Saturday, April 07, 2007

Notes and Links

* Philosophers' Carnival 45 is up, hosted by Ainslee Hooper. My post on ad hominem fallacies is included.

* Contrary to popular belief, the living do not outnumber the dead.

* Klaas Kraay has a lovely paper entitled Can God Choose a World at Random? (PDF), looking at the randomness response to two recent objections to theism. Of course, both the IMUW-based objection and the NUW-based objection require the assumption that God's sufficient reason for choosing a world can only be completely axiological, i.e., that nothing can contribute to God's choice except what is surpassability-relevant, which is an implausible assumption to make. But a different sort of reply is to say that God does not need a sufficient reason at all, since he can choose one at random. I think Klaas's response to this is a basically right given the assumption, although he overlooks the possible response that, if God Himself is considered the randomizing device, then the reply to the claim that there is only one unsurpassable randomizer doesn't work, since that reply assumes that the randomizer is something distinct from God that is selected by Him. And it would be hard to argue that God couldn't Himself be a randomizer with someone who is already claiming that God can choose randomly.

* Glen Thompson's Christ on the Silk Road discusses scholarship on the history of Nestorian Christianity in China. Incidentally, one of the classic works on the subject, mentioned in the article, is Peter Yoshiro Saeki's 1916 The Nestorian Monument in China is available (in 1918 reprint) at Internet Archive. It's out of date, of course, but still well worth reading.

* Susan Palwick has a nice post on the Stations of Complacency that stand over against the Stations of the Cross.

* Edward T. Oakes muses on René Girard.

* Something I learned about Hume yesterday that I did not previously know: Hume's famous 'Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions' (in Treatise 2.3.3) is, astoundingly, an allusion to Cicero. Cicero certainly doesn't have such a view, but is associated with the phrase by Bayle (in Note H of the Ovid article) in an argument against Stoicism. Bayle accuses the Stoics of ignoring the human condition, and quotes a passage from Cicero preserved by Augustine in order to illustrate the point. The point he is making is that the Stoics are unusual in antiquity in attributing so much power to reason. Hume, always a fan of Cicero, would no doubt have read the passage with particular interest. The recognition of this illuminates Hume's whole argument in that section. This is exactly why doing history of philosophy is a splendid endeavor. Bayle is someone I keep intending to read more closely (rather than just dipping in occasionally for reference), but haven't managed to do so yet; this is one more reason to get on with it. The Dictionnaire Historique et Critique is online.

* In San Francisco I managed to attend several papers. It confirms my view that the primary difference between attending the APA and attending any other conference is the cost. Far and away the best that I attended was Kate Abramson's paper on a (broadly) Smithian account of moral contempt in the Adam Smith session; it was very thought-provoking. I attended a Descartes session (bearable) and the Hume Society Session (enjoyable). I also dropped in on the Epistemic Value session; it was good to be reminded of how utterly boring analytic epistemologists are able to make otherwise interesting subjects. That's a bit harsh; there were bits and pieces that I enjoyed, but I had the experience a sane individual must feel who, having thoroughly enjoyed the early trilogy, nonetheless finds himself in a room filled with Star Wars geeks arguing about the details of Boba Fett's weaponry.


* Whatever you may think of Alanis Morissette, she is at least a little bit awesome when it comes to mocking things that deserve it while also making a serious point about a serious absurdity in our contemporary culture. (This is what she's parodying.)

Via Crucis

The traditional Stations of the Cross are:

1. Jesus is condemned to death
2. Jesus receives the Cross
3. Jesus falls the first time
4. Jesus meets His Mother
5. Simon of Cyrene carries the Cross
6. Veronica wipes Jesus' face with her veil
7. Jesus falls the second time
8. Jesus meets the Women of Jerusalem
9. Jesus falls the third time
10. Jesus is stripped of His garments
11. Jesus is nailed to the Cross
12. Jesus dies on the Cross
13. Jesus' body is removed from the Cross
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

In 1991 John Paul II started using an alternative Stations of the Cross:

1. Jesus in Gethsemane
2. Jesus is betrayed and arrested
3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin
4. Jesus is denied by Peter
5. Jesus is judged by Pilate
6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with Thorns
7. Jesus bears the Cross
8. Simon helps Jesus carry His Cross
9. Jesus meets the Women of Jerusalem
10. Jesus is crucified
11. Jesus promises Paradise to the Good Thief
12. Jesus speaks to His Mother and His Disciple
13. Jesus dies
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

But, as Amy Welborn points out, some reporters are a little slow on the uptake.

