Saturday, August 27, 2005

Daffy Dawkins

Bill Vallicella notes Richard Dawkins's review of Swinburne's Is There a God? It's yet another sad case of Dawkins not knowing his limitations; or, rather, it would be sad if it weren't mildly entertaining. I have vivid memories of a page in The Blind Watchmaker in which, in the course of a single argument, Dawkins manages to equivocate among three completely different meanings of 'simplicity' (material simplicity, causal simplicity, and theoretical simplicity). Dawkins is always interesting, and sometimes makes good arguments, but the man also sometimes seems to have about as much ability to build a good rational argument as I have the ability to build a living cat. This unfortunately seems to be a case of the latter, as The Maverick Philosopher shows. I'll only add to Vallicella's excellent points that the review suggests to me that Dawkins is still muddled about the sort of simplicity relevant to good explanation; this seems to be why he completely misses Swinburne's point about the smallest number of brute facts. Dawkins keeps trying to treat all simplicity of explanation as merely the reduction of an object or event to simple constituents, so he tends to make odd assumptions when it comes to other kinds of explanation.

I'm not really convinced that Swinburne's approach is a particularly good one. But it, at least, has rational merit; at least enough to take more seriously than Dawkins's critique.

Religious Language

Macht has pointed the way to a paper by Roy Clouser on religious language, called "Religious Language: A New Look at an Old Problem" (PDF). In it Clouser rejects the the theory of analogy. This is his reason:

For one thing, A, to be like another thing, B, they must have some element in common which is exactly the same for each. (And I do not merely mean that they have in common the property of being like one another.) There must be some respect in which they are alike. If A is red and B is green they are alike in being colors; neither is more truly a color than the other. If A is small and B is large, they are alike in having size; neither is more fully a size, or possesses the quality of size in a better way, than the other. It is simply impossible to conceive of two things being like one another, if it is supposed to be true that they have no property in common univocally. For that to be true, two things would have to be “alike’ although there is no respect in which they are the “same.” And, in fact, the analogy theory does not accomplish such a trick either.

But this is merely confused. Let us take divine and creaturely goodness. That there is something the same about the two is blatantly obvious; they are both such that they can be called goodness. But the theory of analogy doesn't deny this at all. What it denies is that this predicate is predicated of the two in the same way. And the reason for this is obvious: in every thing that God and creatures share, creatures will not share as equals, but as creatures: God is good without qualification, creatures are good with the qualifications that come with being a creature. That they are both alike truly good doesn't change anything; all that means is that they both have "reference to some one thing," which is the whole point of the theory of analogy. What distinguishes the theory of analogy is not a denial that God and creatures share something in common, in some sense; it is the denial that any such commonality is properly generic, i.e., that it suffices to put God in the same genus as creatures. This is why analogy theorists deny that the terms applied are exactly the same, and why they deny that the terms applied are completely different, viz., they aren't exactly the same, and they aren't completely different. Contrary to what Clouser later claims, it is the univocity theorist, not the analogy theorist, who holds that creatures have uncreated properties. The analogy theorist denies it, and quite plausibly. Certainly nothing Clouser says cuts against the reasons for denying it.

Indeed, Clouser's so-called new solution is just a weirdly formulated theory of analogy. This is obscured by the fact that Clouser formulates his solution in terms of the ambiguous and unclear term 'property' rather than in the clearer terms of the theory of analogy, which talks in terms of names, not properties -- rightly, because it is a theory of divine names, not a theory of divine properties. But it very clearly is a theory of analogy. When Clouser talks about 'created divine properties', this is just a clumsy and unfortunate way of saying what analogy theorists would say in clearer and cleaner terms like the following:

We know God from creatures as their principle, and also by way of excellence and remotion. In this way therefore He can be named by us from creatures, yet not so that the name which signifies Him expresses the divine essence in itself.

In other words, the only sense (relevant to religious language) in which God "takes on created properties" is the sense that, having created creatures, God can now be 'named by us from creatures'. The property-talk is unfortunate, since Clouser forgets that he's supposed to be giving a theory of religious language and not a theory of divine being, but if one regards it strictly as relevant to language, Clouser has said nothing new. And his saying that our religious language is just ordinary language is nothing new, either; analogical predication is a standard part of ordinary language, albeit one difficult to characterize clearly in rigorously philosophical terms. One doesn't need to know the theory of analogy in order to predicate analogically any more than one needs to know the theory of gravity in order to walk; which is a good thing, because a lot of ordinary language is analogical. Or consider when Clouser says:

This is not to say that God possesses these characteristics with the same incompleteness, inconsistency, or other faults that people do. His love and wisdom are complete and faultless. But they are still what we mean by love and wisdom in ordinary language. We would not say that God’s love is unlike what we ordinarily mean by “love” because his mode of loving is so extraordinary we cannot imagine it.

