Saturday, February 25, 2012

Malebranche on How to Be Unpopular

The great secret of delivering oneself from the importunity of many people is to speak reasonably to them. This language, which they do not understand, gets rid of them forever, without their having reason to complain.

Nicolas Malebranche, Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion VI.viii (Jolley-Scott 102)

The Feeling of Evidence

To say that evidence demonstrates, makes clear, and ascertains the truth of a fact, is rather to describe its effects than its nature. Its effects, too, are described in a manner, neither very accurate nor precise; as I shall afterwards have occasion to show more particularly.

But the truth is, that evidence is much more easily felt than described. We experience, though it is difficult to explain, its operations and influence. A man may have a good eye, and may make a good use of it, though he cannot unfold the theory of vision.

James Wilson, "On the Nature and Philosophy of Evidence," Lectures on Law. He doesn't, of course, simply leave it at this.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ruth Barcan Marcus

Ruth Barcan Marcus died on February 19, and I have been thinking about what to say on the subject. It's difficult to know where to begin; she was one of the true greats. Quine and Kripke get more press, but she was easily as great a logician as they. She is most famous for her work in modal logic; the Barcan Formula is named after her. The Barcan Formula is:

∀x□Fx → □∀xFx

Or, roughly, whatever F may be: if it is posited for everything that it is necessary that it is F, it follows that it is necessary to posit for everything that it is F. The Barcan Formula has a converse, imaginatively called the Converse Barcan Formula. It is:

□∀xFx → ∀x□Fx

Or, roughly, whatever F may be: if it is necessary to posit for everything that it is F, it can be posited for everything that it is necessary that it is F. Both of them can be formulated in terms of ◊, i.e., possibility, instead of necessity, if one prefers; for instance, what the possibilistic form of the Barcan Formula tells us is that when it is possible that something is posited to be a unicorn, something is posited for which it is possible that it is a unicorn. The debates about what is required for either of these principles to be true are quite complicated.

Barcan had many other interesting contributions; she argued, for instance, that it is impossible to believe impossibilities, just as it is impossible to know impossibilities. If you thought you believed something, but discover that it is not just false but really impossible, you were simply mistaken in thinking that you ever believed it at all. (This is not a very popular view, but as she notes, it is not unknown in the history of philosophy, and needs at least to be considered fairly.) She also argued both that consistent moral principles would not rule out moral dilemmas and that the existence of moral dilemmas need not be due to any inconsistency in moral principles. (Consider, for instance, a situation in which you have to decide which of two identical twins to save from drowning, where it is simply unclear which twin you are in a better position to save.) She also argued, in an argument that I think should be considered more widely than it is, that the existential quantifier does not always indicate that something exists.

Barcan was involved in two well-known professional controversies. One had to do with Derrida; she was one of the major philosophers protesting Cambridge's awarding of an honorary doctorate to him, arguing that where Derrida was coherent at all, his claims were either false or trivial. And even before that she had written a letter to the French government protesting his appointment as Director of the College International. The second big controversy was actually more about her than by her: Quentin Smith argued in 1995 that certain key parts of Saul Kripke's philosophy of language were actually taken, without acknowledgement, from prior work by her (she herself had never suggested such a thing). This led to a big, big blow-up. I don't think Smith fully made his case but, frankly, the fawning over Kripke that his defenders often engaged in makes much of the dispute utterly nauseating to read.

I find my disagreements with her positions to be quite considerable, but she was in every way a remarkable philosopher.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Links and Notes

* Rebecca recently had a good post titled, What to Do When Someone You Know Dies

* Janet Smith takes down David Gibson on the subject of material cooperation

* Christopher Tollefsen lays out some points on Catholic teaching about contraception at NRO

* Philosopher's Carnival #138 is up at Ichthus77; Maryann focused on trying to build up discussions rather than isolated posts, which is an interesting idea. And it's #138? Time has certainly passed since the long ago day when I did #2.

* Cosma Shalizi has an interesting post on the correlation coefficient.

* Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist., is putting up a translation of Friedrich Wessely's pamphlet on Confession.

* It has come up in the contraception mandate discussion on a number of occasions, so I think I should point out: (1) Jehovah's Witnesses only forbid whole blood transfusions -- almost everything else is admissible; and (2) Christian Scientists don't reject all medical procedures and operations. There are currently insurance plans tailored to both groups, and some of them are very, very good insurance plans -- certainly better than anything most Americans have. They just cover slightly different things than more typical insurance plans; it's still possible for them to cover as much or more, and to provide more complete coverage of what they do cover -- and some of them do. We shouldn't let stereotypical assumptions about Jehovah's Witnesses or Christian Scientists lead us to make the argument that if one has JW insurance, which focuses on bloodless procedures, or Christian Science insurance, which focuses on nursing care, that one has bad insurance. It just doesn't follow; insurance plans have to be judged holistically.

