Saturday, September 18, 2010

Links and Notes

* John Wilkins and a few others are starting up an HPS (history and philosophy of science) blog called Whewell's Ghost. The idea is to provide a sort of central point for HPS posts in the blogosphere that have at least some real research behind them. It's already looking great. I'll be occasionally contributing some things. I don't do HPS so much as history of HPS, and that on some fairly narrow subjects as it is, so I don't expect to be contributing a huge amount, but I certainly will post some things on early modern HPS (especially on Hume and on the impact of Newtonianism on philosophy), Whewell, and Duhem here and there. Over the next month or two I'll probably go back into the archives and rework some posts I've already done, repost them here and post the ledes over there; and a few I might post there and just provide a link here.

As an example of the treats we're in for, Thony C discusses William Whewell.

* A very good discussion of Apfelbaum's analysis of tokenism at "Feminist Philosophers"

* A website devoted to the increasingly visible phenomenon of Sufi rock, which is spearheaded by the Pakistani musician, Salman Ahmad, and his rock band Junoon. They have music samples; some of it is pretty catchy. Ahmad was recently in the news talking about his "rock-n-roll jihad" against Islamic extremism.

* Henry Karlson tells the Jain morality tale of Siddhi and Buddhi. I'd heard it before, although I don't think I'd realized it was Jain in origin.

* A nice series of pages on Godel's ontological argument, by Christopher Small. He also has a paper with some reflections on the argument (PDF) that's interesting to read.

* A blog devoted to the best shows from Escape and Suspense, two of classic radio's best radio programs.

And another for Radio Detective Story Hour. It would be nice to find one for Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

* James Chastek has an excellent post on arguments from evil.

* Andrew Preslar discusses J. R. R. Tolkien's Sacramental World:
Part One: Memory
Part Two: Matter
Part Three: Language
(Part Two is delayed but will be along eventually.)

* Some notable people in the UK protest the Pope's visit. What I find remarkable is how weak the case is. I don't know what the segregated education issue is supposed to be (and googling around, apparently no one outside of Britain does, either). But as for the rest, we have one issue (abortion) that the Pope opposes because he thinks it violates human rights, one issue (sex abuse) that the Pope is on record agreeing with and has been doing something about, one issue (contraception) with indirect negative effects, some vague statements about Vatican concordats and human rights, and an issue (gay marriage) that the Pope shares with probably at least a quarter of the heads of state in the world, if not more, and is the sort of thing that heads of state are expected to discuss by means of state visits anyway. I'm a little disappointed, I confess: purely off the top of my head I can come up with a longer and harsher list of reasons why the UK shouldn't give Obama "the honour of a state visit" and it's blatantly obvious that even that list wouldn't be adequate in itself for denial of a state visit. The only argument I've seen that makes any sense toward this end is based on a sort of neutrality thesis: that British taxpayers should not be funding an opportunity for the Pope to advocate Catholic ideas; although it's somewhat less substantive an argument in a nation with an established church.

I'd say something about the recent hubbub about the Pope's comments on Nazis and atheist extremists, but the outrage is so obviously manufactured that it seems pointless to bother. Atheists are perfectly capable when it suits them of recognizing that 'atheism' is not a monolithic block term, and that therefore criticism or support of one group does not extend to everyone who takes the label; and if they weren't it would be a sign of a serious intellectual problem. The choice not to recognize that in this case, even if while still remaining critical on other grounds, is a transparently deliberate and purely rhetorical one. In any case, while I wouldn't say everything exactly the same way, the Suburban Banshee has good post on the subject for those who are interested.

* A cognitive science study being used to argue that "ontological confusions are defining properties of superstitions, magical, and paranormal beliefs". Like a lot of studies it doesn't tell us much that we didn't already know; and like a lot of studies of this sort it fails to be sufficiently precise. Folk categories are purely pragmatic categories, not clearly ontological ones: we sharply distinguish persons from artifacts, for instance, because it's useful for most ordinary purposes to do so, not because we have in hand a stunning refutation of the possibility of artificial intelligence. And thus the definition given is consistent with some superstitious beliefs being true: Given how the folk categories are established in cognitive science in the first place, there is nothing particularly problematic about holding that there really are unusual cases where the boundaries of them are violated, because there's nothing sacrosanct about those boundaries. They were not engraved on our minds by the hand of God; there is no guarantee that they perfectly carve nature at its joints. The study's interesting, though, because it argues (and this seems to have been overlooked by most of the skeptical sites linking to it) that superstition is not really due to a failure of rationality or excessive emotionalism, but primarily to a greater tendency to think that our folk distinctions are not absolute or exceptionless but are themselves a byproduct of an underlying set of connections among the categories.

