Are names arbitrary like unique IDs or transcendent and natural?


Earlier today, Joshua Gibbs wrote:

“If a thing is not transcendent, it is arbitrary.”

Now I think I’ll attempt to apply this to language for just a moment. As I stare at my only partially-tackled bookshelves, I am sharply reminded of the great multitude of thought on this topic that I am ignorant of. Nonetheless, I think I can still explore a few worthwhile avenues with what I have.

Is the naming of a thing arbitrary? Man is an absolute whiz at naming things – God created him this way and gave him the task of naming everything long before the fall. In the millennia after, he has not ceased to categorize everything. With man, it’s all naming all the time. But is his naming arbitrary? Is he just making crap up out of thin air, like a database assigns pseudo-unique GUID’s to each record? Here’s an example: {96ac1fe6-032c-4df5-9620-5772b37365c2}. Are our names just like that, or are they rooted in reality, the natural, or as we might say, the transcendent?

“I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!”
– J.R.R. Tolkien

Notice Tolkien does not have him say “My name is Gandalf”. He is unique and his name means himself, which, to some degree means that himself means his name. Tolkien writes this even while explaining elsewhere that his “real” name (or at least older name) is Olórin. Tolkien names everything in his world carefully based first on what they are.

He even offers some commentary on this own craft at times. Consider this passage about Beorn from The Hobbit:

“And why is it called the Carrock?” asked Bilbo as he went along at the wizard’s side.

“He called it the Carrock, because carrock is his word for it. He calls things like that carrocks, and this one is the Carrock because it is the only one near his home and he knows it well.”

Why is that thing named such? Gandalf’s answer is, that as far as he is concerned, the name is arbitrary. Beorn called it that, so that’s what it is! He knows it well (and probably even built it), so he get’s to name it and the rest of us will use that name too. But it is sort of made up. Or maybe Gandalf is just admitting that he doesn’t know exactly where the word comes from. He doesn’t know the history or reason for it’s name, but he assumes one exists.

I don’t think anyone will deny that language is rooted in history. That words grow out of other words is not up for debate, even if it is frustrating to those trying to stretch language in new direction.

“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean” (Humpty Dumpty, from Alice in Wonderland)

Like Humpty Dumpty, Stephen [Joyce’s autobiographical protagonist] would like to exert complete mastery over language and meaning, but his experience consistently brings home the fact that none of us has such power. He may complain, in Ulysses, that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” but he realized that he must do so in a language conditioned by that very history.
-Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Introductory notes to James Joyce, p.xxv

And from this one can jump straight into some thought by Derrida or other post-modernists. What they essentially did was to follow this line of thinking to it’s logical end and conclude that all words are indeed arbitrary – not transcendent. There is no real meaning to be found in anything. Sure our words now are based on meaningful older things, but if you go all the way back to Adam, he’s just making crap up. Zebra might as well be {c4786612-6c21-4574-bc8f-d8c6c52775cb}, Fox {a3386dfe-7e82-4ec1-baf0-71b91bb9da47}, etc.

But, if we are theists, we must believe their is a transcendent underneath our words. If we are children of Abraham (formerly Abram!), we must say that a name is there for a reason – a reason that is not just more piles of slippery words. If we are Christians, we must believe that the words God speaks transcend even lips or ink. One time they even walked around on the earth and bled on the ground. There are good names, and there are evil names because there is real good and real evil. And the thing came into being first and then was named. Man may resist or “deconstruct” as much as he might, but most of the time he will still end up giving appropriate, that is natural, names to things.

Update: A good piece related to this here.

Cooperating with your musical material, rather than trying to dominate it


Perhaps the first thing that [the average man] can learn from the artists is that the only way of mastering one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgement, as the world revenges itself upon the domineering artist.
-Dorothy Sayers, from the essay Problem Picture

This passage really struck me to the heart when I read it, as it seems to describe the antidote to the bulk of the frustrations I’ve experienced as a musician.

Instead of mastery, cooperation in love. This goes first of all for one’s body. Are you really a baritone? Stop trying to bang your head against the wall singing the tenor part. Soprano’s who are really alto’s? The same goes for you. Do you have weak hands but still love to play the guitar? There really is a tremendous amount of music that can be played without continuous bar chords, but a lot of the classical repertoire may be agonizing to you. Don’t make yourself miserable. Work WITH your body, not against it, and find a way forward. Find some different stuff to play. Eyes don’t work very well? Don’t get angry – start memorizing. There is a time to discipline your body into shape, but there is also a time, when youth has passed, to just STOP and figure out what works and what you’re actually capable of. The person who lost an arm in a car accident knows this and will obviously take a one-handed approach to the piano. But YOU are not whole either. I am not whole either, even if my “disability” may be less obvious. Work with your body in love – with it’s nature.

