Friday, December 31, 2004

Berkeley and the Unconceived

There is an interesting post at Fake Barn Country on Berkeley's unconceived tree. The author makes the error, I think, of being too vague about conception and thought. Berkeley has something fairly precise in mind when he talks about ideas and conception. Consider the following possible line of objection in the post:

Even if Berkeley is right that we cannot, without contradicting ourselves, conceive of an unconceived tree, this does not imply either that (a) we do not in fact conceive of such things (after all, we can conceive of impossible things like the largest prime number), or that (b) there could not be an unconceived tree (the link between imaginability and possibility is not nearly so strong as Berkeley supposes).

But one can very well say that we do not, in fact, conceive of impossible things like the 'largest prime number'; we simply use the words 'largest prime number'. And there is nothing in Berkeley's theory to prevent saying this; in part, because it is precisely along the lines of the sort of thing Berkeley says. Merely because you use words meaningfully (in a linguistic sense), it does not mean you have a notion to correspond with those words (nor does it mean that you've said something consistent). And on (b) it isn't actually very clear what one can mean by saying that I can conceive the existence of a tree whose existence I cannot conceive. The same point arises with another response to Berkeley that's discussed:

Although his argument purports to show that I cannot conceive of any particular unconceived tree, it seems to leave open the possibility that I can have the thought that there is some tree that is unconceived. That is, I may be able to have thoughts about unseen trees that are descriptive, rather than directly referential.

And another:

Consider the following story:

Once upon a time, there was a universe with nothing in it except for a single tree. Since there were no people or thinkers or anything else in this universe, the tree just sat there for all of time, and no one ever saw it, or thought about it, or told a story about it. The end.

My story is boring and probably lacking in literary merit, but it is not incoherent. Since Berkeley’s argument – even when weakened with the quantifier response – claims that it is inconsistent, the response in question is insufficient to stop Berkeley from proving something absurd – that my story is conceptually confused.

But it isn't obviously absurd to say that the story is conceptually confused; that is, it isn't clear that the story it gives is coherent, and even if it is coherent, it isn't clear that its coherence is a problem for Berkeley. (It's coherent, of course, even on Berkeley's view, to say that no one has told a story about the tree about which I am currently telling a story; it would be incoherent, however, to say that I have a story about a tree about which there are no stories, simpliciter, and it is this that Berkeley would claim to be parallel to the case of matter. Such things make great fiction, but bad philosophy.)

The author's own suggestion is very interesting; but I'm not very clear why it's supposed to be plausible. I think of a tree does, prima facie, appear to imply A tree is thought of by me, because they seem to be saying simply the same thing. And if this is so, I'm not sure why the issue of the relation between the thinker and the thing is going to make any difference to Berkeley's argument. If I claim, "I have an idea of a tree of which I can have no idea," what generates the contradiction is not the relation between thinker and tree, but the contradiction in saying "I have an idea I do not have". It's like the old invisible pink unicorn example; one cannot see a unicorn one cannot see. And one needs no theory of seeing to recognize that this is so. Likewise, one needs no theory of thinking to see that we cannot think of things of which we cannot think.

My own view, only very roughly thought out, is that Berkeley is quite right: we cannot say that we conceive an unconceived thing, or perceive an unperceived thing, properly speaking, without contradicting ourselves. And I don't see that there is any problem with saying this; we cannot have ideas we cannot have, we cannot have perceptions we cannot have. Berkeley needs more for his idealism than just this, but he's right on this point.

[We do, of course, have a notion of not conceiving, because sometimes we don't conceive things. But this doesn't imply that we can ever conceive of something unconceived, properly speaking; it just means we know we are not always conceiving everything. When we do conceive things, they are not unconceived; when we are thinking about things, we are thinking about them. The things themselves, however, can still be in some sense independent of us, external to us, and continue to exist when we are not thinking about them; and Berkeley, in fact, accepts all three of these claims. In this argument he merely denies that we can ever have in mind the being of something that is properly speaking 'without the mind'; and his interpretation of the three claims does not treat the independent, external, continuing existence of things as 'without the mind'. In other words, he breaks down the internal/external dichotomy that undergirds external world skepticism.]


As you could probably guess, I'm back from Boston. I'll probably post about it this weekend. I didn't do as much as I'd hoped at the APA, because when I actually got into Boston I wasn't feeling very well; but it got better. Boston's actually a great city; I wish I had had a few more days (and dollars) to spend.

Best wishes for the New Year!

Newest Christian Carnival

The last Christian Carnival of the year is up at MediaSoul. Posts I found particularly interesting:

* On the Holy Family at "NOTES"

* Learning from Shepherds at "3:17"

* The Silmarillion at "Semicolon"

Naturally, there are others of interest; go see.

Philosophers' Carnival VII

The Philosophers' Carnival is up at Mixing Memory. My contribution was the post on the Humean account of analogy. Other interesting posts include one on Ockham's Razor and Clayton Littlejohn's In Defense of Almeida and Oppy. Go see what it has to offer!

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

"Ramblin' Man, Why Don't You Settle Down?"

I'm off to Boston for the next two days; I'll probably be back Friday morning, and I don't think I'll be doing any blogging before then.

'Moral Equivalents'

I have recently heard and read the phrase 'moral equivalent' several times, and after thought, I have no notion what it means. See a few examples here. The natural meaning would seem to be that, given two cases, one can, for all moral purposes, substitute them for each other (in what way?) without change (of what?). But this can't be what is meant, because the phrase is often used of things that are clearly not intersubstitutable. If it just means the two cases are in some way analogous, it can't be reasonably used for the sorts of arguments in which it is employed without clarifying in what way and to what degree they are analogous. (I have similar problems with 'moral standing' when used comparatively.)

(Incidentally, even setting that aside, I find none of the arguments in the Reason article linked above even particularly interesting, since they are as sloppy as all get out. The term 'holocaust' is misused; most of the rhetorical questions could be consistently answered by a right-to-lifer with a "That doesn't necessarily follow"; the 'thought experiment' is ludicrously stupid, since it doesn't support what it is supposed to be supporting; and the last paragraph requires the erroneous assumption that the only reasons for which one could want to halt stem cell research are theological. It would be helpful if people actually used rational arguments on this sort of topic, particularly in a magazine called "Reason". But Eric Muller has a good review of Malkin's internment book, which quite redeems the December issue. And, to be fair to Bailey, he does have a good article or two about.)

Monday, December 27, 2004

A 1748 Doctrinal Pamphlet

The following is a doctrinal pamphlet published in 1748. "J.F." is James Fanch, about whom I haven't been able to discover anything further. The reference to the eternal covenant suggests Calvinist influence, but can be explained in other ways. Some of the pamphlet reads like sermon notes, and it is not at all impossible that some of it is based on a sermon series or two. The pamphlet is arranged so that on the left-hand side of the page the outline and verse reference can be found, and on the right-hand side, the verse is actually stated. Like this:

I. The Moral Law is the Will of God revealed a a Rom 1:19

a---Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them.

Rather than do this, which in blogging would have been an immense pain, I have just linked to the initial letter (italicized in the above example) and done away entirely with the marginal reference (a Rom 1:19) and the explicit verse on the right-hand side.

Also, since in blogging it's difficult to do structured outlines in a way that will come out with any consistency, I have used parenthetical numbers rather than indentation as the original does. Where I write (II.1.1), the original only has 1., indented so as to show that it falls under section 1. of section II. The spelling is as it is in the pamphlet. The word 'Session' just means 'sitting'; it refers to Jesus's sitting at the right hand of God.

