Saturday, March 12, 2005

Believing History

I've been intending to say something about this article in Christianity Today, which has been noted in various places. Some disjointed thoughts:

* It seems to me that the only real way for historical method(s), as such, to prove that X did not happen is to prove that Y, which excludes X, did happen. And to do that, we have to have some notion of what, historically, would have had to be involved in, and as a result of, X's happening (as indeed we must if we want to say that X did, in fact, happen). I haven't read any of Bushman's work, but it seems to me that this is precisely what Bushman is doing. In any case, it seems to me that the proper response to it, if you don't believe it, is not to engage in dismissive rhetoric, but to show that Y happened, or at least, why saying Y happened fits better with the historical evidences.

* If one allows miracles (for instance) to be in general possible, and insists that historical methods exclude them entirely, you must be proportionately insistent that historical method can give you definitely wrong, or at least significantly incomplete, results, even if practiced in an ideal way by an ideal historian on the basis of ideal information. (Much the same, incidentally, with scientific methods.) If you reject miracles in order not to say this, the reasons for that rejection will have to stand philosophically on their own right, independently of that rejection's use in your historical work. (And most arguments against the possibility of miracles in general are extremely poor.)

* But it does not follow from any of this that (say) a Muslim historian's belief in the appearance of the Archangel to the Prophet will have all that much effect on his historical work, even if he does work on the early origins of Islam. For one thing, the appearance is just one event among many events. For another, most of the events that are relevant for getting a grasp of the origins of Islam are communication from man to man, not communication by way of angels. And this should show up more or less the same on the supposition that the first recitation was a delusion or fraud as it would on the supposition that it was a revelation. In other words, once history moves beyond the alleged event itself -- and it has to, if it is to be history -- the question of whether Gabriel really appeared to Muhammad gives way to the effects of people responding to claims of this event as communicated to them.

* Which is not to say, of course, that belief in the truth of such an appearance would have no effect on what the historian sees. Just as a skeptic may see something a believer might miss, so a believer may see something a skeptic might miss. In the Grammar of Assent, Newman subjected Gibbon's 'five causes of the rise of Christianity' to a beautiful believer's critique. What Newman saw that Gibbon did not: Gibbon left out belief in Christ, which was needed to make sense of the five causes, and without which none of the five causes would make any sense at all as historical causes. How could one go about trying to identify the historical causes of Christianity's rise and not take into account at all the sense Christians had (and explicitly said they had) of actually participating in the work of the living, resurrected Jesus? But such is the error a nonbeliever might make, even in doing good history. The idea that a historian can be blinded by belief in X is entirely right; it can also happen, and has also happened, that historians have been blinded by not believing in X. Skepticism about something doesn't magically put you on the right side. Indeed, it doesn't even put you on the right side when you happen to be right. I was reading the other day about Arthur Conan Doyle, and the famous case of the fairy photographs. Obviously, many spiritualists like Conan Doyle defended them, and many skeptics of spiritualism attacked them. If you look at the debate, however, you find that, while the skeptics happened to be right that the photographs were fake, the actual charges they usually brought against them (tampering, etc.) were both unsubstantiated and false. Likewise, one finds that, while Conan Doyle and the like were wrong about the photographs, their defenses of it were top-notch, and, what is more, generally right: the best experts (including Kodak labs) could not identify any tampering, all the evidence pointed against tampering, etc. What both sides were forgetting, of course, is that you don't need to tamper with the film to fake a photograph; they were arguing the subject at the wrong point. But precisely because of that the skeptics were quite as wrong as the believers, and much less rationally justified, since they were actually arguing against the most rational assessment of the evidence on the points they were making. And so it can easily be with history, and probably has been many times. And Kuklick's statement about Bushman, that "his religion is a conversation stopper", sounds to me suspiciously like a case of a skeptic being much less rationally justified in his conclusions than his opponents in theirs.

Wherein I Exhibit Some of My Stick-in-the-Mud Wet-Blanketness

I have been thinking about the article discussed in this post at Cliopatria (the post is by Greg Robinson) for a while now. And after some thought, I think my problem with it is this:

There is no such thing as a Religious Right. 'Religious Right' is just a phrase we have begun to use uncritically, without real regard for how it actually fits reality, because it has turned out to be convenient for clumping purposes: it just arbitrarily lumps a bunch of people together and so is useful for the same purpose any stereotype is: praise or blame. And it doesn't take much searching to realize that it is precisely in this way that it is typically used. Ditto with 'Religious Left'. There are no such things. They are just the conjunction of two extremely vague and malleable labels for purposes of self-aggrandizement or mudslinging. Some people pump the label up because they think most people would consider them as falling under it; others try to associate it with the worst things they can, because they see it as connected with 'Them', where 'Them' is just whoever happens to be standing in the way of what they want today. In other words, they are fictions created by partisan politics for scapegoat and rally purposes. The continuation of these labels is just a failure of critical thought.

