Saturday, February 17, 2018

Elizabeth Barrett Browning on Extension and Minds

Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Lady Mary Shepherd (1828), letter 314:

I am reduced to the necessity of offering my written but warm thanks, for the valuable present, left for me by your Ladyship– I have read several parts of the Essays with a curious pleasure—several with an entire mental satisfaction: and I have everywhere admired the originality, brilliancy, & power, which,—whether your Ladyship’s positions be questionable or the contrary,—undeniably distinguish your mode of supporting them. It is better to appear arrogant than to be dishonest: & it would be dishonest & disingenuous if I were to conceal the opinion I cannot help entertaining, respecting the extension of finite minds. I cannot honestly say that your Ladyship’s arguments have changed or modified that opinion. If finite minds have not a distinct locality, they must inter-exist & be commingled: if they have a distinct locality, they must have bounds: and bounds pre-suppose extension.

This is an interesting argument.

(1) Either finite minds have a distinct locality or not.
(2) If they do not have a distinct locality, they are not distinct.
(3) If they have a distinct locality, they must have bounds.
(4) If they have bounds, they must be extended.

And, presumably (given that she summarizes the argument as concerned with "the extension of finite minds"),

(5) Finite minds are distinct.


(6) Finite minds are extended.

The obvious premise in need of defense is (2), since place-distinction is not the only way to distinguish, but the premise that in a sense matters is (3), since finite minds do prima facie often have distinct localities -- for instance, we associate my mind with my body and not with the moon. There seems to be need of a distinction or two here, though.

Browning seems to be referring to Lady Mary Shepherd's Essay XI, "On the Immateriality of Mind", in which she argues of sensation that "though it does not occupy space as solid extension, yet it has a necessary relation to space, by requiring space in which to exist" (EPEU, p. 386). Her primary concern is to argue that sensation cannot exist on its own; but it does require that finite minds have a distinct locality, and Shepherd does there at least consider the possibility of attributing extension to the immaterial mind, despite its not being her own view. Browning is certainly right that Shepherd's arguments would not have modified her own view; Shepherd hardly talks about the topic at all.

Aquinas for Lent IV

Corporal need occurs either during this life or afterwards. If it occurs during this life, it is either a common need in respect of things needed by all, or it is a special need occurring through some accident supervening. On the first case, the need is either internal or external. Internal need is twofold: one which is relieved by solid food, viz. hunger, in respect of which we have "to feed the hungry"; while the other is relieved by liquid food, viz. thirst, and in respect of this we have "to give drink to the thirsty." The common need with regard to external help is twofold; one in respect of clothing, and as to this we have "to clothe the naked": while the other is in respect of a dwelling place, and as to this we have "to harbor the harborless." Again if the need be special, it is either the result of an internal cause, like sickness, and then we have "to visit the sick," or it results from an external cause, and then we have "to ransom the captive." After this life we give "burial to the dead."

Summa Theologiae 2-2.32.2

Friday, February 16, 2018

Dashed Off IV

"The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval." Tolkien

the free adjective as the foundation of fantasy (Tolkien)

4 characteristics of true contrition
(1) real and not merely verbal
(2) from faith rather than incentive
(3) complete in its recognition of the evil of sin
(4) complete in the scope of sins recognized

abstract object realism // immateriality of the soul

Human sexuality is a sign-making thing.

marriage as locution with illocutionary and perlocutionary force

"...a word, whether spoken or written, has a remarkable, even paradoxical quality,--namely that it both goes out and remains where it was to start with." Barfield

The 'cult of victimhood' is an attack on habits of mercy, (1) by making mercy dependent on some status as victim and (2) by encouraging unmerciful behavior to victimizers and (3) by discouraging merciful action by victims. It perversely takes a genuine ground for mercy and twists it to block mercy. It is consistent with, and indeed conducive to, some acts of mercy; but there are few things more toxic to merciful character, because it sets so many different kinds of impediments to mercy.

