Saturday, April 30, 2011

On Hume's Full Definition of Miracles

I don't know if it's ever been noticed how Hume's definition of miracle (SBN 115) is linkable to Malebranche. In a footnote to the Essay on Miracles he says:

A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.

This is usually passed over without much comment, but the wording is significant, I think, since it seems carefully formulated in terms reminiscent of the dispute between Malebranche and Arnauld. Hume was certainly acquainted with at least the basic outlines of the dispute between the two -- when he had lived in France he had read all the French philosophy he could get his hands on, and the Malebranche-Arnauld dispute was one of the most significant philosophical events of the late seventeenth century. That dispute was enormously wide-ranging, but one of the major issues was how God's providence achieves particular effects.

Malebranche had argued, for essentially Trinitarian reasons, that God does all things according to Order, and thus by willing general laws and, what is more, those general laws that are most suitable to divine "simplicity of ways". As he says at one point (OC 3:215; LO 663), "God does not multiply his volitions without reason; He always acts in the simplest ways." This raised the question (and Arnauld raised it very vehemently) of how it is that God can work miracles, which seem to deviate from general laws and to introduce complexities into God's actions. Malebranche's response to this through time doesn't seem entirely consistent, but at one point he argued that God will on occasion engage in particular volitions, if by doing so He can more perfectly express His divine attributes. He insists (OC 8:661) that such particular volitions are very rare. Arnauld responds, at various poitns in the discussion, that this position either makes miracles impossible or is entirely arbitrary, making exceptions it cannot in principle allow.

However, Malebranche also has another account of miracles that shows up in other passages (e.g., the Dialogues) that miracles are actually not, in a proper sense, violations of divine laws, but simply the expression of higher-order laws given occasional causes. So in other words, he also has an account of miracles in which miracles are entirely regular events, but they are governed not by laws of nature but by some other kind of law (e.g., moral laws, or laws of grace); God wills these laws, which are still perfectly general; but they govern particular agents who do not always act. When a certain kind of agent (say, Adam in the state of original justice, an angel, or Jesus Christ) does a certain kind of thing, the law, so to speak, kicks in and, by force of the divine will (which establishes all laws of cause and effect), the miraculous effect follows. In such a case the agent in question is an occasional cause of the miracle, the occasion on which God's efficacy in willing a law makes the effect to happen.

All the above is fairly crude as a summary of a complicated set of discussions, but it gives the basic gist of the positions. We find in Malebranche, then, the materials for two distinct accounts of miracles: a particularist account, in which God directly wills a particular exception to general law by a 'particular volition'; and an occasionalist account, in which God wills a general law that, on particular occasions, results in the miraculous effect. It can hardly be coincidence that both of these show up in Hume's 'accurate definition'. On both accounts, miracles are violations of laws of nature. (On the occasionalist account, miracles are themselves results of laws, of course, but they are the results of laws higher and more closely connected to the divine ends than the laws of nature.) Hume's definition seems to be carefully formulated to allow for both particularist and occasionalist accounts of miracles; both are found in Malebranche; and Hume was an extensive reader of Malebranche.

I'm not sure how this affects the overall interpretation of the essay; but it is an interesting link between Hume's essay and prior discussions of miracles.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Humean Platonist

The most perfect happiness, surely, must arise from the contemplation of the most perfect object. But what more perfect than beauty and virtue? And where is beauty to be found equal to that of the universe? Or virtue, which can be compared to the benevolence and justice of the Deity? If aught can diminish the pleasure of this contemplation, it must be either the narrowness of our faculties, which conceals from us the greatest part of these beauties and perfections; or the shortness of our lives, which allows not time sufficient to instruct us in them. But it is our comfort, that, if we employ worthily the faculties here assigned us, they will be enlarged in another state of existence, so as to render us more suitable worshippers of our maker: And that the task, which can never be finished in time, will be the business of an eternity.
[David Hume, "The Platonist," Essays Moral, Political, and Literary.]

