Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Catholics, Death, and Transformation

Jamie at Ad Limina Apostolorum discusses a controversial article in the August/September First Things by Joseph Bottum. I confess I have a reaction exactly opposite to Jamie's; it's unfortunate that Bottum received hate mail for the article, but I'm not at all surprised, since the article is a shockingly unrestrained and uncharitable attack (although apparently unintentionally so) on a large number of Catholics, treating them as pagan, primitive, and irrational. There is a much more moderate and charitable interpretation of their position, and it begins with a disagreement at the very beginning. Bottum says of the story of poetic justice:

Unfortunately, it is also, in its essence, a pagan story, and Jesus—well, yes, Jesus turned all our stories inside out. Especially the old, old ones about blood and blood’s repayment.

Well, no, someone might well say; Jesus quite plainly did not turn all our stories inside out. Charity does not overturn justice; it transfigures it into a thing of grace. Jesus did not turn the story of poetic justice inside out; he went it one better -- more than one better. Further, a Catholic might say, Bottum's consigning of poetic justice to the pagan is a typically Protestant error, or at least an error Catholics generally associate with Protestants: it takes something natural, and recognizing that there is need for something more, makes the mistake of condemning it outright. Of course, one can question whether it is natural; but Bottum gives no argument that it is not, and much of what he says suggests that he tends to think it is.

Further, governing, says Bottum, inevitably finds itself in a clash of mercy and grace. But, the reply could well be, is this really true? One can argue quite the contrary: in the common good mercy and justice meet. In fact, to an extent they meet all ready: of the three works of spiritual mercy that counteract the disorder of sin, two (correction and support) are clearly associated with just action; the third, pardon, does not countermand these two, but joins with them. As in personal morals, so in civic morals; Bottum's claim that judges showing mercy fail to show justice is absurd on the face of it. In the common good, someone might say, there is none of this mythical clash Bottum wants us to find. It is true that all human governments fall short of perfect attainment of common good, and in that sense, in the failure of adequate governance we can get what seems to be a clash of justice and mercy: but the clash is not real, because it arises through the failure of government to be both merciful and just enough.

Bottum is, of course, right that the key question is what sort of justice a Christian can allow a modern democracy to claim for itself. But the answer, one might say, is straightforwardly obvious: the sort of justice it can allow is that which is conducive to common good. And no one needs to go as far as 'high justice' to allow an execution; one merely has to recognize a crucial need, born of common good. Beyond that, the 'higher demand' is simply the demand of justice itself. And contrary to what people like Bottum seem to think, someone might say, it is possible to see more room for such a crucial need than they do, and those who do are perhaps perfectly reasonable if they say to Bottum: "It is entirely correct that the progress of civilization and justice has reduced the place for the death penalty. We no longer apply such a penalty to many cases that once would have seemed obvious occasions for it, because we have put into place a better way, one that recognizably fulfills the need while taking justice and mercy both to a higher level. You have no right to demand more until you do the same for the cases where you want more. It is not your place to demand more until you set out a genuine way to have more." And it cannot be said that Bottum does much to offer a genuine transfiguration. It is one thing to argue that we need to bring the death penalty to the point of Virtually Never, since this may be made by anyone at any stage, and sets the end; it is another to label Christians as pagans for not being in such a position, when one supplies them with no means to attain it.

Likewise, a Catholic may well agree with Bottum that in a world too inclined to dismiss the inherent dignity of the human person, a world imbued with a 'culture of death', that there must be a strong presumption against the death penalty in any particular case. But it in no way follows from such a presumption that "the correct prudential judgment would be never to impose the death penalty." To say otherwise is to engage in a simplistic conflation -- one much like the simplistic conflation of the strict pacifist who denies to everyone the right to defend themselves or anyone else. Nor is it the case that anyone need agree with Bottum's claim that "Obviously the penal goal of rehabilitating the criminal is destroyed by capital punishment." That this is false has been shown before; criminals have been rehabilitated and accepted the consequence of death. Presumption is not proscription, however Bottum may try to slide between the two.

So someone might argue. There is no doubt that many people have a cruder view than this; but if a person is interested in truth he needs to take into account the strongest opposing positions. I tend to agree with Bottum's basic conclusion; but I find his argument for it to be utterly horrid. It is simplistic, it borders on self-righteous, it is uncharitable, and it ends up being, in the end, just a bunch of finger-wagging scolding, without any real hint of transformation of society. Transformation enters into the picture as something vaguely gestured at and never really addressed. But the focus must be on transformation, because that is where the two sides will ultimately find themselves reconciled to each other, through a mercy and justice exceeding what either side can bring alone.

SF and Kingsley

Coturnix lays out his list of essential science fiction at Science and Politics. It's a very good list; go and see.

It was the listing of Kingsley's The Water-Babies (which isn't usually thought of as science fiction, but certainly qualifies) that started me thinking about Kingsley; hence the previous post. I'm a Newman man myself, but the Table of Brandon is nothing if not hospitably large, and there are interesting things in Kingsley. In my previous post on Ogilvie and early modern natural theology I should have mentioned Kingsley, because he is a representative of yet another twist on the relation of natural theology and evolution, as is easy enough to see in his essays, "How to Study Natural History" and "The Natural Theology of the Future," in his Scientific Essays and Lectures. Kingsley should certainly not be overlooked in such contexts.

Kingsley on Ruth

Most of you know the story of Ruth, from which my text is taken, and you have thought it, no doubt, a pretty story. But did you ever think why it was in the Bible?

Every book in the Bible is meant to teach us, as the Article of our Church says, something necessary to salvation. But what is there necessary to our salvation in the Book of Ruth?...

Does it not tell us, that not only on the city and the palace, on the cathedral and the college, on the assemblies of statesmen, on the studies of scholars, but upon the meadow and the corn-field, the farm-house and the cottage, is written, by the everlasting finger of God - Holiness unto the Lord? That it is all blessed in His sight; that the simple dwellers in villages, the simple tillers of the ground, can be as godly and as pious, as virtuous and as high-minded, as those who have nought to do but to serve God in the offices of religion? Is it not an honour and a comfort, to such as us, to find one whole book of the Holy Bible occupied by the simplest story of the fortunes of a yeoman’s family, in a lonely village among the hills of Judah? True, the yeoman’s widow became the ancestress of David, and of his mighty line of kings - nay, the ancestress of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. But the Book of Ruth was not written mainly to tell us that fact. It mentions it at the end, and as it were by accident. The book itself is taken up with the most simple and careful details of country life, country customs, country folk - as if that was what we were to think of, as we read of Ruth.

Charles Kingsley, Sermon X in The Water of Life and Other Sermons.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Thus Saith the Preacher

Wrk hard at wateva u do. U will soon go 2 da wrld of da dead, where no 1 wrks or thinks or reasons or knws NEting.

That's Ecclesiastes 9:10 in the SMS-CEV; that is, in the Bible Society in Australia's adaptation of the Common English Version into SMS.

Piety of Attention

This is mostly for my own use; I've wanted to work up a paper on this topic for a while, but the preliminary abstract and outline were tucked away, so I keep forgetting it. I hope that by having it up in my weblog I'll be more likely to do something with it. For the Romantic Passion allusion, see the fragment of Astell's later that I posted here. The 'narrow topic' allusion is to a comment that was made by someone who read an earlier version of the abstract; he said it was an unusually narrow topic, which I found funny since the topic is a general one about Mary Astell's entire corpus. (It was even funnier given that I had recently delivered a paper at the Hume Society, which was well received, half of which was devoted to how to interpret one word in one sentence of Hume's Treatise 1.4.2. No one suggested that that was a narrow topic.)


