Saturday, June 02, 2007

Augustine on Readers of His De Trinitate

I expect, indeed, that some, who are more dull of understanding, will imagine that in some parts of my books I have held sentiments which I have not held, or have not held those which I have. But their error, as none can be ignorant, ought not to be attributed to me, if they have deviated into false doctrine through following my steps without apprehending me, while I am compelled to pick my way through a hard and obscure subject: seeing that neither can any one, in any way, rightly ascribe the numerous and various errors of heretics to the holy testimonies themselves of the divine books; although all of them endeavor to defend out of those same Scriptures their own false and erroneous opinions. The law of Christ, that is, charity, admonishes me clearly, and commands me with a sweet constraint, that when men think that I have held in my books something false which I have not held, and that same falsehood displeases one and pleases another, I should prefer to be blamed by him who reprehends the falsehood, rather than praised by him who praises it. For although I, who never held the error, am not rightly blamed by the former, yet the error itself is rightly censured; while by the latter neither am I rightly praised, who am thought to have held that which the truth censures, nor the sentiment itself, which the truth also censures.

De Trinitate 1.3.6

I thought of this passage while discussing Augustine's discussion of the Trinity elsewhere; the part that is particularly striking, and worth keeping in mind in any theological discussion, is that it is better to be censured for a genuine error not held than to be praised for the same. Since Augustine is perpetually censured for errors that are not his, it's worthwhile to remember when responding to these censures what Augustine's own attitude to them was.

Four Evangelists

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, and their wings touched one another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.

Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out upward; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body. Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.

Ezekiel 1:4-14

Macht on Proofs

I liked this remark by Macht at "prosthesis":

I've suggested before that "proofs" should be thought of as a sort of "table of contents" of an argument. One thing I was getting at was that while they give the appearance of clarity and neatness, proofs very often serve to conceal major issues (meanings of words, background assumptions, etc.). Because of this, clarity can help prevent understanding. To put it another way, a very clear, concise argument can cause us to accept (or reject) the argument before we put forth a major effort to understand the argument.

I think it's fruitful to think of the desire to find proofs as an element in cost-of-reasoning reasoning. As a practical matter we simply can't reason out every little thing; having a proof already in hand allows us to jump safely from point A to point B without worrying too much about intermediate steps, and by boiling things down to bare essentials the proof itself enables us to avoid distractions, tangents, and red herrings. But cost-of-reasoning reasoning always has its dangers: it may lead to overlooking important things, or, in a case like proof-finding, to placing excessive importance on things that are easy to prove, just because they are easy to prove, or any number of other things. By thinking of a proof as a table of contents to a more thorough and elaborate discussion (including what its conclusions are relevant to, the assumptions that make its steps good one, the intelligibility of its premises and the reasons for starting with them, the end in view when reasoning in this way, etc.) we can avoid some of this danger. In the case of some proofs, of course, the more thorough and elaborate discussion won't be all that much more elaborate, or at all interesting; but for others it certainly will be.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Teaching Ethics

Janet Stemwedel has an interesting post on science ethics. One thing often done in (well-taught) business ethics courses is not to focus on what's right and wrong at all (which, as DrugMonkey points out, is usually not that difficult to figure out in the abstract when sitting in a classroom), but to focus on ethical risks and crises. That is, the course is geared toward identifying types of ethical crises in business (like the Arthur Anderson fiasco), their anatomy, the risks that are taken that increase the likelihood of their occurrence, the practical steps that can be taken to avoid those risks altogether and reduce the likelihood of the ethical crisis, and (perhaps equally important but so often forgotten when ethics courses are taught) what practical steps to take when ethical crises actually do happen in order to restore trust and good will. That fits very well with her two suggested approaches.

