Friday, August 06, 2004

For I'm a Jolly Good Fellow...Which Nobody Can Deny!


Tomorrow, August 7th, is my birthday, so I probably won't be posting anything this weekend. I do have a life, you know, however attenuated it may be....

(I've been having trouble with Blogger, by the way, so apologies if the publishing is erratic. I'm posting; it's just not doing anything with the posts, except sporadically.)

On Critics (and, Yes, Political Taste, Too)

There is an interesting editorial by Alfredo Triff on the critics in the Miami New Times (via Ektopos). There's not much argument, but two paragraphs caught my eye. The first:

"The critic's job is not simply to evaluate what's good or bad. It would be too boring to constantly declare, "This is bad" or "This is good." Besides, that burden of proof can be daunting. What mortal is free of self-doubt? Imagine an internal dialogue inside the critic's mind: Is it really bad, or is it that I missed the point? Am I upset or biased? Could I like this if I'd seen it under different circumstances? How do I know? These are important questions because they probe fundamental issues beyond the aesthetic realm."

And the second:

"Finally one more consideration: There could be something meaningful in that painting worth a negotiation between what you think and what the critic could suggest."

These, in fact, summarize a great deal of what will be necessary to any theory of taste, whether it be applied to the visual arts, to the performance arts, to literature, to politics, to civic life, or to any of the other facets of human life that require good reasoning based on good sense, reasonable openmindedness, and diverse experience.

The King of Siam

The King of Siam (or the Indian Prince, as Hume calls him), which Campbell discusses in the previous post, is a major topos in early modern thought. It derives from Locke, who may have heard it from the Dutch ambassador himself:

In this, all the arguments pro and con ought to be examined, before we come to a judgment. Probability wanting that intuitive evidence which infallibly determines the understanding and produces certain knowledge, the mind, if it will proceed rationally, ought to examine all the grounds of probability, and see how they make more or less for or against any proposition, before it assents to or dissents from it; and, upon a due balancing the whole, reject or receive it, with a more or less firm assent, proportionably to the preponderancy of the greater grounds of probability on one side or the other. For example:-

If I myself see a man walk on the ice, it is past probability; it is knowledge. But if another tells me he saw a man in England, in the midst of a sharp winter, walk upon water hardened with cold, this has so great conformity with what is usually observed to happen that I am disposed by the nature of the thing itself to assent to it; unless some manifest suspicion attend the relation of that matter of fact. But if the same thing be told to one born between the tropics, who never saw nor heard of any such thing before, there the whole probability relies on testimony: and as the relators are more in number, and of more credit, and have no interest to speak contrary to the truth, so that matter of fact is like to find more or less belief. Though to a man whose experience has always been quite contrary, and who has never heard of anything like it, the most untainted credit of a witness will scarce be able to find belief.

The king of Siam. As it happened to a Dutch ambassador, who entertaining the king of Siam with the particularities of Holland, which he was inquisitive after, amongst other things told him that the water in his country would sometimes, in cold weather, be so hard that men walked upon it, and that it would bear an elephant, if he were there. To which the king replied, Hitherto I have believed the strange things you have told me, because I look upon you as a sober fair man, but now I am sure you lie. (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 4.15.5)

The first paragraph of this selection makes it clear why Hume found it so convenient to appeal to the King of Siam as an example in Enquiry, Section X, Part I: Hume wants to generalize this sort of weight-balancing to all reasoning, and especially to that concerning matters of fact (e.g., reasoning about marvels and miracles, the topic of Section X). Both Campbell and Shepherd, although they approach the question from different angles, try to use this (with interesting results) to show that Hume's account, which he uses to rule out belief about miracles on the basis of testimony, can't make the sorts of distinctions it needs to make if it is to succeed (the quotation in the previous post gives an example of this for Campbell).

Prior to the whole miracles debate, there are two other cases I have found in which it is used. Berkeley considers it briefly in his Alciphron (he is unimpressed); and Butler appeals to it in the Introduction to The Analogy of Religion.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Campbell on Hume on the King of Siam

From Campbell, Dissertation on Miracles:

