Saturday, June 16, 2007

Butler on Social Progress

Reasonable men therefore will look upon the general plan of our constitution, transmitted down to us by our ancestors, as sacred ; and content themselves with calmly doing what their station requires, towards rectifying the particular things which they think amiss, and supplying the particular things which they think deficient in it, so far as is practicable without endangering the whole.

From Six Sermons Preached on Public Occasions, Sermon III. The argument he gives for this conclusion is rather interesting because it is historical. This sermon was preached before the House of Lords on the day commemorating the martyrdom of Charles I. Charles, of course, lost his head to the Puritans. The sermon is primarily on the subject of hypocrisy, which seems to have interested Butler considerably, given that he returns to it in a number of sermons. The particular worry in this sermon is hypocritical appeal to liberty. Hypocrisy, of course, arises due to the fact that it is difficult to do something wrong as wrong, in its true colors; it's far easier to do it when "some cloak is thrown over it" to give it the appearance of virtue. Butler notes that there is a special danger of liberty being used as this cloak. This is what he suggests actually happened in the overthrow of Charles; people went so far as to destroy the very constitution of Church and State in the name of liberty, replacing it with "the confusions, the persecuting spirit, and incredible fanaticism" that led to the Restoration. This violent overthrow began innocently enough; but as more and more fuel was added to the fire, it quickly grew out of hand, growing more and more outrageous, until, in the name of liberty, it introduced an arbitrary despotism. This particular arbitrary government wasn't sustainable, being contrary to custom, but it led to a further danger when the Restoration occurred, because the monarchy was sustainable, and human beings in opposing one extreme are likely to go to the other. One extreme, the complete dissolution of the monarchy, was rejected; but going through that complete dissolution, and the reaction it induced, introduced the severe danger of going too far in the return of the monarchy, by eliminating the limitations originally restricting the king's power. Butler, then, has a very stern view of the dissolution of the monarchy; he thinks it was obviously wrong, so obviously wrong that no one could have done it innocently. But, of course, human beings are capable of great self-deceit. Even though it's plausible to say that a better government can be imagined, to go so far as to dissolve at one stroke one government that works in practice in favor of another government known only in theory is courting mischief. Thus we arrive at the conclusion above, and this provides one safeguard against the hypocritical abuse of liberty.

It isn't, by the way, the only abuse of liberty against which we need safeguards; Butler goes on to have an interesting discussion of some others, insisting throughout that liberty by its very nature requires self-command, and the responsibilities that go with that.

Butler on Religious Institutions

A visible church has also a further tendency to promote natural religion, as being an instituted method of education, originally intended to be of more peculiar advantage to those who would conform to it. For one end of the institution was, that by admonition and reproof, as well as instruction ; by a general regular discipline, and public exercises of religion ; the body of Christ, as the scripture speaks, should be edified ; i. e. trained up in piety and virtue for a higher and better state. This settlement then appearing thus beneficial ; tending in the nature of the thing to answer, and in some degree actually answering, those ends ; it is to be remembered, that the very notion of it implies positive institutions ; for the visibility of the church consists in them. Take away every thing of this kind, and you lose the very notion itself. So that if the things now mentioned are advantages, the reason and importance of positive institutions in general is most obvious ; since without them these advantages could not be secured to the world.

From The Analogy of Religion, II.i

Butler on the State of Probation

Now whoever will consider the thing, may clearly see, that the present world is peculiarly fit to be a state of discipline for this purpose, to such as will set themselves to mend and improve. For, the various temptations with which we are surrounded ; our experience of the deceits of wickedness ; having been in many instances led wrong ourselves ; the great viciousness of 'the world ; the infinite disorders consequent upon it ; our being made acquainted with pain and sorrow, either from our own feeling of it, or from the sight of it in others ; these things, though some of them may indeed produce wrong effects upon our minds, yet when duly reflected upon, have, all of them, a direct tendency to bring us to a settled moderation and reasonableness of temper : the contrary both to thoughtless levity, and also to that unrestrained self-will, and violent bent to follow present inclination, which may be observed in undisciplined minds. Such experience, as the present state affords, of the frailty of our nature ; of the boundless extravagance of ungoverned passion ; of the power which an infinite Being has over us, by the various capacities of misery which he has given us ; in short, that kind and degree of experience, which the present state affords us, that the constitution of nature is such as to admit the possibility, the danger, and the actual event, of creatures losing their innocence and happiness, and becoming vicious and wretched ; hath a tendency to give us a practical sense of things, very different from a mere speculative knowledge that we are liable to vice, and capable of misery.

