Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Strangest Whim Has Seized Me

A Ballade of Suicide
by G. K. Chesterton

The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
But just as all the neighbours--on the wall--
Are drawing a long breath to shout "Hurray!"
The strangest whim has seized me. . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay--

My uncle's sword is hanging in the hall--
I see a little cloud all pink and grey--
Perhaps the rector's mother will not call--
I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way--
I never read the works of Juvenal--

I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall,
Rationalists are growing rational--
And through thick woods one finds a stream astray
So secret that the very sky seems small--

I think I will not hang myself to-day.


Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall,
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

Always good for an academic to remember during this busy time of year!

Of course, it's a bit optimistic to think that rationalists are growing rational, but there's hope.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Bowels of Compassion

A salutary warning from St. Gregory the Great, whose feast day it is:

These are wishes peculiar to the haughty, to pray that the lives of those who are suffering may be more severely examined, because the more just they are in their own eyes, the more hardened are they in others’ sufferings. For they know not how to take to them the feeling of the other’s infirmity, and to feel pity for their neighbour’s weakness, as they do for their own. For since they think highly of themselves, they do not at all condescend to the humble. Eliu believed that blessed Job had been smitten for his sin, and therefore believed that no bowels of compassion were to be shewn to him, even in the midst of so many sorrows. But when men, who are truly holy, behold any one smitten, even for his faults, though they reprove some of his inordinate doings, yet they sympathize with some of his sufferings; and they are so skilled in keeping down swellings, as yet to know how to relieve wounds, in order that when their hardnesses are softened, their infirmities may be strengthened. But because, on the other hand, haughty men have no bowels of love, they not only do not sympathize with the righteous when suffering, but moreover afflict them, under pretence of proper reproof, and they either exaggerate trifling faults, if there are any in them, or pervert by wrong construction those points which are really good.

Moralia in Job, Part V, Book XXVI
, Section 6. It sounds so straightforward; and yet it's extraordinarily difficult to practice.

IPod Random Fifteen

1. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, I Put a Spell on You
2. Mediaeval Baebes, The Snake
3. The Charlie Daniels Band, The Devil Went Down to Georgia
4. Nena, Leuchtturm
5. Epica, Every Time It Rains
6. Metallica, Nothing Else Matters
7. Ellis Paul, God's Promise
8. Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah
9. Linda Ronstadt, Long Long Time
10. Rosanne Cash, Seven Year Ache
11. Jann Arden, Never Mind
12. Katie Melua, Nine Million Bicycles
13. Cerena, Quelque Part C'est Ici
14. Kareem Salama, Aristotle and Averroes
15. Matisyahu, King Without a Crown

"The Snake" can be found performed live by the Mediaeval Baebes here; and while the sound quality is not great, it captures the catchiness of the song. It's a version -- Catalan, if I recall correctly -- of a kind of poem that's fairly common, in which someone (in this case, a farmer) discovers a half-frozen snake, takes it in and nurtures it back to health, then crosses it at some point, leading the snake to respond as snakes do (in this case, the snake has grown to very great size and so it hisses and wraps itself around the farmer to kill him). You can find another, more swinging variation on the theme in Al Wilson's The Snake. The moral of the story should be obvious.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Links and Notes

* John Farrell has an article on Pius XII and Humani Generis at the WSJ. He discusses it further in a post here.

* My favorite logical positivist, Otto Neurath, at the SEP.

