Saturday, March 17, 2007

Harriet Beecher Stowe on Tendency to Positive Belief

The human mind can not long subsist merely on protest and denial. Enthusiasm can not long be kept up simply by not believing. By a power as inevitable as gravitation, the human soul is always tending, after every such era of revolutionary free inquiry, to fall back exhausted into the kindly arms of a positive belief. He who teaches a positive and definite faith, which he believes with undoubting certainty in every part, has therefore an infinite advantage in any such crisis of opinions as that which Dr. Beecher found in Boston.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, quoted in The Autobiography, Correspondence, etc. of Lyman Beecher, vol.2, p. 111. The 'crisis of opinions' was the struggle between the Unitarians and the Congregationalists over the major institutions of Boston; the Unitarians had the upper hand, holding most of the cards, until Lyman Beecher came to Boston, rallied the Congregationalists, and spearheaded their revival.

Aquinas on Women

One of the issues incidental to the main discussion between The Anglican Scotist and myself is his claim, casually made in the original post, that Aquinas held that woman is a defective male. It's incidental to the main discussion, I say; but I regard it as more important generally, because it really is a claim that charity and justice require us to kill. I do, however, want to be very clear about what I actually said:

Incidentally, in an aside at the end, Bates brings up the old claim that Aquinas holds that the female is a defective male. In fact, it is Aristotle as received in the Latin who holds that the female is a defective male; Aquinas on the contrary argues that the only thing this can reasonably mean is the Aristotelian view that males result from the semen, as the 'male' principle, overpowering the female principle and that females result from a defect in such power, as a result of which the female principle wins. He denies it any more significance than this. There definitely are important points at which one can say that Aquinas's reasoning is incomplete because he uncritically takes a male perspective; but this is not one of them.

(It should be noted, incidentally, that this is not quite right; I shouldn't have talked about 'female principles' here, since, while Aquinas holds there is such a thing, it doesn't play much of a role in this type of discussion. But this doesn't affect what follows.) One of the puzzles with which Aquinas had to deal in handling Aristotle was Aristotle's claim that woman was (in the Latin translation) occasionatus and imperfectus, i.e., by chance and incomplete. The place where he most clearly discusses the text is ST 1. 92.1, where he is faced with the objection that, because woman is occasionatus and imperfectus, it was inappropriate for her to be made prior to man's sin. To which Aquinas replies by confining the Aristotelian claim entirely to the field of biology. That is, it's not a normative claim about women, but a claim about how women are generated:

"To the first it must be said that with respect to the particular nature, the female is something deficiens et occasionatum, because the active virtue which is in the seed of the male, is disposed to produce (intendit producere) its perfect likeness, according to the masculine sex, but for the female to be generated is due to a weakness in the active force, or to some indisposition in the matter, or even to some transmutation from something extrinsic, like the south wind, which is humid, as is said in the book on the Generation of Animals. But with regard to the universal nature, the female is not something occasionatum but is according to the disposition of nature to the orderly work of generation. But the disposition of the universal nature depends on God, who is the universal author of nature. And thus in instituting the nature He produced not only male, but also female."

The "particular nature" here, as is clear from elsewhere, is the particular nature of the semen, which in Aristotelian fashion he treats as the virile principle disposed to produce men. Deficiens applied to products of processes also clearly means not 'defective' but 'unfinished, incomplete'. He also considers in ST 1.99.2 the claim that because the female is occasionatus she is unnatural; which Aquinas denies on the same grounds.

Earlier in the Commentary on the Sentences he had dealt with a similar use of the Aristotelian claim in which it was argued that it was inappropriate for women to be resurrected; he had responded with exactly the same point, and, moreover, with regard to another argument to the same conclusion, based on the idea that nothing defectus will be resurrected, he goes on to say that in the resurrection no one will be defectus because of their sex.

So when Aquinas addresses the claim that the female is a defective male, he confines it to a purely biological claim about generation, and makes clear that there is nothing inherently defective about the female sex and that women are essential to the completion of human nature. Aquinas raises the claim in each case to deny that it has significance outside of the subject of human generation.

It is noteworthy, in fact, that Aquinas always confines the claim to the biological claim of generation. He does not regard woman as a defective male insofar as she is woman, but insofar as she is thought to be in Aristotelian biology the incidental product of a biological process of generation disposed to produce males.

Aquinas does, of course, think that men are perfectior, more complete. And he does not confine this to biology, because he thinks men are perfectior not simply relative to this biological process of generation, but also relative to 'vigor of the soul'. He also thinks the male sex the naturally supereminent sex. There is no question that Aquinas is sexist in this way. But even where he is very clear about this (e.g., Super I Cor., cap. 11), he treats the claim that the female is occasionatus as having to do only with how the woman is produced in a generation process assumed to be disposed toward the producing of males.

So, again, in all charity and justice, the claim needs to die. In fact, the claim, which is simply false of Aquinas, and utter nonsense in light of the actual texts, simply obscures the real issues of sexism here. More on that later. First I want to address a passage (De Veritate 5.9 ad 9) that Bates, rather mysteriously, thinks supports his case:

Nisi ergo esset aliqua virtus quae intenderet femineum sexum, generation feminae esset omnino a casu, sicut et aliorum monstrorum.

Which Bates translates (again, mysteriously) as:

If it were not for some [divine] power that wanted the feminine sex to exist, the birth of a woman would be just another accident, such as that of other monsters.