This is exactly what an analogy theorist would say (in fact, it is what Aquinas actually says, allowing for the fact that 'ordinarily mean' in the last sentence is ambiguous between 'what we ordinarily signify' and 'the ordinary way in which we signify what we signify'; the distinction is necessary to allow for even straightforward and common cases of religious language like "None but God is good"). Much of what Clouser says is hampered by the unfortunate attempt to charaterize language in terms of properties, which is unnecessary, and which is a pointless endeavor anyway without an appeal to a well-constructed theory of properties to prevent equivocations. But he really hasn't produced anything new as far as religious language goes; he has just re-invented in garbled form a theory that has been more cleanly stated before. The one significant deviation Clouser makes, is treating 'being' as equivocal; traditional analogy theory takes 'being' as a pre-eminent example of analogy. But this is very clearly just due to Clouser's equivocation between 'property' in the sense of that which a predicate supposes, and 'property' in some ontological sense that he never makes entirely clear. But we don't need an ontological theory of God to have a viable theory of how our language about God works; so 'property' in the latter sense is not even relevant. (And, indeed, Clouser's own 'limiting idea' exception clearly shows that whether we share properties with God in this unclear ontological sense is simply irrelevant to whether we can name God.)

Friday, August 26, 2005


* Last night I happened to be near Harbourfront and was able to catch a bit of the National Ballet of Canada doing a free sample performance to promote their upcoming season. Unfortunately, I missed about two-thirds of it, but they had an excellent performance of Theme and Variations (choreography by Balanchine and music by Tchaikovsky). There really needs to be more free and low-cost ballet of this sort; ballet has a lot of potential appeal (more than one would think) but how often is ballet really made accessible (local and relatively inexpensive) to ordinary people? Not often. That's a ticket for eventual disaster, I think, a problem that plagues opera, as well. Maintaining a fine art requires casting a wide net to find the sort of people in all walks of life who might be interested in it if they actually had a chance to see it in person. When an art begins to be of interest only to the relatively wealthy, as a sign of luxury, it has begun to die.

* Thanks to everyone who contributed to the science fiction discussion; it was quite fun, and my reading list has bulged with science fiction works that were highly recommended that I had never read before (some of which I had never even heard of before). I've already begun to read some of them; Steven Riddle had recommended some of the works of James Blish; I had heard of him, I think but I had never read him. Having read Black Easter and A Case for Conscience in the past few days, I'm hooked. I'm still looking for The Day after Judgment; in the meantime I'll be reading They Shall Have the Stars. I also went back and re-read some Stapledon, and I confess I'm wavering on whether I really should have chosen Sirius over Odd John. The reasons I gave for choosing Odd John still stand, but Sirius is such a good story. Putting aside my doubts about that, when I look over the list in light of the comments, I think I chose very well. Here and there it was entirely a judgment call, but I think these were for the most part cases that would be a judgment call for everyone (e.g. Verne). The most controversial choices I made, I think, were the particular selections for Heinlein and Dick -- both authors deserve the mention, but I'm a bit weak on both. The big weakness for the list is that it virtually stops at 1969: from 1970 to the present I have only one work (Ender's Game). It's interesting to consider how the list might change if the focus were shifted from novels to short stories; several commenters recommended very good short story anthologies, and from my list Miller and Sturgeon are actually brilliant short story writers who each managed to put out one stunningly good novel. A number of authors would drop off completely, while a number of authors we don't normally classify as SF (Jack London, for instance, who wrote several interesting short stories in the genre) might come up for consideration.

* Additional Links: Fr. Jim Tucker has a good post up in which he clarifies what is actually meant by a vow of celibacy (it's not quite what you probably think it is).

"Deeper Thought" considers how normative the experience of the early church should be for Evangelicals (HT: Jollyblogger).

The Jollyblogger discusses Reformed Eschatology, always an interesting topic. Despite finding it interesting, I always approach these distinctions as an outsider; I'm frankly a moralist in my interpretation of the book of Revelation. That is, while I don't deny that there's likely to be more to it than this, I think an interpretation of Revelation has gone wrong if it is not primarily (even overwhelmingly) about how we are to live our lives now. Also, an approach to Revelation that I wish were more common is that of Austin Farrer (The Glass of Vision; A Rebirth of Images; The Revelation of St. John the Divine). But I liked this post quite a bit.

At "Thinking Deeply" there is an interesting post arguing against Hick's religious pluralism.

* From H. Rider Haggard's She:

"Is there no man that will draw my veil and look upon my face, for it is very fair? Unto him who draws my veil shall I be, and peace will I give him, and sweet children of knowledge and good works."

And a voice cried, "Though all those who seek after thee desire thee, behold! Virgin art thou, and Virgin shalt thou go till Time be done. No man is there born of woman who may draw thy veil and live, nor shall be. By Death only can thy veil be drawn, oh Truth!"

And Truth stretched out her arms and wept, because those who sought her might not find her, nor look upon her face to face.

"Thou seest," said Ayesha, when she had finished translating, "Truth was the Goddess of the people of old Kôr, and to her they built their shrines, and her they sought; knowing that they should never find, still sought they."

"And so," I added sadly, "do men seek to this very hour, but they do not find out; and, as this Scripture saith, nor shall they; for in Death only is Truth found."

