Saturday, January 15, 2011

On Climatic Explanations of Ideas and Actions

Benjamin Nelson has an interesting post criticizing my post On Sobriety in Times of Stress. It's worth looking at a bit more closely because it raises important issues of the way in which appeal to a 'climate' or an 'environment' or a 'culture' can function in historical explanations.

Before I get into the meat of the issue, though, I do want to address one issue. One of the pieces of evidence that plays an important secondary role in the discussion is the question of Loughner's connection to American Renaissance; and at one point, after quoting me, he says, "this was written before we found out that Loughner is associated with American Renaissance, so it’s not fair to criticize Brandon for not making that connection." In actual fact, though, the post was written after the rumors went around that the DHS had linked Loughner to American Renaissance (a rumor that went around on January 9) and a few hours after the DHS the next day denied the rumor, thus denying the only original reason for holding that there was any connection at all. It's still conceivable, of course, that evidence might turn up vindicating the original rumor, but as far as I am aware none has.

But Benjamin is quite right that the actual status of the connection is not the really important matter here, so let's suppose that such a connection did exist, and were clearly known to do so. Given this, would it then be a reasonable foundation to appeal to a climate of violence as an explanation in the case? I think the answer is that it could only do so if there were additional information; on its own it is not the right kind of fact to support such an appeal.

To see this we need to step back and think about what it means to appeal at all to a climate or environment as a causal factor. A climate or environment is obviously only causal at all if we think of it as a name describing an entire cloud of causal factors. For instance, if I am trying to explain why, in a war situation, nation A overreacted to intelligence about nation B, I might appeal to a climate of paranoia about B. What I clearly mean here is that, among the many very different causal factors affecting the reactions of A, there were lots of causal factors that increased the likelihood of people in nation A having motivations with regard to B that can be classified as paranoid, and that people with these motivations were actually involved in the overreaction.

Now, how does one provide evidence for such a claim. It seems clear enough, if the description just given is at least in the ballpark that you would need evidence for all of the following:

(1) that there are causal factors increasing the likelihood of of people in A being paranoid about B
(2) that there are lots of such factors
(3) that the circumstances in which such factors operated was such that the actual reaction could be due to them

If new evidence turned up, for instance, that showed that all the supposed causal factors tending to paranoia about B were actually just made up by clever intelligence officers from B, there really is no climate to appeal to. Likewise, if it turned out that the so-called 'climate of paranoia' was really just one or two paranoid people, and that there wasn't much paranoia elsewhere, then, while paranoia about B might still be part of the causal explanation for the overreaction, it's simply a mistake to characterize such explanation as involving a 'climate of paranoia'.

Both (1) and (2) are conditions for there being a climate to appeal to at all. But in appealing to anything for an explanation, one must identify it as relevant, and this is where (3) comes in, and (3) is far and away the most important one for evaluation of explanations, because it's what actually makes something as vaguely identified as a 'climate' still useful for explanation.

Climatic explanations are causal explanations in which the cause is recognized to be manifold (many causal factors) but in which the precise causal actions are not being identified (perhaps because we don't know them with sufficient precision). This vague plurality of causes does make it differ to some extent from other causal explanations, but one thing is clear enough: there is the same need for there to be reason to link this complex group of causal factors with the phenomenon to be explained. We have no handy word for this in the context of climatic explanations, so I'll call it canalization of climate: there needs to be some channel connecting the climate to the actual thing to be explained. I think a good way of seeing how this works is to look at an argument and example Benjamin gives:

A culture is a feature of populations, not just particular interacting persons. You don’t need to know the details about how a society connects specific people with other specific people in order to understand how the culture has had a predictable influence. You just need to establish that the person plays some role in the culture, and that the culture has certain features. By analogy, we will sometimes explain a case of the flu by saying, “there’s a flu going around” — we don’t bother going through the effort of naming the exact person who gave you the virus.

So let's take the case of "there's a flu going around" as an explanation for why someone, let's say Leroy, gets the flu. It's true that this can be explanatory without our having to identify the exact source of the flu. But we still need evidence for canalization. Let's start with the most basic evidence required: as Benjamin says, we need to establish that the person plays some role. If, for instance, there's a flu going around New York and Leroy is in Fishtail, Montana, obviously we have no particular reason to think that the one is an explanation for the other. If, on the other hand, there's a flu going around Fishtail, that is much better. But it's important to see that this is still not enough. In explaining Leroy's flu by a climate of flu, we're not just assuming he's in an area where there is flu; we're assuming that Leroy has been in this area in such a way as to be able to catch it. If Leroy is a hermit who doesn't see people for weeks at a time, during which he catches the flu, saying "there's a flu going around" does not alleviate one whit the mystery of how Leroy got the flu.

All this is with something like the flu, which is, for the purposes of the explanation, a passive state. It is something that happens to you. What is more, it is something contagious: we have excellent reason to think that exposure to the flu, on its own, increases your chances of actually catching the flu. There are aspects of human life that are usefully explained as contagious passive states: biases, for instance. Very simple ideas can also often be explained in such a way. In such a circumstance, when you've established an actual climate favorable to a bias or idea, not 'catching' the bias or idea is what usually needs explaining. If you find that someone lived in an anti-Catholic climate but that they themselves were very pro-Catholic, this is a fact in need of explanation; whereas the mere fact of being anti-Catholic while constantly exposed to an anti-Catholic environment does not -- the environment itself, or rather the exposure to it, explains the fact.

When we trying to explain actions, things are somewhat more difficult, and more precise evidence is required to establish canalization. The reason for this is that action as an explanandum is a much more particular and precise explanandum than something like a bias is. Biases are consistent with a wide range of actual actions: someone who is prejudiced against blacks could be violently prejudiced, or they could avoid them, or they could try to overcome the prejudice, etc., etc. If you're merely trying to explain why someone is prejudiced against blacks, there's very little need for precision. Things change if you are trying to explain why someone goes out of his way to go into primarily black neighborhoods to rock windows; that's much more precise, and the explanation that was adequate for explaining the mere fact of prejudice against blacks is not adequate for explaining such active racist behavior.

