Saturday, July 11, 2009

Down Some Cold Field

Requiem: The Soldier
by Humbert Wolfe

Down some cold field in a world outspoken
the young men are walking together, slim and tall,
and though they laugh to one another, silence is not broken;
there is no sound however clear they call.

They are speaking together of what they loved in vain here,
but the air is too thin to carry the things they say.
They were young and golden, but they came on pain here,
and their youth is age now, their gold is grey.

Yet their hearts are not changed, and they cry to one another,
'What have they done with the lives we laid aside?
Are they young with our youth, gold with our gold, my brother?
Do they smile in the face of death, because we died?'

Down some cold field in a world uncharted
the young seek each other with questioning eyes.
They question each other, the young, the golden hearted,
of the world that they were robbed of in their quiet paradise.

Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940) was a Jewish poet who was once very popular, but seems to be rarely read these days. I only recently began reading anything by him. The one above, of course, is a very sad poem, one to read while looking out over flags and gravestones in endless rows, but Wolfe has an excellent sense of humor as well, and some of his humorous poems are well worth the seconds to read them. Here's one of them, courtesy of Wikipedia:

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Veils and the Women Behind Them

Nonsense from Brandon Robshaw (ht):

Many, including most Muslims, would argue that burqas are not religious symbols but products of culture. But that's not the main point. Nor do I make my stand on the undeniable fact that burqa-wearing is sexism in its purest and rankest form (has any burqa apologist actually spelt out the reasons why women not men are required to wear them?) Let people follow whatever religious or cultural practices they like and, in private life, be as sexist as they wish (always subject to the Harm Principle). But you can't have it both ways. Dress up like one of the wives of a10th-century Bedouin tribesman if you choose; but you can't also choose to attend an academic institution based on liberal principles. The costume is designed to be a rejection of such principles. It is worn by women who have renounced (or been compelled to renounce) public life.

And yet you can indeed have it both ways; the obvious proof of which is that there are women who do -- dress "like one of the wives of a 10th-century Bedouin tribesman," if one must put it like that, and attend liberal academic institutions. I had one or two in tutoring sessions while student teaching in Toronto; I knew fellow graduate students who wore it; and it can be done. And despite the fact that the burqa is often forced on women for all the sexist reasons to which Robshaw alludes, it is sheer and utter nonsense to say "It is worn by women who have renounced (or been compelled to remounce) public life." For if it were, Robshaw would not have had his problem with the burqa in public life; if it were, Robshaw and people like him would not be trying to chase women who wear it out of public life.

There are two issues with regard to this that are often conflated. The one issue is what should be done about the burqa in general and in the long run; the other is what should be done about it with regard to those women who, whatever reasons they may have, wear it now and don't wish to remove it, again, for whatever reasons they may have. Conflating the two does great damage because it leads people to use women's choice as an excuse for shutting down women's choices. I have mentioned before my experience with the fellow student who felt menaced in the elevator over the issue. These sorts of things are common, far too common. Robshaw doesn't tell us why the student in question dropped out; perhaps he doesn't know; perhaps it was for reasons having nothing to do with the course itself. Let us hope it was not because of a chill in the classroom.

The proper response is exactly the opposite of Robshaw's. Are women put in the burqa to break down communication, interpose between the women and the world? Then who needs the gift of philosophy more than they? Behind that burqa is a human mind, very likely a quite intelligent one; it is a mind that, hampered though it may be in discussing, can certainly still discuss; and where there is discussion there is the potential for dialectic, for maieutic, for the pursuit of wisdom, for an education.

In the end all we have in Robshaw's op-ed is Robshaw, Robshaw, Robshaw: it's an article about how he had difficulty communicating with someone in a burqa, about how he was hampered by being unable to read her facial expressions, about how he was put out by her burqa, about how he lacks the ingenuity to restructure the assessment to compensate for the possibility of a classroom of burqas. But there was someone else who was also involved, someone whose point of view the article does not seriously consider at all. Indeed, there is no real recognition in the article that she had a point of view at all. What were her reasons? We don't know. What did she hope to get from a philosophy class? We don't know. She comes wearing a burqa, she vanishes wearing a burqa, and Robshaw sees not the woman but only the burqa. But it's the woman who should catch our attention.

Notes and Notable Links

* It's John Calvin's 500th birthday today. Joyeux anniversaire, Jean Cauvin!

* Mark Pallen discusses a common myth about Darwin.

* Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt. The customer reviews go on for pages and are utterly hilarious.

* Laura Miller, History Is Bunk After All, considers the way we rewrite our history in order to confirm our own ideas.

* The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, recently got into trouble for (apparently) pocketing a communion wafer given at a funeral (see also here). Actually, he probably ate it, but it wasn't obvious what he did. Confusion reigns, since journalists know nothing about the subject, it seems. The Toronto Sun, as usual, allows itself a bit of sloppiness in its use of sources:

But another Roman Catholic priest, Rev. Arthur Bourgeois, who delivered the homily at the funeral, did not have a problem with the prime minister accepting the host.

"Usually, to partake in holy communion in the Catholic Church, you have to be a member of it. But if you’re not, exceptionally sometimes at major occasions (it is different)," Bourgeois told the newspaper.

There are indeed exceptional cases in which non-Catholics may partake of Catholic communion; but a 'major occasion' is not sufficient, because there are restrictions on it. This can be found out by simply looking at canon law.

As Ed Peters notes, the primary responsibility in such a matter is borne not by the Prime Minister but by the clergy.

* Setting aside purely theological points, old nineteenth-century anti-Catholic lines of attack tend to survive only among certain groups, but here and there you can see them trying to jump out into public consciousness. I recently came across the old mental reservation canard. Apparently Catholic priests still can't be candid, but will still, like the slippery Jesuits they are, dissimulate at the drop of a hat. One would almost think Charles Kingsley is still alive. I haven't seen any cases of the accusation that Catholicism is not 'manly' enough, that it is too feminine (all that imagery and sentiment and lying, you see); but at this point I would not really be surprised to come across it.

ADDED LATER: It's worth noting the Catholic Encyclopedia article on mental reservation, which points out the actual course of discussion about mental reservation in Catholic moral theology -- very different from the picture given in the calumny.

* At "Skeptic's Play" there have been a few worthwhile posts on Gödel's ontological argument:

Gödel's Modal Ontological Argument
Gödel's Ontological Argument, Step by Step

Actually, the whole weblog looks fairly interesting.

* President Obama recently nominated Francis Collins to be Director of the National Institutes of Health; Collins has a very good resume for it.

* Andrew Meyers gives a brief tour of some authors who make a tripartite division of the Law.

* Kevin Edgecomb recently had a post on 18th- and 19th-century Eastern Orthodox scholarship; St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain is the most obvious example, but there were several others.

* A book by Mary Boole on the work of her husband: The Mathematical Psychology of Gratry and Boole. I haven't had a chance to look at it in detail, but it could be interesting: Mary Boole was rather brilliant when it came to introducing mathematical concepts to younger students. It looks like there might be some odd sections, though.

* Other Google Book finds:

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, and Other Essays
Bertrand Russell, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (one of his better works, I think)
Henri Poincaré, The Foundations of Science (three of Poincaré's works on science; the first is one of those works that everyone should read even if only to disagree)

* The other day I came across Aquinas and Modernity, by Shadia Drury; unfortunately, I can't recommend it. Loose associations are taken as if they were rigorously established links, passages are ripped out of context, interpretations are given that are anachronistic and tendentious, and the whole thing quickly becomes a sort of Kevin Bacon game, trying to connect Thomas Aquinas to All Things Evil within six degrees. She says several things that are directly contrary to even the obvious evidence of the text. What is supposed to be the point of the book, a secular natural law theory, is often lost sight of, and is in fact only really given a very rushed and inadequate treatment at the end. Nor is it difficult to see why it deteriorates so badly: instead of making an effort to present the evidence and lay out the arguments, Drury is explicitly engaging in a polemic, and it is the polemic that drives the argument. Thus rhetorical association, not rational argument, is the order of the day, and over and over again Drury can't let evidence speak for itself but has to shout over it what she thinks your interpretation should be. Both the repetitive hyperbole and the failure to proportion the work to its supposed end should have set alarm bells ringing in the mind of anyone capable of basic critical thought; the book needed to be reworked to be more rigorous and careful before it was published. If you want criticism of Thomas Aquinas, there are some very good feminist criticisms around; if you want secular natural law theory, Larry Arnhart is certainly a more intelligent developer of the idea and would be a vastly more rewarding read; and, for that matter, if you want religion-bashing, I would actually recommend Dawkins as giving a more thoughtful discussion.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Happy Aera of Experimental Philosophy

We are now arrived at the happy aera of experimental philosophy; when men, having got into the right path, prosecuted useful knowledge; when their views of nature did honour to them, and the arts received daily improvements; when not private men only, but societies of men, with united zeal, ingenuity and industry, prosecuted their enquiries into the secrets of nature, devoted to no sect or system.

