Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Poem by Keble

Today, if I am not mistaken, the Anglicans remember John Keble, Victorian poet and author of The Christian Year. Here's a poem by Keble that's not in The Christian Year, being taken from Lyra Innocentium, a collection of his children's verse.


" He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much."

Seest thou yon woodland child,
How amid flowerets wild,
Wilder himself, he plies his pleasure-task ?
That ring of fragrant ground,
With its low woodbine bound
He claims: no more, as yet, his little heart need ask.

There learns he flower and weed
To sort with careful heed:
He waits not for the weary noontide hour.
There with the soft night air
Comes his refreshing care:
Each tiny leaf looks up, and thanks him for the shower.

Thus faithful found awhile,
He wins the joyous smile
Of friend or parent ; glad and bright is he,
When for his garland gay
He hears the kind voice say,
"Well hast thou wrought, dear boy : the garden thine shall be."

And when long years are flown,
And the proud word, Mine Own,
Familiar sounds, what joy in field or bower
To view by Memory's aid
Again that garden glade,
And muse on all the lore there learned in each bright hour!

Is not a life well-spent
A child's play-garden, lent
For Heaven's high trust to train young heart and limb?
When in yon field on high
Our hard-won powers we try,
Will no mild tones of earth blend with the adoring hymn?

O fragrant, sure, will prove
The breath of patient Love,
Even from these fading sweets by Memory cast,
As deepening evermore
To Him our song we pour,
Who lent us Earth, that he might give us Heaven at last.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Links and Notes

* Currently reading: Jon Miller, "Spinoza and the a priori" Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 34 (December 2004). (Can be found on Miller's website here.)

* Zuska has recently pointed out (here and here) a study that got a lot of attention in the media that drew general conclusions about both men and women even though it was based entirely on a study of men. As I've noted previously (and it is hardly a point original to me), this is precisely the type of case that shows how important it is to take seriously feminist examination of scientific practice. We know that men and women often have different results due to different physiology and development; we know that we can't automatically assume that a generalization about one sex applies to the other, since we've often been surprised by unexpected differences before; and yet people still think they can get away with generalizations from men to women (although almost no one generalizes in the opposite direction!). Perhaps the conclusions really are generalizable, perhaps they're not. We have no way of knowing until women are actually studied.

* My favorite country song, by a long shot, is "Please Come to Boston." This is the best version of it currently on YouTube.

* Arthur Brooks discusses the four major things that tend to be associated most closely with generous charitable giving: religion, skepticism about government's role in economic life, working for a living, and highly integrated families. (ht)

* Very excited: The SEP entry on Pierre Duhem, by Roger Ariew, is up.

* Koons reviews Rescher's book on presumptive reasoning.

* Doug Marlette, the cartoonist behind Kudzu, recently died at age 57 in an automobile accident. Marlette was also a Pulitzer-prize-winning (and often very controversial) editorial cartoonist. The Comics Curmudgeon, the blogosphere's snarky comics connoisseur, comments.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Faith and Fiction

L. E. Modesitt, Jr. on why people look down on science fiction and fantasy:

The problem isn't that of a "literary" establishment, but the fact that any culture is composed almost universally of individuals whose thought processes and preconceptions are tethered to the present reality in which they live. That present reality is the basis of their preconceptions. Some can speculate slightly beyond the here and now. An even smaller number is comfortable in reading farther beyond the "now." But... the farther one goes from the comfortable here and now, the fewer individuals there are who will make that leap, and even fewer who are comfortable with it. Even in the theoretically more open society of the United States, there are tens of millions of people who cannot conceive of, let alone accept, any sort of domestic arrangement besides a two-partner paternalistic, heterosexual union sanctioned by a religious body. There are possibly more than a hundred million who have no understanding of any theological system except those derived from European Christianity. Effectively, the vast majority of individuals from such backgrounds are self-alienated from science fiction and to a lesser degree from fantasy.

