Saturday, March 17, 2012

Music on My Mind

Taylor Swift, ft. The Civil Wars, "Safe & Sound". (ht)


I Bind Unto Myself Today
by Cecil Frances Alexander

I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever,
by power of faith, Christ's Incarnation;
his baptism in Jordan river;
his death on cross for my salvation;
his bursting from the spicèd tomb;
his riding up the heavenly way;
his coming at the day of doom:
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
of the great love of cherubim;
the sweet "Well done" in judgment hour;
the service of the seraphim;
confessors' faith, apostles' word,
the patriarchs' prayers, the prophets' scrolls;
all good deeds done unto the Lord,
and purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven
the glorious sun's life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
his eye to watch, his might to stay,
his ear to hearken, to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach,
his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech,
his heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort
and restore me.
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of
all that love me,
Christ in mouth of
friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
Of whom all nature hath creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.

This is a nineteenth-century version, made for singing, of the Lorica of St. Patrick, a poem attributed to St. Patrick that goes back to the eighth century in its current form, but that may indeed go back in original form to Patrick's time.

Chesterton for March XVII

Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of ‘touching’ a man’s heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it.

Source: Twelve Types

Friday, March 16, 2012

Admin Note, Especially for German and Canadian Readers

I mentioned before that Google is restructuring Blogspot so that people from different countries are redirected to country-specific addresses; Australia and India were the first to undergo this treatment. New Zealand followed shortly after. I see from logs that this has now spread to Germany and Canada. I get almost no one from India or New Zealand, and only a small number of Australian readers, but Canada and Germany are third and fourth behind the U.S. and U.K. as source countries for my readers here, so this will have some effect.

The main effect, of course, is that Echo/JS-Kit comments, which I use, don't work well with this change; commenting is possible on the country-specific pages, but I have no moderation ability, the comments don't show up in my comments queue, and the comments don't synchronize with Blogger comments. I sent a tech support query to Echo about it, and the response I received was not only seven kinds of useless, it was pretty clear that they had no clue what I was talking about, and so I'm very sure they won't be fixing this issue at any point in the near future.

For the nonce, readers can get around this by using a No Country Redirect. Instead of going to the usual address, go to the following one:

That will keep you at the plain .com address. I could put code in the template to force NCR, but I'd have to do it for every single country Google does this for. And also the NCR is temporary fix: Google will certainly break it at some point.

In the meantime, though, if you are Australian, Canadian, German, or one of the very occasional Indians, please comment on the U.S. address (the plain .com) by using the NCR, if you can. If not, it's not a huge issue; I'll just probably not discover your comment for a considerable amount of time, unless I just happen to be nosing around the country-specific posts for your country at just the right time to catch it. (You also won't be able to see any comments on the plain .com version of the blog.)

ADDED LATER: Also, while UK readers don't currently seem to be undergoing forced redirect, I note that the version is already up and running, so it's only a matter of time.

ADDED LATER II: And it looks like it has started for the U.K., too. It looks Portugal is also one of the countries currently undergoing the redirect.

...And France.

Chesterton for March XVI

Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction; for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.

Source: The Club of Queer Trades

The Needle to the North Degree

The Martyrs
by Emily Dickinson

Through the straight pass of suffering
The martyrs even trod,
Their feet upon temptation,
Their faces upon God.

A stately, shriven company;
Convulsion playing round,
Harmless as streaks of meteor
Upon a planet's bound.

Their faith the everlasting troth;
Their expectation fair;
The needle to the north degree
Wades so, through polar air.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On Subsidiarity

Meghan Clark recently had an interesting post on subsidiarity at "Catholic Moral Theology" in which she shows the problem with a common understanding of the principle. In doing so, however, I think she overshoots and falls into another error of a similar sort.

