Saturday, May 15, 2010

Students and the First Way II

Last term I posted summaries of some answers I had received to a question on a history of philosophy take-home quiz, namely, "In Thomas Aquinas's First Way, what do you think is the weakest premise (the one that would require the most work to defend), and why?" Because the result had been so interesting last time, I had, with some slight verbal differences, the same question on the quiz this term. Any answer was accepted, as long as it (1) showed acquaintance with the First Way and (2) did not attribute something to the argument that obviously wasn't there. Like last time the students had had only one class on the argument, chiefly geared to explaining scholastic method. One can see some sign of variation in teaching. This time I'm pretty sure I failed to do as well as I did last time explaining the overall context of the argument, and I think it shows. There are fewer insightful answers (although some are more audacious) and a couple of themes keep coming up with dreary repetition. But it's still an interesting look at how people react to first exposure to the argument. As with last time, I will paraphrase somewhat to make them similar in structure to each other, and also occasionally clean them up and abridge them; also, I am setting aside some answers I could make neither head nor tails of, and one or two where the student was clearly just confused as to what the question said.

* "Whatever is moved is moved by another." He'd have to explain in several steps why it is true for everything. He must also explain how the first mover is God; if the person doesn't believe there is a God, this brings it into another argument.

* "Whatever is moved is moved by another." I find this hard to believe in every case because atoms move by themselves, and neurons in our head move by themselves. Our bodies may move because of the neurons, but the neurons move themselves.

* "It is impossible that a thing should be both mover and moved," saying something can't move itself. Without knowing a lot about physics, I would say the earth moves itself. One might also say that we move ourselves.

* He says the first mover must be God. It's hard to prove this point.

* The last premise is weakest; Thomas Aquinas doesn't consider that the first mover could have been a natural phenomenon and not a divine hand.

* Nothing can move by itself. Atoms move by themselves. Also, animals move by themselves and we don't use an impulse from anything else to move.

* He said the first mover was God. There was no proof that the first mover was God; that's just a guess. The only thing the five ways prove is that there was something first.

* "Whatever is moved is moved by another." This premise would conflict with the notion of God since he is almighty and can do anything he wants, e.g., move or be unmoved.

* "Whatever is moved is moved by another." There are things that are moved for no reason, like wind and water. There is no reason why these things move; they just happen.

* "Whatever is moved is moved by another" Newton's First Law states that a particle would tend to stay at rest or move in a constant velocity if no external force is applied to it. So it is as natural for a body to move (in a constant velociy) as it is for a body to be at rest. With Newton's First Law, there is no need for a Prime Mover.

* "Each thing in motion is moved by something else." How can you prove that a pencil that rolls on a table is being rolled by another object or thing when the air is absolutely still & is not being tampered with by any person or thing?

* People would have the hardest time accepting the premise "nothing can move itself" because people believe they move/control themselves and their actions. His other premises have plenty of examples, but this one relies on opinion.

* That a series of causes cannot be infinite. It's possible that causes are indeed infinite, or we would expect it eventually to just...end.

* "It is impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved. I think about times I am sitting and tapping my foot, and although I believe in God, I find it hard to believe that he is telling my foot to move. There should be more to the explanation than simply saying that I am being moved because God is my mover.

* "Nothing can be moved from a state of potentiality to actuality except by something in a state of actuality." Who is to say what is actual and what has the potential to be actual? We don't know if anything truly exists.

* The final premise about the first mover being God. If you don't believe in God, I think you can accept all premises about things being moved until you get ot the final or first mover being God. There would be no way to convince an atheist of your point.

* The last premise is the weakest, because there is no hard proof that God exists. If people don't believe in him then there is no explanation for moving objects with no cause. Every other premise is solid, but when you get into this one you start getting into religious beliefs and individual opinions, which are tricky.

* The last one where he claims that everyone understands the first mover to be God. His other premises can be sufficiently proven, but the existence of God lacks evidence and is debated.

* That the chain of causation cannot extend to infinity. People rarely apply the concept of infinity to anything which exists because people have no direct experience of anything infinite. Everything we come in contact with begins and ends at some point. But if you can imagine that this is not the case with say, God, then you can see it may not be the case with other things, like time and causation.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Links and Notes

* A fascinating post on causal inference in social networks by Cosma Shalizi

* Adam Kirsch has a review of Faye's book on Heidegger and Nazism.

