Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Aquinas on Whether God Could Make Better

My rough translation. The Dominican Fathers translation is here; a version of the Latin can be found here. This article should be contrasted with Leibniz's arguments that God could not have made better.

We proceed in this way to the sixth. It seems that God is not able to make better that which he makes.

[1] For whatever God makes, He makes in a supremely powerful and wise way (potentissime et sapientissime). But something is much better to the extent it is more powerfully and wisely done.

[2] Further, Augustine (in Contra Maximin.) argues in this way: if God were able, but willed not, to beget a Son equal to Himself, He would be envious. For the same reason, if God were able to make something better than He has made, but willed not to do it, He would be envious. But envy is in every way removed from God. Therefore God makes everything the best. Therefore God is not able to make something better than He makes.

[3] Further, what is best and very good, is not able to be made better: because nothing is better than the best. But, as Augustine says (in Enchirid.), each thing is good that God has made, but the whole universe very good: because the admirable beauty of the universe consists in them all. Therefore the good of the universe is not able to be made better by God.

[4] Further, the man Christ is full of grace and truth, and has the Spirit immeasurably (non ad mensuram): and so He is not able to be better. And created happiness is said to be the highest good: and so it is not able to be better. And the blessed virgin Mary is exalted over all the choirs of angles: and so she is not able to be better. Therefore not all the things that God has made can be made better.

But on the contrary is what is said at Ephesians 3:20, that God is able to do all things more abundantly than we desire or understand.

I respond that it must be said that the goodness of anything is double.

[A] One which is of the essence of it, as being rational is of the essence of man; and with regard to this good, God is not able to make a thing better than it is itself, although he can make something else better than it. Just as he is not able to make the number four greater: because, if it were greater, it would not be the number four, but some other number. And in this way one has the addition of substantial differences in definitions, as the addition of units in numbers, as is said in Metaphys. VIII.

[B] Another goodness is that which is outside the essence of the thing; as the good of man is to be virtuous and wise. And according to such good, God is able to make things better.

But simply speaking, God is able to make something better than anything He has made.

To the first, therefore, it must be said that, when it is said that God is able to make something better than He makes, if 'better' is nominal, it is true: for He is able to make something better than any thing. Likewise He is able to make the same thing better in some way, and in some way not, as is said.If 'better' is adverbial, where it imports the manner of making (modum ex parte facientis), God in this way is not able to make something better than He makes: because He is not able to make it out of a greater wisdom and goodness. But if it imports the mode of the thing (modum ex parte facti), in this way He is able to make it better: because He is able to give the things madesome better mode of being as regards their incidentals (accidentalia), although not as regards their essentials.

To the second it must be said that it is of the notion of a son to be equal to the father, when he is matured (ad perfectum venerit): but it is not of the notion of any creature, that it be better than God has made it. Wherefore there is no analogy.

To the third it must be said that the universe, supposed as these things, is not able to be better; on account of the beautiful order given to things by God, in which the good of the universe consists. For if anything were better, the proportion of the order would be corrupted: as, if a string were more tight than was intended, the melody of the lyre would be corrupted. But God could make other things, or add other things to these things made: and in this way that universe would be better.

To the fourth it must be said that the humanity of Christ, given that it is united to God, and created happiness, given that it is enjoyment of God, and the Blessed Virgin, given that she is Mother of God, have in a way an infinite dignity, from the infinite good that is God. And in this sense there cannot be something better than these, as there cannot be something better than God.

Wisdom from Ramon Lull

Man's own innate goodness is a reason for him to do specific good, and whatever is done by man as a member of the human species, is done either in a natural or in a moral way. Spiritual and corporeal goodness are joined in man by reason of his soul and body so that through these dual reasons man naturally has reason to do good by objectifying, understanding, loving and remembering; and with his body by procreating, sensing and imagining; and good works proceed from both parts, as we see in the liberal and mechanical arts.

Man's own innate greatness, like his goodness, is of a dual nature, and man does what he does greatly with greatness just as he does it well with goodness.

