Saturday, June 27, 2009

Distinct Notion and Kindly Mode of Feeling

To examine any thing wisely, two conditions are requisite: first, a distinct notion of the desirable ends, in the complete accomplishment of which would consist the perfection of such a thing, or its ideal excellence; and, secondly, a calm and kindly mode of feeling, without which we shall hardly fail either to overlook, or not to make due allowances for, the circumstances which prevent these ends from being all perfectly realized in the particular thing which we are to examine. For instance, we must have a general notion what a man can be and ought to be, before we can fitly proceed to determine on the merits or dements of any one individual.

S. T. Coleridge, The Friend

Meet Nicholas Steno (repost)

Depending on whether you date according to the Julian or the Gregorian calendar, Niels Stensen was born in Copenhagen January 1 (Julian) or January 11 (Gregorian) 1638. (The Gregorian calendar only began to be used in Denmark itself after 1700.) He was a second child of the goldsmith Sten Pedersen; his mother's name was Anne.

In 1656 he matriculated under the name Nicolaus Stenonis at Copenhagen University, and it is under variants of this name that he is most widely known. While he was attending University, Denmark and Sweden became involved in a war, and King Karl X Gustav of Sweden invaded. Because of winter ice in 1658, Karl Gustav was able to cross over to Zealand, the island on which Copenhagen was located. King Frederik III of Denmark had to cede territory to stop the advance. Karl Gustav invaded again in 1659 in an attempt to take all of Denmark; Copenhagen repelled the main attack, but remained under a landside siege until 1660. We know that Steno spent some time in a student company manning the ramparts, but not much more; most of what has survived of Steno's life is found in a text called the Chaos-manuscript (discovered in 1946 in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence, Italy, by Father Gustav Scherz): 92 folio pages of closely written observations, experiments, reflections, & excerpts.

In 1659 Steno seems to have sailed to Amsterdam, perhaps with an extended stop in Rostock, where he attended lectures by Gerard Blaes (Blasius), the City Physician. He was given leave at the time to do his own dissections, and entered the first major controversy of his life. During dissection of a sheep's head, he discovered the parotid excretory duct, and showed it to Blaes, who was inclined to dismiss it as either an artifact of dissection or a freak of nature. While it had been discovered before, this was not known at the time. Several days later he found the parotid excretory duct in a dog's head, and showed it to Blaes. After defending his thesis (on hot springs), he left Amsterdam for Leiden. At the University of Leiden, he showed his discovery to to several professors, one of whom (Van Horne) began demonstrating it in his anatomical lectures as the ductus Stenonianus (Stensen's duct, which is its name still). At about the same time, however, Blasius was demonstrating in his lectures - as his own discovery - and by 1631 had published the discovery. Niels found himself attacked as a plagiarizer by Blaes and his supporters. The dispute, quite fierce, lasted for some time, and did not entirely die out until it became more generally known just how brilliant an anatomist Steno actually was. Spurred on by the dispute, Steno plunged into his investigation of glands and ducts, and discovered (among many others) the lateral nasal gland, which is still called Steno's gland. Steno published his work, which was very well received. At this point he wanted to give anatomy a rest, but for various reasons soon returned to it. One of those reasons was the posthumous publication in 1662 of Descartes's Treatise on Man. Niels began to study the major subjects of that work: the heart, the muscles, and the brain. In 1662 he discovered sino-atrial and atrio-ventricular dissociation. He proved that the heart was entirely a muscle (which has been affirmed, without explanation, by Harvey, but was not the common view at that time); he also discovered, pace Harvey, that the muscle was arranged spirally rather than circularly.

While in Leiden he made a number of acquaintances, including Swammerdam, de Graat, and Spinoza, but he didn't stay long; in early 1664, he returned to Copenhagen. There he published De musculis et glandulis observationum specimen, one of the most important works in the history of cardiology, which contemporaries said had turned medicine upside down. At this time he was 26.

In autumn of 1664, Steno left Copenhagen for Paris, and at some point in winter of 1665 he delivered a lecture on the brain (published in 1669 as Discours sur l'anatomie du cerveau). In the lecture he criticized Descartes's view of the brain, and, in particular, the appeal to animal spirits. After traveling in the south of France, Stensen arrived in Tuscany. In 1667 he published his major work on muscles, the Elementorum myologiae specimen, one of the distinctive features of which is that in it Steno develops a theory of muscle contractions that did not appeal to animal spirits. His alternative theory was attacked again and again, so that it was no longer held by anyone by the end of the 18th century. Work on the subject since 1980 has shown that he was largely right, and, on this point at least, myology has now caught up to where Steno was at age 29 in 1669.

