Saturday, June 04, 2011


I saw Thor this past week and, despite going into it not expecting much, was actually impressed: while it's still very comic-book-ish, it's very sophisticated for a comic book movie, which often retains only the flashiest features of the comic books. The humor is done well. I also think that one of the things they managed to do very well, through a surprisingly good interplay of writing, acting, and directing, is to convey the courtliness that would come from being raised in the court of the gods: even the failings and vices of some of the main characters are courtly failings and vices. The root of this seems to be the Shakespearean background of some of those involved: Branagh apparently pushed this aspect of it actively. Hiddleston, for instance, plays Loki like a mix of Cassius in Julius Caesar and Edmund in King Lear. And a nice thing was that Loki was, in fact, not botched: he was properly subtle, with all the inscrutability caused by over-thinking that such subtlety implies.

If you like comic book movies, this is one of the better ones.

ADDED LATER: Eric Scott has a good review of the film from a pagan perspective.

Dashed Off

All the standard caveats apply.

Extraordinary sympathy is necessary for extraordinary insight.

the Sertillanges argument against determinism: as the universal always abstracts from something, every ide is a scheme, & thus it is not possible to put into laws everything whatsoever nature does.
-> i.e., determinism confuses what we can identify as laws of nature with divine ideas, in terms of comprehension

"For the proper life of intelligence is above all play, a game within the principles of being and thought." De Koninck

Wonder at the universe is a moral response.

Human sin creates a problem for anything holy that would have dealings with us; a problem that perhaps only omniscience can solve.

All of salvation history is summed up in the messianic character of Christ, which we receive imprinted on us, so to speak, in baptism.

We have on the altar the true philosopher's stone, the true peach of immortality, the elixir and nectar of life, but whta it gives is not the crass material gift the alchemists sought, nor even the crass mental gift the better and wiser alchemists sought.

The vocation of the Church is not to build the Kingdom of God on earth but to be the Kingdom of God on earth.

When one looks at marriages of great love, one finds that, in each, both of the spouses have learned to cultivate habits of gratitude.

thinking through rigorous logical structures metaphorically

to try out each position and argument given by someone else as if it had just occurred to yourself on your own

the fragmentary residues of the great minds of civilization

Every effect manifests its cause simply by being what it is; but some effects only manifest that the cause has caused, these are only vestiges of their cause, while others manifest the form of the cause, and these are images of one kind or another.

True honor begins with the protection of motherhood and deference to the truth, and expands outward from these.

a study of vestige and image in experimental work (telescopy probably has some good examples, as would microscopy)

Setting aside things that have persisted, we usually only have vestiges of the distant past. But there are cases where we have images, as with the stars.

The true foundation of human dignity is common good.

Christians sin more seriously than nonbelievers with the same sins because there is less to excuse them. This needs to be more clealry in the consciousness of Christians than it is, and pastors of the Church gravely err if they do not make this clear.

Reconciliation, pardon, andpenitence are appropriated to the Holy Spirit, fo rhte Holy Spirit is charity.

Virtues are all kinds of personal human order.

Human responsibility has a twofold character: we are responsible for things we do by our own choice and by ourselves, as individual persons. But we are also responsible for what is done byt he whole of a community, or by the majority of a community, or by a person servince in some way as the principle of the community, insofar as we are members of the community.

A Church council is a collection of bishops participating in body; but not merely that. In truth, all who affirm the faith of a council participate in it spiritually,a nd all who affirm the Creed and the definitions form a ring around the Conciliar Fathers and speak with them as if with one voice.

Mary as Aurora consurgens

our ability to act in light of common good as a reason for the incorruptibility of the soul

Nature is a reason or logos in things, caused by divine art, by which they act for ends.

Certain fields, like law, specialize in the construction of quasi-genera, each of which has a merely practical unity.

Mariology borrows its principles from Christology, to which it is subalternated.

The biosphere achieves the end of plurality and diversity by means of composition and division. It is because of this that evolutionary and other processes can be modeled by intellectual operations of composition and division, e.g., search algorithms or engineering metaphors.

love of the good insofar as it is enduring and permeating

Friendship generally has a unitive end and marriage as a friendship necessarily has such an end; but precisely because of this the unitive end itself is not an end distinctive of it as marriage.

