Saturday, April 08, 2006

Evening Note for Saturday, April 8

A great many things worth discussing have popped up in the blogosphere in the past few days. It would, of course, all happen the month that I have only limited internet access. In any case, this is just a note to say that there are a lot of things out there that I hope to discuss at greater length, even if I end up discussing them a month late.

Links of Note:
* Unchanging Time and the Infinite Past at "Philosophy, etc."
* Libet Experiments and Free Will at "FQI"
* Rejecting the PSR at "Matthew Mullins"
* Rebecca Stark has finished her series on ordered lists of salvation at "Theologica." Explicit orderings of decrees are mostly associated with Calvinist theology; but they are not, of course, exclusively Calvinistic, and even if they were non-Calvinists could stand to learn much from the discussion. Needless to say, Calvinists themselves could also stand to learn from the discussion. You can access the whole series from the last post, God's Eternal Decrees 7.

Currently Reading:
Balzac, Droll Stories
Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
George Soderberg, Finishing Technology

Rationally Refusing to Reason More

One of the many interesting philosophical themes running through Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is that of over-reasoning. One of Stowe's major concerns in the novel is our human tendency to try to wriggle out of straightforward truths by reasoning more than we should. This does not mean, of course, that Stowe has anything against reason. But part of the good application of reason is knowing when you've done enough reasoning.

The point comes up on a number of occasions in the book. It is perhaps put in the most straightforwardly striking form in the scene between Senator Bird and his wife Mary in chapter 9. When Senator Bird comes home one day, Mary Bird shows an unusual interest in his day, and it quickly comes out that she's interested because she has heard that the Senate has recently passed a fugitive slave bill. As she says, she thinks such a law would be "something downright cruel and unchristian." To her shock, she finds that her husband voted for it, and she scolds him for doing so, saying that it's a "shameful, wicked, abominable law" and that she'll break it if she ever gets a chance to do so. We then come to the following interesting exchange:

"But, Mary, just listen to me. Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you fro them; but, then, dear, we mustn't suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment; you must consider it's not a matter of private feeling,--there are great public interests invovled,--there is such a state of public agitation rising, that we must put aside our private feelings."

"Now, John, I don't know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow."

"But in cases where your doing so would involve a great public evil--"

"Obeying God never brings on public evils. I know it can't. It's always safest, all round, to do as He bids us."

"Now, listen to me, Mary, and I can state to you a very clear argument, to show--"

"O, nonsense, John! You can talk all night, but you wouldn't do it. I put it to you, John,--would you now turn away a poor, shivering, hungry creature from your door, because he was a runaway? Would you, now?"

This continues a bit, then ends in this way:

"Mary! Mary! My dear, let me reason with you."

"I hate reasoning, John,--especially reasoning on such subjects. There's a way you political folks have of coming round and round a plain right thing; and you don't believe in it yourselves, when it comes to practice. I know you well enough, John. You don't believe it's right any more than I do; and you wouldn't do it any sooner than I."

Mary, it seems, knows her husband well, because the senator goes on shortly afterward to break the law for which he had voted. The reason is clear:

Our good senator in his native state had not been exceeded by any of his brethren at Washington, in the sort of eloquence which has won for them immortal renown! How sublimely he had sat with his hands in his pockets, and scouted all sentimental weakness of those who would put the welfare of a few misrable fugitives before great state interests!

He was as bold as a lion about it, and "mightily convinced" not only himself, but everybody that heard him;--but then his idea of a fugitive was only an idea of the letters that spell the word,--or, at the most, the image of a little newspaper picture of a man with a stick and bundle, with "Ran away from the subscriber" under it. The magic of the real presence of distress,--the imploring human eye, the frail trembling human hand, the desparing appeal of helpless agony,--these he had never tried.

Face-to-face with reality, the reasoning, the 'extensive views', elaborate reasoning about the public interest, all fall away like the cobwebs they are, leaving the bare truth that the senator had known all along. As Mary had put it, all this senatorial deliberation, this bandying of arguments, was just a way of "coming round and round a plain right thing."

This question of when to stop balancing further arguments is an important ethical problem. Paradoxical as it may seem, there does appear to be a point after which further reasoning on a point is virtually bound to mire you in sophistries. However, we also clearly face the problem of distinguishing between accepting "a plain right thing" and straightforward irrational prejudice, and the line is much more difficult to draw clearly than one might think, because it is exactly the same problem as how to see clearly the "plain right thing", so that it brooks no further reasoning, without betraying reason in the process. That it can be done is seen in real-life cases that are similar to the fictional case of Senator and Mary Bird.

