Monthly Archives: March 2013

Dunne’s experiments in waking precognition

All quotations below are taken from the 13th chapter of J. W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time, in which he discusses experiments he conducted to determine whether or not the sort of precognition he had observed in dreams could also occur in waking life.

A little consideration suggested that the simplest way to set about a waking experiment would be to take a book which one intended to read within the next few minutes, think determinedly of the title — so as to begin with an idea which should have associational links with whatever one might come upon in that future reading — and then wait for odds and ends of images to come into the mind by simple association.

Obviously, one could save a lot of time by rejecting at once all images which one recognized as pertaining to the past. Also, since the images would be perceived while awake and with one’s wits about one, one might rely more upon one’s memories of them than one could when the memories were formed sleeping, and thus save a vast amount of writing. A brief note of each image should suffice.

In my own attempt at waking precognition (qv), I did not follow this method of beginning with an image which could be expected to have associational links with future experiences. I simply tried to pull images out of thin air. At this I was reasonably successful, but it seems probable that for most people most of the time, such an attempt would generate primarily past- and present-associated images without the aid of a future-oriented associational anchor of some kind.

Actually, the anchoring image needn’t be specifically future-related. Any image which is not obviously associated with one’s past experiences should do. One might choose an image which is timeless and iconic but not commonplace — a tarot card, for instance. I know that many tarot readers use the cards in precisely that manner, as starting points for an associational network of images. Rather than “translating” the cards in a straightforward way, using the conventional divinatory meanings given in the “little white book,” they concentrate on the images themselves and see what comes to them. (Of course studying the LWB and other commentaries on the cards still has its place, since the effect of such study is to create an ever thicker and more intricate network of associatons centered on the cards. One wants to cast one’s associational net as wide as possible.)

As for Dunne’s idea of using the title of a book one is about to read, caution would be necessary, since one’s ideas may have been “contaminated” with past exposure to the book in question. It is not common to buy or borrow a book without first flipping through it a bit, and words and images encountered in that way might stay in the mind after their source has been forgotten. (E-books might be useful in this regard, since it is not convenient to flip through them.) And of course one may also have read reviews of the book, heard discussions about it, etc., and these experiences, too, may leave traces in the mind after the experience itself has been forgotten. It would be best to steer clear of classics and bestsellers.

On the other hand, precognitive images associated with a book title may not necessarily come from the book itself — especially if one is in the habit of reading on trains, taking books on vacations, etc. I know that when I reread a book after many years, my reading often triggers memories of things that were going on in my life at the time of the previous reading, and the same principle could work for future experiences. Dunne’s first book experiment is a good example of this.

The first experiment was a gorgeous success — until I discovered that I had read the book before.

It was interesting, however, as showing the tremendous difficulty the waking mind experiences in freeing itself from its memories. I spent by far the greater part of the time in rejecting images of the past and starting afresh with a mind comparatively blank.

Apart from the items which related to the book (already read), I got only a few ideas, mostly concerning London and the exterior and interior of clubs. The only exception was the single word ‘woodknife‘, which drifted into my mind, seemingly, from nowhere. A little reflection satisfied me that I had never in my life come upon such a word, so I jotted it down.

Two or three days after this I moved, quite unexpectedly, to London. On my arrival, I went to my club, and having for the moment nothing better to do, proceeded to the library, picked out a newly published novel, and tried a second experiment. Result — nil. In fifteen minutes I got only eight images, which did not clearly belong to the ‘past’ half of the associational network. One of these eight related to a kangaroo hunt in Australia — riders and hounds chasing pell-mell after the leaping animal. Another comprised the single word ‘narwhal‘. There was nothing in the book that fitted, and presently I threw it aside.

I then drifted into a little inner library, which is an excellent place for a nap. I chose a comfortable armchair, and, for appearances’ sake, equipped myself with another volume — R. F. Burton’s Book of the Sword, opening this in the middle.