(No permalink, but see here, entry for 6/25/2007.) My thought processes seem a little too tethered to the present reality to follow the leap into that last sentence. But it is refreshing to find religious people criticized for being too reality-based. John C. Wright, the science fiction author, has some sarcastic comments in response. (HT: Claw)


Modesitt responds:

First, please note that I did not say that any and all heterosexuals were close-minded; I said that the majority of those who could not conceive of and accept a wider view of marriage were -- despite the fact that history and culture have consistently demonstrated far more arrangements than the heterosexual model. Second, given that the United States has roughly three hundred million people, tens of millions do not represent a majority, although the polls I've seen indicate that people who reject all forms of marriage except the western heterosexual model indicate well over a hundred million in the USA. Third, I'd like to point out that I did not say that all of the individuals from such backgrounds were self-alienated; I said that a majority were. In that, the numbers don't lie, because, compared to any segment of the population, F&SF readers comprise a very small percentage. Therefore, my point about the majority of individuals from such backgrounds being self-alienated from the field stands.

Since the point doesn't follow from anything he stated, it really doesn't. The "numbers don't lie" bit doesn't advance the argument, as far as I can see; on the same grounds you could claim self-alienation from just about anything: courtroom dramas, speculative theology, weblogs, romance novels, Jane Austen, etc., etc. So if taken seriously it simply reduces the whole long paragraph to the claim that the reason lots of people don't read science fiction is that lots of people don't have much temperamental inclination to it; and this is true (largely) regardless of background. The implicature, however, was that the background was an explanatory factor in the self-alienation from F&SF, and that the lack of imagination noted was a species in the same genus as the lack of imagination for appreciating F&SF; otherwise it would have been irrelevant to bring it up. Thus it is also irrelevant that he hedged only by claiming a "vast majority" rather than everyone, because what he wrote sugggests a causal link between the background and the self-alienation and that was what stirred the hornets' nest.

(For a much more reasonably stated argument for the explanation of why people don't read SF than anything Modesitt has given, see here. The sides of the brain part is a bit silly, but other than that it makes some excellent points. As Pinchefsky points out, things are not so simple as we tend to assume, since there are arguably lots of factors.)

Modesitt goes on to say:

You can also misread what I wrote and tell others. That also happens, more than I or any other writer would like, but it's part of being an author.

What bothers me about all of this is simple. I'm an author. I love words and strive to use them clearly and effectively, and so does every other author I know. Usually we succeed. Sometimes, we don't, but not for lack of trying.

Is it really too much to ask someone to read what we wrote, rather than what they thought we wrote?

This strikes me as simply irresponsible; a writer who is going to use this as a defense should not try to obscure what his original words implicated (even if only unintentionally), as Modesitt does. (Particularly when he goes on immediately to say something that shows that he does not give the Pope the courtesy he demands for himself. The Pope didn't say that Catholicism was the only 'true' Christianity; which would be contrary to Catholic doctrine, as anyone with the slightest familiarity with it knows. The document stated that Christianity subsists in the Catholic Church, where 'subsists' indicates an enduring historical structure in which all the elements of Christianity come together in their proper fullness; these elements can genuinely exist outside that historical structure. It weakens the force of the complaint somewhat when one goes on immediately to do what you were complaining about.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Needle-Finding in Ever Larger Haystacks

