Saturday, January 27, 2007

In a World on the Verge of Destruction....

A. C. Grayling really doesn't restrain himself with regard to clichés, does he? From his recent article in the Guardian's 'Comment is free' space:

Seven centuries after the beginnings of classical civilisation in the Greece of Pericles and Socrates, an oriental superstition, consisting of an amalgam of dying and resurrecting god myths and myths about the impregnation of mortal maids by deities, captured the Roman Empire. Such was the beginning of Christianity. By the accident of its being the myth chosen by Constantine for his purposes, it plunged Europe into the dark ages for the next thousand years - scarcely any literature or philosophy, and the forgetting of the arts and crafts of classical civilisation (quite literally a return to daub and wattle because the engineering required for towers and domes was lost), before a struggle to escape the church's narrow ignorance and oppression saw the rebirth of classical learning, and its ethos of inquiry and autonomy, in the Renaissance.

Curiously, that thousand years with 'scarcely any literature or philosophy' includes Augustine, Boethius, Bede, Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Scotus, Roger Bacon, Buridan, Ockham, Dante, Chaucer, Langland, de Lorris, the Pearl Poet, El Cid, just to name a few. Be that as it may, one wonders whether in the sentence starting with "By the accident..." Grayling quite expects anyone to take him seriously. Did he somehow lose all his copies of history books written after the nineteenth century? And do we really need to be so breathlessly melodramatic -- by accident Constantine decides to issue an Edict of Toleration and whoosh! everything is doomed by that act? It's the Light Switch Theory of the Dark Ages: the lights were on when Socrates was around, but the Christians got together and convinced Constantine to switch them all off, and then made sure to keep them that way for a thousand years, when Renaissance humanists came around and flipped the switch again. It's really too bad for the pagans, too; things were just getting nice for them all when Christianity singlehandedly caused the Fall of Rome, and out of malicious obscurantism, no doubt.

In any case, I recommend reading the article; it's highly entertaining, like the preview of an apocalyptic movie. The complicated issues that are involved in the decay and deterioriation of the Roman Empire are not quite so striking, although certainly interesting in their own right. But you should also read some of the discussion at "Insight Scoop" here and here, where Grayling, or someone claiming to be him, jumps in to defend himself. If it is him, he defends himself very poorly. (Although, given what he's forced himself into defending, that's not really surprising.) In the context of the original article, the point was that the Pope and others are being irrational in demanding that the preamble of the European constitution have a mention of Europe's Christian traditions; as he puts it, this is "the plan of Angela Merkel and the Pope to recycle the old lie that the enslavement of the European mind by the absurdities of Christianity are foundational to what is in truth our secular, free-thinking, classically rooted inheritance." To support this conclusion he really does need the absurdly strong claims in his article; if, for instance, Christian culture contributed anything fundamental to the European legacy in the High Middle Ages, the argument collapses.

Of course, this wouldn't affect any other arguments for not introducing such phrases into the preamble, because they don't require anyone to make such blatantly untenable claims as Grayling's argument does.

UPDATE: Some of the limitations of this post are addressed here.

Some Selected Poem Re-Drafts IV


Mountained is my love,
wearing holy fawn-skin,
singing as he slays the goat,
delighting in the flesh.

Mountained in Phrygia is my love,
Bromios, who dancing leads
by milk-rich, wine-flowing streams,
by nectar-wine of bees.


With incense-fume of pine torch,
fragrant on the fennel rod;
running, dancing, hair-streaming,
band-rousing, ever shouting:


Booming timbrels hymn the Bacchic god;
the Phrygian flute of Mother Rhea,
satyr-stolen, it blends with revel,
sweet-graced and most holy,

antheming the wild troops;
mounting up they band and revel,
mountained, they are light of foot,
gambolling like wild foals.


Ashes and Clay

When the wordly wise seem to conquer,
when they scoff at the words on your tongue;
when they treat as though they were nothing
the chants your forefathers had sung;
when they speak as if Delphi's oracle
had told them of all secrets and ends,
as if each word they were speaking
did from great Apollo descend;
then cast off their sophists' deductions
and of their white noise learn to say:
Your maxims are proverbs of ashes;
your defenses, defenses of clay.

They may take for their fashion the pompous,
or the dismissal of every decree,
or lace every word with a scorning
of things they do not bother to see.
They may boast of their goodness and virtue
or rejoice in their love of the poor
(whom they ignore every day in the passing
but as an abstraction adore).
They may contrast your life with disfavor,
but remember when hounds start to bay:
their maxims are proverbs of ashes;
their defenses, defenses of clay.

They will speak at great length of true justice;
they will condemn you for faults beyond ken;
they will hold you to standards of greatness
beyond the attaining of men.
And when it is done will they love you?
No, they hold you, you alone, to the blame;
for you never did think as they think,
and your name was never their name.
When they do this, be strong and have courage;
a mirror hold up to their way,
for their maxims are proverbs of ashes,
their defenses, defenses of clay.

But beware when you speak to another;
beware of your word and your thought.
For you are not so wise in your knowledge
as never unwise to be caught.
You may speak with great understanding;
you may speak with the wisdom of years,
or know all the paths that the world takes,
or the grounds of each hope and all fears;
but always be mindful of danger,
how someone might face you to say:
"Your maxims are proverbs of ashes;
your defenses, defenses of clay"!


You have heard that the Phoenix
dies the death of bright fire,
fierce flames of burning,
feeding mortal desire.
You have heard that fine feathers,
red-gold, are thus turned
to ash of black dust
when the Phoenix is burned,
that amid deathly ash
the egg of great price
breaks from the flame
that the Phoenix may rise.
You have heard of all this,
but have you heard that they say
that the Phoenix at morning
sings songs of the Way?
What wonderful songs!
None other compares
in sweetness and glory,
in order most fair!
For the truth is but this:
the Phoenix-made flame
is the falling of morals,
the mixing of names.
But when it comes forth
in a birthing of light,
the Way is returned,
the names are made right
by the voice of its singing,
beyond nightingales:
a sign placed to show us
the Way shall not fail!

