Friday, December 31, 2010

Passing Away

The Knell of the Year
by Christina Rossetti

Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
Changes, beauty, and youth, sapped day by day:
Thy life never continueth in one stay.
Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
On my bosom for aye.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
With its burdenof fear and hope, of labour and play,
Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
Lo the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay;
Watch thou and pray.
Then I answered: Yea.

Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
Winter passeth after the long delay:
New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven's May.
Though I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray:
Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
Then I answered: Yea.

31 December 1860

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

All Times Will Try Him True

A Child My Choice
By Robert Southwell

Let folly praise that fancy loves, I praise and love that Child
Whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand no deed defiled.

I praise Him most, I love Him best, all praise and love is His;
While Him I love, in Him I live, and cannot live amiss.

Love's sweetest mark, laud's highest theme, man's most desired light,
To love Him life, to leave Him death, to live in Him delight.

He mine by gift, I His by debt, thus each to other due;
First friend He was, best friend He is, all times will try Him true.

Though young, yet wise; though small, yet strong; though man, yet God He is:
As wise, He knows; as strong, He can; as God, He loves to bless.

His knowledge rules, His strength defends, His love doth cherish all;
His birth our joy, His life our light, His death our end of thrall.

Alas! He weeps, He sighs, He pants, yet do His angels sing;
Out of His tears, His sighs and throbs, doth bud a joyful spring.

Almighty Babe, whose tender arms can force all foes to fly,
Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

All is Ours We Could Not Seek

Holy Innocents
by Christina Rossetti

They scarcely waked before they slept,
They scarcely wept before they laughed;
They drank indeed death's bitter draught,
But all its bitterest dregs were kept
And drained by Mothers while they wept.

From Heaven the speechless Infants speak:
Weep not (they say), our Mothers dear,
For swords nor sorrows come not here.
Now we are strong who were so weak,
And all is ours we could not seek.

We bloom among the blooming flowers,
We sing among the singing birds;
Wisdom we have who wanted words:
Here morning knows not evening hours,
All's rainbow here without the showers.

And softer than our Mother's breast,
And closer than our Mother's arm,
Is here the Love that keeps us warm
And broods above our happy next.
Dear Mothers, come: for Heaven is best.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wonders of Technology

Hello All,

I am currently typing this at over 10000 feet -- considerably over, I'm certain, but I don't know the exact number -- in flight to Minneapolis. Delta Airlines has a GoGo partnership that lets them provide free Wifi in the air. Which sounds nice, but given that we are packed in like sardines and that the space laid out for each passenger was apparently done so on the assumption that Delta would now be serving only gnomes, it's much less impressive than it seems. My forearms are pressed at my side, my wrists are arched in carpal-tunnel-inducing ways, and I am thinking: surely this is not such an advance in technology as you'd think? To be sure, it is quite marvelous that I am able to blog in flight. Wonders of technology, to be sure. But right now I would much prefer a wonder of technology that made it economical for me to stretch my legs and not have the measly two feet within which to put a laptop, my arms, and the complimentary beverage that is currently being served. Even if I were doing this on an iPhone or some such, it would hardly be much of an improvement.

But such is our age: we can make an iPad, but God help us if we try to get back to the moon, because the only way we can do that at present is to reverse engineer the way it was done the first time, since so much has been lost. How splendid we are at little entertaining things, and how grandiose we can be about them! But, honestly, there are many levels of practicality and we are failing on several of them.

It shows, I suppose, that there is more to technology than ingenuity and science: it's not that we don't have ingenuity, and it's not as if the basic theoretical apparatus has not improved. But technology has a logistics and an economics that must be respected: you must be able to marshal the actual resources and get them to the right people at the right places at the right times. This is true of science, and, indeed, any intellectual endeavor, of course; to name just one significant example, it seems clear enough that the reason the late Middle Ages failed to achieve a Scientific Revolution a la Michael Flynn was simply logistics: they had all the pieces to do what Galileo did, and many of them were no less ingenious, but they were scattered, the means of communication were not adequate to guarantee that the pieces would eventually come together in the right hands, and resources were beginning to be diverted elsewhere for various reasons. But with technology unfavorable logistics and economics are massively more devastating: requiring far greater resources than purely intellectual inquiry, deviations and problems in the obtaining and distributing of those resources multiply all along the line.

Then, too, technology by its nature repeatedly comes up against dead ends. There's a reason, for instance, that we find it so hard to shake our dependency on gasoline: for the things we want gasoline to do, there is quite literally nothing better than it. It's powerful, it's relatively safe and portable, and we have all the prior technology in place to take full advantage of everything it has to offer. It's at a valley, one might say, in the technological landscape: no matter which direction you go, you do so at some cost: either the fuel becomes less efficient, or it becomes more dangerous, one has to rethink entirely the way we ordinarily do things. I don't know anything about aerospace technology, but I'm sure we're pretty close to such a valley in this field, as well: the basic technology has not undergone any significant changes, at least any that are obvious, in my lifetime. It's all been relatively minor tweaking, and what you get for the cost seems to have been steadily decreasing. Is there really no way to improve on the basic technology, not by increment but by establishing something that is of an entirely new level of development entirely? One wonders. But setting aside abstract possibilities -- it seems that we can't. Progress in technology should make flying cheaper and cheaper, easier and easier; but even when we set aside security and the like, it's difficult to say that we are actually progressing rather than regressing. And that is a bit disturbing.

Perhaps it's really an issue of being outcompeted for limited resources by other technologies. After all, we may be crammed into the cabin, but I am blogging from the air and we do have those iPads and ebook readers and LED lights in our stoplights. Perhaps -- and there is independent reason to think it -- we have become a frivolous and slothful people, unwilling to put the effort in to do what really would be valuable to do. Perhaps we are hitting our limits, and there is nothing more left to do but fall helplessly back to earth like some modern Icarus. Perhaps there are geniuses out there who will show us new ways. Perhaps I am just being absurdly pessimistic because I am cramped into a tiny space too small for this free Wifi to be especially wonderful, and especially at these connection speeds. I do not know. But when people talk of the wonders of technology, I think of them, too; and I wonder, which of them have we failed to achieve?

Who Will Count the Billows Past?

St. John's Day
by John Keble

Peter seeing him, saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou Me. St. John xxi. 21, 22.

"Lord, and what shall this man do?"
Ask'st thou, Christian, for thy friend?
If his love for Christ be true,
Christ hath told thee of his end:
This is he whom God approves,
This is he whom Jesus loves.

Ask not of him more than this,
Leave it in his Saviour's breast,
Whether, early called to bliss,
He in youth shall find his rest,
Or armed in his station wait
Till his Lord be at the gate:

Whether in his lonely course
(Lonely, not forlorn) he stay,
Or with Love's supporting force
Cheat the toil, and cheer the way:
Leave it all in His high hand,
Who doth hearts as streams command.

Gales from Heaven, if so He will,
Sweeter melodies can wake
On the lonely mountain rill
Than the meeting waters make.
Who hath the Father and the Son,
May be left, but not alone.

Sick or healthful, slave or free,
Wealthy, or despised and poor -
What is that to him or thee,
So his love to Christ endure?
When the shore is won at last,
Who will count the billows past?

Only, since our souls will shrink
At the touch of natural grief,
When our earthly loved ones sink,
Lend us, Lord, Thy sure relief;
Patient hearts, their pain to see,
And Thy grace, to follow Thee.

Some Links for Reading

* Stephen Carlson looks at the meaning of kalyma, usually translated as 'inn', in Luke's birth narrative (PDF).

* A fascinating post on the history of thought about how glaciers relate to climate change.

* Getting science education in the classroom right.

* Tom at "Chronicon" discusses misconceptions about the dating of Christmas.

* I found Dawkins's fuming over original sin a bit funny. What's funniest about it is that he immediately breaks down into so much sputtering he can't even get coherent enough to say why; a rather serious failing given that he explicitly says that belief in it is nastier than anti-Semitism and conniving at the rape of children. But it highlights how much of Dawkins's anti-Catholicism -- which has led him to break down into wild fulmination and then incoherence before -- is driven by his melodramatic emotionalism rather than any serious reasoning or objective assessment. One finds very quickly that it's a common failing; Catholics are always, apparently, in the wrong, but the reasons given for thinking so are usually extremely vague appeals to gut reaction. One always has to wade through a vast and thick miasma before one gets to any arguments. In honesty, though, I'm inclined to be less hard on Dawkins on this point than on anti-Catholics from other cultures; the vein of British Protestant anti-Catholicism runs very, very deep, and people genuinely do find it hard to shake. And there is no question that British atheists tend to be very discernibly Protestant even long after they have ceased being Christian. That's something of a thought, actually: Dawkins as a sort of British Comte. But one has to say, if one is to be fair to Comte, that Comte put more effort into these things.

