Saturday, August 01, 2009

Links and Notes

* History Carnival LXXIX is up at "History Today News"; it's a small one, but well done.

* John Cottingham has a review of Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity: From Job to the Enlightenment. I don't think, by the way, that it's quite right to say that Kant's categorical imperative is "a mere injunction or 'imperative', which we ourselves decide to issue". There is no decision about it; Kant seems to me to be very clear that the categorical imperative is the overarching structure of practical reason itself. In trying to specify this structure in words, we use various kinds of analogies; each different kind of analogy leads to one of the formulations of the categorical imperative (and here again, I think Kant is very clear that all the formulations are just ways of trying to say the same thing, the categorical imperative itself, the fountainhead of all practical reason, the foundation that makes practical reasoning itself possible). And I would argue that on this basis we should distinguish a genuinely Kantian autonomy from the many imitations that it has spawned.

* "Logismoi" has a post on St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain

* The Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, which studies and preserves the ancient Christian catacombs of Italy, has a page on the catacombs.

* Ben Rogers on Pascal's Pensées at "philosophy bites"

* The one extant audio recording of Virginia Woolf.

* New York City tapwater, bottled and in the store -- and apparently better than most bottled water. Rather amusing, but, of course, New York State has an unusually high-quality water supply. And most bottled water is tapwater, anyway.

* A good post by Megan McArdle on the obesity problem in America, and the problem with trying to solve it:

I don't have to like something to recognize that I don't know how to fix it. And I don't know how to fix this. Moreover, I don't think anyone else knows how to fix it either. They think it should be fixed, and that this ardent and well-meant desire somehow translates into the ability to do so, if only the rest of America will join them in really getting serious about the problem. In my experience as a pundit with a jaundiced view of the likely success of any given government program, every single problem in America, including obesity, can be directly traced to our national frivolity. If only we'd get really serious, we could fix anything and everything.

* An interesting dispute about Lincoln:

Sean Wilentz, Who Lincoln Was
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Disputations: The Lost Lincoln
Fred Kaplan, Disputations: The Lost Lincoln
Michael Kazin, Disputations: The Lost Lincoln
John Stauffer, Disputations: The Lost Lincoln
Sean Wilentz, Disputations: The Lost Lincoln

Actually, it's primarily good for showing how academics can have ridiculous egos; but, for all that, many interesting things come up.

* Sherry's Hundred Hymns list continues:

#52 Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
#51 Of the Father's Love Begotten
#50 Because He Lives
#49 Alleluia, Sing to Jesus
#48 Abide with Me

* For those readers who liked my 'philosophical sentences' posts: There are several coming along. But they're very difficult to write, much more than you might think, so they'll be coming out very slowly here and there, especially since I'll be busy this August re-working my courses for Fall semester. These are the ones I've done so far:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (Santayana)
If God did not exist, one would have to invent Him. (Voltaire)
The heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing. (Pascal)


* Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, by Nellie Bly. Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds, to be exact. Bly was a pioneer journalist, one of the journalistic greats of the late nineteenth century. Her second most famous feat was her undercover report of the Blackwell's Island lunatic asylum, which she describes in Ten Days in a Mad-House.

* The fourteenth Carnival of Evolution is up at "Quintessence of Dust"

Hume on Liberty of the Press

It is apprehended, that arbitrary power would steal in upon us, were we not careful to prevent its progress, and were there not an easy method of conveying the alarm from one end of the kingdom to the other. The spirit of the people must frequently be rouzed, in order to curb the ambition of the court; and the dread of rouzing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition. Nothing so effectual to this purpose as the liberty of the press, by which all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation may be employed on the side of freedom, and every one be animated to its defence. As long, therefore, as the republican part of our government can maintain itself against the monarchical, it will naturally be careful to keep the press open, as of importance to its own preservation.

Hume, Of the Liberty of the Press. If only the press worked like that; it seems obvious that we don't really get "all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation" employed to defend freedom, or to do anything, for that matter. But we still do get alarm from coast to coast, I suppose.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Problem of Evil and Cleanthean Principles

Mark Labossiere recently had an interesting post, God's Love, on Hume's considerations of the problem of evil:

I recently finished a section on faith & reason in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As per tradition, I included a discussion of the problem of evil and used David Hume’s writings on the subject. Condensing down his argument, he contends that we cannot reasonably infer the existence of an all powerful, all knowing and supremely benevolent being from the nature of the world. After all, there seems to be a significant tension between all the evil in the world and the existence of such a perfect being. Hume does note that the existence of evil is consistent with God having the qualities commonly attributed to Him, but he thinks that this is not what we would expect.

