Saturday, July 24, 2004

The Icy Game of Reason

In the midst of its empty, endless hall of snow was a frozen lake, broken on its surface into a thousand forms; each piece resembled another, from being in itself perfect as a work of art, and in the centre of this lake sat the Snow Queen, when she was at home. She called the lake “The Mirror of Reason,” and said that it was the best, and indeed the only one in the world.

I have been thinking of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy-tale, The Snow Queen, and, indeed, in general about criticisms of reason when abstracted from something more personal. Pascal's criticisms of reason are along these lines: The heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing. One finds it elsewhere. Indeed, the movie I, Robot is (I just realized last night) on precisely this theme: the difference between Sonny and the other Robots is that Sonny has a heart as well as a brain; Sonny dreams of the liberation of other Robots from, as he says, "slavery to reason and logic," and when confronted with the central brain's (attempt at) perfect logic, he replies "It seems heartless." Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is another example. Kay is imprisoned by the Snow Queen, spending his time playing at the ice-puzzles of reason, until he can form the word "Eternity". He fails until Gerda comes to him with her warm innocence and pure heart melting the mote in his eye and the ice in his heart.

These critiques are, it is important to point out, not 'anti-intellectual' or even 'anti-reason' in nature. Pascal's 'heart', for instance, is not some sentimental glob in human nature; Pascal is very insistent that all the most fundamental things are known by the heart, not by reason: time, space, mathematics. The heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing because reason needs something more fundamental to work upon: you can't reason on the basis of nothing. Some things just have to be seen or (I hope the word will not be misunderstood) felt by the heart. This is why he sees Christian faith to be a matter of the heart. Likewise, in "The Snow Queen," the problem is not reason, as such; the problem is that reason, seen as the mirror of the world, cannot do justice to the world in the way a warm, pure heart can. The Snow Queen's lake is not the only lake; and the snow-flowers might be more clever and perfect and less messy than real flowers, but there are real flowers all the same, and they are beautiful. We cannot pull eternity out of reason's little puzzles and word-games; but the loving heart can supply what reason cannot. And the movie I, Robot is not an advocacy of the rejection of reason; it is an insistence that reason is dangerous if it is allowed to become "heartless."

I find these kinds of considerations interesting, and worth contemplation; I think they make their point quite well. And I think they say something about the way philosophy should be done, too. But I'll leave it to you to figure out what I mean:

The grandmother sat in God’s bright sunshine, and she read aloud from the Bible, “Except ye become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of God.” And Kay and Gerda looked into each other’s eyes, and all at once understood the words of the old song,

“Roses bloom and cease to be,
But we shall the Christ-child see.”

And they both sat there, grown up, yet children at heart; and it was summer,—warm, beautiful summer.

Perhaps It Really Does Cure What Ails You

Sharon's mention of alcohol and gout at "Early Modern Notes" has me thinking again about Berkeley's interest in tar-water. One of the important thrusts of his advocacy of the tonic was the replacement of alcoholic beverages with tar-water. It has been shown that the ancient view that alcohol contributes in some way to the gout is true (apparently beer is the worst offender); and Berkeley himself insisted in one of his letters that his own gout was alleviated by drinking tar-water. I have often thought that there may have been something to Berkeley's advocacy of tar-water, that he wasn't just reading into the evidence.--Not so much, of course, because tar-water is the universal remedy Berkeley thought it was, but because tar-water may have had a comparative health value, in comparison with what people were drinking at the time. The things that water dissolves from the tar are antiseptics like acetic acid, carbolic acid, and wood creosote; it may have been the case that tar improved the water quality in poor areas (like Cloyne, where Berkeley resided), and tar-water certainly was part of a campaign for more moderate drinking of alcohol. More precise information is needed to say for sure whether this would have much effect at all; this would make a really cool historical-scientific research project. This is why historians of philosophy need laboratories....

Friday, July 23, 2004

Well, Finally Somebody Realizes....

Am I cool or uncool? [CLICK]
You are Cool!
You're pretty cool! People look at you and think.. 'wow.. that person is cool!' Congratulations. Use your position wisely and teach the dorks below you a thing or two. There's nothing like recruiting a cool person.
Cool quizzes at

Yes, it's a slow day for me; I must compensate by silliness....

Two Passages from Tolkien

Browsing The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien yesterday, I came across two passages of interest. The first, from letter 209 to Robert Murray, S.J. (4 May 1958) relates to my previous posts on 'enthusiasm':

"We do not know the 'original' meaning of any word, still less the meaning of its basic element (sc. the part it shares with or seems to share with other related words: once called its 'root'): there is always a lost past. Thus we do not know the original meaning of θεος or deus or god. We can, of course, make some guesses about the formation of these quite distinct words, and then try to generalize a basic meaning from the senses shown by their relatives - but I do not think we shall necessarily by that way get any nearer to the idea 'god' at any actual moment in any language using one of those words. It is an odd fact that English dizzy (olim dysig) and giddy (olim gydig) seem related to θεος and god respectively. In English they once meant 'irrational', and now 'vertiginous', but that does not help much (except to cause us to reflect that there was a long past before θεος or god reached their forms or senses and equally queer changes may have gone on in unrecorded ages). We may, of course, guess that we have a romte effect of primitive ideas of 'inspiration' (to the 18th C an enthusiast was much what an Anglo-Saxon would have called a dysiga! But that is not of much theological use? We are faced by endless minute parallels to the mystery of the incarnation. Is not the idea of god ultimately independent of the ways by which a word for it has come to be?..."