From Ramon Lull's Ars Magna.

And the Crowd Said It Thundered

This passage has always fascinated me:

"Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name."

Then a voice came from heaven: "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again."

The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him."

Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

(John 12:27-32)

Aristotle's Protreptic

You can find the remains of Aristotle's Protrepticus or exhortation to philosophy here (PDF), as edited by Doug Hutchinson and Monte Johnson here at the University of Toronto. This has recently had some coverage in the news media; Michael Pakuluk discusses it at "Dissoi Blogoi" here (on the edition itself) and here (on the implications of the text in pedagogy).

Monday, June 06, 2005

Clandestine Philosophies

One of the aspects of early modern philosophy I know almost nothing about, an ignorance I certainly wish to remedy at some point, is what is usually called the clandestine philosophy. Clandestine philosophical texts circulated in a sort of European philosophical underground; their exact purpose is not always clear. Some texts seem to be deistic, others atheistic, but some are harder to pin down since (to name just one example) some of them seem to be Cartesianized materialist texts. Some of them play with paradox and irony; some may even be intended as elaborate jokes. It's an area in which there are many unanswered questions.

Adam Sutcliffe, in his "Judaism in the Anti-Religious Thought of the Clandestine French Early Enlightenment" [Journal of the History of Ideas 64.1 (2003) 97-117] describes one strand of this clandestine philosophizing in the following way:

There is still a great deal that is unknown about the culture of the French philosophical underground. The manner in which clandestine manuscripts were written, circulated, and discussed remains to a considerable extent a subject on which historians can only speculate. Leading authors and collectors have been identified. It is striking that many intellectuals prominent in the official academies of Paris, such as Bernard Fontenelle, Nicolas Fréret, and Jean Baptiste de Mirabaud, also dabbled in clandestine philosophy. However, in doing so they entered into another conceptual world, sharply segregated from their approved public personae....The ways in which these writers understood the relationship between open and clandestine texts and between their public lives and their clandestine philosophizing is clearly a subject of extreme complexity, and it suggests a striking fluidity in intellectual identities. (pp. 103-104)

There is an excellent online selection of some of the better-known texts (mostly in French) at Clandestine E-Texts from the Eighteenth Century.

It's a very cool topic; and when people ask you what you study, you can say, "Oh, I study Clandestine Enlightenment."

(Cross-posted at Houyhnhnm Land.)

UPDATE: Sharon points out this article by Margaret Jacob, on the works associated with the imprint of Philippe Marteau: The Clandestine Universe of the Eighteenth Century.

Foucault's Pendulum

This looks interesting; there'll be a discussion of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum later this month. I love the description of the book:

To give you a basic idea without ruining the plot, it's basically The Da Vinci Code if it had been written by someone literate, intelligent, with a superb grasp of character and plot, and who had actually bothered to do some original research.

I'll have to re-read it. (HT: EMN.)

Peirce on Whewell

Being in the pro-Whewell and anti-Mill camp, I just had to blog the following passages from another pro-Whewell and anti-Mill person (more anti-Mill than pro-Whewell, whereas I'm more pro-Whewell than anti-Mill).

Whewell described the reasoning just as it appeared to a man deeply conversant with several branches of science as only a genuine researcher can know them, and adding to that knowledge a full acquaintance with the history of science. These results, as might be expected, are of the highest value, although there are important distinctions and reasons which he overlooked. John Stuart Mill endeavored to explain the reasonings of science by the nominalistic metaphysics of his father. The superficial perspicuity of that kind of metaphysics rendered his logic extremely popular with those who think, but do not think profoundly; who know something of science, but more from the outside than the inside, and how for one reason or another delight in the simplest theories even if they fail to cover the facts.

Quite a good description of the Omniscientist, I'd say; and I like the description of Mill. He says elsewhere:

I am very far from holding that experience is our only light; Whewell's views of scientific method seem to me truer than Mill's; so much so that I should pronounce the known principles of physics to be but a development of original instinctive beliefs.

