Saturday, February 28, 2009

Haven's Clarkeanism

Interesting; I've come across a clear case of a Samuel Clarke-style account of right and wrong, in Joseph Haven's 1859 Moral Philosophy. The account is undeniably Clarkean, at least in a broad sense, since the terms in which it is put are familiar to anyone who has read Clarke:

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Moral Philosophy: Including Theoretical and Practical Ethics Including Theoretical and Practical Ethics By Joseph Haven

What is remarkable is that the argument as a whole for this conclusion is very similar to the state of the argument as it had existed an entire century before -- utility gets a stronger showing than it would have previously, as one would expect, but divine command theory is actually more or less correctly formulated along eighteenth century lines, and the arguments used largely make a showing already in the eighteenth century. It is somewhat surprising to find the terms of the debate so clearly revived a century after the debate itself. It does fit with Haven's eclecticism, I suppose; but it takes on some interest in that Haven was a major influence on an entire generation of American philosophers.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Two Poem Re-Drafts

A Meditation on Reading the Analects

Ruler's authority, wind-like;
subject's authority, grass-like:
wind blows, grass bends.

Prince as prince,
minister, minister:
that is government.

To remember, not tiring,
to practice, not turning:
that is government.

To accept wise counsel,
to exalt the virtuous:
that is government.

To bless the near,
to lure the far:
that is government.

Never rushing, never niggling,
pardoning with ease:
that is government.

The unturning star
turning all stars:
that is government.

Not governing oneself
is failing to govern:
no government, no government.

Dragon Psalm

Earth shakes, mountains tremble;
they reel at the flaring of wrath,
boiling like water on flame.
Smoke rises from his nostrils,
fire pours from his mouth;
kindling stones like coals pour forth.

Before him speeds devouring fire;
it whirls about him, a mighty tempest.
He touches mountains and they smoke.
Hills and stones melt like wax;
all his foes are consumed.
Drowning fire precedes; it storms around him.
The bed of the sea is uncovered,
the world's foundations are laid bare,
at the Lord's roar, the storm of his breath.

The heavens are shaken, rent,
darkness is under his feet.
He is borne on wings of wind.
The eternal mountains are shattered;
the fragments of hills pave his way.
Before him goes lightning and splendor;
the earth sees and quakes.
He rains down flame and coals of fire,
sends the wicked a scorching wind. Selah.

Mountains that see him quiver;
raging waters cower in fear;
the deep gives forth a groaning voice;
stars stand still in the heavens.
He crushes the head of the wicked;
his arrows of light shoot forth,
his lightning like a glittering spear.

I was drowning in deep waters.
He drew me out and saved me;
he destroyed the demons of the sea.
His wings are wings of morning;
his breath sets the heavens glowing, aflame.
The mountains bow down before him
that they may declare his justice:
the Lord of hosts is his name. Hallelujah.

Not Despair but Activity

Evil exists in the world, not to create despair, but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest, but the duty of every individual, to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself; and from as large a circle as he can influence; and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are; the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind, and the more completely does he appear to fulfil the will of his Creator.

Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, XIX.15

Hogamous, Higamous

Nathaniel Peters notes the following doggerel often attributed to William James:

Hogamous, higamous
Man is polygamous
Higamous, hogamous
Woman monogamous.

It's almost certainly not James's, but it's hard to say where it comes from. There's an interesting paper online about the history of the attribution.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

APA Petition

I had been hoping to avoid this whole scuffle over the APA's discrimination policy (started here and continuing all over the place [that Technorati link only catches posts that actually link to the enforcement petition]; the petition itself is here), particularly as it seems that the longer it has gone on the more like children my colleagues have been acting. I have no patience for virtually any of the arguments that have been put forward by either side; more blatant examples of conclusions leading arguments rather than vice versa are hard to find. But it keeps going on and on, and so I thought I'd mention my own view of the matter and have done with it. Rather than write a new post on the subject, I've just pasted a comment at Prosblogion:

I think both sides have been a little silly through this whole thing. On the one side, there can be excellent reasons for a Christian college (or any other sort of college that has as part of its distinctive character certain relevant features) to expect faculty to show themselves to be exemplary not merely in the classroom but as general role models. Likewise, refusing to distinguish orientation from activity, or recognizing morally relevant differences between the two, seems as silly to me as refusing to distinguish capacities and exercises of those capacities.