Immediately my eyes fell upon a little picture of an ancient dagger, underneath which was inscribed ‘Knife (wood)‘. I sat up at that, and began to dip into the book, turning back after a moment to page II. There I came upon a reference to the horn of the narwhal. Reading on, I found on the succeeding page the words ‘The “old man” kangaroo, with the long nail of the powerful hind leg, has opened the stomach of many a staunch hound.’

In the above experiment, none of the images which later “came true” actually appeared in the book Dunne was using as an associational anchor, but in extraliterary life (London, clubs) or in other books (woodknife, narwhal, kangaroo hunt).

Dunne goes on to relate several cases in which he successfully foresaw some of the contents of books he was about to read, but these are mostly inconclusive. His most impressive book-related precognition was, again, fulfilled outside the context of the book.

Here I altered the procedure. I opened the book at the beginning, and found the name of one of the characters, being careful not to glance at any other page. It seemed to me that a name which would be likely to occur in close association with many of the incidents of the story would provide a better associational link than does the mere idea of the book’s title. . . .

I then tried a book of Snaith’s, taking the heroine’s name as an associational link. Here I failed completely. But, in the middle of this experiment, I got one very curious image.

It was of an umbrella with a perfectly plain, straight handle, a mere thin extension of the main stick, and of much the same appearance and dimensions as the portion which projected at the ferrule end. This umbrella, folded, was standing unsupported, upside down, handle on the pavement, just outside the Piccadilly Hotel.

I happened to pass that way in a bus the next day. Shortly before we got to the hotel I caught sight of a most eccentric-looking figure walking along the pavement in the same direction, and on the hotel side of the street. It was an old lady, dressed in a freakish, very early-Victorian, black costume, poke bonnet and all. She carried an umbrella in which the handle was merely a plain, thin, unpolished extension of the main stick, of much the same appearance and dimensions as the portion which projected at the ferrule end. She was using this umbrella — closed, of course — as a walking-stick, grasping it pilgrim’s-staff fashion. But she had it upside down. She was holding the ferrule end, and was pounding along towards the hotel with the handle on the pavement.

I need hardly say that I had never before in all my life seen anyone use an umbrella that way.

So it does appear that it can be effective to use an unread book — either the title or the name of one of the characters — as a starting point from which to generate potentially precognitive images. However, results which are found in the book itself may be suspect, for the reasons discussed above; the most convincing precognitions will relate to incidents occurring outside of the book being used.


Filed under Precognition / Prophecy

The Two Trees

I’ve been brooding over Yeats’s poem “The Two Trees” for several months now, and I thought I might post some of my ideas about it, disconnected though they may be.


First, for the benefit of those who might not be familiar with it, here is the poem itself. Since it consists of two stanzas which are obviously meant to be contrasted one with the other, often in a direct line-to-line manner, I present them here in columns side-by-side, with some of the more obvious parallels highlighted in boldface.

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart, Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The holy tree is growing there; The demons, with their subtle guile,
From joy the holy branches start, Lift up before us when they pass,
And all the trembling flowers they bear. Or only gaze a little while;
The changing colours of its fruit For there a fatal image grows
Have dowered the stars with merry light; That the stormy night receives,
The surety of its hidden root Roots half hidden under snows,
Has planted quiet in the night; Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
The shaking of its leafy head For all things turn to barrenness
Has given the waves their melody, In the dim glass the demons hold,
And made my lips and music wed, The glass of outer weariness,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee. Made when God slept in times of old.
There the Loves a circle go, There, through the broken branches, go
The flaming circle of our days, The ravens of unresting thought;
Gyring, spiring to and fro Flying, crying, to and fro,
In those great ignorant leafy ways; Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Remembering all that shaken hair Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And how the wingèd sandals dart, And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thine eyes grow full of tender care: Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart. Gaze no more in the bitter glass.


