Saturday, October 28, 2006

Linkable and Thinkable

* At my other weblog, I have a post discussing Sukjae Lee's paper on necessary connection and continuous creation in Malebranche's occasionalism.

* An interesting discussion by Donald Guthrie (PDF) on whether the Pastoral Epistles are authentically Pauline.

* Joseph Kenny has a translation of the Dialogue between Paleologos and Mudarris, which was quoted by the Pope in his Regensberg speech. Kenny is a Dominican in the Province of St. Joseph the Worker (Nigeria and Ghana). He specializes in Christian-Muslim relations, both intellectual and political. I especially recommend reading his Christian-Islamic Preambles of Faith, which is roughly modeled on Aquinas's Summa Contra Gentiles, and looks at points of commonality between Christian and Islamic philosophy; his translation of Aquinas's De rationibus fidei; and his discussion of Aquinas's commentary on Aristotle's Physics.

* Speaking of Kenny, he has a translation up of St. Thomas's Letter to John on How to Study.

* The British Philosophy of Sport Association has a brief but interesting introduction to philosophy of sport. You can also learn more about this field of study at Paideia's page for papers on philosophy of sport. It's usually called 'philosophy of sport' rather than 'philosophy of sports' because the British rather than the Americans seem to dominate the field, for some reason.

* You can watch the Prada 'Thunder, Perfect Mind' commercial at YouTube. Gnosticism, fashion, it's pretty much the same; except that, as Mike Aquilina points out, the Gnostics were a bit more brazen. And original, I suppose, since they came up with the text in the first place.

The Electoral College and the Articles

There is an interesting post at "hell's handmaiden" on the Electoral College. One of the problems with the argument there is that it accepts the surprisingly common view that the Electoral College was designed to check mob rule. But this comes, I think, from reading the U.S. Constitution in a void. To understand the real point of the EC, I think, we must keep in mind that the U.S. Constitution did not create the United States of America. The United States already existed in the form established by the Articles of Confederation. Under this system of government, all federal power -- such that existed -- was pooled in the United States in Congress Assembled. There was no Presidency in our sense; the 'President' was simply the presiding official in Congress, chosen by Congress itself. There was no serious division of legislative and executive power.

The U.S. Constitution changed all this by massively shifting power from the States to the government of the United States. It did this in great measure by strengthening the powers of Congress. But it was also a serious concern of the Founders -- most notably Alexander Hamilton -- to create a 'more energetic magistrate', i.e., an executive branch of government. The question, of course, arises: Given that this Presidency is new, and needs to be sharply distinguished from Congress, how should the President be chosen? If you look at the defenses of the Electoral College, e.g. Hamilton's famous defense in The Federalist #68, you find that this background runs throughout the argument. The reason they had the President of the United States elected by an Electoral College was to increase the say of the people in the federal government, by removing the power to choose the presiding magistrate of the Union of States from Congress and creating a new Presidential office elected by a body that was not pre-established in the way Congress was. Thus Hamilton explicitly gives as an argument for the Electoral College the point that 'the sense of the people' should operate in choosing such an important figure as the President under the new Constitution. This it did by removing the electoral power from Congress and putting it into the hands of a body of citizens chosen by voters for that very purpose.

It is true, however, that Hamilton sees the Electoral College as putting a check on faction -- but, far from being an attack on mob rule, this seems to have been seen chiefly as a way to increase the representativeness of the election. The people have more of a say if there are several people directly elected than if there is only one: thus, having the people elect the several representatives in the EC increases the say of the people by reducing the pressure that would be created by various factions trying to elect one person only. (Incidentally, this ties in with another common mistake about the EC, namely, thinking that the votes of the people serve no function but to suggest how the electors vote. In fact, that's not quite true. The votes of the people actually elect the electors according to the method established by the state legislature. And most of people's complaints about the EC turn out to be really just complaints about the method of election established by the legislature of their State.)

So the Electoral College should be seen as what it was claimed to be: an attempt to increase the power of the people by taking the authority to choose the presiding officer of the Union out of the hands of a pre-established body, like the United States in Congress Assembled, and putting it into the hands of a body chosen by the people for the very purpose of choosing the President; and an intermediate body of electors was chosen not for the purpose of limiting the power of the people, but for the purpose of increasing the degree to which all the different factions or parties could have their say. As I've said before on the subject: The Electoral College was created to increase the power of the people by giving them an orderly, simple way to guide and control who was chosen to preside over the Union. This is the explicit justification put forward by Hamilton; any other supposed justification is either imaginary or needs to be defended by evidence. Of course, it's another question whether the EC actually does what the justification says it does.

