Saturday, June 10, 2006

Definition as Part of Discovery

I thought this passage from Whewell was interesting in light of my recent post on proving before defining:

The business of Definition is part of the business of discovery. When it has been clearly seen what ought to be our Definition, it must be pretty well known what truth we have to state. The Definition, as well as the discovery, supposes a decided step in our knowledge to have been made. The writers on Logic in the middle ages, made Definition the last stage in the progress of knowledge; and in this arrangment at least, the history of science, and the philosophy derived from the history, confirm their speculative views. If the Explication of our Conceptions ever assume the form of a Definition, this will come to pass, not as an arbitrary process, or as a matter of course, but as the mark of one those happy efforts of sagacity to which all the sucessive advances of our knowledge are owing.

William Whewell, Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, vol. 2 (John W. Parker: 1847) p. 16.

The Sympathetic Counterfactual

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.

Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments 1.1.1

Friday, June 09, 2006

Ephrem the Syrian

I almost forgot, despite deliberately intending not to do so -- today is the feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian in the Catholic calendar, at least for many places (his feast is January 28 in the Orthodox calendar). What follows is a selection from Ephrem's Hymn against Bardaisan:

There is One Being, who knows Himself and sees Himself.
He dwells in Himself,
And from Himself sets forth.
Glory to His Name.
This is a Being who by His own will is in every place,
Who is invisible and visible,
Manifest and secret.
He is above and below.

Mingling and condescending by His grace among the lower;
Loftier and more exalted, as befits His glory, than the higher.
The swift cannot exceed His swiftness,
Nor the slow outlast His patience.

He is before all and after all,
And in the midst of all.
He is like the sea,
In that all creation moves in Him.
As the waters beset the fish in all their movements,
The Creator is clad with everything which is made,
Both great and small.
And as the fish are hidden in the water,
There is hidden in God height and depth,
Far and near,
And the inhabitants thereof.
And as the water meets the fishes everywhere it goes,
So God meets everyone who walks.
And as the water touches the fish at every turn it makes,
God accompanies and sees every man in all his deeds.

Men cannot move the earth which is their chariot,
Neither does anyone go far from the Just One who is his associate.
The Good One is united to the body,
And light to the eyes.
A man is not able to flee from his soul,
For it is with him.
Nor is a man hid from the Good,
For He besets him.
As the water surrounds the fish and it feels it,
So also do all natures feel God.

"Atheism is the secret of religion."

That phrase is found early on in Feuerbach's classic work in the philosophy of religion, The Essence of Christianity. I've been intending for a while to have a post about Feuerbach's atheism; some recent discussion of atheism at Pharyngula, Pandagon, and Moderate Left has led me to post it sooner rather than later.

There is a sense in which Feuerbach utterly rejects religion and a sense in which his atheism is very religious. The reason for this apparent paradox is Feuerbach's view of what religion is. According to him, human beings in their attempts to deal with the world objectify their own being -- are alienated from it -- and then takes this objectified being as an absolute subject of which he is an object. In other words, in our attempts to understand ourselves and the world, we develop a sort of self-consciousness; this self-consciousness splits (so to speak) when we take features of our nature and treat them (due to sentiments of longing, wish-fulfillment, and imagination) as an individual person or being or force standing over against us, to which we are somehow subject. We start by taking it as our object, and then begin to think of ourselves as its object. Man's God is Man(Homo homini deus). As he states it in Part I, Chapter II:

Religion is the disuniting of man from himself; he sets God before him as the antithesis of himself God is not what man is – man is not what God is. God is the infinite, man the finite being; God is perfect, man imperfect; God eternal, man temporal; God almighty, man weak; God holy, man sinful. God and man are extremes: God is the absolutely positive, the sum of all realities; man the absolutely negative, comprehending all negations.

But in religion man contemplates his own latent nature. Hence it must be shown that this antithesis, this differencing of God and man, with which religion begins, is a differencing of man with his own nature.

This dialectic plays an important role in our coming to know ourselves -- finite minds come to understand themselves by externalizing themselves (in unlimited form) in the idea of God (or whatever is taken as equivalent to it); the last stage of self-knowledge is to recognize that the idea of God is simply a stage in the finite mind's understanding of itself. Religion is an aspect of our drive to live and know, and plays a key role in our growth into moral self-understanding.

Taken this way, we can see why Feuerbach is in one sense a sharp critique of religion and in another sense is highly religious. On this view, religionists are in a state of utter confusion; they are caught in the grip of wish-fulfillment and rational self-contradictions. However, on this view it is also true that the problem with religionists is not that they are religious, but that they become religious and stop, rather than continuing on to greater self-knowledge. Thus one way to put the view is this: there is a true essence of religion (an anthropological one, in which religious claims are understood as part of the finite mind's self-understanding) and there is a false essence of religion (a theological one, in which religious claims are taken in such a way that the human beings are objectifying their own humanity and not recognizing that they are doing so). The anthropological aspect of religion is a fundamentally important aspect of our moral life; the theological aspect is something that needs to be overcome, because theology is philosophical anthropology misunderstood. Because of this twist, Feuerbach was often criticized by other atheists as simply replacing one mysterious abstraction (the divine) with another (the human) -- the worship of abstract man, as Marx calls it somewhere. In other words, we have an abstract Rational Being doing most of what 'God' does in religious discourse, but called 'Man' rather than 'God'. Because of this Feuerbach in later works attempts to root the formulation of his position in the more concrete and sensuous life of actual human individuals, and to look more closely at confusion of names and things in theological discourse.