Genealogy is a matter of culture as well as biology.

Given the way he characterizes the Supreme Law of Human Action, Whewell's Five Virtues are perhaps best considered to be kinds of disposition to human common good: uniting affection (Benevolence), excluding of selfish desire (Justice), maintenance of common understanding (Truth), control of appetites (Purity), and distinct and definite conception of standards (Order).

St. Andrew of Crete on the garments of the Transfiguration, figurally understood:
(1) the words and deeds of the Savior in earthly life (spotless, showing the divine in the mundane without circumscribing it)
(2) the magnificence of those things brought into existence by the Word, esp. Scripture (made pure by the Spirit, revealing the Word to those perfected in the Spirit -- those like Peter, representing depth of faith, firmly anchored in the rock, carrying the Church, and James and John, representing the breadth and height, entrusted with mystical vision)

The book of Jude shows that there may be true prophecy amidst speculation and fable.

Scripture insinuates that the wine of the chalice is to be mixed with water, but gives no explicit institution of it.

Secularization is a disease of custom more than anything.

Titus 1:5 -- the establishment of elders by appointment by appropriate authority arising from the apostles
Acts 6:3 -- while the people select, only the apostles appoint

"there is one chair belonging to one, upon which now by divine authority three bishops sit" Gregory (letter 37 to Eulogius of Alexandria)

*Direct* temporal authority by the pope arises from the custom of the liturgical commonwealth and not from anything intrinsic to the papacy.

five works proper to God (Bellarmine): Creation, Conservation, Salvation, Foreknowledge of the hidden, Miracles

"The same act belongs to the mover as wherefrom it is and to the moved as wherein it is." Aquinas

One who has a democratic mindset and who begins to ridicule without intent to hurt will eventually ridicule with intent to hurt; ridicule is naturally escalating in an environment emphasizing persuasion.

"The Natural Affections are the proper moral School of the Heart." Whewell

From Christ the King, the Church receives the right of global and catholic mission.

The Church does not offer the sacrament of marriage; she receives it from Christ.

Life itself is a beginning of happiness.

Our duties are inevitably going to be somewhat general under most circumstances.

When dealing with wrongs, it is idle to talk about whether society should retaliate; the fact is that it inevitably does so, often as a reflex. The question is not whether but how it should retaliate, and what should be done to guarantee that it only does so in the right mode.

Human beings are such inveterate storytellers that we will defy heaven itself if we like the role it gives us in the imagined stories of our lives.

Acts of justice often arise out of the spontaneous negotiations of life and thus could not always have been determined beforehand.

Opus human generis totaliter accepti est actuare semper totam potentiam intellectus possibilis. (Dante)

Analogical inference requires not merely similarity but similarity within a universe of discourse.
- Can this perhaps give us a good account of a legitimate fallacy of alse analogy, as ignoratio elenchi arising through failure to respect the universe of discourse?

analogical inference as preserving possibility with respect to similarity-as-evidence (evidential possibility given similarity)

The love in charity is God's own religious act.

square of opposition for: theism, non-atheism, atheism, nontheism

Spontaneous interjections are often difficult to interpret due to a surplus of meaning, not a paucity.

rational zymurgy, the zymurgy of reason

Complete holiness is found only in the fullness of divine love.

causation, eminence, and remotion in the interpretive work of HoP

The right to vote is a right for protecting other rights; it does not exist for its own sake.

Christ is both symbol and means of the union of God and man.

"Every philosophic system is the outcome of that or those put forward before it, and contains the germs of its successor." Erdmann
"If Philosophy is the self-comprehension of the spirit, the proof that a philosophic system does not understand itself, is also a proof that it is not a complete philosophy, and therefore must be transcended."

Habituation as such is not a reversible process; one can lose habitus, the effect, but not by reversal, only by moving forward again. It's not like simply changing one's mind.

Universalist arguments seem unusually likely to commit the fallacy of simpliciter et secundum quid. Think about this.

