Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Doctor Justice names the penguins

[Prefatory remarks:
In this space, we intend, favente deo, to begin a quest of world-historical import:  the Naming of the Penguins.   The project is to appear in installments.  To prepare yourselves, read (or re-read),  L’Ile des pingouins, by Anatole France.]

(1) We read in Scripture, how that Adam did name the beasts:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field ..

Further research reveals, however, that our Original Parent did not name each beast individually, but only by kind:   Behold, these are the lions, these the lambs;  these the hawks and kites and crows … 
Thus, much work remains to be done.  And as a linear descendant of Adam (on my mother’s side -- father’s too, in fact), I feel it is incumbent to me to take up this cross.

Where to begin?   Well, more numerous than all the beasts of the field, are the Penguins, of pure repute:

Appellavitque Adam nominibus suis cuncta animantia

Accordingly, all the penguins of Antarctica have lined up single-file, and are passing patiently beneath my hand, as I sain each one, and give each one its name before God.

“Fluffy; Chubby; Tumtums; Blackie; Whitey; Roly-poly; Poly-Roly …”

As of press-time, Dr Justice has individually named eighty thousand penguins; just five million more to go.

(2)  [Update, 28 April 2017]

Five hundred thousand and counting:

“….  Fishsnitcher, Egghuddler, Iceberg Bertie, Lollybop,
 Antarctic Archie, Austrobird,  Gus the Glacier Guy, Snowmelt…”

Te baptizo, Nitide !

(3)  Philosophical interlude;  for there is more at stake here than Biblical fulfilment.

The problem of the reality of Universals, or Natural Kinds, goes back to the ancient Greeks, and has been a live topic for philosophers all through the Middle Ages (under the rubrics of Realism vs. Nominalism), down to the present day (by which time the enriched apparatus of set theory and quantification  were lending additional spice to the debate).  The Nominalist denies the real, discourse-independent existence of these abstract demi-entities, these being, for him, a mere conversational convenience, a façon de parler, with no ontological standing.  Thus, for such thinkers, there is not really any such thing as Penguinhood, or Penguinkind, or Penguinity, but only the individual penguins themselves;  namely: ….
And here he falls silent;  for he has no names for all these many, many penguins.  In fact, many a Nominalist  can scarcely tell one penguin from another.  -- Singeing in defeat, ears burning, the Nominalist slinks from the stoa in humiliation,
while the Realist (tall, serene, admired by maidens) stands with folded arms.

But that were a victory cheaply won;  we disdain such “victory by forfeit”.   No, our support for Universals lies deeper than that;  and with stout spirit, we shall give hostages to our adversaries, and name the little featherballs ourselves.

   “….Bunchkins,  Slippyswimmer, Bellyboggan,  Sprinx…”

For all his carping at universals,
Occam himself never managed to name
so much as a single penguin.

(4)  Patiently, patiently, the penguins file by, each in its turn, to receive the unimagined, the unimaginable blessing.

They always do look as though they have been waiting for something, some thing they know not what, from the beginning of incalculable antarctic time, as they huddle together, helplessly, against the blizzards, the knifing winds.

And now, at last, some thing, some one  has come, attending to them, dispensing they know not quite what, but which they receive with stoic acceptance, and perhaps -- who knows -- the beginnings of a glimmering of understanding.

“…Lumpy, Stumpy,
     Dumpy, Frumpy,
  Immortal Diamond…”

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Happy World Penguin Day !!

On this, the most joyous of all secular holidays,
we join the planet in celebrating  World Penguin Day,
with a series of funposts


The singing, dancing throng

By coincidence, today Antarctica celebrates World Featherless Biped Day (that’s us).  Coincidence, because the celebration does not always fall on April 25;  as you might expect, penguins follow a lunar calendar.  In this they resemble the ancient Hebrews, of whom some reckon them to be a Lost Tribe.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Bard's Birthday

In honor of Shakespeare's birthday (many happy returns of the day to you, sir),
herewith a link to our obiter dicta concerning the man:

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Word of the Day: “Pigovian” (expanded)

[update of a note originally published  4 Dec 2012]

The lead item in this week’s New Yorker introduces (with considerable fanfare) a new word:  Pigovian, as the adjective derived from the name of an otherwise little-celebrated economist, one Pigou, who, many years ago, floated the idea (which had surely been floating of its own accord, for millennia) that if you make a mess, you should maybe chip in to the costs of cleaning it up.   The author of this “Talk” piece, Elizabeth Kolbert, is a frequent writer on climate-change matters, and her proposal is that the general public now embrace the designation of a carbon tax as “Pigovian”, in that it pays back some of the costs of global warming.
Now, it might well be imagined that the suggestion is superfluous, and that the notion already has a name:  nuisance tax.  Yet that phrase has already long been defined in an entirely unrelated sense:  not of a tax on nuisances, (the way a luxury tax is a tax on luxuries), but (apparently -- it is really not a happy coinage) a tax that is considered to be itself a nuisance (in that it is not large enough to qualify as a burden, say).  As Merriam-Webster © defines it:

an excise tax collected in small amounts on a wide range of commodities directly from the consumer

