Friday, March 07, 2008

Pointing Out an Argument About Truth

I notice that PZ Myers, talking about John Wilkins's recent thoughtful reflection on problems, uses some of his favorite rhetorical mud -- one of the words that comes up, for instance, is 'shrill', one of his favorite words, which is used so promiscuously that it's obvious that it has nothing to do with the style or tone of what it is used to label. (But you don't have to take my word for it. You can use a search engine to find the posts in which Myers has called someone shrill for disagreeing with a position he holds -- I did, since when I first considered pointing out that Myers seems to use 'shrill' in this way, I wanted to be sure that it wasn't just selective memory. There are, however, many, and you will be hardpressed to find anything in common with the things given the label except that Myers disagrees with them.) But he doesn't stop there; he pulls out all the stops. Indeed, he spends very little space actually analyzing Wilkins's post and a great deal of space piling on gratuitous descriptions of Wilkins. For instance, he doesn't just attribute to Wilkins the claim that Dawkins is practicing atheism rather as if it were a religion, he says, "the running them of his critique, the great dirty word that he uses to bludgeon Dawkins in reply, is to claim with flashing eye and a sneer and a spit that he's practicing atheism as one of those filthy religions." Needless to say, Myers did not watch Wilkins write the post with flashing eyes, sneers, and spitting; it's a caricature, and a rather silly one at that. One could perhaps suggest that Wilkins's post has a tone that's annoyed and grumpy in parts; but the claim that it is shrill, sneering, and involves any spitting is not really going to withstand the scrutiny of a spectator. Indeed, the claim, with its wild exaggeration and attempt to link Wilkins to creationists, seems...a little shrill.

In any case, the point that I thought was particularly interesting in Wilkins's post was the following argument:

And while we're on truth, let's stop pretending all this talk of truth is scientific and not religious in itself. Scientific ideas are tested or not, reliable or not. They are never True, just good enough. To talk about Truth is to help yourself to the trappings of religion under the counter, as it were.

(This is, in fact, what opens the paragraph that starts Myers off on the flashing eyes and spitting.) Although it's informally expressed here (not surprisingly, given that it is an incidental mention at the end of a blog post), Wilkins is actually presenting an argument that has become fairly common among naturalists. I once attended a talk by Simon Blackburn where he gave a version of this argument quite eloquently (and in a context that had nothing to do with Dawkins, since it was part of an abstract argument about the desiderata for a account of truth). This type of argument can get very sophisticated (and complicated), but the general gist summarized very nicely by Wilkins here, and I wanted to point it out as food for thought. (I'm inclined to disagree with it myself, at least without serious qualifications, but I think it worthy of serious attention.)

Three Poem Drafts


Blushing, confused,
I do not know what to say;
to be regarded as someone else
is awkward in a way,
and I wish the earth
would swallow me whole
like Korah, or the sea
would pour in and take its toll.
And the worst of it all
in this strange, muddled rush?
I can't keep composure,
I can't stop this blush.


All human kind on earth
in glorious renown,
at least unto yourselves,
are planted in solid ground
of your own fancy;
and, infused with special worth,
as special as might be had,
because of your sacred birth
out of your own heads,
rejoice! A mirror to your face
is set to reflect your light,
to catch your splendid beauty.
Its name is antichrist.


Bring out against me Sennacherib's host,
all the resource and reason your legions can boast;
the wind and the wave and the fish of the sea
will fight all the armies that fight against me.

Your words made of razors and forceful with rage
will die on your tongue, will die on the page,
will fall like felled oaks and snap like frail cords
through the gnawing of mice and the word of the Lord.

You may bring out your words by twos and by threes
your weapons of paper, but I shall not flee;
my kind and my people the promise shall see:
the stars in their courses fight those who fight me.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Respect and Esteem

In a recent post on respect, Jean Kazez conflates respect and esteem: "Basically respect is esteem—it’s having a set of positive thoughts about someone or something." But I don't think that this is standard usage, although the two perhaps overlap. To esteem something is to hold it in high regard, but to respect something need not involve that. Thus, although some people treat 'self-respect' and 'self-esteem' as synonyms, the (very common) insistence on the difference between self-esteem and self-respect is not incoherent.

