Saturday, October 30, 2021

Eyrbyggja Saga


Opening Passage:

There was a great chieftain in Norway called Ketil Flat-Nose, the son of Bjorn Buna, son of Grim, one of the leading men in Sogn. Ketil was married to Yngvild, the daughter of Ketil Wether, a chieftain in Romerike. Their sons were Bjorn and Helgi, and their daughters Aud the Deep-Minded, Thorunn Hyrna, and Jorunn Wisdom-Slope. Bjorn Ketilsson was brought up east in Jamtaland by Earl Kjallak, a wise man and very highly thought of. Earl Khallak had a son called Bjorn, too, as well as a daughter, Gjaflaug. (p. 25)

Summary: As one would expect from its title (The Saga of the People of Eyr), the Eyrbyggja Saga is an ensemble story, recounting several generations of a handful of households in the area around Eyr, Thor's Ness, and Alftafjord, south of Breida Fjord on the western shores of Iceland. As Sir Walter Scott summarizes it, "They contain the history of a particular territory of the Island of Iceland, lying around the promontory called Snæfells, from its first settlement by emigrants from Norway: and the chronicle details, at great length, the feuds which took place among the families by whom the land was occupied, the advances which they made towards a more regular state of society, their habits, their superstitions, and their domestic laws and customs." While this accurate, I suspect that the author is less interested in sociology than telling family legends, and I'm quite sure that Scott knew this, as well, and is deliberately playing down the sensationalism of the tale so that he can later spring it on those reading his abstract.

Three families play a particularly notable role in the tale. Thorolf Mostur-Beard, Bjorn the Easterner, and Geirrod each come to Iceland early in the tale, and indeed in the history of Iceland (Ingolf Arnarson, the saga tells us, had only discovered Iceland ten years earlier); Bjorn fled Norway to the Hebrides because was outlawed, and Thorolf had to leave for Iceland because he helped Bjorn at one point and the king found out about it. Thorolf is a very devout follower of Thor, and he establishes a large temple to Thor at a place that came to be known as Thor's Ness.  He also consecrates the mountain of Helga Fell to Thor. Bjorn eventually makes it to Iceland, at what came to be called Bjorn's Haven. Geirrod and a few other settlers settle at Eyr. Things are well for a while, but after Thorolf Mostur-Beard dies, Thorolf's family and Bjorn's family have a very large and bloody falling out. Helga Fell was consecrated to Thor, so was a common meeting-place, and the Thorsnessings had the rule that nobody could relieve themselves on the holy ground of the mountain. The Kjalleklings, as Bjorn's family comes to be called (after Bjorn's son Kjallek), eventually get tired of this and start doing so, anyway, which leads to bloodshed, because in general people do not like other people using their sacred ground as a latrine. The immediate problem gets solved the true Icelandic way, by a combination of fighting and lawsuits, but the sentiments never die and the incident starts the ball rolling on an extended series of recurring feuds among the three families.

The tale is necessarily very episodic, but it is given some unity by the character of Snorri the Priest, who is Thorolf Mostur-Beard's great-grandson. Snorri is born in Chapter 12 and dies in Chapter 64, the last chapter in my edition. Snorri the Priest (called so because he gets Helga Fell and the custody of the temple of Thor) is ruthless and cunning. He is also very aggressive, but in a curious way; while, like any Icelander of the time, he his capable of fighting, he is not a warrior by temperament. He usually prefers outmaneuvering people rather than directly confronting them. Because of this some of the most interesting part of the story is his feud with Arnkel, a descendant of Geirrod. Arnkel is an excellent warrior. He also has an uncanny knack for always getting the better end of every lawsuit. In a society in which all problems are solved either by brawl or by court, the combination of the two is practically a superpower, so there is a fascination to seeing these two talented men compete for who will be the foremost man in the area. The competition is often very reluctant; they both learn quickly that they want to avoid confronting each other, because, while Arnkel always comes off a little better than Snorri, it always comes at a serious cost to them both. However, being prominent men, it is impossible for them to avoid it, because they keep being dragged into other people's feuds. Snorri's ruthlessness will eventually win out. leading to the death of the admirable Arnkel, and he will consolidate his position as the most important man in the area. But as such he will eventually be the major player in the Christianization of the area, which will bring him his most formidable challenge yet: outmaneuvering not the living but the dead. 

Snorri the Priest is often described as having an 'ambiguous' or 'ambivalent' character, but I don't think this is quite right; his character is not ambiguous at all. He is the sort of person whom we describe as 'wanting it all' and being willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Arnkel is without any doubt the more admirable person, a Hector to Snorri's Achilles. But after Arnkel's death, Snorri does in a sense have it all, and his cunning and willingness to do whatever it takes play an indispensable role in the consolidation of civilization in the area. The 'ambiguity' or 'ambivalence' lies not in Snorri's character but in the fact that the very same characteristics in one situation are heroic and in another situation are not. The Iceland of the day needed both its Arnkels and its Snorris. The sage is usually accused of not being as neatly structured as other great Icelandic sagas, but I think there's more structure to it than is usually seen, because I think the author the sage marks this point by the fact that both Arnkel and Snorri are seen to be crucial by their ability to deal with the dead.

