Saturday, July 31, 2004

Divine Cause, and Humean Conceivability

There are two interesting posts at "Desert Landscapes" on an argument for God's nonexistence and on conceivability/possibility in Hume & Descartes. I have some minor things to say about both.

-->First, as to the argument about God's existence. The argument is something like this. The 'canonical explanandum' is not a single event or fact, but a contrastive phenomenon, i.e., the purpose of an explanation is not to explain why q is there so much as to explain why q is there rather than not-q. We can then assume that some such explanations are causal. Now, the argument goes, appeal to God is explanatorily impotent, because there is no possible state of affairs he is unable to bring about; for any q and not-q, God could as easily cause one as the other. Thus, for any q or not-q, citing God as an explanation is just as good an explanation for q as for not-q. Thus "God caused q rather than not-q" is never a good explanation.

I'm inclined to think that this tactic irremediably fails. It is not in doubt that q happened rather than not-q (or vice versa): in explanation we already know that one of the options is/was actual, because it is its being actual that we are trying to explain. Since God, by the admission of the argument, is able to bring about any possible state of affairs, He is able to bring about q (or not-q). Therefore he is a possible cause adequate to explain the effect, and, indeed, adequate to explain why q happened (rather than not-q). The fact that he is omnipotent is just an issue about the full range of possible states of affairs his causal capability could cover; except in the sense that any causal explanation must appeal to a cause capable of producing the effect being explained, it is not actually relevant to the question of explanation itself; the actual thing that explains is exercise of causal power. And having cleared away that God's causal power is capable of being exercised to cause q (rather than not-q), we have ipso facto conceded that God's causal power is capable of being an explanation of q (rather than not-q).

Now, the author does consider this issue, somewhat, in recognizing that the argument as stated doesn't cover the question of whether God would cause q (rather than not-q). So he suggests a patch to the argument: it is not the appeal to God that does the explanatory work in a first-cause argument, but the appeal to God's reasons, which can't exist unless God exists. Thus, "What we are still missing is an explanatory context in which God might be introduced into our ontology in the first place." He then says that sometimes he thinks this is a decent reply, and sometimes a lame one.

I think it limps. First, while the issue of whether God would cause q (rather than not-q) is of some importance, it really is not the chief issue. The chief issue is the causal argument to which this would have to be a counter: that the existence of q (rather than not-q) requires the existence of a cause capable of making there to be q (rather than not-q), and that certain such cases will require a cause that can reasonably be called 'divine'. This is all any sort of causal argument for the existence of God requires, and the proposed counterargument affects neither of these. Second, the basic appeal in causal explanation is to the actual disposition of a cause; now, some sorts of states of affairs might, for all the arguments tell us, require appeal to the sort of actual disposition that would be what some would call 'divine reasons' or 'divine intentions'. In this case the introduction of God as the cause with divine intentions would be very reasonable; and the proposed patch doesn't seem actually to present anything that would prevent this sort of move - i.e., it doesn't actually present anything that would lead us to believe that there could be no appeal to divine intentions. The patch is intended to show this; but it seems, as far as I can see, to simply assume it. So I think this basic strategy is a complete dead-end.

(It's worth noting, incidentally, that the proposed argument could only show that we have no causal reason to think that God exists; if there is some other sort of argument that went through which was not based on causal explanation, the argument wouldn't touch it. --> Also, see the parable below for clarification of my point about omnipotence above.)

--> The other post has to do with Descartes and Hume on the link between conceivability and possibility. This is an interesting issue, and I'm not sure how to phrase Hume's actual view. It would be something like this:

1. There are two sorts of perceptions, ideas and impressions.
2. Ideas (a.k.a. thoughts) are copies (and rearrangments of copies, and copies of copies, etc.) of impressions.
3. When we think of something as possible, we are thinking of it as having a unified idea, i.e., one without confusion or contradiction. This is just what it means for us to say something is possible - it's where we get the whole notion of possibility in the first place.

I don't see anything quite like this in the author's suggestions; Hume's linkage of the two is that we can't say things are possible of which we cannot coherently think, and what we mean when we say we know something is possible is that we can coherently think of it (in a sense of thinking that goes with (1) and (2) above). (Imaginability and conceivability, by the way, are synonyms for Hume; 'imagination' is just his word for the standard and natural operations of the mind.)

Update: I realized that there was some obscurity in my response re the divine cause thing. Here is a parable to clarify.

Two philosophers are on an island currently inhabited only by themselves, and not known to be previously inhabited. They come across some curious markings neither of them had seen before.

A: What curious markings! What could be their explanation?

B: I think they were made by human beings.

A: That's not an explanation.

B: I don't understand. Of course it's an explanation!

A: To be a causal explanation of p, you must explain why p rather than not-p. But your supposed explanation does not explain that.

B: But it does: that a human being made these markings explains why these markings are here, rather than not here.

A: Ah, but a human being is capable of also not making the markings. For instance, you will agree that a human being can make a statue instead of making markings.

B: Yes, but...

A: So it follows that appeal to a human being doesn't explain why there are markings here rather than something else, because a human being could make things other than markings.

B: But a human being is an intelligent cause, and an intelligent cause is the sort of thing that can be disposed or oriented so as to make markings. The existence of such an intelligent cause would explain these markings.

A: But then what is really doing the explanatory work is the disposition or orientation, the reasons why the intelligent cause would make those markings.

B: But what would that change?

A: Ah, it makes all the difference. Because for there to be such reasons we would have to presuppose that there is an intelligent cause that could have them. So, you see, my friend, your attempt to explain these markings by appeal to a human being is secretly an appeal to reasons. But we can't do that without assuming that there was already a human being on this island capable of making these markings. But what we are still missing is an explanatory context in which we might make the appeal to a human being in the first place....

