LinkFest 2016-04-30

Titan's Great Lakes Appear to be Filled with Clear, Colorless Methane

Hopefully we will be up to the task if any life is found on the moons of other planets.

Why is Reaction Taboo?

Any treatment of the rising right in either America or Europe needs to take a good hard look at Tradition, the only twentieth century ideology that hasn't yet captured a state. Tradition shouldn't be confused with traditionalism, which is more an attitude or a disposition. Tradition is a gnostic political movement best described thus:

While there are groups that promote one or more aspects of the Politica Hermetica, there is no great conspiracy behind it. René Guénon called it "Tradition," which comes close enough, though even that exaggerates its coherence. In any case, it is a mode of thought that political science tends to overlook. It is characterized by self-appointed elites who represent a cause rather than human constituents. This implicit devotion to hierarchy, however, coexists with a tactical anarchism. This is the world of "direct action" anarchists, but it is not confined to them. No doubt we have all met "conservatives" who would not leave one stone of the modern world standing on another. Their loyalty is not to this world, but to a transcendent realm. If they are conventionally religious, they adhere to some ineffable orthodoxy that excludes most of their nominal co-religionists. To some extent, this is just a matter of personality type. Still, when we find such people, I suspect we will often find some direct ideological influence from writers associated with Tradition or the Conservative Revolution.

No Great Technological Stagnation

This is very much like a post I have been meaning to write for years. Technologically, the West continues to progress. This is readily seen by looking at any kind of data you would like. Water usage, fuel efficiency, infectious disease, food produced per acre, et cetera. Yet, the idea of a great stagnation is widely believed. I think the problem is cultural and political, rather than technological, so this doesn't surprise me.

Are History's Greatest Philosophers All That Great?

This is something I have wondered about too: is the outsized impact of certain figures on intellectual history an artifact of when they lived? Unlike the author of this piece, I have come to the conclusion that the answer is mostly, but not wholly, no. Primarily, this is because I think historical figures like Aristotle and Aquinas are just as brilliant as their reputations.

Lewis makes a statistical argument that if we assume that intellectual ability is largely innate, and has a significant element of randomness in it, then we should expect some level of proportionality in the numbers of great intellects in any population. All else being equal, a bigger population produces more people at or above any given level of ability than a smaller one. Anatoly Karlin made a similar argument with more explicit math in December of last year.

This is an argument whose broad lines I am rather sympathetic to, but I think Lewis is missing a lot of relevant detail. For example, at the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the Ionian Greeks were considered rather clever, far more so than anyone living nearby. This implies an average difference in ability for the Ionian Greeks, which makes the foundations of Lewis's argument fall apart.

On a slightly different tack of individual ability, Thomas Aquinas, for example was seen as exceptionally bright by his contemporaries. At university, his classmates had a hard time keeping up with him. Since Aquinas is more recent, we know a fair bit about what people wrote down about him during his lifetime. When the judgment of history and the impressions a man made in life correspond so well, I am inclined to believe them.

Finally, my personal impression from studying philosophy by reading the texts of Aristotle and Aquinas is that these men were both exceptionally bright, and exceptionally broad of mind. It is not an uncommon experience for a student of philosophy to be amazed upon first encountering the texts themselves, rather that modern summaries or glossaries. The originals are so clear and precise that the difference in quality is immediately apparent.

Thus, I find the idea that Aristotle or Plato might struggle to compete in modern intellectual life kind of silly.

Book Review: Albion's Seed

Scott Alexander reviews Albion's Seed. This is an interesting book, especially if you don't try to make too much of it.