Saturday, November 04, 2006

Wisdom from Abba Poemen

I saw this at Paradoxology. I wish that more Christians were mindful of the principle behind it.

Some old men came to see Abba Poemen, and said to him: Tell us, when we see brothers dozing during the sacred office, should we pinch them so they will stay awake? The old man said to them: Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.

Hell's Handmaiden on the Electoral College

At "hell's handmaiden" there's a good response to my response to her original post on the Electoral College. I think we need to distinguish two basic problems:

(1) The problem of whether the Electoral College was put forward because the Founding Fathers (as most clearly expressed in Hamilton) didn't trust the people with the selection of the President.

(2) The problem of whether the Electoral College can really be justified by the intended justification I suggested in my post.


Unlike the handmaiden, I don't read Hamilton as suggesting at all that the people are not to be trusted with the election of the President. Hamilton identifies five desiderata for the method of electing the President:

(1) The sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom such an important trust was given.
(2) The immediate choice should be made by the people most capable of analyzing what the office requires, working under conditions favorable to rational deliberation.
(3) The way in which it is done should afford as little opportunity as possible to 'tumult and disorder'.
(4) The way in which it is done should put up practicable obstacles to cabal and intrigue.
(5) The President should be independent in the continuation of his office on everyone but the people themselves.

The question is whether (2) should be read as suggesting that Hamilton didn't trust the people with the election of the President. I don't think it should. For one thing, Hamilton repeatedly describes the Electoral College system in what we might call populist terms -- it is, as suggested in desideratum (1), a way of making sure the 'sense of the people' operates in the choice of the President; it is, as suggested in (3), a way of protecting the people from the 'heats and ferments' of factions and parties; it makes, as suggested in (4), the 'body of the people' a bulwark against foreign powers and political intriguers raising a puppet to the post; it makes, as suggested in (5), the President independent (as far as continuation of office goes) of everyone but the people. It would be odd, in the midst of all this justification so favorable to the masses -- in which they are the only ones who can be trusted with such an important task as electing the President -- to put down a justification implying that they can't be trusted to do it.

And when we look at what Hamilton says, I think we can see what his primary point is:

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

The handmaiden reads this in such a way that the contrastive case (the alternative to 'a small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass') is the general mass itself, and to take this desideratum to imply that the election should be taken out of the hands of the populace. But it isn't literally taking the election out of anyone's hands, because the election did not exist prior to the Constitution; and the dependence of the Electoral College on the people means that it was an increase of power for the people. The question is not, "Why was the Electoral College put in place as a buffer between the people and the President?" but "What did Hamilton and others think the Electoral College was an adequate expression of the people's will in the case of the President?" And the reason, I believe, is that Hamilton is still thinking in terms of the failed experiment under the Articles of Confederation, a theme that seems to be in the background of every other desideratum that he mentions. It seems to me that Hamilton's basic questions are whether the choice of President should be:

(a) accomplished by a preestablished body of people -- no, because of desiderata (1), (4), and (5)
(b) accomplished by a large body of people -- no, because of desideratum (2)
(c) accomplished by a unified body of people -- no, because of desideratum (3).

And so what the Electoral College system is supposed to do is to give the choice to a temporary, small, and divided body of people. This body of people is also supposed to be representative (1) and (3), able to deliberate (2), exclusive of those with a vested interest (4), and changing over time (5).

So I don't think there is any hedging going on here. The argument is a reasonably unified line of reasoning, and the whole tendency of that line of reasoning is what we might call populist in nature: to increase the power of the people as a way of reducing the flaws of government as found under the Articles, and to do so in the way that will best insure that the President is someone capable of doing the job. When Hamilton argues that the Electoral College fits that last criterion, he does so by arguing that it requires responsibility to the whole mass of society, rather than to one segment of it. And that is hardly an undemocratic argument.

It is another question whether Hamilton's justification works, and whether, contrary to the intention, the Electoral College might, in fact, be a hedge against the will of the people.

I think it would be right to say that it is uneven. Hamilton is speaking in principle; he doesn't know how the Electoral College works in practice, because he's arguing for its implementation, not for its preservation. And it is clear, I think, that problems have arisen that Hamilton did not foresee. The biggest of these, and I think the strongest basis from which to argue against the preservation of the Electoral College, is the dependence of the whole system on state legislatures. The Electors of a state are chosen entirely by the method determined by the legislature of that state, and this means that an immense amount of power is being entrusted to the states, without many constitutional restrictions put on it. (Indeed, beyond the restrictions later put on the powers of the state to restrict those eligible to vote in the popular restriction, there are no constitutional restrictions at all on this power.) And I think history shows that the states have not been particularly great at using this power intelligently. Electoral law is an immensely important area of law; it is therefore shocking how shoddy the electoral laws in each state can be. Florida, for instance, has shown itself more than once to be unable to figure out what its own election laws require; and it is unfortunately not quite alone in this self-induced confusion. It's also clear that the states have done little more than rubber-stamp party lines, thus limiting the degree to which the Electoral College can actually perform the deliberative function Hamilton argued it should exemplify.

