Saturday, April 19, 2008

Suspicion and Epistemology

I have been trying in vain for some time to find any contemporary epistemological literature on the cognitive act of suspicion, as in "I suspect, but am not really sure, that Jane is hiding something from John". I suppose that "suspecting that X" might be conflated in the literature with "believing that X is probable", but if so that would be useless to me: there are in fact very good reasons for distinguishing the two. (For one thing, you can suspect without assessing probability, based on a very tiny bit of evidence; for another thing, you can suspect without having a clear idea of whether the evidence makes the suspicion probable or not -- this seems a common enough feature of the pursuit of truth.) There are a few things I'm looking at, on abduction and Peirce, that are potentially relevant; but it's unclear at present how relevant it is. So, since it is turning out quite fruitless, I thought I'd ask some of my readers who are more up on current literature in epistemology whether they've run across anything relatively contemporary that's in the ballpark.

Anna Barbauld to William Wilberforce

A selection from Anna Barbauld's "Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade":

In vain, to thy white standard gathering round,
Wit, Worth, and Parts and Eloquence are found:
In vain, to push to birth thy great design,
Contending chiefs, and hostile virtues join;
All, from conflicting ranks, of power possest
To rouse, to melt, or to inform the breast.
Where seasoned tools of Avarice prevail,
A Nation's eloquence, combined, must fail:
Each flimsy sophistry by turns they try;
The plausive argument, the daring lye,
The artful gloss, that moral sense confounds,
Th' acknowledged thirst of gain that honour wounds:
Bane of ingenuous minds, th' unfeeling sneer,
Which, sudden, turns to stone the falling tear:
They search assiduous, with inverted skill,
For forms of wrong, and precedents of ill;
With impious mockery wrest the sacred page,
And glean up crimes from each remoter age:
Wrung Nature's tortures, shuddering, while you tell,
From scoffing fiends bursts forth the laugh of hell;
In Britain's senate, Misery's pangs give birth
To jests unseemly, and to horrid mirth–
Forbear!–thy virtues but provoke our doom,
And swell th' account of vengeance yet to come;
For, not unmarked in Heaven's impartial plan,
Shall man, proud worm, contemn his fellow-man?
And injur'd Afric, by herself redrest,
Darts her own serpents at her Tyrant's breast.
Each vice, to minds deprav'd by bondage known,
With sure contagion fastens on his own;
In sickly languors melts his nerveless frame,
And blows to rage impetuous Passion's flame:
Fermenting swift, the fiery venom gains
The milky innocence of infant veins;
There swells the stubborn will, damps learning's fire,
The whirlwind wakes of uncontroul'd desire,
Sears the young heart to images of woe,
And blasts the buds of Virtue as they blow.

Barbauld (1743 - 1825) is very pessimistic at the defeat of the bill. In the poem she suggests that Wilberforce perhaps should just let the issue drop and let the nation damn itself; Wilberforce and other abolitionists have saved their souls, but it is clear that everyone else is more comfortable with "the daring lye, / the artful gloss" that muddle the moral sense and make it impossible for them to see the wrong of slavery even when it is staring them in the face. Fortunately, Wilberforce himself continued the fight. You can read the whole poem here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Poem Draft

When You Are Old

When you are old, and your flowing hair
glows silver in the twilight,
and in the evening you prepare to sleep
unto darker sleep and night,
hold close this fragment to your heart,
recite the words aloud;
remember one who saw your face
rise sun-like from the crowd;
and know that as this little world
turns to mist and falls away
that nonetheless your shining path
grows brighter towards the day.

When you are old, and your gentle eye
turns shy and hides from light,
read again these faded words
from your days of force and fight.
Call to mind how I did once
see more in you than clay,
a gem that glows with truth's own fire
though the dust washes away;
and when its light no more to sight
is brought, through tiredness and care,
from oblivion rescue then these words:
the light will still be there.