Christina Rossetti on Easter Eve


There is nothing more that they can do
For all their rage and boast :
Caiaphas with his blaspheming crew,
Herod with his host;

Pontius Pilate in his judgment hall
Judging their Judge and his,
Or he who led them all and past them all,
Arch-Judas with his kiss.

The sepulchre made sure with ponderous stone,
Seal that same stone, O priest :
It may be thou shalt block the Holy One
From rising in the east.

Set a watch about the sepulchre
To watch on pain of death :
They must hold fast the stone if One should stir
And shake it from beneath.

God Almighty, He can break a seal,
And roll away a stone :
Can grind the proud in dust who would not kneel,
And crush the mighty one.

There is nothing more that they can do
For all their passionate care,
Those who sit in dust, the blessed few,
And weep and rend their hair.

Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalen,
The Virgin unreproved,
Joseph and Nicodemus foremost men,
And John the well-beloved.

Bring your finest linen and your spice,
Swathe the sacred Dead,
Bind with careful hands and piteous eyes
The napkin round His head :

Lay Him in the garden-rock to rest :
Rest you the Sabbath length :
The Sun that went down crimson in the west
Shall rise renewed in strength.

God Almighty shall give joy for pain,
Shall comfort him who grieves :
Lo He with joy shall doubtless come again
And with Him bring His sheaves.

23 March 1861.


He resteth: weep not;
The living sleep not
With so much calm.
He hears no chiding
And no deriding,
Hath joy for sorrow,
For night hath morrow,
For wounds hath balm,
For life's strange riot
Hath death and quiet.
Who would recall him
Of those that love him?
No fears appall him,
No ills befall him;
There's nought above him
Save turf and flowers
And pleasant grass.
Pass the swift hours,
How swiftly pass !
The hours of slumber
He doth not number;
Grey hours of morning
Ere the day's dawning;
Brightened by gleams
Of the sunbeams,
By the foreseeing
Of resurrection,
Of glorious being,
Of full perfection,
Of sins forgiven
Before the face
Of men and spirits;
Of God in heaven,
The resting-place
That he inherits.

8 April 1847.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Race to Mecca

The story is told that a very wealthy man died with two sons. His will stated that only one son will receive anything, namely the son whose horse would lose a race from Medina to Mecca.

The race was arranged, but after many months neither son had made it far outside the gates of Medina. There are infinitely many ways to defer a goal, and they were each trying to be the last to reach the holy city.. One day an old man happened by and asked why they both look so frustrated. They told him the whole story.

The old man stood in thought a moment, then said, "You are certain that the will states that the son whose horse reaches Mecca last will receive the inheritance?"

"Yes," said one of the sons; "hence our frustration."

"Then the problem is easily solved: each of you must ride your brother's horse and make sure it reaches Mecca before your own."

So they each jumped on the other's horse and spurred the horses for all they were worth toward Mecca.

A Poem Draft for Holy Wednesday

Again, because I don't know if I'll have a chance to post tomorrow.


Take up this alabaster box to break,
take up this heart to pour it out,
let it flood forth with scented oils
and gladness born of mercy.

How closed up is my heart's desire!
How much it must be broken!
Upon your head and feet I empty
and pour myself in weeping;
let not one drop be left within
but all anointing you.

Hymn of Kassiani

It really goes with Holy Wednesday, but as I don't know if I'll have the chance to post anything tomorrow, I thought I'd post a paraphrase of Kassia's famous Mary Magdalen hymn:

O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins,
perceiving Your divinity,
took the part of a myrrh-bearer;
weeping, she brings oils of myrrh
before your burial.

