Friday Flotsam: Black Swan

I’m reading The Black Swan by Nicholas Nassim Taleb at present. I haven’t gotten very far, but it’s quite interesting. A Black Swan event is one that is an outlier with a heavy impact which was predictable in retrospect, but not in prospect (that is, you can see where it came from with hindsight, but no one foresaw it). The point being how little we really know about the world, how complex reality is, and how little we can really understand or predict. This fits in well with somethings I’ve been learning from other sources, such as how the real question of evolution is not random mutations of the bodily structure, but mutations of the protein strands that make up DNA: something that is astronomically more complex and less likely to result in useful mutations.

The conclusion I’m drawing from all of this (which is still in its early phases and will need more work) is that the impression given by modern science that we understand how the world works, even in part, is largely illusionary. We know what some mechanisms look like up close and have some idea of how they function, but that’s it; we have absolutely no capacity to understand reality as a whole, or even a small portion of reality. The idea that we understand the world enough to predict what will happen and adjust our behavior accordingly, or that we understand enough even about the human mind and human society to craft new and better societies to replace the ones we are born into is ludicrous; like a man imagining he can reverse-engineer an iMac Computer because he’s been through a two-month programming bootcamp (hey, that’s me!).

So, the principles of The Black Swan seem to me thus far to point (as so much does) to two key principles: one is Revelation. We could never understand the world enough to gain an adequate picture of God, or even of the world itself enough to know what is behind it or how we are to act in it. Hence, revelation is a necessary component of a complete human life.

The second is objective morality and with it the Medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune. Since we cannot adequately foresee what our actions will lead to or predict, much less control the flow of world events, the only thing we can do is to adhere to objective values, which we can perceive and discern through both revelation and reason. That is, it is senseless to compromise on virtue or principles to get the outcome you think you want, because you have no capacity to actually ensure that outcome, or to control any subsequent consequences (murder mysteries are really all about this; the killer commits a crime to get what he wants, but finds events inevitably spiraling out of his control owing to the limitations of his ability to predict the world around him).

So, since world events are largely outside our capacity to either predict or influence, the image of Fortune’s Wheel is actually closer to the truth than the “go change the world” principle of today. Some countries or people get elevated for a time, only to be ground back down, and it is largely independent of anyone’s dessert. The only thing to do is to fix your attention on Eternity and behave as soberly and virtuously as you can in your own sphere of life.

Friday Flotsam: Good and Bad or Social Types

One of the key dividing lines in the world, as I see it, is between those who think in terms of good and bad and those who think in terms of this or that kind of person. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap there, and the latter would say that they are thinking in terms of justice and right, but they think of these things in terms of abstract group dynamics rather than principles.

The example I like to use is when someone gets angry that a given person has a big country estate and all the comfort in the world, while hundreds of other people can barely make ends meet. The thing is though, it is highly unlikely that the former has his comfort because the latter are suffering. In any case, to be free from money worries and to live in a beautiful home is itself a good thing as far as it goes. Though, by its nature, it’s a good thing that not everyone can have. Is it really better that no one should have it? That this particular kind of good should never be experienced because it will not be experienced by everyone? Are there no benefits associated with such a state of affairs, either for individuals or society as a whole?

This is one reason I’m in favor of aristocracy; I think financial independence, family honor, and high titles are good things as far as they go, and I’d much rather have a world where such goods exist than one in which they don’t. Such a world would be (arguably is) infinitely the poorer for it.

That’s what I mean by thinking in terms of good and bad and not this or that kind of person. The issue is not if someone is rich or poor, the issue is the qualities he shows and the object state of his situation. If a man is ill, that is itself a bad thing that commands pity; the poor man is entitled to more concern only because and to the extent that he has fewer resources for dealing with it. I can easily imagine a scenario in which a poor man and a rich man are both in straights, but the rich man is the more deserving of the two: e.g. both find themselves in financial difficulties, the rich man because he was robbed, the poor man because he gambled.

To think in good or bad terms — the traditionalist mindset — means to judge by eternal, objective values; is this person kind or cruel, liberal or miserly, polite or rude, wise or foolish? It means to prefer good qualities over bad, regardless of what ‘class’ the person fits in. Of course, you don’t expect the same kind of manners from a Mr. Peggotty as from a Mr. Copperfield, but you expect courtesy and kindness from both. This is why things like people saying that Charlie Chan is a racist caricature because he is courteous and non-confrontational are simply meaningless to me; those are good qualities, whether they’re stereotypes or not.

