Friday, August 04, 2006

Wisdom from Hilary of Poitiers

It is manifest that there is nothing which men have ever said which is not liable to opposition. Where the will dissents the mind also dissents: under the bias of opposing judgment it joins battle, and denies the assertions to which it objects. Though every word we say be incontrovertible if gauged by the standard of truth, yet so long as men think or feel differently, the truth is always exposed, to the cavils of opponents, because they attack, under the delusion of error or prejudice, the truth they misunderstand or dislike. For decisions once formed cling with excessive obstinacy: and the passion of controversy cannot be driven from the course it has taken, when the will is not subject to the reason. Enquiry after truth gives way to the search for proofs of what we wish to believe; desire is paramount over truth. Then the theories we concoct build themselves on names rather than things the logic of truth gives place to the logic of prejudice: a logic which the will adjusts to defend its fancies, not one which stimulates the will through the understanding of truth by the reason. From these defects of partisan spirit arise all controversies between opposing theories. Then follows an obstinate battle between truth asserting itself, and prejudice defending itself: truth maintains its ground and prejudice resists. But if desire had not forestalled reason: if the understanding of the truth had moved us to desire what was true: instead of trying to set up our desires as doctrines, we should let our doctrines dictate our desires; there would be no contradiction of the truth, for every one would begin by desiring what was true, not by defending the truth of that which he desired.

Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book X

'Author of Sin'

Rebecca has a great discussion of the theological argument-stopper, "That makes God the author of sin." I particularly liked the discussion of Jonathan Edwards's comments on the subject. While they don't use these words, I have seen papers in which philosophers of religion make the same type of equivocation she notes (e.g., by saying, "this makes God the cause of morally bad states of affairs".) That God is (in some sense) a cause of sin doesn't automatically make God a sinner; He can only be a sinner if the way He causes it is itself sinful, as Rebecca rightly notes.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

"Look upwards and share the wonders I've seen"

You scored as Moya (Farscape). You are surrounded by muppets. But that is okay because they are your friends and have shown many times that they can be trusted. Now if only you could stop being bothered about wormholes.

Moya (Farscape)


Babylon 5 (Babylon 5)


SG-1 (Stargate)


Deep Space Nine (Star Trek)


Galactica (Battlestar: Galactica)


Millennium Falcon (Star Wars)


Nebuchadnezzar (The Matrix)


Enterprise D (Star Trek)


Andromeda Ascendant (Andromeda)


Serenity (Firefly)


FBI's X-Files Division (The X-Files)


Bebop (Cowboy Bebop)


Your Ultimate Sci-Fi Profile II: which sci-fi crew would you best fit in? (pics)
created with

A bit surprising, and I think I would rather have had Babylon 5 or SG-1, but I can see it.

The Electoral College and the Sense of the People

Via Majikthise I found this article on recent efforts by certain New York legislators to put forward legislation that would give New York's Electoral College votes to the winner of the nation's plurality vote. Unlike Lindsey, I think this is a horrible idea, one based on a clearly false idea, namely, that the Electoral College system is somehow 'broken'. (In fact, whenever people talk about its being broken, what they actually point to for evidence is state election laws. For instance, the reason for the 2000 fiasco has a lot to do with the inability of Florida, for the second time in its history, to figure out what its own election laws require. But state election laws will not disappear or magically become sensible without the Electoral College.) What is more, it violates the whole principle of putting the voting power in an elected college rather than in the state legislature. The Founding Fathers considered giving the legislatures the power to vote; they rejected it in favor of the Electoral College, according to Hamilton, because (1) in an election you need to have the sense of the people of the state, at the point in time of the election, involved in choosing those who decide how the votes will be applied; (2) in case anything strange happens -- for instance, close election or suspicious numbers, or proof of foreign tampering -- you need to have people chosen for their discernment in charge of handling it, rather than a pre-established formula, because you need to have an election system that can handle the unexpected. What the proposed bill would do is demolish both: the legislators of New York are proposing to take the sense of the people of New York out of the distribution of New York's votes altogether, and determine it by a pre-existing rule having little to do with how people in New York vote.

