Saturday, August 13, 2005

A Rough Theory of Religious Doctrine, First Part of the Second Part


Now I'd like to flesh out, very, very briefly a few of the details.

(1) The Core Symbols are a key part of the doctrine; they are not merely the vehicles for conveying what is taught, they are such vehicles by themselves being taught (the fact that they are taught rather than merely picked up is part of what explains why one can't give just any old interpretation to them; since they are not merely learned but taught, the way they are taught sets constraints, breakable but real, on what can be learned from them). They are the bulk of the actual teaching. The Propositional and Pragmatic Cores, while they are often (but not always -- it depends on how crucially important people think the doctrine) explicitly taught through proposition and command, are nonetheless vague (which, of course, is different from saying they are unclear); it is the Symbolic Core that fleshes them out and makes them more usable for thought and action. If, for instance, someone says to you: "Worship God," that doesn't get you very far. If, however, you are raised in a community full of rituals, and the command to worship God is put forward in the context of some of these rituals, then you know what to do. If someone says: "Sins will be punished," and leaves it at that, you don't get much out of it. If they say, "Sins will be punished with everlasting torment in the fires of hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; that is the second death which originally was reserved for the devil and his angels" -- well, that gives you a bit more to contemplate, by bringing in all sorts of different images that can be considered from different perspectives. The symbols themselves may be taken more or less literally; what makes them symbols is not that they are figurative (although they often are), but that they have a point beyond themselves. When people insist that at the end of ages the servants of the Dragon will be chained in everlasting darkness, even if they take it in strict literalness, they generally aren't making an idle observation that they consider irrelevant to anything else. There is a point, even if only an implicit one; and that's what the Propositional and Pragmatic Cores are. But these Cores themselves are often taught by way of the Core Symbols that they organize.

(2) Given that the Propositional and Pragmatic Cores only involve the constitutive and regulative principles involved in the teaching of the Core Symbols, this leaves a lot in play; the Core Symbols are often much richer and more detailed than the Propositional and Pragmatic Cores. Interpretation of them is constrained by these more abstract cores, in the same way that interpretation of anything taught is constrained by the point of teaching it in the first place. But given that the more abstract Cores are vaguely defined this leaves open a lot of room for play of thought. So within the constraints of their context, Core Symbols have a life of their own in actual teaching. They can be evocative and suggestive of things beyond what is conveyed in the Propositional and Pragmatic Cores.

(3) Core Symbols, precisely because they are symbols, may be materially false, in the strict sense (that judged materially they would be formally false). Like anything materially false, however, they can be formally true. An analogy can be to a diagram or a map. Suppose I draw you a map of Little Italy. You can take that map to be more or less accurate, more or less precise, and more or less useful. Unless I've actually misdrawn the map for your purposes (e.g., put Spadina west of Bathurst when the reverse is true and important to your getting to the destination), it doesn't matter how precise or even how accurate the map is; it just needs to be accurate enough and precise enough to meet its purpose. Likewise with the Core Symbols; they can be taken strictly literally or very figuratively without any real difference, so long as interpreting them this way still conforms to the original point of teaching them in the first place. (This point is strictly true of any given doctrine considered on its own. However, given that doctrines can be subordinate to other doctrines the picture can get considerably more complex. For instance, it is simply irrelevant to the doctrine of hell whether one takes the Core Symbols to be strictly accurate. It might not be irrelevant to one's doctrine of revelation.)

(4) Note, by the way, that this doesn't mean that a Core Symbol can't be confirmed or disconfirmed; a map has no truth value, but its accuracy, precision, and utility can be confirmed or disconfirmed. A map might be found to be confirmed in its accuracy but not its precision or utility by new information; or to be confirmed in its precision but not its accuracy or utility by analyzing it; or to be confirmed in its utility but not its accuracy or precision by simply acting on it and seeing where it gets you. So with the Core Symbols. It would be a huge mistake to think that maps can't be confirmed or disconfirmed merely because they have no propositional truth value. (There is actually a parallel to this in philosophy of science; Pierre Duhem argued that theories in physics are not true, i.e., they have no truth value, but that they do admit of confirmation and disconfirmation because they are approximate. The reason he thought this was that he had argued that theories in physics are really classifications. Classifications, like maps and diagrams, have no truth value, but they can be more or less adequate to reality.)

I want to get to Atran, but I'll save that for the next post.

Philosophical Insurgency

As a temporary condition scepticism is logical insurrection; as a system it is anarchy. Sceptical method would therefore more or less resemble insurgent government.

Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragment 95.

Proportion of Cause to Effect

From Stargate SG-1 Episode 9.03 ("Origin"):

MITCHELL: A lot of folks out there are gonna buy what these guys are sellin'.

TEAL'C: Hopefully now many have been educated to the ways of false gods.

VALA: Yes, but we're not talking about humans with snakes in their heads and slightly better understanding of technology.

DANIEL: See, the power isn't false. The Priors are going to offer to people what seems like proof of God.

LANDRY: Proof of powerful beings is not proof of God.

DANIEL: I'm not saying it is.

Science fiction is always a great source of philosophy examples.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Links and Notes

* Theology of the Living Dead at "JimmyAkin.Org". Is it immoral to kill zombies? Well, like most things, it depends: How human are they?

