Saturday, February 25, 2006

Bonaventure on Teaching Wisdom

It is impossible for wisdom to be taught save through words. But words are not sufficient to teach unless they be pithy, and a man cannot speak pithily, unless his discussion be eloquent, supported by evidence, and convincing, that is, unless he has words (1) capable of speaking about everything, (2) able to be apprehended or known, and (3) to which one's mood can be inclined. Moreover he appropriately expresses what he says through literary art, rationally investigates through the discipline of logic, and effectively persuades through rhetoric. That in which Solomon was adept, therefore, is a part of philosophy; i.e., the science of discourse, which is threefold (as is clear).

Bonaventure, Collations on the Seven Gifts of the Spirit, Collation IV.

My translation above is somewhat crude and rather loose, by the way. One of the reasons is that English doesn't really have the words (or, perhaps: I don't really have the English words) to express in a straightforward way what Bonaventure is trying to say. The Latin, for those interested:

Impossibile est, quod sapientia fiat doctrina nisi per sermonem. Sermo autem non est sufficiens ad docendum, nisi sit sententiosus. Et non loquitur homo sententiose, nisi sit sermo eius discussivus, inquisitivus et persuasivus, scilicet quod habeat sermonem potentem ad loquendum omne illud, quod potest apprehendi vel nosci, vel ad quod affectus potest inclinari. Congrue autem exprimit quod dicit per grammaticam, rationabiliter investigat per scientiam logicam et efficaciter persuadet per rhetoricam. Ista est igitur pars philosophiae, scilicet scientia sermocinalis, quae triplex est, ut patet, quam adeptus est Salomon.

The occasion for this passage is Bonaventure's discussion of Solomon as an example of someone with the spiritual gift of knowledge. He argues that Solomon had the three types of knowledge (of words, of things, and of morals), each with their three divisions. The whole scheme is roughly as follows:

Sermocinalis (knowledge of discourse)
Grammatics (the literary art): how to speak, write, and interpret
Logic: how to reason and come to know
Rhetoric: how to persuade and influence

Veritatis Rerum (knowledge of things)
Physics: Concrete forms
Metaphysics: Abstract forms
Mathematics: Separate forms

De Morali (knowledge of morals)
Monastic (i.e., individual): pertaining to the organization of one's own life
Economic (i.e., domestic): pertaining to the organization of the family
Political: pertaining to the organization of the city

'Grammatica' is a much broader term than our 'grammar'; writing a history, for instance, would be an application of grammar in the medieval sense. It's the knowledge relevant to literary matters. (Usually considered to be practical, but there were exceptions to this.)

Friday, February 24, 2006

A Few Points on Wieseltier's Review of Dennett

Having recently managed to read Wieseltier's review (this is a slightly abridged version, see below) of Dennett's Breaking the Spell, I confess myself disappointed, both with the review and with some of the critics of the review in the blogosphere. The review is not particularly great; but the swarming with indignation isn't particularly admirable, either.

A case in point is the mention of Hume as a theist. Contrary to what some of the critics say, this is not a sign of ignorance, nor is it necessarily a misrepresentation. Far from it; the position Wieseltier adopts (the "wan god", or attenuated theism/deism) is, and has been, quite common in Hume scholarship; the major figures in favor of this general sort of interpretation would be scholars like Gaskin and Livingston. I suspect that Wieseltier has derived his view of Hume from one or the other or both, although it's always possible that he just got it by reading Hume's Natural History of Religion -- it's the simplest and most straightforward interpretation of Hume's philosophy of religion, because other interpretations have to see Hume as engaging in strategic maneuvers. (Some of these interpretations, of course, are also respectable and well-reasoned, e.g., Russell's or Fieser's. The simple explanation is not always the right one in the interpretation of texts. Nonetheless, simplicity is a factor, which is why the attenuated-theism interpretation keeps popping up in the scholarship.)

In any case, it's not essential to Wieseltier's argument, since close reading shows what his point in bringing up Hume is. Hume is very clear and explicit that the question of whether 'God exists' is rationally supportable ("its foundation in reason") is a very different question from that of why masses of people tend to have the belief that God or gods exist ("its origin in human nature"). He also explicitly says, as Wieseltier points out, that the former is the more important. Wieseltier's charge against Dennett is that he tries to turn this on its head. He quotes Dennett as saying, "The goal of either proving or disproving God's existence [is] not very important," which he appears (rightly or wrongly) to read as a dismissal of Hume's first question. In this light we see that Wieseltier's review is chiefly devoted to this complaint: to put it crudely, his primary complaint is not that Dennett is anti-religion but that the work is, contrary to Dennett's intention, anti-reason. The evidence that this is Wieseltier's point mounts up if you look at the things he says: e.g., "There is not intellectually respectable surrogate for rational argument"; "For Dennett, thinking historically absolves one of thinking philosophically"; "In the end, his repudiation of religion is a repudiation of philosophy". As he says early on, "Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of American obscurantism, this is not helpful."

Another major charge by Wieseltier is that Dennett is really a biological reductionist. This section of the review was the worst section. One of the reasons this is a disappointing review is that it is very obscure, for two reasons: (1) Wieseltier is not always very clear about what argument in Dennett he is arguing against; (2) the flow of thought is very difficult to follow. I think careful reading can easily untangle the point about reason mentioned above, and that critics who have not recognized are simply not reading carefully. But while I'm often the first to rant against intelligent people not taking the trouble to read carefully, in this case I can't honestly blame them. The review is in parts very difficult to follow, and this is true especially of the biological reductionism section. I can sort of see where Wieseltier is going with his argument: he wants to say that Dennett, despite his claim otherwise, is committed to saying that we don't "transcend our genome," i.e., that all of human life is nothing but survival and reproduction mechanisms, with no other value and no other significance. He's going for something along these lines, but he doesn't argue for it very well. It's difficult to see that the passage he quotes has quite that implication, or, indeed, is as confused as Wieseltier thinks it is.

