Saturday, April 24, 2021

Michael Ende, The Neverending Story


Opening Passage:

ƨʞooᗺ blO ɿɘbnɒɘɿɿoƆ bɒɿnoƆ lɿɒƆ

This inscription could be seen on the glass door of a small shop, but naturally this was only the way it looked if you were inside the dimly lit shop, looking out at the street through the plateglass door. (p. 5)

Summary: Bastian Balthasar Bux, a pale, fat child who is often bullied, who has lost his mother, and whose father has become distant in the wake of his mother's death, finds himself in the bookshop of Carl Conrad Correander, whom he sees reading a remarkable-looking book. The book, bound in copper-colored silk, is printed in two colors, red and green, and on the binding there are two snakes, one white and one black, biting each other's tails in an oval shape around the title of the book: The Neverending Story. Bastian steals the book, and frightened by his own boldness in doing so, 'runs away', which he does by hiding in the rarely used attic of his school. He begins to read.

From all over the realm of Fantastica, delegations are arriving at the Ivory Tower, the home of the Childlike Empress, the Golden-eyed Commander of Wishes, heart of all Fantastica, because all of the land is in dire peril. North, south, east, and west, realms are vanishing. They are not destroyed, exactly; they just cease to be. Only the Childlike Empress knows how to stop this, the Nothing, but she is deathly ill. She has, however, chosen a hero from the Greenskins of the Grassy Ocean to go on a Great Quest to find what is needed to heal her; to this hero, whose name is Atreyu, she entrusts the AURYN, the symbol of her power. Consulting with the great undying turtle, Morla the Aged One, Atreyu learns that he needs to consult Uyulala in the Southern Oracle. As he attempts to do so, he rescues the luckdragon Falkor, a creature of air and fire, and with the help of Falkor and the Gnomics studying the Southern Oracle, he finds Uyulala, a creature who resides in the Palace of Deep Mystery and exists only as song. From Uyulala, he learns that there are many worlds, and that in one of these worlds is a race of beings who have a divine power of naming:

But there's a realm outside Fantastica,
The Outer World is its name,
The people who live there are rich indeed
And not at all the same.
Born of the Word, the children of man,
Or humans, as they're sometimes called,
Have had the gift of giving names
Ever since our worlds began.(p. 118)

It is they who give the Childlike Empress her life in every age by giving her a new name. In Fantastica, the realm of imagination, which exists in a book, all creatures have their names and are what they are; but humans in naming can set the natures of the things of imagination and make them new. To save Fantastica, Atreyu must bring to the Childlike Empress a human who can give her a new name. But humans have stopped visiting Fantastica, and they live beyond its borders in the human world, so Atreyu sets out to cross the borders of Fantastica in order to reach the human world. However, in the course of his travels he learns that Fantastic is boundless and has no borders; north, south, east, and west, it goes on forever. He finds himself on the verge of vanshing into the Nothing, with little hope and apparently having failed his mission. But traveling with a luckdragon has some advantages; Falkor happens to find him and bring him to the Childlike Empress, who tells him that he has not failed. A human boy has been with him all the time. But the Quest was not pointless; it was the only way to make the human boy recognize that he was needed.

Bastian, of course, has difficulty believing that the book is speaking of him, but there is too much evidence from the Quest to deny it. But he is afraid to try to give the Childlike Empress her new name.Faced with Bastian's failure to give her a new name, the Childlike Empress falls back to a desperate last resort; she goes to meet her equal and opposite, the Old Man of Wandering Mountain, whom she is never supposed to meet. The Old Man of Wandering Mountain, ever-ancient as she is ever-young, spends his life dictating words that appear in a book. It is a book bound in copper-colored silk, with the words written in it in two colors, red and green. On the silk cover are two snakes, one white and one black, each biting the other's tail to make an oval around the title of the book: The Neverending Story. The meeting of the Childlike Empress, who is the infinite potential of the beginning of every story, and the Old Man in the Mountain, who is the consolidation of every story into its final form, locks all of Fantastica into a Circle of Eternal Return, with everything repeating always forever, and no way to break the cycle except one: the human power to name things anew. Faced with this, Bastian finally relents and gives to the Childlike Empress her new name: Moon Child.

