Saturday, June 15, 2013

Jottings on Philosophical Problems

When it comes to philosophy, two difficult things to teach (and also to avoid falling out of practice with) are the following two principles:

(1) Problems are not automatically transparent.
(2) Not all problems are fatal problems.

The first is particularly difficult to teach, and is something that even professional philosophers can become lazy about. It is not sufficient to pose something as a problem for a position; what everyone needs to know is why it is a problem and what kind of problem it is. Many supposed problems turn out to be nothing more than misunderstandings based on differences in vocabulary. We see this a lot, I think, with counterexamples. Merely proposing something as a counterexample to a claim does not mean that you have actually proposed a counterexample. Your supposed counterexample may end up being nothing of the sort. Alternatively (and this happens quite often), one might have something that is only a counterexample with additional assumptions that may be controvertible. (Of course, it's also possible that it turns out to be an even better counterexample than we originally thought; this doesn't happen often, but it does happen.)

Putting something forward as a problem for a position is therefore the beginning of a new inquiry; a first step, not a final one. The problem needs to be articulated with at least a reasonable degree of precision and accuracy. Depending on the circumstances this can be quite complicated. One of the things historians of philosophy do is articulate (or re-articulate) problems in a certain context, compare them to each other, see how they've influenced each other, and so forth; it is what keeps us in business. It's also what keeps us arguing with each other. This is where most people trip up when it comes to (1). Suppose we are talking about the mind/body problem. We cannot in fact assume that there is only one mind/body problem; it may be, but we have to establish that. It could be that there are lots of very different mind/body problems, depending on certain background assumptions; it could be that there are possible assumptions that involve no mind/body problem at all.

We must also identify the way in which it is a problem. Some problems are structural problems: there is at least some reason to think that the problem is inconsistent with the position at hand. Some are discovery problems, by which I mean that there is at least some reason to think that something a position requires cannot be found, or that something will be found that a position requires not to be there. For instance, if someone proposes the evolution of the eye as a problem for a theory of evolution, this would involve proposing it as a discovery problem: this particular theory should be able to find (somewhere along the line) an adequate evolutionary account of the eye but we have some kind of reason for thinking that it won't succeed. Another way to look at this distinction is that completely fatal discovery problems are established inabilities to accomplish something, usually a search for something, while completely fatal structural problems are established contradictions. Yet another way we can present the distinction is as one between static and dynamic features of the argument or position; arguments and positions do not generally spring full-grown from the skull like Athena, but are constantly in the process of being constructed. If we think of arguments, positions, theories, etc., as a building that is going up, structural problems are weaknesses in what is built, discovery problems are obstacles to building it. The two may be connected, so that a structural problem uncovers a discovery problem and vice versa; I think, in fact, that people often implicitly have the goal of finding interconnected networks of structural problems and discovery problems, because structural problems can sometimes be patched and discovery problems sometimes evaded or worked around, but doing both simultaneously generally requires rethinking everything that is proposed from the ground up. But it's important to note that even if one thing were both a structural problem and a discovery problem, its being the one is distinct from being the other, and the kinds of responses that are reasonable will often differ depending on which aspect you are considering.

To make clear whether a problem is a structural problem or a discovery problem is another thing that requires that the problem be carefully articulated. For instance, the interaction problem is often put forward as a structural problem for Cartesian dualism, but it is in reality a discovery problem, being about something that Cartesian dualism doesn't seem to give us much hope of understanding very well; it is often confused with Princess Elisabeth's determination problem, which in fact does seem to be a structural problem, depending directly as it does on basic principles of Descartes's entire account.

This distinction between structural and dynamic problems should not be confused with that between what I will call research problems and fatal problems. Suppose you've articulated a problem. What then? One mistake that has to be avoided is assuming that identifying a genuine problem is the same as developing a refutation. Problems are not refutations, although fatal problems are the basis of refutations.

Most problems are not fatal; they just indicate points where construction of a theory, position, or argument is unfinished. These are research problems: they show us that at present such-and-such is unsolved, and not an actual inability to solve it. (This is why both structural problems and discovery problems can be research problems: it's not about whether the solution can be discovered but about whether it is actually in hand.) If we take something like a particular theory of evolution, this theory by its nature creates a massive numbers of problems. The overwhelming majority of these are research problems. Some of these research problems may be so complicated that it would take years to solve, and yet they could still be soluble. So if I were to take a particular case, like the evolution of the eye, and show that the theory could not at present handle it, I have to consider the real possibility that this is just because there's work to be done developing the ideas and principles of the theory, and not because the theory can't handle the case at all. Far from being refutations, research problems are often essential to the construction; just as architecture is the art of organizing material design solutions, so also building a theory is the art of organizing solutions to research problems.

In general, in fact, there are two kinds of research problems: inquiry-structuring research problems, which are the matter-of-course next steps that every theory or position naturally suggests to the human mind, and inquiry-baffling research problems, which are problems that pull us up short and force us to ask the question, "How in the world would one go about handling this?" There is no sharp line between these two. In any field the problems people are most interested in are both inquiry-structuring and inquiry-baffling -- they are the problems both that we need to use to develop our ideas and that we are not sure how to solve. These are the exciting problems, the ones that require breakthroughs.