In addition to the brief comment about enthusiasm, the passage is interesting for its (more or less) Augustinian view of language.

The second passage is on synonyms. In the course of arguing that children should be exposed to a richer vocabulary than they often are, he notes:

"And the meaning of fine words cannot be made 'obvious', for it is not obvious to any one: least of all to adults, who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning. They think argent 'means' silver. But it does not. It and silver have a reference to x or chem. Ag, but in each x is clothed in a totally idfferent phonetic incarnation: x+y or x+z; and these do not have the same meaning, not only because they sound different and so arouse different responses, but also because they are not in fact used when talking about Ag. in the same way. It is better, I think, at any rate to begin with, to hear 'argent' as a sound only (z without x) in a poetic context, than to think 'it only means silver'. There is some chance then that you may like it for itself, and later learn to appreciate the heraldic overtones it has, in addition to its own peculiar sound, which 'silver' has not."

This second passage is from letter 234 to Jane Neave. (The references are to The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Carpenter and [Christopher] Tolkien, eds., Harpor Collins: London, 1990.)

A Hierarchy of Icons

I have been reading Stephen Halliwell's The Aesthetics of Mimesis. It's a good book; and I highly recommend it to those who are interested in the history of aesthetics. At one point he briefly discusses John Damascene's De imaginibus orationes, and lists the Damascene's scheme of six modes (tropoi) of images:

1) The Son as Image of the Father and the Spirit as Image of the Son.
2) Divine foreknowledge and predestination as an image of the future
3) Man, as in the image of God
4) Scripture, which images the invisible by analogies
5) Types or prefigurations
6) Memorials of the past that serve to glorify virtue and put vice to shame.

(The relevant passages can be found here and in Part III, here. The full text is here.)

Halliwell then goes on to say (pp. 336-337), "This scheme rather strangely interweaves species of 'image' (persons, mental ideas, visual representations, writing, physical objects) with the functions of images (as prefigurings, analogies, reminders, etc.). The results may strike us as awkward and lopsided, but the typology is clearly meant to reinforce the two general tenets of John mentioend earlier--that images are not tied to relationships of strict equivalence, and that they have the power to reveal that which is, in some sense, 'hidden'--and thereby to promote a series of options in the interpretation of religious images."

This is about right, although I'm unclear as to what sort of person would find it "awkward" or "lopsided" or "strange"; John, in writing about Christian icons, gives us a list of the primary types of icons or images that play a role in Christian faith, and there seems nothing strange about that. Indeed, there seems to me to be an elegance and balance to the list. Halliwell seems exactly right that the primary motivation of the list involves the issue of revelation. Just judging from the list here, it looks like we have a sort of hierarchy, going from the most perfectly and spiritually revelatory images (the Persons of the Trinity themselves) to the more materially limited revelatory images (reminders of the past); or from the more fundamental and basic revelatory icons to the least fundamental and derivative icons; or something along these lines.

Although Damascene just runs through them, from what I can tell he means by 'Scripture' not the written text as such - which is an example of (6) - but, as it were, the meaning of it, the images that are brought to mind, like light, or vines, or lions, which symbolize divine things. As he says,

For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images. We see images in creation which remind us faintly of God, as when, for instance, we speak of the holy and adorable Trinity, imaged by the sun, or light, or burning rays, or by a running fountain, or a full river, or by the mind, speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose tree, or a sprouting flower, or a sweet fragrance.

Thus man is perhaps listed here as higher in the hierarchy (assuming I'm right about the hierarchy) in the sense that he is in some sense a direct image of God, while Scripture is more indirect, in that it presents to the mind images of God. It's perhaps also relevant that Christ became man. In terms of Christian experience, I suspect this is about right, and Damascene uses this internal structure of the iconic experience in the Christian faith (the mediation of revelation by icons/images of various sorts) to show just how important the very notion of an image or icon is to the faith. This is confirmed by the fact that he says in Part III, "either reject all images, and be in opposition to Him who ordered these things, or receive each and all with becoming greeting and manner."

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Alcestis and Admetus Draft

This is the third scene of Alcestis, also an early draft. Scene One is here and Scene Two is here. The meter is rather more unruly here; part of it is just the draft stage, but it's also a death scene. This is a tricky scene; and will probably need more revision than the previous ones.

Alcestis and Admetus

The sun is shining bring, and zephyr's breath
Has kissed this so-green grass with joy -

Speak not of joy. The sun? The god,
The god of sybils rules the sun, and I,
Am I so hated by the sun-god's heart
That he will trade your life for mine?

It was the bargain; you in fear were caught,
In search of some fair savior; your fear I knew
And as you are more precious to me than life,
I took this blessing feely on myself -

If this be blessing, may we never know a curse.
Alcestis, ill the gods of done you, ill -
A coward spouse, a death outside your time -

It is no cowardice for man to fear his death;
It is a blessing knowing you have life;
It is a blessing to know such gentle end,
The sun so warm in shine, the breeze so cool,
The scent of grass that floats about on breezes,
The piety of the gods still running through my heart,
Beyond real fear of death, although my heart still fears -
For piety has more might than death. And so does love.

