Saturday, June 24, 2006

Why I Call Huxley 'The Great Freethinker'

I've recently been reading some of the work of T. H. Huxley, on and off; I have a taste for freethought in my reading, but Huxley is easily the gold standard. He's not above making sharp comments about opponents, particularly in private correspondence. One thinks of his biting (but still rather witty) letter to Darwin about Samuel Butler. But it never overcame his underlying rational civility, a sort of courtesy born in the Court of Reason, based on his firm convictions that we should follow clear reasoning wherever it goes, sitting down before Truth to learn from her rather than presuming to dictate to her, and that bad reasoning for correct conclusions is still bad reasoning, no matter how right the conclusions. It could be said of him, as he said of Darwin, that he "had a clear rapid intelligence, a great memory, a vivid imagination, and what made his greatness was the strict subordination of all these to his love of truth." It's a rare breed much more important to civilization than the jabbering and ranting kind; a model worthy of being held up as an example to people on all sides. And that's even taking his flaws into account.

Liturgical Midsummer

Summer solstice has already come (for blogging on the solstice, see Rebecca, and Rebecca again, and at ScienceBlogs, Chaotic Utopia). However, the fixed holiday with which it is most closely associated is today. It's the Nativity of John the Baptist, which, as it used to be the closest major solemnity to the solstice , was for a very long time the feast of Midsummer. In the medieval period the celebration of this day was often very wild; it was the big let-loose before everyone had to buckle down for the long, hard work of preparing for winter. Liturgically, it's a breath of Advent in Ordinary Time.

UPDATE: Amy Welborn has a selection from Augustine on the day

Friday, June 23, 2006

Mill and Whewell on Natural Series

I realized that there is another post I wanted to do on natural classification, so here it is. A little background first. In the nineteenth century, the two most significant philosophers of science are William Whewell and John Stuart Mill. Whewell wrote the monumental History of the Inductive Sciences and Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, both of which are the first of their kind, and are largely unrivalled as instances of historical-philosophical scholarship. Delving deeply and insightfully into the history of science -- not just physics, but chemistry, biology, mineralogy, and others -- Whewell built up a fact-base in the attempt to construct an accurate and thorough philosophy of science. However, it was his rival, Mill, with whom he agreed on very little, whose philosophy of science was the most influential. Mill began writing his System of Logic -- in effect, his own philosophy of science -- and came across Whewell's History, and used it as the foundation for some of his own conclusions. My own opinion of the rivalry is no secret; while I don't think Whewell got everything right (given his breadth, it would be astonishing if he did) I'm in the pro-Whewell camp all the way through. I find myself agreeing with the judgment of C. S. Peirce, which I have mentioned before:

Whewell described the reasoning just as it appeared to a man deeply conversant with several branches of science as only a genuine researcher can know them, and adding to that knowledge a full acquaintance with the history of science. These results, as might be expected, are of the highest value, although there are important distinctions and reasons which he overlooked. John Stuart Mill endeavored to explain the reasonings of science by the nominalistic metaphysics of his father. The superficial perspicuity of that kind of metaphysics rendered his logic extremely popular with those who think, but do not think profoundly; who know something of science, but more from the outside than the inside, and who for one reason or another delight in the simplest theories even if they fail to cover the facts.

Harsh but fair, I think. In any case, I wanted to look at one particular disagreement between Mill and Whewell that is relevant to natural classification. This is Mill's claim that natural groups should be arranged in a natural series. As he says, almost everyone, including Dr. Whewell, stops short of such a claim; only Auguste Comte goes so far as to treat of it. Mill's reasoning is that, as a general instrument for investigating nature, the purpose of classification is merely to arrange the most similar things next to each other; but when we are using it to facilitate a particular inductive inquiry, we have to expect more from it. Not only must we arrange the phenomena into kinds; we must "arrange those Kinds in a series according to the degree in which they exhibit it, beginning with those which exhibit most of it, and terminating with those which exhibit least." The argument for this last point is rather obscure and for fear of not conveying it properly, I'll quote it:

We must consider as the type of the class, that among the Kinds included in it, which exhibits the properties constitutive of the class, in the highest degree; conceiving the other varieties as instances of degeneracy, as it were, from that type; deviations from it by inferior intensity of the characteristic property or properties. For every phenomenon is best studied (ceteris paribus) where it exists in the greatest intensity. It is there that the effects which either depend on it, or depend on the same causes with it, will also exist in the greatest degree. It is there, consequently, and only there, that those effects of it, or joint effects with it, can become fully known to us, so that we may learn to recognise their smaller degrees, or even their mere rudiments, in cases in which the direct study would have been difficult or even impossible. Not to mention that the phenomenon in its higher degrees may be attended by effects or collateral circumstances which in its smaller degrees do not occur at all, requiting for their production in any sensible amount a greater degree of intensity of the cause than is there met with.

So, to use Mill's example, human beings are the animals with the greatest 'intensity' of the phenomena of organic life. So human beings need to be put in the highest place, and all the other animals arranged in a series below it; because (apparently) we can only get the most accurate understanding of lower animal life by studying human beings. Not only does Mill think this is the best way to go about studying things; he thinks that this principle of natural series is more fundamental than the principle of natural affinity, which is subordinated to it. He also thinks that this is the way biologists have tended to classify animal life, and that implicit reference to a natural series is the only explanation for the high degree of agreement among different classifications.