Wieseltier's third major charge is that Dennett shows himself to have nothing but a caricature of religion in his head. Not having read the book, I can't say if this is entirely just when applied to the book. However, comparison of Wieseltier's comments with a recent essay Dennett wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education shows, I think, that Wieseltier's probably right. The criticisms Wieseltier makes of the book are similar to criticisms I made of the essay when it came out. The essay was muddled, full of unsupported and unsupportable generalizations, and mostly showed itself to be a tissue of prejudices rather than anything a rational person could take seriously.

In a paragraph of the review that are left out of the abridged version linked to above, Wieseltier says:

It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures depicted in his book is merely a creaturely reason. Dennett's natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.

Contrary to Myers's reading of it, this isn't a case of using the origins of an idea to discredit it. It's a somewhat obscure and confusing summary of an argument made by Nagel (who is mentioned briefly earlier in the review) in The Last Word. In fact, it's the same argument Alejandro recently criticized in the interesting review at "Reality Conditions" I had mentioned in a previous post. (I suspect Wieseltier is a big fan of Nagel's book, and that this is the source of the reason argument. Wieseltier also seems to imply that Dennett criticizes Nagel at some point, which, if so, perhaps explains the real source for the negativity of the review.) In any case, it's not really Myers's fault that he couldn't see this, since it would only be noticeable to someone who had read Nagel's book; Wieseltier doesn't flag the point at all.

The review is not very well written; from what little I've read of Wieseltier's work, this is not his best, by far. Despite its critics, however, it is not ignorant, either, although the argument is in places controversial; and it is just as disappointing to see so many people buzzing so indignantly about it as it is to read the review itself. A more careful reading would have cut out many of the more absurd criticisms; but Wieseltier does himself no favors, and many of the misreadings are not surprising given the way the argument is formulated. Even more disappointing are that handful of people in the blogosphere making snide remarks about how religious people will jump up indignantly at anything that seems on the surface even slightly critical of their pet beliefs when an impartial spectator could tell in an instant that they are doing the same thing they are accusing the religious of doing. It is, alas, a common human flaw. Difficult as it may be for us to get our minds around the notion, thinking should take priority over opening the mouth.

In any case, my impression of the review is that we are left pretty much where we were: to form any ultimate judgment in the matter, we still need to read Dennett's book. From everything I've read about it, the book doesn't sound too interesting -- largely a popularization of things that have been around for a while, for which your time is probably better spent reading the posts on cognitive science of religion at Mixing Memory and the articles Chris points to in those posts. But I must confess that close examination of Wieseltier's review has actually whetted my curiosity a bit, since now I want to know what Dennett says about Nagel.

Compassion, Truth, and Respect

Rebecca at "Rebecca Writes" has a post well worth reading on cancer and divine providence. I think a great many things said about the problem of evil (in all its various forms) that are put forward as if they showed some special sensitivity to those who suffer are, in fact, extremely condescending, and Rebecca's post makes very clear one way in which this is so. In doing so, the post also points out incidentally a key fact about hope: people get genuine hope only from something that serves as a sure foundation for it. In a case like this, this requires that everyone look at the world frankly and think things through (use their noggins, as Rebecca says). I've never faced the sort of trial Rebecca has, but in college I did a lot of volunteering; one unfortunate fact that my experiences made me aware of is that there are a lot of people who are far more interested in the feeling of being compassionate than they are in actually being compassionate. One sign of the difference is that the former are always muddying the waters, obscuring their view of the world, because the people in that group are always more interested in their own feelings (either the feeling that they are being compassionate or the feeling of superiority or morality or what-have-you that they get in feeling it) than in the truth; with people who are actually compassionate, the reverse is true. The former group have no genuine sense of respect, because their 'respect' for people in unfortunate circumstances is built entirely around what makes them feel like they are acting (or thinking, or arguing) morally; it's a sort of narcissism that real compassion eschews. So on that level I can entirely understand Rebecca's impatience and frustration with the attitudes she talks about.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Notes and Links

* In Pseudohistory and Pseudoscience (PDF) Douglas Allchin discusses the use and misuse of history of science in science education. There's a fairly good discussion of Harvey. (HT: prosthesis)

* GetReligion has a good discussion of how much of the so-called 'clash of civilizations' is really a clash between two ideals, among Muslims, of Islamic civilization.

* Alan Rhoda has a good post at "Prosblogion" discussing four different types of open theism. The genuinely traditional'classical theist', of course, would want to know what, precisely, we mean when we say, "God knows p at time T", since he will deny that "at time T" can legitimately qualify God's knowing, because divine knowledge does not, in itself and directly, admit of temporal measurement (what God knows, of course, can admit of such measurement, and the classical theist will allow "at time T" to qualify that; likewise, those to whom God reveals can admit of such measurement, so the classical theist will allow "at time T" to qualify that).