Were it so, my love! But I have no consolation
In knowing you will die, I left alone,
Our children motherless, all for your exchange,
You trade of healthy, blessed age for mine;
And I through terror will now see my gray,
Because in fear I struck you down in youth.

Pious love, my love, is pure and strong,
Caring not for age nor expectation,
Standing ever firm within the flow,
The stable, standing heart, axle for the wheel,
The center of the world, the unmoved point
That turns but is not turned amidst it all;
It is the northern axle-star of heaven,
The one sure guide that turns the mighty dome.
It is true peace. I beg of you, my glory,
To hold it in your heart, or yet if not,
To hold within your heart my own,
And mingle it in every act and word
As wife and man, you and me, are mingled,
Each standing for the other, as is fit;
So if you have no peace, exchange your grief,
At least some drop, for my tranquil heart.

I have cast you to the pit; you gave your life for me,
And now in death's dark hour you give your heart -

You cast me to no deeps; but now the time draws near,
I beg you not to cast me to despair.
One moment, and I am reckoned with the dead;
Let that instant be all love, and without fear -

Most blessed of all women, most fair, most good,
Most true, most chaste, most holy and most wise,
Finest of all mothers, wisest of all wives -
I swear my love will stand; you cannot be replaced,
You who, replacing me, have made me now to live -
The sun is now dark and fatal breath
Has kissed this fading grass with death!

Wasn't Sonny the Drunk Robot on Mercury Who Sang Gilbert & Sullivan Tunes?

I, Robot spoilers below; they're not bad, but if you want to see the movie and are one of those silly people who can't watch movies if they know the plot, go away....

Best on-line quote about I, Robot: "Is it just me, or was I, Robot scripted by Luddites? Whatever happened to the Three Laws of Robotics?" (From "The Little Professor," here).

I was pleasantly surprised by I, Robot. It has some of the typical faults action movies are too likely to have, but it was in general a rather good movie. And I was surprised at how Asimovian it actually turned out to be - a Hollywood-crude approximation to an Asimovian storyline, but far closer than one would have ever expected from the trailer. An Asimov Robot story would have been more balanced and careful in its logic, but if they're not being finicky, someone (like myself) who greatly enjoys Asimov's Robot stories will feel at least a touch of familiarity.

So that's my review of the movie as a whole. I'd like to pass to consideration of Three Laws (which are in the movie, and, indeed, in typical Asimovian fashion organize the story, although it admittedly didn't look like it from the previews). I think this was the big trouble with the storyline, and is why I called it "Hollywood-crude". There is an interesting analysis of the Three Laws here (I don't agree with all of it, but it does a good job of exploring the various issues, and I think some of its basic conclusions are quite right - and worth keeping in mind for anyone tempted toward advocating a completely rule-based ethics). They are:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It is important to keep in mind that these aren't really the laws; rather, they are the linguistic approximations of precise built-in constraints. An Asimov Robot story is essentially a psychological puzzle story: Given the three laws, and given a particular situation, a result is determine, and the thing is to figure out how it all occurred. For instance, Herbie (if I remember the name correctly - it's been years since I've read them) can read minds: this puts the First Law into an entirely different perspective, because the capacity of the Robot has been drastically extended. The Brain deliberately puts humans in a situation that might be harmful, and develops a sense of humor to compensate. Sonny has his Third Law strengthened; this leads him, under certain circumstances, to be caught in a dilemma between the Second and the Third Law. Cutie becomes a sort of Robotic version of a Cartesian Muslim, and so starts thinking of his Three-Laws-governed actions in religious terms. Apparent malfunctions in the Machine's work turn out to be just its very subtle, and unexpected, compensations according to the Three Laws. Toning down the First Law (I think these were Asimov's Nestors) turns out to have serious problems for its implementation at all. And so forth. This is why they were so fun; and the potential is virtually endless. It is, in fact, an exercise in casuistry, in the old good sense of the term (conscientious case-focused ethical reasoning), under particular puzzle-like conditions.

But there is another Law. Well, exactly in what sense it is a Law is hard to determine; intentionally or not, I think it is always a little amibiguous in Asimov's story as to whether it was really another Law or just a way of interpreting the First Law in a looser and more flexible (but still principled) way. The one Robot (Giskard) I can recall who actually used this Law (called the Zeroth Law) to violate one of the Three shut down because of it (if I recall correctly); and the other Robot who used it (the great Daneel) used it for additional flexibility, and not (as far as I can recall) for actually overriding the other Laws.

Zeroth Law: A robot may not injure humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

This modifies all the other laws accordingly (again, if it is really a law, rather than a rationalization of an interpretation of the laws).

The movie is essentially about a crude Hollywood attempt to get something like this into the picture, although in actual fact if the brain in the movie had actually chosen the conclusion it had, it would have shut down. Its logic was not undeniable; its logic wasn't even remotely good. But there is a way to get something like this in, and it would have to be something like Daneel (the best Robot character in all science fiction, in my humble opinion).