But this is assuredly not right. 'Intenderet', for instance, does not mean 'wanted'; something that 'intends' in the scholastic sense disposes something to some end. Further, it's pretty clear that it's not divine power that's in view in this particular context, but the power of the celestial bodies as universal causes. So the real meaning here is something like: Were it not that some power aimed at the feminine sex, the generation of woman would be wholly by chance as with other monsters. But this is easily understood. If nothing disposed things so as to produce females, females would be wholly accidental, like other things that are produced contrary to natural dispositions (monstrosities). But Aquinas, in fact, believes, and insists very clearly, that something does intend females; it is, in fact, very important for him to deny that women are omnino a casu like monsters. I don't see how this can be misunderstood. It's right there in the text when read as a whole.

If you read what I wrote in my original response (which I quote above) I did not in fact deny that there were sexist aspects to Thomas Aquinas, although perhaps I could have been a little more clear about that. But proper understanding of them requires that we separate the blatantly false accusations from the more subtle accusations. To reflect seriously on sexism in Aquinas there is no need to libel him.

The issue of sexism in Aquinas is actually very complicated. It's clearly there, but the precise character of it is difficult to pin down. It goes roughly like this:

(1) Aquinas clearly regards women as subject to men (when he discusses it explicitly he also always confines it to domestic life). He insists that this is not a servile subjection but a wardship. He's clearly sexist in this regard; but it's a carefully limited sexism.
(2) He does indeed, as Bates notes, say that the reason women are subject to men is that "naturally in man a greater discretion of reason abounds." Since Aquinas holds elsewhere that it is the passions that affect discretion of reason (distinctio rationis, in fact, probably being simply the distinctness of reason from the senses), this is very likely the age-old claim that women are more 'emotional' or more 'ruled by passion' or more 'affected by sensibility' than men. However, he elsewhere also says men and women are both in the image of God, inasmuch as in the mind they both possess no sexual distinction.
(3) He holds that man is the 'nobler sex', which is, he says, why Christ became a man; but also says that Christ was born of woman in order to show that women should not be despised.
(4) Aquinas holds that women cannot become priests precisely because they are naturally subject to men, due to the kind of spiritual authority priests must have; but in arguing this he also insists that they can have higher spiritual authority, as prophets, if God grants it to them; delegated spiritual authority (as is the case with abbesses); and temporal authority to judge and rule in the world.
(5) He further denies that woman will be subject in the world to come, since the world to come will be based not on biology but on merit, and if women burn with greater charity than men, they will receive greater glory than men.

So it's a complex matter requiring careful discernment of distinctions. We must beware of a dismissal of Aquinas that throws the baby out with the bathwater, and ignores the things he gets right in order to make exaggerated claims about what he gets wrong. That he does get some things very wrong is not an excuse. One of the very crucial functions of history of philosophy as a discipline is justice-based critique; and we must be extraordinarily careful not to damage the credibility of this type of task by making accusations that don't stand up in close examination of the evidence. Claims like those above, that Aquinas holds that women are defective monstrosities, are exactly the sort of thing that give justice-based critique a bad name. And doing that is a great disservice to everyone.

The Virtue of Good Guessing

According to Aquinas and, I would dare say, any virtue theory that seriously considers human nature and what it needs to excel, there is a virtue of good guessing, called eustochia. More precisely, eustochia is the developed disposition to swift and likely conjecture, the aptitude for rapid discovery of congruities and incongruities. Not all conjectures, of course, are equal, and there is one form of conjecture that makes eustochia an especially interesting virtue. Reasoning, as we know, proceeds from a starting point to a terminal point, but it can't just be a series of stages. "The switch was flipped; the light must have gone on" is not an inference or bit of reasoning; it's just a series of claims. Reasoning or inference generally requires that we move from one claim to another by something conjoining them, whether explicit or not; this is called the middle term, and it's simply the means of getting from premise to conclusion. Thus, in "The switch was flipped, so the light must have gone on" there is an implicit middle term (or series of middle terms, it makes little difference) that links flipping the switch with the light going on. This middle term is the means of drawing a conclusion from the original premises or data. Eustochia is the virtue of being good at guessing; its most important form is being good at guessing what the best means of drawing a good conclusion is (Aquinas calls this form solertia, which is often translated as 'shrewdness', sometimes 'acumen').

There's no question that eustochia is a virtue, i.e., a disposition to excellence; but there are dispositions to excellence that one might consider only barely virtues, in that their excellence, although genuine, is in some sense secondary. One might consider modesty of dress an example; it's genuinely good, but it's a very context-sensitive goodness, and one might question how important it is in the grand scheme of living a life of moral and intellectual excellence. What puts eustochia very firmly in the virtue camp is that it is a form of excellence required by prudence, and prudence, as the good application of reason to action, is a foundational virtue. Prudence can't exist if we aren't, so to speak, ready for the unexpected, and the virtue of eustochia is precisely one of the ways we are. In that sense, it's worth our time to dwell a bit on eustochia and consider how it can be cultivated.

When virtues are linked to other, more important, virtues as being at least to some degree required by them, the associated virtues are called 'integral parts' of the more important virtues. Thus eustochia is an integral part of prudence. Because integral parts are drawn into a unity by the virtues to which they are annexed, as a general rule the integral parts of a virtue faciliate each other's operation and development. A good place to start our attempt to understand eustochia, then, is to look at how other integral parts of prudence contribute to it, and how it contributes to them; and also how they can compensate for deficiencies with regard to each other. One might divide the integral parts of a virtue in slightly different ways, but a good, standard version of such a division is that of Aquinas. On this view there are seven other integral parts of prudence: memory, understanding, docility (teachableness), reasoning, foresight, circumspection, and caution. I will only actually look at the relation to the first of these, memory.

