Saturday, May 05, 2007

Probably Certainly Probably Not

StatGuy's mention of the Yes, Prime Minister TV show, one of my favorites, reminded me of this exquisite dialogue (one of many in the series):

Sir Humphrey: "With Trident we could obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe."

Jim Hacker: "I don't want to obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe."

Sir Humphrey: "It's a deterrent."

Jim Hacker: "It's a bluff. I probably wouldn't use it."

Sir Humphrey: "Yes, but they don't know that you probably wouldn't."

Jim Hacker: "They probably do."

Sir Humphrey: "Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn't. But they can't certainly know."

Jim Hacker: "They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn't."

Sir Humphrey: "Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn't, they don't certainly know that, although you probably wouldn't, there is no probability that you certainly would."

Friday, May 04, 2007

On ad hominem

From the Denialism blog:

Further, some fallacies, like ad hominem are poorly understood, so when an opponent says you're wrong because of this this and this therefor you're an idiot, the poor victim of the ad hominem feels like they can claim victory over the argument. When in reality ad hominem refers to the dismissal of an argument by just insulting the person. Time and time again you see someone exasperated by the crank who won't turn despite being shown again and again where their error is, and finally just call the guy an idiot. That's actually not an ad hominem. That might be totally true and highly relevant to the argument at hand. Sometimes people are just too stupid or too ignorant to realize when they've been soundly thrashed, and true cranks will stubbornly go on, and on and on...

While it's a common misconception that ad hominem involves insult, this is not actually correct. You can commit ad hominem by complimenting a person as well, for instance,

Tom's argument for his explanation of Sam's behavior is faulty because Tom, being nice, can't understand how a wicked person like Sam thinks

will, in any circumstance where Tom's niceness is not actually relevant to evaluating Tom's explanation, be fallacious. This type of ad hominem is arguably less common, since in most cases we don't usually make the objection that positive characteristics of the arguer vitiate the argument, but it is certainly ad hominem, because it evaluates the argument negatively in terms of the arguer's character.

But MarkH is quite right both that this is not necessarily vicious and that ad hominem is poorly understood. I roughed out an account of ad hominem fallacy a while back that makes an attempt to deal with some of the problems that an account of ad hominem fallacies must face.


There is an interesting interview with Nigel Warburton, in which Warburton elaborates the claim of John Searle which he uses as a motto on his own site, that "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself":

Clarity is expressing yourself in a way that allows readers to follow what you are saying. It minimizes the risk of misinterpretation. Clarity contrasts with obscurity. Obscurity leaves at least some readers in the dark about your meaning. I like the quotation from Searle. I like another quotation from the author Robert Heinlein too: 'Obscurity is the refuge of incompetence'. Obviously in some sorts of writing obscurity doesn't matter so much: some writers want to be interpreted in a variety of possibly contradictory ways. But Philosophy shouldn't be like this.

(Ht: Duck) I may be idiosyncratic in my views here, but I think this use of 'clarity' is confused and obscure, for a straightforward set of reason. Either we understand clarity to be a feature of the writing, or a feature of how it is read, or a feature of what is expressed in the writing (and thus understood in the reading). It's natural to understand clarity to be a feature of the writing, and this is how Warburton at first glance goes on to characterize it, condemning Heidegger for polysyllabic abstraction. But that's an odd sort of condemnation. For instance, well-written papers in mathematical logic or category theory are said to be clear in this way: everything is laid out straightforwardly, simply, with good organization, careful analysis, precise argumentation. But it would be nonsense to suggest this allows readers in general to follow what they're saying, or that it minimizes the risk of misinterpretation in general; and mathematicians certainly don't avoid polysyllabic abstraction. This is because any difficulty in interpretation would be due to the difficulty of the subject itself. So if we're taking clarity to be a quality of the writing, it's simply false to distinguish it from obscurity by saying the latter leaves "at least some readers" in the dark about your meaning; readers in general will have less difficulty understanding an obscure news report than understanding a lucidly clear paper on string theory.

One possible way to get around this would be to restrict the domain of readers that count. But if we do this, we are giving up the notion that clarity is a quality of writing; rather, it is a proportioning of the text to the response of readers. Then clarity really becomes (by definition, I would imagine) that which risks less misinterpretation. But here we run into the question of which readers are supposed to be the standard. Clarity understood this way reduces misinterpretation, but by whom? The simplest way to characterize the domain of relevant readers is to treat it probabilistically: the relevant readers are those who were most likely to read it in the first place, or were the most likely to read it with interest in the first place. But this means that Heidegger can't be judged by any standards but how well people who are likely to read Heidegger with interest tend to understand him. This can be determined only by looking at how well they actually do understand him; you couldn't possibly do it by pointing at Heidegger's text, because if you aren't in the domain of relevant readers, your opinion about his clarity doesn't count, and if you are, you might well be the outlier in the group.

