Tuesday, June 01, 2021

William of Occam

Sketch of William of Occam, from a manuscipt of Ockham's Summa Logicae
William of Occam
 The intellectual asceticism of William of Occam is not popular in American conservative circles. The American commentator Rod Dreher has extended his dislike for Occam's antinomianism into a distaste for the rule against multiplying causes known as Occam's Razor. Plenty of conservatives who do not often refer to William of Occam by name refuse, in practice, to apply his insight. 

Occam's Razor provides a central insight in all forms of intellectual endeavour, but nowhere does it matter more than in the formation of policy, because in politics the facts and the logical conclusions from these facts matter most when they come with bad, or at least unwelcome, news. Facts always matter, but when they happen to align with our desires, they have only a marginal influence on policy. After all, we seldom turn from doing something we want to do because the facts and logic affirm our choices. Living by the truth only really counts as a virtue when it includes a willingness to live by truths we find unpleasant.

Occam's Razor plays a vital role in this process, by cutting down the number of conclusions possible from any given set of facts. If I write a computer program and the test runs keep providing the wrong output, I can conclude I have made an error somewhere in my logic, or I can decide the operating system has an arcane defect my program has somehow stumbled into, a system error capable of evading detection for decades, and one invoked by only the tiniest set of circumstances. While such things happen, Occam's Razor tells me to start looking for errors in my own work. 

Friday, May 21, 2021


In his essay "Looking Back on the Spanish War, George Orwell wrote the following passage: 

Civic Virtue, an idealized statue in Green-wood cemetery
Civic Virtue  in Green-Wood Cemetery
by Rhododendrites
Behind all the ballyhoo that is talked about ‘godless’ Russia and the ‘materialism’ of the working class lies the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them. Ditto, though it contains a partial truth, with all the talk about the worthlessness of social reconstruction not accompanied by a ‘change of heart’. The pious ones, from the Pope to the yogis of California, are great on the 'change of heart', much more reassuring from their point of view than a change in the economic system. (emphasis added)

Orwell's concession of the "partial truth" of the talk of the need for a "change of heart" proceeds naturally from a comment he made in his essay about the work of Charles Dickens:

The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved. Dickens... had the vision to see that. ‘If men would behave decently the world would be decent’ is not such a platitude as it sounds.

Orwell identifies a classic paradox  here: how do you make a good society out of human beings with impulses, and in some case a real disposition, to behave badly. The context of these quotes also hints at a solution. In art and literature in religion, in all areas where human beings choose to participate and where we accept our participation may change us, even if we do not necessarily choose to change, we consent to address our inner lives and thoughts, the source from which our behaviour springs. Thus, a writer such as Charles Dickens, or a religious teacher, or a poet, painter or playwright can exhort us to see ourselves and the world in a different way. Religious teachers and artists have the authority to ask us to change the way we think, and in that sense the person we are. Politics, on the other hand, exists to define standards of behaviour we will, if necessary, enforce. Enforcement, in the final analysis, means some form of violence. 

To begin with the principle: the body politic does not have the right to shape its members. Politics stops at my skin. To go on to the practical: as Orwell notes, focus on the individual serves to distract from the real business of politics: putting in place the rules, expectations, and structures we require in order to live together as the people we are, not the people some utopian vision hopes for.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Thinking About the Rule of Law

 When Rudolph Giuliani called for a "trial by combat" on January 6, his hearers probably did not envision the ancient Germanic judicial ritual. Indeed, to judge from the number of supporters of the "Q" conspiracy theory attending the rally where he spoke, his call for "trial by combat" probably evoked, in at least some of his hearers, an imagined reckoning which, had it taken place, would have resembled the baptismal scene in "The Godfather", with Donald Trump reciting the oath of office as his surrogates systematically slaughtered his enemies. This displays a profound detachment from the rule of law; paradoxically, it also illustrates the importance of the rule of law. The Godfather movies chronicle the profound tragedy of a man drawn into a corrupt and violent system despite his intentions, and the baptism scene in that movie vividly illustrates, in its hypocrisy, the corruption behind the violence. To imagine a similar scene as a triumphant vindication, as the believers in "Q" appear to have done, with Donald Trump beginning his second term with a mass hanging following a military coup and unlawful tribunals represents a catastrophic corruption of the American imagination. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Peter Pan's Crocodile and Donald Trump

Many years ago I heard a theatre legend, one of many such stories, in which a young and cocky actor playing the crocodile in Peter Pan managed to infuriate the stagehands. In crocodile costume, of course, he walked bent over, following tape on the stage, and one night, after a particularly egregious offence against the stage crew, he followed the tape, tick tocking away... straight into the orchestra pit.