Timothy Burke has an excellent post on Charles Stross's science fiction scenario of total historical record. Burke notes that the more information there is the more difficult effective analysis and search are. The needles of relevant information stay as small, but the haystacks of irrelevant information increase exponentially. That we will certainly get a few more needles doesn't really solve the problem. Burke notes it would take extremely sophisticated AI to get a handle on it (and that we cannot assume that such AI is inevitable). I would go farther and say that even that would not do it. What effectively would have to happen for AI to handle it would be that the AI would have to be doing historical work for us -- sorting, analyzing, interpreting, assessing relevance, evaluating data, creating an adequate and suitable topography of the evidence. Setting aside the difficulties of building an artificial historian that is actually competent and able to handle quantities of information daily far in excess of anything a human brain can handle in a lifetime, which for a scientifictional scenario I'm willing to concede, there are fundamental problems with saying that our historical work would improve because of it. For one thing, we'd face serious problems of assessment -- obviously, we can't just take the artificial historian's word for it, or we are conceding that human beings have no business doing historical work and should just defer to the program. But we can't handle the infinite piles of tedious detail; even the most thorough historian only skims through it and, with more art than science, grabs what seems best. In Stross's scenario, even with an AI capable of getting a handle on it all, the collapse of history is just as plausible an outcome, and perhaps more so, as the flourishing of it.

(I've been working on and off for a while on sketching out a science fiction story which looks at a similar issue, but with science itself, namely, looking at the question of what happens to society when scientific progress is taken out of our very inefficient human hands and put in the hands of infinitely more efficient and thorough machines. Will it be an era of progress, because of the vastly more effective and reliable scientific work being done, or an era of decline, because none of that progress is human progress? My thought is that in technological terms the progress would be swift and amazing; but since we'd know less and less about the technology we were using, this shows that technological progress is really a poor indicator of scientific progress, despite our tendency to conflate the two. Scientific progress, unlike technological progress, can't be had heteronomously. I think there are similar issues here. In Stross's scenario the technology of history, so to speak -- the evidential access on which it is built -- would skyrocket to mindblowing proportions. But this just shows that evidential access is an instrument for progress in historical scholarship, not that progress itself.)

In fact, however, the building of an artificial historian is not even a reasonable research project; there's no point to it, since it would be an immense amount of effort for relatively little result (as far as anyone's own historical inquiry goes). All we are ever likely to have are tools -- things like search engines and databases. Better search engines are nice, of course; I'll certainly take the best you can get. Ditto with databases. But we shouldn't have any illusions that it introduces a fundamental change; these things are the dishwashers and microwave ovens of historical scholarship. They save time, but not as much as one might have thought; and we just do the same things with them that we did without them. It's wonderful that a historian of medieval science does not always have to go and sit (as Pierre Duhem always did) in a library for hours on end and painstakingly copy Latin manuscripts by hand. But historians of medieval science still do in their own way what Duhem did, and whether they do it as well still depends on things other than technology.

The second, and related, point Burke makes is that total record doesn't actually relieve the problem it is supposed to relieve. The idea, according to Stross, is that "we've acquired bad behvioural habits - because we're used to forgetting things over time". But this would not actually change if the information available for access were to skyrocket, again because the haystack would expand so massively that we would likely be losing track of the needles even more than we do now. You remember that awesome Indiana Jones scene in which the Ark of the Covenant is hidden by being put into a crate which in turn is put into a vast anonymous warehouse filled to the brim with similar crates. What better way to hide it? There are two ways to lose a piece of paper: get rid of it entirely, or put it in a stack of papers so large that you'll never find it again. There's simple forgetting, and there's bureaucratic forgetting, and what Stross is advocating is not remembering but bureaucratic forgetting. Each happening gets recorded, filed, and put away. But so many things are recorded that there's always a danger that things will be as good as forgotten. One of the things that helps us to remember what we do is the fact that we forget the rest. It helps no one at all if storage is increased if our ability to access it is not; so again we are at the point that historical memory cannot be achieved by brute force, by sheer intricacy of record. It can only be had by careful and critical selection.

The third excellent point Burke makes is that even in a manageable total record a veil remains in place. In effect, all that the record gathers is evidence. But what do you do with the evidence? What inferences can you (should you, must you) draw? As he puts it, "Knowing what people do doesn't relieve you of the extraordinary difficulties involved in knowing what it means that they do it." Memory is not mere storage; it is storage, access, interpretation, and synthesis. Just increasing storage doesn't help any.