Yet, even did the old phrase nuisance tax mean what, syntagmatically, it ought to mean, there is an argument for using a more distinctive word for a category that is growing in importance, as ever-wider circles of citizens become alert to what economists have long called the tragedy of the commons.   For, once you have a word like Pigovian, entirely unburdened by other associations, you can readily extract it from the phrase Pigovian tax, and use elliptic derivata like “Pigovian considerations” or “counter-Pigovian” (where “counter-nuisance” here wouldn’t work at all, since it means the opposite of what “counter-Pigovian” would mean, i.e. ‘pro-nuisance’).  Such relationships between morphology and semantics are discussed in my book The Semantics of Form in Arabic, and form the core of the chapter “The Stokes Conjecture”.

[Update 23 April 2017]  This just in:  a Pigovian accord:

So!  Now for the morpho-phonological characteristics of this rather odd-looking word, Pigovian.   The base-form is pronounced pig-OO, yet the adjective comes out pig-OH-vee-an.  Why?

Unlike sturdy old Anglo-Saxon suffixes like -ness, -dom, -hood-, -kin-, or -ly, which allow themselves to be simply tacked-on at the end of a word, leaving all else as is, the Latin-derived -ian is a tyrant, demanding that the stress be moved to the immediately preceding syllable (if it wasn’t already there), and that its vowel (if not tense already) be tensed.  Thus:  Dickens (DIK-enz) vs. Dickensian (dik-ENZ-ee-an), and (with vowel-tensing) Jacob (JAY-kub) vs. Jacobian (ja-KOH-bee an).  (Thus the derivative is pronounced in the mathematical community. An unrelated adjective with a different suffix, Jacobean, relating to history and literature, is pronounced jak-ub-EE-an.)  And as a further impudent exigency, this tyrannical suffix spurns unmediated Anschluss onto a vowel, demanding rather a bridge-consonant -v-:  thus (Bernard) Shaw vs. Shavian (SHAY-vee-an, with both vowel-tensing and inserted bridge).   As well as (in a more roundabout fashion -- this one doesn’t really count) Warsaw vs. Varsovian (rhymes with Nabokovian).  It is thus that our poor unassuming Mr. Pigou (whom I picture rather as Mr. Magoo)) becomes, adjectivally, a roaring shouting syllable-rattling PIGOVIAN.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *

Note:  Strictly, the derivatum should have been Pigouvian, on the model of Peru :  Peruvian.  The word succumbed to the gravitational attracion of the plethora of words in -ovian (a productive category, given all the Slavic names in -ov/-off).  Further, why burden an already ungainly word with the stressed syllable GOO, as opposed to GO ?  This way, it gets to rhyme with a cool studly word like Jovian.

Footnote:  Something in our Teutonic blood  disdains such tricks.  Thus, instead of a morphological equivalent of Pigovian tax, German just says Pigou-steuer.  And rather than submit to the indignity of a  *Hemingwavian (hem-ing-WAY-vee-an), we go with a different suffix altogether, once that leaves vowels as they are and requires no bridge-consonant:  Hemingwayesque.    (Still not very dignified, though, as the suffix here hogs the main stress to itself, and tends to make you think of words like grotesque and burlesque.)

Compare and contrast  Babeuf => Babouvisme.

French in particular is pre-attuned to such vocalic ablaut  by the existence, side by side, of  locally-developed place-names, along with gentilés derived more transparently from the original Latin toponym.  As, Loire (from Latin Liger) => Ligérien.  Such transformations may be found even when the etymon is not Latin, as
   Aisne => Axonais
=> Rhodanien
   Reims => Rémois
and even such acrobatics as
   Seine-Saint-Denis => Séquanodionysien
Compare, in (British) English,  Cambridge => Cantabridgian.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Truth and Provability (expanded)

[A footnote to this.]

Trying to suss out the nature of Truth by staring straight at it  is like attempting heliology by staring at the Sun.   In both cases, more assimilable enlightenment  comes from the corona.