The Elementorum myologiae specimen is also significant in that appended to it were two works describing shark dissections. One of these works, called the Canis carchariae dissectum caput, noted the resemblance between shark's teeth and certain fossils; Steno agreed with those who had suggested that the latter were somehow versions of the former, and began to develop an argument that this was possible. The second treatise, the Historia dissecti piscis ex canum genere, showed that the 'testes mulierum' of the non-oviparous dogfish were sufficiently ovary-like to be considered ovaries. This is commonplace now, but at the time it was unclear whether the females of many species had ovaries. After the publication of this work, Steno continued his study of female reproductive organs, and is credited with being the first discoverer of the mammalian ovarian follicle.

In November 1667, Steno became Catholic. He was confirmed December 8, and on the same day he received a letter from Frederik III ordering him to return to Copenhagen; he replied with a letter asking if the order still stood given that he was no longer Lutheran. In the meantime, he studied geological formations, publishing a preliminary report on them in 1669: the De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus (also here in Latin). In it he gives the first systematic classification by common origin for solids within solids, and in so doing laid down the principles of reconstruction of geological history. The Prodromus is the founding text of paleontology and dynamic geology; it is, with the work of Erasmus Bartholin on Iceland spar, one of the founding works of crystallography. One of its many important contributions was the recognition that the faces of quartz crystals are related to each other by a constant angle, which is perhaps the fundamental insight of crystallography. Here and there it is referred to as "Steno's rule".

From late 1668 to early 1670, Steno traveled through Europe confirming his geological theories and giving anatomical demonstrations. At one such demonstration (at Innsbruck in June) he dissected the head of a hydrocephalic calf, showing that the deformity was caused by a disease, and thus providing a strong argument against the view that it was caused by maternal fantasies, a view that was still being used in the early nineteenth century. When he returned to Florence in 1670, he was made court geologist by the Grand Duke, Cosimo III. Steno became more involved in theological discussions, and on the publication of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1670, he wrote a letter to his old acquaintance urging him to become Catholic.

In April 1675 he was ordained a priest in Florence and became tutor and moral preceptor to the Crown Prince. In 1677 he was appointed by Innocent IX apostolic vicar of the northern missions and was consecrated the titular bishop of Titiopolis. Steno went to Hanover at the invitationof Duke Johann Friedrich of Brunswick-Lüneburg. When Johann Friedrich died, Steno became auxiliary bishop to Prince Bishop Ferdinand von Fürstenberg of Münster. Catholicism there seems to have been rather lax; Steno spent much of his time there advocating pastoral reform against strong opposition, and eventually left in protest. He began to live an ascetic life of poverty at Hamburg, during which he began, but never completed, an essay reviewing confirmed knowledge of the nervous system.

Steno died November 25 (Julian, 5 December Gregorian). He was 48. His last words are said to have been Jesus sis mihi Jesus et misericordiam tuam, Domine, in aeternum cantabo. Cosimo III had Steno's body brough back to Florence, where it can be found in the Church of San Lorenzo. on 23 October 1988, John Paul II beatified him. His feast, officially celebrated in certain areas of Europe, is celebrated (as they often are) on the day of his death, December 5.

It's difficult to find good works on Steno in English. Here are two recommendations.

Troels Kardel. Steno: Life - Science - Philosophy. Acta Historica Scientarum Naturalium et Medicinalium, vol 42. Munksgaard (Copenhagen) 1994.

Hans Kermit. Niels Stensen: The Scientist who was Beatified. Michael Drake, tr. Gracewing (Leominster, Herefordshire) 2003. (This is good as a purely introductory work.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Treasury in the Second Jerusalem

Contrary to some very false claims circulating in the media recently, the Ethiopian Orthodox are not opening up the Treasury to reveal to everyone what longstanding Ethiopian legend holds to be the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark is a very important symbol to Ethiopian Christians; every Ethiopian Orthodox church has its own representative of the tabot, and at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, the most important church in Ethiopian Orthodoxy (you can see the layout of its grounds via wikimapia), is what Ethiopians insist is the Ark of the Covenant itself, the legend being that Menelik I, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought it with him for safekeeping, thus making the city of Axum, at least in the eyes of most Ethiopians, the Second Jerusalem. Very few people have ever seen it, and usually the only person who ever sees it is the monk chosen to guard it and pray before it day in and day out for the rest of his life. The Ethiopian Orthodox are not going to change this all of a sudden; the rumors seemed to be based on a misunderstanding of comments of by the Ethiopian Orthodox patriarch.

