Friday, December 17, 2010

Students and the First Way III

Sorry about the lack of posts recently; I have something like a jillion posts that have been 'in the works' for several weeks now, but things keep coming up and, frankly, nothing's really going to move to final stages until I've actually had a few days to recuperate from what was a very brutal end of term. However, this one is pretty much ready to go. While my intro course is necessarily limited, for a number of reasons, in how much time can be spent on Aquinas, I usually spend a class on him, and there's usually a question on one of the take-home quizzes asking students what they think the weakest premise (defined as the premise that would be hardest to defend, whether it's actually true or false) of Aquinas's First Way is. The primary point of the question is for students to show (1) that they know what is meant by "Aquinas's First Way"; and (2) have at least a very basic idea of how it works. But I've been collecting the basic answers given in order to get a better sense of what people's first impressions of the argument are, and twice posted them here (I, II), both because it's convenient having them here and because some of my readers would certainly be interested. So here we go again. This group was more inclined to answer the question in some detail; I usually get a few brief sentences, but most of the students went on a bit longer this time, for reasons I don't know.

The usual caveats apply. The following are not word-for-word the answers given, which are not needed for what I am doing here; I have simplified and paraphrased them, sticking as closely as possible to the meaning. This is not for the purpose of mocking my students; most of them have barely heard of Aquinas, if at all, when they come into my class, and they are trying to answer the question on the basis of a single class's discussion, not all of which was devoted to the First Way in particular, and, what is more, I don't think it's fair to demand that people pick up immediately ideas and concepts Aquinas himself thought could only be properly understood at the end of long, hard analysis. But even answers that show confusion can show that students are asking the right questions, and I think one sees that here. I have also ignored the answers that were just mere fluff.

You'll note, incidentally, that there are a few cases where people identify as the 'weak premise' what is actually the conclusion; I think these in fact should usually be read charitably as just the claim that they don't understand how the premises yield that conclusion in particular -- i.e., they are puzzled as to why someone would think that that conclusion follows from everything else, or else they don't understand what the conclusion is supposed to mean, even given the premises, or else they have the idea that to get that type of conclusion you'd have to use a very different kind of argument. And this can be a legitimate puzzle, and is I think a common type of reaction to arguments like the First Way even among intelligent people; so I've kept them, even though they aren't talking about a premise.


* That the thing which is moved cannot be moved by itself. Or what is moved must be moved by another. It is hard to say definitively that there is nothing that moves itself except for the one unmoved mover. Also to argue this would mean that we have no freewill because if only the one unmoved mover could move itself then that would mean that we don't move ourselves but our every choice is purely a product of other movers. Unless the unmoved mover moved our freewill into motion and perhaps also keeps it sustained.

* That there is an unmoved mover. It would be difficult to understand how everything that has moved has been moved by something else but yet there is one thing that has moved but not by anything else. You would have to give an example, such as that of how a trap works, to explain how the unmoved mover set the trap in motion. But someone might then argue that he couldn't be unmoved and also set the trap in motion.

* "Nothing can be at once in both actuality and potentiality in the same respect (if both actual and potential, it is actual in one respect and potential in another.)" You would have to prove what actual and potential motions are possible for it.

* "This first mover everyone understands to be God." Not everyone believes in God. Therefore this would be a hard premise to prove.

* "For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality." It would be very difficult to prove that movement is a reduction from potential to actual, meaning from a state of nothing to a state of something by a negative median.

* The infinite regress premise, because it has to go all the way to the beginning and to find something that is the original mover, the main cause, has not been moved, and is God.

* Nothing can move itself. He didn't strongly defend it. He didn't look at other things like nature. Some things just change and move as time passes.

* I don't see how if something goes on for infinity there would be no first mover. It seems to me you need a first mover in order to have the possibility of infinity because that's what starts the action.

* That of the series not continuing infinitely and there being an unmoved mover. It would be hard to prove that this isn't really infinite.

* "If, then, that by which something is moved is moved, then it, too, must be moved by another, and that other by still another. But this does not go to infinity." This is subjective in that if an object is moved by another, and that other is moved by something else and so forth then who's to say that these objects don't keep getting moved one after the other. The part when it says that this does not go on to infinity is the part of the premise that threw me off. An object could keep on being moved forever.