As a starting point for interpretation, the “two trees” of the title must be assumed to represent the two trees which grew in the midst of the Garden of Eden: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Given that assumption, it is not hard to know which tree is which. The tree of the second stanza, which is offered up to us by “the demons with their subtle guile,” and which is associated with death and with “unresting thought,” is clearly the tree of knowledge. The first tree, with its fruits and flowers and “great ignorant leafy ways,” is the tree of life — which, for Yeats, is also the tree of love. Though I am quite sure that an allusion to Eden is intended, the primary contrast is not so much between life and knowledge as between love and thought. The ignorant Loves go round the first tree; the cruel ravens of thought, round the other.


The second important thing to notice is that, despite the title, there are not actually two trees in the poem, but only one. The second tree is only a reflection of the first, as seen in the “bitter glass” — externalized. (There is just a hint of this idea in Genesis; Eve refers in the singular to “the tree which is in the midst of the garden,” although we are told that the Lord planted two trees there.) One of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” has it that “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Yeats (a great admirer of Blake)  appears to agree — but he prefers the fool’s point of view! Where the fools sees, the wise man reflects — and instead of a direct presentation of the tree, experiences only a bloodless re-presentation. Reading Yeats in the light of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, we might say that the two “trees” — the two ways of looking at the tree — represent the right- and left-hemisphere views, respectively. The following passage from McGilchrist seems especially relevant:

As things are re-presented in the left hemisphere, it is their use-value that is salient. In the world it brings into being, everything is either reduced to utility or rejected with considerable vehemence, a vehemence that appears to be born of frustration, and the affront to its ‘will to power’. The higher values of Scheler’s hierarchy, all of which require affective or moral engagement with the world, depend on the right hemisphere.

It is said that the meaning of the Hebrew words translated as ‘good and evil’, in the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘mean precisely the useful and the useless, in other words, what is useful for survival and what is not’.


The idea of the “bad” tree as the mirror-image of the “good” one brings to mind the motto Daemon est Deus Inversus — which Yeats chose as his “magical name” in the context of his Golden Dawn activities. Yeats is here clearly indebted to H. P. Blavatsky, whom he knew and to whose Theosophical Society he belonged. The following passage is from Mme. Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine (Book 1, Part 2, Section 11).


THIS symbolical sentence, in its many-sided forms, is certainly most dangerous and iconoclastic in the face of all the dualistic later religions — or rather theologies — and especially so in the light of Christianity. Yet it is neither just nor correct to say that it is Christianity which has conceived and brought forth Satan. As an “adversary,” the opposing Power required by the equilibrium and harmony of things in Nature — like Shadow to throw off still brighter the Light, like Night to bring into greater relief the Day, and like cold to make one appreciate the more the comfort of heat — SATAN has ever existed. Homogeneity is one and indivisible. But if the homogeneous One and Absolute is no mere figure of speech, and if heterogeneity in its dualistic aspect, is its offspring — its bifurcous shadow or reflection — then even that divine Homogeneity must contain in itself the essence of both good and evil. If “God” is Absolute, Infinite, and the Universal Root of all and everything in Nature and its universe, whence comes Evil or D’Evil if not from the same “Golden Womb” of the absolute? Thus we are forced either to accept the emanation of good and evil, of Agathodaemon and Kakodaemon as offshoots from the same trunk of the Tree of Being, or to resign ourselves to the absurdity of believing in two eternal Absolutes!

I believe that the bolded portions make it clear that Yeats is consciously alluding to Mme. Blavatsky’s ideas in his poem.


Another text which seems relevant to “The Two Trees” is the First Epistle to the Corinthians, which contrasts love (agape or “charity”) with knowledge — first in the 8th chapter (“Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth”) and then, more extensively, in the famous 13th:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. . . . For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.


Though it obviously could not have been an influence, I find Frost’s poem “Bond and Free” to make an excellent companion piece to “The Two Trees.”

