Friday, January 07, 2005

A Modest Proposal

Charlie's clever satire at "AnotherThink" reminded me of the original 'Modest Proposal', one of the great satires of all time: Jonathan Swift's 1729 "A Modest Proposal for Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being A Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to The Public," which you can find online here.

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich.

If you've never read it, do so; if nothing else, it's a great preventative medicine against letting economic considerations trump moral ones.

Another HL Template

I've put up another template at HL. Again, it's still under construction; but since it's much more minimalist, I'm not sure there's going to be more construction to do.

In any case, while I have lots of ideas for templates (based on Gulliver's Travels), I'll probably re-do the external resources page and put up the internal resources page before I add them.

The Propaganda of the Man-Elf Coalition

I found this parody rather funny. But then, I find things like this funny in general.


Last night while reading Middlemarch I came up with a counterfactual that neatly summarizes the differences between Jane Austen and George Eliot as novelists: If Jane Austen had written Middlemarch, it would be a third the size, it would be entirely about Mary Garth, and it would be called Expectation.

More on Not Three Gods

Bill Vallicella has helpfully responded to my post Not Three Gods. The context is the statement of the Quicunque Vult:

So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.

And the question is whether this is coherent if "is God" is a predication rather than an identification. He says:

I can't see that it is coherent. If the first sentence expresses three predications (as opposed to three identity claims), then the divine nature must be thrice exemplified. If so, there are three Gods. Brandon may be conflating primary and secondary substance. God as primary substance is indivisible. But the divine nature, as something predicable, is a secondary substance and so must be be multiply exemplifiable.

The nature of apples admits of multiple exemplification (instantiation, realization). If you say that the divine nature does not admit of multiple exemplification, then how can three numerically distinct persons be divine, i.e., exemplify the divine nature?

I agree that the divine nature must be thrice exemplified, in the sense that there are three subjects that will have the nature; but I don't see that its being thrice exemplified implies that there are three Gods. Rather, there are three exemplifications of the nature; and whether or not this entails there are three Gods depends on how things with the divine nature are individuated. In other words, I see no reason to think exemplification and individuation are the same (I should have done more to make this clear originally). They are, of course, usually correlated in our experience. The nature of apples admits of multiple exemplification; but it also admits of multiple individuation. However, exemplification has to do with possession of form while individuation has to do with (for lack of a better term) division of that form into individuals separately possessing the form, and, as far as I can see, it is only if these two are equated that there would be any problem with the Quicunque Vult statement.

Vallicella goes on to say:

But if the divine nature is divided among subjects at all, then each of these subjects must be divine, which is to say that each must be a God.

If there are three distinct persons, and each is identical to God, then we have a contradiction. But if you say instead that each is divine (where the 'is' now expresses predication), then that amounts to saying that each is a God, which implies that there are three Gods.

But I don't see this. If the 'is' expresses predication, this does not amount to saying that each is a God but only that each is God. The issue, it seems to me, ends up depending again on what the divine nature allows in terms of individuation. And the divine nature can't be individuated like other things; there is no reason to think that multiple exemplification or realization of the divine nature implies individuation into separate Gods. (And if it did, it seems to me that this would be a fact about divine natures, not about multiple exemplification as such.)

I should be clear that I'm not claiming to be able to prove that the claim in the Athanasian Creed, taken as involving predication rather than identity, is consistent; but only that I don't see that there is any good reason to think it inconsistent (and thus presume it to be consistent until I'm convinced otherwise). That is, while I could just be confused, I don't see that there is any appearance of a contradiction; the apparent contradiction seems to derive not from the statement but from additional suppositions that I see no reason to think are universal or necessary (they must be both to generate the contradiction). My difficulty is that I cannot think of any possible non-question-begging arguments for the claim that, necessarily and universally, if a is P and b is P, and a is not b, there are two P's. It is usually the case; but this is just what happens to be implied by the nature of most P's we know, which tend to be corporeal and thus materially individuated; I see no reason to think it necessary and universal and thus applicable to God.

Moral Stupidity

Another one of my favorite Middlemarch passages:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling-an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects - that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.

