Friday, November 16, 2018

Dashed Off XXVII

diversification:
(1) by formal difference (genus to species)
(2) by matter (species to individuals)
(3) by participation (exemplar to examples)

ontological argument and the real composition of essence and esse
that there could only be one being whose essence is actually to be + many beings -> composition of esse and essentia
(NB if this reasoning can be made, it establishes composition without assuming existence of a being whose essence is actually to be)

It is foolish to try to purge religion of the difficult and the tedious, and equally foolish to try to confine it to such.

"to act without any principles is to live by chance" Mary Astell

It is a widely recognized practical principle to do by substitute what cannot be done by the thing itself.

That none may serve as slaves, some must serve freely.

"Gnosis without praxis is the theology of demons." Maximus Confessor

The Maronite liturgy for the assumption especially emphasizes the gathering of the apostles around the Virgin.

We improve our practice by remotion (eliminating discovered errors and fault), intensification (increasing good we've discovered), and assent (finding higher unifying goods).

All the power of law to be obeyed lies in habit.

When people do not respect a freedom in their own activities, the result is always a government that actively tramples on it.

The Fifth Amendment establishes grand juries as part of the judicial checks and balances; this is an obvious point, but it is often overlooked in discussing constitutional checks and balances.

If actual liberalism were always describable by the North Star slogan -- "Right is of no sex, Truth is of no color, God is the Father of all, and we are all brethren" -- it would always be a splendid thing. It is this that holds the full appeal of liberalism as a vision of society. But in every society, high sentiments are used as cover for base graspings, and what we get in contemporary liberalism is too often an elaborate set of political power plays masquerading as morality. A liberal society cannot become just a wax nose for some agenda and still fall under the idea that made it attractive in the first place.

In drifting from Right, Truth, and God, modern liberalism becomes a politics of making things up as one goes along. This often has the brilliance of improvisation to it, and new and clever things are sometimes discovered, answers formed to new situations. But it is a role-playing game in which the rules are just whatever others can be convinced (by sweet words or by insults) to allow. Every good thing will be sold off tomorrow to satisfy some group's whim, the moment feelings tip their way.

Bellarmine puts an emphasis on membership in the Church by desire -- catechisms and excommunicates are in the Church by desire rather than properly.

A people without heroes cannot often be heroic.

The structure of rationalization is the same as that of hypothesis formation.

Fiction by its nature presupposes what is not fictional.

cosmological arguments based on the impossibility of
(1) actual infinite
(2) infinite regress
(3) dependency without an independent
(obv. there are overlapping cases)

It seems clear from the Short Treatise that Spinoza developed his views partly in opposition to a (broadly) Thomistic natural philosophy.

Duty speaks most loudly when it is partly echoed by need.

For every propose semiotics, ask, "What theory of evidence does this suggest?"

Human life needs not only forgiveness but a system of forgiveness.

Equality cannot adequately substitute for reciprocity -- it lacks the latter's capacity to accommodate difference.

All citizens are part of the public sphere by virtue of being citizens; this is just what the public sphere is for a citizenry, the domain established by the union of citizens qua citizens.

the cycle of system and rhapsody in the historical development of philosophical ideas

Christianity evangelizes and expands by layers, often many layers over a very long period of time.

Love and duty tend naturally to have similarities with each other.

Much of government administration is just a system of lists.

Civil rights depend on civic education.

Much of what is called 'public opinion' is not really opinion but a set of interested attitudes. (cf. RB Perry)

Computer programming should be seen as a modern liberal art.

Where there is no light, there can be no mercy.

Nothing drives the world toward dystopia like utopia.

Much of our belief is deferential; it's not that, psychologically, we have much or even any commitment to it, but it is what others say, so we go with it until we have reason to think otherwise.

Imaginative verisimilitude does not work on anything like a Bayesian principle.

experiments as essentially ordered causal series.

It is insufficiently remarked that no moral theory requires that human beings intervene to prevent great evils except under very specific conditions. One reason it is little remarked is that we usually think about these things in cases where the conditions are relevant; but step back from the conditions and it becomes clear enough.

Every obligation arises out of a teleology.

