Saturday, October 16, 2004

Why Americans Should Vote

I believe that each citizen has the right and responsibility to determine whether he or she is fit to vote, and not to vote if they determine that they cannot do a good job of it. But there should also be a preferential option in favor of voting; and the best argument ever made on the subject is, I think, this beautiful speech by Calvin Coolidge. The whole speech is great, but I especially like this paragraph:

But the right to vote is conferred upon our citizens not only that they may exercise it for their own benefit, but in order that they may exercise it also for the benefit of others. Persons who have the right to vote are trustees for the benefit of their country and their countrymen. They have no right to say they do not care. They must care! They have no right to say that whatever the result of the election they can get along. They must remember that their country and their countrymen cannot get along, cannot remain sound, cannot preserve its institutions, cannot protect its citizens, cannot maintain its place in the world, unless those who have the right to vote do sustain and do guide the course of public affairs by the thoughtful exercise of that right on election day. They do not hold a mere privilege to be exercised or not, as passing fancy may move them. They are charged with a great trust, one of the most important and most solemn which can be given into the keeping of an American citizen. It should be discharged thoughtfully and seriously, in accordance with its vast importance.

Why I Believe in Free Will: Point # 1

I have decided to do a series of posts (I think it will end up being a very long series) on why I believe human beings have free will (in the traditional incompatibilist 'libertarian' sense of this statement). It's a good idea for me to state up front that not all of these points will be equally crucial. Some of them will be merely supplementary points that have an influence on my belief although they are not foundational reasons for it. Others will not be reasons themselves but rather parts of reasons; that is, they only become relevant to the issue when combined with other points. So merely because I post a point doesn't mean it's intended as a direct argument for the libertarian position; and, indeed it could very possibly be intended as no more than a mere part of an indirect and supplementary argument.

I should also say right off that I don't like the term 'free will', for a number of reasons. One of these is that the issue of 'free will' is not entirely about the will. It includes (at least) two parts, which can in scholastic terminology be easily identified as 'free decision' and 'free choice', but which are never seriously distinguished in analytic discussions. Nonetheless, we need a convenient phrase for the complex created by the union of these two parts, and 'free will' is what does best in English.

Those who read this weblog know, I think, that I'm not afraid to advocate views no one else does, when I feel like doing so. This series will bring out a lot of that. So we'll start out with a bang:

Point #1: 'Event causation' is a figure of speech

Event-based analyses of causation are fairly recent in the history of philosophy. They originate when people recognize that in certain possible cases we can have a causation-like phenomenon that is not 'true causation' - and the great historical irony is that these phenomena originally identified as noncausal develop into the basis for most contemporary attempts to account for causation. In this post I will 1) sketch out the basics of this account of the origination of the notion of 'event causation'; 2) suggest that Hume is completely right about causation if causation is event causation; 3) indicate my own view of the relation between causation and events.

1.1 Event-based analyses of causation are based on the supposition that causation is a law-like relation between events. This has not been the view of most people through history; for instance, it does not describe the Aristotelian account of causation at all. Part of this account (as it later developed) is the view that efficient causation is the act of a substance. This was the standard philosophical view for a very long time. What changed this status quo was (remotely) mechanism and (proximately) occasionalism. In the 16th and 17th centuries mechanistic accounts of motion were on the rise, along with a concomitant rise in conceptions of the world (and thus of science) in terms of laws of nature established by God. In this context strains of occasionalism began to develop. Occasionalism, which is the view that only God is a cause, had occasionally shown its face before, but the newer mechanistic worldview was far more conducive to it than the older Aristotelian view. The most notable and influential of all occasionalists was Nicolas Malebranche.

Malebranche argued that attributing causation to creatures, as the Aristotelians did, was pagan and idolatrous, and because of this launched the most sophisticated set of arguments for occasionalism that have ever been produced (Malebranche's only rival for this distinction is al-Ghazali). He makes a distinction between 'true causes' and 'occasional causes'. There is only one true cause, God; God is a true cause because the effect necessarily follows on His willing it. In no other case is this true. However, we do often speak of creatures as causes, and while Malebranche thinks that we mistakenly think this means they are true causes, he does think we are genuinely latching onto something real when we speak of them this way. Creatures are not true causes; however, they are occasions for causation. When y happens to a creature this serves as an occasion for the true cause (God) to do x. When we speak of causation in creatures, then, we are really talking about the divine laws that govern what events follow what other events. This, Malebranche insists, is not true causation. It is causation only by metonymy: creatures may be called causes only because they are occasions for causation, not because they are genuine causes. This is occasionalism.