Acting with prudence in a given case requires being able to draw on a good range of relevant memories. In this sense, we can think of a virtue of memory, i.e., the developed aptitude for retaining experiences in order to learn from them. This is a virtue we tend to play down because we are so reliant on external memory of various sorts; but in this we are fairly unusual. From ancient times across many different cultures this sort of disposition has been recognized as a virtue, and there is no question that it is integral to prudence: to apply reason to action well requires drawing on experience, which requires having relevant experiences to draw on, and memory is the virtue involved in having those relevant experiences. It's clear that memory plays an important role in facilitating conjecture; conjectures, however tenuous they may be, are never made out of nothing. If I am trying to figure out how to solve a new math problem, it's obvious that I am helped in doing so if I have solid experience with a wide range of other math problems. While I can't guarantee that any of them will be wholly relevant, there is a reasonable chance that these other types of math problem will have something in common with this new one, and that therefore what I've already experienced can provide at least an oblique guide -- a rough and read preliminary guide -- to what is completely new.

It is also plausible to suggest that eustochia facilitates the act of memory. One could perhaps imagine a creature that had an excellent memory storage, being potentially able to remember anything, but poor memory retrieval, rarely actually remembering things, because new experiences would not tend to recall relevant old experiences unless they were very, very alike. Such a creature would be confined to a limited range of action. Another limited creature might have similar excellent memory storage, but problematic memory retrieval for exactly the opposite reason, namely, because every new experience recalled a host of very of memories, many of which were not even remotely relevant. Certainly human beings who tend to diverge too much in either of these directions begin to have trouble functioning. A gift for good guessing has the ability to compensate for some divergence, i.e., slight weaknesses due either to slightly defective or excessive memory retrieval, by introducing a new train of association that might recall memories that are more relevant or by helping to weed out irrelevant ones.

Similarly, we can see again from the virtue of memory the importance of a virtue of happy conjecture. We do not have unlimited memories, and if we did, we could not handle them very well. Being able to guess well lets us get by with a more limited bank of memories than we would otherwise need, by allowing us as it were to compensate for the limitations of our memory and retained experience when the occasion requires it.

One mistake I think we must not make is assuming that guessing the means of inference is a rare thing. In fact, it's fairly routine. What's remarkable about those who have the virtue of eustochia, in the form of shrewdness about middle terms, is not the fact that they guess, which is unavoidable, but the fact that they consistently guess it well. (The requirement, of course, is not perfection but excellence.) The more fully the virtue of eustochia is developed the more guesses relevant to practical life move out of the realm of 'mere guesses' and into the realm of 'educated guesses'. An example might help clarify how eustochia differs from mere guessing.

In a complicated game, like chess, there are desired ends, e.g., to checkmate the king. These ends have certain features (e.g. the king cannot move without being in check by pieces on the board). These features help us to sort out the acceptable means. For instance, a series of plays that make impossible the features required for checkmate is ruled out. The actual path to checkmate must vary depending on your opponent's moves, but some moves are more apt than others to get one closer to the desired result, given the current configuration of the board and the possible and likely moves of one's opponent. Now, the possible moves between the first few moves and checkmate are astronomical (and depend, again, on events to some degree outside one's control, like the moves of one's opponent). Checking through each of them, or even whole sections of them, are not possible. What you need is the ability to guess your best move. This guessing can't be random or arbitrary, however, because it needs to approximate the best move with a good degree of consistency. A beginner lacks this consistency; he is almost random and haphazard. But a more expert chess player may have developed the knack to see what his best bets are even at a glance. He sees immediately the congruities and incongruities of the board, and can then exploit them to achieve the end he has in sight. This comes through extensive familiarity with the game, and an acquaintance with the strongest types of moves in a wide range of types of situation. The analogy is only a crude one. There are other aspects of chess that need to be factored in, and many, many other aspects of life. But shrewd guessing, the unreasoning, rapid selection involved in good guessing about how to get from A to B, is developed for practical life in general in something like the way it is developed in games: practice, and discipline, and building on native talents.

International Orthodox Christian Charities

International Orthodox Christian Charities is an organization of Orthodox clergy and laity devoted to humanitarian activities. It is active in dozens of countries worldwide, including the United States. For instance, it worked with the Orthodox hierarchy in New York to help organize the resources of Orthodox health care professionals for the use of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This response was consolidated into an Emergency Response Network that is still active in other emergency situations. Overseas the organization is responsible for school lunch programs in Lebanon, prescription medicine distribution in Argentina, supporting kindergartens in a number of countries, and emergency food relief in Russia, among many other things. It is also expanding into other countries, like Iraq and Mozambique.

You can donate here.

Previous Posts in this Series
The Amazing Change
National Religious Campaign Against Torture

Lyman Beecher on Clarke's A Priori Argument for God

About the same time, also, I read Samuel Clarke's a priori Argument for the Being of God, which had generally been considered sound. I read him, and was not satisfied. Read him again, and was still less pleased. Read him a third time, and threw him into the fire.

