Saturday, July 03, 2010

In Reason and in the Desire of Inquiry

While, then, we consider these things night and day, and sharpen our understanding, which is the eye of the mind, taking care that it be not ever dulled, that is, while we live in philosophy; we, I say, in so doing, have great hope that, if, on the one hand, this sentiment and wisdom of ours is mortal and perishable, we shall still, when we have discharged our human offices, have a pleasant setting, and a not painful extinction, and as it were a rest from life: or if, on the other, as ancient philosophers thought—and those, too, the greatest and far the most celebrated—we have souls eternal and divine, then must we needs think, that the more these shall have always kept in their own proper course, i.e. in reason and in the desire of inquiry, and the less they shall have mixed and entangled themselves in the vices and errors of men, the more easy ascent and return they will have to heaven....Wherefore, to end my discourse at last, if we wish either for a tranquil extinction, after living in the pursuit of these subjects, or if to migrate without delay from this present home to another in no little measure better, we must bestow all our labor and care upon these pursuits.

Cicero's Hortensius, again, this time as quoted in De Trinitate XIV.26. Augustine apparently quotes the Hortensius eleven times; I am told that five of these are fairly extended passages. Two of them I've quoted here, while a third from the De Trinitate is on its way. I'm interested in where the other two (or perhaps one, because the third passage I'll be putting up is quoted in two different places, and I don't know if it counts as two or as one) are, if anyone knows them off the top of their heads or has the locations within easy reach of their fingertips. Otherwise, I'll be searching for them, to put them up to.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Beati Cognitione Naturae et Scientia

If we were allowed, when we migrated from this life, to live forever in the islands of the blessed, as fables tell, what need were there of eloquence when there would be no trials, or what need, indeed, of the very virtues themselves? For we should not need fortitude when nothing of either toil or danger was proposed to us; nor justice, when there was nothing of anybody else's to be coveted; nor temperance, to govern lasts that would not exist; nor, indeed, should we need prudence, when there was no choice offered between good and evil. We should be blessed, therefore, solely by learning and knowing nature, by which alone also the life of the gods is praiseworthy. And hence we may perceive that everything else is a matter of necessity, but this is one of free choice.

This is from Cicero's Hortensius. The Hortensius is unfortunately one of the works of Cicero that has not survived, but St. Augustine was influenced by it and preserved some quotations. The above quotation is found in De Trinitate XIV.12. The Latin is:

Si nobis, inquit, cum ex hac uita migrauerimus, in beatorum insulis immortale aeuum, ut fabulae ferunt, degere liceret, quid opus esset eloquentia, cum iudicia nulla fierent; aut ipsis etiam uirtutibus? Nec enim fortitudine egeremus, nullo proposito aut labore aut periculo; nec iustitia, cum esset nihil quod appeteretur alieni; nec temperantia, quae regeret eas quae nullae essent libidines; nec prudentia quidem egeremus, nullo delectu proposito bonorum et malorum. Vna igitur essemus beati cognitione naturae et scientia, qua sola etiam deorum est uita laudanda. Ex quo intellegi potest, cetera necessitatis esse, unum hoc uoluntatis.

That's Leadership


Thursday, July 01, 2010

Notes and Links

* There has been some recent discussion of theodicy and the problem of evil on blogs, largely outside of the professional philosophical blogosphere; much of it has been interesting. Some of the notable posts and discussions:

Theodicy (bill's comments)
Evil, Still a Problem, Apparently
The Logical Problem of Evil? (Gypsy Scholar)
theodicy redux! (BigHominid's Hairy Chasms)
Free Will Defense Insufficient? (Gypsy Scholar)

As Hodges notes, very few philosophers of religion today think that the logical problem of evil is well-grounded, for the simple reason that constant trying has turned up nothing promising. Trying to establish that it is a contradiction for God and evil both to exist is tricky business at the very least; when you go to try to show it, you end up mired in all sorts of complicated problems. Showing the contradiction requires rigorous definitions and clear logical moves; every proposal so far has fairly easily been shown to have problems, the number of possible scenarios that have to be considered in order to eliminate potential counterexamples is extraordinarily vast, and reasons have been given for thinking it likely that any plausible proposal along these lines will fail, even if only due to potential ambiguities in the terms. Most philosophers of religion think that the evidential version of the problem has bite, however. (My own view is that the problem of evil, in any form, by its very nature is a weak ground at best for arguing that God doesn't exist, for much the same reason that apparent design is by its nature a weak ground for arguing that God does exist; and despite its popularity is, in fact, not the most promising line for an atheist to take, both for structural reasons and because it is necessarily an argument on the theist's own territory. And I think there is less of a sharp distinction between logical and evidential arguments than most people seem to assume: every logical version has a corresponding evidential version and vice versa, although, because they are evaluated by different standards -- the logical arguments by whether they actually generate a logical contradiction of the right sort, the evidential arguments by whether they actually disconfirm in the right way -- there are some important asymmetries between the two.)

