Thursday, May 26, 2005

Life as Chess

This is a bit long, but it's a great passage:

Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game at chess. Don't you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least th names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn, upon the father who allowed his son, or the state which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a knight from a pawn?

Yet it is a very plain and elementary truth, that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he enver overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paide, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated--without haste, but without remorse.

My metaphor will remind some of you of the famous picture in which Retzsch has depicted Satain playing at chess with man for his soul. Substitute for the mocking fiend in the picture, a calm, strong angel who is playing for love, as we say, and would rather lose than win--and I should accept it as an image of human life.

Well, what I mean by Education is learning the rules of this mighty game....

--T. H. Huxley, "A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It," in Lay Sermons, Essays, and Reviews, Macmillan (London: 1880) 31-32.

A Bit of Connectivity

* Chris Bray has a good post on David Hackworth (cross-posted here) and others like him, and the failure of civilian hawks to take them seriously. Hackworth, who had received many distinguished awards for military service, because of his strongly pro-military views and advocacy of military reform, was occasionally sharply critical both of civilian hawks and Pentagon 'princes'. He died recently. His organization, Soldiers for the Truth, is a fairly good resource for acquainting oneself with straight talk by veterans and soldiers in the field about the U.S. military, U.S. foreign policy, and the like. I know much less about Bacevich, but the story sounds too familiar. There are, in fact, good pro-soldier reasons for being very wary of much of American military policy; and it is unfortunate that people are sometimes unwilling to recognize that. It's one of the sordid sides of partisan politics that I keep mentioning. Of course, Hackworth isn't above criticism; this seems about right, for instance, just judging on what little I know of the matter. But a serious interest in the health and reasonable use of the U.S. military -- an interest that should be shared in some degree by all American citizens, whatever their political assumptions -- requires at least taking the trouble to take people like Hackworth, and their call for reforms, seriously.

* Christian Humanism: The Knowledge of God and of Ourselves at "Internet Monk"

* Thick Epistemology at "Certain Doubts"

* Four Kinds of Ontological Argument at "The Maverick Philosopher"

* After Caleb's post questioning the explanatory power Lakoff's Strict Father / Nuturant Parent catories have and my post puzzling over Lakoff's claims about American religion, Chris mentioned Lakoff's claims about intonation at "Mixing Memory" in a personal reflection about when and why he came to have difficulty taking Lakoff's conceptual metaphor accounts seriously. And Coturnix (Bora Zivkovic) responds to all three at "Science and Politics".

I'll be giving a paper at the CPA Sunday, and I recently decided I didn't like how it was put together, so I am in the middle of completely reworking it. As you can imagine that means I'm very busy at the moment....

Sound Advice in Riddle Form

A "charade" riddle by Jane Austen:

You may lie on my first on the side of a stream,
And my second compose to the nymph you adore,
But if, when you've none of my whole, her esteem
And affection diminish -- think of her no more!

"My first" = first syllable; "my second" = second syllable; "my whole" = the whole word. The answer to the riddle is here.

The Scholasticum

By accident I came across Br. Alexis Bugnolo's weblog, The Scholasticum, which looks like a great resource in the making. From his profile:

I decided to publish this Blog, "The Scholasticum", to be an electronic forum for the discussion of Scholastic Theology and Philosophy for those who visit The Franciscan Archive, and for all others on the Internet. This site is part of the long term plans I have to study Scholasticism: a work which focuses on translating some of the great works of Scholastic Theology of the Franciscan School into English. If you visit my web page, you can read online part of Peter Lombard's Book of Sentences and Bonaventure's corresponding Commentaries, in English and Latin, as well as part 1 and 2 of Scotus' prologue to his Ordinatio, as well as find a host of links to their other works, some of which I have also published (e.g. Itinerarium, Collations on the 7 Gifts of the Holy Ghost). As I am a franciscan brother I am begging the means to do this, bit by bit over the years. I wish to thank my benefactors for all their assistance, and invite others of you who may be interested in helping if you can. If you would like to contact me, go to my web page, and send me an email directly.