[Colin Maclaurin, An Account of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophical Discoveries, Bk I, Ch. 3]

Maclaurin is an important element of Hume's philosophical context; one of the best ways to get a general idea of what Hume sees himself as doing in the Treatise of Human Nature is to read Maclaurin's account of Newton's method of philosophy (although the similarities are due to a broader Newtonian environment rather than due to influence), and, perhaps more straightforwardly, it is also clear that Maclaurin is at least a partial source for Cleanthes in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (this can be traced through verbal similarities between what Maclaurin says and what Cleanthes says). Maclaurin was one of the great Newtonians of the time, being himself an excellent mathematician, a friend of Newton himself (who at several points lent a hand in furthering Maclaurin's career), and a member of the Royal Society.

Curiously, though, there's been relatively little close attention paid to the question of the extent of Maclaurin's influence on Hume. As I've noted, we have excellent reason to think there's a connection between Maclaurin's Newtonianism and the Newtonian natural religion of Cleanthes, and there are a few other points. But mostly it's an area of study that's still in fragments.

Charles Twardy has an interesting paper on possible connections between Hume's (limited) knowledge of physics and Maclaurin's account (PDF).

The money passages for the influence of Maclaurin on Hume's Cleanthes are in the Account, Book IV, Chapter 9, Sections 6 & 11 (section 6 starts on page 400 of the edition linked above).

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Sapere Aude

Kant famously said that 'sapere aude', dare to be wise, was the motto of enlightenment. The saying is taken from Horace (Epistles, Book I, Epistle II). In Thomas Creech's eighteenth century translation:

For why, when any thing offends thy Eyes,
Dost thou streight seek for Ease, and streight advise;
Yet if it shall oppress thy Mind, endure
The Ills with Patience, and defer the Cure?
He that hath once begun a good Design,
Hath finish'd half; dare to be wise, begin:
He that defers to live, is like the Clown
Who waits, expecting 'till the River's gone:
But that still rouls its Streams, and will roul on.

Dante on Usury

From the Inferno, Canto XI:

"Once more go back a little to the point,"
I said, "where you state usury offends
The divine goodness, and untie the knot."

"Philosophy, to one who understands,
Points out — and on more than one occasion —
How nature gathers her entire course

"From divine intellect and divine art.
And if you pore over your Physics closely,
You’ll find, not many pages from the start,

"That, when possible, your art follows nature
As a pupil does his master; in effect,
Your art is like the grandchild of our God.

"From art and nature, if you will recall
The opening of Genesis, man is meant
To earn his way and further humankind.

"But still the usurer takes another way:
He scorns nature and her follower, art,
Because he puts his hope in something else."

Dante puts the usurers in the lowest sub-circle of the seventh circle of hell, with others whose sins are regarded as doing violence against nature and nature's God; many people have noted that usurers are placed deeper into hell than violent murderers, violent suicides, blasphemers, and sodomites. Dante regards usurers as perverting art, i.e., productive skill, by means of which we are supposed to produce and create and thereby imitate the goodness of God. Usury is the anti-art: it produces nothing substantial, being just a set of multiplication games with money, and therefore does not really contribute anything to 'earning one's way and furthering humankind'. It merely gives the illusion of doing so, and is therefore a sort of mockery of both human reason and divine providence -- indeed, a sort of universal violence against neighbor, God, and one's own reason, an extraordinarily efficient form of violence by which you do the most damage with the least effort.

The Violent in Dante's hell suffer violent punishments; the punishment of the usurers is to sit while futilely and wearily trying to ward off with their hands the violent, whipping winds that sometimes shower them with burning sand and sometimes cover them with flaming fire.

