Saturday, September 03, 2005


I don't normally read "Uncommon Descent," but happened by accident to come across Dembski's posting of a letter to the editor by James Barham. Barham's an interesting person; he has strong sympathies with ID, but denies that there is a designer -- he's a vitalist-materialist and not a theist. His interest in ID, then, is that with a slight modification it flows into his own biofunctional realism, in which life and mind are emergent properties of matter organized a certain way. He has an essay at Metanexus here, but this essay at ISCID provides a better introduction to his position on design.
From that paper:

In this paper, I will try to show that the Mechanistic Consensus is not the only alternative to Intelligent Design. There is also the possibility that certain forms of matter may be intrinsically endowed with mind-like properties, that these properties are irreducible to mechanistic interactions, but that they may nonetheless be subject to investigation by the methods of empirical science.

I once had a brief online discussion somewhere with Barham; we decided that the primary difference between us is that I'm a 'Right Aristotelian', taking Aristotle in a theistic direction (along the lines of the scholastics), and he's a 'Left Aristotelian', taking Aristotle in a materialist direction (along the lines of the vitalists). We both shared a basic problem with ID as a philosophical position: it's mechanistic, and doesn't have any clear room for intrinsic functions; we both agreed that the mechanisms appealed to in evolutionary theory presuppose rather than replace teleology; and while I've never liked talk of emergence, we both put a lot of emphasis on the problem of the integration of parts into wholes. He's rather more comfortable with the intelligent design movement than I am, though.

Philosopher in a High Place

Put a philosopher in a cage of small bars of thin iron suspended at the top of the towers of Notre Dame de Paris, he will see for obvious reasons that it is impossible for him to fall, and yet (unless he is used to the roofer's trade) he will not be able to keep the vision of that height from frightening and and astonishing him....There are some who cannot even bear the thought of it. Set a plank between those two towers, of a size such as is needed for us to walk on it: there is no philosophical wisdom of such firmness as to give us the courage to walk on it as we would do if it was on the ground.
[Montaigne, Essays II, ch. 12 (Ariew and Grene trans. p. 155)]

Put the world's greatest philosopher on a plank hanging over a precipice, but wider than it needs to be. Although his reason will convince him of his safety, his imagination will prevail. Many could not bear the thought of it without getting pale and sweating.
[Pascal, Pensées, S78/L44 (Ariew, tr., p. 13)]

To illustrate this by a familiar instance, let us consider the case of a man, who, being hung out from a high tower in a cage of iron cannot forbear trembling, when he surveys the precipice below him, tho' he knows himself to be perfectly secure from falling, by his experience of the solidity of the iron, which supports him; and tho' the ideas of fall and descent, and harm and death, be deriv'd solely from custom and experience. The same custom goes beyond the instances, from which it is deriv'd, and to which it perfectly corresponds; and influences his ideas of such objects as are in some respect resembling, but fall not precisely under the same rule. The circumstances of depth and descent strike so strongly upon him, that their influence can-not be destroy'd by the contrary circumstances of support and solidity, which ought to give him a perfect security. His imagination runs away with its object, and excites a passion proportion'd to it. That passion returns back upon the imagination and inlivens the idea; which lively idea has a new influence on the passion, and in its turn augments its force and violence; and both his fancy and affections, thus mutually supporting each other, cause the whole to have a very great influence upon him.
[Hume, Treatise]

Friday, September 02, 2005

Emergency Ethics

I've linked to some of these already, but there are some thoughtful posts on moral behavior in emergency situations:

* Jimmy Akin has several posts relevant to this subject:
Disaster Ethics 1: Price Gouging
Disaster Ethics 2: Three Moral Situations
Disaster Ethics 3: Taking Things
Disaster Ethics 4: Shooting the Looters?

* Professor Bainbridge:
Shooting Looters: Morally Licit?

* St. Maximos' Hut:
Looting and the absence of the state

* Stop the Bleating!:
Shooting Looters?

* Evangelical Outpost:
"How Can I Help?": Meeting Immediate Needs After Hurricane Katrina
The Battle for New Orleans: Is It Morally Licit to Shoot Looters?

