Saturday, November 14, 2009

Descartes on Eternal Truths

One of the most contentious areas of Descartes scholarship is the interpretation of his position on eternal truths, and it's an interesting area of controversy, because the controversy is less over what Descartes's position than over what it involves. Descartes is quite clear about his position; it's the position itself that's difficult to wrap one's mind around.

Descartes discussed his position on the eternal truths in April of 1630 with Mersenne; the topic comes up because of Descartes's insistence that mathematical truths depend on God just like everything else:

It will be said that if God had established these truths he could change them as a king changes his laws. To this the answer is: Yes he can, if his will cna change. 'But I understand them to be eternal and unchangeable.'--I make the same jdugment about God. 'But his will is free.' Yes, but his power is beyond our grasp. In general we can assert that God can do everything that is within our grasp but not that he cannot do what is beyond our grasp. It would be rash to think that our imagination reaches as far as his power. (AT I, 146; CSMK 23)

Mersenne pressed for clarification so in a letter of early May, Descartes explains, linking the position to the strongly voluntarist Cartesian account of simplicity, in which divine knowing is a form of willing:

As for the eternal truths, I say once more that they are true or possible only because God knows them as true or possible. They are not known as true by God in any way which would imply that they are true independently of him. If men really understood the sense oftheir words they could never say without blasphemy that the truth of anything is prior to the knowledge which God has of it. In God willing and knowing are a single thing in such a way that by the very fact of willing something he knows it and it is only for this reason that such a thing is true. So we must not say that if God did not exist nevertheless these truths would be true; for the existence of God is the first and the most eternal of all possible truths and the one from which alone all others proceed. (AT I, 149-150; CSMK 24)

Mersenne was not satisfied and pressed the point again, so in late May we find Descartes explaining himself again:

You ask me by what kind of causality God established the eternal truths. I reply: by the same kind of causality as he created all things, that is to say, as their efficient and total cause....You ask also what necessitated God to create these truths; and I reply that he was free to make it not true that all the radii of the circle are equal--just as free as he was not to create the world. And it is certain that these truths are no more necessarily attached to his essence than are other created things. You ask what God did in order to produce them. I reply created things. You ask what God did in order to produce them. I reply that from all eternity he willed and understood them to be, and by that very fact he created them. Or, if you reserve the word created for the existence of things, then he established them and made them. In God, willing, understanding and creating are all the same thing without one being prior to the other even conceptually. (AT I, 151-153; CSMK 25-26)

Other things intervene, and thus this is all of the discussion at that time, but Descartes does briefly mention his thesis again in correspondence with Mersenne from 1638:

You ask whether there would be real space, as there is now, if God had created nothing. At first this question seems to be beyond the capacity of the human mind, like infinity, so that it would be unreasonable to discuss it; but in fact I think that it is merely beyond the capacity of our imagination, like the questions of the existence of God and of the human soul, I believe that our intellect can reach the truth of the matter, which is, in my opinion, that not only would there not be any space, but even those truths which are called eternal -- as that 'the whole is greater than its part' -- would not be truths if God had not so established, as I think I wrote you once before.... (AT II, 138; CSMK 102-103)

There is another passage in the correspondence, this time in a letter to Mesland from 1644, in which Descartes summarizes his position on eternal truths:

I turn to the difficulty of conceiving how God would have been acting freely and indifferently if he had made it false that the three angles of a trianglewere equal to two right angles, or in general that contradictories could not be true together. It is easy to dispel this difficulty by considering that the power of God cannot have any limits, and that our mind is finite and so created as to be able to conceive as possible the things which God has wished to be in fact possible, but not be able to conceive as possible things which God could have made possible, but which he has nevertheless wished to make impossible. The first consideration shows us that God cannot have been determined to make it true that contradictories cannot be true together, and therefore that he could have done the opposite. The second consideration assures us that even if this be true, we should not try to comprehend it, since our nature is incapable of doing so. And even if God has willed that some truths should be necessary, this does not mean that he willed them necessarily; for it is one thing to will that they be necessary, and quite another to will this necessarily, or to be necessitated to will it. (AT IV, 118, CSMK 235)

And he goes on to base this again on his conception of divine simplicity. There are a few other places that have a bearing, but these suffice for the basic picture.

Thus Descartes's position is easy enough to lay out:

(1) All truths whatsoever depend on the divine will, even mathematical and logical principles.
(2) Truths are necessary, possible, or impossible because God wills that they be.
(3) God's freedom and power is so extensive that he could even make contradictions true.
(4) God has eternally willed some things to be true (perhaps even necessarily true) so that they may be called eternal truths.

The controversies are over how to put this together. Some have argued that Descartes holds that no truths are strictly necessary (as opposed to always true); others have held (more plausibly, I think) that he holds that God makes some truths necessary, but that their necessity itself is contingent on the divine existence. One can interpret Descartes's claim as simply a stricture on us: we know that God is infinitely powerful, we know that God's infinite attributes exceed our finite abilities to comprehend them, so while we know some of the things God can do, we should never say that we know something He cannot do, because it could be that our reason for thinking so is just an effect of the finitude of our human minds rather than an actual limitation on divine power. But Descartes sometimes seems to suggest a stronger position, in which we actually know that God could have made necessary truths false or non-necessary.

(I started thinking about Descartes on eternal truths due to this post at "The Prosblogion".)

