Saturday, July 08, 2006


It is good to be present when the ordinary is trans­formed; when the dull plain garments of a peasant become shining white, and the obscure “mountain place, apart,” comes into the gaze of centuries. It is good to see the commonplace illumined and the glory of the common people revealed. On the Mount of Transfiguration there is no representative of wealth, social rank or official position. The place could boast in the way of population only four poor men, mem­bers of a despised race, and of the remnant of a sub­jected and broken nation. But it is here, instead of Jerusalem or Rome, that the voice of God is heard. It is here, instead of Mount Moriah, where the mighty temple stands, that the cloud of glory hovers. Out there where a carpenter and three fishermen kept vigil with the promise of a new day, God is a Living Reality and life is charged with meaning and radi­ance. Out there in a deserted place, the meek and lowly is enhaloed.

Vernon Johns, "Transfigured Moments"

That Seductive Psychosis of Resemblances

How gullible are you? What kind of anti-Catholic novel would be most likely to reel you in?

You are most gullible when it comes to CONSPIRACY THEORY NOVELS and other challenges to history as we know it. There is just something so convincing about the way writers in the Thriller genre analyse for you what really happened during historical events you've never even heard of before. These are likely also historical events you will never bother to study on your own afterwards. Yet there is more evidence that the authors of these novels, rather than the smug powers that be, are the ones banking on your ignorance and your willingness to believe anything you are told. Why not get a clue and find yourself something written by a reputable historian? It won't have the page-turning suspense, the stunning plot twists and the torrid romances, but it's the truth you're really interested in anyway, right?
Take this quiz!

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Original Sin

And yet, Dom Paulo's own Faith told him that the burden was there, had been there since Adam's time--and the burden imposed by a fiend crying in mockery, "Man!" at man. "Man!"--calling each to account for the deeds of all since the beginning;a burden impressed upon every generation before the opening of the womb, the burden of the guilt of original sin. Let the fool dispute it. The same fool with great delight accepted the other inheritance--the inheritance of ancestral glory, virtue, triumph, and dignity which rendered him "courageous and noble by reason of birthright," without protesting that he personally had done nothing to earn that inheritance beyond being born of the race of Man. The protest was reserved for the inherited burden which rendered him "guilty and outcast by reason of birthright," and against that verdict he strained to close his ears.

From Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s classic science fiction work, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Musing on Witherspoon

Jonathan Rowe at "Positive Liberty" has a good post on John Witherspoon, in which he points to Roger Kimball's article on Witherspoon. I'm pleased to see that Kimball notes the importance of Hutcheson for Witherspoon's "Lectures of Moral Philosophy," and that he at least touches on the likely suggestion that Witherspoon's populism had perhaps as much to do with his Evangelical partisanship as his political philosophy. (The Evangelical Party of the Church of Scotland were also called the Popular Party because they believed that ministers should be elected by congregations; they opposed the Moderate Party, who argued for the patronage system. Around this core distinction there grew additional distinguishing features -- e.g., the Calvinism of the Evangelicals was more conservative and Puritan-like, while the Calvinism of the Moderates was more liberal and Anglican-like.) I'm also pleased to see he notes Witherspoon's hand in passing on Scottish common-sense realism to Princeton. As Rowe notes, Kimball reads too much into Madison's vague comments on religious matters; although, following Berns, I think he overestimates the degree to which Witherspoon is Lockean. It would be surprising if Witherspoon had never read Locke; but there's reason to think that Hutcheson was a far more serious influence.

Further, Witherspoon was a conservative participant in the Scottish Englightenment; like almost every major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment (the most important exceptions being Hume and Smith, who were only nominally Presbyterian), he was a Calvinist, and like every other Evangelical he was a very serious Calvinist. To make some of the claims Rowe makes in the discussion thread he links to, we would need to be able to make a sharp distinction between the basic principles of the Scottish Enlightenment and the way educated Calvinists of the Scottish Enlightenment understood Calvinism and the Bible. I see no evidence that we can do so, although it is a subject that needs more research. Witherspoon is not a 'mediator' between Enlightenment philosophers and Christian theology, because the Enlightenment he was acquainted with was not set over against Christian theology as something requiring such a mediation. This seems typical of most of the major Presbyterians of the Scottish Enlightenment -- Reid, Campbell, Beattie, and the like. If 'mediation' just means that they can carry both labels, that's right; but the fact that there are two labels doesn't mean that there is any sharp division between the two. One is a loose set of family resemblances among thinkers geographically and chronologically linked; the other is a living tradition. Since the labels are of completely different sorts, it doesn't seem possible to distinguish principles as Scottish Enlightenment principles rather than principles of eighteenth-century Scottish Calvinism.

