Francis: What do you think the point of a story is?
Paco: The point?
Francis: You know, their function. Their purpose. Why do we tell them?
Paco: There are many reasons, I imagine.
Francis: I think the most important one is illustrated by “The Zebra Storyteller“. We tell stories to supplement for experience, so that we can be prepared for things that haven’t happened to us personally but can be imagined to happen.
The answer used to seem obvious to me. I was of one mind with Wittgenstein:
For we can avoid unfairness or vacuity in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as a sort of yardstick; not as a preconception to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)
But to Aristotelians and Platonists, the model appears to belong to reality rather than being some separate thing we construct as a yardstick. And to Heidegger and Gadamer, preconceptions are front and center in establishing the conditions of understanding.
I wandered through conceptual murkiness as I attempted to understand these various lines of thought. When I encountered the Wittgenstein quote above, a particular conception of the model came sharply into focus.
In what follows, I will argue that Wittgenstein is right, but—as he would no doubt have happily conceded—incomplete in his treatment of models. I will integrate it into Heidegger’s notion of the fore-structure of understanding, which makes up our hermeneutic situation. I will try to avoid being overly technical—you can think of the hermeneutic situation as your standpoint, including your prejudices as well as the traditions of thought and practice in which you are embedded, and specifically how those things pre-form your interpretations.
Imagine a group of friends sits down to play a tabletop RPG.
They picked a Dungeon Master ahead of time, to plan out the adventure and generally be the arbiter of what occurs and what’s allowed.
The remaining friends put together their characters, choosing types (such as warrior or wizard), stats (such as how intelligent their character is as opposed to how strong or nimble), names, species, and so on.
There are rules to these games, but they are fairly flexible, to allow for creativity on the part of the Dungeon Master as well as the players.
Suppose that after playing a few times, some of the players get tired of it, and want to switch to a different RPG. A space adventure, say. Neither the DM, nor the rest of the players, want to give up on what they’ve done so far, though. So they strike a compromise—their characters in their current game will play an in-game version of the space RPG, and accrue experience points based on how well they do.
At first this takes up about a fifth of their gameplay. But gradually, they spend more and more time on the subgame. What’s more, they create more subgames, of many different genres. Some are so completely unlike the one they’re playing as to be hardly comparable—focusing on boring domestic scenarios, for instance. Or working together to solve puzzle games.
At what point can they be said to ever play the original game at all? What if 80 percent of their gameplay takes place in subgames? But now, what if much of that 20 percent was used determining which subgame to play or creating new ones? At what point does the original game vanish entirely, as an entity?
The original game is formally higher up on the hierarchy than the subgames. The DM could decide to have a dragon attack while their characters’ attention is caught up playing house in a subgame. But to the extent that it’s hard to get a group of friends together who will regularly commit their time to a common game like this, the DM can’t just do whatever he wants. If people think he’s being unfair or aren’t having any fun, they can walk away.
If enough people do this, the game will simply be dead.
In short, the DM is constrained in as much as he wants to avoid killing the game entirely.
I ask again: at what point is it absurd to refer to the original game at all?
This was a little out of character. Loved ones wondered whether this was some sort of roundabout suicide attempt.
Nevertheless, with the encouragement of my good friend Alex, I went to the first practice of the GMU Rugby Club for the fall 2005 semester. This was the year before GMU’s basketball team went to the Final Four, so the administration was towards the end of a long period of neglecting GMU’s sports in general. Rugby being a less popular sport than most, the field the team had access to was more hard ground and mud than grass.
(Incidentally, the semester after the Final Four run, we returned to discover that our field had become a beautiful green jewel, tended to lovingly and invested in with fresh cash from an administration suddenly enthusiastic about sports)
When we arrived at that first practice, everyone was engaged in a drill called cross over running. You form four lines, facing each other diagonally. The lines that face each other directly run and pop the ball to the person at the head of the one across from them, who then runs and does the same, and so on.
To my unathletic, inexperienced, timid, and highly awkward self, it was a terrifying sight. You had to make sure that you caught the ball, didn’t crash into someone running from the perpendicular line, and then actually got the ball into the hands of the person across from you. And it all happened so fast! I was certain to make a complete fool of myself.
And in practice, as well as the field, I did make a fool of myself, many times. But it was a kind, forgiving group, who encouraged persistence in the face of continual failure, and went out of their way to call out whenever I did something right. In short, I stuck with it, for those last two years of undergrad.
It surprises me the extent to which people recoil at the idea of a President Donald Trump.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Donald Trump would be a terrible president. But to hear the way some people talk about it (and I don’t just mean David or Adam), he’s an entirely new level of monster. He’s something we’ve never before encountered in American politics, at least not recently. One Sweet Talker even suggested to me that those who vote for Donald Trump are more morally culpable than those who don’t.
