Saturday, October 29, 2005

Err, No...And No...And No....

Mark Goldblatt's sad, sad attempt at Philosophy Now to say something well-founded about Aquinas must be judged a blatant failure.

First, his argument about the eternity of the world doesn't work, and obviously doesn't; for the eternity of the world is precisely the denial that the world can be 'x units old'; time is a measurement from a reference-point, and Goldblatt is illegitimately taking the beginning of the world as a reference-point (since a thing is 'x units old' as measured from its beginning). Bonaventure was much cleverer, since he argues from the nature of the infinite itself, and argues that it has properties that the world's duration cannot support.

Second, he asks, "if creation means the onset of being, and if the Cause of the world must precede its effect, it would seem that God’s Being must precede the creation of being itself. But if being of any kind precedes the creation of being, in what sense is creation ex nihilo?" and claims that Aquinas sidesteps the question, despite the fact that Aquinas explicitly responds to this sort of concern (e.g., here).

Third, he asks, "if the creation of being is the creation not only of actual but also of potential being, in what sense is God’s pre-creation Being being?" despite the fact that any half-trained monkey can see that Goldblatt is equivocating. Aquinas holds that creation is causation of being, yes; Goldblatt absurdly takes this as meaning that creation causes all being, rather than in the sense that what creation causes in creatures is their being (the whole substance of the thing, as he puts it). So, in other words, the 'being' Aquinas is talking about is the being of the effects; and this is clear from Aquinas's first article on the subject, which restricts the scope of 'all beings' in 'God creates all beings' to 'all things which are diversified by diverse participation of being', i.e., all things that do not exist by nature.

Fourth, he says, "if the beginning of the world can be deduced by ruling out the possibility of an actual infinitude, cannot the beginning of God likewise be deduced?" apparently forgetting that it is he, not Aquinas, who says that the beginning of the world can be deduced by ruling out 'the possiblity of an actual infinitude'. Aquinas, in fact, does rule out the possibility of an actually infinite multitude and the possibility of an actually infinite magnitude. The latter is not relevant to the question; the former is only relevant if the eternity of the world yields an actually infinite multitude. Aquinas's point is that this is precisely what proponents of the doctrine will deny, and it is easy to do so on the Aristotelian position. (This, incidentally, is why one finds in Bonaventure and others the apparently odd argument about infinite souls -- objection 8 in Aquinas's discussion: it is an attempt to force the conclusion that an infinite past yields an infinite multitude. But, as Aquinas notes, it can be evaded.)

Fifth, Goldblatt needs to reread Stump and Kretzmann's article on eternity, since he seems to have missed the fact that Stump and Kretzmann identify several distinct senses of the term 'simultaneity' -- despite the fact that it's the primary point of the article. Goldblatt shows no recognition of the distinctions, and fails to realize that the relativity example is put forward to point out that even with temporal simultaneity we can't be naive.

Sixth, Goldblatt mistakenly assumes that Aquinas's theory of causation requires that the cause temporally precede its effect.

Seventh, Goldblatt argues that "If the world came into being in the beginning, however, the cause of its coming into being either: 1) requires a cause of its own; or 2) spans an infinite duration." But there is a third possibility, namely that there is an uncaused cause that doesn't 'span' a duration. It is clear that what Goldblatt means by 'spanning an infinite duration' is that it be measured by infinite temporal units according to before and after. But this is not Aquinas's view of divine eternity, and Goldblatt's own real argument against Aquinas is extremely lousy, as noted above.

Eighth, Aquinas doesn't absent God from the domain of being; he explicitly says that He Who Is is the most proper name of God and says that God is the "first being, who possesses being most perfectly".

Steve Fuller

In the interest of promoting fairness, particularly when it comes to important finer distintions:

Steve Fuller, a sociologist from the University of Warwick and an important proponent of social epistemology, was blasted a bit on the ACLU weblog for his testimony in the Dover school board case (another ID case). He pointed out on HOPOS-L that the account given is selective. His testimony was a day-long thing, but he summarized the gist of in a letter to The Register. Fuller makes what I take to be the entirely accurate point that the ID movement is history-weak; and that it is a mistake to conflate the concepts proposed by the ID movement with all design considerations whatsoever. I'm also happy to see his mentioning of Babbage; an under-valued thinker who deserves more recognition. Had he mentioned Whewell as well, I'd have been ecstatic. The distinction between heuristics and validation is an important one that too often gets shoved aside in this sort of debate.