Malebranche's views on causation influence a number of people. Two of note are George Berkeley and David Hume. Berkeley accepts the basics of Malebranche's occasionalism, but insists that some creatures are genuine causes. He is not, therefore, an occasionalist in the strict sense. Berkeley draws the line between 'true cause' and 'occasional cause' differently than Malebranche; for him, any agent, i.e., any mind, is a true cause. We are true causes, God is true cause. Bodies are not true causes, however; they are inert, and therefore can only be occasions for causation. Hume takes a different tack. He takes the occasional causation found in Malebranche and Berkeley and argues that this is the only idea of causation we have; he explicitly insists that when we think of minds causing, or of God causing, the only idea of causation we have here is that of a necessary connection (which turns out, with some complications due to Humean psychology, to be lawlike relation) between objects. While he isn't the only influence by any means, it is primarily due to Hume that event-based analysis has become so common, to the extent that there are lots of people who even insist (with less argument than Hume) on the Humean line here: event causation is the only causation that makes any sense. Even the use of the word 'event' is probably due to Hume, who uses it extensively (Hume, however, seems to have used the word simply as a synonym for 'effect', the standard meaning in the 18th century).

It is noteworthy that the quarrel over whether there can be such a thing as 'agent causation' revives the Berkeleyan 'true cause' under different terminology. This is not at all surprising; theories of 'agent causation' are heavily influenced by Thomas Reid, who was a former Berkeleyan, and who used the notion to respond to Hume.

1.2 I want to insist that Hume is exactly right about causation if all causation is event causation as generally understood. The only possible relations between distinct events are 1) resemblance; 2) contiguity in space; 3) contiguity in time; 4) association in the mind. Any account of causation entirely in terms of event causation will inevitably be forced to the Humean view that causation is, objectively, just constant conjunction of events and, subjectively, constant conjunction with an inferential movement of the mind added.

To defend this would require a rather complex argument. I won't go into one here (that might end up being a later point) but will just refer you to Hume's arguments in the Treatise and the Enquiry (it's worth noting, by the way, that many of Hume's arguments are adapted Malebranchean arguments) with the insistence, which you can accept or not, that they have never been answered in event causation terms; and the suggestion that this is probably because they can't be answered in those terms.

1.3 Likewise, I won't give a full account of my own position here, but instead just list some of my views as food for thought. Essentially, my own view of causation is a return to the pre-occasionalist view in which causation, properly speaking, is an act of an actual subject. (Not all acts are causal - this is a complication of the view that I won't get into here - another candidate for a later post.) Cause is a more fundamental notion than event, but both are dependent on the more fundamental notion of act. All causation involves events, not because causation is a relation between events, but because any particular case of causation is a single event; indeed, probably the paradigm sort of event. The only relations among events are being like each other, being near each other in time and/or place, and overlapping with each other; but the latter is just because talking about the world in terms of events is an indirect way of talking about it - and the overlap of any two events is just an event mediating between two events. There are no distinct 'events' in the real world; when we actually distinguish events, we do so entirely in terms of intentions and causal dispositions of various sorts. Events are actions (described a certain way) and (mentally composed) mereological fusions of actions and/or events. We can speak of one event causing another by metonymy, but all such speech can be broken down into a more fundamental causal discourse.

Event causation is a figure of speech.

As I noted, some of the points I will make in this series are not directly related; this is one of the indirect ones. The link is that I think a lot of the acceptance of determinism and compatibilism has to do with an uncritical acceptance of event causation language as literal rather than figurative.

In blogging, it's difficult to build a sustained and thorough argument; posts are more congenial to a piecemeal construction. The above points bring up a lot of issues, most of which I hope to deal with in some form or other at a future date, but if anything particularly bothers you, leave a comment, and I'll see if I can address that issue in the comments, or in a post soon to come.

I'll be adding new points soon. You can consider it a sort of philosophical mosaic that builds up the picture of libertarian worldview. (Point # 2 is closely related, and depends upon, this point.)

On Being Pessimistically Pro-Life

Dr. B gives what I think is the strongest argument for a pro-choice position. While I'm pro-life myself, I agree entirely with her view that more abstract arguments are not as important as the more concrete and personal issues. I do think they play a role, but they can't be allowed to dominate the discussion, as they certainly tend to do.

I don't normally talk about the issues surrounding abortion, precisely because of that (and, for related reasons, because I think this is a case which in a sense can only be successfully handled by women - not that men can have no view of the matter, but it really is a matter in which women can have more insight, and in which real progress can in general only come through women). My own view of the situation, which like a lot of my views is shared by no one else, is that the issue is caught up in a binary opposition or unresolved contradiction within progressive thought itself, inasmuch as the best arguments of both sides draw from different aspects of traditional progressivism; and this gets hardened by more reactionary members on both sides who are unwilling to recognize any insight in the other position. The progressive tradition cannot handle a lose-lose situation very well; and in this type of case there are, in my view, inevitable lose-lose situations.

As a matter of pure personal opinion I think, incidentally, it's unfortunate that in the United States the discussion so often centers around Roe v. Wade, for two reasons: 1) I think Roe v. Wade was a good decision in that I think the law that was struck down by Roe v. Wade deserved to be struck down, and while I don't think the justices wrote the decision very well at all, for constitutional reasons that could be stated the way they stated them; 2) I think Roe v. Wade was also a bad decision because it did not introduce real clarity into the situation as good Supreme Court decisions should, and I think this can be shown objectively by looking at the confusion it has spawned - had the justices deliberately written the decision to guarantee it would be controversial and challenged for the next ten decades, they could hardly have done a better job of it. Roe v. Wade is peripheral to the real issue; the real issue can be found only by understanding the women who genuinely do face the hard choices that Dr. B rightly notes can't be legislated away. They are many; and they are too often unseen by people on both sides who get caught up in the abstract arguments.