George Eliot, Middlemarch, Chapter XXI.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


There's a great post at Mixing Memory on a theory of religious cognition, the first in a series. I'll definitely have to read the book in question. Perusing the online article by Atran and Norenzayan ("Religion's evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion"), however, I was puzzled when I came across this passage:

In this section we unpack the idea of the supernatural as a counterintuitive world that is not merely counterfactual in the sense of physically implausible or nonexistent. Rather, the supernatural literally lacks truth conditions. A counterintuitive thought or statement can take the surface form of a proposition (e.g., “Omnipotence [i.e., God] is insubstantial”), but the structure of human semantics is such that no specific meaning can be given to the expression and no specific inferences generated from it (or, equivalently, any and all meanings and inferences can be attached to the expression). The meanings and inferences associated with the subject (omnipotence = physical power) of a counterintuitive expression contradict those associated with the predicate (insubstantial = lack of physical substance), as in the expressions “the bachelor is married” or “the
deceased is alive.”

Now, I have no idea whatsoever who the people are who are supposed to be going around saying "Omnipotence is insubstantial" as part of their religious beliefs, but this is an odd sort of passage. "Omnipotence" owes its existence in religious discourse to its being primarily a theological term; that is, it's a technical term, and it does not and has never (as far as I can tell) been used in such a way that it would necessarily imply "physical power". And I don't even know why someone would use 'insubstantial' in this context.

Perhaps it's just a clumsy hypothetical example. But the above passage requires that these counterintuitive statements 1) be taken in a strictly literal sense; 2) imply contradiction. And both of these are surprisingly strong. Since figures of speech can have truth values and definite truth conditions, a statement that 'literally lacks truth conditions' in the sense given above can figuratively have them, e.g., "The bachelor is married to his work" and "The deceased is alive in our memories". Since "omnipotence is insubstantial" would have to be a technical proposition, it would probably be intended to be taken in a strictly literal way; but most of the cases Atran and Norenzayan seem to have in mind (ghosts, gods, goblins, and the like) would not obviously be described in terms that were expected by the describers to be taken in a strictly literal way.

As to implication, the possibility of implying a contradiction depends on the meaning of the terms of the original proposition; i.e., it is only in the sort of statement said above, taken as strictly literal, and interpreted in a clearly contradictory way, that this feature would hold. And in the paper, what plays the major role is not logical contradiction but violation of expectation, which is something very different, even if the expectation is a deep-seated one of an automatic 'intuitive ontology'. And yet, again, no real account seems to be taken in the paper of association, vagueness, and figurative discourse, although they presumably would be relevant. Again, it's perhaps just a clumsy (or excessively concise) discussion; but I'd have to see the analysis on which even talk about ghosts and goblins would actually turn out to be counterintuitive in the above sense. (The psychological effect ascribed to counterintuitive statements does not, as far as I can see, depend on their being counterintuitive in the above sense, but on their being surprising, violations of expectation, etc.; so it might well be that this analysis contributes little to the actual account. And that would be a good thing; people who cite Ayer for their view of religious statements are likely to have dubious views. And just briefly skimming what I can find on counterintuition on the net, it seems that treatment of counterintuitive statements in terms of, effectively, pseudo-propositions, is an unusual characterization.)

Nonetheless, it's an interesting paper, with lots of good stuff, and I'll have to place the book on my reading list. Hume would like it; and I'll have to post at some point on Hume's The Natural History of Religion (which is, in fact, cited in the paper).

Inward Light

This is perhaps my favorite passage from Middlemarch:

But since he did not mean to marry for the next five years-his more pressing business was to look into Louis' new book on Fever, which he was specially interested in, because he had known Louis in Paris, and had followed many anatomical demonstrations in order to ascertain the specific differences of typhus and typhoid. He went home and read far into the smallest hour, bringing a much more testing vision of details and relations into this pathological study than he had ever thought it necessary to apply to the complexities of love and marriage, these being subjects on which he felt himself amply informed by literature, and that traditional wisdom which is handed down in the genial conversation of men. Whereas Fever had obscure conditions, and gave him that delightful labor of the imagination which is not mere arbitrariness, but the exercise of disciplined power - combining and constructing with the clearest eye for probabilities and the fullest obedience to knowledge; and then, in yet more energetic alliance with impartial Nature, standing aloof to invent tests by which to try its own work.