Thus the related but distinct notion of Provability. Gödel was the first to neatly delineate the two notions:  the Propositional Calculus is deductively complete (i.e., all truths may be derived via the defining rules of the system), whereas anything as robust as the integers is deductively incomplete :  one can, within that more expressive system, formulate statements that are true but (intra-systemically) unprovable .  Previously, the Formalists (Hilbert et al.) had seen provability as an analytic explanation of what is meant by ‘truth’ itself.
Pre-scientifically, and indeed theologically, we are not surprised that the two notions should not be equivalent (though of course we had no notion of the precision afforded by Gödel’s results).  Some things, existing from before we were born, and lasting ever after,  just are true;  why should they be logically derivable, or even humanly comprehensible?

~     ~     ~

There is a perhaps related notion within the philosophy of language:

(Intended-meaning : truth  ::  expression : provability)

Yet the very existence of our word ineffable, suggests that we at least entertain the possibility that this may not be so.

In the words of a Neothomist philosopher:

La communicabilité de la pensée  est un fait immense, incontestable  et elle n'est possible que par le langage;  mais tout suggère que, dans le langage, la pensée reste  par nature  essentiellement autre que son moyen de communication.
-- Etienne Gilson, Linguistique et philosophie (1969), p.  39

Taking this in a maximalist sense  would imply, not merely that certain thoughts are ineffable, but that no thought is quite equivalent to its verbal expression.

A further discussion of this topic may be consulted here:
The "idea" idea.


It is clear that we need a notion of truth independent (or partially independent) of provability (however vexed and vague that notion must necessarily be, without such buttress), else how to assess the validity of what purportedly is proved.   In the Awful Warning against dividing by zero, delivered to pupils in their tender years, the young scholars meet a Falsidical Paradox:  an impressive display of mathematical handwaving, purporting to show -- there it is on the blackboard, plain as day --  that zero is equal to one.  Yet even a lad in short-pants surely resists such demonstration, if only with an incoherent “Uh, no, it’s not.”

Compare the smoke and mirrors with which philosophers and neuroscientists demonstrate that consciousness is an illusion, and free will  a will-o’-the-wisp.  Equally we reply: “Uh, no, it’s not.”


Relativist conceptions of truth  are familiar.  As the Harvard philosopher wittily put it, mimicking the cant of the post-‘60’s undergraduates:

“You may not be coming from where I’m coming from, but I know relativism isn’t true for me.”
-- Hilary Putnam,  Reason, Truth, and History (1981), p. 119

Less familiar is a relativist conception of provability.   Here, Ernest Gellner comments on the position of fellow-philosopher Michael Oakeshott:

What is proof? -- he asks.  There is no such thing as proof in general, he answers himself.  There is only proof  persuasive for this, that, or the other kind of man.   Cogency of proof  is relative to what you are.  he notices that this does not seem to apply to mathematics, and brazenly comments that just this has always made him suspicious of mathematics.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 180

Actually Oakeshott  put his case too weakly:  varying standards of proof are relevant in mathematics -- indeed, it is only within mathematics  that such scruples have structure and are in point.   In pre-Cauchy/Weierstrass analysis, proof was a bit of a kludge.   Later on, Constructivist qualms  came into play.  And in our own day, we distinguish between theorems whose proof requires the (disputed) Axiom of Choice, from those that can dispense with it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Italian lesson for the day

Santa   Maria



[From: GKC, The Resurrection of Rome (1930).
Thus endeth today’s lesson.]

Monday, April 17, 2017

Word of the Day: “anti-parody”

A sterling literary-historian and lay theologian  writes:

The excellent lyric ‘All my lufe leif me not’ … belongs to a large class [of] ‘anti-parodies’ (if I may coin a most necessary word):  the conversion of popular and secular songs  to devout purposes.
-- C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1944), p. 112

To the man on the Clapham omnibus, this coinage  may not seem “most necessary”;  you require long schooling to harmonize with that need. 

The notion of anti-parody is in line with Lewis’s special use of baptize, whereby a natural (pagan) trait, such as love of nature  or appreciation for music, may be said to be “baptized”  once such feelings are viewed on a higher plane, from a Christian perspective.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Locked Room Mystery (redivivus ter)

The caterpillar   with shrivelled skin
in a tent of silk    was laid therein.

This crumpled thing,   shrunk like a shroud,
was laid in silk   white as a cloud.

The sons of men   stood round about
warding the worm   should not get out.

Three days they stood   with solemn face,
never eyes wavering   from that place.

Then did they open   that mute cocoon,
and stood amazed:   the worm was gone !

Then some believed   and some did doubt
how that the worm   could have got out.

Yet to the sky   in spiral rings
the new flew forth   on crystal wings.