Hume's "The Platonist" is one of a quartet, the other three essays being "The Epicurean," "The Stoic," and "The Sceptic." They are really masterworks, probably Hume's most brilliant essays, but it has always been somewhat difficult to pin down what Hume is doing in them. The genre is easy enough to figure out: they are each philosophical sketches, from a distinct philosophical point of view. It also seems clear enough that the fundamental object of each essay is to describe human happiness as it appears from that philosophical perspective. None of the four gives Hume's own view, in any straightforward way; comparing the essays to Hume's other works shows that each has affinities with some things Hume says elsewhere, and that each says things that are hard to square with things Hume says elsewhere. (You might, for instance, assume that the Sceptic's view is simply identical with Hume's, but on one point in the essay itself Hume actually criticizes a point in the Sceptic's argument in a footnote.) They aren't historical essays, since the viewpoint given in each has only a loose family resemblance to the historical schools of thought that give them their titles. We have to use a lot of guesswork to make sense of the four as a unit, but my suggestion, very rough and somewhat speculative, would be:

(1) Each of the essays describes a view of human happiness that Hume thinks naturally arises among human beings.
(2) The particular formulation given of each account of happiness seems to be one to which Hume is at least sympathetic. Obviously the sceptical account is the one with which Hume has the most sympathy (it is massively longer than any of the other three), and the 'platonic' account is the one with which he has the least (which is arguably why it is noticeably shorter than the others). But they are all formulated in such a way that any true Humean can see the force and appeal of each.
(3) Thus the essays together compose a sort of indirect argument. These are the best formulations of four natural tendencies in how we think of happiness. They are not completely consistent, but they are not wholly inconsistent, either. The best account of human happiness will be the one that does the most justice to each of these tendencies.
(4) All four essays circle around the question of how much of human happiness is due to nature and how much is due to human artifice, and this is where they diverge most sharply. The Epicurean insists that true happiness can only flow from nature; the Stoic insists that it depends on human art giving shape to nature; the Platonist insists that happiness is received from without, and that we attain to perfect happiness by rational of contemplation what is perfect; the Sceptic insists that it is experienced within and that we cannot therefore expect to attain to any perfect happiness, happiness owing at least as much to fortune as to reason. Closer study of this is what's really necessary to improve our understanding of the quartet.
(5) The footnote to "The Sceptic," mentioned above, seems also to be important, and its ending may well be the main thrust of the essays as a group:

Assist yourself by a frequent perusal of the entertaining moralists: Have recourse to the learning of PLUTARCH, the imagination of LUCIAN, the eloquence of CICERO, the wit of SENECA, the gaiety of MONTAIGNE, the sublimity of SHAFTESBURY. Moral precepts, so couched, strike deep, and fortify the mind against the illusions of passion. But trust not altogether to external aid: By habit and study acquire that philosophical temper which both gives force to reflection, and by rendering a great part of your happiness independent, takes off the edge from all disorderly passions, and tranquillizes the mind. Despise not these helps; but confide not too much in them neither; unless nature has been favourable in the temper, with which she has endowed you.

If we should take this, as is, to be Hume's point, then the essays are an argument for what might be called sceptical moral eclecticism: proceeding cautiously, nonetheless one should draw on the full panoply of moral authors (note that, for instance, Plutarch is a Platonist, and that Seneca is a Stoic), but without taking any of them to be the key to happiness. This is also something that would bear further study.
(6) Another point that needs to be studied more closely in the future: the Stoic answers the Epicurean, the Platonist responds to both (dismissing both of their ideals), and the Sceptic responds to all three. Is the quartet seen as a sort of progress toward skepticism? Or is there something else going on with this structure?

So do we find in Hume's Platonist? He gives one of Hume's several formulations of an argument from design; he puts considerable emphasis on beauty; and he insists on philosophical humility before the greatness of the universe. All three of these are things with which Hume has a provable sympathy. But the Platonist, of course, is not a skeptic, and Hume is, and this makes a big difference otherwise.

Catherine Benincasa

Today is the Feast of St. Catherine Benincasa of Siena (1347-1380), Doctor of the Church. The following is Giovanni di Paolo's The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena.

Her two major contributions to theology, for which she was given the liturgical honor of being called Doctor of the Church (one of three women who currently have it), are her letters and The Dialogue of Divine Providence, an account of her visions of Christ. From the latter:

No one born passes this life without pain, bodily or mental. Bodily pain My servants bear, but their minds are free, that is, they do not feel the weariness of the pain; for their will is accorded with Mine, and it is the will that gives trouble to man. Pain of mind and of body have those, of whom I have narrated to you, who, in this life, taste the earnest money of hell, as My servants taste the earnest money of eternal life. Do you know what is the special good of the blessed ones? It is having their desire filled with what they desire; wherefore desiring Me, they have Me, and taste Me without any revolt, for they have left the burden of the body, which was a law that opposed the spirit, and came between it and the perfect knowledge of the Truth, preventing it from seeing Me face to face.