But on the other hand, I think it's very clear that 'sexual orientation' is extremely ambiguous in ordinary discourse, and ordinarily does cover both orientation in the proper sense and activity in conformity with it. (Actually, I think it's so multiply ambiguous as to be virtually a useless term, but that's another argument.) Further, in ordinary cases we don't require discrimination to be against identity directly in order to be counted as discrimination against identity. If one were to say that a policy allowing a person to be fired for being pregnant is not discriminatory against women because a woman doesn't have to get pregnant, that is obviously using 'discrimination' is a much narrower sense than it is usually used. Moreover, it seems to me very unlikely that when the policy was put into place the terms were expected to be taken in the narrower sense. Such policies as are being criticized are contrary to APA policy; one can attribute this either to an insufficient precision in the policy or to the inadequacy of the policy itself, if one wishes to do so, but I really don't see any sense in trying to argue that the APA is consistent here.

After all, this is the APA we are talking about; if its policies were consistent, precise, and rational, that would be surprising, because it rarely happens.

In any case, the policy should be enforced; and if people don't like that, they should go through the ordinary process of trying to persuade people to change it.

Precisely one of the reasons the APA is so annoyingly ineffective and silly in so much of what it does is that it ends up a mish-mash of compromises that try to please everyone and therefore do nothing effectively. That's a tradition I see no point in continuing. Enforce the policy; the world will not end if it is enforced.

[ADDED LATER: I just recognized that the part that says "recognizing morally relevant differences between the two" should read "to recognize morally relevant differences between the two". Otherwise it sounds confusing.]

Baggini on Hume on Design

I wans't going to say anything about Baggini's third article on Hume in the Comment Is Free space, in part because I think Baggini offers a more plausible interpretation of Hume here. But it did occur to me that it might be worthwhile pointing out two explicit limitations in Hume's argument that Baggini doesn't contradict, but that he also doesn't mention, namely:

(1) Hume does not strictly present design arguments as fatally flawed, if by that you mean that the argument is taken to be fallacious, although Baggini draws out very nicely the issues raised by a principle of strict proportionality of cause and effect. On Humean principles a design argument can be an entirely reasonable argument, and everywhere Hume talks about it this is suggested. Hume's tactic is not to reject the design argument per se but rather to say that it gets you much, much less than one might think. This is explicitly the course of argument in the Dialogues and is suggested, but deliberately not developed at any great length, in Section XI of the Enquiry.

(2) This connects with another explicit limitation in Hume's argument: Hume's criticisms are completely adequate only if the design argument is the only argument on the table. In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, this is a concession explicitly made by Cleanthes, and this is why the proportionality argument is so problematic for him: he has no recourse but to the design argument itself, and Demea and, more consistently, Philo hold him to it. The Epicurean in Section XI of the Enquiry also explicitly asserts this (indeed, in a stronger form than Hume himself seems to think plausible, since he has the narrator moderate it slightly).

But I must say I was pleasantly surprised that Baggini chose Section XI of the Enquiry to focus on, rather than the more obvious Dialogues; Section XI is too often overlooked, and is well worth reading for those who are interested in the subject. It was a very good move.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Be Thine Own Judge

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Hymns [selected from Verses on various occasions]. By John Henry Newman

Ash Wednesday

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,
while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh,
when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars,
be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,
and the almond tree shall flourish,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail:
because man goeth to his long home,
and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed,
or the golden bowl be broken,
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was:
and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher;
all is vanity.

National Self-Image

Obama is a truly international leader:

As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices. But we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.

So go forth and reimagine the auto industry, people of Germany!

Karl Benz invented the economically viable gasoline automobile in 1889; Daimler and Maybach designed one independently about the same time. (There were prior models; in fact, both Daimler and Benz had done it before, but a few things still had yet to be worked out.) What counts as first depends on exactly what you mean by 'automobile' and what you mean by 'economically viable', although Benz is usually given the credit because he had the first patent. In either case they were very certainly German, not American. Americans did take the idea and run with it, first with Raymond Olds creating the Oldsmobile brand in 1901, and then with Henry Ford designing assembly line production to produce the Model T in 1908. So we can say that, at least in a very limited sense, we invented the auto industry (a lovely invention that's turned out to be!) but we certainly didn't invent the automobile.