And with this the Childlike Empress and Bastian come fully face to face, Bastian having crossed the border into Fantastica. All that is left of Fantastica is one grain of sand. But like a seed, it can grow by wishes. All Bastian has to do is make them. But then the Childlike Empress asks him why he had waited so long to giver her her name. Bastian replies that he was ashamed to do so, because surely it was a task for someone more heroic -- stronger, more handsome, more princely, the opposite of Bastian Balthasar Bux. The Childlike Empress shows him that he can wish to be anything in Fantastica, and vanishes, leaving him only the AURYN. The AURYN, the Gem, the Glory, is a talisman consisting of two snakes, one black and one white, forming an oval, and when he turns it over, he sees that it is engraved with the words: DO WHAT YOU WISH.

This begins the second part of The Neverending Story, in which Bastian reconstitutes Fantastica through his wishes. He regularly makes wishes that will make him more heroic and impressive in some way, and lands and creatures come into being fully formed (yet having always from their perspective existed) as a result of these wishes. But it soon becomes clear that every time Bastian makes a wish he loses memories. While he wishes to be friends with Atreyu and Falkor, his insecurities about being heroic continually raise tensions between them. Atreyu and Falkor are what they are by nature, and are also the first to recognize the Bastian's wishes are draining him of his human memories; Bastian is jealous of them, but convinces himself that their repeated expressions of worry about him are really a result of their jealousy of him. The problem is exacerbated when one of Bastian's wishes leads to crossing paths with and besting the wicked sorceress Xayide, who surrenders but begins to whisper poison in Bastian's ear. At her behest, Bastian tries to replace the Childlike Empress, and he and his friends come to war. Bastian is wounded and finds himself in the City of the Old Emperors, where dwell humans who tried to make themselves ruler of Fantastica and ran out of wishes and memories doing so, and thus who can never get back to the human world. Bastian has only barely been saved from this fate (so far) by Atreyu's war against him, but he retains only two of his human memories: his memory of his father and his memory of his name. To leave Fantastica and avoid becoming like the Old Emperors, Bastian will have to find his true wish and the Water of Life, which will let him leave with his human memories restored. The meaning of 'Do What You Wish' is not to make wishes; it is to discover what you really wish and to do it. Bastian's true wish is to love (he loses the memory of his father to discover it), but he cannot find the Water of Life. In this pitiable state, all his memories but his own name lost, and only one more wish by which he might return to the human world, he is found by Atreyu, and Bastian takes off the AURYN and lays it at Atreyu's feet. They discover that they can enter the AURYN, and it is there that they find the Water of Life. Bastian has had it all along, but he had to go through the peril of his wishes to find it. Bastian partakes of the Water of Life, which restores him to what he was, and he is no longer unhappy about who he is. He returns to the human world and his father, naming himself again: Bastian Balthasar Bux.

I am sometimes coy about endings when I summarize the Fortnightly Book, but it's actually necessary here, because I think the point of much of it only makes sense when you see the whole. (And if you are one of those who find that being told how a book goes spoils it for you, you need to read the book, which is in great measure about a truth you need to learn: Having something all along doesn't mean you've already found it.) We can see this by pressing an initially puzzling point, which is that Michael Ende hated the movie adaptation of this book, to the point of trying to stop it from being finished and distributed. This is puzzling because he was not opposed to the movie originally -- he wrote the original screenplay for it. It's true that they modified his script, and he would not be the first writer to throw a fit over having his script rewritten, if that were what it is about, but in general even such writers do not go to such lengths in their protest. And on the surface, this is an odd case to get fired up over, because the movie The Neverending Story is vastly, vastly more faithful to the book than most movie adaptations are. Most of the changes are elisions to make the story easier to grasp, and some deviations from descriptions that were clearly for practical cinematic reasons.

One of things I've seen Ende quoted as criticizing is the fact that when Bastian saves Fantasia, Fantasia's restoration doesn't depend on Bastian, which was the whole point. And here I think is the key. The movie only gets us a little under halfway through the book. The restoration of Fantasia, whose counterpart in the restoration of Fantastica takes up the entire second part of Ende's book, is accomplished in a moment, and Bastian, riding Falcor, makes a comment to everything is exactly the way it was before, and then Bastian wishes to ride Falcor in the human world. This, while changing none of the story and spectacle before it, in a sense throws everything into disarray. The Childlike Empress has a new name: this should mean that Fantastica/Fantasia in its previous form is not returned, but starts over. It has to be done again. Fantastica is not 'out there'; it is the world of wishes of imagination, and thus every new name of the Childlike Empress gives us Fantastica anew. This the movie in effect denies; Bastian just wishes for everything to be like it was. But nothing is ever just like it was.

