Saturday, June 25, 2005

Links of Note

* The Philosophy Carnival XV is at "The Buckingham Inquirer"; go see!

* Revenge of the Sith and Lucas's Moral Views at "Parableman". I think he's basically found the key. I'm not so convinced that the relativism interpretation does tell us more about the interpreter, though; the remark is very cryptic, occurs in a very quick exchange, is given no development (and therefore is difficult to place in its context), and is on its own most naturally interpreted relativistically. It's not obvious how it should be interpreted; and that, I take it, has generally been the point: it appears to make no sense in the context, since given the nature of the Jedi and the relativism of the Sith it looks like it should be the last thing that Obi-Wan should say. I think Jeremy has hit on how it actually fits into the movie, though. [UPDATE: Jeremy clears up my confusion a bit in the comments.]

* "The Little Professor" discusses Sherlock Holmes pastiches. The stupid Watson mistake is one of my pet peeves; precisely the reason Watson works so well as a character is that he is far from stupid. Indeed, his being so is an important part of stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles; the use of him Holmes makes in THotB, for instance, is very plausible, because while Watson can't make the leaps of inference Holmes can, and tends not to carry over his attention for precise details from his medical practice into common life (who does?), he has a generally good knack for hitting on what in the general situation is and is not relevant, which shows up fairly consistently throughout the stories (at least, as consistently as anything does). The point she makes about Doyle hiding necessary information from the readers is important. An explicit theme that arises in several of the stories is that the 'mystery' of the mystery is always in our not being alerted to the details; when Holmes tells people how he figured some detail out, for instance, they are often not impressed. They couldn't have done it beforehand, but when they are given the information Holmes used, his conclusion looks obvious. Precisely one of the great features of Holmes is that he is a man apart: as a rule, no one except him could possibly have all the information that makes his conclusions obvious, but if they did, the conclusions would be obvious and there would be no mystery. This is actually something of the running dispute between Holmes and Watson: Holmes insists that our interest in the cases should be purely a matter of method, Watson that the personal interest is the real key. And Watson, of course, is right; even when Holmes tells the story, as in The Lion's Mane), it is in his own approximation of Watson's style.

(On the assumption, of course, that Holmes is telling the story in "The Lion's Mane," of course! As is well known among the Baker Street crowds, while the story is told from Holmes's perspective, there are puzzles about it, since, while the solution itself makes sense, Holmes's explanation for why he did not immediately latch onto it does not. The partial solution I favor is that the story is told by, and not merely narrated from the point of view of, Holmes [now there's a distinction you won't find much outside the Holmes mysteries!], and that the odd explanation with which the story ends is supposed to alert us to the fact that there is more going on than one would immediately think. I think this interpretation is very close, except that they treat it as a case of misdetection, while I treat it as a case of deliberate misdirection. I like my interpretation better, but it is still only a partial solution; I can't explain the death of the dog anymore than they can, and while I avoid the problem that comes with reading the story too literally, I run into the problem of discerning Holmes's motive for the misdirection in the first place. This is why Watson is a better as a narrator; we always have to assume that Holmes is brilliantly clever. Similar problems arise with The Blanched Soldier, also purportedly written by Holmes. But if The Blanched Soldier is by Holmes, it makes my case for the argument about the key to the interest of the mysteries infinitely stronger, for the story opens with nothing other than the running debate between Watson and Holmes mentioned above, and Holmes's concession that Watson has a point. Holmes also explicitly points out that Watson's modesty has led him to gloss over his own "remarkable characteristics" in his attempts to highlight the work of Holmes himself; which one would think enough to put the whole stupid Watson myth to bed. If it is told by Holmes, and not merely narrated from his point of view by another fictional character!)