Consider the following scenario (based on a real-life one). A business, not satisfied with its current distributor, switches to another, and finds that they dislike the new distributor even more. "You just don't respect the barely competent as you should until you come across the truly incompetent," says one employee to another. Now, it makes no sense whatsoever to suggest that the employee means that we should esteem the barely competent, as if it were of high value; rather, he is suggesting that competence should be respected in even those forms that we wouldn't normally esteem. Nobody esteems the barely competent, for precisely the reason that it is the bare minimum of competence; but it still makes sense to argue that it should be respected, because, barely or no, it is competence.

Further we can respect things we regard negatively. Many people don't have positive thoughts about rattlesnakes, but the standard advice to respect rattlesnakes still makes sense. The advice does not suggest that they should think positively about rattlesnakes, which would be useless advice; rather, it means that they should respect them, i.e., not treat them with contempt, nor simply ignore them, and act toward them in a way that shows appreciation for the ways in which they can be dangerous.

This is perhaps related to Darwall's suggested distinction between recognition respect and appraisal respect: to exercise recognition respect is to treat something as sufficiently weighty to take into account in your deliberations, while to exercise appraisal respect is to treat something as having some sort of merit based on some particular features. (We could, if we wanted, distinguish both from esteem by suggesting that the latter is a general estimation based on all the known features of a thing.) But even appraisal respect is a bit tricky: John could respect Tom for his singing voice and, due to envy and resentment, hate it as well, regarding it as a terrible waste, or as something perverted from its proper use. This is not straightforwardly a positive assessment.

Consider the notion of 'respect for persons'. When someone says that it is a general obligation to respect other human beings, this does not obviously mean, as Kazek's reduction would suggest it should, that we should go about thinking positive thoughts about them. Telling you to respect your parents, or your children, or your friends, or your benefactors, is not telling you what to think about them; it is telling you to engage in one form of just behavior toward them.

In any case, while the question of the nature of respect is itself an important one, the context in which it arises is not. I am amused by the hypocrisy of most of this atheist indignation about the legitimacy of disrespecting beliefs; in most cases it obviously arises not because they have any interest in fulfilling obligations or counsels of respect about beliefs but because they are looking for excuses to excuse inexcusable disrespect to the believers of those beliefs. When you clear out all of these cases, leaving only the honest discussants, atheist or otherwise, in the mix, it turns out that there is nothing particularly religious about the issue; indeed, there is nothing about it that particularly pertains to beliefs. Rather, it is about what justice towards other people, even those with different beliefs than one's own, requires. That's the interesting question.

St. Konon the Gardner

Today is the feast of St. Konon the Gardener. Here is what I said last year about him:

In the middle of the third century a man from Nazareth, known to us by the name of Konon, planted and tended a garden outside of Mandron in the provience Pamphylia, in a place called Karmela. He did very little more than that; he just tended his garden and raised enough vegetables to live on.

As time went on, he began to have a reputation for being a good and simple soul; whenever anyone would greet him, he would greet them heartily in return, with all sincerity and good cheer. News of him came to the governor, who grew curious to see this man who lived so simply and cheerfully; and he sent a messenger asking him to come.

But Konon replied to the messenger, "What does the governor have to do with me? I am a Christian. If he wishes to call anyone, let him call those who believe as he does. I will remain with my garden."

So they tied him up and took him to the governor. Once there, the governor tried to get him to engage in the imperial worship; but he refused, saying he would not do so even if they tortured him.

So they tortured him. In particular, they put nails through his feet and forced him to run in front of the governor's chariot. He did not last long, and thus died Konon the Gardener, saintly martyr.

(It has always struck me, by the way, that if there is anyone fit to be a patron saint for Christians of a libertarian stripe, St. Konon, who just wanted to tend his garden in peace, is the one.)

Exclusivism, etc., and Tolerance

Massimo Pigliucci has a somewhat muddled post at "Secular Philosophy" on religious tolerance. Not having read the article to which Pigliucci refers, I'm not sure whether the muddle is due to him or the article; since Pigliucci is often pretty sharp I'm going to assume that it's the article and that Pigliucci just hasn't thought through the argument completely.

