Saturday, December 10, 2022

Music on My Mind


Southern Raised, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". Very hard to beat bluegrass versions of traditional carols.

On the Structural Difference Between the First Way and the Second Way

 It's naturally very tempting to assimilate Aquinas's First Way and Second Way to each other. They both are arguments to the existence of God as first cause uncaused, both are based on originating causes (in the first way, moving cause or cause of change, following Aristotle; in the second way, making cause or cause of existence, following Avicenna), both proceed by eliminating the possibility of an infinite regress. And one could indeed assimilate them -- that is, we can easily run an efficient-cause argument that is structurally like the First Way, and we can easily run a moving-cause argument that is structurally like the Second Way. But the First Way and the Second Way as Aquinas presents them have important structural differences.

When Aquinas introduces the First Way, he says it is taken from change (sumitur ex parte motus). This is what we find. It begins not with the cause but with the result of the cause, in this case, being changed, as something we find in the world. It then concludes all being-changed requires a distinct changer on the basis of the Aristotelian account of change as the act of the potential insofar as it is potential. Since moving causes can nest, the only question is whether the resulting series stops (first mover) or doesn't (infinite regress). Infinite regress is eliminated because change requires a changer, that is the outcome requires a cause, and due to the nesting character of moving causes, an infinite regress gives you an outcome without a cause.

When Aquinas introduces the Second Way, however, he says it is from the notion or nature of the efficient cause (ex ratione causae efficientis). Thus before we even are given the argument, we have a difference between the First Way and the Second Way: the First Way is from the nature of the result; the Second Way is from the nature of the cause. And this latter is exactly what we find in the second way. The Second Way does not, as one might have expected, begin with effects. It begins with the order of efficient causes (ordinem causarum efficientem). We do not find an order of efficient causes in which an efficient cause is in any way ordered to cause itself to exist, because this is not possible based on the account of efficient cause as prior in being. Thus 'nothing is efficient cause of itself' is derived (exactly as Aquinas said) from the notion of efficient cause, which contrasts with 'whatever is changed is changed by another', which was derived from the notion of being changed. The argument for eliminating infinite regress has often puzzled philosophers recently, because it can easily be read as saying that we cannot have an infinite regress because there must be a first, which is opaque at best and easily interpreted as question-begging. But this is because it's read as if it were an argument from the effects. In fact, the argument for eliminating infinite regress is based, again, on the order of efficient causes, and very explicitly (in omnibus causis efficientibus ordinatis). Aquinas's argument is that, given that it is intrinsic to the notion of an efficient cause to be prior, an order of efficient causes has to have the structure of first-middle-last, however complicated the middle might be. (And notice again that the ultimate term here is not the effect but the last cause in the series.) Therefore, given that efficient causes nest in an order, an infinite regress of efficient causes would be an order of efficient causes in which the foundation of efficient-cause ordering, priority, breaks down, since the infinite middle-last series cannot be efficient cause of itself and yet would have nothing prior that could be efficient cause. The middle and last in an order are defined relative to a first, which is removed in the infinite regress. 

The Second Way, in fact, doesn't talk about effects directly at all, except insofar as one efficient cause can be the effect of another in an order of efficient causes. It's all about the causes. Whereas the First Way gets the unmoved first moving cause from infinite regress causing a contradiction in the outcome, the Second Way gets the uncaused first efficient cause from infinite regress causing a contradiction in the order of causes.

This, incidentally, perhaps explains a peculiarity of the Third Way, as well, namely, that it explicitly refers to the Second Way, the only one of the Five Ways that relies on another of the Five Ways. But the Third Way is, like the second way, an argument in which we find efficient causes; efficient causes are causes of being and the Third Way depends explicitly on the principle that things possible-to-be-and-not-be begin to be from things that have being, which is an efficient-cause principle. Nonetheless, the Third Way does not mention efficient causes explicitly until it refers to the Second Way. This is because the emphasis in the Third Way is on the effects -- we start with effects that are possible-to-be-and-not-be, and get to something that is necessary; if it is not an effect, we are at a being having its own necessity and not receiving it from another, but if it is an effect, the same argument that was used in the Second Way gets us to such a being. Thus the Second Way and Third Way have a lot in common; but the Second Way is based on the nature of causes and the Third Way is based on the nature of effects.

