Wednesday, September 28, 2005


I will be out of town the next few days, attending a wedding in Portland, OR. I doubt I'll be doing much posting before Monday or Tuesday. Feel free to have a look around, though.

'You Think Your Holy Book Means That, But It Doesn't, So There'

I've become very tired of a particular argument against Islam that appears to be spreading. Irshad Manji, who often says noteworthy and interesting things on the subject of Islam, appears unfortunately to be the most egregious offender. In Al-Maidah (Surah 5), the relevant part of the Recitation begins with the story of Cain and Abel:

Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to Allah): It was accepted from one, but not from the other.

Said the latter: "Be sure I will slay thee."

"Surely," said the former, "Allah doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous. If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the cherisher of the worlds. For me, I intend to let thee draw on thyself my sin as well as thine, for thou wilt be among the companions of the fire, and that is the reward of those who do wrong."

The soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother: he murdered him, and became one of the lost.

Then Allah sent a raven, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. "Woe is me!" said he; "Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?" then he became full of regrets.

On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.

Al-Maidah 5:32 is a favorite of moderate Muslims. A common paraphrase is, "Whoever murdered any person, it is as if he slew all mankind, and whoever saved the life of any person, it is as if he saved all mankind." It was quoted, for instance, in the fatwa against the terrorist bombings in Britain.

Now, what Manji and others do is shove this aside, and claim that the actual text has a 'qualification' ("except for murder or villainy in the land"), with, apparently, the idea of casting aspersions on the Qur'an, and suggesting that the moderates are only getting their moderate message out of the Qur'an by cut-and-paste. This is utterly arbitrary; and it betrays a reading style that borders on fundamentalist. One can certainly read the clause as a qualification; but one can also read it in other ways. It could also be taken as a common-sense qualification, e.g., that the point of the story here is about the crime of murder, and it is not intended to be a statement on capital punishment. Indeed, from at least one point of view that's the most natural way to read it; and when moderate Muslims paraphrase it in the simpler version, they aren't 'truncating' it at all. They are simply leaving out what they see as a clarification that can be taken as irrelevant, or too obvious to need explicit mention, in the contexts in which they are using it.

There is the further absurdity of going around and telling people that they're reading their own holy book incorrectly. It would make sense if the problem here were ignorance of the actual text of the Qur'an itself, but that's clearly not the problem. Indeed, there is no problem here at all except a made-up one. The meaning of any holy book is not how any Tom, Dick, and Harry think one can read the book, but how the religious community itself orders its own reading of the book. In Sunni Islam, the interpretation of the Qur'an is communal, not individual; the authority on what the Qur'an means is the consensus that builds up over time. It is a slow, hard way of reading a text, since your own reading is never complete until by the slow process of dialogue, prayer, and debate it passes into the community and comes back to you for further consideration.

People who make the sort of argument noted above are not contributing to the interpretation of the text; it is almost as if a bunch of yokel fingerpainters were going about making snide remarks about how real painters were trying to avoid facing up to the messiness of paint. They are trying, somewhat irrationally and entirely arbitrarily, to foist a crude and fundamentalist mode of reading on people whose style of reading is much more sophisticated. The proper response to such people is: If you are incapable of reading books written for grown ups, perhaps you shouldn't read them.

[By the way, Al-Maidah is a rather cool Surah in many ways. It has my favorite passage in the Qur'an (Taurat=Torah; Isa=Jesus; Injeel=Gospel):

Surely We revealed the Taurat in which was guidance and light; with it the prophets who submitted themselves (to Allah) judged (matters) for those who were Jews, and the masters of Divine knowledge and the doctors, because they were required to guard (part) of the Book of Allah, and they were witnesses thereof; therefore fear not the people and fear Me, and do not take a small price for My communications; and whoever did not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the unbelievers.

And We prescribed to them in it that life is for life, and eye for eye, and nose for nose, and ear for ear, and tooth for tooth, and (that there is) reprisal in wounds; but he who foregoes it, it shall be an expiation for him; and whoever did not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the unjust.