The people I admire tend to have certain qualities; honor, dignity, intelligence, conviction, moral fiber, and so on. So, people like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, Saigo Takamori, St. Louis, St. John Henry Newman, and so on. People I dislike or do not admire lack these qualities. It is a matter of indifference to me what social group they fall under.

However, you will note that this also gives what I think is the only rational basis for a non-prejudiced approach. If what you admire is a given quality, then you will seek it and acknowledge it whether it is found with an Englishman, an American, a Japanese, or an African. It may, for whatever reason, be more common here or there, but what does that matter? The quality itself is the important point.

This is, in fact, aristocracy in the truest sense; rule of excellence.

Friday Flotsam: The Best Animals

I love dogs. I miss having one, and I hope (once I have a life again) to be able to get one of my own. That’s one of the many things I’m looking forward to.

Most people like dogs, and I think it’s fair to say that people in general like dogs (with a few exceptions). We like them because they’re loyal, trainable, and affectionate.

People like horses too. I haven’t spent enough time around horses to say that I like them, but I would like to like them (see above re: having a life again). There’s a great bond between a good man and his good horse; someone once said that “A good man on a good horse is the noblest creature to be seen.” We like horses, well, much the same reason we like dogs; they’re trainable, loyal, affectionate, strong, and useful.

It’s interesting: the animals that people in general love the best are not what we would ordinarily call the best animals. Chimps are the most intelligent animals, to the point they seem almost human. But almost no one has chimps in their houses or trains them up as pets. Chimps were never domesticated. Apes and monkeys in general are novelties. Same thing with the big cats. Elephants are domesticated, but only Asian elephants.

In any case, I think it’s fair to say that the animals that humans love the best and have done the most for are the dog and the horse, along with perhaps the cat. It isn’t exclusive, of course; you will find people who are particularly attached to just about any animal. But these two are the ‘elect’ among the beasts.

I rather think it’s something similar with God. The people He loves best are generally not those whom we would think are the best people. Love and loyalty and trainability (to put it in a somewhat flippant tone) seem to be what He values most, just as we do.

God, of course, is higher above us than we are above the beasts, but there is a parallel there, I think. Man is the summit of earthly nature, being both animal and spirit. The animals, therefore, are his responsibility and under his authority (“let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth” Gen. 1:26). As man is to God, so, in a sense, are the animals to man, being his servants, over whom he has the power of life and death, for whom we are to care and nurture, partly for their sake, but primarily for our own. The highest thing we can do for the animals is to make them, as it were, a member of the family.

And the somewhat eerie thing about it is that when we do this, the animals rise to be something almost human. Stories abound of dogs saving people’s lives, displaying uncanny intuition, mourning by their master’s graves, and so on. They seem to sort of take a bit of our nature into themselves by being exposed to us and loved by us.

There are a few consequences I want to draw out here. First, I had never thought of it before, but I wonder whether the switch from animal power to mechanical power was quite the morally neutral thing that it appears to be. It might be that man was meant to have animals rather than machines as his chief servants, and that in turning away from them, we’ve lost a part of ourselves. The switch after came at the same time as, and indeed was a direct cause of, the dissolution of community. I won’t go so far as to say I think it was certainly a bad thing (much less that there’s anything to be done about it now), I’m only noting it.

More important, I want to draw out that point of the best not being the best loved. Qualities like intelligence or strength or beauty, while they are valued and admired, are not, in the end, what people look for in animals. In the same way, they aren’t what God primarily values, though good in themselves. I rather think that God sees our squabbles over who has more money or status or authority as if a dog were to try to impersonate a chimp. It’s not only doomed to fail, but it’s a matter of trying to trade more desirable qualities for less. Because even if a dog could become a chimp, he would simply find himself sitting in the monkey house at the zoo with strangers staring in at him, rather than curled up comfortable at home with his family.

Or to put it another way, animals that do very well and grow high in the wild are usually not well suited to domestic life. A lion does very well on the Savannah, probably much better than a domesticated dog would, but it would be a very rare lion indeed that anyone would bring into his house. In the same way, someone may do very well in this world, but what does that matter? The important thing is whether we are welcomed into the King’s house.