28 February 2010

Maxwell's demon: Hoyle's steady state

The second law of thermodynamics says that we can't win. The amount of useful energy available in the cosmos, and in any "closed system" within the cosmos, is lessening. Why? Well ... because useful energy is created by differences. For example, the water above a cliff has a different altitude than the water at the bottom of the cliff. Hence, the resulting waterfall can be employed to generate electricity. Over time, though, differences within any closed system are worn away (cliffs are worn down to level plains, entropy increases), which means that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for the generation of energy, i.e. the doing of work.

As an inevitable extension of this law, cosmologists speak of the "heat death" of the cosmos, in which what is left of the world is mostly nothingness, punctuated perhaps by whatever irreducible particles may remain, which simply drift further and further away from one another, without interaction, without heat, and of course without life.

If the world has that as an end, then presumably the world also had a beginning. The law of entropy naturally suggests the cosmogony of the Big Bang -- though as a matter of the history of science there was a period of contention as that implication worked itself out. Most notably, Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, and Hermann Bondi developed an elaborate steady-state theory in the 1940s, that would accomodate the expanding universe by having new matter pop into existence, so that the density of the universe remains constant over time. According to this theory as they and others developed it through the 1950s and 1960s, the new matter would be mostly hydrogen, and would be in such small amounts that it would not be directly detectable: roughly one hydrogen atom per cubic meter per billion years, with roughly five times as much dark matter.

Such a creation rate, however, could allow for the fact that all human-scale observations support the second law, while it allows for a subtle re-setting of the clock of time on the Big Scale involved, re-creating the differences, the disequilibria, that the unchecked operation of the 2d law of thermodynamics would destroy.

How did matter pop into existence, on that scale or any other? From a philosophical point of view, Hoyle etc. replied that this question is not more or less difficult than "how did the Big Bang happen"? One begs the universe all at once, or one begs it in pieces over the everlasting run of time. We are beggers in the matter of Being in either case. It is simply the old "why is there anything rather than nothing?"!

Yet this atoms-popping-into-existence stuff makes for an unattractive theory without more. That (perhaps even more than the background cosmic radiation, which has been called the echo of the Big Bang but could well have other explanations) has been the real drawback. If the popping is supposed to take place within the observable universe, it should be ... well ... observable.

Consider a thought experiment that goes back to one of the greatest physicists in history. James Clerk Maxwell spoke of a hyptothetical "demon" who could defeat the 2d law:

"If we conceive of a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is impossible to us. For we have seen that molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics...."

Notice that Maxwell is not bringing God into the picture here -- he is thinking as a secular scientist, and is specifying that the demon is as "essentially finite" as we are. But the demon works at a different level, a micro-level.

Notice also that while Hoyle et al sought to limit the Second Law to the human scale by escaping toward a much Bigger Picture, where humanly undetectable violations thereof can become important ... Maxwell follows the opposite strategy. He seeks to limit the Second Law to the human scale by escaping toward a much Smaller Picture, where an intelligent being can work molecule by molecule.

And now we bring in nanotechology, the development of a molecule-by-molecule, indeed atom-by-atom, variety of engineering accoring to which humans may yet create robots that can in term act as does Maxwell's hypothetical demon.

Ah, am I suggesting, by making this connection, that humans have a cosmic role to play by inventing Maxwellian demons that will enable the cosmos to avert heat death? No ... not exactly. That would have an unnecessarily arrogant sound to it. There is no reason to believe that life exists only on this planet, or that the intelligent beings here have a unique role.

Perhaps through the everlastingness of time, intelligent creatures have developed on myriad planets, and that in many of these cases they reach a point at which they develop a nanotechnology capable of beating the 2d law in their localities. And perhaps, the collective effect of all these independent nanotechnological/civilized planets is to keep re-setting the clock. Perhaps intelligent life on sporadically located planets has the same effect that Hoyle sought to model through this random popping into existence of hydrogen atoms he hypothesized.

The alliance of Hoyle and Maxwell moves in both directions at the same time, for the tiniest of scales may give us a crucial clue to what is happening on the largest.