(ADDED LATER: By an interesting coincidence, Arsen Darnay had a post on usury and Dante as well.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Usury and Titles to Interest

It's usually thought that the traditional notion of usury was that of lending out money at interest. This is not incorrect if it's understood in a very specific way; but from the High Middle Ages to the Early Modern period, at least, the standard view was not that usury is any sort of lending at interest but that it is "when gain is sought to be acquired from the use of a thing not fruitful in itself, without labor, expense, or risk on the part of the lender." I say the 'standard view'; there were actually quite a few variations both leading up to this particular formulation (established by the Fifth Lateran Council in 1515) and afterward. But the basic idea was that the mere fact of loaning something gives no automatic right to charge interest on the loan; money on its own never carries an intrinsic title to interest, although under particular circumstances there can be extrinsic titles to interest; and thus usury consists in acting as if one had a right to treat borrowers a certain way when one has no such right, treating the loan as carrying a title to interest when it has no such title. And it certainly was the case that moral philosophers and theologians were very, very picky about what counted as a title to interest. But the entire late Medieval period was a period of considerable economic change, and that final clause of the Lateran interpretation of usury, "without labor, expense, or risk," turn out continually to require more careful specification as new means and ways of making money developed and as it became easier and easier to make loans of very different kinds. If we were to allow ourselves to give a rough, crude summary of how our modern finanical institutions, one way to describe this history would be to say that it was a sort arms race between moral philosophers and moral theologians on the one hand and usurers on the other as increasing economic prosperity changed the typical ways loans worked; a race in which the usurers kept finding new ways to skim profit from loans and the moral philosophers kept refining their classifications in order to sort out legitimate profit from genuine usury. It was an arms race that the usurers effectively won.

The key instrument by which the moral philosophers made sense of the new economic world was by this idea of titles to interest. An intrinsic title to interest would mean that, in and of itself, a loan would allow for interest. The medieval position was very firm here, drawing from both its theological and philosophical sources: money does not breed. It carries no intrinsic potential for profit, and it is immoral and unnatural to treat it as if it did -- 'unnatural', indeed, is the word they often used for it. I have here and there seen arguments that in our modern economy money is somehow different from what it was in the medieval period, so that now it does carry an intrinsic title to interest; but this is not a reasonable position at all, for it would mean that lenders would have the right to charge borrowers interest even if the borrowers had never contractually committed to paying the interest: if you just lent someone five dollars in a casual transaction, and there was intrinsic title to interest, then you could arbitrarily choose to start charging them interest, simply on the basis of the fact that you loaned it to them, even if you had never mentioned that you were going to do so. Clearly there is no reasonable way this could work; money does not carry any sort of automatic percentage of interest so that you can only charge a particular amount of interest, nor does it carry any special timeline to restrict you to charging interest only monthly rather than (say) by the minute, so far from serving as the foundation for a rational lending system, taking money to have an intrinsic title to interest would be the foundation for an utterly insane and arbitrary system in which borrowers were totally at the mercy of lenders.

So that leaves only extrinsic titles to interest. Extrinsic titles to interest do not derive from the loan itself but more generally from the common good. Because they are dependent on the common good, they are also sharply limited by it. More precisely, extrinsic titles to interest did not run afoul of the principles of justice because justice (in financial matters) is fair and equally beneficial exchange, and the extrinsic titles to interest existed precisely to equalize the benefits of the exchange. Lending is a risky business in many ways, so it's very easy for the lender to lose out in some way in a loan; and borrowing is also a risky business, but sometimes a very necessary one, and so there need to be standards in place so that borrowers don't tend to lose out but can still find lenders from whom they can borrow. This is an extraordinarily complicated problem that took all the ingenuity of some the most brilliant minds of the High Middle Ages and Renaissance, and led both to some clever analysis of banking practices and to the invention of entirely new financial institutions, like the montes pietatis, the forerunners of both pawn shops and modern banks. (Indeed, a few of the oldest European banks and pawn shops started out as montes pietatis founded by Franciscan theologians who have since been canonized as saints.)

There was no general unanimity about legitimate extrinsic titles of interest, although virtually everyone agreed they existed. And the discussions are greatly complicated by the rivalry between the Dominicans, who tended to take a much more conservative view of what could be allowed, and the Franciscans, who tended to be much more generous and adventuresome in their views on the subject. But five kinds of extrinsic title were often proposed as legitimate reasons for taking interest on a loan:

(1) lucrum cessans
(2) damnum emergens
(3) poena conventionalis
(4) praemium legale
(5) periculum sortis

Damnum emergens was probably the one that was least controversial and most widely accepted. The idea is basically that in certain kinds of loans it is clear that in the very fact of doing the lending the lender is taking damages. We're not talking about hypothetical harms; sometimes the lender is incurring harm or expense by the very fact of doing the lending. Thus the Franciscans argued that it was fine for a mons pietatis to charge interest on a loan if the interest were for the clear and carefully defined purpose of covering the operating expenses of the institution. Obviously simply to lend at zero interest while simultaneously paying your employees is not, as we would say, a sustainable business model, so there was a damage incurred in the fact of lending in the first place, one that allowed for legitimate compensation.

