Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Lotus, Part III: Rozanov

In a camp not far from the cursed second stream on the right I huddled over Rozanov's journal, trying to make sense of it. Rozanov's writing was terse and cryptic, and the book had been water-damaged to the point of being largely illegible in places. Nonetheless, some of it could still be made out. Easiest to make out were the drawings, each clearly done by someone with an eye simultaneously artistic and scientific. There was a sketch of one of the great spider-webs, stretching from tree to tree, from soil to canopy, of the sort that little spiders spin near the rivers and streams. In another, a large black crocodile kept a wary eye on the explorations of her young. Others traced plants, insects, and snakes. Then, largest of all, taking up a full spread of the book, there was a beautiful flower, somewhat like an orchid. After that the journal itself, as a description of Rozanov's travels, stopped. There were many more pages, however, and every single one of them was covered with drawings of that same flower, obsessively done over and over again, two or three to a page. I could find nothing else, except a single word that was written here and there in a tremulous, excited hand: bessmertie. Immortality.

As I drifted to sleep, I turned over the events of the day in my head, and they blurred together in my dreams. I dreamed that I was back in the city, back in the room of the gray men, but instead of talking to them, I was talking to Rozanov. On the table lay the corpse of Rozanov's guide, covered with the strange flowers depicted in Rozanov's journal. I talked without interruption for what seemed forever, and then Rozanov opened his mouth and said one word: "Immortality."

Quin and I set out early in the morning, heartened by the sure signs that we were on the right trail, but made wary by the memory of the skeleton. At one point we were forced by a turn in the river to move west; shortly into this Quin stopped suddenly.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Trim, that is a path," he said pointing.

I looked to where he was pointing, and, sure enough, it was a path. Trails can quickly become overgrown in the jungle, and someone with eyes less sharp than Quin's could easily have missed it, but a straight trail had been cut through the underbrush recently enough that it had not been completely covered over. On closer inspection it was clear that someone had been through with a machete.

After ten minutes of following the trail we suddenly came into a large clearing.

If you have never been in the jungle, I cannot convey to you how startling this is. In a realm in which every plant, every animal, every insect is in a constant competition for survival, open spaces do not remain. These forests have been known to swallow entire cities; if a village neglects cutting and clearing, it can vanish completely in a matter of weeks. But here we were, in a large clearing, apparently consisting of nothing but rocky, sandy soil, sparse grass, and, in the center, a solitary flowering bush.

Quin hung back a bit, uncertain what to make of this, but I moved forward, rifle ready. A little way in I stumbled slightly on something sticking out of the earth. At first I thought it was a rock, but closer inspection showed it to be a bone, probably belonging to a great cat of some kind. A little further into the clearing it became clear that the bone was not the only one; they littered the ground everywhere: femurs and skulls half-covered with sand, tiny, indescript bones like pebbles, clearly from hundreds of different animals. They increased as I came closer to the plant in the middle, whose flowers were now recognizably the same as that in Rozanov's journal. They filled the air with an intense, drowsy sweetness, a sweetness partly like honeysuckle and jasmine and partly like rotting fruit. The bush had gray leaves that moved in the breeze like flickering fingers.

A sudden movement from the other side of the bush forced me back suddenly. A figure staggered up, as if from sleep, dirty and ape-like. It wore clothes, however. They hung as tattered rags from an emaciated frame.

"Rozanov!" I said softly. It was more of an exclamation than a greeting.

The figure came slowly, but with a nervous jitteriness, around the bush, without saying anything. It was a far cry from the suave, athletic person I remembered from the Embassy dinner in London years ago; but it was clearly Rozanov.

"Rozanov," I said again, "I have come to bring you back so that you may account for your absence. If you do not comply, I have been authorized to kill you."

The figure showed no signs of comprehension. I could see its eyes now. They glimmered with anger and fear like a savage beast's, but they watered and the pupils were large.

"Rozanov!" I said again. "Do you understand me?"

What happened next took only a few moments, but it remains in my memory as if it had occurred with painstaking slowness. The thing-that-once-was-Rozanov stopped suddenly, gathered itself, and rushed at me. I shot it in the chest. Twice. It kept coming. As it knocked my rifle down and away I managed a third shot, to the stomach, which did not even slow it down. The gun flew far out of my reach, I was thrown back, and the beast was on top of me, grabbing at my throat.

I struggled, but to no avail. Emaciated the thing may have been, but it had a strength like I had never felt. I am sure it could have crushed my throat immediately, but before it squeezed, it bent down toward my face, its breath stinking of the rotten sweetness of the flowers. "Bessmertie," it hissed. I prepared my soul to die.

A shot rang out, and a puzzled look came over the thing's face. There was another shot and it fell over heavily. Panting, I pushed it off me and sat up, Quin was some distance away, rifle still up. The thing beside me lay dead with two shots in its head. Rozanov was no more.

Quin came over and helped me to my feet. "We should leave, Trim," he said. "This is a bad place." Still panting, I agreed.

I will not return to Europe. There is nowhere there I could go to elude the gray men in their immaculate suits, and I will not bring them back the information they wished me to bring back. I have suspicions about what it is they wanted with the flower that had so come to obsess Rozanov, filling him with sick dreams. That they wished to know if it existed and where it was - that much is clear. But no one can know of it.