The first thing to understand about the principle of subsidiarity, or the principle of subsidiary function, is that it gives exactly what the label says. It is, in Benedict XVI's words, "a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies" (Caritas in Veritate). The word 'assistance' is key here; subsidiarity is literally helpfulness (subsidium is Latin for 'help, aid, assistance'), and if we didn't like the latinate name we could simply, and with complete accuracy, call it the Helpful Function Principle or the Helpfulness Principle. It's clearly this that's front and center with the famous passage from Quadragesimo Anno:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

In other words, no state, organization, or institution should destroy or weaken the natural and (to the extent that they support common good) customary governmental, organizational, and institutional expressions of human life that are potentially vulnerable to it. It should instead help them. The most obvious example of this is the family. The family as an organization is a natural outgrowth and expression of human nature, and has as a result a natural jurisdiction, so to speak, and the jurisdictional rights that go with it. It also accumulates, depending on the society, customary privileges and jurisdictional rights. Other jurisdictions, like the state, should leave room for the ordinary and reasonable outworking of these privileges and rights; these jurisdictions have no right to replace family functions. With regard to family life the function of the state (for instance) is to help and assist the family in its functions, because doing so is one of the key ways in which the state helps "the members of the body social" and failing to do so is one way that the state commits "grave evil" against persons under its jurisdiction. Acting according to the principle of subsidiarity furthers the common good of all persons in a society; not acting according to it is effectively an attack on common good.

The subsidiarity principle is often paired with the principle of solidarity, and there is a real connection between the two. Solidarity is the active sense of responsibility of each person for each person; it therefore requires the active and free assumption of responsibility for others. Subsidiarity, on the other hand, is the assistance of actual people through intermediary organizations; it therefore requires the active recognition of the free responsibilities of others. When applied to life in general, they are closely associated with the virtues that uphold civic friendship and civic order, respectively. When applied to Christian life specifically, solidarity is a principle the purest expression of which is the Passion of Christ, while subsidiarity is a principle the purest expression of which is divine Providence, and we are called to exhibit both, in higher and purer forms than mere natural friendship and mere natural prudence require, because as Christians we are called to participate in both Christ's Passion and God's Providence.

In this light one can see that Clark is quite right to reject the interpretation in which subsidiarity is just a way of saying that smaller is better; if one took the phrase "smaller is better" rather loosely, it could very well be applied to subsidiarity, but it's also potentially very misleading. What Clarke misses, though, is that her own preferred way of speaking, "decisions should be made at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary," runs into the same kinds of problems. Subsidiarity is no more (and no less) about height than it is about size. If we don't make too much of it (and understand "lowest level possible" and "highest level necessary" so that they end up being the same level, rather than two mutually exclusive levels), it can be an entirely reasonable approximation. But it's not what subsidiarity is about. What subsidiarity is about is recognizing what organizations express and further human personality and a truly human life in the most natural and basic and person-focused ways, and both not interfering with them to the exent that they do this and also actively furthering it. Subsidiarity will tend under common conditions to favor smaller organizations and certain levels of governance, but just as subsidiarity may actually require larger organizations to step in, or even to be created so that they can step in, so also subsidiarity may actually require that decisions be made at levels higher than necessary. Likewise, subsidiarity may at times require higher levels to make it possible for a lower level to make decisions that it would not otherwise be able to make. What really matters in subsidiarity is not size or level but active help for the true flourishing of each person through those institutions and organizations that make this flourishing possible. Clarke recognizes this point, saying that "Catholic social teaching’s principle of subsidiarity actually includes within it a strong sense of the responsibility of the government for creating the conditions of human flourishing," but does not, I think, see that this problematizes her own assumptions about subsidiarity as much as it does the assumptions she is criticizing.

It's because she does not see this, I think, that her application of the general idea to political life goes haywire. She says, for instance, "It is a mistake to approach the principle of subsidiarity within the context of the perennial American debate concerning the size and scope of government." What I want to insist is that this is simply incorrect. The American debate concerning the size and scope of government is perennial because it is one of the key debates out of which the actual governance of American society arises. Indeed, it is arguably the key debate out of which American governance arises. No principle can be applied to American government without passing through this debate. Thus claiming that it is a mistake to approach the principle of subsidiarity within the context of the debate is equivalent to saying that American society should not be governed according to the principle of subsidiarity, which both Clarke and I agree to be wrong. What we actually need in America is people from all sides of each political debate actively to communicate what they think subsidiarity implies in any given case in terms of their own political assumptions about the right scope and size of government for contributing to the good of each person in our society. In the United States we should precisely approach the principle of subsidiarity in terms of the size and scope of government (as well as in terms of every other significant debate about American governance); other societies will need to approach it in terms of the major discussions and expectations of their own societies. The reason for this is that both the customs and the overall structure of society will have a considerable influence (limited only by the limits of human nature and its needs) on what any given organization can effectively contribute to the good of the persons who compose that society, and equally considerable influence on how actual people further their good and the good of others through the institutions and organizations around them. But the principle of subsidiarity is about assisting this latter kind of activity, i.e., human persons pursuing their own flourishing and the flourishing of others through the institutions around them, and therefore how the principle of subsidiarity is applied depends very much (although not completely) on what the actual organizations of society are, and how they actually are able to operate.