[UPDATE: Transcripts of Fuller's testimony are available online in PDF format. HT: Butterflies and Wheels. Unfortunately Ophelia Benson's comments on Fuller in her Notes and Comments border on obscurantism. STS uses sociological, historical, and economic methods; STS is a meta-level discipline; it studies not physics but physicists and physics-related institutions, and it is merely irrational to pretend that the two subjects are identical, or that understanding the economics of physics research requires a deep understanding of particle physics. At some point the two have to be tied together and compared, and it is perhaps the case that STSers jump to conclusions in this regard. But it is certainly the case that there are sociological, historical, and economic facts about the way scientific research proceeds; if Benson denies this (a position to which she is effectively committing herself) then it is she, not the STSers, who is guilty of appeals to magic. Contrary to what Benson seems to think, smearing of the entire discipline of sociology of science is not a defense of rationality.]

Since it's nice to see a little more sophistication brought into the discussion, I thought I'd point it out. I disagree with quite a few of Fuller's views, but he often says interesting things. His paper on theory of presumption, for instance, is notable, and his Beatty Memorial Lecture, "The Re-Enchantment of Science," is worth reading for anyone interested in the Science Wars. Also, Fuller does a lot of work on how science can be made more relevant, useful, and interesting to ordinary non-scientists, and how the scientist-nonscientist interaction can be improved, which is a type of work that is rarely done, despite being one of the most important things we need to do.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Notable Links

* An interesting article on neuroscience and free will at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

* Clark discusses Peirce on the Trinity at Mormon Metaphysics.

* Due to busy-ness, I haven't yet posted anything related to the death of Rosa Parks. Michelle Arnold at was struck by the Marian qualities of Parks; Chippla, I think, sums up a lot of what she meant to people (HT: Booker Rising); has a lot of great links, both weblog and otherwise; so does La Shawn Barber; there's a discussion at Parableman over the extent to which Christians can follow her example. I think one of the powerful things about Rosa Parks was that she was a hero people could relate to. In one sense, she didn't do much, in that what she did is something that is clearly attainable by everyone; but in that 'not much' (which itself took an immense amount of courage, as such things often do) she summed up the way the fight for justice and vindication can play a part in anyone's life. Plus, she asked what really is the Powerful Question in these matters: "Why do you push us around?"

* Rebecca has an intriguing post on the image of God.

* Scott Gilbreath points to an article on the Lutheran doctrine of private confession.

* The History Carnival will be hosted on November 1 at (a)musings of a grad student. If you have anything you think might fit, or if you've come across some good history-related writing in the blogosphere, now's the time to send it in.

* Mark Goldblatt makes a sincere attempt to get right on Aquinas's doctrine of eternity, but mangles it badly. Expect a post on this.

* NaNoWriMo is coming to the blogosphere again (e.g., We are still here). I'm considering blogging a raw first draft of a novel directly on to this weblog. If I do, I already know the title, the subject, and the genre: it will be called Balaam's Ass, and will be a science fiction story about what scientific progress really means.


There is a straightforward reason why anyone interested in social progress should insist that the justice system be basically retributive in nature: the retributive theory of punishment is the only theory of punishment that intrinsically depends on such concepts as justice, guilt, and innocence.

There are, of course, ways to improve a retributive system, but all involve keeping a basic retributive core. For instance, one can moderate a strict retributive system with consequentialist concerns; one can adapt the particular modes of punishment so that they are most fit to deter others from the crime; one can add to the system a concern for rehabilitation and reparation; and so forth. If these other elements (social consequences, deterrence, rehabilitation, reparation, etc.) are taken as rivals to retribution, however, then the only theory that keeps the state within sharp bounds is the retributive. Because retribution theory is intrinsically justice-oriented, it sharply limits what a state can do: the state's powers of punishment are to be applied to people who are guilty of crimes, end of story. One can have more or less strict versions of this, but they all impose the same basic justice-based limitation. The rivals, however, unless they are themselves limited by retributive principles, provide no barrier to punishing those innocent of any crime (because of the good social consequences, or the deterrent effects, or an expansive notion of rehabilitation and reparation).

