Saturday, November 17, 2012


Secession petitions filed at the White House's "We the People" site have somehow become major news, thus leaving completely unremarked other important petitions like the recently expired petition asking the President to dance the hokey-pokey, or the current one asking him to attend a party or else drink a beer with Drew Curtis, or the one demanding that he outlaw offensive comments about prophets of major religions. A few points of note:

(1) It is quite obvious that the point of the petitions (from all fifty states by now) is simply to force the White House into the embarrassing position of having to give a public response explaining why states should not secede. This is not a 'secession movement'; it's a prank.

(2) Texas leads the pack, by far, on signatures for a secession petition, so it's perhaps worth pointing out for any Yankees in the audience that the obvious reason why it's so far ahead of other secession petitions is that Texans are signing it in order to make sure that Texas comes in first when it comes to secession petitions. This is what Texans do. If, for instance, you were to go to any random place in Texas and start asking people whether they thought Texas should secede, you would have a significant number of people who would say 'Yes' for no other reason than to guarantee that there would be lots of 'Yes' answers to your question. (You would also have a significant number of people who would say 'Yes' because they thought it was a stupid question deserving a stupid answer. That's another thing Texans do: answer questions they regard as stupid with answers they regard as stupid, and then laugh at you when you go away taking them seriously.)

There is, of course, no major secession movement in Texas, and hasn't been in ages. Secession in Texas is a vocabulary and game, not a movement, and is a (deliberately) bombastic way of talking about the distinctiveness of the state. Likewise, when you are in Texas and overhear someone saying that someone should be shot, or that they will be beating someone to death shortly, you can generally assume that they are engaging in Texas hyperbole for 'So-and-so is completely wrong and starting to annoy me.' Deliberately bombastic hyperbole is also something Texans do. And, what is more, one reason Texans like talking about secession is that it elicits hilariously funny reactions from non-Texans who aren't in on the game.

(3) It should go without saying, but in case it doesn't:

(a) No, states do not under the current constitional regime have the right to secede.

(b) No, people cannot be stripped of citizenship for asking to secede. I am certain that most of the people signing this petition are just playing the game from the opposite side, but I note it just in case it doesn't go without saying. In fact, no one can actually be stripped of citizenship for anything; in the U.S., you can renounce citizenship, but no government has the authority to take it away from you without your consent; and merely asking to secede is neither a formal nor an implicit renunciation of citizenship -- it's just asking. Likewise, it is not treason to advocate secession.

(c) No, if the states could secede, the federal government would not have the authority to give parts of the state the right to secede from the state; the federal government lacks the constitutional authority to do this for states and lacks the jursdiction for doing it to independent countries.

(d) Yes, anyone who takes petitions on the White House's We the People site seriously is a little bit of a lunatic.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Money Lenders' Dole

The Money Lenders' Dole
by Peter Maurin

Uncle Sam does not believe
in the unemployed dole,
but Uncle Sam does believe
in the money lenders’ dole.
Uncle Sam doles out every year
more than a billion dollars
to the money lenders.
And it is the money lenders’ dole
that put Uncle Sam
into a hole.
The money lenders are first citizens
on Uncle Sam’s payroll.
There were no money lenders
on the payroll
in Palestine and Ireland.
There were no money lenders
on the payroll
in Palestine and Ireland
because the Prophets of Israel
and the Fathers of the Church
forbid lending money at interest.
But Uncle Sam does not listen
to the Prophets of Israel
and the Fathers of the Church.

This is one of Peter Maurin's Easy Essays. Maurin died in 1949.

Dorothy Day's on Her Way

According to current canonization procedures, the relevant bishop has to consult with the regional conference of bishops on whether to advance the cause; this past week Archbishop Dolan consulted with the USCBB on whether to advance the cause for the canonization of Dorothy Day. The bishops voted to endorse this, and so it looks like Dorothy Day's canonization inquiry will be beginning in earnest.