Stowe actually takes some trouble to deal with this problem. One part of her solution, as becomes very explicit in the last chapter, is for people to do more than denounce the evil of others: they must also look to the evil in themselves. This is reflected throughout the book. Stowe's novel is not a tirade against Southerners. As she notes, she was attempting to show Southerners not merely at the worst but also at their best, and in cases like the St. Clares she does a fair job of it. Further, she takes quite a few jabs, some blatantly sarcastic and some more subtle, at the racist prejudices found among Northerners -- indeed, even among Northern abolitionists, some of whom could talk benevolently and at great length of the slave's right to be treated as a human being as long as it were abstract, but who would shrink from being touched by a real slave.

A further part of her solution is sympathy. As she says in a striking passage toward the end of the novel:

But, what can any individual do? Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do,--they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or ar ethey swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?

Such a solution still leaves questions (e.g., about determining what is the "just" feeling). But it's clear that it goes some way toward dealing with the question. It requires self-critique and comparison of oneself with the moral ideal, explicitly and deliberately asking yourself whether you are being "swayed and perverted" by sophistries, and things like this.

And perhaps that's the best that could be said on this. But whether there's more to be said or not, this is a problem no one, whatever their walk of life, can reasonably choose to ignore.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Mother of Heresies

Here again he hints that strife and party-spirit, love of rule and presumptousness, had been the causes of their error, for the desire of rule is the mother of heresies. By saying, "Be servants one to another," he shows that the evil had arisen from this presumptuous and arrogant spirit, and therefore he applies a corresponding remedy. As your divisions arose from your desire to domineer over each other, "serve one another;" thus will ye be reconciled again. However, he does not openly express their fault, but he openly tells them its corrective, that through this they may become aware of that; as if one were not to tell an immodest person of his immodesty, but were continually to exhort him to chastity. He that loves his neighbor as he ought, declines not to be servant to him more humbly than any servant. As fire, brought into contact with wax, easily softens it, so does the warmth of love dissolve all arrogance and presumption more powerfully than fire. Wherefore he says not, "love one another," merely, but, "be servants one to another," thus signifying the intensity of the affection. When the yoke of the Law was taken off them that they might not caper off and away another was laid on, that of love, stronger than the former, yet far lighter and pleasanter.

John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians

(HT: Wilson in the comments at verbum ipsum)

Mark Twain on Je-ne-sais-quoi

Reasoning--especially reasoning, without technical knowledge--must be put aside, in cases of this kind. It cannot assist the inquirer. It will lead him, in the most logical progression, to what, in the eyes of artists, would be a most illogical conclusion. Thus: bad drawing, bad proportion, bad perspective, indifference to truthful detail, color which gets its merit from time, and not from the artist--these things constitute the Old Master; conclusion, the Old Master was a bad painter, the Old Master was not an Old Master at all, but an Old Apprentice. Your friend the artist will grant your premises, but deny your conclusion; he will maintain that notwithstanding this formidable list of confessed defects, there is still a something that is divine and unapproachable about the Old Master, and that there is no arguing the fact away by any system of reasoning whatsoever.

I can believe that. There are women who have an indefinable charm in their faces which makes them beautiful to their intimates, but a cold stranger who tried to reason the matter out and find this beauty would fail. He would say of one of these women: This chin is too short, this nose is too long, this forehead is too high, this hair is too red, this complexion is too pallid, the perspective of the entire composition is incorrect; conclusion, the woman is not beautiful. But her nearest friend might say, and say truly, "Your premises are right, your logic is faultless, but your conclusion is wrong, nevertheless; she is an Old Master--she is beautiful, but only to such as know her; it is a beauty which cannot be formulated, but it is there, just the same.

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, Chapter 48.

Of course, strictissimo modo, it can't be the case that the premises are right and the logic faultless but the conclusion wrong; however, if we are using 'logic' in a looser sense (which we usually do), it's a reasonable claim: the premises are good -- as far as they go -- the argument is reasonable -- as far as it goes -- but something is missing. It's interesting to compare this to something Hume says about je-ne-sais-quoi:

Besides all those qualities, which render a person lovely or valuable, there is also a certain je-ne-sçais-quoi of agreeable and handsome, that concurs to the same effect. In this case, as well as in that of wit and eloquence, we must have recourse to a certain sense, which acts without reflection, and regards not the tendencies of qualities and characters. [Treatise]

In other words, je-ne-sais-quoi is not discovered by reasoning (e.g., about 'tendencies of qualities and characters', i.e., utility) but by a sense of the agreeable, 'which acts without reflection'; from a a Humean perspective, this is what is missing from the sort of reasoning Twain notes: the cultivated sense or taste that discovers this indefinable quality of agreeableness.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Evening Note for Wednesday, April 5th

I watched Die Another Day for the first time today. Not great, but I'd watch it again for Rosamund Pike. I was wondering the entire time where I had seen her before; of course, she was in Doom, which I saw this weekend. In fact, I've been seeing a lot of movies, TV, DVD, and theater. I saw Dreamer and The 40-year-old Virgin this past weekend (expect something on the latter when I have the time to get around to it) and today I saw The Pink Panther in the theater (parts clunked, but other parts were funnier than I thought they would be).