(This parable could, of course, be modified, e.g., scifi it by placing it on a newly discovered planet and make it about whether the markings are signs of alien intelligence. It shows, I think, that there is something wrong with the argument; for appeal to a human being could be a quite reasonable explanation, and can't be ruled out merely because human beings can cause all sorts of things. So there doesn't seem to be any way God, as cause, could be ruled out as cause merely because He can cause all sorts of things - which seems to be the move the argument makes. Perhaps I'm missing something.)

What Kind of Euripides Fan Am I?

I just realized that I completely forgot to go to a performance of Euripides' The Trojan Women last night (which was the last night it was playing), and I am very angry at myself.

I was really eager to see how they would do Cassandra, too.

I will have to find some way of adequately compensating....

Toward a Possible Scholastic Answer to Malebranche's Infinity Challenge

I recently posted on Malebranche's infinity challenge. In essence this challenge is this: Find an account of our idea of infinity that does not require that we perceive it in infinite being (i.e., God), and that does not illegitimately smuggle in the idea of infinity. It turns out to be very difficult to do; and, indeed, I think it is likely to be impossible for a number of very popular views of the mind today.

Now, Malebranche's vision-in-God thesis, the idea that all our ideas are divine ideas seen in God, was rejected, under the name 'ontologism' by the Catholic Church. Or, to be more exact, it was determined by Rome that Malebranche's thesis came dangerously close to a thesis that had already been condemned at the Council of Vienne (1311-1312), and this led to more specific condemnations in 1862. (Rather interestingly, the Council of Vienne gave Cartesians a great deal of trouble on other grounds as well; e.g., it asserts that the rational soul is the form of the body, and this was difficult to accommodate under a Cartesian view -- although not for lack of trying.) I haven't been able to find a text of the 1862 condemnations on-line, but John Paul II briefly mentions them, in a clear and lucid way, in section 52 of Fides et Ratio (although the note to that section gives the date as 1861; this is the only place I've seen that lists 1861 rather than 1862 - is this a typo in the encyclical, or is it the right date?).

So this brings up the interesting question: is there a way a Catholic (or anyone who agrees with the Catholic rejection of ontologism) could meet Malebranche's infinity challenge without accepting Malebranche's own solution?

I think there might be. A key premise in the argument is that we are finite substances. Now, this seems undeniable; but it would be possible to argue, I think, and on a scholastic view there would be good sense in arguing, that human beings are not finite in the relevant way, i.e., in the way required by the argument. Here is my thought. Most of the strength of Malebranche's argument comes from the fact that we can recognize mathematical infinites. Now, if, as scholastics hold, the rational soul is in itself immaterial, although fitted for a body, then it would follow that the soul is not finite relative to extension, i.e., not quantitatively finite. If the soul, however, is infinite in one aspect (it is not bounded by quantitative limits in some way), then this would seem to get around a great deal of Malebranche's argument. It still leaves some things unanswered, e.g., how we know the infinity of God - but there are scholastic answers to this. So there may be a scholastic answer to Malebranche. I can't think of any other account of the mind that would be able to provide such an answer: given that we can recognize potentially infinite things as infinite, either the intellect must in some sense be infinite or it must perceive something actually infinite - otherwise we have no explanation available to us of our situation.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Endeavor and Power

It may be pretended, that the resistance which we meet with in bodies, obliging us frequently to exert our force, and call up all our power, this gives us the idea of roce nd power. It is this nisus, or strong endeavour, of which we are conscious, that is the original impression from which this idea is copied. But, first, we attribute power to a vast number of objects, where we never can suppose this resistance or exertion of force to take place, to the Supreme Being, who never meets with any resistance; to the mind in its command over its ideas and limbs, in common thinking and motion, where the effect follows immediately upon th will, without any exertion or summoning up of force, to inanimate matter, which is not capable of this sentiment. Secondly, This sentiment of an endeavour to overcome resistance has no known connexion with any event: What follows it we know by experience; but could not know it a priori. It must, however, be confessed that the animal nisus, which we experience though it can afford no accurate precise idea of power, enters very much into that vulgar, inaccurate idea, which is formed of it.

This is from Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Chapter VII.

It seems to me that Hume has underestimated the real challenge provided to his theory by the sentiment of nisus or endeavor. Some of my thoughts on why:

1) Can we actually make any sense of our feeling this overcoming-of-resistance without thinking of it in terms of exercise of power (both of endeavor and of resistance to it)? To be sure, we can't, a priori, determine whether this endeavor will have an effect - but it seems that any sentiment of endeavor is very plausibly characterized as the sentiment of one's own exercise of power resisted by something else's exercise of power. Hume always thinks of 'power' or 'agency' as something that has an effect; but isn't this a bit odd? Isn't it a part of our idea of power or agency that usually it can be exercised but fail (if certain conditions are met).

2) It is true that we attribute power to things to which our sentiment of endeavor can't be attributed. But (a) this doesn't prevent the sentiment of endeavor from really being a sentiment of (one kind of) power; (b) the reason we don't attribute to endeavor to God is that there is no adequate resisting power - but our sentiment of endeavor seems to be an impression of exercising-power-against-a-resisting-exercise-of-power. This resistance can be greater or less; we can take endeavor as an idea of the exercise of power, and let the power of resistance approach to zero, and we have an effortless exercise of power. Hume might consider this effortless endeavor to be a fiction or even a straightforward error; but in the Treatise he does similar sorts of things (e.g., with regard to geometry or to the coherence of our perceptions), so it's hard to say why it would be completely ruled out; (c) we don't attribute our sentiment of endeavor to inanimate matter, but we don't attribute our sentiment of extension to inanimate matter, either. We still can say that inanimate matter is extended; the only reasons that could be proposed for denying parallel treatment to endeavor are that endeavor isn't something really sensed in the sensation of endeavor, or that it is essentially conscious in nature. These would need to be argued.

3. Hume needs to say _why_ it enters into the vulgar idea of power, if it has nothing to do with power. Why would such a confusion be possible?