And We sent after them in their footsteps Isa, son of Marium, verifying what was before him of the Taurat and We gave him the Injeel in which was guidance and light, and verifying what was before it of Taurat and a guidance and an admonition for those who guard (against evil).

And the followers of the Injeel should have judged by what Allah revealed in it; and whoever did not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the transgressors.

And We have revealed to you the Book with the truth, verifying what is before it of the Book and a guardian over it, therefore judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and do not follow their low desires (to turn away) from the truth that has come to you; for every one of you did We appoint a law and a way, and if Allah had pleased He would have made you (all) a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you, therefore strive with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; to Allah is your return, of all (of you), so He will let you know that in which you differed.

The last verse is usually taken ecumenically: the people who are to compete with each other in doing good deeds are the Christians, Jews, and Muslims. That's a jihad (striving) we could all do with.]

Out to the Horizon, Part I

[This is a story that is still in absolute first draft stage; indeed, most of it was written all in a dash one night. So, needless to say, it needs work.]

She stood on the beach, looking out to the horizon, her hair flowing back as if blown by the wind. She stood as still as stone as I collapsed at her feet weeping.

The sand was cold, the sea was cold, the wind was cold. It rushed past us into the forest of palms some distance from the strand. I had met her in that forest one day as she went to bathe in the stream. As soon as I saw her smile I knew I loved her; and she loved me as quickly.

She was a priestess of her people, newly consecrated. She served in the village beside the great rocks just south of where the jungle grows dense, where the pineapples, springing up like noxious weeds, render the forest impassable. As a priestess her task was simple. Once a month she would walk to the base of the Unforgiving Mountain to offer a sacrifice of grains and flowers. Once, long ago, the mountain had destroyed almost everything for miles around; and even now the mountain-gods would growl and shake the earth to remind us all of their power. I do not know why the gods act this way; we need no reminder. Wherever you are on this island, whether it be the beach or the forest or the village, you can see the Mountain if you can see the sky. Its unimpassioned face glowers at everything that stands or moves.

A priestess of the Unforgiving Mountain is sworn to take no lovers. The Mountain is jealous, they say; it demands total devotion. She had given it that before she met me. Afer we met, such oaths and devotions seemed a small thing.

We would sneak away some mornings to sit on the seashore. She loved the waves, and named them as they came, treating each one as if it came bearing the treasures of the world. For myself, I loved her love of them.We would stare at them for long hours, looking out to their apparent source in the cloudy horizon. Sometimes we would discuss our plans and dreams. More often we would simply sit together in silence and feel each other's nearness.

Not far from the beach, at the edge of the forest, I had long ago built my hut. It was not long until she began visiting me there at night, stealing away from the watchful vigils of the elder priestesses. I cannot clearly recall how long we did this. We should have known, and, indeed, we did know, that too much self-indulgence in this matters would awaken suspicions. We hardly cared. We could not stay apart.

One night, a full moon night, I lay awake in the darkness, trying to think of some plan to take her away, away from the forest, away from the village, away from the grim coldness of the Unforgiving Mountain. Outside there was no sound but the waves; inside there were only the sounds of her sleep as she turned into me and softly sighed upon my shoulder.

My thoughts were broken by a rumbling: the Mountain was restless. I rose and paced the room. Back and forth, back and forth I went, trying to recollect my thoughts. Then, suddenly, the door burst open and I saw silhouetted against the brightness of the moon the figure of one of the elder priestesses. She saw my beloved and hissed. The mountain continued to rumble in the background. Pointing a finger at my beloved she spoke a curse, and my love woke with a small scream. The mountain rumbled louder, then stopped; the priestess at the door was gone.

The second part of "Out to the Horizon" will come soon.

Links of Note

* Richard has a good post on human vs. animal intelligence at "Philosophy, etc.,' called Humans, Matter, and Mattering.