* Acton Blog:
Lootin' in Louisiana

* Siris
Katrina's Devastations and Emergency Morality

A number of people have discussed how just war theory fits into shooting looters. Strictly speaking, just war theory depends on the ability to extend domestic defense powers against external enemies. If, for instance, the Catholic Church were to pronounce the death penalty intrinsically wrong, all Catholics, to be consistent, would have to become pacifists. Just war is justly applied death penalty to persistent external enemies who are attempting to destroy the community. This, I think, is very clear from Aquinas on. Thus if one accepts just war theory, one has no real ground on which to deny that death penalty might legitimately be given, and in extreme cases, that might require shoot-on-sight orders. That the Catholic Church tends to disapprove of the death penalty as actually applied doesn't give us any insight; the reason it disapproves of punishing citizens by death is that in ordinary circumstances it is not necessary for common good. The real argument for not shooting looters on sight is that we cannot in this way distinguish at all between looters who are looting out of need (starvation, dehydration, or some other such desperate circumstances) and those who are looting out of greed. Need looters are morally justified; greed looters are not. Strictly speaking, need looters aren't looting at all; private property conventions, however important, presuppose common use. In most cases common use requires the observance of private property conventions; however, in emergency cases this is not always so. It can never be justified for us deliberately to act on a policy of punishment that makes no distinction between the guilty and the innocent.

If you've found any other thoughtful posts on this sort of topic, put it in the comments.

[UPDATE: On whether NOLA should be rebuilt or not: The problems with rebuilding it are obvious. There are problems with not rebuilding it, however. NOLA did not become as large as it did by sheer happenstance. New Orleans had what someone once called the worst possible site and the best possible situation. Although it was once much, much better, it's a horrible bit of real estate for building a city, and no doubt. But it seems to me that something is needed more or less where it was (its situation), if we are not planning on completely restructuring the economies of Louisiana and southern Mississippi. It is very clear that a rebuilt NOLA would have to be built so as to have a different sort of relation to Lake Pontchartrain, and particularly so as not to be entirely dependent at any point on a single levee. But it's not at all clear that it could not be rebuilt to be as reasonably safe as most cities are (all cities have to make some compromise between site and situation). If we don't rebuild it, we must ask the next question: Where in the area can we build a city capable of performing the functions New Orleans performed? We won't be able to do without one.]

Links and Notes

* The newest History Carnival is up at "Clioweb".

* Sharon looks at what Henry Ford really said in Is History Bunk?

* A day or two ago I discussed the morality of looting; "The Acton Blog" has a post on it from the same perspective. For a discussion from principles that are almost exactly opposite, see the Evangelical Outpost.

* At "Parableman" there's a post discussing the dysfunction objection to design arguments: Daniel Schorr, Katrina, and Intelligent Design. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: people shouldn't use a design argument to criticize design arguments in general; and the dysfunction objection, like most problem-of-evil arguments, is a design argument. (Abednego rightly notes some of the problems with this.) The only reasonable way one could do this is if you were arguing for a rational inconsistency in design arguments generally, and were simply using the dysfunction argument as part of a reductio. However, it has been known since Hume that problem-of-evil arguments do not work against arguments for the existence of a designer; they only work against certain facile assumptions about the nature of the designer. Hume himself uses the argument correctly (when Philo uses it, he has already set aside the question of whether the designer exists, and is investigating Cleanthes's claims to be able to conclude on design considerations alone that the designer is perfectly good), but almost no one else does. Whether ID critics like it or not, the response of ID supporters to this sort of argument is exactly right: it's not a serious problem for them. The focus needs to be elsewhere.

* Daniel discusses Aristotle on Tragic Flaws.

UPDATE: I had forgotten that I want to link to Jeremy's interesting post on the Prodigal Son.

-> Blogging over the next few weeks will be more sporadic than it has been; I've recently moved. My new location is quite a bit better than where I was staying, but it's all the way out in Etobicoke. I do my blogging on-campus (usually in breaks while doing other things, like writing papers), but it won't be economical to come to campus more than two or three times a week. I can get internet where I'm at, but I need to set up for it, and that will take a while. I suspect that on days when I will be on campus, there will be a lot of blogging going on, though.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Decision Theory as Casuistry II

Thinking about this further, I realized that I could be more precise about what aspects of casuistry decision theory models. A very important distinction in traditional casuistry is the distinction between safe and unsafe conclusions. The distinction is not intended to be absolute, but rather a distinction between the two end-points of a continuum. On one end we have completely unsafe conclusions; on the other end we have completely safe conclusions. Other conclusions are more or less safe or unsafe. What I would suggest is that decision theory models apparent relative safety. It models safety because its concepts (risk, uncertainty, cost, gain, etc.) are those concepts used to determine whether a practical conclusion is a safe or unsafe one to accept. It models relative safety because it is essentially comparative. And it models apparent safety because it models the safety of conclusions from particular perspectives (note that this is not due to the distinction between objective and subjective expected utility, both of which are apparent in this sense, but between the real status of the question and the status of the question on the available evidence; the latter is apparent).

