Saturday, November 03, 2007

Plain Meaning Once More

Crimson Catholic has a post on the recent discussion of 'plain meaning of Scripture'. It makes a number of worthwhile points, but also manages to make a common, and very serious, mistake that Catholics tend to make about Catholic doctrine of Scripture. I had noted the importance of distinguishing between "authoritative interpretation" in the sense of "an authoritative act of interpreting" and "authoritative interpretation in the sense of "the way of understanding the text that is authoritative". On this Crimson Catholic replies:

But there cannot even be an authoritative interpretation in the latter sense absent an authoritative interpretation in the former sense. Even if it is the best approximation for what the author intended, it still is not authoritative, for unless the author also intended to yield the authority to interpret his text to a subsequent authority, his mere writing itself ontologically lacks authority. So either the author intended his text both to be authoritative and interpreted by a subsequent authority, or God as co-author intended it (perhaps beside the intent of the author) in the same way, but in both cases, the subsequent interpretive authority is an essential element of either the divine or the human will to produce an authoritative act of communication.


However, this involves a sort of distance between author and reader that fits very poorly with the Catholic view of Scripture; and, moreover, which on at least a very common Protestant view gets Protestants entirely wrong as well. It's not generally denied that there is a subsequent interpretive authority; what is denied is that this subsequent interpretive authority is the Church rather than the Holy Spirit. Protestants do not think the words on the page carry authority; they think the words engraved on the heart by the Spirit with the stylus of the words of the page carries authority. The Crimson Catholic thinks that Protestants put the authority in the mere writing. There are perhaps cases of this, but these will widely be regarded by Protestants as aberrations; they put the authority not in the texts but (like Catholics, it might be pointed out) in the God who breathed them forth and gives them force and power to touch the heart.

And this is where I think attempts, like that of the Crimson Catholic and of several other Catholics in the recent discussion, to defend the Catholic view of Scripture on general philosophical principles will fail; at most they can show that it is not incoherent. But the Catholic view of Scripture is not based on a general account of the nature of authority and interpretation, nor can it be, given the unique relationship between the teaching of the Church and the Scriptures she has received; it is based on the Catholic view of the relation between the Church and the Holy Spirit. The Protestant denies that the interpretive authority is the Church rather than God; the Catholic challenges the dichotomy implicit in the 'rather than'. While this 'rather than' marks a break between the two, such is the emphasis in Catholic doctrine, as found, for instance, in De Fide Catholica and Dei Verbum, on the work of the Holy Spirit, and on the Father speaking with His children through the Scriptures, the more a Protestant emphasizes this, the more his or her view approximates the Catholic view of Scripture. I assume here, of course, that the view of the Trinity in the Protestant case is Nicene. And all this, again, is because the Catholic view of Scripture is not based on these vague and dubious pronouncements about the nature of texts, which are nothing but red herrings that obscure the real point; rather, it is based on the Catholic understanding of the Holy Spirit's work in the Church.

The failure to appreciate this properly seems to me to land the Crimson Catholic in a number of muddles. The word 'authority' is used a lot, but it was irrelevant to the point originally being discussed; Bill's claim was about the plain meaning of Scripture. It's the Catholics responding to it who keep trying to make authority the key issue, by fair means and foul; and they have generally been doing so by conflating two very different (albeit related) things: the authoritative character of what is interpreted and the authoritative character of the interpreting. It is simply false that the latter is required for the former to have any effect in our lives at all; any Catholic who reads Scripture on his or her own is living proof that you can interpret Scripture, which is authoritative, without authoritatively interpreting it, because every Catholic who reads Scripture in private devotion is doing precisely that. The whole history of the development of Catholic doctrine is filled to the brim with cases in which people have interpreted Scripture unauthoritatively to have those interpretations later recognized authoritatively as correctly capturing the authoritative meaning of Scripture. The principle that there is no authoritative interpreted without authoritative interpreter also does not fit well with the fact that the primary practice of the Church is to let any Catholic read and interpret Scripture, with intervention only where a danger to faith and morals is perceived.