* Mark D. Roberts has a good series of posts called Unmasking the Jesus Seminar. (HT: Parableman)

* Rebecca, everyone's favorite Calvinist blogger-theologian from the Yukon, has a good post at Theologica on God's Immutability.

* Don't forget to stop by the Poetry Carnival.

On a Question about Superstition and Enthusiasm in Hume

How happens it then...if vulgar superstition be so salutary to society, that all history abounds so much with accounts of its pernicious consequences on public affairs?

Factions, civil wars, persecutions, subversions of government, oppression, slavery; these are the dismal consequences which always attend its prevalency over the minds of men.

If the religious spirit be ever mentioned in any historical narration, we are sure to meet afterwards with a detail of the miseries which attend it. And no period of time can be happier or more prosperous, than those in which it is never regarded or heard of.

[Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XII.]

This passage, which recently made a showing at the Leiter Reports, reminded me of a question (not relevant to the discussion at LR but to the passage itself) that I was considering not too long ago in the context of reading the sections on James I and Charles I in Hume's A History of England, namely, what, exactly Hume's concept of superstition is. It is very clear that in almost all cases in which he is using it he is using it as a technical or quasi-technical term; he also never clearly defines it. It was common at the time among establishment Christians to make a sharp distinction between two extremes of religion: priestcraft (or superstition) and enthusiasm. I have previously (quite a long time ago) noted an example of this in Hume's fellow Scotsman, George Campbell, and puzzled over the best way to characterize the distinction. I think that the best way to see the distinction in the case of establishment Christians is to think in terms of mediation of revelation. Thus:

Priestcraft (superstition): Divine revelation is mediated through an institutional hierarchy (paradigmatic example: Catholic Church).

Enthusiasm (in adjectival instances, 'visionary' is often used as a synonym): Divine revelation is mediated through the individual's mental events(paradigmatic examples: Quakers and revivalists like the Methodists).

This distinction forms the backbone of establishment Protestantism. Members of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland would argue that they constituted the rational media via between Catholic superstition (with its excessive rigidity) and Methodist enthusiasm (with its anarchy).

This isn't Hume's distinction, although it often maps on a bit. It's actually difficult to see how Hume makes his distinction work. The clearest attempt to distinguish the two occurs in Hume's essay on Superstition and Enthusiasm. On superstition:

The mind of man is subject to certain unaccountable terrors and apprehensions, proceeding either from the unhappy situation of private or public affairs, from ill health, from a gloomy and melancholy disposition, or from the concurrence of all these circumstances. In such a state of mind, infinite unknown evils are dreaded from unknown agents; and where real objects of terror are wanting, the soul, active to its own prejudice, and fostering its predominant inclination, finds imaginary ones, to whose power and malevolence it sets no limits. As these enemies are entirely invisible and unknown, the methods taken to appease them are equally unaccountable, and consist in ceremonies, observances, mortifications, sacrifices, presents, or in any practice, however absurd or frivolous, which either folly or knavery recommends to a blind and terrified credulity. Weakness, fear, melancholy, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of SUPERSTITION.

And on enthusiasm:

But the mind of man is also subject to an unaccountable elevation and presumption, arising from prosperous success, from luxuriant health, from strong spirits, or from a bold and confident disposition. In such a state of mind, the imagination swells with great but confused conceptions, to which no sublunary beauties or enjoyments can correspond. Every thing mortal and perishable vanishes as unworthy of attention. And a full range is given to the fancy in the invisible regions or world of spirits, where the soul is at liberty to indulge itself in every imagination, which may best suit its present taste and disposition. Hence arise raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy; and confidence and presumption still encreasing, these raptures (rapes), being altogether unaccountable, and seeming quite beyond the reach of our ordinary faculties, are attributed to the immediate inspiration of that Divine Being, who is the object of devotion. In a little time, the inspired person comes to regard himself as a distinguished favourite of the Divinity; and when this frenzy once takes place, which is the summit of enthusiasm, every whimsy is consecrated: Human reason, and even morality are rejected as fallacious guides: And the fanatic madman delivers himself over, blindly, and without reserve, to the supposed illapses of the spirit, and to inspiration from above. Hope, pride, presumption, a warm imagination, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of enthusiasm.

