Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Soul at Its Post

Nothing is so incongruous in a Christian, and foreign to his character, as to seek ease and rest; and to be engrossed with the present life is foreign to our profession and enlistment. Your Master was crucified, and do you seek ease? Your Master was pierced with nails, and do you live delicately? Do these things become a noble soldier? Wherefore Paul says, "Many walk, of whom I told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ." Since there were some who made a pretense of Christianity, yet lived in ease and luxury, and this is contrary to the Cross: therefore he thus spoke. For the cross belongs to a soul at its post for the fight, longing to die, seeking nothing like ease, while their conduct is of the contrary sort. So that even if they say, they areChrist's, still they are as it were enemies of the Cross. For did they love the Cross, they would strive to live the crucified life. Was not your Master hung upon the tree? Do thou otherwise imitate Him. Crucify yourself, though no one crucify you. Crucify yourself, not that you may slay yourself, God forbid, for that is a wicked thing, but as Paul said, "The world has been crucified unto me and I unto the world." (Gal. vi. 14.) If you love your Master, die His death. Learn how great is the power of the Cross; how many good things it has achieved, and does still: how it is the safety of our life.

Difficults words from John Chrysostom, Homily 13 on Philippians.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Supererogation with Maximization

A question came up at the site recently, on the subject of ethical egoism and supererogation, which brought up an interesting point; Allen Stairs suggested in response that "If any ethical theory claims that we're obliged to maximize something or other, then there's no room left for supererogation." And, indeed, initially this would seem to be the case. However, it really only does so if we add to the maximization condition the further condition that nothing non-obligatory contributes to the value of what you do.

Suppose (for the sake of argument) that you are obliged to maximize the good of others; but suppose that there are other things beside the good of others that have value, e.g., your own good, to which we are not obliged. This allows room for supererogation, since we can go beyond our obligation with acts that are valuable but not obligated. I think this shows that the real issue is not maximization but exclusivity, because the claim that nothing non-obligatory is of (relevant) value suffices on its own to eliminate supererogation.

Usually when we talk about ethical egoism, the sort of textbook caricature introduced in introductory ethics courses, we are talking about something committed to an exclusivity claim: nothing other than self-interest contributes to the value of an act, and maximizing self-interest is what makes an act right. But it would seem doubtful to say that anyone tempted toward ethical egoism would actually commit to the exclusivity claim, unless he is conflating a sort of psychological egoism with his ethical egoism, and therefore making it impossible for there to be anything of value other than self-interest. So ethical egoists need not have any (direct) problem with supererogation, because they need not be committed to the exclusivity claim. (As Stairs notes, ethical egoists need not be committed to the maximization claim, either.)

Mine Was the Grief

My will, therefore, He took to Himself, my grief. In confidence I call it grief, because I preach His Cross. Mine is the will which He called His own, for as man He bore my grief, as man He spoke, and therefore said, "Not as I will, but as You will." Mine was the grief, and mine the heaviness with which He bore it, for no man exults when at the point to die. With me and for me He suffers, for me He is sad, for me He is heavy. In my stead, therefore, and in me He grieved Who had no cause to grieve for Himself.

Not Your wounds, but mine, hurt You, Lord Jesus; not Your death, but our weakness, even as the Prophet says: "For He is afflicted for our sakes" (Isaiah 53:4) — and we, Lord, esteemed You afflicted, when You grieved not for Yourself, but for me.

And what wonder if He grieved for all, Who wept for one? What wonder if, in the hour of death, He is heavy for all, Who wept when at the point toraise Lazarus from the dead? Then, indeed, He was moved by a loving sister's tears, for they touched His human heart,— here by secret grief He brought it to pass that, even as His death made an end of death, and His stripes healed our scars, so also His sorrow took away our sorrow.

As being man, therefore, He doubts; as man He is amazed. Neither His power nor His Godhead is amazed, but His soul; He is amazed by consequence of having taken human infirmity upon Him. Seeing, then, that He took upon Himself a soul He also took the affections of a soul, for God could not have been distressed or have died in respect of His being God. Finally, He cried: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" As being man, therefore, He speaks, bearing with Him my terrors, for when we are in the midst of dangers we think ourselves abandoned by God. As man, therefore, He is distressed, as man He weeps, as man He is crucified.

Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Christian Faith, Bk. II, Ch. 7.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Two Poem Drafts

The first is just a bit of a lark. But the second, a summary of the book of Lamentations, I don't generally recommend that you read. Lamentations is a brutal book, a cry of pain and anguish in the face of terrible and cataclysmic destruction, ending in no certainty at all, and its summary necessarily makes for a brutal poem (also ending in no certainty). I set out to make it while reflecting on the fact that this lovely passage (I use the ESV)

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him." The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.

occurs right in the middle of a book that describes things terrible beyond imagining. You and I live very comfortably. We cannot mean it as the author of those verses did. If we say it or sing it, it sounds saccharine, like happily belting out "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" in pleasant and comfortable times. But in this context it is not saccharine. To say it as the author did you would have to say it with anguish but with firmness, when your world has ended, when all good things you know have come to a violent end, when you have been brought to things you would never have dreamed in nightmares, as this author said it: then it would not be just words, but the very doctrine itself.

A Brief Argument for Why You Should Agree with Me

I'd believe you were it possible,
I really and truly would!
But, fact is, no reasonable mind
ever, ever could.
I know you think you know it,
and that your faith is strong,
but everything you have ever said
is nonsense and is wrong.
I know you think you mean well,
believing as you do,
but you should never try
to believe what isn't true.
And does your conclusion follow
from the premises you had?
That's a clear and striking proof
that your premises are bad,
for, sure as truth works truly,
as all roads lead to Rome,
every reasonable inference
in my view comes to home!


The roads to Zion mourn,
her women are raped beside;
in the sanguine city square
the dandled infant dies.
In the streets the ruthless sword
tears husband from his wife;
in every house and home
it strips away all life.
With fury and with wrath
the Lord became our foe,
to ruin every wall
and render every woe
until the sabbaths end,
and all the feasts have failed,
and law has fled away
before the whip and flail,
and prophet's visions cease,
for their lies the Lord detests,
and babies' blood pours out
upon their mothers' breasts.
The joy of all the earth
has vanished in the flame,
the completion of all beauty
became a jeering name.
Hunger's gnawing death
a ruthless need now gives,
and mothers boil their babes
that other babes might live,
and women eat their children,
the ones for whom they care,
for none the famine leaves,
and none the famine spares.
On the temple steps
are priest and prophet slain;
on street and porch and field
the people fall like rain --
the young, the grown, the old,
all bloody dusty ground,
and maid and youth together
are in the corpses found.
Our end drew near, relentless,
like the beat of constant drum;
our days like coins were numbered --
and now our end is come.
But though I fall aside
yet still my tongue might say
his love endures forever,
is new again each day,
and he is yet our portion,
whatever our fickle fate,
and he is good with glory
to those who for him wait.
But, Lord, you reign forever
on everlasting throne!
Why do you forget your children
and leave us all alone?
Return us to your bosom,
that we may be restored!
Or are we cast off forever,
in wrath to be ignored?

Transcendental Arguments

Pete Mandik has a post summarizing transcendental arguments. As he summarizes them, transcendental argument has, in terms of its premises,

(1) "an allegedly obvious claim about EXPERIENCE, KNOWLEDGE, or some other feature of one’s own mind"
(2) "a claim about a necessary condition on the truth of the allegedly obvious claim in (1)"

And then concludes that the necessary condition in (2) is satisfied (because, of course, that which requires it obtains).

This isn't a bad attempt, but I'm not sure this is quite right. Putting it this way would make a transcendental argument an ordinary causal argument (taking 'causal' in a reasonably broad sense), but I don't think this characterizes what people are really trying to offer in transcendental arguments. The problem is the "allegedly obvious". I don't believe an allegedly obvious claim is needed for a transcendental argument; likewise, I don't think every allegedly obvious claim combined with a claim about its necessary condition gives you a transcendental argument.

