Friday, December 23, 2005

The Wrong Shall Fail, The Right Prevail

As we approach the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, a thought to remember:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Aristotle on Animal Thought

In the great majority of animals there are traces of psychical qualities which are more markedly differentiated in the case of human beings. For just as we pointed out resemblances in the physical organs, so in a number of animals we observe gentleness or fierceness, mildness or cross temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirit or low cunning, and, with regard to intelligence, something equivalent to sagacity. Some of these qualities in man, as compared with the corresponding qualities in animals, differ only quantitatively, that is to say, a man has more of this quality, and an animal has more of some other; other qualities in man are represented by analogous qualities: for instance, just as in man we find knowledge, wisdom, and sagacity, so in certain animals there exists some other natural capacity akin to these.

Aristotle, Historia Animalium 8.588a16-26. Thompson & Barnes translation.

Death of a Thousand Qualifications

A very odd article at MSNBC about Gregory Paul's argument that there is a correlation between religious belief and sociological dysfunction. It claims that the argument of Paul's article is sound; except that its methodology is inadequately explained, its data possibly unreliable, and, contrary to his explicit complain only to be establishing correlation, his discussion in the paper appears to presuppose a causal link. But it's still sound! Whatever that means. But this may in part be misleading journalism. In his response to his critics Mr. Paul manages to sound a great deal like a caricature of a pseudoscientist:

Paul said such questions were beside the point. No one has persuasively challenged his raw data or what they demonstrate, he contended; if other scientists don’t believe him, they can do the research themselves. That’s how science works.

“No one’s shown what I did was wrong,” said Paul, who said he was planning to write a book on the subject. “They tend to go off on tangents.”

Since one's credentials, the reliability of one's data, the adequacy of one's statistical methodology, the sloppiness of one's presentation of the results, and the logic of one's inferences from the analyzed data (the major points for which he has been criticized) are here being lumped together as 'tangents', I'm left not knowing what Gregory Paul's view of science is.

(HT: prosthesis)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Boyle on Humane Treatment of Animals

In an early manuscript (probably late 1640s, when he would have been about 20), Robert Boyle put forward a number of arguments in favor of the humane treatment of animals. One of them was the Sabbath argument. Boyle notes that the Sabbath was instituted in part for the benefit of domestic animals:

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.

He also notes that when God tells Jonah why he spares Nineveh, he mentions the cattle;

And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

Other arguments Boyle gives are that animals feel pain; that we can't rule out the possibility that animals have immortal souls; that because animals only have sensory pleasures and not our power for abstract pleasures, we should take into account in our treatment of them that their sensory pains are not sweetened by abstract pleasures about what the future will bring; that creation glorifies God; that those who mistreat animals get a bad reputation and develop bad habits; that animals are God's property and not ours; that they have value in themselves independent of their use to us (as shown in the fact that God had Noah save even the noxious animals; that, since there may be an excessive fondness for beasts, we have no reason to deny that there may be a deficient fondness for them as well; and that our Christian charity should be as broad as all creation.

Somewhat ironically, in later life Boyle was a vivisectionist, and tends to avoid the issue of humane treatment of animals.

Out to the Horizon, Part II

[This is a bit late; I kept intending to put it up, but kept forgetting. Part I is already up.]

After a few more shudders of the earth, the Unforgiving Mountain subsided again. It had happened quickly but, as when the lightning strikes the tree, marring it forever, the damage had been done.

She could not return to the village; that would be death. Nor could we remain where we were. All those hours in which we had dreamed up plans of escape flashed through my mind, and in the harsh atmosphere of recent events, they all dissipated like clouds. They were nothing but idle dreams of prisoners in an inescapable prison. Half the island was impenetrable jungle, all of it surrounded by vast, rolling hills of sea-surf; over everything, a tireless sentinel, the Unforgiving Mountain held vigil. Wherever one looked the gods of the Mountain held sway; wherever we could go they could pursue us with their vengeance, unresting, unrelenting, and no remission of guilt or sin was possible to us. We both knew this; and with knowledge came the sapping of hope.