Many men have been praised as vividly imaginative on the strength of their profuseness in indifferent drawing or cheap narration:-reports of very poor talk going on in distant orbs; or portraits of Lucifer coming down on his bad errands as a large ugly man with bat's wings and spurts of phosphorescence; or exaggerations of wantonness that seem to reflect life in a diseased dream. But these kinds of inspiration Lydgate regarded as rather vulgar and vinous compared with the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of Energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space. He for his part had tossed away all cheap inventions where ignorance finds itself able and at ease: he was enamoured of that arduous invention which is the very eye of research, provisionally framing its object and correcting it to more and more exactness of relation; he wanted to pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition which determine the growth of happy or unhappy consciousness.

George Eliot, Middlemarch, Chapter XV.

Part of what I like about it is just the description of the scientific pursuit. But part of what I like is the irony of a man who thinks Marriage a simpler and easier thing to understand than Marriage, and who "for his part had tossed away all cheap inventions where ignorance finds itself able and at ease" - on Fever, and not on Marriage - and "was enamoured of that arduous invention which is the very eye of research, provisionally framing its object and correcting it to more and more exactness of relation" - when the subject is Fever, rather than Marriage - and "wanted to pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy" - so long as we are not talking about Marriage!

Christian Carnival

The first Christian Carnival of the year is up at Weapon of Mass Distraction. Two posts I found particularly interesting:

* The Rape of the Metaphor at "Proverbial Wife"

* Christianity and Libertinism/Antinomianism at "A Physicist's Perspective"

Not Three Gods

Bill Vallicella, on the unity of the Trinity:

Similarly, the unity cannot be nailed down by an Aristotelian secondary substance (deutero ousia) or essence. Let me explain. Someone might think to interpret the identity claim

The Father is God

in which the the 'is' expresses identity, as a predication, to wit

The Father is divine

where the 'is' expresses predication and not identity. One could then say that the secondary substance divinity, which is exemplified by the F, S, and HS, is what secures their identity. In this sense, the three persons could be said to be consubstantial. But how could the unity of God be the unity of a secondary substance? This suggestion won't work because it allows there to be three gods. For if you say that the F is divine or a god, and the S is divine or a god, and the HS is divine or a god, then you are committed to tritheism.

To block this outcome and secure the divine unity, one must interpret 'The Father is God' as what it appears to be, namely, an identity statement. But then the distinctness of persons goes by the board.

I am not convinced. Whether or not this option allows there to be three gods is entirely a question of what it is to be God, not a general fact about secondary substances. If I say, "This is an apple, and that is an apple, and this third thing is an apple," I have indicated three apples. But this is due to the nature of apples, not due to their having the same essence or nature or secondary substance in common. To say, then, "The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God" can only indicate three Gods if it is in the nature of God to be divisible among distinct particular Gods having that nature (in the way the nature of apples is divisible among distinct particular apples having that nature). And it is not; that is the point of the doctrine of divine simplicity. Thus there is no reason to think that this view implies that there are three Gods.

This interpretation also has an impeccable pedigree, historically speaking; it is Cappadocian, e.g., you can find something like it in Gregory of Nyssa's To Ablabius on Not Three Gods, and something like it is found in Aquinas. (Indeed, it is hard to find anyone who takes an identity view in the whole history of orthodoxy. In some translations Aquinas sometimes sounds like it; but medieval 'idem' and 'identitas' often indicates 'agreeing in species or kind or predicate or property' rather than identity in our sense; and Aquinas simply seems to be saying in technical terms that the persons, while distinguished from each other by real distinction, each share exactly the same nature - which would be the above interpretation.)

The Quicunque vult says:

So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.

And on the above view, this is entirely coherent; the first sentence, taken as expressing predication rather than identity, does not imply three Gods if the divine nature is not divisible in the way that (for instance) the nature of apples is. And since there is no reason to think it is, and much reason to think it is not, the above two sentences are entirely consistent. The fact that we are talking about a nature or essence does not, in itself, imply anything about how the nature or essence is divided among its subjects; at least, I have never seen a good argument that it does (one, at least, that is more robust than "Most natures we know are like that," which is not a strong basis for making any claim about the Trinity).