I would be fascinated to know the history of the phrases 'religious right' and 'religious left'. I suspect such a history would show that the same forces of self-aggrandizement and mudslinging, scapegoating and rallying, have always been the defining characteristics of these phrases. I suspect that it would show that they came about arbitrarily applied for precisely these purposes. And, after much thought, I'm fairly sure that it would show that there really isn't much rhyme or reason to the actual application. There is nothing there to have 'victories', 'strategies', 'defeats', 'political force', or anything of the sort that is often attributed to the 'Religious Right' or the 'Religious Left'. We uncritically accept that there must be something to fit the labels because we get in the habit of using them; in so doing we show that politics (and perhaps journalism) make us stupid. In particular cases, where we are explicitly and deliberately using the labels to identify, for particular purposes, a well-defined and recognizable group of people, it might mean something; but by and large it is a term we use to cover our ignorance of the actual people involved.

Part of it, I confess, is my growing skepticism about the viability of the terms 'Left' and 'Right'; I do think there's some use to words like 'progressive' and 'conservative', but there is nothing particularly progressive about most people who consider themselves on the left, nothing particularly conservative about most people who consider themselves on the right - there is no particular reason, for that matter, why we should associate today's left with progressivism and today's right with conservatism, except that that's just the association of words that got picked up somewhere along the lines and that has continued to be used out of habit. 'Right' and 'Left' are essentially party designations; as such they have no stable core and no real substance. They are terms of convenience for partisan politics, and nothing more. Scapegoating and rallying, self-aggrandizement and mudslinging. Nothing more.

Part of it, also, is that there isn't much meaning to 'Religious', which these days can always mean myriads of different things. When used in conjunction with the political terms, it doesn't add much; it just makes them even more vague by linking them with a set of associations completely incidental to their normal use. It's not as if, as it is usually used, it indicates a movement that can be well-defined by precise naming of people and books and principles like (for instance) the Social Gospel Movement or Neo-Thomistic Humanism.

My suggestion is that we stop using the phrases altogether. Ah, but then we would have limited our ability to engage in silly triumphalisms and divisive insults, and where's the fun in that?

Unity's Delight

Therefore, my brothers, therefore, sisters dear,
However I, troubled or selfish, fail
In tenderness, or grace, or service clear,
I every moment draw to you more near;
God in us from our hearts veil after veil
Keeps lifting, till we see with his own sight,
And all together run in unity's delight.

George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, March 12.

Friday, March 11, 2005

City of Dreadful Night

Some selections from my favorite atheistic poem, City of Dreadful Night by James Thomson (the nineteenth century one, not the eighteenth century one):

From the Proem:

Lo, thus, as prostrate, "In the dust I write
My heart's deep languor and my soul's sad tears."
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden,
And wail life's discords into careless ears?

Because a cold rage seizes one at whiles
To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth
Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles,
False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth;
Because it gives some sense of power and passion
In helpless innocence to try to fashion
Our woe in living words howe'er uncouth.

Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious saints with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.

For none of these I write, and none of tehse
Could read the writing if they deigned to try;
So may they flourish in their due degrees,
On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be some one desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hopes are dead, and who would die.

From Canto I:

The City is of Night; perchance of Death
But certainly of Night; for never there
Can come the lucid morning's fragrant breath
After the dewy dawning's cold grey air:
The moon and stars may shine with scorn or pity
The sun has never visited that city,
For it dissolveth in the daylight fair.

Dissolveth like a dream of night away;
Though present in distempered gloom of thought
And deadly weariness of heart all day.
But when a dream night after night is brough
Throughout a week, and such weeks few or many
Recur each year for several years, can any
Discern that dream from real life in aught?

For life is but a dream whose shapes return,
Some frequently, some seldom, some by night
and some by day, some night and day: we learn,
The while all change and many vanish quite,
In their recurrence with recurrent changes
A certain seeming order; where this ranges
We count things real; such is memory's might.

From Canto II:

At length he paused: a black mass in the gloom,
A tower that merged into the heavy sky;
Around, the huddled stones of grave and tomb:
Some old God's-acre now corruption's sty:
He murmured to himself with dull despair,
Here Faith died, poisoned by this charnel air.

Then turning to the right went on once more
And travelled weary roads without suspense;
And reached at last a low wall's open door,
Whose villa gleamed beyond the foliage dense:
He gazed, and muttered with a hard despair,
Here Love died, stabbed by its own worshipped pair.

Then turning to the right resumed his march,
And travelled street and lanes with wondrous strength,
Until on stooping through a narrow arch
We stood before a sqalid house at length:
He gazed, and whispered with a cold despair,
Here Hope died, starved out in its utmost lair.

When he had spoken thus, before he stirred,
I spoke, perplexed by something in the signs
Of desolation I had seen and heard
In this drear pilgrimage to ruined shrines:
Where Faith and Love and Hope are dead indeed,
Can Life still live? By what doth it proceed?

As whom his one intense thought overpowers,
He answered coldly, Take a watch, erase
The signs and figures of the circling hours,
Detach the hands, remove the dial-face;
The works proceed until run down; although
Bereft of purpose, void of use, still go.