They will send others to find it. With Rozanov dead and myself out of their reach, they will not be as likely to succeed. But what if they do? I have arranged for a Portuguese trader to give this manuscript to a journalist I know in Lisbon, who will find a way to publish it as fiction under a pseudonym. No one can find the place based on the details I have allowed here; some of them are false or deliberately misleading. Few will even take the story as fact; but I hope that they will learn the lesson of it.

As for me, I go with Quin in his journey home. He has been mercy itself to me on many a quest; the least I can do is try to return the favor. Rozanov and the lotus I have chosen to forget. When I put aside this manuscript, I will speak of it no more. It will not be so easy to get it out of my dreams.

Honderich on Philosophy and Science

As it seems to me, the virtue of philosophy is that it is logically more hard-headed than science. The virtue of science is that it knows a lot more about the empirical nitty-gritty of the world and the ways it works. That philosophy is logically more hard-headed has nothing to do with Formal Logic. Philosophy is somewhat better at keeping its eye on the ball. When it is good, it also does not beg questions or operate with circular or elusive notions. It is not subjective in an ordinary sense, doesn't run things together, separates things from the relations they are in, is explicit, is intolerant of nonsense, attends closely to making all of its propositions consistent, and so on and so forth.

Ted Honderich, "Consciousness and Inner Tubes".

Atheism and Nihilism

Richard has a post at Philosophy, etc. asking theists some questions:

Opponents of naturalism often claim that God grounds values and gives life meaning. My previous post on God-given Value disputes this, and I still haven't heard any satisfactory response. What difference does God make? What makes doing God's bidding any more meaningful than doing your own, or someone else's? Why obey divine commands at all?
My questions aren't rhetorical - I'd genuinely like to hear theists' answers, if they have any. We hear a lot about how God gives your lives meaning, but how is that? What meaning or value does God provide that we would otherwise lack? I just don't see it.

I can never tell what people are getting at when they talk about anything giving their lives meaning; when it means anything, it seems to vary considerably. And I don't tend to think of ethics in terms of values. My own theism I hold because I think it is rationally required both as a conclusion and as an element in a full explanation of things (as I've said before, I think God's existence has been demonstrated by e.g., Scotus's triple primacy argument, and even if it weren't, there are several other reasons to think that God exists). So, not being among the theists Richard is questioning, I don't quite know what they would say. But it strikes me that there's a fairly obvious way in which theism would make a difference; namely, given that God exists and given the plausible additional supposition that if God exists we have ethical obligations/responsibilities/whatever with regard to God, it follows that any naturalistic account of value will necessarily be incomplete (again, if God exists). Needless to say, the atheist will reject the antecedent; but it suggests one reason why theists tend to see the move from theism to atheism as an ethical downgrade. An additional reason is that theists necessarily take elements central to ethics (personality, intention, etc.) and make them more fundamental to their worldview than the atheist can.

Besides, the person who is perhaps the foremost atheistic philosopher of religion at present, Quentin Smith, draws a connection between moral nihilism and atheism: namely, that if moral nihilism is true, necessarily God does not exist; while if God does exist (theism is true), necessarily moral nihilism is false. Further, if Smith's argument is sound, I think we would have to allow that for an atheist who is a moral realist (which Richard, I think, is) and holds an 'aggregative value theory' (which Richard certainly does), the entailment would have to go the other way, as well. (I have no commitment as to whether the argument does have force; I'm fairly sure, for instance, that 'aggregative value theory' is false. I don't, for instance, think treating 'is more valuable than' as a qualitative relation requires treating it as an approximative quantitative relation, as Smith claims it does. Intension and remission of qualities can be treated as analogous to addition and subtraction of (approximate) quantities, but there's no reason to think the latter completely captures the former; and, indeed, there's plenty of reason to deny it. But I haven't had a chance to look closely enough at the issue.)

There are other ways one might go. For instance, if one holds that acting morally requires positing that God exists (as Kant argues), then some sort of moral nihilism follows from atheism by a kind of modus tollens. And this would be true even if (as is certainly true on Kant's view) moral principles are more obviously true than the claim that God exists.

But my point here, as noted above, is just to give some possible reasons why theists might say what Richard attributes them. If you have a better response, then mosey on over and leave a comment on Richard's post.

UPDATE: Corrected the Kant paragraph. Accurately summarizing Kant's "ethico-theology" in a single sentence is hard!

Butler on the Approaches to Moral Philosophy

There are two ways in which the subject of morals may be treated. One begins from inquiring into the abstract relations of things: the other from a matter of fact, namely what the particular nature of man is, its several parts, their economy or constitution; from whence it proceeds to determine what course of life it is, which is correspondent to this whole nature. In the former method the conclusion is expressed thus, that vice is contrary to the nature and reason of things: in the latter, that it is a violation or breaking in upon our own nature. Thus they both lead us to the same thing, our obligations to the practice of virtue; and thus they exceedingly strengthen and enforce each other. The first seems the most direct formal proof, and in some respects the least liable to cavil and dispute: the latter is in a peculiar manner adapted to satisfy a fair mind; and is more easily applicable to the several particular relations and circumstances in life.

From Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, Preface.

Pop Quiz Answers

For those who couldn't access the pop quiz answers, I've put them up elsewhere.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Third History Carnival

The Third History Carnival is up, with some excellent posts on everything from the Dresden bombing to the work of transcribing speeches to the issue of Shakespearean authorship.

The Myth of Hume's Compatibilism

Another interesting Pacific APA paper: The Myth of Hume's Compatibilism (PDF) by William E. Morris.