NB that Aristotle treats music not only as imitative but as paradigmatically so.

The Fall of Man is not yet complete.

(1) What moves by locomotion has determinate direction. (2) What has determinate direction is determined to that direction rather than some other. (3) This is final causation.
(1)What moves in a given direction has a tendency to continue in that direction. (2) A tendency to do something is final causation.

"Each thing insofar as it is simple and undivided, always remains in the same state, quantum in se est, and never changes except as a result of external causes." Descartes Principles 2.37 (AT 8a62; CSM 1.240-1)
"Each thing, quantum in se est, strives to persevere in its being." Spinoza, Ethics 3P6
Descartes's df of conatus (Principles 3a56 AT VIIIa, 108, CSM 1, 259): "they are positioned and pushed into motion insuch a way that they will in fact travel in that direction, unless they are prevented by some other cause."
- Hoffman suggests that striving adds to the tending the notion of quantum in se est.

force as actio ad mutandum

Shared skeptical opposition tends to pressure dogmatisms to unite.

"...syncretism is dogmatism as well as scepticism, and it is just in this that the chief weakness of the system, and its formal inconsistency, consists." Erdmann
Is Erdmann right that imperial systems tend toward philosophical syncretisms?

reason : eclectic mixture :: understanding : organic fusion

filmlook & soundflow

possibilities in terms of (a) powers (b) objects of thought
are these, taken broadly, exhaustive?

Philosophy itself is a form of shared intentionality.

Aquinas for Lent III

As may be gathered from the words of Dionysius (Div. Nom. iv), beauty or comeliness results from the concurrence of clarity and due proportion. For he states that God is said to be beautiful, as being "the cause of the harmony and clarity of the universe." Hence the beauty of the body consists in a man having his bodily limbs well proportioned, together with a certain clarity of color. On like manner spiritual beauty consists in a man's conduct or actions being well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason.

Summa Theologiae 2-2.145.2.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


Much of modern discussion of modality in philosophy is concerned with possible worlds analysis. A question that one has to ask, though, is how adequate it is to talking about all matters of modality. An advantage of possible worlds semantics is that it is very flexible. It sometimes takes contortions and ingenious somersaults, but you can use it to talk about a very wide variety of modalities -- alethic, deontic, doxastic, epistemic, temporal, locative, and so forth. So there's no question that you can cover a lot of ground. But is there anything that is dropping out? Suppose you have something that is not possible but superpossible, in the sense that it is something such that it makes perfect sense to think of it as possible but also such that it makes no sense to think of it as a possible world or as a collection of possible worlds or as an element in a single possible world. There are at least two obvious candidates for a superpossible in this sense.

(1) The Actual World. One of the longstanding problems with the 'possible worlds' vocabulary is that it makes people think it is talking about worlds. To be sure, you could be, but there's nothing about either the formal structure or the semantics that requires that we be literally talking about a world. Now, this would be at most a minor confusion most of the time, but I think in one case it regularly hangs people up, and that case is this: it's very tempting to think of the actual world as a possible world. I mean, it's almost irresistible to talk that way; if the world is actual, it is possible, and therefore it is a possible world. But as far as possible-worlds talk goes this is, first, not necessary, and, second, wrong. Possible worlds semantics, as such, of course, has no actuality; you can add an actuality operator to it, but that's an additional complication bringing in a number of questions, not all of which are easy to answer. But there is very good reason to say this: if there are possible worlds, none of them are the actual world. And this is because the only reason for talking about these 'possible worlds' is so that we may more easily work out issues concerned with actual possibilities. And the diverse actual possibilities are possibilities available to the actual world. That is to say: if we are to make any sense of possible worlds at all, it seems we have to take the whole manifold of possible worlds as a way of talking about the possibilities inherent in the actual world. If the actual world can be more than one way, no single 'possible world' can be an adequate representation of it. But the actual world is certainly possible. The actual world thus seems to be superpossible.