Thursday, December 08, 2022


 Now in the sixth month the messenger Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilaia, named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Ioseph, of the family of Dauid, the name of the virgin being Mariam. And having entered, he said to her, Grace to you, grace-given! The Lord is with you! You are to be praised among women!

And at this saying she was agitated and was debating what kind of greeting this was. And the angel said, Fear not, Mariam! You have found grace from God. And see! You will conceive in the womb and produce a son, and you shall call his name Iesous. He will be great and will be called Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give him the throne of Dauid his father, and he will rule over the family of Iakob in perpetuity, and his rulership will have no end.

Then Mariam said to the messenger, How will this be, as I am not knowing a man?

And the messenger responded to her, The Holy Spirit will arrive upon you and the power of the Highest will envelop you; thus the Holy One born will also be called the Son of God. And see! Elisabet your kinswoman has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her, who was called barren. For with God there is no incapability for any claim whatsoever.

Then Mariam said, See the servant girl of the Lord! May things happen to me as you have claimed.

And the messenger went away from her.

[Luke 1:26-38, my rough translation.]

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Ambrosius, Episcopus!

 Today is the feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, Doctor of the Church. He was made bishop of Milan against his will, by popular acclaim; when as governor he went to the Church to make sure that the selection of a new bishop would be orderly, the people started shouting, "Ambrose, bishop!" He fled and locked himself in his house, but it was too late; rumor travels swiftly, and the Emperor, having heard that he had been chosen as bishop, sent him congratulations and selected his replacement as governor, so he didn't have much else he could do. He was a catechumen, so he had to be baptized, confirmed, ordained, and raised to episcopal office all in one week. But having thereby been made a victim of his own extraordinary competence, he handled being bishop with the same intelligence and ability that had made him popular as governor. From his criticism of Arianism in De Fide (Book V, Chapter 11):

But we have sufficiently proved by examples from Scripture that it is a property of the unity of the divine majesty that the Father should abide in the Son, and that the Son should seem to have heard from the Father those things which He speaks. How else can we understand the unity of majesty than by the knowledge that the same deference is paid to the Father and the Son? For what can be better put than the Apostle's saying that the Lord of glory was crucified?

 The Son then is the God of glory and the Lord of glory, but glory is not subject to creatures; the Son therefore is not a creature. 

The Son is the Image of the Father's Substance; but every creature is unlike that divine Substance, but the Son of the Father is not unlike God; therefore the Son is not a creature. 

The Son thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but no creature is equal with God, the Son, however, is equal; therefore the Son is not a creature. 

Every creature is changeable; but the Son of God is not changeable; therefore the Son of God is not a creature. 

Every creature meets with chance occurrences of good and evil after the powers of its nature, and also feels their passing away; but nothing can pass away from or bring addition to the Son of God in His Godhead; therefore the Son of God is not a creature. 

Every work of His God will bring into judgment; but the Son of God is not brought into judgment; for He Himself judges; therefore the Son of God is not a creature. 

Lastly, that you may understand the unity, the Saviour in speaking of His sheep says: No man is able to pluck them out of My hand. My Father Which gave them to Me is greater than all, and no man is able to pluck them out of My Father's hand. I and My Father are one.

Class Assignments in an LLM World

 There has been a lot of discussion recently of OpenAI's recent ChatGPT-3, a significant improvement over previous iterations of GPT-3, and its possible implications for college pedagogy (for instance, here). GPT-3 is often called 'AI', but this is somewhat misleading in this particular context; suffice it to say it's more accurately called a large language model (LLM), a program that uses machine-learning algorithms and a very, very large training set of texts to process and generate blocks of natural language on the model of the texts in its training set. ChatGPT-3 does very well at this; you can get some plausible passages in a variety of genres out of it, without much difficulty. On the basis of this, some people are worried that the college essay is dead and it will become impossible to assess student writing properly. A few thoughts on this.

(1) I hate to break it to you, but if this is your worry, your approach to writing assignment design is twenty years out of date. For my entire professional career it has been easy for students to get unique papers from a paper mill, and the expense of this relative to the usual expense of failing a class has grown so small that the expense itself is not a significant deterrent even for relatively poor students. These papers are generally higher-quality than anything GPT-3 and the like can currently produce and (given the limitations of the model) than it is likely to be able to produce even for the near future.