Because of my view of Roe v. Wade, I think it's probably the case that the only genuinely sustainable legal solution for the issue, if there is any at all, is pro-choice; that is, I think it very likely that no one will ever be able to find a pro-life legal state that will not violate women's rights, and that a pro-choice legal state is more easily sustainable. Being pro-life, I do think that a pro-choice legal state violates the rights of the unborn, which I think morally they have (however I turn the issue, I find I cannot in good conscience except them from my conviction that all human beings are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights). But moral rights are not the same as legal rights, and I see no way in which it would be possible to give them equal legal rights without detriment to the moral and legal rights of women. But I am not convinced that there is any legal solution to the problem at all; that is, I am not convinced that anyone has come up with a genuinely sustainable legal solution, nor that anyone ever will.

What I would like to see is for us to have a genuinely pro-life culture; but no one is doing any of the work that would have to be done to prepare for it. A genuinely pro-life culture would have to be a culture in which every effort is made to be supportive to women in hard situations, in which women are not shunned or despised because of pregnancy out of wedlock but instead lovingly supported, in which women are not isolated by economics or situation but always have available to them the wisdom and support of a living community of women, in which real people are more important than Pharisaic moralism. I think this is a society worth aiming at. Unfortunately, I don't think it is genuinely attainable. But any progress toward it would be worthwhile. But, again, I don't see much of the work being done that would be necessary for progress in this direction.

So while I am unabashedly and firmly pro-life, I am very pessimistic about our prospects on this issue. I think it would quite literally take a miracle or Kingdom Come to resolve the issue in an ideal way, and it is beyond human power to bring about either.

In any case, this will probably be my last post on this issue, at least for a long while. The discussion is better carried about by my betters on both sides, by people who have more insight and better character than I. If anyone is interested in the further state of the discussion, Dr. B notes several resources on the pro-choice side; several on the pro-life side can be found at Pro-Life Blogs, although I haven't checked on the quality of any of them - probably mixed, since these sorts of things usually are (and it should be noted that this is simply an aggregator, so a lot of the posts that show up to it aren't relevant to the issue).

Friday, October 15, 2004

Semantic Compositions on Lakoff

The blog "Semantic Compositions" has been critically reviewing Lakoff's political writings in a delightfully sane and fun way:

Part I: What George Lakoff knows about the mind

Part II: How not to test a hypothesis

Part III: Excellent, excellent

Part IV: Relax? I can't relax!

All of them are good, especially the last one, which is excellent. The series isn't done yet; there's a Part V that I'll try to remember to put up when it comes out.

UPDATE (10/18): And Part V is out:

Part V: Elephants in George's Pajamas

Wisdom from Hume

Here then are the advantages of free states. Though a republic should be barbarous, it necessarily, by an infallible operation, gives rise to Law, even before mankind have made any considerable advances in the other sciences. From law arises security; from security curiosity; and from curiosity knowledge. The latter steps of this progress may be more accidental; but the former are altogether necessary. A republic without laws can never have any duration. On the contrary, in a monarchical government, law arises not necessarily from the forms of government. Monarchy, when absolute, contains even something repugnant to law. Great wisdom and reflection alone can reconcile them. But such a degree of wisdom can never be expected, before the greater refinements and improvements of human reason. These refinements require curiosity, security, and law. The first growth, therefore, of the arts and sciences, can never be expected in despotic governments.1

1 According to the necessary progress of things, law must precede science. In republics, law may precede science, and may arise from the very nature of government. In monarchies, it arises not from the nature of the government, and cannot precede sciences. An absolute prince, that is barbarous, renders all his ministers and magistrates as absolute as himself: and there needs no more to prevent, for ever, all industry, curiosity, and science.

[David Hume, "Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences." Curiosity, which is mentioned in this passage, plays a very important role in Hume's philosophy of science (a term which includes philosophy). The only Hume scholar I know who puts the sort of emphasis on this that it deserves is Fred Wilson, although I don't agree with him on everything. At some point I'll have to blog about the notion of curiosity in Hume.]

The Word They Hear

I scribbled this today, and thought I'd share it. "The Word they hear," of course, is unspoken, at least by us.

The Word They Hear

"No word have I," said I, "no word at all
To tell of Him" - and yet within this call
We have from Him, can voice be silent still?
And even were this so, and silence spread
And bound my tongue as though it were now dead,
And shook away all discourse and all speech -
Yet then, what seeking soul could word not reach?
For let us not mistake that call that pours
From Heaven through Its Love, and not ignore
The nature of Its calling, strong and sure:
Though all fell dumb, yet message should endure,
Though quiet overcome, the Word be known.
For what cannot be said may oft be shown,
And though my tongue were bound with iron bands,
The gospel could I spread throughout the lands,
For though it needs a word, with Heaven's Lamb
I need no word but this, the word I am.
For even were I mute, this word is better,
And voiceless I may yet be word in letters,
Graven by the holy Son, the highest Word,
And being like to Him is always heard,
Though ears may yet hear nothing and I not speak,
Lord! In my living let them see 'tis You they seek!