Whewell will have none of it, since he thinks this whole idea is absurd. As he puts in a footnote on Mill's Logic in the Philosophy of Discovery:

There are some points in my doctrines on the subject of the Classificatory Sciences to which Mr. Mill objects, (ii. 314, &c.), but there is nothing which I think it necessary to remark here except one point. After speaking of Classification of organized beings in general, Mr. Mill notices (ii. 321) as an additional subject, the arrangement of natural groups into a Natural Series; and he says, that "all who have attempted a theory of natural arrangment, including among the rest Mr. Whewell, have stopped short of this: all except M. Comte." On this I have to observe, that I stopped short of, or rather passed by, the doctrine of a Series of organized beings, because I thought it bad and narrow philosophy: and that I sufficiently indicated that I did this. In the History (b. xvi. c. vi.) I have spoken of the doctrine of Circular Progression propounded by Mr. Macleay, and have said, "so far as this view negatives a mere linear progression in nature, which would place each genus in contact with the preceding and succeeding ones, and so far as it requires us to attend to the more varied and ramified resemblances, there can be no doubt that it is supported by the result of all the attempts to form natural systems." And with regard to the difference between Cuvier and M. de Blainville, to which Mr. Mill refers (ii. 321), I certainly cannot think that M. Comte's suffrage can add any weight to the opinion of either of those great naturalists.

(It should be pointed out that, despite the quotation marks, Whewell is only paraphrasing Mill; although it is an accurate paraphrase.) Mill replies in a later edition:

Dr. Whewell, in his reply (Philosophy of Discovery, p. 270) says that he "stopped short of, or rather passed by, the doctrine of a series of organized beings," because he "thought bad and narrow philosophy." If he did, bit was evidently without understanding this form of the doctrine; for he proceeds to quote a passage from his History, in which the doctrine he condemns is designated as that of "a mere linear progression in nature, which would place each genus in contact only with the preceding and succeeding ones." Now the series treated of in the text agrees with this linear progression in nothing whatever but in being a progression.
It would surely be possible to arrange all places (for example) in the order of their distance from the North Pole, though there would be not merely a plurality, but a whole circle of places at every single gradation in the scale.

It can be granted, I think, that Mill's natural series doesn't have to be a linear progression, and thus that Whewell's reply is not entirely adequate; but Mill misses, I think, the not-so-subtle barb in Whewell's last sentence, which puts forward a complaint that Whewell makes many times against Mill's Logic in many different forms: that Mill fits his account of science to presupposed philosophy instead of doing the hard work Whewell does to find out what scientists have actually done and build the account of science on that. Whewell's response would have been stronger had he pointed out the vagueness of Mill's 'natural series' (what does it mean to say that the phenomena of sensation are more 'intense' or are found in a 'greater degree' in human animals than in other animals?) and that it seems otiose (given that the natural series is simply a gradation, it seems that the typological classification of natural affinities, which both Mill and Whewell agree is a very important part of the classification process, would do everything already in the way of 'gradations' useful for scientific purposes).
Quotation from Whewell is from On the Philosophy of Discovery (1860), Lenox Hill (New York: 1971), 270. Quotations from Mill are from A System of Logic.

Malebranche on the Science of Man

The most beautiful, the most pleasant, and the most necessary of all our knowledge is, undoubtedly, the knowledge of ourselves. Of all the human sciences, the science of man is the most worthy. Yet this science is neither the most cultivated nor the most complete that we possess; ordinary men neglect it altogether. Even among those who take pride in science, there are very few who apply themselves to this science, and there are still fewer who apply themselves to it with any success.

Nicolas Malebranche, The Search after Truth, Lennon & Olscamp, trs. (Cambridge: 1997) xxxix. 'Science' here is used more broadly than we tend to use it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Links for Thinking

* Chris has an excellent post on the conceptual metaphor theory of our temporal attributions (the view that we conceive of time metaphorically by mapping it onto space).

* Ben Witherington provides an excerpt (about the Epistle of James) from his forthcoming commentary on Hebrews, James, and Jude. (As a complete aside, surely it's a bit unusual to link Jude with Hebrew and James rather than the Petrine epistles? I wonder what the reasoning behind it was.)

* If you ever happen to be on any of the worlds in the Empire, check to see if the Gideons are leaving the Klingon-language paraphrase or translation in hotel rooms. (The latter is being done by the same people who are working hard to restore the complete works of Shakesepeare to the 'original Klingon'.) The weblog mu''a'vo'mu' has regular reflections on the Klingon language version of the Bible. You never know when these things will come in handy.

* Clark has an interesting post on Heidegger and the Hebrews.

* The 127th Christian Carnival is the Voltron Edition.

* Everyone who can should contribute something to the drive at Science Blogs, even if it's only $10. The drive is to provide students, especially underprivileged ones, with adequate science materials for school. Since I have a soft spot for third and fourth graders (in undergrad I tutored third & fourth grade math), and Janet Stemwedel's Adventures in Ethics and Science has quite a few challenges for these grades, I recommend this, this, this, this, or this from her challenge. The first link goes to a challenge already 26% complete, so only a few more donations would be enough to complete it. The second-to-last link goes to a challenge that is 35% complete, to provide science materials for 4th-graders in Katrina-devastated St. Bernard Parish (all their science textbooks were ruined in the flooding). Even if you don't have the means to donate, or if you can't (it only accepts U.S. donations, unfortunately), you can still pass the word. The drive ends July 1st.

* Wilson has an excellent post called Language, empire, and hope. Well worth reading!

* You can read Hippolyte Delehaye's classic 1907 work on the principles of historio-hagiography, The Legends of the Saints at Medieval Sourcebook.

