Monday, April 30, 2007

Noted Notables

* In 1979 Richard Feynman gave four introductory lectures on the subject of quantum mechanics at the University of Auckland. You can find them at Vega. It's a great series, which is why I can forgive them for suggesting that Feynman is perhaps the greatest science lecturer ever, when obviously that honor goes to Faraday. The 'fits of easy reflection and transmission' that Feynman mentions was one of Newton's very clever ideas, namely, that the particle of light undergoes alternating fits of easy reflection and easy transmission; when it hits a surface while in a fit of easy reflection it is more apt to be reflected by that surface, whereas when it hits a surface in a fit of easy transmission it is less apt to be reflected by it. It was Newton's ingenious way of handling by way of particles the phenomena of light that are more easily handled by assuming that light is a wave. It didn't take hold, due to the increasing dominance of the wave theory, which was just simpler; but despite its limitations (and Newton himself recognized a number of puzzles with it) it took the particle theory to an entirely new level.

* Allan Carlson has a fascinating look at the history of Protestant views of contraception, which have gone from a very strong position against -- as strong as or even stronger than the Catholic position -- to qualified support, to an increased support that was even open to abortion (in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention had even issued a resolution urging its members to work for less restrictive abortion laws), to clear opposition to abortion (the SBC retracted and apologized for its pro-choice resolutions in 2003), to the current growing suspicion of contraception on pro-life principles.

* Eric Schwitzgobel argues for a dispositionalist theory of belief, in which belief is a disposition to act both inwardly and outwardly as if P were the case, in the face of trembling Stoic cases, suggesting that the Stoic, because of his physical reaction, does not "fully and completely believe" that death is OK. My own view is that if we're going to do that much damage to the term 'belief', so that it can be so completely independent from occurrences of sincere judgment, assent, and decision, we might as well call what we're talking about something else entirely, like 'disposition to act as if P were the case'. (This is not entirely dismissive; after all, it used to be the case before people got skittish of the word that what Eric's talking about was called 'faith', and it was importantly associated with but sharply distinguished from sincere judgment, which was called 'belief' or 'assent'. One could take the criticism and simply hold that the ordinary concept of 'belief' is a term with many meanings that need to be distinguished, with the dispositional sense holding a fundamental epistemological position. Or, of course, one could take the trembling Stoic criticism in other directions.) But I mostly bring it up because Brad C in the comments brought up Saul Traiger's excellent paper (PDF) on the recurrent early modern example of the philosopher over the precipice.

* The Legal Theory Blog has a useful summary of the Hohfeld classification of rights, according to which rights are distinguished into claim rights (I have a claim on you, and you a duty to me), liberty rights (I have a freedom to do something regardless of you, and you have no claim on me not to do it), authority rights (I have authority over you with regard to something, and you are liable to me for it), and immunity rights (I am not liable to you for something, and you have no authority over me with regard to it). Solum suggests what seems to be the common view, that the classification can apply to moral rights as well as legal rights; I'm inclined to think not, since I think the distinctions between claim rights and authority rights on the one hand, and liberty rights and immunity rights on the other, tends to break down for at least some cases of moral right. The reason we can find more classes of legal rights than moral rights is that legal rights are not based simply on moral rights but also on the practical limitations of government.

* Rev. John Coughlin has a paper on canon law at SSRN (ht: Legal Theory Blog). My own view of canon law is that its primary purpose is certification: it is a system whereby the Church establishes procedures for certifying (so to speak) various Church-related actions as within the pastoral mission of the Church. So, for instance, the canon law governing baptism doesn't establish what makes a genuine baptism (which is wholly in God's hands); it establishes what the Church can certify to be a genuine baptism for its purposes. This certification is a necessary process to reduce potential confusions and disruptions in the community, which is why it is simply impossible for people to organize into a Christian congregation or community without some form of canon law, whether they call it that or not.

* Rebecca continues her series on William Cowper with a post on his death and what may have been his last and is perhaps his greatest hymn.

* Glach has a post at FQI on Descartes's appeal to divine immutability with regard to the laws of nature. It's an interesting topic, because one would think that God could immutably will laws that change or are especially complicated, as glach suggests. It started me thinking of how later Cartesians, and particularly Malebranche, handle this. Immutability makes an appearance in Malebranche's account of motion, too, but it takes a secondary role. On Malebranche's account, God must immutably will according to Order (= the Divine Word = universal Reason), and Order requires simplicity of divine ways of working. Thus Malebranche marshals simplicity against the possible responses to immutability; it is simplicity, rather than immutability, that rules out things like changing laws, complex laws, and the like. Because God is immutable, the laws of motion cannot change; further, they must be simple because God must will according to Order. We can know those laws because the laws are according to Order, who is Reason, to whom we are united as rational creatures.

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