Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Fear of God

Leviticus 19:13-14, 32 (NAB):
You shall not defraud or rob your neighbor. You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer You shall not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but you shall fear your God. I am the LORD.

Stand up in the presence of the aged, and show respect for the old; thus shall you fear your God. I am the LORD.

It reminds one of James's "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (Jas. 1:27).

The whole of Leviticus 19 can be seen precisely as a meditation on 'Fearing your God'. It opens with God's command to Israel to be holy because God is holy, and reads almost like a chant, with commands interspersed with the affirmation, "I, the LORD, am your God," or "I am the LORD." (There are two passages that seem to have wandered in from other contexts, namely vv. 5-8 and 20-22, which break the rhythm of the chapter; it's unclear what to do with v. 19 as well.) Fearing God, in the relevant sense, has to do with respecting the fact of the Lord's being the Lord, of God's being God. It is to stand before God and recognize the significance of the statement, "I, Jehovah, am your God."

This makes Leviticus 19 (or, if you prefer, Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18, 23-37) one of the most powerful passages of the Bible and one of the most exquisite religious texts in history. It contains what Jesus called the second of the great commandments, on which all the others hang, which Paul said fulfilled the whole law, which James called the royal law, which Akiba called the great principle of Torah, namely, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18); it points out that this does not mean merely loving others in your community but everyone, because we are to love strangers as ourselves as well (19:34).

The passage always bears re-reading.

Some Selected Poem Re-Drafts IV

Karta Purakh

all-enlightening boundless being
His Name is True
never captured
never dying
never by the concept tamed
forming all
all things seeing

every seeing eye He makes
to see Him in a given guise
the wisest knowing Him as light
the sweetest knowing Him as grace
the bravest knowing Him as might
in one everlasting Name

His Name is True
never failing
never bounded by guise or word
He knows no bounding
all expressing
makes each spirit in its kind
builds the souls of living nations
makes them all to sing and live
the bounded masks unbound creation

every living mind He makes
to know Him in a vital guise
the purest heart as vital goodness
the softest heart as touching beauty
the warmest heart as fire truest
every guise is but a glimpsing
none can capture all His Name

all this world is fiercely burning
all this land is mired in flame
save it Lord with showered blessing
through every door that may deliver
save it Lord in every way

unbounded God within His people
moves about in living form
the unformed speaks in bounded creature
takes a shape in living works
the noumenal by all uncaptured
captures all
takes all by storm
through the lovers of the True

overflowing life and being
flooding force of light and love
worship Him in mind and glory
know Him well
His Name is True


Although the sea divides us,
in Amritsar I stand;
my heart rests in the warmth
of its nectar-golden sand.
In a vessel, clay and calm,
made by the guru's hand,
I feel blessing pouring down,
for in Amritsar I stand.

When time pools all around me
like some silent sarovar,
I am in Ramdaspur;
and, whether near or far,
my heart is by those waters
as they shine beneath the stars
around the golden temple
of blessed Amritsar.

When trouble overtakes me
I flee to the fort of steel,
I shelter in the city
with the sacred pools that heal,
I search for the jot of light
where the psalms of gurus peal:
this world is all mirage,
but Amritsar is real.

When My Days are Spent

When my days are spent
may you mourn me thus:
He was the mountain of Tabor,
gently rising,
seeking dawn.

The twigs and boughs make tabernacles
waiting for a conversation,
discourse of a burning fire,
two witnesses to mercy's truth.

See Tabor in her uprising;
she remembers God-great glory,
two far-seers meeting hope;
she trembles, lamb-like, for return.

See Tabor, a lamb for light,
meditation and hesychast,
yearning for a newer coming,
hoping for transfiguration.

A Texas Hymn

The birds woke me at the sunrise hour
when the grass was dewy and all was pale
beneath the light of a high white star
that sang the message
that all was well.

And I in the breeze that trickled down
the blades of grass then quickly wound
around my legs to tickle my feet --
I knew the light, and it was sweet.

The thirsty drink from a flowing spring
and come to life, made quick by source;
as I, when I hear the morning sing
in bird, in light, in wind in winding course,

know, as the rolling sun does rise,
that a Spirit lives, God's own breath,
who fills with light the sky and human eyes
and raises even souls like mine from death.

The Narcissist

So fair is his existence,
no eye resists;
a third of heaven would turn traitor
and give up bliss
for but the lying promise
of his kiss.

The Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.
All creation and his smile
show it.