This is only the sketch of an argument, but I think it can be developed more rigorously so as to meet the objections of partisans of other theories. The problems with a purely rehabilitative system, for instance, have been discussed at length by G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, along lines at least roughly similar to the one I have suggested. Nothing says a justice system has to be confined to retribution; but it certainly needs to be retributive at heart.

Flash and Beneficence

The discussion of Bostrom's fable, to which I gave a previous response is still continuing. Macht at "prosthesis" has given his thoughts, and the discussion at Philosophy, etc. is still going on. (Richard has added a link to this useful summary of what sort of thing would be involved in the anti-aging project that Bostrom is suggesting.) I thought I would put a recent comment of mine at Richard's into a post here. Richard had said:

I think the first step is to agree that anti-aging research would be a very significant (and possibly the best) way to be beneficent. It would do a lot of good, and be one of the best things that we could do. I think Bostrom is pretty successful in establishing this.

The second step, which Bostrom simply takes for granted, is the utilitarian idea that there is a "screaming moral imperative" to do a lot of good if we are able. I guess non-consequentialists won't be convinced by this.

I take it you're objecting to the second step, rather than the first?

To which I responded as follows:

Actually, I am inclined to object to the first as well. It's certainly true that anti-aging research could be one form of beneficence, and that the hoped-for result, if obtainable, would be good. But I don't think Bostrom does a very good job at all in showing that it would be one of the best things that we could do. First, because the way in which it would be a good thing is actually fairly common -- if we don't allow that aging, as such, is an evil (i.e., an evil in itself, independently of the question of how healthily we age), eliminating aging would actually be a fairly ordinary sort of medical hope, with lots and lots of competitors even on the purely medical side (curing cancer, eliminating the danger of flu viruses, wiping out malaria, improving the world blood supply and distribution, etc., etc.). When we add non-medical factors, as we would have to do if we were to compare it to things like eliminating war or improving global education or putting an end to world hunger, it starts to look very ordinary indeed. And, further, when we are considering how beneficent something is, Mike B. [one of the commenters] is quite right (and Bostrom quite wrong) that we can't just ignore potential negative consequences; purely for comparative purposes we need to know how extensive and how likely they are, because that affects how much good the action actually involves.

I think the only reason it sounds like it would be one of the best things we could do is that it would be a very big and showy thing to do, that would require a lot of changes to society. But we really shouldn't let this influence our evaluations. I confess, too, that I'm inclined to think the very vastness of the proposal suspicious; it's exactly the sort of flashy project First-Worlders propose and play up in order to make themselves feel good despite the fact that they are ignoring other problems that are more immediately serious, more fixable, or more someone-else's-concern. Sure, it would be good, but it also sounds suspiciously like a project of the "Ooh, we can't take the trouble to send a few mosquito nets to Africa to save lives, but that's OK because we're going to put a man on Mars" type.

Plus, I'm not really convinced that most people who are enthusiastic about it are really enthusiastic about it because they can eliminated age-related deaths in (say) Botswana rather than in their own immediate circle. I agree for some people it really would be a work of beneficence; I suspect that for most people, however, it's just a selfish fantasy distracting from the serious works of beneficence.

Anne Rice Out of Egypt

As you probably know, there's some buzz about the work by Anne Rice coming out November 1. Called Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, it is a novel about the boy Jesus. It's a potentially touchy subject, so it's not surprising that some people are very cautious, but it looks promising to me. The subject is also a very difficult one for a novel; it's certainly the case that very, very few novels about Biblical subjects ever attain to the quality of Ben Hur or The Robe. Since she's narrating it from the perspective of the 7-year-old Son of God, Rice hasn't made it any easier on herself. But she might just have the writing skills to pull it off; her background in the Gothic is actually an excellent preparation for this sort of project. MSNBC has an article on her decision to write this work. Apparently, the book is the first in a series, and a new start to Rice's writing career:

Rice already has much of the next volume written. ("Of course I've been advised not to talk about it.") But what's she going to do with herself once her hero ascends to Heaven? "If I really complete the life of Christ the way I want to do it," she says, "then I might go on and write a new type of fiction. It won't be like the other. It'll be in a world that includes redemption."

It will probably be a while before I get to it, but when I read it, you can be sure I'll say something about it here.

la philosophie du serpent

The Maverick Philosopher is writing some posts on idolatry and superstition as philosophical problems. I have a particular interest in idolatry as a philosophical mistake, because some of Malebranche's most influential arguments are developed in the midst of a fascinating philosophical analysis and critique of idolatry. Part of my thesis is on the subject, so I've adapted some of the argument of it for a post on the subject.

