Saturday, April 05, 2008

Send Up

This very cunning bit of work has been going around recently (crude language warning):

It is a sign of its cleverness that it has started long, elaborate arguments about which 'side' it's on. I think this shows that there are quite a few people who struggle with humor; humor is reduced to wit that exhibits utility, so anything funny must have a point. But this is to chain humor to something quite extrinsic to it. It's a send-up; it can be used in service of argument or polemic, but it is not on a 'side', because the conditions for the success of a parody is that it be funny, not that it represent a side well. On occasions when it does both -- one thinks of Berkeley's Alciphron -- this is not intrinsic to the parody but takes a great deal of tactical maneuvering -- and, indeed, Berkeley excels at tactical maneuvering, making several different lines, whether rational or literary, converge at exactly the right time to make his point. The apparent seamlessness is a sign of exquisite talent exquisitely applied. In reality, humor is a form of play; just as one might play a game in order to make a point, you can make a joke in order to make a point, but that's something that is, so to speak, added on top of the joke itself. Dane Cook's famous atheist joke (also some crude language, for those who don't know Dane Cook) is not an attack on atheists; he does it because he thinks it is funny, and indeed it is. South Park's "Go God Go" episode is not an entry into disputes over evolution; it exists to mock anything that comes up, or to have awesome lines like "I shall smash your skull like a clam on my tummy!" Any utility it may have to any 'side' is quite secondary. It is not there to make a 'serious point'. It is humor; its connection to anything serious can at most be accidental. It is not there to be serious; it is there, in Thomas Aquinas's great description, intermittere intentione ad insistendum studio rationis: to leave off, to take a break, from the strain of persevering in rational pursuits.

There is, of course, such a thing as good taste in humor, which is often violated; but that's a different sort of thing, since taste also is not about utility, not about service to some 'serious point', but about what merits and demerits the thing itself can be judged to have.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Meme: Passion Quilt

I saw this at Rebecca's.

1. Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures that about which YOU are most passionate for students to learn.
2. Give your picture a short title.
3. Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt.”
4. Link back to this blog entry.
5. Include links to 5 (or more) educators. (Like Rebecca, I don't usually tag. If you're an educator, though, of any sort, feel free to do your own.)


Because what makes manifest is Light, and the fruit of the Light is in all goodness and justice and truth.

The above, of course, is Fra Angelico's The Transfiguration of Christ. You can see a somewhat better version here (sorry about the pop-ups). Also recommended is Sufjan Stevens's The Transfiguration.

Work and Hope

Here, you see, are two kinds of work--one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life.

What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.

What is the nature of the hope which, when it is present in work, makes it worth doing?

It is threefold, I think--hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself; and hope of these also in some abundance and of good quality; rest enough and good enough to be worth having; product worth having by one who is neither a fool nor an ascetic; pleasure enough for all for us to be conscious of it while we are at work; not a mere habit, the loss of which we shall feel as a fidgety man feels the loss of the bit of string he fidgets with.

William Morris, "Useful Work and Useless Toil" in Signs of Change. This post was inspired by Paul Robinson and Nick Carter, who both know the importance of the hope implicit in good work.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Englebretsen on the Liar Paradox

George Englebretsen has a good summary in the most recent edition of The Reasoner of his propositional depth account of the Liar Paradox. I discussed this approach in August 2006. As I noted there, a problem with this approach is that, if it is true and taken as a general solution to Liars, whether a statement is meaningful or not will sometimes depend entirely on the existence of other sentences; and another is that you can generate sentences that certainly seem to be false, but which would really be meaningless if the propositional depth account is correct. These are indeed problems, or at least puzzles; but I think one can bite the bullet on both and still be entirely reasonable.

There are several different approaches you might take to a Liar:

(1) It is true.
(2) It is false.
(3) It is true and false.
(4) It is meaningless.

On (1) you'd say that (for example) the following sentence is simply true:

This sentence is false.

Needless to say, it is not generally regarded as viable (although it does seem to have been held once or twice in history). (3) is a dialetheist position; it has never been popular, although thanks to Graham Priest and a small handful of others it is not a completely dead approach to the paradoxes, either. If we set aside (1) and (3), and there are reasons to set them both aside, then that leaves (2) and (4) as the primary approaches. (2) has occasionally had its partisans, although it's not the dominant view these days. I'm a fairly solid (2) man myself; I'm inclined to think the paradoxes are generated by dubious assumptions about what can be inferred from the falsity of a statement. That is, the problem is inference, not meaning. But I have no knock-down argument for this, and the propositional depth account still seems to me to be the best version of (4) I've ever come across. I like the apparatus of the account, or I would if I knew of any independent reasons for it, any real uses for it outside of Liars.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia article on the Liar paradox has a somewhat odd claim about Prior's version of (2):

Moreover, if all sentences are really hidden conjunctions, then some rules of propositional logic, such as the rule that one can derive any conjunct immediately and the rule that from any two propositions one can immediately derive their conjunction, are called into question. If we can derive this statement is false from This statement is true and this statement is false, then the paradox is back. And if we are not allowed to make such a derivation, then Prior has, in effect, invented a new kind of conjunction whose truth value characteristics are so mysterious, we cannot really say with any confidence that the paradox has been dissolved.