* More on the Christian tradition of God as Mother. (HT: verbum ipsum)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hume on Thomas More

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, the feast of Thomas More (and John Fisher) is tomorrow, but I'll be out of town, so I'm posting this today. I thought it would be interesting to look at Thomas More through the eyes of someone who admires him even despite a stern disapproval of his Catholicism, namely, David Hume. From his History of England:

After the prorogation, Sir Thomas More, the chancellor, foreseeing that all the measures of the king and parliament led to a breach with the church of Rome, and to an alteration of religion, with which his principles would not permit him to concur, desired leave to resign the great seal; and he descended from his high station with more joy and alacrity than he had mounted up to it. The austerity of this man’s virtue, and the sanctity of his manners, had no wise encroached on the gentleness of his temper, or even diminished that frolic and gaiety, to which he was naturally inclined. He sported with all the varieties of fortune into which he was thrown; and neither the pride, naturally attending a high station, nor the melancholy incident to poverty and retreat, could ever lay hold of his serene and equal spirit. While his family discovered symptoms of sorrow on laying down the grandeur and magnificence, to which they had been accustomed, he drew a subject of mirth from their distresses; and made them ashamed of losing even a moment’s chearfulness, on account of such trivial misfortunes. The king, who had entertained a high opinion of his virtue, received his resignation with some difficulty; and he delivered the great seal soon after to Sir Thomas Audley....

The oath regarding the succession was generally taken throughout the kingdom. Fisher, bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, were the only persons of note, that entertained scruples with regard to its legality. Fisher was obnoxious on account of some practices, into which his credulity, rather than any bad intentions, seems to have betrayed him. But More was the person of greatest reputation in the kingdom for virtue and integrity; and as it was believed, that his authority would have influence on the sentiments of others, great pains were taken to convince him of the lawfulness of the oath. He declared, that he had no scruple with regard to the succession, and thought that the parliament had full power to settle it: He offered to draw an oath himself, which would ensure his allegiance to the heir appointed; but he refused the oath prescribed by law; because the preamble of that oath asserted the legality of the king’s marriage with Anne, and thereby implied, that his former marriage with Catherine was unlawful and invalid. Cranmer, the primate, and Cromwel, now secretary of state, who highly loved and esteemed More, entreated him to lay aside his scruples; and their friendly importunity seemed to weigh more with him, than all the penalties attending his refusal. He persisted, however, in a mild, though firm manner, to maintain his resolution; and the king, irritated against him as well as Fisher, ordered both to be indicted upon the statute, and committed prisoners to the Tower....

John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, was a prelate, eminent for learning and morals, still more than for his ecclesiastical dignities, and for the high favour, which he had long enjoyed with the king. When he was thrown into prison, on account of his refusing the oath which regarded the succession, and his concealment of Elizabeth Barton’s treasonable speeches, he had not only been deprived of all his revenues, but stripped of his very cloaths, and, without consideration of his extreme age, he was allowed nothing but rags, which scarcely sufficed to cover his nakedness. In this condition, he lay in prison above a twelvemonth; when the pope, willing to recompense the sufferings of so faithful an adherent, created him a cardinal; though Fisher was so indifferent about that dignity, that, even if the purple were lying at his feet, he declared that he would not stoop to take it. This promotion of a man, merely for his opposition to royal authority, rouzed the indignation of the king; and he resolved to make the innocent person feel the effects of his resentment. Of Sir Thomas More. Fisher was indicted for denying the king’s supremacy, was tried, condemned, and beheaded.

The execution of this prelate was intended as a warning to More, whose compliance, on account of his great authority both abroad and at home, and his high reputation for learning and virtue, was anxiously desired by the king. That prince also bore as great personal affection and regard to More, as his imperious mind, the sport of passions, was susceptible of towards a man, who in any particular opposed his violent inclinations. But More could never be prevailed on to acknowledge any opinion so contrary to his principles as that of the king’s supremacy; and though Henry exacted that compliance from the whole nation, there was, as yet, no law obliging any one to take an oath to that purpose. Rich, the solicitor general, was sent to confer with More, then a prisoner, who kept a cautious silence with regard to the supremacy: He was only inveigled to say, that any question with regard to the law, which established that prerogative, was a two-edged sword: If a person answer one way, it will confound his soul; if another, it will destroy his body. No more was wanted to sound an indictment of high treason against the prisoner. His silence was called malicious, and made a part of his crime; and these words, which had casually dropped from him, were interpreted as a denial of the supremacy.y Trials were mere formalities during this reign: The jury gave sentence against More, who had long expected this fate, and who needed no preparation to fortify him against the terrors of death. Not only his constancy, but even his cheerfulness, nay, his usual facetiousness, never forsook him; and he made a sacrifice of his life to his integrity with the same indifference that he maintained in any ordinary occurrence. When he was mounting the scaffold, he said to one, "Friend, help me up, and when I come down again, let me shift for myself." The executioner asking him forgiveness, he granted the request, but told him, "You will never get credit by beheading me, my neck is so short." Then laying his head on the block, he bade the executioner stay till he put aside his beard: "For," said he, "it never committed treason." Nothing was wanting to the glory of this end, except a better cause, more free from weakness and superstition. But as the man followed his principles and sense of duty, however misguided, his constancy and integrity are not the less objects of our admiration. He was beheaded in the fifty-third year of his age.

That's a bit long, but I think it's interesting enough to warrant it. Jennifer Herdt, in her wonderful Religion and Faction in Hume's Moral Philosophy, notes that this appraisal of Thomas More is something of an anomaly for Hume's view on the psychology of religion. Generally speaking, Hume holds that (monotheistic, and particularly institutional monotheistic) religion induces an 'artificial life' -- an unnatural way of living -- that is characterized by gloom, hypocrisy, and irrationality. These make sympathetic understanding impossible; they interfere with an outsider's ability to put themselves in the religionist's shoes. The only understanding available is to identify causes external to the religious viewpoint (supposedly) affirmed: secret motives, passions, political factions. The religious viewpoint in itself is incomprehensible. None of these apply to More, however. As Herdt notes:

The virtues of constancy and integrity are hardly those which Hume should in theory discover in a theist, even the most sincere. So Hume in this instance seems to give the lie to his own assumptions about the nature of theistic belief and therefore to the limits of sympathetic understanding of a theist by a non-theist.
[Jennifer Herdt, Religion and Faction in Hume's Moral Philosophy. Cambridged (1997) p. 214]

So Hume's account of religion has no place for people like More. Of course, as Herdt goes on to note, Hume's account of religion, insofar as it is directed at anybody, is directed at the very narrow Scottish Calvinism that Hume knew growing up; and seen in this light a lot can still be said for Hume's account. The anomaly of More isn't a counterexample for the account, strictly speaking; it just marks a way in which it is limited.