UPDATE: Rebecca notes in the comments that much of Fanch's discussion is highly consistent with covenant theology. It's hard to say for sure, given Fanch's purpose in the pamphlet and the limits of his method, but this does seem likely. You can find a discussion of the history of covenant theology here.


A COMPENDIUM of the Principles of Religion, Doctrinal and Practical;

In a short VIEW of the LAW and GOSPEL,
With some OBSERVATIONS on both.

The whole

Illustrated with particular PORTIONS of SCRIPTURE adpated to each Head, in a Method entirely New, Easy, and Comprehensive.

Designed chiefly


By I. F. Minister of the Gospel

O how I love they Law! it is my Meditation all the Day. Ps. cxix 97
R E A D I N G :

Printed for S. BLACKMAN, at the King's Arms in Fisher-Road
(Price 3 d.)

Initial Matter


You will sometimes find several Scriptures under one Letter of Reference, but observe, they are all design'd to prove the Truth asserted under the Head to which the Letter refers; so that the Asterisms (*) and Obelisks (†) are only design'd to direct the Eye more readily to the beginning fo the several particular Texts in the same Proof: As for Instance, at the beginning of teh View of the LAw under the Letter d there are several Texts from Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah, but all design'd to prove that we are to believe one God only; and so of the rest.

To the

The Design of the following Pages is to give a general and comprehensive View of our holy Religion in it's chief doctrinal and practical Principles, in a plain scriptural Way. My Method would not suffer me to offer any Thing in the Form of an Argument, I have therefore only asserted such Truths as appeared to me of the greatest Importance, and plainly revealed in the Word of God; to which in every Sentence I therefore appeal, as the only infallible Rule in all Matters of Faith and Practice.

I very well know that every Text I have quoted (nay every one I can quote) may be, by Art or Violence, explain'd away, and press'd to serve a contrary Scheme; but as to any Thing of that Kind I am quite easy, having no Design of entering into a formal Controversy with any Man.

My main design is to assist Parents in the Instruction of their Families, and to furnish the serious Youth, and other Beginners in Religion, with such Materials as might not only help their Enquiries into divine Things, but enable them to judge of Truth and Falshood the more readily and safely; and so render the reading and hearing the Word more profitable to them, preserve them from that Unsteadiness and Vanity of Mind that too much prevails among the Professors of this Day, and direct their Practice in the Duties of Piety and Morality. And thus what I ahve written may be used either as an Introduction or an Appendix to the Assemblies Catechism, just as the Teacher finds most convenient.

As to the Method of learning it, I should think it were best that the View of the Law and the Gospel be got by Heart first; and after that the Observations, all
without meddling with the Scriptures: Then let the whole be gone over again with the Scriptures, but without regard to to Chapter and Verse the first Time.

That my Endeavours may be attended with the divine Blessing, I hope will be your Prayer, Reader, as well as mine, the Author
, J. F.

Primary Matter

A short VIEW of the LAW

The LAW is either Moral or Positive,

I. The moral Law is the Will of God revealed a as an eternal Rule of Righteousness to all Men. b

II. The moral Law teacheth us our Duty towards God, and towards Man. c

(II.I) Our Duty towards God is
(II.I.1) To believe in one God only, as he reveals himself in hiw Works and Word. d *
(II.I.2) To pay divine Worship to one God only. e(II.I.2.1) In Simplicity, without Images, f
(II.I.2.2) In Sincerity and Purity, g
(II.I.2.3) In fervency of Affection, h
(II.I.2.4) In Faith of his Acceptance. i
(II.I.3) To treat his Name, at all Times, as holy, dreadful, glorious, and delightful. k *
(II.I.4) To devote one Day in seven particularly to his Worship, l
(II.I.4.1) In Adoration of his Being, m
(II.I.4.2) Prayer for his Assistance, n
(II.I.4.3) Praise for his Perfections, o
(II.I.4.4) Attention to his Word. p *
(II.I.5) And to redeem some Time daily besides for this Worship. q

(II.II) Our Duty towards Man, is,
(II.II.1) To honour our Superiors, r *
(II.II.2) To be kind to our Inferiors, s
(II.II.3) To preserve Chastity t in Thought, u Word, and Deed w
(II.II.4) To be tender of the Life, x Property, y and Reputation of all, z
(II.II.5) To envy none, a but be content in our Condition. b


I. The Moral Law is sum'd up in ten Commandments in the old Testament. a

II. The Moral Law is sum'd up in two Commandments in the new Testament. b

III. The Moral Law was given to Man as a covenant of Life, thro' perfect Obedience. c *

IV. Upon Adam's Disobedience, it pronounced Death upon him and his Posterity d *

V. From the Law's Sentence of Death we cannot be freed, but by Christ the Redeemer. e *

VI. No Works done by us at any Time, in this World, can be perfectly Good, in the Eye of the Law. f

VII. But the Works done by Christ in the room and stead of Sinners, were perfectly Good in the Eye of the Law. g *

VIII. Therefore we can have no Right to Life by our Works, but by the Obedience of Christ only. h *

IX. The proper Use of the Law is
(IX.1) To shew us our Duty. i *
(IX.2) To convince us of Sin. k
(IX.3) To condemn us for it. l

X. The Gospel does not make void the Law, m but enforces our Obedience to it. n
(X.1) To manifest our Gratitude to Christ for our Redemption. o
(X.2) To silence the Cavils of ungodly Men. p
(X.3) To promote the Glory of God, q and the Good of the World. r

XI. The Gospel calls those Works Good, s which are done
(XI.1) By the Grace of Regeneration. t
(XI.2) By Faith in Christ's Mediation. u *
(XI.3) By the Assistance of the Holy Spirit. w *
(XI.4) Out of Regard to the divine Authority. x
(XI.5) From the Motives of the Gospel. y
(XI.6) With a View to the Glory of God. z

A short VIEW of the GOSPEL

I. The GOSPEL is the good News of free Salvation to Sinners. a *

It may be considered as, I. CONTRIVED, II. CARRIED ON, III. COMPLEATED.

The Gospel is I. CONTRIVED.

I. In the eternal Counsels of God the Father, freely chusing some to grace and glory by Christ Jesus, b *

II. In the everlasting Covenant of Grace, between the Father and the Son. c *

The Gospel is II. CARRIED ON.