Let us then examine, by his own principles, whether the King of Siam, of whom the story he alludes to is related by Locke, [fn: Essay on Human Understanding, Book iv. chap. 15 sect. 5] could have sufficient evidence, from testimony, of a fact so contrary to his experience as the freezing of water. He could just say as much of this event, as the author can say of a dead man's being restored to life: "Such a thing was never observed, as far as I could learn, in any age or country." If the things themselves too be impartially considered, and independently of the notions acquired by us in these northern climates, we should account the first at least as extraordinary as the second.--That so pliant a body as water should be come hard like pavement, so as to bear up an elephant on its surface, is as unlikely, in itself, as that a body inanimate to-day should be animated to-morrow. Nay, to the Indian monarch, I must think, that the first would appear more a miracle, more contrary to experience, than the second. If he had been acquainted with _ice_ or frozen water, and afterwards seen it become fluid, but had never seen nor learned, that after it was melted it became hard again, the relation must have appeared marvellous, as the process from fluidity to hardness never had been experienced, though the reverse often had. But I believe nobody will question, that on this supposition it would not have appeared quite so strange as it did. Yet this supposition makes the instance more parallel to the restoring of the dead to life. The process from animate to inanimate we are all acquainted with; and what is such a restoration, but the reversing of this process? So little reason had the author to insinuate, that the one was only _not conformable_, the other _contrary_ to experience. If there be a difference in this respect, the first, to one alike unacquainted with both, must appear the more contrary of the two.

Does it alter the matter, that he calls the former "a fact which arose from a state of nature with which the Indian was unacquainted?" Was not such a state quite unconformable, or (which in the author's language I have shown to be the same) contrary to his experience? Is then a state of nature, which is contrary to experience, more credible than a single fact contrary to experience? I want the solution of one difficulty: the author, in order to satisfy me, presents me with a thousand others. Is this suitable to the method he proposes in another place, of admitting always the less miracle, and rejecting the greater? Is it not, on the contrary, admitting without any difficulty the greater miracle, and thereby removing the difficulty which he otherwise would have had in admitting the less? Does he forget, that to exhibit a state of nature entirely different from what we experience at present, is one of those enormous prodigies, which, in his account, render the Pentateuch unworthy of credit?....

Does the author then say, that no testimony could give the King of Siam sufficient evidence of the effects of cold on water? No. By implication he says the contrary: "It required very strong testimony." Will he say, that those most astonishing effects of electricity lately discovered, so entirely unanalogous to every thing before experienced--will he say, that such facts no reasonable man could have sufficient evidence from testimony to believe? No....Yet it is obvious to every considerate reader, that this argument concludes equally against those truly marvellous, as against miraculous events; both being alike unconformable, or alike contrary, to former experience.

My Portrait

I made this in Create-a-Character at South Park Studios. So this is what I would look like, were I a South Park character. And yes, my grin is that goofy.

Christian Carnival XXIX

The newest Christian Carnival is up; I didn't submit anything this time around, but there are some posts I've enjoyed reading. I was thinking the other night that there should be more of these carnival things - there are already several of different sorts, but there could be more, even if they were only little things at first. There are already in the blogosphere several sorts of loosely linked communities in history, philosophy, and literature that could easily manage it.

In any case, here are some of the posts I found especially interesting:

* Eschatology at "Parableman," which lays out various eschatological views

* God's Eternity at "Rebecca Writes"

* Free-Will/Predestination Charts at "Digitus, Finger & Co."

* New Book on Old Secret..., a satire at "reasons why"

Yes, Pythagoreans Considered Beans a Taboo

A poem I wrote some time ago when in a joking mood. It's somewhat Kit-Smart-ish in style, although, of course, it is mock serious in tone.

A Graduate Student Thinks of Footnotes

There is a power and a danger in footnotes. Amen.
For the footnote is a text of its own, and is not.
And the loosening of this paradox has loosened many minds.
For they have grown churlish with useless detail.
For detail like coral builds up into great reefs of madness.
For many minds have been shipwrecked by their own footnotes.
And many minds have thereby been put out to sea.
And footnotes, like coffee, add nothing to learning but are addictive to those who learn.
So avoid footnotes, my child, like Pythagoreans beans.
For they both cast out the Spirit and are an affront to number.
For they exceed the bounds of the discussion.
For they are απειρον.
And they are disruptive to the reasonable order of plot and argument.
And many more have been led into folly by footnotes than by strange women.
For the footnote is taken as a license for promiscuous thought.
For the standards of the footnote are not the standards of the discourse.
And many have said things in footnotes of a stupidity they would not pronounce in the text.
So, my child, in life and in word, learn that footnotes lead away from the way.
And that silence is golden even for fools. Amen.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Cultural Literacy

One of my favorite paintings, Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son, made an appearance on The Amazing Race last night. (My favorite part of the painting is the lower left-hand corner; if you look closely you can see that the prodigal son's sandal, in his rush to embrace his father, has come off his foot.)

I was a bit shocked, however, that some of the teams didn't know the story of the Prodigal Son. How does anyone go through life not knowing something about the parable of the Prodigal Son?

