Saturday, September 26, 2015

Some One Person at Least

Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to serve and obey one man : Let the sun rise and set at his command : The sea and rivers roll as he pleases, and the earth furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him : He will still be miserable, till you give him some one person at least, with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy.

David Hume, Treatise (SBN 363).

Friday, September 25, 2015

Hume and Buddhism and Evidence

Peter at Conscious Entities criticizes Alison Gopnik, who argues that there is a real historical link between Hume's account of the self and Buddhism:

If Gopnik had found proof that Hume showed an interest in Buddhism or that it was ever mentioned to him at La Fl├Ęche her research might be of some value. As it is it’s irrelevant, I think, because it’s not all that unlikely that Hume could have found out about Buddhism anyway, from other sources, if he were at all interested. There is, of course, a vast historical chasm between could have and did. As one of the West’s leading sceptics and the author of some of the most slyly biting sarcasm about religious beliefs it isn’t particularly likely Hume would have sought to learn from Eastern religions, but let it pass; for the sake of argument we can grant that he might have heard the gist of Buddhist doctrine.

One of the problems with this criticism is that it floats quite free of the actual evidence, whereas Gopnik's argument, while tenuous, does not. In history of philosophy we do not say "it’s not all that unlikely that Hume could have found out about Buddhism anyway, from other sources" unless we have evidence of such sources at least being possibly available; in fact, as Gopnik herself has pointed out, there were very few such sources in the early eighteenth century when Hume was writing the Treatise, and almost all of them Jesuit. Likewise, the comment about religion looks suspiciously like setting up an imaginative profile of Hume and then assuming, without regard for the evidence, that the historical Hume complies with it. In fact, there is extensive evidence of Hume reading religious works and discussing religious topics during his period of writing the Treatise. We know, for instance, that he read quite a bit about the Jansenist controversy, and that he had read works in Catholic spiritual theology (almost certainly Fenelon, and likely a few others), and that he had a good knowledge of Protestant anti-Catholic polemic; and (as Gopnik notes) we have evidence directly from Hume himself that he discussed philosophical matters with Jesuits in this period. Likewise, the later Natural History of Religion attests to Hume's interest in the diversity of religions. Thus there's no particular reason to think that Hume wouldn't have been interested in tales of a religion so different from Christianity; to the contrary, actually.

It is true that there is a chasm between could have and did. But there is also a chasm between abstract possibilities or even expectations on one side and possibilities that arise given the actual evidence on the other. It is of interest to know whether parallels or analogies are artifacts of interpretation, coincidental similarities, convergent developments, or connected by cause and effect, and how one goes about interpreting them depends quite crucially on what evidence one has one way or another. Given Gopnik's research, it is still quite likely that any parallels would be at most convergent developments, and the simplest interpretations of the arguments even given the evidence are still those that make that supposition. (The post notes that it can be put in the context of a response to Descartes -- which is true enough, although it would probably be in response to Cartesians generally; but it is also true that Hume's actual argument shares a number of structural points with some of Berkeley's attacks on matter -- they both make use of the impossibility of perceiving how things exist without perception, for instance.) But identifying a possible channel of influence is non-trivial progress; far from being irrelevant, it raises further questions for research and inquiry, since the kinds of channels of influence that are available can make a significant difference on how the influence itself would actually work and on the range of interpretations available for the argument in question. And Gopnik herself, it should be pointed out does not claim to have established more than a real evidential possibility of a contributory cause.

There is another aspect of the criticism that is not outright stated but seems to be implied; at one point the post seems to suggest that, without assuming the hypothesis that Hume just forgot the source of the ideas, Gopnik's claim would suggest that "Hume, the most honest and modest of men" had engaged in "dishonesty or culpable silence over his sources". If this is intended, it is not in fact an issue, since it is based on false assumptions about how philosophers and scholars handled sources in the eighteenth century. One can go through Hume's works and pick out regular cases where he has to be following Malebranche, or Bayle, or Locke, or Berkeley, despite his not actually saying so. Arguments in Enquiry Section VII, for instance, are regularly drawn directly from Malebranche, despite the fact that Malebranche is only mentioned by name in a footnote that is only making a general historical comment and does not identify him as a source. And it is even more rare to find citation of sources where the source is a conversation. (In fact, it is still so, despite the fact that conversation must be a very significant source of philosophical ideas both then and now.) There is nothing dishonest or culpably silent about it.