I. In Redemption by Christ.
From, 1. The Guilt of Sin, d
2. The Curse of the Law, e
3. The Wrath of God, f
4. In-dwelling Corruption, g
5. The Power of Satan, h
6. The Malice of the Wicked, i
7. The Evils of the World, k
8. The Power of Death, l
9. The Pains of Hell; m

Through, 1. His mysterious Incarnation, n
2. His spotless Nature, o
3. His perfect Obedience, p
4. His acceptable Sacrifice, q
5. His compleat Atonement, r
6. His bitter Death, s
7. His powerful Resurrection, t
8. His triumphant Ascension, u
9. His glorious Session, w
10. His prevailing Intercession, x
11. His universal Government y of Providence and Grace, z
12. His final judgment of all. a

The Gospel is also carried on

II By the Publication of Grace ---
(II.1) In the free Promises of
(II.1.1) Pardon to the condemned. a
(II.1.2) Justification to the ungodly. b *
(II.1.3) Adoption to strangers. c
(II.1.4) Sanctification to the impure. d
(II.1.5) Perfection to the imperfect. e
(II.1.6) Immortality to the mortal. f
(II.1.7) The Sum of all which is, g
(II.2) In wide Proclamations. h
(II.3) Kind Invitations. i *
(II.4) Powerful Perswasions. k
(II.5) Strong Protestations. l
(II.6) Merciful Expostulations. m
(II.7) Solemn Warnings. n
To all, o Particularly

(II.7.1) To the impenitent for Conviction. p
(II.7.2) To the penitent for Comfort. q
(II.7.3) To the backsliding for Recovery r

III. By the Operation of the Spirit,
(III.1) Enlightening the Mind. s
(III.2) Convincing the Conscience. t
(III.3) Perswading the Will. u
(III.4) Melting the Affections. w
(III.5) Quickening the holiness of the whole Man. x
(III.6) Enabling to persevere to the End. y


I. In the Resurrection, and glorious Change of the Body at the last Day. z

II. In the blessed Vision of God in the heavenly World, a * which will be
(II.1) Perfectly clear, b
(II.2) Intirely transforming, c
(II.3) Eternally satisfying. d


I. Some scripture Doctrines are so joined with the Gospel as to be inseparable from it, viz.
(I.1) The Godhead of Christ, a * by whom it is procured.
(I.2) The Godhead of the Holy Spirit, by whom it is applied. b
(I.3) Original Sin, from which it delivers. c *
(I.4) The Perfection of the Law, which it every where magnifies. d *

II. The Decrees of God, and Covenant of Grace, enfold the Salvation of his People in its Compass; so that
(II.1) The Covenant of Grace, is Salvation enclosed. e
(II.2) Salvation in the Gospel, is the Covenant unfolded. f *
(II.3) The Conversion of the Sinner, is the Cov'nant apply'd. g
(II.4) The Glorification of a Saint, is the Covenant compleated. h

III. The saving Operations of Grace are
(III.1) Perfectly free. i *
(III.2) Unsearchably Deep. k
(III.3) Omnipotently strong. l
(III.4) Eternal in Duration. m

IV. The internal Glory of the Gospel is not to be seen, without the special Grace of the Spirit. n
  For which therefore we are
(IV.1) To seek diligently. o
(IV.2) To pray constantly. p
(IV.3) To hope chearfully. q *


((There is an appendix on the Lord's Prayer "In a Method partly borrowed from Bernard's Thesaurus Biblicus, with scripture Illustrations," which I will not give here.))

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Christmas without Christ

From John Henry Newman, Verses on Various Occasions:

Christmas without Christ

HOW can I keep my Christmas feast
In its due festive show,
Reft of the sight of the High Priest
From whom its glories flow?

I hear the tuneful bells around,
The blessèd towers I see;
A stranger on a foreign ground,
They peal a fast for me.

O Britons! now so brave and high,
How will ye weep the day
When Christ in judgment passes by,
And calls the Bride away!

Your Christmas then will lose its mirth,
Your Easter lose its bloom:
Abroad, a scene of strife and dearth;
Within, a cheerless home!

December 25, 1832.

Special Circumstances

I spent a quiet Christmas Day. I re-read the Gospel of Luke (it's a good exercise just to sit down and read the whole thing through in one sitting; you pick up rhythms and patterns of word and thought that you would miss in our usual piecemeal approach to the text - I came away with a strong sense of the unity of the book), and finished re-reading George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss. Having read it again, I think people who criticize her emphasis on the brother-sister relation (some critics have claimed she sees it as more important to the novel than it really is) need to read the novel again. The problem with the work is not that the relation between Maggie and Tom is treated by the author as more important than it is; the problem is that Eliot largely loses sight of Tom in the sixth book, and so the sixth book wanders from the main line of the novel. It's not a serious flaw, I think; but it's enough to make the ending of the book seem a little jarring after so much Stephen Guest. And that brings me to my second beef with the critics; there is a long tradition of criticism that thinks Eliot's presentation of Maggie's temptation by Stephen is not plausible: Maggie's just not the kind of girl to turn so easily from Philip after this coxcomb. But I think anyone who has read the story up to that point in a way sympathetic to Maggie should also be tempted by Stephen; that is, there should be part of the reader that does almost wish that she would eloper with Stephen. After all, by the time Stephen arrives on the scene, we've seen relatively little of Philip; and he hasn't presented himself as much more than a nice, but occasionally peevish, cripple. Maggie's affection for him is more pity and gratitude than anything robust. But more importantly, I think a reader sympathetic to Maggie's plight will be very alive to the desire for things finally to go right for her, and Stephen is very tempting in this regard. He is the easy way; and I think Eliot highlights in many ways that this is where much of the temptation for Maggie is: he's strong, protective, persistent, and Maggie after such a wearying sequence of trials finds a genuine pleasure in someone deciding things for her, smoothing the way, protecting her from further troubles, giving her an easy way to pursue her interests without the hard work of discipline. I think a reader who has really understood Maggie will tend to recognize this, and, though knowing as well as she that it is not right, feel that almost it would be better if it were.

In any case, an interesting passage from book 7, chapter 2:

The great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it; the question whether the moment has come in which a man has fallen below the possibility of a renunciation that will carry any efficacy, and must accept the sway of a passion against which he had struggled as a trespass, is one for which we have no master-key that will fit all cases. The casuists have become a byword of reproach; but their perverted spirit of minute discrimination was the shadow of a truth to which eyes and hearts are too often fatally sealed,–the truth, that moral judgments must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.

All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. And the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgment solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality,–without any care to assure themselves whether they have the insight that comes from a hardly earned estimate of temptation, or from a life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Christmas

God's good grace be with you all during this remembrance of the one who is a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the Jews.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways,
God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,
whom he appointed the heir of all things,
through whom also he created the world.
He is the radiance of God's glory and the exact imprint of his nature,
and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
After making purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
having become as much superior to angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Stabat Mater Speciosa

This is very, very rough, but given the day I couldn't forebear posting it. It's my translation of the medieval hymn Stabat Mater Speciosa, the companion piece to Stabat Mater Dolorosa, of which I have already given a rough translation and which should be read in conjunction with it.

Stabat Mater Speciosa

The lovely mother was standing here,
Joyful with the cradle near
Where lay her baby boy,
Whose soul with joyful ecstasy,
Happy with great fervency,
Was pierced by jubilation.

O how blessed and how elated
Was that fair immaculated
Mother of the sole-begotten;
Who was laughing and joyful being,
Who was exulting in her seeing
The birth of the one she bore.

Who is the one who will not have joy
To see the mother whose baby boy
Was Christ, in such great solace?
Who cannot be happy made
Watching the mother as she played,
Pious, with her son?

For the sins of Gentiles, Jews,
Jesus with lowly beasts she views,
Subjected to the cold.
She sees, so sweet, the one she bore,
The Son which she does so adore,
Crying, swaddled tight.

Christ, now born, laid in a stall
The citizens of heaven's halls
Praise with endless joy;
The old man stands, wholly dazed
Without speaking, heart amazed,
Beside the girl in wonder.

Pious mother, love's great source,
Make me feel your ardor's force,
Make me sense it deep with you,
Make my heart be set alight
With the love of Godly Christ
And be made to please Him well.

Holy mother, if you will,
Put the blows and wounds you feel
Deep within my heart;
The pains with my own soul dividing
Of your child from heaven gliding,
Deigning to be born.

Make me to rejoice with you,
Share the love of Christ with you,
For as long as I shall live.
In me set up your ardor's light,
In your Son make me delight
While wayfaring I am.