From a letter to Sano di Maco:

We have absolute need of the gift of fortitude, for we are besieged by many foes. The world, with its delights and deceits; the devil, with many vexing temptations, who lights upon the lips of men, making them say insulting and critical things, and who often makes us lose our worldly goods—and this he does solely to recall us from devoted charity to our neighbour; the flesh, astir in our own senses, seeking to war against the spirit. Yes, truly, all these foes of ours have besieged us; yet we need feel no servile fear, because they are discomfited through the Blood of the Spotless Lamb. We ought bravely to reply to the world and resist it, disparaging its delights and honours, judging it to have in itself no abiding stability whatever. It shows us long life, with youth a-blossom and great riches; and they are all seen to be vanity, since from life we come to death, from youth to age, from wealth to poverty; and thus we are always running toward the goal of death. Therefore we need to open the eye of the mind, to see how miserable he is who trusts in the world. In this wise one will come to despise and hate what first he loved. To the wiles of the devil we can reply manfully, seeing his weakness; for he can conquer no one who does not wish to be conquered. One can reply to him then with lively faith and hope, and with holy hatred of one's self. For in such hate one will become patient toward every tempting vexation and tribulation of the world, and will bear these things with true patience, from what side soever they come, if one shall hate one's own fleshliness and love to abide on the Cross with Christ crucified.

She was a reformer by nature, trying to heal the Western Schism, make peace among Italian cities, and correct the abuses of the clergy of her day. In her lifetime she corresponded with Popes and kings, and was never afraid to tell them when she thought they were doing something wrong; they often listened. She is, with Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hume on Moral Beauty

Some species of beauty, especially the natural kinds, on their first appearance, command our affection and approbation; and where they fail of this effect, it is impossible for any reasoning to redress their influence, or adapt them better to our taste and sentiment. But in many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning, in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflection. There are just grounds to conclude, that moral beauty partakes much of this latter species, and demands the assistance of our intellectual faculties, in order to give it a suitable influence on the human mind.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section I.

Three Poem Re-Drafts

The Harp and the Vine

You ask, and I wonder,
but I still know my mind;
here in the garden the columbine
spirals and curls, begging for rain,
and your words like the thunder
echo from clouds;
I know your pain, but I am proud,
and here in the garden the rosy thorn
still mocks me,
filled with fitting scorn.
You ask, but the iris will pay you no mind
as the wind starts to hum
through the harp and the vine.

Seneca Ponders Death

The dead within the tomb is laid,
the final rites are brought to close,
the eyes no more behold the day,
are shut in endless night's repose.

Can hint be found of more to life,
or is that but a passing tale?
What worth is it to leave this light
when on that threshold life will fail?

What morning sunlight, morrow's morn,
will shatter sky in reddening dawn,
what sunset scatter drops forlorn
on all that Ocean holds in bond?

Like smoke that curls from smoldered coal,
like cloud before the forceful wind,
our vital life will upward roll
and pass, and fade, and come to end.

It all will, like the sons of Time,
be snatched and eaten straight away.
Thus swiftly speed the stars sublime,
as swiftly moonlight flees the day.

In frenzied minds we cities build
of torment, shade, and ceaseless hells;
are not these rumors fear has filled,
depictions born of nightmare fell?

When laid are we in fatal tomb,
who of our spirit's fate is sure?
Perhaps no shade will be our doom:--
Ask those who never lived nor were.

The Narcissist

So fair is his existence,
no eye resists;
a third of heaven would turn traitor
and give up bliss
for but the lying promise
of his kiss.

The Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.
All creation and his smile
show it.

His beauty is so great,
his style so nice;
his smile sparkles so,
like starlit ice,
that God might die to make him --
were that the price.

Yes, the Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.
Would to God he had the grace
not to show it.

He sits up in the airs,
face like a god,
devoid of heartfelt cares!
But it is odd
how frozen he is there
with ruler's rod.