However, it does perform the deliberative function that Hamilton proposed, and this is seen in the dispute over the so-called 'faithless Electors'. The term is not entirely accurate, since almost half of the 'faithless Electors' have voted for persons other than the candidate favored by the party with which they were associated entirely because that candidate had died between Election Day and the meeting of the Electors; the Electors then had to decide how the Electoral College votes would be applied, a problem that would have to be handled anyway, and which is fairly easily and directly handled under the Electoral College system. Of the other votes, one vote (Margaret Leach, West Virginia, 1988) was a protest vote to try to convince people to fix the fact that Electors in the Electoral College are not constitutionally required to vote according to the popular vote. (Leach protested by switching her votes around -- she gave her vote for President to her party's Vice Presidential nominee, and her vote for Vice President to her party's Presidential nominee.) I don't think that should count as a flaw in the system, since it was deliberately done to protest the system itself. So that leaves just over eighty votes in the entire history of the system, and all but a handful of these (less than ten, if I count correctly) were for Vice Presidents, not Presidents. And one of those faithless Electors (Bailey, North Caroline, 1968) at least claimed (although how honest we should consider him to be in this is very disputable) that he was justified because of the popular vote -- while Nixon had taken the state, the district Bailey represented had voted for Wallace, for whom Bailey cast his vote. It's usually held that none of the 'faithless Electors' have had a serious effect on the election, which is not surprising, given how rare they are. So I don't think we can treat this as a serious practical problem. But, of course, it is entirely reasonable to ask whether there is a problem in principle with this.

One of the problems with many criticisms of the Electoral College is that, if they were taken seriously, they would be equally valid against representational bodies of any kind. A first knee-jerk reaction to the 'faithless Elector' problem might be to say that Electors should always and only vote for what the people want; but this isn't a standard to which we consistently hold any other representational body (it could not possibly be maintained in the case of Congress, for instance), so if it is applicable here it would have to be because of the special electoral nature of that body. Likewise, one might argue that Electors should always and only vote for the candidate favored by the popular vote; but this overlooks cases where some sort of deliberation would obviously be reasonable -- for instance, the death cases, which are the most common actual case; or possible cases where new and clear evidence of criminal activity, of which the people could not have been aware, comes to light after Election Day; or cases where the popular vote is far too much in dispute for us to say who received it.

The most promising route, I think, is the one taken by the handmaiden, namely, arguing that, whatever the intent, "the Electoral College is a convoluted and inconsistent, and largely hidden, system that at its heart is an extreme hedge against– not for– the will of the people." Let me first say that I agree that the Electoral College would probably benefit from being less hidden; under the current system this is chiefly a matter of state law, and different states have different methods -- in some cases the ballot is secret, in others it is not, and so forth. But this would not require the elimination of the Electoral College system itself. What I think is more serious is the charge that it is convoluted. I don't think this is actually true; if there is a problem with the Electoral College, it is not that it is inconsistent and convoluted but that it takes something very messy and convoluted and inconsistent -- namely, the popular vote, which is perpetually changing and full of dispute -- and tries to impose order on it with a system that simplifies it immensely to less than three hundred votes, which are stable from election to election since they are indexed to Congressional representation, and which takes most of the pressure off of local disputes over the popular vote. The whole Electoral College system is defined in the U.S. Constitution by eight or nine sentences. The election process is easy to follow, and easier to keep track of than a popular vote count is, which is why news organizations organize their news on Election Day according to Electoral College votes even though what they are tracking is only the popular vote for Electors.

So I don't think there's any clear sense in which the Electoral College is inconsistent and convoluted at all; both parliamentary-style election according to legislative district and a direct popular vote would be even more inconsistent and convoluted, and there's no doubt that they are the only two possible alternatives. And the sheer number of questions you would have to settle in order to handle unusual possible cases for direct election of such an important office as the Presidency is immense. For instance, suppose a candidate takes a clear majority of the popular vote, then dies before actually taking office. Who should become President? His running mate, despite the fact that he's not Vice President yet, and despite the fact that votes for Vice President and President are distinct votes? The leading Presidential candidate for the same party? The person with the next largest count of votes, even if he's from a different party? Should a commission be called? A new election? What if the problem is not death but too many disputed votes? There are advantages and disadvantages to every single one of these proposals, and which is best would have to be hammered out in dispute. Election systems have to be able to stand even in weird cases and unusual elections; one of the beauties of the Electoral College system is that it is a relatively simple way to keep a stable system in unforeseen cases. Only two things can break it -- the collapse of Congress (neither the number of Electors nor the timetable then being determinable) and the inability of state legislatures to oversee elections (no method for determining Electors then being available). In either of these cases we would have more serious issues to worry about. A direct popular vote would have at least as many moving parts.

The handmaiden insists that the Electors are not chosen in any meaningful sense by the voters, but I'm not quite sure what the argument for this would be, taken as an argument against the Electoral College itself. Since the state legislatures have jurisdiction over the means of election, most of what I think the handmaiden has in mind is the common state-chosen process for choosing Electors, which is entirely party-oriented. I'm not much of a fan of it myself, since it means that, in effect, the parties choose the Electors and the voters of the state just decide the party that wins; but this is not what most people criticize when they criticize the Electoral College. In fact, no one can regard the 'faithless Elector' problem as a real problem and think that there's something troublesome about parties picking Electors, since a 'faithless Elector' is just someone who doesn't vote according to the party that picked him. (Not someone who votes contrary to popular vote, contrary to what is usually said.) This is mostly a matter of state law, which is not always the most intelligent system of thought; if there were any basis for eliminating the Electoral College, this would be it. I don't think it's sufficient, given the advantages of the EC; but I do think we should seriously consider reforms in state law that would shift this out of the hands of the parties (e.g., direct voting for Electors, or some such). For, again, it's not a constitutional problem, but a legal one at the level of the states.