When you are old, and your arm is weak,
and you sadly face the grave,
this poem and these words I write
from forgetting then still save;
they are prophetic words, and heavy laid
with the burden of the Lord
and will not fade when the bright bowl breaks
at the snapping of silver cord:
You were a marvel, a wonder once,
and a wonder yet you'll be,
though fire consume the works of man
and the stars drown in the sea!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Telephone Game

When I first read it, I was utterly mystified by this opening to an article by Lawrence Krauss:

THOMAS AQUINAS may never have actually wondered how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but his tortured musings about metaphysical issues associated with the non-corporeality of angels (and the related issue of whether there is excrement in heaven) stretched the limits of reasonable rational inquiry so far that later scholars invented the phrase to mock him.

The angels-on-pins parody is due in great measure to Isaac D'Israeli, who in his Curiosities of Literature wrote:

Text not available
Curiosities of Literature And The Literary Character Illustrated By Isaac Disraeli, Rufus Wilmot Griswold

The third question, the famous one, is not in the Scriblerian text (Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus), a comic classic, from Chapter VII, which consists of a long series of philosophy jokes as the good Martinus is taught rhetoric, logic, and metaphysics. At one point it gives a list of theses, often slightly modified, from scholastic authors, including:

Text not available
The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq In Four Volumes Complete. With His Last Corrections, Additions, and Improvements. Carefully Collated and Compared with Former Editions: Together with Notes from the Various Critics and Commentators By Alexander Pope

These correspond to ST 1.53.2, ST 1.56.2, and ST 1.58.6. Of course, it takes no great reading ability to see that Aquinas doesn't actually argue that angels know things more clearly in the morning. It's all a joke. D'Israeli, however, recognizing the joke, moves it one step further; he really does think that Aquinas on angels is (almost) this silly, and engages in anti-scholastic exaggeration of the sort that became common in the early modern period.

But none of this was what mystified me. 'What is this about "the related issue of whether there is excrement in Heaven"?' I wondered. The source, however, is pretty clear:

Text not available
Curiosities of Literature And The Literary Character Illustrated By Isaac Disraeli, Rufus Wilmot Griswold

Which is the paragraph right after. Paradise, not Heaven; and not at all related to angels. And, of course, D'Israeli is exaggerating again. The reference is to ST Supp. 83.4, it's a sed contra, not Thomas's own discussion, 'excrement' has to be read into the word deperditi, 'what is lost' or 'what is destroyed', and, of course, Thomas is not discussing whether there will be excrement in Paradise: the question he's discussing is whether eating is strictly essential to being human, in order to determine whether those resurrected in glory would still be human if they don't need to eat (his answer: it is not, and they will).

Every scholar who deals with historical issues always runs across weird stories that float around about what people thought or said or did way back then; and this provides a pretty good little instance of how this happens. Thomas Aquinas, in a very early work (the Supplement to the Summa Theologiae is just passages from his early Commentary on the Sentences reorganized after his death to fill in the gap at the end of the unfinished Summa), notes down, in passing, an argument to the effect that the resurrected won't need to eat because one needs to eat only to replace what's lost and to grow, comestio [ordinatur] ad restaurationem deperditi, et ad augmentum quantitatis. D'Israeli comes along much later and glosses this Aquinas gravely debating whether there is excrement in Paradise. (I suspect he had it at secondhand.) Krauss, reading D'Israeli, transmogrifies it into whether there's excrement in Heaven, which is somehow related to the noncorporeality of angels. And now there will be someone who will read it and take it at face value, and garble it further; and no doubt there will be someone at some point in the future claiming that Thomas Aquinas debates whether noncorporeal angels excrete in Heaven.

I have no clue, by the way, what D'Israeli means by the hermaphrodite question, or where he is getting it. Needless to say, it's not something St. Thomas actually discusses; one wonders what the source is. A garbling of Galatians 3:28, perhaps, maybe by too quick a reading of some Latin passage?