The two parts of the book have a sort of loose parallel to each other. Both Atreyu and Bastian, each bearing the AURYN (and thus being the protagonist representing the Childlike Empress), each already carry with them what they seek but still must undergo the quest to find it. Each quest reflects something of who they are, so they are very different, but they both come to the verge of complete and utter failure, and in both cases are saved by luck. The culmination of Atreyu's journey is Bastian naming the Childlike Empress; the culmination of Bastian's journey is Bastian naming himself. There is a genuine circle between Fantastica and the human world, and like the AURYN, one white snake and one black snake, it circles back on itself, part Fantastican and part human. Both worlds need each other, and the cycle must be completed for either to be healed of their wounds.

The Childlike Empress is, as I said, the infinite potential in the beginning of every story; the tale makes clear that although she is the heart of Fantastica, and all Fantastica depends on her, she is not Fantastican. And indeed, it cannot be otherwise; the creative imagination is not a product of the imagination. All that infinite potential cannot yield Fantastica, however, unless it is set in place, which occurs by the human naming of it. There is a human tendency, especially in the modern age, to treat the world of imagination as if it did not matter, as if it weren't something to be respected in its own right, as if it had no power and danger of its own. (We see this on a small scale, as Ende himself occasionally noted, in the relegation of certain stories to the category of "children's stories", an entirely made-up category that serves no purpose but to pretend that stories have only fundamental value to the extent that they are just reiterations of our own lives, and thus to relegate free play of imagination to the prison of 'something that's just for children'.) This is not just wrong, it is corrupting. It destroys the world of the imagination, of course, but it also destroys our own. When Fantasticans are taken by the nothing, this is the works of the imagination being emptied of their substance and value as works of the imagination; they stop being things in their own right in fantasy and become lies in the human world. Lies are rooted in the same power as imaginative fantasies, but they are stripped of their character as imaginative fantasies and are used to manipulate other human beings in the real world. Only the proper cycling from the human world to Fantastica to the human world, continually, can keep both worlds healthy.

Each part of the story shows us an abuse of the imagination. In the first part, the imagination is turned to lie. In the second, Bastian nearly loses himself in imagination. Both are perils to be avoided. But both need also to be faced squarely. Through much of the twentieth century, there was extended disparagement of fantastic literature as 'escapism'. The standard (and correct) response, such as you find in Tolkien or Lewis or L'Engle, was that much fantastic literature is quite clearly not escapist regardless of how fantastic it is; treating it as escapist is a falsehood that cuts us off from the benefits, and our birthright, of real fantasy. Ende to some extent implies this point as well, but he adds another. Even if we look at actual escapism -- such as Bastian fleeing from himself, of whom he is ashamed, into his imagination-wishes, until he almost loses himself -- that is to say, even if we look at the actual abuse of our free play of imagination, we find that it can in a sense be necessary. Bastian nearly fails to save Fantastica because he is ashamed of who he is; the Childlike Empress shows him that in Fantastica he can be anyone he wishes to be. And most of Bastian's wishes are very selfish; even when he is helping others, he does so in order to seem more impressive and more noble to himself. It is an important difference between the Childlike Empress and Bastian that the Childlike Empress makes no distinctions; all the people of Fantastica, of whatever kind, good or bad, are equal to her. Bastian, on the other hand, is continually trying to do things that are good, but he does it wholly out of his own insecurity. He creates a righteousness and nobility and heroism for himself in his own imagination. But the words of the AURYN are not 'Wish what you'd like to do' but 'DO WHAT YOU WISH', and it's only by the very perilous journey through his wishes that Bastian learns the folly of his original shame -- that Bastian learns that if he had been handsomer, stronger, braver, more princely, he would still not have been what he actually wished to be. Becoming these things in wish was the only way to learn that. Bastian saves Fantastica and then falls into a gravely dangerous escapism, one in which he could lose who he is (indeed, in which he thinks he wants to lose who he is). But going through the escapism and overcoming it (laying down his role as protagonist in his own wishes) to reach the Water of Life was the only way for Bastian to save Bastian.

And thus he goes the long way around to learn the truth. What kind of person saves the Childlike Empress by giving her a new name? He is not what one would imagine, not what one would imagine at all. He may even be an ordinary boy, fat, pale, weak, bullied, unimpressive. But you need Fantastica to see that being Bastian Balthasar Bux, or whoever you are, with infinite power to imagine and a divine power to fix those imaginations into form by naming them, is an extraordinary, extraordinary thing to be.