So I would agree that the system as it exists needs reform; but it needs reform at the level of state law, not at the level of the U.S. Constitution. It's the method of choosing Electors, not the Electoral College, that is the serious problem, and that introduces an undemocratic element into our election of the President.

Malebranche Quote for the Day

Remaining in the church, always subject to its authority, we shall not be shipwrecked if we bump lightly against the rocks.

Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion X.xvi (compare Jolley-Scott 192)


Only he who understands that there exists things "important in themselves," that there are things which are beautiful and good in themselves, only the man who grasps the sublime demand of values, their call, and the duty to turn toward them and to let oneself be formed by their law, is capable of personally realizing moral values. Only the man who can see beyond his subjective horizon and who, free from pride and concupiscence, does not always ask, "what is satisfying for me?", but who leaving behind him all narrowness, abandons himself to that which is important in itself—the beautiful, the good—and subordinates himself to it, only he can become the bearer of moral values.

The capacity to grasp values, to affirm them, and to respond to them, is the foundation for realizing the moral values of man.

Now these marks can be found only in the man who possesses reverence. Reverence is the attitude which can be designated as the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world which opens his spiritual eyes and enables him to grasp values.

This is from Dietrich von Hildebrand's interesting little work, Fundamental Moral Attitudes.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Notable Links

* The nominations for the 2006 Cliopatria Awards have opened. The purpose of the Cliopatria Awards is to recognize the best history writing in the blogosphere. There are awards in six categories: Best Group Blog; Best Individual Blog; Best New Blog; Best Post; Best Series of Posts; and Best Writing. Blogs and posts may be nominated in multiple categories; and individuals may nominate more than one. Judges of categories are not eligible to nominate or be nominated for that category; but they may be nominated for other categories. For further information and to nominate blogs, posts, or series of posts for the Awards, visit the 2006 Cliopatria Awards index. Please take some time to consider whether you've come across any posts or blogs on historical topics, or about history, that might be good candidates for an Award.

* "Holocaust Controversies" is hosting the 42nd History Carnival.

* Michael Pakaluk argues that eudaimonia and flourishing are very different concepts.

* A list of other people's Top Twenty theology lists at "Faith and Theology".

* Chris has a fascinating post on polysemy vs. homonymy at "Mixing Memory". It strikes me that it would be interesting to juxtapose the results with traditional thought about analogous and equivocal predication (or imposition of names), which is a very similar distinction.

* Tag Cloud for Major Presidential Speeches, all the way back to Washington. (Ht: Crooked Timber)

The Judicious Hooker

Ed Cook at "Ralph the Sacred River" notes that today is the Anglican feast day for Richard Hooker.

First therefore whereas they allege, "That Wisdom" doth teach men "every good way;" and have thereupon inferred that no way is good in any kind of action unless wisdom do by Scripture lead unto it; see they not plainly how they restrain the manifold ways which wisdom hath to teach men by, unto one only way of teaching, which is by Scripture? The bounds of wisdom are large, and within them much is contained....Now if wisdom did teach men by Scripture not only all the ways that are right and good in some certain kind, according to that of St. Paul concerning the use of Scripture, but did simply without any manner of exception, restraint, or distinction, teach every way of doing well; there is no art, but Scripture should teach it, because every art doth teach the way to do something or other well. To teach men therefore wisdom professeth, and to teach them every good way; but not every good way by one way of teaching. Whatsoever either men on earth or the Angels of heaven do know, it is as a drop of that unemptiable fountain of wisdom; which wisdom hath divinely imparted her treasures unto the world. As her ways are of sundry kinds, so her manner of teaching is not merely one and the same. Some things she openeth by the sacred books of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of Nature : with some things she inspireth them from above by spiritual influence; in some things she leadeth and traineth them only by worldly experience and practice. We may not so in any one special kind admire her, that we disgrace her in any other; but let all her ways be according to their place and degree adored.

[On the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book II, par. 4]

You can read Hooker's works online here.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Malebranche Quote for the Day

If the inordinate desire to become learned often makes men more ignorant, the desire to appear learned not only makes them more ignorant but seems to subvert their reason. For there are an infinity of people who lose their common sense because they wish to surpass it, and who utter nothing but stupidities because they wish to speak only in paradoxes.