And it's probably not surprising that the complaints about the Electoral College have been with us from the beginning. From the Antifederalist no. 72:

Is it then become necessary, that a free people should first resign their right of suffrage into other hands besides their own, and then, secondly, that they to whom they resign it should be compelled to choose men, whose persons, characters, manners, or principles they know nothing of? ...Is it necessary, is it rational, that the sacred rights of mankind should thus dwindle down to Electors of electors, and those again electors of other electors? This seems to be degrading them even below the prophetical curse denounced by the good old patriarch, on the offspring of his degenerate son: "servant of servants".

But, of course, the complaint was really a complaint about the unprecedented amount of power that the new Constitution had invested in the office of the President by giving it such independence from Congress and the judiciary, not about the means of electing the President. And perhaps it is so in this case as well.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A View from the Bleachers

One of the fun things about Terry Eagleton's review of Dawkins's The God Delusion is seeing all the pro-Dawkins atheists of the blogosphere assume immediately that Eagleton must be a rabid theist. I bet no other Marxist has ever been accused of believing in God so often as Eagleton has in the past few days.

While I've pointed to some of the interesting comments on the book, I haven't said anything myself, and don't really expect that I ever will. This is because the serious controversy with regard to The God Delusion has nothing to do with theism and everything to do with atheism. The real battles that it sparks -- and you can already see them heating up -- are between atheist and atheist, not between atheist and theist. People forget that one of the reasons at least some atheists tend to be quiet about their atheism is the fact that atheisms are very different; an atheist who advocates his version of atheism vociferously, at least at any length, is as likely to offend other atheists of different stripes as he is to offend theists. And this is not at all surprising; atheism is not a monolothic tradition, but a conclusion you can come to from many different starting-points. And atheists do come to their atheism from many different starting points. Some start with Marx or something like him; some start with a strong version of rationalism bordering on the Platonic or Cartesian; some start with design arguments and the problem of evil; some start with moral arguments; some start with some particular experience or other; some start in other places entirely; and not all of them consider the other starting-points to be equally valid, or important, or progressive. Not all of them can, with any consistency. There is a lot of odium atheologicum under the surface, not vented because it rarely needs to be. And that's not surprising, either; it's a matter of human nature.

In recent years, however, there has been a strand of atheism, or a group of strands of atheism, associated (although not exclusively) with Dennett and Dawkins, that has -- and very explicitly -- made a bid for dominance. Another non-surprising thing is that some of the most scathing reviews of Dennett's Breaking the Spell and Dawkins's The God Delusion have been by atheists. The reviewers in such cases are atheists of different stripes who see the surge of this group of atheists as a very bad thing for atheists generally. And if any interesting dogfights come about from these books, they will all be fights among atheists. Theists really don't have much of a place in this fight. The objections, after all, are rarely new. We're in the bleachers, and have the luxury of discussing abstractly whether we think this or that argument of this or that group of atheist is more likely to give an advantage. We can, so to speak, make bets on the winner, collect the stats, and cheer for our favorite teams; but the actual tournament is between competing forms of atheism. Get the good seats while they're still available.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Links and Notes

* Carnival of the Feminists 25 is up at "Philobiblon". There is some really great stuff in this one; I especially recommend the Women of History section. There's also an interesting post about an appallingly sexist cartoon. Perhaps most interesting of all, though, was the juxtaposition of two opposing viewpoints on the veil: Salma Yaqoob's So much for the sisterhood and Kate Smurthwaite's Lifting the veil. I find something of merit in both arguments. I am inclined to think Yaqoob is more in the right here; but my viewpoint is colored by an experience I once had, which I think I've mentioned before on this blog. I was going to the University of Toronto Philosophy Department one day, and stepped into the elevator at 215 Huron Street. In the elevator there was a conservatively veiled Muslim graduate student with whom I had once taken an Islamic Philosophy course. We had occasionally talked in class, but we didn't know each other's names (we had been introduced, but neither of us remembered the other's name), and we had never seen each other outside of class -- she was in the Near Eastern studies program, I was in the Philosophy program, and it had been the only class we'd ever taken together. But when I stepped onto that elevator she lit up as if I were her best friend. And the reason was that in that same elevator there was another student -- neither of us knew him -- who had scared her half to death. All he had done was point to her veil and say that it was a sign of oppression; but he had done it in a cold way that she felt was menacing. And I can understand her feeling entirely, because the would-be liberator didn't really come across as having her best interests at heart: she was for him simply an ideological issue, not a person. I always remember that day when this issue comes up, because it's a healthy reminder that it's not only those who support the veil who can use it to dehumanize those who wear it. I think it's an issue where neither side is entirely right or wrong: it's probably true that in the long run the best interests of the women involved are best served by the elimination of the veil. But in the short run, the best interests of the women involved are best served by the respect -- and perhaps even more importantly by the sisterhood -- Yaqoob feels is missing from the discussion.