27 February 2010

From the brief history of South Vietnam

Today was an important day in the brief history (1955 - 1975) of the Republic of Vietnam (aka of "South Vietnam.")

It was on February 27, 1962, that two pilots in the air force of that republic bombed and strafed the presidential palace in Saigon in an effort to assassinate the president, Ngo Dinh Diem. As an assassination, it failed. Three staffers in the palace died; another 30 were injured, but the President and his family members survived. Nor did the bombing serve as a catalyst for the general uprising that the pilots seem to have expected.

Indeed, its immediate effect may have been to persuade Diem that he was under God's protection. That's never a good sign, and of course God can withdraw in November the protection He seems to extend in February.

One of the pilots had to ditch his plane soon after the attack, was arrested, and spent a few months in prison. He was released soon after the more successful anti-Diem coup that November. The other pilot escaped to Cambodia, where the Sihanouk government had a policy of offering sanctuary from anti-Diem plotters.

The point? Nothing much, just some melancholy food for thought on a drizzly late-February day.

26 February 2010

Impulse purchase

While at the grocery store today (a big grocery store, with a small books-and-magazines section) in a classic impulse purchase I acquired The Politician, the new memoir by Andrew Young.

This isn't the Andrew Young who served as US ambassador to the UN during the Carter administration. This is the other one -- once a key aide to former North Carolina Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards. Talk about dedication -- Young was so willing to serve in any capacity that he admitted to a paternity that was not his -- he claimed to have been the father of the baby of Rielle Hunter, his boss' mistress.

Here's a randomly selected passage from the book, just as a sort of recent-history flashback, from the final days of December 2006:

"While Mrs Edwards, and much of America, spent the quiet days before the start of the New Year cleaning up wrapping paper and putting away ornaments,Senator Edwards jetted off to New Orleans, where deadtrees and hurricane ravaged homes in the Lower Ninth Ward would serve as the backdrop for a speech announcing the start of his presidential campaign. (Two weeks earlier, Joe Klein of Time magazine had heralded Edwards as the front-runner [for the nomination], with a two-to-one lead in the polls over Hillary Clinton, his nearest competitor.) Although he still mentioned the 'two Americas,' rich and poor, most of what Edwards said in New Orleans focused on the Bush administration's post-Katrina failures, his call for withdrawing troops from Iraq, and proposals for dealing with global warming and America's dependence on foreign oil."

Ah, memories. As Young goes on to tell us, these were boilerplate points to make for the folks running for the Democratic Party's nomination at that timne. But backdrop was important. The visuals.

And the task of properly capturing that backdrop was left up not merely to the attendent members of the fourth estate, but to the campaign videographer -- who, as it happens, was Rielle Hunter. On the day of the above-described press conference, Young places Rielle in the thick of things, doing her job. Then he adds, "If anyone in the press saw something unusual in the way Rielle interacted with Edwards, it wasn't reported. But Rielle had awakened that morning in the Senator's room at the luxurious Loews hotel, where, she later told me, she 'felt just like his First Lady.'"

25 February 2010

Toyota's electronics

I imagine that there are different possible ways of transliterating Japanese characters into the Western alphabet, and that at some point in recent history the "Toyoda" family went one way while the company that shares their name, "Toyota," went the other. Here's what a blogger says, but of course you will take it with the proverbial grain of salt.

At any rate, the testimony of Akio Toyodo, and of other high-ranking Toyota execs, was the center ring of yesterday's Congressional circus. This isn't a policy inquiry: more like a public shaming.

I have to say that, in accord with some of the members of the House committee involved, I have some curiosity as to whether this is a software problem. Toyota seems convinced it is a mechanical matter -- sticky gas pedals and so forth. But there is a lot of software involved in cars nowadays, and in particular there is a lot involved in the act of braking a hybrid.

There is (a) the software that does the pumping for you, making for anti-lock brakes, and (b) the software involved in converting the energy exerted in braking into electrical energy, thus re-charging the batteries, and (c) the software involved in the anti-slip. I suspect it is possible that these systems are interacting in some unexpected way in the few cases that have caused all the furor.