Courting Truth with Romantic Passion and the Piety of Attention: On the Relation Between Astell and Malebranche
Brandon Watson

When we look at the various ways in which Malebranche influenced thinkers in early modern Britain, the issues that naturally tend to be considered are epistemology and metaphysics. It would be a mistake, however, to think this is the only way in which Malebranche had an impact on British thought. In this paper I consider another sort of influence by looking more closely at Mary Astell. One interpretation of Mary Astell’s relation to Malebranchean themes and ideas can be characterized like this. A major issue Astell takes up from Malebranche, through Norris, is the vision in God thesis, in which human cognition consists of illumination by divine ideas; she endorses it early in her work, but becomes more circumspect in her later works. This interpretation, which seems to be common, is initially plausible. The Letters Concerning Divine Love, her earliest philosophical work (co-authored with the ‘English Malebranche’ himself, John Norris), are very Malebranchean in tone, and Astell's epistemology does at times draw something from Malebranche. This interpretation, however, seems to be wrong. The Letters, although in some sense Malebranchean, are not really epistemological at all, and there is good reason to think the Malebranchean hints in the epistemology of later works are simply terminological. In acknowledging Astell's influences we should begin with her distinctive originality. Astell accepts certain Malebranchean expressions not so much because she is Malebranchean but because she can see Malebranche as roughly Astellian; that is, Astell uses themes from Malebranche's philosophy because, and only because, they are both congenial to her own original mindset and useful for her particular rhetorical purposes. Further, the Malebranchean themes she most often uses are not epistemological at all; what she takes up is less a perspective on knowledge than resources for her own perspective on love. However odd it may sound to modern ears, love is always the most important issue in Astell’s views, even where she touches on epistemology; her emphasis is therefore always ethical, even in her use of Malebranchean metaphysical and epistemological themes. (In this she is not far from Malebranche himself.) All of Astell's work can be seen as an outgrowth of her continual concern for the absolute importance of love for God and her continual resolve, in her words, to court truth with a kind of romantic passion. Recognition of this is key for both an accurate interpretation of how Astell is related to her philosophical influence and a complete understanding of the sort of impact Malebranche had on philosophy in Britain.

The ‘Narrow Topic’ of the Piety of Attention: Astell’s Appropriation of Malebranche

I. Introductory Paragraph
a. Narrow Topic story
b. Thesis: When Astell makes use of Malebranche, it is primarily because he shares with her a philosophical approach that gives ethics a primacy over epistemology. Her use of Malebranche, in other words, is an effect of this approach.

II. The Piety of Attention
a. Malebranche’s Epistemology
1. Interior Teacher
2. Universal Reason
3. Universal Being (vision in God)
4. Universal Good
b. Ethical Primacy in Malebranche
1. Order and Idolatry
2. Attention and Piety

III. Astell’s Appropriation of Malebranchean Terminology
a. Malebranchean Themes in SPII
b. Comparison of SPII and Prior Works
(Basic Points here: Astell never unequivocally commits herself to the vision in God thesis. The vision in God thesis, however, is even in Malebranche merely an articulation of a deeper doctrine, that of Universal Reason or the Interior Teacher. Astell appears to share this deeper doctrine with Norris and Malebranche both; when she shows approval of the vision in God thesis, it is always as ‘commendable for piety’.)

IV. Courting Truth with a Kind of Romantic Passion
a. Ethical Primacy in Astell
b. Thoughts on Astell’s Relation to Malebranche

V. Conclusion

Hazlitt on Coleridge on Hume, Berkeley, and Butler

He spoke slightingly of Hume (whose Essay on Miracles he said was stolen from an objection started in one of South's sermons -- Credat Judeaus Apella!) I was not very much pleased at this account of Hume, for I had just been reading, with infinite relish, that completest of all metaphysical choke-pears, his Treatise on Human Nature, to which the Essays, in point of scholastic subtility and close reasoning are mere elegant trifling, light summer reading. Coleridge even denied the excellence of Hume's general style, which I think betrayed a want of taste or candour. He however, made me amends by the manner in which he spoke of Berkeley. He dwelt particularly on his Essay on Vision as a masterpiece of analytical reasoning. So it undoubtedly is. He was exceedingly angry with Dr Johnson for striking the stone with his foot, in allusion to this author's Theory of Matter and Spirit, and saying "Thus I confute him, Sir." Coleridge drew a parallel (I don't know how he brought about the connexion) between Bishop Berkeley and Tom Paine. He said the one was an instance of a subtle, the other of an acute mind, than which no two things could be more distinct. The one was a shop-boy's quality, the other the characteristic of a philosopher. He considered Bishop Butler as a true philosopher, a profound and conscientious thinker, a genuine reader of nature and his own mind. He did not speak of his Analogy, but of his Sermons at the Rolls' Chapel, of which I had never heard. Coleridge somehow always contrived to prefer the unknown to the known.

William Hazlitt, "My First Acquaintance with Poets"


There's a post worth reading, by Wesley Elsberry, on Christians and truth in the ID controversy. The traditional term for the problem Elsberry notes is the sin of scandal; as characterized by Aquinas:

As Jerome observes the Greek skandalon may be rendered offense, downfall, or a stumbling against something. For when a body, while moving along a path, meets with an obstacle, it may happen to stumble against it, and be disposed to fall down: such an obstacle is a skandalon.

In like manner, while going along the spiritual way, a man may be disposed to a spiritual downfall by another's word or deed, in so far, to wit, as one man by his injunction, inducement or example, moves another to sin; and this is scandal properly so called.

Now nothing by its very nature disposes a man to spiritual downfall, except that which has some lack of rectitude, since what is perfectly right, secures man against a fall, instead of conducing to his downfall. Scandal is, therefore, fittingly defined as "something less rightly done or said, that occasions another's spiritual downfall."

It is a vice opposed to beneficence, the virtue whereby we do good to those in a more precarious or less fortunate position than us. You can read more about Aquinas's views on the sin of scandal at New Advent. Elsberry is exactly right that we Christians should be vigilant against the scandalous, particularly in areas like this where there is a real danger of turning people off of the truth by associating it with something 'less rightly done or said'. It can be a hard line to walk; being diligent in the pursuit of truth is the best guide to walking it.

Two More Poem Drafts

Not my best work, but what is?

Patter on the Pathway

Patter on the pathway makes a sign for rain
heralding the daybreak with gloomy clouds of gray;
but when the rain is over, birds begin to play--
and although the day is colder, my love for you remains.
In the darkness and the storm-winds I have travelled on this road,
and when ill fortune has descended it is weathered in this cloak.
Through death and darkest curses, through sorrow and through pain,
I thank God for storm-brought mercies and the beauty of the rain,
for in my bitter travel through disappointed lands
I hold in heart the marvel of the kindness of your hands.
The storm may yet defeat me with oppressive weight of gray,
but one day I know you'll greet me when new light gives gild to day.


Take up this alabaster box to break;
all its inner essence pour
upon your head and feet, and bless
the courses of my stars with hope;
everything within me bind
in cloth of silk, a cord then wind
that it may from the tower hang,
a gift of myrrh between two does.
Let loose this oil of gladness on your heart;
pour me out until the vial
leaves no more to pour, and live
in incense-glory like a church,
the scent of me around you, like the sun
on vivid flowers, urging spring.
Take up this alabaster box to break
and pour me out upon the gardens.

Horizontal Moon

Perhaps the most stable standing scientific puzzle is the moon illusion. Why does the moon look larger on the horizon than it does when it is higher in the sky? This puzzle, which is still unsolved, has withstood every major scientific revolution in history. However much we've progressed, we've never gotten any traction on it. We have, of course, eliminated certain solutions. We know, for instance, that the moon is not actually closer at the horizon; so it's not an astronomical phenomenon. We know that Aristotle was wrong in thinking it an atmospheric phenomenon. So we've made progress toward solving the problem; we've just never solved it. And so it is to this very day. You can read Berkeley's solution in his Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision. Berkeley's actual solution is almost certainly wrong, but NTV gives us the first truly modern apparatus for explaining the phenomenon; and virtually all attempts since have taken Berkeley's general approach of appealing to distance and size cues.

Early Modern Natural Theology

An interesting article by Brian Ogilvie on intelligent design and early modern natural theology at HNN. (HT: Rhine River) I largely agree with the gist of it, but there are three particular details on which I don't quite agree with Ogilvie's argument, or at least with the way it is formulated.

(1) "Meanwhile, design arguments had little effect on how science was actually done." As it stands, this is rather unclear; since scientists did appeal to design assumptions occasionally even up to Darwin's day (Darwin explicitly takes time to deal with some of them), it's not strictly true that it had no effect on how science was actually done. If one regards things like Cuvier's 'conditions of existence' as having their roots in earlier design argument, then it had an immense effect on the way science was done that way as well, because it was the genealogical source of a concept that survives well into Darwin's own theory. Something similar seems to go for Leibniz's theory of final causes, since Maupertuis formulated and regarded the principle of least action as a particular instance of a Leibnizian final-causes-by-way-of-pre-established-harmony. I suspect Ogilvie means something like 'they had no more than a superficial effect on how science was done'; and that's a trickier argument, since it requires distinguishing between what is essentially and what is only incidentally scientific.