The other angle involves collaboration with other people. Push to much for your own way and things will blow up in your face. The other musicians will revenge themselves upon the domineering artist. The primary way they do this is by quitting, and then you are left to play by yourself, which isn’t much fun at all. As Sayer’s says, we should abandon mastery and cooperate with the material (the music, the instruments, our friends, our bodies) in love. Rather than trying to Lord it over these things, be their servant.

I’ve only begun to meditate on what this means.

On our problems always increasing in difficulty to match our means

To the average man, life presents itself, not as material malleable to his hand, but as a series of PROBLEMS of extreme difficulty, which he has to SOLVE with the means at his disposal. And he is distressed to find that the more means he can dispose of – such as machine power, rapid transport, and general civilized amenities, the more his problems grow in hardness and complexity. This is particularly disconcerting to him, because he has been frequently told that the increase of scientific knowledge would give him mastery over nature – which ought, surely, to imply mastery over life.
-Dorothy Sayers, Problem Picture

There’s a joke in computer programming circles that says if you have a problem and you try to solve it with Regular Expression (aka Regex), then you now have two problems. Now regex is a very powerful tool. A chainsaw or a syringe of heroin is a powerful tool as well and can give you command over nature but just as quickly make your problems even harder. (Have you ever tried to start a chainsaw that hasn’t been perfectly maintained? Good luck with that.)

Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Why? It’s not just because you’ve got people trying to grab your cash. It’s because you really do have more power. But with that power comes not just a greater ability to solve problems, but also an increase in the complexity of what you need to solve. It may very well be that their difficulty increases at a greater rate than your new found means.

Are women who stay home today to raise the kids any less stressed out than they were a century ago because now they have automatic washing machines? I think the answer is a resounding “no”. Those of us in the workforce – is our productivity so much higher than that of our grandfather’s? I think if considered carefully, the answer is maybe not so clear. We are frustrated because we feel it should be obviously better.

This dynamic is why I am extremely skeptical of any system that seem to assume that an increase in progress or evolution will one day free us from our chains. The futurists who prattle on about the AI “Singularity” seem completely oblivious to the phenomenon described above. Marxist politicians also possess this seed of insane optimism about humanity. I think that if anything is going to save us, it’s going to have to come from OUTSIDE us. This is what the hope in the second advent of Christ is. The one who holds the scepter over death breaks into time. Our solving is rife with with ill side-effects. He doesn’t come to solve a problem but rather to remake all of creation.

Intuition as seemingly ‘timeless’ thought – like God’s

Time is a difficult subject for thought because in a sense we know too much about it. It is perhaps the only phenomenon of which we have direct apprehension; if all our senses were destroyed, we should still remain aware of duration. Moreover, all conscious thought is a process in time; so that to think consciously about time is like trying to use a ruler to measure its own length.
-Dorothy Sayers, from the essay Strong Meat

Our epistemology must be found in time. For it takes time to think about something – time to “know” it. We are nothing like God, who can “know” something without time – instantly from our perspective. Or are we nothing like this? Is there an analogy? I think perhaps there is.

Freud was fascinated by the activity of the unconscious. Today, we are often enamored by the power of intuition. Witness the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink and the many TED talks in the same vein. This is a knowing that seems to happen outside of time. Now, on reflection we know it is happening IN time just like all our other processing, but the time is not perceived. It doesn’t SEEM like it’s there. We cannot put our finger on the duration, or even confirm that their was any.

It would seem that omniscient thought would have quality of intuition, rather than that of a super-computing quantum AI making 10^400 calculations per second. Those would still be logged and in order. God may create sequentially, but He does not think as such. For us to to have the knowledge of good and evil, we became tainted by evil because it had to actively pass through our thoughts. God can know evil “intuitively” without actualizing it.

Jesus, as fully man, stepped into this temporal limitation. In the gospels, we find he knows secret things, but these are revealed to him by the Holy Spirit, in time. He’s drinking from the fire-hose of God’s love even while in another sense, He is the whole ocean.

A friend of mine online recently commented that the philosophy of time is especially hard. I agree, and I think Sayer’s was right – it is a difficult subject for thought.

Nothing pays so well as the manufacture of schisms (With examples!)


The following is a passage from Dorothy Sayer’s essay ‘The Other Six Deadly Sins’. I present it here, essentially unaltered, except interspersed with recent real headlines from, alternately, The Huffington Post and The Blaze. It seems my feed on Facebook is little more than a mashup of these two newspapers as of late. The following are all actual headlines from these popular sites, going back only a few days.

We all know pretty well the man – or, perhaps still more frequently, the woman – who says that anybody who tortures a helpless animal should be flogged till he shrieks for mercy.

Fraud and Betrayal Over the 20-Week Abortion Ban: Shame on These Women

The harsh, grating tone and the squinting, vicious countenance accompanying the declaring are enough to warn us that this righteous anger is devil born and trembling on the verge of mania.