Friday, November 13, 2009


Simple contact with other people and with one’s surroundings is often sufficient to stimulate certain responses. Ordinary daily existence conditions the formation of the spirit. However, instruction and guidance are needed for other responses, especially those involving the higher faculties. Allowance should be made for spontaneity as well as planned work and instruction. Formation requires the creation of educational subject matters which will place duties before intellect and will, stir the emotions, and fulfill the soul. But here we enter into the realm of values—the good, the beautiful, the noble, the sacred—the specific values which are unique to each soul and to its individual quality.

Edith Stein

Only Four Things Certain

The Gods of the Copybook Headings
by Rudyard Kipling

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market-Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn.
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market-Place;
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch.
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch.
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings.
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four-
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man--
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began:--
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Sobel on the Second Way

I recently recommended Sobel's Logic and Theism to someone as a good discussion, from an atheistic perspective, of philosophical issues relevant to atheism. And by and large it's a book worth reading. But there are curious bits. One of those occurs in the discussion of Aquinas's Second Way. Sobel reconstructs the argument using seven premises, which are (I paraphrase some of them):

(1) There are sensible things with efficient causes.
(2) If a thing has an efficient cause, it has exactly one efficient cause.
(3) Efficient causes are prior to their effects.
(4) Priority of efficient causes is irreflexive.
(5) Priority of efficient causes is transitive.
(6) Every sensible efficient cause has an efficient cause.
(7) Infinite regress of efficient causes is impossible.

What would surprise someone who has a fair degree of acquaintance with Aristotelian views of efficient causes woud be (2), which is a very un-Aristotelian thing to say, at least if we are talking about medieval Aristotelians. (Aristotle himself has no notion of efficient causes at all; the concept requires a higher level of abstraction and generalization than we find in Aristotle's discussions of causes.) And it's not generally in the spirit of Aristotelian accounts of causation, either; it makes efficient causation intransitive, which eliminates the possibility of (genuine) remote and proximate causes in the order of efficient causes. (Sobel actually recognizes this, but treats phrases like 'proximate efficient cause' as redundant phrases used for convenience. This might well be a modern thing to do; it's not the sort of thing you would expect of medieval scholastics, who tend to want a specific and substantive rationale for every term they use.)

When we look at Sobel's account of this premise, we see that he has been misled by translation. Sobel says (PDF),

Aquinas writes that it is not possible for "a be the efficient cause of itself" (loc. cit., emphasis added), from which I gather that things that have efficient causes are to have unique ones. He envisions for a sensible thing x, a sequence of efficient causes that lead to it. If, for example, there are three causes in such a sequence to x, then I read him as saying that exactly "the ultimate cause" is a cause of x, while "the first is the cause [only] of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause [only] of the ultimate cause" (ST q2,a3 p. 22).

Aquinas's Latin, however, has no definite article: the only options available are the (potentially more ambiguous) default case, where there is no article or article-like expression, and the use of an article-like circumlocution (e.g., of the sort that would be translated by phrases like 'a certain thing'). St. Thomas's Latin here is Invenimus enim in istis sensibilibus esse ordinem causarum efficientium, nec tamen invenitur, nec est possibile, quod aliquid sit causa efficiens sui ipsius, with no article-like expression, so there is nothing to bear the weight Sobel places on the definite article in the translation (quod aliquid sit causa efficiens sui ipsius, what Aquinas is saying is impossible, simply means, "that something should be an efficient cause of its very self" or, as we might also put it a bit more colloquially, "for something to be a cause effecting itself"). Likewise, the interpolation of 'only' into the sentence about ultimate causes pretty clearly makes it say something different from what Aquinas means, and something Aquinas would pretty clearly not accept, for a number of reasons.

But Sobel is aboveboard from the beginning that he is only considering an argument along the lines of the Second Way, and not necessarily Aquinas's own version of the argument.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Malebranche on the Scope of the Passions

A legal contest takes place between two men to decide who owns a piece of land; they ought to produce only their titles and say only what is related to their case or what might improve it. Yet they never fail to slander one another, contradict each other's statements, contest trivial points, and complicate their case with an infinity of pointless details that obscure the main issue. In short, the influence of each of the passions is as great as the mental scope of those moved by them--i.e., if we think that something is in any way related to the object of our passions, the passions move us with regard to that object.

Malebranche, Search after Truth 5.7 (LO 372)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Leo and Attila

Today is the feast of St. Leo the Great; the 'Great' was well-earned. One of Leo's famous feats:

Now Attila, having once more collected his forces which had been scattered in Gaul [at the battle of Chalons], took his way through Pannonia into Italy. . . To the emperor and the senate and Roman people none of all the proposed plans to oppose the enemy seemed so practicable as to send legates to the most savage king and beg for peace. Our most blessed Pope Leo -trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials - undertook the task, accompanied by Avienus, a man of consular rank, and the prefect Trygetius. And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube.

Raphael has a famous painting depicting the meeting between Leo and Attila. At this point in his campaign Attila's resources were probably already stretched quite thinly, so Attila was likely open to persuasion already; but that's often the trick of diplomacy, and the point at which it requires the greatest courage. After all, Valentinian III, the Western Emperor at the time, seems to have decided to hole himself up in Ravenna during the crisis; someone had to stand up to bat. Leo tried to repeat the success when the Vandals came a few years later, under Genseric; they were not dissuaded -- but he still seems to have drawn out of them a promise not to burn the city. And when they left after ten days of pillaging, he helped Rome rebuild and recover.

Even more importantly, but not related to invading Barbarian Hordes, Leo is notable for the Tome of Leo, one of the greatest expressions of Chalcedonian Christology ever written.

