Saturday, August 06, 2022

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic; The Inhabited Island


Opening Passages: From Roadside Picnic:

INTERVIEWER:...I suppose that your first important discovery, Dr. Pillman, was the celebrated Pillman radiant?

DR. PILLMAN: I wouldn't say so. The Pillman radiant wasn't my first discovery, it wasn't important, and, strictly speaking, it wasn't a discovery. It's not entirely mine, either.

INTERVIEWER: Doctor, you must be joking. Everyone knows about the Pillman radiant--even schoolchildren. (p. 1)

From The Inhabited Island:

Maxim opened the hatch a little way, stuck his head out, and apprehensively glanced at the sky. The sky was low and solid-looking, without that frivolous transparency that hints at the unfathomable depth of the cosmos and a multitude of inhabited worlds; it was a genuine biblical firmament, smooth and impervious. And this firmament, which no doubt rested on the shoulders of some local Atlas, was lit by an even phosphorescent glow. Maxim searched at its zenith for the hole punched through it by his ship, but there wasn't any hole, only two large black blots, spreading out like drops of ink in water. Maxim swung the hatch all the way open and jumped down into the tall, dry grass. (p. 3)

Summary: In Roadside Picnic, the earth has been traumatized by a strange event, commonly known as the Visitation, that has affected six areas on the earth, each a few square kilometers. Strange things began showing up in the Visitation Zones, like 'empties', which are two copper disks that remain, no matter what one does, a set distance apart from each other. Weird phenomena begin happening, like basements filling up with a toxic blue-burning 'hell slime', areas in which gravity stops acting correctly, ordinary objects begin doing unusual things. People who had been living in the areas are a little off; their children are often mutated and when they move away, the places become statistically worse off in ways that can't causally be traced to them, but are nonetheless too consistent to be accidental.

Redrick Schuhart, known as Red, is a 'stalker' living near the Visitation Zone at Harmont, in a country that is never identified but is English-speaking and has a few, but not many, British-y customs and phrases. A stalker is basically someone who smuggles things out of the Zones. Schuhart seems to be trying to some extent to get out of the business, but he goes into the Zone on a more legal ground to find an artifact; doing so leads to the death of his friend, who backs up against a spiderweb that apparently leads to a later heart attack, and Red seems never quite wholly to recover from this. And the Zone has its own lures, so, like a drug addict, he finds himself returning to stalking. While stalking with another stalker, Burbridge (also known as The Vulture), Red finds himself pushed to his limits when Burbridge accidentally steps into hell slime, which starts dissolving his legs. He manages to get out, with Burbridge and the slime sample that they were paid to retrieve, and, knowing that the sample is almost certainly going to be studied to create a terrible weapon, he turns himself in to the police. When he gets out, things keep dragging him back into the orbit of the Zone. Finally he enters the Zone to find the Golden Sphere, a legendary Visitation artifact that grants wishes, his last trip into the Zone.

A significant part of the story is the interaction between the human desire for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the effects of the Visitation, which, despite in some sense being wondrous, often seem more like arbitrary trash and toxic waste than like anything that anyone would intentionally leave anywhere. The conflict between desire for meaning and apparent meaninglessness grinds down everyone in its vicinity; the analogy with drug addiction, mentioned previously, is perhaps a good one in general, since it has similar psychological consequences for similar reasons: desire for meaning conflicts with apparent meaninglessness, eventually breaking the lives of those involved.

In The Inhabited Island, Maxim Kimmerer is an astronaut from a highly advanced Earth who due to a series of accidents finds himself 'washed up' on an undeserted planet. The planet has a number of features that unfortunately suggest that Kimmerer will be stranded a very long time. The planet clearly shows the aftermath of a nuclear war; however, the atmosphere has properties that mean that the inhabitants never learned that they lived on a planet in a galaxy of stars -- they think they live on the inside of a sphere, not the outside. Maxim has to give up his original plan to use local technology to contact Earth, and settles in for a long haul, eventually joining the Guards. Slowly he begins building a picture of this strange population, who live in poverty and on the perpetual edge of war but whose leaders, the Unknown Fathers, somehow manage to combine the incongruous features of being completely anonymous, totalitarian, and extraordinarily popular. Much of the domestic security of the nation is devoted to uncovering 'degenerates', who are marked out as getting terrible headaches whenever the rest of the nation is going through its daily periods of patriotic singing and enthusiasm for the Unknown Fathers. Some of them are just trying to blend in, but others are engaging in what rebellion they can. Their major attempts at rebellion consistent almost entirely of trying to tear down the anti-aircraft defense towers, which the Land of the Fathers builds in great supply, and, indeed, in far greater supply than would ever be needed for actual anti-aircraft defense. Of course, there is a deeper purpose for them, and Maxim, far more sane and mentally healthy than anyone else in the country, will find himself closer and closer to despair as he discovers every new layer of this seemingly perfect totalitarian system. How do you fight a government that is unknown, that can command the fanatical loyalty of almost all of its population, and that is entrenched in layers and layers of defenses?