One reason this is all important is that people often treat research problems as fatal problems, because, identifying a genuine problem, they think they are done, whereas their problem may not be fatal at all. A great many things that pass for refutations are not real refutations; they are just extremely difficult research problems, research problems in which people are getting bogged down, and proposed solutions keep failing. This is serious, certainly, but hardly refutation; there are lots of things that could be happening. It could be that a false assumption is being made that, when rejected, will open up the way to the solution. It could also be (and this happens very often in the history of philosophy) that people just lack the infrastructure to do the research properly. If a school is small, it may not have enough people working on any given problem to have more than very sporadic progress. Some problems require specific kinds of data, which may be difficult for people working on the problem to get. Some entirely soluble problems just require so much work given the resources at hand that the time required to solve them would be extraordinary. And so forth. These infrastructural pseudo-refutations are quite common: people claim that advocates of such-and-such position are unable to solve problem X, and then pass on, not stopping long enough to check whether any appearance of this might just be because they need more time, or because they don't have enough people of the right background working on it. That is, it may in reality have nothing to do with the position itself. The interaction problem for Cartesian dualism has all the marks of being a non-fatal research problem, for instance: there was never any positive reason to think that, given extensive enough research, Cartesians might not be able to give excellent answers to it, at least as excellent as anyone can give concerning any other kind of interaction. Likewise, it's one thing to pose a problem and give reasons why you think it can't be solved, but demanding that people develop a flawless solution to a new problem on the spot is irrational. Very baffling research problems are not the same as fatal discovery problems; we need additional positive reasons to think that a problem is the latter.

But, of course, even fatal problems are not the end of the road. Hume notes in one of his essays that one of the remarkable features of human thought is that we can build even on our errors in the pursuit of truth, and this is certainly right. A particular position or theory might have a fatal problem, something that it simply cannot solve with its own resources or any resources that could be consistently added to it, and still be valuable for inquiry. It might serve as a stepping stone to some better position, analogous but importantly different, that is not subject to the same problem. Indeed, coming to understand why the first position won't work may be the essential element in coming to understand why the second will. Thus the fact that a theory, position, or argument has a fatal problem does not mean that it should be despised as worthless; fatal problems too are only beginnings of further inquiry. Perhaps this should have been added as my third point above.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Fractal, Part III

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

With such a breakthrough, there were tests and tests and tests to run. Rebecca treated it all as a game, at first, especially when David was testing. Whenever he was testing, she was positively lively, constantly laughing and joking. That should have been a warning sign to me immediately, but I was too caught up in my own work. There was so much to learn.

As for David, he was, as usual, the summit of professionalism. But I would catch him at odd moments in a strange fits of abstraction, staring at the wall, motionless except for the constant tapping of a foot or a finger, a bit of nervous, incessant activity that destroyed the usual David calm. I told him once, having come across him like this once, that he should be careful not to overwork himself.

He smiled weakly. "There is so much to do, though."

"True. But there is a lifetime to do it."

He looked away. "No doubt," he said in a curious tone. We were interrupted by a technician with new results, and I went away, thinking nothing more of it.

Becky became less responsive to tests over time. One day I had her performing some mundane task and had turned away from her to write some notes on the whiteboard.

"Charli," she said, in so Becky-like a tone that I turned in amazement. "I am sick of these tests, these rooms. When can we leave?"

Chills went up and down my spine as if I had seen a ghost. And she might as well have been. Her tone. Her stance. The slightly sulky downturn of her lip, prevented from quite being a pout by the resolution of a jaw pushed slightly forward and the intelligence of eyes obviously planning to fix the situation.

It was a moment before I could even speak. I am lucky I did not burst into tears. I suppose I had not realized until then how much I had missed her. Finally I said I would see if I could arrange something.

David and I went to Morgan Stimson, the Vice President of Research. He sat back in his padded chair, the blandness of his blue eyes outmatched only by the blandness of his face, as he listened to David talk about the need to get Rebecca out of the labs.

After David was done, Morgan leaned back and looked at the ceiling. He did that often. I think he thought that being diagonal to the horizontal plane made him look intelligent. Then, still looking at the ceiling, he said, "I don't think so, David. This thing is the company's single largest investment, and worth far too much to send it on field trips, or, worse, put it somewhere that our competitors could get a hold of it."

"She needs to get out," said David. "Human beings can't spend their lives in a lab."

Morgan tilted back into the plane. "It's not a human being, David," he said. "You should know that as well as anyone, because you made it yourself." He turned to me. "Help me out here, Charli. You're always the level-headed one."

"David's right," I said. "The matrix, the programming, is all based on a human model. We have to assume that she needs the same kind of stimuli any human being would need. Keeping her in the lab might cause developmental problems."

He simply looked at me, an unfathomable expression on his face. I spread my hands. "As you said, there is a lot of money invested in her. We need to keep her from going crazy."

He tilted back up out of the plane, stared a moment at the ceiling, then tilted back down, as fake a smile on his face as ever Morgan Stimson could fake a smile. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention," he said. "I will set the wheels in motion. Keep in mind, though, that there are lots of things to work out here. It will be a while."

David was furious after the meeting. It was a bit unsettling; I had never seen David furious.

"He doesn't intend to do anything at all," he told me.

"You have to be patient. He is an ass, but he is right that there are hoops to jump through first."

He stared at me, then nodded. "Hoops to jump through," he said, then turned on his heel and left.


I was somewhat surprised, that day long ago, to be called up to Morgan Stimson's office, and just as surprised to find Becky already there, and even more surprised to find David not there. After some pleasantries, Becky began talking about some ideas she and I had been throwing back and forth. Morgan listened, tilted up at an angle; I listened, puzzled about why were there.

When Becky was done, Morgan tilted down again, and said, "It sounds great. I'm thinking we can go ahead with it."

He turned to me. "It's the kind of project that needs clear direction. I'm thinking Becky can be primary supervisor, and you can be the second. I'm sure she wouldn't interfere much with your area of it, though."

"That is perfectly fine with me," I said. "Nobody can keep a project organized like Becky. Where will David be fitting into all of this?"

There was silence. Morgan looked over to Becky and Becky looked down at her hands.

"Becky," I said slowly, my mind starting to race through all the possible scenarios that might have led to this moment, "you are not seriously thinking of cutting David out of something like this?"

She opened her mouth, but closed it, and said nothing.

"It wouldn't be too bad," said Morgan Stimson with one of his fake encouraging smiles. "With both you and Becky working on it, all we'd need is the programming, and on a project like this, with so many potential medical implications, we could bring in an entire team of programmers."

I am afraid that I laughed out loud. "And that entire team of programmers would start out months, if not years, behind where David is now. Name me any single person who would be better suited than David for something like this."