(2) God. If one talks about God as a necessary being, you can gloss that as "existing in all possible worlds". But is this adequate? There seems to be plenty of reason to think it couldn't be. It might be a true statement in the vocabulary of possible worlds; but the question is whether it captures what it is for God to be a necessary being. To see why it does not appear to do so, consider for a moment where we get all of this possible worlds talk from. People have always talked about modality; but talking about modality in terms that start to look like our possible worlds talk really begins in earnest with the Molinists. Their phrase was 'order of nature', and their reason for talking about them was that God has the power to create many different world-histories (so to speak), and so, they said, he could consider these different possible divine plans and what they would involve as part of His 'middle knowledge'. (It was 'middle' in the sense that it wasn't simply God knowing His own capabilities, and it wasn't simply God knowing what He willed to exist, but was in between, like deliberation is in between understanding what you can do and knowing that you've chosen this particular thing to do.) God would consider what 'order of nature' -- a whole world from beginning to ending -- that He would make to exist, and then, having chosen one, create it. These orders of nature cannot be capturing modalities concerned with God Himself, even though God does in some sense exist in the actual order of nature, because God is what makes the orders of nature (1) orders of nature and (2) things that can be actual in the first place. This is not exactly how modern notions of possible worlds work, but a similar sort of issue arises with respect to possible worlds as arises with their ancestors. To say that God exists in all possible worlds does not do justice to what is meant by saying that God's existence is necessary, because it doesn't capture the fact that God is not merely 'in all possible worlds' but in some sense has a priority to other possible things. 'Possible worlds', if they are to be of any value at all, can't just be loose bags of possible things; they have structure, and that structure means that some things in them depend on other things. When people talk about God as being necessary, God is not treated as just something that exists, nor even just something that exists no matter what. God shows up as world-actualizer, as actual-possibility-maker, as making it possible for everything else to be actual. God has a fundamentality with respect to other possibilities that is not at all captured by talking about being in all possible worlds. Thus God seems to be superpossible.

Both of these are, of course, connected, since if the actual world is superpossible, and if God is the reason for the actual world's being actual, God must be superpossible.

Whenever we are talking about modality and its relation to the actual world or to God, we run into regular interpretive issues; they both massively increase the complexity and ingenuity that has to be used in order to deploy possible worlds to analyze modal questions. They aren't necessarily useless, but they constantly lack something that is needed, and the wrong turns you can make -- leading you to some really weird conclusions -- multiplies. This is borne up by looking at how modalities are actually handled in dealing with the actual world or God. And I think the reason is that the actual world and God are in terms of modality so rich that they exceed the resources of possible world semantics to capture. You can still say useful things; but you can't say everything that needs to be said. And it becomes a question, of course, whether there are other superpossibles.

Aquinas for Lent II

...pride, although it is a special kind of sin by reason of its proper object, is nonetheless a sin common to all sins by reason of the diffusion of its governance. And so also we call pride the root and queen of all sins, as Gregory makes clear in his work Morals.

[Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, Regan, tr., Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2003) p. 328.]

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

All the Air is Thy Diocese

From John Donne's "An Epithalamion, or Marriage Song, on the Lady Elizabeth and Count Palatine Being Married on St. Valentine's Day":

Hail Bishop Valentine, whose day this is;
All the air is thy diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners;
Thou marriest every year
The lyric lark, and the grave whispering dove,
The sparrow that neglects his life for love,
The household bird with the red stomacher;
Thou makest the blackbird speed as soon,
As doth the goldfinch, or the halcyon;
The husband cock looks out, and straight is sped,
And meets his wife, which brings her feather-bed.
This day more cheerfully than ever shine;
This day, which might enflame thyself, old Valentine.

