Friday, February 02, 2007

Molly Ivins on Separation of Church and State

The late Molly Ivins on God and politics:

Some Christians seem to me inclined to lose track of love, compassion and mercy. I don't think I have any special brief to go around judging them, but when the stink of hypocrisy becomes so foul in the nostrils it makes you start to puke it becomes necessary to point out there is one more good reason to observe the separation of church and state: If God keeps hanging out with politicians, it's gonna hurt his reputation.

Cleanliness as the Key to All Moral Philosophy

Among the other virtues, we may also give Cleanliness a place; since it naturally renders us agreeable to others, and is no inconsiderable source of love and affection. No one will deny, that a negligence in this particular is a fault; and as faults are nothing but smaller vices, and this fault can have no other origin than the uneasy sensation which it excites in others; we may, in this instance, seemingly so trivial, clearly discover the origin of moral distinctions, about which the learned have involved themselves in such mazes of perplexity and error.

David Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section VIII (215).

So that clears that up.

Two More Poem Drafts

Broken Stair
An Old Story

Through all the tears,
these bitter fears
that choke the living soul
freeze the blood
with winter love
and the heart you stole.
But when, my thief,
will hope's relief
come as the poets told?
I fear this still:
It never will,
a bitter dusk and cold.

Our gold is dross,
our gain is cost,
our new is obsolete;
and all our lives
are little lies,
perpetual defeats;
but when I hear
your voice so clear
it hints at worlds more sweet,
and then I dream
of hopes unseen
when love is more complete.

Without a thought
I'm cold then hot,
a mind's insanity;
you look around
at what you've found --
it's all inanity.
And when your eye
is raised on high
you think there's more to be,
and then you tend,
I can depend,
to walk right out on me.

And if I cry,
or even die,
would you really care?
If I proposed
a life of woes
could you even dare?
But knowing life
you'll run and hide
and leave me here to fare
without your grace
in an empty place,
to climb a broken stair.

Venus Anadyomene

Blood and foam do battle,
intermingle, intermix,
roll together, sea-compounded
of wave and god and death.
Beauty blooms upon the seacrest,
ascends from byssal womb,
naked in its native glory
on a fierce and naked tide:
Dione on the wave ascends,
foam-skinned with a living blush,
golden-haired and guiltless white
upon a blood-red sea.

Candlemas Poetry

Today is the Feast of the Presentation.

For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

Christina Rossetti has a lovely poem for the occasion:

Feast of the Presentation

O firstfruits of our grain,
Infant and Lamb appointed to be slain,
A Virgin and two doves were all Thy train,
With one old man for state,
When Thou didst enter first Thy Father's gate.

Since then Thy train hath been
Freeman and bondman, bishop, king and queen,
With flaming candles and with garlands green:
Oh happy all who wait
One day or thousand days around Thy gate!

And these have offered Thee,
Beside their hearts, great stores for charity,
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh; if such may be
For savour or for state
Within the threshold of Thy golden gate.

Then snowdrops and my heart
I'll bring, to find those blacker than Thou art:
Yet, loving Lord, accept us in good part;
And give me grace to wait,
A bruised reed bowed low before Thy gate.

Candlemas marks the end of the liturgical season of Christmas, considered broadly; this is what lies behind Herrick's Candlemas poems:

Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall:
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind:
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

Ceremonies of Candlemas Eve
(Also known as The Candlemas Eve Carol)

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway;
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew;
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.

Thus times do shift;
each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed,
as former things grow old.

The Ceremonies for Candlemas Day

Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn;
Which quench'd, then lay it up again
Till Christmas next return.
Part must be kept wherewith to tend
The Christmas log next year,
And where 'tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.

From here on out we prepare for the upcoming liturgical season of Easter.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Many Europes

In Europe and the Faith, Hilaire Belloc argues that European civilization, qua European, is essentially Catholic; that, in effect, what makes Europe united as Europe is that it became Christendom. As he puts it, "The Catholic alone is in possession of the tradition of Europe: he alone can see and judge in this matter." Because of this, understanding Europe and its history requires a 'Catholic conscience'; and Europe will inevitably perish as Europe if it does not return to the Catholic faith.

In Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man, Edmund Husserl argues that Europe, understood as "the unity of a spiritual life and a creative activity" is entirely non-geographical -- in fact, includes the United States and much of the British commonwealth and excludes many geographical Europeans like Gypsies -- is characterized by philosophy in a broad but standardly Western sense, i.e., the sort of endeavor that has roots in ancient Greece. Thus Europe is an unfolding of the theoretical attitude in which the Greek philosophers tried to understand the world around them; this includes not only philosophy in the narrower sense, but the sciences. Innocently, but perhaps more than just a tad ominously, he says, "Philosophy has constantly to exercise through European man its role of leadership for the whole of mankind."

According to Robert Schuman's 9 May 1950 Declaration, Europe is something that must be made by the establishment of international solidarity, and is required for its potential contribution to world peace.

In From Ethnicity to Empathy (PDF), Ash Amin argues that the current demographic facts of Europe require that it be understood in terms of empathy with the stranger.

In a July/August 2006 edition of The Liberal, George Steiner has argued that Europe is expressed in five traits: coffeehouse culture; traversable and human-scale landscape; streets and the like names after artists, writers, statesmen, and so forth; a "twofold descent from Athens and Jerusalem"; and an apprehension of a "closing chapter, of that famous Hegelian sunset, which shadowed the idea and substance of Europe even in their noon hours." He also suggests that its genius lies in its emphasis on the highly pluralistic notion of (using a phrase from William Blake) 'the holiness of the minute particular'.

And these are but a sampling. There are many Europes. And that is what one should expect, isn't it?

Nine Choirs

Jimmy Akin has a post on the orders of angels, as the tradition comes down from the Dionysian author. It's a good post for the basics, but Jimmy is much less positive about the whole idea than I am, so I thought I'd say something on the subject.

The order that's usually given (it's not the only one, but is the one that has largely predominated) is that found in the Dionysian Celestial Hierarchy. The ordering is, from least to greatest (I have also noted what the name is said to denote):

The Order of Angelic Choirs That Are Most Concerned with the Manifest and Mundane

The Order of Intermediate Angelic Choirs
Virtue: Forceful Strength
Power: Mighty Order
Domininion: Sublime Authority

The Order of Angelic Choirs That Are Immersed in the Presence of God
Throne: Majestic Righteousness
Cherub: Overflowing Wisdom
Seraph: Ardent Love

The names indicate 'interpretive characteristics', i.e., what the choir conveys to every intelligence beneath it. They are, it should be understood, not themselves exclusive; ever label in the above lists applies to every angel who falls in the orders I've listed below it. This is because the whole point of the ordering is that the greater orders possess all the excellences of the lesser ones. Further, lower angels can sometimes be called by the names of higher choirs insofar as they are purified, illuminated, and perfected by means of them. (Likewise, we can sometimes be called angelic to the extent that God has purified, illuminated, and perfected us by means of angels.) However, the names are often used exclusively, so when you say, "Archangel" you usually mean only the archangels in the lowest order.

But simply stating the order simply doesn't do justice to the Dionysian discussion. The whole point, as we find in the first few chapters of the Celestial Hierarchy, is not to discuss angels but to discuss participation in the divine; the orders are levels of participation in divine glory by intelligences, and the reason for discussing it is that we may better understand what participation in the divine involves. For it is our destiny to participate in God's light and love. The alternatives are to talk about this participation in terms of human beings or in terms of God's supereminent possession of excellences. The value of thinking of it in terms of angels rather than humans is that angels are pure cases: we can talk about them without dragging all the finer complications that are involved in talking about human beings. The value of thinking of it in terms of angels rather than God is twofold: (1) God technically doesn't participate God, so it's very difficult (for us, at least) to understand what participating the divine glory is if we only allow ourselves to think about God; (2) and, moreover, we can only think correctly about God's possession of his glory if we bring in the via negativa, whereas we need to think about participation much more directly and positively. So the point of discussing the matter at all is not to satisfy curiosity about angels, but to guide us in union with God:

By moulding itself after their likeness our own hierarchy will, as far as possible, be assimilated to it and will, in very deed, show forth, as in images, the angelic beauty; receiving its form from them, and being uplifted by them to the superessential Source of every Hierarchy.