Warburton clearly wavers among all these. Consider the sort of obscurity he associates with his six levels of clarity:

(1) polysyllabic abstraction, "i.e., hiding behind long words" (note the choice of the term 'hiding' here)
(2) passive constructions or convoluted syntax
(3) poor use of paragraphs, which "often indicates poor argument structure" (again, note that the writing is supposed to indicate -- on what evidence I don't know -- something about what is expressed)
(4) "Philosophy involves building a case for a conclusion. The reader needs to be able to see how evidence, argument support the conclusion which purportedly follows from them." (Here we find an appeal to what the reader is able to see. I should point out, incidentally, that Descartes's first Meditation, which Warburton notes as an exemplar here, is very regularly misinterpreted on this very point. Readers usually miss the fractionating nature of the argument. That is, Descartes doesn't argue in a straight line. Instead, he presents a reason for doubt, then a reason to doubt the doubt, then a reason to think that we can have some certainty despite this doubt, then another (stronger) reason for doubt, and so forth. The pendulum swings back and forth, but at every swing more is loss to doubt, until we reach the possibility that God, or some proxy, might be a deceiver, in which case all our reasoning becomes suspect. I cannot count the number of intelligent readers of Descartes's Meditation who haven't caught on to the way Descartes is building a case, but instead see the Meditation as a series of more or less isolated arguments rather than a back-and-forth, despite the fact that that's obviously what it is.)
(5) Lack of illustrative examples: "When philosophers omit examples or applications of their ideas they sometimes float off into realms of imprecision - not all their readers will be happy to float off with them." Again, the reason given for considering this a flaw in writing is that it is a (possible) sign of imprecision of thought.
(6) This is poor underlying thought, and so it's obvious on what line it follows.

If we make clarity a matter of writing, we can save some of these levels. Clarity becomes a matter of word choice, sentence structure, and paragraphing. But then paradigm instances of clear writing, which use polysyllabic abstractions, passive constructions, and even convoluted sentences in order to be precise and in order not to be misleading, fall on the obscure side. (We also end up condemning people on grounds that seem inadequate. Is "The stone is lit by the sun" more obscure than "The sun lights the stone"?) Warburton thinks Hume clear. His contemporaries were split on the subject, many thinking him obscure, continually making strange word choices, structuring his sentences in curious ways, and perpetually stating things ambiguously. Samuel Johnson refused to consider him seriously as a writer of English at all; and it is certainly one of the reasons for the popularity of Beattie's attack on Hume that Beattie was almost universally recognized as the clearer writer, with a better grasp of the English of England, with which Scots of the time (including Hume) continually struggled. (We tend to forget that the English of Scotland was much less closely related to the English of England in the eighteenth century than it is now. The two have grown together, in part because of the hard work of the Scots of Hume's generation to show that they could meet the English intellectually on their own ground.) And it must be confessed that the history of Hume scholarship shows that Hume's contemporaries were at least right about his tendency to convolute his claims to the point of ambiguity. Hume, who has shown himself one of the easiest authors in the common curriculum to misinterpret, shows precisely how vague and shadowy the notion of clarity here must be.

If we make clarity a matter of underlying thought, then all these verbal issues become simply secondary, and the primary question is not whether Heidegger uses big words or complicated sentences but whether he reasons well with them. Hume is clear not if he avoids misinterpretation, but if he knows what he's talking about. And so forth. But then all the talk about passive constructions seems useless.

I think despite its use as a shibboleth, very few people have any clear idea of what they mean by "saying something clearly," and only an obscure notion of what they mean by "obscurity". Warburton's mysterious quality, which now supervenes on sentence structure, now on the underlying thought (where 'clarity' suggests 'having a nose for the subject', however we are supposed to determine that on the evidence of the text itself), now on how the writing tends to strike readers (although we don't know which readers), jumping from one to the other without any rhyme or reason, is, I think, typical.

The real value of clarity, to the extent that it seems worth paying attention to at all, has nothing to do with sentence structure as such; you can't inculcate it by telling people not to use passive constructions. The real value of clarity is not a well-defined trait at all. There are no sharp lines between obscure and clear; you cannot say, "Heidegger is obscure, Searle is clear" as if people fell into one category or the other. I would suggest that clarity is connected to what the eighteenth century Scots would have called good taste. Unlike most contemporary philosophers who chatter about clarity, the Scots actually went to great lengths to clarify what good taste was. There are some variations from account to account, but, roughly, to have good taste with regard to some activity or product (like painting or paintings) is to have a broad sympathy with people who are well acquainted with a broad range of examples of that activity or product so as to have developed the skills required to make refined discriminations and accurate comparisons with regard to that activity or product. Thus, having good taste in paintings means having a sense of how people who know paintings well would tend to judge paintings (generally by being such a person oneself). The only thing that seems to be in the vicinity of what contemporary philosophers mean by "saying something clearly" is "saying something in a way that would be approved by someone with good taste in reasoning". The rest is fluff, as far as I can see.

But it must be admitted that I have a taste for eighteenth-century theories of taste, and tend to see them as one more way in which eighteenth-century Scots philosophers were cleverer than their rather unimpressive modern-day Anglo-American cousins.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Use of Old Books in Philosophy

Peter a couple of weeks ago had a post called The Shame of Philosophy on which I wanted to comment, but never quite got around to. The idea of the post is that these two facts together are supposed to be an embarrassment for philosophy as a discipline:

(1) Plato's Republic is still taught in philosophy courses.
(2) Plato's Republic is a book over 2300 years old.