Because matrimony is a sacrament or mystery, the theology of its is inexhaustible, and thus we may well say that we have in a sense hardly skimmed the surface of a very great ocean, however extensive discussion of ti may have been to date.

analogy of magisterium to regnative & political prudence (operatio prudentiae totius civitatis)

To serve as handmaiden to theology, philosophy must be set in order by theology.

Some miracles are such as to be extrinsic motives of credibility and others are not. The distinction is important.

Propositions in theology may be known per se where theology provides an understanding of the terms; such propositions are not fundamentally different from those known from elsewhere, although some of these may practically be inaccessible without the aid of theology.

Evil is not mere privation but privation such that it is contrary to good.

reason : acquired virtues :: grace : infused virtues

The structure of persuasion is inferential. Becaus ethe structure of persuasion is inferential, even persuasion that is not based on verbal arguments is naturally characterized or described by an argument.

3 ways a true opinion can be changed
(1) object changes
(2) forgetfulness
(3) persuasion

For the mind as for the world, diversification is a subordinate end.

Prudence is the magisterial virtue.

Just as a person's true opinion changes only when the facts change, or when the opinion is forgotten, or when the person is persuaded otherwise, so change from true propositions in the history of philosophy is always by a change of evidential facts, or because communication fails from generation to generation, or because of the mechanisms of persuasion. And diagnosing the source rightly is important: we have an excessive tendency to attribute change of ideas to change of facts, and overlook the roles of transmission and incentive.

Be fruitful in your understanding and multiply your conceptions, for thereby you more fully express the goodness of God.

In poetry we express the goodness of God by diversifying the world.

Psalms as the book of the pursuit of wisdom

Talking about 'what it is like to see red' is just another way fo talking about actually seeing red.

(1) What is naturally potential with respect to an object is, as such, without it.
(2) Intellect is naturally potential to sensible and corporeal natures as such.
(3) Therefore intellect is without sensible and corporeal nature insofar as it is potential to it.
: confirmation: where the intellect of a corporeal, sensible nature, this would limit its capacity to take that kind of corporeal, sensible nature as an object, because it would serve as an impediment.

Mathematical objects are known sensitively and imaginatively; mathematical essences are known intellectually.

The act of teaching is exterior projection of interior meditation.

false opinion : intellectual activity :: monstrous birth : natural activity

Moral deficiencies are remitted and protected against by intensification of charity, which can occur through three causes: rational contemplation, higher impulse, and settled disposition.
Some acts inculcate charity in all three ways: these are participations in the sacraments, which reason regards as remedies, which give special graces because God works in them, & which give habitual grace.
Others do nto give gracious disposition but inculcate charity in the other two ways: these are uses of sacramentals.
Yet others do so only in the first way, & these are pious acts, like the Lord's Prayer, striking the breast, reading Scripture, etc.

Solidarity is first recognized , but not only found, in distribution of goods and remuneration for work.

the Church as both juridical and amicable

There is no preferential option for the poor where there is no love of the poor.

Prudence mediates between natural law and civil law.

philosophy in facto esse & philosophy in fieri

the heuristic & hermeneutical functions of HoP

Material things are potentially intelligible; they must be made actually so.

The strongest sense of design that arguments from irreducible complexity &c. could show is coordinated assembly. Moving from this to intelligence can only be done on the basis of how final causes are involved in the assembly. It is true that assembly is an explanation different in character from explanation by law or by chance, but, first, it is not inconsistent with either, and, second, we know that natural things can coordinately assemble things (e.g., cells assemble things); even if one holds that ultimately this traces back to intelligent cause, at any given stage going back it si possible that there was such natural assembly.

History of science requires philosophy to mediate between historical explanation and scientific discovery.

Recovery, Escape, and Consolation (Tolkien) as spiritual discipline for spiritual beginners.
-> Tolkien is talking about creative fantasy, but note that these purposes can be served by other things (e.g., paintings, music, Chesterton's essays) where these either have a fantasy component or something analogous to it.
->Escape, Recovery, & Consolation in the Mass (it is Creative Art invoking Eucatastrophe that makes the connection)

Any argument can be rejected. It is the price of rejection that is the interesting thing.

Every invitation to Hell is always under the aspect of great good.