I tried to set these thoughts aside. Whatever happened, i knew I must do whatever was needed to distract her from despair, to make some space, however small and slight, for a genuine hope. Perhaps also, still not understanding the brutality of the mountain-gods, I hoped, in giving her hope, to find some hope myself.

I seized her hand, holding it to my heart, whispering encouragements in her ear, sealing each encouragement with a small kiss. It was all in vain; for as I held her hand the gods of the Unforgiving Mountain began to take their most terrible vengeance. The hand I held grew cold; her body grew still. I pulled away and froze in fear. From head to foot where my beloved had been was solid stone, as if some demonic hand had perfectly carved her form into a stone from the Mountain.

The moment passed, and her flesh quickened again, but we both knew it would not last. She burst into tears; I pulled her close to me, fighting tears myself. Every so often she would turn to stone again; and each time she was stone longer. In desperation we tried to do what seemed our only option: we held each other closely, in order to spend the last moments awake, catching every heartbeat of the other. But the mountain-gods were not so kind. As we lay trembling in fear they sent forth an atmosphere of heat and humidity so great that it dragged us both to sleep. We fought, but to no avail. The gods had determined that we would lose even our last moments together, and we fell asleep.

When I awoke, she was no longer there. With a cry of trepidation I rushed out of the hut, and saw, with a terrible chill up and down my spine, what I had most feared. I flew forward and fell at her feet, which were washed by the careless waves. She stood looking out to the sea, her hair flowing back as if blown by the wind. It was not the wind that blew it, however, for she was stone, through and through, and with the coldness of stone she stood unacknowledging as I wept at her feet. So she stood forever, cold and immutable, looking out to the horizon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Turretin against Traducianism

Francis Turretin, arguing that the human soul cannot be traduced:

The soul is propagated by generation, either from both parents or from one only; either as to its totality or only as to a part. But neither can be said. Not the former because thus two souls would coalesce into one and be mingled. Not the latter, for if from one (either the father or the mother only) no reason can be given why it should be propagated by the one rather than by the other (since both parents are equally the principle of generation). If the whole is propagated, then the parents will be without it and so will be deprived of life. If a part, it will be divisible and consequently material and mortal. Nor can it be reasonably replied here that neither the whole soul nor a part of it is propagated, but a certain substance born of the soul and (as it were) an immortal seed of the soul. For it is taken for granted that there is a seed of the soul by which it either generates or is generated; yet such a seed cannot be granted (which does not fall from the soul), and therefore proves it to be material and divisible.

One way to break down the argument is as follows.

1. Assume the soul to be propagated.

2. Either it is (2a) from both parents or (2b) from only one.
3. (2a) implies that two souls are coalesced or mingled into one.
4. Therefore not (2a).
5. If (2b), no reason can be given why it should come from one rather than the other.
6. Therefore not (2b).

7. The soul is propagated either (7a) as a whole or (7b) in part.
8. If (7a), conception would deprive the parent(s) of life.
9. Therefore not (7a).
10. If (7b), the soul would be divisible.
11. Therefore not (7b).

12. Therefore the soul is not propagated, with contradicts (1).

For the background on traducianism, see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on it.

Compensator Theory

An interesting post at "Magic Statistics":

