Friday, February 18, 2005

Darwin's Logic: Preliminaries: Vera Causa

Before I actually discuss the argument of The Origin of Species, I want to put forward a preliminary or two.

Newton in his first Rule of Reasoning in Philosophy states:

We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.

There are different ways in which one can gloss the "true" here. However, while Newton does not here explicitly clue us in no what he means by a "true cause", he immediately goes on to explain the whole principle in terms of simplicity:

To this purpose the philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.

This suggests a natural way to read "true cause," namely, it is the opposite of a superfluous cause. In other words, the first Rule suggests that we should use only those causes that we know already to be effective (with the qualification that we should do this only to the extent that these causes are sufficient for the phenomena; it is also very likely that 'cause' here should be taken in a fairly broad sense to include laws and the like). This element of Newton's first Rule we can call by its common name, the vera causa principle.

The vera causa principle, in some form or other, is a very important part of the background for the argument of Darwin's The Origin of Species. While it is not directly responsible for any of Darwin's conclusions, it plays a very important role in structuring his argument. Twice in OS he explicitly appeals to it.

1. The first instance is in the chapter on Geographical Distribution (this is a link to the first edition; if you prefer the sixth edition, here it is), when discussing "single centres of creation". Darwin looks at a debate among those who hold the opposing point of view (the theory of special creation): for each given species, was it created at a single center of creation, or were there multiple centers of creation for each species? Darwin's reply:

Undoubtedly there are many cases of extreme difficulty in understanding how the same species could possibly have migrated from some one point to the several distant and isolated points, where now found. Nevertheless the simplicity of teh view that each species was first produced within a single region captivates the mind. He who rejects it, rejects the vera causa of ordinary generation with subsequent migration, and calls in the agency of a miracle. It is universally admitted, that in most cases the area inhabited by a species is continuous; and when a plant or animal inhabits two points so distant from each other, or with an interval of such a nature, that the space could not be easily passed over by migration, the fact is given as something remarkable and exceptional.

Note the way the argument works. It is not a simple labeling of one option as a miracle and the other as a vera causa. Rather, Darwin goes on to show (in greater detail than I have quoted) that as a matter of fact, natural historians already universally explain some cases of the wide distribution of species in terms of ordinary generation with subsequent migration; it is this that makes ordinary generation with subsequent migration a vera causa. Thus, the presumption is that we should see if we can find a way for this vera causa to explain the remarkable and exceptional cases as well. Darwin provides some argument that this is possible, which I won't go into here. He will then take this vera causa of ordinary generation with subsequent migration and use it for his own purposes.

2. The second explicit appeal occurs in the conclusion:

Several eminent naturalists have of late published their belief that a multitude of reputed species in each genus are not real species; but that other species are real, that is, have been independently created. This seems to me a strange conclusion to arrive at. They admit that a multitude of forms, which till lately they themselves thought were special creations, and which are still thus looked at by the majority of naturalists, and which consequently have every external characteristic feature of true species, -- they admit that these have been produced by variation, but they refuse to extend the same view to other and very slightly different forms. Nevertheless they do not pretend that they can define, or even conjecture, which are the created forms of life, and which are those produced by secondary laws. They admit variation as a vera causa in one case, they arbitrarily reject it in another, without assigning any distinction in the two cases. The day will come when this will be given as a curious illustration of the blindness of preconceived opinion.

Here we find a similar sort of argument, which brings out an important point about vera causa reasoning: it is, in fact, a form of parity reasoning. To put it crudely, vera causa reasoning is a particular case of treating things that are the same, the same, insofar as they are the same; we can only drop the vera causa if we have, as Darwin says, something that makes it possible for us to draw a principled distinction. Implicitly, I think this argument agrees with Newton: the sort of principle of distinction one would want is that the vera causa can be shown to be simply insufficient for the phenomena. The naturalists Darwin is considering are taking variation as a vera causa -- they use it to explain certain sorts of phenomena, namely, forms that they had thought to be specially created, but which they have come to think were not. But they deny its use in other cases without giving a principled reason why the two cases are different. They are thus appearing to violate parity.

3. These, then, are the two explicit cases of Darwin's appeal to vera causa by name. It would be a mistake to think that these are the only cases of vera causa reasoning in OS, however. For instance, Darwin's starting the work with methodical and unconscious artificial selection is at least in part clearly an argument for the use of the vera causa of variation in natural cases. Another clearcut case occurs in my favorite part of the book, the discussion of the classification. Darwin is arguing that the natural system of classification, that is, the classification that characterizes the kingdoms of life as they really are in themselves, is organized genealogically. Part of his argument is that naturalists already use descent in classification:

As descent has universally been used in classing together the individuals of the same species, though the males and females and larvae are sometimes extremely different; and as it has been used in classing varieties which have undergone a certain, and sometimes a considerable amount of modification, may not this same element of descent have been unconsciously used in grouping species under genera, and genera under higher groups, though in these cases the modification has been greater in degree, and has taken a longer time to complete?

And again:

We use the element of descent in classing the individuals of both sexes and of all ages, although having few characters in common, under one species; we use descent in classing acknowledged varieties, however different they may be from their parent; and I believe this element of descent is the hidden bond of connexion which naturalists have sought under the term of the Natural System. On this idea of the natural system being, in so far as it has been perfected, genealogical in its arrangement, with the grades of difference between the descendants from a common parent, expressed by the terms genera, families, orders, &c., we can understand the rules which we are compelled to follow in our classification.

In other words, we have here a clear vera causa argument; in classification, we already use the element of descent as the principle (cause in a broad sense) for classifying individuals; we use it for classifying varieties; so Darwin suggest that we carry it over to recognizing it as the causal basis for classifying species: in other words, that we take as the principle of the natural system. And much of Darwin's discussion of the natural system involves arguing exactly what he should, given the vera causa principle: that if we do, in fact, carry it over, we find that our vera causa is sufficient for giving us a handle on the phenomena.

And this is only a selection of the most obvious cases. Thus we see that the principle of vera causa plays an important general role in OS. One of the effects it will have is that of making some of Darwin's other arguments, the arguments that relate more strictly to the theory of descent with modification, much stronger than they would be if vera causa were not also in the background. So we will see it again when we get to those arguments.

On Austin on Natural Law Again

[I have thought these matters through more thoroughly and have worked up a better presentation of my primary points, here. Consider this post superceded.]

Andy has responded to my response to his response to my post on Austin on natural law. Unfortunately, I don't have time for much in the way of a response (it would be the case that all the interesting discussions are happening right when I can't afford the time), but here are my basic points, sort of bulleted and put forward without much development. Apologies if it seems a bit abrupt at points.

1. On the issue of Islamic terrorists, I think it is false to say that their motivation is "Allah wills it"; motivations take the form of ends, and their end is not "Obeying the will of God is good" but "Pan-Islamic civilization should be renewed to its rightful glory," which requires, in their view, that the West, as the primary obstacle to this renewal, be brought down. This is a utilitarian end. But more importantly it is blatantly false to say that religious fundamentalists are the textbook case of natural law theorists; religious fundamentalists all in fact reject natural law theory when it is proposed to them. The rejection of natural law follows strictly from principles of religious fundamentalism, because religious fundamentalism can't allow the account of reason and authority natural law implies. To treat religious fundamentalists as if they were natural law theorists is simply to make the silly mistake of thinking that everyone who talks about the law of God means the same thing by it. The idea that Osama bin Laden is a natural law theorist is utterly laughable, and could not conceivably be supported by a genuinely rational examination of natural law jurisprudence.

2. I don't understand what is meant by saying that moral authority is neither real authority nor practical authority, particularly since you deny that the law obligates, which implies that it has no authority at all, it simply exists.

3. The doctrine of toleration is not that we should obey laws that are unjust but that we should not impose laws merely because they would be just.

4. It is clearly false to say that natural law theory uses the term 'law' obsoletely; the term 'law' is clearly still often used in this sense, and it makes no sense to call a usage obsolete that still is common.