This is C. S. Peirce, quoted in John Wettersten, Whewell's Critics, Rodopi (New York: 2005) 102. (The citations are to Peirce 1960, vol. I, sect. 70, and Peirce 1960, vol. I, sect. 404.) Wettersten's work is a good history of the non-reception of Whewell's philosophy of science after the general prevalence of Mill's Baconian/Newtonian inductivism.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Good and God

An interesting post by Velleman at "Left2Right". I think it involves a bit of ambiguity, since "You can't be good without believing in God" could mean 'you can't be good at all without believing in God'; or it could mean, 'without belief in God any human goodness is missing something very important and, indeed, essential'; or it could mean, 'ultimately, it is not possible to be good consistently, if you don't believe in God'; or it could mean something like 'any good deed done is only completely good if it also involves giving God His due, which cannot be done without belief in God'. Velleman seems to take it in the first sense, but I don't think that's how it is usually meant at all.

Velleman says that, if we came across a new species without religious beliefs, "we would be perfectly astounded...if they had come up with the ten commandments." On the other hand, he says, we would have expected them to have discovered the idea of reciprocity, so "we would not be at all astounded to find that the inhabitants of Planet X had discovered the Golden Rule".

I think this involves an equivocation on what the discovery of reciprocity would be. Obviously in some sense they would have had to discovery reciprocity since they would have to be able to engage in some sort of social interaction. But this is a long way from a Golden Rule. All one really needs for this sort of reciprocity is a general sense of exchange, which can easily enough be capsulated in a plethora of positive laws and customary rules of etiquette, without any Golden Rule at all. Much more likely, I think, would be laws and manners, of a very ordinary sort, and any sense of reciprocity would be encoded in precise rules about hospitality or honor or what have you. Going beyond this is actually a surprising thing, and not generally to be expected. To do so one needs at least the minimal recognition that the laws and manners don't ground reciprocity but are grounded in it. And when one has gotten this far, one still doesn't have a Golden Rule; one has what is sometimes called a Silver Rule, which goes beyond laws and manners primarily by requiring restraint. The Golden Rule, however, is a very strong principle; except in a perspective that involves a very robust notion of moral order and authority, I don't think it is particularly obvious that it is even right.

So the end result is that we should expect something much more like the Decalogue, and much less like the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is actually fairly rare even among human beings; why should we expect it to be common knowledge among aliens, however advanced? One can do without it; it has practical ramifications, but its value has largely been metaethical. But the Ten Commandments are basically about setting the actual boundaries of respect -- respect God, respect parents, respect others in society -- and just give some specifications of these. A society would be much more likely to have something like this.

But the issue was, I think, supposed to be what used to be called the First Tablet: the commandments that deal in one way or another with God. Clearly a species that had no belief in God would not have such a commandments; and the idea, I think, is that they would still have a notion of the transcendence of moral truths. I find this rather doubtful, as well. Consider the passage quoted from Dennett:

But it would still be arithmetic. Now, we can say: "And would it share ethical principles with us?" And I think, in some regards, "Yes, it would." Now, does that make those principles transcendent? Yeah.

But this seems mere semantics, taking 'transcendent' as just a synonym of 'able to be found everywhere'; as, I suppose, dust particles are transcendent, or force-vectors are transcendent, or energy is transcendent. The idea seems to be that they would be true in any universe, and so surpass any particular universe; but they really don't surpass anything in virtue of being true everywhere -- if one can even legitimately talk about them being true anywhere. They're just true, end of story, and the question is why this should be considered as particularly important. Usually by 'transcendent' we mean something that surpasses the categorical. What is transcendent about the universality of arithmetic? How in the world could the universality of ethical principles give them 'transcendence'? The reason we associate math and morals with transcendence is the perfectly straightforward reason that historically they became associated with what was deemed a higher order of reality: the divine -- either gods or something, as Platonists have at various times said, more divine than mere gods, something even gods have to respect as more fundamental than they are. The truths were regarded as transcendent because they were caught up in something that is immensely greater than us and the ordinary things we could know. And I think this move was a fortunate one, since I think they are caught up in something immensely greater than us, something that is, as it were, more real and fundamental than the rest. But one has to be trained to see it. There are lots of people who never do. There are societies that have functioned perfectly well without ever seeing it. An atheist trained to see it may, in seeing it, come to be a theist; but there is simply no reason whatsoever to think that any atheist would see it in a culture where it had never previously been associated with something that genuinely transcends ordinary limits, like a god or a divine order or a higher level of reality.