I find that one of my poem drafts is on the subject.


A cathedral hewn of a single stone
holds a golden cross and an ancient throne
where the glory sat above the cherubim
in the holiest holy.

The Ge'ez prayers of an ancient rite
softly rise into velvet night
as Ezana's children pray by the wall
of the holiest holy.

I dreamed of Aksum where angels rest
on every tabot and stars are guest
at revels of hope and undying light
near the holiest holy.

Maryam Ts'iyon walks a path alone
through the cherubim beneath the throne
of the Highest High with His glorious gift,
the holiest of holies.

Ge'ez is the ancient Semitic language that was used by the Kingdom of Axum, or Aksum; it is still a liturgical language for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Ethiopian Catholic Church, and even Ethiopian Jews. Ezana was the first Christian monarch of Axum; he is said to have built the first Church of Our Lady of Zion, although the current church only dates to the sixteenth or seventeenth century. And Maryam Ts'iyon, of course, is Our Lady of Zion herself.

Notes and Links

* "The Wild Hunt" weblog had a post a couple of weeks back on the problem of racist misappropriations of pagan symbols; as the author points out, it's a shielding mechanism: racists use important symbols as cover for their own views, which leads to bad associations with those symbols, which leads to problems for the people whose symbols they actually were. It's a recurring pattern, something that is done again and again, but people are never called on it as they should be; as the author says, "This is why it’s so important to constantly educate people, remain in the public eye, and speak out against the misuse of pre-Christian symbology." And it's certainly not just modern pagans themselves who need to be on the lookout for such misappropriation of symbols; everyone else needs to take care that they are not taken in by such sophistry.

* One of the difficult things one has to face in thinking about the Holocaust is its many-sidedness; Timothy Snyder has an article at the NYRB that notes some often overlooked sides to it. (ht)

* A poem by St. Philaret of Moscow, which apparently was a poetic response to a poem by Alexander Pushkin, who returned a poetic response.

* I mentioned Iamblichus recently; it turns out his book On the Mysteries is online in Taylor's translation (1821) and in Wilder's translation (1911). It's a pretty good way to get an idea of the important but often overlooked second major phase of Neoplatonism, and the sort of elaborate but carefully reasoned Platonic account of pagan ritual that the pagans were putting up against the Christianity of the Church Fathers in the days of Julian the Apostate (Julian was the student of Maximus of Ephesus, who was in turn a student of Iamblichus, although Julian himself was not a particularly outstanding representive of the pagan intellectuals of the time).

* Joe Carter has a good post at "First Thoughts" on the degeneration of Thomas Kinkade's work. Kinkade has a genuine talent that shows through some of his earlier work (and even, here and there, in his more recent work), but commercialism has taken its toll, as each painting outdoes the previous as a caricature of the Kinkade Style (TM). It's Christian Pop Music for the painting world.

* Speaking of Kinkade, one should look at's exploration of Kinkade-with-a-twist: Kinkade's scenes on fire, alien-invaded, and more. Some of them really are awful, but some are very good spoofs.

Paintings of Light (Part 1)

Paintings of Light (Part 2)
Paintings of Light II (one of the best is on the last page)

* Sherry's Hundred Hymn List continues:

#81 The Lord's My Shepherd, I'll Not Want
#80 Here Is Love Vast as the Ocean
#79 Trust and Obey
#78 Victory in Jesus
#77 More Love to Thee

* Watching The Lord of the Rings in Tehran.

* Chad Orzel notes a collision of two press releases.

* Congratulations to Wayne Sumner for winning the 2009 Molson Prize for the Humanities (ht); he definitely deserves it. His work on utilitarianism and rights is quite interesting. I don't recall ever actually taking any of Sumner's graduate courses while at UToronto; I think intended to at one point but, as luck would have it, it conflicted with history of philosophy courses that were a higher priority.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bacon on the Clever Crow

The distinction between human reason and the sagacity of brutes appears to be a perfectly correct one. Yet there are certain instances of actions performed by animals, by which it seems that brutes too have some power of syllogising; as in the old story of the crow which, in a time of great drought being half dead with thirst, saw some water in the hollow trunk of a tree; and finding it too narrow to get in, proceeded to drop in a number of pebbles, till the water rose high enough for it to drink; which thing afterwards passed into a proverb.