Somewhat more controversial was lucrum cessans. Sometimes lending, even lending that does not involve any particular sort of actual damage to the lender, means that the lender is losing out on profit that he would have certainly had if he had not done the lending. It's important to be careful here, because we tend to have a very generous notion of how this would work, but the scholastics did not. Many of the early scholastics did not even think that it was possible to be certain of counterfactual profits, the profits you would have had if you had done something differently. However, as lending became more stable, people began to allow that in some cases it was sufficiently certain that the lender was losing out on profit due to making the loan. An obvious case would be if the lender actually pulled mony out of a profit-making venture to make the loan. But it was never accepted that you could simply stipulate that you would have made profit on the money you were lending; you had to have specific reasons leading to certainty for practical purposes that you were losing out on legitimate profits by lending.

I have seen arguments that in our current financial system loans almost always carry extrinsic title of damnum emergens and lucrum cessans. I think this is transparently false if you actually look at the circumstances surrounding most loans, and the arguments otherwise are equally transparent attempts to get answers that had already been predetermined. But even if it were true, it would not justify our current systems of interest. Damnum emergens only allows you to break even on the particular loan you are making; and lucrum cessans only allows you to keep your profits from other ventures relatively stable over the duration of the loan -- one might think of it as a different sort of breaking even. They keep lending from being a bad situation for the lender, but that's it. You can't make a profit from lending itself if these are your only titles to interest. In fact, damnum emergens and lucrum cessans were very carefully and deliberately formulated to prevent them from being used as justifications for profits on mere lending.

The other three allow a tiny bit more wiggle room. Poena conventionalis is an interest, determined by contract between borrower and lender, that compensates for inconveniences the lender will be likely to experience if the borrower fails to return the loan by a certain period of time. That is, the borrower agrees to pay an additional percentage beyond the loan itself if his payment is not timely, due to the fact that his delay (mora) would hurt the lender in some way. You can see that we are slowly getting less concrete in these extrinsic titles: damnum emergens and lucrum cessans compensate for harms you have reason to think are actually being occurred in the very loan itself. Poena conventionalis is for a harm that one has reason to think will occur if certain conditions aren't met. But it's still anchored: you really do have to have reason to think that you will be hurt in some way by the delay, and you can't charge interest on the loan until the delay actually occurs.

Praemium legale, on the other hand, is much more indirect. Moral theologians and philosophers who were dealing with the problems of the emerging banking industry began to realize that the common good was genuinely improved if you had people who were willing to lend to those who for some reason needed to borrow. Thus lending was to that extent a civic activity that should be encouraged, at least within certain bounds. So it was occasionally suggested that the government, when it saw that lending needed to be encouraged, could allow a certain amount of interest on loans generally in order to provide an incentive for engaging in the risky and occasionally expensive business of lending. Obviously there were some people who thought that this was just giving the store away; but those who proposed it as a legitimate title to interest seem typically to have regarded it as a fairly restricted thing, and it's easy enough to see why. If you are trying to encourage actual lending, you can't make the incentive to lenders so great that borrowers no longer want to borrow, however desperate they are. You need to find a level of incentive that won't be a serious disincentive for borrowers. Since the point of the whole title is to serve the common good, you can't have an incentive that in general leaves borrowers worse off -- for instance, it would be self-defeating from the point of the common good law serves if you gave the lenders an incentive that regularly drove borrowers into bankruptcy and poverty. To be a just exchange, a loan has to leave both lender and borrower better off, allowing, of course, for the fact that sometimes unforeseeable events can make this impossible through no real fault of either the lender or the borrower. The tendency of the loans has to be in some way to the benefit of both parties, because only if your lending system has general tendency to improve everyone's life can it be said to be conducive to the common good, and it is only to the extent that lending is conducive to the common good that praemium legale can be a title to interest. (Some Catholics today worry about interest on savings accounts and the like, and wonder whether it violates the prohibition on usury. There's certainly nothing wrong with refusing to take interest on such things, as Dorothy Day did; but if praemium legale is a legitimate title to interest, the very small amount of interest on such accounts, which mutually benefits both parties and encourages both saving and lending, would certainly fall under it.)