When Kant gives a transcendental argument, he is not alleging that something is obvious; he is alleging that something is unavoidable. This, I think, is the key to understanding what a transcendental argument is, and this alone can really show why transcendental arguments have at least the potential to counter skeptical arguments with some bite. Transcendental arguments have force against skepticism precisely because they are not dogmatic -- it is precisely because they don't use claims because they are 'obvious'. If they were dogmatic they would be completely useless against the skeptic because they would beg the question; the skeptic could merely deny the obviousness of the claim. But the Achilles' heel of skepticism throughout the ages has always been practice. Skeptics themselves cannot get away from practical life. And transcendental arguments are ways of building on this fact, by starting with things that even skeptics can't genuinely avoid doing, that even skeptics must admit they do. So, for instance, skeptics can't avoid making some sort of judgment about the temporal order of their experiences; we can't have such judgments without presupposing independent substances that endure while things change, Kant argues, so we are all already mentally committed to the existence of enduring substances independent of our minds. The foundational claim need not be obvious at all -- that's a secondary issue -- but it does need to be somehow unavoidable in light of what we actually do or are able to do. It's a claim that, given that we do (or are able to do) something, we would be engaged in a sort of performative inconsistency to do (or be able to do) it and not accept what it is identified as a necessary condition for that thing.

Part of the thing that has to be remembered is that transcendental arguments arise in a context where one has already made significant concession to skepticism; it merely hems in the skeptic, so to speak, by identifying things to which the skeptic is committed as a matter of life (usually but not always mental life) and that is really what it is designed to do. In Kantian terms, it is critical rather than dogmatic; it opposes the skeptic as a critical and not as a dogmatic argument. It doesn't give you reality, but it isn't supposed to do that: it's supposed to give you what you are committed to in living a mental life, whether you are skeptical or not. As an anti-skeptical tactic it is not skepticism-destroying but skepticism-bounding; it limits rather than refuting by establishing a way in which the claim is a lawful or legitimate claim, a claim we have some right to make -- a right the skeptic (also committed in practice to the claim, even if they suspend judgment about whether it is really true) cannot really deny.

Bridge Over Death

This is the Son of the carpenter, Who skilfully made His cross a bridge over Sheol that swallows up all, and brought over mankind into the dwelling of life. And because it was through the tree that mankind had fallen into Sheol, so upon the tree they passed over into the dwelling of life. Through the tree then wherein bitterness was tasted, through it also sweetness was tasted; that we might learn of Him that among the creatures nothing resists Him. Glory be to You, Who laid Your cross as a bridge over death, that souls might pass over upon it from the dwelling of the dead to the dwelling of life!

Ephrem the Syrian, Homily on Our Lord.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

On Mathematics as a Universal Language

I occasionally have ideas for science fiction stories, some of which I eventually decide are not worth the effort of developing, some of which continue to percolate, and some of which would be neat but probably are beyond my abilities to do. An example that falls into the third category. I once had the idea of a story in which we suddenly receive a rather extensive communication from an extraordinarily distant alien culture. It looks fairly mathematical, so humanity's mathematicians get to work trying to figure out what is going on it. And never, ever do, because while they can identify mathematical patterns in bits and pieces of the communication, they never have any way of testing whether those are the actually intended mathematical patterns, and never manage to fit any of the bits and pieces together into a whole. Doing it properly would require rather more advanced mathematics than I have: you'd want to show mathematicians throwing their best and brightest ideas at something (perhaps talking to reporters about it, in order to mediate the advanced mathematics to the reader). A variant of the idea would be for human beings to develop over several generations an extraordinarily advanced and complicated form of mathematics that finally makes sense of the communication and later to learn that it was completely and entirely wrong as an interpretation; the mathematics, while advanced, was simpler and very different, and the aliens had at one point just made a silly addition mistake or typo.

