Saturday, August 19, 2006

Virtue Theory and Self-Effacement

Simon Keller has an interesting paper called Self-Effacement in Ethical Theory (PDF). It is a common claim that utilitarianisms (or consequentialisms as they are usually called -- somewhat oddly, I always think, because 'utilitarianism' was originally their own label, whereas originally 'consequentialism' was given by opponents as an insult) are self-effacing. Keller defines self-effacement as "if the considerations that it posits in telling that story are not considerations that always should serve as motives for action, according to the theory itself." I don't think this is the best way to do it, because any sufficiently comprehensive ethical theory will discuss lots of issues that no one thinks should be relevant to motivation; but if it is understood narrowly to encompass only considerations that make a moral action good, it's basically right. To say that utilitarianism is self-effacing is to say that what it says makes an action right often can't be a motive for doing that action. So, in other words, being motivated to visit a friend in the hospital simply because it increases the amount of pleasure in the world and reduces the amount of pain is a bizarre and (even most utilitarians would admit) self-defeating motivation. So it's usually held, even by consequentialists, that consequentialism is, or can be, self-effacing; and consequentialists, of course, argue that this is not a bad thing (and sometimes that this is a good thing). It is sometimes argued that deontologism, the view that what makes an action right is its being according to a rule, is also self-effacing; and some virtue theorists argue that virtue theory is not self-effacing, and that, therefore, this is an advantage it has over its rivals. Keller argues that this is not true; not only is virtue theory self-effacing, it is especially problematic in the way it is self-effacing.

His argument is this. Suppose we have three friends, Arthur, Benjamin, and Christine, who have rented the only cabin on a campground. While there, they notice a family of hikers who have been stuck in the rain, who are struggling to put up a tent and who can't light a fire in order to cook any food. So they invite the family in. Each of the three friends has a different motivation, however. Arthur's motivation is "to help out the hikers and relieve their misery." Benjamin's is "to act generously". Christine's is "to do what the fully virtuous person would do." And Arthur, Keller supposes, clearly has the best motivation. It's not that the others have bad motivations -- they are both sincere, and they both clearly have good motivations; but Keller thinks Arthur clearly has the best motivation.

One of the problems with Keller's argument is that it is not at all clear that it is so. If we take the bare motivations, without Keller's commentary (which is arguably tendentious), it isn't clear how their motivations differ in any significant way, at least for this particular case. In sincerely being motivated to act generously, Benjamin would know that this involves helping out the hikers and relieving their misery (otherwise, we'd have no reason to think it would motivate him to this particular action). In sincerely being motivated to act as a fully virtuous person would, Christine knows that this involves helping out the hikers and relieving their misery (for the same reason). So the motivation really appears identical as far as this action is concerned; it's the same motivation under three different descriptions.

Now, it is true that the descriptions are different. But what makes them differ is not what they are motivating someone to do in this case -- which is the same -- but how they place this within a project of moral living. Arthur's motivation, 'to help out the hikers and relieve their misery' has no implications for broader moral life; it is entirely focused on this particular act. Benjamin's motivation, 'to act generously', on the other hand, implies an entire life-project of acting generously, which involves (in cases like the one at hand) helping people and relieving their misery. It is a more sophisticated motivation because, although it doesn't really differ for this particular case, it has implications for Benjamin's wider life. And Christine's motivation, to be a fully virtuous person, is much the same, except that it is one level more sophisticated. It implies an entire life-project of acting virtuously, which includes the entire life-project of acting generously, and includes helping out the hikers and relieving their misery in this particular case. (I have used 'more sophisticated' rather than 'more moral' deliberately. I see no reason to think any of the three friends as having a 'more moral' motivation in this case, because, as I said, the only difference in their motivations is how the immediate motivation, to help out the hikers, relates to their broader, more enduring, motivations. I don't think it is necessary to have the most sophisticated moral motivation in order to be as fully moral as one could demand; what really matters is not sophistication of motivation but consistency in motivation -- but there my virtue-theory inclinations are showing.)

The flaw in Keller's argument is that he assumes that Christine must hold the view that she should act virtuously rather than the view that she should help out the hikers and relieve their misery. But, of course, part of a virtue-theorist's whole point is that not only is the desire to be virtuous a good motivation, it is a meta-motivation that can (and must) subsume other moral motivations. Virtue theory allows for a more powerful and sophisticated theory of moral motivations, and if there's any real problem with self-effacement, it's that it is a sign of weakness in a theory of moral motivation -- the morality of an act and the moral motivation for it become somehow disconnected.

The reason that the desire to be virtuous must subsume other motivations is that the desire to be virtuous is a motivation directed not to this or that particular action, but to one's whole life. It is a motivation that unifies a lot of other motivations -- the motivation to be generous, for instance -- that in turn unify particular-directed moral motivations across time. This is not self-effacement; nothing about this says that acting from the motivation to be virtuous is inconsistent with acting from the motivation to help this particular person in this particular place. In fact, it is explicitly opposite: the motivation to be virtuous is consistent with the motivation to do anything virtuously.