Hume's taste of the fig & Locke's Essay 2.13.24

'loss of problems' as a philosophical disease (Wittgenstein)

Aristotle's account of tragedy makes it an exploration of eudaimonia by reversal.

moral law as a postulate of philosophical inquiry (Plato's Gorgias suggests something analogous to this)

To understand what virtue and duty deserve, the philosopher must posit a point of view according to which the duty or virtue and its desert are united. To understand how they are to be done at all, the philosopher must posit a notion of an in-principle capability of acting morally. To understand how they are to be done adequately, the philosopher must posit the notion of an in-principle process commensurate with their quality.

Sooner or later, academic writing always becomes a parody of itself.

The primary danger with political faction is not disagreement, even heated disagreement, but the rise of a mentality in which people count themselves as just and right because of whom they oppose.

Any view in which moral goodness has no connection to power or to knowledge is inevitably incoherent.

It belongs to the nature of good parenting to draw greater good from the errors of one's children, a feature that is most clear with the parenting of small children (since that is when parenting is most likely to swamp other factors) and in teaching (since this is a relatively specific form that in great measure consists of drawing good out of error).

There are no indefeasible evils.

The Council of Frankfurt 794 rejected II Nicaea because it read it as saying that icons of saints should receive the same veneration as the holy Trinity -- which is so off that it seems it has to be due to a bad translation.

It seems that classification-based validity would be affected by differences in tone or coloring, as in 'dog' vs 'cur' or 'argent' vs 'silver', even if only in marginal cases.

All of history is a testimony to the ingenuity of human beings in going wrong.

(1) Start with Calvin's concessions on infallibility of the Church (Institutes 4.8).
(2) Go beyond: The bishops can represent the Church in this.
:::: Scripture treats bishops as having representative authority.
:::: It is recognized among Apostolic Churches.
:::: It is rationally plausible on the basis of order.
(3) Go beyond: The Pope can represent bishops in this.
:::: Petrine privileges
:::: It is consistent with the way the Church Fathers treated Rome.
:::: It is rationally plausible on the bases of honor and deference.
(4) But not too far: These representations cannot be unlimited, and have conditions.
:::: Divine authority has pre-eminence.
:::: Bishops and Popes have repeatedly recognized this in circumstances in which they were speaking representatively.
:::: Rationally, they are clearly not always speaking representatively.

We can look at any causal series and ask the reason why it is as long as it is.

All forms of participation are cases in which the less universal derives from the more universal, in some way.

tone-meaning arising out of: etiquette, aesthetics, common usage and derivation therefrom, context

The Bible's ideal reader is the Church herself.

Theism is a very large family of related positions, and thus is not the sort of thing that can be assigned a single probability in a context.

Probabilities only exist within a universe of discourse.

A probability is not a brute fact but a measurement; before you can have your probabilities, you must have your means of measurement.

the epiphany and transfiguration aspects of divine tradition

The first requirement for theological language is to facilitate speaking truly.

Too many people do not care about arguments as such, seeing them only as a tool for manipulating others into silence or confusion.

The kind of causality we experience within the stream of experience itself (as opposed to the causal character of having experience at all) is one experience shifting our disposition to receive another experience.

We don't merely move from idea to idea according to resemblance; we resemblance-make among ideas that are available.

Refusing to forgive is a vice in that it subordinates common good to private mood.

Nyaya as a theory of grounds of signification

to transfigure students of this world so that they are also candidates of heaven, workers so that they are also worshipers, thinkers so that they are believers, friends of man so that they are also friends of God

Feuerbach's comment about the stars is key to understanding his failure. The heavens do reveal human nature. But it would be absurd to treat this as suggesting that the stars are nothing but reflections of human nature. The 'nothing but' Feuerbach finds for religion does not derive from the anthropological analysis as such, but only from the axiom of materialism assumed from before the beginning.

Feuerbach approaches theology as if the Church as such had no place in it.

other minds and readiness to respond

In interacting with other people, we recognize ourselves as being already part of a perspective other than our own, distinct from us, independent of us, and continuing when we are not aware of it.

We do seem to cognize with feelings to some extent: who feels gratitude, feels something as gift; who feels anger, feels something as threat; who feels sorrow, feels something as loss. It is, of course, a question whether the object-content comes first from an independent source or is discovered by the feeling itself.

