Friday, December 10, 2004

Poetry Carnival

I intended to post this yesterday, but forgot. Briefly stopping by Richard's blog today reminded me. Dan Weasel of Philosophical Poetry is putting together a Poetry Carnival. So, if you have any poetic tendencies, stop by the webpage and see whether you want to contribute something.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Going Home

I was going to put up a few more pages on Lady Mary Shepherd and William Whewell at H.L., but since I have a headache, I'm going home. Let me know what you think of the current pages, though. It's up to three pages for LMS and two for WW; I hope to start putting in some sort of commentary apparatus next week.

Lady Mary Shepherd

William Whewell

(All the pages can be reached from the sidebar menus at these two sites.)

Future pages that will be added will include Whewell's discussion of why the utilitarian's principle of utility is like the principle of least action, a discussion of the role of law in morality, and Shepherd on the existence of God.

One of the reason I am interested in Whewell's moral philosophy, by the way, is that he provides a powerful set of responses to utilitarianism, or, as I like to call it (usually to annoy utilitarians), moral Paleyanism or moral design theory. But more generally, it really is something of a travesty that in our current education of philosophy students in ethics they have all heard of Bentham and never heard of Whewell, despite the fact that Whewell has ten times the philosophical genius of Bentham.

Are There Degrees of Assent?

In ECHU IV.15.2, John Locke introduces the notion of 'degrees of assent'. On the basis of this notion he formulates his claim in IV.16.1 that the degrees of assent should be regulated by the degrees of probability. This is a fairly common view in modern philosophy; you can call to mind, for instance, Hume's famous saying, "The wise man proportions his belief to the evidence," which Hume means quite literally: the degree of belief should match the degree of evidence. Is it true, however?

J. H. Newman, in his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, argues that it is not, by arguing that there are no degrees of assent. I'll look a bit at this argument. Some terminological issues, first. Newman makes a distinction between assent and inference as ways in which claims or propositions can be accepted. The idea is that inference is conditional: it is the connecting of claims to each other. In inference one accepts something's following as a conclusion rather than in itself. Assent has to do with the acceptance of the claim itself; and the question of the degrees of assent is whether this acceptance mirrors or echoes inference or not. This is because the connection of a thing with its evidence is precisely what inference is. Newman distinguishes two sorts of assent; they differ not in degree of assent but in the vividness or forcefulness of the thing to which one assents. In notional assent one assents to something taken notionally or abstractly; in real assent, which Newman also calls belief, one assents to it taken as psychologically powerful and living. What distinguishes notional from real assent is that when a proposition is assented to really, it is taken as something personal and important, whereas a proposition notionally assented to is not.

Now, to Newman's argument.

1) First we need to see how assent is distinguished from inference at all. Newman argues that Locke's claims would in effect make assent indistinguishable from inference, or, at best, a superfluous echo. So the degrees-of-assent view, as put forward by Locke, raises the question of whether there is properly any such thing as assent at all. If, however, there is reason to think assent something distinct from inference, this suggests that Locke's view is wrong. So Newman suggests six points on this issue.

1a) Assents may endure without the presence of the inferential acts that originally elicited them. We may assent to something long after we have forgotten why we did so.

1b) Without tangible reason, assents may fail while the inferential acts that originally elicited them endure.

1c) Sometimes assent is not given in spite of strong and convincing arguments.

1d) There are many cases in which the arguments, good as they may be, nonetheless do not incline us toward the position at all. We see this in implicit and explicit uses of 'burden of proof': 'burden of proof' essentially throws all the weight on one side. In such cases we do not assent a little bit in proportion to the evidence; we simply do not assent at all.

1e) Moral and psychological motives may hinder assent to logical conclusions. We can infer against our will, but, as the saying goes, 'a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.'

1f) Even in the province of mathematics assent and inference must be contrasted. Simple mathematical arguments often command assent straightway; but we are often more cautious about complicated mathematical arguments. Likewise, party feeling and the like have often slowed the acceptance of mathematical conclusions. Likewise, a mathematician might well make it a rule not to accept a mathematical argument that has not been corroborated by someone else, even if he is fairly sure that the argument is sound. And so forth. Even demonstration is not ipso facto assent.

Thus there is good reason to believe that inference and assent are distinct acts of mind that can be made apart from each other. This does not mean that there is no connection between the two; but one may well be had without the other.

2) If inference and assent are distinct, however, we can ask how they are distinguishable. There are some basic prima facie reasons to think that the categorical, unconditional nature of assent is precisely what distinguishes the two:

2a)Given that inference is conditional and non-categorical, we have some reason to think that assent would be unconditional and categorical.

2b)Further, If assent is acceptance of something as true, and if we do not accept conditionally what we think to be true, then we have another reason for thinking assent to be categorical, straightforward adherence to the claim itself.

2c)Further, inference is always inference, even when demonstrative. It makes sense to say that assent gives categorical and absolute recognition to conclusions held by demonstrative inference, beyond the accepting of them merely inferentially, i.e., merely in virtue of their linkage with other propositions. If assent is categorical in such a case, however, we would need a good reason to think it is not categorical in other cases.

