Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Original Hand of Nature

A slightly puzzling passage in Hume's Enquiry:

But though animals learn many parts of their knowledge from observation, there are also many parts of it, which they derive from the original hand of nature; which much exceed the share of capacity they possess on ordinary occasions; and in which they improve, little or nothing, by the longest practice and experience. These we denominate Instincts, and are so apt to admire as something very extraordinary, and inexplicable by all the disquisitions of human understanding. But our wonder will, perhaps, cease or diminish, when we consider, that the experimental reasoning itself, which we possess in common with beasts, and on which the whole conduct of life depends, is nothing but a species of instinct or mechanical power, that acts in us unknown to ourselves; and in its chief operations, is not directed by any such relations or comparisons of ideas, as are the proper objects of our intellectual faculties. Though the instinct be different, yet still it is an instinct, which teaches a man to avoid the fire; as much as that, which teaches a bird, with such exactness, the art of incubation, and the whole economy and order of its nursery.

(From Of the Reason of Animals.) What's puzzling about this? Hume rejects the doctrine of innate ideas. We also know he tends to interpret that pretty broadly, so that, for instance, one of his criticisms of Thomas Reid (in the letter to Hugh Blair) was that Reid's position "leads us back to the doctrine of innate ideas." But this talk of knowledge derived from "the original hand of nature," of which we have an instance ourselves in "the experimental reasoning," seems itself to be leading back to the doctrine of innate ideas. I suspect that the difference, as Hume would see it, is that our mind's natural operations are "not directed by any such relations or comparisons of ideas, as are the proper objects of our intellectual faculties"; that is, this instinctual knowledge cannot be understood by innate ideas because we never perceive the ideas: it works "in us unknown to ourselves." Hume, of course, wouldn't deny that there are "secret springs and principles" in the mind; and these would certainly be different from ideas in the Humean sense of the term. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the rejection of innate ideas does not involve the rejection of innate knowledge.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Bérulle on the Spiritual Sun

An excellent mind of this age claimed that the sun and not the earth is at the center of the world. He maintained that it is stationary and that the earth, in conformity with its round shape, moves in relation to the sun. This position goes against all appearances, which constrain our senses to believe that the sun is in continuous movement around the earth. This new opinion, which has little following in the science of the stars, is useful and should be followed in the science of salvation.

For Jesus is the sun that is immovable in his greatness and that moves all other things....Jesus is the Sun of our souls and from him we receive every grace, every light and every effect of his power.

Pierre de Bérulle, Discourse on the State and Grandeurs of Jesus, Discourse 2, in Bérulle and the French School: Selected Writings. Glendon, tr. Paulist (New York: 1989) 116-117.

The "excellent mind" appears to be Copernicus. The Grandeurs is written around 1623, so this is about 80 years after the publication of the De revolutionibus. It also makes it about seven years after the big furor over Copernicanism that led to the ban on works advocating Copernicanism. Bérulle, of course, is chiefly interested in the analogy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Two Poem Drafts and a Redraft

