Saturday, September 02, 2023

Sir Walter Scott, Old Mortality


Opening Passage: Because this has an elaborate narrative framing, one has to choose what counts as an 'opening passage', since there are two distinct introductions and a Chapter 1 that is explicitly labeled 'Preliminary', with the actual story starting in Chapter 2. Since I don't think the introductions or the preliminary first chapter actually give much a sense of the story itself, I've chosen to begin with the opening of Chapter 2, which at least puts us at the time of the story.

Under the reign of the last Stewarts, there was an anxious wish on the part of government to counteract, by every means in their power, the strict or puritanical spirit which had been the chief characteristic of the republican government, and to revive those feudal institutions which united the vassal to the liege lord, and both to the crown. Frequent musters and assemblies of the people, both for military exercise and for sports and pastimes, were appointed by authority. The interference, in the latter case, was impolitic, to say the least; for, as usual on such occasions, the consciences which were at first only scrupulous, became confirmed in their opinions, instead of giving way to the terrors of authority; and the youth of both sexes, to whom the pipe and tabor in England, or the bagpipe in Scotland, would have been in themselves an irresistible temptation, were enabled to set them at defiance, from the proud consciousness that they were, at the same time, resisting an act of council. To compel men to dance and be merry by authority, has rarely succeeded even on board of slave-ships, where it was formerly sometimes attempted by way of inducing the wretched captives to agitate their limbs and restore the circulation, during the few minutes they were permitted to enjoy the fresh air upon deck. The rigour of the strict Calvinists increased, in proportion to the wishes of the government that it should be relaxed....

Summary: In 1679, Lady Margaret Bellenden holds a wapenshaw (literally: weapon-show), which is a gathering of people in a district "both for military exercise and for sports and pastimes", partly in order to express her support of the Royalists. The Covenanters in the area, of whom there are many, are unhappy, but many of them cannot stay away from the fun and games.  During the shooting competitions, two people particularly stand out: Lord Evandale and Henry Morton. The entire story will consist of their intersecting and intertwining lines, and involve three things in particular: they are both in their own way honorable men even when honor is detrimental to their situation; they are both in love with the same woman, Edith Bellenden, Lady Margaret's daughter; and, despite being both political moderates, are on opposite sides of a brewing civil war, since Lord Evandale is a Royalist and Henry Morton is a Convenanter.

Henry ends up getting an immense amount of trouble when his sense of honor leads him to help John Balfour of Burley, a historical figure who played a significant role in the Covenanter rebellion. Balfour of Burley is persona non grata, but he also is responsible for having saved the life of Henry's father, a debt that his father had never been in a position to repay, and so out of a sense of honor, he gives Burley food and shelter for a night. However, Burley was thoroughly involved in the assassination of Archbishop James Sharp, and the result is that Henry's honorable payment of his father's debt leads to near-disaster for his entire family, to Henry himself being outlawed. He ends up with the Convenanter rebels, with whom he has some abstract agreements of principle, being Presbyterian himself and in favor of freedom of religion.

Henry's talents, which were already on display in the wapenshaw, lead him to becoming a significant commander in the Covenanter army, which gains a great victory against the Royalist forces at the Battle of Drumclog. However, it's more than slightly difficult to be a liberalish moderate commander in an army that gets its numbers largely from religious fanaticism; he will be blamed for every failure and mistake that gets made, and despite his genuine commitment to the cause, will constantly be attacked for lukewarmness and Erastian tendencies. It's unlikely that anyone in the seventeenth century would espouse quite the combination of principles Henry Morton does, so it seems fair to say that Henry Morton is a deliberate anachronism, being a sort of pro-Union Scotsman from Scott's own day born back in Convenanter days. He serves as a sort of filter for nineteenth-century Scottish thinkers looking back at the their heritage and having to deal with the problem that a very significant portion of their ancestors would have been vehemently opposed to everything that Scotland had become by the nineteenth-century. Henry is a nineteenth-century test for seventeenth-century Scotland, showing what can be admired in the latter even among the things that the former has repudiated. Nonetheless, he is not an allegorical figure, and is depicted in a well rounded way. Henry understands his allies as to several fundamental principles, but he often shows that he does not really understand them in terms of their attitudes and priorities. 

It is clear as the story progresses that Henry's position among the Convenanters is deterioriating and will certainly end badly -- it only carries on as long as it does because of his unusual military talents. This all ends when the Royalists achieve a crushing victory over the Covenanters at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. The Covenanter army scatters, but Henry himself is captured by some of the extreme Covenanter faction, who of course blame him as the infidel responsible for their loss of God's favor and prepare to execute him as a traitor; he happens to be saved by Royalists crossing their path, and is sent into exile until the overthrow of the Stewarts.