H.L. Template

I am in the process of constructing an alternative style for Houyhnhnm Land (to access it, just go down to "Choose Another Style" and click on "Philosophy in Laputa"). It's still very much under construction (and I haven't yet checked cross-browser accessibility); but let me know what you think of the general gist. Any particular suggestions?

Circumscribed Searches

I mentioned circumscription reasoning briefly in a previous post, so I thought I'd say something (very rough) about it. One form of human reasoning is the search: out of a given field, we look for a given element. Now, it is often not practical to perform a search out of the field of all possible cases, so an important part of human reasoning consists in circumscribing the field of search. In practice this tends to be rather tricky. To circumscribe the field of search, we have to have some principle or condition of circumscription that indicates that all the normal cases occur within a given area, or that all the relevant information is already in place. What we are trying to do, very often, is to minimize the number of exceptions to our conclusions. Or, to put it in other words, we are usually trying to fix the difference between normal and abnormal cases, so that most, and perhaps all, of our cases are normal.

A common sort of example: You ask the travel agent whether there are any flights to Paris at 3 in the morning; she checks the database, and concludes that there are none. This inference involves circumscription: it involves the condition that all normal bookable flights are found in the database. In other words: the idea is that the database is complete for all practical purposes. And if it so happens that a flight is not in the database, it is considered abnormal, an anomaly. As a rule, the travel agent reasons on the assumption that she has, via her database, access to all the relevant information needed for booking flights. Lapses aren't impossible, but their possibility really doesn't enter into her reasoning.

Obviously, the chief difficulty in circumscription reasoning is being able to establish the right circumscription condition; and I think a lot of reasoning that otherwise seems plausible crashes and burns out of a failure to pay adequate attention to whether we have good reasons for a given principle of circumscription. When we proceed on the assumption that birds fly, for instance, we are basically thinking that for our purposes the class of flying things contains all the relevant normal cases of birds; but we might be illegitimately trying to draw conclusions that need to apply also to abnormal cases like ostriches and penguins. Likewise, if someone asks us, "Birds fly and mammals don't; Tweetie flies. What is Tweetie?" and we respond by saying "Tweetie is a bird," we have circumscribed our field of search to birds and mammals, and have limited 'flying things' to birds. But it could be that Tweetie is a bat (and hence a mammal) or an airplane (and thus neither a mammal nor a bird). In such a case, we have perhaps used the wrong circumscription conditions.

Circumscribed searches, in one form or another, are very common. There has for some time been some interesting work, particularly in work on artificial intelligence, trying to model formally certain aspects of circumscription reasoning. Very complicated work, too; to model circumscription reasoning formally requires 1) establishing well-behaved formal operations; and 2) capturing as much as possible of actual circumscription reasoning. Meeting both of these is immensely difficult; but there's a lot of promising stuff out there.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Curiosities of Literature

Misteraitch (of Giornale Nuovo fame) has started a weblog in which he is serializing Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature. Of the entries up so far, I especially like the bibliomania entry.

More on Natural Evil

In response to a post by Chris at Mixing Memory, Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty posted a response to my post on God and Natural Evil. It's worth reading, because it gives me a chance to clarify a bit what I saw myself as doing. Here's what I put in the comments:

Well, in all fairness, I really wasn't trying to satisfy anyone, but just answer the question; and the most immediately relevant issue on that is whether I think there are any good arguments for the existence of God (and the like) that wouldn't be affected by the problem of evil. And I do, so it poses no problem for me on these issues. The problem of evil is really only troublesome for people who believe that there is a God entirely on the basis of design arguments.

However, I think what Chris found most interesting about my post was the omniscience objection: if the problem of evil is supposed to generate some logical inconsistency, it appears to require the assumption that we know all the relevant factors omniscience would know. And this isn't a 'mysteriousness' objection; it's just good sense. We know from just about every other problem we deal with that we often miss relevant information. Some problems take centuries to solve simply because it takes a long time to gather all the relevant information. It's silly to assume you've covered all relevant factors unless you have some good reason for thinking you have. So for the problem of evil to be a logical problem for the theist, either the theist has to accept the circumscription assumption (that we have basically covered all the relevant things to know), or we have to have a proof that the assumption is true. And I certainly have never come across the latter; indeed, it's hard to find any argument at all that the assumption should be accepted. If they are trying to indicate a logical inconsistency, atheists are being lazy on the key point of their argument. If they are not trying to indicate a logical inconsistency, it isn't clear why there's anything here that's a problem for the theist as a theist.