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The End is Nigh

The Philosophy Department had the first talk in its Colloquium series today, "The End is Nigh: An Adventure in Rational Eschatology," by Peter van Inwagen. It sounds more interesting than it was. While it would, I think, make an interesting paper to read, having to listen to it being read was deadeningly dull, and it has the dubious distinction of being the first Colloquium talk that bored me to the point of nodding off. The topic of the paper was the so-called Doomsday Argument (see here for a simpler presentation), and most of the talk was just about the application of Bayes' Theorem. It consisted chiefly of intuition pumps, which contributed in great measure to my boredom.

I suppose no one can be interested in everything!

A Mass of Memes

OK, I don't like the word 'meme', but that's what they're called. Here are three.

(1) (via The Little Professor)

Name three of your:

1. Pet Peeves: People who smoke while walking on the sidewalk; drivers who get angry at pedestrians for things that are their fault; people using shopping carts in the grocery store for five items.
2. Favorite Sounds: Rain, thunder, wind in the leaves of trees
3. Favorite Flavors of Candy: Chocolate, Mint, Butterscotch (and in Jelly Bellies, Popcorn!)
4. Biggest Fears: I'm not sure; but I do have rare occasional nightmares about my teeth rotting. Other than that, I can't think of any.
5. Biggest Challenges: Doing paperwork; staying focused; networking
6. Favorite Department Stores: None, None, and None.
7. Most Used Words: The, an, of. More seriously: actually, really, indeed.
8. Favorite Pizza Toppings: Pepperoni, Canadian bacon, mushrooms
9. Favorite Cartoon Characters: Snoopy, the Wizard of Id, and Garfield (I'm a classicist!)
10. Movies Recently Watched: The Last Action Hero, Friday Night Lights, The Fellowship of the Ring
11. Favorite fruits: Avocado, apple, plum
12. Favorite Vegetables: Corn, carrots, onions

(2) (Also from The Little Professor)
1. Favorite Word: Syzygy
2. Least Favorite Word: Blog (at least, that's all I can think of)
3. Turns Me On: Snarkiness
4. Turns Me Off: Snobbishness
5. Sound I love: Rain
6. Sound I hate: electric humming
7. Favorite Curse Word: Bloody (You aren't getting much more out of me!)
8. Alternate Profession: Can't think of any
9. Definitely Not Alternate Profession: Can't think of any - hey, I don't spend much time thinking about other professions!
10. What You Would Like God To Say To You: Anything nice.

(3) (From Thinklings, via Catholic Ragemonkey)

Hardback or Paperback Paperback
Highlight or Underline Underline
Lewis or Tolkien Lewis
E.B. White or A.A. Milne E.B. White
T.S. Eliot or e.e. cummings T.S. Eliot
Stephen King or Dean Koontz Stephen King
Barnes & Noble or Borders Barnes and Noble
Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Waldenbooks
Fantasy or Science Fiction Fantasy, if it's good
Horror or Suspense Horror
Bookmark or Dogear Bookmark
Large Print or Fine Print Fine Print
Hemingway or Faulkner Faulkner
Fitzgerald or Steinbeck Fitzgerald
Homer or Plato Plato (this was a tough one)
Geoffrey Chaucer or Edmund Spenser Geoffrey Chaucer
Pen or Pencil Pen
Looseleaf or Notepad Looseleaf
Alphabetize: By Author or By Title By Author
Shelve: By Genre/Subject or All Books Together All Books Together
Dustjacket: Leave it On or Take it Off Leave it On
Novella or Epic Epic
John Grisham or Scott Turow Scott Turow
J.K. Rowling or Lemony Snicket J.K. Rowling
John Irving or John Updike John Irving
Salman Rushdie or Don Delillo Don Who?
Fiction or Non-fiction Non-fiction
Historical Biography or Historical Romance Historical Romance
Reading Pace: A Few Pages per Sitting or Finish at Least a Chapter Finish the Chapter
Short Story or Creative Non-fiction Essay Short Story
Blah Blah Blah or Yada Yada Yada Blah Blah Blah
"It was a dark and stormy night…" or "Once upon a time…" "It Was a dark and stormy night..."
Books: Buy or Borrow Borrow
Book Reviews or Word of Mouth Book Reviews

Absentee Voting, Cont'd.

OK, I think I've figured out part of the issue. I don't need the Official Envelopes because New Mexico allows electronic submission of the completed ballot. That will be helpful. To do it I'll have to waive my right to secret ballot, but that's fine.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Administrative Note

Or whatever you want to call it. I'll be reorganizing my sidebar a bit at some point this next week; I have a few links I want to add to the blogroll, I want to break my blogroll into at least two categories, I need to rewrite both my 'interests' paragraph and my 'philosophy of blogging' paragraph, etc. I thought I would post about it because I've gotten way behind on my custom of acknowledging people who have linked to me either by noting it in a post or (if they meet my criteria, which are more or less: lots of good stuff, lots of nonpolitical stuff, and intersecting with my interests in some way) putting it in my own blogroll. When I do the blogroll I'll start catching up with this stuff.

