Friday, April 03, 2009

On Controversial Blogging and Temperament

We do not live in an ideal world. There are quite a few things, though, that I think in an ideal world would always be done only by people of a certain temperament, for moral reasons. Driving, for instance, which is pretty clearly the sort of thing that is in its own small way morally bad for a great many people, leading them to do all sorts of morally dubious things out of irritation, impatience, and anger.

Apologetics, religious or otherwise, is another of these things. I think it's clear enough that only a very small handful of people are cut out to do apologetics, or, indeed, any sort of intense debate, without coming out of it morally worse than they were when they went into it. And unfortunately it doesn't take much experience with it to see that this is, in fact, its effect: I've seen quite decent people deteriorate in their attitudes toward others through it, and it's not hard to find apologists for all sorts of positions who have clearly begun to confuse truth with their own personal victory. If you want to be an apologist of any sort, the only way you are really cut out for it is if you are in final analysis willing to lose every debate if that's what the truth requires. You have to be the sort of person, or at least be willing to become the sort of person (and have the temperament for becoming the sort of person) who will never argue merely to win an argument, and will be satisfied, where persuasion is not possible, if people merely come away with a slightly better appreciation of the subject. That's one reason why I stay away from it as much as I can; academics are not, I think, well suited for it in general. Our truth-oriented habits tend to be of a somewhat different sort, the range of temperaments capable of living an academic life is much larger, and the sort of generally useful contribution of which we are usually capable is somewhat different.

Certain kinds of blogging, especially but not exclusively political blogging, are another. I am always mystified by bloggers who can rant, day in and day out, about exactly the same things -- the same groups of people, the same problems, the same human failings. I would be thoroughly bored with the topic after a day or two. But more importantly, I always wonder how they could possibly think that this is healthy. Surely it must have occurred to them occasionally that their actions are likely to induce habits and attitudes, and that the habit of ranting at a particular group of people is probably not a morally good one? Or that they are spending an awful lot of time ranting that could be spent doing something more constructive? The truth is, you really need the right sort of temperament for blogging about controversial subjects in a controversial way, and most people who are tempted to do it clearly do not have it. I'm sure I'm not the only person who began following a particular blog with interest and watched in dismay as it became more and more the stage for uncritical ranting. And, if you're not the right sort of person, that's the way you may well be heading.

Of course, in this case, as with the others, some people do in fact have the temperament for it -- probably a sizable group, in absolute terms, even if they make up only a very small proportion of the whole. And it's a different matter if it's something one does only on a rare occasion, and likewise if one touches on the same subjects but in a very different way. But regardless of what we are doing, we should always at least ask ourselves the question whether our practices are really the kinds of practices that are likely to train us to be better people, and we should be careful not to deceive ourselves about it.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Wikipedia on Hume on Design

It's always interesting to see how Wikipedia is handling philosophical topics. The current Wikipedia discussion on Hume's criticism of the design argument foregoes a summary of the criticism itself (which is probably wise, as there is no general consensus on the whole shape of Hume's criticism) and instead just lists a handful of points made:

Here are some of his points:

1. For the design argument to be feasible, it must be true that order and purpose are observed only when they result from design. But order is observed regularly, resulting from presumably mindless processes like snowflake or crystal generation. Design accounts for only a tiny part of our experience with order and "purpose".
2. Furthermore, the design argument is based on an incomplete analogy: because of our experience with objects, we can recognise human-designed ones, comparing for example a pile of stones and a brick wall. But to point to a designed Universe, we would need to have an experience of a range of different universes. As we only experience one, the analogy cannot be applied. We must ask therefore if it is right to compare the world to a machine — as in Paley's watchmaker argument — when perhaps it would be better described as a giant inert animal.
3. Even if the design argument is completely successful, it could not (in and of itself) establish a robust theism; one could easily reach the conclusion that the universe's configuration is the result of some morally ambiguous, possibly unintelligent agent or agents whose method bears only a remote similarity to human design. In this way it could be asked if the designer was God, or further still, who designed the designer?
4. If a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer, then God's mind (being so well-ordered) also requires a special designer. And then this designer would likewise need a designer, and so on ad infinitum. We could respond by resting content with an inexplicably self-ordered divine mind but then why not rest content with an inexplicably self-ordered natural world?
5. Often, what appears to be purpose, where it looks like object X has feature F in order to secure outcome O, is better explained by a filtering process: that is, object X wouldn't be around did it not possess feature F, and outcome O is only interesting to us as a human projection of goals onto nature. This mechanical explanation of teleology anticipated natural selection. (see also Anthropic principle)
6. The design argument does not explain pain, suffering, and natural disasters. See Problem of evil.