It was his earlier work, however, that primarily influenced nineteenth-century atheism (although the later work is perhaps more important for Marx and Engels, who are heavily influenced by Feuerbach), and it is this type of atheism that is typically considered to be Feuerbachian: Religion taken as the religionist takes it is a confusion and error, but it serves an existential function that nothing else does. The religionist is on to something; he has discovered genuine truth. His error lies in his interpretation of this genuine truth, which Feuerbach thinks is obviously confused, self-contradictory, and naively wish-fulfilling. Nonetheless, there is an atheistic interpretation under which the genuine truth of religion shows through. The only complete atheist is the religious atheist: and the reason the religious atheist is complete is that he has transcended the bounds of religionism. He is an atheist not by subtracting God from his worldview; he is an atheist by transcending God in his self-understanding. He takes the rich treasure of self-understanding lying hidden in religious life and transfigures it into an atheistic and naturalistic worldview in order to deepen his life as a human being. Atheism is not a more bare and limited position than theism; it is a richer and less limited position. Indeed, in a sense, the atheist is more religious than any religionist, because he has taken what was good in the religionist's position, but has cast away all the limits of it. Religion must be taken out of the field of faith and put into the field of reason. Such is (more or less, allowing for variation among different Feuerbachians) the Feuerbachian attitude to religion and atheism.

The most famous Feuerbachian is perhaps George Eliot, who translated The Essence of Christianity into English. Like all Feuerbachians, she's very eclectic, so it would be a mistake to treat her Feuerbachian side too narrowly, without taking into account the influences of Lewes, Comte, and the like. But she is very definitely Feuerbachian (as she says in one place, "With the ideas of Feuerbach I everywhere agree") it is in part because of her Feuerbachian approach to religion that we get some of Eliot's richness: she can be sharply critical of religious attitudes, but can also be very sympathetic towards them (as she is to Savonarola in Romola). The reason is that from her perspective religion is an error: but it is an error worth learning from. Eliot has a Comtean view that the human race has passed through three stages: theological (explaining the world mythically), metaphysical (the theological is refined and corrected), and positivist (we finally break through from abstract and obscure forces). Like any positivist (in the broad sense -- in her, Feuerbach modifes and broadens the narrow Comtean conception), Eliot thinks the positive attitude (again, in a very broad sense) is the right one; however, some of her works (Romola, again, is the most obvious example) criticize the view that you can simply be positivist by repudiating the theological perspective (like popular Christianity) and the metaphysical perspective (like more abstract philosophical deisms). That way lies disaster and self-deception. It's not quite the suggestion that you can't be an adequate positivist without having gone through these two stages yourself; rather, it's more of an implication that adequate positivism requires these two stages to have been gone through, generally, and that the positivist transcends rather than simply denies the theological and metaphysical. And this is where Eliot diverges from Comtean positivism in a Feuerbachian direction. For Eliot there is an essential connection between religion and morality; for her, as for Feuerbach, the problem with the religionist is that he stops with his religious views rather than seeing them as what they are, a form of moral thought that has been objectified as external to us. However, precisely because of this, Eliot makes considerable use of religious ideas -- many religious ideas are exactly right, as far as they go, but not under the interpretation the typical religionist wants to impose. And, what is more, those who cut themselves off from this source of moral thought stunt themselves: simply subtracting God rather than transcending God, they fail to come to an adequate self-knowledge. They are trying to reach the end of the dialectic of self-understanding without learning the truths that can be gathered from the self-objectification religion brings.

This characterization of the role played by Feuerbachian ideas in Eliot's work is a bit crude and simplified, and no doubt The Little Professor and other scholars of the Victorian novel could point out refinements that might be needed. But I think Eliot provides a good example of the sort of thing you can get in Feuerbach-style atheisms -- there are many variations, of course, since almost everyone diverges from Feuerbach in precise details -- which I think tend to be the most interesting sorts of atheism. It's relevant to the posts linked to at the beginning, in the sense that much of the discussion, especially in the comments boxes, tended to assume that no atheist would find religion to be anything but error, and that no atheist would hold that there is an essential and unbreakable link between religion and morality. But this is certainly false of almost any Feuerbachian atheist. It goes to show you how complicated this topic can get, and how diverse atheists are, when even atheists underestimate the diversity of atheists.

You can read selections from Feuerbach's works at the Feuerbach Internet Archive.

And all this science I don't understand...

...It's just a job, five days a week. William Shatner sings Rocket Man. (HT: Cosmic Variance) Shatner once said, "Music is one of the most important parts of my life. Unfortunately, I can't sing." It's nice to know that inability isn't necessarily an impediment to doing things. Shatner's best bit of comedy, of course, is his parody of the Molson commercials with the "I Am Canadian" rant.

The Ever-Changing Blogosphere

A number of science bloggers I read (regularly or occasionally) are setting up shop at ScienceBlogs; notables from my sidebar are Chris at Mixing Memory and Coturnix at Science and Politics, who is combining several of his blogs into one, A Blog Around the Clock. ScienceBlogs isn't a mere addition to the blogosphere; it's a revolution, since it is changing how a small but formidable portion of the blogosphere works. HNN has, for quite a while, served a similar function for history blogging, but in a much smaller and less sleekly packaged way.

After a long period in which it had fallen into serious neglect, the TTLB Ecosystem has finally been reworked, with an expanded set of features. At present Siris is ranked #3439 in the Ecosystem (the rank changes as incoming links fluctuate). That's middling for the ecosystem as a whole, but very respectable for a blog that does not participate in any ecosystem community.

I'm currently working on developing a link archive for the Philosophers' Carnival. I have a number of ideas that I'll be trying out for it, but I'm also open to suggestions. The idea at present is just to provide a bit of redundancy for back-up purposes: twice now former hosts have closed down their blogs completely, thus sending the edition of the carnival that they hosted into oblivion. Richard caught one of them in time to be able to reconstruct it from Google cache; but the more recent case, the 19th carnival (at Mathetes), seems to exist no more. I'll be trying to reconstruct it out of fragmentary mentions\. If you had a post in that carnival, let me know.

An Active and Vital Energy

Were not sense and knowledge entirely different, we should rest satisfied with sensible impressions, such as light, colours and sounds, and inquire no further about them, at least when the impressions are strong and vigorous: whereas, on the contrary, we necessarily desire some further acquaintance with them, and can never be satisfied till we have subjected them to the survey of reason. Sense presents particular forms to the mind, but cannot rise to any general ideas. It is the intellect that examines and compares the presented forms, that rises above individuals to universal and abstract ideas; and thus looks downward upon objects, takes in at one view an infinity of particulars, and is capable of discovering general truths. Sense sees only the outside of things, reason acquaints itself with their natures. Sensation is only a mode of feeling in the mind; but knowledge implies an active and vital energy in the mind.

