Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Linkable Thinkables

I will be gone the next few days due to family matters. In the meantime, here are some things to read:

* Fart Spray (and Disgust) Makes Moral Judgments More Severe, at "Mixing Memory"

* CT 18: The Infinity of God According to Essence, at "Blogging Aquinas"

* 'Democracy' draft, at "Philosophy, et cetera"

* Medieval skepticism toward witchcraft, at "Scribal Terror"

* Teaching Remedial Writing, at "Mike Rose's Blog"

* At Whitchurch Canonicorum, at "Early Modern Whale"

* Scott Aikin, Tu Quoque Arguments and the Significance of Hypocrisy (PDF) in Informal Logic Vol. 28, No. 2.

* Mi Gyung Kim, The 'Instrumental' Reality of Phlogiston, in Hyle Vol. 14, No. 1

* John Hacker Wright, Blasphemy and Virtue Ethics (PDF), in Florida Philosophical Review Vol. 8, No. 1.

Sad Commentary

A sad comment on the philosophy profession from Brian Leiter:

I must say this is a really crazy aspect of the job market: everyone knows the market is tight, that most philosophers are, in one sense or another, "under-employed" in their first position [even when it is tenure-stream!], and that multiple searches over multiple years are the norm--yet still there is a tendency to draw unfavorable inferences when the job seeker has a PhD that is several years old, and no tenure-stream job.

If this is so, there are far too many people in the philosophy profession who are not taking the trouble to apply basic reasoning and critical thinking skills; and that is indeed sad, given that, if there's any profession that prides itself on reasoning critical thinking, it's philosophy.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rough Thoughts on Survey-Assisted Intuition Research

There has been some interesting discussion of 'experimental philosophy' due to a post at the anthropology blog "Savage Minds" (always an interesting read). The post is a bit impressionistic, but it covers a great deal in an intriguing way; it is favorable to the general spirit of 'experimental philosophy', but is critical of certain aspects of it. One of the things I thought was interesting is that the author, Christopher Kelty, hits squarely one of the things that has annoyed me about the movement, at least in a minor way, despite the fact that I am sympathetic to the basic idea. This is that, amidst the interesting work, there has been a great deal of branding and playing of the Game of Authority -- or, as I would have put it, less clearly, rhetorical salesmanship. (Kelty, it should be noted, takes a less cynical view of both than I do.) You'll notice that I keep the phrase in quotes. I do early modern philosophy; there's a great deal of meaning in that phrase, experimental philosophy, and it is absurd, utterly absurd, that anyone expects it now to apply, with its heavy associations, to what is in fact a very, very narrow methodological program. It's not experimental philosophy; it's merely survey-assisted research with respect to one philosophical idea, namely, intuition. And 'experimental philosophers' don't, contrary to their grandiose pretensions, burn the armchair: they get up long enough to do survey and then sit right back down in it. I don't see how anyone looking with an objective eye at the discussion on the Experimental Philosophy blog could say otherwise. I don't think there is anything wrong with this, either the surveys or the armchairs. But I dislike the rhetoric, with its overselling and its rank-pulling.

A second thing I found interesting about the post was that I agree with the suggestion that it would make more sense for experimental philosophy, given its interests, to be oriented "towards anthropology and towards fieldwork—not towards cognitive science, evolutionary biology and statistics". One of the very unsatisfactory things about surveys for what the 'experimental philosophy' crowd claims to be doing is that it is difficult to get an adequate grasp of what is going on in someone's head from a survey. As the old joke goes, surveys just measure behavior in response to surveys. To get a full basket of information relevant to understanding folk intuitions, in the sense(s) to which philosophers have appealed, you need to know not just what people are inclined to say about scenarios under survey conditions; you need to find out what's going on when they reason and act. You need, in other words, not merely surveys but you need the sort of things cognitive scientists on the one side and anthropologists on the other have already been doing for quite some time now. And it seems to me that, for the sort information needed to inform the kinds of philosophical discussion that involve appeal to folk intuitions, the lacuna on the anthropological side is far and away the more serious; and the lack of good ethnography is a more serious lapse in philosophical appeals to intuition than the lack of rigorous surveys. If you are trying to gauge folk intuitions about, say, modality, you need far richer data and analysis than surveys alone can provide. (It goes without saying, of course, that surveys can still provide a useful supplement.)

