Plausibility and Relationships: You Are What Your Friends Believe (Andy Patton, JAN 21, 2022, Still Point)

Peter Berger will be our guide for today’s tour of social plausibility. Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” to refer to the societal contexts of networks of meaning within which these meanings make sense or are made plausible. He is a leading thinker in the field of the “sociology of knowledge,” which, for me, has been a key that unlocks this aspect of the story of modern deconstruction.

Berger lays out his basic perspective in A Rumor Of Angels:

“For better or for worse, [humans] are social beings. Their “sociality” includes what they think, or believe they “know” about the world. Most of what we “know” we have taken on the authority of others, and it is only as others continue to confirm this “knowledge” that it continues to be plausible to us. It is such socially shared, socially taken-for-granted “knowledge” that allows us to move with a measure of confidence through everyday life.”

Berger is saying that our beliefs first come to us through the beliefs of others, and they only remain believable if they continue to be supported and nourished through a believing community that also shares them. In other words, our beliefs become a taken-for-granted part of our paradigm if they are continually confirmed by our social environment. We hold things to be true because people around us also hold them to be true.


A Great Film That Wasn’t: Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is slavish to reality in trivialities, and pure fantasy in much greater, more complicated matters. (Peter Hitchens, Nov 14, 2023, American Conservative)

But my deeper objection is to a grave and mistaken attempt to alter a major element of the books. The title of the 2003 film is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. And The Far Side of the World is the title of a book to which a lot of the film is closely related—except for one thing. It pits Aubrey in a conflict with the United States Navy, which is harrying British whalers. This important moment in British and American Naval History is also dealt with in an earlier book, The Fortune of War, in which Aubrey takes a slight role in the great 1813 duel off Boston between the USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon.

These two ships, beautiful, evenly-matched, both with brave and chivalrous captains, fought briefly and savagely and the Americans lost. The War of 1812 might easily have been the first of many between America and Englnd. The soppy view of permanent Anglo-American brotherhood is entirely wrong, ignoring as it does Washington’s stinging fury when Britain built commerce raiders for the Confederacy, and their growing naval rivalry before and after the 1914–18 war. During a voyage to London in December 1918, Woodrow Wilson told his aides that if Britain did not come to terms over sea power, America would “build the biggest Navy in the world, matching theirs and exceeding it…and if they would not limit it, there would come another and more terrible and bloody war and England would be wiped off the face of the map.”

The historian Adam Tooze revealed recently that growing naval confrontation between these two supposed shoulder-to-shoulder eternal friends was so bitter that “by the end of March 1919 relations between the naval officers of the two sides had degenerated to such an extent that the admirals threatened war and had to be restrained from assaulting each other.” My father’s attitude towards the U.S. Navy was never especially generous (I used to wonder why) and he perhaps recalled the Suez crisis during which the then head of the USN, Admiral Arleigh Burke, discussed open warfare between the two nations with the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.

There’s a strong spirit here of Bill Haydon’s rant at the end of Tinker, Tailor, where he explains to Smiley that he hates America because Britain exists only in its shadow.


To Kill the King: a review of The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England by Jonathan Healey (Paul Krause, 11/12/23, Voegelin View)

How did Puritanism become such a potent force in seventeenth century England? As Healey notes, the changing economic dynamics of England were part of it. The rise of the yeoman middleclass naturally disposed this new social class of Englishmen and Englishwomen to embrace a new religion and theology that accepted their difference from the lower class peasants and the upperclass aristocracy while affirming their newfound wealth as a sign of God’s grace. The theological cosmos of Puritanism equally allowed Puritans to make sense of a changing world that was rapidly distinct from the medieval cosmos of scholastic Catholicism, the same medieval cosmos still preached by the Church of England even though it now had a Protestant monarch.
Furthermore, the social changes wrought by the explosive population growth of the previous century led to the rise of schools, many of whom were now staffed and serving the “middling sort” that many Puritans were themselves members of. “There were more schools now than ever before, and more children of the gentry and yeomanry attended Oxford and Cambridge or the Inns of Court…As they experienced the world of education, culture, print, and the bright lights of London, members of the middling sort were able to dream, quite literally, about future prosperity for themselves and their children.” Among these new schoolmasters was the Puritan Thomas Beard and his student-pupil Oliver Cromwell.

