Saturday, December 28, 2019

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Anúna, "The Coventry Carol".

A Poem Draft

Long and Foggy Road

Father Time is marching step by step;
you and I are there, just passers-by.
Save for this, there is little that we know:
every heart, love, hope, and year must surely die.
Somewhere down this long and foggy road,
final berth whence never soul returns,
Time having reached its destined end,
maybe an eternal fire burns,
but you and I are still upon this path,
though follies of this age our step has slowed;
and this we must hold onto till the end:
it's you and I together on this road.
Let other folk grasp hard their lonely selves.
Every soul in the end reaps what it sowed.
Whatever darkness falls, we'll power through,
you and I, on this long and foggy road.
Year again is passing to its grave!
Never fear; I'll write to you this earnest ode:
step by step and each for each, we will not fail,
you and I, on this long and foggy road.

ADDED LATER: I had forgotten that I also had this one:

The Flowers Grow in Luthany

The flowers grow in Luthany
row by row beside the road;
the sunlight shines epiphany
on fields where hope and joy are sowed.
The trill of bird is riding breeze;
I heard it one day shrill and clear
like wind that blows across the seas,
sea-wave crispness bringing near.
A spring of water near a tree
bubbles over, sweet and glad,
but stillness lies on Luthany;
even laughing springs are sad.
For sometimes joy, an apple gold,
the painter paints on background dark;
the warmest flame is found in cold;
in darkness first will sing the lark.
And every joy in Luthany
is sweeter far for tears of grief,
a melancholy ecstasy,
an ache, and in the ache relief.
The flowers grow in Luthany
row by row beside the road
and mark the graves with sanctity
and pay with joy where debt is owed.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Feast of St. John

Earth Cannot Bar Flame from Ascending
by Christina Rossetti

Earth cannot bar flame from ascending,
Hell cannot bind light from descending,
Death cannot finish life never ending.

Eagle and sun gaze at each other,
Eagle at sun, brother at Brother,
Loving in peace and joy one another.

O St. John, with chains for thy wages,
Strong thy rock where the storm-blast rages,
Rock of refuge, the Rock of Ages.

Rome hath passed with her awful voice,
Earth is passing with all her joys,
Heaven shall pass away with a noise.

So from us all follies that please us,
So from us all falsehoods that ease us,–
Only all saints abide with their Jesus.

Jesus, in love looking down hither,
Jesus, by love draw us up thither,
That we in Thee may abide together.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Feast of St. Stephen

"Good King Wenceslaus", Clamavi De Profundis.

Dickens's A Christmas Carol

The structure of Dickens's Christmas ghost story, A Christmas Carol, is somewhat richer than it is usually seen to be. Scrooge, of course, famously responds to "A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" with "Bah! Humbug!" "Humbug" is not really something you say to indicate general approval; it is an implicit accusation of dishonesty or hypocrisy. Afer some discussion, Scrooge's nephew replies:

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

This response actually gives the real theme of the work, the fact that there are things from which we might derive good (Christmas among the rest) by which we have not profited. Scrooge in treating Christmas as a lie has demanded to be left alone from it instead of taking the opportunity to become a better person. He is then, of course, visited by four ghosts, each of whom introduces a part of the response to this attitude:

(1) Scrooge himself has done wrong (Ghost of Marley);
(2) in a world of people trying in small ways to make the world better, he has made himself selfish and worse (Ghost of Christmas Past);
(3) this selfishness is even now leading him to miss opportunities to do good (Ghost of Christmas Present);
(4) and, like everyone else, he is running out of time (Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come).

Scrooge's problem is that he has chosen to take a position from which he can look down on the little goods done by others as nothing but humbug, hypocrisy, fakery, and treat that very position as a reason why he himself need not do any such good at all. He has cultivated a wall of selfishness with the justification that he is seeing through all the nonsense of other people. When he learns his lesson, he responds by seizing his opportunities to do good to others while he still can.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Feast of the Nativity

"What Child Is This?", Peter Hollens.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve

"Silent Night", The Hound + The Fox.

Science and Philosophy

It is common to make claims about the relationship between scientific positions and philosophical positions, but the arguments that underwrite such claims are not always the same. There are at least two major groups:

(A) Analogy of Theory: We have some scientific theory, call it T, which naturally suggests some metaphysical or natural-philosophical position. For instance, Gilson notes somewhere that historically people who tended to assume that the physical world is deterministic did so because determinism seemed the natural philosophical analogue of how they understood Newtonian physics (T).