(2) "Natural theology had identified design as the best proof for God's existence." All I take exception to here is the 'best', since it is a dubious claim that design arguments have ever been natural theology's 'best arguments', even for most of those who accepted design arguments. At least, it takes a very, very strong empiricism to be pushed to such a position.

(3) Ogilvie talks about early modern natural theology as if it were all Paleyan; but this is certainly not true even if we are considering only design arguments. Darwin's argument, for instance, has no effect on Whewellian design arguments -- Whewellian arguments argue from natural laws, not particular contrivances. (Ditto with Berkeleyan design arguments, for different reasons. Cartesian biological-design arguments, such as we find in Malebranche and Leibniz, depended on the thesis that animals were infinite machines; but they were never essential to any sort of Cartesian natural theology anyway.) And Darwin himself recognizes this; I'd have to look up the reference, but Darwin has a letter somewhere in which he distinguishes three sorts of things that might be called 'design' and notes that evolutionary theory only directly undercuts the most crude of them, namely, the Paleyan special-creation sort of view. The others can only be dealt with on the basis of more general philosophical considerations.

But as I said, I agree with the gist of the argument. I think the disagreements above are largely due to Ogilvie's using the term 'natural theology' in a very, very narrow sense, which wouldn't have included everything that would have been called 'natural theology' and 'natural religion' in the early modern period. In that sense, there wouldn't be much disagreement at all, since my complaint would just be that the article is misleading at a few points.

Feast of Dedication

Happy Hanukkah to everyone as well. Two Hanukkah stories for you. The first is the story of the Dedication itself:

Then said Judas and his brothers, "Behold, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it." So all the army assembled and they went up to Mount Zion. And they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. Then they rent their clothes, and mourned with great lamentation, and sprinkled themselves with ashes. They fell face down on the ground, and sounded the signal on the trumpets, and cried out to Heaven.

Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, lest it bring reproach upon them, for the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them. Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors. There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed. Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.
[1 Maccabees 4:36-59]

The second is the story of a particular rabbi's celebration of Hanukkah:

At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one."

The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?" The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God." Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I said, you are gods'? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came--and Scripture cannot be broken--do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God'? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.
[John 10:22-39 ESV]

I think this can be seen as another part of John's opposition of the Temple of Jesus' body to the Judean religious establishment, centered on the Jerusalem Temple (see here).

Hanukkah, of course, is in particular the feast of the rededication of the Temple; but it is also more generally the remembrance of God's providence in the exploits of the Maccabees. One of the most inspiring Maccabees-related passages in literature is from the end of 4 Maccabees, which is a lovely philosophical meditation on the importance of right reason and martyrdom for Torah (arguing that the martyrs ultimately had victory over those who killed them):

O Israelite children, offspring of the seed of Abraham, obey this law and exercise piety in every way, knowing that devout reason is master of all emotions, not only of sufferings from within, but also of those from without. Therefore those who gave over their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion were not only admired by men, but also were deemed worthy to share in a divine inheritance. Because of them the nation gained peace, and by reviving observance of the law in the homeland they ravaged the enemy. The tyrant Antiochus was both punished on earth and is being chastised after his death. Since in no way whatever was he able to compel the Israelites to become pagans and to abandon their ancestral customs, he left Jerusalem and marched against the Persians.

The mother of seven sons expressed also these principles to her children: "I was a pure virgin and did not go outside my father's house; but I guarded the rib from which woman was made. No seducer corrupted me on a desert plain, nor did the destroyer, the deceitful serpent, defile the purity of my virginity. In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and of Joseph in prison. He told you of the zeal of Phineas, and he taught you about Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in the fire. He praised Daniel in the den of the lions and blessed him. He reminded you of the scripture of Isaiah, which says, `Even though you go through the fire, the flame shall not consume you.' He sang to you songs of the psalmist David, who said, `Many are the afflictions of the righteous.' He recounted to you Solomon's proverb, `There is a tree of life for those who do his will.' He confirmed the saying of Ezekiel, `Shall these dry bones live?' For he did not forget to teach you the song that Moses taught, which says, `I kill and I make alive: this is your life and the length of your days.'"

O bitter was that day -- and yet not bitter -- when that bitter tyrant of the Greeks quenched fire with fire in his cruel caldrons, and in his burning rage brought those seven sons of the daughter of Abraham to the catapult and back again to more tortures, pierced the pupils of their eyes and cut out their tongues, and put them to death with various tortures. For these crimes divine justice pursued and will pursue the accursed tyrant. But the sons of Abraham with their victorious mother are gathered together into the chorus of the fathers, and have received pure and immortal souls from God, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

God bless you all during this festival, which is a celebration of the rebirth of hope after the darkest and most terrible trials.

Happy Boxing Day

Happy Boxing Day to those who have Boxing Day today. Boxing Day is traditionally the day in which the upper class would give beneficences to those of the lower class. Christmas was the day on which you would have mutual exchange among equals; on Boxing Day, you would have one-way gift-giving by the rich to the poor. The day, of course, was not only the day after Christmas, it was the Feast of Stephen, as in the following Boxing Day classic:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

There are still some people who make Boxing Day a day for the poor, but, of course, for most Canadians, Boxing Day has nothing to do with class or the poor; it's the day you return all the Christmas gifts you don't want and go shopping to get the Boxing Day sales. That's Canadian capitalism for you.

The War on Christmas

The real war on Christmas, in an article at Slate. Some of it is a bit of a stretch, of course; but otherwise, it's worth knowing just how irrational iconoclasm can get.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Wrong Shall Fail, The Right Prevail

As we approach the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, a thought to remember:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Aristotle on Animal Thought

In the great majority of animals there are traces of psychical qualities which are more markedly differentiated in the case of human beings. For just as we pointed out resemblances in the physical organs, so in a number of animals we observe gentleness or fierceness, mildness or cross temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirit or low cunning, and, with regard to intelligence, something equivalent to sagacity. Some of these qualities in man, as compared with the corresponding qualities in animals, differ only quantitatively, that is to say, a man has more of this quality, and an animal has more of some other; other qualities in man are represented by analogous qualities: for instance, just as in man we find knowledge, wisdom, and sagacity, so in certain animals there exists some other natural capacity akin to these.

Aristotle, Historia Animalium 8.588a16-26. Thompson & Barnes translation.

Death of a Thousand Qualifications

A very odd article at MSNBC about Gregory Paul's argument that there is a correlation between religious belief and sociological dysfunction. It claims that the argument of Paul's article is sound; except that its methodology is inadequately explained, its data possibly unreliable, and, contrary to his explicit complain only to be establishing correlation, his discussion in the paper appears to presuppose a causal link. But it's still sound! Whatever that means. But this may in part be misleading journalism. In his response to his critics Mr. Paul manages to sound a great deal like a caricature of a pseudoscientist:

Paul said such questions were beside the point. No one has persuasively challenged his raw data or what they demonstrate, he contended; if other scientists don’t believe him, they can do the research themselves. That’s how science works.

“No one’s shown what I did was wrong,” said Paul, who said he was planning to write a book on the subject. “They tend to go off on tangents.”

Since one's credentials, the reliability of one's data, the adequacy of one's statistical methodology, the sloppiness of one's presentation of the results, and the logic of one's inferences from the analyzed data (the major points for which he has been criticized) are here being lumped together as 'tangents', I'm left not knowing what Gregory Paul's view of science is.

(HT: prosthesis)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Boyle on Humane Treatment of Animals

In an early manuscript (probably late 1640s, when he would have been about 20), Robert Boyle put forward a number of arguments in favor of the humane treatment of animals. One of them was the Sabbath argument. Boyle notes that the Sabbath was instituted in part for the benefit of domestic animals:

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.

He also notes that when God tells Jonah why he spares Nineveh, he mentions the cattle;

And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

Other arguments Boyle gives are that animals feel pain; that we can't rule out the possibility that animals have immortal souls; that because animals only have sensory pleasures and not our power for abstract pleasures, we should take into account in our treatment of them that their sensory pains are not sweetened by abstract pleasures about what the future will bring; that creation glorifies God; that those who mistreat animals get a bad reputation and develop bad habits; that animals are God's property and not ours; that they have value in themselves independent of their use to us (as shown in the fact that God had Noah save even the noxious animals; that, since there may be an excessive fondness for beasts, we have no reason to deny that there may be a deficient fondness for them as well; and that our Christian charity should be as broad as all creation.