It looks like the blog is only about two weeks old, but he already has several interesting selections from major scholastic texts, a post on the place of scholastic theology in the mind of the Catholic Church, a post that provides an introductory overview to the (early) history of scholasticism (I say 'early' because it only goes to the 14th century), the relation of Ratzinger's theology to scholasticism, and close textual commentaries on Aquinas's ST 1.1.1 and Scotus's Ordinatio Prol.1.1.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

History Carnival Reminder

Don't forget to send in your submissions to the History Carnival. The relevant information from Sharon:

Email your nominations - your own blogwriting or that of other bloggers to me: sharon AT earlymodernweb DOT org DOT uk (replace AT with @, DOT with . and close up the spaces), by the end of Tuesday.

Remember, the History Carnival isn’t just intended for academics; entries don’t have to be particularly weighty or scholarly. But I do expect a focus on things historical and reasonable standards of accuracy and fairness in the use of historical sources. If you’re uncertain, check out the carnival’s homepage at the link above. And NB that the host’s decision is final.

You should include in your email: the title and permalink URL of the blog post you wish to nominate and the author’s name (or pseudonym) and the title of the blog.

You can submit multiple suggestions, but please try not to submit more than one post by any individual author for each Carnival (with the exception of multi-part posts on the same topic). (Unless you really can’t bear to choose.) You can submit your own work as well as that of other bloggers.

The posts should have been published recently, certainly within the previous month, and preferably since the date of the last Carnival (15 May).

Which reminds me that I'll have to think about what to send in myself.

A Sparkling Bond

Once when I was shedding bitter tears,
when, dissolved in pain, my hope was melting away,
and I stood alone by the barren mound
which in its narrow dark bosom hid the vanished form of my Life,
lonely as never yet was lonely man, driven by anxiety unspeakable,
powerless, and no longer anything but a conscious misery;--
as there I looked about me for help, unable to go on or to turn back,
and clung to the fleeting, extinguished life with an endless longing:
then, out of the blue distances --
from the hills of my ancient bliss, came a shiver of twilight --
and at once snapt the bond of birth, the chains of the Light.
Away fled the glory of the world, and with it my mourning;
the sadness flowed together into a new, unfathomable world.
Thou, soul of the Night, heavenly Slumber, didst come upon me;
the region gently upheaved itself;
over it hovered my unbound, newborn spirit.
The mound became a cloud of dust,
and through the cloud I saw the glorified face of my beloved.
In her eyes eternity reposed. I laid hold of her hands,
and the tears became a sparkling bond that could not be broken.
Into the distance swept by, like a tempest, thousands of years.
On her neck I welcomed the new life with ecstatic tears.
Never was was such another dream;
then first and ever since I hold fast an eternal, unchangeable faith
in the heaven of the Night, and its Light, the Beloved.

--Novalis, Hymns to the Night, Hymn III, George MacDonald, tr.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Only Darkness by Himself

Man is only darkness by himself. It is not that he produces in himself the ideas by which he perceives all things, for he is not his own light. And Philosophy teaches me that the objects cannot form in the mind the ideas that they represent, that it must be recognized that there is nothing but God that can enlighten us. He is the great Son who penetrates all, and who fills all with his light. He is the great teacher who instructs all those who come into this world; it is in Him that we see all that we see, and that we are able to see all that which we are capable of seeing: because God contains the ideas or the resemblances of all beings, and being in him as we are, "in ipso enim vivimus, movemur, et sumus," we see in Him, or we are able to see in Him all beings successively. Finally, He is the intelligible world in which minds exist, and in which they perceive the material world that is neither visible, nor intelligible by itself.

This is from Malebranche, Méditations pour se disposer a l'humilité et a la pénitence (1676) in the Oeuvres Complètes 17(1):393-394. My (rough) translation. This is the least depressing of the Considerations, which are reflections on various issues that are supposed to incline us to humility and penitence. I have translated it here because I've never seen it translated before and it has relevance to the philosophical issues that are most discussed in Malebranche scholarship. The Latin phrase, of course, is from Acts 17:8, which is perhaps the most quoted Bible verse in early modern philosophical literature.

Bayes Haze

Joe Carter at "the evangelical outpost" has a series of posts on Pascalian Bayesianism (for lack of a better label). As I've noted before, I think the only real sense one can make of Pascal's Wager is if one understands (1) that the textual context of the Wager is what seems to be notes for a dialogue; (2) that the point of the Wager is not to prove that God exists but to show that faith in His existence is not unreasonable.