Yes, the Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.
His actions are so eager
to disclose it!

His beauty has no match.
No equal vies
to rival the mighty light
with which he lies;
it is so easy, and so simple,
to despise,
for he lifts himself up higher
than the skies.

The Devil is a lovely creature --
and he knows it.
All creation and his mirror
show it.

Dante in Heaven

The Divine Comedy is such an epic poem we tend to forget the details of its setting, treating it as in some way timeless. In fact, the three parts of the Comedy have a definite timeframe: at the beginning of the Inferno it is the evening of Thursday of Holy Week in the year 1300 (the full moon is shining in the constellation Libra, the sun in Aries), at the beginning of the Purgatorio it is the morning of Easter Sunday (he says that Venus was in Pisces, but this seems to be speaking a bit loosely, since Venus wasn't quite yet in Pisces, although it would be at the same time the next year; the moon is in Scorpio), and at the end of the Paradiso it is the Thursday after Easter (when he reaches the sphere of Saturn, he notes that Saturn is in Leo). The longest possible journey, from Hell to Heaven, in one week. Thus this seems fitting:

(as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

O how all speech is feeble and falls short
Of my conceit, and this to what I saw
Is such, 'tis not enough to call it little!

O Light Eterne, sole in thyself that dwellest,
Sole knowest thyself, and, known unto thyself
And knowing, lovest and smilest on thyself!

That circulation, which being thus conceived
Appeared in thee as a reflected light,
When somewhat contemplated by mine eyes,

Within itself, of its own very colour
Seemed to me painted with our effigy,
Wherefore my sight was all absorbed therein.

As the geometrician, who endeavours
To square the circle, and discovers not,
By taking thought, the principle he wants,

Even such was I at that new apparition;
I wished to see how the image to the circle
Conformed itself, and how it there finds place;

But my own wings were not enough for this,
Had it not been that then my mind there smote
A flash of lightning, wherein came its wish.

Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Notes and Links

* Gabriel McKee ranks Phillip K. Dick film adaptations. Paycheck was much stronger, and The Minority Report somewhat weaker, than McKee suggests, I think.

* A blog devoted to the School of Salamanca.

* The cause for the beatification of Paul Xu Guangqi has been officially opened (ht). He was one of Matteo Ricci's most important converts, and certainly his most important collaborator, and is called one of the Three Pillars of Chinese Catholicism.

* John Wilkins has some interesting criticisms of some recent remarks by the Pope on evolution; they are well worth reading. I'm not sure the Pope need be read as taking a position quite as strong as John takes him to be taking, but I'm also not sure that this would blunt the force of the main criticism, either. I think part of the difference here is that Benedict XVI is very decidedly Augustinian in approach, whereas John favors more thoroughly Thomistic approaches (at least if you're going to head in anything like that direction at all). Given my own inclinations it's not surprising that I think he's pretty much right, even though I would quibble about some details in the stating of it.

He does come close to one of my pet peeves by saying that Aquinas has a design argument for the existence of God, but in this context we're talking in a very broad way and have very few convenient labels for what we're talking about -- Lewis Ezra Hicks argued for a eutaxiological/teleological distinction, and you can look around and see how successful he was at getting people to recognize that the most the two had in common was a very loose family resemblance. But there are functions that can be served by either, as well as by certain other kinds of arguments, and we have absolutely no convenient terms to talk about this functionality that can be fulfilled by different kinds of arguments (a common problem, and one that historians of philosophy should take more seriously), so 'design argument' works as well as anything, as long as you read him closely and don't import too much baggage into the label. [On this, see comments.]

* Brendan O'Neill has some doubts about Grayling's recent secular humanist Bible. Actually, the basic criticism seems to me to generalize easily to pretty much all of Grayling's nontechnical work (which is a pretty significant portion of his work):

By wrenching a few nuggets of wisdom from Aristotle’s Metaphysics or Mill’s On Liberty, he has reduced these and other thinkers to Deepak Chopra-style providers of happy-clappy advice for how to live a decent, upstanding life. Their intellectual tussling with the headache-inducing question of what it means to be human, to be conscious, to be moral, is elbowed aside in favour of culling a few lines of insight that might help people decide what to do on a particularly troublesome Tuesday morning or when faced with a workplace/relationship dilemma.

