Thursday, July 22, 2010

My Error! Or, "like the Pantheist's Boots"

As you know, this year is the 100th anniversary of GKC's What's Wrong With the World. Allied to this particular title is a rather famous quote - not THE quote (about "when a man stops believing in God") but another, which so far has not been located. It is said that some newspaper or other asked several authors to give their own answers to the question as to what is wrong with the world, and, the legend says, that GKC responded with this:
Dear Editor:
I am.
G. K. Chesterton
CAUTION: Please note: to our present knowledge, this is legendary, like "THE quote" and we do not know that GKC actually did such a thing. But it does sound possible. (As you see there isn't a bibliographic reference to the above, as I always put on GKC quotes.)

Clearly, there are many things wrong with the world, and, just as clearly, all too often we are the cause of those faults. It is strange, therefore, that when the usual song about "problem solving skills" is sung by the educologs, they omit this important concept. I cannot fault them too much; I've seen it myself in my own discipline. I've seen tenured faculty who use their powerful computers to typeset their journal articles, because they don't know enough about programming to begin to convert their theory into anything at all. I've seen pompous professors who brag that they can "prove" that programs are "correct" but the library software they sell has major bugs of the kind which are most insidiously difficult to detect... all because they prefer the appearance of academic complexity to the usefulness of simple real-world engineering. (To put it into the classical tongue, Conspici quam prodesse.)

Ah, engineering. It provides the bumper, the thick padding, the safety equipment, for science... It is the mental discipline which assumes there are problems, maybe even unforeseen ones, lurking in our world. It is science made practical: it is the professor dragged, kicking and screaming, from the ivory tower and thrust into the mire of the real world. Not that he abandons his discipline - he must apply others in order to augment his skills. There is a very famous line which demonstrates this:
It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.
Engineering is the honest man's reply, like GKC's (if he really did say it): Yes, there IS something wrong, and in some cases, it is I who am wrong - but since I am honest, I hope to do something about it, in the hope of keeping it from happening again. It's the point of Christ saying "Go and sin no more". He could have changed the law - sure, He is God and He wrote the law - but it was more Godly to forgive. (If you want to know more about why He didn't, you need to read GKC about fences in The Thing CW3:157.) Now we are to go and do likewise, even if we are not engineers - because we will most certainly deal with mistakes and flaws and crimes and sins and errors... with what's wrong in the world. And sometimes these errors are a bit worse than a mere error of typography that changes "cosmic" to "comic". [As accurate as that error may be. See GKC ILN June 9 1906 CW27:206]

For example. Here is a famous line of Chesterton's which a very serious student has complained about. "Physical science is like simple addition: it is either infallible or it is false." [GKC ILN Sept 28 1907 CW27:558] But as most of us who balance our own checkbooks know, it is easy to make mistakes in simple addition. Is Chesterton wrong?

Maybe that is not a suitable quote. Let me try one with a known error, yes, where Chesterton really is wrong. Oh, are you upset? Well... there are plenty of others, but I don't know why you are whining. Maybe I have to pull that Caesarea Philippi thing [see Mt 16] and ask: "Who do YOU say that G. K. Chesterton is?" Ah, yes. Very good. You are right; GKC is not God. But let us stay on the topic.

For example, in GKC's masterwork The Everlasting Man we read:
Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:211-2]
At one point in my many explorations, I was curious about something else, and pulled out an atlas - and I found that the Ionian Sea is on the west side of Greece, and the Aegean Sea is on the east. Moreover, Troy was, even in legend, assumed to be on the west coast of Turkey, not the west coast of Greece. So that means...

Is this picky? Maybe a little. Chesterton isn't writing orders for a navy fleet, after all, and most people will guess that the Ionian Sea is somewhere at the eastern end of the Mediterranean - as it is. Yes, it would have been more accurate for him to say the Aegean - but the important thing for us to know is not where Troy was located, but that this little "village or hamlet with a wall" has a name with an enduring meaning to human history.

Here is another interesting and elegant statement of Chesterton's. It is important, too, and we'll explore it further a little later, but for the moment, I want you to look at just one little bit:
Ice is melted into cold water and cold water is heated into hot water; it cannot be all three at once. [see below for citation]
Uh, not quite. Water can be in all three states at once, and this is not some dogmatic lunacy of the Catholic Church, either! One of my other projects involves a number of curious facts about that wonderful substance called water, and one of those curious facts tells us that water certainly can be all three - ice, liquid, and steam - all at once! This happens at the temperature called the "Triple Point" of water, which is 273.16°K (0.01°C, or 32.018 °F) at 610 millibars (according to my CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics).

All right, Doc. What's going on here?

