Friday, January 22, 2010

Whewell on Gothic Architects

And it is perhaps made more clear by what has now been said, in what the genius and talent of such men shewed itself. The influence of such persons was wanted, in order to give a new principle of unity to that which had lost the old one. The ornaments, openings, windows, pillars, which had formerly been governed by the most imperative rules of horizontal arrangement, had been disbanded, or at least their discipline had become good for nothing. The Gothic architect restored the reign of order, and rallied these vague elements in a vertical line. A new thought, a new idea, was infused into the conception of such members, which at once gave them connexion and fixity. The previous change from classical architecture had been a breaking up of the connexion of parts, multiplicity without fertility, violation of rules without gaining of objects, degradation, barbarism. The change now became the formation of connexion; the establishment of arrangements which were fertile in beautiful and convenient combinations; reformation; selection of the good, rejection of the mere customary.

William Whewell, Architectural Notes on German Churches, p. 318.

I have various posts in the works, but since the term is starting up, I am busy, busy, busy; posting will probably be relatively light over the next few days.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lewis Carroll on Two Kinds of Laughter

An interesting bit from a letter to Dora Abdy, as quoted in Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll:

My Dear Dora,—In correcting the proofs of "Through the Looking-Glass" (which is to have "An Easter Greeting" inserted at the end), I am reminded that in that letter (I enclose a copy), I had tried to express my thoughts on the very subject we talked about last night—the relation of laughter to religious thought. One of the hardest things in the world is to convey a meaning accurately from one mind to another, but the sort of meaning I want to convey to other minds is that while the laughter of joy is in full harmony with our deeper life, the laughter of amusement should be kept apart from it. The danger is too great of thus learning to look at solemn things in a spirit of mockery, and to seek in them opportunities for exercising wit. That is the spirit which has spoiled, for me, the beauty of some of the Bible. Surely there is a deep meaning in our prayer, " Give us an heart to love and dread Thee." We do not mean terror: but a dread that will harmonise with love; "respect" we should call it as towards a human being, "reverence" as towards God and all religious things.

Yours affectionately,

C. L. Dodgson

You can indeed see the same point made in the Easter Greeting, although it is made in a different way.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lewis Carroll, Logic, and God

I brought with me here (this letter was written from Eastbourne) the MS., such as it is (very fragmentary and unarranged) for the book about religious difficulties, and I meant, when I came here, to devote myself to that, but I have changed my plan. It seems to me that that subject is one that hundreds of living men could do, if they would only try, much better than I could, whereas there is no living man who could (or at any rate who would take the trouble to) arrange and finish and publish the second part of the "Logic." Also, I have the Logic book in my head; it will only need three or four months to write out, and I have not got the other book in my head, and it might take years to think out. So I have decided to get Part ii. finished first, and I am working at it day and night. I have taken to early rising, and sometimes sit down to my work before seven, and have one and a half hours at it before breakfast. The book will be a great novelty, and will help, I fully believe, to make the study of Logic far easier than it now is. And it will, I also believe, be a help to religious thought by giving clearness of conception and of expression, which may enable many people to face, and conquer, many religious difficulties for themselves. So I do really regard it as work for God.

Charles Dodgson (a.k.a., Lewis Carroll), from an 1896 letter to Louisa Dodgson, his sister. Dodgson was a deacon in the Church of England; he was technically High Church, at least in liturgical habits, but his theology seems to have had a few Broad Church leanings. The book on religious difficulties was supposed to be a collection of essays showing that a number of practical problems people had with Christian doctrines could be cleared up by logical thinking if only certain principles were granted, which were (as he wrote to someone else):

(1) Human conduct is capable of being right, and of being wrong.

(2) I possess Free-Will, and am able to choose between right and wrong.

(3) I have in some cases chosen wrong.

(4) I am responsible for choosing wrong.

(5) I am responsible to a person.

(6) This person is perfectly good.