Aquinas for Lent I

Man's sin consists principally in what is contrary to right reason. As sickness takes place in the body by reason of a disorder of some humor, so too sin against reason takes place in the soul by reason of a disorder of some circumstance. Hence sometimes a person sins in the matter of fear from the fact that he fears what he ought not to fear, but other times from the fact that he fears when he ought not to fear.

[Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Litzinger, tr., Dumb Ox Books (Notre Dame, IN: 1993) p. 180]

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Puzzling Virtue

Of the four cardinal virtues -- perhaps of all virtues -- temperance is the most difficult to pin down. Most virtues have their puzzles; virtue touches on so many things that's bound to happen. But few virtues create as many puzzles for analysis as temperance does. Discussing justice, for instance, is immensely easier, because justice is the virtue that deals most closely with obligations. You can get rigorous distinctions, strict requirements, endless ranks of analyzable and often analyzed duties, offices, and laws. These things are available just by the nature of justice. Other virtues are not usually so analysis-friendly, but they usually provide multiple handles for analyzing how they work. Temperance is a bit analysis-resistant. Even Aquinas, who can analyze how virtues work like no one else, often has to 'cheat' with temperance by looking at how it interacts with the hard & fast lines of justice.

Temperance and its satellite virtues are fuzzy virtues by nature. Temperance deals with balancing; it deals with questions of what you are communicating to other people by your actions, and thus with symbolism; it deals with what people generally would admire and respect; it deals with questions of appropriateness. What it involves is very sensitive to circumstances that can vary considerably from person to person. You should be temperate with respect to alcohol; for some people that will be total abstinence, and for others a small amount ever once in a while, and for others could be consistent with an amount that would make the second group inveterate drunkards and radically harm the first group. If someone you don't know at all comes up to you and asks how much they should drink, you won't honestly be able to give them more than a vague answer. Temperance and its satellite virtues are mostly like that; at some point, the best you can say is, "Yeah, you just have to use your best judgment."

People constantly are trying to ignore this, and it gets them into trouble. We talk about prudes and puritans; to the extent that these indicate real negative qualities rather than just being rhetorically charged words, they generally mean people who are trying to take matters of temperance, that require finding a good balance for the person and situation, and turn them into matters of some strict, one-size-fits-all rule. It's a good way to become intemperate. The boor, the stick-in-the-mud, the wet-blanket, very often develops from someone who begins treating jokes and playfulness as if they were things that could be done on strict schedule and inventory of topics, and by strict guidelines. The opposite is often explainable the same way. Why are so many people tempted to lax views in matters of food, drink, and sex? Because 'anything goes' or 'anything goes that doesn't harm someone else' or 'anything consensual goes' are rules much easier to follow than the rule that you need to find a balance, appropriate to a rational and reasonable person, that takes all of your circumstances into consideration and treats more important things as more important.

There are indeed definite things that can be said about temperance. It is impossible to be virtuous without it, as has been argued since Plato's Gorgias at least. If we are taking the term generally, it is rational moderation with regard to desires and pleasures; if as a specific virtue, with regard to the most physical desires and pleasures. It is the virtue to which 'moral beauty' is most attributable because it deals with balance, appropriateness, and proportion; on similar grounds, one of its concerns is making one's actions communicate the importance of reason and virtue. It requires making a distinction between what you actually need as a rational person, and acting accordingly; it requires treating higher priority things as higher priority. It concerns matters of shame and honor, and makes use of both. It does have some hard, fast lines: some things are just inconsistent with rational moderation, or cause insuperable problems for trying to be so, and some things are matters for temperance but also touch on other virtues that restrict the options available, as (for instance) sexual matters need to be approached not only temperately but also with justice to all who are or could be involved.