With this ardor make me commune,
And make me never at all immune
From this great desire.
Splendid maiden of all maidens,
With bitter thought be never laden,
Let me take your baby up.

Make me bear the strength and worth
Of Him who conquers by His birth
All death, giving up His life.
Make me like you be satiated
With the one you bore intoxicated,
In such holy rite.

Raised on high and set ablaze,
All my senses He does daze
By such generous gift.
May the one that you now bear
With word of Christ protect and care
And conserve me with His grace.

When my flesh is no longer living,
Grant me grace of my soul's giving
To vision of the one now born.

Blue Sapphire Clasping All the Lights

From George MacDonald's Diary of an Old Soul for December 24:

A God must have a God for company.
And lo! thou hast the Son-God to thy friend.
Thou honour'st his obedience, he thy law.
Into thy secret life-will he doth see;
Thou fold'st him round in live love perfectly--
One two, without beginning, without end;
In love, life, strength, and truth, perfect without a flaw.

And for December 25:

Thou hast not made, or taught me, Lord, to care
For times and seasons--but this one glad day
Is the blue sapphire clasping all the lights
That flash in the girdle of the year so fair--
When thou wast born a man, because alway
Thou wast and art a man, through all the flights
Of thought, and time, and thousandfold creation's play.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Beginning of a Transition

For those of you interested in these sorts of things, I have begun to make some of the changes to Houyhnhnm Land. It is nowhere near done (indeed, it is just barely started), and I still want to put in tabs, rework the sidebar, modify the entry-format a bit, etc., etc. But you can get a bit of a feel for the direction I'm going. I'm not a big fan of green, but I find it much easier on my eyes. I have a slight color deficiency in the red spectrum; now that I've changed from dark red to bright green, I can see the links more easily than I could before. I had never really noticed the problem, until I had something to contrast it with. There's lots and lots still to do, with the color scheme and whatever else. But you can see what's going on, if you want. (At this point, of course, I can't guarantee how it will look in every browser.) Naturally, I'm interested in any thoughts you might have.

UPDATE (Dec 24): For cool stuff I'm trying out at HL, run your cursor over the links in the navigation box. Also, refresh your browser while looking at the post pictures.

Carnival of the Reformation and Some Verbal Remarks

The Second Carnival of the Reformation is up at "Jollyblogger"; the theme is Solus Christus. There are some interesting posts.

With regard to the post at "CoffeeSwirls," on the 'descended into hell' part of the Apostle's Creed, I'm not sure the problem is so much anything to do with the Creed as it is with unbiblical notions of what hell (hades) is; in particular, with the tendency to conflate mentions of hades with those of the second death; 'hades' and 'second death' are entirely distinct. If we have good reasons for confining the word 'hell' to a usage different from 'hades', we will need to be consistent about it. We could go this route; being very conservative about this sort of thing, I'm not inclined to it, but if that's the best way it would be fine with me (after all, there's nothing particularly significant about the English translation, whatever value you put on the original). It's a good post, though.

The Crusty Curmudgeon has an interesting post as well. I'm not really convinced by his argument to extend the solus Christus to a rejection of Marian mediatricity, but Catholics do get in their heads the oddest sorts of justifications for their practices sometimes, such as the one noted there (which seems, alas, quite common). The real point of the title 'Mediatrix', I take it, is the rather universally orthodox point that Mary through her submission as handmaiden of the Lord 'mediated' Christ to us in that Christ was conceived of her body (she was truly Theotokos), combined with the claim of Marian intercession (in which she 'mediates' in the way anyone does in praying for someone) as part of the perfectly orthodox communion of saints (although admittedly by an inference that not everyone makes). I can't help but think this is one of those severe verbal misunderstandings that tend to arise in theological matters. In Latin 'mediator' just means someone who serves as a middle in some way; the NT Greek 'mesites', despite its similar etymology, seems to be a stronger, narrower word. Of the six times it is used in the NT, it is always used to indicate the one who mediates in the giving of a covenant; four times it is used explicitly of Christ; the other two, in Galatians, are a bit obscure but seem to refer to Moses. And I don't know of any Catholics who hold that Mary is mediatrix in the sense of being the one who mediates the actual giving of the covenant. But this was a good post, too, with much that's of interest.

UPDATE (12/22 evening): clarified one or two points, and corrected one or two things that slipped by revision, so that I don't sound entirely like an illiterate.

The Real Divide

See the county map here (hat-tip: prosthesis). I refuse to let those 'pop' people gain power in this country. (Although, I do admit, it does sometimes get confusing, in some of those dark-red counties of Texas, when people ask you for a Coke and get annoyed that you don't bring them a Dr. Pepper.)

ubi venit plenitudo temporis

Rebecca has a good post on the phrase "in the fullness of time" as applied to Christ's birth.


Ralph Luker has an interesting post at "Cliopatria" on the Martin Luther King Jr.'s plagiarism. In some (vague) ways it reminds me of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's plagiarism of Schelling in Biographia Litteraria, although in a sense King's is a bit more egregious given the context in which it occurs.

Plagiarism is a curious sort of failing, because it is difficult to define outside particular contexts. Charges of plagiarism make only very little sense in oral cultures. Which is not to say that they, or equivalents, don't exist; it's just that the spoken word requires more flexibility about matters of imitation (think of the last time you gave a joke you had heard from someone else without attributing it), and tends to bring up fewer issues with authorship. Further, a lot of what is repeated at the level of the spoken word is, for all practical purposes, common patrimony; and there are lots of cases where corporations or people have to fight quite hard to prevent even copyrighted material from becoming treated as part of that common patrimony (Kleenex, Coke, Xerox, Betty Boop, etc.).

Even when dealing with the written word, plagiarism isn't always easy to define. A lot of the written word is common legacy, too (Shakespeare, Bunyan, etc.), and to the extent authorship is important at all, people are expected to do the work of recognizing echoes, allusions, and even outright repetitions themselves. And it isn't always clear where to draw the line between what is and what is not common legacy. And literarily speaking, plagiarism is scarcely an issue at all; Coleridge's Biographia Litteraria loses not one whit of its literary excellence by the pages that are undeniable translations of Schelling. Even philosophically speaking it need not be an issue; Hume uses a few Malebranchean arguments without attributing them to Malebranche, for instance. Anyone who had reads Malebranche can easily recognize them, since they are (taking translation into account) virtually word-for-word appropriations. But Hume is not being any less brilliant or philosophically original in his use of the arguments.

Plagiarism becomes genuinely egregious in cases where one or both of two things are involved: money and academics; because in both such cases plagiarism potentially threatens the integrity of the entire system. (I suppose one can add journalism; but I'm inclined to think that the reason plagiarism becomes an issue in journalism is entirely one of money.) And here I see no real alternative to taking it very seriously indeed. Yes, mistakes can happen; but there are many cases in which we will be penalized sharply for mistakes despite their being mistakes. Such is life. I take a hard line on this (and that's perhaps significant, since I'm not much of one for taking a hard line on anything): King's doctorate should have been revoked, since part of the requirements for it failed to meet academic standards. (Or perhaps, if there were any technicalities to allow it, another work could have been substituted for his dissertation. This would be less satisfactory, but perhaps more feasible.)

Another of My Favorites

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

--Henry W. Longfellow (1864)

Not only is this a good one; given events of recent years, it has taken on especially vivid meaning for me.