But we can go further and ask whether assent is conditional in concrete as well as abstract, demonstrative cases. There are, Newman thinks, many cases in which we accept claims without really assenting to them. For instance, we suspect them to be true, we conjecture that they might be true, we presume on the basis of what we know that they are true, we conclude they are true, etc. But these are not assents but inferences; they involve propositions insofar as they are connected with other propositions evidentially, and need not be considered assent at all. We can, of course, assent to the probability of something's being true or false; but this is not a degree of assent, but an assent to a degree of probability, which is not the same. In assent, we simply accept the claim; and it seems difficult to find any case of assent in which any 'degrees' that may not be more accurately attributed to things beside the assent itself.

3) So, looking at the facts, we find many cases in which we infer without assenting, and no cases in which it is clear that the assent is conditional; we also can find many cases in which it is clear that the assent is unconditional, even though the cases admit of no reasoning more certain than the probabilistic. And what is more, it seems to be, by a sort of unanimous witness of the human mind, a strong evidence that there is no medium, no tertium quid, between assenting and not assenting. What sorts of unconditional assents in probabilistic matters can we find? Here's Newman's list:

3a) that we exist;
3b) that we have an individuality and an identity all our own;
3c) that we think, feel, and act;
3d) that we have a present sense of good and evil, of right and wrong, of true and false, of beautiful and hideous, whatever account we may have of this;
3e) that such-and-such happened yesterday or last year;
3f) that of many things we are ignorant;
3g) that of many things we are in doubt;
3h) that of many things we are not in doubt;
3i) that our own self is not the only being existing;
3j) that there is an external world;
3k) that the world is a system with parts and a whole, a universe carried on by laws;
3l) that the future is affected by the past;
3m) that the earth is a globe;
3n) that the regions of the earth see the sun by turns;
3o) that vast tracts of the earth are land or water;
3p) that there are really existing cities on definite sites, like London, Paris, Florence, and Madrid;
3q) that, unless something has happened to them like an earthquake or terrible fire, these cities are today much what they were yesterday;
3r) that we had parents (despite having no memory of our birth);
3s) that we shall die (despite the uncertainty of the future);
3t) that we cannot live without food (despite never having tried);
3u) that the world of men has a history that precedes our time considerably (despite our not having experienced it);
3v) that there have been rises and falls of states, great men, wars, revolutions, art, science, literature, religion;
3w) that our intimate friends are not being treacherous to us;
3x) sometimes that someone is hostile and unjust to us;
3y) that we have sometimes been cruel or unkind to others, or that we have sometimes been ungenerous to those who loved us;
3z) that that we have moral weaknesses and that our wealth, health, position, and good fortune can be precarious;
3aa) that we have such-and-such physical weaknesses or flaws;
3ab) that such-and-such food or medicine is good for us;
3ac) that such-and-such food or medicine would harm us;
3ad) that we have made such-and-such mistakes, or gone through such-and-such major turningpoints, or had such-and-such successes;
3ae) perhaps that we have a sense of the presence of a Supreme Being;
3af) perhaps our religious beliefs;

And so forth. And in these cases, despite the fact we cannot prove them with perfect certainty, in our practical lives we simply accept them as true. We may be wrong in accepting some of them; but no one feels guilty for just simply assenting to them despite this possibility. No one is worried that their unhesitating and unqualified assent to the claim that so-and-so is their mother is not something they can back up with rigorous demonstration. Now, unless there is something fundamentally irrational about the way we think, simple assent to non-demonstrated conclusions cannot be irrational. There is no reason why we should not simply accept that Great Britain is an island, even if we cannot prove it beyond the shadow of any doubt. And Locke himself effectively admits this in several places.

4) Now, people sometimes accept the degrees-of-assent view because of some ways in which we tend to talk about the subject. So what is really going on in these cases?

4a) Take claims of modified assent, qualified assent, presumptive assent, prima facie assent, or half-assent. Newman explains many of these as indicating the difference between notional assent and real assent; in some cases we are not genuinely assenting at all; some are indications of the conditions that need to be put on the claim before we will assent to it.

4b) Sometimes we talk about conditional assent; and this, again, means we think we will assent under certain contingencies or conditions.

4c) Sometimes we are simply talking about the circumstances of assent.

4d) When we use phrases like 'firm assent' or 'weak assent', but again it can be shown that either these are differences in that to which we are assenting, or in the concomitants or circumstances of assent (e.g., our feelings about what we are assenting to, or how much it sparks our imagination).

Such is Newman's argument, stripped down a bit. H. H. Price in his Gifford Lectures, Belief, argues against Newman on this point. Unfortunately, Price's argument, although in places insightful, never really takes the trouble to fix what Newman's argument actually is, and so is a bit all over the place. Price claims that if Locke's position is false, "our human condition must be both more miserable and more intellectually disreptuable than we commonly suppose" (p. 133). He glosses the former in a later passage:

It would be more miserable, because we so often need to be able to assent to propositions on evidence which is far less than conclusive; and therefore we need to be able to assent to them with something far less than total or unreserved self-commitment, if we are to have any guidance. (p.155)

But one may assent to something without "total or unreserved self-commitment"; many notion assents are of this sort, because they do not introduce the right sort of concomitants (the additional feelings and imaginations beyond assent that make what we are assenting to seem more than a mere abstract claim). Contrary to Price's account of Newman, Newman does allow we can assent to something with less than total or unreserved self-commitment; but the issue of self-commitment goes way beyond assent, since (as one might guess from the name alone) it involves the whole person. And we may assent without committing ourselves entirely to the truth of that to which we are assenting. I may categorically assent to the claim "Great Britain is an island" without thereby committing myself to live or die in defense of that truth, and without committing myself to staking my life on the truth of the claim. But nothing in this requires that the assent itself be tentative or conditional; I don't merely accept "Great Britain is an island" insofar as it is evidentially linked with such-and-such other propositions. I simply accept it as true. I can think of other propositions to link it to, of course; but this is not involved in my assent to it.