Sir Francis Bacon, New Organon

ADDED LATER: The sufficiently well-read reader will be reminded, of course, of Aesop's fable of the Crow and the Pitcher.

On a Confusion about NOMA

Sean Carroll has recently had a couple of posts up on NOMA, i.e., the idea that science and religion have 'non-overlapping magisteria':

The Principle of Non-Overlapping Food Groups
Science and Religion are Not Compatible

The first of the two is just bad all the way through. Arguing from analogy can be a helpful tool in this context, but only if logical consistency is maintained through the analogy, which it is not here: the absurd conclusion arises not from the non-overlapping principle itself but from the fact that it is assumed in one part of the analogy and violated in another part. It is trivially easy to get absurd consequences even from correct claims if we are allowed to be inconsistent in applying them. The second post, however, which develops more lines of reasoning than just the faulty analogy, is much better, and makes a few decent points, although you have to dig for them a bit.

Both posts, however, seem to involve a confusion about NOMA, leading the main argument of the second post to beg the question against it. This is a pretty common confusion, one I've noted before in a slightly different context, and so it's worth pointing it out. And the confusion lies in thinking that the existence of people who conflate the two somehow is a problem for NOMA:

Seriously, there are billions of people who actually believe things like this; I’m not making it up. Religions have always made claims about the natural world, from how it was created to the importance of supernatural interventions in it.

But NOMA is effectively a diagnosis of a category mistake, a fallacy, and you don't refute a claim that a certain move in reasoning is fallacious by pointing out that someone commits it. The NOMA proponent can quite agree that people often commit the category mistake -- indeed, it is precisely the point of NOMA to do so. NOMA is put forward precisely in order to say that people who treat religious claims as claims about the world, or scientific claims as claims about morals, are engaging in a rational confusion. What would refute NOMA is not people making this alleged confusion, but people who are making this alleged confusion who are clearly doing so in a way that is rationally consistent. NOMA is not the claim that nobody ever treats religious claims as factual or scientific claims as ethical; it's the claim that whenever they do so they are being rationally inconsistent. Likewise, it is entirely possible for lots of people to be rationally inconsistent in their religion, and that is perfectly compatible with the claim that it is possible to be completely rationally consistent in one's religion. The former does nothing to block the other.

One sees this in the failure of a certain part of Carroll's argument. Carroll, urging people not to jump too quickly in calling ethical matters religious, says:

Be honest and clear about what you actually believe, rather than conveying unwanted supernatural overtones.

Unfortunately, Carroll himself doesn't quite follow his advice, because at several points he states things in a misleading way. For instance, he says that religion and science are incompatible because people have religious beliefs that are inconsistent with scientific conclusions. The indefinite quantification here would ordinarily be taken to indicate a universal or near-universal claim: that there is something about science and religion themselves that makes them generally incompatible. But such a claim is not proportionate to the evidence to which he actually appeals, which doesn't show a general incompatibility, but only, at most, that some religious claims conflict with some scientific claims. That is, it only establishes a particular conclusion, and leaves open the question, "What about the other claims?" Are all religious claims in conflict with scientific claims? The NOMA proponent will say, "Look, there are obviously religious claims that don't, because there are ethical claims that are also religious claims, and ethical claims and scientific claims can't conflict because they fall into rationally distinct categories -- to make it look like they conflict you have to engage in a category mistake." Carroll himself knows for certain that 'religion' as usually understood extends to such claims, because he takes the trouble to argue against atheists and nonreligious who take the term to extend so far, and it's precisely in this context that he gives his advice. Thus Carroll himself fails to be clear, glossing over the fact that many common uses of the term 'religion' do, in fact, work as the NOMA theorist claims it should, and therefore glossing over the fact that his argument is just as revisionary for our understanding of the term 'religious' as the NOMA theorist's is. Likewise, the way he states the incompatibility thesis is misleading; in the way his words would ordinarily be taken it isn't proportioned to the evidence with which he supports it, and if taken in such a way that it would be proportionate to the evidence given, it is consistent with NOMA. The cases of people taking religious claims as factual or factual claims as religious are in themselves only inconsistent with NOMA if one begs the question against it.

