Thursday, February 04, 2010

Subsidiarity: Seeing Things As They Are

...the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.
[GKC "Tremendous Trifles" in Tremendous Trifles 6]

As we have already seen (pun intended) Subsidiarity is tam antiqua - so ancient - since the term comes from ancient Roman military vocabulary (see Lewis & Short or other Latin dictionary), and the idea from Moses' father-in-law, Jethro (see Exodus 18:13-26). It is tam nova - so new - since almost ten years ago its principles enabled the development of a spot transport system for cable television: real software running on x86-based computers followed the principles, both positive and negative, as set forth by Pius IX and John Paul II. Just to save your having to double-click here, I will now specify those principles:
Negative: It is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies.
[Pius IX, Quadragesimo Anno (1931) 5]

Positive: A community of a higher order ... should support a community of a lower order in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
[John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991) 48]
Now you may think it takes somebody with a doctorate in computer science to convert such esoteric and abstract statements into IFs and WHILEs and STRUCTs and I/O control function calls and all the rest which make software. Since I was the one who did it, and I do have a doctorate in computer science, I can't really comment (as we say in "C", /**/ - pronounced "no comment" - hee hee!) But actually I think the essential power here is the ability to SEE DEEPLY - that is, to approach this in the way Chesterton did: to see more than just the matters of the surface.

For example, as soon as I begin to explain what it was we did, the typical person says, "oh, this is just some sort of fancy way of transferring files from one computer to another." And I nod and say, "very good" and go on to the next topic...

Ahem! The point I am making is NOT a technical one. I am not preaching some sophisticated insight into a complex technical thing called file transport. No - rather like the famous line in Father Brown, I am trying to call attention to something which is "too big to be noticed." [see "The Three Tools of Death"] In fact, I am trying to call attention to one of the fundamental requirements of subsidiarity: communication. Our system was not "cool" because it sent a file from the computer called "HOME" to another called "3CHES" - even though it sent the file by bouncing it off a satellite (which is really cool, no matter what else you can say!) The cool thing, the thing that makes our process an example of Subsidiarity, is that 3CHES "asked" HOME for that file, because 2CHES didn't have it, and needed it: an "individual" requested its "superior" for assistance.

Now, you see, this is NOT about 3CHES meddling in the work of 2CHES, nor HOME meddling in the work of 3CHES. It was a very simple thing, a simple request (we called it a PSR - portal spot request) which is quite as simple as a request to pass the mustard - which Chesterton refers to as an essential trait in human society:
Logically, it [determinism] would stop a man in the act of saying "Thank you" to somebody for passing the mustard. For how could he be praised for passing the mustard, if he could not be blamed for not passing the mustard?
[GKC Autobiography CW16:174]

A beggar is a man who asks help from another man solely in the name of something extraneous but common - as kinship or charity, the Fatherhood of God, or the brotherhood of man. He does not ask for the bread because he can at once give you the money, as in commerce. He does not ask for the bread because he will soon be able to pass you the mustard, as in Society. He asks you for the bread because you are supposed to be under an ancient law of pity, by which (as it is written) if a man ask you for bread you will not give him a stone. [See Luke 11:11] That is what a beggar is. He is a man who begs - that is, he is a man who asks without any clear power of return, except the opportunity he offers you to fulfil your own ideals.
[GKC ILN Feb 25 1911 CW29:44]
Or, as someone far greater than Chesterton once said, "Ask and you shall receive." [see Mt 7:7] But behold - this is merely the principle of action by which PUMP and FERRY (the transport programs) were built! It is a matter of communication.

Communication - making a request, an appeal. Asking for help. All very clear and easy to grasp, right? But this idea brings up a somewhat more delicate point, tied to the negative form of Subsidiarity, the idea which goes back to the 1891 encyclical of Leo XIII called Rerum Novarum (referred to directly and indirectly by GKC) - the point that a superior must not interfere with an inferior - somehow "arrogating" or intruding where he has no right to enter.

You may laugh here - how, you think, can a system of machines be managed if its superiors (the humans) are not to "intrude" into their activities? Is it not rather the case (as we have read in stories about that famous "Control Room") that there were programs called "WATCHER" and "CUSTOS" (the Latin for "guardian") which monitored the doings of those computers?

