Saturday, June 08, 2013

'Pain' Is a Generic Term

Anyone who has read enough philosophy of mind knows that when analytic philosophers talk about pain, they talk about C-fiber stimulation. Indeed, it is commonly discussed whether pain and C-fiber stimulation are identical. A problem with this example is that it is not a very good one. The reason is found in a common experience, double sensation of pain.

You've no doubt had the experience at some point of a very intense, swift sharp pain, precisely localized, followed by a slow, burning pain, which is more vaguely located. The experience of these is very different. They also have different physiological bases. The first pain, the swift, sharp, precisely localized one, involve the stimulation of what are known as A-delta fibers. A-delta fibers conduct impulses very quickly. The second pain is the C-fiber pain; C fibers conduct impulses much more slowly. This is why we experience it as one pain following after another; indeed, the second pain can be several seconds slower than the first. Thus even when we are dealing with what is usually called nociceptive pain (pain that signals a specific potentially damaging event), we have clear experience (and confirmation in terms of underlying causal account) of two different kinds of pains. And nociceptive pain is not the only kind of pain; you can have pains that do not signal specific potentially damaging events, and have a different neural account entirely. There is an entire genus of things that we call pain; physiologically we need more than one account to handle them.

(This is not even considering, of course, the fact that no one actually studying pain regards the firing of these fibers as the whole story of pain.)

Now, if you point this out to analytic philosophers of mind, you will often get a response something like this. "Perhaps, but this does not affect the argument; just take 'C-fiber stimulation' for whatever account -- or in this case whatever disjunction of accounts -- is the real one." And some respect has to be given this. It's much as when we are reading Descartes on animal spirits; it is very amateurish and shows a lack of critical thinking skills to assume that we can simply dismiss what Descartes says because we have an electrochemical account of the nervous system rather than Descartes's hydraulic one. This is because some things that Descartes says may carry over fairly easy from one type of account to the other, without seriously affecting the argument being made. And I think it definitely is true that for the purpose of this or that point it is often the case that it doesn't matter whether philosophers of mind talk about C fibers or A-delta fibers, or, for that matter, animal spirits. Nonetheless I'm not convinced that this detachment is always entirely benign. For one thing, for this to work as a response, it has to be the case that nothing about C-fiber stimulation, specifically, is actually essential to the argument; the phrase is just being used to stand in for what, if we were more aboveboard, we would call 'whatever physical system has the properties to do what we are talking about'. This means that we are only talking at a very abstract level, one that already posits something simply by the way we are stating it. Now, this positing may be quite benign, but it needs to be shown rather than assumed.

Moreover, I think it's important to point out that at this point we are using a very specific empirical/scientific-sounding term as nothing more than a marker for a much more abstract and vague idea, and this raises the worry that it will create the illusion of a more substantive and adequate argument than is actually there. At the same time, we're using a single marker to indicate what requires, by our best information, a far less simple account, on both the physiological and the experiential side. We have to ask ourselves, again, whether this ever creates the illusion of an account or argument being stronger than it actually is. I don't know if these worries are fulfilled; but I think it's worth asking the questions. In the Cartesian case we can, if necessary, establish the modifiability of the original account, with specific experimental evidence and physiological accounts. Can we always in reality do this in, say, arguments for and against mind-body identity? It's a question I've not seen people answer.

Dale Brown, Storming Heaven, and Shadows of Steel


Opening Passage for Storming Heaven:
"What you're about to see," the talk-show host began, "is a videotape of what is a historic but tragic occurrence--the last time since World War Two that territory of the United States of America has been attacked by a foreign power. Our guest today says this can and will happen again, and he should know. You will see a videotape log of the control room of an American drug-interdiction station, located just off the east coast of Florida. Roll the tape."

Opening Passage for Shadows of Steel:

The attackers were first spotted on radar only twenty miles from Abu Musa Island; by the time the chief of the air defense radar unit issued the air defense alert notification, they were seventeen miles out. Because this was the morning of Revolution Day in Iran, only a skeleton crew was on duty at the Islamic Republilc Pasdaran-i-Engelab Revolutionary Guards air squadron base, and the pre-Revolution Day cleectrations had eneded only a few hours earlier--response time, therefore, was very slow, and the attackers were within missile range long before the Islamic Republic Air Force F-5E Tiger II fighter crews could reach their planes. The order to commit the Pasdaran's British-built Rapier anti-aircraft missiles and ZSU-23/4 antiaircraft artillery units was issued far too late.

Summary: I expected the two works to be rather different, but they were almost jarringly so. There are certain structural similarities -- beginning with news excerpts, ending with the threat neutralized but the new threats sliding into place, multiple and mostly forgettable protagonists with distinct roles. But Storming Heaven was by far the inferior story. Beyond the interest of reading a book about airplane terrorism written prior to 9/11 (that pretty much sums up the plot), there wasn't anything interesting about it. Shadows of Steel, about elaborate cat-and-mouse games between the U.S. and Iran as they slide toward war, was fairly enjoyable. The protagonists were more interesting, the antagonists less cartoonish (and, in the case of the Iranian President Nateq-Nouri, likable enough that one wishes there were more of him), and it probably helps that it's military fiction about military operations rather than military fiction about domestic security. The theme of the book, as represented in the title, is also stronger. The problem with storming heaven is that it is a lunatic's game (a point remarked on even by one of the bad guys), so to the extent that it works it just makes the villain look crazy; and, at the same time, it's not a particularly great metaphor for dropping bombs on airports, although works decently as a metaphor for a luciferian (but, again, lunatic) attack against the entire apparatus of American domestic security. The 'shadows of steel' in the second book, however, is an excellent description for American stealth planes, and does an excellent job of capturing the book, which is about what is essentially a shadow-war between Iran and the U.S., an anticipatory war played out of the public eye, a shadow of things to come, in which both sides are hampered by not being able completely to see full capabilities of the other side. The politics of the latter book are also more interesting -- the Iranian politicians are apparently less idiotic than our own in the other work, although the constant Clinton jokes of the earlier book (the unnamed President is a wishy-washy type dominated by his politically ruthless wife, who is involved in a major real estate scandal that consumes her attention, thus forcing the President to think on his own) are mildly amusing.

So, yes, that's about the story: Storming Heaven, airport terrorism by a crazy man; Shadows of Steel, U.S.-Iranian cat-and-mouse with stealth bombers and an Iranian aircraft carrier.

Favorite Passage from Storming Heaven:
"Mr. President, I think the FBI can handle this crisis without having to resort ot this extreme military option," Lowe said, holding up her copy of the plan Hardcastle had proposed to the Secretary of Defense. "You're talking about surface-to-air missiles, fighters escorting commercial airliners, free-fire zones around major citiies and airports...?" She shook her head in disbelief. "Ludicrous. This is not some damned Dale Brown novel, this is real life."

Favorite Passage from Shadows of Steel:
In thirty seconds, the first attack was over--and Jamieson realized he hadn't done a thing, hadn't even touched the throttles, and his right hand was resting only lightly on the control stick. They'd needed no evasive maneuvers, no threading their way around terrain trying to hug the ground to hide form enemy radar, no coordinated defensive maneuvers.

It was so sterile, so robotic--almost inhuman. Shadows of steel, death from nowhere, from everywhere...