One could imagine a number of possible lines of inquiry that would likely turn out to be fruitful for improving our understanding of temperance. It deals with moral beauty, so accounts of moral taste might shed some light on it. It deals with shame and honor, so philosophical examinations of these and related things like etiquette might be fruitful. We've done some more exploration of the idea that moral actions are communications, in some strands of phenomenology. There is much to explore. But at the end of the day there is only so far that we can ever get. Temperance is a kind of acquired genius for beautiful life. As there is no one way for a painter to make a beautiful painting from given materials and details, there is no one way to build a beautiful life. You can perfectly well talk about better and worse ways; but even more than with other virtues, there are going to be many situations in which I would be intemperate doing what you can do temperately, and vice versa, and there will also be many cases where it might be fine for us both but more fine for one of us. As the saying goes, there's a kind of art to it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Kinds of Problems in Philosophy

This is a reworked version of a post from 2013.

When it comes to philosophy, three difficult things to teach (and also to avoid falling out of practice with) are the following:

(1) Problems are not automatically transparent.
(2) Not all problems are fatal problems.
(3) Even positions with fatal problems may be valuable for inquiry.

The first is particularly difficult to teach, and is something that even professional philosophers can become lazy about. It is not sufficient to pose something as a problem for a position; what everyone needs to know is why it is a problem and what kind of problem it is. Many supposed problems turn out to be nothing more than misunderstandings based on differences in vocabulary. We see this a lot, I think, with counterexamples. Merely proposing something as a counterexample to a claim does not mean that you have actually proposed a counterexample. Your supposed counterexample may end up being nothing of the sort. Alternatively (and this happens quite often), one might have something that is only a counterexample with additional assumptions that may be controvertible.

Putting something forward as a problem for a position is therefore the beginning of a new inquiry; a first step, not a final one. The problem needs to be articulated with at least a reasonable degree of precision and accuracy. Depending on the circumstances this can be quite complicated. One of the things historians of philosophy do is articulate (or re-articulate) problems in a certain context, compare them to each other, see how they've influenced each other, and so forth; it is what keeps us in business. It's also what keeps us arguing with each other. This is where most people trip up when it comes to (1). Suppose we are talking in one case about a position that doesn't seem to provide a way for mind and body to interact. We cannot in fact assume that this is the same problem that another position has, even if it could be described in similar terms. Different contexts may mean different assumptions are on the table, or that the terms of the problem have changed.

We must also identify the way in which it is a problem. Some problems are structural problems: there is at least some reason to think that the problem is inconsistent with the position at hand. Some are discovery problems, by which I mean that there is at least some reason to think that something a position requires cannot be found, or that something will be found that a position requires not to be there. For instance, if someone proposes the evolution of the eye as a problem for a theory of evolution, this would involve proposing it as a discovery problem: 'This particular theory should be able to find (somewhere along the line) an adequate evolutionary account of the eye but we have some kind of reason for thinking that it won't succeed.' Another way to look at this distinction is that completely fatal discovery problems are established inabilities to accomplish something, usually a search for something, while completely fatal structural problems are established contradictions. Yet another way we can present the distinction is as one between static and dynamic features of the argument or position; arguments and positions do not generally spring full-grown from the skull like Athena, but are constantly in the process of being constructed. If we think of an argument or a position as a building under construction, structural problems are weaknesses in what is built, discovery problems are obstacles to completing it. The two may be connected, so that a structural problem uncovers a discovery problem and vice versa. Indeed, people interested in refutation usually try to find interconnected networks of structural problems and discovery problems, because structural problems can sometimes be patched and discovery problems sometimes evaded or worked around, but doing both simultaneously generally requires rethinking everything that is proposed from the ground up. But it's important to note that even if one thing were both a structural problem and a discovery problem, its being the one is distinct from being the other, and the kinds of responses that are reasonable will often differ depending on which aspect you are considering.

To make clear whether a problem is a structural problem or a discovery problem is another thing that requires that the problem be carefully articulated. For instance, the interaction problem is often put forward as a structural problem for Cartesian dualism, but it is in reality a discovery problem, being about something that Cartesian dualism doesn't seem to give us much hope of understanding very well; it is often confused with Princess Elisabeth's determination problem, which in fact does seem to be a structural problem, depending directly as it does on basic principles of Descartes's entire account.