But, then, I'm always a little taken aback when people don't know things like this, e.g., when I have to explain the story of the Minotaur to my students so they'll catch the allusion I'm making when I use the phrase "Ariadne's thread." For that matter, I'm a little taken aback when I have to explain to them what a pons asinorum is. But not knowing the basic stories that ground Western civilization is rather worse. So I've begun to compile a list of Things You Should Know to Consider Yourself a Competent Member of Western Civilization. These are things that people should know at least well enough to catch obvious allusions to them in art, music, and literature.

The Bible: Old Testament: Creation, Fall, Flood, Tower of Babel, Call of Abram, Covenant with Abraham, Punishment of Sodom, Hagar in the Wilderness, Sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob and the Birthright, Israel, Coat of Many Colors, Job, Moses and the Bullrushes, Burning Bush, Plagues of Egypt, Parting of the Sea, Mount Sinai, Fall of Jericho, Samson and Delilah, Ruth, David and Goliath, David and Jonathan, David and Bathsheba, Psalm 23, Elijah and the Whirlwind, Ahab and Jezebel, Isaiah 53, Esther. I also should probably add the Dedication of the Temple, in 1 Maccabees.

The Bible: New Testament: John 1:1-14, Annunciation, Nativity, The Magi, Baptism, Wedding Feast at Cana, Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, Parable of the Good Samaritan, Parable of the Prodigal Son, Parable of the Ninety and Nine, Last Supper, Garden of Gethsemane, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Road to Emmaus and Ascension, Pentecost, Road to Damascus, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 Corinthians 15, Hebrews 11, Battle of Armageddon, New Jerusalem.

Classical: Oedipus, Minotaur, Achilles and Hector, Trojan Horse, Aeneas and Anchises, Isle of Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, Aeneas and Dido, Aeneas and the Sybil, Electra and Orestes.

Arthurian: Birth of Arthur, Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, Passing of Merlin, May-Day Massacre, Knight of the Cart, Finding of the Holy Grail, Passing of Arthur.

Shakespearean: Ghost of Hamlet's Father, Death of Hamlet, Death of Romeo and Juliet

Any suggestions to add to this? (Also, any suggestions for better links to some of these?)

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Beware, Feminists! The Pope Thinks Society Should Accommodate Women!

I've said before, and I'll say it again, I pity the Pope, who can't say a single thing without being misunderstood by a reporter who hasn't done his homework or being distorted by bizarre description or misquotation. I posted not long ago on the Pope's "apology" for the Crusades; so I might as well post on this gem of sloppy reporting from the Guardian, entitled, "Pope Warns Feminists".

And see this one at The Straits Times, entitled, "Vatican hits out at feminism".

These are very typical; a web search will turn up dozens more like them. So, it sounds like a very acidic speech, an attack by the Pope on the very nature of the women's movement. What was the topic of the Vatican document (which is not written by the Pope but merely approved by him)?

That men and women should not be considered adversaries, but should actively collaborate to make a better world; and that society, including the law and the labor market, should do more to accommodate women, and in particular the fact of maternity. You can find the letter here.

Wow! Who would have thought that this was "warning" to feminists! Feminists, the Pope (not even the Pope, but we'll set that aside) says darkly with glowering eyes and pointing finger, you people need to learn once and for all: society needs to accommodate the facts of a woman's life.

The harshest comment in the entire document is a criticism of views (shared by some, but not all feminists) that erode sexual distinctions of all kinds:

A second tendency emerges in the wake of the first. In order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning. In this perspective, physical difference, termed sex, is minimized, while the purely cultural element, termed gender, is emphasized to the maximum and held to be primary. The obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes has enormous consequences on a variety of levels. This theory of the human person, intended to promote prospects for equality of women through liberation from biological determinism, has in reality inspired ideologies which, for example, call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality.

As I said, this is the harshest statement in the letter; and it presents no surprises, does it?

This wouldn't be a problem, except that as far as I can tell it is typical. I have never seen the Vatican accurately reported, even by Catholic news sources. The problem is not Catholicism per se; it's the state of religion journalism today - you'll find similar sorts of inaccuracies and misrepresentations in virtually any reporting on religious subjects. It's just more noticeable when they report on the Catholic Church, because the Vatican makes its documents easily available, and regularly puts out new documents on controversial subjects.

One wonders if religion is the only topic in which this happens....

--> Update: Hugo Schwyzer has some interesting comments on the letter at Cliopatria.