Scott presents the Covenanters in such a way as to emphasize that fanaticism is their fatal flaw, but he is also very careful to be clear that many of their complaints were entirely justified.  They were actively persecuted and oppressed, sometimes by slow social pressures imposed from above and sometimes with outright brutality.  In a story with so many oppositions, it's rather interesting that among the characters we most see, there are no outright villains on either side; even the fanatics are mostly just people who are in over their heads and are dealing with the fact that they need to forge some kind of unity despite having a disagreement-riddled religion based mostly on isolated individual Bible study and charismatic preachers -- something that is not entirely their fault, since most of the ways to maintain religious unity are precisely the kinds of institutions and practices that get suppressed in a religious persecution. Individual Covenanters often get censured for their own lack of moderation and deliberate refusal to see the big picture, but it's important to Scott's telling of the story that the Covenanters are not wholly wrong and have many noble qualities, which he sees as having been misdirected as a result of their having been mistreated. The nineteenth-century Scot can entirely relish the excellences of his Covenanter ancestors while fully admitting that they were often in error.

There is a love triangle running through this story. I have not emphasized it, partly because it's constant but not actually important to most of the events in the story, which are primarily driven by broader social and political forces. It does play an important role in showing both Henry and Lord Evandale in a good light, particularly since despite being love rivals they keep saving each other's lives, but while the historical parts of the story are fascinating, I found much of the love triangle story to be aggravating. Edith is a fine character for the most part, but her repeated tendency to keep the triangle going as long as possible, even when it is very obviously best for everyone that she choose Lord Evandale (the only choice she can make that does not end in disaster for her entire Royalist family), and Lord Evandale's patience with her went well beyond what should ever be required of mere mortals. But again, the role it plays in the story is mostly characterization, and for the most part it does not slow down the plot.

Favorite Passage: This is not a particularly quotable book, but there are many fine passages in which Scott attempts to capture the entire spirit of the era in a few strokes, of which this is one.

While the prudent and peaceful endeavoured, like Niel Blane, to make fair weather with both parties, those who had more public (or party) spirit began to take arms on all sides. The royalists in the country were not numerous, but were respectable from their fortune and influence, being chiefly landed proprietors of ancient descent, who, with their brothers, cousins, and dependents to the ninth generation, as well as their domestic servants, formed a sort of militia, capable of defending their own peel-houses against detached bodies of the insurgents, of resisting their demand of supplies, and intercepting those which were sent to the presbyterian camp by others. The news that the Tower of Tillietudlem was to be defended against the insurgents, afforded great courage and support to these feudal volunteers, who considered it as a stronghold to which they might retreat, in case it should become impossible for them to maintain the desultory war they were now about to wage. 

 On the other hand, the towns, the villages, the farm-houses, the properties of small heritors, sent forth numerous recruits to the presbyterian interest. These men had been the principal sufferers during the oppression of the time. Their minds were fretted, soured, and driven to desperation, by the various exactions and cruelties to which they had been subjected; and, although by no means united among themselves, either concerning the purpose of this formidable insurrection, or the means by which that purpose was to be obtained, most of them considered it as a door opened by Providence to obtain the liberty of conscience of which they had been long deprived, and to shake themselves free of a tyranny, directed both against body and soul. Numbers of these men, therefore, took up arms; and, in the phrase of their time and party, prepared to cast in their lot with the victors of Loudon-hill.

Recommendation: Recommended.


Sir Walter Scott, Old Mortality, Oxford (New York: 2009).

Jimmy Buffett (1946-2023)

 The great Jimmy Buffett died yesterday. "Margaritaville" is of course the big headliner song, but my favorite is this:

Jimmy Buffett, "Come Monday".

Probably the best song for his death, however, is this one:

Jimmy Buffet, "One Particular Harbour".

Friday, September 01, 2023

Dashed Off XXVII

 Being a good sport involves playing a game not to get the best outcome but to get the best games.

Perhaps the most peculiar assumption of Carnap's *The Logical Structure of the World* is the assumption that to be unified is the natural state of science, that this unified science has been divided and this division must be overcome, that there is this thing that has never existed, *the* conceptual system of unified science.

On Carnap's characterization in LSW, science is a purely conceptual endeavor.