Toward a sociology of atheism

The most common efforts toward a sociology of atheism attempt are versions of secularization theory. Secularization theory tries to correlate the rise of atheism in society with a feature like education, economic prosperity, etc. The chief problem with just about every secularization theory is that it fails to account for the United States, which on secularization theories generally turns out to be a massive and unintelligible anomaly. (Nor, it should be said, is the United States always the only problem. The United Kingdom, for instance, which is much more secular than the U.S., nonetheless is still more religious than one would expect on most versions of the secularization theory, which often have difficulty explaining why the U.K. is more religious than, say, Germany or France. Ditto with Canada. But the big one, and the ultimate rock on which secularization theories tend to break, is the U.S., which is in a category all of its own.) In the post above, Scott Gilbreath points to an alternative to secularization theory that I hadn't heard of before, namely, compensator theory. The idea is that religion functions socially as a set of compensators: compensators are "postulations of reward according to explanations that are not readily susceptible to unambiguous evaluation" and supernatural explanations are among the most general compensators, i.e., they compensate for a wide variety of different rewards, and to a very high degree (think of Pascal's Wager). In the absence of a desired reward, people tend to accept explanations that posit a way for that reward to be fulfilled. Now, since compensators are explanations that give hope of rewards that are deferred or abstracted from immediate practical considerations, people naturally have a tendency to prefer immediate rewards to compensators. Compensators play an important role in social function, because they give a means for us to give aid to another even when we are not physically or financially able to do so. One thinks of prayer in this sort of situation -- someone unable to provide help to another may nonetheless offer to pray for them; belief that the prayer is doing some good, or that the prayer may be taken as a sort of genuine assistance, is a compensator. A dying man may prefer an immediate cure; but failing that, may very well be heartened at the fact that someone else is praying for him. Compensators also play an important role in psychological functioning. A parent worried about her lost child may well pray for the child's safety as well as look for the child; the prayer is a powerful compensator for the fact that the parent can't immediately produce the child at will. Such a compensator might (e.g.) help the parent avoid despair long enough to find the child and keep him safe. Compensators play a role in all our lives; and religion provides a set of compensators that are very broad in scope.

On a compensator theory of the rise of atheism, atheism will tend to arise in situations where people don't feel any need for compensators: that is, among people who are prosperous, have most of their needs taken care of, and have relatively few social obligations. In such a case there is relatively little practical use for compensators: even on the supposition that theism is true, for instance, a successful single man with no strong family ties in a developed country with a good welfare system and a relatively safe environment has very little in his immediate, practical, daily life that would require compensators as broad as theism potentially provides. Most of his practical needs are relatively easily fulfilled; and thus religion isn't as salient a factor for ordinary life. It's an interesting alternative. (I seem to remember that Freud somewhere has a very crude version of this, but I might be misremembering.) How well it accounts for the facts is a tricky issue, as Gilbreath points out. But it's a matter of some interest.

UPDATE: Miriam in the comments points to Callum Brown's The Death of Christian Britain as another proposed alternative to standard secularization theory. Brown's thesis is apparently that Christianity in Britain began to collapse in the 1960s due to a shift in women's sensibilities; since women were a major mainstay of British Christianity, and they were no longer finding it a useful way of seeing the world, the whole thing collapsed.

Liar, Liar II

In Buridan's Sophismata, we find the following interesting case:

I posit the case that I utter this proposition "I am speaking falsely" and no other.

The sophism is proved, since in so speaking I speak either falsely or truly. If I speak truly, then it is true that I speak falsely. Thus the sophism is true. But if I speak falsely, then the case is as I say. Therefore, I speak truly, and therefore the sophism is true....

The opposite is argued, since if the sophism were true, it would also follow that it was false, and so it would be both true and false, which is impossible. The conseuqence is proved, since if the proposition is true, then it is true that I speak falsely, and so what I say is false. And yet it is posited that I say nothing other than that sophism. Therefore, it is false.

It will be noted that this is very similar to the insoluble (L) I briefly discussed in my last Liar, Liar post. As Buridan goes on to note, this sophism cannot be resolved without considering the reasons for which a proposition is said to be true or false. After discussing a large number of issues with regard to supposition and insolubilia, he comes back to this sophism with his answer:

I answer that the sophism is false, because from it and the proposition expressing the case, a false proposition follows. Yet since this proposition expressing the case is said to be true, and that false, what thus follows is that the sophism is both true and false at once. But a proposition is false, from which, together with its truth, a false proposition follows.