Aquinas on the Light of Tabor

It was fitting that the disciples should be afraid and fall down on hearing the voice of the Father, to show that the glory which was then being revealed surpasses in excellence the sense and faculty of all mortal beings; according to Exodus 33:20: "Man shall not see Me and live." This is what Jerome says on Matthew 17:6: "Such is human frailty that it cannot bear to gaze on such great glory." But men are healed of this frailty by Christ when He brings them into glory. And this is signified by what He says to them: "Arise, and fear not."

Aquinas ST 3.45.4 ad 4. Note that Exodus 33:20 cannot support what precedes it unless seeing the glory is looking on the divinity. Cf. 3.45.2 ("the clarity of Christ's body in His transfiguration was derived from His Godhead, as Damascene says, and from the glory of His soul" and "in Christ's transfiguration clarity overflowed from His Godhead and from His soul into His body"), 1.12.5 ("The disposition to the form of fire can be natural only to the subject of that form. Hence the light of glory cannot be natural to a creature unless the creature has a divine nature; which is impossible. But by this light the rational creature is made deiform"), and 2-1.5.6 ad 2 ("the light of glory, whereby God is seen, is in God perfectly and naturally; whereas in any creature, it is imperfectly and by similitude or participation").

On Hermits

One sometimes hears people talking as if hermits gave up all place in society; such people clearly have not studied the history of hermits, which provides endless counterexamples to this false notion. You might as well say that you temporarily give up your whole place in society by walking by yourself for an hour in quiet reflection. The hermit is not an exile from all society; how many are the words that have been brought back from the solitude of hermits! How many striking thoughts we owe to hermits, of which we would have never known if they had wholly severed themselves from society, if they had no role in society! When we look at it closely, we see that the very idea is incoherent. Being a hermit is a role in society. As for individuals, so for society a little thoughtful withdrawal into solitude can be good. Throughout the world hermits have been society's quiet introspection. They are the part of society that has left off action in order to reflect. Reflective introspection can drive you crazy. But sometimes our best thoughts are born of it.

Dashed Off

As usual, transferring some of my dashed-off notes to the blog, and the usual caveats apply: mere ideas, grains of salt, and all that. It's been a while since I've done this, so there will probably be another soon.

Genius only fully expresses itself by not relying on itself as such.

prevenient & consequent consolations

Sensation has as its object the singular properly and directly but also after a fashion the universal itself. For if many singular instances are sensed and they do not differ in some feature, this feature as recognized by the mind is the universal.

Hume's custom as empeiria (experientia)

Superstition arises not from a lack of reasoning but from a misdirection of it.

The world continues to exist only because God rests in it.

Distinctions sometimes convince as well as arguments do; for distinctions, like arguments, may resolve problems. But one may say that they do so not as directly effecting but as removing impediments. Much the same can be said of redescriptions.

Every effect is evidence of its cause; but it is only seen as evidence for its cause through someone's recognition of how that effect would relate to its cause. Someone who did not understand that this effect requires that kind of cause could have evidence of the cause without seeing any evidence for it.

the experience of reading a good book
in itself: complacentia, desiderium, gaudium
in its effects: liquefactio, fruitio, languor, fervor

fideism as a philosophical autothysis mechanism

It is curious how people talk about naturalistic explanations when they really mean natural explanations. There is realy no such thing as a naturalistic explanation, since any explanation put forward by a naturalist coudl be accepted consistently by someone (even if not by everyone) who does not accept naturalism. Naturalism when it comes to explanation is a negative doctrine: it tells us that no explanations are legitimate explanations that are not natural explanations. This is different from saying that anyone who accepts a natural explanation is conceding naturalism in some way, which is both obviously false and involves a logical confusion. Naturalism explains nothing; it merely makes a claim about what kind of explanation is to be accounted a good kind of explanation. (Likewise you find people who think flying in an airplane is a 'naturalistic' method of travel, a complete concession to naturalism. There are always gullible people who can be fooled by a similarity of words.)

The pure transcendentals are terms that are present in the knowledge of all things: being, one, etc. This is why metaphysics is the source of all principles on which all the sciences are based.

We should avoid the mistake of thinking of the three acts of the intellect -- apprehension, judgment, and inference -- as always separate and distinct; in fact they are often intermingled, for we are not always considering things that are self-evident, like simple quiddities and first principles, and even when we are we are not always considering them as such. But it is only in such pure cases that sharp distinction, rather than mutual support or impediment, can be found.

scientia : vegetative soul :: intelligentia : sensitive soul :: sapientia : rational soul

The intellectual virtue of science judges conclusions in a field in light of the principles of the field; the intellectual virtue of wisdom judges principles and conclusions of a field alike.

Wisdom pertains to the principles of the whole of human cognition; thus we say it deals with the first and highest causes, for it considers what is most prior and most intelligible in its own nature. Likewise it itself serves as the completion of all human cognition, for it is impossible for one's knowledge ot be complete except by grounding it in what is most intelligible and illuminating. Since all ofhuman cognition only finds a good order in light of it, it is rightly said that the wise set all things in order.

The true history of a civilization is the history of its saints and sages.

The best philosophical positions are "divine, examined in themselves, but also irrefragable, according to arguments" (Cons. Phil. iv pr i).

The human intellect is in need of completion by the world.

We investigate the natures of things on the basis of their acts.

We spend most of our lives residing in the senses, either the external senses or, when we are more withdrawn, the imagination and memory. But we are called to reside in a better palace, in the spiritual senses, so to speak, which is to say, we are called to dwell in understanding intermingled with love.

