Saturday, October 06, 2012

Li Madou

ThonyC notes that today is the anniversary of Matteo Ricci's birthday; Ricci was born October 6, 1552. Here are a few more links to remember the day.

Matteo Ricci on Chinese Government
Matteo Ricci on the Art of Printing

Matteo Ricci: Eight Songs for Western Keyboard

The Tomb of Matteo Ricci (about)
You can see a picture of Ricci's tomb here.

If you've never read The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan Spence, it is quite good.

Slater on Fitch

In the most recent edition of The Reasoner, October 2012, the always contentious but always interesting Hartley Slater has discussion of the Fitch paradox of knowability. In it he rightly notes that the paradox disappears if one recognizes that epistemic modalities can be relativized. I once argued something like this in graduate school, but my argument was, like much of what I have ever done in modal logic, clunky and clumsy and went about things a rather roundabout way. [If one doesn't relativize, it seems to me that the relevant logic would have to be paraconsistent, given that K would have to cover different epistemic situations: it's not much of a paradox to say that something is unknown and that it is known that it is unknown if John doesn't know it and Jane knows he doesn't. This is not really something I've looked at.] As Slater notes, there are worries about illegitimate self-reference with the relativization approach, but these are not really insuperable. In any case, I thought it was interesting; it will also be interesting to see if there are any responses to it.

Ideas and Institutions

The question, in a broader sense, involves the general problem of the relation between ideas and institutions. This problem appears in both materialistic and idealistic historical research and historical judgment. In particular it is a problem of general history: whether a new progressive motive, along with its necessary polemics against the old, must not nevertheless be intertwined with a residue of the old, insofar as the fertility and developmental power of the residue cannot be dispensed with. In the very mind which brings forth the new motive, the aftereffect of the institution which is to be fought lingers on. In this development the old motive preserves its right in the new one; it retains its share in the development toward the new one. Thus the new idea remains connected with the old one even then, when it does not entirely eliminate the old institution, but only transforms it.

Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism (Scholars Press, 1995) pp. 175-176.

Friday, October 05, 2012


Capitulum Sextum Decimum
Capitulum Septimum Decimum

I was hoping to have two more, so I could reasonably guarantee getting it done next week before I get my first major grading surge and also have to begin putting together my department teaching evaluation portfolio, but something else ate much of the free time I had available, so I only managed to get through ch. 17. Of course, by now it is quite clear that we aren't dealing with a novel but a loose sketch of one, but I do definitely want to get it out of the way this month so I can try a real NaNoWriMo in November -- and hopefully finish it in less than a year. November is generally my busiest month, but by chance I happen to be less busy this Fall than usual, so maybe something can get done. And then in Spring I can perhaps start over with this entirely -- which it's clear by now I will certainly have to do, since I wanted a light and easy novel with a dark philosophical character in the background, and Aegidius wanted a dark philosophical novel about a profoundly human character stubbornly holding on to what little he can retain of his humanity under nightmarish conditions, and while both visions share the same general structure, it is never a good sign when author and character can't agree about how the details of the story are supposed to go. And, of course, as Dorothy Sayers would point out, in the end I have to let Aegidius be Aegidius. But it's just not possible to change it all in mid-flight; hence the inconsistencies of tone and excessive deus ex machina. It's actually intended to be a deus ex machina story like Euripides' Medea, but the sudden swerves in story guarantee that there's too much artificial machina behind the deus. Oh, look! There's the character doing another thing for which there was insufficient foreshadowing, because I had originally thought it would take a different form! However, the palm to the forehead thing was mentioned previously in Tertium Decimum.

In any case, next it's on to Krasnoyarsk in Krasnoyarsky Krai to wrap up the Siberian line, during which we'll see Aegidius nearly fully unveiled and have at least one chapter which consists of people just sitting around talking, because, after all, why should we break the pattern, and Aegidius simply will not let me finish the story if I don't promise him another philosophical dialogue; and then, tying up the final string, we get the last tete-a-tete between the Wolf King and the narrator, and exeunt.

Grave Mother of Majestic Works

Of Old Sat Freedom on the Heights
by Alfred Tennyson

Of old sat Freedom on the heights,
The thunders breaking at her feet:
Above her shook the starry lights:
She heard the torrents meet.

There in her place she did rejoice,
Self-gather'd in her prophet-mind,
But fragments of her mighty voice
Came rolling on the wind.

Then stept she down thro' town and field
To mingle with the human race,
And part by part to men reveal'd
The fullness of her face -

Grave mother of majestic works,
From her isle-altar gazing down,
Who, God-like, grasps the triple forks,
And, King-like, wears the crown:

Her open eyes desire the truth.
The wisdom of a thousand years
Is in them. May perpetual youth
Keep dry their light from tears;

That her fair form may stand and shine
Make bright our days and light our dreams,
Turning to scorn with lips divine
The falsehood of extremes!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Moral Debates Online

Elliot Milco has an excellent post at "Fare Forward" (and a slightly longer version at "The Paraphasic"). The argument is quite good, although interestingly I find myself not agreeing with much of it. That is, I think the argument would be rock-solid if its underlying diagnosis were correct; but I think this diagnosis, while reasonable, is in fact false.