21 February 2010

Random Links for Today

Just free associating here folks.

1. A company based in Pennsylvania makes a plush toy of Hanuman, the son of the Hindu wind god, who has the form of a monkey. Super cuddly. Gotta love it.

2. Better to worship a god in the form of a monkey than to worship a god in the form of a very sick teenage boy?

3. A somewhat more serious interfaith dispute is underway in the courts of Cook County, Illinois.

4. It's good to see someone taking the long view of his country's present problems. In this case, the someone is a Greek, Vassilis Vassilikos, author of The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis: A Novel" .

5. But here, to balance the long with the short, is a more near term view of Greece's debt woes.

6. Meanwhile, in the world of science, the element formerly known as "Ununbium" has a new name. Which is good, because "ununbium" sounds like a plot twist in the next James Cameron movie. It will henceforth be known as Copernicum.

7. After this guy of course.

8. Moving from science to tech, and to the business side of tech at that, there is this.

9. And I big you goodbye with a hook. Or a song about a hook anyway.

20 February 2010

Zachery Kouwe

The latest case of looking over the shoulders of the guy in the desk in front of you involves Zachery Kouwe, a New York Times business reporter who has plagiarized shamelessly.

The paper in an editors' note on Valentines Day didn't use the p word, but it did say the editors had found "cases of extensive overlap between passages in Mr. Kouwe’s articles and other news organizations’. (The search did not turn up any indications that the articles were inaccurate.)"

Personally, I am always more saddened by reporters who copy the work of their colleagues than I am by reporters who make stuff up, Stephen-Glass style. I am more put off, you might say, by the inadequacy of imagination than by its excess. Staying true to the facts, while finding a fresh way to express them, that is always the double challenge of the non-fiction writer in general.

Not long ago it was fashionable to talk about the "death of the author." That was a literary-critical theory born on the left bank of the Seine, yet later nurtured under the shade of the elms lining the streets of New Haven, Conn. It taught that when properly deconstructred by clever critics, all texts refer to other texts -- indeed, all texts merge into one big text. Authors just disappear from the account.

Fortunately, the author seems to have been resurrected, even in academia. Now it is even more important than before that Paschal-event that authors, of all sorts, respect their own calling and that of their colleagues.

Kouwe was immediately suspended and then, on Tuesday (Mardi Gras -- two days after the Valentines Day announcement -- should we be drawing some sort of symbolic conclusions from these intruding holidays?) met with editors and union reps to discuss possible disciplinary action. Apparently, Kouwe decided to save them the trouble of further proceedings and resigned.

You can find particulars here.

19 February 2010

Cosmological Heresy

Just a couple of quick links here for the heretical view, in which I persist, that some quasi-steady-state theory will be revived and will turn out to account for the evidence that is usually adduced for the Big Bang. The notion that the universe is expanding is itself a quite tentative hypothesis, drawn from the "red shift," which has other plausible explanations.

More broadly, big bang cosmology today relies on a growing number of hypothetical
entities, inflation, dark matter, dark energy, etc. Its as if the theory keeps developing holes that require a new such patch. Eventually, one ought to wonder whether the best patch of all is to junk the theory and adopt a better one.

I believe firmly in the scientific method. I also believe that professional scientists are subect to the same frailties as the rest of the human race, and that in the more abstract fields -- such as cosmology or subatomic physics -- they are subject to a sort of clubbishness that keeps regnant ideas regnant far too long and too easily.

18 February 2010

Cellulosic ethanol

Haven't we been here before? Ah, well.

The latest claim of a breakthrough in the development of cellulosic ethanol comes from Denmark. Two competing enzyme producers said this week that they have a product that turns straw into fuel, in a way that will allow for commercial production in about a year. Genencor, a division of Danisco, announced Accellerase DUET on Monday. But then a rival in the same country, Novozymes AS, said on Tuesday something to the effect of "we can do that too!"

Straw, that is, instead of corn. If fuel can be obtained from straw or other non-foodstuffs in a commercially practicable way that doesn't rely upon government redirection of funds from elsewhere: that will be a great move forward for the sustainability of our civilization, and for our ability to live in peace with one another.