When I sue a word, like 'dog', I mean to signify not my sensations of a dog, nor the means by which I signify. I do not tag the word 'dog' to things I receive, but actively mean something, and in this case I mean a dog; I then express this vocally. THe forming of this meaning is conception, the meaning formed is the concept or internal word, which I express in external words. THere are two kinds: those that are simple understandings, which are expressed as definitions and descriptions, and those that are syntheses or analyses, which are expressd in sentences or, indeed, in many other ways. This internal word is not what is known, which is the thing itself; nor is it that by which it is known, which is what we receive from the world through the senses; but it is that in which we know, for the conception of the word is the knowing of the thing, the intellect's expression of the thing in itself, the forming of the world int he mind, the mind's assimilation of the universe to itself.

All understanding is a sort of deep reading.

We say that something, like a claim, is true not because of an intrinsic propertyor form but because it exists relative to an intellct capable of judging, just as food is healthy not in itself but relative to the health of an animal. But insofar as we can recognize that something in the thing is a cause or reason for judging it true, we can also call this cause or reason the truth. If we fail to recognize that this is a shift in sense, we make it easy for ourselves to stubmle.

To have a coherent theory of rationality you must have a teleology of reason.

What is true is true of something.

Our theories, being artifacts and constructions of the mind, are measured against the mind; but our minds are measured against the natures of things, and so too our theories by way of our minds.

"Human nature is like honeycomb because we hold the treasure of reason in our bodies, just as honey is contained in the comb." Palamas

Suppose causes regress infinitely. Then God (by way of Spinoza). Suppose they don't. Then God (by way of Aristotle).

Tense logic is really a logic of direction.

Legal abilities are a certain kind of permission.

Sensation is already the beginning of a process of abstraction.

Sensation is not mere apprehension; there is a sort of judgment of sense by which, not intellectually but in the sensing itself, we judge whether something is or ir not. and these judgments, whereby, for instance, we do not merely apprehend brightness, registering it as brightness, but recognize it to be over there, make up a considerable part of our mental life. Much confusion could be avoided by remembering that sense judges as well as apprehends.

We may distinguish between first analytics and second analytics. First analytics considers inference as such. Second analytics considers inference according to its various kinds: demonstrative, probable, rhetorical, poetic, sophistical, which are inferences with ends in view and therefore partake soemthing of their ends.

Reasoning per impossibile involves abstracting by simple consideration in matters of necessity.

Sensation is a corporeal act of cognition: it is not prior to cognition, but itself a cognitive act, a kind of knowing which has as its object the shaping of matter (so to speak) by light, or sound, or chemical reaction, or what have you.

Knowledge is a sort of multiformity; form is limited by matter; therefore knowledge depends on the degree to which one is relatively free of material limitation.

Behind malevolence one often finds things to be pitied.

the four paths of charity
(1) universal hospitality
(2) liturgy throughout life
(3) expansive reciprocity
(4) friendship with God and man

agape as divine jen (ren)
shu as part of jen
chung as part of jen

Aporia force us into higher levels of abstraction.

Suppose that "every mover is moved" (M) is true. It is so either per accidens or per se.
Suppose per accidens. Then M is not necessary. Therefore ◊~M. But ◊~M→~M (X). Therefore ~M.
Why? Suppose (◊~M & ~M). To be moved is to be moved by another in such a way that what is potential becomes actual. If something can be a mover because its potential for moving becaomse actual, it si moved. ThereforeIf ◊ indicates that there is anything with the potential for making ~M true, then ◊~M&M is a contradiction. Since ~M is true by supp., ~◊~M, which is alos against supp. Therefore If M is true per accidens, either X or ◊ does not indicate &c. But per accidens rules out the latter, because it requires ◊~M and being mover and being moved are incidentally joined; but if there is nothing w/ the potential for making ~M true, being mover and being moved are not joined incidentally but per se. Therefore if M is true per acidens, also ~M. This is confirmed by the fact that if being mover and being moved are incidentally joined, given that the latter can be sometimes found w/o the former, it is imporbable that the former is never found w/o the latter.
Suppose it is true per se. Then either each moer is moved by the same kind of motiaon as that by which it moves or it is not.
Suppose that it is. Then the same thing would be actual and not actual in the same respect. This is impossible.
The genera and species of motion are finite. But the regress cannot be infinite, and ~M is true. For either there is recurrence or there is not. Suppose there is not: then the regress is finite, and ~M is true. But suppose there is: Since a serieis of moved movers in a chain, where being moved and being mover are joined in their nature, are themsleves a unified moved mover, then whatever moves according to a species of motion would have to be moved according to the same species albeit mediately rather than immediately. Therefore ~M.
Further, if there were an infinite regress of per se moved movers, the whole of the chain would be a unified mover (since per se); but this infinite mover would be a self-moved mover, actual and not actual with respect to the same thing, which is impossible.

What mathematicians usually discover are uses.

A good lector will love the words themselves as rich with meaning.

One can make sense of much of Spinoza by reading 'thing intelligible purely through and in itself' wherever he says 'substance'. Then: such an intelligible is prior in intelligibility to what receives intelligibility from it (Part I, Prop I), it cannot be produced by another (vi), existence pertains to its nature (vii), it is necessarily infinite (viii), it necessarily exists (xi), it is indivisible (xiii), it is God alone (xiv), ntohing can exist or be conceived w/o it and whatever exists is in it (xv), and so forth. But he fluctuates between the level of intelligibility and other levels, if looked at in this way, & does not properly distinguish 'being caused by' from 'known through'. Thus extension becomes a mode of God, and things flow from God by necessity of his nature.

dimensions of inquiry
-related to decision, to assent, to apprehension, &c.
- in effect a moral psychology of inquiry

There is need for fortitude in our playfulness; for it is easy for playfulness to dissipate when it is most needed.

reference-grounded definitions vs arbitrarily constructed definitions

moral counsels and moral taste

How one uses an expression presupposes what it is for.