The Catholic who reads, say, the parable of the unjust judge, and suddenly recognizes a feature in it that he has never been taught before, will naturally and reasonably regard it as authoritative, with only the negative reserve clause that it not be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church. If it becomes a matter of serious concern, there may be a need to confirm that it is indeed genuinely authoritative, rather than merely seemingly so. This confirmation may take the form of either a definitive pronouncement or a natural outgrowth of the Christian practice and prayer of the whole Church, i.e., all those other Catholics with all their unauthoritative reading being drawn by the grace of the Holy Spirit to the truth. I take it that none of this can be seriously regarded as inconsistent with the Catholic view of Scripture. But none of this is possible unless it is recognized that, indeed, there is a sort of plain meaning of Scripture that does not require the direct intervention of an authoritative interpreter to be discovered, unless by 'authoritative interpreter' we mean Truth Himself.

Protestants and Catholics actually agree on the key thing here: namely, that the authority of Scripture is the authority of God, that the authoritative teacher of the meaning of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, and that without Him there is nothing but darkness. The difference arises in that, from the Protestant point of view, Catholics too easily conflate the interpretive act of the Holy Spirit with human interpretive acts, and, from the Catholic point of view, Protestants have an incomplete view of the work of the Spirit in the Church's interpreting of Scripture. As long as the dispute never seriously engages with this point, it is self-perpetuating, because it will never have any effect except the raising of even more light-obscuring dust.

And this all is yet a further argument why Christians who make apologetic arguments against other Christians should start with what the other side gets quite right, and never say a word against them until they have done so. Easier said than done, of course.

A Poem Draft

Sweet Delight

The rains were soft today -- ah, such sweet delight!
Each drop like white wine played across the mind
with dance and minuet, and sparkled in the light
like diamonds in the dust that a leaping heart might find,
each splash and patter pounding out the pulse of life
whereby the sky, the earth, in holy union each embrace
the other to its bosom, and the one lifts up its face
to feel the other's kiss -- ah, such sweet delight!

It was honey to reason's tongue, and ah! such sweet delight!

The air was sharp and clear; it was ringing like a bell
that is struck on solemn Sunday when couples newly-wed,
drinking from each other's eyes as the thirsty from a well,
dance with conjugal rejoicing to the flowering genius-bed;
lares and penates whisper as the gardens of our sight
bloom and sway and grow, life-rich like verdant ponds,
and to every heart's bright questions lie ready to respond.
The wind brushed past my skin, kissing where it fell.

It charged my will with love, and ah! such sweet delight!

The sun, profligate with rainbows, beamed with parent-pride
on all its living scions that flourish on this vital earth,
which into many cousin-families once happily did divide,
each to sing a note in symphony, in polyphonic birth,
each to taste the waters, to breathe in the piercing light,
to leap beneath the sun in the everlasting dance
which is composed of law compacted with sweet chance,
to look up to the sun-star with the smile of child-pride.

I saw this all, and shivered with, ah! such sweet delight!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Happy Birthday, George Boole

George Boole, one of those many brilliant logicians between Aristotle and Frege that philosophers forget to appreciate properly, was born today in 1815. You can read a number of Boole's works online at the Internet Archive. Over the past two years I've come to have a considerable amount of respect for the great British logicians of the Boolean era -- De Morgan, Venn, Carroll, Keynes, and, of course, Boole himself. They should be read more closely and carefully than they usually are.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Negative Fluff

There is an interesting post at "Leiter Reports" on book reviews. As I've noted before I read a lot of book reviews, and a great many book reviews end up being rather worthless precisely because the author can't say anything dispassionate about the matter. That X does not like Y's book is largely useless information except insofar as it might be taken as evidence of bias, or else insofar as it indicates a recommendation against reading it (and it doesn't take much to do the latter). What a book review really needs to convey is (1) what the book is about, in such a way that I know if I have to read it if I'm researching this or that subject; and (2) what I have to keep in mind or know if I do read the book, either so that I can get the most out of reading it, or so that I can make sure that reading it is not a complete waste of time. Heated rhetoric and vague preliminary comments about incompetence, uninformativeness, amateurishness, etc., just uselessly take up space and tell us nothing; just say you can't recommend that it be read and that it has many problems (which are, among others, such, such, and such) instead of filling the page with negative fluff. This is true on the puff-piece side as well; it does the reader no good to know that X likes Y's book, except where it shows bias or signals whether a person would recommend it (and it takes very little to do the latter).