And it’s not just us. Everywhere you go in the media, there’s some dumb article about which public figure recently vowed to move to Canada (or wherever) if Donald Trump wins the election. Many of my personal friends – especially the Muslims among them – think that The Donald’s rhetoric toward practitioners of Islam is many orders of magnitude over and above what we’ve seen in politics up to now.
Forgive me, I just don’t see it. But let’s be clear: I’m not saying Donald Trump isn’t terrible, I’m saying all those other politicians that nobody ever worried about have been exactly as terrible as Donald Trump all this time, and nobody really batted an eye at that. And they’re still not batting any eyes.
We don’t disagree about Trump. We disagree about everyone else. While everyone seems shocked and scandalized by Donald Trump’s ideas, I’m not seeing anything new or alarming that I haven’t been witnessing for the past twenty years. (Incidentally, I see that David R. Henderson has scooped me on this by a few hours.) So, I must ask: What makes Donald Trump uniquely morally reprehensible here?
Consider the proposed wall. We’re supposed to believe that building a wall along the US-Mexico border is a “Donald Trump thing.” If so, how would we explain the fact that recent interest in such a wall seems to have peaked almost ten years ago?
Or, consider the question of banning Muslim immigration to America. To articulate such a thing is to make most Americans’ skin crawl, but one has to wonder about the intellectual honesty of many of those whose skin is crawling. Before my wife got a new passport and started using my last name, she was subject to more “random” airport security checks than I’ve ever seen. Her father, a well-traveled man, an expert in his field, and a Fulbright Scholar, was placed on the “no-fly list” for sharing the name of a suspected terrorist; but if you know anything about Muslim names, you know that virtually every Muslim shares the name of a “suspected terrorist,” because there are over two billion Muslims worldwide and only several thousand Muslim names. Do the math. Anyone comfortable with the state of Muslim profiling in America, but uncomfortable with Trump’s immigration ban, isn’t thinking straight.
But let’s set aside my personal experience any appeals to logic and look at the facts. Three years ago, The Atlantic reported:
The Associated Press brought the NYPD’s clandestine spying on Muslims to the public’s attention in a series of vital stories. Starting shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, officers infiltrated Muslim communities and spied on hundreds or perhaps thousands of totally innocent Americans at mosques, colleges, and elsewhere. These officers “put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity,” the news agency reported, citing NYPD documents. Informants were paid to bait Muslims into making inflammatory statements. The NYPD even conducted surveillance on Muslim Americans outside its jurisdiction, drawing a rebuke from an FBI field office, where a top official charged that “the department’s surveillance of Muslims in the state has hindered investigations and created ‘additional risks’ in counterterrorism.”
The author of that piece ends his article with a good question:
What does it say about American liberalism today that two of the most significant municipal programs abrogating the civil liberties of racial and ethnic minorities thrive in a deep blue city that also happens to be the media capitol of the country … and the guy presiding over it remains popular?
He’s talking about Bloomberg, and let’s make this as clear as possible: Bloomberg isn’t popular among alt-right racists; he’s popular among the urban elite who see themselves as tolerant, diverse, and enlightened. The very people who react with indignation at hearing Donald Trump’s proposed ban have virtually no problem at all with local law enforcement enacting a ubiquitous surveillance apparatus to ensure that innocent American citizens who happen to be Muslims aren’t actually up to something. And that’s not even considering the profiling that has been done to blacks and Latinos for decades. Trump is beyond the pale? Not hardly.
We could take a long look at the semblance of economic policy Donald Trump seems to espouse and poke all kinds of holes in it. But: trade restrictions, investments in domestic manufacturing, lukewarm support of minimum wage increases, and so on… Would it really be shocking to discover that this set of policies is common to a fairly large swath of both Democrat and Republican politicians?
Wrack your brain, pore over the platforms, the advertisements, the interviews, the media articles, and the research. Once you set aside Trump’s rather abrasive personality – an abrasive personality that is not only no secret to anyone (nor has it been at any time over the past 40 years of Trump’s fame), but that has succeeded in creating a rather successful brand of business for him – the actual policies we’re left with really aren’t that different from what we’re getting from any other politician in the landscape.
So what is everyone complaining about?
Nota bene, my point here is not to suggest that there aren’t people out there who have disagreed with these policies all along. Of course there are. But the visceral reaction against Donald Trump is many orders of magnitude above and beyond our reaction to politicians who support Trump’s policies (or worse) in deed, even if they fall short of doing so in words.
Regular readers will understand why I choose to focus on this: It’s because, in my opinion, results matter much more than words. That politicians lie is nothing new, and the results of our politics are there for all to see. Why, then, all the indignation over a politician whose rhetoric is, for once, consistent with the results?
