Saturday, September 10, 2011

Two Poem Re-Drafts

How Strange that You Think I Love You

How strange that you think I love you
when only time will tell:
when I've conquered death and heartache
and braved the gates of hell,
when, world within my fingers,
I let it slip on through
for wonder of your whisper,
for glory that is you.

How strange that you think I love you;
all around this sinful world
the serpent of destruction
like gallows-noose is curled.
Till, like thunder rising,
I lift that head to slay,
how can you trust my promise
to last beyond this day?

How strange that you think I love you
when in this world of lie
scarce one deed is done
the next does not deny;
no proof is in my promise,
nor certainty is saved,
until what binds me to you
outlasts the world's own grave.

How Strange Is That?

I felt I fell in love with you today; how strange is that?
Waiting for the bus you stopped and stayed to chat
and suddenly and subito my head was overturned,
unbalancing my body, making blood to burn.
How can one love a woman and not even know her name?
Some mischief-vested cupid clearly plays a little game;
uncanny things, ungrounded, maddening, and swift,
throw the world off kilter, make the earth to shift!
Meeting you but once, but for a little while,
I am haunted by your eyes, the flashing of your smile;
and though I hardly know you, nonetheless my brain
spins out imaginations of pleasures earned and gained.

But swiftly comes its death as swiftly came its birth.
If it swiftly falls away, what is such feeling worth?
The merest little fizzle, a frenzy in the brain,
and after sudden torrent nothing will remain
but cynic's self-suspicion, memories that fade,
and the wry and quiet gravestone where madness has been laid.

The Virgin's Birthday

This past week (September 8) there was the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, so I thought I'd put up a passage, albeit a little belatedly, from Palamas's sermon on the feastday:

But you, O sacred audience, who listen to my words, my human flock and field in Christ, offer your exercise of the virtues and your progress in them as a birthday gift to the Mother of God: both men and women, elderly people along with younger ones, rich and poor, leaders and subjects, those of absolutely every race, age, rank, profession and branch of learning. Let none of you have a soul which is barren and without fruit. Let nobody be unloving or unreceptive to the spiritual seed. May each of you eagerly accept this scelestial seed, the word of salvation (cf. Luke 8:11), and by your own efforts bring it to perfection as a heavenly work and fruit pleasing to God. Let no one make a beginning of a good work which brings no fruit to perfection (cf. Luke 8:14), nor declare his faith in Christ only with his tongue.

Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, Mount Thabor Publishing (Waymart, PA: 2009) p. 336. This is really a lovely volume, by the way.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Texas Wildfires

As you may know, Texas is currently under serious draught and fire conditions, with wildfires having burned through an area roughly the size of Connecticut. Over a 1500 houses have been destroyed. The day before yesterday, due to some cooling overnight, Austin was covered in smoke from all the fires around Bastrop, Leander, Spicewood, and so forth. Quite literally; if you walked outside in North Austin you saw not just haze but large quantities of smoke as thick as a light fog. The 911 service had to issue press releases begging people to stop calling 911 over it.

Alexis Madrigal has put together some interesting graphics to help non-Texans get a better sense of how much land has been affected by wildfire devastation so far.

Kerri West has put together some pictures of the Bastrop fires.

The Texas Forest Service keeps tabs on all the new fires and on the containment of old fires.

Astronauts can see the traces of them from space.

Texas Wildfire Relief is taking donations.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Original Sin, Responsibility, and Liability

Bill Vallicella has a post on an apparent paradox in the doctrine of original sin:

If my having done (or having failed to do) X is a sin, then my having done (or having failed to do) X is something for which I am morally responsible. But I am morally responsible for an act or omission only if I could have done otherwise. But if I could have done otherwise, then it cannot be essential to me (part of my nature as a human being) that I sin (or be in a sinful condition, or be guilty). Whatever guilt accrued to someone in the past (Adam or anyone else) in virtue of his misdeeds is his affair alone and is not chargeable to my moral bank account.

As he goes on to note, you can get around this by saying that original sin is not actually a sin:

OS is not, strictly speaking, a sin but refers to a sort of structural flaw or weakness, one to be found in each and every human being, which predisposes us to actual sin but is not itself a sin or a state of sinfulness for a postlapsarian man or woman. This predisposition might be ascribed to the hebetude of the flesh or the inertia of nature. Whatever its source, it is not in our power. Hence we are not responsible for it and not guilty in virtue of it. It does not interfere with our free will or make impossible self-perfection. There is no inherited guilt. Perhaps the structural flaw under which we all labor is the result of someone's sin in the past; but if it is we are not morally responsible for it.

There are different accounts of original sin, but taking original sin to be a predisposing flaw or weakness is precisely the route most people have taken, and is one of the marks of the family of accounts that has the most longstanding reputation for orthodoxy. Aquinas's position, for instance, is that original sin is only sin in you or me in the sense that sin is found in a hand or a foot -- it's not the hand's sin or the foot's sin, although it can be referred to the hand or foot in the sense that the hand or foot participates in the action: "just as the actual sin that is committed by a member of the body, is not the sin of that member, except inasmuch as that member is a part of the man, for which reason it is called a 'human sin'; so original sin is not the sin of this person, except inasmuch as this person receives his nature from his first parent, for which reason it is called the 'sin of nature'" (ST 2-1.81.1).