I Wish I Had a Wishing Well, but All I Have is Wishing Well

I've been thinking a bit recently about Jonathan Edwards's view that true virtue consists in an unconditional disposition of goodwill, or, as he calls it, benevolence toward being in general. It seems to me that society could potentially be much improved by a simple exercise. The exercise is this: Take a moment - a moment is all that would be needed - to wish each person you encounter, or hear about, well. Even if they annoy you or make you angry (especially if they annoy you or make you angry). After all, they are human, they can improve, learn, grow. So what's the harm of wishing them well? I mean, really wishing them well - i.e., wishing them to grow in the wisdom and strength required for genuine excellence and virtue. Everyone, from the greatest saint to the most horrible person you could possibly imagine, could use a bit of goodwill in this sense.

Of course, the exercise needs to be coupled with the recognition that you, too, need to be wished well in this way. Don't we all? But if this were done, then I think we might find it just a little bit easier to live with each other.

I wish you well.

Jove in the Clouds

We recently had some (very mild) thunderstorms here; and thunderstorms always put me in mind of Giambattista Vico, the Italian contemporary of Descartes and (I suppose one could argue) the last great Renaissance humanist.

Vico imagined a time in which the Gentile nations of the world turned feral, and collapsed into what he called, if I'm remembering correctly, "a barbarism of sense." So things went for centuries, until one fateful day, while they were all running about like animals, doing beastly and horrible things, they heard thunder and saw lightning for the first time - "the voice of Jove in the clouds," Vico calls it - and fled, in terror, into caves. For many years after that the skies thundered, and the law of the people was the thunder in the clouds; activities that they were doing when it thundered became taboo, or, if they were unavoidable, had to be combined with special rituals. So began religion, government, rituals showing respect for the genial bed, and rituals showing respect for the dead, the great constants of civic life. A civil theology grew up, and as time went on, by its own inexorable logic it began to approximate the natural theology developed by reason. (Vico uses this as a historical argument for the existence of divine providence.) All because of Jove in the clouds.

Now, Vico held that history follows a helical path: it spirals round and round, never exactly the same, but always following similar courses. And he also held that in the modern era we began to collapse into a "barbarism of reflection," different from, but in its own way similar to, the barbarism of sense. Just as the original barbarism of sense involved a beastly depravity of passions and imaginations, the new barbarism of reflection involves a beastly depravity of reason and will. So the interesting question arises (Vico, so far as I know never answers it):

What will be our Jove in the clouds, restoring us to the right use of reason?

--> Some Vico quotes:
"Common sense is judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire nation, or the entire human race." (The New Science 1.142)

"Uniform ideas originating among entire peoples unknown to each other must have a common ground of truth." (The New Science 1.144)

"Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance." (The New Science 1.241)

"Metaphysics abstracts the mind from the senses, and the poetic faculty must submerge the whole mind in the senses. Metaphysics soars up to universals, and the poetic faculty must plunge deep into particulars." (The New Science 3.4.821)

Monday, August 02, 2004

Patient Dignity and Common Sense

You're Hobbes!
You're Hobbes. First of all, the makers of this
quiz would like to congratulate you. You have
our seal of approval. You are kind,
intelligent, loving, and good-humoredly
practical. You're proud of who you are. At the
same time, you're tolerant of those who lack
your clearsightedness. You're always playful,
but never annoying. For these traits, you are
well-loved, and with good cause.

Which famous feline are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

--> Excellent (the best compliment from an inane internet quiz I have ever received)! Here's Bill Watterson's summary of what went into the Hobbes character.

Berkeley and Buber (LFPA)

Citations: (a) David S. Forth, "Berkeley and Buber: An Epistemological Comparison," Dialogue vol. X, no. 4 (December, 1971): 690-707.
(b) Warren E. Steinkraus, "Berkeley and Inferred Friends," Dialogue vol. XI, no. 4 (December, 1972): 592-595.

Summary: Forth's article uncovers a number of interesting similarities between the epistemology of Buber and that of Berkeley. Forth suggests that the ground for a comparison of the two "lies in the religious orientation" of each (690). The particular issues that are compared are, on the one hand, Buber's I-Thou relation, insofar as every such encounter is in some way an encounter with God, the Thou who cannot become an It; and, on the other hand, Berkeley's divine visual language by means of which we receive information about the world. Forth suggests that "meeting" is the foundation of Buber's system and "perception" the foundation of Berkeley's, and "it is with God that we are, in each instance, dealing--or who is dealing with us" (691). Given this, he notes several of the similarities that result:

1. Forth first looks at basic similarities, claiming that "Buber and Berkeley are both self-declared empiricists" (691), i.e., the basic appeal for each is to experience. That sort of experience which is important for Buber is that which occurs between persons (in the I-Thou relationship). For Buber, one cannot have an I divided from the Thou or the It to which it is related; likewise, Berkeley argues (Prin. 1.98) that the mind or spirit cannot be severed from its cogitation. He also, of course, argues that what the mind thinks about (in the sense of ideas) cannot be severed from the mind (Prin. 1.91). Buber is not such an avowed immaterialist, but his understanding of the I-It experience approximates Berkeley's understanding of the spirit-idea relation. The differences are largely due to Buber's greater subjective, and Berkeley's greater objective, emphasis.

