Saturday, May 22, 2010

Philosophers and Plain People

...I have implied that, in order to continue asking questions about the ends of life, one has to think as a philosopher does by engaging in philosophical dialogue. But, if this is so, it may seem to follow that plain persons, just because they are not philosophers, are precluded from asking questions about the ends of life in a worthwhile way. Is this in fact a consequence of my conclusion? The answer is 'No' and this because the contrast between plain persons and philosophers is itself rooted in confusion. I have argued elsewhere that plain persons - and we all start out as plain persons - who pursue their own answers to the question "What is our good?" in their everyday lives to any significant extent inescapably become involved in reflective practices and, in reflecting on what their or rather our lives have been so far, they and we raise questions about those lives that are already philosophical questions. Plain persons are all of them potential and many of them actual philosophers, although not in the mode of professional philosophers, and every philosopher, whether professional or not, begins as a plain person.

Alasdair MacIntyre, "The Ends of Life and of Philosophical Writing," The Tasks of Philosophy, Cambridge UP (New York: 2006), pp. 140-141.

Faith and Love are More Discerning

The Romantic
by Adam Mickiewicz
tr. by W. H. Auden

"Silly girl, listen!"
But she doesn't listen
While the village roofs glisten,
Bright in the sun.
"Silly girl, what do you do there,
As if there were someone to view there,
A face to gaze on and greet there,
A live form warmly to meet there,
When there is no one, none, do you hear?"
But she doesn't hear.

Like a dead stone
She stands there alone,
Staring ahead of her, peering around
For something that has to be found
Till, suddenly spying it,
She touches it, clutches it,
Laughing and crying.

Is it you, my Johnny, my true love, my dear?
I knew you would never forget me,
Even in death! Come with me, let me
Show you the way now!
Hold your breath, though,
And tiptoe lest stepmother hear!

What can she hear? They have made him
A grave, two years ago laid him
Away with the dead.
Save me, Mother of God! I'm afraid.
But why? Why should I flee you now?
What do I dread?
Not Johnny! My Johnny won't hurt me.
It is my Johnny! I see you now,
Your eyes, your white shirt.

But it's pale as linen you are,
Cold as winter you are!
Let my lips take the cold from you,
Kiss the chill o f the mould from you.

Dearest love, let me die with you,
In the deep earth lie with you,
For this world is dark and dreary,
I am lonely and weary!

Alone among the unkind ones
Who mock at my vision,
My tears their derision,
Seeing nothing, the blind ones!

Dear God! A cock is crowing,
Whitely glimmers the dawn.
Johnny! Where are you going?
Don't leave me! I am forlorn!

So, caressing, talking aloud to her
Lover, she stumbles and falls,
And her cry of anguish calls
A pitying crowd to her.

"Cross yourselves! It is, surely,
Her Johnny come back from the grave:
While he lived, he loved her entirely.
May God his soul now save!"

Hearing what they are saying,
I, too, start praying.

"The girl is out of her senses!"
Shouts a man with a learned air,
"My eye and my lenses
Know there's nothing there.

Ghosts are a myth
Of ale-wife and blacksmith.
Clodhoppers! This is treason
Against King Reason!"

"Yet the girl loves," I reply diffidently,
"And the people believe reverently:
Faith and love are more discerning
Than lenses or learning.

You know the dead truths, not the living,
The world of things, not the world of loving.
Where does any miracle start?
Cold eye, look in your heart!"

Links and Notes

* A discussion of the Use of Sarum

* An excellent post on Pierre Hadot. Hadot's work is truly excellent, and I recommend all of it.

* A post on quality of teaching in American universities.

* Male chastity in Shakespeare.

* Tim O'Neill reviews Stark's book on the Crusades, noting that, despite getting some things right, it has a number of serious problems.

* Exactly the wrong way to teach poetry. Rubrics I can understand; but it doesn't make sense at all for each poem to be graded by the same rubric unless you are teaching specific poetic forms (sonnets, sestinas, rondeaus), which is obviously not the case here. When not looking for specific formal features, it's a portfolio or collection of works that should be handled by a rubric.

* Estimating the net worth of U.S. Presidents.

* Ed Feser has a nice post on generalizations.

* Moishe Roshen recently died.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Poem Re-Draft and a New Poem Draft

The Dragons

The dragons are restless today;
they stir up hurricane and whirlwind,
puff forests to ash,
melt stone to rivers.

It must be mating day;
they sing with low trumpet-calls,
gather together and quarrel,
do aerial combat
and more interesting things.

Once a century they come together
to multiply,
a fruitful congregation.
But they'll soon be extinct,
with all these steel-clad knights
who rescue stupid damsels
who cannot keep out of dragons' dens.

Then no one will know what it's like
to live in a world with dragons,
for a dragon is a sublimity;
imagination fails before it.