I argued for this position, very briefly, in Point #2 in my series on free will. Which series I will complete, along with putting up the third part of "The Lotus" soon. I promise (again).

No Prime World, and Unsurpassable Being

The always interesting Klaas Kraay delivered a paper (PDF) at the Pacific APA on the No Prime World argument. In effect, the NPW argument is a version of the older contrariety arguments from evil; it differs from the more common, and much overrated, (mis)design arguments from evil in that it is a priori and they are a posteriori. The idea in a contrariety argument from evil, is that the supreme perfection of God excludes (as a contrary) some sort of imperfection on the part of the world. NPW tightens this up by introducing a premise that has traditionally been quite popular (and is in itself quite plausible), the No Prime World thesis, which, very colloquially stated, would be the thesis that for any world God creates, God could create a better world. You can click on the paper to see the argument tightened up. For an early form of it, see objection 2 of ST 1.25.6 (Aquinas doesn't provide a particularly helpful answer to this argument, because he argues against the particular analogy on which the objector's version of the argument relies). Essentially, the conclusion it forces, if sound, is that either there is no God (in the sense of an essentially-unsurpassable being) or the No Prime World Thesis is false. Klaas analyzes a response to the argument, and does so quite well, I think.

My primary problem with the NPW argument is that I tend to think (P1) highly implausible:

(P1) If it is possible for the product of a world-actualizing action performed by some being to have been better, then, ceteris paribus, it is possible for that action to have been better.

(There is an interpretation of this on which it is trivially true, as Kraay notes; I am only considering it in the more substantive sense, since it is only in this sense that it really has force.) I see no reason to accept this principle, since I see no reason why there should be any straightforward relation between action and product: whether the action was as good as it could be depends in part, for instance, on whether the imperfection in the product was due to deficiency in the action or due to deliberate intent that was good in its kind. As a matter of pedagogy, for instance, I might deliberately make an imperfect product in order to have students improve it, or in order for students simply to see what to avoid; this might be done well enough (note that how well it is done would not correspond to how good the product was) that it could not be done better for the intended pedagogical purpose. Thus (P1) does not seem to follow from any general principle.

Could (P1) follow not from general principles, but from some requirement created by unsurpassability? I don't see how. For instance, Aquinas, in responding to the contrariety argument from evil (there is a reason I brought it up), replies (ST 1.2.3 ad 1):

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): "Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

In other words, if Aquinas, following Augustine, is right, the unsurpassable case is analogous to the pedagogical case I noted above. This highlights the fact that unsurpassability makes (P1) even harder to support: if someone held that (P1) were the result of a requirement of unsurpassability, this would effectively require them to argue that being unsurpassable makes it impossible to use something surpassable for an unsurpassably good and rational intent. In other words, it would effectively be a claim that God is so unsurpassable he can't produce "bring good even out of evil"; which appears to be necessarily false. Whatever unsurpassability is, it can't entail the surpassability of the goodness and rationality of God's intentions, nor his ability to effect them even with a surpassable product. (If it is consistent, that is, and as a reductio the NPW argument can't really presuppose that it isn't without begging the question.) Indeed, without being explicit about God's intentions, we can't be sure that the unsurpassable goodness and rationality of the action doesn't require surpassability in the product (in a way analogous to the pedagogical example).

So (P1) cannot be supported as a specific case of a principle about action generally, and it can't be a requirement of unsurpassability. Could it, then, be the result of a principle not about action generally, but about a certain kind of action? But unsurpassability seems to throw a wrench in the works here, too; if we take unsurpassability seriously, then Aquinas's response to the contrariety argument seems plausible; and if it does, world-actualizing action is a kind of action of which it is false to say that surpassability in its product precludes unsurpassability in the action itself, because again this would actually depend on what was actually intended in the action. If the unsurpassable being has an unsurpassably good and rational intention deliberately involving the making of a surpassable product, then it appears to be the case that the unsurpassable being's action is itself unsurpassable; to make a better product would not (as (P1) explicitly requires) make that action better, but would instead be an entirely different action, because it would require an entirely different intention. This action, of course, would also be unsurpassable; unsurpassability, understood in this way, has the implication that all God's world-actualization actions, and indeed, all God's actions at all, involve intentions that are equally unsurpassably good and rational; but (P1) would be false. (This, it is worth noting, coincides with Aquinas's view in ST 1.25.6 ad 3.) If the NPW argument is to be a reductio of (1), it has to give unsurpassability full play - it must not arbitrarily limit it. But if it does give unsurpassability full play, I think it is dead in the water. And this is confirmed by the fact that there are good reasons both to hold that there is an unsurpassable being, and that there is no best possible world (in the sense we have been considering).

But, to return to the paper, I agree with Klaas's conclusions about the particular defense he's considering, which attacks a different premise by a very different sort of route; and recommend it highly.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Pop Quiz

How well do you know your early modern philosophers?

True or False:

1. George Berkeley on one of his trips to the continent took a detour to study tarantulas.

2. David Hume once received Last Rites from a Catholic priest.

3. When Napoleon attributed the heavens to the work of a Creator, Laplace said, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

4. George Berkeley wrote a book advocating tar-water as a universal medicine.

5. Leibniz thought that Chinese hexagrams were a form of binary mathematics.

6. Thomas Reid held that animals, like humans, have immaterial souls.

7. Cardinal Gerdil, a Malebranchean, missed becoming pope by two votes.

8. Joseph Butler was Bishop of Durham.

9. Diderot tells us that David Hume once said he had never met an atheist.

10. Kant wrote a book on the moral interpretation of the Christian religion.

(If I've done this right, you should be able to run your cursor over this section, selecting the text, to see the answers to all the questions.)

