Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Rationalism and Art

Hello a bunch of visitors from r/rational ! Good to see you. You might want to check out my review of Worm in the sidebar over there. If you want to know "how serious I take this" check out my tumblr.

So now is a fine time to talk about what the heck is up with Slate Star Codex, right?

So on the plus side, he recently wrote a review of a book that showed a fantastic understanding of art.

Someone once said that the point of art is to be more real than reality. The House Of God is way more real than reality. Reality wishes it could be anywhere close to as real as The House of God. This is a world where young people – the kid just out of school, the blushing new mother – die. Even normal old people – your grandmother, your grandpa – can die. But the most decrepit, demented people, the ones for whom every moment of artificially-prolonged life is a gratuitous misery and you pray at every moment that God will just let them find some peace – somehow they never die. They come into the hospital, they go back out to nursing homes, a few weeks later they’re back in the hospital, a few weeks later they’re back in their nursing homes, but they never die. This can’t be literally true. But it’s the subjective truth of working in a hospital. The Fat Man is right. I’ve been working in medicine for three years now, and I have seen my share of young people tragically cut off in the prime of life, and yet as far as I can remember I have never seen a gomer die. The magical realism of House of God describes the reality of medical professionals infinitely better than the rational world of hospital mortality statistics.

I bolded "subjective truth" because that's exactly the type of terminology you should be bringing to these discussions. Given the impossibility of achieving objective knowledge, most of how we describe the world (whether we admit it or not), is subjective explanations. He sounds like he really understands this stuff. (A friend of mine comments that Scott isn't really a rationalist writer, but rather he uses the style of social justice writing, just applied to rationalist causes.)

So what the hell is up with Unsong.

(Unsong is SSC's grand rational fic work, and it's very well polished and thought out as that genre goes.)

To rudely make the subtext text, Unsong probably thinks it is making fun of literary criticism similar to this blog. Or at least, of the phenomenon apophenia, seeing patterns in cloud where they aren't there. It's tag line is an extremely sarcastic "Nothing is a coincidence."  The repeated motif is to take a bunch of words or letters, pull out kabbalistic values from them, and say they have greater meaning from those arrangements (ie in terms of magical power, or just interpreting the world.) This reaches absurd heights, and the ending will probably be extremely critical of kabbalistic interpretation within the universe.

Sometimes this sort of parody is amusing. But sometimes it becomes fairly dark and bitter. For instance, in the chapter about Miss America Pie.

“I do not know so much about American culture,” said Ally, “but I thought that this song was about a history of rock n’ roll.”
“THAT’S WHAT WE’VE BEEN TRYING TO TELL HIM,” said Erica, at the same time I muttered “Et tu, Ally?”
“Exactly,” said Bill. “For example, the next verse references Helter-Skelter, Eight Miles High, and The Birds. Helter-Skelter is a Beatles song, the Byrds are a rock band, and Eight Miles High is a song by the Byrds.”
“The verse goes,” I said, “Helter-skelter, in the summer swelter, the birds flew off with a fallout shelter eight miles high and falling fast. Is there a rock band called ‘Fallout Shelter’? Is there a Grammy-award winning song by that name?”
“Not everything has to…”
“Everything has to!” I said. “Nothing is ever a coincidence. Look. The Bible contains a clear example of a fallout shelter related to divine judgment. Noah’s Ark. God decided to destroy the world for its wickedness, and Noah built something to survive the apocalypse. That’s a fallout shelter. It’s even eight miles high. The floodwaters covered the earth to a depth higher than the highest mountain. Everest is six miles high, the floodwaters had to be above that, leave a little margin of error, that’s eight miles. And falling fast, because after forty days and nights God opened the portals of the deep and the waters flowed back in. According to the story, Noah sent forth a raven and a dove to see if they could find dry land. In other words, the birds flew off, with the fallout shelter eight miles high and falling fast. The raven can’t find any dry land. But the dove can. It lands, fowl on the grass. The jester is Jesus is the Son is the Song is divine mercy, but it’s on the sidelines in a cast because at this point divine mercy has been suspended – even wounded – and divine judgment allowed to have free rein.”
“Oh wow,” said Zoe.
“You skipped the part about the players trying for a forward pass,” said Bill.
“The players are all the people and animals, trying to pass their genes forward to the next generation. The marching band which is trying to interfere – well, think about it. There are two interesting facets of a marching band. They play music. And they march. Who does that sound like? Right. The angels. The heavenly choirs and the heavenly hosts. So the players – created mortal beings – are trying to take the field. But the angels and nephilim refuse to yield – they’ve seized control of the earth. So ‘do you recall what was revealed’? How do you say ‘revealed’ in Greek? Right. ‘Apokalypsis’. The angels tried to control the earth and wouldn’t make room for humans, so God called down an apocalypse. That’s why this is in the verse that talks about Noah’s Ark.”
This... this is anti-knowledge. The reader laughs along with the exasperated friends, as they try to assure themselves that this song is "only" about rock and roll history, and not related through complex symbolism to biblical stories. All of Aaron's deciphering is laughable and unbelievable.

