Saturday, March 07, 2009

Sidecar Bar & Grill

You can stumble onto all sorts of great things by accident on the web. If I have any readers in Toronto, or any who will be visiting in Toronto at any point of future, consider trying this place on College St. and let me know how it is. It only opened last year, so I don't know what it's like, but I know one of the owners (who was a philosophy major and one of my brighter students during my student teaching), and the reviews I've seen are very, very favorable. I remember Casey talking about his interest in conjoining philosophy and food, and I'm glad to see that he seems to have found a way to do so that looks likely to have some real success.

Kant and 'Existence Is Not a Real Predicate'

Alex Byrne:

Kant is on to something here. If existence is a property of things, it is a rather peculiar one: you can find a blue marble, and also a non-blue marble (a red one, say), but you cannot find a nonexistent marble—a marble that lacks the property of existing. Of course, that does not mean Kant is right: a peculiar property is still a property. And in fact, according to many philosophers, Kant is wrong: existence is indeed a property, albeit a very undiscriminating one, because everything has it.

Kant is on to something, but Byrne is nowhere near it (and Kant's argument is a much better one than the one Byrne prefers in the next few paragraphs, which builds on a misreading of Anselm, and to which even Descartes, more vulnerable to this sort of objection, has an answer). There is nothing especially peculiar about taking existence to be a property, and Kant didn't think that there was. Kant's argument is that it is not coherent to take existence as a predicate explicating a feature of a concept, in the way that "having three angles" is a predicate explicating the concept "triangle" in the judgment "A triangle has three angles." His argument for this is quite clever (CPR A599/B627, Kemp, tr.):

'Being' is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgment. The proposition, 'God is omnipotent', contains two concepts, each of which has its object -- God and omnipotence. The small word 'is' adds no new predicate, but only serves to posit the predicate in its relation to the subject. If, now, we take the subject (God) with all its predicates (among which is omnipotence), and say 'God is', or 'There is a God', we attach no new predicate to the concept of God, but only posit the subject in itself with all its predicates, and indeed posit it as being an object that stands in relation to my concept. The content of both must be one and the same; nothing can have been added to the concept, which expresses merely what is possible, by my thinking its object (through the expression 'it is') as given absolutely. Otherwise stated, the real contains no more than the merely possible.

Suppose you and I are arguing about whether I have a hundred-dollar bill in my piggy bank: you say, "There is a hundred-dollar bill in your piggy bank," and I say, "There is no hundred-dollar bill in my piggy bank." If we are not simply arguing past each other, we must be understanding the same thing when we talk about this 'hundred-dollar bill'. If existence could explicate the concept 'hundred-dollar bill', on the other hand, one of us would be talking about an existing hundred-dollar bill, and the other would be talking about a nonexisting hundred-dollar bill, and we would not be using the same concept. We would be talking about different things entirely. As Kant puts it, "it would not be exactly the same thing that exists, but something more than we had thought in the concept; and we could not, therefore, say that the exact object of my concept exists." So, says Kant, existence is not part of the content of a concept; it is, instead, simply a judgment: in an ordinary judgment, like the one about triangles above, we propose that what fits my concept has a feature determined in the predicate, while in an existential judgment, we propose that there is an object for my concept. And to have grounds for doing this, we have to appeal to experience. This is the kind of thing Kant means when he talks about existence not being a predicate.

Incidentally, Byrne's division of the arguments is very bizarre. It's not a natural one, since it isn't based on any formal or thematic characteristic of the arguments; moreover, many types of arguments simply drop out as not fitting very well in either category (and, in fact, despite his sweeping conclusions, Byrne doesn't consider very many).

Lenten Giving

There are traditionally three basic Lenten practices which are supposed to be integrated together: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This last is often forgotten, but one of the most important reasons for Lenten fasts and abstinences is to let you focus on more important things like doing good to those who need it.

If you are looking for a possible charity to support, you might consider Christopher Adare's Asatayike project; Adare does work in developing sustainable agricultural practices in Malawian villages, through Children of the Nations.

If you are anywhere near Phoenix, AZ, you might consider donating to André House of Arizona; you are anywhere near LA you might consider the Jewish Vocational Service; and if you are anywhere near South Dakota, you might consider the Native American Heritage Association.

Both Catholic Charities USA and International Orthodox Christian Charities do a great deal of good work, and in the past I've found the latter, especially, to be pleasant to work with.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Notes and Links

* Boolos's famous Godel's Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable (PDF)

* A. C. Grayling has an essay on a book about Hume and Rousseau at the Barnes & Noble Review. It's the fairly typical hatchet job against Rousseau that admirers of Hume often propagate: the Legend of St. David and the Madman. Hume's motives were in fact not wholly pure; and he himself admitted in correspondence at the time that he bullied Rousseau into going places Rousseau didn't want to go and doing things he didn't want to do. Rousseau, of course, was not a well man; many of his personality quirks were due to the fact that he had severe urinary problems, and before Hume brought him up to Scotland Voltaire had sent him into a nervous breakdown and put him into some social trouble by spreading around details of we would usually call 'his personal life' (Rousseau had several children whom he turned over to an orphanage). And two more contrary personalities could hardly be imagined. It was a train wreck waiting to happen; Hume certainly got the better of it, and acted somewhat more reasonably, but he hardly was blameless in the matter.