5. Insofar as it gives away the issue of authority to law, legal positivism cannot form an opposition to natural law in the way Bentham and Austin make it, because it has then simply confined itself to facts about law rather than to issues about the authority of law.

6. When I wrote "If we apply the word 'law' to it (as we usually do), we do so equivocally" you wrote:

But we don't do so equivocally. That's an empirical fact of language. We don't put scare quotes around "laws" which we believe aren't binding. People don't assert that abortion is really not legal; they agree that it is legal and assert that it shouldn't be. People don't assert that marijuana use is really legal; they agree that it's illegal and assert that it shouldn't be.

This makes no sense; since it is simply false that we only equivocate when we use scare quotes, equivocation being a logical issue and not an empirical fact about language, I don't know what you mean here. People do assert that abortion is really not legal; you can find Catholics who will say so. They will also allow that there is a sense in which abortion is legal. This is the whole point of saying that it is an equivocation: that people use it in the sense you are recognizing above does not imply that it is the only legitimate use of the word, nor does it mean that legal positivists are not equivocating when they criticize natural law theory (in fact, it can fairly easily be shown that most of them are, because they don't usually take much trouble to connect their use of the term 'law' in their criticism with the use of the term 'law' in natural law theory).

7. Austin's belief that natural law theory is founded on revelation is simply confused; it is a form of intellectualism about practical reasoning, which was assimilated by a particular sort of theology as being, independently, in conformity with that theology's principles.

8. Accordance with right reason is determined by reasoning. Sometimes the relevant reasoning will be utilitarian; in fact, historically the early roots of utilitarianism are arguably a split off from a particular set of considerations in natural law theory or related views. If this means there is no conflict, it is the utilitarian's fault for trying to pick the fight in the first place.

9. It is simply false to say that "An unjust law is not a law" is empirically false, because it is a normative claim that in natural law theory presupposes the recognition that 'law' means several different things. You keep saying that it is empirically false: my challenge is, let us actual see the empirical proof so we can make sure it does not depend on an equivocation or mischaracterization. That we use the word 'law' for unjust laws does not contradict the principle enunciated, for instance; so what is this empirical proof?

10. Since natural law theory is primarily a position about the basic principles of practical reasoning, your argument that King's argument is purely utilitarian fails. This is a problem with most oppositions to natural law theory, which I noted in a post several months ago: they are not rejections of natural law's basic principles but a restriction of them. What you are arguing for is not the rejection of natural law theory but a purely utilitarian natural law. To reject natural law consistently requires the denial that there are any basic principles of practical reason as such; systematic utilitarianism usually does not insofar as it is put forward as a general account of good moral reasoning, because it posits at least one such basic principle. (Nonsystematic or occasional utilitarianism, which does not put forward such a general account, does not depend on such basic principles, but is a simple appeal to consequential ends without attempting to justify this by basic principles of practical reason.)

[It occurs to me that part of the problem is that some things are being treated as principles of natural law theory that actually are conclusions. The principles of natural law theory are simply principles about the natural of practical reason; all the most distinctive aspects of natural law theory are either conclusions drawn from these principles (the notion of moral law, the relations of moral law and positive law, etc.) or are drawn from the doctrine of divine providence (natural law as the law of God), a doctrine that is not entailed by the principles of natural law theory, but which, in certain forms at least, entails that there be natural law. Thus natural law in itself is an account of the principles of practical reason; on supposition of divine providence we also say that these principles of practical reason are the law of God written on the human heart, and thus natural law has a thriving place in theology as part of a (broadly Augustinian, or something analogous to it) theology of providence. Now, unless legal positivists are going to deny either that they reason practically or that their practical reason involves basic practical principles, their fussing about morality and law or about the law of God does not and cannot get at the heart of natural law theory, which are its principles about the nature of practical reason. It is from these that the conclusions are drawn; so natural law theory can only be toppled by presenting a better account of practical reason, which does not involve appeal to fundamental rational principles. Legal positivists do not do this as legal positivists; which is why most of their arguments beg the question against the natural law theorist. Typically, when they do put forward arguments that don't beg the question, it isn't as legal positivists, but as something else; in other words, they really reject natural law's connection of morality and law not on the basis of their account of law, but on the basis of their rival ethical or psychological theory.]

Verisimilitude Again

Hugo asked for clarification on the previous post on verisimilitude; I'm not sure what aspect he wanted clarified, in particular, but here is a rough expansion. It will have to be rough because I have limited time at the moment.

First, we need to be clear about 'realism'; there is no such thing as realism simpliciter. We are always talking about realism about a particular sort of thing. Insofar as arguments against a given sort of realism don't recognize this, they are put into doubt, because they need to justify being carried over from whatever sort of thing it is for which they are found most convincing. For instance, the fact that particle realist has problem P in the case of particle physics does not in any way entail that the natural-historical realist has the same problem in the case of paleontology. Arguments against realist views must be justified for each particular case; there can be no free rides. (Similar things can be said about opposing positions like anti-realism.)

Second, it is simply unjustified to assume that theory-ladenness as such is a problem for a realist. Why would it be? The realist about x is simply committed (at least minimally) to the view that x is probably approximately true. The fact that x has to be conceptualized a certain way, put into a theoretical context, seen from a certain perspective, etc., in order to be posited in this way does not affect the realist claim itself at all. Particular sorts of theory-ladenness might be a problem for particular sorts of realism; indeed, it might be the case that every sort of realism, or every sort of realism associated with a particular discipline, has some sort of theory-ladenness that puts it into doubt -- but this must be proven, not assumed. It is rarely even argued outside the context of mathematical physics.

Third, insofar as we have already conceptualized history as being about traces of the past we have already granted some form of historical realism. By recognizing an archive as an archive, for instance, it has already been granted that we have a relevant hold on something of what happened, namely, on what happened so as to leave a trace of itself. It doesn't mean we have a straightforward hold, naturally; but this is not what's at issue, since what is at issue is whether the historian has anything in virtue of which historical realism about something becomes possible. And there is, if history is possible at all. The only alternative to at least a very minimal historical realism is skepticism about the past entirely. Once we grant that we can actually have evidences of the past, we have already granted that the historian has something of what she is trying to get at when she is trying to get at what happened; the only alternative is to deny that we can actually have evidences of the past at all.

Fourth, approximation does not require a unique reference point. In order to say that something is approximately true we do not have to determine what is precisely true. In the case of history, all we have to say is that it coheres with a whole set of traces of what happened; it therefore coheres with what happened inasmuch as that left traces, it therefore approximates what happened. It is not at all necessary in order to recognize something as approximately true that we identify precisely what it is that we are approximating, so long as we can connect the approximation to what we are approximating. Simply to identify traces of the past as traces of the past suffices for this; or at least, if it does not, opponents of realists have not done the work to show it is not.

Fifth, when we are dealing with approximately true accounts, it is simply erroneous to treat them as if they were single propositions. Mutually exclusive accounts, in the sense of accounts that could not both be precisely true, can both be approximately true; such mutually exclusive accounts do not contradict each other, although they would contain propositions that do contradict each other. But this is not relevant to the issue of whether the accounts themselves are both approximately true. It is not necessary to be able to rank such accounts according to greater and lesser degree of approximation to the truth in order to identify them as approximately true; such a ranking would always have to presuppose that we have already identified the accounts as approximately true. Likewise, there is no reason to think such a ranking would be a linear ranking rather than a multidimensional ranking; that is, given two mutually exclusive approximately true accounts, there may be no straightforward answer as to which more closely approximates the truth. They may have different strengths and weaknesses, for instance. They may approximate the truth in different ways. It is simply an unwarranted assumption to think of approximation to the truth as "unification of particular ideas into clearer accounts with fewer principles". It may be found that in certain cases this sort of progress in approximation is possible (I think it certainly is); but none of this, again, causes a problem for the original identification of some accounts as approximately true; progress in approximation is downriver from identification of approximation, and thus can't cause a problem for it. And all one needs for realism as such is simply the ability to identify things as probably approximately true.