This problem can be handled in a number of ways that, while not perfect safeguards (there are no perfect safeguards against cheating), do provide some obstacles. For instance, chained assignments -- an assignment that leads into another assignment that leads into another assignment, as when one requires a series of drafts, or a preparatory and a main assignment, or a main assignment and an outline or presentation assignment -- provide some measure of protection, as do assignments tied to things specifically discussed in class that are based on one's own research, as do in-class writing assignments (when feasible) and highly atypical writing assignments or assignments that are structured to assess obliquely rather than directly. There are lots of other things. 

This sort of thing has been known for ages; many of them pre-existed the cheap paper mill. But academics are very weird about these things. All my writing assignments have always been structured with this kind of thing in mind, but it has frankly sometimes been a struggle. Faculty evaluation processes, which often require samples of grading, are often not set up to accommodate these kinds of features; it's a lot easier to do a grading sample portfolio if your assignments are all of the straightforward, easily cheatable kind. My taste for indirect assessment -- for example, having students explain how they would select and use a field trip to teach a unit of the course, or having them turn in an illustrated paper -- has on more than one occasion gotten me dinged on faculty evaluations ('busy work' was one of the complaints, once). Admittedly, the things that make it hard to cheat an assignment do often make it harder to evaluate for faculty evaluation purposes, and indirect assessment is tricky business, and I certainly would not say that my attempts have always been successful. But the point is that there has really been no excuse for simply doing "Write on this" assignments for a very long time; academics do them because they are bureaucratically legible and because academics tend to be obstinate people who like to do things the way they have done them. (I am not an exception to the latter, of course; it's notable that I still do weird indirect assessments despite the fact that it's one of the few things I know might get complaints when I submit my evaluation portfolio. Obstinacy is a survival skill in academia, and selective obstinacy is part of how the academic game is played.)

(2) Ah, you might say, but the big game changer is that this is free! Not really. In this sense, it's like translation programs; instead of just saying, "Translate this", you have to find a way to design an assignment that is more like, "Translate this and then do such-and-such", where the latter component is something the translation can't or won't do, and which requires the student to do something they are inclined to shove off on the translation program. It's not that it's always easy, but you should already be designing writing assessments in view of the fact that students sometimes try to cheat, anyway. And we should never underestimate the superhuman ability of most students to fail completely to use resources that are freely available, an extraordinary ability that extends to means of cheating as much as it does to means of research. If it's not showing up on the first page of Google, they often have no idea how to access or use it, no matter how free it is. I'm old enough to remember when you had to go to the physical library to do research, and while databases were already very common, depending on the library it was sometimes still easier to use the literal card catalog for some kinds of research. Students today can call up libraries on their phone -- still not quite good enough for graduate or professional research, usually, but easily good enough for undergraduate, and getting better every year -- and it would never occur to most of them on their own to use these resources, even when they know they exist. Cheating we always have with us; most of it is much easier to catch than you would expect given the resources that are available for doing it; and one can often put a wrench into even a more competent use of cheating resources just by a well placed twist in the assignment. It won't handle everything; but it's always been remarkable how much you can impede cheating just by a few minor tweaks.

(3) Nonetheless, we are at a stage where it's probably best to de-emphasize ordinary writing assignments, even setting aside cheating concerns: students often don't know how to write, and assessment by writing requires that students be able to write at least well enough that they can be assessed on what they are writing. I don't know what's being taught in high school English classes these days, but whatever it is, it's usually not working. Combinations of writing + presentation seem to do better, as do multiple-revision assignments. Writing assignments are not eliminable -- relevant use of writing is one of the things students need to learn, and is sometimes important to assess in its own right -- but it makes sense to diversify the nature and structure of assignments in ways that don't entirely lean on writing itself. Alas, I think. It is a sign of deterioration, one of a great many. But in teaching you have to work with what you have, even if it sometimes seems like students have been actively made less prepared for succeeding in college.

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

Jokes and the Dual Nature of Man

 I believe firmly in the value of all vulgar notions, especially of vulgar jokes. When once you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea. The men who made the joke saw something deep which they could not express except by something silly and emphatic. They saw something delicate which they could only express by something indelicate.... And in the first case it is surely obvious that it is not merely at the fact of something being hurt that we laugh (as I trust we do) when a Prime Minister sits down on his hat. If that were so we should laugh whenever we saw a funeral. We do not laugh at the mere fact of something falling down; there is nothing humorous about leaves falling or the sun going down. When our house falls down we do not laugh. All the birds of the air might drop around us in a perpetual shower like a hailstorm without arousing a smile. If you really ask yourself why we laugh at a man sitting down suddenly in the street you will discover that the reason is not only recondite, but ultimately religious. All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of Man. They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.