The basic starting idea is that internet debates go sour because we see opponents as floating bits of text rather than real people. This is nothing new, however; we have had textual intermediaries for ages. And while polemic by book and article and letter to the editor has often been heated, the textual wall has in practice always been a control rod in the reaction. Likewise, people are less likely to wrestle with mere projections when dealing with people by text than when dealing with them face to face, for two reasons. First, the evidence of what people have actually said and done is more stable and available, and therefore constantly has to be dealt with rather than ignored, by both parties; thus one notices that people are much more likely to apologize in internet debates than elsewhere, and even when they don't, a heated debate is much more likely to diffuse into something milder, even if still shot through on occasion with irritations. Second, face-to-face interactions involve projection as much as any other kind of interaction, but the lack of an obvious intermediary -- because we don't think of faces and spoken words as intermediaries in the way we still think of texts as intermediaries -- means that people are less likely to consider the possibility that they are dealing with a projection. In both cases we are inferring someone's state of mind from evidence; but people often take offense for much more obviously absurd things in face-to-face interaction than when they interact by text.

I think the illusion that this is not so arises chiefly from the fact that we live in an anti-argumentative culture; there are very few situations in which it's OK to just argue, and those are often of a very restricted type. Democrats and Republicans don't generally argue with each other, for instance; they mostly talk about each other behind the other's back with occasional limited forays for potshots. And politics is more argumentative than the rest of our culture; try to do the Socratic thing and get someone arguing about moral issues outside of a clear political forum, and you will find that people freak out. IRL we like our arguments rare and well-insulated. There are some definite advantages to this for certain aspects of civil harmony, but I think we should not treat it as much more than a matter of cultural taste -- and in fact should recognize that it at times borders on pathological. But the online world is, to a very great degree, an argumentative medium: not little insulated statements of opinion like people are culturally confined to in real life, but responses to responses to responses, and while these need not all be arguments, arguments are inevitable. It is mostly the sheer quantity of argument online that makes it seem like arguments are always going sour. Further, when internet arguments do go sour, it seems mostly to be due to the fragmentary nature of the medium -- arguments are not done all at once, as they are done face-to-face, nor in large chunks, as book and article arguments proceed, nor as rhetorical face-offs, the way debates in the editorial pages have often been done. Rather, they are done by bits and pieces stretched over days by people who are often busy doing other things as well. This is a very difficult way to argue; that people slip under such conditions is not really surprising.

I think, however, that even if this were not so, Elliot's suggestion that "everyone’s insistence on his own position against all opponents can lead to the illusion that moral disputes are fundamentally insoluble" is not generally true. In fact, in most cases it is the reverse: people who have actually argued in moral disputes are less likely to think moral disputes fundamentally insoluble, not more likely. No one who has engaged in heated arguments more than occasionally can possibly avoid having the experience of progress being made, either by being stumped oneself by an excellent argument, or by coming up with a stumper oneself, or by both parties coming up with new arguments. It is stagnation that leads to the illusion of insoluble moral disputes. And this is true elsewhere. People who argue about religion, whatever their position, are not people who think that no progress can be made. The major problem on the internet, of course, is that its fragmentary nature means that only a handful of arguments actually see any serious development. But in all honesty, it probably happens more online than it does elsewhere, for precisely the reason that our culture is anti-argumentative about face-to-face interactions.

Elliot's first two concluding points, that participants in arguments need to make an effort actually to address each other, not just lecturing at each other without listening, and that they need to be making an effort to understand what they are talking about, with the humility to recognize when they don't, are quite right; the closer we get to these the better arguments get. However, while I think the idea behind Elliot's third point is right, I think the formulations is problematic. It sounds well and good to say that pedagogy trumps belligerence, but if you look at the long history of good teachers, Socrates and the like, you find that many of them were quite capable of jumping into a fray swinging. Likewise, it sounds good to say that "Our moral debates have become so unproductive because we treat them as wars over particular conclusions, rather than organic explorations of the truth flowing from first principles," but organic explorations of truth flowing from first principles are things you do in treatises and non-argumentative conversations, not debates. Likewise, it sounds good to say, "The good teacher works by knowing his students, meeting them at their level, and drawing them patiently up to a fuller understanding of things," but in an online debate you are not a teacher except in the sense that everyone is a teacher all the time. A debate online is not your classroom; the kind of patience needed online is very different from the kind of patience needed to teach people in an insulated setting where you have a clear position as a teacher. I've watched professors in the blogosphere for quite some time, and have noticed that many of them have difficulties stemming from this: the habits simply do not always carry over well, and can make things worse. In an internet debate you aren't generally dealing with people who want to be your students, and they certainly have no financial incentive to bear with you in your round-about ways.