On other minds, there might seem some difference, given that Berkeley holds that other minds are known by signs, and Buber holds that they are known by encounter; Forth suggests that the difference is not so great as it might seem, but concludes:

The difference in their positions--and it is a vital difference--is that Buber extends otuwards to other minds the intuitive, direct knowledge which Berkeley recognizes as typical of our notional knowledge of ourselves. Berkeley's failure to extend the concept of notional knowledge deprives him of a way of characterizing those deep human involvements with other persons which Buber takes to be the only ultimately meaningful of human existence. (694)

2. Forth then looks more closely at this issue of inter-personal communication and commitment. He claims that "Berkeley limits all contact between persons to the impersonal exchange of 'signs'" (694) and that his interpretation of the divine-human relationship "excludes the possibility of prayer" (695). He goes on to note the importance of the divine visual language thesis to Berkeley's system, saying,

Not only does his proof of the existence and nature of God rest on it (Alciphron IV, 14), it also gives point and meaning to the whole sensory experience of man which his immaterialist thesis might otherwise seem to render vacuous (Prin. I, 30-31), provides him with an alternative to the physicalist theory of causality (Prin. I, 32), and suggests a rationale of the all-important distinction between 'real things' and 'chimeras' (Prin. I, 29, 30, 33). (696-697)

He also claims that it can be blamed for Berkeley's problem with inter-personal relationships because "All communication, all interpersonal relationships, must remain on the I-It plane, because it is only at that level that the Visual Language will work" (697).

3. He then discusses some problems with Buber's view of inter-personal relationships.

4. Forth then suggests a convergence of Berkeley and Buber, in that they both insist "on the effectiveness of our day to day world as the medium of communication. It is, to take the highest example, through our resolute turning to the everyday world that we meet God" (703). As he notes, "in that which each philosopher views as finally significant they speak as one: God meets us and deals with us in the hour by hour, minute by minute events of our everyday sense-experience world" (704). He then goes on to discuss some derivative agreements on issues like the nature of time, of causality, and of the self.

Steinkraus responds to this excellent paper in a later note (b). His particular concern is to correct Forth on the issue of Berkeley's ability to accommodate inter-personal relationships. He points out that how we get our knowledge of others need not have anything to do with friendship or warm or cold personal contacts. This is more an ethical issue than an epistemological one. He notes that it isn't actually clear why Forth thinks Berkeley's view excludes prayer, and that Forth interprets Berkeley's occasionalism too strongly.

My Evaluation: This is a great line of inquiry that needs development. Some thoughts:

1. Let's clear up this visual language issue a bit. It is not (pace Steinkraus) a metaphor; Berkeley is being quite literal when he says vision is a language. It is in some ways different from human language, but they belong to the same genus. Nor is it true (pace Forth) that all communication or inter-personal relationship remains on the I-It plane in Berkeley because of the visual language. On the contrary, it really isn't possible to think of vision as a language without thinking of it as an interpersonal communication (between God and ourselves, and in case of human-human communication, among the community of human 1, God, and human 2).

2. Forth is not right to say that "perception" is the foundation of Berkeley's system; a more accurate suggestion would be to say that "signification" is. And signification in Berkeley's system works both by inference (or, to be more strictly accurate, suggestion) and encounter. That is, it is an encounter suggesting other notions and ideas to the mind. "Inference" might suggest some sort of argument; but Berkeley denies that the sort of inference to which he refers is this type. Rather, he prefers to use the word "suggestion." A common example he uses is the blush: the blushing face of someone in front of us suggests something to us, given our experience with blushing people, and by this means helps us to understand the invisible spirit whose passions are expressed in the blush. There is nothing in this to prevent personal encounter. The exchange of signs is not 'impersonal'; it presupposes persons as its very heart. (Forth seems to claim that Berkeley refuses to grant that we have a notional knowledge of the self, this also doesn't seem right.)

3. Steinkraus is certainly right to note that Forth's claim that Berkeley can't accommodate prayer doesn't seem to be supported by anything.

4. Nonetheless, despite a number of technical objections, I think this paper has recognized something important about Berkeley, and deserves to be better known. (Hence my bringing it in as an article in the LFPA.)

Way Cool

I just came across this great website: al-Ghazali's Website. al-Ghazali was the brilliant 12th century Sufi who gave a resoundingly effective response to Islamic philosophy as it was being done. al-Ghazali is famous for his occasionalism, presented in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which is one of the topics to which Averroes had to respond in his Incoherence of the Incoherence.