Somewhat ironically, in later life Boyle was a vivisectionist, and tends to avoid the issue of humane treatment of animals.

Out to the Horizon, Part II

[This is a bit late; I kept intending to put it up, but kept forgetting. Part I is already up.]

After a few more shudders of the earth, the Unforgiving Mountain subsided again. It had happened quickly but, as when the lightning strikes the tree, marring it forever, the damage had been done.

She could not return to the village; that would be death. Nor could we remain where we were. All those hours in which we had dreamed up plans of escape flashed through my mind, and in the harsh atmosphere of recent events, they all dissipated like clouds. They were nothing but idle dreams of prisoners in an inescapable prison. Half the island was impenetrable jungle, all of it surrounded by vast, rolling hills of sea-surf; over everything, a tireless sentinel, the Unforgiving Mountain held vigil. Wherever one looked the gods of the Mountain held sway; wherever we could go they could pursue us with their vengeance, unresting, unrelenting, and no remission of guilt or sin was possible to us. We both knew this; and with knowledge came the sapping of hope.

I tried to set these thoughts aside. Whatever happened, i knew I must do whatever was needed to distract her from despair, to make some space, however small and slight, for a genuine hope. Perhaps also, still not understanding the brutality of the mountain-gods, I hoped, in giving her hope, to find some hope myself.

I seized her hand, holding it to my heart, whispering encouragements in her ear, sealing each encouragement with a small kiss. It was all in vain; for as I held her hand the gods of the Unforgiving Mountain began to take their most terrible vengeance. The hand I held grew cold; her body grew still. I pulled away and froze in fear. From head to foot where my beloved had been was solid stone, as if some demonic hand had perfectly carved her form into a stone from the Mountain.

The moment passed, and her flesh quickened again, but we both knew it would not last. She burst into tears; I pulled her close to me, fighting tears myself. Every so often she would turn to stone again; and each time she was stone longer. In desperation we tried to do what seemed our only option: we held each other closely, in order to spend the last moments awake, catching every heartbeat of the other. But the mountain-gods were not so kind. As we lay trembling in fear they sent forth an atmosphere of heat and humidity so great that it dragged us both to sleep. We fought, but to no avail. The gods had determined that we would lose even our last moments together, and we fell asleep.

When I awoke, she was no longer there. With a cry of trepidation I rushed out of the hut, and saw, with a terrible chill up and down my spine, what I had most feared. I flew forward and fell at her feet, which were washed by the careless waves. She stood looking out to the sea, her hair flowing back as if blown by the wind. It was not the wind that blew it, however, for she was stone, through and through, and with the coldness of stone she stood unacknowledging as I wept at her feet. So she stood forever, cold and immutable, looking out to the horizon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Turretin against Traducianism

Francis Turretin, arguing that the human soul cannot be traduced:

The soul is propagated by generation, either from both parents or from one only; either as to its totality or only as to a part. But neither can be said. Not the former because thus two souls would coalesce into one and be mingled. Not the latter, for if from one (either the father or the mother only) no reason can be given why it should be propagated by the one rather than by the other (since both parents are equally the principle of generation). If the whole is propagated, then the parents will be without it and so will be deprived of life. If a part, it will be divisible and consequently material and mortal. Nor can it be reasonably replied here that neither the whole soul nor a part of it is propagated, but a certain substance born of the soul and (as it were) an immortal seed of the soul. For it is taken for granted that there is a seed of the soul by which it either generates or is generated; yet such a seed cannot be granted (which does not fall from the soul), and therefore proves it to be material and divisible.

One way to break down the argument is as follows.

1. Assume the soul to be propagated.

2. Either it is (2a) from both parents or (2b) from only one.
3. (2a) implies that two souls are coalesced or mingled into one.
4. Therefore not (2a).
5. If (2b), no reason can be given why it should come from one rather than the other.
6. Therefore not (2b).

7. The soul is propagated either (7a) as a whole or (7b) in part.
8. If (7a), conception would deprive the parent(s) of life.
9. Therefore not (7a).
10. If (7b), the soul would be divisible.
11. Therefore not (7b).

12. Therefore the soul is not propagated, with contradicts (1).

For the background on traducianism, see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on it.

Compensator Theory

An interesting post at "Magic Statistics":

Toward a sociology of atheism

The most common efforts toward a sociology of atheism attempt are versions of secularization theory. Secularization theory tries to correlate the rise of atheism in society with a feature like education, economic prosperity, etc. The chief problem with just about every secularization theory is that it fails to account for the United States, which on secularization theories generally turns out to be a massive and unintelligible anomaly. (Nor, it should be said, is the United States always the only problem. The United Kingdom, for instance, which is much more secular than the U.S., nonetheless is still more religious than one would expect on most versions of the secularization theory, which often have difficulty explaining why the U.K. is more religious than, say, Germany or France. Ditto with Canada. But the big one, and the ultimate rock on which secularization theories tend to break, is the U.S., which is in a category all of its own.) In the post above, Scott Gilbreath points to an alternative to secularization theory that I hadn't heard of before, namely, compensator theory. The idea is that religion functions socially as a set of compensators: compensators are "postulations of reward according to explanations that are not readily susceptible to unambiguous evaluation" and supernatural explanations are among the most general compensators, i.e., they compensate for a wide variety of different rewards, and to a very high degree (think of Pascal's Wager). In the absence of a desired reward, people tend to accept explanations that posit a way for that reward to be fulfilled. Now, since compensators are explanations that give hope of rewards that are deferred or abstracted from immediate practical considerations, people naturally have a tendency to prefer immediate rewards to compensators. Compensators play an important role in social function, because they give a means for us to give aid to another even when we are not physically or financially able to do so. One thinks of prayer in this sort of situation -- someone unable to provide help to another may nonetheless offer to pray for them; belief that the prayer is doing some good, or that the prayer may be taken as a sort of genuine assistance, is a compensator. A dying man may prefer an immediate cure; but failing that, may very well be heartened at the fact that someone else is praying for him. Compensators also play an important role in psychological functioning. A parent worried about her lost child may well pray for the child's safety as well as look for the child; the prayer is a powerful compensator for the fact that the parent can't immediately produce the child at will. Such a compensator might (e.g.) help the parent avoid despair long enough to find the child and keep him safe. Compensators play a role in all our lives; and religion provides a set of compensators that are very broad in scope.

On a compensator theory of the rise of atheism, atheism will tend to arise in situations where people don't feel any need for compensators: that is, among people who are prosperous, have most of their needs taken care of, and have relatively few social obligations. In such a case there is relatively little practical use for compensators: even on the supposition that theism is true, for instance, a successful single man with no strong family ties in a developed country with a good welfare system and a relatively safe environment has very little in his immediate, practical, daily life that would require compensators as broad as theism potentially provides. Most of his practical needs are relatively easily fulfilled; and thus religion isn't as salient a factor for ordinary life. It's an interesting alternative. (I seem to remember that Freud somewhere has a very crude version of this, but I might be misremembering.) How well it accounts for the facts is a tricky issue, as Gilbreath points out. But it's a matter of some interest.

UPDATE: Miriam in the comments points to Callum Brown's The Death of Christian Britain as another proposed alternative to standard secularization theory. Brown's thesis is apparently that Christianity in Britain began to collapse in the 1960s due to a shift in women's sensibilities; since women were a major mainstay of British Christianity, and they were no longer finding it a useful way of seeing the world, the whole thing collapsed.

Liar, Liar II

In Buridan's Sophismata, we find the following interesting case:

I posit the case that I utter this proposition "I am speaking falsely" and no other.

The sophism is proved, since in so speaking I speak either falsely or truly. If I speak truly, then it is true that I speak falsely. Thus the sophism is true. But if I speak falsely, then the case is as I say. Therefore, I speak truly, and therefore the sophism is true....

The opposite is argued, since if the sophism were true, it would also follow that it was false, and so it would be both true and false, which is impossible. The conseuqence is proved, since if the proposition is true, then it is true that I speak falsely, and so what I say is false. And yet it is posited that I say nothing other than that sophism. Therefore, it is false.