Grayling's distinction between Hume's 'Enlightenment' thought and Rousseau's Counter-Enlightenment 'Romantic' thought is, of course, perfectly meaningless, and has no foundation but anachronism and wishful thinking, like all such attempts to create an Enlightenment to one's personal taste (or distaste, as the case may be). It requires a good deal of gerrymandering to fit such a distinction into the intellectual world at that stage of the game. And in any case what put Hume and Rousseau into opposition was not primarily difference in theory but rather something they shared: lives based on sentiment. They had very different habits of sentiment.

* Scalia's opinion in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, et al. v. Summum (PDF) says some interesting things about public monuments.

* Gift exchanges are customary symbolic gestures when the leaders of nations meet, and a great deal of thought is usually put into them. For instance, Gordon Brown recently gave the President a pen holder made from the timbers of the HMS Gannet, a sister ship of the Resolute, and had been an important anti-slaver ship in the Mediterranean. One can see the significance of giving such a symbol of liberty as a sign of the friendship between two nations. Reading around, however, I find quite a few Brits are a bit baffled by President Obama's return gift: a 25-disc collection of American classic movies. I think one can sympathize with those finding it difficult to see how this symbolizes American-British friendship.

* Pascal Boyer has an interesting post on institutions. It's interesting, but it does seem to me to run into a standard reductionist problem: an absurd conclusion is reached and then epicycles are added to make sure that it looks less absurd. It's an obvious fact that institutions aren't merely sets of representations. For instance, the University of Oxford is not merely a set of representations of rules and roles, but also a bunch of people and a bunch of land with buildings on it that can be experienced, have a discoverable history, and, in the case of the people, have experiences of their own. A court of law is not merely distributed representations and normative notions but a place you actually go to find actual judges and juries and have certain kinds of experiences. The reductionist view (like much, although not all, reductionism) would have to show that it is not making a merely necessary condition a sufficient condition. This may not be impossible -- perhaps there is a way to explain insitutions entirely in terms of representations. But it would have to be a very surprising way.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

On Arguments from Evil (II)

An intelligent reader asks what is a reasonable enough question about my arguments from evil post. I had said,
It's an interesting question why arguments from evil have become such a major family of arguments. I think it is a combination of two factors: (1) The relatively small logical space for positive arguments for the conclusion that God does not exist; and (2) the rise of the design argument.

To which he responds,

Why not also add the obvious facts that (3) evil is such a widespread phenomena and (4) it has great rhetorical and experiential weight?

And I think this is a great question, worth answering directly. To (4) there's a simple enough answer: precisely the puzzle is why it has such great rhetorical and experiential weight as an argument against God's existence. Certainly evils of various kinds are easy to find, and so we have a lot of experience with them. But lots of people throughout history have experienced evil without taking it as a reason for atheism. Lots of people still do, in fact. So arguments from evil to atheistic conclusions are not getting their rhetorical force from the mere experiential weight of evil; the puzzle is precisely to explain why evil has such great rhetorical and experiential weight in this particular context, given that it hasn't always had it. In explaining the popularity of the design argument, for instance, it would not really answer any questions to say that one of the factors is the great rhetorical and experiential weight of design; design does have great rhetorical and experiential weight, but this is in a sense what is supposed to be explained. And to explain the great rhetorical and experiential weight of evil for this particular sort of argument, especially compared to other arguments that in other places and times have sometimes been regarded as more forceful, we have to look at the conditions underlying the popularity of the relatively weak design argument, which is what sparked the popularity of the argument from evil as a response. I would suggest that these are, to put it in a rough and crude nutshell, a weak epistemology (thus reducing the appeal of 'ontological' arguments) and a weak theory of causation (thus reducing the appeal of 'cosmological' arguments); these same conditions also help to give the relatively weak argument from evil an edge over more robust alternatives. And, of course, each feeds off the other.

With regard to (3) I think we have to keep in mind that 'evil' is not a univocal word, and very few if any arguments from evil actually build on every kind of evil. 'Evil' in this context just means any sort of empirically discernible defect. So it is true enough that things we call evil are easily found; but it does not follow that the sort of evil that is considered in any particular argument from evil is a widespread phenomenon -- or, indeed, even noncontroversially evil or defective. Outside of clear moral evil, what you even count as a defect or lack of design may depend on whether you are already accept the design argument or the argument from evil in other cases -- someone who is elsewhere already a proponent of the latter may regard something as an obvious defect, whereas someone who already accepts the design argument elsewhere may classify it as a case where design is not particularly obvious; and vice versa. So how much of a role (3) can play in explaining the popularity of an argument from evil will vary considerably from case to case.