One point Burke doesn't make that I think should be made is that Stross's scenario faces the same problem that we have with the record now. After all, there was total record of the past, when it occurred. It deteriorated, and began deteriorating as soon as it existed. Historical evidence is simply that total record itself remaining in fragments. All Stross's super-storage really does is increase the shelf-life of the past through a complicated set of back-up systems; it reduces reliance on human memory and transmission of memory alone. But it is still the past in record, and it still will deteriorate, and it still will do so at prodigious speed. The nice thing about it would be that if one part deteriorated we'd have some redundancy to reduce the chances of total loss; and the redundancy can in some cases be made fairly durable. But it cannot be made infinitely so, and some of these systems are less durable than they seem. Two hundred years from now I very much doubt that anything more than a minute selection of the blogosphere will even exist any more, Wayback Machine not withstanding. This minute slice still may be a huge wealth of information -- but most of what exists now will be completely lost. This scenario will not change under any circumstances; we can delay and defer the end, but sooner or later information, like people, begins to die. Perhaps to some extent this counterbalances the other problems; but to the extent it does, the future looks less like Stross's vision and more like business as usual.

A further point that I think worth making is that, even if it all came to fruition, and all the problems with the total record itself avoided, there would be new problems for historians sorting through a total record of a society trying to handle a total record of a society with a total record of a previous society. It all seems rather unstable. But that's just an idea.

Monday, July 09, 2007

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

Previous Post

The end game for this philosophical discussion begins by Demea's re-affirmation of his original worry about the a posteriori character of Cleanthes's argument. In its place he proposes "that simple and sublime argument a priori" as avoiding all the embarrassments into which Cleanthes had been led by Philo at the end of Part VIII. Cleanthes points out that it's pointless to extol the advantages of an argument unless you've shown that it works, so Demea is forced to clarify what he means by the "argument a priori". It is, he says, "the common one":

Whatever exists must have a cause or reason of its existence; it being absolutely impossible for any thing to produce itself, or be the cause of its own existence. In mounting up, therefore, from effects to causes, we must either go on in tracing an infinite succession, without any ultimate cause at all; or must at last have recourse to some ultimate cause, that is necessarily existent: now, that the first supposition is absurd, may be thus proved. In the infinite chain or succession of causes and effects, each single effect is determined to exist by the power and efficacy of that cause which immediately preceded; but the whole eternal chain or succession, taken together, is not determined or caused by any thing; and yet it is evident that it requires a cause or reason, as much as any particular object which begins to exist in time. The question is still reasonable, why this particular succession of causes existed from eternity, and not any other succession, or no succession at all. If there be no necessarily existent being, any supposition which can be formed is equally possible; nor is there any more absurdity in Nothing's having existed from eternity, than there is in that succession of causes which constitutes the universe. What was it, then, which determined Something to exist rather than Nothing, and bestowed being on a particular possibility, exclusive of the rest? External causes, there are supposed to be none. Chance is a word without a meaning. Was it Nothing? But that can never produce any thing. We must, therefore, have recourse to a necessarily existent Being, who carries the REASON of his existence in himself, and who cannot be supposed not to exist, without an express contradiction. There is, consequently, such a Being; that is, there is a Deity.

This argument has given no end of trouble to casual readers of the Dialogues. Demea certainly has not stated it in the clearest form. But there is a particular historical argument in mind here, namely, Clarke's argument in his Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God. This argument was very well known in the period, being widely read and studied; it is usually called the 'a priori argument' (to give just one example). Further, Cleanthes later will quote part of Clarke's argument on a particular point. And if this were not clear enough there are even clear verbal similarities between Demea's argument and Clarke's. Compare Clarke's with Demea's above:

Either there has always existed some one unchangeable and independent being, from which all other beings have received their original; or else there has been an infinite succession of changeable and dependent beings, produced one from another, in an endless progression, without any original 13cause at all. According to this latter supposition, there is nothing in the universe self-existent or necessarily-existing: and, if so, then it was originally equally possible, that from eternity there should never have existed any thing at all, as that there should from eternity have existed a succession of changeable and dependent beings: which being supposed, then, what is it that has from eternity determined such a succession of beings to exist, rather than that from eternity there should never have existed any thing at all? Necessity it was not; because it was equally possible, in this supposition, that they should not have existed at all. Chance is nothing but a mere word, without any signification: And other being it is supposed there was none, to determine the existence of these. Their existence, therefore, was determined by nothing; neither by any necessity in the nature of the things themselves, because it is supposed that none of them are self-existent; nor by any other being, because no other is supposed to exist.

It is very significant that it is not Philo but Cleanthes who responds to this argument. Cleanthes, you will recall, has committed himself to the claim that there is only one legitimate argument for God's existence, his own. It therefore naturally falls to him to argue that Demea's alternative is untenable. He identifies five problems for the Demea-Clarke argument:

(1) Matters of fact cannot be demonstrated at all, much less be proven a priori. Things are demonstrable only if their contrary implies a contradiction; nothing distinctly conceivable implies a contradiction; whatever we conceive of as existing we can conceive of as not existing. Thus there is no being whose existence is strictly demonstrable. Cleanthes is extraordinarily confident of this: "I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it."

(2) The argument claims that God is necessarily existent, and that this means that if we knew His whole nature, we would recognize the impossibility of his not existing. But since we cannot do this with our present faculties, the words 'necessary existence' are, for all practical purposes, meaningless.

(3) Even if this were not so, we could just as easily say that the material universe itself is the necessary being, and explain this necessary existence in the same way.

(4) Causation implies priority in time, and thus it is absurd to ask for the cause of a succession that has nothing prior to it (like an eternal one).

(5) In such a chain, each part is caused by what preceded it, so every part of the chain has a cause. What more could one want? Demea has asked for a cause of the whole, but taking these as a whole is simply an arbitrary act of the mind. If I have a collection of twenty particles, and give a cause for each particle's being in the collection, it would be absurd then to ask for a cause for the whole twenty; you've sufficiently explained it by explaining its parts.

It's somewhat difficult to evaluate how we should take these objections in the whole context of the Dialogues. Hume himself would certainly agree with (1) and (4), and possibly with (5); we don't know where he would stand on (2) and (3). (1) , whether right or wrong, is usually taken as begging the question against Demea and Clarke; (2) and (3) interestingly put Cleanthes in the company of the atheists, since d'Holbach, for instance, makes the same objections to Clarke's argument; (4) requires a view of causation that would be considered controversial; and Clarke, for instance, would have a response to (5). Presumably Hume thinks these are adequate reasons for rejecting Demea's argument, but the discussion is so quick and undeveloped that it hardly makes for a thorough refutation of one of the most popular and closely developed arguments of that era. This puzzling character of the refutation goes with a general puzzle people tend to have about Book IX: most readers read the Dialogues in such a way that they can't help but view Book IX as virtually just thrown into the discussion, not having much to do with its surroundings. I would suggest, however, that this underestimates Hume's skill as a writer.

In particular, I would suggest that Demea is not the primary interest here. While there were defenders of Clarke's argument, most of Hume's contemporaries would not have been convinced by it. They would have agreed, if not with all the details, at least with the general tenor of Cleanthes's dismissal. It is not necessary for Hume to look at the argument in detail. Why does he bring it in at all? There is a twofold literary value in doing so.

First, since Demea has been so wary of the a posteriori character of Cleanthes's argument, considering the a priori argument is a good way to begin preparing for Demea's being knocked out of the 'game'. Up to this point, Philo and Demea have been allies; at this point they begin to diverge, although Demea does not realize it.

