Saturday, May 17, 2008

Songs I Can't Get Out of My Head Today

Some because they're good, some because they're fun, some for who-knows-what-horrible-reason. It's quite a soundtrack. Try some of them out; misery loves company.

1. P. J. Harvey & Nick Cave, Henry Lee. A cheerful murder ballad. That's always the best kind!

2. Joe Scarbury, Believe It Or Not. Usually known as the theme from The Greatest American Hero.

3. Relient K, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. Useful to know in case anyone is tempted to ask you to babysit. They won't again.

4. Ellis Paul, God's Promise. The theology of Woody Guthrie.

5. Deana Carter, Strawberry Wine. I still remember when thirty was old....

6. The Wreckers, Crazy People. Bank robbers and killers, drunks and drug dealers, only crazy people fall in love with me.

7. Nightwish, Nemo. Nightwish's lyrics never quite make sense; but they somehow work.

8. Raymond Levesque, Quand les hommes vivront d'amour. When men live in love, that will be a great day; but you and I will be dead. Just so you know.

9. Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly. Wow. And the killing thing is a metaphor this time.

10. Francis Cabrel, Je t'aimais, Je t'aime, et Je t'aimerai. Nu sur les galets? And yet the whole thing is quite splendid.

11. Wäinötär, Mesihelmi. Someday I will remind myself that I don't understand Finnish. But not today.

12. Leonard Cohen, First We Take Manhattan. You know the way to stop me, but you don't have the discipline.

13. Dolly Parton, Jolene. Poetry set to music.

14. Neil Diamond, Solitary Man. Yes, Neil Diamond. I've had it to here being where love's a small word, a part-time thing, a paper ring.

15. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Mondo Bongo. Sha-la-la-la.

16. The Grass Roots, Let's Live for Today. Sha-la-la-la-la-la. (And if you watch The Office you might recognize someone.)

Most Art Is Bad Art

Jimmy Akin recently asked, Why Is Christian Art So Lame These Days? and I notice PZ Myers is musing on the same thing. I don't think there's any big mystery here; asking the question at all comes from a cognitive bias. What we remember about the past is its great successes, because those survive and are remembered. We forget the tacky, silly failures, because they don't and aren't. (Although there are exceptions because, on occasion, we grow more tolerant of them through other associations they collect. Much of Emily Dickinson's surviving poetry is famously bad; but even the weird, clunky, junky work suddenly takes on considerable interest through association with her stunningly good poetry. We begin to recognize it as a sort of workshop-art, like the half-sketches, aborted projects, and even doodlings of a brilliant painter. In other cases the work takes on instead the charm of history or legend.) Most Christian art has always been lame, because it is human: and most human art is lame, tacky, and silly. It has always been so, and will always be so. Part of having a good sense of artistic achievement is recognizing that this is so, and recognizing also the fact that tacky art, kitsch, crude craftsmanship, nonetheless fulfill real human material and intellectual needs, however clumsily and tastelessly, and so should not be lightly dismissed merely because they are bad. Genuine good taste requires sympathetic understanding bad taste, because otherwise you will never accurately identify what bad taste is really missing. Moreover, you will miss the fact that even bad art is, in its own limited way, a splendid achievement of the human intellect and will; we work to create and shape and express, and, despite our clumsy and stumbling ways (and we all are clumsy and stumbling in some of our dabblings), we do. And amid all that clumsy, crude, flawed work there are still gems enough that no one need be ashamed. We should remember our Burns and our Pope:

My Son, these maxims make a rule,
An' lump them aye thegither;
The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
The Rigid Wise anither:
The cleanest corn that ere was dight
May hae some pyles o' caff in;
So ne'er a fellow-creature slight
For random fits o' daffin.

'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censures wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
'Tis with our Judgements as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick's Share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their Light,
These born to judge, as well as those to Write.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Hume on Punishment.

Alexander Pruss has an interesting post on wrongness and vice. In the course of it he says, "Hume thought we punished actions insofar as they were evidence of a vicious character." But I don't think this is quite right. What Hume actually thought was that we punish actions insofar as think the person who committed them was responsible for them; and, he holds, we do not determine this simply by considering the action itself, but only by considering it as caused by something in the person, namely, a 'character', i.e., character trait. Hume doesn't think we punish actions; he thinks we punish people for being in some way the wrong sort of people (namely, the sort of people who act in ways that are disagreeable and useless to society and self), and we don't punish people where we have reason to think that the person wasn't the actual cause of the action. (Thus, he argues, someone who rejected the notion of causal connection is committed to saying that everyone is, as he says in discussing liberty and necessity, "as pure and untainted, after having committed the most horrid crime, as at the first moment of his birth.") We need the connection, and the only connection Hume thinks relevant is causal. The person must cause the action or the action does not reflect on his moral character in any way (because it is only by causal reasoning that we draw any conclusions about character at all) -- and if it doesn't reflect on his moral character in any way, it obviously doesn't make sense to punish him for it. This, I think, is Hume's view.