A problem is that this works well, and is at least somewhat effective, because there's a lot of demand for the general sort of things taught in those classes; but the reason good business courses came to be taught in this way is less that there was originally enthusiasm for them, and more that massive ethical crises actually occurred, so massive as to put entire professional fields under critical public scrutiny, and people in those fields began to look around for something to help them avoid new crises and weather the scrutiny. I suppose the worry is that there's a danger that scientists will follow the same pattern, and only become interested in ways of making sure things are done ethically after something happens that leads the general public to lose faith in their ability to do anything ethically. Faraday, when asked why he went into scientific work rather than the trades (where with his knack for invention he could obviously have made a lot of money), attributed it to the greater ethics of scientific practice. It would be a sad day that led to new Faradays being turned off of scientific careers because everyone has let them get a shady reputation.

I think it's a sign, incidentally, of how very poorly ethics is generally taught in philosophy departments these days that in an ordinary ethics course you get almost nothing of this practical aspect. After all, individuals take ethical risks; they find themselves in ethical crises; they need to know what practical steps to take to reduce those risks and avoid those crises; and (again, just as important, but only barely touched on in modern ethics) what one might do to make things right when the wrong has already been done. Students need to be introduced to methods that have been suggested for living better, for improving their habits, for avoiding even the occasions for temptation, for making reparation. If you look at your typical ethical syllabus, however, you get virtually nothing of this; the only practical features of ethics you get have to do with ethical reasoning, and those only when the courses are taught relatively well. So students learn how to reason like utilitarians, like emotivists, like deontologists; they get a few tools to help them make more sophisticated ethical arguments and a chance to pick their own preferred pattern of reasoning. That's not a trivial thing, and when people teach it right it's a great thing to teach; but it's the absolute minimum, and it's not good that we are OK with the absolute minimum on a matter of such importance.

[Added Later: It occurs to me that one might call this, using the term a bit loosely, a Confucian approach to teaching ethics, since the emphasis is on self-cultivation. The Internet Encyclopedia article on Chu Hsi gives you the general idea.]

Martyr Justin the Philosopher

Today, the first of June, is the feast of Justin Martyr. A famous passage from his First Apology:

But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible--let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably. But who, through the power of the Word, according to the will of God the Father and Lord of all, He was born of a virgin as a man, and was named Jesus, and was crucified, and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, an intelligent man will be able to comprehend from what has been already so largely said.

There's an interesting philosophical test implicit here: one might well wonder if modern-day 'philosophers' would be willing to die if that were the way to live according to reason, as Socrates died, as Justin himself died. I very much doubt that most would.

If this blog were to have a patron saint, I suppose it could be St. Justin. Siris was started on either the first or second of June three years ago, although the first post was definitely on June 2nd.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Tichy on Propositions and Propositional Constructions

From Pavel Tichy, "Constructions," Philosophy of Science, 53 (1986), pp. 514-534:

Failure to distinguish clearly between entities and different ways of constructing them is an inexhaustible source of philosophical confusion and doubletalk. The notion of proposition is a case in point. There is an almost universal tendency to impute the structure of propositional constructions to propositions themselves. Although few would maintain that the numbers nine and two and the subtraction function are ingredients of the number denoted by '9 - 2', few will hesitate to regard Tom, Sam, and the taller-than relation as ingredients of the proposition, or state of affairs, denoted by 'Tom is taller than Sam'. Yet the situation is completely parallel. The number seven does not contain the minus function because if it did, it would also have to contain the plus function, since seven is not only nine minus two but also three plus four. Likewise, the fact that Tom is taller than Sam does not contain the taller-than relation, for if it did, it would also have to contain the shorter-than relation, for Tom being taller than Sam and Sam being shorter than Tom are surely and the same fact.

He goes on to say, "A sentence is not a picture of the proposition it denotes but of a particular construction of that proposition."