And it is true that no one is persuaded by defeat or humiliation, but persuasion is only an aim of argument insofar as argument is purely a matter of rhetoric -- the aim of argument as such is simply to make explicit reasons in their proper place. You should not in fact argue to persuade except under very carefully limited conditions; arguing to persuade as a general rule is what orators and sophists do, and it sounds innocuous but is in the long run not so. You should certainly try to argue in such a way that persuasion is open -- but what kind of attitude and tone that will actually require will vary wildly, and you will often merely be guessing -- but you should instead argue to show what's right and what's wrong, to the best of your ability, so as to refute if you are right (whether refutation yields persuasion or not) and to be refuted if you are wrong. That gentleness in argument is a wonderful quality is not to be denied, and those of us who are too acidic or impatient or coolly ruthless to attain it easily should strive for it. But in a culture like ours one must watch out for the tendency to conflate gentleness with rhetorical pandering. I think Elliot's third point is actually for gentleness precisely as a mean between belligerence and this pandering; and to that extent is right. But we must not slip into thinking that it is our place to win people over: that is for their own reason to do. Rather, we should see our place as making clear what's going on -- providing diagrams, maps, and directions, so to speak, so that they can find the way themselves. And it ends up being a rather different thing.

A Brief Introduction to Natural Law Theory I

I have been intending for some time to put together a few points about natural law theory; while there are some good resources online, there are a great many that are not at all good. My goal here is primarily to lay out the basic ideas in proper order and in such a way that the most common of the many misinterpretations of these ideas can be avoided.

We must begin, then, first with that genus of which natural law theory is a species, namely, theories of practical reason. Natural law theory being the theory of practical reason qua law, we must, second, add to it the general concept of law. We must, third, say something about the features of natural law itself, of which the most important are the ways in which the precepts of natural law are known, the ordering of those precepts according to the ordering of goods, and the reasons for deviations from natural law and disagreements about its precepts. Fourth, we must say something about its relation to human law.

I. Practical Reason

Reason or rationality by its nature concerns itself with order. It is concerned with order in one way when it attempts to identify correctly the order of nature, that is, the explicit and implicit order of the world. It is concerned with order in another way when it attempts to maintain and refine in its own order, which is logical. It is concerned with order a third way when it makes decisions, which require ordering means to ends in choices and actions. And it is concerned with order a fourth way when it concerns itself with making things in appropriate ways, through building or some other skill. These four kinds of order can easily be seen to be of two kinds. The first kind is speculative or theoretical; the second kind is practical. Theoretical reasoning is concerned with correspondence between mind and what actually is; practical reasoning is concerned with correspondence between means and ends. Or, to put it another way, theoretical reasoning is concerned with the true, while practical reasoning is concerned with the good.

It is important to grasp the fact that these two kinds of reasoning are not simply separate compartments; almost all our acts, and perhaps all of them, require the confluence of both. For instance, in order to reason correctly about the world one may have to plan how to proceed in one's inquiry or to make instruments, both of which require practical reasoning; and practical reasoning in practice requires both logical thinking and reasoning about what is true of the world. Rather, what we are concerned with here is what makes the theoretical theoretical and what makes the practical practical, in all the very different interrelations they have in an actual human life.

There are surprisingly few theories of practical reason, properly speaking; bits and pieces of such theories are common, but the relatively complete theories of practical reason can arguably be counted on one hand and certainly on two: Kantianism, Mill's Art of Life and similar utiliterianisms that take the principle of utility to be not just a moral principle but a general practical principle, rationalism, and perhaps a couple of others. Natural law theory, understood as including the theory of practical reason it uses, is one of these. There are a large number of features that all such theories of practical reason share: for instance, each one insists that rationality must include some notion or account of practical rationality, each one insists that there is a reasonable sense in which people can be practically irrational, each one requires some kind of account of obligation. These are all well-motivated. We can easily recognize that there is something unreasonable about trying to discover how caterpillars become butterflies simply by staring into one's shoe, for instance, and that this is not how one ought to go about studying caterpillars. This is because we recognize that for practical acts like research there is a rational order of means to ends and an irrational order of means to ends; and that what one ought to do in order to meet the goal of your research is determined by the rational and not the irrational order of means to ends. There is, therefore, a great deal of analogy and overlap among these theories of practical reason; they tend to recognize more or less the same things as involved in reason, practical life, and practical reason itself. Where they tend to differ is in what they regard as central to these things, and this can affect, despite the many commonalities and analogies, many of the finer details. We will not be doing any comparison or contrast here, but will simply focus on natural law theory itself.