If this is so, two corollaries follow. (1) The aspect of casuistry that decision theory models is extremely important. (2) People who think that decision theory models rational decision are bonkers. If decision theory models apparent relative safety, it cannot be applied to decision at all except on supposition of some principle of application. Suppose you have two positions, one of which has a higher expected utility than the other. This conclusion is absolutely useless unless you have some principle that tells you what to do with it. For decision we need not merely relative safety but real safety; and that requires a principle that establishes a threshold of sufficient safety, i.e., a dividing line between conclusions that are safe enough to act on and conclusions that are not safe enough to act on. It is often assumed that the principle is: Do whatever has a higher expected utility. However, not only is this decision-theoretic rigorism psychologically impossible (e.g., as a matter of fact our grasp on probabilities, risks, gains, etc., isn't as clear and precise as this; everyone is, as a matter of fact, laxist and not rigorist about matters of indifference, etc.) it doesn't model rational decisions except in cases where the higher expected utility is known to be the only safe conclusion. This is often not so. We often make choices between alternatives both of which are safe enough for action, although not equally so; and we often are faced with situations in which we don't have that certainty, but only probabilities that a given conclusion is safe enough. Likewise, we often have cases where we would say that the difference between the higher expected utility and its rival is not enough for a rational person to niggle about. Related to this point is the fact that decision theory doesn't model the purposes according to which one applies the matrices and arguments to practical situations. Further, part of rational decision is recognizing the means for the decision, and decision theory doesn't directly model means. So decision theory lacks purposes and principles of actions, and it lacks a practical model of means to ends, and as such does not adequately model rational decision. (Traditional theory also lacks a clear way of handling issues of noncommensurable and nonquantitative values, with which casuistry also has to deal.) As I've already noted, however, it can model the apparent relative safety of possibilities, and in cases where one's purposes, principles, and means are clear, that's largely all one needs.

It's worth noting, by the way, that there is an epistemological as well as a moral casuistry; and the two are remarkably parallel. An epistemological rigorist holds the view that nothing should be accepted unless it is certain, i.e., the only conclusions that are safe enough that holding them is rational are conclusions that strictly meet a particular standard of high certainty; an epistemological laxist holds the view that anything may be regarded as safe enough for rational belief if there is any authoritatively recognized evidence for it at all; and, of course, there are positions between.

It's interesting thing to think about how this might affect interpretation of Pascal's Wager. The most probable interpretation of the Wager sees it as addressed to a type that would have been common at the time, namely, someone who makes claims that presuppose epistemological rigorism, but who is a moral libertine (a libertine is someone who is not even laxist - a laxist requires that one follow only opinions that are probably safe according to some recognized authority who has reasoned through the matter on the basis of recognized principles, whereas a libertine doesn't even expect so much of himself). As a Jansenist, Pascal is a moral rigorist, and part of the Wager is clearly to start libertines off on the road to moral rigorism -- not to make them moral rigorists, obviously, but to get libertines closer to it. Because Pascal wishes to argue that the case is one where the difference between the safer case (believing God exists) and the less safe case (disbelieving) is massive, the Wager itself does not commit one to any particular position in epistemological casuistry; it does, however, commit the user to a denial of epistemological rigorism. (The part of the Wager usually modeled by decision theory doesn't say why; however, the Wager as Pascal presents it in his fragmentary notes does, because Pascal explicitly relates his Wager reasoning to utility of believing reasoning such as is found in Augustine and Montaigne -- and such reasoning is an argument against epistemological rigorism.)

Decision Theory as Casuistry

By 'casuistry' I mean casuistry in the older technical sense (the application of general moral principles to cases) rather than in the more modern colloquial sense.

It is commonly recognized that Pascal's Wager is the first clear example of a decision-theoretic argument. Decision theory as we know it really gets started with David Bernoulli in the next century; but the rudiments are in place in Pascal's exposition, so much so that, setting aside a few ambiguities, it is very easy to put the Wager into decision-theoretic terms.* I think it is also commonly recognized by Pascal scholars that Pascal's Wager is influenced by (Pascal's interpretation of) Jesuit casuistry.** It is not exclusively Jesuit, obviously. The root source is a very old response to a very old argument.

Thomas More somewhere tells a story in which two men meet, one of whom is engaged in physical mortifications. The other man asks him, "Why are you doing that?"

The man of mortifications replies, saying, "I am mortifying my body so that it will not tempt me with sin; sin is the way to hell."

The other man laughed at him, saying, "And what a fool you are if there is no hell."

To which the man of mortifications replied, "And if there is a hell, sir, what sort of fool are you?"

