Saturday, November 13, 2004

Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves

An interesting essay on philosophical aggression by Norman Swartz (hat-tip: The Maverick Philosopher). Fortunately, I haven't seen very many of these incidents, although I've heard the stories; although I haven't ever seen any interactions along the lines that Swartz saw at GE, either. I'll have to work on bringing my own practice more in-line with that. In general I'm a sweetheart, and my first instinct on challenge is to back down, even when I'm sure I'm right. But I do tend to be less patient with people who think Aquinas, or Hume, or Descartes can be dismissed with a brief comment and a wave of the hand. Then my instinct is to 'go for the jugular'. I'm not sure why that is, unless it's the fact of dismissal itself.

I think for most people the aggression is actually just what you'd think - arrogance, either the frustrated arrogance of someone who wants to appear brilliant or the dogmatic arrogance of someone who thinks a different perspective than his own is merely intellectual perversity. Sometimes, I think, it's just argument-blinders - people getting too caught up in the argument (I've been guilty of that once or twice).

But I think the biggest problem is that we falsely tend to think that the primary unit of philosophy (so to speak) is the argument (in the logical sense) rather than the strategy or approach. In this I agree very much with the point of footnote # 3 in Swartz's essay.

A Further Thought (Added Later): I wonder if bloodsport syndrome comes about in part because of the nature of the discipline itself. People tend to want to trounce people who tread on their own discipline without adequate knowledge; perhaps the problem is that philosophy is so large and so interconnected that we are all intruding on each other's discipline, and tend all to regard each other like specialists might regard intruders from another discipline, rather than like colleagues from the same discipline. I don't know; it still wouldn't excuse it.

A Note on 'Determinism'

I keep intending to continue the series on why I believe there's free choice in a fairly robust sense. I'll get around to it. But a post at Clark's Mormon Metaphysics gives me a chance to clarify what I'm doing.

Essentially there has been a movement in recent years to bring the use of the term 'determinism' more in line with the way scientists had begun to use it. (Scientists began to use it by borrowing from philosophers; they changed the meaning.) I'm actually fairly in favor of this, generally speaking, because the scientific usage is complicating the philosophical discussion unnecessarily, and 'determinism' was never a particularly useful term, anyway. And we philosophers should be used to this sort of thing, anyway; it isn't the first time we've had to accommodate a re-definition by scientists of a technical philosophical term, and it won't be the last. The danger in all this, however, is thinking that the re-definition was because scientists had some special interest in the original philosophical dispute rather than its being what it really was: they just needed a term for something else, and that term seemed close enough for their purposes. (I'm not sure when it was borrowed; the online OED is not helpful - it doesn't have any citations relevant to the newer meaning. I suspect it occurred in German physics circles around the turn of the twentieth century, since their interest in Kant and Hume would explain why the word was put to the new service it was - Kant and Hume make a transition from talk about causes to talk about laws very easy. But that is just a guess.)

The original use of the term 'determinism' was for a thesis about causes; it was originally just called 'the doctrine of Necessity' (people started using 'determinism' as a synonym for this around the 1840s, I think). It's now more fashionable to reserve 'determinism' for talk about laws, and to distinguish it from talk about causes; doing this has a lot of advantages for discussions in philosophy of science. I don't really have any interest in most of the philosophical issues associated with this more recent usage of the term; they appear to be related to the original free will dispute only when certain assumptions are made about the relation between laws and causes. And in those cases, it is usually the causes that are the real issue anyway. Such is my view, at least. We really don't have any helpful terms for these issues, though; they've all been taken over for other purposes. I wouldn't mind going back to 'the doctrine of Necessity', but people wouldn't know what I was talking about. So I'll still use the term 'determinism' for the causal issues until I can think of a better word (or until I get 'doctrine of Necessity' to catch on!).

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Absentee Voting

If everyone else can go on and on and on about the election, so can I.

Here, in case any of you are conceivably interested, is the Unofficial Election Results page for the County in which I was registered. I am in Precinct 67 of Sandoval County (assuming my ballot was counted), which is the 'precinct' for absentee voters. New Mexico has been counting ballots at its own leisurely pace; all ballots are counted by hand. Kerry, interestingly, still could win New Mexico; we're only talking about a few thousand votes. At this point it's not really probable at all, but no one should assume Bush won the Land of Enchantment simply because the Associated Press says so. Media organizations are not part of the election process.