Poem Drafts


at some   d  i  s  t  a  n  t   Peniel face to face
 dimmed by shadows to our present sight
we perhaps shall come to see
after dark and muttered wrestlings
 the riddle faith has heard
  our syntax and letters reordering
with the WORD's splendor's shining
to lay bare the Enigma of Ages

A Bit of Revolt

Who shall say choirs did not sing
when Thomas overtopped a king,
or that Julian's visions do not prove
the power of the Cross to move?
Or yet that blessed Steno's sight
was not sparked by glory's light,
or that there was no work divine
in the vivid vision of the sign
that moved an Empire to believe?
But some will say they are deceived,
that all the patient, pious crowds
are seeing shapes in moving clouds,
and that went forth a hysteric girl
from Avila to save the world,
or a schizophrenic to inspire
all of France to one desire,
and boasting their love of evidence
mock the one good inference.


Three are the Jewels that shine in my Crown;
First is the Word leaping from Heaven,
Doctrine is first, the Sword of two edges;
He who has seen it discovers all things!
One is the Crown that shines full of stars:
The Anointed of God is the Doctrine of Heaven.

Three are the Jewels that shine in my Crown;
Next is the Teacher teaching new ways,
Enlightening all men who enter the world,
Showing salvation to children of men!
One is the Crown that shines full of stars:
The Anointed of God is the true Son of Man.

Three are the Jewels that shine in my Crown;
Third is the Church, in labor for all,
The Body that prays with the Spirit Most Holy,
The Temple, the Truth, the Life, and the Way!
One is the Crown that shines full of stars:
The Anointed of God is the Communion of Heaven.

Dashed Off

As I've said before, I'm something of a compulsive note-jotter. Here is a random selection of some of my recent jottings.

"The proper sphere of philosophy, no less than of art, is the whole civilised public. This is the body in which it is to circulate, and to which its action must be applied." Schlegel Philosophy of Language, lecture 1

Fools may more quickly deny than any sage can prove.

"To see the invisible benefactor face to face is the most ardent desire of love." Feuerbach

The historian holds a mirror to the scientist and says, Now you may see yourself.

Father Brown & remorse beforehand

continuous approximation to a perpetual peace

a science fiction story about mnemic causation (perhaps Borges-like)

ancien regime -> nouveaux riches; old aristocracy -> new money; counterculture chic -> yuppie popularity

'What ought to be' makes no sense unless there is something making it so that it is what ought to be.

The assent of faith is not intrinsically founded on congeries of probabilities.

A sign is a motive of credibility.

Museums falsify; but they introduce, & that, done well, redeems it all.

Osiander is right -- if we can't attain to true causes.

philosophari in Maria

German Idealism was neo-Joachimist.

As a regulative principle it is worthwhile to treat peace as the norm and war as the exception.

Qui facit veritatem venit ad lucem.

Compassion requires an infrastructure.

the sentiment of rationality (the feeling of scurity from cognitive dissonance)

philosophical millenarianism (Kant)

virtues -> offices -> cases

Collective responsibility is a form of personal responsibility; it is not responsiblity of a group as such but of persons insofar as they are united in a group. (Trying to pin responsibility on a group w/o trying to understand how it is a matter of responsiblity for persons-in-a-group is, as HD Lewis says, barbarous.)
->something similar must be said of solidarity
-> We cannot, as a matter of fact, avoid holding people collectively responsible in some way; the only question is whether we will do so rationally and justly.

"But even the power of vision, though the eyes be now healed, has not force to turn them to the light, unless these three things abide. Faith, whereby the soul believes that thing, to which she is asked to turn her gaze, is of such sort, that being seen it will give beatitude; hope, whereby the mind judges that if she looks attentively, she will see; charity, whereby she desires to see and be filled with enjoyment of the sight." Augustine Solil. 1.12

Link to Think

* An article on Thomas More at NRO. This article touched off some discussion in "The Corner" here, here, here, here, here, and here.

* The Maverick Philosopher discusses the definition of naturalism in Quentin Smith's Metaphilosophy of Naturalism paper.

* The Salisbury Project (HT: E^2)

* A good summary at the Christianity Today weblog on the reasons why Pat Robertson is able to ignore criticism. He has managed to give himself the superpower of indestructibility. (I honestly wouldn't have any problem with Robertson myself if he would stop always trying to wiggle out of having to acknowledge his mistakes.) Caleb also has an interesting discussion of Robertson. [In fairness, Robertson has issued an apology for the comment about assassinating Hugo Chavez. I haven't yet been able to figure out the point of giving Bonhoeffer (who conspired to assassinate Hitler) as an example (of waging war against one person? Of legitimate assassination attempts? I don't know). The clarification is not very clear, but he does apologize for the statement.]

