Saturday, June 18, 2005

Juxtaposed Passages on Conditions of Existence

[1] "Zoology has a principle of reasoning which is peculiar to it, and which it employs with advantage on many occasions: this is the principle of the conditions of existence, vulgarly called the principle of final causes. As nothing can exist if it do not combine all the conditions which render its existence possible, the different parts of each being must be co-ordinated in such a manner as to render the total being possible, not only in itself, but in its relations to those which surround it; and the analysis of these conditions often leads to general laws, as clearly demonstrated as those which result from calculation or from experience."

[2] "The disciples of the former of the two schools express their tenets by the phrases unity of plan, unity of composition; and the more detailed developement of these doctrines has been termed the Theory of Analogues, by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who claims this theory as his own creation. According to this theory, the structure and functions of animals are to be studied by the guidance of their analogy only; our attention is to be turned, not to the fitness of the organization for any end of life or action, but to its resemblance to other organizations by which it is gradually derived from the original type."

[3] "It is generally acknowledged that all organic beingss have been formed on two great laws--Unity of Type, and the Conditions of Existence. By unity of type is meant that fundamental agreement in structure which we see in organic beings of the same class, and which is quite independent of their habits of life. On my theory, unity of type is explained by unity of descent. The expression of conditions of existence, so often insisted on by the illustrious Cuvier, is fully embraced by the principle of natural selection. For natural selection acts by either now adapting the varying parts of each being to its organic and inorganic conditions of life; or by having adapted them during past periods of time: the adaptations being aided in many cases by the increased use or disuse of parts, being affected by the direct action of the external conditions of life, and subjected in all cases to the several laws of growth and variation. Hence, in fact, the law of the Conditions of Existence is the higher law; as it includes, through the inheritance of former variations and adaptations, that of Unity of Type."

[4] "Perhaps the most remarkable service to the philosophy of Biology rendered by Mr. Darwin is the reconciliation of Teleology and Morphology, and the explanation of the facts of both, which his views offer. The teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man, or one of the higher vertebrata, was made with the precise structure it exhibits, for the purpose of enabling the animal which possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow. Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that there is a wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but is actually based upon the fundamental proposition of Evolution."

[5] "Let us recognize Darwin's great service to Natural Science in bringing back to it Teleology; so that instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology."

[6] "What you say about Teleology pleases me especially, and I do not think any one else has ever noticed the point. I have always said you were the man to hit the nail on the head."


[1] Georges Cuvier, Règne Animal; quoted in William Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences Bk. 17, ch. 8, sect. 3.

[2] William Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences Bk. 17, ch. 8, sect. 1.

[3] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, ch. 6.

[4] T. H. Huxley, "Genealogy of Animals"; quoted in The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, Francis Darwin, ed., ch. xvi.

[5] Asa Gray, "Charles Darwin"; quoted in The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, Francis Darwin, ed., ch. xv.

[6] Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray; quoted in The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, Francis Darwin, ed., ch. xv.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Self-Knowledge and a Poetic Soliloquy

I just now wrote the following off the top of my head. The "Pangur Bán" reference is, of course, to the anonymous 8th/9th century Gaelic poem Messe agus Pangur Bán, which is best known in Robin Flower's translation, which starts out "I and Pangur Bán, my cat". It came to me shortly after reading Death's So this is New York at "Poetry in the Afternoon"; poetry usually comes to me after reading poetry. I find it interesting by the way, that (as she says on her main website) she rarely posts works in progress; I only post works in progress. I'm not sure what that says about me, although it's probably an excuse for almost never bothering to get a poem into final form. Whether that, in turn, is due to laziness or perfectionism I can never say. You'd think the two would be as far from each other as can be, but I honestly can never tell whether the problem is that I'm too demanding or too lax. Proof of Aquinas's view that self-knowledge, beyond knowledge-by-presence, is extremely difficult. Wittgenstein somewhere has a great image that makes this point. Suppose there were a man who, when asked if he knows how tall he is, says, "Of course I know how tall I am"; then, putting his hand on the top of his head, says, "I am this tall." That's knowledge by presence. That's really all there is to the absolutely certain self-knowledge that Descartes makes so much of; it's a way of (as it were) pointing to your soul and saying, "Of course I know what I am; I'm this." And Descartes (and Augustine) is right that it's very certain knowledge, this knowledge by presence. But being able to point to the way things are isn't quite knowing the way things are; it's just knowing that there is a 'way things are', and that it's in this general direction that you can find it. And when it comes to our minds we are most of us very much in the same class as the person who answers the question, "How tall are you?" by putting his hand on his head. When I ask myself whether I am too demanding or too lax on myself, I can't get much farther than pointing to myself and saying, "I am this, whatever this is." And it's much the same with the question raised by the poem.