Feuerbach is exploiting a weakness of subject/object metaphysics (given that the object is in some sense in the subject), one that doesn't arise when subject and object are understood by means of act and potency. Taking subject and object as primitive provides nothing to prevent reduction to reflexivity.

As there are apparent answers to prayer, the question of the efficacy of prayer is a subset of the problem of induction.

Bentham relativizes the principle of utility to the interest being considered.

Verbs are 'doing words' because 'do' is a general verb. You can use verbs to answer, "What is being done?" Not all verbs allow for clear answers to time questions on the other hand (infinitives for instance). Thus verbs are better classified as action/doing words than as time/aspect words (as some have suggested).

The problem of induction is not any kind of problem at all unless things appear to be connected.

Religion unites man with himself; in it he finds God as the principle of his own coherence.

Feuerbach's account of the Incarnation is essentially the counterpart to Kant's; where Kant sublimates it into pure practical reason, Feuerbach passionates it into the 'heart', i.e., our sensibility. Their accounts are not wholly wrong, even; but given the limits of their methods, what they are each doing is capturing one aspect of the appeal of the Incarnation to the human mind, and ignoring all the rest, or, indeed, anything that one does not find in the mental attraction itself. Kant traces out how it is morally magnetic, Feuerbach how it is touching to the heart, and then each goes away pretending to have said all that was worth saying. Feuerbach, however, captures more than Kant does, due to the nature of the doctrine.

At-at is a poor account of motion because an account of motion must explain to begin with why one thing at one place/time can be at another.

multiplicity of potential -> need for a mover to select

the facingness of painting, the amidst-dwelling of sculpture

Allusion is the mother of poetic diction.

A mass media society is a society of facsimile emotions.

Feuerbach's conflation of providence and miracle quite clearly leads to a false view of Judaism, which takes providence to be linked to covenant.

"The relation of the communal experience to the individual experience is constitution, not summation." Edith Stein

Scientific knowledge is a community knowing.

The dictum de omni et nullo can be interpreted as making syllogistic validity dependent on classification-based validity.

It as through permissible things that the obligatory becomes feasible.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Evening Note for Thursday, November 15

Thought for the Evening: Deception and Clifford's Ethics of Belief

It's not sufficiently recognized, but because Clifford's arguments in "The Ethics of Belief" (PDF) are ethical, tout court, they have direct implications for a much wider field of human life than just inquiry and belief. The argument cannot be confined just to belief. An obvious case is the common property argument:

And no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live.

It follows directly from this (if it works as it is supposed to work) that it is always wrong to lie, since by lying you are contaminating the 'precious deposit' by affecting the beliefs of others by communication. But more than this, it seems to require us to take a stronger stance than is taken even by very strong positions against lying, namely, that any kind of deception whatsoever is morally wrong, because you are interfering with the ability of others to believe well.

This is perhaps not surprising, since one of Clifford's arguments is that believing without evidence is wrong because it creates a dishonest society:

Habitual want of care about what I believe leads to habitual want of care in others about the truth of what is told to me. Men speak the truth to one another when each reveres the truth in his own mind and in the other’s mind; but how shall my friend revere the truth in my mind when I myself am careless about it, when I believe thing because I want to believe them, and because they are comforting and pleasant? Will he not learn to cry, “Peace,” to me, when there is no peace? By such a course I shall surround myself with a thick atmosphere of falsehood and fraud, and in that I must live. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive.

Anyone who accepts Clifford's argument for the conclusion that 'it is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence' is thereby committed to its being wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone to do something that will deceive or mislead someone else.

This, of course, is not the same as to say that everyone who accepts the claim is so committed; it's Clifford's argument for it in particular that, built entirely on moral principles, requires that those moral principles be applied with parity and consistency across the board. Not every kind of 'ethics of belief' is moralizing the way Clifford's is; William James in "The Will to Believe", for instance, relativizes the kind of 'ethics of belief' you use to the specific goals you have in inquiry, and so is (perhaps unsurprisingly) more accurately called a 'pragmatics of belief' than an 'ethics of belief'.