How nice of you to ask. In this case, as in others of this kind, whether in Chesterton or in other authors, we have to be careful about what we are doing. We are NOT trying to "show up" the author as "wrong" - where we take "wrong" to mean "useless" or "untrustworthy". We are not trying to dethrone him, or put him into a "bad light" - what is sometimes called an ad hominem argument. That's Latin for "to the man" - when you argue against a person himself, rather than against the issue at hand. You may not know how this is done, and since I am from the tech side of the world I don't get to see it very often, but I have seen it done, and it will be useful for you to know. So I will write it up for you, and then you can print it out and have it ready for use should the opportunity present itself:
Dr. Thursday's Guide To... (drum roll)
The Ad Hominem Argument.

This is best done in full academic regalia. So get out your frayed old gown with the little beanie, and get 'em on. Don't worry about whether the color matches your degree, people don't know those color codes these days; most of 'em don't even know what color acid turns litmus paper! If your shoes are scuffed, so much the better, but don't be wearing sneakers which will make you look like a student. Your hair ought to be a bit wind-blown, as if you had just been playing Quidditch (hee hee!) - this is easy enough to effect with your hand (DON'T use a comb!), even if you do not have a broom, or don't know what Quidditch is. Your glasses ought to be at the end of your nose. You can take them off and wave them for emphasis - this looks extremely professorial, and will earn you all sorts of brownie points from any deans who happen to be in the audience. If you don't normally wear glasses, get some to keep with you just for this purpose - but not sunglasses, which make you look like a student.

Next, you should obtain a copy of the offending book. This is where you may wish to use a grad student, assuming you can find one who isn't surfing the net or grading your latest test; grad students are quite adept at finding books in the library, and of course it would not DO to have anyone (like a Dean) see you in the library! If a Dean (or, Darwin forbid, the Provost) sees you in such an odd place, it's easy enough to make an excuse, but be sure to speak loud, look annoyed, and wave your glasses.

Now, once you have the offending book, use a little sticky-note to mark the page (and line) with the error. The grad student can usually help here, since most books are now stored in electronic form, though it may take a bit of searching to find the equivalent place in the actual book, but a stern threat or two will work wonders. Of course in certain disciplines, you won't need to actually acquire the book itself, though in that case you will have to implicitly appeal to Authority - or to Technology, which is the same thing. If you are pompous enough no one will notice your hypocrisy - and you can always wave your glasses.

Have the book in your hand when you are speaking, and wave it. Or hold it up, open to the offending page (the one with the sticky note) and point to it. Wave your glasses.

Now, for the important bit - what to say. Please note it's very important to get all this said in one breath, so you may want to practice it beforehand. Practice keeping your face pompous and magisterial; you are RIGHT about this, so don't let your emotion get in the way. All right, ready? Sya this:

"This author was wrong about this..."

[If the author is present, you may for greater effect revise this to "You were wrong about this..."]

Here you cite the book and page with the error, and perhaps quote the offending text with a very snide chuckle, but don't take too long, since you have to say the rest of this on the breath you started with!

"and so you are WRONG about everything else!"

(Now you can take a breath if necessary, but keep going.)

"I don't CARE how right you are elsewhere. It doesn't matter. You were wrong here, so you're wrong everywhere!"

Then you slam the book down, and walk out of the room. If it was a library book, send a grad student to return it to the library eventually.
There. Wasn't that fun? (Yes, I thought so too, but you see, I have actually been there, and seen how it works, but that was a long time ago, and I've got my degree. I live in the real world now, which has other sorts of problems. Seen any cable TV commercials lately? How about them prerolls, guys? Audio levels balanced? You're not pixelating, I hope... Hee hee!)