Always Begin, Always Continue, and Never End

You want me to tell how we must begin prayer, continue it and finish it. I tell you wholeheartedly that we must always begin, always continue and never end. All our actions in the service of God are only beginnings, being so weak, so impoverished and so insignificant. Our concern must be to begin well and continue well always, rather than finish, at least in the present state, since finishing can only be done at the moment of our death when Jesus Christ, through his infinite kindness, will bring to fulfillment his grace in us. For the way to finish well then is to begin well and continue well now.

Madeleine de Saint-Joseph, Letter 147, in Bérulle and the French School, Glendon, tr., and Thompson, ed. Paulist (New York: 1989) p. 204.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wherein I Am a Bit More Rude than I Should Be

Eurozine has an article in which Barnes, Burnyeat, Stroud, and Geuss pontificate about philosophy (ht):

Poems and aphorisms do not seem to me appropriate forms for carrying out philosophical work, even if they might be used to express or summarize certain philosophical conceptions developed by other means. Dialogue is a very good way to write philosophy, but it is difficult to do convincingly. I don't see much loss in trying to write philosophy in clear, connected, sharply focused prose. I wish more philosophers would try it.

Now, given that their notions of philosophical work are already rather parochial, and in some cases something like a zillion years out of date, it's not surprising that there's a lot I don't agree with, but most of it was pretty standard, and where wrong was often amusing. But Barry Stroud just had to throw this last bit out in response to a question about forms of expression in philosophy. Now, I can see the point of Stroud's ending here; I've often wished that Stroud, for instance, would write philosophy in clear, connected, sharply focused prose, rather than stuff that just looks that way if you don't try to pin down the argument and uncover the presuppositions his writing tends to gloss over. I would suggest that he study more closely the work of, say, Gilles Deleuze (believe it or not), who can be seen usually to write clear, connected, sharply focused prose, once you get the hang of his idiom; except that I think he would think I was joking. But, really, it's just silly to say that a particular form of expression is not 'an appropriate form for carrying out philosophical work' without considering what you are trying to do in that philosophical work. Take the nineteenth century Romantics. Now, they were, to a man, capable of writing beautifully clear, connected, sharply focused prose; but they often didn't, and it's instructive to consider why. The sort of philosophical work they were trying to do was supposed to be revolutionary and ambitious -- changing our approach to the whole field of human knowledge -- and thus required an immense amount of creativity and close collaboration. When you are trying to do philosophical work that is simultaneously revolutionary, ambitious, highly creative, and highly collaborative, however, connected prose is just too slow and clunky for much of what you're trying to do. You need a faster medium of communication, one that helps you to throw out ideas, sparks, pollen, that might catch hold in another person's mind to develop there. Thus the Romantics often did their philosophical work with fragments, aphorisms, and poems, and they were entirely right to do so: it fit the sort of philosophical work they were trying to do. The poem and aphorism wasn't just a bit of fluffy ornament at the end of philosophical discovery; it was a way to do philosophical work that was far more closely cooperative than most of what we do today. Moreover: it was the clear, focused connected prose that was the ornament and the way "used to express or summarize certain philosophical conceptions developed by other means". And, indeed, if we are honest, we must say that even today most people don't think in prose of that sort; it is simply one of the ways they communicate what they have come up with by other means.

But fortunately Raymond Geuss sees sense:

Academic philosophers should not give themselves too much importance. People are not going to stop expressing philosophical views in letters, or dialogues, or aphorisms just because this will not get them employment in a department of philosophy.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Drupal Without Scruple

I finally decided to get around to updating Houyhnhnm Land; and instead of just going WordPress as before, I decided to try Drupal. There is aan immense amount to get used to, but I must say that I am loving it. Previous versions of Drupal had a reputation for being difficult to install, which had kept me away for a while; but this version (6.2) was beautifully easy. I'm still dipping my toe in the water, but I'll be taking the whole summer to do a bit of exploring; and the nice thing about moving to Drupal is that I'll be able to add new functions and sections to the site, thus making it more what I've wanted it to be (and had to settle for not having). In any case, if there's anyone who has any special tips and hints, let me know in the comments; and if I come across anything particularly neat or interesting, I'll update here.