Tichy's point may be obscured by the tendency of people to play fast and loose with the term 'proposition', using it now to indicate a sentence, now to indicate a state of affairs, now to indicate something not quite either. The way to think of it is this (what follows is partly Tichy, partly me, and so any errors should not necessarily be attributed to Tichy). '9 - 2' is a phrase that tells how to construct a number; another phrase that does this is '3 + 4'. However, while '9 - 2' constructs the same number as '3 + 4', it does not do so in the same way. They differ by construction: 9 - 2 is one way to construct seven; 3 + 4 is a different way to construct seven; 7 is an entirely different way to construct seven (namely, by starting with seven rather than with anything else). 9, 2, and the subtraction operation are elements of the construction of seven; it is absurd, however, to say that they are elements of seven, when they are not even elements of seven as constructed with the elements 3, 4, and the addition operation. If we did say that, of course, we would be committed to saying that every number is is an element of every other number, which is a claim that begins to look, at best, a little murky. The need to insist on this becomes especially clear if we take constructions like 9/0. 9/0 is a construction, and one that arises sometimes in math problems; but there is nothing it constructs, and so there is no number with the elements nine, zero, and the division function as put together in the construction 9/0. '9/0' names a construction that is abortive. It does not name a number, but a construction that fails to construct a number; and likewise, we cannot say that '9 - 2' names a number, but only that it names a construction (one that does succeed in constructing a number). The expressions '9 - 2' and '3 + 4' are said to be equal or equivalent because they name constructions that reach the same number, not because they are names of that number; they are equivalent because they are itineraries with the same destination, not because they are that destination. Think of it in terms of mathematical education. If Joe understands that 12/3 = 4, what he understands is that 12/3 and 4 give you the same number, even though they have different elements. This goes beyond merely having Joe learn the operations involved in the construction (like an imperfect pocket calculator, Tichy says dismissively in another article), to seeing how one constructs numbers using those elements.

Now, consider the sentence 'Tom is taller than Sam'. The sentence has the elements Tom, Sam, and the taller-than relation; but it would be absurd to say that what it names (the 'state of affairs' or 'fact') has these elements, and for exactly the same reason it is absurd to say that the number seven has the elements 9,2, and -. Rather, 'Tom is taller than Sam' is one way of constructing a given state of affairs or fact. You can construct the very same state of affairs or fact in a completely different way, namely, with the elements Sam, Tom, and the shorter-than relation. 'Tom is taller than Sam' is not a state of affairs or fact; it is a way of formulating a state of affairs or a fact; you can formulate that fact in a different way with different elements. The point remains the same whether you talk about facts or properties. 'Tom's being taller than Sam' does not name a different 'property' from 'Sam's being shorter than Tom'; they do not name properties at all. Rather, they name different constructions of the same property. A physicist, a mechanic, and an ordinary Joe might look at the same car and decompose it intellectually in different ways -- into a complex interaction of molecules and forces, or into a combination of functional auto parts, or into this single thing, the car. But it's still the same car. There's nothing controversial about this; the different intellectual constructions of the car by our three different spectators are different ways of constructing one and the same car, or, if you prefer, constructing a formula that yields the car as a terminus for the mind's contemplation. They are different itineraries that culminate in the same destination.

So 'Tom is taller than Sam' does not name the fact that Tom is taller than Sam; it is a way of taking the elements, Tom, taller than, and Sam, and constructing either the true or the false. In other words, the expression 'Tom is taller than Sam' is a way your mind gets either to truth or to something that's not truth. If by 'proposition' you mean what you can think about, come to believe things about, etc. (a destination of thought), then it constructs a proposition (it is an itinerary to get you to that destination). But the sentence is not the proposition it constructs; nor is the sentence a name for that proposition. Rather, the sentence just tells you one way to get that proposition in mind. When I am thinking about 'Tom is taller than Sam' I am taking that construction or path as itself an object of thought, just as I do when I am thinking about '9 - 2 = 7'. Likewise, 'Today is sunny' does not name a state of affairs; it names a construction, a procedure for finding a state of affairs. It is, I would suppose, an incomplete construction, since it constructs different things depending on what today is. But it is quite common to think that we can get away with treating something like 'Today is sunny' as a label for a fact, rather than a way for the discursive intellect to get to a fact.