Keller is right that if Christine's motivation to be virtuous does not involve a motivation to help these particular people here and now, that Christine's motivation is not as good as Arthur's. It is possible for such cases to arise. But this is not because the motivation to be virtuous is in general defective in this way, but only because in Christine's case the motivation is only defectively realized -- she has only a defective version of an excellent motivation. Arthur's motivation would be better not because his motivations do not include the motivation to be virtuous (as Keller suggests), but because he has a motivation essential to being a virtuous person in this case, and Christine (by the supposition we are considering here) does not. Christine has a good ultimate end in view; she just doesn't have in view the proximate end that the ultimate end requires in this particular case. Again, we can see that there is no need for self-effacement here; Christine's motivation is incomplete, and self-effacement can only be required where the complete motivation acn't involve the considerations of the ethical theory in question. So even on Keller's assumption we can't get as far as Keller seems to think.

The thing about virtue theory, then, is that it does not require that one act out of the motivation to be virtuous. But this is not self-effacement; self-effacement could only occur if there were some cases in which it would not be virtuous to act out of the motivation to be virtuous. Virtue theorists aren't committed to this, or, at least, Keller does not show it. What he shows is that virtue theory does not require the high-level motivation to be a virtuous person. Precisely because it doesn't, the lack of it in a clearly moral motivation is not a problem for virtue theorists unless it can be shown that being virtuous would require that lack. Keller thinks this is the case, but his reasoning depends on a faulty assumption about what moral motivation in virtue theory would have to involve (the reasoning by Hurka that Keller mentions makes a similar mistake). I don't think it can be shown that the motivation to be virtuous is ever inconsistent with the motivation to do this particular virtue-necessary thing, and this appears, at first glance to be a necessary truth. Self-effacement appears to arise only when an ethical theory has too restrictive an account of moral motivation, one that occasionally puts local motivation in conflict with global motivation; and virtue theory's advantage is precisely that it isn't restrictive in this way at all, because what it is really doing is placing moral action into the project of a complete and ongoing moral life. And the motivation to have a complete moral life is never inconsistent with the motivation to act in this particular (moral) way in this particular case, because it is meta-motivation capable of including the particular motivation. Other views, on the other hand, are self-effacing (when they are) because they flatten out motivational structures and treat motivations as all governed by the same sort of principle. While a virtue theorist might possibly have an account that does this (and I wouldn't be surprised if there are virtue theorist who do try to do this), virtue theory itself does not require it, and in fact sits more comfortably with a more sophisticated account of motivation. And this is really what Keller's argument shows.

So it seems fairly clear that virtue theories are not self-effacing in the way Keller suggests. Now, I'm not convinced that self-effacement is really that much of a problem for anyone. While there are clearly bad motivations, I see no reason why good motivations always have to be the same, and, as I said, if the motivations just differ as to their sophistication, I don't think this makes much difference. Christine's more encompassing motivation isn't a more moral motivation than Benjamin's motivation, and neither are a more moral motivation than Arthur's, despite the fact that Arthur has the least sophisticated motivation. Arthur has the essential motivation, as do Benjamin and Christine, and that's what primarily counts. The advantage Benjamin and Christine have over Arthur is that more sophisticated motivations make it easier to be consistently moral. And I think deontologists, for instance, and perhaps even some consequentialists, can easily avail themselves of an argument similar to the one I have given (although it definitely would depend on the particular view). What self-effacement issues really show is not (contrary to some virtue theorists) that virtue theory is automatically the better account of particular moral motivations, but that virtue theory recognizes a broader range of sophistication in possible moral motivations. This is certainly an advantage, as far as moral psychology goes, but it doesn't automatically show that self-effacing ethical theories are problematic in themselves.

Friday, August 18, 2006

McCoy on Platonic Myth

Myth is an excitation of thought that begins with the soul's own experience and ends with a comprehension of the principles that underlie that experience. The deeper significance of the rhetorical function and mimetic quality of myth is that it cultivates the power required to grasp the principles it frames, and it does so in terms amenable to the experience of the individual interlocutor. Consequently, through myth, the interlocutor can come to see the principle for himself in his own experience, rather than adopting it as a hypothesis or supposition.

Joe McCoy, "The Appropriation of Myth and the Sayings of the Wise in Plato's Meno and Philebus," Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association (Volume 78, 2004) 175.

Carnivals and Things

* The most recent Philosophy Carnival (#34) was at El Blog de Marcos. The post on taste (in a twofold sense!) at "The Hanged Man" is interesting, as well as the post on introspective incorrigibility at "A brood comb".

* History Carnival #37 is up at Mode for Caleb. At "Civil War Memory" there's an interesting examination of the role of the National Park Service in preserving Civil War battlefields; and Nathanael Robinson delivers some sharp criticism for uncritical repeating of Voltaire's famous quip about the Holy Roman Empire.

* The Skeptics Circle can get a bit repetitive, but in the most recent edition at Interverbal, there was an interesting post on déjà vu at Dr. Deborah Serani's weblog.