Thus Clark is right that it is not about size of government. Consistent subsidiarists will support larger governmental structures where those structures will make it easier for actual people to do good for themselves and others through institutions like the family, churches, voluntary associations, etc. Consistent subsidiarists will also reject larger governmental structures where those structures make it harder for the people themselves to seek their own good and the good of others. Because there will be judgment calls on both sides, it is entirely possible to be a consistent conservative subsidiarist and equally possible to be a consistent liberal subsidiarist. For that matter, one can be a consistent libertarian subsidiarist or a consistent green subsidiarist. These political differences are different views about how the means available to a government relate to the common good. Subsidarity places only one constraint on these views: that the means actually chosen are chosen so as to help actual human persons by helping organizations intermediate between those people and their government to perform their functions in ways that help each person to flourish more. That is, it requires that the end (common good) be recognized to include the actual ability of persons to pursue excellence of life for themselves and others, and that the jurisdictional functions of intermediate organizations be respected and actively supported as a means to this end. Anything more precise will have to be worked out for each society on its own terms through the actual politics of society, within the constraints created by natural rights and the reasonable functioning of institutions like the family, neighborhoods or villages, or churches/synagogues/temples that are established by nature or by second nature as basic to that society.

Chesterton for March XV

No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller. Now this sort of pliability does not merely prevent any heroic consistency, it also prevents any really practical compromise. One can only find the middle distance between two points if the two points will stand still. We may make an arrangement between two litigants who cannot both get what they want; but not if they will not even tell us what they want.

Source: What's Wrong with the World

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Patterns and Lacunae in Academic Philosophical Discussion

This will, I think, be a slightly controversial, but also somewhat arid, post. Feel free to ignore it if you don't have an interest in controversial assessments of academic philosophy.

I was thinking earlier today of curious lacunae in philosophical literature. I think it was something I read about the contraception mandate, because my original thoughts were on philosophical discussions of contraception. Almost all bioethicists today, I would imagine, think contraception is "morally permissible," however they gloss that. Indeed, one of the standard criticisms raised against Marquis's anti-abortion argument -- which is usually the token anti-abortion argument that's considered respectable enough to take seriously -- is that it would make contraception wrong, too. (It wouldn't, for a number of reasons, but that's another argument.) But it's notably difficult to find any serious philosophical argument for this. You often get more general arguments that would suggest something or other about contraception, in feminist works. But close philosophical discussions of particular lines of argument for the claim that contraception is OK are actually quite difficult to find. For instance, the kind of argument for contraception with which I am far and away the most sympathetic is the class of voluntary motherhood arguments. You almost never find any discussion of them outside of occasoinal historical surveys, and sometimes as secondary issues in reproductive choice arguments (but 'reproductive choice' is a broader and messier term that covers quite a few things.) What's interesting is that it's actually pretty easy to find philosophical discussions arguing against contraception. There's Anscombe's Contraception and Chastity paper for instance (which actually as far as what the Catholic position should be is a much better anti-contraception argument than you usually ever find), and it's not difficult to dig up Catholic bioethics papers arguing against contraception. The discussion is entirely lopsided, and it's lopsided in the opposite way you'd expect. You can get more results on the pro-contraception side if you jiggle things a bit. You can find philosophical arguments that health care professionals should dispense emergency contraception regardless of conscientious objection issues, for instance; but what one notices if one looks closely is that contraception itself is rarely a significant issue in the argument -- they are almost always about general limits to conscientious objection, not about anything especially appropriate to contraception itself. Remarkably, the only times you usually get anything like a philosophical discussion of the permissibility of contraception is in discussions of abortion, and there the arguments are usually just to say that the moral issues concerning contraception are different (or sometimes the same).