The Search After Truth 4.8 (LO 299)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Top Twenty

Due to a post at "Faith and Theology" there are a lot of people posting top twenty lists for the theological works that have most influenced them. I decided to do a list for theology and list for philosophy. The order, like some of the choices, is partly arbitrary and partly not in both cases. It's interesting looking at it. Russell gets on the Philosophy list because HWP was one of the first works of philosophy I read (in tenth grade, I think), and I loved it -- I commented all over it, and read through it so much the book fell apart. It's not actually a great work in History of Philosophy; it's tendentious and sometimes nothing short of silly. But what struck me about the book was not Russell, but some of the thinkers he discusses. Definitely on the list. But it clearly has changed over time. If I had made such a list in undergrad, of the names listed in the top ten, only Aquinas would have been there then. Augustine might have made it with the Enchridion, since I was (and to some extent still am) taken with his summation of the relation between mind and body as far superior to Descartes's. Maritain would have made the list. That Hume would make the list even once would have been inconceivable, much less twice with one of those in the top ten. Popper would certainly have been on the list; I held Popper in esteem until I read Duhem and realized what a real philosophy of science is like. Whewell and Shepherd I came to late, and would not even have recognized their names. Maritain and Francis Schaeffer would probably have made the list. And so forth. Similar things might be said about the Theology list. In any case, both lists are suggestive of my eclectic side.


20. The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
19. Dante, Divine Comedy
18. Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone
17. The Way of the Pilgrim
16. John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith
15. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
14. Gregory Palamas, Triads
13. Calvin, Institutes
12. Bonaventure, Itinerarium
11. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo
10. Ps-Dionysius, On the Divine Names
9. C. S. Lewis, Miracles
8. Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit
7. Gregory of Nyssa, Not Three Gods
6. Teresa of Avila, Autobiography
5. Augustine, Confessions
4. Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life
3. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life
2. Augustine, De Trinitate
1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae


20. Scruton, The Aesthetic Understanding
19. Plato, Gorgias
18. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas
17. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy
16. Beauvoir, The Second Sex
15. Novalis, Pollen
14. Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience
13. Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II
12. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
11. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
10. Augustine, De Magistro
9. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being
8. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
7. Whewell, Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences
6. Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory
5. Scotus, De Primo Principio
4. Butler, Fifteen Sermons Delivered in Rolls Chapel
3. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent
2. Lady Mary Shepherd, An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect
1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae

The Evolution of Beauty

This video by the Campaign for Real Beauty is stunning. And, more importantly, to the point. Also at YouTube. [hat-tip: Parableman]


Today is the Feast of All Saints, on which we celebrate all the saints, known and unknown, popular and obscure, of every culture and nation and clime. It is the celebration of the communion of saints insofar as it constitutes the Church Triumphant. So how to observe it in a post? I think the following revival hymn might go some way toward doing it:

We are traveling in the footsteps
Of those who’ve gone before
But we’ll all be reunited
On a new and sunlit shore

Oh when the saints go marching in
When the saints go marching in
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

And when the sun refuse to shine
And when the sun refuse to shine
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

When the moon turns red with blood
When the moon turns red with blood
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

On that hallelujah day
On that hallelujah day
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

Oh when the trumpet sounds the call
Oh when the trumpet sounds the call
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

Some say this world of trouble
Is the only one we need
But I’m waiting for that morning
When the new world is revealed

When the revelation comes
When the revelation comes
Oh Lord I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

Of course, the hymn is one with a thousand different versions, because it's so easy to improvise. Choose your own. But really to celebrate you need to see and hear it with Louis Armstrong, here and here.

Malebranche Quote for the Day

The purpose of God in His Church is to make a work worthy of Him.

Méditations chréiennes et métaphysiques VIII.22

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reformation Day

As Lee notes, it is Reformation Day, which observes Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses, on the power and efficacy of indulgences, on the door of the Wittenburg Church. The most fitting poem for the day is by Martin Luther himself, in the most popular English translation:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

You can hear the usual music for it here. And you can find the original German here.

Malebranche Quote for the Day

Man is capable of three things, knowing, loving, and feeling: of knowing the true good, of loving it, of enjoying it.

Traité de morale 1.1.18

Monday, October 30, 2006

Malebranche Quote for the Day

Malebranche is actually very quotable in many ways; so I thought I would start a new series, probably sporadic, called 'Malebranche Quote for the Day'. Here's the first:

When error wears the livery of truth it is often more respected than truth itself, and this false respect has very dangerous consequences.

Malebranche, The Search after Truth 2.2.8 (Lennon-Olscamp 157)

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry

Sean Carroll says in response to the opening of Eagleton's review:

These questions, of course, have absolutely no relevance to the matter at hand; they are just an excuse for Eagleton to show off a bit of erudition. If Dawkins is right, and religion is simply a “delusion,” a baroque edifice built upon a foundation of mistakes and wishful thinking, then the views of Eriugena on subjectivity are completely beside the point. Not all of theology directly concerns the question of whether or not God exists; much of it accepts the truth of that proposition, and goes from there. The question is whether that’s a good starting point. If an architect shows you a grand design for a new high-rise building, you don’t have to worry about the floor plan for the penthouse apartment if you notice that the foundation is completely unstable.

Which is exactly right. If, of course, Dawkins talks about nothing whatsoever in his book except the abstract philosophical question of whether something divine exists. Of course, Carroll himself recognizes that he doesn't. And even those who haven't read the book can still read the excerpts at the BBC and see for themselves that Dawkins, even in these short passages, runs through a lot of theological issues that would require at least a reasonable degree of research, so the claim that nothing but foundational issues are relevant shouldn't fool anyone. 'Besides the point'? Eagleton might well reply: which of the legion of points Dawkins makes?