There are many things that could be said about whether our President should be directly elected or (as the President currently is) indirectly elected by a representative college of electors. But it should not be noted that the bill proposed in New York (and each of the similar bills proposed elsewhere) is not a bill for direct election, as it is sometimes treated in the press. To do that they would have to start the process for constitutional amendment. What they are proposing to do instead is to reduce the say of New Yorkers in determining New York's Electoral College vote. Mr. Thiele, who argues that New York is taken for granted, has decided, apparently, to remedy the situation by taking the voters of New York for granted and letting their voice be outweighed in the use of their own Electoral College votes by those of people from other states. Dr. Koza's claim that the Electoral College is the cause of issue distortion suggests he's never looked at how issues get distorted in nations that don't have an Electoral College (like Canada, which has a parliamentary rather than an electoral college system, and whose 2004 election saw the West and the East largely ignored in favor of courting votes in Ontario in order to force a shift in government). It's votes being up for grabs, not the system itself, that creates 'issue distortion'; and there is no voting system in which there aren't votes up for grabs. What Koza calls 'issue distortion' is really just campaigning. One of the nice things about the Electoral College system is that it guarantees that the battleground states (as far as the Electoral College goes) change over time as the populations do, and requires that the state be the focus, and not just its more concentrated population centers.

The Hillbilly Thomist

Today is apparently the 42nd anniversary of Flannery O'Connor's death. Amy Welborn has a lot of links for O'Connor fans. (H/t: Dappled Things)

One of the keys to O'Connor's fiction, I think, is stated by herself at one point: "In my stories a reader will find that the devil accomplishes a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective." Grace uses the imperfect, even the bad, to accomplish great things.

Wisdom from Peter Maurin

The following are from Peter Maurin's Easy Essays.

Politics Is Politics

A politician is an artist
in the art of following the wind
of public opinion.

He who follows the wind
of public opinion
does not follow
his own judgement.

And he who does not follow
his own judgement
cannot lead people
out of the beaten path.

He is like the tail of a dog
that tries to lead the head.

When people stand behind their president
and their president
stands behind them
they and their president
go around in a circle
getting nowhere.

World War - 1914

As President Wilson said,
the World War
was a commercial war.

But a commercial war
had to be idealized,
so it was called
a War for Democracy.

But the War for Democracy
did not bring Democracy:
it brought
Bolshevism in Russia,
Fascism in Italy,
Nazism in Germany.

You can find more 'Easy Essays' online at The Catholic Worker.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Superstition in Churchgoers

By way of Ophelia Benson, I came across this rather silly article. As Benson notes, the following claim is rather absurd:

Through the Dark and Middle Ages, anyone suspected of using traditional charms to secure good or bad luck for themselves or others would usually be burnt at the stake or drowned. The victims were nearly always women.

Given how widespread charms were during the Middle Ages this is pretty clearly false. Also, one thing that isn't made clear in the article which pretty clearly should be is the methodology of the survey. Were they asking people, "Is walking under a ladder unlucky?" or "Do you believe that walking under a ladder is unlucky?" or "Have you ever crossed your fingers for luck?" Was it a telephone survey or some other type? The survey was conducted entirely among Anglicans in Wales, so it doesn't seem one can draw the general principle that churchgoers are superstitious (and since there seems to have been no group of non-churchgoers studied, we can't even say that Anglican Welsh churchgoers are more superstitious than non-churchgoing Welsh). This may be one for the StatGuy to look at. In light of it all the conclusion attributed to the authors (which, as always with reporting on any scientific or statistical work, I assume is a misattribution until I see otherwise, particularly given that some of Francis's other work seems at first glance to be done well) seems rather amusing:

In the paper, to be published in the Journal of Implicit Religion, the authors say that the findings contradict the hypothesis that Christian teaching precludes superstitious beliefs.

Given that 'precludes' usually means 'makes impossible', that wasn't much of a hypothesis, since no one has ever claimed it as a remote possibility; if understood as 'generally prevents', the evidence doesn't support the conclusion. Benson, of course, wonders about how one would draw a non-arbitrary line between religion and superstition; to which the natural answer seems to be that it would probably be in one of the ways people have been doing for centuries. Certainly Aquinas's discussions of religion and superstition are accessible, as is Hume's discussion of superstition in his essays. Both discussions, despite their differences, have the merit of being more precise and less tendentious than most contemporary discussion of superstition. Benson might even like Hume's take, which develops an account of superstition congenial to her views without making the mistake of assuming that all religious are superstitious.

History Carnival XXXVI

The thirty-sixth History Carnival is up at "Clews: The Historic True Crime Blog". I particularly want to emphasize that you should go and see, because Laura James managed to put together a good carnival in the absence of any nominations.

P.S. Oh, and I don't know how I could have forgotten to mention it (apparently I need to get back into the habit of paying more attention to carnivals again), but the newest edition of Carnivalesque is also up. It's an ancient/medieval edition at "Xoom". I especially liked this post on sixth-century Chinese essay writing at "Frog in a Well". This discussion of chryselephantine was also interesting; although (admittedly) I mention it in part because I've always liked the word 'chryselephantine'.