Lyman Beecher, Autobiography, Correspondence, etc. of Lyman Beecher, D.D. Harper (New York: 1864-1865) p. 49. The book that Beecher was reading was Clarke's A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God. The argument is basically Lockean in character: it argues that, necessarily, something must have always existed, and that this requires a particular something always to have existed; and that this particular something has divine attributes.

Family History

Reading the Autobiography, Correspondence, etc. of Lyman Beecher, I was intrigued by the following passage:

It was his favorite plan, during the latter part of his life, to write a history of his own life and times, and more than once the work was commenced, and would have been completed had it not been for the said love of finishing, and the incessant demands of practical responsibilities that never gave him time to finish.

When he had nearly reached the boundary of threescore years and ten, the hope of accomplishing the design vanished, and he appealed to his children for aid.

They gladly commenced the work, and, as the first step, the son to whom he intrusted the chief labor received and arranged his sermons, letters, and other manuscripts.

Then, in a quiet, social way, in the sitting-room of his daughter, Mrs. Stowe, he detailed the recollections of his life, which were taken down as they fell from his lips. If his memory flagged, or any facts were left obscure, he was plied with questions to elicit whatever his children deemed of interest.

Afterward, letters and other documents material to the history were incorporated, and the whole read over to him in the same social manner, drawing forth comments, and accompanied by other questions and answers, some of which were preserved. These were some of the happiest hours of his life. They would constitute by themselves, if any adequate idea could be conveyed of them, one of the most characteristic and striking portions of that life.

At subsequent times, the whole work, or material portions of it, were read over to him when others of his children were present, and their recollections preserved.

Thus the work, especially in its earlier portions, gradually grew into a conversational history by Dr. Beecher and his children. Farther on, conversation yields to correspondence a taste for which may fairly be said to be hereditary in the family. It is only with these qualifications, then, that the work can be called an Autobiography, being based upon a narrative the thread of which winds through the whole.

Lyman and Charles Beecher, The Autobiography, Correspondence, etc. of Lyman Beecher, D. D.. Harper (New York: 1864-1865) Vol. 1, pp. 14-15. It seems to me that this is the way to do an autobiography. I also wish it were more common. Imagine the treasures of memory that could be stored up in this way that otherwise would be completely lost!

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Monster Vile, Whom God and Man Does Hate

Adam Roberts has an interesting post at "The Valve" on the Redcrosse Knight's defeat of Errour, in which he raises a question:

But there’s a problem here, and it’s one that has the potential to unpick the entire project. It’s this: how can it be that Redcross, having slain error, subsequently goes on to fall into error. Because that’s exactly what he does, and not just once, but many times. How can he be fooled into erroneously trusting the wicked Archimago? The falsely beautiful witch Duessa? How can the false knights (such as Sansloy, Sanfoy and Sansjoy) be riding around in a world in which error is dead, defeated, no more? Those three are manifestations of specific varieties of error; but the category itself has already been abolished! How can they persist?

But the fact that they are errors doesn't mean that they are Errour. Errour is foul; Duessa is beautiful. Errour, when she dies, vomits up books and papers. She is the mother of myriad intellectual monsters. She is manifestly loathsome, and hated by everyone; the only danger to her is that she lies hidden. But with the help of Truth's counsel we meet her prepared and be victorious. The insight, I think, is a profound one. A lesser writer of allegory would assume that when Errour is conquered the problems are solved; but in reality, once you have slain Errour you have only begun your path to Holinesse. Then you must face Hypocrisie and the Falseness that leads to Vainglory ultimately Spiritual Pride. The danger of Hypocrisie is not that it lies hidden without the help of Truth but that it creates illusions about the Truth itself; that of Falseness not that it might suddenly jump out at us but that it insinuates itself into our lives and leads us to ruin. They are not universally hated or manifestly ugly; quite the contrary. Errour we can conquer on our own, at least with Truth's counsel; but we have no strength that avails against the doom into which Falseness leads us. We can only be saved from it when that part of us that was nurtured by Glory comes sweeping in like God's grace to oppose vicious Pride with virtuous Magnificence.

So the fact that Errour is called 'Errour' does not mean she is error generally, but that she is error in its crudest and most blatant and straightforward form, the kind that is foul and loathsome. In reading any allegory we must be careful not to read more into the label or name given something than the actual properties attributed to it allow. The Knight of Holinesse, for instance, is not Holinesse per se, but something in quest of it; Holinesse can only be had when we slay the old Dragon, marry Truth, and spend our time in the service of Glory. In Milton's Paradise Lost, Sin is not sin in general but the sin Satan spawns. And so forth.

Three Poem Drafts

The second is a re-draft.


We were orbiting a star the other day
(we fell and fall forever):
no up, no down, only in;
it was a liberating view;
only in and out and along.

In space they saw me shining,
spinning in the void.

You and I were walking home
as though nothing ever happens;
but we fell and fall forever.

Somewhere Beyond Saturn

Somewhere beyond Saturn
I sat thinking
of a seraph crucified
of a preaching to the fishes
of a wolf in hermit's habit

I dreamed for endless ages
of cat's eyes with emerald glitters
of an aspiration's whisper
of deathless men in spindizzy flight

I wandered in my dreaming
in the drifting of my ship

I was crafty in my crafting
weaving silk-thin moonbeams
tapestries lit with worlds
carving cities out of cloud
forming laws for things unseen
pen never touching paper

Somewhere beyond Saturn
my mind wandered without aim
seeing stars in sea-like darkness
feeling abstract cold
the geometry of humanity
in peripheral shadows and lights

I looked across the table
eyes unseeing with their visions
hovering on the edge of sense
a singular state upon me

Then a mockingbird sang a trill
startling me out of myself
and I finally poured the tea


I had a dream of Midas once,
where I touched and all was gold;
but then I went and woke myself
and shivered in the cold.