* Some papers I'm currently reading or in the process of getting to:
Toby Ord, Hypercomputation
Kevin Kelly, How to Do Things With an Infinite Regress (PDF)
Kevin Kelly, Efficient Convergence Implies Ockham's Razor (PDF)
Kevin Kelly, Learning Theory and Epistemology (PDF)
Kelly & Mayo-Wilson, Ockham Efficiency Theorem for Random Empirical Methods (PDF)
Kevin Kelly, Learning, Simplicity, Truth, and Misinformation (PDF)
Kevin Kelly, Argument, Inquiry, and the Unity of Science (PDF)
George Lavers, Benacerraf's Dilemma and Informal Mathematics (PDF)

* Kenny Pearce continues blogging through Sobel's Logic and Theism:
Modal Collapse: Sobel's Objection to Gödel's Ontological Argument
Would a Being with All Positive Properties be God?
What is Supposed to be Proved in Aquinas's Five Ways?
A Leibnizian Cosmological Argument

* Hilariously funny, or at least I thought so:

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stoicism and Martyrdom

It's interesting that perhaps the first clear philosophical criticisms of Christianity we have are from the Stoics -- both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius raise criticisms in passing, and they have the same problem with Christianity.

Epictetus uses the Christians as an example of freedom from fear (Discourses 4.7):

What makes the tyrant formidable? "The guards," you say, "and their swords, and the men of the bedchamber and those who exclude them who would enter." Why, then, if you bring a boy to the tyrant when he is with his guards, is he not afraid; or is it because the child does not understand these things? If, then, any man does understand what guards are and that they have swords, and comes to the tyrant for this very purpose because he wishes to die on account of some circumstance and seeks to die easily by the hand of another, is he afraid of the guards? "No, for he wishes for the thing which makes the guards formidable." If, then, neither any man wishing to die nor to live by all means, but only as it may be permitted, approaches the tyrant, what hinders him from approaching the tyrant without fear? "Nothing." If, then, a man has the same opinion about his property as the man whom I have instanced has about his body; and also about his children and his wife, and in a word is so affected by some madness or despair that he cares not whether he possesses them or not, but like children who are playing, with shells care about the play, but do not trouble themselves about the shells, so he too has set no value on the materials, but values the pleasure that he has with them and the occupation, what tyrant is then formidable to him or what guards or what swords?

Then through madness is it possible for a man to be so disposed toward these things, and the Galilaens through habit, and is it possible that no man can learn from reason and from demonstration that God has made all the things in the universe and the universe itself completely free from hindrance and perfect, and the parts of it for the use of the whole?

Thus we see the Galileans, who are almost certainly to be identified with the Christians, classified as a group that overcomes freedom from fear "through habit". Epictetus regards freedom from fear as a good, of course, but there is an implicit criticism here, that the Galileans have obtained freedom from fear in a problematic way: if even madmen obtain freedom from fear through insanity, and even Christians obtain freedom through disposition, how can it be a that a rational man cannot obtain freedom through reason?

This criticism, implicit in Epictetus, is made more explicit in Marcus Aurelius (Meditations 11.3):

What a soul that is which is ready, if at any moment it must be separated from the body, and ready either to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist; but so that this readiness comes from a man's own judgement, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.

There seems to be a school of thought that holds that 'as with the Christians' is a later interpolation; regardless, somebody of Stoic tastes thought that the Christians were a good contrast case here. The word translated as obstinacy here, parataxis, seems to have been used to the marshalling of troops or drumming up of support in politics: it's not just that the Christians are unafraid of death, it's that they are trained to want to die, and with tragic show. The Stoics held that suicide was good if done out of a deliberate and honorable choice; but Christian martyrdom was to them a bizarre and unacceptable thing, because of the brazenness of it. It was not death with gravitas but an obstinate headlong plunge that they encouraged in each other.

