criticism that critics are failing to move with the Church.  One suspects that for some people, the Pope is only to be obeyed when he contradicts previous teaching, because only this constitutes “movement” which is our new sign of the action of the Holy Ghost.  It is a prejudice directly opposite of the traditionalist’s.  Thus the deepest fears of the Eastern Orthodox regarding the papacy would be confirmed.  Papal authority would then be said to exist not as a weapon to preserve the immutable deposit of faith, but as an instrument to authorize unlimited novelty.