* Two excellent discussions of Anselm's real theory of atonement:
(1) In a Paper: Feudal Imagery or Christian Tradition (PDF) by Nicholas Cohen;
(2) On a Weblog: A Semi-Anselmian Reply to Forde at "verbum ipsum"

* A discussion of whether infinite regresses are vicious at "Mormon Metaphysics"

* The Temple Mount blogburst for Tisha B'Av is up at "Kesher Talk"; there are lots of great entries.

* The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria at Bede's Library (HT: Maverick Philosopher)

* Daniel at "The Lyceum" has an interesting post arguing that it's a mistake to teach that there is a particular slippery slope fallacy. Also worth reading on the subject of slippery slope arguments is a paper I've linked to before, Eugene Volokh's Beyond the Slippery Slope, which looks at various empirical slippery slope arguments used in law and policy.

* Shulamite takes us From The Principle of Contradiction to God at "Vomit the Lukewarm".

* August 12, 1099: The First Crusade comes to an end with the Battle of Ascalon, where Godfrey of Bouillon defeated al-Afdal. Ascalon itself, however, remained in the hands of the Fatimids; the Crusaders returned to Jerusalem, which had already been taken. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem remained until the brilliant and remarkable Saladin retook it again on October 2, 1187, thereby triggering the Third Crusade.

* UPDATE: An interesting post on intelligent design at "Easily Distracted". I'd post something on it, but I agree with a lot of what Alan Jacobs says in the comments, and while there are important things I disagree with, they aren't enough to motivate me to post on them at this moment. I'd further add, though, that, whatever mistakes one might attribute to him, Dembski (the dominant source of this movement in the direction of complexity and information theory) clearly doesn't make the mistake identified in Burke's (1); and I actually don't think it is so very common. People aren't so much inclined to deny that great complexity can come from initially simple conditions; they just reach a point where they think things get too complex to do so. And that's what sounds like common-sense; in part because it is common-sense: there should be some cut-off point, beyond which the complexity just becomes too great. The tricky thing is getting the right cut-off point; and that requires not common sense but analysis.


* As Macht notes in the comments, I equivocated in the previous note on 'complexity'.

* Hugo has put up a fascinating interview with Munévar on Feyerabend. Worth reading.

A Sixteenth-Century Mnemonic

A brief declaration in meter, of the vij, liberal artes, vvherin Logique is comprehended as one of them.

Grammer dothe teache to vtter vvordes,
To speake bothe apt and playne.
Logique by art settes furth the truth,
And doth tel vs vvhat is vayne.
Rethorique at large paintes vvel the cause,
And makes that seme right gay,
Vvhiche Logique spake but at a vvorde,
And taught as by the vvay.
Musike vvith tunes, delites the care,
And makes vs think it beauen.
Arithemetique by number can make
Reconinges to be cauen.
Geometry thinges thicke and brode,
Measures by Line and Square.
Astronomy by sterres doth tel,
Of foule and eke of fayre.

Thomas Wilson, The Rule of Reason (1551).

Thursday, August 11, 2005

A Rough Theory of Religious Doctrine: First Part

Not long ago (a month or so), I had the following thought about the nature of Christian doctrine. 'Doctrine' is, quite literally, something taught; however, this is rarely emphasized in discussions of the actual doctrines of the faith. I think there is some value in doing so; and I believe that if we do so, we will be driven to conceive of any doctrine as a structured complex of factors. My rough idea as to how it would be structured is this:

(1) Propositional Core: These constitute the primary constitutive point of the teaching, and anything entailed by it.

(2) Pragmatic Core: These constitute the primary regulative point of the teaching (i.e., how it affects practice). The organization of this core is dependent on (1), which gives the practices governed by the Pragmatic Core a point.

(3) Core Symbols: These are all the standard material vehicles for the doctrines: parables, vivid phrases, rituals, artworks, etc. Thus, some are propositional, some are pragmatic, some are pictorial, etc.

(4) Supplementary Elements: These may be propositional, pragmatic, or symbolic; if propositional, they might consist of (a) corollaries derived from the combination of this doctrine's propositions with other doctrinal propositions; (b) facts independently discovered (by reason, by experience, or by both) that are suggestive or supportive of the Core Elements in some way; (c) speculative guesses, hypotheses, and the like attempting to give more specificity, clarity, or utility to the Core Elements; if pragmatic, they consist of (a) indepedently developed practices that are assimilated; (b) programs for reform. (I could continue this, but I won't here).

It is important to recognize that a doctrine, although analyzable, is also highly integrated; the Core Symbols, for instance, are the primary means of conveying the Propositional and Pragmatic Core; the Pragmatic Core, or practical aspect, is given its point by what is primarily intended to be conveyed by way of the Core Symbols (namely, the Propositional Core); the Propositional Core makes a practical difference only because it is closely associated with a Pragmatic Core; the Propositional Core, while consisting of propositions with definite truth value, usually consists of vague propositions (in the sense of requiring further elaboration) that require some sort of Supplementary Elements to play any role in thought at all. And so forth.

I will divide my discussion of this proposal into two parts:
Part I: An Example
Part II: Further Thoughts

Part I

Let's take the doctrine of hell as an example. Naturally, this will be a rather crude characterization of the doctrine of hell, or, if you prefer, the characterization of a rather crude doctrine of hell; my point is not to explain the doctrine of hell, but to give a relatively simple and straightforward example of this analysis of doctrine.

(1) Propositional Core: Without salvation, sin is punished.

(2) Pragmatic Core: guidelines and standards of practice for the working out of one's salvation

(3) Core Symbols: These are manifold, e.g., "the fire that shall never be quenched" (Mk 9), "where the worm does not die" (Mk 9), "the second death" (Rv 20:14), the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16), "chains of darkness" (2 Pt 2), etc.