For his illuminationist response to the threat of skepticism, see here.

Oh, yeah, the other external world; I forgot about that one.

I've been thinking about BIV (brain-in-a-vat) skepticism arguments, in part because I've read a few things on it recently. Essentially the argument goes:

1. I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat.
2. If I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat, I don't know [insert some item of common knowledge, e.g., I am in Toronto, or I have two hands, here].
Therefore I don't know [item of common knowledge].

I've made no secret before that I find such arguments utterly unimpressive (see here for the post on Sparacio and here for the post on DeRose), because (1) is clearly false and (2) is also false, although less obviously so. Since the point of this weblog is to help me work out and clarify various issues, I thought I would try to set up the reasons why a bit more clearly.

I think of my response to BIV skepticism as a Berkeleyan approach, because it closely resembles the way Berkeley shuts down material substance skepticism. Suppose the item of common knowledge is "I have two hands." And I do; if you ever meet me in real life, I can wave them around for you. But what would I say to BIV skepticism about my hands?

First, I do know that I am not a BIV. What would it mean for me to say, "I am a brain in a vat, not this person with this perspective, this body, etc."? I don't think it would mean anything. I am this thinking person with this perspective, this body, etc. It's true that it's entirely possible that a necessary condition for there being this thinking person with this body is that there be a brain in a vat hooked up to a machine somewhere. It's an odd thought, but it's possible; only a causal investigation would find it out. But this is a different issue from saying, "I am a brain in a vat rather than this embodied person." This statement is a well-formed sentence, but it is simply false. I am, at present, this embodied person; saying I am a brain in a vat only sounds plausible if we think (falsely) it is plausible to say we are our brains, simpliciter. But this is not what we are talking about when we are talking about ourselves.

Second, even setting aside the issue of whether I know that I am not a BIV, i.e., even if we hold this in doubt for a moment, it doesn't follow from my not knowing I'm not a BIV that I don't know that I have hands. I do know that I have hands, even if I might be a BIV, because here they are, typing on this keyboard. This will be true of any item of common knowledge about the external world. BIV skepticism, like the material substance skepticism Berkeley resoundingly refuted, depends on making an illegitimate distinction between the external world (i.e., the world we actually experience) and the external world (the other external world, whatever that would be) and holding that the latter is the real external world. We have no basis for either the distinction or the privileging of the "other" external world over what any sane person means by the external world.

Consider the following scenario. Someone comes up to me and says, "How do you know you are not a complex scintillation in the horn of an invisible pink unicorn?" I know I am not; I can tell by looking around me. But suppose I haven't thought about it, or havent thought about it clearly, and so am willing to say I don't know I'm not a complex scintillation in the horn of an invisible pink unicorn. The crazy guy continues, "If you don't know that you are not a complex scintillation in the horn of an invisible pink unicorn, you don't know that that you have two hands." But of course I know I have two hands, even if I don't know that I'm not a complex scintillation in the horn of an invisible pink unicorn: here my two hands are. The crazy guy doesn't let up. "It seems that you have two hands; but really, for all you know, it might just be a scintillation-pattern in an invisible pink unicorn's horn." But, while there are seemings that are imperfect, and so also seem to be not real (e.g., hallucinations, dreams), the seeming that I have two hands is not one of those. It is the sort of seeming that is exactly what we call 'real'. Since the crazy guy is using 'real' in an odd way, I can't agree with him unless he tells me what he means. But it doesn't matter, anyway. In the real sense of the word 'real', I really have two hands because I seem to have them. This is just what it is to "really have two hands". Any skepticism the scintillation supposition engenders is regarding the other external world, i.e., the one the crazy guy keeps calling 'real'.

There is nothing that makes the brain-in-a-vat supposition any different from the supposition that I am a complex scintillation in the horn of an invisible pink unicorn. They both are obviously false; and even if we didn't know that, they are irrelevant to skepticism about items of common knowledge. They are also crazy; but that's just from my lips to your ears, very hush-hush.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Aphorisms Toward an Argument that 'Ethics of Belief' is a Misnomer

1. It should not be forgotten that the three sections of W. K. Clifford's landmark essay, The Ethics of Belief, are: The Duty of Inquiry; The Weight of Authority; and The Limits of Inference. These cover most of what is intended to be covered by "ethics of belief"; none of them have to do with belief itself, but with the morality of what leads up to it or follows from it.