Richard Price, Review of the Principal Questions in Morals (1757) p. 16.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


* Elizabeth Anscombe's Contraception and Chastity can be read online. Besides the topics in its title, it also clarifies some misconceptions about natural law. It also comes with responses and Anscombe's reply to those responses.

* The BBC has a happiness test. My score:

Highly satisfied
People who score in this range love their lives and feel that things are going very well. Your life is not perfect, but you feel it is about as good as life gets. Furthermore, just because you are satisfied does not mean you are complacent. In fact, growth and challenge might be part of the reason you are satisfied. For most people in this high-scoring range, life is enjoyable, and the major domains of life are going well - work or school, family, friends, leisure, and personal development.

* Scott McLemee interviews Ophelia Benson at Inside Higher Ed. She's rather vague, but makes considerable sense.

* Gordon Marino has an article on boxing and philosophy at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

* Jeremy Pierce has a post on a recent piece in The Huffington Post. He defends Campus Crusade for Christ against a recent smear, but the argument is more generally about a certain type of ghoulishness that is eager to call good evil.

->Blogger is still acting badly. This is the worst it's been since Google took over; I wonder what's going on.


Cuvier, speaking of how a biologist can deduce the nature of the animal from the slightest clues:

But I doubt if any one would have divined, if untaught by observation, that all ruminants have the foot cleft, and that they alone have it. I doubt if any one would have divined that there are frontal horns only in this class: that those among them which have sharp canines for the most part lack horns.

However, since these relations are constant, they must have some sufficient cause; but since we are ignorant of it, we must make good the defect of the theory by means of observation: it enables us to establish empirical laws, which become almost as certain as rational laws, when they rest on sufficiently repeated observations; so that now, whoso sees merely the print of a cleft foot may conclude that the animal which left this impression ruminated, and this conclusion is as certain as any other in physics or morals. This footprint alone, then, yields to him who observes it, the form of the teeth, the form of the jaws, the form of the vertebræ, the form of all the bones of the legs, of the thighs, of the shoulders, and of the pelvis of the animal which has passed by: it is a surer mark than all those of Zadig.

[Quoted in T. H. Huxley, An Introduction to the Classification of Animals (1869)]

The allusion in the last sentence is to Voltaire's delightful little work, Zadig, a favorite of semioticians and people interested in the pre-history of detective fiction. If you haven't read it, you should; Project Gutenberg has an English translation.

Darwin on Natural Classification

One of my favorite passages in the Origin of Species (chapter 13):

Naturalists try to arrange the species, genera, and families in each class, on what is called the Natural System. But what is meant by this system? Some authors look at it merely as a scheme for arranging together those living objects which are most alike, and for separating those which are most unlike; or as an artificial means for enunciating, as briefly as possible, general propositions, that is, by one sentence to give the characters common, for instance, to all mammals, by another those common to all carnivora, by another those common to the dog-genus, and then by adding a single sentence, a full description is given of each kind of dog. The ingenuity and utility of this system are indisputable. But many naturalists think that something more is meant by the Natural System; they believe that it reveals the plan of the Creator; but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing is thus added to our knowledge. Such expressions as that famous one of Linnaeus, and which we often meet with in a more or less concealed form, that the characters do not make the genus, but that the genus gives the characters, seem to imply that something more is included in our classification, than mere resemblance. I believe that something more is included; and that propinquity of descent, the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings, is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classifications.

He argues this point throughout the chapter. We know that Darwin read Whewell; and we also know that some of Darwin's own conception of science was influenced by Whewell, although there appears to be no consensus as to the extent of that influence. But whether Darwin is influenced by Whewell here or not, he is inserting the theory of natural selection into an important set of questions about natural classification that had been discussed at some length by scientists of the period. Like Whewell, Darwin thinks we need more than mere resemblance to establish the natural system. On Whewell's proposal the 'something more' is the natural affinities of organisms as whole organic systems. On Darwin's proposal the 'something more' is propinquity of descent. Despite the differences, there are very important similarities: they both point out that resemblance accounts eventually must start distinguishing important functions from unimportant ones, and they both hold that the only way to do this in a non-arbitrary way is to appeal to constancies based on conditions of existence. Because they have different proposals, the constancies they appeal to are slightly different -- Whewell's constancy is internal, whereas Darwin's is comparative. But their criticisms of resemblance-only accounts are kin.

It's possible, in fact, to see Darwin's proposal as simply a larger proposal that embraces Whewell's own -- i.e., to see Darwin as taking Whewell's position and subsuming it. Darwin explicitly proposes descent with modification as the explanation for natural affinity:

All the foregoing rules and aids and difficulties in classification are explained, if I do not greatly deceive myself, on the view that the natural system is founded on descent with modification; that the characters which naturalists consider as showing true affinity between any two or more species, are those which have been inherited from a common parent, and, in so far, all true classification is genealogical; that community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking, and not some unknown plan of creation, or the enunciation of general propositions, and the mere putting together and separating objects more or less alike.

