May 152010

One of the most complex pieces of information I have ever tried to grasp is that of ancient cosmology, by which I mean that which prevailed as accepted knowledge before Kepler. Ancient cosmology has almost exactly the opposite ratio of complexity to modern cosmology: these days, the concepts are simple but the math is mind-bending; those days, the math was easy but the concepts were labyrinthine.

Imagine, if you will, what Ptolemy [the 2nd-century AD Greco-Roman whose works formed the basis of most medieval astronomy] and his Arabic successors were dealing with. Geometry, trigonometry, algebra (for the Arabs): we learn these as teenagers. But they were using these tools to explain and predict the actions of a cosmos they viewed as a vast and interlocking array of perfect circles which is nearly impossible for the casual investigator to envision, let alone comprehend its relationships. If you’ve ever seen an astrolabe, you will have a pretty good idea of what I mean, and an astrolabe is only a small and simplified model of the relationships obtaining between celestial bodies as the ancients understood them. (If you haven’t seen an astrolabe, may I recommend you visit the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford? It has as fine a collection of them as I’ve encountered.)

Ancient cosmology, like Aristotelian physics, has become a modern archetype for ‘wrong’ science, primarily because in our present-day arrogance we have applied Occam’s razor retrospectively and concluded that those old astronomers were idiots. (Funnily, Occam himself never applied his razor to astronomy, so there we are: we’re better at being Occam than Occam was.) But this is tremendously unfair, because actually the ancients weren’t wrong, at least not in the sense we usually mean.

Civilisations had been observing the skies for millennia and noticed certain patterns about the movements of heavenly bodies in the sky, none of which were wrong. The heavenly bodies really do move as observed thousands of years ago. Where they erred was not in the what, but in the how and why. Scientists then as now were keen to explain the mechanisms behind what they observed, and then as now they used as their test of correctness whether the mechanisms they hypothesised accurately predicted future behaviour.

And contrary to what you may have read or heard or taken on board in snooty science class where even Newton is ridiculed for being wrong, Ptolemy et al. came really close to accurate predictions in spite of their giant wrongness. Copernicus himself noted that Ptolemy’s mathematical tables resulted in predictions that were rarely more than 2 [geometrical] degrees off from observed measurements. Given that nobody at the time was relying on this information for anything really important – such as organising trips to the moon – this was an acceptable margin of error, and in the circumstances would not have mattered much but for the fact that (a) it was sloppy, and even pre-modern scientists found sloppiness annoying, and (b) more sophisticated tools for observing the heavens began to show us that ancient knowledge of the skies was, in fact, incomplete. Galileo saw things through his telescopes that the Egyptians never knew existed, because they didn’t have telescopes and couldn’t see them. The human eye is good, but not that good.

In the end, it was perfectionism and superior datasets that brought down the ancient cosmology, rather than its inherent ‘wrongness.’

And in fact the ancient cosmology was only wrong on one particular point: but it was a big, important point because it was the fundamental assumption on which everything else was based – and as we say today, garbage in, garbage out. You can have, as Ptolemy did, the most incredible and precise system for analysing data in the world, but if your inputs are crap, your outputs will be too. What’s astonishing and really worthy of admiration, in my view, is that Ptolemy’s outputs weren’t more crap than they were, considering how hilariously incorrect his starting point was. As noted before, he was always within 2 degrees of being accurate.

The reason Ptolemy’s system is the byword for bad science is actually the very thing that tells us what an incredible genius he must have been: the tortuous complexity of his data analysis system.

His point A, that incorrect starting point, was stationary geocentrism. His point B, those predictions, were mostly right. But the path from A to B is what gave us deferents, epicycles, equants, prograde and retrograde motions – terms which you only see used today, really, in astrology (which is one of the reasons why astrology is bunk).

You can’t exactly blame him, can you? To the naked-eye observer, it really does look as if the Earth stands still and everything else circles around it. We, who are so big on Occam’s razor, can hardly criticise the ancients for assuming this simplest of theories was the correct one. They saw what appeared to be the skies circling round the Earth. There was no good reason, at the time, to question this simple and elegant explanation of observed conditions.

Unfortunately, that simple starting point made it exponentially difficult to explain the mechanisms empirically or prove them mathematically. Every time someone thought they’d figured out the process, their predictions would turn out to be wrong – even if just a little – and then it was back to the drawing board to add on new layers of theories to account for those errors. Nobody thought to go back and examine point A, because why would they? Like good little scientists, they assumed the data were correct and the mistakes were theirs. They didn’t consider that stationary geocentrism was not a datum at all.