It will vindicate Rumplestiltski's old aspiration to find a seamstress who could turn, or strictly spin, straw into gold. Now I hear the themesong from "The Beverly Hillbillies" in my head. Black gold, Texas tea. But of course one good thing about this is that it would discomfort some of the billionaires who made their money roughly the way the Clampetts did.

Yet such breakthrough announcements have come to nothing before, so it is difficult to avoid cynicism about this one.

14 February 2010

More on Cooper's biography of Woodrow Wilson

This will follow up, in a way, on the quotation from Cooper's book that I provided here last Sunday, about the religious convictions in which Thomas Woodrow Wilson was educated as a child, how they proved to have the effect of an "inoculation," etc.

On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. His speech carried a sense of regret that such a duty should have been placed upon him by history. Near the end, he said: "It is a distressing and oppressive duty, Gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial .. ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance."

Cooper quotes this and comments. "Above all, this speech was not a call to a holy war. America was making an unsought, inescapable choice. The actions of others had rendered it necessary, he believed, to plunge into the most terrible war yet in human history."

The same speech ended with the phrase "God helping her, she [the United States] can do no other." This sounds Lutheran to Cooper, who says that Wilson was "casting America in the same role that Luther cast the Christian believer. For Luther, no one could know God's will .... Nor could the Christian avoid sin; he or she must, Luther declared, 'sin boldly.' This is what Wilson was asking his country to do."

13 February 2010

Third Tier Trash?

I would not be aware of the term "Third Tier Trash," or the initials TTT for same, had Justice Clarence Thomas not used both in the course of defending his law clerks from charges of unspecified bloggers, in remarks to students at the University of Florida.

There is a marked bias in favor of Ivy League law schools in the hiring of law clerks at SCOTUS. One of the Gators remarked about this in a Q-and-A session with the Justice, and Thomas didn't deny it: "Eight of the nine of us [justices] are from the Ivy leagues, so it’s natural that you go back to the Ivy Leagues… I don’t believe they have a monopoly on intelligence. I also don’t believe they have a monopoly on the best kids to clerk." Thomas himself graduated from Yale Law.

You can see and listen to the whole exchange here. Go to about the 37:50 mark of that clip to listen to the part of the proceedings that I have in mind.

Anyway, Thomas was saying that sometimes he goes along with this general preference for Ivy League clerks ("we've let that happen to ourselves"), but that in some years he hasn't. And that in years when he has had non-Ivy clerks, he has been attacked for hiring TTTs. Unfortunate if true. The reason I mention it, though, is that the incident says something about the difficulties of defending one's self from charges made on the blogosphere. To non-blogosphere folks I'm sure this had not penetrated. Indeed, even among bloggers who have a background in the law (like Yours Truly) there are many who had never heard the expression TTT and wouldn't have known what it meant had not Thomas thought it merited such a public rejoinder.

Ah, life.

12 February 2010

Taking "My Way" Too Seriously

According to a story in The New York Times on Thursday, people get killed over Sinatra in the Philippines. Over karaoke renditions of "My Way" in particular.

Why is it "My Way" that sparks fights, and sometimes deaths? The simple explanation is just that it is a song that everybody knows well enough to have an opinion, so it is more likely than many other songs to be the spark to a fight.

But there are lots of other very-well-known songs. So, as you'll see if you read deeply into the story, there's also an "existential" interpretation of these events. Maybe it's just a song associated with losers, and when a loser sings about himself, he is likely to tick off the other losers.

Consider: the lyrics of "My Way" are obviously designed to appeal to someone who wants to think of himself as the center of the world, but who hasn't done anything notably special. So he frames his center-of-the-world self-image in terms that are both vague and defiant. "I DARE you to call me out on my loserhood."

11 February 2010

Biography as an art

Biography is a complicated art form. There is, for example, the simple decision of where to start -- it is rare for a biography's first pages to describe the place and time of the protagonist's birth, for example -- and neither that nor any other starting point presents itself as an obvious choice. Separately, there are unique difficulties of point-of-view for any writer who wants to avoid presenting endless laundry lists, on the one hand, or hagiography on the other. Yet even before we get past the cover we face the question, especially pressing for the biography of someone of an distant time or place, of how much context will be required.