I have an angel on my shoulder,
but he's not the trusty kind;
he's apt to up and leave me
when I get into a bind.

I had a conscience once,
but it left me to my sin;
it went out to 'buy some cigarettes'
but never came back again.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


I haven't been posting much in part because I've been busy and away from the computer. (I tend to work on posts during breaks while researching or writing; so when I'm not doing either, I post less.) But I've also been chatting elsewhere. I've been discussing Newton's theological view of the Trinity at "Trinities"; arguing about whether sympathetic atheism is coherent at "Prosblogion" (which is the post that set me thinking about epistemic peers); musing about whether aptness solves the value problem for knowledge at "Think Tonk"; and chatting about MacIntyre and tradition-constituted inquiry here at Siris.

I intend at some point to respond to Todd's responses (here, here, and here) at The Anglican Scotist. That will have to wait for the moment; in any case, go and read.

The Big L

The Fiftieth History Carnival is up at "Early Modern Notes". I was in the first one; that submission was not my strongest post, by any means, but it's great to see the Carnival make it this far. And this edition is a beauty. My Motifs de Convenance post is there. There's also a post on Theodore de Mayerne, at "Westminster Wisdom"; a discussion of Flying Fortresses at "Airminded"; a curious symbolic map by Heinrich Bunting at "Strange Maps"; and much more. Go see!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Master of the World

John C. Wright, in an interview (HT: Claw of the Conciliator):

On the one hand, science fiction is basically stories about rescuing space princesses, so I am not sure how often questions of the religion of the author crop up. Can anyone (aside from an English major) see the Catholicism of Jules Verne peeping out through the symbolism in Master of the World, for example?

I can. But I'm weird like that.

A Thought about Theodicy

When people object to atheistic arguments from evil, their objections seem to fall into three groups:

Reasonable Doubt Defenses: There is reasonable doubt as to whether the conflict between God's goodness and permission of evil arises, because there might, for all we know, be a good reason for a good God to permit evil.

Justification Defenses: God's goodness and the permission of evil are not actually in conflict, because there is a good reason for a good God to permit evil.

Procedural Defenses: Whether or not there is a good reason for a good God to permit evil is really not our place to judge; it does not fall within our jurisdiction, as it were.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Berkeley and the Invisible Elementary Fire

Yesterday was the anniversary of Berkeley's birthday. I was going to post something, but didn't quite get around to it. So here it is:

At the transfiguration, the apostles saw our Saviour's face shining as the sun, and his raiment white as light, also a lucid cloud, or body of light, out of which the voice came; which visible light and splendour were, not many centuries ago, maintained by the Greek church to have been Divine, and uncreated, and the very glory of God; as may be seen in the History wrote by the Emperor John Cantacuzene. And of late years Bishop Patrick gives it as his opinion, that in the beginning of the world the Shechinah, or Divine presence, which was then frequent and ordinary, appeared by light or fire. In commenting on that passage, where Cain is said to have gone out from the presence of the Lord, the Bishop observes, that if Cain after this turned a downright idolater, as many think, it is very likely he introduced the worship of the sun, as the best resemblance he could find of the glory of the Lord, which was wont to appear in a flaming light. It would be endless to enumerate all the passages of Holy Scripture, which confirm and illustrate this notion, or represent the Deity as appearing and operating by fire ; the misconstruction of which might possibly have misled the Gnostics, Basilidians, and other ancient heretics into an opinion that Jesus Christ was the visible corporeal sun.

Berkeley, Siris 187. However, Berkeley does not share in the opinion he attributes to the Greeks; this is just part of his argument that there is a universal tendency to regard Deity and Fire as intimately related. He holds that the aethereal fire is the World Soul, i.e., its animal spirit, which is used as an intermediary by the Divine Mind:

Force or power, strictly speaking, is in the Agent alone who imparts an equivocal force to the invisible elementary fire, or animal spirit of the world (sect. 153, 156, 157); and this to the ignited body or visible flame, which produceth the sense of light and heat. In this chain the first and last links are allowed to be incorporeal: the two intermediate are corporeal being capable of motion, rarefaction, gravity, and other qualities of bodies. It is fit to distinguish these things, in order to avoid ambiguity concerning the nature of fire.

Siris 210. (Note that when Berkeley talks about light or elementary fire, he doesn't mean visible light or physical fire.) Thus on Berkeley's view of the world everything is fundamentally fire or light (he uses the two interchangeably); or, to be more exact, he thinks that it is a reasonable hypothesis from the phenomena that light or 'invisible elementary fire' is fundamental to the nature of the world, and that with this hypothesis we can explain the phenomena. The particles of elementary fire are, as it were the letters which the Divine Mind organizes according to general laws into the words of sensible phenomena. This may seem to be an odd view; but it's actually in great measure based on Newton's Optics; he uses Newton's discoveries about light to argue that there is no need for light to have a medium, and that when natural philosophers of the day (like the Cartesians) appealed to an elastic medium distinct from light, they were appealing to something entirely otiose. All you need to explain the phenomena are light and its laws of operation (which he thinks, based on phenomena like gravity and magnetism, include attraction and repulsion). Berkeley's Siris is intended as a defense of Isaac Newton's physics. This is often overlooked when people read it, quite unfortunately. Consider this passage as just one example:

The ancients had some general conception of attracting and repelling powers (sect. 241, 242) as natural principles. Galilaei had particularly considered the attraction of gravity, and made some discovery of the laws thereof. But Sir Isaac Newton, by his singular penetration, profound knowledge in geometry and mechanics, and great exactness in experiments, hath cast a new light on natural science. The laws of attraction and repulsion were in many instances discovered, and first discovered, by him. He shewed their general extent, and therewith, as with a key, opened several deep secrets of nature, in the knowledge whereof he seems to have made a greater progress than all the sects of corpuscularians together had done before him. Nevertheless, the principle of attraction itself is not to be explained by physical or corporeal causes.

Siris, 245. The last sentence is Newtonian as well. The Newton is not immediately recognizable, because Berkeley is primarily looking at the Newton of the Optics; and if you read the Optics you will find a picture of the world very similar to, although less poetically expressed than, Berkeley's. Newton, too, is concerned to deny that light requires an elastic medium (See especially Book 3, Part 1). he too insists that the purpose of natural philosophy is to ascend the scale of the phenomena, from effects to particular causes to more general causes to the First Cause. He too is very clear that the order and uniformity of the world is the work of an intelligent Author. He too seems to imply that the principle of attraction is not physical or corporeal but is ultimately grounded in the Divine Will. Berkeley may sound odd, but he is defending the Newtonian approach to science -- and doing so in terms that are broadly Newtonian.

For a post on a related set of issues about Berkeley's view of the natural world, see Kenny Pearce's A Note on Middle Knowledge and Berkeleian Philosophy of Science.

A Half-Formed Thought on Epistemic Peer Skepticism

Suppose I have friends who are my epistemic peers who have the same abilities that I do, and work with the same knowledge-base, but who disagree with me about some claim that I accept; let's call that claim C. Now, since they are working with the same evidence that I have, and have the same abilities, and they come to a different conclusion, one might say that because of this I should suspend belief in C, or at least not accept it as strongly, because the fact that my epistemic peers deny C makes it plausible that I have gone wrong somehow; given that we are epistemic peers, equal weight should be given to our judgments. Is this right?

No, in the case of suspending belief; because if this reasoning is right, given that the people in question are my epistemic peers, I can apply it to them. For if A is an epistemic peer of B, B is an epistemic peer of A. Since I am their epistemic peer, by the above reasoning, the fact that I, their epistemic peer, accept C makes it plausible that they have gone wrong somehow in rejecting it. Since nothing can undermine a claim if its undermining that claim undermines itself, the reasoning must be wrong.

Thus the mere fact that someone, who is my equal in ability and is looking at the same evidence I am, disagrees with me gives me no reason to suspend belief in my views. The question is, as it always was: Which of us has in fact made the better evaluation in this particular case?

Now, one variant of this might be to say that when I and an epistemic peer disagree in this way, we should both revise our credence to a midpoint between our two original credences. Now I don't think that credences can be revised like this, since I don't think there are degrees of belief, just degrees of a few things sometimes associated with belief for various reasons (e.g., willingness to act). But let's set this aside. Since we are supposing that this other person is a peer and not a better, the mere fact that she is my peer gives me no reason to think her inference from the evidence is likely to be better than mine. But if it is not likely to be better than mine, there is no reason for me to defer to it unless I have reason to think that in fact it was better than mine in this particular case.

A common way to argue that we should revise our credences is to take mathematical examples. Suppose I and my epistemic peer are doing a math calculation in our heads, and I come up with the conclusion, of which I am very certain, that the result is 42, while my peer comes up with the conclusion, of which she is also very certain, that the result is 41. In a situation like this, someone might say, I should revise downward my confidence that it's 42, and upward my confidence that it's 41 (and she should do the reverse). I think this is obviously false. In a case like this, what has happened is that a checking mechanism (my epistemic peer) has failed to confirm an inference. The rational thing to do is to go back over the calculation; and nothing about this requires that I change my confidence unless I find clear evidence that I went wrong in the first place. Thus, my disagreement with my epistemic peer simply raises the question of whether I accidentally made a mistake of which I was not aware; if I'm pretty certain that I did not (e.g., if I go back and check), this question is answered. So, again, the question is what it always was: Which one of us has made the better evaluation in this particular case?

Let's take a different case. Suppose I and my peer are watching the races at Ruidoso Downs. We're both good perceivers, we're both watching closely, and in a very close finish you think Horse A won while I think Horse B won. Shouldn't we think, given that we are epistemic peers, that we are equally likely to be correct?

No. The plausibility of the argument lies in this: that if someone had no other evidence for whether Horse A or Horse B won than the fact that I said B and my peer said A, then he should conclude that we are equally likely to be correct. This is precisely because we are peers. However, I am not deciding the question of whether Horse A or Horse B won on this evidence; I am deciding it on the fact that my best judgment as to what I saw is that I saw Horse B winning. The only question raised by the disagreement of my peer is whether I might have overlooked some possible arena of mistake. If, on serious reflection, I'm fairly certain I didn't, I have no reason to revise my confidence in the claim that Horse B won.

