Saturday, February 24, 2018

Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon


Opening Passages: From the Earth to the Moon:

During the American War of Secession a new and every influential club was formed in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. We all know with what rapidity the military instinct developed itself in this people of shipowners, merchants, and mechanics. Simple shopkeepers stepped over their counters transformed into captains, colonels, and generals, without having passed through the School of application at West Point; nevertheless, they were soon equal in the art of war to their colleagues of the Old World, and, like them, obtained their victories at the cost of an immense expenditure of bullets, money, and men. (p. 5)

Around the Moon:

During the year 186- the whole world was greatly excited by a scientific experiment without precedent in the annals of science. The members of the Gun Club -- an assembly of artillerists founded at Baltimore -- had conceived the idea of placing themselves in communication with the moon -- yes, with the moon! -- by means of a cannon-ball. Their president, Barbicane, the originator of the idea, having consulted on the subject the astronomers of the Cambridge Observatory, took all the measures necessary for the success of the extraordinary undertaking, which had been declared feasible by the majority of competent men. After having opened a public subscription, which realised nearly 30 millions of francs (£1,200,000), he commenced his gigantic works. (p. 209)

Summary: The Baltimore Gun Club, founded during the Civil War, is a club of artillery enthusiasts, who find themselves puzzled as to what they should do when the Civil War ends. All this enthusiasm for artillery, and no opportunity to use it, and, what is more, the political climate is such that it seems improbable that the President of the United States could be persuaded to rectify the suggestion, say, by invading Britain. It is enough to make an artillerist very depressed. But Impey Barbicane, president of the club, has a plan: to make the biggest, most powerful cannon that has ever been made and shoot a projectile to the moon, to see if they can communicate with any inhabitants there. Using the most advanced technology, like gun cotton and aluminum metal, it just might be possible. Donations pour in from all over America, and even from the world; even the French donate more than a million francs, although in their case it is because they think it will be hilariously funny when it fails. But the French have perhaps not reckoned on the audacious practicality of Americans, and there is one Frenchman -- Michel Ardan, noted adventurer -- who sees even more potential to the project than Barbicane. Barbicane wants to shoot something to the moon. Ardan wants to go there.

It has become common to think of science fiction as 'stories about the future', but while Verne has a few of those, it is worth remembering that this is a rare thing for him. Verne's stories are not generally about the future, but about the present or near past. He is not asking himself, "How might people get to the moon in the future?" He is asking, "If we tried to go to the moon right now, how might we try to do it?" He then extrapolates as best he can to fill the apparent gaps and get an exciting story out of it. It's not a story about what might be done in the future; it's a story about living in an exciting time in which, for all one knows, there might already be a plan in the works to do it.

Likewise, it's important not to overstate the extent to which Verne is trying to predict anything. Because of his enthusiasm both for state-of-the-art technologies and for letting the genuine science of his day structure part of his stories, as well as his attempt to think through these various adventures logically, he hits remarkably often, but he's not trying to be a prophet. For one thing, he is regularly dealing with the unknown: he knows that he is entering realms in which speculation necessarily has a heavy share. But, as Michel Ardan notes, they are speculations about problems that can't be solved unless one actually goes and sees. Scientists can extrapolate all they please in the most rigorous way possible, and it's still the case that they can't fully know that they have accounted for everything until they have actually tried it out.

Verne is also particularly interested in satire. For these two works, it is especially true of From the Earth to the Moon; Around the Moon has traces of this origin, but is mostly just an attempt to tell the story of an incredible journey. From the Earth to the Moon, like its later sequel Sans dessus dessous, is in part a send-up of Americans. How do you get something to the moon? You'd need to blast it off the earth at high acceleration, like a projectile from a cannon. What nation on earth could possibly be imagined to have ambitions so vast and optimism so unlimited that they might spend that much money to build a gun that big to do something that crazy? Only the Americans. In Around the Moon the landing of the projectile when it falls back to earth is made possible because the U.S.S. Susquehanna is in taking soundings of the Pacific floor in preparation of a less crazy, but still breathtakingly ambitious, project to connect every island in Oceania by submarine telegraph cable, and the book ends with an anticipation that the Baltimore Gun Club may someday soon form a company for interstellar travel.