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about–
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world’s embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius’ disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

Here again love and thought are contrasted, and again there is the suggestion that they offer two views of what is essentially the same thing. Everything that the second tree offers can be possessed by “simply staying” and gazing in one’s own heart.” While Yeats takes an almost entirely negative view of the second tree, allowing only that it might be permissible to gaze on it “a little while,” Frost comes closer to accepting thought as a valid path, granting that “his gains in heaven are what they are.”


Yeats’s reference to “tender eyes” bring to mind the biblical description of Jacob’s first wife Leah — who, for Dante and others, represents the active life, as contrasted with the contemplative life personified by Rachel. (I don’t pretend to understand the biblical grounds for these associations — Martha and Mary would seem to be much more natural symbols — but this symbolic use of Leah and Rachel is nevertheless well-established, and Yeats would have known about it.) Dante obviously consider’s Rachel’s to be the higher path, though Leah’s is also valid (he explicitly says as much in the Convivio) — but he depicts Rachel as gazing continuously on her own face in a glass, while Leah gathers flowers! Is this another conscious allusion by Yeats — and does he, contra Dante, prefer Leah’s way to Rachel’s?

But perhaps there is meant to be something of both Leah and Rachel in each of the trees — the “tender eyes” appear in both stanzas, after all. The active life appears as direct, concrete engagement with the world in the first stanza; and as the unresting pursuit of fultilities in the second. And two different forms of contemplation — gazing in one’s own heart versus gazing in the bitter glass — of course form the central contrast of the poem.

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Sexual self-control: the ideal way to build willpower

Willpower can be strengthened with practice. (See this post and the comments.) The problem is that, if you practice any particular thing for long enough, it becomes an automatic habit, willpower is out of the picture, and it becomes useless as a strength-building exercise.

The only willed practices that can never become fully habitual, the only ones which will always require the exercise of the will to some degree, are those that flout our deepest natural instincts — those pertaining most directly to the evolutionary non-negotiables of survival and reproduction. As Hamlet says — emphasis added — “Use almost can change the stamp of nature.”

On the survival-related side, we have such practices as fasting and self-flagellation. The problem with these is that, well, they’re survival-related. You can only go so far with them before they lead to injury or death. No one this side of sainthood can actually fast for 40 days and 40 nights.

That leaves sexual lust as the most promising punching-bag on which to build one’s willpower muscles. Like our survival instincts, it’s not going to go away — you won’t just “get over” it as you might get over a desire to smoke or play video games — but unlike them, it can be safely flouted without risk of injury or death. And, aside from its effects on willpower, sexual self-control is a good thing to develop in its own right — something positively healthy, unlike fasting or self-flagellation.

And, given the sex-saturated nature of modern culture, most people aren’t even going to have to do anything very extreme in the lust-control department to find their willpower severely tested (and thus strengthened). As an indicator of just how crazy the current situation is, a 2009 study of the effects of Internet pornography ran into problems when the researchers were unable to find anyone at all to put in the control group! For most 21st-century men, even bringing their sexual behavior up to the level of the average caveman would be a major accomplishment.

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Dream experiment postmortem

A couple of years ago I attempted to duplicate the “experiment with time” described in J. W. Dunne’s book of that title. The experiment involves keeping detailed records of one’s dreams for a period of time and noting any resemblances between dream events and waking events which occurred shortly before or shortly after the dream in question. The higher the ratio P:F (the number of past resemblances to future resemblances), the stronger the evidence that apparently precognitive dreams are mere coincidences; the lower the ratio, the stronger the evidence that dream precognition is just as real as dream retrospection.

I posted the dream records I kept during the experiment at Relatively few of my dreams turned out to be discernibly connected to specific past or future events, and none of the resemblances I did notice were sufficiently strong to be truly compelling. Of the 23 dreams I recorded (or 23 nights’ worth of dreams, rather; I made no attempt to separate a given night’s dreaming into distinct dreams), 8 exhibited resemblances to specific past events (6 weak, 2 moderate), and 5 resembled specific future events (3 weak, 2 moderate). Thus my experiment would seem to be consistent with Dunne’s thesis that dreams are constructed from a roughly equal mixture of past and future components. (If all future resemblances were coincidental, we would expect past resemblances to outnumber them by at least an order of magnitude). However, the small number of resemblances noted, together with their overall weak quality, means that my experiment cannot be regarded as conclusive either way.