Price further glosses his claim:

If Newman were right, our situation would also be more intellectually-disreputable than we commonly suppose. In such circumstances, where we have evidence which is less than conclusive, only two alternatives would be open to us: either complete suspense of judgement, or else an assent of the all-or-nothing ('unconditional') sort, which would be unreasonable, because nothing short of conclusive evidence could justify it. (p. 155)

But why in the world would one accept this claim? Locke himself, for instance, does not; Newman's argument isn't devoted to criticizing Locke alone, but this is one of the strengths of Newman's argument if taken as a criticism of Locke. Locke admits that there are cases in which it can be perfectly reasonable to accept as certain what we cannot prove to be certain; and he thinks, rightly, that demanding otherwise is unreasonable. Most of us do not have a demonstration showing with conclusive evidence that the sun will rise tomorrow; however, we assent to the claim unconditionally. And, indeed, isn't it more reasonable to think this reasonable than to think that we could only assent to the claim "in an intellectually reputable" way if we could rigorously demonstrate it? Price goes on to say:

When our evidence for a proposition, though not conclusive, is favourable, or favourable on balance when any unfavourable evidence there may be is taken into account, we can assent to that proposition with a limited degree of confidence; and we can then conduct our intelletual and practical activities 'in light of' the proposition, though not without some degree of doubt or mental reservation. (p. 156)

Newman has no problem with this, and it does not show that assent comes in degrees. All it shows that a claim's relation to other claims admits of degrees, and we can recognize that. Newman allows that we can assent to something's being only-so-probable; but again, this is not the same thing as assenting-only-so-much. You can assent categorically and simply to something's being only-so-probable, an act 'in light of' that proposition. Likewise, there is nothing to prevent one from acting in light of inferences, i.e., things accepted only in virtue of their relation to another conclusion, even one does not assent to them. (E.g. a person may infer that God exists if such-and-such is true, but not assent to it, and still may hedge his bets in matters where God is concerned, for precisely the reason that such-and-such could conceivably turn out to be true.) So Price is not giving Newman's view the credit for the flexibility it actually has.

In short, Price has it exactly backwards. Our human condition is only miserable and intellectually disreputable if Locke's claims are true. Locke's claims, so far from being essential for being reasonable, make unreasonable things that are obviously reasonable. If they were true, we would all be breaking Locke's rule about assent every day, in a myriad of situations. We couldn't help ourselves, first, because it would be impossible for us to follow Locke's claim, and, second, because it would be unreasonable for us to do so. Further, we have very little evidence on which to base the claim that assent comes in degrees; so if Locke's rule should be accepted, we should not hold his first claim very strongly. And this is the best that could be said assuming that assent comes in degrees. In actual fact, we have reasons to think assent does not come in degrees, despite being associated with some things that do. And further, no one has ever given any reason to believe that assent does come in degrees beyond some vague appeals to ways of talking that can be explained more fruitfully in other ways. It seems the only real question is "Should we assent or should we not?", not "To what degree should we assent?"

(I should say that there's always lots of questions about whether a given interpretation of Locke is actually Locke's own view. I haven't addressed these matters here, because the view here attributed to Locke has been held by many others, and by some because of what Locke says.)

A Poem Draft


The chill in the air
makes softly pale
the light that shines in my soul;
but each coming day
is never the same
as the one that went before:

the sun in its course
may shine with new force
when a new day is finally here -
all praise for the sun
for when that day is come
our troubles will be easy to bear!

On the Theological Importance of a Harlot

Christmas drawing near, I've been thinking recently about one of my favorite Old Testament characters, Rahab the harlot. You know the story, I'm sure. Joshua sends spies into Jericho to get the lay of the land. They stay at the house of Rahab. The ruler of Jericho learns that there are spies in his city, and sends a message to Rahab, telling her to bring the spies out. Rahab responds that while the men did, in fact, come to her, they left the city and she didn't know where they went; but if they hurried, they might catch them. In reality she had hidden them under stalks of flax on our roof. And so she saved their lives. Before they went to sleep, she went to them and said:

I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.

And the men swore it, telling her to put a scarlet cord in her window; if anyone left her house, they could not guarantee their safety, but if anyone harmed anyone in that house, the blood would be on the heads of the spies. She let down a rope from the wall, and they went on their way. And when Jericho fell, Rahab and all her family were spared, and lived with the Israelites the rest of their lives.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews does not shy away from putting Rahab forward as exemplary in her faith: because she had faith that the God of Israel was God above and God below, she did not perish, but joined the people of God. And James does not shy away from using her as an example of why faith must have works, putting her (as the author of the letter to the Hebrews does) in the company of the likes of Abraham and Isaac.