[ For a tale of Paschal miracle:
Murphy Makes a Mitzvah ]


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Another Lewisian non-epigram

“There is no morality in Heaven.”
-- CSL, Letters to Malcolm

[baffling out of context, sensible within]

Friday, April 14, 2017


A Lewisian anti-epigram

Life is as habit-forming as cocaine.
-- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

On the face of it, that is a zinger, of no very clear meaning,  jejune and shallow.  From the pen of an Oscar Wilde, it would have been exactly that.
In fact, it is a serious statement, only incidentally somewhat epigrammatic.  It occurs during Lewis’s discussion of G.K.C.’s Manalive (the scene about dangling the God-mocker out the window).  It is one step in a complex argument which I shall not attempt to summarize.   It is thus an anti-epigram (the antiparticle of an epigram):  whereas an epigram, for what it’s worth, survives its loss of context, seeking only to glitter, CSL’s observation is rigorously contextual.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Trinity (triune unity -- re-renewed)

[In observance of Maundy Thursday,  a re-post  from yesteryear.]

I spend a fair amount of time in the company of Muslims these days;  indeed, at present, by an accident of the seating-chart, I probably spend more time in close propinquity with Muslims, than with Christians, Hindus, Jainists, Jews, and Zoroastrians combined.   (Lotta LDS, though.  Plus all that could change with the next re-org, as my next podmates might be Zoroastrians.)   [Update March 2017:  And now, in fact, our branch chief is a Zoroastrian.] There is an effort of good-will on both sides;  my Sunni neighbor points eagerly to passages in the Koran, where good things are promised to ‘believers’ (mu’miniin) rather than specifically ‘Muslims’ (muslimiin).  A kind-hearted man, he hopes to be with me in Paradise, and not to gaze down on me roasting in Hell.  (`Uqbaalak, ya shaykh.)

Now, we Christians know implicitly, that the doctrine of the Trinity is no polytheism:
that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are not at all like Apollo, Zeus, and Hera, say, but more like le père Dupont, at once father, and Frenchman, and fireman.   But to explain this to our Muslim friends, is difficult.   I often have to fall back on saying:  the Trinity is a Christian mystery; it may be true or false (in some transcendental sense of those categories), but it is no descendent, direct or indirect, of the sort of pagan polytheism which stuffed the Kaaba with idols, and peopled the trees with dryads, and Olympus with squabbling gods.  For us as for you, God Himself -- Allah -- Yahweh -- e’en He -- is indeed One.

Yet this unity by no means necessitates or logically entails, that there could be no parts at variance within the Godhead, even to dissension.  (Of course, their absence might be a truth of the Church, and thus beyond dispute;  I am speaking here only of logic, the only subject in which I have been ordained.)  How indeed could we ever know otherwise (save by some enigmatic Revelation)?  After all:  We are made in His image, and we ourselves are a bundle of contradictions;  and He contains us, as a proper part.  (Additionally, that Eloi, eloi passage would seem to point in that direction.)


C. S. Lewis saw rightly when he compared the notion of the Trinity (purely as regards its intellectual coherence, rather than anything theological) with the ‘separate’ faces of a cube -- which latter is, however, nothing more nor less than the sum of all of them.  (Indeed, if you were to go with a sort of ‘projective cube’, with antipodal faces identified, our new Cube (topologically a three-torus) would even consist of exactly three parts.)

The historian of physics D’Abro offers a similar parable, along the lines of Abbot’s Flatland (A. D’Abro, The Rise of the New Physics (1939), vol. II, p. 653), his quarry being however, not the Trinity, but the (in some ways similar) “wave-particle duality”:  or, as we might term it, the wave-particle identity.  He imagines our various perceptions of something we believe to be one entity, but which sometimes seems a triangle, and at others, a circle:  eventually we realize that it is a cone, seen now this way, now that.  And, regarding the separateness/unity of electricity and magnetism:

The theory of relativity brought about the fusion of the two aspects, no longer by utilizing the background of 3-dimensional space, but by introducing the more refined background of 4-dimensional space-time.   The underlying entity, the partial aspects of which are electric and magnetic, were found to be the 4-dimensional electromagnetic tensor  situated in space-time.
-- A. D’Abro, The Rise of the New Physics (1939), vol. II, p. 653

The Trinity, we may confide, whatever in its unknowable essence it may be, is at the very least as complex as a  tensor.


Pascal (Pensées, 1670 [posthum]), has a very odd passage, asserting the alienating nature of God’s complexity -- or perhaps not -plexity, but monolithicness :

S’il y a un Dieu, il est infiniment incompréhensible, puisque, n’ayant ni partie ni bornes, il n’a nul rapport à nous.  Nous sommes donc incapables de connaître  ni ce qu’il est, ni s’il est.

Ni s'il est ! -- A useful first step towards an antidote  might be to drop that assertion about God's lacking any parts.