Duhem on Teaching Physics by History

Despite the familiarity of most philosophers today with Duhem's name, many of his actual arguments are rather neglected. One of the more interesting of these is his argument that the proper method for teaching physics is historical:

To give the history of a physical principle is at the same time to make a logical analysis of it. The criticism of the intellectual processes that physics puts into play is related indissolubly to the exposition of the gradual evolution by which deduction perfects a theory and makes of it a more precise and better-ordered representation of laws revealed by observation.

Besides, the history of science alone can keep the physicist from the mad ambitions of dogmatism as well as the despair of Pyrrhonian skepticism.

This passage summarizes the three basic functions of teaching physics by teaching the history of physics.

(1) Analysis. The sort of history Duhem has in mind is a somewhat idealized one. When teaching physics according to the historical method, you are using history to get the point of the physics across, not doing history for history's sake. So it's OK to abstract a bit from anything that might interfere with or distract from understanding the physics. What you are looking for is the general interplay between theory and experiment that gives the theory its content.

(2) Moderation of Ambition. The history of science is a history of error: brilliant people using ingenious methods to come to wrong conclusions. By giving students of physics an idea of this history of dead-ends, confusions, hesitations, wrong assumptions, etc., you help to give them the sense that it's not enough to do the experiments and come up with the theories the way we usually imagine scientists do; you also must be self-critical and willing to be wrong many times before you get something workable -- and when you get something workable, you must be willing to recognize that it, too, could be superceded. Since Duhem is a positivist, he also thinks it helps to underscore the fact that physics represents provisionally rather than explains definitively; for instance, on this view, Newton's theory doesn't explain anything, but it represents a certain range of phenomena so astoundingly well that it can still be used after everyone has learned its flaws and limitations. And by learning physics historically, Duhem thinks you're more likely to recognize that newer theories will be fortunate if they do even half so well. When the physicist is tempted to put too much weight on his own pet theories, the history of physics can remind him that such dogmatism contributes nothing of value to physics. Against presumption, the history of physics teaches humility.

(3) Encouragement. But if the history of science is a history of error, it is also a history of progress, and the progress sometimes comes about through even serious errors. Each era in physics draws strength from the earlier eras and is pregnant with the eras to come. When you teach physics historically, you don't merely teach that physical theory is representation; you teach that it is a representation that approaches "natural classification and an increasingly clearer reflection of realities which experimental method cannot contemplate directly." When the physicist is tempted to despair of the possibility of progress, the history of physics can remind her that physics has come through worse with astounding feats of progress. Against despair, the history of physics teaches hope.

Such is Duhem's argument, anyway. It represents a sort of philosophy of science that I wish were more common, namely, the kind that thinks seriously and carefully about ways to improve scientific pedagogy.
All quotes are from Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Philip Wiener, tr. Atheneum (New York: 1962) 269-270.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Womb of the Father and the Son our Mother

You may have read recently about the possibility that the Presbyterian General Assembly may allow the language 'Mother, Child, Womb' (among others) for the Trinity in church services. The general reaction to this particular combination has usually been incredulous, since it isn't clear what it means. However, my reaction is a bit of puzzlement at it, since it apparently ignores the Trinitarian tradition its proponents want it to be a part of.

Contrary to what one might think, the term 'womb' is actually already a technical term in Trinitarian theology. A fairly standard usage is in the Symbol of Faith of the Eleventh Council of Toledo (675):

We must believe that the Son is begotten or born not from nothing or from any other substance, but from the womb of the Father, that is from His substance. Therefore the Father is eternal, and the Son is also eternal. If He was always Father, He always had a Son, whose Father He was, and therefore we confess that the Son was born from the Father without beginning. We do not call the same Son of God a part of a divided nature, because He was generated from the Father, but we assert that the perfect Father has begotten the perfect Son, without diminution or division, for it pertains to the Godhead alone not to have an unequal Son. This Son of God is also Son by nature, not by adoption; of Him we must also believe that God the Father begot Him neither by an act of will nor out of necessity, for in God there is no necessity nor does will precede wisdom.

De Patris utero, id est, de substantia ejus. We find a similar usage in a sermon on Mary (fourth century, I think) misattributed to Chrysostom:

You have found a Spouse who will protect your virginity instead of corrupting it; you have found a Spouse who wants to become your Son because of His great love for men. The Lord is with you! He who is everywhere is in you; He is with you, and He comes from you, the Lord in heaven, the Most High in the abyss, the Creator of all, Creator above the cherubim, Charioteer above the seraphim, Son in the womb of the Father, Only-begotten in your womb, the Lord--He knows how--entirely everywhere and entirely in you. Blessed are you among women!

There is a connection to the Vulgate translation of Ps. 110:3, which is, roughly, 'From the womb, before the daystar, I have begotten you'. Compare Augustine:

But this is put off, this will be granted afterwards: what is there now? "From the womb I have begotten Thee, before the morning star." What is here? If God hath a Son, hath He also a womb? Like fleshly bodies, He hath not; for He hath not a bosom either; yet it is said, "He who is in the bosom of the Father, hath declared Him." But that which is the womb, is the bosom also: both bosom and womb are put for a secret place. What meaneth, "from the womb"? From what is secret, from what is hidden; from Myself, from My substance; this is the meaning of "from the womb;" for, "Who shall declare His generation?"