His beauty is so great,
his style so nice,
his smile sparkles so,
like starlit ice,
that God would die to make him --
were that the price.

Yes, the Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.

He sits up in the air,
face like a god,
devoid of every care!
But it is odd
how lonely he is there
with ruler's rod.

No equal can he notice --
and no friend --
nor can he ever move
nor ever descend;
for if he ever did,
his world would end.

Yes, the Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.
Would to God he had the grace
not to show it!

His beauty has no match.
No equal vies
to rival the mighty light
with which he lies;
it is so easy, and so simple,
to despise
when you lift yourself up higher
than the skies.

Mark well, his beauty even God
has not denied;
but his throne is built on blood
and endless pride,
the corpse of glorious love
when love has died.

Yes, the Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.

Finnis on Natural Law

John Finnis has a nice article at the SEP on natural law theory as specifically a theory of law. I especially liked this passage from the introduction:

Natural law theory accepts that law can be considered and spoken of both as a sheer social fact of power and practice, and as a set of reasons for action that can be and often are sound as reasons and therefore normative for reasonable people addressed by them. This dual character of positive law is presupposed by the well-known slogan "Unjust laws are not laws." Properly understood, that slogan indicates why—unless based upon some skeptical denial that there are any sound reasons for action (a denial which can be set aside because defending it is self-refuting)—positivist opposition to natural law theories is pointless, that is redundant: what positivists characteristically see as realities to be affirmed are already affirmed by natural law theory, and what they characteristically see as illusions to be dispelled are no part of natural law theory.

I've said similar things before. Natural law theory does not require the claim that there is no positive law, nor the claim that positive law is natural law, but only the claim that legal positivism is not and cannot be an adequate account of law, even positive law. (Later in the article Finnis notes that thinking that 'An unjust law is not a law' is somehow a contradiction is in natural law terms like thinking that 'A quack medicine is not a medicine', or 'A disloyal friend is no friend' is somehow a contradiction; it's either perverse interpretation or a failure to understand how language is able to work.)

One of the strengths of the article is that Finnis explicitly talks about Aquinas's notion of determinatio. Aquinas notes that you can sometimes derive conclusions from principles without directly deducing them; this occurs when the conclusion is a more particular instance that, so to speak, falls under the principles. Thus, the conclusion depends upon and derives from the principles, but is not necessitated by them, because it also depends on contingent facts. For instance, rules governing the acquisition of private property are not fundamental moral principles; rather, they derive by way of determinatio from fundamental moral principles, contingent facts, and prudential judgments about the best way to conform to those principles given those facts.

Finnis also rightly notes that in natural law theory, natural law is always something that must be operative concurrently with any positive law reasoning. You can have natural law independent of positive law (e.g., in the absence of any legislation), but you can't have the reverse, because positive law is connected to practical reason by way of natural law.

While the article restricts itself almost entirely to issues raised by legal positivism (since the vast majority of contemporary discussion surrounds these issues), and therefore does not capture the full power of natural law theory as a way of approaching questions of law, it does do a very good job with those.

En Sabah Nur

You believe in survival of the fittest and you believe that you are the fittest.

Your results:
You are Apocalypse

Dr. Doom
Mr. Freeze
Lex Luthor
The Joker
Green Goblin
Poison Ivy
Dark Phoenix

Click here to take the "Which Super Villain are you?" quiz...

Friday, February 09, 2007


* Derek Gatherer, Why the `Thought Contagion' Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics
Paul Marsden, A Strategy for Memetics: Memes as Strategies

* William Tighe discusses the history of the Thirty-Nine Articles at "Pontifications"

* Timothy Burke's 2004 discussion of the productive use of historical analogies.