The fundamental problem with Clifford's argument on this point, of course, is that it's simply wrong, when we look at the evidence, to say that every single belief, without exception, harms the 'precious deposit' or contributes to more dishonest society; this posits a fragility in human society that simply does not show up when you look at how societies work. Every human society has to deal with falsehoods by the load; there is no way to avoid that, because even in the best of times people will make honest mistakes, be confronted with misleading evidence through no fault of their own, misinterpret and misread evidence, and the like. Societies develop means for dealing with it; they adapt and move on. Nor does there seem to be any evidence that a society in which some people occasionally show a disregard for truth is a society that slides into being one in which people in general are "ready to deceive". A lot of things have to go into habitual deception; merely coming into contact with disregard for truth does not seem to give us a cause proportionate to the purported effect. And we see the same with lying: most lies in fact seem to be swamped out or neutralized, and doing things that mislead others does not seem to be particularly likely to make them liars.

The real problem with lying, of course, is that it is a perversion of the natural ends of reason as communicative. But it is true that deliberately saying what you know to be false is a sin against trust as part of common good. It's just not necessarily a sin that on its own damages that common good, and society is not so fragile as to be corrupted by occasional wrongdoing. And neither of the arguments against lying suggests that everything you do that could deceive and mislead is always wrong; although you may generally have to be careful.

The perversion account of lying is usually the most anti-lying position on the table these days (it is often vehemently attacked for being too strong); but Clifford as a nineteenth-century Englishman in a culture in which 'candour' was considered a national virtue and candid behavior and honesty a mark of a civilized gentleman, and John Henry Newman had been attacked for dishonesty just a little over a decade before simply for suggesting that it was sometimes moral to be cautious in expressing the truth. Clifford could assume at the time that it was not a point at which most of his audience would have pressed his argument.

Various Links of Interest

* This has been going around Twitter due to Nick Kapur: A Japanese illustrated history of the United States from 1861. It hits the major highlights: Columbus, the American Revolution, John Adams slaying a giant serpent with a sword, George Washington punching a tiger, John Adams killing another giant serpent with the help of a giant eagle, all the key moments of American history. The book in question is Osanaetoki Bankokubanashi by Nozaki Bunzō under the pseudonym Kanagaki Robun (writer) and Utagawa Yoshitora (illustrator).

* Adrian Currie on the paleontologist Mary Anning

* Corey Dethier, William Whewell's Semantic Account of Induction (PDF)

* Nathanael Blake, Living With Morals: A Review of The Fall of Gondolin

* Juhana Toivanen, The Fate of the Flying Man: Medieval Reception of Avicenna's Thought Experiment

* Timothy Chow, The Consistency of Arithmetic (PDF)

* Given some complaints that are being made about politics today, it's worth remembering Thea Skocpol's argument from over a decade ago: The Narrowing of Civic Life.

Currently Reading

Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman
Simon Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe
C. S. Lewis, On Stories
Jules Verne, The Survivors of the Chancellor

Universal Doctor

Today is the feast of St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church, patron saint of scientists and engineers, teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas. Born probably at some point in the 1190s in Bavaria, his own name for himself was Albert of Lauingen, but we don't know if the 'Lauingen' referred to his actual birthplace or to his family's being from there. He became a Dominican in the 1220s and in the following decades became recognized as their most talented teacher, which is why he was sometimes called 'Albert the Great' in his lifetime. He was a major figure in the reintroduction of Aristotle into the West, writing commentaries on the bulk of the Aristotelian corpus. He was briefly bishop of Regensburg, but spent most of his career in other positions. He lived a famously long life, outliving most of his early students and dying in Cologne in 1280. He was deeply interested in the natural world; we have a story, from Albert himself about his trying to get an ostrich to eat gravel in order to test whether the claims in the books about them doing so were true (he couldn't get the ostrich to eat it). He is the first person in the West to work on a systematic study of minerals and stones, and may be the first person to have identified specific organs in a fertilized egg.

In investigations of nature, however, it is necessary not only to consider the changeable understood universally according to its common features, but it is necessary to get down to details so that the primary agent in each individual case may be ascertained, especially in sensible, animate things, because in investigations of nature we must discover the universal principles through singulars, since in such investigations the particulars are better known than the universals. It is through the singulars that we come to believe that it is convenient and necessary for universals and their principles to exist, since it is only those universals which are exemplified in particulars that we accept, while those which are not exemplified in particulars, we reject.