This distinction between structural and discovery problems should not be confused with that between what I will call research problems and fatal problems. Suppose you've articulated a problem. What then? It's a mistake to assume that, if you've identified a genuine problem with a position, you have refuted it. Problems are not refutations, although fatal problems are the basis of refutations.

Most problems are not fatal; they just indicate points where construction of a theory, position, or argument is unfinished. These are research problems: they show us that at present such-and-such is unsolved, and not an actual inability to solve it. (This is why both structural problems and discovery problems can be research problems: it's not about whether the solution can be discovered but about whether it is actually in hand.) If we take something like a particular theory of evolution, this theory by its nature creates a massive numbers of problems. The overwhelming majority of these are research problems. Some of these research problems may be so complicated that it would take years or generations to solve; but that is still a soluble problem. So if we take a particular case and show that the theory could not at present handle it, we have to consider that this may just be because there's more work to be done, not because the theory can't handle the case at all. Far from being refutations, research problems are often essential to construction; just as architecture is the art of organizing material design solutions, so also building a position or theory is the art of organizing solutions to research problems.

In general, in fact, there are two kinds of research problems: inquiry-structuring research problems, which are the matter-of-course next steps that every theory or position naturally suggests to the human mind, and inquiry-baffling research problems, which are problems that pull us up short and force us to ask the question, "How in the world would one go about handling this?" There is no sharp line between these two. In any field the problems people are most interested in are both inquiry-structuring and inquiry-baffling -- they are the problems both that we need to use to develop our ideas and that we are not sure how to solve. These are the exciting problems, the ones that require breakthroughs.

This is important, because people often treat research problems as fatal problems: identifying a genuine problem, they think they are done, whereas this is not true at all. A great many things that pass for refutations are not real refutations; they are just extremely difficult research problems, research problems in which people are getting bogged down, and proposed solutions keep failing. This is serious, certainly, but hardly refutation; there are lots of things that could be happening. It could be that a false assumption is being made that, when rejected, will open up the way to the solution. It could also be (and this happens very often in the history of philosophy) that people just lack the infrastructure to do the research properly. If a school is small, it may not have enough people working on any given problem to have more than very sporadic progress. Some problems require specific kinds of data, which may be difficult for people working on the problem to get. Some entirely soluble problems just require so much work given the resources at hand that the time required to solve them would be extraordinary. And so forth. These infrastructural pseudo-refutations are quite common: people claim that advocates of such-and-such position are unable to solve problem X, and then pass on, not stopping long enough to check whether any appearance of this might just be because they need more time, or because they don't have enough people of the right background working on it. That is, it may in reality have nothing to do with the position itself. The interaction problem for Cartesian dualism has all the marks of being a non-fatal research problem, for instance: there was never any positive reason to think that, given extensive enough research, Cartesians might not be able to give excellent answers to it, at least as excellent as anyone can give concerning any other kind of interaction. Likewise, it's one thing to pose a problem and give reasons why you think it can't be solved, but demanding that people develop a flawless solution to a new problem on the spot is irrational. Very baffling research problems are not the same as fatal discovery problems; we need additional positive reasons to think that a problem is the latter.

But, of course, even fatal problems are not the end of the road. Hume notes in one of his essays that one of the remarkable features of human thought is that we can build even on our errors in the pursuit of truth, and this is certainly right. A particular position or theory might have a fatal problem, something that it simply cannot solve with its own resources or any resources that could be consistently added to it, and still be valuable for inquiry. It might serve as a stepping stone to some better position, analogous but importantly different, that is not subject to the same problem. Indeed, coming to understand why the first position won't work may be the essential element in coming to understand why the second will. Thus the fact that a theory, position, or argument has a fatal problem does not mean that it should be despised as worthless; fatal problems too are only beginnings of further inquiry.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