* A small controversy has erupted over the pope's granting of special indulgences to those participating in World Youth Day. I'm not sure I see the problem. Contrary to the common perception, indulgences are remissions of consequences for sin, not remissions of sin; the idea is that even when sin is forgiven, we have to deal with its consequences, and indulgences are given as ways of eliminating some kinds of consequences. Part of genuine repentance is reformation of behavior, and the point of indulgences is to take into account special efforts to reform one's behavior. Ultimately, the real issue is not indulgences but Purgatory; given Purgatory, indulgences make considerable sense as one more means whereby God graciously shows mercy to the human race. It is not surprising that people who don't believe in Purgatory would look askance at indulgences (although their real point of disagreement is with the doctrine of Purgatory), but Catholics certainly have no reason to do the same. For more information on indulgences, see Jimmy Akin's useful article summarizing the Catholic theology of indulgences. Luther's 95 theses is the locus for informed Protestant criticism of indulgences; Luther gets the basic characterization of indulgences right, but rejects the idea that the Pope's ability to remit penalties by indulgences can extend outside canonical punishment (i.e., punishment required by canon law). And that's the only reasonable basis even for Protestant criticism of the doctrine; too many people who think they are following Luther are really just massively bungling. Luther also criticizes mischaracterizations of indulgences, of course; but that's not a point of disagreement between Luther and Rome. Some of Luther's theses are such that Rome would officially have agreed with them even in Luther's day -- they deal not with the theology of indulgences but with deviations from it. Some, on the other hand, are with the theology of indulgences itself. I wish people would make more of an effort to get this sort of thing; matters are difficult enough without making them worse by refusing to characterize the problem correctly.

* On a similar but unrelated note, Miriam Burnstein discusses 18th & 19th century Catholic-Protestant relations at "Cliopatria".

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Aquinas on Ideas in God (I)

I'm doing something on divine ideas in Malebranche and the scholastics, so I thought I'd practice my patchy Latin a bit by translating what Aquinas says on the matter. The following is ST 1.15.1. The Latin is here; the Dominican Fathers translation is here; Freddoso's translation is here (PDF). As always, this translation is rough.

After consideration of God's knowledge, it remains to consider ideas. And on this three things are asked. First, if there are ideas. Second, whether they are many or only one. Third, whether there are ideas of all things known by God.

We proceed to the first in this way.

[1] It seems that there are no ideas. For Dionysius says (Div. Nom. 7) that God does not know a thing according to an idea. But ideas are not posited for anything but to be that throuch which a thing is known. Therefore there are not ideas.

[2] Further, God knows all things in Himself, as is said above. But He does not know Himself by idea. Therefore nothing else either.

[3] Further, an idea is posited as a principle of knowing and acting. But the divine esence suffices the principle of knowing and acting on all things. Therefore it is not necessary to posit ideas.

But to the contrary is what Augustine says (Quaest. LXXXIII), "Such is the power constituting ideas, that, unless they are understood, nobody is able to be wise."

I respond that it must be said that it is necessary to posit ideas in the divine mind. For the Greek 'idea' is called 'form' in Latin; hence by 'ideas' is understood the forms of all things, existing apart from things themselves. But the form of anything existing apart from it can be for two things: Either as being the exemplar of the thing of which it is called the form, or as the principle of knowing it [principium cognitionis ipsius], according to which the form of the knowable is said to be in the knower. In either way it is necessary to posit ideas, which is clear in this way: It is necesary for the form to be the end of any generation whatsoever in all thinsg that are not generated by chance [a casu]. But an agent does not act according to a form, save inasmuch as a similitude of the form is in him, which may occur in two ways [quod quidem contingit dupliciter]. For in some agents the form of the thing to be made pre-exists according to natural being, as in those that act by nature, as when man generates man and fire fire; in some it is instead according to intelligible being, as in those that act by understanding [per intellectum], as when the similitude of a house pre-exists in the mind of the builder. And this can be called the idea of the house, because the artificer intends to assimilate the house to the form which the mind conceives. Since, therefore, the world is not made by chance [casu], but is made by God through active understanding [per intellectum agente], as is seen below, it is necessary that there be in the divine mind forms, to the likeness of which the world is made. In this consists the nature [ratio] of an idea.

Therefore to the first it must be said that God does not understand the thing according to an idea existing outside himself. Thus Aristotle refutes the opinion of Plato on ideas, who posited them as existing per se, not in the understanding.

To the second it must be said that, although God by essence knows Himself and all things, His essence is the operative principle of other things, but not Himself, and it therefore has the nature of an idea with respect to others, but not with respect to God Himself.

To the third it must be said that God according to His essence is the similitude of all things. Hence an idea in God is nothing other than the essence of God.

Rule of Law vs. Rule by Law

An important distinction needs to be made between rule of law and rule by law.

(1) Rule of law is an intrinsically moral notion. Indeed, I don't see how one can have a consistent theory of rule of law without appealing either to natural law theory or to some higher rule by law (e.g., divine command theory).

(2) Rule by law is very different, despite some superficial similarities. Rule by law is prudential: one rules by law (properly speaking) not because the law is higher than oneself but because it is convenient to do so and inconvenient not to do so. In rule of law, the law is something the government serves; in rule by law, the government uses law as the most convenient way to govern.

(3) The two chief arguments for rule by law rather than rule of law are exactly the same ones that are always used against natural law theory:

(a) disagreement and uncertainty in moral judgments;
(b) the claim that rule of law is seminal anarchy.

(4) The chief arguments against rule by law and for rule of law are exactly the same ones that are always used against the opponents of natural law theory:

(a) the question of how one can have authority without any moral basis;
(b) the claim that rule by law is seminal despotism.