"Well," said Morgan, "we don't need 'better suited', just 'very good'. And Joseph Harlinger can certainly handle a programming team...."

"No disrespect to Joe, but he does hindbrain programming, nothing on the level that you would need here. Nobody has made a significant advance in any of the relevant fields in the last five years -- except David." I spread my hands. "I don't understand this at all. Becky and I are certainly at the top of our game now, and there are projects where we might be irreplaceable and David just an added bonus. But this kind of project -- this kind of project is a David project. Matrix design and programming are interdependent; body design follows matrix design. If there's anyone you can't do without on a project like this, it's David.

"And Becky," I said, turning suddenly to her. She flinched. "You of all people should know this. 1, 2, 3, B, C, D. What we do we do together."

"Is that what this is, Charli?" said Morgan angrily. "Some misguided sense of loyalty?"

"I tried to talk to him," said Becky suddenly, still looking down. It was so very un-Becky-like, this shamefaced head-hanging. "He thinks it's a bad idea."

"Then it is a bad idea," I said, "and I will not do it."

Morgan, clearly exasperated, looked over to Becky. "If this is just a matter of Charli dragging her feet, I can give the project to you and give you the pick of teams, all the way across the board."

"No," she said, shaking her head. "She's right. Thinking we could do it without David was stupid. Any team we could bring in would take at least a year and a half to catch up to where David could be in three weeks. Even in the middle of arguing with him over it, he was coming up with things that would get us closer, just off the top of his head."

She raised her head and looked Morgan straight in the eye, her Becky-ness restored, "And I certainly cannot do this without Charli."

Morgan threw up his hands. "So where does that leave us?"

She thought, and suddenly seemed strangely un-Becky-like again. "I think I can convince David. It won't be easy. But I am sure I can do it."

Morgan turned to me. "If David's in, are you in?"

"Without a doubt," I said immediately. "It's a great project. We just can't do it without him."

"Well, then," said Morgan with one of his fake Morgan Stimson smiles, "that's what I like to hear. Just keep me informed."

Becky did manage to convince David. He just came in the next day and agreed to it all. He seemed distant for a while, less calm than usual. At the time I thought it was just that Becky and he had had a big fight. Looking back, I see that she must have told him that she was dying.

to be continued

Some Poem Re-Drafts


Our hearts were beating in a dusk of silence.
Your smooth dark eyes with a touch of velvet
then stroked my face down to my soul.
The night grew warm as the air grew cold,
and all the colors of this fragile world,
all reds and greens with yellows curled,
were drowned by force, for tides will roll,
were washed away in a rush of gold;
the gold in turn was drained away
to some dark shade of yesterday,
but hearts still beat in the shadowed silence,
the world now steeped in a sea of violet.


The force of love to rush, to flood,
is force of love to river be,
not pool or puddle on the plain:
it moves with end and not in vain,
to flow through vale to violet sea,
to find a home in unbound good.

Yet every water must be bound
or, formless, it will forceless move,
creep and seep devoid of rush
like words that waver into hush,
enslaved by furrow and by groove.
That way may never sea be found.

Love in every way may veer,
may fall away, may fail.
As rivers overflow we err --
the border burdens by being there --
and waves will war, fight and flail,
for bounds are death, and death we fear.

A Texas Hymn

The birds woke me at the sunrise hour
when grass was dewy and all was pale
beneath the light of a high white star;
it sang the message that all was well.
And I in the breeze (it trickled down
the blades of grass then quickly wound
around my legs to tickle my feet) --
I knew the light, and it was sweet.

The thirsty drink from flowing spring
and come to life, made quick by source;
as I, when I hear mornings sing
in bird, or wind in winding course,
know, as rolling sun will rise,
a Spirit lives, God's very breath,
who lightens sky and human eyes
and raises souls like mine from death.

Lull upon the Mountain

Like lightning in the storm
where bolts of God rain down
was the turning of the wheels,
the wheels within the wheels,
the Principles of All
in never-ceasing orbit!

The lights were strangely shining
in the fallen mountain-darkness
when Raymond saw the wheels,
the wheels within the wheels,
the glory of the signs
in ever-turning circles!

Peace pours out like oceans,
tumbling in the darkness;
Ophanim move in glory,
the wheels within the wheels,
the holy presence racing
on chariot-wheels of fire!


Osiris sleeps and dreams of death,
entombed in ebon halls of stone,
the death-blessed god on sacred throne,
and over gilded sands his breath
still seeks the signs of Isis' will.

And, through Egyptian starlight still
that shines in quiet on the sands,
it courses past the nomad-bands,
a honeyed wind that blows no ill,
and pulses with old hope's demands.

And Isis wanders through the lands
to seek the tombs and sacred throne,
to re-knit flesh to flesh and bone;
she takes the children in her hands
and makes them gods upon the flame.

The dead all have Osiris' name;
one soul goes up, one soul remains,
and on the Nile night-sent rains
will fall to heal the blind and lame
and raise the dead to grace.

The Thieves of Night

The thieves of night have stolen sleep
and I abetted them.
The moon is high, my heart is hot,
the world is evendim,
I wonder if you walk somewhere
beneath the sickle slim
of moon that hunts the wayward stars.
Unslept, I wonder where you are.

With ink of night I write a verse
but understand it not --
my heart unknowing lyrics writes
with subtle pen of thought,
but at the end oblivion
will come and take the lot;
my thoughts are stolen with my sleep --
I seek in vain the paths you keep.

The night itself is stolen, too,
in cunning con and heist:
the bait is laid, the trap is set,
the prey thereby enticed,
the spring is sprung, the teeth close down
with ruthlessness of vise:
the dawn, and yet my mind still strays
to wonder if you'll chance my way.

Sooner or Later

Sooner or later we all have to face,
in the fury and flurry of life's urgent chase,
that no one can win. We all lose this race,
no matter our talent, no matter our pace.