On Naturalism in Ethics

One thing I have been puzzling about recently is why utilitarianism has become so popular among philosophers in academia who are doing ethics. One possibility is that there's an idea (which does seem to be floating around, although I can't vouch for its being prevalent) that utilitarianism is somehow more naturalistic than alternatives. I don't understand why anyone would think this, though. There is nothing intrinsically naturalistic about utilitarianism. The first utilitarian of note was William Paley (most famous for his design argument for the existence of God), and most of the early utilitarians were Evangelicals. The better known Bentham-Mill line of utilitarianism was part of a secularization of this.

Further, there are clear cases of naturalistic alternatives to utilitarianism; sentimentalism, such as one finds in Hume, would be an example. And the big rival of utilitarianism in nineteenth century Britain, the sort of deontological intuitionism one finds in Whewell that looks back to Butler and is influenced by Kant, seems to admit of naturalized variants. Indeed, if by 'naturalistic' we mean 'reasoning in the manner of the natural sciences', the whole start of of philosophy of science as we know it, which begins with Whewell and Mill, develops (in part) as an element in the battle between these two rival ethical views: both Whewell and Mill, while interested in scientific reasoning itself, are also explicit that they are strongly interested in marshalling this scientific reasoning, which has yielded such progress in so many areas, for the purposes of advancing ethical reasoning. And they do exactly this. But the point I wish to note in particular is that Whewell's arguments on this score are far more sophisticated than anything Mill ever produced. Whether they were more right is a tricky question; but they are there, and they are formidable. So utilitarianism doesn't seem to be inherently naturalistic; and it doesn't seem by any means to be the only promising naturalistic ethics. So naturalism wouldn't be a particularly good reason for focusing on utilitarianism rather than, say, sentimentalism, which is (in my humble opinion) a somewhat more formidable ethical theory.

The Side of Reason

I was thinking about something-or-other while on the way to a haircut today, and suddenly had the thought (which I've had before, but which struck me with particular force this time): It's not being right that puts you on the side of Reason; it's being reasonable. I wish people would more generally assimilate their practice to this dictum; especially if they're certain they're right.

For my part, I'm usually less interested in whether someone's right than in whether they, in their particular circumstances, are being reasonable; it's one reason I'm good at this whole philosophy thing, particularly history of philosophy. Of course, the eventual goal of all this is to get to the right answer; so I sometimes worry that I'm too concerned about whether people are being reasonable, and not concerned enough about whether they are right. But I am very certain that we are too often inclined to conflate 'I'm right' with 'I'm reasonable', when in fact neither implies the other. Being reasonable does not guarantee you are right; and being right does not guarantee you are reasonable. (There are, I think, lots of people in the world who are unreasonable in the way they hold and communicate correct conclusions!) Being right and being reasonable are both things for which everyone has to work; and they both, distinctly, require that effort.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

A Rough Jotting on the Trickiness of Science and Policy

I was reading "Pharyngula," a good biology blog, and came across this post. I find the analogy entirely obscure - how it "exactly" fits the embryonic stem cell case is never made clear - but what really caught my interest was this footnote:

*Maybe I should reply to the next person who tells me to list the tangible benefits of ES research with “Cerebral enhancers, auto-regeneration, Nu-Skin, and biogotchies!” It’s about equivalent. How the heck was Michael Faraday supposed to predict commercial developments in the next century? How are we?

It set me off thinking, because I suddenly realized I had never heard embryonic stem cell research proponents defend e.s.c. research with any argument other than a consequentialist one; and if this is the best they are doing, a challenge to it in those terms would be entirely reasonable. If, however, there is some stronger nonconsequentialist argument being put forward in the public arena by advocates, this would (potentially) block the challenge as unreasonable. So I nosed around on the internet to see what I could find. The Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. On its front page, saying why it supports embryonic stem cell research we find:

Embryonic stem cells show tremendous promise, federal funding of the research protects the public interest, and the majority of Americans support stem cell research.

Call these (1), (2) and (3). (1) is the consequentialist argument. (3) is very weak as a policy argument when the question is not a matter of adiaphora but touches on ethical issues. (2) is intriguing, but in this statement very vague. Clicking on the link for further information gives the talking points for each of these three. The talking points for (2):

Private funding means research without federal oversight

Without federal funding, the nation’s top academic researchers at universities, medical schools and teaching hospitals cannot join in the search for cures, which means much slower progress.

Tax dollars keep the “public” in public interest. This research should not be confined to the for-profit, commercial sector.

The government should be providing oversight of the work and ensuring that the research complies with ethical guidelines.