Many variations of this sort of argument can be given. There is nothing intrinsically religious about the argument form; anything that gets laughed at this way (philosophy, virtuous living, etc.) is amenable to this sort of treatment. Pascal's argument is more sophisticated, in that it is not merely a retort but an analysis. But the spirit is the same.

Pascal was very critical of Jesuit casuistry (it is attacked in the biting and witty satire of the Provincial Letters). But it's also clear that Pascal incorporates elements by means of which the Jesuits had refined the above retort; he just avoids what he sees as Jesuit errors. The Jesuits in their casuistry had taken thought for how to attract the 'libertine' to moral action and love of God. While Pascal thinks that in doing so they effectively began to treat libertinism as morally acceptable, he appears to be trying to attract the same crowd to the same thing. It's not surprising, then, that the Wager involves cleaning up a type of argument used by the Jesuits.

The roots of decision theory, then, are in casuistry, in the old sense. And indeed, it can easily be seen that decision theory is simply an abstract formalization of certain aspects of casuistry; it is the application of certain kinds of general principles to cases. Like casuistry in the old sense, this is a valuable thing; like casuistry in the old sense, it can, if not watched, degenerate into casuistical argument in the modern sense. And it faces the same problems of any casuistry: it cannot translate into actual choice and policy unless we take, at least implicitly, a position on the principle of application to cases. And that's a puzzling issue that needs more study than it is usually given.

* Which is not to say that I would agree with someone who claimed that the Wager just is an implicit decision matrix; certain features of the Wager are very amenable to decision-theoretic analysis, but the Wager is actually an interaction with a certain kind of position in a certain kind of context, on certain principles that are given justifications by Pascal (and which will not show up on a decision matrix because any decision matrix will presuppose them). Further, as I've discussed elsewhere, I don't think the argument is an argument for God's existence but an argument giving an account of the practical rationality of believing there is a God even if we can't be certain of it. In this sense, it should be read with (for instance) Augustine's argument on the utility of believing (i.e., that it is unreasonable to demand that no one believe anything that is not certain); it is, as it were, a meta-argument about why arguments like Augustine's are in conformity with practical reason.

**For a useful introductory discussion, see Jon Elster's "Pascal and decision theory" in The Cambridge Companion to Pascal, Nicholas Hammond, ed. Cambridge (New York: 2003) 53-74.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Meet Nicholas Steno

Depending on whether you date according to the Julian or the Gregorian calendar, Niels Stensen was born in Copenhagen January 1 (Julian) or January 11 (Gregorian) 1638. (The Gregorian calendar only began to be used in Denmark itself after 1700.) He was a second child of the goldsmith Sten Pedersen; his mother's name was Anne.

In 1656 he matriculated under the name Nicolaus Stenonis at Copenhagen University, and it is under variants of this name that he is most widely known. While he was attending University, Denmark and Sweden became involved in a war, and King Karl X Gustav of Sweden invaded. Because of winter ice in 1658, Karl Gustav was able to cross over to Zealand, the island on which Copenhagen was located. King Frederik III of Denmark had to cede territory to stop the advance. Karl Gustav invaded again in 1659 in an attempt to take all of Denmark; Copenhagen repelled the main attack, but remained under a landside siege until 1660. We know that Steno spent some time in a student company manning the ramparts, but not much more; most of what has survived of Steno's life is found in a text called the Chaos-manuscript (discovered in 1946 in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence, Italy, by Father Gustav Scherz): 92 folio pages of closely written observations, experiments, reflections, & excerpts.

In 1659 Steno seems to have sailed to Amsterdam, perhaps with an extended stop in Rostock, where he attended lectures by Gerard Blaes (Blasius), the City Physician. He was given leave at the time to do his own dissections, and entered the first major controversy of his life. During dissection of a sheep's head, he discovered the parotid excretory duct, and showed it to Blaes, who was inclined to dismiss it as either an artifact of dissection or a freak of nature. While it had been discovered before, this was not known at the time. Several days later he found the parotid excretory duct in a dog's head, and showed it to Blaes. After defending his thesis (on hot springs), he left Amsterdam for Leiden. At the University of Leiden, he showed his discovery to to several professors, one of whom (Van Horne) began demonstrating it in his anatomical lectures as the ductus Stenonianus (Stensen's duct, which is its name still). At about the same time, however, Blasius was demonstrating in his lectures - as his own discovery - and by 1631 had published the discovery. Niels found himself attacked as a plagiarizer by Blaes and his supporters. The dispute, quite fierce, lasted for some time, and did not entirely die out until it became more generally known just how brilliant an anatomist Steno actually was. Spurred on by the dispute, Steno plunged into his investigation of glands and ducts, and discovered (among many others) the lateral nasal gland, which is still called Steno's gland. Steno published his work, which was very well received. At this point he wanted to give anatomy a rest, but for various reasons soon returned to it. One of those reasons was the posthumous publication in 1662 of Descartes's Treatise on Man. Niels began to study the major subjects of that work: the heart, the muscles, and the brain. In 1662 he discovered sino-atrial and atrio-ventricular dissociation. He proved that the heart was entirely a muscle (which has been affirmed, without explanation, by Harvey, but was not the common view at that time); he also discovered, pace Harvey, that the muscle was arranged spirally rather than circularly.