People often say that mathematics is a universal language. There's an important truth there, but we should always keep in mind that the phrase is a play on an ambiguity. Obviously, the notations in which we write mathematics are not universal, and certainly the terms attached to the notations, and in terms of which we explain them, are not universal. Moreover, things that seem natural to one culture (through long practice) may seem to be merely complicated work-arounds to others. If you discovered a Sung text on the celestial element algebra and knew no Chinese, figuring out that it is an algebra would be very difficult. Even if you knew Chinese it might be difficult; the Chinese certainly knew Chinese, and by the sixteenth century they seem no longer to have any idea what is going on in the celestial element texts, although they continued to copy them. And it is much more difficult than one might think to work out all the quirks of a notation even if you have a fair idea about what it means.

The play on words involved in saying that mathematics is a universal language lies in this: mathematics is universal, and mathematics is a language; but it is not universal as a language, nor is it a language insofar as it is universal. The underlying principles, the things discussed, are universal; quantities and structures of various kinds and the logic, so to speak, of how they can relate to each other. But we human beings do not have immediate intellectual access to these things, so we build up to an intellectual understanding of them by efforts of the imagination -- cognitive processes leading to expression in talking, writing, and drawing. Even mathematical geniuses do this; they just need less effort to get the same result. And we are very dependent on this imaginative medium. It is difficult, if you have not already gotten used to the idea, to think of zero as a number, or to recognize that you can have a geometry of things you can't draw in the sand or sculpt in clay, or to do algebra entirely geometrically, or to do geometry entirely algebraically. Because mathematics is universal, if you come to a difficult mathematical text for the first time, you can in principle rediscover all the underlying principles by yourself, and then use that understanding to help work out what the text means. But, depending on what it is, that may require all your life, or, indeed, generations of lives, centuries or millenia of lives. To shorten that, someone has to explain it to you in a not-so-universal language.

Evening Sacrifice, Morning Offering

"Let my prayer be set forth in Your sight as incense, and the lifting up of my hands an evening sacrifice" (Psalm 140:2). That this is wont to be understood of the Head Himself, every Christian acknowledges. For when the day was now sinking towards evening, the Lord upon the Cross "laid down His life to take it again," (John 10:17) did not lose it against His will. Still we too are figured there. For what of Him hung upon the tree, save what He took of us? And how can it be that the Father should leave and abandon His only begotten Son, especially when He is one God with Him? Yet, fixing our weakness upon the Cross, where, as the Apostle says, "our old man is crucified with Him," (Romans 6:6) He cried out in the voice of that our "old man," "Why have You forsaken Me?" That then is the "evening sacrifice," the Passion of the Lord, the Cross of the Lord, the offering of a salutary Victim, the whole burnt offering acceptable to God. That "evening sacrifice" produced, in His Resurrection, a morning offering. Prayer then, purely directed from a faithful heart, rises like incense from a hallowed altar. Nought is more delightful than the odour of the Lord: such odour let all have who believe.

Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 141. There's some interesting rhetorical virtuosity here: the play on 'lifting up of my hands', where it represents simultaneously both Christ's hanging on the cross and lifting up hands in Christian prayer, which is paralleled by the play on incense, which can be taken as incense in the strict sense, a symbol of prayer, or incense in the broader sense that includes the scent of a sacrifice, which is a symbol of Christ; all deliberately used to indicate that the faithful Christian at prayer is united with Christ on the Cross, and to suggest that therefore both are in preparation for Resurrection.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Chaospet on "The End of Philosophy"

This was too good merely to attach to the end of the previous post as an update. David Brooks's The End of Philosophy thoroughly refuted in a webcomic. In the process, chaospet shows just how much philosophy you can do in a webcomic. More philosophical webcomics of this quality could start a revolution and make the comic a recognized philosophical medium.

In the meantime, PZ Myers, of all people, also has a good and thoughtful post criticizing the op-ed, thus showing that he is, in fact, still capable of good and thoughtful posts.

The End of Philosophy?