Indeed, the Dionysian goes so far as to say that the hierarchies are recapitulated, or at least there is something analogous to them, to some degree in every angelic and human intelligence. Moreover, the Dionysian is quite clear that the choirs of angels are symbols of divine providence. As he says, God does not share sovereignty with angels, but through one all-powerful providence he governs through them, lifting all things up to himself by their means. Indeed, this has been the great attraction of the list throughout the ages, that it provides a useful way of thinking about both divine providence and our sanctification. To focus on the angels alone is to miss the point; as the old proverb says, when a finger points at the moon, only a dog looks at the finger.

It's also important to note that the Dionysian is actually rather modest in his claims; for instance, with regard to one question about his ordering he gives the reader (ostensibly Timothy) two possible responses, one of which he favors, and then tells him to pick whichever of the two he thinks more reasonable, or figure out something closer to the truth, or learn it from someone else, and then let everyone know.

It's clear that the Dionysian is philosophically is heavily influenced by Proclus. It's also possible to exaggerate this, however; however influenced he may be, he talks throughout like a Christian. And his attitude here is similar to his attitude in the Divine Names, where he develops his philosophical account of negative theology for the express purpose of driving people to Scripture; the Neoplatonic philosophy is made to recognize the superiority of the Christian life.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Zuska on Feminist Theory of Science

I listed it in the basic concepts list, but as part of the recent drive by science bloggers to post on basic concepts in their field, Zuska of "Thus Spake Zuska" has an excellent post on Feminist Theory of Science. It is well worth reading. Zuska also mentions Helen Longino, who is likewise well worth reading.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, by the way, you can listen to Helen Longino discussing truth and relativism; you can read the transcript of an interview with her; you can also read one of her speeches for an Evelyn Fox Keller celebration.

I once wrote an essay defending Longino's view that scientific practice is not value-free by pointing out that everyone in fact recognizes that this is true when it's convenient for them; but it's also common practice to dismiss the claim when convenient, as well. There are few areas in which the dismissal comes so readily as when feminists start noting gender-related flaws in current scientific practice. Everyone shrugs their shoulders and says something like, "Of course our ideal is to have parity in such-and-such field; but the fact that we don't doesn't change the basic way science works" -- completely ignoring, of course, facts such as the shockingly common shortchanging of women in medical research by generalizing results from all-male test subjects to women without considering differences in body chemistry. When these flaws are detected the scientific work is obviously better; but the improvement is not recognized as due to the elimination of a gender-related flaw, but simply shoved into this vague, quasi-mystical phrase, "the way science works," into which too many scientists have a bad habit of retreating whenever they don't want to address a problem. Fortunately this has been changing for a while, in great measure through considerable persistence on the part of feminists.

One of the difficulties a feminist theory of science faces is that there is indeed a sense in which 'science works the same' whether feminist concerns are addressed or not; measurement is still measurement, mathematics is still mathematics, experiments are still experiments. One thing that has helped me to recognize the importance of a feminist theory of science is to see that merely because 'science works the same' in this limited sense doesn't mean that it's working equally well. It will be the same in kind; but not the same in quality. Compare the difference between being a scientist in a genuinely free country and being a scientist in an oppressive regime. The free country and the oppressive regime may both put quite a bit of emphasis on the particular scientific field in question; but (for instance) oppressive regimes can meddle as they see fit, whereas the governments of free countries are sharply limited as to what they can do in this direction. One is clearly better for 'the way science works'. Nazi medical research is tainted not only ethically but also because it can't be trusted: there's too much agenda there, and, what's worse, it's an agenda that is irrational. What feminist theory of science is concerning itself with is the question of (putting it crudely) how to make science work better -- that is, how to have better quality research and education of the same kind. This is not a minor or insignificant issue, and it's not an issue that can be shrugged off. The case, of course, is not quite so cut and dry as the other examples I've given; feminist theorists of science are dealing with a much more complex and tangled problem, and so usually have to work with scalpel rather than hammer and chisel. But the point is the same: science doesn't 'work' on its own; it is something done under various conditions, some of which are more favorable to its being done well than others. What we usually call science is a community effort, and there are aspects of that community effort that thrive under some conditions but not under others. Many of those aspects are related to issues examined by feminists. Thus the need for a feminist theory of science.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Links and Notes

* An excellent post on some false premises of theists and atheists at "Just Thomism"

* Via Michael Gilleland I came across Stonexus, the stonemason's magazine. Very cool. I think I've come across it before, but it's a worthwhile rediscovery.