"Sooner or later: yes, but how long?"
The race may not go to the swift or the strong,
but we think some may win. There we are wrong.
The bells in the steeple toll loss in their song.

But maybe the race is not meant to be won.
Time is the swiftest; no feet can outrun
the pace of its step. But look at the sun
and tell me it's pointless, even when done.

Maybe the race is supposed to be lost.
Where is the worth in the work without cost?
And were the storms endless our souls would be tossed,
our hearts be made hard by cold winter frost.

Or maybe the point is to learn how to lose,
how to let go the past, every wound, every bruise,
how to capture true joy, or better yet choose
a life with more colors than victory's hues.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thursday Virtue: Pietas or Xiao

When we talk about 'piety' in modern English, we are usually talking about religious devotion; however, historically the term only applied to religious devotion by extension. Piety comes from pietas, and pietas is devotion to one's parents. It was a very important virtue for the Romans, although as far as I am aware there is no significant extant treatise on it. But for the Romans piety for parents was also piety for patria, as we would say, the fatherland or motherland, all that to which one is tied by blood and kinship (and thus through one's parents). Thus we have a devotion to our patria that is part of our devotion to our parentes. In his treatise on rhetorical discovery (De Inventione), Cicero says that (Inv. 2.22) "some things seem to be a law of nature, which it is not any vague opinion, but a sort of innate instinct that implants in us; as religion, piety, revenge for injuries, gratitude, attention to superiors, and truth" and clarifies the meaning of 'piety' by saying, "they call that piety, which warns us to fulfil our duties towards our country, our parents, or others connected with us by ties of blood". He doesn't give much more than that, but it is clear that this is because he is taking it to be obvious to everyone, and throughout the work, whenever he talks about eulogizing or shoring up someone's character rhetorically, he mentions doing good to one's parents as something that should be mentioned.

Augustine notes that the term is also connected with religion; in passing in the City of God (10.1) he says:

"Piety," again, or, as the Greeks say, εὐσέβεια, is commonly understood as the proper designation of the worship of God. Yet this word also is used of dutifulness to parents. The common people, too, use it of works of charity, which, I suppose, arises from the circumstance that God enjoins the performance of such works, and declares that He is pleased with them instead of, or in preference to sacrifices. From this usage it has also come to pass that God Himself is called pious, in which sense the Greeks never use εὐσεβεῖν, though εὐσέβεια is applied to works of charity by their common people also.

This passage, which is not primarily concerned with pietas itself but with the right word to use for worship of God, can be read more than one way; I think the proper way is to read it not as saying that 'worship of God' is the primary meaning of pietas but rather the opposite: the usual word used by people to describe the worship of God was 'pietas'. But, as he notes, the word also covers dutifulness to parents and merciful works (our English word 'pity' is from pietas used to cover merciful works). It is possible, however, that Augustine is rather reporting, incidentally, a sign of how Christianity introduced a new understanding in the old term, relating it to caritas or love. John Calvin, for whom pietas is a very important concept, carries forward the Augustinian account in a number of places, including his Commentary on Seneca. He reads Augustine as taking pietas primarily to mean worship of God as Father, and takes the devotion to parents as being a spillover from this that even the pagans recognized, namely, that worship of God requires honoring one's parents.

When Aquinas discusses pietas in the Summa, he is looking at both Cicero and Augustine, and to accommodate both he develops a position of some nuance. If we are talking about virtues (ST 2-2.101), the virtue of pietas is concerned with devotion to parents; by a sort of extension we can talk about worship of God as piety, but the proper name for the virtue concerned with worship of God is religio. However, there is another kind of thing that is called pietas in Christian theology (ST 2-2.121), and that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. This piety is a special divinely given capacity to devote oneself to God as Father, and through this, to the saints as kindred and heaven as patria. Thus it retains an analogy with the virtue of piety, but is distinct from it. The virtue of piety in Aquinas is understood in a highly Ciceronian way, allowing for the modifications of Aquinas's general account of virtues. Piety is devotion to one's parents, and, through one's parents, to one's kindred and patria. It is a "potential part" of justice, that is, it is not justice in a strict sense but it is justice in a broad sense; the reason is that it does not involve a "legal debt", in which one owes something that can be precisely and definitively paid back, but a "moral debt", in which we owe something that cannot be repaid to a point at which we can definitively say that we are now equalized and no longer in debt. This is because our parents are the origin of our being and our government, and have birthed and raised us. This debt requires two things of us: duty, which is service and support, and homage, which is respect and remembrance. The service and support is not absolute; one of the interesting features of his account is that parents owe their children ongoing support to the extent of providing for their children even after death, whereas children owe their parents ongoing respect but only sporadic support as necessity requires. By a sort of spillover, piety toward parents involves respect and service to kindred generally, and to all fellow-citizens, and to all friends of our patria, not all equally, but in gradation. Aquinas claim that the Ten Commandments specifically command filial behavior rather than civic behavior for precisely this reason: honoring parents takes precedence over, and is the source of, honoring one's patria.