* I try to minimize direct criticism of other bloggers (rather than this or that particular argument), particularly of those for whom I have some respect, but I have to say something about this. Evolution, morality, and torture at "Mark A. R. Kleiman" has recently picked up a lot of comment. The distinction into blue team and red team, which people keep picking up uncritically, makes no sense in this context; but the basic point is worthwhile: start with people where they are, and see where you can go from there. Lindsay at Majikthise, whose response is the least uncritical [in the 'critical thought' sense of 'critical'-ed.] of the responses,* nonetheless makes the error of treating Kleiman's suggestion as a matter of 'playing along', when it is really a matter of being both Socratic and practical. Socratic, because the wise mover of events, the one who genuinely believes in the force of reason, will do at least part of his or her work maieutically, even though (naturally) all the eggs shouldn't be put into that basket; practical, because it involves the recognition that there are more resources for civil society coming to agreement about things like Gitmo than current strategies are making use of. And given the issues surrounding Gitmo, to leave those resources unused is morally and politically dangerous. In any case, while I think the practical aspect is of note, the Socratic point is more significant; minds cannot be forced, so we who take reason seriously move people by some sort of maieutics or not at all. PZ Myers has a more confused post on the subject, although still interesting, and a follow-up that is something more of an embarrassment. I like Myers's suggestion of a new of Age of Freethought; if people like T. H. Huxley were provided, that would be utterly awesome: with people like that, everyone benefits, whether for or against. The problem is that, at least in his weblog, Myers himself is less than impressive as a freethinker. I love his biological posts, and I think they contribute something important to the diffusion of scientific knowledge; but his posts on religion generally collapse into the uncritical spouting of nineteenth-century clichés, and even then in such crude and caricature-like ways that Huxley would be ashamed or exasperated -- as, indeed, he was often explicitly exasperated when people like Myers first uncritically started spouting them and calling them freethought. And Huxley was right the first time around: real freethought is at a much higher level of rational discourse than that. Of course, not everyone can be as impressive a case of real freethinking as Huxley was; but one should expect more. A case in point:

On the other hand, defenders of religion get to make absurd claims that defy reality, such as that the book of Genesis is a "potentially powerful prop to moral behavior" and appeal to the self-interest of the majority. Read beyond the pretty poetry of the first page, and what have you got? Human sacrifice, rape, murder, slavery, and genocide, all of which is justified as it is done in the name of the Lord.

I've seen this sort of argument before on "Pharyngula" and always thought that they were simply a sloppy shorthand for a more serious argument; but he repeats it often enough that I begin to wonder if this isn't the whole argument: no recognition that texts don't have magical powers making them able to shape behavior directly, no recognition of the issues of how a text functions in a community that reads it, no recognition even of the fact that the two major historical traditions that interpret the text for use in daily life bring other texts to bear in light of which this text is interpreted, indeed, nothing beyond what this argument explicitly says. If in an undergraduate paper on Hume I found an argument parallel to this, I would sharply penalize it for lack of critical thought. An argument can perhaps be made for problems with a moral approach based on Humean principles on the basis of (say) Hume's footnote in the essay on national character (while I have never made such an argument, I've presented reasons why I think this issue in Hume needs to be examined seriously); but certainly not at this simplistic a level. Issues of hermeneutics crowd in immediately; and the situation with Hume's texts is much simpler than the complicated case of a text that has a communal function, like Genesis. Even within the limitations of blogging one could expect more from someone defending freethought. And in response to Kleiman's post it is even more puzzling; for Kleiman's point was about cases that can be made, which requires precisely the sort of reflection on the nature of interpretation that we see nothing of in the above argument. And, further, Myers goes on to make claims which cannot be rationally made without precisely these missing arguments on interpretation. Perhaps Myers is aware of all this, and has actually thought it through, and is just not getting it to the weblog; but as far as we can tell from the weblog, we've got nothing of significance.

A similar problem arises with Myers's appeal to history as showing "the inefficacy (at best) of religion" or, as he puts it in the first post, that Genesis "is a historical, empirical, ongoing failure as a moral force for good." All well and good if they were actually backed up by serious analysis, but you will search "Pharyngula" in vain for any historical research, even rough and basic, into evidence of the role played by it in disputes about private property, abolitionism, the environment, or any other instance; you will look in vain for any serious analysis of this evidence; you will look in vain for summaries or approximations of anything like it. You can look as deeply as you please into the archive, and you won't find much to back up this supposedly "historical, empirical" claim. It's not as if a freethinker would necessarily feel compelled to write a book's worth on the subject (although when people actually took the trouble to earn their title of 'freethinker' rather than helping themselves to it, it wouldn't have been unheard of), but one would at least expect a real freethinker to take care at least to give us a rough something to show that he wasn't just making the sort of arbitrary claim of which he was accusing his opponents. Again, perhaps he's roughed it out elsewhere and just isn't bothering to get it to the weblog, or perhaps he's taking it on trust on the basis of researchers who have done the work, and is just not telling us who; but as far as anyone can see on the weblog, the argument's rather anemic. And again, I don't particularly understand it; it's not as if you can't make a fairly defensible case, on at least some issues, that would be at least roughly analogous to what Myers is trying to say. But even Myers's clichés fail him; the old freethinkers would have had this sort of case at hand. Much of their historical argument would be utterly outdated now, but even uncritically repeating that would be better than the crude argument above, or the crude clichés he does repeat when he actually makes use (if one can call it use) of the arsenal his predecessors - the real freethinkers - built.