* Bader has a nice summary of the dispute over the nature of Kant's noumena/phenomena distinction. I've always been skeptical of the dispute as a whole. In effect, the dispute is over whether phenomena and noumena are distinct in the objects (either distinct features or distinct objects), or the same in the objects and only distinct in our ways of knowing them (although, as he notes, these two are not exhaustive). But I'm skeptical of our ability to know what 'distinct' and 'same' are with regard to noumena without an intelligible intuition. Indeed, we can only talk of noumena at all because we can't rule out that some intelligible intuition of noumena is possible for someone, although we have no basis for saying it definitely is possible for someone, and even though we can't ourselves ever transcend the limits of possible sensible experience. By us, at least, the noumena are met with in things not insofar as we know them them but only insofar as we don't -- indeed, can't possibly. Thus the dispute is necessarily interminable. We can't rule out a vantage point from which it is resolvable; but we have no notion of what that vantage point would be. Of course, this is all in light of pure reason. When practical reason enters into the picture it becomes very much more complicated. We can have from a practical point of view what we can't from a speculative. But even there the ability of practical reason to go beyond the limits of possible sensible experience is constrained by the purely practical character of practical reason's domain, and ultimately we cannot know anything about the nature of noumena from practical reason, either: we can only think and believe -- indeed, must do so. In an interesting discussion almost a year ago, Bader almost talked me out of this skeptical view, and into recognizing the legitimacy of the dispute; but I have since relapsed. The more I read Kant himself, the more it seems to me that the dispute has slipped up by treating what is limitative as if it were substantive, and an unknown something as if it were somehow known. But, of course, I am not a Kant scholar.

* An interesting article on The Dark Tower controversy. There is a longstanding dispute about whether The Dark Tower, attributed to C. S. Lewis, is a forgery. I'm not sure the argument in the article is quite so strong as they make it sound. Lindskroog's point was not that Lewis never wrote any part of The Dark Tower, but that the story in its current form was not by Lewis; in fact, she suggested, on the basis of Morton's work, that Lewis may have written fragments of it and that someone else (Hooper is the person she points the finger at) redacted them and added their own framework, then passed it off as all Lewis's. But it's nice that there's more evidence to go on. (ht: Dangerous Idea)

* An interesting discussion of Aquinas's reflexivity argument for the intellect's independence of matter at "Maverick Philosopher"

* On February 28 Positive Liberty will host the next edition of the Carnival of Citizens. The theme: Church and State.

* Jennifer Hart Weed discusses philosophy as love of wisdom in Philosophers in Love.

'Hey Jack Kerouac, I think of your mother'

Due to a post at "The Little Professor" I came across this article at the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' website, in which a professor at UC-Davis bemoans the fact that his undergraduates have never read Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac, and have never seen Citizen Kane. Well, I can't say much in response except that I've never read Mailer or Kerouac, nor ever seen Citizen Kane, and I seem to have turned out tolerably well. In my undergraduate days, I would only have even heard about Citizen Kane because it was mentioned in an episode of The Adventures of Lois & Clark, and would largely have known the name 'Jack Kerouac' only from the 10000 Maniacs song, "Hey Jack Kerouac". And Natalie Merchant is not exactly the premium source for information. Conceivably I would have known the title On the Road, again probably from some coffeehouse poetry reference in some movie or television show. Mailer I can guarantee I had never heard of; even now I don't know much more than the name. I'm the sort of person he's bemoaning.

Which is rather funny, because there's no question that I was an exceptionally well-read undergraduate; certainly what virtually any English professor would have considered crème de la crème among incoming students. I aced the AP English test for credit; for that test I wrote an essay on the role of epiphany in the plot of Jane Eyre. I had read almost all the works of Nathanael Hawthorne (my favorite book was The House of Seven Gables, although I preferred his short stories); I could have told you that my three favorite Melville works were Moby Dick, Typee, and The Confidence Man. The Mark Twain works I enjoyed most were The Prince and the Pauper and Huckleberry Finn; I found Tom Sawyer amusing but only mildly so; Letters from the Earth mostly just puzzled me. Alcott's Little Women, which I had read over and over again for much of my teenage life, had led me to Pilgrim's Progress, and I remember my delight when I found Hawthorne's The Celestial Railroad, a short story that satirizes transcendentalism and liberal Christianity in a Bunyanesque style. I had read Dante's Divine Comedy and Goethe's Faust (in translation, of course); I had also read all the plays of Shakespeare (my favorite then, as now, was Henry V, although as a rule I had found the tragedies the easiest to go through and the histories the hardest -- the comedies mostly just blurred together). Much of this was through my own reading; but all of it was sparked by reading I had had to do for school. But I would have been as utterly mystified by Abramsky's references to Mailer and Kerouac and Citizen Kane as someone who had scarcely picked up a book in his life.

To an extent, what Abramsky is doing is something that all who teach are tempted to do. I know that I've been shocked -- utterly shocked -- to find students who didn't know what a pons asinorum was, or couldn't catch the reference in the phrase 'Ariadne's thread'. I even wrote a post about it; although I certainly wouldn't be so put out now that I am less naive. But there's a fine line here between seeing a lack of education and merely seeing a lack of education into your particular tastes. I agree with Miriam; one can well imagine some major Victorian mind, or someone from some other period, brought to the future and shocked -- utterly shocked -- by the fact that our system of education lets people all the way through without having read Euclid in the original Greek and Virgil in the original Latin.