Rust and Fire

One in kind are rust and fire.
Ruin is combustion slow;
flaming quickly is desire,
although it has a sharper glow
and spreads a prettier light.
Wood will rust with aching speed,
giving but an hour's delight.
Death issues from consuming need,
corrupting with a ruining fate;
making ash and stealing hearts,
it does not stop, does not wait,
corroding every cell and part.
And decadence with more control
corrosion too will spread abroad;
iron burns in part and whole
from air and malice of the gods.
Decay, then, is but slow desire:
one in kind are rust and fire.

Silent Messenger of Secrets Infinite

Must the morning always return? Will the despotism of the earthly never cease? Unholy activity consumes the angel-visit of the Night. Will the time never come when Love's hidden sacrifice shall burn eternally? To the Light a season was set; but everlasting and boundless is the dominion of the Night. -- Endless is the duration of sleep. Holy Sleep -- gladden not too seldom in this earthly day-labor, the devoted servant of the Night. Fools alone mistake thee, knowing nought of sleep but the shadow which, in the twilight of the real Night, thou pitifully castest over us. They feel thee not in the golden flood of the grapes -- in the magic oil of the almond tree -- and the brown juice of the poppy. They know not that it is thou who hauntest the bosom of the tender maiden, and makest a heaven of her lap -- never suspect it is thou, opening the doors to Heaven, that steppest to meet them out of ancient stories, bearing the key to the dwellings of the blessed, silent messenger of secrets infinite.

Novalis, Hymns of the Night, Hymn 2

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Conditions for Effective Elimination of Hypotheses

A while back I had a dashed off post in which I made the following comment:

Eliminating hypotheses is, in general, an inefficient form of inquiry. It only becomes valuable under certain conditions, namely those that have already yielded a reasonable basis for understanding how different hypotheses are relvant and capable of being eliminated in a reasonably clean way.

Arius asked if I could expand on the point, and I'm finally at the point where I have a bit of time to do so. My thoughts on the subject are partially inchoate, but I think we can still go some ways to laying out the conditions under which elimination of hypotheses is an effective form of inquiry.

It's useful, I think, to begin with the concept of a phenomenon. I use the term in Ian Hacking's sense; he didn't invent that sense, but has done the most in recent times to emphasize its importance. We learn about the world from experience. That's almost a truism. But it's important to understand the sense in which it is true. It's not from individual perceptions so much as built-up banks of perceptions that we learn about the world; we need not just a datum but a store of data. Out of this collected experience we begin to recognize intelligible patterns and structures, and this is how we understand the world. But one of the key points here, which is easy to overlook if you don't think it through, is that not just any course of experience will do -- to build the bank of experience we need stability, repeatability, definite pattern. We need phenomena: something that recognizably comes again and again.

The tricky thing is that, if we want to go beyond what we need to know about the world for purely practical purposes, the world is not quite forthcoming. Happenings are common enough, but phenomena are rare; most recurrences in nature are approximate. The theme we need to pin down is there, but it undergoes endless variations, so many that it's difficult to get precise enough about the theme that we actually can say anything about underlying causes. Scientific inquiry consists chiefly in the making and studying of phenomena, and the history of science is heavily constrained by the availability of phenomena to study. There is only one science that has relatively clear cases of phenomena open to everyone's view, and that is astronomy. The lights in the sky are much the same night after night, and of those that are not -- the wandering stars, the planets -- some are sufficiently regular that if you observe them long enough you can see clear patterns. Thus it is astronomy that develops first among the sciences. It is not easy; the basic phenomena are available to be observed but the observing of them so that they are usable as phenomena is often a long, difficult, time-consuming process. The orbits of the planets, despite their variations, are far more regular than most of what we find around us, but it took so many centuries to find ways to measure them, track them, record them with the accuracy needed to draw out the intelligible structure of these phenomena! And those are the phenomena that are largely open and accessible, just waiting to be measured; most phenomena have to be created, isolated out from the flux, educed by carefully engineered situations. The order in which sciences appear is largely influenced by the ease with which phenomena are created, so that, for instance, large families of basic mechanical phenomena are identified fairly early, while sciences like chemistry, biology, psychology, have to find ways to peel away much more complicated forms of variability. I say that the history is 'largely' influenced by this because, of course, a field of scientific inquiry never deals with only one kind of phenomena; with proper instruments you can isolate astronomical phenomena that are not nearly as obvious as the basic phenomena and thus show up much later in the history of science. Much of science deals with the creation of new phenomena: an experiment is nothing other than an attempt, through a contrived situation, to make a real phenomenon that can be directly or indirectly experienced.