(4) Supplementary Elements: Also manifold; a good recent example would be C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce.

It's unfortunate that most people know him for nothing else, but a good way to see this religious doctrine (as teaching) in action is to read through Jonathan Edwards's Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It hits every aspect of the above analysis of the doctrine of hell. If you want a look at a rather different approach to building up the Supplementary Elements to the Core Symbols than is found in Edwards's sermon, I recommend Aquinas's question on damnation (keep in mind, though, that it's in the Supplement; i.e., it's part of the Summa he never finished -- the current question is just a summary of the very early Sentence Commentary question on the subject, and so shouldn't necessarily be taken as Aquinas's mature view).

This example brings up another issue, namely, that doctrine can be embedded within doctrine. There is good reason to regard the doctrine of hell as (in effect) a side issue in the doctrine of heaven. I won't go into the whole argument for this, but there are actually a large number of reasons for this (ranging from the context of the Core Symbols, to what seems to be implied by the Propositional and Pragmatic Cores of both doctrines, to the fact that most "scandal of hell" objections to Christianity turn out to be on closer inspection scandal of heaven objections). So the doctrine is just a chunk of teaching whose point (as expressed in its Propositional Core) might well be subordinate to another chunk of teaching.

All of this just gives the basic idea. This post was originally intended to be a relatively short one, but it keeps expanding just due to the fact that I'm attempting to communicate more carefully than I usually do in posts (and so can't just jot down what comes to mind). So it may be a bit before I manage to post the second part. It should include a further discussion of some of the details of the analysis, and a look at how it (or something it approximates) might make more sense than Atran's quasi-propositions for at least some of the things he seems to want to say.

I'jaz al-Qur'an

From the Front Lines and BK at CADRE Comments argue against the value of Tahaddi. (I have touched briefly on this issue twice before: I'jaz al-Qur'an and Philosophy of Religion, and Tahaddi.) I'm not convinced the matter is so easily settled. What's at stake in the argument is really this question: What are the conditions under which we recognize that a divine revelation really is a divine revelation? Muslims argue that some things (in particular the Qur'an, although the Torah is sometimes added, too) exhibit a character that shows that the human writer, or reciter, could not be an adequate explanation of their existence. And actually, although the "From the Front Lines" post doesn't recognize it, the claim is that no creature could be an adequate explanation; the Tahaddi includes djinn, as is very clearly noted in the Qur'an. The most important relevant verses are:

Sura 2:23-24
And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true. But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.

Sura 10:37-39
This Qur'an is not such as can be produced by other than Allah; on the contrary it is a confirmation of (revelations) that went before it, and a fuller explanation of the Book - wherein there is no doubt - from the Lord of the worlds. Or do they say, "He forged it"? say: "Bring then a Sura like unto it, and call (to your aid) anyone you can besides Allah, if it be ye speak the truth!" Nay, they charge with falsehood that whose knowledge they cannot compass, even before the elucidation thereof hath reached them: thus did those before them make charges of falsehood: but see what was the end of those who did wrong!

Sura 11:13-14
Or they may say, "He forged it," Say, "Bring ye then ten suras forged, like unto it, and call (to your aid) whomsoever ye can, other than Allah!- If ye speak the truth! "If then they (your false gods) answer not your (call), know ye that this revelation is sent down (replete) with the knowledge of Allah, and that there is no god but He! will ye even then submit (to Islam)?"

Sura 17:88
Say: "If the whole of mankind and Jinns were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur'an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support.

Sura 28:48-49
But (now), when the Truth has come to them from Ourselves, they say, "Why are not (Signs) sent to him, like those which were sent to Moses?" Do they not then reject (the Signs) which were formerly sent to Moses? They say: "Two kinds of sorcery, each assisting the other!" And they say: "For us, we reject all (such things)!" Say: "Then bring ye a Book from Allah, which is a better guide than either of them, that I may follow it! (do), if ye are truthful!"

Sura 52:33-38, 44
Or do they say, "He fabricated the (Message)"? Nay, they have no faith! Let them then produce a recital like unto it,- If (it be) they speak the truth! Were they created of nothing, or were they themselves the creators? Or did they create the heavens and the earth? Nay, they have no firm belief. Or are the Treasures of thy Lord with them, or are they the managers (of affairs)? Or have they a ladder, by which they can (climb up to heaven and) listen (to its secrets)? Then let (such a) listener of theirs produce a manifest proof....Were they to see a piece of the sky falling (on them), they would (only) say: "Clouds gathered in heaps!"

It seems clear from the above that the Challenge is to produce anything written by any creature or collaboration of creatures that rivals the Qur'an, not just something written by a human being. The idea as it is usually presented is that the Qur'an is especially or unusually suitable to its purpose, the conveyance of 'irfan (knowledge of God). For instance, it is said to draw with its beauty, to be exceptionally memorable, to have the power to convert, etc. In other words, the argument is that we have reason to think that the Qur'an itself, in Arabic, as a recited book, is theophanic. Muslim commentators have actually done a great deal to specify and clarify the Challenge: the doctrine of nazm (selection and organization of the words), and discussions of such things as conciseness, poetic structure, wit, are obvious cases. The idea is not that any one of these things individually makes for the unique inimitability of the work, but that it is the whole. There is a whole field of study on it.