Favorite Passage:

'Gmork, the werewolf, told me,' said Atreyu, 'that when a Fantastican is swallowed up by the Nothing, he becomes a lie. Is that true?'

'Yes, it is true,' said the Childlike Empress, and her golden eyes darkened. 'All lies were once creatures of Fantastica. They are made of the same stuff -- but they have lost their true nature and become unrecognizable. But, as you might expect from a half-and-half creature like Gmork, he told you only half the truth. There are two ways of crossing the dividing line between Fantastica and the human world, a right one and a wrong one. When Fantasticans are cruelly dragged across it, that's the wrong way. When humans, children of man, come to our world of their own free will, that's the right way. Every human who has been here has learned something that could be learned only here, and returned to his own world a changed person. Because he had seen you creatures in your true form, he was able to see his own world and his fellow humans with new eyes. Where he had seen only dull, everyday reality, he now discovered wonders and mysteries. That is why humans were glad to come to Fantastica. And the more these visits enriched our world, the fewer lies there were in theirs, the better it became. Just as our two worlds can injure each other, they can also make each other whole again." (pp. 176-177)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Michael Ende, The Neverending Story, Manheim, tr. Firebird (New York: 1997).

Friday, April 23, 2021

Evening Note for Friday, April 23

Thought for the Evening: Presence of Mind as Political Posture

Saba Fatima once had an interesting article ("Presence of Mind", Social Philosophy Today, vol. 28 (2012) pp. 131-146) looking, from a Muslim-American perspective,  at the issues of Muslim-American participation in politics and society, given common suspicions of the day about Muslims in America. Her proposal, however, I think is widely generalizable. She argued that the solution to these problems lies in presence of mind. Presence of mind in this sense has several components; it is

(1) a posture

(2) that is consciously aware of one's commitments and of how one stands in relation to others

(3) with habituation in using this awareness to assess whether and how to respond in public and political contexts.

It is first of all a posture, by which Fatima understands a default way of mentally approaching and being in the world.

Second, it involves conscious awareness of commitments and relations. People live in very fluid situations that involve relating with a wide variety of people and values in a wide variety of ways. For instance, one may have commitments to one's family, one's neighborhood, one's political principles, and relations to one's family members, to one's neighbors, to one's fellow citizens, to one's employers, that cannot be ignored, being actual parts of the situation. Maintaining integrity in such a situation often requires recognition that this will involve ambiguities and judgment calls and responses that vary depending on the circumstances. One has to recognize one's own complexity as a person in relation attempting to maintain commitments with integrity and consistency. Besides integrity, this is also important for not closing down political possibilities that might become available through appropriate interaction with others. But at the same time, it doesn't involve compromise: it recognizes that action must be done in a manner consistent with one's commitments. Rather, the point is that any genuine commitment-based action has to take into account one's actual social situation, that is, has to take into account that one is a complex being in a complex situation. This is where one actually starts, after all.

Third, it involves cultivated assessment of how to respond. Recognizing one's commitments and relations, and the variations and ambiguities they create, one responds by reflective regard for the appropriate way of responding. This is a form of self-restraint, which will have different results in different cases. Sometimes it may even require silence or refraining from action. But even there, it is not passive; it is a very active and reflective restraint. This is not a mere strategy -- one of the reasons for Fatima's repeated emphasis on habituation.

Fatima contrasts this with common ways of characterizing political resistance and the like, in which the emphasis is often on urgency. She is very careful not to argue that urgency is never of value. She also refrains from suggesting that presence of mind might be superior to urgency for all situations, but I think she could actually have pressed her case further here. The problem with always stressing urgency in particular circumstances is that urgency is always urgency with respect to something specific, and thus is reactive by its very nature. It is a response, and sometimes a very justifiable one, but precisely the weakness of trying to build anything on it is that it is not a posture, but a reaction, and therefore cannot do the kind of work that a posture is needed to do.

As I said, while Fatima develops this idea particularly for Muslim-Americans, I think it's highly generalizable; reflective restraint based on trying to cultivate a second nature of being true to one's commitments in ways appropriate to the relations in which one finds out, is the appropriate political default for everyone.

Various Links of Interest

* Justin Tiwald, On the View that Persons and Not Institutions Bear Primary Credit for Success in Governance: Confucian Arguments (PDF)

* USAID's website for information on US financial aid across the globe is quite interesting.