Oh, yes, that is quite correct. But just as we learn of the Trinity from the shamrock in the hand of St. Patrick, a simple little green bit of plant matter hinting at some unfathomable characteristic of He Who Is - so too we can learn something about the mystery of social communication from the work of this merely mechanical and electronic system. WATCHER and the rest must be seen in the form of a parable - a kind of extended analogy. And in fact, in my book (yet to be published) I turn to one of the parables to help clarify the issue of monitoring (which is part of communication) and its place in the discussion of Subsidiarity.

Specifically, the parable in Luke 16:19-31 about Lazarus and the Rich Man. You know it, and have no doubt heard it many times before, but I think there are two things about it which may have been overlooked - perhaps they were too big to be noticed. First: Recall that Lazarus was the beggar "who lay at the rich man's gate" (Lk 16:20). That is, the rich man could hardly go out of his home without nearly stumbling over the poor man! Second: and this one is quite tricky - the rich man actually knew who he was, for when he calls on Abraham for help, he mentions Lazarus by name! (Lk 16:24) Now, I don't think we are talking about intrusion here, or a violation of privacy or whatever: the rich man didn't have to have security cameras or detailed financial records about Lazarus. He didn't need "WATCHER" or such tools; Lazarus "lay at his gate" and so he could see him frequently. This is all the more "monitoring" I mean. We don't need detailed reports about things which are right under our noses – but neither dare we close our eyes to them! Yes, the monitoring we require of machinery might be considered intrusive if we were applying it to humans. But there are a variety of techniques for gathering details, and many are not "intrusive" at all. In the end, we must remember, as the rich man didn't: it's not intrusive monitoring to notice something you all but trip over, just outside your front door. And in many cases this natural awareness is all that is required.

The eye - especially the human eye - is a great mystery. It was cursed by a Darwinian, Garrett Hardin [see Jaki The Savior of Science 132 quoting Hardin's G. Hardin, Nature and Man's Fate,] because his vision of reality was distorted by the diseased philosophy of Darwin. (Note to whiners and some careless readers of this blogg: I did not say science of Darwin. There is a huge difference.) Chesterton warned against such things in a very famous Thomistic parable:
A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye. This piece of rationalism has always struck me as almost insanely irrational. If he is not sure of the existence of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window, how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina, which he sees through the glass of a microscope? If sight deceives, why can it not go on deceiving?
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:528]
But when we know and understand, when we believe in reality, be it the reality of retinas or grass or stars, we can proceed since "Reason is itself a matter of faith." (Orthodoxy CW1:236) In the retina, there are about 150 million light-detecting cells, the information of which is "pre-processed" by a whole array of co-processing machinery (the bipolar, horizontal and amacrine cells) before the partial messages of color and tone and edge are sent by the million or so cells of the optic nerve to the brain. You note that there is an amazing reduction of information here - in some cases the information from more than a hundred cells is coordinated and summarized into a single line of information. Yes indeed - and you must not overlook the fact that all those millions of cells are all working simultaneously! No this is NOT "multitasking" which refers to the method by which one single processor can accomplish several tasks by dividing its energy - the correct term is "highly parallel processing". But this is not a course in computing, sorry. Nor is it a course in ophthalmology, or a critical study of Darwinism, etc. I bring up the marvels (and the curses) because the eye, like our spot transport system, is complex, and requires careful attention to detail. This is the "thing too large to be noticed" when we study Subsidiarity, and many other things. We must proceed slowly and carefully and attentively, lest we trip over a needy man at our own gate. We must be as ready to render assistance when such is requested, as we would wish others to assist us when we need it. [That, of course, is the "Golden Rule" of Subsidiarity.]

Postscript: It ought to come as no surprise that God enters into such a technical topic - nor will any authentic medievalist be surprised. We've heard this many times: "You cannot evade the issue of God; whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him." [GKC Daily News Dec 12 1903 quoted in Maycock] but we also need to recall that famous line from "The Oracle of the Dog" which is the foundation stone of Science (writ large as Fr. Jaki puts it):
"It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are."
Let us therefore pray with the blind man: Kyrie, hina anablepso. Lord, that I may see again! [see Lk 18:41]


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is really fascinating and thought-provoking. I'm wondering: Would a computer like HOME, through its monitoring software, ever find and meet a need of a computer like 3CHES without a "request" from the latter computer? For example, if 3CHES was broken and not sending requests, could HOME, or some other system, detect that and do something about it (either on its own or by bumping this chain further up the chain of subsidiarity, to humans)? In other words, by monitoring, do you mean only listening for active requests, or also watching out for unreported needs?