1. True; we learn this from his Italian journals (strictly speaking he took the detour to study the folklore about both the 'tarantella' and the tarantula).
2. True; however, he was delirious with fever.
3. False; the saying is part of a late fictionalization of a real event.
4. True; it was called Siris.
5. True; he wrote an article about it.
6. True; see Thomas Reid on the Animate Creation, Paul Wood (ed.)
7. False; he missed it by one vote.
8. True; although he was Bishop of Bristol longer.
9. True; Hume said it to d'Holbach, the famous French atheist.
10. True; it is called Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Rule Consequentialism

I hope to get to continuing the discussion with Andy on the possibility of a utilitarian natural law theory (and, as I think, the necessity of it if utilitarians are to have an account of practical reason that even minimally makes use of fundamental principles like "Seek good"), but it might be a while before I get to it. In the meantime, here (PDF; hat-tip: Legal Theory Blog) is a discussion of rule consequentialism, which is the form of utilitarianism that I think most obviously shows similarities to natural law. The paper, by Richard Arneson, actually is a critique of rule consequentialism; but several of the objections are relevant to the issue as well.

Subject to One Another

Hugo Schwyzer discusses the way in which translators' headings distort the meaning of the discussion of husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. I'm not too sure how popular NIV is among conservative Christians; but Schwyzer's basic point about the passage is exactly right. The section on husbands and wives does not stand alone, but follows (along with mentions of parent and child, and master and slave) a statement about being subject to one another. So if we read it in context, the opening of this item in the discussion is 'Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ', and the points about husbands, wives, parents, children, slaves, and masters are all simply intended to be particular examples of how this is supposed to work. This is absolutely necessary for the intelligibility of the passage; to make the 'household' section (Ephesians 5:22-6:9) stand on its own we have not only to ignore Ephesians 5:21; we also end up disrupting the connection of 6:10ff. with what goes before, since the discussion of the whole armor of God is clearly intended to be the last item in a list of things.

If, however, it is an item in a list, we need to ask what the point of the list is; and we find it in Ephesians 4:17-24:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Immediately after this, Paul begins listing precepts (starting with "Put off falsehood and speak truthfully"), so the most reasonable interpretation of the passage is to see each of the precepts as intended to be a specific example of how the Christians in Ephesus should "put off their old selves" and "no longer live as the Gentiles do". If we keep this in mind by the time we get to 5:21, our interpretation has to be (in part) this: Paul is looking around at the pagan world, and what he sees is a world in which husbands mistreat their wives, parents provoke their children to wrath, and masters threaten their slaves with beatings. He then turns to the Ephesian Christians and says, "Don't do this; instead, be transformed in Christ. Husbands, do not mistreat your wives, but love them as Christ loves us all. Parents, do not provoke your children, but bring them up in the Lord. Masters, do not threaten your slaves, but serve them in the recognition that you and they are both equally slaves of Christ, who plays no favorites." Pauls' fundamental message here is (and has to be, given 4:17-24) transformative: he is not re-affirming pagan roles but telling Christians to transform them.

Now, I think you can put forward a reasonable argument that it is unfortunate that Paul here stops short at transformation of roles rather than going on to tell the Christians to break those roles entirely. It's not really an argument with which I agree as far as Paul goes, in part because I think the examples here are precisely intended merely to be examples, and that the general principle here - that Christians in whatever role the conventions of society may put them should radically transform those roles "out of reverence for Christ" - is more valuable than particular instructions to eliminate this or that conventional role. An instruction to eliminate a given role is limited to that role, but the general principle given here applies all the way across the board, even to things that Paul couldn't possibly have thought of in his first-century context. Even if Paul is not going far enough, what he is giving us here is something that makes progress possible in any context, whatever the roles society is attempting to thrust on us. And it becomes especially important for people in positions of power (Paul never, ever says that husbands have any authority to subject their wives in any way; and a look at the master-slave sections shows just how radical Paul's general intent here is: it is entailed by what Paul says that master-slave roles are merely conventional, and their real role, in Christ, makes them equal; the parallelism here suggests that Paul is telling us entirely to reconceptualize all social notions of authority and power in terms of service and love). And, while I don't expect non-Christians quite to grasp the point at first glance, to tell a Christian to love someone as Christ loves the whole Church is to set an extremely high standard; for the Son of Man came to serve and to set free, and went so far as to suffer torments and give his life for that end.

Nonetheless, I think an even more reasonable argument can be made that other statements on these subjects in the Pauline epistles are less radical. 1 Cor. 11:7-10 gave Augustine considerable trouble when talking about how human beings are made in the image of God; Augustine was certain that women and men equally fall under this description, for Scriptural, traditional, and philosophical reasons, but was puzzled as to how Paul could then argue in the way he does in this passage. His solution in De Trinitate was that the author is here saying nothing about men and women in themselves, in Christian marriage, or in Christ (as is proven by what he goes on to say in verses 11 and 12); rather, he is taking a conventional view of marriage and using it symbolically. (The whole discussion is even more complicated, because Augustine was also puzzled about how in the world the angels in verse 10 are supposed to be relevant to the subject, and spend some time trying to figure that out.) So it's fair to say, I think, that there are some very obscure and puzzling things said on the subject (1 Tim. 2 is a case in point; I'd have to look it up, but I think a standard interpretation of the childbearing remark has been to see it as an allusion to Mary's childbearing - but it's certainly rather cryptic). But it seems (to me, at least) that what people really have a problem with is simply Paul's view that Christians, as a rule, should not cause scandal; because it is this, I think, that is most plausibly at work [at least in the background] in these cases. I think it's a defensible view, but I can appreciate that others might disagree with it; and it has to be reconciled with the example of Christ, who certainly was not an avoider of scandal. (Again, I think it can be done, but I can understand others not agreeing.)