So the tiny fixes for the tiny errors built over time into a giant, interdependent, Escher-like edifice that was always just not quite right, a kaleidoscope picture just out of true no matter how one fiddled with it. Cosmology was a grand project, generation after generation always fixing, fixing, working away, convinced that just a tweak here, a jimmy there, and those minuscule errors would resolve into glorious perfection. After all, their margin of error was so tiny that their mistaken assumption must be tiny too. But in the process of fixing their tiny errors one by one, they hypothesised a cosmos that was no longer simple, no longer elegant, no longer perfect – instead it was complex, and virtually impenetrable, and exhausting: every scientist’s nightmare.

And that giant, unwieldy, hideous nightmare that was always not quite right turned out to be based on a fundamental assumption that was so mistaken it now occasions ridicule – and the vast unwieldy system is so archetypal that today we pretty much assume that the more complex your theory is, and the more tiny fixes it requires all over the place, the more likely it is you’ve made a mistake in your fundamental assumptions. You can alter this over here, and fiddle with that over there, and that will make everything more complicated, but nevertheless things will be better as a result, won’t they, and bring us closer to perfection, because we’re nearly there anyway, so surely that last step must be a small one.

Now, what does that remind you of?

Incidentally, I wasn’t re-reading my master’s dissertation before writing this post. I was reading Federalist No. 10.

Apr 192010

Libertarians, by their nature, are wont to bang on about liberty, and that it is desirable, and that it is the mother of Order. In the mind of a libertarian, this is all correct and proper, for liberty is the blank slate of the individual; only when he exists in a state of freedom may he pursue those ends which he deems appropriate and suitable for himself.

Thus libertarians take a critical view of those who claim that liberty is an end state, rather than a means – a philosophical ideal to be reserved for a time when material needs have been fulfilled. A person is not free, say these terminal types, until he no longer need struggle for food, clothing, a roof over his head, healthcare, education, employment, transportation – in short, until his physical integrity and livelihood are assured by minimal effort on his part. Western society has, in fact, become so progressive that ‘liberty’ is sometimes defined as ‘possessing sufficient time, money, and energy to expend on leisure rather than sustenance.’

This is, to be sure, a wonderful development in one sense. Rarely in human history has daily toil been considered an irritation to be minimised in favour of pleasure, rather than an essential and all-consuming necessity for survival. Peasant farmers in early medieval Europe had, on the whole, much more liberty than we do today: being unimportant, they suffered little interference from the state, especially those who only farmed enough to feed themselves; being poor, they suffered little interference from others, as they were both inoffensive and had nothing worth stealing. But on the other hand, they had to struggle for food, clothing, a roof over their heads, and had no healthcare at all, or education, or employment, or transportation – therefore they were not free, in the sense that they spent all of their time ensuring their survival and virtually none of their time or effort on leisure.

In essence, then, we have two conflicting modern interpretations of ‘liberty.’ Let’s call them liberty-as-means and liberty-as-ends. Liberty-as-means is a basic state of being in which coercion and unwanted interference by others or the state are absent. This will unfortunately mean that an individual may have to struggle for physical integrity and livelihood. Liberty-as-ends is an advanced state of being in which the struggle for physical integrity and livelihood is absent. This will ideally mean that an individual may therefore focus primarily on the pursuit of that which gives him pleasure.

Enders take a critical view of meansers (libertarians), claiming that those advocating liberty-as-means are able to do so because they are not on the margin of struggling for physical integrity and livelihood. I cannot say with any certainty whether this criticism is valid for all meansers; it may indeed be the case that material comfort breeds libertarianism. On the other hand, it may be that people with a libertarian mindset drive themselves to achieve material comfort. We may never know the answer – counterfactuals can’t be proved – but it might be interesting one day to survey the backgrounds and material circumstances of libertarians.

In any case, we have this situation of liberty in opposition to itself. Meansers cannot have their basic state of liberty because it nearly always has to be infringed in order for the enders to achieve their advanced state of liberty. Enders cannot achieve their advanced state of liberty because meansers are always resisting their methods.

This raises some understandable questions.

First, can liberty-as-means result in liberty-as-ends, and if so, over what sort of timescale?

Second, if not, can liberty-as-ends result in liberty-as-means – and if so, over what sort of timescale?

Finally, if our two conflicting interpretations of liberty are mutually exclusive, which is objectively better and thus more worthy of pursuit?

Stay tuned.

Mar 012010

The musical refuge of British political bloggers is now coming online.