Additionally, political changes helped lead to the rise of Puritan power. The growth of England’s economy and its population boom meant that a new political system needed to be created to accommodate these changes since the existing political order was insufficient to meet such rapid changes. “Because the English state had no standing army, no professional police force, and precious few bureaucrats, it depended for its functioning on households willing to serve office. The gentry would supply the magistrates and grand jurymen, the middling sort the constables, petty jurymen, overseers of the poor, churchwardens and various urban offices.” As England’s population grew and the demands for a larger social-political order arose with it, lo and behold it was Puritans—the generally educated and well-to-do in the towns now needing legal offices to be filled, churches to be administered, and law officers to keep the peace—who stepped up and served to fill these new demands.

Thus, by the death of James I, though the king held moderate Calvinist sympathies despite embracing anti-Puritan policies, the Puritans were now well-represented in England’s semi-democratic political structure and system that had been built by the needs of a world transforming away from the static and rigid medieval economy. As the new Stuart kings pushed an ever more aggressive anti-Puritan program, which had the effect of destabilizing the relatively new socio-political and economic order that many Puritans found themselves serving and benefitting from, the stage was set to kill the king and overthrow the Stuarts. The social, political, economic, and religious changes that were all occurring in seventeenth century England were now racing toward an ideological battle.
How did Charles I become an enemy of the Puritans? His father, James, left the Crown nearly bankrupt, saddled with debt, with even more debts accruing. Additionally, as Charles began his reign, theological disputes within the Church of England were expanding and couldn’t be contained. Arminianism and ceremonialism began to make headway at the highest levels of the English clergy even if a majority of the parish clergy remained Calvinistic. This widening gap between episcopal leaders embracing what seemed to be Catholic views (emphasis on free will in salvation and the rituals of the Liturgy) and the small church Calvinist clergy (many of whom were Puritans or sympathetic to Puritanism) caused some leading Puritans to believe the king was a secret Catholic in promoting episcopal leaders who held beliefs similar to Catholicism. Further, the Thiry Years’ War in Europe was turning Protestant hearts against the pacifist policies of the king; while King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden would eventually rescue the Protestant cause in Germany, many English Calvinists had been putting pressure on the king (James and Charles) to intervene on behalf of beleaguered Protestants on the continent.

Although England had avoided formal entry into the Thirty Years’ War, English and Scottish volunteers were permitted to serve in the Protestant armies. Eventually, England got into war with France and Spain on side issues, which included the French use of loaned English ships to oppress their own Protestant subjects and the English hope to successfully raid Spanish treasure ships and use the plundered gold and silver to pay off its rising debts. Needless to say, the conflicts with France and Spain did not go well. Mounting debts which required new taxes, religious disputes which saw Charles advocate on behalf of Arminian and ceremonialist clergy, and his eventual dissolution of Parliament as its newly elected members were opposed to his many policies led to the burning flame that eventually consumed England.

No representation without taxation.


A PERFECT GAME: THE METAPHYSICAL MEANING OF BASEBALL (David Bentley Hart, August 2010, First Things)

My hope, when all is said and done, is that we will be remembered chiefly as the people who invented—who devised and thereby also, for the first time, discovered—the perfect game, the very Platonic ideal of organized sport, the “moving image of eternity” in athleticis. I think that would be a grand posterity.

I know there are those who will accuse me of exaggeration when I say this, but, until baseball appeared, humans were a sad and benighted lot, lost in the labyrinth of matter, dimly and achingly aware of something incandescently beautiful and unattainable, something infinitely desirable shining up above in the empyrean of the ideas; but, throughout most of the history of the race, no culture was able to produce more than a shadowy sketch of whatever glorious mystery prompted those nameless longings.

The coarsest and most common of these sketches—which has gone through numerous variations down the centuries without conspicuous improvement—is what I think of as “the oblong game,” a contest played out on a rectangle between two sides, each attempting to penetrate the other’s territory to deposit some small object in the other’s goal or end zone. All the sports built on this paradigm require considerable athletic prowess, admittedly, and each has its special tactics, of a limited and martial kind; but all of them are no more than crude, faltering lurches toward the archetype; entertaining, perhaps, but appealing more to the beast within us than to the angel.

In a few, peculiarly favored lands, more refined and inspired adumbrations of the ideal appeared. The Berbers of Libya produced Ta Kurt om el mahag, and the British blessed the world with cricket, but, because the running game in both is played between just two poles, neither can properly mirror the eternal game’s exquisite geometries, flowing grace, and sidereal beauties. And then there is that extended British family of children’s games from which baseball drew its basic morphology (stoolball, tut-ball, and, of course, rounders); but these are only charming finger-paint renderings of the ideal, vague, and glittering dreams that the infant soul brings with it in its descent from the world above before the oblivion of adulthood purges them from memory; they are as inchoately remote from the real thing as a child’s first steps are from ballet. In the end, only America succeeded in plucking the flower from the fields of eternity and making a garden for it here on earth. What greater glory could we possibly crave?