Sign of Fire

I too was born under a sign of fire,
driven and riven by the mind's desire,
seeking to ascend by a spiral stair
to the stars that burn with a beauty bare
in a timeless flame only Truth can sire--
I too was born under a sign of fire.

The Garden of the Great Khan

Every tree of the forest is found here,
and a bower for every bright bird,
and the flowers that leap up at the world's end
are faded by these beyond words.
When the sun in its shining blooms fire,
the lilies all bloom in return
with a whiteness, a gold, and a redness
beyond what the sunfire can burn.
The scent of their petals is precious;
it floats around dancers like dreams,
and the dancers that dance to the birdsong
float like the boats in the stream
on a music that Muses must envy
when the horse-spring has flowed from its fount
to inspire the poets and prophets
who camp beneath Parnassus-mount.
Light that leaps down from the angels
reflects here in small pools and ponds
that give way in rippling reverence
to the sadness of sorrowful swans;
and the sweetness of light in that music,
the sweetness it sends to my tongue,
is a taste beyond every honey
of which all the poets have sung,
and its nectar, distilled into power,
is found in the peach on the tree
more fair than the fruits called Undying
in islands beyond the wide sea.

Outside, It Is Night

Outside, it is night;
but I and the raccoons
are going over accounts,
picking out morsels
from cast-off residues.

Would I were a Pangur Bán
hunting for his mouse,
searching out the meaning
of these everlasting words!
Then there'd be a point.

Instead, I stare at the page.
I muse on the words.
I make a few revisions.
And all this little work
leaves me feeling exhausted.

Somehow I find something good;
that's hearteningly true.
But it amazes even me
how absurdly difficult
I can make writing a paper.

Academic writing, like poetry,
is proof that there is a Muse,
a source of inspiration;
it's there or it isn't,
but either way, you have to try.

One always suspects that others
are able to do better.
Some work more consistently,
without this mental stutter,
but I'm not sure it's worth it.

After all, never to be inspired
is in no way a consolation
for lacking the pangs of genius.
That sounds quite good--
this is labor before birth.

Or perhaps it's mental aridity.
Those monks in the desert knew
that sometimes inspiration fails;
and what I have is just that,
aridity. That's good, too.

But then I always wonder
if I'm really just kidding myself.
After all, it sounds pretentious
to talk of Muses, pains of labor,
the aridity of the mind.

I'm pulled both ways.
I can't shake the feeling
that I should be grateful
for this gift of stop-and-start
rather than dull assiduity.

But I also can't shake the feeling
that it's all an excuse,
a self-indulgent pretense
to justify a lack of work
and these empty nighttime efforts.

Chu-Carroll on First-Order Predicate Logic

Mark Chu-Carroll of "Good Math, Bad Math" has a good introductory post to first-order predicate logic. I've listed it in the basic concepts list, but as it's of general philosophical as well as mathematical significance, I thought it deserved a post of its own.

Doctrinal Development I: The Image

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

I have been intending to lay out my own view of the development of doctrine for some time now, abstracting from all controversy and just putting my own opinion plainly. I intended to do it in one post, but it quickly became clear that it would have to be spread out over several. In this one, I'm going to look at the more Newmanian side of my view.

Newman in one of his Oxford University Sermons discusses the puzzle of how moral truth is propagated. There are a number of problems with moral education that come from the peculiarities of what we are trying to teach. It is very difficult to convey in words a whole stance of life, but this is precisely what a moral teacher is trying to do. Further, truth in this sort of case suffers under many disadvantages. The skeptic can always propose more hard questions than anyone can answer; people can get caught up in the grammar, the words, rather than what is being taught by them; error, unlike truth, is free to oversimplify, pander to prejudice, and the like; superficially similar things may in reality be divided by an abyss; words may be multiplied indefinitely, and propagated to the farthest ends of the earth, whereas good deeds are one-by-one and rarely can have many witnesses; and so forth. So what are the means whereby moral truth is effectively propagated?

Newman suggests that "it has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men as have already been described, who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it." The idea is that of a moral teacher who doesn't merely teach goodness and holiness but exemplifies it. Men may scoff at virtue in a book; it's much harder to scoff at virtue in a person. Virtue has a splendor, an excellence, that is difficult simply to dismiss, and the obvious difficulty of imitating a truly holy person elicits some sort of admiration, however grudging it may be. Faced with clear superiority it would take an extremely hard heart not to be humbled and awed. Moreover, virtue in a holy person shows itself to have both a stability and a flexibility that is unmatched -- the truly good person can, one feels, handle just about any situation, but there's this curious sense that they can do so precisely because in some fashion they are always the same. There is a beauty and a grace to seeing virtue in action; it touches the heart, and excites our taste for it. And while Newman is considering moral teaching alone, it's clear that to some extent this is true across the board. The most powerful teachers are those who don't merely teach but exemplify, and by their personal influence help to spark that same exemplification in others. Personal influence is not the only factor; it's probably only rarely a sufficient factor in itself. But its importance as a factor in the propagation of truth is undeniable. Even granting that, it's easy to underestimate it. The moral teacher who exemplifies moral greatness can have a powerful influence even in casual encounters with the general crowd; how much more such people must have on those who constantly surround them! Fire sparks fire, and the flame begins to spread, to the extent that those who inflamed have been gifted with the means of keeping up the exemplification:

Such men, like the Prophet, are placed upon their watch-tower, and light their beacons on the heights. Each receives and transmits the sacred flame, trimming it in rivalry of his predecessor, and fully purposed to send it on as bright as it has reached him; and thus the self-same fire, once kindled on Moriah, though seeming at intervals to fail, has at length reached us in safety, and will in like manner, as we trust, be carried forward even to the end.