In the memorable Canto VI, the wanderer recounts the tale of someone who attempts to enter Hell, certain that even that "positive eternity of pain" would be better than the "insufferable inane" of Limbo; but he is refused admittance. The toll for admission into Hell is hope; those who enter must have it, and abandon it. But the wanderer has already long before cast aside every hope. Because of this, he is doomed to be locked out of Heaven and Hell alike.

In XI we have a description of the inhabitants of the City:

They have much wisdom yet they are not wise,
They have much goodness yet they do not well,
(The fools we know have their own paradise,
The wicked also have their proper Hell);
They have much strength but still their doom is stronger,
Much patience but their time endureth longer,
Much valour but life mocks it with some spell.

They are most rational and yet insane:
An outward madness not to be controlled;
A perfect reason in the central brain,
Which has no power, but sitteth wan and cold,
And sees the madness, and foresees as plainly
The ruin in its path, and trieth vainly
To cheat itself refusing to behold.

Perhaps best of all, the sermon in the Cathedral of the City (Canto XIV):

And now at last authentic word I bring,
Witnessed by every dead and living thing;
Good tidings of great joy for you, for all:
There is no God; no Fiend with names divine
Made us and tortures us; if we must pine,
It is to satiate no Being's gall.

It was the dark delusion of a dream,
That living Person conscious and supreme,
Whom we must curse for cursing us with life;
Whom we must curse because the life he gave
Could not be buried in the quiet grave,
Could not be killed by poison or the knife.

This little life is all we must endure,
The grave's most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.

The forceful life lesson of this atheistic sermon: End it when you will. The sermon, however, comforts less than intended. In XVI someone shrieks out in response:

The man speaks sooth, alas! the man speaks sooth:
We have no personal life beyond the grave;
There is no God; Fate knows nor wrath nor ruth:
Can I find here the comfort which I crave?

In all eternity I had one chance,
One few years' term of gracious human life:
The splendours of the intellect's advance,
The sweetness of the home with babes and wife;

[he goes on with a list of other things]

This chance was never offered me before;
For me this infinite Past is blank and dumb:
This chance recurreth never, nevermore;
Blank, blank for me the infinite To-come.

And this sole chance was frustrate from my birth,
A mockery, a delusion; and my breath
Of noble human life upon this earth
So racks me that I sigh for senseless death.

My wine of life is poison mixed with gall,
My noonday passes in a nightmare dream,
I worse than lose the years which are my all:
What can console me for the loss supreme.

Speak not of comfort where no comfort is,
Speak not at all: can words make foul things fair?
Our life's a cheat, our death a black abyss:
Hush and be mute envisaging despair.

To this the pulpit speaker agrees; life is like this, but he is comforted by the fact that it ends soon.

In the last Canto (XXI), the wanderer sees the bronze colossus of the Patroness of the City, "Melencolia" and the poem ends with the epiphany that is dawning in her face:

To sense that every struggle brings defeat
Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;
That all the oracles are dumb or cheat
Because they have no secret to express;
That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain
Because there is no light beyond the curtain;
That all is vanity and nothingness.

Titanic from her high throne in the north,
That City's sombre Patroness and Queen,
In bronze sublimity she gazes forth
Over her Capital of teen and threne,
Over the river with its isles and bridges,
The marsh and moorland, to the stern rock-ridges,
Confronting them with a coeval mien.

The moving moon and stars from east to west
Circle before her in the sea of air;
Shadows and gleams glide round her solemn rest.
Her subjects often gaze up to her there:
The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,
The weak new terrors; all, renewed assurance
And confirmation of the old despair.

I have something of a taste for the Gothic, of which this poem is an eminent example.

Why I Believe in Free Will 4: Choice is of Means

Well, I had some notes for this post, but I seem to have temporarily misplaced them. Since I absolutely want to put something up on it, given how long it is since I have done so, here is something, dim shadow though it may be of my original intent.

Point #4: Choice is of means to non-singular ends.

We tend to treat the following (or some version of them) as true:

(1) We are capable of thinking of universals as such.
(2) We are capable of choosing to act in virtue of (at least some) such universals, taken as goals/ends/purposes.

If both of these are true, however, the libertarian has all that is needed for an account of free choice, since universals are not specified to the level of individuality. In other words, if we really are capable of choosing in virtue of universal ends (e.g., health, peace, good, justice, or anything similar), this suffices for a basic account of what free choice is. Under such a view, there is at least prima facie reason to think that we sometimes are not constrained to one alternative. The opposing view would be that, in fact, we don't really choose in virtue of universal ends, even part of the time; rather our choice is constrained with perfect precision to what actually ends up being chosen.

Of course, there is much more to be said, and if I had my notes I might say some of it; but as it is, my point here is basic: (1) and (2) make sense of free choice and, if true, give in themselves prima facie reason to think that at least some of our choices are not determined to one. Additional suppositions can be thrown up in order to circumvent this; but my point here is not to make an absolute argument, but to point out that such suppositions would, in fact, be needed by the determinist, if (1) and (2) are true; and each of these suppositions would have to be examined on its own. (What suppositions have been proposed have varied considerably from determinism to determinism.)