Recommendation: Storming Heaven is just not any good; skip it. Shadows of Steel is probably not good enough to go out of your way for unless you really like Tom Clancy-type fiction, but if you happen upon it, it's not bad at all. There are weird character moments and a bad sex scene (unlike the bad sex scene in the other work, however, it is mercifully short and undetailed), but the story is pretty good, the suspense is maintained, the antagonists are reasonably intelligent and sometimes quite clever, and you actually have some room to develop some sympathetic connection with some of the characters.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Unprofessional Behaviors

There was a recent mild scandal when a very widely known name in philosophy of mind (the name is irrelevant to my point, but is easy enough to find out) recently resigned amid allegations of improper behavior toward a female graduate student, in particular sexually explicit e-mails. The resignation was the result of a settlement in which the academic was given the option of resignation or investigation. This sort of thing happens, although it is remarkable how rarely it does; the information available to the public seemed damning on the particular charge, but it was mostly quite sketchy and indirect, and probably would have been forgotten soon. Inability to stop arguing, however, is a disease to which those of us with philosophical training are sometimes susceptible, and the academic in question started defending himself online. He thereby turned a mildly scandalous situation into a major scandal, because it is an unavoidable conclusion from his 'defenses' that he was, in fact, acting unprofessionally, and that unprofessional behavior was a consistent behavior with respect to this particular grad student.

Graduate students are in a peculiar position in the discipline in part because they are simultaneously students and professional colleagues. That's the whole point of the program. Because of this, it is exceptionally important to act professionally with them. This doesn't rule out socializing, but it requires some very clear and definite lines. And, indeed, given the power relationships in a graduate department, these have to be even more clear than they are with one's fellow faculty members.

But academic philosophy as a profession has severe professionalism issues. It's not that philosophers are incapable of acting professionally, since a great many are and do. Rather, it's that reputation in the field has practically nothing to do with how professionally one acts in professional situations. You can act like a clueless adolescent or skeevy predator and, remarkably, it has very little effect. It's not that people are unaware of this sort of behavior. One of the goddesses of academia is Rumor: academics, being in occupations where general reputation is very important to career, are inevitably gossipmongers, and philosophers are not at all immune to this. It's just that it's treated as if it's not essential. It is, for all practical purposes, a 'lifestyle choice', one of which people may disapprove, certainly, but which won't have any real adverse effects except in the very extreme cases.

The weird thing is that we're not talking heavy cultural restrictions here: we're talking very elementary procedure and protocol. It's a matter of taking a few basic steps. There are things you don't do, there are things that you definitely do, if there's a possible ethical problem down the road you work out a basic structure for minimizing the risk of it, if an unexpected ethical problem pops up you deal with it in a procedural way without blowing it off, and it's all a matter of how you structure the way you work with others, not content. If you look at how genuinely professional people deal with a potentially tricky area like, say, philosophy of sexuality, where the content could provide any number of occasions for inappropriate interactions or comments, that's what they do. They go in with a framework for interaction; they continue to emphasize boundaries as they go along; they take steps to approach matters in ways that can see the light of day; they take time out occasionally to look at any problems that might possibly be on the horizon or that might need to be nipped in the bud; and that's essentially it. It doesn't mean you can't look at controversial topics or investigate 'taboos' or consider all the possibilities of a case, even the unsavory or political incorrect ones. It's just a matter of keeping things well-structured, fair, and appropriate to the nature of inquiry as a cooperative enterprise. And yet.

Lady Mary Shepherd on the Inverted Image Problem

Vision was a significant philosophical topic in the early modern period, one that was often held to be related to a wide variety of other philosophical topics. It is thus not as surprising as might be thought that, when Lady Mary Shepherd (1777-1847) identifies her three most important philosophical arguments in a letter to Robert Blakey [Note 1], she treats her account of single and erect vision as one of them, and as closely related to the other two, causation and final causes, and as related even to as metaphysical question as the existence of God. As she puts it:

[The three topics] confute modern Atheism, founded, as it is, upon fallacious inferences, from Locke, Newton, Hume, and Berkeley. For unless there be a cause, there exists no first, essential, or necessary cause. Unless final causes are physical efficients, they could not operate, unless upon every theory of the mind. The fact of single and double vision cannot be explained consistently with any theory, and as being deducible from the general laws of causation. Such a theory is null, for two reasons; therefore, I encourage myself to hope for the future success and prevalence of my own notions [Note 2].

In short, the fact that we see singly and in a non-inverted way is a test case not just for a theory of vision itself, but also for the theory of mind (whose status as a the receptive cause of sensation is a major part of Shepherd's account of the external world) and, even more broadly, for the theory of causation, since any account of these facts would have to be causal.

Shepherd discusses single and erect vision in two essays. The first is Essay XIV of the Essays on the Perception of an External Universe, "On the Reason Why Objects Appear Single Even Though Painted on Two Retinas, and Why They Appear Erect Although the Images Be Inverted on Them" (henceforth Essay XIV). The second was published in The Philosophical Magazine in 1828, a year after the publication of the Essays [Note 3], and is called "On the Causes of Single and Erect Vision" (henceforth CSEV). The essays approach the topic somewhat differently, but both provide essentially the same account. Understanding them, however, requires recognizing the state of the problem by the time it reached Shepherd.

For the purposes of most discussions in early modern philosophy, we can attribute the beginning of the inverted image problem to Kepler, who in Ad Vitellionem paralipomena (1604) proposed an optical account of image formation in the eye in which light formed a 'painting' on the retina in much the same way that a camera obscura forms an image on the wall. This account, however, had the optical rays crossing between the lens and the retina, and it was recognized by everyone that this had the immediate, and puzzling, implication that the image on the retina was upside-down despite the fact that we obviously don't see the world upside-down. A number of people, including Pierre Gassendi, argued against this account. The Keplerian account became generally accepted, however, with the publication of Descartes's Dioptrics (1637) [Note 4], whose Fifth Discourse describes a famous experiment. Descartes took an eyeball (he recommends that of a deceased man, or, failing that, of an ox) and scraped out the sclera at its back, so that the back of the eyeball was transparent. He was then able to observe directly the inverted image on the back of the eye. The Cartesian explanation of this was that the mind traces back (so to speak) the rays and thus recognizes that the lower part of the image actually comes from above and the upper part from below. Descartes uses a famous analogy to a blind man with two crossed sticks; when he touches something with the sticks, he will surely recognize that what he touches with the stick in the lower hand is actually towards the top, while what he touches with the stick in the upper hand is actually towards the bottom.

The inverted image problem was later discussed by Berkeley in An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), who sums it up well in section 88:
Among the discoveries of the last age, it is reputed none of the least that the manner of vision hath been more clearly explained than ever it had been before. There is at this day no one ignorant that the pictures of external objects are painted on the RETINA, or fund of the eye: that we can see nothing which is not so painted: and that, according as the picture is more distinct or confused, so also is the perception we have of the object: but then in this explication of vision there occurs one mighty difficulty. The objects are painted in an inverted order on the bottom of the eye: the upper part of any object being painted on the lower part of the eye, and the lower part of the object on the upper part of the eye: and so also as to right and left. Since therefore the pictures are thus inverted, it is demanded how it comes to pass that we see the objects erect and in their natural posture?