* Aquinas is called the Common Doctor, or Angelic Doctor; Bonaventure the Seraphic Doctor; Scotus the Subtle Doctor. 'Doctor', of course, means 'teacher' in this context. But there are many more such titles. I found a list (in Esperanto, but still readable) here (scroll down to 'Doktor'). I knew that Suarez was the Doctor eximius, that Bacon was the Doctor mirabilis, that Lull was the Doctor illuminatus. I don't think I've come across some of the others, though. You can see others here, in English. I had forgotten that Ockham was called the Doctor invincibilis -- presumably, I would think, by his disciples.

* The Catholic Encyclopedia on Montes Pietatis, charitable lending institutions designed to protect the poor from usurers; montes pietatis were one of the interesting and controversial ideas of the Renaissance and early modern period, since they usually charged interest in order to support the institution, and this would traditionally be understood as usury. They often worked like modern pawnshops, although given their charitable purpose they were much more generous. Pawnshops today fairly typically charge a small amount of interest (regulated by law) and then a storage fees for the collateral; a lot of montes pietatis managed to survive anti-usury sentiment by making very clear that they were only charging the storage fees. Other montes pietatis managed to get away with charging low interest. One of the major advocates of montes pietatis was Bernardino da Feltre, who has since been beatified, who is, in fact, sometimes called Blessed Bernardino of the Pawnshops. Others involved with the montes pietatis have been canonized -- St. James of the Marches and St. Antonino of Florence are good examples. The institutions were explicitly discussed in the tenth session of the Fifth Lateran Council. The conclusion was that they "do not introduce any kind of evil or provide any incentive to sin if they receive, in addition to the capital, a moderate sum for their expenses and by way of compensation, provided it is intended exclusively to defray the expenses of those employed and of other things the upkeep of the organizations, and provided that no profit is made therefrom." If they do this, they are not to be condemned but praised. However, they would be more praiseworthy if completely gratuitous, paying for at least a good portion of expenses out of a fund set up by those who established them.

Unfortunately, the history of this otherwise excellent idea is clouded by the link between usury and Judaism in the late medieval mind; advocacy of montes pietatis as a way to support the poor was more than occasionally mixed together with advocacy of these institutions as a move against the Jews.

* Brogaard has a post on the history of the American Philosophical Association at "Lemmings".

* An interesting article on environmental aesthetics at the SEP.

* The Abbey of St. Gallen is creating a digital version of its library of medieval manuscripts. They have an interesting mix of things up so far. (Ht: Gypsy Scholar)

* Via this post at "A Thinking Reed" I learned of Polyface Farm, which looks like an interesting project.

* I really like the readings Nathanael has selected for his Long Nineteenth Century course.

* An interesting and well-thought-out post by John Armstrong on Gnosticism vs. Empiricism in modern American life, at "The Unapologetic Mathematician." My only major quibble is with the phrase "the machine of the scientific method", which I think is misleading (I think there is no such thing as 'the scientific method', and certainly not one that is suitable for a machine metaphor; rather, there are many scientific methods that are well-suited to many different scientific tasks).

* Through a casual mention of it at "The n-Category Café" I discovered that G.H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology is online (PDF). This is an awesome little book, one that argues that mathematics is more than merely useful; early on he notes that everyone accepts without question that mathematics is useful, but points out that this is a very unsatisfactory justification, since it doesn't really justify mathematics as mathematicians actually do it. So he sets out to give a mathematician's defense of (his own doing of) mathematics. It also has this great anecdote:

I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100 . A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down books, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia Mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated....

* Lawrence Solum's paper, Natural Justice, is well worth reading.