* John Wilkins had an interesting little philosophical experiment in which he argues that some theistic position is compatible with scientific practice and principle, the point not being to show that every theistic position is so, nor even necessarily that any theistic position that is widely held (or held at all) is so, but instead that there is at least a minimal theism, clearly recognizable as theism, that is compatible with science. That's a pretty weak claim, but it's interesting that some people still refuse to move even that far. (I set aside the people who just can't see why one would be interested in the structure and logical relations of positions that might not even be held by anyone. There are obvious real-world uses, if that's what they mean; it's extremely valuable to know in order to diagnose real-world arguments properly, for instance. But perhaps appreciating the structure of positions on their own, and their structural relations with other positions, is itself the sort of thing only the philosophically minded have a taste for doing.) I think both scientists (whether theistic or not) and theists have more options available to them than Wilkins considers, but it's an interesting exploration, and the sort of thing people should do more of.
Random Thoughts about God and Evolution
The Problem of Foreknowledge
Consequences of Theistic Evolution

* Catholic bishops in Germany are beginning to be mired in financial scandals.

* Discussion of the future of Hinduism.

* North American Dialect Survey

* I once thought of writing a science fiction story -- it would have been called "Spirit" -- about an escaped robot that read the complete works of Thomas Aquinas, concluded on the basis of the arguments in the text that it was a person with an immortal soul and was made in the image of God, and was destroyed by its makers because of it, a sort of AI martyr. I've always suspected that there probably are a lot of stories floating around out there that have variations on this sort of theme (and Asimov's classic tale, "I, Robot," is in the vicinity, although, of course, Asimov has no sympathies, and expects his readers to have no sympathies, with QT-1). So I'm interested in reading Randall Garrett's Unwise Child, which came up in a post at "The Sci Fi Catholic". The writing doesn't seem especially great, but it is, in effect, an Asimov Three Laws story in which theology introduces new complications into the robot's malfunctions.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Quip and Song

The Shoemaker
by James Whitcomb Riley

Thou Poet, who, like any lark,
Dost whet thy beak and trill
From misty morn till murky dark,
Nor ever pipe thy fill:
Hast thou not, in thy cheery note,
One poor chirp to confer--
One verseful twitter to devote
unto the Shoe-ma-ker?

At early dawn he doth peg in
His noble work and brave;
And eke from cark and worldly sin
He seeketh soles to save;
And all day long, with quip and song,
Thus stitcheth he the way
Our feet may know the right from wrong,
Nor ever go astray.

Soak kip in mind the Shoe-ma-ker,
Nor slight his lasting fame:
Alway he waxeth tenderer
In warmth of our acclaim;--
Aye, more than any artisan
We glory in his art
Who ne'er, to help the under man,
Neglects the upper part.

But toe the mark for him, and heel
Respond to thee in kine--
Or kid--or calf, shoulds thou reveal
A taste so superfine:
Thus let him jest--join in his laugh--
Draw on his stock, and be
A shoer'd there's no rival half-
Sole liberal as he.

Then, Poet, hail the Shoe-ma-ker
For all his goodly deeds,--
Yea, bless him free for booting thee--
The first of all thy needs!
And when at last his eyes grow dim,
And nerveless drops his clamp,
In golden shoon pray think of him
Upon his latest tramp.

The puns get a little blizzard-thick by the fourth stanza; but it's quite a-shoer'dly a feet of homely verse, which is, of course, Riley's specialty, and which no one does quite as well as he.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Burden of Proof

Massimo Pigliucci had a post up recently about a discussion he had with his daughter on the subject of the burden of proof; but, as sometimes happens with parents who have teenagers, he seems not to have realized that his daughter successfully out-argued him.