At one point in the discussion, Schwyzer was asked what would be required for him to conclude that the Bible is sexist; I can't speak for Schwyzer, but my response to such a question would be that this sort of question implicitly works on an assumption that there is a clear line that can be drawn, such that everything on one side of it is sexist and everything on the other side of it is not. But this is not, I think, what's really at issue with sexism; it's a pervasive result of our fallen natures. If our fight against sexism consists entirely of identifying things as sexist and eliminating them, we will never have done, because human ingenuity will always come up with yet more ways to be sexist (or racist, or anything similar). What we need instead is to begin transforming the very nature of the human mind. Critique is not enough; to rely on critique alone is to guarantee defeat, because it binds you to perpetual reaction. Rather, we need the human heart to be transformed - and, in particular (from a Christian perspective) - we need the human heart to be transformed in Christ; because divine love cannot be shackled. The hard work of transformation is the only effective anti-sexism; critique needs to subserve that.

By the way, since I occasionally complain about people calling themselves 'progressive' when they clearly are not (as can be seen from their words and actions), I should take the opportunity to note that Schwyzer's calling himself progressive is no lie; he really is. I don't always agree with him, but the point of progressivism is general progress in patience, compassion, and wisdom, starting with ourselves, not perfection or present possession of them. (I must confess: halfway through that sentence I began trying to make as many words as possible start with the letter 'p'.) And the way we progress in these things is (1) self-critique; (2) practice; (3) interaction with others. And Schwyzer is in general as exemplary in all of them as we humans can reasonably be expected to be; one of the reasons I've put him on my sidebar is that I think his is a weblog that will stimulate me in new directions of progress myself.

On History of Philosophy

Philosophical problems never sit still. As they pass from person to person, they shift about. Different thinkers have different views on what, precisely, is relevant to the problem; arguments are refuted, salvaged, defended, refuted again; new arguments are proposed; new evidences are introduced into the discussion, sometimes as new additions, sometimes as replacements for old evidences; people forget what their predecessors had already done, or misinterpret them, or never learn about them; and so forth. If you pick a philosophical problem - the mind-body problem, say, or the problem of evil - determining exactly what it is, is something of a feat.

I once knew someone who argued in this way: "What use is it to know Descartes's attempt at a solution to the mind-body problem, or any other historical solution? I know enough about the mind-body problem that I can start working on a solution to it without dealing with the historical attempts at all. At most they could save me time, to the extent that they would already have covered the ground I need to cover." And this is entirely true; if you already know the character of the mind-body problem, you don't need to know much else in order to start working on the solution. But without looking at Descartes, Aquinas, et al., you don't know the natuer of the problem; or, at least, without knowing them, you could only know the nature of the problem by a completely lucky guess. For the mind-body problem is not a unified thing; it has shifted, continues to shift, and will continue to shift, and if you try to formulate it as a monolithic thing, you will inevitably make assumptions about the problem that are not necessary. It happens again and again.

History of philosophy, as a discipline, is in part concerned with precisely this sort of issue. It is not an easy thing to determine the nature of the problem of evil, for instance; it consists of a myriad of variations on a legion of themes. Generalizations about the problem itself (and it is virtually impossible not to make generalizations about it) can only be warranted by a study of the actual forms the problem has taken. The actual forms the problem has taken are part of the data for any such generalizations; and, while they are data that need to be dissected and heavily analyzed in order to draw any conclusions, we have very little else on which to say anything about what the problem of evil actually is. Thus HoP uses basic historical tools - historical tools insofar as they are relevant to the study of texts - in order to give us some hold on the problem of the philosophical problem. This is not the only thing it does, I think; but it does occupy a great part of the end for which HoPers work.


Well, it's not quite Thursday evening, but here's a preliminary post on various excellent discussions in the blogosphere.

A. The historians in the blogosphere have been in top form recently:

* This is my truth at "Early Modern Notes"

* NIV, TNIV, and Ephesians 5 at "Hugo Schwyzer" (cross-posted at Cliopatria). The comments are worth reading, too. I'll be putting something up about this topic later.

* Harry Truman and the Vulcans by Greg Robinson at "Cliopatria"

* Narrative at "The Little Professor" (cross-posted at Cliopatria)

->Also worth reading is the older post linked to in the above post, Evangelical historiography: a Victorian example (the ideas involved in such historiography, I've always thought, played an imporant role in the rise of importance of utilitarianism in philosophy, although as far as I know there hasn't been much work on this to determine how significant the role was; it's something I'd like to get around to someday, since I have an interest in Whewell, who reacts to utilitarianism and is, I'm inclined to think, forced to his particular mode of response - that utilitarianism is true but useless - by his commitment to a similar sort of providentialism; but, again, that's all speculation - the work still needs to be done).