And Making Death a Victory

by Lord Byron

Titan! to whose immortal eyes
The sufferings of mortality,
Seen in their sad reality,
Were not as things that gods despise;
What was thy pity's recompense?
A silent suffering, and intense;
The rock, the vulture, and the chain,
All that the proud can feel of pain,
The agony they do not show,
The suffocating sense of woe,
Which speaks but in its loneliness,
And then is jealous lest the sky
Should have a listener, nor will sigh
Until its voice is echoless.

Titan! to thee the strife was given
Between the suffering and the will,
Which torture where they cannot kill;
And the inexorable Heaven,
And the deaf tyranny of Fate,
The ruling principle of Hate,
Which for its pleasure doth create
The things it may annihilate,
Refus'd thee even the boon to die:
The wretched gift Eternity
Was thine--and thou hast borne it well.
All that the Thunderer wrung from thee
Was but the menace which flung back
On him the torments of thy rack;
The fate thou didst so well foresee,
But would not to appease him tell;
And in thy Silence was his Sentence,
And in his Soul a vain repentance,
And evil dread so ill dissembled,
That in his hand the lightnings trembled.

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind;
But baffled as thou wert from high,
Still in thy patient energy,
In the endurance, and repulse
Of thine impenetrable Spirit,
Which Earth and Heaven could not convulse,
A mighty lesson we inherit:
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To Mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, Man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source;
And Man in portions can foresee
His own funereal destiny;
His wretchedness, and his resistance,
And his sad unallied existence:
To which his Spirit may oppose
Itself--and equal to all woes,
And a firm will, and a deep sense,
Which even in torture can descry
Its own concenter'd recompense,
Triumphant where it dares defy,
And making Death a Victory.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Poem Draft


I fear the bears
will be eating children soon,
so much mocking is in the air;
these little children,
playing beside great rivers,
posturing as adults,
when asked for reason
respond at once:
'Baldpate, baldpate.'

Yes, the bears
will be full soon.

And I hope
the mocking will soon stop
for children
are bad for the stomachs
of poor, innocent bears.

Hypothetical and Categorical Proposals of Arguments

Thomas Aquinas:

Some have understood God to work in every agent in such a way that no created power has any effect in things, but that God alone is the ultimate cause of everything wrought; for instance, that it is not fire that gives heat, but God in the fire, and so forth. But this is impossible.

First, because the order of cause and effect would be taken away from created things: and this would imply lack of power in the Creator: for it is due to the power of the cause, that it bestows active power on its effect.

David Hume:

Thus, according to these philosophers, every thing is full of God. Not content with the principle, that nothing exists but by his will, that nothing possesses any power but by his concession: they rob nature, and all created beings, of every power, in order to render their dependence on the Deity still more sensible and immediate. They consider not that, by this theory, they diminish, instead of magnifying, the grandeur of those attributes, which they affect so much to celebrate. It argues surely more power in the Deity to delegate a certain degree of power to inferior creatures than to produce every thing by his own immediate volition.

These two passages give some sense of the importance in distinguishing hypothetical and categorical proposals of a particular type of argument. The arguments are in one sense very similar. There are some minor differences, due to different contexts (Aquinas is arguing against al-Ghazali, Hume is arguing against Malebranche) that would need to be considered in a full interpretation, but we can abstract from these for our purposes here. They both make the same basic criticism of occasionalism: that, while it is trying to exalt divine power, it really detracts from it, because giving power to the effect is more indicative of power in the cause. But there is another sense in which they are very different arguments. Aquinas's argument is a categorical argument: he is committed to each step of the argument, and thus the argument is an argument to a conclusion he thinks true, on the basis of premises he thinks true. It is an argument for what everyone should believe. Not so Hume's. We don't quite know Hume's actual position on these matters, but it is clear from the context that Hume is not committed to anything said in this argument. His argument is hypothetical: he may or may not believe any particular element of the argument, but his point is that occasionalists should believe this, or at least consider it more plausible than what they do believe. That is, it's not an attempt to lay out the serious philosophical reason for rejecting occasionalism (indeed, he goes on to offer what he calls "a more philosophical confutation of this theory" -- it is difficult to imagine Aquinas doing that, since on Aquinas's view the argument is as philosophical a confutation as could possibly be); it's an attempt to give occasionalists pause, to force them to ask themselves whether they are really being consistent. So very similar arguments, structurally and thematically speaking: but very different arguments, functionally speaking.

It is clear that any type of argument may be put forward either categorically or hypothetically. It is also clear, I would suggest, that categorically proposed arguments are stronger arguments than their hypothetically proposed counterparts; but hypothetically proposed arguments are safer, in the sense of committing the arguer to less, than their categorically proposed counterparts.