And note, too, that there is nothing in this response that implies that we can't make headway on figuring out how natural evil would fit into a divine plan, or anything like that. Quite the contrary: the response is that the atheist hasn't shown that we can't make headway on the problem; the atheist has to show that we've already made all the headway on it that we can.

I should, incidentally, have said in the first paragraph "The problem of evil is really only troublesome for theism itself for people who believe that there is a perfectly benevolent God entirely on the basis of design arguments." As Hume recognized quite clearly in the Dialogues, it is entirely possible to hold, in the face of the problem of evil, that God exists, even if one holds it only on design arguments; the problem that evil poses is not really for God's existence but for our knowledge of God's nature and plan [again, if you try to build that knowledge entirely on design arguments and arguments like it--ed.]. If treated as a problem in this way, it presupposes that we don't have independent reasons for our views of God's nature and plan; if treated as a problem for theism as such, it seems to require that some sort of logical contradiction be generated from the premises (and it has not been shown that there is any generated contradiction).

Other interesting posts on this issue: at Fides Quarens Intellectum, at Maverick Philosopher, at diachronic agency, at prosthesis, and at Mode for Caleb (who lists yet more).


Your New Years Resolution Should Be: Wake up before noon

You've been accused of sleeping your life away
And it's a little bit true - you are really into your pillow
In fact, it may be years since you've seen a sunrise at the *start* of your day
Sleep a little less. Some sunshine would do you good.

(Hat-tip: wolfangel.)

Nietzsche on George Eliot

G. Eliot. -- They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.

We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one's hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth--it stands and falls with faith in God.

When the English actually believe that they know "intuitively" what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.

Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols.

Although, to be fair to Eliot, she was largely following the Germans.

The Pedagogical Value of Error

I have been thinking recently of the Christian doctrine, commonly found, but due in its most common form probably to St. Hilary of Poitier, that God stirs up heresy, or allows heresy to be stirred up, in order to force the Church to grow and deepen its understanding of things that it is growing complacent about. I think this is a very powerful truth, not only for heresy in particular, but for error in general. That is: error is an opportunity for teaching and learning. I think people, faced with errors, tend to get very frustrated with them because they are perpetually trying to convince the people with the erroneous views. But as far as teaching goes, it isn't important at all whether you convince others; what is important instead is that you impress them, or, rather, that you put forward the subject matter itself and let the subject matter impress and convince them. If put forward correctly, it will always do a better job of convincing people than you ever will, anyway. And even if you don't convince anyone, even if after all your efforts it turns out that you are only preaching to the choir - well, the choir may be on your side, but they often need a bit of preaching, too. One thinks of the 'intelligent design' controversy. Do people magically gain special insight into scientific issues merely on the basis of whether they agree with a given side? It is, for all that it must frustrate some people, one of the greatest teaching opportunities of all time; and even if one ends up convincing no one on the other side, there are a lot of people who will learn a great deal from it. And one might learn a few unexpected things oneself. So it's a general principle: error is our occasion and our opportunity for deepening our understanding of the world. It will always be something of an evil (I can think of more than a few errors that I wish I could stamp out entirely); but it is not an unambiguous evil. And that's a relief, I think.

Substance and Shadow

Suppose a man who talks about the sacred value and awe and wonder of truth, and about how he is devoting his life to truth and reason; and who, in looking back on history, holds up as great exemplars those he calls martyrs for truth. And suppose he believes that truth is divine and that reason was made for communion with it.

Now suppose a man who talks about the sacred value and awe and wonder of truth, and about how he is devoting his life to truth and reason; and who, in looking back on history, holds up as great exemplars those he calls martyrs for truth. And suppose he instead believes that truth is simply a formal operation of disquotation (or some such) and that reason was not 'made' for anything.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Donne on Death

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ;
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke ; why swell'st thou then ?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more ; Death, thou shalt die.

John Donne, Holy Sonnet X.

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

John Donne, Meditation XVII.

Staccato Blogging

This is just to let you know that I'll my blogging will be a bit erratic in January. It won't be light, just erratic - instead of the fairly steady stream of several posts a day it will be more staccato: lots of skipped days, lots of blogging on non-skipped days. I have a large number of things that need to be finished up this month.