Demolishing Your Enemies Without Raising Your Voice

Florence King gives us a basic lesson in lethal civility at National Review, by taking down Ann Coulter. With a stiletto rather than a sledgehammer.

As the 'Sicilian' proverb goes: The only real way to win an argument is to put your thumb on the blade and thrust upwards. The ideal is to find that one smooth motion that strikes to the heart of the matter, not to pound at the other side (and, inevitably, be pounded back).

Monday, July 31, 2006

Sterne on Evil Speaking

At First Things, Anthony Sacramone comments on the cinematization of Tristram Shandy, giving an extensive selection from Sterne's sermon "Evil Speaking".

For those interested in sermons by Sterne, one of Sterne's sermons on self-deception ("Hezekiah and the Messengers") is up at Houyhnhnm Land. It was perhaps Sterne's crowning sermon, delivered at the Ambassador's Chapel in Paris before an audience that included Diderot, d'Holbach, and David Hume. One wonders what such an audience thought of it.

Most of his sermons, though, were delivered at St. Michael's in Coxwold, where he was vicar. Sterne's Coxwold has some pictures and comments on the area.

Hulga and Malebranche

From Flannery O'Connor's short story, "Good Country People":

She was brilliant but she didn't have a grain of sense. It seemed to Mrs. Hopewell that every year she grew less like other people and more like herself--bloated, rude, and squint-eyed. And she said such strange things! To her own mother she had said--without warming, without excuse, standing up in the middle of a meal with her face purple and her mouth half full--"Woman! do you ever look inside? Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!" she had cried sinking down again and staring at her plate, "Malebranche was right: we are not our own light. We are not our own light!" Mrs. Hopewell had no idea to this day what brought that on. She had only made the remark, hoping Joy would take it in, that a smile never hurt anyone.

The girl had taken in a Ph.D. in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss. You could say, "My daughter is a nurse," or "My daughter is a schoolteacher," or even, "My daughter is a chemical engineer." You could not say, "My daughter is a philosopher." That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans. All day Joy sat on her neck in a deep chair, reading. Sometimes she went for walks but she didn't like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men. She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.

Malebranche does indeed insist that we are not our own light. In saying this Malebranche is actually quoting Augustine, and it turns out to be perhaps his favorite quotation. It comes up repeatedly in the long dispute with Arnauld, because from Malebranche's perspective (although, of course, not from Arnauld's), Arnauld is denying Augustine's dictum by denying Malebranche's claim that we see all things in God.

I don't know how much O'Connor knew about Malebranche, but this scene is beautifully done. There is a lot of irony in Joy's (or, to use the name she prefers, Hulga's) reference to Malebranche here. Malebranche, of course, has a thoroughly theistic metaphysics and epistemology; when he is quoting this line from Augustine (who is making a point about our metaphysical dependence on God in our ability to know), he is making a thoroughly theistic point. But Hulga, of course, is an atheist and nihilist. Nonetheless, her description here, if taken in a literal way she didn't intend, describes Malebranche's point to a T. "Do you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!" The last bit is clearly just a cry of exasperation; but the whole thing describes a good portion of Malebranche's argument, which is that when we look in side we see that we are not God, we are not a light to ourselves; it is in His light that we see light. But of course, she is making the opposite point, that we are nothing, that there is nothing to believe in, the sort of thing O'Connor has her reading in the book that strikes simple Mrs. Hopewell as an "evil incantation:

One day Mrs. Hopewell had picked up one of the books the girl had just put down,and opening it at random, she read, "Science, on the other hand, has to assert ist soberness and seriousness afresh and declare that it is concerned solely with what-is. Nothing--how can it be for science anything but a horror and a phantasm? If science is right,t hen one thing stands firm: science wishes to know nothing of nothing. Such is after all the strictly scientific approach to Nothing. We know it by wishing to know nothing of Nothing."

As she describes herself later on, "I'm one of those people who see through to nothing."

Malebranche has an interesting passage in which he talks about seeing nothing (Search 3.2.8, Lennon-Olscamp 241):

The clear, intimate, and necessary presence of God (i.e., the being without individual restriction, the infinite being, being in general) to the mind of man acts upon it with greater force than the presence of all finite objects. The mind cannot entirely rid itself of this general idea of being, because it cannot subsist outside God....One might well not think about oneself for some time, but it seems to me one cannot subsist a moment without thinking of being, and at the very time that one takes himself to be thinking of nothing, one is necessarily filled with the vague and general idea of being.