As I think I've previously noted in this series, there are actually two distinct issues that get conflated in most discussions of free will, so my next point, when I get around to it, will be to look at the other issue: free decision.

Journalistic Objectivity

In her first dish in the Iron Blog Challenge, Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise has written an excellent post on the issue of journalistic objectivity.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Why God Likes Bugs

I confess one of the things that most annoyed me about Bennett's paraphrase of Malebranche (which, to be fair, is potentially OK for very particular purposes, as any paraphrase might) is his dismissal of Dialogue XI.xii-xv as not of any philosophical interest. I hate it when people say, "Such and such is not of any philosophical interest"; partly because it is always wrong. One of the things that really annoys me about the Jolley-Scott (which is the best English translation of the Dialogues on Metaphysics, put out by Cambridge) is the excuse they gave for not including the 1696 Preface:

The present translation is based almost exclusively on the text of teh fourth edition of 1711 (as it appears in vol. 12 of OC), and the Preface and the Dialogues on Death, which are of minor philosophical interest, have not been included in this edition. (JS xlii)

Now, it is manifestly untrue that the Preface is of minor philosophical interest, since in that Preface Malebranche:

(1) Identifies explicitly the philosophical tradition in which he sees himself;
(2) Gives a fairly precise characterization of how he thinks his vision-in-God account of ideas -- which is the Malebranchean topic that is most discussed -- relates to the discussions of divine ideas by Augustine and Aquinas;
(3) In so doing lists some of the important characteristics of ideas;
(4) Gives some clarification about the nature of intelligible extension, in response to some criticisms.

Now, I see no reason why any of this should be consigned to the category of 'minor philosophical interest'. What they should have just said was, "We didn't really feel like taking the trouble to translate the Preface and the Dialogues on Death." I'd respect that excuse much more.

To get back to Bennett, saying that something is not of any philosophical interest is actually a very strong claim, and is usually implausible. One can, of course, say, "Such-and-such is not of any interest for the philosophical work I'm doing" or "Such-and-such doesn't touch on philosophical issues that interest me." But, seriously, in a profession where people talk about Twin Earths and Brains in Vats and Mad Neuroscientists -- and this is sometimes treated within the profession as belonging to the most respectable part of the profession -- in such a profession, I say, can anyone really have the right to say, "This is of no philosophical interest."

In any case, whether XI.xii-xv is of philosophical interest, it's of interest in a more general way, because Malebranche tackles the ever-puzzling question of why God created so many bugs, and does so with the aplomb and suave certainty that characterizes all of the most fun rationalists in philosophical history. What follows is my very rough paraphrase-translation of the French (it is only paraphrastic, although a fairly close one; for a closer translation, see Jolley-Scott 210ff.). To understand what is going on, you need to know that the general topic being discussed is the reasons why God created things the way He did. Theodore, who is Malebranche's representative in the discussion, argues that God created "cruel beasts and an infinity of very bothersome animals" because he foresaw that we would sin, and would therefore need to be taught a clear lesson about the distinction between rational and non-rational beings. After this discussion, we open with Aristes, Theodore's inquisitive interlocutor:


XII. Ariste: I understand exactly what you are saying. God had good reasons to create big animals that could punish us. But why are there so many little insects that do us neither good nor ill? They are perhaps more wonderfully designed than the big animals, but with a design hidden from our eyes that therefore can't acquaint us with the Creator's wisdom.

Theodore: Without stopping to prove to you that there isn't any animal, however small, without some sort of relation to us, my response is that God's principal idea in forming these little insects was not to harm us or help us, but to adorn the universe with works worthy of his wisdom and other attributes. Common men despise insects, but you can find people who study them. Apparently even angels admire them. But even if they were completely ignored, all that is needed for God to create them is for these little works to express divine perfections and make the universe more perfect in itself; supposing, of course, that He can preserve them without multiplying His ways, since God certainly made the most perfect work by acting in the most general and simple ways. He foresaw that the laws of motion were enough to preserve any kind of insect you could want. He wanted to put the laws to all the uses they could in order to make the work most complete. So he first formed the whole insect species by a wonderful division of a bit of matter. For we must always be mindful that it is by motion that everything happens in bodies, and that in the beginning of the universe's motion it didn't matter whether God moved things one way or another, since there were no general laws governing the communication of motion before things started hitting each other.

Ariste: I can conceive of that, Theodore. A world full of an endless number of big animals and little animals is more beautiful and distinctive of intelligence than one without insects. And such a world doesn't cost God any more, nor does it require that He be more particular and precise in His providence; so it fits with His attribute of immutability. So we needn't be shocked that God made so many insects.

XIII. Theodore: What you are saying here, Ariste, is very general, and doesn't exclude an infinite number of reasons for God to make the world as He did.

