Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Weblog Cullings

Which are fortunately less scary than Wraith cullings....

* A Lutheran Reads Wesley at "verbum ipsum"

* Rob MacDougall discusses the Louisiana flood of 1927 at "Cliopatria"...

* ...while at the same weblog Greg James Robinson has two posts on Japanese American internment in WWII.

You are Athanasius! You are willing to fight a
losing battle, just to make sure that the truth
is told. But don't get discouraged; sometimes
it takes more than one lifetime for truth to

Which Saint Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla (HT: Dappled Things)

* Hal Paxton suggests that we make September 9 a day of prayer for the victims of Katrina. (HT: Rebecca Writes)

Arrival Day

See The Head Heeb for information on the Arrival Day blogburst. (HT: EMN)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


The newest Carnivalesque is up at (a)musings of a grad student. (And according to Sharon, it's the one-year anniversary. Happy Birthday, Carnivalesque!)


I'm currently typing this in an internet cafe, with lots of video games going on around me. Something you will only hear in an internet cafe:

"Quick, how do I kill myself again?"

Three Different Poems

I once wrote three different poems. Here they are.


Icy shards burn like myriad cold fires,
small and bitter and pricking,
biting like fragments of blade, icy steel,
forged in the smithies of winter.
The crystals catch the light,
cold stars captured in glassy prisons,
burning with light and chill breezes,
the Arctic in my hand, stinging it by nature,
wounding me in war (winter is the soldier)
and drawing blood with bright, chill light.

As can be seen, the poem is intended to evoke a mental picture of ice by appealing to the most salient senses (sight and especially touch).


Icy shards burn like myriad cold fires,
small and bitter and pricking,
biting like fragments of blade, icy steel,
forged in the smithies of winter.
The crystals catch the light,
cold stars captured in glassy prisons,
burning with light and chill breezes,
the Arctic in my hand, stinging it by nature,
wounding me in war (winter is the soldier)
and drawing blood with bright, chill light.

This poem, of course, is very different; it attempts to give a characterization of grief through an objective correlate, namely ice, and seeks to identify several aspects in which ice is (as it were) grief-like. A much more metaphorical poem.


Icy shards burn like myriad cold fires,
small and bitter and pricking,
biting like fragments of blade, icy steel,
forged in the smithies of winter.
The crystals catch the light,
cold stars captured in glassy prisons,
burning with light and chill breezes,
the Arctic in my hand, stinging it by nature,
wounding me in war (winter is the soldier)
and drawing blood with bright, chill light.

The difference in this poem is obvious; it makes use of several standard images of logic (ice, as in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen"; notice also the war images, which are almost trite and cliched in their application to reason and logic).

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.