Second, and more immediately, Philo himself barely devotes any consideration to Demea's a priori argument. Rather, he uses Demea's argument and Cleanthes's response to it to suggest a line of attack against Cleanthes's a posteriori argument. This, I would suggest, is the primary reason for this apparent detour. Cleanthes is committed to his argument being the only legitimate one for God's existence; but his response to Demea's argument suggests a further problem for his own argument, and Philo's development of this problem provides some subtle indications of how to interpret the position we will find Philo accepting in Part XII.

To see the value of Cleanthes's response for Philo, let's look more closely at Philo's argument. We find in mathematics a number of examples of wonderful regularity. For instance, every product of 9 is such that by adding the digits of that number you can get 9. Thus 9 x 2 is 18, and 1 + 8 is 9; 9 x 3 is 27, and 2 + 7 is 9. And so forth. A naive discoverer of this fact might assign it to chance or to design; but a mathematician can show it to be necessary. Thus, says Philo,

Is it not probable, I ask, that the whole economy of the universe is conducted by a like necessity, though no human algebra can furnish a key which solves the difficulty? And instead of admiring the order of natural beings, may it not happen, that, could we penetrate into the intimate nature of bodies, we should clearly see why it was absolutely impossible they could ever admit of any other disposition? So dangerous is it to introduce this idea of necessity into the present question! and so naturally does it afford an inference directly opposite to the religious hypothesis!

Note that Philo's argument doesn't really affect Demea, whose argument does not depend on the economy of the universe or the order of natural beings; it does, however, affect Cleanthes. If Cleanthes can respond to Demea's argument that matter might be the necessary being explaining why there is something rather than nothing, so too can somebody suggest that matter might be such that the design Cleanthes attributes to matter might well be due to necessity and not a designer. While Cleanthes rejects the coherence of the notion of necessary existence, this doesn't affect the notion of necessary order -- we have examples of necessary order in mathematics, for instance.

This, I would suggest, is important for understanding Philo's supposed concession to Cleanthes in Part XII. But for the moment Philo drops the subject, and simply goes on to note that most people don't find the a priori argument very convincing. This will allow Demea at the beginning of Part X to give Philo a starting point for both driving the argument to a point Demea cannot accept, and building a massive argument against Cleanthes, who had in Part VIII fatally committed his argument to certain claims about how good the order of nature is.

Testimonial Injustice

Testimony lies at the intersection of epistemology and ethics, and it is clear why this must be so. To evaluate testimony as credible involves evaluating the source of testimony, the person giving it, as credible, at least for the particular purposes in question. Thus acceptance of testimony involves evaluation of the testifier's character. And any evaluation of a testifier's character is capable of being just or unjust.

Thus there arises the problem of testimonial injustice, which occurs when our evaluation of testimony involves injustice against the testifier. A fairly straightforward example is when a black man's testimony is given less weight than a white man's testimony simply because he is black. Such an evaluation of testimony involves injustice against the black man, because it involves disrespecting him as a collaborator in the search for truth. Cases like this has led some people to conclude that testimonial injustice can only exist where there is a pre-existing stereotype or prejudice, but I think this is false for the same reason it is false that other forms of injustice require a pre-existing stereotype. These spur-of-the-moment lapses in justice (e.g., due to one's mood at the time) are still injustices, and it is clear that, for instance, anger at the way someone has expressed his testimony can lead to unjust discounting of his credibility as a testifier in this case, involving the same sort of disrespect for them as a rational creature like oneself.

Thus testimonial injustice provides a fascinating example of the way justice is relevant to the pursuit of knowledge.

Miranda Fricker had an interesting interview on the subject of testimonial injustice not long ago. OUP allows you to look at the introduction (PDF) to her recent book on the subject, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing; she has an interesting discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird from this angle.

The Jesuit Scientist, Hell

John Wilkins points to an article describing a Catholic school in Australia tried to refuse to enroll a child because his last name was Hell. It's very unfortunate. It's also a sign at how ignorant Catholics often are of their heritage, because no one could do such a thing who had ever heard of Father Maximilian Hell, S.J.