Incidentally, suppose that Thomas Aquinas did discuss things like angels dancing on pins? (Even Homer nods; every Thomist would allow that there are a few prima-facie odd arguments scattered through the corpus, even if they can be understood in a reasonable way.) George Macdonald Ross has an thought-provoking article discussing how to interpret odd topics and images in the great minds of the past.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Useful Meme

This was extraordinarily difficult. I study philosophy; I don't know anything useful.....


1. Copy these instructions.
2. Link to the original 'useful meme' post.
3. Share 5+ things that may be of benefit to your readers -- useful facts, advice, product recommendations, etc.

(1) Mead Five Star Fat Lil' Notebook. I am something of a compulsive notationist; I constantly have the urge to jot down some thought or other. Thus I need a notebook handy; but it has to be something that's not at all bulky. I've tried all sorts of different memo books, but I wear them out too quickly; I have to be able simply to stick them in my pocket, and most little notebooks simply don't last under such treatment. But the Fat Lil' Notebook is something that has worked marvellously. It is very sturdy, with a good cover and back, and a well-made wire binding: it doesn't fall apart. It's only 5-1/2 x 3-1/2 in., so it fits in my back pocket. And it has 200 sheets, ruled front and back (making 400 pages), so you can write an immense amount in one. Highly recommend for anyone who likes writing.

(2) Sirius Radio. It really is a great thing to have in your car. I usually listen to the Radio Classics channel (I'm a big fan of radio drama). You can also get Sirius Online Radio: it doesn't have all the channels (no Radio Classics, alas), but it does have a good selection of music, talk, and sports channels, and you can get satellite radio through any good internet connection.

(3) Specialized introductory texts. It can be difficult to find solid introductory texts in philosophy, whether one wants a quick introduction, or something to brush up with, or an easy reference point. Here are some I've found to be handy, suitable for different purposes.

Think, by Simon Blackburn. It's not going to be a reference text, but this is far and away the best introductory work for anyone who wants an easy introduction to the sort of thing usually done by people in philosophy today. I regularly recommend it to people who are looking for something like this. Of course, Blackburn is wrong on almost every point; but so it goes: it's a great starting point.

What Is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot. This is the book to read if you're looking for a general way to get a handle on all the Epicureans, Stoics, Aristotelians, etc., etc. It's not too heavy on dates and names, but still manages to be quite the learning experience.

The Sociology of Philosophies, by Randall Collins. If, on the other hand, you are interested in names and dates, this is the book for you. The purpose of the book is to lay out the foundations for a sociological analysis of philosophical creativity; to do this Collins maps out networks of major philosophers in India, China, Japan, and Europe, from the days of Socrates and Buddha and Confucius into the twentieth century. The network maps, showing at a glance the rough relationship between, say, Hsüan-Tsang and Lin-Chi during the early centuries of the rise of Ch'an Buddhism, are in themselves a very definite reason why anyone interested in the history of philosophy should have this book on his or her shelf, all 1000+ pages of it. Collins analyzes these networks in an attempt to build an account of philosophical creativity and stagnation. There are weaknesses (as there would be); sometimes the networks are not quite so straightforward as Collins makes it seem, and, obviously, Collins is not a specialist in all the eras and fields he covers, so he has to rely on other sources (which are uneven). He gets Berkeley wrong, wrong, wrong, for instance. But taken with this caveat there are few philosophy resources so handy as this book. The paperback is reasonably affordable for what you're getting.

Modal Logic for Philosophers, by James W. Garson. This is one of the most enjoyable logic texts I've read in a while. I don't know how it would be for a first introduction, but it's a splendid text for those who want to brush up on their modal logic, or extend their familiarity with different variations.