* There has been some discussion in the blogosphere about this piece at The American Conservative by Heather Mac Donald. Razib at "Gene Expressions" discusses some of the more important threads. I doubt that most nontheistic conservatives are quite as 'mystified' by the religious rhetoric as Mac Donald suggests, since it usually doesn't take much to figure it out; and she overlooks the fact that a lot of theists believe the basic two -- God and providence -- not to stand on revelation alone, but on reason as well. But these are not, as far as I can see, essential to her primary argument, which is simply that there is no reason for a conservative political movement to be as religious as we presume. Whether that's so or not, much of the discussion has been interesting, even for those of us who don't consider ourselves conservatives.

* At "Gaunilo's Island," Travis Ables has an excellent post on divine impassibility in a Christian context.

* Mario Bunge on Ethics and Praxiology as Technologies. He gives too much credit to utilitarians, but makes an interesting argument anyway.

* Star Trek Inspirational Posters. I especially like the Captain James T. Kirk and Kobayashi Maru posters. The Logic poster should be hanging in every philosophy department across the globe. And the picture for the Revenge poster is just about perfect. If you like them, donate a little (if you can) toward bandwidth.

* Mark Chu-Carroll has had some great posts recently. Try the one on sloppy reasoning about probability, the one about roman numerals, and (perhaps most interesting of all) surreals.

UPDATE: I had forgotten (and have been intending for some time) to link to the discussions of Euripides at "Seoul Hero" -- Cyclops, which discusses our only remaining satyr play, and Helen, one of my favorites. I am very much a Euripides fan. The Cyclops play is an interesting one; and a bit tricky to interpret (particularly since it is the only extant play of its kind). But I've always found it interesting that the Cyclops insists that 'Zeus', i.e., the highest, is avoiding pain; since, by the end of the play he has had a flaming brand thrust into his eye, it would seem that he has failed even on his own terms; he denies that the gods are of any significance, but I think Nathan is right that the path to his ultimate defeat is paved by the god, Bacchus, in the material form of wine. Of course, it is all done comically. Helen I can't do justice to here; it's full of doubles and duals, originals and images, and ambiguities between them. I'm not a particularly big fan of the god-denying interpretation of Euripides; I think that as an interpretive principle it usually involves confusing 'The gods are perplexing, mysterious, and dangerous' with 'The gods are not really gods'. (It is, however, clear that Euripides is perfectly willing to dismiss poets' tales about gods.) I think Nathan strikes close to the right balance in his discussions, although I'm not so sure that some of the dualities of Helen suggest demythologization.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Minute Philosophy with the Coffeehouse Crowd

There is an interesting discussion of early modern coffeehouses at "Crooked Timber." I couldn't help but think of Berkeley's Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher. The four main characters of the dialogue are Euphranor, Crito, Alciphron, and Lysicles. Alciphron and Lysicles, the freethinkers or 'strongheads' (whence Alciphron derives his name), are champions of a certain sort of coffeehouse philosophy; they advocate it, and the freethinking it involves, as the wave of the future. The two are very different; Alciphron loftily insists that atheists are more moral than Christians, while Lysicles, the hotheaded hedonist, argues that morals are for stupid people, and that it's obvious that we are all economically benefitted by vice. Throughout the work Berkeley satirizes the freethinking of the coffeehouses (with which he was very familiar from his London days with Richard Steele and Jonathan Swift), which he prefers to call 'minute philosophy'. Lysicles continually makes outrageous claims he can't defend rationally (and when called on it, insists that he doesn't have to defend them rationally); Alciphron, much more sober and philosophical in nature, is given to rather funny rhetorical outbursts in which his rhetoric overtakes his reasoning (they often begin with apostrophes like, 'O Justice! O Truth!'). Euphranor and Crito, in a sign of the excellence of Berkeley's literary skills, have very different personalities despite defending the same side -- Euphranor is consistently the simple, self-taught Platonist coming into his first contact with these odd but interesting 'strongheads', while Crito has dealt with their kind time and again, to the point of exasperation, and is always more cynical and mocking in his assessment of them. Throughout the dialogue, of course, the minute philosophers are outmaneuvered by Euphranor and Crito, in part because the latter see right through the coffeehouse tactic that Berkeley mocks most mercilessly: the freethinkers advocate freethinking almost entirely by demanding, without argument, that you only think one way (their way, of course).

But it's also worth noting that Berkeley's mockery of coffeehouse philosophy is based on his own experience; he heard the coffeehouse freethinkers himself, and it was this that convinced him that their written works hid a more anarchic and destructive agenda that needed to be fought. It's not that he despises coffeehouses, or even coffeehouse discussion; it's that he thinks there is a trend in which people are pontificating on matters that they've never taken the time to research or think about carefully -- the ultimate temptation of coffeehouse discourse. As a result there's a lot of quibbling over minute details, a lot of rhetorical bombast posing as argument, and more concern for being clever than for finding the truth. It's this that he can't stand about the minute philosophy he found among the coffeehouse crowd. So we should perhaps avoid taking an either/or position here. It's not that coffeehouses were wondrous marvels of sophisticated rational discourse; nor is it that they were simply useless gossip mills filled with vulgarity and bombastic punditry. Here, as always, the danger is in not trying to find the happy medium.

A Dialogue on Humean Sentimentalism

The following is based (very, very closely, since Hume almost puts it in a dialogue himself, and I've just colloquialized it a bit) on an argument in the first appendix to the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. H is Hume, A is the moral rationalist (who holds an abstract theory of morals like one finds in Malebranche or Clarke).