Some posts to look forward to over the next several weeks (in no particular order):

* A post on A Midsummer Night's Dream

* My interpretation of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

* Something on seduction, temptation, and The Romance of the Rose

* I will finally start discussing free will in my series on free will

* A few posts on William Whewell: on ethics, on natural religion, perhaps on law

* Probably a few things on Malebranche's dualism, and maybe something on his adaptation of Augustine's doctrine of the Interior Teacher (and if so, I'll do something no Mary Astell's adaptation of the same doctrine)

* Maybe something on Shepherd's theory of causation

* Something from Middlemarch, which I'm currently reading

* Given that people keep appealing to it, I might post something on the Lisbon earthquake

* I want to contribute something to the discussion of the Trinity going on at FQI and the Maverick Philosopher

And who knows what else!

Unexpected Search Engine Hit

I am number one on the Yahoo! search for: redneck jokes soundwaves, by means of which someone found their way here.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

God and Natural Evils

Keith Burgess-Jackson asks:

I have a question for my theistic readers. How do you reconcile the devastation wrought by the tsunami with your belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being? If God could have prevented the tsunami but didn’t, then God’s omnibenevolence is called into question. If God wanted to prevent the tsunami but couldn’t, then God’s omniscience or omnipotence is called into question. You can’t explain away the evil by citing free will, for no human being brought about the tsunami. (Surely you don’t believe in fallen angels.) Do events like this shake your faith? If not, why not? If death and destruction on this scale don’t make you doubt the existence of your god, what would?

Which is a fair enough question. My response:

Since my own view is that the existence of God admits of demonstration, and indeed multiple independent demonstrative arguments (along the lines of Scotus's triple primacy argument, and the major arguments that are like it), and that even if it didn't it holds the overwhelming balance of probability, it would take quite a lot to make me doubt the existence of God; it would take proof that the arguments I think demonstrative are not and a demonstration (or something close to it) that God does not exist. Atheistic arguments by and large tend to fall into three groups (with some overlap):

* arguments to absurdity

* arguments from superfluity

* arguments from evil

And this accounts for pretty nearly the whole set. Arguments from superfluity (that we do not need to suppose God for some sort of explanation) are very weak, so can be set aside; arguments to absurdity (that there is some sort of contradiction in positing the existence of God) have never really been given much plausibility except where they are also arguments from evil. Moral evil is not at issue here, and admits of fairly easy block (as a reason for atheism) in free will. This leaves natural evil and this brings us to Burgess-Jackson's question about how to reconcile the devastation caused by the tsunami with the existence of "an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being". By 'reconcile' we might be asking about whether one can block a contradiction created by combining God is omnipotent, God is omniscient, God is omnibenevolent, evil exists. I don't see there is any such contradiction to block; I have never seen a satisfactory argument that there is such a contradiction to block; attempts to argue that there is a contradiction seem to me to be doomed because they require that we be able to say for certain that we know everything relevant an omniscient being would know about the matter; and since I think the first three are all demonstrable and I am sure evil exists, I am very certain there is no contradiction that needs to be blocked. By 'reconcile' we might also be asking for it to be shown that the four are consistent; in which case I would point back to arguments like Scotus's triple primacy argument which, if they work, as I think they do, show us that the four must be consistent. By 'reconcile' we might be asking for a precise account of how they are consistent (a more direct proof of consistency); and on this point I have none to give, anymore than I have any to give for most claims, and I suspect I can give none (for some of the same reasons I think there can be no proof of inconsistency). I do believe there are fallen angels, but not being in communication with them, I don't know any precise details about what they are doing, and don't particularly care. I have other things to worry about.

On whether events like this shake my faith, this is a larger question. My faith rests not on general claims about what divine providence should be doing but on specific claims about what it has done in Christ; and I don't see that they would be affected by this, having already withstood many centuries of plague, famine, war, and the like. What events like this do instead of shake my faith in God and Christ is strengthen my hope in the promise of glory that has been given in Christ; and also (I hope) my charity toward others, both those hurt by this devastation and everyone else (it highlights clearly the fragility and transience of our lives; as the prophet says, all flesh withers like grass and its constancy fades like the flower of the field). And may it be so with others, as well.