It's tempting to think that political freedom is a matter of being free of tyrants, and certainly this is one element; but the twentieth century established securely that what chains are not tyrants but systems, and the system that is most dangerous to liberty and rights is without question the one that is so pervasive that nobody knows how it could be undone. The totalitarian goal is not to be 'in control'; the totalitarian goal is to be everywhere and inevitable. (And, as I've noted elsewhere, all modern governments of all kinds seem constantly to be tempted by this totalitarian temptation. Even structurally liberal governments seem to aim at entrenching themselves by making their policies pointless to resist.) If it is even only partially successful -- how do you resist what begins to approximate being everywhere and inevitable?

The Inhabited Island is very nicely structured; it starts out so innocuously that I wondered at first where it was going, but as the mysteries built in layers, it became increasingly engaging.

Favorite Passages: From Roadside Picnic:

There was nothing about it to disappoint or raise doubts, but there was also nothing in it to inspire hope. Somehow, it immediately gave the impression that it was hollow and must be very hot to the touch -- the sun had heated it up. It clearly wasn't radiating light, and it clearly wasn't capable of floating in the air and dancing around, the way it often happened in the legends about it. It lay where it had fallen. It might have tumbled out of some huge pocket or gotten lost, rolling away, during a game between some giants -- it hadn't been placed here, it was lying around, just like all the empties, bracelets, batteries, and other junk left over from the Visit. (pp. 188-189)

From The Inhabited Island

All the stories and legends that he had heard suddenly welled up in his memory, seeming very believable. They skin people alive...cannibals...savages...animals. He clenched his eeth, jumped up onto the armor plating, and stood at his full height. Then the one with the rifle comically shifted his short little bowed legs but didn't move from the spot. He merely raised his terrifying hand with its two long, many-jointed fingers, gave a loud hiss, and then asked in a squeaky voice, "Hungry?"

Maxim parted his glued lips and said "Yes".

"You won't shoot?" the owner of the rifle inquired.

"No," said Maxim, smiling. "Absolutely not, no way." (p. 257)

Recommendation: Both Recommended. They are very different books; Roadside Picnic is good if you look science fiction weirdness, and The Inhabited Island is very good as a sort of unfolding mystery.


Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic, Olena Bormashenko, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2012).

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Inhabited Island, Andrew Bromfield, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2020).

Friday, August 05, 2022

Dashed Off XVIII

This begins the notebook that was started in August 2021.

 being insofar as intellect conforms: truth
being insofar as will tends: good
good insofar as intellect conforms: beauty
truth insofar as intellect tends: intelligibility

manifestative vs assimilative facets of truth (verum in se vs verum qua objectum)

Every argument for God's existence is a kind of compendium picture of human intellectual life.

Holiness has weight; it presses down like a burden.

conformity of being to being
(1) natural resemblance
(2) adequation of mind and thing
(3) sacramental character

Trusting your intuition is an excellent first step; relying on your intuition makes you an idiot.

(1) We can only apply probabilities to chance events in light of the causes they presuppose.
(2) Probabilities are relative to the causes assumed.
(3) Frequentist inferences assume like causes.

Recognizing the phenomenal as phenomenal requires recognizing the noumenal.

Some people talk about 'faith' when they just mean making a decision.

Faith, hope, and love are all things meant to be shared. Faith is shared in possession, hope in convergence, and love in gift.

Reading books is dangerous if you are not also trying to be virtuous.

A wave of irreligion inevitably destroys more pieties than merely religious ones.

"The first necessity of a State is that it should be durable." Henry Maine
"Democracy is Monarchy inverted, and the modes of addressing the multitude are the same as the modes of addressing kings."

The Church is a sacrament of intimate union with God by being a true and complete society that is bound together by the Holy Spirit, sufficient in itself for its end.

To be apostolic is to be in some measure Petrine.

