Friday, February 13, 2009

Feuerbach on Sacredness

An interesting passage in Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity:

But marriage – we mean, of course, marriage as the free bond of love – is sacred in itself, by the very nature of the union which is therein effected. That alone is a religious marriage, which is a true marriage, which corresponds to the essence of marriage – of love. And so it is with all moral relations. Then only are they moral, – then only are they enjoyed in a moral spirit, when they are regarded as sacred in themselves. True friendship exists only when the boundaries of friendship are preserved with religious conscientiousness, with the same conscientiousness with which the believer watches over the dignity of his God. Let friendship be sacred to thee, property sacred, marriage sacred, – sacred the well-being of every man; but let them be sacred in and by themselves.

The point here might not be immediately obvious; Feuerbach is an atheist, of course, and he thinks religion, taken on its own terms, is inherently self-contradictory. But he thinks that there is an underlying set of anthropological truths that have been misrepresented as theology. This position allows him to propose an atheism that is (as he says) not merely negative but critical: it takes religion and, rather than just cutting it out, subjects it to critique and uses it as a set of moral building blocks. (We get some sense of how this works in practice, in a less heavy-handed way than we ever find in Feuerbach himself, in the novels of George Eliot, who is a Feuerbachian -- although, of course, she was influenced by other atheists and freethinkers as well.) So he suggests a sort of transposition of terms: morality requires taking friendship, marriage, human beings, as sacred, but "sacred in and by themselves" rather than in the derivative way he argues religion makes them. This sort of transposition (or, as I would put it, attempted transposition) is part of what makes Feuerbach very interesting reading.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Against the Utilitarians

Sir B. Brodie, after observing that man is a social animal ('Psychological Enquiries,' 1854, p. 192), asks the pregnant question, "ought not this to settle the disputed question as to the existence of a moral sense?" Similar ideas have probably occurred to many persons, as they did long ago to Marcus Aurelius. Mr. J. S. Mill speaks, in his celebrated work, 'Utilitarianism,' (1864, p. 46), of the social feelings as a "powerful natural sentiment," and as "the natural basis of sentiment for utilitarian morality;" but on the previous page he says, "if, as is my own belief, the moral feelings are not innate, but acquired, they are not for that reason less natural." It is with hesitation that I venture to differ from so profound a thinker, but it can hardly be disputed that the social feelings are instinctive or innate in the lower animals; and why should they not be so in man? Mr. Bain (see, for instance, 'The Emotions and the Will,' 1865, p. 481) and others believe that the moral sense is acquired by each individual during his lifetime. On the general theory of evolution this is at least extremely improbable.

Darwin, Descent of Man (1871), p. 71n5. Darwin on moral sense is actually quite interesting; he is taking a position in a very fierce nineteenth century dispute between the moral intuitionists (who believed in an innate moral sense) and the utilitarians (or inductivists, as Mill sometimes calls them), of which this footnote is only one part. In Descent of Man Darwin discusses at length the possibility of an evolutionary account of morality and, in particular, argues that evolutionary biology strongly suggests that there is an innate moral sense (derived from social sentiments). Like all intuitionists of the time, he seems to hold that utilitarians are not completely wrong: but what utilitarianism gets right is to be explained by moral sense theory (which is in turn explained by an evolutionary account of the development of the underlying emotional basis of social life), not vice versa. Part of the reason Darwin thinks it can't be the reverse is that principles of utility are too intellectual; they occur too far downstream in evolutionary history to be the real foundation of moral life, rather than just a derivative branch of it. (This would separate Darwin from some intuitionists, too; intuitionism was a much less unified philosophical camp than utilitarianism.)

Huxley on Education

Well, what I mean by Education is learning the rules of this mighty game. In other words, education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways; and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with those laws. For me, education means neither more nor less than this. Anything which professes to call itself education must be tried by this standard, and if it fails to stand the test, I will not call it education, whatever may be the force of authority, or of numbers, upon the other side.