* Thony C discusses Newton's obsession with chronology -- an obsession that was common among the great minds of his day. I suspect that later generations will look at our generation's interest in evolutionary psychology in much the same way; small assumptions, apparently reasonable, made in the beginning can easily throw ambitious projects well out of whack if they are wrong, or involve equivocations, or overlook qualifications. What is important is precisely what Thony is trying to insist upon (with most people to no avail, I think): rational systems built on false assumptions are still rational systems, and can at times exhibit the power, and even progress, of human reason as much as rational systems that just happened to be built on true assumptions.

* Terry Teachout on Jack Benny. He's too pessimistic: I listen to Jack Benny's radio programs quite regularly, for instance, and I don't think he quite appreciates the degree to which satellite radio and the internet can bring back radio classics. But it's true that most people's sole acquaintance with Jack Benny comes from missing the joke in Back to the Future:

Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, "Future Boy", who's President in the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who's Vice-President? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady!
Marty McFly: Whoa! Wait! Doc!
Dr. Emmett Brown: And Jack Benny is Secretary of the Treasury!

Which is actually hilariously funny if you know anything about Jack Benny. But even though most people might not know much about Benny, the serious options for niche interest in him (and other radio classic greats) have massively expanded in the past decade.

Hell Cannot Bind Light from Descending

St. John the Apostle
by Christina Rossetti

Earth cannot bar flame from ascending,
Hell cannot bind light from descending,
Death cannot finish life never ending.

Eagle and sun gaze at each other,
Eagle at sun, brother at Brother,
Loving in peace and joy one another.

O St. John, with chains for thy wages,
Strong thy rock where the storm-blast rages,
Rock of refuge, the Rock of Ages.

Rome hath passed with her awful voice,
Earth is passing with all her joys,
Heaven shall pass away with a noise.

So from us all follies that please us,
So from us all falsehoods that ease us,–
Only all saints abide with their Jesus.

Jesus, in love looking down hither,
Jesus, by love draw us up thither,
That we in Thee may abide together.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Philosophy in the Spam Filter

I'm preparing to visit family, and I'm uncertain what internet access I'll have until after New Year's. But there will be some posts that I've pre-scheduled.

In the meantime, I was cleaning out spam that had been caught in my spam filter and found some of it rather funny; I'd heard about spammers using bots that have algorithms to make comments more relevant, or more relevant-like, but I hadn't come across them before. And what I discovered is that Viagra is apparently relevant to all philosophical problems, albeit in a slightly risqué way. But some of them are amusing, and it serves as a way to revisit some old posts.

On a 2007 post about testimonial injustice:

Agree, It's anoying when some people 20 years ago, disapproved the use of the generic viagra because was against the nature and bla bla and now this product helps a lot of people around the world. Thanks for sharing.

While it's certainly not true that taking viagra is, as such, unnatural I'm not so sure this is true of every intention with which it is used. But that's only loosely related to testimonial injustice, if at all.

On a 2008 post about appeal to intuitions in philosophy:

I think it is convenient that we trust our intuitions because most of the time they are warning symbols. I have noticed that since I am taking viagra online I have more intuitions.

Since the point of the post is that there is no good account of what counts as an intuition, I suppose one could call them intuitions; and I suppose they are 'warning symbols'. But, of course, there's no particular reason to think more intuitions are a good thing.

On a 2008 post that quotes Aquinas on two kinds of division:

You're right, I think the species, always the members of the division, are on a par in the point, and you can find more information from Generic Viagra and then you can fix this blog. By the way I do work in early modern philosophy, like you do.

I suppose that's one way to respond to the currently bad job market; but who knew that generic viagra provided information on medieval logic? I bet you didn't know that.

On a 2008 post about Virginia Woolf's famous claim that she had to kill the angel in the house:

I liked the headline above, and I agree with you about the womens. I do not believe that you know, maybe you can share things from Generic Viagra and that would be great. It becomes not merely art that they can inspire but the state to which they are expected to aspire.

So viagra becomes not merely art that they can inspire but the state to which they are expected to aspire? That sounds a bit disturbing. But it does tie in with occasional feminist worries about the potential dangers of a Viagra culture.

On a 2007 post about the virtue of epieikia:

First of all, it is pretty important to define justice since several points of view because in my opinion it is not fair to have someone in jail because of misdemeanor. I think it is so cruel that thy can not take viagra online.

Well, that isn't too far from epieikia, of course; but it's a stronger position than I think most people would argue.

Of course, there are some non-philosophy ones. On a 2008 post about deus ex machina and children's stories:

I like Narnia because it is a mix of fantastic elements all creating a scary story out of innocence! I remember I read the last book and I couldn't stop until I finished it! I had to take much viagra online.

Also a bit disturbing; not my response to The Last Battle at all. He seems to have misunderstood the point of "further up and further in."

Play Smiling with the Flame and Sword

St. Stephen's Day
by John Keble

He, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. Acts vii. 55

As rays around the source of light
Stream upward ere he glow in sight,
And watching by his future flight
Set the clear heavens on fire;
So on the King of Martyrs wait
Three chosen bands, in royal state,
And all earth owns, of good and great,
Is gather'd in that choir.

One presses on, and welcomes death:
One calmly yields his willing breath,
Nor slow, nor hurrying, but in faith
Content to die or live:
And some, the darlings of their Lord,
Play smiling with the flame and sword,
And, ere they speak, to His sure word
Unconscious witness give.

Foremost and nearest to His throne,
By perfect robes of triumph known,
And likest Him in look and tone,
The holy Stephen kneels,
With stedfast gaze, as when the sky
Flew open to his fainting eye,
Which, like a fading lamp, flash'd high,
Seeing what death conceals.

Well might you guess what vision bright
Was present to his raptured sight,
E'en as reflected streams of light
Their solar source betray -
The glory which our God surrounds,
The Son of Man, the atoning wounds -
He sees them all; and earth's dull bounds
Are melting fast away.

He sees them all—no other view
Could stamp the Saviour's likeness true,
Or with His love so deep embrue
Man's sullen heart and gross -
"Jesus, do Thou my soul receive:
Jesu, do Thou my foes forgive;"
He who would learn that prayer must live
Under the holy Cross.

He, though he seem on earth to move,
Must glide in air like gentle dove,
From yon unclouded depths above
Must draw his purer breath;
Till men behold his angel face
All radiant with celestial grace,
Martyr all o'er, and meet to trace
The lines of Jesus' death.

The Bitter Herbs Ordained

The Passover in the Holy Family
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Here meet together the prefiguring day
And day prefigured. 'Eating, thou shalt stand,
Feet shod, loins girt, thy road-staff in thine hand,
With blood-stained door and lintel,' — did God say
By Moses' mouth in ages passed away.
And now, where this poor household doth comprise
At Paschal-Feast two kindred families, —
Lo! the slain lamb confronts the Lamb to slay.

The pyre is piled. What agony's crown attained,
What shadow of death the Boy's fair brow subdues
Who holds that blood wherewith the porch is stained
By Zachary the priest? John binds the shoes
He deemed himself not worthy to unloose;
And Mary culls the bitter herbs ordained.

The painting as well as the poem is Rossetti's, and the two are a pair. Today, of course, is the Feast of the Holy Family.

Tread Thou in Them Boldly

The 26th is best known for being the Feast of St. Stephen, although because it falls on Sunday this year things are somewhat different for liturgical purposes. But it's worthwhile remembering the Protomartyr. The most famous St. Stephen's Day carol:

Good King Wenceslas
by John Mason Neale

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page,
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing!

St. Wenceslas, of course, also known by the Czech name Vaclav (he's the patron saint of the Czech Republic and you'll find lots of Czechs named after the saint), was Duke of Bohemia in the tenth century. His grandfather was converted to Christianity by Saints Cyril and Methodius. He was murdered on the way to church on the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian by his younger brother Boleslav, who then became Duke. There is an old Czech legend that St. Wenceslas sleeps beneath Mount Blanik with a legion of knights, and that he will return in the time of the Czech people's greatest need. His own feast day is September 28. The page also has a name: Wenceslas's most loyal servant was a man named Podevin, who assisted Wenceslas with his charitable works and, after his death, attempted to avenge his death (for which he was killed).

Saturday, December 25, 2010

'Saint George of mery England, the signe of victoree'

One of my traditions on Christmas is to re-read some version of the story of St. George and the Dragon. Here is a poem of it. The Oxfordshire St. George play, while not very substantive, is probably the most famous of the traditional St. George Christmas plays. Here is a more modern version of the same sort of thing. And of course you can never go wrong with Spencer's Faerie Queene, Book I, in which the tale becames the tale of the Redcrosse Knight, who stands for holiness. The following is a minor thing I worked up for St. George's Day once.