* Fukuyma reviews Julian Young's biography of Nietzsche.

* R. T. has a discussion of Flannery O'Connor's "A Temple of the Holy Ghost"

* The discussion of whether ID is compatible with Thomism continues. Tom Gilson gives a listing of the major posts up to April 30, and follows up with some thoughts of his own: Why the Debate? and Further on "Why the Debate?". And Ed Feser discusses ID and mechanism.

* Michael Flynn has a short story up in Dappled Things, Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

* Robert Barron reviews Agora.

* Sam Harris responds to his critics, or, rather, he responds to Sean Carroll.

* The last Jew in Afghanistan.

* Robert Wolff's blog, Formal Methods in Political Philosophy, is turning out to be very interesting.

* Relativistic finance. Yes, Wall Street is completely insane.

* Eric Schwitzgebel is doing some interesting sociology-of-philosophy work.

* John Wilkins is talking about what he thinks makes someone a philosopher, here, here, here, and here. John raises many interesting points and arguments; if I had more time I would probably discuss it at length here. One can get an idea of what I think from my occasional quick comments -- i.e., I think he is forced to gerrymander in order to treat a view of philosophy that arose through a series of sheer historical accidents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as if it were a useful category for looking at the larger tradition out of which this one branch developed. One can dispute whether contemporary philosophical concerns and aims should be taken as normative for philosophy; what one must not do is treat it as normal for the history of philosophy. Whether it makes sense to call someone a philosopher will depend on what, precisely, you are trying to do; there is no general fact of the matter because 'philosophy' is not a univocal term, and therefore it rarely makes sense to say that someone is not a philosopher, period -- one can only actually say that someone is or is not a philosopher in light of this or that aim or activity. And John's category seems useless for real work in the history of philosophy; it means, among other things, that someone can belong to a philosophical school, or explicitly consider himself or herself to be a philosopher (and be considered as such by contemporaries and successors), and not be counted as a philosopher. I don't see how such a system of classification could possibly be of any valuable to the historical study of philosophy -- and, after all, we historians of philosophy are primarily the people who actually study philosophy as such.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Like a Vast Shadow Mov'd

The World
by Henry Vaughan

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd; in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit's sour delights,
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure
All scatter'd lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow'r.

The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog mov'd there so slow,
He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad eclipses) scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digg'd the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work'd under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but one did see
That policy;
Churches and altars fed him; perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rain'd about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves;
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg'd each one his pelf;
The downright epicure plac'd heav'n in sense,
And scorn'd pretence,
While others, slipp'd into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despised Truth sate counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar'd up into the ring;
But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shews the way,
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.
But as I did their madness so discuss
One whisper'd thus,
"This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride."

Middlesex Philosophy II

This would be amusing if it weren't so absurd (from here):

A Middlesex university spokesman said: "Philosophy is only able to operate with subsidies from other subject areas in the university. The university has no choice but to address this issue, particularly in the context of announced, and further anticipated, public funding cuts. We recognise this is a difficult period for philosophy staff and students, and will be working with them to determine the best way forward."

Except, of course, that the university has pretty clearly already established that there is no way forward; the department is being shut down. This is precisely the problem: the university did not go to the Philosophy department and say, "We have some problems, and we need to find a way to get this department less dependent on subsidies from other areas." They did not propose any restructuring, any alternatives, or anything but closure. They've already shown that they are not interested in working with the Philosophy department to determine the best way forward.

I do have to admire the cleverness of the last sentence, though, which implies that this is really just a matter of disgruntled people who want to save their position. It's not, in fact, a difficult period for philosophy staff -- they are almost all certain to get positions elsewhere, and in some cases probably at better pay and benefits. With the students there may be some rougher transition -- but as a rule they, too, will be able to find places elsewhere. No, the problem is the sheer, unadulterated stupidity of the move, which will destroy an internationally renowned department (the explicit justification for which was to make it easier to squeeze money from students), brands Middlesex as an anti-intellectual university that does not regard serious teaching and research as among its primary goals, and will earn it nothing but unadulterated contempt the world over. I like the commenter's suggestion at the above link that perhaps Middlesex should now remove the word "university" from its title; that conveys, in a sentence, the real issue here.