From The Analogy of Religion I.V

Butler on the Golden Rule

It would very much prevent our being misled by this self-partiality, to reduce, that practical rule of our Saviour, "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, even so do unto them," to our judgment and way of thinking. This rule, you see, consists of two parts. One is, to substitute another for yourself, when you take a survey of any part of your behaviour, or consider what is proper and fit and reasonable for you to do upon any occasion: the other part is, that you substitute yourself in the room of another; consider yourself as the person affected by such a behaviour, or towards whom such an action is done; and then you would not only see, but likewise feel, the reasonableness, or unreasonableness of such an action or behaviour. But, alas! the rule itself may be dishonestly applied: there are persons who have not impartiality enough with respect to themselves, nor regard enough for others, to be able to make a just application of it. This just application, if men would honestly make it, is, in effect, all that I have been recommending: it is the whole thing, the direct contrary to that inward dishonesty as respecting our intercourse with our fellow-creatures. And even the bearing this rule in their thoughts may be of some service: the attempt thus to apply it, is an attempt towards being fair and impartial, and may chance unawares to show them to themselves, to show them the truth of the case they are considering.

From Fifteen Sermons, Sermon X.

Butler on Talkers

Today the Anglicans remember the incomparable Joseph Butler, that unmatched summit of early modern moral philosophy. This is certainly a day for a student of early modern philosophy to celebrate. So I'll do so by putting up a string of quotations by Butler.

The wise man observes, that "there is time to speak and a time to keep silence." One meets with people in the world, who seem never to have made the last of these observations. And yet these great talkers do not at all speak from their having any thing to say, as every sentence shows, but only from their inclination to be talking. Their conversation is merely an exercise of the tongue; no other human faculty has any share in it. It is strange these persons can help reflecting, that unless they have in truth a superior capacity, and are in an extraordinary manner furnished for conversation; if they are entertaining, it is at their own expense. Is it possible that it should never come into people's thoughts to suspect whether or no it be to their advantage, to show so very much of themselves? "O that you hold your peace, and it should be you wisdom." Remember likewise, there are persons who love fewer words, an inoffensive sort of people, who deserve some regard, though of too still and composed tempers for you.

from Fifteen Sermons, Sermon IV. At some point, probably in the nineteenth century when students were forced to read Butler for examinations, he acquired the reputation of being very abstract, dry, and humorless; but he does have a wit and humor, admittedly sometimes subtle, that pervade his writings.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Abortion and Cases of Conscience

Ophelia Benson:

A thought experiment. Not the kidney one, a different (though similar) one. A woman is newly pregnant against her will; she doesn't approve of abortion and isn't going to have one. She discovers the fetus has a very rare disease which is quickly fatal unless the fetus can be removed and implanted in a compatible host; such hosts are very rare but can be found via a computer search of a medical database. A compatible host is found. Is it murder if she refuses to be an actual host? Not just that - would anyone even think she had a very strong duty to be a host? Would anyone even think she had a weak duty?

I say no. Hardly anyone would think that. (Perhaps I'm underestimating the obsession with the fetus.) So the difference must be that in the usual case, the fetus exists because its mother had sex with a man. Why is that a kind of difference that makes a difference?

This is, as Benson notes, essentially a variant Thomson-violinist case; and the problem with Thomson-violinist cases is that we do often regard it as a violation of duty to refuse to allow temporary impositions on one's freedom when someone else's welfare is at stake. (It is another question, of course, whether it is reasonable to make such violations of duty illegal.) That's what duties usually are, in fact. And I think it is pretty clear that there are quite a few people would say that she would, in fact, have at least a defeasible and prima facie duty; and on such a view there is no fundamental difference in the two cases, although they may differ at times as to potentially exculpating circumstances. So I think Benson definitely is "underestimating the obsession with the fetus"; since the fetus is going to be regarded as a person by most pro-lifers, then the fact that the commitments involved in bearing it to term are unwanted is not going to carry any more weight than in any other case in which the dependency of persons forces us into unwanted commitments (e.g., fathers forced to support their children financially when they don't want to do so). From that perspective, there is no ground at this point on which to treat the cases as different, and from that perspective the bare fact of its being unwanted is not even relevant to the question.

What is still relevant on such a view, of course, is whether the circumstances involved in its being unwanted exculpate, excuse, or mitigate in any way. This is, I would suggest, why some pro-life advocates tend to be more sympathetic to Thomson-violinist cases than other pro-choice arguments: they can be read as scenarios in which circumstances introduce features, or are alleged to introduce features, that excuse in part or in whole, and thus in that sense make what would otherwise be 'erogatory' supererogatory. Whereas pro-choice advocates, I take it, tend to read them in the way Benson does here, as saying something about duties themselves rather than about how violations of such duties may be excusable under extraordinary circumstances.

