Saturday, February 06, 2010

I Strain My Heart, I Stretch My Hands

De Profundis
Christina Rossetti

Oh why is heaven built so far,
Oh why is earth set so remote?
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.

I would not care to reach the moon,
One round monotonous of change;
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my range.

I never watch the scatter'd fire
Of stars, or sun's far-trailing train,
But all my heart is one desire,
And all in vain:

For I am bound with fleshly bands,
Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope;
I strain my heart, I stretch my hands,
And catch at hope.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Friday Random Ten

1. Sufjan Stevens, In the Words of the Governor
2. Animals, Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
3. Jonathon Coulton, re: Your Brains
4. Alphaville, Forever Young
5. Jana Mashonee, O Holy Night (Hodiyin Tl'ee'go)
6. Sufjan Stevens, You Are the Blood
7. America, Sister Golden Hair
8. Jann Arden, Never Mind
9. Wainotar, Kihlaus
10. Madison Park, Opus One

Jana Mashonee's "O Holy Night" is from her American Indian Christmas album; the song is a Navajo version of the carol, if I remember correctly. You can hear a sample here.

Nostalgia is a curious thing, because it is so very rooted in particulars. The Alphaville song is pretty sappy, but I like it because I remember hearing it on a mix tape that was playing while I was chatting with Adrienne about existentialism -- and that conveys nothing to anybody else, but it is the full explanation.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Doing Ethics

In the past when I've taught Ethics, I've taught virtue ethics last; but this term I am teaching it first. It's already begun to give a different flavor to the course; today this passage from Aristotle was a big part of the class discussion:

The many, however, do not do these actions but take refuge in arguments, thinking that they are doing philosophy, and that this is the way to become excellent people. In this they are like a sick person who listens attentively to the doctor, but acts on none of his instructions. Such a course of treatment will not improve the state of his body; any more than will the many's way of doing philosophy improve the state of their souls.

[from Louis Pojman, Moral Philosophy: A Reader, 3rd edition, Hackett Press, p. 254]

And despite the fact that I think Aristotle is quite right here, it felt odd as an early part of an Ethics course: the insistence that the way to learn ethics -- the way to do ethics at all -- is not so much to listen to arguments but to go out and start practicing good deeds. Starting out with this sort of standard makes much of the rest of a college course seem a little odd.

My Ethics course has a service learning component, which is the tiny pittance I, as a college professor teaching ethics, am able to throw Aristotle's way on this point. But even that is sometimes awkward to integrate into the course, for reasons that have nothing to do with ethics itself.

Last term I had a student who was asked by a supervisor of a local charitable organization, during his service learning hours, why he was doing volunteer service, and who responded that he was doing it as part of a course on ethics.

"Really?" said the supervisor. "What does volunteering have to do with ethics?"

Many Validities

When we talk about validity in logic classes, we typically frame it as truth-preservation: a valid argument is one in which, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. And most of what is taught in such classes concerns truth-preservation, either directly or indirectly. However, as I've noted before, there is no fundamental distinction to be made between truth values and modal operators; the latter can be treated as a particular kind of truth value and the former as a particular kind of modal operator. Thus there is no good reason why logic can't concern itself with other kinds of preservation.

In a sense one can say that it has from the beginning. The centrality of demonstration in Aristotle's logical work can be said to make his primary concern not truth-preservation but necessity-preservation: he wants to know the preconditions for saying of an argument that if its premises are necessary the conclusion will also be necessary. Aristotle's famous definition of a syllogism ("A syllogism is a logos in which, certain things having been supposed, something different from these necessarily results because of their being so") has sometimes been taken to indicate that the premises and conclusion have to be relevant to each other, and that therefore Aristotle's logic is a kind of relevance logic; I am not sure that this is so, but it is clear enough that if you are interested in how arguments be necessity-preserving when the premises are different from the conclusion, you will be interested in something that can broadly be called 'relevance', because irrelevance is an impediment to necessity-preservation. One could also cash out the distinction between perfect and imperfect syllogisms in these terms: perfect syllogisms, those of the first figure, are those which make it obvious that if the premises are necessary the conclusion must be necessary; thus it makes sense to regard them as a sort of 'normal form' for demonstration. In any case, for purely structural purposes the distinction between truth-preservation and necessity-preservation is not one that makes a difference: every necessity-preserving inference, for any standard notion of necessity, will also be truth-preserving. But, since not every truth-preserving inference is necessity-preserving, if you are especially interested in getting necessary conclusions from necessary premises, it's a distinction that can support some logical weight.