Soothly Mary rising up in those days, went with haste into the hilly places, into a city of Judaea. And she entered into the house of Zacharias, and greeted Elisabeth. And it was done, as Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the young child in her womb gladded.

And Elisabeth was full-filled with the Holy Ghost, and cried with a great voice, and said, "Blessed be thou among women, and blessed be the fruit of thy womb! And whereof is this thing to me, that the mother of my Lord come to me? For lo! as the voice of thy salutation was made in mine ears, the young child gladded with joy in my womb. And blessed be thou, that hast believed, for those things that be said to thee from the Lord, shall be perfectly done."

And Mary said:

"My soul magnifieth the Lord,
and my spirit hath gladded in God, mine health.
For he hath beheld the meekness of his handmaiden.
For lo! of this all generations shall say that I am blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things,
and his name is holy.
And his mercy is from kindreds into kindreds,
to men that dread him.
He made might in his arm,
he scattered proud men with the thought of his heart.
He put down mighty men from their seats,
and enhanced meek men.
He hath full-filled hungry men with goods,
and he hath left rich men void.
He, having mind of his mercy, took Israel, his child;
as he hath spoken to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed,
into worlds."

And Mary dwelled with her, as it were three months, and turned again into her house.

[Wycliffe's translation, with some slight repunctuation]

I sincerely hope that your spirit, too, has gladded in God this Visitation-Day.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Palamas and Composition II

In posting the last passage, I had forgotten this one, which comes not much before it:

But how does the energy observed in God avoid composition? Because he alone possesses an energy completely void of passion, for by it he is active only but is not also acted upon, neither coming into being nor changing.

[Gregory Palamas, The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, Robert E. Sinewicz, tr. PIMS (Toronto: 1988) ch. 128 (p. 233).]

Here again we have the link between passive potential and composition.

In any case, there is an interesting discussion of my original post at Sacramentum Vitae.

Your Daily Dose of Early Modern Philosophy

A Tyrannosaurus rex rediscovers Giambattista Vico's objection to Descartes's cogito.

Of course, Vico was protesting Descartes's method, not the cogito or the sum.

The Fox and the Grapes

Michael Gilleland has a post on Aesop's parable of the fox and the grapes. One of my favorite versions of it is Christopher Smart's eighteenth-century poetic translation (Fable II of Book IV) of Phaedrus's collection of fables:

An hungry Fox with fierce attack
Sprang on a Vine, but tumbled back,
Nor could attain the point in view,
So near the sky the bunches grew.
As he went off, 'They're scurvy stuff,
(Says he) and not half ripe enough--
And I've more rev'rence for my tripes,
Than to torment them with the gripes.'
For those this tale is very pat,
Who lessen what they can't come at.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

By the Waters of Babylon We Lay Down and Wept

Today is the 554th anniversary of the Fall of the Byzantine Empire. To be more precise, on this day in 1453, the defenses of Constantinople collapsed before the Turkish army under Mehmed II. Strictly speaking, a remnant of the old empire, the Empire of Trebizond, which had formed in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, still remained to carry on the succession of the Roman Empire, as well as a few fragments elsewhere; but they had less than a decade to survive.

As eyewitness Nicolo Barbaro put it, "On the twenty-ninth of May, the last day of the siege, our Lord God decided, to the sorrow of the Greeks, that He was willing for the city to fall on this day into the hands of Mahomet Bey the Turk son of Murat."

The Feast of St. Constantine XI Palaeologus the Ethnomartyr, last of the Byzantine Emperors, is celebrated on this day in some parts of the world.

