Friday, December 17, 2004

Christian Carnival XLVIII

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

* Good or Bad Christians at "Brutally Honest"

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

* Who Shook the House? at "Reasons Why"

* Bigotry at "Parableman"

* The Poor at "Crossroads"

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

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

* Death by Assumption at "Jollyblogger"

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

My Second Favorite Christmas Carol

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

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

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

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

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

--Phillips Brooks (1867)

Looking for Love (Academic, That Is)

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

A Thought on Public Reasons

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

123 sentence 5

Via Early Modern Notes:

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

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

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

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

A Quasi-Defense of Flew's Quasi-Theism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Lighter Blogging

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Public Reasons

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

Mr. Vladimir's Philosophy of Bomb-throwing

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

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

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

My Favorite Christmas Carol

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

Monday, December 13, 2004

PLoS Biology December 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

* The essay on mathematics in biology.

PLoS Biology -

Shepherd on Mathematical Causation

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

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

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

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

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

Sam, the Perfect Woman

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

Plurality of Worlds

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

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

Wisdom from Wollstonecraft

The fact is, that men expect from education, what education cannot give. A sagacious parent or tutor may strengthen the body and sharpen the instruments by which the child is to gather knowledge; but the honey must be the reward of the individual's own industry. It is almost as absurd to attempt to make a youth wise by the experience of another, as to expect the body to grow strong by the exercise which is only talked of, or seen.

From Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, chapter 5.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Another Poem Draft


I walked in city-darkness underneath a stormy sky,
Dreaming of the echoes of a God condemned to die,
Dreaming of the words of a convict lifted high:
It is done; it is finished.

The darkness all around me was the blackness of my heart,
With tendrils, like living death, that entered every part;
I fell down then straightway, sharply wounded by a dart:
It is done; it is finished.

Then in a moment's clearness, I saw me as I am,
An endless sea of failings hid by denial like a dam--
Then off in thorny bushes I heard the bleating of a ram:
It is done; it is finished.

No guilt within my heart and no burden on my back,
No torment by my demons or by a conscientious rack,
Just safe and well-defended from the darkness's attack:
It is done; it is finished.

Scarce one whit am I better than the way I was before,
But this death has worked a change that no man can well ignore,
As simple and momentous as the opening of a door:
It is done; it is finished.

Though I fall, I know in truth that I never am alone,
And look to be restored in resurrected flesh and bone--
For the tomb in which I am is no longer sealed by stone:
It is done; it is finished.