Sandoval County is directly north of Bernalillo County; Albuquerque is the county seat of Bernalillo County, while Bernalillo is the county seat of Sandoval County. Yes, that's as confusing as it sounds. It is directly west of Santa Fe County. Its largest city is Rio Rancho, the fourth largest city in New Mexico; that's where my parents lived when I last renewed my state ID (hence my registration there). Bernalillo and Sandoval Counties are Sandia Mountains country. Some of the neater cultural events are things like the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, in which every October people come from all over the world for ballooning competitions.

Incidentally, if the name 'Sandoval County' sounds familiar to you who have never lived in New Mexico (it probably doesn't, but if it does), this is probably why.

Lonergan on Possible Worlds

...our knowledge of possible worlds is, in general, no more than an inference from our knowledge of God....But because our understanding is not the unrestricted act, we are not in a position to go into details. Briefly, we are committed to the sobriety of Aquinas in the twenty-fifth question of the first part of his Summa theologiae, and we are led to reject as methodologically unsound the Scotist view that a question becomes scientific when it is raised with respect to all possible worlds. The fact is that a question then usually becomes indeterminable....

Bernard Lonergan, Insight, p. 702

I'm not sure how Scotist the methodology is, but it is certainly something requiring caution and sobriety. Possible worlds analysis makes, I think, a great many questions indeterminable.

Chemin de Jerusalem

A lovely post at "Hoarded Ordinaries" on Road to Jerusalem labyrinths, which symbolically substitute for pilgrimage. I've always been fascinated by these; I think what started the fascination was the use of one as a plot device in Rutherfurd's Sarum, which I read as a teenager - the great value of sprawling historical novels is that they introduce you to new things like that. (Hat-tip: Early Modern Notes.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Strategically Ignoring Glaring Problems

There is an interesting (and short!) paper here by Frank Wilczek which shows a bit of insight into scientific progress (and, indeed, I think any sort of progress with regard to a given problem). The key (and the hard part) is that there must be an emphasis on strategically ignoring problems.

(Hat-tip: prosthesis.)

Horror of Horrors

I keep intending to mention things in posts and keep forgetting actually to do it. One thing I wanted to mention about the night with the Brett Philosophy Club was the funniest comment(s) on Malebranche I've ever heard, from an Anglican vicar:

(after I discussed Malebranche's view of causation)
"He's virtually a Calvinist!"

(a few minutes later as I explained, in response to a question, Malebranche's epistemology)
"Oh no! It's even worse! He's virtually a Barthian!"

Well, I thought it was funny. I guess you had to be there.

Black on Hume on Coherence and Constancy

Here is an excellent paper on the distinction between coherence and constancy in Hume's Treatise 1.4.2, by Tim Black. (Hat-tip: OPP.) I have a particular interest in this subject; I delivered a paper on it at the international Hume Society meeting in 2003, which in part covered the same issue. I came to some conclusions that were similar, although I definitely didn't present it so neatly and well.

There are, however, a lot of things with which I disagree He says, for instance, that constant perceptions cannot cohere (footnote 34). I'd have to dig up the exact references, but I'm unconvinced by his reasoning for it; coherence can still be relevant in such cases because presumably one has had more than just perceptions of exactly the same thing. I also consider his reasoning for his 'radical proposal' simply wrong: the two statements he gives by Hume suggest the same thing from two different perspectives, not two different kinds of coherence-based beliefs in the external world. This is, I think, strongly suggested when we look at other places where Hume appeals to coherence. And I think he misunderstands what Hume means by "beyond the extent in which [the senses] really operate," which just means 'unperceived'. But he is certainly right about Price's interpretation of Hume, and the general approach is the one that's needed - the 'unified explanation approach' is simply wrong, despite its popularity.