" is liberty which is ancient and despotism which is modern." Germaine de Stael
"When a nation feels the want of political reform, the personal character of the monarch is but a feeble barrier against the impulse."
"...the heart of a virtuous man is the sanctuary of the Divinity in this world."
"No revolution in a great country can succeed unless it takes its beginning from the higher orders; the people come forward subsequently, but they are not capable of striking the first blows."
"The three powers, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, are in the essence of things; they exist in all governments, as action, preservation, and renewal exist in the course of nature."

It is common, although not inevitable, for activists to treat a thirst for intrigue as a passion for justice.

Analogy often interprets analogy.

Where there is no willingness to endure agony, honor is unsure.

(1) by birth (Superman)
(2) by appointment (Green Lantern)
(3) by training (Batman)
(4) by fortune (Spiderman)

possession proper, possession by merit, possession by favor

the three ways narrative represents: as it is, as it should be, as it is said to be

"We say that god is a living being, perpetual, most good, so that continual and perpetual life and duration belong to god; for this is god." Aristotle

hyponoia -> allegoria

The object domains for sciences are relative to their inquiries.

"The cultural objects have in common with the psychological ones the fact that they, too, are subject-bound, their 'bearers' are always the persons of a certain group. But, in contrast to the psychological objects, their bearers may change: a state or a custom can persist even though the bearing subjects perish and others take their place. Moreover, the cultural objects are not composed of psychological (much less physical) objects." Carnap

manifestation relations & documentation relations for cultural objects
"The psychological events in which a cultural object (cultural event) appears are called the latter's *manifestations*, the physical objects in which a cultural object is reflected are called its *documentations*." Carnap

Classes are objects of a distinct kind of inquiry from elements of classes.

Carnap's distinction between objects and quasi-objects seems fundamentally otiose and question-begging.

Whether an object is taken as simple or complex is generally dependent on the form of the inquiry.

sign itself, nominatum, sense
(1) x is a man, (2) x homo est, (3) x is a rational animal
-- same nominatum for each, x
-- (1) and (2) have the same sense, but not (3)
-- (1), (2), and (3) have different signs
-- What Carnap misses is that these may be conjoined; ie.., you may be talking about the nominatum under the description of the sense, or the sense qua nominatum, or nominatum qua signed, etc. In fact this is the normal way of things; losing the reduplications has to be done deliberately and sometimes quite artificially. Carnap's thesis of extensionality only applies to fields already deliberately extensionalized.

Use value is value because human skill has been embodied in it; but skill is not measured by duration of labor.

There is no total labor power of society; labor is not homogeneous. 

Marx's theory of use value is hylomorphic.

All of the first part of *Capital* is Marx struggling with making sense of ens rationis. (He actually does fairly well given that he is starting from scratch.)

money as an activity of equation

Everything one does as an academic is by nature temporary.

People used to wonder what things would be like if we spent for peace as we spent for war, and now with the welfare state we know: states go increasingly into debt trying to shove increasingly large quantities of money through increasingly baroque and administratively bloated state agencies, as quality of services fluctuates erratically.

"There are always limits to the intellects of those who have not felt the harmony that exists between the nature of things and the duties of man." Germaine de Stael
"No liberty can exist in that country where arms are borne only by soldiers, and not by citizens."

Replicability is a feature of experimental narrative, not the bare experiment itself.

No one is very good at arguing for things they think obvious.

The world only rarely persecutes Christians for devotion to Christ; it persecutes them for refusing devotion to the world's preferred idols, always insisting on its reasonableness and tolerance in allowing devotion to Christ to be added to devotion to idols.

The poor even in mass cannot outdonate the rich; but it is the poor, not the rich, who create cultures of giving.

Gregory of Nyssa explains Mt 26:24 by saying "on account of the depth of the ingrained evil, the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended boundlessly (eis apeiron parateinetai), but as for what has never existed, how can any torment touch it?" ("On Infant's Early Deaths")

Societies are tapestries of classifications and analogies between classifications.

Opinions may or may not be consistent, but beliefs shift our minds into consistency with what is believed, although this often happens slowly.

"Christ came in one way to the active man and in another way to the contemplative man; again, he comes in another way to a man of vision, and yet a different way to the zealous or to those already deified. Even in that very vision of God there are many differences." Palamas (Tr. 3.28)

the humility of giving oneself over to God so as to receive oneself again from God, in God's way, as merited and not merely natural gift

Our being expresses God's love.