I suspect Hume could present a coherent response to the endeavor theory; but his dismissing it in a footnote doesn't really do justice to it.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Malebranche's Infinity Challenge

The following is the section of my thesis I previously said I would put up. Let me know what you think. Is there anything that could be made clear? Any philosophical response I haven't considered properly?

Abbreviations: "LO" indicates the Lennon-Olscamp translation of The Search after Truth; "JS" indicates the Jolley-Scott edition of Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion; "OC" indicates not a county in California but the Oeuvres Completes. Footnotes are indicated by bracketed numbers.

Digression on Infinity and Ideas

At this point we are only halfway through the eliminative argument. However, given that our primary interest is not the argument itself but showing that Malebranche’s theory of ideas is part of an attempt to build a theory of Reason, it is worth our time to stop a moment to consider the issue of infinity more closely. As we shall see, Malebranche’s thoughts on the infinite show quite clearly that theory of ideas subserves this greater project of formulating a theory of Reason.

A good place to start, when considering Malebranche’s view of the infinite, is geometry. We have, one could say, an idea of extension, which has no limits; it is an infinite idea. Our minds cannot exhaust it. It cannot be a modification of our minds, since we are finite substances and therefore incapable of having the infinite as a modification of our substances. Our thought cannot, as it were, ‘stretch’ to measure out this infinite idea. Should we then say that we cannot really have such an idea? It might well seem tempting at this point to deny that we, as finite substances, conceive the infinite at all. [1] There is reason to think this too easy, however, and Malebranche provides a powerful little argument along these lines, which we can call the world traveler argument.

Suppose a man falls from the clouds to the earth. He has no prior experience of the earth, so he brings with him no preconceptions about it. He begins to walk in a straight line along one of the earth’s great circles. We will suppose as well that no features of the earth, e.g., mountain ranges or oceans, impede him. After he has been doing this for several days, he still has not found the end of his journey. If he is wise, he will not thereby assume the surface of the earth to be infinite; and, in fact, he is right, for if he walks long enough, he will eventually return to his starting point. The earth is finite. The idea of extension, however, is different; this idea is inexhaustible, and, says Malebranche, this is “because [the mind] sees it as actually infinite, because it knows very well it will never exhaust it” (JS 15).

The force of this argument can easily be missed, so it may perhaps be useful to look at it more closely. [2] Suppose our world traveler moves successively through points A, B, C, D, and E on the earth’s surface. In describing the whole journey he expects to make, he might write in his journal:

<A, B, C, D, E, …> ,

that is, “First A, then B, then C, then D, then E, and so on.” Let us then contrast this with movement along the x-axis of a Cartesian grid. We might describe this as:

<0, 1, 2, 3, 4, …>,

that is, “First 0, then 1, then 2, then 3, then 4, and so on.” Now we have an interesting contrast. In both descriptions we have used the ellipsis or “and so on” to gesture to a continuation of the series. The two gestures however, are almost palpably different. The “and so on” of the first series is not the same as the “and so on” of the second series. We might put the difference by describing the former as ‘indefinite’ and the latter as ‘infinite’. The infinite is not merely a group of finite things combined with a gesture toward their continuation; it is something that can be recognized on its own without running through the series. We do not need to journey the entire x-axis to see that it has no end. We cannot adequately explain the infinite by taking a series of finite things and recognizing that it continues; it must continue in a particular way, namely, an infinite way. The infinite series does not just continue; it continues infinitely. This argument serves to show us that, finite though we may be, we do in some way perceive the infinite. Malebranche supports this claim with a further consideration. Geometry clearly deals with infinites (infinite lines, infinite divisibility, and so forth). The claims made by geometers, however, are not tentative judgments based on trial and error or analogy. Once you understand the mathematics, it is not necessary to test it out against the finite things we find in the world around us. In mathematics there seems to be some sense in which we simply ‘see’ that something is infinite. [3] The claim that we, though finite, really do in some way perceive the infinite, is a well-founded one.

Infinity is not a solitary case. Our conclusions about infinity imply conclusions about the universality or generality of our ideas. Malebranche, in fact, barely separates the two. If we take, for instance, the idea of a circle in general, “the idea of the general circle represents infinite circles and applies to them all” (JS 27). Such an idea has to apply not merely to the circles we have actually experienced, but to every possible circle. If you claim to have an idea of a circle insofar as it is a circle, but cannot apply it to every possible circle, then, properly speaking, you do not have the idea you claim to have. Malebranche uses this to develop an argument about universality parallel to that about infinity. Someone might hold that general ideas like that of a circle are either a confused assemblage of particular ideas or something formed out of such an assemblage. Let us suppose we have encountered five circles, one, two, three, four and five units in diameter, respectively. The fact that we need to it to be applicable to infinite possible circles means that, for the reasons given above, this assemblage of circles cannot be our idea of circle in general. Any such assemblage will be finite, no matter how confused we made it, applying only to the region of all possible circles from which we have gathered our particular circles. Such an assemblage, intended to indicate circles universally, could not be distinguished from the same assemblage intended to refer only to this region of possible circles, without already having a universal idea.