The obstinacy of Christians had actually become almost proverbial; the Stoics are not the only ones to mention it. We have a fragment from Galen in which he mentions it; he notes that Christian contempt for death comes from their following of parables (apparently stories about the afterlife) rather than reason, and this may, indeed, be what was in view in the passage in the Meditations, as well.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lady of Sorrows II

Mater Dolorosa
by Charles Edward Thomas

His Mother, Our Lady of Sorrows,
Stood alone on Calvary's hill,
Three crosses reeled against the sky
And all the world was still.

They came to Our Lady of Sorrows,
Came gently to lead her away,
But she set her face towards that cross on high
And watched through the fearful day.

Then they said, "Dear Lady of Sorrows,
Still thine anguish and raise thine head,
For a Prince has come to His Father's home!"
But she answered, " My Son is dead."

After the singing birds are gone
And the leaves are parched and low,
When the kind old earth is gaunt and worn,
Then comes the snow.

Hushed are the world's discordant notes
By the soft hand of snow,
And the beauty of its silence floats
Across me ere I know.

Oh ! when the silver cord is loosed
And the golden bowl is broken,
And the spirit poured on the air unused,
As one hath spoken,

After the last faint throb of breath
And the jar of life's outflow,
After the fever, may not death
Be like the snow?

Lady of Sorrows

Sword-pierced Mary, ponder well,
beneath the wide and wailing wall
of all this world, the prophet-word.

Death stalks the home and life
is shattered short; no laugh
leaps up, no joyful word.

God destroys, no pity gives;
the dead all mutter in their graves,
gnawed by winding worm.

No respite raised, no repose,
amid the pain no balmy peace
leaves vestige in this world.

Molten heart like wax moves down;
Shame and guilt, what have we done
against the good to war!

Shall human hearts, though vulgar, crass,
die blood-and-water on this cross
and, buried, feed the worms?

Pietà with pity's grief
processes to the silent grave,
itself without a word.

The stone is rolled and in this shade
it covers all; the tomb it shuts
and leaves us here without the Word.

But this was known. This evil way
will stay as evil as it was
but never have the final word.

For good may overcome and good
of newer kind is formed by God
to overtop and crown the world.

Comfort here? None shall you find
but comfort is not always friend
when darker things still wage their war.

Who sleeps in calm no vigil keeps
against the shadow-shade that creeps
across a heedless world.

For comfort there will come a time;
until then your own passions tame
while waiting for new word.

Sword-pierced Mary, ponder well,
beneath the wide and wailing wall
of all this world, the prophet-word.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Out of the Noise and Hurry of Human Affairs

The Spacious Firmament on High
by Joseph Addison

The Spacious Firmament on high
With all the blue Etherial Sky,
And spangled Heav'ns, a Shining Frame,
Their great Original proclaim:
Th' unwearied Sun, from Day to Day,
Does his Creator's Pow'r display,
And publishes to every Land
The Work of an Almighty Hand.

Soon as the Evening Shades prevail,
The Moon takes up the wondrous Tale,
And nightly to the listning Earth
Repeats the Story of her Birth:
Whilst all the Stars that round her burn,
And all the Planets in their turn,
Confirm the Tidings as they rowl,
And spread the Truth from Pole to Pole.

What though, in solemn Silence, all
Move round the dark terrestrial Ball?
What tho' nor real Voice nor Sound
Amid their radiant Orbs be found?
In Reason's Ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious Voice,
For ever singing, as they shine,
'The Hand that made us is Divine?'