This psychological genealogy appears to be Hume's most common understanding. Superstition is not identical to priestcraft, but is its source; superstition is favorable to priestcraft. Enthusiasm, on the contrary, tends to throw off all external authority. Because of this, while Hume regards them both as a species of false religion, he is always very clear about what he sees as the sharp difference in they way they operate in society. Enthusiasm has the most violent and destructive immediate effects on society; however, it is unable to last, and inevitably ebbs. Superstition, on the other hand, has very few destructive short-term effects; however, it inevitably begins to tyrannize in the long run. Further, enthusiasm is very favorable to civil liberty, whereas superstition is very unfavorable to it.

All well and good. In itself this would leave no puzzles. But Hume's use of the distinction is very odd. It can be admitted that in every case (as Hume himself notes) there is a mixture of both; but there are oddities in Hume's own deployment. He seems to want the distinction not merely to identify a psychological aberration but a social phenomenon, and it isn't actually clear that he can have both. Thus he makes the odd claim that the Jansenists were enthusiasts and the Molinists superstitious -- odd, because despite the greater popularity of the former, there is precious little difference in religion between the two groups, and those could just as easily be characterized as due to a greater superstition among the Jansenists (who, after all, saw themselves as the traditionalists). He commits himself to claiming that, setting aside the Quakers, the Calvinists are the most enthusiastic of the English sectaries; his reason is not psychological but social: their church structure involves the least dependence on priests. But it is hard to square this with what Hume would undoubtedly consider the gloomy religion of the Calvinists, and it is difficult to see how the essay on Superstition and Enthusiasm can be interpreted in a way that is consistent with A History of England, where the enthusiasts are always inspired by gloom and melancholy.

So that's the intriguing question about the distinction that I mentioned before: Is there a consistent use of the distinction across Hume's works, or are the Essays inconsistent with the History; if the former, what is this consistent use; and, if the latter, is there a principled reason for the inconsistency (as we know there is in Hume's changing his analysis of Whigs and Tories between writing the History and writing the Essay), or is it a case of random drift?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Wherein I Have the Impudence to Argue Against the Subtle Doctor on Mutual Love

The Subtle Doctor:

In us mutual love is more agreeable because by such mutuality a greater reason for lovability is found in the thing loved. For any loved thing that is able to love makes itself more lovable, because the reason for lovability is not only whatever goodness is in it, but also the returned love (redamatio) is another reason for lovability, and for this reason someone having the goodness which is the first basis for lovability, and also the returned loved, is more lovable.

[Ordinatio 1.12.1, n. 33. This passage is quoted in Richard Cross's Duns Scotus on God, p. 218; I have changed Cross's translation at one or two points to make it a little easier to read.]

I deny, and reason as follows.

A thing may be lovable for a reason in two ways. First, the reason may constitute the thing as lovable; in this sense the reason for lovability is the goodness of the thing. In this sense also someone is more or less lovable as the reason is more or less. Second, the reason may confirm the thing as already lovable. In this sense, the adding of a reason for lovability does not make the beloved more lovable, but rather makes the love of the beloved richer and more certain. Now, in the case of a mutual love involving two people, it must be said that the returned love does not make the beloved more lovable, but confirms their lovability, in that the returned love is itself part of the goodness that is loved. Therefore it does not give an additional reason for the lovability of the beloved. However, it does add something to the love itself, namely, the mutuality, whereby the love is joined with a knowledge of being loved. And such love is therefore sweeter to the mind and is made more sure in the very act of loving. And thus we say that mutual love of two people is higher and greater than an unreciprocated love can be.