In venial sin we tend toward the creature as means & thus are not prevented from still having God in view as our primary end, & the creature is itself a means that does not rule out God as our end.

To be blessed is to be in some way untouched by death; and the Beatitudes show ways that, in Christ, we can become so.

Prometheus intersected with Hippolytus

The most essential thing to have in almost any ecclesastical matter is a good sense of proportion; histrionics is the foe of every true ecclesiology.

patience : fortitude :: continence : chastity

ecclesiological hypochondria

Be on your guard against all kinds of pleonexia; put them to death with the old man.

The chief forms of sin against one's nature are deceit and violence.

Canonization of saints expresses the principle that God not only makes the just & Christ-like so, but often makes them conspicuous so as to serve as an example to others.
- imitation of saints (I Thess 1:6-7; Eph 5:1; Phil 3:17)

What cannot be expressed poetically is imperfectly understood.

In Christ all petitions of the Paternoster are fulfilled: the name of God is hallowed, His Kingdom come, His will done on earth as in heaven; in Him we have from God our bread for the day, forgiveness as we forgive, protection from trial, and deliverance from evil. Our prayer to God is Christ, the fulfillment of our petitions Christ, and thus both our prayer and its fulfillment are infinitely greater than we can imagine.

To pray Christ is to receive Christ.

Without ascent to God there is no understanding of divine things.

Scripture as the paraclesis of the Paraclete

the potential parts of prudence in the study of Scripture

If the open question argument shows anything, it shows that good as such is not participated good. Thus one should focus on notes of participation instead.

The degree to which law and liberty are opposed is a measure of the degree of imperfection in the law.

The Magisterium has only three functions: to encourage Christian charity, to oppose spiritual violence, and to oppose spiritual fraud. Al authoritative actions of the Church fulfill one or more of these functions.

analogy accounts of induction vs division accounts of induction

Gentiles can be grafted on to Israel by being united to Christ Jesus, who was a participant in the covenant of Israel.

catechesis by synousia & catechesis by study

Phil 4:8 as the touchstone of catholicity
I Cor 3:23 & catholicity

wonder leading to awe, and wonder leading to perplexity

the analogy between law and grace as external principles of action

Where our pursuit of true goods is not refined there is no education.

sexual desire as a sign of contingency of being

authority, continuity, & moderation as the three key features of government

Mutuum adiutorium is a secondary rather than primary end of marriage because it is an end of marriage insofar as marriage falls under the genus of friendship, not insofar as its specific difference is concerned. And remedium concupiscentiae is a tertiary end of marriage because it is an accidental rather than essential one, albeit a stable one, arising from the existence of marriage in a world with concupiscence.

reason -> ability to delight in incongruity -> risibility

Conversion, like creation, begins with the Spirit of God brooding over the darkness, and then there is light, and gradual distinction, and the end of it is peace.

The merits of the saints are the merits of Christ. On the Cross He merits through Himself in the Great Work; in teh saints He merits through their participation in Him in many small works; but all is the merit of Christ through His body on the Cross and through His Body of the Church.

Different kinds of necessity yield different kinds of demostration.

Freedom of indifference is merely the will's contribution to personal freedom.

Love is an instinct of reason.

Catechesis is a touring of the boundaries of one's inheritance.

The only counterexamples that matter are those that remain counterexamples in light of all relevant truths. This is always the weakness of arguments based on counterexamples: much of the real work is done by assumptions or principles of relevance.

Human good is scaffolded.

The true aim of teaching is to aid the student in attending to transcendental matters - matters of truth, of goodness, of beauty, of nobility.

The weakness of eclecticism is that it is an accidental unity, not an integral one. But it may approximate the unity of truth.

Humility is the foundation of sincere life.

Is 26 & the resurrection fo the dead

The Plowman Is 28: 23-29

John the Baptist heralds (Is 40:3) the revelation of the glory of the Lord, which mankind shall see (40:5), so that one may proclaim the good news, "Here is your God!" (40:9), the Lord who comes with power (40:10) to be a shepherd to his flock (40:11).

beatitude as gaudium de veritate

reason -> word -> social life

Love alone can find a third way between the legalist and the laxist.

