Saturday, October 27, 2007

Chesterton on Journalists

A quotation from Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross, recently quoted at STR:

It is the one great weaknesses of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, "Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe," or "Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet." They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complete picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.


A meme that's currently going back (seen at the LP). Google searches for which I am currently #1:

Lady Mary Shepherd
why God likes bugs
literal figures of speech
Hume on gallantry
Hume's philosophy of good-breeding
moral equivalents
Pascalian apologetics
the grounding objection against Molinism
literal diagrams
Berkeley's Siris
invisible elementary fire
Aquinas on Job
wrathful compassion
excellent maxims to perpetuate confusion

This was actually a pretty easy meme. The above list only took five minutes to make; if I took longer I probably could make it a long list indeed.

Some Philosophical Links

The Philosophers' Carnival is up at The Brooks Blog. This is edition #55.

Kenny has a paper up on the semantics of sense perception in Berkeley.

Richard has a post expressing skepticism about the 'experimental philosophy' movement. I have similar concerns -- the x-phi'ers seem to ignore the importance of rational requirement in much talk about intuitions. My skepticism is aggravated by the fact that I don't see any reason to think that appeal to 'intuition' in philosophical argument is an appeal to one thing in particular, rather than to very different things in different contexts.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Wisdom from Nahapet Kouchak

Birthday Song

On the morning of thy birth
We were glad but thou wert wailing,
See that when thou leav’st the earth
Thou art glad and we bewailing.

Let me speak unto thy heart,--
List if thou hast understanding;
Keep thyself from fools apart,
All their flatteries withstanding.

For the fool, like fire and heat,
Scorcheth everything, and burneth;
But the wise, like water sweet,
Deserts into gardens turneth.

Nahapet Kouchak (died 1592). I assume that the translator is Zabelle Boyajian.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lefkowitz and Hume

Mary Lefkowitz in the LA Times (ht):

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

While the Greek gods do occasionally discuss, and collective decisions do lead to a better outcome, it's not really true that openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology: one could just as easily say that quarrelsomeness is, since the gods are constantly bickering and taking vengeance on each other (usually indirectly, through the lives of mortals). And the Greeks themselves were often more cynical about the gods; Euripides, for instance, suggests in the Hippolytus that the principle of harmony among the gods is not discussion -- neither Aphrodite nor Artemis consult with other gods -- but simply that "no god can go against the fixed purpose of another". And mortals suffer for it, as Hippolytus does, as Artemis promises that Aphrodite's favorite will suffer for it when Artemis gets Aphrodite back. In fact, there is no 'distinguishing feature of Greek theology', unless by 'Greek theology' you mean 'Neoplatonism in the Roman Imperial period'; the rest is discordant tradition and differing views.

In any case, Lefkowitz's argument isn't new; Hume argues the same thing in The Natural History of Religion. But Hume argues that the intolerance of monotheism is connected with reason: monotheism's intolerance is linked with the fact that it grows out of reason, whereas polytheism grows out of sentiment. The more philosophical the Greek pagans became, the more focused on reason, the more their views tended to approximate monotheistic ones. He also notes that the same tolerance that allows polytheism to accommodate other polytheisms allows it to justify any practice or opinion without falling into inconsistency; which is not such an advantage when the practice or opinion is a bad one. And thus he argues that both polytheism and monotheism are bad for morals, not because they are the origin of these moral flaws, but because they both in their own ways aggravate some of these flaws through their practices, although in moral doctrine they offer ideals worthy of respect. As Hume notes:

Hear the verbal protestations of all men: Nothing so certain as their religious tenets. Examine their lives: You will scarcely think that they repose the smallest confidence in them.

It's worth pointing out, incidentally, that both Lefkowitz and Hume, in lauding the tolerance of polytheism, overlook the fact that polytheism has always had difficulty being tolerant of monotheism, precisely because monotheism doesn't play the polytheistic game; and there have been plenty of cases of polytheistic intolerance of monotheism. Likewise, they overlook the fact that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, &c., are not intolerant of each other's monotheism; occasions for intolerance lie elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Personal Stake and Distorting Interest Again

In response to my post on personal stake vs. distorting interest, Pensans wrote:

In reply, I would emphasize that you err in all of your specific legal examples. In actuality, the practices you think impossible are followed routinely.

First, courts hold that the mere personal stake of experts is a relevant ground for doubting the testimony of the expert. This is reflected systematically throughout the law. Under the rules of procedure, judges order expert witnesses to disclose the amount of compensation that they receive. Under the law of evidence, lawyers are free to cross-examine experts on the amount of money that they receive for their service in the current and other cases since it is considered relevant as a ground for doubting their credibility. Before deliberation, juries are routinely instructed to consider the compensation received by experts as affecting their credibility. Most critically, expert witnesses whose compensation is dependent on the outcome of the case are frequently prohibited from testifying entirely. A lawyer who knowingly offers evidence of an expert witness who will be paid money if a litigant is successful will be disciplined. Nothing more is required than the fact of financial interest; no direct evidence of influence is required whatsoever.

