A World Without Trust

Imagine two worlds. In one, everyone keeps their promises, honors not only the letter but the spirit of agreements, and are broadly reliable and trustworthy. In the other, promises are just empty words, and people are as opportunistic and as spiteful as they impulsively desire to be in a given moment. Which people, from which world, do you think is more capable of accomplishing anything?

In the very first episode of the popular Netflix series House of Cards, the main character, Frank Underwood, has a promise to him broken. Underwood marvels at it because he didn’t think they were capable of it—he admires it in a way, as though breaking a promise was something hard, and keeping it was something easy. This kind of cheap imitation of Nietzschean cynicism is all about having a will to power which allows one to overcome conventional morality.

But the real accomplishment is not overcoming your own trustworthiness, but the fact that such a thing has enough weight that even cynics feel they must “overcome” it. There are many parts of the world where trust and trustworthiness are not the default outside of the close circle of family or clan. A society in which relative outsiders and strangers are able to make promises to each other and trust they will be kept is a tremendous accomplishment.

Whose accomplishment is it? Hard to say. But it certainly isn’t the accomplishment of any cynical would-be despot. If anyone deserves the credit, it is the countless millions of ordinary people, across many generations, who have strived to live decently and treat each other fairly.

The utter hell of a trustless world cannot really exist for long in this one. But we should thank those decent people who came before us, for putting as much distance between us and it as we’ve got.

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One Is The Loneliest Number

More advent musings

John Derbyshire, who sometimes injudiciously shares naughty thoughts with the world, has notoriously wagered alongside Pascal, oscillating irregularly between a deistic agnostic and a fully materialistic atheist.

He chafes against the charge of “materialistic,” as I recall (and I can’t be bothered to look it up, but I know I’m not being unfair), offering as an argument that there is no alternative. On at least one occasion he criticized his well-meaning critics with this observation:

Those who appeal to Natural Law–some sort of appeal to the complexities of the cosmos–in an effort to re-convert him to Christianity commit a logical sleight of hand (and here the information is relevant that Derbyshire is a popularizer of advanced mathematics), that is, when they say, “How can you deny there is a Creator-God when the world is so magnificent? O John Derbyshire, you especially should know that there’s almost no mathematical probability that all this could just happen,” –when they make this argument, they are stumbling mathematically.

Au contraire, he would say. It did just happen. Those who argue that it cannot be have deftly removed the numerator from the probability.

Indeed, when I look at the work of God, and all its majesty and wonder, I come at it from a basis of faith. Of course I see the hand of God. But if I do not come at it from the basis of faith, I see the improbabilities having come to pass. It doesn’t matter the improbabilities of the physical world, both cosmic and quantum; it doesn’t matter the improbabilities of the emotional world of familial relationships and psychology; it doesn’t matter the improbabilities of laws of thermodynamics over against natural selection. They all, by all reckoning, just happened. It cannot be elsewise.

In other words, the numeral one is still atop the denominator, no matter how vast the denominator should happen to be. A chance of one in two is a chance of one in two. A chance of one in seventeen billion is still a chance, no matter how infinitesimal. Materialists rejoice as ones who walked into a casino once, and only once, placed a single chip upon a random number at the roulette wheel, and won. By chance, not miraculously. By chance.

Indeed, it is necessary to  maintain the numerator in order to remain a person of faith, i.e., a person of The Faith, which includes a Creator-God. If faithful people remove the numerator, they become fundamentalist materialists themselves, denying the confession of The Faith which includes a Creator-God. The Faith demands belief to be completely suspended, surrounded in its entirety by doubt. From that position of utter weakness, The Faith does its work.

That is to say, if there is not a one atop the denominator, there is no longer a declaration of The Faith; instead, adherents are reduced to arguing probabilities. From there, it’s a short slope to slide down into the denial of the Redeemer-God, when we bow our heads on Christmas morning, reciting that impossible thing, the number zero above the denominator, namely that, somewhere in between “Very God of Very God,” transcendent beyond apprehension, and “He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,” there is the phrase which earns a hearty chuckle from our coevals who surround us entirely in the maelstrom of the agora, “He came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

There’s where the zero belongs: zero chance, not even a table upon which to place your bet. Let Pascal rot, or burn, whichever.

fractalpieta

Memento Mori

You will die.

The Duke graced us with a pair of heart-wrenching tales. In them, forlorn old women find themselves in the winter of life bereft of the comforts of family. They will die anon. They will die to the indecorous rhythm of a saline drip and a heart monitor if modern medicine has its way, or they will die to the fainter, harmonious beat of the celestial spheres spinning in the firmament if nature claims its inevitable tax by its own inexorable will. But both of David’s gentle ladies shall, like you when ’tis your turn, perish from this chill earth.