(Incidentally, one of the bizarre things in the comments is that several people read the claim about graduate students as the claim that the department only has twelve students; but that's not right. It gains about twelve graduate students a year, and graduate students stick around for a while. The graduate program at Middlesex seems to have about 60 students at present, which is actually fairly big for a prestigious research program. [UPDATE: Apparently the 'twelve students a year' referred to the BA in particular; the department has been working to increase the degrees. It also, of course, teaches students from other degrees. And there are, of course, the graduate students. I should have realized that graduate students don't count because they can't usually be squeezed for as much money as undergraduates. But the Middlesex Philosophy department says that its focus on post-graduate education was due to priorities set by administration several years ago.])

I think one could argue that it's all a sign that philosophy can no longer trust universities to serve its interest; and thought should be taken for how it can survive -- as it has before, on many occasions -- independently of such degenerating academic structures. How true that is, I'm not sure, although it's an argument for which one could point out more than one supporting fact; but it's worth thinking about.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Repeal Leibniz' Law"

Shortly after I had successfully defended my dissertation, which included a rousing defense of Relative Identity, I attended an APA function wearing a tee shirt I had made in honor of the occasion which proclaimed, "Repeal Leibniz' Law." An earnest male philosopher approached me and asked whether that motto "had something to do with feminism." When I expressed bewilderment he explained that he assumed that it had something to do with feminists' rejection of "Western male logic." Mercifully, once I began expounding the virtues of Relative Identity and explaining the more interesting logical moves in my dissertation he went away.
H. E. Baber, "The Market for Feminist Epistemology" (Monist; Oct94, Vol. 77 Issue 4).

As a complete side issue, it's one of the interesting quirks of the history of philosophy that Leibniz's Law is not really found in Leibniz at all (as Englebretsen and others have noted). Leibniz does at one point say that what he is going to mean by saying that a and b are the same is that a can be predicated of b and b can be predicated of a, but that's the closest he comes to it.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Malebranche and Short-Hand

Michael Gilleland recently posted a poem by John Byrom, which led me to think about yet another poem by John Byrom, which intersects my own field of early modern philosophy. In the eighteenth century there was a brief interest in Malebranche in Britain. These British Malebrancheans were never a very coherent movement, and largely picked and chose what they liked from the Oratorian, but some very bright minds were involved, people like John Norris, Mary Astell, and William Law. Their influence was largely ephemeral, although there are cases -- such as Norris's influence on John Wesley, or the influence of Law's devotional writings -- that are notable. Byrom was one of these British Malebrancheans. In 1727 Byrom had the good fortune of happening on a portrait of Malebranche at a sale, which he promptly bought. In his enthusiasm he excitedly wrote his wife about the purchase and penned a poem to one of his friends, called,

To Henry Wright of Mobberley, Esq.
On Buying the Picture of Father Malebranche at a Sale


Well, dear Mr. Wright, I must send you a line:—
The purchase is made, Father Malebranche is mine;
The adventure is past which I long'd to achieve,
And I'm so overjoy'd, you will hardly believe.
If you will but have patience, I'll tell you, dear friend,
The whole history on't, from beginning to end.
Excuse this long tale,— I could talk, Mr. Wright,
About this same picture from morning to night.


The morning it low'r'd, like the morning in Cato,
And brought on, methought, as important a day too.
But about ten o'clock it began to be clear;
And, the fate of our capital piece drawing near,
Having supp'd off to breakfast some common decoction.
Away trudged I in all haste to the Auction.
Should have call'd upon you, but the Weaver Committee
Forbade me that pleasure,—the more was the pity!


The clock struck eleven as I enter'd the room,
Where Rembrandt and Guido stood waiting their doom,
With Holbein and Rubens, Van Dyck, Tintoret,
Jordano, Poussin, Carlo Dolci, et cet.
When at length in the corner perceiving the Pére,
"Ha!" quoth I to his face, "my old friend, are you there?"
And methought the face smil'd, just as tho' it would say:
"What, you're come, Mr. Byrom, to fetch me away!"


Now, before I had time to return it an answer,
Comes a Short-hander by,— Jemmy Ord was the man, Sir:—
"So, Doctor! good morrow!"—"So Jemmy! bonjour!
Some rare pictures here!"—"So there are, to be sure.
Shall we look at some of them?"—"With all my heart, Jemmy!"
So I walk'd up and down, with my old pupil wi' me;
Making still such remarks as our wisdom thought proper,
Where things were hit off in wood, canvas, or copper.