You Can Murder Your Child, But You Can’t Make Medical Decisions For Her

But we do not always recognize this ugly form of possession when it cloaks itself under a zeal for efficiency or a lofty resolution to expose scandals – particularly if it expresses itself only in print or in platform verbiage.

Even Voter Fraud Couldn’t Save Mary Landrieu

It is well known to the more unscrupulous part of the press that nothing pays so well in the newspaper world as the manufacture of schisms and the exploitation of wrath.

Yes, Billy Crystal DID Just Make A Homophobic Statement (And Here’s Why It Matters)

Turn over the pages of the more popular papers if you want to see how avarice thrives on hatred and the passion of violence.

‘American Sniper’ Made Some Fans ‘Wanna Go Shoot Some F**king Arabs’

To foment grievance and to set men at variance is the trade by which agitators thrive and journalists make money.

Biased Media Demonize Police But Defend Islam

A dogfight, a brawl, or a war is always news; if news of that kind is lacking, it pays well to contrive it.

Cuomo’s War Against Teachers Is an Attack on Women

The average English [American] mind is a fertile field in which to sow the dragon’s teeth of moral indignation, and the fight that follows will be blind, brutal, and merciless.

Obama Threatens Free Speech (Again!)

Why Is Franklin Graham so Anti-Jesus?

I will end only by mentioning that Sayer’s essay is from 1942.

The groundwork for the government not caring about sex anymore

Up until [recently] the Church, in hunting down [the sin of lust], has had the active alliance of Caesar, who has been concerned to maintain family solidarity and the orderly devolution of property in the interest of the state. Now that contract and not status is held to be the basis of society, Caesar need no longer rely on the family to maintain social solidarity; and now that so much property is held anonymously by trusts and joint stock companies, the laws of inheritance lose a great deal of their importance. Consequently, Caesar is now much less interested than he was in the sleeping arrangements of his citizens, and has in this manner cynically denounced his alliance with the Church. This is a warning against putting one’s trust in any child of man – particularly in Caesar. If the Church is to continue her campaign against lust, she must do so on her own – that is, on sacramental – grounds; and she will have to do it, if not in defiance of Caesar, at least without his assistance.
-Dorothy Sayers, from The Other Six Deadly Sins

In any current event, there’s always more going on than meets the eye – forces at work over many years. A tall tower requires a deep foundation whose bricks were laid a long time before the most visible ones at the top. It’s been pointed out that contemporary “gay marriage” has its roots in the “no fault divorce” of two generations ago. Because Christians (though other religious traditionalists can be grouped in here) neglected to fight THAT back in the day, the road was paved for eventually making “marriage” a mushy concept defined only by the whims of the state.

In the same way, there was more going on with the sexual revolution of the 1960s than just a critical mass of influential secularists wanting to have sex with whoever/whenever. There has always been a critical mass of that! But the ground-work for it actually becoming institutionalized started with the depersonalization of property. The rise of the legal contract (versus inheritance by blood), the stock market, and public corporations, set the foundation for people to act as free agents apart from their money and land and families in a way unprecedented in civilization before. During the sexual revolution, Caesar (the government) woke up one day and realized that IT no longer cared who slept with who and so the champions of traditional morality lost a powerful (though incidental) ally. The irony is that this new foundation was often laid by conservative capitalists – sometimes very religious ones – who never dreamed of it’s far-reaching consequences.

So what can religious conservatives do today? For starters, we can stop pretending like Caesar is still a potential ally in the foreseeable future. And, if we want to change things eventually, we might address lower and larger bricks in the tower of those who do not fear God, rather than the shiny new ones on top.

Why so nostalgic for the military?

The reason why men often find themselves happy and satisfied in the army is that for the first time in their lives, they find themselves doing something not for the sake of pay, which is miserable, but for the sake of getting the thing done.
-Dorothy Sayers (quoting a surgeon friend), in Creed or Chaos

Some people reminisce constantly about their days in high school – as if that time was the pinnacle of their existence before the stranglehold of adulthood seized them and has never let go. In a similar vein are those who, whatever the context, can’t go five whole minutes without bringing up some anecdote about their years in the military. I used to think this was just limited to career service men or those who fought in notable wars, but on close examination, this attitude often shows up in people who spent, say, a relatively uneventful six years in the navy. What makes this time in the army (or whatever) such a dominant experience of their lives that is serves as the (nearly always implicitly superior) measuring rod to everything that comes after it? I think Sayer’s get’s to the answer here. Man is wired to work hard, and to work toward a tangible, meaningful, and beautiful goal. Working for a paycheck taints this natural psychology like a rock in the shoe plagues a marathon runner. Recalling that one race you ran where you DIDN’T have a rock in your shoe – well, it would be hard to forget.