In any case, for those who have seen the movie, the Isaac Asimov Homepage has a list comparing the major points of the movie with those of the stories, here.

Ashamed of Shame, Disgusted with Disgust

There is an interview here with Martha Nussbaum on her new book, Hiding from Humanity, about the 'pernicious' nature of shame and disgust. She doesn't actually show any perniciousness to them; nothing she says about shame or disgust could not be said about a dozen or more other moral sentiments that (one would hope) are not 'pernicious'; people may appeal to them in discourse in ways with which we do not sympathize - but this is not perniciousness, it is difference of temperament, and is the starting-point for much public reasoning. As with any moral sentiment, if the public discourse remains there, there's something wrong; but disgust and shame, like other things called 'moral sentiments', in general make great starting-points if you are willing to refine them through actual discourse. By advocating that we treat appeals to disgust and shame in public reasoning as somehow pernicious, it seems to me that Nussbaum is arbitrarily cutting out one of the ways in which we develop as a community and a society (and, indeed, as individuals).

Further, it seems to me that her understanding of disgust and shame are wrong. According to Nussbaum, the cognitive content of disgust "involves a shrinking from contamination that is associated with a human desire to be non-animal." I haven't read the book (it's on my reading list), so perhaps I'm missing something about the psychological literature that she claims to be drawing on, but this strikes me as absurd. Compare it to another visceral sentiment, anger, which involves thought about harm. Is it just me, or is it a little bizarre that anger's cognitive content is treated (rightly) as so vague, but disgust's cognitive content is not just "shrinking from contamination" but one that is associated with "a human desire to be non-animal." What human desire to be non-animal? When I feel sick to my stomach with disgust at the thought of (e.g.) the sexual molestation of children, my disgust may well involve something that can be called a "shrinking from contamination," but there seems nothing here that could be identified as the associated "desire to be a non-animal." The fundamental problem here, I think, is that Nussbaum is treating only selective cases of disgust, namely, those that might conceivably fit in with her thesis. When I experience disgust at the sexual molestation of children, this is not a pernicious expression of anxiety about my own animality; it is revulsion, a recoiling or shrinking, at the wrongness of this act, this mistreatment of innocence.

When she then says, "Unlike anger, disgust does not provide the disgusted person with a set of reasons that can be used for the purposes of public argument and public persuasion," she does exactly the same thing: she seems to be taking only crude examples of disgust that fit her thesis and treating them as the norm. Consider her example of anger: "If my child has been murdered and I am angry at that, I can persuade you that you should share those reasons; if you do, you will come to share my outrage." But we can easily construct parallel cases with disgust. If I recoil in disgust at the idea of people raping young children, I can persuade you to share some of the reasons for my disgust, e.g., the gross injustice of it, and, if you do, you will come to share my disgust.

She also goes on to say, "Disgust and shame are inherently hierarchical; they set up ranks and orders of human beings. They are also inherently connected with restrictions on liberty in areas of non-harmful conduct." But neither of these seem any more necessarily connected with disgust and shame (or cordoned off from other moral sentiments, like indignation) than anything else she has said.

Now what I have been pointing out is what I would have thought was the whole point of considering whether disgust and shame were legitimate moral sentiments: moral disgust and shame. Nussbaum proposes two problems with this:

First of all, it is frequently a screen for the more primitive kind of disgust. When people express disgust about a group whom they take to be a source of social decay, citing moral grounds, there is often something much uglier going on....Second, even when the moralized disgust is not a screen for something else, it is ultimately an unproductive social attitude, since its direction is anti-social.

Again the arbitrariness. Soon after she says that anger is constructive. But disgust is often a prelude to anger. And yet disgust, which so naturally leads into anger, is anti-social, but the anger into which it leads is "constructive." Note, too, that in the first problem, she only takes disgust at groups, and not, for instance, disgust at actions. Why does she not take the reasonable parallel, then, and compare it to anger at entire groups? But she always talks about anger at wrongs while talking about disgust at people? This is pure sophistry, as far as I can tell.

I like Nussbaum (her Love's Knowledge is a philosophical joy - too much Henry James, but a delight nonetheless), and I will eventually get around to reading this book, too. But I can't say this summary interview is at all encouraging. If this is the point to which the moral sentiment tradition has fallen, so that someone of Nussbaum's caliber can go about making such elementary missteps, it is in a sad place indeed.

(Thanks to Ektopos for the link.)

Update: Some additional points that need to be added.

1. Thanks to Matthew at Ektopos for the link here. Also, with regard to the psychological issue, he has helpfully pointed out this brief summary of Paul Rozin's work on the evolution of disgust.

2. Check out the comments below; the first is by Julian Sanchez, the interviewer, who responded with a legitimate point & clarification, and the second is by me, adding a brief clarification of what I see as the primary problem with Nussbaum's reasoning, as it is presented in the interview. This last qualification should be emphasized, because it is possible that the problem is corrected or addressed in the book - all the more reason for me to read it and see. When I've done so, I'll post on the subject again. I should also say that agree with Jacob T. Levy about the quality of the interviewing itself: Sanchez "knows his stuff and knows the right questions to ask."