The reason it's supposed to be an embarrassment is that "No other respectable discipline relies on texts that are so old". The contrast is with math and science:

The ancient Greeks wrote about math and science and logic as well, but their writings in these areas are not presented to beginners as valuable instruction; students of those disciplines often learn about them only later when learning about the history of their discipline; and they are often referenced directly only by historians of the field. The only other field I can think of that relies directly on books of such age is religion/theology, and that is not good company to be in, given that we expect philosophy to a) explain the world and b) have rational foundations.

But, of course, philosophy doesn't "rely on" Plato's Republic; it makes use of it. And implicit in the above characterization is an obviously respectable discipline that does make use of texts that old, and even older, namely, history. Peter gives a whole list of possible reasons why we might still use Plato's Republic, arguing that each fails to be a good, or in some cases, an adequate, reason:

1. The Republic is perfect.
2. We are so imperfect in philosophy that we cannot improve on Plato's Republic.
3. There are no philosophical truths.
4. Respect for tradition.
5. Philosophers are idiots, i.e., who misunderstand the purpose of philosophy or believe on inadequate basis 1-4.
6. The questions are still relevant.
7. There is no "official method".
7b. We have no adequate replacement for the Republic.

But in all this is no hint of what would presumably be the most obvious candidate, namely, that one of the things studied in philosophy courses is the history of philosophy. Philosophy is partly historical in nature, and thus has to exhibit it, at least to some degree, from the very beginning. And it is, I take it, very clear why this must be so: a key part of philosophy is being accurate about reasoning, particular the reasoning presented by others. To accomplish this you can't imbibe all your understanding of the reasoning of others from secondary texts. I have met people who were taught on something approximating the method suggested by Peter, that is, who only got their history of philosophy from secondary texts, and they are philosophical illiterates, incapable of understanding any arguments that are not spoonfed to them in terms with which they are already familiar. Nor is it in the least a reasonable argument that math and science do things differently; philosophy is not an ersatz natural science. People who want to play at being scientists should be ignored if they are not actually doing genuine scientific work, because people who play at being scientists, or at being scientist-like, without doing real science, are in general dabblers in quackery. If you ask me, the real embarrassment in philosophy is that you can find people who play at being scientists in this way. It's like people pretending to be doctors in order to be taken seriously; they'd be easier to take seriously if they just dropped the pretense.

But that's a digression. To return to the more immediate point: If there are people who teach the Republic "outside of the context of understanding the history of the field, or an understanding of ancient Greek literature," then the natural explanation is that they are incompetent teachers of philosophy. If there really are such people, I agree that it is a shame that they are allowed to teach the subject. But if they do exist, they cannot be all that common, because it seems quite clear that most people who teach the Republic do not teach it in this way; rather, they teach it as a taste, a first introduction to the riches of the history of the field. And it is clear that a work like the Republic is quite good for this sort of thing, for several reasons.

(1) It has been immensely influential through history, and therefore it's a useful text to start familiarizing students with, because they'll come back to it in one way or another, through reference, or allusion, or kindred argument.
(2) It is readable; indeed, philosophically inclined students often enjoy it immensely. It is also very discussable, as years upon years of introductory courses have shown. Both of these are essential to an introductory philosophical text.
(3) It has a mixture of both the strange and the familiar, and thus provides an excellent opportunity to start helping students sort out the difficulties of reasoning that takes place in terms with which they are unfamiliar. That is, it's a good text, and has through time been shown to be a good text, for starting students on the work of honing their analytic tools.
(4) The themes it discusses are big ones -- justice, death, knowledge -- and thus it allows for considerable branching out. This means, among other things, that the text allows for considerable pedagogical flexibility (which is a big plus in an introductory text) and that it provides a way to get students interested in other arguments and reasoning on these themes, whether ancient or modern.

One could, of course, choose other texts, from just about any time period, on similar grounds. That will chiefly be a matter of taste; but there will be works whose use exhibits especially good taste, in the Humean sense, and the Republic is certainly one of them.

Bats and vOICe

Chris Chatham at Developing Intelligence:

In his famous essay, Thomas Nagel suggested that science's reductionist methods can never provide a complete understanding of the "subjective qualities" of consciousness. To illustrate this problem, he wrote that there was "no reason to suppose that" we would ever be able to comprehend what it's like to be a bat - because we can't truly understand the subjective experience of, for example, echolocation.

Not quite. Nagel is not talking about "science's reductionist methods" but the reductionist accounts developed by philosophers of mind; extrapolation and models are not inherently reductionist. And what he actually says there is "no reason to suppose" is that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. The problem is that if we extrapolate from our own experience (such as analogizing it to our own senses), we get a genuine understanding of the phenomena but only a schematic one, and schematic understanding is incomplete and (Nagel would say, at least) doesn't involve the "specific subjective character" of the experiences.

Further, Nagel insists that it may be possible for us to develop a more objective way of handling subjective experiences than we currently have (he insists on it elsewhere, as well):

It may be possible to approach the gap between subjective and objective from another direction. Setting aside temporarily the relation between the mind and the brain, we can pursue a more objective understanding of the mental in its own right. At present we are completely unequipped to think about the subjective character of experience without relying on the imagination—without taking up the point of view of the experiential subject. This should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method—an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination. Though presumably it would not capture everything, its goal would be to describe, at least in part, the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.