Again, intriguing, but very sketchy. If someone, completely new to the issue, were looking for information on why e.s.c. research is not bad but was not a consequentialist in ethics, this wouldn't give them much to work with; it doesn't explain, for instance, why the government can't regulate research it doesn't fund, which is the key issue. Without further information, the third talking point wouldn't really do anything. The first and second talking points do nothing to alleviate worries or fears about the ethics of the matter. So I looked at the Legislative Toolkit. It provides the same information as the links from the front page. So the CAMR really doesn't give people concerned purely with the ethics of it much to go on at all. So I went to some of the member sites. The Alliance for Aging only gives the consequentialist argument. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists doesn't provide anything additional except a statement, without any specifics, that the research can be done ethically. The American Society for Cell Biology shows some recognition of the complexities of the ethical issues, but as far as I could find provides no answers. And so on. The best page I could find is the International Society for Stem Cell Research, which had an entire ethics page. It provides the only consequentialist argument, but points to some resources for looking further into the debate. All of the pro resources I looked at consider the matter from a consequentialist perspective.

This is by no means a complete survey; but it shows, I think, that advocates are relying way too much on the argument that the research is promising; this would not, as far as I can see, address the concerns of people who are coming to it with ethical worries. It's an argument, I think, that does have the advantage that it would persuade a lot of people who don't have any particular view of the matter; it is poorly conceived, however, for persuading people who are concerned because of things they've heard that would put the ethics of the research in doubt on a non-consequentialist ground, and they leave open the possibility of being challenged to give a precise account of the consequences that are doing the justifying work. Despite the fact that it would be clearly relevant, for example, and despite the fact that the institutions listed by CAMR would be the best source for this sort of information, it was immensely difficult to find any clear information about the processes involved in stem cell research. Since these are clearly at issue, and since ignorance about (e.g.) how one collects embryonic stem cells for research can scarcely help the advocates' argument, I find this lack of any attempt to explain them seriously perplexing.

One of the tricky things about argument in the public arena is that whether arguments and challenges are reasonable depends in part on how well information is being circulated by the side that is challenged; and while I sympathize with Myers' frustration, as far as I can see the plain fact is that stem cell advocates simply have not been making accessible the sorts of arguments and information that would potentially make the challenge he's frustrated with unreasonable. If they are making the arguments at all, they're hard to find, and need to be made more accessible. If they're not making the arguments, they need to start making them.

Poetry Index

The following are drafts of poems written by me and put up on this blog. They are of varying quality.

Age of Wonders

A Graduate Student Thinks of Footnotes

All the Skeptics Do Not Know

Cartesian Meditations

Love's Madness

Mary's Magnificat

On Being Stuck in an Airport



Stabat Mater Dolorosa

The Battle

The Flood, the Phoenix, and the Hind

The Light Is a Tiger Pouncing

The Sorrow of the Shepherd Boy

The Striving

The Trees Are Not Awake

Two Lovers

We All Have Voices

Alcestis Cycle
1. Lament of Alcestis
2. Elders of Pherae
3. Alcestis and Admetus
4. Lament of Admetus

PLoS Biology

PLoS Biology -

The new PLoS Biology is out; as usual, great stuff. I haven't looked in detail at much of it, but at first overview, these seemed particularly notable:

* Spotting Signs of Natural Selection and the paper of which it is a synopsis

* Natural Biodiversity Breaks Plant Yield Barriers and Diversifying Selection in Plant Breeding

* Nature's Nanotechnologists, on diatoms

* Why Are So Many Bird Flowers Red? which is the Unsolved Mystery feature

* Hearing: Travelling Wave or Resonance?

* Breaking Down the Stereotypes of Science

PLoS Medicine comes out next week.

Do I Really Often Seem Worthless?

You are water. You're not really organic; you're
neither acidic nor basic, yet you're an acid
and a base at the same time. You're strong
willed and opinionated, but relaxed and ready
to flow. So while you often seem worthless,
without you, everything would just not work.
People should definitely drink more of you
every day.

Which Biological Molecule Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

(Hat-tip to Catholic Ragemonkey)


In Quodlibetal Question 2.6.1, Aquinas has an interesting discussion of whether it is a sin to seek a "ruling office." The Latin here is "praelatio," which suggests that he primarily has in mind ecclesiastical office; but Sandra Edwards in her translation simply translates it "ruling office." This Latin dictionary notes three medieval meanings for praelatio: "actio praeferendi," "dominatio," "praelatorum ordo." The word, in other words, can mean either ecclesiastical office in particular or any position of authority. It's unclear what is intended here. The question as a whole is just on sin, and the easiest interpretation would be 'ruling office'; but the next question is particularly on whether preachers should desire earthly rewards. I am undecided; I'll summarize the argument, and you can tell me what you think. He notes first two arguments that it is a sin:

1. Something that we only have after the Fall would seem to be sinful. It doesn't seem, though, that there were any praelationes in Eden; rather, it was a result of disobedience (cf. Genesis 3:16).

2. We should only desire things that pertain to the glory of heaven. However, it is a common view that in heaven there will be no such praelationes. So it would seem that seeking praelatio would be a perverse desire.

He then notes an argument that it is not a sin:

3. Scripture requires that we honor those who rule well (cf. 1 Tim. 5:17). But it is not a sin to seek a position that is honored because of virtue. So it needn't be a sin to seek praelatio.