St. George for Merry England

This world, it is a wilding world,
a world of sin and shame;
it speaks and moans a sighing word
and hides its very name.
The dragons rise on every side,
they speak with voice of flame;
but still there rides a knight to fight,
and counter dragon's claim.

And all the peasants, ground to dust,
now walk a rocky way;
all the princes forfeit trust
and flee the rightful fray,
but heaven's knight on a steed of white
with a cross upon his shield
will succor and save the countryside,
will fight, and will not yield.

Cowards cower in dust and in mud
as serpents devour the land;
abandoning hope they abandon the good
and leave it to dragon's demand.
But the knight will fight, and when he falls
he will rise and, rising, will stand;
his weary face will pale and will pall
but his sword is in his hand.

All people who hear, sing the song of the knight,
sing the song of the man who will live;
with sound of the drum, the harp and the pipe,
high hallels and rhapsodies give.
Through moor and through forest, through fallowing field
he will fight for our honor and grace,
he will fight and never will victory yield
for God shines out in his face.

Waters of life will succor him well
and raise him from the dead
as the tree of life delivers from hell
by the power of God who bled;
and the dragon will fall, its eye grow dim,
from the blade by the holy hand led.
To the dust will his heel, his countenace grim,
crush the skull of the serpent's head.

The Blue Sapphire

Thou hast not made, or taught me, Lord, to care
For times and seasons—but this one glad day
Is the blue sapphire clasping all the lights
That flash in the girdle of the year so fair—
When thou wast born a man, because alway
Thou wast and art a man, through all the flights
Of thought, and time, and thousandfold creation's play.

George MacDonald, The Diary of an Old Soul, December 25. Merry Christmas to all!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bridal Robe of Spotless Snow

Christmas Eve
by Christina Rossetti

Christmas hath darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

No bridal robe around Austin; but I'll be up in Montana just after Christmas, and I've no doubts they have bridal robes a-plenty there.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Beneath, and yet above, the Sun!

On Leaping Over the Moon
by Thomas Traherne

I saw new worlds beneath the water lie,
New people; yea, another sky
And sun, which seen by day
Might things more clear display.
Just such another
Of late my brother
Did in his travel see, and saw by night
A much more strange and wondrous sight;
Nor could the world exhibit such another
So great a sight but in a brother.

Adventure strange! No such in story we
New or old, true or feigned, see.
On earth he seemed to move,
Yet heaven went above;
Up in the skies
His body flies
In open, visible, yet magic, sort;
As he along the way did sport,
Over the flood he takes his nimble course
Without the help of feigned horse.

As he went tripping o'er the king's highway,
A little pearly river lay,
O'er which, he dared to swim,
Swim through the air
On body fair;
He would not trust Icarian wings,
Lest they should prove deceitful things;
For had he fall'n, it had been wondrous high,
Not from, but from above, the sky.

He might have dropped through that thin element
Into a fathomless descent;
Unto the nether sky
That did beneath him lie,
And there might tell
What wonders dwell
On earth above. Yet doth he briskly run,
And, bold, the danger overcome;
Who, as he leapt, with joy related soon
How happy he o'erleapt the moon.

What wondrous things upon the earth are done
Beneath, and yet above, the sun!
Deeds all appear again
In higher spheres; remain
In clouds as yet,
But there they get
Another light, and in another way
Themselves to us above display.
The skies themselves this earthly globe surround;
We're even here within them found.

On heav'nly ground within the skies we walk,
And in this middle center talk:
Did we but wisely move,
On earth in heav'n above,
Then soon should we
Exalted be
Above the sky; from whence whoever falls,
Through a long dismal precipice
Sinks to the deep abyss where Satan crawls,
Where horrid death and despair lies.

As much as others thought themselves to lie
Beneath the moon, so much more high
Himself he thought to fly
Above the starry sky,
As that he spied
Below the tide.

Thus did he yield me in the shady night
A wondrous and instructive light,
Which taught me that under our feet there is,
As o'er our heads, a place of bliss.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Whewell on Epochs of Induction

When William Whewell set out to write his history of the inductive sciences, he was writing at a time at which it was not uncommon to see history in terms of the actions of 'Great Men'. The temptation to do this in the context of a history of science was perhaps even greater: names like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton were still, one might say, ringing in people's ears. Whewell considered such great names important. At the same time, however, he did not want to write a history of geniuses doing things: he wanted to write a history of knowledge. The evidence of history shows, however, that progress in knowledge does not consist of big, individual jumps, but, as Whewell put it, of "a long-continued advance; a series of changes; a repeated progress from one principle to another, different and often apparently contradictory" (p. 9), in which new facts are discovered or reinterpreted and old ideas are refined or rejected on the basis of evidence. The history of science is a long story, one that develops very slowly; and, despite the brisk pace of scientific change in Whewell's day, Whewell had no illusions about the ease with which nature opened up her secrets. It had taken millenia, and centuries full of great minds, to make knowledge of the natural world progress to the level it had in the nineteenth century.

Recognizing the complexity of the story of science raises a serious problem for the historian: how does one organize one's account in order to make sense of this complexity? How one does this will to some extent depend on one's view of science itself. On Whewell's view, scientific progress consists of the "superinduction" of ever more refined Ideas on ever more massive bodies of discovered Fact, and the resulting progress, which is scientific progress, is improvement in generalization: the things we say about the world become increasingly universal and bring more and more phenomena under their scope. It is this that is involved in Whewell's famous proposal of consilience, or the "jumping together" of phenomena that previously seemed distinct so that they are now seen as distinct manifestations of the same principles, as a mark of scientific progress. In order to describe this progress on a massive scale, Whewell proposed a theory of scientific history based on a triadic structure of Prelude, Epoch, and Sequel, each of which had its essential role to play in the course of scientific history.

The Epochs, of course, are characterized by the epoch-making discovery. As Whewell notes, most of the major scientific figures that all people recognize as having contributed on a major scale to civilization are associated with scientific Epochs. And, of course, precisely the temptation is to make one's history of science a history of Epochs, of great leaps forward.

But, says, Whewell, a closer look at the historical evidence always shows that these Epochs did not arise out of nothing. There was a long, slow history of preparation, "during which the ideas and facts on which they turned were called into action;--were gradually evolved into clearness and connection, permanency and certainty" (p. 12). This period Whewell calls the Prelude. The Prelude builds up both Fact and Idea; this reaches a sort of critical mass, at which point Fact has been developed enough and Idea refined enough that some scientist or other finally sees the last steps that lead to a major innovation in our understanding of the world. It's interesting how Whewell manages to walk a very fine line here: the build-up of the Prelude is necessary for the Epoch, and in some sense makes it inevitable. But this inevitability does not eliminate the importance of the great scientific geniuses of history: they are the people who saw before anyone else where things were heading, and therefore first formulated the basic ideas of a new age of scientific knowledge.

Once the geniuses have done their Epochal work, though, there is still much left to do: further evidence has to be found, the ramifications of the theories have to be pursued, and finer points that have not yet been settled have to be argued out. The amount of time and labor this requires more or less guarantees that one person, or even a small group of people cannot do it alone. This gives us the Sequel of the Epoch, in which "the discovery has acquired a more perfect certainty and a more complete development among the leaders of the advance; has been diffused to the wider throng of the secondary cultivators of such knowledge, and traced into its distant consequences" (p. 13).

Having this account of the overall structure of scientific discovery in hand, Whewell set out in his History of the Inductive Sciences with the ambition of making the history of science -- and therefore science itself as represented by its actual course -- intelligible to a degree it had never been before.

It's useful to see how this works in the case of the most developed science of Whewell's time -- the only science that had been in development long enough that it had undergone not only an Epoch but three of them, by Whewell's reckoning: formal astronomy (the 'formal' indicating that we are not here considering the subject matter of astronomy in light of physical Ideas, like cause and force, but in purely formal terms: the explanation of the phenomena of the heavens in terms of the formal Ideas of time and space).

The earliest inductive epoch in formal astronomy Whewell calls the Inductive Epoch of Hipparchus. The scientific problem with which it dealt was the problem of the wandering bodies, i.e., planets, which appeared to defy the otherwise rigid order of the heavens. Slowly people had begun to develop rules for describing their motions, tracing over long years the various cycles that the various planets undergo, but this does not get one very far; as the saying goes, it gives you Bradshaw, not the train. By thinking about the planets on analogy with wheels, the ancient Greeks were able to come up with the notion of an epicycle. This was a very important development, one that immediately handled a number of otherwise puzzling problems, like retrograde motion. And astronomers were forced to extend it by further anomalies uncovered by close examination of the data, such as the peculiarities involved in the paths taken by the moon and the sun across the sky. It doesn't take much to see that the notion of an epicycle can easily handle this sort of problem; so it was extended. Thus we have a progress in conceptions of the epicycle going with progress in acquaintance with facts. All these were prerequisites for the first great theory of astronomy, that of Hipparchus.

