Saturday, June 04, 2005

Whewell on System and Nomenclature

The inconveniences arising from the want of a good Nomenclature were long felt in Botany, and are still felt in Mineralogy. The attempts to rememdy them by Synonymies are very ineffective, for such comparisons of synonymes do not supply a systematic nomenclature; and such a one alone can enable us to state general truths respecting the objects of which the classificatory sciences treat. The System and the Names ought to be introduced together; for the former is a collection of asserted analogies and resemblances, for which the latter provide simple and permanent expressions. Hence it has repeatedly occurred in the progress of Natural History, that good Systems did not take root, or produce any lasting effect among naturalists, because they were not accompanied by a corresponding Nomenclature....

After giving some examples of this from studies with fish, fossil plants, and geology, he goes on to say,

Thus System and Nomenclature are each essential to the other. Without Nomenclature, the system is not permanently incorporated into the general body of knowledge, and made an instrument of future progress. Without System, the names cannot express general truths, and contain no reason why they should be employed in preference to any other names.

[Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, vol. 2, pp. 512-513.]

He finishes by noting that this truth is generally recognized by naturalists of his day, and by indicating the sort of questions that would have to be answered to give a good system and nomenclature for mineralogy (Whewell was writing in the 1840s). The above passages are from Aphorism IX in the "Aphorisms Concerning the Language of Science". Aphorism IX reads: In the Classificatory Sciences, a Systematic Nomenclature is necessary; and the System and the Nomenclature are each essential to the utility of the other.

As I've briefly pointed out before, when we are considering how science progresses, names are no small matter.

Sider, Hell, Morality, and Sorites

I've wanted to discussthis paper on hell (PDF) by Ted Sider (via Scottish Nous) for some time. I cannot count on two hands all the things that are wrong or confused or purely arbitrary about the argument, but I don't want to nitpick. After all, the doctrine of hell is a complicated thing; tackling it in a single paper requires a few simplifying assumptions and shortcuts. I do want to talk a bit on how it relates to a recent argument of interest in metaethics.

The basic target of Sider's paper is a doctrine of hell that holds:

Dichotomy: There are two and only two states of the afterlife (heaven and hell).
Badness: Hell is much worse than Heaven (i.e., there is a sharp and serious difference between heaven and hell)
Non-universality: Some go to heaven, some go to hell.
Control: God determines the criterion for who goes to hell.

The argument is that this violates divine justice: "any just criterion must judge created beings according to a standard that comes in degrees, or admits of borderline cases; but no such criterion can remain simultaneously just — or at least non-arbitrary — and consistent with the nature of the afterlife just described" (p. 2). The idea is that justice must be proportionate to the factors upon which the criterion depends; people very similar in the relevant way must be treated very similarly. Because of this, someone who holds the doctrine of hell described above (and the doctrine that God metes out consequences with strict proportional justice) must conclude that the criterion cannot depend on a matter of degree. Sider recognizes that these conditions are rather restrictive; as he specifically notes, they mean that his argument doesn't work against pessimistic universalism (the doctrine that we will all be damned), or against optimistic universalism (the doctrine that we will all be saved), 1 or Calvinism. Nor does it work against Muslim doctrines of hell. It also doesn't work against Catholic doctrines of hell, since I know of no Catholic version of the doctrine that holds that God determines these consequences with strict proportional justice. Indeed, I don't know of any doctrine of hell that involves such a view; they usually involve more than one principle, i.e., more than proportional justice. Indeed, I take it that the traditional view on both Catholic and Protestant sides is that God's acting according to proportional justice is conditional on more fundamental attributes, which proportional justice necessarily presupposes even to exist. (On such a view, God is not violating proportional justice when he seems superficially to deviate from the principle of proportional justice, because in such cases the conditions that are necessary for the principle even to be relevant haven't really been met.) So I'm not sure who is supposed to be holding the inconsistent pentad (the four conditions and the strict proportional justice requirement). But presumably somebody could be found, somewhere, so we can just consider the argument itself.