The view that we form the idea of circle in general from the circles we have actually experienced fares somewhat better, although it, too, is rejected:

It is false in the sense that there is sufficient reality in the idea of five or six circles to form the idea of a circle in general from them. But it is true in the sense that, having recognized that the size of circles does not change their properties, you have perhaps stopped considering them one after the other according to their determinate size., in order to consider them in general according to an indeterminate size. Thus, you have, as it were, formed the idea of circle in general, by spreading the idea of generality over the confused ideas of circles you imagined. (JS 27)

In other words, the cardinal difficulty with this attempt is one of explanation. While this view purports to explain how we get our idea of circle in general, the explanans is not adequate to the explanandum. In a more subtle way it runs into exactly the same problem the previous view did, since the assemblage of circles in itself does not provide what is needed in order to have an idea of circle in general rather than just of some circles. This is a problem analogous to the one we saw with infinity. Just as we cannot shift from indefinite continuation to infinite continuation without already appealing to the infinite, so we cannot shift from a confused composite to a general idea without appealing to generality itself; and, as Malebranche has Theodore say, “I maintain you could form general ideas only because you find enough reality in the idea of the infinite to give the idea of generality to your ideas” (JS 27). We cannot explain our having ideas of infinite possible application without allowing something recognizably infinite from the very beginning, and the same is true of universality. Nor are these two properties the only problematic ones. Considerations like these will continue to cascade into cases, like necessity, that are closely connected to issues of infinity and generality. If naturalizing something means reducing it to, or explaining it in terms of, something more manageably finite, our ideas cannot be naturalized.

I wish to insist on the strength of the position just discussed. Malebranche’s arguments do not, I think, admit of any easy evasion. One cannot evade the argument, for instance, by making a distinction in ideas between perceptions and objects and arguing that our ideas are formally finite while objectively infinite. If the ‘objectively infinite’ aspect of the idea is part of the ‘formally finite’ aspect, i.e., if the object is in any sense part of the perception, then it is not clear that the distinction has evaded the problem at all. If the ‘objectively infinite’ is completely different from the ‘formally finite,’ then it is unclear why this is not conceding the whole argument. In fact, it is unclear what would distinguish this from Malebranche’s own solution; while it is not Malebranche’s preferred way of describing his position, it is a fairly accurate characterization of it. [4]

This returns us to our original puzzle about the origin of these infinite (general, necessary, etc.) ideas. Since we cannot resolve the matter by explaining it away as any sort of illusion, confusion, or extrapolation, given that we clearly do perceive the infinite in some way, we need another solution. Malebranche provides one in his thesis about the vision in God. The basic elements of the argument for this solution are the following:

1. We perceive ideas that are infinite.
2. We are finite.
3. Nothing that is finite can represent the infinite.
4. Therefore there is an infinite something other than ourselves in which we perceive ideas, i.e., God. [5]

At this point it is a good idea to stop and ask ourselves where Malebranche intends to go with this line of thought, which is often called the ‘argument from properties’. [6] It is easy to think that the point of this is just to establish a particular theory of ideas, namely, the vision in God thesis. There is good reason, however, to think that Malebranche has more in view. In all the cases in which Malebranche gives or alludes to his infinite ideas argument, he makes or has made some link between it and universal Reason. This is least obvious in the discussion of Descartes’s argument in Search 4.11, where the mentions are brief and oblique: one reference to divine self-knowledge and another to the eternal model in God’s essence. On their own they could easily be interpreted in ways having nothing to do with Malebranche’s frequent mentions of sovereign Reason, the interior Teacher, and the like. The thing we need to keep in mind, however, is that The Search after Truth is an unwise place to make an argument from silence, or even simplicity of interpretation. The Search, although it is a rich lode of Malebranche’s thought, is not devoted to expounding that thought in a systematic form. Instead, it is concerned with teaching how to avoid error in inquiry. Because of this, Malebranche’s substantial views are presented in a disjointed way, often as mere examples or asides to illustrate or qualify the more methodological concerns of the text. The discussion of Descartes’s argument is a good example of this; it occurs as an illustrative example in a discussion of how love of sensible pleasure can prejudice people against the truth. To see the proper context of Malebranche’s thought, we must look elsewhere; and what we seem to find is that the infinite ideas argument is generally used to contribute to a theory of Reason. The entire Dialogues, for instance, presents itself a discussion presupposing the centrality of universal Reason. The very first speech given to Theodore, Malebranche’s primary spokeseman in the Dialogues, shows this clearly:

Let us attempt to have nothing prevent us each from consulting our common master, universal Reason. For it is inner truth that must govern our discussion. This is what must dictate to me what I should tell you and what you are to learn through me. (JS 3)

The actual discussion of the infinite ideas argument we have just considered is for the express purpose of clarifying the nature of universal Reason. Thus Theodore asks Aristes, his interlocutor, “Do you now know what that Reason is, about which so much is said in this material and terrestrial world, but of which so little is known there?” and Aristes responds with a summary of the infinite ideas argument. The same theme occurs, somewhat less obviously, in the Tenth Elucidation to the Search, on the nature of ideas. The discussion of the nature of ideas there places ideas entirely within the context of universal Reason. The properties of ideas are not distinguished form those of universal Reason itself, because the argument that universal Reason is infinite, necessary, immutable, and therefore divine, is at the same time an argument that ideas are so. In other words, Malebranche considers the infinite ideas argument for God’s existence to be an argument that Reason itself, being infinite, is divine. The theory of ideas is one aspect of a theory of Reason. To one who knows what to look for, this is true even in the Search, since it is elsewhere quite clear that the eternal model in the divine substance, known through divine self-knowledge, is Reason. [7]


[1] There is another possible response, namely, to try to find a way around the argument by distinguishing formal from objective infinity. This will be considered more fully below.

[2] This account should be compared to Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I, § 208, on the ‘and so on’ that is, and the ‘and so on’ that is not, an abbreviated notation.

[3] Note that to reject this supplementary argument requires more than an appeal to the possibility of a finitistic mathematics; it requires the stronger and more controversial claim that mathematics can only be finitistic. All Malebranche needs for his argument is the conclusion that mathematical use of infinites can make sense; if this is so, then when we think of the infinite, we really are thinking of the infinite rather than something else (e.g., a confusion, or indefiniteness).

[4] For hints toward an argument like the one I am suggesting here, see Malebranche’s discussion of Arnauld and Descartes on the objective reality of ideas in Trois Lettres, I, Rem. III (OC 6:214-218). See also OC 6:58, to which he refers in this passage.

