Saturday, December 10, 2005


LW&W was quite good; there were things I would have done differently, but that's not surprising. Most of the differences with the book were filling out the details of characterization which are needed on the silver screen. Don't leave until after the initial credits.

See Johnny-Dee for further details.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Liar, Liar

A few days ago Rad Geek guestblogged a fascinating post on insolubilia at Philosophy, etc. that I wanted to say something briefly about. I'll have to return to the issue when I have the time, but I am much in favor of the medieval approach to insolubilia. Take a typical paradox:

(L) This statement (L) is false.

The modern reading regards this as problematic on the face of it: if (L) is true, (L) is false, and if it is false it is true, so we cannot assign a truth-value to (L) -- that is, it cannot be true or false. The medievals had a completely different approach. The medievals tend to see insolubilia as sophistical inferences. On their view, the real paradox lies not in sentences like (L) but in what we are assuming that we can infer from (L)'s being true or false. They are certainly right about that. A modern reader of (L) might hold, of course, that the sort of inferences that generate the paradox are necessary; but even if you hold this view, the medievals are to be congratulated on not taking it for granted. On most medieval views, (L) would be false; and inferences from its truth-value would all be illegitimate. (On one possible view this would also be true of the truth-value of "This statement is true", which yields no paradox; i.e. the restriction is not necessarily ad hoc, but done on principle.) This sort of discussion gets very complicated very quickly; I'll have to look at it more closely at a future time.

A Poem Draft

Another bit of fun. Poets don't write vaunts much anymore. Try it; it will do you no end of good. To get the ball rolling:


Greater than me you cannot be;
I am a star in motion.
I flow forth like a mighty flood
out to an endless ocean.

A greater than I you cannot find,
a hero born of glory,
filling the space from sun to sun,
like Zeus in ancient story!

Note that I settled for Zeus. I am modest; I don't need more than that.... ;)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Part of a Paper on Hume's Discussion of Coherence in Treatise 1.4.2

Most interpretations of Hume's discussion of coherence are what we can call 'gap-filling interpretations'. Gap-filling interpretations take their cue from H. H. Price, who first proposed such an interpretation in his pioneering work, Hume’s Theory of the External World. Suppose I have an various occasions watched a fire burn down. In such a case I have a series of impressions that shade from brightly burning coals to dull ashes. We can designate these impressions by a series of letters,


where A is the impression of bright red burning coals, E is the impression of dull gray ashes, and B, C, and D are intermediate impressions. This series of impressions is taken to be continuous. On other occasions, however, my observation is interrupted. Instead of a continuous series I have an interrrupted one:

A . . . E

On a gap-filling interpretation we are moved by the resemblance between this interrupted series and the previous continuous series to fill in the gap with the missing impressions (B, C, & D). Because of this resemblance, and our consequent ability to fill in the gaps of an interrupted series, we say that the interrupted series is coherent. Price puts considerable emphasis on this point. There are a number of versions of gap-filling interpretations, but they tend to be variations on Price's basic theme.

Gap-filling interpretations have the advantage of being superficially plausible. They have the disadvantage of being wrong. There are a number of reasons why this is so.

The first and most purely exegetical reason is that gap-filling is a doubtful way to define coherence in Hume’s sense. In the passage I've already noted, Price attempts to do exactly this: two sense-impressions are coherent if we can perform this sort of gap-filling operation with them. It's very clear, however, that this is too narrow. Hume does not restrict coherence to 'gappy' series of impressions; in fact, Hume says that objects "have a certain coherence even as they appear to our senses." In other words, to recognize the coherence of our perceptions we don’t have to appeal to interrupted series at all; we recognize simply from our own experience, without performing any sort of operation on them, that there is a coherence in what we perceive. Nor is this in any way surprising. When Hume expands a bit on what he means by the coherence of our perceptions, he says that they have "a mutual connexion and dependence” and a “regularity of operation." We don’t have to find and fill gaps in our perceptions to recognize that there is some sort of regularity to the world as we perceive it.

[In the paper I give two more reasons why gap-filling won't work, and propose my own 'loose idea' interpretation.]