Outside, It Is Night

Outside, it is night;
but I and the raccoons
are going over accounts,
picking out the morsels
from cast-off residues.

Would I were a Pangur Bán
hunting for his mouse,
searching out the meaning
of these everlasting words!
Then there'd be a point.

Instead, I stare at the page.
I muse on the words.
I make a few revisions.
And all this little work
leaves me feeling exhausted.

Somehow I find something good;
that's hearteningly true.
But it amazes even me
how absurdly difficult
I can make writing a paper.

Academic writing, like poetry,
is proof that there is a Muse,
a source of inspiration;
it's there or it isn't,
but either way, you have to try.

One always suspects that others
are able to do better.
Some work more consistently,
without this mental stutter,
but I'm not sure it's worth it.

After all, never to be inspired
is in no way a consolation
for lacking the laborpangs of genius.
That sounds quite good--
all this is labor before the birth.

Or perhaps it's mental aridity.
Those monks in the desert knew
that sometimes inspiration fails;
and what I have is just a version
of aridity. That's good, too.

But then I always wonder
if I'm really just kidding myself.
After all, it sounds pretentious
to talk of Muses, pains of labor,
and the aridity of the mind.

I'm pulled both ways.
I can't shake the feeling
that I should be grateful
for this gift of stop-and-start
rather than dull assiduity.

But I also can't shake the feeling
that it's all an excuse,
a self-indulgent pretense
to justify a lack of work,
and these empty nighttime efforts.

I Think I Will Not Hang Myself To-day

A Ballade of Suicide by G. K. Chesterton

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours--on the wall--
Are drawing a long breath to shout "Hurray!"
The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay--
My uncle's sword is hanging in the hall--
I see a little cloud all pink and grey--
Perhaps the rector's mother will not call--
I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way--
I never read the works of Juvenal--
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall,
Rationalists are growing rational--
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray
So secret that the very sky seems small--
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall,
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Darwin as Moral Sense Theorist

Re-reading my critique of Madigan, I'm not wholly satisfied with it; in part because the nonsensical misuse of Darwin's moral speculations by people like Rachels and Madigan obscures the fact that Darwin is actually quite interesting on this subject. His views are somewhat derivative; they are amateur; and they are speculative -- just as I said. But Darwin, unlike some of his followers, doesn't pretend to be making any major innovations in moral thought. He doesn't have in mind a particular set of evolutionary assumptions to which he is trying to make moral theory conform; he is, on the contrary, trying to show that a reasonable moral theory (one already in existence and already developed) characterizes moral life in such a way that a selectional theory of the descent of man can shed light on the development of the human sense of morals by shedding light on the development of our intellectual abilities and social tendencies. He faces the problems of not having an adequate anthropology or psychology, but Darwin always has a good sense of argument (I wish most people trying to build an evolutionary ethics had half his logical sense) and makes a very interesting case. Try Descent of Man, Chapter IV; his argument on the superiority of moral sense theory to utilitarianism, toward the end, is especially interesting and, I think, worth further exploration by someone.

History Carnival

The Tenth History Carnival is up at "Spinning Clio"; and it looks great.