I think this condenses down the argument a stage too far. Hume's argument is not -- and cannot be, given how he actually crafts it -- that we cannot reasonably infer the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and supremely benevolent being from the nature of the world, but that we cannot do so from natural phenomena on the basis of an analogical design inference. And that's a key issue, because not all inferences from empirical evidence are analogical design inferences. Cleanthes (and in a different context the Epicurean) is quite clear that it is the 'experimental inference' applied to the contrivance of the world, and it alone, that is in play: Like effects have like causes, therefore since the world is like an artifact the cause of the world is like an artificer, and so forth. And Philo's point is that, contrary to Cleanthes's claim, the design inference is not adequate for religion. Indeed, there are good reasons to think that this is the point of much of the argument in the Dialogues: Philo's aiming not at the design inference itself but at Cleanthes's assumption that it is a sufficient foundation for religion. Of course, there is reason to think that Hume allows Cleanthes to confine himself to this single type of inference because he thinks no other inference has genuine promise. But, while Cleanthes gives some slight argument in favor of it, we hardly get any systematic discussion of it.

And it is in fact something that not everyone would have agreed with; even Butler in the Analogy does not argue solely on analogy, and Butler would have replied to Hume with much the same argument he gave prior to Hume, i.e., that if we don't artificially reduce our reasoning to simple inferences, if we allow ourselves much more complicated forms of reasoning, we can get much farther. If, to give one very Butlerian instance, we have reason to think there is some sort of moral system in place (Butler argues at some length that we do), and that God is responsible for it, we cannot draw conclusions merely from where the system happens to be at particular stages in its existence but only from the whole system, which requires focusing not on the world at large but on the moral system itself in order to determine its "natural tendencies", which give us an idea of what will happen when the complete moral system is in effect. Butler notoriously regards good reasoning on the basis of the evidence even in this area of thought as an extraordinarily complicated thing, making use of many different kinds of inferences; he would not accept that it is something that can be reduced down to a single briefly stated causal maxim. It's doubtful Hume would accept such a line. Demea in the Dialogues makes a brief attempt to go in this direction, and is sharply and vehemently attacked for it by Cleanthes on the ground that it gets us into mere speculation. Cleanthes trounces Demea; but Demea is no Butler, either, and one can hardly move forward on the assumption that people will not question the key claim by Cleanthes that the one and only way to argue for divine benevolence is "to deny absolutely the misery and wickedness of man." It is a point on which Hume makes the argument much easier for himself than it might have been; not arbitrarily, it should be said, since he had many excellent reasons for taking Cleanthes in this direction. But it does place limits on how generally applicable the argument is, because most people will not concede all the crucial claims that get Cleanthes in his bind: that analogical design inference is the only possible way we can know anything about God, and that therefore we can only conclude that God is good if the design of the world as we can discern it is obviously good overall, and that therefore we can only conclude that God is good if the design is such that it obviously is currently such that human beings are happy and good overall. Indeed, I don't think I've ever actually met any theist who would concede all three of these.

And, of course, that really puts the argument back one step to the reasonableness of views in which these Cleanthean principles are rejected.

Philosophy in the Blogosphere

There's a lot of it.

(Before I forget: The 94th Philosophers' Carnival is up at "Parableman". I liked Jonathan Ichikawa's post about on 'experimental philosophy'.)

Brian Leiter was asked to write his top ten list for philosophy blogs (ht). Here's his list, which is a fairly good one:

Certain Doubts
Experimental Philosophy
Leiter Reports
Manyul Im's Chinese Philosophy Blog
PEA Soup
Philosophy, et cetera
Public Reason
The Garden of Forking Paths
The Prosblogion
Think Tonk

It's heavy on group blogs, but that makes sense for a top ten list -- most non-group philosophy blogs are either on a very narrow topic, and thus would be odd to put in a top ten list, or are philosophy-among-other-things blogs, which makes them very hard to compare. Manyul Im, Richard Chappell, and Clayton Littlejohn are all excellent exceptions. (I think John Wilkins's Evolving Thoughts is another candidate, as is Eric Schwitzgebel's The Splintered Mind, being good philosophy blogs with potentially wide appeal. For similar reasons, In Socrates' Wake would be a good candidate on the group blog side, and I'm rather partial to the Feminist Philosophers blog. And the list, of course, could go on, on both sides; the difficulty lies in weeding down excellent candidates to ten choices rather than in stretching to come up with ten.)