Day was born in Brooklyn, although she spent much of her childhood in San Francisco and Chicago; she returned to New York after dropping out of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. There she became very active in socialist causes, especially as a journalist for socialist papers; during this period she had a small handful of affairs and an abortion, but she slowly became more interested in Catholic life, in part because many of the working class with whom she interacted were themselves Catholic. When she became pregnant again, she asked a nun what she could do to have the child baptized; the nun had her memorize the Baltimore Catechism. When her relationship with her partner ended, Day joined the Church herself, and began to write for Commonweal and America.

In 1932 her life changed when she met a French immigrant named Peter Maurin, who showed her how Catholic theology linked up with work for the poor and working class. Together they started the newspaper The Catholic Worker, which became the heart of what has become known as the Catholic Worker Movement. Day died in 1980.

From an editorial in The Catholic Worker, November 1936:

As I waited for the traffic light to change on my way to the Seamen's Defense Committee headquarters, I was idly saying my rosary, which was handy in my pocket. The recitation was more or less automatic, when suddenly like a bright light, like a joyful thought, the words Our Father pierced my heart. To all those who were about me, to all the passerby, to the longshoremen idling about the corner, black and white, to the striking seamen I was going to see, I was akin, for we were all children of a common Father, all creatures of One Creator, and Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Christian, Communist or non-Communist, were bound together by this tie. We can not escape the recognition of the fact that we are all brothers. Whether or not a man believes in Jesus Christ, His Incarnation, His Life here with us, His crucifixion and resurrection; whether or not a man believes in God, the fact remains that we are all children of one Father.

Meditation of this fact makes hatred and strife between brothers the more to be opposed. The work we must do is strive for peace and concordance rather than hatred and strife.

Speaking for myself, I like Dorothy Day very much, and consider this all cheerful news.

Actual Humanity and the Ethical Commonwealth

The sublime, yet never wholly attainable, idea of an ethical commonwealth dwindles markedly under men’s hands. It becomes an institution which, at best capable of representing only the pure form of such a commonwealth, is, by the conditions of sensuous human nature, greatly circumscribed in its means for establishing such a whole. How indeed can one expect something perfectly straight to be framed out of such crooked wood?

To found a moral people of God is therefore a task whose consummation can be looked for not from men but only from God Himself. Yet man is not entitled on this account to be idle in this business and to let Providence rule, as though each could apply himself exclusively to his own private moral affairs and relinquish to a higher wisdom all the affairs of the human race (as regards its moral destiny). Rather must man proceed as though everything depended upon him; only on this condition dare he hope that higher wisdom will grant the completion of his well-intentioned endeavors.

The wish of all well-disposed people is, therefore, “that the kingdom of God come, that His will be done on earth.” But what preparations must they now make that it shall come to pass? An ethical commonwealth under divine moral legislation is a church which, so far as it is not an object of possible experience, is called the church invisible (a mere idea of the union of all the righteous under direct and moral divine world-government, and idea serving all as the archetype of what is to be established by men. The visible church is the actual union of men into a whole which harmonizes with that ideal.

Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone. A very Lutheran way of putting it; there's a reason why someone as very different from Kant as Karl Barth insisted that Kant had a good grasp of the Protestantism of the Reformation. But the point it makes is more general than that.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

To Breathe the Air of Immortality

by Emma Lazarus

Would I had waked this morn where Florence smiles,
A-bloom with beauty, a white rose full-blown,
Yet rich in sacred dust, in storied stone,
Precious past all the wealth of Indian isles--
From olive-hoary Fiesole to feed
On Brunelleschi's dome my hungry eye,
And see again the lotus-colored sky,
Spring the slim belfry graceful as a reed.
To kneel upon the ground where Dante trod,
To breathe the air of immortality.
From Angelo and Raphael -- to be --
Each sense new-quickened by a demi-god.
To hear the liquid Tuscan speech at whiles,
From citizen and peasant, to behold
The heaven of Leonardo washed with gold--
Would I had waked this morn where Florence smiles!