This popular hymn, which is usually sung to some variation on Haydn's "The Heavens Are Telling" was first published by Addison in The Spectator, no. 465 (1712). It's based on the first couple of verses of Psalm 19, of course. What is perhaps even more interesting is the context. Spectator 465 is devoted to looking at ways in which faith can be strengthened in the human mind. And one of Addison's suggestions is retreat into the country. In the city, he says, we are much taken with works of art and artifice; but in the country we are faced with works of nature. And, says Addison,

Faith and Devotion naturally grow in the Mind of every reasonable Man, who sees the Impressions of Divine Power and Wisdom in every Object on which he casts his Eye. The Supream Being has made the best Arguments for his own Existence, in the Formation of the Heavens and the Earth, and these are Arguments which a Man of Sense cannot forbear attending to, who is out of the Noise and Hurry of Human Affairs. Aristotle says, that should a Man live under Ground, and there converse with Works of Art and Mechanism, and should afterwards be brought up into the open Day, and see the several Glories of the Heaven and Earth, he would immediately pronounce them the Works of such a Being as we define God to be.
He then quotes the beginning of the Psalm as a poetic expression of this and then reworks it in early eighteenth century style into the poem above. The hymn is intended to express what we get when we get away from "the Noise and Hurry of Human Affairs" and spend time in the sublimity of the starlit countryside.

The Success and Failure of Arguments

One of the more bizarre arguments in van Inwagen's The Problem of Evil is his argument that the argument from evil is a philosophical failure. I think it's easy to overlook how strange and convoluted the argument is, because in the course of making the argument van Inwagen says a number of reasonable things. But the argument itself is odd in more ways than one.

The basic issue, of course, is what we take success and failure to be when we are speaking of philosophical arguments. Van Inwagen proposes that an argument fails if it cannot pass a particular test:

The test is the ability of the argument to win assent from the members of a neutral audience who have listened to an ideal presentation of the argument. That is: the argument is presented by an ideal proponent of the argument to an ideal audience whose members, initially, have no tendency either to accept or to reject its conclusion; the proponent lays out the argument in the presence of an ideal critic whose brief it is to point out any weaknesses it may have to the audience of 'ideal agnostics'. If--given world enough and time--the proponent of the argument is unable to use the argument to convince the audience that they should accept its conclusion, the argument is a failure. [from the Detailed Contents*]

There are a number of notable features of this suggested test.

(1) The success of the argument is detached from the question of whether the argument persuades anyone in the real world. (This is probably shares with most accounts of philosophical success and failure.) But it depends crucially on being able to persuade.

(2) It is an impartial spectator theory. In order to determine whether an argument is successful, one has to somehow get into or at least approximate the mindset of impartial spectators, looking at the argument without prior bias one way or another.

(3) Not only that, in order to determine whether an argument is successful, one has to somehow get into or at least approximate the mindset of an ideal critic pointing out any weaknesses of the argument.

Now, it's not exactly clear to me why we need to bring in the ideal critic at all. Why do we need to go so far as imagining the brief of an 'ideal critic'? We don't need our critic to be ideal, just competent. Indeed, we don't need to imagine a critic at all, except perhaps as an imaginative crutch; we just need to develop the discipline and habits required for honestly assessing the potential weaknesses of the argument. Indeed, everything we could get out of our imaginary ideal critic will, in fact, come from this and nothing else; it's the only way we can have any clue whatsoever what an ideal critic would say.

The ideal critic comes into the picture in part because van Inwagen has an excessive attachment to thinking of philosophical debates on the model of court cases. I think that thinking of philosophical debates on the model of court cases is extraordinarily dangerous. Courts have specific ends in view, are confined to specific means in light of those ends, and are heavily influenced by historical contingencies, that don't necessarily have any parallel in real philosophical discussion. These can lead to distortions, as I think we see when people try to apply the concept of 'burden of proof' to philosophical discussion in general. The fact of the matter is that philosophical discussion is more fundamental and basic than anything we get in a court; everything in a court is designed to keep the distinction within sharp confines, but philosophical discussion is free. What is more, it is not as if these worries about thinking of philosophical discussions in terms of court cases are new things; the worry is built into the very Socratic impulse that even today is a major part of what we do. Plato's Socrates remarks in a number of places on the difference between philosophical discussion and the sort of discussion one gets in courts; the court conventions have changed since his day, but the remarks are still salutary. If nothing else, thinking of philosophical discussions as if they were idealized court cases limits the genuinely dialectical aspects of philosophical discussion; and, as for Socratic midwivery, the model ignores that entirely.