What do we make of a society that reacts angrily to being told the truth? Is the problem that it prevents them from being able to lie to themselves about what’s going on out there? This isn’t a politics problem; it’s an ego problem. The solution here is not to lambaste Trump, but to lambaste ourselves and our own failure to recognize any of these horrors when they come out of the mouths of pretty much anyone else. If it takes someone like Donald Trump for you to recognize how abominable these policies are, then perhaps a re-calibration of your abomination-detection-device is in order.
Until we realize that, it’s plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
My Mormon friend informs me scholars at BYU have a pet theory that Kierkegaard was directly influenced by Mormonism. Kierkegaard’s one reference to the nascent faith (quoted in the footnote below from this book) makes this doubtful. Still, I am intrigued by the suggestion that Mormon theology was influenced by the invention of the train and telegraph. In what ways have modern understandings of God and divinity been influenced by contemporary technological advances?
Scientology was obviously influenced by 20th century debates in psychiatry, the space race, and the Douglas DC-8 jet airliner, but otherwise I think Kierkegaard’s prediction that technological progress would fuel retrograde and mechanistic metaphors for God had it backwards. Technology and basic science have pushed in favor of more and more abstract conceptions of God, as more and more of the workings of the universe come under human control and are found to obey naturalistic laws. In that sense, the idealists, rationalists and pantheists like Hegel, Schelling and Spinoza used metaphors for God that were way ahead of their time.
Computer science, in particular, has led (or will lead) to more computation or cybernetic metaphors of God. “God is information.” Or perhaps, “God / spirit is the intentionality underwriting otherwise hollow and derivative computational processes.” Or something like that.
It reminds me of an argument I concocted on the spot in a philosophy of religion elective I took several years back. We read Aquinas’ “Quinque viae” aka his five proofs of God’s existence. The professor, a militant atheist and functionalist, lectured for awhile about internal contradictions and tautology. And while I was and still am a strong atheist, I found his arguments ungenerous, and worse, boorish. So I raised my hand.
Professor, I said, You should note that Aquinas begins with the Argument from Motion:“Whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another,” and “Motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.” This establishes God’s fundamental connection to entropy.
Then, in his Argument from Degree: “As fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.”
The idea of maximum heat is literally a thermodynamic metaphor. God is like absolute zero, the baseline which makes heat measurement possible. In terms of entropy, this implies God is a zero entropy state: a state of pure and total order and useful potentiality.
Consider what we know from physics: The universe began as a singularity and entropy, which is to say disorder, has been increasing ever since. Is it a stretch to relate this inextricable progression from order to disorder with the Christian metaphor of being fallen and separated from God? Is the punishment for original sin not that mortal beings must eventually age and die, that is, to be subject to the whims of entropy? And is the “heat death” of the universe not well captured in the metaphor of hell as state of uniform disorder and chaos?
Consider next how information theory has updated our understanding of these physical truths. Entropy, through the lens of statistical mechanics, refers to uncertainty about the state of a given system. A low entropy system requires less information to be fully described with certainty. A single particle, for example, can be described by its position and velocity with certainty in a way that a chaotic system cannot.
Let’s go back to the initial state of the universe, which began in a singularity of infinitesimal size, contained in an equally infinitesimal amount of space and time. This is not directly observed. Rather, it’s postulated by extrapolating backwards along the arrow of time until the universe’s entropy is asymptotically nil. That is, where the information required to describe the state of the entire universe and everything in it approaches zero, with the degree of certainty approaching one.
This asymptotic, zero entropy state is in dimensionless space, and, in informational terms, contains literally all the “knowledge” of how the universe will subsequently unfold. In other words, it is omniscient and omnipresent. And moreover, since it contains infinite potentiality, it is a state capable of creating its own momentum, to be the unmoved mover.
I lowered my hand, and returned the floor to the incredulous professor, who scoffed.
Of course, I agree. But isn’t there more virtue in creatively exploring positions you don’t actually hold, rather than contorting obviously bad arguments into an even worse light?
Either way, the information entropic “proof” of God (i.e. the sixth proof) seems to me to be also asymptotic in its degree of abstraction. Is a more abstract metaphor for God possible? If not, then maybe it does have an ontological reality. I have no doubt Aquinas would agree. And perhaps Kierkegaard would agree, too, given his faith in God despitethe undeniable disorder of things.
We all knew that the fix was in for Hillary, over on that side (poor Bernie!): she’s been siphoning money from corporate America and the world’s glitterati to bribe as many of her party’s potentates so that she could finally make a legitimate run for the top administrative post in the land, without any upstart usurpers from Illinois, the most corrupt state in the Union.
But what to do about the other side? The early 2010s showed a disturbing tendency towards earnest patriotism over there: Tea Party, Libertarians, and outright Conservatives. Dear God!