Emma Lazarus, of course, is most famous today for her sonnet, "The New Colossus", which she wrote to help raise money for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, and which is quoted on that same pedestal.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Definitional Mereotopology

Let us start with a basic idea: definitions of concepts can have parts. We can think about definitional parts in two ways, depending on whether we take the whole definition to count as a 'part' of the definition. When we count the definition itself as a 'part' of the definition, let's call this a basic definitional part of the concept defined and give it the abbreviation P. Basic definitional parts have the following basic properties:

(1) xPx
-> definitions are basic definitional parts of themselves

(2) xPy & yPz -> xPz
-> if x is a basic definitional part of y, and y is a basic definitional part of z, then x is also a basic definitional part of z.

(3) xPy & yPx -> x=y
-> if x and y are both basic definitional parts of each other, then they are the same definition, at least for any relevant purposes

So suppose our definition is that human beings are rational animals. Then we can say that rationality is a basic definitional part of the concept of humanity, and so is animality. It's also true (by (1)), that rational-animality is a basic definitional part (it's the basic definitional part that happens to be the whole thing). If part of the definition of 'rationality' is (just for example) 'capable in principle of grasping abstract universal concepts', this is a basic definitional part of rationality, and it is also (by (2)) a basic definitional part of anything of which rationality is a basic definitional part. And if rational-animality is a basic definitional part of animal-rationality and vice versa, then they can (by (3)) be treated as simply the same thing.

But we often use 'part' in a narrower sense, in which wholes are not counted as parts in the relevant sense. Let's call this a strict definitional part of the concept defined, and give it the abbreviation PP. Strict definitional parts are related to basic definitional parts in the following way:

(4) xPPy <-> xPy & ~yPx
-> that is, x is a strict definitional part of y when it is a basic definitional part of y, but y is not a definitional part of it
-> or, in other words: strict definitional parts are basic definitional parts that are not equal to the whole

It's also clear that definitions can overlap. Basic definitional overlap, which we can abbrevaite as O, is easily defined: it occurs when there is something that is a basic definitional part of both definitions. (We could also define a strict definitional overlap using strict definitional parts.) Examples of definitional overlap between the definition of humanity and the definition of doghood would include things like animality, mammality, vertebratehood, and so forth.

We can also see that things can be relevant to definitions in various ways. Let's say we have basic definitional relevance, given the abbreviation C, whenever something is relevant to a definition in a way that meets the following conditions:

(5) xCx
-> definitions are definitionally relevant to themselves.

(6) xCy -> yCx
-> whenever x is definitionally relevant to y, the reverse is also true.

It is clear from this that if x definitionally overlaps with y, they are definitionally relevant to each other. Likewise, it is clear from this that all basic definitional parts and all strict definitional parts are definitionally relevant to the concepts for which they are parts.

We can get more specific by uniting our two concepts. Let something be internally relevant to the definition, abbreviated IP, if it meets the following condition:

(7) xIPy <-> (xPy & (zCx -> zOy))
-> x is internally relevant to the definition of y when x is part of y and when something, call it z,is definitionally relevant to x it is so in such a way that z definitionally overlaps with y.

And we can likewise let something be externally relevant to the definition (EC), when it is definitionally relevant to it but not so as to overlap with it: for instance, if definitions are indirectly relevant to each other without actually sharing any parts. (It's actually quite an interesting question whether this is possible, and, if so, the conditions under which it is.)

All of these, of course, are just some of the simpler possible mereotopological concepts applied to definitions of concepts; thus mereotopology can provide a rigorous vocabulary for talking about definitions.

Theistic Arguments

Occasionally comments go astray (usually if people are commenting on a mobile platform); they needed to be rooted out of hiding. Jarvis left a recent comment that hid away but is interesting:

In an old post, Rational Compulsion, Reasoned Argument, Positing, and God's Existence, you wrote, " own very extreme view [is] -- that there are a lot of excellent arguments for the existence of God, some of which can be considered demonstrative (that last clause is especially rare these days) . . . " I wonder if you still hold this opinion? If so, I am particularly interested in which arguments you consider demonstrative. Best, Jarvis

It is indeed still my opinion; in fact I have become more convinced of it as time has gone on. An example of an argument that I think is essentially demonstrative can be found in John Duns Scotus's Treatise on God as First Principle; one can find an older English translation of it here. I do think it needs some updating in light of particular philosophical topics that have arisen since, namely,

