Enough with villainy!

Manicheism is the great moral-intellectual error of our times.  There are no complicated issues, no issues still open for debate.  No cases where conflicting value systems may each have arguments in their favor.  No cases of competing goods where all that can be hoped for are reasonable trade-offs.  No conflicts where both sides have legitimate interests.  No, it’s always one side with all the arguments (for we can’t even grant that the other side has bad arguments, as that would grant that they have some case) and all the good people (because egalitarians know that they are just better in every way).  On the other side there is only “ignorance” and “hate”.  It is no longer considered a virtue to be able to see things from the other side.  I’ve been shocked at how often university personnel, whom one might expect to pride themselves on their broad-mindedness, boast about how they don’t understand how conservatives and Christians think.  To understand them would be a discredit, suggesting a commonality of nature with these demon figures.  To sum up, modern men live in a comic book world, in which everyone is a good guy, a bad guy, or a bystander/victim.

I’m a reactionary and am always reacting.  Maybe this is one of my overreactions, but I have come to hate the idea of villains even in fiction.  I regard it as a literary flaw to have a prominent character with whom the readers/audience are not meant to empathize.  Conflict and war have always been themes in the world’s literature, but I have not found in the ancient poets the same urge to paint sides as black and white.  When men were expected to fight for their cities and their gods because such is a man’s duty, there was no need to pretend that the people on the other side were pure evil.  That was before today’s suffocating moralism.  Now, movies make a point of establishing the evil of the villains by having them do gratuitously bad things like killing children or puppies.

But aren’t there people out there who do bad things and are really just not sympathetic at all?  And wouldn’t an honest telling of their stories make them out to be villains?  Sure, but not all true stories have literary merit.  When I was a kid, I went to see a live performance of Peter Pan, and I remember that we were instructed that it’s okay to boo when Captain Hook is on stage–the actor wouldn’t take it personally.  Was that a good thing for the cultivation of my virtues?  Probably it was less damaging than most of the Manichaean fiction I consumed as a child, since the artificiality of it was made explicit.

In popular culture, villainy is used as the motive when other, more understandable ones, are at hand.  Why doesn’t Voldemort want wizards cross-breeding with regular people.  Because dilution of wizard blood would necessarily mean the end of their magical society?  No, because he’s evil.  Why are people scared of mutants in the X-men?  Because half of mutants violently hate humans and half of the other half are prone to lethal accidents?  No, because they’re evil.  Why does the emperor put an end to the Republic in Star Wars?  Because it was a manifestly incompetent government?  No, because he’s evil.

A generation bought up thinking in these terms has now reached adulthood.

If I had to choose, I’d prefer explicit sex to bad guys, because hatred is worse than lust.

Of course, I would feel this way, wouldn’t I?  I am, by all the standards of this age, a villain, a bad guy, both ignorant and evil.  (Have you noticed, by the way, that only Christians are asked to think of ignorance as be exculpatory?  When liberals call their opponents “ignorant”, they mean it to compound rather than mitigate our loathsomeness.  Ignorance is contemptible.)  Naturally, I don’t like how society is being prejudiced against villains like me.

But we bad guys have an advantage on you heroes; I speak now to the socially-approved righteous ones of this age.  You can’t understand us–your self-righteousness won’t let you–but we understand you.  I’m sure you too have seen in movies where the hero confronts the villain, and the villain points out that he and the hero are alike in many ways.  The hero always rejects it angrily.  “No!  I’m good!  You’re bad!”  He can’t let himself leave his own frame even for a moment.  But we agents of darkness are not so fragile.  We can jump effortlessly into your head, and look dispassionately at those silly cliches you call principles.

Like Pascal’s “thinking reed”:  the heroes of this age can crush us, but we are greater than them, because we can understand what it is that destroys us.

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.

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.

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More on the yellow peril

Yan Shen at unz.com 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.