Of course, Rowe is right that none of this implies that the Declaration of Independence, or anything that followed is intrinsically Calvinist; only that it is all such that a Witherspoon, i.e., well-educated conservative Calvinist from Scotland, could enthusiastically support it.

Fogelin's A Defense of Hume on Miracles

I intended to write a quick review of Fogelin's A Defense of Hume on Miracles last week, but I became distracted first by the relevant discussion at FQI, and then by being out of town. So here's a basic version, without much development. (You can read the essay Fogelin is defending here.)

The primary flaw in this work is that it is far too skimpy to do what it claims to do. As a defense of Hume on miracles it is very limited -- he only considers a few criticisms, and doesn't look at them in much detail. In the Introduction, Fogelin says that he wants "to show that Hume's treatment of miracles, when properly understood, exhibits a level of richness, subtlety, coherence, and force not generally appreciated" (p. 3). It doesn't really do this, either; it would be more accurate to say that it gestures in the direction of this as a possibility.

That's a pretty big flaw. Nonetheless, I think people interested in this subject need to read it carefully and with an open mind for a couple of reasons.

(1) I think it's clear that Fogelin's treatment is, as far as Hume scholarship goes, the nail in the coffin of the claim that Part I of Hume's essay involves an 'a priori' or 'in princpile' argument against miracles. This came up in the FQI thread, which see. It's not that you can't find evidence to defend the in-principle reading of Part I; Tim McGrew in that thread does an excellent job of pointing out the ways in which it can be a reasonable reading. While reasonable, however, it has never been promising, either in itself or as an interpretation of Hume, and the evidence for it turns out to be much less significant on a closer inquiry than it might appear on first glance. There is no a priori in-principle argument against miracles in Part I. Fogelin overstates the case against this reading on a few points, but he's basically right. There are better ways to interpret Part I.

(2) The most popular criticism of Hume right now is John Earman's Hume's Abject Failure. Fogelin's book provides at least a partial, and a much-needed, counterweight to Earman's criticism, particularly given that there is too much of a tendency to accept Earman's contentions uncritically. Part of what makes me sensitive to this is that the approach is Bayesian, and I am in no way a fan of Bayesian models of non-demonstrative inferences; but even setting this aside, it's a bit disturbing how quickly some people seize on Earman's criticisms.

(3) While more work needs to be done in this direction, Fogelin's discussion of the direct test and the reverse test are a very promising way to look at Hume's discussion of the balance of proof against proof.

Some disappointments, besides the general one noted above:

(1) My most serious criticism is that Fogelin radically underestimates the power of the circularity objection. Not only does he dismiss it too swiftly (particularly for someone providing a defense of Hume on this point), he misdiagnoses its foundation. His idea is that it is based on the supposition that Part I is an in-principle argument. But any serious look at the various formulations of this objection shows that it has nothing whatsoever to do with this. The circularity objection focuses on Hume's problematic claim that there is uniform experience against miracles. This claim is problematic whether Part I is an in-principle argument or not. Fogelin does very little to give us an understanding of what Hume could mean that wouldn't commit him to circularity; his argument against Johnson on this point, for instance, is absurdly underdeveloped, particularly since Johnson appears to be basically right in his understanding of proof versus proof, and that Fogelin nowhere makes clear how his own position differs from Johnson on this own point. All he does is make some vague comments about the relation between Part I and Part II, which are not to the point. (One of the major issues that arose in the FQI discussion is that I think Hume's most famous early critic, George Campbell, puts forward the circularity objection but not the claim that Part I is an in-principle argument; and this ended up being discussed at great length.)

(2) Fogelin's treatment might perhaps have been improved by a more serious examination of how Hume's argument against miracles is supposed to parallel Tillotson's argument against transubstantiation. Since Hume himself claims the parallel, such an examination should be a key part of any serious interpretation of the essay, but Fogelin relegates it to a rather non-conclusive appendix. There is a lot more to be said about the subject, particularly given that Hume's summary of the overall argument in Part II does, in fact, seem broadly similar to claims made by Tillotson in A Discourse Against Transubstantiation. There is no reason to expect that they would be exactly the same, of course, but if Hume thought the parallel significant enough to mention, interpreters should consider it significant enough to take seriously. In particular, any interpretation of the argument of the Essay that can't make room for at least a rough parallel should be subjected to higher standards of proof and evidence than an interpetation that does.