Apparently I am not a “good” dreamer in the sense that the experiment requires. That is, the raw materials from which my dreams are constructed tend to be integrated to a degree that it becomes difficult to identify the specific experiences on which the dreams are based. Dunne touches on this in his appendix to the third edition of An Experiment with Time.

It is a commonplace of psychology . . . that most structures of the imagination are ‘integration’ — blends of several images associated with several different waking impressions. And it is accepted generally that dream-images are mostly of the same character — certainly, it is very rarely that one comes upon one of these exhibiting an unmixed, photographic resemblance to any scene of waking life. Now, the possibility of discovering in one of these composite structures an element distinctive enough to be recognizable as pertaining to a chronologically definite incident of waking life depends, mainly, upon what may be described as the coarseness of the blending. The more intricate — the more fine-grained — is the integration, the more difficult becomes its analysis. And, with practice in constructing dream-images, just as with practice in waking imagery, the integrations become more fine-grained, more beautifully blended, and, so, less easy to associate with any chronologically distinctive waking incident, past or future (p. 137, Hampton Roads reprint).

I suppose I ought to be pleased that my dreams are so “fine-grained” and “beautifully blended” — that my dreaming self exhibits a high degree of creativity (in the Einsteinian sense of knowing how to hide your sources) — but mostly I am disappointed at my inability so far to evaluate Dunne’s thesis conclusively from my own experience.

Individuals apparently vary widely in the relative “coarseness” of their dreams. In an experiment involving six Oxford students, one of the subjects recorded 21 dreams, of which 18 resembled waking incidents, 6 of those resemblances being judged “good” or strong. Another recorded 16 dreams without finding a single resemblance of any value. It is my bad fortune to be closer to the latter end of the scale.

Another factor may be the regular — not to say boring — character of my day-to-day life, which would reduce the chance that anything in a dream would resemble a distinctive waking event belonging clearly to either the future or the past. Not wanting to burden a holiday with the troublesome task of keeping daily dream records, I ignored Dunne’s advice to carry out the experiment during a break from one’s usual routine — preferably during a vacation in an unfamiliar locale — and instead conducted it during a perfectly ordinary period of time. I shall probably be going to Australia next year for the first time, and may attempt a second experiment during that trip.


Some months after the end of my experiment, I did finally have a dream which bore a conclusively strong resemblance to a specific future event.

In my dream, I had the idea that I ought to write a book entitled Pineapples and Apple Pies. It would be an English textbook for use in Taiwan. The title was perfect because it illustrated the rules of compound formation in English: pineapple and apple pie were made up of the same two components (sic) but in a different order; also, pineapple was written as a single word with the stress on the first element, while apple pie was written as two with the stress on the second. I was delighted to have discovered two such common words which were thus related — much more natural than such strained pairs as songbird-birdsong and housecat-cathouse. As an added bonus, a pineapple was something typical of Taiwan, while an apple pie was a well-known symbol of America. (Upon waking, I naturally realized that the elements of the two compounds were not identical after all, that pine and pie were not the same.)

The day after the dream, I was teaching E., a child whom I tutor privately. At each of our sessions, he has to sign a record sheet, and, with a young child’s normal love of nonsense, he often writes a random word or two (often ghost or pig) on the paper after signing his name. This time, the random “word” he wrote was — applepine. When I said, “Applepine? What’s that?” he said, “You know, like pineapple but the other way!” Of course I had never in my life encountered the “word” applepine before, and the odds of running into it by chance the day after my dream are effectively zero. In fact, E.’s choice of that word is so bizarre and unaccountable that I’m almost more inclined to consider it evidence of mind-reading on his part than of precognition on mine.