Now what, you might ask, does all this have to do with Christmas? There is one other passage in the New Testament that appears to refer to Rahab. It is Matthew 1, the genealogy of Christ. Matthew mentions in this very patrilineal genealogy four women (besides Mary): Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba). Bathsheba was an adulteress; but she also saved her life and the life of her son. Tamar's case is really kind of odd; she pretends to be a prostitute because after she is widowed twice her father-in-law refuses to allow her to marry his youngest son for fear that he will die, too. There's not really a label for that. But she is explicitly mentioned in Ruth in the elders' blessing of the marriage between Ruth and Boaz, and, what is more, she is mentioned in the company of the likes of Rachel and Leah. Rahab, besides being a prostitute, was a Canaanite, and thus a 'foreign woman'; as, indeed, was Ruth, a Moabitess. As a rule, it was not couth to marry a foreign woman. but in both cases, the result ultimately was no less than King David:

Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

The truth about Matthew's genealogy is that it should be seen as being almost a hymn, a psalm in praise of divine providence. For God worked in every case, although in each case something was off, to bring about what was ultimately the greatest good of all. And so this brings us to Mary, the fifth woman mentioned in the genealogy. And you know her place in the scheme of providence; for from her it was truly shown that the God of the Israelites is God of heaven above and of earth below.

And what we have in the Christmas season is owed in some small measure to a whore in Jericho, who showed a faith in God that would put most of ours to shame. It is a sobering thought; and a joyful one. I don't know if I can explain it in a way that non-Christian readers of this weblog would understand; but I think my Christian readers know exactly what I mean.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Further Thought on Aquinas's First Way

Clayton Littlejohn has provided an excellent set of comments that provide the opportunity for clarifying my account of Aquinas's First Way a bit more. So here are my further thoughts on the subject.

1. Can Aquinas handle cases of motion by nature?

1a. The mover of what is moved by nature is that which makes the motion possible (either the generating cause or the cause that removes impediments to action).

One of the arguments Aquinas discusses in Summa Contra Gentiles 1.13 is the following:

Omne quod movetur per accidens, non movetur a seipso. Movetur enim ad motum alterius. Similiter neque quod movetur per violentiam: ut manifestum est. Neque quae moventur per naturam ut ex se mota, sicut animalia, quae constat ab anima moveri. Nec iterum quae moventur per naturam ut gravia et levia. Quia haec moventur a generante et removente prohibens. Omne autem quod movetur, vel movetur per se, vel per accidens. Et si per se, vel per violentiam, vel per naturam. Et hoc, vel motum ex se, ut animal; vel non motum ex se, ut grave et leve. Ergo omne quod movetur, ab alio movetur.

My very rough translation/paraphrase:

Every that is moved per accidens, is not moved by itself. It is therefore moved to motion by another. Likewise, neither what is moved violently: as is obvious. Neither are those things moved by nature as self-moving, such as living things, which as is well known are moved by the soul. Nor again the things that are moved by nature as heavy and light. For such are moved by what generates and removes impediments. And everything that is moved is moved either per se or per accidens. And if per se, either violently or naturally. And if naturally, either they are moved from themselves, as a living thing; or they are not moved from themselves, as heavy and light. Therefore everything that is moved, is moved from another.

This is what Aquinas calls an 'inductive' argument. For the scholastics, an 'inductive' argument usually involves a division into classes of the entire possible range of actions, followed by the proving or disproving of a claim with regard to each class. This is what Aquinas does here. We need to navigate somewhat carefully, because some of the examples are from Aristotelian physics that is no longer held; but because the division proceeds logically, it actually can stand without the physics. Everything moved is either moved per accidens or per se. Motion per accidens is moved by another, simply as part of the definition. So the question is whether there is any per se motion that is not moved by another. Aquinas divides the field of per se motion into things that are moved violently or naturally. Being violently moved means being moved by something in spite of one's nature; so it is an obvious case in which motion is from another. So we come to things that are moved by nature; and Aquinas divides this field into things that are moved by nature because they are self-movers, and things that are moved by nature that are not self-movers. Aquinas thinks that things that are self-movers as a whole are cases in which we are dealing with (as it were) a system of parts in a mover-moved relation: i.e., every case of self-motion is a system, consisting of parts, within which the principle 'what is moved is moved by another' applies. So that leaves cases that are moved by nature but not as self-movers. In such cases the nature acts on its own; but mover is in such a case the cause that either generates the thing with the nature (causes it to be this sort of thing with this sort of nature) or else (depending on what precisely we are looking at) what removes impediments to the action of the nature.

So Aquinas has no problem with natural motion; in fact, his own view of the universe is filled to the brim with it. But natural motion, of itself, is not a threat to the principle that 'what is moved is moved by another'; it just is a special case of it. But we need to look at another, related objection.

1b. Newtonian mechanics does not rule out Aquinas's principle.

The most common objection to Aquinas's First Way, I think, is the argument from Newton. Clayton Littlejohn gives the basic idea:

If Aquinas is going to get anywhere from the starting point 'Something is moving', he has to introduce a principle to the effect that if this is true, there is something external to the object that accounts for this unless the object is a self-mover. Such a principle conflicts with the principles of Newtonian mechanics which requires the introduction of an external body or force to explain changes from motion to rest or rest to motion but nothing to explain the persistence of a state of rest or motion.