I am somewhat puzzled, incidentally, by this part of the criticism:

That is the real killer for me; Hume did not, in fact, say that the self was an illusion; he saw nothing. On this he may well be unique; he is surely original. Buddhists, and some modern philosophers, contend that the self is actually an illusion; a powerful one which it is hard to shake off, but one which is ultimately misleading. Hume, on the contrary, just saw no self.

What's puzzling is that Hume goes on in the same section to address the question of what gives us "so great a propension to ascribe identity to these successive perceptions, and to suppose ourselves possessed of an invariable and uninterrupted existence thro' the whole course of our lives". Given that this ascription is quite clearly described as a mistake and our propensity to make it is clearly said to be great, and given that one of the points Hume needs to explain is why so many other philosophers don't see the self as he does, 'illusion' seems a good word for it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Dark Pine Forest and the Watchful Height

by Archibald Lampman

Now hath the summer reached her golden close,
And, lost amid her corn-fields, bright of soul,
Scarcely perceives from her divine repose
How near, how swift, the inevitable goal:
Still, still, she smiles, though from her careless feet
The bounty and the fruitful strength are gone,
And through the soft long wondering days goes on
The silent sere decadence sad and sweet.

The kingbird and the pensive thrush are fled,
Children of light, too fearful of the gloom;
The sun falls low, the secret word is said,
The mouldering woods grow silent as the tomb;
Even the fields have lost their sovereign grace,
The cone-flower and the marguerite; and no more,
Across the river's shadow-haunted floor,
The paths of skimming swallows interlace.

Already in the outland wilderness
The forests echo with unwonted dins;
In clamorous gangs the gathering woodmen press
Northward, and the stern winter's toil begins.
Around the long low shanties, whose rough lines
Break the sealed dreams of many an unnamed lake,
Already in the frost-clear morns awake
The crash and thunder of the falling pines.

Where the tilled earth, with all its fields set free,
Naked and yellow from the harvest lies,
By many a loft and busy granary,
The hum and tumult of the thrashers rise;
There the tanned farmers labor without slack,
Till twilight deepens round the spouting mill,
Feeding the loosened sheaves, or with fierce will,
Pitching waist-deep upon the dusty stack.

Still a brief while, ere the old year quite pass,
Our wandering steps and wistful eyes shall greet
The leaf, the water, the beloved grass;
Still from these haunts and this accustomed seat
I see the wood-wrapt city, swept with light,
The blue long-shadowed distance, and, between,
The dotted farm-lands with their parcelled green,
The dark pine forest and the watchful height.

I see the broad rough meadow stretched away
Into the crystal sunshine, wastes of sod,
Acres of withered vervain, purple-gray,
Branches of aster, groves of goldenrod;
And yonder, toward the sunlit summit, strewn
With shadowy boulders, crowned and swathed with weed,
Stand ranks of silken thistles, blown to seed,
Long silver fleeces shining like the noon.

In far-off russet corn-fields, where the dry
Gray shocks stand peaked and withering, half concealed
In the rough earth, the orange pumpkins lie,
Full-ribbed; and in the windless pasture-field
The sleek red horses o'er the sun-warmed ground
Stand pensively about in companies,
While all around them from the motionless trees
The long clean shadows sleep without a sound.

Under cool elm-trees floats the distant stream,
Moveless as air; and o'er the vast warm earth
The fathomless daylight seems to stand and dream,
A liquid cool elixir-all its girth
Bound with faint haze, a frail transparency,
Whose lucid purple barely veils and fills
The utmost valleys and the thin last hills,
Nor mars one whit their perfect clarity.

Thus without grief the golden days go by,
So soft we scarcely notice how they wend,
And like a smile half happy, or a sigh,
The summer passes to her quiet end;
And soon, too soon, around the cumbered eaves
Sly frosts shall take the creepers by surprise,
And through the wind-touched reddening woods shall rise
October with the rain of ruined leaves.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Love of God and Love of Neighbor

AUG. Since there are two commandments, the love of God and the love of our neighbor, on which hang the Law and the Prophets, not without reason does Scripture put one for both; sometimes the love of God; as in that, We know that all things work together for good to them that love God; and sometimes the love of our neighbor; as in that, All the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. And that because if a man love his neighbor, it follows therefrom that he loves God also; for it is the selfsame affection by which we love God, and by which we love our neighbor, save that we love God for Himself, but ourselves and our neighbor for God's sake.