Temperance and fortitude can be treated as satellites or adjuncts of justice because applying reason to passions (whether to restrain or endure) presupposes applying reason to will. Likewise, all virtues can be treated as adjuncts of prudence because they all presuppose right reason.
This contributes toward seeing how the Chinese virtues relate to the Greek.

Much of the damage caused by pride comes from its mimicry of the self-reflectiveness of prudence.

slightly on the wicked side of reason

The only thing that would make it so "you can't get an ought from an is" is ought's being a primitive.

With the Jews God creates a vocabulary.

The Eucharist as
(1) a work of Christ's prophetic authority to proclaim
(2) a work of Christ's royal authority and power
(3) a work of Christ's priestly mediation

a schematic of theology

Giving to others their due is justice because it follows from good where there is something due. But hter eis a kind of giving that goes beyond all due, depending on it not in the least; and this has more of the nature of good because it does not require this other notion of something due.

beasts made from useful jumblings

to show & teach w/o books or signs

There is no reason to despise epicycles that do what they are supposed to do.

the Cloud of Unknowing: the road to heaven is measured not in yards but in desires

Much religion is born of allegory, and one sees this in operation even among religions usually thought of as rather primitive.

'a simple knowing and feeling of your own being'

I) Suppose the world has always existed. (1) Not by nature (2) Only cause capable of such effect is God.
II) Suppose it began to be (1) Not by infinite regress. (2)Only cause capable of stopping regress is God.

Monday, November 09, 2009

I'll Leave Elysium to Converse with You

Damon and Pythias
or, Friendship in Perfection
by John Norris

Pyth. 'Tis true (my Damon) we as yet have been
Patterns of constant love, I know;
We've stuck so close no third could come between
But will it (Damon) will it still be so?

Da. Keep your love true, I dare engage that mine
Shall like my soul immortal prove.
In friendship's orb how brightly shall we shine
Where all shall envy, none divide our love!

Pyth. Death will; when once (as 'tis by fate design'd)
T'Elysium you shall be remov'd,
Such sweet companions there no doubt you'll find,
That you'll forget that Pythias e'er you lov'd.

Da. No, banish all such fears; I then will be
Your friend and guardian Angel too.
And tho with more refin'd society
I'll leave Elysium to converse with you.

Pyth. But grant that after fate you still are kind,
You cannot long continue so;
When I, like you, become all thought and mind,
By what mark shall we each other know?

Da. With care on your last hour I will attend,
And lest like souls should me deceive,
I closely will embrace my new-born friend,
And never after my dear Pythias leave.

That line, "I'll leave Elysium to converse with you," is just flawlessly right in so many ways; I wish there were a stronger lead up into it. But the admirable thing about the poem, as about many of Norris's poems, is the poetic diction -- simple and straightforward, bordering on colloquial, yet often quite striking. It is very easy to read Norris aloud, despite the fact that he wrote in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century -- this conversation between Damon and Pythias sounds very natural to the ear even after all this time. And that fits the poem well, I think: no stilted formalities for the paragons of friendship.

There is a philosophical connection, incidentally. Damon and Pythias (sometimes also called Phintias) were followers of Pythagoras, and their friendship is regularly held up as an example of true friendship among philosophers. So Cicero, De Officiis Book III:

But I am speaking here of ordinary friendships; for among men who are ideally wise and perfect such situations cannot arise. They say that Damon and Phintias, of the Pythagorean school, enjoyed such ideally perfect friendship, that when the tyrant Dionysius had appointed a day for the executing of one of them, and the one who had been condemned to death requested a few days' respite for the purpose of putting his loved ones in the care of friends, the other became surety for his appearance, with the understanding that his friend did not return, he himself should be put to death. And when the friend returned on the day appointed, the tyrant in admiration for their faithfulness begged that they would enrol him as a third partner in their friendship.

The notion of friendship, in its purest form, as an expression of a genuinely philosophical life is not one that one finds much anymore; it requires the notion of a friendship of excellence or virtue, and we in general tend to think of friends as friends of pleasure alone. Indeed, it requires a notion of the philosophical life as a life so lived that it is devoted to virtue; and we tend not to think in terms of philosophical lives at all. Quite sad, really: we nourish our minds and characters on such thin gruel that we are bound to become intellectually and morally anemic.

Hume on Testimony to Miracles

Andrew Brenner has an interesting post on Hume's account of testimony to miracles. Among other things, he notes an apparent tension in the following passage (at SBN 90):

But in order to increase the probability against the testimony of witnesses, let us suppose, that the fact, which they affirm, instead of being only marvelous, is really miraculous; and suppose also, that the testimony considered apart and in itself, amounts to an entire proof; in that case, there is proof against proof, of which the strongest must prevail, but still with a diminution of its force, in proportion to that of its antagonist.

A miracle is a violation of a law of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.