One of the trickiest issues involved in lending is the defaulting of loans. None of the other titles to interest do much to handle this very risky part of lending, especially in the case where the default is real, that is, where the borrower no longer has the means to pay the loan. If the above titles were all that were involved, lenders would simply have to take the damage of defaulted loans: it's unjust and oppressive to squeeze money deliberately from those who can't afford to give it to you, so if a borrower suddenly comes into serious and unavoidable expenses (medical bills would probably be the modern example), trying to continue to collect the loan would be unjust and oppressive. Because of this, some moral philosophers suggested that periculum sortis, the chance that the loan might never be paid back, could be considered a legitimate title to interest, a way of limiting the danger posed by sheer bad luck. Such a title is rather dangerous, in the sense that it is difficult to pin down precisely. Not every borrower is equally likely to default; not every loan is equally damaging if never repaid; not every lender is equally endangered by defaults. So this title would require careful consideration of circumstances, and obviously would involve a great deal more approximation than the other titles. Because of this, those who allowed this title to interest tended to put serious restrictions on it, to prevent it from being used as a sneaky way of skimming money off of people.

So the prohibition of usury did not absolutely prevent the charging of interest; interest could be charged if you had a legitimate title to it. It was never assumed, of course, that the lender had an automatic right to charge interest; and it would have seemed utterly absurd to the moral philosophers and theologians who discussed the matter that a contract that in fact tended to harm the borrower could possibly be regarded as acceptable by a right-minded person. If Bernardino of Siena or Antonino of Florence were alive today, they would not condemn every kind of interest that we charge. But it is pretty clear that they would be horrified out our easy acceptance of kinds of interest that harm people who are already poor or in need, at our complete failure to hold interest-charging institutions to the standard of actually showing that they have the right to charge the interest they do on the loans they make, and would insist that Christians not sit around and simply accept it as the way of things, but use their ingenuity and reason to develop new kinds of institutions that would be more suitable to the common good.

And I rather suspect that in this age of lukewarm and lazy Laodicea their plea for this inventiveness and creativity would fall into the void.


John Wilkins asked for some further online reading. The study of scholastic economic thought is relatively hopping, and constantly changing, so it's tricky to find works that are both accessible online and not outdated. Indeed, I can't guarantee that the above is anything more than an approximation, since someone somewhere might have come up with a better way of looking at this or that point by looking more closely at heretofore overlooked or misunderstood passages. In addition one has to be somewhat careful with the online works; many of the works online that discuss the matter discuss it entirely from the perspective of one modern school of economics, which can lead to a somewhat selective reading of the texts. But even the outdated material is sometimes good for at least getting the basic terminology and issues down. As for primary sources, there are a few of them online, but not very many.

The Montes Pietatis, Interest, and Usury articles from the old Catholic Encyclopedia

The SEP article on Gregory of Rimini briefly discusses his economic thought in section 6

Thomas Aquinas on the sin of usury. St. Thomas allows damnum emergens, but that's about it; later theologians often interpreted him a bit more loosely in order to get various practices in, but Thomas's hard line on the subject is one reason for the fact that the Dominicans tended to be more conservative on the subject.

Session X of the Fifth Lateran Council

Benedict XIV, Vix Pervenit (1745)

Brian McCall, Unprofitable Lending: Modern Credit Regulation and the Lost Theory of Usury (PDF)

Robert Mochrie, Justice in Exchange: The Economic Philosophy of John Duns Scotus

George Augustine Thomas O'Brien, An Essay on Mediaeval Economic Teaching

Owen Aloysius Hill, Ethics, General and Special. This and the previous are somewhat dated in their discussions of usury and interest, but still decent enough for getting a sense of the terminology and issues.

A lot of the late medieval and early modern scholastic work is associated with the School of Salamanca; Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson's The School of Salamanca is still after all this time a good first introduction to Salamanticensic economic theory, although I can't find it online. And Eric Kerridge's Usury, Interest, and the Reformation does a good job of assembling relevant sources.

Incidentally, the most famous philosophical defense of usury (on the grounds that people have a right to enter into any monetary contracts they please) is that of Jeremy Bentham; which is perhaps worth noting, since outright defenses of usury as moral are very, very rare.

Physics and Philosophy

Sean Carroll has a post up titled Does Philosophy Make You a Better Physicist? This is the sort of question that can be understood in several different ways, and so it's worthwhile to pin down a bit more clearly what Sean is asking by considering the different sorts of (not mutually exclusive) answers that could be given to it.