One of the things Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit who certainly knew his Aquinas, was very impressed with when he went to China was the Chinese pietas, which he regarded as showing that they had in many ways a very clear understanding of natural law, and on which point of natural law he regarded them as unexcelled by any other nation in the world, at least as far as external practice went. And the pietas he was noting was precisely the Chinese devotion to parents, what the Chinese call xiao. Identifying virtues across long-separated cultures is tricky business, but it would be foolish to suggest that it cannot be done, since difference of cultures governs the expression of human nature in virtue and vice rather than human nature itself. And there is no doubt that Chinese xiao is Latin pietas, and the early recognition of this is why the word xiao is normally translated as "filial piety". I notice that more recent translators often try to get away from that phrase because of the English connotations of 'piety'; this is unquestionably a result of the fading of classical studies, because anyone with a decent knowledge of Latin would see the point of the older translation at once. It's an interesting feature of Modern English that it has no real equivalent, except the older phrase 'filial piety', which is itself hardly understood anymore. No translation of xiao into Modern English will ever be as good as the older Latin translations of it as pietas, from which we get the English 'filial piety' translation. I don't think that there can be any question that the Romans would have recognized Chinese xiao as pietas, even if they thought that some of the practices were strange, nor that the Chinese would have recognized that in talking about pietas, the Romans were talking about xiao. Both cultures were Imperial cultures based on earlier cultures in which family was extraordinarily important, and these Imperial cultures could only justify themselves in familial terms, and both continued to see devotion to parents as one of the most important foundations of civilized life. And the accounts of how it does these things -- ground civilized life and govern Imperial culture -- are actually quite similar. There are undeniably differences, due to differences in familial circumstances, historical accidents like differences in what the philosophers and politicians specifically discuss or Roman interaction with Greek culture, and the like. Aquinas might have managed to convince some Romans that active parental support of children was a more important thing than active filial support of parents, but he probably would not have convinced the Chinese. But the differences are fewer and less significant than one might expect. Matteo Ricci was quite right on this score.

Thus, if we are looking for a major classical treatise on which to ground future discussion of pietas, we could hardly do better than look at the Xiao jing, the Classic of Filial Piety, an anonymous work from the fourth or fifth century BC. Traditionally the content is attributed to Confucius, but very indirectly; it depicts a conversation between Confucius and his student Zeng Zi, and was commonly thought to have been collected together by Zeng Zi's students out of things Zeng Zi had told them about the conversation. In it Confucius argues that xiao is the source of virtue. We receive our living bodies from our parents, and because of this xiao starts with refusing to do anything that harms them. This spills over because one way to harm one's parents is to harm their reputation. Therefore one should strive to act in such a way that one's deeds will glorify one's parents through the ages. It therefore includes taking care of oneself, doing great and virtuous things in general, and acting appropriately, as well as direct support and respect for the parents. On the basis of this the Emperor, out of xiao, will act as a model Emperor, thus encouraging the virtue of his people; likewise, the princes will act as model princes, the ministers as model ministers, the officials as model officials. Out of xiao, the common people, out of concern to support their parents, will also act prudently, learning to plan ahead and to make good decisions. This constitutes the main argument of the text; the rest can be seen as a sort of commentary on this idea. The man of xiao will respect his parents, work to support them, and display the appropriate public emotions on when they are sick or when they die. He will avoid arrogance to those under him, quarrelsomeness with those equal to him, and insubordination to those above him. Xiao does not involve mindless devotion, however, since, just as a good minister will remonstrate with the Emperor if the Emperor is doing something wrong, so the good son will advise his parents to help them live a virtuous life.

Music on My Mind

Of Monsters and Men, "King and Lionheart"

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Philosophers' Carnival #152

Welcome to Philosophers' Carnival #152 here at Siris! And yes, that is the correct spelling of 'Siris'. Those with a background in philosophy should recognize the allusion, but for those who don't: Siris is one of the philosophical works of George Berkeley. The name is Berkeley's anglicization of the Greek word for chain, since the work is a 'chain of reflections', and is itself an allusion to Homer: Zeus tells the other gods to hang a golden chain from the heavens, seiren chruseien ex ouranothen kremasantes, and that if all the other gods and goddesses grabbed hold of one end, they still couldn't beat Zeus at tug-of-war. The structure and theme of the work can be found handily summarized in Berkeley's poem, "On Tar"; it's important for understanding and answering the sometimes vexed question of how Berkeley's Platonism connects with his empiricism and nominalism.

In any case, clear out a portion of your schedule, because, despite the subsidence in posting that usually accompanies the end of term, we have quite a diverse selection of posts this carnival, and plentiful enough that you can certainly find something to serve as food for thought.

The July Philosophers' Carnival will be at Philosophy on Philosophy around July 10.

Invited Post

The last time Siris hosted the Philosophers' Carnival was #2, which was long, long ago in webological time. So I decided I'd do something special for this one, 150 carnivals later, and have at least one invited post on a philosophical topic of importance. So I asked Sandrine Berges of the University of Bilkent to make some comments at the Feminist History of Philosophy blog on issues relevant to feminist history of philosophy. Dr. Berges is an expert on ancient philosophy and virtue ethics, and has written on subjects ranging from the moral character of hardboiled crime fiction to Plato's conception of law to Stoic cosmopolitanism to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Many thanks to her for an excellent discussion of how common practices impede proper appreciation of the philosophical achievements of women in history:

Sandrine Berges, Why don't women philosophers count as philosophers?, Feminist History of Philosophy

History of Philosophy

* Gregory Sadler at Orexis Dianoetike has a video talk, What Is Prohairesis?, on what Aristotle means by prohairesis, arguing that it covers more than it is usually taken to cover. A rough outline of the talk (headings are my own and merely for convenience):

0:00 Introductory Remarks
3:38 Standard Passages on Prohairesis from the Nicomachean Ethics and their Standard Interpretation: Prohairesis as Deliberative Choice
8:22 Prohairesis in Other Passages of Aristotle: Prohairesis as Including the Ordering of Values.
15:58 Reasons to Expand the Standard Interpretation: Prohairesis Seems to Go Beyond Deliberation in Some Things
19:21 Reasons to Expand the Standard Interpretation: Prohairesis Seems to Go Beyond Consideration of Means
20:55 Three Interrelated Prohairesis Concepts in Aristotle
22:05 Question and Answer Session

* Edward Feser begins regiment and examine Jon McGinnis's account of an Avicennan argument in the Najāt in Avicenna's argument from contingency, Part I at Edward Feser.

* Juan Gomez discusses Joseph Butler's method in Probable Knowledge in Butler's Analogy at Early Modern Experimental Philosophy.

* Here at Siris, in Lady Mary Shepherd on the Inverted Image Problem, I look at how Lady Mary Shepherd approached one of the early modern period's major philosophical questions about vision, considering how it relates to its historical context. Theory of vision was a major area of philosophical discussion in the early modern world, and it was often seen to be closely connected even to some very abstruse metaphysical questions.