Church as instrument of salvation & justification -> societas perfecta = people of God
Church as instrument of sanctification -> general or universal sacrament

Church as water : perfecta societas :: Church as blood : Mystical Body :: Church as spirit : general sacrament

the formal means-viability of each thing

dependent origination -> final causes

Action, as such, involves at least a relative restriction to a region of possibilities.

(1) Action is actuality in, to, or with something.
(2) This something must be selected.
(3) The source of the selection may be the actuality itself, which requires that the actuality have cognitive ability to assess possible somethings.
(4) Or it may be a nonunified cause (chance), which requires that the action not be regular.
(5) Or it must be selected for that actuality by another actuality, which ultimately must be cognitive.
-- (5a) This could be because it is a matter of natural necessity, in which case the source of the selection is the source of the actuality, and there cannot be an infinite regress.
-- (5b) Or it could be a free use of it.

That to which any change tends is that to which it tends because it is at least part of that to which some prior thing tends.

We usually explain tendencies by recognizing that they are part of other tendencies.

Every society needs some source of stability.

Institutions are structured by information problems and motivation problems.

Proper use of negation requires direct or indirect regard for truth.

Institutions are not built entirely out of expectations.

the hierarchical acts as acts of tradition

"How vast is the Highest Deity, ruler of men below." Classic of Poetry

jurisdiction as legally delineated scope of assistance, for the use of legal and political resources

Sooner or later, in one form or another, all philosophy comes to the Catholic Church.

Infused virtues are given by grace but must be exercised to be maintained and retained.

radication of acquired virtue: facility
radication of infused virtue : ardor or fervor

medium of exchange : market :: legal tender : state

our own ineffability to ourselves

copying as a more fundamental kind of relation than constant conjunction

Kant's postulates as principles of civil theology
-- absurdum practicum is certainly relevant in this context

All human being are oriented by practical reason itself toward the common good of humanity, and therefore human beings have a duty to act in accordance with this human good, both individually and collectively as a whole. The regulation relevant to such a common good, however, cannot be that of a political community, whose legislation is extrinsic. Thus there must be a law, intrinsic to reason, appropriate for human common good, guiding the individual and the whole of humanity. But no individual can on their own act appropriately to human common good with respect to obligations of the whole of humanity. Therefore we are rationally required to act on the assumption of a governing power for the whole of humanity that can coordinate, and, under this governor, a cooperative means of coordination. This means must be a united society, freely and firmly concerned with moral integrity.

Bin Song on views of Taiji
-- Ricci argues, on the basis of Zhu Xi's account, that the Supreme Ultimate must be dependent on others, not self-sustaining, because it is just the general name for all kinds of principles.
-- Yang Tingyun (d. 1627) gives a similar argument: Supreme Ultimate resides in things, therefore cannot give rise to things; thus there must be a Lord of Heaven.
-- Huang Zhen counters to this by identifying Taiji with Tao, so that all human and cosmic things depend on it, 'the Way cannot be left for even a moment' (Zhong Yong). Thus Taiji is self-sustaining, not dependent.
-- Likewise, Chen Houhuang, who argues that Taiji is the origin of principle, so it cannot be a principle among others. "Pulling back, it has no beginning, so it can begin things. Pushing forward, it has no end, so it can complete things."

Mou Zongsan: "The Way of Heaven is high above, and thus is transcendent. When the Way of Heaven runs through humans it exists inside humans and becomes human nature. Then the Way of Heaven is immanent."

Tu Wei-ming, Centrality and Commonality: "It is true that human nature is imparted from heaven, but human beings are not merely creatures and heaven alone does not exhaust the process of creativity. In an ultimate sense, human beings, in order to manifest their humanity, must themselves fully participate in the creative process of the cosmos."

tianren heyi: continuity of Heaven and humanity

Zhuan Zi takes Dao to be beyond/before Taiji.

Wang Bi (vs. Laozi): Nonbeing cannot be explained saved with sayings about being.

Han Kangbo: Supreme Ultimate is term for that to which no term can be applied; as we cannot name it, we conceive of it in terms of the ultimate point to which being extends.

The intelligibility of anything presupposes that it not be contradictory and that it have being through something actual, either itself or some other thing. Were nothing to exist, nothing would be intelligible; the latter is not possible, so necessarily something actually is. The whole of what is intelligible requires an actuality through which it is given, which is necessary.