Verne also satirizes the French, in the form of Michel Ardan, but Ardan's entrance shifts us out of a story that is primarily satire into a story that is primarily an adventure, because it moves it from being the quirk of a nation, and, what is more, a bunch of warmongers, into being a project of humanity itself. All of that immense technological and scientific expertise had been poured into war and into the interest of single nations. The technology inevitably was impressive, so much had gone into it. What couldn't we achieve if we poured ourselves out in the same way for scientific exploration and for all of humanity?

From the Earth to the Moon was clearly conceived by Verne as a standalone work. Its ending, taken on its own, shuts down the possibility of a sequel, although it leaves enough ambiguous to invite speculation about what might have happened. Verne seems to have had a taste for stories that ended in disaster; in a number of cases where the story does not end that way, like The Adventures of Captain Hatteras and Hector Servedac, it is only so because his publisher made him change it. He ingeniously manages to find a way to get Around the Moon -- a character in the previous book turns out to have made a serious mistake -- but there's also something of a disconnect in characterization, particularly with Ardan. In the original book, Ardan brings a poetic touch and shifts the story onto new ground; he comes across as flamboyant but informed. He comes across as considerably less informed and more flamboyant in Around the Moon, because his character has to have a different function in that book, as a counterweight to the overly serious Barbicane and Nicholls, as a way to give an opportunity for exposition, and as a way of keeping a story about being stuck in a small room from getting too dull. But there are other things that maintain a kind of continuity through both books, and not least the theme, that our adventures are all the more extraordinary for being shared with others.

Favorite Passages: From the Earth to the Moon:

As no one seemed to doubt this assertion, Michel Ardan continued.

'My dear hearers, if we were to believe what certain narrow-minded people maintain, humanity would be enclosed within a magic circle, and condemned to vegetate on this globe, without ever being able to reach the planetary spheres. This must not be. We shall travel to the moon, we shall travel to the planets and to the stars, as we journey today from Liverpool to New York -- easily, rapidly, and with safety; and the atmospheric ocean will soon be crossed as well as the oceans of the moon. Distance is a relative term which will soon be reduced to zero.' (p. 132)

Around the Moon:

'Bravo!' cried Barbicane. 'Do you know, Michel, that for an artist you are intelligent?'

'Yes,' replied Michel, negligently; 'we are all like that on the Boulevard des Italiens.' (p. 336)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Jules Verne, From the Earth & Around the Moon, Wordsworth Editions (New York: 2011).

Wesley and Wilberforce

Feb 24, 1791

My Dear Sir,

Unless the Divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise, in opposing that execrable villany which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you who can be against you. Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh be not weary of well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it. That He who has guided you from your youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things, is the prayer of,

Dear Sir,
Your affectionate servant,
John Wesley

[Robert Isaac Wilberforce & Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce vol. I (London, John Murray: 1838), p. 297.]

Aquinas for Lent X

Spiritual needs are relieved by spiritual acts in two ways, first by asking for help from God, and in this respect we have "prayer," whereby one man prays for others; secondly, by giving human assistance, and this in three ways. First, in order to relieve a deficiency on the part of the intellect, and if this deficiency be in the speculative intellect, the remedy is applied by "instructing," and if in the practical intellect, the remedy is applied by "counselling." Secondly, there may be a deficiency on the part of the appetitive power, especially by way of sorrow, which is remedied by "comforting." Thirdly, the deficiency may be due to an inordinate act; and this may be the subject of a threefold consideration. First, in respect of the sinner, inasmuch as the sin proceeds from his inordinate will, and thus the remedy takes the form of "reproof." Secondly, in respect of the person sinned against; and if the sin be committed against ourselves, we apply the remedy by "pardoning the injury," while, if it be committed against God or our neighbor, it is not in our power to pardon, as Jerome observes (Super Matth. xviii, 15). Thirdly, in respect of the result of the inordinate act, on account of which the sinner is an annoyance to those who live with him, even beside his intention; in which case the remedy is applied by "bearing with him," especially with regard to those who sin out of weakness, according to Romans 15:1: "We that are stronger, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak," and not only as regards their being infirm and consequently troublesome on account of their unruly actions, but also by bearing any other burdens of theirs with them, according to Galatians 6:2: "Bear ye one another's burdens."

Summa Theologiae 2-2.32.2

Friday, February 23, 2018

Aquinas for Lent IX the Mass there is supplication until the Body and Blood of Christ, since in them there is the commemoration of holy things from which we gain confidence to ask for benefits. In the mystery of the consecration there is prayer since it is meditation on those things that Christ did. Up to communion there is intercession for the living and the dead and for oneself. At the end there is thanksgiving.