The work wasn't intended to deal with abstract speculative problems, but only with problems fairly closely related to the actual living of life. The only essay in the book that seems to have been written is the essay on Eternal Punishment; at least, even if not, it seems to be the only essay to have survived the destruction of many of Carroll's papers after his death, and it's the one essay I know of that is mentioned in letters. It's quite a good essay, actually, written as only Carroll could have written it; he identifies the logical form of problem and tries to lay out for the reader, in a clear, concise way, the logically possible ways of dealing with it. If the essay is any indication of what the other essays in the book would have been, it would have been nice to have it.

On the other hand, Dodgson was probably right that his skills were put to better use dealing with logic directly and working on helping others to think clearly. As it was, though, he never published Part II of Symbolic Logic, and most of his work on the book has been lost. We do have some uncorrected galley proofs of a few of the books of Part II, but only scattered drafts and fragments of the rest. There was also supposed to be a Part III that was never written at all. And this lack is really felt; Carroll was in some ways a logician of his time, but in many ways he was decades ahead of his time, as well.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Onus Probandi

James Chastek has a nice little post on burden of proof that I think is exactly right. Burden of proof is something I think we tend to handle in far too clumsy a fashion. To handle it properly requires stepping back and considering how it actually functions.

Burdens of proof really arise because reasoning doesn't consist in merely picking out some premises and tracing out their ramifications. There is much more to it than that, and at least part of reasoning consists in discussion and debate, which are a rather more complicated thing than simply inferring from premises. Moreover, the bulk of real reasoning probably consists in this more complicated form. Most of the obvious cases in which we are laying down sequences of premises and conclusions are cases in which we deliberately set out to do so; all the natural cases are cases of reasoning that arise naturally either in discussion or debate, or else when we are, so to speak, considering two or more sides to a discussion or debate on our own, and thus guessing as to what people might say to this or that. Human reason is social by nature.

Any social case, however, requires a sort of negotiation with others. We have to get the agreement of others. And we can't just get an abstract agreement about the truth of particular claims. We have to ask the other people to do things -- follow along with this or that reasoning even if they don't immediately see the point, try something out, consider a particular case, and so forth. We can call these obligations of discourse. Again, these obligations of discourse are really negotiated; they become obligations due to the agreements of those involved. It is in this context that I think burden of proof really arises.

I have previously suggested that there are at least five types of obligation of discourse. The first four are fairly straightforward, and rise out of a fairly straightforward set of things that we may try to establish by agreement as part of the discussion:

(1) Basic Postulation. This occurs whenever we agree to consider a particular case for the sake of argument.

(2) Technical Definition. In order to be clear, precise, or accurate, we often have to use terms in specialized senses; but these specialized senses, too, need to be acceptable to others.

(3) Request. Sometimes we need to get the other person to do something; so we request that they do it. For example, to show you the proof of a geometrical claim, I may ask you to draw a bisected angle.

(4) Suspension. Sometimes there are more issues potentially on the table than can reasonably be dealt with. In such a case, in order to keep the discussion usefully focused, we have to agree to set aside something for the purposes of this particular discussion.

Every obligation of discourse is created when these argumentative moves gain agreement: by agreement, we might say, the parties involved commit themselves to something and therefore oblige themselves to act in light of that commitment. The obligation, however, is never indefinite; it is always for a limited time of obligation. That is, every obligation of discourse lasts only as long as some condition is met (or, perhaps, as long as some condition is not yet met). Even at the most minimal level, nobody is obliged to suspend discussion of a particular topic for longer than the particular discussion in which they agreed to the suspension lasts.

The burden of proof is another example of an obligation of discourse. It is a rather more complicated example, however, due, perhaps, to the fact that it was developed for a specialized area of life -- law -- and has since been extended to other areas of life by analogy. But it shares the same features: A burden of proof is an obligation of discourse in which, given that certain things have already been proven or accepted, certain other things need to be proven for the purposes of this particular discussion. In particular, a burden of proof arises when the parties involved agree to a shared presumption: they both agree to presume (for the sake of this particular discussion) that something is not established unless some conditions are met.