Two and a half decades later, in The Theory of Vision; or Visual Language, Shewing the Immediate Presence and Providence of a Deity, Vindicated and Explained (1733), he will say (section 52), "The solution of this knot about inverted images seems the principal point in the whole Optic Theory, the most difficult perhaps to comprehend, but the most deserving of our attention, and, when rightly understood, the surest way to lead the mind into a thorough knowledge of the true nature of Vision." Berkeley is strongly dissatisfied with the Cartesian answer to the problem. How is this tracing of rays to be done? Any child can see what is right-side-up, but when we ask the Cartesian how they do this, we get the optical theory of the eye, with its abstract geometrical inferences. Children surely do not think through the implications of optical principles in order to see the world as not inverted. Berkeley attempts to provide a better solution using his key distinction between visible and tangible ideas in our perception of situation. We do not actually see the image on the retina at all. The idea of light hitting the retina is a tactile idea, an idea of physical contact, not a visual idea. On Berkeley's new theory of vision, our visual ideas of the world are in general signs of tactile ideas, so that we can often find things in our visible experience that have a direct correspondence in our tangible experience, to such an extent that we often confuse the two despite the fact that they are not the same at all. Thus when we talk about the inverted image on the retina, the 'inversion' is not a literal inversion of anything visible. All we are saying is that, when we compare our visual experience with the tactile idea of the physical contact of light on the retina and how we move our eyes up and down (the source of our experience of things as up or down in Berkeley's account), we find that the tactile pattern is inverted from what we are in the habit of taking the visual experiences to indicate.

With Thomas Reid, in An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), we get a summing up of the entire tradition, and of the inverted image problem as Shepherd understood it. Like Berkeley, Reid rejects the Cartesian solution because it requires the solution to be a rational deduction from premises of which the greater part of the human population seem to be unaware. Ordinary people do not do optical geometry in order to see the world the way they do, and thus optical geometry does not actually provide any explanation of the apparent discrepancy at all. He also rejects Berkeley's solution, however. The Berkeleyan solution to the problem requires that our ability to determine whether things are inverted or not is wholly derived from experience. We simply develop the habit over time of thinking of some things as up and down, based on things like the motion of our eyes; it's entirely a matter of acquired expectation through consistent association. One of Reid's problems with Berkeley's solution is that it makes the distinction between visible and tangible ideas too sharp, treating them as having no natural similarity to each other, which Reid denies; and he suggests that Berkeley's acceptance of the purely associative answer is at least partly influenced by his acceptance of idealism. If you think that the external world consists entirely of ideas in the mind, the position that we directly perceive things as having an orientation and situation, which would also have to be purely mental, might well seem unattractive.

Faced, then, with a choice between the Cartesian solution based on rational inference and the Berkeleyan solution based wholly on associations acquired from experience, Reid jumps through the horns of the dilemma and proposes a third kind of position: our seeing of the world as erect rather than inverted is due neither to rational inference or empirical association but an original principle of the constitution of our minds, or, in other words, it's all simply a matter of the way we are set up from the beginning. Against Berkeley, Reid argues that the inverted pictures on the retina are indeed part of the process of vision, a means of seeing the world. However, the greater part of this process is still a mystery. It seems that the picture on the retina affects the optic nerve somehow, which affects the brain somehow, which makes us see the world somehow; but we are deceiving ourselves if we think we have any clear conception of how this is done. The image on the retina does not travel up the optic nerve into the brain, and even if it did, there is nothing about literally having an image in our brains that would explain how we see anything. It is not, however, particularly necessary to have an explanation of all this in order to address the inverted image problem. With most things we do not need to know more than the fact that one thing follows another by a regular connection; that is, our usual mode of explanation is by tracing things back to laws of nature, which means simply that we recognize that two things are invariably and constantly connected.

The real question at the heart of the problem, therefore, is just this: What is the law of nature according to which the image on the retina is constantly and invariably connected to my seeing things a certain way? Reid argues that the relevant law of nature is this: Every visible point of the object is seen in the direction of a straight line from the picture on the retina through the center of the eye. This is the regularity that links the inverted image with our visual experience, and this law of nature describes a structure of the mind itself, part of our design-plan, so to speak. Thus the solution to the inverted image problem lies not in reasoning, nor in experience, but in the constitution or structure of our minds.

This gives us the lay of the land. When Shepherd considers the inverted image problem, she is considering a problem that prior philosophers had attempted to resolves with three different explanatory principles: reason, experience, and mental constitution. How then does she resolve the problem?

She identifies the five basic assumptions of her solution in CSEV:

(1) "Vision is a consciousness in the mind, and its next proximate cause must be a power equal to its production, and which unites it to the material world."

(2) "Vision of one colour only can never yield the vision of figure, because the proximate cause of the vision of figure is a line of demarcation formed by the sensation of a junction of two colours."

(3) "The physical impulse producing such consciousness of colouring, is an equal proportional variety upon the retina of an eye; one eye alone being first supposed, as it is sufficient to yield the idea of figure."

(4) "An object cannot be in two places at the same time."

(5) "An object cannot exist and put forward its action where it is not."

The first of these assumptions identifies the general character of the effect and establishes the kind of inquiry in which we are engaged in trying to solve the problem. It is a causal inquiry, and the result for any phenomenon needs to be a cause of consciousness of the phenomenon, adequate for causing the phenomenon, that connects conscious vision to the material world. The second gives the proximate cause of seeing a figure or shape. To see a figure or shape requires seeing a boundary, and this requires seeing at least two distinct colors. The third is an empirical discovery based on the study of the eye. The fourth and fifth assumptions serve as filtering out genuine from spurious candidates for solutions. All of them except (3), which is presupposed by the problem, are regarded by Shepherd as necessary principles, although not necessarily equally obvious (she spends a considerable portion of Essay XIV explaining (2), for instance.)

On the basis of these assumptions the related problem of single vision, that is, why we see one thing rather than two, given that our vision of this one thing is based on two distinct images on two distinct retinas, is almost trivially easy: since we can only see two visual objects as two by observing some line of demarcation between them, we could only distinguish the images on our retinas if we saw them both with a line of demarcation between them. As she notes, if this is true, we only regard single vision as a puzzle because we are imagining the space between our eyes as a demarcation. But unless we are doing strange manipulations with our eyes, we do not actually see the space between them, because the eyes receive no physical impulse of light from that space. Thus the two images are for all practical purposes superposed, and, not being distinguished visually by a visual line of demarcation, the mind's capacity for vision is naturally affected by them as indistinguishable. We can do various manipulations that change this (like pressing our eyes in different directions), but it will only do so by introducing something visual that serves as a line of demarcation. In short, Shepherd's resolution of the problem depends on recognizing that answering the question of why we see one thing despite two images in reality depends on asking the question, "What immediate cause would make us distinguish things as two?" And the only immediate visual cause that can make us distinguish things as two is some kind of visible demarcation between them. Thus the physical impulses in the eyes and the images on the retinas can only cause us to see two if they are such as would create a visible demarcation. But each image on the retina is (in most cases) equivalent to the other; thus neither image includes a visible demarcation between itself and the other image. Thus, since nothing else in the situation would seem capable of introducing a visible line of demarcation, there actually is no reason to think that the two images would cause us to see anything other than one thing. That something like this is right is confirmed by further experimental facts about how the images correspond to each other and to our vision.

