Friday, January 25, 2008

Sacramone on Rambo

Anthony Sacramone on the new Rambo film:

Do not go to see this film. In fact, if you see this film listed on a marquee, cross the street, put your hands over your ears, and start to hum until you’re at least a few dozen yards away. I saw this waste of bamboo in the Dolby Studios screening room, which probably possesses the best sound system (as you’d expect from Dolby) east of Hollywood. I swear I suffered tinnitus for a good 12 hours after being subjected to this cacophonous torture device.

But the sharpest criticism comes a bit before this, when Sacramone says, "This film subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge."

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wise as Serpents, Harmless as Doves

It was said unto the apostles of the Lord, Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. Christ therefore wished there to be in us the nature of different creatures: but in such a sort that the harmlessness of the dove might temper the serpent's wisdom, and the wisdom of the serpent might instruct the harmlessness of the dove, and that so wisdom might be made harmless and harmlessness wise.

St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis 23.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rosmini on the First Lesson of Social Justice

Now the first lesson social justice teaches us -- which governments nowadays have certainly not learnt nor seem to want to learn -- is that civil government with its acts and ordinances must never transgress the natural bounds of its authority, which cannot be defined without prior definition of the type of institution proper to civil government. Unless and until the sovereign rule of justice is accepted, there are no limits a government will not transgress. Utility alone, such a vague and empty word, cannot prescribe any definite limits to it because it depends on the probable evaluation of circumstances. Utility which is ofits nature variable, depends on the judgment of the person who carries out the evaluation.

Antonio Rosmini, Introduction to Philosophy, Volume 1: About the Author's Studies, Murphy, tr. Rosmini House (Durham: 2004) p. 27.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Notes and Links

* The Open Laboratory 2007 anthology is now available.

* Rachel Leow has a good post at "A Historian's Craft" suggesting a link, or at least an analogy, between certain sorts of historical description and the Humean view of causation (also at Cliopatria). The analogy could probably be developed quite fruitfully by consideration of what Hume calls 'probability', as discussed in Treatise 1.3.11-13, where he discusses our judgments about likelihood and plausibility in explanations.

* Carolyn McCulley has a post on Simone de Beauvoir at "Radical Womanhood." (ht)

* An interesting post on Claude Bernard by Cosma Shalizi.

* Br. Guy Consolmagno, S. J., of the Vatican Observatory, an amusing musing on techies and religion.

* Michael Pakaluk has some facts about Aquinas's citation of Aristotle.

* A humorous review of Alter's translation of the Psalms. I must say, I rather like the sound of "Aliens cringed before me" (as a translation of Ps. 18:45); it sounds like a science fiction short story. The review also gives a taste of some poetic translations of the Psalms. And Weinberger is quite right toward the end when he talks about the Jerusalem Bible; it does what Alter is trying to do to a very high level of quality.

* Adam Roberts says of Frank Herbert:

[He also liked to dip into Heidegger: his 1968 novel The Santaroga Barrier is a pulp sciencefictional riff on Being and Time, and is as rubbish as that summary makes it sound. Its hero is called Gilbert Dasein].

The rubbish part is really not true. The Santaroga Barrier is one of Herbert's better novels; it has better-written passages, more likeable characters, and more of a sense of humor than most of his other works. Easily one of his better ones (not that that's difficult in an oeuvres that includes works like Hellstrom's Hive, whose relatively greater popularity always mystifies me).

* Michael Bowen has some thoughts on how the AHA could do more for job seekers. What really stands out is that every single one of the issues raised is a problem for the American Philosophical Association as well. (ht) More and more I've become to think that there are serious general problems with the character of academic life and work -- we assume things that are extraordinarily odd to assume, and I think the result of this uncritical acceptance of the Way Things Work is dangerous. Many basic structures of academic life -- the job market is perhaps the most obvious but not the only one -- are very poorly adapted to fields whose primary raison d'etre is to learn and teach.

Independently, Jender has a post on the problem in philosophy, with some good discussion in the comments.

* I find myself in the curious position of defending (part of) the kalam argument at Mike Almeida's place; that's certainly a first, since I think the argument's question-begging. But infinities make strange bedfellows.

* Currently reading:
Hájek, What Conditional Probability Could Not Be (PDF)
Easwaran, What Conditional Probability Could (Almost) Be (PDF)
Joyce, Theistic Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma (PDF)
Ben-Yami, A Critique of Frege on Common Nouns (PDF; ht)
Knuth, Lattice Duality (PDF)
Knuth, What is a Question? (PDF)
Griggs, Killian, and Savage, Venn Diagrams and Symmetric Chain Decompositions in the Boolean Lattice (PDF)
Palmquist, Kant on Euclid
Randall, A Critique of the Kantian View of Geometry
David Miller, Word Games for Formal Logic (PDF)
Peter Jipsen, An Overview of Generalized Basic Logic Algebras (PDF)
Stith, The Priority of Respect (PDF)
Ruskey, Savage, and Wagon, The Search for Simple Symmetric Venn Diagrams (PDF)
Hicks, The Eremitic Ideal and the Dreamer's Quest in Piers Plowman

* A useful set of notes on the very basics of Boolean lattices (PDF)
See also the SEP's Basic Theory of Ordering Relations supplement to the quantum logic article and also J.B. Nation's Notes on Lattice Theory (PDF). If you know of any other good primer-level discussions of lattice theory, and particularly of distributive lattices, whether online or in paper, let me know.