(1) the external world
(2) the nature of causation
(3) the nature of explanation

But I am increasingly sure that serious consideration of each of these three topics ends up strengthening the argument, in the sense that I think the course of philosophical argument since has shown that in order to reject principles that are at least broadly like those Scotus uses, you have to make much more significant intellectual sacrifices than people usually recognize. (I am most certain of this with (1), which is the one with which I am most familiar; and a surprising number of positions on (2) and (3) that are inconsistent with Scotus's Threefold Primacy argument have very problematic consequences for (1).)

But I am not, in fact, mortally committed to such arguments actually being really and truly demonstrative; but they are good arguments that show some evidence of being demonstrative and that on close examination can be seen to withstand the major attempts to argue that they are not. Many objections to theistic arguments are put forward as if they had no serious implications beyond stopping the argument. But theistic arguments deal with fairly fundamental things. If you reject the premise of the First Way that whatever is moved is moved by another, you have, given how it is understood in argument, committed yourself to claiming that what is not actual can become actual without any causal explanation at all, and you've committed yourself to whatever reasons you use to support that conclusion. That's perfectly fine, of course, but if you are going to do this you had definitely better be willing to follow through on all the implications and be willing to address any apparent problems caused by that commitment; as Schopenhauer says somewhere, arguments are not like cabs -- you can't ride them only as far as you want and then get off. I think people have an unusually egregious tendency to treat objections as taxi cabs when arguing against theistic arguments; I'm not sure why this is so, although it could be (since you can find some of the same behavior on the other side) simply because philosophical arguments on this topic reach a massively greater audience than philosophical arguments on almost any other topic, and that this is just a byproduct of that.

The more general position here, however, is simply that (1) there are plenty of reasonable arguments that something exists that can reasonably be called divine, whether or not one wishes to consider them demonstrative (or even whether one thinks they are actually right, since arguments can be perfectly reasonable and still not be quite right); and that (2) of these reasonable arguments, at least some of them are quite excellent as arguments, whether or not one wishes to consider them demonstrative: Scotus's Threefold Primacy argument, the First Way, Boethius-style arguments for the Good, the too-often-overlooked family of infinite intelligible arguments, certain cautious arguments from religious experience, and so forth. In other words, it is not actually difficult to be a theist for reasons that stand up to examination pretty well. This is itself a fairly weak position. One can be an atheist and accept it, since it's entirely possible to believe that some arguments for X are reasonable and even quite impressive while believing nonetheless that some arguments for not-X are definitive and conclusive. It was once not very difficult to find atheists who agreed with it, although it seems to be somewhat out of fashion at present. Nonetheless, it needs to be kept distinct from the view that there is good reason to think some of these reasonable, reasonably good arguments to be in fact demonstrative, which is an entirely different position altogether: you can have very good reasons that are not even in the vicinity of being rigorously demonstrative.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Links for Noting

* The LOTR Project

* The Imaginative Conservative has an interesting review of Gene Healy's The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power

* "On the Main Line" has a funny story about one of the great Jewish philosophers, Moses Mendelssohn.

* D. G. Myers discusses de Rougemont and gay marriage at "The Commonplace Blog".

* Jack Thornton on Tolkien's manuscripts.

* Colorsystem discusses a large number of color ordering systems.

* R. J. Snell discusses John Courtney Murray and the two kinds of barbarism.

* Shaun Nichols, The Rise of Compatibilism: A Case Study in the Quantitative History of Philosophy (PDF). The 'quantitative' is less quantitative than Nichols makes it sound; it should really be 'Comparative' rather than 'Quantitative'.

* Philosophers' Carnival #145; the posts on the Liar Paradox and on values in scientific reasoning are particularly interesting.

* Ancient Commentators on Aristotle

* ThonyC corrects some common errors about Tycho Brahe.

