Saturday, October 14, 2023

Michael Flynn, In the Country of the Blind


Opening Passage: The book combines two story arcs, a 'Then' story arc, which slowly gives the background, and the main 'Now' story arc; technically the book starts with 'Then', but in practice this works like a prologue. So I give the opening passage of the first 'Now' section:

The window was too damned dirty to look through. Sarah Beaumont glanced around the empty room and saw a rag in the old house. There were mouse droppings scattered about, cobwebs, fragments of plaster. In places, the ribs of the walls showed through the broken plaster. With a sigh of disgust, she walked over and picked up the rag and shook it. A spider crawled out and she watched it go its way. (p. 9)

Summary: Real estate developer Sarah Beaumont and architect Dennis French, looking for houses to rework and sell, come upon an old house, originally built by a silver baron, that seems exactly suitable for their purposes. In the wall they happen to come across a newspaper clipping and a sheet of notes. The newspaper clipping is from the 1892 Denver Express and tells a story of a gunfight in which a bystander, named Brady Quinn, was killed. The notes are a series of historical events, given variously a label of 1, 2, or 3; most of the historical events are quite important, but there are some peculiar ones, and one of them is "Brady Quinn murdered". At the top of the notes is the word 'Cliological'; at the bottom is 'Try orthogonal factor analysis'. Further research on the house uncovers the fact that Brady Quinn, who had been a statistician for the Interior Department, was the man who bought the house from the silver baron, and held it until he sold it in 1876 to a man named Randall Carson, and that he had previously been wounded as a bystander in a train robbery in 1881. Research on Randall Carson leads to an old warehouse owned by home, where Sarah discovers a room full of Babbage Analytical Engines -- i.e., computing machines that had originally been designed by Charles Babbage but had supposedly never been built -- and an index of mathematical papers on social subjects. Dennis French, in the meantime, talks to a history professor named Gynn Llewellyn, who suggests that the historical events in the notes, if they mean anything, are perhaps 'horseshoe nails', i.e., small changes with large historical effects.

All of this begins coming to a head when a man tries to assassinate Sarah, a journalist friend of hers who was helping her research is killed, and Dennis is then hit by a car and somehow vanishes from the hospital with no trace. Sarah and Dennis had stumbled upon a secret society of people who had discovered how to predict and manipulate social events: the Babbage Society, so called because it was inspired by the work of Charles Babbage. Actually, it turns out that the original Babbage Society had bifurcated into two different groups, due in fact to Brady Quinn, and more remotely to the Society's mishandling of the Civil War. In particular, they had not predicted it at all. The original society had forecasted the rise of a United Germany and a world war in the 1940s using weapons of unimaginable power, the result of which would be a new dark ages; they also discovered that the United States could potentially match the United Germany, but only if it abolished slavery much more quickly than it naturally would, thus freeing up the country to begin major industrial expansion sooner. So they pulled a few strings ('horseshoe nails') to accelerate matters, but through a series of unpredicted events, a Civil War that should have been easily avoided broke out, and getting the nation back on track quickly enough after the Civil War would require another 'horseshoe nail': the assassination of Lincoln. In the next generation, Quinn and a number of others, disssatisfied with the direction of the Society, broke off and formed another group, the Associates.

Sarah eventually becomes allied to the Associates, but in the aftermath of the attempt on her life, she had written a computer program, a bot, as we would say, to investigate the entire internet for any database containing a percentage of the names that Sarah's and Dennis's research had discovered, and dump the contents of it onto any other computer and printer it could access. The program succeeds and  suddenly the whole country finds its printers printing out evidence of a cabal behind the scene manipulating events. More immediately to the point, the Associates discover in the program's output evidence that there is a third cliological society manipulating events behind the scenes. This eventually leads to the discovery of others. Perhaps the Civil War hadn't been an unexpected consequence of the tampering of the original Babbage Society. Perhaps there were other agendas on the table. And one of the newly discovered societies, dubbed the Q from a mysterious reference in the program's output, turns out to have no tolerance for other societies interfering with its work.

There are certainly social patterns; there are perhaps social laws. We can certainly manipulate social events; and we certainly try not merely to affect them but to engineer them. To know the underlying laws of social events and use them to change the course of history would certainly be a great power; someone who knew that would be the proverbial one-eyed man in the country of the blind. But to know the order of things is not to step outside the order of things; the one-eyed man is as subject to the social laws as the blind man. But what is the solution to the abuses that arise from the power imbalance created by the one-eyed man's being the only person who can see?