As part of Malebranche's moral theory, he argues that it is morally necessary for God to give all creatures an impulse toward the universal good (which in Malebranche's view is God Himself).In our case, this orientation to universal good is the natural impulse of our will to happiness, which we can only find in God. Every human person, therefore, is in a constant state of search for the sort of satisfaction it can have in perfect love and knowledge of God. In this state of search, the will directs the mind’s attention this way and that. We attend to objects that seem to give us something of this satisfaction. Something like this would also have been true in Adam’s original state. We move from finite good to finite good because our minds are not infinite, and therefore cannot comprehend the whole of infinite good at once. This would also have been true of Adam; although perfect, he was as finite as we are. While no finite mind can completely comprehend infinite good as such, the mind can in principle regard each finite good in light of the infinite good from which it derives, i.e., it can consider each finite good as necessarily implying and presupposing the more fundamental universal good. For Adam, presumably, this would have been a regular occurrence: he would recognize each good to which he attended as something due to God and every pleasure he received from good objects as something caused by God. Going beyond finite good to infinite good, however, requires more than the original impulse; enjoyment of the finite good must be suspended until we have seen this limited good in light of the infinite good from which it derives (cf. LO 548; OC 3:19). This is where we go wrong; when enjoying a finite good, we stop at it and enjoy it alone rather than waiting to place it in the context of infinite good. In other words, we sin, the nature of sin being a failure to take the next step and see the creature in light of its Creator: "All we do is stop and rest" and by so doing we "frustrate the impulse God impresses in us" (LO 551; OC 3:25).

This failure to follow through on our impulse to love God as the universal good has important philosophical ramifications. In practice this disorder is an excessive concern with bodies, a concern so strong that it is dependence. It is false love: we treat bodies, rather than God, as our true good of the mind, which makes us exalt our union with bodies over our union with Order, in the process running afoul, of course, of principles of Order (principles like "bodies are not worthy of love" and "all the love that God places in us must end in Him"). Since this motion of love toward good is the will, and since the will governs attention, we are driven to attend more to sensible matters than their ethical importance and value for inquiry would merit. While the senses are not corrupt in themselves, then, our excessive dependence on them is an essential feature of the corruption of our cognitive capacities. Because it affects the way we interact with sensible goods, the disorder of original sin has serious epistemic consequences. In particular, "the mind constantly spreads itself externally; it forgets itself and Him who enlightens and penetrates it, and it lets itself be so seduced by its body and by those surrounding it that it imagines finding in them its perfection and happiness" (LO 657; OC 3:203). Our primary union is with sovereign Reason, but, distracted by our union with sensible things, we treat this latter union as if it were more important; and because "we cannot increase our union with sensible things without diminishing our union with intelligible truths" (LO 415; OC 2:257), we ignore our union with universal Reason to the extent we devote our attention to sensible things. The reason, Malebranche thinks, is that we enjoy making judgments, and therefore try to have this pleasure without first consulting Reason (cf. LO 649; OC 3:189).

This is where idolatry enters into the picture. Malebranche’s chief complaint against the senses, or, at least, the role they currently have in our cognitive lives, is ethical in inspiration: our sensory union with the body misleads us into loving lesser goods over the universal good, God, and thus makes us dependent on something to which we should be superior. This brings with it a sort of self-deception; as he notes, it is not our union with God that deceives us, nor even the union with the body itself, but our dependence on the body (LO 649; OC 3:189). We are, one might say, addicts. Much as the drug addict finds his thought, his desires, even his ability to act on his most cherished convictions, distorted by a desire for this or that chemical, so we find our thoughts, desires, and ability to act distorted by our desire for sensory pleasure in general. The difference between the two, in fact, seems merely to be one of degree. Human beings in this state of dependence on the body find themselves drawn by that dependence into idolatrous states of mind.

This idolatrous tendency is the key issue in Malebranche’s account of causation; it is why he is so insistent on occasionalism. For him, occasionalism is not merely a philosophical position. It is morally necessary. Without it, we become (at least implicitly) pagans.