What Black does not do, and needs to do, is to see how his interpretation of coherence in 1.4.2 fits with the use of similar principles in 1.2.4 on equality (Hume specifically refers back to this passage in 1.4.2). Any interpretation of the discussion of coherence in 1.4.2 must be consistent with what Hume says in 1.2.4 on how we get the idea of perfect equality. (This was essentially the topic of my paper - clarifying the 1.4.2 discussion in light of the 1.2.4 discussion. Were I to write it today, it would be rather different, since my view on some key matters has shifted; but the basic points are, I think, still right.) But it's great to see work actually being done to move away from the Pricean influence that has stunted much of the discussion of Hume's account of coherence-based belief in bodies that continue to exist unperceived.

A Thought on 'Counterfactuals'

I was thinking a bit about counterfactuals last night as I was in bed (and yes, I am such a geek that I go to sleep thinking about things like counterfactuals; the topic I was thinking about before that was the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and before that was a passage in Hume's essay on miracles - in other words, a long chain of geekiness). I was thinking of this one in particular:

1) If I were a Hindu, I would worship Shiva.

Suppose I said something like this. Not only am I not a Hindu, I can directly connect my preference for Shiva with a number of things in my personal history that would not at all have been likely to occur had I actually ever been a Hindu. What (1) really imports is not something about what I would do if I were actually a Hindu; its import is that I (now, as I am) see reasons for thinking a certain thing about Shiva-worship (what that thing is will depend on the context; it might be a comment implying that I think Shiva-worship is preferable to other sorts of Hindu worship, or that I think it more intelligible, or that I think it more in line with my temperament, or some such). In other words, although put idiomatically in a counterfactual form, what it really is set out to describe is something factual. I suspect something of this kind is also happening in the Martin Elginbrod counterfactual:

2) If Martin Elginbrod were the Lord God, and if the Lord God were Martin Elginbrod, Martin Elginbrod would have mercy on the Lord God.

In a sense, it's a curious way of recognizing that being the Lord God involves being merciful to people who aren't the Lord God, whomever they may be. Again, a counterfactual way of expressing something not intended as a counterfactual.

And this seems to apply to all counterfactuals of impossibility, e.g.,

3) If, per impossibile, two and two made five, nothing would be certain anymore.

This seems to be a way of suggesting that certainty depends in some way or another on two and two not making five. Or again:

4) If, per impossibile, cats were cows and cows were dogs, then cats would be dogs.

Which (the one time I have ever used it in actual discussion) is simply to state something about logical form.

I'm sure someone else has noted it; I can't imagine that it would go unnoticed. But it's a helpful reminder that there are 'counterfactuals' that are not counterfactuals.

UPDATE: For those coming to this discussion from search engines using the search term 'counterfactual', see Chris's blog, "Mixing Memory," here.

The Pretorian Guard of Tyranny

There are some ways of being bound by the social whole and in the social whole--in other words, some forms of sociability--which give the group such a power over the nonrational faculties that a practical judgment contrary to the collective imperatives becomes physically impossible: a host of images and emotions keeps a watch on the threshold of consciousness in order to prevent the construction of such a judgment. The dream of every tyranny is to systematize this form of sociability and to establish in the soul of everyone a pretorian guard over nonrational forces in order to assure the safety of the regime and its smooth operation by destroying the deep center of all freedom, viz., the indifference of the practical judgment.

Yves R. Simon, Freedom of Choice, pp. 126-127.

'Indifference of the practical judgment' means here 'the ability of practical judgment to go more ways than one'. And strictly speaking, Simon shouldn't have, by his own lights, have said 'destroying' but something like 'circumventing'. But I thought this passage was rather perceptive.

Also Readworthy

Ad Limina Apostolorum has a good post on miracles. I've been intending for some time to post on Lady Mary Shepherd's critique of Hume's position on miracles - as one might expect, it's brilliant enough that it should be better known. Perhaps I'll do a series of posts on the miracles debate in the early modern period. In the meantime I still have a series of posts on free will that needs to be started up again....

At the same weblog, you should also check out the posts on Origen on spiritual senses. Part I, Part II.

The Christian Carnival for November 3 is up at King of Fools; I forget what number it is. I especially recommend Rebecca's post on grace, and 21st Century Reformation's post on the Prodigal Son.

There's also a post on virtues at Disputations that's worth reading.

And at Fides Quaerens Intellectum a series has begun on one formulation of the problem of evil.