* William Bristow has an article at the SEP on the Enlightenment. I don't think it's a bad article, but I find it odd to read, because in virtually every choice one has to make in writing an article on this topic, Bristow chose the opposite of what I would have done. Unlike Eric Schliesser, I can see the point of saying that the Enlightenment only became self-reflective in its later German form, although it is potentially misleading and skews the discussion. (It's like saying that rationalists and empiricists only became self-aware of themselves as such toward the end of the early modern period; there's a legitimate sense in which this is so, but putting this way is potentially misleading as to the actual disputes between rationalists and empiricists.) I think it was a mistake to speak in terms of general tendencies of the 'the Enlightenment'; the local expressions (the French Enlightenment, the German Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment, etc.) are indeed nodes in a general communication network concerned with intellectual development, but they do not all have the same general tenor, nor are their favored projects the same. To do justice to anything in the Enlightenment, one really must focus on the hubs, both the activity within the hub and between hubs. One reason for this is infrastructure: the French Enlightenment, for instance, is radically different from the Scottish Enlightenment, and much of the reason is the different role both educational institutions and churches play in each. A further issue is the abstraction from chronology and historical events; many of the things we associate with the Enlightenment period arise fairly late due to, e.g., educational reforms following from interest in Rousseau; the American and French Revolutions are historical events that leave their mark very clearly on the history of the period; much Enlightenment thought spreads due to specific actions by governments; and so forth. All of this is important.

* The BBC has an interview from its archives with J. R. R. Tolkien.

* There is a European region whose dominant religion is Tibetan Buddhism. The Head of Kalmykia, Kirsan Nikolayevich Ilyumzhinov, is apparently one odd politician, who is obsessed with chess (making it a compulsory subject in school) and believes he was abducted by aliens once.

* Roger Pearse has a good post on the cliche, often uncritically bandied about, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I've criticized it myself before and said that it is gibberish that has the function of furthering intellectual laziness: when you try unpack the meaning of both 'extraordinary claims' and 'extraordinary evidence' you find that the only plausible ways of doing so leave you with principles that are either obviously false or only true given highly controversial assumptions. Its plausibility is entirely a matter of its rhetorical parallelism -- there is literally no substance to it beyond that.

* AS Byatt says, in response to a question about religious belief, "I think Wallace Stevens is my religion," which is about as pretentious as I would have expected her response to be: her abiding sin, in which her books are steeped, lies in a capacity for expression that is too clever by half and too clumsy by far. But she actually says some interesting things in the interview, especially when she starts getting excited as to possible future avenues for novels.

* A good post on homology and analogy by John Wilkins. Some of the commenters note some weaknesses with the abstract algebra, but since we in philosophy have a Manifest Destiny to mangle as we please, and I think the primary interest in the post is not in the finer details but the overall approach, I regard this as a minor matter. This is the sort of thing that needs to be done; that it's still at draft stage doesn't change that. Mathematicians only reach dianoia on the Divided Line, anyway. (^_~)

* Speaking of which last, I think Japanese-style emoticons (both kao-moji proper and the more general 'anime' emoticons derived from them) should be more common; they are so much more expressive than Western-style emoticons.

* Isaac Bonewits, the founder of the Ár nDraíocht Féin, one of the major Neo-Druid organizations, died recently; the ADF has some interesting YouTube videos excerpting eulogies from the memorial service.

* JavOICe: this is a quite interesting Java applet in which you can draw sounds.

* Daniel Fincke has the 113th Philosopher's Carnival at "Camels with Hammers". I think this carnival is one of the more interesting collections of posts in recent times; Daniel is to be congratulated on the work of putting it together.

* Kenny Pearce has been blogging on various points that arise in reading Sobel's Logic and Theism, which I've recommended before as probably the best discussion of theistic arguments from an atheistic perspective that is currently available. So far the posts are:
Sobel's Logic and Theism
Divine Freedom and Worship
Normative Skepticism and the Existence of God
The Dialectical Appropriateness of Ontological Arguments
Sobel's Argument Against Believing in the Possibility of a Perfect Being
A Genuine Dialectical Problem for Ontological Arguments

* Enbrethiliel has a post on theology of the body, at least as commonly understood; fairly harsh and not very wrong, I think.

* Ed Feser discusses Thelonius Monk.

* The beauty of Google: A very long time ago, in elementary school, I remember reading a short story about unicorns. I don't remember the story itself, but I remember very vividly that a character in it was thinking about what to call a group of unicorns -- a word like 'herd' not really doing justice to them -- and settled on 'surprise': a surprise of unicorns. That has always stuck with me, since it's just exactly right, but I hadn't the faintest idea where it comes from. So I googled the phrase "surprise of unicorns" and it came up: "The Boy Who Drew Unicorns" by Jane Yolen, in The Unicorn Treasury.