The saga depicts the time around the transition between paganism and Christianity to be one of hauntings. There are quite a few, but two particularly notable ones involve Arnkel and Snorri. Arnkel's father was named Thorolf Twist-Foot; Arnkel inherited his fighting skills from him, but unlike Arnkel, Thorolf was quite malicious. (This also contrasts with Snorri, who is ruthless and ambitious but never malicious.) Thorolf literally dies in a rage after Arnkel refuses to help him in a land dispute that Thorolf is having with Snorri. Arnkel attempts to bury him properly, but increasingly weird and disquieting things begin happening until it is clear that Thorolf's restless ghost is even more malicious than he was in life: "His ghost was so malignant that it killed people and others had to run for their lives. All those who died were later seen in his company" (p. 94). All of the farms in the area are terrorized by it, until Arnkel reburies him. This ends the matter for a while, although we will see Thorolf again, ere the end.

The most interesting haunting, though, is the tale of Thorgunna, which occurs shortly after the Conversion of Iceland to Christianity. Thorgunna is an older woman who arrives on the island; there is always something a little odd about her. She has magnificent clothes and an even more magnificent bedspread, but she works hard and does not like receiving charity; she is also not very friendly, except that she seems to take a liking to Kjartan, Snorri's nephew, who tries to avoid her. As she lays dying, she gives instructions for what to do with her magnificent things; these are not completely carried out, and in the aftermath the entire area begins to be haunted by the dead. They just show up, so uncanny it is unbearable to be in their presence, and they won't go away; there is also a weird seal that keeps breaking into the food stores. Kjartan is the only one who seems ever to have any effect. Snorri, however, solves the problem, in what is probably my favorite method of handling ghosts in all of literature: he summons them to court and convicts the ghosts of trespassing. This establishes, if one needed to know it, that Snorri is the quintessential Icelander; you can't get more Icelandic than that. In any case, Arnkel and Snorri are the two people in the tale who most definitively handle the hauntings that plague the area.

I also read Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, "The Waif Woman", which is loosely based on the Thorgunna episode. It's a great story in its own right, but I think the saga version is much better.

Sir Walter Scott's abstract of the saga, mentioned above, follows the basic outlines of the story fairly well, although he occasionally is a bit loose with the story. Scott also tends to focus much more on the parts of the story that concern magic and ghosts. In reality, the saga, like every saga, is very dry and matter-of-fact about everything, and much of what happens in the story is the ordinary feuding and suing and farming that characterized the time, which makes the uncanny parts even more striking when they happen. Nonetheless it's not really surprising. The author of the saga, whoever he was, clearly has a relish in linking events in the story to the actual local geography, as people often do, and he regularly tells us exactly where things happen, and points out to us that this rock or that feature still exists, like a tour guide. While some of the stories that meet up with locale this way are colorful family and local legends, it's not really surprising that many of the memorable stories that tie into the geography and landmarks are ghost stories. Some people talk about the saga-author's "gothic" imagination, but there is nothing really gothic about his imagination. We are exactly the same way, because it is a very human thing. Ghost stories and uncanny happenings are tied to local landmarks everywhere in the world and make up part of the geography we actually inhabit. If you really dig into the stories of your locality, you'll find some of the same kinds of things, and you can point out to people that that house is said to be haunted, that such-and-such happened over there and you can still see the rock where they say it happened. I think this is largely the way the story should be read. The saga has had no end of grief for not being a tightly-woven work of art like Njal's Saga and some of the other great literary sagas, but if you take a good walking tour of your city, or sit down with a local historian who loves the local legends and colorful history, it's not going to be tightly woven, either. But that's because in a sense it's not telling a story; it is using stories to tell a place.

Favorite Passage:

After these weird events had been going on for some time, Kjartan set off one day over to Helgafell to see his uncle Snorri and ask his advice about what should be done to put an end to them. At that time there was a priest staying at Helgafell, sent to Snorri by Gizur the White. Snorri asked the priest to go with Kjartan to Frodriver along with his son Thord the Cat and six other people. They must burn the canopy from Thorgunna's bed, said Snorri, and then summons all the dead to a door-court. After that the priest was to sing Mass, consecrate water, and hear people's confessions. They rode over to Frodriver, and on the way there they asked the neighbours to come with them.

It was Candlemas Eve when they came to Frodriver, and the fire had just been lit. Thurid had been taken with the same illness as those who had died. Kjartan went straight to the living-room and saw Thorodd and the other dead people sitting by the fire as usual.... (p. 140)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Eyrbyggja Saga, Palsson and Edwards, trs., Penguin (New York: 1989).