From this it follows that burden of proof is only had in casu -- it arises within a particular case, due to agreements (tacit or otherwise), and it terminates with that case. If another case arises, the burden of proof has to be reconstituted by a new agreement. Likewise, it follows that a burden of proof cannot exist where a party has not already explicitly or implicitly agreed to it. It is clear enough that this is true in the original case, that of the court of law. Independently of any truth of that particular case, we establish courts to be run on certain procedures; these procedures have established burdens of proof that are widely considered reasonable; and by coming before the court, everyone agrees to accept these conventions for distribution of burden of proof. In areas of life that do not involve these standing conventions you can still have burdens of proof, but they must be constituted on a case-by-case basis.

Given this, we should be wary of any attempt to say that on a philosophical topic one particular position always has the burden of proof. There are no standing conventions for burden of proof in philosophy; and, in fact, philosophers often play with different kinds of burdens of proof on a particular topic, just to see what happens if you set the burden of proof in a different way. (The fact that we can agree to change the burden of proof, even on mere whim, is one of the many things that shows that burden of proof is in fact constituted by such agreements. Even where burden of proof has been created, it may be created for reasons that have nothing to do with truth, or with proof itself, since burdens of proof are reasonable or unreasonable depending on how they meet the ends of the discussion or dispute -- which may not always be truth, or at least truth alone.) Moreover, in many instances it is clear enough that the whole purpose of such claims is an obvious attempt to make things easier on oneself; while you occasionally find them, overwhelmingly people expend their energy trying to prove that other people have the burden of proof. And this is not surprising; if you can get everyone else to shoulder the burden of proof, that puts you at an immediate advantage in the argument, since everyone else has to argue and you don't have to do anything but check to see whether they have proven what they have agreed to prove. Thus people try to distribute the burden of proof to other people regardless of whether such a distribution of burdens is conducive to truth, or particularly reasonable given the circumstances.

Note incidentally, that it does not follow from any of this that there are no reasonable arguments about burdens of proof. No one ever automatically has the burden of proof on anything; burden of proof is not a logical feature of one's position or arguments but a convenience and courtesy whose precise details must be worked out by everyone involved. In many cases it will be convenient for everyone to agree on some set of things that must be done to resolve the dispute, and one can reasonably argue about whether this or that set of things is the most reasonable set to choose. In other words, not every distribution of the burden of proof is equally conducive to the ends of discussion (truth, protecting the innocent, action, or whatever), and we can reasonably agree that there needs to be a burden of proof but disagree about who should have it. (On rare occasions it might even be the case that one person should clearly have the burden of proof, given the ends of discussion and the shared commitments of the participants in the discussion.) In every case involving burden of proof, it arises because participants have come to some sort of agreement, either in the case itself, or as a matter of convention, that the burden of proof should be given to someone because it makes sense for them to have it, given what the people in the discussion or dispute are doing. We can also, of course, not worry about burdens of proof at all. Outside of actual debates and heated disputes we rarely do, in fact. The paradigm case for burden of proof, that found in court of law, is a case in which we have burden of proof for practical reasons related to how courts have to work; this is a key asymmetry between arguments in court and rational discussion generally.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Wedding Robe, and a Winding Sheet

by Thomas Lovell Beddoes

A cypress-bough, and a rose-wreath sweet,
A wedding-robe, and a winding-sheet,
A bridal bed and a bier.
Thine be the kisses, maid,
And smiling Love’s alarms;
And thou, pale youth, be laid
In the grave’s cold arms.
Each in his own charms,
Death and Hymen both are here;
So up with scythe and torch,
And to the old church porch,
While all the bells ring clear:
And rosy, rosy the bed shall bloom,
And earthy, earthy heap up the tomb.

Now tremble dimples on your cheek,
Sweet be your lips to taste and speak,
For he who kisses is near:
By her the bridegod fair,
In youthful power and force;
By him the grizard bare,
Pale knight on a pale horse,
To woo him to a corpse.
Death and Hymen both are here;
So up with scythe and torch,
And to the old church porch,
While all the bells ring clear:
And rosy, rosy the bed shall bloom,
And earthy, earthy heap up the tomb.