Reasoning being a kind of order, there must be some underlying principle or principles of that order. The most obvious and important of these in the case of theoretical reason is the principle of noncontradiction, which all theoretical reasoning presupposes in some way or another. For our purposes there are a few things we should note about the principle of noncontradiction. First, it is self-evident and basic: to reject it out of hand shows that you do not understand it, and it is impossible to have any reasoning at all that does not presuppose some kind of application of the principle. Second, despite this it is not a premise in every theoretical argument; it rarely is, in fact. It is instead what makes it possible for arguments to be arguments and also what draws the line, so to speak, between well developed and poorly developed arguments, whatever their premises. It structures reasoning itself. Third, and for the same reason, you can argue without ever explicitly formulating a principle of noncontradiction; being able to formulate the principle of noncontradiction in a reasonable way is very helpful for seeing the structure of reasoning, and in particular the structure of good reasoning in comparison with bad reasoning. Likewise, an erroneous formulation of the principle will not necessarily make all one's reasoning bad, although it may vitiate reasoning that explicitly uses it and may make it difficult to distinguish certain kinds of good reasoning and bad reasoning, thus making it hard for someone to correct their errors, however egregious.

Practical reasoning, however, cannot be fundamentally different from theoretical reasoning on this point; it too is a kind of order, and must have some underlying principle or principles of order. Given that practical reasoning concerns means and end, the principle or principles will have to formulate ends insofar as means can attain them. The most obvious and generally applicable of these is the one given by Aquinas, Good is to be done and sought, and bad is to be avoided. (The Latin word for 'to be done' is broad enough that it can also include 'to be made'.) Like the principle of noncontradiction, it is self-evident and basic; there is no practical reasoning that does not in some way presuppose it. A plan that has nothing good about it is a bad plan; a decision that has nothing good about it is a bad decision; whether or not things are reasonable to do or unreasonable to do, can only be determined by looking at what is good and bad about them. Like the principle of noncontradiction, the principle of practical reason is not a premise in every practical argument; it can be, but its primary role is not to be a premise but to define the character of practical reasoning and identify the most general structural difference between good practical reasoning and bad practical reasoning. Like the principle of noncontradiction, it is therefore not something that has to be explicitly formulated; it simply structures practical reasoning precisely as practical reasoning. And it occupies the same place in practical reasoning that noncontradiction occupies in theoretical reasoning. In fact, we can say something much stronger: it just is the principle of noncontradiction, considered practically. The principle of noncontradiction is drawn from the idea of being, the principle of practical reason is drawn from the idea of good, but good is just being looked at in a certain light. The principle of practical reason therefore simply identifies the form noncontradiction takes in practical matters; and, conversely, it's even difficult to talk about the principle of noncontradiction without implicitly bringing in the principle of practical reasoning above, as I did when I talked about good reasoning and bad reasoning.

There is a key difference between practical reasoning and theoretical reasoning, however, and one that will make a significant difference in how they work in practice. In theoretical reasoning you can abstract from details without affecting the reasoning itself. Since practical reasoning is precisely concerned with the details of practical life, this is not possible for practical reasoning. Practical reasoning is forced to face, all the time, a level of complexity that theoretical reasoning can often get around. This has considerable ramifications, as we shall see later.

Part II

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Una's Mirror or Ithuriel's Spear

And whence this Lust to Laugh? what fond Pretense?
Why, Shaftsb'ry tells us, Mirth's the Test of Sense;
Th'enchanted Touch, which Fraud and Falshood fear,
Like Una's Mirror, or Ithuriel's Spear.

Not so fair Truth--aloft her Temple stands
The Work and Glory of Immortal Hands.
Huge Rocks of Adamant its Base enfold,
Steel bends the Arch, the Columns swell in Gold.
No Storms, no Tumults reach the sacred Fane,
Waves idly beat, and Winds grow loud in vain.
The Shaft sinks pointless, e'er it verges there,
And the dull Hiss but dies away in Air.

Yet let me say, howe'er secure it rise,
Sly Fraud may reach it, and close Craft surprize.
Truth, drawn like Truth, must blaze divinely bright;
But, drawn like Error, Truth may cheat the sight.

[William Whitehead, An Essay on Ridicule, ll. 87-102.]

At some point I'm going to have to do some posts on the Ridicule Controversy, which was one of the most heated philosophical disputes of the eighteenth century; it was started off by some ambiguous comments written by Shaftesbury, which can be interpreted either as saying that ridicule is a good means for uncovering unreasonable gravity and that truth does not need, in the long run, to fear ridicule, or as saying that ridicule is a test of truth, and therefore a reasonable means of inquiry. It was generally read, by both sides, as the latter. The slogan, "ridicule a test for truth," was argued back and forth with considerable ink (and ridicule). Whitehead's poem is an entry on the anti-Shaftesbury side; this side of the dispute didn't reject ridicule (people like Warburton used it extensively) but denied the "test for truth" part vehemently. It's an uneven poem, but Whitehead has a good sense of imagery, and occasionally something stands out -- "Truth, drawn like Truth, must blaze divinely bright; / But, drawn like Error, Truth may cheat the sight" is an excellent couplet.