-- direct: being
-- reflective: true
-- itself : good
-- as known by intellect: beautiful

Fall of Judah : Passion :: Babylonian Exile : Tomb :: Return from Exile : Resurrection
-- NB that this fits very well with Lamentations and Ezekiel

Ezra : sacramentality of Church :: Nehemiah : sociality of Church

"Genuine and positive equality, like true liberty, is manifested and realized in that solidarity or fraternity which makes many to be as one." Soloviev

Prudence is necessary because we need to adjust our virtues as our circumstances change.

research as artificially structured learning

Everybody has heaps of superficial knowledge even about things about which they specialize; all deep knowledge and understanding occurs for us in a sea of superficial knowledge.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Go Search that Splendour of Decay

 Ballade of Moderns
by G. K. Chesterton 

 On deserts red and deserts grey
The temples into sand have slid;
Go search that splendour of decay
To find the final secret hid
In mummies' painted coffin-lid
In hieroglyphs of hunt and play.
Read the last word, my cultured kid,
They all were moderns in their day. 

 Yes, it was just as bold and gay
To do what Astoreth forbad.
Yes, it was smart to carve in clay
And chic to build a pyramid.
Yes, Babylonian boys were chid
For reading hieroglyphs risqué.
We do but as our fathers did --
They all were moderns in their day. 

 There are progressives who passed away
And prigs of whom the world is rid,
And there are men in hell today
As silly as old Ben Kidd;
And Webb (whose uncle calls him Sid),
God made him with the flowers of May,
And the blind stones he walked amid.
They all were moderns in their day. 


 Prince, still the soul stands virgin; "quid
Times"; we tear some rags away
But shall we grasp her; God forbid.
They all were moderns in their day.

This pairs well with the previous quotation from "On Reading". Benjamin Kidd was an immensely popular sociologist who authored Social Evolution, one of the bestselling works of Social Darwinism. Part of the reason for his popularity was that he was anti-socialist and held that religion had a small but definitely positive contribution to the evolution of society. Sidney Webb was a socialist and Fabian who later became notorious for his enthusiastic evaluation of Stalinism.

The First Use of Good Literature

 The highest use of the great masters of literature is not literary; it is apart from their superb style and even from their emotional inspiration. The first use of good literature is that it prevents a man from being merely modern. To be merely modern is to condemn oneself to an ultimate narrowness; just as to spend one's last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned. The road of the ancient centuries is strewn with dead moderns. Literature, classic and enduring literature, does its best work in reminding us perpetually of the whole round of truth and balancing other and older ideas against the ideas to which we might for a moment be prone.

G. K. Chesterton, "On Reading", The Common Man.

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Links of Note

* Nichelle Nichols recently died at age 89

* Gabriel Gottlieb, Why read Fichte today?, at Aeon

* Arina Pismenny, Ronnie de Sousa, French Philosopher? (PDF)

* Anne Helen Petersen, Inside the Mind-Boggling World of the Antiquities Theft Task Force

* Kenneth L. Pearce, Seeing is not perceiving

* Brandon Dahm, The Acquired Virtues Are Real Virtues (PDF)

* Henry Grabar, The Hotel-Spirit, at Slate

* Jeremy Markovich, The Man in the Yellow Hat. I've found over the years that I rather like research stories, stories about tracking down something, and I thought this one, about hunting down the source of a hat worn by Spielberg, a particularly engaging one.

* Andres Ayala, The Thomistic Distinction Between the Act of Understanding the Formation of a Mental Word: Intelligere and Dicere in Aquinas (PDF)

* Stewart Brand, The Maintenance Race, on the world's first round-the-world solo yacht race.

* Charles Pillar, Blots on a Field, looks into a serious case of data fabrication in research on Alzheimer's.

* Johan Dahlbeck, Spinoza on Ingenium and Exemplarity: Some Consequences for Educational Theory (PDF)

* Richard Carroll reviews Yuri Pines's Foundations of Confucian Thought at "Everything is Oll Korrect!"

* Francis J. Beckwith, Separated at Baptism: What the Mortara Case Can Teach Us About the Rejection of Natural Justice by Integralists and Progressives (PDF)

The River of Pseudolife

 The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity's rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudolife. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.

Václav Havel, "The Power of the Powerless" (PDF).