Second, with respect to criminal defendants, courts have always recognized that the interest of a criminal defendant in acquittal is grounds to doubt his credibility. Indeed, this was precisely the basis for the common law rule prohibiting them from testifying. While criminal defendants are allowed to testify today in order to afford them every possible means of self-vindication, the U.S. Supreme Court has throughout its whole history upheld the propriety of instructing the jury about the doubt that the defendant’s interest casts on his testimony. See, most recently, Portuondo v. Agard, 529 U.S. 61, 68 (2000)(noting the propriety of ordering the jury to consider “[t]he deep personal interest which [the defendant] may have in the result of the suit” in determining whether to give his testimony any weight. This was true, the Court said despite the fact that the instruction was occasioned only by the sheer personal stake and “did not rely on any specific evidence of actual fabrication for its application.” The Court has defended this rule by noting that when a criminal defendant chooses to testify, then he should be subject to the ordinary rules of credibility that apply to all testifying litigants.

Your final example is not legal, but in determining the credibility of complaints, the usual process would admit both the evidence supporting allegations of racism (the complaints) and evidence that undermines such allegations (inter alia, evidence of interest).

First, it needs to be noted that not one of my examples is specifically legal, or, indeed, legal at all. The first is about experts; the second about a newspaper columnist dismissing someone's claim of innocence because they have a personal stake in the matter; the third about someone hearing about an accusation of police racism. None of these are legal matters. And this is quite as it should be, since the case at hand was not a legal matter, but a claim that we should be suspicious of someone's casual testimony in an interview. Moreover, the claim Pensans had made in the comment, the one to which I was responding, was that as a civilization and in our society, we systematically doubt the testimony of interested persons. And this certainly cannot be established by legal examples alone, particularly given that the instance to which it was applied here was not a legal example.

But let's take the legal cases. With regard to the response to the first example, the original example did not say anything about compensation; the personal stake involved was reputation and career in the larger professional community. So the response really doesn't tell us anything about the matter. In any case, being paid for testimony is not a "mere personal stake"; it's potential evidence for a distorting interest. Thus it is incorrect to say that this shows that the mere personal stake of experts is a relevant ground for doubting their credibility; rather, what is happening here is that the law is recognizing the fact that compensation for testimony can be evidence for distorting interest -- at least that it's one of the things that needs to be taken into account if you are concerned about distorting interest (which the law has to be).

The response to the second example is more interesting, since I think it can much more plausibly be argued that this is a case in which the law supports the questioning of a person's credibility simply in virtue of their personal stake. Of course, I'm inclined to say that this shows one area of law that needs to be reformed in order to be made more just, since as it stands it allows someone to cast aspersions on someone else's testimony the basis of no evidence at all for what may be, for all that can be assumed at that point in the process, nothing but the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I'm willing to concede that it's a point at which our society treats mere personal stake as a reason to doubt someone's testimony that isn't itself directly motivated by the two motivations I had suggested, namely, short-circuiting investigation or casting aspersions. To that extent I concede the point. But it's a very good example, and worth thinking about, and that's one reason why I wrote this as another post rather than as a comment.

Poem Drafts

Cherry Blossoms

At home the cherry trees all bloom
with subtle pink and snowy white
beside the stream that plays and shines
and steals the shards of summer's light.
But I am chained, by duty bound,
across a never-ending sea,
till toil is done and I go home
to live quietly, and free.

Sunset Times

The sun is bright
at end of day
although its strength
has passed away;
although its might
has been made less,
the setting sun
is truly blessed.
So has the Lord
who rules the sky
for dying sun
set glory by,
and heartened man
(who too must die),
and strengthened hearts
at sunset times.

A Man of the Anicii

Ah, friends! Why do you speak at length
of all my money, fame, and power,
when but a season of unjust men,
when but a flashing moment's time,
can make such glory fall?

With flourish in flourishing days I penned
songs of joy to cheer the heart,
but now embark in black-sailed ship
to weep and write and sadder verse,
inspired by a blood-stained Muse.

She, at least, with music tongue,
will never leave, will never flee;
and she, who blessed my youthful verse,
now stands beside me in my curse,
to palliate my fatal end.

Fortune's favor fickle goods did grant,
and, feeling her kiss upon my cheek,
with bliss I lived, and one swift hour
of sadness and of sudden shame
would have sapped my soul.

But Fortune makes me now her foe;
she stares me down with steely gaze
until I am distressed with ache,
a craving for my looming Death,
which comes, yet does not come.

What Berkeley Said in America

Another doggerel, this time summarizing Berkeley's comments on visual language in the Alciphron.

What Berkeley Said in America

If you ask if there's a God,
Berkeley says that you should know;
If you haven't seen it all by now,
You're really rather slow.
Take any man you wish,
Whomever he may be,
His seeing God is more certain
Than his seeing you or me.

How can this be? you cry!
It just takes a bit of sense
(The sense of sight to be exact)
And, no more words to mince,
If you attend to all your vision,
If you have the eyes to see,
Seeing God is more certain
Than is seeing you or me.

When I see my good grandmother,
I see her by her signs;
The tokens that I see
Suggest a mind's designs.
Take this idea and follow it
And soon you'll come to see
That seeing God is more certain
Than seeing you or me.