"What sensible light is to the eye, God's Word is to the soul." Basil Ad Eun. 2.16

the holy maiden graceful-made

Rm 15:27 & pro-Jewish policy

"The experience of freedom goes hand in hand with the experience of truth." Wojtyla

philosophizing with pictorial clue

The members of the Church regrow by redintegration.

absorbing lawfulness from music and poetry

Because it is in the image of God, and insofar as it is, the human person exceeds human comprehension.

Consulting intuitions is like casting runes and reading them; they must be interpreted, put in context, and what goes into the interpretation may be foolish or wise, arbitrary or indicative of reason and sensitivity to contextual cues, balanced or overly influenced by prejudice, with a narrow or broad understanding of the the possible range of interpretation.

Everyone loves condemnations of hypocrites because no one thinks they are hypocrites themselves.

In a fundamental sense the whole human race has as its universal destiny Christ; but conventions of religious freedom frlow from this universal destination of man in much the way conventions of private property flow from the universal destination of goods.

revelation's reveille

Christianity saves human societies by directing itself to individuals. (Rosmini)

Zen as a regard for the limit of thought

Is 50:1-3 as prophecy of faith

Marriage is not mere procreation, but an institution of union suitable for procreation, a government of sorts.

matrimony as threefold sacrament - naturae, legis, gratiae

prayer as a way of being particeps Creatoris

Sikhism is a philosophical and poetic outworking of the idea of assimilation to God as True Lord and Truth and Lover of Truth. "Those who know the Truth are absorbed in Truth." "The practice of Truth is the essence of the Shabad." "Through the Guru's teachings Truth becomes pleasing to the mind." "When one dwells in Truth all actions become True." "Whether there is Truth in the heart one becomes true and obtains the True Lord." "They gather Truth, remain always in Truth, and love the True Name." "Let Truth and continuous remembrance of God be your prayer."

Matrimony and holy orders are alike in being simultaneously acts of human and of divine reason.

the participation of the laity in the priestly, prophetic, and princely munera of Christ
munus in tria munera Christi
priestly: by the sacrifices of virtue, prayer, & praise
prophetic: by spreading the truth of Christ
princely: by self-discipline, stewardship * preference for common over private good

sacramental repentance as slow adaptation

Justification is a manifestation of the justice of God. (Rm 3:21-25)

Marriage is
  a friendship
   of pleasure
   of use
   of virtue
   in itself as a covenant
    by consent
    with standards of faithfulness
   by God
   with recognition from the community
  for the purpose of procreation
   in the having of children
   in the raising of children

the Church at Massah and Meribah

Socratic munus

Honor is a shadow of virtue, respectability a shadow of honor, and tolerance a shadow of respecability; in each a trace or outline is kept, but precision and clarity is lost.

Part of being true to a person is being true that person's nature.

justice, honor, respectability, tolerance, and force in the society that is marriage

Biological processes have roles in the work of living according to practical reason.

Usury is opposed to civic friendship.

By charity, justice and honor and respectability and tolerance are made one.

Only in terms of something infinite in some way can all things be explained.

The character we receive at baptism is that through which Christ is rendered perceptible.

Divine mysteries are intelligible in every respect but infinite in their intelligibility.

Max Muller talked about the 'theogonic capacity of things, and argued that some things, like a stone, or a dog, have no such capacity, since they are too limited for us to see them open out on a sublime beyond. But poets know better, for they explore what Muller calls the theogonic capacity of things as part of their art; and a stone, a dog, yea, a mote of dust, has some seed or sign of the infinite in it, a seed or sign that a true poet can find and describe.

the li of liturgy, the de of episcopal authority.

aristarchic, timarchic, oligarchic, demarchic, and tyrannic poetry

the unitive function of speech

Actions between friends are communicative.

What contemporary philosophers call intentionality is signification.

They Appeared Glorious and Blessed

Such was the vast power which the god settled in the lost island of Atlantis; and this he afterwards directed against our land for the following reasons, as tradition tells:

For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, they were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them.

By such reflections and by the continuance in them of a divine nature, the qualities which we have described grew and increased among them; but when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power.