* "verbum ipsum" has an interesting post on Protestant Mariology. Mariology, of course, is Christology by way of Mary. As John Damascene said of the most important of all Marian doctrines, "The name of the Theotokos expresses the whole mystery of God's saving dispensation." And Mary is intimately bound up, liturgically and doctrinally, in a number of Christian Feasts: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation, and the Crucifixion. Something that is often forgotten is that Acts strongly implies that she was at Pentecost (1:13-14, 2:1). Of all the people in the New Testament, the ones we have most faith-related information about, and thus that are most important for the formation of our lives of faith, are Jesus, Paul, and Mary. So it's good to see that, despite the obvious cautions, Protestants are taking an interest in the prophethood (to use the closest term available) of Mary; failure to do so inevitably impoverishes our discourse about Christ.

* Speaking of which, it is interesting to read Calvin's commentary on the Magnificat:

Now follows a remarkable and interesting song of the holy virgin, which plainly shows how eminent were her attainments in the grace of the Spirit. There are three clauses in this song. First, Mary offers solemn thanksgiving for that mercy of God which she had experienced in her own person. Next, she celebrates in general terms God’s power and judgments. Lastly, she applies these to the matter in hand, treating of the redemption formerly promised, and now granted to the church....Sadness and anxiety lock up the soul, and restrain the tongue from celebrating the goodness of God. When the soul of Mary exults with joy, the heart breaks out in praising God. It is with great propriety, in speaking of the joy of her heart, that she gives to God the appellation of Savior Till God has been recognised as a Savior, the minds of men are not free to indulge in true and full joy, but will remain in doubt and anxiety. It is God’s fatherly kindness alone, and the salvation flowing from it, that fill the soul with joy. In a word, the first thing necessary for believers is, to be able to rejoice that they have their salvation in God....Now observe, that Mary makes her happiness to consist in nothing else, but in what she acknowledges to have been bestowed upon her by God, and mentions as the gift of his grace....Thus, when Mary says, that it is God who casteth down nobles from their thrones, and exalteth mean persons, she teaches us, that the world does not move and revolve by a blind impulse of Fortune, but that all the revolutions observed in it are brought about by the Providence of God, and that those judgments, which appear to us to disturb and overthrow the entire framework of soclety, are regulated by God with unerring justice.

Calvin is particularly interesting in that he puts forward a Mariological argument against Catholic Mariology. His argument is that Catholics fail to take Mary sufficiently seriously as a teacher, and (in effect) argues for a Reformed approach to Mary that does take her seriously as a teacher of divine things. It's an interesting argument; you can find it by following the above link and reading Calvin's whole discussion of the Magnificat. I recommend it to Catholic and Protestant alike as giving a more serious and constructive argument on the subject than is usually aired.

Wisdom from Polycarp

Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith, loving the brotherhood, and being attached to one another, joined together in the truth, exhibiting the meekness of the Lord in your intercourse with one another, and despising no one. When you can do good, defer it not, because "alms delivers from death." Be all of you subject one to another, "having your conduct blameless among the Gentiles," that ye may both receive praise for your good works, and the Lord may not be blasphemed through you. But woe to him by whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed! Teach, therefore, sobriety to all, and manifest it also in your own conduct.

St. Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians (first half of the second century)

Strictly speaking, the Letter to the Philippians is less a letter than a treatise on virtue. The other extant texts associated with Polycarp are (1) the Letter from the Church of Smyrna on the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which was written probably in the third quarter of the second century, assuming that the traditional date for Polycarp's death (155/156) is more or less right; and (2) the earlier Letter to Polycarp from Ignatius of Antioch (St. Ignatius was martyred in the first quarter of the second century). As with all ancient texts, our certainty that these are genuine and dated properly is less than perfect; but while the evidence is very limited, it tends to favor authenticity and the traditional dates, thus making texts like these important for understanding something of the beliefs and interactions of second-century Christian communities. Plus, as I've said before, I think there is good reason to think the Letter to the Philippians, as well as the Clementine and Ignatian letters, to be inspired (albeit not in a canonical way -- canonical inspiration has to do with the way the Church is inspired to use the text).

Diminishing and Non-Diminishing Qualifications

Consider the following two inferences:

(1) The car is rubber with respect to its tires; therefore the car is rubber.

(2) The man is blond with respect to his hair; therefore the man is blond.

The first is obviously a bad inference (assuming we are not understanding the conclusion in a peculiarly restricted way); while the second is obviously a good inference. The difference between the two has to do with the nature of the qualification. The qualification in the first is what we can call a 'diminishing qualification'; the qualification in the second is what we can call a 'non-diminishing qualification'. Diminishing qualifications make the inference from the qualified version ('The car is rubber with respect to its tires') to the unqualified version ('The car is rubber') illegitimate, because the qualification 'diminishes' or restricts what would otherwise be the natural application of the predicate. In a non-diminishing qualification, however, the qualification doesn't restrict the natural application of the predicate. 'With respect to his hair' clarifies, perhaps, the way in which a man is blond; but it does not restrict the way in which a man is blond.

This distinction between diminishing and non-diminishing qualifications has relevance to the analysis of reduplicative propositions. The failure to make the distinction is also at the heart of a number of sophisms.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

On Treating Women Better than Men are Treated

One of the weaknesses in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is that it often makes it sound as if the primary thing were to treat women as men are treated. The reason this is a weakness is that, looking around at the world, men aren't really treated that well. Indeed, you can't appreciate just how terribly women are treated unless you see just how poorly men are treated, and see the scandal that women often don't even have the very limited advantages of most men. However, sometimes Beauvoir shows recognition of this problem, particularly when her socialism comes to the fore, as in this passage on working-class women:

We must not lose sight of those facts which make the question of woman's labor a complex one. An important and thoughtful woman recently made a study of the women in the Renault factories; she states that they would prefer to stay in the home rather than work in the factory. There is no doubt that they get economic independence only as members of a class which is economically oppressed; and, on the other hand, their jobs at the factory do not relieve them of housekeeping burdens. If they had been asked to choose between forty hours of work a week in the factory and forty hours of work a week in the home, they would doubtless have furnished quite different answers. And perhaps they would cheerfully accept both jobs, if as factory workers they were to be integrated in a world that would be theirs, in the development of which they would joyfully and proudly share.

[Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Parshley tr.) p. 680]

And this, I think, close to the point: it's not enough to treat women as men are treated now; both women and men need to be treated better than men are treated now. In many cases it is more clearly crucial in the case of women; and as an interim measure, the goal of equalization is quite reasonable. But equalization is a means, not an end, because we should not stop moral progress at mere equality. People can equally be treated badly; and this is just not good enough.

Aquinas on Individuation of Separate Substances

Thomas Aquinas's theory of individuation is often misunderstood. Aquinas does hold that the principle of individuation for material things is matter, but (contrary to what seems to be a common belief) this is not his whole account of individuation. The following passages from the De Unitate (Chapter V) clarify things a bit.

Nor is it true to say that every number is caused by matter, for then Aristotle would have inquired in vain after the number of separated substances. For Aristotle says in Book Five of the Metaphysics that `many' is said not only numerically but specifically and generically. Nor is it true that separate substance is not singular and individuated, otherwise it would have no operation, since acts belong only to singulars, as the Philosopher says; hence he argues against Plato in Book Seven of the Metaphysics that if the Idea is separate, it will not be predicated of many, nor will it be definable any more than other individuals which are unique in their species, like the sun and moon. Matter is the principle of individuation in material things insofar as matter is not shareable by many, since it is the first subject not existing in another. Hence Aristotle says that if the Idea were separate "it would be something, that is, an individual, which it would be impossible to predicate of many."

Separate substances, therefore, are individual and singular, but they are individuated not by matter but by this: that it is not their nature to exist in another and consequently to be participated in by many. From which it follows that if any form is of a nature to be participated in by something, such that it be the act of some matter, it can be individuated and multiplied by comparison with matter. It has already been shown above that the intellect is a power of the soul which is the act of the body. Therefore in many bodies there are many souls and in many souls there are many intellectual powers, that is, intellects. Nor does it follow from this that the intellect is a material power, as has been shown.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Opus Dei must be the new Society of Jesus. I laughed at this post and thread at "The Curt Jester." The Jesuits once did this sort of thing. Are the Jesuits in a ruthless and invincible conspiracy to control Western civilization? Well, if they aren't, then why not learn about them so you won't be mistaken? And if they are, why fight them when you can join them?

This is the Jesuit joke you tell to people who aren't in religious orders. One day a priest was visiting one of his parishioners, and, asking about her teenage son, discovered that she was worried about what career he would choose. The priest said he could tell by a simple test. He put on the coffee table a Bible, a wallet, and a bottle of scotch.

"If he chooses the Bible," the priest told her, "that's a sign he's destined for the priesthood. If he chooses the wallet, he's called to be a banker. And if he chooses the bottle of scotch, he's bound to become a bum."

The teenager came in and the priest told him he could have any object on the table. The boy picked up all three.

"Oh no!" the priest shouted. "He's going to be a Jesuit!"

But this is the one you tell to a Jesuit. The Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits were having a meeting when suddenly all the lights went out. Without a moment's hesitation, the Franciscans all took out their guitars and began to sing. In the next moment, the Dominicans all stood up and began to preach. In the next moment, the Jesuits all sighed, then went to the basement and replaced the fuse.

This is the Jesuit joke you tell to a Dominican. A Dominican and a Jesuit were arguing about whether the Dominicans or the Jesuits were more favored by God. Finally, they decided that the only one who could settle the matter was God. So they prayed, the heavens opened up, and a piece of paper came fluttering down. When they picked it up, this is what it said,

My children,

Please stop quarreling about such absurd and trivial matters.

God, O.P.

This is the Jesuit joke you tell to a Franciscan. A Jesuit and a Franciscan were eating a meal together, and after dinner, they treated themselves to leftover pie. Alas, there were only two pieces left, one much larger than the other. Without any hesitation, the Jesuit reached over and took the larger piece.

"St. Francis always taught us to take the lesser piece," the Franciscan said reproachfully.

"And so you have it," the Jesuit replied.

Unless he's good at Latin, in which you tell him this one. A Franciscan and Jesuit were walking in a forest, and the Jesuit noticed that there was an echo. Thinking to play a prank on his companion, the Jesuit shouted out in Latin:

"Quod est Franciscanorum regula?" (What is the rule of the Franciscans?)

And the echo replied:

"Gula, gula, gula." (Gluttony, gluttony, gluttony)

In a heartbeat the Franciscan shouted out:

"Fuitne Judas Jesuita?" (Was Judas a Jesuit?)

And the echo replied:

"Ita, ita, ita." (Yes, yes, yes.)

But this is the Franciscan joke you tell to a Jesuit. A Jesuit and a Franciscan were involved in a car accident. Hurriedly they got out to make sure the other person was OK, each insisting that it was probably his own fault.

Then the Jesuit, very concerned for his fellow religious, said, "You look very badly shaken up. You could probably use a stiff drink." At that he produced a flask, and the Franciscan, who was indeed a bit shaken up, took it gratefully.