But what is exemplified in the case we are considering is more even than a moral teaching, although it is clear that this is the case. It is rather an Idea, an Image. In Christ we find not merely a holy teacher (although undeniably he is that) but the Word made flesh, who died for our sins and was raised to bring us into newness of life. This is what is propagated; it is what was impressed upon the souls of the early Christians and thence spread to us, and the teachers who have had the most influence and power in spreading that Image to us are those who exemplified it themselves in their own diverse and peculiar ways -- people like Augustine, or Athanasius, or Francis of Assisi, or Seraphim of Sarov, or Teresa of Avila. St. Francis is a vivid case of it, because we have much clearer information about the path of his personal influence, which continues to this very day. You can still find people, here and there, who are marked by Francis, who are in their own little ways crucified seraphim.

But the mark of Francis is in fact just a variation of a deeper and more ancient mark. The study of the saints is the study of Christ in them; hagiology is Christology in a different key. And what we find is that the faith has chiefly been propagated through the personal influence of Christ; so that all of us bear His Character -- some of us sometimes in little more than external ritual, to be sure, but bear it we nonetheless do. This Character is often faint and undeveloped, so that its outlines can't be traced if we only consider ourselves; but when we take into account the whole of the community of the faithful, we can see it more clearly. I keep talking about development of doctrine being an expression of the entelechy of the Church. But entelechy is the form of a thing that makes it actually what it is, in accordance with its end; so the question naturally arises as to what this form is. The answer, I think, has to be the Character or Image or Idea of Christ.

Gibbon attempted to give a causal account of the spread of Christianity that appealed to five factors, which Newman summarizes in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent as "the zeal of Christians, inherited from the Jews, their doctrine of a future state, their claim to miraculous power, their virtues, and their ecclesiastical organization." The problem with this, of course, is that even if these factors are the causes for the spread of Christianity, what is relevant to such an explanation is not the factors themselves so much as their combination, and that is what is really doing the explanatory work in an explanation like this; and, moreover, they do not, in fact, seem to be adequate for the proposed explanandum, namely, the masses of men and women who became converted to Christianity. What really seems to explain it is something different, although perhaps related to Gibbons five causes as root is related to leaves:

A temporal sovereign makes himself felt by means of his subordinate administrators, who bring his power and will to bear upon every individual of his subjects who personally know him not; the universal Deliverer, long expected, when He came, He too, instead of making and securing subjects by a visible graciousness or majesty, departs;—but is found, through His preachers, to have imprinted the Image or idea of Himself in the minds of His subjects individually; and that Image, apprehended and worshipped in individual minds, becomes a principle of association, and a real bond of those subjects one with another, who are thus united to the body by being united to that Image; and moreover that Image, which is their moral life, when they have been already converted, is also the original instrument of their conversion. It is the Image of Him who fulfils the one great need of human nature, the Healer of its wounds, the Physician of the soul, this Image it is which both creates faith, and then rewards it.

We forget that people did not convert to Christianity so much as convert to Christ. The Image of Christ, which is the shape of the Christian moral life, is the "original instrument" of our conversion, the thing that both creates faith and rewards it. This Image is the vivifying principle of the Church. People became zealous not because of any propositions but because of the Thought of Christ; they became convinced of their eternal security not for any reason Gibbon gives, but because of the Thought of Christ Crucified, which the apostles had taught. For such a thing men and women, adults and childrens, senators and slaves, might well endure persecution and death for their faith and count it all joy, however hard a joy it might be. For such a thing profligates might become celibates, misers paupers, and dreamers doers.

It is important to understand that stating it this way is not mere poetry, but a straightforward truth, whatever one may make of it: people came into contact with the Inward Vision of Christ and were drawn to it; it was to this image that they themselves usually attributed their conversions; it is bound up in the very notion that the martyrs were, in fact, martyrs, i.e., witnesses to Christ. Many people only gave what Newman calls a 'notional assent' to Christianity; but some there were who gave a 'real assent' to Christ. As he puts it elsewhere:

And so again in this day the belief of so many thousands in His Divinity, is not therefore notional, because it is common, but may be a real and personal belief, being produced in different individual minds by various experiences and disposing causes, variously combined; such as a warm or strong imagination, great sensibility, compunction and horror at sin, frequenting the Mass and other rites of the Church, meditating on the contents of the Gospels, familiarity with hymns and religious poems, dwelling on the Evidences, parental example and instruction, religious friends, strange providences, powerful preaching. In each case the image in the mind, with the experiences out of which it is formed, would be a personal result; and, though the same in all, would in each case be so idiosyncratic in its circumstances, that it would stand by itself, a special formation, unconnected with any law; though at the same time it would necessarily be a principle of sympathy and a bond of intercourse between those whose minds had been thus variously wrought into a common assent, far stronger than could follow upon any multitude of mere notions which they unanimously held....For an abstraction can be made at will, and may be the work of a moment; but the moral experiences which perpetuate themselves in images, must be sought after in order to be found, and encouraged and cultivated in order to be appropriated.

But this makes it sound more hodge-podge than it actually is. In reality it really is one Image, that of the Word made flesh who died for us and rose again, who lives for us and in us that we may live in Him; that it begins to take shape in us through different causes doesn't change this, since these causes are in fact just various forms that personal influence can take. And it is this Image given to us through personal influence, I propose, that has chiefly guided the doctrine of the Church; every new claim is tested by its conformity to it, or the degree of its appropriateness in light of it. Brought together in confidelity, we find ourselves expressing in various ways and degrees this Image in our own lives, and it is this that regulates change of doctrine, making it development rather than mere change.