I think this is probably what it looks like -- just a failure to fact-check because it looked like it was obviously true, with the result that it is amusing when recognized to be obviously false. We Americans have the bad habit of assuming we invented everything we use. But it's one of those things that grate whenever I come across it, since American politicians do this a lot, and I can never hear it without thinking of the talk in 1984 about how the Party rewrites the textbooks so that all the great inventions were invented by the Party. It's a harsh association for what is usually just an entirely human mistake; but because my mind makes it I can't help but think that politicians really should be careful on this point. Otherwise our excessively rosy self-image is showing.

[UPDATE: Reworked to indicate Benz's probable priority over Daimler and to fix a date and a few typos.]

Baggini on Hume on Faith and Reason

In his second discussion of Hume at Comment is Free, Julian Baggini summarizes Hume's argument in the essay Of Miracles as follows:

In every case of an alleged miracle, it is always more likely that it has a rational explanation than not, even if we do not know what that rational explanation is. For instance, let's say you see someone "rise from the dead". Pretty impressive. But given that all experience tells us this is impossible, no matter how striking your experience, it will always be more likely that you were somehow tricked or deceived. After all, we know the brain plays all sorts of tricks on us, and others play tricks on our brains....

So what Hume's argument boils down to, then, is that we have never had any good reason to believe that a miracle has occurred, and nor are we likely to.

This, however, is not quite right, and we find here a misstep that we found in different form in the other discussion. There Baggini took Hume's claims about laws of nature, which in Hume are claims about psychology, about subjective features of reasoning, and interpreted them as claims about objective fact. So Hume's psychologically forceful regularities became Baggini's delineators of real physical possibility. Here we find a similar transposition. Hume might believe, but he does not argue that "we have never had any good reason to believe that a miracle has occurred." Nor is his claim that "In every case of an alleged miracle, it is always more likely that it has a rational explanation than not, even if we do not know what that rational explanation is." Hume's argument does not depend on dubious assessments of the 'likelihood' that an actual event has a non-miraculous explanation. Quite the contrary: his argument is about the likelihood that testimony is bad; and his argument in Part II basically boils down to the claim that we know that religious people are likely both to lie and be deceived where religious matters are involved. Thus whenever someone tells you about a miracle for religious purposes, there will always be a doubt about whether they are lying or gullible. There are ways to compensate for this sort of doubt, which Hume addresses, but, Hume argues, no testimony for religious miracles has ever fulfilled the required conditions. Therefore testimony for religious miracles always falls short of the force of proof; and since the laws of nature are supported by the force of proof, and Hume has argued in Part I that testimony for miracles and induction supporting the laws of nature are opposed, the laws of nature will always win out, as having the superior force. (At least, in reasonable moments. The superiority here is psychological, not logical, which raises the question of how people could believe in miracles anyway, since it seems that the laws of nature would always have superior force. On Hume's view things like transient passions, taste for novelty, prejudices, etc., can raise the psychological force of something in inconsistent, unstable, or arbitrary ways. So it seems that Hume is committed to saying that genuine belief in a miracle is a case where the psychological force of the idea of the miracle is artificially increased by associationg with passion-inducing factors. And indeed this seems to be his idea; he holds, for instance, that organized religions make use of a lot of these inducers of psychological force, and that certain passions like surprise can under certain circumstances make us believe things we wouldn't otherwise believe.) Thus it is not the mere fact that another explanation is more likely that is driving the argument; it has to be combined with Hume's claims about the laws of nature, or there is no argument.

