Saturday, February 6, 2016

Grand Ideas And Unifying Conceptions

     During my years in physics, I was mesmerized by the really “big ideas:” the attempts to arrive at grand unifications of the major physical laws. Anyone who’s progressed far in the sciences will tell you that that’s a short cut to professional irrelevance. Normal science – what Thomas Kuhn called “mopping-up operations” – is performed at the margins of already-established major theories. Grand ideas that propose to introduce wholly new fundamental concepts that unite all previous learning are the province of very few – and very few who’ve dedicated themselves to exploring such ideas are remembered as significant.

     But grand ideas have an undeniable appeal. They promise something the more common reaches of scientific investigation do not: top-down simplicity.

     A proposed grand idea entices investigators and adherents with the siren song of unlimited knowledge: a broad-spectrum ability to predict outcomes that more limited conceptions cannot equal. That’s the whole reason such ideas matter. Einsteinian general relativity didn’t merely clarify a set of minor cases in gravitation, relevant only to enormous masses you and I will never visit. Rather, it encompassed Newtonian gravitation completely, by extending the ability to predict gravitational phenomena beyond the domain in which Newtonian gravitation is accurate. In doing so, it upset quite a lot of academic applecarts, which is why Einstein received his Nobel Prize not for general relativity but for his much later work on the photoelectric effect.

     Grand ideas in the sciences are revolutionary (cf. Kuhn). Most revolutions fail of their purpose: i.e., the overthrow and replacement of the existing order. Which is why young researchers are advised to moderate their ambitions if they want to be “successful” scientists.

     But let’s not spend an entire screed on the sciences. Grand ideas are even more important in the day-to-day lives of ordinary men.

     Grand ideas in religion, politics, economics, and general ethics have shaped the history of the world – and not by animating individual “great men,” but by energizing their followers. Consider all the following:

     ...and so forth. (I’ll leave contemporary “thinkers” on “ethics,” nearly all of whom are villains, to my stronger-stomached Gentle Readers to investigate, should the fit take them. It’s a nice day, and I don’t want to spoil it.)

     The most important thing about the above ideas and similar ones is their utility as simplifying constructs. Each of them permits the easy deduction of rules applicable to more specific situations. Also, because they derive from a common “ancestor” rule, the “descendant” rules exhibit consistency. Ralph Waldo Emerson and his frequently misquoted maxim notwithstanding, people value consistency greatly. We prefer to see it exhibited in the words and deeds of those, near or far, whose decisions and actions affect us.

     Which is why so many Americans have come to hate government and politicians with an incandescent fury.

     The most powerful ideas among the grand ideas are those which are consistent with one another. This has proved to be the aspect of American thought contemporary “thinkers” and “educators” are most ardent to obscure.

     The grand idea Americans probably value most commonly is that of the rule of law: the idea that the law is superior to individual identities. Isabel Paterson considered this the cleavage idea that separates the “Society of Contract,” wherein all men are under the same binding rules, and the “Society of Status,” in which one’s identity determines which laws apply (or don’t) to him. Under such a unifying conception, a public official could not – in theory, at least – get away with behavior that would get a private citizen prosecuted. Under the implied framework for law and justice called constitutionalism, no organ of government could legitimately transgress those bounds, for a government of any sort is merely an agent – a hireling – with assigned responsibilities and delegated powers. What is illegal for a private citizen would be just as illegal for any agent of the State.

     In his 1850 manifesto The Law, Frederic Bastiat laid great emphasis on this principle:

     But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

     Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals. If such a law—which may be an isolated case— is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system....

     Can the law, whose necessary sanction is force, be reasonably employed upon anything beyond securing to every one his right? I defy anyone to remove it from this circle without perverting it, and consequently turning force against right.