One of Newman's other Oxford University Sermons is an excellent one called, The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine, in which he points out that seeing it this way makes it possible to resolve an apparent paradox. On the one hand, we are to hold the same faith unchangingly; on the other hand, we are to grow. But this is entirely possible if the articulation and the thing articulated are not conflated:

Now, here I observe, first of all, that, naturally as the inward idea of divine truth, such as has been described, passes into explicit form by the activity of our reflective powers, still such an actual delineation is not essential to its genuineness and perfection. A peasant may have such a true impression, yet be unable to give any intelligible account of it, as will easily be understood. But what is remarkable at first sight is this, that there is good reason for saying that the impression made upon the mind need not even be recognized by the parties possessing it. It is no proof that persons are not possessed, because they are not conscious, of an idea. Nothing is of more frequent occurrence, whether in things sensible or intellectual, than the existence of such unperceived impressions. What do we mean when we say, that certain persons do not know themselves, but that they are ruled by views, feelings, prejudices, objects which they do not recognize?

Although Newman doesn't draw the connection, this is related to the issue of personal influence again. Someone who inspires both awe and imitation becomes an exemplar; but the relation between exemplar and those guided by it is more like the relation between the objects sensed and our movements around them than it is like conclusions drawn from a pool of premises. It allows for what Newman calls here 'unperceived impressions' and for our ability to learn something despite our difficulties in verbally formulating this thing learned. It is difficult formulating in words what we have learned from our parents at their best, for instance; there is so much to it, and so much of what there is could only be discovered by ourselves after serious thought and careful inquiry. None of this means that we did not learn it. We can, so to speak, entertain angels unawares; and this is as true dogmatically as it is elsewhere. This also sheds light on another apparent paradox of development, namely, that we have to come to learn what we all already possess, to come in the end to know our beginning for the first time; that all the faithful are said to possess it, but it is so difficult for us to find it. As he very fittingly says, "Creeds and dogmas live in the one idea which they are designed to express, and which alone is substantive; and are necessary only because the human mind cannot reflect upon that idea, except piecemeal, cannot use it in its oneness and entireness, nor without resolving it into a series of aspects and relations." Even the Creeds do not exhaust Christ, to whose Image we have been formed. But while the Image is inexhaustible, it is also regulative; as Newman puts it,

though the Christian mind reasons out a series of dogmatic statements, one from another, this it has ever done, and always must do, not from those statements taken in themselves, as logical propositions, but as being itself enlightened and (as if) inhabited by that sacred impression which is prior to them, which acts as a regulating principle, ever present, upon the reasoning, and without which no one has any warrant to reason at all.

This is what differentiates orthodox from heresy; it is the oft-noted point that the heretics take some piecemeal point and run with that to the exclusion of all else. They are seized by a formula, not by the Vision it expresses. In the sermon on development, I think Newman treats the Idea and its Archetype as being more separable than they actually are, and thus puts the dogmatic definition at too far a remove from the heavenly reality; but this is a mistake easily made and easily fixed. What is important to note is that our warrant for reasoning on these matters is rooted in the Idea of Christ; and this governs everything.

There is much more to be said on this subject of doctrinal development, however, and I hope to discuss the matter more in a future post. (All of my ideas on this subject, it should be noted, are only partly formed.)

No Time to Believe

But his faith in Christianity? What had become of that?

What usually happens in such cases. It was not dead; but nevertheless it had fallen fast asleep for the time being. He did not disbelieve it; he would have been shocked to hear such a thing asserted of him: but he happened to be busy believing something else--geometry, conic sections, cosmogonies, psychologies, and what not. And so it befell that he had not just then time to believe in Christianity. He recollected at times its existence; but even then he neither affirmed nor denied it....

Charles Kingsley, Hypatia, Chapter XIV. This little passage strikes me as saying something very perceptive about belief as it normally plays out in the real world; although I'm not sure it quite captures it. Food for thought, in any case.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Manual Labor and Sex

One of the things that commonly trips people up when talking about natural law theory is a failure to distinguish laws that impose on individuals from laws that impose on species. Thomas Aquinas has a good example of the distinction when he discusses manual labor (which, it must be understood, is a somewhat broader notion than what we usually call 'manual labor', since it includes almost any sort of working with the hands). There is a natural-law imperative to engage in manual labor for the purpose of sustenance (food, primarily, but also shelter, clothes, and the like). But this is a species-level law. In other words, as a matter of practical reason (which natural law always is), it is imperative that human beings do the manual work necessary to sustain themselves. But it does not follow from this that everyone ought to do manual labor for this purpose. All that follows is that individual human beings should not be avoiding manual labor for bad reasons, because it's an important thing that needs to be done. But it's perfectly possible that particular people will have good reasons for avoiding it in favor of something else. And indeed there are good reasons for particular people to avoid it. For one thing, it takes up time, and there are worthwhile but time-consuming non-manual activities that need to be done (like teaching). Thus it makes much more sense for teachers, for instance, to be paid for their work, and thus to provide for their sustenance, and the sustenance of others, in that way. So it's a matter of natural law that manual labor should be done for sustaining human beings; but all that means is that someone should be doing it, and those who are not should have good reasons for not doing it at least to some extent, even if it's as small as a bit of gardening or handicraft or volunteer work.

The distinction turns out to be utterly crucial for sexual matters, and there is a bad tendency on the part of some people who appeal to natural law to overlook the distinction when it's convenient for them. It's a matter of natural law that human beings should engage in sex for the purpose of procreation. But this, again, is a law imposing on the species, not on individuals. It does not follow from this that any particular person finds himself or herself imposed upon by this law to be one of the ones who are sexually active for the purposes of procreation. It can be entirely reasonable for people not to engage in any sex at all (e.g., if they are celibate in order to devote themselves to other important things), and it can be entirely reasonable for particular people to be sexually active without reproduction in view at all. There is a danger of thinking that every single sexual act must have reproduction as its particular end; when in fact, reproduction is simply one the common ends of sexual acts in general, something to which they tend as a whole, ceteris paribus. Because sexual activity for reproductive purposes is a matter of practical reason and natural law, it's not a matter of indifference; but much of what natural law will have to say about sexual matters for the individual will be very oblique, at least as far as reproduction is concerned. This means that moral problems raised with regard to sex and reproduction will be much murkier than one might expect, requiring a great deal more hard reasoning to locate within the whole scheme of natural law. But this is as it is; it does no one any good to try to short-circuit the whole work of practical reason by trying to fit all of sexual ethics into the aspect of natural law devoted to reproduction.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mulla Sadra

