People will have existential crises on command.

Martin Jay points out that in a few short decades “alienation” has gone from being the fundamental malaise of modern man to having all but disappeared.  How can this be?  He and I would disagree on details, but I endorse his overall conclusion.  He doesn’t say it in so many words, but what it comes down to is that the Left-wing cultural establishment decided that alienation was no longer high status–now only losers and fascists want to feel at home in the world and crave an organic connection to a people and place.  Once people realized that the existential agony of alienation wouldn’t make people think they were sophisticated, wouldn’t get them laid, wouldn’t help them promote their books, they dropped it in a heartbeat.

Forgive me, but sometimes my disgust with the human race gets the better of me.

They ruined “A Wrinkle in Time”

Time has not been kind to A Wrinkle in Time.  It clearly belongs to that early Cold War moment in time when Americans could imagine liberalism, democracy, and Christianity as mutually reinforcing allies in the fight against communism.  Like liberal Christianity, it is out of place outside in the post-1968 world, now that everybody on both sides understands that freedom and being-yourself are battle cries against God.  On the other hand, getting to re-experience that Fifties-like pro-science/freedom/God atmosphere is one of the book’s many charms.

I’ve already discussed the book in my review of The Snow Queen and Frozen.  Given how well Frozen turned out, I actually had some hope that Disney could do a good job with A Wrinkle in TimeNope.

Kaling’s Mrs. Who still speaks in quotations, although her frequent biblical references have all been excised, and there are fewer classical and historical references and more Outkast and Lin-Manuel Miranda. She doesn’t come across as someone who has trouble verbalizing; she just says quotes for no reason.

The dropping of the Biblical references is not incidental. When Mrs. Who quotes 1 John — “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not” — that has thematic significance: The darkness, the Dark Thing, is strong, but light is stronger; this is not a dualistic, Manichaean story.

The movie’s tagline — “The only thing faster than light is the darkness” — seems to reverse this: Darkness has a natural advantage. The line doesn’t appear in the book, and I doubt L’Engle would approve. (That the movie conflates the darkness — the Dark Thing — with It, which is merely a local manifestation of darkness on Camazotz, is just one more disconnect.)

For me, the Bible quotes were the heart of the story.  I read a chunk of the book as a child for school (I didn’t read the full thing until I was an adult) and the thing that stuck with me was Mrs. Who’s “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”  I didn’t even know that it was a quote, but it was the key to how Meg then saved her brother, and it struck me as so profound that I would repeat it to myself years afterward.  Even if you don’t know where a quote is from, and thus have no sense of automatically granting it some authority, the Bible and Hamilton are just not on a level.

The problem seems to be that the people involved in the project don’t actually care for the source material.  Changing the race of the characters wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that this seems to be all the director was excited about.

Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and their followers on self-motion and the generation of new substantial forms

The classic argument against self-motion

From Saint Thomas’ First Way:

Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another.

Criticisms of the argument

A skeptic would respond as follows.  This principle of proportionate causality (PC–It’s called several things in the literature.  I took this name from Edward Feser.) doesn’t even work for Saint Thomas’ chosen example, in that cold objects can become hot through friction or exothermic chemical reactions without any prior thing being hot.  Whatever agent causes the heating must be in act in the sense that it must exist and have some power to influence the heated object, but it needn’t itself possess the actuality of being hot.  For that matter, an object can cool itself without being influenced by a cooler body, e.g. through blackbody radiation.  Thus, if Aquinas means that the cause must possess the form it actualizes in the effect, this conflicts with experience.  Nor is it obvious a priori why forms can only impress themselves and not causally connect to other forms.  Alternatively, one could propose a more modest PC principle, that the effected act pre-exists in the cause only in the sense that the cause possesses a power to effect the relevant change, but then the principle is tautological, and the argument against self-motion collapses.  It gives no reason why a being may not have a passive potency to receive x, an active potency to cause x (due to the possession of some other form), and may then act on itself without any need for the two potencies to reside in different parts.

