Saturday, June 28, 2008

St. Cyril of Alexandria

Shame on me; yesterday was the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria, and I completely forgot about it. From his Commentary on Luke:

Our Lord Jesus Christ requires those who love Him to be accurate investigators of whatsoever is written concerning Him: for He has said, "that the kingdom of heaven is like to a treasure hid in a field." For the mystery of Christ is deposited, so to speak, at a great depth, nor is it plain to the many: but he who uncovers it by means of an accurate knowledge, finds the riches which are therein, and resembles that wise woman, even Mary, of whom Christ said, that "she had chosen the good part, that should not be taken away from her." For these earthly and temporal things fade away with the flesh: but those which are divine and intellectual, and that benefit the life of the soul, are firmly established, and their possession cannot be shaken.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons

June 28 is the feast of St. Irenaeus of Lyons. From a preserved fragment of a lost work:

Know that every man is either empty or full. For if he has not the Holy Spirit, he has no knowledge of the Creator; he has not received Jesus Christ the Life; he knows not the Father who is in heaven; if he does not live after the dictates of reason, after the heavenly law, he is not a sober-minded person, nor does he act uprightly: such an one is empty. If, on the other hand, he receives God, who says, I will dwell with them, and walk in them, and I will be their God[Leviticus 26:12], such an one is not empty, but full.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Quotable Quote

Jeff Miller in fine form at "The Curt Jester":

The section on loving our enemies is fairly good and is certainly a part of the dialogue about torture. I am reminded of St. Paul writing in the Book of Romans.

'No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'

Those who justify torture get it backwards and want to eliminate the middle man of doing good and go straight to pouring burning coals on their heads.

Model for Writing

At "Leiter Reports" there's a post about whom one should recommend (to students) as models for writing. I've always liked the recommendation one of the UToronto professors -- Doug Hutchinson, if I remember correctly -- once made to his students: see if you can imagine Rex Murphy putting it that way.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Consent of the Governed

A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order to the common good. Now to order anything to the common good, belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people. And therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people: since in all other matters the directing of anything to the end concerns him to whom the end belongs.

Thomas Aquinas, ST 1-2.90.3

Accordingly, the best form of government is in a state or kingdom, where one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this kind is shared by all [ad omnes pertinet], both because all are eligible to govern [ex omnibus eligi possunt], and because the rulers are chosen by all [ab omnibus eliguntur]. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e. government by the people [potestate populi], in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people [ex popularibus possunt eligi principes], and the people have the right to choose their rulers [ad populum pertinet electio principum].

ST 1-2ae.105.1

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

ID Wrestlings

Steve Matheson has an interesting response to a claim on the "Uncommon Descent" blog that theistic evolutionists are 'spineless appeasers'. From the post:

I embrace evolutionary explanations because they have explanatory power. For the same reason, I embrace naturalistic explanations for the development of the human brain, and for the causation of cancer, and for the formation of the Grand Canyon. All of these explanations involve mechanisms that are referred to as "random." In fact, randomness and chance are interesting topics for Christians of all kinds and in nearly every aspect of scientific inquiry (if not all of life). In my view, to focus on these issues exclusively in the context of biological evolution is a huge mistake. If I thought the ID movement were really about wrestling with the notions of chance, providence and design in the analysis of God's world, I'd be happy to join the conversation. It's not, and I'm not.

That's certainly part of my attitude, as well. It does seem that by and large the ID movement is only interested in wrestling with the people they've marked out as opponents, and not in wrestling with the actual phenomena in the world given to us.

Proving Negatives

John Wilkins has a post at "Evolving Thoughts" on proving a negative. I've discussed the oddity of the slogan that you can't prove a negative myself. My argument was that cases that are supposedly examples of unprovable negatives are really cases of claims whose relevance to any available evidence is unknown, due to vagueness or some such; and thus that the problem is not that they are negative at all. Wilkins has an interesting suggestion that the notion comes from ignoring universes of discourse. I don't think this can be the whole matter, because even if you ignore universes of discourse you can have a theory of proof that allows you to prove negatives, e.g., by allowing you to prove affirmatives that themselves rule out other affirmatives. But it's an interesting suggestion, and probably at least partly true; given how big I am on universes of discourse, I'm surprised it didn't occur to me as a possibility.