(3) Least importantly, but still noticeably, Fogelin wastes a lot of space complaining about the rhetoric of Hume's critics that could have been spent on serious argument.

[X-posted at Houyhnhnm Land]

Cottingley Fairies

John Lynch of "Stranger Fruit" fame has written the introduction to a new edition of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Coming of the Fairies, on the Cottingley fairies case, one of the most famous cases of fake photographs in history. The introduction looks like it will be a good one, so I thought that I'd provide a link. You can read Doyle's book in an earlier edition online.

People looking back often have difficulty seeing how Doyle could be taken in by photographs like the one above, given that the fairies look so fake, but there's actually very little mystery.

1. As Lynch notes, part of it was due to Doyle's spiritualism, which as it were primed him to things of the sort (although he did not automatically jump on the photograph bandwagon). It's not surprising that he was inclined to believe something that fit so well with his worldview; it's a common human failing.

2. Somewhat less important, but still significant, is that the photographs we usually see, like the one above, are not the original photographs. They are enhanced in order to make the image sharper. The original photographs looked like un-retouched photographs of the time would often have looked -- much fuzzier and lighter than the one that appears above. Of course, when enhanced the fairies look more fake, but this isn't an adequate argument without additional arguments to rule out the possibility that the apparent fakeness is an artifact of the enhancement process -- a somewhat complicated argument no one (as far as I can recall) ever made.

3. Contrary to claims by some uncritical would-be skeptics, the photographic fakery, while not even across all the photographs, was actually fairly good -- the girls had come upon a way to make hoax photographs that was more effective (given the technology of the day) than the common methods at the time. (This is perhaps not surprising; not only was Elsie, at age 16, an excellent artist, she had for her age a considerable amount of experience with the art of photography.) People have a tendency to be anachronistic about technology, forgetting (for example) that it takes much more sophistication to make a plausible fake today than it would have using the photographic technology of the early twentieth century. The photographs of the Cottingley fairies, given the technology of the day, were good enough to puzzle several photographic experts at the time: neither the camera nor the film showed any signs of tampering, the fairies in the picture exhibited features that showed that they were in motion, etc. In other words, the fake photographs are not, strictly speaking, fake photographs, but good (for the most part) photographs of fakes. Simply judging from the photograph there was very little suggest fakery, particularly given that most of the experts were looking only at (probably sharpened) prints of the photograph.

4. Perhaps more interestingly, if you look at the contrary position, the side that at the time thought the photographs an obvious fake, you'll find that the arguments they provide are a very mixed bag; sometimes they are good and sometimes they are very, very poor. Doyle was definitely on the wrong side, but he was by no means the most unreasonable or uncritical person in the argument. Given how poorly reasoned and repetitive some of the naysayers were, its perhaps a bit less surprising that Doyle thought there was little serious argument to be had against the Cottingley fairies. One of the reasons I find this episode in the history of thought so interesting is that it is a crystal clear case of the basic truth that being right and being reasonable are not the same, that merely having the right conclusion doesn't guarantee having a good argument for it. This is a salutary lesson for anyone interested in truth; it's not enough to be right, you have to support being right by good reasoning. Bad reasoning for the right conclusion is as likely to confirm people in the wrong conclusion as anything else; and this is a lesson we should all take away, particularly given how common pseudoscience and falsehood can be.

An interesting project, by the way, would be to look at the debate over Hume's essay on miracles in light of the Cottingley fairies, as a sort of test case for the various positions that have arisen in that debate.

Note on the picture above. The Cottingley fairy pictures are in the public domain in the United States; copyright laws elsewhere are different. Check the copyright laws of your country before saving or hosting any such pictures.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Notes and Links

* The Advertising Slogan Generator (HT: A Blog Around the Clock) tells me that the slogan for Siris should be:

Siris Unscripted

It's catchy. Other slogans it suggested:

This Is Not Your Father's Siris.
Better Living Through Siris.
You Need A Siris.
The Siris of Champions.
The Loudest Noise Comes From The Electric Siris.
Monsieur, with this Siris you are really spoiling us.
The Coolest Siris on Ice.
Siris - Australian for Beer.
Good Siris has Danish written all over it.