Now, the argument presented by the Challenge is clearly valid: if there can be a work such that only God could make it exist, and it exists, then God did it. The inference is a causal argument; the idea is that the Qur'an, like the creation itself (cf. the Sura above), is something that could not actually exist unless caused by God. As to the sort of causal argument it is, it is clearly a design inference; what motivates the argument is the beautiful organic functionality of the recited work. This is, I think, a potential weakness of the way the Challenge is usually formulated; design inferences are rather tricky things.

From the Christian perspective, I think one's view would have to be something like this: The proper response to the Challenge is not to quibble about the excellence of the Qur'an, but to introduce people to the real Theophany, the real Perpetual Miracle of Revelation; the argument should be that compared to the Divine Word, the Qur'an, however much may be attributed to it, is but words on the page. And if they deny Him, let them produce a revelation like Him.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Why Molinists Must Answer the Grounding Objection

Following a search engine hit on this site for "Molinism," I was reminded of this excellent post from last November at "Fides Quarens Intellectum", which has this criticism of the grounding objection:

Perhaps one might complain that it isn't clear how God possesses middle knowledge. I would say that God is omniscient, and as such, knows all facts, including counterfactuals. To be honest, I'm not sure how God knows them either. But that's not devastating. After all, one doesn't need to know how God exercises omnipotence in order to believe that he is omnipotent? He's God, and God just is omnipotent and omniscient by his nature. If one wishes to deny counterfactuals have some epistemic grounding, they need to produce a whole theory of grounding to show how facts are grounded in such a way that excludes counterfactuals. As William Lane Craig has noted, we are still waiting for someone to produce a plausible theory that succeeds at showing this.

This, I think, would be quite the right response if the 'how' of the grounding objection were a 'how' of means or mechanism. There is no means or mechanism for omniscience or omnipotence; unless you wish to stretch the words by saying God's own nature is the means or mechanism. Beyond that, one can simply give the reasons for thinking that God is omniscience or omnipotent. But that's not really what the grounding objection is asking; the grounding objection is, effectively, an objection to the inclusion of counterfactuals of freedom among facts to be known in the first place. There are three grounds for including something among the facts that are known to be true:

(1) It actually exists, and is known because of that.
(2) Its causes are known, and they require it.
(3) Its effects are known, and they require it.

But (3) does not come into play in the case of future contingents; (2) does not come into play because we are dealing with cases of free choice (only a compatibilist could appeal to (2); and (1) does not come into play because we are dealing with counterfactuals. Hence we appear to have no reason to regard counterfactuals of freedom as facts (rather than, e.g., mere possibilities). Now, it appears that, if none of (1)-(3) are met by counterfactuals of freedom, all that is needed to know them, to the extent that there is anything to know, is natural knowledge. The Molinist needs to find a fourth option that shows us that there is actually work for middle knowledge to do. So the point made by Plantinga and Craig about the lack of a theory of grounding is a red herring. (And, in any case, even if it were relevant, there is no need for one: we don't need an account of grounding, we just need to know the purported grounds, and there is nothing incoherent or irrational about asking for the latter even if there is a lot about grounding we still don't know. There are many parallels: we don't need an account of belief to ask whether something is believed; we don't need an account of justification to ask why someone thinks a claim is justified. Clearly a full answer would have to get into details, but the fact that it's unclear what would be required for a full answer doesn't justify giving no answer.)

So this is where the analogy with omniscience and omnipotence breaks down: in those cases we eventually reach a point where we can't do more than give our reasons for attributing omniscience and omnipotence to God. But as long as they evade the grounding objection, Molinists give no reasons for thinking that counterfactuals of freedom are the sort of thing that would require middle knowledge. So Molinists must answer the grounding objection.

Two Poem Drafts

Both of these are older ones I had lying around.


I have given my hand to the tasks of the day.
I have fallen, I have risen, I have fallen again;
I have lost myself often, impeding my own path,
going astray in the darkness made by my hand.
When time in its gnawing has turned to me
I have run with great fear from its wraiths and visions.
A wolf I have been, a sheep I have been,
predator to myself, prey to myself,
parasite to others and both predator and prey.
You have seen me in hope and sloughed in despair,
when I wore a bright mask to shine in the gloom,
you have seen me fail and succeed in my errors,
and known my great strengths and overcomings.
I have hid my nature from both you and myself,
hidden it away in a self-made prison,
hoping for a light, and afraid of that light,
yearning for freedom from which I shrink.

Gloria in Mundo

Beauty in elegy, mournfully sweet,
the blush of youth behind a widow's veil,
the deer's last leap, the fire embering,
the last echoing word of a sad tale,
the parting kiss, the heart's last beat,
two forgotten and ancient souls remembering;
the beauty that stirs like a passing breeze,
stirring because no more as it begins,
the child's smile no one again will see,
Eve's last virtuous glance before she sins;
perishing life, perishing memory, failed hope,
a gladness for the eye of one turning blind,
the final reasoned thought of maddened mind;
Rome ruining, the grave stripped cold;
the sadness after sex, death alone enduring;
the initiating moment of overwhelming fear
like fragility in its shattering;
the pine in scented mourning
wailing in the winds, "The dead,
the dead of earth are here!"