Wikipedia on Informal Fallacy

I often check out Wikipedia's informal fallacy articles; I have an interest in philosophical folklore, and nothing is as full of folklore as discussions of informal fallacies. Wikipedia tends to collect such folklore from a rather diverse and eclectic set of sources, so it always has something interesting. Today I decided to look not at any articles for particular informal fallacies but the actual article, 'Informal Fallacy'. The article begins:

An informal fallacy is an argument whose stated premises fail to support its proposed conclusion.

This is certainly wrong if taken as a definition, even an informal one, which it surely is. For instance, here is an argument. Joan says, "I believe that my life is good." Then David says, "Some people suffer starvation and are persecuted; this makes life bad. Therefore not all life is good." David's argument is one whose stated premises support his proposed conclusion. But he has committed an informal fallacy; this is a valid and likely sound argument, but it is not a relevant one, and lapses of relevance are informal fallacies.

The listed source is David Kelley's The Art of Reasoning (Kelley is misspelled Kelly). I don't think I have this one on my shelf, but as the fallacies chapter seems to be online, and says nothing of the sort (e.g., he recognizes that it's all the premises, stated and implicit that matter, and that there are informal fallacies in which the stated premises do support the proposed conclusion) this is probably a misreading original to Wikipedia; but looking it up online one sees, here and there, people quoting this in arguments (usually in various forums), so we are seeing a seed crystal that might, if conditions are right, eventually develop into a bit of folklore.

It continues a bit later:

In contrast to a formal fallacy, the error has to do with issues of ratiocination manifest in language used to state the propositions; the range of elements that can be symbolized by language is broader than that which the symbolism of formal logic can represent.

This is obscure at best; it seems to be saying that informal fallacies are problems of language. It is actually quite controversial whether there are things in natural language incapable of being expressed in formal logic; but it doesn't seem to be relevant to informal fallacies. The problem with informal fallacies is not that they are in natural language -- you can commit informal fallacies in the artificial languages of formal systems, too, because informal fallacies typically arise from how you try to apply arguments to the immediate situation; and everyone who accepts that natural language is a larger domain than possible formal symbolism holds that failure to conform to formal symbolism does not automatically make the reasoning fallacious.

There is then a curious distinction between 'deductive' informal fallacies and 'inductive' informal fallacies; I say curious because ignoratio elenchi falls into neither category, despite being quite common, and because this is not a standard way of dividing informal fallacies. The standard ways of dividing informal fallacies are not in general all that great, but this way of doing it is not an obvious improvement. The description of 'informal fallacies of deductive reasoning' seems to be a description of enthymemes, which are not informal fallacies at all. We then have an odd claim that arguments are inductive if their populations are too large to sample completely. 'Induction' is used in lots of ways, but this is nonstandard.

In any case, I notice that it has dead links and that nothing has happened on the Talk page in five years, so it looks like this is a dead article, floating around and misinforming people.

Links of Note

* Roberta Millstein, Chances and Causes in Evolutionary Biology: How Many Chances Become One Chance (PDF). I recommend this paper highly if you are interested in this subject.

* Patrick Baert, The Sudden Rise of French Existentialism: A Case-Study in the Sociology of Intellectual Life

* Wilfrid McClay discusses Tocqueville.

* I liked Alex Pruss's recent post on tradition and traditionalism.

* The 3QD philosophy prizes this year went to:

Factive Verbs and Protagonist Projection, at "Experimental Philosophy
Recharting the Map of Social and Political Theory, at "Bleeding Heart Libertarians"
Democracy is not a truth machine, at "The Philosopher's Beard"

They're all interesting. I worry about ceteris paribus factivity interfering with factivity, as well as about figurative speech, in the first one, but it's a very interesting discussion for anyone who thinks about the factivity of knowledge.

* Thomas McDonald is writing a series on burial customs in the Levant.

* An interesting post on the geocentric-geokinetic model of the solar system at "Renaissance Mathematicus".

* Some other papers of note:

Paolo Palmieri, Science and authority in Giacomo Zabarella
James South, Zabarella, Prime Matter, and the Theory of Regressus
William A. Wallace, O.P., Science and Religion in the Thomistic Tradition
William A. Wallace, O.P., St. Thomas's Conception of Natural Philosophy and Its Method

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Cohen on Criminals and Guilt

A clear distinction must be introduced between the judgment of the judge about the guilt according to the relevant paragraph of the law and the corresponding determination of facts, on the one hand, and the judgment about human guilt on the other hand. We are not to think, however, that the latter has been set aside; rather, through this distinction man's guilt will come to a more exact declaration. When he receives the declaration of guilt from the judge, the criminal himself has to take the guilt upon himself, and only the loss of the soundness of his mind can exempt him from it.

Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism. Kaplan, tr. Scholars Press (Atlanta: 1995) p. 167. Emphasis in original.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Little Way

Today is the feast of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, also known as Thérèse of Lisieux; she is a Doctor of the Church, which is a liturgical title given by the Catholic Church to its greatest theologians who are not also martyrs. She was born on January 2, 1873, and she died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. From The Story of a Soul, her major theological work:

Full sweet is the way of Love. It is true one may fall and be unfaithful to grace; but Love, knowing how to profit by everything, quickly consumes whatever is displeasing to Jesus, leaving in the heart only a deep and humble peace. I have obtained many spiritual lights through the works of St. John of the Cross. When I was seventeen and eighteen they were my only food; but, later on, and even now, all spiritual authors leave me cold and dry. However beautiful and touching a book may be, my heart does not respond, and I read without understanding, or, if I understand, I cannot meditate. In my helplessness the Holy Scriptures and the Imitation are of the greatest assistance; in them I find a hidden manna, genuine and pure. But it is from the Gospels that I find most help in the time of prayer; from them I draw all that I need for my poor soul. I am always discovering in them new lights and hidden mysterious meanings. I know and I have experienced that "the Kingdom of God is within us." Our Lord has no need of books or teachers to instruct our souls. He, the Teacher of Teachers, instructs us without any noise of words. I have never heard Him speak, yet I know He is within me. He is there, always guiding and inspiring me; and just when I need them, lights, hitherto unseen, break in. This is not as a rule during my prayers, but in the midst of my daily duties. Sometimes, however, as this evening, at the close of a meditation spent in utter dryness, a word of comfort is given to me: "Here is the Master I give thee, He will teach thee all that thou shouldst do. I wish thee to read in the Book of Life in which is contained the science of love. . . ."

The Science of Love! How sweetly do these words echo in my soul! That science alone do I desire. Having given all my substance for it, like the Spouse in the Canticles, "I think that I have given nothing." After so many graces, may I not sing with the Psalmist that "the Lord is good, that His Mercy endureth for ever"?

I find myself struck by the sentence, "This is not as a rule during my prayers, but in the midst of my daily duties."

Real Things

A Ballade of Theatricals
by G. K. Chesterton

Though all the critics' canons grow—
Far seedier than the actors' own—
Although the cottage-door's too low—
Although the fairy's twenty stone—
Although, just like the telephone,
She comes by wire and not by wings,
Though all the mechanism's known—
Believe me, there are real things.

Yes, real people— even so—
Even in a theatre, truth is known,
Though the agnostic will not know,
And though the gnostic will not own,
There is a thing called skin and bone,
And many a man that struts and sings
Has been as stony-broke as stone…
Believe me, there are real things.

There is an hour when all men go;
An hour when man is all alone.
When idle minstrels in a row
Went down with all the bugles blown—
When brass and hymn and drum went down,
Down in death's throat with thunderings—
Ah, though the unreal things have grown,
Believe me, there are real things.

Prince, though your hair is not your own
And half your face held on by strings,
And if you sat, you'd smash your throne—
Believe me, there are real things.

This poem was first published in a pamphlet whose purpose was to raise money for the survivors of the Titanic.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Whewell on Newton's Laws II: Cause

In physics we talk about forces, and these forces are understood to be explanatory factors for changes of motions. They are in some way causes of motion, or, when they are not, they are prevented form being so by other forces. This gives us a starting point; as Whewell says in his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Volume I (p. 165), "Thus force, in its most general sense, is the cause of motion, or of tendency to motion; and in order to discover the principles on which the mechanical sciences truly rest, we must examine the nature and origin of our knowledge of Causes." It's important to understand that mechanics and the like do not deal with causes in general; rather, they deal with cause in a very specific sense that presupposes certain assumptions about what kind of causes, and what kind of effects, we are considering. Nonetheless, specific kinds of causes still presuppose the principles of causes in general, so any discussion of physics and its philosophical implications will have to start, Whewell thinks, with consideration of causes in the abstract.

We find things causally connected together in our experience, but in order to talk about causation we have to recognize these connections as causal, which means we have to supply the Idea of Cause and actively apply it to what we experience. As usual, Whewell insists that the Idea is actively drawn from our own minds, not passively received from outside our minds; and we can tell because, unlike our experiences of causal situations, which are particular, contingent, etc., we can, and do, and sometimes must, make rigorously universal and necessary claims about causes, claims which will go well beyond anything we actually have experienced. "Every effect has a cause" is necessarily, universally, rigorously true; not merely probably, usually, and as far as we can tell. The modal disparity between our experiences and our claims means that our mind is actively performing an induction, taking an Idea or Conception and organizing experience with it. The arguments of people like Hume do have some force: when we see one billiard ball striking another, we just see one thing happen and then another thing happen. Our understanding of causes, however, does not see them solely in this light; we do not merely passively observe billiard balls doing this then that -- we recognize the one ball as striking the other and making it move. Because of this, Whewell agrees with the response of Scottish metaphysicians to Hume -- an adequate account of causation must account for the universality of our Idea of Cause in a way that Hume's doesn't. And likewise he agrees with Kant's response to Hume -- an adequate account of causation must account not just for the universality but also for the necessity involved in our Idea of Cause. And Whewell thinks that something like this is necessary to account for serious physics at all, which can be seriously called knowledge because it applies necessary truths about causes to causes in the world (p. 176):

Axioms concerning Cause, or concerning Force, which as we shall see, is a modification of Cause, will flow from an Idea of Cause, just as axioms concerning space and number flow from the ideas of space and number or time. And thus the propositions which constitute the science of Mechanics prove that we possess an idea of cause, in the same sense in which the propositions of geometry and arithmetic prove our possession of the ideas of space and of time or number.