(He makes a few more interesting comments that are useful for clarification. I've come to think that the distinction between logical and evidential forms of the argument from evil, taken as classes of argument, is relatively unimportant. There is indeed a formal difference, but even formally it is a relatively trivial one: the difference is simply between arguments that are put forward to show that a conclusion is right and arguments that are put forward to show that a conclusion is more reasonable than the alternative, and that's really it. This is obscured by the fact that when 'the logical argument from evil' is discussed, it's often put in a very crude form, whereas the more common evidential forms are given more bells and whistles, but this is merely a sort of historical accident: if you wished, you could take arguments of one kind and with only slight modification make them arguments of the other kind. Every logical argument from evil has an evidential twin and vice versa; although, of course, an argument's plausibility doesn't guarantee the plausibility of its twin.

Also, I don't think the Fifth Way is a design argument. In Thomas Aquinas's thought a final cause is that which picks out the effect that an efficient cause will have; it need not be anything recognizable as design. The Fifth Way is a causal argument rather than a design argument -- indeed, I think it's intended to be an argument about the very possibility of causation itself, the very possibility of anything being disposed to have this effect rather than any other. St. Thomas does make use of design-like considerations here and there, but as one would expect they chiefly occur in discussions of divine providence.

And, should it not have been clear enough, I myself think that at least some 'cosmological' arguments still have force.)

Two Poem Drafts


How joyful is this blessing,
that the guilty may repent
and in sackcloth and ashes
make justice to relent!
How splendid is the wonder
of this gift from mercy's hand
that sinners may have recourse
from punishment's demand!

How Strange that You Think I Love You

How strange that you think I love you,
when in this world of lie
scarce any deed is ever done
that the next does not deny;
and you will not have proven my promise
nor have shown that I do not rave
until what binds me to you
outlasts the conquering grave.

How strange that you think I love you,
when only time will tell:
when I've conquered death and heartache
and braved the gates of hell,
when, the world within my fingers,
I let it slip on through
for the wonder of your whisper,
for the glory that is you.

Dashed Off

Bits and pieces from my constant note-taking. As always, to be taken with a grain of salt.

A big deal is often made about pistis being trust; but the medievalshad already recognized this, for fides involves trust of an authority, although not necessarily only that. And, indeed, if you wanted a single English word to cover what the scholastics meant by "formless faith," 'trust would often do.

We only really come to understand philosophy by recognizing sophistry for what it fundamentally is and seeing our way out of it.

people who try to substitute false certainty for faith

"Nature is not prodigal of genius and the church makes do with what nature gives her." Flannery O'Connor

God is primary cause in the order of knowing as in the order of being.

Through the light of the agent intellect we abstract universals from particulars, intelligibles from sensibles, quiddities from existing things. (These three are related, and closely so, but should not be conflated.)

It is necessary for us to rely, to some extent at least, on the judgment of others, for those times when our own is compromised and we are unable to tell this on our own.

Many things that are not terms may have intensions & extensions -- lists, for instance.

The praise inherent in faith bursts forth in confession and love.

It is the existence of good moral taste that allows for supererogation.

We may rationally wager on what we believe not to be the case, namely, when we also believe that it is really possible we are wrong, and what is risked is not massive, and we would be delighted to be wrong.

Heresy results from desire for an undue end, or from an illusion of the imagination, or both. And as it seems clear that the first is worse than the second, we should make a distinction among heretics between those who are heretics from willfulness and those who are heretics from imagination. For in intelligible and spiritual matters we all have imaginations that may lead us astray in this or that.

people whose prejudices are pernicious and ineradicable because they are unable to recognize any prejudices short of bigotry
- Patronizing is often harder to overcome than hating because it clothes itself as tolerant and benevolent.

One thing can be truer than another because truths can be related as primary and secondary.

While Hume overshot in claiming that all morals were a sort of taste, it is certianly true that much of morals is. Thus there is nothing wrong with a group of people banding together to live a life according to a system of honor and shame not actually required. There will in such cases be instances of good taste and bad taste, but even where there is only good taste it is absurd to expect everyone's to be exactly the same. Homogeneity in taste is neither sufficient nor necessary for a standard of good taste.

When we talk about the vice of unbelief, we do not mean that lack of belief is a sin, for it is rather an unfortunate condition deserving compassion. Rather, we mean the act of despising or having contempt for the faith is a sin, for it is presumption against sound understanding and hatred of a good. Thus it is that Aquinas says that no one is damned merely for lacking faith. But unbelief is wrong when it is a hardening of their heart against it out of a sort of arrogant perversity, or malice toward believers, or attachments to bad things it would exclude. Nor doe sit in the least require the possession of faith to recognize that these are bad; although one without faith will not recognize them as bad under the very notion of lacking faith, just as non-Christians may have solidarity with Christians on this or that thing,b ut not under the notion of their being Christian.

The best way to understand the word 'sacred' is ardently to pursue justice.

To defend the truth is merely to uncover the truth's own defenses.

Mathematical physics is formally a branch of mathematics, but materially about things that are not merely mathematical. Or to put it in terms of Lady Mary Shepherd rather than Aristotle, it is in its nature mathematical reasoning that depends on suppositions that are not arbitrary but drawn from experimental reasoning about phenomena and their causes.

"A sage in any branch of knowledge is one who knows the highest cause of that kind of knowledge, and is able to judge of all matters by that cause." Aquinas, ST II-II.9.2

We may form judgments in many ways, but sure judgments are formed by finding the causes and reasons fo rthings.