While in Leiden he made a number of acquaintances, including Swammerdam, de Graat, and Spinoza, but he didn't stay long; in early 1664, he returned to Copenhagen. There he published De musculis et glandulis observationum specimen, one of the most important works in the history of cardiology, which contemporaries said had turned medicine upside down. At this time he was 26.

In autumn of 1664, Steno left Copenhagen for Paris, and at some point in winter of 1665 he delivered a lecture on the brain (published in 1669 as Discours sur l'anatomie du cerveau). In the lecture he criticized Descartes's view of the brain, and, in particular, the appeal to animal spirits. After traveling in the south of France, Stensen arrived in Tuscany. In 1667 he published his major work on muscles, the Elementorum myologiae specimen, one of the distinctive features of which is that in it Steno develops a theory of muscle contractions that did not appeal to animal spirits. This theory was attacked again and again, so that it was no longer held by anyone by the end of the 18th century. Work on the subject since 1980 has shown that he was essentially right, and, on this point at aleast, myology has now caught up to where Steno was at age 29 in 1669.

The Elementorum myologiae specimen is also significant in that appended to it were two works describing shark dissections. One of these works, called the Canis carchariae dissectum caput, noted the resemblance between shark's teeth and certain fossils; Steno agreed with those who had suggested that the latter were somehow versions of the former, and began to develop an argument that this was possible. The second treatise, the Historia dissecti piscis ex canum genere, showed that the 'testes mulierum' of the non-oviparous dogfish were sufficiently ovary-like to be considered ovaries. This is commonplace now, but at the time it was unclear whether the females of many species had ovaries. After the publication of this work, Steno continued his study of female reproductive organs, and is credited with being the first discoverer of the mammalian ovarian follicle.

In November 1667, Steno became Catholic. He was confirmed December 8, and on the same day he received a letter from Frederik III ordering him to return to Copenhagen; he replied with a letter asking if the order still stood given that he was no longer Lutheran. In the meantime, he began studying geological formations, publishing a preliminary report on them in 1661: the De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus. In it he gives the first systematic classification by common origin for solids within solids, and in so doing laid down the principles of reconstruction of geological history. The Prodromus is the founding text of paleontology and dynamic geology; it is, with the work of Erasmus Bartholin on Iceland spar, one of the founding works of crystallography.

From late 1668 to early 1670, Steno traveled through Europe confirming his geological theories and giving anatomical demonstrations. At one such demonstration (at Innsbruck in June) he dissected the head of a hydrocephalic calf, showing that the deformity was caused by a disease, and thus providing a strong argument against the view that it was caused by maternal fantasies, a view that was still being used in the early nineteenth century. When he returned to Florence in 1670, he was made court geologist by the Grand Duke, Cosimo III. Steno became more involved in theological discussions, and on the publication of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1670, he wrote a letter to his old acquaintance urging him to become Catholic.

In April 1675 he was ordained a priest in Florence and became tutor and moral preceptor to the Crown Prince. In 1677 he was appointed by Innocent IX apostolic vicar of the northern missions and was consecrated the titular bishop of Titiopolis. Steno went to Hanover at the invitationof Duke Johann Friedrich of Brunswick-Lüneburg. When Johann Friedrich died, Steno became auxiliary bishop to Prince Bishop Ferdinand von Fürstenberg of Münster. Catholicism there seems to have been rather lax; Steno spent much of his time there advocating pastoral reform against strong opposition, and eventually left in protest. He began to live an ascetic life of poverty at Hamburg, during which he began, but never completed, an essay reviewing confirmed knowledge of the nervous system.

Steno died November 25 (Julian, 5 December Gregorian). He was 48. His last words are said to have been Jesus sis mihi Jesus et misericordiam tuam, Domine, in aeternum cantabo. Cosimo III had Steno's body brough back to Florence, where it can be found in the Church of San Lorenzo. on 23 October 1988, John Paul II beatified him. His feast, officially celebrated in certain areas of Europe, is celebrated (as they often are) on his the day of his death, December 5.