When I get to the application of Bayesianism, though, and I see a phrase like "two times as likely if God exists," I think, "Two times as likely if God exists on what suppositions"? Without suppositions, nothing goes through. But if you have the suppositions, it is generally not necessary to bother with the Theorem; just use the suppositions themselves. Further, I'm not subjectivist about probabilities (I agree with Newman that there are no degrees of belief, just different kinds), so I'd need some prior rules for quantifying the probabilities. Since I am in the end a positivist about probability theory -- I think its only value is representing and classifying previously determined quantities and deducing their further relations in areas where we have reason to think this fruitful -- I would need (a) actually measurable quantities; and (b) reason to think that using Bayes's Theorem on these quantities would be fruitful (e.g., a general theory, or the successful use of the Theorem in analogous cases). I have no doubt that Bayes's Theorem is analogous to at least some kinds of probable inferences (in the old sense of 'probable'), but analogy is not an excuse for conflation. I have similar problems with Plantinga's argument against naturalism. I can make no sense of these sorts of arguments.

Those interested in the history of Bayes's Theorem can find Bayes's original essay (PDF) online.

Ugh. I Have Scarcely Any Words.

Why is it that I have to come across this so soon after Trinity Sunday?

The Bible several times says that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, but He's at the right hand. He sits with Him on His throne. He has equal glory and equal honor but not equal authority. The Father and Son are equal in all their attributes, and the Holy Spirit is too. But among those persons of the Trinity, though they are equal in all their attributes: infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, infinitely loving, just and merciful, omnipresent and omniscient; they share all attributes, but there is a difference in the way they relate. The Father has an authority that the Son does not have.

Ugh! Putting aside the fact that Christians have always taught Scripture in such a way that the Father has nothing the Son does not except the very fact of being the Father, and putting aside that it is incoherent to say that the Persons are equal in all their attributes but that they do not have equal authority since authority is an attribute, the whole strategy in the interview at the above link is just horrid. The 'arguments' prove nothing except that the Word as Incarnate is submissive to the Father (this is true even of Ephesians 1:4, which is just the predestination of Christ), and there is (at the most optimistic assessment) something creepy about the attempt to reformulate the doctrine of the Trinity in an effort to make a particular conception of marriage feasible. I have come across these people before, these "functional subordinationists," who are multiplying like a plague, and in coming face-to-face with this doctrine I have come to understand as I never did before just how important the Trinitarian controversies were, and just how thankful we should be to people like Athanasius and Cyril. I do not know the hearts of some of these functional subordinationists; many, no doubt, are simply dupes, or confused (they have a tendency to confuse the relations of origin like Fatherhood with subordination relations - the former merely introduce an ordination, i.e., ordering, which is different from a sub-ordination, i.e., an ordering of one under the other; and a tendency to confuse the kenosis, in the Pauline sense, of Christ with an eternal subordination - there is Biblical basis for the former, but not at all for the latter, which they hold based entirely on a set of free-wheeling analogies). It is very sad to find people saying, "Authority and submission is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity," merely to jury-rig our notions of marriage. But I fear that there are people putting forward this doctrine who are fundamentally evil. I don't say that often. But this nonsense surpasses all patience. Some of those who go along with it have, no doubt, merely failed to think through what they are claiming. And I can sympathize to a considerable extent with those who are trying to conserve (what they see as) traditional marriage; I think it misses the fact that the letter to the Ephesians, at least, is very clear that in Christian marriage husband and wife are both supposed to be subject to each other out of reverence for Christ, but I would have a warm and sympathetic heart if they were merely putting forward a doctrine of marriage. But those who have thought the matter through are arbitrarily trying to redefine the principles of the faith for their own convenience. How can that not be evil?

Horrible! Horrible! Horrible! What else is there to say?

Monday, May 23, 2005

Impeccability and Omnipotence

From Eric Funkhouser's paper, On Privileging God's Goodness (PDF; HT: OPP):

If God is omnipotent, then God possesses the maximum amount of power possible. A being that is maximally powerful could thrust a knife through an innocent child's chest for amusement. After all, infitely powerful creatures can do this. But if God is also impeccable, then God essentially refrains from performing morally bad deeds. An impeccable being could never (because such a being would never?) thrust a knife through an innocent child's chest for amusement.