* An interview with Chad Urban of The American College of the Building Arts

* Dale Dorsey, Francis Hutcheson, at the SEP

* Peter Cheyne, Coleridge the Philosopher

* Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, Howard University's removal of Classics is a spiritual catastrophe

* Anika T. Prather, Howard University's Classics department is an incubator for Black equality

* Thorsten Sander, Two Misconstruals of Frege's Theory of Colouring (PDF)

* Bruno Trembley, Albertus Magnus on the Problem of the Division of the Categories

Currently Reading

Michael Ende, The Neverending Story
Ramon Llull, The Book of the Order of Chivalry

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Ever Contented with Itself

In truth the world does not know of the existence of grace; nor is it wonderful, for it is ever contented with itself and has never turned to account the supernatural aids bestowed upon it. Its highest idea of man lies in the order of nature; its pattern man is the natural man; it thinks it wrong to be anything else than a natural man. It sees that nature has a number of tendencies, inclinations, and passions; and because these are natural, it thinks that each of them may be indulged for its own sake, so far as it does no harm to others, or to a person's bodily, mental, and temporal well-being. It considers that want of moderation, or excess, is the very definition of sin, if it goes so far as to recognise that word. It thinks that he is the perfect man who eats, and drinks, and sleeps, and walks, and diverts himself, and studies, and writes, and attends to religion, in moderation. The devotional feeling and the intellect, and the flesh, have each its claim upon us, and each must have play, if the Creator is to be duly honoured. It does not understand, it will not admit, that impulses and propensities, which are found in our nature, as God created it, may nevertheless, if indulged, become sins, on the ground that He has subjected them to higher principles, whether these principles be in our nature, or be superadded to our nature. Hence it is very slow to believe that evil thoughts are really displeasing to God, and incur punishment....

St. John Henry Newman, "Nature and Grace", Discourses to Mixed Congregations.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Ambassador, Part IV

Part III 

Amansaiva on Lake Ayssan is a small community, mostly consisting in farmers. It is also the cucumber capital of Syan; the area is, in soil, clime, and access to water, a haven for all kinds of gourds, including wild cucumber, manroot, horned melon, and true cucumber, of which last there are at least seventeen varieties in the region. The locals raise their cucumbers either in a kind of large window-frame, in town, or in frames in a kind of cart that they move around to give the cucumbers more or less sun, and which are equipped with a mechanism by which the beds may be raised; in winter, although cold is only sporadic here, they protect them with a sort of box composed of a frame and mica.

So I was told. It is astounding what you can learn by listening to boring people who never stop talking about their obsessions. Nonetheless, the effect of this surfeit of gourds and cucumber-growing practices is that Amansaiva is quite a lovely town, and all its little and otherwise unimpressive buildings seem like quaint and charming plants growing out of a rich and abundant garden. For all of the greenery, however, it is not a damp place; Lake Ayssan itself is well below the town, which sits on a ridge or cliff, and while rain is abundant, it mostly falls lightly and does not waterlog the soil, which is loose and well drained.

It is good land. In the Empire, there would be senatorial villas throughout the area. Instead, as this is Syan, it is all held by minor farmers, who are not exactly poor but only occasionally rich, something like husbandmen with a yeoman or two thrown into the mix. They are mostly self-governing as long as they don't interfere with the operations of the Matriarchate. They are hard-working, parochial, extraordinarily generous, suspicious of foreigners and change, shrewdly difficult to outfox in negotiation, thoroughly superstitious and willing to believe any ghost story that anyone might tell, and they have an immense pride in their roots and themselves that is invincible because it does not depend on any justification at all. They are also gregarious and hospitable, despite their suspicion of strangers, because that suspicion is based not on fear of the unknown but on a sort of pity for foreigners being foreign, which, after all, is a misfortune they cannot help. I was told that, in one way or another, at least three times by three different locals who, pleased by my free spending on their airs or my buying rounds for the entire tavern, clearly meant it as a generous concession, an allowance that there may be some good in foreigners despite their embarrassingly foolish mistake of being foreigners. In any case, they are rewarders of generosity, foreign or not, and the coin of their reward was conversation. They would toast the Matriarch, boast for some minutes about having been chosen to be a capital of Syan, and then would talk about whatever interested them at interminable length. Sometimes this was cucumbers. Sometimes, and often much more usefully, it was family, and I heard long stories of both past and present and, I suspect sometimes, of the wishful future.