Now let's return to the original case and see how climatic explanation works in such a case. We are explaining something that is not a contagious passive state but an action, and because of the sketchiness of the evidence, there are actually quite a few possible explanations still on the table. We could have a climatic explanation; we could explain it as a personal vendetta; we could explain it as having a very particular political cause; and so forth. Such explanations need not always be mutually exclusive, but even if they aren't, if they aren't ruled out, then either the climatic explanation is a rival explanation or the climatic explanation assimilates them; and if the latter, we need to have actual evidence linking them to the canalization of the climate, i.e., actual evidence that they are part of the channel whereby the climate affected the shooter in particular so as to at least explain some features of his actions. In the Loughner case, the weakness of the argument for the superiority of the climatic explanation was part of the target in my post; the evidence put forward to establish canalization was weak at best, and the evidence at the time was mounting that it was something else, namely, an act by someone having gone through a long period of stress while in a deteriorating mental state, and who also held a longstanding personal, albeit irrational, grudge against the victim; and the work of assimilating this evidence to the climatic explanation was simply not being done by those who still preferred the climatic explanation.

But suppose we did have a clear connection to right-wing groups? Would this be adequate to establish canalization? In combination with other things, yes, but on its own, no. We would have to know details about the right-wing group and Loughner's relation to it. We'd obviously need to ask whether there was actually a 'culture of violence' in this right-wing group. Suppose there was a lot of violent rhetoric and preparation for the revolution to come. We'd still need to know that Loughner's participation in this culture was of the right kind to serve an explanatory role. If, for instance, we had evidence that Loughner was drawn to the group because he already had violent tendencies and already fully agreed with their message, appeal to the culture of violence in that group would contribute nothing of significance to the explanation. We wouldn't need to know every detail, but in order to assess the quality of the climatic explanation at all we'd still need to know enough details to establish that both the group and Loughner's participation in it were of the right sort to make canalization possible -- i.e., to make the climate an actually discernible contributing cause to Loughner's behavior. The participation in the right-wing group would be a solid foundation for inquiry into whether it was the cause, because we know that extremist groups can be causal factors in behavior. It would be reasonable to ask the question. But what makes for a good foundation for a question can be very different from what makes for a good foundation for an explanation.

There are other things we'd have to consider, though. Since extremist right-wing groups, considered generally, tend to exist regardless of the general climate, even if we identified the culture of violence in an extremist right-wing group as a real contributing cause, we wouldn't be able to draw the conclusion that a more general culture of violence was responsible -- we'd have established canalization, but only for the local climate of the right-wing group. In order to go farther we'd need to do one of two things: (1) find evidence for another, distinct canalization that showed that the general climate played a separate, direct contributing role; or (2) find evidence supporting the claim that the local climate of violence was itself canalized from the general climate of violence, thus establishing that the general climate played an indirect contributing role. Nobody attributes a cross-burning by the Klan to a general culture of violence, even if they recognize that there is such a general culture of violence, for the reason that everyone recognizes that the local culture of local chapters of the Klan is entirely capable of being violent independently of the general culture; if somebody wanted to hold that in a particular case the general culture played a role, they'd have to argue either that in this particular case there were additional factors clearly at work, or else that this particular local culture of the Klan originated, or was revived by, the general culture. To establish that the culture of the "Palin vanguard" had a role, whether direct or indirect, we need to establish that there actually was a channel of the right kind from the Palin vanguard. If we don't have that, we haven't established that the right culture is involved.

Thus climatic explanations end up being much more complicated than I think Benjamin suggests. It's not just a matter of establishing that there was a culture and that the person played a role in it; one must also establish that the circumstances of the culture, and the role played, are of the right sort to make them explanatory rather than incidental. And since everyone is surrounded by lots of cultures and climates and environments all the time, attributing a causal role to any one of them requires some very specific evidence; we need to show that it's at least plausible to say that the climate channeled into the behavior somehow.

In the end, I tend to approach these questions as someone who does history of philosophy; one must occasionally resort to climatic explanations in history of philosophy as in any other history. Climatic explanations can always be given greater specificity, and one hopes to, but sometimes we're stuck with "it seems to have been in the air" or "the idea was going around" or "it was a key part of the culture of the time", and sometimes we make use of such explanations for legitimate practical purposes even when we can specify further. But it's also a very dangerous sort of explanation. Because it leaves the key explanatory factors as vague plurality, we have to be especially careful about what I've called canalization here: if you play it too loosely then it's very easy to pass off non-explanations as if they were explanatory, or even to think that something explains something when there is a much better explanation available that requires no appeal to climate or culture or environment at large. And this is true with regard to all sorts of areas outside of any historical discipline. If, for instance, I wanted to attribute some phenomenon to the slothfulness of American culture, I need to establish that there is actually a 'channel' of the right sort between the slothfulness and the phenomenon, that some of the things making American culture slothful are actually operative in bringing about the phenomenon. And, likewise, if we want to argue that a particular violent act is due to a larger culture of violence, we must have definite evidence establishing a channel there, too. Otherwise we aren't drawing reasonable conclusions but speculating wildly.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Leaves of Healing

Now that the leaves of the tree we speak of are not valueless but are a source of health to the nations is testified by St. John in the Apocalypse, where he says: And He shewed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb; in the midst of the street of it and on either side of the river the tree of life, bearing twelve manner of fruits, yielding its fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree are for the healing the nations (Rv. 22:1).