The Persians developed fairly sophisticated philosophical approaches, a number of which bear resemblances to medieval scholastic approaches. This is not particularly surprising, given that they share a number of influences (Avicenna being a major one). Like the medieval Christians, they were faced with both illuminationist and Aristotelian strands of thought, albeit of slightly different flavors. The most notable of these great Persian philosophers were Suhrawardi (1155-1191) and Mulla Sadra (1571-1640). The latter is generally recognized to be the greatest Persian philosopher in history; only the better-known Avicenna can be said to rival him. Suhrawardi is considered the major figure of Islamic Illuminationism; he develops earlier illuminationist elements by an extended critique of the ideas of Avicenna. Mulla Sadra is influenced by Suhrawardi, taking up several points from him, but he is more Aristotelian than Suhrawardi. In that sense he makes a fascinating comparison to Thomas Aquinas; indeed, one might say, a bit loosely, that Mulla Sadra is the Thomas Aquinas of Islam, or that Thomas Aquinas is the Mulla Sadra of Christianity. Because they are doing broadly similar things, and have some shared influences (again, Avicenna is the name that chiefly comes to mind) they are often startlingly similar. However, because they have important differences in context, they are sometimes intriguingly different. Here are some online resources for learning about Mulla Sadra.

Ibrahim Kalin has several relevant papers online:
Mulla Sadra's Appropriation and Critique of the Illuminationist Concept of Knowledge
Between physics and metaphysics: Mulla Sadra on nature and motion
Mulla Sadra's Realist Ontology of the Intelligibles and His Concept of Knowledge

Seyed Safavi, Mulla Sadra on Causation

Andrey Smirnov, Causality and Islamic Thought

The Transcendent Philosophy issue of Iranian Studies has a number of articles on Mulla Sadra's philosophy (Sadrian philosophy is often called 'Transcendent Philosophy')

The Mulla Sadra Site of the Sadra Islamic Philosophy Institute is in general a good place to look for basic information on Sadra, if you can get past the occasionally poor translation.

A number of audio recordings by Jason Escolante discussing the similarities between Sadrian and Thomistic philosophical thought.

Subject-Object Relation in Mulla Sadra's Theory of Knowledge

Till a' the Seas Gang Dry

Rebecca notes that it's Robbie Burns Day, a.k.a. Burns's Night. (No, that's not a typo in her headline; 'Rabbie Burns' is a common version.) So this gives me an opportunity to post again my very favorite Burns poem.

Address to the Unco Guid, Or the Rigidly Righteous

My Son, these maxims make a rule,
An' lump them aye thegither;
The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
The Rigid Wise anither:
The cleanest corn that ere was dight
May hae some pyles o' caff in;
So ne'er a fellow-creature slight
For random fits o' daffin.
-Eccles. ch. vii. verse 16.

O ye wha are sae guid yoursel',
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell
Your neibours' fauts and folly!
Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi' store o' water;
The heaped happer's ebbing still,
An' still the clap plays clatter.

Hear me, ye venerable core,
As counsel for poor mortals
That frequent pass douce Wisdom's door
For glaikit Folly's portals:
I, for their thoughtless, careless sakes,
Would here propone defences-
Their donsie tricks, their black mistakes,
Their failings and mischances.

Ye see your state wi' theirs compared,
And shudder at the niffer;
But cast a moment's fair regard,
What maks the mighty differ;
Discount what scant occasion gave,
That purity ye pride in;
And (what's aft mair than a' the lave),
Your better art o' hidin.

Think, when your castigated pulse
Gies now and then a wallop!
What ragings must his veins convulse,
That still eternal gallop!
Wi' wind and tide fair i' your tail,
Right on ye scud your sea-way;
But in the teeth o' baith to sail,
It maks a unco lee-way.

See Social Life and Glee sit down,
All joyous and unthinking,
Till, quite transmugrified, they're grown
Debauchery and Drinking:
O would they stay to calculate
Th' eternal consequences;
Or your more dreaded hell to state,
Damnation of expenses!

Ye high, exalted, virtuous dames,
Tied up in godly laces,
Before ye gie poor Frailty names,
Suppose a change o' cases;
A dear-lov'd lad, convenience snug,
A treach'rous inclination-
But let me whisper i' your lug,
Ye're aiblins nae temptation.

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, -
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Science Bloggers on Basic Science Concepts

I've noted this before, but the list has grown, and at the rate I blog it is way down this month's archive. Here are the posts that science bloggers have done in their recent drive to post on basic concepts in their fields:

Clade at "Evolving Thoughts"
Evolution at "Sandwalk"
Mean, Median, and Mode at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Normal Distributions at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Force at "Uncertain Principles"
Gene at "Pharyngula"
Standard Deviation at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Fitness at "Evolving Thoughts"
Fields at "Uncertain Principles"
The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology at "Sandwalk"
Margin of Error at "Good Math, Bad Math"
How do you sequence a genome? at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
The Three Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Natural Selection at "Greg Laden"
The Modes of Natural Selection at "Greg Laden"
Natural Numbers and Integers at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Recursion and Induction at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Numbers at "Evolutionblog"
Infinity and Infinite Sums at "Evolutionblog"
Species at "Evolving Thoughts"
Linkage Disequilibrium at "Gene Expression"
Correlation at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Introduction to Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at "Aetiology"
8th Grade Math at "Gene Expression"
What is a gene? at "Greg Laden"
Logic at "Good Math, Bad Math"
How do you sequence a genome, part II at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
Biological Clock at "A Blog Around the Clock"
Prologue to Dating Techniques at "Afarensis"
Anisogamy at "Behavioral Ecology Blog"
How do you sequence a genome, Part III at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
Gene at "Sandwalk"

As I noted before, this is a very hard thing to do, much harder than we normally might be inclined to think; so everyone above is to be congratulated on their promising attempts. I'll continue adding to the list as I become aware of new posts.