     Note how neatly Lockean natural rights, the rule of law, and Confucian / Christian ethics mesh. They’re entirely consistent with one another as regards the principles of secular law and justice. (Judaism comes a-cropper on the subject of the punishment of “sin” according to Mosaic / Levitical prescriptions; cf. John 8:1-11.) Note also that the convergence of those three grand ideas in the United States was the first time it had ever happened. It required the combined efforts of several geniuses, Thomas Jefferson most notable among them, which makes it small wonder that it should have taken so long.

     I’ve suggested in the past that these three ideas are like quarks: no one of them can be pulled away without causing the product to decay irreversibly. Which is why the attempt to insert an alien grand idea into our national mélange is ringing an alarm bell heard from border to border and coast to coast.

     The rule of law in the U.S. has already sustained considerable shocks due to “anti-discrimination” laws that tread on our freedom of association in the commercial sphere. Further damage to it arrived in the form of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, and various court rulings concerning mandatory “reasonable accommodations” on the grounds of various physical handicaps. But as bad as these things are, there was more and worse to come, owing to the swelling numbers of Muslims resident in the U.S.

     Regulatory bodies petitioned for mandatory religious accommodations to Muslim employees – in particular, exemption from certain duties and the mandatory provision of prayer breaks during the work day – have been all but unanimously favorable to such demands. That Islam is not a “handicap” in the exact sense, and that “freedom of religion” cannot imply the privilege of imposing one’s personal religion and its obligations upon others, have been granted no weight in the arguments over such accommodations. Yet employers who seek to exclude Muslims from their workforces face extraordinary legal and social pressures to accept them.

     Yet this is not the thrust of my thoughts for this morning. Rather, I’m here to point out that Islam and its demands are wholly inconsistent with the three consistent, coherent grand ideas cited in the previous segment. If I may be permitted a physics analogy, Islam is a speeding neutron aimed point-blank at our national ideological nucleus – and no American literate enough to read an English translation of the Qur’an can legitimately be ignorant of it.

     Ironically enough, Islam is itself a grand idea. It unifies religion, governance, all matters of ethics, and all aspects of daily life however trivial within a single envelope. Its guiding principle is “Allah wills it.” Its inconsistency with Americanism is total. The two can never, ever be reconciled. Yet our political elite continues to demand exactly that, while working to import ever more Muslims to our shores. To suspect them of a hidden agenda is only natural.

     Islam isn’t the only threat on our national radar. There are other grand ideas, such as socialism, that are just as inconsistent with the American nucleus. All such ideas must be resisted a outrance. However, our ability to resist them has already been weakened by prior incursions such as those mentioned above. It calls into question whether our national identity and our confidence in it will suffice to beat them away.

     This has been a rather discursive essay. Grand ideas are like that: they imply many things; their threads of implication trail off in many directions. That doesn’t diminish their importance. Indeed, if anything, it heightens it.

     I’ve recently taken some flak from one particular Gentle Reader about my choices of subjects. He should know better; I write about what’s uppermost on my mind, without regard for anyone’s preference of topic. However, knowing better and doing worse is part of our human folly. Among those who find the thoughts I’ve set down today important and stimulating, let the discussion commence.


Ron Olson said...

Society is formed in the club. Specifically The man's club. The clubs were destroyed by the mandatory admission of women as members. As one fraternity toast ended" to our absent brothers" became " to our absent members". The end.

Avraham said...

I am a sucker for grand theories. You have real insight in your post because that fits me exactly. I worked together for years with a fellow George Rayzanov on his general unified field theory. And I still wonder about it from time to time. I however deleted all my notes and all copies of it from my files because it predicted Lorentz violation, plus the fact that people that know physics better than me thought it was not worth much. But I still have this desire to put everything in one nice package.

Anonymous said...

God! How I wish you weren't preaching to the choir.

Great post. Well-worded, enlightening,easily understood, and persuasive.

BUT ... well, ... I think you know.

And I don't simply mean that the majority of Americans don't visit Liberty's Torch.