The brainchild of Neil of the Bleeding Heart Show, its purpose is to take some of the strain off us beleaguered partisans as the election approaches and allow us to come together to talk about something else which is dear to our hearts: music.

I encourage all of you poli bloggers out there (or semi-poli bloggers) who are interested in writing something here and there to visit the website and send an email to let us know you’re keen. It’d be great if loads of people joined in. We’ve already got posts in the dock and we hope to go properly live this weekend!

And if you don’t want to write but you like music, please add Heaven is Whenever to your blogroll/RSS feed. You can also follow on Twitter.

Feb 282010

Neil Robertson of the Bleeding Heart Show has had a great idea to take some of the unceasing election pressure off us poor exhausted political bloggers:

We are in the midst of an election campaign which would try the patience of a saint. Though blogging is necessarily combative, we would do well to remember that one of its joys is the space it creates to interact with opposing points of view. In the ongoing campaign for our own utopias – our own visions how Britain can be made better – we should not lose sight of this, nor forget that behind the psedonyms & avatars are real people.

So how do we preserve, and even build upon, the fledgling community that this election campaign threatens to coarsen? I have one idea.

We create a space where everyone – regardless of party or ideology – can write about the music they enjoy; our favourite albums, overlooked artists, most memorable gigs or cherished social experiences. We write not as esteemed political bloggers with our gripes and demands and agendas, but as music fans.

For this to work, there should be but three rules:

  • You should be a political blogger.
  • You should write about any aspect or genre of music.
  • Your writing should not be party-political.

Here’s the catch: I can’t do this on my own. As you might’ve noticed, work constraints mean that I’m not currently able to keep my own blog ticking over as much as I’d like, so running two is an impossibility. I’ve already had some kind offers of contribution and admin, and I would be happy to receive more. I would also be delighted if those of you who believe in the concept could promote it within your own blogging communities – the experience will only be richer for having a multitude of voices. Naturally, all contributors would have a link back to their own political blogs, and a spot on the blogroll.

If you would like to contribute, or have any ideas/suggestions, do feel free to leave a comment either here or with LeftOutside, or leave an email at bleedingheartblog at gmail dot com.

I’m doing it. You should too.

Feb 152010

For those who attribute basically good and selfless motives to government, consider this logic:

This sort of argumentation reflects a general double standard of morality that is always applied to State rulers but not to anyone else. No one, for example, is surprised or horrified to learn that businessmen are seeking higher profits. No one is horrified if workers leave lower-paying for higher-paying jobs. All this is considered proper and normal behavior. But if anyone should dare assert that politicians and bureaucrats are motivated by the desire to maximize their incomes, the hue and cry of “conspiracy theorist” or “economic determinist” spreads throughout the land.

From Rothbard, For a New Liberty

Feb 132010

Simon Heffer laments that funding cutbacks at universities may lead to the teaching of history’s being limited to Britain post-1700 and Europe post-1900.

As a medieval historian, I lament this too (in a way), particularly because, as Heffer points out, historical eras do not exist as discrete events or trends, and everything that happens is entirely dependent on everything else that has happened.

History is also subject to misinterpretation and politicisation. Witness this comment, by one Harbinger, who takes issue with Heffer’s belief that the events of World War I are rooted in the Franco-Prussian War.

I happened to have a very good education, but now I’ve began to seriously question history, especially what I know of WW1 and WW2. I also hate to say it as well, but even going back to the English civil war, I’m now beginning to believe that that itself was orchestrated by the Jewry/Zionists, in order to put Cromwell in power and remove their condition of exile, previously placed upon them in the early 13th century.

Oh rilly? Nothing to do with a series of tyrannical and micromanaging monarchs, then, who ran roughshod over the people’s liberties and declared it was what God himself wanted. No, it was the Joos.

What I also continue to question are the motives behind Britain’s entering WW1, to help France, our arch enemy throughout history, when in all reality, Jewry was also involved yet again, playing the west into destroying the Ottoman Empire in order to create the illegal state of Israel. If course, those who also know history know that WW1 resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Brits, wiping away the possibility of child bearing generations (fathers) in order to utterly destroy the British and their Empire. WW1 was thus created for two reasons – destruction of Britain and the creation of Israel, although our historical propaganda machine won’t tell us that will they?

No, they won’t tell us that, because it’s ridiculous. The ethnic and cultural tensions in Austria-Hungary had nothing to do with the Joos and everything to do with the mishmash of the Holy Roman Empire and its very strange mixture of local, central, and ecclesiastical sovereignty. As for the destruction of the British Empire, why would the Joos have wanted to do that? They were safe and valued in the British Empire, as much as Joos of the period could be said to be safe and valued. It was the British Empire that made the creation of Israel possible.