"One more and I'm sure you'll be feeling fine," the Jesuit said, and the Franciscan took another. Then the Jesuit took the flask and put it safely away.

"You look a bit shaken up yourself," the Franciscan said. "Are you sure you don't want to take a bit?"

The Jesuit replied, "Oh, I certainly will; but I think I'll wait until after the police arrive."

The Mercy of Allah

The Internet Archive has a very nice copy of Hilaire Belloc's The Mercy of Allah online (HT: In illo tempore). The Mercy of Allah, a delightful story about a swindling rascal, is a biting satire of capitalism and what might be called 'capitalist piety', i.e., the sort of capitalism that is constantly appealing to its public-spiritedness and generosity.

Pietro Damiani

Today is the feast of a saint who has one of the coolest names in history: Pietro Damiani. It just rolls off the tongue like a party.

Peter Damian (1007-1072) is a Doctor of the Church; he was a well-known instance of a tell-it-like-it-is monk (Benedictine), who spent a great deal of his life attacking abuses (particularly simony and sexual abuses) in the church. His most famous work in this regard was the no-holds-barred Liber Gomorrhianus, which earned him the enmity of more than a few people (and a protest letter from the pope, Leo IX, who liked Damian but thought he went a bit overboard). He was eventually made a cardinal; but the pope of the time, Stephen X, had to threaten him with excommunication to get him to accept it. Every time a new pope came to power he would plead -- or sometimes demand, since he was that sort of person -- to be released from the responsibilities of being a cardinal; but his request was steadfastly refused. He played a major role in the schisms of the time. He is often referred to as the Doctor of Reform and Renewal. He is a terribly stern and severe but occasonally very likable figure in history; a very emblem of the fire of moral purification.

One of his more important and influential works is the treatise De divina omnipotentia. Paul Vincent Spade has translated and placed online selections from that work (PDF). You can also find online a letter from Peter on simony. The Medieval Sourcebook has a small selection from the Liber Gomorrhianus. Also available online is a selection from Peter's Life of St. Romuald of Ravenna

Platinum Rule

Loren Rosson has a series of posts (Part I, Part II, Part III) on 'the Platinum Rule'.

The Golden Rule, you will recall, is:

Do unto others as you would want done unto you.

What is often called the Silver Rule is more common, however:

Do not do unto others as you would not want done unto you.

Despite apparent differences, I think it can be shown that the two are highly convertible -- that is, you can turn GR into SR and back again with just a few very plausible suppositions -- so I will for convenience simply heap them together. This shouldn't affect anything that follows, however.

The so-called 'Platinum Rule' is:

Do unto others as they would want done to them.

Rosson suggests that this is a better adage than GR. I have seen this claim elsewhere, but I am not at all convinced; in particular, I think it can be easily shown that it is simply inferior to GR/SR.

A bit of terminology before the argument. A 'maxim' is a subjective principle of volition. For instance, if I act in order to be honest, the maxim of my action is 'Be honest'. There are, however, different roles maxims can take. Some maxims, for instance, are themselves maxim-sorters -- dominant imperatives that are used deliberately in such a way that they act as sorting rules, giving us guidance as to what maxims our actions should exemplify. To be a successful sorting rule, a maxim must exemplify the following properties:

(1) It must admit of genuinely practical application (it must be flexible, relatively easy to apply, and relevant);
(2) It must be capable of being used in a stable way through a wide variety of circumstantial differences;
(3) It must be capable of a maximal application.

(1) is necessary if it is to sort anything at all; (2) is necessary for it to be useful as a general rule; and (3) is necessary for it to be applied systematically and thoroughly.

It is clear that GR/SR-type rules are put forward by people like Jesus and Confucius not as particular maxims but as sorting maxims. It is at once very easy to see why GR/SR would be good in this role. (1) They piggy-back on our actual mechanisms of moral cognition: sympathy, positing of impartial observers. This means that they are able to give more than the (2) They do this in an epistemically open way -- that is, they refer moral behavior to something (one's own total interests) that everyone is in a position to know, if they try. (3) They are self-consistent at maximal application. (4) They are capable of operating both at very concrete levels and at very abstract levels, so they are able to remain stable and self-consistent through a wide variety of different situations. Most of the arguments against GR/SR on close examination turn out to suppose that they are not maximally applied -- that is, the presupposition is that they are not systematically and thoroughly applied, so that it is possible to engage in reciprocity at one level of generality (e.g., exposing someone to the classical music you yourself like, because you would like to be so exposed) that violates reciprocity at a more general level (e.g., not exposing someone to music they find temperamentally unpleasant, because you would not like to be exposed to music you find temperamentally unpleasant). When we suppose maximal application, however, problems like these disappear.

Now, the first thing to note about PR is that, unlike GR/SR it is not epistemically open. While we do have some ability to discern the wants of others, we generally have only a limited and superficial access to their total interests. In restricted circumstances this would not be a problem at all. For instance, if we are offering a service, our superficial and limited acquaintance with our customers may well be all we need to know, because all we will need to know under the circumstances are those wants and interests that are relevant to the service we are offering. Even in such a case, of course, determining the relevant wants can be very difficult unless we already have in place reliable mechanisms to determine what other people want. If we do not, we have no way of putting PR into genuine practice at all -- we could easily think we are acting in accordance with PR when, in fact, we are merely making false suppositions about what people want, based on stereotype, confusion, misinformation, or faulty inference. In other words, we can only apply PR if we are in a position to know -- genuinely know -- all the relevant wants and interests of the people around us. It's noteworthy that GR/SR, in contrast, is not only epistemically open (it posits a reference-point for each of us that each of us is in a position to know), it allows us to use whatever limited information we have about other people's wants and interests in any case where we would regard such information about our own wants and interests as relevant to how we are treated. In so doing, it gives us at least a limited guidance as to what we should be doing to gain information about other people, and what level of information is sufficient for action. PR, despite depending crucially on these matters, does not.