What Hume's argument does not show, and does not purport to show, and should not try to show given that Hume does not make a sharp distinction between the very extraordinary and the miraculous, is what would happen if we experienced a miracle ourselves. Hume's argument is dependent on claims about testimony and how human beings receive it. It has nothing to do with the actual miracles themselves, and, in fact, Hume immediately faces the problem of how you could possibly justify any revision of what seem to be laws of nature on testimonial grounds. The ongoing problem Hume faces throughout the essay is how to rule out testimony as a good source for believing a miracle without ruling out testimony as a means for sharing startling genuine discoveries. Hume's skepticism has no means for ruling out miracles a priori, and it has to move very carefully in order to avoid suppressing testimony too sharply, because testimony is essential to our scientific understanding of the world, and is the reason why we don't have to do every experiment ourselves. If we could rule out miracles a priori, we wouldn't need Hume's arguments; we would know that anything that defied universal commonsense principles is false. But that would also rule out unique natural causes. But Hume is an empiricist, not a rationalist; he doesn't want to rule anything out a priori, and even if he did he wouldn't want to rule out unique natural causes before any investigation had even been undertaken. And one also doesn't want to rule out any revision, based on scientific or historical study, of our view of how the world fundamentally works. Hume has to consider this issue. And he does consider it, in the passage about the hypothetical eight days of darkness. It would be possible to accept on testimony the occurrence of a thoroughly extraordinary event under certain conditions -- namely, conditions where the testimony was very good and where the deviation from the laws of nature was itself conformable to other laws of nature (and thus borrowed force from them).

So that's really what's going on in Hume's argument. And the argument depends crucially on three things: Hume's account of the laws of nature, Hume's claims about counterpoise (i.e., his psychology of belief), and Hume's claims about religious testimony. And these are three things that very few people, even those sympathetic to Hume, actually accept. Baggini himself deviates from Hume's account of laws of nature. Baggini seems to accept the counterpoise principle as "obvious"; but it has more usually been thought perplexing, and requires a particular notion of belief, as forcefulness of idea transmissible by association, that is rarely held and, indeed, has a long history of being mocked as silly. And indeed, Baggini is very ambiguous about whether he takes it to be a psychological mechanism, as Hume does, or as a normative principle, which makes the argument somewhat different from Hume's. Baggini says some things that are naturally interpreted one way, and some things that are naturally interpreted the other way. The only one of the three that is in any sense widely accepted is the claim that religious testimony tends to be pernicious; but this on its own is not enough to run the argument.

Again we find that Baggini's argument makes use of a few comments by Hume, but in fact appears to be a different argument entirely. It's an interesting sort of argument, but it's impossible to say whether it begs the question unless we have a better idea of what Baggini's account of the greater likelihood of "rational explanation" is. Obviously, for instance, a type of explanation may be more likely in general but less likely in particular kinds of cases; Baggini's use of the claim has to mean that there are no relevant possible cases where the alternative would be more likely. But it's hard to see how one would go about defending such a claim without simply assuming that miracles can't happen. Lacking Baggini's own defense of this point, we are left unclear about how to evaluate the argument even on its own terms, without rebuttal of any of its points.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Interpretation, Consolation, and Critique

Rosenzweig expects our thinking to offer consolation and redemption of suffering; Levinas calls for philosophy as prophetic witness to my suffering undergone for others; and Cohen requires philosophy to contribute to recasting the economic relations in society.

My temptation is to say that philosophy must do all three things....If one says that philosophy as such happens as discourse, and so has its task in prophetic witness (the interpretation of what responsible discourse does), then one could also say that discourse as such can itself become both consolation and critique.

Robert Gibbs, "Unjustifiable Suffering," Suffering Religion, p. 35. The article from which this comes is a beautiful article, by the way; highly recommended.

No Opposition, No Freedom

I only know a little about Václav Klaus; he pretty much has to live up to the standard of Václav Havel, and that's extraordinarily difficult to do. But Klaus is managing at least part of what's needed to do that:

The present decision making system of the European Union is different from a classic parliamentary democracy, tested and proven by history. In a normal parliamentary system, part of the MPs support the government and part support the opposition. In the European parliament, this arrangement has been missing. Here, only one single alternative is being promoted and those who dare thinking about a different option are labelled as enemies of the European integration. Not so long ago, in our part of Europe we lived in a political system that permitted no alternatives and therefore also no parliamentary opposition. It was through this experience that we learned the bitter lesson that with no opposition, there is no freedom. That is why political alternatives must exist.