Bodily manifestations so reveal the mysteries of heaven that, although matter by itself cannot convey the full spiritual meaning, yet to regard them only in their material aspect is to mutilate them. We should have expected to hear that there were trees, not one tree, standing on either side of the river shewn to the saint. But because the tree of Life in the sacrament of Baptism is in every case one, supplying to those that come to it on every side the fruits of the apostolic message, so there stands on either side of the river one tree of Life. There is one Lamb seen amid the throne of God, and one river, and one tree of Life: three figures wherein are comprised the mysteries of the Incarnation, Baptism and Passion, whose leaves, that is to say, the words of the Gospel, bring healing to the nations through the teaching of a message that cannot fall to the ground.

Hilary of Poitiers, Homily on Psalm I, sect. 17. St. Hilary's feast was yesterday. He was an interesting one -- the most Greek of the Latin Fathers, a married bishop, the Hammer of the Arians, a Doctor of the Church.

Probably Not the Best Example.... is currently the place to find loads and loads of stupid lists thrown together with minimal research, but one does occasionally find a serious topic tackled, as with this list of 5 Ridiculous Things You Probably Believe about Islam. I actually agree with most of the article, but I find this argument a bit weak:

Another reason was that the Founding Fathers were smart enough to distinguish between terrorists and everybody else on the whole damn planet, as demonstrated in the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797. It was in this agreement that the U.S. declared: "The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Mussulmen [Moslems]."

The problem with this was that the Treaty of Tripoli wasn't signed with peaceable Muslim kingdoms but with the Barbary states (officially part of the Ottoman Empire but for all practical purposes functioning as independent satellite states), whose favored economic activity consisted of seizing ships and either ransoming its crew or selling them into slavery. Prior to the American Revolution we were protected by the most powerful navy in the world, but after it we needed to protect ourselves. Spain helpfully got us out of our first scrape once the pirates realized we were ripe for looting, but it was clear that it couldn't go on. We took the only route seriously available to such a weak naval power as the U.S. was at that time: we arranged to pay the princes of the Barbary nations protection money. That was the whole point of the Treaty of Tripoli; it was a treaty with pirates in which we agreed to pay them if they would stop hijacking ships and taking Americans hostage. Every word in the treaty has to be understood in this context; Article 11, which is quoted above, is nothing other than an affirmation that because we had no established church we would not get Christian scruples and try to wiggle out of payment, but continue to be good little cash cows.

Such diplomacy is very tricky; the problem with paying pirates protection money is that they have a tendency to want more free money. Fortunately, Jefferson and the Founding Fathers were no idiots; they began building up the U.S. Navy (the Department of the Navy was founded in 1798, not so long after the Treaty of Tripoli) in preparation for the inevitable time when it would come to blows. The Pasha of Tripoli got greedy, began demanding ever higher payments, until Jefferson, who had always had his doubts about the long-term effectiveness of tribute, got tired of it and refused. The Pasha of Tripoli then broke the treaty, leading to the First Barbary War. (Algiers and Tunis, the other Barbary states, did not follow Tripoli into war.) Congress didn't declare war, but they did authorize Jefferson to do what was required to respond to the Pasha's acts of war. One of the famous events of that War, of course, was the extraordinary daring feat of the recently formed U.S. Marines, led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, in storming and recapturing the U.S.S. Philadelphia. The Pasha agreed to another treaty in which we ransomed back our prisoners, but did not have to pay further tribute to Tripoli. The Second Barbary War began in 1815 with Algiers, in another variation on the theme of the previous war.

So, while it's likely true that most of the Founding Fathers "were smart enough to distinguish between terrorists and everybody else", it's probably not a good idea to try to support that claim with a treaty whose whole purpose was to try to bribe and flatter pirates into not attacking us; particularly given that pirates were pretty much the closest think in pre-modern times to what we would call terrorists nowadays (which is why they traditionally have been treated very harshly by international law).

Notable Notes and Linkable Links

* Philosophers' Carnival #119 is up at "The Philosopher's Beard".

* Paul Newall has a fine post criticizing Pennock's recent criticisms of Laudan.

* Jeremy Pierce on Tolkien and Mixed Race.

* The Western Confucian suggests music to go with a Christina Rossetti poem.

* In a different vein, Ben Moore has set Francis Thompson's "The Kingdom of God," as read by Ravi Zacharias, to an electronic dance track. It's catchy.

* X-Cathedra has an interesting post on analytic philosophy of religion and Catholic philosophy.

* One of the things that's often forgotten is that, by virtue of the annexation of Hawaii as a state, the United States does have a royal family -- one with no constitutional status, but one which is also widely recognized within one state of the fifty. The surviving members break up into the primary line, the House of Kamehama, and the secondary line, the House of Keoua Nui. The person usually considered the current Titular Queen Regnant of the Kingdom of Hawaii is Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa; the primary heir to the House of Kamehama is Quentin Kuhio Kawananakoa, a Hawaiian politician, and the heirs to the House of Keoua Nui are the musician Owana Salazar and her children, Kapumahana Ka Ľahumanu Walters (best known for being a former Miss Teen USA) and Noa Kalokuokamaile DeGuire. Since the Kingdom of Hawaii is defunct and there is no Hawaiian throne to be heir to, being a Hawaiian prince or princess is a pretty minor thing, purely titular, sustained only by polite custom. But the custom exists nonetheless. You can read up a bit on the current lines of succession here.

* Reid's Ethics at the SEP.

* John Schwenkler, Michael Dummett on the Morality of Contraception

* Rep. Dan Burton apparently plans to push legislation that would enclose the House Gallery with Plexiglass. I can entirely understand why members of Congress might think they need a shield to prevent people from throwing things at them. And a further advantage is that if some lunatic actually managed to blow up the House, no one important would get hurt, because the shield would keep it in. But it probably won't pass.

* NASA has discovered that thunderstorms create antimatter streams: the intense electrical fields touch off a reaction in the upper atmosphere that creates antimatter (in minute amounts, of course).