Monday, August 01, 2022

Prince of Moral Theologians

 Today is the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church. From his Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ:

The true lover of Jesus Christ keeps the eternal truths constantly in view, and orders all his actions according to them. Oh, how thoroughly does he who loves Jesus Christ understand the force of that saying of the Wise Man, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity; that all earthly greatness is mere smoke, dirt, and delusion; that the soul's only welfare and happiness consists in loving its Creator, and in doing his blessed will; that we are, in reality, no more than what we are before God; that it is of no use to gain the whole world, if the soul be lost; that all the goods of the world can never satisfy the human heart, but only God himself; and, in fine, that we must leave all to gain all. (p. 432)

Sunday, July 31, 2022

On Modal Collapse

 Due to a recent criticism of R. T. Mullins by Ed Feser, people are  discussing the modal collapse objection to divine simplicity. I thought I would make a few methodological points.

(1) Modal collapse is often created by imported assumptions. Modal collapses are not exclusive to matters of divine simplicity; they can arise in any modal context where an assumption or combination of assumptions relates possibility and necessity. One of the things that we learn from dangers of modal collapses elsewhere is that it is very easy to introduce an assumption yourself, distinct from the topic you are considering, that in itself creates the modal collapse. Thus, if you have modal collapse argument against anything, you need to be on your guard against the possibility that you might be creating it by introducing an assumption, whether explicit or implicit, that requires modal collapse.

This is definitely relevant to modal collapse objections to divine simplicity that make use of the possible worlds framework; over and over again, I have found such arguments to make the assumption that the actual world is one and only one possible world. As this assumption is nothing other than a formulation of unrestricted necessitarianism, using it in any argument on any subject will induce a modal collapse.

(2) Modal collapse requires intersubstitution. Modal collapse objections with respect to God essentially involve variations of a basic structure: we have a description of God in terms of necessity (e.g., an argument that God necessarily exists) and a description of God in terms of contingency (e.g., an argument that God is creator of the contingent universe). Obviously these are just distinct descriptions unless we introduce something that we take to require us to jumble the modalities. This is in fact the only reason that divine simplicity has to do with anything in these contexts -- people making modal collapse objections are trying to claim that it requires us to substitute necessity-style descriptions and contingency-style descriptions for each other (in particular, because they take it to be just a form of identity). A common weakness in modal collapse objections is failure actually to establish this. People often get to something like "Divine simplicity requires that everything in God be in some way the same" and then assume, falsely, that this is strong enough to force us into the intersubstitution on which any modal collapse depends.

(3) Modal collapse objections need to be checked by parity. One thing I've been seeing more and more of is gerrymandering in an attempt to make it so that we can't move from modal collapse in divine matters to modal collapse in other matters (e.g., with free will, an area in which it is notoriously easy to get modal collapses by making imprecise assumptions). This shows that people at least recognize that they have to exercise some care here, but as modal collapse is actually a structural issue in argument, the structural tools that are used to get an alleged modal collapse in one case need to be tested in other contexts before you consider questions of whether the divine case might be unique. To put it in other words, you need to check the objection in one domain for potential parity problems in other domains without introducing any special assumptions for the domain. After you have done so, you may have uncovered the sort of problem noted in (1) or another problem, or else you might need to argue, independently, for some fundamental disanalogy between the cases, which makes the parity-premises false in one case and not in another. A particularly significant issue for divine simplicity is that simplicity is historically a term that can be used relatively: that is, traditionally everything that exists requires some kind of unity, and any kind of unity that rules out some kind of composition may be considered a kind of simplicity, and people have argued that (e.g.) virtuous character is more simple than vicious character, that angels are more simple than human beings, etc. This increases the likelihood that any modal collapse for divine simplicity will introduce analogous problems all the way down the line in the more restricted and limited cases; one would have to argue that some feature or other of the restrictions and limitations blocked it, which I have never seen anyone do.

But Plato's Lore Still Vision'd Round My Head

by William Julius Mickle 

 Plato was closed; mine eyes no more awake;
But Plato's lore still vision'd round my head:
Meseem'd the Elysian dales around me spread,
Where spirits choose what mortal forms to take:
'Mine be the poet's eye; I crowns forsake.'
Sudden before me stood an awful shade;
On his firm mien simplicity array'd
In majesty, the Grecian bard bespake:
He thus: 'Bright shines the poet's lot untried;
Canst thou than mine to brighter fame aspire!
High o'er the' Olympian height my raptures tower'd,
Each Muse the fleet-wing'd handmaid of mine
Yet o'er their generous flight what sorrow plied,
While freezing every joy Dependence lour'd!'

The narrator has just finished the Myth of Er in the final book of Plato's Republic