* Wired has an interesting (but in many ways odd) article on the 'New Atheists' and their assault on agnosticism -- I don't think the agnostics really have much to worry about from them. Dawkins's claim that we can't prove that the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn't exist is, of course, blatantly false; as I've noted before, claims that you can't prove a negative, or that you can't prove that something doesn't exist, only survive by an illicit ratcheting-up of the standards of proof in the negative case. That is, you can't prove a negative only when you raise the standards of proof high enough that you can't prove it; and that's about it. Flying Spaghetti Monsters and the like are good cases in point. And contrary to the suggestion of the article, Dawkins's arguments are never a 'conscientious deduction of conclusions from premises'. Dawkins is not a logical thinker; a close look at the logic of his arguments always shows them to be very sloppy. His strength is being able to reduce things to a concise, clear point that (as it were) shows you directly his own point of view. The often does make up for the logical sloppiness; such a talent would make up for more serious flaws most of the time. But Dawkins is just not a sufficiently rigorous thinker to engage in the 'conscientious deduction of conclusions from premises'.

* William Morris's essay on Useful Work versus Useless Toil is always worth reading. Morris, in fact, is always worth reading; here's a selection from his essay on The Revival of Handicraft:

Yes, we do sorely need a system of production which will give us beautiful surroundings and pleasant occupation, and which will tend to make us good human animals, able to do something for ourselves, so that we may be generally intelligent instead of dividing ourselves into dull drudges or duller pleasure-seekers according to our class, on the one hand, or hapless pessimistic intellectual personages, and pretenders to that dignity, on the other. We do most certainly need happiness in our daily work, content in our daily rest; and all this cannot be if we hand over the whole responsibility of the details of our daily life to machines and their drivers. We are right to long for intelligent handicraft to come back to the world which it once made tolerable amidst war and turmoil and uncertainty of life, and which it should, one would think, make happy now we have grown so peaceful, so considerate of each other's temporal welfare.

You can find more of Morris at The William Morris Internet Archive.

* Somehow I only just found out that the Online Library of Liberty has Shaftesbury's Characteristics online. This work's influence on British philosophy in the eighteenth century can scarcely be exaggerated. It's also a very curious work, being a collection of rather diverse writings on various subjects -- it's a philosophical miscellany. Expect a post or two on Shaftesbury when I have the time.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Framing Analysis Research Project

Chris at Mixing Memory is putting out feelers on an interesting possible cognitive science research project on concepts in politics. You can read the summary of what he's thinking about doing from the post. The big question at this point is whether it's possible to get enough bloggers of sufficiently diverse inclinations involved in the project to make the sample broad enough for use. If you are interested, please let Chris know in the comments.

The Consolation of Philosophy

Today is the traditional anniversary of the death of Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius; he was killed by King Theodoric, the Ostrogoth, on charges of treason and sacrilege. Early on there sprang up a tradition, which may or may not be true, that the charges were trumped up and that he was really executed for being an orthodox Catholic. It is actually somewhat plausible -- Theodoric was an Arian who is known to have had a number of struggles with his nominal superior (Justinian I in Byzantium) and his subjects over the issue of Arianism -- but we lack clear information to confirm the tradition. While in prison Boethius wrote his most famous work, The Consolation of Philosophy. And what consolation did Philosophy bring Boethius in prison? There are a lot of different interpretations on this point, but I think the work is fairly straightforward about it. The governing theme of the book is divine providence; Boethius raises questions or misconceptions about providence, and Philosophy answers or corrects him. And the final conclusion of it all is this: We do not pray in vain. The consolation brought by Philosophy to a despairing man in prison is that prayer is worthwhile. In Philosophy's own words (as translated by W.V. Cooper):

Thus, therefore, mortal men have their freedom of judgment intact. And since their wills are freed from all binding necessity, laws do not set rewards or punishments unjustly. God is ever the constant foreknowing overseer, and the ever-present eternity of His sight moves in harmony with the future nature of our actions, as it dispenses rewards to the good, and punishments to the bad. Hopes are not vainly put in God, nor prayers in vain offered: if these are right, they cannot but be answered. Turn therefore from vice: ensue virtue: raise your soul to upright hopes: send up on high your prayers from this earth. If you would be honest, great is the necessity enjoined upon your goodness, since all you do is done before the eyes of an all-seeing Judge.'