Of course, Chatham's basic point remains: when supplemented with technology, there is considerable promise for holding that we can do more with extrapolation -- what Nagel here calls imagination and empathy -- than one might expect. How far this can actually go, of course, is a question that has to be left to discovery. Nagel's basic point, however -- which implies that this doesn't help those who don't experience the sensory substitution, thus requiring the development of an objective phenomenology -- also seems to remain.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Guide to the Argument of Hume's Dialogues, Parts II&III

Previous Post

Cleanthes has set up an argument in which an analogy between the universe and a machine licenses the inference that, just as the latter has an intelligent cause, so (probably) does the first. Philo's first major move in the Dialogues is to argue that the dissimilarity between the universe and products of human intelligence is so great as to "bar all comparison and inference." In particular, he notes that in applying conclusions of experience to similar cases, every alteration of circumstances introduces a doubt about the legitimacy of the inference, requiring that we gather new information in order to make sure that the new circumstances are not important. There are, however, a vast number of differences between the universe and the products of intelligence that we know. This is particularly true given that the inference requires a move from a part (the products of intelligence) to the whole (the universe). Philo goes even further and denies that one part is a good analogy for another. Even more than this, we know so little about the universe at all, that it seems presumptuous to say something about its origin.

Philo continues piling on points, "somewhat between jest and earnest," when signs of impatience from Cleanthes cause him to stop. Cleanthes responds that someone might say the same with the Copernican system. (Note its reappearance as an example. We will see it again.) Someone inclined to cavil might reject the arguments for it by similar reasoning.

Philo responds that the difference is that we have experience of other planets. We see the moon turn on its center, and likewise Venus. [Venus, of course, does rotate; but Hume is wrong to use it as an example, since the cloud cover for Venus is so thick that it cannot be seen to rotate, and there was no more than a suspicion of its rotation before radio wave experiments in the 1950s penetrated the clouds and showed that Venus does, in fact, rotate. However, by Hume's time the phases of Venus would certainly have been known, and it is likely that he is confusing the two phenomena.] And so one with many other bodies in the solar system. So there are a great many mutually reinforcing analogies in favor of the Copernican system. Indeed, Philo goes further and says that [at the time of the discussion, of course] that they are the only basis for it; Cleanthes would need to have a similar set of strong analogies. Indeed, if we look at Galileo's Dialogue on the systems of the world, we find that a great deal of it is devoted to attacking the distinction between mundane and celestial matter, showing that the earth and the moon were similar in a vast number of details. This allowed one to build the sort of system of analogies that support the Copernican view of the solar system.

Philo ends Part II with a challenge to Cleanthes: "[C]ite your experience and deliver your theory."

Cleanthes is utterly unimpressed by this argument. He opens Part III by noting that the only reason Galileo and others had to devote so much effort to refute the distinction between mundane and celestial matter was that this distinction had so taken hold of people's prejudices that they denied the similarity. The similarity between the works of nature and the works of art, on the other hand, is straightforward and immediate, "self-evident and undeniable." They exhibit "the same matter, a like form": this is precisely what is required for analogies of the strongest sort. Philo's argument is like the argument against motion; the proper reponse to it is not serious argument, which it does not deserve, but "illustrations, examples, and instances."

In order to clarify this point, Cleanthes presents two hypothetical scenarios, the articulate voice and the natural library, in which we would all recognize that a similar inference obviously holds, and which Philo's argument does not have the resources to treat differently.

(1) The Articulate Voice: Suppose, says Cleanthes, that an articulate voice, exceeding what human beings could produce, were to be heard in the clouds, at the same instant, over every nation, and that this voice was heard by every people in their own language and dialect to speak words that were not only meaningful but salutary, worthy of a benevolent being superior to human beings. We would instantly assign to it an intelligent cause on the basis of analogy with human articulate voices, even though the nature of the voice shows clearly that it is very different from any human voice. No one would say that the articulate voice was just accidentally produced by "some whistling in the clouds" rather than from intelligence. Even so in the case of the universe.

(2) The Natural Library: But let's suppose a case that bears an even stronger resemblance to the universe. Suppose two things: (1) that there is a natural, universal, invariable language, common to every human being; and (2) that books are natural objects, perpetuating themselves like plants through reproduction and descent. No one would doubt that such a library is closely analogous to productions of human intelligence, despite its differences.

Cleanthes suggests that in the comparison between these hypothetical scenarios and the universe, the universe is shown to be an even more promising candidate for the effect of intelligence, because there is more evidence of design in an animal than in a book. Either a rational volume is not a proof of a rational cause, or the works of nature have a cause similar to the works of art.

Far from being weakened by Philo's skeptical arguments, Cleanthes says, the inference is strengthened by them. Skeptics are supposed to adhere to inferences that exhibit natural force, even if they are not to assent to them dogmatically. The design inference, however, conveys exactly this natural force. Those who look at the marvelous structure of the eye, and all its contrivance, find it suggesting the idea of a contriver. The conclusion that it has a designer is not something that comes in only at the end of an arduous and tormented line of reasoning. It is suggested immediately, and it is Philo's skeptical reasonings that are better candidates for arduous and tormented reasoning. When we look at male and female, how they correspond in instinct and passion, how they live, we are struck immediately by a teleology, the natural interpretation of which is that nature intends the propagation of the species. The cases mount up easily.