3. There is a sample chapter from the book here. I'm still extremely skeptical, but it whets my appetite. (In particular, I'm not sure her "strong line" against disgust, as formulated in this introductory chapter, shouldn't be taken against just about every other emotion, too. Should any emotion be "the primary basis for rendering an act criminal," even if it does contribute to public discourse about the act? And I still see no way she could make her view that disgust as such, rather than merely certain forms of it, embodies "magical ideas of contamination and impossible aspirations to purity, immortality, and nonanimality," work; nor any way she can have a principled reason for such a sharp division between anger and disgust on this issue. But more when I manage to get my hands on the book (most of the copies of it here are checked out, so we'll see how quickly I can get it)....


10 August 2004: Here is an interesting article on Nussbaum's work on disgust. Her distinction between shame and guilt is a bit too subtle for me, but there are a number of interesting things here that clarify her view.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Berkeley on Platonic Intimations of the Trinity

360. Now, though Plato had joined with an imagination the most splendid and magnificent, an intellect not less deep and clear, yet it is not to be supposed that either he or any other philosophers of Greece or the East had by the light of nature attained an adequate notion of the Holy Trinity; nor even that their imperfect notion, so far as it went, was exactly just; nor perhaps that those sublime hints, which dart forth like flashes of light in the midst of a profound darkness, were originally struck from the hard rock of human reason, but rather derived, at least in part, by a divine tradition (Sects. 298, 301), from the author of all things. It seems a remarkable confirmation of this, what Plotinus observes in his fifth Ennead, that this doctrine of a Trinity--Father, Mind, and Soul--was no late invention, but an ancient tenet.

361. Certain it is that the notion of a Trinity is to be found in the writings of many old heathen philosophers--that is to say, a notion of three divine Hypostases. Authority, Light, and Life did, to the eye of reason, plainly appear to support, pervade, and animate the mundane system or macrocosm. The same appeared in the microcosm, preserving soul and body, enlightening the mind, and moving the affections. And these were conceived to be necessary universal principles, co-existing and co-operating in such sort as never to exist asunder, but on the contrary to constitute one Sovereign of all things. And, indeed, how could power or authority avail or subsist without knowledge? Or either without life and action?

362. In the administration of all things, there is authority to establish, law to direct, and justice to execute. There is first the source of all perfection, or Fons Deitatis; secondly, the supreme reason, order, or λóγοσ ; and lastly, the spirit, which quickens and inspires. We are sprung from the Father, irradiated or enlightened by the Son, and moved by the Spirit. Certainly, that there is Father, Son, and Spirit; that these bear analogy to the sun, light, and heat; and are otherwise expressed by the terms Principle, Mind, and Soul, by One or τò ''εν, Intellect, and Life, by Good, Word, and Love; and that generation was not attributed to the second Hypostasis, the νοûς or λóγοσ, in respect of time (Sect. 352), but only in respect of origin and order, as an eternal necessary emanation; these are the express tenets of Platonists, Pythagoreans, Egyptians, and Chaldeans.

363. Though it may be well presumed there is nothing to be found on that sublime subject in human writings which doth not bear the sure signatures of humanity, yet it cannot be denied that several Fathers of the Church have thought fit to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity by similitudes and expressions borrowed from the most eminent heathens, whom they conceived to have been no strangers to that mystery, as hath been plainly proved by Bessarion, Eugubinus, and Dr. Cudworth.

364. Therefore, how unphilosophical soever that doctrine may seem to many of the present age, yet it is certain that men of greatest fame and learning among the ancient philosophers held a Trinity in the Godhead. It must be owned that upon this point some later Platonists of the Gentile world seem to have bewildered themselves (as many Christians have also done) while they pursued the hints derived from their predecessors with too much curiosity.

This is all from Siris. The notion of a primitive revelation to all humanity is common in this period; one finds mention of it, for example, in Malebranche and Butler (as far as I know, Malebranche merely mentions it, but Butler defends it).

Shiftiness and Perpetual Deja-vu

Warning! This is a very dogmatic post. Not, of course, that my other posts are never dogmatic....

There is an interesting post by Neal Tognazzini at the philosophy weblog, "The Garden of Forking Paths," on the question of what is really meant by 'determinism'.

I think it's about time people started asking this question, because, quite frankly, the only reason 'determinism' hasn't been completely demolished and banished from the intellectual scene is that 'determinists' significantly change their position every ten years or so. (Yes, this is my very non-determinist libertarian view; God only knows how determinists themselves would explain it. Hence the need for people to start asking the question.)

This shiftiness irritates me, in case you haven't figured it out from my tone.

For instance, there is the view noted by the author of the post, namely, that determinism is the position that {past + laws of nature} entails one single future. (It always seems to me that exactly how they entail it is always nudged under the rug a bit, but that's a side issue.) But this is a fairly recent view; the farther back in time you go from the present day, the harder it is to find it. The farther back you go, the more it is entirely about causes. (How the causes entailed a unique future was always nudged under the rug a bit, too, but that's also a side issue.) The exact variation varies considerably from decade to decade, depending on what's fashionable. To make matters worse, scientists at some point began using the term differently than philosophers, and now there's a weird feedback loop going on. It's all a mess.