The question that should be asked is not what students come to the classroom not having learned, since that is bound to be virtually infinite no matter how well they have been educated (and is virtually infinite for us all) but what they have learned instead of that. That's the question that uncovers whether they are being educated well or not. I suspect that there will often -- perhaps almost always -- be serious cause for worry in that question. But it's important to be clear that it's entirely a different question.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Point on Virtue Theory

A common assumption in criticisms of virtue theory is that in virtue theory the motivation is supposed to be obtaining (or possession) of the virtue rather than in (say) our fulfillment of our duty or contribution to general happiness. But this is quite clearly false. As I've pointed out before, "part of a virtue-theorist's whole point is that not only is the desire to be virtuous a good motivation, it is a meta-motivation that can (and must) subsume other moral motivations." The desire to be virtuous is not a desire for one action or type of action alone, but for a particular type of life, as manifest in all of one's actions. Thus, a genuine desire to be virtuous (as opposed to a desire merely to seem virtuous, without regard for the real particulars of virtue) unifies and organizes a wide array of other desires, both at a given moment and across time. Most of the criticisms of virtue theory collapse on this point.


As you may know, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan have not been fired from the blogging wing of the Edwards campaign. I frankly am indifferent to Marcotte, who blogs at Pandagon, but I am very glad that McEwan, who blogs at Shakespeare's Sister, was not fired. It really is unfortunate that she was caught up in the middle of this, and is a clear instance in which a criticism that can be seen as entirely reasonable (the protest over Marcotte) crossed the line into unreasonable territory. The two are leagues apart; McEwan is in general a thoughtful and constructive thinker. There are posts in which I think it's fairly clear that she failed to match means (style of writing) to end (rational discussion), but there is a considerable distance between occasional lapse and stable habit. Moreover, while Marcotte at most has an occasionally perceptive comment to make, McEwan is regularly insightful, even when I disagree with her. I tend in general to be unimpressed by political bloggers; I think blogging constantly about politics is mentally unhealthy, inevitably warps one's priorities, and distracts from the fact that politics is merely one necessary condition of the good life, and not even the most important. "Shakespeare's Sister" really doesn't change my views on such a matter. But if you wanted to be a political blogger, you could do much worse than take McEwan as a model.

Bonaventure on Scripture as the Sea

First, I say, sacred scripture is compared to the waters of the sea with regard to the depth of its mysteries. The sea is deep such that man cannot traverse it, as sacred scripture is such a depth of mysteries that, however much a man may be enlightened and however much he may be diligent, he cannot attain to its depth....I say that who with pride enters the sanctuary of God will not be able [to read it] even if he be literate; likewise, if the illiterate wish to enter, he will be foolish. one must therefore have literacy [litteraturam] and spirit.

Second, sacred scripture is compared to the waters of the sea with regard to its manifold sense. In the sea there are diverse currents [scaturitiones]; just as sacred scripture in one literal text is many meanings....

The third reason why sacred scripture is compared to the waters of the sea, is with regard to the stability of the Churches. The Psalm: Upon the seas you have founded them; and elsewhere: You who have founded the earth on its stability. Some mock David, who says that God has founded the land on the seas. He says that he has founded the land on the seas according to a mystery....Sacred eloquences are stabilizers....Where sacred scripture is lacking, it is necessary that land, that is the Church, be shaken.

Bonaventure, Collationes de Septem Donis Spiritus Sancti, Conference IV (On the Gift of Knowledge). My translation.

Hume on the Common Point of View

When a man denominates another his enemy, his rival, his antagonist, his adversary, he is understood to speak the language of self-love, and to express sentiments, peculiar to himself, and arising from his particular circumstances and situation. But when he bestows on any man the epithets of vicious or odious or depraved, he then speaks another language, and expresses sentiments in which, he expects, all his audience are to concur with him. He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must chuse a point of view, common to him with others: He must move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string, to which all mankind have an accord and symphony.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section IX, Part I (SBN 222).