That is, insofar as natural affinity is a matter of arrangement, it is a matter of propinquity of descent. (Insofar as it is a matter of closeness of resemblance, it is dependent on the contingencies of modification.) Darwin points out that, to an extent, naturalists have to bring propinquity of descent into the natural system anyway: species by their very definition have propinquity of descent. So Darwin is not proposing something completely alien to the naturalist's attempt to classify: he is proposing that naturalists expand something they have always done. Indeed, he goes farther than that, suggesting that unconsciously naturalists often appealed to descent for much of the rest of their classification. Like the vague conception of natural affinity we find Whewell attributing to natural historians, this unconscious appeal to descent serves both to connect the proposed account to actual natural-historical practice and, perhaps more interestingly, is said to account for the actual results of natural history. In other words, just as Whewell argues that the classifications of natural historians are already based on natural affinity, however vague and confused the conception of it sometimes has been, so Darwin argues that they are already based on descent, however 'unconscious' and confused its role in the classification has been:

I believe this element of descent is the hidden bond of connexion which naturalists have sought under the term of the Natural System. On this idea of the natural system being, in so far as it has been perfected, genealogical in its arrangement, with the grades of difference between the descendants from a common parent, expressed by the terms genera, families, orders, &c., we can understand the rules which we are compelled to follow in our classification. We can understand why we value certain resemblances far more than others; why we are permitted to use rudimentary and useless organs, or others of trifling physiological importance; why, in comparing one group with a distinct group, we summarily reject analogical or adaptive characters, and yet use these same characters within the limits of the same group. We can clearly see how it is that all living and extinct forms can be grouped together in one great system; and how the several members of each class are connected together by the most complex and radiating lines of affinities.

In comparing Darwin's view with Whewell, I don't want to imply that Darwin is necessarily thinking of Whewell (among others) in this argument, although that is very possible. But Whewell, as is fitting the father of the philosophy of science, is very careful to make base his philosophy of the classificatory sciences on things that had been learned and proposed by natural historians themselves; although he clarifies, refines, and develops ideas, he is primarily cleaning up in order to show clearly the state of the field in his time. Whewell is able to bring classification in natural history up to natural affinity; Darwin goes farther, and proposes to explain even natural affinity by descent with modification. In so doing he sets the notion of natural classification in biology on a new basis. (Of course, it is important to remember that biological natural history is not the only classificatory science. Whewell had a special interest in mineralogy, and, in fact, much of his actual scientific work was in improving mineralogical classification. As a general account of natural systems, Whewell's Idea of Natural Affinity is still necessary; descent with modification only explains natural affinity for natural systems that are genealogical in origin.)

For a discussion of how natural classification was understood by nineteenth-century natural historians after Darwin, see Robert O'Hara's paper on the subject.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Typology and Natural Classification

One of the more interesting aspects of Whewell's theory of natural classification is his argument that natural classes are to be fixed not by definition by by type. The general line of thought is very nicely summarized in Whewell's aphorisms (vol. 2, p. 460-461):

XCII. Natural Groups are best described, not by any definition which marks their boundaries, but by a Type which marks their center. The Type of any natural group is an example which possesses in a marked degree all the leading characters of the class. (VIII. 2.)

XCIII. A Natural Group is steadily fixed, though not precisely limited; it is given in position, though not circumscribed; it is determined, not by a boundary without, but by a central point within;--not by what it strictly excludes, but by what it eminently includes;--by a Type, not by a Definition. (VIII. 2.)

XCIV. The prevalence of Mathematics as an element of education has made us think Definition the philosophical mode of fixing the meaning of a word: if (Scientific) Natural History were introduced into education, men might become familiar with the fixation of the signification of words by Types; and this process agrees more nearly with the common processes by which words acquire their significations. (VIII. 2.)

It might be helpful to look at the argument behind aphorism XCII in a bit more detail. Whewell argues that definitions in natural history will tend to become indefinite and inconsistent; definitions are quite OK for abstract sciences, but natural history is concerned with classifying actual, concrete things, which admit of considerable variation. We might think that this means that the classes established by natural history are "quite loose, without any certain standard or guide," but it is not actuall so (vol. 1, p. 494). As Whewell puts it (vol. 1, p. 494):

The class is steadily fixed, though not precisely limited; it is given, though not circumscribed; it is determined, not by a boundary line without, but by a central point within; not by what it strictly excludes, but by what it eminently includes; by an example, not by a precept; in short, instead of a Definition we have a Type for our director.

A type is an idealized example of a class: one that eminently possesses all the characters of the class. Other types are ranged around it, deviating from it in various degrees and in various ways. This forms our classification. And, as Whewell notes, the fact that there might be some species whose relations to a type are hard to determine doesn't change the general effectivenessness of the classification as a whole, any more than scattered trees between two hills makes it impossible to talk rationally about two different forests on two different hills.

An example of type-based classificationThe type of the rose family has alternate stipulate leaves, no albumen, non-erect ovules, simple stigmata, and so forth. It is entirely possible for individual roses to break this pattern without ceasing to be roses. But while individual roses vary around it, the type forms a center for all the variation. It's as if you shot a paintball at a target: the type is the point in the center, and the variants are the splatter around it.

Whewell on Natural Classification

Natural classification is the heart of Whewell's view of the classificatory sciences. As he argues, the diataxis or plan of the system can aim at a natural system or an artificial system, but "no classes can be absolutely artificial, for if they were, no assertions could be made concerning them" (PIS, vol. 2. p. 460). The difference between an artificial system and a natural one is not that the former is wholly artificial, but that some of the classifying divisions in the former are created by what he calls a "peremptory application of selected Characters," whereas a natural system tries to make all the divisions natural, with no arbitrariness at all (vol. 2, p. 461). To use his metaphor, artificial classification is travel by means of latitude and longitude; natural classification is travel on the basis of a knowledge of the country (vol. 1, p. 499).

Classifications are regulated by the Idea of Likeness; but to get a natural classification you have to go beyond resemblance to something else. This something else is what Whewell calls "natural affinity". As Whewell says (vol. 1, p. 488):

The assumption that there is a Natural System, an assumption made by all philosophical botanists, implies a belief in the existence of Natural Affinity, and is carried into effect by means of principles which are involved in that Idea.

This is not immediately obvious, though, and Whewell, as one might expect of the father of the history of science, is quite aware of the fact that people have attemped natural classification without a clear notion of natural affinity. Following Decandolle, Whewell distinguishes such attempts into three types: blind trial, general comparison, and subordination of characters. He summarizes them very conveniently in an aphorism (vol. 2, p. 462):

XCV. The attempts at Natural Classification are of three sorts; according as they are made by the process of blind trial, of general comparison, or of subordination of characters. The process of Blind Trial professes to make its classes by attention to all the characters, but without proceeding methodically. The process of General Comparison professes to enumerate all the characters, and forms its classes by the majority. Neither of tehse methods can really be carried into effect. The method of Subordination of Characters considers some characters as more important than others; and this method gives more consistent results than the others. This method, however, does not depend upon the Idea of Likeness only, but introduces the Idea of Organization or Function. (VIII. 2.)