If you can distinguish necessity-preservation from truth-preservation, you can also go in the opposite modal direction and distinguish truth-preservation from possibility-preservation. Indeed, the preservation of any sort of modality -- obligation, pastness, knownness -- can be investigated in its own right. Preservationist approaches to paraconsistency are essentially doing this: preservationism is the investigation of consistency-level-preservation in arguments, or, to put it in other terms, preservationism is the investigation of a particular sort of possibility-preservation. I'm not fully familiar with preservationism, but my guess is that the form of possibility it preserves is the capability for being true or, in other terms, degree of coherence.

In short, there are plenty of other things on the table besides truth-preservation: many validities beside the standard one.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Cyrano and Determinate and Indeterminate Ways of Taking Terms

In Edmond Rostand's classic play, Cyrano de Bergerac, a very fictionalized tale about the seventeenth-century duelist and playwright of that name, we find an interesting case of a love triangle based on muddled identity. Cyrano de Bergerac is a brilliant swordsman who has an extraordinarily large nose, about which he is rather sensitive. He is in love with Roxane; but he learns that Roxane is in love with the soldier, Christian. She asks him to befriend him and protect him, and because Cyrano loves her he agrees to do it, even after a not-very-auspicious first meeting with Christian in which Christian can't help but remark loudly and with great astonishment, several times, about the size of Cyrano's nose (a very famous scene -- C'est un roc! C'est un pic! C'est un cap! -- Que dis-je, c'est un cap! C'est une péninsule!). Cyrano tells Christian that Roxane wishes a letter from him and Christian is depressed by this because he has a very poor way with words (as might have been guessed from the nose incident). Cyrano gives Christian a letter he himself had written to express his love for Roxane. The letter floors Roxane -- it is extraordinarily beautiful and eloquent. Christian tries to do it on his own for a brief while, but it is a disaster -- he is so ineloquent that he almost loses her; fortunately for Christian, Cyrano saves the day by giving him words to say that reverse her sudden disappointment and win Christian a kiss. Then Christian and Cyrano go off to war together. Cyrano meanwhile, unbeknownst to Christian, continues to write love letters to Roxane under Christian's name. Roxane is so smitten by the letters that she visits Christian at the front, at great risk to herself. She tells him before she was attracted by his beauty, but because of his letters she has come to love him for his soul alone, and would love him even if he is ugly. Christian, who despite his dullness is trully a good man, is too honorable to leave it at that; he goes to Cyrano and says that they must make a clean break of it -- if he, Christian, is not loved as "the fool that he is," he is not truly loved. Cyrano does not believe Christian until a little while later, after talking a bit with Roxane, when she tells him personally. He is about to tell all when Christian is suddenly brought back to camp -- he has been shot, and fatally so. And then Cyrano is too honorable, and too much in love, to shatter Roxane's illusions about a brilliantly witty and romantic Christian. Roxane goes into mourning for fifteen years, living in a convent, but Cyrano comes by regularly to tell her of the world. Then one day, Cyrano is mortally wounded; but he still comes by to say farewell to Roxane, without telling her of the injury. He begs to read her Christian's last letter to her. As he reads, it grows dark, and listening to Cyrano's voice read the letter in the dark, she suddenly realizes that the letter itself is very Cyrano-like, and that all of Christian's letters had always been Cyrano's. Cyrano grows delirious from his injury as Roxane tells him that she loves him. He dies in her arms.

The ending deliberately strengthens the sense of muddled identity rather than resolving it. Roxane says, "I loved but once, yet twice I lose my love!" And Cyrano tells her,

I would not bid you mourn less faithfully
That good, brave Christian: I would only ask
That when my body shall be cold in clay
You wear those sable mourning weeds for two,
And mourn awhile for me, in mourning him.

The point is quite deliberately not that Roxane had really loved only Cyrano all along, nor that she had really loved them both all along, but that she had loved Christian, and yet she loved Christian only in part for being Christian; in part she loved him for being Cyrano. She really did love Christian, for his beauty and for his courage; she really did love Cyrano under Christian's name, for his wit and passionate eloquence; and she had no way of distinguishing the two in the love itself. There was only one object of Roxane's love; she just didn't know that that one object was two persons.