A Bit of Thanksgiving

I thank you, Lord, for fruitful fields,
for wide and healthful skies,
and for the fact that not everyone
who goes off to war will die;
and for the limits you have wisely placed
on corruption and despite,
that we need only deal with them
once or twice each night.
I thank you, Lord, for cheerful suns
that rise at every dawn,
and that my students learn to hide
the sound and sight of yawn.
I thank you that we live here free
in houses without bars,
that we have kept the things we own,
that no one owns the stars.
I thank you, Lord, for politics,
for presidents, senates and such,
which keep us from thinking that progess is easy
or that we have it much.
Thank you, Lord, for infant smiles
and children bright at play,
and for all the crabbed and silly souls
who annoy us every day.
(We appreciate those most, O Lord,
those crosses that we bear,
and we thank you that we have not gone bald
from pulling out our hair.)
Thank you, Lord, for mirrors,
for when I most despise
the follies of my fellow man,
I look, and they show pride's lies.
Thank you, God, for mysteries
that you leave for us to solve,
and for putting us on this floating ball
that rotates and revolves.
Thank you for your mercy,
which saves us from the brink;
and thank you, Lord, for righteous wrath,
but we need it more, I think.
Thank you for all gentle souls
who can their tempers keep;
protect them, Lord, from the rest of us,
lest we murder them in their sleep.
And for all the blissful marriages!
There are three of them, at least,
and given how hard the whole thing is,
that's quite an abundant feast.
And for all the others as well, my Lord,
that stall and sputter and spin
like well-loved cars that barely move,
they are so nicely broken-in.
And also for the ones that fail,
that they might have been worth the try
if they had begun to talk, to tell it straight,
to laugh and sweetly cry,
and that they in their saddest loss
yet stand as vivid sign
that it's commitment to the crazy person there,
not to the signature on that line.
Thank you, Lord, for critics,
the ones who attack with whip and flail,
and for reviewers and polemicists,
and, because of them, for hell.
And thank you, Lord, for stupid folk,
so that we can clearly see
all the things that shock the mind,
from which none of us are free;
and thank you for those shocking times
when the pedants who lecture all
on all their silly, foolish folly
into those follies fall,
for it teaches us the wisdom
of gentleness and restraint,
lest we in turn be painted
with the brush by which we paint.
Thank you for absurdities;
they overflow the bank,
so if I thank you for each one,
I'll never cease to thank.
And thank you for gifts of irony,
which give us the wit to see
that all the things we complain about
may be thanksgiving's seed.
But most of all, I thank you, Lord,
that in this life before we die,
we can see ourselves with wry regard,
and shake our heads, and sigh.


The room was dark, for it was night,
but through the shade a glint of light
poured softly down from moon to floor;
thus I could see her at the door.
She drew near, then with her palm
pushed hair from my eyes; in voice like balm
said, "Dearest boy"; and, before I could flee,
she seized the pillow and murdered me.


Rich with wild wormwood
lightly bitter in my taste
the triune in my body
is deeply interlaced
and I am green as glory
with bewitchment in my soul
waiting in the glass
for the God to make me whole

Wild and unruly
a danger to the sane
I stand upon the wasteland
waiting for the rain
rain drops down now slowly
sweet and cold as ice
heaven interfuses
and I louche to paradise

More Notes and Links

* Don't forget to put in your nominations for the Cliopatria Awards, or at least be thinking of possible nominees. The clock is ticking.

* When I was considering AOCs in graduate school I originally intended to philosophy of science; but I found that the sorts of things that I was interested in -- the complexities of diffusion of scientific information (scientific pedagogy and popularization), Duhem, Whewell, etc. -- were rarely studied, and the things that were usually studied were often exactly the things I thought utterly pointless dead ends. So that ended that. But I still have an interest in the diffusion of scientific information, and keep an eye out for people asking the right questions and trying to give good answers to them. I still think we need good answers to questions about the best way for scientific information to be brought to the general public. Larry Moran at "Sandwalk" has a habit of asking good questions, and he recently asked a question on precisely this subject, using an example at YouTube.

* E. David Ford and Hiroaki Ishii, The Method of Synthesis in Ecology (PDF)
The SEP article on Ecology
Colyvan, et al. A Field Guide to Philosophy of Ecology (PDF)

* Richard Howe's Thomistic Responses to Some Objections to Aquinas's Second Way (PDF) (ht)

* Well, I have to hand it to Huckabee; he at least has a decent sense of humor. It will fly over some people's heads, but it manages to be both enjoyable and memorable, which is a good target to aim for in a political ad. The big test for any TV advertisement is whether it could stand out during the Super Bowl; and this is the closest any political ad is likely to come.

* Duck has some criticism of D'Souza.

* Carnivalesque XXXIII is up at Blogenspiel.