Now, I think the first thing that needs to be recognized is that it's actually difficult to find any clear conflict between Newtonian mechanics and the principle that is being applied. (1) It isn't clear that Aquinas is committed by the principle to saying that objects need something explain their persistence in a state of rest or motion (indeed, what we saw in [1a] suggests otherwise). (2) Even as late as the mid-nineteenth century, we have people like William Whewell who, in interpreting the philosophical implications of Newtonian mechanics (and there are few who do so in such an extensive way as Whewell does), regard the law of inertia as derived from a causal principle (rather similar to Aquinas's principle about motion) combined with restricting suppositions. In other words, an argument can be made, and was made, that the law of inertia is actually just a more restricted version of a causal principle like Aquinas's. (3) Even if we set aside all motion in our modern sense of the term, the Latin motus is a broader term encompassing all changes in which something potentially x becomes actually x; so there would still be the question of whether any of these changes allowed the argument to work (all it needs is one). So unless one allows that no change requires any causal explanation, it really isn't possible to head off the First Way in this way.

So, ultimately, I'd really need to see the analysis according to which Aquinas's principle is said to conflict with Newtonian mechanics; there doesn't seem to be any reason to think there is any actual conflict. (Which is not to say that Aquinas didn't believe some things that would conflict; but the issue is whether the principles actually used in the First Way would conflict.)

The second thing to note is that Aquinas, in allowing that the universe may always have existed (i.e., that the past may be infinite), is necessarily (given an Aristotelian view of the universe) allowing that motion may always have been. So he isn't committed to the view that there was once a time when everything was in stasis. (One can argue whether it actually makes sense for their to have been motion from always; if I recall correctly, Franz Brentano in one of his lectures on the existence of God argues that on such a supposition, motion would necessarily be undefined and indeterminate. But this isn't Aquinas's way.)

2. Aquinas's arguments do not use the claim that "what causes X to be F must itself be F," rather, they use the claim that "what causes X to be F must itself be."

I blame this confusion on Anthony Kenny's The Five Ways, where he translates the premise correctly but consistently interprets incorrectly. When Aquinas uses this premise, the idea is not that what causes X to be F must actually be F, but that what causes X to be F must actually exist. The former would, in fact, contradict a fact about divine causation that Aquinas elsewhere recognizes, and at great length: it is equivocal causation, and it is precisely the nature of equivocal causation that what causes X to be F need not be F at all. The culprit appears to be reading an example as if it were a paradigm case rather than what it really is, an argument. Sentence #4 in my translation reads:

4. For moving is nothing other than drawing forth something from potency into act, for something cannot be reduced from potency into act, save through some actual being [nisi per aliquod ens in actu]; thus actual heat (as fire) makes wood (which is potential fire) to be actually hot, and thereby moves and alters it.

What misleads people is taking the example (the actually hot making wood to be actually hot) as if all cases were like this. But this is not required by the way scholastics use examples. For a scholastic an example is an abbreviated inductive argument; often a case is chosen in which the principle is very easily seen, and then (as it were) carrying out the induction in other cases is left to the reader. Aquinas doesn't use the example of an actually hot cause making something actually hot because all cases are like this, but because cases like this are obvious cases in which the principle applies. And, indeed, any case in which what causes X to be F is actually F will necessarily also be a case in which what causes X to be F is something actual. People like Kenny are reading the particular case as if it were the general principle. Thus, Aquinas does not hold that God has the properties he causes (which would introduce a rather obvious contradiction into all of the Five Ways), but is merely noting the much less controversial claim that things can only be caused to be actually anything by things that are themselves actual. This means that being moved requires some prior actuality, which brings us to the next proposition.

3. Mutual motion, in the sense that would be relevant to the argument, is impossible.

Given that the issue is actuality and potentiality, mutual motion doesn't appear to be a legitimate counter-response; since the only mutual motion that would actually evade the argument is a case in which A under aspect a makes B actual under aspect b in such a way that B under aspect b makes A actual under aspect a. In other words, to go this way would actually require that we deny that there is any such motion, or deny the premise that "What makes something actually F must actually exist"; since by our supposition B-under-aspect-b depends for its existence on the priority of A-under-aspect-a and A-under-aspect-a cannot exist unless B-under-aspect-b is prior. This would imply that B-under-aspect-b is able to cause its cause prior to its actually existing. There are, of course, senses of 'mutual motion' which are perfectly harmless, e.g., A under aspect a1 making B actual under aspect b1, which in turn makes A actual under aspect a2, which in turn makes B actual under aspect b2, etc. But this wouldn't pose any problem to the argument. (It's also worth pointing out that, even on the supposition of mutual motion, this would not necessarily break the argument unless all asymmetric causal dependencies traced back to symmetric ones.)

More Carnivals

The 47th Christian Carnival is up, and this time I had the opportunity to read it. Some of the posts I particularly enjoyed:

* Pensées on Pride at "Digitus, Finger, & Co."