The problem that arises with finding natural classification is this. We have some notion of natural classes that organize resembling kinds of things and of affinity among the classes; but this notion is very vague. In fact, it is nothing more than an "obscure feeling of a resemblance on the wohle, an affinity of an indefinite kind" (vol. 1, p. 500). Linnaeus is a good example of this. Linnaeus denied that there was any a priori rule for natural classification, and held that the only way to classify into a natural system was to take into account the symmetries of all the parts of the plant. Thus Linnaeus proposes various classes as natural, but can give no reason to ground this classification as natural; indeed, he even declares it impossible to identify a system of characters that could do so. Whewell diagnoses this situation as a failure to look beyond resemblance for the purposes of classification (vol. 1, p. 500):

This persuasion was the result of his having refused to admit into his mind any Idea more profound than that notion of Resemblance of which he had made so much and such successful use; he would not attempt to unravel the Ideas of Symmetry and of Function on which the clear establishment of natural relations must depend.

Needless to say, classification according to a general feeling of resemblance gives us something whose justification is very vague, so it was inevitable that people would try to find a more systematic way of doing it. This way was hit upon by Adanson, who, trying to classify plants in Senegal, found himself stymied again and again in his attempt to classify newly identified vegetation. Because of this, he started examining all the parts of the plants, building up as complete a description of each as possible, noting all the similarities and differences with other plants. By this aggregation of comparative descriptions, he found that the plants more or less arranged themselves into classes. To put it another way, we construct many different artifical systems, each based on some part, and then classify together those plants that resemble each other in the greatest number of artificial systems.

It's an ingenious approach, but it suffers right from a fatal flaw, right from the beginning. The amount of work you have to do even to begin to get it off the ground is utterly immense. Adanson, for instance, created sixty-five artificial systems; the sixty-fifth, to take one example, consists of ten classes that are further subdivided into ninety-three sections. Of these, only thirty-five are retained in the end result. And, at the end of the day, you can never be sure you've considered all the relevant aspects of the plant. Even more importantly, the principle of the method of general comparison if flawed, because it assumes that all possible artificial systems are of equal importance, which is obviously false. Without at least a dim feeling for natural affinity, this method is simply not practicable, and cannot reach the natural system.

For general comparison to become practicable it must introduce some ideas other than resemblance alone, and, in particular, it must identify some resemblances as more important than others. That is, general comparison must be transmogrified into subordination of characters. Subordination of characters, however, leaves us with a serious puzzle (vol. 1, p. 536):

It is easy to see that some organs are more essential than others to the existence of an organized being; the organs of nutrition, for example, more essential than those of locomotion. But at the same time it is clear that any arbitrary assumption of a certain scale of relative values of different kinds of characters will lead only to an Artificial System....It is clear that this relation of importance of organs and functions must be collected by the study of the organized beings; and cannot be determined a priori, without depriving us of all right to expect a general accordance between our system and the arrangment of nature. We see, therefore, that our notion of Natural Affinity involves in it this consequence;--that it is not to be made out by an arbitrary subordination of characters.

Whewell asks us to consider the integration of living things. Each organism is a system in which functions play an essential part; they facilitate each other, and it is often difficult to pry them apart without being arbitrary. This is often viewed in light of adaptation or conditions of existence; but Whewell argues that it is also an illustration of affinity. His argument is rather important, so I might be forgiven for quoting it in full (vol. 1, p. 537):

It has sometimes been asserted that if we were to classify any of the departments of organized nature by means of one function, and then by means of another, the two classifications, if each strictly consistent with itself, would be consistent with each other. Such an assertion is perhaps more than we are entitled to make with confidence; but it shows very well what is meant by Affinity. The disposition to believe such a general identity of all partial natural classifications, shows how readily we fix upon the notion of Affinity, as a general result of the causes which determine the forms of living things. When these causes or principles, of whatever nature they are conceived to be, vary so as to modify one part of the organization of being, they also modify another: and thus the groups which exhibit this variation of the fundamental principles of form, are the same, whether the manifestation of the change be sought in one part or in another of the organized structure. The groups thus formed are related by Affinity; and in proportion as we find the evidence of more functions and more organs to the propriety of our groups, we are more and more satisfied that they are Natural Classes. It appears, then, that our Idea of Affinity involves the conviction of the coincidence of natural arrangments formed on different functions; and this, rather than the principle of the subordination of some characters to others, is the true ground of the natural method of Classification.

Or, as he summarizes it in an aphorism (vol. 2, p. 463):

C. The basis of all Natural Systems of Classification is the Idea of Natural Affinity. The Principle which this Idea involves is this:--Natural arrangments, obtained from different sets of characters, must coincide with each other. (VIII. 4.)

In other words, you find natural classes not by arbitrarily assuming that one characteristic is more important than another, but by showing that there is a similarity of gradation among several different characteristics. Correspondence of classification among functions is indicative of natural affinity. Thus Whewell formulates a maxim for testing whether a system is natural or not; and the test is this: the arrangement obtained from one set of characters coincides with the arrangement obtained from another set. By seeking out this coincidence of arrangement, he thinks, we can find the natural connections among various classes in our classification, whether we are organizing organic or inorganic things.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Murdering Rastari, Part I

This is the beginning of a short story draft I've been dabbling with for a while, which I'd forgotten I had in my post editor. I'll probably add to it bit by bit over the next few weeks.

There was nothing in all the world I hated more than Danny Rastari. His very presence could make me angry. I am certain, however, that being angry is a morally bad state of affairs; so this set up an obvious chain of reasoning. Danny Rastari's very existence was morally problematic. I have always prided myself on the serious pursuit of virtue, and, as Rastari was clearly a moral temptation, I engaged in some evaluation of moral risks and drew the only rational conclusion: for the sake of virtue, I would have to kill Danny Rastari. I would need help, though, so I recruited Max Sanders, another of Rastari's many enemies.