* The necessity of the unmoved mover. The idea is that something in motion puts something else in motion, and this can be traced backwards. Since this cannot go back towards infinity (if there is no start, how can anything ever have been put into motion to begin with), the idea of the unmoved mover is put forward as a starting point. But to do this one must have excluded all other causes of motion, such as natural laws.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Waldron on Imago Dei

The foundational work that imago Dei does for dignity is, in my opinion, indispensable for generating the sort of strong moral constraint associated with rights – and for overriding the temptation to demonize or bestialize “the worst of the worst.” This temptation is so natural that it can only be answered by something that goes beyond our attitudes, even beyond “our” morality, something commanded from the depths of the pre-political and pre-social foundation of the being of those we are tempted to treat in this way.

You can read more of Jeremy Waldron's interesting discussion of the topic here.

Lapide on the Women in Matthew's Genealogy

Observe that in the genealogy of Christ, with the exception of His Blessed Mother, only four females are made mention of, three of them harlots—Thamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba—and the fourth a Gentile, Ruth the Moabitess. Rahab, too, was a Gentile, being an inhabitant of Jericho. If the reason of all this be asked, SS. Jerome, Chrysostom, Ambrose answer, that it was so because Christ would signify that “He who came for the abolishing and putting away of sins wished to be born of sinners.” This reason is true, but allegorical. The literal and simple reason is, that these women were united to their husbands, not in the ordinary way, but after a new and extraordinary manner; and so they became types of the Church of Christ, which, when the Jews were rejected, was gathered out of the Gentiles by a new vocation, and after a new manner. Tamar, because Shelah was denied her in marriage, or rather because her union with him was deferred, using deceit, prostituted herself to Judah. Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, was united to David, first by adultery, then in marriage. Rahab married Salmon because she hospitably received and protected the Hebrew spies who were sent by Joshua to Jericho, and so she became of the same faith and religion. Ruth married Boaz when she had passed with her mother-in-law, Naomi, from Moab into Jud├Ža.

The tropological sense is to show us the vanity of pride of birth, and that true nobility consists, not in ancestry, but in our own good disposition and virtues. Thus S. Chrysostom. Wherefore let no one be ashamed of his birth, nor even of vile and wicked ancestors; but let us say with Cicero, “I have outshone my forefathers in virtue.” There can be no doubt that there are in the ancestry of the most exalted persons, forasmuch as they are sprung from Adam, many ignoble, worthless, wicked, and infamous persons. Plato, according to Seneca (Epis. 44), is of opinion that all kings are descended from servants, and that all servants are sprung from kings; that there is no king who has been entirely free from the plough, and no ploughman who has not been mixed up with kings.

Lastly, Solomon, amongst the other vanities and uncertainties of the world, reckons this: “Because out of prison and chains sometimes a man cometh forth to a kingdom: and another born king is consumed with poverty.” (Eccles. iv. 14.)

Cornelius a Lapide, Commentary on Matthew. It seems a bit harsh to call Bathsheba a harlot, though, and Tamar's story is a bit more complicated than the term suggests.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two Things

Two links that I don't want to keep waiting until my next links post:

(1) "The Atheist's Advocate" has put together a pretty good Philosophers' Carnival (number 118).

(2) Synthese has an issue devoted to intelligent design theory -- or criticism of intelligent design theory, to be somewhat more accurate. The papers are temporarily available for everyone. They are something of a mixed bag; I thought Pennock's, Smith's, and Forrest's rather poorly argued, although Smith is at least entertaining about it. Pennock's in particular seems to me to be egregiously bad, consisting in great measure of an attempted hatchet job on Larry Laudan and a lot of weakly argued dogmatic claims. Fortunately, Sahotra Sarkar's paper provides a good counterbalance. The other papers are also all pretty good. I liked Wilkins's, although I'm very skeptical of the underlying assumptions of the model of scientific concept space he uses; Fetzer's paper is a pretty good examination of David Ray Griffin's discussion of the subject, and it's good to see a paper on it. Elsberry and Shallit look at Dembski's discussions of complex specified information, while Shanks and Green look at the relation between intelligent design theory and theology. The single best paper in the bunch, I think, is Weber's paper on the history of design arguments in the modern period: you can tell it's good because (1) it recognizes the significance of Whewell's divergence from Paley; and (2) it discusses Lewis Ezra Hicks, which I liked because I'm tired of being just about the only one who discusses him in this context. The discussion of Hume is weak, but most discussions of Hume in the context of design arguments are.

Hired Cabs and Magic Brooms

One reason for putting up the translation of Goethe's poem about the Hexenmeister's apprentice in the previous post was to provide background for this one. One of the basic ideas that I've always thought very important is one I came across in a quotation from Schopenhauer many years ago (from the dissertation On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason):

The causal law therefore is not so accommodating as to let itself be used like a hired cab, which we dismiss when we have reached our destination; rather does it resemble the broom brought to life by the apprentice-wizard in Goethe's poem, which, when once set in motion, does not leave off running and fetching water until the old master-wizard himself stops it, which he alone has the power to do. These gentlemen, however, have no master-wizards among them.