That's the story and the idea. I want to raise it in order to raise a point about how words, like names, apply to things. We can start with asking the question: Is the implication of Cyrano de Bergerac, that the one object of Roxane's love was two people, logically coherent. One could argue in this way. If Cyrano and Christian are one object of love, they must be either a single object that is Cyrano or a single object that is Christian, because Cyrano and Christian are not the same thing. But either assumption yields a contradictory conclusion: either Cyrano is something that is not Cyrano or Christian is something that is not Christian. We could put it in other terms. Cyrano is not Christian. The single object of Roxane's love is Cyrano. And the single object of Roxane's love is Christian. Thus the single object of Roxane's love is Cyrano and not Cyrano, Christian and not Christian, a contradiction. Or again: if Cyrano is the object of Roxane's love, and Christian is the object of Roxane's love, and Cyrano and Christian are not a single thing, the object of Roxane's love cannot be a single object: there must be as many things loved as there are things that are loved.

This cold conclusion, according to which Roxane's own view of her love is irrational and incoherent, would perhaps be something we would have to accept with regret if it were really as thoroughly logical as it seems to be at first glance. In fact, however, these arguments commit the age-old fallacy of figura dictionis -- they make the mistake of assuming that the same words means the same underlying logical structures. In fact, 'the object of Roxane's love' is capable of applying to things in at least two distinct ways: it could be applied determinately or it could be applied confusedly. Taken determinately, there are two objects of Roxane's love: the individual Christian and the individual Cyrano. Taken confusedly, there is only one: Christian and Cyrano insofar as they are not distinguished (or distinguishable, as the case may be). All the arguments treat a term that obviously should be taken confusedly as if it should be taken determinately.

To see that this is not ad hoc, we need to recognize just how essential this distinction is to much of our reasoning. Suppose I say, "At least one of these soldiers is not a lieutenant." In this case, I am taking the common noun, 'soldier', determinately. Since it is a common noun, it leaves open the possibility of there being more than one soldier, but for the subject term to work as it must for this sentence to make sense, we can't be taking soldiers indeterminately: if at least one soldier is not a lieutenant, then there is some soldier, namely, this individual soldier, who is not a lieutenant; and if there are two, then this soldier is not a lieutenant and that soldier is not a lieutenant; and so on if there are three or more. But 'a lieutenant' here is not taken determinately here: it is not a claim that at least one soldier is this or that lieutenant. The term is taken confusedly. If I did take the term determinately, saying, "At least one soldier is not at least one of these lieutenants," that would be a very different claim. Likewise, if I say that "Every good dog is an animal that goes to heaven," I am not taking 'good dog' determinately. I am taking good dogs indeterminately or confusedly, making no distinction among individuals. Likewise, 'an animal that goes to heaven' is taken confusedly and not determinately: I am not saying that every good dog is this animal that goes to heaven; nor am I saying that every good dog is this or that or that other animal that goes to heaven.

In Roxane's case the confused application of the term is due literally to confusion; this is what makes relatively plausible what is the genuinely unusual (but not impossible) logical feature of the predicament, namely, that it forces a proper name ('Christian') to be taken determinately and indeterminately depending on the circumstances and that one of the major players, namely Roxane, is not in a position (until the very end) to say when it should be taken one way and when it should be taken the other way (indeed, she doesn't know until the end that it can be taken both ways, and that many things that she said of Christian, taking the name determinately for Christian, are really only true of Christian if we take the name indeterminately for Christian and Cyrano). But cases of the distinction doing real logical work in a context not depending on psychological confusion lie ready at hand in practically everything we say.

Thus Roxane's final assessment of the situation is not logically confused; and, indeed, it is exactly right.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Various Links

* A bibliography of texts nominated by the SWIP-L and FEAST listservs (PDF) as the most influential texts in feminist philosophy. It is alphabetized by first name rather than last name.

* A good post by John Wilkins on fear, risk, and freedom.

* John Farrell notes the anti-scientific underpinnings of one particular type of argument from evil.