They knew nothing about the inner operations of the government, of course. But they knew, like no one else, the travails of their cousins in the army. Here and there they knew something that they were probably not supposed to know, because their cousin's friend had a cousin whose brother had happened to let slip something. And they knew the comings and goings, and if pressed could probably have given an exact description of every non-local who had been in the area for the past several years. While it had to come piecemeal, by the evening I had a good sense of how extensively the Republic had been spying, and for nothing more than the cost of some large tavern bills and orders from local merchants. 

And, yes, I ordered pickles, and made myself eat a few, all of which tasted like oversalted rotting cucumber. I hate pickles, and will hate them even more forever. The carts selling those saltwater pickles were everywhere. I only gave my patronage to a few, though; while some pickle vendors were talkative, others seemed to grow very silent and suspicious over any attempt to get them to talk.

Returning to the embassy, I was loaded down with many useless irrelevancies, a large number of jars of saltwater pickles that I would never eat, and two barrels of beer, so I accompanied my guards to the embassy barracks to spread them around. It made me popular for a day among soldiers so neglected they were highly surprised even to see me; they were not picky about the pickles and they were enthusiastic about the beer. I spent some time with them, and, while they were more guarded than the villagers of Amansaiva despite the camaraderie of being Empire-men, learned some of their complaints and problems. The food apparently was a sore point, being monotonous and monotonously poor. Further reason, if I had needed it, that my staff were spies of the Five Cities; anyone from senatorial family would know that feeding your guards is among the highest of high priorities. Soldiers well fed are at least potential allies; soldiers poorly fed are your enemies, indeed, are everyone's enemies. That is another fundamental truth of politics.

Afterward I returned the residence and spent some time looking down and out on Lake Ayssan, which truly was a beautiful view. And then I slept again with three weapons within arm's reach.

Something like this was my life for the next several days. I did everything in my power to come across to my staff as a frivolous boozer, who spent his days drinking in taverns and shopping for useless trinkets and his evenings drinking rowdily with the guards. The difficulties were finding ways to do it without losing the respect of the guards and not getting hopelessly drunk. Holding your liquor well, though, is one of the most important survival skills in politics, and I had had my share of practice at it.

On the fourth day, an Imperial courier came with a shipment from my brother, consisting of a letter and a package with a slim book, the seventh volume of the Aureate Histories. The letter was the usual tripe, implying without ever actually saying it that I was useless and an embarrassment to the family and that the only reason he was helping me is that it would be an even greater embarrassment to the family if I managed to get myself killed through incompetence. The man is a complete and utter viper, toxic in every way. But if he had been there in person, I would have kissed him, for the viper had come through as family should. That is indeed an advantage of family; sometimes it's useful to have ties to a viper.

I spent most of the rest of the day reading the volume at the residence, often mulling things over while taking in the view of the lake. It was slow going, the family book codes are good for carrying a great deal of information in such a way that no one who did not know the code could discover it, but they are also cumbersome, and I had to do all of it in my head, because I did not want to have any external sign that there was any code. And there is a great deal to keep track of, since you need to know the pattern of the bookplate and the code associated with the volume; the marginalia tell you how to apply the code to the text of the book to get the message, but how they do so depends on the bookplate-pattern. It is not intended to be done mentally. By proceeding slowly, however, I managed to piece it together. I then had to compose the basic elements of a return letter to my brother.

The next morning, I went down to the embassy and dictated the letter, to the irritation of the staff, who were clearly hoping to have me out of the way, and then, to their relief, went into Amansaiva for a day of carousing. Before I ever even approached a tavern, though, I found one of the sullen pickle vendors who had not been very talkative, tipped him a large amount, and said, "If you or anyone you know is going to the castle today, please send a message to the Matriarch that I am not only in town but at her convenience." He looked astonished, but I simply walked away.

A few hours later, a soldier of Syan came to the tavern at which I was treating the locals to lunch to take me to a meeting with the Matriarch.

to be continued

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Some Nobler Species of Good

Suppose a man, existing by himself, and quite cut off from the knowledge or perception of all other beings, and every part of nature, how compleatly miserable must he be? In such a solitary, dark, and gloomy state, suppose the beauty lighted up in the natural world to break in upon his mind, what joy and delight must thence be communicated to his senses and imagination? He must still desire a more noble and permanent satisfaction from the mental pleasures of wisdom and truth, and from the moral exercise of goodness, of friendship, and kind affection which give the sweetest and most exalted relish to the pleasing intercourses of society. But all this is far from being sufficient to complete the happiness of man. He still feels abundance of wants and weaknesses within himself. He needs a proper security for the permanency and stability of what he possesses. And his mind, ever improving in its faculties, enlarges its prospect of happiness, both as to degree and duration; and dissatisfied with its present acquisitions, still pursues some nobler species of good, without being able to assign any bounds to the increasing influence of these natural desires.