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Querelle de la Rose

The previous post on profanity has, incidentally, reminded me of the Querelle de la Rose, a fierce dispute over Jean de Meun's continuation of Guillaume de Lorris's Roman de la Rose. In the continuation Jean de Meun has Lady Reason use vulgar terms in one of her discourses; the Lover is shocked at the impropriety, and gets scolded for not letting Reason speak plainly. Christine de Pizan, however, entered into the Querelle in earnest by arguing (among many other things) that Jean de Meun's placing of these vulgarities in Lady Reason's mouth was part of a larger attack on women. Noble women did not use such terms; and the author's making the great Lady to use them can be seen as part of a deeply layered misogyny in the work. Thus the Querelle de la Rose becomes a part of a larger Querelle des Femmes.

I am unable to find any of the works relevant to the Querelle online in English translation, though. Has anyone come across them? Even in French, I can only find the text under dispute (here and here).

Wherein I Engage in Profanity in Order to Be a Blogger

I found this opening to an article about the recent hubbub over Pandagon's Marcotte slightly amusing:

Two bloggers hired by John Edwards to reach out to liberals in the online world have landed his presidential campaign in hot water for doing what bloggers do — expressing their opinions in provocative and often crude language.

If that's what bloggers do, though, what am I doing? Perhaps I should start ramping up the crude language. So here I go:

The wyndow she undoth, and that in haste.
"Have do," quod she, "com of, and speed the faste,
Lest that oure neighebores thee espie.
This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie.
Derk was the nyght as pich, or as a cole,
And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole,
And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
Ful savorly, er he were war of this.
Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys,
For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd.
He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd,
And seyde, "Fy! allas! what have I do?"
"Tehee!" quod she, and clapte the wyndow to,
And Absolon gooth forth a sory pas.
"A berd! a berd!" quod hende Nicholas,
"By Goddes corpus, this goth faire and weel."

By Goddes corpus, it's like South Park, and just as good; and if you disagree, I'll put my hole out for you to kiss ful savorly. There, I did it. Now, having finally done what bloggers do, I'll return to what I do. Cheers.

[The quote, of course, is from Chaucer's The Miller's Tale.]

Basic Science Concepts List

This is the updated list for the basic concepts posts that science bloggers have recently been doing. For another list organized and collected on different principles, see Wilkins's Evolving Thoughts.

'Science' understood as process of discovery

Prologue to Dating Techniques at "Afarensis"
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"
Pottery in the Archaeological Record at "Hot Cup of Joe"

'Science' understood as content of discovery

Clade at "Evolving Thoughts"
Evolution at "Sandwalk"
Gene at "Pharyngula"
Fitness at "Evolving Thoughts"
The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology at "Sandwalk"
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"
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"
Cell Migration at "Migrations"
Artifacts, Vectors at "Discovering Biology in a Digital World"
Hearing at "Retrospectacle"
Normal Flora at "Aetiology"
What is Ecology? at "The Voltage Gate"
Biomes at "The Voltage Gate"
The Real Genetic Code at "Sandwalk"
8th Grade Math at "Gene Expression"
Measuring Fitness at "The Questionable Authority"

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"
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"
Real Numbers at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Halting Problem at "Good Math, Bad Math"
Multidimensional Numbers at "Good Math, Bad Math"

'Science' understood as object of discovery

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"
Theory Testing at "Adventures in Ethics and Science"
Epistemology at "The World's Fair"

My original comments still seem to apply:
(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.

Moreover, this is Just Science Week of Science for a number of science bloggers; the posts are being aggregated here. It's all science all the time.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Testimonial Bias

This is a repost, and I don't generally re-post things; but I'd forgotten that I'd written and thought it interesting enough to put it up again.

Hume, in his Essay on Miracles:

The wise lend a very academic faith to every report which favours the passion of the reporter; whether it magnifies his country, his family, or himself, or in any other way strikes in with his natural inclinations and propensities. But what greater temptation than to appear a missionary, a prophet, an ambassador from heaven? Who would not encounter many dangers and difficulties, in order to attain so sublime a character? Or if, by the help of vanity and a heated imagination, a man has first made a convert of himself, and entered seriously into the delusion; who ever scruples to make use of pious frauds, in support of so holy and meritorious a cause?