Monday, December 20, 2004


I will be giving Houyhnhnm Land a complete makeover at some point in the next month or so. The template I'm currently using has been OK, but it's really not well-adapted for H.L.'s needs. I'll be moving to a tabbed version, having gotten the idea from Harrison. Doing that will get the external resources links off the main page onto an easily accessible page of their own; and I can have an internal resources page to make the pages I'm putting up on Shepherd and Whewell (and eventually Malebranche and Astell) easier to access. I also intend to make several different styles available, so people can choose whatever they find easier to use. And I intend on reworking the comments system so I can open comments without fearing the flood of spam-robots that occasionally crawl over my site. I have a few other minor tricks I've come across that I'm thinking about trying out; it won't be fancy, but should be easier to use. If anyone has any additional suggestions, let me know.

On the Humean Analysis of Analogy

Tucked away at the very end of Treatise 1.3.12 we find Hume's analysis of analogy. At this point in the work, Hume is considering various sorts of nondemonstrative reasoning; he had started out earlier in Part III with causal reasoning, but concluded that this required looking more closely at various sorts of nondemonstrative inference. He makes a distinction between philosophical and unphilosophical probability; roughly, the former are the stable, constant inferences that are able to ground knowledge (hence, they are 'philosophical' or scientific) and the latter are inferences, that, while they depend on the same sorts of mental principles, aren't generally considered adequate for knowledge. ('Probability' here doesn't mean what it would mean in probability theory; nor is this surprising, since probability theory is a technical discipline looking at one aspect of what would have been called 'probability' at the time, and was in any case just starting out.) Thus, an example of unphilosophical probability would be our tendency to draw conclusions on the basis of how vivid something is in our memory. It's the sort of thing we all inevitably do, but we don't put much official weight on it.

While there are aspects of unphilosophical probability that are interesting (most notably some of the ways we use general rules), the real interest here lies in philosophical probability. Philosophical probability for Hume consists essentially in imperfect causal reasoning; it is distinguished from causal proof, which occurs when we are dealing with something that happens in exactly the same way with perfect regularity. Obviously, there are many cases in which we don't have such ideal conditions to go on, and this is where philosophical probability comes in. In philosophical probability, either the resemblance or the regularity (constancy of the conjunction of events) are imperfect. This brings us to the Humean analysis of analogy (I'll set aside the aspect of Hume's analysis that depends on features of his dubious theory of belief, and focus on the meat of the analysis, which is what he brings in the theory of belief to explain), which are summed up in three pregnant sentences:

1. In those probabilities of chance and causes above-explain'd, 'tis the constancy of the union, which is diminish'd; and in the probability deriv'd from analogy, 'tis the resemblance only, which is affected.

2. Without some degree of resemblance, as well as union, 'tis impossible there can be any reasoning: but as this resemblance admits of many different degrees, the reasoning becomes proportionably more or less firm and certain.

3. An experiment loses of its force, when transferr'd to instances, which are not exactly resembling; tho' 'tis evident it may still retain as much as may be the foundation of probability, as long as there is any resemblance remaining.

These three sentences combined indicate some interesting things about analogy.

First: Contrary to common philosophical myth, analogy, as such, is not a weak form of inference. The problems that arise with analogy are not that it is a weak form of inference, but that it is impossible to tell from its form alone whether it is strong or weak in any given case. In some cases analogy is a very strong form of reasoning. In others, it is not strong at all. Which is the case depends not on its being analogical, but on independent factors.

Second: Analogy holds in all cases, as long as you are not trying to draw an analogy between the existence and non-existence of something. This sounds like a strong thesis, but in fact makes considerable sense: for any case a and any case b, so long as a and b aren't related as existence to nonexistence, there is some resemblance R such that aRb at some level of description. The difficulty with analogy on this front is not that some analogies don't hold; the difficulty is to what degree an analogy holds, and in what ways it doesn't. But we can legitimately think of any case along the model of any other case at some level.

Of course, we do say that some analogies don't hold, and are being perfectly reasonable when we do. We do something similar when we talk about 'evidence': we often say that "there is no evidence at all for position p" when, strictly speaking, we mean, "there is no evidence above the relevant level of significance for position p." That is, we don't usually mean to imply that there really is nothing that could reasonably be taken under some circumstance for evidence of p, which would be a very strong position that could apply to very few positions at all. What we usually mean is that anything that could be considered evidence for p is, for whatever reasons, insignificant enough that it can effectively be discounted. And likewise, when we say an analogy doesn't hold, we don't generally mean that the two cases don't resemble each other at all, but that their resemblance really isn't significant or useful for our purposes. When we combine this with the first point, we can conclude that whether an analogy holds in this looser sense, it is entirely relative to whatever our purpose of putting it forward it is, because that is what determines whether something is significant or useful.

Third: Because of these elements, it is essentially useless to try to refute an analogy as such. What one can do is exploit the same aspect of analogy that makes it essentially irrefutable: resemblance, which always applies and admits of many degrees. Since all analogies hold at some level of description, one needs to compare it with its rival analogies. Some analogies will turn out to be much better than others for the particular thing being considered. Further, even when an analogy turns out to be better than its rivals, we need independent information to determine how strong or how weak the conclusion of the inference actually is.

Fourth: It is not possible to underestimate the importance of analogy to the Humean project. In the above statement (#2), Hume says that "Without some degree of resemblance, as well as union, 'tis impossible there can be any reasoning." This has the effect of making analogy a minimal condition for intelligibility; i.e., we can only understand something if we can at least think of it along the lines of a resembling case. Hume explicitly appeals to this aspect of analogy elsewhere. In discussing abstract ideas in 1.1.7, he says:

The most proper method, in my opinion, of giving a satisfactory explication of this act of the mind, is by producing other instances, which are analogous to it, and other principles, which facilitate its operation. To explain the ultimate causes of our mental actions is impossible. 'Tis sufficient, if we can give any satisfactory account of them from experience and analogy.

And in the Appendix, when discussing his theory of belief, he says:

For if it be not analogous to any other sentiment, we must despair of explaining its causes, and must consider it as an original principle of the human mind. If it be analogous, we may hope to explain its causes from analogy, and trace it up to more general principles.

In these passages Hume is presenting an aspect of analogical inference that is often mentioned in the early modern period: it is by analogy that we move from what we know to what we don't know. Since in the Appendix he goes on to give, as perhaps his primary argument for his theory of belief, the argument that it, unlike its rivals, makes belief analogous to other mental acts (and therefore intelligible), we can see how far wrong people are who occasionally attribute to Hume the claim that analogy is a weak form of inference. It is an uncertain form of inference, in the ways noted above; but it plays a fundamental role in our knowledge-seeking inquiries. It is, in other words, a genuine case of philosophical probability. Such are the basics of Hume's analysis of analogy.

For a snapshot of the sort of work being done in cognitive science on analogical reasoning, see Chris's fascinating post on it at Mixing Memory.

Made Flesh

Rebecca has a useful little post on various Scriptural passages relevant to understanding the notion of incarnation.

Another Great Christmas Carol

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.

While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light.


The shepherds feared and trembled,
When lo! above the earth,
Rang out the angels chorus
That hailed the Savior’s birth.


Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born
And God sent us salvation
That blessèd Christmas morn.


--John Wesley Work, Jr. (1907, but based on much earlier folk hymns)

Brrrr! It's Cold!

I intended to do some stuff on campus yesterday; but never got closer to campus than a few yards from my apartment door. Then, given the windchill, I decided that as it was the first cold alert day of the winter, I could forego on-campus stuff for a day.