It does not follow, however, that we are not morally responsible for it, because there is more than one kind of moral responsibility. There is a perfectly reasonable sense of moral responsibility in which you can be morally responsible for people under your care or general supervision, for instance, even though they are their own agents, and even though in a stricter sense of 'morally responsible' only they are morally responsible for their actions. A saintly parent may have children who are vicious for no reason that is the parent's fault; the parent is not guilty of the children's bad actions, but as parent still has a moral responsibility for them -- to attempt to rein them in, for instance, to help correct harms they cause to others, and so forth. And we find this elsewhere in families, friendships, close-knit communities, and even societies as diverse and diffuse as religions and nations. Let's call this the moral responsibility of solidarity, to distinguish it from the kind of moral responsibility Bill has in mind, the moral responsibility of agency.

I can think of at least one more kind of thing that has perfectly good claim to being called moral responsibility, and that is the kind of moral responsibility we have given the things that we receive from others: that is to say, things we have to care for or (alternatively) look out for precisely because we are not hermetically sealed singular individuals but people whose history includes more than ourselves. If you receive a patrimony, you have a responsibility for it, not merely because you have a general responsibility for your own actions, but precisely because it is something you have received to be responsible for. And this includes negative features of patrimony, too, like debts and feuds, which at the very least are things one must deal with precisely because you have inherited them, even if you had nothing whatsoever to do with the actions that built them up and even if the people who did so where not under your care in any way, shape, or form. It need not, of course, be a matter of inheritance in the strict and literal sense; education and tradition and concomitant consequences can be the source of such responsibilities as well. It is, I think, in precisely this sense that Socrates held that it would be irresponsible for him to flee the laws of Athens and it is in this sense that people rightly do not lightly give up the customs and practices of their ancestors. Likewise, it need not be external. It is in this sense in which you are responsible for a bad temper inherited from your father, or for climbing your way out of a bad upbringing, namely, that even though you were not the responsible agent, it has come to you, anyway, and you have to handle it well. Call this the moral responsibility of legacy.

Clearly there are all sorts of relations among these kinds of moral responsibility, but I think we have to say that in themselves they are simply very different. Certainly moral responsibility of agency is very different from moral responsibility of solidarity or legacy, and it seems to me that all three have rather different kinds of objects. Likewise, these are all reasonably called moral responsibility; indeed, I think we probably more often talk about responsibility in the solidarity or legacy sense than in the agency sense: we are responsible for our property, our family, our friends, our nation, our church, etc., even though (in general) none of these are themselves things for which we can be blamed or praised.

When it comes to original sin, the common view is that we have no moral responsibility in the agency sense, but we are morally responsible for it in the legacy sense and in the solidarity sense. (I think it can be fairly easily argued that this is the view of most and perhaps all of the major scholastics, for instance, and many other theologians as well, as well.) One of the common ways in which accounts of original sin vary is how much emphasis they put on the legacy sense versus how much emphasis they put on the solidarity sense. You do find accounts that tend to accept only the legacy sense or only the solidarity sense; they are usually considered either only marginally orthodox or outright heterodox, but details can matter a great deal on this point. Most of the robust accounts clearly imply both, although they don't necessarily emphasize them equally, and all of the main family of accounts deny that we are morally responsible for original sin in the agency sense.

Which brings us to the question of guilt. Guilt in our usual sense is obviously purely a matter of moral responsibility of agency: it is precisely one of the clear distinguishing features of it, in fact. There is a view, called inherited guilt, that is often associated with the doctrine of original sin, although not all accounts imply it. It's a bit tricky to pin down what the view is, or to determine which accounts actually imply it; the most plausible and developed accounts that regularly use the term are generally Calvinist and are accounts of guilt by imputation. Going into imputation gets into all sorts of potentially complicated issues that I can't address here. The common source for such views is Augustine, and it is quite commonly attributed to him. I think it is somewhat misleading to do so; he does hold that we inherit what he calls reatus. This can be translated as 'guilt', but the term is much broader than what we usually mean by guilt, since originally it could mean a liability of any sort. The same is true for other well-known inherited guilt passages, like the Council of Trent's talk of the guilt of original sin; the scholastics, in fact, had regularly distinguished reatus in the sense of fault (liability as in 'at fault') from reatus in the sense of having to penalty (liability as in 'having to pay the consequences'); obviously the two can come apart in various ways. Now, while agency-liability (such as guilt) obviously only arises under moral responsibility of agency, it is, I think, a reasonable question as to what sorts of liabilities may arise under moral responsibility of solidarity and moral responsibility of legacy. That such liabilities do arise is quite clear: parents, for instance, often get them from misdeeds and mistakes committed by their children through no fault of the parents themselves.

