Saturday, December 05, 2009

Aquinas on Poetics

Sometimes we are moved towards one part of a contradiction by nothing more than a kind of regard or esteem resulting from the way something represented. This is analogous to the way in which a particular food appears disgusting when it is represented in the image of something disgusting. The art of poetry is ordered to this. For the poet's vocation is to guide us towards what is virtuous by representing it as attractive.

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Berquist, tr., Dumb Ox (Notre Dame: 2007), p. 3. What Aquinas means by 'some part of a contradiction' here is one of two mutually exclusive alternatives; and 'art of poetry' would be better translated more literally as 'poetics', which in medieval Aristotelianism (both Muslim and Christian) is one of the departments of logic (due to the fact that Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetics were interpreted as dealing with special kinds of inference or reasoning). 'Vocation' is not in the original. The Latin is:

Quandoque vero sola existimatio declinat in aliquam partem contradictionis propter aliquam repraesentationem, ad modum quo fit homini abominatio alicuius cibi, si repraesentetur ei sub similitudine alicuius abominabilis. Et ad hoc ordinatur poetica; nam poetae est inducere ad aliquod virtuosum per aliquam decentem repraesentationem.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Students and the First Way

I have been grading take-home quizzes on the history of philosophy for my intro course. One of the questions was "In Thomas Aquinas's First Way, what do you think is the weakest premise (the one that would require the most work to defend), and why?" The point of it was primarily to see if they had learned what 'the First Way' meant, but having phrased it in this roundabout way this time around, I think I got more interesting answers than I have previously (which asked for a summary of it). To some extent the answers aren't wholly surprising, and no great weight can be put on them, given that students only had had one class on the argument, which was primarily geared to simply providing a tour of the medieval scholastic approach to philosophy, and inovlved only a very light summarizing of the background for the argument. So you get some standard confusions and incoherent arguments. But, of course, that's about the level at which most people approach it, so it provided an interesting sample of the range of immediate responses people might have. That's certainly useful. (And I have to say that in some cases my students make more perceptive responses on the basis of one class than I've sometimes heard from professional philosophers; a sign, I think, of the occasional laziness of the latter.) Here are the answers from the quizzes that were turned in on time which had answers for this particular question. I have paraphrased and abbreviated pretty much all of them.

* "This cannot go on to infinity because there would be no first mover." This is begging the question; for all we know, it can go on to infinity.

* "This everyone understands to be God." Aquinas would need to be able to prove the existence of God for this to be true. The belief that God exists is not evidence that God exists.

* The idea that it is impossible for a thing to be both mover and moved, because the argument over the first mover or cause, as God, does not admit of proof.

* "Whatever is moved must be moved by another." We move and we are moved by our own will. Plenty of things move themselves.

* "This everyone understands to be God." Not everyone believes in God, and some people don't believe God is a mover.

* That the motion of the whole world and each motion within it is caused by the motion of the heavens, because he believed in geocentrism. [This may seem to come a bit out of nowhere, but it's not really the student's fault. The nice thing about take-home quizzes is that students can cite the sources they get their information from, and there was a source here.]

* The idea that an infinite number of movers is impossible. The law of conservation of energy states that energy is neither created nor destroyed, so it is possible for there to be an infinite number of movers.

* That nothing can be in actuality and potentiality at the same time. Something can be on fire and still have the potential to burn.

* That there must be a first mover. It seems strange to me that God just came to be, and that there was nothing that set him in motion.

* The one that attributes first motion to God. If everything that happens has to have a first cause, why does the first cause have to be God? If God is the cause of everything and everything requires a cause, what is God's cause?

Links for Thinking

* Michaël de Verteuil on Michael Cerularius

* Peter Gilbert on John Bekkos (PDF)

* Jonathan Jarrett on Saint Ermengol and medieval simony

* Cantoni and Yuchtman, Medieval Universities, Legal Institutions, and the Commercial Revolution (PDF)

Cantoni, The Economic Effects of the Protestant Reformation (PDF) -- I don't think this tests the Weberian hypothesis very directly at all, but it's interesting nonetheless

Acemoglu, Cantoni, Johnson, Robinson, From Ancien Régime to Capitalism (PDF)

* "Eating the Road" makes eating out easier by providing a handy flowchart. There are many delightful bits to it. (ht)

* Layman discusses Alexander and Rufus, sons of Simon of Cyrene

* An article about the years we had two Thanksgivings. Texas's reason for celebrating both was very, very Texan.

* The hundredth Philosophers' Carnival

* The 56th Carnivalesque (early modern edition)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Two Poem Drafts

Silent Stars

When you are lost in shadow and your heart is all alone
and you wander in these mazes made of cold, unyielding stone,
when death is on your doorstep, you still may see a ray
from silent stars still shining all along the Milky Way.

When cities fall and languish and the world is in despair
and truth is crowded out by all the lies that fill the air,
then let your heart take courage; you yet may find a way
under silent stars still shining all along the Milky Way.

Silent stars are shining in the endless void of night;
silent stars are shining with a quiet, constant light.
In every night of trouble, every darkness at midday,
still silent stars are shining all along the Milky Way.