Thus epistemic peers are useful for checking my answer; but they are no more (and no less) relevant to my level of confidence in my answer than if I were to check my answer soberly and carefully myself. Suppose I'm doing a math problem, and get the answer 41; and then I do it again and get the answer 42. The reasonable thing is not to say, "Oh, they're equally likely, so I should revise my confidence in the first so that it's halfway beteen its initial state and my confidence in the check," but to do it yet again. If the double-check comes up 41, I ignore the 42 as a glitch. If the double-check comes up 42, I ignore the 41 as a glitch. Perhaps, if the situation really warrants being very careful, I might triple-check before I do this. In each case the revision arises only from the further inquiry into whether I made a mistake. The mere fact of disagreement is not relevant.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Jottings on Category Mistakes

One of the complaints sometimes made against Atran's work in the cognitive science of religion is his terminology, namely, the way he uses terms like 'counterintuition', 'counterfactual', 'category mistake', 'pseudo-proposition,' etc. I made that complaint on my first reading of Atran. The point is not that the work itself is bad, but that the terms in which it is formulated are misleading, and sometimes even tendentious. The misuse of the term 'category mistake' is particularly egregious, because it's on the basis of classifying them as category mistakes that Atran makes the claim that counterintuitive propositions lack truth value. But since the sort of 'category' Atran has in mind is simply a sort of schematic expectation -- in the sense, for instance, that we expect inanimate objects not to talk -- it doesn't seem that there's any way to underwrite this reasoning. In response to some criticisms, Atran and Norenzayan argue (PDF, in the Authors' Response) this way:

The critique of our use of category mistake as “lacking truth conditions” follows in the same vein. From Aristotle and Kant to Gilbert Ryle and A. J. Ayer, a category mistake has been taken to occur when someone applies a concept that violates the necessary conditions of its application. Statements containing category mistakes lack truth conditions in that they can say nothing true or false. They are literally meaningless. Violations of necessary conditions may involve rupturing the logical, or analytic, structure of conceptual definitions (e.g., “the bachelor is married”), or sundering the synthetic a priori structure that the mind imposes on understanding the world (e.g., “the dead are resurrected”). Religious belief may involve both violations (e.g., “the dead are alive”), but we are most concerned with misapplication of concepts outside the commonsense ontological domain, or category, to which they meaningfully apply.

Category mistakes are tricky to pin down, but I'm inclined to think that this is a horrible defense. Suppose that a category mistake does certainly occur when someone applies a concept in a way that violates the necessary conditions of its (proper) application; it is not immediately inferrable, however, that statements containing category mistakes lack truth conditions. For instance, the following sentence has a category mistake and can be false:

I see all these colleges and libraries, but I don't see the University of Oxford.

The category mistake consists in thinking that the University of Oxford is something else to be seen besides its colleges and libraries. This is genuinely a mistaking of categories; it's false, because in seeing the colleges and libraries of the University of Oxford you are seeing the University of Oxford, in the only sense in which you can see it. The concept of the 'University of Oxford' is a concept in a different category than the concepts of its colleges and libraries; by treating it as if it were in the same category, the speaker makes a mistake and says something false about the University of Oxford. Another category mistake of the same sort:

I've visited Dallas, but I've never visited Texas.

But, of course, in visiting Dallas you do visit Texas; it's just that Texas is in a different category than Dallas. Anyone who says this has both committed a category mistake and said something false. So it's nonsense to think that because something is a category mistake it is meaningless, in the sense of lacking truth conditions. Since statements containing category mistakes are mistakes, they are very often false.

However, it is possible to say meaningless things due to a category mistake, e.g.:

The test and the chairs were equally hard.

The reason this is accounted as 'meaningless' is not that it can't be understood but that, assuming it is not a joke or a figure of speech, there's no way one could treat the the hardness of a test as commensurable with the hardness of the chairs; they are just radically different things, measured in radically different ways. Note, incidentally, that one could, with a slight modification, be saying something true while still making a category mistake:

The test and the chairs were hard.

If 'hard' here doesn't implicitly mean 'both hard in different senses of the term', there is a potential category mistake here. But it still could be the case that the tests were hard and the chairs were hard, and that this is all that's really intended; the category mistake is simply the confusion of thinking that these two things are the same sort of thing. The presupposition about the categories is false; but the statement as intended and understood is true. Unlike the case involving 'equally', it's easy enough to establish the truth conditions of it: you just see if the test was hard and if the chairs were hard; the category mistake is presupposed by the formulation of the meaning and not by the meaning itself. It still allows you to ask the questions that make it possible to establish truth conditions. In the 'equally' case, however, the only way it can be understood is by taking the sentence as itself committing a category mistake; we can't even formulate decently the questions that would be required to establish truth conditions.

So sentences involving category mistakes may be false, true, or meaningless; and the reason for this is the obvious fact that a category mistake is something you do, not something you say. So making a category mistake may result in a sentence that makes no sense, is clearly false, or is accidentally true, just as in other mistake of thought might.

One of the problems with the whole notion of a 'category mistake' is that it can sometimes be very difficult to determine whether one is being made. Take the above statement about Texas. Suppose it is not understood hyperliterally, but simply as the claim, "I've visited Dallas, but I've never visited (all of) Texas." This is not a category mistake. Category mistakes only rarely can be pinned on single statements, because many category mistakes are expressed in ways that admit of non-mistake interpretations. Only further inquiry can uncover it; if someone gave the above statement, we'd have to ask what they meant in order to determine whether they had made a mistake or not.