Andrew suggests that Hume is trying to have it two ways: he's trying to treat his argument as a priori in some places and a posteriori in others. Of the above passage, he says:

In the first part of the quote he seems to concede that, in principle anyway, testimony to the occurrence of a miracle could amount to a proof (note that, for Hume, the term “proof” simply denotes “such arguments from experience as leave no room for doubt or opposition” — Hume would never say that the epistemic probability of the occurrence of some matter of fact, as opposed to some logical or mathematical demonstration, was strictly 1), but that this proof would encounter an opposite proof, also deriving from our experience, of the hitherto observed course of nature (dead men don’t rise, etc.). But then Hume moves on to say that this opposite proof, derived from the “firm and unalterable experience” of the conformity of the world to some law of nature, is “as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” The proponent of some miraculous event will have to maintain then that the evidence for the occurrence of some miraculous event surpasses the opposite proof from our past observations of the course of nature – which, I reiterate, is supposed to be “as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” But how, if this kind of evidence can be marshaled for a purportedly miraculous event, can this event retain the appellation “miracle”? By definition the evidence against the occurrence of any miraculous event is as strong as can be imagined.

We don't have to speculate about what Hume would say to this, because the point was raised by Campbell and Hume replied, albeit briefly. Hume's reply (via Hugh Blair), which makes a bit more clear his account of proof:

The proof against a miracle, as it is founded on invariable experience, is of that species or kind of proof, which is full and certain when taken alone, because it implies no doubt, as is the case with all probabilities; but there are degrees of this species, and when a weaker proof is opposed to a stronger it is overcome.

That is, it's important to keep in mind (as Andrew does) that the notion of proof is that mentioned earlier in the Enquiry, in Section VI, in which it is a form of causal reasoning based on completely invariable experience. So in Humean terms it is entirely possible to have a full and entire proof of something and be wrong: its being full and entire has to do with the invariableness of the succession on which it is based. That there is a full proof (from testimony) of miracles is supposed for the sake of argument; all Hume does in Part I is to argue that this would have to overcome the full proof experience provides for the exceptionlessness of the laws of nature, in which case the psychologically more forceful proof would win. Thus I think Fogelin is right that there is no argument at all against miracles in Part I: the scenario envisaged is one in which you have a full and entire proof that miracles don't happen (the invariable course of nature) and an opposing proof, also full and entire, that testimony to a particular miracle can be trusted (by hypothesis). That this is the case is pretty much stated explicitly in the first paragraph of Part II:

In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and tha the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to show, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.

But if this is the case, there really is no contradiction or confusion in Hume: Part II is devoted to giving a posteriori reasons that, individually considered, explain why testimony for miracles never has reached the point of proof, much less of a proof capable of overtopping the proof of the laws of nature and, collectively speaking, give a reason to think that it could never do so in some cases -- the features of human nature (e.g., our excessive love of surprise and novelty, our passions and interests, our gullibility) conspire together to make it extraordinarily unlikely that any testimony could ever reach the point required, when they are likely to be operative. Note that this is not a proof a priori; despite the strong conclusion, it is based entirely on a posteriori reasoning. That is, the conclusion is not that there is no possible way testimony for miracles could ever reach the level of proof, but that our experience of how human nature operates in matters of religion is such that we are entirely reasonable in concluding that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle for the purposes of religion (Hume explicitly makes this qualification). Thus Hume goes on to consider a case where you could have a miracle -- eight days of darkness -- that would avoid the causes for suspicion and doubt that arise in the case of religion.

So I don't think Hume is, in fact, confused on the matter; in fact, I think his argument is very precise (more precise, I think, than most readers of it have wanted to read it). The structure of the Section is quite clearly and explicitly laid out by Hume.

Part I: Supposing that testimony for miracles can amount to a full proof, how strong would the proof have to be in order to establish that the miracle had actually happened. (Answer: Very, very strong.)

Part II: But the testimony for miracles has never reached such a level, and in matters of religion we have strong reason to think it cannot. (This conclusion was made easier to reach by the reasoning Part I, which establishes a very high standard.)

Lewis Powell has an interesting response to Andrew's post at "Horseless Telegraph." But I think Andrew's interpretation is actually closer than Lewis's, for reasons that should be clear. I think, however, that it's a mistake to read the strong conclusion ("we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion") as a priori, since this conclusion is clearly based on the discussion of a posteriori reasons for thinking that testimony in religious matters can't be trusted. Thus Hume is a posteriori throughout (this is true even with the argument in Part I, which is also supposed to be based on our experience of human nature).

UPDATE: I should say, with regard to Lewis's interpretation, that I think his reconstruction of the skeleton of the argument of Part I goes wrong at (1): Hume never says that the proof for the laws of nature is a maximally strong proof, only that it is direct and full. And this makes sense; because while all laws of nature have direct and full proof from experience (this is why we classify them as laws of nature), they can't all be equally strong, because they are not monolithic, but deal with very different sorts of events. Rather, Hume's point is that there is nothing lacking to the experience to make it a proof. Since the testimonial proof is also supposed -- purely for the sake of argument -- to be full and entire, Hume's final paragraph in Part I makes no sense if it is not open to one of the proofs being superior to the other -- as he in fact says is possible, in response to Campbell, to Hugh Blair.

Delightful and Rejoicing

The sweetest and most inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of science and learning; and whoever can either remove any obstructions in this way, or open up any new prospect, ought so far to be esteemed a benefactor to mankind. And though these researches may appear painful and fatiguing, it is with some minds as with some bodies, which, being endowed with vigorous and florid health, require severe exercise, and reap a pleasure from what, to the generality of mankind, may seem burdensome and laborious. Obscurity, indeed, is painful to the mind as well as to the eye; but to bring light from obscurity, by whatever labour, must needs be delightful and rejoicing.

David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section I, par. 10 (Beauchamp 91).