How common is our day is that word "context"! Some biographies make the issue of context more pressing for themselves than they have to, calling themselves not just the "life of X" but the "life and times of X." Suppose we pick up a book entitled "The Life and Times of Henry Hudson." Just looking at the cover, feeling the heft of the book, how much material will we expect to find on the politics of Queen Elizabeth's court? or the history of sailing vessels and methods of navigation up to that time? or on the growth of a European market for beaver pelts? We'll probably expect some asides on each of those subjects and on more, though in each case the aside should fall well short of being a chapter in itself, and the author must keep bringing us around the central story of Hudson's life.

But assume we let "the times" drop away from title and ambition: suppose this is just the "Life of Henry Hudson." What matters and what doesn't? If everything he does and says and puts on for clothing matters, then we'll have an endless and unreadable compendium. We'll expect that the author will have in mind some central purpose: why is Hudson important enough to justify a book? Because he has a river and a bay named after him? Because he represents curiosity, daring, entrepreneurship, or other qualities we value? Because we feel nostalgic for the bygone era of tall and wind-driven ships? These different motives will give rise to different books.

We're still left, still, with the beginning: we know very little about Hudson's childhood, and it would probably be silly to begin our book with that little, padded out with guesswork. Hudson first enters history as a sailor on John Davys' ship exploring the coast of Greenland in 1587. We might start there. Or we might do something more imaginative, and write about the Viking settlements on those coasts centuries before, and about how the Vikings died out, leaving scholars to speculate about why. Then we could flash forward and have our readers imagine ships much taller than the old Norse longboats appearing off that same shore. It is an aesthetic decision.

As Virginia Woolf wrote, "The novelist is free; the biographer is tied." Yet Woolf was writing those words largely to celebrate Lytton Strachey, and his sketches of eminent Victorians, which (Woolf tells us) made "Manning, Florence Nightingale, Gordon, and the rest live as they had not lived since they were actually in the flesh." The "ties" that bind the biographer are a challenge, and should be joyfully accepted as such -- every genre has set challenges and conditions. Biography has fidelity to fact.

07 February 2010

Cooper's biography of Woodrow Wilson

A quote -- appropriate for a Sunday -- from Chapter 0ne. This chapter is titled "Tommy," because the real first name of the man history knows as "Woodrow Wilson" was in fact "Thomas." He started using his middle name as a first name only while in law school.

Anyway, here's the quote with which I want to leave you today:

"Still, Tommy Wilson's upbringing in one of the most liberal and sophisticated religious and intellectual environments in America at that time gave him familiarity with the basic concepts of Protestant thought, Lutheran as well as Calvinist. He believed that Christians were instruments of God's wil and must fulfill their predestined part, but his upbringing among learned Presbyterians stood in stark contrast to evangelicals who stressed emotional commitment and personal salvation. Attitudes and approaches borrowed from evangelical Protestantism had spawned the pre-Civil War moral reform movements, such as the temperance and anti-slavery crusades. These attitudes would flourish again in such varied incarnations as the Protestant Social Gospel, anti-liquor and anti-vice crusades, and an overall evangelical style of political reform. Yet despite a deep religous faith and a look and manner that would later strike some observers as preacherish, the man Tommy Wilson grew up to be would not adopt those approaches. It was not this preacher's-son-turned-president but rather his greatest rival, himself a religious skeptic, who would call their office a 'bully pulpit.' Wilson did not call the presidency by that name, nor did he think about it and politics that way, largely because his religious upbringing had inoculated him against such notions."

06 February 2010

Idiosyncrasy and History, Conclusion

My narrative yesterday brought us, with Henry's help, to a conflict in the way of looking at history. Tolstoy and Spencer are on one side of this conflict. Carlyle and James are on the other. Henry and I both, I would say, fall into the broad middle.