If we see the signs of mind,
Then a mind we should conclude
(For if we ever let go this
We are both absurd and rude).
As you see your own dear mother
You may your Creator see:
Proving God is at least as easy
As proving her to be.

I see you in the street
So I know that you exist
Though I do not see the thinking
In which your mind consists;
For I see and hear the tokens
Of your mind's pure poetry.
But seeing God is far more easy
Than seeing you or me.

If you see a person's figure,
Perhaps you are deceived.
But if he stops to talk with you
His existence you'll believe.
Ah, but now beware
For the conclusion you cannot flee:
Knowing God is quite easy
If God speaks to you or me.

We think we see distance in itself,
Though we never really do,
As you can find discussed
In New Theory section 2.
So distance is not immediate
And soon you shall see
That seeing God is as easy
As seeing you or me.

When we see things far or near
We see distance by its signs,
For they have no intrinsic connection
Like geometric lines.
So by word-like convention
We know the things we see,
And almost we are there,
To seeing God like you or me!

The object of our sight
Is always what we see,
But see it far then near
And different it will be;
A dot on the horizon
Cannot be the massy tree,
So sight must work by sign.
Soon God, you'll admit, you see.

Now, varied are these symbols,
And yet they work by rules;
And they inform us by convention
Just like our verbal tools.
For we see by mediation
The firm and bulky tree;
But, since vision is a language
God speaks to you and me.

The Author of our Nature
Speaks to our human eyes
Always, in all places,
And don't act so surprised.
In Him we live and move,
And God is always truly near,
And to every single open eye
He speaks with witness clear.

So open up your senses
And no religious view despise;
To know that there's a God
Just open up your eyes.
To see there is a God
You must have eyes to see;
But seeing God is far more easy
Than seeing you or me.

Thus spake Berkeley in America.

The Shipwreck of David Hume

This is an old doggerel I wrote, based on Hume's Treatise 1.4.7.

The Shipwreck of David Hume

I am a wayward thinker; I have journeyed on the sea;
I have traversed all the systems of rationality.
In my weather-beaten vessel I have sailed from Firth of Forth,
Diffident for my future in this melancholy north.
I have crashed upon this rock of forlorn solitude;
How can I journey ocean-sea, that vast infinitude,
When all my former errors crowd about the air
And, with every breath I take, feed my mind's despair?
I am an uncouth monster; only Prospero's island knows
Such barren isolation as reason to me shows.
O disconsolate exile! Foe of all who feed
At any system's table with any system's need!
On every side detraction, inside I have but doubt,
The world conspires against me and seeks to catch me out;
And I, my closest enemy, at every reason's move
Induce new hesitation lest I new error prove.
How can I venture onward in this boldest enterprise?
For I am only human, tho' in a more prodigious guise,
And all of human error and all error of my own
Haunts my resolution and chills my very bones.
In leaving received opinion do I still follow truth?
Finding her, shall I know her, and by what sterling proof?
All my best conclusions I only do believe
Because it strongly seems to me; could I be deceived?
Experience only guides me and habit is what persuades;
And I have but concluded as imagination bade.
Inconstant, yes, fallacious! It lies and cheats our mind,
And when we reason justly we contradictions find.
Reason shows us rightly from the rule of effect and cause
That no external, continued being can be reached by reason's laws;
And if there are no bodies, 'tis a truth we cannot opine;
Yet these contradicting reasons are wholly intertwined.
The gods of inquiry mock me. When I trace the roots of mind
It ends in their laugh, their smirking, after painful paths that wind.
Shall I, complacent in illusion, sit, as in common life,
Or shall I correct through reason and find philosophic strife?
Shall I take up wings with fancy and blind myself in flight
Or adhere to understanding and fall to fatal night?
I am confounded in all questions, blind and deaf and dumb,
Environed in the darkness where beats the dooming drum,
Wracked in imagination with a fever fed by pain
And faced with contradictions in my illness-heated brain.
But as the wind breaks storms in heaven's empyreum,
So nature breaks despair and reason's delirium,
And melancholy scatters at the breaking of the rain
As I go and play backgammon again among the sane.
But shall I venture ever again upon the sea?
Yea, I shall there be driven by my curiosity,
When I have yet grown tired of friendly company,
When my mind will be collected into quiet reverie,
And then I shall out-journey, unable to forebear
The lure of the quaint and curious, the sea-wind in the air,
The chance for high adventures and the making of a name,
When I am tired with amusement and the playing of these games.

Plain Meaning of Scripture Again

Michael Liccione and Scott Carson have extended the discussion about the 'plain meaning of Scripture' by considering the matter in light of my recent suggestion on the subject. Both are worth reading. There's also some good discussion in the comments of my post.