Human beings are not atomoi but overlap each other in many ways, distinct and usually only slightly overlapping, but overlapping nonetheless.

jurisdiction as formal abstract jural presence
possession as formal concrete jural presence

One's capacity to set society in order is always less than one's capacity to set oneself in order.

Even in doing the right thing, the intemperate person often throws other things into chaos.

What holiness we can have in this world is holiness on credit.

the righting reflex and the external world

pack-sociality vs. territory-sociality

George Washington's great military talent was being able to keep men on track, which made him able to do things like withdrawals or hard marches under conditions that would lead even well disciplined armies to struggle. Over and over again his armies, as armies, do things that exceed their apparent ability.

When language goes on holiday, it discovers interesting things.

"In a revolution, men have often more to dread form their successes than from their failures." Germaine de Stael
"It is in the art of directing public opinion, or of yielding to it at the proper moment, that the science of government consists in modern times."
"Now immorality of every kind is also borrowing at interest; it saves for the moment and ruins later."
"Equality in the eye of the law partakes of justice, and consequently of liberty: but the desire of annihilating every superior rank is one of the pettinesses of self-love."

"Every thing great, regular, or proportioned, excites *Veneration*, either toward itself, if we imagine it animated, if not animated, toward some apprehended Cause." Hutcheson

impartial spectator : conscience :: jury : court

fabric price of an argument (evidential) vs cut-make-trim price of an argument (structural)

large bundles of low-cost long shots as a problem-solving strategy

We are always most competent at things for which we are overqualified.

Hebrews 1:1-4 as giving the fundamental principles of Christian typology (we reduce the many steps and twists to Christ, in such a way as to show his greater eminence)

"The adequate or total cause of sensation is nto found simply in the senses themselves....A sensory impression is, then, the necessary complement of the sensitive power and the natural determinign cause of the act of perception." Mercier

Carnap's argument that cultural objects are reducible to manifestations seems to assume that the documentation does not itself introduce something distinctive and necessary, which we find to be false in many arts and elsewhere; translations between cultural objects and psychological objects are imperfect.

Coextensiveness is usually approximated rather than established.

Divine love is active, not reactive, and anticipates what it loves.

definition: definiens must be
(1) coextensive
(2) better known
(3) correspondent
(4) account-giving
nominal definition: (1) & (2); real defintion (1), (2), & (3); essential ((1), (2), (3), & (4)

Natural law clearly does require external worship of God, but does not specify the content beyond giving force to vow and oath, and requiring sacrifice or devotional gift in a broad sense, as well as some sort of sociality in these matters.

Religion always puts the rights of government in a different light.

"Poetry I take to be the continual effort to bring language back to the actual." C. S. Lewis

In the face of massive disaster, normal behavior is to act as normally as conditions allow, precisely because the vastness of the disaster makes panic pointless.

"The embarrassed cannot learn." Hillel (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Links of Note

 * Marco Grossi, Substitutional Validity for Modal Logic (PDF)

* Alireza Mansouri & Emad Tayebi, The Metaphysics of Artifacts: A Critical Rationalist Approach (PDF)

* Thomas Byrne, Husserl's Semiotics of Gestures (PDF)

* In the Spring of 2021, ground-penetrating radar at Pine Creek Residential School (run by the Catholic diocese from 1890 to 1969 and now Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church) in Pine Creek, Manitoba, discovered evidence that was consistent with a significant number of unmarked graves. This touched off an epidemic of church-burning and vandalism across Canada; since then, something like a hundred churches, mostly Catholic, many of them indigenous congregations, have been burned or heavily vandalized. The Minogoziibe Anishinaabe investigated, and their conclusion, recently reached, is that there is no evidence of any actual human remains at the site. In fact, to date the number of investigations that have confirmed unmarked graves or mass graves for which the Catholic Church was responsible is zero. Now, of course, the Canadian Residential School system was (by design) a lunatic system, and so of course there are many other investigations going on, and each of them is independent; but this is a particularly significant case, because it is the one that touched off the church-desecration spree.

* The Nordic Bishops' Conference in March released their Pastoral Letter on Human Sexuality; it's a fairly good letter, and gives a reasonable statement of the current thought of the more liberal-ish wing of the episcopacy.