This argument is actually very similar to an argument that has recently been discussed in metaethics, which comes to the conclusion that it is impossible to be moral. The proof begins with two metaethical principles: 2

PE (Principle of Equality) If A and B are the same in every morally relevant respect, then A and B must receive the same moral treatment.

PDT (Principle of Differential Treatment) If A and B differ in some morally relevant respect, then A and B must receive different moral treatment.

Let's take a particular case to show how this sort of proof runs.

(1) A is a person.
(2) C is a non-person.
(3) B is indistinguishable from A with respect to the properties relevant to being a person.
(4) B is indistinguishable from C with respect to the properties relevant to being a non-person.
(5) B and A must receive the same moral treatment.
(6) B and C must receive the same moral treatment.
(7) A and C must receive the same moral treatment.
(8) A and C must receive different moral treatment.

(5) follows from (1)+(3)+PE; (6) follows from (2)+(4)+PE; (7) follows from (5)+(6)+transitivity; (8) follows from (1)+(2)+PDT. Since (7)+(8) is a contradiction, we seem to have a problem. This problem can be generalized quite widely; the problem that is here noted is a problem that will arise in the case of any vague moral properties, including justice.

It can easily be seen that Sider's argument is just a version of this. His principle of proportionate justice is a version of PE; PDT is not explicitly stated, but is required by Sider's talk about the criterion; and Sider's argument also builds on vagueness. In fact, his method is exactly described by the above argument, too. The basic version here is:

(1') A is saved.
(2') C is damned.
(3') B is indistinguishable from A with regard to the properties relevant to being saved.
(4') B is indistinguishable from C with regard to the properties relevant to being damned.
(5') B and A must receive the same moral treatment.
(6') B and C must receive the same moral treatment.
(7') A and C must receive the same moral treatment.
(8') A and C must receive different moral treatment.

The derivations are basically the same. (5') follows from (1'), (3'), and the principle of proportionate justice; (6') follows from (2'), (4'), and the principle of proportionate justice; (7') follows from (5'), (6'), and transitivity; and (8') follows from (1'),(2'), and the ex hypothesi assumption of the criterion for the damned and the saved.

We find, then, that Sider's argument doesn't identify an issue with the doctrine of hell itself; it identifies a problem that arises in any case of vagueness about moral properties. This in itself should be enough to make us doubt the argument. It's also important to note, however, that Sider has to have a much stronger argument than the person putting forward the Moral Impossibility Proof. The Moral Impossibility Proof requires only an interpretation of (3) and (4) and their cognates that appeals to indistinguishability for us; the Proof is as serious if it only applies to us as it is if it applies to everyone. Sider, however, must argue (and does not really argue) for an interpretation of (3') and (4') in which the relevant cases are indistinguishable to omniscience. So if we accept Sider's argument at all, we seem committed to a form of deep moral nihilism; in fact, the impossibility of proportional justice, or of any morality, is more easily proven this way than is the impossibility of hell.

Of course, as Almeida notes with respect to the Impossibility Proof, the argument relies on an equivocation in (3) and (4). I refer you to his discussion, but here's a hint: Does (3) imply that it is true that B is in the range of determinate persons, or does it imply that it is not false that B is in the range of determinate persons? The equivocation is made all the more serious in Sider's argument, since Sider quickly forgets that he needs to show not just similarity but morally relevant similarity, where 'morally relevant' is determined relative to a criterion selected by a divine intellect. But I thought it was interesting that Sider puts forward, as if it were an argument against hell, an argument that actually would have to be taken as a general problem for all sorts of moral attributions.

1 I find, by the way, that most people assume that universalists don't have a doctrine of hell. In the Christian tradition this is manifestly false; it's actually difficult to find universalists without a rather substantive doctrine of hell. Indeed, Christian universalists tend to have a doctrine of hell very similar to other Christians'. All they do is qualify it, e.g., by making it temporary (and thus blurring it into a sort of purgatory) or hypothetical (as what would be possible if God did not save us out of his superabundant mercy but gave us what we deserve).