On the Possibility of Christian Philosophy from a Sagacity Perspective

An open narrative is a straightforward story whereas a closed one is a story reduced to a kernel of wisdom. The latter is called a saying or a proverb. Whether the narrative is open or closed, it is functionally a principle of explanation or understanding. It is in this sense that the Igbo people always say that 'Ilu bu mmanu eji eri uka', meaning that proverbs are the mechanisms with which discussions can be analysed, digested, understood, and summarized. Thus in any typical Igbo discussion proverbs are used to punctuate and register the nub of what is being discussed.

-- Chris O. Ijiomah, "Some Epistemological Tools with which Africans Relate to their Realities," URAM 28:1 (2005) 82-83.

There's some very interesting work done in African philosophy that Christians in philosophy should take note of. This is particularly true of what is often called sage philosophy or sagacity philosophy. According to Henry Odera Oruka, the major proponent of this approach to African philosophy:

Sage-Philosophy in my usage consists of the expressed thoughts of wise men and women in any given community and is a way of thinking and explaining the world that fluctuates between popular wisdom (well known communal maxims, aphorisms, and general common sense truths) and didactic wisdom, an expounded wisdom and a rational thought of some given individuals within a community.
(Oruka, Sage Philosophy p. 28)

In effect, we get sagacious didactics in cases where a wise man or woman is explaining the justification of a proverb, or applies the traditional wisdom of a community to a new situation or argument. This is a higher level of sagacity:

Philosophic sagacity is a reflection of a person who is: (1) a sage and (2) a thinker. As a sage the person is versed in the wisdoms and traditions of his people, and very often he is recognized by the people themselves as having this gift. In certain cases, however, he may not be so recognized. Being a sage, however, does nto necessarily make one a philosopher. Some of the sages are simply moralists and the disciplined diehard faithfuls to a tradition. Others are merely historians and good interpreters of the history and customs of their people. In short, they are wise within the conventional and historical confines of their cutlure. But they may not be wise (rational) in understanding of their culture.
(Oruka, quoted in Serequeberham, African Philosophy: The Essential Readings, p. 51)

Just as sages may not be philosophers, so philosophers may not be wise:

In a strict sense, a sage has at least two abilities, insight and ethical inspiration. So, a sage is wise, he has insight, but he employs this for the ethical betterment of his (her) community. A philosopher may be a sage and vice versa. But many philosophers do lack the ethical commitment and inspiration found in the sage.

(Oruka, quoted in English & Kalumba, African Philosophy: A Classical Approach, p. 184)

It is a plain fact that proverbs have played a role in philosophical thought; no one who has ever read Plato or Aristotle could ever deny that it is a potentially legitimate role. It's also fairly clear that we haven't developed many resources for handling proverbial wisdom in philosophical discourse. Further, it's clear that Christians have good reason to take the approach seriously, given the importance of proverbial wisdom to the Christian faith (as witnessed by the Wisdom books of the Bible). It might perhaps be a good idea to look more closely at the sagacity approach to African philosophy, and see what it might have to offer in this regard.

You can find useful resources on African philosophy at Bruce Janz's African Philosophy Resources page. Zeverin Emagalit's lecture notes on contemporary African philosophy discusses the relation between the sagacity approach and other approaches to African philosophy. For discussion of proverb-based rhetoric, see Wolfgang Mieder's list of resources. has a lovely translation of Mishlei (the book of Proverbs), with Rashi's commentary, and the same with Kohelet (the book of Ecclesiastes) (the page seems a bit slow).

[UPDATe: Fixed my repeated misspelling of Oruka's name; I keep wanting to write 'Okura' for some reason.]

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Brief Note on Miracles and Hume