(5) Rule by law can be either ad hoc (which is genuine despotism) or principled. Principled rule by law theory shares with rule of law theory the arguments that a stable, generally recognized law is needed in order to maintain generality, impersonality, and effectiveness of government. Thus principled rule by law theory allows for what Fuller has called "the internal morality of law" to the extent that this is prudentially justifiable as conducive to the ends of government. (There is an interesting paper by Kenneth Winston on this subject in the context of Chinese Legalism at SSRN; much of what I say in this post is influenced by Winston.)

(6) Much of what we call rule of law today is really rule by law; a very serious equivocation given that they tend in entirely different directions.

UPDATE: corrected some rather significant typographical errors.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Obligations of Discourse

There's an interesting post chez Johnny-Dee on burden of proof (see also at Mormon Metaphysics) that got me thinking more deeply about what sort of contribution burdens of proof make to rational discussion. After some thought, I think the best way to classify them is as obligations of discourse.

Most of our work on what is rational tends to be confined to cases where there is one person thinking alone. But, of course, this is often not the case. We are often engaged in discussion and debate, and engaging in these things introduces an interesting set of complications. For instance, people don't always start with the same first principles; they don't all have the same logical ability; they don't all have the same background knowledge; and so forth. For our participation in the discussion to qualify as rational we have to be making some effort to accommodate these facts; in other words, rational discussion requires negotiation of and with the other person. One way we do that is by proposing and accepting obligations of discourse. An obligation of discourse arises when people in a discussion agree on something for the sake of argument, i.e., to see what follows. I can think of five such obligations.

(1) Basic Postulation. Example: Suppose (for the sake of argument) that I have two pennies.

(2) Technical Definition. Example: I'm using the word 'rational' (for the purposes of this argument) to mean 'having to do with logical investigation'.

(3) Request. Example: Draw a bisected angle (e.g., so I can show you how a geometrical proof works).

(4) Suspension. Example: For now let's leave aside the question of whether the problem of evil admits of precise formulation.

(5) Onus Probandi (Burden of Proof).

Burden of proof is a somewhat complicated case, so it might be worthwhile for you to bracket it a moment. (That's a case of suspension, if you didn't catch it.) Obligations of discourse are commitments for a given purpose; because of this no one ever has an obligation simpliciter. The obligation is always for a time of obligation, that is, obligations exist for as long as some condition is met (or not met, as the case may be).

For instance, suppose I'm talking with a philosophy undergrad. (That's a request [1].) I say to her, "Let's leave aside for the moment your conviction that there is a world outside your mind." And she agrees to that. (That's suspension [2].) And we discuss the matter a bit. During this entire time, we both have to conform to [2]; if we weren't we wouldn't be rational in our discussion. After a while I say, "OK, let's return to the way you actually experience the world." (The time of obligation for [2] just expired: the detour is no longer required for whatever point I was making.) (The time of obligation for [1] has expired. I am done with the example itself.)

The above example requires you to use your imagination a bit; this requirement, assuming you agreed to it (whether explicitly or implicitly), is an obligation of discourse. The obligation to use your imagination in this way only lasts for as long as is needed for the purposes of the discussion. Something similar occurs in the case of the suspension I proposed, to which the student agreed.

To return to burdens of proof. I would suggest that the best way to see a burden of proof is along these lines. A burden of proof is an obligation of discourse in which, given that certain things have already been proven or accepted, certain other things need to be proven for the purposes of the discussion. If this is so, we can draw out three corollaries:

(a) There is no burden of proof except in casu. There is no burden of proof in general; there are only burdens of proof in particular cases. This follows because a burden of proof can't be established except in terms to which all the parties agree. This will not always be the same, and so where the burden of proof falls will vary from discussion to discussion. One can argue similarly from the fact that an obligation of discourse is always for the purposes of the discussion, and the discussion will not always be of the same nature.

(b) A burden of proof has a time of obligation, and exists only for as long as some condition is met (or unmet, as the case may be).

(c) Since obligations of discourse only arise by acceptance (the two parties agree on something for the sake of argument), a burden of proof cannot exist where a party has not already explicitly or implicitly agreed to it. In other words, no one has a burden of proof except someone who agrees to accept it, or who is committed to the discussion in such a way that it is required. (The latter is quite common; if we find that we can't continue this particular rational discussion without accepting the burden of proof, our only other option is to end the discussion.)

Does this analysis cover everything we need to fall under the category of 'burden of proof'? I think it does if we add one more qualification. We often associate (quite rightly, I think) presumptive reasoning with burden of proof; if we can reasonably presume x, we think, the burden of proof is on those who reject x. This is often true if we remember that the presumption here is not your own, but a shared presumption. In other words, the burden of proof arises only if, given the sort of discussion you are having, you both can reasonably presume x. It is possible to presume things reasonably on your own; but burden of proof only arises in presumptive reasoning when your discussion partner is also in a position to reason the way you are reasoning. If they're not, no onus is on them, because the presumption hasn't been established for them. We cannot be asked to accept a burden of proof on the basis of something we haven't accepted.