Eartha Makes It Sound So Nice

I always start my ethics course with the question "Why be moral rather than not?", having the students read selections from Plato's Republic. My class this term didn't manage a very enthusiastic or exciting answer to that question, so I told them today that this was their theme song, and the song that would come to my mind every time I thought of them.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

I Mine Own Prison

The Thread of Life
by Christina Rossetti


The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me: —
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand? —
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seemed not so far to seek
And all the world and I seemed much less cold,
And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong and life itself not weak.


Thus am I mine own prison. Everything
Around me free and sunny and at ease:
Or if in shadow, in a shade of trees
Which the sun kisses, where the gay birds sing
And where all winds make various murmuring;
Where bees are found, with honey for the bees;
Where sounds are music, and where silences
Are music of an unlike fashioning.
Then gaze I at the merrymaking crew,
And smile a moment and a moment sigh
Thinking: Why can I not rejoice with you?
But soon I put the foolish fancy by:
I am not what I have nor what I do;
But what I was I am, I am even I.


Therefore myself is that one only thing
I hold to use or waste, to keep or give;
My sole possession every day I live,
And still mine own despite Time's winnowing.
Ever mine own, while moons and seasons bring
From crudeness ripeness mellow and sanitive;
Ever mine own, till Death shall ply his sieve;
And still mine own, when saints break grave and sing.
And this myself as king unto my King
I give, to Him Who gave Himself for me;
Who gives Himself to me, and bids me sing
A sweet new song of His redeemed set free;
he bids me sing: O death, where is thy sting?
And sing: O grave, where is thy victory?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Three Poem Re-drafts and a New Poem Draft


Farther shores I know than this,
visions vivid like the morrow;
holy heaven, everlightened,
sends its mercy, masters sorrow.
I wish anew on falling stars;
those leaping lights in dance display
a dream of powers pouring down
like righteous ruin of the day.
Rue no more the pastward lesson,
harbor here in love alone;
that castle-keep and quiet eyrie
is blessed upon a saving stone.

The Lady of the Garden

This garden bears the vestiges
of Our Lady of the Rains,
baptized from conception,
gentle Mary without a stain,
never without redeeming grace
from God made flesh and slain.
All are nourished by the praying tears
she beneath the cross did cry:
you are a flower in this garden
and beneath the trees grow I;
yea, the roses grow in splendor here
where their blooms will never die.

Ghost Dance

On Milky Way in velvet skies
now walk the souls that lived and died;
it bears them to the earth below,
to starlit mountains crowned with snow.
Christ has sent the winds of peace!
He bade the war and violence cease;
he brings to morning living rain
and brings the bison to the plain,
He bears the dead to earth below,
from evening stars to crowns of snow.
But feel the darkness in the land!
Such venom in the heart of man!
How will the serpent treat the dove,
the bearer of these songs of love?
The prophet dances, agents lie,
in battlefields the people die
with bullets in their hearts and hands,
their blood poured out to wet the lands;
from mountains crowned with shining snow
their spirits flee this earth below.

A prophet once was crucified
and on the tree he bled and died
as jeers beneath the bloody cross
were mocking him for pain and loss.
He was the Christ; the Roman lance
had pierced him for his spirit dance.
There was a people, proud and tall,
with sun-like mien and worthy all;
for dancing in the winter snow
to bring the spirits here below
they fell beneath the flaming guns,
both score by score and one by one.

What thing may live may also die.
What heart may laugh may also cry.
But those who die may also rise
beneath the starlight in the skies
and hunt and dance and play the games
to which their fathers gave the names.
Thus Christ upon a path of light
will come again some starlit night
to bring the dead to earth below
for spirit dances in the snow.

Darkest Hour

O darkest hour!
You come on me with mounting power I cannot flee!
I have lived well nigh ten thousand years --
but I will die in battle here.
I was born so very long ago my mountained thoughts are crowned with snow;
I was flowered bright in a garden fair beyond the light of the morning air.
The way was long through those endless years;
but I sang my songs and I felt no fear.