Apocalyptic Destruction, Pascal-style

A readworthy story at "Blargh Blog".

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

HoP Survey Courses

There is an interesting post at "Metatome" on whether history of philosophy survey courses are good ways to educate undergraduates. My view:

They absolutely are. The problems noted in the post are quite real; but they arise not from the courses themselves, but from the utterly absurd and perverse mode of thinking in which HoP survey courses are considered suitable for introductory-level students. They are not. Had I my way, the standard curriculum would look more like this:

1. Intro Courses (thematically arranged survey courses)
2. More specialized thematic courses.
3. HoP survey courses (general and hybridized with 2)
4. More specialized HoP courses.

The fact of the matter is, history of philosophy is harder to get one's mind around than a more thematic subject is, precisely because there are vastly more factors in play. And another reason it makes more sense to do it this way is that very few thematic courses actually tap into all that much history of philosophy - certainly nothing that can't be gleaned from a quick refresher. Students should first be introduced to particular patterns of thought on particular issues, and then should be hit with heavy-HoP courses to let them see just how much more there is out there, to introduce them to new patterns of thought, to give them a chance to start using what they've already learned to enter into new fields of thought, to give them a better grasp of how certain presuppositions have come about.

Another reason it makes sense to do it this way is that HoP actually requires additional skills beyond those that 'philosophical problems' courses require - skills suited particularly to the historical approach itself. Ideally, it is this that should be learned in HoP survey; and this requires that students already have learned more basic skills in previous courses. Using HoP survey as a general introductory course makes this impossible; and the failure to transmit those skills puts the department in danger of churning out students whose understanding of the greatest representatives of their discipline is superficial and undeveloped.

But then, I'm a HoP person myself; the HoP survey course I think would be even a merely adequate HoP survey course is rather more advanced than what everyone seems to expect from these courses.

More on Shepherd on Causation

I think Shepherd's positive view of causation can be captured by thinking of it as an account, for any given thing, of the structural or constitutive causes of its changing the way it does or being the way it is. It is, of course, silly to assume (although sometimes it does seem to be assumed) that everything we call 'causation' will necessarily count as causation in the same way; even if Shepherd's view doesn't cover all causation (and I don't think it does), it nonetheless captures an important region of our causal reasoning to a high degree of fidelity. Here's a way to see the big picture of what she is doing.

1. Let's suppose there is a great big glob of bread dough on the counter. This glob of bread dough has what Shepherd calls 'qualities', but which I will call 'features' (because 'qualities' is potentially confusing). The whole set of features, and their relations to each other, in some sense is the bread dough.

2. Now suppose you punch your fist into the dough and leave an impression. Your fist has features, too; and the whole set of the features of your fist, given how they are related to each other, is, in some sense, your fist.

3. Now suppose you want a causal explanation of why the bread dough has the impression it does. There are a number of things you could be wanting in this case, but one thing that might satisfy you is an account of all the relevant features of the dough, all the relevant features of the fist, and how these features shift and change relative to each other. So, in this case, facts about the nature and consistency of dough (to whatever degree of specificity you want), facts about the nature, shape, and firmness of your hand (to whatever degree of specificity you want), and facts about how these features interact as your fist is plunging into the dough to result in the impression (to whatever degree of specificity you want).

I think it is clear that this is, in fact, the sort of thing we would want to know, at least in some cases, if we asked for a causal explanation of the impression in the bread dough. This is a case of change; let's take a static case.

1. Let's suppose you have a cup on a table. The cup has features (and the whole collection of those features is the cup); the table has features (and the whole collection of those features is the table).

2. Let's suppose you want an explanation for why the system is the way it is (e.g., why the cup is on the table rather than falling through it). Again, there are a number of things that you could be wanting here, but one of the things could be this: an account of the features of the table, and the features of the cup, and how they are related to each other, such that the cup has to be the way it is (on the table rather than falling through it).

NB: In this case we can either be taking the system diachronically (why the cup-table system is the way it is through time) or synchronically (why the cup-table system is the way it is at a given time).