(H) Historical Induction: Our best scientific theory, call it T, was reached by assuming some metaphysical or natural-philosophical position, sometimes such that even those who had a different position in fact proceeded as if this philosophical position were true. For instance, it is sometimes argued that naturalism is the best philosophical position because our modern physical theories (T) were developed by people assuming naturalism or, even if they did not in fact believe naturalism true, doing their investigations as if naturalism were true.

(There are other kinds of arguments; for instance, both of these go from scientific theory to philosophical position, but it is also the case that people accept scientific theories that best fit their philosophical positions. I am more interested here, however, in the science-to-philosophy direction.)

In practice, people tend to use either kind of argument as it suits them, as is perhaps inevitable, but there are complications that are often not recognized. First, both kinds of argument are sensitive to what we might focus on; for instance, using H on neuroscience for the past fifty years, the philosophical position that might be suggested is materialism about the mind, but if one uses the entire history of neuroscience, the sure winner is substance dualism. I've noted before that not only were substance dualists primarily the founders of the field, most scientists studying the brain were substance dualists well into the twentieth century, and two people who have received the Nobel prize for major work in neuroscience (Sherrington and Eccles) were vocal substance dualists of one kind or another. And this makes sense in itself -- if you want a philosophical position that both recognizes the relevance of the brain to the mind but at the same time does not make assumptions that would affect your interpretation of how any particular discovery about the brain bears on questions about the mind, substance dualism is a very obvious candidate, and in the development of a difficult science a philosophical position that recognizes a connection without prejudging it will have obvious advantages over its rivals.

Second, assessment sometimes depends on your reference points. For instance, most modern biologists would take modern biological theories to suggest materialism/mechanism by A and H alike, but it is clear that by nineteenth-century standards modern biology would have to count as weakly vitalistic and the actual history of biology is much more checkered. Modern biology is partly built out of mechanistic triumphs (such as the discovery that there is no sharp line between organic and inorganic compounds), but it is also partly built out of vitalistic triumphs (such as the organic theory of fermentation and the germ theory of disease), and the ease with which biologists fall back into information-based metaphors is a vitalistic heritage. The reason modern biologist don't recognize their field as vitalistic is that when they think vitalism, they are largely thinking of vitalism as Driesch's entelechies and things of that sort,
and take more modern theories to have developed solutions to problems that nullify the kinds of problems late vitalists insisted upon; they think of strong forms of vitalism when thinking of vitalism and weak and partially agnostic forms of mechanism when they think of materialism or mechanism; and they organize their thoughts on the history of the field, when they think of vitalistic triumphs at all, as a largely mechanistic framework with vitalistic qualifications rather than a largely vitalistic framework with mechanistic qualifications.

Another example is that while there were certainly Newtonian physicists who were determinist, this was not a historically popular position; most physicists who laid the groundwork of the field thought that there were causes not covered by the laws of motion, such as minds with free will, and thus tended to read Newtonian theory as ceteris paribus, something you use when you don't have to worry about such other causes, rather than as absolute.

A third complication is that A and H are both based on highly defeasible forms of inference, and therefore can never on their own get you certain conclusions. A is based on analogical inference, and, what is more, most often an analogical inference based not on any rigorous standard of similarity but a general 'feel' as to how this suggests that. As some have noted in recent decades, it's not clear how strictly deterministic Newtonian physics is even when taken strictly; there are situations definable in the theory, like Norton's Dome, for which arguably there is an answer but no deterministic one, and while there are counterarguments, there is no general agreement about whether they are successful. But the way Newtonian physics tends to be taught makes the billiard-ball universe seem inevitable.

Likewise, just as A depends on an assumption of a standard of similarity that might not be accepted, so does H depend on an assumption of uniformity that might be controverted. Major sea-changes do occur, after all; the history of neuroscience is in fact very favorable to substance dualism, but one could well argue that once it reached a certain point, enough changes had accumulated to tip the scales in a different direction.

These complications are unavoidable; there is no kind of A or H you could make that would enable you to avoid them completely. And thus we have what we have, with everybody using whichever one, and whichever variation of one, opportunistically.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Light in the Temple

Tonight is the beginning of Hanukkah, which will continue until through December 30; it commemorates the dedication of the temple after the retaking of Jerusalem by the Maccabees. From the version of the story found in 1 Maccabees:

Then Judas and his brothers said, "See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it." So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes and fell face down on the ground. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.

Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them. Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they offered incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.
[1 Maccabees 4:36-51 (NRVSCE)]

The comment about storing the stones until a prophet came to tell them what to do with them is interesting, and I think marks a major theme in 1 Maccabees, the problem of how to live faithfully in a time of trial when there are no trustworthy prophets to guide you (which is explicitly mentioned in 9:27 and 14:41, as well).