Sixth, that we impose narratives on the evidences we have is simply irrelevant to the question of realism unless it is shown that the precise way in which we must impose the narrative is such as to make impossible the particular variety of realism being considered. I am open to the possibility of an argument for this in particular cases; but (1) it needs to be argued or it has no force against the realist; (2) it needs to be argued on a case-by-case basis.

In short, the case to discredit every form of historical realism hasn't been made yet, although I think it fair to say that certain forms have been shown to be impossible, and that there are issues that might be problems for at least some other forms.

No Infinite Regress Here

What are my philosophical interests? I'm interested in early modern philosophy because I'm interested in Malebranche and Hume. I'm interested in Malebranche because I'm interested in Hume. I'm interested in Hume because I'm interested in modern thought generally. I'm interested in modern thought generally because I'm interested in the extent to which a modern Aristotelianism is possible. I'm interested in that because I'm interested in Aristotle. I'm interested in Aristotle because I'm interested in medieval scholasticism. And so it goes. But eventually the line gets to Aquinas, and I'm interested in Aquinas because he's just awesome, the end. So when people ask me what my philosophical interests are, I either start at the end of the chain with early modern philosophy or at the beginning with Aquinas. The whole universe is in the middle.

Verisimilitude in History, My Rough Remarks

With regard to the subject of my last post, a post has been put up at Studi Galileiani on verisimilitude in history. Now, I first need to say that there are a lot of issues related to this subject I haven't thought through (hence my term 'naked' in the previous post); and the conclusions I have come to are inevitably idiosyncratic (they always are). So none of this is intended as more than a crude set of first thoughts. My thoughts on the post:

* I'm inclined to think that the 'theory-laden' nature of our evidences is not actually relevant to the issue. It only would become so if we thought that the ability to approximate reality actually depended on the ability to separate observation statements and theory statements. But there is no reason to assume this unless we are positivists. In fact, I think the 'theory-laden' nature of our evidences is a boon to a non-positivist realism, because it is precisely what makes it possible for us to engage in any inquiry at all (I follow Whewell to that extent). It is what makes them intelligible evidences rather than unintelligible brute facts.

* One effect of going to approximation, it seems to me, is that it does away with any demand for our histories to imply "a unique historical reality against which to measure the fit our histories." Measurement against a unique historical reality is not what being approximately true involves; in other words: you don't need to have in hand a unique historical reality in order to determine that a history is approximately true. Just as you don't need to know that the earth is a perfect sphere in order to say that "The earth is a perfect sphere" is approximately true (which is a good thing, since the earth is not a perfect sphere), so you don't need to know a unique historical reality in order to say that such-and-such history is approximately true. You just need to know some relevant reality; and there is no non-positivist reason to think our theory-laden traces of the past do not qualify as relevant reality. (A sense of the term 'reality' in which an archive does not count as real is a bizarre sense that may simply be discounted; such a sense would be irrelevant to anything and not what realists mean when they talk about reality. And the mere fact of conceptualizing it as an archive makes it relevant. Skeptical issues can arise about the ways in which it is relevant in any particular case; but once admit it an archive, you admit it is a reality relevant to building approximately true histories around.)

* If we take approximate truth seriously, an appeal to coherence doesn't require us to appeal to a coherence account of truth, but only to a coherence account of approximate truth; it is true that mutually exclusive accounts may both cohere in the way such an account requires, but that's not a problem for approximate truth. In fact, it is precisely what one would expect. Nor is it necessary in every case to rank the accounts relative to each other and say, this account is a better approximation than that one; such a ranking would be linear, but we are dealing with accounts, not single propositions, and there is no reason to think that there would always be a straightforward way in which this account is simply a better approximation than that one. Accounts are complicated things; things may approximate to reality in qualitatively different ways, i.e., while the approximation might be compared, there may be no common measure because they approximate in different ways. At least, it is arbitrary simply to assume otherwise at the outset. So the question "Which has the greater verisimilitude?" is only a bugbear for the historical realist if the historical realist is assuming that all historical accounts would be approximations of exactly the same thing in exactly the same way, so that each approximation could be ranked as more or less approximately true according to a single measure than every other approximation. But this contains a is a lot of strong modifiers a historical realist doesn't have to assume.

* History is narrative discourse, and a lot like literature, amen, amen, I say to you, amen. But it is entirely possible to be a realist and hold this.

I haven't looked at Dummettian semantic anti-realism or anti-representationalism here; I suspect there are stronger issues there, although I'm too fuzzy on both to say anything constructive. But I don't see that there's anything for the historical realist to fear in bias, underdetermination, or the theory-laden character of our evidences. They only really are a problem when we are trying to find a unique historical reality rather than approximation to it; they only arise under the latter case if we assume that to recognize something as approximately true requires a unique reference point, i.e., they only arise if one assumes that approximate truth requires both the approximation and the unique historical reality. I see no reason to think this is true.

Wherein I Jump Naked into a Boiling Cauldron of Debate

There is a really complicated discussion going on about philosophy of history and historiography, started off by the discussion at Blogenspiel of the discussion of Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages at Studi Galileiani. It is continued in comments here at Studi Galileiani, then at Cliopatria and again here at Blogenspiel and again at Studi Galileiani. It has degenerated a bit, which is unfortunate because it brings up interesting issues. I find much of the argument a bit obscure, but I'll put my two cents and see whether my two cents make any sense. So, a few notes.

(1) I tend to agree with Another Damned Medievalist in the comments to one of my posts, on the question of "what historians have traditionally supposed they could achieve":

What do you mean by traditionally? Do you mean Herodotus? Thucydides? Tacitus? They all had very different purposes. Gibbon? Carlyle? Also different. Hegel -- still different.

I think this is a fair argument, and quite right (I can't help but smile at the thought of Gibbon and Hegel trying to convince each other on the issue of what the purpose of doing history is); and it's relevant to issues of philosophy of history. I don't think it plays much role in the part of the dispute which interested me most, though (and which I'll get to below).

(2) Just as some of the things said by the philosophers about history have sounded strange to the historians some of the things said by the historians about philosophy of history sound strange to a philosopher's ears. I would tend to defer to the historians on the actual practice of history as a discipline; but philosophy of history as a discipline is necessarily rather more than 'having a philosophy of history' (although obviously there's a connection). This isn't actually surprising; when philosophers do philosophy of history they are not typically doing it merely for the purpose of writing better history (or any history at all), but for what it shows about other things. One of the things that Newall says in his Philosophy of History essay which has received comment is that some have read him as saying that there's something wrong with history; when actually he's simply looking at some philosophical issues raised by the discipline of history and trying to put them in an elementary form (more on this below).

(3) In one of the comments somewhere it was said that the essay read as if there had been no advances in historical scholarship since WWI (or something to that effect); which is possible. Philosophy of history has been a very, very weak field for a long time now, and one of the reasons is that philosophers have, with a handful of relevant exceptions, just largely not tried to set down the issues involved. In other words, the problem is probably rather that the philosophy of history has not kept pace, simply because it hasn't been a particularly thriving field (unlike, say, philosophy of science). (I don't know, of course, what sources influenced Newall's essay.) One of the nice things about this discussion, despite the fact that it has degenerated, is that it provides an opportunity for historians to get out there and show what work needs to be done to bring it up to date. (For why I think this is essential for historians, see (4).)