Single vision is the easy case, but the inverted image problem is handled in the same way. Whether a figure is inverted or not is a matter of relative position of color. I see a flag pole inverted in a reflection for instance, because it is relatively positioned in a way that contrasts with the erect flag pole it is reflecting. But, recognizing this, we already see the beginnings of the solution to the problem:

Now the real fact is, the painting of objects, though they be inverted, does not alter the painting of their relative positions; the whole colouring of all within the sphere of vision, maintains precisely the same position of things towards each other: but it is the appearance of an opposite appearance of things, i.e. an opposition of the relative colouring of things, which only can yield the idea of inversion of images:--Thus a candle would appear to be topsy turvey upon a table, if the flame appeared to touch the table, and the bottom of the candlestick pointed upwards towards the ceiling; but if the bottom of the candlestick maintains its relative position to the table, and the flame the same relative position to the heavens, and the table the same to the earth, and the earth the same to the table; then the whole,--from the earth to the heavens, being painted in an inverted position on the retina, cannot possibly occasion any sense of inversion of images;--because the sense of the soul must be to perceive the whole relative position of objects, precisely in the relation of parts they have to touch and motion.(Essay XIV, page 414)

Like most of Shepherd's super-sentences, that one has to be worked through carefully; but it is well worth it. The inverted image case is very much like the single vision case. To think it a puzzle, we have to be imagining both the image on the retina and the thing in the world of which it is an image. To recognize visually that anything is inverted, we have to recognize that it is opposite in orientation to something, which we can only do visually if we see the thing it is opposite to. As she puts it in CSEV, "The idea of inversion is the result of the comparison of the line of demarcation of one object with that of another of a similar kind placed in a contrary direction to it." You can't see a relation if you don't see the relata. When philosophers puzzle about why we do not see the world as inverted, they are really supposing that vision simultaneously sees two things, the image and the objects they invert. Otherwise, how, could we see the one as inverted in comparison to the other? The inverted image is somewhat more complicated than the single vision case because we also get information about orientation from touch and motion (Shepherd occasionally calls our capacity to move through space our "sixth sense"). Thus a full answer would require discussing the relation between sight and touch (one of the most important topics in early modern discussions of vision). But we can already see that any discussion along these lines would merely refine the basic point: we do not see the image and the object in our eye, and we do not see the object causing the image in our eye. Objects are out in the world; they can neither be two places at once nor act where they are not.

Thus when we compare Shepherd's remarkably elegant solution of the problem to other proposed solutions, we find it is yet another option on the table, and does not reduce to the other three. It does not require that erect vision be a result of rational inference, nor does it make erect vision a matter of custom and experience, nor does it attribute it to the original constitution of our natures. It is more closely related to the rational explanation than to the other two, since both the the rational explanation and Shepherd's causal explanation make erect vision a necessary consequence, as opposed to the contingency attributed to it by the custom and original constitution explanations. But Shepherd's solution eliminates the problem by arguing that there is no causal reason why the image would look inverted, and that the problem only arises by counterfactual imagination. It is in this way an excellent example in miniature of Shepherd's general analytic style, since she does similar things on a larger scale with Hume's account of causation and Berkeley's idealism.

We have had nearly two hundred years of additional study for the problem, so you might be wondering what the results of that are. The answer is that, as with many of the problems in the theory of vision first discussed by early modern philosophers, it is not a completely closed question; fi nothing else, they knew how to pick the hard problems. For a very long time there was a considerable tendency to accept the custom explanation. The reason for this is that at the very end of the nineteenth century, George Stratton designed a kind of experiment to study the question, in which he wore inverting spectacles for a considerable period of time. His conclusion, which he published, was that after a sufficient period of time he saw the image in the inverting spectacles as right-side up. This was apparently confirmed by some other experiments. However, different modifications of the experiment through time have not been quite so definite. In 1999 Linden et al. published a study (PDF) in which they came to the conclusion that people wearing the inverting glasses eventually adjusted to the change, but that they never actually saw the image as right-side up. Thus the problem is still in play (Note 5).


(1) The letter to Blakey, dated May 26, 1843, is the latest extant comment by Lady Mary Shepherd on the subject. It was published by Blakey in his Memoirs.

(2) "Single and double vision" seems to be used here simply as a summary title for the entire essay in Essays on the Perception of an External Universe, rather than as a way of singling out the single vision argument rather than the inverted vision argument.

(3) This essay is missing from the Thoemmes Press edition of Shepherd's collected works, probably because it seems never to have been published in book form. The essay was widely distributed through the journals of the day, however.

(4) The Dioptrics is another example showing the importance of the topic of vision to early modern philosophy, since it was one of the three essays for which the Discourse on Method was written as an introduction, and thus explicitly put forward by Descartes as an account of early successes of Cartesian method.

(5) And still discussed heatedly by philosophers. To take just one example, István Aranyosi in The Peripheral Mind has a good discussion of how the problem is related to issues in the dispute over whether the mind is representational or "enactivist".

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Thursday Vice: Ingratitude

Perhaps the most important discussion of ingratitude in the ancient world is that found in Seneca's De Beneficiis, which is devoted entirely to the subject. There is a good reason for this, because Seneca regards ingratitude as a vice that is extremely common but at the same time extremely poisonous to society. Seneca argues that society is a beneficiary network, that is, it is structured by the benefits we receive and give; benefits are freely given acts of good will that both please and are pleasing to give because they are necessary or useful in some way.

It's important to understand, incidentally, that the nature of a benefit for Seneca is constituted by the intention of the giving and its effect on the mind, not by the nature of the thing given. Someone who gives small things nobly is giving greater benefit than someone who gives great things ignobly:

This man has given me but little, yet more he could not afford, while what that one has given is much indeed, but he hesitated, he put it off, he grumbled when he gave it, he gave it haughtily, or he proclaimed it aloud, and did it to please others, not to please the person to whom he gave it; he offered it to his own pride, not to me.

Seneca tells a story about the students of Socrates, who were giving him gifts. Each one brought a large gift until Aeschines, who was very poor. Aeschines said to Socrates, "I have nothing to give that is worthy of you; this is the only thing that makes me feel my poverty. I cannot therefore give you anything but myself, such as I am." To which Socrates replied, "You have given a very great gift; I will therefore try to return you to yourself a better man." As Seneca puts it, Aeschines's gift is as if he said, speaking to Fortune, that she had bestowed nothing of hers to give to Socrates, so he would instead give Socrates something that was his very own. It is not what is given that matters, but the spirit in which it is given. In the proper sense, benefits are mental goods.

Benefits are "the chief bond of human society", which is itself a dance of benefits (Seneca uses the dance of the Graces as an example of how the movement of benefit from person to person makes society ordered and beautiful). Ingratitude breaks up the dance, and the purpose of Seneca's work is to lay down rules for giving benefits and being a beneficiary in order to counter the corrosive effect of ingratitude. Seneca is not kidding when he considers ingratitude to be a very great evil; he insists that it is worse for a society than murder, theft, adultery, tyranny, sacrilege, and treachery, because it attacks the very capacity of a society to function at all, and, what is more, it is usually at the root of these things. The murderer, the adulterer, the thief, the tyrant: rarely do you find any one of these whose murder, adultery, theft, or oppression is not made possible by their ingratitude. We should therefore consider it the very worst possible thing in ourselves. At the same time, we should be ready to forgive it in others. Because benefits are mental or spiritual goods, when we benefit someone, we have already gotten all the good out of it. If I give you something out of good will toward you, and you never repay it, I have nonetheless received all the joy of the benefit, which was in the giving; your repayment would be, so to speak, simply a return benefit and a distinct and additional joy. You only benefit others, in a proper sense, if what you give is pleasing to give and is given with an eye to pleasing the other; to benefit someone is its own reward. If, for instance, you can save a decent person simply by raising a shout to save them, and you do, that is itself a thing of joy. No one actually injures you by their ingratitude. (And, although Seneca doesn't dwell on the point, it is sometimes the case that people just assess benefits differently, or don't realize at the time how deeply they are being benefited.) They do, however, injure themselves; and in the long run they injure society.