    I'm asking because I think a lot of tricky cases come when someone needs help but doesn't know or acknowledge this need, and therefore doesn't explicitly "request" the help. For example, if a homeless person is not a "beggar" like Lazarus but a schizophrenic who doesn't realize that she is living on a doorstep and says she just wants to be left alone, someone might have to decide if it's fair and just to listen to what is being "communicated" by her symptoms, not her words. I think that decisions like those can be hard, and I'm curious whether the parable or metaphor of the satellite system might help clarify them.

  3. Brian, a STUPENDOUS comment! Excellent!

    Yes, in fact I have a whole chapter on this point in the book. The cable TV spot transport "metaphor" - well, let us call it example, for that is what it is - truly does assist in discussing such issues.

    I'd rather not try to summarize an answer for you here, especially since there are a lot of points to be made, and this is not quite the forum for that. (Maybe I will try to adjust my Subs blogg to permit such things... hmm. If I just had a few more hours in every day!) However I see you have already grasped some of the basics - oh, what a delight to hear someone else talking of HOME and such things! And you are on to the correct sense, the ordering of such issues... but this comment box is small and you'd like to know. All right. Here is a short bit of detail.

    Our system had TWO major forms of communication. The first (shall we say the "PSR" or spot-request channel) indicates what spots are needed. The second (shall we say the CUSTOS or guardian channel) indicates - ah - let us say "general health" or machine status. The formal communication principle here I call "anastomosis" from the biological term which permits free blood flow during the flexing of a joint: the idea that some signal can get through by one means or another, and that even a partial message will give a clue to the situation. Now, of course HOME (being a machine) cannot do anything more than what I (the programmer) have already arranged for it to do, so that means there must be something else which indicates the status to humans capable of dealing with true novelty and "emergency" type issues - that was the purpose of WATCHER, with its dozens of colored dots. If one went red, the Control Room operator had to investigate what was wrong.

    If you double-click on the WATCHER image, it will enlarge, and you'll see how the dot labelled BALA is red, and the detail box on the right shows that for 3BALA, the "USA" network has failed... this might have been an incipient hardware problem, but that was eight years ago and I don't have the chart to translate the error code... You see I did the software, and had a different role, just as an orthopedist would probably be of little use in solving the person-on-the-doorstep problem you proposed. However, he should be able to detect that there is an issue to be corrected - which is the critical matter which must come first. The issue of WHO solves it depends on the exact nature of the problem - is she drunk, drugged, homeless, suffering from some mental illness, emotionally distraught, a victim of an attack, an actor conducting a psychology test, a stooge trying to prey on whoever came to her assistance, etc...

    Hence we see a requirement for some comparable form of trusted and vigilant guardians, like my friends who watched the WATCHERs 24/7 in the Control Room. To advance to the doorstep question, in a typical well-functioning city, that might be the policeman on the beat - or even any passer-by. Indeed! I do not wish to go into an elaborate solution, for there really is more to the point, but I cannot prolong it here and now. Just to complete the biblical correlate, it is apparent that we here learn how the lesson of the "Good Samaritan" applies to Subsidiarity.

    Thanks... I shall see if I can diddle my other blogg and arrange to begin fielding such discussions there. But we have made an advance already, and I am happy and grateful.

    And if you have more questions, please do not hesitate to ask - I've already added chapters because of astute questions, and perhaps there will be a third edition even before the first is printed! (I already made enough revisions to constitute a second edition.)

  4. Dr. Thursday, thanks for your response, which was both informative and flattering. I appreciate your clear explanations. The mention of the Good Samaritan is interesting; I was thinking that, in our time, the whole world is more or less "on our doorstep," and someone sitting in Maryland might be as aware of the Haitians' suffering as the Rich Man was (or should have been) aware of Lazarus'. So I guess we're all passers-by or traveling Samaritans. Anyway, I'll keep an eye out for discussions on your blog. Thanks again.


Join our FaceBook fan page today!