Suppose we assume that bodies are true causes. What does this import into our way of looking at the world? Granting genuine power to bodies is, Malebranche claims, a way of granting them some sort of divinity: "If we next consider attentively our idea of cause or of power to act, we cannot doubt that this idea represents something divine" (LO 446; OC 2:309). Causal power, is power over things, to support or to impede them, to harm or to benefit them. One indication that there is this element of god-likeness in our idea of power can be seen in paganism, which directly regards these powers as in some way divine. Any attempt to attribute causal powers to things is an attempt to resurrect pagan superstition, or something closely parallel to it.

For Malebranche, a pagan worldview follows closely on, and is perhaps the primary consequence of, original sin. It is this recognition that mediates between his arguments against necessary connection and his general views; it is because of their ethical role, as correctives to the presumptions of the pagan mindset, that the arguments interest him. Occasionalism is an ethical antidote, or at least an ethical treatment, for our tendency to idolatry, and, in particular, for an especially pernicious instance of this idolatry:
If the nature of pagan philosophy is a chimera, if this nature is nothing, we must be advised of it, for there are many people who are mistaken with respect to it. There are more than we might think who thoughtlessly attribute to it the works of God, who busy themselves with this idol or fiction of the human mind, and who render to it the honor due only to the Divinity. (LO 668; OC 3:223-224)

What Malebranche regards as the philosophical superstition of causal powers or efficacious natures is but one more sad example of the terrible failure of human nature to live up to the demands of Order; it is but one more expression of the "secret opposition between God and man" (LO 657; OC 3:204). It is not a conclusion of Reason, but of the Devil; it is, in Henri Gouhier's excellent summation of Malebranche's view, "the philosophy of the Serpent".

It is noteworthy that Malebranche is not the only person to draw a connection between a causal powers theory of causation and paganism. Hume, both in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and the Natural History of Religion, does the same; and many of the arguments against causal powers that Hume takes over almost directly from Malebranche are, in Malebranche, part of a fierce and extended attack on idolatry as a philosophical mistake.

[LO= the Lennon-Olscamp translation put out by Cambridge University Press; and OC is the Oeuvres Complètes.]

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Test Equation

I'm testing a use of HTML for the Bayesian equation, borrowed from Matthew (responding to John), to see whether and in what way I have to adapt it to make it look presentable on my own weblog.
P(B|A) =   P(B|A) (P)B   =   P(B|A) (P)B
P(A) ΣB' P(A|B') P(B')

UPDATE: OK, it looks reasonable in IE. I'll have to check it on other browsers when I'm at a different computer.

Spinoza on Infinite Regress Arguments

From a letter by Spinoza to Ludovicus Meyer (20 April 1663):

But here I should like it to be noted in passing that the more recent Peripatetics, as I at least think, misunderstood the argument of the Ancients by which they strove to prove the existence of God. For, as I find it in the works of a certain Jew, named Rab Chasdai, it reads as follows. If there is an infinite regression of causes, then all things which exist will be things that have been caused. But it cannot pertain to anything that has been caused that it should necessarily exist in virtue of its own nature. Therefore there is in Nature nothing to whose essence it pertains that it should exist necessarily. But this is absurd; and therefore also that. Therefore the force of the argument lies not in the idea that it is impossible for the Infinite actually to exist, or that a regression of causes to infinity is impossible, but only in the impossibility of supposing that things which do not exist necessarily in virtue of their own nature, are not determined to existence by something which does exist necessarily in virtue of its own nature, and which is a Cause, not an Effect.

This is an interesting interpretation of infinite regress arguments. It means that I'll certainly have to look at what Hasdai Crescas (one of the great Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages) actually says on the subject, to see how much of this is Rab Hasdai and how much is Spinoza's interpretation of him. Spinoza is right that the usual reasons given for the impossibility of infinite regress are (1) that infinite regression of the given sort of cause involves a contradiction; and (2) that it is impossible for an actually infinite multitude, of the sort infinite regress requires, to exist. Without having Crescas before me, however, I rather suspect that Spinoza may have misread him; the only reason I have for thinking so is that people have occasionally misinterpreted Aquinas this way -- any elaboration of (1) will look superficially like the other. But if Crescas has this interpretation, it's of interest, since it's not the usual interpretation of this type of argument.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A Poem Draft

A bit of fun.

Angels with Their Feline Faces

Angels with their feline faces
leap up in the empty spaces
above my head like godly graces;
they sport in ecstasy.

Every wing like wild flowers
sparkles with some hidden power,
turning minutes into hours
and aeviternities.