The second thing to note is that PR is clearly not capable of maximal application. GR/SR, by positing one reference-point, make it relatively easy to sort out any conflicts simply through more careful and deliberate thought about one's total interests. PR, by positing an irreducibly plural reference-point, makes unresolvable conflict inevitable. It is one of the most salient and important facts about human life that people have very different wants and interests. This is one of the reasons why we need to have general rules and maxims in the first place, rather than naively following our own self-interest without consideration of other people. But if we act according to PR we will inevitably find ourselves forced to balance one group's wants (or one person's wants) against another group's wants (or another person's wants). PR, unlike GR/SR, gives us no way to do so.

So, my conclusion is that PR is actually inferior to GR/SR, and by quite a bit. This does not, of course, forestall the possibility that some other sorting rule (e.g., Kant's categorical imperative) is superior to them all, nor does it mean that PR might not be exactly what one would need in certain circumstances. This argument also doesn't get into another important issue. GR/SR were not given in a void, nor were they given as fundamental principles of morality. Instead, they were given as ways to facilitate the following of a morality that was already known (the law and the prophets in the case of Jesus' recommendation of GR, the humane life of the noble in the case of Confucius' recommendation of SR, etc.). GR/SR is a summarizing principle, not a grounding one. How seriously should we take this presupposed context in considering the rule? On the one hand, GR/SR is put forward as a general principle. On the other, GR/SR is put forward to people who are already presumed to know, more or less, what they ought to do, and just need help seeing the primary point of it in order to keep track of it all. Can GR/SR be used in a contextual void as Kant (probably wrongly) thinks the categorical imperative can? I'm inclined to think not: GR/SR is only of use if you've already been brought up in a moral system. Moral systems can be very complex, and GR/SR can be useful in summarizing its primary point and preventing you from falling into rote legalism. But I think it really does presuppose that you already know, more or less, what to do. (Another possible question: Can someone get around some of the problems with PR by bringing a similar type of context into play?) This is a complicated issue, however, and I'll leave it out there as food for thought.

Hume and the Natural History of Religion

I haven't read Wieseltier's review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell, since I don't generally read New York Times book reviews, and don't have a subscription to get behind the subscription wall. I notice, however, from the extracts that are occasionally put forward in responses to it, that the review briefly discusses Hume's Natural History of Religion. NHR is a very tricky book, so I thought I would say a few things to aid people in evaluating that part of the review. I have previously summarized the argument; I recommend you read that first.

(1) Wieseltier is right that in NHR Hume explicitly insists that the design inference to God's existence is rational and obvious. There appear to be three options for interpretation:

(a) Hume is, for some reason or other, lying, or, as we usually say, 'being ironic';

(b) Since Hume is explicitly setting aside rational arguments for God's existence in order to look at the original history of theistic opinions, he is simply conceding as much to the rational side as he can, without committing himself to anything in particular;

(c) Hume does accept the design inference in some form, and is just not discussing here the sense in which he accepts it.

The position suggested by (a) is very implausible, since part of Hume's argument that the original religion was polytheistic won't work if it is not true that the conclusion to a designer from the frame of nature is rational and obvious. (b) has some difficulty with this as well, but can, I think, be formulated in a way that can handle the problem. So either (b) or (c) or some combination of the two seems the right way to interpret NHR's comments on the subject.

(2) The question of whether Hume was, strictly speaking, an atheist, is one of the bugbear problems of Hume scholarship; I have a whole box of issues of Hume Studies for the past twenty years that underline how complicated this controversy is. We can distinguish, as a number of people have, a spectrum of possible opinions:

(a) strong theism: The most notable examples of philosophical strong theists in the early modern period would have been the Cartesians. A strong theism not only involves belief that there is a God, but belief that this God has a robust set of properties (e.g., infinity, omniscience, omnipresence).

(b) weak theism: The weak theist believes in God in some sense, but very little commitment to further attributes.

(c) weak atheism: The weak atheist believes there is no God, but is willing to allow that the theist is probably on to something. From this atheistic perspective, the problem with theism is exaggeration -- to put it roughly, the theist recognizes some genuine facet of the universe, but makes too much of it.

(d) strong atheism: Strong atheists believe there is no God and are not willing to allow to the theist as much as the weak atheist is.

Both (a) and (d) are very improbable interpretations of Hume. For one thing, in his public writings Hume always positions himself as a theist; but he argues at great length against strong theism. Russell's article at SEP on Hume's religion has a good discussion of exactly where Hume falls. My own sense is that Hume wavers between (b) and (c) (in the Dialogues he argues that their only difference is one of emphasis); but any position here is underdetermined by the evidence. One of the reasons Russell is one of the top scholars doing philosophy of religion is that he has managed to come up with some rather ingenious arguments that expand the field of evidence; but he takes a stronger position on Hume's leanings toward atheism than seems to be generally accepted. For instance, the point he makes in the article about the alternative analogies in the Dialogues is only telling if we assume a certain approach to analogical inferences. If Hume still has in mind an account of such inferences like the one he gave in the Treatise, however, the alternative analogies don't eliminate the design inference. Indeed, if Hume still accepts such an account of analogy, he is committed to the analogy he gives in the Dialogues, and the only question is how much can actually be concluded on the basis of it (this is, in fact, exactly the way he sets up the discussion). Likewise, Russell's mention of the end of NHR (the "riddle, enigma, inexplicable mystery" passage) isn't really relevant, because it is clear in context that Hume is referring to the conclusion he has just finished coming to: that both monotheism and polytheism are bad for morals, but that the more rational view (monotheism) is worse for morals than the less rational view (polytheism), and that none of these would be expected just from surveying the doctrines in question. Russell is right, though, that 'irreligion' is a better label for Hume's position than 'atheism' (it is also closer to what Hume's contemporaries meant when they called him an atheist than our own term 'atheist' is).