The scientific problem as developed in the Prelude to the Epoch, then, was to reconcile the celestial phenomena by means of equable (i.e., uniform) circular motions. Whewell noted that, while we tend to dismiss this problem as involving a kind of obsession with circles, as a part of the prelude it not only made sense, it was perhaps the most reasonable thing to try, since, if it panned out, a model consisting entirely of circles would give you the phenomena by way of the simplest and most manageable conjecture, since a great deal had been done on the geometry of circles. Even in Whewell's assessment, for all that he has some very nineteenth-century views about scientific progress, the bad name epicycles had received was due not to the work done in the Prelude, nor Hipparchus's advance in constructing a fully successful theory of epicycles and eccentrics, but to the bitter disputes that unfolded in the Sequel to the Epoch, in which the circularity condition was held with great tenacity even in the face of mounting evidence against it. And the tenacity, of course, was due precisely to the fact that had made it such an important part of the Prelude, namely, that it was such a simple and elegant supposition. There's an ambivalence to it that Whewell appreciates; and he puts it forward as an example of how the love for simplicity both drives scientific progress and creates impediments to it.

In any case, Whewell identifies Hipparchus as the cardinal point in astronomical progress during this Epoch, on the basis (he says) of the maxim that he who proves, discovers. The epicycle was nothing new when Hipparchus came along, of course; it had already been in use for the purposes of explaining anomalies in the wandering bodies. Similarly with the eccentric. To have a genuine theory of epicycles and eccentrics, however, you need to be precise: you need to identify the magnitudes, distances, and positions of the of the circles you are positing, in such a way that the circles capture the irregular and anomalous motions for which you are trying to account. One of the signs of Hipparchus's genius was his ability to come up with this on the basis of surprisingly limited data; the tables he constructed stood up to the test of predicting eclipses, the most serious and important test of any astronomical model at the time. By doing so, they showed that they were an adequate representation of the path of the sun to the level of precision required for tracking eclipses. Hipparchus did the same with the moon, to the same level of precision, on the basis of only six recorded eclipses. This formed a clear and definite basis for people to extend the same idea to the bodies of the planets. Hipparchus did not complete this task, but famously gathered together much of the material for it; according to Ptolemy the whole mass of astronomocial observations left to posterity by Hipparchus' time was dwarfed by the mass left to posterity by Hipparchus himself.

Again, we have a tendency to underrate the importance of this theory of eccentrics and epicycles; we now know that perhaps its key postulate is false, and we tend to think of the theory as inordinately complicated and tangled. And again, this is in great degree an illusion of hindsight, attributable to the fact that we are separated from Hipparchus's actual Epoch of discovery by a long and complicated Sequel. As Whewell notes, the value of a true part of a theory may far outweigh its error; and the usefulness of a rule does not always depend on its simplicity. As he notes, "The first steps of our progress do not lose their importance because they are not the last; and the outset of the journey may require no less vigor and vitality than the close" (p. 181).

On Whewell's view we can situate Hipparchus in the history of scientific progress because Hipparchus really did discover something true, and, what is more, true for all time. What is true about the theory of Hipparchus is its resolution of the phenomena into circles; and it is as true today that they can be so resolvedas it was then. For instance, this resolution allows us to construct precise tables, in principle as precise as you please, by which we can clearly determine the position of the planets at any time. The underlying assumption about the world that made this resolution possible, and thus the precise predictions, was perhaps false; but at least a basic assumption of how motion works is needed for any theory of motions, and it was a simple and straightforward assumption to make. Eccentrics and epicycles were perfectly capable of representing the quantity of the inequalities in planetary motion; and this was not a small discovery. So well does it do so, in fact, that for the convenience of calculation of this inequality, the theory first put forward by Hipparchus was very difficult to beat; as Whewell notes, if we complain about the complexity of an unusually simple method of calculation for a given natural quantity, what we are really complaining about is nature, not the method of calculation. Moreover, we tend to assume that astronomers gave the same faith to epicycles and eccentrics that we do to Kepler's ellipses; when in fact they were much more ambivalent, and were usually quite explicit about its being simply the best hypothesis on hand. The precise representation of apparent motion provided by the theory, however, allows you to collect the data that is needed before you can identify the actual motion of the planets; without Hipparchus, there would be no Kepler.

After the Epoch of induction, we entered the Sequal, a period of development, verification, application, and extension. In Whewell's view, this period was started by Hipparchus himself, who developed a catalogue of stars for more accurate record-keeping, showed with greater precision the length of years and days. He also began discovering points that did not confirm the theory -- parallaxes, for instance -- but which astronomers at the time did not have sufficiently refined Ideas to handle. One of the problems parallax shows in the theory, for instance, is that while it can accurately chart apparent position, it has serious trouble getting the distances correct.

The most famous person in the Sequel, however, is naturally Ptolemy, whose development, extension, and popularization of the Hipparchian theory is what became dominant, and is, in fact, our primary source for knowing anything about Hipparchus at all. One of Ptolemy's several contributions was the discovery of yet another celestial inequality, the evection of the moon, and his accounting for it by the theory of epicycles. This discovery was quite crucial to astronomy, or would become so much later on, because it suggested that there might be numerous inequalities that were yet remaining to be discovered, and that the confirmation of the theory lay in its power to explain such residual phenomena. It was also one of the first in a long line of discoveries of inequalities in the moon's motion that are due to the pull of the sun; and the importance of those for the later Newtonian discovery of universal gravitation can hardly be underestimated. From Ptolemy the Sequel extends through very long years, until the rise of a new inductive Epoch: the Epoch of Copernicus, followed (after a short but extraordinarily contentious Sequel) by the Epoch of Kepler. Such was the view of the history of formal astronomy Whewell had as he looked back at it with his triadic template for scientific progress, in any case. The Hipparchian era was in such a view a stage in astronomical progress, involving a Prelude of preparation, an Epoch of induction, and a Sequel of development.


All quotations are from the 1837 edition of the first volume of the History of the Inductive Sciences, which I have used here primarily because it seems to be the edition most easily accessible by Google Book, for those who can access it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Peter Canisius

Today is the Feast of St. Peter Canisius (1421-1597), Doctor of the Church. He was a Jesuit who spent most of his time in the Austrian and Bavarian regions of Europe and one of the shining lights of the Counter-Reformation. He was well-known in his days for his sermons, which were both doctrinally meaty and severely critical of abuses, briefly attended the Council of Trent as a papal theologian, and founded a number of schools. He is most famous, however, for developing and putting into effect the idea of a written Catholic catechism, and the catechisms of Peter Canisius were the first modern Catholic catechisms that had widespread influence, and are in great measure the reason he was given the title, Doctor of the Church. The following is a from a seventeenth-century English translation of one of his catechetical writings; I have modernized things a bit.

In what brief sum may Christian Doctrine be comprehended?

That a Christian know and observe those things that belong both to (a) Wisdom and Justice. Wisdom, as St. Augustine (b) shows, consists in the Theological virtues, (c) Faith, Hope, and Charity, which are infused by God, and, being purely and most fervently practiced in this life, make men blessed and divine. Justice stands in (d) two parts, in declining from evil and in doing good. For to this belongs what the kingly Prophet says, (e) Turn from evil and do good. Now, out of these fountains, to wit, Wisdom and Justice, other things are easily drawn and deduced, whatever things pertain to Christian instruction and discipline.

(a) Eccl. 1:33 (b) Lib. 2 Retract. cap. 63 & Ench. cap. 2 & 3 (c) I Cor. 13:13 (d) Pros. sen. 98 from Aug (e) Psal. 33:15 & 36:27, I Pet. 3:10

Monday, December 20, 2010

Colbert on Christ and the Poor

Very nice, although I think Colbert has difficulty staying in character on this issue. There are legitimate arguments about whether assistance to the poor is best done by way of a government route, and likewise there can be legitimate arguments about what the best way to help them is, but arguments that build on the presupposition that large numbers of the poor should not be helped are not consistent with Christian life, regardless of one's answers to the other two questions.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fourth Sunday of Advent

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

I've said some things about why I like this hymn here.

Another Poem Draft


There is a star, they said,
near to God's own throne,
that rules both near and far
and governs as its own
the lights both great and small
that shine in heaven's heights,
the children one and all
that beam in endless night.
And every day, they said,
lasts for a thousand years
in which God's children play
with smiles and no tears,
in which a journal's thought
exceeds in wisdom's reach
all things our scribes have taught,
all things our lives can teach.
And from that place, perhaps,
one sees the host of hosts
which sprinkle endless space,
that sea without a coast --
and there the forests old
spread endless and unmarred;
their trunks are trunks of gold,
and every leaf -- a star.