As a result, I have lots of things to do today; but I hope to put up a post on Hume's analysis of analogy, since I briefly alluded to it recently, and it really is an aspect of Hume's thought that is underappreciated. Also coming soon: a post on A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Especial Boldness of Speech

[C]an we doubt that many a confident expounder of Scripture, who is so sure that St. Paul meant this, and that St. John and St. James did not mean that, would be seriously disconcerted at the presence of those Apostles, if their presence were possible, and that they have now an especial "boldness of speech" in treating their subject, because there is no one authoritatively to set them right, if they are wrong?

J. H. Newman, An Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent, Chapter VI, Section 2.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Christian Carnival XLVIII

Christian Carnival XLVIII is up at Parableman, with an excellent sci-fi theme. You should mosey on over; some posts that I thought particularly interesting:

* Good or Bad Christians at "Brutally Honest"

* Apocryphal Pining: Introduction and Baruch at "Philosophical Poetry"

* Who Shook the House? at "Reasons Why"

* Bigotry at "Parableman"

* The Poor at "Crossroads"

* It's Our Party! at "Rebecca Writes"

* The Nature of Our Reality at "Wallo World" (it's on the Flew thing)

* Death by Assumption at "Jollyblogger"

The eighth Catholic Carnival is also up at Living Catholics. The deadline for the second Carnival of the Reformation is tomorrow (December 18), and it will probably be out December 20.

My Second Favorite Christmas Carol

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

--Phillips Brooks (1867)

Looking for Love (Academic, That Is)

A great post at The Chronicles of Dr. Crazy on finding a good university. I think everyone who has dealt, or is dealing, or will be dealing, with finding a good academic position can relate.

A Thought on Public Reasons

Reading Solum's excellent paper on public reasons, I am a bit puzzled about this (at *753):

Finally, the behavior of public officials in their official capacity should be governed by the principle of excluding nonpublic reasons. Public officials are different from private citizens because they personify the state; the statements of public officials in their official capacity are, in a real sense, the statements of the state and hence of the public at large. For this reason, it would be unfair to allow public officials to express their own deep convictions about the good as the official reasons for state action. Allowing public officials to advance nonpublic reasons would violate the requirement of treating all citizens fairly.

What I find puzzling is that this really doesn't work given the way nonpublic reasons are characterized. Nonpublic reasons aren't necessarily "deep convictions about the good"; they are any reasons that don't count as public reasons. And this causes a problem for the above claim, because one of the things that cannot count as public reasons is expert assessment in controversial matters (see the Rawls quote toward the beginning). And it can hardly be right that public officials should never make policy in controversial matters based on expert opinion.

Further, it seems clear to me that there are many cases in which public reasons are not precise enough for policy-making, and public officials are nonetheless constrained to form policy on the basis of more specific nonpublic reasons. Consider abortion. Given that public reasons are the result of overlapping consensus, lack of consensus in this area makes it very difficult, perhaps impossible, to exclude nonpublic reasons for taking a particular course of action (e.g., not trying to get around Roe v. Wade or trying to get around Roe v. Wade). I find it difficult to see why Rawls thought, for instance, that the Supreme Court was the exemplar of public reason; Supreme Court decisions are motivated by public reason, in that there are public reasons for the Supreme Court considering the cases it does, and there are public reasons that serve as general background for the decisions. But the actual decisions are very, very often not decided on public reasons at all. At least, I can't be the only person who has found Supreme Court reasoning to be dubious on occasion. But despite the dubiousness, it is, as I said, clearly defensible by public reasons for the Supreme Court to handle most of the cases it handles, even if it occasionally has to use nonpublic reasons to do so. And if you aren't convinced about this with regard to the Supreme Court, Congress and state legislatures are even better examples. Sometimes policy is needed despite lack of consensus on principles that would actually decide either way; unless we're just going to have people appealing to public reasons for their action in ways that are only hazily relevant, we need to have some direct connection of public reasons with the actual policy. And this will almost always involve reasons that do not fall within the field of public reasons.

And this is not a problem because: (1) Human beings can come to the same policy conclusions even if they share no premises. That is, the policy itself can become part of the constructed field of public reasons, simply by being reached from radically different, and even incommensurable perspectives. It is possible for an atheist to affirm a given policy (say, related to separation of Church and State) for entirely atheistic reasons, and for a theist to affirm the same policy for entirely theistic reasons (say, Baptist theology). In such a case the conclusion is a public reason, but the only ways it is supported is by nonpublic reasons. One really can't exclude the latter, unless one is really willing to say that we can go around not giving any reasons for policies. We can see this sort of thing working in cases like Maritain's brilliant solution for how to make the UNESCO Charter, which was carried over into the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: even if we can't agree on reasons, we can sometimes come to create reasons on the basis of those reasons. The Soviet Union can agree to conclusions put forward by a Catholic country for reasons no Catholic country could accept; and vice versa. And this is often all one needs. This is part of what happens in some cases of enlightened self-interest; and this, along with the public discussion (a more fundamental notion than that of public reason, since public reason is a result of public discussion) is much more central to the notion of liberal democracy than any particular view on whether nonpublic reasons should be excluded or not. (2) It is possible to have nonpublic reasons that nonetheless are quasi-public, because they involve patterns of thought that are widespread. For instance, if you have a community of theists who make policy on reasons derived from their view of providential moral order, and an atheist comes into the community, there is suddenly no consensus to make public reason in the strict sense possible. But they can easily still make policy if the atheist is willing to concede that, while he will never agree that there's a providential moral order, there is something that he can allow to be vaguely analogous to it, because the atheist can allow that the theists are supporting policy with reasons that are at least somewhat analogous to what he could accept, and vice versa. In other words, analogy and family resemblance is often enough, even if there is no commeasure, no definable common ground. So in addition to public reasons we should allow that there are quasi-public reasons; and it can be deucedly difficult to tell them apart at times.

But then, Rawls is not someone I read much, so I could easily be missing something. I do want to reiterate how much I like the paper, though; and Solum's inclusionary principle is interesting and worth thinking about.


Since I seem to be reading a lot of philosophy-of-science related issues in the blogosphere lately, and since I've been reading and re-reading Whewell, I thought I'd say something about the whole issue of the "evolution is a theory" stickers. What would a nineteenth century scientist have meant by talking about "the theory of gravity" or "Newton's theory" or "the theory of natural selection"? It's useful to turn to Whewell, who was a significant source for much scientific terminology in the period, and as good an authority as one can have for the subject:

We can, in our thoughts, separate Laws of Nature from the Facts which conform to them. When we do this, the Law is represented by the Ideas and Conceptions which it involves. Thus the Law of a Planet's motion round the Sun, as to space, is represented by the conception of an Ellipse, the Sun being its Focus. Laws so abstracted from Facts are Theories.

(William Whewell, Elements of Morality Including Polity, section 9.)