[5] Identifying this something other than ourselves in which we perceive ideas as God is not as much of a leap as it may seem. It does presuppose the Cartesian view that God is infinite being, but nothing more than that, and can largely be considered simply a verbal issue. Also, it should be kept in mind that, while I only list infinity here, there are other properties closely related to infinity that also are in play because they follow patterns similar to infinity: universality, necessity, and so forth.

[6] See Nadler, Malebranche and Ideas, 92-97; Pyle, Malebranche, 57-61.

[7] For an excellent summary of these aspects of Malebranche’s theory of Reason, with the relevant references, see Reid, “Malebranche on Intelligible Extension,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy (November 2003) 587-589.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

The Amazing Race 5

For a bit of the entirely non-academic:

The only reality TV show I like is The Amazing Race, which this summer is my non-negotiable TV show - i.e., it automatically gets its place on my schedule, and everything else on Tuesday nights (when it shows on CTV here) has to work around it. In the past I've been a fairly good judge of teams: the teams I've rooted for (I always root for two) have always done fairly well: one always makes it into the top three (usually second place). This year my number one pick is Charla and Mirna, who are just plain amazing; followed by Brandon and Nicole, because I always root for Texans. (Colin and Christie are also Texan, and might very well win, since they consistently do well; but Brandon and Nicole work better together. C & C would be my third pick,if I had one.) Part of the reason I like Charla and Mirna is that the harder the other teams try to outmaneuver them, the more easily they beat them; they're also very funny - they have some acquaintance with a large selection of languages, but not fluency in most of them, so they've managed to get by so far with the most extraordinarily comical Franco-Italo-Spanglish.

Christian Carnival (July 28)

The Christian Carnival is up at Jeremiah Lewis's "Fringe" weblog. The organization of the posts by places in Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was an excellent idea - it works wonderfully well. I have a small contribution (my first) here. It's nothing impressive; I didn't actually have much available to submit. Some of the posts I found especially interesting:

* charity at "Doc Rampage": on the moral dilemma we face when people beg for money on the streets

* Organized Religion and the Church at "Parableman"

* Legislating Morality at "Exultate Justi": on the intersection of faith and politics

* Razzle Dazzle at "Wanderings of a postModern Pilgrim": on the problems of flashy worship services

* Exercise in Clear Thinking at "The Dawn Treader"

* Reasons For Our Hope at "reasons why": on apologetics

As I said, these are the ones that struck me as most interesting; but there are lots of others worth reading.

Female-Friendliness in Ranking Departments

Julia C. Van Camp has an interesting article on the issue of women in philosophy, looking at some questions raised by Leiter's The Philosophical Gourmet Report. (Thanks to Ektopos for the link.) It is an important issue. It occurred to me recently that a great deal, and perhaps even a strong majority, of philosophical work being done at present that I find especially interesting and worthwhile is being done by women: Margaret Atherton, Anne Jaap Jacobsen, Martha Nussbaum, Onora O'Neill, Eleonore Stump, Marleen Rozemond, etc. And yet there does seem to be a tendency in which either the best departments are getting away for some reason with not hiring many women, or (this would be even worse, and, unfortunately, there is at least anecdotal evidence that this is so) departments are considered the best departments because they are more male. As with everything for which we have only anecdotal evidence one way or another, it's hard to know what's really going on. I didn't pick graduate schools on the basis of any sort of ranking - I mostly just applied to any schools I knew of that had large departments (because I wanted a bit of freedom of intellectual movement) and a decent reputation for good history-of-philosophy work. But students who do use rankings in picking grad schools should certainly follow Van Camp's proposal and look at female-friendliness as part of their assessment. I think in particular the following questions mentioned in the paper are important:

1. Does the department show an openness to hiring female faculty members for tenure-track positions?

2. Are female faculty hired mainly for temporary, visiting, or adjunct positions?

5. Does the department have an established policy on faculty-student dating, and is it enforced? (I think this is a very important issue, but it needs to be approached carefully. The University of Toronto, for instance, has an obscure and, if I may say so, weasely policy - it's hard to find and it doesn't say much. But the philosophy grad students here are exceptionally professional in their approach to students, so the practice is exactly what one could hope.)

7. Does the department include a reasonable proportion of women among its invited guest speakers at department events and conferences?

Van Camp is right that these sorts of questions are important for women who are looking for non-hostile departments. But they are also, I think, of interest to male students, because they are usually at least moderately good indications of the quality of thought in the air in the department.

Cartesian Meditations

I just came across this poem I had written some time ago and completely forgotten. It summarizes the philosophical argument of Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy. It's very uneven, but if I may say so myself, the first stanza is completely awesome.

Cartesian Meditations
A poetical summary of Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy

Meditation One

Doubts beset on every side.
Nor all my effort nor my pride
Shall save me ere I err.
And if, and at what mighty cost,
In wanderlust I wander, lost--
How wretched am I there!

Meditation Two

I am, and in this am I caught
By, most certain of my thoughts,
My thinking I exist.
And this 'I' I know in knowing me
Is a thinking thing, as thought can see,
And so it does subsist.

Meditation Three

I am finite, and, being bound,
I know the boundless may be found.
Within my being I always feel
The imprint of my Maker's seal,
Latent, and however dim,
In the idea I have of Him.

Meditation Four

Try as I might, I cannot believe
That perfect being could deceive;
To lie, a defect will be found,
It pertaineth not to Heaven's Hound,
The God who chases every soul
To Truth alone that makes it whole.

Meditation Five

I look within; ideas I find
That pass within my thinking mind,
And quantities I see.
Their essence do I then explore;
Mathematics is then sure once more,
And God I see to be.

Meditation Six

My proper function God has made
Who never lies; and as He bade,
Thought I body then to be.
And now, I see it all so clear
That I can say sans doubt and fear
'Tis bodies that I see.

Now hear the moral of it all;
However doubt and worry fall,
There is recourse within our mind
That meditating thinkers find.
Knowledge of bodies is not more whole
Than that of God and of our soul.