And I loved and laughed,
and I felt my way along my path through both night and day.
O! how many thoughts through the mind may run,
and memories caught through those long setting suns?
Though the sun should diminish and time should fail,
my song could not finish the tales I could tell.

But darkest hour!
You come on me with a mounting power I cannot flee.
I have lived well nigh ten thousand years,
but I shall die in battle here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

On Van Inwagen on Burden of Proof

I recently picked up Peter van Inwagen's The Problem of Evil, which I hadn't had a chance to read in full before. I can't say I'm very impressed with it; much of the argument seems to me to be fairly bad and, in some places, almost perverse. I may have a few posts about things I think are problematic with the argument, if I have time. But I wanted to put something up about the notion of 'burden of proof' that van Inwagen makes use of at one point. He says (p. 46):
Where does the burden of proof lie in a philosophical debate? In a debate of the type we are imagining, the answer is clear--in fact, trivial. The burden of proof lies on the person who's trying to prove something to someone. If Norma is trying to turn agnostics into nominalists, she is the one who is trying to prove something to someone: she's trying to prove to the agnostics that there are no universals, or at least that it's more reasonable than not to believe that there are no universals....So, trivially, in the case we are imagining, the burden of proof lies on the nominalist.

I've come across this before, and it has an initial plausibility, but in the end it just won't do. For one thing, while verbally it may sound very reasonable that that person has the burden of proof who is trying to prove, it is not so trivial as van Inwagen is trying to make it out to be. It doesn't seem that if you have two examples of a rational debate, both involving Tom, who in each case is giving the same arguments, that in the one debate Tom can have the burden of proof because he is trying to prove a claim to someone and that in the other debate he doesn't because he is doing something different, e.g., putting forward the arguments as suggestions, even if he also thinks that they form a proof. If we put emphasis on trying to prove, we leave room for the principle of double effect: and whenever the principle of double effect can be applied that means that something essential depends purely on intention. But in a debate we aren't always trying to prove anything to someone; often we are simply voicing objections, or insisting on the importance of this or that argument, or, indeed, playing the devil's advocate (and when we really play the devil's advocate, proving to someone what we are arguing for is the very last thing we want to do). But people can and do speak about burden of proof in these contexts. In a court of law, whence the concept of 'burden of proof' originates, it's simply irrelevant whether anyone's trying to prove something or not; the burden of proof is fixed universally by an external set of rules, and it doesn't matter what you are trying to do.

OK, so perhaps the point is not, "Trivially, whenever you have the burden of proof you are trying to prove something to someone," but rather "Trivially, whenever you are trying to prove something to someone, you have the burden of proof." But this doesn't seem to work, either. For one thing, in the courtroom, again, it doesn't matter what you are trying to do: the burden of proof is fixed independently of anything you are trying to do. A lawyer could try to prove something for which he has no burden of proof: for instance, he might be incompetent, and not properly understand what he must prove, and so is trying to prove something entirely different. He might not even have any burden of proof at all, and is just laboriously trying to prove something that he simply doesn't have to prove. Burden of proof in the law, again, is fixed by an external standard and is assigned by role; what you are trying to do is just not to the point. But even outside the court, in ordinary debate, we can arbitrarily agree to reassign the burden of proof, and this serves much the same role.

Moreover, this would often make the burden symmetrical, because both people can be trying to prove their mutually exclusive view. Van Inwagen recognizes this and dismisses it for no good reason that I can see:

You will see that I have imagined our ideal debate as based on a certain division of labor or, better, a certain principle of dialectical organization. I have not imagined a nominalist and a realist as simultaneously attempting to convert the audience to their respective positions. That way dialectical anarchy. I am really imagining two debates, or imagining that each side in the gets what might be called its innings.