I've decided that I wanted to explain why I jumped into the discussion (besides knowing it was a good one, given that I've interacted before with a number of people discussion the matter). I think there is a common Catholic tendency to conflate a number of questions when it comes to this subject; and, in particular, a tendency to diagnose 'private judgment' too early. Contrary to what you might think from reading some Catholics on the subject, very few Protestants, even Baptists, advocate private judgment as such even if there is good reason to think they make interpretation of Scripture a matter of private judgment in effect. Thus Catholics need to be careful about how they interpret things Protestants say that sound to them like an advocacy of private judgment. The reverse is true, in fact, and one reason I take the issue seriously is that I've seen exactly the same sort of mistake made in reverse: Baptists reading Catholic accounts of Scripture as denials of Christian liberty. Of course, this is absurd; what it amounts to is a conflation between Scripture's account of the liberty of the Christian and Baptist views of Scripture and ecclesiology; but no matter how relevant one of these is to the others, they are distinct questions and moving from one to another requires looking at different principles.

One can even imagine a dialogue going like this between a Baptist and a Catholic.

C. The problem I have with the Baptist approach to Scripture is that it makes Scripture a matter of private interpretation.
B. I don't understand; I would reject any such claim.
C. But don't you hold that Scripture has a plain sense, and that this plain sense alone is authoritative, independently of the Church?
B. Absolutely.
C. And that to interpret Scripture properly all you have to do is read it?
B. As long as you aren't willfully misreading it, or letting unscriptural biases get in the way of reading it plainly, yes.
C. Isn't that private judgment?
B. No; it's simply the claim that Scripture was written for plain people, and its message for the world. When Paul wrote letters to the churches, he didn't tell the people he was writing that they needed some authority to tell them what Paul said. Instead, we find he says to the Ephesians (3:4), "In reading this, you will understand." And he says this about an extremely important topic, the mystery whereby the Gentiles are made participants in the promise of Christ.
C. But you are still taking it on yourself to interpret Scripture by yourself. That seems to be private judgment.
B. It's 'private judgment' in the sense that you yourself are reading Scripture and seeing what it means. But this is what everyone does. No one condemns the men of Berea for searching the Scriptures daily to see whether the word being taught was true. Rather, we consider them to be noble for it.
C. But consider alternatively the example of the eunuch from Ethiopia, who wished to understand but could not unless some man should guide him.
B. Yes, indeed; but this simply means, at most, that the gospel must be preached; salvation generally comes through hearing, so to speak. And there is obviously a role for teachers to help people come to better understanding of Scriptural passages. But it does not follow that every Christian must be guided to every little bit of edification from Scripture by others. The things we find in Scripture were proclaimed to ordinary people, and they understood. They did not go to the bishop and ask, "How are we to understand this?" You can call this private judgment, if you like, but it's hardly a problem for plain people to use their minds.
C. I agree there's no problem with plain people using the reason God gives them; I would encourage them to use it more than they usually do. But here's my problem with what I take to be your view: Scripture has an authority that you do not; but your view means that we never have the authoritative meaning of Scripture, only everyone's opinion about what it might be.
B. Scripture certainly does have authority. But, on the contrary, this requires my view; for it is Scripture itself, not the interpretation put forward by a bishop, or by the Councils, that overcomes the heart and takes hold of the conscience, producing in us a deep conviction of our need for God and His Christ. And, in fact, we cannot recognize the Church Fathers, or the Councils, or any bishop as having authority in these matters except insofar as they can be understood as saying things consistent with the meaning of Scripture.
C. But, again, when you say 'Scripture means this' you really mean 'I think Scripture means this'. You have no special authority to say what the authoritative sense of Scripture is.
B. I would concede that, in the sense that I can't put forward the meaning of Scripture on my own authority but only point to it as something that rests not on me but on God. You must understand that when I say that Scripture alone is the rule of faith, I mean it seriously. What has authority is not the Word of God understood by any old fool like me, but the Word of God as holy men of God wrote them under the inspiration of God. And all that I do when I talk about the meaning of this or that Scriptural text is to direct people to the text, each of them to face the Word of God on his or her own, thereby to be convicted and edified. To be sure I, like everyone else, am fallible. But the Word of God is not; it is truth spoken by Truth.
C. But you still think that every person has the right to read it for himself and make his own decision about it.
B. Yes, just as every person who came to hear Jesus heard for himself and made his own decision about it. But this, in fact, is why I deny that Scripture is simply a matter of private interpretation: we must not bring our own private meanings and opinions to the word, but must let ourselves be faced with the word of the Holy Spirit. You see, this is the problem I have with the Catholic view of Scripture: you simply don't give Scripture enough credit.
C. How so?
B. If there is one thing that is clear, it is that Scripture is an instrument whereby God moves hearts and minds. We Baptists hold that it is God who works through Scripture. But you Catholics are always trying to put men in between Scripture and its readers: listen to this man, listen to those men, they'll tell you what Scripture says and what God is saying to you through it. But this, in the first place, replaces the teaching authority of God with the teaching authority of men; and, in the second place, it is a complete rejection of the freedom we have in Christ. With regard to the first, Scripture stands over against us, the word of God, the means whereby God exerts his authority over us and moves us to faith and hope and love; it is a way in which God confronts us. With regard to the second, you forget that each Christian participates in the life of Christ, and that because of this we are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, each of us with access through Christ to the throne of God, and each of us able to be edified by the words of Scripture.
C. I don't deny either of these things; what I affirm, in fact, requires both. It's just that the Scripture that stands over against us as God's word is the Scripture as preached, practiced, and prayed by the Church. Anyone who does not read Scripture as such is precisely the sort of person who is bringing his own private meaning or opinion instead of letting themselves by faced by the truth presented by the Holy Spirit. And I certainly don't deny that every Christian may freely come, in the Spirit of Christ, to Scripture to be edified. But this is precisely because we do it as a 'royal priesthood, a holy nation' called forth to praise God: that is, because it is one of the things we Christians do as members of the Church, of the Body of Christ, even when we do it individually, because we can only do it properly in the Spirit of truth. And this requires coming face to face with Scripture, not as a dead text but as a living and active instrument of God, with the power to build us up and give us our heritage. The Church exercises its authority not as standing in judgment over Scripture, but as serving it, guarding it zealously and teaching its meaning in the Spirit of Christ....