The problem with this argument is the first premise: "The wise lend a very academic faith to every report which favours the passion of the reporter." The problem with this, as was soon noted in responses to Hume, is that this, despite an initial plausibility, turns out to be untenable. Boswell records the following conversation with Samuel Johnson, which touches on the problem:

We talked of denying Christianity. He said it was easy to be on the negative side. "If a man were now to deny that there is salt upon the table, you could not reduce him to an absurdity. I deny that Canada is taken, and I can support my assertion with pretty good arguments. The French are a much more numerous people than we; and it is not likely that they would allow us to take it.--'But the Ministry tells us so.'--True. But the Ministry have put us to an enormous expense, and it is their interest to persuade us that we have got something for our money.--'But we are told so by thousands of men who were at the taking of it.'--Ay, but these men have still more interest in deceiving us. They don't want you should think they have gone a fool's errand; and they don't want you should think that the French have beat them, but that they have beat the French. Now suppose you should go over and see if it is so, that would only satisfy yourself; for when you come home, we will not believe you. We will say you have been bribed.--Yet, for all these plausible objections, we believe that Canada is really ours. Such is the weight of common testimony."
[Boswell's London Journal. Pottle, ed. McGraw-Hill (New York: 1950) 301-302.]

A similar line of thought forms part of Richard Whately's biting satire on Hume's arguments against miracles, Historical Doubts Relative to Napoleon.

And we can back their arguments up with an additional consideration. If you haven't recognized it yet, journalism is largely about testimony: reporters don't generally identify facts directly, but find a source that will give testimonial evidence for whatever is being put forward. Now, it has also been recognized that journalists have an infuriating habit of reporting crackpot testimony alongside respectable testimony. I think if you look closely at this practice, you will see that what lies behind it is Hume's principle. When scientists give testimony about what the best explanation of a phenomenon is, this testimony is in conformity with the passions and interests of the scientist themselves; when this is combined with Hume's principle, it follows that we must lend an 'academic faith' to the reports of scientists, because of the potential for bias. So journalists go off and find some other testimony with a countervailing potential for bias, so as not to prevent a one-sided view of a matter that is clearly conformable to the interests of those giving testimony.

Hume's principle, in other words, is, if taken strictly, the stuff of quackery and conspiracy theory.

Why then does it initially seem so plausible? The reason, I think, was rightly recognized by many of the early critics of Hume (Campbell, Shepherd, etc.): we do use something like Hume's principle, when we have independent reason for thinking the testimony in this particular case to be distorted by the passions of the reporter. In other words, Hume mistakenly treats as a general principle what in fact is a rule of thumb for particular cases that meet certain conditions. For Hume's principle to have merit, each case of testimony must be considered on its own. The reason is that there is very little testimony that is not in conformity with the passions and the interests of the reporter in some way; and, indeed, for all we can say a priori, the passions and interests of the reporters may in this case be helping them to give a more accurate testimony. We have to look and see whether there is any reason to think the testimony in this particular case is genuinely distorted.

St. Olaf Rolls a Lucky 13

This story came up in a thread at FQI. It's from the Heimskringla:

Thorstein Frode relates of this meeting, that there was an inhabited district in Hising which had sometimes belonged to Norway, and sometimes to Gautland. The kings came to the agreement between themselves that they would cast lots by the dice to determine who should have this property, and that he who threw the highest should have the district. The Swedish king threw two sixes, and said King Olaf need scarcely throw. He replied, while shaking the dice in his hand, "Although there be two sixes on the dice, it would be easy, sire, for God Almighty to let them turn up in my favour." Then he threw, and had sixes also. Now the Swedish king threw again, and had again two sixes. Olaf king of Norway then threw, and had six upon one dice, and the other split in two, so as to make seven eyes in all upon it; and the district was adjudged to the king of Norway. We have heard nothing else of any interest that took place at this meeting; and the kings separated the dearest of friends with each other.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Nonconvergence Argument Against Moral Realism

While reading the SEP article on empirical approaches to moral psychology I came across the discussion of criticisms of moral realism related to Mackie's 'argument from relativity,' a.k.a., 'argument from difference', which is basically that the existence of fundamental moral disagreement undermines any claim that moral judgments are objectively true. In particular the argument discusses one variation on this, namely, that moral realism should imply that moral views converge through protracted argument, which they do not, therefore, etc.

But, of course, tha tricky point with this argument is that no other realism is committed to such an absurd claim. For instance, realism about evolution is not committed to the claim that protracted argument will lead to convergence on belief in the occurrence of evolution; evolutionary realists are not refuted by the existence of anti-evolutionists. And this is a much stronger opposition than we usually get in the case of moral disagreement, where the differences, although undeniably real and stubborn, tend to be much more subtle -- a difference of emphases. An example the authors of the article give that is supposed to be a problem for the realist is the tendency of those raised in southern states to have stronger physiological reactions to perceived affronts than those raised in northern states. But this is a pretty weak sort of opposition on which to base an anti-realist argument; it's as if you said an experiment suggesting that people from cities and those from farms notice different things in their environment would constitute evidence against the existence of the external world. Or, rather, from a moral realist perspective the parallel would be reasonably strong, although not perfect.