* Daniel Lindquist at SOH-Dan discusses Rödl on Kant's First Analogy of Experience, and in particular the question of why Kant might have made the changes he did between the A and the B versions of the discussion.

* Eric Schliesser of NewAPPS discusses the possibility of reading Mary Wollstonecraft as perhaps being less deistic than Spinozistic in Wollstonecraft's Spinozism.

* Daniel Fincke at Camels with Hammers looks at 4 Kinds of Irony and Nietzsche:

There are four kinds of ironies throughout Nietzsche’s texts. The first two kinds of ironies I explicate are “formal” or “deconstructive” irony on the one hand and “historical” or “contingent” irony, on the other. These ironies stem from dialectical tensions within the natures of concepts and circumstances. When we refer to ironies, both philosophically and even ordinarily, ideally we are not simply registering our personal surprise at the unexpected but referring to something conceptually or experientially peculiar. Distinguishable from these objectively observable, “naturally occurring” ironies, are ironic modes of discourse or behavior through which someone acts, speaks, or writes in a manner that is ironic in order to highlight a formal or historical ironic peculiarity or absurdity for others.

* Paul Raymont of Philosophy, lit, etc. draws together resources on the life of May Sinclair in May Sinclair, Novelist and Philosopher. Sinclair was engaged extensively with philosophical themes in her novels, wrote books on idealism, and was the first female member of the Aristotelian society.

(Incidentally, with respect to the other female philosopher novelist mentioned by Raymont, Mary Augusta Ward, it might be worth pointing out that there is a new edition of Robert Elsmere out, annotated by the Victorianist Miriam Burstein.)

* The group blog PEA Soup has a specially relationship with the journal Ethics, and regularly hosts discussions of particular articles. The most recent such discussion was of Chike Jeffers's "The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois's 'The Conservation of Races" (you can find the article free online through the link in the post), on W. E. B. Du Bois. David Sobel starts the discussion off in the post, and the PEA Soupers discuss the article at length with Jeffers in the comments.

* Zachary Braiterman of jewish philosophy place discusses Hannah Arendt's Günter Gaus interviews in This Is What Thinking Looks Like.

* Tristan Haze at Sprachlogik considers Blackburn's Interpretation of Wittgenstein as a Proto-Quasi-Realist.

* Matthew David Segall of Footnotes 2 Plato, in Reflections on Deleuze's Engagement with Natural Science in D&R, considers Joe Hughes's interpretation of how Deleuze's relation to scientific ideas.

Comparative and Cross-Cultural Philosophy

* Sam Crane at The Useless Tree in Confucianism is not catching on in the US considers the question of how one adapts or transposes Confucian ideas to contemporary American context:

What can Confucianism be in the contemporary US? It cannot be what it was in pre-Qin China, and it cannot be exactly what it is in contemporary China, but can it be something still recognizable as "Confucianism" in America now? I have, up until this point, simply assumed that the answer to this question was "yes, there can be a contemporary American Confucianism." But what does that entail?

* Amod Lee at Love of All Wisdom in The appeal of the unappealing considers the question of what sort of interpretive strategy is most valuable in studying texts like the Zhuangzi (or, if one prefers, philosophers like Zhuangzi) when they seem to present strange or implausible ideas.

* A recent interview of Jay Garfield in 3:AM discussed, among other things, the lack of Buddhist philosophy in standard philosophical curricula. This discussion led to Elisa Freschi of sanscrite cogitare, sanscrite loqui in Why should philosophers study Indian philosophy? to pose the question, "What are your reasons when you explain why Sanskrit/Pāli/Tibetan/… philosophy/history/literature/linguistics… have to be part of the normal curricula?" There is some interesting discussion in the comments.

Series and Cross-Blogospheric Discussions

The usual modus operandi in a Philosopher's Carnival (or any recognition of quality in the blogosphere, such as the selection of posts for 3QuarksDaily prizes) is to select out particular posts as stand-alone entries. One problem with this, however, is that much of the actual philosophical work in the blogosphere is deliberately not stand-alone; it is often an engagement with arguments in a larger discussion or interaction. We've already seen this to some extent in a few of the posts above, which are interesting as posts, but in which the major philosophical discussion is actually in the comments as the author interacts with commenters. When one ignores the extended series (which often involve intensive discussions, both in post and in comments, on a single blog) and inter-blog discussions, both of which are often not amenable to stand-alone treatment, one overlooks quite a bit, because there are topics and approaches that tend, for whatever reason, not to be addressed in the blogosphere in a post-by-post stand-alone way, but as entries in a much larger conversation or argument.

To show this, I've relaxed some of the rules and expectations for this section and selected just a few (and very different) series and cross-blogospheric discussions that have happened recently. Some of the cross-blogospheric discussions were quite complex; in each case I have only picked out some substantive highlights.

Fraud and Ethics in Scientific Inquiry

The recent case of widely cited social psychologist Diederik Stapel, who confessed to making up data in dozens of published articles, received some discussion in the blogosphere. Those interested in the case can consult Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's article in the New York Times Magazine, which touched off much of the recent discussion. One of the closer examinations of the points raised by this article was by Janet Stenwedel at Doing Good Science. In four posts she discusses how the case relates to scientific inquiry as simultaneously and epistemological and an ethical endeavor:

(1) The quest for underlying order
(2) Failing the scientists-in-training
(3) Scientific training and the Kobayashi Maru
(4) Reluctance to act on suspicions about fellow scientists

Deborah Mayo at Error Statistics briefly discusses the relation between such frauds and verification biases in Some statistical dirty laundry.