I have seen, once or twice, an argument that the Spirit could be considered 'the womb of the Father', but this just messes things up; the Son is not born from the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the divine substance. So it seems no-go, at least without the sorts of explanation you can't stop a church service to give.

It's similar with the name 'Mother'. Julian of Norwich applies the label to the Trinity, in a completely orthodox way; but she's thought it through enough to recognize which person of the Trinity is most fittingly called 'Mother'. Just a few such passages:

The Second, most precious, Person, who is our substantial mother has now become our sensual mother, for we are double by God's making, that is to say, substantial and sensual. Our substance is the higher part that we have in our father, God Almighty.

The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh.

Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. This is how our mother, Christ, works in mercy in all his beloved children who are submissive and obedient to him.

And identifying the Second Person as Mother is far easier than identifying the First Person as Mother, because the Second Person bears distinctive mother-like characteristics toward us (e.g., by his pains upon the cross we are birthed into new life), whereas the Father does not. This is not intra-Trinitarian language, as the Father-Son-Spirit language is supposed to be; but it is orthodox, thought out well, and easily incorporated into liturgy in a way that Mother-Child-Womb language is not. (As most people are saying in response to it, What in the world does that mean?) Whereas Julian's route is only obscure when you jumble it all up with other language without explanation (as I do in the title to this post).

Some Passages in Butler on Self-Deception

I missed observing the anniversary of Butler's death on June 16, so I want to do something now. One of the topics which Butler discusses with great ingenuity is self-deception. So here are a few passages from him on the subject.

The Sermon before the House of Lords on the Occasion of the Martyrdom of King Charles I:

Here is a general supposition, that what is wrong cannot be avowed in its proper colours, but stands in need of some cloke to be thrown over it. God has constituted our nature, and the nature of society, after such a manner, that generally speaking, men cannot encourage or support themselves in wickedness upon the foot of there being no difference between right and wrong, or by a direct avowal of wrong; but by disguising it, and endeavouring to spread over it some colours of right. And they do this in every capacity and every respect, in which there is a right or a wrong. They do it, not only as social creatures under civil government, but also as moral agents under the government of God; in one case to make a proper figure in the world, and delude their fellow-creatures; in the other to keep peace within themselves, and delude their own consciences. And the delusion in both cases being voluntary, is, in Scripture, called by one name, and spoken against in the same manner: though doubtless they are much more explicit with themselves, and more distinctly conscious of what they are about, in one case than in the other....

These false professions of virtue, which men have, in all ages, found it necessary to make their appearance with abroad, must have been originally taken up in order to deceive in the proper sense: then they became habitual, and yet often still, to civility is often intended merely by way of form serve their original purpose of deceiving.

There is doubtless amongst mankind a great deal of this hypocrisy towards each other: but not so much as may sometimes be supposed. For part which has, at first sight, this appearance, is in reality that other hypocrisy before mentioned; that self-deceit, of which the Scripture so remarkably takes notice. There are indeed persons who live "without God in the world": and some appear so hardened as to keep no measures with themselves. But as very ill men may have a real and strong sense of virtue and religion, in proportion as this is the case with any, they cannot be easy within themselves but by deluding their consciences. And though they should, in great measure, get over their religion, yet this will not do. For as long as they carry about with them any such sense of things, as makes them condemn what is wrong in others, they could not but condemn the same in themselves, and dislike and be disgusted with their own character and conduct, if they would consider them distinctly, and in a full light. But this sometimes they carelessly neglect to do, and sometimes carefully avoid doing. And as "the integrity of the upright guides him," guides even a man's judgment; so wickedness may distort it to such a degree, as that he may "call evil good, and good evil; put darkness for light, and light for darkness"; and "think wickedly, that God is such an one as himself." Even the better sort of men are, in some degree, liable to disguise and palliate their failings to themselves: but perhaps there are few men who go on calmly in a course of very bad things, without somewhat of the kind now described in a very high degree. They try appearances upon themselves as well as upon the world, and with at least as much success; and choose to manage so as to make their own minds easy with their faults, which can scarce be without management, rather than to mend them.

From a Sermon upon the Character of Balaam (in Fifteen Sermons):

This was the man, this Balaam, I say, was the man, who desired to die the death of the righteous, and that his last end might be like his; and this was the state of his mind when he pronounced these words. So that the object we have now before us is the most astonishing in the world: a very wicked man, under a deep sense of God and religion, persisting still in his wickedness, and preferring the wages of unrighteousness, even when he had before him a lively view of death, and that approaching period of his days, which should deprive him of all those advantages for which he was prostituting himself; and likewise a prospect, whether certain or uncertain, of a future state of retribution; all this joined with an explicit ardent wish that, when he was to leave this world, he might be in the condition of a righteous man. Good God! what inconsistency, what perplexity is here! With what different views of things, with what contradictory principles of action, must such a mind be torn and distracted! It was not unthinking carelessness, by which he ran on headlong in vice and folly, without ever making a stand to ask himself what he was doing: no; he acted upon the cool motives of interest and advantage. Neither was he totally hard and callous to impressions of religion, what we call abandoned; for he absolutely denied to curse Israel. When reason assumes her place, when convinced of his duty, when he owns and feels, and is actually under the influence of the divine authority; whilst he is carrying on his views to the grave, the end of all temporal greatness; under this sense of things, with the better character and more desirable state present--full before him--in his thoughts, in his wishes, voluntarily to choose the worse--what fatality is here! Or how otherwise can such a character be explained? And yet, strange as it may appear, it is not altogether an uncommon one: nay, with some small alterations, and put a little lower, it is applicable to a very considerable part of the world. For if the reasonable choice be seen and acknowledged, and yet men make the unreasonable one, is not this the same contradiction; that very inconsistency, which appeared so unaccountable? To give some little opening to such characters and behaviour, it is to be observed in general that there is no account to be given in the way of reason, of men's so strong attachments to the present world: our hopes and fears and pursuits are in degrees beyond all proportion to the known value of the things they respect. This may be said without taking into consideration religion and a future state; and when these are considered, the disproportion is infinitely heightened. Now when men go against their reason, and contradict a more important interest at a distance, for one nearer, though of less consideration; if this be the whole of the case, all that can be said is, that strong passions, some kind of brute force within, prevails over the principle of rationality. However, if this be with a clear, full, and distinct view of the truth of things, then it is doing the utmost violence to themselves, acting in the most palpable contradiction to their very nature. But if there be any such thing in mankind as putting half-deceits upon themselves; which there plainly is, either by avoiding reflection, or (if they do reflect) by religious equivocation, subterfuges, and palliating matters to themselves; by these means conscience may be laid asleep, and they may go on in a course of wickedness with less disturbance. All the various turns, doubles, and intricacies in a dishonest heart cannot be unfolded or laid open; but that there is somewhat of that kind is manifest, be it to be called self-deceit, or by any other name.