Isaac Newton: Arian heretic, millenarian kook, scandal to the modern mind

In another world, it might have been a scandal that the greatest genius in human history was a Christian heretic, but in our world the scandal is that he was a Christian heretic.  That Newton rejected the doctrine of the Trinity–not because he was Enlightened like 18th century Deists but because of his own interpretation of scripture and the Ante-Nicene Fathers–has been well-known for some time, but a new book brings out some interesting details of which I was unaware.

By the middle of the following decade, when he gave much of his energies over to alchemy and the decoding of apocalyptic prophecy, he had an even more remarkable idea. When mankind was still young, “before the first memory of things”, Newton surmised, Noah and his sons had come up with a pure and pristine form of worship that subsequent prophets – Christ among them – had contrived only to debase.

The original religion had found its expression in holy flames surrounded by vestal temples such as Stonehenge and St Bridget’s fire, a Christianized pagan observance that persists today in the grounds of Kildare Cathedral in Ireland. These shrines, Newton wrote, stood allegorically for the place of the Sun at the centre of God’s cosmos. Over time, the metaphors had gradually come to obscure the truths they depicted, and as the sacred learning was passed down by Moses and the ancient Egyptians, the prisca sapientia had degenerated into idolatry.

This conviction led Newton down some strange byways. At one point he defended the account of Egyptian theology in Aristophanes’ The Birds, where Night is said to have spread her black wings over the chaotic void and laid an egg containing Love, which eventually hatched and created all the gods and living things. Night, Newton explained, was the unseen deity, and Love the spirit that had moved over the face of the waters in Genesis 2. He also thought that Plato had ultimately inherited an understanding of universal gravitation from the same source, and that before him Pythagoras had hit on the inverse-square law by hanging hammers of different weights from taut sheep intestines.

If there was one man who in Newton’s eyes had done more than any other to lead humanity astray, it was Athanasius…

The article’s author tries desperately to try to find some anticipation of the Enlightenment in all of this, but he must concede that Newton “seems to have spent more time mentally in the fourth century than in the seventeenth” (which I think underestimates how much the fourth century was still alive in the seventeenth).  What we do see is continuations of distinctly Renaissance and Reformation modes of thought.  From the Renaissance there is the idea of a common wisdom of the ancients and the sages of all lands.  Remember, Newton is mentally much closer to Plato and Dante than he is to us.  He doesn’t believe in evolution, and he reads scripture much more literally than today’s conservative Christians.  He doesn’t imagine that man ascended from savagery; he imagines that man descended from Eden and then from the Noah.  Naturally, these early men with more direct intercourse with God would have known more than we.  From the Reformation, there is the idea that the original wisdom has been lost and must be recovered, that we access it not through tradition but by leaping past it.  Luther and the other early Reformers would have been appalled by Newton’s conclusions, but they also sought to consult scripture and the apostolic Church directly, apart from the medium of tradition.  (The goal:  every Christian a priest.  The danger:  the scholarly guild a new papacy.)

Newton spent (some might say wasted) a lot of time consulting apocalyptic literature to predict the fall of that Antichrist, the Papacy.  Interestingly, he tags the same year that I did:  2016.  Granted, the set of people who believe the Papacy is the Antichrist and that Amoris laetitia is a disaster because it undermines Catholic doctrine is the empty set.  Still, the coincidence is kind of creepy.

Did you really think the Enlightenment would spare you, science?

Steven Pinker is vexed at the hostility postmodernism-imbibing humanities scholars hold for science.  He makes a number of good points.  Thomas Kuhn has been an extremely pernicious influence on popular scientific epistemology.  It is true that postmodernists unfairly blame science and modernity for evils (and pseudo-evils of their creation) that are as old as humanity.  Pinker thinks these humanities professors are betraying the Enlightenment, but I think this is backwards.  The postmodernist attack on science is just the next, purer, more radical phase of the Enlightenment.  Of course, this new batch of Enlightened condemn their predecessors, but parricide is standard operating procedure for the Enlightened, so we shouldn’t read much into that.