(6) is right, although it is misleading simply to lay it out there without development; Hume is quite clear that the design argument's failure to explain pain, suffering, and natural disasters is not a problem for the design argument itself but for a particular use of it. And Hume definitely does make point (5), which can indeed be seen as a sort of loose anticipation of natural selection if we are thinking only of biological organisms (Hume himself, of course, is thinking more generally than that). Point (3) as laid out here seems to me to be confused and to muddle more than one thing together, but it does identify an important and often overlooked point (related, actually, to point (6)), namely, that a hefty portion of Philo's criticism in the Dialogues is devoted not to attacking the design argument but to attacking Cleanthes's claim that the design argument is sufficient for all religious purposes. The first sentence in (1) is certainly false in Humean terms, and I think Hume makes clear enough from the discussion that he actually rejects it. For exactly the same reason, the "analogy cannot be applied" point in (2) is not right: Philo's point is precisely that the analogy can be applied -- and so can a very wide variety of other analogies. This is actually important: Hume does not reject the analogy, which he has Philo explicitly affirm more than once in the Dialogues. Nor does he deny that you can make some sort of inference on the basis of it. Philo instead argues that the analogy, and the related analogical inference, can't do what Cleanthes thinks it can.

All in all, though, it's a decent attempt; I've come across professional philosophers making worse and more obvious errors in discussing this topic. Like I said, I think it was a wise move to focus on 'points' rather than to try to lay out the overall shape of the argument, and most of my disagreements would be on matters of wording and organization, both of which could be better. The only major error is the one about Hume's view about the feasibility of the analogy, and it's an easy one to make given the complexity of the discussion. And whoever wrote it caught on to the importance of the relation between the design argument and religion, which is definitely an important part of the argument, but easily missed. I was pleasantly surprised with this Wikipedia discussion: it's a very hard topic, involving a great many controversies, but was handled reasonably well here. I hope future revisions keep the same basic approach and just refine the listing of points (ideally with indications of which Parts in the Dialogue make these points).

Calvin on the Image of God

An obscure but interesting passage by John Calvin on the image of God (he is arguing against Osiander):

Text not available
Institutes of the Christian Religion By Jean Calvin

I've noted some of the interesting facets, including a few puzzles, of Calvin's scattered claims on this subject before, focusing on Calvin's scriptural commentaries rather than the Institutes.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Boswell, 1764

I finally got around to putting up at HL the last part of my Boswell's Christmas 1764 series. The first three parts discussed Boswell's meeting with Rousseau in the early part of December; this last one discusses his meetings with Voltaire over Christmas.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Instrumental Causes and Extended Minds

Edward Feser has an interesting post on one "kernel of truth" a Thomist might find in the extended mind thesis, the claim that the mind extends into the world by the way of certain kinds of objects. He focuses on the issue of the forms of the intellect. I actually think there's another, and more obvious, point at which the two can be said to touch, namely, in the Thomistic account of instrumental causes.

Suppose you have a pen. A pen has the power to write. But, if you think about it, it can't write on its own; its power to write is purely instrumental. For its writing ability to manifest in action, the pen has to be applied to actual writing: you take it in hand and write with it, thus using the pen's ability to write in order to write. This applicatio virtutis ad actionem, the application of the power to the right sort of action, is one side of instrumental causality.

But you can look at it in a different way, and think of the pen as really having the power to write, in a full sense, when it parcels out, so to speak, or participates in, the activity of a higher power: in this case, your power. When you take the pen in hand and apply its ability to write to actual writing, it has become an extension of your own ability to write. And thus the pen writes, which it cannot do on its own, because it is an instrument of your own power to write.