If that playlet sounds vaguely familiar, I can assure you, I am NOT quoting from GKC's Thursday. But since I happen to like that bit, I will quote if for you so you can compare:
I made myself up into what was meant for a wild exaggeration of the old Professor's dirty old self. When I went into the room full of his supporters I expected to be received with a roar of laughter, or (if they were too far gone) with a roar of indignation at the insult. I cannot describe the surprise I felt when my entrance was received with a respectful silence, followed (when I had first opened my lips) with a murmur of admiration. The curse of the perfect artist had fallen upon me. I had been too subtle, I had been too true. They thought I really was the great Nihilist Professor. I was a healthy minded young man at the time, and I confess that it was a blow. Before I could fully recover, however, two or three of these admirers ran up to me radiating indignation, and told me that a public insult had been put upon me in the next room. I inquired its nature. It seemed that an impertinent fellow had dressed himself up as a preposterous parody of myself. I had drunk more champagne than was good for me, and in a flash of folly I decided to see the situation through. Consequently it was to meet the glare of the company and my own lifted eyebrows and freezing eyes that the real Professor came into the room.
I need hardly say there was a collision. The pessimists all round me looked anxiously from one Professor to the other Professor to see which was really the more feeble. But I won. An old man in poor health, like my rival, could not be expected to be so impressively feeble as a young actor in the prime of life. You see, he really had paralysis, and working within this definite limitation, he couldn't be so jolly paralytic as I was. Then he tried to blast my claims intellectually. I countered that by a very simple dodge. Whenever he said something that nobody but he could understand, I replied with something which I could not even understand myself. "I don't fancy," he said, "that you could have worked out the principle that evolution is only negation, since there inheres in it the introduction of lacunae, which are an essential of differentiation." I replied quite scornfully, "You read all that up in Pinckwerts; the notion that involution functioned eugenically was exposed long ago by Glumpe." It is unnecessary for me to say that there never were such people as Pinckwerts and Glumpe. But the people all round (rather to my surprise) seemed to remember them quite well, and the Professor, finding that the learned and mysterious method left him rather at the mercy of an enemy slightly deficient in scruples, fell back upon a more popular form of wit. "I see," he sneered, "you prevail like the false pig in Aesop." "And you fail," I answered, smiling, "like the hedgehog in Montaigne." Need I say that there is no hedgehog in Montaigne? "Your clap-trap comes off," he said; "so would your beard." I had no intelligent answer to this, which was quite true and rather witty. But I laughed heartily, answered, "Like the Pantheist's boots," at random, and turned on my heel with all the honours of victory. The real Professor was thrown out, but not with violence, though one man tried very patiently to pull off his nose.
[GKC TMWWT CW6:549-51]
Glorious! Some of the best humor in all of GKC. You see, that is the important thing for us to learn. If Chesterton is canonized, it will be due (at least in part) to his strong lessons about pride and humility - and knowing where we fit into the scheme of things. Please, please, I've told you before - if you have not yet read it, please do read (and re-read) GKC's "If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach" in The Common Man!

What is the point, Doctor? You wonder. Well - we do not throw out the Bible because there are typos in it, or even curiosities of writing caused by an archaic view - the firmament, the motion of the earth, the pillars that hold up the "corners" of the earth and all that. (The correct view was exposed long ago by St. Augustine, but perhaps you think it was Glumpe, and believe in it as much.) I was just struck the other day by the reading where Jesus says "the Queen of the South will rise and condemn this generation". He goes on to say how she came from the "ends of the earth" to see Solomon, yet there is a greater than Solomon here. [Mt 12:42] Do you think that Jesus didn't know the earth was round? Hee hee! Oh my. Do not be confused. I impute no error to our Lord, I am not committing blasphemy. (Compare GKC's famous bit about God writing a book on the Evolution of Grant Allen in The Everlasting Man!) This is a form of talking, and it's obvious to everyone, except the guy in academic robes we heard about a few minutes ago.

Let's try another realm of knowledge. Do you think astronomers get fined for saying "oh what a lovely sunset?" Hee hee! What about Aristotle, that Greek guy that so many people think was so smart. Maybe he was, but you do know what he said? He says that the Milky Way comes from a swamp! Oh yes, it's in his Meteorologica, Book I chapter 8. (See Jaki on this in The Milky Way Chapter 1.) Does that mean we junk all of Aristotle? Not quite - and the same is true for other authors, some of whom have phrases that are just as funny and just as wrong.

But let us resume poking our stick at Chesterton, which is lots more fun - he poked at himself too, you know. So, for a change, let us take an instance where he notes his own error. It is found in the hilarious essay called "The Real Journalist" in the collection of his Daily News essays called A Miscellany of Men. This is a famous case, and I have alluded to it previously. Here is an essay worth study - if not literal memorisation - by every journalist and media-being in the cosmos, as well as every blogger and blogg-commenter. It reveals how easy it is to make mistakes, and how even easier it is to have these mistakes be blown out of proportion. The essay tells the story of how GKC wrote a certain essay, and how, in the heat of the moment, or perhaps we might more charitably say, in the urgency of the situation, he stated that "Shakespeare" had written a certain line of poetry - a line which had, as a matter of fact, been written by "Thomas Gray". (In my own case, several columns ago, when *I* was what is wrong with the world, I had torn the authorship of "Trees" from Joyce Kilmer and assigned it to Rudyard Kipling! Hee hee!)