In other words, to translate roughly out of Whewell's own phil. sci. jargon into something nearer that used today, a theory is an abstract modeling of a set of facts. 'Theory' in this sense is, according to Whewell, closely related to what we always do in understanding anything, so it bears no hints or suggestions of tentativeness or weakness. (The only place any sort of tentativeness would enter in is if you had good reason for thinking the motion might not properly be modeled by an ellipse at all; even if it were an imperfect ellipse, correcting the model to accommodate these perfections more perfectly wouldn't suggest any tentativeness about the corrected theory, just a degree of idealization and approximation, which is different altogether.) And, indeed, it probably would not have at the time at all; most of Whewell's readers would have had at least some Greek and Latin under their belt, so would probably have recognized the Greek root of the word 'theory' and associated with higher-level contemplation or thought. A lot of Whewell's contributions to and clarifications of scientific terminology were excellent in this way; when Faraday wrote to him asking him for better names for eastodes and westodes, Whewell suggested 'anodes' and 'cathodes' as less confusing (again, this would have made sense for most educated people who, unlike the largely self-taught Faraday, would usually have had some Greek). One of Whewell's philosophical concerns was putting scientific terminology in order so that it not only optimized usefulness for scientists themselves, but so that it also optimized clarity (and minimized confusion) for the interested public. The service he performed in this way is immense, although largely unacknowledged. It would be nice if there were someone capable of doing this today; but alas, we philosophers only rarely produce the likes of Whewell, and if we did today, I'm not sure scientists would be very pleased to have him scolding them about the words they used. He certainly wouldn't have the respect Whewell had with people like Faraday and Maxwell. And he would have a harder task, anyway, since there is less of a useful common linguistic ground like Greek and Latin for building such terminology. A troubling issue, that; but it doesn't seem we can do much about it.

123 sentence 5

Via Early Modern Notes:

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
5. Don’t search around and look for the “coolest” book you can find. Do what’s actually next to you.

"More than simply 'madmen,' it is 'others' who lose their mind."

Jean-Luc Marion, Cartesian Questions, (U of Chicago: 1999).

It's a really great book, by the way (on various issues with regard to Descartes's method and metaphysics). Page 123 falls in the sixth essay, with the somewhat clunkily punning title, "Does the Ego alter the Other? The Solitude of the Cogito and the Absence of the Alter Ego," on the problem of other minds in Descartes's approach.

A Quasi-Defense of Flew's Quasi-Theism

Somewhat surprisingly, Flew's 'conversion' has occupied a lot of bloggers' attention recently. I think Flew's comments have been rather obscure; but there have been some odd things said in response to them. Julian Sanchez, for instance, says:

What's befuddling is why any of these considerations are supposed to provide any support whatever for the God hypothesis. To think that they do seems to rely on a kind of ignotum per ignotius: We have no satisfying account of complex phenomenon X, so we explain it in terms of, even more complex phenomenon Y, a mind capable of consciously producing X. Why is this supposed to be satisfying? Why, in the absence of a culture in which religion is pervasive, would anyone resort to this kind of explanation? Indeed, why would anyone count it as an explanation at all?

Pressed a bit by Joe Carter in the comments, he says:

Yes, obviously given the assumption of some complex intelligence Y, the account you give of how it might produce X will be more straightforward than a bottom-up emergent account of X. (Though, come to think of it, one doesn't see much speculation on the mechanism by which God does his creating.) But equally obviously, if you're not precomitted to believing in Y, it does no fundamental explanatory work in terms of net complexity. It just shifts the complexity "problem" from X to Y. Sure, if you want to explain complexity in one part of a system--a watch in the desert, a strange machine in space--complex intelligence somewhere else is a viable hypothesis. But, again, if you're not precomitted to coming up with "God" as your answer, it should be fairly transparent that this won't work all the way down, as an account of all complexity.

This seems to assume that Flew's claim is intended as "an account of all complexity," but as Stuart Buck notes in response in the comments, there is no reason to think this is the case, and particularly no reason to think that its not being so somehow makes it unfitting as an explanation (as the original passage seems to imply). One could, perhaps, argue, that for any explanandum and its explanans, what is appealed to in the explanans must be simpler than what is appealed to in the explanandum, but this is obscurantist. For instance, some explanations explain traits of organisms by appealing to populations of organisms + selection pressures; which explanans is necessarily appealing to something more complex than the explanandum. Nor can it be that the explanans itself has to be more simple than the explanandum; for all the features of the explanandum to be explained by the explanans, the explanans has to be at least equal in complexity to the explanandum, because for the explanans to explain all features of the explanandum it must in explaining it tie up to all the features of the explanandum. I really have no notion what else Sanchez could possibly mean. Arguments can be dealt with without making up nonsensical requirements for what counts as explanation.

I do agree with Sanchez that Flew is being very obscure about why he finds his explanans satisfying (if he does; it might just be that he thinks it better than the competition, and nothing else); and it is very obscure, in particular, as to why these considerations suddenly have won Flew over given all the pro-atheism considerations Flew has made a career bringing up. But there seems to be no real problem with "why anyone would count it as an explanation at all".

Although I'm not really interested in Flew himself, never having considered any of his arguments very impressive (but then, despite much posturing on the part of certain sorts of atheists, I've never found any arguments for atheism I considered impressive), I am interested in Flew's new position to the extent that so far it sounds broadly Humean. It is commonly thought that Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion rejects design inferences; this is an egregious misreading of the text. First, there is no passage in Hume's works in which Hume clearly rejects the design inference. Second, there are several passages in which he seems clearly to accept it. Third, on the Humean analysis of analogical reasoning in the Treatise, which doesn't seem to be rejected in the later work, it is unreasonable to reject analogies. Analogies are irrefutable; it is a waste of time to try to reject them. What one can do is tweak their conclusions by introducing other things that have to be considered. On Humean principles it is, and will always, be the case, the design theist is right that the order of the world will suggest some ordering cause (and what is more, it would follow from Humean principles that this suggestion will get stronger as the sciences advance); the only question is what other things have to be considered in talking about this ordering cause. Fourth, when we recognize this, two supposed 'mysteries' in Dialogues interpretation completely vanish: the confounding of Philo in Part III is seen because he starts out by trying to refute the analogy, and gets trounced by Cleanthes because of it. Demea, however, opens the argument again by criticizing what Cleanthes thinks is the result of the inference rather than the inference itself, and Philo trounces Cleanthes by taking Demea's lead here. And then the alleged 'reversal' of Philo in Part XII turns out not to be a reversal at all. And so forth.

Now, this Humean admission of the value of the design argument is, like Flew's very weak and vague; and this is a result of the weakness of the inference. Lindsay at Majikthise describes Flew's position (as stated so far) as claiming the existence of a "supernatural non-conscious intelligent design force". And this seems fair enough. It would be a good description of Hume's position, too, although he prefers just to call it "invisible intelligent power" or "first intelligent Author". Hume avoids all contradiction, however, because of the nature of the inference with which he is working. We don't really know whether Flew's argument has similar results, because, as Lindsay says, he's being very coy. All we know is that it is some sort of design argument having to do with complexity. There is nothing in this that implies that it is what has recently become "Intelligent Design theory"; it might be, but there are dozens of different forms a design inference can take. There is nothing in it that implies that is being put forward as a scientific hypothesis, rather than a philosophical argument starting from a set of scientific facts (whatever a few naturalists might want to think, their own position is of this general sort). Contrary to some, there is nothing in this that implies that there is an appeal to an "omnipotent Creator" going on, unless one uses the terms extremely loosely (likewise, it doesn't seem to be the case, contrary to some, that Flew has accepted the fine-tuning argument, since he contrasts that argument with whatever one he holds). And so forth. It's really quite surprising to me how many people are willing to pronounce Flew's argument bad when they confessedly don't know what it is. And a lot of people, who have nothing better to say on the subject, throw out empty rhetorical clichés or dismiss Flew, without evidence, as doddering, or senile, or 'a fearful old man'. But the commentary hasn't been totally along these lines, fortunately. I think Yglesias's point is perceptive and interesting, for instance; it suggests yet another way in which Flew's position should be considered broadly Humean, because Hume makes the same point (in Dialogues XII). If Flew is proposing something more or less along these lines, a broadly Humean position on this point is a respectable philosophical position, despite some occasional odd attempts to run a smear campaign against it without bothering to figure out what it is. It's a position that I'm certain fails, due to a rather hefty number of things that can be said against it; but it's a respectable position, with a number of things to be said for it. [But of course, to make the point again, we really don't know much about what Flew's inference is supposed to be, just its starting-point and its conclusion. -ed.]