But, Happily, I Am Not in the Slough of Despond

Somebody needs to write a Pilgrim's Progress of the Graduate Student. I am currently struggling to find a pass through the Mountains of Frustration. I've been working on reorganizing the early chapters of my thesis. Part of what I've done is to break off parts of Chapter One (on Universal Reason as essential to Malebranche's system) and Chapter Two (on the historical structure of Malebranche's system - there's a cosmic narrative, and what answer you give to some philosophical questions will depend on what part of the narrative you're thinking about) to form a New Chapter Two (on Malebranche's use of the doctrine of the Trinity to guide his philosophical work, and what benefits he gets from this). But the New Chapter Two Word file has gone insane. It refuses to admit there are more than five pages - all the pages of the chapter are there, but it keeps trying to fit them all into five pages. I can't edit the file because if I click on a page, it puts me on another page, one of the ones it refused to show me before. I'll have to retype the entire chapter. *sigh* And I certainly won't manage to do so before I meet to discuss my progress for this month (Thursday); I feel like the student whose dog really did eat his homework. Meanwhile, other things are building up that need to get done this week. *double sigh*

On the other hand, Chapter One looks great; it proves everyone else wrong in a swift, economical, and (I think) devastating way, which is exactly what you want in an opening chapter of a philosophy thesis. (I'm exaggerating a bit, of course; but I do end up criticizing a great deal of contemporary Malebranche scholarship's pet projects; there's surprising little interest in the scholarship in anything distinctively Catholic, or even Christian, about this 17th century thinker who insisted that he only did philosophy that was distinctively Catholic. It's very heartening that this chapter is turning out so well. One of the difficulties of doing history of philosophy is that you're discouraged from talking about anything out of pure curiosity about the thinker being studied; you always have to justify your project philosophically in the face of whatever arbitrary and goofball and, occasionally, historically ill-informed notions your contemporaries have about the way philosophy should 'really' be done.) I've been intending to put up a section of that chapter here, on Malebranche's argument from infinity for the existence of God, but there's still some tweaking I want to do first. Also good: the other chapters will need less reorganization than these did; they just need a bit of development.

It's still frustrating to have wasted so many hours in trying to make that (fill in expletive here) Word file work properly, only to be defeated by the perverseness of evil software.

A Bit of Puzzlement

I have been perusing Richard Taylor's Ethics, Faith, and Reason in between doing some thesis revisions. Ugh! I don't recommend it. I wish I were at the stage of my career in which I could get away with writing a book consisting almost entirely of unsubstantiated statements and sweeping historical theses backed up by no actual evidence at all (and hope that if I ever get there I'll have the good sense not to do it). There are no footnotes. Except for those that go with some passages from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, there are no citations. There is no bibliography. The argument rests almost entirely on a historical thesis that is not defended, either in its sweeping outlines or in its particular parts. To be sure, the book is a published set of lectures, where one can allow for a little more moxy and a little less precision. But there really is no excuse for this. The blurb says:

Among its features, the book:
* challenges the ethical framework inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition
* offers a new appreciation of the ancient Greek moralists
* provides clearly-written, readily-grasped text
* develops material in such a way as to stimulate discussion

The book is certainly "readily-grasped"; everything else about this summary is false. It is not clearly written. Particular sections are, but trying to figure out the flow of the argument of this book is immensely difficult. I see nothing particularly new about its appreciation of ancient Greek moralists (and it only really considers Aristotle, anyway). He doesn't do any real challenging of anything, unless you call casting vague aspersions challenging. The text does not seem to have anything particularly conducive to discussion; most of it is far too vague, and, except for some shock-value statements (e.g., rejecting egalitarianism), there's not much even to get a buzz out of a hornet's nest. It isn't even clear that his thesis is remotely right; he leaves out the the Scholastics, who surely need to be considered if you're considering how we changed from a Greek view of ethics to the one we have today. His discussion of Stoicism hardly rises above caricature; and he doesn't discuss it nearly enough given that the Stoics appear to throw a wrench in the works of his view that the rise of an ethics of duty is due to the Church (his discussion of the Church is even more vague and caricatured).

I find it rather disturbing. Philosophy is, to be sure, a much more rough-and-tumble, slippery discipline than most other disciplines; we need to be a bit more flexible in our approaches than is, perhaps, entirely sane. But were an equivalent of this book published in another discipline it would, I think, rightly be laughed out of court. I find the book almost childish; and I tend to be a very sympathetic reader, willing to give authors the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I'm missing something....

In Other Words, I Need To Be More Humble

Take the 100 Acre Personality Quiz!

Ah, but I do have the advantage over Owl that I can spell; the only word Owl can spell right is TUESDAY (but as Rabbit says, there are days when spelling Tuesday doesn't count).

Monday, July 26, 2004

Best Known Philosophical Sentences

Jonathan Dresner at Cliopatria has an interesting post on well-known philosophical sentences. He proposes several plausible ones. Here's my list:

1. I think therefore I am. (Descartes)
2. Virtue is its own reward. (Cicero)
3. I proclaim that might is right, and justice, the interest of the stronger. (Plato, but not his own view)
4. God is dead. (Nietzsche)
5. The unexamined life is not worth living for man. (Plato)
6. It [the just state] will be possible when, and only when, kings are philosophers and philosophers are kings. (Plato)
7. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. (Emerson)
8. Man is by nature a political animal. (Aristotle)
9. To us, probability is the very guide to life. (Butler)
10. All men desire to know. (Aristotle)
11. Philosophy begins in wonder. (Plato)
12. Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth. (Aristotle)
13. Reason is, and only ought to be, the slave of the passions. (Hume)
14. Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains. (Rousseau)
15. What is time, then? If nobody asks me, I know; if I have to explain it to someone who has asked me, I do not know. (Augustine)
16. Give me chastity and continence, but not yet. (Augustine, describing the real meaning of his prayers for chastity after his conversion)
17. Love and do what you will. (Augustine)
18. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. (Pascal)
19. Why is there something rather than nothing? (Liebniz)
20. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. (John Stuart Mill)
21. That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers. (Hutcheson - although it was due to Bentham that it became popular)
22. Everything is what it is, and not another thing. (Butler)
23. Truth is the cry of all, but the game of few. (Berkeley)
24. To be is to be perceived. (Berkeley, of ideas)
25. God and nature do nothing in vain. (Aristotle)
26. There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it. (Cicero)
27. We go to war in order to live in peace. (Aristotle)
28. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. (Marx)
29. Religion is the opiate of the people. (Marx)
30. Justice is rendering each person his due. (Plato, quoting Simonides)