Play the tambrel and the drum;
Juda's lion is now come.

Their whiskers are with white zeal burning
within the wheels of love now turning,
emblems of some endless yearning
in spheres most heavenly.

Their eyes are slits that cast out fire,
sparks of infinite desire,
as they jump and sway and gyre
in cosmic liturgy.

A lion roaring near my head
praises Zion, newly wed.

Like a shawm for holy masses
or the wind through garden grasses,
prayer of the saints now passes
through angelic harmonies.

Every halo like a story
wraps around the world with glory,
burning like the heavens hoary
with frosty dignity.

Send the message far and wide:
the Lion-Lamb has wed his Bride!

These ministers of wind and flame,
moving in some spirit-game,
praise the everlasting name
of true divinity.

A purr goes out throughout the ages,
for though the dragon shouts and rages
his doom is writ in sacred pages
of God's vitality.

Rejoice, for they have slain the Beast;
rejoice and join the wedding feast!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

One-Star Reviews of the Classics

Everyone has to take a look at this. The online magazine, The Morning News, has a great article that looks at some of the scathing one-star reviews that have been given to classic novels. All of them are hilarious reading; I especially liked the reviews of Go Tell it on the Mountain; The Lord of the Flies; and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Francis Turretin

We tend to forget that there were Protestant as well as Catholic scholastics. The best known of the Reformed scholastics is perhaps Francis Turretin. At A Puritan's Mind you can find a brief biography and a number of Turretin's arguments (on the right sidebar). They have quite a few of Turretin's articles on Scripture; the arguments that there needs to be a verbal revelation are particularly interesting. Of course, Turretin, as most Protestant scholastics of the period did, engaged in the typical polemics: the arguments, for instance, about the vocation of the Reformers, or about whether the Pope was Antichrist. The Counter-Reformation, of course, produced scholastic works that were equally polemical.

Spinoza Against Design Arguments

On Spinoza's view, everything that exists, and everything that happens, follows with logical necessity from eternal truths. Everything that exists, exists necessarily; everything that happens, happens necessarily. That we are inclined to think otherwise is due to ignorance -- not recognizing all the causes that go into particular things and events, we fail to realize that everything follows from the nature of God with the same necessity that truths about triangles follow from the nature of triangles.

It's on this basis that Spinoza attacks the doctrine of final causes. It's an old argument: since everything happens of necessity, final causes are otiose. Spinoza goes further, however, and suggests a psychological mechanism for the origin of the doctrine of final causes. Because we human beings have a tendency to see the world entirely insofar as it relates to ourselves, we tend (1) to anthropomorphize the world; and (2) to evaluate everything that exists or happens according as it is convenient or inconvenient for us. This is how we get into the mindset of thinking that things happen for a purpose, when in fact they happen entirely out of necessity. As Spinoza says of the proponents of final causes, "But in seeking to show that Nature does nothing in vain, that is, nothing that is not to man's advantage, they seem to have shown only this, that Nature and the gods are as crazy as mankind" (Ethics P1, Appendix).

A bit tendentious, of course; but for similar reasons Spinoza has no patience for design arguments of any kind:

I must not fail to mention here that the advocates of this doctrine, eager to display their talent in assigning purpose to things, have introduced a new style of argument to prove their doctrine, i.e., a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance, thus revealing the lack of any other argument in its favor. For example, if a stone falls from the roof on somebody's head and kills him, by this method of arguing they will prove that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for if it had not fallen for this purpose by the will of God, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many coinciding circumstances) have chanced to concur? Perhaps you will reply that the event occurred because the wind was blowing and the man was walking that way. But they will persist in asking why the wind blew at that time and why the man was walking that way at that very time. If you again reply that the wind sprang up at that time because on the previous day the sea had begun to toss after a period of calm and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again persist--for there is no end to questions--"But why did the sea toss, and why was the man invited for that time?" And so they will go on and on asking the causes of causes, until you take refuge in the will of God--that is, the sanctuary of ignorance. Similarly, when they consider the structure of the human body, they are astonished, and being ignorant of the causes of such skillful work they conclude that it is fashioned not by mechanical art but by divine or supernatural art, and is so arranged that no one part shall injure another.