To put it in more technical terms: these scenarios are casuistry, in the old respectable sense; pro-choicers tend to be laxist or probabilist about them, whereas pro-lifers tend not to be. There's considerable diversity among pro-lifers on the subject. Some, and fairly consistently the Catholic Church in particular, will deny that casuistry sheds any light on the subject, since a person's life is in question; others will accept the conscience-cases as genuine, but will tend be probabiliorist or rigorist in judging them. This is the fundamental problem with appeal to intuitions in a debate about this; moral intuitions are casuistical judgments, and while you can sometimes come to the same conclusions from different casuistical standpoints, it is your standpoint that governs how your intuitions will fall on this subject, and that is determined by prior commitments about (e.g.) the seriousness of the subject, what makes it serious, etc.

Aquinas & Immutability

At "The Fire and the Rose" D. W. Congden discusses Thomas Aquinas on immutability:

Perhaps the most telling failure in Thomas’ presentation of divine immutability is the inability of this immutable God to do anything new. Because God is actus purus, there is no conceivable sense in which God can do a new thing. In other words, what’s done is done. God is static and immovable, and no new event can ever occur. This of course is hard to square with the biblical narrative; one has to assume that the experience of newness in relation to God is simply a phenomenological illusion.

But in fact, Aquinas does hold that there is a conceivable sense in which God can do a new thing; because potency or potential can be understood to refer either to active power or potential power, and the latter is the only one that conflicts with immutability. Immutable is not static -- although it's easy enough to see why one might think so, given what the term has come to mean. Immutability is a characteristic distinguishing Creator from creature: things that are mutable are dependent on an extrinsic power. The point of saying that God is immutable is to say that God is not so dependent. This can be seen in a different way (cf. ST 1.9.2). Creatures have a potential for being changed by something else either with regard to their substance and everything depending on them (as in the case of things that naturally go in and out of existence), or with regard to place only (we know of no such things, but Aquinas like most medievals assumed that celestial bodies are such), or with regard to the different ends they can assume and objects their capabilities can take (as with angels); since all these things can be affected by God, who governs their existence and non-existence, all these creatures are mutable with respect to the divine power. But God is subject to no other power in any of these ways: He doesn't go in and out of existence; He doesn't move from place to place; and no one can determine His ends and objects for Him. And since that's exhaustive, God is immutable. But this is an affirmation not of any inability but of a power that has no weakness. Somewhere, I forget where at the moment, Aquinas says that immutability is the strength of God.* And this pretty much sums up Aquinas's view: to say that God is immutable is to say that nothing else is stronger or more powerful than He is in any way; He can do as He wills, and nothing else has the force to turn Him or change Him or make Him undergo anything; neither His essence nor His action admit of any weakness.

* It seems to be Gilby's translation of ST 1-2.61.5. It's a bit loose, since what Thomas strictly says is that God's fortitude is His immutability. But it's not far off, either, since the point is that what we call fortitude is expressed with complete perfection in divine immutability. So if you want to understand what Thomas has in mind when he talks about immutability, a good way to do it is to start with the virtue of fortitude and to think of what's involved in a fortitude that can never fail. In Thomas's view (ST 1.50.5 ad 1) immutability goes with fullness of life and immortality, while mutability is a sort of subjection to death.

The Case of the Mysterious Maxim of the Prophetic Professor Tytler

There's some chain-letter-type e-mail going around that caught my interest because it involves a reference to the Scottish Enlightenment. The e-mail begins:

About the time our original thirteen states adopted their new constitution in 1787, Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years earlier:

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government.

"A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.

"From that moment on, the majority always vote for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.

"The average age of the world's greatest civilizations have been about 200 years;

"During those 200 years, those nations always progressed through the following sequence:
1. from bondage to spiritual faith;
2. from spiritual faith to great courage;
3. from courage to liberty;
4. from liberty to abundance;
5. from abundance to complacency;
6. from complacency to apathy;
7. from apathy to dependence;
8. From dependence back into bondage"

And goes on to other things. It is incorrect. But the misinformation doesn't appear to be wholly intentional. There was no Alexander Tyler at Edinburgh at that time. However, there was an Alexander Fraser Tytler, more formally known as Lord Woodhouselee, who was a historian; and earlier forms of the attribution do quite explicitly assign it to him. The quotation in question is not in any of his works, however.