B. Other recent things of interest, here and there:

* Phil in words of one syll at "Fragments of Consciousness"

* Peirce's "Fraser's The Works of George Berkeley" (hat-tip: Mormon Metaphysics): Peirce argues for scholastic realism (in particular, that of Scotus) against nominalism. I have no real taste for pragmatism, but anyone who appreciates the Subtle Doctor is OK by me.

C. Siris posts I like that people have recently come across by way of search engines:

* Examples and Counterexamples (discusses the proper way to view counterexamples by looking at the famous case of Hume's missing shade of blue)

* On Frankfurt Examples and Illusions - I Mean, Intuitions (discusses why I am not convinced by the claim that Frankfurt-style counterexamples show that moral responsibility does not require the ability to do otherwise)

* On the Theological Importance of a Harlot (looks at the providential role of Rahab in Scripture)

Monday, February 21, 2005

A Hiatus Experiment

I won't be posting again until Thursday evening; I'm going underground a brief bit to get some things done on my thesis (I'm at the stage where there is just a continual stream of little things to do, and while I'm not doing badly, I'm also not satisfied with how quickly I'm getting them done. Generally blogging doesn't take much time away from my work (except when posts turn out to take much longer to write than I expected), but I want to see what happens to my work if I explicitly set it aside entirely for a bit.

In any case, I still need to post the third part of "The Lotus" and there are one or two other things I have been intending to write about (e.g., continuing my series on free will, from which I became completely distracted). In the meantime, browse around a bit.


A great post by PZ Myers on teaching science at "Pharyngula" with a thought on its relation to history by Sharon at Early Modern Notes. I'll echo it, mutatis mutandis, for philosophy as well; Myers has expressed the point quite nicely.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

On "More on Verisimilitude"

A response to my post on verisimilitude has been put up at Studi Galileiani. In it, Paul Newall (aka Hugo Holbling) argues that his point wasn't that theory-ladenness is a problem for the realist as such, and that he wasn't really discussing realism; which is fair enough, I suppose - it wouldn't be the first time I've gotten caught up in my own musings in the middle of a discussion. It should be said incidentally, that I don't really take the question-begging charge seriously here; my argument was not primarily to establish historical realism but to argue that the considerations brought against it need not worry the historical realist (but that said, Newall has missed the point of my argument, which I discuss below). Some brief comments on other issues, to clarify my own points on realism, which I don't think Hugo has quite got right:

Hugo says repeatedly that his real point about theory-ladenness was that there can be no historical facts independent of theoretical constructs. I got that, however; my claim was that this has no bearing on historical realism. He says, for instance:

In the latter respect, I explained that traces are not "left" but made. (This excepts archaeological and geological evidence, which have problems of another - although similar - kind.) We may insist that whatever the distortion caused in recording them, the traces nevertheless contain an element of "what happened"; but the problem of theory-ladenness is that there is no factual portion that can be demarcated from the theoretical. The question-begging arises when we realise that the observational content of these traces has been assumed in order to reverse the direction of influence. That is, there is little reason (and no argument) to suppose that if an event occurs and leaves traces, none of which have "factual" content, a proposition or account coherent with the traces is necessarily coherent with the event - unless we have already assumed that the traces correspond to the event, which is what is at issue.

But my point was that there is nothing threatening to realism in the claim that traces are made; that there is no factual portion that can be demarcated from the theoretical is not a particularly troublesome issue, because (1) the historian doesn't have to assume crudely that traces correspond to the event, only that they are traces of the past; and (2) it follows as a matter of logical necessity that if an event occurs and leaves traces (I have no notion what is meant here by the 'factual content' of traces) that a proposition or account coherent with the traces is coherent with the event: namely, it is coherent with the event insofar as it leaves traces. No correspondence is needed.

Hugo goes on to say there are problems with the coherence account of truth, but as I noted in my post, one doesn't need a coherence account of truth, only a coherence account of approximate truth. That there are many accounts coherent with the traces is irrelevant; that was precisely my point. The historical realist is not committed to saying there are not, and no problem arises for historical realism if these many coherent accounts are all approximately true in virtue of their coherence with the traces of the past. (Again, as I kept noting in my post, this does presuppose that they are genuinely traces of the past; more on this below.) Hugo says that we cannot say that these are all the same account in different forms; my comments explicitly denied that they were. My point is that one does not need 'the same account' in order to be realist about the accounts one has; or, at least, that it has not been shown that one needs to do so.

More seriously, however, Hugo says:

(More importantly, perhaps, and to mention realism for once, if we hold that there exists a world independently of our thoughts about it then propositions or accounts concerning it take their truth value from correspondence with that world, regardless of how well they cohere or fail to cohere with other propositions, accounts or traces. Kirkham summarises this objection by stating that "on a realist ontology it is hard to deny that coherence is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for truth.")

But Kirkham is simply wrong. There is nothing about a realist ontology, as such, that implies anything about whether coherence is a necessary or sufficient condition for truth; and there are very clearly realist ontologies, Whewell's, for instance, on which coherence and correspondence mutually imply each other: nothing we look at involves a separation of theory and fact (or Idea and Fact, as Whewell prefers to call them), and correspondence is just to consider those things qua Fact, while coherence is to consider them qua Idea. Since everything we actually could possibly call real is necessarily both (Whewell is very explicit about this), from the perspective of a Whewellian realist ontology the separation Hugo makes above is merely an attempt to smuggle the separation of fact and theory back in. This is (again, from such a realist point of view) a common problem with the discussion of theory-ladenness; it assumes that the realist is somehow really committed to positing things on the observational side of an observational/theoretical divide. But a realist like Whewell, who holds that anything we could possibly consider to be reality necessarily to be Conceptualized or Theorized Fact (roughly, on the Whewellian view, Concepts are specified Ideas; Theories are constructs of Concepts), with no real separation of Fact and Concept possible, simply does not do that. In other words, my point is that I don't think the line of thought that Newall put forward is taking the impossibility of a theory/fact separation seriously enough. But in any case, as I note above, I explicitly denied that I was putting forward a coherence account of truth.