I've been reading Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion; I'm enjoying it immensely. The primary irritation created by the book is that I can make neither heads nor tails of some of the things Atran says. The most egregious offender is his account of quasi-propositions, which doesn't even appear on the surface to be coherent. It's possible, and even likely, that there just are some terms being used technically in ways that I'm not familiar with. To name an example, Atran talks about beliefs that are 'materially false'. Now, in philosophy, 'materially false' is a technical term: a proposition is materially false if it would be formally false taken materially. Thus, "I manipulated the object's center of gravity" is materially false, since centers of gravity are abstract objects that don't admit of manipulation. But, of course, it can be taken in a sense that is formally true (materially false is not formally false, and only formally false is actually false). But this is clearly not what Atran has in mind, so if I were to take it in that sense, that would be a merely verbal problem (I don't know what Atran means by 'materially false', but he certainly isn't using it in the standard technical sense). But with the account of quasi-propositions I am much more skeptical and not as inclined to pass it off as merely verbal. Some of the things he says:

* "Quasi-propositional beliefs may have the superficial subject-predicate structure of ordinary logical or factual propositions, but they can never have any fixed meaning because they are counterintuitive." (p. 113)

* they evoke logically and factually impossible worlds (p. 113)

* "a religious quais proposition p has no fully specifiable or fixed content, even in principle" (p.110)

* "necessarily counterfactual, because they violate innate, modular expectations about basic ontological categories" (p. 96)

* "inconsistent with commonsense knowledge" and "dramatically contradict basic commonsense assumptions" (p. 96)

* a quasi-proposition is at least analogous to Ayer's pseudo-propositions

* "only look like propositions insofar as they may take a subject-predicate form" (p. 290n4)

* "they are 'category violations'" (p. 290n4)

* "non-propositional" (p. 94)

* "like a metaphor in poetry" (p. 95)

* have truth value, but are not truth valuable [i.e., verifiable by observation or logical analysis] ('have truth value' could be understood as in 'believed to have truth value, but 'truth valuable' certainly has to be a fact about quasi-propositions themselves) (p. 95)

* "taken on faith and emotionally validated with little reasoning required for support" (p. 95)

* involves acceptance of what is "materially false" as true or what is "materially true" as false (p. 5)

* counterfactual insofar as they are anomalous, implausible, and counterintuitive (p. 4; indeed, he goes so far as to say that everyone implicitly knows it, p. 5)

Unless Atran is using terms in odd ways that I'm just not getting, this is a horrible mish-mash of logical inconsistency; to take just the most obvious example, if something is non-propositional it can't have truth value, if something is not truth valuable it can't be known to be counterfactual, if something only looks like a proposition it can't contradict anything, etc. Perhaps some of this is just due to looseness of phrasing; but it leaves me entirely unclear as to what these quasi-propositions are supposed to be. Under some characterizations, any first principle would seem to count as a quasi-proposition; under others, any quasi-proposition would seem to be false; under others, any quasi-proposition would seem to be senseless.

It also glosses over important facts, e.g., Ayer's account of pseudo-propositions is rarely held today because it collapsed in a miserable heap, unable to withstand serious analysis, and the principle of verifiability, which clearly makes a show here in Atran's discussion of truth valuability, is held by virtually no one because no coherent formulation has ever been found that is not obviously false (indeed, it is perhaps partly Atran's association of his account with logical positivism that inclines me to think his account is really inconsistent rather than attributing my puzzlement to verbal misunderstanding); science also regularly comes up with things that are implausible, anomalous, and counterintuitive in the sense of being schema-inconsistent (think of the discovery of meteorites or fossils; or just about all of modern cosmology); most religious propositions don't involve category violations in an Aristotelian sense; there are good reasons to think that not all violations of Aristotelian categories lead to unverifiable quasi-propositions; and so forth. These puzzles aren't of immense importance, I imagine, but they aren't quibbles, either: these are serious problems with the characterization of quasi-propositions given by Atran in the book, and would have to be distinguished from minor quibbles I would have (e.g., the Kierkegaard quote on p. 5 needs to be read against the background of the German Idealists who had views of absurdity that would generally be considered odd today; since I assume Atran is not advocating German Idealism, it doesn't actually support his claim) that don't affect the basic point, or interfere with how the argument runs. I'm also a little puzzled that, in this account of religious cognition, very little is said about actual philosophical and theological thought. It seems very doubtful to me, for instance, that Spinoza (to take one instance) can really be said to be assuming things as true on the basis of emotional validation rather than rational support. At least, it would take a very good argument to convince me otherwise. But that's a side issue.

Again, it's possible that I'm just missing something; but I don't see any way to salvage the account Atran seems to be giving.

Despite my bewildered complaint, I am, as I said, enjoying the book quite a bit. In a sense, the primary argument of the book is just that it's very difficult to provide a good cognitive account of religion; it's in looking at various aspects of this issue that Atran lays out his own view (which might possibly be a reason for the difficulty of reading him; it's like trying to figure out Malebranche's views from The Search after Truth). The discussion of counterintution itself, for instance, is quite fascinating, and I'm looking forward to the critique of memetic accounts.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Liber de gentili et tribus sapientibus: Noteworthy Links

* The Love of Bruriah is a fictional blog journalizing the life of Bruriah, the woman-sage in the Talmud. Very cool idea. (HT: Haveil Havalim #32)

* At "Dervish", Umm Yasmin looks at Irshad Manji's recent comments in Tampering with the Text. I had a similar reaction to the Spong point. Umm Yasmin develops the issue, from a Muslim perspective, at much greater length than my throw-away comment. Well worth reading.