Friday, October 29, 2021

October Night

 October Night

I stood at dusk and looked around the garden small and dim;
the fountain dry was cracked, with dust and vines around the rim.
The roses dead were long and spare, the weeds were rising high;
then ghosts from ancient worlds arose and said that I would die.
In long and spectral robes they swept along the garden ways
and sang the songs no longer sung, the songs of distant days.
A Templar march I thought I heard, a troubadour's sad plea,
a hymn of love to loves long gone, a shanty rasped at sea.
Like breezes drifting, softly sped those tunes, like secret sigh.
And 'midst it all a whisper sang; it sang that I would die.
The darkness fell, it drifted down, a-float like falling shawl;
it settled over roses dead and draped across the wall.
I strained my ears to hear again that gently whispered word,
but silence through the darkness fell, so nothing then was heard,
and nothing felt by rising hairs, and nothing met my eye,
until at midnight down the way I heard that I would die.
A maiden walked like water's wave along the crumbling wall
and here and there an elegy from out her lips would fall.
A hint, a clue, a fragile thread, the song would drift my way
with meaning barely out of reach and sense just out of play,
but here and there it rose to reach the keen of sobbing cry,
and then no doubt remained at all: it said that I would die.

The moon was silver on the road, but stars were hid by clouds
that, dark and thunder-mutter-thick, were gathered up in crowds
like ghosts in endless number in some graveyard in the sky,
and somehow in the thunder's tones I heard that I would die.
On far and distant hills the wolves began to raise a howl
and down the moonlit road I saw a figure in a cowl
as black as night in color so that scarce could seeing see
where ended figure and the night; it clearly came for me,
and in its hand a scythe was held, that swept through air with ease,
and at its heels a hound did walk, as pale as death's disease.
The crows in murder raised their wings, all croaking out a cry,
and clear I heard it in their noise: they said that I would die.
The wind was blowing in the leaves and rustled roses dead
and mingled with the panic that was buzzing in my head,
till time itself with nausea was turned upon its ear
and death itself was manifest to brain enmeshed in fear.
I sought to turn, like trembling bird in pit I sought to fly,
but dizzy chills sped up my spine that said that I would die.
A hand was clamped upon my mouth; I could not scream or cry;
a voice was snarling in my ear and told me I would die.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

2020 PhilPapers Survey

 The 2020 PhilPapers Survey is now available. I didn't participate, but I thought I'd put up my answers to the questions asked.

Main Questions

A priori knowledge: no or yes? YES. I think we can know a priori that attempts to deny any kind of a priori knowledge are absurd. What a priori knowledge is, is a trickier question, and I think many of the accounts on the table are not very good.

* Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? OTHER, i.e., Aristotelianism, although in a forced choice between Platonism and nominalism, I'll always pick Platonism.

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective? OBJECTIVE. I don't think it's actually possible to be a consistent subjectivist in aesthetics.

*Aim of philosophy (which is most important?): wisdom, understanding, truth/knowledge, happiness, or goodness/justice? WISDOM, although I could technically say 'Other', since I think all of these are the same end at the limit.

* Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no? NO, although in the sense that I don't think there is any general such distinction; I think in particular contexts, you can have something like it.

Eating animals and animal products (is it permissible to eat animals and/or animal products in ordinary circumstances?): vegetarianism (no and yes), omnivorism (yes and yes), or veganism (no and no)? OMNIVORISM. I think the No-No answer is obviously irrational; we are so obviously omnivorous that we cannot get all the nutrients our bodies need from plants alone, and while we can compensate for lack of animal sources by other sources (synthetics, algae and other bacterial colonies, etc.), these are obviously not equally accessible to everyone. Strict veganism, unless you plan it very carefully, is not good for you, people, and while there might be reasons why you would yourself live a vegan lifestyle, trying to claim that nobody should eat any kind of animal products at all is absurd.

* Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism? OTHER. I suppose in a forced choice I'm an externalist, but (1) I don't think justification is a single kind of thing; and (2) I think what serves the role philosophers usually mean when they talk about epistemic justification varies considerably according to the circumstances. 

Experience machine (would you enter?): yes or no? NO.

External world: skepticism, non-skeptical realism, or idealism? NON-SKEPTICAL REALISM.

Footbridge (pushing man off bridge will save five on track below, what ought one do?): don't push or push? NO, it's always wrong deliberately to murder innocent people however you try to justify it.

* Free will: compatibilism, no free will, or libertarianism? LIBERTARIANISM.

* Gender: unreal, biological, social, or psychological? UNREAL. This is my biggest contemporary heresy. I don't think 'gender', as such, indicates anything at all. Some of the things that are called 'gender' are real, but what gets called 'gender' is an incoherent grab-bag of very different things that really should be treated as very different.

* God: atheism or theism? THEISM.

* Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism? OTHER, technically, since I'm an Aristotelian with Platonistic features when it comes to knowledge; but in a forced choice, I would pick 'rationalism', because if you use the latter term in the broadest sense, it includes any view that does not restrict what we can know to the senses.

* Knowledge claims: relativism, contextualism, or invariantism? OTHER, I'm definitely not a relativist, but I'm not sure that I think that the contextualism/invariantism distinction is well-formed.

Laws of nature: non-Humean or Humean? NON-HUMEAN.