You can find Cooper's 1902 translation online.

(P.S. By the way, if anyone is able to help me with a puzzle, I would appreciate it. All the information I have been able to gather on whether Boethius has been canonized by the Catholic Church is conflicting. There are a number of places that straightforwardly say he is canonized; others say he was beatified. His cultus seems to have been confirmed in 1883; while this is a different process, confirmation of cultus is often considered to be equivalent to beatification. It's basically a shortcut (if it can be called that) in the process for people who have been considered to be saints 'from time immemorial' (in practice, prior to 1540, which condition is easily met by Boethius), particularly if they were martyrs or confessors. There's some ambiguity in Boethius's case, since it isn't clear whether Boethius was really martyred; but it's a very fine ambiguity, and much less of an obstacle in his case than in other cases where Rome has clearly decided for martyrdom -- Maria Goretti (killed during a rape) and Edith Stein (killed at Auschwitz by the Nazis for being a Jew) being good instances of this sort of ambiguity. To some extent it doesn't matter -- Catholic beatification indicates sainthood, it just doesn't indicate sainthood in the sense required for a particular kind of role in the liturgical devotions of the Church. But I still would like to know how far Boethius's cause has progressed, just for the knowing. If anyone can point me to actual documents, that would be appreciated.)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Camera Civilization

Did the enthusiasm of the Romantics for the wind-harp signify that htey had come to see the history of the Western mind as a kind of war between the harp and the camera--that they foresaw the camera civilization that was coming upon us? If so, they were true prophets, because it certainly has come. The camera up to date has won that war. We live in a camera civilization. Our entertainment is camera entertainment. Our holidays are camera holidays....Our science is almost entirely a camera science....Our philosophers--it is no longer possible even to argue with most of them, because you cannot argue about an axiom, and it is already becoming self-evident to camera man that only camera words ahve any meaning. Even our poetry has become, for the most part, camera poetry. So much of it consists of those pointedly paradoxical surface contrasts between words and between random thoughts and feelings, arranged in the complicated perspective of the poet's own often rather meager personality. Were, one asks, has the music gone? Where has the wind gone that sweeps the music into being, the hagion pneuma, the ruach elohim? It really does feel as though the camera had won hands down and smashed the harp to pieces.

Owen Barfield, from The Rediscovery of Meaning, quoted in A Barfield Reader [University Press of New England. Hanover: 1999] pp. 54-55. Of course, Barfield isn't all negative when it comes to the camera -- i.e., to the apparent claim of objectivity that really arises from individualistic projection of a 'punctilinear nothingness' in the distance, the way a camera does, just has he is not all positive about the Romantic image of the aeolian harp. What he suggests is that the two need to be joined -- we should not merely look, we should not merely imagine, we should look with imagination.

Carnivalesque XX

Carnivalesque XX is up at "Recent Finds Weblog." Of special interest is Alun on Deb Willet, Pepys's mistress; the Map of Early Modern London; Glemmeboka; and Jesuits on Treason. I note with some pleasure that Henrik has introduced some Scandinavian posts; one of the deficiencies of blog carnivals -- and it's perhaps the one hardest to remedy -- is the tendency to overlook non-English posts.

And AC Grayling Overshoots...

by attacking the whole notion of moral progress in his screed against religious proselytization (ht: Stranger Fruit):

And as this last point implies, it is time to demand and apply a right for the rest of us to non-interference by religious persons and organisations - a right to be free of proselytisation and the efforts of self-selected minority groups to impose their own choice of morality and practice on those who do not share their outlook.

Take that abolitionists and members of the civil rights movement, those nasty little self-selected minority groups (and a lot of them rather religious in their approach) who tried to impose their own choice of morality and practice on those who did not share their outlook! Everyone should have a right to be free of such people!

Setting aside its being an easy target for sarcasm due to his tendency to make extremely general claims that couldn't possibly taken seriously by any reasonable person without considerable qualification, Grayling's essay has a number of problems. I found this paragraph rather odd:

It is time to refuse to tip-toe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions. It is neither. Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason, as between them Kierkegaard and the tale of Doubting Thomas are at pains to show; their example should lay to rest the endeavours of some (from the Pope to the Southern Baptists) who try to argue that faith is other than at least non-rational, given that for Kierkegaard its virtue precisely lies in its irrationality.