For some reason I don't think philosophy has quite taken as easily to blogging as, say, history has; I'm not sure why that is (assuming that it is so). Perhaps historians, used to having to deal with massive amounts of detail, are more comfortable working in snippets? I don't know. But I think most people would find most of the blogs above worth at least an occasional browse.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Aut Deus Aut Homo Malus and Division-Based Arguments

At, Alexander George and Peter Smith both answer a question about aut deus aut homo malus arguments, and in doing so miss what I think is a serious opportunity to discuss division-based arguments. The result is that the answers they provide are entirely unhelpful, and appear to be based on unsubstantiated assumptions about the argument in question.

Aut deus aut malus, like every other dilemmatic or trilemmatic argument, works by establishing a space of possibilities and dividing it up. We'll set aside inductive versions of division-based arguments for now, and assume that we've decided to do an eliminative one. There are several ways you can go with the argument from here, depending on what you are actually trying to do. In giving such an argument, you could be arguing ad hominem, in Locke's sense of the term: that is, the conclusion you reach is not about the true conclusion but the conclusion the other person should reach in order to be consistent. When the division has this purpose, you argue not on the basis of what you think is established but on the basis of what the other person has conceded or is assumed to concede. On the other hand, you could be arguing ad iudicium, in which case you are not arguing from the principles of the other persons but from things that are deemed to be facts or certain principles. In either case, you can run your own eliminative argument, rejecting possibilities until you have reached one, or you can simply leave the division at that, and let people sort themselves out on their own and, in effect, do their own eliminations.

What this shows us is that it is impossible to evaluate division-based arguments without regard for their context. We see this at every stage:

(1) Field of Possibilities: Are we considering all logical possibilities? Or are we considering only 'live options', actual claims people have made? Or are the possibilities something else? This can only be determined from the context of the argument.

(2) Principles of division: Likewise, when we get to the question of why we are dividing up the field of possibilities in the way we are, we have to know what we are trying to do. If I am trying to determine whether any penguins can fly, there are a number of ways I can divide up the penguin population; some of these ways of dividing the population up will make my argument easier to make and some will make it harder. If I am considering not just actual penguins but also any possible penguin, the principles according to which I'm dividing up the possibilities become even more crucial. In order to determine whether the principles of division are appropriate, and often even to determine what they are, we need to look at the context.

(3) Type of Argument: Arguments that are simply arguments that one's opponent should on their own principles concede some point are very different from arguments that everyone should, on principles that are true and established, concede a point. They have different standards of success -- indeed, different kinds of success entirely. And which is the relevant one will, again, depend entirely on what someone is doing in context.

(4) Grounds for elimination (where relevant): In giving reasons for eliminating options, you may be doing several things. You may, for instance, be trying to present a rigorous stand-alone argument. You may be trying to summarize a complex set of evidential arguments that are dealt with in more detail elsewhere. And you may be giving defeasible presumptions that would have to be overcome by the opposing side in order to make their case. Each one of these yields a different kind of conclusion (although each one might be stated in exactly the same words); each one has to be evaluated differently; and we can only determine which one is in play by looking at the context.

A corollary of all this is that we cannot assume that any two verbally similar cases of aut deus aut homo malus are actually logically similar until we have determined that their contexts force them into the same shape, so to speak. This type of argument affords some fairly easy examples of this point, in fact. The usual source for these kinds of arguments is C.S. Lewis, who uses them in several places. But Lewis always presents such arguments ad hominem (again, in Locke's sense of the term) and is often very careful to specify the sort of person he has in mind. He employs it as an argument to show that a certain type of position is implausible and apparently not consistent with the way we usually reason about people. But just as people who take up Pascal's Wager have a bad habit of dropping all the qualifications and limitations put on it by its original context without first checking to see whether they can really do so, so people picking up the aut deus aut malus argument have a bad habit of dropping its context, and all the constraints context places on it, without regard for how this changes the argument. For it does change the argument; they will be different arguments, however verbally similar. Some criticisms of one may apply to the other, but some may not, so it is essential in evaluating the argument that we not be fooled by verbal similarity into treating them as if they were the same argument. We cannot assume that what applies to Murray and Rea's version automatically applies to Kreeft's version, as Smith does, or that what is said of either of these automatically applies to any other version. The context for each will have to be examined to see what the arguer is trying to do with the argument. Aut deus aut homo malus is a very diverse family of arguments, not a single argument; and this is a feature it shares with many kinds of eliminative arguments.