But surely no one holds that we can use conjunction elimination to conclude to a conjunct if the conjunction is false? For instance, suppose I take a contradiction:

p & ~p

I cannot from this infer either p or ~p unless I take it to be true. And this does not change if p is understood as follows:

p = p & ~p

And if I have just an ordinary conjunction, e.g.,

The sky is red and grass is green

and if it's clear that it's false, as we would ordinarily take this one to be, then I cannot infer either of its conjuncts. I can only infer a conjunct if I take it as true -- e.g., treat it as a premise. To be sure, every conjunction implies its conjuncts, but that doesn't mean that from every conjunction you can conclude the truth of its conjuncts. Because then you could take any false conjunction, e.g.,

2+2=5 and everything is false

and conclude that everything is false (or that 2+2=5, which is not an improvement). So if there is a problem with Prior's solution, it isn't that he has "invented a new kind of conjunction" with mysterious truth value characteristics. Just look at a truth table. If p and q are your conjuncts, and the conjunction is false, that may mean any of the following:

p is false and q is true
p is true and q is false
p is false and q is false

So which are you going to pick? Nothing about the conjunction itself requires any of these inferences; so nothing about p or q can be inferred from the conjunction itself.

(I'm also a little puzzled at the claim that if we interpret the Liar not as a conjunction but as an equation, A = (A = false), the paradox returns. But from

(1) A = (A = false)

we get by associativity

(2) (A = A) = false

which by identity is

(3) true = false

which, of course, is by definition the same as

(4) true = ~true

which anyone who takes Prior's view would obviously regard as just plain false, and for exactly the same reasons.)

[From the discussion page, incidentally, I notice that the Prior section has given the editors quite a bit of trouble; apparently it was muddled and in violation of Wikipedia standards from the get-go, and getting it into shape has been a struggle. Since the above passage has no citation, I would suggest that by WP:NOR and WP:V the above passage should be removed and only restored if it can be re-written, with citations, so as to describe an actual discussion in the literature. Perhaps there is one; but if so, it's clear the section needs both clarification and citation.]

Monday, March 31, 2008

'That makes no difference'

LICIDAS: They're putting on a play there.

MADAME DE KRIEGSCHENMAHL: Ah! My God! That's ruinous. A young man of 24 acting in a play.

MR. DE KRIEGSCHENMAHL: It's fine for a woman to act in a play; but a man must make war, always war.

LICIDAS: But father--when we are at peace?

MR. DE KRIEGSCHENMAHL: That makes no difference.

MADAME DE KRIEGSCHENMAHL: I would be very upset if you were making war. That's much too rough for my darling son. But act in a play! Truly, that makes me shudder! Never would my mother or my grand-mother have imagined such a thing.

From Madame de Staël's Signora Fantastici (Morlock translation).

Holy Annunciation

Today's the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the feast most closely dedicated to the Annunciation. For celebration, here is a poem by Donne and a passage from the Tome of Leo.

The Annunciation and Passion
John Donne

Tamely, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who's all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she's seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she's in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th' abridgement of Christ's story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th' angels Ave, and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God's Court of Faculties,
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these.
As by the self-fix'd Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where th'other is, and which we say
—Because it strays not far—doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to him, we know,
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar, doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud ; to one end both.
This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one ;
Or 'twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be ;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating spouse would join in one
Manhood's extremes ; He shall come, He is gone ;
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords.
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

For it was the Holy Ghost who gave fecundity to the Virgin, but it was from a body that a real body was derived; and "when Wisdom was building herself a house," the "Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,that is, in that flesh which he assumed from a human being, and which he animated with the spirit of rational life. Accordingly while the distinctness of both natures and substances was preserved, and both met in one Person, lowliness was assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity; and, in order to pay the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature was united to the passible, so that as the appropriate remedy for our ills, one and the same "Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus," might from one element be capable of dying and also from the other be incapable. Therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was his, whole in what was ours. By "ours" we mean what the Creator formed in us at the beginning and what he assumed in order to restore; for of that which the deceiver brought in, and man, thus deceived, admitted, there was not a trace in the Saviour; and the fact that he took on himself a share in our infirmities did not make him a partaker in our transgressions. He assumed "the form of a servant" without the defilement of sin, enriching what was human, not impairing what was divine: because that "emptying of himself," whereby the Invisible made himself visible, and the Creator and Lord of all things willed to be one among mortals, was a stooping down in compassion, not a failure of power. Accordingly, the same who, remaining in the form of God, made man, was made man in the form of a servant. For each of the natures retains its proper character without defect....