When we consider the Idea of Cause, then, we can formulate Axioms expressing the necessity and universality of the Idea. For our purposes, there are three Axioms in particular that are important, which might be colloquially formulated in the following way.

I. Nothing can take place without a cause.
II. Effects are proportional to their causes, and causes are measured by their effects.
III. Reaction is equal and opposite to action.

The first of these is in some sense the most general Axiom possible for the Idea of Cause; if you are talking about Causes in a sense where the first axiom is false, you are not actually talking about the Idea of Cause itself, but about something else that you are associating with the Idea. It is for practical purposes self-evident; even if we attempt to deny it, we will find our reasoning continually slipping back into a format that presupposes that it is true. What is more, since science studies causes, the first Axiom is absolutely essential to scientific inquiry; it is virtually its constitutive principle.

With the second Axiom we consider not merely Cause as such, but causes insofar as they can be compared with other causes. When we talk of force, for instance, we talk of one force as being greater than another; we also talk of some causes as having greater scope or power. So how do we generally identify this greater-than relation among causes? We look at the effects, and compare causes in terms of their effects (p. 179): "Hence the effect is an unfailing index of the amount of the cause; and if it be a measurable effect, it gives a measure of the cause." It is true that this can sometimes be more complicated than it sounds -- causes can sometimes be added together, for instance -- but the complications can themselves be seen as merely more complicated applications of the one Axiom, sometimes with the addition of other assumptions for the particular kind of cause we are considering.

Whewell is always somewhat more obscure when talking about the third Axiom, but it seems from a number of things he says that he takes the Axiom to apply whenever we have a Cause effecting motion -- or building a tendency to motion -- in something capable of resisting in some way. The most obvious example of this is the movement of bodies, and these are the examples Whewell most often uses. We recognized that bodies exist because they resist us. When we press on a body, we can make it move, but the body presses on us as we are pressing on it. At least in these resisting cases, then, causation is naturally understood to be mutual: I press the wall, the wall presses me, these are equal and opposite, so that I am the cause of some kind of tendency to motion in the wall and the wall is the cause of some kind of tendency to motion in me, according to a common rule. Each can be regarded as cause, each can be regarded as effect, and they mutually depend on each other. Thus, just as the second Axiom considers Cause under the condition of measurement, so the third Axiom considers it under the condition of mutuality in a common rule of measurement. One way of understanding this, which allows us to recognize why Whewell considers this Axiom to be very important, is that when we are talking about causes in real life we are usually talking about changes in causal terms. We experience a change, and then we use the Idea of Cause to clarify what the causal action is. And if we are simply interested in describing the cause-effect link, we are simply trying to give a rule for their going together; and therefore we will have a causal action insofar as it is exerted by the cause and the same causal action insofar as it is received in the effect, and it won't generally matter which way we're looking at it. In causal matters, action always has something that can be identified as a reaction. Thus the necessary connection of action and reaction seems to be taken by Whewell to be perfectly general. The equality is not always going to be possible to assume, because we can't rule out the possibility that action and reaction, while related, may not be commensurable in a way that allows us to talk about equality (we may not be able to establish a common rule). But in physical causes of physical changes, the action and reaction both admit (at least in principle) of being measured in physical terms and therefore being linked with each other according to a common rule of measurement. If a hot body and cool body come into contact, the hot body warms the cool body, the cool body cools the hot body; these can be measured and placed under a common rule, as we do in thermodynamics. And this just is to apply the third Axiom to such a particular case.

Anyone with a basic familiarity with Newton's Laws can no doubt see where Whewell is going here. It is important to reiterate, however, that these three Axioms are not the Laws of Motion. They are general causal principles; they do not assume that we are talking about changes of motion, and they do not make any assumption about whether we are dealing with some kind of force or not. There are many different kinds of things that fall under the Idea of Cause, each of which needs to be regarded on its own terms, and there is no need to conflate them. Historians have every right to talk about historical causes, for instance; they are not at all required to think of them as physical forces, or even as reducible to physical forces. Whewell is open to the idea that it might turn out that causes in two different fields turn out to be, at base the same kind of cause -- he calls the 'jumping together' of two apparently different fields under one Idea or Conception consilience, and he thinks that this is one of the more important markers of genuine scientific progress. But consilience arises from inquiry as a sort of conclusion; there is absolutely nothing about that inquiry itself that requires us to start with the assumption that the kinds of causes considered by historians will turn out to be nothing but physical forces. And, indeed, Whewell, like most British Newtonians in the nineteenth century, thinks that there are cases of causes that certainly aren't explicable in terms of physical forces, although physical forces may ultimately be explicable in terms of them -- namely, immaterial causes. However, anywhere there is any kind of cause and effect, whether or not it is physical or not, the first Axiom will hold; anywhere we can measure the effect, the second Axiom will hold; and anywhere we can measure the cause and effect according to a common rule, the third Axiom will hold. Even in the physical sciences, there is no absolute a priori reason why we should think that Forces in statics are exactly the same kinds of things as Forces in dynamics (for instance); they both qualify as Forces, but that doesn't mean there are no differences between them. This has to be clarified down the road; we cannot merely assume that all causes, or even all forces, are of exactly the same kind.