H: "Reason concerns itself with matters of fact and relations. Ask yourself, then, where is the matter of fact we call 'criminal ingratitude'. Point it out, determine the time of its existence, describe its essence or nature, explain the sense or faculty to which it discovers itself. Perhaps it resides in the mind of ungrateful person? If that's so, he must feel it and be conscious of it. But there is nothing there except ill-will or indifference. You cannot say that of themselves these are always and in all circumstances criminal. No; they are only criminal when directed towards people who have before expressed and displayed good-will towards us. So we can conclude that the moral crime of ingratitude is not any particular individual fact. Instead, it arises from a web of circumstances that excites the sentiment of blame in a spectator because of the structure and fabric of his mind."

A: "Your representation of me is false. Crime in this sense doesn't consist in a particular fact whose existence we know by reason. Instead, it consists in certain moral relations discovered by reason, in much the same way as we discover the truths of geometry or algebra."

H: "But what are these relations? In the case we are considering, I see first good-will and good-offices in one person, then ill-will and ill-offices in the other. The only relation between these is contrariety. Does the crime consist in that relation? But suppose a person bore me ill-will or did me ill-offices and I, in return, were indifferent towards him, or did him good-offices. Here is the same relation of contrariety; and yet my conduct is often highly laudable under these circumstances. Twist and turn this matter as much as you please, you can never base morality on relations. It must be based on sentiments.

When we say that two and three are equal to half of ten, I understand this relation perfectly. I conceive that if ten is divided in half, and one of these halves is compared to two added to three, the one will have as many units as the other. But when you use this as an analogy for moral relations, I confess that I don't understand you at all. A moral action, a crime like ingratitude, is a complicated object. Does the morality consist in the relation of its parts to each other? How? After what manner? Specify the relation: Be less vague, and you will easily see the falsehood of your claims."

A: "No, the morality consists in the relation of actions to the rule of right; they are called good or bad to the extent they agree or disagree with it. "

H: "What, then, is this rule of right? How is it determined? By reason, you say, which examines the moral relations of actions; these moral relations are determined by the comparison of actions to a rule; and that rule is determined by considering the moral relations of objects. Isn't this a fine way to reason!"

A: "But the fact that you have to get into such metaphysical reasoning as you do gives us a strong presumption that your claim is false."

H: "There is certainly metaphysical reasoning here, but all on your side. You are proposing an abstruse hypothesis, one which can never be made intelligible or squared with any particular example or illustration. Our hypothesis, on the other hand, is clear. We hold that morality is determined by sentiment. We define virtue to be any mental action or quality giving to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation. Vice, of course, is the contrary. We then look at a plain matter of fact, to wit, what actions have this influence. Considering all the circumstances in which these actions agree, we endeavour to extract some general observations about these sentiments. If you call this metaphysics, and find any thing abstruse here, the natural conclusion is that your mind is not suited to the moral sciences."

Newman on Philosophy and Religion

I wish the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom; but what I am stipulating for is, that they should be found in one and the same place, and exemplified in the same persons. I want to destroy that diversity of centres, which puts everything into confusion by creating a contrariety of influences. I wish the same spots and the same individuals to be at once oracles of philosophy and shrines of devotion. It will not satisfy me, what satisfies so many, to have two independent systems, intellectual and religious, going at once side by side, by a sort of division of labour, and only accidentally brought together. It will not satisfy me, if religion is here, and science there, and young men converse with science all day, and lodge with religion in the evening. It is not touching the evil, to which these remarks have been directed, if young men eat and drink and sleep in one place, and think in another: I want the same roof to contain both the intellectual and moral discipline. Devotion is not a sort of finish given to the sciences; nor is science a sort of feather in the cap, if I may so express myself, an ornament and set-off to devotion. I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.

Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, Sermon 1: Intellect the Instrument of Religious Training

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Son of Sirach on Medicine

Hold the physician in honor, for he is essential to you,
and God it was who established his profession.
From God the doctor has his wisdom,
and the king provides for his sustenance.
His knowledge makes the doctor distinguished,
and gives him access to those in authority.
God makes the earth yield healing herbs
which the prudent man will not neglect;
was not the water sweetened by a twig
that men might learn his power?
He endows men with the knowledge
to glory in his mighty works,
through which the doctor eases pain
and the druggist prepares his medicines;
thus God's creative work continues without cease
in its efficacy on the surface of the earth.

My son, when you are ill, delay not,
but pray to God who will heal you:
flee wickedness; let your hands be just,
cleanse your heart of every sin;
offer your sweet-smelling oblation and petition,
a rich offering according to your means.
Then give the doctor his place
lest he leave; for you need him too.
There are times that give him an advantage,
and he too beseeches God
that his diagnosis may be correct
and his treatment bring about a cure.
He who is a sinner toward his Maker
will be defiant toward the doctor.

Sirach 38:1-15 (NAB)

I find especially interesting the idea that palliative and curative medicine are some of the ways in which God's work of creation is expressed; and that defiance of the doctor is considered to be the sort of act associated with those who sin against God their Maker.