Our plan was simple. I would lure Rastari to a high place, and Max and I would push him off. To an extent, it was a beautiful plan: all Max and I would be doing is assisting the order of nature; gravity, not us, would kill Rastari; and therefore we would not be responsible for his death. It did, of course, require some exposure to the source of temptation; but however arduous the cause of virtue, and however much it requires sacrifice, I always say it's worth it. I set out to lure Rastari to the top of the First International Bank building in order to push him off.

It was surprisingly easy; the man is as gullible as can be. I told him that Max and I had found a great place to view the city at night, we took him to the top, and pushed him off. Down he went. It was beautiful, and all the more so given that we knew that the world would be a better place the next day.

We found, however, that it was not so easy to destroy a cause of morally bad states of affairs. By some strange miracle Danny Rastari did not die on hitting the ground, and when Max and I finally reached the ground floor, Rastari's body was nowhere to be found.

To be continued....

Default Permissibilities, Moral Problematics, and Omnivorism

Thomas Nadelhoffer has an interesting post on what he calls 'non-compassionate omnivorism'. In it he suggests that "if confinement agriculture is morally problematic, then knowingly eating meat produced by these methods—when doing so is unnecessary—is also morally problematic." I have an immense amount of sympathy for this line of reasoning, and especially for its conclusion. However, I think people who reason in this way tend not to have good arguments for their conclusion, and I don't think Nadelhoffer manages to resolve this initial problem. Nadelhoffer is considering the position of the person who does not insist that the meat he eats have been treated humanely when it was a living animal, and asks "Are there any compelling arguments for the permissibility of being a non-compassionate omnivore—especially when being a compassionate omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan is always an option?"

I think there is a straightforwardly compelling, although clearly defeasible, argument: for any action or behavior, if there is no good reason to regard it as otherwise, it is permissible. The reason for accepting default permissibility here is not quite burden of proof -- burdens of proof are simply a matter of argumentative convenience. Rather, the basis for this default is that, since it is morally deficient to go around forcing people to treat as immoral things that are not immoral, we should have reasons, such that a reasonable person of sound mind could accept, to justify our claim that it is immoral. Allowance can be made for mistakes about whether a given set of reasons is good or not; but even then there need to be reasons that could reasonably be mistaken for good ones. Perhaps an example will help. In eighteenth-century Scotland there was a big kerfuffle over the morality of stage plays. John Home, a member of the Moderate Party of the Church of Scotland (and David Hume's cousin), wrote a tragedy, Douglas, that was produced in Edinburgh. The Evangelical Party of the Church of Scotland protested this vehemently, and a sort of war of essays and pamphlets broke out. The problem was not the content of the play, which almost everyone ignores in their arguments; the point under debate was whether it was moral for anyone to produce and attend stage-plays. One of the major figures on the Evangelical side (stage plays are immoral) was John Witherspoon, who wrote a work called A Serious Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Stage. In it he argues, with all seriousness, that stage-plays are immoral, and he reasons this position out at great length. Many of his reasons -- e.g., the dissolute lives of actors, the creation of pseudo-sympathy, disconnection from reality -- are very intelligent and rational reasons to put forward against something. On some cases I think Witherspoon hits his target quite well: some people are morally escapist in the way they engage with drama, there are serious questions about whether we are morally improved by watching violent deaths and villainous successes. I don't think Witherspoon is right at all about the morality of stage-plays; but his reasons aren't stupid reasons to be against them. This contrasts with some of Witherspoon's Evangelical fellows, whose reasons for treating stage-plays as immoral were barely significant, when they had them at all. It is entirely reasonable for those who attended stage-plays to regard stage-play attendance as (defeasibly) permissible by default. To the extent that people like Witherspoon brought forward serious reasons, those reasons need to be engaged; but only so far. By analogy, we can say that the non-compassionate omnivore can, reasonably and in good faith, simply presume permissibility unless there are adequate reasons for thinking otherwise. Such default permissibilities can be abused, of course, since they are not an excuse for ignoring moral reasons in order to do whatever you please; but it is a morally reasonable default and, what is more, will as a matter of moral requirement be in play in most circumstances.

Now, Nadelhoffer and others often give reasons, but I am not so convinced that they are adequate. Nadelhoffer's whole reason, for example, is summarized in the sentence mentioned before, that "if confinement agriculture is morally problematic, then knowingly eating meat produced by these methods—when doing so is unnecessary—is also morally problematic." All well and good, so far as it goes. However, I don't think this gets one as far as Nadelhoffer seems to think, and I think we can see that when we recognize there are different shades of morally problematic, and that our response to all of them is not uniformly the same.

Consider the Douglas controversy again. Witherspoon brings up reasons, some of them good reasons, for considering attendance of stage-plays morally problematic. He can easily point to the disreputable lives of actors; he can easily identify temperaments that are made morally worse by attending stage-plays; he can easily show the scandal and social disruption created by a clergyman's writing a tragedy. There are morally problematic aspects to stage-plays, and this even before we get to the question of their content. But it doesn't follow from this that Home was wrong to write the stage-play, or that his friends were wrong to produce it. Witherspoon shows that stage-plays are to some extent morally problematic, but none of his reasons are adequate for showing that it is wrong to have stage-plays. They are adequate for showing that it is wrong to have stage-plays (or, at the very least, was wrong in the eighteenth-century) without recognizing that certain aspects of them present a moral challenge. But there are many, many different ways of handling this moral challenge; eliminating them altogether, the Evangelical option, is only one possible way to go. Another possibility might be to work for the reform of the theater (in which case Home's action might be eminently valuable); yet another might be to work to encourage a better understanding among stage-play audiences of the potential pitfalls; and so forth. The only limit here is the limit of ingenuity.