No one can be said to take marriage seriously who does not recognize what an honor their spouse has bestowed upon them. And recongizing such an honor, can they with honor treat it lightly?

Of all states of life in the Church, two especially are charged with the fight of the Church against death, and they are the states of marriage and ordination. Thus the married are the vanguard of Christian life in the world, and the ordained the vanguard of life in the spiritual heights. And nothing is more harmful than a falling away of either from this calling, just as nothing disarrays an army more than the collapse and betrayal of its front lines, just as nothing enervates a people more than the spread of corruption among its chief representatives and heroes.

Assent completes the activity of the mind in two ways: first, in that the thing assented to is grasped or apprehended, and second that it is judged to be so.

Understanding is a sort of cleanness of mind; who truly understands has thought clear form error in the areas he or she understands.

To do any good deed requires some sort of right estimation of the end sought.

Rational dialectic is always from understanding to understanding.

Faith, even initial faith, excludes the error of wishing to measure divine things by the rule of sensible things; other errors are excluded when it is combined with other virtues and gifts.

Faith purifies intellect and will, but not fully on its own; it does so by initiating a movement of intellect and will to purer and more noble things, a movement other virtues must complete.

Since a religious order is a sort of teaching and learning of charity, it must have a formal and a material object.

The fecundity of arguments is not merely additive; putting two arguments together is a multiplication, not an addition, because the results they have spearately interact when together. (It is the same with premises, for similar reasons, & thus the failure of Mill's criticism of the syllogism.)
- this seems to presuppose relevance, i.e., sharing or at least plausibly sharing a universe of discourse

Analyzing things in only one way is a way to increase the likelihood of analyzing them incorrectly.

There is room to argue that usury, like prostitution, is an evil sometime to be politically tolerated to prevent worse evils.

Usura solum in mutuo cadit (San Bernardino de Siena)

Private property protects common use from neglect, fraud, and discord.

three components of value
virtuositas (effectiveness)
raritas (scarcity)
complacibilitas (enjoyableness)

Conditions for failure rarely parallel conditions for success; limbo conditions usually throw off the symmetry.

the art of extrapolating approximately correct conclusions from data that is misleading & incomplete

The history of an intellectual creature is a history of ideas and illuminations.

beauty as the promise of goodness

If philosophy fails to interfere with the actual use of language, it has failed to follow up on its own potential.

production geared to satisfaction of human needs
production geared to indefinite consumption

Economics, medicine, and ethics are the three fields without which no good politics and no good government is possible.

Policies must not only avoid harming those for whom they are applied; they must also be such that those who implement them are nto made worse by the fact of implementing them.

Every government policy should contribute to the fight, directly or indirectly, of one of these three: poverty, disease, injustice. For these three are defects that are capable of massively impeding pursuit of the common good, although not each in the same way or to the same degree.

We cannot manifest that which subsists over all subsistence insofar as it is over all subsistence, for it is ineffable, unknown, beyond all manifestation, surpassing unity itself; but we may hymn the creative act by which God, producing all being, proceeds into all beings, to hymn as above all beings that which is above all beings, through removal of all beings, though it itself is beyond every name and beyond even removal of names, for it overarches all.

Postulates, suppositions, speculations, and guesses, like beliefs, can be justified.

being as known in presence
being as known in essence

It is at the level of intelligibility that all things are beautiful.

1. Zetetic
1a. Disputative: eradicating false opinions
1a1. indirect: identifying difficulties
1a2. direct: confuting errors
1b. Inquisitive: developing true opinions
1b1. hortatory: exciting to search
1b2. maieutic: assisting in the search
2. Dogmatic
2a. Critical
2a1. analytic
2a2. synthetic
2b. Authoritative
2b1. magisterial
2b2. traditional

things contributing to appearance of 'degrees of belief': certitude, promptitude, devotion, confidence

Saints are not at all made by always being right; so why devote so much effort and time to something that contributes so little to sainthood?

Not every kind of trust is trust in things not apparent.

Hell is full of people who thought themselves good and decent, just as the Nazi party was full of people who thought themselves good and decent. You are not judged by your own evaluation, but by the lives of the people you harmed and the excellence of the people you despised and the magnitude of the problems you ignored.

Virtuous faith is consistent with occasional doubt because in faith our hold on what is believed is imperfect, for it is a thing unseen and believe on authority. This is true of even natural belief: transient movements of doubt do not dissolve one's trust in testimony or expertise, but are, indeed, occasions where it may be most useful, if the trust is well-founded. For it is foolish to trust every doubt on a matter over someone you have good reason to trust.

To trust rightly you must love rightly.

Faith without charity is only the material for the virtue of faith, just as moderation without prudence is only the material for the virtue of temperance, just as courage without prudence is only the material for virtuous courage.

In faith we recognize the convergence of the true and the good, not merely in abstract but by experience.