* Definite Atonement and the Open Invitation of the Gospel at "Rebecca Writes"

* Westminster Shorter Catechism - Question 3 at "Müßiggang ist aller Laster Anfang"

* Church: Why and How at "A Physicist's Perspective"

The 7th Catholic Carnival is also up (the theme is Advent). Particularly notable is Advent in the Luminous Mysteries at "Fructus Ventris" (I certainly learned something from this post; I had never even heard of the Luminous Mysteries, although I had heard about the others.)

A Tidbit on the Ethical Focus of Malebranche's Account of Mind-Body Union

I thought I might summarize a bit of what I'll be looking at in the paper I'm writing on the ethical focus of Malebranche's account of mind-body union. One aspect is Malebranche calls "the strangeness of our judgments about sensible qualities." Why, for instance, do we attribute warmth to the hand but colors to the objects we see? When we look at the two cases in terms of motions of particles, we see that they are actually quite similar. Malebranche's answer is this:

But to account entirely for the strangeness of our judgments about sensible qualities, it should be considered that the soul is so closely joined to its body and has even become so carnal since the Fall and consequently so incapable of concentration that it attributes to the body many things that belong only to itself, and hardly distinguishes itself from the body anymore. As a result, it not only attributes to it all the sensations we are now discussing but also the power of imagination and sometimes even the capability of reasoning, for many philosophers have been stupid and dense enough to believe that the soul is only the subtlest and rarest part of the body. (LO 57)

The precise relevance of this might escape the casual reader. As Malebranche sees it, the fundamental error involved in attributing the sensation of heat to the hand is that it ascribes to the body what is in reality a modification of the soul. He goes on to note that the soul “is so blind that it misunderstands itself and does not recognize the ownership of its own sensations” (LO 57). The real difference between pain and color is that they have different types of relevance to our preservation, not that one is in the sensory organs and the other is in the external object.

The heart of Malebranche’s discussion of this point is the close union between the soul and the body. In Malebranche’s view soul and body are united nomologically, i.e., God has instituted general laws in which soul-events and body-events are correlated. Because Malebranche is an occasionalist, this means that the soul-body union is as strong a union as any other union short of identity. If we choose to measure the strength of nomological unions by how close the established correlation is, Malebranche is fully able to argue that the soul-body union is very strong. The sort of general laws governing the union are instituted for the preservation of the body, and thus require that the soul be closely concerned with bodily matters. This, however, does not suffice for the phenomenon Malebranche identifies in the above quotation; the source of the error is not merely the strength of the union, but what follows from this strong correlation given original sin. This is what ‘carnality’ is intended to convey: the culprit is our pathological dependence on those soul-events that are correlated with body-events (e.g., sensations). Instead of taking these events merely as aids toward preserving the body, we treat them as if they gave knowledge of the bodies. This quickly involves us in the error of attributing sensations and even imagination and reasoning to bodies; this is closely related to the sort of error Malebranche thinks is involved in the case of idolatry, where, in Malebranche’s terms, we also attribute “the capability of reasoning” to bodies.

It is interesting to compare this to Descartes’s view in the Principles. Descartes notes that it is difficult for us not to go beyond what we clearly perceive in the case of sensations because “all of us have, from our early childhood, judged that all the objects of our sense-perception are things existing outside our minds and closely resembling our sensations” (AT VIIIA 32). He later explains these “preconceived opinions of childhood” by saying that in early childhood “the mind was so closely tied to the body that it had no leisure for any thoughts except those by means of which it had sensory awareness of what was happening to the body” (AT VIIIA). This is similar to Malebranche’s view in that the close union of mind and body plays a key role. From this point, however, they diverge: while Descartes appears to hold that the development of these “preconceived opinions of childhood” are due to the fact that children simply do not have the “leisure” for more accurate thinking, Malebranche holds that they are the result of carnality, our root tendency to idolatry. From the very beginning we develop these preconceived opinions not through lack of leisure but through a perverse fascination with sensible qualities that prevents us from recognizing the rationally available truth that the sensible qualities cannot be in bodies. Descartes does discuss a cause of error that is somewhat closer to Malebranche’s view than “preconceived opinions of childhood,” namely the “difficulty and fatigue” with which we attend to things that cannot be sensed (AT VIIIA 37). The very same differences are at play here, however; whereas Descartes attributes this difficulty and fatigue to the closeness of the mind-body union or childhood opinions, Malebranche attributes them to carnality.

First Philosophy

I've been reading the comments to one of the nominated posts at the Philosophers' Carnival, and been rather surprised by some of the claims (some of them rather blatantly false, I think) about 'first philosophy'. What follows are some counter-thoughts. I think they're fairly obvious, but I can elaborate if it turns out they're not.

* Descartes did not regard epistemology as first philosophy. It would not have even made any sense for him to do so. (1) 'Epistemology' was not a major philosophical curricular division at the time. I'd have to check, but I'm pretty sure it was not even a word, because I suspect 'epistemology' was formed on the model of 'ontology', which was a word that came into use after Descartes's time. (2) Contrary to common misreadings of the Meditations, Descartes's primary concern is not epistemological. All of what we would call the epistemological side of Cartesian philosophy subserves metaphysical ends. (3) Descartes, dedicating the book to Jesuits, would have known quite well what the standard scholastic notion of 'first philosophy' was: metaphysics, particularly insofar as it relates to God. Descartes's Meditations are a contribution to this field.

