Departments

Constructed languages

In life we are the servants of language. Words are all we leave behind us. Our relics are only significant by the names they receive. It is the so named Works of the Romans, not any work alone, that inspires wonder – and it is only the name Work which causes us to regard the aqueduct at Nîmes as more wonderful and more attention-worthy, more sympathetic, than any arch of weatherworn stone in Utah’s Zion. The name of Apelles the painter was a byword for excellence in his art for a thousand years after the last man who had seen his pictures was dead.

Language is all we have in common. What we make are only words; what we leave are only names. We were given, undeservingly, an intelligence equal to the span of the world in which we find ourselves; the side effect is that we each become our own world. Only the necessity of communication keeps us from regressing from one another into private languages. Therefore, what can be said in any language can always be said in another – because while not every thought can be communicated, if a thought can be communicated to anyone, it can be communicated to everyone.

Think of how strange it is, that only because you both speak the same language, you can communicate with someone separated from you by decades of age, by country and climate, by sex, by class, by way of life. And think how absurd it is, that someone of your own age, sharing your background and your circumstances, cannot communicate across that shorter distance, if you do not share a language.

It is possible to know things in one language which you do not know in another: not because they cannot be said in both, but because translation is a kind of alchemy, where solve must precede coagula. What you take in whole may not be accessible to you in another language, even if you speak them both, until you have taken it apart in one language, to put it back together in another.

There may be things you can only learn by creating a language: by the act of creation, or by the way the created language fills a gap. The world is not written in the language of mathematics, but in the language we have created for mathematics we have something that maps to nature’s language. But my concern for now is with languages created for pleasure, not for purpose.

In the canon of constructed languages, Tolkien is the Old Master. Much of the appeal of reading Tolkien is to discover things that he knew, in silvery Quenya and in Sindarin’s rushy breezes, that he did not quite know in English, and could not always translate. Indeed, On Fairy-Stories has the air of a poor translation from a patois of Elvish languages inside his head. And A Elbereth Gilthoniel silivren penna míriel teaches you something without having to see a translation at all; but you can feel that you know it, whatever it means, under branches screening stars.

Tolkien is sometimes derided as pseudo-Biblical in his diction; but this is simply wrong. The powerful cadence of the King James Version is imparted by a plangent alternation between etymologically disparate English synonyms – which, while it has its own majestic effect, misrepresents the straightforwardness of the original Hebrew. But Tolkien is etymologically almost pure: page after page, he goes on in a kind of alternate or underground English, the revenant language of Chaucer, the sleek hull of maiden-voyaging English before it was barnacled with borrowings from Latin and Greek.

This language – a constructed language of a sort, purely by selection – is, even before myth and archetype, the deepest source and means of his power. You do not need to be a linguist to feel the difference in the depth of Tolkien’s English, any more than you need to understand music theory to hear the sadness of a minor key.

Some purposes require their own languages. Mature poetry has its own grammar; vital religions employ their own dialects, even their own languages (and a wise missionary does not translate everything); and every profession must find its own jargon, to ennoble the commonplace or to make commonplace the extraordinary. And every language supports another, floating language, of idioms and proverbs – one which can sometimes be carried over whole into new waters, as Erasmus did in his Adagia, which restored to the Renaissance the floating language of antiquity.

Art, even mimetic art, is still only sometimes the recapitulation of a natural process. As often, artistry is the power to throw a natural process into reverse. A picture suggests a story; a title finds a poem; a stain on a wall evokes a picture. The constructor of a language only begins by finding, in the space between real languages, the pleasing or striking form of a new and unheard language. The art is to evolve, from this shadow, the succession of necessities making up the thinkable history that would have formed that language – that would have learned all that that language knows.

Internet or library

I.

Research on the Internet is a meal made of cake and caviar – you may enjoy it, but you cannot live on it. For food to live on, you must go to a library. Minds that live off the Internet acquire a distinctive flabbiness – the strange combination of diffidence in facts, with passionate certainty in politics.

The Internet changes the book’s proportion of data and information. It is very common, even the rule, for everything on the Internet on a topic – so many thousands of sites, gigabytes of data – to be drawn from the information in one book. A thousand sites may provide only so many tertiary paraphrases and plagiarisms of an original secondary source, itself an oversimplified popularization. How often does a search bring you only page after page all passing around the same unsourced statistics, all retelling the same questionable anecdote. Most of the best of what the Internet offers on any non-journalistic topic is on the level of a good children’s book – just enough to give you bearings; enough to let you ask intelligent questions, but not firm enough to credibly answer a question with. This is the cake.