* I don't know what it is, but this election cycle is making me even more cynical about politics, and especially political parties, than I usually am. I try to find a silver lining, but every time I look at how things are shaping up, the silver lining turns out to be, "In many places the people don't really get to choose the direction they are going, but in America it is different: We get to choose whether we will ruin ourselves in a rightward direction or in a leftward direction. What a country!" In presidential elections I don't vote either Republican or Democrat on principle; but, of course, that doesn't ever leave much to work with. The Libertarians have their convention in Las Vegas in May and the Greens have their convention in Baltimore in July, so we'll have to see if they put forward anyone who's not too atrocious.

Of course, what I'm really excited for this election year is to be able to do my third rating of party platforms on things that have nothing to do with politics. In 2004 the Libertarians won with clean, readable Spartan minimalism (with the Democrats coming in last because nothing nonpolitical was good about their platform except the cover sheet and the accompanying FAQ); in 2008 the Republicans just barely squeaked by with the flashy-glossy aesthetics of magazine format (with the Greens coming in last because they never bothered to put more than a draft on their website). Who will win this year? Will Libertarian minimalism and organization continue to triumph over Major Party verboseness? Will the Democrats continue to be the worst writers of party platform preambles? Will the Greens give us something organized? Who will have the prettiest party platform webpage this year? We'll have to see. I can hardly wait until October.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Music on My Mind

Solomon Burke, "Up to the Mountain." This song was written by Patty Griffin in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.; you can listen to her own version, also quite good, here. It seems to me to be very appropriate to Ash Wednesday, and to be a good start to Lent.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Now Mad, Now Merciful, Now Fierce, Now Favoring

Besides being the feast of St. Peter Damian, it's also the feast of St. Robert Southwell, who was tortured and then executed at Tyburn under Queen Elizabeth I. Southwell, besides being known as a Jesuit martyr, was also an accomplished poet.

Fortune's Falsehoode
by Robert Southwell

In worldly merymentes lurketh much misery,
Sly fortune's subtilltyes, in baytes of happynes
Shroude hookes, that swallowed without recoverye,
Murder the innocent with mortall heavynes.

Shee sootheth appetites with pleasing vanityes,
Till they be conquered with cloaked tyrannye;
Then chaunging countenance, with open enmyties
She tryumphes over them, scorninge their slavery.

With fawninge flattery deathe's dore she openeth,
Alluring passingers to blody destinye;
In offers bountifull, in proofe she beggereth,
Men's ruins registring her false felicitye.

Her hopes are fastned in blisse that vanisheth,
Her smart inherited with sure possession;
Constant in crueltye, she never altereth
But from one violence to more oppression.

To those that followe her, favours are measured,
As easie premisses to hard conclusions;
With bitter corrosives her joyes are seasoned,
Her highest benefittes are but illusions.

Her wayes a laberinth of wandring passages,
Fooles' comon pilgrimage to cursed deityes;
Whose fonde devotion and idle menages
Are wag'd with wearynes in fruitles drudgeries.

Blynde in her favorites' foolish election,
Chaunce is her arbiter in giving dignitye,
Her choyse of vicious, shewes most discretion,
Sith welth the vertuous might wrest from piety.

To humble suppliants tyran most obstinate,
She sutors answereth with contrarietyes;
Proud with peticion, untaught to mitigate
Rigour with clemencye in hardest cruelties.

Like tigre fugitive from the ambitious,
Like weeping crocodile to scornefull enymies,
Suyng for amity where she is odious,
But to her followers forswering curtesies.

No wynde so changeable, no sea so waveringe,
As giddy fortune in reeling varietyes;
Nowe madd, now mercifull, now ferce, now favoring,
In all thinges mutable but mutabilities.

The Soul of the Gregorian Reform

I've always thought that the name, "San Pietro Damiani," sounded fun, like a party in the mouth. There's something about how it just flows across the tongue that is quite pleasant. St. Peter Damian, however, would probably not have been a fun saint to hang around with; he was the fiery reforming kind, and introduced a very harsh discipline into his Benedictine monastery (although he would later pull his monks back when, overzealous, they tried to start even harsher disciplines). An uncompromising polemicist and controversialist, he fought simony and clerical immorality in any and all forms, and was one of the most important, and perhaps the most important, theologian of the eleventh century and of what is usually called the Gregorian Reform, for which reason he has been named a Doctor of the Church. Dante admired him as a forerunner of St. Francis, though, and if there is one monk in the eleventh century of absolutely unquestioned integrity, it's Peter Damian, who demanded much of everyone but never demanded of anyone more than he demanded of himself.