(4) It is very likely that philosophy of history will contribute very little to the doing of history as such. I make this prognostication on the basis of the fact that philosophy of science has contributed relatively little to the doing of science as such, and philosophy of science is a more developed discipline than philosophy of history. This isn't to say that there won't be any such contributions. The ideal, in fact, would be for philosophy of history to have its equivalent of William Whewell, the great nineteenth-century philosopher of science who was responsible for much of the way science organized itself. But Whewells aren't found on every street corner, so we'll probably have to settle for something less. What philosophy of science has in every generation a massive influence on, however, is what society does with science; and there's no reason to think philosophy of history is any different. A problematic approach to philosophy of science (to the extent it becomes accepted) will distort, at least to some extent, the role science has in society, perhaps even to the extent of eventually distorting the practice of science itself. One of the reasons I think this sort of discussion is a good one to have is that historians cannot afford to ignore philosophy of history because, however historians may view philosophy of history, philosophy of history is what in fact mediates between them and everyone else in society; and it is better that (1) it do so explicitly rather than implicitly, critically examined and out in the open rather than unremarked; and (2) historians be clear about what they see as incorrect (and correct) assumptions in a given sort of approach; and (3) any problems, as far as communicating accurately what they are doing, in the way historians are formulating their approaches and conclusions to the public be corrected as soon as possible; the sort of general epistemological issues discussed in Newall's essay may not seem important for the practice of history itself, but they are essential for making sure that historians aren't going around confusing the bejeepers out of the general public. Even if it weren't important for historians what society does with their results (I have difficulty believing it isn't, but if it weren't), society needs them to take an active concern with the philosophy of history. How else will they judge the good historical work from the bad? (I have nightmares about public problems like that biologists have with evolution springing up in disciplines like history.) So we really do need there to be historians out there clarifying what they are actually doing when they are doing history explicitly in the context of issues raised by the philosophy of history. (In comments to this post, Another Damned Medievalist noted that part of what concerns her is that Cantor's book, "somewhat aimed at a popular audience and definitely read by a popular audience, is somewhat misleading" - which I think captures perfectly, for this particular issue, part of why we need historians interacting with these issues generally.)

(5) Newall, if I understand him a-right, takes what might be called an anti-realist stance on history, and I think this is part of what some have objected to. It's not actually surprising that historians tend to historical realism any more than it is surprising that scientists tend to scientific realism. Now, just as scientific anti-realism isn't the claim that scientists are wrong in their basic practice, I don't think Newall can be interpreted as saying that historians are wrong in their basic practice. I am very sympathetic to an anti-realist position when it comes to history (but then, I am very sympathetic to anti-realist positions when it comes to science) but I think I tend to be realist; in part because I don't, on further thought, think history actually has the verisimilitude problem Newall thinks it does. Underdetermination is not sufficient to create this problem, because underdetermination in itself merely introduces vagueness in what our evidences allow us to conclude as true; even given that underdetermination is pervasive, all this means for the realist is that a lot of times our true conclusions will be vague. And in fact, I think it is necessary to be a realist to allow that the evidences the historian faces are traces of the past. A strict historical anti-representationalism, I think, requires that we cease to treat our evidences as traces of the past, and simply regard our treatment of them as 'traces of the past' as something useful - for what, I'm not sure, since history doesn't have the uses science does; so I'm not even sure we can actually formulate a notion of history at all if we are strictly anti-realist about it.

If we can regard our evidences as traces of the past, their being traces of the past will suffice to allow at least a very basic sort of realism, because it isn't necessary for historians to compare their theories with the actual past, since comparing them with the traces of the past insofar as they are actually remnants of the past will suffice. Again, underdetermination will leave us a bit patchy and vague and with some guesswork; but this falls short of an actual anti-realist position. It is much easier for a historian to be a realist than for some scientists to be so because the historian is to an extent an observationalist; verisimilitude problems no more arise for her than they arise for a scientist whose work consists of observing, classifying, and interrelating the behavior of lions in the Serengetti. There is no sharp distinction in such a case between the correspondence of the theory to reality and its coherence with the evidence; the two generally merge, even if there is some slippage in particular cases. The ethologist has a much, much richer data set to work with; but the historian is, at least in great measure, doing exactly the same sort of thing: there is no sharp distinction between correspondence and coherence for the historian, if (again) we allow that historical evidences are traces of the past. This luxury does not arise for mathematical physics, which is the discipline for which verisimilitude problems most convincingly and acutely arise; but history is not particularly like mathematical physics in the way it poses theories about the world.

Now, I agree with much of what Newall says in the course of arguing for anti-representationalism (and even where I disagree, I find his essay excellent because it does a good job of bringing up the philosophical issues). For instance, I agree that historians should primarily be concerned with the organization of evidences - what we might call the topology of the whole set of historical evidence on the given topic. As I've said before, I think this is almost the whole of what historical scholarship actually is. But insofar as we we can regard these evidences as genuinely historical evidences, there is no problem with being realist. And, while my own historical field, history of philosophy, is about the most historiographically-challenged field of history there could conceivably be (I think the way HoP is taught makes it generally weak on the historical side, although there are particular HoP disciplines which go some way to counteract this, particular for certain lines of scholarship on the medieval and ancient period), I nonetheless find that this fits nicely with my own experience. It's virtually impossible for me not to characterize what I do in realist terms, because what I am doing in describing the whole topology of historical evidences is nothing other than developing a more verisimilar account. My interpretation of Hume's Treatise 1.4.2 is more accurate than anything written 20 years ago, and more accurate still than anything written 50 years ago, and more accurate still than anything written 100 years ago, because in drawing in more of the evidences, and more of their interrelations, I am describing with less distortion and more precision the work Hume actually wrote in the 1730s. This requires, again, that I be able to regard the evidences I actually have on hand (editions of Hume) as genuinely being traces of the past; but the only thing that blocks this is skepticism about the past. And there is no more harm in a historian ignoring skepticism about the past than there is harm in a scientist ignoring external world skepticism. Setting aside skepticism about the past, I actually have, in the archives, the remnants of certain elements of the 1730s themselves, and what I am doing is simply discerning what they are. Because of issues with the evidence (massively organized complexity is the primary one for HoP) it's a trickier business than (say) trying to give the best characterizations of traffic patterns on King Street; but it doesn't, I think, have any more problems with verisimilitude. If a realist historian had a description of a complete set of data, he would have what actually happened in precise detail; that historians always lack a perfectly complete set of data just means that their descriptions can never be perfectly precise and will always have to concede things to ambiguity and vagueness. But this is very different from the verisimilitude problem that arises for the mathematical physicist, because the realist mathematical physicist is theorizing not about the data themselves but about what underlies it, which the data indirectly indicate. Therefore the mathematical physicist does not start off with the very thing he is trying to reach; the historian does, albeit in a patchy and occasionally corrupted form. So no verisimilitude problem arises.

God help me, this post has taken me three hours to write!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Selective Obscurantism

From Scott A. Davison's "Craig on the Grounding Objection to Middle Knowledge" in the recent issue of Faith and Philosophy:

"In fact, we are probably never in a position to say with much confidence that any particular action is free (in the Libertarian sense employed by Craig and the Molinists). This is because for all we know, actions that seem to be free might very well have hidden causes."

Davison attributes this point, which he calls an old one, to Dennett among others. It simply will not do, however. I recognized the pattern of the argument at once; one comes across it in external world skepticism, and many other skeptical positions:

We cannot be confident that things that seem X are X because, for all we know, there very well might be something hidden that makes things seem X even though they are really not X.

You can plug anything into X; nothing in the form of this argument makes that impossible. Which means, if we accept this argument in one case, we have to accept it in other cases where we could say "for all we know" there might be these 'hidden causes' that are severing appearance and reality. And they are legion: other minds, external world, any scientific conclusion in any science (this is why Newton famously insisted that we should not make hypotheses - by 'hypothesis' he meant precisely this sort of 'for all we know' postulation of possible hidden causes in order to pre-empt our conclusions from the evidence), the appearance of evidentness in mathematics (because 'for all we know' there might be some hidden cause making it only seem to be the case that 2+2=4), you name it.

One finds this sort of argument, which is a lousy one, used by compatibilists quite a bit. In putting forward these arguments, they are being selectively obscurantist in ways they would be horrified to find in other places. For instance, C. A. Campbell in his Gifford Lectures On Selfhood and Godhood once claimed that we experience the fact that some of our actions are uncaused. Now, I think that this is a claim that is either false or misleading; but the actual argument I have seen compatibilists use against it is precisely a version of the above argument. This, as I said, simply will not do; it is an absurd argument (and ultimately self-defeating, because this argument form can be used against itself). The proper response to it should always be: "Prove to me that these 'hidden causes' actually exist in the relevant cases! Otherwise, you've got no more of an argument here than someone who believes evolution is false because 'for all we know' God just made things seem like evolution is true; or someone who believes that 'I have two hands' is false because 'for all we know' we might live in the Matrix."