The rest of what the Internet has to say about something tends to be astonishingly obscure. You are interested in the occult? Why, then, here is the Alchemy Library. Read Trithemius, study an abstract of Picatrix. Or here is the Twilight Grotto. Study Agrippa, Bruno, the keys of Solomon. Agrippa, they say, had a spirit tied to the collar of his dog; Paracelsus had one in the pommel of his sword. You have the advantage of them – you need not live as a pilgrim, wandering from monastery to monastery, ransacking Europe for books as they did. You may, with Google’s help, set out ignorant in the morning; and by evening, have at least a minor spirit inhabiting your cell phone, whereby you may produce static at will, or induce baldness in telemarketers. Sites like these are remarkable achievements, labors to whose makers I am profoundly grateful. They exemplify the attraction of the Internet. I might, a century ago, have spent a lifetime and several fortunes in pursuit of all the books they make effortlessly available to me. They are of enormous value, though of weightless, portable stuff – caviar.

This range of materials, from broad introduction to narrow trivia, creates an illusion of depth – but the middle is empty. There are gulfs which the Internet will not help you cross. Consider programming – where, if the Internet could suffice anywhere, it ought to excel. How many tutorials will impart a little JavaScript, get you tinkering with PHP? How many blogs teach the esoterica of JavaScript coercion or PHP’s references? But in between, there is the same gulf here as everywhere else. Stop and consider this – it is more than ironic. It means not only that the Internet is not only not generally sufficient; it is not even self-sustaining. It cannot even feed its own.

The Internet gives us tutorials and trivia; it gives us nothing in between. The problem is that people do not feel a lack. For a whole generation, this is what knowledge looks like. They work through a few tutorials, they memorize a few items of trivia, and think that because they have spanned the extremes, they are experts. Tutorial-level knowledge gives them the illusion of competence; trivia give them rhetorical immunity to any challenge – “If you know so much about it, why don’t you know about…?” “Of course you think so, you don’t know about…” The crackpots who would teach medicine to doctors, science to physicists, and programming to engineers, all from his armchair, used to be the exception; now they are the rule.

II.

At some point in any life of study, diverse perspectives become a distraction, and obscure facts become trivia. This turning inward is the sign of intellectual maturity; and to fill the mind, you must turn off the computer, you must shut out the world and cloister yourself. Diverse interest alone makes a dilettante; obscure information alone makes a pedant; but a scholar is formed in the library, out of deep and protracted thinking. Yes, a book is a companion, but it is not a follower; it is a guide, like Dante’s Virgil in Hell, from doubt, through danger, into light.

All of this might be obvious if we did not confuse education with schooling. Still, I hope most people will admit that the best student is one who would, and does, learn without a teacher – one who reads. Reading multiplies schooling; and while classes provide leverage for the mind, its substance – if it is to have one – comes from you learn on your own.

Objection: the Internet is new. It is immature. As it matures, it may grow into something that is a true replacement for the library. But this is wrong. Indeed, as the Internet has matured, it has become less like a library. Increasingly, everything is commented upon, annotated, rated and heckled. Hierarchy has given way to unlayered tagging – which makes it easier to pursue your interests, but conversely makes preconceived interests less flexible – is it progress in cookery if wherever you go, to any restaurant anywhere in the world, you can eat a hamburger, just the way you like it back home?

I love the Internet. I need the Internet. I would be diminished by living without the Internet. But the Internet is not the library of the future. The Internet is becoming ever more and more its own medium, something new and stupendous. The Internet is not trying to become a book; it is trying to become a continuous correspondence, a layered and multivalent conversation, a many-handed game, an acceleration of the social aspect of thinking – but not all thinking is social, and for private thinking, the Internet is not only unhelpful, it is poisonous.

Wikipedia forbids original research; but that is an enforcable policy only because the whole atmosphere of the Internet is already so much against it. Much is made of sites like ArXiv or PLoS, and of their increasing importance at the expense of print journals; but while they take advantage of the Internet, they do not really belong to it. It should command attention how strange an accomodation they are – that writing by and for the most technically sophisticated audiences possible, written on computers, distributed exclusively over the Internet – is still formatted in order to be printed and read on paper. Discoveries asserted in markup are, with rare and casual exceptions, the work of cranks. Hypertext, as the Wikipedia shows, is a fine way to knit together existing knowledge – but to add something to that knowledge, or to test knowledge, or to find perspective on it, requires the linearity which can be offered perfectly by paper, but which the screen must disguise itself to imitate.