And so forth forever, with each attributing to the other things they deny, and each denying that they believe what is attributed to them, at least in the way it is attributed to them. Actually, this topic, I think, is a good argument for the rule that Christians should never engage in apologetics against other Christians without first explicitly going through all the things relevant to the topic that the other side gets right; we might have fewer of these very nonconstructive jumps from one claim to another, whereby denial of private judgment is taken to be affirmation of a Magisterium, or the affirmation of the teaching authority of Church is taken to be a denial of Christian liberty. Things are not so simple. And that's why I felt I had to jump in and say something.

In any case, I do recommend reading the posts by Scott and Mike that are linked above.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Marenbon on 'Aquinas's Principle'

In a discussion in his newer introduction to medieval philosophy text, John Marenbon considers the following principle in Aquinas, which he calls 'Aquinas's Principle':

If the antecedent of a conditional contains a cognitive proposition, the consequent should be understood according to the mode of the knower, and not that of the thing known.

The illustration is the conditional,

If I understand something, it is immaterial.

This, if 'Aquinas's Principle' is used, should be understood as:

If understand something, it is immaterial according to its being understood.

To this Marenbon replies that there are plenty of conditionals with cognitive antecedents to which Aquinas's Principle does not apply. His example:

If I feel something with my touch, it is a material thing.

Of which he says, "The consequent...does not need to be qualified by a phrase such as 'according to its being touched'. It is simply true that anything I can touch must be material."

Whatever may be said of 'Aquinas's Principle', Marenbon's counterexample seems to me to be badly chosen. For while it may be simply true that anything I can touch must be material, it does not follow that anything I touch must be simply material. The natural way to understand Marenbon's conditional is to understand it as meaning,

If I feel something with my touch, it is a material thing insofar as it is touched.

For instance, there are plenty of entities that can be touched but are not simply material; for example, a university, which is material to the extent that you can touch it, but is not insofar as it is (for instance) a legal corporation. And the qualification could still be added, without significant change of meaning, for purely material things -- it's just that there would be very little point in doing so. The fact that we don't need it for practical purposes isn't an adequate reason for rejecting 'Aquinas's Principle'.

In any case, I don't see any reason to hold that Aquinas held 'Aquinas's Principle' in an unqualified way; Marenbon takes Aquinas's words out of context and interprets them out of that context. The natural way to read Aquinas's statement in context is to take him as saying that when the antecedent clarifies that the existence in question is existence in the soul rather than in itself, we must not then take the consequent as saying anything about existence in itself. The principle that is really doing work here is not the claim about conditionals, however, but the claim that "the existence of a thing in itself is different from the existence of a thing in the soul."

John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy Routledge (New York: 2007) 253-254.

Chu-Carroll on Bittinger

Ahistoricality suggested I might be interested in Chu-Carroll's criticism of Bittinger's apologetics in The Faith Equation (part I, part II). Actually, except for the argument about prostitutes in the first part, which I can't make heads or tails of, either on its own merits or as a response to Bittinger, I agree with much of it. It's the sort of thing Augustus De Morgan would have mocked in his Budget of Paradoxes. The problem with it is actually one that Chu-Carroll often discusses, namely, the attempt to put arguments that stand or fall on their own in mathematical or quasi-mathematical symbolism, as if that contributed anything to the argument but confusion. This is particularly common with regard to probabilities, because there is a strong temptation to confuse the non-mathematical notion of probability we tend to work with most often (in which 'probability' indicates a form of nonmonotonic defeasible reasoning) with mathematical sense of the term. In any case, I found particularly interesting Chu-Carroll's taxonomy of basic errors in statistics and probability:

1) Big Numbers: This consists of using our difficulty in really comprehending how huge numbers work to say that beyond a certain probability, things become impossible. So in using this argument, you use other tricks to create an incredibly huge number that is allegedly the odds against something happening - and then say "See, it's too improbable!".

2) Perspective errors: using a priori estimates of something to predict the likelihood of a specific event that actually occurred. Shuffle a deck of cards, and then ask what was the likelihood of getting this specific order?