But GKC's case gets better, and the error is magnified in a way that both Bible scholars and computer scientists can both rejoice in. You see, he tried to "correct" this mistake, and he wrote a letter to the editor in which he made another mistake by spelling the poet's name "Grey".
An aside: Now, if you use just about any form of computer these days, you know how serious the smallest letter, or smallest part of a letter, [see Mt 5:18] can be - when you go to type in your password. It's not only the Ephraimites who can't say "Shibboleth" - see Judges 12:5-6. Ahem!
But that wasn't all that went wrong. This "correction" article was supposed to be titled
"G.K.C." Explains
but it actually appeared under the title
Mr. Chesterton "Explains"
And, as you know about the sometimes emotive use of quotes, that made it far worse! But you'll have to read the essay itself if you want all the details as to what really happened, and why. It is truly funny, and quite instructive as well as admonitory.

Now, I mentioned "engineering", and whined about some abstruse matters of software, and whatever. My point could be brought out by appealing to another sort of engineering, like bridge-building - I might note that John Roebling likely did not envision our modern automobiles crossing his proposed "Brooklyn Bridge" - but he "overdesigned" (as some say) and made the resulting edifice more than sufficiently strong to handle them. (It is worth mentioning here that it is also one of the most elegant of such structures, and well worth your study.) But the point is that in engineering, we must take errors into account. For example: we computer people spend an awful lot of time writing code that (hopefully) will NEVER be used, as it is there only to handle the hundreds of ridiculously unlikely cases of something going wrong! Or, if you don't like that, take your car, and consider that nice smooth paint job, those shiny bumpers... They're not really there to look cool, but to help keep you safe. Or take those circuit breakers... gosh, there are lots of things.

Here's an even more relevant one: you know that roughly every sixth character in all of Chesterton is the BLANK? Also called the SPACE - you know that long thing at the bottom of the keyboard. Don't forget I told you about the smallest letter... in computers, the space is just as important as any other letter or number or symbol, even if you cannot see it! I've told you elsewhere about how the ancient Romans didn't use spaces; they just rantheirwordsupagainsteachother - yeah, EVENONMONUMENTS. Sheesh. But if you have some philosophical aversion to the mystical details of things that no one can see but everyone believes in and relies upon, consider this: Ten percent of Chesterton's total writing consists of three words: "the", "of", "and" - and if you want a quarter of all of Chesterton you can have it with just another handful of words, all very common and boring. Sure, it is rare that any of these working words are critical to the discussion, though I am sure I could find examples where they matter... but the point is that these things are just like the rivets of the Brooklyn Bridge, or those almost-never-used bits of my code. They are there to help hold things together. These tiny things matter, like the space, even if they are almost never seen... BUT if they are gone how quickly will you notice! TRYITAGAINANDSEEHOWMUCHYOURELYONTHATSPACE! It's even worse in speech: try sucking out the silence between words and you get the same effect, like the fine print in a contract... Yo! What did that announcer just say???

The final point is this. It is easy enough to miss such minor details, of spelling, or niceties of grammar, or even more factual matters - (Say, GKC, who DID write "antique roots peep out"? And on what sea did you say Troy was located? How about the Triple Point of water? Hee hee!) The point is to fix such things and go on. We don't deny these things are flaws, but we do not discard the entire work because of them either. We recall the warning about the plank in our own eye, which is too big to be seen. [see "The Three Tools of Death" in The Innocence of Father Brown, also Lk 6:41-2]

And now, since there was something more to that quote about water, I shall give you its conclusion. Since we Chestertonians are always catholic even if we are not Catholic, we ought to consider it very carefully. Dogmatic accuracy is no insurance against a building fire; we need to keep up our study of hydraulics as well as ontology.
Ice is melted into cold water and cold water is heated into hot water; it cannot be all three at once. But this does not make water unreal or even relative; it only means that its being is limited to being one thing at a time. But the fullness of being is everything that it can be; and without it the lesser or approximate forms of being cannot be explained as anything; unless they are explained away as nothing.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:530]
Recall my recent voluminous gurglings about finite state machines? There is here revealed part of the mystery - the mystery of the limitation of being. It helps reveal why a quarter (or more) of Chesterton is working words, and an entire sixth is not even readable at all, being mere empty space. It helps reveal why the Brooklyn Bridge has to be so strong, or why software has so much code that is never executed, or why our bodies are mostly water - though not at its Triple Point, ahem! It even helps explain why God loves us so much, despite our failings, even though we are what is wrong with the world... but there I think I shall let you ponder the matter, and say good-bye for today.

1 comment:

  1. Properly speaking, wouldn't an ad hominem argument be one directed AT one's listener -- an appeal to his prejudices or self-interest -- rather than an argument directed AGAINST his character or credibility?

    A thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Dr. T -- one that I'll keep in mind as I finish preparing my talk for the upcoming Conference.


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