He then gives his own answer, which boils down to this:

Augustine solves this question in City of God 19, where he says that praelatio, without which people cannot be governed, is not something it is appropriate to seek, even if it is administered appropriately, because who seeks praelatio is either proud or unjust. It is unjust for someone to want more honor unless he is worthy of it, but it is pride and presumption for someone to consider himself more worthy for praelatio than those who would be subject to him. Thus no one should succeed to praelatio through their own desire, but only through God's judgment (cf. Hebrews 5:4). Everyone, however, may desire to be worthy of praelatio, or desire opera boni prelati (which would be most easily translated, "the good works of a prelate"). This answers (3).

For (1) and (2) he notes that they are bad arguments: we are permitted to desire things that did not exist in our state of innocence, and we are permitted to desire things that will not exist in our state of glory. For instance, we are permitted to desire to be subject to one another as Paul says we should; we are permitted to desire to repent; etc. Also, praelatio did, in a sense, exist in the state of innocence, and will, in a sense, exist in the state of glory, to the end of governance and rule, but not to the end of compelling people to serve.

Some of this appears to take praelatio in the narrower sense; the City of God passage, for instance is about bishops. On the other hand, it can also be read as a more general claim about all sorts of positions of power, using the episcopacy as an example. (1) and (2) appear to take the more general sense, as does the reply to them. It would be difficult to apply the narrower interpretation to these cases. Aquinas's own answer can be read either way, but should we translate opera boni praelati as "the good works of the prelate" or "the good works of one who is preferred"? The Hebrews passage suggests the narrower interpretation, because it is on the priesthood, as does the 1 Timothy passage in (3), which is about the elders who govern the church. Does anyone have suggestions?

(UPDATE 10/14: The best English translation of 'praelatio' would be 'preferment', now that I think of it. But this doesn't actually clarify anything because the English admits of the same ambiguity. It's possible that Aquinas is just not sufficiently clear. I hesitate to admit that, though, because whenever anyone else has claimed Aquinas wasn't sufficiently clear on a point it has generally been the case that they were missing something fairly obvious. Even good Homer nods; but trying to catch out Aquinas in an equivocation is like trying to catch out Leibniz in a simple logical fallacy. It's possible, but you had better be able to put forward a good argument. If anyone has thoughts on the above argument, I'm still interested.)

Monday, October 11, 2004

Derrida Deferred

This is a bit late, but here's something from the late philosopher Derrida:

Un philosophe est toujours quelqu'un pour qui la philosophie n'est pas donnee, quelqu'un qui par essence doit s'interroger sur l'essence et la destination de la philosophie. Il faut rappeler ce fait meme s'il parait trivial ou trop evident; car c'est la une situation et un devoir plus singuliers qu'il ne semble, et cela peut conduire a des consequences pratiques redoutables.


"A philosopher is always someone for whom philosophy is not given, someone who essentially ought to question themselves about the essence and destination of philosophy. One must recall this fact even if it seems trivial or too evident; for such a location and duty is more singular than it seems, and this can lead to some formidable practical consequences."

Unexpected Association

It's surprising, some of the sites that come up if you search Google for "Frankfurt examples".

Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade

There's some comment around about Bush's reference to Dred Scott in the debates; coturnix has a good list of references at "Science and Politics". The common wisdom has become that it was "code-language," a figurative reference to Roe v. Wade. I am unconvinced. At least, the sort of framework behind it can have relevance to the Roe v. Wade, but I very much doubt that this was the primary point. The President said:

I would pick somebody who would not allow their personal opinion to get in the way of the law. I would pick somebody who would strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States.

Uh, let me give you a couple of examples I guess of the kind of person I wouldn't pick. I wouldn't pick a judge who said that the Pledge of Allegiance couldn't be said in a school because it had the words 'under God'' in it. I think that's an example of a judge allowing personal opinion to enter into the decision-making process, as opposed to strict interpretation of the Constitution. Another example would be the Dred Scott case, which is where judges years ago said that the Constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights. That's personal opinion. That's not what the Constitution says. The Constitution of the United States says we're all - you know, it doesn't say that. It doesn't speak to the equality of America.

And so I would pick people that would be strict constructionists. We've got plenty of lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Legislators make law. Judges interpret the Constitution. And I suspect one of us will have a pick at the end of next year, next four years. And that's the kind of judge I'm going to put on there. No litmus test except for how they interpret the Constitution. Thank you.