Monday, January 29, 2007

On Grayling and Argumentative Strategy

I find that apparently Grayling thinks that I was tendentious in my recent post on his article about the preamble to the European constitution. I look forward to the promised reply (comment boxes can be activated on this site by clicking the relevant 'Sound of silence' or 'n links in the chain' link, the latter indicating that there are already n comments in the thread); I think there is much in the original article that requires more explanation than he has yet given, and if we are to talk about tendentiousness, I think there is more than one edge to that sword. Nonetheless, I do take the charge of tendentiousness seriously, probably more so than Grayling. After all, he can do as he pleases, but I try to operate according to the spirit of a Code of Amiability, and while there is no sharp line that one can draw, it's clear that being overly tendentious is not very conducive to an amiable approach to things in general. Whatever the standards to which Grayling holds himself, I do try to hold myself to very high ones, and that I manage to succeed in this only inconsistently is not really an excuse, even if it is unsurprising. Since I post on many controversial topics, and since I post on a large number of philosophical issues, which necessarily involve on in a great deal of criticism, this is actually an issue to which I have devoted a considerable amount of thought. The conclusion I have come to on this point is that criticism and critique, sometimes rather severe, is to some degree inevitable; and, indeed, the basic point of amiability in this regard is not to avoid correcting others but never to do so in a spirit of irremediable severity, and always to be ready to seize on opportunities to be more kind. To take one example, while it is no secret that I am unimpressed by atheism in general, I have found it necessary in my discussions of atheism here not to leave it at that; individual posts may criticize particular features of particular claims by particular atheists, but elsewhere I try to find points where amiable discussion of the subject is possible. Perhaps more seriously, I do try to focus on the structure of arguments as a way of focusing on something that can be discussed with general good will all around. Perhaps here Grayling does have some cause of complaint; I also have a tendency to be harder on Grayling than on others who hold his views, in part because, as he is devoted to philosophy, I've assumed he wishes to be held to higher standards than those who are not. Further, instead of focusing on why the structure of his argument is a poor one, I focused on things I simply found funny. This was, in any case, imprudent on my part, since I was passing up an opportunity to examine the interesting issue of good argumentative strategy, which examination would certainly be more fruitful than laughing at some infelicities of expression.

Grayling's argument, you will recall, is concerned with the question of whether a mention of 'Christian traditions' should be introduced into the preamble of the constitution of the European union. Not being European, I don't have a dog in the race, and it's certainly true that Europeans can do as they please on this point. (It's also clear that Europeans are highly divided on it.) And indeed, I think ultimately it comes down to whatever ends up being negotiated; on this issue, insofar as I have an opinion at all, I am a positivist -- whatever comes about through the proper channels of negotiation and ratification is fine. For my own part, though, I think the best argument against the mention that I've seen is that from function. A preamble for a Constitution needs to be kept lean and general, in order to stand the test of time; and specifics like mention of a Christian heritage are hard to write in a way that they will do so. This is particularly true inasmuch as there are so many distinct but tangled threads in the tapestry of Europe's history that any mention of more than very general features will be somewhat arbitrary. So there's an argument that the preamble should focus on general concepts that everyone is likely to agree on now -- things like rule of law, popular suffrage, human rights, international justice -- and leave the arguments about how these concepts should be placed in their historical context to the forum of public discussion. Another argument, which I think is somewhat less plausible, but still certainly worth airing and seriously discussing, is the one that's based on the worry that this is a veiled move to problematize Turkey's eventual entry into the E.U.; at the very least, the ramifications for the entry of Turkey, as an overwhelmingly Muslim state, into the Union is something that needs to be seriously considered.

So one might argue the matter in these ways. Grayling's argument, however, is very different. The basic structure of the argument as presented in Grayling's article is something like this:

(1) There is a position being put forward, against which Grayling is arguing. His fullest description of this position is "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." So far, so good.