Again, I think it is clear that this is the sort of thing we sometimes really are asking for when we ask for a causal explanation. The dough case is about how all the features involved cause the change to be the way it is; the cup case is about how all the features involved cause the system to be the way it is. Hence we are identifying the structural or constitutive cause of the system through time or at a time.

And note that Shepherd is exactly right that this allows us to regard the form of reasoning in these cases as analytic and necessary. By 'form of reasoning' I wish to highlight that not all causal explanations of this kind are necessary, but that the general logical form of the reasoning can be put in necessary terms. In a sense what we have is an equation:

(LMS) S = (a #1 b #2 c ...)

Where S is the system changing or remaining the same, and a, b, c, &c. are the features of the system, while #'s are the various interrelations of the features. Both sides of the equation are necessarily the same, but our knowledge of the features and interrelations on the right-hand side can be more or less extensive. For instance, we can tell the system is changing (e.g., if the cup is falling through the table), but there might be features of the system we have not yet identified.

This sort of causal reasoning, therefore, works just like the application of mathematics or the balancing of chemical equations (Shepherd uses analogies to both mathematics and chemistry). Given that (LMS) is necessarily true, we can conclude, from any change that there must be a (constitutive) cause of the change. And this is also necessarily true. If we change one side of the equation, we must necessarily change the other side to preserve the equality. If we know the system is changing (through sense-experience, for instance), we can (and do) immediately conclude that there is something changing in the features of the system. (LMS) does not tell us what all those features are; it is a description of the form of constitutive-causal reasoning. The precise details of what the system is, and what the features are, have to be filled in, e.g., by scientific investigation. This is why (LMS) does a great job capturing much of what is going on in certain types of laws involving 'ceteris paribus' clauses. Given (LMS) we can also divide the right-hand side of the equation into (known features & interrelations) + (unknown features & interrelations). And this allows us to have add all sorts of various qualifications to our causal inferences.

Cones, Rods, and Brain Cells

A report of a very cool scientific discovery here. I confess I'm always a little worried about distortions in press releases; after all, if the person who wrote it gets Darwin not quite right (the press release is a little off in characterizing what Darwin said) when anyone can look up what Darwin actually says, what's to prevent them from not characterizing the discovery quite right, when it took technical efforts to discover it? But even compensating for possible distortion in how it is expressed to the public, it's an awesome sort of discovery.

(Hat-tip to Oscar Chamberlain at Cliopatria.)

UPDATE: Pharyngula gives some of specification you can't get in a brief press release.

UPDATE 2: I intended to put a link to the post in which I had already, in another context, put up the Darwin quotation. You can find it here.

Monday, November 08, 2004

A Bit of Unexpected Shepherd

The Brett Philosophy Club at Trinity College here has asked me to deliver a paper; had I realized how busy I'd be at this time, I probably would have declined. Nonetheless, I'm very glad I did it; it was an enjoyable experience. I presented a paper on how Malebranche's attempt to eradicate what he considered to be philosophical idolatry (causal powers accounts of causation, as applied to creatures) led him to develop a subordinate theory based on causal law (because he held that only God could have real causal powers), briefly ending by pointing out that Hume was influenced by the final result. In other words, arguments Hume uses for epistemological ends (what can we know about causation) Malebranche had used for ethical ends (how can we avoid being pagan and immoral in what we attribute to bodies). It gave me a chance to adapt parts of chapter three of my thesis, and to do something in Hume, which is always nice. I realized four things, though:

1) I need to be more careful in question-and-answer situations. In answering a question about Hume's position, I brought up Lady Mary Shepherd's position as an example of how one might, while doing the same general thing Hume is doing, build a very different causal theory. From then on, most of the questions were about Shepherd; which I hadn't expected, and I spent the greater part of two hours arguing that Shepherd's critique of Hume was powerful and significant to a room largely filled with convinced Humeans. That is an exhausting endeavor. I should also have let the argument slide after a while; there's no point in trying to convince people who have never read Shepherd that a basic summary of her system shows that Hume hadn't thought of everything in his analysis. Just clear up obvious misunderstandings, and leave it at that. Alas, that's hard to do: irenic in temper, I am nonetheless utterly argumentative in my style of reasoning. And it is the latter that naturally comes up in these question-and-answer periods. So I need to take greater control of question-and-answer sessions, and keep them more on point. I can generally do this in a class; but then my ability to argue for two hours about Mary Shepherd is radically limited by the constraints of a classroom. Those constraints largely vanish outside that context. Lesson: Take greater control of the situation. It's probably also not a good idea to bring up philosophers people have never heard of in order to explain a point (although in my defense I needed some example of someone doing something generally like what Hume is doing who in particulars took a radically different path that did not involve claims deriving from Malebranche's occasionalism; and besides Shepherd there really isn't anyone).