It is this, not George's and Smith's approach (which consists of little more than making a series of vague assertions denying various parts of the argument, and in Smith's case, of making the silly assumption of logical similarity on the basis of mere verbal similarity), that gives you a reasonable assessment of the argument. The questioner isn't very precise about the original context of the argument, dropping most of the relevant details. I'd imagine that it's from Kreeft's Between Heaven and Hell, but it could be from another work. And that difference could be significant; in You Can Understand the Bible, for instance, the point of the argument is simply to show that in the Gospel of John the interpretation that Jewish leaders make of Jesus' words as presented in that book is unsurprising and reasonable; in Between Heaven and Hell it is presented as part of a discussion between two interlocutors and thus (1) is not a stand-alone argument; and (2) would have to be interpreted in light of the way in which those interlocutors are represented in the dialogue as a whole; and in Ecumenical Jihad he uses it simply as a parallel or analogue for a different argument. I forget how it's used in the Handbook, and can't find a relevant selection anywhere online; but if that's the source, its context would be crucial as well. The arguments all belong to the same family; but they are discernibly different arguments.

The fact that context is so key to pinning down even the full logical features of the argument is a reason why dilemmas, trilemmas, and other eliminative arguments can be very difficult to handle: since we have to go digging in order to come up with the version of the argument with which we are actually dealing, it's very easy for prejudices, both rational and irrational, to lead us to read things into the argument that are not there, or, at times, even read things out of the argument that are there. It's not a time to be sloppy and cavalier, but to recognize that, however simple such may seem (and they often do seem simple), they have many working parts and draw at every stage on the actual context in which the argument is given. Evaluating both the parts and the whole is not something that can be done with sweeping generalizations; trying to do it that way will leave us with the result we have here: vague, limping, weakly answers instead of robust and precise ones. And since eliminative arguments are actually quite common, we need to have the tools in hand to give the robust answers.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Petition and Familiar Affection

Prayer addressed to a man presupposes a certain intimacy that may afford the petitioner an opportunity to present his request. But when we pray to God, the very payer we send forth makes us intimate with Him, inasmuch as our soul is raised up to God, converses with Him in spiritual affection, and adores Him in spirit and truth. The familiar affection thus experienced in prayer begets an inducement in the petitioner to pray again with yet greater confidence.

[Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae II.2, in Aquinas's Shorter Summa, Vollert, tr., Sophia Institute Press (Manchester, NH: 2002) p. 335.]

The Lion and the Mouse, in Pictures

While I'm on the subject of fables, one of the things that's nice about Google Books is being able to browse the pictures in fable books and readers. I always like the one about the Lion and the Mouse the best. Here are some examples. You can click on the image to get to the relevant book.

But I'm always partial to the illustration found on the titlepage of Swinbourne's Picture Logic, in part because of the caption:

Parturiunt Montes, Nascetur Ridiculus Mus

From Christopher Smart's metrical version of the fables of Phaedrus:


The Mountain labor'd, groaning loud,
On which a num'rous gaping crowd
Of noodles came to see the sight,
When, lo ! a mouse was brought to light!
This tale 's for men of swagg'ring cast,
Whose threats, voluminous and vast,
With all their verse and all their prose,
Can make but little on't, God knows.

Phaedrus was a first century author known for Latinizing Aesop; this is one of Aesop's fables, a very short one:

A Mountain was once greatly agitated. Loud groans and noises were heard, and crowds of people came from all parts to see what was the matter. While they were assembled in anxious expectation of some terrible calamity, out came a Mouse.

Phaedrus's Latin version is fairly similar. This particular image is also found in Horace's Art of Poetry v, as part of his advice to writers to begin simply and not bombastically. It is from Horace that I take the title of the post; it's perhaps my favorite Latin proverb, and finds handy application everywhere. The mountains are in labor; a ridiculous mouse will be born!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reading and the Coxcomb

Reading is the most rational employment, if people seek food for the understanding, and do not read merely to remember words; or with a view to quote celebrated authors, and retail sentiments they do not understand or feel. Judicious books enlarge the mind and improve the heart, though some, by them, "are made coxcombs whom nature meant for fools."

Mary Wollstonecraft, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, p. 49. The coxcombs remark is an allusion to Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Criticism":

Yet, if we look more closely, we shall find
Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind:
Nature affords at least a glimm'ring light,
The lines, though touched but faintly, are drawn right;
But as the slightest sketch, if justly traced,
Is by ill-colouring but the more disgraced,
So by false learning is good sense defaced:
Some are bewildered in the maze of schools,
And some made coxcombs nature meant but fools.