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Lighter Blogging

Blogging will be light and patchy over the next few days. I chiefly blog when on campus, since I don't have an internet connection in my apartment. Because some of the work I need to do over the next few days is best done at home, there will be a few more non-posting days. In the meantime, on non-posting days, if you need something to read, try Mixing Memory, Mormon Metaphysics, or any of the other excellent weblogs in my blogroll.

I suspect that over the next two weeks, given home days, Christmas, and the fact that I'll be in Boston at the APA at the end of the month, my blogging will be cut in half.

But, of course, my blogging cut in half is still a thriving weblog!

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Public Reasons

An interesting post on public reasons by Lawrence Solum at "Legal Theory Blog." See also Solum's paper on the subject.

Mr. Vladimir's Philosophy of Bomb-throwing

Last night, on some impulse, I picked up the copy of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent on my shelf. I had read it once before, but it hadn't really 'clicked' with me. This time it did, however, and I found myself reading the whole thing through despite the fact that I had several other things I needed to get done. The irony is beautifully done, the sorrow that I would say saturates the book moves smoothly from sad to gloomy to horrifying, the characters are excellently drawn. I highly recommend it.

We tend to forget that terrorism is not a new thing sprung on us in the past few years. There was at least one other major wave of terrorism that swept the Western world, felling politicians, killing innocents, and starting conflicts. The Secret Agent takes place in this period, being written around 1906 and describing events taking place in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The idea for the story came from an actual event: a man named Martial Bourdin had attempted to blow up Greenwich Observatory (and, obviously, failed), and The Secret Agent is a fictional story in part based on this odd terrorist act, the rationale for which is very difficult to see. For the story of the real Greenwich attempt see here; it has some spoilers for The Secret Agent, but don't worry too much about them, because it actually garbles the plot a bit, and doesn't give away much anyway.

Apparently there was a movie based on Conrad's book a few years ago, starring Christian Bale, Gerard Depardieu, and a few other big names. I've never seen it, but since I like Depardieu, I might have to watch it sometime.

My Favorite Christmas Carol

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.


Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.


Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.


Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and Sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.


--John H. Hopkins, Jr. (1857)

Monday, December 13, 2004

PLoS Biology December 2004

The new edition of PLoS Biology is out. Some articles I'll be reading:

* Algorithmic Self-Assembly of DNA Sierpinski Triangles; the synopsis to this article; and the related primer.

* The Genetics of Speciation by Reinforcement; and its synopsis and related primer.

* Modern Humans Did Not Admix with Neanderthals during Their Range Expansion into Europe.

* Phylogeography and Genetic Ancestry of Tigers (Panthera tigris).

* State-Dependent Decisions Cause Apparent Violations of Rationality in Animal Choice

* The essay on mathematics in biology.

PLoS Biology -

Shepherd on Mathematical Causation

It is an interesting consequence of Shepherd's theory of causation that it implies that the same (general) sort of causal reasoning we use in discussing physical causation is also found in mathematics. Indeed, Shepherd goes so far as to say that mathematics is simply one branch of physics:

for that all the conclusions its method of induction demonstrates, depend for their truth upon the implied proposition, "That like cause must have like effect;" a proposition which being the only foundation for the turths of physical science, and which gives validity to the result of any experiment whatever, ranks mathematics as a species under the same genus; where the same proposition is the basis, there is truly but one science however subdivided afterwards.

(Essay on the Perception of an External World, "On Mathematical and Physical Induction," p. 279)

The idea is this. Objects consist entirely of their features; these features are the causes of the object's being what it is. Insofar as they remain the same, they are together the cause of the object's remaining what it is; insofar as they change, they are the cause of the object's becoming different from what it was. This is true "whether in the shape of mathematical diagrams, or other aggregates in nature" (p. 279). The causal reasoning is exactly the same in both cases, and therefore imports exactly the same sort of certainty from the general causal maxims.

It is true, of course, that our inquiries into physical objects do not have the same certainty as our inquiries into mathematical objects. Shepherd attributes this difference not to the general format of the reasoning, which is the same in both cases, but to the fact that we are differently related to mathematical objects than to physical objects. In mathematics we can freely stipulate features of a system, and see what follows from those features. In physical investigations, we do not have this freedom of stipulation. In physical investigations, objects are formed independently of our stipulation, and much of the uncertainty in these investigations is due to the difficulty of pinning down precisely the formation of these objects. We could very well be missing some important feature of the objects; and in cases that seem the same it could very well be that there is some hidden feature that would, if we knew about it, require us to come to completely different conclusions about the system. This failure of certainty in the investigation, however, does not affect the certainty of the reasoning, any more than the application of mathematics to physical reality affects the certainty of mathematical reasoning. Mathematical reasoning is capable of certainty and necessity whether it is applied to physical systems or not; it is entirely possible that there is some variable in the physical system which needs to be taken into account if the mathematics is to characterize the system accurately, but this is a failure of certainty in the application of the reasoning, not in the reasoning itself. Such is the case, Shepherd holds, with all causal reasoning.

Sam, the Perfect Woman

Bertrand Russell gets a mention in "Day By Day".

Plurality of Worlds

PZ Myers has an excellent post on extraterrestrial intelligence at "Pharyngula". I don't have anything to add to it beyond a small reaffirmation of something noted briefly in the comments discussion: from all the evidence we have, we have fairly good reason to doubt that, even on the questionable assumption that there are lots and lots of intelligent species, most of them would ever reach considerable technological advancement. An immense amount of our scientific development, for instance, is tied to size of our moon. Who knows how we would have developed scientifically and technologically if we never experienced total eclipses? It's possible, of course, that we would have done just fine without it (there were, after all, other things like comets); but when we're dealing with history, it's very hard to say how any of it would have happened had we had a different solar system. That's not as helpful a consideration as some of the ones Myers brings up (in part because it's something we know so much less about); but at the very least I think it is sometimes too easily assumed that the history of human intelligence shows some special predisposition to science, in a way that is parallel to (and as problematic as, or more problematic than) the assumption that the history of life shows some special predisposition to intelligence.

I should post something sometime on the "Plurality of Worlds" dispute (the eighteenth & nineteenth century version of this issue). Most of it is actually immensely boring (being of the silly "Creation has to manifest God's glory, so there must be intelligent life all over the place" sort), but my favorite Victorian, William Whewell, wrote a book on it (On the Plurality of Worlds). I've only read it once, and that only because Whewell wrote it; but I was pleasantly surprised, since Whewell occasionally makes the subject genuinely interesting. I really shouldn't have been surprised, because Whewell (who is the father of modern history and philosophy of science) tends to introduce all sorts of historical and methodological issues into most of the things he talks about. (For a sample you can see the page I promised on Whewell's analogy between the utilitarian principle in morals and the principle of least action in physics.) But that will have to wait for quite some time, given all the other things I have to do. If anyone's interested in the subject, there's a very brief overview, with some relevant 18th century texts here. (Link via Early Modern Resources.)