2) I need to worry about my volume. For some reason I have very little natural ability to determine what the volume of my voice is when it is coming out of my mouth; I have to infer it from things like echoes and vibration in the chest and throat. If I know where my volume is, I can adjust it up or down; but it moves on its own. So, by slow increments, if I'm not paying specific attention to my volume, I'll end up shouting or speaking in a quiet voice like you might use in talking privately to someone right next to you. That makes it sound weird; it really isn't all that weird - but I do, if I'm not careful, end up speaking too loudly or too softly. (I'm afraid I accidentally came close to shouting someone down, not because I intended to, but simply because my objection came out much louder than I intended. Fortunately, they were into the argument enough that I don't think they were too startled.) Lesson: Pay more attention to volume.

3) On explaining Lady Mary Shepherd. From several discussions, I've learned that the two best reference points for explaining her causal views are Hume and Aristotle. So the next time I am explaining Shepherd's view to people who have never heard her, I need to do the following:

If discussing the critical aspect of her theory, explain how she is doing the same basic thing as Hume but arguing that he is doing it incorrectly.

If discussing the positive aspect of her theory, point out that it can be seen as a very generalized view of the Aristotelian causes, with such-and-such differences (it's a bit more mechanistic in structure, for instance).

Lesson: Hume and Aristotle are better ways of explaining Shepherd than Shepherd herself. And that's not really surprising; no one's ever read, and few have ever heard, of Shepherd, who has a very complicated theory of causation that had very little influence that's hard to boil down to a few intuitive bits (its strength is the way it all fits together, and the way it accords with the facts as a complete system). But Hume and Aristotle are easier to put in simple terms close to the way people usually think about these things, because both have had immense influence on that way of thinking.

4) On Malebranche, I'm a little worried that people (particular those of naturalistic or secular bent) might not find my conclusions very interesting - after all, they require us to say that if you look at an aspect of Malebranche's system without examining what theological doctrines it presupposes, you are distorting the system massively: Malebranche sees everything he is doing as Christian philosophy, and everything philosophical is intended to approximate, in one way or another, Catholic theological doctrines. (The fact that Malebranche's causal theory is primarily an ethical theory about our relationship with God, the point I talked about tonight, is an example of this.) But whenever I talk to people about this, they are always fascinated by it. Granted, they probably leave feeling that Malebranche was something of a loon; but it presents such a very different way of looking at the world that they find it endlessly fascinating. People (especially philosophically minded people) don't have problems with exploring even a radically different perspective. It's great exercise. Lesson: Don't worry about whether anyone will find something interesting; worry about whether they'll find it intelligible, because given that an interested audience is not hard to build.

I have a jillion things I have to do by Wednesday. But I'm just going to do a few of them tonight, then go home to bed.

Social Justice

I'm extremely busy today, but I wanted to say something briefly about this post (link via Crooked Timber). The author says:

The right question, I think, is not whether religion has an undue influence, but why it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the first time ever, _virtually no element of social justice_? Why is its public phase so exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior? Is this caused by trends in the nature of religious worship itself? Is it a displacement of economic or social pressures? Will that change? What are the factors that might cause it to change?

I don't think this is quite the right question, although it is close. Having attended a Catholic college for my undergraduate I heard practically nothing but social justice for the three years I was there. The author is explicitly thinking of American Protestantism; but I'm not sure that this time around we can make a sharp distinction between Protestants and Catholics in terms of the flourishing of religious faith. Catholics, to be sure, talk a great deal more about social justice than Protestants do; but they are at least there as a sign that it is not going on without an element of social justice - the question is not why social justice is not there, the question is why so many Protestants are missing out on it.