It turns out that no one knows who originally said it. Loren Collins has done some research into the provenance of this quotation; apparently the first person known for sure to have attributed the first part of the quote to Woodhouselee was Ronald Reagan. It's a mystery where he got the attribution from; prior to Reagan, the quotation is attributed to the Usual Suspects, people like Macauley and Alexis de Tocqueville, who tend to be assigned quotations of unknown origin. Since Tytler is certainly not one of the Usual Suspects, and since he was certainly a real person, Reagan couldn't have just pulled his name out of thin air.

And in fact, if you read what Woodhouselee says about Athenian democracy in his Universal History, the mystery thickens. He's very critical of the notion of democratic government; he thinks that pure democracies don't exist (which is not really very controversial), that in mixed democracies the sovereignty of the people is simple illusory (which is a bit more controversial), that the Montesquieu-style claim that virtue is the principle of democratic government is mere utopianism, that the idea that men in a democracy love equality is blatantly false, that the reason you find such notable extraordinary examples of patriotic virtue under democratic governments is that such governments impede virtue (so any virtue that can be noticed will have to be extraordinary), and so forth. So although Woodhouselee does not appear to have ever said the first half of the quote (from "A democracy..." to "...a dictatorship") it's not a wholly implausible thing to attribute to him. (The second half appears to be a completely different quotation spliced onto the first quotation.) But it appears that this means that someone at some point who had read Woodhouselee's Universal History would have had to misattribute a quotation to him that was already floating around. That's an odd thing to happen.

An interesting, and as yet unresolved puzzle. In any case, thanks to the Internet Archive, you can read some of Alexander Fraser Tytler's works online. He's a resource for understanding the Scottish Enlightenment because he wrote a biography of Lord Kames, whom he had known personally; Kames, also called Henry Home, was a major player in the Scottish Enlightenment, as were his cousins John Home and David Hume.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Quand les hommes vivront d'amour

This is probably my favorite song in French. Roughly translated:

When men live in love,
there will be no more misery;
the beautiful days will begin.
But we, we will be dead, my brother.

When men live in love,
there will be peace on earth;
soldiers will be troubadors,
but we, we will be dead, my brother.

In the great chain of life,
where we had to pass,
where we had to exist,
we shall have had the hard part.

But when men live in love,
so that there will be no more misery,
perhaps they will think one day
of us who will be dead, my brother,

we who have in hard days,
in hate and then in war,
sought the peace, sought the love,
that they will then know, my brother.

In the great chain of life,
that there may be a better time
there must always be some losers;
for wisdom down here, that's the price.

When men live in love,
there will be no more misery;
the beautiful days will begin.
But we, we will be dead, my brother.

Sad songs are the best songs.

Baxter on Love

The Anglicans remember Richard Baxter, the greatest of the Protestant casuist theologians, today; so here's a taste of Baxter:

Love is nothing but the prime motion of the will to its proper object; which is called complacence: the object of it is simple goodness, or good as such it ariseth from suitableness between the object and the will, as, appetite doth from the suitableness of the desired fancy and food. This good, as it is variously modified, or any way differeth, doth accordingly cause or require a difference in our love therefore that love which in its prime net and nature is but one, is diversely denominated, as its objects are diversified. To an object as simply good, in itself, it followeth the understanding's estimation, and is called, as I said, mere complacence or attachment: to an object as not yet attained, but absent, or distant, and attainable, it is called desire or desiring love: and as expected, hope, or hoping love (which is a conjunction of desire and expectation): to an object nearest and attained, it is called fruition, or delight, or delighting love: to an object which by means must be attained, it is called seeking love, as it exciteth to the use of those means: and to an object missed it is, by accident, mourning love. But still love itself in its essential act is one and the same. As it respecteth an object which wanteth something to make it perfect, and desireth the supply of that want, it is called love of benevolence; denominated from this occasion, as it desireth to do good to him that is loved. And it is a love of the same nature which we exercise towards God, who needeth nothing, as we rejoice in that perfection and happiness which he hath; though it he not to be called properly by the same name. Goodness being the true object of love, is the true measure of it; and therefore God, as infinitely and primitively good, is the prime and only simple object of our absolute, total love. And therefore those who understand no goodness in any being, but as profitable to them, or to some other creature, do know no God, nor love God as God, nor have any love but selfish and idolatrous. By this you may perceive the nature of love.