[Thomas Aquinas, Commentaries on St. Paul's Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Baer, tr., St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, IN: 2007) p. 23. This is from the commentary on I Timothy.]

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Leithart's Questions on Simplicity

Peter Leithart on divine simplicity:

Why can we not say something like this: In finite being, certain things are predicable of wholes that are not predicated of parts, yet in the case of infinite being there is no such disjunction between whole and parts. With finite being parts are in a relation of potency to the whole; in infinite being, each part is fully actualized in itself and in the whole. What can’t we say that the parts are eternally inseparable from the whole, and that the parts are actualized eternally in a whole that is actualized in its parts? What prevents us from talking about the equal ultimacy of parts and whole in infinite being? We’re going to introduce a finite/infinite distinction anyway; why can’t it run between “infinite composite/finite composite” rather than between “infinite simple/finite simple”?

(1) If there is nothing predicable of the whole that is not predicable of the parts, at all, then there is no way to distinguish wholes and parts, and therefore the claim that this is whole and that is part is unfounded.

(2) To be a part is by definition to be potential to some whole. Whether it is actualized is irrelevant; we aren't talking about change here but about whether all the parts considered are together potential-whole, even if that potential is actualized. If they have no potential to compose the whole, then either there are no parts, or there is no whole, or there is no composition. If there is no whole, though, there are no parts, and if there is no composition, well, noncompositeness is literally just another name for simplicity.

(3) Having parts is a limitation that is one of the things we recognized as constituting something as finite rather than infinite being. Parthood is an ordering relation; having parts is a kind of dependency; nothing about those parts always or necessarily existing changes the fact that the relation is one of dependency.

(4) Leithart is ultimately trying to suggest that these matters are matters of metaphysics. There are indeed metaphysical arguments on the point. But first and foremost one has to justify why one is talking about 'parts' and 'wholes' in the first place. Is it just a metaphor? Nothing about the doctrine of divine simplicity prevents that, as long as you recognize it is just a metaphor; although we would still need to know why we are using the metaphor. If it's not a metaphor, we need some reason to explain why we are calling them parts and wholes to begin with. Leithart suggests that the argument for divine simplicity makes the assumption that "there must be a close analogy between the part-whole relation of finite being and a similar relation in infinite being". But it doesn't make this assumption; the assumption, to the extent it is made, is made by the compositionist: he is proposing that there is a close enough analogy between the part-whole relation of finite being and a similar relation in infinite being that the latter can be called a part-whole relation. The defender of divine simplicity is denying this: there can be no "similar relation" in infinite being at all. There is no need for an assumption of a "close analogy" if you're denying that there is any similarity justifying the use of the same terms in both cases; you do need a "close analogy" -- at least, one close enough -- if you are going to say that both cases are genuinely cases of the part-whole relation.

There is no room for just making up a new construal of parts and wholes; they have to be actually parts and wholes, which means that they have to have certain basic features that makes it coherent and rational to call them 'parts' and 'wholes'. And Leithart cannot point to any account of parts and wholes in which (a) they are what a reasonable person would normally call parts and wholes but (b) they don't involve any kind of asymmetric ordering or dependency, formal or otherwise. None exists. Anyone who is using 'part' or 'whole' in a way that doesn't involve (b) is using them in a nonstandard way.

(5) But even if none of this were true, the question at hand is the doctrine of divine simplicity. Anyone who is going to reject this, or even question it, has to be considering what the doctrine itself is actually denying -- and it is not denying just any arbitrary meaning that can be attached to the words 'part' and 'whole', by Leithart or by anyone else. It is denying that God is composite in the way it is characterizing composition. Nothing else is even relevant.

Aquinas for Lent VIII

But since while trying to conform himself to some exemplar, a man is occasionally impeded by an intervening obstacle, he therefore removes that which is most capable of being an impediment: the weight of sin. Now, tribulation is as a certain contest. I Cor 9:25: Every one who contends in the struggle, refraineth himself from all things. For just as in a race and contest one ought to lay aside everything that weighs him down, so also in the contest of tribulation....He, therefore, who wishes to run well to God in tribulation must lay aside every impediment.

[Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Baer, tr. St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, IN: 2006) p. 269.]

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Peacock

Today is the feast of St. Pietro Damiani, better known in English as Peter Damian, Doctor of the Church. From his Letter 95:

Do not as very many do, my brother, pay too much attention to the virtue you may possess and thus neglect passing judgment on the vices you have disregarded. But imitate the example of the peacock which naturally acts quite differently. It has its ugly feet, like those of a chicken, always in view, but displays the spectacular beauty of its tail behind it. In its feet it sees something gross that it may despise, but ignores its tail that might cause it to be admired. Before its eyes is that which causes it humiliation, but on the back it carries that for which it can strut before all other birds. You too should hide that which is virtuous within you, but never fail to view and judge what might be sinful and in need of correction.

The Saddest Birds a Season Find to Sing

Tymes Goe by Turnes
by St. Robert Southwell

The lopped trees in tyme may growe againe;
Most naked plants renewe both frute and floure;
The soriest wight may finde release of payne,
The dryest soyle sucke in some moystning shoure;
Tymes goe by turnes and chances chang by course,
From foule to fayre, from better happ to worse.

The sea of Fortune doth not ever floe,
She draws her favours to the lowest ebb;
Her tide hath equall tymes to come and goe,
Her loome doth weave the fine and coarsest webb;
No joy so great but runneth to an ende,
No happ so harde but may in fine amende.

Not allwayes fall of leaf nor ever springe,
No endlesse night yet not eternall daye;
The saddest birdes a season finde to singe,
The roughest storme a calme may soon alaye;
Thus with succeding turnes God tempereth all,
That man may hope to rise yet feare to fall.

A chaunce may wynne that by mischance was lost;
The nett that houldes no greate, takes little fishe;
In some thinges all, in some thinges none are croste,
Fewe all they neede, but none have all they wishe;
Unmedled joyes here to no man befall,
Who least hath some, who most hath never all.

Aquinas for Lent VII

Striving for Wisdom possesses this peculiar advantage: In doing her work she is more than sufficient to herself. For in exterior works a human being needs much help, but in the contemplation of Wisdom the more one remains solitary and alone with oneself, the more efficaciously one works. And therefore, in the words proposed, the Wise Man calls one back to oneself saying [Sirach 32:15-16]: First run into your own house; that is, away from external things you should, with solicitude, retire to your own mind, before it is occupied by what is alien and, through concern for that, is distracted. Hence it is said in Wisdom VIII: "Entering into my house I shall take my rest with her," namely, with Wisdom.

[Thomas Aquinas, An Exposition of the "On the Hebdomads" of Boethius, Schultz and Synan, trs. CUA Press (Washington, D.C.: 2001) p. 5]

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Links of Note

* Welcome to Monowi, Nebraska: population 1 at BBC Travel

* Ted Jackson, The Search for Jackie Wallace

* Louis Roy, O.P., On Anscombe and Wittgenstein

* A newly discovered draft of Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy

* MrD has a true word on the No True Scotsman Fallacy

* At the SEP:
Hanke and Jung, William of Heytesbury
Lévy, Philo of Alexandria
Mora-Márquez, Simon of Faversham

* Eleanor Cummins discusses the history of squab in America

* Logan Ward on the American College of the Building Arts.

Aquinas for Lent VI

Just as human beings acquire the first thing that completes them, i.e., the soul, from the action of God, so they also acquire the last thing that completes them, that is complete human happiness, directly from God, and they rest in him. This is clear from the fact that the natural longing of a human being cannot rest in anything else except in God alone. For human beings have an innate longing that moves them from the things that have been brought into being to seeking their cause. Therefore this longing will not rest until it reaches the first cause, which is God.

[Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues, Atkins and Williams, eds. Cambridge UP (New York: 2005) p. 65.]

Monday, February 19, 2018

Superpossibles II

I previously noted that there are cases in which we say that something is possible (or use another modality definable in terms of possibility) for which possible worlds semantics seems to provide no adequate translation. I called these, for lack of a better term, 'superpossibles'. The two obvious cases are the actual world and God. And I also noted that this raised the question of what other cases there might be.