Flame Upon the Sky

Flame upon the sky! Bright dawn arose, and rosy were her fingers;
although she is now gone, yet her form and presence linger
in the pools of memory, those reflections that lag and wait
so that, although the light has passed, they still will seek to sate
their thirst with forms that haunt the mind like wraiths, ghosts, shades,
reverberations of a dawn that thus can never wholly fade.
Fire in the heavens! It seems both lasting hope and looming doom,
hope in beating back the grasping of the nightly bitter gloom,
but doom, as in the judgment when before the flawless throne
we all will come to sentence, and each will stand alone.
And perhaps, through some great irony, God has made them one
and made a symbol of them both in this rising of the sun.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wolterstorff and Foundationalism

Analytic philosophers have a very bad habit of making historical pronouncements that do not stand close examination. I recently came across what seems a good example of this in Nicholas Wolterstorff's Reason within the Bounds of Religion. In it Wolterstorff claims (pp. 28-30) that foundationalism is the "classic theory of theorizing in the Western world" and "has proved endlessly attractive to Western man," that it "has been the reigning theory of theories int he West since the high Middle Ages". It apparently traces back to Aristotle, and as other examples Wolterstorff gives "Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, the logical positivists".

Were I a naive historian of philosophy, I would find this exciting, a sort of Key to All Epistemologies. A generalization of this extent and definiteness would be truly significant. But not being quite so naive, I sigh and look skeptically for the precise definition of this "endlessly attractive" foundationalism. Wolterstorff helpfully sums it up in three principles:

(1) A person is warranted in accepting a theory at a certain time if and only if he is then warranted in believing that that theory belongs to genuine science (scientia).
(2) A theory belongs to genuine science if and only if it is justified by some foundational proposition and some human being could know with certitude that it is thus justified.
(3) A proposition is foundational if and only if it is true and some human being could know noninferentially and with certitude that it is true.

And it is so thoroughly implausible that this has been the standard view in the history of Western philosophy that I actually wonder if anyone held it prior to the twentieth century. I have noted before that Descartes is not what analytic philosophers call a "Cartesian foundationalist"; for exactly the same reasons it follows that he is not a foundationalist in Wolterstorff's slightly broader (because slightly vaguer) sense. And despite the fact that Wolterstorf treats Aquinas as a "classic version", it is clear that Aquinas does not accept any of these three points. Wolterstorff himself touches on the fact that on Aquinas's view there is an entire field of 'theories' in Wolterstorff's sense which should be accepted, which are not foundational in the sense of (3) nor justified by something foundational in the sense of (2), namely, those accepted on faith. He explicitly recognizes (p. 149n11) that sacred doctrine, despite being considered a scientia in Aquinas's sense fails to be one in Wolterstorff's sense; but he seems oblivious to the fact that this would mean that Aquinas is not a foundationalist about the very things he would have considered most important. The relativity to human beings in Wolterstorff's description is particularly troublesome. And Wolterstorff does not consider that Aquinas seems clearly to allow for reasonable opinion, which seems yet another exception. (Nor can he be using 'warranted' in a technical sense, because then he would need to give us a definition of warrant, which he pointedly refuses to do, claiming that we all know what it means.)

Aquinas does hold that there are conclusions we can hold on the basis of self-evident principles, and that when we do we have scientia, knowledge; but that some of the things we are warranted in accepting are had in this way is not enough to make him a foundationalist in Wolterstorff's sense. To make Aquinas a foundationalist in Wolterstorff's sense you have to take such a tiny slice of Aquinas, ignoring the rest, that very little of his actual view remains, just as making Descartes a 'Cartesian foundationalist' in the common sense requires not proceeding past Meditation Five. In light of things like this, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that 'foundationalism', historically considered, is a figment of contemporary epistemologists' imaginations. But, of course, there's always the possibility that they haven't quite hit on the right way to formulate it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Creation and Generation

One of my pet peeves, which is beginning to get up there with drivers who don't use their blinkers, is the tendency of people to talk about "God using evolution to create". This has become very common among theists of many different persuasions, and it shows the degree to which people no longer have any notion of creation. Evolution is not a means of creation; it isn't very clear that the notion of a 'means of creation' is coherent. Evolution is a theory of generation; to be more precise, it is an account of how populations change when the generation and destruction of individuals in the population is linked to variation in the individuals, through things like selection and drift. This is something entirely different from creation; living things are not created through evolution, or by evolution, or any such thing. Evolution is part of the overall account of how living things are generated, of how they change from contrary to contrary, from being that to being other than that; it therefore is part of our account for why something is this rather than that. But creation has to do not with change from contrary to contrary, not with why something is this rather than that, but with why something is at all; and, moreover, it is not a matter of change at all, although we often for convenience use analogies it has to change in order to talk of it, because change is more immediately obvious to us than creation is. As Aquinas says, "Creation is not a change, except according to a mode of understanding" (ST 1.45.2 ad 2); there are genuine analogies between the two, and thus we can model creation as a change for particular purposes, but actual conflation of the two is what Aquinas calls "false imagination". And, indeed, Aquinas has a very good discussion of why it makes no sense to say that God creates 'through' something else, where this is not a figure of speech: creation by its very nature (and unlike generation) involves no instruments or mediating causes. It involves, as one might say, direct dependence on God, regardless of the way the dependent thing might have come from something else.

Thus it is simply absurd to say that "Evolution is God's method of creation," or that "God used evolution as a way to create living things"; saying something like this is a sign that you don't know anything about what creation is. Fortunately, these descriptions are less common among actual theists who accept evolutionary theory than they are among their opponents -- you usually see their position described in this way by atheists or by intelligent design theorists or by young earth creationists, rather than by themselves. There's a reason, for that, actually; it's because these people usually allow themselves no way of distinguishing questions of creation from questions of generation, so they slide between them as if they were the same. But I have noticed it creeping into more common acceptance; and it should be rejected firmly. Creation shows up in the answers to questions that are rather different from the questions in whose answers we find evolution showing up. Treating them as if they answered the same questions is to concede incoherent assumptions, and thus make one's own position incoherent.