Hmm; then this is not Good Siris, because I know not a lick of Danish. And if Siris were Australian for beer, this would be a much more popular weblog. One of my favorites:

Every Kiss Begins With Siris.

* History Carnival XXXIV is up at "Chapati Mystery".

* Philosophers' Carnival XXXII is up at "Adventures in Ethics and Science".

* You can read Lyman Abbott's pleasant little book, Laicus, at Project Gutenberg. I wish more people would read it; although it was written in the nineteenth century, it deals with confusions about churches that American Christians continue to have.

* Hilarious: Umberto Eco and the Bunnymen. I'd like to hear a few of those albums. Errr...that says something about me, doesn't it?

* Mixed Race Twins at (HT: Parableman). It shows how superficial a characteristic apparent race can be; and Jeremy's question at "Parableman" is an interesting one to ask in this context.

* "The Elfin Ethicist" discusses Aquinas on the right to resist governing authorities, even providing a handy flowchart.

* "Triablogue" has put together a 'book' on Reformed philosophy of religion, including sections on the existence of God, the problem of evil, free will and moral responsibility, divine attributes, miracles, faith and religion, religious language, Christian theism and abstracta, Christianity and science, and Christian ethics. Quite a trove here. (HT: Rebecca Writes)

A Draft and a Revision

The first is new, and needs some work; the second is a revision of this draft.

He of the Knotted Whipcords

A poor man and pious
come to pray
stands in the slime of sale,
the merchantry of grasping.
Greed for rote gold
replaces gracious gift.
A cord for a whip is knotted
by a poor man and pious,
a scourge sent forth to scour
spiritual disease.

Thieves take up their shelter
in law-like lies,
hands guilty of grasping,
lusting for lucre;
poor men and pious
and widows mite-poor
devote lives to the guilty,
praise a gracious-good God.
Can a poor man and pious
in the thief-ridden Temple
not take the cord, not take the cause?

Fierce is the zeal for good,
severe with justice,
solid like steel,
an unfailing foundation.
Judgment will come with fire,
but today comes with cord,
the wielded whip of conscience
in a poor man and pious,
scattering tables, purging the court,
creating a house of prayer.

A Texas Hymn

The birds woke me at the sunrise hour
when the grass was dewy and all was pale
beneath the light of a high white star
that spoke the message that all was well.

And I, in the breeze that trickled down
the blades of greenest grass, then wound
around my legs to tickle my feet --
I knew the light, and it was sweet.

When thirsty men drink from flowing spring
they come to life, new-quickened by the source;
so do I, when I hear the morning sing
in bird, in light, in wind in winding course,

and know, as the rolling sun does rise,
a Spirit lives that, as God's own breath,
fills with light the sky and human eyes,
raising even souls like mine from death.

The Pagan-Puritan

Protestantism reacted against the dualism in Roman Catholic ethics which produces asceticism on the one hand and an easy-going connivance with human weakness on the other. It is true that there is a dualism in Roman Catholic ethics, which can develop, let us say, a Cardinal O’Connell on the one hand and a Cardinal Mercier on the other. But Protestantism has a dualism equally grievous, which produces a Cardinal O’Connell and a Cardinal Mercier in the same skin, a pagan and a puritan in one person, whose puritanism becomes an effective anodyne for a conscience not altogether easy in the sins of paganism. If a choice is to be made between monastic and quietistic ethics, surely monastic ethics must be termed the most Christian, for it is better that the world shall be feared than that it be embraced with a good conscience.
Reinhold Niebuhr, "Our Secularized Civilization", 22 April 1926.

I went back to read this essay after reading Andrew Finstuen's The Prophet and the Evangelist at Christianity Today (HT: Cliopatria). It seems to me that much of Niebuhr's critique of Graham is really a continuation of his critique of Protestantism; Graham being, in Niebuhr's view, the sort of Protestant who thinks your typical sort of Protestantism morally adequate. Thus several of Niebuhr's later criticisms of Graham are adumbrated in this early essay. But in reading it, I was particularly struck by the passage noted above, which doesn't have much to do with Graham, but which I think does have a lot to do with American Christianity.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Anselm's Argument

There has been some interesting discussion of Anselm's 'ontological argument' lately. See Anselm, Kant, and What to Do with the Ontological Argument at "Per Caritatem"; Is Anselm's Ontological Argument Ontological? at "Sacramentum Vitae"; and Jottings on the So-Called Ontological Argument at "Assimilatio Dei". I've posted on the argument before; I'll only reiterate my recommendation of Gyula Klima's writings on the subject, as well as the papers of Millican and King that recommended here.