And the arguments for the opposite are answered, according to what was said earlier. For it is said that if it were false, it would follow that it is true. I deny that consequent. And you proved it because if it is false, then it signifies. I agree, with respect to the formal signification. But this is not sufficient because it reflects on itself. For because of this it is not true, for it is not as the consequent of it and of the case signifies. For that consequent is that A is true, positing that my proposition is properly named A. and it is not as this signifies: "A is true."

This is a bit dense, but I think we can provide a very simplified answer to the sophism along Buridan's lines. The key point of Buridan's answer is that (if we make A = the proposition "I am speaking falsely" when nothing else is spoken) if A is false, it does not follow that it is true. One way you can see this is to recognize that a contradictory proposition is the very paradigm of falsehood. Even contingent falsehoods can be regarded as those propositions that generate contradictions on the supposition of something true. So the fact that there is a contradiction in A is no more a problem than the fact that there is a contradiction in 1+1=3. It only looks like there is a problem, because we are misled by the self-reference into thinking that A (or L in the previous post) supports the inference that if it is false it is true. All it supports is the conclusion that A is false, because it implies something false or impossible.

[Burdian translation from John Buridan, Sophisms on Meaning and Truth, Theodore Kermit Scott, tr. Meredith Publishing, 1966.]

'You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.'

The American Chesterton Society has a new blog. A bit of Chesterton's wisdom about philosophy (from his book on Shaw):

Philosophy is not the concern of those who pass though Divinity and Greats, but of those who pass through birth and death. Nearly all the more awful and abstruse statements can be put in words of one syllable, from 'A child is born' to 'A soul is damned.' If the ordinary man may not discuss existence, why should he be asked to conduct it?

And one of my favorite sentences in Chesterton, from The Common Man:

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him.

Traversing the Infinite

A very interesting discussion of whether the infinite can be traversed is going on at Philosophy, etc. I'm inclined to agree with some of the commentators that the common 'calculus' resolution of Zeno's paradox isn't a resolution of the paradox at all -- it's simply a restatement of the situation (that there is a finite interval whose traversal would take an infinite series). It's true that such situations really do exist; but that's the whole point of the original paradox, which Zeno directed against claims that a real, physical infinite divisibility was possible. As Hallq says in the comments, we don't seem to be able to get the claim that we can traverse an infinite; just that we can traverse any arbitrarily large finite series. But there are arguments that might be raised against this conclusion. Go and check out the discussion.


Johnny-Dee has an interesting criticism of the doctrine of divine simplicity at FQI; naturally, I disagree with it, as you can see in the comments, but it's interesting. John always has a knack for putting things in a clear and straightforward way. [UPDATE: John has a follow-up post.]

There are a number of different ways in which the doctrine of divine simplicity can be formulated, but for dealing with criticisms like this one, the most useful is the logical approach. (It isn't a very useful approach for positive arguments for the doctrine, but it is very useful for showing how common criticisms of it fail.) A term within a proposition, like 'omnipotence', has a certain signification -- in this case, one involving power. It also has a supposition, i.e., a reference to something. So, for instance, when I say, "God is omnipotent," 'omnipotent' supposits for that in God which is supposed to be omnipotent. (In general, there are three kinds of supposition: material, simple, and personal. In material supposition a term supposits for itself, e.g., 'The word 'omnipotent' has four syllables'. In simple supposition, a term supposits for a universal or abstract quality or form, e.g., 'Omnipotence is a kind of power'. In personal supposition, a term supposits for that of which it is truly predicated, e.g., 'This omnipotent is God'.) Now the doctrine of simplicity put in these terms is just the following:

For any divine-attribute terms A and B, that for which A supposits is exactly the same as that for which B supposits.

Seen in that way, most criticisms of divine simplicity dissolve entirely, because they can be shown to confuse sense and reference. That's not to say it's a cure-all; there are objections it doesn't meet. But most of the criticisms that try to show that the doctrine involves some serious incoherence are themselves confusing signification with supposition. The deeper problem is that most critics of the doctrine (and some suppporters) don't recognize that the doctrine is, in fact, a step in negative theology. It does not make a commitment as to the real character of the divine substance; it merely denies that certain distinctions, and terms indicative of these distinctions, cannot properly be attributed to the divine nature, whatever the divine nature may be.