The emphasis on persuasion is itself somewhat odd. It turns philosophy into a form of idealized rhetoric: rhetoric at the limit case. I've sometimes joked that analytic philosophy, of the sort that van Inwagen does, is less a form of inquiry than it is a rhetorical toolbox, but even I don't think that even analytic philosophers are simply engaging in idealized rhetoric. There are too many things that they do that have nothing to do with persuasion one way or another. And this fact alone suggests that any attempt to judge whether an argument is a failure is simplistic if it does not specify reasonable, appropriate, and relevant ends. And persuasion doesn't seem always, or even usually, to be among those ends. Perhaps there are some people who assume that there are argumentative equivalents of crucial experiments, lines of reasoning that will be decisive for everyone just on their own, but it seems to me that most people usually in practice do not assume any such thing.

As far as I can see, while van Inwagen assumes throughout that persuasion is the primary end of argument, he doesn't argue for it; the closest he comes is saying that a mathematical proof, "whatever else it may be, is an argument that should convince anyone who can follow it of the truth of its conclusion" (p. 37). I'm inclined to think that the history of mathematics shows this to be false, unless you are packing a lot of controversial things into the "anyone who can follow it" clause. But setting that aside, no one, as far as I can tell, takes persuasion to be a necessary or fundamental characteristic of successful mathematical proof -- nobody thinks of a mathematical proof that, whatever else it may be, it is persuasive. Indeed, despite a lack of agreement about the general requirements for something to be a mathematical proof, almost everyone thinks that persuasion is quite a secondary issue when it comes to whether something is a mathematical proof. Nobody thinks that the criterion for the success of a mathematical argument is its literal "indisputability". This is to put the emphasis in the wrong place: it's not that knowledgeable and reasonable people can't dispute it but that there's good objective reason to think that any objections they raise will exhibit objectively discernible flaws or beg the question or at most qualify the conclusion of an argument. The grounds of mathematical success are not, as van Inwagen would have it, psychological; at least, they are not usually thought to be so.

There are also peculiarities in the idea of appealing to a jury, even of "neutral agnostics," as van Inwagen calls them. Suppose we assume that all neutral agnostics will vote the same way on any issue. Then it follows that we don't need a jury at all: a single individual will suffice to give us all the information we need. The only reason to appeal to a jury of impartial spectators rather than a single impartial spectator is if the impartial spectators can still disagree. That is, we have no reason to appeal to a jury of neutral agnostics except insofar as the neutral agnostics have the capacity of voting differently even with the same information. But if this is the case then we can't simply appeal to a fact about what persuades a jury: we must define what persuading a jury is. With one and only one person there is no problem: that person is the one and only who needs to be persuaded. But if we have multiple individuals, and they can vote differently with the same information, things are not so easy. To count as having persuaded the jury does the vote need to be unanimous? Some of van Inwagen's arguments seem to suggest it must be. But that seems bizarrely harsh; if neutral agnostics can vote differently even with the same information, then that suggests that either there is no fact of the matter about what counts as success and failure beyond the vote -- and obviously van Inwagen must assume that this is false, because he has to assume that success and failure are not simply decided by legislative fiat -- or neutral agnostics are not infallible and therefore can sometimes vote incorrectly. Would we really count an argument as unsuccessful if, out of a jury of 500 impartial and unprejudiced neutral agnostics, one could expect a single Nay vote? Would we not rather consider it a mere statistical fluctuation? And assuming that neutral agnostics can vote differently with the same information, how would we know how all of them would vote? If the criterion is not unanimity, however, it would seem to be plurality or majority. If majority, is it bare majority? But then it seems we must specify the number of jurors: a bare majority in a jury of three is not the same sort of thing as a bare majority in a jury of ten million. Is it overwhelming majority? But then we have to say how overwhelming the majority must be, and it doesn't seem that we can give a nonarbitrary number (69%? 70%? 92.3%?). And similar questions are raised if we go with the weaker claim that we need a plurality rather than a majority (along with the question of why we don't need a majority, i.e., why a mere plurality suffices). Needless to say, van Inwagen considers none of this (although mere plurality seems inconsistent with one or two of van Inwagen's arguments).