"There is nothing commendable in making a public confession of one's faith if it cause a disturbance among unbelievers, without any profit either to the faith or to the faithful." Aquinas II-II.3.2

People may be persecuted by arguments; as with those strange people who cannot give feminists rest on any point, but must argue with them without cease, or those who use arguments to attack blacks or others and impose the bonds of humiliation and contempt on them. The mere fact that one uses arguments does not make one's behavior rational or virtuous.

Faith being an intimation or first bit of hoped-for beatitude, it establishes for us as credible what will be established in beatitude as known.

Thought is completed by concepts.

stripping sweetness from the idea of sin

It is so natural to us to know by composition and division that we are restless even with things simply understood unless we can compose and divide them.

"It appears that the want of money can never injure any state within itself: For men and commodities are the real strength of any community." Hume, 'Of Money'

All capacities of will and thought must be developed through charity, intensified in charity, preserved as charity.

What good are your questions if you will not question yourself?

the Volk of God vs. the Volk of man

teaching English to speak philosophically

citizenship in philosophy

3 basic errors in experimental interpretation
(1) inadequate division of possibilities
(2) deficient conception
(3) false presumption of facts

'Thought experiments' are interpretations of experimental results where those results are presumed rather than established.

(1) conversion to the phantasm
(2) illumination of the phantasm
(3) abstraction from the phantasm
(4) understanding in the phantasm

suffering as negative (natural evil)
suffering as occasion for self-discipline (trial)
suffering as part of self-discipline (correction)
suffering as the forge of heroism (endurance for the good of others)

A single letter informs; that doesn't mean it signifies.

The mind's an oyster; from its irritation, pearls.

The human mind thrives on being given vastness of view.

Prudence is the architect and engineer organizing the bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, etc that are the other moral virtues so that they produce a usable building rather than (say) a well-designed but isolated and useless plumbing system standing alone in a waterless desert.

Human wickedness tends to be materially diabolical but formally petty.

Charity is a virtue of human beings not qua human but qua divinized.

I am inclined to think that St. Thomas's pedagogical choice in ST II-II to include gifts and beatitudes in with the discussion of particular virtues was, all things considered, a less than optimal one. It is true that "if we were to treat of each virtue, gift, vice and precept separately, we should have to say the same thing over and over again." Thus it makes sense to treat vices as subtopics of their opposing virtues, and also to include with them the precepts, which are to encourage virtue and discourage vice. But the beatitudes and gifts go beyond (so to speak) the virtues, and thus it would have been better to consider them on their own afterward (although both together, for beatitudes are to gifts somewhat like precepts are to virtues). Then we can get a better sense of the gifts as a whole, as we can of the virtues as a whole. And in this way also no matter pertaining to morals would be overlooked.

Charity merits the increase of charity, for the work of God's grace merits more working of God's grace, as the manifestation of God's glory merits even greater manifestation of God's glory.

Mercy allows people to request what they are not due.

In continuous time, instants are not such as to precede or succeed each other immediately, but in discrete time they are.

The real dynamic is never supply and demand, but supply, demand, and feasibility.

Those who wish to evaluate the logic of arguments must first understand them.

True forgiveness requires more than not hating the offender; one must have special good-will toward him or her. Thus Christ does not say, "Avoid hating your enemy," which anyone may do when their self-interest lies in that direction, but "Love your enemy and bless those who persecute you," which is a graciousness beyond any self-interest.

We can know something, and yet not know that we know it, if we have the thing known but not its proper principle. For it is the principle that rules out error. So if, for instance, we know something 'conjecturally by signs' we have knowledge of it, albeit imperfect & probabilistic knowledge that admits of a sort of limited uncertainty, but we do not know we know it, because we know it by a sort of diagnosis of symptoms or reflection on effects rather than seeing the underlying reason why it must be so. But some things can be known more perfectly by sign, namely, when we know by proper principles that an effect must be from such-and-such cause or it could not exist.

St. Francis hugging the leper is more graceful than the most elegant dandy; this can be seen in that a society of Francises is more beautiful than a society of elegant dandies.

The human person is said to be of rational or intellectual nature not because it has reason or intellect but because it has a nature that manifests most fully in the exercise of reason or intellect.

The creature God graces becomes an instrument as graced, & thus has a power to act in something like the way the pen, taken in hand, has the power to write poetry.

Motion is the act of the mover in the moved.

journalims as colligation of views
journalism as presentation of facts
journalism as a form of doing justice (just review)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Modern Callicleses

I've been teaching Plato's Gorgias, as I usually do in my intro courses. (The Gorgias is my favorite Platonic dialogue. It's well nigh perfect, having a little bit of most of what you might like about Plato in a discussion that is beautifully constructed.) And as usual I'm surprised by how many students are completely certain that Callicles is right, who are willing to affirm that the strong and intelligent have a right by nature to take what they please, and that this is only reined in by the fact that if such people go too far, everyone else will gang up on them. This happens every time we get to Callicles' major speech, and yet somehow it takes me by surprise every single time. I guess I just have difficulty wrapping my mind around the idea that there are a great many ordinary and apparently decent people who, if faced with the question of whether might makes right, will look at you as if you had asked something odd and reply: Yes, obviously it does.