But standing here, I said,
I know a greater thing
than any extant sphere
around which worlds can ring:
the soul that prays with tears
while facing endless loss
and overcomes its fears
to stretch forth on a cross,
and rises up once more,
a lamb upon a throne,
the way, the sheepfold's door,
the knower and the known;
he is the branching vine
and we the grafted stems
that praise with cheerful wine
the endlessness of him.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Students and the First Way III

Sorry about the lack of posts recently; I have something like a jillion posts that have been 'in the works' for several weeks now, but things keep coming up and, frankly, nothing's really going to move to final stages until I've actually had a few days to recuperate from what was a very brutal end of term. However, this one is pretty much ready to go. While my intro course is necessarily limited, for a number of reasons, in how much time can be spent on Aquinas, I usually spend a class on him, and there's usually a question on one of the take-home quizzes asking students what they think the weakest premise (defined as the premise that would be hardest to defend, whether it's actually true or false) of Aquinas's First Way is. The primary point of the question is for students to show (1) that they know what is meant by "Aquinas's First Way"; and (2) have at least a very basic idea of how it works. But I've been collecting the basic answers given in order to get a better sense of what people's first impressions of the argument are, and twice posted them here (I, II), both because it's convenient having them here and because some of my readers would certainly be interested. So here we go again. This group was more inclined to answer the question in some detail; I usually get a few brief sentences, but most of the students went on a bit longer this time, for reasons I don't know.

The usual caveats apply. The following are not word-for-word the answers given, which are not needed for what I am doing here; I have simplified and paraphrased them, sticking as closely as possible to the meaning. This is not for the purpose of mocking my students; most of them have barely heard of Aquinas, if at all, when they come into my class, and they are trying to answer the question on the basis of a single class's discussion, not all of which was devoted to the First Way in particular, and, what is more, I don't think it's fair to demand that people pick up immediately ideas and concepts Aquinas himself thought could only be properly understood at the end of long, hard analysis. But even answers that show confusion can show that students are asking the right questions, and I think one sees that here. I have also ignored the answers that were just mere fluff.

You'll note, incidentally, that there are a few cases where people identify as the 'weak premise' what is actually the conclusion; I think these in fact should usually be read charitably as just the claim that they don't understand how the premises yield that conclusion in particular -- i.e., they are puzzled as to why someone would think that that conclusion follows from everything else, or else they don't understand what the conclusion is supposed to mean, even given the premises, or else they have the idea that to get that type of conclusion you'd have to use a very different kind of argument. And this can be a legitimate puzzle, and is I think a common type of reaction to arguments like the First Way even among intelligent people; so I've kept them, even though they aren't talking about a premise.


* That the thing which is moved cannot be moved by itself. Or what is moved must be moved by another. It is hard to say definitively that there is nothing that moves itself except for the one unmoved mover. Also to argue this would mean that we have no freewill because if only the one unmoved mover could move itself then that would mean that we don't move ourselves but our every choice is purely a product of other movers. Unless the unmoved mover moved our freewill into motion and perhaps also keeps it sustained.

* That there is an unmoved mover. It would be difficult to understand how everything that has moved has been moved by something else but yet there is one thing that has moved but not by anything else. You would have to give an example, such as that of how a trap works, to explain how the unmoved mover set the trap in motion. But someone might then argue that he couldn't be unmoved and also set the trap in motion.

* "Nothing can be at once in both actuality and potentiality in the same respect (if both actual and potential, it is actual in one respect and potential in another.)" You would have to prove what actual and potential motions are possible for it.

* "This first mover everyone understands to be God." Not everyone believes in God. Therefore this would be a hard premise to prove.

* "For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality." It would be very difficult to prove that movement is a reduction from potential to actual, meaning from a state of nothing to a state of something by a negative median.

* The infinite regress premise, because it has to go all the way to the beginning and to find something that is the original mover, the main cause, has not been moved, and is God.

* Nothing can move itself. He didn't strongly defend it. He didn't look at other things like nature. Some things just change and move as time passes.

* I don't see how if something goes on for infinity there would be no first mover. It seems to me you need a first mover in order to have the possibility of infinity because that's what starts the action.

* That of the series not continuing infinitely and there being an unmoved mover. It would be hard to prove that this isn't really infinite.

* "If, then, that by which something is moved is moved, then it, too, must be moved by another, and that other by still another. But this does not go to infinity." This is subjective in that if an object is moved by another, and that other is moved by something else and so forth then who's to say that these objects don't keep getting moved one after the other. The part when it says that this does not go on to infinity is the part of the premise that threw me off. An object could keep on being moved forever.

* The necessity of the unmoved mover. The idea is that something in motion puts something else in motion, and this can be traced backwards. Since this cannot go back towards infinity (if there is no start, how can anything ever have been put into motion to begin with), the idea of the unmoved mover is put forward as a starting point. But to do this one must have excluded all other causes of motion, such as natural laws.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Waldron on Imago Dei

The foundational work that imago Dei does for dignity is, in my opinion, indispensable for generating the sort of strong moral constraint associated with rights – and for overriding the temptation to demonize or bestialize “the worst of the worst.” This temptation is so natural that it can only be answered by something that goes beyond our attitudes, even beyond “our” morality, something commanded from the depths of the pre-political and pre-social foundation of the being of those we are tempted to treat in this way.

You can read more of Jeremy Waldron's interesting discussion of the topic here.

Lapide on the Women in Matthew's Genealogy

Observe that in the genealogy of Christ, with the exception of His Blessed Mother, only four females are made mention of, three of them harlots—Thamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba—and the fourth a Gentile, Ruth the Moabitess. Rahab, too, was a Gentile, being an inhabitant of Jericho. If the reason of all this be asked, SS. Jerome, Chrysostom, Ambrose answer, that it was so because Christ would signify that “He who came for the abolishing and putting away of sins wished to be born of sinners.” This reason is true, but allegorical. The literal and simple reason is, that these women were united to their husbands, not in the ordinary way, but after a new and extraordinary manner; and so they became types of the Church of Christ, which, when the Jews were rejected, was gathered out of the Gentiles by a new vocation, and after a new manner. Tamar, because Shelah was denied her in marriage, or rather because her union with him was deferred, using deceit, prostituted herself to Judah. Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, was united to David, first by adultery, then in marriage. Rahab married Salmon because she hospitably received and protected the Hebrew spies who were sent by Joshua to Jericho, and so she became of the same faith and religion. Ruth married Boaz when she had passed with her mother-in-law, Naomi, from Moab into Judæa.

The tropological sense is to show us the vanity of pride of birth, and that true nobility consists, not in ancestry, but in our own good disposition and virtues. Thus S. Chrysostom. Wherefore let no one be ashamed of his birth, nor even of vile and wicked ancestors; but let us say with Cicero, “I have outshone my forefathers in virtue.” There can be no doubt that there are in the ancestry of the most exalted persons, forasmuch as they are sprung from Adam, many ignoble, worthless, wicked, and infamous persons. Plato, according to Seneca (Epis. 44), is of opinion that all kings are descended from servants, and that all servants are sprung from kings; that there is no king who has been entirely free from the plough, and no ploughman who has not been mixed up with kings.

Lastly, Solomon, amongst the other vanities and uncertainties of the world, reckons this: “Because out of prison and chains sometimes a man cometh forth to a kingdom: and another born king is consumed with poverty.” (Eccles. iv. 14.)

Cornelius a Lapide, Commentary on Matthew. It seems a bit harsh to call Bathsheba a harlot, though, and Tamar's story is a bit more complicated than the term suggests.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two Things

Two links that I don't want to keep waiting until my next links post:

(1) "The Atheist's Advocate" has put together a pretty good Philosophers' Carnival (number 118).

(2) Synthese has an issue devoted to intelligent design theory -- or criticism of intelligent design theory, to be somewhat more accurate. The papers are temporarily available for everyone. They are something of a mixed bag; I thought Pennock's, Smith's, and Forrest's rather poorly argued, although Smith is at least entertaining about it. Pennock's in particular seems to me to be egregiously bad, consisting in great measure of an attempted hatchet job on Larry Laudan and a lot of weakly argued dogmatic claims. Fortunately, Sahotra Sarkar's paper provides a good counterbalance. The other papers are also all pretty good. I liked Wilkins's, although I'm very skeptical of the underlying assumptions of the model of scientific concept space he uses; Fetzer's paper is a pretty good examination of David Ray Griffin's discussion of the subject, and it's good to see a paper on it. Elsberry and Shallit look at Dembski's discussions of complex specified information, while Shanks and Green look at the relation between intelligent design theory and theology. The single best paper in the bunch, I think, is Weber's paper on the history of design arguments in the modern period: you can tell it's good because (1) it recognizes the significance of Whewell's divergence from Paley; and (2) it discusses Lewis Ezra Hicks, which I liked because I'm tired of being just about the only one who discusses him in this context. The discussion of Hume is weak, but most discussions of Hume in the context of design arguments are.