Zeus, the god of gods, who rules according to law, and is able to see into such things, perceiving that an honourable race was in a woeful plight, and wanting to inflict punishment on them, that they might be chastened and improve, collected all the gods into their most holy habitation, which, being placed in the centre of the world, beholds all created things. And when he had called them together, he spake as follows-

Plato, Critias. What we have of the Critias, of course, and of the original philosophical myth of Atlantis, ends right here. There is a whole political philosophy wrapped up in this one section, though.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Wisdom from Weil

The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.

Simone Weil, "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God," Waiting for God, Craufurd, tr. Harper & Row [New York: 1973] p. 110.

Solipsism and Gratitude

Heather MacDonald has a post at "Secular Right" on what she calls the solipsism of faith:

Still, it is always puzzling to me how believers can attribute their escape from calamity to God’s protection without feeling compelled to explain why God did not extend that protection to other people not clearly less deserving than themselves. If God was capable of working a “miracle” to prevent you from death by tornado in Missouri or Alabama, why didn’t he work that same miracle to save your neighbors? (We will leave aside the added puzzle of why God would allow the natural cataclysm to proceed in the first place and confine himself to piecemeal, after-the-fact efforts to mitigate its effects for a select number of survivors.) The implication of attributing one’s own good fortune amid a wave of misfortune to God is inescapable: God cared for me more than for the deceased victims. Yet only rarely does this implication seem to break through into a believer’s consciousness.

I think this response gets both the implications and the psychology quite wrong. There is no particular a priori reason why God would do exactly the same thing for everybody, and it doesn't follow from thanking God for saving one from calamity either that God did nothing for the unfortunate neighbors or that God cared for the fortunate person more -- indeed, as old-fashioned Baptist preachers are sometimes fond of reminding their congregations, it could very well have been the exact opposite: as one preacher I know put it (I paraphrase), God may have saved you rather than them because you need more time and help to escape from hell than they do. Only the good die young, as the saying goes! MacDonald's 'inescapable implication', far from being inescapable, isn't really even implied without making a number of obviously debatable assumptions. MacDonald's implication, in other words, is really based on her own idea of What God Would Do, and the assumption that everyone else has this idea, too; a problematic assumption given that MacDonald is an atheist with a long history of not exactly having a complete sympathy with theists.

But, more importantly, I think she is clearly misreading the psychology of the situation. It is a natural human response, on having survived a great catastrophe, to feel grateful for it. And it's important to note that this is true regardless of whether one has anyone to whom one can be grateful. Martin Gardner has an excellent and underappreciated philosophical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, in which this is a secondary theme: gratitude is a very human response, even in situations where there is no human agent responsible; it's a common, although not universal, accompaniment of relief. If you're a theist, you'll feel grateful to God, as the most obvious higher-order agent to whom it could be attributed; if you're an atheist or agnostic (or perhaps a deist who doesn't believe God intervenes, as Gardner was), it might just be a strange sense of gratitude to no one in particular. And it does seem strange to be grateful yet to no one in particular, but there's nothing irrational about it, because gratitude is the human response in which we feel more than merely relieved, and this can be appropriate whether one has anyone to be grateful to or not. The feeling comes first, and sometimes demands expression.

People in general, however religious, tend to be rather agnostic about what they can know about God's purposes; that doesn't change the fact that they feel grateful to have survived, nor does it change the fact that the force of relief can demand that this gratitude be expressed. And the associated feelings don't have any particular connection with each other: you can be grateful for having survived while sad for those who didn't; you can be grateful for emerging unscathed even while bewildered as to why others didn't; you can be grateful for having lived even while anguished that others didn't; you can be grateful and relieved that you got through and feel bad for feeling grateful and relieved. The two sides simply come apart because they have no necessary connection.

Thus there's no particular reason why one should feel compelled to explain the difference -- one might try, in order to satisfy one's curiosity, or in order to relieve one's anguish or guilt, but there's nothing that positively demands that one do so. It's entirely possible just not to know, and even to believe that one can't know; the motivation for expressing a thank-God will still be there, utterly unaffected by one's agnosticism about God's mysterious ways. This is not the solipsism of faith or of anything else; it's simply a case where motivation does not depend on what one knows or what one doesn't, and where (what is more) the rationality of the motivation doesn't depend on what one knows or what one doesn't.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Seventh Year

So Siris has finished its seventh year; I had almost forgotten. According to Blogger, there have been 4,720 posts here, not counting this one; barring anything unusual, I'll hit the five thousand mark at some point in this next year. Most of them are trivial little things, of course. But Siris was started mostly just so that there would be somewhere for my mind to be unruly; and so it is. I've learned much in the past years, and all too little; and that, I suppose, is the human lot. We'll see what more can be learned.