However, it is not only possible for mutual love to exist between two people, but also for there to be a mutual love of another, in which case there are at least three. Thus, in the love of a man, a woman, and their child, the man and the woman may love the child for the goodness in the child, and this is a constituting reason for lovability; however, their mutual love of the child does not make the child more lovable, but only makes the loving of the child sweeter and stronger than it would be were there no mutual love. Likewise, in the same case, the man and woman may love each other for the goodness in each, which is a constituting reason for lovability; however, their mutual love for the child does not make the other more lovable but confirms the lovability that already exists in each.

Now, it is true that a beloved who is able to love is thereby more lovable; but this is not relevant to the subject at hand, because the beloved's ability to love is not caused by the mutual love but a goodness in the beloved, and a very great one. The ability to love is therefore a constituting reason for the lovability of the beloved, for the ability to love is an eminent form of goodness. Thus, in cases in which we discover in the beloved a deeper ability to love, we rejoice, and love the beloved even more, because we have discovered that the beloved was more good than we had previously known. And this is especially true when the ability to love is an ability to share the love we have for some third thing. However, this ability is presupposed by any actual mutual love, and therefore cannot be an argument for the conclusion that mutual love is a constituting reason of lovability. And if you were to reply that the exercise of this ability must therefore also be a constituting reason for lovability, I reply that the ability to share love with another is simply the ability to love, and to know that the other loves, and the exercise of this ability is simply the exercise of those abilities. Thus the exercise of these abilities is a constituting reason for lovability, because it is a greater goodness in the beloved; but it is not a constituting reason as mutual love, but simply as love, for the mutuality of the love adds something to the notion of love, namely, the knowledge of a loved one's love for the same third. Thus there is no greater lovability constituted by the excercised ability to share in our love for a third than there is constituted by the exercised ability to love that third. However, in our case, the sharing of the love is a confirming reason, i.e., something that adds to the love itself (rather than to the lovability of the beloved or the mutually-loved).

Therefore it appears that mutual love does not, qua mutual, make either the beloved or the mutually-loved more lovable; rather, it makes the love a greater love than it would otherwise be.

[All of this is a fragment of a (very, very) rough draft for an argument. Scotus gives the above argument as a reason for denying the Augustinian and Victorine use of mutual love in discussion of the Trinity; he goes on to claim (rightly) that, since the Son is lovable in virtue of having the divine essence, than which no greater good is possible, he cannot be made more lovable in addition to any added thing. My argument is that Scotus is wrong to treat mutual love as something making the beloved more lovable; rather the idea in the mutual love argument is that mutual love is a greater love than solitary love. Scotus, of course, allows that there is mutual love between Father and Son; but he wants to treat this love as a shared love for the divine essence. In itself, however, this doesn't affect the mutual love argument unless you assume, as Scotus seems to, that this implies some additional lovability above and beyond the lovability of the divine essence. However, the mutual love argument is that mutual love is more agreeable than unrequited and solitary love, and the exercise of mutual love is itself something that is (as it were) already in the divine essence. For the mutual love argument is that God's love must be shared love. On a Victorine position, perfect love (amor iucundissimus) must involve a mutuality; it must be a concordant communion of love. Since God has perfect love by essence, divine love would have to involve mutuality. However, it's a subtle issue, and the above argument needs considerable refinement.]

Literal Figures of Speech

Sometimes we use the phrase 'figurative language' to mean 'figure of speech'. Sometimes we use it to mean 'language that is not literal'. The two do not precisely overlap, because there are figures of speech that are not figurative in the latter sense. Some examples:

Allusion: 'Allusion' covers a lot of things, but at least some of them are not figurative. One example is what we can allusion of citation. Suppose I were to say, "He was reading of the Cave and the Divided Line." This is an allusion to Plato's Republic, of course, although it is not mentioned as such. Much of our literal discourse depends for its intelligibility on our ability to understand these allusions to background information.