As I've noted several times, my argument was conditional: given that there really are traces of the past, we are committed to historical realism about the past of which there are traces insofar as it leaves traces. While Newall denies that the only alternative to this sort of historical realism is historical skepticism, if my argument is right (and he has actually not dealt with it, since he hasn't yet taken into account its conditional character), it is so: either in conceptualizing things as traces of the past one conceptualizes them as being traces of the past, or one is committed to denying that there are any traces of the past. This is trivially true: either traces of the past are of the past, or there are no traces of the past. Now, if one conceptualizes something (a book, for instance) as a trace of the past, one is committed to the denial of skepticism about there being a past for the book; there is such a past, ex hypothesi. Only by denying that there are traces of the past, which implies skepticism about the past, can this be avoided. Or so it seems. The challenge, it would seem, to someone who rejected such realism, would be to create an account of history that is intelligible but did not think of history as presupposing traces of the past; and to someone who rejects the above dichotomy, to present an account of history that recognizes traces of the past but does not in so doing commit one to the basic historical realism noted above. The fact that the traces are made appears to be irrelevant, because it seems only to be relevant on a view in which this would be a problem for realism, namely, a view which holds that the realist is committed to an observational/theoretical divide and that something has to be entirely on the observational side to count as objective, real, or whatever. But as there is no reason to hold this, there is no reason for the realist to worry about whether traces of the past are made by the mind are not; she is not committed, qua realist, to saying that they are not. To say that historical statements are meaningless is, it seems to me, a form of skepticism about the past, since it necessarily denies that traces of the past are of the past - they can't be anything if historical statements are meaningless.

So I conclude that nothing Newall has put forward in his new post actually touches my argument: (1) I take the impossibility of the theory/fact separation seriously; (2) I did not put forward a coherence account of truth; (3) his argument on approximate truth makes the mistake of assuming that approximately true accounts have to be part of one account in order to be approximately true; (4) in short, (re both (2) and (3), Newall seems to me still to be making the mistake of not taking the approximateness itself seriously; (5) his question, "Where two other accounts are mutually exclusive, moreover, which of these possible approximately true versions are they to cohere partly with?" is thus not relevant to the question of whether something is actually approximately true, for much the same reason questions about progress in approximation aren't, namely, that it's a downstream question and thus not a problem for an account appealing to approximate truth; (6) therefore, my comment that nothing has been done to show that there is anything in any of this that properly speaking discredits historical realism still stands.

But, then, since I've been arguing that a form of historical realism is necessary for there to be history at all, and Newall says he isn't arguing about realism at all, it's not surprising that there's been some miscommunication. In any case, the primary purpose of my post was not to refute Newall but to rough out why I think the problems alleged against the historical realist are exaggerated; and it still does that quite well.

123 5th Sentence

It's been awhile since I've posted a meme, and this one is flying around like crazy.

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

"Thus, a mother whose brain is full of traces that, by their nature, are related to sensible thigns adn that she cannot erase because concupiscence dwells within her, and whose body is not at all submissive to her, necessarily communicates them to her child, engendering a sinner, even if she be righteous."

Malebranche, The Search After Truth, Lennon-Olscamp p. 123.

(Interestingly, I've blogged about this.)


Astoundingly, I find myself in the Carnival of the Godless (not my own submission). Fortunately I'm there not for the irrationality of being godless but to provide a counterpoint to a particular form of it. The post is the one on Georges Rey's 'meta-atheism', which comes up in the Carnival; so Richard links my post to get the critical side. Unexpected; but I'm glad the post is of some interest.

Musings on Legal Positivism

I've been thinking more fully about the issues involved in legal positivism as opposed to natural law theory, and think I can make a clearer presentation of my point. The issue I have with legal positivism is that there seems to be no reason that would justify a natural law theorist in taking up legal positivism. Consider some of the advantages, prima facie at least, natural law theory has over legal positivism:

There appear to be no facts taken into account by legal positivism that cannot be taken into account by natural law theory in its discussion of positive law; natural law theory does not deny these facts but puts them in the whole context of practical reason.

Natural law theory is a more comprehensive theory of law, since it considers law not only in terms of legal process and reasoning on the judicial side, but also on the side of legislators, on the side of those trusted to enforce the law, and on the side of citizens subject to the law. (It has tended historically to be most interested in this latter, but this is not necessitated by the principles of natural law.)

Natural law theory clarifies the relation between morality and law; legal positivism (considered simply in itself) does not.

Natural law theory clarifies the relation between law and principles of practical reason; legal positivism (considered simply in itself) does not.

Natural law theory provides principles according to which a rational justification for the existence of positive law, its processes, and its mechanisms, as well as for the extension of these processes and mechanisms into new areas, is possible.

