Saturday, June 25, 2005

Links of Note

* The Philosophy Carnival XV is at "The Buckingham Inquirer"; go see!

* Revenge of the Sith and Lucas's Moral Views at "Parableman". I think he's basically found the key. I'm not so convinced that the relativism interpretation does tell us more about the interpreter, though; the remark is very cryptic, occurs in a very quick exchange, is given no development (and therefore is difficult to place in its context), and is on its own most naturally interpreted relativistically. It's not obvious how it should be interpreted; and that, I take it, has generally been the point: it appears to make no sense in the context, since given the nature of the Jedi and the relativism of the Sith it looks like it should be the last thing that Obi-Wan should say. I think Jeremy has hit on how it actually fits into the movie, though. [UPDATE: Jeremy clears up my confusion a bit in the comments.]

* "The Little Professor" discusses Sherlock Holmes pastiches. The stupid Watson mistake is one of my pet peeves; precisely the reason Watson works so well as a character is that he is far from stupid. Indeed, his being so is an important part of stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles; the use of him Holmes makes in THotB, for instance, is very plausible, because while Watson can't make the leaps of inference Holmes can, and tends not to carry over his attention for precise details from his medical practice into common life (who does?), he has a generally good knack for hitting on what in the general situation is and is not relevant, which shows up fairly consistently throughout the stories (at least, as consistently as anything does). The point she makes about Doyle hiding necessary information from the readers is important. An explicit theme that arises in several of the stories is that the 'mystery' of the mystery is always in our not being alerted to the details; when Holmes tells people how he figured some detail out, for instance, they are often not impressed. They couldn't have done it beforehand, but when they are given the information Holmes used, his conclusion looks obvious. Precisely one of the great features of Holmes is that he is a man apart: as a rule, no one except him could possibly have all the information that makes his conclusions obvious, but if they did, the conclusions would be obvious and there would be no mystery. This is actually something of the running dispute between Holmes and Watson: Holmes insists that our interest in the cases should be purely a matter of method, Watson that the personal interest is the real key. And Watson, of course, is right; even when Holmes tells the story, as in The Lion's Mane), it is in his own approximation of Watson's style.

(On the assumption, of course, that Holmes is telling the story in "The Lion's Mane," of course! As is well known among the Baker Street crowds, while the story is told from Holmes's perspective, there are puzzles about it, since, while the solution itself makes sense, Holmes's explanation for why he did not immediately latch onto it does not. The partial solution I favor is that the story is told by, and not merely narrated from the point of view of, Holmes [now there's a distinction you won't find much outside the Holmes mysteries!], and that the odd explanation with which the story ends is supposed to alert us to the fact that there is more going on than one would immediately think. I think this interpretation is very close, except that they treat it as a case of misdetection, while I treat it as a case of deliberate misdirection. I like my interpretation better, but it is still only a partial solution; I can't explain the death of the dog anymore than they can, and while I avoid the problem that comes with reading the story too literally, I run into the problem of discerning Holmes's motive for the misdirection in the first place. This is why Watson is a better as a narrator; we always have to assume that Holmes is brilliantly clever. Similar problems arise with The Blanched Soldier, also purportedly written by Holmes. But if The Blanched Soldier is by Holmes, it makes my case for the argument about the key to the interest of the mysteries infinitely stronger, for the story opens with nothing other than the running debate between Watson and Holmes mentioned above, and Holmes's concession that Watson has a point. Holmes also explicitly points out that Watson's modesty has led him to gloss over his own "remarkable characteristics" in his attempts to highlight the work of Holmes himself; which one would think enough to put the whole stupid Watson myth to bed. If it is told by Holmes, and not merely narrated from his point of view by another fictional character!)

* I try to minimize direct criticism of other bloggers (rather than this or that particular argument), particularly of those for whom I have some respect, but I have to say something about this. Evolution, morality, and torture at "Mark A. R. Kleiman" has recently picked up a lot of comment. The distinction into blue team and red team, which people keep picking up uncritically, makes no sense in this context; but the basic point is worthwhile: start with people where they are, and see where you can go from there. Lindsay at Majikthise, whose response is the least uncritical [in the 'critical thought' sense of 'critical'-ed.] of the responses,* nonetheless makes the error of treating Kleiman's suggestion as a matter of 'playing along', when it is really a matter of being both Socratic and practical. Socratic, because the wise mover of events, the one who genuinely believes in the force of reason, will do at least part of his or her work maieutically, even though (naturally) all the eggs shouldn't be put into that basket; practical, because it involves the recognition that there are more resources for civil society coming to agreement about things like Gitmo than current strategies are making use of. And given the issues surrounding Gitmo, to leave those resources unused is morally and politically dangerous. In any case, while I think the practical aspect is of note, the Socratic point is more significant; minds cannot be forced, so we who take reason seriously move people by some sort of maieutics or not at all. PZ Myers has a more confused post on the subject, although still interesting, and a follow-up that is something more of an embarrassment. I like Myers's suggestion of a new of Age of Freethought; if people like T. H. Huxley were provided, that would be utterly awesome: with people like that, everyone benefits, whether for or against. The problem is that, at least in his weblog, Myers himself is less than impressive as a freethinker. I love his biological posts, and I think they contribute something important to the diffusion of scientific knowledge; but his posts on religion generally collapse into the uncritical spouting of nineteenth-century clichés, and even then in such crude and caricature-like ways that Huxley would be ashamed or exasperated -- as, indeed, he was often explicitly exasperated when people like Myers first uncritically started spouting them and calling them freethought. And Huxley was right the first time around: real freethought is at a much higher level of rational discourse than that. Of course, not everyone can be as impressive a case of real freethinking as Huxley was; but one should expect more. A case in point:

On the other hand, defenders of religion get to make absurd claims that defy reality, such as that the book of Genesis is a "potentially powerful prop to moral behavior" and appeal to the self-interest of the majority. Read beyond the pretty poetry of the first page, and what have you got? Human sacrifice, rape, murder, slavery, and genocide, all of which is justified as it is done in the name of the Lord.

I've seen this sort of argument before on "Pharyngula" and always thought that they were simply a sloppy shorthand for a more serious argument; but he repeats it often enough that I begin to wonder if this isn't the whole argument: no recognition that texts don't have magical powers making them able to shape behavior directly, no recognition of the issues of how a text functions in a community that reads it, no recognition even of the fact that the two major historical traditions that interpret the text for use in daily life bring other texts to bear in light of which this text is interpreted, indeed, nothing beyond what this argument explicitly says. If in an undergraduate paper on Hume I found an argument parallel to this, I would sharply penalize it for lack of critical thought. An argument can perhaps be made for problems with a moral approach based on Humean principles on the basis of (say) Hume's footnote in the essay on national character (while I have never made such an argument, I've presented reasons why I think this issue in Hume needs to be examined seriously); but certainly not at this simplistic a level. Issues of hermeneutics crowd in immediately; and the situation with Hume's texts is much simpler than the complicated case of a text that has a communal function, like Genesis. Even within the limitations of blogging one could expect more from someone defending freethought. And in response to Kleiman's post it is even more puzzling; for Kleiman's point was about cases that can be made, which requires precisely the sort of reflection on the nature of interpretation that we see nothing of in the above argument. And, further, Myers goes on to make claims which cannot be rationally made without precisely these missing arguments on interpretation. Perhaps Myers is aware of all this, and has actually thought it through, and is just not getting it to the weblog; but as far as we can tell from the weblog, we've got nothing of significance.

A similar problem arises with Myers's appeal to history as showing "the inefficacy (at best) of religion" or, as he puts it in the first post, that Genesis "is a historical, empirical, ongoing failure as a moral force for good." All well and good if they were actually backed up by serious analysis, but you will search "Pharyngula" in vain for any historical research, even rough and basic, into evidence of the role played by it in disputes about private property, abolitionism, the environment, or any other instance; you will look in vain for any serious analysis of this evidence; you will look in vain for summaries or approximations of anything like it. You can look as deeply as you please into the archive, and you won't find much to back up this supposedly "historical, empirical" claim. It's not as if a freethinker would necessarily feel compelled to write a book's worth on the subject (although when people actually took the trouble to earn their title of 'freethinker' rather than helping themselves to it, it wouldn't have been unheard of), but one would at least expect a real freethinker to take care at least to give us a rough something to show that he wasn't just making the sort of arbitrary claim of which he was accusing his opponents. Again, perhaps he's roughed it out elsewhere and just isn't bothering to get it to the weblog, or perhaps he's taking it on trust on the basis of researchers who have done the work, and is just not telling us who; but as far as anyone can see on the weblog, the argument's rather anemic. And again, I don't particularly understand it; it's not as if you can't make a fairly defensible case, on at least some issues, that would be at least roughly analogous to what Myers is trying to say. But even Myers's clichés fail him; the old freethinkers would have had this sort of case at hand. Much of their historical argument would be utterly outdated now, but even uncritically repeating that would be better than the crude argument above, or the crude clichés he does repeat when he actually makes use (if one can call it use) of the arsenal his predecessors - the real freethinkers - built.

Conceivably there's just something I'm missing; but I find it very sad what passes for freethought these days. One of the reasons I like the idea of a new Age of Freethought, despite not being a freethinker myself - at least if it would put forward an Alciphron of significance. But I fear that it would just be a mass of what 'freethought' too often means today: a lot of talking about reason and critical thought, combined with a lot of shying away from the actual work such talk would commit one to doing. I hope there's something better in the future than that. Indeed, we had better all hope that there's something better than that. [UPDATES: See here for an additional point that needs to be made, for the sake of fairness. --*Also, since I largely just linked to Lindsay's post and dropped it, I should say that there are some aspects of it that I do like quite well, even though here I only bring in my primary criticism of it.]

* UPDATE: Ralph Luker's open letter to Billy Graham, at "Cliopatria," is well worth a moment of your time.

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