From the Cases and Directions for Loving our Neighbour as Ourselves.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Coyne on Brownback

This article by Jerry Coyne has been going around; it's in response to Senator Brownback's recent op-ed clarifying what he meant when he raised his hand to indicate he didn't believe in evolution. It's well-written, but the reasoning in the article is extraordinarily uneven; in parts it is very tight and careful, and in parts it begins to get sloppy. It seems to me that this is a standing problem with this topic. Here, for instance, is a part that I think gets sloppy:

Senator Brownback, along with his two dissenting colleagues, really should be forced to answer a rather more embarrassing question: who is responsible for their being so misinformed? Where did they learn the so-called "problems" with evolution: at their mothers' knees, or in Sunday school? Or perhaps from reading books; and, if so, what books, and who recommended them? Doesn't a public servant have a responsibility to stay informed across a wide spectrum of topics and issues?

No doubt public servants do; but it will never be the case that laypersons can avoid being misinformed about a technical field like evolutionary biology. Not being evolutionary biologists, they will have a difficult time filtering out good and bad information; not being evolutionary biologists, they will have a difficult time avoiding the importation of their own misunderstandings into the explanations they receive from evolutionary biologists. Coyne insists, as I think rightly, that Brownback has a "fundamental misunderstanding" of evolutionary biologist; but throughout he regularly makes the mistake evolutionary biologists tend to make in this area, namely, of treating "misunderstanding" as the problem feature. In fact, it is "fundamental" that is the issue; and Coyne's article, which begins making a decent argument of this sort, fails to come through, quickly meandering off into vague generalities about how embarrassing and dangerous it is for public servants to misunderstand scientific matters, and even more vague and poorly-supported claims about the relation between 'faith' and 'science'.

Moreover, Coyne completely misses a feature that is glaringly obvious in Brownback's actual comments, namely, that the term 'faith' here is being used to indicate, in Brownback's own words, "an understanding of values, meaning and purpose"; that is, he means a moral view of the world. As I have noted many times before, this in fact appears to be the core of the whole problem. The reason so many decent Americans oppose evolution is that they are decent, or at least try to be so, and they have gotten it into their heads that evolutionary theory is associated with the breakdown of decency -- that it takes away the foundations of moral life. And a perpetual problem in this dispute is the tendency of people like Jerry Coyne to get so carried away with their own righteous indignation that they fail to address this point entirely, even though it is both the most important and the most straightforward cause of contention in the whole mess. And this is a very sloppy thing to do. Evolutionary biology deserves a more rational defense than it here receives, one that carefully weighs the actual claims in order to show them, and deal with them, in their true light. It can be done. This article, while it has parts that show a great deal of potential in this direction, just fails utterly to fulfill that potential, and drags it in places down to a rant that simply shows a failure to understand where the rational high ground is to be found.

A Poem Draft

'The cranes of Ibycus' is a proverbial expression suggesting the uncovering of a dark deed through divine intervention; the 'Ibycus' of the story is a famous Greek lyric poet. Schiller has a poem that lays the tale out; you can find it here in an anonymous 1902 translation. I make no claim that the translation captures Schiller's original poetry in any significant way; only that it does get the story about right. You can also read the story in Bulfinch's prose version.

The Cranes of Ibycus

Can blood-guilt scream to heaven, its cry unsated?
And can the gods be blind to living law?
Can murderers find solace by forgetting?
Has memory no more its tooth and claw?

Say no! The gods are watchful and most wary,
but step by step the deserving march to doom,
and in the sky, be it sun-bright or starry,
Nemesis will soar and Sekhmet's shadow loom.

And the cranes that fly so far in gentle peace
will bring to mind the murder that is done;
whatever form they take, what shape they wist,
they recall the darkness to the darkened one.

When deed is done, the sinner shuns the sky
for there the ruthless cranes on wings of judgment fly;
but though he cry for the mountains to hide his head,
the cranes still bear sure vengeance for the dead.

Bits and Pieces

* Something new about Augustine that I learned from Stephen Carlson: St. Augustine quotes the Gospel of Thomas. An opponent quotes it in an argument to the effect that the Old Testament is evil, and Augustine dismisses the saying as being derived from some unknown apocryphal text. The Augustinian work in question, the Contra Adversarium Legis et Prophetae, is one I don't know well at all. Does anyone know the state of scholarship about it?

* Something else I recently learned about St. Augustine: He has a MySpace page. It was put up in his behalf by a group of Augustinian monks. Starting August 28th (his feast day), St. Augustine will start blogging his Confessions. People are already pretty enthusiastic about it. It actually says something about the unlocked potential of MySpace, which has for the most part been seen as (with the exception of musicians, who have managed to thrive there) the slums of the blogosphere. But there's much more there than meets the eye, and it's interesting that a fifth century bishop is hip enough to engender some interest.