* Logic: classical or non-classical? NON-CLASSICAL. Classical logic, of course, is a modern invention arising from the desire of mathematical logicians to have a neat and tidy system; traditional approaches to logic, which I favor, are paraconsistent.

* Meaning of life: objective, nonexistent, or subjective? OBJECTIVE.

* Mental content: internalism or externalism? OTHER. I don't have a fully formed view on this, I think, but I'm inclined to think that all the varieties of both internalism and externalism are missing something.

Meta-ethics: moral anti-realism or moral realism? MORAL REALISM, although I do in fact think that there are extensive domains of morality that are anti-realist. It's just that many aren't.

* Metaphilosophy: non-naturalism or naturalism? NON-NATURALISM. I have a very strong view here: naturalism is an unprovable position that nobody could possibly hold on the basis of reasoned evidence, because it would require knowing things we cannot possibly know, whereas there are many things that could at least plausibly suggest non-naturalism to a reasonable person. I don't think people fully appreciate just how *strong* a claim is made by naturalism.

* Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism? NON-PHYSICALISM, although I think the two are not as obviously separate as they are sometimes assumed to be, because I don't think the 'physical' is as straightforward as it is sometimes assumed to be.

Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism? COGNITIVISM, although I do think there are non-judgment responses in moral matters that are non-cognitive.

* Moral motivation: externalism or internalism? OTHER. I don't think this is a distinction that makes sense of how motivation even works.

* Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes? OTHER; it's an error to think that decision theory problems like this have only one answer, because it depends on what aspects of the problem you prioritize. 

Normative ethics: consequentialism, virtue ethics, or deontology? VIRTUE ETHICS.

* Perceptual experience: sense-datum theory, representationalism, qualia theory, or disjunctivism? OTHER, technically, as I'm an Aristotelian about perception; but in a forced choice my view is closest to representationalism.

* Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view? FURTHER-FACT. 

* Philosophical methods (which methods are the most useful/important?): conceptual analysis, conceptual engineering, empirical, experimental, formal, intuition-based, linguistic? OTHER; I think it is an extremely grave error to limit the methodological options for philosophy, and all of these (and others) have areas in which they are the most useful. 

* Philosophical progress (is there any?): a lot, a little, or none? A LOT, although of course it is highly variable.

* Political philosophy: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism? OTHER, although communitarianism is the closest.

* Proper names: Millian or Fregean? OTHER; neither in their usual forms are quite right, although Fregeanism is less defective.

* Race: unreal, social, or biological? OTHER; I think people equivocate all over the place about race, but I think (unlike gender) it is usually used in a coherent way. But it doesn't make any sense to divide 'social' and 'biological' like this; we are never in a situation in which we are dealing with only one or the other.

Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism? SCIENTIFIC REALISM; although there are areas of science about which one should be quite clearly anti-realist, they exist within a realist framework.

Teletransporter (new matter): death or survival? OTHER, technically; I don't think we have any idea what would be involved in something like this, although death is the more probable based on what we currently know.

* Time: B-theory or A-theory? OTHER; one of my longstanding views is that time is not adequately characterized in either of these ways, because they were originally theories of different particular ways of talking about time, both of which are legitimate.

* Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): don't switch or switch? OTHER; I think there is no right or wrong answer in trolley problems. Deliberate action (switching in this case) is usually less morally safe; but it's not necessarily wrong to do what is less morally safe. I think switch cases are more different from fat man cases (like above) than is usually recognized; people over-assimilate them because they primarily only look at the numbers.

* Truth: epistemic, correspondence, or deflationary? OTHER; my view of truth is basically Platonic. Correspondence would be the closest of these three.

* Vagueness: epistemic, semantic, or metaphysical? METAPHYSICAL, technically, in the sense that I think there is real vagueness in the world, although I think this is only probably the case, and some kinds of vagueness are obviously epistemic and semantic.

* Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible? INCONCEIVABLE; philosophical zombies are defined in terms of qualia, and I don't think there is any such thing as a quale in this sense.

 Additional Questions 

* Abortion (first trimester, no special circumstances): permissible or impermissible? IMPERMISSIBLE.

* Aesthetic experience: sui generis, pleasure, or perception? OTHER, as I don't think this is a well-formed division.

Analysis of knowledge: other analysis, justified true belief, or no analysis? OTHER; justified true belief is a theory of good opinion. I am an Aristotelian about knowledge. 

Arguments for theism (which argument is strongest?): design, cosmological, ontological, moral, or pragmatic? COSMOLOGICAL.

* Belief or credence (which is more fundamental?): neither, credence, or belief? BELIEF, since I believe that there are beliefs, but I think credences are obviously philosophical fictions that don't exist.

* Capital punishment: permissible or impermissible? PERMISSIBLE, although there are quite a few conditions and qualifications on that.

* Causation: nonexistent, counterfactual/difference-making, primitive, or process/production? PROCESS/PRODUCTION, if I understand these options correctly, although possibly my own view would be more like common difference-making views than common production views.

Chinese room: doesn't understand or understands? DOESN'T UNDERSTAND. I think the 'understands' option confuses the Chinese room understanding with the Chinese room only being understandable in terms of what a person would understand.