Also, don't forget Bora's anthology. This is definitely a good thing to support.


Ed Brayton pretty much captures my view with regard to State of the Union addresses:

Tonight is the state of the union address, one of the dumbest and most ridiculous rituals of modern political discourse. It doesn't matter who is in the White House, this event is so mind-bogglingly inane that I can't imagine why anyone would willingly subject themselves to it. The President will deliver a 20 minute speech full of idiotic platitudes that will take an hour to deliver because the audience of legislators will interrupt him 1457 times to mindlessly applaud some absurd proposal that neither he nor they has the slightest intention of actually making a reality. By the end of the speech, the president will have promised to put a chicken in every pot as well as to heal the sick, comfort the downtrodden, free the oppressed, win the war, bring peace to the world, paint the house and do the laundry. No one in the audience actually believes any of that, of course, which makes the spectacle afterward, wherein a couple dozen talking heads gather together on the cable news shows to parse every frame of the speech like the Zapruder film, all the more ridiculous. The whole event couldn't be any more pointless if the president stood at the podium and read from My Pet Goat like he does to schoolchildren; that is precisely the level of discourse in the speech anyway and deserves to be taken about as seriously.

The sad fact is that it wasn't always this way. For a post here I once went over all the State of the Union addresses I could find; and I noticed a serious decline in their quality throughout the twentieth century. The original culprit is not hard to find. One of the things Jefferson brought to the Presidency was a refusal to dally in anything that looked like the posturing of a despot so instead of delivering the State of the Union in person as his predecessors did, he simply sent the copy over to have the clerk read it. (He was consciously trying to be the opposite of Washington, who rode in state to his annual addresses.) That was the way they were done for a very long time. The President who broke with the Jeffersonian tradition was Woodrow Wilson, and he was attacked for it in Jeffersonian terms: he was, his critics said, reviving the absurd ritualism of petty dictators. It stuck, however. Perhaps it would not have been so bad; but radio came along ten years later with Calvin Coolidge. Now it was not just a speech for legislators but for everyone. Well, OK, that's fine, but then TV enters the picture with Truman. Now it not only has to be a speech for everyone, it has to be a spectacle for everyone. Johnson, cunning and egoistic in this as in everything, saw the potential, moved it to primetime so everyone could see him, and from then on the annual address is simply a political advertisement. But while the point of the whole thing collapses with Johnson, it gets worse as time goes on; because for a while there's at least an effort to make it not look like an advertisement, although this effort becomes weaker as time goes on. With Reagan we get the stupid informationless weasel words, "The State of the Union is strong", which have been repeated in some variation over and over again since. But it isn't for nothing that he's called the Great Communicator, whatever else may be said for him. He's just politicking, but he has the decency to do it in a casual, genial style that doesn't seem much like an advertisement; he's parading, but he affably doesn't highlight the fact. Sort of like Coolidge Lite -- tastes great, but a lot less filling. And he boasts and he lies, but he does it carefully enough, and with enough entertainment, that it feels more like stretching the truth. But the Bushes and Clinton have all been shameless in this regard, and I don't think there's any other way to put it.

What people need to do is demand the return of the Jeffersonian tradition. Throw away the spectacle, and also demand that the President to do what he is constitutionally required to do: inform Congress of the actual state of the Union. I am not kidding when I say the failure of Presidents to do this is a matter of serious concern; the SOTU is a symptom of our constitutional health, and that is what distinguishes our leaders from the petty despots that Jefferson and Wilson's critics were so worried about it. And it has become an alarming symptom.

The Third Dimension Is Real

As I said when I saw this over at Macht's place, even if they can't pull it off, it's still cool that they've tried.

Flatland: The Movie, starring Martin Sheen and Kristen Bell (whom you've seen as Veronica Mars)

The movie is based on Edwin Abbott's classic novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, which is perhaps the world's only novel that manages successfully to blend geometry, social satire, and advocacy of reason-guided open-mindedness into a genuinely interesting story. If you've never read it, you should. Apparently the animated movie will only be thirty minutes long, but will be part of an educational DVD package; the idea is that it could be used by teachers.

It's a great idea, so watch out for it and in the meantime pass the word. If you have difficulty with the graphics-heavy website, above, you can still see the trailer via YouTube. I do want to insist on the point about getting the word out. We bloggers should send a clear message to producers and others that there is general interest in educational projects of this type. View the trailer, link to the website, ask others to do the same.

'Serve First Those Who Suffer Most'

Abbé Pierre (Henri Groues), the priest who was both a former member of the French resistance and a former Capuchin monk, who was also sometimes called the social conscience of France, died yesterday at 95 (see also here). He was for many, many years one of the most respected people in France, so much so that a few people, not liking the idea of a monk who was a media star, started calling him "Saint Superstar". His star dimmed somewhat, however, when one of his close friends turned out to deny the Holocaust in a book that Groues had given public support for; Groues, while insisting that he condemned any sort of Holocaust denial, also refused at first to come out and categorically withdraw his support, leading to considerable controversy and a blow to French enthusiasm for him, albeit a temporary one.

He was the founder of Emmaus International. You can read an interesting interview with him here.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Interesting Online Reading

* A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods. For discussion, see Towards a Periodic Table of Visualization Methods for Management (PDF).

* How well do you know Jesus' words? Three quizzes at "Kingdom People".

* The Virtual Absinthe Museum is an interesting resource for information about the Green Fairy of the Belle Epoque.

* This article by Chris Hedges on a suburban theology of despair has been going around. Macht has an insightful comment on it. What people should have taken away from Hedges's article, if they were serious about it, is his claim that the radical Christian right is the result of a long and serious neglect of working-class people and their needs. It's not a new message. Marx famously claimed that religion was the opiate of the people: oppressed and overburdened, people turned to religion for comfort from the pain because it was the only forum available to them in which their interests and needs were actually taken seriously. By turning to religion, people could take the edge off their anger and weariness. (Of course, Marx doesn't think the medicine religion offered to be any more than palliative, a pain killer; he didn't think it could cure the disease. Only revolution could do that.)Hedges's argument is a contemporary version of the same; the only difference is that Hedge, unlike Marx, thinks the coming proletariat revolution is a bad thing! Of course, a great deal of the argument in either case depends on that prediction of revolution....