I recently finished reading Austen's Persuasion. It has always given me the impression of being the most 'girly' of Austen's novels, and still does. I'm not quite sure what it is that makes it seem so, but my best guess is that the "inward repetition of looks, words, and deeds" that George Eliot attributed to girlish minds plays a much more central role in the actual story of Persuasion than in most of her other works; large portions of the story are about Anne's ruminations on whether Wentworth's looking so-and-so has such-and-such meaning, and she has to stop every few minutes to restrain her emotions on overhearing something. Girly; just a tiny hint of what one finds in those silly women's magazines to how it goes about its way. But despite not particularly enjoying that aspect, I enjoy the novel, nonetheless; had Austen had time to refine it, it might well have been a real rival of the Great Austenian Triumvirate: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility. As it is, it's still better than 99.999% of the novels ever written. It does make me glad, though, that Austen has characters like Emma, and Elizabeth, and even Lady Susan (my favorite villainess of all time), to balance her out. Were Emma, for instance, never to mature but to harden into her ways, she would be very similar to Lady Susan: ruthlessly manipulative, infinitely self-righteous, and realistically wicked. She's a very strong character. Much the same can be said of Elizabeth. But Anne Elliot turned villainess wouldn't be much at all. And the reason is that she isn't a very strong character; she has good qualities, and is likable (like Jane, but more sharply defined) and sometimes we see there's a bit more to her than meets the eye, as at Louisa's fall. But she is by and large a very subdued, unintrusive sort of person.

Two things particularly struck me this time around. (1) Although it's a very faint and subtle role, divine Providence, and our responsibility to it, plays something of a role in the story (and is explicitly recognized as such). Austen tends to avoid such things; but it makes an appearance (with a very light touch) in Persuasion. I don't think it provides any grand key to the story, but it is interesting to find it there.

(2) This dialogue on the value of testimony caught my philosophical eye (in Chapter XXI):

"Colonel Wallis! you are acquainted with him?"

"No. It does not come to me in quite so direct a line as that;
it takes a bend or two, but nothing of consequence. The stream
is as good as at first; the little rubbish it collects in the turnings
is easily moved away. Mr Elliot talks unreservedly to Colonel Wallis
of his views on you, which said Colonel Wallis, I imagine to be,
in himself, a sensible, careful, discerning sort of character;
but Colonel Wallis has a very pretty silly wife, to whom
he tells things which he had better not, and he repeats it all to her.
She in the overflowing spirits of her recovery, repeats it all
to her nurse; and the nurse knowing my acquaintance with you,
very naturally brings it all to me. On Monday evening, my good friend
Mrs Rooke let me thus much into the secrets of Marlborough Buildings.
When I talked of a whole history, therefore, you see I was
not romancing so much as you supposed."

"My dear Mrs Smith, your authority is deficient. This will not do.
Mr Elliot's having any views on me will not in the least account
for the efforts he made towards a reconciliation with my father.
That was all prior to my coming to Bath. I found them on
the most friendly terms when I arrived."

"I know you did; I know it all perfectly, but--"

"Indeed, Mrs Smith, we must not expect to get real information
in such a line. Facts or opinions which are to pass through the hands
of so many, to be misconceived by folly in one, and ignorance in another,
can hardly have much truth left."

"Only give me a hearing. You will soon be able to judge of
the general credit due, by listening to some particulars
which you can yourself immediately contradict or confirm.
Nobody supposes that you were his first inducement. He had seen you
indeed, before he came to Bath, and admired you, but without
knowing it to be you. So says my historian, at least. Is this true?
Did he see you last summer or autumn, `somewhere down in the west,'
to use her own words, without knowing it to be you?"

"He certainly did. So far it is very true. At Lyme.
I happened to be at Lyme."

"Well," continued Mrs Smith, triumphantly, "grant my friend the credit
due to the establishment of the first point asserted. [...]"