It is worth noting, incidentally, that several of the trackbacks to the author's post (or to the derivative post at Crooked Timber) ignore the fact that he is talking about Protestantism, and treat it as a general question about 'the religious right' or 'Christianity'. This would make it a nonsense question.

It is interesting to look at the Crooked Timber post, though, and realize that whatever the CT folks mean by it, they mean something much, much, much narrower than the comprehensive Catholic project, which includes, and has included since Rosmini and others first introduced the term 'social justice', state defense of human rights, universal Christian charity, and moral economy as its main elements. The reason why conservative Catholics are becoming so vehemently pro-life in their politics is that they see it as a social justice issue - like the restriction or abolition of the death penalty, the living wage, and the like. It is a cause, I think, of some recent shifts in Catholic support from the Democrats to the Republicans: it is a very reluctant shift, forced by the fact that many Catholics are having a harder time seeing the Democratic party as standing for the most important elements of social justice - so they end up voting Republican on the basis of particular social justice issues they think important, but which they have difficulty finding with the Democrats.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

An Entirely Different Side of Aquinas

I came upon this by accident, and thought it hilarious....

Scopes and Populism

I've said before (although not here) that the reason for the durability of what occasionally goes by the name of 'creation science' is not religious but ethico-political; it is, at root, a populist protest against a set of ethical worldviews that have historically made appeals to evolutionary theory. (Those appeals have always been just as illegitimate as, but much more fashionable than, the various appeals of 'creation science'; this is yet another way in which following imaginative association rather than rational inference has messed up the social conversation on this issue.) My full reasons for thinking this are too complicated to set here, but Jim Lindgren at "The Volokh Conspiracy" has a discussion of the issues in the Scopes trial that hints at some of them.

Pascal's Wager: A Dialogue

Richard at "Philosophy, et cetera" has an interesting post on Pascal's Wager. Richard interprets the wager as having the following form:

1) There is a non-zero possibility of receiving an infinite reward (everlasting joy in heaven) if and only if you believe in God.
2) Infinity multiplied by any non-zero real number is still infinite.
3) Since Expected utility = Reward * Probability, the expected utility of believing in God is infinite, whereas the expected utility of disbelief will be finite. [From 1 & 2]
4) As a matter of practical reason, you ought to act in such a way as to maximize your expected utility.
C) Therefore, you ought to believe in God (or act in ways that will help you to develop such a belief).

This is an interesting argument in itself; although it's worth noting that it's not a wager but a utilitarian ethical argument. I think, however, Pascal's Wager is rather different. So here are my current thoughts on the subject. A caveat before starting out: Pascal's Wager is found in the Pensées; since the Pensées are fragments, we face something of the same problem with interpreting Pascal's argument that we do with interpreting any fragmentary text. In particular, we have to guess the actual context and point of the argument from the other fragments. Further, the fragments we have are just notes - they are not fragments of a developed text but fragmentary notes for a text that was never written. (You can go here for the main texts.)

The Wager is expressed dialectically, so it needs to be broken down into its dialectical elements to be interpreted properly. (Indeed, it is virtually certain from the way the Wager fragments are organized that Pascal intended to write it as a dialogue; failure to recognize this has been one of the most common vitiating factors in attempts to interpret it.) Unfortunately, because we are dealing with fragmentary notes, we have to reconstruct a bit. Here's my rough-draft attempt at a reconstruction/paraphrase that stays close to Pascal's actual notes.

Let us now speak according to natural lights. (Context)

A: We cannot know if God is or what He is, for we have no affinity to the infinite and incomprehensible. If this is so, who will dare try to decide the question of whether God exists? Not us.

B: But if we can't decide the question, how could one blame Christians for not giving a reason for their belief? After all, they don't claim to be able to prove the mysteries of God; and yet, despite not considering the question decidable yourself, you blame them for not giving proofs!

A: Well, yes, they don't claim to be able to prove divine mysteries, so fair enough on that point. But this still doesn't excuse people who believe what Christians are claiming.

B: Let's look at this point. The question is whether God is or is not. But we are already presupposing that reason can't decide this issue. "A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up." So what will you wager? According to reason, there isn't any basis either way (according to our supposition). So you really have no right to reprove people for having made a choice without proof; you yourself admit that you don't know anything more than they do.