Father Hell was one of the greatest astronomers of the eighteenth century; as astronomical knowledge has advanced it has repeatedly shown Hell to have been extraordinarily careful and accurate in his investigation of the sky. One of his major scientific endeavors was a scientific expedition into the Arctic Circle in order to track the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769, in one of the earliest examples of major international scientific cooperation. While there Father Hell and his team began collecting mineralogical and biological data for an encyclopedia devoted to the arctic regions.

However, after this point, Hell began to undergo a series of trials. The first was a dispute with the French Academy over the reporting of his results. Because of Hell's reputation for accuracy, people from all over Europe tried to get his results, but since Hell had been sponsored by the Danish king, he felt he had an obligation to report his results to his Danish sponsor before doing so to anyone else. This led to a publication delay, and the French Academy, somewhat angered by the perceived slight, accused Hell of altering his data in order to make his results closer to results achieved by others. When he published his work, this insinuation died down, but it arose again posthumously when Hell's successor at the Vienna Observatory, Littrow, raised it again on the basis of Hell's manuscripts. Scholarship since then has shown that Littrow was certainly wrong, but for a very long time Hell labored under the suspicion of plagiarism and manipulation of data. He has long since been vindicated, and it has been shown that Hell's original reputation for accuracy was quite right: his results were far and away more accurate than anyone else's at the time.

Unfortunately for Hell, the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1773, which massively disrupted his scientific work. It is for this reason, for instance, that his encyclopedia on the arctic never materialized.

Hell had an interest in magnetism, and one of his projects in 1769 was an investigation of geomagnetism. This is a good summary (PDF) of Hell's work on this subject. It makes for very good reading. Here are photographs of Hell's manuscripts (PDF, large file).

He has a crater on the moon named after him. The name, Hell, of course, which has become the subject of endless jokes (and endless delightful claims like, "Unfortunately for Hell, the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1773"), just means 'bright', and could also be spelled Høll.


If you want to know where Hell Crater is, you can look here. The large flat plain is Mare Nubium; to its southeast is a large basin called the Deslandres basin. In the western part of the Deslandres basin is a fairly large, fairly circular crater with well-pronounced sides -- that's Crater Hell. (You can roll the cursor over it to check that you have it right.)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Links upon Links

* The Rambo IV trailer. It's a rather curious approach to the franchise.

* Jimmy Akin comments on the recent motu proprio restoring the Latin mass as a standard use.

* Sean Aqui notes Madison's solution to abuses of the pardoning power: impeachment.

* Whether naps are necessary for salvation.

* Daniel Mahoney reviews Vaclav Havel's To the Castle and Back.

* The New Criterion is having a roundtable discussion on the meaning of suffering.

* Michael Gerson argues that Second Life embodies a form of nihilism at Jewish World Review.

* Daniel Larison defends Hegel from the charge of being proto-totalitarian: I, II, III. ADDED LATER: IV.

* Johnny-Dee discusses Johnny Cash and eudaimonia at "Right Reason".

* Patrick Poole lists some of the many conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the world.


* Miriam suggests Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy as a text for a critical thinking course. You can find a copy of it online and judge for yourself.

More Than Meets the Eye

* At "Gene Expression" Razib reflects on the return of Optimus Prime. In doing so, he says:

The "moralism" in Transformers is metaphorically cartoonish, the Decepticons are unfathomably malevolent while the Autobots led by Optimus Prime are motivated by an ethical compass which is broadly reflective of the "best in our natures." The saintliness of the Autobots has practical consequences insofar as it handicaps them in making Machiavellian choices to arrive at victory. The Autobots must sacrifice to defeat their enemies. The Deceptions have at their disposal the full sample space of options; by any means necessary is their motto, though their aims are often as inscrutable as those of the Autobots are clear.