And not only that. The relationship between a citizen of one or another member state and a representative of the Union is not a standard relationship between a voter and a politician, representing him or her. There is also a great distance (not only in a geographical sense) between citizens and Union representatives, which is much greater than it is the case inside the member countries. This distance is often described as the democratic deficit, the loss of democratic accountability, the decision making of the unelected – but selected – ones, as bureaucratisation of decision making etc. The proposals to change the current state of affairs – included in the rejected European Constitution or in the not much different Lisbon Treaty – would make this defect even worse.

You can tell he shook things up by the fact that a number of MEP's at several points in his speech booed, shouted "Shut up!", and walked out. (As Daniel Hannan notes, some of them had very bad timing about when they did this, since they did so at the point in his speech where he was talking about the importance of listening to opposition views.) Czechs seem to have been some with some rather fearless and strong-minded politicians of late; Havel, Klaus, and Zeman seem all to have had their own considerable strengths, despite very, very different views on some matters (and, of course, their own weaknesses).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Baggini on Hume on Violations of Natural Laws

Fascinating: Julian Baggini takes an approach to Hume's discussion of miracles that very few people, even those sympathetic to Hume's argument, are willing to take:

But what makes an event a miracle? Hume was very precise about this. It is "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity, or the interposition of some invisible agent." Hume didn't seem to think this was very controversial, since he originally relegated his definition to a mere footnote.

Two hundred and fifty years later, however, this gloss is more contentious. It should not be. Hume was right, and any attempt to make a miracle anything less destroys the phenomenon it strives to name....

Hume is therefore right. Miracles are violations of the laws of nature. The merely extraordinary is not miraculous.

It is nonsense, though, to speak of laws of nature in Hume's sense as being 'obeyed' by everything in the universe in the way Baggini speaks of laws of nature. Hume's laws are uniform regularities adequate for proof. This is not at all Baggini's conception of a law of nature, which is from a Humean perspective spookily normative; there is no possible way to fit such a conception into Hume's version of empiricism. We have no way of knowing that "every single physical event in the universe" obeys a given law; how could we possibly do so based solely on our impressions and the basic rules, derived from experience, that we apply to them? What, on Hume's account makes it a law of nature that the dead do not return to life? Hume tells us that it is because "that has never been observed, in any age or country." That is all. And it is a question of how we are to understand this without begging the question -- because we know what has never been observed only through testimony, and some testimony says that people have occasionally returned from the dead. Ultimately, it appears, Hume's view is based on a sort of parsimonious inference to the best explanation: as he says to Hugh Blair in response to an argument by Campbell, if you run after every silly tale, you eventually end up believing nonsense.

One of the problems with the whole argument is that Hume definitely knew of at least two philosophers (Butler and Malebranche) who held that miracles were interventions by God but denied that they were violations of laws of nature, because they were in fact manifestations of higher-order laws that lower-order formulations could not rule out (and were, in fact, conditional upon). And Hume certainly does not elsewhere assume that we have in hand the most developed laws of nature. When we set aside Baggini's anachronizing, we are, in fact, left with the puzzle of how Hume's conception of a law of nature allows it to function in the particular way he suggests it does. I would suggest that what Hume primarily calls the laws of nature are in fact those features of experience upon which we have become so dependent that we cannot help but assume them in practice: e.g., that gravity will not suddenly and massively change, that what is very hot will burn when you touch it, and so forth. They are simply descriptions of experience supported by induction without exception, and therefore have the strongest sort of psychological force any conclusion from experience can have. Thus if you want to find the closest contemporary analogue to Hume's laws of nature, it will not be 'laws of nature' in the sense Baggini suggests, which have a strong, if never really explained, modal component: physical laws say that things "must" happen, physical events "obey" them, they define "physical possibility". This is all mumbo-jumbo to a genuine Humean. Rather, the closest analogue would be the schema found in cognitive science explanations. Hume's miracles are more or less schema-inconsistent happenings. But this raises a second puzzle: there are extraordinary events that we would tend to allow as "physically possible," however we may mean it, that are schema-inconsistent as well.