When receiving benefits, however, we should receive in much the same spirit with which the benefit is best given:

Some men not only give, but even receive benefit haughtily, a mistake into which we ought not to fall: for now let us cross over to the other side of the subject, and consider how men should behave when they receive benefits. Every function which is performed by two persons makes equal demands upon both: after you have considered what a father ought to be, you will perceive that there remains an equal task, that of considering what a son ought to be: a husband has certain duties, but those of a wife are no less important. Each of these give and take equally, and each require a similar rule of life, which, as Hecaton observes, is hard to follow: indeed, it is difficult for us to attain to virtue, or even to anything that comes near virtue: for we ought not only to act virtuously but to do so upon principle. We ought to follow this guide throughout our lives, and to do everything great and small according to its dictates: according as virtue prompts us we ought both to give and to receive.

One way to put it would be to say that we should always receive benefits in such a way as is consistent with the possibility of that gratitude developing into, or furthering, a close friendship of mutual good will. The connection of gratitude to friendship leads Seneca, interestingly, to argue that we should reserve gratitude for virtuous people; this requires the prior effort to avoid owing benefits to people who are not worthy of them. If a benefit is offered to you even by a king who has the character of a pirate, you should do what you can to refuse, and, if it is simply not in your power to refuse, you have no obligation of gratitude arising from it. It's an interesting argument given that Seneca was advisor to the Emperor Nero.

To avoid ingratitude, we should also always count the spirit in which the gift is given rather than what is given. If it is not given in a beneficiary spirit, we have no obligation of gratitude; but if even a very minor thing is given in a deeply generous spirit, we should be highly grateful. Ingratitude is measured by its disproportion to the discernible intention of the one who gave. When we receive we should do so with cheerfulness, and we should make very clear our gratitude, not hesitating to make public to others the generosity and benevolence of the one who gave. Openly dwelling on the joy of the benefit received is what the receiver does that corresponds to the giver's trying to determine what would give the receiver joy, and therefore is necessary for returning the benefit. But the gratitude is possible even if nothing physical can be done in return; merely receiving something in gratitude is not a return gift, any more than merely thinking about how much somebody would enjoy something is a gift. And gratitude is not about repayment itself, as if benefit were an exchange of commodities or a loan; to give is not a contract to receive in return, but is something done for its own sake. And having an attitude of genuine gratitude requires recognizing this. If the grateful person receives some great benefit and can return a similar or greater benefit, he will do so freely as part of his gratitude. This is, remember, a necessary part of benefit, that it is freely given. But to be genuinely grateful you also have to learn how just to receive a good thing even if you can never return a benefit adequate to it. When someone benefits you, in the proper sense, they do so because your joy in it makes them to have joy; the proper grateful response is to rejoice in the gift. The natural tendency to repayment is an expression of that joy. To benefit is to give joy to another for the joy of it; gratitude is the completion of the other person's act of benefiting, by responding with joy.

Jealousy, ambition, and greed are vices that naturally tend to spawn ingratitude; we should firmly reject anything even suggestive of these things in the receiving of a gift; when he talks about the main cause of ingratitude, he says(Book II, sect. 26), "It is caused by excessive self-esteem, by that fault innate in all mortals, of taking a partial view of ourselves and our own acts, by greed, or by jealousy." This self-esteem is perhaps ingrates often complain of the ingratitude of others. Despite its evil and corrosive effect on society, Seneca denies that ingratitude can be sanctioned by law: you can't cultivate gratitude by forcing people to recognize benefits. The reverse side of this is that law and custom should not force people not to benefit others, as they sometimes try to do (e.g., in some laws governing slavery, and Seneca's discussions of the ingratitude involved in Roman slavery are some of his best passages).

Aquinas's account of ingratitude (ST 2-2.107) is largely Senecan in nature. Aquinas sees gratitude as a potential part of justice, which means that it is like actively working for equality in an exchange, which is what justice is, but the exchange has a feature that makes it not quite the same as that. Gratitude deals with moral debts rather than legal debts, which in Aquinas's parlance means that the obligation, although real, is not a strict and well-defined one. It's a debt of love rather than reason, and there is no precise, definite way to repay it. Ingratitude, of course, is gratitude's corresponding vice of defect. It has three degrees, ascending in degrees of severity, which Aquinas derives from a brief comment by Seneca: failing to return a favor when you can, negligence in recognizing a failure received, and treating a kindness as an unkindness. Acts of the third degree of ingratitude are always mortal sins: they are not just failings or deficiencies in virtue, they are utterly inconsistent with it. One difference in Aquinas's view is that Aquinas is much more clear that we should do favors even for the ungrateful, only refusing to do so to those who are consistently and obtusely ungrateful. We should also be very slow to assume that someone is ungrateful. You can find predecessors for these in Seneca, but Aquinas emphasizes them for more for Christian reasons, of course.

The Senecan account of ingratitude also dominates the last major heyday of serious philosophical thought about ingratitude, namely, the Renaissance period. In this period the strong view of ingratitude -- that is one of the worst, and perhaps even the worst, evils in society -- is often called the 'Persian' view in this period, due to a passage in Xenophon's Cyropaedia:

And there is one charge the judges do not hesitate to deal with, a charge which is the source of much hatred among grown men, but which they seldom press in the courts, the charge of ingratitude. The culprit convicted of refusing to repay a debt of kindness when it was fully in his power meets with severe chastisement. They reason that the ungrateful man is the most likely to forget his duty to the gods, to his parents, to his fatherland, and his friends. Shamelessness, they hold, treads close on the heels of ingratitude, and thus ingratitude is the ringleader and chief instigator to every kind of baseness.

You'll notice that the Persian approach is non-Senecan. But they do agree about the evil of ingratitude for society, and this was widely held among Renaissance moral philosophers, on the basis of both Xenophon and Seneca. After the Renaissance we see a fading in the discussion of ingratitude. Obviously tropes of gratitude and ingratitude are still deeply rooted in Western society, but they are scattered and unsystematic, and it would probably be difficult to find many people who would accept the Senecan view that ingratitude is a form of social wrongdoing worse even than murder or theft. Perhaps this is because people do not regard society as the beneficiary network of possible friends that Seneca does. The change is a significant one.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Point of Agreement

Davidson came up in passing in a previous comments thread, on the subject of literal and figurative speech, so I thought I would put up my point of agreement with Davidson on the subject of figurative language:

Metaphor is a legitimate device not only in literature but in science, philosophy, and the law; it is effective in praise and abuse, prayer and promotion, description and prescription.

There it is; the only true sentence in "What Metaphors Mean", which is the single worst discussion of metaphor I've ever read, and certainly the worst discussion for which you can find people who take it seriously.

(I am being harsh, of course; some sentences in which Davidson is explicitly talking about himself, and a few places where he is simply distinguishing between two different positions, and some of the examples, without the comments on them, would also survive, although fewer than you'd expect. There are also some that I can accept, but not in the sense Davidson intends them, or that I would think right if they were given additional qualifications. But with these caveats, I really do mean that this is the single thing about figurative and literal language that I think Davidson gets correct. His entire theory of metaphor is wrong, half the things he says that are supposed to be distinctive to figurative language apply also to literal language, half the things he says that are supposed to be distinctive to literal language are also easily found in figurative language, he even bungles the interpretation of the hippopotamus poem.)

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

One God

Jake had asked about my views of whether and how Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God. This is not an issue I generally have much interest in, because I'm one of those people who think it's just obvious that they do: all major monotheisms worship the same God, and so the question is just how accurately or inaccurately, how well or badly. I wouldn't ordinarily talk about it, then, unless asked; but as I was asked, and as it came up recently at First Things, where Gerald R. McDermott argues that "the God of the Qur'an is not the God of the Bible", I suppose now is a good time to talk about it. I think there are certain basic points that need to be kept in mind as our background.