And at this, we reach a curious point in the argument, one that has thrown many people into needless puzzlement. Philo is "a little embarrassed and confounded." He has no ready answer to Cleanthes. But you and I know why this is so -- and, indeed, must be so.

Recall that I suggested that we think of the Dialogues as a game with three players. It had a set of concessions and commitments made by the players that are analogous to rules, and also a set of initial positions marking out the territory the players initially are inclined to defend. The rules are:

(1) Cleanthes and Philo are playing a game of which Demea is not wholly aware, because Cleanthes knows that Philo is half-joking in his support of Demea, whereas Demea thinks that Philo is wholly on his side.
(2) Philo concedes to Cleanthes that skeptics like himself must recognize the natural force of arguments from sense and experience.
(3) Cleanthes has introduced the crucial issue of scientific conclusions, and pointed out that they show that the skeptic can't restrict the natural force of arguments from sense and experience to arguments with conclusions devoted wholly to matters of everyday life.
(4) Demea has made the distinction between arguing for God's existence and arguing that He has certain attributes, and Philo has agreed to it completely.
(5) Cleanthes has presented the particular argument to be discussed. This argument is an argument from sense and experience, and it is in particular an analogical argument from sense and experience.

The initial positions are:

(6) Cleanthes has committed himself entirely to this argument as the one and only argument he can accept.
(7) Demea's immediate reaction to the argument is to protest its 'a posteriori' character.
(8) Philo's immediate reaction to the argument is to protest its analogical character.

Now the notable thing about the opening game is that Cleanthes has won it. And he has to given the rules, i.e., given the concessions already made. He has forced Philo into a position where he cannot move without contradicting his concession in (2). This was essential to Philo's defense of skepticism against Cleanthes: skeptics accept (skeptically, but they do accept) the position on which the argument has the greater natural force. But when we compare the design inference to skeptical doubts about it, the latter are not what have greater natural force. They are less obvious, more difficult to accept, and they do not, unlike the design inference, seem to flow in immediately. Philo has allowed himself to be checkmated.

That is not, of course, the whole story. If it were, we'd have a short and interesting, but hardly striking dialogue. The fact of the matter is that there is more than one game in play. Philo has lost one, and it is because he made the mistake of attacking the analogy. Remember, he insisted that the dissimilarity of the cases was so great that no comparison or inference could be made. This is effectively to deny that the inference can establish the existence of something. But Demea had drawn the distinction between inferring existence and inferring nature, and Philo agreed with it. Philo's mistake was in attacking the first. He is not a position to do so on the principles he has stated. Indeed, Hume's own account of analogy in the Treatise rules out the sort of tactic with which Philo starts, since on that account (1) analogical inferences are based on analogies between cases and (2) analogies cannot be refuted. Philo's attempt to refute the analogy, to deny that it is there to allow the sort of inference Cleanthes wants, is doomed on Humean principles.

So both Philo's principles and Hume's force Philo into confusion; his skeptical attack on Cleanthes's design inference is inconsistent and untenable. But to this point Philo has simply attacked the analogy itself. There is another path open to him, made possible by the distinction between inferring existence and inferring nature. He cannot beat Cleanthes on the ground of the former. But there is a still a game to be played in the latter field. No sooner is Philo confounded than Demea interrupts and performs his most essential function in the dialogue: he begins to play the other game. The game is on again, and Philo has the opportunity play the game from Demea's initial position.

But more of all this in the next post in this series.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

St. Joseph the Worker

Since today is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, it seems fitting to point to Aquinas's account of manual labor in order to celebrate the memory of the humble carpenter in Nazareth.

Manual labor is directed to four things.

First and principally to obtain food; wherefore it was said to the first man (Genesis 3:19): "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread," and it is written (Psalm 127:2): "For thou shalt eat the labors of thy hands."

Secondly, it is directed to the removal of idleness whence arise many evils; hence it is written (Sirach 33:28,29): "Send" thy slave "to work, that he be not idle, for idleness hath taught much evil."

Thirdly, it is directed to the curbing of concupiscence, inasmuch as it is a means of afflicting the body; hence it is written (2 Corinthians 6:5-6): "In labors, in watchings, in fastings, in chastity."

Fourthly, it is directed to almsgiving, wherefore it is written (Ephesians 4:28): "He that stole, let him now steal no more; but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need."

[ST 2-2.187.3]

And with regard to that fourth end, you might consider sending a few dollars the way of Saint Joseph the Worker Job Services in Phoenix, Arizona. SJW is a small charitable organization devoted to helping the homeless find employment. It helps with resumes and with computer access for job postings, it lends decent outfits for interviews, it provides telephone and mailing services relevant to job hunting, it assists with transportation problems -- all these things are things you and I can afford to take for granted, but which the homeless cannot. I worked with some of the volunteers in the office there for a short period a number of years back, so I can attest to some of the excellent work they do.

A Guide to the Argument of Hume's Dialogues, Parts I&II

The structure of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, I would suggest, is simple and straightforward on the face of it, but somehow seems to escape most of its readers, perhaps through lack of practice in reading dialogues. So I'm starting a series to help guide people through the argument of the work. This post will look at how things are set up in Parts I and II.