As moral realists have noted, convergence is not an issue unless the convergence in question is an idealization of an approximation over the long term; and it's a much harder sell to argue that there has been no such convergence on any moral point, e.g., the evil of slavery. Indeed, as I've pointed out before, the UNICEF charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights following it, are based on such a convergence: while people disagreed about the right sort of arguments to use to justify certain rights, it was clear that they could often agree on particular rights. The interpretations of those rights would not be exactly the same across different cultures, but, again, the variation is far from being a rigorous opposition. And this is, I take it, the mistake the authors are making: assuming that variation is a sign of non-convergence, which is straightforwardly false. To use a physical analogy, if you and I are converging on a point that we won't, at our present trajectories, reach before the week is out, the fact that we are not in the same place at the end of the first day is not evidence against the claim that we are converging. (For that matter, if at the end of the week we are not standing on exactly the same place, but instead are right next to each other, this is not evidence against convergence, either.) Convergence is a process; in the case of ideas, when we are dealing with such a large population as the human race, it is a complicated and sometimes extremely long term one. Even in clearly factual matters, human beings do not all converge directly and immediately on the same facts, the mere fact of variation tells us nothing at all about whether they are converging or not, and even if it did, it wouldn't be enough, because what's relevant is whether they are able to converge rationally. (One of the problematic assumptions of the article is that realists would have to 'explain away' diversity; when in fact all realists of any field need is an explanation of how convergence is possible, which basically comes down to the questio of how we know moral truths. Attacking this point would be a far stronger argument against moral realism than the mere fact that people have various opinions on moral matters, and certainly a better argument than the fact that people have different physiological reactions in the same situation.)

The point is not a minor one, for what's really being attacked here is the potential for social progress, and the denial of such progress has serious consequences. After all, social progress is simply convergence on a better position; and even moral anti-realists don't usually want to deny that in moral terms the repudiation of slavery has been convergence on a better position, even if they disagree with moral realists about what 'in moral terms', or even 'better', implies.

Hippocleides Doesn't Care

We are told by Herodotus that Cleisthenes of Sikyon had a daughter named Agariste, and, having won the chariot race in the Olympic Games, he sent out a proclamation telling all those who thought themselves fit to be a son-in-low to the great Cleisthenes to come by the sixtieth day to Sikyon. All the potential suitors of all the noble Hellenic families came. One of the Greeks from Athens, Hippocleides, the son of Tisander, was far and away the most promising suitor, being extremely wealthy and handsome and of good family. For an entire year Cleisthenes feasted them and tested them to see if they truly were worthy. When it came to the day the announcement of the victor was to be made, Hippocleides was, we would say, far in the lead, and throughout the feast that day he was the star of the show.

At one point, however, he decided he would dance to the flute, and he did, to his great enjoyment. Cleisthenes, it is said, looked a bit doubtful at it. But Hippocleides was enjoying himself, and had a table brought in, so that he could dance on the table. Which he did, dancing now in one style, now in another, until finally he stood on his head and began dancing that way, gesticulating his legs wildly. Up to that point, Cleisthenes was merely annoyed that Hippocleides would be his son-in-law; but, apparently, the sight of the young man dancing on his head was too much, and he exclaimed, "You have danced away your marriage, son of Tisander!" To which Hippocleides replied, "Hippocleides doesn't care!" This passed into a proverb; and (largely through the influence of Herodotus) it's still a saying indicating indifference even to something major.

Of course, to get the full force of the story you have to remember that standing on your head is a bit more shocking if you are wearing the garb of ancient Greece than if you are wearing the sort of thing we wear today. They, after all, did not have pants. And I am told that there's usually thought to be a pun in the story based on this since the word Cleisthenes uses for 'dance' has a verbal similarity to the word for 'testicle'.

The Truth to Make Them True

My Lord, I find that nothing else will do,
But follow where thou goest, sit at thy feet,
And where I have thee not, still run to meet.
Roses are scentless, hopeless are the morns,
Rest is but weakness, laughter crackling thorns,
If thou, the Truth, do not make them the true:
Thou art my life, O Christ, and nothing else will do.