Thus NOMA can't be refuted by the fact that some people take some claims about fact to be religious. The real problem with NOMA is that the reasons for accepting it are generally rather vague, and in practice boil down to one particular reading of what is usually known as the fact/value distinction. This way of taking the distinction is highly controvertible, and thus NOMA is built on a pretty tenuous support -- and, indeed, I think it is ultimately a rationally unsustainable position for precisely the fact that its way of taking the fact/value distinction is itself rationally unsustainable. But it gets plausibility in part because most of the arguments brought against it are very flawed; as I said, Carroll's confusion here is a very common one. (An additional reason for the support it gets is utilitarian: it is a compromise position that has potential appeal across a wide spectrum of views. Thus many people find it attractive as a peaceable proposition, a claim that if accepted would allow for peace in a contentious area, even independently of any reasoning or evidence in its favor. But, of course, pointing this out is not a refutation of NOMA, but merely a diagnosis of one of the reasons why it is popular among such a wide variety of people.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Brief Note on Talking about the Conjunction Fallacy

Suppose we take the standard Tversky-Kahneman example of the conjunction fallacy:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

1. Linda is a bank teller.
2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Most people will pick #2. But in standard probability theory, the probability of #2, being more specific than #1, will always be less than or equal to the probability of the more general #1. Making this mistake in contexts requiring standard probability theory is what is known as the conjunction fallacy.

I very deliberately put it in those terms, because I think people are often quite sloppy in discussing it. What is it that makes this a fallacy? Contrary to what some people seem to assume, the notion of probability in standard probability theory is not a particularly natural one; in fact, it is (in comparison with many other notions of probability) very artificial, and took an immense amount of thought and effort to develop even at a fairly advanced stage in the history of mathematics. Its importance derives not from its being our root notion of probability (or likelihood, or any other such terminology), but from its being a derivative notion of probability that is both very mathematically tractable and of fairly extensive utility. But it's clear enough that when we talk about probability in colloquial life we are generally talking not about probability theory but about analogical and presumptive reasoning, which are very different. For instance, we usually mean by 'probable' nothing more than 'fitting the appropriate profile well'. Thus what makes this a fallacy is not using a notion of probability in which #2 is more probable than #1, but in confusing this notion of probability with that of standard probability theory, or (perhaps more commonly) using this looser notion of probability where standard probability theory would be more appropriate. People do, in fact, make this error, so it is a genuine fallacy; and, in fact, we should expect this given that the notion of probability used in standard probability theory is so unnatural. But we should be careful not to characterize it in such a way as to suggest that the less mathematical notions of probability are themselves fallacious, because they are involved in different kinds of reasoning, and each kind of reasoning must be examined on its own merits. One of the points of the 1983 paper by Tversky & Kahneman was the distinction between "extensional" and "intuitive" probability inferences. They argued that their cases showed "people's affinity for nonextensional reasoning". However, even they sometimes slipped into talking about the latter form of reasoning as if it were a degenerate form of reasoning -- "seductive," as they called it, introducing a perhaps ineliminable "incoherence" into our reasoning, where "incoherence" means simply "not satisfying the constraints of probability theory" -- when in fact all the conjunction fallacy shows is that this reasoning is inappropriate in cases where standard probability theory should be used. There is no reason to think that these kinds of reasoning lack a proper domain, nor is there reason to think that in their proper domain the constraints of probability theory are even relevant to them.

(Of course, in practice we also have to keep in mind interference from implicatures. That is, if we are not careful #1 can easily be read, in the context of #2, as meaning "Linda is a bank teller (and not a feminist)." This is a pretty standard way of reading things -- if A is contrasted with (A & B), it is very natural to take the original A as meaning A alone, that is, (A & not-B). And, while reading this way will often, perhaps usually, allow us to interpret what we are reading correctly, this implicature also sometimes confuses us, and we act as if it existed even where it would make no sense for it to exist.)

UPDATE: By happy happenstance it turns out that Robin Hanson pointed to a paper on the conjunction fallacy that argues that incentives and group interaction can both massively reduce the extent to which people commit the fallacy, and that therefore there are certain areas (economics, for instance) where it may not be as serious an issue as some have speculated it might be.