It will be noted that this is very similar to the insoluble (L) I briefly discussed in my last Liar, Liar post. As Buridan goes on to note, this sophism cannot be resolved without considering the reasons for which a proposition is said to be true or false. After discussing a large number of issues with regard to supposition and insolubilia, he comes back to this sophism with his answer:

I answer that the sophism is false, because from it and the proposition expressing the case, a false proposition follows. Yet since this proposition expressing the case is said to be true, and that false, what thus follows is that the sophism is both true and false at once. But a proposition is false, from which, together with its truth, a false proposition follows.

And the arguments for the opposite are answered, according to what was said earlier. For it is said that if it were false, it would follow that it is true. I deny that consequent. And you proved it because if it is false, then it signifies. I agree, with respect to the formal signification. But this is not sufficient because it reflects on itself. For because of this it is not true, for it is not as the consequent of it and of the case signifies. For that consequent is that A is true, positing that my proposition is properly named A. and it is not as this signifies: "A is true."

This is a bit dense, but I think we can provide a very simplified answer to the sophism along Buridan's lines. The key point of Buridan's answer is that (if we make A = the proposition "I am speaking falsely" when nothing else is spoken) if A is false, it does not follow that it is true. One way you can see this is to recognize that a contradictory proposition is the very paradigm of falsehood. Even contingent falsehoods can be regarded as those propositions that generate contradictions on the supposition of something true. So the fact that there is a contradiction in A is no more a problem than the fact that there is a contradiction in 1+1=3. It only looks like there is a problem, because we are misled by the self-reference into thinking that A (or L in the previous post) supports the inference that if it is false it is true. All it supports is the conclusion that A is false, because it implies something false or impossible.

[Burdian translation from John Buridan, Sophisms on Meaning and Truth, Theodore Kermit Scott, tr. Meredith Publishing, 1966.]

'You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.'

The American Chesterton Society has a new blog. A bit of Chesterton's wisdom about philosophy (from his book on Shaw):

Philosophy is not the concern of those who pass though Divinity and Greats, but of those who pass through birth and death. Nearly all the more awful and abstruse statements can be put in words of one syllable, from 'A child is born' to 'A soul is damned.' If the ordinary man may not discuss existence, why should he be asked to conduct it?

And one of my favorite sentences in Chesterton, from The Common Man:

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him.

Traversing the Infinite

A very interesting discussion of whether the infinite can be traversed is going on at Philosophy, etc. I'm inclined to agree with some of the commentators that the common 'calculus' resolution of Zeno's paradox isn't a resolution of the paradox at all -- it's simply a restatement of the situation (that there is a finite interval whose traversal would take an infinite series). It's true that such situations really do exist; but that's the whole point of the original paradox, which Zeno directed against claims that a real, physical infinite divisibility was possible. As Hallq says in the comments, we don't seem to be able to get the claim that we can traverse an infinite; just that we can traverse any arbitrarily large finite series. But there are arguments that might be raised against this conclusion. Go and check out the discussion.


Johnny-Dee has an interesting criticism of the doctrine of divine simplicity at FQI; naturally, I disagree with it, as you can see in the comments, but it's interesting. John always has a knack for putting things in a clear and straightforward way. [UPDATE: John has a follow-up post.]

There are a number of different ways in which the doctrine of divine simplicity can be formulated, but for dealing with criticisms like this one, the most useful is the logical approach. (It isn't a very useful approach for positive arguments for the doctrine, but it is very useful for showing how common criticisms of it fail.) A term within a proposition, like 'omnipotence', has a certain signification -- in this case, one involving power. It also has a supposition, i.e., a reference to something. So, for instance, when I say, "God is omnipotent," 'omnipotent' supposits for that in God which is supposed to be omnipotent. (In general, there are three kinds of supposition: material, simple, and personal. In material supposition a term supposits for itself, e.g., 'The word 'omnipotent' has four syllables'. In simple supposition, a term supposits for a universal or abstract quality or form, e.g., 'Omnipotence is a kind of power'. In personal supposition, a term supposits for that of which it is truly predicated, e.g., 'This omnipotent is God'.) Now the doctrine of simplicity put in these terms is just the following:

For any divine-attribute terms A and B, that for which A supposits is exactly the same as that for which B supposits.

Seen in that way, most criticisms of divine simplicity dissolve entirely, because they can be shown to confuse sense and reference. That's not to say it's a cure-all; there are objections it doesn't meet. But most of the criticisms that try to show that the doctrine involves some serious incoherence are themselves confusing signification with supposition. The deeper problem is that most critics of the doctrine (and some suppporters) don't recognize that the doctrine is, in fact, a step in negative theology. It does not make a commitment as to the real character of the divine substance; it merely denies that certain distinctions, and terms indicative of these distinctions, cannot properly be attributed to the divine nature, whatever the divine nature may be.

In any case, here is the comment I left at FQI, which I post here because it says something also about the importance of immutability:

I've never been impressed by Plantinga on simplicity; I think he's just confused on the subject. Part of the problem is perhaps the mistaken idea that the modern label 'property' introduces any precision into the discussion -- in fact, the reverse is true, because the modern notion is a catch-all, not a sharp notion. There is no generally conceded modern account of what properties are, and common usages typically lump together a number of things (accidents, properties, natures, sometimes even relations) that the medievals would regularly have kept distinct, and for good reason. The medieval discussion, which is usually in terms of signification and supposition (roughly, sense and reference) is much better.

When we put it in these terms, I'm not convinced that the problem arises. What is identical is not (say) perfect love and omnipotence; rather, what is one and the same is that to which we refer when we talk about God's love and His omnipotence. Now, nothing in this implies that the effects of the divine love and omnipotence are necessarily same across all possible worlds; only that, necessarily, in every possible world, that to which 'omnipotence' refers is one and the same as that to which 'divine love' refers. (That's why the truthmaker approach noted in a comment above is more promising than any property approach. The problem doesn't arise on a truthmaker approach, either, as far as I can see.)

It also seems to me that your argument isn't really against simplicity at all, but against immutability. But immutability isn't necessity: that God's will is immutable doesn't mean that it couldn't be otherwise than it is, but that there is nothing to which it is potential (i.e., there is nothing capable of making God actual in any way, because His will is actual prior to any candidate for making it actual). In other words, God's immutability doesn't contradict his freedom, but preserves it, by making it impossible for anything other than God to limit it. As Aquinas says somewhere, immutability is the strength of God; and Aquinas is right: it's the negative complement of divine strength, in the sense that it is the negation of what could limit divine strength or cause divine weakness. Eliminate the one, you eliminate the other.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Literature and Understanding

An interesting discussion on literature and understanding the worldviews of others in this post and its comments: In Defense of Narnia. Lewis himself says similar things of Lucretius's poem, which, of course, tends atheistic.

Of Proverbs

One can recognize a number of patterns in proverb-types. Here are a few:

The biggest group consists of what might be called feature proverbs. Feature proverbs contribute to our mental profile or paradigm ofa given type or characteristic; they identify some aspect or feature that should be remembered. Feature proverbs can be divided in a number of different ways. Some literal ones are indicative, e.g., Hatred stirs up strife; but love covers all sins (Pr 10:5); some are predictive, in the sense that they identify not a mark but an effect. Others are less literal, edifying similes and metaphors, e.g., As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so the sluggard to those that send him (Pr. 10:26). Whereas literal feature proverbs tell, the figurative ones evoke: The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly (Pr. 26:22).

Others are what I call rather proverbs. They differ from feature proverbs in that they indicate right preferences, and are thus always comparative. For example:
Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith. (Pr. 15:16)
Open rebuke rather than secret love. (Pr. 27:5)

Yet others are paternal or magisterial exhortations, e.g., My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent (Pr. 1:10); Do not be envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them (Pr. 24:1); Open your mouth, judge justly, and plead the cause of the poor and needy (Pr. 31:9). The point of such imperatives is to save us from error based on the long experience of others, which may or may not be given a formulation in the imperative itself. They are straightforward counsels.