Hume at a Dinner Party

The first time that M. Hume found himself at the table of the Baron, he was seated beside him. I don't know for what purpose the English philosopher took it into his head to remark to the Baron that he did not believe in atheists, that he had never seen any. The Baron said to him: "Count how many we are here." We are eighteen. The Baron added: "It isn't too bad a showing to be able to point out to you fifteen at once: the three others haven't made up their minds."

[Diderot, quoted in Mossner, Life of David Hume, p. 483]

The Baron in question was Baron d'Holbach, the well-known French atheist.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Links for Noting

* A fascinating discussion of the history of the principle of double effect: Reevaluating the Historical Evolution of Double Effect by Eric Rovie

* Macht discusses a misinterpretation of Aquinas on faith. The background question to the discussion is: Does Aquinas, in his discussion on the faith of demons, commit himself to saying that believing without any good evidence is more to be praised than believing on evidence?

* The SEP has an article on African Sage Philosophy (HT: prosthesis). I have previously argued that worked done in this area should be of particular interest to Christians in philosophy.

* Simplicity links: Robert Skipper has an interesting post on parsimony in science; which should be read with the recent discussion of simplicity at Certain Doubts; and with Michael Huemer's discussion of appeals to parsimony in philosophy (PDF; there is a discussion of it here) and Kevin Kelly's discussions of appeals to it in science (PDF) and of Ockham's Razor (PDF).

* The Philosophy Carnival is up at Hesperus/Phosphorus.

* At Thirdspace there's a very cool article on academic research and blogging by blogger Natalie Bennett: Resurrecting our Foremothers: My Hopes as a Biographer, Journalist, and Blogger.

* The ninth Poetry Carnival will be at "Philosophical Poetry"; the theme is Dissent. Entries are due Feb. 26.

* UPDATE: At "Sexless in the City" Anna Broadway has two lovely posts on world-renouncing vs. world-embracing: Sex and death, part I; Sex and death, part II. See also her recent Godspy essay.

Butler on Personal Substance and Identity

Every person is conscious, that he is now the same person or self he was, as far back as his remembrance reaches; since, when any one reflects upon a past action of his own he is just as certain of the person who did that action, namely himself, the person who now reflects upon it, as he is certain that the action was at all done. Nay, very often a person's assurance of an action having been done, of which he is absolutely assured, arises wholly from the consciousness that he himself did it. And this he, person, or self, must either be a substance, or the property of some substance. If he, if person, to be a substance; then consciousness that he is the same person, is consciousness that he is the same substance. If the person, or he, be the property of a substance; still consciousness that he is the same property, is as certain a proof that his substance remains the same, as consciousness that he remains the same substance would be; since the same property cannot be transferred from one substance to another.

Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Dissertation I: Of Personal Identity.

Material Constitution and the Trinity

At The Prosblogion, Matthew Mullins recently had a few posts on the material constitution approach to the problem of the Trinity, discussing the following papers:

Brower and Rea, Understanding the Trinity (PDF)
Rea and Brower, Material Constitution and the Trinity (PDF)
Craig, Does the Problem of Material Constitution Illuminate the Trinity?

I've already pointed out that my view of the problem of the Trinity is that the rumors of it are greatly exaggerated; but it's still worthwhile to consider what this approach might yield. I don't have a full-blown position on this, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

Suppose we have a lump of clay that is formed into a statue. What is the relation between the lump of clay and the statue it makes up? As Baker notes in her article, Unity Without Identity: A New Look at Material Constitution (PDF) it's fairly common to assume the following dichotomy:

For any x and y that are related as the lump of clay is to the statue that it makes up, either x is identical to y, or x and y are separate entities, independent of each other.

To say that x and y are related by a constitution-relation is to say that this dichotomy should be rejected: we are not forced to choose between identity and separate entity, because it is possible for things to be non-identical but non-separate. In other words, if x constitutes y, x is not identical to y, but y 'borrows' something of its nature from x, so they are not separate. As Baker puts the point:

We need constitution to be similar to identity in order to account for the fact that if x constitutes y, then x and y are spatially coincident and share many properties; but we also need constitution to differ from identity in order to account for the fact that if x constitutes y, then x and y are of different kinds and can survive different sorts of changes.

So we have constitution as identity-like, but not a form of identity.

When people appeal to this in Trinitarian discussions as an analogy, they can be doing several things. Their primary concern, for instance, could be to reject some equivalent of the dichotomy above, namely,

Either the Father and the Son are both identical to God, or at least one of the two (Father and Son) is a separate entity from God.


Either the Father and the Son are simply identical to each other, or they are separate entities.