Hired Cabs and Magic Brooms

One reason for putting up the translation of Goethe's poem about the Hexenmeister's apprentice in the previous post was to provide background for this one. One of the basic ideas that I've always thought very important is one I came across in a quotation from Schopenhauer many years ago (from the dissertation On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason):

The causal law therefore is not so accommodating as to let itself be used like a hired cab, which we dismiss when we have reached our destination; rather does it resemble the broom brought to life by the apprentice-wizard in Goethe's poem, which, when once set in motion, does not leave off running and fetching water until the old master-wizard himself stops it, which he alone has the power to do. These gentlemen, however, have no master-wizards among them.

The particular context, which is a rather clumsy and unimpressive attack on cosmological arguments, is of less concern than the basic point of the claim, which is exactly right: principles do not let themselves be used as hired cabs, and you cannot simply ride them to whatever destination you please. This is one reason why in philosophy it is very misguided to focus only on a narrow set of problems: philosophy has more to do with principles than other fields, and once you commit to a principle, you are committed to it, period. A principle that seems fine when applied to this sort of problem may well put things massively out of joint elsehwere; a refutation that seems devastating if we consider this case only might well commit us logically to claims that have thoroughly absurd implications in yet another case.

But Schopenhauer would have made a better analogy if he said that the causal law is like the spell used by the apprentice, rather than like the broom. The broom could, in fact, be stopped; but the spell could only be nullified. And so it is with principles: Und non komm, du alter Besen, they say, and the brooms keep marching; and only when one finds the refuting word are things again as they were.

Und non komm, du alter Besen!

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
translated by Edwin Zeydel

That old sorcerer has vanished
And for once has gone away!
Spirits called by him, now banished,
My commands shall soon obey.
Every step and saying
That he used, I know,
And with sprites obeying
My arts I will show.

Flow, flow onward
Stretches many
Spare not any
Water rushing,
Ever streaming fully downward
Toward the pool in current gushing.

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,
Take these rags and wrap them round you!
Long my orders you have heeded,
By my wishes now I've bound you.
Have two legs and stand,
And a head for you.
Run, and in your hand
Hold a bucket too.

Flow, flow onward
Stretches many,
Spare not any
Water rushing,
Ever streaming fully downward
Toward the pool in current gushing.

See him, toward the shore he's racing
There, he's at the stream already,
Back like lightning he is chasing,
Pouring water fast and steady.
Once again he hastens!
How the water spills,
How the water basins
Brimming full he fills!

Stop now, hear me!
Ample measure
Of your treasure
We have gotten!
Ah, I see it, dear me, dear me.
Master's word I have forgotten!

Ah, the word with which the master
Makes the broom a broom once more!
Ah, he runs and fetches faster!
Be a broomstick as before!
Ever new the torrents
That by him are fed,
Ah, a hundred currents
Pour upon my head!

No, no longer
Can I please him,
I will seize him!
That is spiteful!
My misgivings grow the stronger.
What a mien, his eyes how frightful!

Brood of hell, you're not a mortal!
Shall the entire house go under?
Over threshold over portal
Streams of water rush and thunder.
Broom accurst and mean,
Who will have his will,
Stick that you have been,
Once again stand still!

Can I never, Broom, appease you?
I will seize you,
Hold and whack you,
And your ancient wood
I'll sever,
With a whetted axe I'll crack you.

He returns, more water dragging!
Now I'll throw myself upon you!
Soon, 0 goblin, you'll be sagging.
Crash! The sharp axe has undone you.
What a good blow, truly!
There, he's split, I see.
Hope now rises newly,
And my breathing's free.

Woe betide me!
Both halves scurry
In a hurry,
Rise like towers
There beside me.
Help me, help, eternal powers!

Off they run, till wet and wetter
Hall and steps immersed are lying.
What a flood that naught can fetter!
Lord and master, hear me crying! -
Ah, he comes excited.
Sir, my need is sore.
Spirits that I've cited
My commands ignore.

"To the lonely
Corner, broom!
Hear your doom.
As a spirit
When he wills, your master only
Calls you, then 'tis time to hear it."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another Poem Draft

Saying that grading has wiped me out does not convey just how much grading has wiped me out. So here's something I just made up in the shower and revised as I was writing it down and typing it here.

Hark, How the Hawk

Hark, how the hawk, heroic of heart,
starts to a soar, speeding like sparks,
laughing, winging, flawlessly flying,
invading as raptor, rapidly diving
down to dun sea of sun-scented sand.
Wind wanders there and winsomely wends
past plains of grass, past plots of grain,
to where the air stills and stays to remain
till talon has taken its terrible toll.
The hawk swiftly slows, softened in soul,
braving rare airs with reverberant cry,
yet watching that wind with wide, wondering eye.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I saw Voyage of the Dawn Treader last night, in 3D (it turns out that's it's actually a pretty decent film to watch in 3D; there were some more things they could have done, but it was still textured enough to give the 3D version added value, although some of the action sequences were a bit harder to follow). It has some weaknesses, but I do recommend it. Some brief thoughts:

(1) The key issue, in my book, for any movie adaptation of VDT is how they handle Eustace. There are some strengths and weaknesses with this portrayal; they played him a little bit too much over the top for comic effect, but captured the pompousness about as it should be captured. The whole point of Eustace is that he is the Modern Boy, the boy who almost deserves being called Eustace Scrubb: failing to bring this out properly weakened the portrayal somewhat. And need it really be said that Eustace is not the sort of person who would do anything so old-fashioned as calling his mother 'Mother' rather than calling her by her name, 'Alberta'?

(2) Because of the episodic nature of the book's plot, tying this together into a cinematic unity is tricky, so there were bound to be hard decisions. Hollywood just can't do Immram very well, through no fault of its own: the limitations of the cinematic art sharply cramp any such style of narrative.. They did one thing very, very right: conflation of islands is almost absolutely necessary to making the movie move along quickly enough, and they chose the right islands to conflate. It's almost brilliant to recognize that Deathwater and the Dragon Isle could be conjoined for cinematic purposes. Reordering the islands was a serious mistake, and weakened rather than strengthened the story; and Lewis's original solution for breaking the spell at Ramandu's island was far superior to the Spectacle with which it was replaced. Giving Rhince a bit of backstory was much better, and the addition of his daughter was promising, but their fit into the overall arc was not especially great.

(3) It's perhaps not surprising that, despite some cutting of his part, Reepicheep is far and away the most engaging of all the characters in the movie. But Georgie Henley's performance as Lucy was, as all her performances have been so far, extraordinarily good within the limits of the script. She's the only movie-version character who has consistently been better on screen than the version I had already imagined, and most of that is due to the fact that Henley has the character down.

(4) One of the trickiest things about filming the Chronicles as a series is keeping the characters who have fallen out of the main story alive for when they come back (in one form or another). This is very excellently done here, much better than I expected.

(5) Really, the only thing that seriously disorders the movie as it stands -- it is far superior to most Hollywood adaptations in everything else -- is the Evil Fog thing. Pretty much every problem with the movie is connected to this diabolus ex machina. Perhaps, though, they can tie it in with the Witch of the Green Kirtle (and conceivably that was what they were thinking of, since that's the only halfway reasonable thing I can imagine them thinking of). The only other issue of importance is rightly noted by Wright:

As a purist, what I missed most was the medieval flavor that Lewis did so well. Moderns don’t seem to understand dignity and hierarchy. There is no scene where Caspian with drawn sword on his knees overthrows the bureaucrat of the Lone Islands, appoints a Duke and establishes justice. Queen Lucy, while the Narnians properly bow to her, smiles and tells her subject to call her “Luce!” The Captain at one point chides King Edmund for exceeding his authority: I was trying to imagine if any captain aboard a ship carrying, say, King William, would interrupt the resurrected King Arthur and tell him not to give orders.

Having Edmund regret his lost kingship seems (to me, at least) to miss the point and the greatness of Lewis’s conceit: his idea is that by being in king for a time in fairyland, you become more noble here, not more peevish.

But this is a general problem with Hollywood, which is built on notions of nobility that are made of tinsel and glass rather than silver and gold, and not something distinctively wrong with this movie. (Although I can imagine Lewis's Lucy being just as approachable as this version.)