[Albert the Great, De animalibus IX tr. 2, c.4, ed. HernannStadler, in: BGPhlvfA5, Munster9 16'.T21, ll.16-21m as quoted in Leen Spruit, "Albert the Great on the Epistemology of Natural Science", p. 64.]

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Treacherous Month

November
by Helen Hunt Jackson


This is the treacherous month when autumn days
With summer's voice come bearing summer's gifts.
Beguiled, the pale down-trodden aster lifts
Her head and blooms again. The soft, warm haze
Makes moist once more the sere and dusty ways,
And, creeping through where dead leaves lie in drifts,
The violet returns. Snow noiseless sifts
Ere night, an icy shroud, which morning's rays
Will idly shine upon and slowly melt,
Too late to bid the violet live again.
The treachery, at last, too late, is plain;
Bare are the places where the sweet flowers dwelt.
What joy sufficient hath November felt?
What profit from the violet's day of pain?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Moon Is Down

Being stuck in an airport for most of Sunday gave me a chance to catch up with some reading. I finished Mathias Sandorf, of course. I read Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, which I think MrsD had recommended; some of the story was familiar, so I suppose I may have read it years and years ago, if I hadn't picked up parts of it from some other source. And I read John Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down, which was quite excellent. The title comes from Macbeth (Act II, Scene I):

BANQUO: How goes the night, boy?

FLEANCE: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.

BANQUO: And she goes down at twelve.

FLEANCE: I take't, 'tis later, sir.

John Steinbeck had been worried about the extent of Nazi propagandistic efforts, and he wrote the work, which was published in 1942, as his contribution to countering it. He originally wrote it as set in America; since it describes a military occupation of a small coal town, and the war was not going all that well (the Germans were still expanding and the U.S. had not yet won any significant victories against Japan), this went down very badly with the people he was trying to get interested in the book, so he rewrote it to take place in a generic and unnamed country, one that has a lot in common with Norway or Denmark. He wrote it in tandem with a screenplay version, and the play debuted shortly after the book came out.

Both the book and the play, and the movie that followed them, did reasonably well. But Steinbeck was blindsided by the very, very harsh criticisms he received from some quarters. One of the interesting aspects of Steinbeck's propaganda piece is that much of the story is told from the point of view of the occupiers -- obviously, strongly hinted to be German, although they are not explicitly identified as such. And they are presented quite sympathetically. Colonel Lanser, who is in charge, has fought in war before; he has to keep the coal flowing, but is pessimistic about the prospects of the occupation. The captains are mostly idealistic young men who would rather be going to dances with young women and who have no desire to cause problems with the townspeople. Some of them have a mental breakdown from the stress of living in a community that actively hates them. They are normal people, not melodramatic villains. Although there were many who did defend him, and vehemently, Steinbeck was savaged by pundits, critics, and fellow authors claiming he was soft on fascism. It made him quite bitter, actually.

But these criticisms were the usual soft-handed posturings of the literati, the pretenses of intellectuals and chatterers at being fighters for justice. In occupied Europe, the Nazis were desperately trying to stamp out the little book, which was spreading like wildfire. The thousands of copies smuggled into Norway from Sweden caught the attention of the Quisling government; as the war was ending, a legal edition came out and sold twenty thousand copies before the occupation had even officially ended. A bookstore owner in Copenhagen who lived literally under the Gestapo offices mimeographed a never-ending stream of disguised Danish editions, which were then bought by students, who distributed them throughout the resistance. It has ever since been a well known book in Denmark. Similar stories could be told of the Netherlands or France and elswhere. Its circulation was very wide, although it is sometimes difficult to trace because so much of it was clandestine.

Steinbeck's little book touched a chord that none of the other Allied propaganda could -- and part of it was that the occupiers in the book were not cartoonish villains. To people who were actually resisting the Germans, propagandists who wrote their Germans with melodramatic wickedness were obviously just writing propaganda to write propaganda, were obviously, with whatever good intentions they might have had, just making things up. But Steinbeck -- the story he wrote was very much like their story, quiet people trying not to fall apart while under the military heel, dealing with soldiers, some of whom were indeed obviously awful, but many of whom were just like themselves, could well have been good neighbors in another time, and yet were clearly, undeniably, to-the-death enemies, the lonely and homesick boys you might have to stab in the back or blow up today, or who tomorrow might get an order to shoot you. And Steinbeck had captured an idea that resonated with the experience of the occupied populations of places like Norway and Denmark: that the occupiers were in reality less free than the occupied, and could never win as long as the occupied refused to be crushed.