Unfortunately, even this does not really count as conclusive evidence, since it occurred outside the formal experiment. The key thing is the ratio of clearly precognitive dreams to clearly retrospective ones, and I wasn’t keeping any records of the latter at the time. However, it did serve to keep me interested in the question, and I shall probably conduct further experiments in the future.


Dunne also describes similar experiments in waking precognition, something I may try in the future, since my dreams seem to be of such poor quality, and since I have experienced some success with waking precognition in the past, before I ever encountered Dunne’s ideas. The following is taken from an email I wrote to a family member.

Here’s an experiment you can try. Go somewhere dark, roll your eyes up and to the side like people do when they’re trying to remember something, and “try to get something.” Just try to pick something up, like tuning a radio — easier done than explained. When I tried this, the first thing I “got” was the nonsense words “wudder-wudder-wudderfly” followed by a rapid succession of mental images: a green parrot viewed in profile; a short, wide, yellow tin; and something else which I no longer remember. Hours later, at work, one of my coworkers who had just come back from abroad (the Philippines, if memory serves) gave me some snack food from that country — in a package decorated with a green parrot in profile. Another colleague, a Japanese teacher, was doing some sort of cooking activity with her students and has brought some kind of Japanese bean paste or something in a yellow tin like the one I had seen. I can’t remember now what the third image was — this was years ago — but it also “came true.” (Nothing came of “wudder-wudder-wudderfly,” though.) I haven’t tried that particular exercise again — partly because I didn’t know what I was “tuning in” to and it seemed a little creepy, and partly because I didn’t want to ruin the magic by trying it again and not getting anything.

Given that, against the background of Dunne’s theories, precognition no longer seems “creepy” to me, I may try an organized experiment in waking precognition in the near future. Of course it will be impossible to calculate a ratio of precognitive to retrospective images, but if the results are sufficiently striking they may be conclusive anyway.


Filed under Anecdotes, Dreams, Precognition / Prophecy

Wintrobe on the Soviet Union

Looking through some old notes, I found these passages from Ronald Wintrobe’s book The Political Economy of Dictatorship. I think he offers a very clear explanation of why the history of the Soviet Union unfolded as it did.

These considerations reveal the basic contradiction of Communist rule. The ideological basis of communism is solidarity. In order to promote that solidarity, markets and private ownership are suppressed. But in order to make the system work, it has to function as a bureaucracy that is under political control. But in any bureaucratic system, vertical control is paramount, and solidarity among the work force interrupts this control and lowers output and productivity. This result is especially likely when the whole society is organized as a single bureaucratic system, such as in the former Soviet Union and other Communist countries. The more the system operated as any bureaucracy must, the more the contradiction between its reality and its promises, as embedded in its ideology, became apparent (p. 214).


[T]he classic Soviet system, like any bureaucracy, did not run primarily on orders or commands but on exchange. The basic difference between a bureaucratic and a market system is that exchanges within bureaucracy are based not on laws but on trust or loyalty. Under communism, loyalty to the Party combined with the Party’s capacity to repress opposition became the source of its power. Consequently, when the Party was strong, either because it was ruthless in its use of repression or because it was believed to be capable of fulfilling its promises, the system was capable of good economic performance. The fundamental prediction of this model is therefore that in a Soviet-style system, there is a positive correlation between the power of the Party and measures of economic performance such as economic growth.

The basic problem with such a system as an economic system lie in the conditions for running any large bureaucracy efficiently; bureaucracies require vertical or hierarchical loyalty and not horizontal solidarity among co-workers, which can be used to escape Party control and therefore tend to lower productivity. In turn, this implies that there is a fundamental contradiction between the promises of communism — essentially, equality and solidarity — and efficiency. . . . over time, this contradiction became more and more apparent, and the system could only maintain itself, Stalin-style, through the use of the purge and other techniques for breaking up the horizontal networks and other nonsanctioned alliances which tended to grow up within it (p. 217).