These points are quite general, and one way to interpret the extended mind thesis charitably from a Thomistic point of view is to see it as a rediscovery of the considerable use by the human mind of instrumental causes, applying various things (like notebooks and iPods) to their actions, so that these things participate in the power of the mind itself, as its instruments. As Clark and Chalmers say (in the paper linked above):

It is not just the presence of advanced external computing resources which raises the issue, but rather the general tendency of human reasoners to lean heavily on environmental supports. Thus consider the use of pen and paper to perform long multiplication (McClelland et al 1986, Clark 1989), the use of physical re-arrangements of letter tiles to prompt word recall in Scrabble (Kirsh 1995), the use of instruments such as the nautical slide rule (Hutchins 1995), and the general paraphernalia of language, books, diagrams, and culture. In all these cases the individual brain performs some operations, while others are delegated to manipulations of external media.

And the Thomist has a reasonable analysis of how this would work in terms of instrumental causality, and even can capture the striking feature of the extended mind thesis -- the apparent extension of the mind into the world -- with the notion of participation, and all in a way that relies less on metaphor and more on actual careful analysis of action than one usually finds associated with the extended mind thesis.

A Triumph and a Victory

A Song on a Bare Bough
by Grace Noll Crowell

I saw a valiant cardinal
Dark-red against the winter dawn,
He whistled from a leafless tree
Upon a barren lawn,

The tiny dauntless splotch of red
Shot up a challenge straight and high:
A rocket-burst of silver stars
To shower a winter sky.

The little brave intrepid thing--
A conqueror of cold and night--
He drenched the bare boughs suddenly
With color and with light--

A triumph and a victory
That I have come to understand.
I laughed--a broken laugh--and took
Life once more by the hand.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Duke of True Lovers

Ooh, nice find at Google Book: Christine de Pisan's The Book of the Duke of True Lovers.

Text not available
The book of the Duke of true lovers By Christine, Christine de Pisan, Alice Kemp-Welch, Laurence Binyon, Eric Robert Dalrymple Maclagan

I hadn't come across it before; judging from the translation, it looks like the original was prosimetric, which would be fairly unusual -- prosimetric works are hard to write because you have to integrate very different ways of writing. It's rather difficult to find Christine's works in English, despite the fact that she was one of the great early modern writers. And while I am still reading it, it's Christine de Pisan, so you know it's going to be good.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Poem Re-Draft

'Tis the season.

Blessed Is the Blood Now Bled

Blessed is the blood now bled
from down the thorn-encircled head,
from out the spear-intruded side,
upon the cross where Christ has died.

Blessed is the holy Name
that lives from age to age the same,
that bled upon the unjust cross
and drew just blessing from the loss.

Blessed are the tears of grace
that flow down from Our Lord's own face
from health of mind and depth of heart
that never shirks the servant's part.

Blessed is the open tomb
which angels herald as the womb
from whence the Lord of life speeds true
to make our weary hearts as new.

The Taste of the Fig

I was at the Metaphysics and Philosophy of Religion workshop in San Antonio the past two days; quite a bit of fun (although, since I drove, I learned that San Antonio drivers are horrendously bad, much worse than Austin drivers, who I had thought were bad enough). Lots of thought-provoking arguments -- and, as Socrates might say, it's always good to go beyond the written logos to the living, breathing logos. In any case, one of the papers was by Andrei Buckareff, on the pairing problem for immaterial agents; a key premise of an argument being considered by him was that spatiotemporal effects must have spatiotemporal causes. Since my mind is unruly, it always goes off on tangents, and I started thinking about how Hume would deny this premise -- for he pretty clearly does. And, as I've already written a post about Hume's argument on this subject, here it is again, with some slight modifications. (Constant conjunction, by the way, is nothing other than Hume's answer to the pairing problem.)


In Treatise 1.4.5, Hume presents an argument for the following claim:

N An object may exist but be nowhere

In support of this Hume claims that our sense of place or locality is rooted entirely in our senses of sight and touch; other senses convey a sense of place only by association with these. In light of this he argues (T.

1. Whatever has a place must either be extended or be a mathematical point.
2. Whatever is extended has a figure or shape.
3. A desire has no figure or shape
4. Mathematical points can be combined and disposed so as to form a volume.
5. A desire is not disposable in this way.
6. Therefore a desire has no place.