The problem with burden of proof is that outside of certain very artificial conditions -- like courtrooms and debate halls -- it is a figure of speech. Courts and (some) debates make use of burden of proof rules that apply to everyone because (1) they have limitations of time and resources they must accommmodate, and having universal burden of proof rules is a relatively simple way to keep them from being squandered; and (2) they have ends to which burden of proof rules are conducive -- there is a real need for there to be something definite that we can call winning that does not require the agreement of the parties, and, in the case of the courts, that protects certain rights. And it is practicable to have generally accepted rules or conventions about burden of proof precisely because they are artificial situations with a considerable amount of structure.

Outside these conditions, however, it becomes unclear how the figure of speech is supposed to apply: the standards for burden of proof seem to become much more arbitrary, and it becomes much more clear that people can fail to meet a given standard of burden of proof not through any failing of their own but (for instance) because their opponents would not let them. Moreover, when ambiguities or disputes arise about what the standard requires there is no referee or judge to which the parties may appeal. Burdens of proof by their nature shift -- if you meet your burden, that shifts the burden to your opponent -- but there are no conventions or rules governing how this happens outside of a court or debate. It's not that you can't have burden of proof standards outside of courts and debates; it's that you seem at least to need to recreate some of the artificial structure of a courtroom or debate in order to have them. There appears to be no way to do this except by mutual agreement, which is what I've argued we should consider in these cases.

In any case, there is a straightforward answer to Pigliucci's question, "Why is it that few people seem to have problems with the burden of proof when it comes to the innocence or guilt of a murder suspect, but then cannot apply the same exact logic to more esoteric issues, such as the existence of ghosts, gods, and the like?" The reason people rarely have problems with burden of proof when it comes to murder trials is that such a concept is well-defined in that context and well-adapted to the particular ends one has in view in a murder trial. But neither of these carry over to arguments generally, and thus the reasonable translation from one context to another is neither clear nor easy. Applying burden of proof outside of certain restricted contexts is so far from being an example of critical thinking that there is good reason to think it involves the uncritical treatment of a figure of speech as if it were not a figure of speech.

Where Pigliucci's daughter scored a point against him without his realizing, however, was in her pointing out that there was no clear reason why Pigliucci's claim didn't have the burden of proof if his opponent's did. People try to salvage the asymmetry in various ways. One way is to distinguish positive claims from negative claims; it turns out that there is no principled way to do this (which is also why the old saw that it's impossible to prove a negative is false if by 'negative' we mean 'negative claim'). A negative claim can be reformulated into a positive one and vice versa, although, depending on the context, doing so can sometimes be complicated. Other ways are usually question-begging in some way. There are no logical features of positions with which burden of proof can consistently be correlated; so the most one could say is that who has the burden of proof depends on what you are doing practically -- and in practice that will depend on your mutual goals.

The Tender Grace of a Day that is Dead

Break, Break, Break
by Alfred Tennyson

Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"The Will to Believe" in Its Actual Context

At "The Unpublishable Philosopher" there is a post on James's response to Clifford that seems to me to highlight very clearly the problems that arise when one reads works with insufficient regard for actual context.

William James's The Will to Believe is in great measure a response to William K. Clifford's The Ethics of Belief. The latter is best remembered for its claim that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." What is often forgotten is that Clifford also took the trouble to specify what, precisely, he meant by sufficient evidence. The full argument of the essay could be summarized like this:

(1) We may believe what we can directly and sensibly observe.

(2) We may believe what we can rigorously and strictly demonstrate from principles we can believe.

(3) We may believe what goes beyond our experience, only when we can conclude it from that experience using the assumption that nature is (to some extent) uniform.

(4) We may believe another person, when there are grounds for supposing that he is sincere and there are grounds for thinking his belief falls into one of the above three classes.

(5) If a candidate for belief does not fall into one of the above four classes, it is always morally wrong to believe it because it can have bad consequences.

(6) It is always morally wrong to believe without prior inquiry because it can have bad consequences.