(2) He therefore sees fit in response to this position to insist on the following points: that Christianity "plunged Europe into the dark ages for the next thousand years" after Constantine's Edict of Toleration; that this effect of Christianity involved a course of civilization that was degenerate in the sense that it involved "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)"; that "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"; that "every millimetre of progress in liberty and learning has been bitterly opposed by the organised institutions of Christianity"; that among the means whereby the organized institutions of Christianity opposed progress were the burning of " anyone who disagreed with its antique absurdities" and the failure to arraign Christian officers for the deaths caused by the Wars of Religion; that the Christian religion was forced into retreat by "the new learning and the larger freedoms of mind and action that increasing secularisation brought, liberating individuals and societies to the extent enjoyed today."

Now the straightforward problem with this argument is that if the reasons given in (2) for rejecting the position put forward in (1) are to fulfill their function, they must adequately show that the European inheritance has received no significant positive elements from Christian traditions. This they manifestly cannot do, unless they are taken at face value as to its assessment of the negative elements, and it is supposed that there were no positive influences in addition to these negative elements. The argument collapses if either condition fails, or both. So, for instance, suppose that Christianity is not the cause of the Dark Ages; then mentioning the Dark Ages does nothing to argue against the position in (1). It becomes irrelevant. Or suppose that, even assuming it did cause the Dark Ages, Christian thought in the form of reflection on property and war made a major contribution to the creation of international law, developing ideas that were only slightly developed in earlier classical thought, by way of (say) Spanish scholastics and Dutch jurists. Then the line of argument fails to shed light on (1) as well, because the focus on the negative contribution overlooks the positive contribution, which, if considered foundational, is enough to accept some (less tendentiously stated) form of the position put forward in (1). And, indeed, this is something that might appeal to many different sorts of people; for instance, one might well imagine someone saying, "Europe's inheritance from Christianity is a mixed bag of good and bad; but we have drawn out the good and winnowed out the bad by straining this inheritance through more modern secularist principles."

So Grayling's argument appears to require that it be taken at face value and that it be adequate for all foundational elements of the European inheritance. But the latter is precisely what is in dispute; and the former, as I noted before, simply isn't viable. The origin and even the status of the Dark Ages is, as I understand it, a matter of ongoing dispute among historians of late antiquity and the early medieval period, in part because the period is one where gathering the relevant information has always taken a considerable amount of effort. It's very common these days to emphasize environmental and economic factors (particularly barbarian immigration), as well as political corruption predating the rise of Christianity. But even historians who have given Christianity a major causal role in an account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire have also recognized the complexity of the situation. This goes back all the way to Gibbon himself, who despite attributing a serious acceleration of a long decline to the party-spirit and otherworldliness of Christian sects (without insisting on it as the sole factor), also insisted that Christianity provided elements that compensated for the decline in such a way as to reduce its violence and bring new civilization to otherwise uncivilized peoples. Historians proposing Gibbon-like theses since have proposed more complex accounts of the decline, not less; and the very tenability of such theses appears to be a matter of much dispute. Witness the whole sprawling dispute over whether, and in what ways, there was a serious decline at all, rather than (say) a set of complex readjustments as the Empire struggled to assimilate large barbarian populations, and whether the decline was chiefly political or took some other form. There are also disputes about the role of the rise of the Sassanid dynasty, which by creating a united Persia, essentially an opposing superpower, created an ongoing threat to Roman hegemony over a vast portion of the known world; there are disputes about the role played by the Huns, or military geopolitics, or any number of other things.

Regardless, this is a matter that requires careful handling of the evidence, which is diverse and complicated, and is probably best left to experts in the field. What is certainly untenable is the claim that for the next thousand years we have a degenerate civilization, i.e., one with little in the way of literature, philosophy, arts, and crafts. Somewhere in the "Insight Scoop" discussion (for which see the links in the previous post), Grayling concedes that the 'thousand years' claim was not quite right. But this concession is fatal to the argument as originally stated; for the reasons given need to be relevant to the refutation of the position in (1). But if there was a heavily Christian civilization in that thousand year period, and if it made positive contributions, then it's a matter for further inquiry whether those contributions were fundamental, and if any of them are, all the reasons adduced in (2) are simply beside the point.