* Tomasz Zuradzki, Conscientious objection in healthcare: the requirement of justification, the moral threshold, and military refusals (PDF)

* Emily Zarevich, The Myth of the Papal Toilet Chair, at "JSTOR Daily"

* Ricky Mouser, Mutual Aid as Effective Altruism (PDF)

* Theresa MacArt, Pius XII and the Politics of the Mystical Body, at "Public Discourse"

* Ed Condon, Is a Syro-Malabar schism inevitable?, at "The Pillar"

* Mark Windsor, What Is the Uncanny? (PDF)

* Julia Yost, Austen's Darkness, at "Compact"

* Jens Lemanski, Kant's Crucial Contribution to Euler Diagrams (PDF)

* Anton Howes, Does History Have a Replication Crisis?, at "Age of Invention"

* Adam Mastoiranni, I am so sorry for psychology's loss, whatever it is, at "Experimental History"

* Vincenzo Cicarelli, Abstractionism and Physical Quantities (PDF)

* Olivier Lemeire, No purely epistemic theory can account for naturalness of kinds (PDF)

* Tyler Vigen, The Mystery of the Bloomfield Bridge, a fascinatng look at the history behind a pedestrian bridge apparently in the middle of nowhere.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Being and Being

 Kant has several arguments against various broadly Cartesian versions of ontological arguments (by Descartes, Leibniz, Wolff, and Baumgarten), but the most famous is the being-is-not-a-real-predicate argument:

Being is evidently not a real predicate, that is, a conception of something which is added to the conception of some other thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations in it. Logically, it is merely the copula of a judgement. The proposition, God is omnipotent, contains two conceptions, which have a certain object or content; the word is, is no additional predicate—it merely indicates the relation of the predicate to the subject. Now, if I take the subject (God) with all its predicates (omnipotence being one), and say: God is, or, There is a God, I add no new predicate to the conception of God, I merely posit or affirm the existence of the subject with all its predicates—I posit the object in relation to my conception. The content of both is the same; and there is no addition made to the conception, which expresses merely the possibility of the object, by my cogitating the object—in the expression, it is—as absolutely given or existing. 

This has a certain amount of plausibility, as Kant's thaler example shows. If we are arguing about whether you have a hundred thalers, for instance, then obviously 'your hundred thalers' has to mean the same thing regardless of whether we conclude that your hundred thalers exist or not. 

But a great deal of the plausibility depends on the fact that we are basically treating all attributions of being as having exactly the same account, and (unsurprisingly, given his other commitments) Kant takes this to make it a logical notion that describes not an object itself but how the object is related to our thinking. If, however, we accept the view that 'being is said in many ways', this entire line of thought becomes much less reasonable.

When we say that "being" does not add to the conception of other things, or that it does not perfect it or make it more real, we mean it in something like this sense: reference to being, in some way, is involved already in every conception. If I offer a hundred dollars, but then go to say, "And I will do one better than that: the hundred dollars will also have being", you would likely be puzzled at the implicature that the hundred dollars originally offered did not have being. And this is quite general; if I talk about a something as possible, I am talking about it as a possible being. Whenever we conceive of something, we conceive of it as being in some way, somehow; it at the very least has being-as-an-object-of-cognition.

If, however, being is said in other ways, then the argument doesn't carry through for other things. In the context of the ontological argument, we have to get to a conclusion in which we are saying that something exists or has actual being; this is not at all the same as being-qua-conceived, and and the argument that the latter is not a real predicate adding to, perfecting, or making more real the object fails. The ontological argument involves a movement to more than just being-qua-conceived, and therefore it becomes a live issue whether being in this 'more' sense is a real predicate, perfection, or whatever.

In some sense, this is not a criticism of Kant; the being-is-not-a-predicate argument is not Kant's only argument against ontological arguments, the argument arguably does work against at least some Cartesian-ish versions of the ontological argument, and Kant himself has a lot of reason to argue this way, tied to the basic features of his transcendental idealism. But 'being is said in many ways' in and of itself gives a non-Kantian a reason to reject this particular line of argument as inadequate.

Music on My Mind


Bastille, "Pompeii". One of those songs that gets better as it goes.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Love Its Crown and Peace Its Stay

The Kingdom of Heaven
by G. K. Chesterton  

Said the Lord God, "Build a house,
Build it in the gorge of death,
Found it in the throats of hell.
Where the lost sea muttereth,
Fires and whirlwinds, build it well." 

 Laboured sternly flame and wind,
 But a little, and they cry,
 "Lord, we doubt of this Thy will,
 We are blind and murmur why,"
 And the winds are murmuring still. 

 Said the Lord God,"Build a house,
 Cleave its treasure from the earth,
With the jarring powers of hell
 Strive with formless might and mirth,
Tribes and war-men, build it well." 