Mathematical Proof

There has been some recent discussion among bloggers of Caroline Chen's fascinating article, The Paradox of the Proof, about Shinichi Mochizuki purported proof of the ABC Conjecture. The article raises a large number of intriguing questions about epistemology and philosophy of mathematics. Those who need a refresher on what the Conjecture is, but want more than Chen's article gives, should probably look at this post from last October at NewAPPS.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes cross-posted at M-Phi (What's Wrong with Mochizuki's 'proof' of the ABC Conjecture?) and NewAPPS (What's Wrong with Mochizuki's 'proof' of the ABC Conjecture?), suggesting that the situation could be fruitfully understood by taking a dialogical perspective on the nature of proof:

On this conception, a proof is understood as a semi-adversarial dialogue between two fictitious characters, proponent and opponent. The dialogue starts when both participants agree to grant certain statements, the premises; proponent then puts forward further statements, which she claims follow necessarily from what opponent has granted so far. Opponent’s job is to make sure that each inferential step indeed follows of necessity, and if it does not, to offer a counterexample to that particular step. The basic idea is that the concept of necessary truth-preservation is best understood in terms of the adversarial component of such dialogues: it is strategically in proponent’s interest to put forward only inferential steps that are indefeasible, i.e. which cannot be defeated by a countermove even from an ideal, omniscient opponent. In this way, a valid deductive proof corresponds to a winning strategy for proponent.

The comments sections on both posts are worth reading, because they take the discussion in different directions.

Jeffrey Ketland, also at M-Phi, in Cognitive Reductionism about Proofs, took the discussion as an occasion to consider another question concerning proof, namely, whether every proof of a mathematical claim is cognizable by some agent. Ketland argues against this cognitive reductionism thesis.

Dark Ontology

Levi Bryant at Larval Subjects posted Axioms for a Dark Ontology, which constitute a sort of manifesto for philosophical nihilism, or rather for what one begins to do, philosophically speaking, given such nihilism; he adds to it in a second post, Post-Nihilistic Praxis and Some Further Axioms. This touched off, especially in the very swiftly moving areas of the philosophical blogosphere that are concerned (one way or another) with Object Oriented Philosophy, a discussion large enough that I cannot possibly draw all the threads together here, or do more than touch on some interesting responses.

Bill Rose Thorn in a post On Levi Bryant's 'Axioms for a Dark Ontology' at BillRoseThorn looks at a number of topics suggested by Bryant's post, particularly with regard to what is involved in conceiving of the entire world when discussing nihilism and opposing positions. This post led Bryant to add some clarifications in Meaning and Purpose Again.

Dean Dettloff, of Re-Petitions, looked at the religious or counter-religious aspects of the theses in Levi Bryant's Axioms for a Dark Ontology: Wherein I Somehow Found Myself Defending Theology. Bryant responded in Further Thoughts on Dark Ontology and Religion, and Detloff responds to the response in Further Thoughts on Bryant's Further Thoughts. This further response is especially interesting:

The themes I’ve identified are the following: (1) the implications of the “death of God” in a truly Nietzschean formulation, (2) the real and present problems posed by science (especially biology and medicine), and (3) the considering of religion primarily through social-scientific and demythologized methods (as opposed to engaging with “beliefs” or rational arguments).

Matthew David Segall of Footnotes 2 Plato also discussed Bryant's posts in Reflections on nihilism as a belief system, and follows it up with Responding to Levi Bryant on the question of religion.

Terence Blake of Agent Swarm, meanwhile, criticizes the entire project, arguing that it involves taking as closed questions that simply are not closed and as demonstrative inferences that simply are not demonstrative, in Dark Subjectivity and an Apodictic Hermeneutics of Science.

Common Good and Complete Society

Michael W. Hannon's article at Public Discourse, Man the Political Animal: On the Intrinsic Goodness of Political Community, which objected to an earlier argument for limited government by Robert P. George based on the principle that "the common good of political society is fundamentally an instrumental good", touched off some discussion about the nature of common good and the application of Aristotelian principles in modern society. Hannon argued on Aristotelian grounds that political community is an intrinsic good, and that an argument for limited government has to be based on something like this position.

James Chastek, in Political common goods are of a fixed size at Just Thomism noted that when Aristotle talks about political communities he is talking about relatively small units:

For Aristotle and St. Thomas, a political society was something made of a few thousand citizens, but with the advent of the modern nation state and the extension of suffrage, a political society started to be measured in units that were larger than a polis by several orders of magnitude, at which point Aristotle says they can no longer be considered political societies. They’re just too big. One can’t scale up the polis forever and keep it as a common good, since when it becomes too big it can no longer facilitate the political life of the citizens.

Fr. Edmund Waldstein of sancrucensis argued that "participation in political rule cannot possibly be the primary common good of political community, though it might be an element of that good" in What is the Primary Intrinsic Good of a Political (or Imperial) Community?

Living with Evolution: God and Evolution

John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts has started a series entitled "Living with Evolution" and completed the first part of it, on the subject of God and Evolution (to be followed with a series on Evolution and Morality).

(1) Introduction
(2) The problem of creation
(3) The problem of purpose A
(4) The problem of purpose B
(5) The problem of chance
(6) Is Darwinism atheism?

Levinas and Non-Human Animals

Michael S. Pearl recently had a series at The Kindly Ones on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and how it relates to the ethical treatment of non-human animals.

(1) The Priority of Ethics and the Relevance of Subjectivity
(2) Ethics, Attributed Subjectivity, and Noticing the Face of the Other
(3) Anthropomorphizing and Bestializing
(4) Ethical Responsibility and Non-Human Animals
(5) Levinas, Kant, Animals, and Anthropomorphisms
(6) Heidegger, Hypocrisy, and a Ruse of Rhetoric

The series will be continuing.

Additional Topics of Note

* BLS Nelson at Talking Philosophy has a post, On Warranted Deference, in which he proposes some principles for the kind of trust consistent with critical thinking.

* John G. Brungardt of John of St. Thomas critically examines Alasdair MacIntyre's discussion of lying in MacIntyre and the Truth about Lying and MacIntyre and the Truth about Lying, pt. 2.