I fixed it in my heart, and it has been the soul of my mind ever since, that the Millennials would not inherit anything in the way of a functioning government or society, not if I had anything to say about it.
Now, I know that there are rational theories and punditry theories, even wonderful conspiracy theories to explain Trump’s provenance, my favorite being that every time a Clinton makes a play for the presidency, a kooky billionaire shows up to run interference against the GOP and split the populist vote from the conservative vote. Nice try, conspiracy theorists.
No, it’s much easier than that: I produced Trump. It wasn’t that hard to do, really, and any megalomaniac would have done. The real genius was in picking Trump, having him tell absolute whoppers that not even children would believe, lies of a disturbing pathology, and having him demonstrate reasoning of the most tortuous depravity, but also having him who was born of USA’s toilet, Manhattan, pass himself off as Middle America.
I drank a lot of scotch Tuesday night, celebrating what I had done.
If Generation X is going to be the perpetual Middle Child of America, the Meh Generation pinned between the Me Generation and the Millennials, then it is obvious that we’re going to be passed over for our turn at leadership, with the inevitable doom of becoming the Fredo of America, the World’s Cosa Nostra. Why not do what we can to sabotage little brother, whose mind is bent toward pulling the strings with so many time-series graphs? Why leave them with a trajectory leftward or rightward when we can leave them with higgledy-piggledy?
So, yes, Millennials, Trump is a gift from me, personally, to you, to bring you the rot of the greediest, most immoral, undisciplined, perpetually adolescent generation in the history of mankind–to bring that filth, which we grew up in, right into your nice, clean policy advocacy, designed especially by your sterile, unemotional robots, controlled by nearly perfect, lightning-fast algorithms. You think you’re so smart: fix this, why don’t you?
Adam brushes off the present breaking of one of the Great Seals of the Apocalypse, writing, in effect, “Meh, we might be doomed, but we’re not that doomed, and we have no idea of knowing how or when our doom will befall us.” After presenting a couple of helpful and comforting metaphors, he likens our present condition, under the avenging thumb of Obama and faced with the choice of leadership between the Power Monger and the Buffoon, to that of Rome, which was always breaking apart, but did not ever do so, not until she finally fell.
If we actually fall, he intimates, it will be a historical anomaly: see how Rome swayed and cracked before she capitulated! See how she prospered and grew nevertheless!
When I recently plied the same tired saw as many have before me, namely that Gibbon, Jr. will also liken the impending doom of America to that of Rome, hoots and catcalls were tweeted my way to the same effect as Adam here comforts; more than that: look at the enduring influence of Rome even to this very day! Sarcasm wafted into my nostrils like so much sophomoric filth: what a horrible fate, to dominate the world for two thousand years!
Here I must hold up my hand in protest: shall we make distinctions? It is not likely that, while Alaric was laying siege to and finally sacking the city of Rome, the denizens therein comforted each other with the knowledge that they were only part of a process, the decay half of inevitable renewal. No, indeed, the three sieges of the Visigoths, the toppling of the Eternal City and many of its institutions, the ten-year brutality of their bloodthirsty presence, and the World War II body count brought the chaos to Europe which a single generation later yielded to Attila the Hun’s invasion.
So, yes, the ruins of the Roman Empire still smolder to our benefit.
It is an article of faith, because America has already been so tested, and the institutions of the West are laid on such massive foundations, that no violence of such magnitude will come to bring us to a similar state of renewal.
All human projects are akin to a plane that begins to fall apart the moment it takes off.
As time marches on, the people responsible for the plane must decide whether to repair it, replace old parts, or decommission it and replace the entire plane.
Or they can put off such decisions until it is too late. Until, at best, the plane does not make it to the runway one day. And at worst, a catastrophe occurs in the air.
Everything from family to community and nation, to the human body itself, has this trajectory from the start. No system—biological, social, or political—manages to avoid this basic reality.
We focus on Rome for its greatness, but also for its spectacular collapse. But Rome stood for a thousand years. Every step of the way it was falling apart. Many times it seemed on the brink of dissolving in the air like our neglected airplane, and very nearly did. What is remarkable about Rome is not that it fell, because all civilizations fall. What is remarkable is that it lasted, that it staved off complete disintegration for so long.
Chinese history is another interesting case of decay and renewal. Certainly, China blew apart and fell into civil war many times over its astonishingly long history. But the old empire also displayed a remarkable ability to absorb its conquerors into the existing system. The ones who were conquered were nearly always the ruling class, not China as an entity, which had such a character that it could assert itself even when a foreign military took the mantle of government.
From the ground view, I wonder if those moments that broke out into civil war appeared so very different from those which did not.
We’re always in the process of coming apart. Sometimes we get our act together and stave off the end a little longer. Sometimes something entirely new is born. Sometimes the garden must lay fallow for a season before a proper renewal. And sometimes it is simply the end.