On tone, I think disputes about tone very rarely, if ever, "mask" disputes about substance, as Leiter suggests (and it's certainly not true "of course"); they are disputes about what Hume calls "the lesser morality," or etiquette, and while secondary to other issues, these issues are not trivial distractions. (They can be abused, of course; in this they are no different than 'the greater morality'.) There are issues of professional standards, reasonable expectations of respect, and the like. The problem with saying that someone's claim is "preposterous in the extreme and easily refuted" is that it is not any more substantial than calling your colleague ignorant and stupid. Should we, as a serious profession, really tolerate things like this? There is generally nothing honest about it, either; it's often a blatant substitution of rhetoric for argument, labels for reasons, and where it is not, it is often otiose.

Mutating Genre Meme

I was tagged for this one as well. This meme was started at Pharyngula. These are the rules:

There are a set of questions below that are all of the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...". Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:
* You can leave them exactly as is.
* You can delete any one question.
* You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...", or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".
* You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...".
* You must have at least one question in your set, or you've gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you're not viable.
Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.
Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is
going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.


My phylogeny:

My great-great-great grandparent is The Flying Trilobite.
My great-great-grandparent is A Blog Around the Clock.
My great-grandparent is The Anterior Commissurotomy.
My grandparent is Laelaps
My parent is Quintessence of Dust.

And ouch, they've given me some difficult memes to survive with. But I'm a survivor.

The best scary movie in sociopolitical dystopias is: Soylent Green.

The best sexy song in pop rock is: "Love is a Battlefield," by Pat Benatar.

The best scary story in science fiction is: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.

The best B-movie in 1980's horror films is: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

I don't usually tag, but given the particular nature of this meme, I'll make an exception: The Little Professor and, since he tagged me for the other, Pseudo-Polymath.

10-20-30

I was tagged by Mark Olson. What was I doing 10, 20, 30 years ago? Kind of tricky, because I'm still on the young side of things. Also, I'm always mixing up the order of events in my life. After careful thinking, and some checking, I think this is accurate:

1997: I was working on my theology major at the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon. According to my transcript, these are the classes I took that year:

Fine Arts
Modern Western Civ
Intro Philosophy
Spanish Advanced Conversation and Composition
Judeo-Christian Culture (a 200-level theology course)
Ethics
Metaphysics
Hispanic Culture and Civilization
Elementary Statistics
Minds, Brains, Machines (a philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence course)
Ancient Philosophy
Latin American Literature and Civilization
Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke
Christianity to 1500

(Five courses in the spring, three in the summer, and six in the fall.) I spent a lot of time hanging out with my best friend in college, Moreen; we quickly began to get along quite well. Starting sophomore year (fall of '97) I was roommates with another of my good friends, Mike, who was also Mo's boyfriend (I had known them both before they started dating, because my freshman year Mike lived down the hall in the same wing, and I had met Mo through her roommate Sarah). At some point in my sophomore year, I don't recall quite when, I became a philosophy major.

1987: This is a hard one. In the early part of 1987 I was finishing the third grade at Hillcrest Elementary School in Carlsbad, New Mexico. I don't remember exactly when during that school year, but the school burned down and we had to move to a temporary building to finish out the term. At some point shortly after that I got into the first and only fight of my school career; I punched a kid in the eye for something or other. I did a lot of penny drops from the monkey bars. In the latter part of 1987 I was in fourth grade, of course, and, while I remember a lot about both third grade and fifth grade, I am drawing a complete blank on the fourth grade. I don't even remember the school I was at. (In fifth grade, which was a blast, I was at Pate Elementary School.) I was a Cub Scout -- a Bear Cub, I think.

1977: In 1977 I only engaged in one activity, namely, not existing, since I wasn't born yet.

As usual, I don't tag, but if you feel the urge to post your own 10-20-30, go right ahead.

Monday, October 29, 2007

O'Connor and Malebranche

In August I received a comment on an old post that I think I completely missed at the time, by Ben. But it's an interesting comment worth answering. The comment was:

I realize you wrote this entry a while ago, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on a possible further point of contact between O'Connor and Malebranche.

O'Connor's best-known story, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," ends with the Grandmother's murder at the hands of the Misfit, who then offers the following comment on her life:

"She would of been a good woman," the Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

The image of constant, presumably divine intervention here gives the passage a sort of occasionalist flavor to my ear. But if occasionalism is principally a metaphysical rather than an ethical doctrine, perhaps I'm off base. Any thoughts?