(6) For me, the saddest loss in the adaptation is its failure to bring out the fact that Reepicheep alone of all the crew is not afraid to die, which is one of the most important features of his character in the book, a significant part of his nobility, and tied to his end. Perhaps this, too, is a Hollywood problem: it cannot convey, and perhaps most people in Hollywood cannot wrap their minds around, the possibility of someone seeing death for what it really is, with all of its sorrow and pain and difficulty, and having no illusions about it, and yet never fearing it. On a minor but related issue, I wish they had kept Reepicheep telling Eustace stories about the turns of Fortune's wheel; it would have conveyed more of the sense of what Reepicheep really represents. There was always something Boethian in Reepicheep's chivalry.

I am very much hoping that the movie does well enough that they do The Silver Chair; while The Magician's Nephew is my favorite of the books, the character interaction in The Silver Chair was always excellent, and it should be more easily managed for cinematic purposes.

Unclose Our Lips

by Christina Rossetti

'Come,' Thou dost say to Angels,
To blessed Spirits, 'Come':
'Come,' to the lambs of Thine own flock,
Thy little ones, 'Come home.'

'Come,' from the many-mansioned house
The gracious word is sent;
'Come,' from the ivory palaces
Unto the Penitent.

O Lord, restore us deaf and blind,
Unclose our lips though dumb:
Then say to us, 'I will come with speed,'
And we will answer, 'Come.'

12 December 1851

Friday, December 10, 2010

Linklets for Thinklings

* Very good news: Turkey has finally recognized the Patriarchate of Constantinople as a legal person. It was after a significant legal battle, but it provides some protection from the increasing tendency of the Turkish government to strip the Patriarchate of resources.

* Art Garfunkel has pretty decent taste in books. (ht)

* Hasok Chang, The Hidden History of Phlogiston

* The conjugation of the 'mote' in 'So mote it be'.

* The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury has been vandalized. Legend says that it grew from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea. The last time the Holy Thorn was chopped down was in the days of Puritans; this tree comes down to us from cuttings of that tree, because the locals secretly saved as much of the roots of the original as they could. A sprig from the tree, which is a variant in the species Crataegus monogyna, adorns the Queen's Christmas table each year, and, in fact, the most recent cutting for that purpose was taken just a few days ago. It's not the only scion of the original (there are actually descendants from those original cuttings all around Glastonbury), so it's not an unrecoverable loss even if it does not recover. But it's a shocking thing.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Last Day of Term

I finished my last class of the term today; now the grading continues, I have to submit my grades officially, and also go out of town this weekend. So if anyone's waiting on any responses (like Occam), it will probably be the middle of next week before anything substantial emerges.

I've increasingly over the years been irritated at the sheer arbitrariness of the term length; nobody went around and asked, "OK, what would be a good length of time for having an introductory algebra course?" or whatever other course is on the table, and then came up with the term lengths to match it. But I was thinking today that it's perhaps a good thing; if anyone had come to me with the question, "What would be a good length of time for an introductory course in philosophy?"I think I would have said, "Five years, although I probably could compress it down to four."

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Poem Draft

A Prayer in the Sanctuary of St. Albert the Great on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Ah, Lord, in time all vice shall cease,
all fade in shade and shame,
before the brightness pouring forth,
the grace around the Name!
Ah, Lord, with swiftness bring the day,
return in faithful truth,
return and turn us-ward the dawn
with rays of hope and faith.
Ah, Lord, and I? How I will fail
if You will not ensure
the founding stone beneath this heart
and make this soul endure!
Ah, Lord, and I? Ah, what can I,
with evil ways untrue,
without the grace from Christ, His cross,
and You, achieve and do?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Cogito Ergo Sum XIV

Rene Descartes, Search for Truth (CSM II, 411-412):

Eudoxus. You cannot deny that you have such doubts; rather it is certain that you have them, so certain in fact that you cannot doubt your doubting. Therefore it is also true that you who are doubting exist; this is so true that you can no longer have any doubts about it.

Polyander. I quite agree with you on that point, because if I did not exist, I would not be able to doubt.

Eudoxus. You exist, therefore, and you know that you exist, and you know this just because you are doubting.

Polyander. All of this is quite true.

Eudoxus. But, so that you are not deflected from the course I suggested, let us proceed gradually, and as I said, you will find that you are making greater progress than you think. Let us go through the argument again. You exist, and you know that you exist, and you know this because you know that you are doubting....

Beam on Our Bewilder'd Mind

Today is the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose was what we might call a Renaissance man except that he lived in the late Roman Imperial period rather than the Renaissance; this was actually why the still-seeking Augustine was so thoroughly impressed by him. He was, among other things, a poet who invented a new poetic genre that became very popular, the Ambrosian hymn. So it seems fitting to put up a poem by Ambrose today. The following is John Henry Newman's Englishing of one of the Ambrosian hymns that we know was actually written by Ambrose (because Augustine quotes it and attributes it to him), Aeterne rerum conditor. It is the best known of Ambrose's hymns because of its role in the Roman Breviary (where it was assigned to Lauds on Sundays from Epiphany to Lent and from early October to the beginning of Advent).

by John Henry Newman

Æterne rerum conditor.

Framer of the earth and sky,
Ruler of the day and night,
With a glad variety,
Tempering all, and making light;

Gleams upon our dark path flinging,
Cutting short each night begun,
Hark! for chanticleer is singing,
Hark! he chides the lingering sun.

And the morning star replies,
And lets loose the imprison'd day;
And the godless bandit flies
From his haunt and from his prey.

Shrill it sounds, the storm relenting
Soothes the weary seaman's ears;
Once it wrought a great repenting,
In that flood of Peter's tears.

Rouse we; let the blithesome cry
Of that bird our hearts awaken;
Chide the slumberers as they lie,
And arrest the sin-o'ertaken.

Hope and health are in his strain,
To the fearful and the ailing;
Murder sheathes his blade profane,
Faith revives when faith was failing.

Jesu, Master! when we sin,
Turn on us Thy healing face;
It will melt the offence within
Into penitential grace:

Beam on our bewilder'd mind,
Till its dreamy shadows flee;
Stones cry out where Thou hast shined,
Jesu! musical with Thee.

To the Father and the Son,
And the Spirit, who in Heaven
Ever witness, Three and One,
Praise on Earth be ever given.

One interesting fact about Ambrose is that he read silently. We know this, again, because Augustine mentions it as a remarkable fact (Confessions Book VI, Chapter III):

Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room--for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him--we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence--for who would dare interrupt one so intent?--we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business. Perhaps he was fearful lest, if the author he was studying should express himself vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer would ask him to expound it or discuss some of the more abstruse questions, so that he could not get over as much material as he wished, if his time was occupied with others. And even a truer reason for his reading to himself might have been the care for preserving his voice, which was very easily weakened. Whatever his motive was in so doing, it was doubtless, in such a man, a good one.

Standard practice, of course, which everyone was taught, was to read aloud to oneself; and, indeed, this passage is usually regarded as the first instance of someone being described as reading to themselves where it is clear that they were doing so silently.

Pardon II

Well, President Obama on Friday finally pardoned some people, 682 days after his inauguration, thus managing by 17 days not to be the slowest President ever to pardon anyone (George W. Bush still holds that dubious title). P. S. Ruckman, Jr. has some of the details: there are nine pardons total; six of the nine are for extremely minor offenses (so minor that the people in question weren't even given jail time, and were just trying to clear their record) and aren't the sort of things that seriously required a huge amount of deliberation; the most recent crime was eleven years ago; and this compares with 1,288 denied clemency requests and a backlog of requests currently numbering over 4000. But I suppose it's something, and at least Obama didn't pass the 699-day mark, which would have been extraordinarily depressing. I suppose now we get to see if this slow pace keeps up, or if this is now the cracking of the ice and at least a steady trickle will come out of the White House for now; one hopes the latter.

What really gets me about the paucity of pardons in recent Presidential terms is that the number of requests that would be reasonable to grant must be massive in comparison with what they would have been a hundred or two hundred years ago, just from the size of the U.S. population and the inevitability of the sort of mistakes, misfortunes, and instances of excessive zeal that pardons are supposed to correct. We should expect that over time the number of pardons would (more or less, allowing for variations from term to term and President to President) have increased. And for a good portion of our history they did, in fact, do this: not all Presidents were equally generous with the pardon power, of course, but the trend is noticeable. But for the past forty years at least, things have looked increasingly dismal.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers

Just about every time that I think I'm finally getting on top of things this term, the term retaliates by slapping me hard a few times; late November to mid-December is always, quite literally, my busiest time of year, and this year it's worse than usual. So I Stargate-marathon while grading papers and quizzes, and commenting on papers, and double-checking quiz grades, and double-checking that course requirements were met, and putting it all together, and taking note of things that I need to change for next term, and answer student e-mails frantically asking me questions about things that are in the syllabus or that were mentioned in the review class they attended, or were emailed to the entire class a week and a half ago, and doing paperwork, and reflecting on the fact that while Socrates is write that no one should be paid for teaching I should nonetheless be paid ten times what I am paid in order to put up with the craziness that goes with grading. It's good fun. And sometimes I take a break reading, which is harder to do than it sounds given that I start feeling guilty about the fact that I am not grading Every Single Waking Moment of the Day.