(4) GoodSearch. With GoodSearch the advertising revenue generated by your searches goes to the charitable organization of your choice. It's a very easy way to divert a few dollars in the direction of a worthy cause, particularly if (like me) you do a lot of internet searching; and over a long period of time that can add up quite a bit. In addition, if you buy online, check to see if any of the merchants you use are associated with GoodShop; it's possible that you could divert 2% or so of your purchase to a charity of your choice. Incidentally, The Greater Good Network, which runs, among other things, The Hunger Site and The Breast Cancer Site, is a good way to help out a bit, too. It's a simple thing, and it does do some genuine good.

(5) Charitable Giving. But, of course, GoodSearch and the like isn't really charitable giving: it's charitable fundraising. It's useful, though, to know some decent charities that make it easy to donate online. Here are some examples, just a handful of the many.

International Justice Mission: an anti-slavery organization. (ECFA member)

National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund: Giving to cancer charities is tricky; the names all look alike but some are not well organized. Even some of the best-known cancer charities are bloated and inefficient. But this is easily one of the best. The AIP, one of the major charity watchdog organizations, gives it an A.

The Center for Victims of Torture: human rights organization; has an A- rating with AIP.

Action Against Hunger: its online donation system is generic, but if you ever do anything by PayPal or Google Checkout, you won't find it a problem. The AIP gives it an A+, which means you can be pretty sure your donation won't be wasted in any way.

Catholic Relief Services: Several donation options. Also an A+ from the AIP.

Network for Good, which I've just recently come across, looks like another great way to donate to charitable organizations in a relatively easy way.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Jonathan Coulton's "re: Your Brains"

Chris notes this excellent zombie song:

The musician and songwriter is Jonathan Coulton, who has a mountain of music that manages to be quirky, geeky, and catchy simultaneously.

The Hemans CXLVIII

This one is by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, née Browne;, (1793-1835) she was an acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, and although it would seem she is largely forgotten today, she was quite popular in her own time, during which she was considered a major example of "female poetry", by which they meant poetry with a quiet tone, "touching" or charming rather than vehement or powerful, delicate and elegant rather than impassioned and exalted. But she really is a better poet than that makes her sound....

Paraphrase of Psalm CXLVIII

Praise ye the Lord! on every height
Songs to his glory raise!
Ye angel-hosts, ye stars of night,
Join in immortal praise!

O heaven of heavens! let praise far-swelling
From all thine orbs be sent!
Join in the strain, ye waters! dwelling
Above the firmament!

For His the word which gave you birth,
And majesty and might:
Praise to the Highest from the earth,
And let the deeps unite!

O fire and vapour, hail and snow!
Ye servants of His will;
O stormy winds! that only blow
His mandates to fulfil;

Mountains and rocks, to heaven that rise!
Fair cedars of the wood!
Creatures of life that wing the skies,
Or track the plains for food!

Judges of nations ! kings, whose hand
Waves the proud sceptre high!
O youths and virgins of the land !
O age and infancy!

Praise ye His name, to whom alone
All homage should be given;
Whose glory, from the eternal throne
Spreads wide o'er earth and heaven!

Thorstein's Reply

In the Icelandic sagas a wry sense of humor is closely bound up with courage. In the saga account of the battle of Clontarf in 1014, where Brian Boru defeated a Viking army, one of the norsemen, Thorstein, did not fleee when the rets of his army broke and ran, but remained where he was, tying his shoestring. An Irish leader, Kerthialfad, asked him why he was not running. 'I couldn't get home tonight,' said Thorstein. 'I live in Iceland.' Because of the joke, Kerthialfad spared his life.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd Edition. Duckworth (London, 1985), p. 121.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Lion of Understanding Assisted by the Mouse of Illustration

One of my favorite philosophy-related pictures, from Swinburne's Picture Logic.

Text not available
Picture Logic An Attempt to Popularise the Science of Reasoning by the Combination of Humorous Pictures with Examples of Reasoning Taken from Daily Life By Alfred James Swinburne

The reference, of course, is to Aesop.