Concepts: empiricism or nativism? EMPIRICISM -- I don't think we have innate concepts, because I think concepts are formed, ultimately on the basis of the senses.

* Consciousness: functionalism, eliminativism, dualism, panpsychism, or identity theory? OTHER; I'm a hylomorphist. Of these options, functionalism and dualism are the closest to right.

Continuum hypothesis (does it have a determinate truth-value?): indeterminate or determinate? DETERMINATE, although it's an area I only know very indirectly.

* Cosmological fine-tuning (what explains it?): no fine-tuning, design, multiverse, or brute fact? DESIGN, I suppose. 'Brute fact' is a dimwit's explanation (and it is an embarrassment that it beats out multiverse among philosophers), and 'no fine-tuning' is rather a baffling answer. I think multiverse interpretations are probably over-reading the mathematics, but more than that I don't think they actually explain fine-tuning itself at all, but push it back to the question of what explains all the options on the table being options on the table; that is, we've just replaced 'what explains this universe being such as to make life possible' with 'what makes the multiverse such as to make life possible', and I don't think you explain things by just replacing them with harder questions.

 * Environmental ethics: non-anthropocentric or anthropocentric? OTHER. I don't think this is a well-formed division.

Extended mind: no or yes? YES, although I think it's easy to over-interpret what this implies for other areas.

Foundations of mathematics: set-theoretic, formalism, constructivism/intuitionism, logicism, or structuralism? OTHER; I don't really know, although I suppose I lean structuralist. I think set-theoretic foundations often confuse 'foundational' with 'able to represent everything'.

* Gender categories: revise, preserve, or eliminate? OTHER. As noted above, I don't think 'gender' is a coherent class; from which it follows that I don't think there is one way 'gender categories' should be addressed.

Grounds of intentionality: phenomenal, primitive, inferential, interpretational, or causal/teleological? CAUSAL/TELEOLOGICAL. Notably, this is the only approach to intentionality that undeniably can give it a non-question-begging genus.

* Hard problem of consciousness (is there one?): yes or no? NO, since I don't believe there are qualia, but there *are* serious problems in its vicinity.

* Human genetic engineering: impermissible or permissible? OTHER; I think this is too vague to answer.

* Hume (what is his view?): skeptic or naturalist? OTHER. I think the division is based on a confusion that largely arose from changing meanings for these words. It is in most cases more accurate to call him a skeptic, though.

Immortality (would you choose it?): yes or no? YES; I don't think this is a sufficiently precise question, but the 'no' answers I've come across almost always betray an egregious lack of intellectual imagination, so I'm inclined to avoid 'no' just for avoiding the company.

* Interlevel metaphysics (which is the most useful?): grounding, supervenience, identity, or realization? OTHER; I don't think there really are 'levels' for metaphysics, in the sense of one kind of level; I think we identify levels of things for many different practical purposes.

* Justification: infinitism, reliabilism, nonreliabilist foundationalism, or coherentism? OTHER; I don't think justification is a very useful concept. But I think of these, foundationalism is the least useless, if that makes sense.

Kant (what is his view?): one world or two worlds? ONE WORLD; Kant uses language that can be interpreted in either way, but when he is being careful, he treats the noumenal as a limit concept for the phenomenal, not as a separate thing entirely, and I think the two-worlds-sounding language usually arises when he is alluding to how his position relates to those of other people.

Law: legal non-positivism or legal positivism? LEGAL NON-POSITIVISM.

Material composition: restrictivism, nihilism, or universalism? RESTRICTIVISM.

Metaontology: anti-realism, deflationary realism, or heavyweight realism? HEAVYWEIGHT REALISM.

* Method in history of philosophy (which do you prefer?): contextual/historicist or analytic/rational reconstruction? OTHER; I don't think it's possible to do either without the other, although you can emphasize one of the other. My preferred emphasis is contextual/historicist; I think emphasizing the analytic/rational-reconstruction side, while extremely useful sometimes, is a more perilous emphasis than is usually recognized.

* Method in political philosophy (which do you prefer?): ideal theory or non-ideal theory? OTHER; I don't think it makes sense to prefer one over the other when dealing with something practical like political systems.

Mind uploading (brain replaced by digital emulation): survival or death? OTHER; I don't think we know enough about what this would even be, but based on what we do know, the more plausible option is death.

Moral principles: moral particularism or moral generalism? MORAL GENERALISM, although there are particular contexts that are particularist. Those all presuppose a generalist framework, however.

* Morality: non-naturalism, constructivism, expressivism, naturalist realism, or error theory? OTHER, technically, although depending on the context, I think would usually register either as non-naturalist or naturalist realist. I think there are particular regions of morality that are correctly accounted for by each of these theories. Error theory applied to the *whole* of morality I regard as utterly moronic; I think general expressivism is only possibly by extensive equivocation; and I've never come across a plausible constructivism for the whole domain of morality -- I think the obstacles to completing such a theory are perhaps insurmountable.