And we also need to know what question, precisely, the jurors are being invited to assess. Is it just a vote of success or failure? Van Inwagen doesn't seem to think so; at one point he refers to the jurors as rendering a "Scotch verdict", i.e., a verdict of "not proven". Now, he might be speaking inaccurately here, and simply means that they evaluate it as a failure. But if he doesn't, a real Scotch verdict is a tertium quid verdict: you get the verdict of 'not proven' when the evidence fails to allow a verdict of 'innocent' or 'not guilty' but the case for your guilt is inadequate for a verdict of 'guilty'. These verdicts that indicate that cases are neither successes in the proper sense nor failures in the proper sense open a whole cans of worms. And yet if the assumption is that the jurors have only two options, 'success' and 'failure', we need to answer why there is no tertium quid. Why can't jurors consider verdicts like, "minimally successful" and "partially successful" and "highly probable but not certain" and "close enough to proof for almost all practical purposes" and "proven, but with the exact extent of application still unknown"? These are part of our usual repertoire of assessment.

Van Inwagen responds to one possible objection to his argument that his suggestion is at least interesting and useful. As you might expect from the above arguments, I don't think it is useful -- in particular, I think it is obviously not useful because it is not defined well enough to be useful. But the most egregious argument van Inwagen makes in his whole discussion is this one (p. 52):

And all philosophical arguments, or at any rate all philosophical arguments that have attracted the attention of the philosophical community, have been tested under circumstances that approximate sufficiently to the circumstances of an ideal debate, that it is reasonable to conclude that they would fail the 'ideal debate' test.

When I first read this I had to read it several times over to make sure I was not misreading it. But no -- he gives just before this the claim that certain arguments (his own arguments on the question of determinism) would fail the ideal debate test because they have been presented to several generations of graduate students at various universities, and the graduate students were split on whether they were successful, and this is just a more general version of this point. Notice two things about this:

(1) It answers the question of how we can know that something would pass the 'ideal debate' test, but only by throwing it over completely. It means that the real way we determine success and failure of philosophical arguments is looking at what gets consensus in the philosophical community, perhaps, at most, ignoring extreme cases that can be traced to deeply ingrained biases. If we're going to assess things by whether or not the philosophical community has achieved near-unanimity on a topic, why this whole convoluted debate set-up?

(2) An answer immediately presents itself: Because van Inwagen really does think that the philosophical community closely approximates a disinterested jury of people without no significant biases on the topics they are considering, concerned only with the question of whether an argument is persuasive or not. He must be assuming something like this to make the arguments he makes toward the end of his chapter on philosophical failure. And I am thoroughly flabbergasted by it. It's an assumption that makes no sense. Philosophers are not, in fact, that unbiased and disinterested on most of the subjects they discuss; they are not jury but already prosecution or defense. They can and do sometimes switch sides, but philosophers are trained to be not objective jurors but partisan arguers. Anyone who does history of philosophy in any extensive way comes up against this quite seriously at some point or other. I did my thesis on Malebranche, and it is truly extraordinary that whenever I'd say that, I was immediately pigeon-holed as a Malebranchean. Since Malebranche has views that are widely considered to be strange, this is not a good thing to be pigeon-holed as if you don't agree with Malebranche's arguments. But if I noted that I didn't agree with Malebranche's arguments, it was equally astonishing how many people would then be puzzled as to why I would study them. They can't have been thinking that through very carefully and consistently, because everyone recognizes arguments that they think are brilliant but wrong. But much of my dissertation was involved with showing that all standard and obvious objections to one of Malebranche arguments for the claim that we see all things in God failed -- and I repeatedly had to point out to people that this did not mean that I accepted the argument. I think there are independent reasons for thinking the conclusion is false, as Malebranche understood the conclusion; my point was merely that nobody in the early modern period or in the secondary literature had given a non-question-begging argument against it. But the assumption even philosophers make about philosophers is that they argue as already convinced. The assumption is common enough even in history of philosophy, where we take impartial and objective evaluation far more seriously than analytic or continental philosophers in general do.