So there is a weak sense of 'morally problematic' in which it means nothing more than that the thing in question presents a moral problem that needs to be handled in some way or another. And we can see that this sort of thing is important when we consider the hard questions of moral complicity that inevitably arise in any human society. By living in society we facilitate excellence in our fellow human beings; we also facilitate many very bad things. This is morally problematic. But it does not follow from this that we should quit such a society altogether. However, the degree to which our participation in society is morally problematic is never stable: it is continually in flux, and there will be circumstances under which our participation in society will be much, much more problematic than others. In all these cases, there will usually be different paths that are acceptable to a reasonably cultivated conscience. But in some cases there will be a vast number of acceptable paths, because the morally problematic character of our participation will be analogous to the stage-play case: it's not that the action (e.g., attending stage-plays) is morally wrong, but only that it brings with it moral issues that should not be ignored. Even here, there is a spectrum of possibilities. In some cases if the issues are ignored, it is only a very venial failing; in others, it will be more serious. In some cases, however, the moral problems raised by our participation in society will become so many and so serious that acceptable options will be sharply constrained. These would be cases of a serious and troubling kind -- an obvious case is the participation of Germans in German society during the Holocaust. Merely living life in a society will put us into proximity with morally problematic features of that society. But there are many different ways in which such features can be morally problematic, and it would be silly of us to assume that the mere fact of their being morally problematic is always and ever a reason to eliminate them entirely. There is a word for such an assumption: it is called puritanical, and is not usually considered morally admirable.

So it is simply not enough to argue, as I think can reasonably be argued, that eating factory-farmed meat is morally problematic. If the question is no longer eating such meat at all, for instance, it must be argued that it is sufficiently problematic to warrant such a measure. And if the claim is that it is sufficiently problematic to be avoided unless a countervailing justification can be found -- then that is what must be argued. If eating such meat is morally problematic, and there is no adequate argument that it is morally problematic in a serious enough way, then the response to such a morally problem may well have nothing to do with continuing to eat factory-farmed meat or not. For instance, someone might argue that it isn't actually important whether you eat it or not; what is important is that we be taking steps, even if only small ones, to reform the factory system, and that this is enough to handle any morally problematic aspects to our participation in the factory system. If responses like these aren't enough, we need arguments for this -- and these arguments need to tell us much more than that it is morally problematic.

Otherwise history might have its revenge on us. No one takes Witherspoon's reasoning very seriously today, even though he occasionally brings up points that are genuinely worth thinking about; and, by the ultimate irony of history, his direct descendant is a very famous movie star, knee-deep in all the morally problematic features of plays that Witherspoon worried about. Our moral demands must be proportionate to our reasons for those demands, and I fear that the arguments against the 'non-compassionate omnivore' usually don't seem to exhibit such a proportion.

Admin Note

Blogger is bugging out on me, for some reason, so we'll see how well I'll be able to post for a while. There are several small posts almost ready for posting, though, having to do with the concept of natural classification; there are also posts on Hume, juries, Feuerbach's atheism, and George Eliot's Romola in the works.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Whewell on Constructing Classificatory Sciences

From the Apohorisms Concerning Ideas (The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, volume 2, second edition [1847], p. 460):

LXXXVII. The construction of a Classificatory Science includes Terminology, the formation of a descriptive language;--Diataxis, the Plan of the System of Classification, called also the Systematick;--Diagnosis, the Scheme of the Characters by which the different Classes are known, called also the Characteristick. Physiography is the knowledge which the system is employed to convey. Diataxis includes Nomenclature. (VIII.2)

Or, as he says in VIII.2, which this aphorism summarizes (volume 1, pp. 480-481):

We may begin by remarking that the Idea of Likeness, in its systematic employment, is governed by the same principle which we have already spoken of as regulating the distribution of things into kinds, and the assignment of names in unsystematic thought and speech; namely, the condition that general propositions shall be possible. But as in this case the propositions are to be of a scientific form and exactness, the likeness must be treated with a corresponding precision; and its consequences traced by steady and distinct processes. Naturalists must, for their purposes, employ the resemblances of objects in a technical manner. This technical process may be considered as consisting of three steps;--The fixation of the resemblances; The use of them in making a classification; The means of applying the classification. These three steps may be spoken of as the Terminology, the Plan of the System, and the Scheme of the Characters.

As Whewell notes, classification is an example of the importance of words, because a great deal of the knowledge acquired by sciences like botany and mineralogy is built up by honing the descriptive language available for talking about things in a systematic way; the lack of such a terminology makes it very difficult to classify anything with precision or accuracy. With this in hand, however, it is possible to have a healthy taxonomy or diataxis, which, however, requires more than mere fixation of resemblances, because it is an attempt to find a natural classification, one that involves no arbitrary classification. The end result of this is a nomenclature, which is the system of labels by which different classes are named. To use this classification, we must have a diagnosis, a means of placing things in their proper classes according to identifying characteristics (which are not necessarily those that distinguish the classes in the classification itself). As Whewell calls it, the diagnosis for a natural classification is "an Artificial Key to a Natural System": as natural it is based on as few characteristics as possible; as natural, the characteristics chosen are not selected by any arbitrary rule but follow from the natural affinities we learn about in the natural classification.

Links and Notes

* Lindsay Beyerstein reviews the documentary, The War Tapes.

* A very good post at "DarwinCatholic" on the whole science vs. religion cliche.

* June 5th is St. Boniface's memorial. Medieval Sourcebook has selections from Willibald's Life of Boniface and documents related to the conversion of Germany. Since Boniface is patron saint of Germans and brewers, if you needed an excuse to drink a beer, today's the day that gives you one.

* It's also Monday in Whitsun-Week. You can read the relevant poem in Keble's The Christian Year. The subject is the City of Confusion.

* "Timotheos Prologizes" quotes an interesting essay by Fulton Sheen on Muslims and Mary.

* At "Philosophy, etc." Richard has an interesting post on whether time travel is logically possible.