* I think Aristotle is absolutely right that there are only two real candidates for first philosophy. If metaphysics is not first philosophy, physics (in the broad sense of all the inquiries into the physical world) is. If we can go beyond physics (in the broad sense) in any real way, metaphysics must be first philosophy. Making logic or philosophy of language first philosophy would be committing oneself to the claim that all knowledge is subordinate to language or logic, in the sense that the principles of logic or philosophy of language contain, in a robust sense, all other knowledge.

* It is really quite bizarre to say that there is no first philosophy; for in fact everyone who says so actually does privilege either metaphysics or physics. (The closest I have ever seen to not doing so is the occasional attempt to make ethics first philosophy; but this, in fact, confuses ethics with its metaphysical or physical foundations. Whether its foundations are metaphysical or physical depends on which is first philosophy. Given that ethics is often made to grow directly out of whatever one regards as first philosophy, one rough-and-ready way to determine which a person holds, in fact, is to ask what they regard as the ultimate set of facts to which ethics, as a philosophical discipline, has to answer.)

I suspect, of course, that what was really in mind wasn't 'first philosophy' but something like 'primary organon' (it makes no sense to say that philosophy has no primary organon, either, but if we substitute 'primary instrument' for 'first philosophy' some of the other statements make much more sense). Whatever was meant, it surely could be expressed in some better way than absconding with a phrase that is already perfectly serviceable for its own purposes.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

On an Argument by Graham Oppy

In reading the recent issue of Faith and Philosophy I came across an interesting argument, tucked away in a footnote, in an article by Graham Oppy. In this article, Oppy is continuing his debate with Koons on Koons's version of the cosmological argument. The passage to which the following is a footnote is on reasons why nontheists would reject the view that the universe, as the sum of all wholly contingent events, has a cause.

Here's a sketch for another argument, this time for the conclusion that no theist ought to accept the claim that every wholy contingent event has cause. This argument relies on the assumption that theists must buy into the free willd efence against arguments from evil. (That assumption, in turn, can be underwritten by Mackie's famous argument: if free will is compatible with determinism, then God could--and hence should--have made a world in which everyone always freely chooses the good.) The free will defence relies on the assumption that people have libertarian freedom, i.e. it relies on the assumption that, when people make free choices, there is nothing in the world which determines or causes those choices. So, consider an occasion on which a person X freely chooses A rather than B. Plainly, the event of X's freely choosing A rather than B is a wholly contingent event--but, as a result of doctrinal commitments elsewhere, the theist is required to deny that there is a cause of X's freely choosing A rather than B. So, by the theist's own lights, it simply isn't true that every wholly contingent event has a cause. Given that theists have good reason to reject the claim that every wholly contingent event has a cause, they are hardly well placed to insist that non-theists ought to accept it.
(Graham Oppy, "Faulty Reasoning about Default Principles in Cosmological Arguments," Faith and Philosophy (April 2004) 249n10.)

This is, as I said, an interesting argument, but I'm inclined to think it does not work. For the libertarian is actually not committed to the claim that there are no causes to their choices; they are only committed to the claim that some choices are not sufficiently determined by causes in the world. By 'being sufficiently determined by a cause' I mean: there is no sufficient cause, i.e., a cause which is a sufficient condition, for this choice in particular. There may, however, be other kinds of causes, e.g., necessary causes; and one form of necessary cause is that there be adequate cause for a choice. And this is one of the big differences between the libertarian and the determinist, I think; the determinist is committed to the claim that all adequate causes are sufficient causes, the libertarian is not. So the libertarian can perfectly well allow that there is a cause for X's choosing A rather than B; namely, that cause or set of causes adequate for choosing A. What the libertarian will deny is that this cause or set of causes adequate for choosing A necessitate the choosing of A; they suffice (in the ordinary colloquial sense) for the choosing of A, but do not suffice (in the technical philosophical sense) for the choosing of A. So I don't think a commitment to incompatibilist free will can be converted into an argument for the claim that some wholly contingent things are uncaused.

Philosophers' Carnival VI

The newest Philosophers' Carnival has been up for a bit. My contribution was my set of notes on Aquinas's First Way; there were one or two others I could have contributed, but because that one came amid a deluge of posts for the St. Catharine's Day Pageant, I chose it, in case it deserved a wider hearing. And I've already gotten some excellent comments from Clayton Littlejohn, which I'll have to think over and to which I'll have to respond when I've done so. A brief foretaste: I don't think Aquinas holds a transmission theory of causation; I'm glad it was brought up, because I think it is a common misinterpretation. But I'll have to get to that later tonight or tomorrow. There are several other good posts, including one on Behe's design argument (I think it goes a little too quickly in one or two places, but it does a good job of laying out, in a clear, concise way, the questions the argument raises). Go over and see.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Were This Blog a Superhero...

This has been going around like crazy, so I took a gander at it. I learned something very important about myself: if a Superhero ever asks for my help in color-coordinating his costume, I should refuse for the good of all mankind. But this result wasn't too bad, I think. Yes, it's a bit pretentious; but I blame that on the Superhero idea in the first place. And the lion is a necessary accessory around here!