* When Bad Things Happen to Good People at "SAFspace" (HT: State of the Ummah I)

* (1) Why ask why? at "Uncle Sam's Cabin" and (2) Why Would God Allow This? at "Parableman"

* Mourning and Redemption at "Velveteen Rabbi"

* Also at "Velveteen Rabbi": Reading the Qur'an 1.

* Fr. Jim Tucker has a lovely post on Edith Stein and Nagasaki at "Dappled Things". It's St. Edith's feastday. I've written a few posts on her philosophical thought before. See this selection from Stein on Hume; The Hidden Treasure of the Interior Castle (which discusses an image she shares with the Teresa of Avila); and Existential Angst and Eternal Being (on a key argument in Finite and Eternal Being).

* This would have been good for the Reading for the Holy Days post, but I missed it because it was somewhat earlier: Prayer and the Transfiguration at "dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos"

* Whence the title of this post? Ramon Lull wrote a philosophical dialogue in which a Gentile (pagan) is aided in his search for truth by three wise men: a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim. The way they help him is by arguing for the positions of their faiths; naturally, they agree on a number of things, and disagree on others. The book ends with the Gentile about to choose the best of the three; the three wise men ask him not to tell them yet, because they wish to continue the discussion. Since Lull was Christian the arguments lean that way, but Lull, to the extent he was able given the limits of communication (and thus dissemination of accurate information) among Jews, Christians, and Muslims of the time, worked very hard to make the arguments fair. All three of the wise men use Lull's method, which is based on the divine attributes (which he calls dignitates or axioms: things like goodness, greatness, etc.). The Gentile, of course, represents the world; and the point is that the three wise men try to convert him by each striving to give him the best understanding of God's excellence.

Schlegel on the Two Kinds of Faith

An example or two, consequently, from the ordinary relations of actual life, will enable not so much to demonstrate, indeed, as rather to remind you of the difference which subsists even here between a trust and confidence that is merely reasoned out by logical inference,--a faith externally assumed, and one that is the result of personal experience and confiding love. Thus reminding you of what in this life is manifest enough, I hope to set more distinctly before your eyes the difference which subsists also in the higher region of faith. Let us suppose the case of friend dangerously ill or in a state of extreme suffering, and we are in search of a physician able to relieve and heal him. One is recommended to us of great reputation for extensive knowledge and of a judgment strengthened by long experience. We are told that he has effected remarkable cures, that he has never been known to lose a patient by neglect or by mistaking his disease, and that withal he is very kind and extremely attentive. These, we are aware, are great recommendations; but he is a perfect stranger to us; we feel a kind of reserve and restraint towards him--as yet he has not our perfect confidence. How very different is the case when we ourselves have experienced all this;--when we ourselves have witnessed his comprehensive view, the number and variety of his remedies, and the penetrating glance of genius in the moment of danger;--when with grateful recollection we feel that we must ascribe to him either the preservation of some dear one's life, or our own unhoped-for restoration to health and strength! Such is the difference between a reasoning faith on rational grounds, and a personal faith based on our own experience and vivid conviction. And in truth this simile is not remote and far-fetched. It comes very close indeed to the matter itself, if only it be true that the soul is often diseased, and that religion presents to us no inexorable lawgiver of a rigid rule of reason, no stern judge of severe truth, but a wise physician touched with the feeling of our infirmities, and able to save to the uttermost.

[Schlegel, Philosophy of Life and Philosophy of Language, A.J.W. Morrison, tr. Bohn (London: 1847) 489-490.]

Monday, August 08, 2005

Links and Musings

* An interesting article on the politics of stem cell research. I'm glad that they did make some effort to point out why Germany has such restrictive regulations on this sort of research, even if only in a throw-away sentence. It seems to me that here are, in fact, good social reasons for Germany to be very cautious about any research in this direction, whatever the potential benefits, and whatever anyone else may be doing.

* Terence Penelhum has an interesting essay on Hume and paranormal research, in which he suggests, rather intriguingly, that Hume's reasoning, even if sound, can't be used against parapsychology. I'm not so sure; but then, Hume's reasoning is difficult to pin down, and no two people have quite the same view about what it is. It's an interesting application of the essay on miracles. I'm not sure it's been applied that way before (perhaps Price or Broad say something somewhere?). Worth thinking about.

* Philosopher's Carnival is up at "Tiberius and Gaius Speaking." There's a great selection this time around.

* A good post by Stephen Carlson at "Hypotyposeis" on what to start out with if you're thinking of building a library on the historical Jesus and Paul. See also Mark Goodacre's related post at "NT Gateway Weblog".

* In Shylock's Rhinoplasty at "The Rhine River" raises the question of the role of the body in Jewish Studies.

* The Human Adaptation for Culture (PDF) by Michael Tomasello (HT: Mixing Memory). Chris is putting together a cog. sci. reading group, and they will be reading Tomasello's The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. I haven't signed up because I'm not sure yet if I'll actually have the time to do any real participation. Something like blogging I can keep to breaks while I'm doing other things; reading groups tend to eat up my time. I like online reading groups, though, so when I go to the Kelly Library later this week I might see if their copy of the book is in the stacks, and browse to see whether I can handle it in addition to other things I'll be doing as September approaches. There is a Yahoo! Group for the discussion, if anyone's interested.