"Woe to me," she says, "for night
is a frenzy of license to me,
a dark, moonless love of sin.

"Receive the fountains of my tears,
O You who gather the sea-waters into clouds
Incline to the groanings of my heart,
O You who laid low the heavens by Your humility.

"I shall kiss Your immaculate feet,
wipe them again with the hair of my head,
those feet at whose sound Eve in Paradise hid for fear.

"The multitude of my sins, the depths of your judgments,
who can search them out, O Savior of souls?
Do not despise me, Your handmaiden,
O You whose mercy admits of no measure."

The original Greek is here. You can read a musical analysis of it here (example 4). Here (PDF) is an English translation with sheet music. You can hear an English version here. But to get a sense of the power of it, you have to hear it in Greek.

Last year I gave a rough-and-quick summary of the events of Holy Week, for those who are interested.

Catholic Charities USA

Catholic Charities USA is a network of almost 1800 charities (making up more than a quarter of a million volunteers) around the nation, primarily concerned with feeding and sheltering the homeless and providing emergency financial assistance for the poor. They help about 7 million people annually. You can easily donate online by clicking the Donate Now link here. If you prefer to support local charities directly, you can do so by looking up charities near you at this Catholic Charities website.

Previous Posts in this Series
The Amazing Change
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
International Orthodox Christian Charities

Monday, April 02, 2007

Critical Reading of News Articles

There has been some discussion in the comments to my previous post that has made me realize that instead of simply noting the error, I should have taken the opportunity to do a post giving some rules of thumb on using good critical judgment with regard to news articles. So, using the Times article as an example, as well as the Guardian article to which I contrasted it, here are four basic points.

(1) Keep the headlines and the body of the article distinct. At least, unless you know the inner workings of the news source in question. In many cases, the person who wrote the headline, at least in its final form, isn't the same person who wrote the article, so you shouldn't assume they are, even though together they form one finished article. In this case, the headline is fairly reserved, whereas the lede is not.

(2) Neither the headline nor the lede should be taken at face value unless adequately supported by the rest of the article. This is just common sense. You don't accept conclusions just on the basis of their being conclusions, do you? Of course not. The headline and the lede are, in different ways, conclusions of journalistic research. When we are faced with them, we should look to see what evidence is presented in support of them. In this case, the headline has some basis in the article. The headline says, "The fires of Hell are real and eternal Pope warns." The article quotes the Pope as saying, that hell "is real and eternal". This isn't full support for the headline as presented, since the article doesn't even have the Pope mentioning fire; and one could argue it is misleading, since it is ambiguous in meaning depending on whether we take 'fires of Hell' as a metaphorical expression or a literal expression. (Obviously, the expressions used to talk about something real may be either metaphorical or literal.) But ambiguity is just a natural hazard of headline-writing, so as long as we keep the danger in mind, it's not worth getting worked up about in any way. The lede is considerably more bold. It says, "Hell is a place where sinners really do burn in an everlasting fire, and not just a religious symbol designed to galvanise the faithful, the Pope has said." But it quotes nothing from the Pope that supports this claim, and on the other hand quotes Vatican officials as saying that the Pope was speaking "symbolically, rather than physically." The lede is poorly supported by the evidence presented.

(3) Compare the reporting with alternative and independent reporting. A lot of the articles floating around, particularly although not exclusively from smaller news sources, were derived directly from the Times article. However, the Guardian had a very different report, one in which the headline and lede are both well-supported by the article, and which paints a rather different picture. Despite placing less emphasis on it, it gives more of the "is real and eternal" quotation than the Times does. It then goes on to say:

The talk of fire and brimstone stopped there, as Pope Benedict failed to elaborate on what lay ahead for the sinner in the afterlife, adding only that "our real enemy is the attachment to sin, which can bring about the failure of our existence".