(1) Yes, obviously, because logic and ethics are parts of philosophy, and good luck trying to be a good physicist without logic or ethics. And better logic and ethics would clearly make you a better physicist in some sense.

(2) Yes, trivially, because physics itself is a form of philosophy, and always has been; the reasons we don't still call the sciences "experimental philosophy" are entirely due to the historical contingency of how the nineteenth century rearranged funding, curricula, and departments in philosophical subjects.

(3) Yes, in an indirect way, because philosophy involves higher-level thinking that generates questions; and thinking about, and asking yourself questions about, the adequacy of your interpretations, the cogency of your inferences, and the implications of your work is the sort of thing good physicists do. One might call this the Heisenberg answer, since Heisenberg uses it in several places: philosophers don't give physicists the answers, but they do often ask the right questions.

(4) No, obviously, because most of the things philosophers deal with are irrelevant to either physical experiment or physical theorizing.

(5) Unknown, because we have no clear reason to think one way or another about whether training in philosophy would lead to better results in physics.

Each of these depends on reading the question in a slightly different way; Carroll, I take it, is reading it in the way assumed by (5), namely, by taking it to be a question about whether physics would progress more adequately if physicists had better training in philosophy or better interaction with those who have it. And I think he's right that this is simply unknown. It would make sense that some sort of philosophy would conduce to progress in physics; philosophy is such an immense field that there's almost bound to be something useful. But at the same time and by the same token, it's such an immense field that it looks suspiciously like a field of haystacks that probably contain some needles somewhere: there's really no guarantee that what physicists would actually be trained in, or what their philosophical interlocutors were trained in, would be the parts of philosophy that would hold the key to progress at any particular point in time.

As for the Yes answers, it's pretty clear that the philosophy required is the sort of thing intelligent, thoughtful physicists already do for themselves, just by being competent physicists, although there are probably cases of (3) and perhaps (1) where it's handy to have an outsider asking questions as well, just to reduce the danger of tunnel vision.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Notes and Noted Links

* Arsen Darnay discusses a little-remembered aspect of Montessori's philosophy of education: the education of adolescents. Adolescence really does seem to be the ideal time to transition from the classroom to the world at large through a process of apprenticeship; and our current tendency not to give adolescents important responsibilities is a recipe for mischief in itself. It would make for a very different culture. Digging around I found this interesting summary of Montessori's Erdkinder idea.

* James Hanley has a good post on what often passes for academic assessment.

* Mr. Patterson's cipher

* Thony C corrects some notable myths about Newton. One thing that people forget is that pre-Lavoisier, alchemy was in some sense science: it did experiments, it theorized, it made genuine discoveries, many experimental philosophers besides Newton did work in it. One of the common exchanges in the early day of the Royal Society was of various 'recipes' for getting various chemical effects. When Berkeley appeals to Newton, Boerhaave, and Hamberg in Siris he wasn't dabbling in the weird: he was appealing to speculations based on the most advanced chemical knowledge of the day. It was a time when, as Thony notes, alchemical investigation could very easily be a part of one's life as an active scientist. What Lavoisier and others did in order to make what we think of as modern chemistry was reorganize the alchemical work already done, regularize terminology, discard some problematic assumptions, and approach questions more systematically; there was definitely change, but the break was not as sharp as we often seem to think it was.

* An Anne Rice interview at Busted Halo

* A good analysis of the excessive media coverage of Michael Jackson. This was especially amusing: posted a story the next day describing the problems entitled, "Jackson Dies, Almost Takes Internet with Him."

So many Google users searched for information about the dead singer that the popular search engine mistook the interest as a potential malware attack. For a short period of time, Google users were greeted with a message that read, "We're sorry, but your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application."

The popular communication site Twitter crashed, and Wikipedia experienced more than 500 edits to Jackson’s profile in less than 24 hours. AOL’s popular instant messenger service went down for approximately 40 minutes and the company released a statement that read, "Today was a seminal moment in Internet history. We've never seen anything like it in terms of scope or depth."

* John Henry Newman will most likely be beatified.

* The canonization cause for controversial Mary Ward looks like it's underway in earnest. Ward founded the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary on radically different principles than most religious institutes had at the time, walked from France to Italy to get recognition for them, was jailed, was condemned by the Inquisition as a heretic under Urban VIII, and had her cause for canonization opened in the 1930s by Pius XI.

* Secretum Meum Mihi is an interesting spirituality website for Catholic women.