I think there are other interesting lacunae; thinking about the lacuna with contraception arguments, I started thinking about abortion arguments. There are lots of those, on both sides, although you have to go to different places for them (but that's not surprising). But you get odd lacunae when it comes to individual arguments. For instance, the pro-choice argument I am most sympathetic to -- very sympathetic to, actually, since I think it raises an extraordinarily serious point that has to be faced by any acceptable pro-life view -- is the argument that one of the salient issues is that the embryo and fetus are part of the woman's body. Now, it's not difficult to see that this is a very, very popular argument, and I think it's so because it's actually a very good argument. Here and there you find pro-life arguments that argue that the embryo or fetus is not (relevantly) part of the mother's body; they aren't necessarily absurd, but they're nonstarters. There are are overwhelmingly good reasons, regardless of whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, to regard the embryo and fetus as part of the mother's body, even if you hold (as in fact I do, being pro-life myself) that they are not merely body parts. But close and serious philosophical discussions? Very rare, and the few that do are usually concerned more with the concept of self-ownership than abortion.

This failure to consider the nux of the dispute is, I think, a common pattern in the case of abortion. Almost all discussion of Marquis's arguments, for instance, could continue almost exactly as they do if abortion had nothing whatsoever to do with women -- they are all about whether killing is wrong because it deprives people of their future. The fact that abortion is the key case is almost accidental. Judith Jarvis Thomson's violinist case in A Defense of Abortion has had a lot of discussion, which is reasonable because like most of Thomson's work it is quite good, and is the sort of serious argument you would expect. But for most of the discussion that followed, again, it's almost accidental that abortion is there at all, and even when it is not, most of the discussion could proceed in the same way if abortion had nothing whatsoever to do with women. But all the arguments for abortion that have the most popular appeal are women-centered. And yet it is extraordinarily difficult to find philosophical elaborations of women-centered arguments for abortion as a choice, despite the fact that you'd expect them to be quite common. I suppose it could be the case that most people assume it's the default. (I am almost certain that that's the reason in the case of contraception.) But that's not a good reason for not discussing it explicitly; for instance, discussion might show that it needs to be more than a default, or that some other variation would make a better default. And an undefended default is a default the other side can treat as irrelevant and, on any contentious issue, will.

I want to make clear that I'm not saying that there are no discussions of the sort. There are; they're just scattered and difficult to find, and much more rare than you'd think they'd be if you didn't actually look. If you think I'm not quite judging things correctly, I invite you to look around yourself; you'll find that the serious philosophical discussions I mean are quite difficult to find, and many discussions that superficially are about them actually only use them in an incidental way. I also don't think contraception and abortion are the only cases; they just stand out because they are so contentious in public life that you'd think there would be better philosophical coverage of them than there actually is.

Philosophers chase their own interests; and their interests might well not coincide with the interests of non-philosophers. But I think there's a good argument that ethicists in particular, in addition to whatever interests they may have themselves, should be discussing the actual arguments that people actually make (or, to be more exact, arguments in those families, since the arguments people actually make will often tend to be loose, approximate, and summary versions of more sophisticated arguments). This is not to say that they never do -- you get great discussions of things like vegetarianism and animal rights in precisely this vein and (for instance) works on homosexuality, both for and against, often make an explicit point of having close discussions of popular arguments as well as whatever's academically fashionable. But if it's the case that ethicists should be doing this, I think there's also an argument that they should be doing it quite broadly across the range of public interest.

So I suppose this raises two questions.

(1) While I do try to keep a general sense of what's going on, obviously ethics is not my primary field. So am I just somehow missing the extensive philosophical discussions of these issues in their own right?


(2) What other fields are there in which close philosophical discussions are rare? What gaps are there? For a long time taxes and welfare were, although this has slowly gotten better; there are whole sections of the field that are still surprisingly sparse. Outside of business and medicine professional ethics seems to me to be sparsely discussed -- there are fascinating things involved in the ethics of professional fishing, and ethical fishing practices are constant issues of importance for fishing communities and the fishing industry, since long-term survival can depend on them. But I don't think there's much philosophical discussion of them at all, although they occasionally come up in general discussions of sustainability. Collections care is another field in which ethics is practically important that seems sparsely discussed by professional ethicists despite its importance to the public. I know that for my ethics course I always have difficulty finding materials for civil service ethics (which is the branch of government ethics I focus on) that actually focus on specific civil-service issues rather than very general conflict-of-interest issues. There's a lot on it -- most governments, including the U.S., have bureaus and departments of ethics that are constantly collecting information and writing up little reports on ethical issues in the civil service. But extensive philosophical discussion of this material is not usually to be had.