One thing I find a little puzzling is that Bill calls what is the common view a 'Pelagian escape route'. I think Pelagianism is a different issue: it's really a position about the way in which we need God's grace. What connects it to original sin is that original sin implies certain things about our need for grace, and you can make Augustinian arguments that Pelagianism fails to do justice to this need for grace. The flow, in other words, is from original sin to a particular kind of need for grace to rejection of Pelagianism as failing to recognize this need properly; or, by modus tollens if you are a Pelagian, from Pelagianism, to a rejection of our need for grace in that particular way, to a rejection of original sin. But the positions are somewhat removed from each other. And accounts that deny personal responsibility and guilt for original sin likewise do not imply Pelagianism as long as they affirm the kinds of responsibility and liability that lead us to recognize the relevant kind of need for grace. I think it's clear enough that the predisposition accounts, which, after all, are the majority of major views, have long been accepted as being able to do this.

An Ear for Philosophical Questions

There can be no authentic music where there is no ear for hearing. But let us beware of the unfortunate ambiguity of the word "ear". I do not mean simply to repeat the truism that music presupposes the existence of a particular organ of hearing. The word "ear" in its aesthetic sense means something infinitely more subtle, a certain faculty for appreciating relationships, or perhaps again a certain attitude of consciousness in the presence of what is given for hearing. For a person lacking ear in this sense there is no difference between a noise and a sound, and what we call a melody may seem to be just a succession of noises.

The philosophical attitude is perhaps not all that different from "ear" understood in this way.

Gabriel Marcel, Tragic Wisdom and Beyond, p. 6.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Living Opals, Torch-Like Gleams

The Cat
by Charles Baudelaire
translated by Roy Campbell


A fine strong gentle cat is prowling
As in his bedroom, in my brain;
So soft his voice, so smooth its strain,
That you can scarcely hear him miowling.

But should he venture to complain
Or scold, the voice is rich and deep:
And thus he manages to keep
The charm of his untroubled reign.

This voice, which seems to pearl and filter
Through my soul's inmost shady nook,
Fills me with poems, like a book,
And fortifies me, like a philtre.

His voice can cure the direst pain
And it contains the rarest raptures.
The deepest meanings, which it captures,
It needs no language to explain.

There is no bow that can so sweep
That perfect instrument, my heart:
Or make more sumptuous music start
From its most vibrant cord and deep,

Than can the voice of this strange elf,
This cat, bewitching and seraphic,
Subtly harmonious in his traffic
With all things else, and with himself.


So sweet a perfume seems to swim
Out of his fur both brown and bright,
I nearly was embalmed one night
From (only once) caressing him.

Familiar Lar of where I stay,
He rules, presides, inspires and teaches
All things to which his empire reaches.
Perhaps he is a god, or fay.

When to a cherished cat my gaze
Is magnet-drawn and then returns
Back to itself, it there discerns,
With strange excitement and amaze,

Deep down in my own self, the rays
Of living opals, torch-like gleams
And pallid fire of eyes, it seems,
That fixedly return my gaze.

Music on My Mind

Manowar, "Thor". Nothing like a thunder-god to smash through your cares.

Monday, September 05, 2011

System Imprisonment

Catarina Dutilh Novaes has an excellent post in which she quotes Johan van Benthem on an often-forgotten limitation of the use of formal symbolic systems.

The standard emphasis in formal logical systems is ‘bottom up’. We need to design a fully specified vocabulary and set of construction rules, and then produce complete constructions of formulas, their evaluation, and inferential behavior. This feature makes for explicitness and rigor, but it also leads to system imprisonment. The notions that we define are relative to formal systems. This is one of the reasons why outsiders have so much difficulty grasping logical results: there is usually some parameter relativizing the statement to some formal system, whether first-order logic or some other system.

Obviously this problem propagates through a number of philosophical discussions in which symbolic systems figure, and as van Benthem notes, the only solution for it is to pay close attention to how these systems and natural practice interact. I am very firmly in agreement with both Catarina Dutilh Novaes and Johan van Benthem here. Part of the solution, I think, is always to look to see how things look if you use a different system; but there is more needed.

Eliminating and Establishing Possibilities

Fastolfe's homely face was set in grim lines when Baley returned.

"Any progress?" he asked.

"I eliminated part of a possibility. --Perhaps."

"Part of a possibility? How do you eliminate the other part? Better yet, how do you establish a possibility."

Baley said, "By finding it impossible to eliminate a possibility, a beginning is made at establishing one."

Isaac Asimov, The Robots of Dawn, Bantam (NY:1994) p. 198.

The Robots of Dawn, of course, is one of Asimov's science fiction mysteries. Asimov is underappreciated as a mystery writer.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Poem Draft

Crazy-tired. But this rough piece came to me while thinking about the Rimbaud essay I linked to in the previous post.


Why may we wish on falling stars?
The evening in their dreams
with dusky dispatch from afar
brings sleep's infernal gleams;
such beauty trails across the sky
like glints of ice aflame,
but do they not from heaven fly,
from terror of the Name?
But wait! For shall we not recall
the heart's celestial night?
The darkest gloom, the deepest black,
still radiates a light;
it leaves a glittered track.
As the way that there descends
ascends as well to newer highs,
so by their fall and foolish end
they show us how to rise.