If the argument against accepting testimony for miracles is to be accepted, it must be against what believers in miracles count as miraculous, and of the three traditional types of miracle, only one, the counternatural, is plausibly a violation or suspension of a law of nature in Baggini's sense. Another, the supernatural (which Campbell calls the 'preternatural'), evades violation of the laws of nature because any sensible account of laws of nature holds that they say what things will do if no cause external to the system intervenes; any such cause changes the conditions, and while the law still holds, the conditions to which it applies are different, thus resulting in different behavior. It is clear that Baggini would consider this a violation of the laws of nature; but it is also clear that what would ground this conclusion is his very un-Humean conception of what the laws of nature are. Or, in other terms, it is physical closure that is doing the real work, the notion that there can be no causal laws except physical laws governing physical objects. And the third, the preternatural (what Campbell calls the 'natural'), is precisely the sort of thing that Baggini claims is "only a miracle in a figurative sense": "an extremely unlikely and fortuitous sequence of events" that is not outside the power of natural causes. What he overlooks is the point that extremely unlikely and fortuitous sequences of events can nonetheless carry significance because they can be arranged if the laws of nature and initial conditions are themselves effects: events that are extremely unlikely in terms of natural laws and fortuitous in terms of initial conditions can be guaranteed by a cause governing the whole system. (This point was made at great length and sometimes with cleverness against Hume-style arguments by Charles Babbage.) And on Hume's account anything unlikely and fortuitous enough can count as a miracle; this is the very point of the footnote to which Baggini refers. Despite the contentiousness of the 'violation' formulation, Hume's treatment does more justice to actual miracle claims than Baggini's. Again, what is doing the work in Baggini's argument is an entirely non-Humean set of assumptions. And the question has to be asked -- and Baggini does not get around to asking it -- whether these assumptions beg the question.

In any case, my major point here is that Baggini is massively deviating from the spirit of Hume in order to preserve the letter. While Hume's focus is on the miraculous, he clearly does not exempt the extraordinary from his argument: this is explicitly stated in his account of counterpoise. Miracles are for Hume simply the strongest case of the extraordinary; much of his argument depends on the marvelous and the miraculous being on a spectrum. But Baggini is very clearly committed to treating the extraordinary and the miraculous as radically different. A further sign of the deviation is that Baggini interprets Newton's laws as laying out bounds of physical possibility. But Hume's own view of Newton's laws is indifferent; he thinks that they rid us of any such questions by giving us a way of dealing with the phenomena while restoring our skepticism in what underlies the phenomena. Hypotheses non fingo. This is beautifully stated, in a comparison with Boyle's mechanical philosophy, in the History of England. Baggini's argument is inconsistent with Hume's own account of what a violation of a law of nature would be, and appeals to things to which a consistent Humean would not appeal; to make Hume out to be right, Baggini's argument makes Hume wrong on practically every point. The slogan is preserved, the meaning is not.

Baggini has some other interesting articles on Hume and religion at the Comment is Free space. I might possibly comment on them at some point, since the same thing is in evidence there: a handful of Hume's words are preserved as slogans, but Hume's interesting underlying reasoning is stripped away and replaced by something else, and what Baggini replaces it with is not always as clever or insightful as what is replaced, and certainly not consistent with Hume's own expressed views.

Detecting Informal Fallacies

At someone asked the following question:

How does one _prove_ that an informal fallacy is a fallacy (instead of just waving a Latin name?)

It has three responses so far, but none of them answer the question, because all three responses explain ways in which you prove that someone has committed a formal fallacy. Peter Smith suggests counterexamples. But counterexamples won't help if the argument is not intended to be strictly deductive. William Rapaport recommends truth tables. But truth tables won't tell you if an argument is question-begging (as he fortunately recognizes). And Allen Stairs recognizes that the issue is about informal fallacies, but he simply recommends counterexamples again, although with qualification.

Here's a good argument:

The wall is made of stones.
The stones are grey.
Therefore the wall is grey.

It's not demonstrative, by any means, but everyone will recognize that it's reasonable, and if the conclusion is false, everyone will look for the reason. Here is an exactly parallel argument:

The body is made of cells.
The cells are small.
Therefore the body is small.

This is dubious at best. But the fact that this argument is exactly parallel to the other one doesn't lead to the conclusion that the other argument is dubious. They have the same formal structure, but the inference is licensed not by the structure but by assumptions about constitution and the relations between parts and wholes -- and these are different for each argument. The error, in fact, is that the latter treats size as if it could be used in an part-whole argument the way something like color can be used in part-whole argument; in a sense, the error is in the use of the parallel structure in a context where it is not viable. And obviously this won't be caught when you run it as a parallel argument.