Incidentally, passages like this will, I imagine, just confirm Eagleton in his opinion:

For the past two thousand years, theology has struggled to reconcile these two apparently-conflicting conceptions of the divine [i.e., the unmoved mover of Aristotle and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob], without much success. We are left with fundamentally incoherent descriptions of what God is, which deny that he “exists” in the same sense that hummingbirds and saxophones do, but nevertheless attribute to him qualities of “love” and “creativity” that conventionally belong to conscious individual beings. One might argue that it’s simply a hard problem, and our understanding is incomplete; after all, we haven’t come up with a fully satisfactory way to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, either. But there is a more likely possibility: there simply is no reconciliation to be had.

What I found a little humorous was the phrase, 'exists in the same sense that hummingbirds and saxophones do', since hummingbirds and saxophones themselves don't 'exist in the same sense', although they both obviously exist. The latter is a functional instrument that gets its status as a saxophone from a surrounding culture; the former couldn't exist in the same sense unless IDers were right. A more serious discussion of this would consider the issues of analogical predication, but even Berkeley, not always very sympathetic to the schoolmen, devoted a long portion of one of his Alciphron dialogues to showing that this characterization of the doctrine of the schools on attributions was poorly informed. The reason was that that characterization was very popular among freethinkers in the eighteenth century; I notice with some interest that it's making a comeback, because I have been seeing it more and more. It doesn't appear to be any more informed than it was then, whether Carroll has in mind Aquinas or Tillich here; and it's all the sadder in that it doesn't appear to be very relevant to the issue of 'reconciliation' between Greek and Hebrew views, which it is somehow supposed to be. Perhaps Carroll has some unusual figure in mind? In any case, I don't think Eagleton would find anything in Carroll's discussion particularly impressive, because it commits the same mistake of thinking you can give a genuine refutation of a position you only know superficially. If that were the case a lot of crazy views would be in a much better position than we usually think. But it must be said that Carroll's discussion is much, much better than a lot of the defenses of Dawkins that are floating around, enough that I can recommend reading it in the sense that it's not a waste of time.

I really am trying to get away from this topic.

Rational Compulsion, Reasoned Argument, Positing, and God's Existence

Hang it all, what is it with the atheism these days? Is there a bug going around? But this one is much better. At the "Philosophy Talk" weblog, Ken Taylor asks whether it is possible for smart people to be theists; and concludes that as a matter of fact it must be, since there are smart people who are theists, although it's a mystery why. In the course of saying this, he says:

Now there are lots of what purport to be reasoned arguments for the existence of god. The argument from design, the ontological argument, arguments from fine-tuning, and on and on. But two things about those arguments strike me. I don't think any one of them is at all rationally compelling. At the very least, an atheist can, I think, argue the theist to a stand-still with counterarguments. If you start out neutral with respect to god and try to reason your way to his existence by appeal to any of the traditional philosophical arguments, you just aren't going to get all the way to positive belief, in my humble opinion. And that I think is the very best that can be said for traditional arguments for the existence of god.

The very worst that can be said for them is that they are all demonstrably invalid and incapable of compelling rational belief in the existence of god. And if the worst that can be said is true, then that seems to suggest that belief in god is a form of unreason.

First for the very worst: As Macht notes, it is false that all the arguments are demonstrably invalid. What's more, it is demonstrably false, since you can construct a valid argument for any conclusion. Similarly it's not really a question whether it's 'rationally compelling'; 'rationally compelling' arguments are, if taken literally, probably a myth (no matter what the argument is, you aren't actually compelled by it, as Macht notes -- for one thing, and this is something we all do a lot, you can take a step back from it and decide that because you don't like the conclusion, there must be something wrong with the argument even if you don't see it), and if taken more loosely, as it usually is, to mean a really good argument that a lot of reasonable think supports the conclusion, it's pretty clear that a lot of people find some of the arguments rationally compelling, or they wouldn't keep popping up. Nor is it at all relevant whether atheists are ever won over by them in a dispute; what is relevant is whether a person on their own, thinking through the matter rationally, might find the argument convincing. There's a famous story about Bertrand Russell, from Russell himself, in which he had gone out for a tin of tobbacco, and on his way was thinking about various things; all of a sudden he stopped short, thunderstruck at something that had come to him, threw the tobacco tin up into the air, and shouted, "Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound!" Then, if I recall correctly, he went home and couldn't remember very clearly what had come to him to make him think that. The point is, when we are dealing with rather sophisticated arguments, as many arguments for the existence of God are, anyone, however dead-set against it, can have a mood where he thinks that maybe, just maybe, there might be something to it, and that maybe, just maybe, the objections to it are really quibbles after all; and other people, given their rational background and line of reasoning, will have much more than just a mood. The problem, by the way, with putting it in terms of a dispute rather than a single person reasoning is that it puts the atheist in very bad company, since there are all sorts of skeptics that, with sufficient ingenuity, can argue you to a standstill on many things that you have excellent reason to believe. The human intellect, unlike an argument, is wild and living; if it wants to go a direction different from where the argument leads, it can find a way to do so. And if you are in a situation of direct opposition, a sufficiently determined and ingenious opponent can keep up the argument indefinitely, however right or justified you may be.