I had originally intended to put them in order from most popular to least; but it became far too difficult. Do you have anything to add?

They're Politicians. It's What They Do.

I always find discussions about how to manipulate people a bit chilling. But there is, I think, a real point to it, and it is a valuable occasion for philosophical thought.

Medieval Muslim philosophers did extensive work in looking at rhetoric and poetics as logical disciplines. And one way they were able to do that was to look at various arts having to do with language and divide them according to the sort of assent to which they are geared. There was demonstration (scientific assent), for instance, or dialectic (probable assent). The type of assent they associated with rhetoric was imaginative assent; and this was a pre-intellectual impulse toward or away from something. A good way to think of the difference between imaginative assent and the various sorts of intellectual assent is to think of a glass floor There's one in the CN Tower here in Toronto; you can see a long, long way down. Now, intellectually you may know that the floor will hold you. But imagination, i.e., your 'sensory processing', leads you to feel a dissent or dissonance at the idea of walking on the glass floor.

Another way logical disciplines are divided is by their purpose. Rhetoric's purpose is to persuade; it is necessary as a logical discipline because of our social nature, the complexity of practical life, the need for practical action, and the limited time and resources we have for investigating every single issue. Thus, Avicenna and Averroes in essence regard rhetoric as a shorthand logic, suitable for acquiring the sort of assent that leads to practical action, in cases where the other disciplines can't (again, for practical reasons) be used. As Jean Buridan, who, like many of the Christian medievals, was influenced by them on this score, says, rhetoric and poetics are a moral logic, i.e., a logic for use in the buzz and rush of actual human practice.

While they didn't put it quite this way, the logical structures to which rhetoric appeals are associative (this is one reason, I think, why Hume's emphasis on principles of association became so influential - it spoke to the rhetoric- and practice-related interests of Scotland at the time). This is related to Lakoff's 'framing'.

But this all suggests, I think, that Lakoff is simply wrong when he says that one party understands framing and the other doesn't. Politicians who didn't have at least a rough feel for framing would be politically incompetent and would tend not to get elected; you have to influence people to an imaginative perspective to be an effective politician at all. I think Lakoff may be thrown off by his own example of taxation. The reason people are affected so much by the phrase 'tax relief' is not that it sounds good and is said a lot (although that may contribute) but because it triggers associations that are already there. When people hear it, it doesn't sound suspicious, because Americans, even many progressives, don't feel taxation to be a blessing; at best they feel it to be, as Lakoff calls it, following Oliver Wendell Holmes, to be "the price of civilization." But prices aren't, as we normally think of them, blessings and benefits. Which sounds better: high price or low price? High cost or low cost? And which tax payment would make you more comfortable: $10 or $100? The reason 'tax relief' catches on so easily is that we are all (including progressives) already primed to think of taxes as a burden - even if we think of it as only a light burden, or a burden worth having. And doesn't it sound good to be relieved from a burden? Doesn't it feel like not having to pay as much would be a nice thing, if you can get it? The problem is not that progressives or Democrats haven't framed the raising of taxes properly; it's that they have to deal with frames already in place, with the associations already common. It catches on because, given the associations in place, people are relieved to be paying less tax. You could call taxation "noble sharing," and in the long run in our society all it would do is give nobility and sharing a bad name. It would be treated as an outrageous euphemism. The effect would be exactly the opposite of what was intended: it would turn people off, not on; it would trigger imaginative dissent, not imaginative assent. Taxation is a misleading issue; we can't conclude anything from it about who is better at framing. (And what's up with Lakoff's 'strict father' and 'nurturant parent' models? Does he only study people who like big government?) And, I think, a close look at Democratic party issues will show, as it would show for any political party with large popular support in any nation, a very good feel for framing. It's rhetoric; no party can have influence without it. (It's also why philosophers need to work on the issue of political taste.)

And I Was Like, It's All About, Like, Language as Approximative Re-enactment; And She Was Like, Wow!

It is insinuating itself all over the place; you can barely go anywhere without it being heard. I confess I use it. Teenage girls use it so extensively these days one wonders if they can say anything else. It is the Pervasive Syllable: "like". It's, like, totally everywhere.

I'm not a linguist, but I actually think this transformation of language, the slow creep of 'like', makes a great deal of sense, because I think it parallels, and, indeed, results from (or is it a contributing cause of, or both?) the spread of a particular style of thinking.

While it gets annoying very quickly, if you think about it, most of the creeping uses of the word make great sense. Consider the following uses, which have steadily become more common:

1. 'like' as a replacement for 'as it were' - it operates on exactly the same principles (it qualifies figures of speech), but gets rid of the subjunctive (this is my least favorite use, in part because I like the subjunctive; would that the subjunctive were more common!).