I don't know if there is a connection; but occasionalism as found in Malebranche is, in fact, as much an ethical doctrine as a metaphysical doctrine. (I discussed some of the ethical aspects here.) But the sort of thing that Ben seems interested here is perhaps more closely connected with Malebranche's doctrine of the interior teacher: The Divine Word, as interior Teacher (Malebranche adapst Augustine here), teaches us constantly by light and sentiment -- the latter being reprimands and exhortations of conscience. Perhaps there might be a connection there (certainly the notion of conscience and moral intelligence is a common theme in O'Connor).

Incidentally, with regard to the original Hulga and Malebranche, I find that students of O'Connor tend not to think that she was deliberately engaging in irony there. Of course, students of O'Connor tend not to realize that there is any irony in the situation. A typical instance seems to be Ralph C. Wood:

This is an apt, if pretentious, allusion for Hulga the Heideggerian to make, for Malebranche stands in the Cartesian tradition that runs from Hume and Berkeley through Kant and Heidegger. Malebranche held that we do not, in fact, see by our own light but by what he called "vision in God." He was obsessed with the Cartesian problem of human knowledge about objects outside themselves. Together with Descartes, he argued that knowledge of the world does not come from either sensation or imagination but from clear and distinct ideas perceived by the understanding. Yet unlike his master -- and much closer to Spinoza -- Malebranche held that "created things are in themselves causally inefficacious and that God is the sole true cause of change in the universe" (Willis Doney, "Malebranche, Nicholas," in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. V, ed. Paul Edwards [New York: Macmillan, 1967], p. 140). Malebranche's denial of the mind's ability to perceive truth through the natural order of things, together with his denial of secondary causes and thus of real human freedom, would make Hulga an ideal disciple of so unsacramental a thinker.

[Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 201n.]

There are a number of confusions here (I wasn't aware that the Cartesian tradition ran from Berkeley to Heidegger, which is a new twist on the history of philosophy). But whereas I would suggest that Hulga's taste for Malebranche is highly ironic -- Malebranche is explicitly and aggressively Catholic, and his ontologism is an odd contrast to Hulga's nihilism -- Woods treats them as well-matched. I think there are two questions raised by this:

(1) What is the real function of Malebranche in "Good Country People" and, if there are any Malebranchean links elsewhere, in other stories?
(2) What did O'Connor actually know about Malebranche?

With regard to (2) I find Wood's interpretation rather implausible; surely O'Connor would have heard enough of Malebranche to know that he was both a Catholic and an ontologist -- she knows enough that she has Hulga quote Malebranche's favorite quotation from Augustine. Perhaps she didn't recognize that it was Augustinian? So that's perhaps a third question:

(3) Did O'Connor recognize the original Augustinian implications of the statement, "We are not our own light" or did she interpret in another way?

There is, related to this, another irony that I did not mention in the first post: namely, that Hulga's entire problem throughout the story is that she acts as if she were her own light. This confidence in her own intellect is what allows her to be deceived by Pointer.

O'Connor's use of, and knowledge of, Malebranche is certainly a worthwhile research project, if there's anyone out there interested in doing it.

Bits and Pieces

I don't normally Google myself, for three reasons: (1) There are a lot of Brandon Watsons; (2) mostly what returns about me are things I myself have written; (3) it's generally a bit silly to do searches for oneself. But I noticed that I got a few searches recently for "brandon watson" philosophy, and in a fit of curiosity waded through several pages of the obvious stuff and all the other Brandon Watsons, and did come across a few surprises, things I didn't know about or else had completely forgotten about.

#1: I once TA'd for a Philosophy of Literature course. One of the students whose papers I marked went on to publish a later version of the essay in the University of Toronto's undergraduate philosophy journal, Noesis. I must have missed the edition it came out in, or else had forgotten about it entirely. It's actually quite an interesting paper, taking Borges as a test case for the question of whether form and content can be completely separated in philosophy. It's actually quite an interesting paper. I'm thanked in the footnotes for my comments on the original. I do vaguely remember the essay, but don't recall at all my comments.