And, of course, one can argue that it's not just ethics that has this problem. I can think of half a dozen issues in philosophy of religion that are (1) important in greater public life, often to very large populations; (2) potentially interesting philosophical topics; and (3) hardly ever discussed. Things like ritual sacrifice, Sikh Guru consciousness, kashimono-karimono, the status of religious law, the relationship between conscience and worship, i'jaz al-Qur'an, indigenous religions, and mythology as a guide for practice are well outside the little treadmill of arguments most philosophers of religion discuss.

Aegidius VIII

Capitulum Undecimum
Capitulum Duodecimum

These two are slightly more gruesome, and are the start of a slightly dark shift in the story, although I don't think it's a hugely surprising one. Both of these chapters are very important, and I don't really like them at this point; they would need some pretty significant reworking. But the story continues; there will be one chapter with interaction between Giles and the narrator, but, that aside, from here until the end Giles is in motion and rather than standing still.

If nothing else, this is good exercise for remembering Latin ordinal numbers.

Chesterton for March XIV

Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense.

Source: Orthodoxy

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Chesterton for March XIII

I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.

Source: Illustrated London News (3 June 1922)

Three Poem Drafts

All three are rough, but the first one I came up with while walking to the library today, so it's especially first-draft. Speaking of which, I see that someone has toppled the lead child in our local branch's famous bit of public art, which is called "Invasion of the Zombie Children." Actually, the name is "Learning to Fly" and no doubt is supposed to represent children pretending to fly as they leap from stone to stone. I'm the only one who calls it, "Invasion of the Zombie Children," but you can see how I might have been confused. And, honestly, I have to admire the cleverness of these zombie children. Other zombies hang out near cabins in the wood, or in shopping malls, but these were clever enough to realize that you can get decent-quality brains at your local public library.


These words have brushed my lips, so take them as a kiss;
but to get the flavor right, it would not be amiss
to add a pinch of passion and one drop of quiet bliss.

A slight soupçon will do! Do not overspice,
just let it linger softly-slow. But if you find it nice,
do not hesitate, my love, to read this poem twice.

God of Battles

God of Battles, hear my cry!
Here in deserts fierce the hosts
encompass me with jeer and boast
and though I fight, I fight and die.
In lenten wilderness of earth
I wander tempted and displaced,
a pelican with sorrow's face,
and dream of life beyond my birth;
but nothing seems to be reborn
save struggles I knew yesterday.
I fight again, confess and pray,
and yet once more my hopes are torn.
But God of Battles! Though I fail,
Your arm is strong with lightning-force;
You move the earth and star in course.
I fall, but You, my God, prevail.

No Epic

No epic for America is set to page;
the stars have not been made to sing her praise;
the Union made of nations, states, and hopes,
has never had a poet set her strengths so high.
And swiftly though I try to tear away
this chill of heart, I worry for my land,
that ere the epic sweep a dirge might loom,
and foreign pens alone may write in future times
of when the chains of slaves were snapped, or armies raged
across the Southern states, and sing the songs
of journeys to the moon, as legends old,
through records frail and brittle only known.
Can we, so near the day, see only pain,
and sing but jeremiads through our tears?
Are we such cynics bred that heroes fade
and deeds are all deemed dirty at the time?
Or do we live alone in Vico's human age,
all ages filled with gods and heroes lost,
that all our deeds ring hollow, empty shells,
since we have lost the words to speak their hearts?

Notes and Links

* Brett Salkeld has an interview with theologian James Alison.

* A post on reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher at "The Philosopher's Beard". I do think that the claim that Ian McEwan's characterization is more 'psychologically real' than Austen's is both absurd and belied by the degree to which Austen's readers see themselves in her characters. McEwan's character's never strike me as very real, but rather as highly stylized and unnatural; he's just pretty decent at making them seem plausible. Austen's characters, on the other hand, are entirely natural. Similarly with the characterization of her plots, which I think overlooks the fact that they are the kinds of plots that depict events that actually happen to lots of people -- anyone who has extensive family connections knows what I mean. But a good deal of the argument is quite right.

* Tolkien's famous letter to the German publishing house that demanded to know if he was Aryan.

* Christopher Graney on Tycho Brahe's good science at "The Renaissance Mathematicus".