A Poem Re-Draft

This variation on Bürger's Romantic classic may be compared with Dante Gabriel Rossetti's translation, William Taylor's Ellenore, Julia Goddard's Lenore, and Sir Walter Scott's version, William and Helen. Those who know French might also compare this French translation (anonymous, as far as I can see). These are, of course, only a small selection of important translations of Bürger's poem. I wish I were linguist enough to have an acquaintance with Zhukovsky's variations in Russian ("Ludmila" and "Svetlana"); by all accounts they are excellent, but I don't read Russian and I've never come across an English translation of them.


The ghosts of the dead across land and sea
wildly dash as they seek to be free.

Lenore in her bed is deeply disturbed
by nightmare-madness that shakes and unnerves,
by the terror of dream that ennervates souls,
the last horror, wanhope, that Pandora stole.
"Ah, Wilhelm," she says, in a sigh like a moan,
"have you no faith, or no strength, to come home?
Have you no means, or no will, to return,
when Ilium falls and Jerusalem burns?"

And the armies come home, the men and the boys;
the throngs of the soldiers return to their joys.
But never is Wilhelm found laughing with bliss,
arriving at home to catch Lenore's kiss.
Swiftly and often the maiden's bright eye
searches among the men who go by,
gladsome and glorious, and uncaring at all
for Lenore's worried search, or the name that she calls.

Her mother would ease her, as mothers will do:
"God is in heaven, His grace ever new;
seek mercy from him, and comfort you'll see."

"Mother, this God has no mercy for me."

"Her words are the words of a child distraught;
she knows not the sense of this wickedest thought!
Heaven, forgive her, and daughter, know this:
God's wisdom is endless, and mercy is his."

"Mother, my mother, your God does not care.
He who has mercy relieves all despair;
but pitiless God, he brings only night,
takes away Wilhelm, and shuts away light!"

"Heaven forgive you! The wine and the bread
show us a God who saves us from death.
The cup and the paten are mercy indeed:
reflect on their power; my daughter, take heed!"

"Mother, the lies of the wine and the bread
have no power to save or to raise from the dead;
no pity I find there, only the loss
of a man all forsaken and dead on the cross."

"And what if it's Wilhelm, not God, who's untrue?
What if your young man another pursues
on some rugged mountain, on some distant plain?
Watch who you blame in your anguish and pain!"

"Mother, my mother, it all matters not.
If his heart be made still or by someone else caught,
nothing at all can raise this sad head,
my life is for nothing, my place with the dead."

"Cease, my dear girl, all this moan and complaint!
Set your sweet heart on the goal of the saint:
seek you the vision of the One who makes whole,
He who alone is fit groom to the soul."

"What is bliss, my sweet mother? Indeed, what is hell?
With Wilhelm is bliss, and without him I fell
down to the darkness, down to the tomb.
He is my light, all else is but gloom.
All other things may God coldly remove;
neither heaven nor hell should such providence prove.
But Wilhelm alone is my heaven and light:
she requires no other who is by his side."

The clack and the clatter of the hoof of the steed,
the clank of the steel and the voice Lenore needs,
waft through the door to meet Lenore's ear,
to bring her rejoicing and turn her to cheer.

"Are you waking or sleeping, Lenore, O my bride?
Come with me, come with me, away let us ride!
Off must we go, ere dawn slays the night,
fast journey and far, to wedded delights!"

"Wilhelm, my Wilhelm, eleven's the bell
that tolls in the churchyard and says all is well;
rest you within till night turns retreat;
come inside, dearest, and whisper me sweet."

"No, my Lenore, before break of day
I have many a mile to mark on my way.
Swift, at dead gallop, through storm and through night,
through rain and through gusting, before morning's light."

Without pause, unwary, she raced through the door
with kiss and caress no man could ignore;
but Wilhelm straightway did lift her beside,
and settled her down, and away they did ride.
The world like poured water in rush flurried by
as bridge blurred to bridge for the slow human eye
and trees of the forest became like a wall
that flickered and rose and behind them did fall.
And shimmers and shadows alone in the dark
rose to the eye like the fire and spark,
the shapes of the warriors who died far away;
they rush to find solace before break of day.

"What ails you, my darling, my dearest, my bride?
Why do you shudder and your head turn aside?
Are they not lovely, the shades of the dead?"
Lenore answered not as she covered her head.