This seems to me to involve a very straightforward and obvious equivocation between different senses in which we say something 'can never' do something (cf. the scholastic distinction, especially as developed in the later scholastics, between God's absolute and ordinate power). Funkhouser does consider this in some sense; he calls it 'relativizing abilities to faculties', and odd phrase, given that faculties are abilities, and abilities are either faculties or specifications of faculties. In that sense, 'relativizing abilities to faculties' is the only thing anyone should ever do. Funkhouser does not recognize, however, that abilities can be 'relativized' to specifications of faculties, and so gives a sophistical argument for the claim that everything God wills is willed simpliciter. Naturally, since we can make no sense of God actually willing without willing something, this conclusion is absurd. So God can will some things (in virtue of the fact that it does not contradict the notion of divine will) but also might not be able to will those very same things (in virtue of the fact that it contradicts something else). On this line, omnipotence would be something predicated of divine will as such in virtue of the concept on its own, in distinction from (say) our concept of divine will + divine intellect. But it doesn't matter much whether one grants this; there are problems elsewhere in Funkhouser's argument.

There is, for instance, a problem with a premise he uses in his argument:

The Maximality of Omnipotence: If there is a possible being, B, that has the power to (i.e., can) bring about all the states of affairs that being A can bring about and then some, then being A is not omnipotent.

Now, it is clear that the state of affairs in question in matters of impeccability is God's sinning. It is entirely reasonable, however, to hold

(M) Nothing can make God sin.

This is entirely consistent with the Maximality of Omnipotence. Thus the whole problem is avoided. Funkhouser tries to get around this by making the state of affairs in question "morally bad states of affairs," but this simply won't do; for a state of affairs to be morally good or bad it has to be morally good or bad for someone. This 'someone' can only be God or a created person. If God, what I have said holds. If a created person, then we have to ask whether the following is consistent with impeccability:

(N) God can make a creature to sin.

And the answer is 'Yes, they are compatible' if God can make a creature sin without Himself sinning. Funkhouser, as far as I can see, provides no argument against this response.

He further goes on to argue that power is not intrinsically good; but all he shows is that it can be incidentally evil. The latter does not, however, conflict with the former, and indeed, traditionally, power presupposes good-qua-end, and therefore can never be wholly without good, but only (as it were) less with it. Power can be praiseworthy in a non-prudential sense, contrary to Funkhouser's claim; this is why we want good people to be as powerful as they are good, even apart from any benefit we receive from it: it is good for good people to be powerful. That we give moral properties a priority in praiseworthiness over power properties as to do not with any lack of intrinsic goodness on the part of power, but in the relation between the two kinds of intrinsic goodness.

Born of the Same One Heart

O God of man, my heart would worship all
My fellow men, the flashes from thy fire;
Them in good sooth my lofty kindred call,
Born of the same one heart, the perfect sire;
Love of my kind alone can set me free;
Help me to welcome all that come to me,
Not close my doors and dream solitude liberty!

--George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul , May 24

Malebranche's Account of Reason

I. The Reason that enlightens man is the Word or the Wisdom of God Himself. For each creature is a particular being, and the Reason that enlightens the mind of man is universal.

II. If my own mind were my Reason, or my light, my mind would be the reason of all intelligences; for I am sure that my Reason or the light that enlightens me is common to all intelligences. No one can feel my own pain; all men are able to see the truth that I contemplate. Thus it is that my pain is a modification of my own substance, and that the truth is a good common to all minds.

III. So by means of Reason, I have, or I am able to have, some society with God, and with all the intelligences that there are; since all minds have with me a common good and the same law, Reason.

IV. This spiritual society consists in a participation of the same intelligible substance of the Word, from which all minds are able to nourish themselves. In contemplating this divine substance, I am able to see a part of what God thinks; for God sees all truths and I am able to see some of them in Him. I am also able to discover something of what God wills: For God is only able to will according to Order, and Order is not entirely unknown to me. Certainly God loves things in proportion as they are lovable; and I am able to discover that there are some things more perfect, more estimable, more lovable, than others.