The next History Carnival will be here, at Siris, July 1st. Be sure to send your submissions and nominations to me at branem2[at]branemrys[dot]org (with @ for [at] and . for [dot], of course). You can find information about the posts we're looking for at the History Carnival website; we're very open about the sort of posts that can be involved, as long as the posts are genuinely history-related, involve some real analysis or discussion, and conform to reasonable standards in the use of evidence and argument.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Joy of Science Libraries

I am blogging this from the Gerstein Science Library, which is perhaps my favorite library on campus. Inside it is a weird mix of Higher Institution and Warehouse; to name just the most memorable instance, the door to the men's bathroom is beautiful, with wood paneling, while the bathroom itself looks like it was built on the model of its gas station cousins. But, of course, I don't go for the decor. It has a great philosophy and history of science section. You can always find the books you want because they are never checked out; and you never have to stand in line to check them out, because no one else is trying to do so. It's not as crowded as the main libraries, so you can always find a place to do work; and it's very quiet because half the students are asleep. Truly, could there be anything better?

UPDATE: For those who are interested, here's Gerstein's website (it has a virtual tour).

Madigan on Morals

Tim Madigan has an interesting essay in Philosophy Now "on scientific versus religious explanations of ethical behaviour"; as he summarizes it, "The following analysis will criticize the claim that morality comes from and is sanctioned by a deity or deities, and will present a naturalistic alternative view regarding the origins of our moral sense" (HT: Ektopos). It's not a particularly well-reasoned set analyses, even allowing for the limits of a Philosophy Now essay. He repeats, for instance, this old canard:

Suffice it to say that no argument for the existence of a transcendent deity has proven to be generally persuasive or has withstood rigorous philosophical analysis.

To the first part one must ask, "Generally persuasive to whom, by what measure; and how do other arguments fare on this metric?" And the next part is just false; several arguments for God's existence have stood up to rigorous philosophical analysis as well as any philosophical argument ever has. One thinks also of Weisheipl's discussions of Aquinas's First Way, or Gyula Klima's discussion of Anselm's argument. In fact, it's often child's play to show that alleged rigorous refutations of arguments for God's existence are confused and ill-informed. Madigan also completely conflates the claim that "morality comes from a divine source" with the much narrower and much less common claim that "morality consists entirely of divine commands" (divine command theory).

The second part is somewhat better. Madigan unfolds a "naturalistic alternative view" by looking at the discussions of James Rachels and Frans de Waal. I haven't read de Waal's book, but I found Rachels's book to be a massive disappointment; all the major philosophical work in the book is really done by a very crudely formulated problem of evil, and, although it is supposed to be about the moral implications of Darwin, the connection Rachels builds between the view he presents and real Darwinism, i.e., the basic evolutionary idea of the Origin of Species, is tenuous at best. Madigan quotes a typical example of Rachels's utter absurdities:

Before Darwin, our understanding of the nature of non-humans was controlled by a certain picture of the world: according to this picture, the gap between human nature and animal nature was established once and for all by God in his original act of creation. To men he gave souls, free will, rationality, and moral judgement, the other animals he created as lesser beings. Against the background of this picture, any attribution of moral qualities to animals would seem impossible. What is needed, in order to make such attributions possible, is the substitution of a different picture. Darwin provided the new picture, and tried to show that once it is adopted the view of animals as (at least partially) moral beings follows naturally.

But it is easy enough to show that Darwin didn't provide the picture at all, particularly where morality is concerned. The significance of Darwin was not that he gave a way to attribute moral qualities to animals. It was (need it actually be said?) that he gave a powerful argument for a gradualist account of the origin of species. Darwin's amateur reflections on morality can easily be shown to be derivative; from Hume, for instance, who makes a stronger case than Darwin does for attributing moral qualities to animals. It may be hard to imagine, but Darwin was not an all-shattering trumpet-blast opening the first round of Ragnarok. Almost always, when people open a sentence with "Before Darwin" you know that they are trying to pull a fast one; the only such sentence that is clearly true is, "Before Darwin we didn't have anyone pompously telling us how things were before Darwin." And, contrary to Madigan's claims, only someone very uninformed would hold that most religions assume that human beings begin with regard for every member of our species.