L. Junius Brutus and His Sons

Niccolò Machiavelli, Political Discourses upon the First Decad of Livy, Book III, Chapter III:

The rigour with which Brutus proceeded in maintaining the Liberties of Rome after he had recovered them, was absolutely requisite; though it was a very rare, if not an unparelleled action for a Father to sit in judgment upon his own Sons, and not only condemn them to death, but be present at their execution. Those however that are conservant in ancient History, well know that in any change of Government, either from Liberty to Slavery, or from Slavery to Liberty, it is necessary that some of those that are enemies to the ruling establishment should be punished in an examplary manner: for whoever converts a free State into a Tyranny, and does not cut off such men as Brutus; or a tyrannical Government into a Free State, and does not rid himself of such men as as his Sons, will not be able to support himself long.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Letter to Franquières:

This word virtue signifies strength. There is no virtue without struggle; there is none without victory. Virtue does not consist only in being just, but in being so by triumphing over one's passions, by ruling over one's own heart.... Brutus having his children die could be only just. But Brutus was a tender father; in order to do his duty he tore out his insides, and Brutus was victorious.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments IV.I.22:

When the first Brutus led forth his own sons to a capital punishment, because they had conspired against the rising liberty of Rome, he sacrificed what, if he had consulted his own breast only, would appear to be the stronger to the weaker affection. Brutus ought naturally to have felt much more for the death of his own sons, than for all that probably Rome could have suffered from the want of so great an example. But he viewed them, not with the eyes of a father, but with those of a Roman citizen. He entered so thoroughly into the sentiments of this last character, that he paid no regard to that tie, by which he himself was connected with them; and to a Roman citizen, the sons even of Brutus seemed contemptible, when put into the balance with the smallest interest of Rome. In these and in all other cases of this kind, our admiration is not so much founded upon the utility, as upon the unexpected, and on that account the great, the noble, and exalted propriety of such actions.

John Stuart Mill, Essay on Bentham:

Every human action has three aspects: its moral aspect, or that of its right and wrong; its ├Žsthetic aspect, or that of its beauty; its sympathetic aspect, or that of its loveableness. The first addresses itself to our reason and conscience; the second to our imagination; the third to our human fellow-feeling. According to the first, we approve or disapprove; according to the second, we admire or despise; according to the third, we love, pity, or dislike. The morality of an action depends on its foreseeable consequences; its beauty, and its loveableness, or the reverse, depend on the qualities which it is evidence of.... The action of Brutus in sentencing his sons was right, because it was executing a law essential to the freedom of his country, against persons of whose guilt there was no doubt: it was admirable, because it evinced a rare degree of patriotism, courage, and self-control; but there was nothing loveable in it; it affords either no presumption in regard to loveable qualities, or a presumption of their deficiency. If one of the sons had engaged in the conspiracy from affection for the other, his action would have been loveable, though neither moral nor admirable.

Fortnightly Book, February 11

The next fortnightly books are Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, #4 (1865) and #7 (1870) of the Voyages Extraordinaires, respectively, which I have in the single volume Wordsworth Classics edition.

The books are the first two of the three Voyages concerned with the doings of the Baltimore Gun Club (the third being Sans dessus dessous); famously, of course, they are the first works about human space travel that do not rely on fantastic elements; there's some reason to believe that Verne was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” but wanted something more realistic. Thus the work is exemplary in its scientific realism. Scientific realism, of course, should not be confused with scientific reality. There were many problems with launching into space that Verne knew quite well he had no solution for. When he could gloss over it for the purposes of the story, he did; when he couldn't (as with the unsurvivable forces of acceleration), he put in some token at least recognizing the problem and something that, more symbolically than anything, would bridge it.

In reality, though, it's likely that Verne's interests were less scientific than satirical, because one thing we learn almost immediately in the stories is that the Baltimore Gun Club is filled with people who are crazy even for Americans, and are a little bit dangerous because, as Americans, they are very, very practical and efficient crazy people.