* A very odd map morphing Tolkien's Middle-Earth onto (prehistoric?) Europe.

* John Haldane discusses the the role of philosophy in the search for meaning. Haldane is a Thomist and analytic philosopher at the University of St. Andrews.


* John Wilkins critiques the Species entry of the SEP, and says some interesting things in the process.

* Since today is the Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua, it seems fitting to link back to the most famous St. Anthony legend, Saint Anthony and the Fishes.

* The abortion debate is always frustrating for everyone; but both sides might consider remembering that some people hold worse views than one's primary opponents do:

The abortion debate, on the whole, is between the Pro-Life and the Pro-Choice lobbies. Benatar holds a candle for the Pro-Death view. He thinks that any woman needs 'excellent reasons' not to abort her child.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Philosophers are always complaining that other people's remarks are not clear when what they mean is that they are unwelcome. So they often cultivate the art of not understanding things -- something which British analytic philosophers are particularly good at.

This is from Mary Midgley's The Owl of Minerva (p. 13), her philosophical autobiography. Richard Dawkins has a grudge against her because she has attacked his writings in a way he considers "intemperate and vicious". She was just being Mary Midgley -- "pathologically truthful" is the label she herself uses for it; except when she is angry, she tries to be fair, but she never pulls her punches. Her beef with Dawkins is that she thinks he too often tries to get by on rhetoric rather than substantial argument, and a muddled rhetoric at that. The Midgley style is not always the right way to go, and perhaps not usually, but there's a sort of charm to it when it's not directed at you, which makes her autobiography quite a delightful read, particularly as she shows restraint. One of the things I particularly liked about it was that she brings out very clearly just how much of a disruption the Second World War caused for the profession of philosophy. It changed academia completely, partly by forcing it to be much more diverse. I don't think we usually quite understand how much the tone and tenor of academic life depends wholly on external factors.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Guide to the Argument of Hume's Dialogues, Part VIII

Previous Post

Previously, Philo attacked Cleanthes's analogical design argument by proposing a set of alternative analogies that suggest that Cleanthes's argument does not result in a cause whose nature is clearly a human-like mind in the way Cleanthes suggests. Cleanthes replies to this that Philo's analogies are merely imaginative fancies that "may puzzle, but never convince us." In doing so he is actually being clever, since it is a weakness of Philo's skepticism that according to it we should follow (non-dogmatically) the inference that has the greatest natural force, as Cleanthes knows well. When Cleanthes made this move before, Philo was confounded.

But Philo is not playing quite the same game as he was before, since he has moved from rejecting the analogy to rejecting Cleanthes's certainty about the sort of conclusion the analogy allows. Thus Philo is able this time to come back with an answer. The response would be cogent in matters of every day life, since usually in every day life, we find one supposition to have some sort of probability, and the others, at least to a man of sound judgment, can be seen to be sophistical. But in this instance, it is not so:

But in such questions as the present, a hundred contradictory views may preserve a kind of imperfect analogy; and invention has here full scope to exert itself. Without any great effort of thought, I believe that I could, in an instant, propose other systems of cosmogony, which would have some faint appearance of truth, though it is a thousand, a million to one, if either yours or any one of mine be the true system.

Note that Philo is not rejecting the analogy; he is pointing out that there are "a hundred contradictory views" that preserve some imperfect analogy; and, of course, Cleanthes has no way to weed them out. Philo has already given some cosmogonies with an imperfect analogy; but there are others, and to prove it he gives an example of yet one more, the 'Epicurean' or atomist hypothesis.

This, Philo concedes, is commonly (and he says, justly) regarded as absurd; but, he insists, even it can be given some sort of verisimilitude:

Instead of supposing matter infinite, as Epicurus did, let us suppose it finite. A finite number of particles is only susceptible of finite transpositions: and it must happen, in an eternal duration, that every possible order or position must be tried an infinite number of times. This world, therefore, with all its events, even the most minute, has before been produced and destroyed, and will again be produced and destroyed, without any bounds and limitations. No one, who has a conception of the powers of infinite, in comparison of finite, will ever scruple this determination.

Demea jumps in here to object that this assumes that motion can begin in matter without a voluntary agent. Philo notes in response that we already recognize cases (like gravity and electricity) where some sort of motion begins in matter where there is no obvious voluntary agent. To be sure, one could hypothesize that there is one, but there isn't much reason to do so. "The beginning of motion in matter itself is as conceivable a priori as its communication from mind and intelligence." Further, why couldn't motion have been conserved in matter from all eternity? This can get some appearance of probability, since it is conformable to human experience: matter has been in motion for as long as we've been around to experience it.