I don't think this is quite right. The moralism in Transformers has almost always been primarily political, which is why (for instance) uneasy alliances between Autobots and Decepticons have been fairly common, something that can't occur in a genuine black-and-white morality war. It's also not particularly right to put sacrifice on the side of the Autobots alone; after all, the Decepticons have sacrificed as much in the war as the Autobots have. While Megatron has usually been protrayed as keeping his aims to himself, he has also been fairly consistently portrayed as aiming at the glory of Cybertron and its civilization. He just thinks that this aim can only properly be fulfilled by his leadership. And this is where the fundamental difference between Optimus Prime and Megatron arises: Optimus Prime, as the good domestic leader he is, defers private good to the good of the whole, whereas Megatron, the usurping military mastermind, recognizes no good of the whole inconsistent with his private good. Thus Optimus sets the tone for a very particular form of political self-sacrifice that Megatron does not, and the difference in the leaders carries over to the groups they lead. The Decepticons are not incarnations of evil; they are usurpers and traitors, willing to trample on rights in order to get the consequences they deem fit. The Autobots are not saintly (they are often, in fact, rather foolish and sometimes petty); they are patriots and defenders of the rule of law. And their interactions with us are extensions of this: the Decepticons come as usurpers, the Autobots as defenders of our autonomy.

* "Sci Fi Catholic" has a very critical review of the Transformers movie:

I have a lot of things to say about the movie, but through it all, keep in mind that the film's real, ultimate message is that you need a 2008 Chevy Camaro so that hot girl will make out with you on the hood.

Sounds reasonable enough to me; where I'm from it would just be considered bad manners to make out with a hot girl on the hood of a Camaro that's not yours....

In any case, it's interesting that the thing objected to most is Steven Spielberg's premise for the movie, since it seems to have been Spielberg who pushed for the teenage-boy-and-his-car theme (Michael Bay was originally looking to do a family film).

* "SF Gospel" also has a critical comment, but goes on to discuss Philip K. Dick.

* "The Knight Shift" has a very positive review.

* One thing you may not know about the movie is that there was a contest in which people could submit possible lines of dialogue for Optimus Prime; one line was chosen from these submissions ("Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.")

Moderation and Reform

Irshad Manji has a typically thoughtful discussion of 'Islamic extremism' at The New Republic. In it she makes an interesting argument that we shouldn't see the playing field as divided between extremists and moderates but as divided among extremists, moderates, and reformists:

While the vast majority of Muslims aren't extremists, a more important distinction must start being made -- the distinction between moderate Muslims and reform-minded ones.

Moderate Muslims denounce violence in the name of Islam but deny that Islam has anything to do with it. By their denial, moderates abandon the ground of theological interpretation to those with malignant intentions -- effectively telling would-be terrorists that they can get away with abuses of power because mainstream Muslims won't challenge the fanatics with bold, competing interpretations. To do so would be admit that religion is a factor. Moderate Muslims can't go there.

Reform-minded Muslims say it's time to admit that Islam's scripture and history are being exploited. They argue for re-interpretation precisely to put the would-be terrorists on notice that their monopoly is over. Re-interpreting doesn't mean re-writing. It means re-thinking words and practices that already exist -- removing them from a seventh-century tribal time warp and introducing them to a twenty first-century pluralistic context.

I think this is in general quite right, although as usual Manji tends to assume that all reform-minded Muslims will have views more or less like her own, when I think it's pretty clear that most reform-minded Muslims will have views much closer to those of the moderates than to Manji's. I think it is also a little too quick to assume that moderates in general are abandoning the ground of theological interpretation to extremists. We shouldn't underestimate the slow pressure of the quiet millions. The problem with moderation as opposed to reform is speed, since moving slowly is a problem when injustices are involved, as they are here. When something needs to be torn down, reform rather than moderation is needed; the strength of moderation is in building something sure and durable over long decades and centuries, not in changing the things that need to be changed now.