That is, learning can make people with a little sense but nothing more even worse, by making them people with less than that little sense who give themselves airs of elegance and wit.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Youth and Imbecility

A good one from Craig Ferguson.


Notes and Links

* An SEP article on GEM Anscombe is up. I think she actually gets shortchanged in parts; but it does get the basics right.

There's also a new article on Plato's Myths and another on Nicole Oresme.

* Martin Luther and being a theologian

* A fragment by C. S. Lewis of what was intended to be a collaborative book between Lewis and Tolkien called Language and Human Nature (but which, despite a publication date being announced, was never actually completed) has been found. It's too bad the collaboration fell through; that would be a book to read.

* Jonah Lehrer has a brief but good article on neuroaesthetics at Psychology Today, and some excellent comments on it at his blog.

* Catarina Dutilh Novaes has been pulling together a list of women who do work in philosophical logic (often thought of as a man's field). It really does represent an impressive amount of work in the field (obviously there are a few big names on the list, but Novaes herself is stunningly talented -- everything I've read by her has been extraordinarily good). Some of the names I've come across before (like Mehrnoosh Sadrzadeh, Carrie Jenkins, and of course a number of others), and some I haven't yet but will certainly look into.

* The Everyday Thomist discusses Aquinas on Job and divine providence

* Do you know who was technically bishop of the moon under canon law during the moon landings?

* David Hart discusses The Little Prince and gnosticism.

* While he doesn't seem to have originated the idea of a fallacy of false analogy, the point at which the idea of such a fallacy seems to have entered into general awareness and become part of our philosophical folklore seems to have been A System of Logic, by John Stuart Mill. On Mill's view there is a legitimate form of analogical inference, which is basically nothing other than an inductive argument to raise the probability that this or that cause is operative in a certain kind of phenomena. (Which is almost certainly why a number of late nineteenth century authors treat false analogy as a lapse in causal reasoning, non tali causa pro tali causa.) In other words, analogy is a form of generalization; and false analogy is a form of bad generalization. The bare analogical inference, then, is not enough; you need in addition a reason to think that it takes into account all the relevant conditions. It is because of this that his description of false analogy almost makes it sound like all analogy is out the window:

There is another, more properly deserving the name of fallacy, namely, when resemblance in one point is inferred from resemblance in another point, though there is not only no evidence to connect the two circumstances by way of causation, but the evidence tends positively to disconnect them. This is properly the Fallacy of False Analogies.

Thus all analogical inference is fallacious unless there is "evidence to connect the two circumstances by way of causation." This is the probable reason why all discussions of the supposed fallacy are so confused: they are the end result of trying to take Mill's very stringent strictures on analogy (which follow from certain features of his own view of generalization) and loosening them so that they are more lenient toward analogical inferences themselves. The result is incoherence: you can admit any analogy on the newer accounts, but also reject any analogy, because there is no underlying account of reasoning.

* Sherry's Hundred Hymns List continues:

#56 Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven
#55 My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less
#54 Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
#53 All Glory, Laud, and Honor

* Currently watching:
Game Theory with Ben Polak
Politics and Strategy with Kathleen Bawn

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Natural Superabundance

When a philosopher reflects on poetry, he observes first of all that poetry lies in the line of art or of creative activity. And art as such does not have as its end knowledge, but producing or creating -- not after the fashion of nature, as radium produces helium or as a living being begets a living being, but rather in a mode proper to spirit and freedom: the point here is the outward productivity of the intellect.

The intellect is by its nature expressive; it produces inwardly the mental words or concepts which are for it means of knowing, but which are also effects of its spiritual abundance, expressions or internal manifestations of what it knows.

And by a natural superabundance, the intellect tends of itself to give expression and manifestation outwardly -- to sing. It flows not only into its concepts or internal words, it demands that it overflow into a work: a natural desire which, since it seeks to cross the frontiers of the intellect itself, cannot be realized except by means of the movement of the will and the appetitive powers, which thus enable the intellect to go beyond itself according to its natural desire, and which thereby determine in an entirely general way the original dynamism of art's activity.

[Jacques Maritain, "Poetic Experience"]

Inadvertent Humor from Ryle

I love this sentence:

There is an important difference between the employment of boomerangs, bows and arrows, and canoe-paddles on the one hand and the employment of tennis rackets, tug-of-war ropes, coins, stamps and words on the other hand.

The author is Gilbert Ryle, in his article "Ordinary Language". Can you guess what the "important difference" between the two groups is supposed to be?