This leads Philo to suggest yet another hypothesis of cosmogony. In the world as we know it, matter undergoes a perpetual agitation of motion, but also preserves a constancy in the forms of things (things aren't continually dissolving from the agitation). We know, then, that continual motion of matter can produce, in finite steps, the world as we know it; and yet it can also preserve constancy in the forms of things. However, any world combining these two features, perpetual motion and constant form, will have the appearance of design. Sometimes things in this world will break down; but the 'corrupted matter', i.e., the remains will continue to undergo motion until it reaches a state in which it can survive for a while in constant form. The whole world can degenerate in this way; but if matter keeps churning, it will eventually churn itself until some forms come about by accident that are so composed that they can survive, and off we go again.

If we suppose, then, that the universe was thrown into a particular position by a " blind, unguided force". If it just did this once, the result would still be chaos. But if the "actuating force, whatever it be" continues to throw things in different positions, through all possible positions. Then we'd have order arising, even if in all probability it would be gone the next moment. But if it goes on long enough, there just might be a streak in which things maintain a general uniformity of appearance while nonetheless continually undergoing motion. And if this occurred, it, too, would account for the apparent design of the universe.

Thus, says Philo, in vain do we emphasize so much the apparent design of animals; animals that weren't apparently designed couldn't survive. We know, in fact, that if you start messing with the adjustment of parts in an animal, it dies. Likewise, it is in vain to emphasize the apparent design of the world, since a world that weren't apparently designed wouldn't exist, at least as a subsisting order. This, regardless of whether it is actually designed or not.

Cleanthes is unimpressed, and says that it's good that it was clearly a hypothesis suggested on the spur of the moment. If the world came about in this way, so that the subsisting order existed only because everything shifted about until an order capable of sustaining itself was hit upon by chance, we wouldn't have an explanation of how good the order of the world is. We'd expect a sort of minimal sort of subsisting order, not the elaborate functionality and suitability to human use that we find. The world would not have dissolved if human beings had not been able to domesticate animals; but the world has animals able to be domesticated. The world would not have dissolved if we only had one eye instead of two; but the usefulness of two for us is pretty clear. And we can think of extraordinarily many things of this sort; "any one of them is a sufficient proof of design, and of a benevolent design, which gave rise to the order and arrangement of the universe".

It is a subtle shift in the argument, but a major one. Cleanthes has gone beyond the mere fact of order, and asserted a special type of order -- an order suggestive of benevolent design. No doubt this is why he thinks the one and only argument on the subject he allows to be good is sufficient for religion. It is this that he is effectively proposing as a way for weeding out alternative suppositions.

Philo concedes that Cleanthes's reasoning is a good reason to think that his suggested alternative supposition is incomplete and imperfect; but this, he suggests, will always be the case with cosmogonies, even with Cleanthes's. In our own experience, for instance, ideas originally derive from material objects, thought from bodies; but Cleanthes reverses this order. Thus the proper conclusion is that we should be very careful about condemning each other on this subject, since all we have to go on are slight analogies. And this paves the way for the skeptic again, not to deny that the analogies exist or that hypotheses can legitimately be formed on their basis, but to suspend judgment about which of these hypotheses is the true one.

Here, at the end of Part VIII we have reached the end of Philo's reversing fortune. At the end of Part III, he was confounded; by his own principles, given the particular form of attack he chose, Cleanthes had forced him into a corner in which he had to admit Cleanthes' position. However, inspired by Demea, Philo changed his course of attack, and now has rebuilt a full skepticism of the sort he espouses. The skepticism is a subtle one. It's not that he thinks we can't talk about the subject, or reasonably speculate about it; in fact, we can hypothesize all the systems of cosmogonies we please. Given just how cheaply and easily these hypotheses come, though, we should not embrace any one of them; we should not choose any one of them as our "abiding city," as something we are required to defend. If you wish any brief summary of Philo's standing position in the Dialogues, it is this, read in context.

So Part VIII finishes Philo's successful re-defending of skepticism after the first attempt to defend a skeptical position failed in Part III.

Why, then, are the Dialogues still continuing? The answer is subtle but simple. Recall that I had said previously about the rules of the game and the initial positions. The 'rules' were:

(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.

And the initial positions were:

(6) Cleanthes commits 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.

Philo's play from his original initial position failed, so he switched to Demea's. However, by rule (1) there are actually two games going on. In one game, Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes are playing together, with Philo and Demea in league. But this is a game into which Philo has entered not because he agrees with Demea, but because it is a move in a more fundamental game being played between the two friends, Cleanthes and Philo, of which Demea is not a part. That move has begun to wrap up, although Demea has not yet realized it; and in the next two parts Philo will play a brilliant endgame in which he, by knocking Demea out of the game (sacrificing him as a pawn, one might say), simultaneously builds a trap for Cleanthes.