* Writers who use big words without needing to do so give off the impression of being less intelligent than those who don't -- as do those who use less reader-friendly fonts. You can get the scoop at (HT: MM)

* The Valve is apparently a place where literary people get together and talk about philosophy and mathematics. Of course, it's not quite accurate to say that before Cantor people though that infinity was only a potential thing, unless we clarify what that means (and whether, for instance, the infinity of the objects of divine knowledge is being counted); and it's false to suggest, as one of the commenters does, that the Kalam argument is question-begging, since there are theists and atheists on both sides of the question of whether the universe began or not. But it's worthwhile to read the discussion. For a discussion of relevant philosophical texts on infinites, see page at The Logic Museum devoted to the subject; there is also a page under development on questions that are relevant to the Kalam argument itself.

* An interesting article on exploiting the past by Ulf Zander (HT: Cliopatria). I think the argument is quite right insofar as the value of history for civic life lies less in being able to equate historical events with modern-day happenings for partisan purposes than in being able to compare the two objectively. And he's right that political users of history are simply not facing up to the challenges and complexities of history. But I think he doesn't quite do justice to the fact that political use of history is absolutely unavoidable -- the only serious question here is not whether history will be used politically, but whether it will be used well. I also think the argument ends up going too far when he argues:

The Nazi genocide has a strongly moral, emotional and political charge, but in a deeper historical sense it is difficult to draw any conclusions from it. As for example the Holocaust and military historian Omer Bartov has pointed out, the murder of the Jews is problematical as a reference point not primarily because it is unique, but because it is extreme. It seems unlikely that there should be lessons to learn that are applicable for us in our everyday lives or in forecasts of the future if we look for them in one of the most atypical events in modern history.

While it's certainly true that the Holocaust is for this reason almost useless as a basis for forecasting of the future, it doesn't follow from this that it has no lessons to learn that are applicable for us in our everday lives. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be true; and the more informed our notions of the Holocaust, the more genuinely applicable to our lives such knowledge would seem to be. This is because applying knowledge of an event to our everday lives has nothing to do with how extreme or unique an event is, and everything to do with what Zander calls the strong "moral, emotional and political charge" of the event. A historian should not confuse applicability to everyday life with value for the historical analysis of our times (well, no one should confuse the two, but historians are especially likely to do it). And precisely because knowledge of historical events is applicable (in good ways and bad ways) to everyday life, there is no avoiding the political use of history, because there is no avoiding the application of history to civic life. (Another reason there is no avoiding it is that people in part need to use history to constitute themselves as communities; and this means history is already there at hand to be used in politics. The only community in which the political use of history can be eliminated is the community that has no historical memory. Such is barely a community at all, and is not, I would presume, what a historian would want as a civic goal.) I think historians should not be abusing politicians for using history politically, as such, but challenging them to use it in a less purely partisan and more seriously thoughtful way.

* On Thursday I went to see X-Men: The Last Stand. It has several great storylines and manages to mangle them all quite a bit. However, enough comes together that if you're not seeing it just because of the bad reviews, and you're not the nitpicky type, you should go and see it. If you can cut them some slack for not quite succeeding in juggling all the characters they have to juggle, then you should be able to enjoy it. All of the newcomers, especially Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde and Kelsey Grammer as Beast, are worth seeing; in fact, several of them outshine the returning actors. Storm has more of a good, serious storyline than she did in the previous movies, although they never quite manage to do justice to it. The race between Juggernaut and Kitty -- the two people no solid object can stop -- was done quite well. Beast is never given the storyline he deserves, particularly with Grammer's excellent acting. The whole charm of Beast is his backstory: he's one of the world's most brilliant scientists, and the scientific community refuses to recognize him because he's a mutant who looks like a big, blue, furry brute. It's this that grounds the occasional pedantry and pompousness that shows up in his relationships with others -- it's not an affectation, because he's a gentle and humble person; it's all innocent and due to the fact that he's a gregarious, sociable person forced to be intellectually alone. Very little of this shows up in this movie. But Grammer still brings everything to the role that's needed; and I don't really understand why some fans were worried before it came out that he wouldn't be able to fill the role well -- he's perfect for the role, and everything else is just make-up and special effects. It's impossible to imagine a better silver screen Beast. The Eric-Charles dynamic, which should have virtually made this movie, is the most disappointing part of it; neither side of it is written quite well.

* UPDATE: Part 2 of the History Carnival is up at "Aqueduct."

* Also, "Is That Legal?" is hosting a mini-symposium on Mitsuye Endo, a civil rights hero who is often forgotten, despite her considerable importance. Greg Robinson gives some of the background. [UPDATE: Patrick Gudridge continues the discussion.]

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Today is the Feast of Pentecost, also called Whitsunday, when every saint is a Sinai and the Church is birthed into the world. From John Keble's The Christian Year:


And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting: and there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them: and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. Acts ii. 2,3.

When God of old came down from Heaven,
In power and wrath he came;
Before his feet the clouds were riven,
Half darkness and half flame:

Around the trembling mountain's base
The prostrate people lay,
Convinc'd of sin, but not of grace;
It was a dreadful day.

But when He came the second time,
He came in power and love,
Softer than gale at morning prime
Hover'd his holy Dove.

The fires that rush'd on Sinai down
In sudden torrents dread,
Now gently light, a glorious crown,
On every sainted head.

Like arrows went those lightnings forth,
Wing'd with the sinner's doom,
But these, like tongues, o'er all the earth
Proclaiming life to come:

And as on Israel's awe-struck ear
The voice exceeding loud,
The trump, that angels quake to hear,
Thrill'd from the deep, dark cloud,

So, when the Spirit of our God
Came down his flock to find,
A voice from heaven was heard abroad,
A rushing, mighty wind.

Nor doth the outward ear alone
At that high warning start;
Conscience gives back th' appalling tone;
'Tis echoed in the heart.

It fills the Church of God; it fills
The sinful world around;
Only in stubborn hearts and wills
No place for it is found.

To other strains our souls are set:
A giddy whirl of sin
Fills ear and brain, and will not let
Heaven's harmonies come in.

Come, Lord, come, Wisdom, Love, and Power,
Open our ears to hear;
Let us not miss th' accepted hour;
Save, Lord, by Love or Fear.