#2: I'm an objection in a footnote in Klaas Kraay's excellent paper Can God Choose a World at Random? (PDF) for comments I wrote here. I'd read the earlier paper, of course, but hadn't realized that Klaas thought the point worth responding to, since it's rather far from being a knock-down response to the particular point in question, and doesn't, I think, induce any serious problems for most of Klaas's argument. I do agree that most theists who hold that God can choose randomly would reject the idea that God is either a physical randomizing device or a nonphysical randomizing procedure; but I would have to see the argument for the claim that these are the only two possible classes of randomizer.

#3: In August of last year my other weblog was mentioned in Sundries, a newsletter on the 18th century.

#4: It's not really significant, but this post at Lawrence Solum's "Legal Theory Blog" appears to be the first mention of me in the blogosphere, a little less than a year before I even knew that the blogosphere existed. (It's a listing of papers at the Hume Conference in 2003.)

Hume's Dialogues as Philosophy of Science

Here is an old argument of mine that Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion should, despite the title, be read more as a work in the philosophy of science than in the philosophy of religion. It lacks one of the things it needs, namely, a discussion of the weaknesses of taking the Dialogues chiefly as a work in philosophy of religion (there are several). But I still think, by and large, it's on the right track.

****

In essence, all the following arguments are based on recognizing that the primary topic of the Dialogues is the intelligibility of the world. In particular, it looks at this position, The order of the world is analogous to rational design, and determines how far and to what degree it can be held.

I. External reasons

A. Historical: Given the historical context of the Dialogues, reading them as a work of philosophy of science makes good sense. My argument is this:

The Dialogues are on the subject of natural religion.

One of the types of questions that were understood to fall within the field of natural religion at the time was the question of the ultimate foundations of the scientific enterprise. One finds this in (just to name a few):

Robert Boyle (on final causes)
Isaac Newton (in the Optics)
Richard Bentley (in his Boyle Lectures against atheism)
Nicholas Malebranche (Search 2.1.4, LO 98-100)

Discussions of these issues have strong resonances with points found in the Dialogues: e.g., final causes, Newton's Rule 1 (on the use of simplicity in science: Nature does nothing in vain), some of the arguments of people like Bentley and Malebranche against the Epicurean hypothesis (which was understood to argue that all things come about by chance rather than by divine providence).

Therefore it is reasonable to view the natural religion of the Dialogues as a ground on which questions about the ultimate foundations of the scientific enterprise are asked and certain answers to these questions (e.g., the design considerations of all four thinkers above) examined.

B. (More) Contemporary: The Dialogues discuss a subject which have been shown since its time to be of interest to those interested in the basic foundations of the entire scientific enterprise, and therefore reading them as philosophy of science can contribute to a perennial philosophical interest.

Some examples of people who, in looking at scientific work, have been interested in the topics covered by the Dialogue are:

Paley, Herschel & Whewell. British natural religion in the 19th century has obviously connections with the topics of the Dialogues. Note in particular that Herschel and Whewell are the 19th century's greatest philosophers of science; and that their design considerations are in many ways closely related to their work in the philosophy and history of science.

Kant. His work both on the conditions of the possibility of science and on the design argument necessarily bring him to topics discussed in the Dialogues.

Darwin, Huxley, et al. A number of issues touched on by the Dialogues have been essential to determining the status--and proper procedure--of biology. This goes back to Harvey and Boyle, although not exclusively to them, and is derived especially through Paley, whose texts were standard biological fare for a good portion of the 19th century. Darwin in part built his theory in conscious opposition to Paley (it has recently been recognized in a number of works on Darwin how heavily he was influenced, both positively and negatively, by Paley, and how significant the problem of animal suffering played in his thought). Huxley (in part) draws directly from the Dialogues, and he influences, in various ways, much of the 20th century.

Planck & Einstein. The scientific realism of both of these is related to thoughts pertaining to the topic of the Dialogue (in both cases generally influence by Kant). Einstein has some of the pithiest sayings along these lines, but the best formulation is probably in Planck's Scientific Autobiography.

Therefore discussing the Dialogues as philosophy of science can potentially contribute even to contemporary discussions, since its topics have a bearing on issues that have been discussed since Hume's time.