The central problem of any bureaucratic system . . . is that over time, horizontal trust (as well as vertical trust) tends to accumulate and the accumulation of horizontal trust is ultimately very damaging to the efficiency of the system from the point of view of the leaders. We would predict that this problem was particularly acute in the Soviet system, with the intertwining of the Communist party and the state, as well as the consequent absence of an institutionalized takeover mechanism (such as general elections in politics or hostile takeovers in business) or any other mechanism which could “shake up” the loyalties which tend to accumulate within such a system. Consequently, the only weapon available for this purpose was the purge (p. 225).

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Support Card; boycott Superman

In case you haven’t heard, Orson Scott Card, a writer I like and admire, is being targeted by a sort of self-appointed House Un-Homosexual Activities Committee, which has succeeded in pressuring DC Comics to drop Card’s contribution from an upcoming Superman anthology.

Card’s views on sexuality, whether or not you happen to agree with them, are reasonable, humane, and — until approximately five minutes ago — thoroughly mainstream. The attempt to hound him out of the job market because of them is evil.

I’m aware that the people at DC aren’t the real villains here, that they’re “just following orders” from the McCarthyite canaille. Nevertheless, you can’t boycott a mob; and DC, as the brand that represents Superman, does have something of an obligation to stand for truth, justice, and the American way. I am therefore boycotting the company (I don’t read comic books anyway, but I had been planning to see the upcoming Man of Steel movie; not anymore) and encourage others to do the same.

(Thanks to John C. Wright for bringing this to my attention.)


Filed under Politics

McDermott’s Aquinas

I’ve been reading Timothy McDermott’s Aquinas anthology (Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings. Oxford University Press, 1993). Overall I recommend it, though with reservations.

Aquinas will often begin a discussion with a numbered list of questions and then, many pages later, refer back to these by their numbers alone, requiring the reader to flip back through the book trying to find where exactly Aquinas said what “the fourth question” was. (This annoying feature of St. Thomas’s style makes any attempt to read his work on an e-reader an exercise in futility, as I know from experience. Actual pages to flip are a must.) McDermott ameliorates this considerably with bracketed additions to the text. For example:

[Article 7] The seventh question [Does the goal determine the kind more specifically than the object, or vice versa?] we approach as follows: . . . (p. 352, brackets and boldface in the original).

It’s hard to overstate how much more enjoyable such little touches make the reading experience.

Another plus of McDermott’s translation is that he is not a slave to etymology, as so many Aquinas translators apparently are. Just because the original Latin uses the word accidens, for example, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the best English translation is accident — a word which no longer means in modern English what it meant to Aquinas — so McDermott opts for incidental properties instead. This often makes Aquinas’s meaning much more transparent. One downside, though, is that most other Aquinas translators are slaves to etymology, so someone who reads only this translation will not learn the etymologically correct technical terms (such as accident) which most English-speakers use when discussing Aquinas. A translator’s note at the beginning of one of the passages highlights the sort of confusion that may arise:

Deliberately, ‘condition’ translates dispositio, ‘disposition’ habitus, and ‘habit’ and ‘custom’ consuetudo. ‘Moderation’ and ‘courage’ translate temperantia and fortitudo; ‘deiform virtue’ translates virtus theologica.

This is obviously bound to lead to misunderstanding when the reader attempts to discuss this passage with someone who has learned the more etymologically conventional technical meanings of disposition and habit. And, while many people have heard of the “theological virtues” — faith, hope, and charity — no one who hasn’t read McDermott is going to know what you’re talking about if you start throwing around the word deiform.

McDermott, however, is evidently sensitive to these possible sources of confusion, which is why he includes several helpful “notes on the translation” like the one quoted above. The index also includes the original Latin in parentheses for certain key terms. All in all, his approach is perhaps an acceptable compromise between clarity and “backward compatibility” with other translations.