There are some notable features of this argument. It is empiricist, since everything believed ultimately has to be parsed into sensible experience, logical principles, and the assumption of the uniformity of nature. It's also unclear exactly why the assumption of the uniformity of nature gets a pass; Clifford explicitly sets aside the question of its actual nature, but it's essential to his view that we have it, because, as he notes, going beyond experience is part of the very nature of belief. The ethics part of Clifford's ethics of belief is purely utilitarian. Why is it wrong to believe in certain cases? Because the beliefs lead to actions that are morally wrong, or to bad consequences for society: every belief that is believed on what he counts as insufficient evidence tends to the harm of society, even if it doesn't on its own actually issue into any harm, so every such belief is wrong (sinful, as he sometimes calls it). It's because of this that much of Clifford's rhetoric is so melodramatic: every belief is a matter of the welfare of society, and so we have an obligation to regulate every belief as part of our duties to all mankind.

Practically everything in James's arguments is best understood as a response to features of Clifford's full argument. "The Will to Believe" is part of a larger Jamesian project, however, of naturalizing rationality. That is, James wants to give a psychological account of what it is to be rational. This is one of the root differences between Clifford and James: James wants to insist that an account of what makes belief rational must begin by looking at actual facts about how the mind works, and in this context his primary contention is that in the human mind passions and reasoning are integrated, not separated. Inquiry is governed not by pure reason but also by the interests established by our nature; a passion for truth, for instance, or a strong feeling that this or that is important. The only mentions of passions in Clifford's essay are all negative: we should reason without regard for the passions. But, James will insist, given facts about human psychology what this actually means is just the more widely accepted truth that we should reason as guided by some passions and not others. And that means that there is an intrinsic complexity in matters of belief, any belief, that Clifford ignores entirely.

James early on makes his famous distinctions among different kinds of options, by which he means a case in which we are presented with alternative candidates for belief: these options may be living or dead (a living option is one where the candidates seem like real possibilities to us), forced or avoidable (a forced option occurring where we must believe one or the other), and momentous and trivial (a momentous option occurring where the opportunity is unique, the stake momentous, or the decision irreversible). What we even bother to consider depends on how living, forced, or momentous the option is. But more than this, some options require the clear involvement of a panoply of passions. In some cases, for instance, when the option is trivial and avoidable, it makes sense to act in accordance with our passional interest in avoiding error; but even here, as in scientific discovery, one wants a balance that optimizes one's ability to pick out salient facts: "The most useful investigator, because the most sensitive observer, is always he whose eager interest in one side of the question is balanced by an equally keen nervousness lest he become deceived."

In cases of living, forced, momentous options, however, we need a different balance: hope of finding genuine truth takes priority over fear of believing error, so that we may reasonably be willing to risk being partly wrong in order to be at least partly right. And this, too, will be governed by our passional nature, our willingness to risk one given what seems to us (since we are dealing with a living option) a real opportunity for the other. Inquiry, in other words, is a practical matter, and in every practical matter we are trying to find means that yield the results that interest us, which on a Jamesian view are picked out by our passions. And avoiding error is not the only interest we can have in rational inquiry; an ethics of belief that fails to recognize this, as Clifford's does, is an irrational rule.

Such is the general shape of James's argument. His work is made easier by the fact that Clifford's argument is itself not fully coherent; for instance, he never at any point establishes that the basic principles of his account of belief are supported by sufficient evidence, and in several cases (the assumption of the uniformity of nature being one) it is difficult to see how they could -- there is nothing we can directly observe that could establish them directly or indirectly as acceptable for belief according to the account itself. James, on the other hand, can easily accommodate principles like the assumption of the uniformity of nature: we have a passional interest in practical life that requires the assumption that things don't change too much. And James can accommodate other principles of inquiry more easily than Clifford came; we have a passional interest in having simple theories and this makes it reasonable to choose, among a variety of alternatives, the simplest theory that fits the facts. We have, in his words, an "imperious inner demand on our part for ideal logical and mathematical harmonies." Clifford's ethics of belief makes it generally impossible to choose between theories that both fit the facts: we could never take the advice to believe the simplest theory that fits the evidence, but would have to suspend judgment. The list could be continued.

But the key point here is really that Clifford's empiricist criteria for what counts as sufficient evidence forces the dispute onto Jamesian turf. Since we can only believe what has been directly observed by someone or drawn out of that direct observation by strict logic or reasoning with the assumption of the uniformity of nature, the test of whether Clifford's account of rational belief can be accepted must be what is directly observed. And since we are talking about belief, that means the test of whether Clifford's account of rational belief can be accepted depends entirely on whether it fits with psychological facts about believing, and James, of course, is the psychologist of the two. More than that, James is proposing a psychological account of rationality of belief as a rival to Clifford's ethical account. This tips the field massively in James's favor from the very beginning.