Can we escape paychecks today? Various economic philosophers, from Marxists to distributivists think so. Zizek says we are incapable of imagining such a world. I think I’m going to say no – they can’t be done away with. However, their effect on man’s work CAN be significantly mitigated, IF we’re careful and creative. Recovering or developing a more comprehensive theology of vocation would be a good step in the right direction on this. The “protestant work ethic”, despite it merits, needs to be scrapped in favor of something more holistic. We are not even close to articulating this well yet.

The saint as creative genius

In the morality of my station and duties (i.e., of the moral code) the station presents us with the duty, and we say yes or no, “I will” or “I will not.” We choose between obeying or disobeying a given command. In the morality of challenge of grace, the situation says, “Here is a mess, a crying evil, a need! What can you do about it?” We are asked not to say “Yes” or “No” or “I will” or “I will not,” but to be inventive, to create, to discover something new. The difference between ordinary people and saints is not that saints fulfill the plain duties that ordinary men neglect. The things saints do have not usually occurred to ordinary people at all… “Gracious” conduct is somehow like the work of an artist. It needs imagination and spontaneity. It is not a choice between presented alternatives but the creation of something new.
-Dorothy Sayers, from the essay Problem Picture

What a fabulous passage. Take a moment to read that again if you can.

The saint imitates Christ. But he or she does so not in being imitative, but strikingly original. They are not using a measuring rod to compare their work to others or to derive their work from others. They are hopelessly lost in their subject and it becomes their joy to give themselves to it’s nurture. St. Patrick did not pray on the hill a thousand times in a cold and calculating manner. Mother Teresa of Calcutta did not closely study other hospice programs to hone her methods. These were discovering something new, just like a true artist.

Gamification and its limits

Because we can, in this world, achieve so little, and so little perfectly, we are prepared to pay good money in order to acquire a vicarious sensation of achievement. The detective novelist knows this, and so do the setters of puzzles.
-from the essay Problem Picture by Dorothy Sayers

Who knows this especially today? The makers of video games. Achievements, collecting all 3 special coins in that Mario level, and watching the credits roll are all satisfying in a way that getting up in the morning isn’t. A “vicarious sensation of achievement” to stand in for the sense of achievement they didn’t receive today at their job at Starbucks, or in that interaction with their girlfriend, or in their class at school.

What can you do for a people of short attention spans? Give them tiny well-defined things to do. This often does violence to the nature of real things. A career can have interactions in it that last years. A marriage is a decade-spanning project. School is a somewhat structured sprint during a much larger race. But we are an impatient people and we manage our boredom and feelings of meaninglessness with gamification. Life may be a grind, but if it can be like grinding through a dungeon in Final Fantasy, then it’s just a little more tolerable. Our ever faithful smart phones help us on this quest.

We are frustrated when God and Love do not gamify well.


Sia’s overdrive vocal technique and vicarious emotion in music

A brief bit of music analysis follows.

Pop music may be a perennial rubbish heap, but that doesn’t prevent an occasional song on top 40 radio from making your ears perk up and then, after a closer listen, slam you into the wall with its emotional power. I know I’m nearly a year late to the party on this one, but I think I’d have to put Sia’s “Chandelier” in this category.

Forget the rather jarring and buzzy music video (450+ million views) featuring child dancer Maddie Ziegler, the music is what caught my attention. Sia is not the typical young 20-year-old America pop star, but a previously lesser-known Australian women pushing 40. She has a scratchy voice with a natural break that instead of avoiding, she uses to great affect. The chorus of Chandelier finds her over-singing on the edge of her range, like an electric guitarist over-driving their amp. She’s singing the paint off the walls, but not like a shining opera star carefully in control, but rather like a Saturn V rocket with a less than certain chance of clearing orbit. I’m nearly holding my breath waiting for it to explode and fall into the ocean. In reality, I suspect she is very much in control and that the melody and key were carefully chosen by her and the producer to highlight this technique on the edge of distortion. However it came about, it’s incredibly effective.


As for the song itself, it deals with despair and alcoholism. I’m sure that in my youth I would have been warned against listening to this sort of thing because of its alleged glorification of booze. Nothing could be further from the truth though. Rather, for a brief moment, the listener vicariously enters into the singer’s grief and vortex. It’s not really a pleasant ride, but full of energy and difficult to take lightly. I think the doorway is the repeated line “’cause I’m just holding on for tonight”. People of any age or station can identify with that “just holding on for dear life” end-of-your-rope feeling and from there make the jump into singer’s mind and intensity. I’ve never found (nor likely ever will) find myself serially drunk and imprisoned in a string of wild parties without hope of escape, but that is not required to relate to the emotion in the music – one has just to overlay one’s own personal challenges or feelings of being trapped along with a simultaneous resolve to make the best of it regardless. Like nearly all music, the vicarious emotion retains it’s power as long as not too many details are articulated.