There is also the relatively uncritical identification of morality with altruism in the biological sense; an identification I have never understood, since it can easily be shown to result in conclusions that almost everyone would recognize as moral absurdities. The reason it was ever an issue at all, I imagine, is that some people considered it difficult to see how Darwin's theory could allow for disinterested regard at all, which morality would seem to require at least some of the time. In other words, the question was only whether a roughly Darwinian theory could provide the materials that morality presupposed. If it couldn't account for even a very basic sort of altruism, it was clearly false, and stood no chance of connecting up with a satisfactory account of morality. But if you have an account of how altruism arises, you do not yet have an account of morality; all you have is an account of a certain sort of behavior, not of its being moral. Why it should be singled out in the way morality does single out actions from other actions is still utterly mysterious. (Just judging from the quotations of him that are given by Madigan, de Waal seems to recognize that the issue of altruism only touches on the requisites of morality; but Madigan does not.) Madigan also confuses two things when he talks about "seeing oneself in the plight of another". A good case can be made that sympathy, in the Humean sense, is a basic building block of morality; but this does not prove anything about the relation between morality and sanctity or divinity. "Seeing oneself in the plight of another" is a plausible basic building block for morality, but "Recognizing that seeing oneself in the plight of another is a basic building block for morality" clearly is not; nor does it follow from the latter claim's being independent of anything that morality is independent of it. Unless, of course, Madigan is willing to concede the Cartesian argument for dualism; because that's precisely the way a Cartesian proceeds. Likewise, it does not follow from the fact that moral tendencies are independent of religion that they can receive adequate rational justification independent of religion -- the latter is clearly what is at stake in the question, and Madigan doesn't even touch on its outlying periphery.

I confess, I find the pompousness of naturalists on this subject rather funny. Madigan's ending is a good example:

There is still much that needs to be learned about the connections between human morality and other animal behavior. The scientific attitude is better able than dogmatically-based religions to pursue such an understanding, for it is not beholden to ancient writings or priestly authorities in its explanation of the moral sense.

Oooh, what a clever conclusion. On this subject you can always measure how lousy a naturalist's rational arguments are by how much they need to dial up the rhetoric in order to compensate.

Incidentally, just as a byway, if people like Madigan and Rachels are right that we should somehow take Darwin's amateur speculation about the origins of morality as closely linked to his more serious evolutionary work, utilitarians should all just throw in the towel. Darwin was a moral intuitionist; the morality he explains the origin of is not utilitarian, but intuitionist. (Intuitionists, of course, don't necessarily reject utilitarianism, although some do; they hold that it cannot be taken as an adequate account of the whole moral landscape.) Utilitarians don't actually need an evolutionary explanation of morality, any more than mathematicians need an evolutionary explanation of game theory; from a utilitarian perspective what evolution provides is simply the principles on the basis of which the interests of the agents are fixed -- the conditions of our particular game, as it were. All it needs is for evolutionary theory to stay out of its way, i.e., not introduce any barriers to its account. Certain kinds of intuitionist, however, and in particular, most modern naturalistic intuitionists, are utterly dependent on there being a viable evolutionary account of what they deem to be the fundamental moral intuitions -- sympathy or moral approval or what have you.

First Past the Post

Electoral Reform

Key: FPPTP = First Past the Post; AMS = Additional Member System; SYV = Single Transferable Vote; JAV+ = Jenkins Alternate Vote Plus; PLS = Party List System; CC = Cellular Constituencies. For explanations of these systems, please read the electoral reform FAQ. For more information about electoral reform in general, visit the Electoral Reform Society or Make My Vote Count.

JAV+ 3
PLS -21
CC -14

You should support: First Past the Post (FPTP). This is the system currently in place in the UK by which a single MP is elected from each constituency by simply getting the most votes. This system is simple to understand, familiar to the electorate and maintains a direct link between MPs and their constituencies. It also tends to deliver an overall majority to a single party. It is very poorly representative in terms of how the number of MPs a party receives relates to their share of the vote.