The sermon on Balaam is worth reading in full; it's one of the great classical texts on self-deception.

Proving a Negative

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars:

My guess is that there is no evidence because it is nearly impossible to prove a negative. It's a bit like someone claiming that there is an invisible leprauchan that makes it rain; we can point to all sorts of "naturalistic" theories and the data that support them on how rain is produced, but the question will still remain, "Well, what evidence do you have that the invisible leprachaun doesn't guide the whole process?" And the answer is "none", because there is no hypothetical evidence to prove such a negative - there just isn't any reason to believe it to be the case, and Occam's razor would certainly be germane here.

This has started me thinking about the matter. It's often said that it is nearly impossible to prove a negative, but I think it's a case of a cliché running on without adequate basis. Even if we ratchet up the level of proof required to rigorous demonstration, there is a straightforward way to prove a negative: show that what's being negated and something known to be true imply a contradiction. In reality, we usually don't require the standard of proof to be anywhere near so strict, since we usually allow for defeasible proofs. If you want to prove that there is no ordinary cat on the desk in front of you, look and see whether there is a cat on the desk in front of you. It's barely possible that there's an invisible cat on the desk in front of you, either because of something to do with the cat (like the one in H. G. Wells's Invisible Man) or because of something to do with your eyes. If you want to prove that there is no invisible cat in front of you, feel around and check it out. If someone suggests that there is an invisible, intangible cat on the desk in front of you, you should be able to prove that an invisible, intangible cat implies a contradiction, unless the word 'cat' is being used in an odd way. And so forth.

It is curious that we tend to assume this sort of asymmetry between affirmations and negations.It has been pointed out before that affirmations and negations are convertible -- every affirmation can be stated in an negative way and every negation can be stated in an affirmative way. If you can prove an affirmative claim, you can prove infinitely many negative claims. This, of course, is a purely formal issue; one might think that it's just an artefact of the formal system, i.e., that the formal system fails to model real affirmations and negations on this point. There's some plausibility to that, but even setting aside the formal issue there are problems with the claim that you can't prove a negative. In particular, if you treated affirmations in the way negations are treated by the cliché, it seems you couldn't prove an affirmation, either. If you aren't accepting the testimony of your senses as proof that there is no cat on the desk, why would you accept the testimony of your senses as proof that there is a cat on the desk? If you can't prove that rain isn't caused by an unobservable cause, what is the basis for thinking you can prove that rain is caused by an observable one while using the same standard of proof?

I think one reason for the long life of the cliché is that it gets confused with considerations of irrelevance. Most of the cases that people propose as instances showing the difficulty of proving a negative are actually just cases showing the difficulty of proving something irrelevant to the topic at hand. Brayton's invisible leprechaun is a good example. Unless the existence of the invisible leprechaun is suggested by relevant evidence (either pertaining to the causal processes of rain, or external to but associated with them), there is no way to link it to the phenomenon as relevant one way or another. And if you can't link it to the phenomenon as relevant, you can't (short of showing 'invisible leprechaun' self-contradictory) say what would prove or disprove its involvement in that domain at all. If you can't lay down any conditions of proof for a claim, under any standard of proof short of rigorous demonstration, you can't prove or disprove the claim except by rigorous demonstration. So the problem with proving that invisible leprechauns who guide the rain don't exist is not that the claim is negative; it's that the claim has no straightforward relevance to the actual phenomena.

This sort of issue arises in a lot of skeptical scenarios in philosophy. Someone suggests that I am a brain in a vat, and that what I think is the external world really isn't. The challenge, then, is to prove that I'm not a brain in a vat. I look around me; all my senses show me a world (and a me) that seems to exclude that supposition. If we're accepting this level of proof as the standard, I've proven that I'm not a BIV. If, as is more often the case, the skeptic wishes to say, by an additional supposition, that my senses are deceived and that I am a BIV in a way that cannot be registered by any means of sensory proof or disproof, the relevance of the BIV supposition to what I experience is no longer well-defined. Now it's difficult to prove that I'm not a BIV, because there isn't any clear way in which such a supposition is relevant to anything I experience. This is what I sometimes call the Berkeleyan solution to external world skepticism. By becoming irrelevant to anything, the claim has become harder to refute; it has also become clear that it's not in need of any refutation. To handle a given domain of thought adequately, you don't need to be bothered about things irrelevant to it.