We can take the slave trade, which of course is told from the slave point of view, not the colonialists now… There is of course the Holocaust, taboo in today’s society that no one may discuss, so as not to upset the Jewish community and if one attempts to deny the “given” death toll they are immediately lambasted and pilloried by society, branded as Holocaust deniers and anti semites and hurriedly pushed out of the positions they hold within society. Some are even arrested and imprisoned for free speech. How bad has society now got, especially as we are told 6 million died, yet a plaque in Auschwitz which stood up until 1995 was removed, stating 4 million died here and replaced with 1.1million died here in WW2?


We are also never taught either not just about “THE PROTOCOLS OF THE LEARNED ELDERS OF ZION” but also if possession of it in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century would have one instantly shot on sight.


What was Britain has now long since departed the majority of people’s thoughts. We are now simply moving into the last phase of the plans of the NWO, created a long time ago.

And the money shot:

Bottom line Mr Heffer, you can pontificate all you wish on the fact that we are not teaching history, but I’d rather remain blissfully ignorant than brainwashed into believing nothing but rubbish, continually promoted by those who want to see the destruction of your civilisation and downfall of your people.

While it’s true we are not taught everything that ever happened in history, it’s not because of the NWO, the Joos, and the brainwashers (mostly). Our interpretation of history is of course subject to fads, cultural biases, and wider social and political movements, but by and large the evidence of history is cut-and-dried. People do study the effects of the Protocols of Zion, but they don’t treat it as a piece of gospel truth. In the same way, people study texts on alchemy from the Middle Ages – but they don’t set up alchemy labs and use them as instruction manuals for turning lead into gold or making a philosopher’s stone.

I like that this guy is advocating a healthy scepticism, which is of course vital for any student of history. I just wish he’d apply it to his own arguments as well as his opponents’.

Jan 122010

(That’s ‘thicker’ in the American blues sense, meaning amply proportioned but shapely.)

Scientists say: big bottoms and thighs protect against cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Big bellies… don’t.

Lead researcher Dr Konstantinos Manolopoulos, of Oxford University, said: “It is shape that matters and where the fat gathers.

“Fat around the hips and thighs is good for you but around the tummy is bad.”

He said in an ideal world, the more fat around the thighs the better – as long as the tummy stays slim.

Coolness. I shall continue to cultivate the figure of a pre-agrarian fertility statue* secure in the knowledge that it is excellent for my health.

*Pub quiz question: What is the Greek-derived term for this type of female figure? (Archaeology buffs, sing it with me now…)

Jan 012010

The Devil and I attended a lovely house party last night in honour of the new year. Not only was it tremendously pleasant to meet (and re-meet) some very interesting and friendly people, it was gratifying to learn that some of them read this blog.

Wii Karaoke competitions also took place – how many of you would have thought that the Devil has a lovely singing voice? Also good drink, good food made by the lady of the house, and excellent conversation.

Needless to say, I had a very enjoyable time. And as I always try to start as I mean to go on, this bodes very well for 2010. Here’s hoping the rest of you enjoyed the changing of the year and look forward to more good times to come!

Nov 192009

I’ve discovered Mencius Moldbug, thanks to a comment left here by sconzey.*

I shall not even bother linking to particular posts I like, because I like them all (so far). Tearing myself away to do such necessary self-maintenance as eating has become difficult.

However. There is one bit of Moldbuggery I’d like to share with you. He’s articulated, quite tangentially and by accident, exactly why I enjoy British politics and find American politics so depressing. I used to think it was because the spectacle was better (it’s not), or because I could observe with equanimity since it doesn’t affect me (it does). But here’s really why:

If you’ve ever lived in a foreign country, you know exactly what life is like without the nanoslice [of power conferred by the franchise]: pretty much what life is like with it. Except for the Zen of abandoning the constant, unrequited longing for control that is the cruel karma of the democratic citizen, and the breath of honest fresh air in exchanging a first-person government for a third-person one, not “we” but “they.”

*Why don’t my comments have permalinks? Argh, must fix.

Nov 132009

Delivered at the Students for Liberty conference last weekend in Philadelphia by Dr Alan Kors, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. My brother was there, and he and a friend of his provided the link.

This paper brought me to tears.