For that's precisely the trouble: math and morals can just as easily be treated as ordinary, and they often have been. I see no reason why a society can't Humeanize them and do just fine. They would lose something, to be sure; they would lose what some of us regard as their religious associations, and what others regard as their superstitious associations. But to see math or morals as transcendent requires seeing that they involve or are involved in something extraordinary, something that can't be boxed up into ordinary categories. It would not strictly have to be a personal deity; but there is every reason to think that it would have to be the sort of thing we tend to call divine. And any talk of the transcendence of mathematical or moral truth is either fuzzy-talk or is a borrowing, direct or indirect, from this. Close the age of God and you close the age of Transcendent Truth. You still have truth, and that will get you some way. But it will not get you anything transcendent, unless you have already been trained to see it in that light. And that presupposes being trained to see it as part of a higher order, either of gods or of something more divine than any mere gods. How anyone could recognize this without any notion of divinity, or something closely analogous, is anyone's guess.

Of course, if one just means by 'transcendent' something like 'universal', one could just say so, and skip all the nonsense about their being transcendent.

But, as I said, it's a good post, and worth reading.


From Geoffry of Monmouth's Vita Merlini:

Insula pomorum que fortunata vocatur
Ex re nomen habet quia per se singula profert
Non opus est illi sulcantibus arva colonis
Omnis abest cultus nisi quem natura ministrat
Ultro fecundas segetes producit et uvas
Nataque poma suis pretonso germine silvis
Omnia gignit humus vice graminis ultro redundans
Annis centenis aut ultra viviter illic.
(lines 908-915)

Taliesin is speaking to Merlin here. Roughly, the Latin (which is a bit advanced for me, I'm afraid, particularly without laboriously going through it bit-by-bit, so I can only approximate) means, "The Island of Apples, which is called Fortunate, gets its name from the fact that it produces all things of itself; the fields don't need the ploughs of farmers and there is no cultivation except what nature provides. It produces crops and grapes without help, and apple trees grow in the short grass in the woods. The earth brings forth all things on its own, not merely grass, and people there live a hundred years or more."

He goes on to say:

Illic iura novem geniali lege sorores
Dant his qui veniunt nostris ex partibus ad se
Quarum que prior est fit doctior arte medendi
Exceditque suas forma prestante sorores
Morgen ei nomen didicitque quid utilitatis
Gramina cuncta ferant ut languida corpora curet
Ars quoque nota sibi qua scit mutare figuram
Et resecare novis quasi Dedalus aera pennis
Cum vult est Bristi- Carnoti- sive Papie
Cum vult in vestris ex aere labitur horis

Which is to say (again, this is just an approximation): "There is the benevolent rule by the nine sisters of those who come from our land. The one who is first is more learned in the art of healing and excels the form of our sisters. Morgan is her name, and she has learned the uses of plants in curing the ills of the body. She also knows the art of changing her shape and of flying through the air, like Daedelus on new wings. At will she is at Brest, at Chartres, or at Pavia; at will she glides from the air to your shores."