And even if we set aside the question of personal bias and neutrality, even if philosophers were, as some historians of philosophy think ideal, impartial and reasonable evaluators of the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, they are not the right sort of jury. Sometimes you hear philosophers bemoaning the fact that philosophers tend not to form consensuses like certain other disciplines do (sciences in particular). But there is no great mystery to this. The sciences reward consensus-forming as long as certain procedures are followed: agreements through experimental verification, processes of peer review, etc. Philosophy has nothing like this. Philosophers are rewarded for coming up with creative reasons not to agree with other people. The whole thrust of professional philosophy is toward inventing ways to regard opposing arguments as failure, as long as those ways don't exhibit any obvious flaws. However much philosophers are interested in the truth, philosophy as a profession is not structured so as to converge on it; it is structured so as to have the maximal possible divergence that can be sustained given common conventions. We are not trained to find ways to come to agree with each other; we are trained to find ways to disagree with each other. We are not trained to create certainty; we are trained to create doubt or possibility of doubt even about such apparently obvious conclusions as 'There is a mind-independent world' or 'There are other minds than my own'. This has a genuine value -- you learn much more about even obvious conclusions when you do this, just as you learn much more about a city if you deliberately allow yourself to get lost in it, just as you often learn more about science or mathematics if you don't simply accept the argument for the right answer but also demand to know the answer to the question of exactly why other apparently good answers are wrong. But it makes for very poor judgments about success and failure of arguments: if an argument meets a standard of success, philosophers are trained to find a standard of success according to which it will fail, just to see what such a standard would be. This is why, incidentally, philosophers often make awful arguments outside their specialization: as philosophical training and the philosophical profession are structured today, philosophers aren't trained to accept standards of good argument, but to question even those. In other words, our best philosophical training today, while it produces excellently trained philosophers, also produces excellently trained sophists. It's OK to have sophistical arguments, as long as they are brilliant sophistical arguments. An entire jury of such people is the worst possible jury for determining what impartial people find persuasive; their whole training is often devoted to improving the tools that reduce their susceptibility to persuasion, and being perversely difficult to persuade is something a sufficiently clever person can spin into a successful career. Van Inwagen argues that some mathematical proofs have the feature that anyone who understands them is persuaded by them; for any such proof you can give, I very much expect that there is some philosopher who, if they understood the proof, would nonetheless reject it by noting some prior supposition that has not yet been proven. No one plays the game of What the Tortoise Said to Achilles better than philosophers do.

Likewise, van Inwagen claims that there are no philosophical theses that are both substantial and uncontroversial; but, as far as I can see, this is in context trivial: if you are talking about the hosts of philosophers, nothing counts as substantial for them unless they can have a controversy over it. And if you allow that there are uncontroversial theses that are not substantial in this sense, this raises the real possibility that there are successful philosophical arguments.

In short, I don't think any of van Inwagen's account of philosophical success and failure stands much chance of being right: it is shot through and through with assumptions so problematic that they sometimes border on absurd. Where van Inwagen is going with this, of course, is toward the claim that arguments from evil are failures because all philosophical arguments are failures; if I'm right, this is exactly the sort of sleight of hand it looks like it will be. There are many different kinds of arguments from evil; many of them are absurdly crude, but there are arguments from evil that meet plenty of entirely reasonable standards of success: they raise interesting and stimulating ideas, they are logically valid inferences from widely accepted premises, they can be persuasive to a reasonable person under the right circumstances, they genuinely show that some theistic positions are untenable (even though they are never as all-purpose as some people want to make them) and so forth. Despite van Inwagen's claim that his suggestion is a useful way of looking at success and failure of arguments, I see no reason whatsoever to think it more useful than these more common criterion. Indeed, I see no reasons to think it useful at all.

* Incidentally, this is one of the small handful of things I liked about the book. It used to be a fairly common, although not universal, practice among analytic philosophers to provide analytical tables of contents; such things are always an invaluable resource.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I'm More Than Twice as Old as I Am

Text analysis is probably written by a male somewhere between 66-100 years old. The writing style is personal and happy most of the time.

Of course, almost half the posts it analyzes are posts with poems by someone else.