(1) All of the world's major monotheisms are explicitly inter-referent. Christians insist that they worship the same God that the Jews claim to worship. Muslims insist that they worship the same God that Jews and Christians claim to worship. Sikhs refer to Sufi Muslim worship of God as true worship of God. The list can be continued. This needs to be given weight. When Muslims are asked, "What do you say God has actually done?" among the things they will be pointing to are things that Jews and Christians will point to as things that God has actually done.

(2) Talking about God is not like talking about some guy you happen to know from somewhere; there are lots of unique descriptions of God, things that can necessarily only genuinely be applied to God if they can be applied at all. A lot of these are mutually recognized by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. All three, for instance, recognize God as Creator, and as having revealed himself to Abraham and the Jewish prophets.

When you look at the kinds of arguments people give in order to say that (for instance) Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, one finds that there's usually a slippage in figure of speech going on. What they're really talking about is difference of worship, not difference of God. Both McDermott and Volf (to whom he is responding) focus almost solely on this. But using this to talk about different Gods is a figure of speech. We find a similar figure of speech, incidentally, when people distinguish the God of the philosophers from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: this is not actually a division between what philosophers and Christians talk about, but a hyperbolic way of talking about how philosophers and Christians talk about God. If they weren't talking about the same thing, there wouldn't be an issue; it would be a purely verbal equivocation to put them together, as if one said that there is a very big difference between the banks of the river and the banks on Wall Street, or between the Abraham in the Bible and the Abraham who led the United States in the Civil War. That's true, but it's true because the only relevance of one to the other is that they happen to be described by homonyms. Similarly, the only reasonable force of a distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to say that one of the two groups, philosophers or the spiritual children of Abraham, are talking about God badly, or that one of the two groups is doing so in a defective way in comparison with the other. Similarly, the only sensible point a person can be making in saying that the God of Judaism is not the God of Christianity is to be saying that one of the two groups, Christians or Jews, are doing things wrong. And it's important to emphasize, again, that this is a hyperbole to make a specific kind of point; it is not a general principle that can be applied straightforwardly to every kind of case.

Incidentally, when philosophers talk about this subject they tend to talk about reference and sense. Done well, I think this can clarify things, but I think it's ultimately a mistake in approach. The difference put forward in talking about hte difference between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for instance, simply doesn't depend on whether they have the same referent -- any difference of meaning relevant to whatever the point at hand is will do, even if it's purely a matter of tone or contextual association. And I think the tendency to talk about the God of Muslims being different from the God of Christians is quite parallel.

We see this done elsewhere. I remember reading something by an analytic philosopher of religion -- Wolterstorff, I think -- who was talking about Aquinas and did so by repeatedly talking about Aquinas's "Plotinian God". It was very aggravating. Part of it, of course, was that Aquinas even at his most Platonistic is not actually very Plotinian, despite some very indirect connections to Plotinus. But the point of it, of course, was really not about Aquinas's God at all, but about some things that Aquinas says about God that the author wanted to treat as wrong. It would have made no sense to go through Aquinas's commentary on Romans, for instance, and point out all the places that he talks about his "Plotinian God". It was a figure of speech, and in context was largely a rhetorical bridge to avoid having to argue certain things in plain sight. It wouldn't have been a problem at all if the argument had been aboveboard about the limitations of the hyperbole. I can point to Berkeley's texts and talk all day about Berkeley's very Neoplatonist God, and it in no way and at no point suggests that Berkeley was not an orthodox member of the Church of England, or that he was at any point not talking about "the Anglican God". This is all because I am not actually talking about Berkeley's God in these contexts; I am using a figure of speech to talk about Berkeley's talk about God. Likewise, in the case we're talking about here, the discussion is not actually about God at all, but about belief and worship.

The whole issue, then, seems to me to involve foundering on figures of speech, rather than being one of real substance. You can legitimately talk about the God of Muslims and the God of Christians as being different; this is really a figure of speech for talking about the differences between Muslims and Christians. And you can legitimately talk about them being the same; because otherwise the difference wouldn't be worth mentioning. It's just a matter of keeping in mind context, and not treating hyperbolic figure of speech as a straight literal expression.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Captain Wentworth's Prize Money

I was thinking, as the title suggests, about Captain Wentworth's prize money. You remember Captain Wentworth; he is the young man in Jane Austen's Persuasion who joined the navy poor and came back 25,000 pounds richer.

This is not, incidentally, stunningly rich, although it is nonetheless rich. Mr. Darcy, for instance, makes 10,000 pounds every year; his friend Mr. Bingley makes about 5,000 pounds a year because he has inherited 100,000 pounds. Georgiana Darcy, Darcy's sister, has an inheritance of about 30,000 pounds, and Emma Woodhouse is in the same range. This would put them comfortably into millionaire territory today. While he's probably not the wealthiest person in the novels, the wealthiest character whose income we know is Mr. Rushworth from Mansfield Park, who is even wealthier than the very wealthy Mr. Darcy, making at least 12,000 pounds a year. Probably the richest character in the novels is Sir Thomas Bertram, although we're never told his income. If so, this would make Edmund's decision to be a clergyman that much more drastic: he's settling for an income of about 700 pounds a year (for comparison, Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility is of the opinion that a bachelor living alone can scrape by on 300 pounds a year, so this is just enough to marry and keep house and not do much else); no wonder Mary Crawford, with her 20,000 pounds inheritance, is frustrated with him, and bad as it was, it's perhaps not wholly surprising that she has a secret wish for Edmund to be the eldest son. Henry Crawford, in the meantime, has an income of 4,000 pounds a year, which makes him a sort of Mr. Bingley, and probably about three Wentworths; given that Fanny Price can look forward to practically nothing, it's not surprising that people are astounded that she refuses him. In any case, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth probably could look forward to about 1,000 pounds a year in income, which is not a crazy amount of money, but enough that a responsible married couple could certainly live comfortably. James Heldman has more information about incomes in Austen novels here.

In any case, I was thinking more about how Captain Wentworth got the money. The money is prize money. The Napoleonic Wars were going on in this period, and in order to encourage the capture of French ships, it was customary to reward the crews for every capture. This allowed the government to encourage captures without any cost to itself -- the money from the capture would just be divided up. This handy Wikipedia chart shows the standard prize divisions (you can click it to get a better view):


The captain would typically get about 2/8 of the prize money, and the rest of the money would be divided up among the crew according to rank, as shown above. (Technically the Royal Navy still does prize money of a sort -- although there hasn't been much occasion for it -- but instead of dividing it up this way, it now goes into a common fund for all naval personnel.)

Wentworth received his position by taking a frigate -- a fairly state of the art ship -- with a sloop, which he commanded as a lieutenant -- which was largely just a patrol ship; while not unheard of, it was an astounding feat. He then becomes captain of a frigate, and does well enough with captures. The amount he comes home with, 25,000 pounds, is not a huge amount in terms of prize money, but we are told that Wentworth was very extravagant with his prize money in his early years -- this is actually one of the original obstacles Anne and Wentworth faced, because despite doing very well, Wentworth had managed to spend practically all of his prize money at a time when it looked like there would be little more coming, despite his confidence that he would get more. He's proven right, but this time around he learns to save and thus we have the 25,000 pounds. It's still probably only a small portion of his lifetime prize money, though.

Fractal, Part II

This is the second part of a short story draft. Part I.