So it's not a matter of validity, nor a matter of rational compulsion. It's not even quite a question of soundness, because not all of the arguments are strictly deductive arguments. The only real question here is whether they are legitimate inferences from true claims. And even setting aside my own very extreme view -- that there are a lot of excellent arguments for the existence of God, some of which can be considered demonstrative (that last clause is especially rare these days) -- it's clear that there are a lot of these inferences where a reasonable person could think that they are good enough, supposing that no adequate defeating arguments came along. If nothing else, there is almost certainly a gray area where reasonable people could reasonably disagree about the quality of the argument. A lot of inferences we think are good are actually quite tricky; we are not rigorous creatures, and even in our relatively good reasoning sometimes slop around a bit more than we should, and sometimes there are issues that are just hard on our given level of analysis. (This, incidentally, is why I still recognize that there are reasonable and rational atheists even though I have the strong view that God's existence is rationally certain. There is room for them, given that not every argument, even assuming that it is good, can be adequately pursued by everyone, and given that I may be wrong about some of them, and given that, even setting that aside, many of them might reasonably be rejected by people with different views of inference, or of some other relevant thing, than I. There's lots of room for being reasonable on lots of things -- it's just that some things have more room for being reasonable than others.)

[I didn't read it until after posting this, but as it happens, Alejandro Satz has a post that independently makes a similar point on this general issue from a very different, and atheistic, perspective.]

But here's the thing. I don't think the real basis of most believers' belief even purports to be anything like reasoned argument. I mean I don't think I've ever met a single person who's been talked out of belief by the failure of any of the traditional philosophical arguments or who's been talked into belief by the success of those arguments. Does that mean that most believers are unreasoning? Well, some surely are. But I'm not prepared to say that most or all are.

I don't know if I've met anyone, either; but, then, I don't go around asking people about such things. It certainly does seem that people can be pretty seriously disrupted by coming to think an argument for God's existence to be a bad argument; for instance, coming to think that Aquinas's arguments for the existence of God were failures played a bit of a role in Anthony Kenny's drifting away from Catholicism. Likewise, it does seem that people can be talked into belief by the success of an argument; witness Flew's conversion by design argument to a weak form of theism. In any case, it is no more surprising that people don't usually get talked into or out of theism by a particular argument than that they don't get talked into or out of any position by particular arguments -- it can happen, but as I think Newman points out somewhere (and in any case, Locke says similar things), mostly it is a matter of a whole bunch of beliefs slowly shifting over time in response to this testimony and that argument, and this experience and that sudden insight, until what seemed bad now seems good and what seemed good now seems bad. Rational belief change, when you think about it, is often a stunningly complicated thing. And note that nothing about this tells us whether that change is supported by reasoned argument. Arguments ramify like crazy; and it could very well be that a reasoned argument to conclusion A may, by defeasible but plausible inference B, lead us to hold C, which by analogy seems very suggestive of D, which in any case may be supported by E and is certainly useful for making sense of F (which I very much want to make sense of), and, hey, wait, if D is true then presumably G. If someone is converted to G by something like this, even if the steps are spread out over time so that the person doesn't remember (as it must be confessed even the most rational people usually don't) exactly what lead to G, it is unreasonable to say that its basis isn't reasoned argument; it's just that it's not all premise-premise-conclusion at one time. Not all reasoned argument occurs in regimented form under surveyable conditions, thankfully.

Finally he says:

The problem with this approach, as I see it, is that if you take yourself to be positing god merely in order to endow one's life with meaning and you do so with no rational basis for really and truly believing that god exists, then you seem to be engaging in a kind of pretense. But I wonder whether mere pretense is really enough to endow our lives with meanings that they don't already have. If mere pretense is enough, why can't we just decide to see our lives as meaningful in the first place, and skip the positing of god in whom we don't really believe.

The problem with this is that if you are positing God wholly in order to endow your life with meaning, it's too quick to assume that you are doing so with no rational basis. One comes across this problem with Kant's moral arguments for God's existence; yes, in fact, God's existence is given no stronger justification than being a postulate for making sense of our moral lives -- but since it's a matter of moral reason you can't actually say that the postulation is without rational basis. If you are positing something because it gives your life meaning, the question that arises is whether there's anything about giving your life meaning that gives you reason to think that what you are positing is not merely a fiction of convenience. But if there is, there is a rational basis for your belief. In other words, positing something's existence is perfectly fine; there are lots of circumstances in which it is not only reasonable, it is unreasonable not to do so. And if positing that something's existence really does what it's supposed to, that can often be, in and of itself, a good reason to believe that it exists. It varies from case to case. My point is not that 'giving one's life meaning' is a good reason to believe that God exists, since I very much doubt it is, at least without more specifics; but that you can't assume that positing X's existence for purpose P, and for no other reason than P, is a mere pretense that X exists.