Darwin on Pure Scientific Research

I rather demur to one sentence of yours, viz "however delightful any scientific pursuit may be, yet if it shall be wholly unapplied it is of no more use than building castles in the air". Would not your hearers infer from this that the practical use of each scientific discovery ought to be immediate & obvious to make it worthy of admiration? What a beautiful instance Chloriform is of a discovery made from purely scientific researches, afterwards coming almost by chance into practical use. For myself I would, however, take higher ground, for I believe there exists, & I feel within me, an instinct for truth, or knowledge or discovery, of something same nature as the instinct of virtue, & that our having such an instinct is reason enough for scientific researches without any practical results ever ensuing from them.

[Charles Darwin, Letter to John Stevens Henslow, 1 April 1848.]

An Anti-Zombie-Argument Argument

In the comments to the Zombie Invasion post Craig Ewert suggested that I should give my own anti-zombie arguments so as to remedy the weakness of the responses. I replied with my reason for thinking this unimportant:

The zombie argument gets its plausibility not from anything about the argument itself but from a variety of positions pre-argument that give it an antecedent probability. The best thing to do is not to play the zombie game at all; where argument is needed, attack not the zombie argument but what makes it seem plausible that zombies are conceivable and therefore possible. Or, to put it in other words: the best strategy is simply to refuse to countenance Cartesian assumptions about the mind (the pretense that self-knowledge is easy, the pretense that we have a thorough understanding of the physical side of the equation, indeed, the pretense that the physical is all on one side of the equation and the mental all on the other, etc.) and let the argument fade on its own.

That's a bit rougher than it should be; but the basic point is right. The zombie argument is not the problem; the problem is with what you have to have in place to make the argument plausible. However, it is an interesting excercise to construct arguments that link the zombie argument to these more general problematic issues. Here is an example (one of many).

(1) If a zombie world and a qualia world are distinct, microphysically identical, and both conceivable (all three), a complete and accurate description of what the worlds share does not entail any part of what the complete and accurate description of the qualia world has that the complete and accurate description of the zombie world does not.
: This is noted by Chalmers.
: Let's call the complete and accurate description of what the worlds share the "complete physical description" and the complete accurate description of what is distinctive of the qualia world the "phenomenal description".

(2) If we know that a zombie world and a qualia world are distinct, microphysically identical, and both conceivable, we know that no part of the complete physical description entails any part of the phenomenal description.
: From (1) by epistemic closure.

(3) To know that no part of description A entails any part of description B we must know that no part of either description is overlooked.
: Suppose part of the description is overlooked. Then, for all we know, the part of A that entails B may be that part of the description that is overlooked.

(4) To know that no part of either description is overlooked we must have both to examine.
: Suppose that we do not have both to examine. Then we do not know whether there is any part of the description that is overlooked. But if we do not know whether there is any part of the description that is overlooked, we do not know that no part of the description is overlooked.

(5) Therefore to know that the complete physical description does not entail any part of the phenomenal description we must have both the complete physical description and the phenomenal description.
: From (2), (3), and (4).

(6) We do not have the complete physical description.
: There are a great many things we do not know about physical facts related to conscious experience, whatever their relation to conscious experience might be. Therefore there are parts of the complete physical description we do not have.

(7) Therefore we do not know that a zombie world and a qualia world are distinct, microphysically identical, and both conceivable (all three).
: From (1), (5), and (6).

(8) A zombie world and a qualia world are distinct and microphysically identical.
: Suppose a given world A and a given world B are not microphysically identical. Then at least one of the two worlds is not either the zombie world or the qualia world as understood in the zombie argument.
: Suppose a given world A and a given world B are not distinct. Then at least one of the two worlds is not either the zombie world or the qualia world as understood in the zombie argument.

(9) Therefore we do not know that a zombie world and a qualia world are both conceivable.
: From (7) and (8).
: Unlike the two features in (8), conceivability is not a stipulation for the purpose of describing the zombie world and qualia world but is, so to speak, the load-bearing feature of the zombie argument.