One of the books I am reading is Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and it's an interesting experience (besides being a fitting metaphor for my end of term grading); I've read it before, but I always find when I re-read Verne that I've forgotten how lush his descriptions are. One always remembers the stories -- the action sequences. But Verne is interesting in that the action-sequences are in a sense just auxiliary: they are there to keep you interested in the descriptions by breaking them up a bit and putting them into a story. And many of his novels -- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is very much a case in point -- consist mostly of continual, enthusiastic descripton of natural phenomena (and even those that don't often make it up in part by enthusiastic description of technology or engineering). And it's part of what makes Verne work: what you'll remember when you close the book is the story (giant squid wrestling with the Nautilus), but what you get caught up in when actually reading the book is the extraordinary landscape, whether it's of sea life or of marvellous machines, or of nations seen while racing onward to some destination. What really shows the quality of Verne's skill as a writer is that the descriptions are not easy (they are full of things that most people could not be expected to know) but they are beautifully written.

In a great many English translations these long passages are cut out. And that's very much a shame. We need more science fiction with passages like this:

What charming hours I passed thus at the saloon windows! What new specimens of submarine flora and fauna I admitted to the brilliant light of our electric lantern! Agariciform fungi, slate-coloured actinies, amongst others the thalassianthus aster, rubipores like flutes, only waiting for the breath of the god Pan, shells peculiar to that sea, which establish themselves in madreporic excavations, the base of which is turned in a short spiral, and lastly, a thousand specimens of a polypier that I had not observed before, the common sponge.

The class of spongiaires, the first group of polypiers, is precisely created by this curious product, the utility of which is incontestable. Sponge is not a vegetable, as some naturalists still say, but an animal fo the last order: a polypier inferior to coral. Its animality is not doubtful, and we may admit the opinion of the ancients, who looked upon it as an intermediary between plants and animals. I ought to say, however, that naturalists have not agreed about the organisation of the sponge. According to some it is a polypier, and to others, such as Milne Edwards, it is a solitary and unique individual.
[This is the Collins Classics version, copyright 2010, p. 174. The French of which this is a translation is below. (Speaking of which, whatever possessed the translator to translate 'salon' as 'saloon' when 'salon' would have done better?)]

After which M. Aronnax continues his discussion of the sponge for several paragraphs, broken up only by his calling Conseil, and why? In order that Conseil might learn about sponges and polypiers, of course. And that's what makes Verne almost uniquely great as a science fiction writer: while he does write about how cool a submarine would be, what he spends most of his time writing about is how cool scientific investigation would be if you had a submarine. He is really and truly enthusiastic about the sponges; he's not afraid to give a little lesson on sponge taxonomy, because he actually has the writing skills to pull it off; and he doesn't dumb it down at all, because his astounding adventures are intellectual adventures as well as adventures in the more ordinary sense. We really do need more writers like him.


Que d’heures charmantes je passai ainsi à la vitre du salon ! Que d’échantillons nouveaux de la flore et de la faune sous-marine j’admirai sous l’éclat de notre fanal électrique ! Des fongies agariciformes, des actinies de couleur ardoisée, entre autres le thalassianthus aster des tubipores disposés comme des flûtes et n’attendant que le souffle du dieu Pan, des coquilles particulières à cette mer, qui s’établissent dans les excavations madréporiques et dont la base est contournée en courte spirale, et enfin mille spécimens d’un polypier que je n’avais pas observé encore, la vulgaire éponge.

La classe des spongiaires, première du groupe des polypes, a été précisément créée par ce curieux produit dont l’utilité est incontestable. L’éponge n’est point un végétal comme l’admettent encore quelques naturalistes, mais un animal du dernier ordre, un polypier inférieur à celui du corail. Son animalité n’est pas douteuse, et on ne peut même adopter l’opinion des anciens qui la regardaient comme un être intermédiaire entre la plante et l’animal. Je dois dire cependant, que les naturalistes ne sont pas d’accord sur le mode d’organisation de l’éponge. Pour les uns, c’est un polypier, et pour d’autres tels que M. Milne Edwards, c’est un individu isolé et unique.

Cogito Ergo Sum XIII

Descartes, Principles of Philosophy I, 7:

So, if we reject everything we can doubt in any way, and even imagine it all to be false, we can readily suppose that there is no God, no sky, and no bodies — and even that we ourselves have no hands, no feet, and indeed no body at all. However, this does not allow us to suppose that we who are thinking such things are nothing, since it is a contradiction to believe that something which thinks does not exist at the very time when it is thinking. So the knowledge that I think therefore I am is the first and most certain of all items of knowledge which anyone will arrive at if they philosophise in the right order.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Farrell on ID and Catholic Thought

I was a bit surprised to find that my visitor logs had links from the Huffington Post; but it turns out that John Farrell has an article on why Catholics are skeptical, and increasingly skeptical, of the Intelligent Design movement, which is something I've discussed for a while now. It's a pretty good summary of some of the reasons, although, of course, given the medium it's pretty concise. Those who are interested in the big debate that John mentions can follow it in Tom Gilson's useful collection of some of the major links.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Absence of Evidence

In the comments thread to a post on another blog, a commenter gave the following quotation:

'The simplest explanation for the total absence of evidence for gods is a total absence of gods'.

I've increasingly over the past couple of years come across claims of this sort (the commenter seems to be quoting someone, but I don't know who), and I find it interesting because the underlying idea seems to be pretty clearly wrong, for all its superficial plausibility, even when we ignore the obvious hyperbole of 'total absence of evidence'. (Obviously there's evidence -- religious experiences, etc.; the question is just whether it's adequate to establish the conclusion. It is very rare to find cases of actual disputes where one side literally has no evidence at all, inconvenient as that fact may be. Even believers in house elves have strange occurrences to call to witness. What we usually mean is that the evidence is weak, which is very different from being nonexistent. The rhetorical advantages of conflating weak evidence with no evidence are, of course, obvious; but we should not treat a rhetorical figure as literal speech.) What we mean by "total absence of evidence" is at most a total absence of evidence available to be used in reasoning (otherwise the only way to establish total absence of evidence for X is to prove that X can't possibly exist -- if we aren't talking about evidence available to us, we'd have to take into consideration all evidence available to everyone at every time, including the future, and therefore we would need to establish a guarantee that no real evidence could possibly turn up in the future). And because of this, if all other things are equal, the simplest explanation for absence of evidence is that you've probably just overlooked it or not come across it. It is simplest in at least three different ways:

(1) It involves the weakest supposition about the world. If I commit to the claim that some evidence of X probably exists, I'm not by that committed to any claim for or against the existence of X, just to the existence of something that someone could reasonably classify as evidence for the existence of X, whatever that evidence might be. This is clearly a weaker supposition, with fewer commitments, than the supposition that there is no X.

(2) It is the simplest in that, unlike a categorical rejection or affirmation of something's existence, it allows for the subsumption of the case under an already well-established generalization, that is, the straight psychological fact that people often overlook or fail to come across evidence for things.

(3) It is the simplest in that it provides the least impediment to future inquiry: it closes down the fewest options for further research.

Part of the problem, I think, is that phrases like 'total absence of evidence for the existence of X', despite the literal meaning, actually convey in practical, colloquial speech the idea that there is, overwhelmingly, evidence against the existence of X, and it is indeed true that the simplest explanation for overwhelming evidence against the existence of X is X's nonexistence. And perhaps a failure to recognize that we do not, in actual practice usually judge absence of evidence absolutely but relative to what is accessible to us (the distinction I mentioned above) contributes to this confusion. But what is actually happening is that an entire range of suppositions is being elided. And there's a reason why people often say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: it's precisely that actual absence of the thing/event/whatever is not the simplest explanation for absence of evidence, considered on its own.

There are actual cases where an absence of evidence would be evidence of absence, of course; the cases, that is, where all other things are not equal. In practice, all of these are cases where we actually have pre-existing preponderant reason (either through preponderance of evidence or through actual proof) that X's existence is inconsistent with the lack of evidence in question, or else made definitely unlikely by it, and that it is either impossible or unlikely that the reason the evidence is lacking is your fault. But these cases, of course, don't salvage the general principle.