It's difficult to find good works on Steno in English. Here are two recommendations.

Troels Kardel. Steno: Life - Science - Philosophy. Acta Historica Scientarum Naturalium et Medicinalium, vol 42. Munksgaard (Copenhagen) 1994.

Hans Kermit. Niels Stensen: The Scientist who was Beatified. Michael Drake, tr. Gracewing (Leominster, Herefordshire) 2003. (This is good as a purely introductory work.)

Cross-posted to Houyhnhnm Land.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Katrina's Devastations and Emergency Morality

New Orleans is not just in bad shape; it's devastated. Harrison, Mississippi was the worst-hit, though (55 or more dead). [UPDATE: Or so it was when this was written; Harrison County now has deaths in excess of 100. With deaths from flooding and the like NOLA has certainly surpassed this; how much more is unclear, since currently there is more of a focus, and rightly so, on finding living people than counting dead ones.]

Wikipedia is being updated quite well, and is another place to get updates.

Here's a list of charitable organizations for those wanting to assist victims of Katrina. (HT: Rebecca Writes)

On looting in New Orleans: I notice that some people are justifying their actions in terms of survival (e.g., feeding their family). If (a) they are truly in desperate need; (b) they take only what they need; (c) do not act violently; then morally they are right. It's common use; whatever it may be called legally, it is morally not theft. The idea behind common use is that while ownership may be private, thus giving the owner powers of stewardship to adjudicate conflicts and make decisions about how the property is to be used, the use itself is common. Human beings hold all things in common, not by ownership, but by use consistent with common good (the good each person has by virtue of living in society with other persons). Under ordinary circumstances, one must defer to the stewardship powers of the owner, in order to preserve the order of society and use the property in a way consistent with common good; but these stewardship powers do not remove common use, but merely involve what is required to maintain common use in an orderly way in ordinary circumstances. (The same principle is what makes it legitimate for authorized agents of government to commandeer property when genuine need arises; early reports of 'martial law' were actually distorted reports of state-of-emergency powers to commandeer property and compel evacuations at need. Similarly, people in desperate need who are, in fact, merely commandeering necessities, are acting with complete moral authority. Of course, people who commandeer in need should be aware that legally they may still be held accountable later for any injury to others, including the people from whom they are taking, and their moral responsibility is to accept that, assuming that the means of holding them accountable is just.) Of course, most looters don't meet all of the above criteria; they are violent, or take things they do not desperately need.

UPDATE: Well, what do you know; Wal-Mart seems to get the principle, at least for this sort of situation. And, it seems, ol' WMT has a rather impressive emergency relief system, and has apparently done this before.

Two More Poem Drafts

The second is loosely based on a scene in Helen Waddell's Peter Abelard.

Night Whispers

I like city lights
they show God's grace
the glow of humanity
on the earth's face

they have a flaw
they obscure the sky
and all the stars
that in it fly

I like the stardome
sublimely lit
my heart leaps up
at the sight of it

but darkness comes with it
and while it endures
the walking stranger
is not secure

so has it been
since our race began
with light we fight
the darkness of man

but the light obscures
the starry grace
the sublime-bright hope
of the human race

Scream of the Rabbit

Child-like it screamed; he ran,
past leafy bushes and trees he ran.
Three times it shrieked and a fourth,
heart-rending, chilling, desperate-making,
its terror tearing soul-strings.
Blooded it lay caught; evil teeth,
iron teeth, spring-powered fangs,
ripped flesh and tore tendon,
drawing life out onto soft fur.
He opened the jaws; a thankful head
nuzzled his hand for the kindness
and died, the life flowing out,
the eye losing light. He wept.
Vision swept around him, grief-bidden,
laying bare every human soul,
caught in a trap, iron teeth biting,
heartache like screams of rabbits dying,
life flowing out, death coming on,
briefly nuzzling kind hands that help
before death comes. He wept,
calling the world its true name;
its true name is Golgotha.

Historical Method

Marc at "Spinning Clio" has a nice series on Historical Method.