* Julia Galef has an article on philosophy of religion. It's a very weak article, highly speculative, with only the loosest foundation in evidence, and not much attempt to consider or even recognize alternative solutions -- it never seems to occur to Galef, for instance, that one of the possibilities a rational person has to consider when post-hoc rationalization is raised as an explanation for one side of a dispute is that of post-hoc rationalization on the other side as well. Rationalization is an external explanation, positing that the primary effective motives are not internal to the domain, and therefore it is not content-selective; it can just as easily occur for one position, even a true position, as for opposing positions, and whether it really occurs at all can only be determined by an actual look at the psychological and sociological evidence. (However, in fairness to Galef, she does do one thing right: she avoids making the false assumption that rationalizations contribute nothing to inquiry, although the argument given for rejecting it is one of the weaker ones available.)


* The solution to economic woes:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dashed Off

Some jotted notes; all the standard caveats apply.

styles of argument architecture (the aesthetics of argument presentation & of argument construction)

Over and over one finds people poisoning their minds with continual streams of political commentary; this is one sign, albeit a pathological one, of the need people have of using their intellects in a social way, much as excessive eating of junk food is a pathological sign of the need for sugars and fats.

As faith has preambles, so too does hope (and faith and hope are preambles to charity).

Circumstances change the species of moral acts when they add or reduce repugnance to reason.

Nothing has its relation to the First Cause by chance; but it is consistent with this to say that things can be related to each other by chance.

The relation between virtue and moral rule is by way of the mean.

the seed-idea of an argument, around which it crystallizes

Hedonistic utilitarianism is right insofar as useful good is ordered to pleasurable good, but it is incomplete insofar as pleasurable good is ordered to worthy good.

The powers of teh instrument are applied to its actual operation by its principal mover, as when the capabilities of a pen are applied to writing by the writer.

(1) What actually belongs to a being whose actual being is other than its nature is either caused by the principles of its nature or comes to be from some extrinsic principle.
(2) Actual being is not caused by the principles of a thing's nature.
: If actual being were caused by a thing's form, essence, or quiddity, something would be cause of itself.
(3) Everything that has actual being from an extrinsic principle is traced back to something that has actual being in virtue of its nature
: infinite regress.
(4) Therefore, &c.

'the radiance of satisfaction, the garden of concord'

Charity orders even (human) wisdom and wisdom orders even prudence, which orders all moral virtues.

Virtues by their nature are proficiencies that complete our humanity with respect to its capacity for doing good.

the facts about change that are presupposed by experiments in general (transcendental arguments from the human act of experimenting)

The processes by which one transforms syllogisms of one figure into syllogisms of another figure are like translations and rotations of objects. Thus Aristotle's syllogistic is in part like a topological study of mediate inference; and transformations into First Figure are logically more important than some have thought -- as often happens, despite his handicaps and limitations in playing it, Aristotle is playing a far more sophisticated game than those who condescend and criticize him are playing.

With the painter example Anselm tells us exactl what he means be esse in intellectu.

the interplication of slow and swift forms of reflection
Swift reflection is oftne error-ridden, but also often fruitful; whereas slow reflection is often the opposite. (It varies according to the circumstnaces, of course.)

If society focuses on pleasure, it needs to be told of Hell; and if it focuses on the gloom of life, it needs to be told of Heaven; and if it focuses on inertia, it needs to be mocked mercilessly.

The power to punish is dangerous; the power to reward even more so.

almsgiving as a form of purification

Islam is a poetic and philosophical outworking of the idea of submission to God; in this sense Muslims are correct when they argue that Islam is natural religion. The Beautiful Names are poetic expressions of teh many ways in which God may be an object of submission -- as Merciful, as Light, as Avenger, as Punisher, as Guide, as Everlasting, as Living, as Wise, as Vast, as Rewarder, and so forth. (This root is more clearly seen in the Meccan surahs than the Medinan, and in the facets of Islam that are concerned with tariqah than those concerned with shari'ah.) And it is because of this that Sufi Islam can seem both very distinctively Muslim and very natural and universal.

the names ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim as indicative of egress and regress from God (the Outbreathing of the Compassionate, the Inbreathing of the Merciful)

For precisely the same reasons Jewish worship before Christ was prefigurative, it is even now, and will always be for as long as it lasts, figurative. But while before Christ it prefigured Christ simply, in being practiced after Christ it figures Christ incompletely, for it occurs with unqualified nonacceptance of Christ under the aspect of his first advent, but not under the aspect of his second advent. Or rather: it still figures Christ as promised, and also as implicit in the promises, but is an incomplete figure becuase it does not figure Christ as given. For even we still but figure Christ in the fullness of promise, although we have Christ as given to us, and as we are given to him.

Salvation is participation in paschal mystery by appropriate sign: this is why 'baptism of blood' is possible.

the irrevocable vocation of Israel (Rm 11:29)

Christian charity cannot proceed primarily by courting the favor of governments, although charity can indeed counsel.

Exchange, deference, and care as genera of the potential parts of justice.

Aquinas runs the Fourth Way by way of the maximally true, following Aristotle; but one could also run it by way of the maximally beautiful, following Augustine (cf. De Civ 8:6) and the Platonists generally (cf. Symposium 210e-211d, and Aquinas somewhere in the Sentences commentary; and likewise by way of the maximally good.

virtual containment of one causal power in another

The first thing geometry teaches is that from very little, thought out well, vast vistas of thought may arise.

Reasonable habits of moral deference protect one from hubris and self-indulgence.

Taking Goethe as the 'Newton of biology' seeds a Romantic Naturphilosophie; putting Darwin in such a role also seeds a Naturphilosophie, although, it would seem, not a Romantic one. The genetic process and the most general structural features have major similarities; there is no doubt that they are kin even if not close kin and they are kin precisely as each is a Naturphilosophie.

Drop by drop is wisdom distilled and step by step is understanding reached.