So how do we detect informal fallacies? A problem with the question is that informal fallacies are simply anything that might be called a fallacy but are not formal fallacies; and this is an extraordinarily diverse group of errors. A further problem is that most accounts of informal fallacies are of very poor quality, consisting of bits and pieces of philosophical folklore that have been piled together in a mish-mash. I've argued before that one of the things that interferes with the development of an adequate account of informal fallacies is the consistent failure to distinguish rhetorical tactic from sophistical error. I think there are lots of other pitfalls in current wisdom about informal fallacies. So I think the only full answer to this question would be, "We'll call you back when we eventually figure out what's actually going on in informal fallacies." In the meantime, a bit of common sense is the best test: ask yourself whether the argument is irrelevant, whether it equivocates or changes the subject, whether the argument is smuggling in the conclusion as an assumption, whether it needs any obviously dubious assumptions to make sense, etc.

Incidentally, here is an argument of the form Stairs suggested that is not patently bad, contrary to his claim that any argument of this form is so:

Most arguments that have forms explicitly mentioned by Stairs in his comment use this argument form.
This argument uses this argument form.
Therefore this argument (probably) is an argument that has a form explicitly mentioned by Stairs in his comment.

In fact it's arguably quite good, and would stay good if we dropped the 'probably'; one could argue that it is, as we might say, 'materially valid', because although its form doesn't guarantee truth-preservation, the meaning of the premises does. The conclusion that any argument of this form is patently bad is a hasty generalization.

Notes and Links

* Stephen Kim Sou-hwan died, age 86, on February 16. Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan was Archbishop of Seoul, South Korea, from 1968-1998, and quite a formidable character known for his defense of labor unions and student protesters and his warm smile. He was a philosopher and the first South Korean to receive the red hat. It's a sad passing, but also a reminder that there are some amazingly impressive East Asian bishops out there.

* Leiter discusses the difficulties of the PGR. I think it has a much more limited actual value than Leiter does; but it always does amaze me how personally people take it, and criticism of it has occasioned a great deal of academic childishness.

* Krugman on Himmelfarb:

Or consider Gertrude Himmelfarb’s On Looking Into the Abyss, whose key argument was that soaring crime rates showed the need to return to Victorian values. (American society promptly paid a dirty trick on Ms. Himmelfarb, by delivering a dramatic drop in crime, somehow without bringing back the poorhouses.)

Setting aside the cogency of Himmelfarb's argument, I confess I'm a little worried when an economist shows himself unable to distinguish values from institutions; the two are as different as ends and means, and the latter may make a good or bad fit to the former. The irony is that much of the social justice side of Krugman's liberalism has a Victorian pedigree; national moral progress by economic policy is as Victorian as absolute idealism.

* is going open source. I think a lot of Keynesian economists have difficulty seeing why Austrian economics has a popular appeal so massive relative to its influence in the field of economics. One reason is that Austrian economists have taken the trouble to connect their economic views with a fairly developed theory of human action that will make sense to a wide range of people. Another is that when the Austrians act in conformity with their principles, they tend to do little good things like this. And the website is a very rich trove of things. Some excellent things that are available at the website:

The Bastiat Collection, Volume I & Volume II
Raymond De Roover, San Bernardino of Siena and Sant'Antonino of Florence
The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude by Etienne de la Boetie
Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
Jean-Baptiste Say, Letters to Mr. Malthus
The De Moneta of Nicholas Oresme
The Wisdom of the Stoics

* Charles Dickens's refuge for prostitutes (ht)

* A good discussion at "The Splintered Mind" on armchair conceptual analysis in philosophy