In order to make the argument really work, Grayling needs to do one of two things. Either he must identify all the foundational elements of the European inheritance and show that Christian traditions made no positive contributions to any of them; or he needs to identify all the major positive contributions of Christian traditions and show that none of them significantly contribute to foundational elements of the European inheritance. Given how vague and amorphous both terms of the comparison ("Christian traditions" and "foundational elements of the European inheritance") are, neither of these arguments would be easily made, since they would quickly be mired down in arguments over details. As a matter of basic argumentative strategy then, Grayling's line of attack is poorly chosen; there are just too many obvious points at which the force of the argument is diffused over too many likely disputes. This, I think, has to be recognized as true even if you think that there probably is some version or other of Grayling's argument that, when fully developed, will turn out to be quite right. It's the development that's the devil, because the argument has to cover so much terrain. It's really an argument about the entire history of Western civilization; just about any historian can inform one of just how much work would have to go into such an argument to deal with all the reasonable doubts and objections that would immediately arise.

A much more strategically viable argument for Grayling, I think, would be a more explicitly 'secular and free-thinking' version of the argument from function mentioned before. Let's suppose someone, we can call him Neo-Grayling, who agrees with Grayling but recognizes the strategic problem involved in Grayling's line of attack. Neo-Grayling's best bet is to step back from all the disputes that are going to arise from Grayling's historical theses, and refuse to be mired in any of them. He could then argue in this way: "Even though I think Grayling is right, let's bracket for a moment the whole question of whether he is right or wrong, and look at the sheer amount of dispute it occasions about the very nature of both 'Christian traditions' and 'the foundations of Europe'. Is it not the case that this shows a problem with how the question is framed? In the preamble to the European constitution, we need something that we can all work with, something that describes a plausible common legacy we have as Europeans. However, we have been sidetracked into dispute over complicated historical details, a dispute that is likely to be interminable because of the sheer mass of evidence and argument required to handle it. What is more, the dispute is a complicated one, requiring considerable expertise, that is likely to generate a great deal more heat than light; surely far more than a clause in a preamble merits. Therefore, we should quit this whole topic and focus in on elements of our common legacy that are found more immediately at hand and do not require complex historical argument to affirm."

This argument of Neo-Grayling's, of course, can be disputed; but the dispute then becomes a matter of the proper function of the preamble, which is a dispute that is both more manageable and more likely to issue in practical results. What is more, it gives Neo-Grayling more room to argue than Grayling has. For instance, Neo-Grayling can turn to Catholics and run an argument like this: "I disagree with you about the contributions of Christianity; but you should nonetheless be supporting my proposal rather than arguing the historical question. You are, in effect, in the same position as Maritain was in thinking about the UNICEF charter. He had the problem that the countries coming together were radically different, and that, for instance, a nation like the Soviet Union is not going to agree to many of the arguments on human rights brought forward by a Catholic nation. However, he recognized that as a matter of practical reason this is not an insurmountable problem; for we can look for convergences in their reasoning, which inevitably will arise through people recognizing what benefits them. Even though this convergence would never be perfect, it allows a common forum for discussion. Even so here. The preamble should lay out the general conditions of good governance in a Union of the sort proposed. You and I may disagree about the background and foundation of some of these conditions, but, like Maritain, you can recognize that the reasonable thing to do is not to focus on the background and foundation of the conditions but on the conditions themselves, things like human rights, international justice, and rule of law."

This is all just an example of how someone sympathetic to Grayling's position might put forward an argument that is both stronger and strategically more viable than that put forward by Grayling. Precise details, of course, would vary. The point is that there are other ways to handle the situation that have more promise. In argument, as in chess, it is sometiems fruitful to stand back from the particular give-and-take in order to look at the whole game; not every line of attack on your opponent's part needs to be met head on, not every weakness is worth exploiting, not every superficially good move will get you anywhere in the end. The difference is that in argument there is a much greater risk of bogging yourself down in matters irrelevant to your objective. And it's clear, I think, that, at the very best assessment, Grayling's argument totters on the brink of such a bog. Better arguments are certainly available.

The 42nd Philosophers' Carnival

The Forty-Second Philosophers' Carnival is up at "Show-Me the Argument". I completely forgot to submit anything, but apparently someone nominated my post on the 'Darwinian dilemma' for moral intuitions. Other posts discuss infant euthanasia, posthumous procreation, human echolocation, consciousness and the brain stem, and more. Yes, we the philosophically-minded are a freakish lot; but you will be fascinated, nonetheless. It's our charm.