Then he mentions the other sisters briefly:

Hanc que mathematicam dicunt didicisse sorores
Moronoe- Mazoe- Gliten- Glitonea- Gliton
Tyronoe- Thiten- cithara notissima Thiten

Which only gives us with Morgan eight sisters in all, since we here have Morgan teaching mathematics to her sisters, with seven names -- unless 'Thiten' and 'Thiten, known for her lyre' are supposed to be different. But then we get into the meat:

Illuc post bellum Camblani vulnere lesum
Duximus Arcturum nos conducente Barintho
Equora cui fuerant et celi sydera nota
Hoc rectore ratis cum principe venimus illuc
Et nos quo decuit Morgen suscepit honore
Inque suis talamis posuit super aurea regem
Fulcra manuque sibi detexit vulnus honesta
Inspexitque diu, tandemque redire salutem
Posse sibi dixit, si secum tempore longo
Esset et ipsius vellet medicamine fungi
Gaudentes igitur regem commisimus illi
Et dedimus ventis redeundo vela secundis

(Need I say, another approximation.) "There, after the battle of Camlan, where he had been wounded, we took Arthur, conducted by Barinthus who knew the seas and the stars of the heavens. With him at the tiller, we arrived there with the prince, and Morgan received us with honor. placing the king in her chamber on a golden bed, uncovering his wound with her noble hand, and examining it. At length she said he could be returned to health only if he stayed with her a long time and made use of her medical art. Happily, therefore, we committed the king to her, and spread our sails to return again."


I was memed by Johnny-Dee. So here it goes:

Number of Books I Own: I honestly cannot say. My shelves are two-deep and then some, but on the other hand, I don't actually have much shelf-space. On the other hand again, I own more books than are in my apartment, since I have boxes of books that I didn't bring to Canada. Before I went off to college, the number of books I owned was somewhere about a hundred, including old children's books and the like, but it has certainly undergone a massive expansion since then.

Last Book Bought: I think the last book I bought was Dorothy Sayers' The Documents in the Case, but I'm always losing track. It could also have been this one.

Five Books that Mean a Lot to Me:
In no particular order, and without committing to these being the books that mean the most to me:

1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae.

2. G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday.

3. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

4. Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker.

5. Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Course of Nature.

I could also add Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, Euripides' The Bacchae, Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonnus, Shakespeare's Henry V, Austen's Pride and Prejudice, or Eliot's Romola.

Since I had such difficulty answering the questions myself, I won't tag anybody. Feel free to chime in with your own answers, though.

Beattie on Slavery

It is easy to see, with what views some modern authors throw out these hints to prove the natural inferiority of negroes. But let every friend to humanity pray, that they may be disappointed. Britons are famous for generosity; a virtue in which it is easy for them to excel both the Romans and the Greeks.

Let it never be said, that slavery is countenanced by the bravest and most generous people on earth; by a people who are animated with that heroic passion, the love of liberty, beyond all nations ancient or modern; and the fame of whose toilsome, but unwearied perseverance, in vindicating, at the expense of life and fortune, the sacred rights of mankind, will strike terror into the hearts of sycophants and tyrants, and excite the admiration and gratitude of all good men, to the latest posterity.

[James Beattie: Selected Philosophical Writings, James A. Harris, ed. Imprint Academic (Charlottesville, VA: 2004) 137. This is part of the excellent new series, The Library of Scottish Philosophy.]

The particular modern author Beattie has in his sights is one David Hume, and in particular, Hume's notorious footnote in the essay "Of Natural Characters":

I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

As Beattie notes in great detail, this whole line of reasoning is complete nonsense from one end to the other. Annette Baier once tried -- half-heartedly, I'm sure -- to give a partial defense of the footnote by saying that it showed Hume's emphasis on empirical data; but any reading of Beattie's response to it blows that possibility out of the water.

Hume himself is against what he calls 'slavery'; but whenever he talks about 'slavery', it often seems that he isn't thinking of slavery but of lack of liberty under tyranny, which is a different thing. Beattie, on the other hand, is quite explicitly egalitarian; he believes that all men are created in the image of God. He's also an egalitarian when it comes to the sexes, by the way, although he doesn't (as far as I can recall) discuss the matter in any of his published writings. It comes through in one or two of his letters, however. He allows for the possibility that God might have given the sexes different strengths, but insists that, whether that be the case or not, the sexes are fundamentally equal, particularly in their rational natures.

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.