The usual message for this story for actors is: don't piss off the stage crew. It also has a message for politicians and pundits: don't blindly follow the tape. In politics, of course, the tape we follow has many names and takes many forms: peer pressure, compromise or the allure of power. More dangerously, the tape we follow takes the shape of a phenomenon visible throughout politics and society: a series of minor propositions, each of which we may not want to agree to, but which at the time seem less painful than a sense of letting the team down, or losing friends, access, and influence. C. S. Lewis described this process in his great essay The Inner Ring.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

On celibacy

Toronto Van Attack Memorial
Toronto Van Attack Memorial
by Quentin9909
At two thirty-seven in the afternoon of April 23, 2018, Alek Minassian drove a rented van down a crowded sidewalk in Toronto, killing ten people and injuring sixteen others. According to social media posts retrieved after the event, he announced his crime in the following words: 
Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!

We still do not know the exact relationship between Alek Minassian and the so-called "incel" movement. In the initial social media statement and subsequent interviews, he has claimed membership in what he, at least, appears to have considered a movement. His own claims to have a connection with the internet users who call themselves "incels" played some role in his criminal defence, but if any members of the "incel" movement have claimed him, the media appears not to have reported it. 

Alek Minassian's lawyers claim his autism has distorted his thinking so severely he could not understand running people  over with a van was wrong. This claim appalls most advocates for people with autism; it paints people already burdened by misunderstanding and hostility as a lethal threat. In a sense, though, the legal case matters less than the question of why Alek Minassian found the online snarls from the fever swamps of the Internet compelling. Whatever the judge in Alek Minassian's murder trial decides in a month's time, he can expect years if not decades in secure custody, the ten people he killed by running them over with a van will still be dead, and the sixteen people he injured will still have to live with varying degrees of trauma. The malignant whispers from the corners of the Internet will persist as well, ready to delude and snare the unwary. This tragedy has taught us the dangers of those whispers. It makes sense to ask if we can answer them.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Living not by lies but ignoring the truth

Joe Biden takes the presidential oath on January 20, 2021 to become 46th president of the United States, photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, USN, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reverend Dwight Longenecker has reviewed Rod Dreher's new book "Live Not by Lies", and his review essay is interesting. In fact, I would go so far as to call it fascinating: it brings to my mind an essay by Connor Cruise O'Brien called "What can become of South Africa?", in which he speaks of the potential of ideological rhetoric to "boggle the mind" and completely drive out ordinary, humble respect for everyday reality. Reading Fr. Longenecker's essay, I can't tell whether he actually does not see the contradictions in his writing, or whether he simply wants to know if his readers have paid attention, because he wrote the following paragraph in his glowing review of Mr. Dreher's book:

 No matter what you believe about the legality of Joe Biden’s election, the fact remains that half the country believe Donald Trump and his Trump army were planning a coup. The other half of the country believe Joe Biden accomplished a coup through a rigged election. Again, no matter what the facts are–the result is that the Joe Biden presidency appears to be propped up by military might. Calling up 25,000 troops to Washington this week was not just for “security”. It was clearly a show of strength by the winning side. It was a display of military might to remind the other half of America who won and who is in charge. 

 In case anyone has forgotten, one of the books praised in this review essay bears the title "Live Not by Lies". That context makes the above quote from the article quite remarkable. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

A welcome departure...

Jefferson Sessions Testifying at Congress
Jeff Sessions testifying
by Office of Robert Aderholt
 I begin to write this in the last few minutes of January 20, 2021. I will probably publish it in the first hours of January 21, which, among some other distinctions, marks the first full day of the Biden-Harris administration. TV news has shown President Biden swearing in new officials of his administration, with an admonition similar to Churchill's famous "blood toil tears and sweat", and a single, uncompromising requirement: he required all his appointees to always show respect for their colleagues and the American people. 

At the same time, the officials, strategists, functionaries and hangers on of the previous administration have departed Washington, one or two clutching freshly printed presidential pardons, others just leaving. As Americans celebrate a hard-won transfer of power, in the last minutes of this day I want to celebrate the departure of a man who left Washington over two years ago, and now lives in well earned obscurity, his attempt at a political comeback denied by Donald Trump for precisely the wrong reasons. That man, Jefferson Sessions, implemented the most egregiously cruel of all the policies of the Trump administration, the policy of family separation at the American border with Mexico.