Take the test at Who Should You Vote For


It doesn't really surprise me; I don't care much at all about the precise way the vote is determined, as long as it is stable and not changed lightly. I despise the Party List System, however, and any other mechanism in which parties are given an inflated importance, and fiercely dislike anyone who thinks that a vote actually counted can genuinely be wasted, as well as anyone who thinks that a system of election should be reformed merely because another system would have given them more power. They get my hackles up. At least, my passions are as intense on this matter as they ever are on politics; which is to say, my dislikings are always subject to my most intense passion about politics: bored impatience. I'm a little surprised that First Past the Post is quite so close to the others, though. I think it is a bad idea to talk about legislative representation as if the main thing were representation of votes at election time rather than representation of people all the time, so I think that people who fuss about the failure of a system to represent votes precisely (or, at least, precisely in the way they think they should be represented) are a little dangerous -- they haven't even figured out the first principle of legislative representation, yet want to go about tampering with things.

Two More Poem Drafts


The sun is not a ball of fire
but the sum of one desire:
to lure; and thus must it appear
to thoughtless eyes a burning sphere.
But all this rolling globe of light
is more than what appears to sight;
less like a flame, more like a word
in which the thought and deed are blurred,
it rolls, and in a single thought
all the paths of light are caught
and bent around it like a sea
extending to infinity;
it speaks, commanding: Come to me.

Some have thought the earth to fly
like a droplet in the sky;
a little water, a bit of earth,
a thing like nothing in its worth.
But they who ponder on the skies
study better, grow more wise,
and know: each star in its course
is subject to its endless force;
all the glories near and far
are affected where they are
by whispers born of ecstasy.
The whispers say: Come to me.

The stars are moved; each like a thought
has searched the sky and gently sought
the paths and ways by which things flow;
each is a word to those who know,
a gesture to each thing and kind
that the seeking soul can find;
each calls out to eternity,
each ripples out upon the sea,
each beckons, saying: Come to me.

Hagia Sophia

I am light;
I leap cat-like;
I dance on walls.
My swiftness is lightning.

I am fire,
purest aether,
each flame a thought,
each ray a truth,
that leaps into the darkness.

Like the oil of gladness,
like the glad heart,
I pour down,
each word a speaking glory.

The world breathes;
its spirit brings to life
the myriad creatures.
I breathe the world.

I played in the darkness;
like a child I played,
and hiding and seeking
I play in the morning.

Cease wandering in folly;
come and be wise!
For I am the origin
and I am the end
and I am the hope of your dreams.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The White Shell; and Duhem's Realism

We selected our differential equations or, what comes to the same thing, the principels they translate, because we wished to construct a mathematical representation of a group of phenomena; in seeking to represent these phenomena with the aide of a system of differential equations, we were presupposing from the very start that they were subject to a strict determinism; we were well aware, in fact, taht a phenomenon whose peculiarities did not in the least result from the initial data would rebel at any representation by such a system of equations. We were therefore certain in advance that no place was reserved for free actions in the classification we had arranged. When we note afterwards that a free action cannot be included in our clasification, we should be very naive to be astonished by it and very foolish to conclude that free will is impossible.

Imagine a collector who wishes to arrange sea shells. He takes seven drawers that he marks with seven colors of the spectrum, and you see him putting the red shells in the red drawer, the yellow shells in the yellow drawer, etc. But if a white shell appears, he will not know what to do with it, for he has no white drawer. You would, of course, feel very sorry for his reason if you heard him conclude in his embarrassment that no white shells exist in the world.

The physicist who thinks he can deduce from his theoretical principles the impossibility of free will deserves the same feeling. In manufacturing a classification for all phenomena produced in this world, he forgets the drawer for free actions!

Duhem, Physics of a Believer.