T. H. Huxley, A Liberal Education and Where to Find It (1868)

Notes and Links

* Michael Flynn's excellent little short story, Quaestiones Super Caelo et Mundo, has been made available online by Analog (because it was nominated for a Nebula). It's an alternative history science fiction story in which the great fourteenth-century medieval philosophers, working together rather than apart, manage to combine real fourteenth-century philosophy in a way that initiates the Scientific Revolution considerably earlier than it actually did begin.

* At "Logismoi" there's an interesting post on the Synaxis of the Three Holy Hierarchs; I hadn't realized how Trinitarian the Feast is.

* H. E. Baber, Feminism and Christian Ethics (PDF)
Michelle Mason, Contempt as a Moral Attitude (PDF)

* If Rodney Dangerfield had been Catholic.

* An excerpt from David Novak's In Defense of Religious Liberty

* A new Philosophy of Sport blog. For an example of the sort of thing studied in philosophy of sport, you might try reading the post on whether blowouts are sporting.

* It's Only a Theory is a new philosophy of science blog.

* A huge scandal has erupted around Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, who, it turns out has fathered illegitimate children, squandered the order's money, and possibly more. American Papist is keeping track of things. The natural solution is for the Church to conduct an investigation into how far the problems went, then dissolve the order entirely, as it did with the Templars. The Templars are actually an interesting precedent: their dissolution established that religious orders exist only insofar as they are useful to the mission of the Church, and when scandal -- and in the Templar case the scandal wasn't based on much more than rumor with some scattered and dubious evidence gathered by people everyone recognized to be out to get the order -- or, indeed, anything else, clearly interferes with its ability to do so, it no longer has any purpose for existing. I think it's time that religious orders and institutes start taking seriously the fact that they are instruments of the Church to teach and further the work of charity, and have no value outside of that. I think the reasonable order here would be: investigate the matter to know how far the corruption actually extended, tear it down, let its members enter other orders and societies, distribute its property. In any case, an interesting point has been made that it is difficult to pin down what the Legion was supposed to do. Religious orders and societies exist to be schools and research institutions for charity; but because charity is in a sense as vast as God's love, it is impossible for them to devote themselves to charity in general. That would be as absurd as saying that what we should teach in schools is knowledge, leaving it at that; any school that can't get more specific and practical about its curriculum than saying it is for conveying 'knowledge' is a sham and a mockery. Rather, healthy religious orders and societies are set up to do very particular, very practical things in the pursuit of charity: preach to the heretics, help the sick, protect pilgrims, aid the poor, teach children, pray in solitude, and so forth and so on. Pursuit of these very particular things may branch out into other things -- e.g., the Hospitallers set out to help the sick, and that led to protecting the sick, and that led in certain cases to protection of pilgrims, and so forth. But when a religious order forgets its particular, practical mission in charity, it has lost its way and needs to be dissolved. Religious orders with only vague aims are worse than useless.

* I have, for various reasons, recently been reading Chester Alan Arthur's State of the Union addresses; they make interesting reading, not least because in them he actually informs Congress of the state of things in these United States. If you want to read what a real State of the Union address is (and none of the fluff that we've had in recent decades meets that description), read Arthur's (at the very least, read the first, where he discusses foreign policy, lays out government revenues, summarizes some notable events, recommends topics to Congress's attention, and asks them to deliberate on specific Constitutional questions):
First Annual Message
Second Annual Message
Third Annual Message
Fourth Annual Message
I think I've noted before that it is easy to identify the culprit that has led to such a deterioration in quality of the State of the Union address: the fact that the President gives the address in person, a cause of deterioration that has become massively aggravated once the practice began of televising it. While Washington and Adams gave their addresses in person, Jefferson concluded that it was too monarchical, and therefore in 1801 simply sent his address to Congress to be read in session by the clerks. From that point on everyone followed the Jefferson practice until Wilson revived the personal address in 1913. The Jeffersonian practice is better; there will, no doubt, be times and occasions where a personal address would be reasonable, but the State of the Union address fulfills its function more adequately when it is not tailored to a propagandistic television extravaganza. It would be nice if Obama would return us to the Jeffersonian practice of real State of the Union addresses after almost a century of mere advertising; but I confess that I have no great hopes of this.