Faith and Philosophy and the Trinity

The most recent number of Faith and Philosophy came in the mail yesterday. There are three articles on the Trinity, two on Plantinga's notion of "Augustinian science", one on Craig on middle knowledge, one about Kierkegaard and Zen Buddhism, and one on reformational aesthetics. Some comments on the Trinitarian articles:

The three articles on the Trinity each gives a different account of the doctrine. "Trinity and Polytheism" continues Edward Wierenga's defense of what has come to be called Social Trinitarianism. Its basic argument is that we should distinguish being divine from being a God. When we say

(1) There are three really distinct Persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit);
(2) Each of the Persons is God;
(3) There is only one God;

then we should interpret (2) (in the Athanasian Creed, for instance) as saying "Each of the Persons is divine" rather than "Each of the Persons is a God". The second article, "The Problem with Social Trinitarianism: A Reply to Wierenga," by Jeffrey Brower, protests that the Athanasian Creed uses 'deus' rather than 'divinus':

Ita deus Pater, deus Filius, deus Spiritus sanctus.

I'm not sure that this really tells us anything; one can also question whether "deus Pater" should be translated "The Father is a God" rather than just "The Father is God". For example, saying "Deus Pater" is entirely consistent with saying that there is no such thing as "a God", there's just God; saying "The Father is a God" is not consistent with such a claim. Brower rightly goes on to note that Latin writers make no sharp distinction between divinus and deus, which are similar to the use of the words 'human' and 'man' in English (taking 'man' gender-neutrally). But this doesn't really show that Wierenga's difference from the Athanasian Creed is any more than verbal. However, Brower goes on to more substantive issues. Wierenga holds that properly speaking we shouldn't call any particular Person of the Trinity 'God'; we should only call them 'divine'. 'God' we should reserve for all three Persons taken together. Brower notes that this won't work with other statements in the Quicunque Vult; each of the three persons must be almighty, eternal, etc. Thus, Wierenga isn't offering a particularly natural interpretation of statements like these. Further, Wierenga's position requires us not only to say that, properly speaking, the Father isn't God, but also that, properly speaking, God isn't divine (since being divine applies to the persons), which is odd. Brower proposes as his own view the position that is sometimes called (a little misleadingly) the Material Constitution view (of which Michael Rea is the most notable defender, which argues that two things can be the same without being identical (a position that goes back to Aristotle's views on the material and formal constitution of objects - hence the name). Take a bronze statue. Are the bronze and the statue the same thing? We are usually inclined to say so. But the bronze and the statue aren't identical; they share all the same material parts, but the bronze statue's being a statue and its being bronze are essentially different (the bronze, for instance, can survive the statue's being melted down, while the statue cannot; the statue can survive the gradual replacement of its material parts, while the bronze cannot). Thus, on this view, each Person is numerically the same as God, but not identical to God. This is intended to contrast not only with Wierenga's Social Trinitarianism but also with the Relative Identity view of Geach and Van Inwagen. The Relative Identity view treats "Each Person is the same as God" as a case of identity; the Constitution view does not. According to Brower, "Unlike Social Trinitarianism, [the Constitution view] is clearly compatible witht eh view that there is exactly one divine being or deity (since it entails the existence of one and only [one] divine being); and unlike Relative-Identity Theory, it clearly has application otuside the context of the Trinity" (p. 302). I think this is a fair assessment; while the Trinity isn't a case of material or formal constitution, the Constitution view is not committed to saying it is; it just needs material and formal constitution to argue that not all kinds of sameness are identity, and then uses this latter conclusion.

In a footnote (294n23), Wierenga says, "It does seem to me that Augustine's development of teh doctrine, with its near reluctance to call the members of the Trinity 'persons' (De Trin, V, 9) and its analogy for the Trinity of mind, love, and knowledge (De Trin, IX, 4) is not social, but it is not far from modalism, either." Now, I am not convinced that there is any sense in which 'social' could legitimately be applied to the Trinity that would not be shared by the Cappadocians and Augustine; this is commonly stated, but not, I think, adequately argued. But more importantly, the reason Augustine is careful about the word 'person' in V.9 is not that he is in doubt about whether there are persons in God, but the purely historical fact that 'persona' as the Latin term had to be recruited from a meaning that didn't exactly fit the Greek word 'hypostasis'; he points out the well-known fact that "three hypostaseis in one ousia" sounds very confusing to Latin ears, because the natural way to translate this would be "three substantiae in one essentia," which is not what the Latins would say because they would tend to regard "substantia" and "essentia" as synonyms. The Latins had no easy way to make the right sort of distinction, so did the best they could and used "persona". So Augustine's "near reluctance" on this point really has no relevance to the question. And Augustine, contrary to Wierenga's point about IX.4, is quite far from modalism because he doesn't regard the analogy as anything more than an analogy, and, in fact, devotes almost the whole of Book XV to looking at ways in which the analogy fails! Virtually all the criticisms made against Augustine's account of the Trinity, including the "not far from modalism" charge, were originally considered by Augustine himself, in some version or other; this is because Augustine is explicitly not giving an account of the Trinity, but what he thinks is the best creaturely approximation to it: the mind when it is contemplatively knowing and loving God (Augustine looks at several different ways in which he thinks human beings are 'in the image of God'; this one is the image of God in the highest sense). He is very concerned, however, to make clear that this creaturely approximation falls short of the divine reality it approximates in some very important ways, and makes great efforts to prevent people from being misled on this score.

Brian Leftow has an article caleld "A Latin Trinity" in which he gives yet another view. Unlike the Constitution view, Leftow's view treats "Each Person is the same as God" as an identity. However, this view, which Leftow calls Latin Trinitarianism (LT for short) takes a somewhat different tack than Relative Identity views. He proposes an analogy between the Trinity and a time-traveling Rockette. Suppose Jane, a Rockette, uses a time machine to double herself up, i.e., Jane performs on stage and goes back in time to perform with herself on stage. Now the leftmost Jane is Jane and the rightmost Jane is Jane; each Jane is Jane, but Jane is there more than once. Even so, suggests Leftow, just as Jane's life now has two distinguishable simultaneous streams, so God's life has three distinguishable atemporal events (which Leftow associates with the Trinitarian analogy of remembering, understanding, and loving found in Augustine and Aquinas), namely, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, each simply identical to God, but distinct inasmuch as God (as it were) is tripled up. As I said, Leftow simply calls this Latin Trinitarianism, but let's call it the Multiplied-Personal Identity view in order to distinguish it from other formulations. I find this an interesting view, but I worry about modalism. This view makes it sound as if God constituted the Persons; whereas the traditional view, I think, is that the Persons constitute what it is to be God. Leftow does consider the issue of modalism and concludes that his view is not a case of it because modalism is the position that there are three successive manners of appearance to the world rather than three Persons, and his view is that the three divine lives are not successive and are intrinsic (they are not appearance to the world). I'm not wholly convinced that this deals with the danger, since, as I noted, I think the real issue is whether it is the divine substance that constitutes the persons; and I think Leftow's position seems to bring us on the wrong side of this question. But the pastward-time-travel analogy is an interesting one that perhaps deserves further consideration. I also note with pleasure that in a footnote (332n45) Leftow explicitly recognizes that on Aquinas's view, so far from simplicity being a problem for the Trinity, God is a Trinity rather than a Triad precisely because He is simple.