Thus, whereas the Times article suggests that the Pope claimed that hell was a place where sinners really burn in fire, the Guardian article suggests nothing of it, and explicitly says that the Pope "failed to elaborate on what lay ahead for the sinner in the afterlife," and says he added only the bit about attachment to sin. It later says that he was "short on details about hell," "has declined to paint a picture of hell," and so forth. This is a very different account.

(4) Examine the clues found in the context presented in the article. One of the strengths of the Times article is that it gives the comments of "Vatican officials" on what the Pope said; and it summarizes them as suggesting that (at least part of) the Pope was trying to do was "to reinforce the new Catholic catechism." When reading a news article, it's often a good idea to regard it less as a statement of the facts and more as a collection of clues thought to be relevant to understanding an event. This link to the Catechism is a clue, and a potentially significant one; it shows that there is a certain authority, namely, unnamed Vatican officials, and that this authority has indicated that the Pope intended to do something in making these claims. This allows the reader to do two things: weigh the credibility of the authority making the comment, and, if they are interested, follow the thread provided by the authority (in this case, the relevant sections of the Catechism). The article provides a number of other clues, devoting four paragraphs, for instance, to the comments of a Church historian, one to the views of the Pope's predecessor, and one to the current Pope's claims about limbo.

Turn to the Guardian, and you have a very different set of clues. While that article gives four paragraphs to a dean of theology, it also gives three paragraphs to the Pope's involvement in political debate and one to his claims, as a Cardinal, about the devil. Actually, it's clear that this article includes an argument; one could argue that there's a buried lede here, because the article suggests that these claims are part of a general pattern in which the Pope pushes for a "back-to-basics view of religion and society that has spilled over into political debate in Italy and beyond." Several bits of evidence are provided in favor of this view. Whether or not one considers this a buried lede, it is something worth noting, since, if the argument can survive examination, it would shed interesting light on the whole issue.

In any case, the articles provide critical inquirers with several suggested lines of investigation, should they wish to follow up on a particular point. Obviously, how much anyone can follow up on them is a matter of time, resources, and interest. Any critical inquirer has to engage in a bit of cost-of-inquiry reasoning -- asking themselves the practical question of what they can seriously follow up, and what they can't, what (if anything) they can do about the fact that they can't, and what qualifications they have to apply to their conclusions when they can't. But news articles are generally starting-points for further inquiry, collections of clues for investigation, signs indicating where further evidence can be found, and the critical reader of news articles will treat them as such. At least, good journalists make them so.

Those are four that occur to me off-hand. I'm sure there are more. Any suggestions for adding to the list?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Ratzinger and Hell

It has been misreported, and this has led some people to misread it (e.g., Kevin Beck, whose misreading is rather massive and uncritical), so it seems fitting to say something about the Pope's recent comments on hell. Readers might have been tipped off by the fact that, for instance, the FOXNews report and contradicts itself, claiming that the Pope said hell is a place in the headline, but in the body quoting Vatican officials as denying that hell is a place. So does the Times report from which it is derived. Indeed, since most of the reports seem derived from the Times report, they all contradict themselves. Just a little bit of common sense would suffice to suspect that there was an error at some point; and a critical sense of inquiry would then look more closely at the matter rather than jumping to conclusions. As it often does, the Guardian manages to deliver a more intelligent bit of journalism.

In Catholic thought, as represented by the Catechism, hell is not a place but a moral state involving the absence of charity or love for both God and neighbor; it is thought to be expressed even on earth in things like genocides and the Holocaust, rape and murder. This is pretty basic.

A Palm Sunday Poem Draft

Colt of an Ass

I am nothing special, only an ass.
I bear my Lord through Zion's gates.
They sing empty Hosannas,
spread their cloaks on the earth,
wave fronds of palms in triumph
as prayers to their imaginations.
They barely see me,
but in all this crowd
I alone serve the one they hymn.

Flower Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday. You might not know that it also has had other names. There is a tradition of calling it Willow Sunday, because in some climates it is easier to gather and burn branches of the pussy willow than of the date palm. And at one point around Constantinople, it was called Flower Sunday because spring flowers would be gathered up and given out to the faithful. So here's a bit of lilac for you.

Picture from