* There's a Cliopatria symposium on Empires. The Symposium brings up the interesting and recently popular question of why Americans don't consider the U.S. to be an Empire. I confess that Ferguson's arguments always irritate me; it seems to me that they involve an equivocation on what people mean by 'empire' (there's a fairly obvious sense in which any sovereign nation has empire, and any influential nation has empire, and there are other senses that are rather different; although I should say that I haven't rigorously examined Ferguson's arguments to be sure that Ferguson does equivocate in this way). In any case, the more important issue seems to me to be that the question misses a fundamental point about our conceptions of American identity: they are not constitutive but regulative. That is, we don't survey the evidence, and then conclude that the U.S. is not an empire; we begin with the principle, as a basic principle of policy, that the U.S. is not an empire, and then ask what practical results such a principle should have. While they can recognize the disparity, Americans don't primarily think of the U.S. in terms of what the U.S. is in practice; they think of the U.S. in terms of what it is in principle. We are very principle-oriented in our self-regard; a legacy of our forebears. I find the following speech, given in the Virginia debates on the ratification of the Constitution interesting in this regard:

An opinion has gone forth, we find, that we are contemptible people: the time has been when we were thought otherwise. Under the same despised government, we commanded the respect of all Europe: wherefore are we now reckoned otherwise? The American spirit has fled from hence: it has gone to regions where it has never been expected; it has gone to the people of France, in search of a splendid government — a strong, energetic government. Shall we imitate the example of those nations who have gone from a simple to a splendid government? Are those nations more worthy of our imitation? What can make an adequate satisfaction to them for the loss they have suffered in attaining such a government — for the loss of their liberty? If we admit this consolidated government, it will be because we like a great, splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things. When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: liberty, sir, was then the primary object. We are descended from a people whose government was founded on liberty: our glorious forefathers of Great Britain made liberty the foundation of every thing. That country is become a great, mighty, and splendid nation; not because their government is strong and energetic, but, sir, because liberty is its direct end and foundation. We drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors: by that spirit we have triumphed over every difficulty. But now, sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country into a powerful and mighty empire. If you make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America, your government will not have sufficient energy to keep them together. Such a government is incompatible with the genius of republicanism. There will be no checks, no real balances, in this government.

The speaker was no less than Patrick Henry (who voted against ratification). I think this line of thought actually captures a great deal of what people mean when they talk about 'empire'; they think of it not in terms of dominion or power but in terms of need. People don't make Henry's exact argument anymore, except for the occasional libertarian, since we've largely accepted the federal system; our conception of empire is not quite the same. But I think we largely tend to take a Henry-like view of what we do think of as empire. (We think of empire not in terms of power and influence, but in terms of organization and goal.) Empires are hungry things, they need to devour; their principle is not liberty but powerful government. And we can't be that without becoming something we are not trying to be. We can become a great, splendid nation through liberty; we cannot get liberty through the attempt to be a great, splendid nation. In that sense, the United States is not an Empire in Denial; it is an Experiment in an Ideal. The result, we bet (and have always bet), will be true power and splendor, beyond what any ordinary Empire could have, precisely because we have, at least in principle, given up the imperial search for splendor and power. The splendor and power are on this view entirely incidental. It is not who we are, but an effect of our good fortune and our stubborn insistence on principles (even if our practice of those principles is extremely uneven). Some people may live and die for Empire; but Americans have been very good at living and dying not for what America is in practice, but for what America can be in principle. Our denial that we are an Empire is not based on illusion; it is based on a conviction. It is not a conclusion of research but a principle of life. And that is the real point: Americans don't consider themselves an Empire because they consider themselves a new thing on the earth; however imperial we may seem, however much we may succomb to empire-like temptations, we must be something different or the American experiment has already failed. It is a postulate of the American practical reason; and postulates of practical reason are things we hope to be true, upon which we act because we cannot reasonably do anything else. In trying to make it otherwise people like Ferguson are not actually pointing out a fact (that our non-imperial principles of policy are intermingled with an empire-like influence) but attacking who we are, because he is not really criticizing a conclusion (after all, what American would actually deny that we are very powerful, and that our influence extends throughout the world?) but a principle many of us think is at our foundation, namely, that we cannot in our self-understanding regard ourselves as imperial or we have lost the game we originally set out to win. This is perhaps not the only possible view we can have of ourselves; and at least some people have considered our whole point to be a Splendid Nation. But I think we can safely say that the American insistence is typically that it is just not our way to take up the burdens of empire; it is our way to become great by way of a different set of responsibilities. This is not denial; it is genius, or at least the attempt to do something different and new, even if we fail. Only a very silly person will then point out the responsibilities of empire and demand that we take them up; we are doing something different, with different responsibilities. And no one has the right to demand that we shirk those responsibilities in favor of more stereotypically imperial ones.

(Incidentally, this seems to me a peculiarity of Ferguson-like arguments: they are always claiming that we are obviously an empire, and then immediately go on to insist that we are not acting like an empire acts. But surely that means that in some very straightforward sense we are missing something that a real empire has, namely, a sense of empire motivating us to imperial action. On the one hand, the claim is that we are imperial; on the other, the claim is that we are not. This is why I suspect there is an equivocation in the argument; this line of reasoning is unlikely to work unless we are essentially imperial and only incidentally non-imperial, despite the continual American insistence, recognized by everyone, that the reverse is true. It's not impossible to run an argument along these lines; but there are quite a few potential pitfalls that would have to be avoided, and from what I've read and heard, there's no effort made to avoid them: the arguments put forward to show that we are an empire at best only go so far as to prove that we are in some ways at least incidentally imperial. Further, the argument can only work if a sense of empire is not essential to being a real empire; but I suspect - and here again I only have a suspicion, not having tried such an argument myself - one could argue that it is, in fact, essential. It does seem a little implausible that Americans are going around just happening to be a real empire despite their intense certainty they are not. There may be a special providence for idiots, madmen, and Americans, but it seems a little much to say that we have been dragged by world events into being an empire contrary to our own general will, as if we could really be expected to wake up one day and say with a start of surprise, "Oh, look at that; we're an empire." It's not impossible, if being an empire, like speaking in prose, is something independent of self-reflection. But surely we at least have to consider the possibility that a nation that does not have a sense of itself as an empire is in a perfectly straightforward sense not an empire at all?)