Truth and goodness are being in light of life; for life takes being as an object. Unity is here, too, because life takes objects by a union: true and good are being insofar as it can be one with life.

Truth of speech is veracity; truth of sentency is therefore merely suitability to veracity.

the link between original thought and catharsis

We get the idea of participation by beginning with the partial and the whole, the follo, or the complete.

To ask of each idea, what is the simplest version of this?

Tendency & the pre-existence of a final cause are the same thing.

Sacred doctrine adds to the moods of scripture the inquisitive mood. This does not mean that sacred doctrine operates only in the inquisitive mood. But as it is the mood most key to sacred doctrine's being a kind of teaching, the other moods become moods of sacred doctrine by being at least combinable with the inquisitive mood.

the book of Job as a study of divine sublimity

When the scholastics spoke of locomotion as motus, they were always thinking of it insofar, and only insofar, as this locomotion *involves action and passion*, for that is what motus is. The late medieval period began, and the early post-medieval period finished, the hard work that established the surprising fact that it is intelligible to consider some things we call locomotion without thinking of action or passion, and, indeed, leaving the whole matter of action and passion in abeyance. Strictly speaking this did not show that there is no action and passion in these inertial cases, but only that, of the things we call locomotion, some are such in ways that require understanding them direclty in terms of action and passion, and others are such in ways that require understanding them at most indirectly in terms of action and passion. Virtually all the difference between standard Aristotelian and standard Newtonian ways fo talking about locomotion are found in this.

The Trinity is the background of every other Christian doctrine.

Ps. 95 & the theology of Scripture (as in Hebrews)

One reason there is no redemption without blood is that virtually universally people have, rightly or wrongly as you may insist it to be, associated redemption and similar things with animal sacrifice; & thus to mark it as clearly redemptive, prior to Christ, in whom these notions receive their proper expansion, one must mark it with blood. And one reason Christ's redemptive work msut be one of blood is so that there may be no question that Christ's redemption is superior precisely as redemption to what is associated with animal sacrifice. And so, where Christianity has gone, animal sacrifice has eventually faded; for no blood more is needed when Christ has bled for us.

Doubt and perplexity are not the same.

A philosophical system is a multi-dimensional thing capable of being reorganized many different ways, even without significant variation of content, each of which brings out different glints and hues.

The practical problem with semper reformanda is that it presents a task no human beings can perform. Reformers are as subject to original sin; thus the thrust of reformation as a human activity always has a skew that leads reformers, over time, to reform their reform into incoherence at best and perversion and depravity at worst. Resolve can delay this, but human resolution cannot do so indefinitely. True spiritual reform is an act of which the Holy Spirit alone is genuinely capable.

the ecclesiology of Ps 48
the study of Church history & the diversity of its cultures (Ps 48:13-15)

Ps 37 & the theology of the Beatific Vision (the land = the Vision, cf. 37:4)

Peace is found in turning from evil and doing good.

as though by some etceteration
our endful lives were endless made

Ps 32 & the theology of reconciliation
- note that 32:1-2 exhibits both imputation and more than mere imputation (in their spirit no deceit)

God our city (Ps 31:22)

Torah cannot be mere law, for it instructs, enlightens, and refreshes.

The Psalms teach us that the kind of security given by God is the security of victory.

Christ as the Pattern of Blessings (Ps. 21:7)

It is a sign of foolishness to think that every kind of classification should carve nature at its joints.

It is remarkable that those who have insisted that Christian doctrines of sexuality are esp. distorting have done almost none of the comparative work required to show this.

An account of inquiry that does not leave an important place for idiographic reporting of experience is necessarily incomplete.

It is not quite true that statistics concerns itself with analysis of data; rather, it concerns itself with analysis of patterns to which data is subject insofar as it is analyzable.

Certain people in the early years of anthropology used the discoveries of anthropology to argue that religion was merely a primitive survival; but whta they really showed was that even the most attenuated rituals host the residua of profoundly primeval experience.

internally felt fluidity and solidity

intrinsic & extrinsic pathways of argumentative cascades

Human minds get their depth in great measure from their capacity to summarize many other minds.

the sense of the phonic structure of language as a prerequisite for poetry

No account of separation of church & state can be coherent save that which rests, directly or indirectly, on freedom of conscience as part of common good.

dogmatic definitions as apotropaic formulae

the political arts of humility

Character development plays only a minor role in the movement of stories; it becomes important only in certain genres.

Christ is heir of God in a threefold way: by birth, by adoption,and by appointment (exaltation as representative).

Human dominion over the earth is an extension of our dominion over our own acts, which is grounded in reason and will. Human beings only have dominion over the earth to the extent that their actions are consistent with genuine lordship, and their actions are only consistent with genuine lordship to the extent that they act with authority; and they only act with authority, as opposed to usurpation, to the exten they act in light of universal good, and in ways consistent with the authority whence they have authority.

recusatio as a means of political power

unity of action, unity of setting, and unity of sentiment in the whole canon of Scripture

Resurrection as the objective correlate of the experience of the Church

In the cross of Christ parodic enthronement becomes symbol of the real enthronment of ascension, and the wordly analogue of heavenly truth.

the literary simultaneity of a text

Soul is cause of the living body as form, as agent, and as end.

the affinity between imagination & intellect

Time is as continuous as change, no more and no less.

The fundamental problem of science is not experiment, nor theory, nor confirmation or disconfirmation, but communication of what is important when and where it is useful.

Note that the book of Ruth itself makes the parallel between Ruth & Tamar (Ru 4:12).

The glory of empires is the sunset reflected in their windows.

4 elements of tradition
(1) the written page of Scripture
(2) the preaching and doctrine of the apostles and Fathers
(3) the age-old common practices of the Church
(4) continuing reception of the enduring & consistent guidance of the Paraclete

Christ as full of grace, Mary as made graceful

The direction of scientific progress is toward the sublime.