This is from Aquinas's Catena Aurea; it condenses a passage from Augustine's De Trinitate Book VIII, Chapter 7. The full text (except for the very last part of Aquinas's summary, which is from the end of Chapter 8):

For as there are two commandments on which hang all the Law and the prophets, love of God and love of our neighbor; not without cause the Scripture mostly puts one for both: whether it be of God only, as is that text, "For we know that all things work together for good to them that love God;" and again, "But if any man love God, the same is known of Him;" and that, "Because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us;" and many other passages; because he who loves God must both needs do what God has commanded, and loves Him just in such proportion as he does so; therefore he must needs also love his neighbor, because God has commanded it: or whether it be that Scripture only mentions the love of our neighbor, as in that text, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ;" and again, "For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself;" and in the Gospel, "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the Law and the prophets." And many other passages occur in the sacred writings, in which only the love of our neighbor seems to be commanded for perfection, while the love of God is passed over in silence; whereas the Law and the prophets hang on both precepts. But this, too, is because he who loves his neighbor must needs also love above all else love itself. But "God is love; and he that dwells in love, dwells in God." Therefore he must needs above all else love God.

There is a similar line of reasoning in Augustine's Tractates on the Gospel of John:

Think not then, my brethren, that when the Lord says, "A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another," there is any overlooking of that greater commandment, which requires us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind; for along with this seeming oversight, the words "that you love one another" appear also as if they had no reference to that second commandment, which says, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." For "on these two commandments," He says, "hang all the law and the prophets." But both commandments may be found in each of these by those who have good understanding. For, on the one hand, he that loves God cannot despise His commandment to love his neighbor; and on the other, he who in a holy and spiritual way loves his neighbor, what does he love in him but God?

What Kind of Fallacy is False Dilemma?

Informal fallacies are one of my hobbies -- part of my more general interest in philosophical folklore, good and bad. It is remarkable how much uncritical thinking there is on topics that are often taught in critical thinking courses, and informal fallacies are a good example. It is a reason why I am vehemently opposed to teaching fallacies in most undergraduate courses: handling fallacies properly requires some rather sophisticated logical skill, and even then you often end up in controversial territory. I've argued that a great many taxonomies of fallacies confuse rhetorical tactics with rational errors, for instance, and that some commonly noted fallacies, like false analogy, appear to have no coherent account. So let's look at the 'fallacy of false dilemma' and see what is going on with it.

The problem, I think, is highlighted, by the IEP's discussion of false dilemma. The example given is:

I want to go to Scotland from London. I overheard McTaggart say there are two roads to Scotland from London: the high road and the low road. I expect the high road would be too risky because it's through the hills and that means dangerous curves. But it's raining now, so both roads are probably slippery. I don't like either choice, but I guess I should take the low road and be safer.

Most people, I think would regard this as perfectly rational. But it's an example in an article on fallacies, so it must be made to fit a fallacy:

This would be fine reasoning is you were limited to only two roads, but you've falsely gotten yourself into a dilemma with such reasoning. There are many other ways to get to Scotland. Don't limit yourself to these two choices. You can take other roads, or go by boat or train or airplane.

This line of thought is utterly baffling. What in the original scenario even remotely suggests that any of these alternatives are real options under the circumstances? The whole structure of discussion here is:

'There are two roads to Scotland, and both have risks, but one seems especially dangerous; so I'll take the safer one.'

'Fallacy! You can also take a boat.'

What kind of analysis of reasoning is that? Not any kind at all; there's no identifiable error in the reasoning, and the ground for calling it a fallacy has nothing to do with the actual reasoning given anyway. But I don't think this is a slip-up; this appears to be just what you usually get in discussions of false dilemma.

Here are the examples gives for the fallacy:

Either you are with me or against me.

We have to spend less on hospitals, otherwise we won't be able to afford education improvements.

These aren't even examples of reasoning! They might possibly be false, but there is nothing about them that's fallacious, because there is nothing about them that is even the right kind of thing for being fallacious. I'm not sure what to make of the more abstract characterization:

Either A or B is true. If A is true, B is therefore false. C is not an option.

The other person is offered a choice where rejecting one item acts as a selection of the other.