In the post linked above, ArithmoQuine makes a number of objections to James's arguments that dissipate completely when put in this context. For instance, AQ says,

The irritant in reading James is that he cannot refrain from irrelevant ad hominem attacks on Clifford, James calls Clifford “nervous” and cites his “fear” of making errors and contrasts this fear with his own hopefulness. But the issue is not Clifford’s emotional state; the issue is whether it is responsible for one to believe something when there is insufficient evidence to think it’s true.

But this in itself shows a complete failure to understand both James's argument and the point actually at issue in the dispute between James and Clifford. James is not making "ad hominem attacks"; he is insisting on his point that all belief, even rational belief, is guided in part by what he calls our passional nature. On James's view it is sometimes good to be nervous about error and good to fear being wrong; these are simply psychological facts that set our interests in inquiry, and obviously they are sometimes reasonable responses. What he denies is that these are the only passions that set interests in inquiry. And James's whole point is that it is impossible to determine whether you are believing something on insufficient evidence without regard to how the passions are setting our goals for inquiry, and whether they are balanced and healthy in that context. If 'insufficient' means just 'insufficient for responsible belief' then it is trivially true that it is irresponsible to believe on insufficient evidence. But if it does not mean this, it is making a substantial claim about responsibility, as Clifford is making a substantial claim about responsibility, and this must be closely examined, not glossed over with ambiguities in the meaning of the word 'insufficient'. Throughout James's lecture he is clearly taking 'insufficient evidence' in Clifford's very restrictive sense; and he is claiming that even if the evidence is insufficient in Clifford's sense, it may still be sufficient for responsible belief. And his argument is one based largely on the importance of "emotional states" to guiding inquiry.

All of AQ's argument about sufficiency dissolves as well; it is very clear throughout that AQ has an account of sufficiency of evidence that is inconsistent with Clifford's, despite the fact that AQ never actually bothers to give in plain terms what that account would be. Clifford's account, for example, makes no exceptions for normativity. Likewise, it is not enough to hold based on evidence that people are friendly: this must be universally observed, or logically required by what we do observe, or logically required by what we do observe if we add the assumption that nature is more or less uniform. That is, the evidence must rigorously prove (allowing for only the little bit of slip in the uniformity assumption) that the person in question is friendly. Clifford's account, unlike James's, leaves no room for mere probabilities (except by way of the uniformity assumption).

AQ's moon example, by the way, is an odd argument against James. It's obviously not Jamesian at all, but AQ seems to forget this and argue as if it were, and makes criticisms that clearly depend entirely on features specific to that sort of example. A better example would be a scientist tentatively accepting a theory because it is the simpler of two theories that fit some important facts, or accepting a theory because, although it explains some facts less well than another theory, nonetheless explains facts that the scientist thinks are probably more important. The scientists in these scenarios are being irresponsible and immoral on Clifford's account and perfectly rational on James's. When physicists say that the beauty of a theory is a factor in their scientific judgment, they are being sinful on Clifford's account. Another example would be a non-scientist accepting a scientist's judgment on an extremely difficult matter, where that judgment might not be purely a matter of what scientists have directly observed or logically deduced from what they observed using at most the additional assumption of the uniformity of nature. On Clifford's view this is sinful, for even if the scientist may reasonably be judged sincere, the non-scientist is in no position to be able to believe that the scientists' inquiry actually conforms to Clifford's strictures, since even scientific testimony can only be accepted if its truth is required, directly or indirectly, by what the non-scientist has directly observed. Thus there is really nothing in AQ's arguments that actually does anything against James; AQ's arguments ignore context completely and thus attack a straw man.

If we want to abstract from context, then we have to recognize that the real issue between James and Clifford is not so much religious belief but the legitimacy of accepting hypotheses that have merely been confirmed and not rigorously established by empirical proof. Religion comes up as a key issue because Clifford treats certain very general religious doctrines as being, at most, that, while James treats the same religious doctrines as being, at least, that, and thus it is a good context for discussion. It is also a subject in which both have a certain amount of 'passional' interest as James might say. But the actual crux of the dispute is not religious at all, but James's claim, based on his insistence on a naturalized account of rationality, that whether or not accepting a hypothesis is rational depends entirely on its context and, moreover, a context that includes rather than ignores our 'passional tendencies'.