This use of the material constitution analogy points out that things are not so simple: there is at least one other sort of relation (constitution) which requires neither identity nor separation, so it could well be that the relation between the Father and God (for instance) is analogous to this. It is this that Rea and Brower are talking about when they are talking about numerical sameness without identity. In essence, this use of the analogy just means: we should not be too quick to rule out the Trinity on considerations of identity, because we need to consider complications like those we find in material constitution problems.

Well and good. But one could go further, as Rea and Brower do, and hold that the Trinity is not merely analogous to material constitution in the rejection of the identity/separation dichotomy, but that the Trinity is itself analogous to an actual case of material constitution. As they say in "Material Constitution and the Trinity":

For like the familiar particulars of experience, the Persons of the Trinity can also be conceived of in terms of hylomorphic compounds. Thus, we can think of the divine essence as playing the role of matter; and we can regard the properties being a Father, being a Son, and being a Spirit as distinct forms instantiated by the divine essence, each giving rise to a distinct Person. As in the case of matter, moreover, we can regard the divine essence not as an individual thing in its own right but rather as that which, together with the requisite "form", constitutes a Person. Each Person will then be a compound structure whose matter is the divine essence and whose form is one of the three distinctive Trinitarian properties. On this way of thinking, the Persons of the Trinity are directly analogous to particulars that stand in the familiar relation of material constitution.

This is a much stronger use of the analogy; while Rea and Brower note that there are disanalogies, this involves thinking of the Trinity on the model of a particular case of material constitution. It is also, I think, a much more dubious, or at least more problematic, use of the analogy, as Craig points out in his response. (I am less convinced by Craig's wholesale rejection of numerical sameness without identity, since his objection about diachronic identity can fairly easily be handled by material constitution views, like Baker's, for instance. But it's possible -- I'd need to look more closely -- that the problem here is not Craig but the particular version of material constitution formulated by Brower and Rea.)

Incidentally, Craig and Moreland have proposed a different approach that, perhaps equally odd, should at least be better known than it is (I think it is untenable, but it's worthy of mention), namely, that the analogy should be to one soul with three sets of rational faculties. I think something similar may be said about it: the analogy might just be used in such a way that it points out a complication that should induce us to be wary about jumping to the conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity is inconsistent. Or we could use it in a stronger way as a (perhaps fuzzy) parallel; in which case it is quite as dubious as, and perhaps even more problematic than, the stronger use of the material constitution analogy, since it appears to cut directly against the tendency of all the ecumenical councils from at least Ephesus on (in particular, I think it ends up wreaking havoc with consubstantiality and the unity of the Trinity as traditionally understood). In other words, the strong Craig-Moreland analogy does no more to illuminate the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity than the strong Brower-Rea analogy, although it perhaps shows how one might formulate a doctrine of the Trinity.

Pure Act

Alan Rhoda has an interesting discussion of 'pure act' in Thomas Aquinas (HT: FQI). The issue is complicated by the fact that Aquinas recognizes a category called 'active potency', which is often what is really at stake when we talk about 'potentiality'. It contrasts, however, with 'passive potency', which is potentiality in the proper sense. Thus we cannot assume that merely because we characterize something as a 'reception' or 'undergoing' or even 'potentiality' that it would contradict the pure act thesis. This, in fact, becomes especially clear with personal activities: welcoming involves reception, but it is an active reception: in other words, it is a type of actuality. Its actuality is properly and directly signified by saying that it is, or it exists, or it has being, rather than by saying that it (merely) could be, or is (merely) able to be, or (only) can exist.

The relation between the term 'perfection' and the term 'actuality' is easier, because they turn out to be the same thing given the Aristotelian account of motion. 'Motion' in the Aristotelian sense involves a point from which the change begins and a point at which it is completed; this completion is just called perfection, which is why (in certain contexts) 'perfectio' can often be translated as 'completion'. If something is perfected, it has become actually X (or X 'in act' as it's often translated), where X is the end of some some change from potentially being X. In the case of God, the term 'perfection' can't have precisely this meaning; this is, in a sense, the whole point of saying that God is 'pure act': God can't be perfected by anything. This is why Aquinas has to take the trouble to consider whether God can legitimately be called perfect.

On the issue of determinism, Aquinas too holds that we are self-moved movers; he simply denies that we are first movers. In other words, our self-motion is not a violation of the principle that everything moved must be moved by another; it is simply an instance in which the thing being moved actively contributes (insofar as it is already actual) to the particular form its being moved takes. So I don't think there are any deterministic implications lurking here. But this is a complicated issue that was hotly debated in the scholastic era; Scotus, for example, insists that self-motion does violate the principle that everything moved must be moved by another, and so proves it to be false. In either case, however, God is not considered to be self-moved; he is first mover. When he creates or acts in relation to creation he doesn't need to actualize anything in Himself (there is nothing actually in Him to which we can refer and say "Now He merely can be this, now He actually is this"); He actualizes the potential of other things. So (to put it roughly) when God creates, He doesn't (properly speaking) actualize his potential to be Creator; He actualizes the potential of other things to be created. In other words, we can't assume that such a change involves a change in divine states rather than a change in states of non-divine things. There are a lot of complications that would have to be taken into account here. But I think that the pure act doctrines -- simplicity, infinity, immutability, impassibility, eternity, omnipresence -- are all easy enough to defend; the difficulty lies not in defending them, since there's lots to be said for each when they are properly understood, but in avoiding slips into equivocation (because, if they are true, God is very different from most things we experience, and so we must proceed very carefully in talking about Him).

There are lots of complicated issues and puzzles in the pure act thesis, both those above and many others; I'm glad people are discussing them.