As Malebranche says later, "nothingness is neither perceptible nor intelligible" (LO 321); what we call 'nothing' is really just nothing in particular. But nothing in particular is not being-less; it is being in general, without consideration of how it relates to any particulars. And on Malebranche's metaphysics, being in general, as an object of thought, is divine (unrestricted being). So for him, someone who is "seeing through to nothing" is really just seeing being in general in the divine being, without recognizing it as such. In her allusion to Malebranche, Hulga has (without apparently realizing it at all) entangled herself in a rather massive philosophical irony, one that (I hate to use the word, but it'll do) subverts her own nihilism by juxtaposing it with its complementary opposite.

Links and Notables

* At "The Angry Astronomer," there's a good post clearing up a number of common misconceptions about the Big Bang in an accessible way. (H/t: Pharyngula)

* Open theist and pastor Greg Boyd has been getting into the right type of political trouble, losing members of his congregation due to his view on Christianity in politics. (H/t: A Blog Around the Clock) His view on Christianity in politics is that Christians should be like Christ. Apparently that doesn't play among some Christians quite as well as one might assume. Admittedly, Boyd does say a few controversial things here and there, but nothing that justifies leaving the church (or the verbal reactions of some of those who did). (You can find the culprit sermons mentioned in the article here, and information about the book mentioned here.)

* Who knew that the question of whether we must tip coffee shop baristas was of pressing philosophical concern? But it turns out to raise all sorts of issues that are being discussed in detail at FQI and Think Tonk.

* Thomas Nagel's classic 1972 essay, War and Massacre. (H/t: verbum ipsum)

* One of the glories of YouTube is that you can see things you never would otherwise see: you can watch a 1941 film on Solemn High Mass, narrated by none other than Fulton Sheen. (h/t: Mirabilis, via Dappled Things) Because of size restrictions, it cuts off about twenty minutes (it's still 54 minutes long), and due to deterioration, the credits and captions had to undergo reconstruction; but other than that, it's a bit of a window into Catholic life sixty-five years ago.

* Johnny-Dee gives advice to philosophy students applying to grad school.

* Without doing any research or rereading, answering all the questions, and taking the test in fifteen minutes, I got 218.94 points out of 316.84 at Barliman's Tolkien Test. Of course, I also made a few mistakes that in retrospect were rather stupid. In any case, can you beat my score?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Doctors of the Church

In the Catholic calendar, today is the memorial for Peter of Ravenna, the Chrysologus, who is legendary for his sermons. I don't really have much to say about Peter Chrysologus himself, but I thought I'd say something about the title 'Doctor of the Church', which is an official honor bestowed by the Catholic Church on theologians whose teaching ('Doctor' here means 'Teacher') has been of special importance for the universal Church. In particular, the requirements are (1) sanctity of life; (2) excellence of teaching; and (3) a surviving body of writings that can be recommended to the faithful generally. It's also usually understood, although it's not required, that the saint not be a martyr. 'Martyr' is liturgically a title of higher rank than Doctor; so the title 'Doctor of the Church' is usually given only where there is teaching to be recognized that can't be placed under the title 'Martyr'. However, martyrs are sometimes more informally called doctors of the Church when they meet the other requirements -- Irenaeus being the most common example. There is also an intermediary state in which a saint is allowed the title for a particular region. The theologians who have received the title 'Doctor of the Church' thus far, arranged by the years of their death (sometimes approximate) and the year they were given the title in parentheses:

368 Hilary of Poitiers (1851)
373 Athanasius
373 Ephrem the Syrian (1920)
379 Basil of Caesarea
387 Cyril of Jerusalem (1883)
390 Gregory Nazianzen
397 Ambrose of Milan
407 John Chrysostom
420 Jerome
430 Augustine
444 Cyril of Alexandria (1883)
450 Peter Chrysologus (1729)
461 Leo the Great (1754)
604 Gregory the Great
636 Isidore of Seville (1722)
735 The Venerable Bede (1899)
749 John Damascene (1883)

1072 Peter Damian (1828)
1109 Anselm (1720)
1153 Bernard of Clairvaux (1830)
1231 Anthony of Padua (1946)
1274 Thomas Aquinas (1568)
1274 Bonaventure (1588)
1280 Albert the Great (1931)
1379 Catherine of Siena (1970)

1582 Teresa of Avila (1970)
1591 John of the Cross (1926)
1597 Peter Canisius (1925)
1619 Lawrence of Brindisi (1959)
1621 Robert Bellarmine (1931)
1622 Francis de Sales (1877)
1787 Alphonsus Liguori (1871)
1897 Therese of Lisieux (1997)