My primary doubt about Survey-Assisted Intuition Research, however, is something else entirely. I think SAIR is actually a very, very conservative reform of philosophy; even among the more radical branch, those who use it to throw into doubt the appeal to intuitions at all. This is one reason, actually, that the occasionally overblown rhetoric exasperates me slightly: it's not the reform of philosophy, it's surveys. Lovely things, but just one tool in the toolkit. And for it to be formulated at all, SAIR to date has to take for granted that the basic shape of recent non-SAIR philosophical discourse is pretty much right in one respect, namely, the coherence and value of the notion of 'intuition'. Habitual exposure breeds familiarity; it's difficult to stand back and recognize that this notion, 'intuition', and its cluster of associated terms, is not so clear, and never has been clear, and is a remarkably impoverished vocabulary for talking about the functions and operations of thought these terms are used to discuss. Contrast this, for instance, with the eighteenth-century Scottish Common Sense philosophers, and their notion of 'evidence', understood as 'evidentness' or 'obviousness'. Functionally it works much as 'intuition' does, allowing for slightly different conceptual borders. But if we look at how they handled it, they did not take it as a single notion. Beattie, for instance, gives us the following taxonomy of 'evidence':

(I) Relating to abstract ideas and their relations

(a) intuitive evidence (i.e., self-evident principles)

(b) demonstrative evidence (i.e., something's clearly following from principles)

(II) Relating to things that really exist

(a) certain evidence from our own experience, which is of three kinds:
(1) external and internal sense
(2) memory
(3) causal inference

(b) probable evidence from our own experience, which is of two kinds:
(1) according to uniformity (i.e., extrapolation from experienced to unexperienced of the same kind)
(2) according to analogy (i.e., extrapolation from experienced to unexperienced of like kind)

(c) testimonial evidence

Each one of these types of evidentness has its own account; none of them can be conflated with any of the others, and they all have a different role in reasoning, and a different normative force for philosophical inquiry; they are appealed to in different ways and under different circumstances, and despite all being 'evidence' there is a clear recognition that they are different. It's a bit messier than it seems here; Beattie is simplifying and collating because he needs a systematic account for his purposes (in context, attacking Humean skepticism). But you get the idea. And what do we have when we turn to appeals to 'intuition'? Something much less sophisticated. Now, one thing you could imagine SAIRers doing is trying to enrich the account of 'intuition' so as to make it more adequate to what people are trying to do with it, perhaps investigating how far it is one thing and how far it is many different things that have been lumped together through lack of research, etc. There is work in cognitive science that could be adapted to this sort of thing. But we don't really seem to find this; rather, they take the basic notion as a relatively unproblematic primitive, as if it were obvious that there were real things (unified things with a single coherent account) capable of covering (again, in a way that would fall under a single coherent account) the topics with regard to which appeals to intuition are made. Not only is 'experimental philosophy' research on the basis of a limited method, surveys, and into a very limited topic, intuitions, it doesn't even cover the whole field of questions on that topic.

This triad of limited method, limited topic, limited field of questions, makes it rather doubtful that this is more than one of the shifting passions analytic philosophy gets from time to time. One hopes it comes to more, and as I said, I actually like the idea behind it, and would welcome and encourage more SAIR, especially if such researchers toned down their rhetoric a slight bit and focused (as they have largely done, to their credit) on (1) honing their methodology and (2) finding usable results. I'd love to see Survey Methodology for Philosophers become a regular class in graduate philosophy departments (and I think they should start working on putting such classes together without delay). But right now, for all that it seems to promise to rescript our approach to philosophy, all it seems to offer is an iota and a jot. Iotas are useful; but we should not pretend they are alphabets.

Lost Gospel of Zacchaeus

Anybody who has felt their eyes roll in their heads at some new bit of religious journalism about some relatively minor archaeological find that will "shake our view of Christianity" (even though any halfway rational person could easily do the reasoning to point out that it doesn't shake anything whatsoever, just as on everyone of the countless occasions that religious journalists have cried wolf) will appreciate the Lost Gospel of Zacchaeus, which focuses on the really important discovery of the Gospel of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector, which will likely transform of our understanding forever of whether Jesus was divine and why they cancelled Mr. Belvedere. It seems fitting in light of the complete lack of critical thought that some quarters have displayed over the Gabriel Revelation stone.