It's also likely that the cliché gains some of its plausibility due to the problem of exhaustive division. How do you know that your inductive process covered all of the possibilities? You can't, unless you can show that it divided the field of possibilities completely. While this is possible, in practical cases it's often prohibitively difficult, because you have to show that it is a contradiction for there to be a possibility you did not cover. This is a high standard of proof we can't usually meet. Thus, it's very difficult to prove that there is nothing you've left out -- some hidden factor that you haven't recognized yet. However, even here we can still often show (and sometimes very easily) that a given candidate cannot be this hidden factor; so we can still prove negatives, although there are negatives that are prohibitively difficult to prove at this level of proof. (This is not exclusive to negatives, it should be pointed out; there are positive statements that are prohibitively difficult to prove at this level of proof.) If the relevance problem for the invisible leprechaun could be fixed (there is excellent reason to think it can't), and if we can't show that our induction is an exhaustive search over the possibilities, and if we can't show that our evidence rules it out, the only reasonable thing to do would be to admit the possibility that the invisible leprechaun is a hidden factor, if there are any hidden factors. The problem here, though, is much like the ones we've already noted. The problem is not that negatives are difficult to prove but that for this particular negative we've ruled out our means of proof (in the above cases arbitrarily, in this case in a principled way).

So the real maxim should be that it is nearly impossible to prove a negative when either you or the facts have made it nearly impossible. As a maxim it's not as catchy, though.

Hume on General Points of View

Our situation, with regard both to persons and things, is in continual fluctuation; and a man, that lies at a distance from us, may, in a little time, become a familiar acquaintance. Besides, every particular man has a peculiar position with regard to others; and 'tis impossible we cou'd ever converse together on any reasonable terms, were each of us to consider characters and persons, only as they appear from his peculiar point of view. In order, therefore, to prevent those continual contradictions, and arrive at a more stable judgement of things, we fix on some steady and general points of view; and always, in our thoughts, place ourselves in them, whatever may be our present situation.

Treatise (SBN 581-582). Hume often calls this 'correcting the momentary appearances of things'.

Monday, June 19, 2006


One occasionally runs into attacks on the jury system, and not just in Dawkins, who is regularly irrational when he stops talking about biology. So I thought I'd put out a basic post summarizing the basic argument in favor of the jury system that needs to be faced head-on by any such criticism. Nothing in this post is particularly original; it's just an attempt to put the existing argument down in a brief way.

Before I do so, there are a few minor points that might be worth noting. The first is that even in a jury system, juries are sometimes a much smaller part of the actual operation of the justice system than you might think. Most criminal cases in the U.S., for instance, do not use juries because they do not go to trial -- the accused might plead guilty for instance, or waive the right to a jury trial. The second is that not all jury systems are the same. The U.S., for instance, has a dual jury system. Not only does it have a petit jury, which is used in trials; it also has a grand jury, which investigates indictments. Many of the complaints against jury trials (e.g., that jurors don't have much room to investigate the mattter on their own) are false, misguided, or confused if they are taken to give reasons against grand juries. In what follows I will be considering only the petit jury (jury trials), and primarily focusing on the U.S.; but it's worth keeping in mind that there are many different possible uses of juries, and not all of them can be criticized on the same principles (although the defense of these various uses often relies on the same principles for each).
So here is the argument, in brief form; it's possible to get more elaborate in the details, but I'll be as concise as possible.

(1) Contrary to a belief that seems very common among jury opponents, it is the primary purpose of the court to get to the truth of the matter, not the primary purpose of the jury. While the case against a jury's ability to pinpoint the truth is often exaggerated, it is nonetheless true that the primary point of adding a jury to a court is not to get to the truth but to protect the people. As Scalia very neatly put it in the Blakely decision (PDF):

Our commitment to Apprendi [a prior precedent affirming the right to jury trial] in this context reflects not just respect for longstanding precedent, but the need to give intelligible content to the right of jury trial. That right is no mere procedural formality, but a fundamental reservation of power in our constitutional structure. Just as suffrage ensures the people’s ultimate control in the legislative and executive branches, jury trial is meant to ensure their control in the judiciary. See Letter XV by the Federal Farmer (Jan. 18, 1788), reprinted in 2 The Complete Anti-Federalist 315, 320 (H. Storing ed. 1981) (describing the jury as "secur[ing] to the people at large, their just and rightful controul in the judicial department"); John Adams, Diary Entry (Feb. 12, 1771), reprinted in 2 Works of John Adams 252, 253 (C. Adams ed. 1850) ("[T]he common people, should have as complete a control . . . in every judgment of a court of judicature" as in the legislature); Letter from Thomas Jefferson to the AbbĂ© Arnoux (July 19, 1789), reprinted in 15 Papers of Thomas Jefferson 282, 283 (J. Boyd ed. 1958) ("Were I called upon to decide whether the people had best be omitted in the Legislative or Judiciary department, I would say it is better to leave them out of the Legislative"); Jones v. United States, 526 U. S. 227, 244–248 (1999). Apprendi carries out this design by ensuring that the judge’s authority to sentence derives wholly from the jury’s verdict. Without that restriction, the jury would not exercise the control that the Framers intended.

While this analogy (jury : judiciary :: suffrage : legislature) is more complicated than it looks, it will play an important role in almost any serious defense of the jury system. As Scalia puts it, the jury system is a "circuit breaker in the State's machinery of justice". We will discuss this point a bit more when we get to nullification, below. Right now the point to keep in mind is that the jury serves to give the people some measure of "just and rightful control" over the judicial process in cases that most clearly concern them. It's this attitude, no doubt, that led the Founders to place deprivation of the right to trial by jury as a serious complaint that contributed to the case for independence.