And so forth. So what superiority does legal positivism have over natural law theory? Andy has taken the position that the first of the advantages above is not the case, that, in fact, legal positivism is more in line with the empirical facts. But it is difficult to see what facts about positive law there would be that natural law theory would not be able to take into account in its account of positive law. It cannot be facts of language, since natural law theory admits those; its claim is not that this is the way people speak, but that this is the way their thought about law can be rationally inconsistent. And whether or not this is so is not an empirical fact in any obvious sense. Further, if it were about the way people spoke, this would not clearly favor legal positivism, because people sometimes speak in ways that unambiguously seem to presuppose natural law theory, too. And it certainly would not have justified Austin; after all, the person he was criticizing was no less than Blackstone, who takes it for granted that people did, in fact, speak this way, and given Blackstone's popularity there is no reason to think he was alone in this. Further, legal positivists have not, as far as I am aware, ever really made an effort to fix claims about how the word 'law' is used as an empirical fact. They might appeal to it, but they do not establish it. In matters of language legal positivists have from the beginning been reformers, not researchers.

Nor can it be facts about the legal process. Consider, for instance, Austin's Court argument against Blackstone, in which he characterizes Blackstone's position as stark nonsense because courts impose unjust laws as law. Not only does this beg the question, Austin does nothing to show that natural law considerations did not as a matter of fact play some role sometimes in court cases. I will have to leave it to specialists in early modern law as to whether they ever did; but Austin certainly doesn't do anything to show they didn't. Moreover, not only does it beg the question and not only is it not supported by actual discussion of the facts, it misses the point. Even if courts did not ever consider natural law issues, courts are not the whole of the system of law. Now it seems clear that, whatever position one takes on the courts, Blackstone seems to think it a straightforward fact that the English system of law, taken as a whole, involves natural law considerations, and, again, given Blackstone's popularity we have at least some reason to think there were many people who agreed with him. Austin never proves the fact to be otherwise. Nor does it seem to be the case that legal positivists have ever done the actual empirical work that Austin doesn't do.

Nor can it be that the facts of the legal system preclude the natural law conclusion that an unjust law is in an entirely reasonable sense not a law. For again, legal positivists have never done the work to show that it is so. Indeed, we have at least prima facie reason to think otherwise. As the Canadian Constitution is at least sometimes interpreted, for instance, courts may in certain sorts of cases consider a law contrary to the Constitution simply on the basis of moral principles; however, any law contrary to the Constitution explicitly is precluded from having any force or effect of law, and judges are required to treat such laws in this way. But this means that there is an entirely reasonable sense in which, in these cases, an unjust law would not be a law, and if this interpretation is true, this is a fact about Canadian positive law itself. Even if the interpretation is false, the fact that a legal system could exist on which it would be true should be cause for worry to the legal positivist who reject "An unjust law is not a law" as a matter of legal fact; for law is what people make it, and there is no obvious reason why people could not make it conform to this law. Indeed, there is at least prima facie reason to think that it is already at least sometimes done in some places.

So the legal positivist must allow that as a matter of positive-legal fact, things can go down as the natural law theorist says they should. In other words, legal positivism cannot build itself on an absolute rejection of the possibility that natural law considerations can have a real and even fundamental place somewhere in the legal system as a matter of positive law itself. What, then, does the legal positivist have to hold in order to stay a legal positivist? This: he has to deny that this is anything more than a matter of positive law. In other words, he has to deny at least one of these two principles:

1) There is a moral law independent of positive law.
2) This moral law is a higher law, or law in a more fundamental sense.

But it is clear that the legal positivist cannot do this qua legal positivist, because legal positivism sticks within the positive law itself. So what is really opposing natural law theory is not legal positivism at all; it is something added to legal positivism that denies one of these two principles -- an ethical, metaphysical, or religious theory that goes beyond the positive law in order to deny the context of positive law that natural law theorists claim exists. Such a theory has to oppose positions like natural law theory and Kantianism that allow practical reason a legislative role prior to and morally higher than any positive law. But a position that depends on this sort of theory in order to refute natural law theory is not a theory whose superiority to natural law theory is an empirical matter; it is based entirely on (1) whether the arguments natural law theorists actually put forward stand and (2) whether the sort of theory on which legal positivism really depends in its rejection of natural law theory can really hold up. Whether legal positivism rather than natural law theory is true depends on whether prior ethical commitments can be maintained. Since it is difficult to find any legal positivist discussion of the actual primary arguments of natural law theory (which I have briefly summarized), and given that legal positivists have not proven their prior ethical commitments (and certainly cannot do so simply as logical positivists), I can only conclude that

(1) It does not seem that there is any good reason for a natural law theorist to switch to legal positivism.

(2) It does not seem that most legal positivists, and perhaps that any legal positivists, are rationally justified in their rejection of natural law theory.

[UPDATE: I didn't read "Under the Sun" first, so I missed that Andy had already responded to my much rougher and undeveloped previous post. What he says there requires, I think, some qualification of the claims about Blackstone above, on which my general position does not depend. My primary beef on the whole issue of Blackstone is merely that legal positivists have often seemed to interpret all natural law theory generally through Austin's criticisms of Blackstone; whereas I don't think Austin even does a good job of criticizing Blackstone's rather basic and unsophisticated summary, much less saying anything that would be troublesome for more sophisticated natural law theorists. Even if Austin had Blackstone pegged, though, it would, as Andy says, be a sign of Blackstone's lack of sophistication rather than of any problems with natural law theory itself. Also, Andy's post clears up a misunderstanding about the reason he was appealing to empirical fact, so that should be kept in mind, too.]