* A rather funny parody of John Lennon's "Imagine". (ht: Gideon Strauss)

* Currently reading:
Morgan Rempel, Nietzsche on the Deaths of Socrates and Jesus
David Bronstein, Hegel and the Holocaust
Sean McGrath, Toward a Technology that Allows the Beautiful to Occur
Vance Maxwell, The Dialectic of Enlightenment
Torrance Kirby, Richard Hooker's Discourse on Natural Law in the Context of the Magisterial Reformation
Daniel Steel, Rethinking the Naturalism vs. Interpretivism Debate in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (PDF)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Discussion of C. H. Cooley's 'Social Consciousness' (1907)
Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis
Josiah Royce, The External World and Social Consciousness

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Chesterton's Presidential Address, 1926

By accident I stumbled upon the archives of The Philosopher, the Journal of the Philosophical Society of England. The 1926 presidential address for the society was, to my surprise and delight, none other than G.K. Chesterton. Apparently Chesterton arrived an hour late due to some mix-up about trains, so he opens his address with apologies for being an idiot; and then notes that one popular understanding of the term 'philosophy' would be keeping one's temper when the trains are late; and this leads him to make suggestions to philosophers about how they should understand the philosophical needs of the common people. As he points out, if we are to popularize philosophy, we have to have some understanding of what the attitudes of the masses really are. Here's an excerpt:

First of all, I would like to point out that most people who are interested in philosophical things are under some illusion as to what ordinary folk believe. We are inclined to think that people are a great deal more inspired by ideas, such as that the world grows better by continual social effort, that all men and nations, when they come to understand each other, will be as brothers. All such ideals are a sort of atmosphere which we philosophers take for granted. They are the air we breathe - sunlight, gaslight, moonshine, what you will.

But you will find that the greater part of human beings have an attitude of mistrust of the Universe and Humanity, their thinking is certainly not that of the 'hilarious highbrow.' If you talk to keepers of shops, to travellers, women who have to work very hard all their lives, you find that, though many of them are strong believers in orthodox religion, it is not too much to say that the majority have a melancholy and sad view of life, quite pagan in its fatalism. The general condition of stoical philosophy is chequered with other curious elements. There is generally a tinge of sadness. The belief in luck, for instance, generally bad luck. A man would probably not say 'I am a favourite of the gods,' but much more probably 'just like my luck.' It is the belief of the old heathen world as expressed in the great heathen religions through the ages. In all rude and simple tribes, the people do not feel safe with their gods: they will sometimes do you a good turn, but they are not to be trusted. Behind the gods there is something fixed, and immutable, Fate itself. This is not perhaps how the ordinary man of today waiting at Clapham Junction would put it.

He then suggests that one possible benefit of a philosophical society is to show people where these nebulous ideas really lead, in order to ask them if they are satisfied with that outcome; and he continues in this vein on a number of particular subjects.

Other interesting offerings from the archives are G. K. Chesterton's The Need of a Philosophy, John Dewey's Individual Psychology and Education, John MacMurray's Reason in Action, Moritz Schlick's Unanswerable Questions, and Mary Midgley's discussion of the moral philosophy of Iris Murdoch. Delightful stuff.

Knowing a Belief vs. Belief as Knowledge

I have been somewhat interested in a confusion that I've seen a lot recently, between the two following descriptions (or their equivalents):

(1) Knowledge of a system of beliefs S
(2) Treating S as a system of knowledge

The confusion involved here is between 'S as a thing known' and 'S as (a system of) things known'. The two are not at all the same. Someone could have knowledge of a system of beliefs they consider completely wrong; for instance, I could acquaint myself with the beliefs of astrologers in order to refute them more thoroughly. Situations that require me to know the beliefs of astrologers do not thereby require me to consider astrology a legitimate body of knowledge. I do not have to put any trust in horoscopes in order to know what people do when they practice horoscopy; this is simply a matter of research, not astrological practice. You can be an expert on ancient Greek religion without being a devotee of it; you can do respectable research into the worship of Moloch without trying your hand at immolating children. Urging someone to come to know a system of belief is not the same thing as urging them to treat the system of belief as a system of knowledge. That would be a conflation of the object of knowledge with knowledge itself.

What puzzles me is why anyone would fall into this confusion in the first place. It's not a very difficult confusion to avoid, if we aren't engaging in massive equivocations; there are plenty of obvious parallel instances where people can know what's in S without taking S as a body of known truths; an epistemology in which you couldn't know any falsehoods -- even to know that they are false, and the ways in which they are false -- would be a very peculiar epistemology indeed. Perhaps it has to do with thinking that only truths are known, without recognizing that even when dealing with false claims and beliefs there are truths about those false claims and beliefs that can be known.

Some Selected Poem Re-Drafts III

Parmenides' Vision

Rapt, thrown upward, undone,
In ecstatic vision seeking vital clue,
I journeyed on the well-known path;
She came:
Great gold-winged goddess, chariot-driven,
More splendid far than Cyprian glory
On sands made manifest to Anchises' son.
She came,
And, speaking, said to my dreaming ears:
Two ways lie before you; one is true, one appears,
Both gated, and above the former
The message of the gods shines forth
Like the words above the Delphic road,
What is, is, and is not what is not.
Upon that path lies your way, said she,
The way of truth and not of seeming;
What appears will pass, what is real remains;
wisdom's lover finds sweet relief
In what is.
Then the fleeting, swift-footed, gold-winged goddess
Was gone, and I amazed.