* James Chastek on how we know the principle of noncontradiction.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Identitas does not translate straightforwardly as 'identity'; it's perhaps important to insist on this because a lot of people seem to be under the impression that Thomas Aquinas is committed to the position that everything in God as identical to everything else. Identity is a relation that is at least minimally (1) reflexive; (2) symmetrical; (3) transitive; (4) antisymmetric. (I say at least minimally because, as far as I am aware, we have no non-circular account of identity; these four characteristics leave identity indistinguishable from equality, but there are good reasons to deny that equality is always identity, although identity may be one kind of equality. Intersubstitutability is a plausible fifth characteristic, but it very quickly runs into all sorts of difficulties and puzzles; indiscernibility runs into different troubles and may presuppose identity in any case, for reasons too long to get into here.) But identitas is only transitive and antisymmetric when certain conditions are met. In particular, on Aquinas's account, these things arise only when two things are the same secundum rem and secundum rationem. If two things are idem secundum rem they can be referred to as one thing, but if they are still idem secundum rationem there will be contexts where transitivity and antisymmetry fail. For instance, the road from Thebes to Athens and the road from Athens to Thebes are the same secundum rem, because they are the same road. But they are different secundum rationem, and therefore there are ways in which they are not equal, and there are relations and properties that they do not share (e.g., one may be uphill and the other downhill, and one may be the route you follow to visit the Grove of Akademos while the other is entirely the wrong direction) and the fact that they share some things doesn't imply that they share everything (for instance, they might not share modal properties). Nor does it suffice to response that, say, the Athens-Thebes road is uphill traveled one way and downhill traveled another; that just says that they are the same secundum rem, which was already conceded; we still have to deal with the fact that they are obviously different secundum rationem, which the response, in recognizing that direction makes a difference at all, has itself just conceded.

Part of the reason for this disparity is that we draw our notion of identity (which, we must recognize, is actually in some ways very obscure and not at all as precisely characterized as some seem to think) from a very particular set of uses. But Aquinas couldn't do that. Rather, he's taking a very broad and often colloquial idea, idem, and making distinctions with regard to how it is used, in order to make it more precise. Identitas can indeed indicate something reflexive, symmetric, transitive, and antisymmetric. But sometimes it indicates something even weaker than either an equivalence relation or a partial order. Idem is not used univocally in every situation.

The Best Online Comics?

I was thinking recently about some of the best examples of online comics (I'm thinking about single-strip comics rather than story-arc comics like Girl Genius).

One example would be xkcd's "Duty Calls," which perfectly summed up internet culture in a single panel. And obviously xkcd has a lot of potential examples.

Another would be Saint Gasoline's "The Allegory of the Trolley Problem Paradox," which is a nearly perfect philosophy comic.

What are some others?

Cone on Religion and Oppression

An interesting interview with James Cone (it's also occasionally funny, because he has a good sense of humor):

I like Cone's God of the Oppressed quite a bit; I tend not to be thrilled by most theology written in the twentieth century by academics, but this is one of the books I regularly recommend. Regardless of whether you agree with everything in it, it makes some serious points worthwhile for anyone and everyone to consider.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Walrus Is a Blogger

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter

Partisan Philosophy

As no party, in the present age, can well support itself, without a philosophical or speculative system of principles, annexed to its political or practical one; we accordingly find, that each of the factions, into which this nation is divided, has reared up a fabric of the former kind, in order to protect and cover that scheme of actions, which it pursues. The people being commonly very rude builders, especially in this speculative way, and more especially still, when actuated by party-zeal; it is natural to imagine, that their workmanship must be a little unshapely, and discover evident marks of that violence and hurry, in which it was raised.