Dream and Thought and Feeling Interwound

The Soul's Expression
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

With stammering lips and insufficient sound
I strive and struggle to deliver right
That music of my nature, day and night
With dream and thought and feeling interwound
And only answering all the senses round
With octaves of a mystic depth and height
Which step out grandly to the infinite
From the dark edges of the sensual ground.
This song of soul I struggle to outbear
Through portals of the sense, sublime and whole,
And utter all myself into the air:
But if I did it,—-as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Self-School'd, Self-Scann'd, Self-Honour'd, Self-Secure

by Matthew Arnold

Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,

Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foil'd searching of mortality;

And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguess'd at.—Better so!

All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fortnightly Book, November 11

For the fortnightly book, I thought I would re-read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, as edited by Christopher Tolkien. This consists of two narrative poems written by Tolkien, the New Lay of the Völsungs, and the New Lay of Gudrún. They are not translations, but an attempt to unify various strands in the Norse traditions about the Völsungs; Christopher Tolkien notes that Tolkien had mentioned them in a letter to W. H. Auden, in which he says that he wrote them while "trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry" (p. 6). Christopher Tolkien adds to the two poems a portion of a lecture by Tolkien on the Elder Edda, and some extensive commentary on each.

I thought the introductory paragraph to Christopher Tolkien's introduction was interesting:

Many years ago my father referred to the words of William Morris concernign what he called 'the Great Story of the North', which, he insisted, should be to us 'what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks', and which far in the future 'should be to those that come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us.' On this my father observed: 'How far off and remote sound now the words of William Morris! The Tale of Troy has been falling into oblivion since that time wtih surprising rapidity. But the Völsungs have not taken its place.' (p. 13)

It is a very Tolkien-esque sentiment.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was actually born in South Africa; his parents were in South Africa more or less because his father was in charge of an international division of a British bank. While on a visit to England with his mother, his father, still in South Africa, died, and thus the Tolkiens did not return. His mother became Catholic when Tolkien was eight; the rest of the family was Baptist, so this did not go down well. She died four years later, but she had arranged for a priest at the Birmingham Oratory to be Tolkien's guardian should anything happen to her. He got a degree from Exeter College in Oxford in English Language and Literature. He fought in World War I, but he deliberately delayed his enlistment so that he could finish his degree. He came down with trench fever in 1916 and was sent home. His recovery took a long time, and it was while he was recovering that he began The Book of Lost Tales. After the War he worked first for the OED, then began to teach at the University of Leeds. He almost served in World War II as a codebreaker, even having taken an initial course, but never actually did so. He moved after WWII to Merton College, Oxford. He retired in 1959 and died in 1973.

Some Jottings on Dynamic Mereotopology

These are just some loose thoughts, not very developed. A mereology is a theory of part-and-whole relations. A topology is, roughly, a theory of relations that remain constant under continuous changes -- boundaries and connections being the most important, so a topology can be considered a theory of connection-and-limit relations. A mereotopology, of course, joins the two. We tend to regard these as spatial in character, but in principle a mereotopology is capable of covering a great deal more (concepts, abstract structures, and so forth). In any case, it would be worthwhile to have some account of mereotopology that included some conception of change -- a dynamic mereotopology. There are two ways one could include change in a mereotopology.

One way would be to develop a mereotopology of changes themselves. It is clear that changes do have mereotopological features. One change can be part of another change; changes can be connected to each other; changes can overlap; changes can be interior to or within the boundaries of other changes. In this sense, parthood, overlap, connection, and boundary would be applied to changes themselves.

A second way would be to have one's mereotopology apply to changing things -- changing regions, perhaps, or changing structures. There are perhaps several different ways you could go about doing this. But one way would be take all your mereotopological concepts and modalize them for changes. There are two major modal operators, Box and Diamond. Box in effect tells us that something is the case with no exceptions; Diamond says that something is the case even if there are exceptions, or although there may be exceptions. (Diamond does not say there are exception, only that there may be.) So we could take each mereotopological operator and Box or Diamond it.