* Flash Gordon radio serials. It's a crazy ride, perfect for people with short attention spans. I couldn't keep up; something insane happens every ten seconds. The first episode basically sums up what you get in the series: we start out with what sounds like it will be a leisurely story, being introduced to Flash and Dale and being casually informed that there is a planet on a collision course with Earth. Then suddenly the plane is falling out of the sky, Flash grabs Dale, they leap out (with a parachute, fortunately), meet Dr. Zarkov, who kidnaps them at gunpoint (Zarkov has some awesome lines, by the way) and takes them to the new planet in a rocket ship, deliberately crashing into it in order to move it. Then they are captured by soldiers with ray guns and taken to Ming. Then come the monkey-men, and then the beautiful Princess Aura (where we pause just for a moment for a chat in the elevator). Then Princess Aura says the class Space Princess line, "As for you, Earthman, you shall love me or die." Meanwhile Ming is taking the same tack with Dale. And then the lion-men under Prince Thun come and save Flash with their gyro-fleet. Using thought projectors they find a secret passage out of Ming's throne room, called the Tunnel of Terror. Then Thun and Flash crash Ming's wedding to Dale (with the clever use of some old-fashioned idol-toppling) and escape through the passage, where Dale is grabbed and dragged under water by something with tentacles. Flash follows, and so the episode ends, promising something stranger than anything Flash had encountered before....

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Malebranche's Watch

This came up in a discussion somewhere. Paley did not invent the watch:

But if one examines the reasons and purpose of all these things, one will find so much order and wisdom that a little serious thought will convince even the most devoted disciples of Epicurus and Lucretius that there is a providence which rules the world. When I see a watch, I have reason to conclude that there is an intelligence, because it is impossible that chance could produce and arrange all its wheels. How then would it be possible for chance, and the encounter of atoms, to be capable of arranging in all men and in all the animals so many different forces, with the precision and proportion that I have just explained? And how, by chance, could it happen that men and animals procreate other beings that exactly resemble them? Thus it is simply ridiculous to think or to say with Lucretius that chance formed all the parts that make up a man, that eyes were not made in order to see, but rather that one thinks of seeing because one has eyes, and similarly with the other parts of the body.

[Malebranche, Search after Truth, Book II, Part One, Chapter Four, LO 98-99]

It is notable, though, that this is not an argument for the existence of God; Malebranche is a Cartesian, and a strong one at that: he thinks the existence of God is rationally obvious to anyone who reflects properly. Rather, it's a design argument for providence, which is a different thing. That is, an argument that it is absurd to attribute certain things in the world to mere chance, and that, therefore, there must be general laws. (Malebranche is an occasionalist, and occasionalists put considerable emphasis on laws of nature.) The existence of God is not in doubt or contention when Malebranche dabbles in design arguments; it is assumed. This is very noticeable when Malebranche discusses animals as infinite machines.

I doubt, incidentally, that Paley got the watch analogy from Malebranche; there are just too many more plausible alternative sources.

Seventeenth Amendment

George Will is very critical of the Seventeenth Amendment. Publius at "Obsidian Wings" defends it with the standard anti-corruption line. This argument has always seemed to me to be rather weak, however; the Amendment itself does very little to curtail corruption. Rather, I would suggest what it does -- and what it primarily was intended to do -- is curtail the effects of incompetence.

While corruption was an issue, and there were several notorious bribery cases, the underlying reason for the amendment is not that legislators are often bad, but that legislatures are often incompetent. Intense partisan conflict in state legislatures had begun repeatedly creating deadlocks, so that states were regularly ending up without full senatorial representation. If I recall correctly, Delaware at one point went for several years without any Senator at all. Such a form of representation is problematic, unstable, and probably unsustainable -- even where there is no corruption at all. The Seventeenth Amendment arguably does not do much to handle the corruption problem, except very indirectly: governors may be as corrupt as legislators, and the only compensating factor is that it is slightly easier for a legislature to do something about a corrupt executive, if clearly corrupt, than for anyone to do anything about a corrupt legislature even if it is clear that it is corrupt. But it does handle the incompetence problem very nicely: Senate seats get filled quite quickly and efficiently. It is not so clear, I think, that they get filled with less corruption; but they do get filled, and that is a big plus.

Immune System of the Mind

What seems crucial about us is not the use of infallible methods, but reasoning with whatever means we have, plus an amazing facility for belief revision, i.e., coping with problems as they arise. It is this dynamic feature of human rationality which logicians and philosophers should try to understand better. Logic is not some vaccination campaign eradicating all diseases once and for all. It is rather the immune system of the mind!

Johan van Benthem, "Logic in Philosophy" (PDF). Van Benthem has a website with some interesting online papers.