Hume, Of the Original Contract. The particular 'rude buildings' he has in mind are passive obedience (Tory) and original contract (Whig) theories of government.

St. Scholastica

Today is the Feast of St. Scholastica, the twin sister of St. Benedict. She played an important role in Anglo-Saxon life, inspiring some notable literary works. Here's from a poem about St. Scholastica by Aldhelm of Schireburn (Source):

Scholastica took her very name from schola,
God enriches her abundantly with heavenly favour,
She who gained golden rewards by her virginal vow.

The poem goes on to discuss the most famous story about her, the legend of St. Scholastica and the storm.

Philosopher's Carnival #86

The 86th Philosopher's Carnival is up at the webcomic "chaospet". It's one of the more interesting ones that I've seen in a while.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Stupid Philosophy Tricks?

Keith Parsons at "The Secular Outpost" has a list (ht) of twenty "stupidest things philosophers have said over the millennia". With a few exceptions, it reads more like a list of twenty common myths about what philosophers believe; and, except for #19, which really was stupid, most of them were not stupid things to say at all, even if wrong. (I'm also a little puzzled that stupid claims about women are included, but no stupid claims about blacks, e.g., Hume's "There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation," which was an extraordinarily stupid thing to say, as Beattie pointed out at the time.) Some notable misunderstandings that are just obvious from first glance:

(1) Berkeley does say that matter doesn't exist; but by 'matter' he is quite clear that he means something very specific, namely, the "something, I know not what" of Locke and others. Matter in the sense studied by physics is something different; and Berkeley recognizes that there are other senses in which you could take the term.

(2) Locke doesn't say anything that commits him to the claim that atheists are untrustworthy; he is committed to the related, but still somewhat different, claim that they have no consistent reason to be where promises, contracts, and oaths are concerned -- not that they don't keep their promises, which would depend entirely on the individual atheist, but that 'promises have no hold on them'. Locke does in fact think you can have a society of atheists; it is implausible to suggest that he thinks you can have a society of people who are in fact always untrustworthy. He would just be committed, at least in the terms he uses in A Letter Concerning Toleration to saying that such a society had no rationally consistent ground for promising.

(3) Zeno, contrary to popular belief, does not argue that change is impossible. He argues that either change is impossible or it is not really possible for physical things to be infinitely divisible -- that is, he argues that if physical space is infinitely divisible, change is impossible. There is some (although perhaps not completely conclusive) reason to think that the infinite divisibility claim is the conclusion he actually wanted people to reject.

(4) Leibniz says that this world is the best of all possible worlds, but not in the sense Voltaire attributed to him, since he meant something very precise, namely, that it is impossible for God to create a world that involves both simpler means and richer diversity of effects than this one.

(5) Spinoza holds that things could not be otherwise than they are for a reason, namely, that he argues that the claim that there are contingent things (as opposed to the claim that everything logically implies everything else) requires affirming a doctrine of final causes, since efficient causes are purely necessary and only final causality is slippery enough to leave possibilities not ruled out. I think he's wrong (about the nonexistence of final causes) but it's not a stupid argument.

(6) Wittgenstein does not say that we can't know pains; he says that we can't know pains if we have to think of them in terms of a "model of 'object and designation'" or, to put it in other terms, if they are purely private objects designated by language. Obviously the conclusion is that we should not think of them in that way.

(7) The Churchlands don't say that there are no pains; eliminative materialism is not the claim that we aren't referring to anything when we talk about pains (or mental phenomena). If you're an eliminative materialist about pain, your view is that there is no particular phenomenon referred to by the term 'pain'; this doesn't mean that we never refer to anything using the term, only that 'pain' is not a class in a completely natural classification of things in the world. If you are an eliminative materialist about belief, you think that 'belief' is just a crude and approximate way of talking about the brain, good enough for practical purposes now, but not something you will find in a completely adequate scientific account of the things we're referring to when talking about belief. And so forth.

