The Glass Bead Game

I first read The Glass Bead Game more than half my life ago. The narrative centred on a quasi-monastery in a place called Castalia. The quasi-monks are devotees of the aforementioned game, which brings all artistic and scientific endeavour together in a single unified form.

I didn’t like that book at the time, and I don’t like it now. I am, at least, clearer on why I don’t like it now, for which I am sure Joseph Knecht would give thanks. Here is the difference: there is much debate in the novel over whether Castalia’s setup is effecive. But I know something that the people in the novel don’t: I know that Castalia’s setup is bad.

The idea that it is somehow always virtuous, somehow intrinsically positive, to unify diverse fields of endeavour – this idea is bad. Unification involves abstraction, and abstraction involves stepping away from the concrete world, and the concrete world is where people live, and people are the only source of meaningfulness. So you can take your high-abstraction unification and go play elsewhere.

I have spent much of my working life trying to get people to work more effectively together when tackling messy problems with a significant analytical content, and where I’ve been most successful, a key part of this success has been the mutual acceptance of multiple, irreconcilable viewpoints.

At this point I should stress I’m not some kind of weirdo anti-analytical Luddite. I love foundational mathematics, and deep connections between superficially unrelated fields (Rudy Rucker! Large cardinals! Grothendieck! Category Theory!) But around my graduation, I had the secular equivalent of a Come-To-Jesus moment. I realised that cognitive empathy was vital to me, and that this was not going to be found in sufficient quantities where I was.

So I had to start again, which was difficult for me.

I found a path that works for me. But I remain suspicious of over-eager unifiers. Although I give Derek Parfit a pass, because he winds up so many people that I find objectionable.

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