Part I introduces the characters, Cleanthes, Demea, and Philo. The discussion when the dialogue has opened has turned to religious education, and Demea has claimed that the mind needs to be brought into submission to religious principles by emphasis on the uncertainties, obscurities, and confusions that plague all forms of human reason. Philo praises this idea, saying that if this recommendation is cultivated, we would learn not to give much credit to frail reason on topics so sublime and difficult as theological ones. Demea takes this straightforwardly as praise; Cleanthes sees at once that Philo is engaging in "some raillery or artificial malice". Much of the rest of the Dialogues is an expansion of this: Demea takes Philo naively, Cleanthes sees Philo is engaging in a bit of mockery. But Cleanthes and Philo keep up the game throughout (which is important), and Cleanthes replies to Philo's speech that he is proposing to ground religion on philosophical skepticism, and jokes that we'll see how deep Philo's skepticism runs when the company breaks up and Philo goes out the door rather than window and assumes throughout that gravity will hold his body to the ground. Nature overrules the artificial principles of the Skeptics, just as it overrules the artificial principles of philosophical schools like the Stoics.

Philo concedes that this is so, and the fact that he does so is extremely important for the course of the argument, so keep it in mind. However, he notes that while the principles of the Stoics may have been artificial, impossible to maintain outside of the highest flights of philosophical contemplation, nonetheless, by accustoming themselves to these principles in one part of their life (namely, philosophical reasoning), they developed a disposition that carries over into other parts of life -- only partially and imperfectly, it is true, but which allowed the Stoic school to produce some outstanding examples of virtue. Likewise, says Philo, when someone accustoms himself to thinking about the limits and failings of human reason, something of this disposition carries over into other aspects of life. The Skeptic's position is simply that in an "abstract view" reason exhibits contradictions in its very nature. There are, however, views other than the abstract, and in ordinary life the Skeptic's arguments don't have the force to counterbalance the natural conclusions of sense and experience. But some fields are very far from these natural conclusions of sense and experience, and one of those fields is natural religion, which deals with things like God and the eternity of the world.

Cleanthes is unconvinced. Skeptics, whatever they may say, don't merely adhere to conclusions in ordinary life; they do so in abstract philosophy as well. And this is all to the good: it would be absurd not to adhere to solid scientific conclusions, however abstract, even if one does not attribute to them a complete certainty. The examples Cleanthes gives are Newton's analysis of the rainbow and the arguments put forward by Galileo and Copernicus for the motion of the earth. These examples are not picked out at random; they are carefully selected by Hume, and they, too, will affect the course of the argument. But at the moment Cleanthes's point is simply that in actual practice, through most of philosophy and science, philosophical skeptics are necessarily skeptics about particular questions, each of which has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, and not about whole fields. So why, Cleanthes asks, does the philosophical skeptic suddenly change tactics in religious matters? There is no legitimate distinction to be made between one field of philosophy and another, or between philosophy and common life. The arguments are similar in each; and in each they carry the same force. No one is so silly as to reject physics simply because it's difficult and often far removed from sensory experience; so the fact that a field has these qualities is simply not an adequate reason for rejecting the ability of human reason to handle it. The arguments still must be considered point by point.

Part II continues to set up an argument; immediately we get another distinction that is essential for understanding the future course of the argument. Demea points out that it is one thing to be skeptical about our knowledge of the divine being, i.e., the existence of God, and another thing to be skeptical about our knowledge of the divine nature. Demea takes the former to be simply self-evident; the latter, however, is altogether unknown to us by our "finite, weak, and blind" reason. The greatest impiety is to deny that God exists; the second greatest is to pry into God's nature and affairs. Philo agrees that the two matters are distinct, and then says something very important:

But surely, where reasonable men treat these subjects, the question can never be concerning the Being, but only the Nature, of the Deity. The former truth, as you well observe, is unquestionable and self-evident. Nothing exists without a cause; and the original cause of this universe (whatever it be) we call God; and piously ascribe to him every species of perfection. Whoever scruples this fundamental truth, deserves every punishment which can be inflicted among philosophers, to wit, the greatest ridicule, contempt, and disapprobation. But as all perfection is entirely relative, we ought never to imagine that we comprehend the attributes of this divine Being, or to suppose that his perfections have any analogy or likeness to the perfections of a human creature.

This passage in particular needs to be read closely; and keeping it in mind as you go through the Dialogues will keep you from falling into the common misunderstandings of what Philo is doing. We will see again the points made here.

Cleanthes turns to Demea and tells him how he conceives the matter, and in the course of doing so he gives the argument that will be under discussion for the rest of the book:

Look round the world: contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.

Three things in particular need to be noted about this argument. First, it is an argument based on the rules of analogy. Second, it is 'a posteriori', i.e., from sense and experience. Third, Cleanthes commits himself to appealing only to this argument. All three of these points are essential to understanding the discussion that will ensue, and many people have been lead into serious misinterpretation of the argument by failing to remember one or more of these points.

Demea immediately rejects Cleanthes's approach, because he finds it shocking that anyone would claim that God's existence cannot be rigorously demonstrated; that it is not follows from the second and third of the points I just mentioned. Philo's immediate reaction, on the other hand, is to focus on the first of the three points, and immediately he goes on the attack against analogical arguments from experience. What strikes him about Cleanthes's argument is not that it appeals to experience (which is what strikes Demea) but that it makes use of the most uncertain possible appeal to experience, analogy. Surely, he says, the analogy between the universe and a house is not a very close analogy.