A Confusion about Natural Law Jurisprudence

It is commonly claimed that natural law jurisprudence wishes, in Hart's words, "to assert mysteriously that there is some fused identity between law as it is and as it ought to be." 1 This claim, which goes back to Bentham and Austin, is, however, simply confused. Natural law jurisprudence (such as that found in Blackstone, whom Bentham and Austin are criticizing) does not traditionally make such a distinction, because such a distinction is too crude. Neither 'law as it is' nor 'law as it ought to be' are precise phrases. In the mouth of a positivist, the sense of 'law' in the phrase 'law as it is' that has to be considered is what in the natural law tradition would be called positive law or human law. But it is clear that natural law jurisprudence does not posit a "fused identity" between positive law as it is and positive law as it ought to be; for one thing, 'positive law as it ought to be' can mean several different things. As an example: ideally, the medievals thought, positive law would outlaw prostitution; this is one sense of 'positive law as it ought to be'. However, they insisted that this was not possible; that if you did actually outlaw prostitution, you would get something worse (the destabilization of society). Despite the fact that it ought not to exist, as a matter of fact prostitution on the medieval view as a lesser evil that just happened to exclude a greater evil by (as it were) channeling violations of the marriage bond into a very narrow channel whose adverse effects could easily be limited by law; if you took away this lesser evil, violations of the marriage bond would not be channeled into this narrow set of limits where law could keep a close eye on it. In one sense, 'law as it ought to be' excludes prostitution; in another sense, 'law as it ought to be' tolerates it with approving of it. In the first sense there is no "fused identity" between positive law as it is and positive law as it ought to be; this is explicitly denied. In the second sense, however, there is no "fused identity," either, because it is never denied that positive law as it is might deviate from positive law as it ought to be.

The trap into which legal positivists continually fall is, from the natural law point of view, thinking that 'law' means exactly the same thing whenever it is used. Natural law jurisprudence denies that; it insists (1) that 'law' means several related but different things; (2) that the difference among these senses is in some cases so great as to result in equivocation; and (3) that these different senses can be ranked in the sense that some things are more properly called 'law' than other things [added later: A fourth needs to be added here, since on some views it is what is really at issue: (4) the primary criterion for this ranking is moral, i.e., moral laws are more properly laws than immoral ones; although most positivist arguments don't really do much against this principle, it is often in the background as the primary disagreement. But here I'm merely considering the "fused identity" claim, which is false because of (3).]. Thus when we are talking about positive law, 'law' may be used for just and unjust laws. If we have an unjust law, natural law jurisprudence denies that there is a "fused identity" between law as it is and law as it ought to be, just as much as any positivist. The difference is that natural law theorists hold that in this sort of case the distinction between law as it is and law as it ought is a sharper distinction than the legal positivist thinks it is. On legal positivism, the word 'law' in 'law as it is' and 'law as it ought to be' always has exactly the same sense; on natural law theory, in all cases where positive law as it is and natural law (one of several possible senses of the phrase 'law as it ought to be') conflict, the word 'law' is used equivocally in the phrases 'law as it is' and 'law as it ought to be' - there is a slightly different sense. Both senses are legitimate senses of the word 'law', but in one case we are using 'law' in a more extended sense than in the other. Another medieval analogy: How many human beings are in a morgue? In one way one can easily count human corpses as human being. It is also clear that in another way we could deny that the human corpses are human beings and restrict 'human being' to the living. The word 'human being' is used equivocally when applied to corpses or to the living; sometimes not recognizing this distinction doesn't make any difference, but sometimes it does. Roughly, one may say that in natural law jurisprudence, unjust laws are the corpses of law. In one sense they are laws, but in another, more fundamental, sense they are not. Sometimes not making this distinction doesn't matter; but sometimes it genuinely does. From the natural law perspective, legal positivism is guilty of failing to recognize this distinction in senses; it tries to act as if there were only one sense of 'law', as if things weren't able to be called 'law' in stricter and looser senses. What bothers the natural law theorist is not that legal positivists make a distinction between law and morality; it is that they make the distinction in an overly simplistic way.

Hart treats the attempt to reject this over-simplistic distinction as "an invitation to revise our conception of what a legal rule is." 2 This, however, is exactly wrong. Natural law jurisprudence precedes positivism in time; it became far more pervasive in society than positivism ever has; its residual traces are still found throughout our legal system; legal positivism grew out of a criticism of this. It was Bentham and Austin who attacked Blackstone, not vice versa; it is the legal positivist who is inviting the revision of our conception of law, a revision that has not completely been effected. The natural law theorist is not offering an invitation to revise our conception of law; the natural law theorist is refusing the legal positivist's invitation to revise our conception of law, on the basis that there are perfectly good reasons not to oversimplify it in the way legal positivists generally seem to do. [One can argue that not all do, i.e., that it is not essential to legal positivism; but this is a different issue. What I am pointing out here is that from the perspective of natural law jurisprudence most positivist arguments against natural law jurisprudence appear to commit them to some such oversimiplification.] 'Law' and 'legal rule' are words that indicate complicated interrelations of different senses, and, from the natural law perspective, the legal positivist is committed to severing these interrelations and saying that one, and only one, of these senses is law (and, what is more, from the natural law perspective the legal positivist chooses the sense least capable of standing alone as their stand-alone sense).


[1] H. L. A. Hart, "Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals," in Law and Morality, ed. by David Dyzenhaus and Arthur Ripstein, University of Toronto Press (Toronto: 1996) p. 41.

[2] Ibid.

Skeptics' Circle

The second Skeptics' Circle at "Respectful Insolence" is well worth reading.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Positive Arguments for Natural Law

These are of two sorts, which I will call top-down and bottom-up. I'll do the latter first.

Bottom-up argument

The fundamental and basic point of natural law jurisprudence is that law is the authoritative promulgation of dictates of practical reason (this isn't a complete definition of law, but the primary element to which natural law jurisprudence appeals). Every act of reasoning is based on principles. This is true of practical reasoning as well; our practical reasoning gets its force through conformity with certain principles that are fundamental and naturally known. For instance, if a line of reasoning forces us to the conclusion that something evil should be done, we know that we have gone wrong somewhere and that our reasoning violates a fundamental principle (evil should not be done). Such reasoning is not according to reason, in that it is not according to the fundamental principles to which reasoning must be conformed in order to be genuinely rational. Thus there are natural principles of reason to which practical reasoning must conform in order to be rationally authoritative. Natural law consists of those principles to which practical reasoning (particularly about things to which we are naturally inclined, like living in society) must conform in order to be according to reason.

It is natural law, therefore, that makes possible obedience to positive law in the first place, since it is natural law that makes possible all practical reasoning (which obedience to positive law presupposes). It is natural law, then, that justifies the creation and preservation of the legal mechanisms of civil society through which positive law is possible, since it contains the principles that govern practical reasoning about what would be conducive to the common good of each us insofar as we are interacting with each other in society. It is natural law that gives us the reason why law is binding in the first place. It is natural law that begins to establish a commonality of law among nations. This commonality need not be perfect; since positive law presupposes reasoning, and often a lot of reasoning, some nations may have reasoned more carefully or more extensively along a particular line than others. But the commonality does exist, and is in the ordinary work of society generally recognized to exist. This is what is called ius gentium, the collection of principles recognized by societies generally; the more civilized the society is, the more they are recognized.

It is also natural law that makes possible a real international law, since the first basics of a law of nations derive from the need for interactions between peoples or nations to be in conformity with the basic principles of practical reason. It is possible, therefore, to have a real law of nations independent of the particular legal mechanisms that are responsible for civil law, a basic framework that allows nations to interact practically for common good. This framework is also generally recognized to exist in the ordinary interactions of various peoples and nations. It is this framework that is already in place to justify the extension of legal mechanisms analogous to those in civil cases (treaties, for instance) to international cases, in a way that allows those mechanisms to be binding at all. International law, therefore, in both its customary and treaty-mechanism forms, is itself an evidence of natural law.

This allows an additional consideration. Through natural law we are able to hold governments accountable by determining whether they are acting in accordance with the principles and conclusions of practical reasoning that make them possible in the first place. An example of this is appeal to natural rights against the tyrannies of government. Natural rights are more fundamental than any positive law precisely because they are upstream (as it were) from positive in practical reasoning. In virtue of these elements of our practical reasoning, people can demand of the sovereign, demand of the legislative powers that constitute government, that they not act in certain ways; people can insist that civil rights should be distributed in certain ways. This is because natural rights are elements of something more fundamental than positive law itself, something that grounds the very possibility of government and civil society: natural law, constituted by the fundamental principles of practical, moral, and legal reasoning itself. Natural law is capable of being a bulwark against tyranny and oppression because it transcends, rationally and morally, all mechanisms of society.