* Normative concepts (which is most fundamental?): ought, reasons, value, or fit? FIT, technically, is the most fundamental, although in practice reasons are much more important.

Other minds (for which groups are some members conscious?) : adult humans, cats, fish, flies, worms, plants, particles, newborn babies, current AI systems, future AI systems? ADULT HUMANS, CATS, FISH, FLIES, WORMS, NEWBORN BABIES. I don't think it's obviously impossible for there to be a conscious plant, although I don't think the word 'conscious' stretches that far for any plants we know, and it might not be actually possible, and the same thing for AI systems. I don't know what it would mean for a particle to be conscious; I don't think there's any evidence for panpsychism that would not be better explained by some other position.

Ought implies can: no or yes? YES, but there are many different oughts and many different cans implied by them.

Philosophical knowledge (is there any?): none, a little, or a lot? A LOT, but in fairness, I think all knowledge is philosophical knowledge.

Plato (what is his view?): knowledge only of forms or knowledge also of concrete things? KNOWLEDGE ONLY OF FORMS, technically, although, I think it's not quite correct to oppose forms and concrete things in Plato.

* Politics: capitalism or socialism? OTHER, although I think of the two, moderate capitalism has always shown itself to be more effective and feasible than even moderate socialism, and I think socialist aberrations more easily become horrifying than capitalist aberrations. 

Possible worlds: concrete, abstract, or nonexistent? ABSTRACT; possible worlds are logical objects related to lists of  truth-value-assigned propositions.

Practical reason: Kantian, Humean, or Aristotelian? ARISTOTELIAN. I think Kantianism is less wrong than Humeanism.

* Principle of sufficient reason: false or true? TRUE, in the sense that I think several of the many things that get called 'principle of sufficient reason' are true; I'm inclined to think that most of these principles of sufficient reason are not fundamental principles.

Properties: transcendent universals, immanent universals, nonexistent, tropes, or classes? IMMANENT UNIVERSALS.

* Propositional attitudes: representational, phenomenal, nonexistent, or dispositional? DISPOSITIONAL. 

* Propositions: structured entities, nonexistent, acts, sets, or simple entities? ACT, technically, although I think 'proposition' is equivocal, sometimes meaning an act, and sometimes meaning the structured being of reason produced by the act; it's just that the structured entity is, so to speak, part of the act, so it is more accurate to think of them as acts.

Quantum mechanics: hidden-variables, epistemic, many-worlds, or collapse? OTHER; I am not sufficiently familiar with quantum mechanics to do anything but have a vague opinion, but frankly, I'm pretty sure that none of these will turn out to be correct. The question of importance is, which will turn out to be less wrong? On that point I am partial to hidden-variables views, without really being committed to them.

* Race categories: revise, eliminate, or preserve? OTHER; I think it very much matters about the context, and not all racial categories are particularly interesting or useful. But race does have some relevance both to medicine and to moral community, and therefore I don't think a flat eliminativism is reasonable or even possible.

Rational disagreement (can two people with the same evidence rationally disagree?): non-permissivism or permissivism? PERMISSIVISM.

* Response to external-world skepticism (which is strongest?): semantic externalist, pragmatic, contextualist, dogmatist, abductive, or epistemic externalist? DOGMATIST; I think it depends on the kind of external-world skepticism, i.e., the reasons for it, and all of these are good responses in some contexts, but in fact on this point we can without any real worries take the least cautious path any time we want.

Semantic content (which expressions are context-dependent?): minimalism (no more than a few), radical contextualism (most or all) , or moderate contextualism (intermediate)? MODERATE CONTEXTUALISM, although I'm not sure that people are often as careful as they think in what they call 'context-dependent'.

* Sleeping beauty (woken once if heads, woken twice if tails, credence in heads on waking?): one-half or one-third? OTHER; as noted above, credences are philosophical fictions that don't exist, so you can assign to your 'credence' whatever number you please.

Spacetime: substantivalism or relationism? RELATIONISM.

* Statue and lump: one thing or two things? ONE THING, but I'm a hylomorphist, so some would accuse me of saying there are two things.

* Temporal ontology: presentism, growing block, or eternalism? OTHER; none of these are correct as ontology. Time is the measure of a change by another change; these three are just metaphors for how we are using the measurements.

Theory of reference: causal, deflationary, or descriptive? CAUSAL. I think deflationists on this point are kidding themselves in thinking that they have an actually substantive position; deflationists about reference are the idiots who think they've answered the question if they give you a notation or procedure without explaining how or when it is to be used.

Time travel: metaphysically impossible or metaphysically possible? METAPHYSICALLY POSSIBLE, although, again, this is because I have the Aristotelian view that time is actually just a measurement, so time-travel is just peculiarity in what measurements you are getting -- in particular, whether you end up getting measurements that require modular arithmetic rather than normal arithmetic.

True contradictions: possible but non-actual, impossible, or actual? IMPOSSIBLE, by definition. The dialetheist is equivocating between two different uses of 'true'.