Positing and pretense are in any case always very different rational functions even where we have no particular commitment to what we are positing. Someone who posits a center of gravity for the purposes of calculation, and only for the purposes of calculation, isn't making a pretense that there's a center of gravity; he's positing one, and it can be a perfectly rational thing to do whether centers of gravity actually exist or not. If a philosopher of mind posits for the purpose of a thought experiment a mind-reading psychic, he's not pretending that there are mind-reading psychics -- or if he is, he needs to go back and rethink his whole understanding of thought experiments. When for a given purpose we posit something to exist (like some astrophysical phenomenon that would make our mathematics come out right), rather than positing it to exist for a purpose (like positing that the earth is a perfect geometrical sphere for the purposes of roughing out the answer to a particular problem), things can become considerably more tricky. I suspect that what's really happening here is that Taylor is smuggling all sorts of things into his 'really and truly believe'; I doubt he just means 'actually believe' rather than 'believe in some special sense'. Without knowing quite what special sense he would mean, it's a little difficult to see where the argument is going. It could be that he means by 'really and truly believe' something like 'believe with conviction', or 'believe with passion', or 'believe in such a way that you could live your life in accordance with it'; but you can in fact do all these things based simply on a posit, if the purpose of the positing is sufficiently important. The problem with just skipping the positing step is that (in a case like this) the reason it obviously would exist in the first place is that the person doesn't see how he could make sense of the claim of a meaningful life unless there were something like what he was positing. The reason we posit X is always that X seems to be what's called for by our purposes; so long as those purposes remain, and that appearance remains, X is what you posit.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A.C. Grayling Again

I'm trying to get away from this sort of topic, which I find to be rather dull and not particularly conducive to my attempts to maintain the Code of Amiability; but I keep coming across egregious offenders, and it's hard not to point out the obvious. A. C. Grayling asks the question, "Can an atheist be a fundamentalist?", saying:

It is time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase "fundamentalist atheist". What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural entities in the universe - perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock)? Or that gods exist only some of the time - say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves - and still do?

Well, I imagine that a 'non-fundamentalist atheist' would be someone who doesn't rely on fundamentalist interpretations of texts to make his arguments, and doesn't assume that everything said about fundamentalist versions of a given religious tradition apply to everyone in their tradition. In other words, atheists who don't understand religion qua fundamentalist. Perhaps sometimes it is used simply for atheists who see the world in black and white and are unwilling to make reasonable distinctions between different kinds of religious beliefs, lumping them all together in the way we tend to attribute to fundamentalists. (Sort of along the lines of everything else that Grayling goes on to say.) And a look at how people actually use the term 'fundamentalist atheist' and similar phrases shows -- surprise! -- that something like these two ways account for many of the ways people use it. Of course it's a figure of speech (a metonymy in the first case and a metaphor in the second); it requires no great acumen to penetrate to the fact that an atheist isn't going to be deserving of the term 'fundamentalist' in exactly the same sense that a fundamentalist is unless we are using the term in a non-religious sense of 'irrationally dogmatic' (which sense it certainly does occasionally have) -- in which case it will apply to anyone who is irrationally dogmatic, regardless of what they believe. Grayling should be quick enough to figure this out.

Grayling's target appears not to be this so much as the claim that atheism is in its own way a sort of religion (a claim that is certainly made and shows how vague and useless-if-it-weren't-somehow-so-difficult-to-avoid the term 'religion' is for serious reasoning). Which is fair enough; but the essay is a very muddled argument for this sort of claim. Much better, I would imagine, to attack the claim directly without all this mock-innocent beginning in which we pretend that we don't have the ability to understand basic figures of speech.

Baxter on Balance and Truth

Labour therefore for knowledge, and soundness of understanding; that you may know truth from falsehood, good from evil; and may walk confidently, while you walk safely; and that you become not a shame to your profession, by a furious persecution of that which you must afterwards confess to be an error; by drawing others to that which you would after wish that you had never known yourselves. And yet see that all your knowledge have its efficacy upon your heart and life; and take every truth as an instrument of God, to reveal Himself to you, or to draw your heart to Him, and conform you to His holy will.

Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory, Chapter 2, Direction II.


Razib at "GeneExpression" recently had a post on Sam Harris to which I left a comment. Razib responded, but my comment grew a bit, and rather than hog the commentbox there, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I have my own weblog and post it here. Keep in mind that all this is purely response, and should only be read in context of both that post and the comments following. (Also, re-reading my comment it came across as less civil than I intended, for which I apologize. It's a regularly problem I have with commenting at other people's blogs -- if I try to be concise, I lose all the qualifications and caveats that keep me from sounding abrupt.)

(Razib said): and yet the way you frame it seems as if "no one" are trivial marginals. the reality is that 1/3 - 1/4 of americans "read" this way, and that the majority of sunni muslims read thsi way. harris knows very well that many (most) do not read this way, but his contention seems to be that this majority enables the genuinely dangerous minority.