I find it interesting how there has been so much news buzz lately over whether we should consider Pluto a planet or not, given that there are other objects of similar or greater size. For one thing, I wonder about this obsession with size; why would one make the line between planets and non-planets size-dependent, as if it weren't possible for objects orbiting the sun to come in enough sizes that the line would certainly be arbitrary? It's like using a size-criterion for satellites. This would obviously be absurd, since satellites come in all sorts of sizes; what matters for a satellite is that it be orbiting a more massive body.

Since a great deal of it is arbitrary, anyway, here's my two cents. The first and most fundamental criterion for determining what counts as a planet is that a planet must be a 'wandering star', which basically means:

(1) It must be close enough that its path can be traced across the heavens relative to the stars, taken as fixed for our purposes.
(2) It must be visible from earth with equipment detecting visible light reflected from the sun.
(3) It must be orbiting the sun in a regular way.
(4) It must be fairly stable in mass and shape (e.g., not disintegrating).

None of this rules out much, of course; but I propose that everything that meets (1)-(4) be called a 'planetary object'. This would include all sorts of things, like moons. We usually think of the planets as being spherical bodies dominating a sphere of the heavens -- we may not put it in explicit Ptolemaic terms quite like that, but we do think of them in this wise. So:

(5) It must be approximately spherical ('its self-gravity must be enough to overcome rigid body forces' as some people like to say).
(6) It must be the gravitationally dominant object in its immediate region of orbit.

Things that don't fit (5) can be called 'asteroidal planetoids'; things that fit (5) but not (6) can be called 'satellite planetoids'. (Note that it isn't important as to 'how spherical' it is; some things don't approximate a sphere at all, and others do. The ones that clearly do clearly fit the criteria.) There might need, however, to be a special intermediate category of 'geminal planets' or 'geminal planetoids' for possible (1)-(5) objects that are revolving around each other in their path around the sun, but that have very close to the same mass (so neither dominates, although together they are significant). Planetary objects fitting (5) and (6) can be called 'planets'; and it does not matter what size they are, how distant they are, or anything else, as long they fit the criteria. (6) is, I think, very important; one of the most common distinctions we make with regard to planets is to distinguish them from satellites of planets, and this is much more important for deciding what's a planet than size is.

So 'planet' should be the label for a stable, roughly spherical, sun-orbiting object, visible from earth by visible light, that is not a satellite to another sun-orbiting object; or, at least, the conditions for the label should be something along these lines. We can then use the size classification often suggested, namely, dividing planets into giant planets, terrestrial planets, and dwarf planets. Even if my criteria need to be tweaked here and there, they provide a reasonable stable means of classification that doesn't do much harm to common classification (although it diverges a bit from some suggested classifications that haven't become common) but which gives some reason for us to talk about planets without being purely arbitrary. Of course, it has disadvantages, too; but so does every set of conditions.

Hospitable Places

I liked this passage from an essay in the June 2006 Pro Rege (PDF; h/t: prosthesis); the subject is Christian (and in particular Reformed) education:

Second, I am called to create hospitable space. As teachers and administrators, we are always serving as hosts. To host is to make room for another to be at home; or, as the writers to the Hebrews puts it, "do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." How do our schools look when they become hospitable places?

First, it is not we as teachers and administrators who are serving as hosts; rather, it is our schools that are serving as hosts. Therefore, inherent in Christian education is the process of teaching our students how Christian hospitality looks. Our classrooms are both places that are hospitable and places where hospitality is learned. Our students must come to understand how generous Reformedness looks. They need to see that every new person they meet might be an angel whom they are called to entertain; the new person may come bearing gifts that will stretch them so that they can grow as children of God.

More and more I have begun to think that a serious flaw in modern ethics, particularly compared with ancient ethics (compared to which it often comes off quite stellar) is the loss of hospitality as a central virtue; and one of the major flaws of much Christian ethics today, formally and informally practiced, is a loss of the principle of theoxeny, one form of which is that found in the verse from Hebrews noted above.

The author, Stanley Hielema, has a poignant story about a girl, Catholic in background, who found it hard to grow at Dordt as a Christian because of the way she, as a Catholic, was treated; and draws, I think, the right conclusion from it. If the Calvinists at Dordt were doing what they were called to do, such people should find (perhaps to their amazement) that it's easier to grow as a Christian among these Calvinists than elsewhere, even coming to it from a very different background. And this principle is generalizable to every church and denomination. It is a principle that condemns most of us rather spectacularly; but it is a principle that we all need to face squarely.

Of course, the same goes for non-Christians, as well; for while they may not be called to precisely the same hospitality, are clearly called to some kind of hospitality. People generally need to make sure that they are not acting in such a way as to make their position inhospitable for people who are sincerely looking for the truth, whatever their background (and no matter how kooky or wrong we may think it). After all, even if the sincere pursuit of truth isn't something we all have in common, it should be. And as we are all strangers on that road, trying to reach home, we should be as hospitable to our fellow-seekers as we would wish them to be to us, were our positions reversed.

Apparently It Has Been on People's Minds for Some Time

Joe Sobran on why 'Islamofascism' is a silly and useless notion for understanding modern terrorism.