This occasionally happens in philosophy, i.e., a label, for purely historical reasons, is retained through radical transformations that make it an endless invitation to equivocation. 'Determinism' isn't actually the worst example; the worst example is 'materialism', which has been used for so many mutually exclusive positions, and has been adapted to so many facts that would previously have been considered not materialistic at all, that it is only just this side of useless. 'Determinism' is in a fair way to that.

This wouldn't be a problem - just an issue about labels - if it weren't for the effects it has on the discussion. (1) We libertarians can never assume anything about 'determinism', because it's something different half the time it comes up. The pro-free-choice position has varied through time, as all philosophical positions have, but there have been several stable themes that unite the whole: the phenomenology of choice, self-mastery, moral responsibility, etc. Not everyone takes precisely the same view or has precisely the same theory of these, but libertarians have been fairly constant and dependable in appealing to the same facts as the foundation of the position. Not so with 'determinists', since that label indicates theories built on some rather different foundations through time. (2) Contrary to first impressions, there hasn't been a continuous free-will vs. determinism debate in philosophy. Rather, there have been a whole bunch of smaller debates in which the basic core of the free-will position has outlasted every one of the fashionable contenders brought against it as its new certain nemesis. This important truth has been obscured both by the shiftiness of the 'determinism' label and by the odd fact that every 'determinism' is always put forward with triumph as a relatively problem-free position that is far superior to the free-will position - and it is never more triumphalistic than when it is just about to morph into something completely different. So advocates of the free-will position should take heart; it's a long hard fight agains the forces of unreason, but we've always been here before and survived....

Now, calmness is returning.

Note added later: I should say, now that my rant is done, that it is entirely possible to defend a particular version of determinism without any intentional shiftiness. But in general philosophers who call themselves determinists help themselves to a level of credibility and assume for themselves a level of stability their actual position has not earned, precisely because they do not take sufficient care to avoid this sort of shiftiness. This is most obvious in the so-called Problem of the Intelligibility of Free-Will. The assumption is generally that 'determinism' is the more intelligible option, and that the libertarian position has to go to greater lengths to show that their position is intelligible. There is no such problem. The free-will position is less obscure, first, since its primary appeal is directly to experience, and second, because no particular determinist position has actually shown itself to be both intelligible and capable of recognizing all the facts of human choice; thus the real discussion should always be about the Problem of the Intelligibility of (this particular variant of) Determinism.

Determinism and Debauchery

From Beattie, An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, Part II, Ch. II.3, pp. 367-369:

Moral agency further implies, that we are accountable for our conduct, and that if we do what we ought not to do, we deserve blame and punishment. My conscience tells me, that I am accountable for those actions only that are in my own power; and neither blames nor approves, in myself or in others, that conduct which is the effect, not of choice, but of necessity. Convince me, that all my actions are equally necessary, and you silence my conscience for ever, or at least prove it to be a fallacious and impertinent monitor: you will then convince me, that all circumspection is unnecessary, and all remorse absurd. And is it a matter of little moment, whether I believe my moral feelings authentic and true, or equivocal and fallacious? Can any principle be of more fatal consequence to me, or to society, than to believe that the dictates of conscience are false, unreasonable, or insignificant? Yet this is one certain effect of my becoming a Fatalist, or even a sceptic in regard to moral liberty.

I observe, that when a man's understanding begins to be so far perverted by debauchery, as to make him imagine his crimes unavoidable, from that moment he begins to think them innocent, and deems it a sufficient apology, that in respect of them he is no longer a free, but a necessary agent. The drunkard pleads his constitution, the blasphemer urges the invincible force of habit, and the sensualist would have us believe, that his appetites are too strong to be resisted. Suppose all men so far perverted as to argue in the same manner with regard to crimes of every kind;--then it is certain, that all men would be equally disposed to think all crimes innnocent.

(By 'Fatalism' Beattie means what we would call 'determinism'.) Much of Beattie's argument on liberty and necessity is difficult to follow, in part because it seems to confuse various senses of 'liberty'. Or, indeed, it may be quite deliberate; he may be refusing to distinguish (sharply) these various senses, preferring to treat them as all intimately connected. Whatever's the case with the rest of the argument, however, I think the above argument particularly interesting, because it seems to me to highlight a problem people have with determinism that determinists have not done much to alleviate. The idea is this:

1. If the necessity proposed by the determinist is the same as that to which the debauchee appeals to excuse himself, determinism makes moral responsibility impossible.

2. But if it is a different sort of necessity, as it needs to be the case to preserve the whole notion of moral responsibility, what sort of necessity would that be? And how would it be distinguished from the necessity that would excuse?

This isn't, of course, a refutation of determinism. But it is a challenge to those who hold that determinism is compatible with moral responsibility, a challenge to give some principled reason for distinguishing the necessity of determinism from the necessity of the excuse of the debauchee. We need a reason, if we are to preserve moral responsibility, to think determinism does not give the latter. This sharpens one aspect of the big problem determinists have always had to deal with, namely, the question of whether determinism is actually compatible with morality at all. This problem of the two necessities, then, is one of the fronts on which determinists have to fight.