Part of the problem is that Grayling likes to think of himself as a good philosophical popularizer and daring freethinker, when in fact he is a very inconsistent, and mostly mediocre, philosophical popularizer whom people like because he is so bourgeois and bland, like them, harmlessly liberalish with a little soupcon of learned allusion. You have only to set Grayling's philosophical popularizing next to, say, Russell's in order to see the difference between the two, especially when you consider the different climates in which they operate. This new venture, from which you can read excerpts online, in which selections of Grayling's fave passages are removed from context and blended together in ersatz and pretentious pastiche, a mash-up, in fact, is just Grayling taking this difference from Russell to the point of self-parody.

* Thomas Fink famously did a mathematical analysis identifying 85 ways to tie a tie; his tie knot page is worth reading. One set of knots I don't see on the list -- although not having gone thoroughly through each one it's possible I simply missed them, is the family of tie knots in which the knot itself is actually backward: the Ediety or Atlantic knot is the most famous of these, although one sometimes sees the Eldredge as well. (The Shak Knot proposed here is essentially another variation on the theme, as the author notes.) These are interesting knots; they can sometimes be tricky to tie but, because the knot has much more texture than normal, they can also look quite interesting. They are also becoming much more popular, under the name Merovingian, although from what I've seen this tends to be used of several different knots of the same family. (The name Merovingian has become popular because the character of that name in the Matrix movies wore one; the underworld believer in underlying determinism having, appropriately, a necktie whose knot puts what usually is the underside in front.)

On rare occasions when I wear a tie, my preferred knot is the Shelby.

* Arsen Darnay discusses the calculation by hand of fractional and decimal exponents at "La Marotte".

* The USCCB Committee on Doctrine is putting together a conference on the title, "Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization"; the applications are due May 15. I can already tell you one of the intellectual tasks of the New Evangelization: to stop making the mistake, which this conference is making, of assuming that only those in theology and religious studies departments are suited for the task, or even that they are necessarily well-equipped or well-situated for it at all. As Ratzinger once said on this very question, "Everyone needs the Gospel; the Gospel is destined to all and not only to a specific circle and this is why we are obliged to look for new ways of bringing the Gospel to all." The New Evangelization, by definition, is a task for the whole Church; and theologians are not the only intellectuals in the Church. It is very difficult to see how a small circle of academics in one academic field stand any chance of fulfilling or even identifying all the intellectual tasks that such a project with such an aim requires. In other words: no doubt they have something to contribute, but there's no reason to think that people in theology departments even know what many of the intellectual tasks of the New Evangelization are.

* Russell Nieli has a good post at "Public Discourse" on Hume's essay on polygamy and divorce.

Hume and the Miracle of the Thorn

Hume doesn't, of course, discuss the Miracle of the Sun, since the events at Fatima occurred long after his time. But he does discuss another famous modern miracle event, that of the Holy Thorn, in a footnote added to the essay on miracles in 1750.

On March 24, 1656, a ten-year-old girl named Marguerite Périer, who was living at Port-Royal-des-Champs, who was suffering from a lachrymal fistula was given the privilege of having a relic, supposedly a thorn from Christ's crown of thorns, touched to her sore. Within a day the problem, thought to have been incurable, was gone. On April 14, several surgeons and physicians signed a certificate attesting that the cure was beyond natural means and ecclesiastical inquiry began.

The event was a breath of life for the Jansenists, Port-Royal being the center of their movement. The Jesuits had been denouncing their position very harshly and had been increasingly winning an audience, the royal court had begun to press them heavily, and Antoine Arnauld, their primary representative and defender, had been censured. With the Miracle of the Holy Thorn, however, all this changed; the Jesuits continued to denounce, but the miracle became very popular and raised the Jansensists in the estimation of the people. The royal court pulled back from its pressure, at least for a while. And the uncle of Marguerite Périer, who had already been pro-Jansenist and had published an anti-Jesuit work just six months before, was motivated by the event to even more intense efforts on behalf of the Jansenists; his name was Blaise Pascal. It was taken by the Jansenists as a sign of divine favor, and was the first in a long line of Holy Thorn and other miracles to which the Jansenists would point.