* Supplementary matter for Holy Transfiguration Monastery's new edition of the Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian (the edition itself is quite good, by the way). I especially recommend the 'Epilogue' (from the original edition, I believe) on the history of the Church of Persia. It's interesting to see the world from the perspective of a Church to which the Eastern Orthodox Churches are all regarded as part of western Christendom. It also deals with the important question of how Nestorian the Church of Persia actually was. (The answer is complicated but is, more or less: not very, although terminological differences across the language divide and greater problems with Monophysites made them more sympathetic to Nestorius's writings when translated into their terms -- which, of course, were not the terms in which Nestorius himself wrote, due to the language divide again.)

* An interesting IEP article on Ramanuja

* A petition asking that the canonization inquiry be opened for Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani minister who was assassinated last year.

* A Kickstarter project for a Simone Weil documentary -- the documentary is actually already done; they are building up money to get it distributed; and while they are pretty much to their goal already, more donations can make possible more openings in more places.

* The religious liberty issue on the other side of the water: The United Kingdom is arguing before the European Court of Human Rights that because cross-wearing is not a requirement, employers can ban it and fire workers who insist upon wearing it.

I find it interesting. Every term I have an Ethics courses, one of the class periods is given over to the Game of Summit, in which students have to come up with formulations of human rights. And almost every term one of the delegations proposes some religious liberty right so weak as to be useless -- this term, for instance, the religious liberty right that was advocated was that everyone should have the right to practice their religion as long as it harmed no one else and it was not contrary to any other law. I'm afraid I teased them the rest of the period about their vigorous affirmation of everyone's right to practice their religion as long as no one made it illegal to do so. But I see it a lot. And I think, actually, that my students keep hitting on what is, in fact, the actual assumption about religious liberty in modern culture: that you should have it until someone else says you can't have it. Sometimes we get a grudging concession that you can engage in a religious practice if it's absolutely a requirement of your religion -- this was Boudway's argument a while back, and it's the UK's argument here. This is a very great dimunition of the concept of religious liberty rights; it is such a weak formulation that it's hardly anything at all.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Whewell on the Fundamental Antithesis

Charles Darwin sent William Whewell a copy of the first edition of the Origin of Species and received back from him the following letter:

My dear Mr Darwin

I have to thank you for a copy of your book on the `Origin of Species’. You will easily believe that it has interested me very much, and probably you will not be surprized to be told that I cannot, yet at least, become a convert to your doctrines. But there is so much of thought and of fact in what you have written that it is not to be contradicted without careful selection of the ground and manner of the dissent, which I have not now time for. I must therefore content myself with thanking you for your kindness.

believe me | Yours very truly | W Whewell

Darwin showed the note to Charles Lyell with the comment, "Possibly you might like to see enclosed note from Whewell, merely as showing that he is not horrified with us." And this is quite right. As Darwin surely recognized, despite Whewell's disagreement, the letter is quite complimentary. It's easy to miss this. Someone who doesn't know anything about Whewell's philosophy of science might read "there is so much of thought and of fact in what you have written" as a vague and noncommittal description, and therefore read Whewell's claim that he doesn't have the time to give his objections as a claim that Whewell can't respond because Darwin has written too much to make a short response easily. But what Whewell is actually saying, despite his disagreement with Darwin's conclusions, is that Darwin's argument is scientifically excellent, and thus that any objection would have to be carefully developed to be of correspondingly good quality. 'Thought' and 'Fact' are not vague colloquial terms for Whewell; they are at the very heart of his view of the scientific enterprise.

The foundation of much of Whewell's philosophical account of the sciences is what he calls the 'fundamental antithesis of philosophy'. This fundamental antithesis he regards as widely recognized, although people use different terms to characterize it. On one side of the antithesis people use terms like:

Necessary Truths
Deductive Truths
Reflexion (Reflection)
Internal World

For the other side of the antithesis people use terms like:

Contingent or Experiential Truths
Inductive Truths
Sensations (Sensation)
External World

Whewell doesn't think that these terms on each side are synonymous, but he does think that they bring out two different sides that are found in all human knowledge. All human knowledge is a sort of union of mind and world, and we can never get away from the fact that knowing anything requires the mind to give an organization to some kind of information about the world.

