Occam’s bludgeon

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the nature of time and space from the perspective of physics, and I cannot help thinking of the drunk looking for his car keys under a streetlamp. Asked by a passerby where he last saw them, he replies, “In that dark alley.”

“Really?” asks the bystander. “Then why are you looking here?”

“Because the light’s better!”

To a physicist, mathematics is the light. It is the hammer for which all problems resemble a nail. It is the hail and farewell of a journey not taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware and appreciative of the power of mathematics.  Without it, I couldn’t be “writing” this post — tapping on plastic bumps, confident that not only will the resultant deviations of light on an entirely separate slab in front of me configure themselves to reflect my thoughts, but also send mysterious invisible waves into the night so that you can see those same squiggles on your slab.  But the formulas that describe these processes are not identical to the processes themselves, as phenomena in the real world.  They are models, or

… task-driven, purposeful simplification[s] and abstraction[s] of a perception of reality … [emphasis mine]

In other words, take out all the messy, inconvenient bits and see if you can’t come up with something useful.  There have been powerful models of reality throughout history that have enabled marvelous results, and that we have since decided are inaccurate.  I need only mention shamanism and acupuncture.  And even physicists, despite all their rhapsodizing about mathematics, still can’t make all their theories play well with each other without imaginative gymnastics.

Mathematical models are by far the most universal and fruitful of these, but are they real, in the sense that the universe works that way a priori?  Not according to Raymond Tallis:

The mathematics of light does not get anywhere near the experience of yellow, nor does the mathematical description of patterns of nerve impulses reach pain itself. This is sometimes seen as evidence that neither the colour nor the pain are really real – although it might be difficult to sell this claim to the man looking at a daffodil or a woman with toothache.

I have no quibble with the idea that models, mathematical or otherwise, are indispensable for our understanding of the real world, but physicists have been insisting that they are the real world.  They cite Occam’s Razor, the axiom that the simplest explanation is always not only the most likely to be true, but is actually true.

Ironically, William of Occam, the late medieval monk for whom this principle is named, did not believe in the existence of universal laws of nature.  Humans, he thought, had made them all up for convenience.

Go figure.



What does it mean when someone says they are humbled by an experience?  Taken literally, it would mean they are made to feel more humble, which is to say less proud.  And yet, I would venture to say that most of us have never heard anyone use the expression in a context in which that makes sense, inasmuch it is almost universally used  on the occasion of receiving  an award. Usually, the humbling is accompanied by an expression of pride and gratitude.  The higher the honor, apparently, the more humbling the experience and the greater the pride.

There is only one sense in which winning an award can be a truly humbling experience, and that is if it is undeserved.  Do you feel that your accomplishments are trivial compared to the work of other recipients?  Was the award completely unexpected because you think of yourself as just getting the job done in a workmanlike way, nothing special?  Do you feel that if the award committee looked back over your record they’d have to reconsider choosing to honor you?  Is the contribution of others unfairly minimized by their exclusion?

These are all perfectly normal reactions, whether valid or not.  They are also utterly inconsistent with pride, and the kind of gratitude that would be appropriate in this context smacks of favoritism and ulterior motivation.

If you truly feel humbled, the most honorable thing to do is to turn down the award and explain your reasons.  If, after mulling things over, you decide you deserve the award after all, accept it with grace and pride, never mind the false humility.  If you still feel the award is undeserved, but it would create awkwardness for the committee to turn it down, well, you’re in a fine pickle, aren’t you?

It’s ironic, to say the least, that when someone actually does turn down an award, they are almost always criticized for being too full of themselves.

In truth, I suspect that most of the time it is simply formulaic, the right thing to say in the same way that people say “pleased to meet you,” or “sorry for your loss.”

But I can’t help it.  It’s my duty as a curmudgeon to harp on these things.



The myth of The People

So much of politics is sheer romanticism.  With the exception of the cadre of professional cynics who actually run things, we all willingly blind ourselves to reality.  Of the true, died-in-the-wool ideologues, this is so obvious as to merit barely a mention, but it’s no less true of the vast majority of the rest of us as well.  Those on the right imagine themselves as hard-bitten realists. on the left as compassionate champions of the disadvantaged.  The vast “middle,” which is not really between any of the alternatives, but simply uncommitted to either of the major parties, sees itself as a last bastion of reasoned judgment, too smart to buy into the programs of the ideologues.  Never mind that any consistency with regard to policy has long been abandoned by all concerned.

What is fascinating is that all sides regard themselves as typical of The People, and claim to speak for them, or at least on their behalf.  This belief is resistant to any attempt at refutation, even scientifically conducted polls which clearly demonstrate otherwise.  The only time attention is paid to a poll is when it corroborates the affiliation of a party with The People on some particular issue.  Otherwise, it’s “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” to quote a meme attributed to virtually any famous person sufficiently dead to forestall denial.  It’s really a symptom of our hog-wild, post-modern ultrarelativism, on which I have droned sufficiently elsewhere, I believe.