C. Scholarly: Let's level a moment. While there are exceptions, most scholarly work on the Dialogues has been, to be quite honest, mediocre at best. We find that treating the Dialogues as 'philosophy of religion' has led to preciously little fruitful research, little growth in our understanding of Hume, and interminable disputes about the same topics (e.g., Philo's 'change of mind' in Part XII, etc.). At the very least, a change of perspective should provide a breath of fresh air. Even if we are wrong, we will have learned something new. But I think we will find that reading the Dialogues as philosophy of science allows us to see and explore things in the Dialogues that have been simply overlooked. Further, it enables us to ignore those silly people who think that the Dialogues are the Absolute Apologetics of Atheism, conclusively refuting all theistic arguments, and to treat it in a more realistic fashion as a philosophical work treating of issues of interest to 'philosophy of religion' for a very limited, but still vital and important, purpose.

II. Internal Reasons

A. From Hume's Corpus Generally: Reading the Dialogues as philosophy of science fits well with some of what Hume says elsewhere. Most importantly, it explains why Hume considered natural religion to be a legitimate field of philosophical inquiry, for all that he dislikes its tendency to excess. I argue thus:

The justification given by Pamphilus in the Preface to the Dialogues is based on natural religion's capacity to satisfy curiosity.

Hume always associates the motive of curiosity with valuable and legitimate (although not always perfect) inquiry: in science (History), in Hume's own philosophical work (Treatise 1.4.7), and elsewhere (Treatise 2.3.10).

Therefore it is reasonable to think that Hume considers natural religion to have some genuine value. What could that be?

One of the other works in which Hume discusses issues relevant to the Dialogue is The Natural History of Religion. There Hume associates design considerations with the rise of monotheism, with which he considers it to be associated. One of the fundamental notions of NHR is that of the 'frame of nature': what distinguishes true religion from superstition is that the former is based on 'enquiries into the frame of nature', consideration of natural laws, and is motivated by curiosity or love of truth (Sect. II). Now, NHR is an extremely difficult work to interpret, and there is no fully convincing interpretation of it available, in part because it is irony-laden: Hume says things he certainly doesn't mean, and other things that he might not mean. There is, however, some reason for taking seriously certain elements of what Hume says here--namely, that design considerations become a live issue when, motivated by curiosity, we make 'enquiries into the frame of nature.' NHR, after all, is not one long piece of irony; it has a serious purpose, namely, to describe the natural history of religion. Associating design-monotheism with curiosity and inquiry is essential to the success of Hume's account. Therefore, it does not seem reasonable to regard this characterization as ironic, especially since there is nothing here nor anywhere else in Hume to suggest that we should treat it as ironic.

Therefore it is reasonable to place the value of natural religion in its involving 'enquiries into the frame of nature' motivated by curiosity.

Reading the Dialogues in the way I have suggested would make them in reality concerned with 'enquiries into the frame of nature' motivated by curiosity.

Therefore it is reasonable to read the Dialogues as philosophy of science.

B. From the Dialogues Particularly: There are a number of evidences internal to the Dialogues themselves that Hume regarded them as discussing matters of importance to scientific inquiry.

Cleanthes in Part I links the fortunes of natural religion with the sort of inquiry done in Newton’s Optics and the works of Copernicus and Galileo. Philo’s skepticism, as Cleanthes sees it, "is fatal to knowledge, not to religion." This issue is explored by much of the Dialogues. See Beryl Logan's article, "Science and Skepticism" in Hume Studies.

The discussion of Part II is thick with examples of successful and failed scientific reasoning, and ends with Galileo and Copernicus again, this time discussed by Philo.

In Part III Cleanthes continues the discussion of scientific reasoning & confounds Philo.

Demea at the end of Part III shifts the discussion again to what the experimental inference tells us of the nature of God. This is the topic of discussion in Part IV, but here again Philo still discusses scientific reasoning, focusing on its limits. This continues to be the case as Philo presses his case over the next several parts.

In Part XII Philo takes the trouble to reconcile his approach with the simplicity considerations involved in the choice of (again) the Copernican system by people like Copernicus and Galileo, as well as with the Newton-approved maxim, Nature does nothing in vain.

Therefore there is reason to believe that a major concern of the Dialogues is the nature and limitations of scientific reasoning itself: How far can the experiment inference actually carry us?

Therefore we seem to have good reason to focus at least as much, and perhaps more, on the philosophy of science issues, than on the philosophy of religion issues.