It is important to repeat again that Whewell doesn't regard the terms in each list as synonymous. In fact he is quite clear that you cannot have 'Facts' unless you are already combining Thoughts and Things; and 'Theories' in Whewell's sense are themselves generalized Experiential Truths. This ties in with another feature of Whewell's view of the fundamental antithesis: while it is always there, the line between the two sides moves, and in any given case the distinction between the two sides of the antithesis can be quite subtle. The moment we start experiencing things we also start organzing our experiences in thought; we never theorize in complete absence of facts, and we never identify facts in complete absence of theory. From the earliest we can trace, our understanding of the world involves both sides of the antithesis, sometimes in complex ways, because understanding the world is itself the union, the synthesis, of both sides. When we use the terms on the list we are usually looking at a very specific aspect of this synthesis, and thus drawing out something that's a bit different from what we would draw out using other terms; this is why Whewell can claim both that the terms on each list are not synonymous and that each list has special relevance to one side of the fundamental antithesis.

It's the idea that knowledge is the synthesis of an antithesis that gives Whewell the German flavor for which many of his British contemporaries had no taste. But Whewell thinks that it is precisely this that is important: Thought and Thing, Theory and Fact, are inseparable:

In a Fact, the Ideas are applied so readily and familiarly, and incorporated with the sensations so entirely, that we do not see them, we see through them....And thus, a true Theory is a Fact ; a Fact is a familiar Theory. That which is a Fact under one aspect, is a Theory under another. The most recondite Theories when firmly established are Facts: the simplest Facts involve something of the nature of Theory. (PIS (1847) Volume I, p. 40)

Consider, for instance, the movement of a needle toward a magnet. We say that the magnet attracts the needle, that there is an attractive force involved or (to use terminology that only developed after Whewell's basic ideas were developed) a magnetic field. But these things are not simply given to sensation: we are applying ideas -- attraction, force, field -- to our sensations, while barely noticing that we are doing so. We are interpreting our sensations in order to make sense of them, and without this interpretation we don't have any clue what's going on. Even recognizing that time is passing, or that something is bigger or smaller than something else, requires this act of interpretation, this application of idea to sensory information. And this is why we have to think of the line between the two as in some sense moving. Applications of ideas to facts themselves get subject to more ideas, relative to which they are facts. Theories get confirmed and contribute to the discovery of new Facts, often Facts whose discovery depended crucially on the Theory.

It is this very point that Whewell regards as the foundation for scientific progress. Our Ideas become more general, new kinds of Experiential Truths are discovered; what is mostly Theory in one age has become Fact for another, to be organized by an even higher-order Theory. The Ptolemaic system of Hipparchus and Ptolemy organizes a wide number of astronomical facts; over the centuries new facts that are difficult to organize with the system become known; people look for systems capable of covering this broader range of facts in an adequate way, argue over the various merits and demerits of different systems, and eventually the Keplerian system wins out as a theory. Newton takes the Keplerian system as part of the factual terrain for a more general theory of mechanical motion; indeed, Newton's greatness on Whewell's view does not consist in any one of his discoveries but in the fact that Newton completes as one person a series of successive generalizations of ideas and expansions of factual territory what normally would take several. Ideas lead to more powerful Ideas; Facts lead to more general Facts. Again, Sylvius gives an interpretation of the phenomena that occur when acid and base are brought together, which is the theory that one neutralizes the other, which becomes established enough to be treated as a fact; this fact with many others is combined by later scientists under a basic theory of affinity or elective attraction; this is combined with other facts to get more general theories of affinity; this is combined with other facts to get atomic theory; and so forth. Putting it this way makes it sound more linear than it is -- while he thinks that the ascent is in some sense constant, Whewell is well aware that scientific progress is not in a straight line, that it branches and sometimes partly doubles back on reaching dead ends -- but gives the general idea. Whewell thinks that the progress of science is encoded in this way in technical terms: our best definitions of technical terms are as it were brief summaries of how ideas apply to the world in our best theories.

There is much more that could be said on this subject. Whewell has to argue at length that his account doesn't imply that everything we call knowledge is merely a subjective arrangement of sensory facts, but a real discovery of real truths about the world. He also has an interesting account, based on the fundamental antithesis idea, of the interplay between necessary truths and empirical experiments, and, of course, he goes on at length to discuss how different Ideas in each science organize Facts in more and more powerful ways. But this is enough to get the general idea of Whewell's account, and to see in what sense Whewell's letter is cautiously complimentary. When he says that Darwin's book has "so much of thought and of fact" that any objection would have to be very carefully thought out, he's saying that, right or wrong, the book is a truly scientific contribution to progress on the subject. Being full of thought and fact is what a good scientist does on Whewell's account. Whewell, who would die six years after the above letter, would never be convinced by Darwin's argument. But in this letter he is in fact claiming that it's a powerful argument that really does contribute to the scientific discussion. And as a first reaction, I think one could regard that as quite favorable; among compliments that a scientist can receive, there are very few that are better.