Basic Science Concepts List

This is the updated list for the basic concepts posts that science bloggers have recently been doing.

Clade at "Evolving Thoughts"
Evolution at "Sandwalk"
Gene at "Pharyngula"
Fitness at "Evolving Thoughts"
The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology at "Sandwalk"
How do you sequence a genome? at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
How do you sequence a genome, part II at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
How do you sequence a genome, Part III at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
How do you sequence a genome, Part IV at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
How do you sequence a genome, Part V at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
How do you sequence a genome, Part VI at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
Biological Clock at "A Blog Around the Clock"
The Three Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Natural Selection at "Greg Laden"
The Modes of Natural Selection at "Greg Laden"
Species at "Evolving Thoughts"
8th Grade Math at "Gene Expression"
Linkage Disequilibrium at "Gene Expression"
Introduction to Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at "Aetiology"
What is a gene? at "Greg Laden"
What is a gene? at "Sandwalk"
Anisogamy at "Behavioral Ecology Blog"
Prologue to Dating Techniques at "Afarensis"
Measuring Fitness at "The Questionable Authority"
Cell Migration at "Migrations"
Artifacts, Vectors at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
Hearing at "Retrospectacle"
Normal Flora at "Aetiology"

Force at "Uncertain Principles"
Fields at "Uncertain Principles"
Energy at "Uncertain Principles"

Mean, Median, and Mode at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Normal Distributions at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Standard Deviation at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Margin of Error at "Good Math, Bad Math"
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"
Correlation at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Logic at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Syntax and Semantics at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Arguments at "Adventures in Ethics and Science"
What's a Feminist Theory of Science, Anyway? at "Thus Spake Zuska"
Falsifiable Claims at "Adventures in Ethics and Science"
Sets at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Turing Machine (with Interpreter) at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Modular Arithmetic at "Abstract Nonsense"
Real Numbers at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Theory Testing at "Adventures in Ethics and Science"
Real Numbers at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Halting Problem at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Epistemology at "The World's Fair"
What is Ecology? at "The Voltage Gate"

Pottery in the Archaeological Record at "Hot Cup of Joe"

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.

Several things strike me about the list so far: (1) Where is chemistry? (2) Most of the basics covered are theoretical. This really isn't surprising, but there are practical concepts too -- basic ideas used in experiments, practical applications, and so forth. (I'm thinking of things as diverse as dissection, force diagrams, cloud chambers, microscopes, and so forth.) Some of the posts do discuss concepts like these, but I, for one, would really like to see more posts that deal with basics of lab and field work on the list.

Also, don't forget the science blogging anthology.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Some Math Notes

  • Sometimes a comment in a comment thread for a post just needs to be given more attention than it will in a comment thread. Such is this comment by Mark Chu-Carroll at his "Good Math, Bad Math". An excerpt:

    It's infuriating to me that we continually expect students in math, in english, in compositional writing, to understand logic, but we never bother to actually teach it to them.

    Basic logic - just enough basic propositional and predicate logic to be able to understand proofs, and distinguish between valid arguments and invalid arguments - should be part of very basic math - no later than 7th or 8th grade. It's not that hard, and that's the age where we expect them to start using it - we just don't bother to teach it.

    Amen, amen. We need a lot more people to be infuriated by the same point, because it is right. A little bit of logic goes a long way, and, as he says, they are forced to use it anyway, so the choice is between forcing them to figure it out entirely on their own, or making a slight adjustment so that they have the means they need to advance in mathematics. This sort of thing is dear to my heart, because one thing that irritates me is how much my mathematical education was botched by things like this.

  • If you haven't passed the word about the upcoming Flatland: The Movie yet, please do so. (And if you haven't read the classic book on which it is based, read it!)

  • Jack Perry has a nice post at "Cantànima" on Modern Algebra as an instance in which what was basically a failure led to fruitful discoveries.

  • An interesting paper by Imre Bokor on teaching mathematics (PDF).