* Chris Clarke's This is the title of a typical incendiary blogpost. (ht)

* Jonah Lehrer on Self-Control and Peer Groups

* Rothbard on Bernardino of Siena. It's interesting but not wholly fair: Rothbard too easily conflates usury with lending practices, and it is precisely Bernardino's point that charging interest is actually a secondary matter in lending practices, and he put the point into practice by furthering the development of the montes pietatis. What Bernardino saw, and Rothbard does not, is that many forms of interest (and many practices associated with it) restrict the class of people whose lives can be benefitted by reasonable loans, and therefore impede borrowing where it can do the most good even as it encourages lending where it can do the most harm; and what Bernardino also saw was that alternatives to interest-charging are available. There are personal free loans, of course, which people are constantly making anyway, and which can be regularized and facilitated by certain practices and customs; there are partnership-based lending practices in which loans get real returns from the investment rather than interest; there are also pawn shops, which can be run in a way that is not quite so sleazy as our current stereotype of pawn shops (in Bernardino's time they were quite respectable, and often charitable, institutions); and who knows what else. St. Bernardino would love the idea of microlending -- in a sense, the montes pietatis he furthered were an early experiment in that -- although probably not all microlending practices.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Aquinas on HoP

In discussing Aristotle's comment, in his brief discussion of the history of philosophical claims about causes, that we ought to be grateful to those who have come before us in the discussion, Aquinas lays out one of the major justifications for the importance of history of philosophy as an approach to philosophy:

He shows how men assist each other to know the truth; for one man assists another to consider the truth in two ways--directly and indirectly.

One is assisted directly by those who have discovered the truth; because, as has been pointed out, when each of our predecessors has discovered something about the truth, which is gathered together into one whole, he also introduces his followers to a more extensive knowledge of truth.

One is assisted indirectly insofar as those who have preceded us and who were wrong about the truth have bequeathed to their successors the occasion for exercising their mental powers, so that by diligent discussion the truth might be seen more clearly.

Now it is only fitting that we should be grateful to those who have helped us attain so great a good as knowledge of the truth. Therefore he says that "It is only right that we should be grateful," not merely to those whom we think have found the truth, and with whose views we agree by following them, but also to those who, in the search for truth, have made only superficial statements, even though we do not follow their views, for these men too have given us something because they have shown us instances of actual attempts to discover the truth.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, John P. Rowan, tr. Dumb Ox (Notre Dame: 1961) p. 110 (Book 2, Lesson 1; Section 287).

Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Discussions of the Trinity in Contemporary Philosophy

There has been some discussion of the Trinity recently; some notable posts:

Substance and Hypostasis in the Trinity
(at The Smithy)
On the Trinity (at Maverick Philosopher)
Reply to the Maverick Philosopher (at The Smithy)
Some Questions about the Trinity Distinguished (at The Maverick Philosopher)
Contradiction in the Trinity? (at The Smithy)

I am very much with Michael here, and have been known at times to be a bit sharper than I intended in conveying the point. The fundamental problem I have with most of the work done by philosophers of religion on the subject, and certainly since Richard Cartwright's famous essay, "On the Logical Problem of the Trinity" is that they clearly and demonstrably start in the wrong place for an inquiry of this sort. The usual procedure is to take some sort of variation of the Quicunque Vult and boil it down even further to some summary like that found in Cartwright's essay, or in Vallicella's post on various questions. This is a shockingly bad start to analysis. The Quicunque Vult is not a dogmatic definition, nor is it a close analysis, being merely a catchy summary; if you are Eastern Orthodox you are in no way committed to it, if you are Catholic you are only committed by the Bull of Union with the Armenians to holding that it is compendious and suitable for basic catechetical purposes; and if you are Protestant, of course, your mileage will vary, but you are definitely going to have weaker commitments to it as an accurate statement of the doctrine than Catholics do. So we are already starting our analysis of the doctrine of Trinity with a secondhand summary of it. Never mind how good, or memorable, it is: this is a flaw in the beginning: it means that if you conclude that the doctrine is inconsistent, then you aren't in a position to tell whether your analysis identifies a problem with Trinitarian doctrine or is an artifact of the particular language used in the Quicunque Vult, which itself was simply a simplified summary. It gives the gist, but a 'gist' is not adequate for serious analysis. One might as well do philosophy of quantum mechanics using a description of photons from a middle school textbook.

Moreover, the flaws spread out farther from here. Often, as I said, this Quicunque-Vult-type summary is itself further summarized, without careful regard for any context, whether catechetical, liturgical, or historical. This is a flaw again: it means that you aren't in a position to tell, if you conclude that it is inconsistent, whether the inconsistency derives from the original or is an artifact of your particular way of boiling it down even further. There are ways to minimize this problem, but they are rarely seen.