2. It appears that what is involved in the "ethics of belief" has little to do with issues like 'rational justification' or 'warrant' or 'evidence', and much to do with guilt or innocence. Clifford's shipowner is in the wrong not because he did not satisfy everyone's curiosity but because he was "verily guilty" of the death of innocents through his lack of investigation. He is not guilty of having a belief. He is not guilty of coming to have the belief he had. He was guilty of not double-checking despite his belief. Had he continued to believe in the ultimate security of his ship, but checked and improved the seaworthiness of his ship as a matter of duty, he would not be blameable.

3. Contrary to Clifford, the guilt of the accusers in his religious society is based not in the grounds on which they believed, but in the accusation itself, insofar as it was heedless of those grounds.

4. Presumption is not a matter of belief or doubt but a matter of usurpation of authority in believing or doubting; two may believe, or two may doubt, in a given situation, but only one do so with presumption.

5. There are virtues conducive to good reasoning, and in these we have an ethics of coming to believe. But this is not an ethics of believing.

6. There are intellectual virtues, and in these we have what may be called an ethics of belief; but they are intellectual, not moral.

7. Of only one virtue that has ever been proposed is it really the case that it is a virtue of belief: it is called faith, and discussion of faith as such might be considered to belong to the ethics of belief. But it is difficult to talk about faith as such, being much more easy to talk of coming into faith; so any discussion of the ethics of belief would be rare, if it exists at all. And faith as a virtue is a theological virtue: it is not wholly in the power of the believer. And so perhaps here we have moved from ethics into something else.

8. Much of what is called "ethics of belief" is legitimate. It is legitimate to investigate the duties of investigation. It is legitimate to investigate when we should and should not trust authority. It is legitimate to investigate where inference must end and supposition begin. It is legitimate to investigate all such related things. But, while they are conducive to a healthy reason, to call them "ethics of belief" is a misnomer. They are each something different, and none of them are really an ethics of belief.

9. For believing or not believing, as such, no one can be condemned, but only for such failings as obstinacy and presumption.

Butler's Influence on Newman

I found this interesting inasmuch as it shows the strong influence of Butler and 18th-century issues well into the 19th-century. From Apologia Pro Vita Sua ("History of My Religious Opinions up to 1833"):

It was about this date [1823], I suppose, that I read Bishop Butler's Analogy; the study of which has been to so many, as it was to me, an era in their religious opinions. Its inculcation of a visible Church, the oracle of truth and a pattern of sanctity, of the duties of external religion, and of the historical character Revelation, are characteristics of this great work which strike the reader at once; for myself, if I may attempt to determine what I most gained from it, it lay in two points, which I shall have an opportunity of dwelling on in the sequel; they are the underlying principles of a great portion of my teaching. First, the very idea of an analogy between separate works of God leads to the conclusion that the system which is of less importance is economically or sacramentally connected with the more momentous, and of this conclusion the theory, to which I was inclined as a boy, viz. the unreality of material phenomena, is an ultimate resolution. At this time I did not make the distinction between matter itself and its phenomena, which is so necessary and so obvious in discussing the subject. Secondly, Butler's doctrine that Probability is the guide of life, led me, at least under the teaching to which a few years later I was introduced, to the question of the logical cogency of Faith, on which I have written so much. Thus to Butler I trace those two principles of my teaching, which have led to a charge against me both of fancifulness and of scepticism.

The last sentence, I think, is a sort of defensive argument. The Apologia Pro Vita Sua is an apology in the old sense, i.e., a defense; and by tracing his view to Butler, certainly someone that no one could reasonably consider either fanciful or skeptical, he effectively defangs these charges against himself.

Later, in discussing Keble's The Christian Year, which had an immense influence on the religious atmosphere of the time, he says,

Butler teaches us that probability is the guide of life. The danger of this doctrine, in the case of many minds, is, its tendency to destroy in them absolute certainty, leading them to consider every conclusion a doubtful, and resolving truth into an opinion, which it is safe to obey or to profess, but not possible to embrace with full internal assent. If this were to be allowed, then the celebrated saying, "O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!" would be the highest measure of devotion:--but who can really pray to a Being, about whose existence he is seriously in doubt?

This problem certainly who cannot be laid at the door of Butler, who insists that probability is only one consideration among many; but Newman seems clearly to recognize that this is not a Butlerian problem, but a problem that has arisen "in the case of many minds" when they have taken up emphasizing probability as the guide of life.

What is interesting, however, is how Newman goes on to fuse Butler with Keble:

I considered that Mr. Keble met this difficulty by ascribing the firmness of assent which we give to religious doctrine, not to the probabilities which introduced it, but to the living power of faith and love which accepted it. In matters of religion, he seemed to say, it is not merely probability which makes us intellectually certain, but probability as it is put to account by faith and love. It is faith and love which give to probability a force which it has not in itself. Faith and love are directed towards an Object; in the vision of that Object they live; it is that Object, received in faith and love, which renders it reasonable to take probability as sufficent for internal conviction. Thus the argument about Probability, in the matter of religion, became an argument from Personality, which in fact is one form of the argument from Authority.