(Hat-tip: MM, but DTWW convinced me that all the cool kids were doing it. While you're at it, also check out scribblingwoman and Majikthise.)

Moral Sciences Tripos

I decided last night that I would, in addition to Shepherd and Malebranche sections, add Whewell and Astell sections to H.L. So up went the first Whewell page. In it Whewell discusses the place of Moral Philosophy at the University of Cambridge in his time, and gives the 'Moral Sciences Tripos', i.e., the reading list for University Examinations in Moral Philosophy. It's an interesting document for people curious about nineteenth century British education, but more importantly it's an important document for those interested in the history of ethics, since it gives some of the flavor of the major ethical dispute of nineteenth century Britain (over utilitarianism) and the role a university like Cambridge played in that argument.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Mary Astell on the Rudiments of Knowledge

...there are certain Notices which we may call the Rudiments of Knowledge, which none who are Rational are without however they come by them. It may happen indeed that a habit of Vice or a long disuse has so obscur'd them that they seem to be extinguish'd but it does only seem so, for were they really extinguish'd the person would be no longer Rational, and no better than the Shade and Picture of a Man. Because as Irrational Creatures act only by the Will of him who made them, and according to the Power of that Mechanisme by which they are form'd, so every one who pretends to Reason, who is a Voluntary Agent and therefore Worthy of Praise or Blame, Reward or Punishment, must Chuse his Actions and determine his Will to that Coice by some Reasonings or Principles either true or false, and in proportion to the Principles and the Consequences he deduces from them he is to be accounted, if they are Right and Conclusive a Wise Man, if Evil, Rash, and Injudicious a Fool. If then it be the property of Rational Creatures and Essential to their very Natures to Chuse their Actions, and to determine their Wills to that Choice by such Principles and Reasonings as their Understandings are furnish'd with, they who are desirous to be rank'd in that Order of Beings must conduct their Lives by these Measures, being with their Intellectuals, inform themselves what are the plain and first Principles of Action and Act accordingly.

By which it appears that there are some degrees of Knowledge necessary before there can be any Human Acts, for till we are capable of Chusing our own Actions and directing them by some Principle, tho we Move and Speak and so many such like things, we live not the Life of a Rational Creature but ony of an Animal. If it be farther demanded what these Principles are? Not to dispute the Number of 'em here, no body I suppose will deny us one, which is, That we ought as much as we can to endeavour the Perfecting of our Beings, and that we be as happy as possibly we may. For this we see is Natural to every Creature of what sort soever, which endeavours to be in as good Condition as its Nature and Circumsntaces will permit. And now we have got a Principle which one would think were sufficent for the Conduct of our Actions thro' the whole Course of our Lives; and so indeed it were, cou'd we as easily discern, wherein our Happiness consists as 'tis natural to wish and desire it.

Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II, chapter 1.

Astell, in addition to devoting herself to defending Tory politics and Anglican religion, had a strong interest in improving the educational situation of women. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II (1697) is the sequel to A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694). The latter was a proposal intended to give women an alternative to marriage, by creating a sort of Ladies' Academy, in which women could forego marriage in order to pursue knowledge and piety. Part II is a rather impressive little manual on how to reason clearly and rationally, and can in a sense be said to be the proposal of a sort of 'curriculum' for the proposed retreat for women.

The Name 'Siris'

I recently got a hit from a search engine in which the referring phrase was "what does the name siris mean". Unfortunately, that string doesn't yield any information about the name 'Siris'; this blog comes up in the search, but posts that explicitly discuss the name don't. And it's worth reminding people, because a lot of people forget; and, plus, sometimes people misread or misremember the name as 'Sirius', and a dog-star this blog is not.

'Siris' is a word invented by George Berkeley. It derives from the Greek word transliterated (if I recall correctly) as sireis, meaning 'chain'. He used it as the title of a very interesting work, Siris: a chain of philosophical reflexions & Inquiries concerning the virtues of tar water, which starts with a discussion of the folk remedy tar-water and thence passes on to speculative chemistry, cosmology, metaphysics, finally ending with philosophical intimations of the Christian Trinity. While it is largely ignored, it deserves to be remembered as one of Berkeley's four primary philosophical works (the other three being the Principles, the Three Dialogues, and the also-neglected Alciphron).

Thus my blog title and the description. The 'golden chain' comes not from Siris itself but from Berkeley's poem 'On Tar', a poetic summary of the philosophical argument of Siris. I posted a brief commentary on this poem in July.

Eco on HoP

Clark recently mentioned Eco's The Search for a Perfect Language. Here's a quote from that book that I wrote down in my notes when I read it last year or so:

It is frequently claimed in American philosophy departments that, in order to be a philosopher, it is not necessary to revisit the history of philosophy. It is like the claim that one can become a painter without having seen a single work of Raphael, or a writer without having read the classics. Such things are theoretically possible; but the 'primitive' artist, condemned to an ignorance of the past, is always recognizable as such and rightly labelled as a naïf. It is only when we reconsider past projects revealed as utopian or as failures that we are apprised of the dangers and possibilities for failure for our allegedly new projects. The study of the deeds of our ancestors is thus more than an antiquarian pasttime, it is an immunological precaution.