Note, incidentally, that it is not an anti-zombie argument. It doesn't take any stance whatsoever with regard to zombies. Instead it is an anti-zombie-argument argument.


And to add to the collection: John Keble's version.


Praise ye the Lord from heaven,
Praise Him in deeps on high,
Him praise to whom is given
To serve Him in the sky:
All ye His host,
Sun, moon, each star
That gleams afar,
Him praise and boast.

Ye heavens above heaven's roof,
Praise Him; and all ye stores
Of waters high aloof,
Beyond where heaven adores.
Praise they the Name
Of our high Lord:--
He spake the word,
They found their frame.

He said, "For ever stand;"
Through ages evermore
Their law and rule He plann'd'
Not one may pass it o'er.
For earth beneath
Ye dragons fell
And depths of hell
His praises breathe.

Thou fire and hail and snow,
The wild mist's darksome hoard,
And winds that whirling blow
To work His awful word;
Dark mountains all,
Green upland leas,
Fair fruitful trees,
And cedars tall:

What haunts the forest deep,
What feeds by lake or spring,
And worms that lowly creep,
And fowl of fearless wing:--
Ye kings enthron'd,
All in high place,
Each realm and race,
Earth's judges own'd:--

Let youths and maidens fair,
Let time-worn fathers old,
With infants, all declare
The glorious Name untold,
How towers alone
His perfect throne,
His awful fame;

His fame o'er heaven and earth;
Their horn behold Him raise,
Who are His own by birth,
Of all His saints the praise;
Their pride and grace,
Whom He brought near,
His Israel dear,
His chosen race.

The Sidney CXLVIII

Since in my last post I presented Smart's "Psalm CXLVIII", I thought I might follow up with the corresponding poem from the Sidney Psalms. This was written by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. I've modernized some spellings. It's a bit trickier to catch the sense than in Smart's, because the structure of the sentences twists back and forth and round and the vocabulary is a bit older; but it is worth working through it, because the elaborate twists and turns of the poem make for some unexpected lovelinesses.


Inhabitants of heav'nly land
As loving subjects praise your king:
You that among them highest stand,
In highest notes Jehova sing.
Sing angels all, on careful wing,
You that his heralds fly,
And you whom he doth soldiers bring
In field his force to try.

O praise him sun, the sea of light,
O praise him moon, the light of sea:
You pretty stars in robe of night,
As spangles twinkling do as they.
Thou sphere within whose bosom play,
The rest that earth emball:
You waters bank'd with starry bay,
O praise, O praise him all.

All these I say advance that name,
That doth eternal being show:
Who bidding unto form and frame,
Not being yet, they all did grow.
All formed, framed, founded so,
Till ages utmost date,
They place retain, they order know,
They keep their first estate.

When heav'n hath praised, praise earth anew:
You dragons first, her deepest guests,
Then soundless deeps, and what in you
Residing low, or moves, or rests.
You flames affrighting mortal breasts,
You clouds that stones do cast,
You feathery snows from winter's nests,
You vapours, suns apast.

You boisterous winds, whose breath fulfills
What in his word, his will sets down:
Ambitious mountains, courteous hills,
You trees that hills and mountains crown:
Both you that proud of native gown
Stand fresh and tall to see:
And you that have your more renown,
By what you bear, then be.

You beasts in woods untam'd that range,
You that with men familiar go,
You that your place by creeping change
Or airy streams with feathers row.
You stately kings, you subjects low,
You lords and judges all:
You others whose distinctions show
How sex or age may fall.

All these I say, advance that name
More high than skies, more low than ground
And since advanced by the same
You Jacob's sons stand chiefly bound:
You Jacob's sons be chief to sound
Your God Jehova's praise:
So fits them well on whom is found,
Such bliss he on you lays.