Songs 4:7 // Eph 5:27
- authorizes ecclesiological interp.

True love is as wonderful as the sunrise, but it's also as quotidian and easy to take for granted. But it is precisely the quotidian that distinguishes true love from its gaudy imitations.

Our presential self-knowledge is experience of ourselves as principle.

Metaphysics is the science of what can admit of actual being.

The wisdom of the Fathers contains eminenter that which may be drawn out by others in many different ways; this rich diversity is in the patristic gift, but eminently rather than formally.

In the apprehension of the Church there is no development: that is faith itself. But in the judgment, that is, the articulation of faith, there is one kind of development; and in the discourse of the Church there is another kind of development -- many kinds, in fact, to correspond to many kinds of discourse.

hierarchy of angels as analogous to hierarchy of virtues

"Wisdom and prudence are acquired, says Aristotle, by one who is content to sit down and be quiet." Aquinas

Thought is more like rest than like movement.

motus : incomplete :: operatio : complete

"There is nothing on earth more beautiful than the birth of an idea when, in its pristine novelty, it throws a new light on our old world." Gilson

Criticism, more than metaphysics, is a battlefield of endless controversies.

Constructivism is in a sense always right, because the intellect produces concepts; it is always incomplete because it does not produce concepts in a void.

Whether something is inconsistent is a fact amenable to logical analysis on its own. Whether something is a paradox or sophism, however, is a fact about psychology, and requires an equivalent, in the arena of logic, to moral psychology in the arena of ethics.

Constantinople has its patriarchal status wholly as New Rome, not replacing Rome, but solely as an extension of Rome.

The wicked walk circuitously. (Ps. 11:9)

The right goal in translating Scripture is not to convert Scripture's words into the language, but to convert the language's words into Scripture.

Human dao participates divine dao; natural dao participates divine dao.

Hope lends sorrow a nobility that often makes it greater, not less.

Faithful reason adorns the wedding dress of the Bride of the Lamb with endless pearls of extraordinary nacreous beauty; these pearls it forms itself and within itself.

the analogy between metaphysics & mysticism

Pace Wang Bi, one as the principle of numbers is not one as the ultimate of all things.

Being pregnant with potential is intrinsically valuable; and poets regularly recognize this.

Even if beliefs were wholly & always involuntary, it would still sometimes be culpable not to try to change them, just as it is sometimes culpable not to try to change other things that come on one involuntarily.

It is difficult to find consistency in Locke's Essay because it is honestly what it tries to be -- i.e., as Locke wrote to Stillingfleet, "it is a copy of my own mind, in its several ways of operation." And for all the underlying principles, minds are very unruly things.

Jesus as the armor of light (Rm 13:11-14)

"Whatever has potentiality, from the very fact that it does, evidently has the nature of good." Aquinas

Nothing becomes crystal-clear without long patience.

If 'instrumentally valuable' can cover cases of 'potentially F' as well as 'instrumental for F', it is no longer univocal.

A phenomenon becomes evidence only when understood in such a way as to be relevant to something else.

motivating, directing, & completing features of the liturgy

The primary question for the beginner: What more must be done to love well?

virtue as consisting more in what one does not experience than in what one does experience (John of the Cross)

The beginner perhaps is not advanced enough to silence the faculties; but quieting them and calming them somewhat is entirely within reach.

The task of the beginner is perpetually to prepare for grace: to trim the wick, to sweep the house, to lay out clothes for the feast.

Difficult as it is for some to grasp, the realm of reason is quite as vast and rich as the realm of life, and requires study and classification quite as full and intricate.

The logical analysis of analytic philosophy is like statics; and one must not confuse statics with dynamics, as Captain Nemo rightly says, or one will be subject to grave mistakes.

"By observing the human mind at work, in its failures as well as its successes, we can experience the intrinsic necessity of the same connections of ideas which pure philosophy can justify by abstract reasoning." Gilson

Motus occurs in the categories of action & passion, & in a looser sense time, for these categories pertain to various aspects of motus.

little detachments in the life of spiritual beginners

One sign that something is wrong with utilitarian ethics is that even the damned can be utilitarian.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Much Better than Mere Civility

From President Obama's speech on the Tucson shooting:

But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that’s what most of us do when we lose someone in our family – especially if the loss is unexpected. We’re shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?


The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

Exactly the right thing to say; not only is this the best speech I can remember Obama having given, it's arguably the best speech in the face of tragedy that has been given by a President in a long time. Bravo.

Ancient, Dreamless, Uninvaded Sleep

The Kraken
by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Another Poem Draft


With anguish cry our souls to heaven,
whence no hint of Presence comes,
though in the sky the clouds are riven,
dooming like the battle-drums.
With worry do our hearts seek solace
in the church and temple-place;
but ah! is not our God too flawless
to be confined to such small space?

His mercy is the sun in brilliance;
you see it every day from dawn
as it bursts forth with new resilience
on the dewdrops of the lawn.
And think, O man, with what strange wile
you see no God as, hurt, you pray --
though God beams back in each bright smile
of ladies beautiful as day!

For God moves not just star and ocean,
nor just planet in its round;
he moves your mind to lightning-notion
as drummer moves the drum to sound;
and as the writer guides the pen
with writing straight and crooked line,
so God takes up your heart within
and writes with penmanship divine.

Not in heaven only glory
rides on cherubim of grace,
nor is providential story
writ only in your praying-place!
But lo! the world that bursts and flowers,
the scent and feel of fresh-cut sod,
the maiden waiting in her bower --
here look and see the Face of God!

Loughner in the Eyes of His Philosophy Professor

Jared Lee Loughner's philosophy teacher reflects on his experience with Loughner. I think it's a mistake, however, to characterize Loughner's thinking as nonsensical; it's not coherent, but nonsensical and incoherent are very different. I may have to write a post on that sometime.