So Spinoza is not impressed by design arguments for God's existence. There is another type of design argument that doesn't impress him, though, and that is the problem of evil argument; for it does exactly the same thing from the other side. It seems to me that when peopl claim that 'intelligent design' arguments are arguments from ignorance, what they are actually grasping toward saying is that they are what Spinoza calls 'reduction to ignorance' arguments. They usually are not so consistent as Spinoza in recognizing that most problem of evil arguments (e.g., arguments from poor design) are exactly the same kind of argument.

Causa Sui

Richard notes that someone is making a family-tree of the blogosphere. The idea is that your blogfather/mother is the blog that most inspired you to start blogging. I'm a little weird in this, I suppose: I have no blogparent. Phemius once said, (Odyssey XXII, 347) "I am self-taught; a god has inspired me." I could say, "I am self-taught, no blog inspired me." I sprang Athena-like from my own brain (that's a picture worth keeping before you). More seriously, I came across Blogger's homepage during some idle searching to see how I could make my classes more interactive, so what inspired me to blog was simply that it seemed an easy way to do something interactive online. That was the old Houyhnhnm Land; I found it useful, and so made Siris, and then, after the course was over, moved Houyhnhnm Land to a new location.

This, incidentally, is why I occasionally point out that Siris is primarily just a sort of public online notebook. I didn't start it up to join the blogosphere, or to debate; I started it up as a way to give my unruly mind a forum for being unruly. The blogosphere and occasional debates were just a nice bonus on the side. And thank you, readers; you are my perpetual encouragement for being even more unruly.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Against Death No Simple Grows

I read with some interest this argument by Nick Bostrom that searching for a cure for aging is "an urgent, screaming moral imperative" (HT: Philosophy, etc.) He doesn't ever really give us a clear idea of whose moral imperative this is supposed to be; it isn't possible to have a moral imperative that isn't a moral imperative for somebody. Who is violating their responsibility by not searching for a cure for aging? It also seems to me to exaggerate massively the dangers of aging -- it is "the principal cause of an unfathomable amount of human suffering and death"; research on diseases is ignoring aging as "the underlying cause." The metaphor of the dragon is a violent metaphor; whereas aging is not itself a violent cause of death. One of Bostrom's bits of advice is to challenge shortsighted and snide remarks about aging; but there is at least some case that his own argument, which requires us to see aging as a monstrous and terrible condition, is precisely that. He also criticizes the use of fine words and rhetoric to hide the fact that aging is a bad thing; he himself could very well be criticized for using scare words and rhetoric to hide the fact that aging is a natural thing. It is one thing to argue that expanding our 'health-span' is a good thing; it obviously would be, and I think it is right to advocate it. But it is another thing entirely to argue that we have an "urgent, screaming moral imperative" to eliminate aging. (And again, whose moral imperative?) Argument for the first just isn't a sufficient argument for the second.

What I find particularly interesting about the argument is in fact that it seems to depend for much of its force on the assumption that aging is not natural to us, which implies that death is not natural to us, either. Bostrom, for instance, says, that aging "has become a mere 'fact of life'", which is a phrase that only makes sense if we suppose that it once was not a fact of life. He says that our society has been "deformed" by the presence of aging; this makes no sense unless there is a natural non-deformed state for society. The case of the dragon is only isomorphic (as Bostrom claims it is) if aging is as foreign and uniformly terrible as a dragon. Since my own view is that aging and death are natural to us, I would like to see more of the argument for this not-so-hidden assumption.

There's also the serious question, which Bostrom glosses over, of whether the elimination of aging is actually a practicable proposal, particularly in the face of the fact that there are so many much more clearly practicable things that we are botching miserably -- stamping out malarial epidemics in Africa, which should take scarcely more than a few million dollars of mosquito nets and insecticide sent to the right places, or curbing the AIDS epidemic, or dealing with floods, or dealing with famine (which is only rarely caused by drought and the like, and more often caused by maldistribution of food that is actually available). How expensive will anti-aging treatment be? And how will it be distributed? Bostrom speaks as if the really difficult thing were the research. We have no idea how difficult that will be, but the really difficult thing is less likely to be the research than the proper distribution of its results. Who will be paying to give the whole multi-billion population of the world anti-aging treatment? What money will be diverted? How will we manage to give them all the treatment more or less at once? And if we do the treatment in stages, how do we decide who gets the first rounds? Will it be a treatment available only to the rich and powerful? But if not, how will we guarantee equitable distribution? Eliminating aging won't ever be as simple as pointing a missile at a dragon; and it is simply irresponsible to advocate something without taking a moment to figure out how you'll actually manage to bring about what you're advocating. Somehow our best intentions always go haywire when we are irresponsible in this way. And given the point on which Bostrom's whole argument is based -- namely, that there are all those people dying from age in the meantime -- he can't afford to gloss over this problem. This is particularly true given that his reasons for advocating anti-aging research are also reasons for fixing maldistribution of health care first, rather than haring off immediately after some Elixir of Life that might not turn out to be practicable, and which will still be foiled by a bad distribution of health care, and which will still have to contend with the fact that we haven't even managed the relatively easy tasks of preventing people from dying from malaria, AIDS, and famine, even if we do eventually find it.