I suggest that the existence of accessible phenomena is the primary condition for effective inquiry by elimination of hypotheses. In everyday practical life it is rarely useful to try to figure things out by elimination of hypotheses. We do use eliminative arguments, but they usually require no hypothesizing because they are based on things that are old hat -- we already know the routes and we're just deciding which one was taken. This is different from an eliminative hypothetical inference because such an inference is an attempt to discover a route in the first place. We do use educated guesses, but they differ from hypotheses in that they just need to be good enough; we do try to find confirmations for our guesses, but we usually are fine with just one or two. And it's easy to see why this is the most reasonable way of proceeding in everyday practical life -- we don't have the time, or the resources, or the interest, in creating phenomena for everything.

It's also the case that even in purely theoretical realms there's no use hypothesizing if your hypotheses are just guesses. From expositions of scientific method that one reads about in elementary and high school textbooks people often come away with the idea that hypothesizing is just the scientific word for guessing. But even to reach the point of having a recognizable hypothesis, we need to have a fairly good sense of what we're dealing with. There's no use trying to make a hypothesis if there is an infinite field of possible answers. What differentiates hypotheses from guesses, even educated ones, is that good hypotheses are things that are actually possible solutions, not mere approximations. In effective inquiry, formulation of a hypothesis is the attempt to identify a really possible alternative in the field of possibilities based on our acquaintance with the phenomena. The farther we get away from phenomena, the more our attempts to hypothesize begin to look like guesses in the dark. Guesses can be entirely reasonable and rational -- the notion that reasonable people never guess is thoroughly absurd. But when you guess and it turns out to be good enough, you haven't tested a hypothesis; you made a reasonable but still partly arbitrary decision and turned out to be lucky. A thriving intellectual life will take advantage of such lucky guesses whenever it can; but it's not hypothesizing in any proper sense of the term.

We also need phenomena for the elimination of hypotheses. Eliminating hypotheses is difficult; crucial experiments only arise under extraordinary circumstances, and even then you want to be able to do them more than once just to be sure. The more variable our experience, the less sense it makes to try to do any elimination; we could be at the eliminative process for centuries or millenia, for all we know. And, indeed, the history of science shows that that is sometimes how long it takes if you don't have phenomena in hand. You need something that can help you say, with reasonable certainty, that a given hypothesis is wrong; this requires phenomena.

So phenomena are a necessary condition: if you don't have them, elimination of hypothesis, which is time- and resource-intensive, is not an efficient way to think about the world. The fact that you have phenomena, however, does not guarantee that you can effectively eliminate hypotheses. You need not just the phenomena but some notion of how they are already structured in order to have an idea both what kinds of hypotheses might be relevant and how they might be eliminated using the phenomena. This means that by the time we've reached the stage where it makes sense to formulate hypotheses in the first place our inquiry has already discovered something about the world -- something basic, no doubt, but something real. We've created or isolated out a phenomenon and recognized it for what it is -- this requires that we be able to recognize its features, see something of its patterns, and see that they are regular, stable, repeatable. This kind of knowledge admits of degrees. And reaching a certain degree is needed before it makes much sense to try to hypothesize and eliminate hypotheses.

This, incidentally, is the grain of half-truth in the Popperian thesis that hypotheses must be falsifiable. What is actually true is that in order to eliminate hypotheses effectively we must be able to identify phenomena with sufficient precision that we can correct for errors in our immediate conclusions about them; without such correction we can never be sure that we've actually eliminated anything rather than been fooled by some contamination or bias in the experiment. To the extent that science involves the elimination of hypotheses it needs the hypotheses to be genuinely eliminable. But this is, in fact, nothing to do with the hypotheses themselves; it has to do with the phenomena we have on hand.

Even when we are at the stage of hypothesizing, of course, we may not be in a position to do any elimination; it may be more reasonable for that stage of inquiry to handle our hypotheses less rigorously by focusing comparing them to analogous cases or trying to find the simplest hypothesis that saves the phenomena that we are currently able to recognize. It takes a lot to get things to the point where elimination of hypotheses is a progressive form of inquiry rather than a sort of random search in field of fog.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Philosophers' Carnival

Richard Brown has hosted the 108th Philosophers' Carnival; Richard did some excellent work pulling together interesting posts. Go and see!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Kazez on Harris

Jean Kazez makes a point I've been making about the Sam Harris and science of morality thing. I'm less mystified than Jean is about why so many atheists have lined up against Harris on this point; having argued with atheists in my time, it's clear enough that the absolute separation between morality and knowledge about facts is a pillar of many forms of atheism -- it's a common way of criticizing religion (which tends either to hold that there is a tertium quid or to deny the separation altogether). This does not appear to be generally true among atheists who have philosophy as their profession, but it is common enough outside.