Continue reading

Aristotle’s Physics: a review

Aristotle’s Physics concerns key topics in what was a few centuries ago called the philosophy of nature and is now called ontology:  the natures of space, time, motion, causality, and infinity.  When speaking of it, it does not do to patronize Aristotle, saying that of course he wrote what he did because he couldn’t have imagined modern science.  In fact, the Physics is a surprisingly contemporary book.  Aristotle considers the possibilities that the order of the world is fully explicable in terms of chance, of immutable atomic laws, or of the affects of natural selection on biological organisms, and he rejects them.  He is quite aware of the possibility of a Galilean-Newtonian universe (laws of motion space-translation invariant, no preferred inertial frame) and takes efforts to fend it off.

Continue reading

More on the yellow peril

Yan Shen at argues that the major difference between East Asians and Westerners is not overall IQ but math/verbal split.  It’s in quantitive/spatial reasoning, not verbal reasoning, that East Asians excel by a large margin (on average, of course) over whites.  This is the reason China’s academic rise has been both so rapid and so lopsided.

As noted by Australian academic Simon Marginson, “in 2000 China authored just 0.6 percent of chemistry papers ranked in the global top one percent on citation rate in the Web of Science. Only 12 years later, in 2012, China published 16.3% of the leading one percent of papers, half as many as the US- an astonishing rate of improvement. There were similar patterns in engineering, physics and computing- where China publishes more top one percent papers than the US- and mathematics (NSF, 2014.)…

Based on the number of papers in the top 10% of citations, East Asian universities clearly excel at mathematics and computer science and physical sciences and engineering relative to the other three categories. For the time period of 2012-2015 and ranked by total number of top 10% papers based on citation rate, East Asia had 5 of the top 10 universities in physical sciences and engineering and 8 out of the top 10 universities in mathematics and computer science.

By contrast when looking at total top 10% papers in the field of biomedical and health sciences, the highest ranked East Asian university was Shanghai Jiao Tong at 48th.  For life and earth sciences, the highest ranked East Asian university was Zhenjiang at 20th.  And in social sciences and humanities, the top rated East Asian university was National University of Singapore at a fairly low 80th place.

There may well be cultural biases in the impact of humanities papers, but that 8 out of 10 in math is stunning.  Chinese dominance is already here.

Shen predicts that the West will maintain a strong position in life sciences and medicine, which are less quantitative and therefore (I suppose) more verbal.  Interestingly, despite Chinese dominance in computer science, America is still holding its own in computer software.

In fact, as anyone who’s been paying attention has noticed, modern day tech is essentially a California and East Asian affair, with the former focused on software and the latter more so on hardware. American companies dominate in the realm of internet infrastructure and platforms,…

I believe that the various phenomenon described above can all be explained by one common underlying mechanism, namely the math/verbal split. Simply put, if you’re really good at math, you gravitate towards hardware. If your skills are more verbally inclined, you gravitate towards software.

Programming is, indeed, a kind of communication.  Then again, these American software companies are hiring a lot of Asians, so I’m not sure that whites are competitive even there.

There are interesting similarities to sex imbalances in the sciences, also driven by the math/verbal split.  East Asians dominate the closer a field is to engineering.  Women are rarest in fields closest to engineering.  I’ve noted that Chinese physics students have almost no interest in astronomy, and this is the most popular field for female applicants.  In fact, there were several genuinely accomplished female astronomers in the early 20th century, certainly more than in other branches of physics.  (I believe women were also noticeably present in the early days of computer programming too, come to think of it.) As I recall, American life science departments often have majority female students.

I also found this interesting:

reference to physicist Eugene Wigner’s remarks about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, physicist Steven Weinberg wrote about the equally unreasonable ineffectiveness of philosophy in his book Dreams of a Final Theory, suggesting that no physicists he knew of in the post-WW2 era meaningfully benefitted in their work from philosophy in any way.

Physicists before WW2, on the other hand, were often strongly engaged with and guided by philosophical concerns.  Perhaps this change was not a good thing.