3) False independence errors: computing probabilities separately, and then combining them without considering how they interact. Given absolutely no information, what's the probability that my birthday is in July? 31/365. Then, separately, what's the probability that my birthday is in summer? 1/4. So the probability of my being born during the summer in July is 1/4×31/365.

4) Fake numbers: generally part of a big numbers argument. You want to inflate the numbers, so you include as many factors as you can. But some of them are hard (or even impossible) to figure out. So you just pull numbers out of the air, and throw them into the equation.

5) Misshapen search space: Make some event look unlikely by pulling a switch; instead of computing its probability in the real setting in which the event would occur, create a different setting where it's more unlikely, and then compute the probability there.

I think we might be able add a sixth, namely illicit anticipation of results, which might, however, be considered a more general error that sometimes underlies one of these five and sometimes underlies other errors entirely. People often go into statistical and probabilistic arguments with assumptions that bias toward one conclusion. Thus they assume that a given type of argument will have a given type of conclusion, without actually doing the mathematical work.

I would argue, incidentally, that the primary conclusion one should draw from all of this is that mathematicians, at least when interacting with the public or teaching people the basics, cannot let themselves rely on symbolisms and technical terms. Obviously mathematical research will be done in those terms, as will discussion of mathematics among mathematicians. But there is too great a danger when dealing with non-mathematicians of their attributing too much to the symbolisms and terms, as if their use in themselves conferred the rigor of mathematics. Of course, this is not true at all: mathematics done entirely without algebraic symbolisms and technical terminology would be just as rigorous mathematics done with them. Doing mathematics entirely in natural language would be an extraordinarily inconvenient way of doing much of mathematics, and would require an astounding amount of ingenuity for expressing truths and operations that could be put more easily and simply in technical terms and symbols. However, the rigor, or lack thereof, is in the reasoning, not the clothing used. But there is a great temptation -- and almost everyone has to overcome this temptation with technical fields in which we are not experts, so we are all in the same boat on this -- to proceed as if the symbolism or jargon were the rigor. Mathematics, so often regarded as the paradigm of rigorous reasoning, is especially susceptible to this abuse. And thus it is important for mathematicians to take the trouble not to begin mystifying and amazing the masses with the symbolism when they need to be showing them, even if only by approximation, the wonders of the reasoning the symbolism so elegantly expresses.

Wisdom and Play

We should here note that the contemplation of wisdom is suitably compared to play on account of two features found in play. First of all, play is delightful, and the contemplation of wisdom holds the greatest delight. Accordingly, in Sirach 24:27 the mouth of wisdom says:

My spirit is sweeter than honey.

The second is that the activities of play are not directed towards something else, but are sought on their own account; this is also true of the delights of wisdom. For sometimes it happens that a person takes delight within himself in considering those things which he desires or which he proposes to do. Now this delight is directed to something external he is striving to achieve. Yet if this were lacking or delayed, no small affliction is added to such delight, in line with Proverbs 14:13:

Laughter shall be mingled with sorrow

But the delight pertaining to the contemplation of wisdom holds the cause of delight in itself. Thus is allows no worry, as though awaiting something it lacks. For this reason Wisdom 8:16 says:

Her conversation hath no bitterness; and it hath no sorrow to live with her (i. e. wisdom).

Hence Divine Wisdom compares its delightfulness to play (Proverbs 8:30):

I was delighted for days on end, playing face to face with it.

Thomas Aquinas, In Hebdomadibus, Peter King's translation (PDF).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Witt, Carson, & Liccione on 'Plain Meaning of Scripture'

Scott Carson and Michael Liccione criticize an argument by Bill Witt on the 'plain meaning of Scripture'. I've no doubt, from discussions I've had with Bill before in other venues, that my view of Scripture is probably closer to Scott's and Mike's than to Bill's. But I think in this case there is some talking past each other.

The background to the point in contention is Scott's argument that there is no 'plain sense of scripture' in the sense meant by Protestants. Now, what is the "sense meant by Protestants"? Scott had explained it in this way:

According to the non-Catholic view, PMS is something that is equally available to any well-informed, rationally competent reader. No one denies that different well-informed, rationally competent readers often come up with different interpretations of the Scriptures--that is why there are so very many Protestant denominations, after all--but the central idea is that disputes of this sort can be settled by well-intentioned and jointly cooperative searches for the truth, in which rational agents rely on their own rational powers, their own private judgment, and a cooperative examination of all available empirical evidence.

And this is contrasted with the Catholic view:

The Catholic view is rather different. Catholic practice has traditionally been to privilege certain readings of the Scriptures over others. In particular, any interpretation that is inconsistent with the Tradition is regarded as out of bounds.

Now the problem with this, as I think Bill is effectively arguing, is that there are many Protestants who would deny the claim attributed to Protestants in general. Bill, as the good Anglican Thomist he is, means 'plain meaning of Scripture' in a sense that would be recognized by Thomas and by Hooker, namely, the literal sense in Thomas's sense of the phrase. And on this view the literal sense of Scripture is something that is indeed independent of the Church, being what God has established in the text, through his instruments, to point to Christ. Thus Bill brings in the analogy of the musical score: as even a beginner can take up a musical score and try to play it, so can even a beginner take up Scripture and read; all that is required is the ability to read the score, the text. As Bill says, this requires no recourse to private judgment; all it requires is that the score or text be intelligible and that the person in question know how to read it. This does require a community, just as there was need of a community for the score or text to be written in the first place; but to interpret this particular score and this particular text requires nothing more than reading this particular score and this particular text.