Beauty is objective.


Liturgical Conservatism and the Modern Novel: The greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century drew on the deep riches of the liturgy to speak to the secular age. (Roy Peachey, October 29, 2023, European Conservative)

The conservatism of some of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century has often baffled, and sometimes enraged, their literary critics, with Evelyn Waugh and J. R. R. Tolkien in particular coming under sustained attack. Writing in The Guardian, for example, Damien Walter complained that “Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative” and so aren’t to be trusted. Maybe Sauron wasn’t evil at all: “Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?” As for the dragons, “a balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.” Evelyn Waugh has been similarly chastised. One critic protested his “excessive conservatism” and another, clearly irritated by The Sword of Honour’s critical success, argued that it was a triumph only “for pessimism and conservatism.” Writing in the New Statesman recently, Will Lloyd could not hide his exasperation: “Why the passing decades cannot diminish him ought to trouble our creaking, secular, liberal age.” Well, quite.

Timelessness provides longevity: shocking, eh?


Many physicists assume we must live in a multiverse—but their basic math may be wrong (Philip Goff, 11/10/23, The Conversation)

One of the most startling scientific discoveries of recent decades is that physics appears to be fine-tuned for life. This means that for life to be possible, certain numbers in physics had to fall within a certain, very narrow range.

One of the examples of fine-tuning which has most baffled physicists is the strength of dark energy, the force that powers the accelerating expansion of the universe. If that force had been just a little stronger, matter couldn’t clump together. No two particles would have ever combined, meaning no stars, planets, or any kind of structural complexity, and therefore no life.

If that force had been significantly weaker, it would not have counteracted gravity. This means the universe would have collapsed back on itself within the first split-second—again meaning no stars or planets or life. To allow for the possibility of life, the strength of dark energy had to be, like Goldilocks’s porridge, “just right.”

This is just one example, and there are many others.

The most popular explanation for the fine-tuning of physics is that we live in one universe among a multiverse. If enough people buy lottery tickets, it becomes probable that somebody is going to have the right numbers to win. Likewise, if there are enough universes, with different numbers in their physics, it becomes likely that some universe is going to have the right numbers for life.

For a long time, this seemed to me the most plausible explanation of fine-tuning. However, experts in the mathematics of probability have identified the inference from fine-tuning to a multiverse as an instance of fallacious reasoning—something I explore in my new book, Why? The Purpose of the Universe. Specifically, the charge is that multiverse theorists commit what’s called the inverse gambler’s fallacy.

It’s a homocentric universe.


All Classics Are Funny: If it isn’t hilarious, do you really think anyone is going to be reading it in ten thousand years? I didn’t think so. (JOEL CUTHBERTSON, NOV 10, 2023, The Bulwark)

ALL THE BEST JOKES, whether literary or otherwise, include some obscure and mysterious mix of expected and unexpected. If a punchline lands—if you get walloped, or even tapped upside the head—it’s because the writer used the quick hit of the expected to distract you from the oncoming haymaker of the unexpected. There’s no getting around metaphors here. Why is a joke funny? We will see the face of God before the truth is known. Possibly God will say, “What do you call a sea creature who keeps banging on the door?” And as the seventh seal is opened, we will glow with glory, murmuring, “O Lord, a knock-topus.”

But I don’t mean that all jokes are simply puns. Consider Norm Macdonald’s all-time late-night routine. “In the early part of the previous century, Germany decided to go to war. And, uh, who did they go to war with? The world.” This verbal gag turns on the way “World War” has been lodged into our brains as a stock phrase, one that has become abstracted and detached from the specific historical realities it’s meant to designate. Norm’s brilliant reifying swerve is the result of his attention to that curious slippage. (“It was actually close,” he says, keeping at it.)

The same deep attention that enables great jokes can be found in all the books that have earned the “classic” label. Without humor, without the heel-turn of wit, a book’s range shrinks. The re-readability of lasting works is based on the vivacity of the text’s continual swerves, the mix of expectations met, undermined, and overturned. Humor is a virtuosic form of the mind’s spontaneous engagement with the world: Take it away, and the text’s formal vitality, even in the best dramatic outings, withers.