It is notable that there are two breaks in the list, in which a long period passes (323 and 203 respectively): one between the Patristic era and the Medieval, and the other between the Medieval era and the Post-Medieval era. This has a lot to do with the historical facts of the first seven Ecumenical Councils, the rise of the mendicant orders, and the Counter-Reformation. So the people that have been recognized as the great theologians of the Church tend to cluster around crises. The reason I haven't given some of the Doctors years of declaration is that these were the original ones: their status as Doctors of the Church grew up slowly as a matter of liturgy, and the title is not so much given to them as extended from them. But the title solidifies for them at some point in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. Because of the split between East and West there are no Eastern Doctors after Damascene, making eight in total. There are three Carmelites (Teresa, John of the Cross, and Therese), two Jesuits (Canisius and Bellarmine), three Dominicans (Thomas, Albert, Catherine), three Franciscans (Anthony, Bonaventure, Lawrence), one Redemptorist (Liguori), and five Benedictines (Isidore [it is thought], Bede, Anselm, Bernard, Peter Damian).

Lewis Carroll Logic Puzzles

(a) No interesting poems are unpopular among people of real taste.
(b) No modern poetry is free from affectation [i.e., unaffected].
(c) All your poems are on the subject of soap-bubbles.
(d) No affected poetry is popular among people of real taste.
(e) No ancient poem is on the subject of soap-bubbles.

What is the conclusion of this syllogism?

Carroll's own way to handle this is chains of implication. He establishes a universe of discourse (all poems), and then can take each of the terms in the argument and put it in a sentence, "It is _____", where 'It' is something in the domain of discourse. He then assigns letters (I = It is interesting, etc.) and works out what each premise and its contrapositive would be:

(a) I → P ; ~P → ~I

and so forth. Then you try to make chains. When you do this you can see clearly that both of these chains are valid:

I → P → ~A → ~M → ~S → ~Y
Y → S → M → A → ~P → ~I

A much easier way to do it, however, once you get the hang of the notation, is the Sommers-Englebretsen term logic. In this notation, No S is P becomes -(+S)-(+)P, All S is P becomes -(+S)+(+P), and each of the terms can be negated independently of the form of the sentence. For instance, No S is non-P becomes -(+S)-(-P). We can collapse the signs just like we do in algebra. So translations for (a) through (e) are (this time the letters are terms, not propositions):

(a) -I-P
(b) -M+A
(c) -Y+S
(d) -A-P
(e) +M-S

To determine the conclusion that validly follows from these premises, we just let negative terms cancel out their positive counterparts. It's obvious that only two terms don't cancel out, -Y and -I. They can be read either as


which says that no interesting poems are poems that are yours, or


which says that no poems that are yours are interesting poems. It's a bit less work and translation than Carroll's method. (I am, however, skipping a brief but important step here, the step of regularity, which guarantees that you cannot get a universal from a premise set with any particular premises or any conclusion from a premise set with more than one particular premise.)

A simpler puzzle, also one of Carroll's:

(a) No ducks waltz.
(b) No officers ever decline to waltz.
(c) All my poultry are ducks.

The Sommers-Englebretsen translations are:

(a) -D-W
(b) -O+W
(c) -P+D

Which leaves us either -O-P or -P-O ('No officers are my poultry', 'None of my poultry are officers').

Some to try at home:

(a) No shark ever doubts that he is well fitted out.
(b) A fish, that cannot dance a minuet, is contemptible.
(c) No fish is quite certain that it is well fitted out, unless it has three rows of teeth.
(d) All fishes, except sharks, are kind to children.
(e) No heavy fish can dance a minuet.
(f) A fish with three rows of teeth is not to be despised.

(a) The only animals in this house are cats.
(b) Every animal is suitable for a pet, that loves to gaze at the moon.
(c) When I detest an animal, I avoid it.
(d) No animals are carnivorous, unless they prowl at night.
(e) No cat fails to kill mice.
(f) No animals ever take to me, except what are in this house.
(g) Kangaroos are not suitable for pets.
(h) None but carnivora kill mice.
(i) I detest animals that do not take to me.
(j) Animals, that prowl at night, always love to gaze at the moon.

Finally, Some Recognition

How well do you know the world of Tolkien?

WISEST OF ALL BEINGS-To you, the world of Tolkien is the real world, and you have familiarized yourself with it. Are you sure you're not a foreigner from Middle-earth?
Take this quiz!

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(HT: Parableman) Although it looks like most of the people geeky enough to take this quiz are geeky enough to get this result.