Favorite Passage: 

No manipulation. She had vowed that while she searched for Fee in the long forest shadows tha tawful sunset at Falcon Castle. No more manipulation. An end to the Society and to the Associates. And now: to the Six and its offshoot, and to who knew how many others?

A noble resolution. Yet Pandora's box was already open. How can you assure that no one will use a tool when taht tool has already been in use for generations? How could you even know it was being used? Cliolgoy could be applies subtly, over the course of decades. We're too accustomed to rapid change, she thought. We celebrate every ephemeral swing of fashion, while generational trends go unnoticed. Cliologists were patient; their machinations could creep up on your like the tide. And there were too many cliologists.

She straightened up slightly in her seat. Or were there? She remembered, suddenly, that Hope had lingered there in Pandora's open chest. (p. 340)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Michael Flynn, In the Country of the Blind, Tor Books (New York: 2001).

Friday, October 13, 2023

Bads and Wrongs in War

There is a lot of sloppiness when it comes to talking about ethics and war. Perhaps this is inevitable, given that war is in its very nature extremely messy. But having seen a great many comments and discussions, I think it is important to distinguish three distinct (but nested) things.

1. War is always bad; it is an entire cascade of terrible consequences, and there is no war that is not. No matter how one acts, bad things happen. There is a tendency, however, to conflate the badness of war with the injustice of war; in reality the latter is only a small sub-region of the former. It's one thing to press for reducing the badness in the limited ways available for doing so, but you go wrong when you take bad happenings as themselves a sign of injustice.

2. Injustice in war is, as I noted, a small sub-region of the badness of war. The principles of just war require that one act in such a way as to render what is owed to everyone, even to enemies, but especially to relative innocents. It is not impossible to be just in warring; but it is very difficult, and requires a recognition that no atrocities of the foe can possibly justify the doing of evil in return. Yet there's also another aspect of justice in war that is often forgotten -- namely, a state going to war on behalf of its citizens has obligations of justice to its citizens to right the wrongs that occasioned the war. This is often the most difficult part of justice in matters of war, because it's important both to uphold the obligation and to prevent it from becoming an excuse for other injustices.

3. A word that people seem to like to throw around is 'war crimes'. But it's important to grasp that not every action with bad, even terribly bad, consequences in a war is a war crime; and, indeed, not every unjust action in war is a war crime. War crimes are a very narrow sub-region of unjust actions in war. You don't have a war crime without an applicable law. What is more, international law doesn't really work like ordinary civil and criminal law; international law is by its nature a matter of negotiation, and because of that, it both changes through time and only applies so far as you can make it stick. What counts as a war crime is currently governed primarily by the Geneva Conventions and similar laws; and they are, I think, much, much narrower than many people assume. War crimes, for instance, are committed by individuals, and are distinct from rogue or hostile actions by states; if you cannot (in principle) identify a particular individual responsible for the action, you do not have enough to establish that a war crime has been committed. Other actions could still be unjust or a violation of international law, of course; but war crimes are very specific kinds of injustice and very specific kinds of violation of international law.

In talking about these matters, there is inevitably a 'badness inflation', in which people talk about all actions with bad consequences as if they were injustices and all injustices as if they were war crimes; but this is purely rhetorical, and we should not lose sight of the actual distinctions. There is, I think, an incredible naivete, particularly among academics, about how ethical principles operate in complicated situations; people foolishly try to oversimplify the matters involved in order to jump as quickly as possible to an answer. But not every tragedy is an injustice, and not every injustice is a crime. Conflating them simultaneously inflates the rhetoric used in discussing the matter and empties our more serious vocabulary of substance. If you start calling everything a war crime, then 'war crime' becomes a mostly unenforceable accusation put on the table with no function but to try to manipulate people; it stops being a useful term for dealing with particular kinds of injustice committed by individuals that are actually punishable in the right circumstances.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Bushes and Trees Fantastic Shapes Assume

 The Twilight Woods
by Clark Ashton Smith

As eve to purple turns the afterglow
That lately with a rich and fervent red
Illumed the sunset skies, my feet are led
By whispering spirits of the winds that blow
At this grey hour, and many secrets know,
To where the oaks and pines meet overhead
In plots to keep away the light. I tread
Beneath their archways pensively and slow. 