* Units of selection: genes or organisms? OTHER; anything is a unit of selection that admits of iterative variation whose proportions in a population vary across time due to causal factors in the environment. That includes genes, organisms, populations, and probably a lot more.

Values in science (is ideal scientific reasoning necessarily sensitive or insensitive to non-epistemic values?): necessarily value-laden, can be either, or necessarily value-free? NECESSARILY VALUE-LADEN.

Well-being: hedonism/experientialism, desire satisfaction, or objective list? OBJECTIVE LIST, although 'objective list' is a horrible and misleading name for it.

Wittgenstein (which do you prefer?): early or late? LATE, although that's mostly because I think late Wittgenstein is less obnoxious.


ADDED LATER: I originally intended to mark the ones where I am an oddball, but I forgot. I have added an * before each one where my view is different from the majority as found in the survey results.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021



The ghosts of the dead across land and sea
now wildly dash as they seek to be free.

Lenore in her bed is deeply disturbed
by nightmare-madness that shakes and unnerves,
by the terror of dream that ennervates souls,
the last horror, wanhope, that Pandora stole.
"Ah, Wilhelm," she says, in a sigh like a moan,
"have you no faith, or no strength, to come home?
Have you no means, or no will, to return,
when Ilium falls and Jerusalem burns?"

And the armies come home, the men and the boys;
the throngs of the soldiers return to their joys.
But never is Wilhelm found laughing with bliss,
arriving at home to catch Lenore's kiss.
Swiftly and often the maiden's bright eye
searches among the men who go by,
gladsome and glorious, uncaring at all
for Lenore's worried search or the name that she calls.

Her mother would ease her, as mothers will do:
"God is in heaven, His grace ever new;
seek mercy from him, and comfort you'll see."

"Mother, this God has no mercy for me."

"Her words are the words of a child distraught;
she knows not the sense of this wickedest thought!
Heaven, forgive her, and daughter, know this:
God's wisdom is endless, and mercy is his."

"Mother, my mother, your God does not care.
He who has mercy relieves all despair;
but pitiless God, he brings only night,
takes away Wilhelm, and shuts away light!"

"Heaven forgive you! The wine and the bread
show us a God who saves us from death.
The cup and the paten are mercy indeed:
reflect on their power; my daughter, take heed!"

"Mother, the lies of the wine and the bread
have no power to save or to raise from the dead;
no pity I find there, only the loss
of a man all forsaken and dead on the cross."

"And what if it's Wilhelm, not God, who's untrue?
What if your man another pursues
on some rugged mountain, on some distant plain?
Watch who you blame in your anguish and pain!"

"Mother, my mother, it all matters not
if his heart be made still or by someone else caught:
nothing at all can raise this sad head,
my life is for nothing, my place with the dead."

"Cease, my dear girl, all this moan and complaint!
Set your sweet heart on the goal of the saint:
seek you the vision of He who makes whole,
He who alone is fit groom to the soul."

"What is bliss, my sweet mother? Indeed, what is hell?
With Wilhelm is bliss, and without him I fell
down into darkness, down to the tomb.
He is my light, all else is but gloom.
Everything else God may coldly remove;
neither heaven nor hell should such providence prove.
But Wilhelm alone is my heaven and light:
she requires no other who is by his side."

The clack and the clatter of the hoof of the steed,
the clank of the steel and the voice Lenore needs,
waft through the door to meet Lenore's ear,
to bring her rejoicing and turn her to cheer.

"Are you waking or sleeping, Lenore, O my bride?
Come with me, come with me, off let us ride!
Off must we go, ere the dawn slays the night,
fast journey and far, to our wedded delights!"

"Wilhelm, my Wilhelm, eleven's the bell
that tolls in the churchyard and says all is well;
now rest you within till night turns retreat;
come inside, dearest, and whisper me sweet."

"No, my Lenore, before break of day
I have many a mile to mark on my way.
Swift, at dead gallop, through storm and through night,
through rain and through gusting, before morning's light."

Without pause and unwary she raced through the door
with kiss and caress no man could ignore;
but Wilhelm straightway did lift her beside,
and settled her down, and away they did ride.
The world like poured water in rush flurried by
as bridge blurred to bridge for the slow human eye
and trees of the forest became like a wall
that flickered and rose and behind them did fall.
And shimmers and shadows alone in the dark
rose to the eye like the fire and spark,
the shapes of grim warriors who died far away;
they rush to find solace before break of day.

"What ails you, my darling, my dearest, my bride?
Why do you shudder, your head turn aside?
Are they not lovely, the shades of the dead?"
Lenore answered not as she covered her head.

Soon to a gate born of iron and fire
they came, and there Wilhelm, as if in ire
threw back his hand, and the iron bolts bent,
and gently inside the two lovers went.
But see how the moonlight plays tricks on the eye!
See Wilhelm, how thin, like bones long laid by!
See now his head, like a skull reft of skin,
and how like he looks to the bones of dead men!