If this analysis is at least roughly right, we should be very wary of any philosophical argument that one side or another of a dispute always has the burden of proof. It's not as if we were in a court of law, where conventions would establish beforehand many of the obligations to which the participants are committed. Further, obligations can often be reworked arbitrarily, if the participants in the discussion agree to it. Thus the people who are arguing can set the burden of proof however they wish; and there are cases in which you would happily accept the burden of proof without committing yourself to always having to accept whatever standard of proof is involved (e.g., you could just be curious about how the argument would go if the burden of proof were on you). There can be no general onus because the burden of proof ceases to be definable outside of particular cases.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Must-Read Science Fiction Novels

1. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. (1818) Read it online.

2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne. (1870): It's Jules Verne. Do you know how hard it was to pick just one? Read it online.

3. Vril, Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (1871): Yes, I know, it's Mister It-Was-a-Dark-and-Stormy-Night himself. And Vril is not exactly the sort of story that will knock your socks off. But it's a must-read anyway; the grandfather of an entire class of science fiction. And who knows? You might like it. Read it online.

4. The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells. (1898): What if aliens were as imperialist as we are? Read it online.

5. The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle. (1912): The King of all Lost World science fiction. Read it online.

6. Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. (1915): A different sort of Lost World, this is the founding work of the feminist utopia genre. Read it online.

7. A Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsay. (1920): Just think the words 'cult classic', and you'll start to understand just how odd this book is. C. S. Lewis described it in this way: "[S]cientifically it's nonsense, the style is appalling, and yet this ghastly vision comes through." In other words: a cult classic. Read it online.

8. Odd John, Olaf Stapledon. (1935): The superhuman, the utopian; something was bound to make it all go wrong. That something was normality. 'Angst' is a word that comes up a lot when people talk about this book.

9. Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis. (1938): A satire of scientism. A lot of science fiction aspires to be spiritual adventure as well; Lewis succeeds.

10. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury. (1950)

11. Foundation, Isaac Asimov. (1951): A little bit of cribbin' from the works of Edward Gibbon.

12. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon. (1953): Love, conscience, and outcasts united into a gestaltic organism by mental powers.

13. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke. (1953): On the credit page are the words, "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author." It is a work saturated with irony; it has a message, but one never quite knows what it is. But that's not really surprising when you recognize how that fits with the story....

14. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester. (1957): Deep space is my dwelling place / And death's my destination. Very different from your standard fare. The Count of Monte Cristo with more cynicism.

15. Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein. (1959): If you never read the book, but saw that Hideous Abomination of a movie, shame, shame, shame on you.

16. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960): This book is absolutely amazing. It is one of the most exquisitely written science fiction novels you will ever read.

17. Dune, Frank Herbert. (1965): Herbert's writing has a lot of flaws. But who can resist his ability to make the extremely implausible sound plausible, and the successful portrayal of Byzantine-style plot and counterplot? And, hang it all, I want to see the Bene Gesserit's Book of Azhar.

18. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick. (1968): Reality gets a little hard to pin down when anything - or anyone - could be fake.

19. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin. (1969) What is gender? Also something very difficult to pin down.

20. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card. (1986): You can read the short story on which it was based online.

Do you have any that you would add?

Steno on Prayer

In the midst of some late notes (c. 1684) reviewing the contemporary state of knowledge about the nervous system, we find the following jottings:

I can acknowledge through natural light alone that
life is addicted to sensual pleasures and pains,
life is conform to pre-judgments from images of fantasy about honours and wealth,
life is conform to the laws of natural reason,
life depends on the immediate rule of him whom I acknowledge as the creator of all things, always seeing the minds of all humans, regulating all by permitting or ordering. When thus I acknowledge him as the ruler of the world and wiser and mightier than myself, then I can realize the imperfection of my rule, coming from myself, its perfection, if taken over by the supreme Deity.
To pray, naturally is to acknowledge that one cannot do that, to acknowledge that a superior cause can do it, and to desire that a supreme cause take it on itself.

From Troels Kardel, Steno: Life, Science, Philosophy, Danish National Library of Science and Medicine (Copenhagen: 1994) p. 151.

Care by Opposition

It may strike some readers as odd to speak of social dissent or civil disobedience as care, but it would be a serious mistake to suppose that all care is gentle, nurturing, and soft. Not much care is evinced for a person or an institution if one is content to let that person or institution go to moral ruin, and preventing the moral ruin of institutions or persons may require aggressive public opposition to them. There was more care for Henry VIII in More's intransigence than in Woolsey's compliance.

Eleonore Stump, Aquinas, Routledge (New York: 2003) p. 310.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Curiosity and Ambition

A passage from Hume's History of England that was alluded to in the previous post:

Boyle improved the pneumatic engine invented by Otto Guericke, and was thereby enabled to make several new and curious experiments on the air, as well as on other bodies: His chemistry is much admired by those who are acquainted with that art: His hydrostatics contain a greater mixture of reasoning and invention with experiment than any other of his works; but his reasoning is still remote from that boldness and temerity which had led astray so many philosophers. Boyle was a great partisan of the mechanical philosophy; a theory which, by discovering some of the secrets of nature, and allowing us to imagine the rest, is so agreeable to the natural vanity and curiosity of man.