Thus in interpreting an argument we must consider not merely the concepts and logical structures involve; we must consider also how the argument is being put forward.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Alan Wolfe on J.S. Mill

Alan Wolfe reviews Richard Reeves's new biography of John Stuart Mill. In it he suggests that Mill is insufficiently appreciated in contemporary academic philosophy, which is plausible; but he seems to suggest that the reason is that contemporary academic philosophy is split between analytic and continental theorists, which is less so. The fact is, very few of the great British thinkers of the nineteenth century are taken seriously in contemporary academic philosophy, and of them Mill is probably the one who is taken the most seriously (or perhaps second to Sidgwick), because of his importance for utilitarianism. Dugald Stewart, Lady Mary Shepherd, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Whewell, Richard Whately, John Henry Newman, George Boole, Augustus DeMorgan, Lewis Carroll, John Neville Keynes, T. H. Green, etc.: we don't generally have undergraduate courses devoted to them, we very rarely have graduate courses devoted to them, and for a number of them a student will be lucky if they even have some vague idea to associate the names with any philosophical view whatsoever. It's a serious curricular flaw, whose continued propagation simply mystifies me: once we get out of 'Early Modern' courses we hit the 'Nineteenth Century' courses: which is virtually always really just nineteenth-century German philosophy. There is no good reason for this, and yet we keep doing it. One more thing I don't understand about the way philosophy is usually taught....

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hymn for Pentecost

On all the earth Thy Spirit shower;
The earth in righteousness renew;
Thy kingdom come, and hell’s o’erpower,
And to Thy scepter all subdue.

Like mighty winds, or torrents fierce,
Let it opposers all o’errun;
And every law of sin reverse,
That faith and love may make all one.

Yea, let Thy Spirit in every place
Its richer energy declare;
While lovely tempers, fruits of grace,
The kingdom of Thy Christ prepare.

Grant this, O holy God and true!
The ancient seers Thou didst inspire;
To us perform the promise due;
Descend, and crown us now with fire!

Henry More

A Remedy for Many Ills

CRICHTON. Since we landed on the island, my lord, it seems to me that Mr. Ernest's epigrams have been particularly brilliant.

ERNEST (gratified). Thank you, Crichton.

CRICHTON. But I find--I seem to find it growing wild, my lord, in the woods, that sayings which would be justly admired in England are not much use on an island. I would therefore most respectfully propose that henceforth every time Mr. Ernest favours us with an epigram his head should be immersed in a bucket of cold spring

(There is a terrible silence.)

LORD LOAM (uneasily). Serve him right.

ERNEST. I should like to see you try to do it, uncle.

CRICHTON (ever ready to come to the succour of his lordship). My feeling, my lord, is that at the next offence I should convey him to a retired spot, where I shall carry out the undertaking in as respectful a manner as is consistent with a thorough immersion.

(Though his manner is most respectful, he is firm; he evidently means what he says.)

James Barrie, The Admirable Crichton, Act II. Of course, we find in Act III that it has worked wonderfully.

Recta Sapere

Father Zuhlsdorf has a post that makes an interesting link between a collect and Boethius:

O God, who taught the hearts of the faithful
by the light of the Holy Spirit,
grant to us, in the same Spirit,
to know the things that are right,
and to rejoice always in His consolation.

What leaps to my mind, steeped in the literature of late antiquity, is the connection of wisdom, inherent in the phrase recta sapere, with consolation. There was a genre of consolation literature in classical times and late antiquity into the medieval period. This was part of the province of philosophy (“love of wisdom”). This literature was used as a moral medication for the soul. In the famous work of the imprisoned Boethius (+525) before his execution, the Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Wisdom, Philosophy, comes to the author in his cell and diagnoses the true nature of his sickness of sadness. She does this in a dialogue, so that Boethius can understand things rightly (like our recta sapere), and therefore be consoled. Lady Wisdom descended so as to raise Boethius up to God. This is our pattern too, both in creation and in our renewal when we have sinned. Two weeks ago in these pages I told you how the Collect show influences of the ancient philosophical concept of that all creation proceeds from God (exitus) in and then turns (conversion) to thus take determinate form and return again to God (reditus). These prayers of late antiquity are echoes of these ancient philosophical concepts. We can’t read them without knowing these things.

Remote Analogy

Nigel Warburton notes a recent argument by Peter Millican (see comments) suggesting that Hume was an atheist; in Warburton's summary:

Millican provides some interesting textual evidence to support the contention that Hume was an atheist rather than, as sometimes claimed, an agnostic (or even some kind of deist). His key point is that the famous phrase that Hume puts in the mouth of Philo:

"that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence"

is echoed by an earlier comment in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

"a certain degree of analogy among all the operations of nature ... the rotting of a turnip, the generation of an animal, and the structure of human thought [are] energies that probably bear some remote analogy to each other".

