Friday, December 10, 2010

Linklets for Thinklings

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

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

* Hasok Chang, The Hidden History of Phlogiston

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

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

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Last Day of Term

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

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

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Poem Draft

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

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

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Cogito Ergo Sum XIV

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

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

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

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

Polyander. All of this is quite true.

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

Beam on Our Bewilder'd Mind

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

by John Henry Newman

Æterne rerum conditor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pardon II

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

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

Monday, December 06, 2010

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Cogito Ergo Sum XIII

Descartes, Principles of Philosophy I, 7:

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

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Farrell on ID and Catholic Thought

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