It was also probably the beginning of the destruction of Jansenism; it led the Jansenists to look for miracles, and the miracles claimed by the Jansenists became more and more extreme and disruptive until eventually the full force of Church and State were brought against them. The nuns at Port-Royal themselves, from the beginning, had wisely taken a very cautious stance to all the purported miracles; but outside Port-Royal, things built up slowly to the point of people undergoing convulsions at the tomb of the Abbé Paris from 1727-1732. Once the Jansenists claimed the Miracle of the Thorn as a sign of divine favor, they had also escalated the pitch of their argument with the Jesuits to its highest possible point: the Jesuits had no alternatives save to concede or to work to bring the full force of condemnation against the Jansenists. And the Jesuits were not exactly the conceding type.

Hume, who had spent time at the Jesuit center of La Flèche while writing the Treatise, no doubt read up on the whole situation with interest, and probably took a rather ironic delight in it all: some of the more extreme Jesuits at one point had begun to argue, on grounds startling like those of Protestants rejecting miracles of the saints, that after the miracles of the Gospels there was simply no need for any miracles anymore. Neither Hume's Calvinist readers nor most Catholics of Hume's day would have accepted the Jansenist miracles, which had begun to be labeled with that ultimate insult of the eighteenth century, enthusiasm. But the Jansenist miracles have a number of features that would make them fare better than most other attestations to miracles would: many, many witnesses, fairly recent, occurring in a civilized country, etc. Thus the Miracle of the Holy Thorn, precisely because of the quality of its attestation, becomes part of Hume's argument that we can never believe a religious miracle on testimony.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Incalculably Diffusive Processes

A nice bit by Simon Blackburn:

Incalculably diffusive processes are real enough. Education is one of them. Sending a book or an idea into the marketplace may be the datable beginning of a diffusive process, but then there may be no datable end product. William Shakespeare's works diffuse after more than four centuries; Hume's after three. Their works are tributaries into the vast stream of thoughts and ideas and writings and political changes that made the modern world. But nobody can calculate the effect that just one work had, any more than they can calculate just how much of the growth of a flower, or how much of its beauty, was the result of any one raindrop falling on any one day. Yet nobody doubts that rain makes the garden grow. It is an incalculably diffusive process.

Hume and the Miracle of the Sun

Paul Warwick has an essay in Philosophy Now on Hume's argument against believing religious miracles on testimony, which is fairly nice, and which I found interesting because I just finished teaching the essay yesterday. Two thoughts.

(1) Warwick summarizes Hume's essay in this way:

In Hume’s ‘Of Miracles’ in Section X of his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he sets out what he considers a decisive case to show that we are not justified in believing in miracles. Beginning with the proposition that we should proportion our belief in accordance with the strength of the available evidence, Hume observes that the sole evidence most of us ever have for any miracle is usually that of the testimony of others. But hearsay is not particularily strong evidence. He goes on to conclude that the testimony in favour of a miracle can never balance, let alone outweigh, the evidence against it, especially when it contravenes accepted natural law.

However, this is not really quite right. First, Hume explicitly allows that testimony in favor of a miracle can outweigh the evidence against it, although he doesn't think it has actually happened. He proposes an example of eight days of darkness, witnessed by many reputable historians independently writing from many parts of the world, as such a case; in part because while the eight days of darkness are not the sort of thing we find in our experience, they are fairly analogous to things we do find in our experience, and in part because it's hard to see how there could be interfering passions biasing the reporters, especially given that we have concurrence that can't be conspiratorial. Hume explicitly qualifies his claims by saying that he only has religious miracles in view.

Further, I don't think it's actually true that Hume thinks hearsay is necessarily weak; for Hume testimony is evaluated insofar as it is an effect that can give evidence for its causes, and thus is not really different from any other sort of causal evidence (and massive amounts of our evidence for anything is causal). Again, it is only religious testimony that is problematized in Hume's argument. Why? Because it is part of a family of testimony that deals with issues that guarantee intense emotional involvement that can bias witnesses, shape testimony, and motivate lying.