Conceivably there's just something I'm missing; but I find it very sad what passes for freethought these days. One of the reasons I like the idea of a new Age of Freethought, despite not being a freethinker myself - at least if it would put forward an Alciphron of significance. But I fear that it would just be a mass of what 'freethought' too often means today: a lot of talking about reason and critical thought, combined with a lot of shying away from the actual work such talk would commit one to doing. I hope there's something better in the future than that. Indeed, we had better all hope that there's something better than that. [UPDATES: See here for an additional point that needs to be made, for the sake of fairness. --*Also, since I largely just linked to Lindsay's post and dropped it, I should say that there are some aspects of it that I do like quite well, even though here I only bring in my primary criticism of it.]

* UPDATE: Ralph Luker's open letter to Billy Graham, at "Cliopatria," is well worth a moment of your time.

Söderblom on Prophets

The prophets heard in history the voice of God and discerned the will of God therein.

The singing of the congregation in church makes an impression, maybe a powerful impression, and creates an atmosphere, but you are not able to catch what is being sung. The singing is loud, but it is impossible to distinguish the words.

So it is with the music of life and the course of history. We hear, but we cannot catch the meaning, however we exert ourselves.

In church we suddenly notice a plainly articulated passage. There sits some one singing who is able to pronounce his words plainly. You hear the words and you can find out what verse it is that they are singing. You catch the meaning of the hymn or song. Such an one is the prophet. Through him events speak more clearly to us. He is himself a tool for God's creative work.

Nathan Söderblom, The Living God. Oxford University Press: London (1933) p. 309.

Söderblom was the Archbishop of Uppsala; he was an important figure in comparative religious study in the first part of the twentieth century, one of the most important figures in Swedish Lutheranism, and a major force behind the ecumenical Life and Work Movement. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930. The Living God is his Gifford Lectures for 1931. He was scheduled for another year of lectures, but he died before he could deliver it.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Rout of Civilisation, the Massacre of Mankind

At "The Corner" Warren Bell says that War of the Worlds has never been good. I think that's not true; the novel is better than he makes it out to be. The broadcast is great, although made for people who have more of an attention span for radio than most people do nowadays. The 1950s movie adaptation is one of the best special effects sci-fi movies of all time (as with most 1950s movies, you have to tolerate some overacting here and there, but it still works). It won an Oscar for those effects, and that was one Oscar that was very deserved. And the 1980s TV show was actually OK, at least for the first season, despite cheesy effects and some very derivative elements. The basic trouble with WotW is that the story is not the sort we've gotten used to following: the aliens invade, they eat human beings, they get sick, they die. We have similar difficulties with, say, the ending of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (if I'm not mixing it up with some other story), where the great suspense moment is not action-suspense, but slow, desperate horror suspense, like being buried alive (it's been long enough since I've read it that I've become fuzzy on the details). When aliens invade, we want Earth to be saved by some Hollywood-action-hero type, not by smallpox or the common cold. But that's really the great thing about the story: the whole point is that nothing we could do could save us. We were doomed; no Will Smith flying through the sky, no Jeff Goldblum hacking alien technology with an Apple computer. Doomed, until Nature herself stepped in. It's like Jules Verne's Master of the World: the criminal had for all practical purposes beaten the police, until he tried to mess with Nature. Wells's Invisible Man is perhaps a weaker variation of this pattern. It is a great story pattern, and one that is radically under-used. We haven't adequately developed our literary taste for stories of despair. In some places in Wells's story it is almost palpable:

And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.