Third Early Modernists' Carnival

Claire has put up the third edition of Carnivalesque, the Early Modernists' Carnival, at Early Modern Material Culture. It comes in two parts:

Part I

Part II

There are some excellent posts. Two that caught my eye that I hadn't come across before or had missed when they came out:

* It's Mostly About The Benjamins at ""

* A bit of convict blood at "Philobiblon"

One of the things I like about the carnival this time around is the diversity. The early modern carnivals so far have all been fairly diverse; but this one impresses me as the most diverse: it contains posts on (among other things) Valmiki's Ramayana, Crypto-Judaism, Japanese isolationism, Icelandic genetics, an Irish harper, Australian convicts, and Benjamin Franklin. Quite a mix.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

My Name Is Called 'Excellent'

"You are sad," the Knight said in an anxious tone: "let me sing you a song to comfort you.... The name of the song is called 'Haddocks' Eyes.'"

"Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?" Alice said, trying to feel interested.

"No, you don't understand," the Kinght said, looking a little vexed. "That's what the name is called. The name really is 'The Aged Aged Man.'"

"Then I ought to have said, 'That's what the song is called'?" Alice corrected herself.

"No, you oughtn't: that's another thing. The song is called 'Ways and Means': but that's only what it's called, you know!"

"Well, what is the song, then?" said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

"I was coming to that," the Knight said. "The song really is 'A sitting on a Gate': and the tune's my own invention."

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

There Ain't No Gold and There Ain't Nobody Like Me

I headed out from Toronto to Boston on Tuesday. I took the Greyhound bus, so the trip was fourteen hours (actually, it ended up being twelve and a half, but that's because the driver on the last leg somehow managed to get an hour and a half ahead of schedule). Boston isn't far from Toronto as the crow flies; but a bus has to go around a Great Lake. It turned out to be even cheaper than I expected, which meant that even on a grad student's budget I could afford a little splurging here and there.

This is Peace Bridge, between Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Ontario. Over $7 billion (US) in commercial merchandise is carried over it each year, making it one of the most important ports of entry in North America. It was constructed to commemorate 100 years of peace between Canada and the United States, and was dedicated August 7, 1927 (I noticed this in particular because August 7 is my birthday). The site was chosen to be near where the last shots of the War of 1812 were fired, and the revolutionary decision by Canada and the United States in the aftermath (due in great measure to Richard Rush, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State after the War of 1812) not to put defenses on the border. May God grant that the example for which it stands be remembered and admired through the ages.

In any case, having crossed Peace Bridge without much trouble, I continued on the bus, via Syracuse, to Boston, arriving on Wednesday. I got a bit lost trying to get where I was trying to go, but got a nice exposure to old Boston in the process. Bostonians, by the way, are quite courteous; I was very impressed. I checked into my hotel, the Boston Milner, which I thought a nice hotel. If you like big rooms, you wouldn't like it, though; I got upgraded to a bigger room when I checked in, and it was still one of the smallest hotel rooms I had ever been in. Given the price of the rooms, which wasn't bad but also wasn't cheap, it might turn people off. On the other hand, the staff is quite good, and it has a great location - I was in a much better part of the city than those silly people who actually got rooms in the Marriott where the convention was held. I tell you, I don't know what people are thinking when they only fly into conventions on planes and only stay at the hotels in which the conventions are held; one might as well eat entirely at Burger King whenever you're in a foreign country, for all the worth you get out of such a plan of action.

But I'm rambling again. By the time I got to the hotel, I wasn't feeling that well; I went to registration to check in, but felt progressively worse as time went on. I had intended on going to the Society of Christian Philosophers session that evening, but wasn't feeling well enough to do much of anything. I just stayed in my room and watched TV. It is astonishing how little there is to watch on cable. I ended up watching Dogma. I had seen the ending before, but never the beginning. It's a very neo-Gnostic movie, complete with Metatron and a forgotten apostle. Quite interesting, actually, despite a lot of bad humor; but, then, I've always thought that Gnosticism sometimes makes good fiction even where it obviously makes absurd theology.

I felt much better the next day and attended a nice colloquium later on early modern epistemology - there was more Leibniz than I really liked, but I was glad to have caught it. James Bednar of Vanderbilt had an interesting paper on Hume's Dialogues, good enough that I will have to say something about it here at some point. And then I caught the bus home, returning this time by way of Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls.

Despite the mysterious illness of the first day, I enjoyed myself considerably. Reading around at what other people have said, I'm not sure if that's due to the objective goodness of the time I had or my subjective cluelessness as to what was going on around me. But it was still enjoyable.