 Then the raw red sons of men
 Brake the soil, and lopped the wood,
But a little and they shrill,
 "Lord, we cannot view Thy good,"
And the wild men clamour still. 

 Said the Lord God, "Build a house,
 Smoke and iron, spark and steam,
 Speak and vote and buy and sell;
 Let a new world throb and stream,
 Seers and makers, build it well." 

 Strove the cunning men and strong,
 But a little and they cry,
 "Lord, mayhap we are but clay,
 And we cannot know the why,"
 And the wise men doubt to-day. 

 Yet though worn and deaf and blind,
 Force and savage, king and seer,
 Labour still, they know not why;
 At the dim foundation here, 
Knead and plough and think and ply. 

 Till at last, mayhap, hereon,
 Fused of passion and accord,
 Love its crown and peace its stay,
 Rise the city of the Lord
 That we darkly build to-day.

Monday, August 28, 2023

The Four Elements

 Michael Huemer has a post from a few weeks back, Theory of the Four Elements Finally Refuted!; it's partly tongue-in-cheek, and I take it that the real point of the post is at the tend, to raise the question of what in our view of the physical world might eventually go the way of the theory of four elements. But it does raise some questions -- and I think some common errors -- with regard to how the theory of the four elements worked, and I'd like to look briefly at them.

Huemer raises a few questions, but before getting to them, there are a few general principles that need to be considered.

A. The elements are not explanatory in and of themselves; they are the possible combinations of active and passive dispositions (historically known as wet, dry, hot, and cold) that are (very roughly) kinds of attraction and repulsion. For the most part, it's these active and passive dispositions that actually do the explanatory work when we are talking about changes. The primary exception is when we are dealing with the contrast between light and heavy, which is a phenomenon that in the theory of the four elements is primarily treated at the level of elements, being a very complicated matter of how a body is composed, how its surrounding bodies are composed, and where the bodies are in the universe.

B. Contrary to what is usually assumed, and is certainly assumed by Huemer, elements are not immutables. This is seen in two ways. First, you can make one element act somewhat like another element by introducing the right kind of active and passive dispositions extrinsically. For instance, you can make water act more like air if you introduce a lot of 'dry' action; you can make it act more like earth if you introduce a lot of 'cold' and 'dry' action. It still is water with its natural tendency, but you've modified its behavior. Second, if you do this enough, you actually turn one element into another. In Aristotle's account of the elements, in fact, elements turning into each other is a fairly common occurrence. Any element can turn into any element, but some alterations are easier than others -- e.g., it's easier to get air to change into fire than to get it to change into earth; it's easier to get earth to change into water than into fire.

C. While there is a link to our experience, the pure elements themselves are never actually experienced, but only inferred based on the possible combinations of dispositions. Everything we actually experience has a mixture of elements; wind is mostly air, but it will also have a lot of earth, water, and fire in it, while the water you drink is mostly water, but it will also have a lot of air, fire, and earth in it. 

D. How elemental motion works differs a lot depending on which version of the theory of elements you are considering. Any element can be moved in any direction by an external cause. In some later accounts, every element has an inherent actual motion to its natural place in the universe. In Aristotle's own account, on the other hand, it seems clear that elements only move when something moves them -- earth has a natural tendency to be at the center, so it (arguably) has a preferentiality for centerward movement and (certainly) will only naturally come to a rest at the center, but it doesn't have a natural tendency to move to the center, and will only do so if something actually moves it in that direction, and if something stops it, it will not head toward the center unless something moves it again. Other theorists, again, have somewhat different accounts; it's one of the more disputed areas of the theory.

Given these, let's look at Huemer's questions, and how a generic theorist of the four elements might approach them.

Where Do Trees Come From?

The rigidity of trees obviously comes from the element of earth; but Huemer errs in assuming that the only source of earth is the soil. In fact, by (C), air and rain are also sources of earth. Most wood floats on water; it is quite clear that this is because wood has a lot of air in it. (In the case of woods that don't float on water -- ebony is the usual example given in the historical texts -- the air is said to have evaporated off, leaving a greater proportion of earth than in most woods.) Fire would also explain it, and there is certainly some fire in the wood, but as one increases the amount of fire in something, the less stable it becomes, so this suggests that we should give a preference to air over fire in our account of the composition of wood. The theory of the four elements is not a rigorously predictive theory, but in many ways a classificatory one; that is to say, it doesn't tell us what will happen, per se, but on its assumptions, it can tell us what the possibilities are. So it would not be quite right to say that the theory would predict that the tree gets its earth-element from the ambient air, but this is a genuine possibility, and we have reason to think that the tree is in fact getting a lot of its composition from the ambient air, because it has not just a lot of earth but a lot of air as well. The elemental theorist would also recognize rain as a possible source -- but it is usually sporadic, and so could not explain most of the composition -- and the soil as a perhaps more likely possible source; nothing in the theory would exclude either of these explanations, because again, the theory just gives you the possibilities, not the actual course of events. But given further facts about the composition of the wood, it is easy to argue that a considerable portion of its composition comes from the ambient air.