A or B; A -> ~B; ~C. Are these supposed to be premises? Is ~C a conclusion or an assumption? Or does the fallacy lie in taking 'A or B' to mean 'A implies ~B' rather than (as it usually would be) '~A implies B'? That would be interesting, but it's the opposite of what the next line says. And indeed the next line just seems to be describing disjunctive syllogism or eliminative argument, which is not any kind of fallacy at all. If you start with 'A or B' and reject one of the the items, you are left with the other. That's not fallacious, that's just logical. The discussion doesn't help any; it says the problem is that we are assuming that there are only two options. But a false assumption is not fallacious reasoning.

Or let's try Logically Fallacious. The examples given are:

You are either with God, or against him.

I thought you were a good person, but you weren’t at church today.

These aren't examples of reasoning, either! It also says, "It is also not a fallacy if other options exist, but you are not offering other options as a possibility." But surely it is always the case that if you put forward only two options and treat them as the only options, you aren't offering other options as a possibility. And this is just how disjunctions work in actual arguments: they are divisions of possibilities.

So how about Nizkor, which is usually pretty careful? Here is the first Nizkor example:

Either 1+1=4 or 1+1=12.
It is not the case that 1+1=4.
Therefore 1+1=12.

So at least this is reasoning. But it's also valid reasoning. The only thing that is wrong with it is that one of the premises is false. And indeed it goes on to say, "In cases in which the two options are, in fact, the only two options, this line of reasoning is not fallacious." But this is just to say that 'the fallacy of false dilemma' is equivalent to 'an instance of an argument with a false disjunction as a premise' -- there's nothing about the line of reasoning that is fallacious at all. The confusion continues with the rest of the examples:

Senator Jill: "We'll have to cut education funding this year."
Senator Bill: "Why?"
Senator Jill: "Well, either we cut the social programs or we live with a huge deficit and we can't live with the deficit."

Bill: "Jill and I both support having prayer in public schools."
Jill: "Hey, I never said that!"
Bill: "You're not an atheist are you Jill?"

"Look, you are going to have to make up your mind. Either you decide that you can afford this stereo, or you decide you are going to do without music for a while."

Senator Jill is reasoning perfectly well -- perhaps her premise is wrong, the reasoning itself is good. In the second, Bill seems only to be making a false assumption. The third is not a kind of reasoning; it's just a disjunctive proposition!

So what about I won't list the examples, because, again, none of them are any kind of reasoning. But the discussion at least fits: the 'fallacy' is described as being a case of giving a limited number of options when really there are more -- or, in other words, it's just a false disjunction.

So, the basic point to be made so far is that having a false premise is not committing a fallacy of reasoning; this seems to be a common error. If we're in colloquial conversation and you want to use 'fallacy' to mean 'false statement' or 'valid but unsound argument', I suppose I can't stop you, but this usage has no business in discussions of logical fallacies.

Enough with the non-starters. Are there any reasonable suggestions for what a false dilemma might be that would make it a kind of error of reasoning?

The Fallacy Files makes the suggestion that it involves treating logical contraries as if they were logical contradictories, which at least starts with the properties of the reasoning. But it is also just practically equivalent to the false assumption accounts, since you can reason with contraries in the same way you would reason with contradictories if you assume the premise that any other options can be ruled out in context.

The IEP article, in both its false dilemma and its black-or-white entries at several points talks about unfair presentation of choices (something similar is occasionally found elsewhere, I suspect due to the influence of this article). I confess that this did not occur to me at all. I've argued before that a better division of fallacies than is usually given is to divide them into the following groups:

(1) structural error (these are usually called formal fallacies)
(2) means-end error (the argument fails to achieve a needed further end; for instance, petitio principii or ignoratio elenchi)
(3) end error (the argument is used for an inappropriate further end; for instance, poisoning the well)

'False dilemma' is a label that sounds like it should be either a structural error or a means-end error of reasoning. But the notion of 'unfairness' is an ethical criticism, which would put it securely in (3): the problem with false dilemma, the thing that makes it a fallacy, is that you are not reasoning in a way that is ethically appropriate. The Scotland example is not a very good example of this at all -- there doesn't seem to be any way in which it is being unfair, and, in fact, the response to it seems a better candidate for unfair reasoning -- but the idea itself, that false dilemma is a violation of fairness in reasoning, is entirely coherent and is a truly interesting suggestion.