Just because one interpretation is terrible, does not mean that interpretation is a lost cause. The approach exemplified in this chapter is just anti-thetical to knowledge and communication, saying we should all relax and accept "what everyone knows" instead of trying to figure it out on our own. It's just dumbfounding to read, like straight out of the most cynical political cartoon.

Yeah, Miss American Pie is about rock and roll. Why can't it also be about religion? And not just because some numbers in the song parallel some numbers in the Torah - but because rock and roll is also about religion.

I mean what was rock and roll, but a folk movement of people trying to rebel against the system, finding ecstatic highs, and eventually selling out and becoming the system when popularity tempted and corrupted them.

The subjective truth of the aging and loss of rock legends is to the writer like a religious apocalypse. These people really really cared about their music, in a way we can't really fathom in our modern age and careers. "Bigger than Jesus" was not (just) a joke. The imagery he reaches for is biblical and that's not a coincidence.

Yes, the lyrics reference specific 50's rock songs. This was in part because he chose more religious references, and in part because a lot of 50's rock songs were talking about religious feelings.

(Don McLean famously answered when asked what Miss American Pie means "It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to." What better description of how selling out has ruined art and the spirituality there in could there be.)

And do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so?Now do you believe in rock & roll?Can music save your mortal soul?

Guys, I think this song has some religious content. I think McLean might have been suffering some spiritual angst.


Anyway, better music historians than I have picked apart Miss American Pie. It's a classic song for a reason.

The point is that we can understand art. It can have real themes that we are capable of reading, particularly art that does not explicitly say them but does leave us breathless with some sublime feeling. And sometimes SSC seems to really get that, but in his biggest project he seems to be throwing that to the wind, and it's very confusing.


  1. I'm not sure that he's throwing it out. On the one hand, it certainly seems to us like Aaron is stretching when he tries to argue for his interpretation of American Pie. On the other hand, the text has repeatedly demonstrated that there are all kinds of interpretations in this world which we would think are absurd, but are true, and that Aaron is pretty good at figuring these out.

    Remember that Aaron also argued that the history of the United States has parallels to the history of Israel, with a Moses, a snake, a burning bush, and so on; and wrote a lengthy paper on the Kabbalistic meaning of "There's a holy in my bucket." It's easy to look over the bits about world history because they're just part of a larger post, but the bucket article is the subject of the post that it appears in, much in the same way as American Pie. We can't consider the American Pie post without also considering the bucket post.

    The exegesis of "there's a hole in my bucket" illustrates concepts that are referenced elsewhere in the book and seem crucial to the problem of evil, which SA has said is the subject of Unsong. It's safe to say that we're intended to accept the interpretation as valid.

    This being so, I wouldn't be so sure that Aaron's interpretation of American Pie is wrong. He lives in a universe where "There's a hole in my bucket" has cosmological significance. If he is wrong, moreover, then I don't think that this is intended to say anything about interpretation in general: again, this is a universe where "There's a holy in my bucket" has important things to say about the history of the universe and humanity's relationship with God. If he's wrong, then what we're probably meant to take from it is that you just can't be right all the time, and having the right interpretation 99% of the time can make you dangerously stubborn on the 1% of cases where you're wrong.

  2. Scott wrote a pretty good reply and explanation here.

    I'm trying to compose a reply still.

    "There's a hole in my bucket" was in fact much better, because it was generally talking about *concepts* and not just numerological parallels. Duality, cyclicality, and paradoxes are all things a children's song can actually be about.

  3. In the story Aaron makes a lot of silly puns. The other characters frequently complain about them and how awful they are. So why are the puns in the story at all? In part, to entertain the reader. So they're really not as awful as they seem if you take the other character's reactions literally.