Juan Cole on why 'Islamofascism' is a silly and useless notion for understanding modern terrorism.

Fr. Jim Tucker on why 'Islamofascism' is a silly and useless notion for understanding modern terrorism.

Crispin Sartwell on why 'Islamofascism' is a silly and useless notion for understanding modern terrorism.

I'm sure there are more.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Aquinas and Dead Bodies

There is an interesting discussion at First Things about bodies and corpses. As one might expect, several of the contributors have put forward positions that are at least broadly Aristotelian or Thomistic, arguing that, properly speaking, corpses are not parts of persons, and indeed, not bodies in the same sense that we say living bodies are bodies. I found Robert Miller's response to this quite interesting:

I appealed to common usage and the fact that we say Christ’s body was placed in the tomb against McCusker’s attempted restriction of the word body to living bodies. I shall also appeal to St. Thomas against George and Lee’s attempted restriction of the word part to a usage in which, if I understand correctly, a human being’s material remains are not part of him. “Understood in this way,” St. Thomas says, “body will be an integral and material part of the animal, because in this way the soul will be beyond what is signified by the term body, and it will supervene on the body such that from these two, namely the soul and the body, the animal is constituted as from parts” (De Ente et Essentia, cap. ii (my translation of which is here).

There is a perfectly good sense in which, even dead, the body is a part—the material part—of the person. Indeed, it’s the part you get when you subtract the soul, which George and Lee, I think, admit is a part of the person. Since a whole less a proper part leaves a part, even the dead body must be a part of the person in some sense.

But McCusker, I take it, is not restricting 'body' to living bodies, but is pointing out that when we apply the term to living and dead bodies, we are using the term equivocally; and that of these two usages, the application to the living body is the more fundamental. And Aquinas clearly falls on the side of McCusker, George, and Lee. He is, after all, Aristotelian, and is always very clear that a corpse is not a body, and especially not a human body, in the same sense that a living human body is. The passage from De Ente et Essentia that Miller is quoting is clearly about the body as animated by its form.

An interesting context in which Aquinas discusses this point is the relics of saints. Aquinas considers the objection that, since a dead body is not of the same species as a living body, we should not respect the bodies of saints. This has some force, and Aquinas concedes the premise, simply denying that the conclusion follows:

The dead body of a saint is not identical with that which the saint had during life, on account of the difference of form, viz. the soul: but it is the same by identity of matter, which is destined to be reunited to its form.

This suggests a way in which Miller could build a Thomistic position, despite his divergence from Thomas on such a key point as whether a dead body is part of a person (rather than merely a former part of a person, considered materially). As Augustine notes in a passage Aquinas quotes, if we respect even the possessions of the dead because of their connection to the one who once was alive, even more so should we respect the body of the dead. And this is so even if, as Thomists hold, it is not 'the body of John' in the same sense it was when John was alive.

On the issue of Christ in the tomb, the standard scholastic argument is that he is a special case. Christ was in the tomb, recall, after His institution of the Eucharist; and so the standard view is that Christ's body is always united to the Word, because of the Word's divine power, even when it is not united to the soul. Aquinas alludes to this position as his own when talking about Christ's descent into hell.


You are all ignorant. As am I.

One of my pet peeves, and it is a pet peeve that has been irritated more often of late than it should be, is when people misuse the term 'ignorant' and its cognates. The first and fundamental thing that needs to be recognized is that everyone is ignorant about something. About lots of things, actually; for every single person, the things they are ignorant about vastly outnumber the things they are not ignorant about. So let's stop using 'ignorant' as a pejorative, whenever it does not clearly (and preferably explicitly) mean 'willfully ignorant'; and even that does not mean what some people seem to think it means.

If it were simply a matter of its occasionally being misused in common speech in this way, I wouldn't be too bothered by it. But there are three types of people I have found to be using it this way who have no right to do so if they are to continue pretending to be what they claim to be. They are people who claim to be philosophers, people who claim to be scientists, and people who claim to be progressives. Because of all people, these are exactly the people who should know that ignorance is our common state, and that the source of all progress in knowledge is recognizing our own ignorance (thereby to begin remedying it). It is not a crime, or a sin, or a shame, or even a misfortune, to be ignorant of something. It is merely an opportunity; and if you call yourself a philosopher or a scientist you should know this better than anyone else, because that's what you do: recognize your ignorance and make an opportunity for knowledge out of it. If you consider yourself a progressive, the whole of your position is predicated on evaluating this sort of thing as a good thing -- it's a major element, perhaps the major element, constituting the notion of 'progress' to which the word 'progressive' refers. If you call yourself anyone of these three names, and ever find yourself misusing the term 'ignorant' as an insult, do us all a favor and smack yourself upside the head for it.

Even when we are dealing with 'willful ignorance' the ignorance part of it doesn't constitute any sort of problem at all; when we are criticizing people for being willfully ignorant, we are criticizing them for being obstinate -- and that is all.

Propositional Depth Response to the Liar Paradox

Responses to the Liar Paradox usually fall into one of three categories: those resolutions that allow (under limited circumstances) for propositions to be true and false at once; those resolutions that say it is meaningless for some reason; and those resolutions that say it is false. There's no question that my sympathies lie with the last of these solutions; I think the paradox only arises when you make questionable assumptions about what can be inferred if the Liar is false. But there is a very interesting approach of the second kind that is worth considering, as well; I think it deserves more consideration than it usually seems to get, so here's a summary of it.