(This is in the context of discussing the 'Manners and sciences' of the reign of James II.) This should be compared to Hume's justification of philosophical inquiry in Treatise 1.4.7 (scroll down) and the last section of Book II, on curiosity, which describes curiosity or the love of truth as the itch (to put it in a rough and simplistic form) to find useful solutions to interesting problems. The idea, I take it, is that some theories satisfy because (1) they provide useful or interesting solutions to problems that are considered important; and (2) they allow scientists to make a name for themselves as discoverers (vanity or ambition). Immediately after this, Hume goes on to claim Newton as a skeptic: his work is superior to that of the mechanical philosophers in that we can't, as in the case of the mechanical philosophy, pretend or fool ourselves into thinking that we know the ultimate causes.

The Intelligible World

Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, I would suggest, are less about natural religion than about the foundations of science. Just a few indications that this is a fruitful way of looking at them:

* Given the historical context of the Dialogues reading them as a work of philosophy of science makes good sense. The Dialogues are on the subject of natural religion. One type of question that was understood to fall within the field of natural religion at the time was precisely the question of the ultimate foundation of the scientific enterprise, and various corollary subjects. Examples:

a. Robert Boyle (on final causes)
b. Isaac Newton (in the Optics)
c. Richard Bentley (in his Boyle Lectures against atheism)
d. Nicholas Malebranche (Search 2.1.4, LO 98-100)

Discussions of these issues have strong resonances with points found in the Dialogues: e.g., final causes, Newton's Rule 1 (on the use of simplicity in science: Nature does nothing in vain), some of the arguments of people like Bentley and Malebranche against the Epicurean hypothesis (which was understood to argue that all things come about by chance rather than by divine providence).

* Reading the Dialogues as philosophy of science fits well with some of what Hume says elsewhere. Most importantly, it explains why Hume considered natural religion to be a legitimate field of philosophical inquiry, for all that he dislikes its tendency to excess. The justification given by Pamphilus in the Preface to the Dialogues is based on natural religion's capacity to satisfy curiosity. Hume, however, always associates the motive of curiosity with valuable and legitimate (although not always perfect) inquiry: in science (History), in Hume's own philosophical work (Treatise 1.4.7), and elsewhere (Treatise 2.3.10). Therefore it is reasonable to think that Hume considers natural religion to have some genuine value. What could that be? One of the other works in which Hume discusses issues relevant to the Dialogues is The Natural History of Religion. There Hume associates design considerations with the rise of monotheism, with which he considers it to be associated. One of the fundamental notions of NHR is that of the 'frame of nature': what distinguishes true religion from superstition is that the former is based on 'enquiries into the frame of nature', consideration of natural laws, and is motivated by curiosity or love of truth (Sect. II). Now, NHR is an extremely difficult work to interpret, and there is no fully convincing interpretation of it available, in part because it is irony-laden: Hume says things he certainly doesn't mean, and other things that he might not mean. There is, however, some reason for taking seriously certain elements of what Hume says here--namely, that design considerations become a live issue when, motivated by curiosity, we make 'enquiries into the frame of nature.' NHR, after all, is not one long piece of irony; it has a serious purpose, namely, to describe the natural history of religion. Associating design-monotheism with curiosity and inquiry is essential to the success of Hume's account. Therefore, it does not seem reasonable to regard this characterization as ironic, especially since there is nothing here nor anywhere else in Hume to suggest that we should treat it as ironic. Therefore it is reasonable to place the value of natural religion in its involving 'enquiries into the frame of nature' motivated by curiosity. Reading the Dialogues in the way I have suggested would make them in reality concerned with 'enquiries into the frame of nature' motivated by curiosity.

* There are a number of evidences internal to the Dialogues themselves that Hume regarded them as discussing matters of importance to scientific inquiry.

1. Cleanthes in Part I links the fortunes of natural religion with the sort of inquiry done in Newton's Optics and the works of Copernicus and Galileo. Philo's skepticism, as Cleanthes sees it, "is fatal to knowledge, not to religion." That is, skepticism in religious matters cannot & should not be such as to involve skepticism in scientific matters. This issue is explored by much of the Dialogues. There's a useful paper on this point by Beryl Logan, called "Science and Skepticism" (in Hume Studies, I think).

2. The discussion of Part II is thick with examples of successful and failed scientific reasoning, and ends with Galileo and Copernicus again, this time discussed by Philo.

3. In Part III Cleanthes continues the discussion of scientific reasoning & confounds Philo.

4. Demea at the end of Part III shifts the discussion again to what the experimental inference tells us of the nature of God. This is the topic of discussion in Part IV, and here again Philo still discusses scientific reasoning, focusing on its limits. This continues to be the case as Philo presses his case over the next several parts.

5. In Part XII Philo takes the trouble to reconcile his approach with the simplicity considerations involved in the choice of (again) the Copernican system by people like Copernicus and Galileo, as well as with the Newton-approved maxim, Nature does nothing in vain.