One slightly annoying feature of the translation is McDermott’s insistence of referring to Muslim scholars by their original Arabic names, using Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sīnā in place of the more familiar Averroës and Avicenna. — the equivalent of insisting on calling Confucius Kǒngzǐ. Since the Latinized names are of course the ones Aquinas used, and are also the ones that modern English-speakers will be familiar with, it’s hard to justify translating them back into Arabic, and I have to assume he did so for political (not to say politically correct) reasons.

More grating is McDermott’s decision to “translate” Dionysius as Pseudo-Dionysius — ridiculous, since, whatever modern scholarship may have to say about it, Aquinas believed he was quoting the actual Dionysius the Areopagite, the disciple of Paul, and he referred to him as such. McDermott’s anachronistic rendition is the equivalent of translating Romans 10:16 as “For Deutero-Isaiah saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?”

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Lux et Veritas: A hypothesis

This post deals with aspects of Mormonism which Mormons normally prefer not to discuss publicly, though I try to be tactful and do not violate any specific oaths of non-disclosure. If that bothers you, don’t read the post.

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Synchronicity: My birthday

I was born on the Ides — that is, the 15th — of March. (I’ve been told that my grandfather, who died shortly before I was born and whose name I bear, used to say “Beware the Ides of March!” sometimes for no apparent reason, though my father does not remember this.)

Today — my birthday — my wife and I were working in our study. She was preparing for a class with a junior high school student she tutors, looking at a handout from the student’s English teacher at school. She found the following example sentences on the handout and had to show them to me:


“It’s March 16th. It was my birthday yesterday.” The fact that the handout (photocopied from a grammar textbook) just happened to use my birthday as an example would have been coincidence enough — but on top of that it was actually on my birthday that we happened to read it!

But the coincidences don’t stop there. Wanting to give her student some additional material to practice, she asked me if I had any grammar books that covered the same topic. I got out an old grammar book I’d bought some 10 years ago in America and turned to the relevant unit. Here’s what I found:


“Is it the fifteenth today? ~ No, the sixteenth.” The same two dates that had been used as an example on the other handout!

I guess the synchronicity would have been more perfect if this had all happened tomorrow rather than today — but it’s still quite striking enough to be almost creepy.


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Aquinas’s argument from distinction

Reading Aquinas, I’ve found another argument for the existence of God to add to my list:

The distinctions between things can’t result from chance since they are stably ordered; so they must result from some causal tendency. But not that of a cause acting by necessity of its nature, for nature is determined to one course, and so nothing that acts by necessity of its nature can intend distinction of things as such. So their distinction must result from the intention of a knowing cause; the consideration of distinction seems to be intellect’s prerogative, and Anaxagoras attributed distinction to intellect. But the universal distinction of things can’t result from some secondary cause’s intention, since all such causes are themselves part of the universe of distinct causes. So there must exist a first cause [i.e. God] — as such distinguished from all others — intending the distinction of all things.

— Summa contra Gentiles, 1.50 (McDermott translation)

I’ll comment on this line of argument later, since at this point I am only able to understand it in a very shallow manner, but it seems worth pursuing, and I think it ties into some of my recent epiphanies on the subject of agency.

I am interested in this mainly as an argument for the existence of God, but the secondary conclusion (actually the primary one in the context of the larger text), that God intends the distinction of all things, is also striking. Seijio Arakawa makes a similar point in his Brief Experimental Theology of Heaven and Earth:

The purpose of Earthly human existence (or, at least, the aim to which Earthly existence has been repurposed after the Fall) is not only to produce a number of saved individuals; it is to produce an unimaginable variety of them. (Otherwise, we would have to believe that human variations are always a product of sin or corruption, or at best irrelevant; such a belief certainly interferes with the commandment to love thy neighbour.)

The idea that distinction as such is good and is intended by God could be seen as one of the main things that differentiates Western religion from Eastern.

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