UPDATE: I looked for the phrase on Google Book and discovered that (1) philosophers have been pointing out that the slogan is not really true for at least two hundred years; and (2) it's at least possible that the expression grew up in the context of British law courts, and just wandered out into the wide world from there, because the expression appears to have been quite common in discussion of burdens of proof in court.

Lord Hailsham's Rationalism

Gracchi at "Westminster Wisdom" has an interesting post on a speech by Lord Hailsham called The Christian Essence of Conservatism. What caught my eye is the part of Lord Hailsham's speech that dealt with philosophical matters:

When I was reading Greats at Oxford, there was a philosophy don called H W B Joseph who used to instruct his pupils on philosophical problems. Among these it was always said that he would catechise them on the rational nature of our belief in the sequence in natural science which we call cause and effect, that is the belief that identical 'causes' (I put the word for this in purpose in inverted commas)produce identical effects. The pupils would invariably reply with some reference to Newton, the falling apple, and the 'law' of gravity ('law' also in inverted commas), meaning of course the invariability with which objects fall downwards rather than upwards. 'But surely' Joseph would reply to this ingenuous approach 'it should have caused him increasing surprise'.

There is, I believe, no answer to this argument unless, of course, we have what, in discussing the nature of human understanding, Locke called an 'innate idea', at least in the field of the observable, that things make some sort of sense, and that at least to some limited extent our reason can achieve it. In the field which is open to observation, measurement, and repeated experimentation we can readily accept this. It is indeed the hypothesis upon which the whole dramatic development of the physical sciences is based.

(The first paragraph in this quotation appears to be corrupt in the online version; the phrase "produce identical effects" seems to have been dropped down a line, thus leaving a sentence fragment and creating an incoherent jumble. I have moved it to where it appears to belong.) Of this Gracchi says,

Now this is a reversion to a kind of theory of ideas- a Platonic sense that a word describes exactly the idea behind it and that idea is reflected in the world. It is interesting that Hailsham comes to argue this because the position he advocates is easily refuted and as problematic as any naive support for induction.

Such an argument for instance neglects the facts that we do not use these words to always embody the same ideas.

I don't think this gets Hailsham quite right, though. What Hailsham is advocating is not Platonism but rationalism, and while rationalists can be Platonists, they need not be. The argument is that science and experiment (and later morality and other things) is not a mere matter of habituation; it requires positing that the world is rational enough that we can understand it by reason. In other words, you can't just discover the nature of the world by being a passive empirical observer; you have to suppose, as a sort of act of recognition, that the world is intelligible. Thus Hailsham suggests that the 'innate idea' we have is "that things make some sort of sense, and that at least to some limited extent our reason can achieve it." This is a fairly mild conclusion, and well short of Platonism. (And, I would suggest, given that Hailsham doesn't need a full-blown Platonism to make the basic parity argument he is trying to make, namely, that it makes sense to hold that there are objective moral truths for the same reason that it makes sense to hold that there are objective physical truths, Platonism would be overkill.) Thus, while the argument is fairly limited (parity arguments usually are), I don't think Hailsham supposes, as Gracchi suggests, the notion that words about the world are stable; rather, his argument requires that words about the world make sense, which is a slightly different thing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hall of Mirrors

Hume tells us in the conclusion to Book I of the Treatise (T that even in the origin of his philosophy lies in the sentiments of curiosity and ambition; and in the History of England he describes the progress of science in terms of the satisfaction of curiosity and vanity. But while he gives us an account of how curiosity plays a role in inquiry (Treatise 2.3.10), he doesn't give us any explicit account of how vanity plays a role, so we have to extrapolate from what he does say. In T he gives us a brief sentence: "I feel an ambition to arise in me of contributing to the instruction of mankind, and of acquiring a name by my inventions and discoveries." And he does give us an account of pride in Book II. From these we can get an idea of Hume's account of the role of vanity or ambition in inquiry. A precise idea would require getting into finer details of Hume's account of pride; but we can get the general idea, I think, by using analogy.