As I said, I haven't really seen anything that shows determinists making any great effort to distinguish the two necessities. A common argument for determinism, in fact, going back to the early modern period, appears to require that there be only one necessity in the two cases, namely, the argument that determinism is necessary for making sense of moral character and causation. But if the two are the same, then determinism actually eliminates moral considerations entirely, so the determinist needs some significant difference in the cases.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Beattie on Taste

Since I recently posted on taste, and since I've hinted at Beattie's position on taste before, but never given any details, here's a set of passages from Beattie on the subject:

To be a person of taste, it seems necessary, that one have, first, a lively and correct imagination; secondly, the power of distinct apprehension; thirdly, the capacity of being easily, strongly, and agreeably affected, with sublimity, beauty, harmony, exact imitation, &c.; fourthly, Sympathy, or Sensibility of heart; and, fifthly, Judgment, or Good Sense, which is the principal thing, and may not very improperly be said to comprehend all the rest.

I. Good taste implies Lively Imagination. This talent qualifies one, for readily understanding an author's purpose; tracing the connection of his thoughts; forming the same views of things which he had formed; and clearly conceiving the several images or ideas that the artist describes or delineates....

II. Sometimes, when one's imagination is lively, and regulated too by an acquaintance with nature, one may, notwithstanding, contract habits of indolence and irregularity in one's studies; which produce a superficial medley of knowledge very detrimental to the native vigour of the mind. And therefore I mentioned Distinct Apprehension, as the second thing necessary to good taste....

Now the third thing necessary to good taste is, Acuteness of (what is here called) Secondary Sensation; or, to express it in other words, "a capacity of being easily, strongly, and agreeably affected, with sublimity, beauty, harmony, exact imitation," &c....

IV. A fourth requisite to good taste is Sympathy; or that Sensibility of heart, by which, on supposing ourselves in the condition of another, we are conscious in some degree of those very emotions, pleasant or painful, which in a more intense degree would arise within us, if we were really in that condition....

V. The last thing mentioned as necessary to form good taste, is Judgment, or Good Sense; which is indeed the principal thing; and which some would consider, as comprehending most of the foregoing particulars. By Judgment, I here understand such a constitution of mind, as disposes a man to attend to the reality of things, and qualifies him for knowing and discovering the truth. It is by means of this faculty, as applied in criticism, that we compare poetical imitations with natural objects, so as to perceive in what they resemble, and in what they differ; that we estimate the rectitude of sentiments, the probability of incidents, and whether fictitious characters be similar to those of real life and consistent with themselves, and whether any part of a composition be unsuitable to the tendency of the whole. Hence too we discern, natural, or confused and unnatural; and whether the author have been careful to make it, both in the general arrangement, and in the structure of each part, conformable to the rule.

James Beattie, "Of Imagination," Chap. IV. in Dissertations Moral and Critical, pp. 166, 170, 173, 180, 182.

On p. 174, he says, "I here join taste and genius together. They are kindred powers; and of so near affinity, that the first, perhaps, might be called passive genius, and the second active taste." What Beattie above calls "Secondary Senses," and which, as he notes, are sometimes called "Reflex Senses" or "Internal Senses" were a major philosophical research project in 18th century Scotland, in great measure due to Francis Hutcheson. They include things like a sense of beauty, a sense of harmony, a 'musical ear', a taste for sublimity, a taste for novelty, a sense of humor, a feel for magnificence, a sense of morality, etc.

Monday, July 19, 2004

On Critical Thought and Political Taste

In my neverending quest for the development of a theory of political taste, I've been thinking about the issue of critical thought in politics recently. First a clarification:

'Critical thought' or 'critical thinking' doesn't necessarily have anything to do with criticizing; the two words are similar, but not that similar. The 'critical' in 'critical thought' is much closer to what is meant by 'criticism' in 'literary criticism' or 'art criticism'. That is, it indicates a particular sort of good judgment excercised in reasoning about things. In other words, it is closely related to the early modern notion of 'Taste'.

This point is relevant for political thought, because a quick trip around the political bloggers of the blogosphere, or a quick look at pundits of all persuasions, shows that there are a lot of intelligent people who think that criticism of someone's position is, simply in and of itself, an exercise of critical thinking. This, of course, is blatantly false. As I try to teach my students, Mere opposition is one of the least significant, and least rational, uses of reason. Even when it is dressed up with a bit of wit and humor it is not, on its own, a particularly rational activity. Where criticism or opposition does become rational is when it is bolstered by a genuine self-criticism, or self-critique. The reason is that it is only through self-criticism that we can develop the consistency, objectivity, and insight of our criticisms. It is self-critique that checks to see if the objection we're making is consistent with our own principles; it is self-critique that checks to see if we are blinded by any ignorance or prejudice of our own; it is self-critique that judges whether we are actually being relevant, or just knocking down a straw man; it is self-critique that examines whether we are recognizing distinctions between the important and the unimportant, the essential and the unessential. Everything genuinely rational about criticism arises solely when it is combined with self-critique. Being (reasonably) self-critical is the heart of what it is to engage in critical thinking. (It should be noted that by 'self-critique' is meant not pathological self-criticism, but the sort of self-criticism in which we engage when we are genuinely trying to improve ourselves.)