Another kind of proverb is the query proverb; they are rhetorical questions whose point is not to tell but to press the one addressed to form their own insight. (Not all questions are query proverbs; some are other forms of proverbs in question format. The distinctive aspect of a query proverb is that it leaves the insight to the hearer, whereas question-format feature proverbs, e.g., don't.) While there are a few in the book of Proverbs, they aren't common; for a bit of wisdom literature that makes rather effective use of them, see the epistle of James.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Surprised by Joy

Surprised by joy--impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport--Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind--
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?--That thought's return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn,
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

-- William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Speculations on Jesus and 'the Jews' in John

I have recently been re-reading the Gospel according to John; and in doing so I have been struck by something more forcefully than I have previously, namely, the peculiarities of the evangel's use of the term 'Jew'. We might be inclined, and, indeed, any look at comments on John shows that many people are inclined, to read the word in the modern sense; but a look at the author's actual usage shows that this is an untenable approach, because he is clearly not using it in our sense. There are two aspects of his usage that become clear when we look at this usage:

(1) John's term 'Jew' is limited by geography. So, for instance, Jesus stays in Galilee to avoid the Jews (Jn 7:1), despite that Galilee has a lot of Jews in our sense of the term. The author of the gospel uses the term always and only for Judeans (the one possible exception is probably not really one, see below). Indeed there are a number of groups in the gospel that are not called 'Jews', despite being clearly what we would call Jewish:

(a) the disciples of John
(b) the disciples of Jesus
(c) the Greeks (who are in context clearly Hellenistic Jews, since they have come to Palestine to celebrate the holy days)
(d) Jewish Galileans

In some cases, particularly (a), (b), and perhaps (c), there is a clear opposition of some sort set up between the Jewish group and the Jews in John's sense.

(2) What is more, John usually restricts it even further, to those who are in league with the Pharisees and priests. In other words, the Jews in John's sense of the term are those who are representatives of Judea's religious establishment. Several uses of the term can only be understood in this way. For instance, Caiaphas's advice to the Pharisees and the priests (Jn 11:48ff) is later summarized as his counsel to the Jews (Jn 18:14); and in more than one spot the people of Judea are opposed to the Jews -- the people are afraid of the Jews because (for instance) the Jews have the power to throw them out of the synagogue.

Obviously, there are lots of uses of the term that can be interpreted in more than one way. But there are only two scenes in which the word 'Jew' seems to have a broader signification than this narrower 'those in league with the Pharisees and priests'. The first scene is the discussion between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (Jn 4). The Samaritan woman having called him a Jew, Jesus identifies himself with the Jews:

You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.

If we regarded this use of the term as being closer to our own sense of the term, it would be the only case in the whole gospel which would definitely take that meaning. Much more probable is the conclusion that Jesus is accepting the Samaritan's labeling of him as Judean. We don't find any reason for this in the gospel itself, but, of course, we already know (from Matthew and Luke) that there was a Christian tradition predating this gospel which did, in fact, take Jesus to be born in Judea, despite living in Galilee. Origen had interpreted the phrase 'his own country' in 4:44 (which, if we take it to refer to Galilee seems to conflict with 4:45) to refer to Judea; this is usually dismissed, because modern scholars tend to assume that John only associates Jesus with Galilee (cf. 1:46), not Judea. But I wonder if they are perhaps being too glib on this point, since I suspect Origen is quite right. To identify 'his own country' with Judea fits with the passage preceding. I don't know if this is the right solution or not; but it seems to me that we are taking the gospel more consistently if we regard v. 22 as an affirmation of a Judean identity.

In any case, the other scenario is in some sense more interesting, since it is the interaction between the priests and Pilate (Jn 19). It is a sign of deliberateness, I think, that throughout this entire interaction, the narrator continues to use the term in his usual narrow sense, but Pilate consistently uses it to mean 'Judean'; the Roman governor lumps in all the Judeans together. His title for Jesus, "King of the Jews," clearly means "King of the People of Judea" rather than "King of the Jewish People".

I find all this somewhat interesting in that the gospel is often accused of being anti-Semitic for its heavy, and heavily negative, use of the term 'the Jews'. But the structure of the work tells against this interpretation. There are several Jewish populations who are never condemned under this term, and usually the term is restricted to the Judean religious establishment. The occasional positive use (Jesus with the Samaritan woman) and neutral use (Pilate) are the exceptions that prove the rule: for these are the only cases where there is a straightforward positive argument for taking the term as a reference even to all Judeans. There is no attack on the Jewish people in the Fourth Gospel. Rather, the picture that the evangel gives is of a particular group -- the Judean religious establishment -- who see themselves as the leaders and protectors of all Jewish people, and take this self-appointed mission as a license for meddling in the religious affairs of others. So effective is their meddling that ordinary Jewish people, and even some of their own members, live in fear of their sanction. They are self-appointed gatekeepers, who brand Jewish people who oppose them as sinners or (even worse) Samaritans. That's the picture that John gives; a very limited picture of a very small group within Judaism, and not of the whole Jewish people. In the gospel Jesus opposes not the Jews in general, but the power of the Temple: one might say that in this gospel the Temple of Jesus's body stands over against the corrupted Temple as the symbols of the two opposed ways in which God may be worshipped, the first of which liberates and the second of which oppresses.

Theology in the Blogosphere

The 100th Christian Carnival is up at NickQueen.com. I found especially interesting the post on the view of messianic prophecy in the Talmud.

Nestorius Lives is very good post on the Theotokos doctrine at "The Crusty Curmudgeon." (HT: Rebecca Stark at Theologica)

Was Jesus really a carpenter? Euangelion discusses the alternatives to the traditional attribution.

Loren Rosson III discusses New Testament meanings of Christ's death at The Busybody.

Claude Mariottini discusses the proper translation of Isaiah 40:6.

At Prosblogion there's a discussion of Rowe's Can God Be Free? argument. It's an interesting argument; but I'm inclined to think it was already shown to be impossible by Malebranche. People forget that Leibniz, in his affirmation that God must create the best possible world, was explicitly opposing himself to Malebranche, who denies--rightly, I think--that there's any coherent argument for such a conclusion. The best you can do is conclude that whatever God does must be done in the best possible way given the ends He has in view. Malebranche himself held that this world was not only obviously not the best possible world, it's not even a particularly good one by most of our standards; but this does not reflect on God as infinite perfect being at all, since all that follows from God's being infinite perfect being is that his actions must be the best possible actions of their kind, not that his effects must be the best possible effects. Leibniz, in fact, makes no good argument whatsoever for his rejection of this view; and none of his erstwhile modern followers are even as good as Leibniz is at making Malebranche's distinction even to reject it, which is the absolute minimum for saying anything useful on the subject. I've given an argument for accepting what is essentially Malebranche's distinction in a similar context. Once the distinction is accepted, the argument fails.

Bernoullian Combination

Jakob Bernoulli's posthumous Ars Conjectandi (1713) is a classic of probability theory that deserves to be better known among students of early modern thought. One of the interesting things about the work is its proposal of a non-Bayesian way of dealing with probability of arguments. We tend to forget that originally there was no notion of numerical probability; our tendency to think of probabilities numerically is precisely one of our inheritances from the early modern period. Originally a probability was an argument; and much early probability theory gets its major impulse from the first exploratory attempts to see if this sense of probability could be clarified by algebra.

Against this background, it was natural that people would begin seeing what analogies there were between gambling, an area where decision and argument was very easily mathematized, and other areas. Bernoulli explored a way to mathematize probably arguments by seeing them as analogous to a game of chance. A probable argument, Bernoulli suggested, can be broken down into 'cases of argument', where each case is a possible outcome of using the argument. So, as just one example, if I put forward a given argument, I could break this down into a case in which the argument yields A and a case in which the argument does not yield A. That is, if I have a probable argument, there will be cases in which the probable argument will give a given possible conclusion and cases in which it won't.

If we break down a probable argument into its cases, we can then combine arguments in an interesting probabilistic way. Here's an example. Suppose someone has been murdered. We know there was only one murderer, we have a profile of the murder, and we know that p people fit the profile. Since the profile fits p suspects, for each suspect we can regard the profile as a probable argument for the conclusion that that subject is the murderer. These are the cases of the argument. Suppose that one of the suspects is called Gracchus; then there are p-1 cases of the argument in which the argument does not prove Gracchus guilty, and 1 case in which it does. So far, so good; but let us add another argument, since we're interested here in the combination of arguments. Suppose that Gracchus, on being questioned about the murder, turns pale. Let's put on our sleuthing hats. Gracchus's pallor can form the basis of a probable argument about his participation in the murder. If we break this down into its cases, there would be a case in which this argument would prove his guilt, because the guilt and the pallor would actually be linked; and there would be cases in which it would not (because the pallor would not be linked to the guilt). Let the total number of these cases be called q; then the number of cases which leave the matter open is q-1.