I've had students like Loughner as he was when Slinker knew him; they are actually not all that uncommon at community colleges. The comment about handing in pages of geometrical symbols rather than what was actually assigned is very familiar. Such students are generally bright and creative, but either lack discipline of mind, have a sense of relevance that is very weak, or have very undeveloped capacity for self-critique. To say that they have scrambled brains is not really fair; rather, they have scrambled backgrounds of one sort or another that have resulted in a need to learn systematically what most people pick up as they go along -- a need which ordinary class situations aren't usually suited to fulfill. Temperamentally, some of them are troubled, some of them are very sweet; in either case, however, I don't think that what is usually taught in introductory philosophy classes is healthy for them. I'm very pleased that Slinker tried to work with Loughner to find alternative assignments; that's exactly what such students usually need. It's very sad that Loughner didn't respond to the offers.

I have to say something about this, though:

The odd thing about Loughner's syllogisms is that they're not far off from examples Slinker might use in class. "When you teach logic, you draw a distinction between truth and inference," says Slinker. To illustrate that, a teacher might say, "If chickens could fly upside down, then George W. Bush would be president in 2098." The statement isn't true. It just serves as a premise from which to draw conclusion.

Conditional statements of almost any sort are logical bugbears: they're everywhere and they are almost everywhere hard to pin down logically. How to interpret indicative conditional statements is a matter of some controversy; there's a standard way to do it, as a material conditional (i.e., as meaning the same as 'either the antecedent is false or the consequent is true'), but the primary reason that this is the standard way to interpret such statements is just that it's the easiest, being a relatively simple interpretation that can be used with relatively simple logical rules. When teaching propositional logic one typically gets around this by making stipulations left and right to guarantee that conditional statements act like material conditionals, but natural language is not always so hospitable. But what we are dealing with in the above conditional is a subjunctive or counterfactual conditional statement, and subjunctive conditionals in natural language make indicative conditionals look like easy little puzzles. Consider the following two subjunctive conditional statements:

If John were in Tokyo, he'd be in Australia.
If John were in Tokyo, he'd be in Japan.

Suppose that John is neither in Australia nor Japan. Thus if we were to misread these as indicative conditionals, all the antecedents and consequents are false. But while the first conditional statement is false, the second is true. There are about a jillion different accounts of why this might be so, all with troubles of one sort or another. But because subjunctive conditional statements are stubbornly resistant to easy logical analysis, when faced with a conditional statement like, "If chickens could fly upside down, then George W. Bush would be president in 2098," we can't say whether the conditional is false unless we know the context in sufficient detail to be able to say what the relationship between chickens flying upside down and Bush being president in 2098 is.

This is why one tries to stick to indicative statements in basic logic; I would shy away from an example like the above if I could at all avoid it, and if I had to use it for some reason, I'd feel compelled to add all the qualifications that drive my students up the wall. I doubt that Slinker actually uses examples like this very much in class; if he's like anyone else, he uses indicative conditionals. It's notable in this regard that Loughner's syllogisms are all basic modus ponens and modus tollens syllogisms, using only indicative conditionals. This is why they often sound stilted and repetitive; the awkwardness of the English is not due to grammatical incompetence but due to the fact that he is pushing and pulling the language so that it fits the logical form. But it's not odd that Loughner's syllogisms look like teaching examples for basic logic in a philosophy class: that's clearly where he picked up the habit. And I don't think it's difficult to see why he took to it. Logic has a paradoxical character some students have difficulty with and some students revel in: it's both very structured and very free, like dreams or Alice in Wonderland.

Monday, January 10, 2011

On Sobriety in Times of Stress

People are, of course, speculating wildly about Jared Lee Loughner and his motivations on the basis of the very slim pickings that are to be had; the Guardian, for instance, published a piece that consists of little else, in which practically every sentence has to be assessed anew in light of the actual evidence, given that the reporter is so sloppy at distinguishing speculation and evidence: Yes, Loughner talks a great deal about currency; yes, he mentions briefly in a few places the gold standard, but it's not at all clear how an actual gold standard fits into his (much more extensive) discussions of currency; yes, the Constitution "figures heavily" in one of his rants, and very little anywhere else; no, rants about government mind control are not plausibly held up as an echo of standard Tea Party rhetoric; etc., etc. In cases like this it is important not to over-read the evidence. There is at present no evidence whatsoever linking Loughner to Sarah Palin, and no evidence whatsoever that Loughner was influenced by Palin's crosshairs list (or, since it had become a popular device in the past three or four years, any of the many bullseye/crosshairs/target lists, Republican or Democrat, that predate Palin's). There is at present, in fact, no clear association of Loughner with any political group.

All these are rather elementary examples, and don't require much more than basic critical thinking skills and a little research. There are marginally more informed speculations that make a slightly more careful weighing of the evidence, but even here we need to be careful. For instance, this comment:

Other organisations monitoring extremist groups have noted that Loughner spoke despairingly of a "second American constitution", a reference used by some extreme rightwingers to post-civil war constitutional amendments that ended slavery and gave them citizenship.

Barring actual evidence that this in particular comes from a right-wing source, immediately associating the phrase "second American constitution" with "extreme right wingers" is overinterpretation of the evidence; it's a common phrase, usually deriving from George Fletcher's fairly widely read book on the Reconstruction Amendments. There's no obvious way to tell where Loughner picked it up; conceivably it could be from an extreme group critical of the Reconstruction Amendments or Lincoln-style nationalism, a White Nationalist group, for instance, as some have suggested (largely on the basis of a rumor that has now been disconfirmed), or he could have picked it up from some other source and simply drawn a similar conclusion -- it's not as if it's difficult.