Ariste: Theodore, I have to tell you of a thought that came to mind when you were talking about the apparent transformation of the insects. Worms [i.e., caterpillars and other larvae] crawl on the ground. They lead a sad and humiliating life. But they make a tomb for themselves in which they gloriously depart. I imagined to myself that by this God wanted to symbolize the life, death, and resurrection, of his Son and even of all Christians.

Theodore: Ariste, I'm pleased that this thought came to mind, because although it seems to me quite right, I wouldn't have dared propose it to you.

Ariste: Why not?

Theodore: Because there's something ignoble about it that displeases the imagination. Besides, even the word 'worm' or 'insect' joined to the grand idea we have of our Savior can excite mockery. (For I think you know that ridicule consists in the conjunction of the small and the great.)

Ariste: Yes, but what seems ridiculous to the imagination is often quite reasonable and accurate, because we often despise what we don't know.

Theodore: That is true, Ariste. The lily of the field that we ignore is more magnificently clothed than Solomon in all his glory. Jesus Christ wasn't afraid of mockery when He proposed that paradox. The imagination is as content as reason in comparing the magnificence of King Solomon to the glory of Christ resurrected; but it isn't very satisfied when trying to find a symbol of the Savior in the beauty of a lily. Nonetheless, the magnificence of Solomon was the work of human hands, whereas it is God who gave the flowers their ornaments.

Ariste: So, Theodore, you believe that God symbolized Jesus Christ in plants as well as insects?

Theodore: Ariste, I believe that God related everything to Christ in a thousand different ways, and that not only do creatures express divine perfections, but they are also, as much as possible, emblems of His beloved Son. The seed we sow must, as it were, die, in order to be resurrected and to give fruit. I find this a natural symbol of Christ, who died in order to be gloriously resurrected: Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground to die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. [John 12:24]

Theotime: [Theotime is another participant in the conversation.] One can make anything serve as a comparison. But it doesn't follow that God wanted to symbolize Christ by everything that has some arbitrary relation to Him.

Theodore: Theotime, If I did not know (1) that the principal purpose of God [in creation] is Jesus Christ and His Church; (2) that nothing pleases God except through Christ; (3) that the universe subsists in Christ and through Christ, because only He sanctifies it, raises it from its sordid state, and makes it divine; then I would consider these natural symbols to be all arbitrary and ignoble comparisons. Theotime, I believe that God had Christ so much in view in forming the universe that the thing that's perhaps most wonderful about providence is that it is always relating the natural and the supernatural, what happens in the world, and what comes from the Church of Jesus Christ.

XIV. Ariste: Surely, Theotime, it is obvious that God wanted to symbolize Jesus by the changes insects go through. A worm is despicable and powerless: behold the despised Christ: But I am a worm, and not a man, the reproach of men and an outcast from the people. [Psalm 21:7] See Him charged with our infirmities and weaknesses: Surely he has born our infirmities. [Isaiah 53:4] A worm encloses itself in its tomb and is resurrected later without being corrupted. Christ dies and is resurrected without his body being subject to corruption. Neither did his flesh see corruption. [Acts 2:21] The worm resurrects to a body that is, so to speak, wholly spiritual. It does not crawl. It flies. It no longer feeds on putrefaction, it drinks from the flowers. It is no longer despicable: nothing could be more magnificently clothed. Likewise, the resurrected Christ is full of glory. He is raised to the heavens. He no longer crawls, so to speak, from village to village in Judea. He is no longer subject to the weariness and other infirmities of life. He governs all nations, and can break them like a clay pot [Ps. 2:9]. Sovereign power in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. Can we say this parallel is arbitrary? Surely it is natural.

XV. Theodore: Ariste, you are forgetting parallels too exact to be ignored.

Ariste: What are they?

Theodore: These worms are always growing before their transformation. But flies, butterflies, and (in general) everything that has been transformed into a flying thing after having been a worm, always remains in the same state.

Ariste: This is because on earth, we are always able to merit, while in heaven we remain as we are.

Theodore: I have noticed that insects do not reproduce unless they have been resurrected and (so to speak) glorified.

Ariste: You are right. This is because Christ only sent the Holy Spirit to His Church, making it fruitful, after His resurrection and entrance into glory. For the Spirit was not yet given, John says, because Jesus was not yet glorified. [John 7:39] And Christ himself says, It is good that I go, for if I do not, the Paraclete will not come to you, but if I go, I will send Him to you. [John 16:7] I am no longer surprised that God made so many insects.

Theodore: Theotime, if God is pleased by His work, it is because He sees His beloved Son everywhere. We ourselves are only agreeable to God insofar as we are expressions of Christ. Matter, by the modalities of which it is capable, cannot exactly express the inner dispositions of the holy soul of Christ -- His charity, His humility, His patience; but it can imitate quite well the different states in which we find His adorable body. And I think that the arrangement of matter, which symbolizes Christ and His Church, honors the Father's love for the Son better than any other arrangement that honors His wisdom and attributes. [The 'arrangements of matter' Theodore has in mind here are things like the body of the caterpillar as it undergoes its physical transformations.]