The most recent God or Not carnival is up at "Evangelical Atheist"; the subject is miracles, and it's not surprising that Hume figures heavily in the discussion. Hume famously defined a miracle as "a transgression of a law of nature" or "a violation of the laws of nature" -- somewhat oddly, I've always thought, since he would have known at least two people whose understanding of miracle is quite opposed to formulating the definition this way (Malebranche & Butler). But there's perhaps reason to think that Hume's use of the terms 'violation' and 'transgression' are like his use of the term 'contradiction' elsewhere when talking about unifrom experience, i.e., the idea is simply that a miracle is something that is contrary to our uniform experience. (In the Essay on Miracles he is only considering knowledge of miracles by testimony, so the person being considered there hasn't experienced the miracle himself.) One of the chief difficulties with Hume's argument -- it has always been a contentious point -- is making it work without also condemning all of astrophysics and any other science that deals with phenomena outside our rather mundane uniform experience. Indeed, a common complaint is that Hume's argument, if taken seriously would push our ignorance even farther than that. One of the most fun formulations of such an argument is Richard Whately's 1819 Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Buonaparte. And, indeed, because Hume puts the same weight on uniform experience of human nature as he does on uniform experience of the physical world, Whately may have something of a point. In any case, it's a tricky issue; Hume doesn't appear to have recognized the problem, although possibly his ultimate qualification of his argument, that it simply disproves the possibility of proving a miracle from testimony "so as to be the foundation of a system of religion" might provide an escape hatch. But what exactly this means is hard to pin down; perhaps he means that young religions are missed by the historical evidence (which he does say), or that religious people are more likely to lie about marvels (which he does imply), but perhaps the point is that "it would be absurd to employ any prophecy as an argument for a divine mission or authority from heaven". This latter issue about divine mission was a major part of discussion of miracles at the time, so it may well be Hume's primary target. Or perhaps Hume intends the qualification only to apply to some of his later arguments in the essay (but which ones?) -- in which case it doesn't provide a way of dealing with the problem at all. We might well borrow a sentence from Hume in another context to characterize the argument: The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery.

Tolkien on Lewis

I've already said my piece on the Narnia criticisms. I did want to say something about this paragraph in a different Guardian review:

Tolkien hated Narnia: the two dons may have shared the same love of unquestioning feudal power, with worlds of obedient plebs and inferior folk eager to bend at the knee to any passing superior white persons - even children; both their fantasy worlds and their Christianity assumes that rigid hierarchy of power - lord of lords, king of kings, prince of peace to be worshipped and adored. But Tolkien disliked Lewis's bully-pulpit.

As I recall this was not Tolkien's reason for disliking it at all; what he didn't like is the carelessness of the creation. Tolkien took artistic creation (sub-creation, as he called it) very seriously, thinking that the author should craft a consistent, coherent world with its own inner logic. Lewis piled a whole lot of things together, from talking beavers with sewing machines to Fauns to Father Christmas. This sentence from The New Yorker is a bit better:

Tolkien hated the Narnia books, despite Lewis’s avid sponsorship of Tolkien’s own mythology, because he hated to see an imagination constrained by the allegorical impulse.

It is true that Tolkien had a distaste for the 'allegorical impulse', particularly the tendency to read every story as an allegory. But, again, I can't recall that this fits with anything Tolkien actually says about the Narnia books; and one could just as easily say that Tolkien's tendency to dislike allegorical reading would have led him to be irritated by those who insist on reading the Narnia books only as an allegory -- it isn't necessary, and many people don't, for the very good reason that the books are not properly allegories at all, except in the sense that any book making extensive use of certain kinds of imagery will have allegorical tones, which can as a matter of art be explicitly harnessed. In that sense Tolkien himself does the same thing, and admits it: his descriptions of Galadriel are influenced by the imagery of the Virgin Mary, etc. It doesn't follow from these things that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory. (Eliot's Middlemarch taps into the imagery of earth and vegitation; it doesn't follow that Middlemarch is an allegory for the earth. Pullman's His Dark Materials series makes rather extensive use of Miltonic imagery, as interpreted by Blake. It doesn't follow that it's an allegory for a Blakean worldview, just that the imagery is supposed to have Blakean-Miltonic tones in acting on the reader.) Lewis denied (quite rightly) that the Narnia works are allegories in any proper sense. He was trying to write books that will strike readers the way MacDonald's books struck him, namely, those that 'baptized his imagination' in giving him an imaginative sense of Something More; but his mode of writing wasn't particularly allegorical -- he started with a few striking pictures in his head and wrote about them. The allegorical associations just followed from that. Further, the above description of Tolkien's complaint is very implausible; Perelandra, which is a re-telling of Paradise Lost, is even more easily read as allegory than Narnia, and Tolkien loved it. Tolkien's complaint was not about the content, but about the art: he thought the works weren't serious enough.