The most popular post from the past year has been Immanuel Kant's Guide to a Good Dinner Party.

A Poem Draft


Although the Godborn words are broken,
the tablet smashed upon the floor,
we keep of it a wistful token,
one whisper born of something more,
as though in boats upon the river
we caught some wind from downward sea
and in its bracing chill did shiver
in hope of someday's destiny.

The words are passed. Their life, now withered,
survives alone in pictured frame,
pressed under glass and saddened, hither
restored to semblance of the Name.
But weep no tears for faded glories,
no sorrow give to flowers dead;
they only serve to hint of stories
within the realms of Heaven bred.

For once we learned the joy of heaven
from rock and tree and breath of air,
and it all tastes and values leavened
with hope beyond what angels dare;
so to this hint of lost things hearken,
for though things pass through deathly door,
this cannot tale or splendor darken:
we, too, will pass, and hear once more.

An Incommunicable Word

There was an Island in the Sea
by Conrad Aiken

There was an island in the sea
That out of immortal chaos reared
Towers of topaz, trees of glass,
For maidens adored and warriors feared.

Long ago was it lost in the sea ;
And now, a thousand fathoms deep.
Sea-worms above it whirl their lamps.
Crabs on the pale mosaics creep.

Voyagers over that haunted sea
Hear from the darkness under the keel
A sound that is not wave or foam,
Nor do they only hear, but feel

The timbers quiver, as eerily comes
Out of the waters an elfin singing
Of voices happy as none can be.
And bells an ethereal anthem ringing.

Thereafter, where they go or come.
They will be silent, they have heard
Out of the infinite of the soul
An incommunicable word.

Thereafter, they are as lovers who
Over an infinite brightness lean :
'It is Atlantis !' all their speech,
'To lost Atlantis have we been.'

William Harvey's Aristotelianism

Benny Goldberg has a very nice post on William Harvey's Medical Aristotelianism, which is well worth reading.

Charles Wolfe has a comment on it, but I confess I don't understand it; he seems to imply that there was a strand of scholarship in post-WWII that argued that Harvey wasn't an Aristotelian. Now, it's not my primary field by any means, but I can't find any such thing: you do find articles that argue that Harvey is reinterpreting certain Aristotelian ideas, but it's very difficult to argue that Harvey is not Aristotelian because he is very explicit about it himself and uses Aristotelian terminology all over the place. (To find claims that Harvey is not an Aristotelian, you have to go back quite far.) Wolfe asks three questions:

if he was such an Aristotelian, why did Descartes give him pride of place in the Discourse on Method? If he was such an Aristotelian, why does he sometimes say that final causes may have no explanatory power whatsoever? Of course he speaks of 'office', of ends, which doesn't quite make him an Aristotelian, and (just sayin'), might the design language just be English bourgeois cultural standards?

All three of these questions I find somewhat perplexing.

(1) For one thing, Harvey really isn't given 'pride of place' in the Discourse; he's given one paragraph, devoted entirely to the issue of the circulation of blood. Everything else in Harvey falls away. Descartes explicitly gives us the arguments he finds convincing; they are arguments closely linked to particular experiments and both of them admit of more mechanistic interpretations. One of Descartes's lifelong ambitions was a rigorous mechanistic medicine on Cartesian principles, and explanation of the heart was key to that ambition. It is, in other words, the heart, not Harvey, that is given pride of place; Harvey just happens to have good arguments (on Descartes's own standards) for circulation of blood and the most important rival account of the heart's motion (which Descartes has to top -- he famously fails, of course).

(2) I'd have to look at the original context of the claim, since I don't recognize and can't find it offhand, but one reason that an Aristotelian might say that sometimes a final cause has no explanatory power is that, depending on what you are trying to explain, it wouldn't. Some forms of explanation on Aristotelian principles presuppose the final cause by holding it constant relative to other things; in yet others, the final cause, while objectively the reason for the other causes, is the least known cause; some things are better explained by matter and material resistance to the final cause; and so forth. Again, I'd have to look at the context, but there are lots of circumstances where it would be an unsurprising thing for an Aristotelian to say.