In order to get from the Idea of Cause to Newton's Laws of Motion, we have to narrow down the Idea of Cause to get the Idea or Conception of Force. (Whewell often uses the word 'Conception' to indicate that we are dealing with a Fundamental Idea that has been specified to a particular kind of situation; but he is not entirely consistent in doing this, and, indeed, argues that it's hard to draw any sharp lines.) Whewell thinks we get the Conception of Force primarily from our consciousness of our own endeavors. We feel ourselves exerting force, and our first real acquaintance with anything that can clearly be considered a cause of change of motion is our own ability to change things by muscular exertion. This kind of causation clearly has a direction, and so we recognize Force as being a directed causation producing changes in motion and rest. There are, in fact, several features of ordinary experience that guaranteed that this Conception remained rather vague and obscure for a very long time. The foundations of mechanics as a science were already implicit in the Conception of Force and the Axioms of causation as applied to this Conception; but ordinary experience has a number of ambiguities that can trip us up. These are the usual things that are mentioned in histories of physics -- friction and air resistance and the like, which complicate measurement. In order to get mechanics out of our Conception of Force, we need systematic experiment and progressively better observation in order to get measurements right, and also need to think through the implications of something's being a cause of motion in particular (and, for instance, how that might differ from being some other kind of cause).

The same consciousness that gives us the Conception of Force also gives us the Conception of Body, or as we might also call it, Matter, as something resisting, and likewise Solidity or tangibility. Given this we can start to formulate some notion of Inertia which is the inertness or tendency of a body to be stubborn and push back when pushed. Making sense of these things require all three of the Axioms, and the third in particular, and thus we have the possibility of a science of mechanics. It's worth stating again that we need not merely reasoning from Axioms but also reliable empirical measurement if we are to build the science of mechanics. Whewell does not think you can magically pull Newton's Laws out of the three causal Axioms alone; to get each Law of Motion requires applying the Axioms to a particular kind of situation (when the causes are forces) and clarifying the way in which those Axioms apply in that particular situation. This means that Newton's Laws have a necessary aspect (derived from the causal Axioms) and an empirical aspect (derived from experimental and observational measurement of forces and motions in particular), and both are absolutely essential to how they should be understood. To see how this works, we need to turn to the Laws themselves, so the next post in this series will look at how Whewell's account applies to Newton's First Law.

Fortnightly Book, September 30

After graduating high school, Kenneth Dodson joined the Merchant Marine. He probably would have completed a career in that, but the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor shifted the entire course of his life. He joined the Navy and was in the thick of things; he saw action in nine major battles, including Okinawa. After the war, his friend, the poet Carl Sandburg, insisted that he write about some of his experiences. During the war Sandburg had come across a beautiful letter written by Dodson to his wife Letha and as a result had made it his mission to meet the writer. Dodson didn't quite know how to start, so he took some creative writing courses and produced his most famous book, Away All Boats, based on his experience aboard the attack transport U.S.S. Pierce; that book is dedicated to Carl Sandburg and to Letha and is the next fortnightly book.

There is a brief author's note at the beginning of the book:

The task force movements, beachhead assaults and principal enemy air attacks described in this novel are intended to be historically accurate, and in other respects the author has attempted to tell a story which will ring true to veterans of amphibious landings.

All characters in this story are fiction and any resemblance to actual persons is coincidental. The U.S.S. Belinda is imaginary; there was no attack transport by that name. Many other ships in the story never actually existed, yet it is the author's desire that in these pages the reader will recapture the spirit of those ships of the United States Navy which sailed to victory through the Pacific islands.

A song that is alluded to in the book, and which plays a part in the 1956 movie based on it:

The movie, incidentally, had a very brief, uncredited, speaking role by the young Clint Eastwood.

Poem a Day

Autumn Rain

I was not listening to you at breakfast.
The rain had washed my thoughts away.
I had failed the night before to make fast
attention for the coming day.
The tea was hot, the bagel good,
the scent of autumn rain was strong;
but, forgive me for the wrong,
I did not listen as I should.
The words I heard, and understood,
but meanings spaced between the words
were lost; I gazed out on the woods
and memory leaves the rest in blurs.
The tea was hot, the bagel fine,
the scent of autumn rain was strong;
I did not listen and now I long
to go back and hear between the lines.