** ->Almost forgot, I'm in the process of putting up a sermon by Laurence Sterne (of Tristram Shandy fame). There's still a bit of fixing (of typoes etc.), but let me know what you think.

Recollection and Association

From Thomas Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle, De memoria et reminiscentia (On memory and recollection):

The "first" from which a recollector begins his search, however, is sometimes a time that is known and sometimes a thing that is known. With respect to the time, he sometimes begins from now, i.e. from teh present time proceeding into the past, the memory of which he is seeking (e.g. if he is seeking to remember what he did four days ago, this is how he meditates on the matter: "I did this today, that yesterday, and something else the day before," and in this fashion he arrives at what he did three days ago by tracing things back according to the sequence of the customary motions). Sometimes, however, he begins from some other time (e.g. if someone remembers what he did a week ago and has forgotten what he did three days ago, he will proceed by coming down to the sixth day and will proceed in the same way until he reaches the third day before, or he may also go up to a day two weeks ago also starting from a week ago, or to any other past time.)

Sometimes, in like fashion, one may also recollect beginning with something that he remembers and from which he proceeds to another one for three reasons: (1) sometimes one recollects by reason of similitude (as when one remembers Socrates, and from this Plato, who is like him in wisdom, comes to mind); (2) sometimes, by reason of contrariety (as when one remembers Hector, and Achilles therefore comes to mind); (3) and sometimes one recollects by reason of some proximity (as when the son comes to mind when one remembers the father, and the same reason holds for any other sort of proximity, whether of association, of place, or of time.

[Translation from St. Thomas Aquinas. Commentaries on Aristotle's "On Sense and What Is Sensed" and "On Memory and Recollection". Kevin White and Edward M. Macierowski, trs. Catholic University of America Press (Washington, DC: 2005) 212-213.]

It was passages like this that led Samuel Taylor Coleridge to think that Hume might have ripped off the Angelic Doctor. There is a famous passage in the Biographia Litteraria (Chapter V) about it:

In consulting the excellent commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Parva Naturalia of Aristotle, I was struck at once with its close resemblance to Hume's Essay on association. The main thoughts were the same in both, the order of the thoughts was the same, and even the illustrations differed only by Hume's occasional substitution of more modern examples. I mentioned the circumstance to several of my literary acquaintances, who admitted the closeness of the resemblance, and that it seemed too great to be explained by mere coincidence; but they thought it improbable that Hume should have held the pages of the angelic Doctor worth turning over. But some time after Mr. Payne, of the King's mews, shewed Sir James Mackintosh some odd volumes of St. Thomas Aquinas, partly perhaps from having heard that Sir James (then Mr.) Mackintosh had in his lectures passed a high encomium on this canonized philosopher, but chiefly from the fact, that the volumes had belonged to Mr. Hume, and had here and there marginal marks and notes of reference in his own hand writing. Among these volumes was that which contains the Parva Naturalia, in the old Latin version, swathed and swaddled in the commentary afore mentioned!

(The Parva Naturalia is the larger set of works that includes Aristotle's works on sense and memory.) Compare the above passage with Hume's essay on Assocation (it isn't clear what Coleridge means by the order being the same). While this would be really cool if true, I think (alas) that Coleridge scholars have determined (from later letters of Sir James Mackintosh) that Coleridge either misunderstood or was misinformed about the nature of the volumes in question -- they did not have Hume's marginalia and (if I remember correctly) were perhaps not owned by Hume.

Coleridge is not the only one to be struck by the similarity however. Some time ago I posted a passage from Beattie's essay on Imagination in which he remarks on how Aristotle-like Hume's principles of association are.

Poor Hume! He was so proud of his principles of association; in the Abstract he even went so far as to say, "if any thing can intitle the author to so glorious a name as that of an inventor, 'tis the use he makes of the principle of the association of ideas, which enters into most of his philosophy." Originality is a very ironic goddess; she likes playing tricks on people. But (in fairness to Hume) neither Aristotle nor Aquinas make such considerable use of association as he does, and much of what he says in that regard is certainly very original.


Saturday I was walking up Yonge toward Eglinton, and passed Mount Pleasant Cemetery. On a big sign with bold letters out front were the words:


That gets my vote for creepiest cemetery sign.

I celebrated the Afterfeast of the Transfiguration the way I always do, namely, by celebrating my birthday. For most of the day I did nothing. It was great; I should do nothing more often.

I ate dinner at a place called the Brasserie -- very mixed bag. The french onion soup was great; the roast beef good; the potatoes and green beans very mediocre; and the Yorkshire pudding fairly good. There was enough salt on the whole dish to recreate Lot's wife; they need to watch that. For dessert I had an apple tart with vanilla gelato; very bad, and certainly not worth what it cost. The service was great, though.

I came back to find that I had been the subject of a small Dapple-lanche, which was nice. Thanks!