Quite true. By the way, "Physics of a Believer" is one of the most brilliant essays in the history of the philosophy of science. It has often been misunderstood, I think; the misunderstandings aren't all as utterly bizarre as V. I. Lenin's portrayal of Duhem as a Machian Kantian who was almost a dialectical materialist, but they are sometimes fairly serious. The argument toward the end, that physics as a whole, and thermodynamics in particular, suggests a (broadly) Aristotelian metaphysics, is especially misunderstood, despite the fact that Duhem explicitly denies the stronger claims that are sometimes attributed to him. It's the strange thing about Duhem; he's always saddled with interpretations that cut against what he explicitly says. "Physics of a Believer," in fact, was a response to just such an interpretation, the claim that "Duhem's scientific philosophy is that of a believer". As Duhem points out, the only senses in which this is true are (1) that Duhem himself is Catholic; and (2) that if Duhem's account is true, it would be impossible for science to disprove Christian doctrine (or prove it, for that matter).

In any case, the essay is a good source for understanding how it is that Duhem manages to be a positivist and yet also be a scientific realist in the modern sense (which, in fact, he is; for instance, he sharply rejects naive scientific realism about physical theories, but when he rejects the view that theories in physics are true he does so by arguing that they are approximate), or as close to a modern scientific realist as makes no real difference. For a good discussion of some of the issues surrounding the question of whether Duhem is a realist, see Karen Merikangas Darling's paper, Motivational Realism: The Natural Classification for Pierre Duhem (Word document). I don't think her discussion is quite right, because I think the basis for the anti-realist interpretation is somewhat weaker than she makes it out to be. I've already mentioned the crucial point about approximation (Duhem doesn't consider himself a realist because the view that physical theories are approximate rules out what he calls realism), but there are other issues. For example, by 'physical theory' Duhem means mathematics constructed for the purposes of physics; and it isn't clear that someone who tends instrumentalist about the role of mathematics in physics is automatically a scientific anti-realist, particularly when we have this other element involved, namely, the experimental laws that physical theory organizes. The case for Duhem's realism is also slightly stronger than she makes it out to be. To name just two points, Duhem quite explicitly says that science adds to the treasury of common sense, which cannot possibly be interpreted in an anti-realist way, and he insists that physical theory provides a "simplified picture" of what common sense knows to be true and certain, which also sounds realistic (in our sense).

And Darling is quite clearly wrong to say that, since the realist intuitions Duhem insists upon are not scientific or logical "they are unable to ground any pro-realist arguments" (p. 15); how she can regard this as true, given that Duhem is quite clear that the intuitions of common sense are what ultimately ground all arguments, is unclear. Since they are intuitions, we cannot justify them themselves; but since they must be believed by any rational person, this is not a problem. Just as basic intuitions about space don't need further justification, but are what justify our thought about space, so basic intuitions about natural classification and the unity of science don't need further justification but are what justify our (metaphysical) thought about science. This is Duhem's Pascalianism; in the Pascalian aphorism he likes to quote, with regard to the basic principles common sense provides, "We have an impotence to prove that is invincible to any dogmatism and an idea of truth that is invincible to any skepticism."

Darling's claim that Duhem would not consider these on par with scientific theories or logical conclusions will be simply incomprehensible to anyone who actually reads what Duhem says about the intuitions of the heart. And this is not surprising. One of the things we know by intuition of the heart (Duhem is, of course, following Pascal here) is geometry, which is founded on principles that are properly neither scientific nor logical. And perhaps, ultimately, this is where people go wrong with Duhem: they read as anti-realist (in our sense) claims that, in fact, merely mean that realism (in our sense) about physical theory is neither a physical theory nor an experimental law, despite the fact that Duhem's conclusion is undoubtedly right: physical realism is neither a physical theory nor the generalization of a physical experiment. Of course, Duhem thinks this is because nothing in the physicist's method actually justifies scientific realism. Physicists are scientific realists in the way they are realists about the external world: it's something metaphysical that overarches their work in physics, not a conclusion in physics at all. That's not anti-realist either, but perhaps that's where people are misinterpreting him.

But despite the severity of my criticisms, it's a great paper, and worth reading if you are interested in Duhem. You might also like this short paper, which gives a good introduction to Duhem's brilliant recognition that crucial experiments are not possible in physics, and the almost prophetic way in which he argued for this claim.

This post turned out completely different from what I expected to write when I started it; I expected to say something about free will, and ended up talking about scientific realism instead.