All of this is especially clear given that, as more information has come in, the evidence all seems to point to serious mental illness: the swift descent into wildly erratic behavior over the course of a single year, the apparent disassociation from reality indicated by his repeated references to his being asleep, the compulsion for any sort of order indicated by the very incoherent syllogizing, the obsession with words as constitutive of reality, etc. All very suggestive of schizophrenia or some similar disorder (which wouldn't explain the violence, but would need to be considered when discussing motive). It's very possible that new countervailing evidence will turn up, but at present there's no reason to believe that there is any coherent motive or any straightforward influence in this case.

Whenever dealing with violence of this sort, the only proper response is sober regard for the truth; wild speculation does no one any good and can do much harm.

Far from Our Holy Place

By the Waters of Babylon
by Christina Rossetti

By the waters of Babylon
We sit down and weep,
Far from the pleasant land
Where our fathers sleep;
Far from our Holy Place
From which the Glory is gone;
We sit in dust and weep
By the waters of Babylon.

By the waters of Babylon
The willow trees grow rank:
We hang our harps thereon
Silent upon the bank.
Before us the days are dark,
And dark the days that are gone;
We grope in the very dark
By the waters of Babylon.

By the waters of Babylon
We thirst for Jordan yet,
We pine for Jerusalem
Whereon our hearts are set:
Our priests defiled and slain,
Our princes ashamed and gone,
Oh how should we forget
By the waters of Babylon?

By the waters of Babylon
Tho' the wicked grind the just,
Our seed shall yet strike root
And shall shoot up from the dust:
The captive shall lead captive,
The slave rise up and begone,
And thou too shalt sit in dust
O daughter of Babylon.

The Shaqiq Test of Importance

It is said of the Sufi mystic Shaqiq of Balkh that he was once traveling to Mecca by way of Baghdad. And as he came to Baghdad, he was summoned to the court of the great Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who had heard of his wisdom and wished the man's advice in running the realm.

Then Shaqiq said to the Caliph, "Suppose you were in the desert and dying of thirst. Would you be willing to give up half your realm for a drink of water, and accept that others might be given authority over it if only you were to live?"

Then the Caliph said, "I would."

Then Shaqiq said, "And suppose that, having drunk the water, you found that your health was in such straits that you could not pass it, and because of this were again in danger of dying. Would you not give up half your realm for someone who could relieve you, and accept that others might be given authority over it if only you were to live?"

And the Caliph said, "I would."

"Then," said Shaqiq, "why do you go about so pompously because you rule a realm when there are circumstances under which you would exchange it for only a drink of water that would go in one end of you and out the other?"

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Unfulfilled Potential

I sometimes wonder how much we lose because we don't look past the superficial. I was thinking about this today in particular because somebody had mentioned somewhere The Station Agent, starring Peter Dinklage. Dinklage is one of my favorite actors: he is stunningly good. But he very rarely gets roles that are really worthy of the quality of his acting -- occasionally, but there's so much potential that I can't help but feel sad occasionally that Hollywood won't step up to the challenge of actually writing roles for actors like Dinklage rather than for the Next Pretty Young Thing. The Station Agent was, for Hollywood, an unusual thing. (It's quite a good movie, if you haven't seen it -- funny and serious and intelligent all at once.)

And, of course, there are actors who probably have the potential but never even get as far as Dinklage. Who would be on your list of actors for whom Hollywood should write more and better?

ADDED LATER: Of course there are probably also excellent actors whose potential in some sense rarely has the opportunity to be fulfilled because they have weird selection of movies. Morgan Freeman has occasionally hit on a really good movie, but just think of how many Freeman movies have as their only significant redeeming point that they have Freeman in them. Freeman himself has actually done pretty well for himself, especially of late, but consider the question opened up to include that type of actor as well -- the ones who are great actors, but only get good roles in bad movies.

Jordan Must Cleave to Let Us Through

It's the Feast of Christ's Baptism, so this seems a fitting poem for the day:

Martyr's Song
by Christina Rossetti

We meet in joy, tho' we part in sorrow;
We part tonight, but we meet tomorrow.
Be it flood or blood the path that's trod,
All the same it leads home to God:
Be it furnace-fire voluminous,
One like God's Son will walk with us.

What are these that glow from afar,
These that lean over the golden bar,
Strong as the lion, pure as the dove,
With open arms and hearts of love?
They the blessed ones gone before,
They the blessed for evermore.
Out of great tribulation they went
Home to their home of Heaven-content;
Thro' flood, or blood, or furnace-fire,
To the rest that fulfils desire.

What are these that fly as a cloud,
With flashing heads and faces bowed,
In their mouths a victorious psalm,
In their hands a robe and a palm?
Welcoming angels these that shine,
Your own angel, and yours, and mine;
Who have hedged us both day and night
On the left hand and on the right,
Who have watched us both night and day
Because the devil keeps watch to slay.

Light above light, and Bliss beyond bliss,
Whom words cannot utter, lo, Who is This?
As a King with many crowns He stands,
And our names are graven upon His hands;
As a Priest, with God-uplifted eyes,
He offers for us His Sacrifice;
As the Lamb of God for sinners slain,
That we too may live He lives again;
As our Champion behold Him stand,
Strong to save us, at God's Right Hand.

God the Father give us grace
To walk in the light of Jesus' Face.
God the Son give us a part
In the hiding-place of Jesus' Heart:
God the Spirit so hold us up
That we may drink of Jesus' cup.

Death is short and life is long;
Satan is strong, but Christ more strong.
At His Word, Who hath led us hither,
The Red Sea must part hither and thither.
At His Word, Who goes before us too,
Jordan must cleave to let us thro'.

Yet one pang searching and sore,
And then Heaven for evermore;
Yet one moment awful and dark,
Then safety within the Veil and the Ark;
Yet one effort by Christ His grace,
Then Christ for ever face to face.

God the Father we will adore,
In Jesus' Name, now and evermore:
God the Son we will love and thank
In this flood and on the farther bank:
God the Holy Ghost we will praise,
In Jesus' Name, thro' endless days:
God Almighty, God Three in One,
God Almighty, God alone.