Bible Hermeneutic Meme

Mark memed me. The idea is to list five scholars or books that changed your hermeneutic approach to the Bible. It's actually a very difficult meme for me; I can't really trace any major elements of my approach to reading Scripture to any books I can think of, beyond the fact that I think one of the things that the Bible does is provide models for how to read the Bible, models that should be emulated in practice. But there have been a few works that enriched my thinking about various aspects of reading Scripture. Here are a few.

(1) Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis. What it says on the tin. The medievals have their faults, but they were better readers than most moderns.

(2) Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Similar thing here, although Smalley focuses less on the spiritual senses and more on the literal sense.

(3) Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Very readable, and I like his general approach, although I didn't agree with all of his conclusions when I read this back in college.

(4) C. S. Lewis, Miracles. Even setting aside the discussion of miracles as such, this little work sheds quite a bit of light on miracle stories. Chapters 14, 15, and 16 are especially notable in this regard.

(5) The works of Brevard Childs: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, The New Testament as Canon, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context. I haven't read Childs in a long while, but I found him quite helpful in college.

But in the end there's no mystery about Scriptural hermeneutics: it's reading and praying and researching and learning, over and over again.

The Soul Unswerving and the Fearless Tongue

St. John Baptist's Day
by John Keble

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord : and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers. Malachi iv. 5, 6.

Twice in her season of decay
The fallen Church hath felt Elijah's eye
Dart from the wild its piercing ray :
Not keener burns, in the chill morning sky,
The herald star,
Whose torch afar
Shadows and boding night-birds fly.

Methinks we need him once again,
That favour'd seer—but where shall he be found ?
By Cherith's side we seek in vain,
In vain on Carmel's green and lonely mound :
Angels no more
From Sinai soar,
On his celestial errands bound.

But wafted to her glorious place
By harmless fire, among the ethereal thrones,
His spirit with a dear embrace
Thee the lov'd harbinger of Jesus owns,
Well-pleas'd to view
Her likeness true,
And trace, in thine, her own deep tones.

Deathless himself, he joys with thee
To commune how a faithful martyr dies,
And in the blest could envy be,
He would behold thy wounds with envious eyes,
Star of our morn,
Who yet unborn*
Didst guide our hope, where Christ should rise.

Now resting from your jealous care
For sinners, such as Eden cannot know,
Ye pour for us your mingled prayer,
No anxious fear to damp Affection's glow,
Love draws a cloud
From you to shroud
Rebellion's mystery here below.

And since we see, and not afar,
The twilight of the great and dreadful day,
Why linger, till Elijah's car
Stoop from the clouds ? Why sleep ye ? rise and pray,
Ye heralds seal'd
In camp or field
Your Saviour's banner to display.

Where is the lore the Baptist taught,
The soul unswerving and the fearless tongue ?
The much-enduring wisdom, sought
By lonely prayer the haunted rocks among ?
Who counts it gain**
His light should wane,
So the whole world to Jesus throng ?

Thou Spirit, who the Church didst lend
Her eagle wings, to shelter in the wild***,
We pray Thee, ere the Judge descend,
With flames like these, all bright and undefil'd,
Her watch-fires light,
To guide aright
Our weary souls, by earth beguil'd.

So glorious let Thy Pastors shine,
That by their speaking lives the world may learn
First filial duty, then divine****,
That sons to parents, all to Thee may turn;
And ready prove
In fires of love,
At sight of Thee, for aye to burn.

* The Babe leaped in my womb for joy. St. Luke i. 44.
** He must increase, but I must decrease. St. John iii. 30.
*** Revelation xii. 14.
**** He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers. Malachi iv. 6.
To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. St. Luke i. 17.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Two Poem Drafts


The cloud was an elephant chasing a whale
with a sun-gloried body and a vaporous tail
and a turtle went swimming in deep azure sea
as I walked by the road with my heart careless-free.
Before and behind him in long, slinking style
swam the whisps and the puffs of two dread crocodiles
and the sun turned the whale into loving-cup lambs
who kissed and who played in the gaze of their dam;
then a boar and a reindeer did battle with horns
as the angels went sweeping and twilight was born.
Take time from your day, and the wonders you'll see
if you walk by the road with your heart careless-free!

A Subdued and Pure Crimson

My reason said to me,
I am overarched
this subtle arrow
that leaves no mark
has wounded me
with logical worship, blessed
to adore her name,
her deity confess,
and sacrifice
with all the love of ardent mind,
on altar place the best in me
that thought can find.