Top-down argument

Granted that the world is ruled by divine providence, it is ordered according to promulgated dictates of divine reason; the whole community of the universe, as Aquinas says, is governed by divine reason. Thus there is an eternal law according to which the world is governed. Since all things are governed in some way by this law, everything in its own fashion participates in this eternal law. Rational creatures are also subject to the eternal law involved in divine providence; they participate in this law rationally. Since they participate in the rule of divine reason according to their own reason, they participate in providence itself through principles of reason that govern how they guide their own practice and the practices of others. This participation, these principles of reason, is what we call natural law.

Anscombe and Just War Theory

"Verbum Ipsum" gives some quotations by G. E. M. Anscombe on the philosophy of war.

The Foreign-born and the President

No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

There's a minority (but growing movement to amend the above portion of the U.S. Constitution; see, for example, with its slogan of 'Amend for Arnold and Jen' (Arnold you know; 'Jen' is Jennifer Granholm, the Canadian-born Democratic Governor of Michigan). Congress is considering several possible amendments.

Since I'm fairly conservative about Constitutional matters, I oppose any such amendment. What strikes me, though, is that supporters of such amendments often treat the matter as if the Constitution were specifically singling out foreign-born citizens; but, of course, as you can see, natural-born citizens who have not been U.S. residents for fourteen years are also prohibited from running for the Office of the President. This is entirely reasonable; the conditions for the Office of the President must be determined entirely by the peculiarities of the Office itself. Part of the reason for the above clause (it is also a reason for the Electoral College) is to weaken the chances of putting the power of the most powerful magistracy in the United States under foreign influence, and to reduce the chances that the interests of the President will become too identified with the interests of those who are not American citizens. This the clause does reasonably well. No, nor are any rights violated by this clause, nor is it, in Orrin Hatch's absurd phrase, 'un-American' (I've never understood how people can call something in the Constitution, which has been the American norm for more than two centuries, 'un-American). My own stance on these matters is that the Constitution is best left well alone until and unless it can be shown that a provision is leading to clear abuse.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A Scrawl

I scribbled this down just now, and so pass it on to you:

As Zeus upon Danae

as Zeus upon Danae
the light in my eyes
breaks down upon me
fire on fire

gold floods of glory
envisioning truth
mind overflowing
I walk in a daze
breathed out by a God

The Threefold Sense of History

I was reading Paul Newall's excellent little essay on the philosophy of history, and read this:

...often an equivocation is made between two distinct uses of the word:

History as the past; and
History as an account of the past.

This, of course, is true. But it occurred to me that there is another use of the word that is very often confused with the second, namely, that history is an account of the evidences we have of the past. This is actually a different thing altogether; one can have an account of the past that shows no concern for the evidence of the past, for instance. One can also have an account of the evidences we have of the past that makes no attempt to construct an account of what actually happened, i.e., is not actually an account of the past. The issue is an important one, I think, because most actual historical scholarship is history in this third sense, not in the second sense. To be sure, the reason why we want an account of the evidences of the past is usually that we want to know what happened in the past; but this common subservience of the third to the second is actually incidental to most work in history taken as a discipline - the same work would be done even if we had no interest in what actually happened, but were just looking at possible interpretations of our evidence about what happened.

In any case, for anyone interested in the getting a first-bearings in the philosophy of history, I recommend Newall's essay. Newall also has an interesting weblog on the history of science, Studi Galileiani.

On a Mistaken Impression

Chesterton famously once said that there are many people who are under the mistaken impression that they have read Darwin's Origin of Species, a paradox that, like many Chestertonian paradoxes, is startlingly true. There is a common impression, for instance, that Darwin uses the theory of natural selection to argue against design. He certainly doesn't in The Origin of Species; and, while I haven't made a thorough search of all Darwin's correspondence, I haven't ever found a case in his letters, either. When Darwin argues against design, he typically argues on the basis of the argument from evil (in particular, he gives cases of the brutality of nature), and usually says something about his theological agnosticism. It is possible also that this is facilitated a bit by his Lamarckianism, which allows him to think of physiology in terms of uses rather than functions or roles. And there's reason to think that Darwin wasn't missing a real opportunity here, since it is doubtful that the theory of natural selection actually can show that things are not designed (and when people since have tried to defend the view that the theory of natural selection implies a non-designed world, they have typically had to fall back, like Darwin, on the argument from natural evil - an example is James Rachel's Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, in which the actual hefty philosophical work is done entirely by the argument from natural evil - to be sure, Rachel uses Darwin's own formulation, but this is hardly what we ordinarily call 'Darwinism'). In any case, in the next week or so I hope to do a post, perhaps more than one, on the logic of the argument of The Origin of Species (it is a beautifully constructed argument), so I wanted to get this point out of the way. That way I can discuss what sort of position Darwin's argument actually opposes (what is usually called the theory of special creation) without any cross-contamination.

[UPDATE (2/18 1:33 AM) Lest there be any confusion for those who aren't regular readers of my weblog (since this has been linked elsewhere), I oppose what typically goes by the name 'intelligent design theory'; I think it confuses things that should be distinguished. Nothing I say above should be seen as any sort of support for it. My point here is simply that (1) Darwin in his actual argument was going for a specific doctrine, which I'll look at when I actually get around to the series, that should not be conflated with design arguments generally, nor even with any particular design argument (unless it implies the theory of special creation); (2) more generally, the scientific issues involved in the theory of natural selection really don't address all the philosophical issues brought up by design arguments generally, so it's not surprising that Darwin deals with them in the way he does, rather than the route of 'the theory of natural selection shows that these things apparently designed really aren't'.]

In Which My Geekiness Reaches Excruciating Levels

I roughed out the following as what a hymn on the planet Krypton might be like. 'Rao' is Kryptonian for 'God'; it originally was used for the Kryptonian sun-god, but the prophet Jaf-El (of the very same House of El that gives us the better-known Jor-El and Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent) used it for the one creator-God. The Kryptonian marriage ceremony included the phrase, "Rao, kindler of the sun." Yes, I know it is painful that I know this sort of thing. Blame the internet.

A Kryptonian Hymn

There is one God
His name is Rao,
Kindler of every sun,
Giver of every gift.

There is one God,
His name is True,
Fountain of every light,
Justice ruling all.

His name is True, O ye peoples,
His name is Light, O ye peoples,
Thanks unto His name.

His name is Rao, O ye peoples,
His name is One, O ye peoples,
Praise unto His name.

There is one God,
His name is Good,
Origin of every life,
Wisdom at its source.

There is one God,
His name is Fair,
Beginning of every thing,
Root of manifestation.

His name is Fair, O ye peoples,
His name is Source, O ye peoples,
Thanks unto His name.

His name is Good, O ye peoples,
His name is Life, O ye peoples,
Praise unto His name.

I awoke, all ye peoples!
I saw Truth,
His name is Rao;
He proportions reward to virtue,
He speaks light to all things,
He kindles every sun.

Now, the question naturally arises: taking this as a translation of a Kryptonian hymn, how close is it. Well, the general speculation is that Kryptonian has a (p)VOS language structure, so a more literal translation would have to be something like (and here I'm just doing it off the top of my head, with danger for mistake, and some pure guesswork):

Of Gods there is one,
(it) is Rao His name,
of every sun kindler,
of every gift giver.

Of Gods there is one,
(it) is True His name,
of every light fountain,
ruling-all justice.

(It) is True His name, (you) peoples,
(it) is Light His name, (you) peoples,
unto His name thanks.

(It) is Rao His name, (you) peoples,
(it) is One His name, (you) peoples,
unto His name praise.

Of Gods there is one,
(it) is Good His name,
of every life origin,
at its source wisdom.

Of Gods there is one,
(it) is Fair His name,
of every thing beginning,
of manifestation root.

(It) is Fair His name, (you) peoples,
(it) is Source His name, (you) peoples,
unto His name thanks.