It's not a difficult read at all, and I recommend it heartily.

***

John Steinbeck, The Moon Is Down, Introduction by Donald V. Coers, Penguin (New York: 1995).

Monday, November 12, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #27: Mathias Sandorf

Trieste, the capital of Illyria, consists of two towns of widely dissimilar aspect. One of them—Theresienstadt—is is modern and well-to-do, and squarely built along the shore of the bay from which the land it occupies has been reclaimed; the other is old, and poor, and irregular, straggling from the Corso up the slopes of the Karst, whose summit is crowned by the picturesque citadel.

The harbor is guarded by the mole of San Carlo, with the merchant shipping berthed alongside. On this mole there may at most times be seen—and very often in somewhat disquieting numbers—many a group of those houseless and homeless Bohemians whose clothes might well be destitute of pockets, considering that their owners never had, and to all appearance never will have, the wherewithal to put into them.

To-day, however—it is the 18th of May, 1867—two personages, slightly better dressed than the rest, are noticeable among the crowd. That they have ever suffered from a superabundance of florins or kieutzers is improbable, unless some lucky chance has favored them—and they certainly look as though they would stick at nothing that might induce that chance to come.

Mathias Sandorf is Verne's homage to The Count of Monte Cristo; Verne even dedicated the first edition of the book to Alexandre Dumas. In a sense, it asks the question, "How could a story like The Count of Monte Cristo occur in the nineteenth century?" This necessarily leads to a number of differences, since much of the actual story of The Count of Monte Cristo is tied up in the details of its period; adapting it to a different time requires a great deal of ingenuity and re-thinking. (Mathias Sandorf is also much less about revenge than The Count of Monte Cristo is, but this seems not to have been Verne's original intent. Hetzel, his publisher, was uncomfortable with serializing a revenge story in his family-focused magazine, so Verne had to re-think a number of things in order to make the story more obviously about justice rather than revenge.)

Count Mathias Sandorf is a Hungarian nobleman in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He and a number of others are involved in a conspiracy to try to liberate Hungary from the Austrians. They fail due to the treachery of some of those involved, which leads to several conspirators captured and executed. Sandorf himself disappears beneath the waves in a hail of bullets. Fifteen years later, a famous physician, Dr. Antekirtt, who is so extraordinarily wealthy that he owns his own private island and a fleet of advanced electric-powered ships, sets out to bring justice to the traitors, who one by one will fall into his grasp.

Fortnightly Book, November 11

I was stuck in an airport for five hours longer than expected yesterday, so didn't have this ready to go and didn't have a way to put it up.

Brian O'Nolan was an Irish civil servant who had ten siblings, all of whom he had to help support for various reasons. The Civil Service at the time (first half of the twentieth century) was that rare thing in Ireland, a job with a steady paycheck a man could live off of; but if you needed any extra money beyond that, your options were limited. It was not strictly illegal, but was very much frowned upon (as it generally is in a civil service), for a civil servant to express opinions in public on controversial matters, so if you wanted to do some writing on the side, you really needed to get departmental approval, and you can well imagine the problems you'd get trying to get anything particularly creative through the approval process of bureaucracy. O'Nolan got around this by a prolific use of pseudonyms. In many cases, that he was the author was in reality widely known, but civil servants are generally good at distinguishing what is known from what is officially known, and the pseudonyms let O'Nolan earn his much-needed extra spending money while letting his colleagues save face by not associating his real name with the satirical work at which he excelled.

And even we don't know all of his pseudonyms; there are many works that may or may not be O'Nolan's. (The problem is not made easier by the fact that one of O'Nolan's favorite things was to write crazy pseudonymous responses to irate pseudonymous letters he had written complaining about his pseudonymous columns.) The pseudonym under which he most garnered his fame was Myles na gCopaleen, which he used for satirical columns in the Irish Times; his column, "Cruiskeen Lawn", with its zany humor and endless imagination, developed an enthusiastic fan following in Ireland. (The Irish Times, aware of O'Nolan's situation, had the official position that the column had three pseudonymous authors. In reality, O'Nolan was the sole author, but it allowed the paper some wiggle room to shield O'Nolan if one of his columns touched a raw nerve in the wrong politician.) But the pseudonym that will likely last longest and the world over is Flann O'Brien, which he used for his novels.