Thomas and Gundaphorus

July 3rd was the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. One of my favorite legends about Thomas is the legend of Thomas and King Gundaphorus. Roughly, it goes like this:

Thomas, traveling with a merchant into India, was brought before Gundaphorus, who asked him his craft. Thomas said that he was a carpenter and a builder, capable of building many things, including palaces for kings. So Gundaphorus asked him to build him a palace. Thomas replied that he would wait for the winter months to build the palace; which amazed Gundaphorus, because everyone else built in the summer. But Thomas insisted, and Gundaphorus gave him a large quantity of money for building the palace, and continued to send him large quantities of money and provisions as the months went by. But Thomas took all the money and provisions he received from Gundaphorus and began dispensing it to the poor.

After a while King Gundaphorus sent a messenger to Thomas, and asked him how the palace was going.

"Everything is built except the roof," Thomas replied. So Gundaphorus sent him gold and silver to roof the palace, and Thomas, thanking God, gave it all to the poor.

After a while the king came to the city and began inquiring of his friends and allies about the palace. They told him that Thomas had done nothing about any palace, but instead had been going about giving large sums of money to the afflicted, healing the sick, and preaching a new God. Needless to say, Gundaphorus was a bit angry and sent for Thomas.

"Have you built me my palace?" he asked.

"Yes," the apostle said.

"Then show it to me," the king said.

Then Thomas shook his head. "You cannot see it now; you will only be able to see it when you have departed from this life."

The king, of course, was exceeding wroth; Thomas was thrown into prison, and Gundaphorus decided that he would flay the apostle alive.

In the meantime the king's brother Gad had become deathly ill and died. The king loved his brother, and with great sorrow made preparations to mourn him. However, as they were putting the burial-clothes on his body, Gad revived. The king was overjoyed and ran to his side.

Then Gad said to Gundaphorus, "Brother, I know your generous heart, and how you would give half your kingdom to anyone asked for my sake; I beg that you grant me one favor."

And Gundaphorus said to Gad, "Ask anything and I will grant it."

Then Gad said, "Brother, sell me your palace in the heavens."

The king was very puzzled by this and asked, "How could I have a palace in the heavens?"

Then Gad told him that when he died, his soul was carried by angels up to the heavens, where they showed him many palaces. At length they approached to one that was particularly beautiful, and Gad had begged the angels to let him live in even the humblest room of this beautiful palace. But the angels shook their heads, saying he could not dwell in that building. It had been built by Thomas for his brother. Then Gad had asked them to let him return to his brother in order to buy the palace from him. And they let him return for this very purpose.

Then Gundaphorus said to his brother, "Brother, it is not in my power to sell you that particular palace. But if you wish to buy such a palace, it is in my power to give you the means to buy it."

So Thomas was set free in order to build a palace for Gad, just like the one he had built for Gundaphorus. The two brothers became Christians and devoted much of their lives to relieving the poor in their dominion; for it is of such stewardship that the best palaces are made.

Pour le Christ et le roi, and a Fiery Gospel

We've gone through an interesting set of holidays. So for July 1st:

Scott Gilbreath has an interesting post on the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada". I confess that I always had something of contempt for the Canadian national anthem; it always seemed to me to be sort of the equivalent of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" -- not a bad song, a bit anthem-like, but containing nothing so impressive as the heavy, doubt-filled worry-hope-triumph of "The Star-Spangled Banner". But I had never really paid much attention to the (original) French, either; and that was an error, because the official French is much, much better than the official English. You can just go through the two and count the ways. To name just one: instead of the vague, generic 'We stand on guard for thee', the French "Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, / Protégera nos foyers et nos droits" is specific -- it's Canadian homes and rights that are being protected; and they are protected by faith-imbued valor.

And for July 4th, the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet;
Our God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Our God is marching on.

There are so many things that are right about this song, I'm always impressed by it. It's triumphalistic, of course, but it subverts all our expectations. It is not we who are marching on -- it is God and truth. Our side is not the foundation of progress -- God's providence progresses whether we are with it or not (it comes like the glory of the morning on the wave, which, if you've ever seen that sight, is the perfect picture of inevitability). We are left not with an assurance of victory but an exhortation to do the right thing. And my favorite part of it all is this: the fiery gospel writ in burnished steel is -- Judge not lest you be judged (As you deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal). And that is exactly right.