Ariste: Perhaps there is more skill and intelligence in these dispositions of matter that symbolize Christ. When a living animal makes a tomb for itself and encloses itself in it so it can be resurrected in glory, can we conceive of a mechanism more admirable than the one by which it does so?

Theotime: I agree entirely with your opinions. Further, I believe, Theodore, that God has used the dispositions of bodies to symbolize even the dispositions Jesus' holy soul, especially the abundance of His love for His Church. For St. Paul teaches us [in Ephesians 5] that the violent passion of love that causes a man to leave his parents for his wife is a symbol of the abundance of His love for His spouse. Although animals, strictly speaking, aren't capable of love, they express this great passion by their movemetns and preserve their species a little like men do. They therefore naturally symbolize that violent love of Jesus Christ, which led Him to shed His blood for His Church. In effect, a blind and foolish and (as it were) unlimited passion was needed in order to express strongly and vividly the folly of the cross, the self-emptying of the Son of God, the abundance of His love for men.

Ariste: Let us therefore admire the incomprehensible wisdom of the Creator in making these wonderful correspondences, and let us not consider creatures useless because they don't do us any harm or good. They make god's work more perfect. They express divine perfections. They symbolize Jesus Christ. That's their excellence and their beauty.

Theodore: Let us admire them, Ariste. But since God only loves His creatures in the degree they are related to His perfections, i.e., insofar as they express His Son, let us be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and model ourselves on His Son. It isn't enough for Christians to symbolize Jesus Christ like animals and material beings do, nor even as Solomon does in all his glory. We must imitate the virtues He practiced in His humble and difficult life; these suit us as long as we crawl on the earth. And we know that a new life is reserved for us in heaven, where we will await our glorious transformation. But our conversation is in heaven, says St. Paul, whence we also look for the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will reform the body of our humiliation to be made like the body of His glory. [Philippians 3:20-21]

His Songs are Stronger Songs, and His Feet are Faster

This post on Tom Bombadil, which was sparked by this excellent musing on the return of the Ring to the Cracks of Doom caught my eye. What is the origin of Tom Bombadil? My own view is to draw an analogy with Ungoliant: she is neither Vala nor, in any obvious sense, Maia, but a spirit who descended to earth before the making of the two trees. She seems to have been an independent power, and she had immense power in her own right, being able to hide herself and Melkor even from the sight of Manwe. Bombadil, I think, is similar, but comes from an even earlier time; hence his name, Eldest. This, I suppse, is a version of the nature spirit theory (as opposed to the other theories of Bombadil: the Maia theory, the Vala theory, the Iluvatar theory). But it isn't quite the standard nature spirit theory, since that posits that some natural feature of the world 'gives rise to Bombadil'. Given how old Bombadil is, however, the only natural feature of the world that could 'give rise to Bombadil' is the earth itself: through all the wars and catastrophes of the ages it is difficult to believe anything else would last that long. This would fit with one or two things, but Bombadil really isn't much like other cases in which a natural feature 'gives rise' to something (e.g., the waking trees). Thus some have suggested that Bombadil is the spirit of Arda itself. But this does not seem at all likely to me. And a common argument put forward for this view, namely, that it would explain Tom's independence from the Ring, is false, I think; at least, I see no reason why it would have no power over him on its own despite the fact that, if Sauron succeeded in finding and using the Ring, Tom too would fall. Tom's independence from the Ring seems to me to be simply an incidental effect of his general carelessness. Power simply does not interest him, one way or another, and therefore he fears and craves nothing. My view is that he is simply some other type of spirit, come to Arda in the very beginning for purposes only he and Eru know.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Jonathan Bennett has recently put up a translation of Malebranche's Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion in his series of texts converted into 'modern day English'. I didn't expect to like it, and I don't. For utterly no reason whatsoever, Bennett refuses to capitalize 'Reason'. In a single note he misleadingly characterizes Reason three times: He calls it a thing, the mind of God, and saying that 'reason' is another name for God. These can all be interpreted in a Malebranchean sense, but none of the three is Malebranchean in the plainest reading of the phrases; on Malebranche's view, Reason is not a thing but a divine person, the Divine Word (hence the capital), in virtue of whom all rational beings are rational. Anyone not familiar with Malebranche's actual view will come away with an inaccurate impression. Many of the clarificatory additions are not really clarificatory, e.g.:

if the circle I perceive were nothing, in thinking of it I would be thinking of nothing, which is tantamount to not thinking of anything.

where the italicized is Bennett's own addition; it doesn't, as far as I can see, really contribute anything to the meaning of the sentence. There are several cases of these. Further, some of the additions use philosophical terminology that doesn't necessarily fit well with Malebranche's actual views (e.g., a priori and a posteriori discovery, as Bennett describes them, is only debatably the same distinction being made about discovery through different general laws); and I am perplexed at the inconsistency of students who have a good grasp of analytic jargon and can't follow a translation as straightforward as the Jolley-Scott. He oddly chooses to keep l'étendue in the French, despite the fact that in the note explaining this he gives a perfectly good English equivalent, i.e., 'the extended'. He has Theodore talking about the 'idea of color in general' and the 'idea of sensation in general' (we have no such ideas on Malebranche's view; colors and sensations are modifications of the soul).