(8) Quine does not say that "When someone speaks in a native tongue that is historically unrelated to yours, you can never know what he or she means." Again, a number of conditions and qualifications have been dropped. He claims that linguistic behavior underdetermines meaning. This is a very different claim; he holds that you can know what other people mean, but it's not by picking out a unique and uniquely determinable meaning that the words must be conveying.

(9) It is absolutely absurd, absolutely absurd, to attribute the claim "You cannot learn from experience" to Hume. Hume is an empiricist! He thinks that everything we learn is learned from experience (and yes, he does think we learn things)! If someone is going to say something like this, one is tempted to start a list of stupid things they have said, with this at the top of the list.

But lists like these are useful in any case; they help us historians of philosophy to know where we have to do a better job communicating.

[ADDED LATER: I should say as well that not only is #20 not obviously false, it is arguably the most reasonable position on the subject; the only other coherent account of evil is one in which good is a privation of evil, which is problematic for all sorts of reasons. No other account that has been proposed has ever withstood as much serious scrutiny. Whether you are atheist or theist, Aristotelian or not, a broadly Augustinian account appears to be the most reasonable account of evil. (I say 'broadly Augustinian' because one can argue -- it is a question that gets into fields in which I am not competent to say whether the arguments are successful -- that Mencius also takes evil to be a privation, and if so, he obviously does so independently.)]

That Which Is Seen, And That Which Is Not Seen

Matthew Yglesias:

Most of the time, the government is spending money in order to accomplish something specific like build an aircraft carrier or give food to a poor family or maintain a national park or run a prison. If you can build that carrier cheaper, you’re saving the taxpayers money. And that money is thereby freed up for private consumption or investment, and the economy as a whole will thank you. But when you’ve got a substantial output gap and conventional monetary policy can’t pick up the slack, so you decide to try fiscal expansion, then you’re looking at a different situation. Safeguarding taxpayer dollars can’t be the priority when your policy objective is to spend money in order to encourage idle resources to be put to use. In the present circumstances, spending less money just means more unemployment.


The point of the stimulus bill is to stimulate the economy. It would be fine to ask whether the present bill is the best way to do that. Does it get the multipliers as high as it could? Does it deliver stimulus quickly? But it is another thing entirely to ask whether we couldn't manage to scrape by for another year without resodding the capitol mall.

Kierkegaard once wrote: if you are given a task and a certain amount of time to complete it, normally it is a good thing if you complete the task ahead of time. But this is not true when the task is: to occupy yourself productively for a day. In that case, if you appear at noon, saying: look, I finished ahead of schedule!, you only show that you have missed the entire point. Likewise, if your task is to get as much money into the economy as quickly as possible, it is not a good thing to say: look! I got all the things you asked for at half the price!

That is the thing that is seen. What is not seen is everything you could have gotten if you hadn't been wasting money like a profligate. If you get all the things that you asked for at half the price, then you have just as much as you have already spent still left over to spend on other useful things. The same money, a wider range of stimulus, more useful results. Instead, on the Yglesias-Hilzoy view of the world, we would develop the same amount of debt but through a narrower selection of stimulus projects and would therefore have received fewer definite benefits. If you want to spend, you want to spend; but waste is waste whatever you want to spend. To take the Kierkegaard example, if your goal is really to occupy yourself productively for the day, you've failed if you only occupy yourself till noon. But you've also failed if you spend much of your time occupying yourself unproductively.

This is all basic Bastiat (PDF). Napoleon tried to stimulate the economy by having people dig ditches then fill them in again. Pretty much all he really did was waste the time of a lot of hard-working ditch-diggers who could have been doing serious projects rather than being alienated from their now-useless labor.