"I think we have a problem," David said, sitting himself down across from me in the breakdown as I finished my coffee. He was biting his bottom lip.

"Do we ever not have a problem?" I joked. But it might not have sounded like a joke.

David waved his hand impatiently. "I've tried to get a full reaction from her, and I think we've failed."

I put down my coffee and sat back in surprise. "How can you say that we have failed when we have done something no one else could possibly do? We have done it. We succeeded it."

"She's not responding properly," he replied with a shake of his head. "I need you to check me on it, make sure I'm not making some stupid mistake somewhere."

I sighed and stood. "I will look into it, of course. I think Conference Room 3 is open now; we can do it there."

He nodded and was off. It was very strange, seeing David all worry and no calm. Unsettling.

When I made it to Conference Room 3, she was already there, sitting quietly. She looked with girlish interest at me.

"Do I know you?" she asked.

I sat down and pulled out a legal pad. "Do you feel like you know me?" I returned.

"Yes." She continued looking at me. Also very unsettling.

"Do you know what your name is?"

She seemed to think a moment. Then she said, "Rebecca."

"You seem hesitant about that."

"No," she said. "I am very sure of it. But it takes an effort to remember. Is David going to join us?"

"You have already talked to David?"


"What did you talk about?"

"I'm not sure," she said. "It was strange."

"Did you recognize David?"

"Yes." The answer was very firm. "I feel like I know him very well."

"Do you remember anything specific about him?"

She frowned and seemed to think for a moment. "No," she said. "At least, nothing definite. It all seems to fade in and out and blur into everything else." She continued frowning thoughtfully, then suddenly looked sharply at me. The sharp look was very much a Becky look. "Charli," she said. The frown became a shy smile, which was not Becky-like at all.

I smiled in spite of myself. "Yes," I said. "I am Charli. Do you remember anything else about me?"

The frown returned. "No." But a moment later she said. "Is Sparky around?"

"He's usually in David's office. Did you remember Sparky before? Did you talk about Sparky with David?"

"No," she said. "It just came to mind, thinking about you and David. Who is Sparky?"

"Sparky is a dog."

She stared at me, or rather through me, for a moment. Then she shook her head. "Sparky's not a dog. You and David made Sparky." She frowned again. "Sparky was the BCD project."

"Do you know what BCD stands for?"

She had to think a long time for this. "C is Charli and D is David," she said finally.

"And do you know what B stands for?"

"B stands for Becky," she said slowly. Then, startled, "And Becky is another name for Rebecca."


She stared at me. "Am I Becky? But I don't remember any of it."

"When I came in you said your name was Rebecca. Did 'Becky' not feel right?"

She smiled cautiously at me, as if she were uncertain whether I was tricking her. "It still doesn't."

"Do you remember anything besides me and David and Sparky?"

She sighed. "I try, but it's a jumble of things, always shifting around." Then she said abruptly, "You don't seem to tell me much."

I hesitated. "I think it's best if you remember and figure things out on your own."

"Is Becky dead?"

I hesitated again, and she noticed it.

"She is dead. Then I'm not Becky." She paused. "But that doesn't seem right." Then she got a distant look and began to look very upset, and I had the technician sedate her and take her to the room that had been set up for her. Then I went to find David.

"Well?" he said.

"She seems to me to respond just fine," I said. "We have done it. We have passed the Turing Test and then some. She responds like a human being."

"There must be something wrong with the software, though," he replied. "She doesn't remember anything about her life."

"She remembers you and me. And she remembers Sparky. That's successful memory."

"But just fragments. It should all be there."

I leaned back against the wall and gave him a look. "I argued this out with you and Becky at the very beginning. The human brain is not a computer running standardized software. Each human brain grows its own way, with an endless number of factors shaping it, with no clear distinction between hardware and software, building both as it goes along. There is no way to copy that exactly. It's like copying a weather system. That even some of the memories are there in as specific a form as they are is itself an astounding thing."

He was quiet, and I gave him the look again. "David, this was a success. Your method is a complete success. This was the best possible result we had any right or reason to expect. We made your idea real. And you've fulfilled your promise to Becky."

"Becky would have wanted more."

"Yes," I said with a sigh. "But Becky was always like that. And surely it's much better that we don't have some creepy machine running around acting like it's Becky?"

He smiled wrily. "I suppose you're right. I don't know what I was hoping."


To this day I am not sure how well the main presentation at Trisagion went. We looked too much like nervous kids, I imagine. At least, whenever I look at pictures of us from those days, we look almost like children, with fresh faces and goofy smiles, obviously without the faintest idea what the world is like, and obviously oblivious to the fact. And Becky had almost drained out the technical details from the presentation. It started off with pictures from Mandelbrot. None of them had anything to do with anything David was doing, but, as Becky informed us, "You have to bring it down to the level of a dimwitted business major." When David pointed out that the people in the meeting would be engineers, not business majors, she dismissed it as insignificant.

"These days even engineers pitch ideas in business-major-speak," she said. "No ideas make money unless you can give them to the marketing department to put in a commercial or a promotion."

Perhaps she was right. They nodded politely enough. But what really cinched the deal occurred after the presentation, when the man at the end of the table was saying something about how they would look over the supplementary documents and call us, and so forth, and Becky, ignoring him completely, pulled a dog carrier out of a box, set it on the table, and let Sparky out.

It baffled them, of course, and the man on the end apparently did not like dogs, because he started spluttering with something like outrage as Sparky wagged his tail and went happily from person to person. Becky, still ignoring him, pulled out the controller, pressed a few buttons to make Sparky beg, froze him, and opened one of his maintenance seams.

The room was suddenly quiet and still. The man at the end of the table stopped sputtering and, leaning forward on his elbows as if praying, just stared at Sparky in stunned surprise. One of the women at the table, who had petted Sparky when he was making friends, reached out hesitantly and touched him.

"How did you make it so real?"

"That," said Becky, thoroughly victorious in the way only Becky could be, "is a technical detail. There are a lot of technical details, and we will have plenty of time to talk about them about with you in the months to come."

And we did, of course. Who could resist Sparky? Certainly not Trisagion. We were kids just out of school, and they handed over to us a full research lab without any hesitation or even any conditions. BCD had come into its own. I insisted that David be the head of the project, and Becky agreed, although I have always thought that she was irritated by it. In her eyes, she got us the lab, and it was obviously hers. That was just the Becky way of looking at things. But we were all friends, so it didn't matter, and for all practical purposes David's being head of project just meant that he did the most paperwork and sat in the most meetings while Becky and I mostly just did as we pleased. I think she suspected that would be the case.

Six months afterward, David proposed, and, as Becky was not one for waiting, they were married three months after that. For their 'honeymoon' they went to Japan for a big robotics conference. I went along, too; both of them insisted on it. There were times I felt like a third wheel, but we did have lots of fun. And when we got back, it seemed as if our luck would never run out. Every day we seemed to come up with something completely new, and Becky's work alone, in synthetic polymers that were indistinguishable from biopolymers, was the stuff of scientific revolutions.

Strangely, I think Becky became more unhappy the more successful we became. Or perhaps 'restless' is a better word.

to be continued

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The American Working Non-Class

Paul asked a while back about the state of the working class in the United States, and the room for organic intellectualism in American life. I should say right out front that nothing I say here is particularly hard and fast, or based on deep insight, or even more than one possible speculation, but perhaps some of it may provide food for thought. I will start with a slogan-ish hyperbolic statement, one that I think nonetheless makes an important point, particularly when one starts adding the nuances: there is no American working class.