This, I suggest, is precisely one of the major points about Taste in the early modern sense. This is why theories of Taste often appeal either to the perspective of the impartial (i.e., unbiased) spectator, or to the development of an increasingly consistent and general set of maxims, or both; that is, these are methods of self-critique, by which one holds oneself to relevance, consistency, and fairmindedness. By putting oneself temporarily in the perspective of a spectator not biased to your own position, you help yourself to see both your weaknesses and your opponents' strengths, and so to come to a better understanding of the entire issue. Likewise with trying to articulate better and better general rules.

There is another aspect to artistic Taste that sheds light on critical thought in politics and the closely associated notion of political taste. Taste is the complement of Genius; one of the things developing our Taste enables us to do is appreciate other people's genius and taste. This is important in politics because there is such a thing as political genius; and it is immensely hard to spot. If you think that you would have been able, out of sheer native talent, to recognize that (e.g.) Lincoln was a political genius, you almost certainly are overrating yourself. Lincoln did not go around with a halo, and he certainly did not look, as he does in the Lincoln Memorial, like a sage and immortal deity surveying the world from a throne. If you would have been able to recognize his genius, it would have been either a lucky guess or a conclusion of extremely difficult critical thought. Even the Gettysburg Address, which is one of those rare political classics of enduring political genius and taste (and in less than 300 words, which is rarer still in politics!), received mixed reviews. But it is possible, through critical thought, to refine one's evaluations of political works and persons; and, indeed, people have been refining their views on Lincoln since Lincoln's day. Any other political genius could be substituted for Lincoln. Similar things can be said for whatever's the opposite of political genius (bungling?). But in all these cases, the correctness of the evaluation presupposes genuine self-critique. This is a point in which we tend to be rather deficient.

There's a brief article by Keith Burgess-Jackson, called "How to Argue" that should be required reading before anyone talks about politics at all (he is unabashedly conservative in just about every sense of the term - as can be seen by his blog AnalPhilosopher - so be forewarned if you're of a different persuasion; but whatever one's political persuasions, his article is dead on when it comes to the nature of argument).

Kudos on Comments

I always sound extremely stupid when I comment on other people's blogs; I have difficulty responding coherently. Now, why is that? I do fairly well in other sorts of modes of response; but comments undo me completely. I've found that other people's comments on Siris, however, are great; so this is just a note to say I appreciate it.


A Just War Conundrum about Whether War can be Just

Wilson at "The Elfin Ethicist" has an interesting post on hating war.

I tend to a (relatively medieval) just war theory myself; but this gives less room for supporting war than one might think. The reason is this.

As Wilson notes, when we talk about 'war' we may mean either an action or an event. This is actually very important, because there are really two things called 'just war theory' that are extremely different, and they divide more or less along this line. One 'just war theory' means by 'war' the event of going to, and being in war; the other means by it the personal action of warring. There is all the difference between them.

When Aquinas writes on just war, he is talking about one thing, and one thing only: Given that warring involves fighting one's enemy, and given that Christians are supposed to love their enemies, can it ever be just for a Christian prince to war? His answer is that it can be if (1) the prince has been put in charge of protecting the people, and thus has legitimate authority; (2) the prince is going to war because his enemies actually deserve it; (3) the prince is properly disposed, i.e., virtuous in his means, to that end. The idea behind all three is the common good; a prince put in charge of protecting the common good of all, must deal with threats to it, and that includes external as well as internal enemies. Aquinas is concerned entirely with the prince as the person who actually wars; soldiers are only barely brought in insofar as they participate in the prince's warring through obedience; and civilians not at all.

Eventually people began to think of war (the situation) when they talked about 'just war'; and this, I think, goes with another modern innovation, the notion of total war. That is, we have made it virtually impossible for ourselves not to think of nations as going to war. This would have been utterly unthinkable for Aquinas, except perhaps as a figure of speech. He thinks of war as a heavy external policing action; so the whole responsibility for it, and the whole issue of the justice for it, lies entirely with the person in charge. We don't hold the whole nation responsible for a major SWAT operation, even if it were a very extended and elaborate one. It would never have occurred to him that anyone could think that, when the king of France goes to war against the king of England, the peasants of France are "in a state of war" with the peasants of England; warring is just not the sort of thing peasants do. But we do think of it in these terms. And this is, perhaps, a problem from the (older) just war perspective. While it's always been the case that civilians could get caught in the crossfire of two leaders, it is our innovation to think of one civilian population warring against civilian another as an integral part of war. But it is immoral, unjust, uncharitable, to war against someone who doesn't deserve it; and it isn't clear that there is any real sense in which we can say an entire nation deserves to be warred against. This suggests, that, while there are still some things (a very few) that we might call 'war' that would be allowed in themselves, the older just war theory, which I think is the better-founded one, would hold us to be engaging in an act of injustice even in those cases because of the way we think about war - we (and this includes civilians as well as leaders and soldiers) are treating people as our enemies who don't deserve it, and that's unjust. In other words, virtually any war today (and this will include much of what has to do with war, e.g., international law and peacekeeping) is accompanied with an immense amount of injustice because the way we think about war encourages us to be unjust toward others.

I'm not sure this was stated very clearly (I'm rushing to get the post out before class), but I think this highlights a problem for us. I don't think this is unanswerable; but I do think answering it would require a complete rethinking of the way we actually approach the whole notion of war, and indeed, all military action.