"Seeing and Believing"

I've seen talk here and there of Jerry Coyne's foray in The New Republic, Seeing and Believing, on the subject of "science and religion". I always cringe when I find someone about to launch into that subject, because ten to one I'm about to be subjected to the combined irritations of pedantry and inability to think through the ramifications of the argument put forward. And there's some of that here, too, although I've come across much worse. But Coyne's argument seems shot through with a more serious set of flaws. This is Coyne's characterization of creationism:

But regardless of their views, all creationists share four traits. First, they devoutly believe in God. No surprise there, except to those who think that ID has a secular basis. Second, they claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process. Third, they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors. This, of course, reflects the Judeo-Christian view that humans were created in God's image. Fourth, they all adhere to a particular argument called "irreducible complexity." This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God. Blood clotting in vertebrates, for example, is a complex sequence of enzyme reactions, involving twenty proteins that interact to produce the final clot. If any were missing, the blood would not clot. How could something this sophisticated have blindly evolved?

His argument requires that these four be necessary and sufficient conditions. If they are not necessary then (1) his claim that they apply to all creationists (Coyne makes no distinction between the terms 'creationists' and 'intelligent design proponents') is false; and (2) he can't make his 'convergence' argument later on, at least in a way where it still remains clearly relevant (since, no doubt, everyone including Coyne himself 'converges' with the views of creationists on irrelevant points). If they are not sufficient, he can't make his 'convergence' argument, either, since they wouldn't suffice to make the general claims about religion that he gets out of that argument. But they definitely are not necessary conditions; I've personally met IDers who are pantheists and would firmly reject (2). This requires little to no modification of standard ID arguments; they just take the intelligence to be built-in rather than distinct. And even if such people did not exist, we know that (2) & (3) are not logically necessary to the position because standard ID arguments are consistent with the position of Hume's Philo in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, who holds that there is an intelligent designing principle of some sort, who knows what, that one could call 'God' if one felt the need. Thus if (as is plausible) (2) and (3) are commonly accepted by IDers, this is more reasonably explained in sociological terms than in terms of the position itself. Likewise, Coyne never considers that someone like Miller might well consider his later convergence argument to be itself a proof that these are not sufficient conditions, i.e.: Miller's not an IDer (because his conception of science is not the same, whatever his convergence on 'religion' -- which Miller, of course, would not grant is quite so close as Coyne thinks, in part because I don't think he would understand the term in the same way), so if Coyne's characterization of ID makes it difficult to distinguish Miller from it, this is due to the failure of Coyne's characterization to draw essential distinctions. And it is noteworthy that, despite the fact that Coyne recognizes the essential issue is how science is to be understood (devoting a considerable portion of the essay to the question), out of these four conditions only (4) even reaches the vicinity of giving us any inkling of what the creationist view of science is -- and it doesn't give us all that much of an inkling, either.

Thus the conclusion Coyne reaches is not surprising at all; given the way that Coyne has set up the problem -- ID is contrary to science, ID is accounted for in purely 'religious' terms, 'religion' generally converges on ID as accounted for in such a way -- the conclusion derived is virtually inevitable. But the set-up of the problem is so artificial that one suspects it was derived from the conclusion to be reached rather than vice versa. That is, the essay works very well if it is taken to be an account of how someone might find claims about the incompatibility of science and 'religion' (however the latter is understood) plausible; if taken as an actual argument for that conclusion, however, it is poorly constructed, since it begs the question early on. We get the conclusion Coyne believes, in nice detail, but we never actually see any sustainable argument for it.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Judging Presidents

A good post by Greg Mankiw on how to evaluate Presidential administrations:

Consider a related question: How would you judge the competence of a doctor if you could observe him treating only a single patient?

What you would not do is judge him by the outcome. Even the best physicians have patients die. And even witchdoctors can have patients recover. Randomness is a fact of life (and death). In the case of a medical doctor, the answer seems clear: Instead of looking at the outcome, you would judge him by the decisions he makes and treatments he prescribes. That is, you would examine whether he followed best practices for the circumstances he faced.

It's interesting to consider how standard lists of 'best Presidents' would change if this were used consistently as the criterion (they would certainly become more complicated).