Unlike David’s dowagers, you may still have a choice: a choice to build a clan, to form family bonds, to while away the postscriptum years with the chatter and stomp of your descendants, be they spawned or adopted. Upon which margins ought you carve your legacy?

With all due respect to my beloved co-blogger, let me forward the proposition that the sample from which he drew his pair of case studies is not representative of the general population. As such, the conclusion that it was the state provision of old-age transfer payments that led to the clipping of a magazine photograph to stand in for a family absent since Nixon was muttering invective into White House tape recorders does not follow from the evidence. I will agree that David’s story is possibly informative, but it is also an empirical claim, and as such, subject to testing.

Unfortunately, there are to the best of my knowledge, no clean natural experiments in large-scale public provision of old age benefits that occur over a long enough time line to produce clear econometric results. Even in the cases where there are pension vs OASDI differences (rail workers, eg), random selection and assignment are next to impossible to achieve. There are, however, a few not-too-shabby substitutes. I knew several expat Russian widows living in Klaipeda who might help shed some light on the role of expected public pensions on folks’ propensity to invest in relationship capital. Of course, the control group has yet to mature, so the jury’s going to be out for a while, but we might look at age 30 fertility between cohorts or some such jiggery-pokery, but let me suggest to you that there does exist at least one reasonable alternative hypothesis that could explain why Americans may be at greater risk of dying alone than people from otherwise comparable cultures.

And that is, for lack of a better term, respect for the grave. Apart from pitying the plight of the several Russian widows peppered throughout the apartment complex I dwelt while in the lovely Klaipeda-by-the-sea, I could not help but taste the local culture, including many of the ancient (and by ‘ancient’, I mean ancient in the European sense, not in the “1776 was a, like, suuuuuper long time ago, you guys” sense) rituals, rites, and habits of the local people. Specifically, the habits of death. Twice a year, rain or shine, like it or not, you hike your rear end out to visit those family members you planted in the ol’ potters’ field. Likewise, you must, as in iron-clad MUST, pay honors to the dead before marrying. It seemed a bit odd to me, taking a trip to the boneyard before tying the knot, but only for a moment. If the lineage is indeed important, it’s perfectly consistent with Western traditions of faith, hope, and love, to respect all three at such an important time. Communing with the dead is an act of faith.

It’s an act of faith largely lost in our sanitized, blisteringly hopeful colony. We drape our dead tastefully, yet we cover them obscenely (I am still grateful that I was at sea when the press vultures began circling the corpse of the fallen Princess Diana). The departed are interred far from the wandering eye and buried under well-maintained lawns, out of sight but for long-unused roadside yards in rickety old New England. Even the grand National Cemetery in Arlington is on the south side of town, tucked away, discreet, with lousy parking and well-worn paths between the Tomb of the Unknown and the one and only Audie Murphy.

We don’t have to have drop-bed gurneys to transport the deceased. We don’t have to have a one-and-done funeral, after which the dead are remembered ad hoc and casually only when it comes up. But that, compared to Lithuania anyway, is generally what we do. And the out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude that naturally accompanies this treatment could at least plausible contribute to individuals’ tendencies to neglect the elderly as Malach HaMavet hobbles his slow way up the garden path.

My maternal grandmother passed away this weekend. She was either lucky enough to have loving family close enough to hold her hand through life’s final ordeal or she had the good sense to refrain from excessively alienating her three daughters and their progeny. But she knew what we all know, deep down: you will die. How the dead are respected, how they are remembered, how they viewed, spoken of, handled, and honored is of no matter for them. Death is always for the living. Atrophied respect for the dead leads to faithlessness, to unmoored myopic individualism, to impotent fury over being able to move rattletrap real estate above cost.

If my competing hypothesis that intemperate, faithless attitudes towards death is responsible for both the weird way the media treat coverage of dead people, and higher rates of senior neglect, perhaps it’s worth considering what we might do in our own lives to hedge against the specter of aged loneliness. Here, David and I come to many of the same conclusions: have kids, love them, instill in them virtue to the best of your ability, including the faith of family and the hope of the hearth. Love them that they shall love in turn. Breed in them courage, temperance, prudence, and champion justice wherever you can. As for the rest of your society, don’t feed the trolls. Block, ignore, unsubscribe, unfollow—these, my dear friends are your tools to harry and needle the disrespectful rabble among us who would utter ill of the dead or who would promote vice above virtue. They can squawk till their temples burst and their throats bleed, but you always retain the right to abstain from listening. Give it a try sometime, you just might find yourself ever so slightly happier.

R.I.P. C. Shrack. You’ve earned it.