When at length, about noon, Mr. Auctioneer Cox
With his book and his hammer mounts into his box:
"Lot the first, number One." Then advanced his upholder
With Malebranche,—so Atlas bore Heav'n on his shoulder.
Then my heart, Sir, it went pit-a-pat, in good sooth,
To see the sweet face of The Searcher of Truth.
"Ha!" thought I to myself, "if it cost me a million,
This right honest head, then, shall grace my pavilion."


Thus stood Lot the first,—both in number and worth,
If pictures were priz'd for the men they set forth.
I'm sure, to my thinking, compar'd to this number,
Most lots in the room seem'd to be but mere lumber.
The head then appearing, Cox left us to see't,
And fell to discoursing concerning the feet:
"So long, and so broad!—Tis a very fine head!
Please to enter it, gen'men,"—was all that he said.


Had I been in his place, not the stroke of a hammer,
Till the force had been tried both of rhet'ric and grammar.
"A very fine head !"—Had thy head been as fine,
All the heads in the house had vail'd bonnets to thine!—
Not a word, whose it was; but, in short, 'twas a head—
"Put it up what you please." So, somebody said:
"Half-a-piece," and so on. For three pounds and a crown,
(To sum up my good fortune) I fetch'd him me down.


There were three or four bidders,—I cannot tell whether,—
But they never could come two upon me together;
For as soon as one spoke, then immediately, pop!
I advanc'd something more, fear the hammer should drop.
I consider'd, should Cox take a whim of a sudden,
What a hurry 'twould put a man's Lancashire blood in!
"Once—twice—three pounds five"—so, nemine con.,
Came an absolute rap, and thrice happy was John.


"Who bought it?" quoth Cox. "Here's the money," quoth I,
Still willing to make the securest reply;
And the safest receipt that a body can trust
For preventing disputes, is " Down with your dust!"
So I bought it, and paid for 't; and boldly I say,
'Twas the best purchase made at Cadogan's that day:
The works the man wrote are the finest in nature;
And a most clever piece is his genuine portraiture.


For the rest of the pictures, and how they were sold,
To others there present I leave to be told.
They seem'd to go off, as at most other sales,
Just as folk's money, judgment or fancy prevails,
Some cheap, and some dear. Such an image as this
Comes a trifle to me, and an odd wooden Swiss
Wench's head—God knows, who?—forty-eight guineas, if her
Grace of Marlborough likes it:—so fancies will differ.


When the bus'ness was o'er, and the crowd somewhat gone,
Whip, into a coach I convey Number One.
"Drive along, honest friend, fast as e'er you can spin."
So he did; and 'tis now safe and sound at Gray's Inn;
"Done at Paris," it says, "from the life by" one "GERY,"—
Who that was, I can't tell, but I wish his heart merry,—
"In the year Ninety-eight,"—sixty just from the birth
Of the greatest divine that e'er liv'd upon earth.


And now, if some evening, when you are at leisure,
You'll come and rejoice with me over my treasure,
With a friend or two with you, that will in free sort
Let us mix Metaphysics and Short-hand and port:
We'll talk of his book, or what else you've a mind
Take a glass, read or write, as we see we're inclin'd ;
Such friends and such freedom!—What can be more clever ?

World-class poetry it is not, but for capturing the very sense and feel of a young man's intellectual enthusiasms it is nonpareil.

[If you find the references to shorthand puzzling, you might find things cleared up by looking here. In another interesting connection, one finds that the Wesleys, both Charles and John, used Byrom's shorthand.]


Judicial humor is, and generally must be, very dry, but sometimes judicial opinions are worth reading. I liked this section of Janice Rodger Brown's judicial opinion in the most recent Newdow case, which recently came for appeal before the D.C. Circuit panel:

No amount of discovery will uncover the identities of the unnamed defendants. Therefore, by naming as defendants all persons the future President could possibly invite to administer an oath, lead a prayer, or help in the planning of these events, plaintiffs are essentially seeking a declaration of their rights accompanied by an injunction against the world. There is another name for that type of generally applicable relief: legislation. And that’s not within the power of the courts.

I'll have to remember "declaration of rights accompanied by an injunction against the world"; it summarizes in a straightforward way why I think working for rights through the courts doesn't generally work well.