* A NYT article on the decline of tenure (ht). Even if colleges increase their tenure-track positions, there would still be the real problem that colleges keep hiring adjuncts that they do not support properly; increasing tenure-track positions will not change the fact that people who are hired as adjuncts will face much the same conditions they do now. And when budget is tight in the future, the number of adjuncts will swing up again, and there will still be nothing in place to support the adjunct pool properly. No one expects adjunctsto have the level of departmental and administrative support that full professors have, due to the fact that they have rather different, and definitely supplementary, roles in the department, but they do have the right to expect to be treated as real professors rather than as glorified substitute teachers or the academic equivalent of day labor. They are real professors supplementing the department, to be sure; but professors for all that. They should be supported as such.

* There has been some fuss over the recent stem cell breakthrough. It is perhaps worth pointing out that everyone seems to agree that the breakthrough has more to do with understanding how cells work than with creating useful stem cells; the method used is not suitable for clinical applications. Nick Anthis has an overview and some links for further information.

* Ed Cook has a post on T.E. Lawrence and C.S. Lewis.

* Ars Moriendi at "The Lion and the Cardinal"

* J. T. Paasch has some translations of late medieval Trinitarian theology.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Peters on Rosmini's Five Wounds

In my previous post on Rosmini's Five Wounds, I noted without elaborating that some of the Wounds "are still, in slightly different forms, to be seen today." Bosco Peters, in his second post on Rosmini, suggests some ways in which they can, and thus in which Rosmini can challenge complacencies even today.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Mary Anne Warren on Moral Status

Mary Ann Warren opens her book Moral Status with the following passage:

This is a philosophical exploration of the concept of moral status. To have moral status is to be morally considerable, or to have moral standing. It is to be an entity towards which moral agents have, or can have, moral obligations. (p. 3)

I think this opening passage exhibits a flaw in the whole notion of moral status, but I will get to that in a moment. After some elaborate and interesting discussion of single-criterion accounts of moral status, Warren goes on to propose her own multi-criterial analysis. In this analysis, moral status is pinned down using seven principles, all of which are supposed to be "implicit elements of common-sense morality" (p. 149). They are as follows:

1. Respect for Life Principle: Living organisms are not to be killed or otherwise harmed, without good reasons that do not violate principles 2-7.

2. Anti-Cruelty Principle: Sentient beings are not to be killed or subjected to pain or suffering, unless there is no other feasible way of furthering goals that are (1) consistent with principles 3-7; and (2) important to human beings, or other entities that have a stronger moral status than can be based on sentience alone.

3. Agent's Rights Principle: Moral agents have full and equal basic moral rights, including the rights to life and liberty.

4. Human Rights Principle: Within the limits of their own capacities and of principle 3, human beings who are capable of sentience but not of moral agency have the same moral rights as do moral agents.

5. Ecological Principle: Living things that are not moral agents, but that are important to the ecosystems of which they are part, have, within the limits of principles 1-4, a stronger moral status than could b ebased upon their intrinsic properties alone; ecologically important entities that are not themselves alive, such as species and habitats, may also legitimately be accorded a stronger moral status than their intrinsic properties would indicate.

6. Interspecific Principle: Within the limits fo principles 1-5, non-human members of mixed social communities have a stronger moral status than could be based upon their intrinsic properties alone.

7. Transitivity of Respect Principle: Within the limits of principles 1-6, and to the extent that is feasible and morally permissible, moral agents should respect one another's attributions of moral status.