And this phrase 'remote analogy' occurs nowhere else in Hume's writings. If they were meant to be read together, as seems very likely, then it would be very hard to conclude that this is evidence for Hume being a theist!

Millican is a top-notch Hume scholar, and in the comments thread linked to above he brings up a great many points. But this particular argument will not bear much weight. For one thing, Philo also says:

That the works of Nature bear a great analogy to the productions of art, is evident; and according to all the rules of good reasoning, we ought to infer, if we argue at all concerning them, that their causes have a proportional analogy. But as there are also considerable differences, we have reason to suppose a proportional difference in the causes; and in particular, ought to attribute a much higher degree of power and energy to the supreme cause, than any we have ever observed in mankind. Here then the existence of a DEITY is plainly ascertained by reason: and if we make it a question, whether, on account of these analogies, we can properly call him a mind or intelligence, notwithstanding the vast difference which may reasonably be supposed between him and human minds; what is this but a mere verbal controversy? No man can deny the analogies between the effects: to restrain ourselves from enquiring concerning the causes is scarcely possible. From this enquiry, the legitimate conclusion is, that the causes have also an analogy: and if we are not contented with calling the first and supreme cause a GOD or DEITY, but desire to vary the expression; what can we call him but MIND or THOUGHT, to which he is justly supposed to bear a considerable resemblance?

Which, if we take Philo to be articulating Hume (I'm not sure we should do so naively), would have to be a pretty massive bit of what Millican calls "theological lying". Further, if you recall the actual context of the rotting turnip argument, it's part of an argument that atheists can only be nominally atheists, because no reasonable person can deny that the universe is in some way like an artifact and therefore that its cause is in some way like an intelligent mind, which in turn is part of a larger argument that reasonable theists and reasonable atheists are only nominally distinct, because the former recognize that the cause must be radically unlike a human mind, whatever its similarities, and the latter recognize that the cause must have some likeness to a human mind, however different it may be. That is, the reasonable atheist has to admit that there is something orderly and artifact-like, at least to some extent, even in the rotting of a turnip. This in turn is part of a larger argument that they should lay aside their disputes and curb their animosity toward each other. Thus the whole passage is an argument that there is no difference of any importance between theists and atheists, because, with regard to their dispute, they each are able to know, or at least reasonably infer, one and only one thing about the matter (at all!), and it turns out that it's the same thing, with slightly different emphasis. In effect, Hume's view is that the theist shouts "The cause of the world is like a mind to the extent the world, as discovered by science, is intelligibly ordered!" and whispers "But must be so very different from any sort of mind we know that we can hardly grasp the difference." But the atheist shouts, "The cause of the world must be so very different from any sort of mind we know that we can hardly grasp the difference!" and whispers, "But it is like a mind to the extent that the world, as discovered by science, is intelligibly ordered."

Warburton also jumps the gun a bit in concluding that the "remote analogy" comments can't be read as (weakly) theistic. On the account of analogy that Hume gives in the Treatise, it doesn't matter whether the analogy is remote, or whether there are other, alternative analogies: neither of these affects the legitimacy of the analogy as a ground for inference. Every analogy is a foundation for probabilistic inference. Of course, they aren't necessarily all equal; some may be more "firm and certain" than others, in which case they overbalance the probabilities of the others. But the very context here rules that out: all analogies are fair game because we have no way of knowing how much the cause of the universe resembles anything in the universe. All we have to go on are analogies based on the fact that the universe in some way resembles an animal, a plant, a rotting turnip, an artifact, etc. It's conceivable that Hume has modified his view of analogy between the Treatise and the Dialogues; but the Dialogues actually fit the Treatise account of analogy very, very well. (Indeed, you can explain some old puzzles about the structure of the Dialogues by considering the Treatise account of analogy.)

So the "remote analogy" doesn't, I would argue, give us much, if any, insight into the matter: in fact, it muddies the waters, since the logical implication of the passage is that there is some genuine probability that the cause of the universe is like a mind, just as the theist says -- but it's an extremely small probability, as the atheist says -- but we have no way of checking in any case -- and thus all anyone knows is that you can make the analogy, which everyone agrees on -- so atheists and theists should set aside their disputes because they are not in any significant way different. That's what the argument says. Of course, that still raises the question of whether that's what the argument means.

Perhaps the way we should put it is to say that Hume probably bears some remote analogy to a theist....