Cleanthes in reply to these insists that his argument makes the existence of God more than a guess or conjecture; that the analogy is fairly close, although imperfect; and that imperfect analogies can ground inferences that are much more than mere conjectures.

There is more to Part II, but I want to save the rest in order to talk about it together with Part III. This will suffice for now. To recap, I've identified the following key issues that are important for understanding the argument:

(1) Cleanthes and Philo are playing a game of which Demea is not wholly aware, because Cleanthes knows that Philo is half-joking in his support of Demea, whereas Demea thinks that Philo is wholly on his side.
(2) Philo concedes to Cleanthes that skeptics like himself must recognize the natural force of arguments from sense and experience.
(3) Cleanthes has introduced the crucial issue of scientific conclusions, and pointed out that they show that the skeptic can't restrict the natural force of arguments from sense and experience to arguments with conclusions devoted wholly to matters of everyday life.
(4) Demea has made the distinction between arguing for God's existence and arguing that He has certain attributes, and Philo has agreed to it completely.
(5) Cleanthes has presented the particular argument to be discussed. This argument is an argument from sense and experience, and it is in particular an analogical argument from sense and experience.
(6) Cleanthes has committed himself entirely to this argument as the one and only argument he can accept.
(7) Demea's immediate reaction to the argument is to protest its 'a posteriori' character.
(8) Philo's immediate reaction to the argument is to protest its analogical character.

Most of the rest of the dialogue plays out masterfully like a well-ordered game. (1)-(5) are its rules. (6)-(8) are the initial positions of the characters at the opening of the game. Now the game is on, and Philo has the first move. More on that in the next post in the series.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Noted Notables

* In 1979 Richard Feynman gave four introductory lectures on the subject of quantum mechanics at the University of Auckland. You can find them at Vega. It's a great series, which is why I can forgive them for suggesting that Feynman is perhaps the greatest science lecturer ever, when obviously that honor goes to Faraday. The 'fits of easy reflection and transmission' that Feynman mentions was one of Newton's very clever ideas, namely, that the particle of light undergoes alternating fits of easy reflection and easy transmission; when it hits a surface while in a fit of easy reflection it is more apt to be reflected by that surface, whereas when it hits a surface in a fit of easy transmission it is less apt to be reflected by it. It was Newton's ingenious way of handling by way of particles the phenomena of light that are more easily handled by assuming that light is a wave. It didn't take hold, due to the increasing dominance of the wave theory, which was just simpler; but despite its limitations (and Newton himself recognized a number of puzzles with it) it took the particle theory to an entirely new level.

* Allan Carlson has a fascinating look at the history of Protestant views of contraception, which have gone from a very strong position against -- as strong as or even stronger than the Catholic position -- to qualified support, to an increased support that was even open to abortion (in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention had even issued a resolution urging its members to work for less restrictive abortion laws), to clear opposition to abortion (the SBC retracted and apologized for its pro-choice resolutions in 2003), to the current growing suspicion of contraception on pro-life principles.

* Eric Schwitzgobel argues for a dispositionalist theory of belief, in which belief is a disposition to act both inwardly and outwardly as if P were the case, in the face of trembling Stoic cases, suggesting that the Stoic, because of his physical reaction, does not "fully and completely believe" that death is OK. My own view is that if we're going to do that much damage to the term 'belief', so that it can be so completely independent from occurrences of sincere judgment, assent, and decision, we might as well call what we're talking about something else entirely, like 'disposition to act as if P were the case'. (This is not entirely dismissive; after all, it used to be the case before people got skittish of the word that what Eric's talking about was called 'faith', and it was importantly associated with but sharply distinguished from sincere judgment, which was called 'belief' or 'assent'. One could take the criticism and simply hold that the ordinary concept of 'belief' is a term with many meanings that need to be distinguished, with the dispositional sense holding a fundamental epistemological position. Or, of course, one could take the trembling Stoic criticism in other directions.) But I mostly bring it up because Brad C in the comments brought up Saul Traiger's excellent paper (PDF) on the recurrent early modern example of the philosopher over the precipice.

* The Legal Theory Blog has a useful summary of the Hohfeld classification of rights, according to which rights are distinguished into claim rights (I have a claim on you, and you a duty to me), liberty rights (I have a freedom to do something regardless of you, and you have no claim on me not to do it), authority rights (I have authority over you with regard to something, and you are liable to me for it), and immunity rights (I am not liable to you for something, and you have no authority over me with regard to it). Solum suggests what seems to be the common view, that the classification can apply to moral rights as well as legal rights; I'm inclined to think not, since I think the distinctions between claim rights and authority rights on the one hand, and liberty rights and immunity rights on the other, tends to break down for at least some cases of moral right. The reason we can find more classes of legal rights than moral rights is that legal rights are not based simply on moral rights but also on the practical limitations of government.

* Rev. John Coughlin has a paper on canon law at SSRN (ht: Legal Theory Blog). My own view of canon law is that its primary purpose is certification: it is a system whereby the Church establishes procedures for certifying (so to speak) various Church-related actions as within the pastoral mission of the Church. So, for instance, the canon law governing baptism doesn't establish what makes a genuine baptism (which is wholly in God's hands); it establishes what the Church can certify to be a genuine baptism for its purposes. This certification is a necessary process to reduce potential confusions and disruptions in the community, which is why it is simply impossible for people to organize into a Christian congregation or community without some form of canon law, whether they call it that or not.