Or this, which is a bit wordy but still good:

Had the Martians aimed only at destruction, they might on Monday have annihilated the entire population of London, as it spread itself slowly through the home counties. Not only along the road through Barnet, but also through Edgware and Waltham Abbey, and along the roads eastward to Southend and Shoeburyness, and south of the Thames to Deal and Broadstairs, poured the same frantic rout. If one could have hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue above London every northward and eastward road running out of the tangled maze of streets would have seemed stippled black with the streaming fugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress. I have set forth at length in the last chapter my brother's account of the road through Chipping Barnet, in order that my readers may realise how that swarming of black dots appeared to one of those concerned. Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together. The legendary hosts of Goths and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede--a stampede gigantic and terrible--without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.

The difficult thing, of course, is to avoid the deus ex machina problem: the line of the story has to be plausible, and it's hard to do this with a story which has, as part of its theme, the insistence that the main characters are helpless. It's debatable whether Wells quite manages it (Verne does it quite beautifully). Wells tends to go occasionally weak even in his best stories. But the story itself is a sci-fi classic for very good reasons. Part of the reason is that it is not a mere invasion story; it is an attack on human hubris. Directly, it is a fierce attack on the hubris of British Imperial society; indirectly, it speaks to all eras. The story originated in a discussion Wells had about the eradication of the Aborigines in Tasmania when the British turned it into a penal colony; and Wells began wondering what would happen if someone did the same to England. He mentions Tasmania in the paragraph immediately following the first one above:

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Ouch! The story is also an attack on the complacency of the British Empire, reminding people that the moment of complete ascendancy is often the moment right before complete overthrow. The two attacks are combined by the exhortation that we should pity those who "suffer our dominion".

The 1930s broadcast is good in part because the radio drama is extremely well-acted; but the real reason is the brilliant recognition that much of Wells's story could be re-crafted into a set of newscasts. I like radio drama quite a bit; and it is without doubt one of the best. They say H.G. Wells, who was still alive at the time, hated it because he didn't like his work turned into a Halloween prank. That's proof that authors don't always know what's the best future for their work.

The 1950s movie made a number of adaptations, the most controversial of which has from the beginning been the (slight) Catholicization (we need a better word for that) of the story. Turning a story by an atheist into one with strong religious overtones will certainly not satisfy purists. But it works well nonetheless. In part because this kind of story works well with religious themes (as I've noted in the case of Master of the World; alas, I've never seen the 1960s movie starring Vincent Price, so I can't say whether that was any good--although Price is always great in sci-fi--but it has the potential for a great movie). Wells's original story is also already rather saturated with biblical imagery. One of the characters is a very stupid, and somewhat insane, curate:

But he was one of those weak creatures, void of pride, timorous, anaemic, hateful souls, full of shifty cunning, who face neither God nor man, who face not even themselves.

In madness he rushes to a bloody death, repenting of his failure to call people to repent and insisting that the word of the Lord is upon him. Good stuff, although not the sort of religious theme that makes it into the movie. The movie isn't actually straying far in introducing the more hopeful religious note; Wells does it too, although it isn't clear whether this is ironic or not. Perhaps, but I'm wary of too quickly attributing such ironies to authors; it might just as well be an attempt at Wells's version of the average Englishman. But I confess, I haven't read it to see whether it is ironic; I just read it because it's good.

This is a good webpage presenting the whole War of the Worlds saga from the perspective of the TV series. The series was very uneven, but one of the neat things was that despite its rather extensive modifications, it took the book, the broadcast, and the movie seriously enough to assimilate them to the storyline.

As for the upcoming WotW movie -- we'll see. Its predecessors have set a high standard for it.

I have spent far too much time on this post....

Thursday, June 23, 2005


* Macht at "prosthesis" points to this informative interview on embryonic stem cell research by James Thomson (who actually does stem cell research). I've noted before the fact that there is very, very little reliable information on this subject that's easily accessible to the public and that isn't too vague to be helpful on the moral question; so it's nice to see something that is circulating information that's a bit better. His answers to the moral questions (on pages 3 and 4), by the way, are a much more rational response to moral questions like these than moral questions in science [usually] get.

* Botton and the anthroposophical worldview at "An accidental blog" posts some notes on Rudolph Steiner (HT: Christian Carnival LXXIV).