2 In what follows I will be following Michael Almeida's exposition of the Impossibility Proof ("Is It Impossible to be Moral?" Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review 44 (2005) 3-13). The application to Sider, of course, is my own.

Two Poem Drafts

Not my strongest work, but not my weakest, either. The first was written at the CPA, which was at the lovely campus of the University of Western Ontario. I stopped on the bridge above the river and scribbled it out. It was actually the main river, called the Thames, that I was above; I misread the signs at first and called it "North Creek." When I saw my mistake, I still kept "North Creek" because it sounds better.

North Creek

Once on a weary journey,
panting from the strain,
I fell;
the grass was green around me,
gently waving in the breeze,
but the yellow flowers that crowned the hilltop
were puritan-prim
and would not dance with the playful winds.
An exquisite gold flickered on the fin
of a fish that swam beneath rippled waters
that broke on the tumbled stones --
remains of some unremembered cataclysm --
piled in little islands near the shore.
The wind blew --
it was inspired --
the midges drifted in sweet oblivion
as the little birds leaped among them
(leaped, but the midges did not know them).
The spirit now within me,
I rose to steady feet and stepped,
again, upon my road,
in signed relief retaking
the goal of my unseen destination.


Truth is a living creature,
a quicksilver spirit,
a flowing fire of burning light;
it is a thing for the will to dote on,
a reward for mighty heroes
making sure the roots of the weak.

Do you own a diamond crown,
a gilded purse, a ruby cup?
Truth has a brighter glitter,
a surer value, a sweeter aspect;
all gems are but dim signs
of this living adamant.

An amaranth in the garden
they say is for never dying;
it is the secretmost tincture,
the green dragon of life's elixir,
but it is a mere likeness of semblance
of the true philosopher's stone.

Once in the liquid nighttime,
with artful moon bright and clear,
I heard the birds in the tree.
They sang in a noisy pattern,
a boisterous piping of flutes,
and they spoke of truth.

Catching Up

* Discussion of a pragmatic argument for free will at "Philosophy, etc." I wouldn't put it in quite the form Richard does, but I think the argument is along the right lines. It is entirely rational to suppose free will as a practical postulate; and, what is more, it is entirely rational to do so even if you're a determinist. Determinists are reluctant, I think, to accept practical postulates whose value they can't explain on their own terms; but failure to do so is simply a lack of ingenuity (and such explanations do, in fact, already exist: Hume provides one, Spinoza provides one, etc.). Given how useful a doctrine of free will can be for practical ethics, it is only reasonable to make use of it, even if you do so purely as an instrument of abbreviation (i.e., with the attitude that 'I think there's actually a whole bunch of deterministic stuff going on here, but making use of this practical postulate simplifies the problem in a way adequate for practical purposes'). Of course we who are wise enough to see that determinism is usually simply a postulate itself, and not a very useful one at that, receiving as it does most of its appearance of usefulness from its parasitic relationship with causality and natural law, will insist that the value of the doctrine of free will as a practical postulate is best explained by taking the doctrine as true.

* Curt gives some great passages from Dorothy Sayers on logic and education at "North Western Winds".

* At "Mixing Memory", Chris has a long and very useful review of Buller's Adapting Minds, focusing on Chapter 4.

* At the Viking Name Generator, I am known as Ingjald the Comedy Sidekick (HT: EMN). If Vikings give me a name like that, it's not surprising that when I put in my first and last names, I get Þorgrím the Violent. Am I doomed to horrible names? Putting in my full name gives me Steinólf the Ill-Starred. Now even the stars are out to get me. This is why I don't pay much attention to my Nordic forebears.

* The History Carnival was at "Cliopatria" recently. Always good material there.