In this case, however, that relativism is grafted onto some time honored political tropes, ready made for bandying about when necessary to muddle things up.  It has long been noted that when someone dies, what the dear departed would have wanted coincides marvelously with what the survivors want.  Frequently, people claim that they are not really fighting over who gets the Rolex, but over what Dad would have wanted.  So, too, in politics, it’s never about whose agenda gets advanced, but what The People want.  And so we get the spectacle of Ted Cruz, in the face of poll after poll showing the majority disapproved of the government shutdown, swearing he was in it to do The Will of The People.

The left doesn’t get a pass on this account either.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard socialists go on and on about The People’s this or The People’s that, oblivious to the fact that most Americans would disagree.  Props to Lenin, for openly admitting to his 3% constituency.

This is not to pass judgment on any particular program or policy; just the pretense about representing people you don’t.

The People, capitalized, almost never coincides with the people, lower case.

Ringo, God, and art

Ringo Starr, it seems, got up in the middle of the night to feverishly write down the lyrics to “Back Off Boogaloo.”  He even attributed the inspiration to God.  It just goes to show you the bankruptcy of the whole idea of the artist interview.  It’s like interviewing an athlete following the big game.

“Tell us about that homer, Biff.”

“Well, you know, it was a hanging curve ball, and I saw it real good, and just took it the other way.”

Thanks, Biff.  That cleared up a lot of questions about baseball, and life itself.

It’s easy enough to understand that athletes might not be able to articulate exactly what was involved in a spectacular performance; they may not be aware of it themselves.  They might think it had to do with wearing their hats backwards, or eating only broccoli the night before.  It’s the classic distinction between knowing how and knowing what.  But you’d think it would be different with artists.  You’d think artists would start out with something specific in mind, make decisions about how best to convey whatever it was to their audience, and proceed according to some rational plan.  And they do.  Sort of.

“Tell us about that painting, Jackson.”

“Well, you know, the paint was real wet, and I saw the fan, and just spilled it over the canvas.”

That may be what we want to hear from Biff, but it won’t do from Jackson.  Why?

Because we think Jackson Pollock’s painting has some meaning, some value, beyond its physical self, even beyond its immediate context the way the homer does in the baseball game, even if that meaning is just a deeper realization that there is no deeper meaning (Oh, yeah, admit it, we do think like that).  Or at least we hope it has.  And so does the artist, and that’s the problem.  Because everybody’s invested in this idea that something not superficially apparent is going on with the painting/poem/song, we feel it needs explaining, in case some of us may have missed something, and who better than the person who created it.

Except the person who created it is not necessarily the best source.  The main reason for this is that great Freudian frontier, the subconscious mind.  Because of the way our silly brains work, what we’re trying to say is often not exactly what we think we’re trying to say; it could even be the polar opposite.  It’s the infamous Freudian slip, and art is its Baby Huey, the great bouncing 200 pound infant crashing through all the fine china we’ve so carefully laid out for the guests.  Ringo’s God turns out to be his own damn self after all, but not the self he’s used to playing with in public.

Unfortunately, it’s not much help when the artist being interviewed is a bit more self-aware.  Robbie Robertson , referring to writing The Weight, gives an excellent description of the subconscious process:

“I was just gathering images and names, and ideas and rhythms, and I was storing all of these things … in my mind somewhere. And when it was time to sit down and write songs, when I reached into the attic to see what I was gonna write about, that’s what was there.”

But what did the song actually mean?  Well, ahem, symbolic… blahh… Buñuel… surrealism.. that is, ahem..  Not sure, exactly.  It does mean something, but asking the artist isn’t much help, and in this case, at least, he’s up front about it.  At least he doesn’t insist it’s about a bender in Buzzard’s Butt, Arkansas, when everyone else is insisting it’s about the ultimate futility of human existence or something, or vice versa.  Not that it might not be both of those things, denials, affirmations, and ambiguities notwithstanding.  It’s all complicated, you see, by the fact that, once a work of art is released into the wild, it means anything anyone wants it to mean.  Ultimately, art is feral by nature, and there’s no getting around that.  Ask Frank Stella about St. Louis, Mo, and the Grand Pissoir.

Of course, there could very well be a real meaning, in the sense of something that motivated the work, whether that something was understood by the artist or not.  My own poetry is sometimes explained to me in ways I never imagined while making it, but which are entirely plausible to me on reflection.  It’s this ambiguity which is at the same time so enticing and so frustrating.  It’s not that there’s not a real meaning, it’s that there can be several real meanings, even contradictory ones.

If art were unambiguous, who would need it?  We already have sport.  Biff is never going to insist, “Homer?  That was a sac fly!  I hit the damn thing, and I don’t care how many idiots think it’s a homer!”


Harris leaned over the little sculpture and scrutinized it carefully, looking at it from every angle.  It was a rather crude representation of a bald fat man, scowling as he wielded an oddly balanced sword.

“Eastern in what sense?” he said.

“Well, you know, martial arts, zen, that kind of stuff.”

Ah,” he said, straightening up.  “Eastern in the sense of anything but.”

A thing ain’t haiku
Necessarily because
Of the right numbers