Kizenko on ROC Reunion

Nadia Kizenko has a good piece (ht: Ralph Luker) on the recent reunion between Moscow and ROCOR, a critical one that asks the right questions. A problem with the article, I think, is that it overlooks how much Moscow actually did have to concede in order to make the reunification go through. Some of these concessions -- like the canonization of Tsar Nicholas II and numerous martyrs and confessors under the Soviet regime -- seem small on the outside but in the context of Russian Orthodox life are actually rather significant; likewise, ROCOR remains autonomous. Further, as Daniel Larison points out, Putin is at best jumping on to a process that began long before he became involved.

Given that so much emphasis is put on Moscow's appeasement the Communists, it would probably have been worthwhile to point out that ROCOR's history of collaboration is not exactly pristine, either, since (as the Patriarchate has not been slow to point out) ROCOR has to deal with the fact that segments of it went so far in their fight against the Communists as to collaborate with the Nazis. Both sides have much soul-searching to do; and one can reasonably hope that reunification will force them to do more of it.

It is also too early to say that there is a "tide of defection from the disappointed faithful" in ROCOR. There is certainly a good deal of minority protest; at present it looks relatively minor. Perhaps it will spread, although I doubt it will do so to any great extent. We will see.

But Kizenko is exactly right that Putin's role in it all is worrisome; I find his speech on the occasion -- all about the split being a result of political life in Russia itself, and thus the reunification serving "our common goals" -- somewhat ominous, and think that Kizenko's interpretation of Putin's actions ("Mr. Putin is thus the first modern Russian leader to incorporate all aspects of Russia's "usable past" in claiming his legitimacy") to ring too true when considered in light of the comments Putin has actually made on the subject. The reunification does not end the need for vigilance on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. It does, however, begin the need not to be alarmist.

I'm a bit puzzled by Kizenko's claim that "according to the terms of the agreement, Moscow regains control over bishops' appointments and the right to open or close all parishes"; since according to the Act of Canonical Communion, ROCOR's Council of Bishops retains the right to elect its own bishops and to make decisions on the establishment or liquidation of its dioceses. What Moscow gains is simply the right to confirm the election and to be included in the decisions. These are certainly not trivial extensions of Moscow's power, but they seem to fall short of Kizenko's claim.

UPDATE: Nicholas Ohotin responds to Kizenko.

Whewell in the Darwin Correspondence

The Darwin Correspondence Project is online and fully functioning, with a useful search function. Whewell, of course, figures in the correspondence quite a bit, although usually in an incidental way. This, however, is from Whewell's letter to Darwin thanking him for a copy of the first edition of the Origin of Species:

I have to thank you for a copy of your book on the `Origin of Species'. You will easily believe that it has interested me very much, and probably you will not be surprized to be told that I cannot, yet at least, become a convert to your doctrines. But there is so much of thought and of fact in what you have written that it is not to be contradicted without careful selection of the ground and manner of the dissent, which I have not now time for. I must therefore content myself with thanking you for your kindness.

I was amused to see Darwin's reaction to this in a letter to Lyell a couple of days later:

Possibly you might like to see enclosed note from Whewell, merely as showing that he is not horrified with us.—

Monday, May 28, 2007

A Jewish Parable

Once upon a time there was a king who had a son. This young prince at an early age went mad and came to believe that he was a rooster. All day long he would sit under the table, naked, clucking and crowing and pecking at food placed on the floor. If you tried to talk to him, he would say nothing but "I'm a rooster!" The king was somewhat distraught over this, as I'm sure you would also be. He sent out messengers trying to find someone who could cure the prince.

One day a venerable old rabbi came to the palace, claiming that he could cure the prince, on one condition: that the king would not interfere with the treatment for six months. Desperate, the king agreed.

To the king's distress, the venerable old rabbi undressed, sat under the table, and began to cluck, crow, and peck. Before he had had a prince under the table thinking he was a rooster; and now there was an old rabbi clucking and crowing under the table as well. But he had promised that he would not interfere for six months, and, being a man of his word, he did not interfere.

For quite some time the rabbi did nothing but sit naked under the table with the prince, clucking and crowing and pecking at food. But one day, the rabbi called for a pair of pants. Still clucking and crowing, he began to put them on.