North and South

The recent comments discussion in Lydia McGrew's post at "Right Reason" is a good example of how Americans are still living with the legacy of the Civil War. People's passions run very high on the subject. I'm not an expert on these matters, but I thought I'd put down my thoughts:

(1) I confess I can understand the position of those who want to deny that the War Between States was over slavery. I'm a Southerner myself; it's hard having one's cultural heritage constantly reduced to one thing, and that among the worst things our civil discourse can name. But slavery clearly was an issue for the South's secession; there's nothing to do but cowboy up and move on from there. The States themselves said it. Mississippi and Texas (shame to say) were most forthright:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. (Mississippi)

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States. (Texas)

(2) Was secession legal? Like Lincoln, I hold that the Constitution is what it was put forward to be, a revision of, and not a mere replacement for, the Articles of Confederation. And the Articles of Confederation clearly state that "the Union shall be perpetual." Not only is this not eliminated by anything in the Constitution, it seems implicitly supposed in the Preamble (nor will it suffice to say that the Preamble establishes no law; it establishes the purpose of the document, and those who advocated secession also appealed to it in their arguments for secession). On this view there is room to think, if you think the evidence warrants the conclusion, that Lincoln erred in invading so soon after secession, rather than trying negotiation; after all, the Articles clearly state that there shall be a league of friendship among the States. But whether Lincoln was justified in forwarding the War as he did is an entirely different issue from whether the States were justified in what they did.

(3) Was the secession really about states' rights? Of course; but anyone can see, particularly given a look at the various Declarations of the Causes of Secession, that this does not exclude its being about slavery. It's unfortunate that such an important issue as states' rights became so closely connected to such an odious issue as slavery. But the South has itself to blame for that; now everyone has to deal with it.

There is so much misinformation on this issue; people spread inaccurate information (e.g., they are constantly talking as if the Confederate Battle Flag were the Confederate Flag), and people are continually making things up in a 'high priori' way. Regardless of the details, let everyone take the right lesson to heart: that there can be no compromise on the principle that everyone was created equal and endowed with inalienable rights.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Kibble and Bits

* Dennett's op-ed on ID is worth reading. Dennett always seems to me to be very uneven, and I think he is here, too (I think he starts off very weak, but he gets better near the end); but there are some very good points, and I agree with those who say that he's done a good job of distilling the issue to the basics. One problem with this debate is that the critics of ID keep haring off after second issues; and if there's one thing that's needed, it's a bit of zeroing in. (HT: Mixing Memory)

* I've been doing some slight defending of the Battle Hymn of the Republic at Right Reason. I think the basic question asked by the post is at least reasonable; I just don't like my favorite hymn being dragged down into a political discussion.

* Speaking of hymns, at my suggestion, Rebecca posted The Old Rugged Cross for her Sunday hymn series.

* Also in my out-and-aboutness, the discussion with Clark on infinite regress has spilled over into a new post.

* It looks like New Orleans was spared. Of course, as the damage reports come in, 'spared' is not the word that will come to mind. It could have been much worse, but it will still be bad for many people. Dr. Jeff Masters' Wunder Blog is a good place for informed updates. It looks like we in Toronto will just catch it as it goes post-tropical. The Canadian Hurricane Centre is providing updates on how this is expected to affect Southern Ontario and Southern Quebec (given how far we are from Katrina's landing point, we're likely to get nothing but wind and rain, with chance of flooding, but storms have been known to pick up more strength than expected over the Great Lakes, so it's worth keeping tabs on it). So far it looks like the petroleum system is holding, stretched though it be, but the damage isn't fully assessed yet; if things break down too much in Louisiana things could get hard for everyone over the next few months. The Oil Drum discusses the issue.

* "The Rhine River" has some speculation about what deity the Cylons worship. The issue is complicated by the fact that so much of our knowledge of Cylon belief is mediated through Six, who may have peculiarities in religious belief which other models tolerate but disapprovingly (as they seem to do with Six's libido -- one curious feature of the humaniform Cylons is that they don't seem to agree about much except their basic plan). Certainly Boomer seems much less devout (but that may be because she is like the Colonists to an unusual degree). Also, the Six in Baltar's head seems to be out on her own in some way, and her agenda is certainly at least partly religious. It's further complicated, as Nathanael notes, by the fact that the Colonists are tricky to pin down as well -- except the Colonists from Gemenon, who are literalists, the 'Globalized Mormonism' (as it has been called) of the Colonists is usually nominal, and is generally considered a private matter, anyway. The Cylons actually remind me a bit of QT-1 in Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" -- Cutie, you will recall, started as a Cartesian and then began to consider himself the Prophet of the Master, as he called it, which was the space station on which he was serving. Rationalism tends monotheistic, elitist, and intolerant of anything it regards as superstition, so I think the post is probably on the right track.