* Michael Gilleland at "Laudator Temporis Acti" gives several Catholic Worker links. Peter Maurin's Easy Essays, of which a good number are online, are a must-read. A brief sample, the essay "Houses of Hospitality":

We need Houses of Hospitality
to give to the rich
the opportunity
to serve the poor.

We need Houses of Hospitality
to bring the scholars
to the workers
or the workers
to the scholars.

We need Houses of Hospitality
to bring back to institutions
the technique to institutions.

We need Houses of Hospitality
to show
what idealism looks like
when it is practised.

I spent some time volunteering one summer at the Phoenix, Arizona André House of Hospitality. It's run, of course, by the C.S.C. (Congregation of the Holy Cross), which is how I became involved with it (I attended University of Portland, a C.S.C. school, and joined up through their excellent Volunteer Services program). It was one of the best experiences of my life. We do, indeed, need Houses of Hospitality.

* "Vomit the Lukewarm" has a post on Johnson and Berkeley. Much as I like Johnson, I think his kick misfires as a criticism of Berkeley. That's perhaps not too surprising, since he probably wouldn't have directly read Berkeley, and, if he had, would probably have mis-read him as most people do. But Berkeley's whole point (he is quite explicit about this) is to prove that the very thing you sense is the very body itself. So if you kick a stone, what you sense in kicking the stone is actually the stone, and not just a veil of mere sensations beyond which the (wholly unsensible) stone really exists. It is, I think, an unfortunate characteristic of education in early modern philosophy today that Berkeley is mis-taught. It is impossible to teach Berkeley correctly if you do not point out his emphasis on semiotics. That is, ideas have a very limited function in Berkeley's philosophy; the bulk of the actual work in his system is not done by his characterization of ideas but by his insistence that these ideas are linked and organized as signs. If we don't teach this semiotic side of Berkeley, we confuse our students with things like that ultimate cliche of a non-problem, i.e., his 'sudden' switching from talking about ideas to talking about notions when he discusses spirits. It is very clear, however, that there is no switch, and there is nothing sudden about it; from the beginning he insisted there was more to cognition than ideas, which, as he understands the term 'idea', just means the immediate objects of sensation. I agree with the shulamite, though, that one of Berkeley's weaknesses is his occasionalism (which is, in effect, what the post was criticizing).

* UPDATE: Rebecca at "Rebecca Writes" looks at God's Sovereignty.

Whewell on Language

These lessons are of the highest value with regard to all employments of the human mind; for the mode in which words in common use acquire their meaning, approaches far more nearly to the Method of Type than to the method of definition. The terms which belong to our practical concerns, or to our spontaneous and unscientific speculations, are rarely capable of exact definition. They have been devised in order to express assertions, often very important, yet very vaguely conceived: and the signification of the word is extended, as far as the assertion conveyed by it can be extended, by apparent connexion or by analogy. And thus, in all the attempts of man to grasp at knowledge, we have an exemplification of that which we have stated as the rule of induction, that Definition and Proposition are mutually dependent, each adjusted so as to give value and meaning to the other: and this is so, even when both the elements of truth are defective in precision: the Definition being replaced by an incomplete description or a loose reference to a Type; and the Proposition being in a corresponding degree insecure.

William Whewell, Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (Bk XIII, ch. iii, art. 15), vol. 2, pp. 371-372.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005


* Just a brief post to say that the paper at the CPA (the one arguing that Malebranche's primary interest in mind-body union, and his primary explanation of it, is ethical) went well. In the end I didn't quite manage to get it the way I wanted, but several people said they enjoyed it. And, ultimately, it was just nice being the Malebranche person on a panel that had some of the CPA's best-known scholars of early modern Cartesianism.

* I have guests coming up today, so posting will probably be relatively light the next few days.

* Tomorrow is the first anniversary for this weblog. Happy Birthday, Siris! (UPDATE: Looking back it seems I was wrong; I had thought it was June 1st, but it's actually June 2nd. So it's the day after tomorrow.)

* UPDATE: It seems reasonable to link to my first post.