James Balfour, A Delineation of the Nature and Obligation of Morality, 2nd ed. (1763), pp. 160-161.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Modal Collapse and Possible Worlds

 Omar Fakhri has an interesting paper on what is known as 'the modal collapse problem' for divine simplicity. Fakhri gives one common version of it: 

(P1) God is intrinsically identical in all possible worlds, i.e. God does not intrinsically change (implied by ADS). 

(P2) The same identical cause brings about the same effect (premise). 

(P3) God is the cause of this universe (premise). 

(C) Therefore, God causes this universe in all possible worlds.

Modal collapse is not actually any kind of problem for divine simplicity ('ADS' in the above stands for 'Absolute Divine Simplicity', which is the name analytic philosophers give to one possible translation of the doctrine of divine simplicity into the preferred vocabulary of analytic philosophy; it is one that I have noted before is not very accurate); setting aside the fact that what counts as identity across possible worlds is a non-trivial question, the argument is based on a straightforward confusion. (P1) appeals to the 'possible worlds semantics' common among analytic philosophers; this makes it natural to think that (P3) is about a possible world. But (P3) is most naturally read on its own being about the actual universe. The actual world is not a possible world in the possible worlds semantics sense, because 'possible worlds' in that sense have to be ways the actual world could be. So all (C) could mean is that every way the actual universe could be involves God causing it. This is not any kind of modal collapse at all; the modal collapse arises from thinking that the actual world is a possible world in the sense used in possible worlds semantics. It is not. But if you assume it is, you get guaranteed modal collapse in any argument in which you assume it.

But Fakhri looks in particular at (P2), arguing that rejecting (P2) leads to unacceptable explanatory gaps. Fakhri rightly notes that it would matter whether you accepted deterministic causes or indeterministic causes; although, to some extent that it is pretty straightforward, since assuming determinism under most metaphysical accounts of determinism directly implies modal collapse. An indeterministic cause can have different possible effects, though. Even if there were only one indeterministic cause, this would necessarily imply that there have to be multiple 'possible worlds' to capture 'ways the actual world can be'. Indeterministic causes are what explain there being distinct possible worlds at all. I think, however, Fakhri gets tangled up in the actual/possible confusion:

Merely pointing to the nondeterministic relation between the cause and effect does not explain the following: what is it about the second possible world that explains why the improbable occurred rather than the probable? ... In the indeterministic case, we are asking ADS for a cross world non-contrastive explanation. The explanatory gap objection is not requesting an explanation of why God brought about this universe rather than another universe. This contrastive question is asking for a reason that would show why God prefers to create this universe over another universe (or no universe at all).

This question seems pretty clearly to confuse the actual world with a possible world. What explains the second possible world (i.e., a possible world in which the improbable happens) is, by definition, the fact that it is possible for some cause to cause what is improbable. There is a possible world for every different possible way the actual world can be, by definition; how probable or improbable it is, is irrelevant to there being such a possible world. But then the question needs to be disambiguated, with the possibilities, "Why does God prefer to create the actual universe over a non-actual one?" (which is not a question anyone needs to worry about, since 'creating a non-actual universe' is not a thing), "Why does God create this possible universe over another universe?" (which is not a question anyone needs to worry about, since creation is of the actual universe, not of possible universes), and "Why does God create anything at all?" The third is a question you could ask, and is equivalent to asking why anything other than God exists; it is not the kind of question, however, that Fakhri has in mind in talking about the explanatory gaps, because it's not a contrastive question.

(P2) in fact directly causes a modal collapse; it implies that no cause is capable of causing more than a unique effect -- that is, each cause has one and only one possible effect, so every effect was the only possible effect of its cause. In reality, if you have allowed an indeterministic cause, you have already denied (P2): you have granted that one and the same cause can have more than one possible effect. That's just what an indeterministic cause is. And every non-collapse account of 'ways the actual world could be' will posit at least one cause such that more than one result is possible from it.