Everything becomes clearer when one drops the misconception that science is somehow connected to Enlightenment.  The scientific revolution was a century old and its astronomical achievements accomplished (by Christians) before the Enlightenment attack on Christianity began.  In other words, science was part of the pre-Enlightenment world.  And that is why the Enlightened condemn science for sins that are universal to humanity, not because scientific civilization is different from what came before, but because it is not different.  Science is offensive to the Enlightenment for the same reason that religion is, because both are based on the conviction that mankind must conform itself to an external truth, which contradicts Enlightenment’s promise of total liberation.  Even when science promises mastery of nature, she first demands the mind submit itself with full abasement to reality.

The Enlightenment would sometimes use science as a stick to beat Christianity with, but its main grievances were political.  Christianity was said to be intolerant, demanding to be recognized as the one truth, and a friend of oppression, both because of its otherworldly focus and its presumption that there is a reason for existing arrangements (since God permits them) and hence a presumptive legitimacy of the status quo.  We must not pretend that the Enlightened objected only to a cartoon version of bloodthirsty medieval Christian fanatics.  The great Enlightenment attack was a century after the Treaty of Westphalia, and today’s Enlightened hate thoroughly neutered American Evangelicals with the same passion that their predecessors hated European Catholics.  But science is as guilty as Christianity of these broader political charges.  She too claims unique access to truth and demands the state accept her judgements on which drugs are safe, what children should be taught about the natural world, etc.  She too offends against the zeal for social justice simply by being interested in something else.  As much as religion, she assumes the rationality of the world and leads one to guess that existing arrangements have been optimized by natural selection and possess some rationality.

It’s easy to misunderstand the above, to imagine I have said more than I have.  I do not claim that there are no differences between science and religion, or that any particular religion is fully compatible with modern science, or that science is or was dependent on religion.  Only that the two are members of common family, while the Enlightenment is something sui generis and hostile to both.  One may grant that Sunni and Shia Islam are incompatible and even that their differences are quite important.  Nevertheless, a Bolshevik is not likely to be impressed with these differences, and the Sunni and Shiite can expect similar treatment from him.  It is notable, is it not, how different are the clashes between science and religion vs. those between science and humanities?  Religious believers may object to particular scientific theories, but post-modernists are usually the only ones to condemn the scientific enterprise itself as somehow corrupt in its essence.

Yellow Peril?

Malcolm Pollack has found a fascinating essay by a weak student in China who went to England and outperformed all the locals.

As bright as he was, he found himself badly outperformed at this new school. When the first year’s final exam came along, he finished second from the bottom. He simply couldn’t keep up with the brilliant students all around him, and so he asked his parents to send him abroad. They did.

The young Mr. Yao ended up in England, where he flourished. There, he scored first nationwide in the high-school math exam, and was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge.

We read:

Three years later, I graduated with first class honors and got a job offer from Goldman’s Fixed Income, Currency and Commodity division, the division founded by my hero Rubin. It seemed like whatever I wished would simply come true. But inside, I feared that one day these glories would pass. After all, not long ago, I was at the bottom of my class in China. And if I could not even catch up with my classmates in a city few people have even heard of, how am I now qualified to go to Cambridge University or Goldman? Have I gotten smarter? Or is it just that British people are stupider than the Chinese?

There are 1.4 billion people in China: almost half again as many as in the United States and Europe combined, with a slightly higher average IQ. Given such a large number of people, and the way distributions at the tails of bell-curves work, it does not take much of an edge in IQ for the number of Chinese at the far-right end of the curve to be far in excess of the numbers in the West.

On the positive side, from the rest of the article, it seems these Chinese geniuses are less susceptible to some of the Western psycho-moralistic gibberish.

I’ve been on the admissions committee of my department’s graduate program for about half a decade.  Each year, we get over a hundred applicants, including many from China:  their transcripts, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and personal essays.  I’ve got a pretty good base of knowledge to compare Western, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern physics students.  Here is my take on the Chinese.

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