It is a question of some complexity whether figures of speech are category mistakes, or whether considering figures of speech as category mistakes is itself a category mistake, one that confuses figurative and nonfigurative speech. If, in the claim 'The dead are alive', the term 'alive' is not taken in its usual sense of not being dead, then all bets seem to be off, in any case; there might not be, for all we can say, a confusion of categories here.

In any case, the sort of thing that Atran and Norenzayan identify as their relevant sense of category (commonsense ontological domains) is not the sort of thing that could support the inference to meaninglessness even if all category mistakes resulted only in meaningless statements. Analytic and synthetic categories are both necessary for thought; we can't actually think of things that violate them, e.g., bachelors that are married or the addition of one physical object to another of the same kind, both discrete, without there being two physical objects. But commonsense ontological domains are not necessary for thought; we can think of gods and black holes and many other things that do not fit them. They are not essential to thought; they are just common-sensical. And common sense, unlike analytic necessities or synthetic preconditions of thought, is sometimes violated by reality. Thinking that common-sense categories are like analytic categories or synthetic a priori categories simply because they can all be called categories is itself a category mistake.

(Incidentally, it's worth pointing out that 'The dead are resurrected' doesn't violate any synthetic a priori categories, because whether the dead can be resurrected or not is determined a posteriori. Synthetic a priori categories have to do with things that are required for having experience of the world at all. Nothing changes about our basic experience of the world if it turns out that the dead are resurrected. Contrast this with the possibility of an empirically verifiable event that takes place outside of all space and time.)

So the justification for the terminology is just very bad, and the terminology is misleading. But, of course, this doesn't mean anything with regard to Atran's basic positions; it just means that we have to stipulate the definitions arbitrarily. That's fine; scientists do this all the time. The only danger is when people fail to realize that this is what they are really doing. In the case of Atran, we can make perfect sense of most of his claims when we grant his stipulations; the only one I can think of that would potentially be a problem is the claim that religious statements are meaningless, because he takes 'meaningless' in a technical sense to mean not having truth conditions and it seems to be based solely on the above reasoning.

Bramhall on Spontaneity vs. Election

John Bramhall, criticizing Hobbes and arguing for the doctrine of free will:

First, whosoever have power of election have true liberty, for the proper act of liberty is election. A spontaneity may consist with determination to one: as we see in children, fools, madmen, brute beasts, whose fancies are determined to those things which they act spontaneously; as the bees make honey, the spiders webs. But none of these have liberty of election; which is an act of judgment and understanding, and cannot possibly consist with a determination to one. He that is determined by something before himself or without himself, cannot be said to choose or elect: unless it be as the junior of the mess chooseth in Cambridge, whether he will have the least part or nothing; and scarcely so much.

A Vindication of True Liberty Against Mr. Hobbes (1655); Discourse I, Part III, Number V. 'Election' here, of course, means 'choice'. The distinction between spontaneity and choice is an important one; as has been noted again and again, you can act spontaneously without acting out of choice. Nonetheless the two are regularly confused.

John Bramhall, by the way, eventually became Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland; however, since he was a royalist, at the time of writing this he was in exile. He was something of a fighter, and a very competent one; he defended the Church of England against both Puritans and Catholics, and wrote several works, like the one from which I quote above, against Hobbes's determinism.

Happy Birthday, Rebecca

Today is Rebecca Stark's birthday. Happy birthday, Rebecca! As a little birthday present, I thought I might point out some things online that I'm sure she'll enjoy.

* The Internet Archive has Jonathan Edwards's unfinished masterpiece, History of Redemption. Just a random sample from the text (p. 82):

We observed before, that the light which the church enjoyed from the fall of man till Christ came, was like the light which we enjoy in the night ; not the light of the sun directly, but as reflecting from the moon and planets ; which light did foreshow Christ, the Sun of righteousness which was afterwards to arise. This light they had chiefly two ways : one was by predictions of Christ, wherein his coming was foretold and promised ; the other by types and shadows, in which his coming and redemption were prefigured.

* Also at the Internet Archive, there's William Wilberforce's A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians. Another random sample (p. 42):

To any one who is seriously impressed with a sense of the critical state in which we are here placed, a short and uncertain space in which to make our peace with God, and this little span of life followed by the last judgment, and an eternity of unspeakable happiness or misery, it is indeed an awful and an affecting spectacle, to see men thus busying themselves in vain speculations of an arrogant curiosity, and trifling with their dearest, their everlasting interests. It is but a feeble illustration of this exquisite folly to compare it to the conduct of some convicted rebel, who, when brought into the presence of his Sovereign, instead of seizing the occasion to sue for mercy, should even treat with neglect and contempt the pardon which should be offered to him, and insolently employ himself in prying into his Sovereign's designs, and criticising his counsels.

* CCEL has a great collection of works by John Owen, the Welsh Puritan.

* The Doctrine of Baptism, and the Distinction of the Covenants, by Thomas Patient, the most famous Reformed theologian of the early Irish Baptists.

Sunday of the Holy Cross

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness;
but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world?
hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God,
it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
But we preach Christ crucified,
unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men;
and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For ye see your calling, brethren,
how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty,
not many noble, are called:
But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise;
and God hath chosen the weak things of the world
to confound the things which are mighty;
And base things of the world, and things which are despised,
hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not,
to bring to nought things that are:
That no flesh should glory in his presence.