So, despite the apparently counterintuitive nature of N (which was explicitly denied by Samuel Clarke in his correspondence with Leibniz), Hume says of it that "this is not only possible, but...the greatest part of beings do and must exist after this manner" (T We can say that an object is nowhere when its parts are not so related to each other as to form a figure or volume, and the whole is not related to other things so as to be distant or contiguous. Hume puts all our perceptions in this category (with the exception of those of sight and touch, which he thinks are extended). Indeed, not only are most of our perceptions (and their objects) nowhere, they are such that they could not possibly be in a place. If this is so, however, most of our perceptions (and their objects) cannot be 'locally conjoined' to matter, i.e., they cannot be united to matter in a place, because any relation requires that both be similar enough to serve as the ground of relation.

But we do often try to attribute local conjunction to the things Hume says can't be locally conjoined to anything. Suppose, says Hume, that we have a fig at one end of a table and an olive at the other end. We are naturally inclined to say that the taste of the fig is at the fig's end of the table, and the taste of the olive is at the other end. Hume thinks that the reason we do this is mere prejudice: we associate the fig's taste with the fig, knowing that the fig-body can cause a fig-taste to follow it in time. Since the fig-body and the fig-taste are related by causation and temporal succession, we assume that they are also related by local conjunction. Indeed, Hume's view is that this is almost impossible to avoid: when we are faced with an incomplete union the imagination has a natural tendency to fill in whatever relation is necessary to make the union complete; only then can we be satisfied. On reflection, Hume thinks, we would recognize that the result we've arrived at is clearly unintelligible and incoherent. For where in the fig-body is the taste located? There is no extended thing or set of points within the fig that constitute the fig-taste; therefore the locality we give the fig-taste is that of the fig-body and every part of it. In other words, we assume that the fig-taste is located in the whole fig-body, and located wholly in every part of the fig-body (totum in toto et totum in qualibet parte, as Hume notes the scholastics would say of the soul). Hume thinks that this is an obvious contradiction: it is equivalent to saying that the fig-taste is both in a place and not there at the same time.

So, Hume argues, we are faced with a trilemma. Either

(a) some beings exist without any place;


(b) all beings (including things like desires and passions) are extended and figured;


(c) some things are so incorporated with extended objects that they are wholly in the whole and wholly in every part.

Since Hume has argued against (b) and (c), the only option left is (a), which is equivalent to N.

Philosophy and Refereeing

An interesting post on philosophy and refereeing for journals. I'm afraid I agree with Larry Laudan's comment:

That said, I dispute that any one of us has a moral or professional obligation to referee. As a former journal editor, I know firsthand that many philosophers --including some very productive ones—make deplorable referees, just as many authors of good books make terrible book reviewers. If one knows or suspects that about oneself, surely the best thing to do is to refuse requests to referee. I also believe that, in the case of highly productive and original philosophers, it is far better for the profession if they spend their time doing their own work rather than carrying the broom to sweep up behind the rest of us. Finally, making a good argument of one’s own and detecting bad arguments in the work of others are not skills that always go together. Being a good writer doesn’t entail one is a good editor of others’ writings and vice versa; being a good pitcher doesn’t automatically qualify one to be a plate umpire. The idea that each of us owes it to the profession to referee frequently fails to reckon with the fact that the field is full of poor referees, whose highest moral calling would be to refuse ever to take on a task that they are unlikely to discharge quickly and competently.

I also agree with his further point that, whatever may be the case with other fields, in academic philosophy, a field which consists almost entirely of people commenting on other people's work, this sort of reviewing system is not as crucial for the field as one might at first think; it's primarily a convenience for journal quality-control, not (as one would think it is for some other fields) a major gate-keeping system. There are plenty of other sorts of roles in current academic philosophy -- commenting on papers, reading and asking questions about drafts, and the like -- that are vastly more important for the field. Certainly we have no obligation to journals to help them secure quality referees; and if one is speaking of obligations to the professional community in general, as a professional, there are many, many things of much greater importance against which the time and effort and likely quality of one's refereeing has to be weighed in each particular case.