[From Traité de morale, Part I, Chapter I. My translation.]

Puzzling over Lakoff on Theology

* From Lakoff, Moral Politics, Chapter 14:

There are those who claim that their politics is simply a matter of following what the Bible literally says. This assumes that there is such a thing as a literal interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, whole branches of Christianity are based on such a claim, but it is straightforwardly a false claim.

Nobody believes that "the Lord is my shepherd" is said literally by a sheep that has fleece and eats grass. Nobody believes that "Our Father Who art in heaven" is literally daddy. Virtually every page of the Bible is filled with passages that can only be, and always are, interpreted metaphorically. There simply is no fully literal interpretation of the Bible.

This annoys me a lot. When certain Christians say that they believe in a "literal interpretation of the Bible," the sense of "literal" historically derives from a use of the word that has nothing to do with the figurative/literal distinction. While there may be some people who confuse the two senses of the word 'literal', this confusion does not lie at the roots of "whole branches of Christianity." When they say that they believe that the Bible is literally true, they mean that the Bible is true in the plain, straightforward sense of the text (a sense which contains both literal and figurative discourse); the opposing term here is not "figurative" but "allegorical" or "spiritual." It does not take any deep research to figure this out. It is an error easily avoided. It involves the interpretation of the simplest formulation of a basic sola scriptura doctrine. And yet Lakoff can't even take the trouble to determine whether the straightforwardly false claim he attributes to "whole branches of Christianity" is even what they are actually claiming.

* I'm a little puzzled by this point in Lakoff's discussion of metaphors in theology and politics:

Infinity metaphors. The all-seeing, all-knowing, the all-good, the all-powerful, the first cause, and so on.

Now, very generally, a metaphor consists of conceiving one kind of thing in terms of another; but these infinity metaphors don't do that ('all-seeing' does, but not in virtue of the 'all', which is intended quite literally). As to whether 'knowing', 'good', and 'powerful' are metaphorical, this seems rather dubious. I suppose Lakoff could be assuming that any application of any word in a non-physical context is metaphorical, but as I've noted elsewhere, there's no reason to hold such an absurd (as in straightforwardly false!) view.

[It is possible that Lakoff is linking these implicitly to his account of mathematical infinity, which he thinks is metaphorical. But besides the fact that there are problems with this view, it is clear that the theological use of the infinite is rather different from the mathematical infinite. It is easier to understand, it arises more spontaneously, and is developed to a much finer degree earlier than the mathematical infinite. Plus, if one really wants a cognitive science explanation, Hume has a much, much more plausible suggestion that has a lot more promise. But I don't really know what Lakoff means here.]

I'm also not sure what 'first cause' is doing here in the infinity metaphors batch, particularly given that the next of the four general classes of metaphor is:

The Source of Good. God is commonly seen as source of all good things.

* Lakoff suggests that one replace 'secular' with 'realist' or 'rationalist'; I can think of nothing more absurd. First, because 'realist' and 'rationalist' come loaded down with an immense amount of baggage. As in:

"Hi, I'm a realist in politics; I think it reasonable for a government to make use of any means necessary in order to fulfill its democratic mandate, whatever that may be."

"Hi, I'm a realist about God, heaven, the angels, and the like."

"Hi, I'm a rationalist; like Descartes, Malebranche, and Leibniz I believe that the ontological argument is sound, and that Reason requires that we subject ourselves in certain matters to the authority of the Church."

'Secular' is actually an excellent term for what Lakoff has in mind; he rejects it because it "is a religious term, defined as outside of a taken-for-granted religious norm," but this is blatantly false. It is not a religious term, although it is used in religious contexts; it just means 'having to do with this world'. As such it does quite well for what Lakoff wants. Lakoff's suggestions are just placards saying in large letters, "RIP ME APART." If you feel you have to pick one, though, pick 'rationalist'; if you call yourself a 'realist', you're just asking to be trounced intellectually.

[Links are via Caleb at Cliopatria; Caleb's post is cross-posted at Mode for Caleb.]

Happy Victoria Day

Happy Victoria Day to all my Canadian readers.

People in Toronto can find info on the events here.