* Richard Brown at Philosophy Sucks! has a video talk, Pain, Painfulness, and Kripke's Modal Argument. A rough outline of the talk is as follows (the headings are my own and merely for convenience):

0:00 Introductory Remarks
0:44 Kripke's Argument Against the Mind-Brain Identity Theory, and the Argument's Dependence on an Essential Connection Between Pain and Painfulness
5:01 Empirical Reasons for Thinking Pain and Painfulness Come Apart: Dental Fear Reactions
10:32 Empirical Reasons for Thinking Pain and Painfulness Come Apart: Pain Asymbolia
17:05 Implications for Kripke's Argument
21:52 Why Do People Find Intuitive the Idea that Pain Is Essentially Linked to Painfulness?
25:06 The Possibility of a Modal Argument for a Physicalist Account of the Mind
31:45 How This Modal Argument Should and Should Not Be Interpreted

* On a related topic, Clayton Littlejohn discusses a recent version of modal argument against physicalism put forward by Richard Swinburne, in Swinburne's designators and Swinburne on designators and dualism at Think Tonk.

* Martin Cooke of enigMania discusses the how paradoxes about sets relate to questions about numbers, in particular, whether numbers are really atemporal, in The Set-Theoretical Paradoxes.

* At the group blog Prosblogion, Kenny Pearce discusses different conceptions of divine omnipotence in Omnipotence and the 'Delimiter of Possibilities' View.

* Jean Kazez of In Living Color considers in The Badness of Death the question of what makes death bad for someone who dies.

* On a related topic, Benjamin Davies considers the timing puzzle for the badness of death -- when is death bad for the person who dies? -- in The Timing Puzzle at Philosopher King's.

* Avery Archer suggests a distinction between two ways in which a psychological state can provide reasons in favor of adopting a belief in Two Senses of Providing Reasons, at The Space of Reasons.

* At the n-Category Café, Bruce Bartlett has a guest post on two philosophy talks in Oxford, by David Corfield and Kobi Kremnitzer, on the relevance of homotopy type theory to philosophical questions, called Philosophy Talks in Oxford.

Again, don't forget that the July Philosophers' Carnival will be at Philosophy on Philosophy, and that you can recommend posts at the Philosophers' Carnival website.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Admin Note

Due to various things I won't get into, the Philosopher's Carnival, which was originally scheduled to be hosted here today, will be posted later in the week. It's a good selection of things, though.

Posting will be fairly light this week, especially at the beginning.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Fortnightly Book, June 9

I had a book set for the fortnightly book, and then realized that I might be too busy the next two weeks to do that particular book justice. So I've bumped and gone with a request made by Cristian Ciopron, who asked if I would do a fortnightly book for something by Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert. There are lots of options here, since I have quite a few books by both on my shelves, and certainly a fortnightly book of The Gods Themselves or Dune might be interesting someday. However, I decided to go a slightly different direction for these two weeks and re-read what I think is Herbert's best book, The Santaroga Barrier.

Dorothy Sayers talks about literary works growing out of idea, energy, and power, the father, son and spirit of authorship, where energy is the execution of idea and power is its communicative force to others. Ideally the three are in perfect balance, but in practice all authors have "scalene trinities", and tend to emphasize one more than others. Sometimes authors get very scalene, and these Sayers calls father-ridden (if they are obsessed with ideas for which they cannot find proper execution or communication), son-ridden (if they are intricate constructors who do not have ideas worthy of the effort and whose intricacy prevents their work from becoming powerful literature), or spirit-ridden (if they are so mired in sentiment, passion, and emotion that the work is sloppy and the ideas are weak). It's a handy way of looking at things; good literary workmanship consists of avoiding all three, and every writer has a tendency to one (mine is to being father-ridden) that has to be sharply watched.

There is no question whatsoever that Herbert's temptation is toward father-ridden writing. Herbert is an idea man, and to such an extent that sometimes that's the only thing that's interesting in the story. People who read Dune, which has an idea executed on a scale adequate to it in a way that retains human interest, are often floored at how awful the sequels seem. It isn't that they have no redeeming qualities, but their problems are Herbert in a nutshell: the underlying ideas of the story are interesting, but the actual stories we're given don't do a great job of exploring them, and what is there often doesn't do much to move us. This is a failure one finds over and over in Herbert's writing. It's not that the writing as such is awful, it's just that it's not even remotely adequate to what it's trying to explore and because of that it can't entangle with our natural sympathies and interests. To take an example, Chapterhouse: Dune, which is probably the Dune sequel that comes closest (while still failing) to doing what it is trying to do, is a story of the Bene Gesserit caught in a complicated conflict of visions, a conflict that they need to resolve or else they -- and perhaps the human race -- will be torn apart. But while there are good moments, both symbolic moments and character moments, conveying this, it doesn't manage to explore this idea of conflicting visions as a whole very well. This is a recurring problem with Herbert's work.

I think The Santaroga Barrier is the work in which Herbert's trinity is least scalene. The basic idea, that of a utopia-dystopia, an ambiguous society that can be seen as an improvement on or degeneration of human society, simply by a Gestalt switch, is a good one, and some of the subordinate ideas that are typically Herbertian, like that of hive behavior, are better executed here than elsewhere. It's not a perfect story, but it is far better executed than most of Herbert's works. And because of this, I think it is a more powerful work.

It's also a good book to read with philosophy in mind, because of the constant references to existentialism. The lead character is improbably named Gilbert Dasein, and his girlfriend is Jenny Sorge; Dasein and Sorge, existence (being-there) and care, are important concepts in Heidegger's philosophy. It's probably not an accident that Gilbert Dasein is usually just referred to as Dasein rather than Gilbert, as in:

Dasein's morning began with a sensation of hunger.

The town of Santaroga is dominated by the Jaspers Cheese Cooperative, a reference to Karl Jaspers. One of the families is the Schelers, a reference to phenomenologist Max Scheler. There are also references throughout to psychology, especially developmental psychology (one of the characters is named Dr. Piaget) and abnormal psychology (these are the days when psychology departments did LSD experiments with students).