(It) is Good His name, (you) peoples,
(it) is Life His name, (you) peoples,
unto His name praise.

Awakened was I, (you) peoples),
saw truth I (did),
(it) is Rao His name,
to all speaks light He (does),
kindles every sun He (does).

You can find almost everything you could possibly want to know about the Man of Steel and his home planet at the Superman Encyclopedia, which will eventually be moved to Supermanica.

UPDATE (very early morning Feb 16th): I just came across a post by Joshua Duncan arguing that Superman should actually be played by a very skinny guy. I suppose his build could somehow be genetic. It's actually somewhat important. Kryptonians, when they get superstrength in the radiation of Earth's sun, get it in proportion to the ordinary strength they would have on Krypton. So if Superman were a really skinny guy, he'd get trounced every time a muscular Kryptonian villain like General Zod showed up, since they would have even greater superstrength.

Boy, I really am a geek!

More on Austin on Natural Law

Andy responds to my recent look at Austin's arguments against natural law:

I don't see this as bizarre. The claim that some prospects of good are "clear and definite" may be false, but it's not bizarre. I don't think it's even false: if the Gestapo comes knocking, I think it's clearly and definitely good for me to lie about the Jews hiding in my attic. (And for me to hide the Jews in the first place.) Whereas I have actually heard a Christian argue, seriously, that God requires us to tell the truth regardless of the consequences, even in that case. This is exactly the kind of case Austin is thinking of. Here again he may be accused of stating a position rather than arguing for it, but here again his justification is empirical: the world in fact works the way Austin says it works.

My argument wasn't that the view that some prospects of good are clear and definite is bizarre but that Austin's argument (which entails that disobedience to the law on the basis of possible future good isn't pernicious but that disobedience to the law because it fails to meet objective moral standards is) is bizarre. Moreover, the world doesn't seem in any clear way to work in Austin's way rather than Blackstone's; I have difficulty seeing what empirical difference could give Austin's view the preference over Blackstone's. (And while I understand where you are coming from on the truth-telling thing, this 'clear and definite good' isn't obviously more certainly good than recognition of some laws as simply unjust here and now - and it is certainty to which Austin appeals.)

Indeed, his example--

But to proclaim generally that all laws which are pernicious or contrary to the will of God are void and not to be tolerated, is to preach anarchy, hostile and perilous as much to wise and benign rule as to stupid and galling tyranny.

--strikes me as a perfectly accurate description of, for example, contemporary Islamic terrorism. Natural law theory is, if not carte blanche, then at least a slippery slope toward carte blanche: in theory one can justify any action by claiming that it follows natural law. And that's simply not a valid line of argument in modern society. "We should pass law X because God wants us to" would be something quite different; "X is the (de facto, human) law because God wants it to be" is just ... bizarre. Maybe "anarchy" isn't technically the word for that, but I can't think of a better one.

In any case, that's what Austin means.

Actually, contemporary Islamic terrorism seems to me to reason more along utilitarian lines like Austin's than along natural law lines. It is the beckoning of a future good, namely, the creation of a renewed Pan-Islamic Civilization, that occupies the major part of their explicit reasoning. And the thing of it is, I think they are quite right that such an end is a clearly good end; it is their perverse view of what that end justifies that leads to terrorist activity. The natural law tradition doesn't reason according to the principle "We should pass law X because God wants us to" nor "X is the (de facto, human) law because God wants it to be"; it reasons "If law X violates right reason, it has no real authority." The natural law tradition possesses (and has possessed from the beginning in one form or another) the doctrine of toleration, which insists that the link between natural law and positive law is not, and can never be, a one-to-one correspondence; attempts to ignore this violate right reason and therefore natural law itself. When positive law actually conflicts with natural law, however, it has no authority to obligate anyone; it is not a 'de facto law' any more than it is a 'de facto' law passed by a rapist that the woman he is raping must submit, or than it is a 'de facto' law that people I blackmail must do what I say. If it goes by the name of 'law' it does so by usurpation, not by right. [In the natural law tradition this is true even if the law bears other marks we ordinarily associate with law. If we apply the word 'law' to it (as we usually do), we do so equivocally, because it is missing the element of being binding. Conscientious objection therefore becomes possible.] I think you are right about Austin's meaning; but it simply highlights that he has no real understanding of the position he is criticizing.

As for the issue of carte blanche, I see no proof or viable argument that natural law involves such carte blanche any more than Austin's 'resistance, grounded on clear and definite prospects of the good'. This is particularly true given that any resistance of human tyranny on the basis of natural law would have to be in accordance with natural law itself. In principle one cannot justify any and every action by saying it is in accordance with natural law, because to say it is in accordance with natural law requires you to show that it is required or permitted by right reason (that's the whole point of natural law). An example is given by Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his appeal to natural law in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, doesn't just appeal to natural law, but explains his appeal by giving reasons (as the natural law tradition forces him to do):

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

N. T. Wright on the Historical Problem of the Resurrection Doctrine

An excellent discussion of the doctrine of the Resurrection by the (now) Bishop of Durham.

Aquinas and Craig on the Newness of the World

From ST 1.46.2:

By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist....The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself. For the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing. Now everything according to its species is abstracted from "here" and "now"; whence it is said that universals are everywhere and always. Hence it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always. Likewise neither can it be demonstrated on the part of the efficient cause, which acts by will. For the will of God cannot be investigated by reason, except as regards those things which God must will of necessity; and what He wills about creatures is not among these.... But the divine will can be manifested by revelation, on which faith rests. Hence that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science. And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith.

In other words, there is a causal supposition on the basis of which we could hold that the universe never began, but has an infinite past: namely, if God caused it to be so. Therefore it is impossible to show that it is necessary for the world to have a beginning, and therefore to demonstrate that it did. This does not preclude, of course, probable arguments one way or another; but when we are considering divine omnipotence, probable arguments don't carry very much logical weight. So we can't demonstrate it by way of efficient cause. And since demonstrative knowledge is based on the universal natures of things, and such natures could tell us nothing about the history of things, we can't demonstrate it formally, i.e., by way of the nature of the world itself. We could have probable arguments here, although Aquinas doesn't in this passage consider this possibility. (I seem to remember a passage somewhere in which he does, and allows it, but I can't find it at the moment, so perhaps I'm misremembering.)

This contrasts sharply with the recently popular Kalam cosmological argument of William Lane Craig, which attempts to argue that it is impossible for the world always to have existed (i.e., an infinite past is impossible). He argues this on the basis of the claims (1) that an actual infinite is impossible and (2) that an infinite is not traversable. Aquinas does hold that an actual infinite is not naturally possible (this would not, however, preclude an actual infinite's being miraculously possible); but Aquinas denies that an infinite past is an actual infinite - cogently, I think, since it's a little obscure as to how an infinite past would be an actual infinite (rather than just actually infinite, which is not the same thing). He also agrees that an infinite cannot be traversed; but he denies that an infinite past requires that there have been an infinite traversed, because such an objection mistakenly operates on the supposition that an infinite past implies that there are days infinitely separated from each other. I confess I'm not wholly convinced by this last argument, because I'm not wholly convinced that this kind of objection needs to rely on such an assumption. Craig's argument seems to do so, however; and is therefore based on a false assumption about what an infinite past implies.

Thus Aquinas refutes the Kalam argument, if taken as a demonstration. (If we can have probable arguments for the newness of the world, however -- and it seems conceivable that we could -- the Kalam argument might be salvageable as a probable argument. By revelation we know, as Aquinas says, that the basic Kalam argument is sound; but using it as proof on the basis of revelation would beg the question.) Indeed, I think he provides the best arguments against it; most arguments against the Kalam argument are very silly, or miss the point, or are implausible. (Craig also introduces 'confirmations' of the argument from big bang cosmology; I tend to think such arguments are utterly silly, as are the responses to them, but I have an admittedly idiosyncratic view about this sort of thing, being singularly unimpressed by any attempt to finesse grand metaphysical views, whether theistic or atheistic, out of a few equations and background radiation.)