Now, Scott replies to this:

On the one hand, nobody will deny that the text has a meaning independently of how the Church reads it. It is evident beyond question, however, that disputes over what that meaning is arise with rather alarming frequency, and it is only natural to look for some hermeneutic principle that may be appealed to for the purposes of settling those disputes. In short, in spite of William's rather fatuous claim to the contrary, the question is closely linked to the authoritativeness of the reader to determine what the principal meaning of the text is and, hence, the question is indeed closely connected to the issue of private judgment.

But Bill, I take it, would regard the disputes as being about the plain meaning of Scripture itself; because he doesn't, by 'plain', mean transparent. Indeed, as a Protestant Thomist, taking 'plain meaning' to be basically the same as Thomas's 'literal sense', he can't and won't; he'll say, as he does elsewhere, that matters are rather more complicated than this. And thus the question of how do we determine readings authoritatively (if we can) is a distinct question from the question of whether there is a plain meaning of Scripture to which good readings approximate. The first is epistemological; the second is, so to speak, ontological.

I think it should also be noted that Bill, in the musical score comment, is not directly replying to Scott but to Al, who said of the 'theological reading',

A proper and edifying reading of Scripture as Scripture requires that the reader be fully immersed in the faith and practice of the Church. Apart from this faith and practice, the Scripture is fundamentally unintelligible. Scripture must be read with the Church, in the Church. Only with and in the Church can the profoundly unity of the Bible be discerned. Why? Because it is only with and in the Church that the Bible is in fact and reality one book whose author is the creator of the universe. Divorced from the faith of the Church, Scripture necessarily breaks down into an anthology of texts--interesting and intelligible in themselves, generating infinite speculation and diversity of interpretation, but not the transforming Word of God unto salvation.

And to this Bill replies that this is all quite true, and irrelevant to the question of the plain meaning of Scripture.

Mike, in his response to Bill, also raises the question of authoritative interpretation:

Although knowing just what the human authors intended is often useful, even important, for learning what God wants us to learn through Scripture, only experts can have adequately informed opinions about human authorial intent, because much knowledge about historical context, cultural milieu, literary forms, and the like must come into play for the purpose of discerning such intent. One might argue that there is, or at least can be, consensus among experts about such things, and that such would suffice for a kind of epistemic authority assuring the rest of us about what the plain meaning of Scripture is in disputed cases. But that runs up against the notorious disputes among scholars themselves; even when there is agreement, it is provisional and subject to differing theological interpretation. So, to rely on the epistemic authority of biblical scholars for the sake of learning the plain meaning of Scripture provides us only with opinions that most believers aren't even in a position to form for themselves. Some opinions are more, some less defensible; but regardless, none of that suffices to afford us an object of divine faith, unless one wishes to reduce divine revelation to a matter of opinion, which no party to the debate wishes to do.

But, again, from Bill's point of view it would be hard to see what any of this has to do with the plain meaning of Scripture. If taken as addressing his own point, it would all look like a confusion of 'interpretation' taken as an act of interpreting and 'interpretation' taken as a way the text can be interpreted. Whether there is an authoritative interpretation in the latter sense is a different question from whether there is an authoritative interpretation in the former sense.

So I think Bill's point is not what Scott and Michael have in mind; it's not an argument for a particular conception of authority in reading, but for a distinction between authority in reading a text and a reading of the text that is authoritative, i.e., between the reading of the text and its meaning. Scott wants to say that the plain meaning of Scripture, as Protestants understand that phrase, goes hand in hand with private judgment as the authoritative act of interpreting; Bill is, in this comment, denying this, not saying anything about the proper view we should have about the authoritative act of interpreting. That would require other considerations than Bill brings up here. So everyone is talking about something different. I think Mike is on the right track, though, in recognizing that the real difference between Catholics like Mike and Scott on the one hand, and what we might (rather loosely and perhaps figuratively) call High Church Protestants like Bill (who place great weight on consensus fidelium, the Church Fathers, and the Rule of Faith), has to do with their views of the Scripture as canon in the Church, and what it means for the Church to take a text as canonical. I know that Bill, for instance, tends to think, or, at least, has indicated something like this in various contexts, that the sort of account that Mike offers involves an equivocation on the term 'Church', a failure to distinguish between the Church insofar as it wrote the Scripture (and thus insofar as it was apostolic) and the Church insofar as it accepts them submissively as canon (and thus insofar as it is post-apostolic). This certainly does suggest a different view of canon.

So that, I would suggest, is where the real disagreement lies.

Links and Notes

* Greta Christina has an excellent post on what she calls the Galileo Fallacy and the Gadfly Corollary (ht).