Take basic parthood (the sense of 'part' in which a thing can be counted as part of itself). We would then get a Box-parthood and a Diamond-parthood. Box-parthood would be invariant parthood; Diamond-parthood would be at least variant parthood. Of course, invariant parthood includes at least variant parthood, in the way that 'always' includes 'at least sometimes'. If x is invariantly a part of y, then x is at least variantly a part of y, although not vice versa. The same thing can be done with proper parthood (the sense of 'part' in which the whole is definitely not counted as a part; you can use either parthood or proper parthood as your basic concept without changing the mereology in any significant way). Of course, one difference is that it's possible to argue that there is always at least one invariant part, even though there may not always be at least one invariant proper part: everything is arguably always an invariant part of itself.

We can do the same thing with other mereological notions, like overlap. x overlaps y when there is something (call it z) that is part of both x and y, some z such that z is part of x and z is part of y. Invariant overlap and variant overlap work much the same way as invariant and variant parts, and are definable in terms of them: invariant overlap occurs when z is an invariant part and variant overlap occurs when z is a variant part.

In an analogous way, we would have invariant connection (Box) and variant connection (Diamond). An interesting question arises as to how the mereology connects to the topology at this point. In a typical mereotopology using overlap and connection, one would hold that 'x overlaps y' implies 'x is connected to y'. (You can do the same with parthood directly, but it's slightly cleaner to use overlap.) But what happens when we differentiate different kinds of overlap and connection? It seems clear that some general bridge principle still exists: namely, that if x either variantly or invariantly overlaps y, then x is either variantly or invariantly connected to y. But this is quite weak. Is there a stronger principle? Does invariant overlap imply invariant connectiom and variant overlap imply variant connection? This does seem plausible, although I wonder if there are unusual cases where one would be better off sticking to the more general principle.

We can, again, do the same with other concepts like 'is an interior part of' or 'is a boundary of'.

Tanaver II

The following chapters have been done at Tanaver.

Part I

Chapter I: A Day in the Life
Part I, Part II

Chapter II: This Darkest Sea
Part I, Part II

Chapter III: Conversation over Lunch **New**
Part I, Part II

Chapter IV: City in Heaven **New**
Part I, Part II

The current wordcount is around 13200. One of the things I definitely decided on early was to make ordinary spaceflight to be long and tedious, and I have succeeded. Here we have two transitional chapters with nothing happening; very difficult to write. Chapter II, I think, is particularly weak; it had to be written over a series of very busy days and shows it. I am also behind two days, i.e., one chapter or somewhere between 3000 and 4000 words, because of Election Day: I had no time, having had office hours, logic tests to grade, an election to vote in, and a meeting to attend. That was one exhausting Tuesday. And by Wednesday evening I was exhausted. Normally Mondays and Wednesdays are my long days; I wouldn't have expected a Tuesday to be the first to set me back. And I have been unable since then to catch up. I'm hoping to make up the difference this week at some point. With extraordinary luck I might even make it all the way through Part I this week; but I am not banking on it. This November may be quieter than most, but November really is the busiest month of my year.

I had been thinking that for a 'special feature' I would talk a bit about Samar philosophy, but I think I will actually save that for next time, and this time just say something about how much of all this was thought out beforehand. I've had the general storyline for quite some time. The Samar, while background characters, provide key structural elements, and there are certain important characters who ground everything else in the story. But most of what is actually written is as new to me as to anyone else; it's all very, very first draft. This includes most of the background. I had deliberately done very little preparation here; I started throwing together a few Sylven poems about a week before this whole thing began so that I wouldn't get mired in the very first chapter, but doing any serious preparation without actually writing major parts of the story itself wouldn't really have been possible, and I wanted to keep actual writing as much in NaNoWriMo as possible. There are certainly less exhausting ways to write, but it seemed more in keeping with the spirit of things. It really is all thrown together, albeit with some rhyme and reason.

The Sylven poetry, of course, is based on Finnish and Estonian models, although here and there I stray west to Scandinavia or the Faroe Islands or south to Hungary. There are reasons for this, but they should come out over time in the story itself. Since it's all supposed to be in translation, anyway, I settled on primarily nonasyllabic formats to give it a distinctive feel.