The issue is: how important (if at all) are the individual characteristics, the idiosyncrasies if you will, of the handful of people in a society who occupy its most august positions in social, political, or military hierarchies? Do the specific facts about "great men" (or let us say pooh-bahs) matter at all? Spencer and Tolstoy would both answer "no," in the sense and for the reasons I sought to explain yesterday. Carlyle responded, in effect, that hardly anything else matters! You wish a link? -- 'tis done.

Spencer responded to Carlyle, on behalf of his own conception of history as moving according to grand forces that entail whole populations. Spencer thought that the Carlylean conception was only "theocracy once removed," and has to be abandoned if out aspirations are scientific. James, in turn, responded to Spencer. And here we emerge into material new for this day.

James begins his discussion with a man who slips on the ice of a porch and cracks his skull. We might, to make the hypothesis interesting, suppose that several months before he had dined at a table as one of thirteen. "There are no accidents," we might say. "The whole history of the world converged to produce that slip. If anything had been left out, the slip would not have occurred just there and then. To say it would is to deny the relations of cause and effect throughout the universe. The real cause of the death was not the slip, but the conditions which engendered the slip, -- and among them his having sat at a table, six months previous, one among thirteen. That is truly the reason why he died within the year."

From the viewpoint of a hypothetical omniscient investigator, there may be truth in this. All things everywhere may impact all other things in infinite lines of convergence, and a divine intelligence could see a line of convergence between the banquet of thirteen and the fatal flaw. But we, as humans, have to proceed with greater particularity, or else we'll neglect to put ashes on the ice on that porch, or "some other poor fellow, who never dined out in his life, may slip on it in coming to the door, and fall and break his head too."

There are different cycles of operation in nature -- some macrocosmic, some microcosmic. They proceed relatively independent of one another, and for the secular purposes of human beings on most occasions we can and should treat them as independent. This, James says, was one of the great insights of Charles Darwin. Here he was using Darwin against Spencer -- two names more often bracketed in his day than distinguished. Darwin's key insight was that the variation in the form of an organism from one generation to the next may be the result of "internal molecular accidents, of which we know nothing," as James put it. The finch on one island may get a wider beak than the finch on the nearby island for natural molecular reasons, "accidental variations." The process of natural selection is separate from that. The environment selects some beaks as suitable, rejects others into the trash bin of extinction.

Napoleon, then, may well be the ice on the porch. Or, put differently, Napoleon may be the "internal molecular accidents" within a finch. The Big Picture -- the analog to Natural Selection -- comes into play only after that particular finch with that particular beak comes on the scene. Will the conditions of a particular Pacific island support that finch and allow it to thrive? Would the conditions of post-revolutionary France and for that matter the rest of Europe at the time support a particular short-statured Corsican and allow him to thrive?

It is not "theocracy" to entertain the suspicion that (a) Napoleon too harbored internal molecular accidents, which affected the decisions he made in particular circumstances, and (b) the environment allowed him to thrive to a degree than made those decisions of great importance. And if (a) and (b) are both the case, then it is clearly possible -- nay, plausible -- that if Napoleon had not been born for whatever reason, the other strong man who would have shown up in his place in the history books would not have made all the same decisions -- would have had different "internal molecular accidents," -- and these would have mattered to history.

So, yes, it seems that the idiosyncrasies of the pooh-bahs have been vindicated as a general historical cause.

It does not follow that we should revert entirely to Carlyle and hero worship. James wrote that the differences between the past and the present are due to "the Grants and the Bismarcks, the Joneses and the Smiths."

By "Grant," there, James was of course referring to a General, without whose idiosyncrasies the United States may have fractured into its constituent parts. By "Bismarck" he referred to the "Iron Chancellor" of Germany. But he then used the terms "the Joneses and the Smiths" to indicate that history is more complicated an affair than we can ever grasp if our focus remains always upon the poohbahs.

05 February 2010

Idiosyncrasy and History, Part One

Henry and I have been having a neat discussion in the comments section to my entry Sunday on "The Invention of Lying," last autumn's Rick Gervais movie. I think it is worth bringing that discussion out of that thread, into the open, because we have reached a point of close contact with the original animating purpose of this blog -- refreshing the pragmatic philosophy of William James.