* There has recently been some controversy over the imminent beatification of Augustinian priest Gabino Olaso Zabala, one of 98 Augustinian martyrs in the Phillipines from 1936-1939. The reason is that there are accusations, and a written deposition from the victim, that Fr. Gabino Olaso Zabala engaged in torture about forty years before his martyrdom. Most of the discussion of this is rather uneven; John L. Allen has the best discussion of the matter I have seen so far. I would occasionally quibble with the way Allen has stated things. But Allen does note the two key points that have tended to fall out of other discussions of this issue: that Zabala is being beatified as a martyr, and thus because his death was a witness to Christ; and that any sort of formal recognition of sainthood is in part a matter of prudential discretion. Those are actually the two primary issues in the dispute.

* Odious gives another reason why philosophers tend to shortchange Xenophon's account of Socrates.

* This review, by Jana Riess, has intrigued me enough about A. J. Jacobs's The Year of Living Biblically, in which Jacobs, a secular Jew, sets out to demonstrate the absurdities of religious legalism -- by living according to all the commandments of the Bible for a year -- and does so, but along the way discovers some surprising things about it.

* Paleo-Future, subtitled "A Look into the Future that Never Was," is a weblog devoted to chronicling the history of expectations about the future.

* Currently reading:
John Rothchild, Introduction to Athenian Democracy of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE

Andrew Chignell, Are Supersensibles Really Possible? Kant on the Evidential Role of Symbolization (PDF)

Charles Pidgen, What Was Hume Up To with No-Ought-From-Is? (PDF): I'm not convinced, but there are one or two things that I'll have to think about.

J. David Velleman, The Gift of Life

Jessica Moss, Appearances and Calculations: Plato's Division of the Soul (PDF)

Kirk Ludwig, The Epistemology of Thought Experiments (PDF)

* Also, I'm brushing up on Boethius for my intro course, so these are some things I'm reading or will be reading:

John Marenbon, Boethius

Samuel Fox, ed. King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon Version of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae

Paul Vincent Spade, Boethius Against Universals (PDF)

Nathan Basik, The Guilt of Boethius (PDF)

Peter King, Boethius: First of the Scholastics (PDF)

Susanne Bobzein, A Greek Parallel to Boethius' De Hypotheticis Syllogismis (PDF)

Peter King, Aquinas: Exposition of Boethius's "Hebdomads" (PDF)

Boethius, The Theological Tractates

Gerard Casey, An Explication of the De Hebdomadibus of Boethius in the Light of St Thomas’s Commentary (PDF)

* It's a bit depressing to read about Boethius in this day and age. Boethius, of course, was a statesman, a very successful one until the sudden fall from grace that marks the end of his life. One thing we tend to forget about Boethius is that he did his philosophical work -- his translations and commentaries on Aristotle's logic, his writings on theological topics, perhaps even his Consolation -- as part of his life as a statesman. Boethius, as an aristocratic Roman, had a Ciceronian view of political life as one devoted to communicable self-cultivation: you cultivate yourself and you use that as a basis for cultivating the people. Such a view is, no doubt, liable to abuses; but at times, when compared to the way politics works today, it is an extraordinarily attractive view.

* Cosma Shalizi discusses intelligence testing and 'the general factor of intelligence' in g, a Statistical Myth. On a different subject, and in a different place, Shalizi has an excellent list of resources with regard to causation, particularly with regard . I'd add four names to the short historical section: al-Ghazali (to whom Averroes is responding), Francisco Suarez (because it's a good thing to recognize that the assumptions we tend to make about causation have never been universal and haven't even always been the dominant assumptions made), Nicolas Malebranche (whom Hume is to a great extent adapting), and Lady Mary Shepherd (who argues that Hume's notion of causation muddles several different things together).

* Speaking of Shepherd, I managed to find a good deal on Lady Mary Shepherd's collected works (by Thoemmes Press), and received my copy today. Does this mean that you will be reading posts on Shepherd in the near future? It most certainly does. Also coming: I owe Pensans a post on the ethics of rational critique; I still need to post the final bit of the "Murdering Rastari" short story draft; the last few posts on Hume's Dialogues are coming; a sequel post to the one on progress under conditions of moral disagreement; more juvenilia; and probably a good deal more. But I have an odd schedule right now which guarantees that all of this will only be trickling out.

* Millinerd gets a little sarcastic and suggests that we should perhaps follow through on the arguments of the 'new atheists' by abolishing music.

* Chris at "Creek Running North" has a lovely post satirizing evolutionary psychology. (ht: Chris at "Mixing Memory")

* A comic on crime and prepunishment.

Zuska on James Watson

Zuska has a post that rightly criticizes some of the responses to James Watson's suspension at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory due to his racist remarks:

Academic freedom doesn't exist to benefit people who twist or ignore science to serve lies. Standing up for justice and equality is what a good citizen does, and if that's what you call political correctness, then so be it. I am fed up beyond belief with apologists for the oppressors claiming the mantle of science to wrap around their ugly beliefs: calling the expression of personal racist sentiments "talking about research", bemoaning the refusal to lend a platform to spread those beliefs as some sort of repression of free speech, promulgating a "research" program with racism at its core as if it were the most objective of enterprises.