Speaking of Ms. Pike. It turns out she's a good half-year younger than I am; which surprised me because she looks older than that in both movies. That's not an insult, by any means, since Pike looks stunning, and it's part of what makes her so (I've seen pictures of her where she looks much younger, and they aren't very flattering). But it appears to be impossible to express this point in American English in such a way that it does not sound like an insult.

Links Worth Noting:
* Motivated Cognition in Relationships at "Mixing Memory"
* Because I've been out and about, I forgot to link to the History Carnival. So here it is:
History Carnival 28 at "Patahistory"
* There has been some interesting discussion of Steve Fuller around the blogs that I never got a chance to mention, due to his article at Crooked Timber. See Fuller on Mooney on Science, Evaluating Scientific Credibility, and Journalism, Science, Politics, and Choosing Sides at "Adventures in Ethics" for intelligent discussion of the issues, with some great comment threads.

Currently Reading:
Balzac, Droll Stories
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Evening Note for Tuesday, April 4th

Thought for the evening:

One of the greatest difficulties I've found in discussing history of philosophy with people who aren't in that field is overcoming the tendency to see arguments entirely in terms of their utility. That is, people seem to have difficulty seeing how one could evaluate an argument positively, enthusiastically, without accepting it. (This problem is not confined to people outside of HoP. I cannot count the number of times that someone in philosophy has assumed that because I'm rather enthusiastically positive about certain of Malebranche's more unusual moves that I agree with them. Needless to say, this is an illicit assumption.) But philosophical arguments shouldn't be seen as mere tools; they should also be seen as works of art, to be appreciated (or not) in their own right. In philosophical arguments we see the traces of the living operation of the human inellect, struggling with the biggest issues of all; and that is a wondrous thing. Good history of philosophy, like good philosophy itself, starts with a sense of wonder -- in this case, a sense of wonder at what the mind hath wrought. A sign of this sense of wonder is the ability to appreciate a philosophical position without having to argue that it is right.

This is not to say, of course, that whether it is right or not is unimportant. Indeed, it is the most important thing about the argument itself. But that is not what history of philosophy studies, at least primarily; HoP studies the courses of the mind at its best -- even when wrong. There is much to be learned about what is correct and what is not from studying brilliant error as well as truth. But no one can get so far without first appreciating the fact that some erroneous arguments are brilliant and beautiful, and worthy of a moment's time even if only for that fact.

Links worth noting:
Who is my neighbor? at "verbum ipsum"
Fine-tuning, Coarse-tuning, and Design Arguments at "Fides Quaerens Intellectum"

Currently Reading:
Honoré de Balzac, Droll Stories.
Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad.

Where does he live?

Here is a book of the most succulent flavor, a book full of highly attractive diversions, a book spiced to the liking of the same most illustrious tipplers and most bibbers to whom Francois Rabelais, the eternal glory of Touraine, addressed his writings. Not that the Author presumes to be anything more than a good son of Touraine or to do more than gaily chronicle such high sport as amused the eminent people living in this fertile, pleasurable land. Ah, what a land it is! Richer in cuckolds, in bloods and in jokesmiths than any other on earth, with what a number of famous men it has fournished France! There is for instance the late Courier, of piquant memory, and Verville, author of The Way to Success, and what a host of others, equally illustrious! Nor, amid the latter, can we forbear from naming the Sieur Descartes, because he was a melancholy genius; because he cultivated the pale Muse of thought rather than wine and high fare; because the victuallers and pastry cooks of Tours hold him in just horror, refuse to acknowledge him or hear of him, and, if his name be spoken, shrug their shoulders and ask: "Where does he live?"

--Balzac, Droll Stories. Le Clercq, tr. Heritage Press (1939) p. 1.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Evening Note for Monday, April 3rd

Still visiting family. It looks like I'll be able to post fairly regularly; but I won't have time in the near future for any long posts.

Currently reading: Honoré de Balzac's Droll Stories

A Poem Draft

Fragmentary Hauntings

this river of blood stout men have shed
it flows in waves above the dead
bone-filled graves bereft of breath
forgotten through the blight of death
the bones are bleached where souls were bled

the guilty rise; in tongues they speak
of death who walks the earth to reap
and hunt our souls with bow of yew
that cannot fail and flies so true
it hits the victim that it seeks

forth the arrow -- straight it flew
to snip the flower in its dew
to strike strong men as still as stones
they fall and vanish with ghastly moans
they fail and fall and die anew

silver queen on a silver throne
made of bleached and burning bone
singing songs among the dead
of star-crossed men to demons wed
the specters hear, but weep alone