The honeysuckle before the rain
Sends out its scent;
The sky, a gentle gray with cloudy banks
Looks down in meditation.
Its study prepares the thunder,
Rendering air electric,
Charged with age-old passion.
All is patient, contemplating;
each grass-blade is a scholar,
each blossom on the vine.

God has Blessed my Cup of Tea

God has blessed my cup of tea;
It is a thing of wonder.
In the cup amidst the leaves
I hear His holy thunder.

My bed's beneath God's Holy Throne;
His Light is on my walls;
And as I pray my very room
Becomes a new St. Paul's.

The wind bites deep into my bones,
The fires fade and dim,
But every single flick of frost
Bears up the weight of Him.

When you stand beneath the winter tree
And love God's snow and ice,
lift a hymn to pray for me;
each psalm is prayer twice.

A Graduate Student Reflects on Footnotes

There is a power and a danger in footnotes. Amen.
For the footnote is a text of its own, and is not.
And the loosening of this paradox has loosened many minds.
For they have grown churlish with useless detail.
For footnotes like coral build up into great reefs of madness.
For many minds have been shipwrecked by their own footnotes.
And many minds have thereby been put out to sea.
And footnotes, like coffee, add nothing to learning, and too much.
So avoid footnotes, my child, like Pythagoreans beans.
For they both cast out the Spirit and are an affront to number.
For they exceed the bounds of the discussion.
For they are απειρον.
And they are disruptive to the reasonable order of plot and argument.
And many more have been led into folly by footnotes than by strange women.
For the footnote is a license for promiscuous thought.
For the standards of the footnote are not the standards of the discourse.
And many have said things in footnotes of a stupidity they would not pronounce in the text.
So, my child, in life and in word, learn that footnotes lead away from the way.
And that silence is golden even for fools. Amen.

Aridity and Consolation

I walked one day, a wanderer amid the trees,
singing out a song, the sun all hid from view
but the air hot, and no whisper in the leaves
nor breeze to blow like balm that heals the wound,
and came I on a course that cut through sandy stone,
once widened by water as it wandered home,
but dry with dust, undamp, like ancient bone,
remembering ancient mists and moisture long ago.

And it seemed that I could see in the silence of the wood
a phoenix, fireborn, that flew from bough to bough,
that sought the stream long slain by drought of old,
and, coming to the course, did cry so soft and low
the angels would all weep and echo it in dreams,
and hardly had my hearing found heaven in those strains
than dropped the phoenix dead by drought unhealed by stream,
and, finished, lightly fell, its fire stripped of glow.

Then, herald of all hope, a hind of silver-white,
brought with bitter haste by the baying hounds,
valiant with a force that's felt in moonlit nights,
leaped beneath the laurel whose leaves were on it crowned,
and, taken by the dogs, it died and knew no more,
and, broken in its bone, blood on forest floor,
it sank like sunset, thrice solemn in its woe,
which had lately been alive, but at last was overthrown.

Then I wept, and from my eyes the water fled in grief;
the salt it bore of sorrow, and sadness in my pain,
in gravest ruining raining on the leaves,
and newly did I mourn that the marvels I had seen
should die in death, no dawn at all in sight;
overcome, I greatly cried for coming night,
and breath with sorrow bittered, I broke with sob and sigh:
my love, and it alone, alive did now remain.

But wait! one sole whisper, like the wind amid the trees,
did rise and rush, then roar with living force,
and wave, as in war an army like the seas
will arm and rise, did water again the course,
a pouring-out with power; like spring-kissed clouds of rain,
from furthest foreign-land a fountain broke again,
as though the gods of glory with grace, or even whim,
had compassion on the creek, and carved a living source.

So first there broke a flood; then flame did burst to light,
and, fire all around it, the phoenix, winged in gold,
did rise in ruddy glory with rays that blinded sight,
and winged up to heaven, the highest of high roads,
a scion of the sun, with shining in its wings,
so holy in its egress as to humble one who sins,
bring penitent to prayer, inspire seraphim to sing,
more glory in its going than gests and tales have told.

The pooling of the blood from the bitter death of hind
with flood and flame was mingled, and force imbued
into a flowing fire enveloping, embraced in kind
the carcass of the conquered, and covering it with blood
did wash like aeviternity its weariness away
and death undid, as night undone by day,
and, leaping into life, as long ago it played,
it sped, a shot, a silver flash, through primal wood.

The flood, I saw, was faith; the phoenix charity;
the hind was hope, the herald of new life;
and, filled with seeing vision, a flux of ecstasy,
I saw that what is saved is what is sundered for to die
and brought to burial, to be born anew;
for all grow old, and, ancient, to death must go,
but cycles may be started, and, from being severed through,
new life may live, and spring to wondrous light.

Three Victorian Historical Novels

Yesterday was the feast of St. Sebastian, and today the feast of St. Agnes; which reminded me that both appear in Cardinal Wiseman's romanticization, Fabiola. Fabiola, published in 1854, was the first of a projected series illustrating different eras in the history of the Church. It appeared in James Burns's "The Popular Library" along with Newman's Callista and a number of other works. As an attempt to write a Catholic popular novel it was very successful, being widely distributed in a number of languages and critically acclaimed. It takes a certain sort of taste to enjoy it, but as light reading it is reasonably readable. Remarkably, I can't find it online in English at all. You can read it in French, though, if you have the taste and the tongue.

The novel is worth reading in conjunction with two other novels, the aforementioned Callista (1856) and Charles Kingsley's Hypatia (1853); the former as a companion novel approached in a somewhat different way, and the latter as a sharp contrast to both. The novels in their own ways hint at the larger religious struggle of which they are a symptom; it's well-recognized that Kingsley's Hypatia is both an expression of his theological views and a swipe at Tractarians and Catholics, particularly in their emphasis on the Church Fathers. Both Fabiola and Callista can be seen as Catholic responses to it. And it has been argued that the opposition between Hypatia and Callista foreshadows the more direct theological opposition between Kingsley and Newman a decade later in 1864. Indirect polemic by means of popular entertainment.