I think there are a number of problems with the whole notion of moral status when it is given any serious moral weight. One of the reasons for this is that the apportionment of moral status is itself a morally risky thing: it is, at its most basic level, the division of the universe into castes, and then it proceeds to give us, as falling in the caste of moral agents, a list of occasions on which we can deny that the other castes have any relevant moral standing. Human beings have a long history of doing precisely this, actually; and it has often not been a good thing. To be sure, that we've often drawn the caste-lines on the basis of prejudice does not of itself imply that we always will. But we would need some excellent assurance that prejudices are not interfering with the drawing of accurate lines. This is particularly true given that accounts of moral status always seem somewhat gerrymandered. Single-criterion accounts manage to minimize this appearance by sticking to a single principle; but they run into a number of problems that Warren discusses in some detail. Multi-criterial accounts like Warren's can avoid these problems; but the danger of gerrymandering increases exponentially, and the more principles you have, the more ad hoc it seems to have these and only these principles. (6) above, for instance, is clearly thrown in chiefly to increase the moral status of pets; (4) is probably not the formulation that most people would consider natural, but it becomes clear enough that it has been carefully and deliberately balanced in order to give the right to life to patients in a temporary coma and to infants while not restricting abortion; one might well argue that these principles are crucially incomplete; and so forth. The principles are supposed to capture implicit elements of common-sense morality; but both the common sense and the explication of its implicit elements is easily overrun by personal opinion. Without having a solid reason to think that this has not happened, the whole exercise is largely pointless.

Moral status is, in any case, an otiose concept. Warren throughout her discussion -- and in this I think she is not alone -- treats moral status ambiguously. This arises in the first few sentences. On the one hand, to have moral status is to be morally considerable, to have moral standing. On the other, it is to be something to which one can have obligations. There seems to be a tendency to conflate the two, when there are good reasons for not doing so. Early in the book Warren takes an example of a stone to try to give an intuitive motivation to the notion of moral status:

Is it morally wrong to take a stone and grind it into powder, merely for one's own amusement? Most people would say that it is not--unless there are special circumstances. Perhaps the stone belongs to someone for whom it carries precious personal memories. Perhaps it contains fossilized dinosaur bones from which important scientific knowledge could be gleaned, or valuable gems which could be sold to feed starving people. In these cases, we might say that it would be wrong to destroy the stone for no good reason. But most of us would regard it as a wrong only in so far as it causes harm to human beings, or deprives them of important benefits. The stone itself does not seem to be the kind fo thing towards which we can have moral obligations. (p.4)

This captures very well the difference between the two. We have no obligations to stones. But it does not follow from this that stone is not morally considerable; Warren here gives a number of reasons why the stone might well be morally considerable. To have moral standing usually means that it makes a moral difference how one is treated; whether the stone has moral standing may depend on the context, but sometimes it will.

Warren notes that the notion of moral status has two functions: to establish minimal standards and to establish moral ideals. These are radically different functions, and cannot be fulfilled simultaneously. (Warren herself notes this, arguing that it can be problematic to propound moral ideals as minimal standards.) The natural conclusion is that 'moral status' is equivocal and really just lumps together different kinds of moral reasoning that are more fruitfully kept distinct.

When we recognize this, it becomes very clear that what the notion of moral status clumsily captures is this: the place something occupies in good moral reasoning. To the extent that the criteria for moral status have any value or plausibility, it is because they capture patterns of moral reasoning that are fairly common. But these patterns can be examined, evaluated, and applied in their own right; there is no reason whatsoever to try to capture them by such a roundabout and obscure means as the notion of moral status.

None of this is to say that 'moral status' might not be a perfectly reasonable term to use in some colloquial contexts. But it contributes nothing of significance to moral reasoning, being nothing more than a clumsy ossification of moral reasoning itself.


Quotations are from Mary Anne Warren, Moral Status, Clarendon (Oxford: 1997).

Problem of Evil Discussion

The discussion of the problem of evil in the blogosphere that I had previously noted has grown. Here is an updated list of links.

1. An Examined Life: News from the Scorecard Department

2. Quintessence of Dust: Oh look. It's the problem of evil.

3. Sacramentum Vitae: Theology to go

4. An Examined Life: More Evil Problems

5. DarwinCatholic: That Problem of Evil Thing

6.Sacramentum Vitae: Theology to go II: Eating the meal

7. Orthonormal Basis: The Problem of Sin

8. An Examined Life: Impossible Possibilities

9. DarwinCatholic: Imagine a World...

10. Quintessence of Dust: Belief, evolution, evil, and me

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Notes and Links

* Stephen Pimentel's summary of Catholic covenantal theology

* Dooyeweerd's 32 Propositions on anthropology, translated by Friesen. A good crash-course in the broad basics of Dooyeweerd's view (which is useful to have if you ever dive into, say, the New Critique).