Peter Moghila on Christian Prudence

Q. 11. What is Christian wisdom or prudence?

R. Christian wisdom is diligent and premeditated consideration, in all knowledge and in every work, that the Lord God and neighbor might not be offended. Christ the Lord teaches of this prudence: "Be therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves." In explaining this, St. Paul speaks thus: "See, therefore, brothers, how you walk circumspectly: not as unwise, but as wise; redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore, become not unwise, but understanding what is the will of God." This Christian prudence is based on sincerity, total propriety and complete good judgment, lest we be deceived by the enemy of our soul and by those that persecute us.

From Part III of St. Peter Moghila's Orthodox Confession of the Church.

Philosophical Ethics

Eric Schwitzgebel puzzles over the following argument:

(1.) Philosophical ethics improves (or selects for) moral reasoning.
(2.) Improved (or professional habits of) moral reasoning tends to lead either to (a.) better moral knowledge, or (at least) (b.) more frequent moral reflection.
(3.) (a) and (b) tend to cause better moral behavior.
Therefore, ethicists will [tend to] behave better than non-ethicists.

But ethicists don't tend to behave better than non-ethicists. So should we jettison (1), (2), or (3)? I'm inclined to think that the question is misleading; what we should jettison is the presupposition required to get from (1) + (2) + (3) to the conclusion: that ethicists do philosophical ethics.

That, of course, is the paradoxical way to put it. What would be slightly more accurate would be to say that most ethicists don't do very much philosophical ethics of the kind that examines 'moral reasoning' of the sort that leads us to expect moral knowledge and/or moral reflection relevant to behavior. As I've pointed out before, when you look at what is usually taught in ethics classes, it doesn't have much to do with practical issues of moral reasoning; what is taught is rather abstract -- speculative reasoning about how best to reason about the normativity involved in moral reasoning (and that moral reasoning itself is often, although fortunately for everyone's sanity, not always, removed from the sort of moral reasoning you'd genuinely find in actual moral life). We can consider it ethics in some sense, and it has its place in moral life, since it gives people some general tools useful for categorizing types of moral reasoning that they may find, either in private life or in the public sphere. But while it has a definite use, it's surely a very limited contribution to actual moral reasoning in practical life. And in ethical research the level of abstraction, and the minuteness of its relevance to actual moral reasoning, is sometimes even worse. We wouldn't expect physicians to be better physicians merely because they know possible types of diagnosis; that has its use, but merely as an instrument for learning and communicating matters of actual medical work and practice. What improves medical reasoning is the teaching of actual medical reasoning, not merely the teaching of some of the elements that make medical reasoning easier to categorize.

So one can really say that 'moral reasoning' is equivocal in the argument; there is a sense in which each of (1), (2), and (3) are true. But it is not the sense in which contemporary ethicists have much to do with moral reasoning.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Liberation from the Zeitgeist

Christianity is the emancipation of the human race from the bondage of that inimical spirit who denies God, and, as far as in him lies, leads all created intelligences astray. Hence the Scripture styles him, "the prince of this world;" and so he was in fact, but in ancient history only, when among all the nations of the earth, and amid the pomp of martial glory, and the splendour of Pagan life, he had established the throne of his domination. Since this divine era in the history of man, since the commencement of his emancipation in modern times, this spirit can no longer be called the prince of this world, but the spirit of time, the spirit opposed to divine influence, and to the Christian religion, apparent in those who consider and estimate time and all things temporal, not by the law and feeling of eternity, but for temporal interests, or from temporal motives, change, or undervalue it, and forget the thoughts and faith of eternity.

Friedrich von Schlegel, The Philosophy of History, James Baron Robertson, tr. Bohn (London: 1846) pp. 474-475.

A Deep Abyss

John of Ad Orientem quoted a striking passage from St. Theophan in the comments of a recent discussion in the blogosphere that has not drawn out the best in people; I liked it well enough that I thought I'd post it here:

Even if a person’s sin is not only obvious, but very grievous and comes from a hardened and unrepentant heart, do not condemn him, but raise your eyes to the wondrous and incomprehensible judgments of God; then you will see that many people, formerly full of iniquity, later repented and reached a high degree of sanctity, and that, on the other hand, others, who were on a high level of perfection, fell into a deep abyss. Take care, lest you also suffer this calamity through judging others.