Soon to a gate born of iron and fire
they came; and there Wilhelm as if in ire
threw back his hand, and the iron bolts bent,
and gently inside the two lovers went.
But see how the moonlight plays tricks on the eye!
See Wilhelm, how thin, like bones long laid by!
See now his head, like a skull reft of skin,
and how like he looks to the bones of dead men!

Now lies before them the tombs of the dead,
but Wilhelm still sings of the sweet nuptial bed,
and Lenore, who now struggles, is drawn ere she wist
to a dark grave, cold hand on her wrist.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Chrysippus the Plagiarist

Speaking of Diogenes Laertius, here's a tale or two from his Life of Chrysippus:

He was industrious beyond all other men; as is plain from his writings; for he wrote more than seven hundred and five books. And he often wrote several books on the same subject, wishing to put down everything that occurred to him; and constantly correcting his previous assertions, and using a great abundance of testimonies. So that, as in one of his writings he had quoted very nearly the whole of the Medea of Euripides, and some one had his book in his hands; this latter, when he was asked what he had got there, made answer, "The Medea of Chrysippus." And Apollodorus. the Athenian, in his Collection of Dogmas, wishing to assert that what Epicurus had written out of his own head, and without any quotations to support his arguments, was a great deal more than all the books of Chrysippus, speaks thus (I give his exact words). "For if any one were to take away from the books of Chrysippus all the passages which he quotes from other authors, his paper would be left empty."

These are the words of Apollodorus; but the old woman. who lived with him, as Diocles reports, used to say that he wrote five hundred lines every day.

Chrysippus was the great Stoic logician; unfortunately we have only very indirect information about what he wrote on the subject. But if Diogenes Laertius is right (he may not be; his reliability is very uneven), most of Chrysippus's writings might not be very interesting.

Notes and Links

* Janet Stemwedel discusses science and belief at "Adventures in Ethics and Science."

* John Wilkins discusses classification in philosophy of science in a very interesting post at "Evolving Thoughts". One of the remarkable things if you read nineteenth-century philosophy of science is that most of the great philosophers of science in the period devote quite a bit of attention to the subject. But the interest dies out somewhere along the line (Wilkins suggests a sort of rough chronology of the disappearance), and I'm not sure why. Duhem in some sense seems the last hurrah for the topic: he does hold that classification has a crucial role (indeed, the crucial role) in physics, but he doesn't discuss classification as such at great length, and that's certainly not a part of Duhem that has had much influence. Wilkins presents an argument that "classification is not only interesting but one half of science."

* Kenny has a post on how Berkeley manages to be both a phenomenalist and a Platonist. It's no secret that I think that Kenny's right on track with regard to this point of interpretation.

* Keith discusses Cleanthes's argument against the eternity of the world in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

* Brian Switek of "Laelaps" discusses the legend of the Wilberforce-Huxley 'debate'. One is reminded of the famous legend of Laplace's "I have no need of that hypothesis" in response to Napoleon; we have the real story (slight update here) from William Herschel's diary, since Herschel was there:

The first Consul then asked a few questions relating to Astronomy and the construction of the heavens to which I made such answers as seemed to give him great satisfaction. He also addressed himself to Mr. Laplace on the same subject, and held a considerable argument with him in which he differed from that eminent mathematician. The difference was occasioned by an exclamation of the first Consul, who asked in a tone of exclamation or admiration (when we were speaking of the extent of the sidereal heavens): "And who is the author of all this!" Mons. De la Place wished to shew that a chain of natural causes would account for the construction and preservation of the wonderful system. This the first Consul rather opposed. Much may be said on the subject; by joining the arguments of both we shall be led to "Nature and nature’s God".

That's a somewhat different moral. These folk legends seem to survive because they are clever rhetorical presentations of simple arguments; the tale gets adorned to bring out the intended point more clearly. In that sense they can be said to be a sort of loose and colloquial philosophical instrument, a way of doing philosophy outside of more rigorous dialectical contexts. Thus the real point in presenting them is generally not history but persuasive presentation of folk philosophy. The Diogenes Laertius approach to philosophy, one might say. Switek suggests that this is potentially dangerous:

Perhaps I'm a bit biased in that my preferred area of science (paleontology) is historical in nature, but I worry that the work of historians of science is often ignored. It's easy to give assent to the popular stories and use the same images & examples over and over again, but in some cases I fear monsters have been created that cannot easily be slain. Without a firm understanding of the history of our own discipline, we'll continually be working off of the "last best" review or representation, and stories will continue to mutate and become caricatures of more impressive, compelling historical events.

* Apparently I'm too loose with my tongue around here (ht):

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?
Created by OnePlusYou - Free Online Dating

* A discussion of moral psychology at between Paul Bloom and Joshua Knobe (ht). Bloom has some interesting publications online. Cognitive science of religion gets some discussion as well. Lots of it is good; some of the discussion gets a bit weird, though.