The particular context, which is a rather clumsy and unimpressive attack on cosmological arguments, is of less concern than the basic point of the claim, which is exactly right: principles do not let themselves be used as hired cabs, and you cannot simply ride them to whatever destination you please. This is one reason why in philosophy it is very misguided to focus only on a narrow set of problems: philosophy has more to do with principles than other fields, and once you commit to a principle, you are committed to it, period. A principle that seems fine when applied to this sort of problem may well put things massively out of joint elsehwere; a refutation that seems devastating if we consider this case only might well commit us logically to claims that have thoroughly absurd implications in yet another case.

But Schopenhauer would have made a better analogy if he said that the causal law is like the spell used by the apprentice, rather than like the broom. The broom could, in fact, be stopped; but the spell could only be nullified. And so it is with principles: Und non komm, du alter Besen, they say, and the brooms keep marching; and only when one finds the refuting word are things again as they were.

Und non komm, du alter Besen!

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
translated by Edwin Zeydel

That old sorcerer has vanished
And for once has gone away!
Spirits called by him, now banished,
My commands shall soon obey.
Every step and saying
That he used, I know,
And with sprites obeying
My arts I will show.

Flow, flow onward
Stretches many
Spare not any
Water rushing,
Ever streaming fully downward
Toward the pool in current gushing.

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,
Take these rags and wrap them round you!
Long my orders you have heeded,
By my wishes now I've bound you.
Have two legs and stand,
And a head for you.
Run, and in your hand
Hold a bucket too.

Flow, flow onward
Stretches many,
Spare not any
Water rushing,
Ever streaming fully downward
Toward the pool in current gushing.

See him, toward the shore he's racing
There, he's at the stream already,
Back like lightning he is chasing,
Pouring water fast and steady.
Once again he hastens!
How the water spills,
How the water basins
Brimming full he fills!

Stop now, hear me!
Ample measure
Of your treasure
We have gotten!
Ah, I see it, dear me, dear me.
Master's word I have forgotten!

Ah, the word with which the master
Makes the broom a broom once more!
Ah, he runs and fetches faster!
Be a broomstick as before!
Ever new the torrents
That by him are fed,
Ah, a hundred currents
Pour upon my head!

No, no longer
Can I please him,
I will seize him!
That is spiteful!
My misgivings grow the stronger.
What a mien, his eyes how frightful!

Brood of hell, you're not a mortal!
Shall the entire house go under?
Over threshold over portal
Streams of water rush and thunder.
Broom accurst and mean,
Who will have his will,
Stick that you have been,
Once again stand still!

Can I never, Broom, appease you?
I will seize you,
Hold and whack you,
And your ancient wood
I'll sever,
With a whetted axe I'll crack you.

He returns, more water dragging!
Now I'll throw myself upon you!
Soon, 0 goblin, you'll be sagging.
Crash! The sharp axe has undone you.
What a good blow, truly!
There, he's split, I see.
Hope now rises newly,
And my breathing's free.

Woe betide me!
Both halves scurry
In a hurry,
Rise like towers
There beside me.
Help me, help, eternal powers!

Off they run, till wet and wetter
Hall and steps immersed are lying.
What a flood that naught can fetter!
Lord and master, hear me crying! -
Ah, he comes excited.
Sir, my need is sore.
Spirits that I've cited
My commands ignore.

"To the lonely
Corner, broom!
Hear your doom.
As a spirit
When he wills, your master only
Calls you, then 'tis time to hear it."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another Poem Draft

Saying that grading has wiped me out does not convey just how much grading has wiped me out. So here's something I just made up in the shower and revised as I was writing it down and typing it here.

Hark, How the Hawk

Hark, how the hawk, heroic of heart,
starts to a soar, speeding like sparks,
laughing, winging, flawlessly flying,
invading as raptor, rapidly diving
down to dun sea of sun-scented sand.
Wind wanders there and winsomely wends
past plains of grass, past plots of grain,
to where the air stills and stays to remain
till talon has taken its terrible toll.
The hawk swiftly slows, softened in soul,
braving rare airs with reverberant cry,
yet watching that wind with wide, wondering eye.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I saw Voyage of the Dawn Treader last night, in 3D (it turns out that's it's actually a pretty decent film to watch in 3D; there were some more things they could have done, but it was still textured enough to give the 3D version added value, although some of the action sequences were a bit harder to follow). It has some weaknesses, but I do recommend it. Some brief thoughts:

(1) The key issue, in my book, for any movie adaptation of VDT is how they handle Eustace. There are some strengths and weaknesses with this portrayal; they played him a little bit too much over the top for comic effect, but captured the pompousness about as it should be captured. The whole point of Eustace is that he is the Modern Boy, the boy who almost deserves being called Eustace Scrubb: failing to bring this out properly weakened the portrayal somewhat. And need it really be said that Eustace is not the sort of person who would do anything so old-fashioned as calling his mother 'Mother' rather than calling her by her name, 'Alberta'?