* Hebrews 12 and discipline at "reasons why"

* Exegeting stop signs at "Mindless Meandering" (HT: Hypotyposeis). Someone in the history of philosophy would exegete the sign in something like the following way:

The philosophical significance of the stop sign has been a matter of controversy; in particular, there has been considerable debate on the meaning of the word "stop".1 Needless to say, the text as it is presented on Third Street is somewhat ambiguous. However, given similarities between the context of this sign and certain texts of Locke, which I have noted elsewhere,2 my suggestion is that this sign be seen as an example of semiotics in the Lockean tradition. This supposition will shed considerable light on the rational basis of stop signs, and will make possible a more complete reconstruction of the important early modern metaphysical debate that created it: the feasibility of reaching Elm Street from Main Street in less than two minutes. I will also show that, despite recent attempts to reconcile it with the impossibility of a complete stop, the sign's exhortation to stop is necessarily incoherent.

1 For the most important examples, see the seminal paper by N. Pepper-Scott, "Stopping and the Re-introduction of Final Causes: The Liebnizian Foundations of Stop Signs," B J Hist Phil (1996) 888-2110, and the response by S. Jolschmal in Termination of Philosophy in the Early Modern Period, 234-576, which argues for a Spinozistic interpretation of the stop sign as a text arguing that stopping is the third mode of the divine substance. My reply to Pepper-Scott will be found in Section 2; I will reply to Jolschmal in Section 3.
2 "Locke, Liebniz, and Road Signs: Two Paradigms of Signification," J Hist Phil (2005) 289-290.

UPDATE: fixed link.

UPDATE 2: This is an interesting post at "Evolving Thoughts" (HT: Science and Politics). Of course, biblical scholars should be expected to use methods of textual scholarship; the whole point of biblical scholarship is to understand a set of texts. And theology in the 19th century was extremely complex; only a few strands of 19th-century theology would fit the article's description. And what the scholar in the article is talking about sounds nothing like what I learned as an undergraduate Theology major. But I agree with Wilkins's post.

Princess Bride Quotes

Rebecca is collecting everyone's favorite Princess Bride quotes. My favorite is probably "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father: prepare to die." It is already listed; but a close second would be this exchange:

Miracle Max: He probably owes you money huh? I'll ask him.
Inigo Montoya: He's dead. He can't talk.
Miracle Max: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do.
Inigo Montoya: What's that?
Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

I mostly just use "There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive." And a third would be this exchange:

Vizzini: He didn't fall? Inconceivable!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

History Carnival Reminder

Don't forget that the next History Carnival will be at Siris on 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. The deadline for submissions is 11:00 p.m. on June 30; but please try to get it in before then.

If you haven't ever submitted a post to the History Carnival, consider doing so. Click on the above link to get the gist of what we're looking for. The posts should conform to reasonable standards of historical research and inquiry, but history is a very broad subject; if you think about it you might well come across some historical topic or issue about which you are particularly well informed, or which you can fairly easily research. For that matter, if you are in doubt, send it to me anyway, with a brief note about your doubts. I have to determine whether posts qualify or not, anyway, so it's no burden to look at it.

There will be at least one more reminder before the deadline. Thanks for those who have already submitted; those who haven't, take a moment to think about what you might submit.

History Carnival Button

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Darwin's Logic: The Progress of the Argument: Variation as Vera Causa

Continuing my discussion of the fascinating structure of Darwin's argument in OS, I begin with a quote from the Bulldog.

The evidence brought forward by Mr. Darwin in support of his hypothesis is of three kinds. First, he endeavours to prove that species may be originated by selection; secondly, he attempts to show that natural causes are competent to exert selection; and thirdly, he tries to prove that the most remarkable and apparently anomalous phaenomena exhibited by the distribution, development, and mutual relations of species, can be shown to be deducible from the general doctrine of their origin, which he propounds, combined with the known facts of geological change; and that, even if all these phaenomena are not at present explicable by it, none are necessarily inconsistent with it.

[T. H. Huxley, "The Origin of Species," Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews. Macmillan (London: 1880) p. 293.]

This is a fairly good summary of Darwin's argument. In this post I will be looking at Huxley's First.