This move, if it could be made, would be an immensely important one; but Newman recognized that there were unresolved issues brought up by it (as he says, "It was beautiful and religious, but it did not even profess to be logical"), so he began to try to work it out more rigorously in his University Sermons, Essay on Ecclesiastical Miracles, and Essay on Development of Doctrine, in other words, the major works of his late Anglican period that led up to his conversion to Catholicism. Although he doesn't say so here, this line of thought still seems to me to be prominent in his Catholic period, e.g., in the brilliant Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. (I hope at some point in the future to look at this work and the critique of it in H. H. Price's interesting Gifford Lectures, Belief, and put up thoughts on it on this weblog.)

The Swedish Chef Does Malebranche. Bork bork bork!

What my thesis would read like if it were written by the Swedish Chef:

Zee furce-a ooff thees ergooment cun ieseely be-a meessed, su it mey perheps be-a useffool tu luuk et it mure-a clusely. Bork bork bork! [2] Sooppuse-a oooor vurld trefeler mufes sooccesseefely thruoogh pueents A, B, C, D, und I oon zee iert’s soorffece-a. In descreebing zee vhule-a juoorney he-a ixpects tu meke-a, he-a meeght vreete-a in hees juoornel:

<A, B, C, D, I, …> ,

thet is, “Furst A, zeen B, zeen C, zeen D, zeen I, und su oon. Bork bork bork!” Let us zeen cuntrest thees veet mufement elung zee x-exees ooff a Certeseeun greed. Bork bork bork! Ve-a meeght descreebe-a thees es:

<0, 1, 2, 3, 4, …>,

thet is, “Furst 0, zeen 1, zeen 2, zeen 3, zeen 4, und su oon. Bork bork bork!” Noo ve-a hefe-a un interesteeng cuntrest. Um de hur de hur de hur. In but descreepshuns ve-a hefe-a used zee illeepsis oor “und su oon” tu gestoore-a tu a cunteenooeshun ooff zee sereees. Um gesh dee bork, bork! Zee tvu gestoores hooefer, ere-a elmust pelpebly deefffferent. Um de hur de hur de hur. Zee “und su oon” ooff zee furst sereees is nut zee seme-a es zee “und su oon” ooff zee secund sereees. Um gesh dee bork, bork! Ve-a meeght poot zee deefffference-a by descreebing zee furmer es ‘indeffeenite-a’ und zee letter es ‘inffeenite-a’. Zee inffeenite-a is nut merely a gruoop ooff feenite-a theengs cumbeened veet a gestoore-a tooerd zeeur cunteenooeshun; it is sumetheeng thet cun be-a recugneezed oon its oovn veethuoot roonneeng thruoogh zee sereees. Um gesh dee bork, bork! Ve-a du nut need tu juoorney zee inture-a x-exees tu see-a thet it hes nu ind. Bork bork bork! Ve-a cunnut edeqooetely ixpleeen zee inffeenite-a by tekeeng a sereees ooff feenite-a theengs und recugneezing thet it cunteenooes; it moost cunteenooe-a in a perteecooler vey, nemely, un inffeenite-a vey. Bork bork bork! Zee inffeenite-a sereees dues nut joost cunteenooe-a; it cunteenooes inffeenitely. Bork bork bork! Thees ergooment serfes tu shoo us thet, feenite-a thuoogh ve-a mey be-a, ve-a du in sume-a vey perceeefe-a zee inffeenite-a. Melebrunche-a sooppurts thees cleeem veet a foorzeer cunseedereshun. Geumetry cleerly deels veet inffeenites (inffeenite-a leenes, inffeenite-a deefisibility, und su furt). Zee cleeems mede-a by geumeters, hooefer, ere-a nut tenteteefe-a joodgments besed oon treeel und irrur oor unelugy. Bork bork bork! Oonce-a yuoo understund zee mezeemeteecs, it is nut necessery tu test it oooot egeeenst zee feenite-a theengs ve-a feend in zee vurld eruoond us. Um gesh dee bork, bork! In mezeemeteecs zeere-a seems tu be-a sume-a sense-a in vheech ve-a seemply ‘see-a’ thet sumetheeng is inffeenite-a. [3] Zee cleeem thet ve-a, thuoogh feenite-a, reelly du in sume-a vey perceeefe-a zee inffeenite-a, is a vell-fuoonded oone-a.

Via The Dialectizer.