Like Jean, for me the ultimate point is not that Harris is right, but that the arguments against him are for the most part puzzling at best and demonstrably question-begging or bad at best. There are exceptions (like the value-ordering arguments I've mentioned before); but they are rare. Most of the arguments are cousins of the disagreement or motivation arguments Jean mentions, which are arguments that are both very limited in what they can do and very problematic when directed against moral realism generally (rather than certain very narrow forms of it, none of which seem to be relevant here). Much of the problem is one hinted at by Jean here, which is that moral realism is strategically the wrong point at which to attack Harris. It's the point at which Harris is making claims that are very easily defensible, that are very difficult to mount good arguments against, and that will be regarded with the most sympathy by people who otherwise have nothing in common with Harris.

Reason and Fancy

I do not mean to recommend books of an abstracted or grave cast. There are in our language many, in which instruction and amusement are blended; the Adventurer is of this kind. I mention this book on account of its beautiful allegories and affecting tales, and similar ones may easily be selected. Reason strikes most forcibly when illustrated by the brilliancy of fancy. The sentiments which are scattered may be observed, and when they are relished, and the mind set to work, it may be allowed to chuse books for itself, for every thing will then instruct.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. I take it that The Adventurer meant here is the periodical put forward by John Hawkesworth, mostly written by Hawkesworth himself, but to which Samuel Johnson was also a contributor -- very Johnsonian in approach, which is no doubt why it is recommended by Wollstonecraft. You can get a taste of its literary mix of essays and stories here. Another work that Wollstonecraft recommends for similar reasons, although for younger children, is Dorothy Kilner's classic children's story, The Perambulations of a Mouse.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Holy Ascension

Christ's Ascension is the cause of our salvation in two ways: first of all, on our part; secondly, on His.

On our part, in so far as by the Ascension our souls are uplifted to Him; because, as stated above (1, ad 3), His Ascension fosters, first, faith; secondly, hope; thirdly, charity. Fourthly, our reverence for Him is thereby increased, since we no longer deem Him an earthly man, but the God of heaven; thus the Apostle says (2 Corinthians 5:16): "If we have known Christ according to the flesh--'that is, as mortal, whereby we reputed Him as a mere man,'" as the gloss interprets the words--"but now we know Him so no longer."

On His part, in regard to those things which, in ascending, He did for our salvation. First, He prepared the way for our ascent into heaven, according to His own saying (John 14:2): "I go to prepare a place for you," and the words of Micheas (2:13), "He shall go up that shall open the way before them." For since He is our Head the members must follow whither the Head has gone: hence He said (John 14:3): "That where I am, you also may be." In sign whereof He took to heaven the souls of the saints delivered from hell, according to Psalm 67:19 (Cf. Ephesians 4:8): "Ascending on high, He led captivity captive," because He took with Him to heaven those who had been held captives by the devil--to heaven, as to a place strange to human nature. captives in deed of a happy taking, since they were acquired by His victory.

Secondly, because as the high-priest under the Old Testament entered the holy place to stand before God for the people, so also Christ entered heaven "to make intercession for us," as is said in Hebrews 7:25. Because the very showing of Himself in the human nature which He took with Him to heaven is a pleading for us. so that for the very reason that God so exalted human nature in Christ, He may take pity on them for whom the Son of God took human nature.

Thirdly, that being established in His heavenly seat as God and Lord, He might send down gifts upon men, according to Ephesians 4:10: "He ascended above all the heavens, that He might fill all things," that is, "with His gifts," according to the gloss.

Thomas Aquinas, ST III.57.6c

Poem Re-Draft and Three Poem Drafts


The air is hot and dry,
clouded by storms of dust.
Endless realms of sand
make the hardy die of thirst.
But even on this desert planet
water can be found,
dew in secret places,
pools by sheltering rocks.

I have had a dream:
This desert became a beach,
mist was in the air,
great waves of philosophy
broke against the shore.

Dark Matter

I seem to wander far from you
across the meadows fraught with dew,
across the pathways of the stars
where all the hidden serpents are,
and yet I still remember you
as though my memories were new,
as though your word were in my ear
and time had brought us close and near.
Beyond the portals of the sphere
what hope shall keep me on the road?
What strength shall fight off death and fear
save love and you and heaven's glow?


How faintly do the lines now linger
on the writings of the dead,
like melted snows from thawing winter
or breath on windows, soon to fade!
And yet, and yet, their words are calling;
they catch us out at sudden times,
return the heart turned sad and sullen,
and stalk our plans and haunt our dreams.


Sunlight burning through the window --
burning redly like the ember,
glory like the nitred flame,
blue and purple like the Godhead,
tongues of fire on the Name --
graces pew with gift of promise,
light from age to age the same.
Bring the hallows and the oil,
bring the crowns and seals of royal,
bring the sword and shield of faith:
now the soldiers born for glory
feel the unction in the pouring,
love that knows no guilt or shame.
O Most holy God forever,
breathe on them and make them hale,
mark their hearts with courage ever
and with your Spirit seal them well!