(As a side note, I find interesting some of these secular criticisms of the Christian-like content of the Narnia books, because they often seem to echo things Lewis attributed to his own atheist years, e.g., an appreciation of certain sorts of myth, but a revulsion toward the same kind of myth when it was put in Christian form. At least, I very much doubt they would make similar criticisms of a book about the Corn King or Odin on Yggdrasil. And what is it with all these people who seem to think that the lion is not a traditional symbol of Christ? The funniest point in these criticisms, though, is found in the first review I linked to above; she calls the books 'Republican', which seems a teeny-weeny bit of a stretch!)

A Poem Draft

Angel on the Gallows

Ruthlessness of law establishes
one path, and one alone;
as proportionment itself requires,
each shall have its due.
Tho' he be as pure in every else
as snow on mountain summits,
for each jot we take a tittle,
and by little piled upon little,
from droplets an ocean forms.
No excuses will be accepted
(the balance must be right);
the penalty shall fall
without regard for plea or plight.
As others have now suffered,
the gallows will be made;
for treason to our customs
he is assigned his proper death.
And we sit in aureate judgment,
in the glow of well-deserved pride,
for our rightness has returned rightness,
and the criminal has died.

Cold comfort, O ye children,
who cannot see the grace
that shines in every heart's hearth
and glows in every face.
Tho' you be as right as compasses,
tho' you flatter yourselves with law,
a higher Judge is judging
who holds each soul in awe!

Again on Miscompassion

I've been meaning to say something more about the recent case of a single pregnant teacher being fired from a Catholic school, but on reflection I don't have much to say, since I basically agree with Jack Perry on this point. Just the following:

(1) There is not, and cannot be, anything morally problematic about being pregnant. It does not matter whether it occurs inside or outside marriage; whatever the ethics of extramarital sex, there is nothing morally problematic about extramarital pregnancy. Yet there is a shocking and shameful tendency to treat pregnancy as the problem. It has been asked about this case whether a man whose extramarital affair had come to light would also have been fired; and it is a serious question.

(2) But it is not the only question. For, more seriously, we need to ask what example the school is setting. Note that I emphasize the example of the school, which tends to be overlooked. An ostensible defense of the school's actions might go something like this: As a Catholic school, the school has certain responsibilities to guarantee that those in positions of authority over children should publically act in conformity with Catholic doctrine; McCusker has acted in a way that cannot be condoned by the school; so the firing was necessary. But this, I think, is a poor defense. For if the school is really in the business of teaching by example, it must consider what example it is setting by firing pregnant women. As a teacher, McCusker inevitably would have difficulty finding employment in the middle of the school year; effectively the school turned her and her baby out on the street -- not literally, perhaps, but they might as well have. What sort of charity is that? What sort of mercy?

I also must confess that I am rarely impressed by arguments from what would or would not be construed as condoning something. If Jesus could associate with prostitutes and publicans, I think it shouldn't be so very difficult for us to associate with more reputable people. Thus saith the Preacher: be not overly righteous. If you spend too much time trying not to condone sin, you will never have the time to be charitable to sinners. We should all try to act as if the old toast might come true: May you yourself be treated as mercifully and charitably in your failings as you treat others in theirs.


This post at "The Little Professor," on a discussion about Harold Bloom, started me thinking about the phrase "Judeo-Christian". On the one hand, I think it's admirable that people try to think in terms of the unity, or a unity; on the other, I think it's clear that most Christians who use it know so little about Judaism that it ends up meaning 'Christian with some verbal modifications we think might make it more palatable to Jews'. Then again, I think a great many people, while right to recognize a certain amount of kinship, really do think that Christianity and Judaism differ in only a few details -- important details, but just a few; and, of course, that makes it difficult to take properly into account that 1900 years or so of both traditions going their own way. (And, of course, it's sometimes the case that the reason for this is that the people using the term know almost nothing about Christianity as well.) I think it would work fine if people were to see it as what it is: primarily a regulative, not a constitutive, concept. That is, if it's seen as a platform for cooperation, not so much the identification of an actual fact. (It's used in this way by some Jewish supporters of a Judeo-Christian program, e.g., Toward Tradition.) The phrase really began coming into its own in the U.S. after WWII, as a way to unite Christians and Jews together against anti-Semitism as a common enemy. And it seems to have been useful in this regard, however clumsily it might have been used at times. If Christians think of themselves as in a sort of unity with Jews (which they should) they are less likely to find anti-Semitism tempting. The real remedy against abuse is to make sure people are better informed about Judaism.