Enthusiasm for the distributed and egalitarian formation and organization of knowledge – for the network and the cross-sectioning search – is good. It gives us the power to approach the world in a new way, and we do not know what we may yet find. But the network perspective is not complete. Linearity and hierarchy are not the original sins of the intellect. There are real lines, and real hierarchies. The line brings speed – there is power in separation. The road separates us from nature, but finally lets us see more of it. Hierarchy brings confidence: the mechanism of memory is a network, but its operation is hierarchical, always subordinating the abstract and universal to the concrete and particular. In any vital system, the line and the network, the hierarchy and the mass, are always found in alternation.

III.

To show that a book serves certain ends better than the Internet is, by itself, only enough to justify books as a luxury item. But my concern is for libraries: not the kind that adorn mansions at a stage in affluence a little after a pool, and a little before a garden; but public libraries, the kind where flimsier books have to be armored by special bindings against use and abuse – by impecunious scholars and cheap students; by parsimonious old men looking back, and grubby-fingered children looking forward and up and down and sideways; by the shy seeking connection and communion, and by the face-addled and smalltalk-stupefied seeking respite.

The real justification required is not intellectual, but economic. Granted, books are good; but can we justify the expense of libraries, if we can substitute in the Internet something not quite as good, but good enough?

The production of books is not a problem. It must be hardly a footnote to the paper industry. As long as we have drywall and wallpaper, paper towels and toilet paper, cardboard boxes and bottle labels, flyers and handouts and junk mails, fodder for office printers and copiers – we may have books as well, without much trouble or impact.

But this is moot. Most people are sensible and sensitive enough not to be in favor of disbanding or abolishing those libraries which we do have. The real question is: should we build new ones? The implicit answer of late seems to be that libraries are like city steam heat: worth keeping up if your city already happens to have it, but not worth the effort when building anew – so that, in the developing world, what is important is to build schools, not libraries; to put laptops into children’s hands, not library cards.

This is pragmatic. A laptop can bypass a corrupt government; a library implies funds requiring stewardship. But there is a questionable assumption involved: that, just as undeveloped regions might do best to skip telephone poles in favor of a wireless infrastructure; so they should skip libraries, and develop a paperless culture. But I think this assumption is better put: if developing regions attract enough medical charities, they can skip building hospitals. Patently, the object of medical charities is to relieve the harshness of life, in order to help form institutions which will, in time, build hospitals. Just so: laptops should set in motion the intellectual awareness and appetite, which will, in time, demand and build libraries.

IV.

The Internet increases the importance of the library, as the means of synthesis, consolidation, and continuity in culture. The Internet magnifies diversities of all kinds. It has strengthened every existing group and variety of opinion, and called forth new groups and opinions from vague sympathies and stirrings. But diversity is not an end in itself: the object of the multiplication of individual perspectives is that these perspectives should each somehow add to a shared, universally meaningful sum – they should add to the shared human project.

The Internet by itself is unsteerable – a freedom of assembly which veers into faction; a freedom of expression which veers into vandalism. The faster and more weightless the Internet becomes, the more acute its need for books as ballast. Think of a project like Wikipedia; would it be possible without the books which anchor its citations as references? The very paragon of the possibilities of the Internet is everywhere immanently dependent on the library.

Or think of politics. Politics on the Internet should be the great parable warning against the dangers of booklessness. In the absence of books, it has utterly succumbed to the excesses of faction and vandalism. It is particularly tragic to witness in the United States – which was founded by the bookish – reading books to derive and develop their ideas, writing books to defend their actions. Five minutes with the Federalist Papers or the Debates in the Constitutional Convention or Democracy in America will give you a better idea of, and a stronger sense of a stake in, what America is and stands for, than if you were to read every Internet debate on the subject from Usenet through the blogosphere to Twitter.

Increasingly, I find that the rhythm of my reading becomes an alternation, in which what I read in books raises questions which the Internet answers, and what I read on the Internet conceives needs which books fulfill. This cycle has neither the attraction of technophilia, nor of technophobia; it is not shiny and sleek, it has no smell or patina; it has no brand name or buzz, no ancestry or tradition; but it has certain unglamorous advantages: it is real, and it works. I cannot be alone in having discovered it; I suspect that there are more who thus belong to both sides, than who belong to either – the rivalry is not only mistaken, but mostly fictitious.

Fable of the Whale and the Squid

A whale once determined to settle between himself and the greatest of squids which was the more terrible, and thereby master of the ocean. So he sought out the terrible squid, and fought it. The deep was full of noise: blasts of killing sound, roars from carving jets of water; and the battle, watched by whales (for the squids did not care) was a jumble of teeth and tentacles, and something white in the lampless deep, and wrapped all around it long clouds of grasping sea-dark.