"Wait," said the prince suddenly, "you can't wear pants. You're a rooster!"

"Well," the rabbi replied, "I want to know who says a rooster can't wear pants. They're nice and warm, and very comfortable. Why should men have all the good things? Surely it makes as much sense for a rooster to wear pants as it does for a man to wear them?"

The prince thought about this and agreed, so the rabbi called for pants and the prince put them on.

The next day the rabbi called for a clean shirt. When he put it on, the prince again said, "You're a rooster; you can't wear shirts!"

To which the rabbi replied, "If a shirt fits, why can't a rooster wear it? After all, it's a useful thing to wear, and no rooster is any less a rooster for wearing a shirt. Should we shiver on cold nights just because we are roosters?"

This convinced the prince, and he, too, put on a shirt.

Bit by bit the rabbi added items of clothing, then branched out to behaviors like sitting at the table, reading books, and calling himself a man rather than a rooster. By the end of the six months, the prince was completely cured.

Monday in Whitsun Week

Since all that is not heav'n must fade,
Light be the hand of Ruin laid
Upon the home I love:
With lulling spell let soft Decay
Steal on, and spare the giant sway,
The crash of tower and grove.

Far opening down some woodland deep
In their own quite glade should sleep
The relics dear to thought,
And wild-flower wreaths from side to side
Their waving tracery hang, to hide
What ruthless Time has wrought.

Such are the visions green and sweet
That o'er the wistful fancy fleet
In Asia's sea-like plain,
Where slowly, round his isles of sand,
Euphrates through the lonely land
Winds toward the pearly main.

Slumber is there, but not of rest;
There his forlorn and weary nest
The famish'd hawk has found,
The wild dog howls at fall of night,
The serpent's rustling coils affright
The traveller on his round.

What shapeless form, half lost on high,
Half seen against the evening sky,
Seems like a ghost to glide,
And watch, from Babel's crumbling heap,
Where in her shadow, fast asleep,
Lies fall'n imperial Pride?

With half-clos'd eye a lion there
Lies basking in his nootide lair,
Or prowls in twilight gloom.
The golden city's king he seems,
Such as in old prophetic dreams
Sprang from rough ocean's womb.

But where are now his eagle wings,
That shelter'd erst a thousand kings,
Hiding the glorious sky
From half the nations, till they own
No holier name, no mightier throne?
That vision is gone by.

Quench'd is the golden statue's ray,
The breath of heaven has blown away
What toiling earth had pil'd,
Scattering wise heart and crafty hand,
As breezes strew on ocean's sand
The fabrics of a child.

Divided thence through every age
Thy rebels, Lord, their warfare wage,
And hoarse and jarring all
Mount up their heaven assailing cries
To thy bright watchmen in the skies
From Babel's scatter'd wall.

Thrice only since, with blended might
The nations on that haughty height
Have met to scale the heaven.
Thrice only might a Seraph's look
A moment's shade of sadness brook--
Such power to guilt was given.

Now the fierce Bear and Leopard keen
Are perish'd as they ne'er had been,
Oblivion is their home:
Ambition's boldest dream and last
Must melt before the clarion blast
That sounds the dirge of Rome.

Heroes and Kings, obey the charm,
Withdraw the proud high-reaching arm,
There is an oath on high,
That ne'er on brow of mortal birth
Shall blend again the crowns of earth,
Nor in according cry

Her many voices mingling own
One tyrant Lord, one idol throne:
But to His triumph soon
He shall descend, who rules above,
And the pure language of His love
All tongues of men shall tune.

Nor let Ambition heartless mourn;
When Babel's very ruins burn,
Her high desires may breath;--
O'ercome thyself, and thou may'st share
With Christ his Father's throne, and wear
The world's imperial wreath.

From Keble's The Christian Year


Since yesterday was Whit-Sunday or Pentecost, we have entered Whitsuntide.

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