What are some of the ways in which a functioning jury system can help to protect the people? First, of all, the jury system helps to provide a defense against conviction on a weak case -- thus it's common to require a jury's unanimity in a criminal case, and to allow the possibility of a hung jury. Even the fact that a jury is composed of peers, broadly speaking, serves to some degree as a protection, since it limits the degree to which you can be dominated by bureaucrats and magistrates alone. Further, it has become clear over time that juries provide some protection of citizens against laws that are widely considered bogus or difficult to understand. It is necessary to convince the jury, composed of ordinary people, that a genuine crime has been committed; and some juries have gone so far as to ignore the law, declaring innocent people who are proven to have violated the law. This type of case has itself been criticized, and it can certainly be abused, but it is important to note that it is very limited: juries are almost always reluctant to ignore the law altogether, and the authority of a jury applies only to a particular case, and so is not a general nullification of law. Thus the jury system can allow for extraordinary mercy in extraordinary situations; it can moderate laws, verdicts, and punishments that would commonly be considered excessively harsh; and it can give people an additional measure of defense against injustice in the system.

More than this, however, the existence of juries legitimizes the criminal justice as an instrument of the people. Juries act as observers of the judicial process; they are a way in which citizens can actually participate in the justice system; they guarantee that there is in the system a body of ordinary people to whom one can appeal for sympathy. They add another level of conscience to the attempt to maintain justice. Further, they assist the judiciary by diffusing responsibility: it is not merely the judges who are responsible for the acts of the justice system; the people are represented in it as well. Of course, most of this function of juries is only possible in societies willing to put a high degree of trust in juries. Without such a trust, juries will still legitimize the system, but only in a minor way. Where such a trust exists, however, it will be virtually impossible to convince people that the justice system is legitimate without a fundamental use of juries.

The most common complaint against juries, I suspect, is the complaint that they are defective means for finding out the truth. It is true that they are uneven in this regard. But their defectiveness is often exaggerated. Juries can often improve the judicial decision process by bringing a wide range of diverse backgrounds into contact with the case, by making sure that the decision is arrived at in a way that is accountable to collective recall, and by being a very explicit form of conscious scrutiny. It is true that jurors are often confused by obscure laws or unexpected facts, and often swayed by rhetoric alone; but whatever problems there may be on this front, they certainly don't outweigh the benefits that both sides of the case and society at large are able to gain from the existence of the jury.

None of this eliminates the possibility that there might be ways to improve such jury systems as exist. But it does provide a strong presumptive argument, I think, for taking the jury system seriously as a key part of free and popular government. Attempts to abolish or limit jury trials are attempts to abolish or limit the rights and protections of the people, and should only be tolerated if excellent reasons can be brought forward for them.

[ADDED LATER: As a commenter points out, I need to clarify that the argument laid out here is based only on consideration of criminal trials, since I'm primarily concerned with people who suggest that there is a problem with juries, simply speaking. A number of the points don't contribute much toward a defense of the use of juries in civil trials. In such trials the 'protection of the people' defense is far more limited and the legitimization defense is far less impressive. I think one argument that remains in full force is the argument that forcing the justice system to face the fact that law needs to be reasonably intelligible to ordinary persons even in matters of civil law; but it's not nearly as obvious that juries are a good way to do this in civil matters.]


Today is the anniversary of Pascal's birth, so it seems fitting to post something for the occasion.

Paris, January 23, 1656


We were entirely mistaken. It was only yesterday that I was undeceived. Until that time I had laboured under the impression that the disputes in the Sorbonne were vastly important, and deeply affected the interests of religion. The frequent convocations of an assembly so illustrious as that of the Theological Faculty of Paris, attended by so many extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances, led one to form such high expectations that it was impossible to help coming to the conclusion that the subject was most extraordinary. You will be greatly surprised, however, when you learn from the following account the issue of this grand demonstration, which, having made myself perfectly master of the subject, I shall be able to tell you in very few words.

So begins Pascal's assault against the Jesuits in The Provincial Letters. The Letters are a smooth, sophisticated attack on Jesuit subtlety, particularly in moral philosophy. Even those not familiar with all the details of the Jansenist dispute of which this work is a part will be able to feel the bite of the satire; and it's quite an enjoyable read, even for those of us who lean to the Jesuit side.

Coleridge on Fanaticism

A debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity of reliance on the immediate impressions of the senses, do, we know well, render the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism. Having a deficient portion of internal and proper warmth, minds of this class seek in the crowd circum fana for a warmth in common, which they do not possess singly. Cold and phlegmatic in their own nature, like damp hay, they heat and inflame by co-acervation; or like bees they become restless and irritable through the increased temperature of collected multitudes. Hence the German word for fanaticism, (such at least was its original import,) is derived from the swarming of bees, namely, schwaermen, schwaermerey. The passion being in an inverse proportion to the insight,--that the more vivid, as this the less distinct--anger is the inevitable consequence. The absense of all foundation within their own minds for that, which they yet believe both true and indispensable to their safety and happiness, cannot but produce an uneasy state of feeling, an involuntary sense of fear from which nature has no means of rescuing herself but by anger. Experience informs us that the first defence of weak minds is to recriminate.

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Chapter 2. That last sentence strikes with special force; and is worth keeping in mind in our day-to-day life.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Very Sneaky Revolutionaries

The Virtual Stoa launches a surprise attack of Carnivalesque when no one was suspecting. Or, at least, when I wasn't suspecting. Go read and enjoy. One of my posts at Houyhnhnm Land is included -- on the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn.

Principia Mathematica

Mark Chu-Carroll points to the Principia Mathematica online. Chu-Carroll's summary of it in the comments is very fitting:

It is truly both magnificent and hideous: magnificent in that it's one of the most amazing applications of human intelligence, reasoning, and abstraction ever written; hideous in that it spends hundreds of pages if an ultimately futile effort to try to get to the point where the simplest statements of arithmetic become meaningful without allowing contradictions.


You scored as Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler is a very symbolic X-Man. He is persecuted by society because of his devilish looks, but it is his faith in God that gives him strength. He is a very gentle x-man but he does know how to fight and he enjoys fencing. Powers: Teleportation

Jean Grey


















Emma Frost




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