Why Is There Fire Down Here?

This is an easy question to answer: because there is fire everywhere in the universe. By (B), throughout the universe other elements are turning into fire due to various causal actions. Further, by (D), fire is shunted and pushed in all sorts of different directions, although fire's particular active and passive dispositions mean that it's harder to make deviate than other elements, and therefore this mechanism is perhaps less often an explanation for fire than for the other elements. Nonetheless, even in the highest regions of fire, fire can crash into fire and shove it downward quite forcefully; for instance, the sun by the force of its influence is a candidate for constantly pushing fire down onto the earth (although for a number of reasons, elemental theorists would usually have preferred an explanation of the first type, in which the sun is always through its influence turning everything in our world a little bit fiery).

What Are Ice and Steam?

Also relatively easy to answer. We are never dealing with pure water-element, so 'water' as we normally think of it is a very water-rich mixture of all four elements. Ice is when this composite acts as if it were more earth-rich and steam is when this composite acts as if it were more air-rich; by (A) and (B) this happens when external action on the composite temporarily changes the active and passive dispositions of the whole. The water-element itself will stay the same, and the water-composite will mostly stay water (although its proporitions may shift somewhat), but the new active and passive qualities it receives from outside itself will make the water-composite act either more earth-like or more air-like than the water itself will be able to explain. Remove this external action, and slowly the water-composite will converge back to a state of action and passion that is primarily explained by its constituent water.

Where's the Evidence?

This is a much trickier question. The evidence for the four elements is simply that these are the possible combinations of active and passive dispositions:

Hot Dry (fire)
Hot Wet (air)
Cold Wet (water)
Cold Dry (earth)

Thus the primary evidence for the theory is not concerned with the elements themselves, but with the active and passive dispositions. As noted in (A), the active and passive dispositions do the major explanatory work. Despite the names, hot, cold, dry, and wet are not here understood to be sensible qualities but (very roughly) kinds of attraction and repulsion. I say 'very roughly' because they actually aren't pure attraction and repulsion, but have something to do whether the attraction/repulsion is for the similar or the different, and the precise formulation of how this works is a difficult issue. But the point is that when we are talking about evidence for the active and passive dispositions, we can interpret this as talking about evidence for the physical changes we find the world being explained by attractions and repulsions, cohesions and disruptions. And of course that evidence is quite good, and we still do explain physical changes this way, at least to a great degree, although the way we organize our understanding of these attractions and repulsions, cohesions and disruptions, has massively changed. You can pick up a rock and recognize that some of its properties in changes are due to the fact that it holds together fairly well, and that others are due to the fact that it is not very active in affecting its environment; you can study flames and see that it is in some ways the opposite, being very active in disrupting its environment and not having the same kind of coherence that rock does. 

It's perhaps best to think of it less as a matter of evidence than as a matter of explanatory need, although there is some connection between the two. There are physical changes in the world; these are clearly not at random, so there has to be something that explains them; physical changes are clearly not unlimited, so the explanation has to work in some way combinatorially; physical changes clearly affect how things hold together or break apart, and this is what one would expect given combinations of a limited number of explanatory factors, so the explanatory factors have to have something to do with attraction, cohesion, repulsion, disruption, and similar things. All of this up to this point clearly applies just as much to the Standard Model of modern physics as it does to the theory of four elements. It is meeting these criteria that make it possible for both the theory of four elements and the Standard Model to be explanatory of physical changes. The evidence for both the theory of four elements and the Standard Model will largely, then, overlap -- it will consist of ordinary physical changes, and the fact that the theory has some account of them. There are very precise experiments that you can do to argue that the Standard Model is better than the elemental theory, but for the most part the evidence for both is that they can give you an account of ordinary things like 'this rock heats up and eventually melts when in flames' and 'hitting this metal with a hammer makes it bend rather than splatter'. It's not glamorous or startling evidence, but it's a lot of evidence, and if the Standard Model regularly failed to give us accounts of these ordinary things of experience, we would not consider it a good theory, because it wouldn't be. The Standard Model is a better theory not because it does something entirely different but because, among the things it does are all the elemental theory does, but reconceived so as to be more useful and cover more phenomena. 