One also wonders, if this preference for quantitative reasoning is innate among the Chinese, can we see this in their historical culture?  Is Chinese philosophy unusually mathematical?  It never struck me as especially so.  When I visited an art museum in Taipei years ago, a difference of emphasis did strike me, that while Western artists focused on capturing impressions, Chinese artists focused on cool technical effects.  But I don’t know anything about art, so maybe the coolness of some of the “stunts” the Chinese sculptors pulled off (which is also what was usually emphasized in the written commentary beside each piece) made an undue impression on me.

Another illustrious name handed to us

Welcome to the ranks of the deplorables, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

White explains Renoir’s unease with modernity by referring to his artisanal background. Born in Limoges in 1841, the son of a tailor, Renoir received an upbringing that engrained in him a nervous insecurity about status and an urge to conform. His humble beginnings informed his sentimentalised view of the working classes, which he considered to have been coarsened not just by mechanisation but also by socialism. In 1897 he railed against the automobile as an ‘idiotic thing’ and a symbol of ‘decadence’, insisting that ‘there is no need to go so fast’; he denounced the invention of the railway as a ‘crazy idea’ which had resulted in ‘too much coming and going’; in 1904, he confessed to the journalist C L de Moncade (with some justice), ‘I am the worst old fogey there is among the painters.’ This suspicion of modern technology went hand in hand with a suspicion of broader social changes. Extremely needy for male friendship, Renoir took a dim view of women’s intellectual abilities and described feminist authors such as George Sand and Juliette Adam as ‘calves with five hooves’. At the height of the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, Renoir threw in his lot with the conservative Right and slandered French Jews as rootless cowards.

When is school most pernicious?

When people talk about indoctrination in schools, they often mean college, but it’s clear to me that the key indoctrination has happened well before then.  Students arrive on campus as fully-formed Red Guard militants, and they police speech more zealously than the faculty, the latter living in fear of those they supposedly instruct.

When people talk about homeschooling, it is often in the context of grade school.  On the one hand, these are clearly the years when most adults know the material sufficiently well.  On the other hand, mastery of the material is not the main challenge to teaching.  Grade school students know less, are less self-motivated, have shorter attention spans; they are the most difficult to teach.  Grade school is also the optimal time to diagnose learning disabilities.  This is not an argument for public school, private school, or homeschooling, just an observation that the best choice for a given family in a given place will depend on which of the three can best handle these issues.

When does Leftist indoctrination primarily happen:  grade school, middle school (what was called “junior high” in my day), or high school?  On the one hand, you want to get them when they’re young, impressionable, and easy to control.  On the other hand, you have to teach at their level, so in grade school you can only give them your ideology at grade-level sophistication.  I’ve long thought the Church is at a huge disadvantage in that we only get to do religious education up till confirmation, meaning middle school.  Leftist indoctrination continues through graduate school, so it’s no wonder people come away with the idea that Christianity is intellectually a middle school-level belief system.  Also, which medium does most of the work:  school, entertainment, or family?  Someone really should research these issues.  My guess is that the sweet spot for ideological indoctrination is middle school to high school.  Identity formation, which is arguably more important, can happen much younger.  In this post, I focus on academics, which is presumably better at indoctrination than identity formation.

I hear high school students are protesting for gun control.  I have no opinion on gun control one way or the other, but I’m creeped out by the way Leftists mobilize adolescents.  At that age they should be students, not advocates; the two mindsets are inimical.  I believe high school is when this starts.  (Am I wrong?)  By college, they are certainly well trained.

Middle school and high school are also the least useful.  By this age, the decent to good students are self-motivated and would learn much faster on their own.  They would probably be better off being allowed to do so, engaging with the school only for final exams, band, and sports.  Mediocre students might perhaps benefit from occasionally visiting a tutor.  That leaves the bad students, who don’t want to learn and shouldn’t be forced to.

Not that I have a practical way to make it happen, but these would then be the ideal years to partially disengage from the school system.