By combining this argument with the previous one, we could reason in this way. We can use our first probable argument to divide the q-1 cases into cases in which Gracchus is guilty and cases in which he is innocent. In accordance with that first argument, proportion of these cases, 1/p, yield the conclusion of guilt, because one case out of p will lead to guilt; the rest, (p-1)/p, will yield the conclusion of innocence. So if we put together all the cases yielding the conclusion that Gracchus is guilty, we get the following number:

1 + (q-1)/p

Think it through a moment, and you'll see why: we have 1 case of guilt, and we add to that a proportion 1/p of the q-1 cases. The combined probability that Gracchus is guilty, then, is as follows:

[1 + (q-1)/p]/q

which can be simplified to:

(p + q -1)/pq

Suppose there were 20 suspects; and suppose that we judge on the basis of our experience that guilt can be inferred from pallor one out of every hundred times. Assuming I haven't made a stupid addition mistake, the probability of guilt is a little under 3/50 (more precisely, something like 119/2000). Suppose there were only 4 suspects, and we could corrrectly infer guilt from pallor one out of every ten times. Then the probability of guilt would be 13/40.

One of the interesting features of this approach is that, depending on the arguments we are combining, we can't assume that the probabilities for and against a conclusion sum to one. This isn't actually surprising, given that we are dealing with probable arguments; we would hardly expect it always to be the case that the arguments we are combining always cover all possible cases.

Bernoulli's work was only published poshumously in 1713; however, it was an attempt to bring mathematics to the understanding of probability that was then common. It's not surprising, then, that if we look at what people in the seventeenth and eighteenth century say about probabilities and chances, we find that they think of it in terms that are (broadly) like those of Bernoulli, and not really like the way we tend to think of them. Barry Gower had a nice article in the April 1990 Hume Studies in which he pointed out that recognizing this explains one of the common objections to Hume's argument against miracles. It was common for people to insist that whatever the probability against miracles may be, it has no effect on the probability for miracles. Their conception of probability is certainly not Bayesian; it is not even directly probability-theoretical (since it's based on a different, albeit related, notion of probability). Rather, it is much closer to the Bernoullian combination of arguments (as Hume's own argument also is). Pretty much everyone in the period has this view of the matter; they differ on details, but they tend to think along the same lines.

Glenn Shafer has a really good article on the significance of Bernoulli's Ars Conjectandi for probability theory (PDF format).

History Carnival 22

(My she's growing up fast!) The 22nd History Carnival is up at Frog in a Well: Korea. My criticism of Stark's essay was apparently nominated. There's a good mix this time around -- both light reading and heavy reading. Take a moment to browse.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

More Notes

* Critique of pure (Jedi) reason at "verbum ipsum"

* Interview with a Penitent: Anne Rice at Christianity Today (HT: Another Think) Also worth perusing is Rice's official website; she corrects common misconceptions about her recent writing of Christ the Lord here.

* The Philosopher's Carnival is up at "Right Reason"

* Apparently Daniel Dennett stuck his foot in his mouth recently. That's what he gets for lying about Darwin.

* James Madison's original proposal for the Ninth Amendment (HT: Stuart Buck):

The exceptions here or elsewhere in the constitution, made in favor of particular rights, shall not be so construed as to diminish the just importance of other rights retained by the people; or as to enlarge the powers delegated by the constitution; but either as actual limitations of such powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution.

* Some of you may have noticed that there was a period when accessing Siris would create a pop-up ad. It took me forever to figure out what was doing it (since I am a slow and naive country bumpkin in this land of wicked code-writers), but it was my Nedstat counter (now webstats4u). It was originally an awesome free webcounter (Danish, if I recall correctly), which I used to great effect to keep track of who was linking to me, etc. However, when the new management took over, they started using pop-up ads, so I took the counter off. Apparently a lot of people are very annoyed. The new management had put more ads in the statcounter dashboard itself, which would have been just fine; but coding pop-up ads into other people's websites without so much as a how-d'ye-do is a bit uncouth. I'll be experimenting a bit with StatCounter to see if I like it.

* My result in the Narnia Quiz (HT: Rebecca, who is also Tumnus):

Feast of St. John of the Cross

En una noche escura
con ansias en amores inflamada
¡o dichosa ventura!
salí sin ser notada
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

ascuras y segura
por la secreta escala, disfraçada,
¡o dichosa ventura!
a escuras y en celada
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

En la noche dichosa
en secreto que naide me veýa,
ni yo mirava cosa
sin otra luz y guía
sino la que en el coraçón ardía.

Aquésta me guiava
más cierto que la luz de mediodía
adonde me esperava
quien yo bien me savía
en parte donde naide parecía.

¡O noche, que guiaste!
¡O noche amable más que la alborada!
¡oh noche que juntaste
amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!

En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba
allí quedó dormido
y yo le regalaba
y el ventalle de cedros ayre daba.

El ayre de la almena
quando yo sus cavellos esparcía
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.

Quedéme y olbidéme
el rostro recliné sobre el amado;
cessó todo, y dexéme
dexando mi cuydado
entre las açucenas olbidado.

An English translation to this masterpiece of Spanish theological poetry is here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Smith and the Invisible Hand

Adam Smith uses the phrase "invisible hand" in Theory of Moral Sentiments IV.i.10 and Wealth of Nations IV.2.9. Keith Rankin points out What Adam Smith Really Said about the invisible hand. It's good to see an argument like this; one tends to forget how focused Smith was on national good -- the book, after all, is called The Wealth of Nations. Also, as a commenter noted in response to it at Stealth Badger, Smith was primarily a moral philosopher, and presumed that sympathy and moral sense would be part of what contributes to making something part of one's self-interest. We also tend to forget that Smith himself recognizes most of the problems with capitalism that others have and recognizes them as problems -- one of the reasons why he puts such emphasis on the importance of public education, for instance, is to compensate for these failings (Smith doesn't think it should be nationalized, but does think a universal basic education should be regulated and supported by the government, especially at the local level, in a way that allows people to make their own choices about their education to the extent consistent with the need to regulate the basic form of education).

(HT: Science and Politics)

A Story is a Story

I very much recommend Rebecca's post on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a remedy for the tendencies, which seem to be rampant these days, to play it up as Christian at the cost of overlooking it as what it really is: a story. It taps into Christian imagery, and here and there illustrates Christian claims in its own way; but it's a story, geared to the imagination, not a doctrinal treatise in story format.

Womb of Science

I recently came across Stark's article at The Chronicle on Christianity, capitalism, and science (HT: Cliopatria). The argument manages to be both confused and confusing at the same time. In the first paragraph he seems to be trying to convey the problem of China, which did arise in Enlightenment circles here and there (the problem was why China, which was occasionally used by a handful of thinkers as a paradigmatic rational society, appeared not to be as advanced scientifically as Christian Europe); but he manages to make it sound as if it were a general problem pertaining to the 15th century, which is odd. And while shifting economic systems probably had a role somewhere in the mix, anything recognizable as (genuine) capitalism seems to have missed completely some of the major scientific advances of the early modern period. I suppose it depends on what you're willing to call 'capitalism'.

The more serious problem with the argument is that it seems to be mixing up genealogical and logical backgrounds, which need not be the same (or even consistent with each other). There is a strong argument that both Christianity and new economic awareness played a role in the genealogy of science as we know it. To name just one example, a number of early scientists saw themselves as doing something for Christianity and Christendom when they did their scientific work. But it isn't clear what this gets us. For instance, we could interpret this as meaning (1) that Christianity has some special aptness for incubating scientific development; (2) that the scientists were acting inconsistently; or (3) that the union of the two is little more than a coincidence. Even if we accept (1), it wouldn't follow that other things lack the same aptness. That something forms a genealogical background for a given historical/intellectual event tells us very little about how it is related to that event logically or in explanation. Stark gives us a largely genealogical argument that capitalism and Christianity played a role in the development of science, but tries to draw from this a conclusion about how the development of science is to be explained, as if he had shown that there was some deeper logical link between Christianity and scientific thought. Some of Stark's undeveloped claims are perhaps supposed to give this deeper explanatory link; but many of these are rather dubious. In fairness to Stark, he's clearly just putting up a summary of his forthcoming book, which (one would imagine) develops his claims at greater length, and perhaps in a more nuanced and argued way. But as it stands it's not a particularly great argument.