Some highlights:

The intellectual manifestation of this pathology was and is a collective delusion that ignores both history and ethology. It is a belief that goodness, stable order, justice, peace, freedom, legal equality, mutual forbearance, and kindness are the default state of things in human affairs, and that malice, disorder, violence, coercion, legal inequality, intolerance, and cruelty are the aberrations that stand in need of historical explanation. Getting the defaults precisely and systematically wrong, Western intellectuals fail to understand and appreciate the form of society that has given us the ability to alter them. The pathology is also the demented belief that evolved successful societies may be redrawn at will by intellectuals with political power and that the most productive human cultures are almost wholly dysfunctional.

Rousseau and all the Marxisizing intellectuals who have cast their darkness over the past one hundred years and more have had it all backward in this domain. It is not aversion to difference that requires historical explanation —aversion to difference is the human condition. Rather, it is liberal society’s partial but breathtaking ability to overcome tribalism and exclusion that demands elucidation, above all in the singular American accomplishment. Tyranny and abuse of power have also been the human condition. It is, in contrast, the limitation of power and the recognition of individual rights that demand historical explanation. It is not slavery that startles, because slavery is one of the most universal of all human institutions. Rather, it is the view of self-ownership, liberty, and voluntary labor that requires historical explanation, the values and agencies by which the West identified slavery as an evil, and, to what should be our wonder, abolished it. Western intellectuals write, dramatically, as if it were relative pockets of Western poverty that should occasion our astonishment, when in fact the term until recently for almost infinitely worse absolute levels of poverty was simply “life.” What generally remains unaddressed by our secular intellectuals is the question of what values, institutions, knowledge, behaviors, risks, and liberties allowed the West to create such prosperity that we even notice such relative poverty at all, let alone believe that it is eradicable. Tragically, the very effort to overturn the evolved systems and values of the West has produced the most extreme examples in history of, precisely, malice, disorder, violence, coercion, legal inequality, intolerance, and cruelty.

There is no revivification of the principles that separated us from the socialists in power. “You put private property ahead of people” remains a potent malediction, as if we had not learned sufficiently and amply that the former is essential to the well-being, dignity, liberty, and lives of the latter. “You put profits ahead of people” remains of equal force, as if we had not learned sufficiently that profits are the measure of other people’s satisfactions of want and desire. Indeed, it is precisely to avoid the revivification of classical liberal principles that our teachers, professors, information media, and filmmakers ignore the comparative inquiry that the time so urgently demands.

Indeed, it is precisely because of the lessons that would be taught by knowledge and truth that no revision of the curriculum occurs. For at least a generation, intellectual contempt for liberal society —as a civilization, a set of institutions, and a constellation of ideals —has been at the core of the humanities and soft social sciences. This has accelerated, not changed, despite the fact that now there is no intellectual excuse for ignoring certain verities. We know that voluntary exchange among individuals held morally responsible under the rule of law creates both prosperity and an unparalleled diversity of human choices. Such a model also has been a precondition of individuation and freedom. By contrast, regimes of central planning create poverty and occasion ineluctable developments toward totalitarianism and the worst abuses of power. Dynamic free-market societies, grounded in rights-based individualism, have altered the entire human conception of liberty and of dignity for formerly marginalized groups. The entire “socialist experiment,” by contrast, ended in stasis, ethnic hatreds, the absence of even the minimal preconditions of economic, social, and political renewal, and categorical contempt for both individuation and minority rights. Our children do not know this true comparison.


As for the mea culpas, we await them in vain from those who claim not to have known or who still choose not to learn. When Eisenhower heard that the German residents of a nearby large town “didn’t know” about a death camp whose stench should have reached their nostrils, he marched them, well dressed, through the rotting corpses, and made them help dispose of the dead. We lack his authority. Milan Kundera, the dissident Czech novelist during the Communist period, stated the moral reality with reference to its only appropriate genre, tragedy. Take the extreme case, he suggested. What about those with good intentions? he asked in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What about those who didn’t know, and who acted in good faith? Kundera wrote of Oedipus:

Little did he know that the man he had killed in the mountains was his father and the woman with whom he slept his mother. In the meantime, fate visited a plague on his subjects and tortured them with great pestilences. When Oedipus realized that he himself was the cause of their suffering, he put out his own eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes. . . . Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by “not knowing,” he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

How not to be tempted by this? For me, I would offer one indulgence. Let the socialists, fellow travelers, apologists, and revisionists acknowledge the dead, bury the dead, teach what they have learned, and atone for the dead. Otherwise, given the enormity of what has occurred, let them indeed be forgiven only when they have put out their eyes and wandered blind away from Moscow, Beijing, or Thebes. Let Western intellectuals repeat the phrase of “Requiem,” a work written during the Stalinist terror by Anna Akhmatova, the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century: “I will remember them always and everywhere, I will never forget them no matter what comes.”