I first read Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman in college and it immediately became perhaps my favorite postmodern novel. He wrote it about 1939, and was himself very pleased with it, but he failed completely to find any publisher willing to publish it. Rather heartbroken about it, he withdrew the manuscript from consideration and it was only published in 1967, the year after his death. In a sense it is a fitting irony that it was only the author's death that made the book publishable, since the book, to the extent it is about anything, is about death, of all kinds. At least, it is about death and bicycles. Or rather, it is about death and bicycles and teeth and policemen and the nameless narrator's soul, which for convenience he calls 'Joe'. And, in short, omnium, which is a name the signifies both a bicycle race and any nondescript or miscellaneous whatnot.

The BBC has a very good audio abridgement of it, which you can find at the Internet Archive.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea(s)

Introduction

Opening Passage: Using Walter's translation:

The year 1866 was marked by a bizarre development, an unexplained and downright inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten. Without getting into those rumors that upset civilians in the seaports and deranged the public mind even far inland, it must be said that professional seamen were especially alarmed. Traders, shipowners, captains of vessels, skippers, and master mariners from Europe and America, naval officers from every country, and at their heels the various national governments on these two continents, were all extremely disturbed by the business.

In essence, over a period of time several ships had encountered “an enormous thing” at sea, a long spindle-shaped object, sometimes giving off a phosphorescent glow, infinitely bigger and faster than any whale.

Summary: Pierre Aronnax, of the Paris Museum, is asked to assist the Abraham Lincoln in hunting a mysterious monster that has been damaging ships. With his servant Conseil and the harpoonist Ned Land, he discovers that the sea monster is in fact a submarine ship powered by sodium-ion batteries, an extraordinary achievement of technology, built and captained by the mysterious Captain Nemo.

One of the nice things about the work is how well it captures the joy of sheer discovery, of diggining into the treasury of the unknown. Professor Aronnax goes from an expert on the sea who has written speculative books about it based on traces of evidence to having plumbed the depths and seen it all firsthand. Between the two there is a wide gap.

I've always found Ned Land's role in the book to be a bit odd, since he spends most of it complaining. His harpooning skills do occasionally come in handy, but I think the real role he plays is to keep the theme of freedom in the forefront of the narrative, since Aronnax is liable to get lost in the adventure. Nemo fled to the depths of the sea in search of freedom, but he has nonetheless taken the freedom of the three travelers, as surely as the freedom of his own native land was taken (this is left mysterious here, but it is later said in The Mysterious Island that Nemo is a prince of India who attempted to fight the British Empire in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and not only was defeated but lost his wife and child, although Verne's original idea was that Nemo would be Polish and hate the Russian Empire). The entire book can be seen as a reflection on freedom: freedom of inquiry, freedom from oppression, the perils of freedom, the exhilaration of freedom. Perhaps this is the reason why Verne will eventually try to find some resolution to Nemo's tale in The Mysterious Island, which is also about freedom; there is no resolution here, since the book deliberately ends with unknowns.

I read the work in two translations, Walter's and Lewis's; Walter's is infinite superior. I also listened to both the Family Theater (#180) and the Favorite Story; they both attempt to be faithful but in the attempt to compress it down to a radio episode they end up being quite different. Favorite Story focuses on Captain Nemo; Family Theater focuses on Pierre Aronnax. Unsurprisingly, given the usual approaches of each series, Family Theater plays up the hope of Nemo's redemption much more than Favorite Story does. It's remarkable how reasonably faithful adaptations can go in some very different directions. But both are quite good.

Favorite Passage:

“You love the sea, captain.”