Darwin opens his argument in OS with a discussion of Variation under Domestication; according to Darwin in the Introduction, the reason for this is that we may "see that a large amount of hereditary modification is at least possible; and, what is equally or more important, we shall see how great is the power of man in accumulating by his Selection successive slight variations." The ultimate point of this argument will be the recognition that on this point, as man does, so also nature does. As he will neatly put the matter in the introduction to a later work, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication:

It can hardly be maintained that during the many changes which this earth has undergone, and during the natural migrations of plants from one land or island to another, tenanted by different species, that such plants will not often have been subjected to changes in their conditions analogous to those which almost inevitably cause cultivated plants to vary. No doubt man selects varying individuals, sows their seeds, and again selects their varying offspring. But the initial variation on which man works, and without which he can do nothing, is caused by slight changes in the conditions of life, which must often have occurred under nature. Man, therefore, may be said to have been trying an experiment on a gigantic scale; and it is an experiment which nature during the long lapse of time has incessantly tried. Hence it follows that the principles of domestication are important for us.

We are not yet quite to this full point here; what we are looking at here is simply the lead up that will eventually get us to this conclusion. Darwin is not, as he is sometimes portrayed, simply making an analogy. He is identifying a vera causa, and analyzing it so as to determine its essential characteristics. In doing so he establishes a number of important points: (1) At the time of his writing, the laws and causes governing variation and inheritance are either not known or only "dimly seen"; (2) In cases of domestication it can often be difficult to distinguish varietis and species; (3) In domestication, adaptations are created when "nature gives successive variations" and "man adds them up in certain directions useful to him" (he calls this "accumulative selection"); (4) "The great power of this principle of selection is not hypothetical," i.e., it is a vera causa; (5) This accumulative selection can occur unconsciously; (6) This unconscious selection produces "slow, varying, and insensible changes" in a way that is more efficient than methodical selection. (5) and (6) are very important, because by establishing these, Darwin is able to bridge over into natural selection. Unconscious selection, far more than the methodical selection we usually treat as synonymous with artificial selection, approximates what happens in nature.

But to establish this point, Darwin first has to show the characteristics of Variation under Nature; and this is the subject of Chapter II of OS. This is somewhat tricky; as Darwin notes, this can really only be done properly by giving "a long catalogue of dry facts". Since that's out of the question for a work like OS, he can only touch on the basics here, promising a more thorough treatment in a future work. (This is one of several points at which Darwin shows just how conscientious he can be about the construction of his argument.) The primary point Darwin wishes to draw from his basic treatment, besides the (already rather obvious) fact that species in nature vary, is that in nature it can be immensely difficult to make any distinction between varieties and species, and that by regarding varieties as incipient species, we can make some sense of this. If this latter point is to fly, however, we need an adequate account of Divergence of Character. Darwin turns to this in the next part of his argument, to which I will soon turn.

Quijotismo and the Society of Understanding

Richard tackles the meaning of life, arguing that the meaning of life is only the meaning that people give to it. Part of his argument is based on his claim that free agents cannot be bound by extrinsic purposes; which depends, I suppose, on what one means by 'bound'. In fact, free agents are given extrinsic purposes all the time; one can, for instance, simply use a free agent's free actions for one's own purposes, without their even knowing it. Indeed, independently of our free choice, we are given value and purpose by others all the time; that is, we attain value and purpose within their own lives. Thus we, acting freely, can be admired by the millions, or vilified by them; and 'being admired' is certainly an extrinsic denomination. It is also a way we have value and purpose, whether we will nor nill.

Now, Richard's position brings up the old question of whether Don Quixote would have led a life worth living without his palinode (so to speak) at life's end. On the one side are people like Richard, who think that one's life's value, purpose, meaning, and the like, are self-chosen; they are committed to saying that Don Quixote, with his self-chosen adventures, led a life completely worth living.

Don Quixote was more wise
in his madness and his lies
than all the folk who will despise
the labors of Sad Countenance.

They are inward-gazing irrationalists--on this point, at least. On the other side are people who think that the life of the Knight of La Mancha was made less meaningful by virtue of delusion; he returned to the potential for genuine meaning in his forswearing of the fantasy. They hold that there is such a thing as objective valuableness; namely, that which a rational person, acting consistently and within the confines of the facts, would value. Life's meaningfulness (which is what we really mean when we talk about the meaning of life) is the actual (and objective) role it has in the universe, and is discovered through a greater understanding of one's potential, one's disposition, the nature of one's existence in the universe, and not forced on matters of fact by will. That there is something agent-relative about it doesn't imply that it is subjective and imposed by choice; any more than the fact that there is something agent-relative about directions like 'left' and 'right' means that such directions are subjective and imposed by choice. By choice an agent can change the way she is related to other things; but those relations may still be objective.