 Here darkening twillight is a sorcery
Whereby all things are rendered weird and strange:
Bushes and trees fantastic shapes assume,
And shadows lurk within the forest's range
Felt but unseen, for when I turn they flee
To darker depths of consecrated gloom.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Re-Post: Deriving Just War Criteria

 The terrible events in which terrorists recently slaughtered Israeli civilians in a bloodbath has people thinking about matters of war. Perhaps inevitably issues concerning just war theory have come up, so I repost the following from 2014.


If you read anything about just war theory, you'll soon find a distinction between criteria for jus ad bellum and jus in bello -- and increasingly you also see a distinction between both of these and jus post bellum. The distinction is often put in terms that are quite stark: they are just different lists. This is very strange, though. We can see this partly in the fact that the jus ad bellum list is always much more comprehensive and coherent than the other two; we can also see it if we look at the history, and recognize that the list for jus ad bellum was originally a list of key elements of justice for all activities of warring, not just for choosing to go to war. But most of all we can see it when we recognize that the lists were not just put together at random out of patchwork pieces, but are derived from consideration of what is involved in deliberate activity.

Practical reason is structured by ends and means from the perspective of the agent; we aim at something and go to it. Thus all deliberate activity, whether it is deciding to go to war, or choosing tactics, or anything else, is about the agent, the means, the ends, or the relations among them. By considering the agent, we get the criterion that activities of war must be carried on by the proper authority. (Since positions of authority in this context are means to the ends of society, proper authority is determined in light of ends much broader than those of the activity itself, namely, those of society itself.) The agent must not just be a proper authority, but must be acting qua proper authority; it is from this that the criterion of public declaration originally comes, since the idea behind it is that going to war must be a legal act and promulgation is required for an exercise of law. By considering the end of the activity itself, we get the criterion that activities of war must be for a just cause, i.e., an end that is itself just and derived from common good.

If we're a proper authority with just cause (of any kind -- it's obviously not just in war that authorities need to be working for just causes), then we work backwards in deliberation from this just end to consider what we should do to achieve that end. There are four basic kinds of consideration in assessing means. The first is possibility, i.e., whether there are means that will attain the end at all, from which derives the criterion of feasibility. The second is necessity, whether these means are the ones that have to be used to attain the end, which is needed in this case because activities of war are extreme measures, and this gives us the somewhat misleadingly named criterion of last resort. The third is suitability, i.e., whether the means are themselves consistent with the end, from which we get the criterion of proportionality. And the fourth is disposition, how we ourselves actually dispose ourselves, our actions, and our instruments in the using of means to achieve ends, which gives us the criterion of right intention, whose name derives from the days when 'intention' still retained something of its technical sense of disposition or orientation to an end.

What is quite clear is that none of these cease to be operative when we move from considering going to war to considering how we fight the war in which we are already participating. The results won't be exactly the same, because we will be considering different circumstances, but the basic structure would have to remain intact all the way through. And indeed, if one looks at the typical things listed as criteria for jus in bello, you can see that it has this structure, albeit defectively. Most of them have to do with maintaining proportionality. The criterion that one should not use means malum in se, for instance, is just part of proportionality -- you must use means suitable for and consistent with a just cause. When it is distinguished from 'proportionality in bello', this is typically because 'proportionality in bello' is being used to cover a very restricted element of proportionality. 'Distinction', that one should make distinctions between the combatant status of different people, is just another element of proportionality. (One of the things proportionality requires ad bellum is that you not be indiscriminate in who you fight.) 'Military necessity' is in reality the same thing as last resort, just obscured by the choice of different names, and 'fair treatment of prisoners of war' is just one thing required for right intention. Proper authority doesn't usually get mentioned, but it is obviously just as important in the middle of a war as it is before, as is feasibility. And the same thing goes with jus post bellum: the circumstances are different but the structure should be exactly the same. The same structure required for just action applies to all activities of war, whether it's starting one, fighting one, or ending one.