(3) Harvey doesn't use "design language" very much; he does use Aristotelian causal terminology a lot, and the two vocabularies are not the same. What's more, Harvey often explicitly attributes his vocabulary to Aristotle (and sometimes more substantive content) and appeals to Aristotle for methodological principles (the preface to the book on the generation of animals is solidly, even if, some might argue, selectively, Aristotelian in its account of scientific method), so it's not as if we're talking a few vague references here. Moreover, Harvey uses lots of other Aristotelian terminology as well, things that have little or nothing to do with final causes as such. Harvey was very unusual in the seventeenth century for his Aristotelianism; setting aside Fabricius and a few others, extensive use of Aristotle for methodology in medical matters was not all that common by this point, so Harvey's use can hardly be attributed to common usage, and the detail of it is so extensive that it can't just be educated man's parlance. He sticks out, and it's his Aristotelian features that most stick out.

One can argue how close Harvey is to Aristotle himself -- he certainly does at times seem to interpret Aristotelian claims fairly freely in the light of the evidence -- so you could argue that he's in some ways loosely Aristotelian. He's also very insistent that Aristotle hasn't discovered everything of importance about the natural world, an idea he thinks is obviously contrary to evidence. But I don't see that there's any evidential promise in the argument, which Wolfe seems to be suggesting, that Harvey wasn't at least broadly Aristotelian, particularly since Harvey regularly and deliberately locates himself in a broadly Aristotelian tradition.

Conceivably, of course, because Wolfe's comment is so short, I'm just misreading and missing his point.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Feast of St. Justin the Martyr

For He sets before every race of mankind that which is always and universally just, as well as all righteousness; and every race knows that adultery, and fornication, and homicide, and such like, are sinful; and though they all commit such practices, yet they do not escape from the knowledge that they act unrighteously whenever they so do, with the exception of those who are possessed with an unclean spirit, and who have been debased by education, by wicked customs, and by sinful institutions, and who have lost, or rather quenched and put under, their natural ideas. For we may see that such persons are unwilling to submit to the same things which they inflict upon others, and reproach each other with hostile consciences for the acts which they perpetrate. And hence I think that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ spoke well when He summed up all righteousness and piety in two commandments. They are these: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself.' For the man who loves God with all the heart, and with all the strength, being filled with a God-fearing mind, will reverence no other god; and since God wishes it, he would reverence that angel who is beloved by the same Lord and God. And the man who loves his neighbour as himself will wish for him the same good things that he wishes for himself, and no man will wish evil things for himself. Accordingly, he who loves his neighbour would pray and labour that his neighbour may be possessed of the same benefits as himself. Now nothing else is neighbour to man than that similarly-affectioned and reasonable being—man. Therefore, since all righteousness is divided into two branches, namely, in so far as it regards God and men, whoever, says the Scripture, loves the Lord God with all the heart, and all the strength, and his neighbour as himself, would be truly a righteous man.

Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 93. St. Justin, of course, was a Middle Platonist philosopher who was martyred in the persecutions under Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher, possibly at the instigation of Crescens, a philosopher. I talked a bit about his philosophical context last year. He's most famous, perhaps, for his view that Socrates and other righteous pagans were proto-Christians, for they devoted themselves to Logos (=Word, Reason) and, as the Gospel of John tells us, the Logos is Christ.

Leibniz on Skepticism

The Skeptics are never liked by the experts in a scientific field or a doctrine, whatever it may be; they only satisfy the ignorant, who bow to skepticism because it seems to console their ignorance. However, insightful objections are always useful, and serve to better clarify the truth: but those who only object, and who doubt only for the purpose of doubting, damage their own reputation in the company of well educated people and harm those who are not educated, by seducing them, and by teaching them to neglect to learn.

G. W. F. Leibniz, quoted in Maria Rosa Antognazza, Leibniz on the Trinty and the Incarnation, Gerald Parks, tr. [Yale UP: 2007] p. 148.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Down Some Cold Field

Requiem: The Soldier
by Humbert Wolfe

Down some cold field in a world outspoken
the young men are walking together, slim and tall,
and though they laugh to one another, silence is not broken;
there is no sound however clear they call.