First of all, the reason religious faith is often regarded as 'intrinsically deserving of respect' (to use a phrase Grayling uses elsewhere), at least in liberal societies, is that it is an expression of conscience, and conscience is intrinsically deserving of respect; at least, it is if you think personal freedom is deserving of respect, since a great deal of that old liberal notion of liberty that has served us so well is tied up with respect for personal conscience as such. And there are, unless you are a statist, a lot of reasons to think that we should, at least to the extent possible, treat matters of conscience with kid gloves, shielding them with custom and, yes, even law. And that is, in fact, the old traditional way people in liberal democracies go about improving social life.

And the last part of the paragraph above doesn't even make any sense, being a backhanded appeal to the authority of Kierkegaard on Christian faith for the purpose of making a sweeping general claim about all religious faith that a lot of people (from the Pope to the Southern Baptists, I've heard) deny is true at all. Further, the interpretation of Kierkegaard isn't even right; Kierkegaard does not say that the virtue of faith lies in its irrationality. The Kierkegaardian position is that the virtue of faith lies in its 'absurdity', that is, in its not being the sort of thing that can be accurately or adequately characterized by labels like 'rational' or 'irrational', understood in particular as a concern with the universal. Faith, being concerned in Kierkegaard's view with what we might call the personal and particular as such, can't be categorized in either way. Or, to put it in yet another way: Faith is not rational (or irrational) if by 'rational' one means anything like what the Hegelians of Kierkegaard's time would have tended to call rational. But just as that in some sense says more about Hegelians and their deficiencies than about faith, so in some sense does Kierkegaard's admiration of the absurdity of faith say more about the fact that we tend not to characterize reason in such a way that it includes the purely personal -- sex, and love, and self-sacrifice and other things where we are dealing with this person, here and now, one-on-one in a personal way, somehow drop out -- than it says about faith. Now, it is true that there are a lot of twists and turns involved in interpreting Kierkegaard, and plenty of ways to go wrong, but I don't think the rough summary I've given here is that far off from where most Kierkegaard scholarship is; if anything, Kierkegaard scholars would tend to add more nuance to the picture, not less.

So, apparently, religious faith in general must be irrational because a crude and not very intelligible interpretation of Kierkegaard has Kierkegaard saying that the admirable thing about faith is irrational, even though if Kierkegaard says this, it makes him a member of a very tiny minority of people in one -- and only one -- of the religions of the world, which Grayling later on pointedly points out are many. A single ipse-dixit (and a story interpreted in a way it usually isn't) should 'lay to rest' whatever anyone else says on the subject. What sort of argument is this? Not what you would expect from someone who claims to do philosophy.

That's not the only problem with the argument from the essay. A number of problems arise, I think, because Grayling can't decide whether he wants to make a moral argument or a political one, and what can be taken seriously (and what can't) in his reasoning changes depending on which you take him to be trying to make. Still, it is not a total mess, because he does at least begin setting up an argument or two that could be taken more seriously for a narrower claim about the politics of civil discourse.


Terry Eagleton is scathing in his criticism of Dawkins's recent book The God Delusion (ht: The Elfin Ethicist). What struck me most, though, was this passage:

Dawkins thinks it odd that Christians don’t look eagerly forward to death, given that they will thereby be ushered into paradise. He does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide. The suicide abandons life because it has become worthless; the martyr surrenders his or her most precious possession for the ultimate well-being of others. This act of self-giving is generally known as sacrifice, a word that has unjustly accrued all sorts of politically incorrect implications. Jesus, Dawkins speculates, might have desired his own betrayal and death, a case the New Testament writers deliberately seek to rebuff by including the Gethsemane scene, in which Jesus is clearly panicking at the prospect of his impending execution. They also put words into his mouth when he is on the cross to make much the same point. Jesus did not die because he was mad or masochistic, but because the Roman state and its assorted local lackeys and running dogs took fright at his message of love, mercy and justice, as well as at his enormous popularity with the poor, and did away with him to forestall a mass uprising in a highly volatile political situation. Several of Jesus’ close comrades were probably Zealots, members of an anti-imperialist underground movement. Judas’ surname suggests that he may have been one of them, which makes his treachery rather more intelligible: perhaps he sold out his leader in bitter disenchantment, recognising that he was not, after all, the Messiah. Messiahs are not born in poverty; they do not spurn weapons of destruction; and they tend to ride into the national capital in bullet-proof limousines with police outriders, not on a donkey.

What struck me about it is that it's actually very similar to Dorothy Sayers's portrayal of Judas in The Man Who Would Be King.

UPDATE: For those more interested in Eagleton's review itself, you might want to read Benjamin Cohen's balanced and thoughtful reflection on it at "The World's Fair".