2. 'like' as an indication of approximative re-enactment: "She was like, wearing this red dress, so I was like, You're so totally not going to wear that today, and she was like, Oh, yes I am, and I was like, Well, OK, loser, and she was like, Well, I don't have anything else, and I was like, thinking, What a loser, the whole time and I, like, said she should wear green instead of red, and she was like, Like you know anything, and I was like, I do too know, and she was like, Whatever, and I was like, so mad that I, like, hit her." I'm not at all quite sure how to describe this story, so I've made up the phrase "approximative re-enactment" - it's approximative because all such uses of 'like' are approximative in that it would often be improper to think of the description as an exact description. It's not impossible that it conveys some information exactly, but the use of 'like' functions to set off some information as a unit that might be exact recall of words or deeds, but which could also just be an expressive representation. For instance, if someone says, "And I was, like, Whatever," this may mean either that he said whatever, or that he didn't, but his emotional response would have been expressed well by saying, "Whatever". The reason I call it re-enactment should, I think, be fairly clear; it is a description of events that proceeds by actually dividing up what happened into 'scenes' and representing those scenes by verbal snippets that either were said or that could have been said.

It's the impressionistic analogue to classical story-telling.

I have a hypothesis for why thinking and speaking in these impressionistic associations is becoming so common. This re-enactment function of language has a long history; but it seems to me to be encouraged by pop media, which are constructed on analogous principles. Thus, I've previously argued that movies are not plot-driven; they have plots, in the sense that they have organizations of scenes according to some idea, but the plots subserve the spectacle of the scenes, which is the primary focus of the medium. Likewise with TV. Likewise, in a different sensory modality, with popular music. Likewise many novels. Stories are presented to us almost entirely by means of representative fragments; so, when people tell stories, the easiest way they can find to tell the story is by an ordered set of representative fragments. 'Like' is a representative-fragment-indicator; it says: This unit is a distinct representative fragment in the story. Using it means you don't have to make clear in some more roundabout way that you are symbolically re-enacting the story in some way; it signals to the other person that they should fill in the story with scenes appropriate to the verbal fragment. You can see how this new use of 'like' would be connected with the way someone would talk if they were giving information for a re-enactment (e.g., a witness at the scene describing what was going on): I was like this, and she was like that. So that's my thought about it.

Of course, I could be completely wrong; but it seems to me significant that the fragmentation of stories is so common - and that 'like' is one of the ways we do this. And it is easy - it simplifies storytelling to an astonishing degree. It also comes with a number of disadvantages; but it does work for its purpose.

Sunday, July 25, 2004


In part due to blogging, I have recently become interested in the Romantic notion of Symphilosophie, a tricky word whose meaning is difficult to pick up because it has no good equivalent in English. Symphilosophie is mutual or collaborative philosophy; but this gives the idea of collaboration in philosophical work the way we do it, which is not, I think, quite right. I'm completely new at this, but here's my thoughts on what's supposed to be involved. Symphilosophy as understood by the Romantics ideally included a group of friends in close fellowship whose work was (as it were) fused or aggregated into one work through give-and-take, dialogue, commentary, so that any precise individuation begins to be impossible. The philosophical work here is in a sense analogous to the way an excellent author or speaker can, by a sort of cooperation with the reader or listener, make the scene appear vividly in the reader or listener's mind - not quite the action of the author alone, not quite the action of the reader alone, but a melding of the two so that the two acts are actually inseparable. If you have ever had an intense intellectual discussion with a good friend, in which ideas move back and forth, being shaped and refined, blended and interlocked, corrected and extended, until you could not honestly say (and it would not seriously matter, anyway) exactly where your contribution ended and your friend's contribution began - then you know the sort of thing that was meant. The following are some fragments by Friedrich Schlegel that are of relevance, directly or indirectly, to this notion of symphilosophy.

These are all from Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments. Firchow, tr. University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, 1991).

From Critical Fragments

9. Wit is absolute social feeling, or fragmentary genius.

16. Though genius isn't something that can be produced arbitrarily, it is freely willed -- like wit, love, and faith, which one day will have to become arts and sciences. You should demand genius from everyone, but not expect it. A Kantian would call this the categorical imperative of genius.

51. To use wit as an instrument for revenge is as shameful as using art as a means for titillating the senses.

56. Wit is logical sociability.

70. People who write books and imagine that their readers are teh public and that tehy msut educate it soon arrive at the point not only of despising their so-called public but of hating it. Which leads absolutely nowhere.

104. What's commonly called reason is only a subspecies of it: namely, the thin and watery sort. There's also a thick, fiery kind that actually makes wit witty, and gives an elasticity and electricity to a solid style.

From Pollen (i.e., included in Novalis's Pollen - the Jena Romantics often 'guest-posted')

1. Even philosophy has blossoms. That is, its thoughts; but one can never decide if one should call them witty or beautiful.

2. If in communicating a thought, one fluctuates between absolute comprehension and absolute incomprehension, then this process might already be termed a philosophical friendship. For it's no different with ourselves. Is the life of a thinking hman being anything else than a continuous inner symphilosophy?

From Athenaeum Fragments

52. There is a kind of person for whom an enthusiasm fo rboredom represents the beginning of philosophy.

54. One can only become a philosopher, not be one. As soon as oen thinks one is a philosopher, one stops becoming one.

112. Philosophers who aren't opposed to each other are usually joined only by sympathy, not by symphilosophy.

125. Perhaps there would be a birth of a whole new era of the sciences and arts if symphilosophy and sympoetry became so universal and heartfelt that it would no longer be anything extraordinary for several complementary minds to create communal works of art. One is often struck by the idea that two minds really belong together, like divided halves that can realize their full potential only when joined....

249. The poetizing philosopher, the philosophizing poet, is a prophet. A didactic poem should be and tends to become prophetic.

302. Jumbled ideas should be the rough drafts of philosophy. It's no secret how highly these are valued by connoisseurs of painting. For a man who can't draw philosophical worlds with ac rayon and characterize every thought that has a physiognomy with a few strokes of the pen, philosophy will never be an art and consequently never a science. For in philosophy the way to science lies only through art, just as the poet, on teh other hand, finds his art only through science.

344. Philosophy is a mutual search for omniscience.