My spirit said to me,
Heaven is to have the eyes
to see her
in the draping light
and by seeing to be joined
in beatific vision
to her, my new happiness
and passion's wisdom,
who charges me with fire
and lifts me high
in sight's exaltation
to meet her eye to eye.

My instinct said to me,
I am undone
and will ever be troubled
by this troubling one
who turns me over;
and in my reins
I am cast into ache
of love's violent pains,
so pleasant yet harsh,
such a cruel delight
that beats through my veins
and leaps in my sighs.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hypatia Movie

There's a Hypatia movie coming out.

Pro: It's good to see a movie where the main protagonist is an important historical philosopher.

Con: All the indications are that they won't get her philosophy right. She was a Fourth Century Neoplatonist; it looks like they are going to try to make her a secular humanist, which she certainly was not. Disappointing waste; the Neoplatonism of the time, which of course is post-Iamblichus, is an extraordinarily complex and aesthetic blending of Platonic intellectualism and pagan religion, complete with philosophical lectures and religious rituals. It would make a mind-blowing big-screen spectacle.

Pro: Rachel Weisz will make a lovely Hypatia.

Con: She will be far too young; Hypatia was almost certainly in her sixties when she was killed. And that's just the most forgivable jumbling of chronology.

Pro: I'm all for a philosophical martyrdom story.

Con: Trapped in the Library of Alexandria while it is burning, the victim of people trying to prevent her from revealing that the earth revolves around the sun? What? What? I say again, what?

It looks like it will be awful. But if it does well enough, Roger Pearse is probably right:

Let’s welcome it. It should stir up interest in late antiquity, particularly if they can make the Byzantine world glow with light and colour. It doesn’t really matter if a shoal of false impressions get created. What we need to think of is the impressionable teenagers staring open-mouthed at the screen and thinking "Wow! I want to know more about that." Some will go on to become academics, more will buy books about the subject, and a few will get rich in the stock market and fund archaeological expeditions.

And, since Hypatia sometimes gets mentioned in my intro courses, if it does well, it would be a good learning example for how to approach the history of philosophy properly, even though (and perhaps especially since) it deviates from actual history. St. Cyril, of course, won't get a fair shake; but he hasn't since Kingsley, so that's nothing new.

If Hopes Were Dupes, Fears May Be Liars

Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth
by Arthur Hugh Clough

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!

Theory, Philosophy, and Poetry

There is a kind of sensualism or aestheticism that has decreed in our day that theory is not poetical; as if all the images and emotions that enter a cultivated mind were not saturated with theory. The prevalence of such a sensualism or aestheticism would alone suffice to explain the impotence of the arts. The life of theory is not less human or less emotional than the life of sense; it is more typically human and more keenly emotional. Philosophy is a more intense sort of experience than common life is, just as pure and subtle music, heard in retirement, is something keener and more intense than the howling of storms or the rumble of cities. For this reason philosophy, when a poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it has entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude experience; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm's length.

George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets, p. 124

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Notes and Links

* A good ancient/medieval Carnivalesque is up at "Food History". The posts on Joan of Arc, on the Peasants' Revolt, and on scythes were the ones I found most interesting.

* China Mieville gives his list of reasons why Tolkien rocks; it's all the more interesting since Mieville has not hesitated to criticize Tolkien on particular points in the past. It's a very Mieville-like list, but, of course, that's in Tolkien, too, which is part of the wonder of Tolkien's accomplishment.

* Edward Feser has two posts on Aristotelianism and early modern empiricism: one on Hume and the other on empiricism generally.

* Michael Liccione argues that atheistic arguments are at root moral in character. A very interesting argument. As I note in the comments, I'm inclined to think that actually it's not morality but final causality that is the issue; but in practice, since moral reasoning is an area where everyone deals with final causes on a regular basis, this will mean that often the arguments do take on a moral tone, although they don't have to do so.

* Gina Khan has an interesting reflection on being a secular Muslim, including some brief discussion of the increasingly common phenomenon of 'reformed Islam'. It will be interesting to see how the New Ijtihad movement pans out; in essence, it is a rebirth (in new form) of the tradition of philosophical Islam, and I suspect that its future depends crucially on recognizing itself as such. Here and there (for instance, here and there in the writings of Muqtedar Khan) one finds recognition of this, but it really does seem a matter of 'here and there' to this point. Irshad Manji recently noted the publication of a new book on the subject of reformed Islam, Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform.