A: True; but I don't blame them for having chosen to believe that God exists, but for having chosen at all rather than suspending judgment. Whether you choose heads or choose tails, you are still in the wrong. "The true course is not to wager."

B: Ah, but that really doesn't seem to be an option. [Admitting a choice, you have already embarked on thinking through the wager, which involves considering what you might wager.] So what would you choose? On the assumption that you must choose, let's see what's less in your interest. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; two things to stake, knowledge (pertaining to reason) and happiness (pertaining to will); two things you are trying to avoid, error and misery. By our supposition, reason isn't shocked at either of the options available, and we have to choose anyway. Let us estimate the gain and loss of happiness in wagering whether God is. If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing. So wager that God is.

A: OK, let's go with that for the moment. Even then we are still faced with a problem, since gain and loss is not the only thing to consider in a wager. We also must consider how much we are wagering. Even if I must wager, I might end up wagering too much.

B: Let's consider that. Since by our supposition we have no particular reason to choose either side over the other, if we wagered one life of happiness for the possibility of gaining two lives of happiness, we still could wager. If we stood three lives to gain, however, on our supposition that we must play, and on our supposition that reason is indeterminate on the issue (which implies that for all we know the chance of gain on either side is equal), we would be stupid not to wager one life of happiness for the chance of gaining three lives of happiness. But suppose there are infinite lives of happiness on the table. Since we can be right to wager one life of happiness against two, and since it would be stupid to wager one life of happiness against three, what shall we say about wagering one life of happiness against infinite lives? What we stake is finite. What we can gain is infinite. So long as we don't stand an infinite to lose, the reasonable thing is to wager everything on the chance of infinite gain. And it doesn't seem that we have anything to lose.

A: But it isn't certain whether we will gain anything, whereas it is quite certain that we are risking something. There is, as it were an infinite uncertainty about our gain, and this cancels out any reasonableness in risking what we are certainly risking.

B: Not so. Everyone is staking something certain for something uncertain; but we are weighing a finite certainty (our stake) against a finite uncertainty of gain. Uncertainty of the gain is related to the chances of gain and loss; and this, on our previous supposition, is for all practical purposes even. Reason has not shown us any more chances on one side than on the other - this is what started us off. So our game is one of finite risk, equal risk of loss and gain, and infinite possible gain. "This is demonstrable; and if men are capable of any truths, this is one."

A: OK; but it would still be better if we could see the cards - get some sort of inside tip to help us make a better bet.

B: And so we can; we have things like Scripture and all the things to which Christians appeal.

A: Yes, but if I must wager, I'm in a bind. I simply am not made so that I can believe these sorts of things.

B: Then at least learn what's involved in your inability to believe. The issue is a matter of passion, emotion, rather than reason, for reason allows one to believe, but you cannot believe. This is a disease that can be cured. See if you can become convinced, not by piling arguments on top of each other, but by getting your passions under control. The remedy for unbelief is to do what others in your place have done. If you do what they have done, getting involved in the spiritual disciplines that abate the control of the passions over us - attending mass regularly, taking the holy water, or whatever - then this will fix your problem and bring you naturally to believe.

A: But this is what I'm afraid of.

B: Why? What do you have to lose? Your stumblingblocks here are your passions, not your reason; your emotions are getting in the way. And doing these sorts of things is precisely what will lessen your slavery to your passions.

[They continue to discuss this issue a bit, talking about what is really lost and won through these spiritual disciplines. We now come to the end.]

B: What harm will come from taking this side? Due to this spiritual discipline, "you will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful." To be sure, you'll lose out on those poisonous pleasures of fame and luxury, but surely these other things more than compensate. By doing these things you will gain so much in this life, and you will see so great a certainty of gain at every step you take, and you will see that what you lose will be so worthless, that you will at last recognize that your risk is virtually nothing, whereas your gain was actually certain and infinite all along.

A: That is a very charming idea!

B: If this pleases you or seems impressive in any way, know that it is made by a man who, before and after, has knelt in prayer to that infinite Being before whom he lays all he has, asking that you in your doubts may be given such strength that you, too, can lay down before Him everything you have for your own good and His glory.