(2) Because of the episodic nature of the book's plot, tying this together into a cinematic unity is tricky, so there were bound to be hard decisions. Hollywood just can't do Immram very well, through no fault of its own: the limitations of the cinematic art sharply cramp any such style of narrative.. They did one thing very, very right: conflation of islands is almost absolutely necessary to making the movie move along quickly enough, and they chose the right islands to conflate. It's almost brilliant to recognize that Deathwater and the Dragon Isle could be conjoined for cinematic purposes. Reordering the islands was a serious mistake, and weakened rather than strengthened the story; and Lewis's original solution for breaking the spell at Ramandu's island was far superior to the Spectacle with which it was replaced. Giving Rhince a bit of backstory was much better, and the addition of his daughter was promising, but their fit into the overall arc was not especially great.

(3) It's perhaps not surprising that, despite some cutting of his part, Reepicheep is far and away the most engaging of all the characters in the movie. But Georgie Henley's performance as Lucy was, as all her performances have been so far, extraordinarily good within the limits of the script. She's the only movie-version character who has consistently been better on screen than the version I had already imagined, and most of that is due to the fact that Henley has the character down.

(4) One of the trickiest things about filming the Chronicles as a series is keeping the characters who have fallen out of the main story alive for when they come back (in one form or another). This is very excellently done here, much better than I expected.

(5) Really, the only thing that seriously disorders the movie as it stands -- it is far superior to most Hollywood adaptations in everything else -- is the Evil Fog thing. Pretty much every problem with the movie is connected to this diabolus ex machina. Perhaps, though, they can tie it in with the Witch of the Green Kirtle (and conceivably that was what they were thinking of, since that's the only halfway reasonable thing I can imagine them thinking of). The only other issue of importance is rightly noted by Wright:

As a purist, what I missed most was the medieval flavor that Lewis did so well. Moderns don’t seem to understand dignity and hierarchy. There is no scene where Caspian with drawn sword on his knees overthrows the bureaucrat of the Lone Islands, appoints a Duke and establishes justice. Queen Lucy, while the Narnians properly bow to her, smiles and tells her subject to call her “Luce!” The Captain at one point chides King Edmund for exceeding his authority: I was trying to imagine if any captain aboard a ship carrying, say, King William, would interrupt the resurrected King Arthur and tell him not to give orders.

Having Edmund regret his lost kingship seems (to me, at least) to miss the point and the greatness of Lewis’s conceit: his idea is that by being in king for a time in fairyland, you become more noble here, not more peevish.

But this is a general problem with Hollywood, which is built on notions of nobility that are made of tinsel and glass rather than silver and gold, and not something distinctively wrong with this movie. (Although I can imagine Lewis's Lucy being just as approachable as this version.)

(6) For me, the saddest loss in the adaptation is its failure to bring out the fact that Reepicheep alone of all the crew is not afraid to die, which is one of the most important features of his character in the book, a significant part of his nobility, and tied to his end. Perhaps this, too, is a Hollywood problem: it cannot convey, and perhaps most people in Hollywood cannot wrap their minds around, the possibility of someone seeing death for what it really is, with all of its sorrow and pain and difficulty, and having no illusions about it, and yet never fearing it. On a minor but related issue, I wish they had kept Reepicheep telling Eustace stories about the turns of Fortune's wheel; it would have conveyed more of the sense of what Reepicheep really represents. There was always something Boethian in Reepicheep's chivalry.

I am very much hoping that the movie does well enough that they do The Silver Chair; while The Magician's Nephew is my favorite of the books, the character interaction in The Silver Chair was always excellent, and it should be more easily managed for cinematic purposes.

Unclose Our Lips

by Christina Rossetti

'Come,' Thou dost say to Angels,
To blessed Spirits, 'Come':
'Come,' to the lambs of Thine own flock,
Thy little ones, 'Come home.'

'Come,' from the many-mansioned house
The gracious word is sent;
'Come,' from the ivory palaces
Unto the Penitent.

O Lord, restore us deaf and blind,
Unclose our lips though dumb:
Then say to us, 'I will come with speed,'
And we will answer, 'Come.'

12 December 1851