Spat Among the Anti-Materialists

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of 'Christian Science', was apparently not very impressed by Berkeley:

Bishop Berkeley published a book in 1710 entitled "Treatise Concerning the Principle of Human Knowledge." Its object was to deny, on received principles of philosophy, the reality of an external material world. In later publications he declared physical substance to be "only the constant relation between phenomena connected by association and conjoined by the operations of the universal mind, nature being nothing more than conscious experience. Matter apart from conscious mind is an impossible and unreal concept." He denies the existence of matter, and argues that matter is not without the mind, but within it, and that that which is generally called matter is only an impression produced by divine power on the mind by means of invariable rules styled the laws of nature. Here he makes God the cause of all the ills of mortals and the casualties of earth.

Again, while descanting on the virtues of tar-water, he writes: "I esteem my having taken this medicine the greatest of all temporal blessings, and am convinced that under Providence I owe my life to it." Making matter more potent than Mind, when the storms of disease beat against Bishop Berkeley's metaphysics and personality he fell, and great was the fall—from divine metaphysics to tar-water!

[From Mary Baker Eddy's Message for 1901.] The context can be seen here (scroll down). Eddy, it seems, was a little sensitive about the charge that Berkeley was the inventor of Eddy's views about the world. She is certainly right that Berkeley would not have accepted the 'Christian Science' claim that death, disease, and sin were illusive errors. Berkeley deals with the question of God's relation to ills in PHK 151ff.

In any case, I knew I had to post about it when I came across the comment on Berkeley's interest in tar-water.

Butler on Mediation

The whole Analogy of Nature removes all imagined Presumption against the general Notion of a Mediator between God and Man. For we find all living Creatures are brought into the World, and their Life in Infancy is preserved, by the Instrumentality of Others; and every Satisfaction of it, some way or other, is bestowed by the like Means. So that the visible Government which God exercises over the World is by the Instrumentality and Mediation of Others.

Joseph Butler, Analogy of Religion, II.v.i

UPDATE: Fixed the text (some of it had dropped out by accident). By the way, you should read the poem, "Reflections Upon Butler's Analogy of Religion" at The Occident and American Jewish Advocate.

Another Poem Draft

Farther Shore

Every good thing passes, but there is a farther shore;
the dying of the one good makes another to endure;
it's a feature of all goodness no subtle words can hide:
God is born in Bethlehem, and God is crucified.
As the seed-husk falls away so that the sprouting stem may live,
so falls away the prior good, its very life to give.
This is the dark evangel that reigns beneath the sky:
the flower bursts to blossom and in its very blossom dies.
But in every flower's fading is fruition of a life,
a mediating labor that births the fruit to light.
And in a dusty manger far beneath a Magi's star
a doom is writ and graven that no mortal hand can bar
in living proof of glory that no man can well ignore:
for every good thing passes, but there is a farther shore.

Monday, December 12, 2005

I Have Seen the Future, and it is Malebranche

Dr. Pretorius predicts that Malebranche is up for a revival. (I think his other prediction is as sure a thing as can be.) If Richard is right, the signs are looking very good; more people speaking French increases the probability of reading 17th-century French philosophers.

So you see your future, brothers and sisters: join with the forces of Malebranche scholars today while there still is time to jump on the bandwagon! In the meantime I have a head start; so I'll just conveniently ride the tide to a cushy position somewhere....


The Matter of Narnia

Roger Ebert has a very good review of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I agree with him that it seems inevitable that the series will tip over into R -- I don't see how The Last Battle can possibly avoid it. The joke about the animal inhabited by an archbishop is a good one, and I liked this point to ponder with which he ends:

But it's remarkable, isn't it, that the Brits have produced Narnia, the Ring, Hogwarts, Gormenghast, James Bond, Alice and Pooh, and what have we produced for them in return? I was going to say "the cuckoo clock," but for that you would require a three-way Google of Italy, Switzerland and Harry Lime.

I agree with Jared Wilson of Thinklings fame that Anna Popplewell's performance as Susan, although very likely to be overlooked, was excellent, and deserves commendation. The boys had nothing on the girls, although Skandar Keynes as Edmund managed to capture the look of an Edmund very well -- miserable and beastly simultaneously. I hope that when the Dawn Treader comes along they get someone who captures the look of a Eustace (my favorite character in the series) well. I think it's possible to exaggerate the weakness of Moseley's performance; I'm inclined to put it down to a weakly written part. Swinton as the White Witch was good -- she managed to come across as quite cold. I look forward to seeing how she does in The Magician's Nephew (my favorite book in the series), assuming that she continues with the role -- the signs are quite promising.


I am very, very picky about fantasy -- it's my favorite genre, but it's a little like free verse: everyone can write it but only a handful of people can write it well. So I usually don't catch up to more recent good quality fantasy until quite a bit after everyone else. I had read China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Scar some months ago, but only got around to reading Iron Council yesterday. Of the three, PSS is still the one most worth reading. TS was a massive disappointment; a rather crude and unimpressive bit of misdirection that was only alleviated in its tediousness of plot by Mieville's undeniable talent for description. Fortunately the story of IC, while not up to the level of PSS, is much better. I confess, by the way, that I don't understand why he has a reputation as a 'gritty' or 'edgy' author. Perhaps my notion of 'gritty' and 'edgy' is much grittier and edgier than that of everyone else, but I just don't see it. There's certainly a lot of squalor in Mieville's world, but it's one of the things he conveys least satisfactorily -- he has an odd tendency to romanticize it. He also likes fight scenes, but does them remarkably badly -- again, his talent for description often saves him, but for battles that should be rather grim, they read an awful lot like staged pyrotechnics. (Admittedly, they are difficult to do properly.) Mieville does best, I think, with the political side of the story -- he's clearly quite comfortable here, and not stretching at all. IC, while less of a story, is very skillfully done -- better even than PSS in some ways, and I recommend it for those who like that style of storytelling. (Crooked Timber had a seminar on the book in January.)

Likewise, I only just recently got around to reading Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It's a bit self-indulgent -- it could easily be a hundred pages shorter without serious damage to the story -- it's excellent, and I recommend it highly. (There was also a Crooked Timber seminar on it, much more recently.)

So That's My Stereotype This Week

Green - You believe that small economic units
should control the goods, and that the
government should be permissive of
"victimless crimes," respectful of
civil liberties and very strict towards big
business. You also believe in either a
socialist tax structure or more power to local
communities. You think that environmental
policies should be written into law. Your
historical role model is Ralph Nader.

Which political sterotype are you?
brought to you by Quizilla


To Begin to Exist Is to Be an Effect

The ever lovely and brilliant Lady Mary on beginning to exist:

Let the object which we suppose to begin its existence of itself be imagined, abstracted from the nature of all objects we are acquainted with, saving in its capacity for existence; let us suppose it to be no effect; there shall be no prevening circumstances whatever that affect it, nor any existence in the universe: let it be so; let there be nought but a blank; and a mass of whatsoever can be supposed not to require a cause START FORTH into existence, an dmake the first breach on the wide nonentity around;--now, what is this starting forth, beginning, coming into existence, but an action, which is a quality of an object not yet in being, and so not possible to have its qualities determined, nevertheless exhibiting its qualities?
[Lady Mary Shepherd, An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, p. 35.]

That's a pretty hefty sentence, so let's break down the idea a bit. Hume (who is Shepherd's main target here) says that it is possible to imagine something beginning to exist without a cause. Shepherd argues against this view in this way (more or less):

(1) Suppose there to be an object that begins to exist without a cause.
(2) Beginning to exist is an action.
(3) An action is a quality (feature) of something that exists.
(4) The object that begins to exist cannot exist until it has already begun to exist.
(5) Therefore the action involved in beginning to exist is not the action of the object that begins to exist.
(6) This is to have a cause, which contradicts the supposition.

As she puts it a bit later:

But if my adversary allows thtat, no existence being supposed previously in the universe, existence, in order to be, must begin to be, and that the notion of beginning an action (the being that begins it not supposed yet in existence), involves a contradiction in terms; then this beginning to exist cannot appear but as a capacity some nature hath to alter the presupposed nonentity, and to act for itself, whilst itself is not in being.--The original assumption may deny, as much as it pleases, all cause of the existence; but, whilst in its very idea, the commencement of existence is an effect predicated of some supposed cause, (because the quality of an object which must be in existence to possess it,) we must conclude that there is no object which begins to exist, but must owe its existence to some cause.
[Lady Mary Shepherd, An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, pp. 35-36.]