Text not available
The Dialogues of Plato : Meno. Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias, Appendix I: Lesser Hippias, Alcibiades I. Menexenus. Appendix II: Alcibiades II. Eryxias. By Plato

And they are, of course, one entirely normal expression of our society. What, honestly, do we do that does not make it seem natural for people to let their desires expand as much as possible? How much time do we really spend praising prudence rather than native intelligence, or self-control rather than ambition, or humility rather than bold self-assertion? What do we really do to convey the idea that self-restraint is not a necessary evil but a positive good? Very little. And the result is inevitable: if you teach like Gorgias, you end up with Callicles.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Philosopher's Carnival #87

The 87th Philosopher's Carnival is up at "There is Some Truth in That". Of the posts this time around, the one I liked best is We believe in probabilities, we do not believe in terms of probabilities at "Critical Rationalism." Hume would be a case of someone who held the belief discussed:

Text not available
A Treatise of Human Nature By David Hume, Lewis Amherst Selby-Bigge

The discussion of Fodor at "Modern Materialism" was also good.

Monday, March 02, 2009

On Arguments from Evil

John Farrell asks about arguments from evil:

[W]hy is it that so many atheists are hugely impressed by the 'problem of evil'? Massimo, like so many, starts from the presupposition that the Biblical God's goodness is defined in moral terms. He predictably proceeds from this assumption to the observation that there is so much unpleasant suffering in the world that this God must be a beast or a sadist, and therefore doesn't exist.

Is it me, or is that presupposition highly questionable?

It's an interesting question why arguments from evil have become such a major family of arguments. I think it is a combination of two factors: (1) The relatively small logical space for positive arguments for the conclusion that God does not exist; and (2) the rise of the design argument.

The second of these is probably more important, but the first does contribute to an explanation of why it is always an argument from evil. On most topics, typical arguments cluster into a small number of groups, and when it comes to arguments for the conclusion that God does not exist, all Gaul more or less divides into three parts. There are positivist arguments, which argue that God does not exist in much the same way square circles don't exist; they are arguments that talk about God is inescapably incoherent. There are superfluity arguments that argue that positing the existence of God is otiose; there is no phenomenon not better explained by something other than God. And there are arguments from evil. These are families of arguments, so (for instance) not every superfluity argument will be the same as every other superfluity argument. But there are precious few other candidates for atheistic arguments, and it's easy enough to sort just about any atheistic argument available into one of these three families, depending on whether it is based on abstract possibility, principles of causal explanation, or empirically discovered defect. It's generally a good idea to remember this, by the way: not all atheists who put forward an argument from evil are putting forward the same argument from evil, or would even be convinced by the same argument from evil. An argument based on natural evil, for instance, is different from an argument based on moral evil, and both are different again from an argument based on some account of evil that accounts both, and so what refutes one argument will not always refute another, and what supports one will not always support another.

But there are things that can be said about arguments from evil, especially relative to other families of arguments. For instance, there is no secret why positivist arguments are less common than arguments from evil; logical positivism went into severe disrepute, so even positivist arguments that had nothing to do with logical positivism historically suffer under the cloud of looking like logical positivism. Moreover, positivist arguments are effectively a priori arguments, ontological arguments for God's nonexistence, and the rise of 'naturalism' has led people to be wary of a priori arguments, or, indeed, anything that looks like an a priori argument. Given the dynamics of academic life, it is highly unlikely that both stigmas will continue to stand forever; but as it is, right now, atheists who want to argue that God does not exist will tend toward superfluity- and evil-based arguments.

It's certainly possible to find people developing superfluity arguments today, and most atheists, in fact, will occasionally throw them out -- or at the very least will throw out the claim that God's existence is superfluous for explanation, even if they give no argument. But it certainly seems that arguments from evil are widespread and highly valued, and much more so than superfluity arguments. This is initially puzzling, because superfluity arguments, which are based on more fundamental causal considerations, tend to be more powerful arguments, both as to their rigor and the strength of their conclusion. And this puzzle brings us to the second point, because it is a puzzle that goes hand in hand with another puzzle: why the design argument has become so widespread and highly valued. For the two go together.

As I've mentioned before, design arguments were for the longest time almost unrepresented among arguments for the existence of God; traditionally the favored theistic arguments have been based on principles of causal explanation, not considerations about design. When you find considerations about design prior to the early modern period, it is always a remnant of Stoic philosophy. The Stoics used design arguments against the Epicureans. The existence of God or gods, as such, was not at issue in these disputes, because the Epicureans didn't usually claim that gods did not exist -- in fact, the gods were often held up as ethical exemplars. Rather, their claim was that the gods did not intervene in mortal affairs, and even more crucially, that the existence even of the gods themselves could be explained by chance motions of atoms in a void over endless periods of time. The Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists of a sort: they held that Nature was God and God Nature and that both were in some sense Reason, and it seems to have been to argue for this view against the Epicurean view that the Stoics first began using design arguments. The appeal of this approach to someone who holds a (broadly) pantheistic view is easy to see: it's a way you can show that there is something of Reason, and thus something God-like, in the things of this world. Thus we have the design theorists against the Epicurean atomists, arguing not over God's existence but over the explanation for order in the world. You can see this sort of dispute laid out by Cicero in De Natura Deorum. And it is worth keeping in mind, not merely for the fact that a pantheist can be a proponent of the design argument, but also for the fact that, precisely because the Stoics were broadly pantheistic that their arguments for Reason as the explanation of design can be read as arguments for the existence of Reason, simply speaking, even though that does not, in fact, seem to have been the point. This ambiguity will play a small role later on.