(2) Warwick applies the Humean reasoning the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, and this is entirely a good idea. Since it is a religious miracle, and since Warwick assumes it to be an astronomical phenomenon, his application of Hume's reasoning is sound: it would have to be rejected because it is contrary to uniform experience, in which the sun does not dance around, and if it did, it would wreak havoc. But this does raise a question. For it is not uncommon for proponents of the Miracle of the Sun to take it to be a meteorological phenomenon, caused by a cloud of dust or ice. Interpreting the original event in this way, it suddenly conforms much more closely to uniform experience: perihelia, anthelia, and the like are not uncommon. This at least makes it closer to the eight days of darkness scenario (as far as the issue of experience goes; the religious context would still worry Hume). More than that, it raises the question of whether the event was a preternatural miracle -- preternatural miracles are rare events entirely explicable in terms of natural laws that get their significance from associated events (in this case, the visions of Fatima). If it were a preternatural miracle, it wouldn't merely be like an ordinary meteorological phenomenon, it would simply be one (albeit perhaps still of a rare sort). Preternatural miracles do not fall under Hume's definition of miracle, although they are widely recognized (it's a standard category of miracle for Catholics, and Campbell in his response to Hume gives a Calvinist version using a somewhat different terminology).

What the application of Hume's reasoning to the Miracle of the Sun really brings out, then, is the fact that a great deal actually rests on how you interpret the purported event. Consider another hypothetical scenario Hume uses: suppose several reputable historians claim that Elizabeth I died in the presence of witnesses, then a little while after appeared again and finished out her reign. Hume says nothing in this would really induce him to believe that Elizabeth I actually died and came back to life, no matter how reputable the historians. Even granted that, however, it would still be at least reasonable to suggest that something happened that seemed to contemporaries as if Elizabeth died and came back to life -- a very cleverly done impostorship, for instance. Testimony can genuinely witness to the fact of an event, but do so under an inaccurate interpretation; and, indeed, this is quite common. Thus we always have to keep this possibility in mind, even if we are purely Humean in our approach to this sort of question.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pig's Justification of Life

Pearls Before Swine

Reference to One

I recently came across an objection to Aquinas's basic account of analogy that is interesting, in the sense that answering it clarifies some things about the account that people often find confusing. The objection is essentially this. Analogy is supposed to be something intermediate between univocity and equivocity: if a term is predicated analogically, it is predicated neither univocally nor equivocally. But this means that its meaning in the two instances considered has to be partly the same and partly the different. But pretty much every sort of equivocation is a case in which the terms involved are in some way partly the same. 'Bank' in the sense of a financial institution and 'bank' in the sense of a part of a river would be equivocal -- they are merely homonyms. But you still can find things that a financial institution and a part of a river have in common. For instance, they are both places where something might be located. So it seems that the doctrine of analogy has a problem.

As you might have guessed, I don't think so. When Aquinas says that the definition of the term is partly the same and partly different, he isn't talking about any old way in which they could be the same. What he means specifically is that either (1) one definition includes a reference to the other or (2) both definitions include a reference to the same thing. One reason why Aquinas uses the 'healthy' example so much (it is not the only example he uses) is that it nicely exhibits both of these. 'Healthy' can be applied to diets, to bodies, and to urine samples. Obviously it doesn't mean exactly the same thing in each case. But the healthiness of diets and the healthiness of bodies are obviously not completely different, either; and the reason is that you can't explain the healthiness of a diet without reference to the healthiness of bodies. That is, what makes 'healthy' in 'This diet is healthy' and 'This body is healthy' analogical is that the former use of 'healthy' logically depends on the latter use. Likewise, 'healthy diet' and 'healthy urine sample' aren't using 'healthy' in a univocal way. But they both are partly the same in the sense that an adequate account of both requires reference to healthiness in bodies -- healthy diets are healthy in the sense that they contribute to bodies being healthy, and healthy urine samples are healthy in the sense that they are signs of bodies being healthy. In general this reference to one is by cause, or by effect, or due to mental understanding (e.g., when 'God' is used of what someone thinks of as God and of God); I can't recall Aquinas giving another way in which the reference to one could exist, although conceivably there is some somewhere.