The muddle comes from trying to link exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism with tolerance. This can't be done, because the former three are not positions about what can be tolerated but about the evaluation of the truth of other positions: an exclusivist holds that one and only one position is sufficiently true (i.e., is close enough to the truth, or has enough true elements); the inclusivist holds that all positions are sufficiently true (without necessarily holding that they are all equally true); and the pluralist holds that there is no one standard for determining whether a position is sufficiently true, but several lines of evaluation at which different positions might excel. What the position is held to be (or not to be) sufficiently true for, varies slightly depending on the context; it usually relates in some way to the question of how crucial it is to convert people who hold that position. (Note, incidentally, that neither the inclusivist nor the pluralist are committed to the claim that every position is equally good. The inclusivist is committed only to the claim that every position is good enough that you don't have to worry too much about them; this is consistent with holding that some of these good-enough positions are better than others. The pluralist holds that there are many standards of good-enough that have to be considered, and thus that there is no such thing as 'equally good', simpliciter. Further, note that it's possible to have one approach if one set of standards are met, and another approach if they are not. For instance, you might be inclusivist toward all positions that have feature F, but exclusivist toward all positions that don't. Indeed there are probably no absolute versions of any of these; the strictest exclusivist allows some variation and the most generous inclusivist draws the line at some point.)

And we find that these are not limited to religious believers. The bickering among atheists that you occasionally find, and that has come to greater prominence since the rise of the so-called 'New Atheism', is very often precisely an argument between those who hold an exclusivism with regard to religion (such as the New Atheists, or at least such as the New Atheists are accused of holding) and those who regard this exlusivism is poorly justified, and thus support an inclusivist or pluralist approach to religion, holding that at least some religionists are close enough to the right position that there's no point in fussing about the differences, or that some religious positions have valuable strengths that atheisms often lack, which need to be appreciated and perhaps applauded, whatever the fatal weaknesses.

Tolerance actually has nothing to do with exclusivism, inclusivism, or pluralism; you can be tolerant in all of these and you can be intolerant in all of these. You might be puzzled as to how an inclusivist could be intolerant, but there is no significant puzzle here. An inclusivist holds that of positions A, B, and C, they all are sufficiently true or good enough that it's not important to convert people; needless to say the holders of positions A, B, and C may not agree, and then the further question of how to handle their disagreement on this new issue arises; further, whether the inclusivist should be tolerant of, say, highly exclusivist and intolerant D, rises as another further question. Similarly, there is no puzzle about exclusivists being tolerant; exclusivists hold that only A is good enough, but that doesn't answer the question of what to do with people who hold B and C. That's a further question, requiring additional principles. If the principles of A require the use of only rational persuasion and generous good will as the means of converting people who hold B and C, nobody would say that A is intolerant, however exclusivist it might be. Tolerance is decided not on the basis of one's evaluation of other positions but on the basis of one's positive principles about how to act towards other people, including those in serious error; all exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism do is give us an analysis of which people, if any, are in serious error and in what ways.

Recognizing that there are plenty of forms of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism that have nothing to do with religion might possibly require some subtle thinking, but the fact that questions of tolerance and intolerance can arise in many other areas of life than religious ones, and the fact that usually tolerance and intolerance are linked not to one's evaluation of others but to one's view of how people should be treated regardless of evaluation, should have been obvious tip-offs that the argument needed more critical examination.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Might of the Gentile, Unsmote by the Sword

The Destruction of Sennacherib
(Lord Byron)

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Philosophers' Carnival LXIV

Well, I've had a bit of a let-down today. I've been thinking for some time now about what needs to be done to find a handy way of diagramming modal logic using Carroll's literal diagrams; I figured out how to do it today. I thought I was being extraordinarily clever, but further thinking led me to realize that it was really just a variant of the diagrams James Garson uses in Modal Logic for Philosophers, which I happen to be reading at the moment. (It wasn't immediately obvious that they were the same, and the book had been set aside for a week or so as I was doing other things, so it's not quite as silly as it sounds. But I still feel silly about it. It goes to show that you don't always know the origin of your own ideas.) There are a few nice features to the variant, so I still might post something on it after I've put a few more of my thoughts about it in order. And I do still intend to write on the role of Christ in Spinoza's philosophy. But in the meantime, check out the new edition of the Philosophers' Carnival at "Movement of Existence".

Boethius on Philosophy and Statesmanship

Although the cares of my consular office prevent me from devoting my entire attention to these studies, yet it seems to me a sort of public service to instruct my fellow-citizens in the products of reasoned investigation. Nor shall I deserve ill of my country in this attempt. In far-distant ages, other cities transferred to our state alone the lordship and sovereignty of the world; I am glad to assume the remaining task of educating our present society in the spirit of Greek philosophy.