No doubt some debates are structured in this way, but it seems implausible that all of them must be, on pain of 'dialectical anarchy'. When Socrates 'wins' a debate in Plato or Xenophon he often does so not by scoring more points during his innings but, so to speak, by moving his opponents' points from their name to his on the scoreboard: their own arguments become arguments for Socrates's position. In the Gorgias, for instance, there are things that could be seen as 'innings', but the intent to convert (if possible) the audience can be attributed to all parties simultaneously. There is no real way to split it up in this idealized manner without losing something important. And this is not dialectical anarchy; it's just a debate.

So the trivial truth seems not-so-trivial, and, indeed, is at least arguably false.

Now, van Inwagen does notice what often completely slips by most people, namely, that there are crucial ways in which 'burden of proof' cannot work in exactly the same way in courts of law and in other debates; the way he puts it (pp. 158-159 n. 2), in court the rule for burden of proof rests on moral considerations and in other cases it does not. I'm not wholly sure that the rule for burden of proof rests on moral considerations unless we are using 'moral' in a very broad sense, but we can pass that by. What sets the burden of proof in a debate in which moral considerations are not the source of the rule? Van Inwagen says that A will have the burden of proof rather than T when it is A and not T "whose job it is to change someone's beliefs."

But if we are setting aside moral considerations, what makes it anyone's 'job' to change someone's beliefs? 'Burden of proof' is a normative notion; if it is not normative for moral reasons, however, it seems it would have to be normative as a matter of politeness (assuming we haven't included that in 'moral') or as a matter of practical strategy or as a matter of positive fiat (e.g., because we simply agreed that it is a given person's job). The first seems to be ruled out because we don't ever seem to insist that someone has the burden of proof because it's rude if they don't try to prove something. We will sometimes think a person is being rude if they have the burden of proof and don't bother, of course; but the direction in those cases goes the wrong way for explaining why someone has the burden of proof at all. Moreover, it's difficult to think of ways in which one would be rude simply by failing to try to prove something. So let's set that aside. That leaves practical strategy, in which you have the burden of proof because of some particular thing that you are trying to do. Van Inwagen's suggestion is a particular example of this. But the same problems arise that we noted before; for instance, one may be trying to do any number of things, and it will be hard to say what they are without knowing your intention well, and that means that in many cases where we would obviously say that there is a burden of proof, there isn't, because someone is really trying to do something else entirely, despite appearances. And even if we both agree that I should have the burden of proof for now, this wouldn't guarantee that you have the burden of proof as a matter of practical strategy: it could be your strategy is not to prove but something that leads you to make promises to try to prove without actually ever intending to do so. We could generalize and say that what really matters is what a reasonable and impartial spectator would judge, but that just raises the question again: what makes it so that the impartial spectator would say that it's A's job to change someone's belief (and can the impartial spectator say that it's so even if A doesn't have any interest in changing anyone's belief?). And that leaves the third option, which is that whether or not it is someone's job is simply posited -- e.g., by agreement. This is actually my own view, that burden of proof is assigned either by an external positive authority (as in the case of the law) or by a sort of contract among the parties involved. But it puts us pretty far from any situation in which van Inwagen wants to use the concept.

It's possible, of course, that there is some fourth option, but, whatever it may be, it would be different from van Inwagen's claim, which fell under option two, practical strategy. Practical strategy is a better ground for an account of burden of proof than the more common candidate, which is just the analogy with the court of law. But it still is not so obvious or straightforward as van Inwagen thinks.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hutcheson on Moral Differences

'Tis our reason which presents a false notion or species to our moral faculty....We sometimes chuse and like, in point of interest, what is in event detrimental to ourselves. No man thence concludes that we are not uniform in self-love or liking of our own interest. Nor do like mistakes about the moral qualities of actions prove either that we have no moral sense, or that it is not uniformly constituted.

Francis Hutcheson, System of Moral Philosophy I.5.v. Hutcheson's own preferred explanation for moral differences is threefold: (1) Ignorance about what actually tends to public happiness as a consequence; (2) Narrow focus on a particular subgroup of humanity rather than taking an enlarged and truly human view; and (3) Differences of opinion about the objects of divine commands.