* Despite what the BBC says, "the Vatican" has not asked Catholics to stop donating to Amnesty International. Rather, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has suggested that Catholics do so, which is very, very different, since a Pontifical Council is effectively a think-tank, and has no actual authority over anyone; and the mere fact that a Cardinal has an opinion on a subject doesn't mean much.

* Rebecca reviews a book on Calvin; it looks interesting.

* Sherry's Hundred Hymns list continues:

#72 O Love that Will Not Let Me Go
#71 Jesus I My Cross Have Taken
#70 Hark the Herald Angels Sing
#69 All My Hope on God Is Founded

Apparently there are three more hymns coming that are often regarded as Christmas carols; my guesses would be "Silent Night", "Joy to the World", and (my own preference) "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". We'll see how close my guesses are over the next few weeks.

* Rather remarkably, Google Book claims that the author of this book, on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, is -- the Holy Trinity.


* Alexander Pruss has an excellent post on rigorous comparison of infinities in decision matrix interpretations of Pascal's wager.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Shifting Blogosphere

A number of blogs have been linking to Laura's reflection on how blogging has changed in the past six years. I don't think there has actually been much decline in quality overall -- when it declines in one part it improves in another. But certainly a lot of things have shifted. I think Laura's probably right that people have localized -- blogger used to range far more widely, but now mostly stick to comfortable neighborhoods. I think regular use of feed readers has changed things; it helps people to organize their reading more efficiently, but by the same token means that they focus on things they already know they'll be interested in, leaving less room for the occasional delightful surprise. It's also been a major factor in the decline of the blogroll. I think the link monitoring thing has made a major difference; the TTLB Ecosystem used to be very useful, and then broke, and has never really been brought back to its former usability. Technorati used to be extraordinarily reliable; it's still useful, and still pretty much the handiest thing in this regard, but now it does weird things at regular intervals and is often very slow in listing links.

And things shift internally, too. Many excellent blogs have been quiet for years, or vanished entirely -- it seems like my blogroll has had a high attrition rate over the years, as I seem to have a taste for the excellent blog that lasts only a year. Most bloggers don't retain quality over long periods of time; it takes discipline and time, and people go through long spells of low quality. (I remember when, however much one disagreed with Myers, Pharyngula was a real science blog, with some very nicely written science posts here and there, rather than a blog devoted mostly to open threads, repetitious claims about religion, geeky adolescent jokes about sex and geekier but less adolescent jokes about squid, and bored trolling for online polls to crash. All those things used to be there, of course, in some form; it's the more interesting posts that have become much, much more rare.) Blogging isn't a wholly independent activity: sometimes people really do have more important things to do, and sometimes those more important things crowd out blogging itself. That's life. You can tell when I'm busy (or at least away from my computer much more than usual) because for weeks poetry, quotations, and links will be the primary kinds of posts; I do them even when I'm not busy, because they build up fairly steadily (the poetry less so than the other two), but when I am busy, they are the sorts of things that keep coming through the pipeline. They're easy to blog, and the material for them builds on its own. Blogging is not a very stable thing to begin with; it's not surprising that it changes.

Oh, and one obvious sign of shift: memes are much less common. There was a period where I was tagged for a meme at least once a week. Internet quizzes, book lists, ice-breaker-like things-about-your-self games -- they were extraordinarily common. But you hardly see them anymore. They never really contributed much to quality or content, but they did make blogging in general much more playful, and they did have the nice function of allowing you the opportunity to link to nice or interesting people who might not otherwise have been linked. They were the harmless neighborly chit-chat of the blogosphere, like talking about the weather with the neighbor two doors down, the one whom you like but with whom you have little in common and whom you rarely see. The blogosphere still has a playful streak running through it, but it's not so obvious anymore.

I think many things have remained constant, though. The majority of political blogs are still poisonous parasites or mindless bottom-feeders; and they are still widely read because it's hard to recognize the poisonous parasites who agree with you. The most interesting blogs are still usually those where people write in order to think things through, although some blogs are interesting more as enjoyable curiosities or as insights into other types of life or career (I have no interest in fashion whatsoever and yet I can spend a lot of time looking at the street fashion pictures at The Sartorialist -- so many people who are interesting in so many different ways). There are still trolls in comments threads, with some blogs attracting them more than others. Blogs are still a great way to discover and touch minds with people you would never have met otherwise. And for all the folly and malice, all the silliness and foible, all the sulking and vindictiveness, that can be found in the blogosphere, the level of discussion is still extraordinarily high for such free and open interaction.