* The brief correspondence of Ignatius Sancho with Laurence Sterne. Ignatius Sancho, born on an African slave ship, was the first Afro-Briton known to have voted in Parliamentary elections (he qualified because, with the help of the Duke of Montagu, he became an independent householder). He had a rather extensive correspondence. Inspired by reading a passage lamenting the plight of slaves in Sterne's sermons, and being a fan of Tristram Shandy, which was currently being serialized, he sent a brief letter to Sterne asking him to write something against slavery as practiced in the West Indies; Sterne replies graciously and promises to put something in Tristram Shandy if he can. This he did, in volume IV.

* Sancho also wrote a music (and a text on music theory). You can hear mp3's of Sancho's music here. (Unfortunately, there are pop-ups.)

* An article on Jerome Lejeune, the renowned geneticist.

* John Witherspoon's 1776 The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men, in favor of the Revolution.

* Pascal's Wager in the business section. Of course, it's not the real Wager of Pascal (which, I've argued, is a multi-stage dialectical argument directed specifically at agnostics one of whose primary points is that agnostics have no grounds on which to argue that believers are irrational), but that, of course, was not the point. It's interesting anyway to see it pop up.

A commenter at Marginal Revolution brought up Alex Tabarrok's Believe in Pascal's Wager? Have I Got a Deal for You? (PDF). However, as Lars Østerdal pointed out, Tabarrok isn't very explicit about the model of expected utility he's working with; so he develops a model in which Tabarrok's conclusion is valid in Pascal's and Tabarrok's Wagers (PDF). If I understand Tabarrok's argument correctly, the utilities involved would have to be commensurable with both dollars and lives, which would be somewhat curious. What I would suggest that Tabarrok's clever argument really shows, though, if it shows anything, is that Pascal's Wager (taken decision-theoretically) has to be understood to depend on our total state of evidence (with only certain states of evidence allowing the Wager to be made at all, if it can ever be made). Thus we shouldn't think of it in terms of a decision matrix, but in terms of a set of branching decision pathways or pipelines or circuits that, responsive to certain criteria (e.g., the presence of evidence of deception), allow or disallow certain decisions in the first place; travelling along this rather than that pathway can be represented by a decision matrix (but they will be very different types of decision matrices: just as if you had a decision matrix on whether to accept a scientific theory with a decision matrix on whether to apply it to make weapons, they would not consider the same factors or have the same utilities). The decision matrix given by Tabarrok, following Hájek, would just be one of those (granted certain conditions, like the state of evidence, making the factors it considers relevant to actual decision). Again, although it sticks more closely to what Pascal actually says than the usual decision-matrix interpretation, that's not IMHO the real Wager; but it is interesting food for thought. It also gets us into more Jamesian territory.

* Michael Liccione mentions this paper by Alexander Golitzin on an image in Gregory's Fifth Theological Oration. It's an interesting paper, but I'm not sure much can be had from the image. For one thing, Gregory doesn't present it as an analogy to the Trinity but as a counterexample to the reasoning of his opponents; and, for another, if it were an analogy, we would have to be cautious about putting much emphasis on it given that the Oration ends with a well-expressed argument about the inadequacy of analogy and an exhortation to put analogy aside. The passage from St. Symeon, though, is well worth pondering, for other reasons.

* Philosopher's Carnival #57 at Movement of Existence

* Currently reading: Lydia and Tim McGrew's draft, A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (which is about arguments from miracles in natural theology). It's Bayesian, which means I'll disagree with it, but it should be interesting.

Announcement to Zechariah

Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."