Consider the difference between the two following sentences:

There is a ghost in the parlor.
Everybody thinks there is a ghost in the parlor.

The first of these sentences expresses a proposition. The second, however, not only expresses a proposition, it has a reference to another proposition. Englebretsen, following Sommers, proposes that we mark this difference by what he calls 'propositional depth'. The first sentence doesn't express a comment on any propositions. It has a propositional depth of 0. The second, however, comments on the proposition of "There is a ghost in the parlor," in order to say that everyone thinks it. It has a propositional depth of 1.

It is possible to have a propositional depth as great as you please. For instance,

Everyone thinks that Tom thinks that Mary knows that everyone thinks the world will end

has a propositional depth of 4. However, the important question is this: Can a sentence express a proposition of indeterminate propositional depth. Englebretsen says not, and formulates the propositional depth requirement:

Every meaningful statement must be assumed to have a determinate propositional depth.

The reasoning is that if you take any sentence you please, of propositional depth n, any comment on that must have a propositional depth of n+1; any comment on that comment must have a propositional depth of n+2; and so forth.

Now, take a sentence like this:

L: [L] is false.

L doesn't have 0 depth, because it comments on itself. That would naturally lead one to think it has a depth of 1, but it doesn't have that, either, because by its self-reflexive nature for any depth n you assume, it comments on it. So it has no determinate propositional depth; and from this Sommers and Englebretsen condlue that it is expressively vacuous, makes no statement, expresses no proposition, has no truth value.

But wouldn't this eliminate all self-reflexivity? After all, there are fairly straightforward self-reflexive sentences which clearly have truth value and meaning:

This sentence is in French.
This sentence has five words.

Englebretsen's response to this is to deny that they embed propositions; sentences express propositions, and these are about sentences rather than the propositions they express. So they have a propositional depth of 0. There is no problem with self-referential sentences, only with self-referential (or mutually referential) propositions. Such propositions have no determinate propositional depth.

In any case, it's clear how one would treat the Liar sentence in this account.

L: [L] is false.

This has no determinate propositional depth. If we assume that L has a propositional depth of n, we find that, since L embeds itself, it must have a propositional depth of n+1.

Englebretsen treats this as universal -- all self-referential propositions are vacuous. It isn't clear, though, that this is so. Consider this example:

D: This sentence expresses [D] in French.

This is clearly as false as the other. But it appears to have a propositional depth of 1. (It's equivalent to "The proposition of this sentence is expressed in French.") And even if it had not determinate propositional depth, it looks like it still must have a proposition, because if the sentence had no proposition, it would seem to be false, because it wouldn't be expressing its proposition in French; which means it expresses a proposition. So it seems that either we must admit that some self-referential propositions have a determinate propositional depth, or we must deny that lack of determinate propositional depth is sufficient for meaninglessness. I suspect Englebretsen would stick by his guns, and claim that D has no proposition and is meaningless, so it cannot be false and cannot express a proposition. But it's not very plausible for cases like this, unless we have a solid independent reason to accept the propositional depth requirement, which I don't think we do (although it is very plausible).

Another case that seems to be a problem for this view is the Cretan Liar. Suppose that the following is said by a Cretan, and that the Cretan is the only Cretan, and that it is the only thing ever said by a Cretan:

C: Everything a Cretan says is false.

C has no determinate propositional depth in these circumstances, because its proposition embeds itself. But suppose that a Cretan were to say two things, one of which is true, and one of which is verbally the same as C (we'll call it C2). C2 looks like it would be false (not everything a Cretan says is false), but it embeds itself, so it would seem that it has no determinate propositional depth. Now, suppose a non-Cretan were to say of this one Cretan (if he didn't say C):

X: Everything a Cretan says is false.

C and X look the same; but Englebretsen is committed to saying that they are not: C has no determinate propositional depth, while X has a propositional depth of 1; C expesses no proposition and is meaningless, while X expresses a proposition and is meaningful. However, suppose that the Cretan does say C and only C, and the non-Cretan says:

Y: Everything a Cretan says is false.

Now this proposition embeds a proposition [C] that has no determinate propositional depth, so it has no propositional depth, expresses no proposition, and is meaningless. But if C has no truth value, Y should be false. Further, we are in the awkward position of saying that whether a sentence makes any sense at all depends not only on the terms and syntax of the sentence but also on whether the sentence is said by a Cretan or a non-Cretan, and whether a Cretan says anything not false. In other words, whether the sentence has the same meaning, or any meaning at all, depends on purely contingent facts about the world that we may not be aware of. This is an awkward result, but one we seem committed to on this approach.

Nonetheless, as Englebretsen notes, the Propositional Depth response has a lot going for it as well. It can winnow out all the bad comments you please; it is not ad hoc, since it is part of a larger theory of truth and falsity; and it is clearly better than a great many of its competitors (e.g., unlike standared meta-langauge responses, it is not about sentences but about the propositions they express, and unlike meta-language responses it can apply directly and without adjustment to natural language).