One of the important things Peter did was to create one of the standard philosophical problems of the scholastic period: Can God, being omnipotent, make what has happened in the past never to have happened? Apparently some of Peter's monks had asked him this question, and he was the first person to make a serious effort at dealing with the complicated questions about the nature of omnipotence, the nature of possibility, and the nature of time that it raises. All this is found in his letter On Divine Omnipotence, selections of which one can find online in Paul Spade's translation (PDF). There's a good discussion of the philosophical issues in Holopainen's SEP article on Peter Damian.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Twinkle, Twinkle, All the Night

Here's a question whose answer I bet most people don't know. Who wrote, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"? It's not something you think about much, is it? But poems have authors, and while the names of some of them are lost, in this case we know exactly who wrote the poem.

The Taylors of Ongar were a highly talented nineteenth century family. The father, Isaac Taylor, was an engraver and wrote children's books. The eldest son, also called Isaac, was a sort of jack of all trades: he painted and illustrated, invented a new kind of beer tap, and most of all wrote lots of books on subjects like theology (he was among other things an anti-Tractarian), history, education, and philosophy. At one point in his career he narrowly missed getting the chair in logic at Edinburgh when it was given to Sir William Hamilton. Jefferys, his brother, also wrote extensively -- mostly children's books also, I think. They had two sisters, Ann and Jane. They wrote poetry and prose. Ann and Jane, when still quite young, put out a book of poems in 1806 called, Rhymes for the Nursery. It's this book that gave us a poem that was originally called, "The Star," which we know from other sources to have been one of Jane's contributions:

The Star
by Jane Taylor

'Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the trav'ller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark;
He could not see which way to go,
If you did not twinkle so.

In the dark blue sky you keep,
And often through my curtains peep,
For you never shut your eye
Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the trav'ller in the dark,
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Life in This Present Hades

Book VII of Plato's Republic brings us one of Plato's most famous passages, the Allegory of the Cave. (If you need to brush up on it, it's hard to beat this animated version, narrated by none other than Orson Welles, although it un-dialogues it and fiddles with the ending.) Describing the man who has come out of the Cave, Socrates notes that he would not envy the prisoners, but instead would prefer "to serve as the serf of another, of some portionless man" rather than live the life they do.

It's notable that this quotation, which comes from Book 11 of Homer's Odyssey, has come up before. At the beginning of Book III, Socrates is in the midst of criticizing poems about the gods, and he begins to argue that if the citizens of the just city are to be courageous, they should not be told stories from childhood that would make them fear death. In particular, they should not be taught that Hades is filled with terror; rather, life in Hades should be praised. This, of course, is precisely what Homer does not do. When Odysseus talks to Achilles in Hades, he tries to comfort him for the fact that he is dead, but Achilles will have none of it, saying he would rather serve a poor man than be king of the dead. It is this that Socrates quotes in Book VII, and this is the very first passage that Socrates lists for deletion in Book III. As he goes on to say in Book III, it isn't that such passages aren't pleasing, but indeed, rather the reverse; because they are pleasing and poetic, they are not appropriate for teaching a courageous people who should fear slavery more than death.

We are not to speak this way, then, of the afterlife, lest we make people timid. But Socrates speaks exactly this way of the Cave. The Cave, like Hades, is an underworld, and, like Hades, its inhabitants have only a shadow of real life. But the Cave is, so to speak, true Hades, the Hades of which it might truly be said that even servitude outside it is better than autonomy within it. And the difference is important, because we are the inhabitants in the Cave, living our lives according to sensible goods, which are mere shadows in comparison with the intelligible goods that make possible order, mathematics, and virtue. We should be pitied as the Greeks pitied the heroic dead. But unlike the heroic dead, there is a path for us out of this underworld. We only have to stand up, turn around, and walk toward the Good.

Boethius has an interesting adaptation of this theme in Book III, Meter 12 of the Consolation. This is one of Boethius's mythological poems, and the subject here is Orpheus and Eurydice. Eurydice, of course, died, and Orpheus in grief set out to retrieve her. So beautiful was his music that he touched the heart even of the compassionless king of the dead, who as a single exception allowed the return of Eurydice to the land of the living. But, of course, there was the condition that he could not see her dead. You know the story: Orpheus failed, because he looked back at the very last moment and she vanished away before his eyes. And the moral that Lady Philosophy draws is clear: in pursuing the Good, we must not only walk out of the Cave, we must not even look back until we are free in the sunlit realms.