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Learned Stone

An attitude similar to that of High Scholasticism must be presupposed in the builders of the High Gothic cathedrals. For these architects the great structures of the past had an auctoritas quite similar to that which the Fathers had for the schoolmen. Of two apparently contradictory motifs, both of them sanctioned by authority, one could not simply be rejected in favor of the other. They had to be worked through to the limit and they had to be reconciled in the end; much as a saying of St. Augustine had ultimately to be reconciled with one of St. Ambrose. And this, I believe, accounts to some extent for the apparently erratic yet stubbornly consistent evolution fo Early and High Gothic architecture; it, too, proceeded according to the scheme: videtur quod -- sed contra -- respondeo dicendum.

Erwin Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Meridian (New York: 1957) pp. 69-70. This book, of course, is one of the two most famous of the Wimmer Lectures. Boniface Wimmer was the founder of the Benedictine Order in America and of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA; the Lectures were founded in honor of him, and are often quite interesting. The other famous book that grew out of the Wimmer Lectures is Jacques Maritain's Man's Approach to God.

The Lotus (Part III)

This is the third and final part of a story draft. Part I, Part II

In a camp not far from the cursed second stream on the right I huddled over Rozanov's journal, trying to make sense of it. Rozanov's writing was terse and cryptic, and the book had been water-damaged to the point of being largely illegible in places. Nonetheless, some of it could still be made out. Easiest to make out were the drawings, each clearly done by someone with an eye simultaneously artistic and scientific. There was a sketch of one of the astonishingly vast spider-webs, stretching from tree to tree, from soil to canopy, that spun by astonishingly spiders near the rivers and streams. In another, a large black crocodile kept a wary eye on the explorations of her young. Others traced plants, insects, and snakes. Then, largest of all, taking up a full spread of the book, there was a beautiful flower, somewhat like an orchid. After that the journal itself, as a description of Rozanov's travels, stopped. There were many more pages, however, and every single one of them was covered with drawings of that same flower, obsessively done over and over again, two or three to a page. I could find nothing else, except a single word that was written here and there in a tremulous, excited hand: bessmertie. Immortality.

As I drifted to sleep, I turned over the events of the day in my head, and they blurred together in my dreams. I dreamed that I was back in the city, back in the room of the gray men, but instead of talking to them, I was talking to Rozanov. On the table lay the corpse of Rozanov's guide, covered with the strange flowers depicted in Rozanov's journal. I talked without interruption for what seemed forever, and then Rozanov opened his mouth and said one word: "Immortality."

Quin and I set out early in the morning, heartened by the sure signs that we were on the right trail, but made wary by the memory of the skeleton. At one point we were forced by a turn in the river to move west; shortly into this Quin stopped suddenly.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Trim, that is a path," he said pointing.

I looked to where he was pointing, and, sure enough, it was a path. Trails can quickly become overgrown in the jungle, and someone with eyes less sharp than Quin's could easily have missed it, but a straight trail had been cut through the underbrush recently enough that it had not been completely covered over. On closer inspection it was clear that someone had been through with a machete.

After ten minutes of following the trail we suddenly came into a large clearing.

If you have never been in the jungle, I cannot convey to you how startling this is. In a realm in which every plant, every animal, every insect is in a constant competition for survival, open spaces do not remain. These forests have been known to swallow entire cities; if a village neglects cutting and clearing, it can vanish completely in a matter of weeks. But here we were, in a large clearing, apparently consisting of nothing but rocky, sandy soil, sparse grass, and, in the center, a solitary flowering bush.

Quin hung back a bit, uncertain what to make of this, but I moved forward, rifle ready. A little way in I stumbled slightly on something sticking out of the earth. At first I thought it was a rock, but closer inspection showed it to be a bone, probably belonging to a great cat of some kind. A little further into the clearing it became clear that the bone was not the only one; they littered the ground everywhere: femurs and skulls half-covered with sand, tiny, indescript bones like pebbles, clearly from hundreds of different animals. They increased as I came closer to the plant in the middle, whose flowers were now recognizably the same as that in Rozanov's journal. They filled the air with an intense, drowsy sweetness, a sweetness partly like honeysuckle and jasmine and partly like rotting fruit. The bush had gray leaves that moved in the breeze like flickering fingers.

A sudden movement from the other side of the bush forced me back suddenly. A figure staggered up, as if from sleep, dirty and ape-like. It wore clothes, however. They hung as tattered rags from an emaciated frame.

"Rozanov!" I said softly. It was more of an exclamation than a greeting.

The figure came slowly, but with a nervous jitteriness, around the bush, without saying anything. It was a far cry from the suave, athletic person I remembered from the Embassy dinner in London years ago; but it was clearly Rozanov.

"Rozanov," I said again, "I have come to bring you back so that you may account for your absence. If you do not comply, I have been authorized to kill you. Let us sit and talk this out."

The figure showed no signs of comprehension. I could see its eyes now. They glimmered with anger and fear like a savage beast's, but they watered and the pupils were large.

"Rozanov!" I said again. "Do you understand me?"

What happened next took only a few moments, but it remains in my memory as if it had occurred with painstaking slowness. The thing-that-once-was-Rozanov stopped suddenly, gathered itself, and rushed at me. I shot it in the chest. Twice. It kept coming. As it knocked my rifle down and away I managed a third shot, to the stomach, which did not even slow it down. The gun flew far out of my reach, I was thrown back, and the beast was on top of me, grabbing at my throat.