The whale won. The squid sank away where even whales could not follow. And all whales knew that it was a whale who was the master of the ocean. Then the watching whales left, and the victor – ragged, bleeding, exhausted – swam away alone to rest.

But now there were walls of noise against his sides – stunned, he could do nothing as three young whales tore him apart, to become the new masters of the ocean by killing the old.

Moral: The Ambitious and Successful forget that Ambition is common.

Debunking

Debunking is to science as criticism is to art – not useless, but not the thing itself, and often requiring a mindset opposite to what it tries to protect. Debunking is a rhetorical technique; disproof is a logical achievement, or a scientific consensus. In the history of science there is hardly an idea worth general attention that has not met with a wave of debunkings. They rise in jealousy from the center of science, and recede with time, in bewilderment and resentment, to the fringes.

Debunking, like any persecution, only strengthens what it attacks; and debunkers, in the long run, are enemies of science, because they belie its attractions. They portray science as progress through mutual abuse, where only the most smug are worthy to possess truth. Debunkers, by defending of science, do all to make science attractive that pundits do for politics.

Too many debunkers are obsessed with copyediting. Take a scientific paper; confuse the punctuation and capitalization; add exclamation points; put an uncredentialed named on it – they will crush it. Take a crackpot theory; edit it to a scientific style; abbreviate the name (J. Smith); add the name of a university or an institute – they will not even to allow themselves to wonder about it.

Two prominent exceptions, where criticisms are substantial and urgent, are intelligent design and climate change denial. But these are not really pseudosciences; they are themselves debunkings. These two movement have rudely proven that the effect of a debunking has nothing to do with the truth of the proposal, only with the skill, prestige, and power (or powerful alliances) of the debunker.

I do not believe that a debunker can defeat truth in the long run – corroborating evidence in time must strain the skill, undermine the prestige, and sour the alliances of the denier – but it can be held off for a very long time.

In the past, truth opposed in one place has always had somewhere else to win. Until the last few decades there has not been a single, international scientific community and consensus; only several separate national scientific establishments, which have served to correct one another. Only since the end of WWII has there been a single Western scientific establishment; and only since the end of the Cold War (or since Khrushchev, in some degree) has there been a worldwide scientific community. The great disadvantage of this single system is that it is difficult to shame it. For example: the wave theory of light originated in England (with Young), but was not accepted in England until after – through the work of Fresnel – it had been elaborated and accepted in France. At the extreme, in France, Voltaire had to satirize the Cartesian mechanical ether to advance the theory of gravity. Competition between universities can in some degree replace this international competition; but only in disciplines which do not depend on centralized sources of money – where independent budgets allow for independent thinking.

In the history of science, it is rarely well-known anomalies that necessitate new theories. Remember that Copernicus kept epicycles in his heliocentrism; that Kepler set out not to discover the shape of orbits, but the spacing between them; that Newton “made no theories” for the material basis of gravitation, at a time when the great question was that of the ether – a question which Einstein also fruitfully ignored. Cranks are drawn to easy solutions for most or all problems; scientists are drawn towards mines of new problems. It is easy to multiply after the fact theories of what is, or is not, science. But the behavior of scientists shows only one rule: scientists go where the work is. And while it is unusual for scientists to have to step back, and declare a body of work nonsense (caloric fluid, for example), it is almost the rule that as a new science advances, it goes from vague pretensions of revolutionary importance, to mere usefulness, or even footnote-filling triviality; and that, as theories mature, they surrender their ambitions, and ceasing to be projects of their own, end serving as instruments of old projects.

For the practical recognition of crankery and quackery, it is not necessary for the borders of science to be patrolled and enforced by debunkers – it is enough to avoid easy answers. The question to ask is not some berating, trolling “Why” (“If God designed us, why the appendix, coccyx, recurved spine?” “If global warming is natural, why do so many climatologists think it is not, why do the models overwhelmingly refute it, why changing patterns of vegetation, glaciation?”) – because these are the same kind of questions that the other side is asking (“If evolution is random and undirected, why such useless complexity, why so many missing links, why dogs can still interbreed?” “If global warming is anthropogenic, why no rush of disasters, why still harsh winters, why no one can agree on what would happen even if it were true?”) – and because the answers would not be scientific: “To keep us humble,” “Institutional veniality, overconfidence, bad records,” “Because so little survives, so little is seen in so short a time,” “Because we’ve been lucky so far.” The right question is simply – “And?” Science needs problems, science needs questions; so science cannot abide easy answers, science cannot settle for dead ends.