Grammatical Figures: Many figures of speech are merely unusual grammatical structures. For instance,

He drove off in a high dudgeon and a Cadillac

This is usually called a zeugma; it's a purely structural way of using prepositions in an odd way, for effect (e.g., humor). This is called tmesis: "What man soever" (we've put one word between the syllables of another word).

Enargia: Some figures of speech are conventional ways of structuring some kinds of information in order to make the description especially vivid. For instance, a catalog, like Milton's "Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death".

Figures of Repetition: Some figures of speech are just repetitions of sounds. Alliteration, for instance. You can alliterate in literal language. Other figures of speech are repetitions of words. For instance, here's an anadiplosis from Shakespeare's Richard II:

The love of wicked men converts to fear,
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death.

In an anadiplosis one repeats a word near the end of one phrase or clause at the beginning of the next. Nothing figurative (in the second sense) about that.

Or from Hamlet, here's an epizeuxis:

Words, words, words...

Epizeuxis is just straight repetition of a word for effect.

Figures of Reasoning: Some figures of speech have to do with the organization of an argument. For instance, the figure of anthypophora is the posing of questions that one then immediately answers, e.g.,

He has been rewarded. And what is his reward? It is the satisfaction of a job well done.

Pysma is the figure in which one successively asks a number of questions. For instance:

What is pseudoscience? How can we distinguish it? Can we be rid of it, and how?

Apophasis is a figure of reasoning in which one successively rejects a number of alternatives. For instance:

You cannot affirm that the government has all political power. You cannot affirm that the people have all of this power. Nor can you affirm that the power is invested in some third thing. Thus you must admit that the power is shared.

The list of examples could be extended considerably -- the figures of speech that are not figurative are legion.

All Metaphor All the Time

From Donald Akenson's Surpassing Wonder:

One can, for example, call the covenant a metaphor for the relationship of Yahweh and Israel, and in the technical sense it is. Indeed, all words concerning religion are metaphors, for no set of words can accurately encase the relationship religion posits between the infinite and the finite. (p. 91)

It always surprises me when people say things like this, because it is obviously false. The fact that a given set of words only deals with the phenomenon in a rough and approximate way doesn't in the least requier us to say that the words are all used metaphorically; they could also be used literally in a rough and approximate way. The same goes for understatement: the fact that a set of words understates some facet of the phenomenon doesn't imply that they are used metaphorically. And, indeed, if all religious statements were metaphorical, none would be meaningful. That a proposition uses a metaphor implies that it is not, in the sense in which it is taken, such that it would be true if it were a literal statement.* Thus, if I give a sentence like,

"There is a relationship between the finite and the infinite,"

and this is taken only metaphorically, so that the relationship between the two is only metaphorical, this implies that there is no relationship between the finite and the infinite. If I take only metaphorically the sentence,

"The infinite exists,"

I am committed to denying that the infinite exists; the existence of the infinite is only a metaphor. (It might be a metaphor for something else; or it might just be an ornamental metaphor, not standing for anything in particular.)

If all religious language is metaphorical, religious language is at best talking about something nonreligious in a figurative way.
* It should be noted that this question is different from the question of whether metaphorical propositions can be true. (I've argued on a number of occasions that they can be, and that all the arguments that are usually used to argue they can't could easily be adapted to argue that literal propositions can't be true.) The truth of a metaphorical proposition doesn't depend on any literal propositions; a metaphorical proposition is true iff what is meant by the proposition obtains in reality. ('In reality', of course', is not the same as 'literally'.) But every meaningful metaphorical proposition presupposes something about its subject that is taken literally; this is one reason why we are inclined to take literal statements as more fundamental, despite the ineliminable abundance of metaphorical statements even in the most technical discourses. And note, too, that this relatively uncontroversial claim is different from the highly controversial claim that everything that can be said metaphorically can be said literally; all it entails is that something about anything that is said metaphorically can be said literally.

Poetry Carnival Reloaded

The poetry carnival is up at