In other words, 'the meaning of one's life' is analogous to 'the position of the stone'; the position is an objective fact, which is determined in part by (for instance) the stone's relative attributes of being lower or higher than something else. Complicate the position with as much relativity as you please; there is still a fact of the matter. Likewise, on this view, you can complicate life's meaningfulness with as much relativity as you please, and there will still be a fact of the matter. And given that fact some answers to the question, "What does my life mean?" will be especially meaningful, and some will be scarcely anything at all. In other words, for ever answer there will be a higher-order question asking about the meaningfulness of that answer; and so on, to the inclusion of all that there is. And that's what people really want; they don't want an irrationalist 'the meaning of your life is what you make it', they want a rational meaning in the greater scheme of things, a meaninfulness in the eyes of all people of understanding who are viewing it rationally and accurately. Meaningful claims of meaningfulness must include what our lives mean to others. We are not blind monads, but creatures with intellect; and that is to be involved in the society of intellect. That is where our meaning is found, in the realms of true understanding.

So the real question is not, "What is the meaning of my life to me?" but "What is the meaning of my life in the light of universal reason?" and, beyond this, "What is the meaningfulness of life itself in light of universal reason?" Answer that, and you know the truth about Don Quixote. And the point never to be forgotten is that you are in the role of Don Quixote. So, how would you answer the question?

More Links

* The Lublin School of Philosophy. Lublin Thomism is a Polish branch of Thomism that has a strong emphasis on the philosophy of human nature (originally formulated in opposition to the Stalinized Marxism of Poland's pro-Stalin oppressors), and often makes use of personalist phenomenology for Thomistic purposes.

* You know you've been reading too much Cliopatria when, as I recently did, you read a post on Cleopatra and, despite knowing better, you can't shake the feeling that the name is being spelled incorrectly....

* Gödel and the Nature of Mathematical Truth, an interview with Rebecca Goldstein (HT: Mormon Metaphysics)

* A summary of C. S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain (HT: NWW)

* Hugo Holbling discusses the role of philosophical considerations in scientific inquiry in Neutral Science at "Studi Galileiani".

Poem Draft

This is an adaptation of part of the parodos for Euripides' Bacchae.


Mountained is my love,
wearing holy fawn-skin,
singing as he slays the goat,
delighting in the flesh.

Mountained in Phrygia is my love,
Bromios, who dancing leads
by milk-flowing, wine-flowing streams,
by nectar-wine of bees.


With incense-fume of pine torch,
fragrant on the fennel rod;
running, dancing, hair streaming,
band rousing, ever shouting:


Booming timbrels hymn the Bacchic god;
the Phrygian flute of Mother Rhea,
satyr-stolen, blends with revel,
sweet-graced and most holy,

antheming the wild troops
that, mountained, band and revel,
mountained and light of foot,
gambol like the wild foals.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

Children's Books

Rebecca points out this list by the NEA of teachers' top 100 children's books. I've bolded those I've read.

1. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White (9-12 years)
2. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (4-8 years)
3. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (4-8 years)
4. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (4-8 years)
5. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (4-8 years)
6. Love You Forever by Robert N. Munsch (4-8 years)
7. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (All ages)
8. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Baby-Preschool)
9. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls (Young Adult) [Very, very sad; but one of the best dog stories out there.]
10. The Mitten by Jan Brett (4-8 years)
11. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (Baby-Preschool)
12. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (9-12 years)
13. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis (9-12 years)
14. Where the Sidewalk Ends: the Poems and Drawing of Shel Silverstein by Shel Silverstein (All ages)
15. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (9-12 years) [This one was very memorable.]
16. Stellaluna by Janell Cannon (4-8 years)
17. Oh, The Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss (4-8 years)
18. Strega Nona by Tomie De Paola (4-8 years)
19. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst (4-8 years)
20. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? by Bill Martin, Jr. (Baby-Preschool)
21. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (9-12 years)
22. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (4-8 years)
23. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (9-12 years)
24. Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (9-12 years)
25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (4-8 years)
26. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka (4-8 years)
27. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by John Archambault (4-8 years)
28. Little House on the Prarie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (9-12 years)
29. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (9-12 years)
30. The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne (4-8 years)
31. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner (9-12 years)
32. Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (9-12 years)
33. Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks (9-12 years)
34. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell (9-12 years)
35. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (9-12 years)
36. The BFG by Roald Dahl (9-12 years)
37. The Giver by Lois Lowry (9-12 years)
38. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff (4-8 years)
39. James and the Giant Peach: A Children's Story by Roald Dahl (9-12 years)
40. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (9-12 years)
41. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (9-12 years)
42. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (Young Adult)
43. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (4-8 years)
44. Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner (9-12 years)
45. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (9-12 years)
46. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien (9-12 years)
47. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (All ages)
48. The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister (Baby-Preschool)
49. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman (4-8 years)
50. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (9-12 years)
51. Corduroy by Don Freeman (Baby-Preschool)
52. Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg (4-8 years)
53. Math Curse by Jon Scieszka (4-8 years)
54. Matilda by Roald Dahl (9-12 years)
55. Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls (Young Adult)
56. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume (9-12 years)
57. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (9-12 years)
58. The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White (9-12 years)
59. Are You My Mother? by Philip D. Eastman (4-8 years)
60. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (9-12 years)
61. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (4-8 years)
62. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss (4-8 years)
63. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (9-12 years)
64. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (Baby-Preschool)
65. The Napping House by Audrey Wood (4-8 years)
66. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (4-8 years)
67. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (4-8 years)
68. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (9-12 years)
69. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (All ages)
70. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (9-12 years)
71. Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss (4-8 years)
72. Basil of Baker Street, by Eve Titus (4-8 years)
73. The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper (4-8 years)
74. The Cay by Theodore Taylor (Young Adult)
75. Curious George by Hans Augusto Rey (4-8 years)
76. Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox (4-8 years)
77. Arthur series by Marc Tolon Brown (4-8 years)
78. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (9-12 years)
79. Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes (4-8 years)
80. Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (9-12 years)
81. The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton (4-8 years)
82. The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown (Baby-Preschool)
83. Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar (9-12 years) [I loved this book. But its companion book, Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School, is even better: it's an awesome way to introduce children to logic.]
84. Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish (4-8 years)
85. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (9-12 years)
86. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein (9-12 years)
87. Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater (9-12 years)
88. My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett (9-12 years)
89. Stuart Little by E. B. White (9-12 years)
90. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (9-12 years)
91. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (9-12 years)
92. The Art Lesson by Tomie De Paola (4-8 years)
93. Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina (4-8 years)
94. Clifford, the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell (4-8 years)
95. Heidi by Johanna Spyri (All ages)
96. Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss (4-8 years)
97. The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare (Young Adult)
98. The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (9-12 years)
99. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney (Baby-Preschool)
100. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch (4-8 years)

Rebecca is also gathering suggestions for books that aren't on the list but should be. A suggestion off the top of my head: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin!

UPDATE: And Lizard Music by Daniel Manus Pinkwater.

And Interstellar Pig by William Sleator (a truly awesome book that I remember in detail; hurray for the Lichen!).

And Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

And Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

And all the Lad books by Albert Payson Terhune.

And the Doctor Dolittle books by Hugh Lofting.

I could go like this forever.

A Few Interesting Links

* Epistemology of the Closet by Martha Nussbaum at The Nation, on Henry Sidgwick.

* The Moral Beauty of Small Things at ""

* Guild Socialism and Distributism and Anarchist Communism: Things to turn your mind off the beaten political track, and get you thinking about other possibilities.

* O Felix Culpa at "Contemplata aliis Tradere" (you have to scroll down to get below the header): an aspiring Dominican discusses the joy of the doctrine of original sin.

* Ralph Luker gives a rough chronology of history weblogs; I'm very much a young 'un in comparison with some of these old timers.

Father's Day

Listen to your father, who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old.

Buy the truth and do not sell it;
get wisdom, discipline and understanding.

The father of a righteous man has great joy;
he who has a wise son delights in him.

May your father and mother be glad;
may she who gave you birth rejoice!

(Proverbs 23:22-25)