* Sherry's hundred hymns list continues:

#92 On Jordan's Stormy Banks
#91 Man of Sorrows, What a Name
#90 From Depths of Woe
#89 Saviour Like a Shepherd Lead Us
#88 All Things Bright and Beautiful
#87 Lift High the Cross
#86 Fairest Lord Jesus
#85 I Surrender All
#84 All the Way My Savior Leads Me
#83 O Worship the King
#82 God of Grace and God of Glory

* A graphic novel version of James Joyce's Ulysses. (ht)

* Janet Stemwedel recently heard a very...unusual...paper at a philosophy conference.

* Kevin Edgecomb has up a translation of a Jewish lament on the Fall of Constantinople, basically a cento of prophetic passages.

A Chinese Parable

Once there was a man who had many monkeys, whose speech he could understand. All these monkeys were very expensive to maintain, and so he knew he would have to ration food or go broke. But he also knew that monkeys are not the sort of creatures that simply accept a restriction like that, so he decided he would have to reason with them.

"So that there will be enough food to go around," he said to them, "we will have to make it so that each of you gets three chestnuts in the morning and four in the afternoon."

The monkeys, however, were very angry at this.

"Fine!" said the man. "Then I will improve the offer, and give you four in the morning and three in the afternoon!"

And the monkeys were happy.

Thus the Chinese have a proverb, "Morning, three; afternoon, four," which is used of cases where clever deceivers take advantage of silly people who do not really know their own minds. That sounds like politics. But that means the monkeys are....


And she appeared to me clad in a most noble colour, a subdued and pure crimson, girded and adorned in a manner befitting her extreme youth.

At that moment I say truly that the spirit of life, which dwelleth in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently, that it was painfully perceptible in the smallest pulses; and trembling it spake these words: "Behold a god stronger than I, who coming, shall rule over me."

At that moment the animal spirit, that inhabits the high chamber where the sensitive spirits have their perceptions, began to marvel greatly, and speaking more especially to the spirits of the eyes, he said these words: "Your beatitude hath now been manifested to you."

At that moment the natural spirit, which dwelleth in that part where we administer our nutriment, began to weep, and weeping spake these words: "Woe is me! for often I shall be troubled from this time forth!"

Henceforward I say Love swayed my soul, which was so early espoused to him, and he assumed such complete mastery over me, through the power of the imagination, that perforce I was compelled to fulfil all his behest. He commanded me many times, that I should seek this youngest of the angels: whence I in my boyhood went many times in search of her, and I beheld in her such noble and laudable bearing that certainly of her might be spoken the words of the poet Homer, "She doth not seem to be a daughter of a mortal, but of God."

Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova

On Two Kinds of Utilitarianism

There are two different things you might want to do with a principle of utility: you might want it primarily to serve as a theory of obligation, your obligation being to do what maximizes utility. But you could also want it to serve as the foundation of a general theory of practical rationality, in which case maximizing utility need not always be obligatory. One of the tricky things about reading John Stuart Mill's discussions of utilitarianism is that, if not careful, you can easily make the mistake of reading him as doing the first, when in fact he is clearly doing the second. On Mill's account we don't have an obligation to maximize utility in every case. Obligations only arise when double analysis shows both that the original act maximizes utility, or at least is of very high utility, and that sanctions are required by the principle of utility. In other words, Mill has a positivist theory of obligation: without sanction, no obligation. (See Utilitarianism, Chapter III) The principle of utility still has bite outside of cases involving sanction, though, because for Mill it delineates the very character of practical rationality. This is why, in fact, it is able to underlie the positivist account of obligation; obligations are acts, of the sort preferable from the perspective of practical reason, that are such that punishing failures to perform those acts is itself practically rational.

When you recognize that Mill's utilitarianism is really a theory of practical reason, many of the moves Mill makes begin to make more sense: the particular way he argues for utilitarianism in Utilitarianism, the discussions of the art of life scattered through Mill's works, the combined insistence on the (relative) inviolability of moral rules and tolerance for non-maximizing strategies, the fact that he has always been difficult to pin down under one of the standard utilitarian labels, and (I would suggest) the otherwise obscure connection between Mill's utilitarianism and liberalism. I would also suggest that Mill's utilitarianism turns out to be a much more interesting theory when we regard it as a general theory of practical reason rather than as a very odd and inconsistent theory of right and wrong.