All this is mostly minor. But this note had me gaping in shock:

[‘God’ here translates le Verbe divin = ‘the divine Word’, which Malebranche sometimes uses to name God, on the strength of various passages in the New Testament - especially ‘the word was with God, and the word was God’. None of his doctrines depends on this; and avoiding it helps to create salutary difference of tone between this version and Malebranche’s original.]

None of his doctrines depends on this! None of his doctrines depends on this! I say again in utter disbelief: None of his doctrines depends on this! Since the last several dialogues are specifically about how the Divine Word, who is Reason, exercises His teaching authority as Christ and the Head of the Church, because the whole world was made for His sake, I have no notion how even to begin responding to this. Malebranche's entire philosophical system is about the Divine Word in particular; the Second Person of the Trinity is the whole point of most of what he says. He gets this in part from Augustine. And he goes on to use Trinitarian terminology, which Bennett merely obscures:

universal reason, which enlightens every mind including the one with which it is consubstantial. [He means ‘God’s mind’, which is ‘consubstantial’ with universal reason in the sense that universal reason is the same substance as - is one and the same thing as - God’s mind.]

He very assuredly does not mean universal reason is the same thing as God's mind. He very deliberately means that the Second Person of the Trinity is consubstantial with God. I really don't see why Bennett goes to such great lengths to hide what is ineliminably in the text; Malebranche is using the terminology of Trinitarian theology. Wouldn't it be far clearer just to keep the terminology and provide notes indicating that Malebranche is using traditional terms from Catholic theology? Malebranche is always very explicit that he is a Catholic philosopher; he does Catholic philosophy, and always does it as a Catholic. I'm sorry if it causes problems, but if you have students who can't get a hold of the basic Nicene elements of Trinitarian theology, you shouldn't be teaching them Malebranche. This tendency to cut out much of Malebranche's Catholicity is apparent everywhere in Bennett's 'translation'; e.g., he cuts down Theodore's defense of the Catholic Church as infallible, he cuts out the discussion of natural emblems, which has the literary function of setting the stage for the later discussion of the Church, etc. But to return to the point about the Divine Word: the Dialogues are about the Divine Word; it is the Divine Word that unifies all the topics discussed in the book.

Another botched note in theology from much later in the work:

our fortunate death depends on God because it depends on Jesus Christ: in him God has given us a head who watches over us and won’t allow an unfortunate death to come upon us if we ask him in the right way for the gift of persevering [here = ‘living for ever’].

What makes a 'fortunate death' is the state of your soul when you die. The gift of perseverance is not the gift of 'living forever', which doesn't even really make sense in this context.

And so forth (e.g., the Augustinian meaning of 'concupiscence' isn't made very clear when Malebranche talks about original sin, despite the fact that it is the whole point). There is no way to convey Malebranche accurately without identifying the theological issues on which he is (quite deliberately) touching.

[UPDATE: Forgot the link! Sorry about that!]

The Quantity of an Hazel-Nut

Sharon at Early Modern Notes, who has been posting selections highlighting women's agency in history for International Women's Day, posted a selection from Julian of Norwich. As it happens, the selection contains my favorite among Julian's visions:

Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.


One day here at the University of Toronto I was stepping into the elevator at 215 Huron Street (the philosophy department is located on the ninth and tenth floors). There were several people already in the elevator. One of them was a Pakistani-Canadian girl I knew from my Islamic Philosophy class the previous year. We hadn't talked much in class; she was taking it as part of a Near Eastern Studies program, I was taking it as part of a Philosophy program, so we never really met outside of class. However, when I stepped onto the elevator her face lit up as if I had been an old friend.

The reason is that she observed hijab, in a way that was quite conservative (everything except her eyes and hands were covered). One of the other people on the elevator, as he entered, had pointed to her veil and said, very angrily, "That's a sign of oppression. You should take it off."

Not only was she uncomfortable, she was a bit frightened at the angry tone of his voice and the equally angry looks he gave her. So, when she saw me come into the elevator, it was a great relief; she remembered me from the class. After the young man got off the elevator, she told me all about it, and we talked a bit. Fortunately, such incidents were rare, although apparently she had occasionally come across similar uncomfortable and even frightening situations. We finished by talking a bit of Islamic philosophy - she was apparently doing something with al-Kindi's discussions of the 'Cosmic Man', which sounded very interesting. [That should read 'al-Arabi's' rather than al-Kindi's. Wow; that was a big slip, since the two aren't very similar at all. An odd trick for the memory to play. -- BW.] And then we parted, and we haven't met up again. But the incident made a vivid impression.