Two Inheritances

One must remark that since God is the Creator and Governor of all things, all receive something from him like an inheritance from a father. Evil men receive from God the temporal goods of this world as their share and their inheritance, and Wisdom speaks in their name saying, "This is our portion and our lot." (17:16) Inversely, the good understand spiritual goods as their portion and inheritance, according to the Psalm, "The lot marked out for me is my delight, for welcome indeed is the heritage that falls to me." (15:16)

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Job (Mullady, tr.), ch. 27

Monday, July 07, 2008

Links and Notes

* Blogging Aquinas is a blog by Will Duquette that is devoted to blogging Aquinas (surprise!). Currently the author is blogging through the Compendium.

* Wisdom from the 42nd Page taste-tests books by blogging their forty-second page.

* Alexander Pruss discusses the fun proper to science.

* There is some excellent discussion at "Per Caritatem" of Boethius's Consolation, with particular focus on the ever-puzzling fact that it's in the form of a Menippean satire: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

* The Summer 2008 edition of The Alexandrian, the Journal of Catholic Culture in Canada, is out. Catherine Nolan's "The Age of Silence" is a short story variation on a Canticle-for-Leibowitz-type theme.

* David Corfield on Michael Polanyi and Personal Knowledge (in mathematics and science) at "The n-Category Café".

* I'm currently testing the reCAPTCHA system for Houyhnhnm Land; you could help greatly by leaving a comment on this post. It's a great system -- using it helps to scan Internet Archive books that are giving the computers a bit of trouble. But I'd like to test out its usability on several guinea pigs other than myself.

* Also, I am still looking for recommendations for the Houyhnhnm Land Bookshelf, which is a bibliography of recommended works. Currently I just have three samples up. I have a list of books and articles I eventually will get around to adding, but in the meantime recommendations from across the range of early modern thought -- philosophy, history, literature -- are very welcome.

Knowledge, Fancy, Judgment, Sensibility

Text not available
Essays On Poetry and Music, as They Affect the Mind; on Laughter, and Ludicrous Composition; on the Usefulness of Classical Learning By James Beattie

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Philosophical Justification of Judaism in IV Maccabees

To someone raised with a notion of philosophy that is Greek, along the lines of Plato and Aristotle, there is something a bit odd about traditional Judaism, with its insistence on a large number of little restrictions on things like diet. One might be tempted to argue that there is nothing philosophical or rational about only eating animals that are cloven-footed and cud-chewing, particularly given that there is no overarching reason given for it. It's just there in the book, so Jews do it; utterly irrational.

Perhaps one of the more interesting Jewish responses to this general type of argument is found in the book usually known as IV Maccabees. We know nothing certain about its author or its date; the author was probably an Alexandrian Jew, probably drawing from II Maccabees. The discourse probably also originated in a Hanukkah homily. But this is all speculation. What we do know, from the work itself, is that the author fell squarely within both the Greek and the Jewish traditions, and explicitly poses for himself and his readers the question just mentioned. We find the explicit statement of this in the context of the martyrdom of Eleazar. Eleazar has been brought before Antiochus IV, who is trying to erase Judaism from his domain, and is therefore giving Jews the choice of either breaking the law, by eating forbidden food, or being tortured and put to death. Eleazar, an old man, is brought before Antiochus. Antiochus says to him (5:6-12),

I would counsel thee, old man, before thy tortures begin, to tasted the swine's flesh, and save your life; for I feel respect for your age and hoary head, which since you have had so long, you appear to me to be no philosopher in retaining the superstition of the Jews. For wherefore, since nature has conferred upon you the most excellent flesh of this animal, do you loathe it? It seems senseless not to enjoy what is pleasant, yet not disgraceful; and from notions of sinfulness, to reject the boons of nature.