[In Categorias, E. K. Rand translation, quoted in F. Anne Payne, King Alfred and Boethius, U Wisconsin P (Madison, WI: 1968) p. 7; I've placed the Latin below for those who are interested.]

Yet you [i.e., Philosophy] were the one who through the mouth of Plato decreed this inviolable axiom, that states would be happy and prosperous if either those devoted to wisdom should rule them, or if it were to happen that those who did rule them devoted themselves to wisdom. And it was through the mouth of this same man that you warned that this was the compelling reason for the wise to enter into political life, that the rudders of the state not be handed over to its unrighteous and criminal citizens and so bring their disease and disaster upon the good. So it was in accordance with this authoritaitve pronouncement that I desired to put into action what I learned from you in the course of our private and leisurely lessons -- that is, the action of public service.

You and the God who planted you in the minds of the wise are my witnesses that no enthusiasm brought me to high office other than the enthusiasm for the community of all good people.

[Cons. Phil. I.4.5ff, Relihan translation, Hackett (Indianapolis: 2001).]

The Latin

In Cat.:

Et si nos curae officii consularis impediunt quo minus in his studiis omne otium plenamque operam consumimus pertinere tamen videtur hoc ad aliquam reipublicae, curam, elucubratae rei doctrina cives instruere. Nec male de civibus meis merear, si cum prisca hominum virtus urbium caeterarum ad hanc unam rempublicam, dominationem, imperiumque transtulerit, ego id saltem quod reliquum est, Graecae sapientiae artibus mores nostrae civitatis instruxero.

Cons. Phil.:

Atqui tu hanc sententiam Platonis ore sanxisti beatas fore res publicas si eas uel studiosi sapientiae regerent uel earum rectores studere sapientiae contigisset. Tu eiusdem uiri ore hanc sapientibus capessendae rei publicae necessariam causam esse monuisti, ne improbis flagitiosisque ciuibus urbium relicta gubernacula pestem bonis ac perniciem ferrent. Hanc igitur auctoritatem secutus quod a te inter secreta otia didiceram transferre in actum publicae amministrationis optaui. Tu mihi et qui te sapientium mentibus inseruit deus conscii nullum me ad magistratum nisi commune bonorum omnium studium detulisse.

Note that, strictly speaking, it is wisdom that Boethius links to statesmanship.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Links for Thinking

* History Carnival LXII at "Spinning Clio"

* C. George Caffentzis, Algebraic Money: Berkeley's Philosophy of Mathematics and Money (PDF)
Karin DeBoer, Hegel Today: Towards a Tragic Conception of Intercultural Conflicts (PDF - ht)

* Gadamer, Brunellus, and the Brownshirts at "Speculum Stultorum"

* The Kids Philosophy Slam:

The Kids Philosophy Slam is an annual program designed to make philosophy fun and accessible to all kids in grades K—12, as well as to help promote critical thinking skills and encourage dialogue with other students and adults. The Philosophy Slam asks kids to answer a philosophical question such as "What is the meaning of life?" Depending on their age, kids can express themselves in words, artwork, poetry or song. Each grade level has its own national winner, and the top four high school students debate the question at the national finals. The winner earns the title of "The Most Philosophical Student in America" Schools from across the country compete for the title of "The Most Philosophical School in America."

It's not quite the same as the oracle at Delphi telling Chaerephon that there was no one wiser than Socrates in Greece, though.

* David Corfield on Peirce on mathematics at "n-Category Cafe".

* Keith has a post on why Hume used the dialogue form for his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion at "Summa Philosophiae".

* James Poulos at "The Postmodern Conservative" recently had a couple of posts on MacIntyre: Neuhaus v. Nussbaum, MacIntyre vs. Rorty

* "The Reactionary Epicurean" suggests a way of understanding the Stages of Mathematical Development. (ht)

* At The Logic Museum, Simon of Faversham discusses whether Caesar is dead. Yes, he knows that he is; it's the logical issues of it that are his concern; in particular, he is interested in elucidating the fallacy of secundum quid et simpliciter. For broadly similar reasons, Radulphus Brito discusses whether Socrates is dead. (ht)

* Paul Robinson is puzzling over the question of how Dooyeweerd's aspects causally relate.