[G. K. Chesterton, "Cockneys and Their Jokes", in All Things Considered.]

Sunday, December 04, 2022


 Today is the feast of St. Yanah ibn Sarjun, Doctor of the Church, usually known as St. John Damascene. Probably an Arab Christian born in Damascus, his family was associated with the Muslim court. It's unclear whether St. John himself ever actually served in an office in the caliphate, although he might have done so in a minor capacity. It's more likely, however, that his father, Sarjun ibn Mansur, arranged for him to study at the monastery of Mar Saba. In any case, his being a subject of a Muslim empire ironically seems to have made it possible for him to play a key role in the iconoclasm controvery, since he was beyond the reach of the iconoclastic emperors of Constantinople. He also, however, was one of the first Christian critics of Islam who seems to have actually read the Qur'an, rather than having merely to rely on comments by Muslims; he concluded on the basis of it that Islam was a variant of Arianism. We know very little about his life beyond what can be gathered from his writings, but tradition says he died on December 4, 749. From An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Book III, Chapter 1):

Man, then, was thus snared by the assault of the arch-fiend, and broke his Creator's command, and was stripped of grace and put off his confidence with God, and covered himself with the asperities of a toilsome life (for this is the meaning of the fig-leaves ); and was clothed about with death, that is, mortality and the grossness of flesh (for this is what the garment of skins signifies); and was banished from Paradise by God's just judgment, and condemned to death, and made subject to corruption. Yet, notwithstanding all this, in His pity, God, Who gave him his being, and Who in His graciousness bestowed on him a life of happiness, did not disregard man. But He first trained him in many ways and called him back, by groans and trembling, by the deluge of water, and the utter destruction of almost the whole race, by confusion and diversity of tongues, by the rule of angels, by the burning of cities, by figurative manifestations of God, by wars and victories and defeats, by signs and wonders, by manifold faculties, by the law and the prophets: for by all these means God earnestly strove to emancipate man from the wide-spread and enslaving bonds of sin, which had made life such a mass of iniquity, and to effect man's return to a life of happiness. For it was sin that brought death like a wild and savage beast into the world to the ruin of the human life. But it behooved the Redeemer to be without sin, and not made liable through sin to death, and further, that His nature should be strengthened and renewed, and trained by labour and taught the way of virtue which leads away from corruption to the life eternal and, in the end, is revealed the mighty ocean of love to man that is about Him. For the very Creator and Lord Himself undertakes a struggle in behalf of the work of His own hands, and learns by toil to become Master.

Grace to Glory

 Advent Hymn
by John Cullen

 “Surely I come quickly."-Rev. xxii. 20. 

 Thou hast come, O gracious Saviour, once in deep humility,
Soon shall we Thy second Advent with the holy angels see. 

 Lord, come now in love and pity seeking those who far may roam,
Weary ones who lonely wander,–lead them to Thy heavenly home. 

 In Thy Word, and in Thy servants, who proclaim the way of life,
Daily now to us Thou comest, giving strength for daily strife. 

 In each prayer and sweet communion, Lord, to us Thy self reveal,
Sanctify us with Thy Spirit, fill our hearts with love and zeal. 

 In the time of pain and sickness, let us feel that Thou art near.
Comfort us in days of sorrow, wipe away the swelling tear. 

Come, O Lord, to bless and succour all who look to Thee for aid,
 Speak to us Thy word of promise, lest our hearts be sore afraid. 

 Come to teach us and direct us, come to help us and to cheer,
Come and walk with us and lead us through another sacred year. 

 Lead us gently, holy Saviour, in the path which Thou hast trod,
To the Kingdom where Thou reignest,—to our Father and our God. 

 Bless to us each visitation, when Thou comest near, O Lord,
Lead us on from grace to glory, open for us all Thy Word. 

 And, when Thou shalt come to judgment, crowned with awful majesty,
We shall then, in holy gladness, lift our heads and welcome Thee.