One candidate would be causal powers, and for reasons analogous to those seen with the actual world and God: namely, that possible worlds talk has no adequate way to handle either actuality itself or hierarchies and dependencies among possibilities. We can run the argument either by linking causal powers to the actual world or to God. First, the reason the modalities of the actual world can't be adequately captured by possible worlds talk is that the actual world itself has different possibilities, and therefore cannot be identified with a possible world, but also cannot be reduced to either a collection of possible worlds or an element in a possible world. But if one accepts the existence of causal powers, it is the causal powers that make the actual world have different possibilities in the first place. Therefore, a fortiori, causal powers deal with possibilities that can, at best, only partially be translated into talk about possible worlds, and this means that causal powers are superpossibles. Or one can analogize to God: modalities attributable to God can't adequately be translated into possible worlds talk because the latter treats possibilities all on the level; but when one attributes possibility to (say) God's existence, one does so in a way that makes this false -- God's possibility has a priority or fundamentality with respect to other possibilities that possible worlds talk has no way to capture. God's possibility is connected to His being able to make other possibilities possible. But causal powers are also actuality-makers, and have a fundamentality with respect to other possibles, although on a smaller scale. So similar reasoning applies.

Because possible worlds semantics is just a device for relating possibilities in an extensional way, so you can consistently assign truth values to modal claims without making radical changes to the logic you use, it treats possibilities as nothing more than instances (in a possible world) and necessities as nothing more than regularities (across possible worlds). But not all our uses of modality work this way, so that possible worlds talk flattens out our notions of modality. If something would be describable in possible worlds analysis as 'true in all possible worlds' or 'true in all possible worlds with such-and-such feature), this could be because it is made to have this feature by something else or because of its own nature; and, likewise, when we talk about possibilities we can perfectly well treat possibilities as having hierarchical relations of dependency between each other, rather than treating them all on a level.

I had noted previously that one of the reasons for the use of the possible worlds framework is that it is, with a few tricks, easily adaptable to talking about a lot of different modalities. All of the candidates for superpossibles that I've mentioned arise with regard to alethic modalities themselves (possibility, necessity); but there are non-alethic modalities that also sometimes get discussed in terms of possible worlds. One would expect superpossibles in these cases, as well. And we can identify a few obvious candidates. Take, for instance, Kant's categorical imperative in terms of the modalities of obligation and permissibility (deontic necessity and possibility). The categorical imperative, by its very definition, has a fundamentality with regard to other permissible things -- whether other things are permissible depends on the categorical imperative, so that the categorical imperative does not involve permissibility in the way other imperatives do, even though obviously it is permissible to do what the categorical imperative requires. So the categorical imperative is a plausible candidate for a deontic superpossible, a superpermissible, whose modal character cannot adequately be captured by possible worlds semantics. A similar argument can be run for regarding self-evident first principles as candidates for epistemic superpossibles.

In other words, the existence of superpossibles, that is, of things whose modalities can only, at best, be partially captured by possible worlds analysis, seems to arise from (1) the limitations in how possible worlds analysis can handle actuality; and (2) the fact that possible worlds analysis assumes that 'possibility' is univocal. It has difficulty, then, capturing modalities intimately linked with actuality, and with modalities that are analogically or hierarchically related, according to prior and posterior. This raises the question of whether there are other lines of argument by which one could discover superpossibles.

Aquinas for Lent V

...because from the Church's precept all believers are bound to take the communion of the sacrament at least once a year, on the feast of Easter especially, therefore the Church decreed that once a year when the time for taking the Eucharist is near all believers should confess. Therefore, I say that delaying confession until this time [i.e., Lent], essentially speaking, is permitted but it can become unlawful accidentally, e.g., if a moment in which confession is required should be near, or if someone delays confession out of contempt. And likewise such a delay may be accidentally meritorious if he delays so that he may confess more prudently or more devoutly because of the holy season.

[Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2, Edwards, tr., PIMS (Toronto: 1983) pp. 53-54]

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Till in Deep Calms of Space

Finite and Infinite
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The wind sounds only in opposing straits,
The sea, beside the shore; man's spirit rends
Its quiet only up against the ends
Of wants and oppositions, loves and hates,
Where, worked and worn by passionate debates,
And losing by the loss it apprehends,
The flesh rocks round and every breath it sends
Is ravelled to a sigh. All tortured states
Suppose a straitened place. Jehovah Lord,
Make room for rest, around me! out of sight
Now float me of the vexing land abhorred,
Till in deep calms of space my soul may right
Her nature, shoot large sail on lengthening cord,
And rush exultant on the Infinite.