I don't think we should exaggerate the flaws, despite the absurd hed, but the problem with David Brooks's The End of Philosophy piece begins with the very opening paragraph:

Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

But this is not very Socratic at all. For Socrates, morality is a craft or skill, analogous to shoe-making or medicine, and just as it would be odd to characterize the craft of a physician by saying "Think through medical problems, find a healthy principle, apply it," so it would be odd to characterize the Socratic approach to moral thinking in these terms. And Socrates pretty clearly denies that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation; rather, it is knowing how to live, which makes use of reason and deliberation but is not "mostly" reason and deliberation. And in fact, thinking through moral problems is itself not a major part of Socratic discussion of morality.

Nor, outside a handful of exceptions, like casuists and a few contemporary analytic philosophers, has it been a major part of philosophy. And even the casuists were writing confessor's manuals, which are primarily for evaluating matters after the fact and only secondarily and indirectly for deciding behavior before the fact; the real practical influence of casuistics was always intended to reside in the living practice of confession and spiritual direction. So I suppose the 'approaches of millions of people' is really 'approaches of a small handful of analytic philosophers in the past few decades', because that's about all it really covers.

The problem with sensationalism about the "evolutionary approach to morality" is that this is all business as usual. Nothing Brooks says was not already said more rigorously by Darwin in the nineteenth century, when he entered into the field of moral philosophy on the side of the moral sense theorists against the utilitarians; very little of that is much beyond what Hume had already said in the eighteenth century; and the basic point, of morality as being like aesthetics, we already find in Shaftesbury in the seventeenth. And one can probably trace it back further. There has been no sea change; only a gradual development of modern moral philosophy along a direction laid down centuries ago.

Clothed with the Wisdom and the Power

Further Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Lo! the death of Christ, that is, the Cross, clothed us with the enhypostatic wisdom and power of God. And the power of God is the Word of the Cross, either because God’s might, that is, the victory over death, has been revealed to us by it, or because, just as the four extremities of the Cross are held fast and bound together by the bolt in the middle, so also by God’s power the height and the depth, the length and the breadth, that is, every creature visible and invisible, is maintained.

John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chapter XI.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Open-Mindedness and Other Videos

A nice YouTube video on open-mindedness. There are a few (minor) missteps (e.g., the 'unexplained therefore explained' objection requires an oddly uncharitable interpretation of the argument to which it is an objection), but it's actually pretty decent.

The user, QualiaSoup, has a number of other good videos up -- again, here and there there are a few things I would consider missteps, but many of them are worth watching. I recommend Evolution and The problem with anecdotes.

There are bound to be other good YouTube videos along these lines. Have any of you come across any?

Treading Down Death

Text not available
Athanasius de incarnatione. St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, tr. by A. Robertson By Athanasius

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Links for Noting

* One of the world's most elusive, dangerous, and astoundingly successful serial criminals, the Phantom of Heilbronn, may not exist at all, but may instead be a defective series of cotton swabs that contaminated evidence in more than 40 different German crime scenes over 15 years. The Phantom seems to have been quite literally that: an evidential phantom.

* It's no secret that I like Finnish music. If this were a perfect world, we'd all use Latin for thinking, Greek for praying, English for trading, Spanish for loving, Gaelic for storytelling, and Finnish for singing. Here are some excellent Finnish music YouTube finds; the first group is women's voices and the second men's.

Johanna Kurkela, Häävalssi
Johanna Kurkela, Kauriinsilmät
Jippu, Metsäkukkia

Juha Tapio, Kaksi puuta
Ville Valo, Kun Minä Kotoani Läksin
Kari Tapio, Mun sydämeni tänne jää

* Diana Wynne Jones discusses her medieval influences and mocks, rightly, large portions of the fantasy market.

* Kenny Pearce discusses good and bad apologetics.

* Will Huysman pointed out to me that St. Francis de Sales's The Catholic Controversy is online. This is one of the classics of the Counter-Reformation, growing out of a tract campaign that addressed many of the pro-Reformation arguments that were common in France in the late 16th century. Neither those arguments nor Francis de Sales's responses to them always map very closely to the current Catholic-Protestant zones of controversy, as one might expect from the sheer number of important things that had not yet happened (the Synod of Dort, for instance); but there is still much of interest in the work.