From George MacDonald's The Diary of an Old Soul, for February 4.

Edwin Abbott Abbott online

Re-reading Abbott's Flatland led me to look into which of Abbott's other works are available online. As a rule the other works of this polymathic schoolmaster tend to be hard to find, but thanks to the Internet Archive, you can find several.

Onesimus is an interesting little didactic novel in which the slave Onesimus comes into contact with the intellectual currents of the first century, including paganism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Christianity. Abbott was a classicist, so he does an excellent job of getting the Epicureanism and Stoicism more or less right (although he acknowledges that to do so he has to engage in a certain amount of anachronism, to bridge gaps in our knowledge) while at the same time keeping them accessible. The work can be seen as an argument for Christianity in the form of a historical novel. One of the things that makes it interesting is that Abbott was what has variously been called a Modernist or a Liberal: i.e., he accepts that Christ is human and divine, and that the basic outlines of Christianity are divine revelation, but denies that miracles have ever occurred. He is, in other words, someone who regards Christianity as 'morally true'; he argues, for instance, that the miracle stories encapsulate important moral truths, but that they are cases in which valuable metaphors for moral life have been mistaken for physical truths. He prefers to call this 'spiritual Christianity' or 'natural Christianity'. Onesimus is a fairly enjoyable introduction to his views on this subject.

The reasoning behind this form of Christian thought is developed rather ingeniously in his work The Kernel and the Husk, which, while little-read, is one of the great classics of religious epistemology, an interesting counterpoint to Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, which takes a very different sort of line. Abbott develops similar issues in the less interesting but more systematic The Spirit on the Waters, where he argues for a form of spiritual evolution. (It's interesting that he uses Flatland in both works in order to illustrate his claims that omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence are not distinctive features of the divine.)

Mentioning Newman and Abbott as a sort of antithesis is fitting. In his day Abbott was perhaps the foremost Anglican expert on what might be called the Problem of Newman. The Problem of Newman, roughly speaking, is this. Here we have an Anglican, Newman, who is well-known to be an anxious seeker for truth, who is often considered to be one of the Church of England's top-tier minds even by those who disagreed with his views, and who made a very close and profound study of the history of Christianity, who feels drawn -- compelled -- to leave the Church of England and become Catholic. It's hard for us to grasp how serious an issue this was for Anglicans at the time, but many Anglicans followed Newman's path, and the three qualifications Newman possessed were enough to give many Anglicans pause who had no interest at all in becoming Catholics. Abbott, who had flirted with some of the ideas of the Oxford movement when younger, and who studied Newman extensively, wrote several works addressing the Newman Problem from various perspectives. His Philomythus is an attack on Newman's book on Ecclesiastical Miracles; it's a mix of insightful discussion, rant, penetrating criticism, and missing the point. There is a tendency here to read Newman very uncharitably, I think; but it has to be admitted that some of his criticisms do strike close to home. He has an interesting, and very sarcastic, satirizing of Newman's reasoning toward the end of the work.

Another of his works on the Newman Problem is The Anglican Career of Cardinal Newman (Volume 2 here), a sort of critical -- very critical, in parts -- biography of Newman in his Anglican period. One of the features of this work, as with Philomythus, that is difficult to get used to is that the criticism is largely psychologizing: it's an attack not so much on Newman's arguments as on his state of mind, and involves considerable speculation about what features of his psychology led him astray. It's certainly flawed in that sense, although it has to be recognized that in some sense the Problem of Newman is precisely concerned with Newman's state of mind: it's the question of how an Anglican mind, truth-seeking, ingenious, and well-informed, could become Catholic, and for the Anglican it's a problem precisely because the Anglican must suppose that Newman went wrong somewhere. Thus these works on Newman are Abbott's attempt to pin down what went wrong. The hazards of such an undertaking, however, are obvious; and one wonders what a biographer would make of Abbott if they were given the room for close critical scrutiny and psychological speculation that Abbott allows himself with regard to Newman.

One of Abbott's major influences was Francis Bacon. He wrote a book on Bacon's life and works that makes for interesting reading. Bacon's life is a very complicated one and Abbott does an excellent job both in clarifying it and in avoiding oversimplifications. Again, there's probably too much interest in lesser details of Bacon's psychology to be quite healthy, but as Abbott is not as thoroughly and hotly critical of Bacon as he is of Newman, it's less noticeable in this work. And to some extent, perhaps, it's a nineteenth-century British thing; witness the heated disputes over Newton's character.