Even if we set aside both of these problems, however, we are still faced with a more serious problem. Suppose we assume that these simplified summaries of a simplified summary retains, with full precision, an exactly accurate characterization of the doctrine. We are still faced with the problem that it needs also to compress, without significant loss of meaning, all the relevant content of the original doctrine. Suppose we take a summary like Cartwright's, viz.,

(1) The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God.
(2) The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, the Father is not the Holy Spirit.
(3) There is exactly one God.

The problem is that this is a poor summary of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Church Fathers did not merely say God is one, they said in what way He is one. They did not merely say that the Father is not the Son, they talked at great length about why we whould believe He is not, and in what, precisely, the distinction lies. It is not difficult to rough up a more accurate characterization of the doctrine even along exactly the same lines as this summary; I once did it myself, a few years ago. Better versions are possible. But even these all fail to do what any serious discussion of the Trinity should do, and thus are starting at the tail-end. To start an analysis correctly, you need to start at the fundamentals, and here that means focusing on the processions, because the reasons for accepting that there are processions in God are the reasons for accepting the doctrine of the Trinity, and each of the points in these crude simplified summaries can only characterize the doctrine of the Trinity if it is understood to summarize some fact about the divine processions. Anyone who claims to discuss whether the doctrine of the Trinity is consistent without addressing first, foremost, and fully the doctrine of divine processions, and the reasoning underlying it, is someone who simply does not understand what the doctrine of the Trinity is.

As a tangent, I've sometimes wondered if this beginning at the wrong end is partly responsible for the shockingly heavy-handed treatment of analogies in this context. When someone claims that the doctrine of the Trinity can't be consistent because three things can't be one, and St. Patrick responds with the shamrock, three leaves in one leaf, this is a perfectly good answer, considered formally. It addresses the objection completely and elegantly by showing that the objection, as stated, is thoroughly silly: there are plenty of ways in which things can be three and one, and therefore you will have to make your objection much more precise than this if you really want to argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is inconsistent. It shows that the objection is an attempt to use a railroad tie to do a laser's work. But philosophers of religion these days often take the analogies materially; and so we get disquisitions on how the shamrock illuminates nothing about the doctrine of the Trinity because God is not like a three-leaf clover. Obviously God is not like a three-leaf clover; any sensible analogue you might choose is going to be something that God is very unlike. It is also not to the point. Even an analogy as crude and unsophisticated as a shamrock illuminates the doctrine by showing that it is clearly consistent up to a certain level of description. But of course even when we deal with more sophisticated analogies at deeper levels of analysis it is possible to stay heavy-handed in discussion of analogies in other ways. Michael gives a good example from Cartwright:

The heretical conclusion follows, by the general principle that if every A is a B then there cannot be fewer B's than A's. This principle, I claim, is evident to the natural light of reason. Thus, if every cat is an animal, there cannot be fewer animals than cats; if every senator from Massachusetts is a Democrat, there cannot be fewer Democrats than senators from Massachusetts. Just so, if every Divine Person is a God, there cannot be fewer Gods than Divine Persons.

But, as Michael notes, there is a world of assumption packed into this "just so," which requires that the analogy be formally exact among all the cases -- the doctrine of the Trinity is convicted for not treating God exactly like cats on this point. But the fact that if every cat is an animal there cannot be fewer animals than cats does not establish that this is so for every A that is a B, any more than the fact that every pair of geodesics on a Euclidean plane that are equidistant somewhere are equidistant everywhere proves that every pair of geodesics of any sort are. This is a crude handling of analogy, and not at all illuminating of anything.

I could extend the list, but the point, I think, is made: that discussions of the Trinity in contemporary philosophy are crude and backwards, not the sophisticated analyses they are put forward as being. Just how egregious an offender a particular philosopher is varies greatly; some are so much better than others that they are like fresh air -- and I would count both Cartwright and Vallicella in this category, because despite the fact that I think Cartwright goes wrong at so many points, I have seen much, much worse. But they are generally quite unsuited to the task of dealing with the Trinitarian doctrine itself; and, in fact, the closest they get to actually talking about it is when they talk about something as vaguely like it as a Dick and Jane book is vaguely like a novel.