Thomas Aquinas on the Word of the Cross

Then when he says, For since, he states the reason why the faithful are saved by the foolishness of preaching. He had already stated that the word of the cross is foolishness to them that perish, but the power of God to them that are saved; for it pleased God by the folly of what we preach, i.e., by the preaching which human wisdom considers foolish, to save them that believe; and this because the world; i.e., worldly men, knew not God by wisdom taken from things of the world; and this in the wisdom of God.

For divine wisdom, when making the world, left indications of itself in the things of the world, as it says in Sirach (1:10): “He poured wisdom out upon all his works,” so that the creatures made by God’s wisdom are related to God’s wisdom, whose signposts they are, as a man’s words are related to his wisdom, which they signify. And just as a disciple reaches an understanding of the teacher’s wisdom by the words he hears from him, so man can teach an understanding of God’s wisdom by examining the creatures He made, as it says in Romans (1:20): “His invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”

But on account of the vanity of his heart man wandered from the right path of divine knowledge; hence it says in Jn (1:10): “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.” Consequently, God brought believers to a saving knowledge of Himself by other things, which are not found in the natures of creatures; on which account worldly men, who derive their notions solely from human things, considered them foolish: things such as the articles of faith. It is like a teacher who recognizes that his meaning was not understood from the words he employed, and then tried to use other words to indicate what he meant.

This is a brief selection from Aquinas's discussion of I Corinthians 1:17b-25, in his Commentary on the work, as translated by Fabian Larcher, O.P. (see here (PDF) par.50 on p. 17). Aquinas's scriptural commentaries are insufficiently studied; I highly recommend this one to those who have a taste for scriptural commentary. (HT: Redeem the Time)

Russell on Hume on Religion

Paul Russell's article on Hume on Religion at SEP (HT: Prosblogion) is worth reading. This is a very difficult, very controversial subject, and Russell handles it with a masterly hand. The oneinor quibble I would have about his handling of the Dialogues is that he repeats the old cliché that Philo 'reverses' himself in Part XII, which I think is clearly false. As I think I've noted before, my own view of the dialogues is that Philo's position in Part XII actually follows strictly from what has gone on before. At the beginning he attacks the possibility of Cleanthes' inference at all, and ends up confounded by the end of Part III, because he has no real basis for such an attack. Then, following the lead of Demea, he begins to criticize Cleanthes's views of what this inference will actually get him, and emerges victorious. In Part XII he simply sums up this dialectic: Cleanthes's inference is legitimate; the legitimate conclusion from this inference, however, is immensely vague, far more vague than someone like Demea could accept and far less than Cleanthes thinks he can get. It would also have been nice to get a bit more on the Dialogues's Ciceronian influences. The discussion of Hume on miracles is an excellent summary. I'm not convinced that Hume's acceptance of the design argument in NHR (which is still peppered with ambiguities) is a 'veil of orthodoxy'; this type of interpretive move never convinces me, in part because if Hume thought it veiled anything he was naive to the point of almost being stupid about it. But the Natural History of Religion is very difficult to interpret, and Russell has a great summary of the argument. The discussion of whether Hume was an atheist would have been improved by considering the external evidence or two we have that Hume might have considered himself a theist (e.g., Diderot's summary of Hume's remarks at d'Holbach's party), but that, like the other things I've mentioned, is a minor issue. The big omission, I think, is that there is no discussion of Hume's conception of superstition and enthusiasm; Hume has an essay devoted to the subject, and the two concepts play an immensely important role in his historical analysis in the History of England, as well as occasionally peeking out elsewhere. That, I think, is my only serious disappointment with the article, since it's not a small omission. Well worth reading, for those who are interested in the subject.