The real reference, I think, is to Lincoln:

Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, particularly the latter part on the Declaration of Independence

Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, particularly on the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution

I think this general connection - a vague connection between the Dred Scott decision and the danger of turning the Constitution over to the courts as if they were the supreme authority in the interpretation of it - would be far more familiar to Evangelicals (and others) than the (derivative) particular connection with pro-life. See here and here and here and here and here for the general idea of what's involved in this view of Dred Scott. For that matter, see this 1937 argument by a supporter of FDR for the same notion. It's the sort of thing one sees floating around; which makes it tricky to see how extensively it would be known, since we have to trust so much to anecdotal evidence. I've certainly seen it a lot in such connections. In other words, I think making it out to be 'pro-life code-language' is wrong, because it is much more likely to be a general criticism of the courts than a particular issue. For most (but not all) who would recognize this criticism, Roe v. Wade would be treated as a clear example of judicial abuse (made all the stronger because many people have objections to it similar to, and often derived from, Lincoln's comments about the Declaration of Independence in the above speech), but I don't think it was a secret attempt to propose pro-life positions as a litmus test although conceivably that's what it could amount to (although it could amount to other things, as well). The real issue is a criticism of the role the courts have taken on, and this interpretation fits fairly well with Bush's somewhat obscure statements, quoted above.

At least, that's my guess, and I'm sticking to it until I see reason otherwise. It would have been really odd, I think, for Bush to say something so categorical and unequivocal in code during a debate. I think it's what I'm suggesting, namely, a vague reference to the evils of an unlimited court that would be recognized by a lot of people who worry about judicial usurpation, judicial tyranny, judicial supremacy, or whatever one calls it. The Lincoln passages are very commonly quoted in this connection, and thus it wouldn't be so very surprising that some echo of it would come to Bush's mind when discussing the courts. All of this is just speculation, though.

(Further Thought, added later with some revisions for clarification: One of the advantages of my interpretation, I think, is that it doesn't require us to see Bush as doing something so elaborate as the Roe-v-Wade-in-particular interpretation requires; it makes more sense of the Dred Scott reference as an off-the-cuff, in-the-middle-of-debate example.)

UPDATE (Oct 12): Parableman discusses the issue here.

Peter King

He's faculty in the same department of the same university in which I'm a graduate student, and I hadn't come across it yet; in fairness, it's a bit department, and I don't generally go searching for faculty webpages. But Clark Goble recently mentioned Peter King's webpage as a resource, so I thought I'd pass it along, too. He has a lot of papers online. Especially recommended (they're PDF):

* Duns Scotus on Powers, Possibility, and the Possible

* Augustine on the Impossibility of Teaching

* Scholasticism and the Philosophy of Mind: The Failure of Aristotelian Psychology - this is a good paper, but in my amateur opinion, I'm not so certain that Aristotelian psychology did fail; at least, one can easily find discussions by psychologists that are suspiciously similar. I'm also not convinced that the transduction problem is any more of a problem for Aristotelian psychology than any other psychology; and I'm not convinced that it played any actually significant role in the rise of early modern psychological projects. (I'm also unconvinced by his argument on the agent intellect and the distinction between sensing and understanding; I just don't see any real problem there, although I might be missing something.) In the interests of full disclosure, I tend to think Aristotelian psychology was, at least in a general way, on the right track, so I have a bias. But it's a great, thought-provoking paper.

* Anselm's Intentional Argument, although I think if King were right about what he thinks is the weak point in Anselm's ontological argument, the ontological argument would be relentlessly successful; I don't think most people can deny coherence to 'that than which no greater can be thought' without being disingenuous, since most people can't actually see anything in such a description that is plausibly incoherent (in phrases of similar construction that do lead to paradoxes people usually have to be shown the paradox to recognize any incoherence in the phrase, and even then it's not always clear that the paradox is due to original incoherence rather than something else), and the analogy with degrees of heat is not, I think, a good argument, for reasons I will perhaps blog about at some point. I prefer Gyula Klima's interpretation here and here. Klima's interpretation actually allows for Anselm's argument being sound and (some) atheistic rejections of the argument being reasonable. It has some similarities with King's analysis of the problem with the argument, but it recognizes more clearly both the problems the atheist faces in rejecting the argument and the latent complexity and difficulties of this apparently simple but actually very difficult and complex argument. In other words, it gives a clearer recognition of the real power and the real difficulties of the argument. But then, I think Gyula Klima's the cat's meow (he's my favorite scholar of medieval philosophy), so I might be biased here, too.

Absentee Voting

I (finally) received my absentee ballot today from New Mexico, and hang it all if I'm not completely confused. First, they sent me the ballot by e-mail, which I wasn't expecting at all; and second, the people who wrote the instructions for the ballot apparently weren't expecting it, either, because they make a number of references to "Official Inner Envelopes" and "Official Outer Envelopes" that rather obviously couldn't arrive by e-mail. If all they had to do was send the ballot by e-mail, why didn't I get it earlier? And how do I send this ballot in without the official envelopes? If I send it in regular envelopes, will it be counted? (Apparently not, since the official envelopes apparently have a number of things on the back, unspecified, that need to be filled out, and have the absentee voter registration number, which presumably they need.) Are the official envelopes coming by mail? And it all has to reach the proper authorities by the closing of the polls election day, which is going to be tight, so I can't wait too long for them to arrive - if they arrive at all.

Today's Canadian Thanksgiving, so there's no mail service today; hopefully if anything arrives it will do so tomorrow. I'm sure there's some obvious point that makes everything make sense that I'm just not getting. It would have been nice to have at least some sort of form-letter-type note with the ballot, but there was nothing at all, just the PDF attachment.