Metaphysical Links

Some metaphysical links:

* Clayton discusses whether the Kalam argument is consistent with divine omniscience.

* Tanasije sketches out an argument for the claim that there is a reason for everything.

* I've already linked to it, but I'll do so again: Kenny has a paper up on the semantics of sense perception in Berkeley.

* At Houyhnhnm Land, I note two contemporary comments on Lady Mary Shepherd. The first is a complimentary one by Thomas Noon Talfourd, in which he says that she "is a thinker of as much honesty as of courage". The second is a disparaging one by Harriet Martineau, where she says that Lady Mary "wasted her fine analytical powers on things unknowable or purely imaginary," which tells us, perhaps, more about Martineau's view of metaphysics than about Lady Mary Shepherd, so Martineau's attack on her puts her in the company of almost all the great minds of the time. Of course, anyone who has read Martineau knows that she's disparaging of almost everyone but herself. But Martineau has a delightful bit of gossip about Lady Mary that I'd not come across before; and while she interprets it as reflecting badly on Shepherd, I, of course, interpret it as yet one more reason to think that Shepherd's awesome.

* Alexander Pruss has put up his lecture notes on the cosmological argument.

* Michael Ruse has made some revisions to his SEP article on creationism. Re-reading it, I'm struck by how un-encyclopedia-like it is. It's interesting, of course; Ruse usually is interesting even when he's wrong, and I have strong sympathies in his direction on this subject (although I think he goes wrong in a number of places). But the article's approach to the subject is polemical, not at all suitable for a reference text. (One is struck by this throughout; Laudan's arguments that falsifiability is a poor criterion for demarcation are dismissed as "quibbles", for instance.) It's more like what one could hope to find in a good intellectual magazine than what one would want if you were looking for a good, sober introduction to the philosophical issues involved in creationism. Nonetheless, it is actually an enjoyable read.

* Carnivalesque 32, an early modern edition, is up at "Serendipities." While not strictly metaphysical in topic, some of the links you'll find there are. For instance, there's a post on Fontanelle's discussion of the plurality of worlds. But metaphysics or not, it's a good carnival, with a lovely common-place book theme.

And a reminder to myself to locate and read the following book:

James Henderson, Early Mathematical Economics: William Whewell and the British Case

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Christine de Pisan on Her Husband

Daniel Mitsui recently had up a translation of one of Christine de Pisan's poems:

Ballad 26 ~ to her deceased husband

Marriage is a sweet thing,
I can prove it by my own example,
God indeed gave to me
A good and sensible husband.
Thank God for being willing
To save him for me, for I have truly
Experienced his great goodness:
Indeed the sweet heart loves me well.

The first night of our marriage,
I could already feel
His great goodness, for he never did to me
Any outrage which would have harmed me,
But, before it was time to get up,
He kissed me, I think, one hundred times,
Without asking for any other base reward:
Indeed the sweet heart loves me well.

And he said, with such tender words:
God made me live for you,
Sweet friend, and I think that he had me raised
For your personal use.
He did not stop raving like that
The whole night,
Without being any more immoderate:
Indeed the sweet heart loves me well.

Prince, he makes me mad for love,
When he says that he is all mine;
He will make me die of sweetness;
Indeed the sweetheart loves me well.

[Oevres po├ętiques de Christine de Pisan, Paris, Firmin Didot, 1891]


Christine's husband died rather young, and although he seems to have had many good qualities, a good head for money does not seem to have been one of them. She was left with a good number of bills and had to learn quickly both how to deal with creditors and how to bring in dollars, which she did by writing.

Sutherland on Hume on Design

Stewart Sutherland has an interview on Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion at "philosophy bites". He doesn't get across how much Hume's arguments there depend on certain crucial claims made by Cleanthes -- e.g., that there is no argument relevant to the subject except the analogical inference from design -- but this is a difficult topic to express clearly and accurately in a brief space, and he does very well.

Supporting Science in the Classroom

I had almost forgotten to mention anything about the ScienceBlogs DonorsChoose drive, which is raising money for science materials in classrooms. With just a few days left, both Bora and Janet could use a little help meeting their challenges. Click the links and look at each of the projects they're trying to make money for. If one looks good to you, contribute something to it!