The criteria are not even strictly distinctive to war; all cases of extreme measures (like national emergency operations or police crackdowns or even acts of civil disobedience) would necessarily have the same basic structure, with just whatever modification of details is needed for taking into account the differences in the circumstances. But while I have read a lot of work in just war theory, I have yet to see anyone really recognize this rather obvious fact, that the criteria are built on a general account of deliberation-based action, just combined with the fact that we are dealing with a measure that is extreme as a matter of law.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Causes and Explanations

 Alexandre Billon has a discussion of the question whether there can be an infinite regress of explanations, at Marcus Arvan's Substack, "New Work in Philosophy". The discussion is quite interesting, but I think the framing has some significant problems, which I think are common problems in these kinds of discussions:

(1) Billon incorrectly conflates 'infinite regress of causes' with 'infinite regress of explanations'. This is common mistake, and not surprising, because causes explain and explanations appeal to causes (in a broad sense of the term). But causes and explanations are not the same. Causes are real beings that must actually exist to occupy a place in a series. Explanations are mental constructs that may sometimes include the merely possible or even counterfactual. Thus, despite the connections between the two kinds of series, we should not assume that all properties and characteristics of one carry over to the other. An infinite regress of causes does seem to imply an infinite regress of explanations; it's not clear that the reverse is always true.

(2) Billon's attempt to be more specific about what is meant by explanation arguably misidentifies what is actually explanatory. Billon takes the example of two events E2 (= "This ball is dropped h meters from the ground") and E1 (= "This ball hits the ground with velocity v"); these events are described by an equation, v^2 = 2gh.  The parameters of E1 then depend functionally on E2, which Billon takes to be the actual explanation relation. However, it's not actually obvious that this is right. While we might in some sense say that E2 causes E1, what is actually explanatory in this explanation is not E2 but the relation described by the equation, v^2 = 2gh; this general relation explains the relation between particular events with the right parameters, and when combined with E2, lets us infer E1. For that matter, it lets us do the reverse and infer E1 when combined with E2, because the actual explanation here concerns something that is not time-asymmetric. In short, the relation between E2 and E1 is the explanandum here; the explanans is actually the general relation that in physics we describe with an equation.

(3) If we do take functional dependence to be 'explanation', then Billon is quite clearly right that you can have infinite regresses of explanation in this sense. But this is less surprising than it might seem, because the chain of explanations in Billon's sense is quite clearly of the sort that is associated historically with per accidens series of causes, and it has been fairly generally thought that a per accidens series of causes can infinitely regress.

Monday, October 09, 2023

This the Lesson Taught to Me

by Richard Coe 

 Falleth now from off a tree,
 A wither'd leaf;
 This the lesson taught to me,
 Life is brief!
 Hear it say,
 "Mortal, soon thou'lt follow me
 To decay!" 

 Droppeth now from off my head,
 A silver hair;
 Plainer preacher never said,
 "For death prepare!"
 Fill'd with gloom,
 We follow Time with solemn tread,
 To the tomb! 

 Mounteth now on wings of air,
 To the sky,
 A little dew-drop, pure and clear;
Far up on high,
 Hear it say,
 "All above the Earth is fair,
 Watch and pray;
 Night or sorrow come not here, 
 'Tis perfect day!"

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Two Poem Drafts and a Poem Re-Draft

 Psalm 12

Help, O Lord!
No godly remain;
all tell lies,
the faithful gone.

Lips seduce,
hearts plot schemes;
Lord, slice
their lying lips.

They say, "Words
are ways to win;
thus we rule all
with our smart tongues."

God says, "I rise;
the poor my help
will have, for grace,
and be saved."

God's words
are silver-pure,
so refined,
all dross gone.

Lord, you guard;
guard us ever,
though vile folk
strut in their pride.

The Poem

The poem is beyond doubt and certainty;
it is an obvious and ambiguous whole,
both exactly what it presents itself to be
and but a corner of the dimly known.
Read it once and its words are primary,
marks and sounds on the page and air;
read it twice and the words are nothing,
and themes and images are everywhere.
A poem is a thing contingent,
an artifact of the spirit within;
and a poem cannot be prevented,
being necessary in all that it is.
It is a visceral thing that we sense;
it is an idea that no senses can see;
it is fish, it is fowl, it is red herring,
the child of a mind that is free.
We speak with it, person to person,
we sympathize with it, face to face,
though it is not a person, has no faces,
except where thought dances and plays.
Only the intellect can know it;
it is beyond a mere intellect to know;
it suggests divine madness and glory
from realms no human intellect goes;
for it is like the mind, its father,
and resembles its mother, the mind,
which is divine in its nature and power,
and weak because it is not divine.


Great things are prone to fall, says Plato --
ah, but yet not all!
Mountains stand and years will not forget.
And yet -- and yet! --
mountains too that fate have met,
mountains too to time are thralled.