We moved from the question of the consequences of lying in politics to the issue of individual idiosyncrasies and their broad consequences for history. Said Henry in pertinent part:

Suppose that Napoleon's mother had induced Napoleon's father to marry her by lying that she was pregnant. Later, after the marriage, Napoleon was conceived. If she hadn't lied, then she might never have slept with Napoleon's father, and Napoleon would never have existed. According to Tolstoy in War and Peace, however, this wouldn't have mattered, because someone else would have played Napoleon's role, as the causes of history are too complex to depend upon one person's actions.

I said in reply that someone else would likely have played Napoleon's role in a general way -- the role of the man-on-a-horse who often takes over a revolutionary situation when the fervor of the crowds has waned. Someone would have gotten on the horse had Nappy never been borne. But this allows for the possibility that Napoleon had individual idiosyncrasies that made it important that he filled this role.

Napoleon sought to subdue Haiti, sending an army there in 1801. He lost that army, and this loss had enormous consequences beyond Hispaniola. Napoleon's desperate need for money after the loss in Haiti, for example, forced him to sell Louisiana to raise cash. And -- since Henry adduced Tolstoy -- the loss of the army in Haiti may have reduced the number of troops available with which to strike eastward into Russia years later. Might some other post-revolutionary strongman have produced a very different history by deciding against a Haitian expedition?

To this, Henry responded on behalf of Lev Tolstoy: Napoleon presumably did not decide to fight a war in Haiti on a whim; rather, that decision had multiple causes, not all of which was Napoleon necessarily aware. Therefore, Tolstoy might say that Napoleon was a puppet of these causes, as would any alternative leader of France have been at the time.

Tolstoy might indeed say that, so let us consider it. Is it plausible to consider that any possible leader of the French state in 1801 would have been the puppet of the same causes, and so would have necessarily sent an army to Haiti? Is it plausible, then, to entirely eliminate from history the idiosyncrasies of heads of state, generals, and other such pooh-bahs?

Let me acknowledge one aspect of Tolstoy's point. A lot of interesting history has little or nothing to do with heads of state, generals, and other pooh-bahs. Historians can and do discuss, for example, education and literacy in the provinces far from Paris in the early 19th century. In a book on that subject, some now-obscure schoolteacher may play a much bigger role than the Emperor. Insofar as Tolstoy in his observations about history was pointing aware from exclusive concern with the pooh-bahs, he was doing something healthy.

But humans are still going to wonder: do individual idiosyncrasies at the top of the social/political hierarchy have consequences? And if Tolstoy was saying they don't, Tolstoy's position was wildly implausible.

William James wrote about exactly this subject. For James, the paradigm of the deterministic view of history was not Tolstoy but Herbert Spencer. And Spencer (who himself was targeting Carlyle -- it is always convenient in writing of abstract matters to have a concrete target in view) wrote as follows against the significance of "great men."

"If, not stopping at the explanation of social progress as due to the great man, we go back a step, and ask, Whence comes the great man? we find that the theory breaks down completely. The question has two conceivable answers: his origin is supernatural, or it is natural. Is his origin supernatural? Then he is a deputy god, and we have theocracy once removed -- or, rather, not removed at all....Is this an unacceptable solution? The origin of the great man is natural; and immediately this is recognized, he must be classed with all other phenomena in the society that gave him birth as a product of its antecedents. Along with the whole generation of which he forms a minute part, along with its institutions, language, knowledge, manners, andits multitudinous arts and appliances, he is a resultant...."

I think that Spencer is on the Tolstoyan wavelength here and I note that James finds this unpersuasive, as a way of banishing the "great men" or their idiosyncrasies. But this post is already a good deal longer than is my norm, so I think I will make you wait for tomorrow for more.

04 February 2010

Three riddles

Question: What do you call someone who dreams that he writes popular fantasy novels?

Answer: Tolkien-in-his-sleep.

Question: Why are horseshoe nails always dizzy?

Answer: They walk on their head all day.

Question: What do you say if a talking lion tells you that he and his family will be migrating in the late summer?

Answer: "So its true? The pride goeth before the fall!"

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.