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Reverse the Polarity of the Neutron Flow

You scored as 3rd doctor. A man of science, a Gadget king, you can put up a good fight. You are just what the doctor ordered

4th Doctor


3rd doctor


5th Doctor


1st Doctor


a Dalek


7th Doctor




2nd doctor


10th Doctor


9th Doctor


6th doctor


8th Doctor


What Doctor Who character are You?
created with


Inspired by The Little Professor.

1. Best comic book movie that diverges entirely from its original. Constantine. The original, from the series Hellblazer, is a selfish blond-haired British dabbler in dark magic who looks like Sting and whose name rhymes with 'on the line'. The movie is about a not-so-selfish dark-haired American exorcist who looks like Neo and whose name rhymes with 'in between'. But, while rather uneven, it still manages to do well (even though the writers apparently thought that I Corinthians has 'acts' rather than chapters and that Catholic doctrine treats suicide as a mortal sin in cases of mental disorder).

2. Best movie based on a video game. Mortal Kombat. This movie isn't the perfect movie, by any means, but it takes a rather silly and unpromising premise and does almost everything right with it. The opening of the movie is a good example; within ten minutes we know all three major heroes, their basic storylines, the character flaws they will have to overcome by the end of the movie, most of the major supporting characters, and the basic premise of the movie. And this is all done in a way that's clear, clean, and straightforward. The director responsible for this gem, Paul Anderson, also directed the tolerable Soldier and Resident Evil and the utterly intolerable Event Horizon and Alien vs. Predator, all of which are unpromising ideas directed well (but usually not well enough to compensate for the original lack of promise).

3. Best science fiction movie. Solaris. The Tarkovsky version, of course.

4. Best science fiction movie almost no one has seen. Riddler's Moon.

5. Best science fiction movie in which almost nothing happens. Setting aside Solaris, The Cold Equations, based on the classic short story by Tom Godwin.

6. Best movie about the early modern period. Ridicule

7. Coolest comic book character. Nightcrawler.

8. Best place to eat in New Mexico. La Fonda's, in Artesia.

9. Best Pat Benatar song, according to me. "Love Is a Battlefield."

10. Greatest Victorian novel. Romola, because I'm weird.

11. Best Borges story. El Sur.

12. Strangest work in early modern philosophy that's worth reading. Berkeley's Siris, of course.

13. Pat Benatar song with the catchiest chorus. "All Fired Up."

14. Best place to eat in the area of Portland, Oregon. Czaba's Bar-B-Que, in North Portland (5907 N Lombard Street). Get ribs and succotash.

15. Creepiest cemetery sign I have ever seen. REST ASSURED; WE HAVE ROOM.

A Poem Draft

The Walls of Jericho

You and I were just children
long ago;
but where our golden youth went
only God and His angels know.

We played out by the trainyard
three as one
till we couldn't see our faces
from the setting of the sun.

And the train on the track played a trumpet
deep and low
that spoke the brazen note
that broke the walls of Jericho.

And Tom was a valiant soldier
off for war;
we'd spear him in the chest
then he'd get back up for more.

You let down the embankment
a scarlet thread
but Tom went off to dinner
and left us all for dead.

And the train on the track played a trumpet
deep and low
that spoke the brazen note
that broke the walls of Jericho.

Then we all went off to college,
and Tom to war;
and the priest said at the service
that death is but a door.

You and I were just children
long ago;
but where our sunny days went
only God and His angels know.

And the train on the track plays a trumpet
deep and low
that speaks the brazen note
and breaks the walls of Jericho.

From Newman's Verses on Various Occasions

Transfiguration (Verse 57)

I saw thee once and nought discern'd
For stranger to admire;
A serious aspect, but it burn'd
With no unearthly fire.

Again I saw, and I confess'd
Thy speech was rare and high;
And yet it vex'd my burden'd breast,
And scared, I knew not why.

I saw once more, and awe-struck gazed
On face, and form, and air;
God's living glory round thee blazed—
A Saint—a Saint was there!

The Transfiguration--Matins (Verse 154)

O ye who seek the Lord,
Lift up your eyes on high,
For there He doth the Sign accord
Of His bright majesty.

We see a dazzling sight
That shall outlive all time,
Older than depth or starry height,
Limitless and sublime.

'Tis He for Israel's fold
And heathen tribes decreed,
The King to Abraham pledged of old
And his unfailing seed.

Prophets foretold His birth,
And witness'd when He came,
The Father speaks to all the earth
To hear, and own His name.

To Jesus, who displays
To babes His beaming face,
Be, with the Father, endless praise,
And with the Spirit of grace. Amen.

The Transfiguration--Lauds (Verse 155)

Light of the anxious heart,
Jesus, Thou dost appear,
To bid the gloom of guilt depart,
And shed Thy sweetness here.

Joyous is he, with whom,
God's Word, Thou dost abide;
Sweet Light of our eternal home,
To fleshly sense denied.

Brightness of God above!
Unfathomable grace!
Thy Presence be a fount of love
Within Thy chosen place.

To Thee, whom children see,
The Father ever blest,
The Holy Spirit, One and Three,
Be endless praise addrest. Amen.