What brings it to mind is International Women's Day. That we have accomplished so much in the cause of women is a reason for a bit of celebration. But I hope there will eventually be a day in which nice Muslim girls will not be agressively accosted on university campuses in major liberal democracies and treated so poorly. I have no doubt that the young man meant well, and meant to place himself on her side; but instead of being on her side, in that elevator he put himself in opposition to her. (This memory is one reason why I get so impatient at the tone of some who consider themselves progressives.) May God grant that we will all be a little bit wiser than that young man.

Some Readables

* The Call of Holiness: A Sermonette at FQI

* The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln (Hat-tip: Early Modern Notes)

* On contraception (selections from Anscombe on the subject) at NWW.

* A Methodological Argument for Realism at Studi Galileiani

Butler on Capital Punishment

It is not man's being a social creature, much less his being a moral agent, from whence alone our obligations to good-will towards him arise. There is an obligation to it prior to either of these, arising from his being a sensible creatuer; that is, capable of happiness or misery. Now this obligation cannot be superseded by his moral character. What justifies public executions is, not that the guilt or demerit of the criminal dispenses with the obligation of good-will, neither would this justify any severity; but, that his life is inconsistent with the quiet and happiness of the world: that is, a general and more enlarged obligation necessarily destroys a particular and more confined one of the same kind inconsistent with it. Guilt or injury then does not dispense with, or supersede the duty of, love and good-will.

Joseoph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, Sermon IX.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Virtue Jurisprudence

I found this post on virtue jurisprudence at "Legal Theory" very interesting. I hope also to be able to read Solum's paper, which focuses on judicial phronesis (prudentia). This kind of discussion warms my neo-Scholastic heart.

Chrysostom on Mutual Submission

"Subjecting yourselves one to another," he says, "in the fear of Christ." For if thou submit thyself for a ruler's sake, or for money's sake, or from respectfulness, much more from the fear of Christ. Let there be an interchange of service and submission. For then will there be no such thing as slavish service. Let not one sit down in the rank of a freeman, and the other in the rank of a slave; rather it were better that both masters and slaves be servants to one another;--far better to be a slave in this way than free in any other; as will be evident from hence. Suppose the case of a man who should have an hundred slaves, and he should in no way serve them; and suppose again a different case, of an hundred friends, all waiting upon one another. Which will lead the happier life? Which with the greater pleasure, with the more enjoyment? In the one case there is no anger, no provocation, no wrath, nor anything else of the kind whatever; in the other all is fear and apprehension. In the one case too the whole is forced, in the other is of free choice. In the one case they serve one another because they are forced to do so, in the other with mutual gratification. Thus does God will it to be; for this He washed His disciples' feet.

John Chrysostom, Homily XIX on Ephesians

Insoluble Question

The Flann O'Brien quote in the previous post puts me in mind of O'Brien's short story, "An Insoluble Question". Every student of philosophy should read it! Alas, I think I myself have already gone for a few too many cups of dark, mysterious, uncharted tea. Fortunately, to this point I have escaped with my life.

Blogs and Science

Chris at "Mixing Memory" has an excellent post with advice for bloggers (and others) on writing about cognitive science issues; and I think it applies to writing on any scientific matters. It's advice that's occasionally a bit difficult for us laymen to follow, particularly in a blogging forum, but excellent advice. I think it does show a quandary the lay public is in, and has been for a long time. Lay society is simply not set up in such a way that it can keep pace with scientific research; the lay public is not well-equipped for distinguishing real claims from crank claims; it is continually receiving misinformation it has only limited resources for filtering, and so forth. It's a fascinating problem; in part because it has no obvious solution. In my very limited experience, Chris's #3 is dead on. I remember reading Mendel's Demon by Mark Ridley (it has a different title in the U.S.; I forget what it is), and about halfway through the book realized that I had no real clue what he was intending to convey, nor why he was intent on conveying it. For all I really could tell he was trying to say something about snarks and boojums (literally, since he talks at great length about snarks and boojums when dealing with mitochondria; I understood that stuff, probably better than he did himself, but what it really was supposed to say about mitochondrial DNA, I don't rightly know). Biologists who already completely know what he's talking about might enjoy it. But my thought was, "How is somebody who doesn't already know about this subject supposed to distinguish the metaphor from the reality it is being used to describe, the guesswork and speculation from the established fact, the basic biology from the absurd little flourishes this author apparently thinks constitutes a literary writing style? How can someone without all the background knowledge needed to filter through all this - in short, much of the book's actual readership - come away from this without having been entirely misled?" How does the lay public both take advantage of scientific work and do so in a way that keeps reasonably up to speed, so as to deal with the obsolescence of scientific information, and avoid being misled and do it all in such a way that it can manage it even given all the other claims on its time, interest, and resources? As Sergeant Pluck says, ""That is a great curiosity, a very difficult piece of puzzledom, a snorter."

In any case, Chris's posts suggests to me one of the potentially valuable things about blogs (and in the case of blogs like his own, actually valuable), since they can answer a need that otherwise isn't really met: putting at least part of the lay public in touch with the most recent relevant literature, correcting the most obvious common misunderstandings, etc. We'll see how far the blogosphere helps in matters like these; but it's at least promising.