6. Therefore there is reason to believe that a major concern of the Dialogues is the nature and limitations of scientific reasoning itself: How far can the experiment inference actually carry us?

In a sense, the Dialogues can be seen as asking the question: Do you have to be a theist in order to allow the world sufficient intelligibility for doing science? (I've discussed Hume's answer to this question elsewhere.)

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Links and Notes

* At FindLaw, Edward Lazarus discusses the question of whether our judiciary is really accountable.

* Christopher Price on the Testimonium Flavianum at Bede's Library (HT: CADRE Comments)

* As you may know, the Ector County Independent School District recently made national news when the New York Times and CNN reported on the fact that it had voted to offer an elective course called "The Bible in History and Literature" based on a curriculum provided by a group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS). Some of the uproar about it is sheer nonsense, since there isn't anything wrong with offering such a course; but there is a very serious question that needs to be asked in any such case, namely, what is the character of the curriculum in question? The course outline (PDF) is mediocre at best (there's too much Genesis and not enough wisdom literature; not enough looking at literary and historical uses of various Biblical texts, particularly given that's the whole point of the course; and Unit 17 should raise a worry-wrinkle or two on your forehead), but a course outline can be misleading. Mark Chauncey of Southern Methodist University points out some more substantial reasons why the curriculum was very poorly chosen. (The primary city in Ector is Odessa, where, as I think I've said before, I was born.) (HT: Higgaion)

* One of my pet peeves is science fiction writing that makes use sloppy use of science. I'm a "soft" science fiction fan myself, so I don't particularly care what mechanisms s.f. writers take up or make up to move the story along; but it always irritates the bejeebers out of me when it's used in a bad way. I recently finished the so-called Second Foundation Trilogy, which is not a trilogy about the Second Foundation, but a set of three interrelated works by Brin, Benford, and Bear. All three are fairly big science fiction writers at present. It was a sad reminder that Asimov has no peers in science fiction. Some of it was good, much of it was bad. The whole 'sims' plot should have been axed from the beginning; a useless, miserable story device that should never have made it out of first draft, if even granted the privilege of getting that far. But the single passage that irritated me most (I forget which book had it) was put in the mouth of R. Daneel Olivaw. Daneel is an absolutely awesome character; that it was put in his mouth made the whole thing that much worse, particularly since it wasn't really necessary at all. It was the chimp-human cliché about how chimps and humans are 99% similar. I find that (in a different context) Coturnix at "Science and Politics" has pointed out the problems with that sort of reasoning (scroll down), and suggests some reading. I burst out laughing when I came on this passage:

Actually it means very little. We are almost as close to zebrafish and fruitflies. Have you seen a chimp lately? Does its anatomy looks 99% similar to human? How about its behavior? About 99% similar to human? Would you say that we look about 80% like fruitflies?

Worth reading. Unlike the "Second Foundation Trilogy," which had, at best, some promising passages -- here and there a bit of real Hari Seldon shines through, for instance -- that fizzled and died.

If I Only Had a Phoenix....

You scored as Albus Dumbledore. Strong and powerful you admirably defend your world and your charges against those who would seek to harm them. However sometimes you can fail to do what you must because you care too much to cause suffering.

Albus Dumbledore


Severus Snape


Remus Lupin


Hermione Granger


Lord Voldemort


Ginny Weasley


Draco Malfoy


Ron Weasley


Sirius Black


Harry Potter


Your Harry Potter Alter Ego Is...?
created with


ABRAHAM: One man tempts another, because he knoweth not what is in the heart of his neighbor. But Thou surely didst know that I was ready to sacrifice my son!

GOD: It was manifest to Me, and I foresaw it, that thou wouldst withhold not even thy soul from Me.

ABRAHAM: And why, then, didst Thou afflict me thus?

GOD: It was My wish that the world should become acquainted with thee and should know that it was not without good reason that I have chosen thee from all the nations. Now it has been witnessed unto men that thou fearest God.


ABRAHAM: I will not leave this altar until I have said what I have to say.

GOD: Speak whatsoever thou hast to speak.

ABRAHAM: Didst Thou not promise me Thou wouldst let one come forth out of mine one bowels, whose seed should fill the whole earth.

GOD: Yes.

ABRAHAM: Whom didst Thou mean?

GOD: Isaac.

ABRAHAM: Didst Thou not promise me to make my seed as numerous as the sand of the sea-shore?

GOD: Yes.

ABRAHAM: Through which of my children?

GOD: Isaac.

ABRAHAM: I might have reproached Thee, and said, O Lord of the world, yesterday Thou didst tell me, In Isaac shall they seed be called, and now Thou sayest, Take they son, thine own son, even Isaac, and offer him for a burnt-offering. But I refrained myself, and I said nothing. Thus mayest Thou, when the children of Israel commit trespasses and because of them fall upon evil times, be mindful of their father Isaac, and forgive their sins and deliver them from suffering.

A Midrashic dialogue, quoted in Emil Fackenheim, Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy Basic Books (New York: 1973)65-67. Fackenheim discusses how this approach to Abraham differs from that found in Kierkegaard.