I mean that if this post were required reading in order to get a driver's license -- or, if an old-fashioned elementary school "book report" on it had to be submitted in order to vote -- the bulk of the citizenry would read it, comprehend just enough for just long enough to expel a barely legible "book report", and would proceed the next bread & circuses pavilion without the ideas in the post leaving even the faintest impression on how or what they think (if, indeed, it can be called "thinking").

Sorry. It is a nice day. I think I'll get outside for what's left of the afternoon.

I guess I just came here to drop this turd of chronic pessimism on the freshly mopped floor of your website, and, like a poorly housebroken cat, I'm off to stalk butterflies and be startled into sudden sprints by invisible dogs.
Maybe next time I'll have a nice fat mouse, sparrow, or water-logged mole carcass to leave on your doorstep ... but don't hold your breath (at least, not until I catch that darned mole).

Col. B. Bunny said...

I begin to see that the single greatest defect in human thinking is not the search for encompassing theories of social, political, economic, or scientific reality but man's willingness to seize upon partial truths or attractive or specious ideas and transform them into lynchpins of all existence. Have men been less than sensitive to the wishes, wants, and desires of women, have some men ever been churlish or violent? Well, then, what makes more sense than to band together in hatred of all men, deny one's biological reality, and bare one's breasts on the street? QED.

Marx and his progressive breathern were able to tweeze out certain defects or weaknesses in the existing order but they chose to embrace total revolution as their ultimate solution. They became fixated on certain problem and their goal became to "fix" those problems without a thought as to collateral effects or unintended consequences. "To each according to his need" became the rallying cry for millions of people enamored of Marxism but you can count on two hands the number of people who considered the danger of giving power to a government to decide who had what needs and how much others should be required to contribute to satisfy those needs.

I never tire of citing the example of the Adamites of the 17th c. and before. The ideas that one can regain the innocence of the Garden or that one is perfected, and hence above normal laws and conventions, are appealing, I suppose, but deciding to worship in the nude, however much it follows logically from the first idea, is fraught with perils.

It's amazing to see Bernie Sanders attract many Americans with his socialism. Even the young have a duty of due diligence and older people have no excuse to be unaware of the ghastly suffering and killing that took place in the last century under the banner held high by socialists. But for these people, the year 2000 might as well mark the end of the Middle Ages and 1990 the end of the Crusades.

It is not in the human DNA to consider the broader picture a role most often played by a small number of wise male elders. But we have no use for such patriarchal morons and "Fools rush in" will be the appropriate epitaph for the headstone of Western civilization.

Reg T said...


First have you seen this news article - originating with a professor/researcher at Montana State University, of all places - concerning some validation of Einstein's Theory of Relativity re gravitation, with a _recording_ of the sound of two black holes colliding? Fascinating.

I admit to a general feeling of pessimism, myself. Not simply in the fact that Western Civilization in Europe appears to have committed suicide (with a few lonely holdouts in Hungary and Poland, possibly Czech), but because our system of government and the direction our culture has taken (as with the feminists, the blacks with BLM and "white privilege) along with the rule of law having been completely forsaken, the whole mess militates against there being a remedy of any sort possible to us. Being white, being Christian (of any color) being a masculine male, supporting the rights of the individual over the collective, have been all but ruled illegal - and even that, in some ways

I would like to think it might be possible to exist - for a while - in an enclave that is separate from the rabid madness that possesses most of our country. In states - or simply small regions - where whites, Christians, and individualists might live in relative harmony, but the collective or the muslims - whoever eventually end up running our government, now that Obama and Jarrett have successfully inserted so many of the muslim brotherhood into the halls of government - including our military - will not long permit deviation from the either the Marxist creed or sharia. Eventually, they will hunt down and enslave or kill those of us who refuse to submit.

I'm not saying we should completely give up, but rather than the odds of avoiding such a bleak future are _not_ in our favor. Gather ye rosebuds, goodfellow.