As the old schools faded, the Christians began taking over their arguments, modifying them to suit Christian principles. One sees exactly this happening in a beautiful little philosophical work, the Octavius, by an otherwise unknown Christian philosopher from about the second or third century, Minucius Felix. The Stoic arguments are adapted to a non-pantheistic criticism of Epicureanism; whoever Minucius was, he was very familiar with Cicero and other Stoic philosophers. And from then on one finds design considerations here and there in Christian thought -- although, again, almost never, and perhaps actually never, in support of the claim that God exists but in support of the claim that the God who exists is not indifferent to His creation. That is, Stoic arguments for pantheistic providence become Christian arguments for theistic providence. But design arguments are structurally weak arguments; theists in the Middle Ages would tend to accept the structurally stronger causal arguments for the existence of God, and thus there was never any real need to put design arguments to work as arguments for the existence of God. Design considerations can be found in Thomas Aquinas and others, but why would they try put so much weight on a string when they had more robust theories of causation that could support more rigorous arguments with stronger conclusions?

The design argument as we know it seems to begin with the return of atomism, a historically Epicurean position. Most of the people attracted to atomism at the time were themselves Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, thus they had to face immediately the fact that atomism as traditionally construed admitted of no room for providence. At the same time, the attraction to atomism went with a weakening of causal theory: if you were attracted to atomism that was a fair sign that you were losing interest in Aristotelian accounts of causation, and were, in effect, attracted to a weaker account of causation. (Otherwise you'd just be Aristotelian, accommodating atomism in the very restricted way Aristotelians have since Aristotle.) So a robust cosmological argument is no longer a strong contender, and if you were an atomist you probably wouldn't be inspired by ontological arguments, either. So the natural solution is to appeal to design. And this allows you at the same time to fill a void left by the loss of Aristotelian causation -- because the Aristotelians had developed arguments for the existence of God. And thus design can do double duty. This attitude was taken over by people we tend to think of as empiricists. Rationalists, of course, tended to accept a priori arguments for God's existence -- ontological arguments -- and thus we have a remarkable reversal. The Neo-Epicureans accept design arguments. The successors of the Stoics, however, will be the rationalists; but they will either not give design considerations a big place (continuing the medieval tradition) or, in the case of the most Stoic-like of the rationalist philosophers, Spinoza, reject them entirely.

And this is really where we still are. Thought about design arguments continued to develop. Boyle, for instance, tries to fit Harvey's work on the heart into an a mechanistic view. Harvey's science was still Aristotelian, and his research on the heart was an investigation in terms of the Aristotelian four causes, with the crowning achievement being the discovery that the heart was for the sake of circulating the blood. In a mechanistic system, without Aristotelian causal theory, this can only be fit in by treating it as functional design. Design arguments become even more widely popular with Newton, who famously gives (brief) design arguments for God's existence based on astronomy and biology. Hume has a great deal of respect for Newtonian philosophy but Hume also wants to read it skeptically, so he sets out to critique this sort of design inference, to pin down exactly how legitimate it is. He makes a special effort, however, to put it in its strongest light. To do this he draws in part on Cicero's De Natura Deorum, and in fact there are very clear, and almost certainly deliberate, analogies between the De Natura Deorum and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. And here the argument from evil makes a clear showing; it is the crown jewel of Hume's criticism of design-based natural religion. Most people are not particularly convinced by Hume's objections; but in trying to present the design argument in the strongest light, Hume had built a better design argument than virtually anything that had gone before, and so design arguments start looking suspiciously like slight variations of the one Hume considered. And from there we get the final succession of intriguing improvements -- Paley, Whewell, and Babbage. And after that point philosophical thought about design arguments ceases to progress and develop, and begins to alternate between deterioration and stagnation, with an occasional return to an old idea, and nothing genuinely new except the particular examples. But the design argument had by this point become 'the' theistic argument.

If, however, you are inclined to reject this argument, the easiest way to do so is simply to argue that design theorists are not consistent in some way, and that design considerations can equally show a lack of design. And you could even go back to Hume and see a sterling example of this sort of argument, so there is clear precedent. And that is the argument from evil. It is a very natural argument to use against design arguments; it requires no special theory, but simply turns the principles of the design argument, or principles that get their plausibility from the same source that those of the design argument do, against the design argument. This contrasts with superfluity arguments, which, while structurally stronger, are a lot of work and (if you are consistent in using them) tend to require much more robust views of causation which not every atheist holds. Thus the argument from evil gets its popularity from the argument from design. More than that, it is a sort of design argument. When a proponent of an argument from design clashes with a proponent of an argument from evil, what you have is someone who thinks that design can be read off objects and claims that objects exhibit design fighting someone who thinks that design can be read off objects but claims that they show no traces of having been designed. That is all.