But the other fact involved comes down to practicality, and the most practical aspect of explanation is that you can't explain anything with a theory you don't have. What other non-elemental theories were actually on the table for most of its run? None, really. People recognized that there were a lot of unanswered questions about the theory of the four elements -- you have only to look at the history of people talking about it to see that they had a lot of puzzles. But to get an alternative you need something that meets the desiderata but understands the combinations of attractions, etc., in a completely different way. Through the ancient and medieval periods, people proposed lots and lots of modifications of the theory of elements to try to deal with the various puzzles that kept coming up, but they couldn't find anything that was fundamentally different. In the early modern period, there was some attempt to try to find ways of doing this entirely with locomotion; all those attempts failed. Getting the theory we have now required working out theories of forces, of chemical composition, of energy, of electromagnetism, and of fields over a period of several centuries. And if you went to physicists today and said, "OK, suppose you are as wrong about the Standard Model as the ancients and medievals were about the four elements; what then?", physicists would know that an alternative would still have to do all the general kinds of things that the Standard Model does, but in a completely different way, and would be somewhat at a loss about where to go from there. You're not going to be able just to pull it out of a few considerations off the top of your head.

So was there evidence for the theory of four elements? Yes, lots of it. Was it of a kind that could distinguish between the theory of four elements and some alternative? Mostly no, but there wasn't any known alternative until very late. Was it such as to remove everything puzzling about the theory? Not at all, but that's not surprising. 

When we look at how the theory of four elements worked, the shape of the theory is the right general shape. The primary limitation was in how the attractions, etc., were understood, which allowed for only limited precision, being kind of fiddly and difficult to measure, and for a flexibility that, while considerable along some lines, was very restricted along others. The secondary limitation is that physical changes were, considered in themselves, treated as entirely distinct from locomotive ones; our current theory relates the two very differently. A result of overcoming these limitations is that we get a theory that both does better at classifying the possibilities for change (which the elemental theory did fairly well for a much more limited range of phenomena) and at predicting how changes would likely go (which the elemental theory did not really do except in a very generic way).  Obviously these are improvements. But even allowing for its limitations in precision and flexibility, the theory of the four elements had the right general kinds of features to explain the phenomena it was put forward to explain.

Doctor Gratiae

Today is the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church. From his Tractates on the Gospel of John (Tractate 56): 

...The Lord says, The Truth declares that even he who has been washed has need still to wash his feet. What, my brethren, what think you of it, save that in holy baptism a man has all of him washed, not all save his feet, but every whit; and yet, while thereafter living in this human state, he cannot fail to tread on the ground with his feet. And thus our human feelings themselves, which are inseparable from our mortal life on earth, are like feet wherewith we are brought into sensible contact with human affairs; and are so in such a way, that if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. And every day, therefore, is He who intercedes for us, washing our feet: and that we, too have daily need to be washing our feet, that is ordering aright the path of our spiritual footsteps, we acknowledge even in the Lord's prayer, when we say, Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors. For if, as it is written, we confess our sins, then verily is He, who washed His disciples' feet, faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, that is, even to our feet wherewith we walk on the earth. 

Accordingly the Church, which Christ cleanses with the washing of water in the word, is without spot and wrinkle, not only in the case of those who are taken away immediately after the washing of regeneration from the contagious influence of this life, and tread not the earth so as to make necessary the washing of their feet, but in those also who have experienced such mercy from the Lord as to be enabled to quit this present life even with feet that have been washed. But although the Church be also clean in respect of those who tarry on earth, because they live righteously; yet have they need to be washing their feet, because they assuredly are not without sin....

Sunday, August 27, 2023

And the Grey Starlight Powdered Tower and Tree

by G. K. Chesterton

High on the wall that holds Jerusalem
I saw one stand under the stars like stone.
And when I perish it shall not be known
Whether he lived, some strolling son of Shem,
Or was some great ghost wearing the diadem
Of Solomon or Saladin on a throne:
I only know, the features being unshown,
I did not dare draw near and look on them.

Did ye not guess...the diadem might be
Plaited in stranger style by hands of hate...
But when I looked, the wall was desolate
And the grey starlight powdered tower and tree:
And vast and vague beyond the Golden Gate
Heaved Moab of the mountains like a sea.