Early editions of Malebranche at Google Books

I've recently come to think that the increasing scholarly resources online need to be laid out more clearly than they are -- a kind of rough bibliographical work for the Internet set. So here's a first contribution, early editions (within his lifetime) of Malebranche's works at Google Books.

The 1685 Three Letters. This was a response to Arnauld's Defense against Malebranche's criticism of Arnauld's criticism (in the book of True and False Ideas) of Malebranche's Search.

The 1709 edition of the Recueil, Third Volume.
The 1709 edition of the Recueil, Fourth Volume. Collect together a number of the responses to Arnauld.

The 1711 Dialogues on Metaphysics, on Religion, and on Death, First Volume. This is the first three dialogues.

The 1712 edition of The Search after Truth, Second Volume. This is Books 3, 4, and 5.
The 1712 edition of The Search after Truth, Third Volume. This is Book 6, along with the Response to Regis.
The 1712 edition of The Search after Truth, Fourth Volume. The Elucidations.

A Mysterious Verse of Amazing Grace

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.

This verse of "Amazing Grace" is not in John Newton's original; it became a widely popular addition in the nineteenth century, through Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter XXXVIII). A mystery about it is that nobody actually knows for sure who wrote the lines, although John P. Rees is the most common attribution.

Little Lamb of the Glorious Lamb

Today is the feast of St. Agnes, one of the most popular of the virgin martyrs through the ages. And thus a good opportunity to read Wiseman's Fabiola, if you haven't done so.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Deus Ex Machina

I was amused by this comment by PZ Myers in the comments to a post on The Golden Compass:

Don't assume I disliked Narnia because it's a Christian allegory -- it isn't that simple. I disliked it because it made no sense. The lion sacrificed himself, and then pulled out a magic get-out-of-death-free card, and this was supposed to be good? A story with such a blatant deus ex machina just bores me, I'm afraid.

Which is a rather funny additional comment for a post showing preference for His Dark Materials over the Chronicles, given the layers upon layers of deus ex machina in the former.

In fact, it is highly unlikely that anyone is ever bored merely by deus ex machina, however blatant; it's hard, for instance, to get more blatant in this respect than Euripides, but anyone who claimed to be bored by Euripides's plots is merely showing that they have no taste in matters of drama, or else merely showing that they can repeat clichés without thinking about them. Deus ex machina is not intrinsically boring; so deus ex machina cannot, simply in itself, be the reason someone is bored.

I find it interesting that there is such common animus against deus ex machina as such, given that none of the standard complaints against it as a plot device can withstand serious scrutiny. None of the standard criticisms really apply to classic cases of deus ex machina like we find in the Medea or the Iliad or Brecht's The Threepenny Opera or (for that matter) Wells's War of the Worlds. The bias against it has a good pedigree, of course -- it goes back to Aristotle's Poetics:

As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the deus ex machina - as in the Medea, or in the return of the Greeks in the Iliad.

Similar views are found elsewhere. Aristotle's judgment here is more limited than it might look at first glance; the rejection occurs within the context of tragedy, and, even if accepted for tragedy, is much, much less plausible for comedy. (Here's an interesting discussion of deus ex machina in Greek drama, and the differences between tragedy and comedy in this regard.) Needless to say, if you transfer to other genres than drama the matter becomes even more complicated. But even Aristotle pulled back from outright rejection even for tragedy:

The deus ex machina should be employed only for events external to the drama - for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold; for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things. Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element the Oedipus of Sophocles.

Thus even in Aristotle the rejection of deus ex machina can be traced relatively precisely to particular requirements of one particular genre; a general ban can't be pulled from it. But even in Aristotle there is much to question here, as is shown in the criticism of Euripides and Homer; certainly Euripides uses deus ex machina in a way consonant with his overall (and high-quality) approach to tragedy: the gods jump in to resolve the matter but it makes sense at a higher level than the sequence of the plot. (And in the case of the Medea I would argue that Aristotle is clearly wrong in his diagnosis, since I would say the play shows that you can have both a god from the machine and a plot structured on plausibilities.)

The real issue, it seems to me, is not deus ex machina but quality of resolution, which has to be argued for based on the features of the work in question; there is no particular feature of plot structure that indicates poor resolution, but clumsy uses of deus ex machina are memorable, because unintentionally comical or jarring, examples of such poor resolution.