Chesterton for March XII

"Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

"For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God's death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow."

Source: The Ballad of the White Horse

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Chesterton for March XI

Virgil had the best news to tell as well as the best words to tell it in. His world might be sad; but it was the largest world one could live in before the coming of Christianity.

Source: The Victorian Age in Literature

Canonic and Logic

I was thinking about Navya-Nyāya syllogisms this morning. Navya-Nyāya is a highly methodical school of Indian philosophy, with a very sophisticated epistemology. They are most famous outside of India for their method of argument. The ideal argument, so it is said, has several steps. In the most common example given:

(1) Pratijñā: There is fire on the hill.
(2) Hetu: Because there is smoke on the hill.
(3) Udāhārana: Smoke goes with fire, as in a kitchen.
(4) Upanaya: Similarly for the hill.
(5) Nigamana: Therefore there is fire on the hill.

What is often not stated in describing this is that this is not some random pile of things thrown together, but that the Navya-Nyāya claim that this line of inference is the most powerful kind of inference has some philosophical backing. The Navya-Nyāya school argues at length that there are four and only four sources of knowledge: Śabda, which is acceptable testimony; Anumāna, which is rational inference; Pratyakṣa, which is perceptive sensation; and Upamāna, which is recognition of analogy or similarity. The 'syllogism' above constitutes a clear interweaving of all four sources of knowledge: we have testimony (1) backed by inference (2) which is confirmed by sensible example (3) and shown relevant by analogy (4); therefore in reaching the conclusion (5), we have done our cognitive utmost, building on the full extent of our ability to come to know anything. It's actually more complicated than this; each step has a set of rules that have to be met and errors that have to be avoided. But if these are met in a given case, the reasoning is powerful; and, if one grants certain basic assumptions about cognition, the conclusion that this is powerful reasoning is exactly right.

What struck me is that, despite the extraordinary rationality of the approach, and despite the common practice of calling this a 'syllogism', this is not a formal inference but a material one, and that Navya-Nyāya logic is actually a canonic. I've talked about canonic before. Putting the point in very crude form, in the Hellenistic period, in the disputes between the Stoics and the Epicureans, the Stoics championed (formal) logic. But of course they would: the Stoics held that the world was pervaded by reason, and that divine reason was involved in everything, so it was natural for them to hold that logic yields knowledge. But if you're Epicurean, you believe that the world is not pervaded by reason but simply a particular combination of ever-shifting indivisibles; so why would you think that logic gives anything more than verbal game-playing? Thus the Epicureans had instead of logic an experience-based canonic. In the post just linked I proposed that empiricist-leaning schools of thought develop a canonic when faced with very strongly rationalist-leaning schools of thought; this seems confirmed by several examples in Western thought. But if the Navya-Nyāya are rightly characterized as providing a canonic, it is massively more sophisticated than anything I have ever seen attributed to Epicureans on the subject, but it doesn't really seem to make much sense at all to characterize Navya-Nyāya as empiricists facing down strong rationalists. So perhaps we should really regard canonic as the natural reasoning-art of humanity, and ask instead how logic takes a firm hold. After all, it does seem we could do just fine in practical life without formal logic, and while the developments of the Navya-Nyāya school are massively more sophisticated than most other canonics, they show just how much you can do with a canonic. On the other hand, perhaps the real issue is not canonic and logic in themselves but the opposition. Navya-Nyāya canonic is not inconsistent with formal logic, nor is it conceived by the Navya-Nyāya school in any way that would lead one to think that canonic is being proposed as importantly superior to formal logic; in fact, at some points the classical texts of the school do seem to get into purely logical considerations, although they don't emphasize them in the way a Stoic or Aristotelian would, and contemporary logicians influenced the school are constantly exploring these and looking at the possibility of formalizing other parts. But Epicurean or early modern instances of canonic certainly do present some kind of opposition; and it is perhaps here that explanation of strong empiricism vs. strong rationalism becomes important, because while it can have some kind of interpretation of formal logic, strong empiricism can't have a major emphasis on formal logic as telling us anything about the world (as opposed to say, telling us how language works): it has no way of grounding the strong modalities (necessity, universality, etc.) that such an emphasis requires.