“Yes, I love it! The sea is the be all and end all! It covers seven-tenths of the planet earth. Its breath is clean and healthy. It’s an immense wilderness where a man is never lonely, because he feels life astir on every side. The sea is simply the vehicle for a prodigious, unearthly mode of existence; it’s simply movement and love; it’s living infinity, as one of your poets put it. And in essence, professor, nature is here made manifest by all three of her kingdoms, mineral, vegetable, and animal. The last of these is amply represented by the four zoophyte groups, three classes of articulates, five classes of mollusks, and three vertebrate classes: mammals, reptiles, and those countless legions of fish, an infinite order of animals totaling more than 13,000 species, of which only one-tenth belong to fresh water. The sea is a vast pool of nature. Our globe began with the sea, so to speak, and who can say we won’t end with it! Here lies supreme tranquility. The sea doesn’t belong to tyrants. On its surface they can still exercise their iniquitous claims, battle each other, devour each other, haul every earthly horror. But thirty feet below sea level, their dominion ceases, their influence fades, their power vanishes! Ah, sir, live! Live in the heart of the seas! Here alone lies independence! Here I recognize no superiors! Here I’m free!”

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Always, Everywhere, and for Everyone

Francisco Mejia Uribe attempts (unsuccessfully) to defend W. K. Clifford's argument about the ethics of belief from criticisms. One of the constant criticisms of Clifford's argument is that it is based on an exaggerated view that every single belief, without fail, is of serious social consequence (a view for which Clifford never gives adequate evidence). Uribe argues:

I think critics had a point – had – but that is no longer so. In a world in which just about everyone’s beliefs are instantly shareable, at minimal cost, to a global audience, every single belief has the capacity to be truly consequential in the way Clifford imagined. If you still believe this is an exaggeration, think about how beliefs fashioned in a cave in Afghanistan lead to acts that ended lives in New York, Paris and London. Or consider how influential the ramblings pouring through your social media feeds have become in your very own daily behaviour. In the digital global village that we now inhabit, false beliefs cast a wider social net, hence Clifford’s argument might have been hyperbole when he first made it, but is no longer so today.

This is obviously an absurd response. Not only is this evidence also completely inadequate to establish the claim being made, it's simply wrong. If John believes without any evidence that Mary has ten pairs of socks (e.g., if he just assumes that everyone has ten pairs like he does), how does the existence of social media and global travel and communication make 'the stakes very high'? If Francisco Mejia Uribe believes without adequate evidence that "every single belief has the capacity to be truly consequential", why should I consider this a serious moral wrong, rather than just bad reasoning without all the moralism about it?

Mejia Uribe also tries to defend on exactly the same grounds Clifford's argument that every single act of belief has a definite effect on our character, despite the fact that 'character' in this sense is a word used to describe something that is established by repeated actions, not single actions. It fails for this point, as well; there is simply no evidence that "careless believing" in the very, very weak sense it has to mean here -- namely, believing even one thing without adequate evidence -- "turns us into easy prey for fake-news pedlars, conspiracy theorists and charlatans".

Mejia Uribe's defense of Clifford's common property argument is no better:

Today, we truly have a global reservoir of belief into which all of our commitments are being painstakingly added: it’s called Big Data. You don’t even need to be an active netizen posting on Twitter or ranting on Facebook: more and more of what we do in the real world is being recorded and digitised, and from there algorithms can easily infer what we believe before we even express a view. In turn, this enormous pool of stored belief is used by algorithms to make decisions for and about us.

Big Data is not any kind of belief at all; it is data, as the name suggests, which is a different thing entirely. And as anyone knows who has dealt with algorithms, algorithms themselves often put forward false things on inadequate evidence. And as has been noted, a problem with Clifford's common property argument is that part of our common property consists of hypotheses and speculations put forward for further inquiry. Much of what we say we know is likely to need modification when new evidence comes in, or new ways of looking at old evidence are developed. And since the process of sorting and refinement is not affected whether the things in this treasury of things we think we know are even true or false, it's not clear why adding something on inadequate evidence (which might be false, but might also be true) would make any difference at all.

In any case, as I've noted before, the whole set of arguments fails because they are the wrong arguments to get the conclusion that Clifford wants; he wants to conclude "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence", but what the arguments would actually prove, if they worked, is "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything that tends to morally relevant bad consequences". Clifford never does anything to establish that the latter implies the former, nor does Mejia Uribe, and even if they did the 'always, everywhere, and for anyone' is just assumed, not established on sufficient evidence. Always, Everywhere, and Anyone are strong modal operators; they require that one have established a complete lack of exceptions.