The point that is relevant to the objection, in any case, is that the partial sameness of analogy is in fact a relatively precise thing; it does not mean similarity but actual sameness, and it doesn't even many any sort of sameness, but sameness due to proportion between terms -- reference to one thing.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Good and Ontological Argument

Anselm's argument in the Proslogion didn't spring out of nothing; it has predecessors, although it shows much originality, as well. What is interesting about the predecessors is that they are discussions of the Good. For instance, where do we find a reasonable precursor for Anselm's description of God as "that than which no greater can be conceived"? It seems to be a refinement of Augustine. For instance, here is Augustine in On Christian Doctrine (DDC 1.7, emphasis added):

For when the one supreme God of gods is thought of, even by those who believe that there are other gods, and who call them by that name, and worship them as gods, their thought takes the form of an endeavor to reach the conception of a nature, than which nothing more excellent or more exalted exists. And since men are moved by different kinds of pleasures, partly by those which pertain to the bodily senses, partly by those which pertain to the intellect and soul, those of them who are in bondage to sense think that either the heavens, or what appears to be most brilliant in the heavens, or the universe itself, is God of gods: or if they try to get beyond the universe, they picture to themselves something of dazzling brightness, and think of it vaguely as infinite, or of the most beautiful form conceivable; or they represent it in the form of the human body, if they think that superior to all others. Or if they think that there is no one God supreme above the rest, but that there are many or even innumerable gods of equal rank, still these too they conceive as possessed of shape and form, according to what each man thinks the pattern of excellence. Those, on the other hand, who endeavor by an effort of the intelligence to reach a conception of God, place Him above all visible and bodily natures, and even above all intelligent and spiritual natures that are subject to change. All, however, strive emulously to exalt the excellence of God: nor could any one be found to believe that any being to whom there exists a superior is God. And so all concur in believing that God is that which excels in dignity all other objects.

Note the emphasis on excellence here. We get a similar precursor in Boethius (Consolation of Philosophy, Book III, Prose X, emphasis added):

Next to consider where the dwelling-place of this happiness may be. The common belief of all mankind agrees that God, the supreme of all things, is good. For since nothing can be imagined better than God, how can we doubt Him to be good than whom there is nothing better? Now, reason shows God to be good in such wise as to prove that in Him is perfect good. For were it not so, He would not be supreme of all things; for there would be something else more excellent, possessed of perfect good, which would seem to have the advantage in priority and dignity, since it has clearly appeared that all perfect things are prior to those less complete. Wherefore, lest we fall into an infinite regression, we must acknowledge the supreme God to be full of supreme and perfect good. But we have determined that true happiness is the perfect good; therefore true happiness must dwell in the supreme Deity.

Anselm himself ties his famous "ontological argument" to the Good both before and after the argument itself. In the prayer of Proslogion 1, he repeatedly refers to man's good as contemplation of God, without which nothing can be happy, and reflects on how man has lost this good. And then, more explicitly, we have a more explicit tie-in at Proslogion 5:

What are you, then, Lord God, than whom nothing greater can be conceived? But what are you, except that which, as the highest of all beings, alone exists through itself, and creates all other things from nothing? For, whatever is not this is less than a thing which can be conceived of. But this cannot be conceived of you. What good, therefore, does the supreme Good lack, through which every good is?

Interestingly, one finds this connection between the Good, or happiness as possession of the Good, in conjunction with very different kinds of arguments that still receive the label "ontological argument". Spinoza's is perhaps the best known example, since the "ontological argument" in Book of the Ethics is Spinoza's first step in the attempt to prove that there is a happiness that is utterly unshakeable and certain (which is why I sometimes tell people that in a sense you have to read the Ethics backwards to understand its point properly). And Iris Murdoch's not-quite-acceptance, not-quite-rejection of an "ontological argument" in her excellent Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals is intimately and explicitly linked with her attempt to explore the idea of the Good. This is a link that I think needs to be studied more.

Merry-Making Lambs

Easter Carol
by Christina Rossetti

Spring bursts to-day,
For Christ is risen and all the earth's at play.

Flash forth, thou Sun,
The rain is over and gone, its work is done.

Winter is past,
Sweet Spring is come at last, is come at last.

Bud, Fig and Vine,
Bud, Olive, fat with fruit and oil and wine.

Break forth this morn
In roses, thou but yesterday a Thorn.

Uplift thy head,
O pure white Lily through the Winter dead.

Beside your dams
Leap and rejoice, you merry-making Lambs.

All Herds and Flocks
Rejoice, all Beasts of thickets and of rocks.

Sing, Creatures, sing,
Angels and Men and Birds and everything.

All notes of Doves
Fill all our world: this is the time of loves.