In discussing the esteem we have for the wealthy, Hume has a fascinating passage (T that is useful for this purpose. It's long, but it's worth quoting in full:

In general we may remark, that the minds of men are mirrors to one another, not only because they reflect each other's emotions, but also because those rays of passions, sentiments and opinions may be often reverberated, and may decay away by insensible degrees. Thus the pleasure, which a rich man receives from his possessions, being thrown upon the beholder, causes a pleasure and esteem; which sentiments again, being perceiv'd and sympathiz'd with, encrease the pleasure of the possessor; and being once more reflected, become a new foundation for pleasure and esteem in the beholder. There is certainly an original satisfaction in riches deriv'd from that power, which they bestow, of enjoying all the pleasures of life; and as this is their very nature and essence, it must be the first source of all the passions, which arise from them. One of the most considerable of these passions is that of love or esteem in others, which therefore proceeds from a sympathy with the pleasure of the possessor. But the possessor has also a secondary satisfaction in riches arising from the love and esteem he acquires by them, and this satisfaction is nothing but a second reflexion of that original pleasure, which proceeded from himself. This secondary satisfaction or vanity becomes one of the principal recommendations of riches, and is the chief reason, why we either desire them for ourselves, or esteem them in others. Here then is a third rebound of the original pleasure; after which `tis difficult to distinguish the images and reflexions, by reason of their faintness and confusion.

This striking extended metaphor is a useful place to consider vanity. We start with an original satisfaction in wealth, due to "that power...of enjoying all the pleasures of life," which itself brings about pleasure in the mind of the one has the wealth (we'll call him Rich). The passions that we feel tend to be communicated to others by sympathy and imagination; recognizing the pleasure and pride Rich has in wealth, the rest (we'll call them the Chorus), assuming no interfering factors, come to love and esteem him by sympathy, i.e., by the echoes or reflections in the Chorus of Rich's own pride and pleasure. Rich, however, comes to recognize that the Chorus loves and esteems him, and this gives us our second reflection, because by sympathy Rich shares in (and, indeed, can't help but share in, all other things being equal) the Chorus's love and esteem for himself, which adds a second level of satisfaction to his original satisfaction. As he says elsewhere, talking about the love of fame (T, "'Tis certain...that if a person consider'd himself in the same light, in which he appears to his admirer, he wou'd first receive a separate pleasure, and afterwards a pride or self-satisfaction...." This second satisfaction is what Hume calls vanity, and from this we get a third reflection, dimmer than the first, but still recognizable: the Chorus doesn't just take pleasure in the idea of having Rich's enjoyment of wealth (first sympathy), it also takes pleasure in the idea of having Rich's enjoyment of the love and admiration he gets through sympathy with the Chorus's original sympathetic pleasure with himself, and this new pleasure in the chorus is the "third rebound" of sympathy. In principle, we could go on, but as Hume says, due to the "faintness and confusion" of reflections in this hall of mirror, we lose the ability to distinguish the outlines of the sentiments clearly.

So we have, to sum up, the following process:

(1) first satisfaction (pride in having), which is reflected in others through
(2) first sympathy, which creates in others
(3) love and admiration for the original person, which is reflected in that person through
(4) second sympathy, which induces
(5) second satisfaction, or vanity (pride in being admired or loved), which is reflected in others through
(6) third sympathy, which creates in others
(7) the desire to be loved and admired as the original person is admired.

Hume tells us that wealth is the cause that produces pride most intensely and copiously (T 2.1.10), so one presumes that the status of vanity will be somewhat messier in the case of inquiry. But the same process will be found there. As Hume says (T, "There are few persons, that are satisfy'd with their own character, or genius, or fortune, who are nor desirous of shewing themselves to the world, and of acquiring the love and approbation of mankind."

Thus vanity forces inquiry to take a profoundly social shape: we can't have second sympathy if there is no one other than ourselves admiring us for our genius. We need the sympathetic echo chamber, the hall of mirrors.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Passions and Demons

From the sayings of the Desert Fathers:

"What am I to do, Abba, since passions and demons beset me?" a young monk asked the holy Sisoes.

"Do not say that you are bothered by demons, child," answered the elder, "because the greater part of us are beset by our own evil desires."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Relax the Bow!

Thus in the Conferences of the Fathers xxiv, 21, it is related of Blessed John the Evangelist, that when some people were scandalized on finding him playing together with his disciples, he is said to have told one of them who carried a bow to shoot an arrow. And when the latter had done this several times, he asked him whether he could do it indefinitely, and the man answered that if he continued doing it, the bow would break. Whence the Blessed John drew the inference that in like manner man's mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.68.2