* Rebecca continues her series on William Cowper with a post on his death and what may have been his last and is perhaps his greatest hymn.

* Glach has a post at FQI on Descartes's appeal to divine immutability with regard to the laws of nature. It's an interesting topic, because one would think that God could immutably will laws that change or are especially complicated, as glach suggests. It started me thinking of how later Cartesians, and particularly Malebranche, handle this. Immutability makes an appearance in Malebranche's account of motion, too, but it takes a secondary role. On Malebranche's account, God must immutably will according to Order (= the Divine Word = universal Reason), and Order requires simplicity of divine ways of working. Thus Malebranche marshals simplicity against the possible responses to immutability; it is simplicity, rather than immutability, that rules out things like changing laws, complex laws, and the like. Because God is immutable, the laws of motion cannot change; further, they must be simple because God must will according to Order. We can know those laws because the laws are according to Order, who is Reason, to whom we are united as rational creatures.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Carnivalesque XXVI: A Very Carnivalesque Carnivalesque

Welcome to the newest early modern edition of Carnivalesque, which is the modern way to love the pre-modern. For this edition, I thought I would remind Carnivalesque of its roots. So the links of this Carnivalesque focus on food, on drink, on violence, on sex, on spectacle and pageantry, on the startling and the surprising, on chance and vicissitude, with some other things thrown into the mix.

Gavin Robinson's Investigations of a Dog regularly has some of the most interesting discussions of historical causation, use of evidence, and historiography that can be found on a weblog, using issues in military history as a case study. The post, The Lucases of Colchester, is no exception, using an English Civil War memorial as an occasion to discuss the complications of historical causation, and the dangers of reductionism in historical accounts. It also includes a bit of the violence needed for the carnivalesque.

Strange Maps discusses the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the curious 'Aroostook War', a border dispute over the precise boundary between the District of Maine and New Brunswick in 1838/1839. Since it's a war that wasn't a war, it's certainly a case of carnivalesque subversion of expectations.

When I decided to host this edition of Carnivalesque, I knew immediately that I would have to see what Carolyn Smith-Kizer has been cooking up. Smith-Kizer's weblog, 18thC Cuisine, explores the world of early modern cooking from the perspective of a habitante of eighteenth-century Nouvelle France. The delight for this carnival is a 1716 recipe for biscotins.

Reflecting on the recent earthquake in Kent, DrRoy of Early Modern Whale was reminded of Gabriel Harvey's amusing account of the 1580 earthquake.

In the topsy-turvy world of Carnivalesque, the complex interplay of fiction and fact in our sense of history is an ongoing theme. "Greenman" Tim Abbott of Walking the Berkshires discusses a case in which historical fiction has begun seeping into historical account, in which "Jumping" Jack Flashman teaches us the age-old and oft-needed lesson of carnival festivities, that not all that glitters is gold.

Gillian Polack's Food History post about Henri D'Andeli's La bataille des vins is perhaps more suited to a medieval edition than an early modern edition; but where both wine and carnivalesque are involved we laugh at trifles like chronology. Plus, history is not simply identifiable with chronology; and studying one era may provide a clue to understanding a later one. Readers of French might like a taste of the original poem.

At The Long Eighteenth David Mazella contemplates the the history of women's writing, and Susan Staves's argument that it is in women's non-fiction, rather than women's fiction, that the least ideologically constrained images of women will be found.

At Facetation, devoted to the history of engineering, George Goodall discusses the historical role of the mathematical practitioner.

If you want to know anything about the history of rosaries, Chris Laning of Paternosters is the person to look up. In her post on the five wounds rosary Laning discusses a rosary that makes its appearance in a number of early modern engravings and woodcuts.

Daniel Mitsui of The Lion and the Cardinal posts pictures of the Dance of Death from the Oratorio dei Disciplini in Clusone. He also recently posted images of St. John's Heads; a St. John's Head is a devotional image, which began to be popular in the fifteenth century, of the head of St. John the Baptist on a platter above Christ emerging from the tomb.

At Giornale Nuovo, that perpetual treat of images curious and curiouser, misteraitch presents us with etchings by seventeenth-century printmaker Stefano Della Bella.

At Victoria's Cross, we find a post about the life of Zebulon Pike.

Bryant T. Ragan has a guest post at The Cipher discussing the historiography of sexuality; he suggests a shift in how we handle the historical study of sexuality.

Here at Siris I recently had a post on James Beattie's distinction between the ludicrous and the ridiculous. Beattie's attempt to get a handle on the ludicrous, or, as we would call it, the comic, was one of several early modern attempts to give a solid philosophical account of the sense of humor.

April sees the festival of Vaisakhi, when Sikhs all over the world celebrate the formation of the Khalsa, the Sikh community, in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh. Since festivals and holidays are one of the vehicles of historical memory, it seems fitting to link to sikhnewspaper's selection of links related to coverage of Vaisakhi celebrations in the British media.

And that closes this edition of Carnivalesque. The next edition, an ancient/medieval edition, will be hosted at Aardvarchaeology. Don't forget to submit your posts!

The Carnivalesque: Turning the World Upside Down banner was created using Creative Connectivity's Banner Creator.