So the simple answer as to why so many atheists are attracted to the argument from evil is that they are the sort of people who would be attracted to design arguments if they were theists. The two types of arguments make use of the same basic processes of reasoning and similar views of design as relatively obvious to spot if it's there; they just reach different conclusions because one says that this or that is obviously good enough that it has to be designed, and the other says that that or this is obviously bad enough that it couldn't possibly be designed. And both tend to be locked into the view that it is design or nothing.

Those of us, theist or atheist though we may be, who recognize that these positions are contraries rather than contradictories will tend to prefer other arguments and, as John says, regard the underlying presuppositions as dubious. I am certain, for instance, that John generally finds the argument from evil obviously dubious precisely because he would regard most design arguments to be obviously dubious; given doubts about the one, it would take an extraordinarily sophisticated version of the other to impress. But once the basic points were in place historically -- a sort of empiricism connected with the rise of science and the spread of a weak view of causation -- design arguments on the one side and arguments from evil on the other side became the easiest arguments for people to understand. So I imagine that they will be hard to put back in their place; it would require a sort of revolution in the world of thought, whereby what is now popular becomes unpopular and what is now unpopular becomes popular. We none of us have any inkling of what would accomplish that.

This is all general, of course, and there will be weird individual variations that don't fit the norm, on both sides; but it isn't difficult to find evidence that something like this account is, in fact, a correct account of the popularity of the argument from evil.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Descartes, Divisible Bodies, and Indivisible Minds

At "Analysis" there's a very interesting post on Descartes and the mind-body distinction. Descartes more or less argues:

1.I understand the mind to be indivisible by its very nature.
2.I understand body to be divisible by its very nature.
3.Therefore, the mind is completely different from the body.

The author suggests that the hidden premise here is:

(HP) If the mind and body have different properties, then they are completely different.

This is, of course, highly implausible. But there are other premises that would get you from (1) and (2) to (3), and I suspect that Descartes's actual assumption here is:

(D/I) What is indivisible by its very nature is completely different from what is divisible by its very nature.

Which is actually very plausible. This is similar to the suggested revision farther down in the post, but wouldn't require appealing to indiscernibility of identicals but rather to the principle of noncontradiction.

Notable Notables, Linkable Linkables

* YouTube Finds, a mix of weirdness and excellence and weird excellence:

Great Depression Cooking with Clara is a reason why YouTube is an awesome thing.

An awesome 8-Bit version of Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper
An 8-Bit version of Europe's Final Countdown

The U. S. House of Representatives and the The U. S. Senate both have a YouTube presence now.

Experimental Philosophy Starring Eugene Mirman. A pretty good introduction to the basic idea.

Learn Game Theory from a Ninja

Crispin Sartwell on anarchism and the rule of law; he argues that no political state in existence actually conforms to the principle. I think the argument needs to be made more precise than you can probably get in a YouTube video, but it also seems to me to be one of the more interesting and promising anti-state arguments I've come across.

* David Brin has a really good editorial on the military. Militaries, even the most admirable, must be vigilantly watched because military life has a natural tendency to slide toward two vices, corruption and overplanning. The former is discussed a great deal, but the latter can be quite as serious. Rather than work on basic points of fitness -- fighting ability, transportation, logistics, relations with civilians -- that will outlast any plan one can ever make, and are essential to any plan one will ever have to make, military strategists and organizers start asking questions like that which Brin notes: "How can we better anticipate, cover, and overcome all conceivable or plausible threat envelopes?" This is an absurd question; any possible answer to it is virtually guaranteed to become obsolete faster than you can do anything with it, because the first things that go out the window when it matters are your expectations and plans. The logistics of the Allied advance beginning with D-Day were pre-planned to precision. Virtually none of the plans lasted longer than D-Day itself; everything began changing at such a fast rate that local commanders continually had to improvise. This was not the fault of the plan, which was very nicely thought out. It was the fault of the people who thought that plans can ever be anything but faulty and inadequate starting points. What you need instead are the things that can be valuable for any sort of plan you might have to make up on the fly.

* The International Prostitutes Collective. I think I've mentioned before that I think prostitution should be legal in order to protect the lives of prostitutes, to make it easier to transition voluntarily from prostitution to other lines of work, and to put the burden of the law on the ones who should primarily be bearing it: abusive pimps and johns. I actually don't think there should be much stigma attached to prostitution, for that matter; I hold the Thomistic view that it is not immoral per se to receive money for sex, i.e., that it adds nothing wrong to the act beyond whatever is involved in extramarital sex in the first place. And I think it's important for Christians, in particular, to avoid making life harder for prostitutes; we owe it to our Lord and some of his saints.

* There has recently been some news about Cerrie Burnell, the likable host of the BBC kids show, CBeebies. Apparently there have been complaints from some parents because Ms Burnell has had only one arm from birth. Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be a majority view, but it is sad that there are still people out there who spread such nonsense.

* Jesuit political scientist Francis P. Canavan has passed away at age 91. His The Popes and the Economy is an article worth reading.

* Radio legend Paul Harvey has also passed away.