I don't know quite what to make of this -- as I said, I found it unexpected. But in favor of it is the fact that it would explain why the examples all fail so miserably -- end-error fallacies are the most context-dependent kind of fallacies. To criticize reasoning for unfairness, if you are being reasonable, you must look at the context in order to determine what would be fair in that particular case. So you can't just give the argument itself -- no fallacy will be visible, because you will not have given anyone the right kind of information to determine whether the argument is being used unfairly.

St. Maurice and the Theban Legion

Jacopo Pontormo - Martyrdom of St Maurice and the Theban Legion - WGA18102

Jacopo Pontormo's Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion. I've talked about the Theban Legion before.

Da Xue (Part II)

The Comment

It is interesting that if we follow the Neo-Confucian mode of interpretation and read the Classic portion as being by Confucius, then rather than the words of Confucius being treated as commentary on the Five Classics, as the Analects was usually interpreted, we instead get the Five Classics being used as commentary on the words of Confucius. In that sense we can see the structure of the work as marking an important stage in the transition of the image of Confucius from being one of the more eminent practitioners of the scholarly way to being its central figure. The Da Xue may originate, for the most part almost word for word, from the Book of Rites, but as an independent text it is entirely a Neo-Confucian work.

The second portion of the The Great Learning is usually attributed to Master Zeng. It is very plausibly a commentary on the first portion, since it is largely devoted to clarifying the meaning of terms used in the first portion; but it is worth noting that the obvious difference between the two portions is partly due to the editorial work of the Cheng brothers and Zhu Xi, since Zhu Xi remarks that in many cases the tablets were disarranged. One of the things that the Neo-Confucians did was reorder the sections so that the commentary recapitulates the order of the classic on which it is commenting.

We begin, then, with the topics originally mentioned in the classic. Splendid virtue is clarified by identifying three cases in which the notion has been explicitly connected with ancient kings, thus giving the student, if he wished, an idea of where to look if he wants to understand the idea more fully. The next topic is renovation of the people. As we saw, this was a scholarly emendation by the Cheng brothers, which Zhu Xi accepted, and the basis for it seems to have been the fact that the second portion of the text had made a number of references to renovation or newness that, if read as commentary, don't seem to comment on anything in particular unless we take one of the topics to be renovation of the people. From splendid virtue and renovation we move on immediately to the notion of resting in excellence. The fourth chapter, which quotes Confucius on litigation, has a parallel in Analects XII.13, which lets us distinguish sharply between the quotation and gloss. In the Analects, and in old commentary on the passage, it is taken to be clarifying the notion of sincerity, but the Neo-Confucian ordering and interpretation requires us to read it as clarifying the topics of da xue: the root is showing forth splendid virtue and the renovation of the people comes from that.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter of the Da Xue is the fifth chapter of the commentary, on investigation of principle. The Daoxue interpretation and rearrangement of the work is brilliant and makes an immense amount of sense, but when one re-arranges the second portion to conform to the order of the first, you discover (a) that you have a couple of uninformative sentences that don't seem to have a clear place to go and (b) that there is a clear gap in Master Zeng's commentary -- it comments on everything in the classic portion except the investigation of things and completion of knowledge, which are mentioned in the leftover sentences. Given the classic/commentary assumption, then, it is reasonable to conclude that a section is missing. This is precisely what Zhu Xi does conclude, and he makes an attempt to reconstruct its content by summarizing the basic ideas on investigation of principle that arose from the textual and philosophical research of the Cheng brothers. The basic idea of this reconstructed chapter is that the human made is natural disposed to knowing, and everything we encounter in the world has li (principle) that can be known. (We can perhaps think of li here as that in a thing which makes it fit into that greater order in which we also participate by our action.) our potential, therefore, requires that we do not merely stay on the surface of things, but in everything we encounter attempt to reach the underlying li. This is not a short or easy task, but by doing this consistently over a long period of time, our mind will become acute and both world and mind will at some point both be understood.

We then get commentary on the layers of self-cultivation: sincerity, self-rectification, regulation of family, governance of the state, and finally (and extensively) the peace of the kingdom. Thus the overall comment breaks into three parts: three parts on the nature of the Way, one on the unifying subject of the investigation of principle, and six on the working out of the Way in the various aspects or domains of life, which might be held to serve as, respectively, the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of virtuous life.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


I confess I found this video of Jimmy Fallon and Lionel Ritchie parodying Ritchie's original video hilarious. There's just something about that second "Hello!"