I struggled, but to no avail. Emaciated the thing may have been, but it had a strength like I had never felt. I am sure it could have crushed my throat immediately, but before it squeezed, it bent down toward my face, its breath stinking of the rotten sweetness of the flowers. "Bessmertie," it hissed. I prepared my soul to die.

A shot rang out, and a puzzled look came over the thing's face. There was another shot and it fell over heavily. Panting, I pushed it off me and sat up, Quin was some distance away, rifle still up. The thing beside me lay dead with two shots in its head. Rozanov was no more.

Quin came over and helped me to my feet. "We should leave, Trim," he said. "This is a bad place." Still panting, I agreed.

I will not return to Europe. There is nowhere there I could go to elude the gray men in their immaculate suits, and I will not bring them back the information they wished me to bring back. I have suspicions about what it is they wanted with the flower that had so come to obsess Rozanov, filling him with sick dreams. That they wished to know if it existed and where it was - that much is clear. But no one can be allowed to know of it.

They will send others to find it. With Rozanov dead and myself out of their reach, there are few people who are likely to find it. But what if by some trick of the devil they do? I have arranged for a Portuguese trader to give this manuscript to a journalist I know in Lisbon, who will find a way to publish it as fiction under a pseudonym. No one can find the place based on the details I have allowed here; some of them are false or deliberately misleading. Few will even take the story as fact; but I hope that they will still learn the lesson of it.

As for me, I am going with Quin on his journey home. He has been mercy itself to me on many a quest, this one not the least; I owe it to him to try to return the favor. Rozanov and the lotus I have chosen to forget as best I may. When I put aside this manuscript, I will speak of it no more. It will not be so easy to get it out of my dreams.

The Lotus (Part II)

This is Part II of a short story draft. Part I was already posted; the last part will be posted later.

I had been searching for Quin for three days. On the morning of the fourth day I was awakened by a rustle near the fire. When I jumped up, I found myself pointing my rifle at Quin, who continued to make coffee with my messkit as calmly and unconcernedly as if we had made camp together.

"Good morning, Trim," he said. When we had first met, we knew too little of each other's language to do anything but mangle the pronunciation of each other's name, so we settled on the closest approximation to first syllables that we could: Quin and Trim. The approximations remained long after Quin was able to pronounce my name correctly. I, alas, still cannot pronounce Quin's name properly. The third syllable is one of those sounds that are only pronounced easily by those who have been pronouncing it all their lives.

"I have been looking for you forever," I said, lowering the gun.

"Forever is a long time, Trim," he replied reproachfully. "You were only looking a few days. It's a short time to find anyone in these parts." He set the coffee over the fire and turned to me. "What are you trying to find today?"

I took a picture of Rozanov out of my pocket and gave it to him. "If you are able, I would like to hire your services again. I can pay twice what I paid last time."

"You almost missed me, Trim. I intended to set out tomorrow for home.”

I was surprised. Quin rarely talked of his home. I knew him better than probably any man alive, but I knew nothing of it except that it was away west and populated with a different people than these who lived near the jungle. He had left when young due to some family dispute and had never returned.

He seemed lost in thought a moment, then said, "Let's find your man, Trim. I think I know where to look. I have heard things."

After coffee, we set out and journeyed to the northwest for several days, until we came to a village. Several villages came out to meet us; Quin approached them and started joking with them. The jokes, of course, were largely at my expense; in many of the villages in this area there is no better way to get the sympathy of the natives than to joke about the follies of Europeans. We had done this before, I posing as the stupid foreigner, a role that is disconcertingly easy to play, and Quin telling several tale tales of bungling European ways, each taller than the last.

And it worked, as usual. Quin began to hear stories as well as tell them, since the villagers had met a few crazy Europeans themselves. At one point, Quin showed them Rozanov's photograph; they recognized him at once, but refused to say where he had gone. Every time Quin asked they would become silent, and look as if they did not know quite how to proceed.

We were fed a meal of catfish by the villagers which, given that hospitality is very important in this region of the world, was probably better than the meals they eat themselves, and then set out again. Before we left, however, one of the elders of the village took Quin aside and whispered something to him. After the village was out of sight I asked him what it was.

"Ah," he said. "He told me that we would do better to give up looking for this man because he was cursed."

"Oh," I replied, disappointed.

A ghost of a smile played over Quin's face. After a moment or two of silence he contined: "And that we should avoid following the second stream on the right because then we, too, could become cursed in the same way."

"Well, Quin," I said after a moment, "are you ready to brave the curses of the second stream on the right?"

"Some day, Trim, you and I will have to find something that requires going where we will be blessed," he replied.

Over the next two weeks we slowly made our way deeper and deeper into the jungle. The slow pace was necessary given the difficulty of tracking. A jungle is a flurry of activity in every way, from the swift-growing greenery to the perpetual toil of insects to the movements of animals. Quin, however, is the best I have ever seen at tracking, and despite the deliberate pace we made excellent progress.

On the afternoon of the twelfth day I was preparing to catch some small crocodile for dinner when I heard Quin signaling. I met up with him beside a human skeleton in very bad shape.

"Rozanov?" Quin asked.

I shook my head. "Judging from the leg, it is too short. His guide, perhaps?" I knelt to look closer. "The skull is crushed, the chest is crushed. Whatever did this was brutal."

Quin began looking around for more, and within a quarter of an hour had found the remains of an old camp site. Although it was clear no one had been there for several weeks, there was still a pack, half-buried in the underbrush. Inside was a book. It was badly water-damaged, but on opening its front cover, I could easily make out, in a bold and beautiful Cyrillic hand, a name. That name was Fyodor Rozanov.