In any case, here is the comment I left at FQI, which I post here because it says something also about the importance of immutability:

I've never been impressed by Plantinga on simplicity; I think he's just confused on the subject. Part of the problem is perhaps the mistaken idea that the modern label 'property' introduces any precision into the discussion -- in fact, the reverse is true, because the modern notion is a catch-all, not a sharp notion. There is no generally conceded modern account of what properties are, and common usages typically lump together a number of things (accidents, properties, natures, sometimes even relations) that the medievals would regularly have kept distinct, and for good reason. The medieval discussion, which is usually in terms of signification and supposition (roughly, sense and reference) is much better.

When we put it in these terms, I'm not convinced that the problem arises. What is identical is not (say) perfect love and omnipotence; rather, what is one and the same is that to which we refer when we talk about God's love and His omnipotence. Now, nothing in this implies that the effects of the divine love and omnipotence are necessarily same across all possible worlds; only that, necessarily, in every possible world, that to which 'omnipotence' refers is one and the same as that to which 'divine love' refers. (That's why the truthmaker approach noted in a comment above is more promising than any property approach. The problem doesn't arise on a truthmaker approach, either, as far as I can see.)

It also seems to me that your argument isn't really against simplicity at all, but against immutability. But immutability isn't necessity: that God's will is immutable doesn't mean that it couldn't be otherwise than it is, but that there is nothing to which it is potential (i.e., there is nothing capable of making God actual in any way, because His will is actual prior to any candidate for making it actual). In other words, God's immutability doesn't contradict his freedom, but preserves it, by making it impossible for anything other than God to limit it. As Aquinas says somewhere, immutability is the strength of God; and Aquinas is right: it's the negative complement of divine strength, in the sense that it is the negation of what could limit divine strength or cause divine weakness. Eliminate the one, you eliminate the other.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Literature and Understanding

An interesting discussion on literature and understanding the worldviews of others in this post and its comments: In Defense of Narnia. Lewis himself says similar things of Lucretius's poem, which, of course, tends atheistic.

Of Proverbs

One can recognize a number of patterns in proverb-types. Here are a few:

The biggest group consists of what might be called feature proverbs. Feature proverbs contribute to our mental profile or paradigm ofa given type or characteristic; they identify some aspect or feature that should be remembered. Feature proverbs can be divided in a number of different ways. Some literal ones are indicative, e.g., Hatred stirs up strife; but love covers all sins (Pr 10:5); some are predictive, in the sense that they identify not a mark but an effect. Others are less literal, edifying similes and metaphors, e.g., As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so the sluggard to those that send him (Pr. 10:26). Whereas literal feature proverbs tell, the figurative ones evoke: The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly (Pr. 26:22).

Others are what I call rather proverbs. They differ from feature proverbs in that they indicate right preferences, and are thus always comparative. For example:
Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble therewith. (Pr. 15:16)
Open rebuke rather than secret love. (Pr. 27:5)

Yet others are paternal or magisterial exhortations, e.g., My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent (Pr. 1:10); Do not be envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them (Pr. 24:1); Open your mouth, judge justly, and plead the cause of the poor and needy (Pr. 31:9). The point of such imperatives is to save us from error based on the long experience of others, which may or may not be given a formulation in the imperative itself. They are straightforward counsels.

Another kind of proverb is the query proverb; they are rhetorical questions whose point is not to tell but to press the one addressed to form their own insight. (Not all questions are query proverbs; some are other forms of proverbs in question format. The distinctive aspect of a query proverb is that it leaves the insight to the hearer, whereas question-format feature proverbs, e.g., don't.) While there are a few in the book of Proverbs, they aren't common; for a bit of wisdom literature that makes rather effective use of them, see the epistle of James.