And you will be acting, I think, still more senselessly, if you follow vain conceits about the truth. And you will, moreover, be despising me to your own punishment. Will you not awake from your trifling philosophy? and give up the folly of your notions; and, regaining understanding worthy of your age, search into the truth of an expedient course? and, reverencing my kindly admonition, have pity upon your own years?

Thus an opposition is set up between philosophy, in the proper, Greek sense, which involves understanding, and the "trifling philosophy" and "folly" of the "superstition of the Jews." Eleazar responds by rejecting the line Antiochus is trying to draw between trifling and untrifling philosophy: Antiochus wants to focus on particulars, like not eating animals that walk on paws, and say, 'Isn't that an odd and frivolous detail?' But Eleazar points out that this is to miss the point; the particular is valued not in itself but because of what it is a part of, namely, divine law. The question before Eleazar is not, as Antiochus wishes to suggest, whether to choose to eat unclean food or to die; the question is whether to live life according to Jewish law or to die. And it is in this context, the context of a whole Jewish life, that the particular detail turns out not to be so trifling at all. The point has no significance in itself, perhaps; but if this is the point at which Antiochus wishes to test commitment to God and His law, then it is not so minor.

Thus we cannot pick out particular details and label them 'rational' or 'irrational' without regard for context; rationality and irrationality are really forms of evaluation that apply to ways of living. And on this basis Eleazar argues that life according to Jewish law is a rational life according to the standards of the Greeks themselves (5:22-26):

But thou deridest our philosophy, as though we lived irrationally in it. Yet it instructs us in temperance, so that we are superior to all pleasures and lusts; and it exercises us in fortitude, so that we cheerfully undergo every grievance. And it instructs us in justice, so that in all our dealings we render what is due; and it teaches us piety, so that we worship the one only God becomingly. Wherefore it is that we eat not the unclean; for believing that the law was established by God, we are convinced that the Creator of the world, in giving his laws, sympathises with our nature. Those things which are convenient to our souls, he has directed us to eat; but those which are repugnant to them, he has interdicted.

Thus Jewish life is, because of the Torah, a training in the four cardinal virtues. (The substitution of piety, eusebia, for prudence makes sense when one considers the ancient Jewish trope that reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom.) Antiochus wishes to say that Jews are irrational for following kosher laws; but Eleazar argues instead that following kosher laws is an instruction in temperance, fortitude, justice, and piety. On the basis of it, Jews train their reason to control their passions, to hold steady in misfortune, to consider others, and to worship God in an appropriate way. (A similar apologetic for the law, in a different context, is found in Wisdom chapter 8.) Such a life is eminently rational, however much Jews may need simply to trust that God knows what He is doing in giving this or that particular commandment.

Of course, merely saying that Judaism is a life of instruction in virtue is easy. What we really need to know is whether Jewish life is really a life of right reason in the way Eleazar suggests. And the author of IV Maccabees argues that this is, in fact, shown in the deaths of the Maccabean martyrs, which provide a "narrative demonstration of temperate reason" (3:19). By his death Eleazar "made credible the words of philosophy" (7:9); so much so that his death is in some sense a victory over death (7:1-3). The reason for this is put in the mouth of the sixth of the seven brothers:

And he, while tormented, said, O period good and holy, in which, for the sake of religion, we brethren have been called to the contest of pain, and have not been conquered. For religious understanding, O tyrant, is unconquered. Armed with upright virtue, I also shall depart with my brethren. I, too, bearing with me a great avenger, O deviser of tortures, and enemy of the truly pious. We six youths have destroyed thy tyranny. For is not your inability to overrule our reasoning, and to compel us to eat the unclean, thy destruction? Your fire is cold to us, your catapelts are painless, and your violence harmless. For the guards not of a tyrant but of a divine law are our defenders: through this we keep our reasoning unconquered.

Jewish life, then, is a life of right reason, one that is shown by the fact that it trains people to a life of temperance, justice, courage, and piety, preparing them for wisdom; and on the basis of this they are able to display the excellence of law in both life and death. Fortified by God-given law, the reason of the martyrs is unconquered by tyrant, torture, and death; it emerges victorious in the contest of pain, and shows that it, and not the trifling philosophy of the tyrant, is a true path of wisdom.