They are speaking together of what they loved in vain here,
but the air is too thin to carry the things they say.
They were young and golden, but they came on pain here,
and their youth is age now, their gold is grey.

Yet their hearts are not changed, and they cry to one another,
'What have they done with the lives we laid aside?
Are they young with our youth, gold with our gold, my brother?
Do they smile in the face of death, because we died?'

Down some cold field in a world uncharted
the young seek each other with questioning eyes.
They question each other, the young, the golden hearted,
of the world that they were robbed of in their quiet paradise.

Short Days Ago

We Shall Keep the Faith
by Moina Michael

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

Michael is the one who started the tradition of wearing poppies in honor of veterans in the U.S. This poem (published in 1918) and the poppy tradition, of course, are due to John McCrae's superior 1915 classic:

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Notice that Michael's poem is clearly a response by the living to the Dead in McCrae's poem.

D. G. Myers had a nice tweet on Memorial Day poetry recently, which bears repeating:

Memorial Day reminds some of us that poetry, uniquely capable of concise public speech, once occupied a central position in the culture.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cheap Imitations of Rationality

One of the interesting things about the fun and games surrounding commentary on Camping's recent prediction of the Rapture was how cheap most of the self-satisfied response to it was -- it was really just an opportunity for everyone to pat themselves on the back over how clever they were in comparison with those stupid people over there, and little more, and what could possibly be easier? But as with everything else, there is no shame in being wrong, only, at times, in being unreasonable in one's reasoning, and very few people in the jeering crowd showed any indications of having the faintest clue where Camping went wrong in his reasoning. There was nothing rational about the response to Camping from most quarters, although there were some nice exceptions here and there. It was largely cheap imitation of rationality.

Ian Hacking, building on a claim made by Gilbert Ryle, likes to say that we really only use 'irrational,' not 'rational,' as an evaluative word. This, taken as a straight claim, is obviously false, but it does address the genuine truth that our real worry is often to make sure that we are not in the definitely-irrational camp, which is a standard sign that social status is in view. You get similar patterns with fitness and virtue and piety.

The problem is that every such concept, regardless of its inner logic, is under pressure as relevant to social status; and this pressure combines with two key features. (1) Really having these things is very difficult; and (2) it's the appearance of these things that really indicate that you are not in the outcast group -- any indicator of anything has to appear in some way. Thus the pressure is to focus on the appearance rather than the substance. People would rather appear to be fit than to be fit; people would rather appear to be pious than to be pious; and people would rather appear to be just than to be just. If you can manufacture the appearance without the hard work of building up the substance, you get all the social status benefits -- at the very least you avoid being in the outcast group. This privileges cheap imitation over the real thing, and encourages people to look for comparisons that will make them look good to others (or even to themselves).

It's this that we really saw in play in the whole Camping incident: a large group of people found an occasion for putting themselves in the Rational Camp without having to do any rational work, and so it was all an elaborate display of social quality, like apes engaging in dominance displays.

It's important not to go too far with this. The mere fact of the display is obviously not evidence that there is no substance to it. We are social creatures, and reason itself is partly social in nature, and therefore there's no basis for saying that social life should be ignored entirely when it comes to rationality. Likewise, rationality really is genuinely difficult at times, and therefore it's not a question of eliminating these chest-thumping displays entirely -- everyone engages in them sometimes, even if for no other reason than we don't have the time and energy to handle each and every thing that comes up. The kind of rationality involved in these cases is practical rather than theoretical, but it is a genuine kind of rationality. But we should, I suggest, be realistic about people going out of their way to mock people for being irrational without providing any serious argument, especially when they can do so without any detriment to themselves: going out of their way to do it is an expenditure of time and energy, which means that lack of time or energy is not the reason for lack of argument. It's not so much that there's anything fundamentally wrong with it -- the mocking can be morally vicious, and sometimes is, but it need not be, and one form of it is just a sort of mental horseplay among friends -- as that we should not pretend that there's anything more to it than posturing. It shows that you can puff up those feathers and shake that tail, and that you can talk the talk; it doesn't show that you are anything more than a weak bird with puffed-out feathers, or that you can walk the walk.