Now, obviously there are American workers, and obviously there are people who do working-class jobs. The point of the claim, though, is not to deny these truths but rather to deny that working-class population coheres together as a class, either for action or in terms of others exploiting it. This is one reason, I think, for a common feature of American economic life, which is that no one is sure who is working class and who is not. Statistically the working class in America tends to be identified in two very different ways: hourly wage or no college degree. Neither of these fits the other very well, and given the way people approach work in the U.S., lots of people who we would not elsewhere consider working class fit into both groups. You can be independently very wealthy, for instance, and technically fall into one of these groups; and, likewise, it's not uncommon at all for there to be a couple in which one person falls into one of the groups and the other doesn't. That's statistics. But there's not really much else to identify a working class. We have scattered working-class communities, but American local mobility -- the tendency to move somewhere else entirely for work every once in a while -- is so high, that these are more exception than rule; they tend to be confined to industries with a very well-defined geographic placement, and even then people move in and out so freely that there's very little to bind these communities together except in very unusual cases. You could try using unions as a proxy, but not all unions in the U.S. are exactly working-class unions, and union membership is a weird thing in the U.S.: large sectors of the population are very suspicious of unions, because they regard them as yet one more group of people getting together to bully other people.

Further, self-identification as working-class is very weird in the U.S. It's not difficult to find corporate executives who consider themselves working class because they work sixty hours a week, even though they make a six-figure salary doing so. It's difficult to figure out the reasoning behind this, but I'm pretty sure the idea is one in which 'working class' is being opposed to 'leisure class'. On the other end, most people who would usually be considered working class, don't consider themselves working class; they consider themselves middle class. One thing one eventually learns is that when people talk about middle-class America, they are talking about almost the entire population, because almost everyone gets counted as 'middle class' by default. You have to be extraordinarily wealthy or extraordinarily poor for anyone to think that you are stretching by calling yourself 'middle class'. Americans going abroad are often baffled by what gets counted as 'middle class' in other countries, because 'middle class' in America really means something like 'what you'll be if you're not very lucky, or very unlucky, or very lazy' (contrary to what seems to be a common assumption, I don't think Americans in general believe that people become very rich by hard work rather than luck; Americans just tend to be suspicious of the idea that it's unfair to have unusually good luck -- in attitude we're very much a lottery nation). There is also no stigma to being middle-class in America, and lots of people who would be counted as belonging to the working class elsewhere count themselves as middle class in the U.S.

The situation is complicated even further, I think, by the fact that there seems to be a very clear rural/urban split in the working-class population of the United States. The two do not function very much alike at all. Politically they play very different roles, and have very different lines of political influence. My suspicion is that in general the rural working class has much more clout than the urban working class, but I have nothing to prove this. Part of this is possibly structural: our system of government represents rural America better than urban America, because it represents largely rural states at least as well as more heavily urban states. Part of it is cultural, our tendency to think of ourselves in Jeffersonian terms as a productive people of the land. As far as I can tell, this doesn't make people more likely to become farmers or miners or fishermen, but there's a broad admiration for people who are, or who work directly with people who do. I don't think urban working class is romanticized as much as rural working class is.

All of this is just a long-winded way of making the point that there are working Americans doing working-class jobs, but there's not really much of a working class in the U.S. It's nearly invisible to itself and nobody specifically targets it for exploitation (a difficult thing to do in a society where most people can count themselves as middle class automatically) so there's little pressure to recognize itself in this way. It's more acceptable to talk in such terms these days, but the U.S. comes out of a history that has a far more vehement rejection of the very idea of class warfare than most nations do, and after a certain point class tensions started seeming to a lot of people like very minor things compared to racial tensions. To the extent that unions manage to accomplish much, it is usually not by beating class warfare drums, which sounds suspiciously collectivist and therefore anti-middle-class to the many working Americans who think of themselves as middle class, but by piping out songs of individualistic self-sufficiency.

This leads into the question of organic intellectualism in the United States. I think there's a fair amount of this for the rural working class, because we actually have a long history of intellectual articulation of the values, needs, and interests of the rural working class, although surprisingly little of this involves explicit recognition of it as a working class. I think there is next to none for the urban working class. The urban working class has no real voice, as a whole; it has very little coherence as a class, is unable to form significant communities in the modern-day American economy except by accident, and outside of a few pockets seems much more poorly represented at the political level. This doesn't mean, of course, that there are no places in the U.S. that are the exception; in a society like ours there will certainly be exceptions for this kind of thing.

So it seems to me, anyway. It should be reiterated that I might not know what in the world I'm talking about here. The U.S. is a very, very large country with a very, very large population; if one relies on personal experience, one can only get a very impressionistic glimpse of it. Normally you'd supplement with statistics -- but for reasons noted above the statistics of the American working class are very tricky-tricky to interpret, and I simply don't have the background to avoid all the pitfalls. So I've nothing to fall back on but guess and speculation based on what I've seen.

The Vision of the Defective Moon

Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi, or, to be more exact, it was Thursday but is transferred to today in many jurisdictions. The feast is one that grew out of popular piety and was formalized through the efforts of St. Juliana of Liège. St. Juliana had recurring visions of a full moon with a dark spot, and she (much later) came to interpret this as meaning that the Church calendar (hence the moon) was missing something, and, in particular, a feast for the Body and Blood of Christ. She had no way of doing anything about it herself, but she did tell her confessor, Canon John of Lausanne, about it, who actually started talking to other theologians and churchmen about it. It got some approval, so Juliana and John began working on an office for the feast, and it was celebrated locally in Liège in 1246. The process of getting to this point was actually quite controversial; it came in the midst of some serious ecclesiastical and political tensions in Liège, and Juliana and her nuns had to flee angry mobs at least twice, although not for anything to do with the feast itself. In 1261 a new Pope took office, Urban IV, who had apparently been one of the people John had talked to before; other members in Juliana's Premonstrensian community asked him to put the feast on the universal calendar, and the Pope, having developed a special devotion to the Eucharist while on the run from the Ghibellines, agreed. He had St. Thomas Aquinas, who was in the papal court at Orvieto at the time, create the office for the Feast, which has survived in two forms (often considered to be first and final draft). Urban IV promulgated it as a universal feast in 1264. The feast was very popular, but it had remarkably little official support; in most places for many, many decades afterward it was almost purely nominal, and it had to be re-promulgated by John XXII in 1317. It has since weathered quite well, however, since it is, with Trinity Sunday, the doctrine-focused feast that most easily survives every liturgical reform.

Corpus Christi

Bread is broken on the table;
into the cup is poured the wine;
thus by this word the Word our Savior
becomes the substance of the sign.

Adam's flesh from fleshly Adam
is freed from sinful flesh once more,
for we, by blood and by slain body,
are flesh and blood with Christ our Lord.

Speak, my tongue, of His scourged body,
now blessed and broken for our race,
of pricelessness of blood now flowing
to pay our price and grant us grace.

Sing, my voice, the song of angels
as here they wonder at his tomb,
which, its side-sprung water flowing,
encompassed us to be our womb.

Love, my heart, the changeless ancient
who descends from God above
to be a babe and passion's patient;
He is God, for God is Love.

Trust, my soul, in Truth most holy:
for Truth is true and does not lie.
All free from lie, from lies He freed us;
here see the sign Truth truly died!

Hope, my spirit in your Savior,
for He is life, in dying lives,
for us is given by the Father
to be this Bread of Life we give.

Shout, my sisters; shout, my brothers!
From on the housetops make it known
and tell the tale on every mountain
to own this well: you are His own!