Now lie before them the tombs of the dead,
but Wilhelm still sings of the sweet nuptial bed,
and Lenore, who now struggles, is drawn ere she wist
into a dark grave, cold hand on her wrist. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Not on Her Brow; Beneath Her Feet

 The White Witch
by G. K. Chesterton

The dark Diana of the groves
Whose name is Hecate in hell
Heaves up her awful horns to heaven
White with the light I know too well. 

The moon that broods upon her brows
Mirrors the monstrous hollow lands
In leprous silver; at the term
Of triple twisted roads she stands. 

Dreams are no sin or only sin
For them that waking dream they dream;
But I have learned what wiser knights
Follow the Grail and not the Gleam. 

I found One hidden in every home,
A voice that sings about the house,
A nurse that scares the nightmares off,
A mother nearer than a spouse, 

Whose picture once I saw; and there
Wild as of old and weird and sweet,
In sevenfold splendour blazed the moon
Not on her brow; beneath her feet.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Russell on Barriers to Entailment

 Gillian Russell has an interesting paper, How to Prove Hume's Law, which is probably the best thing I've read on the subject in a while. As I've noted before, there is actually no single thing that is Hume's Law, since different people use it to mean different things, all of which are different from what Hume clearly meant. Russell introduces the principle in a common way -- You can't get an Ought from an Is -- but the version that Russell actually considers is that you can't get a normative conclusion from a descriptive premise, which is not the same. In any case, the primary interest is less this than the logical contextualizing of the idea.

Russell takes the principle to be one of a family of principles, barriers to entailment, such as:

You can't deduce a universal conclusion from particular premises.
You can't deduce conclusions about the future from premises about the past or present.
You can't deduce conclusions about how the world must be from premises about how the world is.
You can't deduce indexical conclusions from non-indexical premises.

Russell -- and this is the fundamental value of the paper -- argues for a unified logical account of all of these and then, assuming standard assumptions in logical systems, proves a Limited General Barrier Theorem that handles some commonly proposed counterexamples to the above principles, especially to 'Hume's Law'.  There is a kind of curious twist in the argument -- what Russell actually shows is that all of the above principles are false, and that the major counterexamples (including some Russell does not consider but are analogous to those that are considered) are essentially right, but that the counterexamples each fall under a condition. 

Trying not to get too bogged down in logical technicalities, the essential idea is that we often have cases in which we are dealing with claims that can change truth value depending on context. We find many such cases in the matters with which the above barrier principles are concerned, and in ways that seem closely connected to why people think they are true. For instance, the indexical claim "I am Brandon" is true of me and false of most of you; the context shifts, and the truth value can shift with the context. If "I am Brandon" followed from non-indexical statements, the shift of truth value would not be possible: the truth of the non-indexical statements does not depend on the indexical context, so any conclusions that can be deduced from them will not depend on the indexical context. Thus the indexical shift will block certain kinds of inferences from non-indexicals to indexicals. However, it's obvious that this cannot be an absolute barrier. "All adult Americans have a name" is a non-indexical statement, and from this I can conclude, "If I am an adult American, I have a name", which is indexical. The reason is that, while the latter statement shifts its truth value in different contexts, if we look only at the contexts in which the non-indexical statement is true, the indexical statement has to be true in all of them. This general point can be made more precise with model theory, and it can be generalized to all of the other cases, and, what is more, the point is true in multiple different modal logical systems (Russell looks at S4, B, and S5 in particular), with only minor incidental modifications appropriate to the difference in logical systems.

Of course, it's always possible that there are other logical systems, particularly nonstandard modal logical systems, that plausibly represent some sort of modality we actually use, which will not allow the barrier principle; and deontic reasoning is the form of modal reasoning that has always been hardet to fit with standard moral logical systems. (I also do not think Russell's account of normativity is a very good account of what people generally mean by normativity, even in using the descriptive-normative version of Hume's Law. But it's in the general ballpark.) It's worth remembering that a barrier with exceptions is in fact less a barrier than a gateway, and all of logical reasoning is described by such gateways. As noted above, what Russell actually shows is that all of the above principles are false; despite the title of the paper, what the paper shows is that Hume's Law is wrong. We knew this from the counterexamples -- at least, everyone who wasn't stubbornly holding on to Hume's Law knew it from the counterexamples. Nonetheless, she establishes a general account of how this relates to other principles, and how one can in each case actually make the kind of inference that is forbidden in a way that explains why people would err in thinking that it could not be made.

Apparently Russell is working on a book on Barriers to Entailment; I will definitely have to read it when it comes out.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Occult Circe of the Hours of Sleep

The Potion of Dreams
by Clark Ashton Smith

What occult Circe of the hours of sleep
Mixeth the Cup of Dreams with potent art?
How doth the sorceress cunningly impart
To it such wondrous virtues, and where steep
That powerful potion? Opium poppies' brew
Nor hasheesh from far India's mystic land
Have not such properties, nor can command
Visions of more fantastic form and hue. 

Pleasure and pain in mingling mystical
Are in that cup. There past and present meet,
With pageantry of earthly sights and sounds.
Abysses bottomless, heights that appall
With plainlands infinite about their feet,
And seas horizonless, lie in its bounds.