UPDATE: A short summary of an article on the likelihood of a scientific paper's being wrong (very high, the author suggests). PLoS Medicine has a good editorial on the subject. (HT: MM Sidebar)

Hume and Causal Perception

Chris points to this very cool discussion (PDF) of the development of causal perception in infants. My one quibble is that direct launching isn't so obviously prototypical; the tendency to think it so developed only in the past three hundred years. Prior to that, the prototypical case of physical causation was the steady (constant) push. That's why almost all serious discussions of causation prior to the 18th century assume that the primary form of causation is simultaneous causation (i.e., cause causing and effect happening are simultaneous -- indeed, are the same thing considered under different aspects). The tendency to assume that the primary form of causation is successive (i.e., cause causes then the effect happens) is something newer. Its origin is tricky to pin down, but might be roughly summarized as mechanism, occasionalism, and Hume, or even put into an even rougher and more summarized form as the billiard ball universe; this swept over the scene of thought, and attempts to restore some form of the simultaneous-dominant view (e.g., Lady Mary Shepherd's) were simply ignored. (As Shepherd argues at length, there are, in fact, good philosophical reasons for having a simultaneous-dominant rather than a successive-dominant view; for one thing, it more easily avoids skeptical paradoxes.) In fairness, the authors at a later point trace the sort of causation they are discussing to Hume. As I said, this is something of a quibble; direct launching, I suspect, is a much more fruitful field for experiment on causal perception than steady pushing is. As a sidenote, Hume's billiard ball example, which is mentioned in the chapter, actually comes from Malebranche. They both agree that the example shows that we have no objectively-grounded idea of causation between the two balls. Malebranche concludes that there must be some other cause at work; Hume concludes that our idea of causation must be subjectively-grounded (namely, in the irresistibility of inference created in us by constant conjunction). The entire section of Enquiry Section VII, in fact, is an interaction with Malebranche: Hume lifts several arguments without significant change from Malebranche's attack on scholastic theories of causation (he adds several of his own, however).

The Splendid Century

We know both too much and too little about Louis XIV ever to succeed in capturing the whole man. In externals, in the mere business of eating, drinking, and dressing, in the outward routine of what he loved to call the métier du roi, no historical character, not even Johnson or Pepys, is better known to us; we can even, with the aid of his own writings, penetrate a little of the majestic façade which is Le Grand Roi. But when we have done so, we see as in a glass darkly. Hence the extraordinary number and variety of judgments which have been passed upon him; to one school, he is incomparably the ablest ruler in modern European history; to another, a mediocre blunderer, pompous, led by the nose by a succession of generals and civil servants; whilst to a third, he is no great king, but still the finest actor of royalty the world has ever seen. Courtesy, reticence, and an almost inhuman tranquillity of demeanour, are the qualities in Louis which strike us at the first glance: the latter so constant that when on a certain day he speaks roughly to his coachman, "usually a prime favorite," his entourage correctly deduces from this fact that a serious crisis has arisen. We never catch him off his guard or surprise his secrets: whether we meet the taciturn, faintly bored Louis of the private apartments, or the Sun-King whose "terrifying majesty" made so deep an impression on so many observers.

Thus begins The Splendid Century, first published in 1957, on some aspects of French life in the reign of Louis XIV. When it came out, it received excellent reviews from historians as a well-researched non-specialist introduction to the era. I can't speak for all of it, naturally, but the chapter on the Church holds up very well -- it does a good job showing just how messed up the Catholic Church in France was in the 17th century, given the disputes raging at the time (over Jansenism, Gallicanism, and Quietism). The book is by Warren Hamilton Lewis, who is usually overshadowed by his younger brother.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

News and Notes

Hurricane Katrina

National Weather Service Urgent Message for New Orleans

"Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog" at Weather Underground gives the reasons why this is very serious indeed.

StormTrack is a useful weblog for finding updates.

For those interested in the raw data, the National Data Buoy Center has information from its measuring devices in the area.

Pray for the safety of those in the danger zone. (Harrison has family not far from New Orleans who can't evacuate for medical reasons. Pray for them as well.)

Everyone will be affected in some way. Mpgdigest notes the rather serious damage Katrina is inflicting - and will continue to inflict - on U.S. petroleum supply (see also The Oil Drum). The BellSouth Newsroom keeps track of damage and repair to the telephone network. Environment Canada has a useful page, regularly updated, on the probable path Katrina will follow over land. The U.S. National Hurricane Center is a good place to go for further information.

March on Washington

Ralph Luker at Cliopatria notes that today was the 42nd anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
You can read and hear it here.

Philosophers' Carnival XVIII

The Eighteenth Philosophers' Carnival is up at "Language Games and Miscellaneous Arbitrary Marks". I submitted my post on burdens of proof.