I don't think generalizations can be made about the general reading habits of large populations quite in this way, given that they won't be consistent even in the same person across different topics: some people will be more tempted to read in a fundamentalist way on some subjects, and less on others, although most people will tend have aggregate tendencies in one direction or another; perhaps many people will just not read enough to have much in the way of either, just taking their lead from people who do have a direction one way or another. And, again, this isn't an atheist vs. theist opposition; part of that group of people who read it that way, whether deliberately or because they don't know any better, are not theists at all. Given that, I don't see the relevance of Harris's knowing that many don't read it that way; any religious fundamentalist knows that many people don't read it his way as well. What's really at issue is what is done with what is read. And my point was that Harris really can't be said to be interpreting without guile, nor to be taking religionists at their word. For an analogy, think of a critic of the U.S. political system arguing that a a particular reading of the U.S. Constitution is insanely extreme; and that, despite many people not agreeing with this reading, anyone guided by the U.S. Constitution in their political views is enabling this extreme reading. Such an argument is either unintentionally bad through a lack of sophistication or dishonest; in either case it is not unreasonable to call such a critic's reading, both of the Constitution and of the situation, shallow. Nor would it be a reasonable criticism that the sophisticated readers are constantly adapting their understanding of the Constitution to new evidence about what works politically and what doesn't; that's just what happens when rational people learn, and has nothing to do with whether it is good to be guided by the Constitution in politics or not, since it's just what being guided by the Constitution is for people who learn. Again, such an argument would be either unintentionally bad through a lack of sophistication about the U.S. Constitution, or dishonest.

(I agree, incidentally, that modernist interpretations are not always better or more rational than fundamentalist ones. The primary issue, I think, is manner of reading rather than interpretation settled on.)

(Responding to a different comment by Razib): If there is a conflation between Dawkins and Harris, at least to the extent of considering them to be in the same group of atheisms, it's not really mine, since it seems to be fairly common to regard them (along with Dennett) as variations on a theme. I doubt, in any case, that Eagleton would be any kinder to Harris than Dawkins, for exactly the same reasons he wasn't kind to Dawkins in the first place; and the same will be true of other atheists who are critical of any of the 'new atheists'. My point in bringing it up wasn't to treat Dawkins and Harris as exactly the same, but to point out that Eagleton's attack on Dawkins as uninformed is analogous, in that it is part of his more general war on fundamentalist readings and patterns of thought. To that extent most criticisms of some of these more vocal atheists as being shallow or uninformed are indicative not of an atheist vs. theist issue, but of a fundamentalist vs. anti-fundamentalist one.

And that it this is a live issue, I think, is shown by Mustafa Mond's response to my original comment, which both brazenly claims that fundamentalists read more rationally than anti-fundamentalists, and assumes it as indisputable in his argument for that claim, since we can only say that more sophisticated readers are rejecting '90% of the fairy tale' if the fundamentalists are right about that 90% of the fairy tale, which is virtually the whole point in question. I was virtually certain that the assumption that fundamentalists were more rational than their opponents was largely just something accidentally assumed by atheists in the pell-mell of certain arguments, and was a bit taken aback to find someone explicitly defending the assumption, however badly, so quickly. I suppose that the proverb 'Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist' is true for at least some atheists. So it's no wonder, as I've noted before, that atheists with more of a concern for reason and truth can get tired and annoyed at this sort of reasoning themselves. Perhaps because they might be accused of enabling it.

Which is not to say, of course, that there aren't serious theist vs. atheist issues; only that the question, whether Sam Harris and those like him are shallow in their understanding of what they are claiming to criticize, is not one of them. An atheist can recognize it as much as a theist can.

A Thought on Good Scholarship

Good literary scholarship does three things:

(1) It enriches our means for comparing our experience of the literary work to other experiences of the work.

(2) It helps us to discern interesting features of the literary work that we might otherwise have missed.

(3) It helps bring to the surface, for the purpose of examining them, latent biases in our reading that may interfere with our understanding of some aspect of the text or its history.

To put it in other words: good literary scholarship makes us better readers by cultivating our literary taste or, perhaps more accurately, by giving us the resources to do so ourselves. Cultivated taste, as the theorists of taste in the early modern period recognized, involves three basic features: (1) the ability to compare the experience in question with a broad range of other experiences, including those of others; (2) the ability to discern relevant features; and (3) fairmindedness, i.e., sufficient self-critique to identify prejudices and biases that may cloud our judgment. Since a theory of taste is also a theory of critical thinking, these points can be generalized to all forms of scholarship whatsoever, even if there are peculiarities (special pitfalls, special skills, etc.) for each field. So the real test of success for any scholarship is whether it increases the means for cultivating these basic abilities of thought.

Best Modern Interpreter of Aquinas?

Michael Joseph at "Evangelical Catholicism" has an interesting poll going on which of these five is the best modern interpreter of Aquinas: Gilson, Maritain, McInerny, Pieper, and Stump. I voted for Gilson, who seems to be winning. I would say Stump has made a promising start, but the thought of The Man From Aquino is quite vast, and there's a lot of ground she's only brushed up against; we'll have to see how things go over the next few decades. I like McInerny and Pieper, and there's no question that they've contributed an immense amount to Thomas scholarship; but I don't think they're in the same league as Gilson. Maritain is certainly a giant, but his thing was always application rather than interpretation, where he largely just followed the Second Wavers (admittedly not slavishly). Gilson's The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas is still the best introduction to Aquinas you can get your hands on; and many of his other works on the Common Doctor are equally classic.

I'm also a bit biased, perhaps. People forget that Gilson started in early modern philosophy, and became obsessed with scholasticism while studying Descartes.